#vted Reads: Flight of the Puffin

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On this episode… we have Ann Braden!!!! Ann is one of my favorite authors, and she’s also a former Vermont educator with a new book out, The Flight of the Puffin. Flight of the Puffin truly feels like a middle grades book for our time: it’s the story of four completely different middle school students, in completely different circumstances, and completely different areas of the country, and how random acts of kindness wind up tying them together.

The book is based on Ann’s own experiences in responding to the 2016 election (and all that came afterwards) by putting massive amounts of love out into the universe, and quite possibly in your mailbox.

Listeners, we are DELIGHTED by this. All of it.

I’m Jeanie Phillips. Let’s chat.

 

Jeanie: Thank you so much of joining me Ann.  Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Ann:  I’m so excited to be here, any time I get to spend with you is a great time.

Jeanie:  Same for me.

Ann:  I used to be a middle-school social studies teacher and then I turned to writing.  The Flight of the Puffin is my second book.  My first was The Benefits of Being an Octopus.  I’m so excited to have books.

Jeanie:  Congratulations on your newest book!  We should also say, because the primary audience for this podcast is Vermont, that you’re located in Brattleboro, Vermont. But before I get to anything else, how is Zoey doing?

Ann:  She’s having a rough year.  I think about kids like Zoey who are trapped in their little four-walled spaces with a not-awesome family relationship. And I’ve been thinking about them all this year.  It’s one of those things where if we didn’t get it before, we’d better get it now.

Jeanie:  Zoey, listeners, is the main character of The Benefits of Being an Octopus.  I’ve been thinking about Zoey too, because she was already suffering under economic hardship, in difficult family circumstances.  The stress and pressures of COVID have to have made that harder, for Zoey and kids like Zoey.  I’ve been holding her in my heart.  Thank you for that book.  That book has been such a gift to me and to Vermont educators.  I know it’s been used and is being used all over the place.  Kids are loving it, so thank you for that.

Ann:  My pleasure.

Jeanie:  I also know you’re a great reader.  As many writers are, as most writers are.  What are you reading now?

Ann:  I am in the middle of the Burnout book about the stress cycle, because as we all know there’s little bit to be stressed about these days.  I am someone that often internally processes my stress.  Like, I will seem all happy and feel all happy on the outside.  And then I develop all these chronic stress-related medical issues.  I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got to figure this out.”  It’s very good about releasing the stress and creating opportunities for your body to recognize that you are okay. I’ve been working through that one.

Jeanie:  I just listened to a podcast about that book! Just an hour-long podcast that was just so helpful about hugs and exercise.  All of the ways you can let your body know that it’s okay again.

Ann:  I’m not an exerciser.  I’ve never been like, “Oh yes, exercise makes me feel good.” Now I’m like, doing slow Qigong is telling my body that I’m okay.  It’s just as good as other exercises.

Jeanie:  That’s so interesting.  For me, one of the ways I manage stress is reading. Like reading, to me, and being engaged in a book? That’s deep relaxation.  I like living through stories.

Ann:  I love that.

Jeanie:  Thank you for your books, because they relax me.  Let’s jump into The Flight of the Puffin which is such a delight.  Would you introduce us to the four characters in the book? Libby, Jack, Vincent and T?

Ann:  Sure, do you want me to just read or just tell you about them?

Jeanie:  Both, whatever works for you.

Ann:  I think I will read first.  I’ll just read a page of each of their chapters.

Jeanie:  Perfect.

Ann:  The book goes through these four different, bad perspectives.  And they all live in different places, and this is all happening on the same day.

Libby:

Flight of the Puffin: Libby: "This is going to be the best sunrise ever. I slather on more orange paint. Catching the drips with my paint brush and mixing them into the hot pink. I swirl it around and around; my paint brush is like the band teacher conducting. I don’t play an instrument, but I see him waving his arms, when I peek in the band room. I dip my brush back into the can and make even bigger circles, then add extra dollops above like sparks flying out.  I love how those sparks look.  I know that’s not how people usually make sunrise, but there’s fire involved, right? I add more on the other side.  I have to, there’s too much joy inside me to not.  I step back.  I knew this would make me feel better.  Now, it’s time to add the yellow.  I kneel down and pry the lid off the can.  A blazing inferno just waiting to be unleashed. That’s when I hear footsteps, and Principal Heckton’s voice.  'Libby Delmar, what have you done to that wall?'"

 

(That’s Libby.  She was not supposed to be painting a mural, on the side of the hallway.)

We’re going to now move to Jack.

