Tag Archives: books

Can Marriage Be Easy?

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The first wedding dress she put on was it. She glowed with the perfection of its fit while the rest of us cheered our approval. It was already the first Saturday in November, not much time before my youngest sister-in-law’s January date, and we all left the store with the happy vibe of a good sign. Plus a quick decision left plenty of time for lunch!

At Blue Lemon my mother-in-law asked a woman sitting nearby to take a picture of us, mentioning the upcoming event. The woman held up the camera and said, “I want you all to think of the love that you feel for each other today!”

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A buzzing sensation tickled my ear—the kind that signals fateful interference. Something important was happening. Read the rest of this entry

The Joy of Question and Answer

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From the moment we decided back in March or April that we were going to do school at home the next year, my kids and I have gotten into the habit of answering any and all inquiries with “We should learn about that for school.”

By “inquiries,” I mean the endless rounds of “Mom, why is _____ like that?” or “How come ________?” or “What’s the difference between __________ and __________?” that little kids manage to think of and to which parents usually respond, “I don’t know — it just is.”

So yeah, my clever we-should-learn-about-that answer was really just another way to put off their questions for later.

Suddenly later has arrived.

In some ways balancing school with a toddler, kindergartener and second grader has been a chaotic nightmare. All four of us have had moments crying in frustration. At least every other day I think this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever attempted and I should really just send the two older kids back to “real” school. If the kindergartener reads one ten-page book and writes one sentence, and the second grader reads for fifteen minutes and writes a one-page story, and they each recite ten math facts (addition for the younger and multiplication for the elder), some days we (sadly) call that good.

But it’s August, and I started in August on purpose, figuring it gives us a month to settle into a routine before we judge ourselves too harshly.

The part that is beautiful, though, is when little moments happen where they discover the answers to their own questions.

Today we went to the library to find nonfiction books at their reading levels about specific animals, after studying library books about mammals, reptiles, etc, last week. The kindergartener declared he wanted to learn about leopards, and the second grader decided on cheetahs, and then he stopped and asked, “Mom, what’s the difference between a cheetah and a leopard?”

“I don’t know,” I responded truthfully, “but maybe we’ll find a book that can tell us.”

“How could a book do that?”

I laughed a little, and it gave him a minute to think about his own question.

“Oh, like maybe it could say that cheetahs have gray spots and leopards have black spots?”

“Something like that.”

When we got through the chaos of the library (three children scattering in different directions as I tried to herd them toward juvenile nonfiction), the chaos of lunch back at home (three children asking for different things all at once), and the chaos of who would get to play educational apps on the iPhone first (two children doing rock-paper-scissors, the loser trickling tears), I finally got to sit down with my second grader as he read National Geographic Kids: Cheetahs.

And there, on the second page spread, was an awesome explanation of the difference between cheetahs and leopards.

It was one of those cool moments, sitting on the couch together and watching him get so excited to learn because it was something he’d wanted to know.

Isn’t that the secret to real learning? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially as my own love of and cravings for nonfiction have increased in the last couple years. When I have a specific question I want to answer, whether about nutrition or herbs or gardening or the science of subtle energy, I get so freaking excited about every cool little answering fact I read that I can’t help telling everyone nearby, “Did you know that ________??”

Seeing it happen for my seven-year-old today with cheetahs vs. leopards made me remember why I’m keeping my kids home this year. It recalled the first-grade days of him returning from school declaring it was so hard and so much work and me wishing that I could help him find the joy of it. It reminded me of how much a comment from one of my fellow-mom friends last year had resonated with me:

“Isn’t the most important part of education for them to learn how to learn?”

We’ve got a long way to go to become good at this school-at-home business, but I think their enthusiasm for questions and answers is a sign that we’re heading in the right direction.

Great 2011 Books to Gift

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I have to admit that I haven’t read as much fiction this year as usual. It’s just been one of those stressful years where reading has unfortunately taken a back seat. But I started thinking about Christmas coming up and what I have read this year that I’d love to pass along for my family and friends to enjoy. Here are the new young adult novels published in 2011 that have wowed me.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

This book felt like the rich, authentic fishermen-island setting of Katherine Patterson’s Jacob Have I Loved, but with the tenacious spunk of Puck Connolly and the sagacious reticence of Sean Kendrick — two characters who instantly endeared themselves to me. I’d recommend this to everyone, both those who love Stiefvater’s other books and those who haven’t liked or haven’t read them. This is by far her best and it shines brilliantly.

