posts tagged with 'books'

freedom for kids

Wednesday afternoon found us hanging out at a playground in Lexington. It was before elementary school dismissal, but there were lots of preschoolers and their parents busy playing together. As Zion, climbing over the four-foot-high chain link fence around the play area, teetered precariously with one leg on each side calling "look at me!", a mom of two preschoolers commented approvingly.

"It's great that you let him do that... I'd be a nervous wreck!"

I appreciated the remark! She continued by saying she feels like kids need to have more "dangerous" experiences, something that might be tough these days. I agreed, but reassured her that she might be a little more relaxed about things like that when her second was almost six! We also talked about how dads might tend to be more relaxed about danger, while moms handle the keeping-the-kids-from-dying duties. It was a nice conversation.

And she has a very fair point. The playground we were on was pretty safe—designed to modern American playground standards, with a cushy rubber surface under all the CPSC-approved equipment, but still most of the parents were hovering around their two-to-four-year-olds—or worse, running towards them in a panic if they started climbing up the wrong ladder. What's the worst that could happen, I wondered?

Yesterday evening I read a lovely YA novel by Patricia Reilly Giff called Jubilee. It's about a girl with selective mutism and her efforts at the beginning of her fifth-grade year to connect with the people around her. There were lots of nice things about the book, most notably its setting on an unnamed island in Maine. Besides being an evocative setting for the story, it also meant that it was plausible for the author to have the young characters wandering around on their own—island kids will know everyone they're going to come across, and there's a natural boundary to how far they can roam. Susan Bartlett did the same thing with Seal Island School, and I'm sure there are other examples too.

Now, I don't know if the authors picked the island setting for that reason. Maybe they just appreciate the romance. But it's a fact that it's harder to find—and maybe to write too!—believable stories about kids who face real adventures and get to make real, meaningful choices for themselves in real-world settings. If you ask me, that's why we see so many sub-par fantasy books, especially in the magical-wonder-collides-with-everyday-life mold of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson (it also helps that those two series are such huge money-makers that they've spawned hordes of second-tier imitators). I've got nothing against stories with magical elements. But I like real adventure too, and I think kids should read about it, and I think they should have a hope of seeing some adventure for themselves.

Climbing over fences is a good start. Playing in the woods without adult supervision. Going to the bathroom alone in the library (hey, baby steps). Staying home alone while I walk the dog. Walking to friend's houses. Any six- or seven-year-old should be able to think about doing those things (at least in a safe neighborhood like ours). Island adventures are great—and you should totally read Jubilee, by the way—but I'd like to hope that a little freedom for kids isn't just something that happens on islands.

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unschooling texts

So I finally pulled the trigger on the Amazon order I started back in January—I'm not good at spending money. One of the three books came today: I Learn Better By Teaching Myself, by Agnes Leistico. I'm about half way through it and I'm enjoying it for what it is, which is an early description and defense of student-led learning. It's not really telling me anything I didn't already know, but it's still nice to be reminded that other people have done homeschooling the way we're doing it. And it works! Stops me from busting out the worksheets or whatever when I start getting nervous. At 1¢ (plus $3.99 S&H) I consider it totally worth it.

Besides that and John Holt's How Children Learn, I also ordered a picture book called Frank and Lucky Get Schooled, by Lynne Rae Perkins. We got it from the library a couple weeks ago and all loved it, so it's totally worth owning. It's not a homeschooling book necessarily, but it's all about how life is full of learning opportunities—just like we unschoolers always say. It's about a boy (who goes to school, though not in the pages of the story) and his dog, and what they get up to together. All the adventures are described in terms of school subjects: math problems, science experiments, geography lessons. And it's super funny. Highly recommended by the Archibald family.

If you want to read or talk about any of these books (or any other of the thousands we own) just stop on by most any time! We're always learning around here.