“Joey is tugging my shirt again. “Jack,” he says.  I stop dribbling the ball and squat down next to him on the blacktop, so I can hear him over the shrieks of the other little kids.  “What’s up little man?”

He points up, “Two more points.”

Joey doesn’t see them anywhere when he’s focused on something.  I put the basketball in his hands, “You ready?”

He grins, he was ready.  I spin around so his face came away from me.  I lift him towards the rim.  “Here comes Joey for the dunk,” I yell.

I could feel Joey’s ribs through his shirt as he squeals and tips the ball into the hoop. He’s the same size as my little brother Alex was, and just as focused.  I set him down on the blacktop and he runs after the ball.  I know he’s going to want to go again.  The blacktop is finally clear of snow, and he’s determined to get to 10 points, this recess.

I glance at Todd and searchers, who are waiting for me to come and play football, but they’ll have to wait a little longer.”

(That’s Jack.  He lives in a rural area in Vermont with a tiny two-room schoolhouse for a K-8 school.  There’s 17 kids in this school.)

Next is Vincent, he’s in Seattle.

Flight of the Puffin: Vincent. "“I settle on the floor near the locker room trash can with my math notebook.  Only a few more weeks before we get to the geometry unit.  I’ve been teaching myself geometry online, but it’s not the same as Mr. Bond explained it. I turned to a fresh page in my notebook and start drawing triangles.  Triangles are everywhere you look. There are triangles in the floor tiles, in the metal support beneath the locker room benches.  Even the people in the school form a triangle. One side is the popular kids who are good at PE and looking cool.  The other side is the kid who want to be like the popular kids but aren’t quite as good at that stuff.  The third side is the creative artistic kids who don’t care about being popular, and instead are cool in their non-popularity.  Everyone knows where they sit. My mom wants me to be one of those creative kids.  She runs an art supply store where we live in Seattle, and she’s got short purple hair. She even named me Vincent after that Starry Night artist guy, Van Gogh.  I didn’t get those genes.  I guess when my mom was looking through the sperm donors profiles, she didn’t get to choose someone artistic.  She thought she had that part covered.  She was wrong. The other kids at school all form a triangle.  But me I’m a point in space.”

(That was Vincent.)

And then T.

“Wet concrete, sirens, shadows.  Never safe to sleep, but so very tired.  Pecos snuggles up, her fur warm against me, follow her breath.  Breathe with her.  Trust her, only her.  One breath at a time. Still here.”

Jeanie:  Thank you for that. I want to walk through each of these characters, if that’s okay, and go a little deeper.  Because I love these four kids so much.  I love that they all have flaws.

So like, Libby for example.  At the beginning of the book, she shares that’s she’s being bullied by another girl for her awesome rainbow outfit. Those are her words. And so, I’m just going to read a little bit.  It’s right after what you read on page three.

“And I get that girls aren’t supposed to give other people a bloody nose. Instead, everyone should be like model student Danielle, who fights the right way by convincing the entire softball team to stop talking to me, so that even Adrianna Randall now walks past me without a word, as if we’ve never spent nights sprawled on pillows and giggling on her bedroom floor.”

I want to unpack this a little bit.  There’s a lot in that few lines.

Ann:  Libby comes from a family where her dad is very much a bully, and he uses physical force as a good thing, in order to keep things the way they should be. And her older brother would get in fights all the time. Now, as long as he won it was fine with their parents.  That’s the family she’s in.

And I think it’s one of those things where there is this double standard about girls. They don’t get in fights. But then the fight that happens below the surface can be far more damaging than one bloody nose.

I think that there’s one of those layers of just how, like, if a boy had give someone a bloody nose it wouldn’t be a big deal — I mean *that much* of a big deal. But a girl doing it?  It’s like: “What kind of bad kid is this?”

So I wanted to bring that up a little bit.  She’s sort of in this position where she’s isolated.  She’s done things the way her parents would want her to, it doesn’t seem to be a great way to do things, but she’s always completely isolated from people who had been her friends. But she’s very much on her own.

Jeanie:  And she carries her family with her in school. One of the things that happens over and over to her again is she’s assumed to be like her older brother and her parents. Because she and her parents grew up in the town, they know a lot about her family. But she’s like, “That’s not me, that’s not who I am.”

I wondered about Libby. I think this happens to us adults. That we see kids through the lens of our own bias.  And how do we get that bias out of the way so we can really fully appreciate who Libby is?

Ann:   I mean Libby, as a character, actually she was the beginning of this whole book.

Well, I had the idea of having different kids from different parts of the country, and exploring sort of, the connections that exist even when we don’t think there is any connection there.

