Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Coliseum Ballroom- after the fire.
Setting: The Coliseum Ballroom
And all the Would've/Could've/Should'ves...

Last night, an icon of the local setting and feel of Benld, Illinois and Route 66, the Coliseum Ballroom, was lost in a devastating fire. I couldn't help but cry. In my current WIP, the Coliseum is the focal point of the backdrop where key plot events take place. It's the hub! It's where the all the action is!...and now the building is lost.

Historically, and more particularly, during the 1920s, the setting of my story, the Coliseum functioned as a ballroom, a roller-rink and a venue for a multitude of other “events”. During my lifetime, it has been a part-time dance hall/part-time antique shop. The Coliseum has been a landmark for travelers and patrons for almost a century and even those numbers showed up at her end, 16 fire departments in all, to try to keep the fire contained.

As a writer, I have regrets. I watched the fire, and I thought about my characters and all the would've/could've/should've's that are now lost to me. I couldn’t help but feel what it would be like for Will, my main character, who spends his Saturday evenings parking cars for the wealthier patrons during “Big-Band” nights. I imagined Ted, the rambunctious brother, standing in my very shoes, quiet for a change, watching the fire and knowing that part of their town, part of the soul of the citizens would be lost along with the building. While I sympathize with  those in the crowd tonight, who have such strong, similar memories, I am comforted to know that for them as well as for my characters, the Coliseum will forever remain. And every time I look at my story, every time my characters need to be there, it will still be there…in the story, for my reader.

During the past two years, I’ve collected facts for this particular manuscript of mine. For the scenes that involve the Coliseum, I have focused on gathering a sense of the building. I've poured over pictures and flyers. I've hovered around the outside of the building, looking at where the doors and windows had been before the last "remodel". When I've gone inside (posing as a typical antique-store groupie), I let my mind wander. I imagined the wood floor emptied of knick-knacks and the balcony filled with guys and dolls giggling, making light conversation as they waited to hear music fill the large hall. I touched walls, walked up stairs, snuck around corners. I listened.

I wish I had visited more. I wish I would have taken more pictures. I could have sat down and written chapters and pages in the very spot I envisioned my characters. I should have dug deeper. But I didn’t. I guess, in a way, I took it for granted that it would be there tomorrow. Now, the beloved Coliseum lay smoldering under the sprays from a dozen or so fire-engines.

My concrete, fact-finding opportunities are now gone; my first-hand accounts and personal connections have been severed. But as a community member, I know that even though the building may be gone, it will be forever preserved in memories and stories. This is one of the reasons why I write!

I encourage all of you to share your stories of your communities, buildings, places, events, and history with one another. Don't let treasures like these become lost.

With sad regret and a heavy heart, I will forever miss our Coliseum Ballroom.
With Writer's Regrets....

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Go Ahead!
...Jump Into a Few of These Good Books:
                         (All these books were new (or almost new) in 2010)

Larry Gets Lost in Chicago Illustrated by John Skewes, Written by Michael Mullin and John Skewes. ( Sasquatch Books, 2010)
Suggested ages: 4-8 Accelerated Reader Reading Level: 3.3 / 32 pages.
This is my first Larry book, and I love it! Apparently, Larry, a lovable pooch, has been to SanFrancisco, Seattle, NewYork…and the list goes on. Unbenounced to Pete, Larry’s human, while “lost”, the dog finds as many fancinating things about Chicago as Pete and his family do. Even with older children in my family, we all enjoyed the sights Skewes and Mullin highlight in the book. Next time we visit another big city, I’ll look up another Larry book to place alongside my RandMcNally.

13 Words by Lemony Snicket, Illustrated by Maira Kalman. (HarperCollins, 2010)
Suggested ages 4-8. Accelerated Reader Reading Level: no test available. 40 pages.
Seuss was challenged to write a book using 50 words. Snicket created a picture book based on 13. Given, he interjected a cachophony of other nouns and adjectives (such as my favorite, “spiffy”) to jazz the story up, but essentially, it is merely 13 words. Imagine a list of random words. Then challenge yourself to create a story around it. That is what Snicket has done. Although I’m not sure that the story commands enough adventure for an upper grade reader, I’m sure that any logophile, word lover, will find this on their shelf.

Crow Call by Lois Lowry, Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. (Scholastic Press, 2009)Suggested Ages 4-8. Accelerated Reader Reading Level: 3.8 / 32 pages.
I know this was released last year and therefore, doesn’t have a place on this list, but I couldn’t pass it up. The artist, Bagram Ibatoulline, has created an ambiance that matches Ms. Lowry’s writing perfectly. The serenity and love that passes between my Lowry’s character (herself?) and her father are comforting, and yet at the same time, somber in the memories of lost time. It would easily fit into my junior high curriculum as a tone piece to match that of Gary Soto’s short story, Stop the Sun.

Edgar Allan’s Official Crime Investigation Notebook by Mary Amato (Holiday House, 2010)
Suggested ages 7-10. Accelerated Reader Reading Level: 4.3 / 140 pages.
As a teacher of 8th grade students, I often forget what it was like to be in 5th grade. That is, I forgot, until I read this book. The main character, Edgar, mimics my very own 11-year-old attempts of solving a rash of local petty crimes! This eagerly reluctant hero journals, spies, and is incredibly jealous of his know-it-all classmates. And yet, behind it all, as the mystery deepens, Edgar finds out what is really at the heart of it all. Friendships and poetry. I love Mary’s “teacher” sensibilities mixed with her “writer” pulse. She has successfully created a fabulous stand-alone, an entertaining read-aloud, and a suitable teacher’s-companion text within this one great story.

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. (Atheneum Books, 2010)
Suggested ages 9-12. Accelerated Reader Reading Level: 4.3 / 304 pages.
Sharon Draper has been one of my favorite writers for years now. She hasn’t let me down with Out of My Mind, a first-person narrative plucked from the mind of the protagonist, Melody, who feels trapped inside herself due Cerebral palsy. I caught myself replaying time and again, the things I have said alongside the things I haven’t. To save me, Sharon lays it all out there for us to consider. Melody’s real-world idol, Stephen Hawking, should be proud of Ms. Draper’s work. The story works for two reasons. One, Melody’s voice is resounding. Despite the lack of “phonetics” associated with her voice in the character’s world, we, the readers, hear her loud and clear. Secondly, happy endings are hard to come by. It would have been too easy for Ms. Draper to give us a simple smile, pat on the back, and send Melody and the reader off to a fairytale end. In real life, we’re not so comfortable with each other’s problems. And these are issues we must all confront.

Fat Vampire: A Never-Coming of Age Story by Adam Rex (Balzer and Bray, 2010)Suggested ages : Young Adult. Accelerated Reader Reading Level: not yet available. 336 pages.
Vampires always seem to have it so good. That is, unless you are turned while you are still in that awkward teenage stage. Unfortunately, the main character of this story has to fight his social battles while dealing with his newly acquired vampire urges and quirks (or in some cases, perks). I loved the mix of the reality T.V. vampire hunters and the team of teen friends that add to this fun, and not-so-romantic vampire book. Definitely a teen-read though.