The Christmas Book Box

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Books are a big deal around here. It’s no secret that I wish all the boys in my life loved reading as much as I do, but perhaps they wish I loved fart jokes as much as they do. I try to encourage reading on the sly because anytime I stomp my feet and flail my hands in effort to get the boys onside with my desires, I am often met with sullen, uninterested faces or, more likely, a look that says, “she’s crazy!”.

I took the idea of a book box from my teaching days. I made a project out of it and engaged the boys from the beginning. At the grocery store, I casually mentioned that we needed a box. I didn’t give them any further details so when they were sorting through the heaps of discarded boxes that line the front of the store, their curiosity was piqued.

“Uh-uh. Too small! ” I’d say or “Uh-uh. Too big!”

When they landed on the perfect box, we brought it in the house along with the groceries, but I said no more about the box and deferred all questions pertaining to it saying that I wasn’t quite ready to share its use yet.

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A few days later, my middle one was lazing around the house, bored. Read: he was whining and I was quickly becoming irritated. I suggested that he decorate “The Box”. I gave him clues that guided his colour selection and sticker choices. Once the box was completely covered, I asked him to return it to its place on the floor in the dining room.

When the boys were at school, I pulled all of the Christmas and holiday books from our shelves and placed them in the box and then moved the box to a prominent location in our family room. I said nothing about the box, but when the boys came home from school they quickly thumbed through the books and come bedtime took a few upstairs with them only to return them first thing in the morning.

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I didn’t say too much about the book box but it’s now a part of our Christmas tradition, our Christmas narrative if you will. Each year the boys are eager to become reacquainted with some of their favourite stories and discover what new additions have been made.

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Bedtime Stories: Glorious for all of 2 minutes . . .and then the fighting starts.

photo (54)I remember being pregnant with my first son. I was sure of a lot of things. I was sure that I would never let him sleep in my bed, bribe him to be on his best behaviour or lose my cool during a temper tantrum.

I was also steadfast in my belief that I would read to my children every night. I had visions of us curled on the bed, propped up with pillows and covered in a fluffy duvet. The boys would lull off to sleep with visions of Peter, Tinkerbell and Captain Hook as I would sneak out of the room and head downstairs, settle into my favourite chair with a cup of hot chocolate and my novel of the moment.

And since then I have eaten more than my fair share of humble pie while buying another package of Sponge Bob Band-Aids just to escape the drugstore with a few less tears.

I was pregnant with my second son when my first son turned 6 months old. I battled through first trimester exhaustion all while getting up at least once a night to feed. The bedtime ritual was simple: try to stay awake long enough to put the baby down in his crib.

My second son was a screamer. He cried all day long but really turned it on between 7 and 9 in the evening. Every night he would bawl; his face mottled and his voice hoarse. We tried everything that every book, website and expert recommended. Eventually we resorted to laying him in his crib and blasting Andrea Bocelli from a disc player. These were desperate times. As baby #2 grew hysterical, baby #1 was cranky, tired, and pulling at my leg. The bedtime ritual wasn’t so simple: bath, change, bottle and bed all with one hand, and wailing in my ear.

Eventually the crying stopped, I developed a bad case of amnesia and got pregnant for a third time, with my third son.

Baby #1 was now three years old (and still waking up in the night), Baby #2 was 2 years old (and had mercifully reserved his crying periods to other times of the day) and I would start counting down to bedtime around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, compulsively checking the time. By 7:30 the bedtime ritual began: I would push them into bed with a kiss on the cheek, only to collapse onto the couch with a sigh. I had made it through another day.

I know the benefits of reading to children. And I do. But not at bedtime. None of us do well at the end of the day. When I try to read a bedtime story everything is glorious for all of about 2 minutes and then it starts: jockeying for position closest to me, complaints over the story choice, whining over whose turn it is to choose the book, someone’s breathing on someone, someone’s touching someone, someone’s foot is fidgeting. Nerves are shot, tensions are high and the tears start.

Instead we read on a Saturday afternoon, waiting for swimming lessons to start or the doctor to call our name. I keep the novel, currently Stuart Little, in my over-sized purse (also something I was never going to do as mom) to pull out at those ordinary times transforming them into those special, unplanned moments that really make up motherhood.

Remembrance Day Books: For children, youth and you

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. – by John McCrae, 1915

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A Poppy is to Remember by Heather Patterson

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In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae by Linda Granfield

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On Juno Beach: Canada’s D Day Heroes by Hugh Brewster

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The Kids Book of Canada at War by Elizabeth MacLeod

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Hanna’s Suitcase – Karen Levine

For older children:

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The Bite of the Mango – by Mariatu Kamara with Susan McClelland

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Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees by Deborah Ellis

For more suggestions visit The Canadian Children’s Book Centre, a wonderful resource!

