Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers. ~Charles W. Eliot

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Superparent Complex

I readily confess that I frequently try to do too much, particularly where my kids are concerned. I can give you all the rationalizations in the world for this but the bottom line is that I'm on a ridiculously competitive quest against myself to prove that kids miss out on nothing when their moms work outside of the home. I firmly believe that proposition to be true and yet I admit that I try to stay a few steps ahead of the inevitable guilt by overcompensating.  Just last week, one child let me know she needed 17 red velvet cupcakes for a book talk scheduled to take place at school the next day and one of her sisters called me just before 4:30 pm to let me know that she desperately needed me to pick up a husky hat (a silly hat with a husky/dog head) because she desperately needed it for the very next day.  I had already committed to attending a meeting for 10th grade parents at our older daughter's high school that night and knew I wouldn't have time to bake cupcakes so I agreed to buy them on the way home. I laughed at the husky hat request and reminded my darling that I was picking up cupcakes and then going to a meeting and would be happy to deal with the hat request another day. "But I need it for tomorrow..." I could have and should have said "no", "you can't always get what you want when you want it",  or "I need a little more notice". Instead I said "I'll do my best but you'll have to live with it if I can't find the hat". She agreed (totally disingenuously, as I later learned). Despite it being a miserable rainy night, I got the cupcakes and I attended the meeting. I visited 4 different stores and never did succeed in finding the hat though. There was a moment there that I felt horrible and unsuccessful because I hadn't accomplished all the tasks on my list. That feeling was quickly replaced by appropriate anger with myself for ever having gotten into this position in the first place and for feeling even the slightest bit as though I'd let anyone down. I was also more than a little peeved with the child who insisted she need that ridiculous hat and that the matter was time-sensitive. At the end of the day, the problem is mine and only mine. Kids need to hear "no" and parents need to be able to say it. My kids only think I can make things like husky hats miraculously appear because I've fostered ludicrous expectations. Silly me - it's so much more important to teach them to manage their own expectations than it is to feed my supermom ego!

As you probably know, kids' books and movies often depict families where there is no mom except the occasional evil stepmom. For this reason, today's book selection can be found in the adult fiction section of your library or local bookstore - it's Lisa Genova's Left Neglected. So many of us teeter on the brink of total collapse as we try to get through an insanely long daily to-do list  This is the story of Sarah Nickerson who teeters on the brink and then falls off the proverbial cliff. One minute Sarah barely has time to breathe and, in the next split second, she sustains a serious brain injury and her life is changed forever. The scary part of the story is that it could happen to any of us. However, I prefer to take away the more reassuring message that change can be good and that challenge leads to opportunity.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Because I said so!

Parents must sometimes make decisions in the best interests of their child or family that the child does not support. Most of us recognize that you can't always please your children (Ha! Remember, I have 3 teenager girls, making this the understatement of the century!) but many of us still try, on some level, to reason with our children and make them understand why we have made the decisions we have made. Speaking for myself, I think I do this primarily out of respect for my kids and belief in their ability to understand reason and secondarily because, on some probably unattainable level, I'm hoping for a break through and a child that embraces the decision they initially abhorred. Ridiculous, I know! If all else fails, I am a proponent of "because I said so". It is a gift to parents that should neither be undervalued nor avoided. Sometimes, it's all you've got.The bottom line is that, as parents, we sign on for a lot and wear many hats but none is a "cool" hat or a "best friend to our kids" hat or even a "popular with our kids" hat. While we may change hats regularly or wear many simultaneously, it seems to me that parents may never shed the "best interests of my child" hat or "strong advocate for my child" hat and with each of those hats comes the responsibility of paying close attention and sometimes making tough decisions.

A friend recently told me that she is thinking about moving. She is a single mom of two middle graders and has decided that at this time in her life, she and her children need to live closer to her aging mother. She knows her children will not greet news of their impending move gleefully but she also knows that she is the decision-maker for the family and that children are adaptable, even when they're certain they are not. She also knows that the benefits of the proposed move will far outweigh the costs. I admire this woman greatly. It's not as easy as it may sound to put your child's feelings (and even protests) aside to lay down the law and force everyone to step in line. Not too long ago, Jeff and I agreed that it was time for one of our children to change schools. The child in question has never been one to embrace change and she felt safe, secure and extremely comfortable where she was. She hated the idea of leaving her school and made her feelings abundantly clear but we knew that the change was necessary and that she would thrive in a different environment. When we took her around to see different schools, she did what she could to sabotage potential admission but was admitted to several schools in spite of herself. She made no secret of the fact that she was furious with us and it would take a long time for her to forgive us (if ever). Six weeks into her new school, she let us know how grateful and happy she was to be there. We agreed that as soon as she felt she loved her new school, then she could buy a school sweatshirt. By the end of her first year, she had a whole school wardrobe.

Making tough, frequently unpopular, decisions like moving homes or changing schools are possible when they're thoughtfully considered and necessary. Kids do adapt and when they do, no matter how fierce their initial resistance, they may even bask in the reassurance that someone really is looking out for them. And their resourcefulness to deal with change may surprise you. If you're contemplating a big change and want to help your youngster cope, consider picking up a copy of Neville by Norton Juster (author of The Phantom Tollbooth), illustrated by G. Brian Karas. The title character in this story moves to a new town and creatively gets his name known.

Monday, December 5, 2011

My mom went to _________ and all she got me was this lousy t-shirt.

