The Magical Book

When I was a second grader, my school held a fundraiser to fill some empty shelves in the school library. Rather than just asking parents for money, the school had each child select a volume from a table filled with new books, take it home and ask Mommy and Daddy to puhleeeeze buy their sweet little offspring a book. After reading their new acquisition, the child would to donate the book to the school library so it could be enjoyed by all.

As class 2-A herded past the book tables, my ADHD brain locked on to a book wearing a bright yellow dust jacket with the title in bold red letters:100 Pounds of Popcorn by Hazel Krantz.

The cover illustration closed the deal: Four kids making a huge mess while popping mass quantities of popcorn. The random messiness made those kids seem more like me, and the fun they were having made me want to be more like them.

Sold.

However, when the day arrived when we were to donate our books, it became apparent that I hadn’t been properly briefed on the etiquette of school fundraising, for I committed the mortal sin of refusing to surrender my book to the librarian.

I’d already developed somewhat of a reputation by then (in 1962, ADHD was still known as “Rotten Little Brat Syndrome”), so when I made a bit of a scene over the librarian attempting to steal my book, the case was automatically escalated to the principal’s office. I’d already spent so much time there that I wouldn’t be surprised if even today there’s a chair in the waiting area bearing a brass name plate in my memory.

When my case came up on the principal’s docket, I stated my position in clear and certain terms: It was my book. I’d chosen it from the book table with my own grubby little paws. I paid for it with cash my mother gave me to buy a book. I’d even written my name inside the cover with a red pencil (though I don’t recall if I wrote it before or after they pressed me to donate it). I loved my little book, and the librarian couldn’t have it. End of discussion.

The battle escalated, as such battles are wont to do. When gentle reasoning failed, the principal hinted at the possibility of eternal damnation (being a Catholic school, they  could get away with that), and when all else failed, she pulled out the biggest weapon of all: a call to my parents. That threat almost worked, but one glance at my book’s cover renewed my resolve to endure any punishment required to win my case. After the threatened call, my father grudgingly agreed to buy a second copy for the library. He later extracted the price from my hide.

What drove me to fight so stubbornly for that book?

Reading 100 Pounds of Popcorn had revolutionized my eight-year-old life. Before that book, I thought everyone in the world was just like me. I had no idea that other families were different. In the pages of 100 Pounds of Popcorn, Hazel Krantz transported my tender heart to a world very unlike the one in which I lived.

To most, the Taylor family would seem unremarkable. A father, a mother, eleven-year-old Andy and his eight-year-old sister Sally Jean. On the way home from the beach, they see a huge bag of popping corn fall from the back of a truck, and being a moral, law-abiding type Mr Taylor tries to return it to its rightful owner. The owner isn’t able to retrieve the bag before it would spoil, and offers to let the Taylors keep it if they would like. Andy sets out to start a popcorn business with the help of his kid sister and several friends, and they all learn the hard way that there’s a lot more to selling popcorn than they thought.

Okay, so it’s a nice little story. How did that revolutionize my life?

The first time I read that book, I waited with tense anticipation for what I knew would happen. I waited, but what I expected never came. I read it again, just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. Then I read it again just because I didn’t want to leave the magical world.hidden in those pages, a world  where Andy’s father never yelled at him, never threw things in anger, and never once hit his wife or either of his children. Andy made some mistakes and learned lessons the hard way, but his father never called him stupid or any of those other names I’d expected. And Andy never once had to stop and discern whether his father was drunk or sober and adjust as needed to avoid his wrath.

In the pages of 100 Pounds of Popcorn, Hazel Krantz gave me a most wonderful gift. A glimpse of a world where children were free to be children, to learn and grow and live with all the hope and possibilities they could handle. I couldn’t explain it then as I can now, but that brief visit to normality changed me. It awakened my ability to dream, to imagine, to envision a better world than the one in which I’d existed.

Is it any wonder I fought so hard to hold on to such a magical book?

When God started talking to me about writing for children and young teens, I didn’t want to discuss it. I didn’t want to go back and revisit the wounds of my childhood. A dear friend and mentor (and highly successful children’s writer) finally took me aside and told me that those wounds equipped me to write things that nobody else can write, not even her. She then gently but firmly kicked my backside and asked me to quit making excuses and start doing what only I can do. (Thanks, Nancy. I needed that.)

Shortly after I returned home from the conference where that discussion occurred, I spotted my ragged, dog-eared copy of 100 Pounds of Popcorn on my bookshelf, took it down and read it again, just as I’ve done hundreds of times before. And I remembered the magic.