For You:

Some of my favourite war stories told by some of my favourite Canadian authors.

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Far To Go by Alison Pick

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The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

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Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

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Hanna’s Diary by Hanna Spencer

 

Mind Full or Mindful?

imgresTo end this month of gratitude and mindfulness, a post on meditation seems only fitting.

Last month I met Jackie. I have been curious about meditation and spirituality for some time but it was a few months ago when I was absolutely exhausted that I succumbed to that niggling feeling of needing “more”.

I was so busy contorting myself to keep all of the plates spinning and the thought that something was missing seemed idiotic. Even I recognized that I couldn’t possibly toss another in the air and sustain life at the most basic level. And then this thought: what if I just let some of these plates drop?

I am good at following rules and I held staunch to the golden one: finish what you start. So you see, the mere idea of saying “no” was counter to my beliefs.

But what if . . .

The worst that would happen is that I would cut my feet. And cuts heal.

I felt like I had known Jackie my entire life, and about 30 seconds after exchanging names, we hugged. In that embrace I felt calm.

I know, I know. Insert eye-roll here.

Sitting across from each other, I dove into my story. I explained to Jackie that I felt as though something was missing from my life. I have all the material things anyone could want. I have health. I have freedom. I have it all. But that’s not enough. I want to enjoy it. I want to live my life without feeling frenzied, harried and EXHAUSTED! But what’s worse, I felt shame for even admitting that I wanted more.

I know, I know. (There may be lots of eye-rolling here.)

Jackie sat across from me, listening to every word I said. She nodded empathetically and when I was finished with my rant, she quietly said, “I relate to how you feel.”

Jackie started to explore her spirituality when she was my age and living a very similar life. She too was baring the responsibility of child rearing and being a supportive spouse; she was also felt that there was something more like what I described.

Thirty-five years ago, Jackie discovered the power of meditation and began in earnest to study Buddhism over a decade ago, which she is quickly points out is a philosophy not a dogma.

I tell Jackie that I am just dipping my toes into this new way of thinking, that I am reading Jon Kabat-Zinn and struggling to practice Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) and in this little time, I have come to discover that “niggling feeling” has quieted, softened.

Jackie nods when she hears this. She leans forward, her blond hair brushing her cheek, and I get a good look at her face. She is radiant. Her eyes sparkle, her complexion is clear and she is focused solely on me. She never glances to her phone or excuses herself to tap out a text message. I am struck by how infrequently these kinds of interactions are becoming.

“Originally my practice was based more on mindfulness until I discovered Vipassana; in Toronto I sit with Satipanna Insight Meditation Toronto.” Jackie goes on to describe a patchwork of experiences from sweat lodges in earlier years to silent meditation retreats that define her journey of spiritual discovery.

When I ask her what benefits she feels meditation brings, she is simple with her reply. “Learning to approach life with more calm, happiness and compassion.”

“You sound so enlightened.” I say this as a compliment.

Jackie looks somewhat aghast. “Oh no! I am just a beginner.”

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From My Book Shelf

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The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown Ph.D., LMSW

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The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting: Raising Children with Courage, Compassion and Connection by Brene Brown Ph.D., LMSW

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Mindfulness For Beginners by Jon Kabbat-Zin

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Everyday Blessings: the inner work of mindful parenting by Jon Kabbat-Zinn

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Mindful Parenting by Kristen Race, Ph.D.

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The Mindful Way Through Depression by J. Mark G. Williams

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About Jacqueline Carroll:

Jackie has  has worked with both Asian and Western teachers.  Since 2001 Jackie has practiced specifically Vipassana Mindfulness meditation, supported by a Metta practice.

Jackie is inspired by her practice with various guiding teachers:  Sayadaw U Pandita, Burma, Sayadaw U Vivekananda, Nepal, Bhante Gunaratana, USA, Ayyang Ripoche, Ayya Medhanandi, Perth, Ont,  Ajhan Viradhammo, Perth, Ontario, Marcia Rose, New Mexico, Michelle Macdonald, Ottawa, Ont., Randall Baker and Jim Bedard, Satipanna Insight Meditation Toronto, Toronto, Ont.

To learn more about meditation please visit, Harmony Yoga Wellness

Grateful for Canadian Women Writers

We are transitioning this week from our September theme of the return to school, to gratitude, our theme for the month of Thanksgiving.

After running around like a madwoman all September, I am ready to sit down and create some space for myself and to reflect on what has kept me sane for the past month.  What keeps me sane is my bulging bookshelf of books to be read.  More than sane.  It delights me.  What I am most grateful for in this month of Thanksgiving is the incredible talent of the Canadian women whose work has made my down time such a joy.