On my way home a couple of weeks ago, I slipped into Shakespeare & Co., a bookstore on Lexington Avenue between 68th and 69th Streets in Manhattan. I love this store. Sometimes I take a particular subway route home after work just so I can stop by this treasure trove and see what they've got. My visits are part field research so I know which children's and young adult titles bookstores are betting on and part me-time pleasure. On this particular visit, I was lured in by a series of t-shirts hanging in the window, each with a different title of a classic novel. One featured title was S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. This particular book has special status in my home. I loved it when I was younger and appreciated it in a whole new way when one of our 13 year-olds read it for school last year and became obsessed. I would bet that when she's my age, if asked what book from her youth changed her life, her answer would unequivocally be The Outsiders. How exciting for both of us that we will meet author S.E. Hinton at the next Children's Choice Book Awards gala on May 7, 2012! But I digress. The t-shirt.... I walked in and walked straight up to the front counter to ask where I could find The Outsiders t-shirt. I proceeded to tell her how my daughter was going to flip when she saw this. The woman behind the counter and her friend who had been hovering nearby congratulated me on being such a good mom because only good parents could raise a child that would get excited about t-shirts based on books. I'll admit it. I was feeling pretty good. Just that day Thomas Friedman has a piece published in the New York Times asking, "How About Better Parents?". Friedman insisted that parents more focused on their children's education could make a huge difference in a student's achievement. He went on to discuss a study by which the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D) conducted exams as part of the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which tests 15-year-olds in the world’s leading industrialized nations on their reading comprehension and ability to use what they’ve learned in math and science to solve real problems. Among many interesting and thought-provoking findings was the clear conclusion that reading to your children on a regular base when they are young and parental involvement (like asking your child about his or her day) make a huge difference in terms of their abilities and accomplishments in later years. These propositions seem a little anti-climactic at first glance and then a little more shocking when you face the fact that many parents still don't get it. I'm not sure how you go about changing that since even a compelling article like Friedman's is likely only going to be read by those parents who are already reading to their children and connecting with them. Yet, how can we do anything other than keep trying to spread the word. Books and reading make a difference; engaged and involved parents change the game.

Back to that t-shirt. You know how sometimes you imagine the way something will go down and you're sure you've got it right only to find out you were completely wrong? Well, that's what happened with the t-shirt. I was beyond excited as I handed it to its intended recipient who took one look at the design and asked, "what does this have to do with The Outsiders?. I mean, I'd love it if it had anything to do with the book."  I was ready to get all defensive when I took a look (probably for the first time) at the t-shirt I had purchased only hours before. She was right, of course. It had nothing to do with her beloved book. She was remarkably unimpressed by the t-shirt. What I really should have done was walk into that store and buy her a copy of Carolyn Mackler and Jay Asher's fabulous new novel, The Future of Us. I know she'll love it - all teenagers will (it's the story of two teenagers in the pre-Facebook era who discover their future selves on Facebook fifteen years in the future) - it also has nothing to do with The Outsiders but it's a great book that I'm pretty sure she'll connect with and I'm hopeful that her enjoyment of this book will erase the blah-ness of the t-shirt. More on The Future of Us in another post - it's entirely deserving of its own post!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Cookies for a Cause

Many schools in our area now include community service as a requirement for students. At some schools, community service is incorporated into the curriculum and at others, the onus is on the students to find a way to give back. No matter how you slice it, I'm in favor. Participating in and giving back to your community is critically important to both the participant and the community. The earlier you start thinking of community involvement as integral to your identity, the better off we will all be. I am deeply appreciative of the opportunities our children's schools give them to help others and I feel strongly that the modeling and opportunities should come from both the home and the school. The approach to community service taken by Riverdale Country School's Middle School is particularly impressive and should serve as a model for other schools. There are school-wide community service days. The school also mandates attendance at and participation in a middle school-wide community action program. In addition, each grade participates in their own program and each advisory group/homeroom/homebase is responsible for a separate program that they choose, develop and administer. Finally, each student is responsible for individual community service. This program considers the community in which the student is a member at different levels and expects involvement at every level. I love it!!!

Recently at a parent grade meeting, the seventh grade dean at Riverdale Country School described the multiple facets of the community service program in the seventh grade. She explained that at the homebase level, the smaller groups of kids would select and devise their activities and that she was hoping to steer them away from the traditional bake sale. Bake sales and lemonade stands are time-honored, tried-and-true traditions but this year's seventh grade is encouraged to think more broadly and consider programs that require some engagement in the community they are seeking to assist beyond presenting a check or an envelope with cash - like painting a school or community center or reading to younger children or donating books, toys and clothing. So much good work to be done!

Though off limits this year to our seventh-grader, the bake sale remains a favorite way for kids to raise money for a cause. Pick up a copy of Jarrett J. Krosoczka's Lunch Lady and the Bake Sale Bandit to read with your 3rd-5th grader and follow Lunch Lady and the Breakfast Bunch hot on the trail of missing goodies from the bake sale intended to raise money for an all-important field trip! And while you're at it, pick up a copy of Sara Varon's Bake Sale to enjoy with that same child and experience the life and dreams of bakery owner Cupcake who is in a baking slump and wants desperately to meet the famous pastry chef, Turkish Delight. These bake sale selections are both in the form of comic books/graphic novels and each goes well with a generous serving of fresh baked cookies!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

You are more than your grades

When I was younger (much), I attended an elementary school where we did not receive report cards. Tests were graded, of course, and every student had a fairly good idea of how they measured up academically but no one was reduced to a grade and no one knew exactly where they ranked. A lot of parents were and are uncomfortable with the prospect of no report cards. I'm not. I think that grades are just one part of the story of "Child as Student" and only a very tiny part of the story of "Child as Person".  It's hard to convince your kids they are not defined by their grades when their grades are staring them in the face. It's challenging to tell them that grades aren't everything when both you and they jump for joy at every A. I worry that I sometimes send a conflicting message because I do not get angry or upset by low grades and may appear laid back about school performance when, in reality, I am well aware of the competition that lies ahead and want to be sure our kids are always doing the very best that they can. That's the key, isn't it - the very best possible. The letters on a report card tell me a story about how well our children understand material they learn or how well they take tests. If someone receives a low grade, we can dig a little deeper to figure out if there is something going on. It should offer some guidance into what the student may need to review or how. I don't want to hear any of my children apologizing if they do not get an A. What I want to hear is the figurative grunt of a good day's work. I want each of our daughters to understand the importance of putting her best foot forward every time she goes out. If that foot steps in a puddle, so be it - dry off and pay closer attention next time.

