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June 2014

Wow, they're really taking all the fun out of reading.

I was really ready to be done with the twofer of posts on "how to get your kids to read," when all of a sudden today I noticed it was a hot topic.

First, there was this:

Pediatricans enlist to prod parents to read to kids*

And then there was this:

How to raise a bookworm

Which mainly made me sad that I didn't think to write the book on that subject first. Oh, well. Perhaps if my parents had read to me, I would have been on top of that.

If I haven't made it clear already, I really, REALLY hate this act that reading is the most important thing you can do and that parents must read to their children, EVERY SINGLE DAY mind you, or all is lost. Talk about taking the fun out of it. And, nothing against parents of just one child, but really, Jason Boog (the author of that bookworm article)? When you've got a second or third kid I'll be more interested in hearing about all the spare time you have to entertain yourself and your newborn.

*Which actually contains a nonsense quote in which some early-literacy advocate says reading to your child is just as important as providing them with food. I'm all about the reading, but come on. That kind of lazy thinking and talking just makes me not able to take this whole subject seriously.

How to get your kids to read, part 2.

More and more I am conflicted about this series of posts. Because you know what? Not everyone is a reader, and not everyone has to be a reader. Of course it's important to know HOW to read, but beyond that? All this fuss over trying to make everyone a reader really takes all the fun out of it. Yesterday I came across this nonsense:

Should parents who don't read to their children be fined?

Now, I am aware that some parents are neglecting their children's needs. But my parents never read to me, and I never set foot in a public library until I could drive myself, and you know what? I was probably one of the least neglected children in America. I also became a reader, so you can see why I'm ambivalent about getting kids "interested" in reading. Sometimes I think you just are the way you are.

But once again: I digress. Here's a couple more ideas to encourage your kids in their reading endeavors:

1. Pay attention to what your kids are reading. Take an interest, would you? Go to the library and wander around with your kids. Do not follow your kids around the kids' section, or act helpless yourself. Explore the kids' area with them, and then take them to the adults' section with you, and show that you expect them to either look at stuff with you there, or behave themselves while you get some library materials for yourself. (It used to make me nuts when parents just followed their children around like they were little gods, carrying their materials, and then leaving without getting anything for themselves.) If they grab anything for any reason, take it with you, even if you think it looks boring or age-inappropriate--it's all free and you can always take things back unread. Learn a bit about using the library yourself, teach your kids to teach themselves or ask a librarian for help, and for the love of all that's holy teach them the basics of looking where they removed an item and properly returning it to the shelf.* The library may be free, but that doesn't mean its staff members are your child's personal nannies.

2. Don't pay any attention to what your kids are reading. Really, for the most part, they're not going to come across anything too scary or terrible in a library book, and if they're teenagers, as long as they're reading ANYTHING and not engaging in some far riskier behavior for reals, take it as a win. Let them know they can ask or tell you anything, particularly about what they're reading, and then get out of their way. Let them wander a bit, let them check out a few things on their own (although it's not a bad idea to have them check stuff out on your card, or know their barcodes, so you can at least eyeball what they've got out). Take it from no less a personage than author Judy Blume: kids will largely ignore what they don't understand in books. And consider giving them enough chores to do that it becomes ever more attractive for them to try to sneak away and read--and then don't catch them right away. Some of my happiest hours reading were spent hiding from my mother when there were outside and gardening jobs to do.

So there you have it. One reader's idea on how to "get your kids reading."

*I know some librarians will disagree with me on this, thinking that they would prefer to tidy up themselves and make sure things go back in the exact right spaces. Just use some common sense. If you have no idea where something goes or where your kid got it, hand it to a librarian to re-shelve. But the piles and piles of picture books your toddler dumped off the shelves? Be a love and put those back, would you? Then library staff can concentrate on their real jobs of unjamming the printers and trying to help grandmas sign up for Facebook so they can see pictures of their grandchildren.

Want your kids to read over the summer?

Let's just start this post by saying I don't know anything about anything.

