Archive for October, 2010

October 28, 2010

Leave the windows open for the bats

This was a Halloween present, and rightfully so, as the characters are bats, who are unfortunately mostly appreciated by the general populice only around the end of October as only as decorative designs. (Although, I think their rep is growing as people hang more bat houses to get rid of mosquitoes.)

But I love a book that uses a usually overlooked animal as its hero.  And Bats at the Library does just that.

Title: Bats at the Library
Author/Illustrator: Brian Lies
: Picture Book
Age: 0 – 7

Summary and Review:

It’s nighttime, and the bats have eaten and played.  They find they are, well, slightly bored.  But then a rumor spreads–a window has been left open at the library, so the fun is just about to begin!  There is storytime, shaddow puppets with the overhead projector, water play in the drinking fountain, illicit use of the copy machine, and imaginations running wild when the bats enter the magical world of storybooks.  It’s just about the best time at the library anyone could imagine, and the illustrations that accompany the story are fun and gorgeous–and, because this is a nocturnal story, darker and different from other picture book you may be more used to reading.

Brian Lies has a newer book out, too, Bats at the Ballgame, which you can preview here, and which I cannot wait to buy, as it has always been a goal of mine (and my toddler’s) to own every baseball book possible, and it is a newer goal of mine to own more of Brian Lies’s Bat books!  (There’s another one I haven’t seen about the beach as well.)

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

Well, for starters, you might have to explain what an overhead projector is.  Even to the older ones.  Maybe especially to the older ones–younger ones are used to technology they haven’t seen before.


The is a great book for learning how to notice detail in the illustrations.  What are the bats doing in each of the pictures?  Why do they hang upside down?  Why are the pictures so dark?  What kinds of books are the bats reading?  What kinds of games are the playing?  Ask your child to get involved with the pictures–not to merely glance at them, but to truly appreciate them and learn to be observant.  That’s the first thing their first science teacher is going to teach them, and it’s an important skill whether they grow up to be an ecologist, a photojournalist, or just an empathetic human being.  So teach them to really look, to watch, to make observations about the pictures and let you know what they are learning.


Ask them what they might do at the library if they were there all night long with no adults.  Or maybe ask them what they would do at the library if they were five inches tall.  Encourage your kids to think outside the comfort zone of normal ideas and really engage their imaginative muscle.  Like observation skills, the imagination is really good for future schooling, too.  And for being empathetic.  And painting.  And, unfortunately, probably useful in today’s journalism culture as well.

October 27, 2010

NaNoWriMo: DO try this at home!

No, this isn’t a book review, but it’s directly tied to parenting, books, and writing, which is all I’m thinking about these days.  November (which is VERY soon!) beings NaNoWriMo, which, for those not in the know, is National Novel Writing Month.  I’ve wanted to try this for awhile, but alas, this is not the year for me.  While I think it can be good to put down something you’re working on and trying something new for awhile, I need to finish the first draft of the book I’m on.

HOWEVER, it might be for you–or for your kid!  They have a young writer’s NaNoWriMo as well, and you can find it here:  If you have a middle school or high school-age kid that loves writing, they might enjoy this challenge.  It sounds like a lot: 50,000 words in one month?  But that is the whole point, and it is certainly doable.  Of course, you are sacrificing some quality, but that’s also the point, to get kids writing, to get them to see their ideas (both good and bad) in print and to get past those demons that stop you and make you edit so much along the way that you never finish what you are doing.  Of course, editing is good.  And that is something that you can never pound into a kid’s head enough times.  But in this case, at least, editing waits.  At least until December.


Tips for doing this with a student or child:

– Don’t start with a blank page–start with a list of questions.  Here are some examples:


– What kind of book do you want to write (adventure, scifi, romance, realistic fiction about school or life, etc.)?


– Think of three characters who will be in your book.  One should be a main character.  The others can be friends, parents, teachers, pets, enemies, friends-who-turn-into-enemies, enemies-who-turn-into-friends, etc.

– Give your characters names.  I think this makes them easier to visualize and helps you refer to them. I love looking at baby-naming websites to help me with this.  You can search for popular names or rare ones, for boy or girl names, for names from different countries of the world for international characters.

– For each character, think about who they are.  What do they like to do in their free time?  Do they like school?  Do they have friends?  Do they get along with their parents?  What is their biggest wish in life (this might be the plot)?  What are they really good at and what are they really bad at?


