Archive for Current Events

10 Things I Love (March 31st Edition)

 

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Blogs are dead, everybody knows it, the tweet spread the news long ago. Nobody reads blogs anymore. These days it’s all Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and short, short, short.

I get it, I do. We’re all feeling the time squeeze.

But because I’m childishly oppositional, I refuse to give up my blog. And I’m keeping my 8-Tracks, too. I started this blog back in 2008, so we’ve become attached. I like to have readers, but I’m not sure I really need them. It wouldn’t stop me from writing. There’s something about the open-ended blog format that offers room to spread out and say things, however long it takes. Whether anyone listens or not.

My pal, illustrator Matthew Cordell, used to blog with enthusiasm. One of his recurring features was his monthly-ish “Top Ten” lists, where Matt randomly listed some of his recent enthusiasms. It could be a song, a book, a movie, or a type of eraser (Matt was weird about erasers). It was always fun to read.

So I’m stealing it.

Here are ten things I’ve recently loved:

 

THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM

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I visited Cleveland with my son, Gavin, to check out Case Western Reserve University. The following day, we headed over to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was spectacular in every way. (Except for: The Red Hot Chili Peppers? Really?) I’m a huge music fan, so it was perfect for me. I found the museum strangely moving in parts, my heart touched. I could see that rock music was big enough, and diverse enough, to offer a home to people from every walk of life.

CARRY ME HOME by Diane McWhorter

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Amazing, fascinating, and at times brutal Pulitzer Prize-winning book that’s stayed with me long after the last page. It provides a dense, detailed account of the civil rights struggle centered in Birmingham, Alabama. Martin Luther King, the Klu Klux Klan, Fred Shuttlesworth, George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover, Bobby Kennedy, Bull Conner, and more. One of those books that helps you understand America.

FAN MAIL . . . WITH ILLUSTRATIONS!

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I’ve been ridiculously fortunate in my career, in that I’ve received a lot of fan mail across the past twenty years. But I have to admit, I especially like it when those letters include a drawing. There’s just something about children’s artwork that slays me, every time. This drawing is by Rida in Brooklyn.

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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This book has been on my list almost since the day it came out — the buzz was instantaneous, and huge — but on a tip from a friend, I waited for the audiobook to become available through my library. Here, Ta-Nehisi Coates gives a powerful reading. It’s poignant to listen to an author reading his own words, particularly since this book is essentially a letter to his son.

“WINTER RABBIT,” a poem by Madeleine Comora

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We’re not here to bash Jack Prelutsky. Because, after all, Jack Prelutsky is hilarious. But, but, but. There are times when I worry that too many people think children’s poetry begins and ends with Mr. Prelutsky. That a poem for kids always has to be bouncy and fast and slight and funny, i.e., Prelutsky-ish. Well, here’s a poem I came across while reading Oh, No! Where Are My Pants? and Other Disasters: Poems, unerringly edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. I admire the heartfelt, beautiful sorrow of Comora’s poem. “I thought of his last night alone/huddled in a wire home./I did not cry. I held him close,/smoothed his fur blown by the wind./For a winter’s moment, I stayed with him.” The illustration is  by Wolf Erlbruch. Click on the poem if your eyes, like mine, need larger type.

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT

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I’m so grateful that I live near a cool, little movie theater that makes room for small foreign films such as this, a mind-blowing look at life on the Amazon, spectacularly filmed in black-and-white. Click here for more details.

THE AMERICANS

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My wife Lisa and I don’t watch hours of TV together, but we do like to have a show we can share. We’ve been a loss for a few months, but recently discovered season one of “The Americans” on Amazon Prime. We’re hooked.

DAVID BROMBERG: “SAMMY’S SONG”

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We have tickets to see Bromberg this coming weekend. He’s an old favorite of mine, first saw him in 1980 on Long Island. I’ve just rediscovered “Sammy’s Song,” which I haven’t heard in decades. What a chilling coming-of-age story, brilliantly performed. Oh, about that harmonica part? That’s Dave’s pal, Bob Dylan, with an uncredited guest turn.