I like to think of that as my standard disclaimer, particularly when I'm about to launch into a "how-to" or opinion post. By and large I try to be pretty live-and-let-livey, although Mr. CR tells me this is not the case in my home or with my immediate family. (Boy, you tell a guy he's loading the dishwasher wrong one time--which he was, by the way--and he never forgets it.) But in the course of my life of being a reader, being a bookseller, being a librarian, being a sibling and aunt, and being a parent, I have amassed a few ideas about how and why kids read. So take this all with a grain of salt, would you?

Last week I came across this article: This is the absolute worst way to teach your kids to read

And it's not a bad little article. Although it did make my head swim with the sheer number of apps, devices, and technological terms it referenced. Christ. You're telling me I have to use an app* to give my kids reward points for doing chores? How about this: do it because I said so? Because it's part of your responsibility for being in a family, not to mention for having a physical body and needs like food and housing and basic standards of cleanliness, so let's start to think about why it's really its own reward to help around the house and in our own care? Or, how about if you do good for a while, and I define "a while" because I'm the parent here, then we go get some ice cream as a reward for everyone?

But I digress. Back to reading.

After reading that article, and having two discussions today with my siblings about reading and their kids, my head's rather been churning about reading and kids and all that jazz. And, I think this is my list of best ideas for "getting your kids to read over the summer" (or anytime, really):

1. Stop caring quite so much if your kids read, or want to read. I'm not very far into the parenting thing, but I notice a surefire way NOT to get CRjr to do anything I want him to do is to push him too hard to do it. This of course depends very much on your child's temperament in general, but by and large I think we can all agree that we remember sometimes it was fun to do stuff without your parents constantly telling you how or why to do it.

2. Show that you enjoy reading, or find it helpful. I'm somewhat conflicted on this one, because frankly, I don't know that I ever really saw my parents read when I was little. And you know what? Not everyone does enjoy reading for its own sake, so it can be hard behavior to model. But I think what I mean is, if you like reading, or if you want your kids to read, at least show some interest in it as a behavior or a lifestyle. Have some books around your house. (My parents always did have a lot of books around, which, now that I think about how seldom I saw them read, is interesting. I will have to ask them some questions.) Read the back of your cereal box. Keep some books and magazines in the bathroom. Do some craft projects or cooking out of a book. Buy some old books at garage sales and cut them up for crafts or use them as outside books to keep in the garage or car.

3. For chrissake, don't let your kids use the children's computers at the library. Really. I believe in this one very strongly. I have been using aversion therapy on CRjr since he could walk at the library. If he ever went near a computer, I barked, "Get away from there! We do not touch computers at the library!", or "If you touch the computers we have to leave the library immediately." Now granted, CRjr is a remarkably compliant little boy. He is challenging in other ways, but for the most part he listens pretty well when we are out and about, so perhaps I have had that easier than most. And mostly the "don't touch the computer" rule was because I believe library computers are even bigger bastions of filth than are doctors' waiting rooms. But really? We do not go to the library to use computers. We have computers everywhere else. What we do not have everywhere else is a huge room of books on every subject. Or a train table. Or a little lizard named Norbert in a cage. A library is a place to be out in the world, to see other children, to see other adults, to wander in a nice facility that doesn't want to sell us anything. I promise you, once the kids start playing games on the library computers, that is ALL they will want to do at the library. And that is NOT what the library is for.

 4. Give your kids time to read. I was out at the playground the other day, and another parent was telling me what she had all signed her son up for this summer. He literally had something scheduled for every single day. Now, how the mother stands that, I don't know (I am WAY too lazy to schedule daily events for the CRboys), but more importantly, how the kid stands that, I don't know. No wonder kids don't want to read--they're probably either tired from constant activities or jittery from needing the constant stimulation. Reading is the kind of thing you need a little time and space to settle into. Keep plenty of all sorts of books around your house and then give your kid some quiet time where you're not directing his activities. Put him in his room with a toy and some books and some time. Eventually he'll work his way around to looking at a book out of sheer boredom. And that is not a bad thing. Like anything else, you get better at dealing with boredom when you are forced to deal with it periodically.

I have some other thoughts on this, but the post is already too long. What do you think? What are some of your ideas for getting your (or anyone's) kids to do some reading?

*Not likely, as first I'd have to purchase some sort of smartphone.

John Green: 0 for 2 on reading recommendations, thus far.

