Tuesday, September 29, 2009

what book got you hooked?


The link above is for the "What Book Got You Hooked?" contest. 

"What Book Got You Hooked?" invites readers everywhere to celebrate unforgettable books from childhood and help provide new books to the children who need them most. First Book asks visitors to share the memory of the books that made them readers and then vote for the state to receive 50,000 new books from First Book, helping to get more kids hooked on reading."

For me, it was Freaky Friday. I kid you not. I remember reading that book cover to cover at least a dozen times. I read it out loud to my parents, I harassed my friends on the playground. I was in love with that book. That book had magic in it. That book changed my life. There have been other books along the way. There was Eloise in the very beginning, and Wuthering Heights a little later. But Freaky Friday was the one that snagged me, that grabbed me by the navel and said, "look, you're a reader now." 

I can't remember enough of it to know what it was about that book that made it the one. Like so much of life I'm sure it was timing, that it got placed into my hands at the very moment I was ready. I just know that when I finished it for the first time I felt like a reader. I felt like I had been let in on a gigantic secret, the way falling in love for the first time feels like no one, anywhere, has ever felt what you are feeling. I also remember saying those famous words out loud, standing in my parent's bedroom, book is hand: "I wish it didn't have to end." 

What book got you hooked? Please, share with us! 

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

here at the right time

I spent this afternoon with a fellow writer friend of mine who had an adorable baby boy nearly 4 months ago (well, his wife did the "having" but now he is staying home with the little guy). We wandered around the farmer's market in Union Square and then settled into City Bakery (ah, lovely afternoon) for some conversation while the baby slept. We talked about everything from our yoga practice to what we're reading and writing and then we sort of hit on a fairly interesting subject...guilt when it comes to happiness. 

Let me explain. I am one of the lucky fools who really loves what they do but being the type A (perhaps B now) person that I am I find it difficult to feel accomplished when I take some time off. I work from home so my time is always in my hands. If I decide to do nothing all day Wednesday, that's fine, I just need to figure out where and when I will make the hours up. I love running my own schedule but I find it difficult sometimes to enjoy the time I'm not working, so focused I am on not having my nose to the grind. Perhaps it's New York, perhaps it's me, it doesn't really matter. The point is: who came up with the rule that unless you're frantic and busy you haven't earned the right to indulge in happiness? 

My friend was sharing that initially when he decided to stay home with the baby he was a bit harried. "What will I do in 5 years when he starts school full-time?" "What if my writing hasn't taken off yet?" But as the moments at home stretched to days and weeks he began to focus on the supreme blessing of, well, being at home. He started to talk about the beautiful things about being a father and about how if he doesn't get his page count in for the day or something pops up it's OK, because he is enjoying spending time with his son. I was right there with him and for the next hour we weren't two writers on break from our work but two friends who understood that life isn't about accomplishing one thing or the other. It's simply about this moment. 

Children are so good at getting us to see this. They are so good at the momentary experience, it is all that exists for them. Without the incessant internal dialogue of the mind they are free to just be. here. now. It's remarkable. I am reminded constantly by my students to just be present. If my mind slips into the future or the past for just a moment, they know, and they make it abundantly clear they are aware I am no longer with them. 

There is a balance of course and the proverbial pendulum always swings. We need to work. We need to be productive. We need to give of ourselves and provide a service in the world. We also need to be present. What I realized in speaking to my friend today is that the greatest service we CAN give is to be present...both in our own lives for ourselves and the people we hold dear. When we are really focused on the task at hand we are not only more aware but we are also more productive. All our faculties are going to making this one thing (experience, project, person) the best it can be. 

"Live in the moment" sounds so cliche and this is a blog about literacy, not a self-help seminar but I would encourage you to take the motto to heart, even if just for the day. Notice how the children in your life live by this. If you let them, they'll teach you. You just have to listen. 

Monday, September 21, 2009

and they danced by the light of the moon.

I can't quite remember what did it (perhaps a lively discussion of Dave Eggers' Where The Wild Things Are at the Rosh Hashanah table?) but I woke up this morning with a need to reconnect with my favorite childhood storybooks. Period. And the first one I thought of? The Owl and The Pussycat by Edward Lear. This book reminds me of my mother. She used to read it to me when I was a child and her mom read it to her when she was growing up. I hadn't thought about this book in ages but I had a severe, severe need to read it. Off I went to Amazon and I am pleased to report my very own copy is in the mail today but since I had to read the lyrics this minute I went and found them on google and thought I'd post them here for you all to enjoy. I suppose I was a romantic fool from the very beginning. Ah, love. 


The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
    In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
    Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
    And sang to a small guitar,
'O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
      What a beautiful Pussy you are,
          You are,
          You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!'



