catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 12 :: 2013.06.07 — 2013.06.20


Writing Maleek: A prayer

Though my waking life is filled with two tow-headed boys, trampoline games, science experiments and looking up the Greek gods, my dreams at night are of the 1970s, when I was a little girl. 

Riding in the back seat of a Volkswagen, my long-haired father at the wheel, his cup of coffee on the dashboard; Sesame Street, that make-believe urban neighborhood where folks of all color meet at the corner store; the smell of the Detroit Free Press in my mother’s hands, the sound of her voice as she spoke about President Carter: small images like these, from the eyes of a child, fill me up during sleep.

The dreams remind me that as a young girl I wished desperately for peace and an end to racism — well, actually, my parents used these terms, and others, like “food co-op” (the smell of dried beans and tea) and “no nukes” (a demonstration, hundreds shouting, “Hell, no, we won’t go!”).  Though I didn’t completely understand my parents’ vision, I loved the idea of a friendly world in which folks were secure enough to greet each other on the street with a nod of the head, no matter their class or race.

Late one night, while the laundry sits near, unfolded, I decide I want that girl and her vision back.  I send a late-night email to an old friend.  It begins.

October 2010

Dr. Bruce Roller is a tall man with white hair, a kind smile, and a kinder voice.  He and I met ten years ago at our neighborhood UCC church.  I was breathlessly busy with my young family, while he leisurely held the hand of his longtime partner, Phil.  Remembering me, Bruce welcomes me to his workplace for lunch.  On a sunny fall day, we meet at UCOM, short for United Church Outreach Ministry, where he is executive director. 

UCOM is housed in an old funeral home.  Bruce gives me a tour while operations manager Jawaun Kenney cheerfully makes us lunch.  The client-choice food pantry is the centerpiece of the ministry, with shelves of bakery-donated bread, a large freezer for meat, veggies and scrambled egg patties, and shopping carts for clients.  With signs donated by a local grocer, the food pantry feels like a friendly neighborhood grocery store. 

In the back, volunteers from the community — many of whom use the food pantry themselves when needed — sort donated clothes, toiletries and canned goods.  UCOM has turned a basic food pantry into a true community center.  The staff offers tutoring, after-school reading help and a summer reading program.  A caseworker assists those re-entering society after incarceration with job-hunting and living skills.  UCOM offers financial skills classes in Spanish, income tax help, health screenings and gardening resources for those interested in growing fresh vegetables in the inner city.  It is an overwhelming amount of information, but eating lunch with the friendly staff gives me some time to take it all in.

Over dessert, I ask Bruce if I can put my writing skills to use for UCOM.  Volunteering might be too much for the full-time mom of two busy boys, but writing feels flexible, quiet and sure.  I offer to help with newsletter articles or office documentation.  Bruce has other ideas.

“Do you remember when you told a fairy tale at the church talent show?”  Years ago, I had rewritten the Fisherman’s Tale — the age-old dilemma of what to do with three wishes — with a twist.  “When I heard you tell that story, “ Bruce continues, “I thought right then that someday, I would get you to write a story, and I would publish it.”

This is Bruce.  He sees the best in people — reflects back to them a light they didn’t know they had — in the most sincere and specific way.  And he thinks big.  Given that he has no experience as a children’s book publisher, he’s thinking very big.

“I want you to write a children’s book, and UCOM will publish it.”

January 2011

My eight-year-old and I share some picture books before his sleep.  My son asks about the pictures and story, opening up a space between us that buzzes with his curiosity. 

I remember how I used to read children’s books when I was a child — poring over the pictures, reading the words several times to make sure I understood all of it.  The books I read as a child were illustrated with black-and-white sketches that pulled me in.  Today, color printing is more affordable and more common, but bright colors can flatten an illustration.  As a child my preference was to peer all the way to the back of drawing, to make the world three-dimensional enough to smell.

I remember the stories of the desegregated 1960s and 1970s — people of all colors mixing in every area of life, in all towns and workplaces and schools, among all socioeconomic classes. 

I want, in my own small way, to bring it all back.