Since our oldest daughter brought home the masterpiece known as Frindle home several years ago, I have been a huge fan of author Andrew Clements (who, incidentally, has recently agreed to present an award at the 2012 Children's Choice Book Awards and I'm so excited that I'll be meeting him in May). He's one of those awesome young-middle grade authors who has a book for everything and they all extol the power of children to make a difference. Pick up a copy of The Report Card by Andrew Clements, illustrated by the amazing Brian Selznick, and you (and your child, duh!) will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

You're on my list!

I recently had a parenting breakthrough and I'm eager to share my genius with you. It emanated from the fact that, at 45, I have a lousy memory. When I complain to my children that they treat me like a slave, a bank or a non-person, they always ask for examples. I am no longer able to back up my claims with evidence on the spot so I've had to get creative. I let the girls know that I am now keeping a list. All behavior that disrespects me, together with the name of the perpetrator and the date of the offense, goes on the list. Here's the amazing thing - for an entire week after I first referenced the list, there were almost no offenses at all. The list was an awesome deterrent. Who knew?! It wasn't until the second week that the existence of the list was even questioned and it wasn't until the third week that anyone thought to ask about the consequences of landing on the list. The list is, in fact, real. It's in a small green notebook that I carry around. Part of the notebook is reserved for sweet and funny things the kids do so I can recall them easily when we play "remember when"; part of the book contains a running list of things I need to pick up and attend to (ranging from buying more hair conditioner to a growing list of bar and bat  mitzvah gifts that we have not yet sent); part of the book just has work notes and thoughts; and part of the book houses my list under the heading "Disrespect Examples". I used to panic if I couldn't find my Blackberry because it contains all my contacts and my calendar but my green notebook has become far more valuable!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Bonjour et Bienvenue!

I apologize for the lapse since my last blog post. I apologize mostly to my mother who worries that something is wrong when I haven't posted in a while.  Nothing is wrong. All is good. Like most people I know, though, my life is a spectrum of varying levels of insanity and chaos and when my schedule hits the extreme end of the spectrum, I start dropping balls. Today, I'm picking them up.

A few weeks ago, upon posting my most recent past blog post, I fully expected to post daily from that day on and chronicle our family's 10-day experience hosting a foreign exchange student. The whirlwind of activity that began around 11 pm on Tuesday, October 25th threw me for a loop and resulted in a change of plans. Our student left last Friday, though - just in time for the rest of us to rally behind Jeff who, superhumanly, ran the NYC marathon for the third time on Sunday - and now I'm back to recap. I should start by acknowledging that we won the foreign exchange student jackpot. Our 13-year old young lady from Bordeaux, France was intelligent, interested, interesting, fun, kind and exceptionally polite. It was a pleasure to have her in our home and to see our city through her eyes. I expected the experience to be a positive one for our family and hoped that our children would benefit greatly from the experience. It was and they did. We all did. I will admit, though, that I didn't fully realize how demanding this adventure would be (for me, I mean). It's not easy for anyone to be "on" all the time and, as much as I appreciated the opportunity to practice speaking French, it's is particularly difficult to be "on" in a language other than your mother tongue. Our daughter, with whom the exchange student was paired, was performing in her school play (which was awesome) and mending a badly sprained ankle during the visit, which made things more challenging than they might have otherwise been. In addition, our daughter does not speak a word of French. None of our kids do. And that was a challenge as well. Still, on the first night, when we all sat down to dinner together, somehow teenage girls from different worlds, speaking different languages, were able to communicate the fact that mean girls exist in all of their schools and none of them had any desire to be part of "that" crowd. It was fascinating and fabulous.

The experience really did teach everyone to be a little more sensitive and a little more flexible. It also taught me that, in an effort to make our guest feel comfortable and make my own family look good, I am perfectly capable  of not yelling at my kids for 10 whole days. C'est bon!

Way back when I was in school, we read Antione de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince. Actually, we read it in French, Le Petit Prince (not boasting; it's just that I grew up in Montreal), and it has turned out to be one of those classic stories forever etched in my memory. In English or the original French, it's a highly recommended adventure. If you want a slower start at the French language with your younger child, I suggest you pick up a copy of  Fancy Nancy: Bonjour Butterfly. by Jane O'Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser. That Fancy Nancy - she's always a crowd pleaser!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What I'm Reading Now

I recently finished a captivating young adult novel that I highly recommend, Gabrielle Zevin's All These Things I've Done. It's set in future New York where the phrase "OMG" is a relic and coffee and chocolate are illegal. Combine this dystopian backdrop with an old fashioned crime drama and a forbidden romance and you have an incredibly addictive read. Gabrielle Zevin will be co-hosting our Annual Extreme Trivia Challenge in just a few weeks and, while that's an event where trivia questions are posed to players from the CBC's member publishing houses, my questions are all for Gabrielle - most notably, how soon can I get my hands on the sequel?! Meanwhile, if meeting Gabrielle Zevin that evening isn't exciting enough (which it, most assuredly, is), her co-host will be the amazing Carolyn Mackler. It just so happens that these two women have published books with the best titles ever. Carolyn Mackler is the author of The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things and Gabrielle Zevin is the author of Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac.