I hardly ever seek out reading recommendations, particularly from people I do not know personally. Partly this is because I almost never have a problem finding things I want to read (I currently have 59 books checked out from the library, I'm on the hold waiting list for nearly that many more, and I've always got books that I own that I still need to read). Mainly I have a problem finding enough time to read books that I just seem to keep tripping over, and that doesn't even take into account that I know several great and interesting readers who often make suggestions to me in person.

So why I was watching John Green's entire YouTube video on the 18 books you probably haven't read but which he thinks you should, I couldn't really tell you. Yes, I do like John Green. Yes, of course I enjoy listening to anyone and everyone talk about books. But how I found that video I don't know, unless it's because I somehow heard that he also recommended Tony Hawks's travel books Round Ireland with a Fridge and Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, which are two of my all-time favorite nonfiction books.

On John's recommendation (librarians: please see John Green for how to make books sound interesting; he can do so in very little time), I checked out Joshua Braff's* novel The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green and Alice Domurat Dreger's One of Us : Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal. I am actually very sorry to report that neither one of these books really worked out for me.

There really wasn't anything wrong with Braff's novel; it seems to be a fairly standard male coming-of-age story, featuring an extremely complex relationship between Jacob and his father, but I just wasn't in the mood. (Or, I should say, I kind of just kept picking it up and reading it when I couldn't decide what else to read, but I never really WANTED to go back to reading it).

The One of Us book was a bit of a different story. It's actually quite interesting, and you wouldn't believe that a book about conjoined twins would have so much to say on so many different topics, among them what we consider to be "normal" where our bodies are concerned, and how much doctors and medical professionals are involved with helping us judge and "fix" our appearances. I thought it was a bit dry, at first, but I spent a bit more time with it today and it's actually quite the fascinating little book. Again, I'm just not quite in the right mood for it. It reminded me of Amy Bloom's superlative Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude, which I would heartily recommend to anyone.

On the whole, though, I wouldn't say these were bad suggestions. And I'm going to give Green another try; he mentioned several other titles in his "18 books" video that sounded interesting. Happy weekend, all.

*Yes, he's the brother of actor Zach Braff.

The Kids Will Be Fine.

Now there's a title that's a balm to every mother's soul.

The other book on parenting that I read last week, largely while parenting (well, sort of: I was outside with the CRboys, supervising, but clearly I was also reading, slacker mom that I am), was The Kids Will Be Fine: Guilt-Free Motherhood for Thoroughly Modern Women. The good news is that, according to Brit author Daisy Waugh, evidently "the kids will be fine."

Waugh takes on all the offenders who have ever offered pregnant women or mothers unsolicited advice on how best to raise their children, and works at debunking the myth that you have to be a total martyr to your children's needs in order to do a good job raising them. Overall, hers is kind of a refreshing take on the subject, and the kicker is that most of her chapters are all of two to three pages long, so it was easy to read her book in short bursts. I find this is necessary these days, as roughly every 30 seconds I am called upon to blow some more bubbles, help someone in the bathroom, separate someone else from his favorite remote that he loves to chew on, etc.

Waugh starts off with a bang on the topic of pregnancy, admitting she had pain relief during her deliveries and couldn't imagine why everyone wouldn't.* She then moves on to caring for babies, working or not working, child care, school, and so on. Here she is on not attending every single last one of her children's sporting events or school functions:

"My children (less as they grow older, of course) would generally prefer it if I attended their school functions. Why wouldn't they? And yet I still don't. Because, as I explain to the children, time is of the essence. Although I love them tenderly (duh), there are other things--not related to them--that I either need or would prefer to be doing.

Added to which, by the way, even if I didn't have work to do; even if I had a fleet of nannies and housekeepers and--gosh--a tax-deductible chauffeur to attend to the parking, I would still want to limit what hours I spent, in this short life, making polite conversation on rain-soaked sideliens or sitting in school halls watching other people's children playing musical instruments badly.

Children who grow up understanding that their mother's world doesn't solely revolve around theirs are much the better for it. In my opinion." (p. 137-138.)

Personally? I think she makes a good point. Several, actually.

