Tuesday, June 24, 2014

“What Kind of Fun Are We Having Today?”: A Smattering of Summer Ideas

“What Kind of Fun Are We Having Today?”: A Smattering of Summer Ideas

just don't go shopping.  just. don't.
So listen, I kind of went on hiatus last week—a lot of stressors were buzzing about like drunken flies.  One of these days I can tell you about these last few years, when, after a
business loss, we had to go on an austerity budget.  And I’ll be able to tell you what got us there and how we fought our way out (still are), but that story requires some permissions and examination, some introspection I just can’t quite pull off yet.  Anyway, we try to do whatever we can by spending as little as possible.  This brings up summer and with very little extra for camps, we’ve had to get creative and this can be difficult because….

My children are constantly bored.  Constantly.  Even if I pull out a well thought out crafty idea that is super amazing and brilliant: they do it, they squeal with delight, they glue and cut and paste to oblivion…and then, wait for it, “I’m bored.”

I could take the electronic doodad way out, but I have decided that it is not good for their brains to be beholden to a talking box.  They should be the talking box.  I think.  For the most part.  Anyway, I am no organizational wonder woman and we cannot afford the various camps that offer amusement every 30 minutes, so what’s a mama to do? 

Here are some ideas that I hope you can use:

For the very littlest littles in your life: toddler time

I suspect that your little is your sidekick for the most part, especially if he or she is the youngest of your crew.  My youngest went on countless errands with me while his siblings got to go to fun classes and such.  I mean we went, but usually between errands. 

Your public library has a lot of classes for free—if your child is that young and is your only one, hot dog, this is perfect for you.  Typically the classes fall in the morning just in time to tire out precious before lunch and nap.  Sign ups are usually required, so make sure to call and check.  (Did I mention this is free?)  If your older children are in camp, this gives some much-needed one on one time with your baby. 

Pack a Doll Stroller in Your Own Stroller.  Toddlers love to be independent and won’t stay buckled in—I mean have you wrestled one into a car seat?  Yep, it comes on suddenly and crazily.  That bucking fluidity, and I bet you thought your child had bones, right?  Nope.  So here’s a solution I came up with for my youngest two, especially my middle son, who loved pushing a stroller.  I got him a baby doll stroller.  These tiny umbrella strollers are sold at toy stores for less than $10 and are usually in the pink family.  I didn’t care, but if you do, here’s a blue one
wocket and baby
(the stroller doesn't hold up well to enemy fire
we learned this, first hand.)
Sam used to place baby in his and walk right around the mall with me, ignoring all the “oohs and ahhs” that took place and one angered older man who told me that I was making my son a “fairy”—I cocked my head to the side, sipped my raspberry mocha bianco with whipped cream (I’ll take it where I can get it) from Nordstrom and looked at him so long that he went away muttering about “ferriners.”  Whatever.

When Jake inherited the stroller, he put his wocket in it.  Trust me, this is worth it.

For all of them:

Get a Reciprocal Museum Pass.  Look at your state’s area children’s museums and see which doubles also as a science museum.  You want as many reciprocals as possible:  the ACM (association of children's museums), the ASTC (association of science and technology centers), and the NARM (north american reciprocal museum program).  Here’s the thing though—purchase a reciprocal pass at THAT particular children's museum, (I think the ACM and ASTC are the most important, the NARM has a lot of art museums and my kids and art galleries...well, hmm). 
the boys at one of the awesome local history museums
through the reciprocal pass
 Once you do, you will be able to get in to every children’s and science museum in the country.  (This is always subject to the museum so be sure to call first to be sure, the status is only updated yearly in the brochure.)  We have used ours over and over and over again.  It is also a great way to see parts of your state that you otherwise wouldn’t.  For an initial $125 investment, we have gotten into aquariums, science centers, zoos, and art museums for nothing.  Not a thing.  It’s been awesome.  Do it.  Do it now.