In spite of the insanity of the blur that was September, I still managed to read a lovely pile of books.  I recommend one and all and hope that you, too, will find something to love and to be grateful for.

9781770894327Girl Runner

Carrie Snyder

Toronto: Anansi, 2014.

I have reviewed Carrie’s work here before.  Her Juliet Stories are a favourite of mine, and I could not wait to read her latest.  Girl Runner is everything I had hoped it would be.  It is crisp and smart and lyrical.  It is a page-turner.  Last, but not least, there is a gorgeous illustrated map at the beginning of the book.  It reminded me of Ernest Shepard’s map of the Hundred Acre Wood.  It has beautiful little houses, neat rows of crops and trees, and a lighthouse in the middle of farmland; a mystery in the middle of a rural landscape.  It is preparation for the mystery at the heart of the story of the novel’s protagonist, 104-year-old Aganetha Smart.  Olympic runner.  Nursing home inmate.

The book begins on the day that Aganetha is sprung from her nursing home by two strangers claiming to know her.  The novel then progresses with flashbacks of Aggie’s life as they take her home to the farm where she grew up.  Aggie’s girlhood on the farm, her working life in the city, her training as a competitive runner and her winning Olympic gold for Canada in the 1928 Olympics, her friendships, work and ambition.

What I most loved about the book is the description of Aganetha’s ambition.  I don’t think there are enough stories about female ambition.  Snyder describes ambition not as something hard or calculating, but as if it is something organic, born and not made by the goal-setting cheers of the chorus of life coaches that seem so loud in the 21st century.

Aganetha reflects that

Somehow it never went out of me–the desire to compete, to line up against others, win or lose, part of a rhythm larger than myself.  One turning wheel in a crowd of effort.

That image of gears could stand equally well as a metaphor for how the book is constructed, with successive gears setting each other in motion, and when you arrive, breathless, at the end, the final gear clicks into place and the whole story makes a different and piercing kind of sense.

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Caroline Adderson

Toronto: Harper Collins, 2014.

When Caroline Adderson set out to write this book, she did so with a particular goal in mind: to write a book that walked and talked like a novel but that could be taken apart into standalone stories.  Ellen in Pieces.  Ellen.  In Pieces.  She knocked it out of the park.

The cover art is especially apt because not only can the novel’s structure withstand being fractured, the book looks at the fragments of a woman’s life and at how romance, motherhood, friendship and a sense of self can all survive being shattered.  And it has to be said, there is shattering.  There is also humour, sex, and some damn fine writing about the frustrations and difficulties of being a single mother:

She met the American novelist in the restaurant of the Hyatt to review his schedule.  Interviews, bookstore signings, then the grand finale, the Reading.  He asked straight out, “Did you love my book?”

“I did,” Ellen said.  She’d only read the beginning and the end and some of the middle bits.  “It’s brilliant.”  It was middling, actually, but you don’t feed two children on honesty.

Ellen is not an entirely likeable character.  This also has to be said.  But I really enjoyed seeing how Adderson made her character succeed in spite of her faults.  She is feisty and often selfish, but she is loved, and her friends are loyal, and I found it a marvel to watch how they rally around her.

interInterference

Michelle Berry

Toronto: ECW Press, 2014.

Interference, another novel in stories, takes its title from the rules of hockey: a penalty is called if an opponent impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal, obscures too aggressively his line of sight.  Sight, obscured and predatory and sinister, is what this book is all about.  How do we see?  How are we seen?  Who is watching?  The book is a collection of short stories about the inhabitants of a small Canadian town: the members of the Senior Ladies Leisure Hockey League, local teens, a mysterious man with a disfiguring scar.  The stories are interspersed with written ephemera: letters to parents from the school principal,  a list of myths about cancer, emails and legal Cease and Desist letters.  Sometimes, though, these bits of information raise more questions than they answer.  I absolutely loved how the book kicks off with a letter from the principal:

Dear Parents and Guardians,

This morning we became aware of an incident that occurred at another school this week.  We are forwarding this information to you, because we know you need to be aware of what is going on and we need to have an open dialogue between staff and parents.  We have found that if we don’t have this kind of discussion some of our parents get very upset.  Last year’s incident with the ice cream and the hermit crabs was just such an example of this.

In effect, “Parents, we are watching you.  We don’t like how you gossip.  This is the one true version of events.  Everything is under control.”  The letter goes on to describe an incident of a possible attempted abduction, and the threat of a pedophile lurking around haunts the rest of the book.  Everything is decidedly not under control, and disquiet hovers.  But, damn, all I wanted to know on page 1 was what happened with the ice cream and the hermit crabs!

brokenAll the Broken Things

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

Toronto: Random House, 2014.