When I read a satisfying book and know that I'll have to wait some time for the sequel (Fall 2012, I believe), I often opt for non-fiction as a follow-up. My current choice reads like fiction but is actually a very thorough and amazing "biography" of Cancer. Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies presents Cancer as an antagonist with a story to tell through its relationships to the wider biological and animal world that is also, inexorably, our story. Though the style, format and purpose vary greatly, I couldn't help but think of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief when I was first introduced to Cancer. The Book Thief, you may recall, was narrated by death.I am glad that death does not narrate this one!

If , like me, you are intrigued by Siddhartha Mukherjee's book and like the idea of offering your child something to read that may invite discussion, may I suggest Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt? Seriously, it's sooooooo good. This ambitious young adult novel seems like it could work for anyone roughly 10 years old and up (way up). It runs through a multitude of themes and happenings and seamlessly weaves together so many different story threads, including one about cancer. If parallel reading doesn't work for you, then you and the children in your life may just want to read Okay for Now together.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A trip down grandparent lane

I was very fortunate growing up to develop a close bond with my grandparents. I always felt special in their eyes and I always felt cherished. My grandparents were wonderful storytellers who used to regale us with their stories. I've forgotten the details of so many of the stories but I vividly remember the way my grandparents would coax stories out of one another and nudge and wink. And I remember feeling surprised at some point when I realized that they had experienced so many adventures and lived through so much before I was even born. I remember wanting the stories to go on forever. Beyond being my amazing and beloved grandparents, they were such interesting people.

I am deeply appreciative of the years I had with my grandparents and equally appreciative of the fact that my children know and love their four grandparents. Our kids love to hear stories about Jeff's and my childhood, about our brothers and about our parents. They particularly love hearing about the first time their grandfathers met their grandmothers and the courting that ensued. I hope their interest in learning about the individuals who regally wear the grandparent crowns in their lives never wanes.

One of the most magical books to cross my desk over the last few months is an exquisite and heartwarming picture book by the talented Lane Smith called Grandpa Green. It's one of those amazing picture books that excites you when your child wants you to read it aloud over and over again. The story is told through the eyes of Grandpa Green's great grandchild and each page discloses a biographical fact about Grandpa Green, depicted by sculpted topiary trees. We get to know Grandpa Green as an individual and glimpse into his full and fantastic life. On a personal note, I found the topiaries to be extremely emotional and comforting and I think it's because the first time I ever saw sculpted trees was on my first trip to Disney World where my family traveled a million years ago after a visit with my grandparents. I loved seeing Mickey, Minnie and Donald in tree-form! In any event, the story is wonderful, the illustrations are beautiful and the themes are plentiful. I feel and hope that this is one of those books destined to become a classic.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Kindness, Compassion, Integrity - Shine On!

Like many parents, I spend a good portion of my parenting efforts guiding our children to be kind and compassionate to others. I want them to think before they speak and act and consider, before it's too late to take them back, the impact their words or acts may have on others. I also want them to understand that none of us is perfect and despite best efforts, we all make mistakes; even, sadly, sometimes in the way we treat others. The way people deal with their mistakes often says more about them than the mistakes they make in the first place.

Attention in my industry over the last week has been focused on what may go down in children's book publishing history as the National Book Awards Debacle of 2011. Early last week, the National Book Foundation (NBF) notified a select group of authors that they are finalists for the coveted National Book Award. By mid-week, the list of finalists was announced publicly. After the public announcement was made, the NBF people realized that they'd made a mistake. They had notified author Lauren Myracle that her book Shine was a finalist in the Young People's Literature category when they had meant to include Franny Billingsley’s book, Chime. Bear in mind that this is not a post about reading ability or reading comprehension or proofreading or even the ridiculousness of a particular mistake in the first place. After congratulating Lauren and then discovering an error, the NBF chose not to swallow their error but instead to let the author and the public know they had made an error. Necessary disclosure? I think not. They bittersweetly let Lauren know that they had made a mistake but that they had decided to keep both her book and Chime as finalists, on the merits. Had the story ended there, it might have been a little bumpy but it would have been a happy one. Not so. The error and the proposed solution were debated publicly over the next few days. By the end of the week, the NBF  had the nerve to ask Lauren Myracle to withdraw from National Book Award consideration in order to preserve the integrity of the award and the judges' decision. Oy! Integrity?! It used to be one of my favorite words! So Lauren Myracle withdrew from 2011 National Book Award consideration. She did so gracefully and brilliantly. Her book Shine centers on the wrenching aftermath of a hate crime against a gay teen,  and following her withdrawal, the NBF announced that “At her suggestion we will be pleased to make a $5,000 donation to the Matthew Shepard Foundation in her name.” The Matthew Shepard Foundation is a charity focused on respecting human dignity among young people. Bravo Lauren Myracle!

I want my children to understand all the elements of this story that were wrong and hurtful. I want them to be aware of the vital point that the NBF seemed to have forgotten - at the center of this controversy is and was a person; in this case, a woman who by all accounts is a treasure and is an indisputably cherished author of books for our young people. I want them to appreciate how one person can make a mistake that can steamroll out of control but that they had choices and opportunities and could have handled things differently. And I want them to admire the grace and humility with which a person can choose to deal with the mistakes and bad acts of another.

It probably doesn't take a genius to figure out what book needs to accompany today's post. It just so happens to be Teen Read Week so what better time to pick up a copy of Shine by Lauren Myracle. And while you're at it, pick up a copy of Chime by Franny Billingsley too!