Check Your Local Library.  At home in CT, our library had passes to some interesting spots that you could reserve in advance.  This was due to the generosity of library patrons who bought them and donated them for everyone to use.  We were able to secure beach passes and a trip to Mystic Seaport through the library.  Beyond this though, there are literally dozens of summer opportunities at your local library, and you don’t have to just go to your local branch, you can go to any.  Just call in advance to register.  And thank your library. 

note the total--love it!
IKEA.  I have a love/hate relationship with the place.  But they have a kids area where they will watch your children for FREE while you shop or read to yourself—they have to be between a certain height limit and must be potty trained.  If you have a family member card, which is also free, you can get up to 30 minutes extra (for us it is only on the weekdays) other Ikeas have different policies so check.  But you also get a free cup of coffee with your family card, kids eat free on
Tuesdays, so you can take them, feed them, check them in, then run frantically go back and get your
and this too, could be YOU!
coffee and your book and read until your buzzer goes off and lookee, your equilibrium will be magically restored and you’ll be able to face the next “boredom” with equanimity.  Maybe.  But just try.  And hey, listen, so this one lady asked if she could “recheck” hers in, and they.let.her!   Because they weren’t crowded.  What I’m saying is you may be able to get a couple of hours out of this.  Shazam.

Build Something.  Lowes and Home Depot run free workshops that construct something, kids get an apron and badges each time they go.  Usually this takes place on the weekends during the school year but I have seen a few during the week in the summer.  Check these out.  There are age restrictions. 

Check Out a Movie.  In the summer, many chains
have free or reduced ($1) movies on a particular day/matinee showing for kids.  Check out the major chains and see which ones are playing.  Here's one list.  The library may also have showing of certain films, check to be sure.  

Figure Out How Gardens Grow.  This is also a great time of year to put each child in charge of an herb of some variety.  You can get great deals on herbs from Walmart and pots for as little as $1.  Write their name on a clean popsicle stick and make them in charge of watering and watching.  Science.  Low tech but very nice.  When you make your pizza, you can put all that goodness on it. 

Teach Them Code.  You know those amazing jobs where there are slides and dry cleaners there and pizza ovens?  Usually those are computer programming jobs.  There are more jobs than there are qualified applicants.  It is Code.Org’s mission to change this, make sure kids everywhere have access to learning how to code.  On their site are safe, free and easy tutorials that begin teaching code.  Our local library has a coder dojo that is having sessions.  It’s a fallback career option that’s fun for them, imagine them telling their friends that instead of playing the game, they designed it. 

Go Picnic.  You can get an insulated bag for around $10-15.  Pack some waters, my kids love Go Picnics, which are shelf stable, and head outside.  (I have purchased mine at Target where they are often on sale.)  Here in Florida it is hot in the summer around 5:15 am.  But by 2pm it is a sizzling scarefest outside.  So we try to do whatever we want to do in the morning and rest at lunchtime and during those afternoon hours. 

Make. Them. Read.  At least 30 minutes of reading every day this summer will allow their brains to
we duck sat.  for science.  it's a story.
retain some information for the fall.  There’s lots of evidence about this, how summer reading helps build academic performance, but I think it’s important to let them understand a story that has nothing to do with a game or film. 

Make Them Do a Boardgame or Play Cards.  I rotate the games because the 4 year old has this annoying habit of pointing out that he “can’t read” or
whatever.  Then I have to drag myself to the game
and pretend to love playing.  I don’t.  But I also don’t play soccer or have much to say for myself with any outdoor sports, so board games I’ll do without much sighing.  In all seriousness though, these kinds of old fashioned board games require team building and problem solving that is important.  Vote on which game which week—we’re focusing on old-fashioned Clue right now.  “Colonel Mustard in the library with a hammer anyone?”  My rule is that they have to do three times through.  If it’s something they can do themselves, I can sneak off and try to catch up on some summer reading.  I mean, listen, we can’t go to Ikea everyday.