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the primacy of reading

Harvey is really reading now, and as I predicted it's taking him away from other activities—like doing his chores. I totally understand how other parents wish they had this problem, just like when he was younger I wished I had a child who would wander off rather than just clinging to me or looking to play with me all the time. I suppose now he's wandering off in books. He read a whole chapter book in one sitting the other day, 150 pages (with pictures). In his defense it was a pretty good book, and I recommended it highly.

cover image of Dory Dory Black Sheep

It's called Dory Dory Black Sheep, by Abby Hanlon and it's apparently the third book in a series about Dory, a six-year-old with a tremendous imagination. In this book she's feeling bad because she doesn't know how to read. While I loved the book—and yes, almost all my reading comes from the kids section of the library these days—I'm a little troubled by the implicit assumption that it's a good thing for imaginative, well-adjusted (by some measures) six-year-olds to be reading. In the story she's exposed to reasonable first-grade teaching methods, but it's peer pressure that makes her want to read: her new best friend is reading chapter books, and Dory is afraid the friend won't like her if she can't read.

So it's a pretty sensitive treatment, and probably true to a lot of kids' experience in first grade. That means I don't fault the author—and I'm looking forward to reading the other two books, and reading them to Zion—but wish the culture were such that Dory could be telling stories to her friends in school and being valued for that skill. Because, once she can read, will she stop living half in an imaginative world of her own creation? Few authors can compete with real kids' imagination. But when you can read, books are tempting, tempting!

Still and all, I'm pretty proud of Harvey. And imagination-wise he's long been someone who looks for official sources for his imaginative worlds—he's an oldest child, and needs to make sure he has things correct—so probably the more books the better. Just as long as he keeps feeding those hens too!

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hippy picture book suggestion

In a world full of kindergarten stories and princess-dress stories and robot-boy stories, I take note when I come across a picture book that I think shows off good counterculture values. Take mental note, that is... unfortunately, when I don't actually write down any of the titles that particularly catch my attention, I can't remember them later when anyone asks. If anyone were ever to ask. That changes now!

In Building Our House, Jonathan Bean describes, from his older sister's perspective, how his parents and their friends built a timber-frame house for themselves. The watercolor illustrations beautifully portray the passage of the seasons as the work goes slowly forward—though significantly faster in the book than in real life, as an author's note at the end explains! The narration is wonderfully matter-of-fact, just as you'd expect from a child of parents who could ever conceive of such a thing. Wiring and insulating mid-winter "while the drifts pile up"? Sure, isn't that just what you do?

Bean and his family aren't all-out back-to-the-landers: the first step they took towards developing their property was to hook up to municipal electricity, and an electric range is pictured (along with a cookstove at the center of the house). So they aren't as hard-core as some people we know. But they sure aren't taking the typical route to home-ownership!

Harvey and Zion love the book, which we got from the library, and we've already read it six or seven times. It might be worth buying, though I may prefer to save my Jonathan Bean dollar for another book of his that I learned about while searching for an image to include with this post. Called This Is My Home, This Is My School, it features the house whose construction we just lived through serving both those roles.

In the Author's Note that ends Building Our House, Bean closes:

Of course, a homestead would not be complete without a large garden, fruit trees, pets, woodland, and a stream flowing through a mysterious marshland. Add to that the wise love of two parents, the companionship of three sisters, and a practically lived faith, and it's hard for me to think of a better place to have grown up.

Sounds good to me!

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the default religion

The other day in the school library I spent half an hour pulling books about winter celebrations. With about 40 books assembled in total, it was interesting to compare the size of the stacks for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, and Ramadan (yes, I know Ramadan isn't a winter holiday; I was just following orders). Christmas had the most books, but only by a hair over Hanukkah. Kwanzaa was probably the most over-represented in terms of books per observance; there were four Kwanzaa books, tied with Diwali and one ahead of Ramadan. More telling than the numbers alone, though, was the way the different holidays are presented both in the books themselves and in the layout of the library.

