posts tagged with 'books'

a little bit off the grid

I'm reading a book called The Unsettlers, by Mark Sundeen. It's all about folks who chose to forgo most of the advantages of modern, industrial, capitalist existence, because they realize that those things are destroying any hope we have for survival as a species. In their view. Which I can't help but think has something to it. So I was very proud of myself on Sunday when I managed to travel everywhere I had to go—to church and back, to the playground, to friends' house for dinner; about 25 miles in all—by bicycle. And it was a hot day too!

Then yesterday morning our power went out unexpectedly in the middle of the morning. Unexpectedly—need I say it? I suppose one never expects a power outage, not in the 21st century United States. But in this case it was more unexpected than usual, coming as it did on a clear, calm, day. I suppose when a car hits a power pole, the electricity doesn't stand a chance regardless of weather. We figured it wouldn't be that much of a big deal; I just wouldn't be able to vacuum. Or do laundry... Never mind, we were going to the pond anyway. And the power came back on in time for me to make Lijah's chicken nuggets in the toaster oven (and not worry about letting the cold out of the freezer as I retrieved them). Ok, so I have a while to go before I'm ready to call myself real alternative...

often barefoot, sometimes balanaced

One of the many books I took on our camping trip was Balanced and Barefoot, by Angela J. Hanscom. Super appropriate, since camping is all about the ways which, per the subtitle, "unrestricted outdoor play makes for strong, confident, and capable children." Among many other worthwhile points, the author notes that "going barefoot in nature helps develop normal gait patterns, balance, and tolerance of touch in the feet, all of which provide a strong foundation for confident and fluid movement." Check.

three boys barefoot atop a mountain

they're doing it

That is to say, they had plenty of time barefoot in nature—like they do. I actually made the two who were doing their own walking put on shoes to start both hikes, but both times they quickly decided they were too hot, and the footwear became cargo. The book suggests that outdoor play builds core strength and endurance; I don't know about the former, but over the two days of hiking we covered about six and a half miles, with something like 1800 feet of elevation gain. (Now that's a vacation!) Zion actually did more like six and a quarter miles—Leah carried him a couple times, for encouragement—but either way it was an impressive effort.

Since we've been back, they've dived right back into playing with their friends in the neighborhood. Lots of that play is outside—none of us parents wants a gang of eight kids filling up the house for long (of course, video games, pokemon cards, and play sets all exert a powerful indoor pull...). I do wonder, though, if the outdoor play that's happening on Beacon Street fulfills all the requirements Hanscom would look for in proper therapeutic play. For one thing, I think it might involve a few too many plastic weapons.

One of the things she talks about in the book is how using natural materials in play spurs kids' imagination and social-emotional development. Store-bought toys, the argument goes, have specific and limited modes of play—a toy car is a car and it's only supposed to drive one direction. To say nothing of a Batman Batcave play set. The problem is all those toys exist, and they exist in the houses of our lovely neighbors (and, yes, in our house too). How can sticks and pinecones ever hope to compete? There's a question of space, too; our woodsy play area is pretty small, here on our suburban lot. Most of the kids are old enough now they should be playing in the town forest less than a quarter mile away, but they aren't allowed to on their own.

I don't know what to do about it. Certainly, I have no worries our boys aren't spending enough time outside, and in nature. But I think they need more time to play in the woods. On my adult schedule, we do hikes—which they love!—but the limited play times available in hiking pauses isn't enough to start to develop complex interpersonal games. Although, now that I think about it... the last time we went to Fawn Lake on a summer camp outing the rocks above the pond turned into a spaceship and a pirate ship and I don't know what else during the half-hour post-lunch play time. We're going there again today, and play time will definitely be on the schedule. Maybe we're doing alright after all.

Harvey's feet, dipped in the spring

how beautiful are the feet...

