Thursday, September 29, 2016

Book Review: First Love by Gay Head (1963)

One of our favorite weekend activities in the Fitzgerald household is to visit used bookstores. On a recent trip to one particular store, which is housed in an old library building and run by the Friends of the Library, I was browsing the shelves in the children’s section, when a spine jumped out at me. The book was a compact little paperback, First Love by Gay Head. I felt certain that I had seen this book before and had even been searching for it, and I eagerly flipped to the table of contents, hoping to recognize whatever it was that had initially grabbed my interest. Nothing looked familiar, but seeing that Maureen Daly and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had contributed stories, and knowing that the book was only 50 cents, I decided to take it home anyway. I have now finished reading all fourteen stories in the collection, and I still have no idea why I originally wanted it, but I’m glad I didn’t put it back on the shelf. The cover advertises “warm and glowing stories,” and indeed, this is what it contains.

Here are my descriptions of the fourteen stories:

  • Stardust by Virginia Laughlin is about a girl named Wendy who lives next door to two young men. Tod, the younger of the brothers, has very obvious feelings for Wendy, but she is lukewarm about him, and much more interested in Brian, whom she has idealized and worshipped from afar for a long time. It is only when it becomes clear that Brian is not available that Wendy comes back down to earth and begins to consider Tod’s merits. 
  • A Girl Called Charlie by William Kehoe introduces a quiet, thoughtful teen girl named Charlotte who has been invited on a date by the highly desirable Ridge Evans. Though her parents keep reminding her not to get too excited, as he may not be as interested as she is, Charlie can’t help but be intrigued. When Ridge makes it clear that he considers it boring and close-minded to “go steady” in high school, Charlie must decide whether she can put aside the urge to date exclusively in order to continue seeing him.
  • In Blue Valentine by Mary Gibbons, Angelo is sixteen years old, the oldest in his family, and the only boy. Because his mother died when he was ten, he has spent a lot of time filling the role of surrogate parent to his sisters, making him privy to the wants and needs of women in a way that is uncommon among the boys he knows. When it comes time to give his girlfriend, Ethel-Irene, a gift for Valentine’s Day, he chooses a sophisticated lacy nightgown, knowing the fine stitching will appeal to Ethel-Irene, but not realizing how such an adult gift will look to her parents. 
  • Jenny Lee of The Walnut Trees by Virginia Akin is at an age where adults are beginning to question her about her college plans. When her teacher, Mr. Applegarth asks her what she has in mind, she makes up an elaborate story about marrying a (non-existent) boyfriend, all because she is secretly in love with Mr. Applegarth and wants him to be jealous. Alas, it is Jenny who feels jealous - and disappointed - when it turns out that Mr. Applegarth is engaged to be married. 
  • While traveling by train in Once Upon a Pullman by Florence Jane Soman, nineteen-year-old William Fowler introduces himself to Emmy Smith, then engages her in conversation, occasionally using lines from the novel he is reading, which stars an overly confident air force hero. When they get off the train, William loses sight of Emmy, only to discover that she lost him on purpose in order to find out whether he was truly as pompous as he sounded.
  • EPICAC by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., is from his book, Welcome to the Monkey House. EPICAC is a computer who has near-human intelligence. The narrator of the story works with EPICAC alongside a woman named Pat, whom he wishes to marry. When he enlists EPICAC’s help wriinig love poems to impress Pat, the narrator inadvertently causes EPICAC to fall in love with her as well, thereby causing the computer to self-destruct. EPICAC appears again in Vonnegut’s 1952 novel, Player Piano.
  • Sixteen by Maureen Daly and Eighteen by Charlie Brodie tell two sides of the same story. The female lead of Daly’s story is affronted when she has a romantic time skating with an older boy who promises to call, only never to hear from him again. From the boy’s point of view, however, this time skating  was just a diversion while he dealt with some more complicated feelings about his girlfriend, Betty. 
  • Prelude by Lucile Vaughan Payne tells of Nancy Hollister, a popular girl with an interest in music appreciation who has a real chance of being elected prom queen, and the identity crisis which ensues when she finds herself attracted to Stephen Karoladis, the boy who cleans the music department at her school. 
  • In Tomboy by Gertrude Schweitzer, Frances, called Frankie, can’t see the need for romance when she could just as soon be out at the pond catching frogs with her friend Skeet. When she is forced to attend her cousin’s sixteenth birthday party, however, Frankie gets all dressed up and ends up meeting a boy. When she takes her new beau along with her to the pond,  she suddenly realizes that her interests are shifting and she might be ready to leave behind her childhood pastime. 
  • In Bittersweet by Arlene Hale, two young lovers, Leslie and Claude, who have broken up but have not yet told their families of their parting are thrust together for a reunion by their well-meaning parents. As they reminisce, it begins to look as though they might be able to rekindle old feelings, until Claude’s new girlfriend appears on the scene. 
  • Who is Sylvia? by Laura Nelson Baker is about Adam, who, despite warnings from his sister and his parents not to get involved with her, is head over heels for Sylvia Mauer. Sylvia is the granddaughter of a wealthy local, and though she is warm toward Adam, she is also very mysterious. In the end, Sylvia disappoints Adam by leaving town unannounced, leaving him to pretend to other girls that he has forgotten her. 
  • In Theme Song by Dave Grubb, Edith works behind the counter of a restaurant next to a filling station. One night, she meets a young serviceman who tells her of the girl who is waiting for him back home and requests to hear a particular song that makes him remember her. Though Edith knows the young man is spoken for, she can’t help but think of him whenever she hears that song. Later, when the young man is dumped, she helps him retrieve the song from the jukebox so he never has to hear it again. 
  • Tough Guy by Peter Brackett concludes the collection with a story about Byron Stover, a young man with a real chip on his shoulder, put there by his mouthy best friend Albert. Soon, though, Byron begins to realize how Albert may be holding him back from getting to know other people, especially girls like Nina.

