When an Adult reads Hokey Pokey

Sometimes I think I forget what it was like to be a child. I remember lots of things about my childhood, but I forget the wonder. I forget what it was like to be a child, but I remember growing up. To quote Elizabeth Bowen, “I know that I have in my make-up layers of synthetic experience, and that the most powerful memories are only half true. […] this must surely be the case with everyone who reads deeply, ravenously, unthinkingly, sensuously, as a child” (48). Sometimes I have to ask myself, did that happen to you or to a character you once read about? Every time I inhale the ocean, am I inhaling it as Leigha or Charlotte Doyle? Every time I walk casually through the trail in the forest am I thinking as myself or Elizabeth Bennet? For me, childhood was a time of great fantasy and romance, and my coming of age years, followed by adulthood, have depended so greatly on what did or did not happen to me as a child.

13642591-_uy445_ss445_Once in a while, as a busy, organized, and routine adult, we stumble upon a book which acts as a portal back to our childhood when we thrived on wonder. Jerry Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey is just such a book. I ingested it ravenously in one sitting, a smile slowly broadening across my face, as I too remembered the vital rules of the dream land Hokey Pokey, The Nevers, as it where that stipulate never go to bed until the last second, never pass a puddle without jumping in it, never forget that [boys] have cooties- suffice to say, I have forgotten all of these things, and I suspect it affects deeply the way I parent. I get short tempered during a difficult bedtime routine, I warn of the impending health consequences of jumping in puddles without the proper foot attire- I have been so immersed in the land of adulthood for so long I forget the magic of play and its vital importance to sustain life. And now, thinking about this book and its effects on me as an adult reader I have to ask, was Hokey Pokey written for a young audience at all, or was it meant to be a reminder for adults who have fallen too far down the rabbit hole of humdrummery? And then I wonder, despite all of the things I have done and accomplished and excited over, is adulthood inherently dull? Once we enter the “Forbidden Hut” and board the train out of the dreamland that is our own Hokey Pokey do we forget the distinction of play (because even when we play with our children there is a nagging voice in the background saying, “did you remember to turn off the stove?” “Have you signed that permission slip?”)? And if so, when does this begin? Is it the teenage years when we learn that the uneasy feeling in our stomach at the sight of specific other is not disgust but lust? Is it when we feel the weight of a bike as less a means for random freedom and more a vehicle from point A to B? When it is no longer our vessel into the unknown, our ScramJet taking us on wild adventures, rather the vehicle we have to use, one which we have to remember to pedal to get us to where it is we need to be when we need to be there? And if so, if this book really for a Young Adult audience at all? Is its message that growing up is ok, but do not forget the magic and wonder you so recently possessed? Would I have been so moved if I were on the precipice of young-adulthood from years as a child? Would I have been so eager to grow up?

As I sit back and reflect on this book today, I am struck most by Mr. Shortstop, the baseball glove that gave Jack, the protagonist, his sense of duty and awe and I think of my young slugger who plays catch in the living room when it gets too dark outside, who dives at the rebounds coming off of the garage door, and who believes so completely in the magic of a baseball glove and its place in his own identity. I do not want him to lose this. I don’t want him boarding the train from Hokey Pokey anytime soon, and I think the best way I can encourage the wonder within him to remain is to keep reading myself, to get lost in imagination and to encourage the same from him. It is easy to forget childhood when it is so far away from you, the trick is to remember you do not need to pedal to go fast  to getlost in the wonder.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

Bowen, Elizabeth. The Mulberry Tree. Virago Press. London. 1986.

Spinelli, Jerry. Hokey Pokey. Yearling Books. New York, NY. 2014.

Eleanor and Park reminds us why romance and the ’80s matter.

download-35The only way I can think to profess my deep deep love of Rainbow Rowell’s novel, Eleanor and Park is to write this post with Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” playing in the background with memories of Lloyd Dobler holding a boom box over his head. For me, this is the epitome of popular culture and romance. So much of what I understand about romance is wrapped up in an orange trench coat, John Cusak’s smile, and the unyielding power of The Mix Tape.

