Books

The Graveyard Book: Our Favorite Fall Read

by Becky on November 8, 2013 · 1 comment

in Books

 Book Review of Middle Grade Novels - The Graveyard Book by Neil Guiman

Neil Gaiman may be the most un-derivative writer out there. Which is the highest compliment I could give him. I LOVE stories that feel completely original, and The Graveyard Book, a Newbery Medal winner illustrated by Dave McKean, is like no other scary tale out there.

When a toddler suddenly finds himself in the local graveyard after the murder of his family, the resident ghosts decide to protect him from the mysterious figure hunting him, extending to him the “freedom of the graveyard,” a privilege rarely given to humans. Nobody Owens, or “Bod,” as the child is affectionately called by the ghosts with whom he shares the graveyard, leads an unusual existence, his childhood marked not only by the bizarre event that led him there but also by his relationships with some of the most memorable characters I’ve ever encountered in my (many) years of reading.

I read The Graveyard Book out loud to Goose last year, when we were in Spain. He was spellbound, the plot so riveting he scarcely moved when he was listening. Plus, I got to try on all kinds of fabulous (and no doubt poorly rendered) accents, since the various ghosts have totally distinct personalities and hail from various centuries and walks of life. There’s nothing more appealing to a frustrated theater actress than having a book to read out loud to a captive audience eager for a splashy performance. In fact, this book could as soon be acted as read, the narrative so vividly theatrical that you feel you’re watching a play or a movie.

Gaiman ratchets up the suspense by bringing back Jack, the shadowy figure who murdered Bod’s family. You knew he was going to return, and now you want to know why. And the revelations that take place as the reader comes to understand Jack’s identity and purpose are truly startling. I figured Jack merely had a score to settle. But it’s more than that. Much more. And Bod’s real identity holds the key.

This book is a darkly humorous fairy tale, a wildly suspenseful mystery, a cache of the most brilliant secondary characters not part of the Harry Potter series, and an unexpected delight for fans of the graphic novel. Lastly, I love the way Gaiman strikes that fascinating balance between what it means to be monstrous and what it means to be human. Scare yourself up a batch of popcorn and sit down with your favorite listener. And by all means, read this book out loud!

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Sisters

Text by Becky.  Photos by the Eleven O’Clock Dad.

Shakespeare didn’t think too much of Ophelia.  The way he tells the story, she’s merely a lovely waif with a too-fragile mind–a casualty of her father’s crazy plotting and Hamlet’s crazy . . . craziness.  If you’ll remember, she lies down in a nearby stream and dies, just like that.

Or maybe not just like that.  Sidelined by the father who should have been her ally and the young man who should have viewed her as the main subject of his life, she loses her mind and ends her own life.  It’s a tragic conclusion to a story that never really got to be told.

And that’s precisely the point:  Ophelia never got the chance to be the author of her own life.

When I got home from Spain, I started rereading Mary Pipher’s 1994 landmark book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving The Selves Of Adolescent Girls, and the premise seemed proportionately more important to me now that I have one daughter preparing to exit adolescence and one daughter parked smack in the middle of it.  How do we teach our daughters to know, to embrace, and to own themselves?  How do we set them up to successfully author their own lives?  These are the questions Pipher takes up, and her extensive research underscores the need for parents–especially moms–to shepherd their daughters through the rocky years during which girls too often lose their sense of self.  Reviving Ophelia is a must-read for moms invested in their girls’ journeys toward a vibrant sense of self-identity.

So what are the answers?  One is giving a daughter an opportunity to go deep into the machinery of a particular talent or aptitude, not just so she can develop it but also so she can benefit from the surge of confidence and empowerment that comes from having a distinct strength she can legitimately own.  Sports, music, leadership endeavors, the arts . . . whatever a girl desires to lay claim to as “her thing” can help offset the pain of those blistering middle school years, especially, when the game changes and girls begin to buy into the messed-up message that how they look, or seem, is infinitely more important than who they are.

