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

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Understanding your teen through books

Clearly I have a bias in this regard but, as far as I'm concerned, books are powerful tools and one of the few weapons in a parents' arsenal to help bridge the divide when their children become teens. In some cases, simply by reading some of the contemporary Young Adult (YA) literature, parents can learn about the reality in which their teens are growing. In other cases, books can provide a stepping stone to valuable conversations that may just arm your child for some of what he or she will encounter as a teen. Check out this article written by Karen Springen, sharing her thoughts on the best teen books for moms and daughters to read and discuss. Among her recommended titles are Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter (one of my all-time favorite books!), Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard and Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin. I think this is a great and varied list but I just can't resist the urge to add a few more. There are certain books I think every teen and every parent of a teen should read - boy or girl, mom or dad. These include Exposed by Kimberly Marcus, The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson. Happy reading!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Rain Rain Go Away

It's been a sweltering summer and the few storms that promise some respite from the heat have been reasonably welcomed by most of us. Not our dog! Our poor little pup is terrified of stormy downpours. Last night he searched and searched for a hiding place but just couldn't escape the sound of the rain slapping the windows. Up until a couple of years ago, one of our daughters was similarly traumatized, even paralyzed, by storms. We tried everything to de-sensitize her and nothing worked. We held her close and comforted her. We hid under the covers with her. We told her the sound of thunder came from cloud giants bowling and when it got really loud, it just meant they were having an awesome time. It didn't help. Nothing did. Then, one day, she was out in the rain with nowhere to hide and, without warning or hoopla, just came to terms with the water pouring down. She miraculously realized she was not and would not be getting hurt. We had tried so hard to help get her to this point but, in the end, she did it on her own terms. It's pretty awesome now to see her trying to comfort the dog!

Lots of kids are afraid of storms (and plenty of other things). Parents are always looking for ways to help their little ones confron their fears and move on. I had the pleasure recently of reading a delightful picture book called The Rain Train by Elena de Roo, illustrated by Brian Lovelock, that makes rain the stuff of lullabies. Well, I wish I had thought of that years ago!! The sounds of the rain are lyrical and even soothing throughout this colorful, beautiful book. It's the perfect bedtime story to incorporate into the rotation for the youngest of children who just may grow up looking forward to stormy nights!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

P.S. I Hate it Here Too/Two

I recently blogged about the letters that come home from summer camp that knock your world off its axis because there's no disputing the fact that at the moment those letters were written, your child was indeed miserable. Having dear friends contending with this very issue at the time, I was quick to point out that the letter reflected a moment in time and the moment was likely the one miserable moment among thousands of joyful moments. One dear friend let me know that a week after receiving the letter declaring misery, the same child sent a precious letter to herself at home, letting her home-self know that her camp-self was having a blast and should definitely return to camp next summer. How awesome is that?! So here's my story: one of our daughters who is away at camp for 8 weeks this summer, enjoyed the first 4-week session immensely. We visited her and her sister this past weekend and she looked happy and fabulous and the stories were bubbling out of her. The problem is that this child is not very good at goodbyes and visiting day - a necessity for parents and most campers - is excruciatingly difficult for her. The stories that flowed when we greeted her were replaced by tears when we said goodbye. Yesterday we received the first letter from the second session. It said: "Dearest family, First session was so much better... I know you guys won't let me but I want to come home so badly. Can you think about it? Please." It was so sad. We were so sad. We are so sad. We know that the letter is reflective of a sad moment but let's be real - evidence of that moment is like putting a dagger through my heart! Bring on the jellybeans!

Camp is clearly a growing experience for all of us. Just when you think you're out of the woods...

Funny that as I re-visit this issue (for my own therapeutic value), I also happened to receive a timely note from the author/editor of P.S. I Hate it Here. Diane Falanga let me know that she is currently working on volume 2 and looking for camp letters. If any  readers would like to submit their kids' camp letters for possible inclusion, she'd love to see them. You can reach her at or

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A letter from my daughter

With kids away at camp, you find yourself starting out by hoping to receive word from them - any word - just a little letter to reassure you that they're still in one piece. Once you get that first letter and you know they're breathing, you realize that you really want and need more - a sign that they're happy and loving camp. I remind my children of these needs every summer before they head off to sleepaway camp but as soon as they get there, they get involved in countless activities and my needs fade. This is a good thing and I know that it's a good thing. I also know that kids live in the moment so it's likely that during the course of any given summer, at least one of our daughters will head back to her bunk and write at that one moment when she's feeling a little tired, disconnected and homesick. At the other end, we receive that letter, forget what we know to be true or likely and panic. When this happens, you could head for the jellybeans, you could call the camp to find out what's going on or you could take a deep breath and give the experience the same chance you're asking of your child. We've certainly received those letters over the years and I've eaten jellybeans by the boatload but our daughters insist that they love camp and would never dream of giving it up.

