You Gotta Read This

A story of how loss can add insight

By HOLLY ATKINS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2003


Rain is not my Indian name, not the way people think of Indian names. But I am an Indian, and it is the name my parents gave me."

-- Rain is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith

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Protected from the mid-winter mist that fell softly on the scrub palms and slash pines outside, the You Gotta Read This Book Club gathered inside the new Learning Center at the Weedon Island Preserve in St. Petersburg. Here American Indians of the Tampa Bay Estuary found a home rich in shellfish to nourish their bodies. We found a place to share a book that nourished our souls.

* * *

Alexa: I loved the book! I really liked how at the beginning of the chapter it started out with a page from her journal, and so after that you could see what was really happening (in the story). So it ties in with what she's thinking in her journal.

Andy: I thought opening the chapters with a page from her journal was okay. The part I didn't like was the way it started. You felt a ton of pity for the main character, but it did get better near the end.

Mrs. Atkins: So you don't think that was a good way to start getting to know this main character, Rain?

Andy: No, not really. I thought that maybe she could have started the book six months after Galen's death, and then use the entries from the journal to tell about his death.

Alexa: I liked the way it started. You could feel Rain's pain. It helped me connect with her right away.

Hayley: I like the beginning, but I would have liked to have gotten to know Galen better before he died.

Andy: I felt like I had a pretty good picture of Galen in my mind, and knew what he was like, but then in the next chapter the author has him get killed. That kind of bugged me. But, then again, if she had started the book with Galen having already died then there wouldn't have been any difference between his death and Rain's mother's death. They both would have been part of her past. So maybe it really did need to start out this way.

Mrs. Atkins: Rain reminded me in many ways of Toby in When Zachary Beaver Came to Town. Rain's first love, Galen, dies. Toby's friend/brother-he-never-had, Wayne, dies. The only way either of them can deal with this kind of overwhelming pain is to block it out. Like not going to the funerals.

Hayley: And Rain hid behind her camera. She realizes she has been doing that near the end of the book on page 126. "When I'd finally picked up my camera again, I'd used it as a wall instead of as a window."

Mrs. Atkins: I think that in the last section of the book Rain comes to understand a lot. She is definitely a dynamic character -- one that changes from the beginning of the book to the end.

Alexa: Yeah, I think Rain is much more appreciative of the people in her life. Now that she's going to be an aunt and a sister-in-law, she starts to bounce back after the death of her best friend and can start looking on the brighter side of life again.

Hayley: Her wounds after Galen were still so fresh. In the July 4 journal entry she writes about going to the cemetery where Galen and her mother are buried. She visits her mother's grave, but not Galen's. "Finally, I left without stopping by Galen's grave. The wound from losing Mama was deeper, but the one from losing Galen was still too fresh. Next time, maybe."

Mrs. Atkins: I think that scene helped keep the book from having one of those "and they all lived happily ever after" endings. Rain is moving toward healing and dealing with the way things have changed, but we know that, just like in real life, it's still going to take some time. Much more like real life.

Alexa: I think Rain really learned that whatever happens, happens. She can't really change it. She learns to accept all the bad things that have happened and move on.

Mrs. Atkins: When Natalie moves in and starts changing her mother's room, Rain has a really hard time dealing with this, doesn't she? Then she learns to accept it. But what about Queenie -- is Rain able to come to terms with her?

Alexa: In one of her journals Rain talks about Queenie: "With a best friend, there's a commitment. A second-best friend is trickier. Nothing's more dangerous than an ex-second-best friend."

Hayley: Sometimes the ways the author opened the chapters were really funny. I loved phrases like, "Sometimes, I need a box of Cracker Jacks."

Andy: I liked how Aunt Georgia always had her Pez container with her.

Mrs. Atkins: Why'd you like that?

Andy: Because I've pretty much grown up on Pez. I think that Pez is one of the best candies ever. Aunt Georgia just reaches into her backpack and pulls out her Pez dispenser and gives some to each of the kids at the Indian Camp. This and the fact that she always had food for all the kids in the camp showed me what a caring character she was.