 Eleanor and Park is a walk down memory lane where the reader cannot help but be immersed back in the 1980’s, back in high school, and back in love for the first time. For new teenaged readers, the demographic for which it was written, perhaps the novel acts more as a gateway, a glimpse into the power of first love with a displaced setting, but for the 30-something reader, it is a nostalgic freight train of walkmans, comic book characters, and the language of love that was dependent entirely on the interpretation of song lyrics.

This book struck me as a reader on a number of levels. Not least of which was Rowell’s language, which is colorful, provoking, and eloquent; a combination often overlooked when regarding a teenage audience, but one I believe many teens aspire to. The depth of characters, which is slowly revealed but accentuated through their coming to terms with the power of popular culture, is so personal. My heart beat for Eleanor when she sat so closely to Park on the bus, and I blushed for them both when he made her that first tape. How many hours have I spent listening to mix tapes on my own Walkman into the wee hours of the morning, rewinding the same song over and over thinking about my first love? “November Rain” still steals my breath.

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It is my opinion that this book is an experience. Though it captures first love so perfectly, the ups and the downs, it is also a social commentary on bullying, fitting in, sexism, rights of women, and physical discrimination. Eleanor’s tenacity and fear of her physical self is overwhelming as a woman, something I think we female readers can relate to on some level. Whereas Park’s obsession with popular culture is something that most teens can latch on to, even adults who were once (or like me, are still) comic reading, punk rock listening, youths at heart. In some ways we never grow up and the commitments we make to music and culture in those pivotal teenage-coming-of-age-years are ones we don’t let go of lightly, so that when we reach the final page of the novel and are left with three mysterious words to interpret, I cannot help but hope they say, “I’m coming home”, because as I read Eleanor and Park, that is exactly how I feel.

 

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

In Defence of Chopsticks

Chopsticks, by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral

I did not love this book. Perhaps that is a strange way to begin a defence for a title that I believe, wholeheartedly, should be included in school, academic and public libraries. I did not love it, but I respect it immensely, and it should be read widely.

Chopsticks is a visual narrative. It is not a graphic novel, though there are stylistic elements found in that medium (such as paneling and void space and gutters) that affect the time lapse of reading as a graphic novel might. Instead, I would be more inclined to call Chopsticks a scrapbook narrative, and, quite possibly one of a kind.

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Relying more on visual nuances than prose, and more on critical analyses of images and promotional material (pamphlets, posters, scores) than descriptive text, Chopsticks demands a close reading of images to gather both plot and the crucial emotional subtext that drives the story.

Glory Flemming is a prodigy whose life revolves around honing her talent as a young pianist. She is at first, a difficult character for the average teen to relate to. Her days are planned rigidly, as evident from the daily schedule pasted in her scrapbook; she performs around the world in the most celebrated theatres, as the pamphlets from Carnegie Hall can attest. Where readers begin to emphasize WITH Glory is when they realize that the concept of prodigy does not mean only performing classics, rather Glory is so sought after because she blends classical music with contemporary pop. Bit by bit readers begin to see themselves in her. She falls in love with Francisco, the boy next door. She collects trinkets from encounters with him, she doodles, and she daydreams, she texts, she longs for freedom, and she just wants to feel alive. These are the attributes of the story that hook the reader.

What keeps the reader invested, on the other hand, are the clues and nuances inform the deeper intricacies of the book. All is not right with Glory. From the titles of the songs she performs, “Obsession Diabolique”, to the photos of the empty chair which represent a dead mother, it is evident that each photo, drawing, and keepsake are meant to be carefully examined to truly understand Glory’s struggle and subsequent descent from on high. When the reader reaches the end their senses are muddled and they are forced to reflect on each image and each moment of foreshadowing which they have absorbed to truly believe in the interpretive finale of Glory’s story.

Chopsticks is not an easy read. From an outside perspective it may look simple and quick- there are few dialogues and no descriptive prose to muddle over. But it is for this very reason that I believe it presents an opportunity for true critical analysis. Youth and young adults today are savvy in multiple literacies. They are accustomed to reading a variety of texts, often in short hand and prose interspersed with images. They are increasingly reading laterally, no longer requiring left to right, line by line, patterns to interpret information. It is crucially important that libraries that service this demographic collect and maintain resources that speak to the changing literacies these readers engage with.