I have grown weary of contemporary love stories for teens, mostly because they are usually highly sexual, and overly dramatic. This collection, by contrast, is grounded in real day-to-day problems and emotional connection, with no sexual content at all. (Half of them don’t even have any kissing!) There is a sincerity to each story, and also a maturity about topics like marriage and college that is entirely missing from so many contemporary romances. There are also several ambiguous and unhappy endings, whose realism I really appreciated.

First Love is similar to the Beverly Cleary First Love series, and to the later Betsy-Tacy books, especially Carney’s House Party. I’m not too crazy about the idea of my kids ever reading romances, but if it does have to happen someday, this is the type of book I will recommend.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Reading with Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep, September 2016

This month, we started homeschooling preschool for Little Miss Muffet (2 years, 10 months) and we counted down the last days of Little Bo Peep's first year. (Her birthday is imminent!) Here are our September reading highlights:

  • Miss Muffet has been able to recall the names of the authors of her favorite books for a while, but now she is beginning to recognize those same names even on books which are new to her. She was thrilled, for example, when she realized that The Relatives Came and the Poppleton books were both by Cynthia Rylant, and when I pointed out that The Doorbell Rang was written by the same author as Titch, her whole face lit up. She gets a real kick out of the idea that one person would write so many of her favorite books.
  • Miss Muffet has also become very interested in comparing different editions of the same book. We recently purchased an older copy of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? with the original illustrations, which includes all the same animals, but has a mother instead of a teacher at the end of the story. Miss Muffet sat down with the old and new versions and compared them page for page, noting all the differences in the animals, including which direction they were looking, and the colors of their eyes. We also borrowed both the picture book and board book editions of It Looked Like Spilt Milk from the library, with the idea that Bo Peep could hold the board book while Miss Muffet read the picture book with me. Miss Muffet immediately wanted to compare the two editions, and she was somewhat dismayed to discover that the board book was abridged. She also notices subtle differences between editions that we own and those that she sees on library and bookstore shelves.
  • In terms of what she has been reading, Miss Muffet is very into nonfiction right now. Topics of interest include horses, squirrels, buildings, stores, and nature. She also had a great time reading The Doorbell Rang and then retelling the story with me on the flannel board. At times when no one is available to read with her, we frequently hear her making up her own stories based on the illustrations and/or what she remembers hearing on previous readings. She also likes to "read" to her sister, though sometimes this looks a lot like grabbing a book away from Bo Peep and refusing to give it back. 
  • Speaking of Little Bo Peep, we are starting to see glimpses into her growing relationship with books. When heavily prompted, she does sometimes say "buh" to indicate that she sees a book in her vicinity. (This tends to happen a lot in used bookstores when she is surrounded by nothing but bookshelves.) She also likes to hold up books and show them to anyone who is willing to look. She still doesn't get as much one-on-one reading time as her sister did at this age, but she has recently enjoyed A Splendid Friend, Indeed by Suzanne Bloom and Octopus Alone by Divya Srinivasan. She also loves Brown Bear, Brown Bear, and enjoys pointing to each animal's eyes. 
  • Further evidence of Bo Peep's love for books is her constant need to pull them down from their shelves on top of herself. Her playpen is set up near the living room bookshelves, and every few days, she will get it into her head to pull on a few of the books and see if they will come down. She has a particular obsession with the Gossie books by Olivier Dunrea and The House in the Night, which have been temporarily relocated to prevent their being ripped by her eager little fingers.
  • For her birthday this coming weekend, Bo Peep will receive several books: Stanley's Shapes and Stanley's Colors by William Bee, The Baby's Catalogue by Janet and Allan Ahlberg and (from Miss Muffet) Peekaboo by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. We are hoping she will love Stanley as much as the rest of us do, and we know she will love looking at babies in the two Ahlberg books.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Book Review: Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer (2000)