All the broken things includes my heart.  This novel tells the story of Bo, a refugee from Vietnam, his mother Rose, and his sister, who is severely disfigured from the effects of Agent Orange.  It tells the story of Teacher, who tries desperately to do the right thing for Bo and his family, having sponsored them through her church, but failing utterly to understand how hard it is for Bo to accept her goodwill because he feels proud and alien and 14, for Pete’s sake.  It is about Emily, Bo’s schoolmate and neighbour, who has an otherworldly wisdom and an ability to connect with his hidden sister.  It is about getting swept up in putting on a school play, the story of Orpheus, and it is, improbably and perfectly reasonably, about a Vietnamese boy finding a home in Canada by performing in the theater of the circus: bear wrestling.  He is given his own cub to raise, and like the great writhing mass of his emotions, he has to keep her hidden from sight.

The story broke my heart because Bo has too much responsibility and wrestles with too much loss for one so young.  He is swept up in so much turmoil, and while the pathos is never gratuitous, I found it so very moving to read about a boy still so adrift after making landfall in Canada.  When Teacher invites Rose to help make the costumes for the play, Bo chafes at seeing his mother at school:

He wasn’t embarrassed.  He was ashamed.  And he wasn’t ashamed of Rose.  It was something deeper.  It was the shame Teacher conveyed, by trying to fix things.  He wanted to shout that these things were just broken.  He wanted her to understand about the pride of broken things.

That Bo is simultaneously so wise and so lost is the story’s best and, yes, most heartbreaking, tension.

Please share the book love!  Tell us what you’re reading and what we should read, too.

Boys and Education: Sometimes the teacher must be the student

I have a confession to make. In addition to being a great mother before I had children, I was even a better fifth grade teacher. I couldn’t understand why library books didn’t come back on time, I’d shake my head at a family’s disorganization and as embarrassed as I am to admit, I would harrumph, and roll my eyes at the “excuses” for homework not being done.

That was before.

I will also admit to feeling gob smacked when I learned that I was having a boy. And another. And then another. How could I, poster child for the girly-girl, have three boys?

Living with boys hasn’t come easy to me. It has been a learning process of how to best communicate with them and Dr. Leonard Sax’s book, Why Gender Matters, has been my instructional guide.

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“Did you know that most boys and men build friendships around activities and don’t really care to share their inner most feelings with each other?” I asked my husband, somewhat incredulously.

“Um, yeah,” he muttered back to me while absently staring at the tv and flicking through the channels.

“Did you know that most boys and men prefer to communicate shoulder-to-shoulder, you know, looking at problem together, rather than making direct eye contact?” I say this like it’s some sort of a revelation.

“Ya.”

“Okay, this explains a lot. Did you know that there are structural differences in the ears’ of boys and girls, and this guy is suggesting that sometimes boys have a hard time hearing their teacher and don’t intend to be disruptive?!”

“Sorry, what’d you say?”

And there you have it. My life with boys.

I read somewhere that women speak thousands more words in a day than men. In my case it’s true. I live my life according to a script.

“Wake up! Teeth brushed, beds made, clothes on! Knees off the table. Use your spoon. Dishes to the dishwasher . . . “

And when the boys are fighting, I am more likely to get into a discussion (albeit one-sided) about feelings and anger, and controlling impulses. Down on my knees, arms wrapped around each boy, sandwiching myself in between them, I talk. And talk. And talk. I’m usually there to intercede immediately after the first fist flies.

By contrast, the boys’ father will swoop into a room after the fighting has reached a level he has deemed too violent (usually just before or after bloodshed) and clip, “Enough!”

With that simple command, the boys will scamper to their respective corners, like lion cubs retreating after they’ve caused the leader of the pride to roar.

“You engage with them too much sometimes. Just say it once and mean it.” This is my husband’s advice. In fact this is how he lives his life. He keeps his sentences brief, and speaks when it counts. Years ago he told me that when someone talks to hear their own voice others would eventually learn to shut it out.

Dr. Sax would say that I should let the boys be physical and competitive because they are just doing what comes natural. He is quick to assert that doesn’t mean letting them pound each other to a bloody pulp or allow them to use violence to solve their problems, but that I should just back-off, and not make the jump to “Oh my God! They are going to grow up to be sociopaths if I let them pretend to shoot each other!”

But it’s hard for me. As a woman, I like to talk about everything and hash-it all out. My girlfriends and I will talk all sides of a story and debate tone and inflection until exhausted, we move on to another topic. My friends with daughters often remark how their little girls come home from school and they talk for an hour, getting the play-by –play: what the teacher wore, what so-and-so said, where they sat on the carpet and what the story was about. They will know the dynamics of friendships and whose feelings were hurt and who has made-up.