If I have a slight quibble with this book, it's that I feel some of the chapters actually end a little abruptly. She's going along on a subject, tickety-boo, and I'm really quite interested to see how she resolves the point, and then, bang, the chapter's over, without much actual resolution.

But still. An interesting little read, and of course I'd love to believe her title.

*I don't really agree with her on the need for medicated labor. It sounds stupid, but I didn't really mind unmedicated labor. Labor you know is going to end. It's the recovery period from the all sorts of bad things having a baby does to your body that does me in.

Two books on mothering you can actually read while mothering.

So of course over the past few years I have read more than a few books on parenting, simply because I am in the thick of parenting (and it's still relatively new to me). Although I tend to plow through a lot of informational books on kids, health, and parenting methods*, I also read quite a few memoirs and humorous books on the subject. The last time I went to the library there happened to be, purely by chance, two (somewhat) similar such books waiting for me.

The first of the two I read was the catchily titled I Heart My Little A-Holes: A Bunch of Holy-Crap Moments No One Ever Told You about Parenting. I think I learned about this one on the New York Times bestseller list (it was originally self-published, and then re-issued by HarperCollins), and it's written by a mother who blogs at Baby Sideburns.

As you can probably tell from the title, this collection of short essays on motherhood is a bit saucier than most. It opens up, for example, with a number of chapters under the broad (no pun intended) heading of "5 Funny Stories about Vajayjays."  And the second grouping is called "Bundle of Joy My Ass, More Like Bundle of Hell." Now, that's not subtle, but it IS kind of funny. And, to me anyway, refreshing. You have to kind of like a woman, I think, who offers you a chapter on "a lot of shit you don't need when you're having a baby": she lists "a fancy bedding set, clothes that go over a newborn's head, a wipes warmer, newborn shoes, expensive baby clothes, a fancy stroller, a baby bathtub, the Bumbo seat, and pee pee teepees." Although, for the record, I do love my baby bathtub, but that's because it's a great model that folds up, and also because my bathroom is about 2.3 square feet, so washing the CRboys in the sink would have been a tight fit.

So I can give you the flavor of this one pretty easily. Here's the beginning of the "Chugga Chugga Typhoid" chapter:

"Before I had kids I had no F'ing idea how many times I would have to take them to the doctor's office. I mean, you go to the doctor once a year, right? Well, twice. Once to your regular one, and once to the one with the stirrups. Giddy up.

But apparently babies need to go like 9,000 times a year. And that's just for wellness checkups. Which they're always F'ing well for. And then the second you get them home they're like pulling at their ear or barfing up their spleen or some shit like that and you're dragging them back to Flutopia because they caught something when they were there for their wellness checkup." (p. 39.)

Later on in the same chapter Alpert says she hates the train table in her pediatrician's waiting room, and calls it the "Ebola train table." This, my friends, is a mother with whom I can work. She swears, she's annoyed that she got hemorrhoids even though she had two c-sections, and she includes a handy list of items that her kids' grandparents should not buy them for the holidays.

It's not the most smoothly written or well-edited book. But it did make me F'ing laugh.

*I'm still laughing about the response of a friend of Mr. CR's, who is a doctor. When I asked him a fairly basic medical question and told him I'd read about it (and further asked if he didn't get this question from others when they learned about it), he laughed and said, "Oh, CR, people don't read."

Fiction Interlude: Divergent.

Yes, I know this purports to be a nonfiction blog. But I find this year that I have been in something of a fiction place. This is okay but not really working out--I've read a lot of fiction so far that has been "okay"--but certainly nothing special.

Another case in point of this phenomenon is Veronica Roth's super-hit Divergent. It's a Young Adult novel, written and published (I would guess) largely to cash in on the Suzanne Harris/Hunger Games popularity. This is another futuristic dystopia story, also featuring a female main character. In this society, people are organized into five factions: Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Candor, and Amity. The factions represent what their members think are the answers to society's problems: Abengation, for example, thought people were too selfish, so they practice selflessness; the Erudite thought people didn't think things through, so they focus on intellectualism; and so on and so forth. (A more thorough synopsis can be found at the book's Wikipedia page, but watch out for spoilers, of course.)