Named Tulip at birth by the mother who abandoned her, Hope Yancey chose a new name for herself when she was twelve years old. Now sixteen, Hope tries to live up to her name when she and her aunt Addie arrive at the Welcoming Stairs, a diner in Wisconsin in need of a short-order cook because the owner, G.T. Stoop, is fighting leukemia. Not long after Addie begins work as a cook, and Hope as a waitress, they learn that G.T. isn't just sick; he's also running for mayor against a corrupt local politician! Hope realizes quickly that G.T. is the kind of candidate who can be trusted, and even though he may not live long enough to institute his proposed plans, he is willing to literally die trying. To get the word out about Stoop's candidacy, Hope teams up with Braverman, a recent high school graduate who also cooks at the diner, and other teens, to help with his campaign, resulting in some unexpected changes in her own life and outlook.

Hope Was Here is a sweet and wholesome novel, which focuses on a black-and-white struggle of good against evil. Corruption and cancer are the clear villains, while those who trust God, tell the truth, and don't hide behind pretenses are the heroes, even if they don't always win every fight. Joan Bauer quickly builds up the world of the Welcoming Stairs, and its many interesting employees and customers. These include a local pastor, a young single mom whose daughter may have special needs, G.T.'s corrupt opponent, and many more. While the story is ultimately about Hope's own journey, the fate of her new hometown and G.T. himself are strongly connected to hers, so the book is just as much about the setting as it is about the characters. 

Because the main character is sixteen, I consider this to be a young adult novel, but its uncomplicated plot and straightforward writing style make it feel more like middle grade, and there is really no reason kids in the upper elementary grades could not enjoy it just as much as teen readers. All kids can benefit from learning about elections, voting, and the responsibilities that come along with being a good citizen - not just in this election year, but any time. There is also much to learn from this book about justice, truth, and, of course, hope. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

On Becoming an Author

In the interest of networking a bit more with the blogging community, I'm participating in this week's Book Blogger Hop. The question for this week is: Have you ever wanted to write a book? If so, what genre would you choose? And...have you been successful in writing a book? 

I think I probably first announced that I wanted to write a book when I was five or six years old. Throughout my childhood, in fact, I imagined that I would someday become an author, and I went to college still mostly believing that my future was in writing short stories and novels. I took all the creative writing classes I could get into, and then applied for the senior composition course. After being rejected from the course, and subsequently from an embarrassingly large number of graduate programs in creative writing, however,  I stopped writing almost completely. I would occasionally write collaboratively with a friend just for fun, but I wasn't really inspired to work on a writing project from beginning to end. I made a couple of attempts at NaNoWriMo, but they weren't particularly fruitful, and though I still had occasional ideas pop into my head, I mostly couldn't think of what to do with them. Creative writing, which had once come so naturally to me, began to feel like a chore, and a struggle, so I just walked away from it.

For a long time, I thought that if I couldn't write fiction, I wouldn't be an author at all. Nonfiction writing, including book blogging, didn't seem like real writing to me. I enjoyed writing book reviews, of course, but I was pretty terrible at writing English papers despite majoring in English, so I figured nonfiction wasn't something I was likely to be good at anyway. Interestingly, though, as soon as I stopped thinking of myself as a writer, the opportunity to become one came knocking at my door - or, more accurately, my inbox. A reader of my professional blog, Story Time Secrets, had recommended me to write a book about story time for Rowman & Littlefield's Practical Guide series.

While I would not say that writing a book is easy, I do think that the how-to genre - specifically when it comes to library programming - is well-suited to my capabilities. Though I had my fair share of challenges when I was trying to put my thoughts about story time into words, I was never at a loss for what to say. Writing nonfiction doesn't depend upon imagination or inspiration. The facts already exist; I just have to find them and help them make sense to the average reader. I submitted chapters over a period of about 15 months and Story Time Success: A Practical Guide for Librarians was published this summer. Also this summer I signed the contract for my second book, now in progress.

