Dream Me Home Safely: Writers on Growing Up in America

Dream Me Home Safely: Writers on Growing Up in America

by Susan Richards Shreve, Marian Wright Edelman President

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In the title essay of this extraordinary keepsake of childhood in America, John Edgar Wideman pays fierce tribute to a complex mother who "used to dream me home safely by sitting up and waiting for me to stumble in." The young writer Bich Minh Nguyen remembers arriving in Michigan from Vietnam in 1975 and a classmate who said, "Your house smells funny," and


In the title essay of this extraordinary keepsake of childhood in America, John Edgar Wideman pays fierce tribute to a complex mother who "used to dream me home safely by sitting up and waiting for me to stumble in." The young writer Bich Minh Nguyen remembers arriving in Michigan from Vietnam in 1975 and a classmate who said, "Your house smells funny," and Michael Parker recalls a sister's vivid -- and hilarious -- act of defiance on a particular North Carolina evening in 1971. These and many more intensely intimate memories make Dream Me Home Safely a collection as diverse and powerful as all of American letters.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This collection constitutes a memorable portrait of coming-of-age in America." Booklist, ALA
Publishers Weekly
In today's diverse society, it's no longer possible for an individual voice to capture a singular American view of childhood. Dissimilar experiences can each sound uniquely American, such as the stability of Patricia Elam's refreshingly functional family, in which "the only thing that distinguished us from the families on Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best... was our brown skin"; the quiet confusion of Michael Patrick MacDonald, who "decided that `normal' certainly meant something somewhere out there, beyond... where we lived"; or the poignant isolation of Nina Revoyr as the only Japanese child in Marshfield, Wis. This collection successfully gathers many voices, completing an impassioned picture of growing up in America. Thirty-four authors, including Chang-rae Lee, Alice Walker and John Edgar Wideman, lyrically portray their younger years. Each piece-whether describing the bluffs of Illinois, the movie houses of Paris, Tex., or Christmas in Alabama-illustrate how childhood informs adulthood. As Lisa Page writes, as we age, "the child remains, transcended, often denied, but there all the same, hiding beneath our business suits, our corporate uniforms, the camouflage we wear to communicate our grown-up selves." While most essays are magical, a few are forced and the flow of the anthology suffers from its alphabetical, rather than thematic, organization. But these are easily overlooked flaws in this beautiful compilation that proves that "childhood, of course, never ends." (Oct. 22) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
This unique collection of stories, vignettes and scraps of memories from childhood captures what it has been like to grow up in America. The authors come from a wide range of backgrounds and from different parts of America, yet there is a commonality to all of their stories as well as a sense of how distinct each of our childhood experiences are. Some of the authors are well known, such as the editor, Susan Richards Shreve, Anna Quindlen, and Alice Walker, but some of the most poignant writing comes from young authors, like Bich Minh Nguyen, especially those who came to America from a different culture and made the adjustment. Most stories reveal how important it is to be like everyone else as a child, but many are about the moment when the child discovers the importance of being unique. "Foreigner in Marshfield" is an example of how being different often teaches a child important lessons about being yourself. This collection is excellent for many reasons and it attempts to give all races and ethnic backgrounds equal time. KLIATT Codes: JSA*—Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Houghton Mifflin, Mariner, 223p., Ages 12 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Library Journal
The Children's Defense Fund (CDF) is dedicated to the mission of "leaving no child behind," especially those who are poor, disabled, or minority. This collection of 34 essays, assembled in celebration of the organization's 30th birthday, provides a balanced blend of essays on childhood contributed by such authors as Joyce Carol Oates, Anna Quindlen, and Alice Walker. All of the essays are highly readable and of high quality, even when the contributor is not as well known. And since each piece represents a unique experience, the essays may be read in random order. From the sweetness of Tina McElroy Ansa's "The Center of the Universe" to the poignancy of Alexis Pate's "Innocence Found," the collection teems with memorable narratives. Especially moving are the stories told in the first person, with a hint of nostalgia for childhood. Many feature children living in poverty or with less than ideal parents, but the tone never sinks to cynicism. A foreword by CDF founder and president Edelman rounds out the text. With such a low price and proceeds going to an excellent cause, this work is recommended for all collections.-Jan Brue Enright, Augustana Coll. Lib., Sioux Falls, SD Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
(w) x (h) x 0.56(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt


I am so grateful for this book celebrating the Children’s Defense Fund’s thirtieth anniversary. This gift of thirty-four extraordinary American writers sharing their stories of growing up in America paints a complex, richly detailed, and achingly real portrait of American childhood. Every reader will catch glimpses of his or her own childhood and see the childhoods of others with new eyes.
Tina McElroy Ansa remembers her nurturing black Georgia family and community as a world “made up of stories,” and listening at her mother’s side “as she whipped up batter for one of her light-as-air, sweet-as-mother’s- love desserts.” In a town on Chicago’s North Shore, Mary Morris learns early on how girls and women can get into “trouble,” while boys and men escape blame — and, since she is a girl, she makes an exit plan, just in case. Michael Patrick MacDonald sees his father’s face for the first time at his funeral and leaves the service with a renewed appreciation for the family he does have and the unspoken community of love and loyalty that surrounds him in his poor and desperate “white trash” South Boston neighborhood: “For once in my life I felt I should be proud of where I came from, who I was, and who I might become, and for a moment was ashamed for having ever felt otherwise.” Lois-Ann Yamanaka writes about trying not to panic when the autistic son she loves so fiercely sees balloons in the supermarket checkout line, knowing the moment is about to escalate into a .t of frustrated screaming and thrashing that will force her to drag him from the store while other customers stare in disgust: “In JohnJohn’s world, I can afford to buy him every balloon on every trip to the market. In JohnJohn’s world, he takes all of the shiny balloons home to our yard full of white ginger blossoms and lets all of them go . . . [a] moment of beauty, his silent freedom.” Anna Quindlen looks at the overscheduled lives of today’s children and mourns what’s been lost: “Pickup games. Hanging out. How boring it was. Of course, it was the making of me, as a human being and a writer. Downtime is where we become ourselves, looking into the middle distance, kicking at the curb, lying on the grass or sitting on the stoop and staring at the tedious blue of the summer sky. I don’t believe you can write poetry or compose music or become an actor without downtime, and plenty of it, a hiatus that passes for boredom but is really the quiet moving of the wheels inside that fuel creativity.” Alan Cheuse writes about his especially fortunate circumstances growing up on the water: “I don’t know how it would have been, born into a town without a coastline . . . The ebb and flow of waters, the detritus, flotsam, treasures left behind on the sand, the marine life, fresh water and salt mingling in the tides, the sound of buoys on summer nights, bells, horns, the ships anchored within sight of our playlands: the hope this gives you as a child, there is almost no explaining.” And in another world, Julia Alvarez dreams of someday being able to turn her life story into a book another little girl might want to read — “a girl like me, no longer frightened by / the whisperings of terrified adults, / the cries of uncles being rounded up, / the sirens of the death squads racing by.” As singular as every one of these stories of childhood is, common threads run through them, linking experiences across race, class, and geography. The role of many memorable adults who stand up for children is striking. I hope readers will recognize people like them in their own lives: Alexs Pate’s mother, determined that her son will not be mistreated by teachers or led to believe he x FOREWORD is destined to be a “negative statistic,” on yet another determined march to the principal’s office in his defense; Anthony Grooms’s mother putting him and his sister to bed at Christmas to the sounds of Burl Ives and Nat King Cole; Robert Bausch’s father pretending to wake his six children up on Christmas morning by blaring Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller on the hi-.; Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s and Bich Minh Nguyen’s grandmothers, suspicious of the neighbors, the children’s friends, the toadstools in the front yard — any of the pieces of the outside world that might somehow bring their family harm. And John Edgar Wideman’s mother, sitting at her apartment window watching for the child out way too late, prepared to wait up as long as it takes to dream him home safely.
Reading these stories, we may wonder what our children will remember about us. Will we be remembered for doing everything we could to dream them home safely? Even ideal childhoods are marked with some degree of fear and uncertainty. Scary movies, bullies, illness, and death are timeless. But while generations throughout history have often looked back to the times before them as simpler and mooooore innocent, in many ways childhood today may be more dangerous than ever. Pervasive cultural, domestic, and community violence, child abuse and neglect, drugs, high rates of hunger and homelessness, and tenuous family and community supports ravage the lives and dreams of countless young people. Community breakdown has coincided with a culture saturated with violence- and sex-filled images, and too many parents seek to meet children’s needs with things rather than time. Too many children are left alone to sort out the values promoted relentlessly by television, movies, and video games. Safety nets for children and families are being eroded as politicians place millionaires’ desires before children’s needs. And year by year it seems as if adults’ hold on our children’s hands and values is becoming looser and looser, so that too many children sink in the quicksand of materialism and spiritual poverty.
There are sad stories and painful memories in this collection, but also a great deal of hope, as seen in children’s resilience, their small kindnesses to other children, the writers’ ability to look back through the lens of time at the parents and siblings and houses and neighborhoods they were given and understand what true gifts these things were. And with all their accumulated flaws, the adults in these essays sometimes appear at their best, too, in stories of parents who hold on to their children through minor crises and major catastrophes, refusing to let go. May each reader learn to do the same for every one of our children, until collectively and individually we are able to dream them all home safely.
—Marian Wright Edelman

Copyright © 2003 by the Children’s Defense Fund. Foreword copyright © 2003 by MarianWright Edelman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVE has published thirteen novels, most recently A Student of Living Things. She is a professor of English at George Mason University and formerly cochair and president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. She has received several grants for fiction writing, including a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts award. Shreve lives in Washington, D.C.

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