Debbie Alvarez, Human Being Extraordinaire

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My good friend, Debbie Alvarez, Mother to Declan, Wife to Doug, Sister to Rachel, Daughter and Granddaughter, Avocate of children’s authors and illustrators, Fierce Reader of books, Enlightened Keeper of Literature, Adventurous Traveller, Inspiring Leader, Brave Warrior, Human Being Extraordinaire, passed away this week.

I am heartbroken.

The above photo shows Debbie, just minutes after we first met, when she welcomed me to the Bradbury School library in Hong Kong, for Author’s Day in 2012.

The next year, she and her family joined me at Shaolin Temple in China for a week of Kung fu lessons.

Earlier this year, she invited me to stay with her while I was on book tour in Hong Kong.

We had many heart-to-heart talks, the kind you have with a BFF you grew up with. Here we are during our final dinner together, with another wonderful librarian friend that she introduced me to, Tanja Galetti, in the middle. (Photo will be added at a later time.)

We kept in touch through email and by following one another’s blogs and social media posts.

We said we would make plans to have adventures together in the U.S. after they moved back to Oregon.

I promised that I would come see her at Christmas, when I would be visiting my mom in Seattle.

We settled on December 26. In her last email to me, on 12/15/15, she wrote, “So excited about you coming…Many hugs, much love, Debbie.”

The next day, she posted an alarming update on her blog, Life’s Journey, Interrupted, in which she has documented her battle with cancer. For more than two years, she gave readers an unflinching look at what it’s like to fight for her life. The harder the blow, the more courageous she became. She faced  the storm and hollered so fiercely that it scared the bejesus out of her tumors. But she never became a full-time patient. She charged full-speed ahead as a mom, librarian, reading advocate, writer, adventurer, and a nurturer of enduring friendships. It was an uncommon bravery, the likes of which I have never seen. I believed in a miracle for her — that she would triumph. She had to. Her Son With the Most Tender Heart will have a mother who beat the odds to see him marry and to hold his children, just because she said so. But now, she said she  might have pneumonia.

Pneumonia. It’s not a blow, like chemotherapy. Or a feeding tube. Or even a new tumor. It is Death’s threshold itself. Anyone who’s had it knows. I’ve stared into the airless abyss myself, as a child with asthma. It fills your lungs with liquid, just like that.

The next thing I knew, she was gone.

But she was SO alive, that even today, she managed to post to her blog, The Styling Librarian, which I’ve re-blogged here.

I am sad beyond words. I will not be saying hello to her again, but I will be traveling to Portland after Christmas, to say goodbye.

To paraphrase Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, it is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good librarian. Debbie was both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Dad

Dear Reader,

The time has come to tell you of something very sad.

My dear father died two weeks ago.

His death was sudden and unexpected. He had just finished making dinner, complained of a headache to my mom, and within five minutes, lost consciousness forever. He had suffered a bleeding stroke, which is like a lightning strike in the brain. He was 83.

My family and I are still in shock. Lightning strikes in the brain don’t give any warning. My dad was active and vibrant and in good health. I had just spoken to him by phone a few days before.  His oldest friend who came by his hospital bed (he was on life support until my daughters and I could fly across the country to say our goodbyes), said that my dad had just visited him the day before, and had brought over Asian pears from his garden.

My dad was like that. He always had a couple of fruit trees, tended them carefully year-round, and loved giving away the bounty. When I was little, he couldn’t wait for August when he could finally tell people to bring over their grocery bags to fill with plums. He’d even made a fruit picker by tying a clothes hanger to the end of a long bamboo rod to hook the “best sun-ripened” ones from the top of the tree. He really loved standing in the shade of that tree and looking up into its heavy, summer darkness. I know this because I was perched on the little wooden platform halfway up the tree, looking down. I saw my dad’s face open with wonder, bewilderment and absolute disbelief at his good luck. Year after year.

Here is my dad in his recent garden:dadingardenSee what I mean about his ability to marvel?

With my mom on a recent trip to China.dadnmominchinaMy dad had taken me to his ancestral village in China, in 1998. You can read an excerpt from an essay that I wrote about the trip here, or you can find it in its entirety in Best American Essays 2001 (Houghton-Mifflin). liondadMy dad was the very end of the lion’s tail in the Chinese New Year lion dance in Seattle’s Chinatown in the 1950s.

