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, June 30, 2011

It's a Twin Thing

When I reflect at the the end of the summer, I am quite sure that yesterday will be remembered as one of the best days of my Summer of 2011. Yesterday, one of our daughters received her first letter from her twin sister who is away at camp. The recipient of the letter has been writing to both of her sisters daily and had just come through her first meltdown of the summer when the realization that her sisters are gone hit fiercely and she missed them terribly. Somehow that twin telepathy thing got going and the letter arrived exactly when it needed to. My husband and I also received letters from that daughter yesterday, which we loved, but it was the letter from sister to sister/twin to twin that lit up our world.

Our twin daughters are two very distinct individuals who get a tremendous amount of love, support and companionship from one another. Our twin daughters attend different schools and different camps and in each case, the school and camp selected are just the right fit for that particular child. I have been questioned on this by several people with twins because it seems so unnecessarily complicated  and many twins derive strength from their togetherness. The thing is that though our daughters look very much alike to many people (not at all to us!), they couldn't be more different. There's no one-size-fits-all road map when it comes to twins, just like none exists for kids in general. Ultimately, you've just got to know your kids - our path works for us.

It's funny that people expect people who look alike to be alike. Our daughters take great pride in their differences and, in fact, each has been known not to pursue an interest she feels is already in her sister's realm. The fact that they each declared an interest in theater this year was actually a huge step for them! For a fun look at the world of twins, you might want to suggest that your young reader take a look at Grace Lin's Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same. Twins abound these days and it's a safe bet that your child goes to school with twins - this is the kind of book that will have them saying, "hey, it's just like A and B!" Never underestimate the importance of recognizing individuality!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Time Warp

One of our daughters is attending a performing and visual arts day camp for the summer, where campers declare a major area of concentration and a minor. Her major is musical theater. She will spend two hours every day learning theater techniques and preparing for the big performance at the end of the summer. On the first day, her instructor described the play they will be performing and our daughter, in turn, described it to us. It's a story about an old guy who, following a dream sequence, goes back in time to high school where he has another chance to deal with the cool kid, the nerd, the mean girls, etc. The old guy returns to his high school days in the 80s and each scene is highlighted by a song from the era; songs like Footloose and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Were you paying attention there? This old guy goes back to the 80s. Wait a minute! I was in high school in the 80s! I'm not that old, am I?! Kids have such a funny perspective when it comes to aging and so their parents; totally divergent.

I had a similar "hold your horses" moment (an expression my dad used to use that always struck me as an old person's saying, even when he was my age!) when I read some of my favorite books written for middle grade readers that were set during my childhood and are considered works of historical fiction. Gary Schmidt's Okay For Now, set in the late 60s, and Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, set in the late 70s, come to mind. I find it bewildering that my childhood is now far enough in the past to be fodder for historical fiction. Surely I'm not that old! Shouldn't historical fiction focus on the very olden days? Of course, there were no cellphones, Internet, Facebook, Twitter, or BBMing in the days of my childhood and when you consider the changes to the technological landscape alone, it's easy to consider those days olden.

For a real glimpse into history, consider Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow, A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix, an advanced picture book written by Gary Golio and illuistrated by Javaka Steptoe. What an interesting glimpse in the visually artistic and truly talented kid who grew into a legend and, many would say, the greatest electric guitarist of all time. The illustrations are key to getting a true sense of the musician as an artist and the text is fascinating and inspiring. Gary Golio writes children's books about legendary musicians and artist like Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and John Coltrane. Parents who want to share their love of music and insight into musicians with their kids should check these out.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


If you happened to read yesterday's post, then you know that two of our daughters are now away at sleepaway camp. Their packing choices speak volumes about their adolescent development and respective stages. The packing for one child was a tribute to minimalism. She followed the packing list with almost no deviation at all, fit everything into two duffle bags, with room to spare, and three plastic drawers, which all the kids bring to camp these days because there never seems to be enough shelf space (of course, the cabins don't have enough space to accommodate all the plastic drawers the campers bring but that's another story altogether). She had nothing to carry by hand other than the requisite backpack, which, in her case, was light as could be. Her duffles and drawers fit easily into the SUV that we rented for the drive up to camp.

Enter her older sister. She used to pack the very same way. Those days are gone. In the days leading up to this year's departure for camp, her stuff covered every available square inch of our family room. I went out to pick up the last thing she was sure she needed about 25 times. Her two duffle bags were bursting at the seams (she admitted to getting blisters when she tried to zipper them shut) and she filled 4 drawers rather than 3. It was still not enough. She had 2 fans, 2 chairs, a tennis racket, a sleeping bag and more that just wouldn't fit. She insisted she wasn't bringing any more than she had in prior years. Seriously, any fool could see that she was taking way more - but this fool couldn't figure out what was taking up all the space. I had her remove a few items to make a little additional room, all the while wondering how we'd ever fit everything into one car. She removed a towel, a few fancier-than-necessary tops and her tennis racket. We schlepped it all to the car and enlisted the help of our very clever doormen who miraculously managed to squish in every last bit and then tied the various pieces together and to the car itself.