The Ramadan books and three of the Diwali ones are nonfiction titles. The way they all present their subject is totally othering: they're absolutely respectful and even enthusiastic about the holidays, but they're written for a blank-slate audience and so have something of a "look at this crazy thing!" tone about them. And they're shelved in the "Religion" section of the Dewey Decimal classification (the 300s), along with the Greek myths and ancient Egyptian gods. You can also find a few Hanukkah titles in that section, but tellingly nothing about any Christian holidays.

In addition to the "Rookie Read-About Holidays" Hanukkah books, there are lots more titles in the picture book section. A few of them are basic "my first Hanukkah" texts, but lots more of them are real stories written to celebrate Jewish culture. There are more Hanukkah picture books by Eric Kimmel alone than there are books about Diwali and Ramadan combined, and lots of other authors are represented as well. There are also two Kwanzaa picture book stories in the same vein; one more explain-y one and one actual story.

In most of the Christmas books, on the other hand, Christmas is pretty much just a background. With so many of the cultural features of the holiday part of the reader's assumed knowledge, authors write stories where characters have interesting experiences and learn valuable lessons at Christmas time, but rarely engage with the holiday in any real way. To go by nearly all of the library titles, Christmas is about exchanging presents and finding ways to be happy with your existence.

Of course, part of the reason for that is the public schools' careful avoidance of any appearance of Christian proselytizing. The Hanukkah and Kwanzaa books get spine labels with the name of the holiday and culturally-relevant pictures; Christmas books' tags say "Holiday". The library will stock books explaining the origins of Diwali in Rama and Sita's return from exile, but you won't find a single mention of Jesus (except maybe from Tommie de Paola). It's meant to be sensitive, but causes it's own problem: it positions Christianity as the unspoken default and marks all other faiths as other.

To an extent, that's fair; there are more nominal Christians in that particular school than followers of any other single religion. But if you ask me, all religions are interesting, including Christianity! I wish we could trust schools and teachers—and libraries—to disseminate information about different faiths in a fair, even-handed manner. But we can't; we can't even manage to talk about science that way. So this is the situation we have. Not a huge problem, just... not quite right.

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more picture books, please

I was in the school library today looking for a book to read to some first-graders, and as I perused the picture-book shelves—a significant share of the library's real-estate—I wondered how many of those books the kids were actually reading. And it's not only because it's hard to find picture books you like at libraries—their spines are so thin you have to pull each one out to see if it looks interesting. No, the real problem is everyone wants chapter books or comics.

Not that there's anything wrong with either of those. Good chapter books draw you in and expand your world like no picture book could ever do, and good comics are great for developing readers like Harvey and 6-year-old me. Lots more good things to say about both, elsewhere. But picture books are awesome too, and for lots of reasons they're just what first-, second-, and even third-graders need. For one thing, they're more like what kids that age are producing themselves: short, illustrated, stand-alone stories. And the pictures hit the sweet spot between chapter books and comics: they can keep kids' interest and give scaffolding for imagining the events of the story, without filling in all the gaps like most comics do.

Most importantly, though, picture books are great examples of good writing. Like poets, picture book authors faced with limited space need to shape their language carefully, and the elegance that engenders is just what kids need to be exposed to as they develop as writers themselves. Any kid that wants to can do plot—kids plot all the time in their imaginative play—but to write good prose they need to be exposed to good prose.

The reason for all the chapter-book love also points to how picture books are helpful for kids developing as readers too. The way reading is taught now drives kids to achievement: how many pages can you do? How long can you read in one sitting? How many inferences can you write down on post-it notes? To be reading chapter books, then, is a badge of success proudly trumpeted even by kindergarteners. Only... most chapter books at that level are terrible. And when kids are only reading books—bad books—as status markers, they'll stop reading entirely when their peers stop thinking reading is cool. Like in second grade.

The perception of picture books is that they're for little kids (and the child's definition of little kids is always someone littler than me) and that they're easy to read (they're filed under "E", for goodness sake!). That's obviously far from the reality: plenty of picture books feature vocabulary kids won't find in chapter books until they hit the stuff written for middle-schoolers. And you can find picture books that address the issues of people of all ages. (Some libraries have even started shelving some with the chapter books as "advanced picture books" or suchlike—which I think is solving all the wrong problems!)