Have Them Do a Summer Bucket List.  Purchase these frames from IKEA with your family card.  Then
have your child print, or help them print out 4 or 5 things they really want to do this summer.  Place a box for a checkmark.  Take their picture holding it.  You can attach the picture to the list and save it, then reuse the frame next summer.  It’s a great record for what they felt was important to accomplish that particular summer. 

Take a Picture It’ll Last Longer.  I’m an abysmal family recorder of events.  Struggling to even remember what we did when.  I look in awe and humility at the scrapbookers out there who can put together such seamless records of memories.  I’m
Day 8 of  Summer Break
struggling to get some snaps on shutterfly in some semblance of order.  But in the era of smartphones, you can easily take a picture of something that happens during each day of the summer break that makes you smile.  My own valiant hope is to collect these into their own photo book so when the boys have got to say what they did all summer, I can hand it to them and let them have at it!

Act out a story.  There are so many great, quick tales that you can act out with your kids, or better still,
have them split it into parts and adapt it for you.  (Remember when you'd put on plays for your own tired parents?)  We recently read this book on the tea ceremony.  The boys were surprisingly interested in trying it themselves and we did an adapted version with some strawberry vanilla red tea.  Next stop a formal tea party?  Who knows!  The same goes for reading about other cultures.  One of my favorite memories is the day my Dad taught me how to handle chopsticks and eat lo mein.  He loves Chinese food, and as stern as he was, he wouldn't let me leave until I mastered it.  Read a story like Cleversticks and take your kids to a
Did you know that the fear of chopsticks is called
Consecotaleophobia?"  Now you do! 
Chinese place for lunch--at an odd time when not many people are likely there.  Ask for chopsticks only and watch them master it.  Everyone loves noodles, and they are not just learning how to use chopsticks, they're actively engaging in understanding another culture. That's an important life skill that's worth the $7 to $10 of lunch.  

Jake "My poop is powerful. "  6.19.14
Make a Record With Words.  Here’s a line a day 5 year diary.  You can start it at any time.  Put in anything you want.  It doesn’t have to be profound, but write something.  Jake announced on Tuesday while in the bathroom, a play by play of what was happening, this I am used to, it happens all the time, particularly in public restrooms.  I am enthusiastic for the most part.  But when he left it, and went back to flush, and again to wash his hands, and then went back to turn off the lights, he announced that he found his “poop to be quite powerful.”  I have every intention of bringing this up to whatever date seems to be most mortified by it in the future, and I’m glad I had this book to mark it down.

Finally, GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK.  No one can do it all, and unless you are very wealthy and have unlimited time, you cannot expose them to everything you want to.  Right now they know you to be the real you: the most beautiful, smart, interesting, exciting person in the entire world.  You’re not going to let them down.  Just remember the Fall, when school starts and team sports and practices and homework…you don’t need to extrapolate every single thing from every single event.  Let your kids lead you.  My eldest, I mentioned my dream of having chickens, he mentioned having a pig to locate truffles.  This gave me pause.  How did the child know that certain pigs sniff out truffles.  How did the child know what truffles even were?!  It led to an interesting
conversation.  So, it’s okay.  Sometimes the best memories they’ll have is just hanging out with you, and drinking lemonade, or watching the Smurfs or Jabberjaw or Josie and the Pussycats or the Jetsons…can you tell where my animation choices lie?  Allow them to eat what they’ll eat; you’ll catch up later.  Just hang in and hang out—don’t worry about your shorts or your swimsuit, don’t worry about the calories in the snowcone, just be with them.  It doesn’t matter what you do, if you’re together, I’m willing to bet my last chocolate chip cookie that that will be the day they like the best.

If you’ve got an idea or two or three, please list it in the comments.  We all need all the help we can get!  Have a wonderful, glorious fun summer! Cheers!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Notes on Grief: Ten Years of Running Comfort

Notes on Grief: Ten Years of Running Comfort

I got up with my head sore and my mouth dry from wanting.  The first day of summer and children who needed direction.  In a time of constant stimulation, action, and engagement, learning to be still and be is a skill that must be acquired this summer, I think to myself.  But perhaps not today, not today.  “Today is Ami’s 10 year anniversary,” Joe pipes up.  I stare at him, blankly registering his entire face.  And his mouth forming the words.  I pull my robe tighter and nod.  Then I go and sit down, here, at my desk.  Where among all the pages, and papers and glue sticks and tacks, I have my mother’s picture, framed and looking at me with a serenity she always displayed in life…even to her death, around 11 am on this day ten years ago. 