When we got the kids up to camp, I helped them unpack. The minimalist was unpacked with ease. There was a space for everything. When I moved down the row of cabins to see her older sister, I was stumped anew. I still couldn't figure out what she had packed, much less where we would put it all. And then out came a big case of makeup, a big bag of hair products and perfume, a bunch of crazy outfits for wacky dress up nights and a bunch of pretty outfits for other nights - all this from the luggage of a kid who is not even remotely a princess in her city life! Then I saw some of her friends unpacking similarly ridiculous items. Everything was unpacked with the seemingly clear understanding among a gaggle of teenage girls that it was all to be shared. That's when I realized that the crazy packing had been planned by committee - each camper agreeing to do her part by bringing an ample supply of "stuff" to share with the group. At this point, these girls have been going to camp together for the last 6 years and their friendships have transcended the summer camp experience. They are life friends that plan all year long for their summer together. The "stuff" they bring is part and parcel of a master plan. I can't lie, I still teased her about the insanity of her packing (which was completely outdone, mind you, by at least one of her bunk mates and probably more) but it was good-natured and light-hearted and based in understanding as well as appreciation of the strength and importance of the bonds of camp friendships. Sometimes the best a mom can do is help find a place for "stuff" rather than dwell on and question the necessity of it all. At the end of the day, all I really want from the summer is that each of my kids has the greatest experience possible and if it takes some makeup, a few cute tops and 9 pairs of shoes to do it, then I can show my support by taking a hammer out of my bag (true story: I brought a hammer and nails!) and start giving her some extra hooks and shelving.

In the early days of this blog, I read and loved Mary Roach's Packing for Mars, which I heartily endorse once again. Mary Roach has a unique way of making science hysterically funny and readable. This is a quick read that happens to be one of my favorite non-fiction adult books.

The post also brings to mind a fun children's picture book that was a Kindergarten - Second Grade Book of the Year finalist for the Children's Choice Book Awards in 2009. Check out Sort it Out! by Barbara Mariconda, illustrated by Sherry Rogers. Just a hint - the main character is Packy the Packrat and his mother has had enough!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Tearful goodbyes

Yesterday, we said our goodbyes to two of our daughters who will spend the next couple of months at sleepaway camp. We will visit them for one day in the middle of the session but, other than that, we rely on communication by letters (both email and snail mail these days) to stay in touch. Jeff and I grew up going to sleepaway camp, which, for each of us, was a formative, maybe even transformative, and positive experience. When our kids let us know, several years ago already, that they wanted to go to sleepaway camp, we knew that we'd miss them terribly and it would be difficult for us but we also knew we would not deny them this experience if that's what they wanted. So, over the last few days, I experienced what's become my annual anxiety, sadness, crankiness and craziness over the packing and the goodbyes. Saying goodbye to our kids when they assert their independence and go off to camp remains very difficult for me. For the first time, though, I held myself together and didn't cry.

One of our daughters has opted out of the sleepaway camp experience, preferring to do her own thing at a visual and performing arts day camp and sleep in her own bed every night. She started camp this morning. I took her to the bus where we exchanged our goodbyes until later and started to make my way to work. That's when the tears came. I wonder if they waited until each of our daughters got her summer underway. I think they were a mixture of sadness over the goodbyes and relief that everyone seemed to be doing what she wanted to be doing and maybe a little anxiety over not yet being 100% sure that each would be happy as can be with her choice. What can I say? For some of us, goodbyes just aren't easy and every goodbye packs a great deal of emotion and meaning.  I'm grateful that I will get a first hand report from one daughter tonight so I'll know exactly how things are going for her. As for the other two, I'll have to wait for the letters. Thankfully, when they write, our kids write awesome letters. And there's something to be said for that kind of thoughtful, written communication.

Apologies to my friend Evelyn who, I know, was hoping and expecting that this post would be about the insane amount of "stuff" our daughters brought with them to camp this summer. Our oldest daughter packed for herself and the volume is worthy of a post in and of itself. It took us several hours yesterday to find space in her cabin for everything she insisted she needed to bring. More on that another day...

Though I've already blogged about this one, a fun summer read for 1st through 5th graders (yes, the appeal is that broad) is Jarrett Krosoczka's Lunch Lady and The Summer Camp Shakedown, this year's winner of the Children's Choice Book Awards' 3rd-4th Grade Book of the Year. Another fun summer camp-related read is Jennifer and Matt Holm's Camp Babymouse. You can never go wrong with Babymouse or Lunch Lady comics!
Older middle graders and YA readers may want to concentrate on the goodbye theme and pick up a copy of Sarah Dessen's latest work, What Happened to Goodbye.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Meeting the friends

Last night, one of our daughters had a few school friends sleep over. The girls who came over were all new friends who our daughter only met this year so I didn't know them very well. It was important to our daughter that I get to know her new friends a little better so she asked me to make sure I'd be around to chat with them a bit. I confided to my colleagues at the office that I felt like I was being set up just a little because it's difficult to draw that line between being the parent who is engaged and engaging and the parent who wears out her welcome and mortifies her teenagers. My colleagues were exceptionally reassuring and I left work yesterday feeling up to the task. I prepared myself for the challenge ahead so much that I almost didn't know what to do with myself when I realized that there was no challenge at all. I realized that as long as you pay attention to your teenager, you can read their cues. I knew exactly when it was ok to enter a conversation and when it was time to exit. I'm not sure why the cues were so sharp and clear but I think it had a lot to do with the group assembled. It was a group of bright, beautiful, fabulous young ladies who exuded intelligence, authenticity, and mutual support. To feel that your child has chosen friends well at such a critical point in their lives is an outstanding sensation. Despite the fact that they yapped until nearly 4 am, which made the dog growl and keep me awake most of the night, I felt happy and peaceful. My daughter has found her people and they're good people. Of course, I also felt exhausted. Now, if only I could decipher the cues relating to those terrifying mood swings...