A story.  Knowing that Miss Zinnia was about to enroll at a new high school a short month ago, I worried and wondered.  Would she feel comfortable socially?  Would she find her Clan? Would she have opportunities to blossom?  Having collided once again with Pipher’s book and its crucial message, I decided to start a conversation with Miss Z. about its themes.  We were in the car one day, heading through Provo Canyon, in Utah.  “So what do you like about yourself?” I asked, to start things off.  Right away she told me she liked the color of her eyes.  But that was the “outside of her,” I pointed out, and I told her I wanted to know what she liked about the inside of her, at which point she confessed that she liked her singing voice.

And there it was.  Her voice.  Something she herself resonates to everyday.  What a boon, that not only does she like to sing, but she likes the sounds she makes.  And I found myself silently rejoicing that a few years ago, we committed to taking her and her voice and connecting her with some unique choral music opportunities and some extraordinary voice instruction.

But that doesn’t mean it’s been an easy road, either for Miss Z. or for any young woman eager to feel known and valued.  The trick?–not giving in to the abundant temptations to efface yourself as a means to acquiring value in the eyes of peers.  Pipher describes young women who, as girls, were bright, energetic, adventurous, self-assured, their journey into adolescence suddenly becoming treacherous as they quickly gain a sense of how the currency has changed.  In other words, while they might once have felt valued for who they were, they now begin to absorb messages from a society that values women for how they look, among other things.  As Pipher points out, girls too often go from being the subjects of their own lives to the objects of other people’s lives–like Ophelia.

Sisters

Sure, Miss Z. sings, but that doesn’t mean her walk through her middle school years wasn’t fraught.  A group of (not-nice) boys used to tease her, calling her “Peggy Sue.”  Back story.  When she was a sixth grader at a new middle school a few years ago, Miss Z. had a friend who told this cluster of bothersome boys that her name was Peggy.  The reason:  Miss Z. didn’t want them to know her real name.  In the moment, she felt that she and her friend had put one over on them.  What she didn’t bank on was the way the name would stick.  To that particular group of boys, she became Peggy Sue:  the girl who stuck out because of her old fashioned–read “outdated”–manners.  Sure, teachers loved her.  And her likeminded peers followed along when she started her own service club, for example, an effort that included making tray favors for kids in the hospital over Thanksgiving break, and selling mustaches during a “mustache madness” drive to raise money for cancer research.

But if you ask her today whether she enjoyed middle school, she’ll shrink a little, and her expression will go sour, and that’ll be your answer. Striving to be her own person during those years positively wore her out.

We encourage pre-adolescent girls to think, run, climb, jump, explore, discover, and conquer, while in a few short years they’ll be bombarded with another message:  that the shape of their faces and bodies matters more than the shape of their thoughts.  And too many of them, like Ophelia, will become confused by the very wrong but nevertheless predominant idea that as you grow up, being an object of desire trumps just being.

Back when Miss Z. and I had that conversation a month or so ago?  Well, I reviewed what I felt were the basic rules for social “efficiency,” but I framed it as a question of learning a new “language,” the successful mastery of which would help her move around gracefully among peers . . . then free her to be whoever she wanted to be in the meantime.  Sort of like learning the rules to a complex game and then figuring out how to selectively abandon them in favor of self-invented tricks that fast-track you to a decisive win.  “You don’t ever have to apologize for yourself,” I told her, hoping she wouldn’t be confused by my attempts to affirm her even as I was arming her with tricks for navigating the tricky social terrain of high school.

Sisters

Perhaps one of our most important jobs as Moms of teenage girls:  guarding the door to the gym, so to speak, so that our daughters can have some uninterrupted time to bulk up their identities in healthy, defined ways, without anyone storming the place and spreading crazy ideas about how all that matters is how they look in their workout gear.

Ophelia’s mom?  She’s curiously absent from the story of Hamlet.  Maybe if she’d been around, her daughter might have had a fighting chance.

Sisters

That conversation with Miss Zinnia in the canyon ended with her simple declaration that she liked herself.

May that never change!  And may the reason for her straightforward self-acceptance always be something close to what it was that day:  a realization that what she valued about herself was, in her eyes, worth valuing, whether anyone else ever put a premium on it or not.