– Where will the story (or at least the first scene) take place?  In a house? Bedroom?  School?  Sports field?  Dark forest?  Other planet?  Write down a few descriptors of what it looks like.


– At some point, you just start writing.  Visualize your main character and talk about what he or she is doing.  And then see what they want to do from there.  Often, they will tell you.  DO NOT worry if you don’t know what the story will be or if you don’t know the ending–that will come organically.

– When you get stuck, check out the young writer’s NaNoWriMo site (linked above) for help!

– Recognize that it’s meant to be fun (although challenging).  Don’t worry when the novel sounds terrible (it WILL; you are writing 50,000 words in one month!), and don’t worry when you get stuck.  Just write.  Hang your word count somewhere prominent in the house so that you know just how much you’ve done!

And when your classmates whine about the next 1,000-word essay they have to write, laugh in their face!


In honor of NaNoWriMo (although not as an official participant since I’m not following the rules), I’ve decided to try to write 50,000 words of my current book in the month.  That should give me a finished first draft, if one that needs a lot of editing.  But I’ve done a TON of editing on the first half of the book, and I won’t have anything to edit for the second half if I don’t write all those terrible sentences in the first place!  In fact, I might finish before 50,000 words, but since I delete two or three for every one that I write, I’m not really worried about ending up with too many!

So wish me luck!  And if you DO try this at home, have fun!

October 24, 2010

Our nation’s pastime, in funky illustrations

My mother-in-law bought us this book.  I still remember meeting her at Barnes and Noble with growing newborn in his sling.  She took one look at me and burst out laughing, and admittedly, it does look funny when the baby is hidden away in a sling.  He was getting bigger, but still able to fit inside the sling, tucked away from all the world around him.  At some point during the shopping trip, she picked out this book.  At that point, he was too young to read for himself, so I was choosing books that I liked to read, like Winnie-the-Pooh chapter books or really anything short of a Biology textbook because, seriously, it didn’t really matter.

This book was one of my first introductions to board books as a parent (and I don’t remember them as a kid so it was really my first introduction).  I remember wondering what was the point of board books, especially since it would take quite a few of them to meet our nightly reading ritual of fifteen or twenty minutes.  My husband wondered too.  Not for long.  It turned out to be a brilliant choice of a book, my son’s favorite above all other books and as I sit here writing about, two years later, the same copy sits here next to my computer held together with tape on my desk.  And now, our son “reads” this book to us.  If that isn’t beautiful, I don’t know what is.

Title: Home Run!
Author/Illustrator: David Diehl
: Board Book, Sports
Age: 0 – 3, although I can tell you right now, we are going to be older when we stop reading this book

Summary and Review:

Each page is a colorful and fun illustration of a crucial part of the baseball game, usually with one simple word to describe it (bat, ball, glove, etc.)  I love the drawings, and if I knew more about art, I could probably describe with with some sort of high-falutin’ word, but I can tell you that they are fun and slightly funky.  One of the greatest things about this book is that even though it appears at first glance to be just a list of baseball terms, one on each page, it actually reads as the story of a whole game.  There are hits and slides, runners who are safe and those who hit fly balls and get out.  And of course, there is a home run, which looks by the scoreboard at the end of the book to be a game-winning, bottom-of-the-ninth, grand slam.

To say that my son loves this book would in no way capture his true feelings.  He knows it by heart and has for some time.  He recently took it to school with him to share with his classmates.  And it’s almost always in our car, ready to go with us wherever we end up.  As we enjoyed this one so much, we’ve since bought the soccer and basketball ones, and there’s a football one as well.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

Invite your child to really interact with the art in this book.  What does the umpire do when he calls a “strike”?  My son loves to throw his hand up in a fist and yell “strike!”, imitating the book, even when we are playing baseball at home and he’s the one with the bat in his hand who just missed the ball.   Same with the sign for “safe” which I am all but required to deliver when my son slides onto our carpet after running around the bases, which is either a lap around the house or about twenty laps around the carpet, necessary of course because almost everything he hits he declares a “home run!”