The thing about letters is that you never know what you're going to get. This summer, we've received several letters from one of our daughters that have focused on some of her favorite experiences so far and have been beautifully introspective. She has been exposed to remarkable people and stories this summer and, as a result, has let us know that she is feeling very connected to our religion and her faith. Her letters have been incredibly vivid and meaningful. Through it all, the message that's come home is one of pure joy and it is abundantly clear that this child is having the greatest summer of her life. The unexpected can be a gift!

As our children discover who they are and what our religion and culture mean to them, I can't help but hope that in the course of their lives they will be open to learning about other religions, traditions and culture. I hope that much of their exposure to the rich fabric of diversity in the world will come from hands on experience but, for me, there's great comfort in the fact that they can experience so much from books as well. Take, for example, Reza  Jalali's Moon Watchers: Shirin's Ramadan Miracle, illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien. This story of  Shirin, a young Muslim girl, and her family at Ramadan weaves together the traditional observance and meaning of the holiday with a lively drama of sibling rivalry. I enjoyed reading about the holiday and the traditions and I loved the evolving story of the relationship between Shirin and her brother Ali.

Monday, July 18, 2011

What I'm Reading Now

I'm not sure where the last week went but I'm looking forward to the week ahead. Visiting day with our daughters is coming up quickly (on Saturday) and I have an exciting week at work to keep me busy until then. We are planning events and programs and interviewing prospective new members of our team. From the resumes alone, it is clear that there is tremendous talent out there and we are looking to nab us some of that. The bittersweet reality of it is that new opportunities have arisen because some of the beloved members of our CBC team have moved or will be moving on. It is because I've had the most amazingly talented and brilliantly charming staff that I feel good about our prospective candidates.

Similarly, it is because I've been reading such great books lately that I feel good about the future of book publishing and can't wait to see what else is out there. On the adult side, I just finished a book that I LOVED! It's called The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and though its pub date is not until September, you can and should pre-order it on the author's website by clicking here. The writing is fantastic, the descriptions are so vivid and delicious and the story is sooooooo satisfying. Here's a description from the author's site (which I've cut and paste because I have too much respect for this book and its creator to risk mangling it on my own:
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.
 For my middle school aged kids (and my middle-aged brother who is, was and will always be the greatest Beatles fan I've ever known), I am now reading Greg Taylor's The Girl Who Became a Beatle. It all starts with the musical protagonist's wish, "I wish I could be as famous as the Beatles". It appears not to be your average Cinderella/Fairy Godmother story. The morning after making her wish, Regina Bloomsbury awakens to find herself in the middle of her wish. Not only is she as famous as the Beatles, she has replaced them! Their songs are her songs.Hmmmmm... this could be fun!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Hooray for Harry Potter!

In honor of the final installment of the final Harry Potter film, out later this week, the Early Career Committee (ECC) of the Children's Book Council, headed by my fabulous staff, has gone to great lengths to create what might be the most elaborate event in the history of the Children's Book Council. The event is Harry Potter trivia night. My staff of HP enthusiasts and their HP-obsessed ECCers sent scripted acceptance letters on parchment paper with wax seals delivered by owls to participants, they have painted banners to reflect the different houses at Hogwart's, they have created a Hogwart's Express for photo souvenirs, they have created zillions of gold origami snitches, they've included a tribute to Moaning Myrtle in the bathroom, they will don costumes and this is just a taste. The creativity knows no bounds - spells have even been cast on the food. What a great reminder this is of the magic that is the Harry Potter series. These books magically transformed non-readers into readers and engaged children of all ages, including the inner children in their parents. The books led to movies and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter Theme Park but did you know that they also lead to the invention of a sport? Just ask the International Quidditch Association. The power and magic of storytelling has never been as evident as it has been in this amazing series, for so many reasons. I hope the CBC ECC guests have a magical time tomorrow evening and I hope someone saves me a licorice wand!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

I'm gonna sit right down and write myself a letter...