But the characters that I had in mind first just weren’t really clicking. I hadn’t started writing and then I met this amazing teenager, Cara, in Bellows Falls [Vermont].  It was at a cross-class dialogue circle through Equity Solutions.

And that was a situation where we were in this group that was about being vulnerable and being honest.  You sort of, get to the soul of people so much quicker.  Cara was actually talking about trying to convince her parents about the importance of recycling. But everything she was saying it was like, she was this flower trying to push out pass the concrete.  And there was so much joy inside her, and life, and sunshine.  But she had so much concrete on top that she was trying to push pass.  That was the seed that grew into this whole story.

So I feel like in that situation I was able to see her for who she was. Because there was trust built.  And she felt like she could be honest and felt like she could really show who she was.

I think a lot of times — and certainly this is the case for Zoey and The Benefits of Being an Octopus — kids are not going to show adults who they truly are on the inside unless they feel incredibly comfortable.

Those kids that need to the most often do not feel comfortable in most school settings.  And so, I think that getting to those places where there’s an intimacy and trust is the only way to be really know exactly what’s going on below the surface.  And then if you can’t get there, because we can’t always do that, you just have to assume that it’s there, if you have the opportunity to be there.

Jeanie:  Well, then I so appreciate that answer.  And I’m thinking about how focusing, thinking about Danielle, and that nobody picks up on her meanness, also erodes the trust of students who are like, “I can’t really show who I am because nobody will believe it anyway.”  So, I love that Libby is based on a real person, Cara.  Does Cara know?

Ann:  yes, she does.

Jeanie:  How wonderful.  You began with a passage about Libby painting a mural on the school wall. I think it’s like the next day that she’s meeting with the principal or later that day.  And the principal says, “Tomorrow during in-school suspension you’ll be repainting that wall white again. Like it’s supposed to be.”  And that totally brought back for me when I was a school librarian at Green Mountain Middle and High School, a student named Lilith painted a mural.

She was a high school student who painted a mural on the girls bathroom wall and made it beautiful.  And they totally checked the security footage and realized it was her.  And the custodians painted over in drab green.

…My heart broke.

Lilith’s mural was beautiful and then it was back to whatever drab color it had been.

And I guess I’d love listeners and me to quietly consider who gets to decide how things are supposed to be in school, and in world, and who does it?

Because I really want Libby to decide what goes on that wall.  I want to students to decide.

Ann:  That’s certainly a theme throughout the book. And I don’t mean this in a bad way.  Power is a theme in The Benefits of Being an Octopus, too. Kids so rarely have control over their lives that’s meaningful. When you get a taste of it, it changes everything. It changes how you look at yourself, it changes how you look at your actions in the world. Then those actions change the people around you.

I was this kind of teacher too. Actually, I got pushback because I’ve always wanted the kids to have as much say as I could. And it meant a slightly more chaotic learning experience, like from the traditional way of looking at things.

I did not have my vocabulary list planned out ahead of time. Because I wanted the kids to be able to have a say in where we were going during that day. And I really still feel that the time students have ownership of something are things that they still remember. Things that they learned the most from.

Jeanie:  Agency.

Ann:  Yes! That’s positive word of power.

Jeanie:  Well, there is a lot of agency in this book for each of these characters.  We’ll get to that, but I want to move on to Vincent.  Like Libby he is really struggling also, with being who he is rather than who folks thinks he should be.  I had actually bookmarked the page that you read from, about him thinking about how he doesn’t quite fit in, in school. But also how he feels like he’s disappointing his mother. He’s not who she wants him to be.

How does a kid like Vincent, how does he make himself seen and known in the world?

Ann:  It’s one of those things.

The mom in that book I think I drew from me bit. Like, she’s very well-intentioned, but she wants Vincent to be able to be creative and do things that are fun.

And he’s like, “No I just want to do more math.”

And she’s like, “I don’t understand.”

There is the song about how our children are not our children (video).  And there’s nothing like being a parent to see that in a whole new way. Just like we’ve got to get out of the way, like our own expectations, we have to get out of the way of what our children are. And there’s so many different ways that that can play out.

But I think for Vincent he’s really bumping up against gender stereotypes of: this is what a boy should be. Or if you’re not that kind of boy then you should be this creative; there’s only those two options. Be the stereotypical athletic boy or be countercultural and find power in that when you don’t see yourself anywhere else.

All of these characters feel very alone in their own way.