When he wasn’t kung-fuing down King Street, he could make today’s A&F male models look like tufted sofas:modeldadAnd wasn’t he adorable standing in front of a jukebox?jikeboxdadFeeding the ducks in Lake Washington was a life-long activity, but here, it looks like he was actually dipping his BARE FEET in the water. Something I’d never seen him do!duckydad

My parents, shortly after they were married in Hong Kong, 1960:dadnmom1960

My dad hanging out with me and my brother:youngdad

My dad at work:chefdad2

My dad at play:chessdadMy dad doing tai chi:taichidadMy dad ALWAYS bought Chevrolets. The only time he bought a different make of car, a Mercury, it was a complete and utter LEMON. Here he is with his latest Chevy. Note the super-duper hiking boots! chessdad 1And the pen in his breast pocket. He was never without a pen, or his watch.

Here is the eulogy I delivered at his funeral:

My dad was a very modest man and would likely consider a eulogy to be unnecessary and a form of bragging. So please allow me to address him in a personal letter:

Dear Dad,

When I was little, I had no idea what a brave man you were.

When you left your little village in southern China in 1949, you were 19. You had 100 Hong Kong dollars distributed in small sums among the pockets in your clothes and tucked into your socks. Later, bandits held up your bus and demanded all your money, and you pulled out ten dollars from a pocket and said that it was all you had. They believed you. You carried a drawstring bag that contained two extra shirts. It was all you owned. Your mother had not even packed you a lunch because, as you remembered it, “there was nothing left to eat.”

 I loved your stories of survival as a little boy during the Second World War, when Japanese soldiers occupied your village. Your father and your yehyeh were living in Seattle. You were only seven. Every morning you and your mom and gningnin and younger brother would escape to the caves in the mountains. Every night you would come home after the soldiers had returned to their camp. They would take your chickens and your rice. But they couldn’t take your sense of adventure as you outsmarted the enemy troops. Your lives were in great peril, and your sense of wonder at the enemy planes that flew overhead must have driven your mother mad.

You not only survived enemy soldiers, but you also survived floods. When the Pearl River Delta flooded every spring, you were ready. You and your brothers took down the wooden doors of your house and used them as rafts. You would paddle around using your hands. Floods were such GREAT FUN, the way you told it. It never occurred to me that it was a dangerous event until I asked you a few years ago, “what was GninGnin and Lo Bak doing while you were paddling around?” You looked at me as though it should be obvious, and said, “They were saving the chickens and rice, of course, and screaming their heads off!”

As a young man in Seattle during the 1950s, you were brave to take a job as a dishwasher making $2 a day. You put yourself through school at Edison Technical College. You found a better job as a waiter. Then you bravely returned to Hong Kong in 1960 to marry my mom.

Marriage takes a lot of courage, but fatherhood takes even more. You became a dad three times during the 1960s. I don’t know what you were expecting, Dad, but ABCs are horrible children. We are not the nice respectful children that are born in China. We wear our shoes in the house. We speak English fast and Chinese slow, if at all. Our chopsticks don’t work. And our homework machines are not as good as the ones made in China. And did anyone ever tell you that when ABCs become teenagers all hell breaks lose?

Well, you braved it all, Dad. You screamed at us when we were bad, and you took us out for McDonald’s hamburgers when we were good. But whether we were good or bad, you went to work. You worked at Boeing as a mechanic until you got laid off in the 1970s. Then you worked as a cook in many different Chinese restaurants. You worked long hours. You worked swing-shifts. You stood at a hot stove all night long. I know you did this so that you could heat our home and feed us red meat, two things that you wouldn’t have had to do if we were living in the village. And eventually you did it to send me to college.

Thank you, Dad, for sending me to Princeton. It changed my life. You were very brave to let me go so far away.

You were very brave to try church. It is very different from anything you had ever known. You stayed away for many years while my friends picked me up Sunday mornings. You thought it was some strange club that required lots of money, which you didn’t have. It wasn’t until I had graduated from college that you gave it a try. Thank you for waiting, Dad, and for not giving away my tuition! Now I see that it has brought you many friends.

Thank you, Dad, for taking care of mom. She’s loved depending on you because you’re the type of man who is strong and brave and steadfast. She could depend on you no matter what. When mom faced some health challenges in recent years, you took her to every doctor’s appointment. You were the last person she saw going into surgery and the first person she saw when she came out. You were amazing, Dad. You really were. You had your own health issues, but I never heard about them until afterwards when you would say, “oh, BTW, i just got a stent put in,” as though you had just had your shoes repaired!