Playlist for today's post
1. Let the sun SHINE, Hair
2. Nobody's Perfect, Hannah Montana
3. Miracles, Pet Shop Boys

Thursday, October 6, 2011

You've got the whole world in your hands; the whole wide world

A dear member of my staff is going to crack up when she reads this post and she should know that her email yesterday inspired the topic. The topic is globalization.

In selecting middle and high schools for our children, Jeff and I made a point of listening to the way the different schools expressed their plans for integrating this notion into their curriculum and the consciousness of their students. In the earlier school years, the focus is more on teaching a child to participate in a world where they are not alone and not the center. In the upper grades, students start to get a more vivid picture of the global landscape and, hopefully, a sense of their place in it and the opportunities it presents them. Our children attend the Hewitt School and Riverdale Country School in New York City and we are impressed by the efforts both schools make to get kids thinking globally and acting both locally and globally.

Earlier this week, I attended a meeting at school with one of our daughters that represented one small step on our family's part to think and participate globally. We will be hosting a French exchange student for 10 days at the end of the month. Though we're a little bit nervous (okay, completely overwhelmed) and still have some planning to do, we are very excited. It would be nice if our children could develop a lifelong connection with our guest and we're certainly hoping they all become fast friends but there's more. As hosts, our children will need to be flexible and hospitable and we're happy to give them and us this chance to practice important interpersonal skills. We're also hoping this experience helps spark an interest in the world for our children or ignite a spark that's already there. We're hoping all three of our children will want to travel, see the world and actively participate in it as they get older. On a more local level, we'll also be connecting to our own community in a different way. We'll be sharing the American way of life with our visitor and engaging in experiential storytelling. We're told that they do not celebrate Halloween in France and that the children coming to visit are very excited to experience American Halloween. You can only imagine the theme decor we're considering!

In honor of the world, take a look at Matt Phelan's Around The World. In graphic novel format, Phelan tells the stories of Thomas Stevens, Nellie Bly and Joshua Slocum and their adventures as they traveled around the world. Their journeys all took place in the late 19th century and were inspired by Jules Verne's novel Around the World in 80 Days. Nellie Bly's tour was, in fact, a race against the very novel that set her story in motion. She was determined to travel the world in less than 80 days and was delayed by a request from Jules Verne himself for a visit when she came to town. The stories are fascinating and the illustrations are full of feeling, enabling  the reader to peer into the emotions of the intrepid explorers. This book publishes next week, on October 11, to be exact, and is a great addition to a global library. And when you're in the bookstore or trolling around Amazon on October 11, be sure to pick up a copy of Jarrett Krosoczka's new masterpiece, Ollie, the delightful and hysterically funny story of a purple elephant who just wants a place to call home and a family to love. Really, is that too much to ask?!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wake Up!!!!!!!

Morning time at our home is not pretty. I begin the process of waking the girls up at 6:30 a.m. and it's a rare morning that I don't feel like like pulling my hair out at some point during the process. In fairness, I should not be lumping the three of them together as if to suggest that they behave similarly in this regard. They don't. One of the three is a pleasure to wake up. I walk in, lovingly call her name and she rolls over and opens her eyes. It would be perfect if a smile then spread across her face but perfection is over-rated. One of her sisters grunts and growls a lot when I wake her up and it takes a few minutes before I am assured that she's awake but it's not too bad. Then there's "the one". There always is, isn't there? That would be the one they make films about; the one who makes me think my life is like the movie Groundhog Day because I re-live the same experience every 24 hours. I kiss her cheek, I kiss her forehead, I gently ask her to wake up, I begin to shout "wake up" in her ear, I tickle her, I yell louder, I beg, I plead, I yell some more. To no avail. She won't budge. I've put ice cubes down her back and, I confess, I've given her wedgies. She burst out laughing the first time I gave her a wedgie and then it never worked again. I threaten, I bargain and I bribe. Eventually she rolls over, tells me she wants to sleep more and grudgingly pulls herself out of bed. She holds all the cards. If I don't go through all the motions, she would happily stay in bed all day long. Since that's not an acceptable alternative, we do our dance. She reminds me a little of the protagonist in Dr. Seuss' I Am Not Going To Get Up Today who says, ""The alarm can ring. The birds can peep. My bed is warm. My pillow's deep. Today's the day I'm going to sleep!"

She insists she's tired because I wake her up too early but I'm convinced the problem is that she goes to sleep too late. She has a 9:30 bedtime but tries to extend it every night. There's always an excuse. When she was younger, she was one of those children who hated the thought of fun happening without her. Maybe she's still wondering if the party really gets started after the lights go out. Maybe it does. Take a look at Durga Bernhard's While You Are Sleeping: A Lift-the-Flap Book of Time Around the World. The book opens with a mom  reading a bedtime story to her child and considers what people in different parts of the world are doing at the very same time. What a great way for kindergarteners to learn about different time zones.  Off course, then they'll never want to go to sleep because somewhere there really is a party going on at bedtime!

Playlist for today's post:
1. A Day in The Life by the Beatles
2. The Lazy Song by Bruno Mars
3. Sun Comes Up, It's Tuesday Morning by the Cowboy Junkies
4. I Need Some Sleep by the Eels

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

When your child's school calls

When you get a call from your child's school, other than the customary check-in call in the early grades, it's almost never good news. I say almost because there are indeed those rare teachers who call (even in the middle and upper grades) to let you know that your child did something awesome. The Hewitt school in New York City deserves a shout-out in this regard (and so does our daughter who is a student there). Last year, we received calls from two of our daughter's teachers who seemed genuinely delighted with something she had accomplished at school. In my experience, this is rare. Academics aside, one of those sentences most parents hate to hear when they answer the phone during school hours is "Hello, this is the nurse from X's school." At least when the teachers call, they generally assure you off the bat that your child is physically okay. When the nurse or nurse-substitute calls (never take for granted the fact that your child's school may have a nurse; many don't), they're not. Or at least they claim not to be.