If that doesn’t convince you, read this review at Angieville or the snippets of starred reviews on Stiefvater’s site. I’m not the only one who thinks this is one of the best books of the year.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

National Book Award finalist Laini Taylor is one of my favorite authors because of her ability to create intricate, fully realized worlds and to describe them in sentences I savor. This novel does that again with not one but three complex interconnected worlds, complete with compelling mythologies and cultures, and the story takes gut-wrenching twists that made me gasp. My one and only complaint is that it ends on a cliffhanger, waiting for a sequel to wrap it up. Of the four books I’m listing in this post, this one is the only novel with mature content, so I’d recommend it for older teens and up. The story is so apocryphal and unique they’ll be spellbound.

The publishers have set up a gorgeous website with news of all the starred reviews and “best books of 2011” designations this novel has already received plus free previews of chapters, characters, etc.

Leviathan, Behemoth and Goliath trilogy by Scott Westerfeld

These are the kind of books that can be enjoyed by anyone, guy or girl, teen or adult. I handed the first to my 20-year-old brother and he declared he was instantly hooked. My 25-year-old sister read all three as fast as she could get her hands on the next. And her middle-school students are loving the series too. What makes these books so fun and interesting is the steam punk genre: an early 20th century world full of fabricated animals and steam-powered machines, which I posted about here.

Entwined by Heather Dixon

Anyone who loves fairytale retellings needs to read this one! It’s like The Secret Garden meets, well, a nuanced version of the awesome storyboard humor of Heather Dixon. Heather’s sense of humor and background as a storyboard artist bring the twelve dancing princesses to life in the greatest ways. As I said in a blog post called “Showing Character” back in the spring, Heather never has to stop and explain things, you just understand by the expressions or dialogue or actions — even by the sounds. The scenes tug your heart in two directions, knowing how much each side is hurting and misunderstanding the other, while keeping a subtle humor alive and well. I loved everything about it, especially it’s wide age appeal: eight-year-old girls would be enthralled as much as I was as an adult. It’s wonderful.

What 2011 books are at the top of your gift list? Or what older books are you still buying for book lovers in your life?

Leave a comment!

Good Books Can Be Bad for Your Health

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You woke feeling barely conscious, a headache looming at the edge of that consciousness. The alarm felt like someone pounding you, and the instant you hit snooze, you dropped back into sleep, only to be startled out of it again an instant later, though the clock said eight minutes had passed. You groaned.

You’d meant to go to bed early.

You’d put the kids down wishing it could be the opposite: that they could put you to sleep at eight p.m. You’d felt weary and bleary all day. So you hurried to load the dishwasher and prep for breakfast and then climb into bed yourself.

There were so many reasons to, like the chill fall weather that had brought back sniffles and coughs, always the threat of colds and flu around the corner. Plus you could hear your doctor scolding you by talking about the last page in his favorite picture book: rabbits lined up to watch the sunset, “knowing day is done”; in other words, those underlying health problems you wanted to fix weren’t going to get any better unless you respected the natural cycle of light and dark.

You were in bed at a decent hour. (Yeah, it wasn’t exactly right at sunset, so maybe your doctor would still scowl about 9:30, but you were trying. It was better than eleven.) You reached over to your nightstand and picked up the book you’d been reading for a few weeks, just a few minutes here or there as you’d had time. Just a half hour, you promised yourself.

But then the book got good. Got, like, insanely good. And terribly suspenseful. And there was some secret that he wasn’t telling her and it had better not be what you suspected or it would ruin the whole book and you certainly couldn’t stop reading at ten because then you’d toss and turn all night wondering.

You kept reading, turning pages at a frantic speed but unwilling to skip a single word in any sentence. The phrases were beautiful, and you kept your pencil handy to underline the best of them while still whipping through the story, dying to have the mysteries revealed.

You noticed the clock at 10:30 and ignored it. At 10:40 you had expected to see 11:00, so you rationalized that you’d been gifted an extra twenty minutes to read. At eleven the baby woke up crying, so you thought you might as well keep reading while you rocked him back to sleep. And once he was back in his crib, well, your spouse had come to bed and was reading, so you might as well read on.

You hesitate to mention this part, but, well, the book was also the teensiest bit romantic, with all this lovely sexual tension, and you began to be more and more aware of the insanely good-looking person beside you in bed. And so, at midnight, once you finally found a chapter ending that didn’t lurch you straight into the next (thank heavens the secret wasn’t what you feared! everything would be okay! love would prevail!), you set the book on your nightstand and snuggled a little closer.