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two recent YA fantasy titles

Thanks to the success of Harry Potter—and then Percy Jackson—there are lots of bad fantasy novels for younger readers out there. But there are also some good ones, even in the vein of "unlikely young person finds in themself surprising magical talent". Like The Evil Wizard Smallbone, by Delia Sherman, which I enjoyed for myself a couple months ago and am now reading to the boys.

In this book, set in the present day, a 12-year-old boy names Nick runs away from his abusive uncle only to wind up pretty much imprisoned in an establishment called "Evil Wizard Books." The proprietor is the eponymous evil wizard, who takes Nick in as his apprentice (read: kitchen scullion and farm hand) after Nick tells him he doesn't know how to read. Of course, Nick was lying about that—like he does about lots of things—and as soon as he has his feet under him again he's hard at work learning as much magic as he can behind Smallbone's back.

There are lots of ways this book plays on fairy tale tropes—some of them quite explicitly—but it stands out because of the convincing characterization. Smallbone is an evil wizard by trade and crotchety old Mainer besides, but besides that he's not a bad guy—as long as you put aside the time he turns Nick into a spider. And Nick is just as grumpy, plus stubborn and cursed with a lack of fore-thought. They make a good pair. Then there's the perfect Maine village where things are starting to go wrong, and another evil wizard, this one a naturally magical shapeshifter with a gang of were-coyotes. It all sounds like a bit much, but it comes together into a wonderful story—one of the best and most convincing tales of what it would be like to learn magic I can remember.

Kate Milford's The Left Handed Fate isn't as good. Set in a sort of steampunk version of 1812, it's about a young privateer named Lucy and her scientist friend Max who are trying to assemble the pieces of a mysterious ancient device—weapon?—in order to bring an end to the seemingly endless wars against Napoleon. There's some interesting world-building: "philosophical iron" that moves on its own, a mad-house that you need a passport to enter, fantastically skilled confectioners and weavers, jacquard loom cards containing programing information from a civilization older than the Egyptians... But it's all just a little too much.

The first part of the book takes place on shipboard—the Left Handed Fate being the main characters' privateering schooner—and it's clear right away that the author owes a huge debt to Patrick O'Brian. Then, after some battles and tragedy, they reach the port of Nagspeak, where their famous vessel can be hidden in the half-floating Flotilla district while they search the byways and "hacker's markets" of the town for the piece of the device that's eluding them. There's a lot going on, and most of the time the ornamentation overwhelms the plotting, and the characterization, and... everything else.

Worse, despite the lovely originality of some specific settings and scenes, the book as a whole feels vaguely derivative. For anyone who's read the Aubrey-Maturin series, the echoes of it in this book are overwhelming—and early scene with a dropped watch and sweet oil is obvious it feels like a deliberate call-out. I like—love!—O'Brian's stories (though we hated that movie) but I don't need someone else doing his writing. Especially since, unlike O'Brian, Milford lets the 19th century mask slip a few too many times. Besides the O'Brian influence, I couldn't help also noticing a heavy debt to Joan Aiken—besides the alt-historical fiction setting, this book shares with many of hers a feeling of strange darkness around the edges. It's not only the ominousness of the scenery (and literal darkness lots of the time too) in the story, but also the sense that nothing beyond the characters' experience really exists: like it's all being called into being for them as it's needed. Which isn't always a bad thing: most Joan Aiken books are delightful. But it's more of a flaw in a book that's notable mostly for it's world-building. (Also Left-Handed Fate picks up like it's in the middle of an existing story, just like Black Hearts in Battersea, which also felt to me like a deliberate call-out; but I'm probably overthinking there.)

Of course, The Evil Wizard Smallbone also has nothing but gray haze beyond the boundaries of the action. But the action—and the setting and characterization—is so concise you don't mind, or even notice, the lack. The Left-Handed Fate tries to do too much; The Evil Wizard Smallbone tries less but does it perfectly. Read them both if you have time; if you want just one, well, you know what I'd suggest!

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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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