Last Monday, I received such a call. The nurse proceeded to tell me that my child had fallen down the stairs and hurt her foot. I don't mean to sound cold but my first instinct was to laugh it off. Anyone who knows our kids well knows that they often walk with their heads in the clouds and are easily distracted by conversation and shiny objects. As a result, bumping into things and falling down is a regular occurrence and they've learned to fall properly and minimize injury. Not necessarily so this time. The nurse reported that she had asked our daughter to rate her pain using a pain faces chart and our daughter had rated her pain a 10 so I should come get her and take her for an x-ray. Have you ever seen one of those charts? Can you honestly tell me that any child would ever rate their pain on any occasion at less than 10? I spoke with the patient who confirmed that she had fallen down the stairs, thought she'd just rolled her ankle (like she usually does) so she got up to shake it off and keep going (like she usually does) and went back down because she couldn't bear weight. She tried to stand up again to call a friend to help her get to the nurse's office and proceeded to fall down a third time. She was quite calm and level-headed when we spoke, insisted that this was different from the other times she'd fallen down the stairs and told me her foot was swelling up and changing color. A trip to the pediatric orthopedist confirmed that she had a bad right lateral ankle sprain, which the doctor decided to treat as a break and she is now wearing one of those boot casts (that seem much cooler before you're stuck wearing one) that she's stuck wearing for 5 weeks. The moral of the story is two-fold:  (1) when the school nurse calls, it's generally not to tell you that your child is a good kid and (2) though you may be skeptical when it comes to the pain faces chart, you know your kid and you probably know when your kid is exaggerating or not.

One of my favorite recent books involving a youngster sustaining injury is Raine Telgemeier's Smile, a 2011 Children's Choice Book Awards finalist for 5th-6th Grade Book of the Year. I have blogged about it before and will likely do so again. It's a great upper elementary and middle school comic book/graphic novel that tells the story of a twelve-year old who trips, falls, knocks out her front teeth and embarks on a miserable orthodontic adventure requiring her to wear all sorts of devices, including but not limited to a retainer with fake teeth attached. All this while she's trying to deal with being 12 and anyone with a child who is close to 12, 12 or past 12 remembers that 12 is tough on its own. The story is fantastic and the images are spot-on.  I happen to love that the author's website is because as you read the book, you really can't help but shout "Go Raina" on a regular basis.

Since I've decided it's cheating to keep blogging about the same books, no matter how apropos they seem, and there are so many great books to write about, I've decided to include a second book pick today. In honor of our daughter's sprained ankle, which is keeping her out of gym and sports for the next few weeks, consider picking up a copy of Kick by Walter Dean Myers and Ross Workman. This book about a thirteen year old soccer player headed for juvenile detention who develops a meaningful relationship with a cop is notable both for being a compelling story and for being a unique collaboration. The back cover says it all:

Here is the email that started it all:
Subject: Email from a Big Fan
Date: Mon., 3 September 10:07 AM

Dear Mr. Myers,
One of the reasons that you're my favorite author is that your characters seem so real and genuine. You're the only author I know of who doesn't sound like an adult when you're writing about kids.
Sincerely, Ross Workman

Subject: Re Email from a Big Fan
Date: Mon., 3 September 2:38 PM
Hey, Ross!
Okay, let's write a story. 80 pages with alternating voices. I do the first ten, then you do the second, etc.... What do you think?
Walter Dean Myers

Hundreds of emails and three years later, Kick is a published book.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The wheels on the bus

I had an experience this morning that reinforced my vote for bus as my preferred mode of transportation in New York City. Cabs are just too expensive and isolating. Subways are too cramped and dehumanizing. But the bus... it's civilized and it even gets its own lane down 5th Avenue making it a speedy and joyous alternative. People often acknowledge one another on buses in a way they don't seem to do as comfortably on the subway, unless it's to shout, "back off buddy!" Maybe it was recognition of this key difference that led me to tap a woman on the shoulder this morning and ask, "Are you Stacy Schiff?" And she was! If you look back a few posts and then again, a few more, you'll see that Stacy Schiff is the author of Cleopatra: A Life, a book I've blogged about and referenced on more than one occasion. I loved this book! I was inspired by this book! I wanted Stacy Schiff to feel like a celebrity this morning because, to me, that's what and who she is: someone to celebrate for bringing stories of fabulously brilliant, committed and misunderstood women like Cleopatra to light. I can only speak for myself, of course, but we had the most delightful conversation as the bus drove on and I believe this was the most satisfying celebrity sighting I've ever had. If you are a woman and you have not yet read Cleopatra: A Life, what are you waiting for?! Dare to be empowered. If you are a man and you have not yet read Cleopatra: A Life, read it! Dare to be dazzled by the strength of a woman - both by Cleopatra and, maybe even more so, by the brilliant author who pulls together all the threads of history to weave a better understanding of fierce and strategic leadership. I've gotta say, I felt empowered all day long!

The easy thing to do now would be to say that hey, I spoke with Stacy Schiff so obviously Cleopatra: A Life is the book pick of today's post. That goes without saying. But since I've already done that and Vicky Alvear Shecter's Cleopatra's Moon (which you really must read) several times, I've decided to go a different way. In honor of buses, today's pick is Richard Michelson's Busing Brewster. Busing Brewster is a picture book that tells the story of Brewster, a first grader who is representative of young African-American children in the 1970s, who were bused to previously-segregated all white schools. All three of these books share success at making history accessible, interesting and relevant.