Chopsticks demands close reading. It combines elements of fiction from plot, character development, figurative language, and multi-literacy reading skills. The book highlights the struggles of talented teens to achieve their goals and the burdens that come from sacrificing too much of one’s self for the sake of perfection. It is a love story and a cry for help. It is blatant as much as it is nuanced, and it is a book that requires a critical lens.

This is a story that deserves to be read by those who already accept evolving literacies, and it is a story that teaches those who are not accepting how to move their reading forward.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

So, You’re Just Getting into Comics

To the thirty year old newly defined geek there is nothing more stinging than the question, “So, you’re just getting into comics?”. Ugh. It’s like piercing my heart with a jagged dagger, twisting until breathless. If you want to make me shudder and cower into a corner, here is how to do it.

“So, you’re just getting into comics?”bf-2

Some of the most interesting people I know, and people I would gladly listen to for hours on end, are true bonafide savants of the comic genre and industry. They work in comic book stores, give presentations at conventions, choose the reading materials for the city libraries, and have been fans of comics most of their lives. They, and the comics they read, have a history together. They don’t need movies to entice them into a comic book store, they are the people who have kept the stores afloat. They are the genuine article, and I feel like a poser.

This is a hard time to be a comic fan and to find footing in the vast clubhouse of the Comic Reader Brotherhood. Since the Marvel Cinematic Universe imploded and Chris Nolan’sBatman trilogy skyrocketed to success, comics have become the “it” thing. Everywhere you go someone is wearing a Spiderman t-shirt, children dress up as Captain America (I anticipate many Star Lord’s this Halloween), and the superhero and the actor portraying them have become synonymous (Nick Fury, anyone?). Comics have never been cooler, and it is at this juncture that I have jumped on the bandwagon. Or is it?

Let’s rewind. It’s 1987, I am only five, but I am glued to the television set at noon to watchJem and the Holograms. Soon after, She-Ra and He-Man come on. In the evening, I cap off the day with The Amazing Spiderman and Adam West’s beautifully drawn eyebrows in Batman. When I reflect on my childhood, these shows, their action figures and costumes resonate in my memories. I still watch reruns and introduce these characters to my children. My Little Pony, ThunderCats, and Transformers were as much in the books I read as they were on the screens I watched.  These characters hold a very important place in the hearts of the geek community. Mine too.

As I got older, I would watch Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson spar over and over until we needed to buy a new VHS. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was my raison d’être every Thursday, then Sunday night. I read Spiderman comics and The Incredible Hulk, at first because they reminded me of a favourite cousin, but soon after because they were coming of age stories, and I was coming of age myself. Even the first Sam Raimi Spiderman left me speechless as my friends and I drove home from the theatres. I was completely engulfed in the story- despite their choice of using Mary Jane over Gwen Stacy. Tsk, tsk.

So for a while, I knew some stuff.  And then I kind of cut out.

I still watched movies and read all the time, but I tried to be too classic, too artsy, too grown up. Could comics be grown up? I wasn’t so sure. When my son was born, very stereotypically, superheroes crept back in. Then I met Alex, who gave me a world of graphic literary possibility on a jump drive. I joined book club. I read amazing graphic novels that had nothing to do with superheroes. I fell in love with reading and storytelling all over again, in the most visually stunning and visceral way. And yes, I have read (almost) every major Marvel event from the 1990’s onward, but I just did it a little late. Batman, we still have some road to travel, you and I.

In the end, I believe, to be taken seriously by a community driven to explore, accept and promote the wonderful world that is comics (and seriously awesome ’80’s cartoons) you just have to love them. Read them. Reflect on them. And not be afraid to engage. Some of the best people I will ever know are still out there for me to meet, to discuss comics and the things labeled as geeky that they and I love. And even though I might wonder if I am just a poser looking to fit in, the terrific people I have already met lead me to believe I’m not. Maybe I am on my way to being one of you, too.

“So, you’re just getting into comics?”

No. As it turns out, I have always been into them. Maybe I didn’t know it at the time. But in these last five years I have been consumed by them.

Maybe that’s the better question to ask, next time you meet someone like me.

“So, you’re consumed by comics, too?”