Though my writing "career" is not the glamorous life I imagined when I was a kid, I'm comfortable now identifying myself as an author, and even if I never publish again after these two books, I will be satisfied knowing that something I've written is out there in the world. Part of me still dreams of writing fiction, and perhaps when my kids are older, or grown, that dream will be realized. But until then, I'm content just to be a writer at all.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Why the Public Library Does Not Need Toys

A week or so ago, my husband and I took Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep to one of our local libraries. I noticed when we walked in that something was different, and Miss Muffet did too. Shelves had been rearranged, and the toy area, once somewhat possible to avoid, was now a prominent feature of the children’s department, just begging for my preschooler to run over and jump in. Alas, despite Miss Muffet’s very definite desire to play with toys, I laid down the law: “Libraries are for books, not toys.”

If a librarian were listening when I made this statement, I’m sure she would have swooped in to give me a spiel. She would be desperate to enlighten me about the fact that play is an early literacy skill, and these carefully selected educational toys are in the library to facilitate parent/child interaction that helps kids with their narrative skills and their vocabulary. Some children might not have toys at home, she’d tell me. Libraries aren’t just for books anymore, she’d say.  Go ahead and let her play with the toys, it's okay. (This was the collective reaction of librarians online, after all, when Kate Schweitzer’s post at PopSugar made the rounds over the summer.)

Because I am a librarian, I have heard all of this before, and I’m probably supposed to believe it if I want to be seen as hip, and trendy, and forward-thinking. But as a parent, and the primary educator of my children, I think it’s mostly nonsense. The public library does not need toys. I’ll tell you why.

Play does not have to involve toys.

Jean Piaget said that “Play is the work of childhood.” No matter what they are doing, young children are playing because that is how they interact with the world. My children have some toys, but more often, at different stages of development I have found them playing with their toes, their shadows, a mirror, a paper towel tube, blankets, spoons, and each other. When I play with them, we almost never use toys. Instead, we make up scavenger hunts, tell stories about what we did today, observe birds and animals in our neighborhood, make up dances, pretend to be firefighters, and hunt for letters of the alphabet. There is nothing inherent in a toy that encourages play, and there is nothing magical about the library that suddenly turns a toy educational when it is displayed beneath an early literacy poster. With or without the toys, the early literacy benefits of play depend entirely on the interaction between the child and another person. Allowing Little Miss Muffet to play alone with the train table keeps her busy, but it is not as educational - or as valuable to my educational goals for her - as staying with her parents and selecting books to borrow.

Toys are everywhere.

Most public places which cater to young children have toys. At diners, there are crayons and cardboard cars. Fast food restaurants will happily hand over hunks of cheap plastic alongside their kids’ meals. Even stores often have baskets of ratty stuffed animals, buckets of cars and trucks, and dollhouses with mismatched furniture. Waiting rooms, toy stores, nature centers, baby clothing stores, gyms, parks, sandboxes… everywhere a child goes, there are toys. But how many of these places have books? Sure, Chick-Fil-A occasionally throws a book in with the kid’s meal. Toy stores sometimes have a rack or two of recent and classic picture books. But the only place you can take a child where they can have the singular experience of being surrounded by books is the public library. Placing toys in the public library is robbing an entire generation of this experience, and it’s not something that can be duplicated elsewhere.

My child is learning the wrong thing about libraries.

Finally, the last objection to toys in the library is personal. Miss Muffet, who absolutely loves books, has begun to associate her local public library with toys instead. I say, “Today is library day!” and instead of asking for a book about trees, or snakes, as she might have done 6 months ago, she now says, “Do they have cars and trucks? Do they have a dollhouse?” Her enthusiasm for being in a building full of books has been overshadowed by the potential ten-minute thrill of playing with a toy we don’t own. I still intend to teach her that we don’t use the library for toys, but it’s disappointing that the library itself is what has turned this into an uphill climb for me as a parent.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Reading Through History: The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt (2007)

From the moment Holling Hoodhood's seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Baker, learns that he is Presbyterian and therefore does not attend religious instruction on Wednesday afternoons with his Jewish and Catholic classmates, Holling is convinced that she is out to get him. After several Wednesdays of doing odd jobs for Mrs. Baker, however, she begins teaching him Shakespeare. As they read through the plays and the months pass by, a genuine bond forms between teacher and student which influences many areas of both of their lives.

This book, which comes before Okay for Now, is everything a reader wants in a middle grade novel. The prose is by turns humorous and reflective, and Holling is a hero kids can believe in, even though he lives during the 1960s, because his concerns and interests are so recognizable and universal. It is truly Holling's voice, more than anything else, that carries this book, a fact which becomes especially clear when listening to the audiobook. I only listened to a small portion - the segment of the book in which Holling acts in a Shakespeare play and then must meet Mickey Mantle while still wearing a fairy costume - but hearing it read aloud in Holling's voice (performed beautifully by Joel Johnstone) really made the story come to life. That section may be the best-written passage in any middle grade novel of the last ten years; it's just perfect.