Pussy said to the Owl, 'You elegant fowl!
    How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
    But what shall we do for a ring?'
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
    To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
    With a ring at the end of his nose,
          His nose,
          His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.



'Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
    Your ring?' Said the Piggy, 'I will.'
So they took it away, and were married next day
    By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
    Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
    They danced by the light of the moon,
          The moon,
          The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Oh, the Places You'll Go!

I am back from California and, I must say, struggling to get back into the New York swing. Too much to do, too little time.

In light of this I am taking the opportunity to post a guest blog from my incredibly talented and dear friend Catherine Borders. Catherine is an expert on children's literature and fairytales and I asked her to write a post for Nurturing Narratives awhile back. The theme was "review your favorite storybook" and here is what she came up with. I think Catherine will join us here from time to time and I hope you all enjoy her post as much as I did. AND, I promise to be back in the blogging zone sometime soon.

Oh, the Place You’ll Go! is a classic children’s book that deals with the weighty topics of free will and death. However, Dr. Seuss addresses them so delicately and with a kind of honesty and clarity that the child is encouraged, not frightened, of the overwhelming tasks that lie ahead.

“You,” the pronoun, is written as a second person singular but intended as a second person plural. Meaning, “you” refers to both the protagonist, the unnamed little hero whose adventures we will soon be following, and the reader. Dr. Seuss is writing in the second person so that hero and reader conflate. It is a tactic used by many children’s writers and one that Dr. Seuss is spectacular at employing.

For the duration of this story, every little boy or little girl reading Oh, the Places You’ll Go! will travel with the hero, become the hero, and understand (subconsciously and symbolically) the existential journey in which we all must partake.

“You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”

The human condition is about making choices. Some people are paralyzed by this and spend all day confused, gnawing at their fingers, unable to decide anything. As if from a surfeit of options they wait, choosing none, and suffer in “The Waiting Place.” But others, others like the hero, are braver than that. Others choose what their life will be, but, and this but is crucial, but only to a certain extent. Dr. Seuss acknowledges and tells the child that there are elements, things, that are out of the child’s control.

“And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too.”

The illustrations are trippy and weird, but to a child the entire world seems trippy and weird. The child does not have the tools to interpret all the signs he encounters everyday. Initially, the child’s only relation to the world is in the house. At this time, the house is the world.

The house is the first space a human being encounters. It is a representation, a trope of outside existence. Before a baby can understand itself as a thoughtful, rational, mortal being, before it can understand that it is a separate entity from its surroundings, it knows only the house and the people that inhabit it.

But, there soon comes a time when the child has to leave the house, and this is where Oh, the Places You’ll Go! comes in.

“Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest. Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.”

This is the first time this mantra appears. The second instance is without italics, because, presumably, the child has gotten over the shock of failing at something.

Dr. Seuss does not shy away from the sad or the scary, instead he understands them and tries to prepare the child for the inevitable hard and lonely times. Perpetually glossing over serious subjects can be detrimental to the child’s development, and can make the fall, the “Lurch” from being left behind, even tougher to cope with.

“All Alone! Whether you like it or not, Alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot. And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants. There are some, down the road between hither and yon, that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.”

The picture above these words is dark and looks more like an Edward Gorey illustration. The inky hatch-marks, the brittle arbor, the dead trees, the yellow grass, the evil creatures with green eyes that are shaped like tomb stones, and the text itself all are signifiers of death. And though the child does not read death, and does not necessarily even think of death (because perhaps they have no idea what death is or means), the above drawings leave the child with the feeling of death. This illustration impresses upon the child the seriousness, the gravity of making decisions and the text suggests the extreme desire to return to the safety and warmth of the home. Thus, another existential dilemma.

Of course, the narrative ends on a much happier note (apologies if I gave anything away), but does so in such a way that respects the child, something not all children’s authors care about.

Now, if only all of life’s lessons came in such succinct rhymes.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

magic maker

I'm off in LA this week enjoying some family time as well as a prolonged summer vacation. I'll be back next week but in the meantime I couldn't resist posting this adorable Capucine video. It was circulated awhile back so those of you in the know have probably seen it but it's such an amazing display of the power of a child's imagination it's worth another look. Magic. 

See you all next week! 

Once upon a time... from Capucha on Vimeo.

Monday, September 7, 2009

On Service

My head is simply buzzing. I just came from a meeting with Women in Need to talk about running Nurturing Narratives in their shelter system. We absolutely hit it off and we are going to start sometime in late September. I couldn't be more thrilled about bringing the program to this innovative, progressive and stunningly compassionate organization. On my walk home I was thinking a great deal about service. I started this program in a time in my life that was quite challenging. Caught up in my own story I had forgotten about the primary goal of the human experience: the requirement to serve. I don't mean everyone has to move to Africa to help orphans (although I greatly admire and respect those who do :) What I'm talking about is living life through the lens of service.