For girls, friendship is a sacred sisterhood. The latest installment in Ann Brashares' Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, Sisterhood Everlasting, is now available. The Traveling Pants books (and movies) are well known and loved by today's young adults. Now they have a chance to see how Tibby, Lena, Carmen, and Bridget have grown up and how they come back together.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What I'm Reading Now

I used to to include a roundup of the books I am currently reading on a weekly basis and then stopped because it seemed a little self-indulgent. Lately, several people have mentioned that they enjoyed reading that section of my blog and hoped I'd resurrect it. Who am I to say no? Especially when there are so many great new books available and it so happens that I'm currently reading a few books that I am loving and excited to share. And here they are:

I can't honestly say "I'm reading" Prudence Wants a Pet, written by Cathleen Daly and illustrated by Stephen Michael King, because I read it this afternoon. It's one of the most delightful picture books to cross my desk in recent memory. My 12 year old daughters are sitting near me as I type this and reading it aloud to one another, delighting in it. Prudence wants a pet so badly that she's willing to consider anything - a branch, a twig, an old shoe, a tire. She's such a good sport! For a while anyway. If you have a 6 year old and a 12 year old, consider asking the 12 year old to read this to the 6 year old and then read Erica Perl's wonderful When Life Gives You OJ, also about a child who is desperate for a pet, on his or her own. Erica's book was selected as one of Amazon's Best Books for June and the honor is well deserved!

I am also currently reading ... wait for it ... The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente. Is that not the best title ever?! And though I've just started it, I have a feeling the rest of the book lives up to the awesomely high bar set by the outstanding title. The story makes me think of Alice in Wonderland with a little Peter Pan and a little Wizard of Oz but it's entirely its own unique creation. It's incredibly sophisticated and wickedly funny. I can't help but think it could make the most amazing movie. It's the story of a girl named September who lives in Omaha, Nebraska and has become bored with her life. When the Green Wind asks if she would like to come to Fairyland, September quickly says yes. Thus begins her adventure in the world of Fairyland, ruled by the fickle and childish Marquess. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t, the Marquess will make life impossible for September's new friends, the inhabitants of Fairyland. This might be a great book for a family with middle grade and older kids to read together. There's nothing childish or babyish about this book. I suspect that at points it will probably get a little dark. It's one of those fully immersible reading experiences.I'd like to wrap up this blog post quickly just so I can go read some more!

Finally, I am also reading The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, not to be confused with Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. The Tiger's Wife is set in a war ravaged Balkan country and is the story of Natalia, a young doctor, who embarks on a mission of mercy to vaccinate children at an orphanage.At the beginning of her journey, she learns of the death of her grandfather and a veil of secrets. As she tries to unravel some of the mystery surrounding his death, she remembers the old stories her told her as a child and learns the story he never told her, the one that helps her uncover the answers she searching for. It's a beautifully written book, a compelling story and a meaningful tribute to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, a worn copy of  which the grandfather carried with him everywhere and read to Natalia from on their weekly trips to the zoo when she was younger.

What are you reading?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Have a mice day!

Our kids finished school over a week ago. One is taking a drama intensive at her school so she is gone all day. The other two are home. They both worked hard at school all year long and they start camp next week so they've dedicated the "intersession" to watching full seasons of television shows. They sit like the futuristic blobs from the movie Wall-E all day long - one on an old lounge chair she pulled out of storage and the other on a chair or couch and they move for food and bathroom breaks but that's about it. They are glued to the tube. To make sure they get a little fresh air and physical activity every day, they've agreed to take the dog out for walks. Today's walk was cut short by a mouse sighting - a ginormous mouse; maybe even a rat, a dead one. The girls let me know they came upon it, turned around and scurried back home. Then one of them let me know it was my fault. "It's Mama's Fault" is a regular game in our home - I only enjoy it because, most of the time, I get blamed for things that couldn't possibly be my fault, like leaving the toilet seat up. Here I was being blamed for a humongous dead rodent on the corner across the street from our home. So here's the funniest part - it kinda was my fault! I took the dog out for a walk early this morning, saw the dead critter, felt sickened by the sight and intended to warn my kids and husband it was there so everyone could avoid the gruesome corner at all cost. I forgot.

In honor of our newest neighbor, today's book pick is Marie LeTourneau and Danielle Reed Baty's The Mice of Bistrot des Sept Freres. I love the illustrations and French glossary in this book about a family of French mouse chefs and their cheese soup with its secret ingredient so much that I think I might even try the recipe! Oh la la!

