Debbie Alvarez, Human Being Extraordinaire


Enter a caption

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.












Migrant School Visit

Dear Reader,

My life took a turn for the crazy in October, and I’ve been having one #AlvinHoAdventure after another! In fact, #AlvinHoAdventure is now on Instagram and Twitter so that you, too, can have a home for all your scary adventures, or read about mine 😉 !

Anyway, one thing lead to another, and by early November I was heading to my second Asia book tour this year!  This time I was invited to speak at the China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair in Shanghai and to help launch the Chinese version of my Alvin Ho books. You can see my photos of the book fair and my scary #AlvinHoAdventure by clicking on the Instagram icon on the right.

But here, I want to tell you about my final official appearance of the tour, because it was one of the highlights of my trip: a visit to a migrant school on November 18. What is a migrant school? Does it move? Does it go from place to place looking for students?  Here I am arriving at the school: IMG_3574The school is the white and green building in the back with the sign above my head that reads, from left to right, jiluolanxuexiao, which taken literally, says, “Purple Net Catching Birds Gracefully Elementary School. Or, the first three characters could be someone’s name for which the elementary school is named. I can’t tell which. The people along the road are buying and selling vegetables.

Here we are stepping into the first courtyard of the school. IMG_3575On the left is Selina Shen, the sub-rights agent from my Chinese publishing house, and also my invaluable translator. With her is our host, Rick, a businessman and leading reading advocate in China.

And here is the class inside, waiting for me.IMG_3577They are fifth-graders. They are all enthusiastic readers (see the well-worn books on their desks), and they love to practice their English. I was very impressed by their good manners and quick questions. One boy, sitting closest to the front door, immediately grabbed one of the Alvin Ho books that my publisher had brought, and started reading it to the class. It was the first time I’d heard Alvin in Chinese. It was fantastic!

Then I began my author talk in fluent, confident, speaking-like-a-native Mandarin. Here’s proof that I did so!IMG_3578TGFS! Thank God For Selina! because I used up my entire Chinese vocabulary in 10 minutes flat. Okay, maybe it was seven. And okay, maybe I have a funny little accent that makes people tilt their heads as if to shake my words out of their ears so that they can figure out which characters I was using, or meant to use. And sometimes, they even have to rearrange my words until they make sense. But that doesn’t keep me from trying! I LOVE speaking Mandarin. It makes me feel like a badass in a kung fu movie!

Look, they’re even gasping at my jokes!IMG_3579I digress.

The school was opened for migrant children. All the students here have followed their parents from their homes in the countryside to Shanghai to look for work. Though the parents may obtain permits to work in the city, mostly as laborers, factory workers and janitors, their children are barred from attending the city schools. And city children do not attend migrant schools. There are more than a hundred migrant schools set up, mostly by parents pooling their resources and hiring a few teachers, in poor neighborhoods on the edges of Shanghai. This school was founded by a wealthy businessman who located it close to a factory where many of the parents work. It is a private school, where no one pays tuition, and some of the teachers work for free.

This is their library.IMG_3595There is a computer and projector in the fifth-grade classroom, but resources are very limited.

This is their playground/track/basketball court/soccer field/all-in-one. It was donated by the basketball player, Yao Ming. IMG_3596As you can see, the asphalt is crumbling, but the students run right over it anyway. This area was packed with gym classes after I took the photo.

Though their resources were limited, their hospitality was not. Rick had treated me and Selina to a yummy lunch beforehand. At the school, the teachers prepared hot mugs of tea for us and shared this very interesting fruit: IMG_3576It looked like a HUGE grapefruit, the size of a melon!

After my presentation, the class filed into the courtyard to take a photo with me. Here they are lining up like dominoes, the class leader is at the front, facing his classmates, and using his arm as a plum line to straighten the queue:IMG_3582IMG_3583IMG_3586IMG_3594Success! The kids in the center of the back row are holding the new Alvin Ho books.

See the elevated track behind us? It’s the subway line that’s being extended into this area. The school is scheduled to be demolished next year to make way for the new line. No one at the school is aware of it yet, and Rick asked me not to mention it to the students or teachers. But since WordPress and Google are blocked n China, I will note it here, because it’s an important piece of the migrant family story.

This is what I learned from Rick, through Selina’s translation:

Will their wealthy benefactor build them a new school? Not likely.

Where will they go? Back to their villages to live with grandparents and to attend village schools. Before migrant schools were established, it was typical for migrant parents and their children to be separated for long periods. For the past 30 years or so, migrant, and often makeshift, schools have allow families to stay together, but only while the children are young because all of them are elementary schools.  When migrant children are older, they must return to their rural villages for their education, and for the gaokao, the university entrance exam that causes epic anxiety for every child and parent in China. [According to an online article in The Economist, Shanghai had 170,000 students enrolled in high school in 2010, but there were 570,000 migrant children aged 15-19 living in the city, unable to attend those schools.]

How well do they do on the gaokao in the village schools? If they’re good students, they can stand out among their peers in the rural areas, where there’s less competition.

How many of them actually make it into the top universities in China? None.

How many attend the lower-tier schools? None.

What are their job prospects? The same as their parents. Labor, construction, factory work, street sweeper, janitor.

I told Rick that my parents were also from the rural countryside in China. I am one of those kids. But my parents migrated to Seattle, instead of to Guangzhou, the closest metropolis to their villages. I was allowed to attend the city schools in Seattle. My host nodded and said that there’s a name for people like me (I’ll insert it here when I find it), someone who came from poverty, and found the golden ticket in education. They all want to be that, he said, but they have to find the golden ticket first.

This was the scene outside the school when I left: IMG_3598IMG_3600IMG_3599I never would have had a panda’s chance in hell.