A few friends have heard me whine recently about the lack of letters home from one of our daughters who is away at camp. The fact is she has been writing but she has taken to sending the three of us at home letters to share. In other words, she will write to her dad, to her sister and me all at once and select one of us as the recipient each time. She had been away for two weeks by the time I was the designated recipient. In that letter, which happened to be an awesome letter/chock full of info, she let us know at the outset that she rejected any sadness I was feeling at not having been named the recipient earlier (I cannot lie - I had whined about it to her too!). She took a firm stand on the fact that we were all the joint recipients of her letters and the "inbox" in which they were and are received should not matter at all. My husband Jeff agreed with her, applauded her reasoning and offered to hire her as an associate if she ever decides to go to law school. I canvassed a few friends to make sure I wasn't losing my mind! My friends made me feel both supported and sane. Turns out that many of my fellow moms understood why it was important to me to be the recipient of a letter from my child, even if we couldn't articulate why. I could, however, try turning the tables on her. I wrote back a loving note and included the question - how would you feel if I wrote combined letters to you and your sister and addressed them all to her? She hasn't written back yet so I don't know if I'm getting through but I'm willing to bet the response will end up in someone else's "inbox".

I think I've reacted so emotionally to this situation partly because I miss my daughters very much and partly because the changing nature of the mother-daughter relationship, particularly during adolescence, baffles me.  We are on an emotional odyssey, full of twists, turns and unexpected changes in the elements. This same daughter used to write loving letters to me all the time and made me promise to write to her every day that she's away (oh, did I neglect to mention that I write to her every day?!). Speaking of our odyssey, please share Gareth Hinds' The Odyssey with your kids. This is a graphic novel based on Homer's epic poem and it's wonderful - as in truly full of wonder. The illustrations are magnificent and the story is told in such an accessible, digestible way. I love this book and believe that it transcends any age designation - read it aloud to younger kids, read it alongside older kids and read it in a parallel universe with your teens - you'll all be glad you did!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Book Club Suggestions

Several people have asked me recently for Book Club suggestions. I'm not much of a book clubber myself but there are definitely some books that could provoke intense and/or interesting discussions.

For adult book clubs, I will offer that, according to this morning's Shelf Awareness, the following are the most popular book club books during June based on votes from readers and leaders of more than 30,000 book clubs registered at

1. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
2. Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue
3. Cutting for Stone: A Novel by Abraham Verghese
4. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
5. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
6. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet: A Novel by Jamie Ford
7. The Paris Wife: A Novel by Paula McLain
8. Little Bee: A Novel by Chris Cleave
9. Water for Elephants: A Novel by Sara Gruen
10. Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel by Jeannette Walls

For parent-child book clubs, I would suggest the following:

1. For pre-K-2nd Graders: A Place to Call Home by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz (see blog post dated 7/6/11)
2. For 3rd Graders: Lunch Lady and the Summer Camp Shakedown by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (see blog post dated 4/3/11)
3. For 4th-5th Graders, consider Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow, A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix,  by Gary Golio and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe. (see blog post dated 6/29/11)
4. For 5th-6th Graders, consider Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt (see blog posted dated 5/27/11)
5. For teens: Exposed by Kimberly Marcus (see blog post dated 2/16/11)

Each of these books has cross-gender and cross-generational appeal. You'll find there's lots to think about and lots to talk about. Happy reading!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

P.S. I Hate it Here

Isn't it ironic that summer means time off and play for kids but the planning can be so stressful for parents? It takes a lot of work to make a summer seem carefree and well spent. Out three daughters are only now beginning to truly understand that when you're an adult, you generally don't get summers off so they need to make the most of their summers while they can. Still, I don't think they quite appreciate how much effort has gone into creating this great summer experiences for them over the years. Having put in so much time and energy, what do you do when your child is unhappy with the plans you've made for their summer break from school? I've heard several different reactions from several different people. Some parents will go back to the drawing board and come up with new exciting opportunities, wanting their children to enjoy and savor each and every summer moment available to them. Others will tell their kids to buck up and make better choices next year. In our experience, Jeff and I fall somewhere in the middle. When one of our children tried zoo camp for a week and hated it, we told her to buck up - it was day camp for 5 days and we wanted her to make the most of it. When one of our daughters tried sleepaway camp for a month a few years back and quickly discovered it was not for her, we went to retrieve her and re-program her summer immediately. We're all for toughening up but not so much in favor of scarring! There is no one-size-fits-all summer program and we are so fortunate as parents to have so many possibilities to consider for our kids.  This doesn't mean we'll always get it right; hopefully we'll know when we've gotten it wrong enough to make a change!

