Archive for the 'books' Category

Want to See My New Book?

Sharon November 9th, 2012

The cover of _Green Sex_ is now out (and you can pre-order if you want!):  The book will be out next summer.

And the Winnah’s Are…

Sharon August 14th, 2012

Hi Folks – So I had so many  responses to the free book giveaway (between here, facebook, private email and the other site, 149 unique entries) that I decided to  give three signed books away.  The boys had an awesome time picking names from the hat, and the winners are:

JRB (entered at www.sharonastyk.com)

Johanne Perry (entered at Science Blogs)

and Khadijah (entered at Science Blogs)

Please email me with your address at [email protected] and I’ll get them in the mail to you ASAP!

Didn’t win?  All is not lost, you can order one, or I would also consider bartering  (and I also have a few extra copies of _Independence Days_ and _A Nation of Farmers_.  I’m particularly looking at this point for high quality non-white dolls for my foster kids, but might be open to other arrangements if you want to email and discuss it.  I’ve got some family stuff going on this week, so if I don’t reply immediately, I’m not ignoring you, though.

Sharon

The Read-Aloud List

Sharon October 18th, 2011

I will finish my 150 Children’s books list one of these days, but one of the great things to do when times are tough, nights are late, power is out or when everything’s normal for that matter, is read to your kids.  If you don’t have any kids, I encourage you to borrow some if you can, because frankly, reading to children is one of the great pleasures of the universe.  There’s nothing like reading an old favorite (or one you never knew about) and watching someone discover it for the first time to make you happy.  If you don’t have any kids, reading aloud to a partner can be lovely as well, but  a small person snuggled on your lap is nice addition.

With my oldest at 11 1/2, I have now read My Side of the Mountain, the entire Little House series 3 times (and will shortly embark on the fourth), Winnie the Pooh and the Mary Poppins Series four times.  We’re still discovering new books to read and re-read, but I thought I’d mention some of the best, including a few less obvious ones than the classics above.   I’ll also mention a few classics we’ve had less than total success with, although, of course, your mileage may vary.

Every kid in my house gets a story at bedtime (sometimes both of us reading simultaneously) most nights, and the range of preferences is pretty large.  Isaiah likes animal stories and  adventure, Simon likes everything, especially stories that seem real to him,  Eli loves poetry and Asher jumps back and forth (at nearly six) between picture books and chapter books, and has a taste for magic and fantasy.

Good books and good read-alouds are different, I find.  There is considerable overlap between them, of course, but some books that aren’t quite as compelling read to yourself are fabulous read-alouds if you hit them at the right moment in childhood, and some wonderful classics aren’t ideal read-alouds unless you do considerable on-the-fly editing.  Different families will have different opinions, of course, but I find a few ingredients make books especially good for reading out loud.  Many of them come from the virtue that for most of us, reading out loud slows you down, and forces you not to skim over anything.  As a fast reader, what I find is that I am required to take full notice of parts of the book that I might not attend to fully were I not simultaneously reading (or listening to Eric read) and listening.

1. A certain kind of dry humor.  There are some books that are simply funniest when you read the jokes out loud.  My favorite example of this is _Cheaper by the Dozen_ where much of the humor involved is most effective when you hear it read – even the reader will find it funnier that way.  _Three Men in a Boat_ which incredibly wonderful anyway, is another book where simply slowing down to read it out loud makes the comedy more effective.

2. High adventure of a certain sort – storms on boats, pirates, sword fights, horseback races, etc… all demand to be read aloud in minute and meticulous detail – every sword slash or adventure is detailed.  For someone reading silently to themselves, it can be hard to fully savor every detail in the way you can when voices and description beg to be read outloud.  _Treasure Island_, Howard Pyles _Adventures of Robin Hood_ and _The Hound of the Baskervilles_ are obvious examples, but this is, of course, one of the appeals of the Harry Potter books and books like _The Tale of Despereaux_ as well.