JIGSAW JONES

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I just finished writing my first Jigsaw Jones book after a long time away. For many years, Scholastic had allowed the series to die on the vine, with book after book slowly going out of print. It’s been a crushing thing for me to stand by helplessly and watch. But with the help of my agent, I got back the rights, and now Macmillan has plans to relaunch the series. I am thrilled. There are more than 10 million copies of those books out there in world, and it seems like every second-grade classroom in America has a ragged copy or three. Writing the new book, The Case from Outer Space, was such a pleasure. It felt like being home again.

THE DAY THE ARCS ARRIVE

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For an author, it’s a special day, always, always. That book you’ve been toiling over for months, years, finally arrives in book form. Uncorrected, unfinished, but for the first time you can hold it in your hands — a book! — and think, “I did that!” Note: Arc = Advanced Reader’s Copy. The Courage Test, a middle grade novel, will be out for real in September.

BONUS SELECTION . . .

THE BARKLEY MARATHONS

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I love documentaries of almost any nature, but I can’t recommend this one highly enough. A pure joy, with twinkling mischievous wit and surprising heart, too. If you like running at all — or not! — see this movie. About the toughest, wildest, and weirdest race in the world. Catch it on Netflix Instant!

Book Signing at the OPEN DOOR Bookstore in Schenectady, Saturday @ 1:00, November 21!

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The flyer below gives you the facts.

Now for the honesty: Bookstore signings, for me, tend to be sad, dispiriting affairs. For the most part, nobody comes. I know I’m not the only author to experience this particular form of awfulness. Sitting there at the table, waiting, expectations low. I understand completely. Your lives are busy, the world has changed, it’s always at a bad time on the wrong day — and the fact is I’m just not that big of a deal (except for in my own mind, where I’m amazing!!!!).

Once in awhile, mostly as an act of good will & optimism — along with the gratefulness that comes with simply being invited — I say yes. And occasionally a scattered few do show up. A shy, young reader awkwardly arrives. We talk for a while. I sign a book, we take a photo, shake hands. And there for a few moments we achieve one good, pure thing in this shattered world of ours; it feels worthwhile, the coming together of a writer and a reader. True fact: I love to meet young readers. Book lovers. It gives me hope, makes me happy. Maybe it makes a small difference to somebody. At the very worst, I get to sit in a bookstore for an hour and a half. There are worse places to be.

See you there?

About these two books: THE FALL can be seen as a companion to BYSTANDER, deals with the fallout from cyberbullying, and is best suited for grades 6-up. SWAMP MONSTER is the 6th book in the “Scary Tales” Series, grades 2-5, and it’s simply a fast-paced, easy-to-read entertainment that even a reluctant reader can enjoy.

 

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Make Sure Your Teens Know About the 2nd Annual “ALBANY TEEN READER CON” — Coming This Saturday, October 17th!

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I'm excited to discuss my brand new book, THE FALL. "A heartbreaking and beautiful story about friendship, bullying, and the aftermath of all of it." -- Expresso Reads.

I’m excited to discuss my brand new book, THE FALL. “A heartbreaking and beautiful story about friendship, bullying, and the aftermath of all of it.” — Expresso Reads.

Middle school and high school students can connect a wide range of popular middle-grade and YA authors at the Second Annual Teen Reader Con on Saturday, October 17th, in Albany.

It will be a day-long celebration of teens and literacy designed to inspire and share a love of reading and writing — and it’s all free, sponsored by Capital Region BOCES. The event will run from 9:00 to 4:00 at the University at Albany Downtown Campus.

Featured authors:

* Jennifer Armstrong

* SA Bodeen

* Eric Devine

* Helen Frost

* David Levithan

* Jackie Morse Kessler

* James Preller

* Eliot Schrefer

* Todd Strasser

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It’s a pretty spectacular list, filled with accomplished, popular writers (and me). I’m bummed out that I will be giving three presentations, because what I really want to do is sit in the audience to listen to and learn from some of my friends (SA Bodeen, Todd Strasser), while making new discoveries.

Each author will sign books in addition to giving several presentations throughout the day. They work us like dogs at this thing. This is a very cool, inspiring event for readers 11 and up, and a really worthwhile way for teenagers to spend the day or just a few hours.

I’m honored to be invited.

Advanced registration is encouraged, but not required. Go here for more info.