My boys come home and it’s like prying teeth to get them to share the happenings of their day. I have resorted to asking very pointed questions on our walks home from school, should-to-shoulder, avoiding direct eye contact. I used to think that they weren’t sharing things with me because they were embarrassed, or possibly nervous of my reaction, but no, I was reassured with a shrug of their shoulders and an, “Oh, I dunno. I forgot.

It’s important to note that my boys and I have a very close relationship and they will tell me their inner most secrets, but I’ve had to learn what’s news to me, isn’t news to them and like their father, they use fewer words than I do.

So what does all of this mean when it comes to the classroom?

I usually breathe a sigh of relief when I learn that my son’s teacher is a mom to a boy.

She gets it. I think.

I hope.

And usually she does. She usually gets that boys think fart jokes are hilarious, and that they generally like competition, even if it’s just with them. She gets that sitting for more than one-minute necessary can have a disastrous result. She gets that even when they don’t say anything, it doesn’t mean they aren’t hurting, or needing help. She gets the nuances of being a boy.

And that’s what I didn’t get when I was a teacher. Make no mistake; I thought that I got it. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.

Can you really blame me?

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*Dr. Sax refers to gender and not “sex” differences. It’s an important distinction.

* Dr. Sax also writes about the disjointed messages our girls receive from society while growing up and how damaging they can be. Fascinating food for thought.

What We’re Reading: Kids

From Beth-Anne

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Be Grateful Little Bear by Kara Evelyn-McNeil, illustrations by Max Scratchmann

Kara Evelyn-McNeil, a children’s entertainer from Whitby, Ontario wrote her first book Be Grateful Little Bear in hopes that parents will start a discussion with their children about being grateful for the blessings in their own lives. Little Bear finds himself alongside the proverbial fence, looking over at what appears to be greener pastures, but his loving parents remind him of the many wonderful traits that make him a special bear. The message, be proud of who you are, resounds loud and clear and served the purpose the author intended. My three boys sat around after the oldest had read the book aloud, and (yes, at my prompting) listed the things that make themselves and their brothers special.

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Dinosaur Farm by Frann Preston-Gannon

Preston-Gannon, the first UK recipient of the Sendak Fellowship, spent one month living with and learning from Maurice Sendak, and Dinosaur Farm proves she is worthy of such an honour. This beautifully illustrated story tells how hard life is on a farm: waking up early, caring for your animals and tending to the earth but in a whimsical twist the animals that populate this farm are not chickens, cows and pigs . . .they are dinosaurs! The creative way the text is displayed makes reading with expression much easier for budding orators. My middle son spoke in a loud voice when reading BIG and a much quieter voice when reading small. But perhaps it is the textless illustrations that tell the reader the most. The last image we’re left with is of the farmer fast asleep tucked in his bed with his dinosaurs that have crept in through the open gate, asleep all around his bedroom. My boys were quick tell the “story” on that final page and to make a connection to another of their favourite bedtime stories, Goodnight ,Gorilla.

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Santa’s Zany, Wacky, Just Not Right Night Before Christmas by DK Simoneau and David Radman, illustrations by Brad Cornelius

When Santa’s Zany, Wacky, Just Not Right Night Before Christmas arrived at our house there were enough squeals of delight from my youngest to trick one into believing that it was Christmas morning and not a hot, humid July day. To say that my three boys are obsessed with Christmas, Santa and all things related would be a gross understatement. In fact, as I type this now, my youngest (age 3) is watching Barney’s Christmas on Netflix (reserve your judgement, I needed some time to hammer this out). DK Simoneau and David Radman have written a Christmas tale that must be added to your night before Christmas reading list. In this story, nothing is quite right on Christmas Eve. The elves are now 7 feet tall trolls, the stockings have been replaced with long underwear and most concerning, Santa’s suit is not red! It’s purple! My boys loved this book and everything about it – the whimsical fonts, the twists on the traditional and the illustrations. Santa’s Zany, Wacky, Just Not Right Night Before Christmas now has a place in our Christmas tales reading box . . . after my youngest slept with it in his bed for three nights.

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Kitty Hawk and The Curse of the Yukon Gold by Iain Reading

The first book in the Kitty Hawk Flying Detective series will have you hooked! What’s not to love? Canadian adventure, a fearless heroine and endearing characters . . . the Kitty Hawk series by Iain Reading is a breath of fresh air among the vampires, werewolves and teen angst that have dominated the young adult genre for the past few years. What’s more, the author has included an additional reading list and two websites for adventure enthusiasts to explore.