Monday, September 19, 2011

What I'm Reading Now

I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. I happen to be a huge fan of Brooks' style of historical fiction and her writing; I loved Year of Wonders and People of the Book. Caleb's Crossing made me appreciate both the author and the historical realities she confronts in her writing that much more. This is the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard.  There is little known about the young scholar so Brooks weaves a compelling and intriguing tale. Her narrator is a young, smart and curious girl from a Puritan family who desperately wishes she could receive the same educational opportunities as the boys in her community, including her not-the-brightest-bulb brother. She and the young Native American who her missionary father seeks to provide an education develop a secret and profound friendship. Such a satisfying read!

If you've been following this blog for some time, then you know that one of my great joys is matching up adult and children's books that complement one another. I cannot help but think that the perfect young reader companion to Caleb's Crossing may be Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This semi-autobiographical novel for young adults tells the story of a teenager who leaves his  his reservation to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only thing close to a  Native American is the mascot. This 2007 National Book Award for Young People's Literature winner has been on my must-read list for a while. The time has come. And the timing is perfect because next week (September 24-October 1) is Banned Books Week and it so happens that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one of the most frequently banned books of the last decade, because of references to and depictions of domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty and sexuality and the use of profane language. Banned Books Week is a national celebration of the freedom to read. Hundreds of books are challenged in schools and libraries every year and you can be sure that some of your favorites are on that list (ahem... Judy Blume?!). I try to read a frequently challenged book every year around this time to take my own little stand. Bring on the Diary...

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Where there's smoke...

Another story from my mornings walking the dog...  Lev (our pooch) and I were walking through our neighborhood early this morning when a lit cigarette came flying out of a window above us. We couldn't believe it! Seriously, we both instinctively jumped back and looked at one another incredulously. You know, you warn your kids about the evils of smoking and caution them about the danger of secondhand smoke but who would think of warning them about lit cigarettes being tossed from apartment building windows? Our daughters have enough trouble walking down the street without tripping or bumping into things. What a disaster it would be if they had to keep an eye on what might be falling from the sky while they're already looking ahead, trying to avoid bumping into people and looking down, trying to avoid the dog poop our neighbors have neglected to scoop. The danger associated with cigarettes knows no limits. Just Say No!

Here's a middle grade (meaning 9-12 year olds) book to consider that allows me to tie in both smoking and pets - consider Mavis Jukes' Smoke. The title character is the 12-year old protagonist's cat who goes missing after his young owner, Colt, is transplanted to a new home. Smoke was given to Colt as a gift from his dad when he was little and helped him feel connected to his dad after his parents divorced and he and his mom moved away. Smoke gets lost and the search for him puts Colt's life in danger, offering a whole new twist on the harm caused by smoke. Per the publisher's website, this story offers a "captivating look at cowboys, courage, and community, this is a tender tale about family and friends pulling together, and what it really means to be a man."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

If the shoe fits...

One of our daughters got dressed for school this morning in a bulky sweater. She then proceeded to mope about our home and complained that she looked fat. For a moment, let's ignore the fact that today is a hot and sunny day, emphasis on hot, by which I mean to say that it is not anywhere close to bulky sweater weather. The comment was a test and I was determined to pass. "Sweetie," I said, "you are anything but fat and nothing could make you look fat". This is the truth. She looked right through me and, to some spot on the wall I was incapable of seeing, said, "I feel fat". I asked why she didn't just change her clothes. She shrugged her shoulders. I insisted again that she did not look fat and suggested that maybe the lack of shape of the sweater was making her feel this way. I went on to explain that when you look like her, even a bulky sweater does not make you look fat as opposed to when you look like me and wear bulky sweaters to hide stuff , you must wear them with leggings so that at least some shape can be detected. I have been accused of offering unsolicited long-winded dissertations to our daughters and this was turning into one of those. I invoked the weather and suggested she put a shirt on under the sweater because when she gets too hot in the sweater, as she inevitably will, and wants to take it off, she should have a comfortable and slightly more fitted shirt underneath that will show her trim figure just a little better. She shrugged. I reminded her that today's temp will reach the mid-eighties and she will definitely be too hot. She put a t-shirt on underneath the sweater. She attends a school with a uniform and cannot walk around in a t-shirt so this made no sense at all. I told her. She took the t-shirt off but kept the bulky sweater. All I could do at this point was make sure she brought deodorant to school with her because sweat was the only sure thing. On the deodorant front, I succeeded. Everywhere else - epic fail!

Every day with kids is a pop quiz. With teenage girls, every pop quiz includes at least one brain teaser. When this particular child wore this particular sweater last year, it fit a little bit looser than it does now and though she knows it's because she's growing, she finds the whole thing unsettling. Telling her she could never look fat in anything wasn't helpful. It happens to be true and I had to say it but it wasn't helpful. The solution miraculously occurred to me as I took her to school. I turned to her and suggested that maybe this weekend we should go out and she could spend her birthday money on the new boots she's been coveting. Her whole mood changed. Her face lit up. The promise of retail therapy can be as effective as the experience itself. And  every girl know that shoes and jewelry are the go-to items when you're in a body image rut.