Moms:  your thoughts about Pipher’s book (if you’ve read it)?  About raising strong girls?  What are your traditions?  How do you set your daughters up to own their lives with confidence?

(Photo: the Petals, in Avila, Spain, sporting their own handmade flower chains.  Distinctly Ophelia-like, but only because of the headware . . .)

 

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

IMG_3655

I love Shakespeare. My kids know this. Especially El Surfeador, who grew up seeing me buried from time to time in the Yale edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, which I toted around for years.  It’s several inches thick and probably weighs more than my husband’s truck, but that’s neither here nor there.

Point is, my oldest son referenced Shakespeare the other day, in a letter. I had asked him to do something for me, and he responded by quoting words from Hamlet to his mother, Gertrude: “I shall in all my best obey [thee] madam.” (Hamlet says “you,” not “thee,” but who cares?)

I laughed out loud–out of pure delight.

His tone in the letter was tongue-in-cheek. But the reference to Hamlet wasn’t. He knew it would throw a smile onto my face quicker than anything else.

This boy doesn’t go around quoting Shakespeare; he never has. There are certainly things higher up on his list: grabbing the right waves on the right morning, at the right spot–ideally when the locals have Huntington Beach to themselves. Or getting deep into a Mario Kart fest with his little brother on our old GameCube.

But it was just the tiniest bit cool to see the reference to Hamlet. Made my heart smile in that highly particular way that occurs when I’m happily thrust into the intersection of Child Love and Literature Love.  I adore it when those streets cross.

What do your kids do that throws a smile onto your face?  As a mom, which ‘intersections’ do you love to stand in?

(Photo:  El Surfeador, air surfing last summer in Nuremberg, Germany.)

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Getting to Happy, Part Two

by Becky on February 18, 2013 · 4 comments

in Books, Parenting

Tessa heel clicking on bridge_8768

I sometimes think of the word ‘happy’ as a noun: a thing I can grab and go with, like a colorful scarf or an e-reader(!) or the (absolutely) lovely Spanish olive oil I’m almost out of. My children often trigger my Happy–when they’re being imaginative, when they’re laughing hard, when they’re being kind to each other.  My teens inspire my Happy when they show maturity and generosity of spirit.

But the other ‘happy’ word, ‘Happiness’–the Capital-H kind–that’s a journey, for me, at least. So I thought I’d share a few favorites with you today and tomorrow–things that could trigger your Happy and also give you pause to think about your own road to Capital-H Happiness.

The first is the notion of a Happiness Project.  I heard Gretchen Rubin speak maybe ten months ago, and I found her really inspiring. Her story:  she wanted to get closer to Happiness but didn’t quite know how to go about it, so she started what she called The Happiness Project, which eventually turned into a book–The Happiness Project–which quickly became a New York Times bestseller and then an international bestseller.  I own the book and have loved it, particularly the way in which she takes you into the very personal machinery of her life, starting with her Twelve Personal Commandments. She actually made the study and the practice of Happiness a year-long pursuit, each month focusing on one aspect of what she considered an essential ingredient of Happiness.

I love her writing voice: she sounds like the best friend you didn’t know you had. Upbeat and positive without being cloying, she’s also never afraid to make herself the target of her own irony. Yet she never denigrates herself. Indeed, formulating a stronger sense of self quickly becomes part of her project and a key component of it. Each day in my inbox, I hear from her in the form of a passage from some brilliant or important or just gifted-ly happy person. A Tolstoy quote from a couple of weeks back read, “Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.” Interesting, don’t you think? Her new book, Happier At Home, is on my “Read!” list. Check out the book trailer (which alone is inspiring!).

In a way, my blog has become a Happiness Project, allowing me to talk in highly specific ways about the culture of family and bringing culture into family, including a focus on my teens. Especially powerful for me is mapping our relationships, particularly as they intersect with travel, literature, music, and other forms of culture. This has helped me parent more consciously and generously. In short, it’s a daily trigger for my Happy as well as a daily marker along my road to Happiness.