Thank you, Dad, for living so bravely and with a wealth of humor and grace. You always had a child’s sense of wonder, a tall tale to tell, or an astonishment to share. You laughed and you made us laugh. And the harder we laughed, the more embellishment you would give your stories.

While you made us laugh, nothing made you laugh more than being a grandpa. Thank you, Dad, for being a GREAT gunggung to Charity and Madison. You’ve given them so many wonderful memories of playing Chinese chess with you, going to Coulon Park, playing in the sand, getting clams from Ivars and you buying them anything that they even glanced at in the gift shops.

Thank you, Dad, also for taking me and the girls to many places in China, including your village, where you took down those doors when you were their age. They will never forget it.

None of us will ever forget you, Dad. You are a truly kind soul who gave SO much to everyone who came across your path. You lived a good life. You fought the good fight. You were brave and loyal and true. And now that I am still little, but old, I know just how lucky I am to be your daughter. Thank you, Dad, thank you for everything.

Your loving daughter,

LenorekeepingupwithdadKeeping up with my dad, November 1966.

Wah Neng Look, 1930-2014, my dad, my inspiration. 

How to Make Chinese Paper Cuts

Dear Reader,

With another winter storm on the way, I thought I’d give you a fun snow-day project — Chinese paper cuts!

I learned to make these in Chinese school just before the Lunar New Year, which started with the new moon on January 31. People in China like to decorate their windows and doors with red paper cut-outs at New Year’s to invite luck into their homes.

Here’s the first one:IMG_84361. Fold a square piece of paper in half, twice.

2. Using a pencil or pen, draw the red lines above on your paper.

3. Cut along the red lines. (The blue parts above are the discarded pieces.)

4. Unfold, and it will look like this:IMG_8424This is the character, shuangxi, which means “double happiness.” The character xi means happiness or joy, and when it’s written twice, side-by-side, it’s twice the happiness. Chinese is very logical. The symbol is used during New Year celebrations and weddings.

When it’s written, it looks like this:Calligraphy_tattoo_378

When you’ve practiced a bit, you can make fancier versions of this cut-out, like this:images-1

Or this:Double_happiness6Okay, let’s not get carried away here.

If it’s a really good storm, you’ll want to go outside and scream your head off and slide around, not stay inside making a million little cuts in a little piece of paper!

So don’t even think of trying any of these:ux_a12032800ux0263_ux_g03Enough of that one.

Here’s the next cut-out I learned in Chinese school.IMG_8432 1. Fold a square piece of paper in half, and half again, lengthwise.

2. Fold the top half in half, then fold it in half again. Keep the top quarter folded down.

3. Cut a rounded corner in the top left (see above).

When you unfold it, it looks like this:IMG_8434Oops.

My teacher says I did it wrong. IMG_8426That’s my teacher. Her name is Liu Yao. She’s very nice. She’s from Shanghai.

Disregard the above instructions. I had to do it over (and over) until I unfolded it, and it looked like this:IMG_8438Uh, how do I explain how I got here? I don’t exactly know. But you gotta fold the paper so that all these creases show. Then you cut the corner :).

Then you fold the right side under like this:IMG_8439If I’ve just lost you, I’m SORRRRY!!! That’s the problem with cut-outs. They were meant for people who had nothing to do in ancient China but sit for a thousand years along the Great Wall and be on the lookout for scary barbarian invaders who couldn’t come until the snow melted. When you try to do an ancient snow-day project nowadays, it just makes you want to SCREAM, doesn’t it? AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACK!!!!

That’s better.

Here are my classmates, Joanna (left) and Donna, cutting away:IMG_8431Yes, you, too, can do this without having a breakdown.

Okay, now take a deep breath like in yoga — and fold the bottom half up, then draw a triangle with your pen above the bottom fold and along the vertical crease like this: IMG_8442Then you snip out the little triangle.

When you unfold half of the bottom, it looks like this:IMG_8443After that, you draw these lines:IMG_8445And cut:IMG_8447When you unfold, it should look like this:IMG_8449Wow! Now we’re looking fancy!

Time to work on the left side.

Draw a line to match the cut on the left side below, and cut along the line:IMG_8451Unfold, and it should look like this:IMG_8452This is the Chinese character, fu, which means good fortune, luck, or prosperity.