 

This Saturday, Come Say Hello at the Fabulous Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival

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It will be a veritable cornucopia of . . .

a sumptuous who’s who of . . .

a delicious medley of . . .

Oh, just come. Bring the kids. And please, above all, bring the credit card! This is Chappaqua, after all.

This is a beautiful community event, one of the great ones in all the land, jam- packed with incredible (kind, generous, talented, bookish) people.

It’s a righteous scene, I’m telling ya!

Princeton Book Festival, September 19th!

 

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The lineup of authors and illustrators will make your head spin. Seriously, if you like children’s books at all — or if you just enjoy creativity & the arts in general — this is such a good scene smack in the heart of downtown Princeton. Check it out. And if you, please say hello.

My Year of Children’s Book Festivals

When it comes to children’s book festivals, this is my year for saying yes.

Which is not to diminish in any way my appreciation for being asked. There can be no “yes” until somebody extends the invitation. And for that I am grateful.

Even so, book festivals take me away from home, away from family, so it’s taken some time for me to embrace the idea of them. I mean, who is going to cut the lawn? Who is going to manage the baseball team? How can I sit around and do nothing when I am working at a book festival?

Here’s my schedule for the coming year. If you live nearby to any of these locations, come, please, and say hello. Or make a little trip — you won’t regret it. If you’ve never been to a children’s book festival before, you really should. Bring the kids. It’s always an inspiring scene.

Think of all the time most of us spend driving our children to various activities. Soccer practice, track, sleepovers, bowling parties, etc. Why not spend an afternoon sharing the excitement of books with your children? And in doing so, saying, “This matters, this is important, this is fun. Books, reading, the arts.”

 

HUDSON CHILDREN’S BOOK FESTIVAL

HCBF_logo_cmykLove the people who put this one together. From the website: “The Hudson Children’s Book Festival, established in 2009, strives to create, sustain, and nurture a culture of literacy in partnership with our community and schools. This free, public event fosters a love of reading as families meet and greet world-class creators of books for children of all ages.” May 2, Saturday. 

 

THOUSAND ISLAND’S BOOK FESTIVAL

I was able to travel up to this area last year and fell in love with it (yes, I was not there during the winter-tundra season). I got invited to this small, intimate festival and I’m looking forward to it. June 6, Saturday.

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PRINCETON CHILDREN’S BOOK FESTIVAL

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Boy, I was so happy to be invited to this one, just a legendary festival smack in the middle of a great town. This will be my second time (it’s always nice to be invited back!). Such a cool vibe — and the after-party was good, too. A backyard, good food, and a fire: my kind of jam. September 19, Saturday.

 

WARWICK CHILDREN’S BOOK FESTIVAL

Welcome2-300x225A new one on me! I’m looking forward to checking it out, making new connections. At this point, I’m not even exactly sure how to get there. No worries, I’ll bring an audiotape in the car and enjoy the ride. September 26, Saturday.

 

 

 

CHAPPAQUA CHILDREN’S BOOK FESTIVAL

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This festival began as the beloved “Children’s Book Day” Festival and it used to take place at Washington Irving’s “Sunnyside” along the Hudson River. Historic and beautiful. It’s since been moved, with new organizers, but the essence is still there. October 3, Saturday.

 

bff036d2d5e67a5efad6f19dccfc3337ROCHESTER BOOK FESTIVAL

This one has come to feel like a true family affair, the rare festival where the authors and illustrators and organizers all come together to hang out, lift a glass, and share a laugh. This will be my third time. I feel fortunate to be a part of it, because every year I am reminded of what it means to be a children’s author, the privilege, the responsibility, and the joy. November 7, Saturday.

 

My New Poster, My New Book

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I purchased this poster online the other day from the Syracuse Cultural Workers website. I found them by tracking down the poster, as I’d seen the image before. SCW is a “Publisher of Peace and Justice Products” since 1982.

What can I say? The poster spoke to me. Now I’m waiting for it to arrive in the mail, and wishing that I could afford to frame it properly. (Oh discretionary funds, where have you gone?)

But: Isn’t it beautiful? I really do believe the world needs changing.