You can also engage your toddler in the story.  Instead of just showing him the “grounder” page and the “out” page, show the two-page spread as part of a story.  The fielder is getting the grounder, so the runner is then tagged out.  This will help them recognize story format, even in a simple board book, and also help teach them the flow and rules to America’s greatest game; which, seriously now, is an important lesson.  On the next page, the two pictures are “steal” and “slide”, and you can do the same thing–telling the story of the base runner who slides when he steals a base–with these pictures as well.

The pictures are simple, so asking your child to recognize details can also help them become good observers.  (I have to laugh every time I use the word “observe” now because it’s something they taught my son as part of some introduction to science lesson and now he is fond of complimenting almost everything I say with “That’s a good observation, Mom.”  Seriously.  But an example: the “on deck” page shows a donut-style bat weight on the bat.  Ask your child if he notices anything different about the “on deck” bat and the other bats and then you can tell him or her about the weight.

At the end of the game, the final score is 8 to 9.  Ask younger children to read the numbers and ask older children which is the higher number–i.e., which team won the game?

And then, if it’s the right season, head out to the ballpark and test your toddler’s new knowledge in the real world.

October 22, 2010

For the families who wish they could winter in New England, or even those who do

This book makes me want to put on my hat, mittens, and gloves and walk in the snow, roll down a snowy hill, make a snowman, and then come inside for some hot chocolate.  I LOVE the illustrations and the tone/feeling that this book evokes.  I also love that its teaching my son about different kinds of animals and the different tracks they make.  It was a gift from great grandma, and we taped the card she sent inside the book–we will treasure this for a long time!

Title: Who’s Been Here? A Tale in Tracks
Author: Fran Hodgkins
: Karel Hayes
: Picture Book
Age: 0 – 7

Summary and Review:

A dog goes outside and find lots of different kinds of tracks.  The three-toed print turns out to be a turkey, the prints with long feet and short hands coming out of the compost bin are, of course, the pesky raccoon, and double hooves mark a deer and a moose.  But who do the final tracks belong to?  Unfortunately, Willy the dog goes to find out, and ends up sprayed by the owner, a skunk.

Possible conversations to have with your kids (yes, it’s Science time!):

The drawings of the tracks appear on the borders of the pages so the kids can see them clearly.  Ask your child to guess what the animal is before you turn the page to find out.  After a few readings, they will be proud that they can guess every time!

For older children, you can point out more details in the tracks.  The book’s text mentions some of them without slowing down the narration, and you can expand.  For example, some of the tracks look like paw prints, but others look different.  Why?  What makes the paw prints of different animals similar?  What makes them slightly different?  And how is a paw print different from a hoof print of a deer or the clawed foot print of a turkey?

Ask them to look at the pattern of the prints as they lie in the snow.  Which one do they think is the right foot and which one the left?  Why?  Can they tell the difference between the two footsteps that are together in one stride and the next stride of two footprints?

What about animals that walk on four feet?  How are their tracks different from two-footed animals?  Have your child walk on all fours and see where their hands and feet end up.  Compare them to the drawings in the book.

On the raccoon prints, the hands and feet are different–can they tell which is which?  How do they know?

Why do the kids run away when they see the skunk?  Why do they leave Willy outside?


P.S. The danger of mixing gorgeous picture books with 2-year-old boys is that they will get ripped.  This is NOT a reason to take them away, but to help kids understand how to take care of books.  However, some damage will occur, and hopefully you can write it off as damage in the name of education and growth.  One way to minimize the damage, though, is to take off the fragile paper covers and store those separately.  I learned this trick from a brilliant fifth-grade teacher I worked with who did this before lending books in her library to parents and kids to take home.  (Thanks, Daria!)

October 21, 2010

The first time he laughed

That, at least, is how I will always remember this book.  As the first time my baby laughed.  There might have been other times, but I remember this one.  In the rocking chair, reading the brilliantly simple language and looking at the beautifully simple illustrations of Leslie Patricelli.  Every time I read the loud pages, he laughed.  I think we tried to film it; not sure if we were successful.

Title: Quiet LOUD
Author: Leslie Patricelli
: Board Book
Age: 0 – 3

Summary and Review:

If you are a baby, the whole world is a wonderful mystery, waiting to be discovered.  It’s easy for adults to forget this, but this is one author who hasn’t.  Her simple books are to be loved and marveled at for the talented way she makes us see everyday actions and items for what they are–truly amazing.  This book is a great example of that.