So the problem: kids think picture books are babyish, and when they pick them up they can't read them anyways; and even if they want to find a good picture book it can be hard (and—a subject for another post—there are plenty of bad ones). What do we do about that? Why, it's easy: read to kids! When we grown-ups pick good books, and show kids that we care about those books and think they're worthwhile, and read the words expressively, and invite discussion about the stories... we're inviting the kids into a world of literacy instruction that's more than skill-building in reading and writing. It's creating life-long appreciation for the wonders of the written word. Then they can enjoy chapter books and comics at their leisure; and write em too!

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running out

So it's no Long Winter here, but it was thirteen below zero American degrees this morning, which is pretty cold for this neck of the woods. Our neighbors down the street built a beautiful half-shed from pallets this fall to keep their firewood dry, and I noticed this morning that it's just about all the way empty—with snow in the forecast overnight and weeks more of winter to go. Good thing they have baseboard heaters as backup!

Us, we're only dreaming of wood stoves (with our dishwasher out of commission we're dreaming of tearing it out and replacing it with a cook stove). But yesterday when we went out to the feed store to pick up the needful for our hungry hens—they have to eat a lot these days to keep warm!—I also asked for another bale of straw to keep their feet out of the ever-deepening snow in the run (not a lot gets in, but when it never melts it can only get deeper). Of course, as I should have expected, the straw bales are long-gone; we have to wait until more straw grows. That will be... a while. Look to see our consumption of pine shavings expand dramatically this spring! I asked Harvey (Zion was sleeping) if he thought we could grow our own straw some day, but he thought we needed more farm. Next November remind me: four bales.

At least we don't need the straw to fuel the wood stove! (and if you haven't read that story, you absolutely must—if nothing else, it'll make you feel better about our own long winter here!).

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Peter Pan is not a syndrome

These days our family life is dominated by the story of Peter Pan. I was going to say our PLAYTIME is dominated by the story of Peter Pan, but that doesn't go quite far enough. In the car, on our walks, in every corner of the house, Peter Pan's praises are being sung. And sung. And sung. And those of Captain Hook too. All week, including in public, Zion has been crooning gleefully about massacring Indians and killing little boys. For the sake of Indians and little boys within earshot, it's a good thing Zion's a little difficult to understand.

It started like this:

Harvey's friend Taya has a pop-up book of Peter Pan. Harvey and Zion saw it a few months ago at her house and instantly started buzzing. Did I know the story of Peter Pan? Could I tell it to them? What are the names of the Lost Boys? What are the names of the Pirates? Harvey has a craving for KNOWLEDGE, and each time a new story is opened to him he wants to know EVERYTHING about that world. Zion is not so particular about knowing everything, but he is happy to jump on any bandwagon Harvey rolls out, especially if it involves swords and killing bad guys and did I mention swords.

Knowing how much Harvey loves new chapter books (and how much I'm wary of chapter books written in the past half century) I checked out the original Peter Pan story from the Library. JM Barre's Peter Pan is by far the best way to enjoy the story. The text is post-modern before its time, and it pokes knowing fun at children, mothers, and prep-schooler in turn. I didn't mind reading it three times in a row.

But one day I mistakenly started singing:

"Let's be quiet as a mouse and build a lovely little house for Wendy..."

Their mouthes gaped open. There are SONGS of Peter Pan?

"Do you know more songs about Peter Pan?" Harvey asked breathlessly.

I love my children and I want to make them happy. I don't always know where something will go awry.

Over the next few days I had sung them every sond I knew from the 1950s musical. Tender Shepherd. I've Got a Crow. I'm Flying (which, I'm sorry, isn't much of a song at all.)

Their favorite was Ugg A Wugg, however, and by the time they started singing it WITH me I realized I didn't know the verses in order. So I looked it up in You Tube.

Okay, so in retrospect I should have seen that this was a mistake.