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

Owly, A Humble Tale

I was eager to read Owly because I had seen it so often as a display text at my public library, but had passed it by every time in favor of something that struck me as more compelling. You see, the cover art did not attract me due its simplicity and cartoonish, animal art. It struck me as a simple story.

I am so glad I was WRONG!!! J

Owly is deeply moving, honestly real, and tremendously humble. It is the age-old story of discovery; the owlystaple of children’s literature as the journey tale. Owly, with his large, expressive eyes, and small stature is more than an animal; he could be any child or any adult, for that matter, who is lost in his story.

Through very basic, black and white art (almost reminiscent of sketches) author Andy Runton transitions from complete delight to utter sorrow within the space of a few panels and the direction of a few lines upon Owly’s face.

The book is made up of two short stories, both of which are engrossing. In both tales, Owly experiences the highest highs and lowest lows of friendship, and through minimal detail and varied panel size and layout, a complete range of emotions is exchanged between Owly himself and the reader. When he waits patiently by the bedside of his new friend, nursing him back to health, Runton creates atmosphere and tension in three pages of a single 3/4 panel each to convey the dismay, the worry, and the patience it takes to heal the sick. Runton’s ability to convey the passing of time is seamless as Owly waits worriedly beside a dwindling candle, or as he and worm experience a snapshot of seasons while awaiting the return of their hummingbird friends.

It is hard not to see yourself reflected in at least one moment of Owly’s story. Whether you are a nature lover, as he is; a committed friend, as he is; suffering from loneliness, as he does; or living for quiet moments, as each panel shows, Owly is a book that spans ages. The minimal to no dialogue and text makes this a perfect story to read across languages and cultures as well.

In the beginning this was a book I was not interested in from seeing the cover art alone. In the end, Owly has become a book I cherish, a gem in my collection, and one I instantly handed off to my eight year old son, who’s initial reaction was, “Oh, what a nice looking owl. I bet I will like him”. I know he will!

 

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

The Arrival, A Timely Tale

ShaunTanTheArrivalTitlePageShaun Tan’s beautiful book, The Arrival, invites readers to experience the pain, fear, despair, longing, and ultimate hope in this intimate experience of life as an immigrant.

From the moment it is picked up and it’s weight felt in the reader’s hands, we know a profound read awaits us. Coupled with the tattered replica of an old photo album or passport as the front and back cover pages, and the strong and dense interior pages, the book itself is a work of art that looks old and wise beyond its years.

The fine pencil art, various tones of sepia, which mirror Victorian photography, captures the essence of each individual in his or her passport photo. The asynchronous items on the first page, stilled in time and through large gutters and small panels place equal importance and insignificance of what is left behind. The acute detail of husband and wife, their hands on each other, is so real and intimate to look at the tenderness feels almost intrusive.

Words in this story are unnecessary.

As the visual narrative progresses, the identical panel sizes and gutter spacing is reminiscent of an old silent film, moving quickly with small gestures as to bring them to life. The contrast of whole page images, splash pages, or blank pages reminds us we are reading and privy to only a moment in time.

The representation of corruption and power as reptilian shadows looming overhead resonates with the world we live in today. This is not the tale of immigration of days past, nor solely of the futuristic landscape created in the images, this is the timely tale of immigration as it happens, whenever it happens.

Close up drawings ofimages (19) physical exams, teeth checking, eye tests, the struggle to communicate, are powerful and honest statements of what immigrants endure to enter a new country. Flashbacks, rendered in darker tones, but with the same physical layout and paneling give life to secondary characters, which informs and expands the protagonist’s own personality and moves the story along. Again, the art captures what words would most often convey, but in such a delicate and seamless way that words are not required at all.

The companion animal, a futuristic pet of sorts, reminds the reader that appearances are not the foundation of a person, and that different is not necessarily frightening or bad. Likewise with the food, homes, and clothing in this new land, Tan is encouraging readers to consider that different can be good. The bird, which appears in a variety of incarnations throughout the book (at home with his daughter, upon the statue in the harbour, through the steampunk city) is the visual reminder of hope through uncertainty.