As a writer, I’ve taken that big leap with the book I’m currently finishing up (DEAD, BUT CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC, Macmillan, 2016), allowing political thought to enter the story. The real world, pressing in around us. I feel badly about the world these young people have inherited. Their work is cut out for them.

At the same time, I’m excited to feel my voice rise up in my throat, to hear it enter the discussion — maybe touch a few hearts and minds, a chance to say something meaningful about the real world.

Who Needs a Librarian Anyway?

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NOTE: I wrote this post in January, 2009, six years ago, and it troubles me to realize that everything I cautioned about is now more dire than ever. We are failing our school libraries — undervaluing our librarians — and failing our children. Over the past six years, things have only gotten worse. It is certainly true in my town of Delmar, NY, where full-time, elementary school librarians are a thing of the (not-too-distant) past. It’s a shame, a pennywise educational policy that undermines the core mission of our schools. In other words: Idiocy!

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My local community is in a minor state of upset over a recent School Board decision to NOT replace a retiring elementary school librarian, who stepped down on January 30, 2009.

On a personal note, the retiring librarian in question, Nancy Smith, was the first school librarian in my community to reach out to me as an author. She was always supportive and enthusiastic. But not just to me. Nancy was (and still is) beloved by many students at Elsmere Elementary in Delmar, New York. Her daily presence has been a huge asset to that school, and she’s enriched the lives of countless students.

But times are hard. And budget cuts are necessary. So with Nancy’s impending retirement, the Board quietly decided that Elsmere could do without an everyday librarian. Instead, a revolving door of visiting librarians — or media specialists, if you prefer — from district schools have been told to fill in the gaps as best they can.

This issue goes beyond my little patch of earth here in Delmar, New York. It touches the core of the kinds of budgetary decisions that are going to be made in schools across the country. Many difficult cuts are ahead for all of us, with communities forced to make painful decisions. All of us will be asked to make sacrifices. Every school is going to wonder: Who needs a librarian anyway?

In dealing with this issue, Nancy helped steer a group of parents to a valuable resource: The AASL Crisis Toolkit. I recommend that you give it a look-see. It begins:

If you are looking at the AASL Crisis Toolkit, chances are your program is danger of being reduced or eliminated. This kit is designed to assist you as you build meaningful and effective support for saving your program. That means educating and rallying stakeholders to speak out on behalf of school libraries.

If cuts are not imminent, visit AASL’s School Library Program Health and Wellness page for prevention strategies. The ideal time to start advocacy efforts is before there is a crisis.

The kit is remarkably comprehensive, and includes topics such as “Crisis Planning,” “Crafting Messages,” “Getting People Involved,” “Research,” “Advocacy,” and more. There are also handy links to studies that have found correlations between library programs, media specialists, and test results.

In any event, none of this is easy, and none of it is clear. Except that this is only the tip of the iceberg. In an article by Jarrett Carroll, published in the January 28, 2009 issue of The Spotlight (our small, local paper), titled “Elsmere Won’t Hire Librarian,” there are many salient quotes (sorry, I can’t provide a link at this time):

A group of residents protested a move by the school district to not replace the elementary school librarian when the current one has retired — a move that district officials said is necessary as the school tries to rein in spending in the face of state aid cuts.

Commented Superintendent Michael Tebbano, in language that is going to become all too familiar:

“This is going to be a big crisis we’re trying to manage, and it’s going to get worse. Realistically, the $30,000 or so we save will not solve the fiscal crisis, but I do have a fiduciary responsibility to the district.”

The article continued:

Board of Education President James Lytle called the current economic crisis “the real deal,” and echoed Tebbano’s sentiments on the situation.

“I hope the parents and children of Elsmere give this a fair chance,” he said of the librarian situation. “I’m afraid, like what Mike said, this could be the first taste of what’s to come.”

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Buckle in, folks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Attend meetings, get informed. And if you believe in the value of school librarians, get prepared to answer the question: Who needs a librarian anyway? Answer it with facts. Answer it with passion. And most of all, get organized, and answer it with a chorus of voices. Tough times ahead.

WHO

NEEDS

A LIBRARIAN

ANYWAY?

Ten Amazing Tips on Being an Artist, from Sculptor Teresita Fernandez

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“Being an artist is not just about what happens

when you are in the studio. 