These are my notes on grief…and on comfort.  Because chances are you will be at both ends of this scale at some point and there is nothing of ease about it.  I could tell you so many things about her, my mother, her humor, her quiet, her reticence and her deep well of love and abiding faith.  But some of those are mine, and I’m not prepared to share them.  Some of them belong to my children who never got to know her and the stories I tell are proprietorially theirs.  I trust though, that you are able and willing to read between and under the lines that shape these words and understand the devotion of them reveals a character worth the trouble and we can leave it at that for now.  

The day my mother died, it was fine outside.  Lovely, even, I would say.  She’d had a hard time of it.  She was weak and in mighty pain.  And then the end came quietly, and even so it was too fast.  I knew the end was near.  I was not prepared for it.   There will never be a time when you will be prepared for the death of someone you love.  Everything before it and after it will be a matter of survival.  Because after my mother died, I had nowhere I knew I could be.  Getting up was difficult; acknowledging the day, ghastly.  Nothing made sense and then I had my father whose own downward spiral began as my mother's life ended.  Just placing one foot in front of the other seemed painful.  Because, I reasoned, who would go before me?  Who would make sure my way was clear?  I did not recognize what it meant to have your heart beat for someone else.

I used to wear a bit of black ribbon with a butterfly pin on it.  I wore it every day for a year.  It was my public mourning.  A tradition that we as a society have done away with now.  Mourning black allowed the wearer to retrace the story of their loss with an audience prepared to hear it.  The repetition did good—it allowed you to fold it into yourself to carry with you.  Without the ability to “mourn authentically” those who feel the need to hide their loss from a world not ready for it can end up carrying their grief in ways that only hollow and threaten to swallow them whole.  I wonder sometimes about this resistance to grief.  Is it because of our necessary preoccupation with life?  Our ridiculous insistence on staying young?  A combination of the two?    We live in a society where we will avoid grief—where it needs to be “overcome” and we need to stand strong.  But doing this comes to our detriment, because without allowing for grief, we refuse to allow ourselves to fully embrace what life is and what it has to offer.  The points that follow are my own ideas about how to deal with this—grief and the comfort that can be had because death is the one immutable fact we all share.  Even birth cannot be certain, but death, the closing chapter to this life, is. 

  • Do not say “I know how you feel.”  Unless you truly, actually do.  Grief is an individual process, there is no one size fits all.  Close your eyes and imagine someone who is dear to you—not your child, because that fits into an entire other apotheosis of sorrow—and imagine them: their face, their features, the turn of a lip, the strength of a hand, imagine them speaking, at rest, at work, in passion and in silence.  Open your eyes.  And think of them gone.  That wreckage?  That colossal void?  That unspeakable is where this person must walk.  If you do not know what that is, do not say you do.

  • Do talk about your loved ones.  Just because grief is there doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear about your mother’s latest joke, or your fight with her.  Life continues on, and I am continuing with it.   I want to be in your life.  So don’t hide the parts that you think might hurt.  For a long while, every single thing will.  I’ll let you know if I can’t hear it.

  • Do not say, “Get over it.”  Unless the person in question is in the blue deep sea of depression or self-destruction that requires action, intervention and forcible movement.  Even then, the words should not be said by you, they should be said differently, in a controlled setting, by a clinician who is far enough removed from this person to offer sternness, and educated enough to provide the framework in which healing can take place.

  • Do offer to listen and to remember.  I’m an only child.  No one shares the history of my mother with me.  I have a friend who recognized that early on, called me daily afterwards and remembers to call every year and offer her arm on which to lean.  My mother died the same time Ronald Reagan was laid to rest.  It was difficult to know that someone who figured so largely in my world would remain anonymous to so many still in it.  Recognizing that this person mattered if only to the person you care for means something significant. 