The Wednesday Wars is a school story and a family story, a story about the Vietnam war, and 1960s public schools, and a story of the importance of reading and the value of a great teacher. It resists any urge to talk down to the reader, or preach, or even hint at its message. Everything comes through in the telling of the story; because Schmidt is such a good writer, he never needs to spell out for readers what he wants them to think or feel. I can even forgive the ridiculous name of Holling Hoodhood because Schmidt makes it work.

Overall, this is a refreshingly well-written book with a wholesome family friendly feel, and the perfect mix of boyish humor and real raw emotion. Highly, highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Book Review: Journey (2013), Quest (2014), and Return (2016) by Aaron Becker

The young girl who stars as the central character in this wordless picture book trilogy by Aaron Becker begins Journey feeling bored and left out amidst her busy family's other obligations. After asking each member of the household to spend time with her and being rejected, she, much like Sendak's Max, sets out on a journey. She begins by drawing a doorway into her bedroom wall with a red piece of chalk. The passageway she opens leads her into another world, where she is greeted cheerfully by soldiers, and then witnesses the capture of a beautiful purple bird. When she tries to free the bird, she finds herself caged, but not for long. By the end of the story, she is safely rescued and in the company of a new friend.

The second book, Quest, picks up the two children's adventure just where it leaves off in the first book. The two ride their chalk-made bicycle through the park, where they are approached by the king of the other world the girl has just visited. The king presents the children with a map which will lead them to a piece of chalk for each color of the rainbow. It becomes clear that these chalks are the source of power in the land where the king rules and by tracking them down and returning them to their rightful place, the young girl and boy will restore the king to his full strength. Throughout the book, the two friends work together ingeniously to draw the solutions to the problems presented by various obstacles in their path.

Finally, in the conclusion of the trilogy, Return, the girl once again approaches a family member, her father, with an invitation to spend time together, but is ignored. When she retreats once again to the magical world she helped to save, this time her father follows behind. When he finds his daughter, she refuses to speak to him at first,  but that changes when the king is once again put in danger, and only the girl and her dad are left free to save the day.

I read each of these books independently of the others at the time of their publication. When considering each individual book, the first one, Journey, comes across as the strongest and most compelling. The story is self-contained, with no required prior knowledge and no cliffhangers, so the reader walks away satisfied. The emotions of the story, from the girl's sadness at being excluded by her family, to the exhilaration of saving the bird from danger, to the instant recognition of a new friend at the end, are relatable and they make it easy for the reader to navigate the largely unfamiliar fantasy world. The second and third books, read as isolated stories, don't work as well. Return, especially, requires knowledge of at least the first book, if not the second, to even begin to make sense. When I received my review copy of Return, I immediately needed to reread both Journey and Quest to refresh my memory.

Read together, however, these books are truly beautiful. The trilogy reads like one cohesive story with a strong beginning, an exciting middle, and an ending which happily resolves the tension between the young girl and her dad. The illustrations in all three books are distinctive, filled with interesting uses of color and light and unique changes in perspective that show both the large-scale terrain of Becker's world, and the small details within it. Though there are no words at all in any of the books, the reader easily begins to grasp the politics of the fantasy world of the story, and to understand the danger the young characters are in as they try to rescue the chalks ahead of the bad guys because of the many details Becker includes. (Among my favorites are the petroglyphs discovered by the girl and her dad in Return, which provide pictorial backstory.) There is also perfect continuity from book to book, as the bicycle which appears on the final page of Journey is the first image of Quest, and the crown which the king places on the girl's head at the conclusion of Quest is still present on the opening page of Return.

Return is a fitting conclusion to this trilogy, and the perfect stopping point for the story arc. The final moment, especially, is subtle, but powerful, and it leaves the reader smiling and nodding that all will be well for our young heroine from now on. Because this trilogy is wordless, it can be enjoyed by children and adults at different levels. Little Miss Muffet found quite a bit to talk about in the illustrations at the tender age of two, and I'm sure her reading will only deepen as she grows. These books are a wonderful addition to any picture book collection, and I look forward to discovering whatever Aaron Becker publishes next.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Subtle Genius of Fred Rogers

Little Miss Muffet (2 years, 9 months) was screen-free for nearly the first two years of her life, and until a couple of weeks ago, she had never seen a full 30-minute television show. I realized, though, after showing her a few clips from Mister Roger’s Neighborhood on YouTube, that his show was perfectly suited to her developmental level and her interests. So, lately, she has been watching an episode of Mister Rogers after lunch, before lying down for a rest. She is enjoying getting to know Mr. Rogers, and Mr. McFeeley, and all the residents of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and I’m getting a great big dose of nostalgia as I remember the years when Mr. Rogers was my television neighbor. But in addition to the delightful walk down memory lane, I’m also realizing for the first time what makes this show so great. They’re subtle, but there are two main things Fred Rogers did on his show that continue to make him a great role model for parents even 13 years after his death.