This book is exquisite and I can’t help but think that if everyone on the planet were required to read it, the world might be a better place.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

The Hockey Sweater

hockeyI am not, particularly, a hockey fan, but I love Roch Carrier’s book, The Hockey Sweater. I read this picture book as a child and then again a number of times as an adult. I am neither a boy (like our protagonist) or a hockey fan, but I understand and appreciate the deeply rooted struggles between the French and the English people of Canada. At the heart of this book, the story is driven less by  the mix up of a hockey sweater from Eaton’s, and I would even argue hockey, as it is with identity and overwhelming cultural oppression. The constant presence of the Catholic church in the background is a poignant depiction of the power of religion in the shaping of a regional and national identity.

From the offset we see the Church looming over the skating rink as a place of acceptance. The angel statue is holding her arms open in welcome. The curator of the church is the ref, so religion and pastime is inextricably linked. All the children are dressed the same and the herd mentality is prevalent.

When the boy gets his new parcel from the post office there is a large poster behind him that depicts the Poste Royale with the duelling French and English symbols. A little foreshadowing.

When our protagonist is ostracized for wearing a Leaf’s jersey (the dominant and over bearing English cultural that represses the French) he is seen as a traitor, I would argue onhockey2 a much larger scale than only that of hockey fanatics. He is a traitor to his culture. Can you be truly French if you wear a Leaf’s jersey? Are you a traitor to the small French community by succumbing to the lifestyle or aesthetics of the greater English community? I find the story terribly sad.

The penultimate image of the boy walking to the church leaves the angel statue out. It is far less welcoming a place than before now that the young boy’s allegiance is in question.

The final painting of the protagonist hanging his head low, alone in the church, up on the balcony, is a poignant remark on personal conflict and shame. He has become an outcast. How does one stay pure to their culture when it is so often infringed upon by another?hockey1

This is a contemporary, pop-cultural, relevant and amusing way to depict a long and arduous conflict between the French and English speaking members of our country. I love teaching it in my history classes. When you get past the hockey (if you are inclined to do so) and see it as a smokescreen there is so much happening!

The picture book medium is amazing. Children are so lucky to have these books, whether they are fully comprehending, or not, the themes within. If only more adults gave children the credit they are due, as authors and illustrators do, the world would be a better place. 🙂

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

Jane, The Fox, and Me

This is a wonderful graphic novel that I have often seen on the shelves of my local library, but until recently I had no inclination to pick up. But in the end, I am so pleased that I did.

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Jane, The Fox and Me, by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault, is a beautiful book that should be read by a broad audience of youth and adults alike, lovers of literature and metaphor, lovers of art, and lovers of introspective fiction. It is a tale of a young girl, Helen, who struggles to accept herself as she is and to fit in to an often cruel and isolating world; is as ordinary as the tools with which she was drawn, pen and ink, colourless and fine. Finding comfort in the pages of Jane Eyre, young Helen begins to see herself as promising a person as the often overlooked Jane herself.

The illustrations are stunning, I was particularly enamoured with those of the tired mother seeing to all the chores and responsibilities for her children, when late at night, as they sleep, she is mending hems. A subtle and poignant reminder of the burden and love of parenthood.

There were two lovely contrasts that I cannot go unnoticed. The first, the mirroring of Helene’s life with that of Jane Eyre’s. Jane is a character who overcomes many odds, not least that of being perceived as exceptionally plain and an outcast, but is one who ultimately  lives a life of happiness, and I think that is what Helene is looking for. The subtleties of color and shading let the reader understand Helen’s moods and circumstances. Helen, for example, is drawn with lots of shading and I think this represents how alone she feels and the way she lives in shadows, much like Jane Eyre did. She too was dark and plain, and the ability to showcase this through the artwork without having to use words to describe it and her feelings highlights Helen’s loneliness and longing to fit in.I was pleased to see that the author did not focus too heavily on the love story, but rather Jane’s personal strength and growth, so that the Helene’s growth could be for herself and not to please others, particularly romantic interests (which I think is a tad overdone in kids books). I especially like the portraits Helene drew of herself in contrast to Jane as a coping mechanism to remind her not to spend too much time on wishful thinking. She drew herself much more plain than she is, and I think many young girls would be inclined to see themselves in a similar way. jane1

The second contrast was the nature. Helene spent many of the panels and pages outside and there was a focus on the potted plants throughout the very urbanized city. Like Helene, they are not natural to the environment, but they persist and grow beautifully, much like Helene herself. The contrast of pencil and watercolour was quite beautiful and a stark contrast to the pen and ink that Helen was rendered in. The use of splash pages showcase Jane’s own feelings, and the subtext of the plants, both potted and natural, growing beautifully amidst the concrete of the world around them, mirror Helene’s own struggle to grow and accept beauty.