Afterward, as you fell asleep, you rationalized again. Snuggling was good for your health and relationship — psychological well-being and all that — so maybe if the book got credit for that then it negated the blame of robbing you of some shut-eye, the way some people swear that a diet soda cancels out the junk food you eat with it. You thought of the handful of nights that you’d stayed up until 3, 4, 5 and yes one time even 6 a.m. reading a page-turner, so midnight was only bad in the context of the doctor’s metaphorical bunny book.

Plus, you finally had a funny topic for a blog post that would practically write itself after days of writer’s block and tries that had gone nowhere.

So if you added the three and carried the four and dropped the two, or however that long-division saying goes, in the end you couldn’t regret opening the book and getting caught up in it for so many hours and hundreds of pages.

That is until the alarm went off.

Can you relate? What’s the latest — or earliest — you’ve ever stayed up because of a book?

Leave a comment!

Safe Experience: A Parent’s Thoughts on Censorship

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“Only the foolish learn from experience — the wise learn from the experience of others.”

~Romanian Proverb

It was hard to decide where to begin once I committed myself to another Banned Books Week post. My other one served me well; I felt like it showed a good balance between both sides of the censorship issue.

Haha — the only trouble is that I’ll be the first to tell you there are hardly ever only two sides to anything. Issues are complex. There’s always more to explore.

Simpsons vs. Jetsons

Take, for example, an episode that aired several reruns at our house. Hubby grew up loving The Simpsons; I grew up with a dad who discouraged us from watching it, on the grounds that it showed inappropriate behavior. I’ve come to appreciate the show for its literary allusions, but I still felt our kids weren’t old enough to watch it (our oldest is six). Whenever I would catch Hubby turning on The Simpsons while the boys were in the room, I griped, “Please! Please change it to something else! Find Cartoon Network. Turn on The Jetsons or The Flitstones — something that’s meant for kids!”

After months of this, I finally confronted Hubby when the kids were in bed. I was angry that he ignored my requests and horrified that he wasn’t concerned about the kids’ exposure to mature content.

“Have you seen The Jetsons recently?” he asked.

The question stopped me. “What do you mean?”

“I tried what you suggested. We watched Jetsons for a while, and I was totally disgusted by the way they show women. I don’t want my boys growing up thinking that women are only good for shopping and cleaning. But with The Simpsons, at least I know every episode and I don’t show them the bad ones.”

Now, with Hubby it’s completely possible that he was just messing with me. The combination of him being good at lying and me being too gullible sometimes lets him get away with too much. But in this case, he’d given me a revelation.

There’s more to media than the obvious violence, swearing, crudity, etc, that impacts the rating. There’s the underlying issue of the worldview the media portrays. The Jetsons premiered in 1962; it sort of can’t help portraying mentalities from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s about gender roles and consumerism, etc. I think Hubby’s right: we don’t want to pass those on to our kids. And letting them watch those kind of shows might reinforce that antiquated worldview, dangerously setting it into their subconscious as “normal.”

On the other hand, history is full of sexism portrayed through the media of the time period, whether in Shakespeare or Dickens or sitcoms like I Love Lucy. So to label The Jetsons as bad simply because it reflects the culture of the time doesn’t seem right. However, I like the point that we need to consider more than just the obvious when it comes to the influences on our children.

(Whether or not this exonerates The Simpsons and sanctions it for young viewers . . . well, it’s one of those cases where I’m choosing to lay down my sword and give up on that battle for now.)

Cruella vs. Woody

What I’m trying to say so far is that it’s complicated. It’s not easy to label any media, even media specifically designed for children, as good or bad, harmful or benign.

Think about Disney.

I’m not talking about what shows up when you freeze-frame certain scenes. I’m talking about something much simpler: when my oldest kid started using the word “idiot” at age three or four.

“That’s not a very nice word,” I told him. “Where did you hear that?”

“Dalmatians,” he said.

“Oh. Well, Cruella isn’t a very nice person. She doesn’t say very nice things. We don’t want to be like her, do we?”

He shook his head, and I felt all proud of myself for handling a “teaching moment” so well.

Then he asked, “But what about Woody?”

“Huh?”

“Woody says ‘idiot’ too. He calls Buzz idiot.”

I had to stop and think how to explain.