Your littlest ones might enjoy Karen Baumont's Shoe-la-la!, illustrated by LeUyen Pham. This colorful picture book is a happy jaunt through the prettiest footwear. But shoe books don't have to evoke something pink or frilly - give your middle grader a copy of Gennifer Choldenko's Al Capone Shines My Shoes. This is a sequel to Al Capone Does My Shirts. The books are narrated by Moose Flanagan whose father is a prison guard at Alcatraz. The Alcatraz setting and shout-outs to some of its most famous prisoners make for a terrific blend of historical fiction and contemporary coming of age.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Dog Meets Dog

A funny thing happened when I was walking our precious dog Lev this morning. Well, not really funny. Tragic, actually; all the more so because this was not the first time. Sweet little Lev loves nothing more than playing with other dogs. He is a master of the bait and switch. He lays down calmly, patiently and gently in wait when he sees a dog approaching, lures them in with his cuteness and then jumps all over them when they arrive. Dogplay always involves the dogs sniffing, maybe even licking, each other in places that make many humans a little uncomfortable. Dogs like Lev are not the least bit discriminating; they love all dogs - big, small, male, female - they just love to be loved and to give love. Lev is a smallish whitish Havanese and people generally assume he is a she. This morning, Levy was getting it on with some dog and the owner and I were chatting. The owner of the other dog - a gentleman that I would guess was in his late 50s or early 60s - kept referring to Lev as "she" as in, "she's so friendly", "she's so cute". I corrected him after the third or so reference and said, "actually, she's a he". He immediately tugged on his leash, said, "Bruiser, stop, let's go" and wished me a good day. I'm fairly certain he was concerned my dog was turning his gay. Seriously! Faced with so many levels of ignorance, I was shocked into silence, which frustrated me after I got my bearings and several good comebacks were ricocheting in my head. I can get past ignorance concerning dogs pretty easily but not blatant homophobia.

I'd like to believe that younger generations will grow up without hangups like these but if the man on the street this morning has kids of his own, who can say what messages they've been getting and disseminating? And we all know there are lots more like him. Further, we all know that gay teens continue to be subjected to unmitigated bullying by other teens. The cycle will continue until more people stand up and make an effort to end it by teaching their kids about fairness, compassion, equality and to embrace difference. For my part, I am relieved that our daughters are far more evolved that the man with the dog. When gay marriage was legalized in New York, they were confused as to how and why the law would have treated gay and straight people differently in the first place. I was stumped for a good answer.

At a diversity conference I attended last year at New York City's Hewitt School, attendees were asked what book representing diversity they would urge young adults to read. One librarian revealed that she recommends David Levithan's Boy Meets Boy to every teenager that seeks her out and even some that don't. Great choice! The story is narrated by Paul, who, like most teenagers, is preoccupied with love. The twist is that instead of the typical "boy-meets-girl" scenario, this one is "boy-meets-boy". An additional twist is the fact that though Paul is gay, he is not a tragic, rejected  figure. Rather, he's just a typical teenager, dealing with relationship woes. Paul attends what we might consider a fantasy high school where tolerance reigns and shame is banished. The extreme positivity of the school environment gives readers a chance to read a story about someone just like them but maybe a little bit different and gives gay kids a chance to read a story about someone they can relate to who is not treated like a victim - there's something hopeful in seeing yourself portrayed a little more like everyone else. It's a great recommendation that I wholeheartedly endorse.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Happy Birthday A & K!

And just like that (*snap*), summer has come to a close. We returned home from vacation in the wee hours of Labor Day morning and changed from summer vacation mode to school preparedness mode in an instant. Our three kids attend two different schools, only one of which began today. Despite the fact that the other one will begin tomorrow, we heard a chorus of "it's not fair" with a smattering of  "can't I just miss the first day?" for effect. The first day back is tough on many people. I have always tried to arm our daughters with confidence on occasions such as this by reminding them of how wonderful they are and how nice it will be to reconnect with friends. As if that would ever work! The only thing that got people out the door this morning was the promise of a birthday celebration featuring red velvet cake for our two daughters who turn 13 years old today.  Thank goodness for birthdays and double thanks for red velvet! But most of all, I am so grateful for our wonderful daughters and I wish only good things for our two spectacular birthday girls!

It's not easy to tell one teenager, let alone three, that the answer's in a book, or two, so I held back this morning but I am now intent on having all three of our children read Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, followed by Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter. The first is the biography of the last queen of Egypt, a brilliant and charismatic leader. The second is a fictional account of the life and times of her daughter, about whom we know even less than we do about her mother. In both accounts, mother and daughter were scholarly, exceedingly intelligent, powerful women who were born to lead. I hope teenagers will give the biography a chance because it's so got so much fascinating material about one of the most intriguing women of all time. If that seems like too much for some, though, there's no way around the fact that Cleopatra's Moon is just an exceptional story, exquisitely written. It's a novel I've discussed before because I savored every page and then couldn't wait to share it. I am a big fan of stories, real and made up, that feature brilliant and powerful women. All the better if they're compassionate too!

Monday, August 22, 2011

See you in September!

Just a short note today to answer questions you may have, arising from my last post.

1. We managed to fit Jeff and myself, our three daughters, our dog, 4 enormous duffel bags, 7 plastic stackable drawers, 3 full laundry bags, 3 sleeping bags, a few fold-up chairs and an enormous stuffed cow in the car last week when we picked our children up from camp. The dog is not loving the cow!

2. Had I put money on the attitude thing, I'd have lost a bundle! We brought home buckets full of tears but there was no bad attitude. I am delighted to write that we have three daughters who each had the most amazing camp experience ever and were sad to see it come to an end.

3. The summer is not quite over. In a few days we will head off on our family vacation. We will fly to Los Angeles and drive up the coast to San Fransisco. We can't wait.

I will be signing off now until just after Labor Day. Taking lots of books with me - both traditional print and kindle edition, both adult and children's - and I look forward to telling you about them all upon my return.

Meanwhile, if your youngster is already starting to feel anxious about the social situation at school in September, then cuddle together over a copy of Peter Brown's You Will Be My Friend!