  • Do not stay silent.  Even if this is difficult, the closer you are, the more your friend/family will need you.  Even if you do not know what to say, stay in the stillness with the grief and know that you will be walking this path too, it is an opportunity to learn and an absolute marker of growing up.  Walk into that dark space and see what you can do to lighten it. 

  • Do not be presumptuous.  A colleague of mine when I was teaching in Connecticut, told our mutual doctor about my mother’s death and did not tell me of a colleague’s passing citing that she “felt it would be too hard for” me and that she thought it would be better if I didn’t know.  I still marvel at the arrogance of this thinking.  It isn’t your job to determine how grief is handled, it is just yours to be witness to it.  Allow your friend to make this decision on her own; she’ll tell you if she needs you to step in on her behalf. 

  • Do help with everyday tasks.  Shining shoes for a funeral, making sure suits are dry cleaned or flowers are received, these are immediate tasks that need to happen.  Making sure oil is plentiful in the heater, that the house is cleaned regularly, these are all mundane tasks that need to happen yet may be difficult for your friend to do.  Arranging food for a family, not just for the interim but after a break, 2 months later would be welcome when getting out of bed seems difficult enough to contemplate. 

  • Do not change anything, not a rug or a picture.  Once, while I was away in a crisis with my father, someone had the front landscaping redone of my home and had my silly, funny doormat thrown out—I came home to something I didn’t ask for or recognize.  So much is out of control in the aftermath of grief; leave the large changes for later when personal input can be offered. This environment is a safe space, and often, the last one you remember your loved one in, changes need to come from within not from an outside party.

  • Do not compare losses.  My husband’s friend’s wife told me over dinner a year or two later that she knew of a young girl who had just lost her father, she looked at me and told me that she thought this child had suffered more over the loss of her father than I could have possibly felt as an adult with the death of my mother.  And then proceeded to discuss the loss of their beloved dog.  I remember only tightening my hold on my glass and looking at a scabbed cuticle.  Everyone has loss.  All of them are important.  There is no need to compare.  And no need to assume.  There is only the necessary in listening and allowing that story of loss resonate with you so that it builds in you the strength to face your own losses with grace.

After my husband left this morning and I was faced with children all day on their first day of summer break, bored and irritated only minutes after breakfast…I snapped.  And again.  And once more.  They were confused, hearing a downbeat in my voice that they were not used to.  And my oldest, the sincere said, “I’m sorry Mommy.  I didn’t know what it meant, the anniversary.”  These three souls looked so solemn and serious.  Each determined to help but not knowing at all what to do beyond asking for the needful for themselves.  “How can I help?” would never even occur to be asked.  So I tell them, I’m just sad today and I ask for their patience, give them choices for what we can do and plead for their understanding that I just can.not. today.  Just today.  Nonetheless, we go to a museum, and I will up some enthusiasm, take a photo for memory and give a death-lock stare to the docent who grabs Jake when he suicide sprints to another part of the room.  “He’s not supposed to run.”  “Perhaps you can then say that rather than actually putting your hands on him?”  Subtlety is not going to be a strength today.  He backs away.  It’s a good decision.  But I must tell you that the minutes tick by, I feel heavy.  Tired and swollen.  Pounding pressure that no matter of drug could alleviate and I’m happy, so thrilled when the brothers three decide they’ve had enough and want to go home. 

I clean hands, wipe a brow, make lunch and settle them in.  And I try to just stay still and remember without the benefit of albums or film, the time when my brow was wiped and food was made, and my audience was of a woman for whom my words were the first and last of anything she wanted to hear.  And things begin to tumble away.  The rush of sorrow is knife edged and as sharp.  Hours pass and then I can hear them, louder and louder, fighting and rushing and pushing and forcing me back into the present and far away from my mother’s memory.  I found myself hearing their voices as if an echo—and I covered my head with my hands to please be drowned out.  My youngest came to me and put his hand in the crook of my elbow and just looked.  “I miss my mom,” I say.  “I know.”  Silence.  The little hand begins to worry the skin there, and he whispers, “But you are a mommy now.”  I swallow and nod.  “So come on, then.  We’re waiting for you.”  I stand unsteady and begin, one step into the sunshine to the combined laughter that seems directly sent from heaven itself.

"Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try and find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us.It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive out former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain."Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Absent Love

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Why We are Gryffindor: Reading and Magic

Why We are Gryffindor: Reading and Magic

It's late, past 9. Way past bedtime for small folk. "Mommy I think I know what's in the Chamber." "Hmm?" "A basilisk--because of Hermione's note. I think they're going to use a rooster to kill it because its crow is fatal to it." He scratches his left ear and yawns but seems really determined. I just grin as he goes back to his room. My boy is this psyched over a story? coolest.thing.ever.

I posted this as a Facebook status update on Good Friday evening.  My son was staying up to finish the second in the Rowling series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  I got some likes from friends, a few excited and happy comments from others, and yet, another friend messaged me saying that she’d gotten criticism from friends for including Harry Potter into her small son’s world.  With her permission, it went like this:

Friend: “Your status made me smile. We are avid readers here and I have caught so much negativity due to thinking that Harry Potter and other stories are great. That they encourage an imagination. And to me that is so, very important.”

I wrote back thinking of the bees being stirred in my bonnet about it, this crux of Christianity and imagination.  I couldn’t let it go.  So I asked her if I
could talk about it to you and she said absolutely, and “It bothers me that people do not see an imagination as a spiritual gift. It is. Especially for kids today who are surrounded by negativity,” so here we are.  But this isn’t just about the Church and J.K. Rowling because the story seems to garner some controversy everywhere church or not.  When I was volunteering at the boys’ school library last year, I got some surprised mentions when I said Joe was reading the first in the series as a second grader.  “I’m shocked you’d let him read that.”  “He’s a little young.”  “Those situations are horrible.”  “I think it’s terrible what those stories talk about.”  (I wondered if this is the same cadre of folk who also touch your belly when you’re pregnant without asking.)  So I did what I normally do, and squatted down, pulling books to line on the edge of the shelves just like any self respecting former Borders employee and said, trying not to wince—squatting is not intrinsic to my nature—“I think kids are great self-regulators.  My kid especially (emphasis s-t-r-u-n-g out.)  He will lose interest if he can’t understand.” 

I am met with blank stares.  And I do an internal sigh that stretches my abdomen and pricks the fear that resides in it.  That fear spot has gotten smaller as I’ve grown surer in self over the years, but it’s still there.  No one likes being the only girl at the table. 

You know, when I began to think about this and write about it, I began to research the opposition to the series because I wanted to know what was considered so wrong about it.  As near as I can gather, the consensus seems to be on the emphasis of magic and not made up magic either, because Rowling has reference to runes, divination, and necromancy in her series.  There is real concern to those on the other side of the fence that children can look up these subjects and begin to practice them. Yet, strangely enough, there is not such fervor against Tolkien’s trilogy or the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis.  It seems to stem from the fact that Tolkien was a staunch Catholic and his friendship with Lewis who was a lay theologian and Christian apologist.  So, the inference to be drawn is that the books are risky because Rowling’s religious views are not clear?  This makes my head spin badly.

 To me, the emphasis in the Potter series is on love, that love is the best and most enduring magic.  Even at the end duel between Voldemort and Harry, Harry
challenges Voldemort to guess the power that can finish him, and in characteristic evil fashion, Voldemort mocks Harry’s mentor, Dumbledore’s insistence that “love” can conquer anything.  So much of the series points to courage conquering fear, good triumphing over evil, understanding dissolving division and love overcoming hatred.   Dumbledore, Harry’s surrogate father figure, and great wizard, often talks about the courage needed to stand up for what is right over “what is easy,” that music is the “greatest magic,” that compassion is necessary for justice.  Even in the last book, we come to see that as a young man, this great wizard was seduced into thinking power would equal happiness but comes to realize he cannot be trusted with it, because power should go to those who don’t seek it, that they are often the best stewards of it.  Where in any of this, I wonder, is the wrong?  