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Today is Father's Day. I was lucky enough to spend  the day with both my dad and my husband/the father of my children (not to mention my mom and my daughters). There's no way around it - dads and granddads are very special and deserving of a special day. Here's hoping that all of the dads we know enjoyed a fabulous day and had a chance to feel the love. And a special shout out to my father in law who celebrated both a birthday and Father's Day this weekend.

My childhood memories are filled with laughter, largely because of my dad and his awesome sense of humor. He can still bring me to tears laughing, with almost no effort at all. One of our daughters, who happens to be a natural comedienne, credits him with her funny. As I recall, my dad was more than funny - he was great fun. He was up for anything and always had a wacky hat and a song or two to match the occasion. He has always been extremely musical, to the point where he can play anything at all on the piano even though he's never taken a lesson. One of our daughters is a talented pianist and I suspect credit is due him on that count too. Above all, I am exceedingly fortunate that my childhood memories are filled with happy times of a family together and credit here goes to both my mom and dad for the haven they created. Though he has always worked exceptionally hard, my dad always made time to be with his family and, as far as my brothers and I were concerned, he was always very present. I've learned a great deal about family from my father and I love him very much. Happy Father's Dad!

At the risk of irking my younger brother Eric, who has voiced objections to his under representation in this blog in the past, my older brother's name is Mitchell and today's book pick is all him. Hallie Durand's Mitchell's License, illustrated by Tony Fucile, is a perfect before-bed book for a child who hates bedtime and a parent or caregiver who is prepared to act as that child's car, all the way to the finish line. The fact that the not-quite-4 year old is named Mitchell couldn't possibly be a coincidence because I can totally imagine my dad as the car and my Mitchell as the driver, pedal to the metal and all. Mitchell in the book is rambunctious and clever and just a little out of control. Ahhhhh... memories!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Doing it all

New York City cabs have small televisions facing passengers to entertain and/or inform you during your ride. You can catch up on your news, weather and gossip or you can opt out. I usually opt out and press the off button as quickly as I can. This morning, though, I took a cab to work and, for some reason, forgot to press the off button. The little TV came to life and there was supermodel Heidi Klum asking passengers, "Do you ever wonder how I do it all?" I don't. I never have and can't imagine that I ever would. First of all, I'm too busy trying to do everything I've set out to do and there just isn't time in my daily schedule to wonder how a gorgeous supermodel fits it all in. Second, if I did take the time to wonder, I imagine I would focus only on her good lucks and fabulous figure and not even give her due credit for the "all" that she does. Jealousy directed at a supermodel will help me accomplish nothing but may well slow me down and prevent me from accomplishing my own tasks and goals as I wallow in self-pity. Finally, what does she really mean by "all" and how are we to judge if she indeed does "it all"? Heidi Klum's opening question turns out to be a promo for her new website, which gives beauty and fashion advice.  Maybe if I follow her, I'll be able to attack my daily "to do" list with a perfect smoky eye or just the right color lipstick. I took a look at the website and learned it will soon provide parenting and lifestyle advice too. Though I am quite certain the lifestyle she's adopted is vastly different from my own (and one I would probably covet), I will hold back (a little) on the sarcasm. In fairness, she's a beautiful woman with several young kids and an incredibly successful career. I begrudge her nothing and appreciate that she may well be a role model to many young moms. I don't mean to be hating on her at all, just enjoying a little laugh at the expense of her latest enterprise, which, let's face it, will likely make her even more money than she has now and it's not too difficult to guess who has the last laugh. So, why am I sharing? I guess it was just a bizarre way to start off another busy day and I wanted to vent. I guess it's also because I think most moms "do it all" but are too busy doing it to talk about it and those are the moms who have my utmost respect and admiration. I hope those moms also have the respect and admiration of their kids but that is really a sign of my delirious exhaustion because most people couldn't possibly (and don't fully)  appreciate all that a parent does until they become parents themselves.

The story of Nazia as told by Amjed Qamar in Beneath My Mother's Feet is quite the exception. Nazia, a 14 year old girl growing up in Karachi Pakistan, is depicted as the ever dutiful daughter who recognizes all that her mother does for her. When her father is unable to work, she leaves school and joins her mother cleaning houses to help her family get by. She seems acutely aware of the sacrifices her mother has made for her and the sacrifices she is making for her family. She comes to learn and appreciate that her mother's sacrifices have been about more than enabling her children to survive - and really about wanting the very best life possible for her daughter. This story considers family loyalty, the mother-daughter relationship, the issue of arranged marriages, the limited of educational opportunities for girls in Pakistan.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Backwards Day

