The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. – Book Letter 5

Dear Friends,

Reading Gianna while waiting for the car to be fixed.
Photo by Katie.

I read the book The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner. Gianna is a delightful character—she’s an artist, a runner, and a bit disorganized. Sometimes she has a hard time focusing on things she has to do for school, like the all-consuming leaf collection project for science. However, she is always busy with important and “genius” work—like splatter painting her room and painting other pictures inspired by the masters. She wears her feelings on her sleeve, as does her beloved Nonna, her mother’s mother, who lives with them.

I love the way the author helped us get to know Gianna, Zig, Ian, Mr. and Mrs. Zales, Nonna, Ruby, and even the evil principal, Mr. Randolph, and Gianna’s arch rival, Bianca. The characters just live normal lives for a few weeks during one autumn in Vermont, but they come alive on the pages.

I learned an important lesson about writing from reading this book. I don’t have to write wild, fantastic tales about future dystopias to write a good story. The last three times I’ve done NaNoWriMo, that’s what I attempted (the crazy sci-fi stuff ). This book didn’t need an outrageous plot line because characters were so well-developed. I couldn’t stop reading The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. because I cared about the people, particularly Gianna and her grandmother, Nonna. I wanted to see what happened next in their relationships, which were never hokey.

I think there is a second reason I learned about writing from this book. Last summer, I participated in the Teachers Write Summer Writing Camp. Kate Messner and a host of other published authors guided us through writing exercises. I felt like I got to know Kate over the summer as I participated in the activities and read her inspiring comments on my and other teachers’ work. Now when I read her books, I’m reminded of the summer writing camp, and I can hear her teaching me about writing through her stories.

Here is one of the passages that made me cry when I read it. Because her father was called away for an emergency, Gianna finds herself at the doctor’s office with her Nonna, who is being tested for Alzheimer’s disease.

“How long have you had a living will?”

Nonna takes a deep breath. “Your mother helped me get it together a few months ago.”

Now I can’t stop the tears. “Mom knows too? And it was months ago? How come nobody told me?”

“Because you should be creating your art and running through the mud and catching leaves,“ she says.

“Well, I’m not, am I? I’m here in this stupid office listening to him ask you stupid questions, and my leaf project isn’t done, and Mom is off at some meeting with a bunch of ladies while we talk about what happens when you…” I can’t say the word. I can’t. I start sobbing just thinking about what it will be like to lose Nonna.

“I’m not going anywhere just yet.” She gets off the examination table and bends down to hug me. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry you had to go through this with me today.” She holds me for a long time.

I would recommend to any young reader this sweet book about Gianna.

Mrs. Krebs


Character Study

I’m late on this writing assignment from the TeachersWrite Summer Writing Camp. I was inspired by reading Sheri’s camp work!

The prompt, on Kate Messner’s blog, is about getting to know a character through multi-media by Julia True Kingsley.

First, I chose a picture. This beautiful photograph of her aunt was taken by Bev Sykes and shared on Flickr with a CC-BY-2.0 license.

Fictionalized Character Study

A winning smile, bright blue eyes, straight white teeth mark Matilda’s beautiful face. All those teeth are hers, except for the caps on the front two that broke off when she dove into the neighbor’s pool when she was ten. Looking at her, you’d never know she was sick. She’s physically able and robust. When she was first diagnosed with Alzheimers, she realized her stoutness would be a detriment. She often said, “It’s not like I had to go to the hospital  with two broken legs and a broken arm after a car accident. I don’t have anything wrong with my body, but I had to come anyway.” In spite of her initial fear and sadness about her illness, she now doesn’t remember she has anything wrong. She doesn’t actually even remember where she lives, a nursing home called Happy Siesta, with a renowned Alzheimers unit.

Tilda loves to walk the halls of her nursing home.  Most of the time she is happy and singing. Her grandchildren, still forced to come and visit her, cry whenever she sings, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” knowing that she won’t. Vestiges of her wit and intelligence linger, but lucid moments are fewer and further in-between.  In the moments that aren’t lucid, she is content and oblivious, enjoying her happy siesta with continued good health.

External song – I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Internal song – Oblivion Soundtrack 

Chuck Wagon at Moose, Wyoming

Moose (Before)

Teepees lined up in a circle fire pit in the center. Black smoke on the inside of the teepee. Smells of dinner coming from the big cast iron pots. The food was BBQ chicken, stew, beans, bread—cowboy food. Nothing that special, but it was the setting that made it great. The Grand Tetons were beautiful in the distance, looking like the Himalayas.