My eldest son started reading early and precociously.  He quickly went from easy reader books to chapter books in literally a blink.  I was thrilled being kin to reading, it was an escape for me of the most sublime kind. 
Even now, banned as I was from reading at the table, eating a sweet nothing while reading a story is a highlight of treatdom for me.  So now, I could fathom a cocoon of oneness with my son, whose reading speed and zest matched my own.  Yet, Joe loved what I did not.  Science fiction, fantasy, magic, suspended reality.  I tried, of course, to introduce him to some of my favorites, but they just didn’t take.  So I saw him taking flight with the Guardians of Ga’hoole, delving into the Secrets of Droon, minding the mysteries of Encyclopedia Brown.  As he grew older, he wanted more challenge and our weekly library visits became more intriguing for him.  He read and finished all the Magic Tree House books, and he kept hanging around Harry, a

 boy wizard who resembled him in stick uppity hair, a late summer birthday, and a thirst to learn.  It was his goal to finish the first story when he was in second grade.  And this is where I first had the stymying resistance to all things Hogwarts.

So here we are, I think, universally agreed that reading is important, and adventures of the mind even more so and I believe that parents are smart and know how these are connected.  Books open up the imagination, and once the imagination is freed, everything and anything is probable.  And that first lies in the story.  “The story is the thing.”

Stories have the power to do a lot for us, to put into words our exact feelings of isolation or ebullition, record our personal manifestos and grieve our losses.  Children are the keenest of audiences and so writing for them is no mean feat.  They can sniff out an impostor, and they know what rings true.  For a child to love a story there has to be a spark of recognition to what they know and believe.  Do I think that my child reading about Harry will make him check out all sorts of books on witchcraft from the library?  No.  I don’t.  Even as he creates dragon spit at brunch or discusses the finer points of quidditch (and I’m sorry, I’m still not interested, despite it being a wizarding game), he knows that a story is a story.   And that it can be a beginning to all sorts of amazing.  

No matter what else, J.K. Rowling opened a world of magic for children at a time when technology and hand held devices race for their attention more than any moment in history.  The books pulled children away from the computer and into a cozy nook to read.  They brought parents together with older children to read together, so that stories could be explained and understood.  Even if Hogwarts isn’t for you, the entrée into the world of books offered by the series, made trips to the library something to look forward to again.  The story became important.  Talking about it even more so.  Without it, the next generation of dreamers will be staying in a static space.  Stories mean movement.

I feel that everything for children has been built on the buoyant foundation of a story first.  There would be no Disney, no Universal, no video games, and no films without the origin of a tale.  And tales did more than just amuse or pass time, story telling has been going on and on to record histories, impart lessons, give caution, and to allow room for understanding.  Some have been so beloved that the alteration found in adaptation seems horrifying, consider Hollywood’s latest foray into that compromise with Saving Mr. Banks.  In it, P.L. Travers was worried
© Disney Pictures 2013
that her beloved Mary Poppins would be somehow taken away from her and fashioned into someone she could no longer recognize.  That’s how much our created sense of words becomes proprietary and inspiring.

Travers’ Poppins stories are incredibly rich, filled with magic of a prosaic kind.  One of my memories in reading Mary Poppins, was the time Poppins goes into Michael’s drawer and pulls out the gold foil stars from some gingerbread wrapping he has saved.  She passes them along to the owner of the shop, Mrs. Corry and her two daughters.  The women place ladders upright and Mrs. Corry and Mary climb them with buckets of glue and begin to paste the stars right into the sky:

"Then Jane and Michael saw a most amazing sight. As soon as she arrived at the top of her ladder, Mrs. Corry dipped her brush into the glue and began slapping the sticky substance against the sky. And Mary Poppins, when this had been done, took something shiny from her basket and fixed it to the glue. When she took her hand away they saw that she was sticking the Gingerbread Stars to the sky. As each one was placed in position it began to twinkle furiously, sending out rays of sparkling golden light.
© Mary Poppins
'They're ours!' said Michael breathlessly. 'They're our stars. She thought we were asleep and came in and took them.'"