Written, it looks like this:

images-2

Or this :Unknown

Families in China often turn it upside-down when they put it on their door at New Year’s:images-4

When it’s upside-down, it resembles the character dao, which means “arrive.” So it announces that good fortune has already arrived at this house. IMG_8459Looks like good fortune has arrived on my notebook!

Here’s the character dao:

Unknown-1

So there you have it. A snow-day project from ancient China when it really snowed. It’s especially appropriate since Lunar New Year celebrations will continue until the full-moon on February 14.

Speaking of really snowing, here’s the character for snow, xue:

images-8

The top part is the character, yu, “rain.” And the bottom is used in characters for broom and sweeping. So snow is rain that can be swept. Isn’t that cool?

If only I knew how to cut that. Then we would hang it upside-down from all our doors and have a really fantastic, buried-to-the-rooftop snow day!!!

Hope we have one anyway!

Enjoy!

Year-End Thanks and Awards!

Dear Readers,

As this year ends and another one begins, I have much to be thankful for. So let me begin.

Thank you for following my blog.

Thank you for reading my books.

Thank you to all the schools and libraries who hosted me this year.

Thank you for treating me to lunch.

Thank you for eating lunch with me 🙂 .

Thank you, parents, for buying my books so that I have something to sign when I get to your schools.

Thank you, young readers, for laughing at my jokes 😀 and rolling in the aisles as though on cue!

Thank you for HUGS!!!

Thank you, Dan Yaccarino, for a rave review in the New York Times. My first!

Thank you, Schwartz & Wade, for publishing my books.

Thank you, Random House, for inviting me to Take-Your-Child-To-Work Day. I felt seven-years-old all day 🙂 !

Thank you, kung fu monks at Shaolin Temple for being my friends.

Thank you Debbie, Doug and Declan for being true kung fu warriors.

Thank you, Wall Street Journal, for naming BRUSH OF THE GODS as WSJ Best Children’s Book of the Year 2013. Read the article here.

Thank you, Booklist, for naming BRUSH as a Booklist Books for Youth Editor’s Choice 2013. (Article to appear Jan 1, 2014.)

Thank you, Mrs. Tracewell’s second-grade class at Emerald Heights Elementary in Silverdale, WA, for your letter and for sending me not one, but ALL of the most prestigious literary awards an author can ever hope to get:IMG_8297Wow! I can’t believe I won all these. Aren’t they fantastic?!!! I put them up on my writing wall today, just above my desk. Their letter begins thus,

Dear Ms. Look,

Hello! We are 2nd grade students in Washington state — at a school you have visited [twice!] before, Emerald Heights. We just finished your first Alvin Ho book — Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School and Other Scary Things. We really enjoyed EVERYTHING about the book — including the humor, the repetition, the illustrations, the characters, the funny phrases, and the similes! We loved it so much we are sending you 21 book awards — made specifically for you and Alvin. We hope you will feel special when you get these. IMG_8310IMG_8315IMG_8299IMG_8312IMG_8303IMG_8302IMG_8308IMG_8300 I can’t believe these are mine, with my name on each of them. They are fireworks on my wall. You’ve made me feel so special, I can’t even begin to tell you. I feel like dancing!!!

Thank you, second-graders, for ending my year with such a big bang!

Happy New Year, everyone!

XXOO

Newark Museum Signing This Wednesday

Dear Readers,

You are cordially invited to join me at the Newark Museum this Wednesday, November 20,  to kick off their Holiday Shopping Spree! I will be signing copies of my latest picture book, BRUSH OF THE GODS, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Continue reading

How to Make Friends in China

Dear Readers,
Staying in one place in China for a month is a very different experience than hopping around from city to city. The best thing about it is you get to make friends! Making friends in China is not that different from making friends anywhere else. The Chinese are generally quite informal like Americans. They say hey, and then they hang out. When you buy something from someone, the next time they see you, hey, you’re a friend! And you didn’t even know it. And if you stay with a family, like I did, you really become family and get included in everything they do, even going to visit a sick grandchild in the hospital.
When you’re an author, making friends and becoming family is very important. Your inspiration and ideas will often come from these relationships. So here are some tips and helpful hints on HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS IN CHINA 🙂 ! Continue reading

Warning: scary photos! scary everything!

Dear Readers,

If you are squeamish, stop here. Do not read this post.

If you are still reading, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

This starts mild enough, but it gets worse and worse. Quickly.

Then it goes from worse to I-can’t-believe-you-drank-that, before it gets better.

I kid you not. Continue reading