Beatrice, the main character, is born into the Abnegation faction, but when tested as a teenager to see which faction she might fit in with and choose, she learns that she is something considered "Divergent"--a person who could fit in several different factions. This is, evidently, a dangerous thing to be, so the woman testing her helps her keep it a secret, and she eventually chooses the Dauntless faction (which prizes courage above all else).

So she learns the new Dauntless ways, makes friends, is faced with the challenge of being accepted by the group so she doesn't have to wander "factionless," she falls in love*, blah blah blah. Perhaps it's because I have read The Hunger Games trilogy, as well as Lois Lowry's The Giver, too recently. This seemed like familiar territory. And that's really not what one is looking for in one's speculative or science fiction, is it? It was an okay read, but it really left me with just the one overwhelming impression: how hard would it be, I wonder, to pound one of these YA dystopian trilogies out? And make big bucks on the sales and movie rights?**

*Although, I must say, I thought the love story here was done better than the one in The Hunger Games. I was totally bored by the two male choices in that series, but the male protagonist here actually holds his own against the strong female character.

**I know, still pretty hard. But it does make one think.

I'm still going to fall apart in a disaster...

...but after reading Amanda Ripley's fantastic nonfiction book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - And Why, at least for now I'll have the comfort of thinking I've learned something about surviving "the unthinkable."

I found this book because I enjoyed Amanda Ripley's more recent investigative title The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. After reading it, I looked to see if she had written anything else, and up popped this title. So, because I am, in some small way, always expecting the worse*, this was a book I really wanted to read.

And I was not disappointed. I liked it even better than her book on education. Ripley set out to discover how people really DO behave during disasters (not how they THINK they'll behave), and to explore the psychology behind our survival tactics and fear responses. Her book is organized in the same order as we tend to respond to disasters: Denial; Deliberation; and the Decisive Moment.

Sadly, oh so sadly, I only read this book a few weeks ago and I've pretty much forgotten everything I thought I learned. Oh wait, I do remember something. In case of an emergency, try not to mill around aimlessly (as many people who survived the 9/11 attacks remember doing, and watching other people do). Do NOT go back for your personal belongings or load up on them, just get out. And don't be hurt if airline personnel scream at you to get you to exit the plane after an emergency landing or crash. They're doing that because they've been trained that people do actually need to be yelled at to get moving.

It's a fascinating book, if a bit sobering. And let's face it, these days it's probably not a bad idea to try and imagine how you'd react in a disaster (and consider even more efficient or helpful ways of responding). I'm two for two with Ripley; can't wait to see her next book.

*Although when bad things happen, I often find myself surprised. It's like I do all of that worrying for nothing!

The best part of God's Hotel.

So all last week I told you about Victoria Sweet's fantastic memoir, God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. And even in all that blabbing, I forgot to tell you about the best part of the book: the endnotes.*

Now, normally, because I have worked as an editor and an indexer, I do at least look at the endnotes of all nonfiction books. And, depending upon how substantive they are, I do sometimes pause while reading a book to pop to the back notes and see if they add any interesting information. But Victoria Sweet's endnotes are so interesting that you could almost sit down and read them like another chapter (which I did, because I didn't get the chance while reading most of the book to flip to the back--I didn't want to lose the thread of the narrative). Not only do the notes provide even more insight into her text, they provide a wealth of just plain fascinating information. And, in one notable case, poetry:

"Page 247. 'Mr. Zed wrote a poem for Paul': Mr. Zed was part of the poetry group at Laguna Honda...The real Mr. Zed naturally wants his work to have his real name attached to it, and so do I. But as his physician, I am not supposed to reveal identifiable patient information. A compromise is that I will put anyone wishing to contact Mr. Zed in touch with him, with his permission. Since I also particularly love his [poem] 'Letter Needing No Stamp,' I quote it here:

...We must all pray that you never resign or become bitter.
As sad as things seem to be here
Without you they'd be infinitely worse.
Thank God for God
Stay in there buddy
Have a martini once in a while
Create a new universe." (p. 366.)

I did not quote the whole poem, because I just want you to go and read this whole book.

*Thank God my sister reminded me about the notes. I can blame the CRboys for Mommy Brain until the youngest one is 18, right?