3. Certain kinds of style and language.  There isn’t one kind of writing style that is suited to being read out loud to children – wonderful children’s books come in all sorts.  At the same time,  it is harder to hide weaknesses of style when reading aloud than reading to oneself.  I know for example, that I wept at _Black Beauty_ as a girl.  I made a stab at reading it out loud to my kids, however, and we were all bored stiff.  Some children’s books substitute extensive description for good description, frankly.  Particularly for younger children (or for everyone when it is well done) I’m partial to a certain unadorned quality in my language – just good, clean, elegant bare prose (of the kind I never write myself, sadly).  Laura Ingalls Wilder (particularly in _Little House in the Big Woods_ which was the book of hers least amended by her daughter), Robert Heinlein (whose juvenalia like _Have Space Suit Will Travel_ makes for delightful read alouds) and Patricia MacLachlan are all very different practitioners of the art of producing amazingly clean prose for children.  When the writing is more elaborate and stylized, there’s a certain flow and grace to it that allows for good reading – why children who don’t really understand all the words can enjoy _Ivanhoe_ or _Midsummer Night’s Dream_ or _Robinson Crusoe_.  There are some children’s book authors who really have this gift down – Sterling North, E. Nesbit and Jane Yolen can be counted on for stylized prose universally perfect for reading aloud.

I do have one rule for reading children’s books – never assume you want to read a sequel – and never start a book with a thousand sequels unless you are ready to read the other ones.  I admit, my children’s passion for the _Redwall_ books has worn me down some – they are all exactly the same, and while one is delightful, nine is not better.  Also, beware the tagged on sequel – _Ella of All of a Kind Family_ (the last of Sidney Taylors series about a Jewish family in WWI era NY), _The First Four Years_ , _Jo’s Boys_ and all the books after the second Anne Shirley book get old pretty fast for the reader.  Some children are content to say “ok, this isn’t very good, let’s stop” others must complete a sequence.  It certainly won’t kill me to read books I find dull, and I do (and hey, it is better than the years of reading _Green Eggs and Ham_ nine times a day, or worse when Eli at about a year had to read the thrilling cliff-hanger _Who Says Quack?_ over and over again), but it can save someone some trouble to establish a stopping point early on.

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich  A wonderful, charming, funny book about growing up among the 19th century Ojibwe.  Frankly, if I was going to read the _Little House_ series, with its problematic relationships to Native Americans and westward expansion, I thought it was important that my kids read books that were just as compelling and brilliant about the Native Experience – and this is a glorious book to balance the expansionist, manifest destiny narrative that underlies so many westward bound children’s books.  Elizabeth Speare’s _The Sign of the Beaver_ is another good one.

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.  We first read this on a car trip into Vermont (if you can read in a car without getting sick  (I can, Eric can’t)  and have an adult or teen to do so, it is a wonderful way to make trips pass) and read the entire book.  It is a wonderful story for younger kids about a little girl who has been denied competence by her loving aunts, and who gains it when she comes to live with a Vermont farm family.  Simon has asked us to read this several times, even though he’s really a bit too old for it, because it is so beloved.

Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan  There is no real evidence that this ever happened, but that doesn’t change the fact that the story of young Norwegian children sneaking gold past Nazis on their sleds isn’t just one of the most enjoyable children’s books out there.  I adored it as a child, and after reading it out loud to my sons, it received the encomium “It is just too short.”  It also has a somewhat unique narrative in that this is a story not about children shedding the adults in their lives, or about malicious or foolish adults, but about adults and children of both genders working in tandem together, and respecting each other’s capacities.

Rascal by Sterling North  I loved this book as a child, and particularly enjoyed reading it to my sons.  Isaiah, especially adored the stories, which are tinged with both nostalgia and sorrow, and regard the adult world with a critical eye that I think resonates with children.  Rascal is Sterling North’s pet racoon, and his stories of growing up in a world only marginally touched by adults are glorious.  This is the ideal animal story book.

Meet the Austins by Madeline L’Engle.  My kids liked here Wrinkle in Time and the Murray/O’Keefe series a lot, but somehow the Austins, without the science-fictiony details have appealed to them more, perhaps because they feel very real.  We picked this one because it deals with some of the issues of adding difficult children to your life, but it also is a book that simply describes what it is like to be a kid in an unusual family very well.  Unfortunately, most of the sequels deal with Vicky Austin’s love life and aren’t of any particular interest to my boys, all of whom are too young to regard that as anything but revolting.