When you have a newborn, there's a lot of focus on creating and maintaining a schedule. It makes life smoother for all involved. Candidly, it also gives new parents a built-in excuse to turn down invitations or excuse themselves early from events; all in the name of the sacred schedule. When kids get a little older, though, juggling the schedule becomes a parental rite of passage. Depending on how many interests your child believes he or she wants to passionately explore and how much energy you have, the schedule can get more and more out of control. Most of us do what we can to give the appearance of having things under control but we're generally just a step or two away from a cliff. While I've always tried to keep my kids' activities and schedules reasonably straight, I certainly do not feel restricted by their extra-curricular schedules any more. These days, it's more fun to shake things up a little. I have no doubt that when my kids have kids of their own who ask them to tell stories about their own childhood, the time we went out and decided to have dessert for dinner followed by dinner for dessert is one of the stories that will always make the cut. Maintaining a schedule is important when you have babies but spontaneity is important when you have kids. As for me, I'll never forget the time my brothers and I woke up one rainy December morning at the start of that year's December break when my parents told us to pack our bags because we were going to New York City,  

In honor of our memorable backwards meal, today's book of choice is Tell Me The Day Backwards by Albert Lamb, illustrated by David McPhail. At bedtime, the little bear asks his mom to tell him what they did that day, in reverse. The story is precious and the illustrations are heartwarming - and the concept is contagious! Try it with your own kids, of any age!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Happy Birthday Monkey Boy

The animal kingdom has a funny way of taking over when we're looking for the most apt descriptions of human beings. There's the mother bear, the tiger mom, the catty girl, the sweet little kitten, the silly goose, the slug, the dinosaur, the monkey, the beast and so many more. I have no doubt that you conjured up images of your own as you read each of my examples - images of people you know; maybe even yourself. Animal behavior has always been key to understanding and describing humans. Last night, after work, I took my daughters shopping for camp. They were all over the place in every store, like monkeys. They were enthused and energetic and, after a day of work, I was somewhere between a slug and Oscar the Grouch. I was ready for feeding time or nap time but my little monkeys were happily swinging from tree to tree to tree. Needless to say, shopping with three girls cost me a lot of bananas!

One of my favorite children's book authors broke onto the scene 10 years ago this week, speaking to the monkey in each of us (and particularly in our children right around bedtime). Jarrett J. Krosoczka, who you've read about before in this blog, saw his first book, Good Night, Monkey Boy, published 10 years ago on June 12. I am a big fan of Jarrett's both because of his incredible talent and because of his authenticity and goodness as a human being. Jarrett honored his 10 year anniversary in a blog post of his own that I urge you to read. Just click here and experience Jarrett's joy at having his first book published as well as his raising awareness of the impact he could, would and does have on others. Good Night, Monkey Boy is a treat to read at bedtime, naptime or anytime. Congratulations Jarrett!

Monday, June 13, 2011

The powerful message in a mistake

In a heart to heart conversation with one of my daughters this weekend, she apologized in case she ever negatively impacts my self esteem. She seems to understand that I put a lot into my mothering, frequently feel unappreciated and tend to be hard on myself when I feel like I've made the wrong call. My kids are exceptionally good at pointing out when I've made a wrong call. Not having completely shed the dramatic tendencies of my own girlhood, I will admit that sometimes when my kids misbehave, I will cry, "Where did I go wrong? I am failure as a mother!" I deeply appreciate that someone has been listening and wondering if this means that she's making me feel bad about myself. She isn't. I took the opportunity to remind her that no one but you can affect your own self esteem. Each one of us has the inner power to rise above anything that's said or done to us. Believing in ourselves is a huge and non-transferable responsibility. It's what helps us set and stay our course. I have great kids and, as a result, find it pretty easy to believe that I am a reasonably good mom. That's what the evidence seems to suggest and I'll take it! That doesn't mean I consider parenting easy and certainly doesn't mean my own parenting is never flawed. It does means I believe in myself sufficiently to make tough decisions when it comes to my kids and to make the inevitable mistakes along the way. And that's the part of the message that I most want to convey to my children - mistakes are good because allowing yourself to make mistakes says a lot about who you are and requires that you believe in yourself to some extent; learning from your mistakes is even better.

My two favorite self-esteem-related books for young people are I'm Gonna Like Me: Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem by Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell, for the younger set, and Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia for middle graders. The takeaway from each: like yourself because you are you and you are more extraordinary than you might think. The bonus benefit - one is an upbeat and colorful picture book that's fun to quote and the other is one of the best stories ever told!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Peak Performance

When one of my daughters was in first grade, she had a crush on a boy in her class. She had great taste - he was the sweetest boy who also happened to be the smartest and cutest boy in the class. She was not the only one crushing on him. I remember laughing about his "in demand" status with his mom who thought it was all very adorable but admitted she was concerned he might be peaking too early. I dismissed the possibility at the time but have thought about it recently. Kids today do accomplish so much when they're young; could some of them be peaking too early and, if so, what does that mean?

I used to know a woman that I revered as a child. She was a world traveler who was interesting, charming, funny, eclectic and energetic. She had three kids and poured every ounce of herself into them when they were very young and, through it all, remained an interesting, charming, funny, eclectic and energetic woman who continued to travel the globe. And then she wasn't and she didn't. I don't know if baggage from her own youth caught up with her and took over or if she just peaked early, exhausted herself and then never recovered. No matter how you look at it, the result was tragic. I will grant you that it would have been far more tragic if she had indeed peaked as a child and never accomplished the many things she did. But I don't actually believe that children can peak too early. Frankly, I'm just not that pessimistic. I think children possess boundless potential and there's always more they can do, explore and experience. However, I can't help but wonder if there is a point of peakness later on, after which you peak no more. I'd like to believe that though individual experiences end, there's always something more out there. If you're engaged in an experience that has ceased to bring you joy and satisfaction, maybe it's time to seek out a new adventure so you can peak anew. And don't forget to find some time to rest along the way - conserve some of your energy for the peaking that has yet to happen.

