Sheila O’Connor’s new book ‘Sparrow Road’ promotes the power of imagination
Ruhi, a Lake Harriet elementary school poet, wrote to “Loneliness” this spring, as if it were a friend: “The word peaceful describes you, you’re one unraveled shoe lace in the whole world.”
Ruhi is one of Sheila O’Connor’s poetry kids. The last 15 years O’Connor was poet-in-residence at Lake Harriet Community School, visiting on certain days every year, helping kids make “poems [that] were never expected to entertain. They were to come from the heart,” said Kathy Roberts, now teacher emeritus who helped to retain O’Connor, initially with a PTA grant. O’Connor’s career also brought her to Kenny Community School and others.
“She would tell them to ‘say it new,’” recalls Roberts. “She would talk about how the same old adjectives can become boring. She would challenge them to describe things in a new way. It was very successful. She had a way of guiding the kids to talk to their feelings of joy or surprise.”
O’Connor recently retired as a poet-in-residence but made an encore at Lake Harriet in April, on tour with her new book, “Sparrow Road.” It’s her third novel and her first for young readers.
She said the impetus for the book came for years of working with students.
“And it is, in its own secret way, filled with the things I have tried to pass on to kids — the importance of imagination and dreams, the power of finding your own voice and telling your own stories,” she said. “It is also a tribute to the power of the arts in young people’s lives.”
The book is about 12-year-old Raine, whose mother uproots her to take them to a mansion filled with artists, where the mother is to keep house.
O’Connor, a mother of two, dedicates this book like a fairy godmother: “Beloved children ~ I give you Sparrow Road.” O’Connor is a mother of two, and inspires many more.
“I am a laughing clown,” begins the poem “I Am,” by Lucas, another young Lake Harriet student. “… I am the north shore with everybody having fun … I am a rainbow with a pot of gold that somebody is looking for. I am the bright sun shining on an apple tree. I am words with an ! mark.”
Lucas wrote the poem with classmates when O’Connor re-visited Lake Harriet School, and parents were invited. She turned off the classroom fluorescents in the weak afternoon daylight, turned on her boom box of calming music, and asked everyone to put their heads down on their desk.
“It will be the best five minutes of your day,” she assured all. And according to some parents afterward, it was.
During her tenure, she “watched the kids grow up, go to college.” She hopes “Sparrow Road” will reach “all those kids and families who’ve been a part of this long tradition.”
Inside the quiet classroom, she tells her young students to use “magic and metaphors, instead of saying things in ordinary, predictable ways.”
Many of the young poets have caught on.
Will: “I wonder if aliens will take over … and make the humans slaves?”
Gavin: “Sometimes I wonder how old my mom is.”
Aaron: “Lonely–You are the dust with no corner.”
Lara: “Embarrassed–You are Sad’s cousin.”
Riley: “I know a place where it smells like the steaming smoke from the hot tub.”
“Sparrow Road” follows O’Connor’s first two novels — “Where No Gods Came” and “Tokens of Grace: A Novel in Stories.” She is an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, teaches in Hamline University’s master of fine arts program, and is fiction editor of “Water~Stone Review.”
O’Connor’s poet’s heart is intact on “Sparrow Road”, such as when Raine misses her grandfather immediately upon arrival at “haunted-mansion creepy.”
“I thought of Grandpa Mac standing sad-eyed at the station, the secret fifty-dollar bill he stashed in my back pocket,” she writes. “In case of an emergency, he warned, like he knew one was ahead.”
A reader may think the gods will show up this time.
Sheila O’Connor will read from “Sparrow Road” 7 p.m. June 3 at Wild Rumpus Book Store, 2720 W. 43rd St. The event is free and snacks will be provided.
Elissa Cottle is a freelancer writer who lives in Linden Hills.