“Grand Teton Sunset” Photo by TomKellyPhoto, shared with CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 License on Flickr.

Chuck Wagon at Moose, Wyoming (After)

“Eureka! I’ve found it!” shouted my nerdy cousin, as he saw the first teepee several miles from our destination. He never missed an opportunity to practice his vocabulary.

As we piled out of the green Country Squire station wagon, the rich and familiar smells of cowboy food made us happy to have arrived at the circle of teepees.

Each teepee, as tall as the peak of a two-story house, had a fire pit in the center. The supporting beams were as big around as one-pound coffee cans. They reached much taller than the white canvas tent, and stuck out the top at varying angles and lengths. Most of these teepees had picnic tables inside, hewn from rough lumber, where us children would always choose to eat our dinner. (How often does one get to eat a meal in a life-size teepee?)

The other teepees were for cooking the food. The food and family tradition were why we made this annual stop on the road connecting the national park jewels of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Inside the main grub teepee, the big black cast iron cooking pots were so large I could have crawled inside an empty one. Tonight, however, they were filled with warm and hearty food—BBQ chicken, meaty short ribs, thick stew, pungent baked beans, and soft, buttery bread.

When the weather was agreeable, as it often was late in summer in northwest Wyoming, the adults ate outside where additional picnic tables lined the freshly mown ridge. The backdrop for this breathtaking dining room was the Grand Teton range, the Himalaya-like mountains that rose out of the plateau in the near horizon.

After everyone had their fill in this all-you-can-eat (and we did) chuck wagon smorgasbord, groans and sighs of fullness and contentment filled the station wagon. We wedged ourselves back in and continued on the road to our next destination.

Note: I haven’t thought of this place in decades, until I saw today’s prompt from Kate (below and here). When I searched for the teepee chuck wagon in Wyoming, I learned that they are still doing their thing in Moose, Wyoming.

 Tuesday Quick-Write:

Write for two minutes to describe a very specific place.  If you’re just free-writing, it can be a place that you love, or have visited, or a place that frightens you…

Anyplace is fine. If you want to relate this to your work-in-progress, choose a very specific setting within the piece and imagine yourself there.

When your two minutes are up, stop writing.

Now…if your place is real and you can go there, go there now.  I’ll wait….

If it’s far away, find a picture of it. If it’s not a real place, put yourself there in your mind. Now write for one minute about each of the following:

  • Everything you SEE – Pay attention to big things and tiny things. Search for concrete details.
  • Everything you HEAR – Be specific. Don’t just say “a scraping sound.” Say a “high-pitched, raspity-raspity-screeeeeaking noise.”  You can make up words if you want. If you aren’t in the place, try to find a video. Or guess what you might hear.
  • Everything you SMELL – Especially pay attention to the smells that surprise you. If you’re not in the place, pictures can help you smell. Look carefully…what would that dumpster smell like?
  • Everything you FEEL – Weather, wind, things that land on you or brush against you. Again – pictures help you imagine if you’re not there, and if it’s not a real place, try imagining images and then assigning sensations from a similar place that might be real (desert, tundra, etc.)

Now, go back and rewrite that descriptive paragraph. Include your best tiny, surprising details, and work on senses other than sight. Better?  More vivid?  This is a fun activity to do with kids, too. Have them write about the playground or gym or cafeteria; then go there and hunt for sensory details!

Making Time

I do need to make time to write. I’d like to follow the model of Miss A, my student, shown above. She constantly carries a notebook and writes beautiful poetry, songs, and stories.

I wrote a lot of blog posts this past year (here and here). I didn’t have a blogging schedule; I just wrote when I had to or was inspired to. I also write models of work to share with my students. However, I want this summer to bring a commitment to write more than that. I want to write for me. I need to dig in and stir things up in my writing world.

I will commit to a daily 15-minute writing session (or more). In the summer, this will be easier. When the fall rolls around, I just hope I have developed a habit that can’t go away.

I prefer to write on my computer on the couch in the living room. This is my lovely view here in Iowa:

However, I can write anywhere, and I always have a notebook of some sort with me for taking notes and doodling.

That is a fancy tail, isn't it?

That is me riding that wonderful creature!

I have told my husband and Sheri, my writing buddy for the #TeachersWrite Summer Writing Camp.

I’m also telling YOU–that is, anyone else who may be reading this post. Thank you! Thanks for joining in the journey with me, and I hope you will leave a comment and a link, so you can tell me your plan too.

Thanks, Kate, for facilitating the camp.