All this peak talk has me thinking about mountains and mountains make think of Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. This book is perfect for middle graders, particularly those with an interest in life and culture beyond their own experience. Minli's quest to find the Old Man in the Moon who holds the book of fortune is empowering as it is the tale of a young girl who takes it upon herself to improve her family's situation. It is also incredibly enchanting and entertaining with its beautiful storytelling that incorporates Chinese folktales, in an of themselves some of the most wonder4ful stories ever told.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Who's the boss?

Some time ago, I addressed the issue of working-outside-the-home moms vs. stay-at-home moms. I shared my distaste for the the phrase "full time mom", which continues to make me bristle each time I hear or read it because it seems to be applied only to stay-at-home moms. This happens more frequently than you might think. Any mom worth anything is a full-time mom and when it's applied to moms who stay at home, those of us who work outside of the home get understandably (I think) defensive. While I hate the phrase, I love the fact that many women have a choice. With that choice, though, comes a responsibility to our children. Just as we should not be judging one another's choices, we should be teaching our children not to judge either. From toddlerhood on, most parents and schools are all over kids about being accepting of one another's differences - but what about when it comes to moms?

A few days ago, I was shocked to hear about a teenage girl disparaging someone else's mom who works as a store manager*. When we're teaching our kids respect and acceptance, we should be broadening the scope of those lessons. The messages we convey to our kids - through our words and our behavior - deserve careful thought and consideration. Why is it that so many people feel comfortable rushing to judgment about others? Could it be that we are feeding off our own insecurities and then passing them onto our kids? Time to end the cycle.

*Just a point of clarification here - the young person in question seemed to be looking down on the woman's profession. This may not have been the best example to illustrate the point. I have overheard kids disparaging moms who don't work and moms who do.  This just happened to be an example of taking the criticism to the next level so I found it interesting and disconcerting.

In reality, every mom is a full time mom and a working mom. And we all work hard and deserve more respect (and better pay) than we get. Some of us have one boss and some have several and they're all pretty demanding. There's really only book that sums it up aptly and that's Marla Frazee's The Boss Baby. The baby gets all the executive perks while running his overworked staff of two ragged. Such fun!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Friend Drama

Details of friend drama are constantly being shared in my household. Sometimes it's amusing, sometimes it's annoying and sometimes it's heart-wrenching. Our kids find no comfort in hearing that this drama is age-appropriate for tween and teenage girls. They care that the drama affects the social balance they seek in their lives and they care when it makes them feel insecure. Or more insecure - because it's the rarest of tween or teen girls who feels tremendously secure. The message that someone might be a real friend even if they're not treating you well at the moment or that even nice girls do mean things are tough messages for kids to swallow. But insecurity can alter one's universe, can't it? For parents, it's often more difficult to accept that even one of our own "nice" kids is capable of making someone else feel bad but we're fools if we don't. The way kids react to friend  drama says a lot about them and probably offers some hints for dealing with the situation. While every child is different, I think it's always important to find that balance between insensitivity and hypersensitivity - it sounds obvious but it's not always a clear goal, which may be a mistake. When we tell our children they're being too sensitive, we need to explain what that means. When we tell them to develop a thicker skin, we may be inadvertently pushing them to the other extreme and when they're there, they may well become the perpetrators. At the end of the day, kids need to grow up recognizing they're part of a world that's bigger than them and they need to learn to function cooperatively and collaboratively in the world. To do so successfully, requires a balanced degree of sympathy and even empathy. It's probably safe to say that we all know adults who never learned this lesson all that well - don't we need to do what we can to ensure that our kids do so much better?!

5-10 year-olds will delight in the dramatic antics of friends Bink & Gollie in Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee's tales of friendship, illustrated by Tony Fucile.  These polar opposite best friends have strong personalities and genuine fondness and loyalty for one another. On a personal note, I love the fact that one is tall and the other is tiny. I was the tall girl growing up and one of my best friends was tiny. The same is true for each of my daughters. We're all convinced that we've chosen these friends and they've chosen us for something far more profound than size but who knows, maybe size is a factor!

For a slightly more sophisticated read, kids 9-14 who are a little tired of human friends may enjoy The Friendship Doll by Kirby Larson. The true story is that in the 1920s, 58 dolls were sent as ambassadors of friendship from the children of Japan to the children of the United States. This is the fictionalized story of one of them, Miss Kanagawa.The Depression-era story follows the doll as she is sent around the country. It is a story about the doll as well as each of the girls whose lives she touches. I love historical fiction that focuses on a little known historical fact or point in time that is given a new life. This tale of global friendship is a winner.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Hack me once shame on me, hack me twice...