What happens soon after the part I read is these boys come over and are giving him a hard time. He’s wearing this fourth grade black baseball shirt, which he is not a baseball player.  He hated playing baseball.

And they’re like, “I bet you’re so sad you can’t be on the baseball team anymore!”

And he’s like, “No I’m not.”

Why did they think that? Did the shirt trigger that? He’s looking for shirts that are going to say: this is who I am.

And he ends up finding this very tight buttoned-down shirt with a puffin on it at the back of his closet, that he wore to an event that was about Katherine Johnson’s new book for autobiography. Because she is his hero.  From Hidden Figures, she’s the awesome calculator mathematician who helped send rockets to the moon.  So it’s funny because Libby starts off having this problem.  Because she was bullied, she was totally wearing her own stuff.  There’s problems with that, and so then Vincent is like the next step of the way being like, “Hey, I’m going to wear my own weird clothes.”  And it doesn’t necessarily go well.

Jeanie:  Well, there’s this whole thing that I think both of them are really dealing with that I think of as self-determination. Being who they are.

Neither one of them want’s to fit in, and I think the adults around them — and I think I could fall into this trap too — are like, “Just make it easier on yourself. Fit in!”

But I think kids are right in saying ‘I don’t need to fit in. I need to be who I am’.

Whether that’s an artist that who wears all the colors of the rainbow at once, like Libby, or Vincent with his puffin shirt that also has triangles at the corners ( triangles are big shape for Vincent).

I love that. It’s really about accepting themselves for who they are and showing up unapologetically as they are. Not caring what other people think about that.

Ann:  So most of the characters are seventh graders.

I remember in the sixth grade I was wearing crazy clothes and big earrings, because I just gotten my ears pierced.  I had these giant snake earrings — like really out there —  big prints and everything. Then in seventh grade was just like the buttoning up of everything. Because I was so afraid of not fitting in.

The kids that have the confidence to just continue being themselves?  That is such a special thing. We have to be nurturing that. Maybe not fanning the flames, because you don’t want it to get too out of control before they’re ready, but you want to make sure that you are meeting them where they are. 

And I did in seventh. I did wear mis-matched socks all the time.

It was a weird time in the 80s.

Jeanie:  I remember.

Ann:  That was as far as I would go. My mis-matched socks. They were my reminder to myself that I was different.

Jeanie:  What does it look like in classrooms and schools to celebrate that difference, instead of encouraging conformity? How might we sort of see that as strength?

Ann:  This is only tangentially related. But one of my favorite units when I was teaching social studies, is we do a unit focused on social norms during the Jim Crow Era. Looking at the power of social norms, and what was put in place by law, and what put in place just by expectation. Then we had them look at their own social norms of what is expected in their own school and what are things that would push back against those norms.

I remember getting kids to start wearing weird clothes as part of this experiment, like, “I’m going to wear really high socks over my jeans.”

And I remember this case where it was a popular kid who could honestly do whatever they wanted. So it became a new trend.

But it was like one of those things where if we look at our own lives of what this social norm expectation is, we realize it’s not us, it’s this system that we’re in. Then you can step back and see it for what it is. You can realize you don’t have to be a part of it, if you don’t want to be.

Jeanie:  This sounds like a fabulous lesson in criticality. In teaching kids how to be critical of social systems and structure.

I’m on a bit of a Gholdy Muhammad kick and she writes about that, about criticality as a lens to engage students all the time — and in fact I have a podcast episode on that book that she wrote.

What I’m thinking about is how powerful that is for kids to experience that, that way.

And I’m so thinking about the four eyes of oppression. That you might have this ideology of white supremacy, and how it shows up in institutions as Jim Crowe laws, but then also how it shows up interpersonally between people is what you’re talking about in these norms. Then internally what the message it sends to individuals.  And so, I just love that and the way that you’re putting that together. Fabulous.

Ann:  You just put it together in such a nice way. I needed that.

Jeanie:  We’ll teach together again someday. I have so many things, from wanting to start seeing the Sweet Honey in the Rock song you mentioned (video). But let’s keep going with our characters.

Let’s talk about Jack.

Because Jack is doing some important thinking and working about his school. Living in Vermont  — he’s in Vermont — and given our school consolidation efforts, I found Jack’s story really compelling.

Ann:  I am a very big fan of small schools. Even if they’re not quite as efficient as others.

I just feel like community is so important. And what Jack and his school have, they have this incredible community. Now, he’s like the top of the food chain. He’s very different than Libby and Vincent, the father of bullies. He’s not a bully, he’s just… he’s almost like this backup teacher for the other teachers. Because he’s one of the older kids. He’s super-responsible.  And he really sees his ownership over his school.

There’s a lady from the State Department of Education that comes and is sort of looking at the school from a critical lens, checking boxes. “You don’t seem to have wood chips”, things like that. They also don’t have a gender-neutral bathroom which Jack has never even heard of.  He is the first to really be like, “I’m going to do something about this,” In part because he’s in a place of leadership, to start with.

And his focus at the beginning is saving the school and making sure they can keep being in community just the way they are.

But as we see, sometimes if things are good for you the way they are, it doesn’t mean that they are always good for others. There’s thinking involved.

Jeanie: The thing that Jack reminded me of is this program at The Cabot School, a tiny, little school in tiny little Cabot VT.

They’re fabulous. They have a program called Cabot Leads, where each student gets some sort of job that they’re interested in. And I think the thing about that program, the hope that we have for a program like that is that every kid feels like the school can’t run without him, they’re so important.

And Jack has that feeling. Like school can’t literally run without him. Because he has important roles with the younger kids, school is reciprocal. He’s not just seen as “we’re going to fill the bucket over your head,” rather like, “we need you here, you’re important.” That fosters the sense of ownership in him that’s really beautiful.

And I Iove that in the novel he goes and presents the school.

What I also love is that it’s just not a simple shiny moment; he gets caught up in something bigger.

I don’t know how much we want to give away, but he gets caught up in something bigger and has to find his way out.  He gets caught up in a controversy. And he gets aligned with the side he doesn’t want to be aligned with.

Ann:  It’s interesting, I recently was doing a virtual school about The Benefits of Being an Octopus. And Zoey seeming to find her voice when she’s sort of thrust into this debate of ‘which side are you on about guns?’

I’m just now realizing it’s similar for Jack, where he’s similarly thrust into a debate and he has to vocalize his opinion that it’s not the side that he’s being linked to. Sometimes that is what forces us to do some deep internal thinking about, “Well, what I think if it’s not that?”

Jeanie: And what does it mean when I think differently than my family or the people I love?  I think a lot of young people are going through that struggle.

There are kids all over Vermont doing really meaningful learning about things where they have to go to homes where the ideas and thoughts being considered are in opposition to some of the values at their own home. And what do you do when kids are exploring their values?  What do kids do when they have to navigate that tricky thing?

I think it’s really important in schools for us to keep that in mind, so we know how support students well. To know students well enough to know how to support them as they develop their own thinking. To provide them those opportunities to really dig into those things they’re really interested in, because it’s their birthright.  That what we want is for them to develop their own thinking.

Ann:  I’m realizing also now that this was the issue, this was the seed to start the book: Cara talking about trying to convince her parents how important recycling was. That was coming from some place outside of her family, and she had internalized it and she got it, and she was like, “Climate change is really important.”  And this was completely in opposition to her parents. She was trying to navigate that, she was looking for advice about that, and that is like such a, it’s a weighty issue.

Because you don’t want to say, “go against your parents”, but you want kids to be able to think for themselves, regardless of teachers or parents. You want them to be able to form their own opinions based on their own experiences and what they’ve learned, and still stand in that.

Jeanie:  I do want that. Each of these young people is sort of coming to themselves, as who they are, what they believe in and what they have agency over. And T is as well, but all of T’s agency is just going to surviving as who they are.

You write T in a completely different way than the other characters. I was wondering if you could talk about that?

Ann:  Yeah. So, T is homeless and living on the street. One of my very first jobs after college, I was waitressing at a pizza restaurant. And my other job was working at a drop-in center for homeless teens in Seattle. It’s the experience that led me into being a teacher, in part because the way that the drop-in center was set up, it was very hands-off. It was very: you are there to provide food and services, medical supplies, but you’re not to engage at all. There’s no back and forth talking. Which I understand; I respect that. It’s so people can just come in without any thought that someone’s going to try to tell them what they should be doing.

But it was also hard to have zero involvement with these kids that I was watching. I wasn’t able to do anything to help other than feed them.

It was an important point in my life, sitting there and watching all these kids. They had so much in common with each other, just in terms of surviving on the street. This was not a shelter, this was just drop-in, in the afternoon, and the evening a little bit.

But there was so little talking. Like, there was such silence in that room.

It’s just a testament to how big a wall they had each built around themselves for protection, and how much effort basic surviving takes when you don’t have any of the supports that other people have.

So when I was writing T’s chapters, everything was through that lens of just intense survival. You don’t have lots of chatty words if you’re in that space. So they’re much more minimalist because of that.

And just to get back to what you were saying, also, I realized that you’re talking about how the other characters are sort of figuring out who they are. And T already has figured out who they are. T is on the other side, dealing with some of the consequences of that. T is older, also, so it makes sense.

But I hadn’t quite realized how T is just at this different point in the journey than the others.

Jeanie:  Oh, I so appreciate that. And I love how you’re still leaving a lot of mystery here for our listeners. Thank you for going in deep with your four characters.

I want to talk a little bit about a seemingly small moment on page 53. I don’t know if you want to read it or if you’d like me to read it.

Ann:  Yeah, this is Libby’s chapter. She is walking home from school and she sees this boy clinging to a bench outside the dentist office.

Flight of the Puffin: ""I won't go." he cries. "Joseph Sebastian Kelly, can you let go this instant," his mom orders but “I'm scared," he wails. "We came all this way." His mom starts to pry his fingers off the bench. "Don't be sad to cry baby." the boy looks up at her, his eyes wide. And I know exactly why. Now even she can't be trusted. I watch as she carries him screaming into the dentist office and I sink down under the bench running my hand along the part where his little fingers were clinging. I wish I could run inside and tell him that I know what it feels like to look up into the eyes of the person who was supposed to love you most and wonder if they do. I pull out my index card that tells me that I am amazing. I lay out a long breath as I look at it. He needs it more than I do. I fish out one of the colored pencils for my bag and write in little letters along the ridge of the mountain and 'you are not alone'. I look around for where to leave it. The bush next to the bench is the one that the closed-up buds from this morning. But not all the buds are closed up now. One glorious purple flower has burst forth. I settle the index card in the bush next to the flower, right where he'll see it when he comes out and skip the rest of the way home. Even though I don't have the amazing index card in my backpack somehow, I am a whole lot lighter on my feet."

 

Jeanie:  So I cried when I read this. It broke my heart. And I could see it from both points, right, I could see it from the mother’s point of view because I’m a mother. I have mothered a challenging child.

But I could see it from this boy’s point of view too. And I really appreciate people like Dr. Bettina Love talking about humanizing education, and how do we make spaces where we can show up with our full humanity. And the coercion in this section feels really dehumanizing.

It reminds me there are so many times when young people, small children, experience dehumanizing conditions because we demand compliance, or we want control over their bodies. I don’t know what my question is; I guess I wanted you to know how hard this hit. And I wondered if you, if you intended it to hit me and your readers that hard?

Ann:  It’s interesting. It’s funny because I’m haven’t done that many interviews about the book yet. And so, I’m seeing things from a different angle. I’m realizing in this moment where this came from.

There is a pediatric dentist in Keene on the other side of the border in New Hampshire that was like one of the only pediatric dentists around. Now, I had been told that because my son was a preemie he needs to go to the dentist early. So, when he was like two, they sent this nice mailing home about how we should like it make it clear that the dentist is going to be fun, and it’s going to be fine.

So I did. I did my job as a parent of like, really showing how it was going to be fine at the dentist.

And then the dentist made a complete mockery of what I had said.

It turned into this place where they would not let my child sit in my lap as a two-year-old, they had be strapped down to a bed, and everyone was screaming. Like it was a factory of screaming children on beds.

And I was so traumatized. My son was so traumatized. We left and never came back.

But at the end, the dentist was like, “Oh, don’t you need a toy? You see how he’s sort of stopping crying as I’m offering this toy.”

It was the most inhumane and dehumanizing experience. And it’s been almost a decade and I’m still livid that that is how they were going to treat children.

But anyway. That was in my soul as a horrible experience and how not to treat children. So, I’m sure that subconsciously was coming right out.

Jeanie:  Wow. I so so appreciate you sharing that story. The trauma for both you and your son and also the grief of being the person who took him there must have been tremendous.

I can’t help but see this as the other side of the agency coin, right. If we want our young people, even our very young people, to have agency, right, to be self-directed learners, to be independent thinkers, to do the right thing, we can’t also demand compliance of them. We can’t also seek to control their bodies and their minds.

Ann:  You have to have control over your body.

Jeanie:  And from an early age we need to foster that sense of agency. It doesn’t mean that they don’t go to the dentist.

Ann:  But it can be done in a way that it’s supporting their humanity,

Jeanie:  And it’s probably messier, right, but it’s better than strapping them down right? It’s always going to be messier, but the strapping them down comes at what cost.

I’m a big proponent of self-direction and agency in the classroom, as is the Vermont Agency of Education. Our whole legislation about Act 77 is about meaningful learning opportunities, and students defining the learning they want and need. Setting their own goals. I do not believe we can do that and focus on compliance and use systems of compliance at the same time. When we use systems of compliance, we’re completely eroding agency.

And there’s so much agency for the young people in this book.

The other thing that’s in here in this little section, which is so powerful, is Libby’s kindness. And I know that some of this book must be inspired by your experience in the kindness brigade.

Ann:  It’s also the Love Brigade.

Jeanie:  Could you talk about from people who don’t know, could you explain the local love brigade?

Ann:  I said that a lot of my big concepts for books come from being angry. And this was something else that happened from my being angry.

After the 2016 presidential election,  early December of 2016, I was feeling so powerless and so angry at all the hate speech that I was seeing grow unchecked.

And one of the documentaries I used to show in my classroom was The Laramie Project, which is about the death of Matthew Shepard in the 1990s. And part of that is that one of his friends is trying to figure out what to do because the Westboro Baptist Church is coming to protest. She ends up creating these huge PVC pipe, like extra-long arms, and then draping sheets over them for like, a dozen people that come together. So, they’re like these huge angel wings.

And silently they marched out, and they formed this powerful silent line in front of the protesters blocking them from the funeral.

I still get full chills thinking about that scene.

It was such a powerful demonstration that regular people are perpetuating the hate, and regular people can push back against it.

So, I had that in my mind, like, “Well, what can we do if these are regular people shouting horrible things? What can I do as a regular person to push back?”

And I kept having one conversation after another, often almost always with women, who are just as angry as I was.

And one of the things that came up, I met Kelly McCracken in Montpelier. She said, “What about postcards?” I was like, that’s really good. And I was driving home from that meeting. Someone texted me and to say that the Islamic Society of Vermont had just gotten hate mail. What can we do? I said,

“We can send them postcards covered in hearts, and show that there may be one person sending them hate mail, but we are sending them postcards of love.”

They ended up getting 500 or so postcards covered in hearts. There’s this great video of the imam coming out with this huge stack. He’s like, “You know, if the person who sent that hateful message knew that this was going to be the response, I don’t think he would have sent it.”

It was a moving experience for me to realize, oh, this can work. Like we can really balance out that original hate and sometimes it even rise above so that the person who was on the receiving end of the hate comes away feeling the love instead.

The way I started was with a Google spreadsheet, and a Facebook group, and it became the local Love Brigade, then it ended up spreading all over the country. These little chapters in different like, I think it was like 12 or 15 different states.

It was just such a simple thing of just if you hear of someone that needs love, or would appreciate some support, you can send them a postcard that’s, you know, that’s decorated, to show something positive and hopeful and, you know, funny, or whatever it is.

It was one of those things where you often don’t expect to get anything back, right. They’re postcards, you’re not writing your return address. But sometimes we would feel the effects that had gone out from those ripples.

Once there was a there was a girl in Los Angeles who filmed her uncle being taken by immigration officials. We sent love postcards to her school. And a month or so later,  the principal of that school sent me a Facebook message. He said, they’re taking the seniors who would commit to get committed to go to college, on this trip to the Northeast, and he’s like, “Can we come and make love postcards with you?”

And it was like, “Oh, my gosh, yes.”

So, like, a month later, all these kids piled out of these five vans.

We all made love postcards together and sent them to whoever needed it that week.

Afterwards, a girl came over to me. She said, “That was, you know, my uncle that was taken, and I’m so worried that he’s not going to be out in time for me to see me graduate.”

And we hugged. As you’re hugging, I just thought, “What are the odds that we would be hugging? And we would connect? Like, what are the things that led up to this?”

That stayed with me. And that certainly formed the backbone of this book in terms of looking at how does the tiny action from a stranger send out these ripples? How we are all connected, whether we see it or not. So yeah, it was, it’s all very much based on real experiences.

Jeanie:  That story is so powerful and beautiful. And I just have to shine a light on some things about it.

One is: can we just forever now talk about love mail?

Let’s retire hate mail as a concept and replace it with love mail.

Mail has been really important to me during the pandemic, and sending packages, and love notes and receiving them has been everything. So, big thanks for that concept. I’m never going to talk about hate mail ever again. From here on out, there’s only love mail.

The other thing I want to point out is the way that even we as adults have to figure out how to have agency sometimes.

Ann:  Yes. Yes! Because that’s one of the things where I wanted this to be something that was doable, and accessible. Because I realized, like this was in those, months before inauguration, there was so much powerlessness. What can we do?