“Sometimes even good people mess up and say things that aren’t nice. It’s just not a nice word. I don’t want you to call yourself an idiot or call anybody else an idiot, okay?”

“Okay.”

That teaching moment might have been more for me than for him. This was before our Simpsons vs Jetsons episodes, before I’d had really any experience at all with my kids encountering “bad” content. It taught me the simple lesson that I can’t shield them from everything, but I can discuss it with them and help them put it into context.

My oldest quit using the word “idiot” thanks to that quick chat. Now years later he still sometimes reports to me about what he’s seen in terms like, “Last night, on Simpsons, Bart hit Lisa, and that wasn’t very nice, so we don’t want to do that.” He can evaluate media and he can discuss it with us, and I think those habits/skills are far more valuable than protecting his innocence with an all-out ban.

Uncomfortable vs. Safe

What this finally brings me to is the idea that maybe it’s actually good for our kids (and us) to encounter certain harsh truths through media. I would much rather my six-year-old learn that it’s bad to hit your siblings by extrapolating that from TV than by hitting his four-year-old brother and learning from the resulting time-out.

In some ways, isn’t that the point of stories, whether told out loud or in books or as TV shows or movies? To make us wiser by helping us learn from others’ experience rather than having to learn everything “the hard way”?

Last summer I wrote about it in regards to experiencing death in a post called “Killing off Characters,” saying,

Maybe we need to contemplate death through fiction . . . because it helps us reconcile one of the most frightening parts of our existence. Fiction is a fantastic place to wrestle with questions about life, and so it’s probably also an appropriate place to wrestle with questions about death.

For example, in Shannon Hale’s Actor and the Housewife, there’s a death that made me cry for a solid hour. . . . Even though it was a wretched hour of heavy tears, I was grateful for the opportunity to go through it in fiction, to see the main character survive, and to think to myself that I could survive it, too, if I had to.

I think a lot of us can agree that we’d rather go through something horrible in fiction than in real life. I think we can probably even agree that fiction prepares us to better handle hard things in life. And maybe that even applies to the content we might at first be inclined to censor.

In the post that I republished on Monday, my friend Leisha and I conversed about this idea in the comments:

A couple of years ago I went to a school book fair and tried to buy a copy of the Hunger Games. The attendants ran over to me when I picked it up off the shelf and whispered, “Do you know what that book is about?” I stared back and told them yes. They then asked if I still wanted to buy it because there was nudity in it. And violence. And death. And kids killing kids. I just stared some more before grinning and saying, “Heck yeah! I love a good dystopian. Bring on the body count.”

It’s such a strange thing, isn’t it? Because when you list it out like that — nudity, violence, death, kids killing kids — it sounds horrifying. Well, it is horrifying, actually. But horrifying is THE POINT. I think of dystopian fiction as a warning of what-might-happen-IF… Plus I think fiction is the place for us to deal safely with horrific things, to experience death and decide how we might cope, even if we only think about it on a subconscious level. (Whoa, sorry to go all literary theory on you.)

I know! I spent a lot of time thinking about what led that society to that point, and through the safety of the story I was willing to ponder on what could happen to ours IF things went awry. Stories deal with uncomfortable issues in a safe environment, it’s an emotional workout that lets me measure and even strengthen my moral codes. They allow speculation and experiences in situations I’d never dare to seek out in real life because I’m not fond of dying or pain, but I will face it in a book and emerge a better person for facing it. And I don’t want anyone telling me what I can and can’t face. I reserve that right for myself. I will decide what is my limit.

On the one hand, you could argue that Leisha reading The Hunger Games as an adult is completely different than having that book be geared toward teens. But I argue that most teens can handle it and that they need to. They need books that allow them to encounter those gruesome experiences precisely because we don’t want them to have to experience any of that firsthand. The lessons of war, etc, are sobering lessons that I want my kids to understand without having to go to war.

And I’m hoping that by the time my kids are teenagers, they’ll be prepared to decide for themselves, like Leisha, whether or not a book such as The Hunger Games is a good idea for them.

Uncomfortable versus safe? Hubby’s not comfortable with Jetsons, I’m not comfortable with Simpsons; but at least in either case our kids are learning that it’s safe to talk to us about media, just like I feel it’s safe to encounter tough issues in a book or movie, to grapple with experience of all levels in a place where we have the distance to evaluate it and decide how to apply it to ourselves.