As technology continues to revolutionize our world, the associated vocabulary continues to expand. Hacking used to relate to coughing or chopping something with an axe or cleaver. It now means gaining access to a computer and viewing, copying, or creating data, generally without the intention of destroying data or maliciously harming the computer (the malicious side of things, per Urban Dictionary, is called "cracking") At some point, "hacking" morphed into the kind of high tech covert operation often featured on today's hottest crime shows. Now it's something more basic and, in many ways, more dangerous because it is more accessible. Kids often hack each other's social networks and alter the status message or send out phony messages in each other's names. Sometimes the hacked message is funny but many are inappropriate and others are downright mean. It's become the kind of slippery slope where you can literally see innocent intentions turn bad and friends turn to frenemies and then full scale enemies right before your eyes. This is one more issue responsible parents should be talking about with their kids before giving the green light to network socially and then again during and then again and again and again. If each one of us can convince our kids that hacking, even when it begins for fun, is wrong, then maybe the malignant side will be exposed more quickly and dealt with. As long as the majority of social networking kids view hacking a Facebook status as a funny thing to do, the slope will get slicker and people will get hurt.

Over the weekend, I enjoyed reading Ruby Red by Kirsten Gier. This international bestseller is a great choice for kids in 6th or 7th grade and up. There's a mystery, a lot of suspense, time travel, some historical highlights that are well placed within the time travel, realistic teenage friendship issues, angst, and romance. The link here to hacking? Well, the Guardians are tinkering with and manipulating a chronograph to control the time travel of the chosen few and it would seem that not all of the tinkering is so innocent. This is the first book in a trilogy and my only complaint with it is that I now have to wait for the second and third books to find out what really happens and what stories lie beneath the main one (because it's clear that there's a lot going on here and many details have yet to present themselves). I love the characters, not to mention the cover and the title!

Friday, June 3, 2011

The final crunch

One of my daughters told me last night that she needed my help with her homework. Only, not in the traditional way. Specifically, she needed me to help minimize distractions so she could study for her final exams. She wasn't asking me to keep her sisters quiet. Rather, she was asking me to keep an eye on her and make sure she wasn't drifting over to check Facebook or one of the blogs she follows, like Cupcakes and Cashmere (lest you think it was this blog luring her away). Throughout the school year she had all kinds of safeguards on her computer that would prevent her from checking in with her online world until homework was done. With the imminence of final exams, though, this was no longer enough to keep her in check. She needed me. On the one hand, I rejoiced in the fact that my assistance was being sought. It doesn't happen as much as it used to and, like most of us, I like feeling needed. On the other hand, I knew I was being set up and so did she. She acknowledged it. She told me she would get mad at me each time I reminded her to focus but that I needed to accept that this was just the way it would have to be and that deep down (and certainly by the end of next week) she'd be grateful. I'm not sure it's manipulation or even sabotage when all the cards are laid out on the table and everyone knows what they're getting into. We tried it for a little while and, as you can imagine, it didn't last too long. I have a fairly thick skin when it comes to my kids but I do have a breaking point and there's only so much scowling and growling I'm willing to take in one night. I suspect there will be more of this ridiculousness in place over the weekend so I thought it might be good to pace myself and her.

Learning how to study and developing awareness of yourself as a learner are important parts of growing up and critical to genuine scholarly development. Every once in a while, one of our daughters has a test to study for and Jeff and I try to suggest studying techniques. What works for one of us, though, may not work for someone else. I always find it useful to write things down and then read them aloud. Jeff has always been a pacer and, even now, when he prepares professionally (he is an attorney), he paces until he achieves the optimum level of comfort and conviction with his presentation. Some people work best in groups. Some people study with music. I think it's important to make our kids aware of the choices but then we have to let them choose whatever it is that works best for them. As long as they're flexible if it turns out not to work. And as long as they're not insisting on studying in front of the television. And as long as they're not lying down. And as long as the lights are on.

School is about more than test taking. It's about learning to learn, learning to participate in a collaborative society, learning to socialize respectfully, learning to make and deal with friends and learning about rules. How about the book Rules by Cynthia Lord?  Twelve-year old Catherine has an eight-year old autistic brother from who she creates rules, so he can understand how the world works. At times she is mortified by him and at times she is fiercely protective and at all times, she does a great deal of learning and growing herself and how the world really works.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Girls Who Wear Glasses

Some people look great in glasses. Unfortunately, I'm not one of them. Never have been. I don't look particularly good in hats either but that's a story for another day. I'll never forget the day in 5th grade when my math teacher suggested I get my eyes checked because I was having trouble seeing the board from the back of the classroom. I remember testing my eyesight wherever I could in the days leading up to my checkup. I vividly remember the checkup, particularly the part when my eye doctor glanced at my mom and subtly nodded, at which point I burst into tears. I already had braces and acne and I was very tall for my age and up until that moment, didn't think life could get any worse! It did but then it got better. Eventually, it got a lot better. When I think back to those days, it gives me conviction and credibility when I assure my kids that no matter what's gnawing at them, it really does get better.