Captains Courageous I admit, I’ve often Kippled. I like Kiping’s children’s literature quite a lot, and this is my favorite – perhaps because I grew up along the New England coast in a family that included a number of fishermen, I have a taste for boat literature.  We’re working our way on this now, and loving every second of it.  This is the perfect children’s adventure story in many ways.

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis – my sons loved this story of Great-Depression era wanderings of an orphaned Michigan boy seeking to find his father.  Through tent cities, bad foster homes and into the jazz world, Bud is just a delightful character and again, very real seeming.

Some failures:

The Swiss Family Robinson I remember liking this one, but my kids hated it.  Besides the heavy handed Christian moralism, which didn’t bother me as a kid, but does annoy my children, their main objection was the perfectly correct statement “but every time they see a new animal, they shoot it.”  Plus, they correctly thought that it was too convenient that everything anyone could want was always available on the ship.

On to Oregon by Honore Morrow.  You know, I’m a big proponent of addressing the problems of racism and sexism in older children’s books by discussion, rather than demanding that all great books be untroubling in those regards.  At the same time, there are a few books we’ve taken a shot at that turned out to be so appallingly racist without having much else to redeem them that I simply couldn’t read them.  _On to Oregon_ was one of them – the “all indians should be murdered” rhetoric is just to revolting to bother with.  I found _Half Magic_ (which I’d loved as a kid) and _Hitty: Her First 100 Years_ to also be simply without sufficient virtue to justify working through the worldview they arose from.

Heidi by Johanna Spyri  I’ve never been able to get my kids into this, even though they should like the goats, the reasonably light-handed German romanticism and the story.  I admit, when I was a kid I kind of skimmed lightly over the long section about Heidi’s exile in the city myself, preferring her life on the mountain, but my children just got bored there and started to wander off.  I don’t think it is the gender thing (plenty of books about girls in our repetoir, giving the lie to the claim that boys won’t read about girls – although if they start kissing, boys or girls are right off Simon and Isaiah’s list), and I’m not sure what it is.

This is only a partial list of some of our favorites, but perhaps you’ll have suggestions of your own!

Sharon

Quick Update

Sharon August 18th, 2011

Just to keep you all updated, we learned yesterday that the children’s social worker has decided to separate the children, and place them in three homes.  Two will stay with the current foster mother, one with one home, and they are seeking a home for one child and the newborn – since we will take larger groups than two and there are very few homes that do so, they don’t want us to take those two, saving us for a larger group.  I admit, I’m relieved not to have to make a decision about taking these kids – it isn’t the numbers, so much as the ages – I realized about myself that while I would happily take a baby, we really would prefer to work mostly with a slightly older group.  That said, it would have been very hard for us to say no if we were their only chance at staying together, and otherwise were a good fit.

As much as I’m relieved that my gut intuition that this wasn’t the group for us didn’t come up against any actual decisions (and as much as I’m grateful that it isn’t my job to make decisions that hard about small children!), I’m terribly sad for the kids who are losing each other.  Unfortunately, of course, that kind of sad happens all the time, but it doesn’t make it better.  The only consolation is that at some point some other larger group that would have been separated will be able to stay together.  But oh, how sad for them.

This was a really good experience for us, in a lot of ways.  It revealed several things we hadn’t actually figured out before – when faced up with the decision, it was useful to know them.  First, we found out how much both of us really secretly want a daughter or two out of this.  When we first talked about it, Eric and I both said that we were wholly contented with our boys, and that in some ways, it would be easier to take a sibling group that was male.  We even talked about submitting our homestudy for a legally-free group of three boys available downstate, although our homestudy wasn’t done before they were placed.

Despite all that,  most larger groups are mixed gender.   We expressed no gender preference in our homestudy, but we did sort of have in our head that once we got up to three or four, there probably would be a girl.  One of the possible scenarios we were being asked to consider had us taking three of the kids, and not the only girl – and we both had to admit that while three more boys would be entirely wonderful once we got our head around it, we both sort of wished that there was a girl included.  I don’t think either of us had realized (although I probably should have gotten a clue when I went to goodwill and bought a range cheap girl clothes in a large range of sizes so that I’d have some if we got an emergency placement – some girls are fine with wearing boy clothes, some mind, and I didn’t want to have nothing pretty for a girl who needed something new – but I’m not sure I needed quite so many things ;-) ) that we’d allowed ourselves to dream about a daughter.  I don’t think that means that we wouldn’t accept an all boy group, and with enthusiasm, but it was good to talk about the images we have in our heads.