“Thinking is quiet.  Singing is LOUD.”  This might seem obvious, but this book makes it seem like a wonderous mystery of life, and to your baby, that’s probably what these mini revelations are. Each two-page spread includes one of these pairs of opposite sounds and then the final spread includes a whole page on each side of many quiet things (pillows, bunnies, and plants, for example) and many loud things (teakettles, burbs, and fire trucks).

The illustrations are perfect–kids get them and they love them.  And if there was a way to illustrate loud sound, Patricelli has found it in this book.  Other similar titles by Leslie Patricelli include Yummy YUCKY and BIG Little.  So the fun doesn’t have to stop with this one!

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

First, just have fun with the book.  Whisper the first page “whispering is quiet”, and then shout (or speak loudly) the next one “screaming is loud”!  Continue that pattern throughout the book–you are teaching your baby about sounds, volume, opposites, and of course, having fun.

Because of the repetition, this is a good one for early talkers to participate in.  Leave out the last word as you read: “whispering is …” and let them finish in their own whispered voices and screams!  (But beware that you will get what you asked for!)

When you get to the last pages, these provide a great opportunity to learn words.  Ask them to point to the bunny or the firetruck.  Or ask them to point to something quiet and tell you what it is in a whisper.  Or make the noise of one of the loud objects (a drum, horn, rooster, etc.) and ask them which ones makes that noise.  Or point to an object and ask them to make the noise of the object.  There are an infinite variety of these games to play!  Have fun, and if you enjoy them, try some of Leslie Patricelli’s other books!

October 20, 2010

We turned his nose orange. By accident, I swear.

It was total strangers who noticed it first.  They would comment on how cute he was (as if perhaps to soften the blow) and then, as if they just noticed, ask how he got such a bright orange nose!  Family members started noticing it when the photos were emailed around and we had to admit they were right.  But the thing was, he LOVED orange foods!  Mostly pureed butternut squash, sweet potato, and carrot.  Also some mango.

Mmmmm, who wouldn’t?  Two years later, he still loves mango, but we’re working back up to the squash and carrot.  Somehow, he isn’t convinced when we tell him that he once loved those vegetables so much it turned his nose orange.  Either he doesn’t believe us, doesn’t care, or doesn’t want his nose to change colors, all of which seem fairly legitimate to me.

But his love of all kinds of foods started with this book.  The book is dogeared and stained as any good, well-loved and well-used cookbook should be.  I used it to fill our freezer up with ice-cube sized frozen meals of peas, lentils with apples, tofu with bananas and pears (tofu is still a favorite today), and lots of other yummy concoctions.

Title: Easy Gourmet Baby Food
Author: Chef Jordan Wagman and Jill Hillhouse, BPHE, RNCP
: Parenting, Cookbook
Age: Anyone who likes to cook!

Summary and Review:

This is a great cookbook.  If you only buy one cookbook for your baby, this is the one to get.  Your baby will get lots of yummy and healthy food and you will save so much by not buying those really expensive jars of baby food!  The book comes with a thorough introduction about nutrition and eating tips and each recipe comes with a nutritional analysis. The book also gives you ideas about

Don't be afraid to go for the spice rack! It's good for you and the baby and will wake up those taste buds!

when it’s appropriate to introduce different kinds of foods, which was super-helpful.

With few exceptions (although I might argue there should be more), each recipe also comes with a “not just for babies” section that tells you how the whole family might enjoy the recipe, for example, folding a green bean/basil puree into mashed potatoes or using an apricot/squash puree to top a pork chop.  The ideas for using the recipes with adults is great if you are making them in small quantities for baby to eat NOW, which is not really something I did the first time around when I was working full time.  Instead, I would spend a weekend afternoon making gigantic batches of something and freezing it, so I didn’t really need to use it for my husband and I.  Although there was one puree–onions, broccoli, potatoes, peas, and maybe something else–that my husband and I loved to eat hot as soup.  Yumminess…although I couldn’t find the recipe in this or my other baby cookbooks, so maybe I improvised it off of something else.

The book continues past baby recipes into “real” recipes a toddler and whole family will love, and I’ve tried these less, as I know find myself making the usual foods I like to make and sharing them with my son.  However, it is nice to have new ideas of healthy ways to introduce foods to my son.