Among the measures that saved me were contact lenses. To this day, I can't imagine my life without them. But now I'm in my forties (well into my forties) and one of the things that starts happening is that, much like the rest of you, your eyes start to dry up. I am eternally indebted to the person who invented eye drops! Another thing that happens is that you start having trouble seeing things up close. And this one stinks because the only solution for this problem is GLASSES! Yes, I have entered the reading glasses phase of my life and I'm not entirely comfortable there yet. For the past several years, my eye doctor's first question at my annual eye checkup has been "how are you doing with reading?" Just fine, thank you. But not really. At least not anymore. After a year of asking one of my daughters to read menus to me at restaurants and squinting to the point of nearly shutting my eyes when I read, I stopped by the corner drugstore and quietly bought a pair of reading glasses. It took me back a million years to the first time I went shopping for glasses, which now that I think about it, affected me much the same way as shopping for bathing suits does - tears and ice cream, that's all I'm saying! I have to admit, though, that it's nice to know what you're ordering when you go out to dinner and a good story is a whole lot better if there's no physical pain to the reader (not to mention wrinkles; yet another story for another day). Still, I wasn't ready to go public with my new not-so-spectacular look until I was about to take the stage to give closing remarks at the 2011 Children's Choice Book Awards gala on May 2 and I realized that my vanity was less important than correctly reading the names of the many outstanding children's book authors and illustrators who joined us that night - people like Jarrett Krosoczka, Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson, Rick Riordan, Jeff Kinney, Laurie Halse Anderson, Suzanne Collins, Walter Dean Myers, R.L. Stine, Rebecca Stead, Holly Black, Cassandra Clare and many, many more. There are now photographs of me from that night, sporting my reading glasses, on the Internet. There's no going back now. That's okay, it's easier to participate in a world that you see clearly!

There are many books for young kids who wear glasses and while it would be easy to send you in that direction with a book recommendation, that's not what I intend to do. If you're looking for that type of book for an early elementary school age kid, try the Charlie and Lola book bu Lauren Child on the subject (I Really Absolutely Must Have Glasses). Here, though, I want to let you know about a fantasy novel for middle graders called Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jone. This talented author sadly passed away at the end of March but left behind quite a legacy in the way of a treasure trove of wonderfully written books for children. This one has magic, an enchanted house, humor, fabulous and quirky characters and a great story. It has nothing whatsoever to do with glasses but it has the word "glass" in the title and like all good stories, it's a way of "seeing" and experiencing life

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

That's Good, That's Bad

My parenting self-check results fall along a spectrum. At one end, I get a little excessively self-congratulatory when I feel like I've had a great mommy moment. Those are the moments when you turn a situation with your kids into a teaching moment to which they seem to be tremendously receptive. Both the reception and the lesson eventually fade leaving you to wonder if anyone is actually listening. Ever. At the other end of the spectrum, I tend to be disproportionately hard on myself when I feel as though I've flubbed a situation or missed a teachable moment with my kids. Most of the time, I fall somewhere in between. I think it's good to set high parenting expectations of yourself but I also believe that nobody has yet to perfect parenting and it would be arrogant for any of us to think we're the ones to do it. We all make mistakes - we can hope that we don't make too many, that we learn from those we make and that those we make don't ruin our kids forever.

So, last week, I was guilty of a parenting gaff that, ironically, derived from a moment when I felt deserving of a parenting award. I talk to our kids frequently about the pressures and choices on the road ahead. I long ago told our daughters that they should feel free to blame things on me when they feel stuck in a situation and don't want to do something. I meant with friends. I was talking about peer pressure. I don't need to be cool to or even liked by their friends but I do need to be there for our girls so if using me as a scapegoat in sticky situations could be helpful, I was and remain all for it. But last week, after my daughter's school concert, she let me know that she had told her band teacher that she would not be continuing with band next year because her mother didn't want her to. What?! Of course she told me this just as the band teacher was approaching and (here comes the bad mommy moment) as I said hello to him, I fervently denied ever prohibiting her from participating in band next year. Our daughter was mortified. Actually, she was furious. She glared at me and said, "But you told us we could always blame things on you!". Hmmmmmmmm... not what I meant! To her credit, she allowed me both to apologize and explain. I really was sorry that I had embarrassed her and I hadn't meant to (as a rule, I believe embarrassing your kids is a parental prerogative and perk but only when you mean to do it). I explained that I actually made the offer to scapegoat myself for situations with friends and that in this particular case, the story she gave the teacher was so absurd that it wasn't believable anyhow. My explanations were, admittedly, a little on the weak side but I happen to have a great kid who quickly forgave me nonetheless and let me know that in the future I should just be clear about the scope of my offers. I could have and should have handled things a little differently. After all, don't we tell our kids to take a moment and think before opening their mouths? I leave it to you to decide for yourself how bad it was to have embarrassed a child in front of her teacher.

Somehow this scenario reminds me of a book I used to read to my kids when they were little that would crack us all up. Margery Cuyler's That's Good, That's Bad was a family favorite. I now have the pleasure of knowing Margery personally and think the world of her. The book (actually, there are a few of them, with varied themes) turns the concepts of "good" and "bad", not to mention "terror" and "relief" on their heads. Sometimes something seems good, then takes a turn for the bad and, surprisingly, turns back into good - hmmmmmm... sounds a lot like some of my parenting decisions!