Any time my children learn that something they like is also available in VIDEO FORM? Stop everything and prepare for a battle. And not the flying fairy dust kind.

Soon they were asking to watch songs from Peter Pan EVERY SINGLE DAY. One night during Bible study I broke down and purchased a movie of the stage production. I WANTED TO STUDY THE BIBLE! The children sat with their eyes wide for the entire hour. They clapped when Peter asked if they believed in fairies.

Okay, so it was kind of cute when they clapped that they believed in fairies.

But then they were asking to watch some of the movie EVERY SINGLE DAY, Just so he could learn the songs, Harvey pleased. And because the only thing I hate more than watching shows is TALKING ABOUT watching shows, and because it was only a few dollars on Amazon, I bought them the CD.

I don't know why I haven't learned anything about parenting over the past five years. Seriously, I sound like a flippin newb.

Because now every time we get in the car it's "Can we listen to Peter Pan?" "Will it start where we left off?" "Is this ride long enough to listen to Peter Pan?"

Dan casts me a sideways glance as if to say, "What have you done to my life?"

It turns out the Peter Pan is terrible! The characters are two-dimensional and wooden. The songs are at best annoying and at worst racist. I wish I could go back in time and erase my mistake, but unlike the Lost Boys I can't push a pause button. I live in a world where children grow up, and they get more manipulative as they grow, and they know how to fill a car with a baseline level of annoyance that is just enough so that the annoyance of a boy's role sung by a 50-year-old woman will be less annoying than the sound of my children whining.

Peter Pan is the quintessential childhood hero. He gets what he wants because he's sure, carefree and violent. He flies, yes, but other than that he has no special powers other children don't possess. His power comes from his complete lack of oversight.

No one is watching over him. He has external controls. I guess they have a word for that... um.... freedom?

Yeah, on a deep level this story really annoys me. Why should this little jerk get so much freedom?

The truth about Peter Pan, which comes out in the book much more than in the musical, is that he is cruel. He might entertain you for a spell, but then leave you on a cloud by yourself with no way to get down. He is in every way a child: narcissistic, greedy, fickle. Those who follow him, the Lost Boys and the Darling family, do not have compete freedom themselves. Complete freedom only exists if you're content to trample on the freedoms of everyone around you.

I guess that's why his story is so compelling. Wouldn't my kids love to live in a world where they have so much freedom even gravity doesn't apply to them? I left my children at the breakfast table this morning, and I came back to see them standing on their chairs waving their arms.

"They're flying," Dan told me.

"I trust they know their limits," I shrugged.

They are bound by their limitations and so am I. They cannot make breakfast for themselves any more than they can fly off their seats. I have to do that for them along with a trillion other things. And so even as a fully capable adult I'm not very free myself.

I'm more like Captain Hook. I'm an enemy to freedom and a slave to the sound of a ticking clock.

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underwhelmed by the Penderwicks

There are times in my life when I read a lot, and there are times when I feel like I barely have a moment to pick up a book. The past couple months have been the latter. And before you say I have a good excuse I have to admit that it's as much a question of interest as it is of time. Last fall I was zipping through the new books section of the library; lately I'm just not feeling it. So maybe that's why I'm not as impressed with The Penderwicks as I expected to be—or maybe it's not really that good.

It came highly recommended, and I was totally ready to like it. National Book Award winner! "Modern Classic"! New York Times bestseller! (alright, so that last one is actually more of a debit as far as I'm concerned, but you get the idea). Plus, the concept of a modern old-fashioned story is a good one, and the cover looked accordingly promising. Too bad.

My main complaint about the book is that it feels sketchy. Rather than being developed properly the characters—the four Penderwick girls, supporting players, and badies—are indicated by brief signifiers: Skye is blond and likes math; Batty wears wings; Mrs. Tifton is mean and favors high heels. The setting is similarly lacking, satisfying itself by simply mentioning the details of the surroundings. The mansion grounds where the kids get into trouble feature statues, hedges, and a frog pond, but the author never even tries to evoke any primary experience of those things for us. So, despite the acceptable plot, I had a hard time entering into the story; nothing about it rings quite true.