UCOM provides the right context: a place where folks of all colors and socio-economic classes, sexual orientations and developmental levels, all volunteer side-by-side.  I visit and interview folks at the food pantry, and I research the circumstances that lead a family to a food pantry.  I read Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty.  As a tribute to the books of my childhood, I decide to feature an African-American family, using my research and interviews to help them feel as true as possible.  It’s like writing a love letter, using everything I have to see the other person, all of them.

I watch my children with new eyes.  Their hunger draws down their faces, makes their stance jagged.  I start to understand what a gift it is to be able to provide food — favorite foods, even — every time they are on the edge: headache, low energy, irritability, decreased problem-solving ability. 

As I cut up an apple or make our special whole-wheat pancakes — as I grab a quick granola bar because a meltdown is imminent — I think of all the parents who don’t have this option, how helpless they must feel, watching their children suffer hunger.

A story is starting to develop.

May 2011

It’s early morning.  Hear that garbage truck backing up? I lie in bed and listen to my name in the warning beeps. ma-LEEK. ma-LEEK. ma-LEEK. That’s me! Maleek.

After five months of work, revising the story, checking the reading level of the text and getting feedback from trusted readers, I am ready to share French Toast for Maleek with Bruce and the staff at UCOM.  They recognize Maleek, his playful but helpful brother, and his loving mother.  I have found a fiction that rings true.

In the next breath, I see all that still has to be done — an illustrator found, printing details decided, distribution, marketing.  Distribution and marketing: these words have overwhelmed me in the past.  But this time it’s for friends, some of whom are hungry.  I have a chance to learn this new work, one bit at a time.

December 2011

When I get up, I want breakfast.  We’re out of cereal.  Just some that spilled on the shelf a few days ago.  I pick it up in my fingers.  Looks clean enough.  I put some in my mouth.  It’s stale.

My big brother sees me tasting the cereal and laughs.  He starts singing.  Deshon is always singing.

Maleek’s so hungry, now open wide.
You’re just like the garbage truck that’s outside.
Gobble up anything, baked or fried.
Even crumbs from the shelf, old and dried.

I laugh, too.  I’m always hungry when I first wake up.  Not Deshon.  He doesn’t get hungry until after school.

Maleek’s story, as vibrant as it seems on paper, is struggling to make its way into the real world.  Though I have found an illustrator — a fellow unschooling mother — she can’t seem to get her vision to paper, and if her children need her close, I would prefer she spend her time with them. 

What’s more, the focus of my life is shifting drastically.  A family friend in Hawaii has passed away, and I’ve just found out that her 16-year-old son has been thrown into state foster care.  At first it seems money is needed, and I am ready to donate.  But soon it becomes evident that mine is the clear choice to become a foster family, so the system will transfer him to our home in Michigan.  The prospect of adopting a teenager — a complete surprise — is a mountain of phone calls and paperwork.  It is slowly building a family relationship through supervised phone calls, letters and the occasional care package.  Like Maleek, this young man is hungry, and the answer is not as simple as grabbing a granola bar from the pantry. 

March 2012

Yesterday Deshon was extra hungry.  After school, he ate all our bread — half of a loaf.  He ate one slice after another.  The first few slices he ate plain.  Then some with butter.  Then the last few with peanut butter.

Mama came home from her dollar store job.  “Deshon, you must be growing!”  She said she needed that bread to make dinner.  She was going to dip the bread in egg and fry it in butter for French toast.  She was going to let me help. 

We had the eggs scrambled instead.  Scrambled eggs fall off my fork and mush in my mouth.  French toast is better.

Our first illustrator bows out, and Heather Newman steps in.  Also an unschooling mother, Heather is an experienced illustrator, providing a mocked-up book of rough sketches within a few weeks.  Her sketches hold the depth and detail that I remember from the books of my childhood, and I can’t stop looking at them, peering all the way to the back.

August 2012

Deshon walks me to the school bus stop.  I’m still hungry and I don’t feel good.  Maybe I should stay home.  Deshon shakes his head.  He’s moving his lips.  I can tell he’s making up one of his songs for me.

Hey little man, you’re not a big fan
of having no goodies to eat.
You feel a little sick, you feel a little ick
you wish you had a treat.

Remember last week Mama couldn’t start the car?
Remember how she said that her job was too far?
Uncle Dell came with tools and the car was fixed.
But Mama got no pay for the days she missed. 