When kids are away at sleepaway camp, particularly when they are on the younger side, it can sometimes be challenging to determine if they're actually having fun or not (not so in the case of our daughter who made it abundantly clear that she needed to come home early; we were grateful for the clarity and proud of her for having a clear enough sense of herself to let us know what she needed). Beware the photos that many camps now post online each day to show you how much fun the kids are having - the resulting photo psychosis whereby you spend hours each day examining every detail of every expression on your child's face and body language is tough to shed. For me, it's a chronic perennial condition. My kids have spent the last 6 summers at sleepaway camp and I still search for signs of life, happiness and integration within the social fabric way too much! And beware of reading too much into letters that come home. Consider these rules of thumb: If they're not writing frequently, it's because they're busy having fun; If they look tired in some of the photos, it's because they're busy having fun; If they write home about a kid in the bunk that is annoying them, remember that this is precisely the sort of behavior that will lend itself to the development of strong problem-solving skills; If the experience isn't working for them and they need to come home early, the camp will let you know! If you need a little extra boost to get you through, pick up P.S. I Hate It Here,. Inspired by her own daughter's "melodramatic rants" from camp, Diane Falanga collected more than 150 real letters from kids age 8-16 that cover all the imaginable scenarios, from acing the cabin lice inspection, to rowing in the “ricotta” race, to breaking the bad news about a retainer lost in the wilderness. Per the publisher, these letters reveal that kids are wittier and more sophisticated than we might assume, and that the experience of being away from home for the first time creates hilarious and lasting memories.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Home Away From Home

I have friends who never went to sleepaway camp and think that the prospect of sending your kids away for the summer is neglectful and maybe even barbaric. I wonder  how I would view the camp thing if I hadn't been a camper myself. It's hard to say. As a parent sending my kids off to camp for two months, knowing I'll see them only for one day in the middle, my internal conflict, which rages on throughout the season because I miss them very much, always resolves in favor of granting my children the kind of experience and independence they can only get from sleepaway camp, if they want it. I enjoy the fact that they always seem to appreciate home that much more when they return at the end of the summer and I revel in the way they assert their independence just a little more each year. I don't know if camp will ultimately help them (or me) adjust to college away from home but here's hoping. I do believe that sleepaway camp breeds flexibility, self-awareness, compassion and problem-solving skills. I also support the idea of separating kids from computers and TV sets for a while. Ultimately, I love knowing that my kids are able to make a home away from home for themselves and that they then return to the home we have built for and with them. It's all good!

Last night I took home a picture book that should become a classic. Alexis Deacon's A Place to Call Home, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz, is one of the greatest picture books I've ever experienced. It's hysterically funny (the laugh-out-loud kind!),  heart-warmingly adorable and entirely delightful. Seven furry hamster-like brothers outgrow their nice, warm, safe hole in the ground and go out in the world in search of a new home. They adventures take them across the sea (a puddle), to the edge of the world (atop a washing machine) and face-to-face with a beast (a dog). But they help each other and, eventually, find a wonderful new home. Quite honestly, this is a book a child will want to read over and over again and so will a parent.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Perception and Misperception and Changing Perception

Hope everyone enjoyed their 4th of July and Canada Day celebrations!

Today's post is about perception; particularly, perceptions about people and friendships. For a period of time in a child's life, they are likely to miss cues from others or mis-characterize them. Many kids go through a phase where they read everything dramatically. Mine certainly did - for a while, it was not uncommon for one of the girls to come home from school and let me know that X didn't like her anymore. "How do you know?" I would ask. "Because she didn't save me a seat at lunch" or "Because she didn't laugh at my joke" or "Because she looked at me funny". Parents come to know that these dramatic conclusions about friends are par for the course. The challenge is holding back and not sounding dismissive while trying to toughen up your kid with a dose of realism. I used to tell our kids to buck up and not read too much into one glance or incident but I would balance it by also telling them that there are bound to be some people that really don't like them just as there are already some people that they don't like and that's life.

At some point, though, children develop sharper and keener perception and, as parents, it's important to turn the corner with them. When our daughters come home now and let me know someone doesn't like them, my first reaction (that I generally keep to myself) is a little like Seinfeld's mother, in the eponymous sitcom, when she was baffled at why anyone would not like her son? “How can anyone not like you?" Then I take a step back because I know that our daughters are generally past the point where their perception of themselves as they relate to others is shaky. I wouldn't be doing them any good at this point if I insisted that they were reading too much into a glance or a slight. If they're convinced that someone is tired of them or just doesn't like them anymore, then I've learned from experience, they're probably right. The fact that they've learned to read others well is an achievement. The message from mom is now vastly different from the message they used to get. I wouldn't suggest lauding the achievement when they've let you know someone doesn't like them but I would laud silently and then deal with the unhappiness as best you can. 

The funny thing about perception is that now, when our daughters have become incredibly perceptive about the way see and relate to others, their self-perception is more distorted than ever.

Things are not always as they appear. For a great beginner's look at perception and perspective, consider Craig Frazier's Bee & Bird. This beautiful, wordless picture books keeps you guessing and will keep your little one giggling.