Alexa: I think the author weaves Aunt Georgia throughout the story. You really get to know her. And she's in Rain's journal a lot too. I think she's trying so hard to get Rain to come out and not hide behind her camera and try to open up more after Galen's death.

Hayley: I agree. She's just so positive and bubbly all the time -- like when she gets her hair colored "tomato-red," and always having Elvis on.

Alexa: Yeah, she's good for Rain because she's so easy going.

Mrs. Atkins: I think Elvis and Aunt Georgia are a perfect match! What about other mentions of music in the book?

Andy: I liked how Rain knew whether or not her brother had a deadline to meet by what kind of music he was playing. If it was Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell CD, he had a deadline.

Hayley: The author makes reference to a lot of famous people I'd like to do some research on and get to know who they were.

Mrs. Atkins: Like when her brother has a book on Billy Mills opened up on his printer?

Hayley: Yeah.

Mrs. Atkins: Were any of you confused about the use of both "Indian" and "Native American" in this book? My daughter and I had a big discussion about this, and she claims only people from India are correctly referred to as Indian.

Andy: Yeah, I saw that in there. I think the term "Indian" was mostly used between the Native Americans in the book. When the other people in the community, like the city council members, talk about them they use the term Native American.

Mrs. Atkins: I asked Leitich Smith, who's a mixed blood, enrolled member of the Muscogee Nation, about this issue. She said, "Many people from the community have a preference for one over the other. Some don't care." What about Natalie? What was she like in terms of fitting in with the other characters in the book? Leitich Smith describes her as "the single-ish mom who looks like a china doll and dresses like a lumber jack."

Alexa: I think she fit in well. I think she and Fynn eventually will get married; they just put the wedding on hold because everything started moving too fast for them. They realized what a really big responsibility it was to have a baby.

Mrs. Atkins: We start off the book with the death of Galen, then we find out about the death of Rain's mom, the dad's off living far away from his family, the grandfather's out having a good old time in Las Vegas with Clementine. All these significant adults are gone, but then here comes this baby. A baby really signifies the future, right? Kind of helps Rain bridge her past and her future.

Andy: Natalie and Fynn had to be sort of substitute parents for Rain.

Mrs. Atkins: Yeah. Rain and Fynn had such a great relationship. I like how he was such a constant figure, an anchor in her life. She had so much change -- but she could always count on Fynn. Out in his "Domain." Let's fast-forward to Rain one year after the book ends. Tell me about her.

Alexa: I think that Galen's death isn't as fresh anymore. So I think she really has gotten over it a year from now. She'll still look at the Web page now and then, and remember everything about him, but without as much pain.

Andy: Exactly one year from now, next Independence Day, she'll go back to the cemetery and take flowers for Galen and her mom.

Hayley: And she'll still remember that kiss that she talks about in the last line of the book. "Sweeter because it didn't taste like goodbye."

-- Author's Note: Read an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith, the author of Rain Is Not My Indian Name, where she answers questions from the You Gotta Read This Book Club on the Newspaper in Education's Web site.

Meet the You Gotta Read This Book Club Gang!

Hayley Germack, 13, is in eighth grade at Bay Point Middle School. She enjoys reading stories of war and mystery and is writing a book, Kidney Stones For Kids. Hayley is a monthly contributor to the Newspaper in Education's "Who's Reading What" series.

Alexa Volland, 11, is in fifth grade at Melrose Elementary. She enjoys books that have lots of subplots. She also has a love for the theater and for reading scripts.

Andrew Wright, 13, is in eighth grade at Seminole Middle School. Andrew is a former X-team member who enjoys reading. His favorite book is I Robot by Isaac Asimov. Andrew likes playing the guitar and fencing.

Holly Atkins teaches seventh-grade language arts at Southside Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg.

Want to learn more about her favorite young adult books? Check out Mrs. Atkins' class Web site at http://home.tampabay.rr.com/mrsatkins -- click on "Read Any Good Books Lately?"

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