"Reading REACHING FOR SUN is like taking slow bites from a piece of homemade lemon pie--sharp and sweet and honest, and at the end you wish there was more." 
---Linda Sue Park, Newbery Medal Winner
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author: Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

ISBN-13: 978-1599900377

ISBN-10: 1599900378

Hardcover: 144 pages

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books

Product Dimensions: 7.2 x 5 x 0.9 inches

Reading level: Ages 9-12



Josie Wyatt knows what it means to be different. Her family's small farmhouse seems to shrink each time another new mansion goes up behind it. Her mom is demanding, her gran is opinionated, and her father-well, she's never known him. Then there's her cerebral palsy: even if Josie wants to forget that she was born with a disability, her mom can't seem to let it go. Yet when a strange new boy-Jodan- moves into one of the houses nearby, he seems oblivious to all the things that make Josie different. And before long, Josie finds herself reaching for something she's never really known: a friend...and possibly more.  Interlinked free-verse poems tell the beautiful, heartfelt story of a girl, a proud family farm reduced to a garden, and a year of unforgettable growth.

Why did you choose to tell Josie’s story in verse rather than as a narrative?

Josie must choose her words carefully and so must poetry. It seemed natural and I feel more at home writing poetry than anything else.

What was the first poem you remember reading?

“I’m Nobody, Who Are You?” by Emily Dickinson. I found it at my grandparent’s house on one of the dusty bookshelves. It felt like I was wide awake for the first time.

What is it about poetry that inspires and motivates you?

Everything! The perfect word, or image, a metaphor that makes my head feel like a top—but especially how it makes you look at things differently. To pay attention to the smallest thing. To notice. Everything.


What advice do you have for aspiring poets?

Pack your brain with poetry. Read a hundred books or more of it and no one will have to teach you anything about it. You will already know.


You spent several years as a special education teacher. How did you get involved working with children with disabilities?

In my summers during college I worked at a YMCA summer camp in the only cabin for kids with disabilities. I loved how hard the kids tried to do anything, how easily they fell in love with anyone who showed them kindness, and their remarkable humor and willingness to laugh.


How did your experiences as a special education teacher inform your conception and development of Josie—her personality as well as her experiences and interactions in and out of school?

Many of my students didn’t realize they were different; they were kind of blessedly unaware. But I had a few students, like Josie, who knew they were on the outside of everything. These bright kids, stuck in bodies they felt betrayed them; I witnessed their daily courage and grace. I wanted to honor them in a story.


Do you see yourself, or anyone you know, in any of your characters?

Josie is a composite character, a girl in a blender from many of the students I had over the years: Carrie’s sensitivity to words, Sheila’s fears, Josh’s frustrations. And I’ve always had this feeling of being on the outside looking in, but perhaps we all feel that way, really.


Before reading Reaching for Sun, I, just as Josie’s peers do, assumed that cerebral palsy was a mental disability as well as a physical disability. But that’s not always the case. In your experience, what other misconceptions have you found people have about this or other disabilities?

That people with disabilities always need help. They can often manage independently and prefer to, just like you and me. Offer a genuine smile and speak directly to the person with a disability (not their caregiver) whether they can end up answering or not. I remind myself of this still.


Reaching for Sun is a lovely ode to nature. You’ve intertwined Josie’s story with that of her environment, mirroring her development and emotional state with that of the flora and fauna surrounding her. What inspired you to do so?

Josie has been raised with this deep connection to the earth and its seasons. And she’s naturally isolated as an only child, and on this odd property, and of course with her disability, so I thought of the plants as her companions, another character if you will.


What is your connection to nature?

Every day, growing up, I was out in nature—exploring the creek, fishing with my dad, discovering the acres on my cousin’s farm. I wish I spent more time in nature’s wide lap now but this foundation still greatly inspires my work.


Did you do any specific research on gardening and horticultural?

I learned a lot about peanuts and boll weevils but I have always been in love with the names of flowers— jack in the pulpit, columbine, wisteria, hollyhock.


The text of this novel is so spare and poignant yet it evokes such detailed images and feelings. Some writers may take paragraphs or pages to capture what you have in so few words. If you don’t mind my asking, what’s your secret to being able to say so much with so little?

I appreciate that, thank you so much. It’s no secret though. I start with a picture in my mind’s eye and try to put it into words, the fewest, most accurate words possible. I pare it down, and pare again.


Does your approach to writing reflect your approach to and outlook on life?

I try to be the real me, in person and on paper. Not what people want me to be or what I think they want, but who I am. I Try. I wish I succeeded more than I do.


Josie’s favorite meal is biscuits and gravy? What’s yours?

Chicken and dumplings the way my Granny Vaughn made them (though my twin can get them near perfect).


Were you close to your grandmother? Was she a good cook? A gardener?

I was lucky enough to have three Grandmas. We gave them nicknames to keep them straight. The one we called Grandma-down-the-street (Grandma Courtney) used to talk about books and ideas.  Grandma-with-the-dogs (Grandma Vaughn raised poodles) was all about the food—chicken and dumplings (even on Thanksgiving) and her homemade French fries. Grandma-with-the-boys (Granny was still raising my uncles when I was a kid) was the gardener—both flowers and veggies. She took care of us when mom worked and her house was like my own.