Stay tuned for Getting to Happy, Part Three.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Millay in vintage_7956

No mother wants her daughter to become a Daisy Buchanan.  Let’s just get that out there.

Millay, Gatsby-esque_7957

But when Miss Zinnia ended up looking like a Daisy, well, that was a different story.

Millay on terrace_7969

Gatsby-esque is a perfectly acceptable look for a girl experimenting with finger wave curls and revisiting a party dress unearthed from Shareen Vintage, the legendary vintage store in Los Angeles, California.

Millay as Daisy_7951

Sure, it took a thousand bobby pins. And sure, half a can of hair spray.

Millay in vintage_7943

And a touch of make-up, too–that was a given.

Millay, Gatsby_7955

But oh my!

Millay in Shareen vintage_7938

Barcelona never looked as vintage as it did yesterday, from our terrace, when it played background to Miss Zinnia’s Daisy-fied foreground. A girl’s gotta be able to dress up once in a while, right?

(Sidebar: Someday, when her braces come off, remind me to keep her away from men with wandering eyes and old money.)

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

IMG_6631

My teen girls and I:  sometimes, we need a good swoon.  For that, we turn to movies like the incomprehensibly lush Jane Eyre, with music by Dario Marianelli.  As we cluster on my bed, the three of us, we often dial up the film score on Grooveshark or Spotify and laugh at ourselves.  “Look at us,” I’ll say as we recap our favorite scenes and let ourselves be swept away by Marianelli’s musical imaginings.

Jane Eyre was probably the first “big girl” book I ever read, and it touched some rarefied chord in me that no other kind of reading experience had yet triggered.  You have to understand:  I . . . was . . . Jane.  When I finished the book, the world looked a little different to me, almost as if I’d traveled to someplace others hadn’t yet been to, making them less fit to appreciate the story of my adventures.  Or so I felt.

I really do believe that some books, some pieces of music, some works of art change us, almost right down to our DNA.  For that reason, I’ve been foisting books on my kids practically from the womb.  So it’s with such great pleasure that I gather my girls–my tribe, I call them–onto my bed sometimes, where we’ll listen to music, review books together, and talk about cultural events both life-changing and totally inconsequential.

The acquisition of culture is about so much more than just knowing that some dude with a fondness for starry night skies liked swirly brush strokes.  To the extent that we embrace it, culture allows us to relate to each other in ways we wouldn’t otherwise.  If it’s a swoon, for example, that brings my daughters and me together, connecting us for an hour or so on a Sunday night, let’s say, then Jane Eyre is more than the sum of its literay parts.  It’s mortar, for my relationships.  And moms and their teens:  they need that.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Yes, I’m Guilty of Book Love

by Becky on December 13, 2012 · 2 comments

in Books, Travel

IMG_1601

Does the sight and smell of old books get your heart racing? You would have loved this book fair, over on La Rambla Catalunya! Antique books, rare books, even Shakespeare . . . in Spanish!

IMG_1604

Everyone’s got a happy trigger. For my husband, it’s a crumbling Twelfth Century castle to photograph. For my older son, it’s the waves at Huntington in the fall, when the locals have the ocean to themselves again. For my older daughter, some fabulous new vintage find from a store no one’s ever heard of. For my younger daughter, a cavernous medieval basilica in which to sing carols. And for my younger son, my Caboose, a train ride with his dad.

For me, it’s books. And these . . . oh my.

IMG_1606

The smell of old leather. The feel of the pages.

IMG_1605

IMG_1602

Are you a bibliophile, too??

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Silas-Homework_5422

Photo, courtesy of Goose, Esq., who was kind enough to take snapshots of some of his school books for posterity.

Several people have asked me how we’re handling our kids’ schooling while we’re here in Spain, so I thought I’d describe what that looks like.  All three are studying independently or doing home school, an approach that allows us to travel freely and often.

