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

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!