Archive for Literature

Still Expanding, and Not Worrying


The last time I wrote posts for this blog was in 2011. Since then, I have been trying to focus on writing a book, and, three years in, I’m finally getting somewhere. I currently blog, about my writing and about my attempts to live courageously, at Don’t Worry About Flies. Please visit me there. The gifts of the unschooling life never leave you, and I think you’ll find evidence of that in reading about what’s happening in my life now.

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Why Picture Books Matter

I read the saddest thing in The New York Times a few weeks ago. It was this headline: Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children. How can that be, I thought? Picture books are childhood: big and colorful, imaginative, full of whimsy and stories to tell, brimming with new information, funny, clever, and over much too soon.

But the article reports that booksellers are seeing a definite downturn in picture book sales. Blame the same pressure that is causing the Race to Nowhere syndrome. NYT writer Julie Bosman tells of parents pushing “big-kid” books on toddlers, out of fear that mere picture books will be a waste of their precious time—the time they need to constantly be moving toward the college that will guarantee their lifelong “success.”

Ms. Bosman notes that picture books are complex and sophisticated. I’d like to make that point, too. Picture books are to chapter books what poetry is to prose, in many ways. A good picture book is a perfect gem—a work of art that tells a story succinctly, with unforgettable beauty and charm.

I pick up a picture book almost every time I go to the library, and I’m fifty-two years old. When Stephanie was a little girl, we had a huge tote bag that we’d take to the library. Thirty to forty picture books was the average haul for us. We’d come home and spread them out on the carpet like shells we had collected at the seashore. Which one to read first? Which one to read next?

Here is a list of ten of my favorites:

1. The Honest-to-Goodness Truth. With a thoughtful story and the heavenly artwork of Giselle Potter, this book is one of the all-time best I’ve ever read.

2. Loud Emily. A rousing and hilarious adventure with illustrations that are wildly beautiful.

3. Saving Sweetness. A very witty tale of an orphan child, with pictures both funny and dear.

4. Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain. A magical book in every way.

5. Mouse at Night. I dare you not to enjoy this little guy.

6. How Emily Blair Got Her Fabulous Hair. A delightful celebration of, well, hair, with the best hair drawings you’ll ever see.

7. Geraldine’s Blanket. A tale of love with cuddly pictures that will make you want to cuddle whoever you’re reading it to.

8. Hazel’s Amazing Mother. It’s exciting and sweet at the same time, with adorable illustrations of daring feats of motherhood!

9. The Scrambled States of America. This is one of the most fun-filled books in the world: states with faces and lots of silly jokes.

10. The Paper Bag Princess. An antidote to Disney-Princess overload, with quirky drawings and humor to match.

In the Times article, Bosman mentions a parent who bemoans the fact that, if left to his own devices, her child would read only picture books. I don’t think that would be such a terrible thing. A great picture book has an intelligent message, a good story, fine language, and inspiring artwork. Picture books matter. Denying kids picture books is like denying them a part of life. Man cannot live by words alone.

If you can swing it, please visit your local book store and buy a big, colorful, imaginative picture book today. Let’s show those publishing companies that we’ll buy something other than the same old Seuss (not that he isn’t great!), or a TV-show tie-in book, or vampire teen-lit. Picture books matter.

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Free Range Learning: Book Review

Laura Grace Weldon, so perfectly named, has graced the Carnival of Unschooled Life many times with her beautifully written, carefully thought out, and inspiring posts. When she sent me a copy of her book, Free Range Learning: How Homeschooled Changes Everything, I was thrilled.

With good cause. Laura has written a new classic. Parents who are contemplating homeschooling, or who have made the decision to homeschool and are looking for good solid resources, will find what they need in Free Range Learning.

I know that as a new homeschooler, I needed justifications—facts and anecdotes to back up my decision, both for myself and for the sometimes intolerant people around me. Laura begins her book with a chapter about natural learning: what it is and how it can be hindered, even by well-meaning people and institutions. As Laura writes, children (or people) are “living ecosystems unto themselves” and “nature teaches us that diversity works.” Read such statements is very empowering for any parent  new to homeschooling and to the idea of helping one unique individual learn about life.

And that’s just the beginning. Laura goes on to explore how parents can nurture learning and how learning happens during play, during work, alone, and in connection with others. She includes many comments from real homeschoolers, and this greatly deepens the impact of the book. Their words, like Laura’ words, continually make the point that the path of homeschooling is positive, joyful, and worth taking.

In Part Two of Free Range Learning, Laura delves into actual “subjects,” such as Math and History, but her focus is always on how these areas are enriched and redefined by the practice of homeschooling. Of history, she writes,

The magnitude of history can’t be confined to books. Travel is equally expansive. Beyond travel, there are engaging documentaries about all time periods, plus interactive websites on nearly any historical topic imaginable. There are also museum displays, preserved areas, living history presentations and historical fiction. History is embedded in the objects and words we use each day.