And then I started writing for tweens and early teens—because somewhere out there, there’s a boy or girl who needs that magic.

About “The N Word”

Everyone’s been buzzing this week about Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s decision to bail out of broadcast radio following that over-publicized “N-word” boo-boo on her nationally syndicated program. It’s really unfortunate that Dr. Laura feel the need to do jump ship—although there are four months between now and the end of the year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she surfaces in January on some other radio network.  Stuff like that happens in this business all the time.

Even more unfortunate is that Dr. Laura’s point—a very valid point—has been lost in all the name-calling and rock-throwing that followed her unfortunate foot-chomping moment. If only she’d had the good sense to say, “N-word, N-word, N-word” instead of actually using the N-word, perhaps the conversation could have turned more productive.

Dr. Laura’s point was, quite simply, that there is a double-standard in our society when it comes to the N-word. When I searched for a suitable picture to accompany this post, I found zillions of pictures of African-Americans wearing T-shirts with the offensive word emblazoned upon them, album covers, artwork, and other such examples of the same word being used daily, and I’ve yet to hear of the African-American community boycotting musicians or protesting in front of stores selling the offensive apparel.

Let’s be honest here: If Michael Baisden or Tom Joyner had made the same point in the same way using the same words, would it have even caused a blip in the national press? I’ve heard both of those national radio talents say things that, in the mouth of any Caucasian radio talent, would cause an immediate one-way trip to unemploymentland.

It’s a double-standard. It’s wrong. Period.

Personally, I find the “N-word” offensive. It’s offensive on African-American lips, it’s offensive on Caucasian lips, it’s offensive on any lips.

As a boy, I used that word once in my father’s presence—and I do mean exactly once. When I picked myself up from the floor, he explained to me in his salty and straightforward manner that if he ever heard that word on my lips again, I’d be taking a break from further conversation while having my teeth removed from my throat. He went on to say that he served side-by-side with black men in World War II who bled the same shade of red he did. He learned to judge a man by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin. He taught me to use the same method of measure.

Looking back, I can still recall the passion that drove his anger that day. It still speaks to me as it did then, of heartache-laden memories he seldom allowed to surface, respect for those who served our country regardless of their race,  and anger he could usually control when sober but that overtook him when he drank. I always felt there was more to Dad’s interracial war experience than he shared with me that day.  I regret that I never pursued that with him.

I do not, however, regret that I never again said the “N-word” in his presence.

Father by Choice, Son by Choice

Some men are fathers by accident; they are ushered into parenthood by an inability to keep their zippers in the upright and locked position. For these guys, fatherhood is an unpleasant surprise that they could do without. Some men are fathers by plan; they marry and seek to reproduce. These guys want to be fathers; unfortunately there are those who for various reasons are never able to follow through. They want to be fathers, but they aren’t. Some men are fathers entirely by choice. They could have said no, but they made the distinct decision to assume the responsibilities and joys of fatherhood.

I’m one of those “fathers by choice.”  On December 18, 1992, I adopted Sara. She was 14 years old, and her mom and I had been married for two years and five months. Next month will be our 16th anniversary; this coming December 18th will be the 14th anniversary of “Adoption Day,” a day that we celebrate each year. In fact, Adoption day is more important than celebrating Sara’s birthday. On that day, Sara stood before a judge and told him that she wanted to be my daughter. I stood before the same judge and said that I wanted to be Sara’s father, and after the judge reviewed with us the responsibilities I was about to legally assume, I said yes. I’ve never for a moment regretted that decision – it’s one of the best choices I’ve ever made.

Adoptive relationships are special, because they are relationships by choice. There is a bond between Sara and me that is deep and genuine, and unlike any other relationship I’ve ever known. We are so alike in so many ways that people who know we are a blended family have been known to conclude that Sara must be my biological child, and Sharon the adoptive mother. We understand each other. We laugh at the same things. We”get” each other’s jokes while others are standing around saying “What?”

I think God has a very special place in His heart for adoption. He’s an adoptive father, too:

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:4-6, NASB)

He became my father by choice. He decided to adopt me. He accepted me, complete with all my faults and shortcomings, and made me his adopted son. The passage above speaks to the closeness of that relationship. Abba literally means “daddy,” a term of intimate, heartfelt endearment. He loves to have me run to him with my arms extended, crying out “daddy, daddy!” It gives Him joy to have me simply choose to sit with Him and enjoy His company.

He is my Father by choice. I am also His son by choice — my choice.

Happy Father’s Day, Father, from your son… by choice.