From Nathalie

We continue to (try to) make time for creating art hereabouts, and I am newly inspired.  I was at the Cabbagetown Outdoor Art Festival on the weekend and fell in love with the art of Judy Anderson of Kukucaju, which captures wonderfully the subversive violence of children’s stories and imaginations.  Her Big Sister caught my eye; art that endorses eating one’s siblings is something that would go over well in our house, where it’s not all brotherly love.  Check out her website.  You can have you own kids’ drawings turned into a custom-made piece of 3-D art.

mangaOne great book in our art adventure is the Big Book of Everything Manga.  Youngest (6) has had great success with the manga monsters and robots, and the drawings range from very simple to complex.  It’s a great art instruction book for artists of varying levels of ability.

escapeMiddlest (9) is awash in bookish goodness: two new releases in his favourite series.  Last month, it was the sixth book in Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series, Escape from Lucien.  Until we went to hear him speak, I had not read the Amulet books, but Kibuishi was such a great speaker that I read all of the books in the series in a single sitting.  They feature a really plucky heroine, who is brave and good and flawed.  She wears an amulet that gives her power, but whether it is for good or evil is still unclear.  In a world of kids’ books that are starkly black and white with respect to good and evil, I like how Kibuishi keeps us guessing about his plot and characters.

piratesMiddlest is also reading book five in Scott Chantler’s Three Thieves series: Pirates of the Silver Coast.  Lots of plot twists and cliff hangers here, too.

One thing I’ve noticed with his consumption of these graphic novel series is that he re-reads them over and over again.  I used to fret about his re-reading these instead of trying out new chapter books, but it’s obvious that he has a real love for these books.  He’s rushed out to get the new books in the series, bless him, and now makes a habit of asking me to check publication dates for his favourite authors.  That’s some serious book love right there.

Middlest is also reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  Perhaps you’ve heard of that oneI’m reading the Harry Potter books aloud to Youngest and Middlest, and then Middlest goes off and reads ahead.  I’m really enjoying myself with these books.  Youngest keeps stopping me to ask what words mean, which is sometimes frustrating, but, then again, he keeps stopping me to ask what words mean.  He’s listening!  He’s engaged!  He’s learning!  Coincidentally, Kazu Kibuishi has done the cover art for the latest edition of the Harry Potter books.  Cue my collector’s obsession….

Harry Potter Series

Finally, Eldest (13) is reading The Name of this Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch.

secretEldest: We had Library today.

Nathalie: What book did you choose?

Eldest: The Name of This Book is Secret.

Nathalie:  Ooooh!  I liked that one.  It’s very meta-textual.  Why did you pick that one?

Eldest: It fell on my head.

Nathalie: Seriously, why did you choose it?

Eldest: Seriously, it fell on my head.

Here endeth the attempt at intelligent discussion about books.  You win some, you lose some.

Kazu Kibuishi and Hayao Miyazaki Book and Film Fest

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Our wonderful local comic book store, Little Island Comics, hosted an event with Kazu Kibuishi last week, and Middlest being a HUGE Amulet fan, we went along to hear him speak and watch him draw.  Middlest has been counting down the days to the publication date of Book Six in the series all summer, so we were all terribly excited when we got our paws on Book Six a week early because that’s the kind of perk you get with a store like Little Island in the ‘hood.  Middlest read it cover to cover in the store, which was all very well until he asked, “When is Book Seven coming out?”

Kazu Kibuishi did a degree in Film Studies (not film making, but film criticism), and in his talk at the Palmerston branch of the Toronto Public Library, he said that it was the essay-writing he did for that degree that best prepared him to create the Amulet books.  As an artist, he is self-taught, but he had to learn how to shape a narrative by writing essays.  Even now he finds that writing is difficult, and drawing is the real treat that comes after the story has been written.

Kazu Kibuishi at the Palmerston Branch of the Toronto Public Library

Kazu Kibuishi at the Palmerston Branch of the Toronto Public Library

What I loved most about his talk was how much he shared about the failures he had on the road to success.  After several years working in design and animation, he wrote and drew 20 pages of Amulet, but quit after 20 pages because it was so difficult.  Scholastic asked him to pitch a book idea, though, and he dusted off Amulet and revised it for a pitch.  They liked it, and he had a contract to do the first book.

He wrote and drew book one of Amulet four times.  As the deadline to turn in the book drew close, he felt that the draft he had completed was not good enough.  Ignoring the editors at Scholastic who said it was, he made the most difficult decision of his life and held the book hostage until it was something he felt right about publishing.  He wrote and rewrote the book, and with four drafts in hand, he was still not certain.  He asked Jeff Smith, the author of the Bone series, to take a look at what he thought was the best draft.   “Some of it is good,” he said.  With that as his guide, Kibuishi set about finding the good parts in each of the drafts he had made.  He turned the book in a year late, after taking the best pieces from each of the four drafts and building new bridges to connect the sections he had saved.  Going through that process taught him that creating a finished book has to begin with the faith that a bunch of small parts that do work will eventually work as a larger whole in the end.