As a baby, my son didn’t love all the recipes in the book (wouldn’t touch zucchini/basil puree with a ten-foot pole, for example, but I credit this book and the others I used with helping him to grow up to be a healthy eater!  I plan on using it for his little brother and hope that we will have the same luck!  Of course, we’ll try to reign in on the amount of squash, but it will be hard–he’ll be at pureed food age in the fall, just like his older brother.

I did have a couple of other baby cookbooks as well: DK’s Organic Baby and Toddler Cookbook by Lizzie Vann and the petit appetit cookbook by Lisa Barnes.  The first is gorgeous, with plenty of full-color photos and some good tips.  But I’m always turned off by people who use the term “organic” so loosely.  After all, any cookbook is organic if you use organic ingredients, and this one is not if you don’t.  The petit appetit also has some good feeding ideas, but neither of these books really got my full attention.  The recipes either seemed too simplistic (one ingredient steamed which hardly begs for a recipe) or just didn’t appeal to me.  But they are both well-written books and everyone has different taste, so they might be worth checking out to see if these recipes are more up your alley.  Both include symbols to easy identify vegetarian and other recipes specific to certain eating habits.

October 19, 2010

Is that your organ or mine? A compelling dystopia with cloning, slavery, drugs, and other things we bring upon ourselves

I had to read this novel.  It was for school.  I was about to assign it to my kids, 7th graders, for a dystopia project, on the advice of a librarian, so I needed to read it first.  What an awesome assignment!  I loved it.  It’s a page-turner.  It’s adventurous.  It’s emotional.  It makes you think about where the world today is going.  All things I love when I am reading a great book.  And it’s why I think young adult and children’s books are often so much better than adult books.  Wasn’t it the author of The Golden Compass who said that you can deal with so much more in a kid’s book?  Well, this book is a great example of that.

Title: The House of the Scorpion
Author: Nancy Farmer
: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Age: Middle School and High School and lots of Adults

Summary and Review:

The main character, Matt, is a clone.  He lives in the country of Opium, between the United States and another fictional country of this dystopic future.  In his society, clones are created and their minds altered with at birth so that they have none of their own emotions or thoughts.  They are treated like animals, or worse.  But Matt is a special kind of clone.  He is a clone of the country’s dictator, who demands that his brain be kept intact.  But this isn’t a gesture of good will–the dictator will kill Matt when the time is right, because Matt exists to keep the dictator’s life eternal–when he needs a new organ, Matt will be there ready, as have many clones in the past.

Matt must first understand that he is not a human at least as far as others see him, and then relearn his humanity with the help of a few caring souls.  He does eventually escape his horrible fate in his own country, but only to join a fate as a child slave laborer in the next one.  The book is full of issues that mirror today’s society, and this, combined with likable characters and a compelling narrative, makes it a great read.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

A lot of kids have trouble understanding what a “clone” is.  They know the term mostly from science fiction stories and snippets they hear, mostly out-of-context in the news, and so they don’t really get the full story.  As a result, I found some kids would read this book and have trouble understanding why a clone wouldn’t be treated differently.  So this is an important starting place for a conversation.  Make sure your child knows what it means to be a clone.  Basically, that the DNA is taken from one individual, put into an embryo, and a baby develops.  That baby is no different from any other baby, whose DNA happened to come from two individuals via an egg and sperm, but some students have a hard time understanding that.  Sometimes I relate the issue to identical twins.  Clones are no more alike than identical twins–in other words, they will probably look like the person they are cloned from, and probably have some similarities, but they will be their own person.  Getting kids to fully understand the implications that Matt is fully human is an important first step to understanding this book.  (After all, in today’s society, many children start out as “test tube” babies, and this, while different and controversial in whole new ways, is, from the point of view of the kid who is born, very much the same.)

Older middle school students and high school students can relate this to stem cell research as well.  I don’t think there are many people out there who would argue that it’s okay to “grow” a human being and then kill it for your own purposes–that’s the equivalent of saying we should be able to do anything we wanted with our own children.  However, there is a debate about what it’s appropriate to do with embryos that are created in the process of trying to help someone get pregnant and one their way to be destroyed.  Should scientists first be able to research on them for the good of those already alive, or is that wrong, since they have the “potential” to become human life?  Or should we not be allowed to create such things in the first place?  Books like this can help students wrap their heads around issues that otherwise seem too big or too irrelevant for them to understand.