Social discourse is apparent through the book. Bullying is the main theme. There was a nice dichotomy between the way peers perceived Helene and the way she classified and labelled others. She, though the victim, was still prone to dole out verbal accusations and bullying, even if she kept it to herself. The addition of her friend at the end was nice and a happy resolution to the story, but I was a little concerned that the end message could be interpreted as “self worth can be found in having even just one friend” when, and this is just my opinion, a stronger message would be in the notion that self worth comes from making peace with yourself and in so doing friends will follow…. But that is the beauty of literature, interpretations are many!!

Overall, I would love to use this book with my students. I will read it again. It was quite lovely.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

 

 

 

Beauty in Beast, a Canadian Graphic Novel

The graphic novel, Beast, by Marian Churchland, was laying precariously on the adult comic shelf at my local library. Someone had obviously picked it up, flipped through it, then discarded it lazily atop a collection of Superman books. I stumbled upon it while I searched for a handful of titles I hadn’t yet read.

Lucky for me someone decided it wasn’t the book for them.

beast1Beast is one of the most beautifully drawn books I have ever read. From the initial image of Colette, the protagonist, sitting contemplatively on a wooden chair I was irrevocably invested in the story. I almost felt like I was looking at myself on the cover of a novel: tattered jeans, dull tank top, messy up-do, bare feet, and deep penetrating and pensive eyes. Before the story began I was engaged.

Beast is a Canadian interpretation of the fairy tale Beauty and the Best. But it is not a fairy tale at all, not in the contemporary understanding of the genre anyway. Colette is an artist commissioned to carve the likeness of a shadowy figure (both metaphorical and literal) out of a block of marble. The density of the alabaster and the unease of willing captivity are in direct contrast to the genteel and ethereal, Beast, who captivates an inquisitive Colette with an ancient and mysterious tale.

Beast does not end with a prince saving the day, nor is Colette a princess in any way. Instead, Beast is a tale that inspires commitment and perseverance of finding one’s place in the world, while inciting the notion of unconventional love.

marian-churchland-beast1Churchland’s art is delicate and real. from tiny details such as the tag sticking out of the back of Colette’s shirt, to capturing the chaos and intrinsic essence of Beast with undetermined form and a sensible disorder of wisps and blackness. Unlike many graphic novels, where characters are indistinguishable, each of Churchland’s cast are unique and deeply considered. So too is the setting: a once grand neighbourhood and house collapsing and decaying with time and neglect; much like the shadowy figure who dwells within.

In the auspicious decision of a stranger to cast-off this novel for another, I found a retelling of a favourite tale, and was introduced to an artist for whom I have great esteem. Much like Beast himself, cast aside and forgotten, this novel was waiting for a true believer to pick it up. How will I ever return it?

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

 

 

Up Home

Books about Nova Scotia are abundant. Books about small distinct Nova Scotian communities are not. 

up homeUp Home, written by Shauntay Grant with illustrations by Susan Tooke, is a love song about growing up in North Preston, a small community on the outskirts of Halifax, the province’s capital.

Grant is a spoken word poet and laureate. She has presented her history as a member of North Preston’s community with the rhythm and dialect of her family and peers. She has given us, outsiders, a rare glimpse into the secret and intimate life of a North Preston child. Living joyfully, treasuring kinship, running freely, and loving abundantly.

Susan Tooke’s art captures the soul and vibrancy of the faces of North Preston’s community. Each member is unique and expressive, an ardent representation of a neighbourhood fuelled by fondness and pride. uphome2

I am lucky to have been given this glimpse into a world so close to my own, but from which I am so far removed. I share it with my children as we snuggle in bed and I share it with my students when we contemplate the individuals who make up the patchwork of Nova Scotia’s identity.

This is  a beautiful poem for family and love. A touching memory of a real community.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke