Thursday, 14 December 2017

Hungry for more poetry? Diane Mayr at Random Noodling is the Poetry Friday host this week. Visit her blog for links to more poetry posts.

Happy Poetry Friday!

I recently added a line to my email signature. Along with my title (poet in the schools) and the titles of my children’s novels (The Last Fifth Grade, Takedown), you will now see “Currently reading: —” listed under my name.

Publicly sharing what I’m reading is a practice I learned from educator friends, a way of showing the children we teach that adults — like kids — read for school and for pleasure.

This week I finished a book I’ve been meaning to read for months, Elly Swartz’s  middle grade novel, FINDING PERFECT. It’s the story of middle schooler and slam poet Molly, who is experiencing a lot of turbulence in her life. Her parents are back together after a brief separation, but her mother has taken a year-long job in Canada. Molly, her father, and her siblings are struggling with this transition. Each handles missing Mom in a different way.

On the surface, Molly is the perfect kid: a good friend, great student, and talented poet. But her perfectionism is a coping mechanism, hiding her anxiety. As the stress caused by her mother’s absence deepens, Molly’s obsessive compulsive tics begin to impact her friendships, family, and sense of self.

FINDING PERFECT is a favorite of upper elementary and middle school educators and their students. The first person voice allows readers to get to know Molly when she’s feeling mainly like herself. We travel through the story with her, experiencing the way OCD and anxiety gradually weigh her down. This is a great book to prompt a conversation about empathy.

Here is the Goodreads blurb for FINDING PERFECT :

To Molly Nathans, perfect is:

• The number four
• The tip of a newly sharpened number two pencil
• A crisp, white pad of paper
• Her neatly aligned glass animal figurines

What’s not perfect is Molly’s mother leaving the family to take a faraway job with the promise to return in one year. Molly knows that promises are often broken, so she hatches a plan to bring her mother home: Win the Lakeville Middle School Slam Poetry Contest. The winner is honored at a fancy banquet with table cloths. Molly’s sure her mother would never miss that. Right…?

But as time goes on, writing and reciting slam poetry become harder. Actually, everything becomes harder as new habits appear, and counting, cleaning, and organizing are not enough to keep Molly’s world from spinning out of control. 

FINDING PERFECT is a great read for upper elementary through early high school.

Who will like it?

  • Kids who are interested in psychology and how people’s emotions work.
  • Kids who are experiencing a difficult separation.
  • Readers who enjoy friendship and family stories.

What will readers learn about?

  • Obsessive compulsive disorder. Swartz conducted extensive research for this novel. Resources are listed in the back.
  • The importance of reaching out to peers and adults during times of stress and anxiety. Some changes are too big to handle by yourself!
  • Empathy. Molly is a relatable character who explains why some people have nervous tics and compulsions.

The poem I’m pairing with FINDING PERFECT is “Perfection” by Naomi Katz. Lines two through four describe how Molly feels as she measures, with a ruler, the space between the glass animals collected on her shelf. As a whole, the poem reminds me of how Molly pressures herself to create the perfect slam poem for a school competition.

Naomi Katz

Always that passion in the human breast,
That restless passion for The Perfect Thing,
With its sifting, sorting, rule and measure-string,
And a terrible eye for the error manifest.
Yet, well for the sometime jewel emerged from the quest!
And well for the seldom ore with the mellow ring!
And well for the hunter whose diligent hands can bring
One easeful object to the great Unrest.

Slow is the process, infinitely slow
Up the tedious road with Perfection for its goal;

Read the rest at the Poetry Foundation.

Swartz has another middle grade novel coming out in January. You can read more about SMART COOKIE here.

(Elly and I have something important in common: Both of us are Beagle moms! And both of us worked our beloved Beagles into our second books.)

I hope you’re snuggling up with a book and some holiday cookies this weekend.


Currently reading: EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid


23 responses to “Laura’s Bookshelf: Finding Perfect”

  1. bjleepoet says:

    Thanks for sharing what you’re reading, Laura. Yes, that is a good practice! One I should adopt! Love your poetry pairing!

  2. Irene Latham says:

    Dear Laura, thank you for sharing your reading life with us! The myth of perfect, this need for others to perceive us as perfect is so amplified by social media… we as humans are often so hard on ourselves! Yay for being beagle moms and working those beloved pets into second novels! (We have a beloved Australian shepherd… hasn’t found her way into a book YET.) xo

    • Laura Shovan says:

      Hi, Irene. You’re right. Perfection is a myth, but I know that some children do not realize this and put undue pressure on themselves.

      I will read your dog book someday!

  3. Tabatha says:

    Going to have to buy that for someone I love and perhaps for a school that I love!

  4. Diane Mayr says:

    Perfection is a societal precept that does much harm to those who are holding on by a thread. I’m glad books exist to help us all gain a deeper understanding.

    Right now I’m reading The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott. It is a masterfully written look at simply lived lives.

    • Laura Shovan says:

      You’re right about the social construct, Diane. Doesn’t the image of an ideal go all the way back to Aristotle (though I think he said that achieving the ideal was not possible). Thanks for sharing what you’re reading!

  5. Doraine says:

    I do like that tag line on your signature. This sounds like a good read. Isn’t it wonderful to know that you can’t be perfect. Quite liberating in some ways.

    • Laura Shovan says:

      I agree! I struggled with the perception that I was supposed to be perfect as a child. Letting go of that is liberating.

  6. jama says:

    Thanks for featuring Finding Perfect and Naomi Katz’s poem. It is interesting how as human beings we strive for perfection, often forgetting that to be human is perfection in itself.

  7. Linda Baie says:

    The poem feels right, though I don’t know anyone recently who is challenged in this way, this seems like the goal: “I polish my pebble stone for the ultimate day.” Glad to be reading what you are reading, Laura and your thoughts and connections to it. I loved Elly Schwartz’ Finding Perfect, had a young woman in class that finally was learning to “let go”. She had help and her parents, too, but it was very hard. The habits took a long time forming.

    • Laura Shovan says:

      It’s wonderful to hear that your student made a strong connection with Molly and her story, Linda. You’re right — the habits develop over time and it takes time to learn other ways of coping.

  8. Margaret Simon says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this book. I think I have it but haven’t read it yet. This idea of pairing a poem with a book review may be a new twist I could try with my gifted students. Hmm.

  9. Brenda says:

    Sounds like an inspiring book. Kids feel so much pressure, it’s hard to get parenting just right. Perhaps in striving to be perfect as parents, we also communicate that responsibility to our kids. It’s good to mess up or fail sometimes, just to show how we handle it. That’s a beautiful poem. I used to have a worry stone. That pebble-stone in the poem made me think of it. I don’t think fidget spinners can replace a good, silent worry stone.

  10. Kay McGriff says:

    Thank you for sharing this book. Reading your response to it reminded me of John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down (for a slightly older crowd, though). I am so glad authors are writing books that deal with mental health for kids. I’m reading Auggie and Me by RJ Palacio. And I’ve been peeking into two books I’ve received for Christmas (Christmas is starting early in my family this year)–the 2014-15 collection of Today’s Little Ditty and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s What Happened.

  11. What a brilliant idea to add what you are reading to your signature–thanks for the review. Sounds like an interesting read.

    just finished: Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)
    currently reading:Peace Like a River (Leif Enger)

  12. Mary Lee Hahn says:

    I’m glad to see more cognitive diversity making its way into children’s books. Super important for empathy and the whole window/mirror thing.

  13. Poignant and interesting book Laura, and it goes so well with the poem by Naomi Katz. Unfortunately, so many girls can relate to this experience; thanks for sharing both with us.

    I’m snuggling up with “Ollie’s Odyssey,” by William Joyce, and it has me hooked. I just finished “The Walls of Cartagena,” by Julia Durango– a wonderful historical fiction piece.

  14. Tara Smith says:

    This book has been making the rounds in my classroom and eliciting all sorts of great discussions. You found just the poem, too.

  15. Hi Jama,
    For three years I wrote almost monthly about books for kids on my blog Medicine and Health in Children’s and Young Adult Literature. I stopped but miss it. I’m glad you are doing it because there are many books that can initiate important conversations which are difficult to otherwise have. Thanks for your post.

  16. Thanks for the rec. I have this book in my ms library….but didn’t know the connection to poetry. Just today, I talked to a kid who didn’t know what book she wanted but wanted something about how people act. Well, that’s psychology! It’s really fun to figure out the right book. This one looks especially good.

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Laura Shovan

Laura Shovan is the author of the award-winning middle grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Her second book, Takedown, is a Junior Library Guild and PJ Our Way selection. Look for A Place at the Table, co-written with Saadia Faruqi, in 2020. Laura is a poet-in-the-schools Maryland.

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