If your child is reading this book, I would highly recommend reading it with them.  It will help you identify issues that are most important to you and your child and help direct a conversation even further.  Plus, it’s a great read.

October 14, 2010

“It was a modern art mess” yells my son, and I smile every time.

We found this book one lucky day in the library.  We took it home and it was an instant hit.  We renewed it.  Then sadly, we returned it.  But since we go to the library almost weekly, we checked it out again in a couple of weeks.  This trend continued for months, enjoyably, until one day I somewhat impulsively bought it.  And now we own a work of art.

I swear I don’t like this book because I want to raise an art snob.  I am definitely not an art snob.  My husband makes fun of my short attention span in art museums.  But this book is about pigs, cows, friendship, arguments, painting, being different, making up after being different, and yes, Picasso and Matisse.

This book makes up for everything you hear about schools cutting art programs even though an appreciation of the arts can help students think critically in life and in other subjects (those deemed “more important” by whoever writes those blasted standardized tests).  It also makes up for everything you’ve heard recently about picture books dying.  Because here’s the deal.  The language is rich.  The puns are numerous.  The words are big, at least some of them, and your kid is learning about Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.  So break out the picture books!

Title: When Pigasso met Mootisse
Author: Nina Laden
: Picture Book
Age: 0 – 7

Summary and Review:

The art in this book is amazing, as really it has to be.  Half of the picture evoke the style of Picasso and half of Matisse.  My husband (remember, the guy I haven’t yet said is an art snob) was looking over our shoulder at one picture when we first got this book and said “Hey, that’s a Matisse!”  My son looked confused and I had to explain, that no, it was a Mootisse.  So there you go.

Pigasso and Mootisse grow up different from the other pigs and cows.  They like to paint.  But they are discovered and become famous.  When they each get sick of the fame, they buy farms in the country where no one will bother them.  But their houses face each other across the street, and what starts as a great friendship erupts into a feud over misunderstood painting styles.  The battle is colorful and messy.  But the artistic mammals miss each other and make up in a most beautiful way.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this book is worth millions.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

My favorite part of the book comes every time in one of the pages where the battle between the friends is erupting.  Paint is flying everywhere.  There is a lot of text on the page before, but an essential page break before the last line of the scene, which gets one page all to itself: “It was a modern art mess!”  I love this page because my son loves it, and every time we get there, I don’t have to read it, he reads it for me.  This is a great tactic to use anytime you are reading with your kids.  Once a book becomes familiar, try leaving out the last word in sentence.   Especially if it rhymes, they are likely to remember.  By participating, they are getting their first chance to feel what it’s like to read something.  And it feels good!  And anything that feels that good is something they are likely to keep doing.

I’ve only just started this with my son, and as he’s not yet three, he doesn’t really get it yet, but he is at least interested.  Because the illustrations are done in the style of the two artists, you can spend some time pointing out the different ways that “Pigasso” painted the fruit and “Mootisse” painted the fruit.  You can point out how the styles of art are different.  Even if that’s not quite preparation for an art history class, it is at least teaching the lesson that there are many different ways to draw and paint, and by extension, that there are many different ways to do a lot of things in life.

The book ends with a page of “back matter”, information about Picasso and Matisse.  I refer to them when we are reading as “the real Picasso” and “the real Matisse.”  This page isn’t really for you to read to your kid, especially if they are still in toddler-age range.  But read it for yourself and you can pass down some of the information, bit by bit, every time you read this book with your child.  For me, we mostly just look at the pictures of the two artists.  I figure there’s time later to learn more about their lives.

October 12, 2010

Okay, I get it, you are two. You don’t need to prove it.

Right now, we are spitting.  Spitting water, spitting milk.  Spitting anything and everything we get to drink.  Not so consistently that we think dehydrating him until he turns into a raisin would be a good idea, but consistently enough that we think about it.  Knows better.  Proves it by saying after he spits “NOT a good idea!” or “NO! NO! NO!” or “Time out?”  Me not having to say these things somehow does not make it better.  And these are the times I turn to Michael Thompson.

This is not a children’s book.  But if you have children, you should probably have this book.  So I’m going to throw it up here.  I’ve seen Michael Thompson speak a few times on the educator’s circuit.  He is funny, educated, well-spoken, and he doesn’t talk down to you.  He speaks the language of a parent, with the heart of a parent, the time-tested soul of a parent, but filters everything through the brain of a PhD.  And that, to me, is useful.