Maleek, my man, if you stay home sick,
Mama stays with you, that’s the trick.
She won’t go to work for another day.
And then next week we’ll miss that pay.

Just as in Maleek’s family, everything in my life seems to pile up at once.  I fly to Hawaii to bring home our now 17-year-old foster son — find a place to stay, pick him up at the interim house for teens, help him say good-bye to friends around the island, pack and tape up bins of his belongings for the flight home. 

Oh, and try to wrap my mind around the feel of him, live and in person. 

After all that, a welcoming open house, and moving in, Bruce and I are finally ready to send the book to the printer. 

If I were in charge of the scheduling, these two major events would not coincide, but they do, and I find myself torn.  On one hand, there is the novel experience of layout, finding the right price point, obtaining an ISBN number, and promoting our work.  On the other hand is the deeply emotional work of relating to an unsettled young man thrown into a new location and a new forever family.

September 2012

After school, we get in the car.  Mama drives, but she acts like she doesn’t want to go.  She talks under her breath.  Once she pulls over and stops the car.  I think she might cry.  Then she takes a deep breath, and we drive on.

Maleek isn’t back from the binder in time for Hunger Action Week, a regional awareness event.  I dress up as the author and smile through a cook-off and a film viewing, in turn reading from of a preview copy and seeking pre-orders.  Bruce and I catch each other’s eye, wordlessly agreeing that next time we’ll do it better.  I show up where I’m asked, wrenching myself from the shifting family tectonics at home, a bit dazed but excited, reading the book aloud and wondering what others make of the story.  Reading it to a roomful of food pantry clients — the reality of their lives spoken out into the space between us while they nod their heads — is humbling and emotional, though nothing much is said. 

Local reviewers have written generous blurbs for the book’s back cover: “A gentle, sweetly told tale about a child who longs for a good meal, and how his brother’s songs, his mother’s love and a community’s generosity see him through.  It will make you hunger for French toast and a better world.” (Charles Honey, The Grand Rapids Press)

Two days after the last Hunger Week event, the books come back from the binder, two boxes of 100 books each.   The pressure to sell 200 books and show a return on UCOM’s investment suddenly feels very real.

October 2012

When we walk in the door, I see bread.  Shelves and shelves of bread. Deshon pokes me and grins.  We both love bread.  We love it with butter, with jelly, with honey.  When it’s soft, we love it plain.  We love it for sandwiches.  And we love French toast for dinner, with butter and syrup on top.

Then I remember that Mama doesn’t have money.  So why did we come to a store?

The lady at the desk says, “Hi, I’m Martha.”  I hang back.  Martha is smiling.  But what if she gets angry because we don’t have money? 

More readings, and every time I see something different. 

Sometimes my insecurities take over.  Am I just a well-meaning white woman trying to write for people of color?  Does the story come through as a tribute to black families, to love and song and humor, to mothers who keep it all together, to brothers who like to josh?  Or does it fall short?

Sometimes my insecurities take a different tack, and I wonder if people see my attention to detail — my reflectiveness, my need to understand all of life, to pin it all down — as too ponderous.   Other writers seem to move lightly from one smooth bit to another.  Why did I have to pack so much into one book?

In every reading I still see my hard work, the time spent polishing, smoothing the edges.  With the help of my writer’s group I have learned to revise, to make each sentence work, and I am grateful for that as I speak the characters out loud. 

In every reading I see Heather’s gorgeous illustrations, her tremendous skill, her love of these characters.

All the writing and readings, all the insecurities and gratitude, all the learning — I put it all together, my less-than-perfect offering, and hope it’s enough.


By January 2013, the first 200 copies of the book have sold, mostly to our network of unschooling families and to members of the United Church of Christ congregations that support UCOM.  In April we appear on a local news show.  The host’s natural warmth brings out our best, and Bruce and I chat comfortably about uncomfortable things.  One in four children in our county live in poverty, with all that entails: hunger, not knowing where their next meal is coming from, a tenuous sense of safety, moving when the rent comes due, changing schools and the resulting educational difficulties.  Twenty-five percent. 

We say this on TV, under the bright lights, for the world to hear.  It is a prayer.

French Toast for Maleek is available on Amazon and on the UCOM web site.

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