Our girls, ages seventeen and fourteen, are enrolled in a high school transcript program administered through BYU’s Independent Study Office.  Before we left the U.S., we identified the courses they needed, completed the enrollment process (which is fairly involved, so if you’re thinking about this route, allow time for the applications to be processed), and got them started.

To stay on task, they head off to the local library each day, where they can wire up if they need to (since their courses are online) and work in a quiet environment.  Sometimes I accompany them, and I can tell you that the people here in Barcelona maintain a reverence for the idea of “library voices” that borders on the occult!  In other words, no . . . one . . . speaks!  Not kidding.  I’ve never been in a quieter library.  I’m definitely a fan.  My library card is almost as dear to me as my passport.

Additionally, tutors are available for the courses the girls are registered for, though timing the help sessions has been really tricky because of the time difference between there and here.  That, as much as anything, has been our biggest challenge.  Overall, though, I’m pleased with the efficiency of BYU’s IS Program and its materials.  We also brought an e-Reader (a Nook), so we can download books when necessary–like when my older daughter changed English courses midstream a couple of months ago.

The Gooseman.  Hmm.  He’s nine, bright, energetic, easily distracted.  We brought all kinds of books and materials for him (some we carried with us, some we shipped).  I’ll give you the rundown, then tell you what his school looks like from day to day.  This is a big experiment.

For social studies/history:  the McGraw-Hill Complete Book of World History for Grades 4-8.  We won’t make it through this, not by a long shot, but I love the format.  It’s got short, readable chapters, great timelines, and super accessible illustrations and facsimiles.  I wish we had teacher materials to go with this; if I wanted to quiz/test him, I’d have to generate those myself, and we’re more focused this year on math skills and literature/personal reading/language arts.

On to math, then.  We’re using a 4th grade math workwork by Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley–a text given to us by a friend of ours and California  elementary school teacher.  If you’re interested in ordering one (I don’t know whether they’re available, but you could certainly check), look for a paperback copy titled “Interactive Homework Workbook, Grade 4” at the top, and at the bottom, “enVisionMATH, California.”  The cover is black, with an illustration in blue of an insect looking through a telescope (not sure I get the connection there).  Our little guy is in 3rd grade but good at math, and likes it, so we’re pushing him.  My husband also has designed some little math facts programs on the computer, basically timed math facts tests on multiplication and division.  We’ve tried an online program called Timez Attack, which feels a lot like a video game.  However, he’s so competitive, he goes into orbit if he misses even one problem, so we had to put a moratorium on that one.

Language arts.  I brought a few books for him, but I’m SO glad we have the Nook (Barnes & Noble’s color e-Reader).  He’s read the five books in the Percy Jackson Lightning Thief series; the first book in the Red Pyramid series, and the first one in the sequel to The Lightning Thief–all by author Rick Riordan, who knows very well how to connect with young readers.  We’re also in the middle right now of a FABULOUS book by fantasy master Neil Gaiman (a favorite), The Graveyard Book, which won both the Newberry and the Carnegie Award (British) a few years back.  I’m reading this aloud to him, a task/pleasure I reserve for myself, since I love reading aloud almost more than anything on earth.  For cursive, he has a workbook given to us by the same resourceful California teacher friend.  My son loathes and likes cursive in equal proportions, owing to the fact that it’s hard work and also that he’s pretty decent at it, his strokes round and elegant (which earns him plenty of necessary praise).  And he has a critical reading/thinking workbook, Read & Think Skill Sheets, Grade 4, with short reading selections on a variety of themes and topics, and multiple choice tests that follow.  I like this because I think it’s great training for standardized testing back home.  Spelling I’m not stressed about.  I figure we’ll catch up at some point if we need to.

Science.  Again, a suggestion from our friend–an online Scott Foresman program she uses with her class.  (Check pearsonsuccessnet.com).  It’s also helpful to have the California science standards and one of the end-of-year science tests our friend uses for her own class.