Title: It’s a Boy!
Author: Michael Thompson
: Parenting
Age: Adult, Parents of boys

Summary and Review:

Thompson, like some others, has a lot of books on raising kids.  He almost exclusively focuses on boys.  He is a guru on boys.  Of course, there will be some who don’t like his ideas and strategies, but I have to say they are middle-of-the-road enough and varied enough that I think there is something for everyone.  Thompson has really led the bandwagon of others who are just now starting to figure out that our way of raising, schooling, and often medicating boys is failing them in huge, huge ways.  This book is less about those issues than what you can do at home as they are growing up, but following his advice at home is certainly likely to help you out in the future and maybe help you avoid some of the problems boys tend to have in schooling later on.

The book covers the development of boys from birth to age 18, which I guess is Thompson’s idea of when they are supposed to leave and be on their own.  Given current trends, I’m not so sure that we won’t need an extended version as adolescence seems to stretch later and later these days.  But that’s another story for another blog.

Thompson combines personal stories from families he’s worked with and schools he’s observed with summaries about what happens at each age of development.  Right now, we are reading both the “toddler” section and the “powerful little boy” section, which seems to cover everything he’s doing and a lot more.  The book is wonderfully reassuring, and speaks very frankly about things some parents don’t want to admit or talk about, such as playing with the penis or turning every toy into a weapon of some sort.  It’s well organized, with short, clearly-titled sections that are easy to read and even easier to reread when you need to reference something.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

I think anything you want to follow up with is in the book.

October 11, 2010

There is a lot of gold, but the darkness is there aplenty

Okay, let me be honest.  I hated this book.  At least, once I was done with it I did.

But let me be honest again, while I was reading it, I couldn’t put it down.  So the relationship was not simple.

And let me now be really honest.  (Because it’s not honesty until you actually reveal something about yourself, instead of just about the book alone.)  The main reason I hated the book because I couldn’t handle it.  Some things are too painful to read, at least for me with my over-active imagination and brain that won’t turn off, even if I want it to.  It’s not that I shy away from tough subjects or even painful subjects in books, in fact, sometimes I am drawn to them, but something about this–maybe the use of animals (I am a vegetarian of the most sentimental kind) or children (I am a new and pregnant mother) or the religious overtones (I consider myself very religious and spiritual)–REALLY got to me.  Which again, is why it’s also such a great book–it’s powerful.

So I guess it’s most honest to say that while I was reading it, I wasn’t sure about it.  When I was done, I hated it more than anything I’d ever read.  Now that time has passed and I’ve had a chance to reflect on its meaning, I’ve come to rethink things.

So why would I write about it?  I was clear that this blog is only to talk about books I consider “page-turners”, books that I liked.  I’m not here as a reviewer.  Well, here’s the deal.  Months after reading the book, I still think about it.  I am drawn to its theories, to its plots, to its characters.  I want to learn more, but I don’t know if I am strong enough.  I thought I would never, ever read the sequels.  But I think I am wrong about even that.  I think someday I will have to.  The pull is just that strong.  So even though the part of me who wants to escape sometimes into a rosy world resists the horrific imagery that at times appears in this book, there is more of me who knows why the author did that, who agrees with him, and who wants books and stories like this to live on until humanity figures it out on its own.

Title: The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)
Author: Phillip Pullman
: Science Fiction / Fantasy
Age: 12 and up

Summary and Review:

Lyra is a out-of-place in her world.  Left alone by a mother and father she doesn’t remember, she is raised in a university by academics and their staff.  She has little formal education, other than what seem like infrequent meetings with the scholars, but is bright and curious.  She spends most of her time flying through the streets of the city, playing rough-and-tumble games with the other children.  We see her curiosity at the beginning of the book as she and her daemon (an that is connected to her by a strong, invisible force, a physical representation of her soul, and something all humans in this world have) sneak into a study and witness an almost-poisoning of (ostensibly) her uncle, Lord Asriel.  After saving him and getting involved with a mysterious woman, she becomes a runaway and joins a party of “gyptians” in a high-stakes adventure to the arctic, where she believes her uncle has headed, and where she and others believe that children who have been kidnapped have been taken.