It is funny, because for years I wasn’t aware of any desire for a daughter – I love my boys, I love having a big group of sons and in many ways, I think I’m a really good boy Mom.  I was never disappointed when I learned I was having boys (actually I was sure from the beginning with everyone).  Eric initially wanted a little girl, but by the third boy had gotten over it, and was happy to have more boys.  The big revelation of this isn’t “we’d only take a group with girls in it” but “sometimes you have dreams that you aren’t even fully aware of.”

The other thing that was useful was that this was a good reminder of one of my own worst failings – intellectualizing things I don’t especially want to do and talking myself into them.  Sometimes this is a good quality, when there’s a strong moral case to be made for doing the thing you don’t enjoy – and this may have even been one of those times.   But over the years, I’ve periodically made major, and inevitably mistaken life decisions because they made rational sense, even if at a gut level, they didn’t seem right.  Many years ago, we almost bought a house that in retrospect, we all would have hated, because it seemed to have so many rational good qualities.  Fortunately, the friend we were purchasing with (this is many, many years ago) backed out – again, to my sudden relief.

In the end, we’re probably only going to take one sibling group (hopefully, but at least one at a time) – that is, we’re not going to be able to save all the kids in the world, and we know that intellectually.  That means that we might as well trust our instincts – historically speaking, whenever I talk myself into things, I usually am making a mistake – but I suspect  I will know when a match feels right.  I would like to go into this with more enthusiasm and energy than I could have gone into this particular arrangement.

It is hard to say that those things are necessary – thousands of kinship placements begin in ambivalence “I thought I was done with children…but they are my grandkids.”  Most foster placements begin too little knowledge for enthusiasm – “Sure, three kids, you think they are all boys but haven’t checked the little one’s diapers, yes it is 1 am, ok, c’mon over…”   I don’t have to have those feelings to take children – and I know that you can grow to love children you don’t start out loving.  Unlike those who at the moment of birth felt instant adoration, I remember looking at Eli after my long labor with a “Ok, he’s pretty interesting, but I don’t adore him or anything yet.”  Love came along somewhere later in the process.

In this scenario, however, it was necessary –  I could have imagined my pushing harder, telling the social worker not “I would need X and Y more information, and then may we would consider it” but “I really want these kids, and would like you to think about placing them together with us, because they sound right.”  In that case, they might have kept them together (or not).  This time that didn’t happen – but I suspect I will know when it is right. I just have to listen, and pray for happy homes for those children I didn’t know but who might have been.

I know I owe y’all some content, and you’ll be getting it, but not today ;-) .. In other news, I’ve agreed to push up the deadline for _Making Home_ my adapting-in-place book to this fall (since I’ve got all this free time now ;-) ), and the book will be available next spring!  So there’s some good news!

Sharon

Hey, Check this Out!

admin July 19th, 2011

I’m a great admirer of FEASTA (Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability), and was pleased and flattered to see a review of Depletion and Abundance. Check it out!

What used to be called “women’s work” or “home economics” will and must gain respectability and appreciation. Astyk notes that women have “historically inhabited the space of private life where food, clothing, cooking and childrearing were the work of women, and that men inhabited “public life — the world of economics and politics and other ‘important things.” Women’s work was devalued and still is. Many still believe that the clarion call for change in light of the serious challenges we face today are only resolvable in the big public arena of government and economy, in the world of men. This devaluation of domestic work and the private life of women essentially, she argues, perpetuates the belief that “private actions have minimal public consequences.” Yet, she admonishes, it is women and “women’s work” that will spearhead real change, and the subsistence economy or “informal economy” as opposed to the formal or official economy (“where the rich of the world live”) will take on increasing importance as a source of sustenance in our everyday lives.

How cool is that?

Sharon

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