Rather than having anyone censor books for me or my kids, I’d rather make those decisions for ourselves. Sure, right now I’m trying to shelter our kids a little, questioning everything from Disney to Simpsons to whether or not they’re old enough for Harry Potter. But gradually I’m turning the decisions over to them as we discuss the issues and they become better at recognizing the “good” and “bad.” They’ll get to be the ones to decide what they’re ready for.

It is a strange thing, I know, to say that I hope my kids will someday choose to read books about horrifying things when they’re ready. I hope they’ll read about ideas that are uncomfortable, that challenge their worldviews. I want them to be evaluative readers who weigh consequences and consider applications to their own lives.

I want my children to be wise.

What do you think? How do you look at censorship from a parenting viewpoint?

Leave a comment!

Reprise: Homophones, Nazi Cows and Other Banned Books Dangers

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I wrote this post two years ago for Banned Books Week 2009, and I’m re-posting it this week to kick off Banned Books Week 2011. There are some really extreme ideas out there about what censorship means, so I share this post in the hope of illuminating a moderate view. Later this week I plan to write more on the subject. Enjoy!

~Nikki

speak your mind

It’s a little funny at first, the whole concept of reading banned books. I mean, it feels dangerous, right? It feels like you’re doing something you shouldn’t, peeking at something you have no business seeing.

Until somebody explains to you that Little House on the Prairie has been banned. Or The Giving Tree. Or Alice in Wonderland. Or The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.

ACLU Freedom ConcertThen it just seems plain ridiculous.

I think my students recognized this yesterday when I introduced the concept of Banned Books Week to them.

Their first reaction was confusion, since they thought I was telling them Harry Potter is a “band” book (oh, the joy of homophones).

Their second reaction, after I showed them the PTA meeting clip from Field of Dreams (“Step outside, you Nazi cow!”), was laughter mixed with a tinge of uncertainty. After all, aren’t banned books banned for a reason?

Their third reaction, when I showed them the covers of the children’s books I mentioned above, was a collective gasp. 

“Wait a second,” that gasp clearly said. “Something’s not right.”

Read Banned BooksIt seems to me that this is exactly what Banned Books Week is all about: showing people what censorship really looks like.

The trouble is, of course, that it’s complicated.

Does my freedom to have books available at the library impinge on your right not to walk into something offensive? If I want my children to read the picture book And Tango Makes Three, does having it on the library shelves endanger your children by exposure to the idea of gay adoption?

I live in a conservative community. I can’t pretend that I don’t understand that side of it. We all want to protect our children. But a lot of people don’t see it the way I do: that there are books and ideas out there that can save our children–except that if those books are banned, the children and the books might never meet.

For example, Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Twisted was challenged in at least two school districts this past month. She shared with blog readers the letter she was sending to those superintendents, and it included excerpts from letters she’s received from teen readers who were thinking of committing suicide–one who had even attempted it twice–and decided against it after reading Twisted.

So, yeah–I meant it literally when I say that books can save.

One of the comments in class last night that I really appreciated was that the way things should work is that parents should be in tune enough to their kids that they can communicate about every issue openly, whether suicidal feelings or gay adoption or racist terms in To Kill a Mockingbird. But too often children and teens can’t turn to their parents about the things troubling them, and it falls to a perceptive librarian or teacher to choose a book off a shelf and hand it to that student and say, “Here. Try this. See if this helps.”I read banned books.

That’s what I’m fighting for this week. I’m fighting for the right to have the right book on the shelf when the right reader needs it.

At the same time, I believe that parents should still have a say–for their own children.

In high school I did many alternate assignments in the library while my history or English classes watched R-rated movies, because my parents and I decided that movie rating was inappropriate for our family. We didn’t try to dictate, however, that the other students shouldn’t watch Braveheart either.

After discussing it as a class last night, it was great to see how a little bit of information helped open minds about the topic of banning books. That’s my hope for this blog post and this week, too: that a little bit of information will help stop censorship from removing books that are on the shelves for a reason.

Freadom

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On a side note, I once heard from some librarians at our university library that there is a case of certain books they keep locked away.

“Whoa!” I thought. “Those must be the really dangerous books.”

Nope.

As it turned out, they were books that had been locked away for their own safety.

It was the readers who were dangerous to the books. Writing over offensive words with a permanent marker. Ripping out offensive pages. Shredding whole novels.

So the librarians locked the books away to keep them safe from the efforts of censors, and you had to get special permission to check them out.

Interesting, huh?