The story is rife with delicious imagery of her collegiate environment, the busy town surrounding it, and the fantastical worlds up north with flying witches and armored bears.  But the real power lies with the kidnapped children and the story of what is happening to them.  A horrific research project, funded by an all-powerful church, is experimenting with the children, leaving many of them dead in a painful way that is foreshadowed earlier in the book by interactions between Lyra and her own daemon.

On the downside, which is part of the reason I had trouble with at first, I found Lyra to be a strong character who doesn’t necessarily affect things around her as much as she is affected by them.  This isn’t universally true–she makes some important decisions, but she is played as somewhat of a pawn.  On the same note, Lyra is an important part of a prophecy (which is why she is partly played as a pawn by those who know it), and part of this prophecy gets a lot of hype but I felt falls rather flat at its conclusion.  However, in the end, the allegory about religion and the ways in which we treat our souls (and ourselves) eventually spoke to me too powerfully to put down this book for good.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

(For the short version and a quick question, skip to the end.)

Wow.  I mean, wow.  First of all, don’t start off the conversation the same way so many people talk about this book, which is how this is “too deep” for a children’s book and/or “deep enough” for an adult book.  I mean, throw up.  Are children stupid?  Have the adults who say these things never spoken to a middle school or high school student?  Most of them speak much more eloquently about the meaning of life than their adult counterparts who are way too deep in their search for financial security to even remember they once cared about such a question.  Pullman understood that a children’s book would be the best way to raise such profound questions, and for that, I truly admire him.

This book would raise a lot of great questions in a classroom setting.  Too bad our messed up ideals about children’s education would never allow them to read a book that speaks so poorly of organized religion.  (It’s interesting, isn’t it, to even think that?  I mean, it’s obvious a school would never read this book.  But why?  Because religious parents would be afraid that one book was going to bring down thousands of years of religion?  I’d rather think that one book could entice students to think about religion, to think about what it means to them, and in the end, change the way they look at their own religion, probably giving them more authority over their own thoughts and making their own beliefs even stronger.  But alas, our society is too weak for that.)  However, in my fantasy world in which this could be read in a classroom, or in a world in which you are an especially enlightened home-schooling parent who wants to present a myriad of viewpoints to your child, or in a world in which you actually have these kinds of conversations over the kitchen table with your teen who somehow didn’t get the apathetic-towards-things-his-parents-care-about gene, then here you go:

What do the daemons in Lyra’s society represent?  Is there a parallel in our world?  Why do you think daemons are the opposite sex of a person?  Why do a minority of people have same-sex daemons?  Why would removing someone’s daemon release energy?  Why would the church want to eliminate daemons, at least in their natural form?  What is so scary to the church and religious people in general about an alternate world, a world in which living things are different than they are in this one?

If you are the average parent with an average teen and just want to get a chance to see what they thought of the book and maybe have a short but hopefully meaningful conversation, try something like this:

So, do you think the daemon’s are people souls?  Or their desires?  Or did you have another idea?  (If they do, go with it and ignore the rest of what is written here.)

If not, and they agree with the soul-thing, keep on that, and don’t necessarily use the church as the enemy, even though that really is what the book talks about, but maybe something more generic like “adults” or “authority”.  That way, your teen can talk about things that are more relevant in his own life.  Unless, of course, oppression by an organized religion is an issue in his life, in which case, knock yourself out.

As a follow up, if they agree with the soul-thing, you can ask: “why would the adults want to experiment with cutting away souls?  Do you think adults do anything similar to kids today?”  (And if your teen answers that making her go to high school is the same as cutting away her soul, don’t argue; just listen.  She’s probably trying to tell you something important.  Kids often feel like they are trying to be pressed into cookie cutters that are not the right size and shape for them.  See if this conversation can lead you to understand if your child feels that way and if so, if they can tell you who is doing that to them (parent, teacher, coach) and what they feel is being taken away from them.  (And please listen.  I mean, if they argue you are taking away their individuality by not buying them a car, you don’t have to take them too seriously, but at least hear what they are trying to say!)

SHORT VERSION: Don’t even bring up religion.  Use the daemons not as a representation of souls, but as a representation of human desire.  Does your teen ever feel like adults are trying to take away his or her natural desires or instincts just like the experimenters in this book?  Umm, yeah, I’m willing to bet so.  That’s a conversation right now.