The way you live, the people you choose to love

and the way you love them, the way you vote,

the words that come out of your mouth…

will also become the raw material

for the art you make.” — Teresita Fernandez.

 

 

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A friend passed along a terrific interview with a sculptor whose name I didn’t recognize, Teresita Fernandez. It turns out that she currently has a show at nearby Mass Moca (see video at bottom), so I’m hoping to experience it. (Road trip, anyone?) Credit for the interview goes to Maria Popova at Brain Pickings; just follow the link, like Dorothy’s yellow brick road, and you’ll get there to read it in full: a wise and thoughtful piece.

At the conclusion of the article, Teresita offers a brief list of practical tips for emerging artists. I think the general wisdom — and moreso, the warm humanity expressed here — makes it worth reading for absolutely anybody. I love that she does not separate her art from her life, or from any life. It is of a piece, a life’s work entire.

Here’s some examples of Teresita’s truly awesome work, sprinkled throughout.

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1) Art requires time — there’s a reason it’s called a studiopractice. Contrary to popular belief, moving to Bushwick, Brooklyn, this summer does not make you an artist. If in order to do this you have to share a space with five roommates and wait on tables, you will probably not make much art. What worked for me was spending five years building a body of work in a city where it was cheapest for me to live, and that allowed me the precious time and space I needed after grad school.

2) Learn to write well and get into the habit of systematically applying for every grant you can find. If you don’t get it, keep applying. I lived from grant money for four years when I first graduated.

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3) Nobody reads artist’s statements. Learn to tell an interesting story about your work that people can relate to on a personal level.

4) Not every project will survive. Purge regularly, destroying is intimately connected to creating. This will save you time.

5) Edit privately. As much as I believe in stumbling, I also think nobody else needs to watch you do it.

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6) When people say your work is good do two things. First, don’t believe them. Second, ask them, “Why”? If they can convince you of why they think your work is good, accept the compliment. If they can’t convince you (and most people can’t) dismiss it as superficial and recognize that most bad consensus is made by people simply repeating that they “like” something.

7) Don’t ever feel like you have to give anything up in order to be an artist. I had babies and made art and traveled and still have a million things I’d like to do.

8) You don’t need a lot of friends or curators or patrons or a huge following, just a few that really believe in you.

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9) Remind yourself to be gracious to everyone, whether they can help you or not. It will draw people to you over and over again and help build trust in professional relationships.

10) And lastly, when other things in life get tough, when you’re going through family troubles, when you’re heartbroken, when you’re frustrated with money problems, focus on your work. It has saved me through every single difficult thing I have ever had to do, like a scaffolding that goes far beyond any traditional notions of a career.

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“UNBROKEN”: Worst Movie Trailer Ever . . . Or World’s Greatest Two-Minute Film?

I have not read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Despite various conversations and recommendations, almost the entire sum of what I know about the movie comes from the following 2:40 trailer. Now I consider myself an expert. Because the trailer appears to tell me everything, and explains everything, to the point where I’m not sure I need to see the two-hour film anymore. Which is a bummer, because I was looking forward to it. This is a common enough complaint, by the way: trailers that tell far too much. The idea is to get me, the potential consumer, interested in seeing the movie — to entice a purchase — not to summarize the whole thing. This trailer strikes me as particularly egregious. Let’s take a look:

0:07: Our hero is in the air force during WW II, flying over the ocean, which he observes is very large. “Lotta ocean,” he says. He’s not a pilot and he’s not a gunner. He’s a . . . something else.

0:20: After a tense and dramatic aerial dogfight, in which our hero acts bravely — “Inbound! Three o’clock!” — the plane is shot down and crashes into the aforementioned large ocean. All these shots look exciting and well-filmed.

0:32: Brief pause. The story REWINDS and we hear our hero reflect upon his childhood, specifically the positive influence of his older brother. Nonetheless, our hero gets into fights and various sorts of mischief and draws the attention of local law enforcement. He’s on the road to nowhere. The kindly older brother solemnly advises our hero, “If you keep going the way you are going, you’ll end up in the street.”