Our stars!  Ours.  That’s what happens when you read a story, it becomes yours.    As soon as you enter the story, you become an active participant in it.  You can take that leap with Wendy Darling and believe, you climb the peak, you face your fears and you can fly.  
As the school year ends and summer looms before us, I have been giving a lot of thought to stories and books and reading and dreaming.  We’re embarking on a summer reading game in our house that will have each child reading and writing a report for me, which they will present every couple of weeks.  Talking about the story will reinforce it for them and this will allow even their little brother a crack at it because he can tell me what he thinks over what we read together.  Whoever has the most reports at the end of the summer wins a cash prize.  Do you want to do this too?

 I’ll be reading a lot of these stories, especially for my middle son, who is at best, a reluctant reader.  His reading has not been seamless, and it makes me grumpy.  Sam’s interest also lays far afield from my own, as he likes gore and all things scary.  Magic appeals to him as well, so Harry is on his mind as much as his brother and the first film he has seen have been able to make it real for him.  The trick seems to be to find stories that appeal to Sam in order to turn on his own passion and interest.  The story is the thing, after all, to build up a brain.  Remember that scene in Mary Poppins that I mentioned to you?  Well, Michael’s sister, Jane, doesn't say much until the very end of the chapter:

'What I want to know,' she said, 'is this: Are the stars gold paper or is the gold paper stars?'

Before the summer’s over, you can read with your kids, and find the answer out together.  So come on, join us and paste up some stars in the sky of your littles.  
Here’s the form we’re using and you can get a poster up with a chart and stars, stickers, smiles, whatever you need to keep track of this in your house.  (Consider getting it laminated at Staples or Office Max since that will allow you to use dry erase markers on it and stickers can peel off.)

And to help you get started, here’s some titles that have been selected by some very savvy kids:

A Few Fun Titles for 8 and Under by Joe and Sam

Note: Mom will be adding to this list as we go to the library, so check back throughout the summer for more!


Harry Potter Books 1-3
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Boxcar Children
Pippi Longstocking
Encyclopedia Brown
The Secrets of Droon
The Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow
Origami Yoda Books
Magic Tree House
Dr. Proctor’s Fart Powder
Field Trip Mysteries
The Guardians of Ga’hoole
Ripley’s Bureau of Investigation
The Genius Files
Mighty Monsters
The Notebook of Doom
Zeke Meeks (in the tradition of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, these books also have a glossary)
Greetings from Somewhere (mysteries that also teach about other parts of the world)
Transformers Classified (based on the animated series, the type font is large and easily spaced for newish readers)
Nate the Great
The Time Traveling Adventures of the Robbins Twins
I Survived (series is historical fiction with serious themes of nazism, slavery, war and natural diasters.)
Infinity Ring (children travel back in time to fix history and save the future, companion map and online resources.)


Lost in Bermooda by Mike Litwin
Super Chicken Nugget Boy and the Massive Meatloaf Man Manhunt by Josh Lewis
Zeke Meeks vs The Big Blah-rific Birthday  by D.L. Green
The Notebook of Doom by Troy Cummings
The Trouble with Chickens by Doreen Cronin
Einstein the Class Hamster by Janet Tashjian
The Scream Team: The Zombie at the Finish Line by Bill Doyle
Danny's Doodles by David A. Adler
Your Backyard is Wild by Jeff Corwin

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown
Phineas L. MacGuire Erupts! by Frances O’Roark Dowell
Sammy Feral’s Diaries of Weird by Eleanor Hawken
The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull
Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell
Catherine, called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Here’s to a well read summer and happy imaginationing!

*Images above may be subject to copyright.  Original artists' names could not be found for attribution.