I also loved how down to earth he was about his drawing process.  He draws his first drafts on cheap printer paper because he wants to feel that he can throw them away.  He carries around a small notebook that he can whip out as soon as inspiration strikes or whenever he has an idle moment.  He does not want to be precious about the process.

And what is his advice to young writers and artists?  The ability to draw is not something you are born with.  It takes practice, hard work and a lot of discipline.  He borrows from the Boy Scouts, and also says to “Be prepared.”

Hard work, staying true to what you believe deserves to be published under your name, pushing through writer’s block, illustrator’s block and repeated failure to realize on paper the ideas in your mind–all wonderful inspiration to a crowd of admirers.

Emily and Miskit, drawn on the computer while he answered questions form the audience.

I am sorry to say that until I had heard him talk, I had not read the Amulet books.  I knew that they were among Middlest’s favourite books, but I just had not made it to them yet.  (This could be in part because he re-reads them so often, they are never on the shelf!)  That changed post haste after seeing Kibuishi in person, and I read all six Amulet books the next day.  Kibuishi  told us that the Amulet books are full of parodies and tributes to movies, games and comics that he loves, so Middlest and I looked through the books together, looking for references to those influences.

One influence that he cited specifically was the work of Hayao Miyazaki, so after reading the books, we went off to Queen Video to look for a copy of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.  We came home with four films instead of one, and turned the excess into an excuse for a party: a Hayao Miyazaki film fest with sushi for dinner.

One of the things that is immediately apparent as an influence is that both men eschew traditional roles for their female characters, and their girls are leaders, brave, grounded, and in Miyazaki’s case, not paired off at the end of the story.  Praise be!

All told, a great way to finish off summer.

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Virgin by Radhika Sanghani and Claudine by Barbara Palmer

To round out our week of posts about the first time, and our month of sizzling summer, here is the scoop on two buzz-worthy, sex-filled new reads.

FF2AF08C-28EB-4F67-A460-B25CCDCB5A5DVirgin

Radhika Sanghani

Toronto: Penguin, 2014

There has been a fair amount of buzz lately about New Adult fiction and its definition.  An article this week in The Globe and Mail discusses the struggle to find bookstore space to devote to the genre, and Emily Temple debates the value of the label altogether over at Flavorwire.

Whether you value naming the genre or not, Virgin fits squarely into the New Adult category of fiction.  It is sexually explicit, full of relationship drama, final exam hell, the task of finding a first real job: in short, it’s all about the transition from teens to twenties.  Where Young Adult fiction deals with sexuality in euphemisms, New Adult gets down and dirty with the details.  Most of the details fall under the category “Why did no-one tell me these things?!”

In Virgin, the narrator Ellie Kolstakis is on a mission to lose her virginity at the ripe old age of 21.  She is in her last year of university, and she feels that she cannot graduate with her hymen intact.  Add a healthy dose of insecurity, a naivety about the care and maintenance of the bikini line, and several strokes of bad luck and you have the recipe for sexually explicit broad humour.  There are laugh-out-loud encounters with boys, men and bikini-waxers alike, toe-curlingly precise episodes of shame and embarrassment, and tender moments of girlfriend honesty.

I will admit to feeling huge relief to be well out of my twenties when I read this book.  The neediness and the insecurity of the narrator detracted from the great humour in the book, and I was less empathetic with the narrator than relieved to be fully in possession of my sense of self.  If you like the over-sharing and the cringe-worthy moments of embarrassment of Lena Dunham’s Girls and the broad humour of physical comedy, this book will fit the bill to round out a sizzling summer.

 

9780143190721_FULLClaudine

Barbara Palmer

Toronto: Penguin, 2014.

On sale September 2, 2014

To really turn up the heat, look no further than the erotic thriller Claudine, by Barbara Palmer (who discusses the fun she has had with her alias here and the history of erotic literature here.)

Claudine is the stage name of Maria Lantos, a post-graduate student who is writing her thesis on erotic literature at Yale.  This is the best kind of erotica: bawdy with a healthy side of brains.  Part erotica and part thriller, the novel begins when Claudine is having an increasingly hard time managing to balance her life as top class prostitute and top-of-the-class graduate student.  When she begins to get threatening messages from someone who knows far too much about her to simply be a disgruntled former john, the plot thickens and her ability to keep her selves separate becomes ever more difficult.  Add several steaming hot sex scenes, and you have the recipe for a page-turner with a kick.