That kind of detailed presentation, that concern with communicating the depth of whatever it is she is writing about, is why I see Laura’s book as a new classic in the homeschooling book genre. It is a resource you will turn to again and again, for inspiration, for ideas, for encouragement, and for a reminder that homeschooling does indeed change everything.

Laura writes that “what might seem like quiet personal decisions have a ripple effect.” The practice of homeschooling is part of a much larger benevolent force at work in today’s world. Free Range Learning is a guide to understanding, accessing, and receiving the graces of that force—to create a better world for ourselves and our children and their children and so on and so on.

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Ramona and Beezus: The Movie

The idea of making a movie about the brave, pesty, lovable, and ultimately Everygirl-ish Ramona Quimby is not as fear-inducing as the idea of making a movie about Holden Caulfield. Although Ramona is a precious part of many childhoods, she isn’t as important a piece of literary history as the catcher in the rye. She is a glowing example of the kind of child Holden would have liked to catch, though, and that’s why her portrayal in any form apart from Beverly Cleary’s books matters.

The new film Ramona and Beezus gets a thumbs-up from me because it honors what I consider the most important themes of the Ramona book series:

  • Ramona is a unique person with a complement of emotions—not a generic “kid” who can be labeled or understood without effort.
  • Ramona’ s family lives the all-American struggle—worrying about money, about raising their children well, and about balancing the sometimes opposite tasks of fitting into society and meeting their children’s needs.
  • Ramona continually provides examples of how children are never “bad.” The things she does that wind up causing trouble for her or for others come about through her good intentions, her curiosity, or her imagination. As she herself states, the best way to handle her is to love her.

These points actually come across in the movie, and for that I applaud it. It resisted the “Hollywood” urge to make the Quimby home elegant, or to make Beezus’s wardrobe cutting edge, or to make Ramona’s adventures into loud, ridiculous jokes. The acting is good, and the characters come across as real people. The only major fault I found with the experience of watching Ramona and Beezus was that I couldn’t turn off the checklist in my head that was tallying up the book incidents as they occurred.

  • “There’s the toothpaste in the sink,” went my brain.
  • “There’s Willa Jean.”
  • “There’s Henry Huggins.”
  • “Ramona just said ‘guts.'”
  • “Mr. Quimby is drawing.”
  • “His drawings look like those of Alan Tiegreen, who did a set of Ramona book covers.”
  • “Picky-Picky died.” (The film is so relentlessly G-rated, it doesn’t even show us the image of a dead cat.)
  • “Oh, wow. Aunt Bea. I forgot about her.”
  • “Ramona just pulled Susan’s boing-boing curls.”
  • “There’s the street sign: Klickitat Street. Yep, that’s right.”

Checking-off the beloved Ramona moments wasn’t overly distracting or annoying; it just took away from the enjoyment of the film as a totally new experience. But would I have wanted the screenwriters to come up with new Ramona moments? No.

For children who haven’t yet discovered the Ramona books, the film will be new. And it’s good enough, I think, to make them want to seek out Ramona in the library or at the local Barnes and Noble.  If Ramona and Beezus can accomplish that, it’s worth four stars.

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Please Check Out This Blog Carnival

The June 2010 Carnival of Children’s Literature is now live at I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? I’m very honored that the publisher, Lee Wind, liked my post, and I encourage you to browse all the book reviews in this month’s edition.

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Take This Book, Please!

When I heard about A People’s History of Science, I couldn’t wait to read it. I really liked the idea that science wasn’t just the creation of an elite group of people, like the guy who discovered bacteria, but the property of all of the people who—as part of  their everyday, working lives—discovered and invented the tools and procedures and foundations we live by today.

When I got my hands on A People’s History of Science, I discovered something: it’s too, well, scientific, for me to read.  Don’t get me wrong; it isn’t written in sixteen-syllable doctoral thesis language. It just isn’t for me. I don’t have enough of a background to jump into the discussions the author, Clifford D. Conner, has here. I need the “juvenile non-fiction” version of this book.

So, I’d like to give this book to someone who will enjoy it. If I was your eighth-grade science teacher, I’d make you write an essay about why you want to “win” A People’s History of Science, but , thankfully, I’m deschooled, so if you would like to “obtain” this book, please just post a comment here by May 31, 2010. On June 1, I will close my eyes and point at a comment, because that’s my scientific method. will then contact the “obtainer” via email and arrange for the obtaining!

Okay? Okay! Start commenting . . .

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Rainy Day People

I love, love, love The Random House Book of Poetry for Children. I turned to it today because it’s rainy and cold and I wanted something to “chair” me up. (Stephanie used to say “chair” for “cheer” when she was a wee thing.)

I found this:

Some People

Isn’t it strange some people make
You feel so tired inside,
Your thoughts begin to shrivel up
Like leaves all brown and dried!

But when you’re with some other ones,
It’s stranger still to find
Your thoughts as thick as fireflies
All shiny in your mind!

Rachel Field

Luckily, even though it’s wet and windy and dark and gloomy outside,

I’m inside with one of the “other ones,” full of shiny thoughts.

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