We can serve daily. In the smile we give others on the street. In the moment in which we let a mother and her young children go in front of us at the supermarket check-out. In the way in which we greet those we love and in the kindness we show those who may not give us the same respect. We can constantly serve and in giving to others, we get back ten-fold.

I see with my children that the simplest actions make a world of a difference. On Friday I had a Nurturing Narratives session with two children that reminded me of the importance of kindness as service. We were in the midst of creating some lovely illustrations to go along with a story we had written about a bumblebee and a swan when one child said, "I don't know how to draw a bumblebee." I was about to jump in and offer some suggestions when the other child volunteered. "I'll help you," she said, "See? You have to pick the yellow crayon and then look at the bee. It has wings and black spots, just like this." They proceeded to chat for a few moments as they colored together and when they produced their picture a minute or so later I was, of course, unbelievably pleased. But it was the next exchange that really got me. "Did you know I was such a good drawer?" The child asked her friend whom she had just helped. "I thought maybe," he responded, "But you're really good." Then the little girl looked at her friend and said matter- of -factly, "I'm glad you told me," and they went on to do the next picture.

"I'm glad you told me." So simple, so important. That validation meant so much to this little girl and it made me think of the times I don't speak up that I should. When it really wouldn't be too difficult to simply say, "thank you," or "I love you," or "I'm sorry."

A few months ago I began to wake up and repeat this mantra: show me how I can be of service. Each day brings new challenges and, yes, sometimes finding the courage and compassion to smile at the friend who has hurt you or to not get frustrated at the telemarketer on the phone is difficult. But when we find the patience to give to others what we want in return we not only illicit similar responses back but we also pour kindness into the world.

The simplest actions can make a world of difference to someone in pain. I hope I might touch just a few children with the program and help them to see that the world is a far more compassionate place than they may think is the case.

Also, please check out Women in Need's website. They are an amazing organization doing truly wonderful things for families in the city.

Happy end of summer!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What would Bronte say?

I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between marketing and literature since I read this article over the weekend. Wuthering Heights is now being packaged with a similar cover to Twilight with a sticker on the front that says something along the lines of "recommended by Stephanie Meyer." I must admit that the first impulse I had was outrage. How could publishing houses be so careless as to align Bronte and Meyer? Wuthering Heights is a classic as well as a favorite book of mine. No matter how much we might gobble up Twilight, they are not the same. It's an insult to Miss. Bronte, I exclaimed, and to literature itself!

Hmmm. Then I kept reading the article. Apparently sales have nearly doubled in the UK on Wuthering Heights since the new cover has been marketed. Which means more children are buying the book. Which means, I must assume, more children are reading the book. The steam stopped coming out of my ears and I was left with this question: is there such a thing as going too far when it comes to getting children to read?

Now, I must admit I am ignoring the whole issue of the publishing world being a business and that making money, clearly, is a big part of that business. If you'll indulge me let's set aside this reality momentarily and focus on that question. Is there such a thing as going too far when it comes to getting children to read? Should we ignore the Twilight's of the world and insist that children stick with Bronte (windswept moor cover and all) or should we admit the very real reality that we live in a marketable world. The tools that are available to us now are very different than when I was growing up and coming to literature. It is, in fact, a different literary world. The crossover genre is huge, the visual real of entertainment is overwhelming and the constant dialogue of social media has cut all our attention spans in half. I suppose then we can't blame marketing for going to extremes when it comes to these dusty classics.

But something still doesn't sit right and it's the nagging feeling, deep down in my core, that Bronte would simply roll over in her grave if she discovered this. Here is the rub: it's not authentic. It isn't true that Wuthering Heights and Twilight are the same story. True, we are wide readers and perhaps their audience might be the same but the gesture becomes manipulative in its deception and I must retain that there is no room for deception when it comes to literature. Sure, the entire world is now a big advertisement. I am lied to everyday on the subway, in Soho on those giant billboards, when I look out my window, when I buy my coffee, but in my opinion that is all the more reason to hold out, to insist that literature remain sacred. If we won't do it, who will?

So in answer to my question, yes, I do think there is such a thing as going too far when it comes to getting children to read. Actually, I'd like to re-phrase my question: are there tactics we should not use when it comes to getting children to read? Wholeheartedly, yes. I believe in a world in which a child can devour both Twilight and Wuthering Heights and see them as two, separate entities. To deny books their individuality is to deny children the opportunity to be varied readers and to value and enjoy a wide range of literature. So the next time Sense and Sensibility has a cover that looks like The Baby Sitter's Club, perhaps think about purchasing the traditional paperback instead. It may be less flashy, sure, but it is also far more real. And in the world of fiction sometimes a dose of reality is just what the author ordered.