Take the following descriptive passage, selected more or less at random.

But she found the hedge to be thicker and more prickly than she had anticipated, and after several attempts to crawl through, she had accomplished nothing except snagging her hat twice and scratching her arms until it looked like she had fought a tiger.

Then, when she was just about to give up and go around by the driveway, she discovered a way in. It was a tunnel, carefully hidden behind a clump of tall wildflowers and just the right size for going through on all fours. ...

She emerged on he edge of the enormous formal gardens, directly behind a marble statue of a man wrapped in a bedsheet and holding a thunderbolt over his head.

Many things about that selection are noticeably clunky. "Thicker than she had anticipated"? "More prickly"? What is the hedge made of? Whatever happened to "show, don't tell"? And both "tall wildflowers" and marble Zeus demonstrate a fuzziness in who's doing the observing, or at least a lack of care: why say wildflowers without telling us what they are? And if the character can't recognize Zeus or a toga what are the chances of her pegging the statue as marble or recognizing and naming a thunderbolt? (if the statue is a copy of the one seen here the resemblance is far from obvious!).

Compare to a bit from Gone Away Lake, a good book (by Elizabeth Enright).

The spagnum grew in silver-green cushions; it oozed water at every step, dark water the color of strong tea that had a rich delicious smell. ...

Beyond a wide cluster of sheep laurel, all speckled with flowers, was the bog garden. They had never seen a garden like it; nothing was planted in a bed. It looked as though it had been the work of nature alone. By dark still pools grew leathery pitcher plants, whose urn-shaped leaves held water and drowned insects, and whose wine-colored flowers were like the umbrellas of Siamese kings.

There we have real description, artful prose, and a little bit of allusion. It was hard for me to just excerpt that section and not keep on reading, even though I've already read the book three or four times; I haven't managed to finish The Penderwicks yet.

I have a theory about why, of the two books written for kids of similar ages (grades 3-6), Gone-Away is so much deeper and more engaging— but it's bedtime so it'll have to wait for another post. Suffice it to say that if you ask me The Penderwicks, while readable and even pleasant in parts, in no way lives up to its advance billing. I'm disappointed.

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the boys and books

Last week at church I was reading to the boys and as I started the second book someone asked how many books we read to them a week. "A week?" I answered. "How about a day!" Then of course I had to come up with a number for that, so off hand I said, "oh, twenty or thirty."

I don't think it's actually that many; not anymore, at least. Maybe back in the baby book days, but now that each book takes at least five minutes that would put us at well over an hour of reading a day, which we don't always reach. But sometimes we do! I think a more realistic number for books read is between ten and twenty. A lot, anyways.

Harvey especially is a voracious consumer of stories. When I'm talking with other parents about their children's taste in literature, I tell them that Harvey would listen to the phone book read aloud if we were enjoying it, because it would mean more reading time. Not that he doesn't have taste in the sort of stories that he wants to read, of course—there are certainly some books and types of books he likes more than others. But the act of listening to someone read to him is on its own a pretty big draw. Zion isn't quite as omnivorous in his taste, but he's still pretty patient for a two-year-old when it comes to listening to the written word.

I don't know what we win for this, but I will say that I'm very impressed with both boys' ability to make connections with the text we read, something that I'm always trying to drag out of second- and third-grade students. They get text-to-text, text-to-self: they're fully involved in processing the story on all sorts of levels. However impressed I might be, though, I would still prefer they kept those connections to themselves at bedtime instead of shouting out whatever occurs to them and disturbing the carefully curated atmosphere of calm and quite peace that I work so hard to create. At least one of them can actually fall asleep while listening to a story, if circumstances allow; and when I think of it even Harvey occasionally drifts off before I finish a chapter. As a parent I'm delighted when that happens, and as an educator I trust they're still processing the story in their dreams.

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