The first is that when Mr. Rogers teaches a new concept, he tells a story about himself. Instead of saying to the child, “You should do this” or “This is how you do this,” he says, “When I was a little boy, I used to…” or “Sometimes I like to…” For example, there was an episode where he was cutting paper strips and taping them together into a paper chain. He cut the first strip with scissors, and then said, “Before I knew how to use scissors, I used to tear the paper.” And then he demonstrated how a child not yet ready for scissors could make a paper chain without them. In another instance, in the episode when he sings “You Can Never Go Down the Drain,” he relates the story of his own fear of being sucked down the drain as a child.

By sharing information with kids through stories about himself, he validates children’s capabilities and beliefs, showing them that learning is a process, and that there was a time when even Mr. Rogers didn’t know all that he knows now. He doesn’t single out the children who haven’t mastered cutting or who fear the bathtub drain, but he still helps them feel secure in their abilities and concerns by including them in the conversation and anticipating what they might need. This is such a subtle thing, but it means the difference between sounding like a condescending know-it-all grown-up and sounding like a caring and authentic neighbor.

The second subtle thing I noticed is that when Mr. McFeeley brings videos for Mr. Rogers to show to his television neighbors via “Picture Picture,” the videos don’t just play. Instead, Mr. McFeeley and Mr. Rogers provide voice-overs to accompany the images on the screen. Mr. McFeeley tells what is happening, and Mr. Rogers asks questions - often the exact same questions the child viewer would like to ask if she could. The episodes in which I observed this behavior were from the 1990s, but the idea matches up very nicely with more recent guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics about the importance of co-viewing with young children. It’s how I watched YouTube videos with Miss Muffet when she first started to have screen time, and it’s the approach I plan to take with Bo Peep when she gets closer to two as well.

The magic of Mr. Rogers has always been his ability to connect with people through the television screen, making them truly feel as though he knew them and loved them. As a child, I certainly felt that he was my friend; it is an unexpected blessing to feel, as an adult, that there are still some things left for him to teach me.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne (2016)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - the play based on an original story by a team which includes J.K. Rowling  - has been met with a lot of criticism since its publication just over one month ago. Curiosity was my main motivation for putting it on hold at the library, and when it came in this past week, I read through it in just two sittings. The plot centers on the relationship between Harry Potter (now in his early 40s) and his son, Albus. Act One opens with a scene adapted from the epilogue in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where Albus is about to head to Hogwarts for the first time and worries that he might be placed in Slytherin. The rest of the play takes that question - what if Harry Potter's son was in Slytherin? - and runs with it.

There are spoilers beyond this point. Proceed with caution.