The kicker:  writing!  Ouch!  Somehow, he became convinced that he can’t write.  I’m talking a major block.  He’ll shake his head and swear he is no good at it, will never be good at it, and tears usually follow–big, real ones that make your heart hurt.  I finally decided I’m going to have him do just one sentence a day, on a topic we select together, using an adaptation of an old method, where you hang a new idea on a well-known structure.  (I plan to give some examples for teen writers in a future post.)  The point will be to help him master basic sentence writing without him realizing he’s doing it–just through repetition of the formula, and friendly topics that change daily.  Eventually, I hope the tears subside because all the sadness over writing even one sentence makes me want to cry, too.

School days with him are always interesting.  It’s tempting to let him read read read, because he’ll do it all day.  However, while I think reading is brilliant, I know he’ll end up with lopsided strengths if he spends all his time in his fiction books.  Moreover, since we plan to enroll him in public school again next year, I’m very aware of where he needs to be across the board.

That’s about it.  I have deep, newfound respect for people who consistently home school their children.  It obviously takes tremendous imagination, discipline, and patience.  If you’re home schooling your kids and have some ideas or suggestions. feel free to comment here.  I know those of us who are doing it would love to hear from others!

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

My husband, the Eleven O’Clock Dad, is different from me in every imaginable way.  It was an opposites attract thing from day one.  Tomatoes, to-mah-toes, you know?  But at the end of the day, we recommit.  Always.

This couple, on their balcony, in the Plaza Real, each of them with a book! 

Couple in Plaza Real_5781

May this be us in our mature years, when our balcony summons. I can see it: my husband with one of his business books, and me with my Neruda poetry. And the afternoon is lovely.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Eleven O’Clock Mom Talks About Middle Grade Novels

Princess Academy: Palace of Stone
by Shannon Hale

 Book Review of Middle Grade Novels - Princess Academy: Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale

My middle daughter, known to her mother as Zinnia Girl owing to the fact that she looks as much like a fairy in a Cecily Mary Barker illustration as any girl on the planet, absolutely adores Shannon Hale, author of several wonderful middle grade novels.  In fact, a couple of months ago, Miss Zinnia attended a special event at a bookstore in Salt Lake City, The King’s English, where Shannon Hale was signing her new book, Palace of Stone, the unexpected sequel to the Newberry Honor winning Princess Academy.  Now you have to understand:  in my daughter’s world, Shannon Hale is a rock star.  So, when the author not only signed my daughter’s copy of the book with a special dedication but also spent (not a little!) time chatting with her about her taste in books and her particular fondness for The Goose Girl (also a Hale book), my daughter was over . . . the . . . moon!  She talked about it for days.  You would have thought she had met Queen Elizabeth.  Or, better yet, Princess Kate.

When I first read Princess Academy at the insistence of my girls several years ago, I expected something merely sweet, but I was delighted to find the story fresh and compelling, the characters skillfully developed, and the writing lovely.  It was that rare combination, a book that is both quiet and tense.  Palace of Stone is similar.  Miri, the main character, has left her remote mountain home and lives in the lowlands, in the palace, where her closest friend, Britta, is preparing to marry the prince.  But an insurgency has begun, and, when Britta becomes the target of it, Miri must decide two things:  how to deflect the people’s anger, and how to convince the king and queen that they are painfully out of touch with the poor and the suffering who live just beyond the palace gates.  Unless they begin to take a different view of their subjects, they will face an insurrection and possibly the total overthrow of their kingdom.

Although Hale’s books draw from a familiar genre, Miri is no Cinderella!  It’s her resourcefulness and intelligence, not her looks, that make her persuasive.  And her strong connection to her mountain home and the magical properties of the quarry stone found only there are what give her the answers she needs in moments of both conflict and love.

As a mom of teenage girls who love to read, I always feel triumphant when we find not just a book but an author whose work both delights and resonates.  I would so much rather my teen readers identify with Miri–a Renaissance girl if there ever was one–than Disney’s Cinderella, who, as one critic put it, accepts debasement as a prelude to success in life.  So.  Moms out there.  Feel great about the Hale canon!

What are your daughters reading?  Let’s share ideas around!  And, in the meantime, thank you Shannon Hale for bringing us characters of substance and compassion.

 

{ Comments on this entry are closed }