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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Marshfield Dreams, written by Ralph Fletcher. Square Fish, Macmillan. Raincoast Books, 2012. $10.99 ages 8 and up

"Outside, the chicken coop looked like a murder site. The fence smashed in. Ugly blotches of blood all over the snow. We didn't see any rooster bodies, but feathers were scattered everywhere. I stood there, shocked, trying to force the icy air into my lungs. "They were attacked!" I finally croaked."

I have always been impressed with Ralph Fletcher's thoughts on writing. Not long ago I finished reading Boy Writers (Stenhouse, 2006) and I recently added Guy-Write (Henry Holt, 2012) to my Kindle so I can check out bits and pieces of his writing wisdom no matter where I am. He knows so much and shares it with a real need to help us understand that boys are skilled writers, with much to say to those who will read and listen. In his many other books concerning writing he offers great advice for getting started at making it an important part of each day and for learning about the world and ourselves.

I also know him to be a thoughtful and experienced writer of fiction and picture books, having read such titles as Twilight Comes Twice (Clarion, 2007), Also Known as Rowan Pohi (Graphia, 2011), Spider Boy (Thomas Allen, 2009) and The Sandman (Henry Holt, 2008).

In this book about growing up in Marshfield, MA we learn a great deal about the time of and the setting for his family stories. Ralph is the oldest of nine children, and his stories are perfect fare if you are wanting the students in your classrooms to learn about writing memoir. Each chapter is easy to read, and stands alone. It would be a great read aloud in the classroom or at home, reading all of the stories straight through, or one at a time whenever the mood strikes. Each begins with a family photo, giving life to his siblings. He includes a map of their neighborhood before the reading beings; I found myself referring to that map at many different points. Drawing a map is a terrific strategy for young writers to use when they set out to tell a story, or a set of stories as Ralph has done. I tried it myself and found that it triggered memories of events and people that I haven't thought about for many years. Believe me, it doesn't need to be an artist's accomplished rendering of said neighborhood. The memories were all there!

Ralph knew his siblings well, and has telling observations to make about their distinct personalities:

"In November we got report cards. I sneaked a peek at Jimmy's. His grades were lower than mine, a lot lower, which didn't make any sense. I knew that Jimmy was smarter than me, but on that report card, there was no grade for knowing where snakes sleep in the heat of the day, for being able to tell the difference between the skull of a cat or a beaver, a salamander or a mud puppy. It wasn't fair, but I told myself that the woods would always be the place where Jimmy learned best. It that school he would always be a straight-A student."

Today's children, and Mr. Fletcher's audience for these stories, might be surprised at the amount of freedom these young people had. They explored nature for hours without adult supervision, climbed trees and fell out of them, combed creeks for treasure, and showed great independence in caring for each other. Their days were not a series of planned lessons and activities; they were left to their own devices to make amazing discoveries and live life. As many people long for simpler times and less stress, they can look to the stories written here about a loving family, who share humor, sadness, and great admiration for each other.

That's what memories are made I right?

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