You have to remember that if you completely give up, you can’t do anything; you can’t make any change. Somehow we had to find a way to stay engaged and stay connected.

I did my undergraduate degrees in Russian. And I was just fascinated by a lot of the early Soviet literature, where you have just the isolation. This is 1984, like in terms of how a dictatorship can come in, and create so much fear and division between people that they are unable to take action. Unable to come together to organize against the government.

And I was,worried that we were going to go in that direction as a country.

So I was all about: how do we create connection and stay engaged? Stay feeling like we can do something about this, even if it’s tiny?

Because like anyone who has made the postcards, you know, you’ll feel a lot better afterwards. It’s a pretty therapeutic thing. So yeah, that was what really compelled me to action at the time.

Jeanie:  You may not know I’m in a doctoral program, and I’ve been doing a lot of research about whiteness, and education and equity and anti-racism. This reminds me of a study I read about that use this quote, that was really powerful to me. And it said that one of the reasons that white dominance or white supremacy remains and stay strong, is because white people, even when they say they want to challenge the status quo where they want to end racism? Can’t acknowledge that they have power. They’re powerless, right?

And so, what you’re saying to me is like we have power and sometimes it can be hard for us to find our power.

That says two things to me.

One is like, remember that we have power.

Two is: let’s flex those muscles with kids.

Kids have agency, so let’s develop that sense of power now. Imagine what the world could be, if kids really felt their full power. If we nurtured and cultivated that in students. They have it already, it’s not that we need to give it to them. It’s that we need to nurture and cultivate it. So they can start getting used to expressing it and using it and growing.

Ann:  In some ways, they have more power than adults do.

Take, for example, the gun laws in Vermont, which I’ve been intimately involved with.

Grownups could only get it so far, but kids were the ones where everyone was going to listen. Everyone is going to show up to be like, Oh, my gosh, these teenagers are telling us that we’ve screwed up and we’ve got to fix it. Their voices were 100 times more powerful than any adult saying the same thing.

Then once you recognize that it doesn’t go away. Once you find, oh, I can do something, you always have that. Even if you become an adult.

Jeanie:  Well, it’s a tricky business. Because I don’t want adults feeding power to kids, because they don’t want to do the work, right? Like we owe it to our kids to do the hard work.

And I want kids to know they have power and to develop their agency, and I want to be a part of helping kids feel their full power.

This book is a great ode and I’m grateful. It leads me to this question I have about how do you hope kids will engage with this book? What are your hopes for their experiences of reading this book?

Ann:  I am hoping that they send lots of postcards. That’s the most tangible thing.

I want them to have their own experience of Oh, my gosh, I can do this too. This does not have to be a fictional experience. I can send them a note saying that they are amazing. That’s the most tangible thing. But generally, I want them to come away, realizing that they are not alone. That if they’re feeling alone, there’s hundreds and thousands of kids feeling the same way. Right around them.

One of the original impetus is for writing this was to write across political divides. There’s so much common humanity from a red state person and a blue state person, you know? We need to see each other as humans and caring hearts more than anything else.

Jeanie:  I can’t tell you the number of times I have pointed educators to your Teacher’s Guide for Benefits of Being an Octopus. Specifically for your activity on bridging divides. Are you going to have an educators guide for this book? Hint hint?

Ann:  I believe so! I wrote all the discussion questions that are going to be in the read aloud. So there’s videos of me telling them all, as well as actual downloadable discussion questions.

It’s a discussion question per chapter. So, it’s a little different. It’s just like one question for each one, and I also wrote out, created five different class activities that are in classroom activity starters, that are also videos that are everything’s on my website under the Puffin read aloud tab. I mean, everything will be on Monday when it kicks off on April 19. But so that exists. I think that there’s also going to be an educators guide in addition to that, but it’s a pretty good set for now.

Jeanie: You are always so generous with educators and I am so grateful I loved your last educators guide and I’m looking forward and you had wonderful videos of you reading from that book too, which I know kids loved. So, any other hopes for how teachers might use this book in the classroom?

Ann:  I really, I mean, I feel like what I write I write to start conversations and discussions and opportunities to really gently probe inward and outward at the same time. And so, I feel like in terms of teachers and educators, giving the spaces for those discussions to happen is the most important thing.

Jeanie:  Thank you so much for this beautiful book and this wonderful conversation and sharing so much of yourself with us. I so appreciate it.

Ann:  It was such a pleasure. Anytime, Jeanie anytime.

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for TIIE. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. Jeanie likes to hike the woods of southern Vermont with her dog Charlie and is always in search of a well-brewed cup of tea and a good book.

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