This is a story about a girl like most girls—she fights with her mother, has a crush on a boy, feels bullied by the popular girls—and for these reasons and more, Josie’s story will resonate with readers. Yet some may say this is a book about cerebral palsy rather than a book about a girl who happens to have cerebral palsy? How do you feel about that? What would you say to those who may try and box this book into a specific category?

I hope they read it first. Honestly, it will hurt my feelings just like it would Josie. See, that’s all most people notice when they meet someone like Josie but there’s so much more to her than just cerebral palsy and I hope there’s more to this book too! I hope readers see themselves in Josie and maybe even forget for a while that she has a disability at all.


Josie’s family has deep roots in the community having farmed the land for generations, and grandmother, mother and daughter each have their own way of staying connected to it. Do you have your own such place? What do you do to feel a part of your community?

I feel this sort of connection to the community where I grew up in Southwest Ohio. My whole family still lives there and sometimes I physically ache to go home where I could drive blindfolded, to walk on the block where my grandparents lived for 50 years. I try to feel a part of my new communities (we lived in Chesapeake, VA for several years and just relocated to Charlotte, NC) by doing programs in the schools and libraries. I still love to work with children!


What do you hope people take away from their reading of Reaching for Sun?

A seed of hope.


What is your motto?

Best words, best order.


What’s your favorite flower?

It used to be freesia, but I fell in love with poppies when they became part of Josie’s story.

Kirkus Starred Review

Josie’s cerebral palsy has made her an outsider at school, but at home she is one of three strong women with a rewarding routine. Her mother is working hard to become a landscape designer, leaving Gran to keep the home and garden blossoming. Events unfold in one free-verse poem after another with titles that hint at the narrative but usually work equally well at capturing one distinctive moment in time. Readers gradually learn about Josie and a new-found friend, Jordan, who sees a whole person, not just a disability. Gran becomes ill, Jordan tries out hanging with the in-crowd and Mom has to
adjust to new realities. Josie’s strength shines as she handles sadness and loss as well as recovery and progress. Readers living with a disability or trying to understand others seem like the target audience, but Josie’s voice has a universal appeal,"

From Booklist

"As if seventh grade weren’t enough of a challenge for anyone, Josie also struggles with cerebral palsy, social isolation, a mom she needs more time and support from, and monster bulldozers that seem to be carving up the countryside to build huge homes around her family’s old farmhouse. Enter new neighbor Jordan, a sensitive kid whose geeky, science-loving ways bring a fun spirit of discovery into Josie’s days. He melds with her and her family, especially the warm and wise Gram, and the friends create a kind of magic as they conduct all kinds of plant and pond experiments. Further challenges face Josie when Gram becomes ill and Jordan goes off to camp. Then, risking her mom’s wrath, Josie secretly ditches her hated therapy sessions; when mother and daughter eventually reconcile, Josie emerges from her rough patch in a believable and transforming way. Written in verse, this quick-reading, appealing story will capture readers’ hearts with its winsome heroine and affecting situations."

From School Library Journal

"Josie, a girl with cerebral palsy, lives on the shrinking farmland owned by her family for generations and now being sold to developers. Her mother works and attends college and her grandmother tends her diminished patch of land. The story is told in the seventh-grader’s voice in a series of free-verse poems. She is a bright and wry narrator, acutely aware of her limitations and her strengths. When Jordan, wealthy but neglected by his widowed father, moves into a mansion behind her farmhouse, they discover a common love of nature and science, and Josie finally has a real friend. She and her grandmother are both passionate about plants and gardening, and Zimmer does a nice job integrating botanical images throughout the novel. Josie feels like a “dandelion in a purple petunia patch” and thinks, “I must be a real disappointment–/stunted foliage,/no yield.” Through growing maturity and Granny’s wisdom, she gains confidence in herself. Reaching for Sun will have wide appeal for readers of diverse ability. Reluctant readers will be attracted to the seeming simplicity of the text, with short chapters and lots of white space on the page. They may not even realize that they are reading poetry. More sophisticated readers will find added enjoyment as they begin to appreciate the poetic structure and imagery. Readers of all levels will enjoy spending time with Josie and may gain an increased awareness of what it’s like to live with a disability."

From Horn Book

"Garden imagery wends its way through this eloquent free verse novel about a seventh-grade girl with cerebral palsy. Josie compares the sound of her voice to how ugly poppies look -- "hairy, grayish, saw-toothed foliage" -- before they bloom. The regal blossoms that finally emerge are a "prize for patience," and, similarly, she vows that "if I take all that trouble / to say something, / I promise / to try / to make it worth / the wait, too." But no one at her school bothers to see beyond her disability until a boy named Jordan, a guileless, hyperintelligent science nerd, moves into her neighborhood and marvels at her plant knowledge. While the portrayal of friendship between misfits is nothing new, Zimmer infuses Josie's story with distinctive auxiliary characters, such as Josie's resilient grandmother, who made the difficult decision to sell off most of her family farm in order to pay her daughter's college tuition and granddaughter's medical bills. Josie, her mother, and her grandmother live together on the small patch of land left, surrounded by housing developments, but maintaining a kind of oasis where, whatever hardships arise, they can still tend to their garden and to each other."

Schneider Family Book Award Winner

About the book:

Teacher Resources for this book:

  1. Available at Wild Geese Guides.

All rights reserved ⓒ 2010 Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

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