0:35: Cut to our hero in a track meet, where he overcomes bullies (who cheat!) to come from behind to win a race. The brother’s sage advice plays over the footage: “You train, you fight harder than those other guys, and you win.”

0:43: We see him racing what “might be the fastest final lap in Olympic history”; his family is at home, listening to the race over the radio, ecstatic and proud, because this is also a movie about family values.

0:46: VOICE-OVER MESSAGE: “If you take it, you can make it.”

0:48:  Type on screen informs me that this is based on an “extraordinary” true story.

FLASH FORWARD: Back to the plane crash.

1:00: Awesomely cool underwater sequence of plane crash (somebody learned from “Cast Away” starring Tom Hanks). Our hero once again demonstrates bravery and determination.

1:05: Three soldiers on a life raft. It does not look good. There’s at least one shark in the water. The weather absolutely sucks and they eventually get philosophical about life. One suggests out loud that they are going to die. Our hero is like, nuh-huh, “We’re not dying.” He does not accept defeat.

1:13: Our hero, despite horrific experiences clinging to life on the (large) ocean, still keeps a good sense of humor. “I have some good news, and some bad news.”

1:20: They are taken prisoners of war as “enemies of Japan.” Just the worst luck ever. Our hero is beaten and tortured.  There is a sweet-faced guard who is particularly cruel to our hero. There might be a love-hate element here, just the way he focuses on our hero, but it’s hard to tell in only a few seconds.

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1:32: Whoa, holy crap. He takes a terrific blow to the face right there — singled out because he is an Olympic athlete, and presumably an embodiment of all that is noble about American toughness and spirit. Our hero, we know by now, is not going to stay down.

1:50: After a series of increasingly grim shots of POW camp — with emotional music swelling in the background — our hero says out loud: “If I can take it, I can make it.” Ah-ha, that must be the theme of the movie! A great spirit surviving against all odds. I think I’ve got it. Plus, um, all the family love that makes it possible.

1:58: An insanely long line of prisoners awaits their turn to punch our hero in the face, as he urges them to punch him, presumably out of some sort of self-sacrificing nobility: “Come on, come on!” This, again, seems exceptionally brutal and painful to watch.

TYPE ON SCREEN: “THIS CHRISTMAS.”

2:00: Oh, great. Torture for Christmas! Let’s bring the kids, honey.

2:04: Wait, what? Does Minnie Driver play his mother? No, I don’t think so, but it looked like her for a second. Too bad, I like Minnie Driver. Carry on!

2:07: We finally learn our hero’s name, Louie, and that he loves his parents. A lot. Assorted shots of his family back home, feeling his absence. Oh look, there might even be a romantic interest in this movie, he’s just smooched somebody.

TYPE ON SCREEN: “NEVER GIVE IN.”

unbroken-movie-poster-2-378x6002:15: Okay, got it. He does not give up, and neither should we.

2:20: Cruel guard has Louie hold a huge piece of lumber that looks like a beam, clearly an allusion to the crucifixion of Christ. The guard says, “If he drops it, shot him.”

2:25: Another montage of shots of Louie’s  life, demonstrations of his strength, love, and character. At this point, we’re all 100% positive that he won’t drop it. Not going to happen. Music gets louder now, a chorus kicks in, the other prisoners root for our hero, whose strength and determination clearly inspires them.

2:32: More shots of triumph and familial love. Amazingly, he presses the huge piece of lumber over his head with arms fully extended. Rocky Balboa!

2:37: Final shot is of light bursting through the clouds, which can be viewed as either religious or secular, depending.

TYPE ON SCREEN: “UNBROKEN”

MORE TYPE ON SCREEN: “ALL MY LIFE I HAD ALWAYS FINISHED THE RACE.” — LOUIS ZAMPERINI

Quibble: This quote seems fairly pedestrian for a big final quote. It’s not very poetic, profound, or memorable. But maybe it’s there because Louie was really just a simple kind of guy with basic American values. Not a poet, but everyman.

TYPE ON SCREEN: COMING SOON.

FINAL CREDITS, the end.

Too bad, I barely finished chewing one Milk Dud. Louis Zamperini seems like an amazing, resilient  person who lived an extraordinary life. Wow. I’m so glad I saw that trailer!