Claudine has fashioned a successful business as a modern-day courtesan, and she commands top-dollar for her appearances.  She has two employees: a dishy body guard and business manager, Andrei, and a beautician/masseuse/costume designer, Lillian, and they work as a team to keep her safe, solvent and stunning.  I have to say, the fact that she has such attentive personal attendants was a huge part of the appeal of the fantasy.  Who wouldn’t love a Lillian to do hair and make-up every day, and a massage at the end of the day?  And this book does cover many a fantasy: rough sex, role-play, group sex, public sex, lesbian sex, and high academic achievement in an Ivy League English Department.  (What?  Is that just my fantasy?)

I loved how matter-of-fact Claudine is about her job, how business-minded she is, and how proud she is about her success as a courtesan.  Palmer does not stint on the details of the business plan that helped her to rise to the top, and as much as we witness the sex she sells, we see her strategy for making herself a rare and valuable commodity on her own terms.  I also love that she’s a graduate student of English, of course, and it’s clear that both Barbara Palmer and her Claudine know their stuff when it comes to the erotic canon.

If I have a quarrel with the book, it is that Claudine was abused as a child.  Certainly, many sex workers were sexually abused as children, but in a novel that otherwise promotes a fierce pride in female sexual appetites, it bothered me to see, yet again, a fierce appetite linked to a traumatic past.  Such a move does not seem to move away from pathologizing sex.

Erotic fiction generates its own kind of desire to keep turning the pages, but this takes it up a notch with the mystery of a predator on the loose.  The mystery to solve now, of course, is to discover the true identity of the award-winning Canadian behind the pseudonym Barbara Palmer.

Any guesses?!

Both of these books were sent to 4Mothers1Blog by Penguin Canada.

Raising Great Parents by Doone Estey, Beverley Cathcart-Ross and Martin Nash

rgp_front_high_rgbRaising Great Parents: How to Become the Parent Your Child Needs You to Be

by Doone Estey, Beverley Cathcart-Ross and Martin Nash, M.D.

Toronto: BPS Books, 2014

July has been our learning at home month, but, of course, not all learning is for the kids.  Parents are also always learning, and to recognize that learning process as on-going and ever-lasting is one of the most important tools in our parenting tool kit.

I learned a lot about myself reading this book.  I am, by nature, exactly the kind of controlling parent at whom this book is aimed.  “Step away from the rule book a minute and listen.  Attend.  Observe.  Relax.”  That’s what this book taught me to remember.

The authors of Raising Great Parents introduce the book by saying,

We realized that, to end the stressful conflicts with our kids, we had to start with ourselves.  We adopted a different form of parental leadership as it finally dawned on us that our challenge was not to raise great kids but to become great parents. (2)

I love how such a simple phrase turns the table: do not aim to raise great kids, aim to be a great parent.

How do you do that?

Begin by recognizing that the only behaviour you can actually control is your own.  Here is a great example: the kids are acting up at bedtime, arguing and disrupting book time.  Instead of barking orders to control them (“Stop fighting!”) or feeling powerless in the face of their behaviour (“Why are you ruining my special time?”), simply close the book and tell them, “I will read when the room is quiet.”

Now you have control–over yourself.  In effect, your words mean, “I can’t make you do it, so I will decide for myself what I will do in this situation.  I’m going to … decide what’s going to happen next — to me. (33)

The book is full of ideas and exercises to practice how to convert a dynamic of control into co-operation.  The vocabulary the authors use for modeling an exchange may not feel natural to you, but the exercises are useful for thinking outside of the usual box.  The tips for taking the yelling out of the morning routine were life-changing!  There is also a fabulous chart of age-appropriate chores for kids to do at home that will encourage you to give your kids a bit more responsibility and a lot more independence.

The book begins with asking parents to examine their own behaviours.  (Helpful.  Humbling.)  It then goes on to examine why kids misbehave and provides tools to guide families to a more co-operative dynamic.  It covers the greatest hits: misbehaving, punishment, the link between praise and self-esteem, and co-operative problem-solving.

If you are familiar with Adlerian approaches to parenting, this book will cover familiar ground.  The authors are all affiliated with The Parenting Network, an organization that promotes parenting through cooperation and guiding our kids’ intrinsic motivation.

Full disclosure: I know one of the authors of this book, Beverley Cathcart-Ross, very well.  She’s family!  I’ve seen her in action hosting Thanksgiving dinner for 40 people without breaking a sweat.  She is grace in motion, and mostly unflappable.  If she says, “I will read when the room is quiet,” she means it, but in the nicest way possible.