I was not as disappointed by this play as others seem to be. I think it helped that I had almost no expectations. I knew it was a play, not a novel, and that Rowling only collaborated on the story, not on the script, and I didn't have it in my head that it was going to be as good as the original books. (I'm a little surprised to see reviewers around the Internet whose chief complaint is that this isn't a novel. No one said it was.) There were several things I especially liked:
  • The friendship between Albus and Scorpius. These two characters are largely blank slates at the end of Deathly Hallows, so there was real room to develop them. The authors do a good job of this, and their personalities and connection to each other are 100 percent believable.  Despite some strange detours, this play is really their story, and in the moments where it really focuses on them, the plot is at its strongest.
  • The juxtaposition between Harry's Hogwarts experience and his son's. Harry having a son who is privileged enough to feel disdainful toward Hogwarts creates such an interesting dynamic, and it allows us to see a more human side of Harry than many of the original books show. Even The Boy Who Lived doesn't have all the answers.
  • Dumbledore. Even though he's just a painting, I felt so comforted when Dumbledore appeared, just as I did whenever he came on the scene in the original seven books. To have him and Harry look back on past events and talk about them as two adults really appealed to me. 
  • The appearance of other beloved characters. Because there is a major time travel element in this play (Albus and Scorpius go back in time to try to save Cedric Diggory and accidentally alter the future a few times), we get to see Snape as he would have been if he and Voldemort had both lived. And in the present, Professor McGonagall is still at Hogwarts, and Hermione is the Minister of Magic, both of which are very fitting.
Basically, I loved the nostalgic elements. I loved being back in the Harry Potter universe and checking in old friends. But - this play has some serious issues. Here's what doesn't work:
  • Delphi. This girl claims to be a Diggory cousin, but actually turns out to be Voldemort's lovechild with Bellatrix Lestrange. There is nothing about this that is in any way believable based on what we learned about these characters in the books. Absolutely nothing. Delphi feels like a fanfiction character, and every detail surrounding her made me roll my eyes. 
  • Ron. Ron is my favorite character from the original series, and I have always been irritated by fanfiction stories that depict him as constantly hungry, clueless, and/or drunk. It really disappoints me that Rowling herself has allowed this to happen in a work with her name on it. In book 7, when he destroys that Horcrux, Rowling herself proves to readers that there is more to Ron than meets the eye. And in this play, she puts him in charge of a joke shop and turns him into a punchline. I expected better.
  • The prophecy. There is a ridiculous new prophecy in this book that foretells the return of Voldemort "When spares are spared." The wording of the prophecy sounds inauthentic, and because it comes out of nowhere, it is even less believable than Delphi herself.
  • Harry watching the murder of his parents. There is a point toward the end of the play, where Harry is in Godric's Hollow on the night Lily and James died, and he stands there and watches it happen. I am assuming this scene is included because it's such an iconic moment in the series as a whole, but I had a hard time understanding Harry's motivation for watching them die. It felt like a cheap way to manipulate viewers/readers into feeling bad for Harry, and nothing more.
Haley at Carrots for Michaelmas wrote a great post last week entitled Why You Needn't Bother with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. She makes a lot of excellent points, but the one that stuck with me was this: "While I will defend the story of the series to the death, statements Rowling has made lead me to wonder whether she really understands why the books are so good. I hope she does, but it’s possible that she wrote the books without realizing their genius." I think this gets at the heart of why this play is disappointing to so many readers. It feels like we see more in this universe than Rowling does, that we care more about preserving its integrity than she does. I would argue that either she truly does not understand the genius of the original series, or worse, she simply doesn't respect it. Part of me feels like if she did respect the series as the fans do, she would never have bothered to put her name on this frivolous script. 

In the end, I have decided not to think of this story as the definitive answer to "what really happens" after the series ends. The epilogue is open-ended enough that nearly anything could have happened next, and this play represents only one possibility. It's too bad that Rowling feels this option should be the definitive one, but that's her problem. Nothing in the play changes the books for me - it just makes me think less of Rowling as a writer. I don't regret having read it, but I do hope people are going into it with their eyes wide open, realizing that this is very much not the eighth Harry Potter book. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Benefits of Not Having TV

It’s been a long time since I have participated in Top Ten Tuesday! I’m glad to have the chance to jump in with my new site and discover some new blogs to follow in the process. Today’s theme is TV. I have not had a TV in my home since I got married in 2012, which at first made it seem like I might need to skip this topic. But then my husband suggested blogging about all the reasons we prefer not having a television and I realized that would be the perfect post! So, here are ten benefits of not having a television.

  1. I don’t waste time channel surfing. When I have owned a TV in the past, I wasted a lot of time flipping through channels to find something to watch. Now, because my only access to TV shows is through web-based streaming services like Hulu and Netflix, I have to know what I want to watch before I sit down and turn on the screen. If there isn’t a new episode of a show I follow, I can easily find that out, and then choose to do something else rather than circling the dial hoping for something interesting to pop up.
  2. I am not beholden to a viewing schedule. When I had TV, and House MD was still on the air, I was always disappointed when I couldn’t be home in time to watch. I would sometimes choose to stay home rather than go and do something more interesting because I didn’t want to miss watching House in real time. Now, without television, I have no idea when shows are supposed to be on. I watch the few things that interest me on Hulu or Netflix when I have a little down time - or, more often, when I’m working on repetitive or mindless tasks and can have it on as background noise.
  3. My children are not tempted to watch. I don’t believe screen time is necessary during early childhood, so my older daughter had no screen time at all until just shy of two years old, and at just shy of one year old, her younger sister is still completely screen-free. It has been relatively easy to make this happen because there is no television to draw their attention. If the television were in our living room and forbidden to the children, I think they would be much more interested in trying to gain access to what they know is not allowed. Without that temptation, TV is never an option, so they choose other ways to pass their time.
  4. I maintain control over screen time content. Little Miss Muffet (nearly 3) is now allowed around 30 minutes of screen time per day. (Some days she still doesn’t have any, but 30 minutes is her typical maximum.) Despite being allowed some screen time, however, she is never allowed to choose what she watches. I maintain complete control over YouTube, Hoopla, Bookflix, Netflix, etc., and I provide her with age-appropriate content at my discretion. This way, I know she is not accidentally being exposed to videos that are too mature in their language or sense of humor, or which are in contradiction to our family’s values. This also means I am not stuck watching a show I think is terrible (like the dreaded Caillou) because she found it on her own when my back was turned and won’t give it up.
  5. There are no arguments over the television. Because there is no TV, there are never any debates, discussions, or fights over who is going to watch what when. When it’s time to leave the house, I don’t have to tear anyone away from a screen, and I never have to fight to limit screen time in order to encourage other forms of entertainment. The struggle to balance TV-watching with other things is simply a non-issue for us.
  6. We have minimal exposure to ads. Not having a TV means I don’t have to sit through commercials. It also means my children don’t see advertisements for toys or foods that we don’t want them to have. My older daughter still has no idea that battery-operated toys exist, let alone that she might be able to purchase one at a toy store. She has said several times that she wants Santa Claus to bring an orange this year, and nothing else. It had not occurred to me that not seeing TV commercials would assist in making her happy with what she has, but I think not being exposed to marketing campaigns makes it easier for people not to think about what they might be missing.
  7. My children are exposed to silence. If I had a TV at home with me during the day, it would probably be on, just for the illusion of adult companionship. With the TV on, the soundtrack for our day would be a steady stream of background noise. Without the TV, though, my children have periods of quiet every morning, where we all go about our business in companionable silence. This quiet seems to make it easier to concentrate, and contributes to an overall sense of calm in our home.
  8. My children have no interest in media tie-in merchandising. Because my kids have never seen Peppa Pig, Daniel Tiger, Elmo, or any other popular television character, they are completely immune to the toys, clothes, and books created to market those shows. Occasionally other adults will talk to Miss Muffet about popular TV shows, and she just looks at them blankly for a moment, then changes the subject to something more suited to her interests. On occasions where has encountered toys based on TV characters (such as a small figure of Bert from Sesame Street, or a bean bag doll of Charlie Brown), her lack of background knowledge about them has allowed her to play with those toys in a way that is specific to her imagination and not predetermined by what happens on TV.  
  9. My family is shielded from the relentless 24-hour news cycle. The news can be depressing and draining, especially when coverage harps so heavily on unpleasantness. Without TV, I don’t have to listen to an endless loop of the same news stories over and over. Instead, I can consult the few online news sources I feel I can trust, read what’s going on just once, and move on with my day. 
  10. There is lots more time to read. Probably my favorite thing about not having a television is that I spend a lot more time reading than I did when TV was available to me on a daily basis. My children, too, spend much of the day going through stacks of books. (Miss Muffet tells herself stories; Bo Peep flips pages and occasionally bites corners.) I also notice that given the choice between a video and a book, Miss Muffet will more often choose the book, because it gives her an opportunity to interact one-on-one with an adult.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Book Review: Beany Malone by Lenore Mattingly Weber (1948)

When her father is sent by his doctor to Arizona to recover from an illness, high schooler Beany Malone is left with instructions to look after her siblings. These include Mary Fred, her beautiful sister, who wants nothing more than to be accepted by the members of her preferred sorority, Johnny, who is consumed with the work of helping an aging journalist named Emerson Worth finish his life's work, and Elizabeth, who waits day in and day out for word of her soldier husband whose fate in the war is still unknown. In addition to trying to prevent anything even remotely negative from infiltrating her family's life, Beany also struggles to sort out her feelings for Norbett Rhodes, whom she likes very much but fears may be using her to get to Mary Fred.

Beany Malone is the second book in a series about the Malone family. I normally don't start with the second book of a series, but it's the only one I have access to right now, and I couldn't resist it, especially once I started reading. It reminded me instantly of the later Betsy-Tacy books where the characters are finishing high school, finding spouses, and venturing out on their own. It also reminded me quite a bit of Winterbound. Somehow, though, Beany is more real to me than the characters in any of those other titles. Her approach in protecting her family and in relating to others in general is very flawed, and she often makes big mistakes that cause more problems than they prevent. I think most young teens, the likely audience for this book, would really relate to her because how she behaves is also how they would behave in the same situations. She is very human -  sometimes painfully so.

Beany is a character I would have loved in middle school, and who still appeals to a particular aspect of my personality, even now. I really hope to gain access to the other Malone books so I can get to know the other siblings better and follow Beany's antics as she continues to blunder on the road to maturity.