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.

 

Comparative Literature for Kids

hr_Maleficent_42One of the at-home learning activities my kids have been most invested in and most enthusiastic about has been my kid-friendly version of comparative literature: taking one fairy tale and finding as many versions  of it as we can find.  This includes not only looking at different authors’ but also different illustrators’ takes on the standard tales.  Sometimes, we even discover clever retellings of the stories that draw attention to their absurdities.

My kids have loved this approach to fairy tales, and it offers so many points of departure for discussing the stories and how they are told.

  • Is there a reason why the bad guy is a bad guy?
  • Does the story give any motivation?
  • Are the good guys always good?
  • Do girls always have to be princesses?
  • Do boys always have to be the heroes?
  • How does the author change the original story?
  • How does that change the message?
  • Why are so many kids in stories orphans?
  • Why is the forest always scary?
  • Is the animal a helper or an enemy?
  • How would the story be different if an animal told it?
  • Which illustrations do you like best?  Why?
  • How would you change this story?
  • How would you illustrate it?

Including movies in this comp. lit mix gives you a lot more to talk about.  With Maleficent out now, it’s a great time to dig out “Sleeping Beauty” again, both the tales and Disney’s original animated movie.  I loved watching it with my kids and talking about what a difference it makes to tell the story from the antagonist’s point of view.  I loved how they reference Disney’s illustration of Maleficent with those magnificent cheekbones!  I loved how we finally get a motivation for a terribly two-dimensional Disney demon.  The movie gave us so much to talk about in terms of stock characters and how it’s so much more interesting when the story is not just about good vs. evil.

Here’s what has worked for me and my boys.

For kids up to age six, decide on a fairy tale, and go to the library and find as many different illustrated picture book versions as you can.  This worked wonderfully for us with boys of different ages, because each child will spot different things and be attracted to different aspects of the books.

fairy-tales-from-the-brothers-grimmFor kids from six to ten, go back to the original versions from the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Andrew Lang and Hans Christian Andersen.  Some of these are much more creepy and violent than their Disney incarnations!  Some you’ve never heard of.  Philip Pullman recently published his tellings of the stories of the Brothers Grimm, complete with information about the origin and adaptations of the stories and why some have lasted longer than others.

Fairy tales are so elastic, they even lend themselves to including tweens and teens.  If you read the picture books to all the kids, middle grade readers can go off and read books like The Grimm Sisters, or for mature readers, Angela Carter’s retellings in The Bloody Chamber.   For movie adaptations for older kids, there are recent movie version of Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Huntsman.

Here are some  other great retellings to share:

  • Philip Pullman retells Cinderella from the point of view of one of the rats who got changed into horses in I Was a Rat.  Funny.
  • The Sisters Grimm series of nine middle-grade novels by Michael Buckley tells the story of two girl detectives in the land of Everafters.  Addictive.
  • A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz is the first of a trilogy that retells the story of Hansel and Gretel for middle grade readers.  Page-turners.
  • Sweetly by Jackson Pearce also retells Hansel and Gretel for young adults.  About to find out….  Just ordered it.

Can you suggest any other retellings?  (Honestly, I’m hopeless.  I’ve added a dozen books to my wish list while writing this post and looking at these lists.  Hennepin County LibraryGoodreadsEpic Reads.  )

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Learning to Draw

Our theme for our posts for July is, loosely, homeschooling: learning at home.  Partly, we are talking about avoiding the summer slide, but we are also looking at how learning at home and outside of the classroom is important for broadening our kids’ horizons.  And, yes, we include our trip to LEGOLAND in the learning category!  You should have seen how the boys looked at each others’ car models and sought advice and inspiration from each other to make their cars faster.

One of my goals for myself and my kids this summer is to create more art.  I am powerfully drawn to art supply stores in a way that totally defies logic because I can’t draw!  All those gorgeous colours of markers, and here’s be barely able to draw a smiley face.

I’d like to change that.

Here are three sets of books that I have found really useful.

animalsEd Emberley’s illustration instruction is an outstanding place to start, not only because the method is so simple and fun but because results are so instant.  Seriously, no one can mess this up.  We have several of his books, but the web site is fun and useful, too.  It has printable sheets and animated instruction.  I really like the step-by-step method, but also how he includes ways to vary the basic image.  We own a copy of his Drawing Book of Animals, originally published in 1970.  It is dedicated to “the boy I was, the book I could not find.”  That broke my heart a little.  Well, your boys and girls can find both the book and the web site and can get busy making art right away.  His fingerprint illustrations are particularly fun, and they even incorporate literacy into the method: if you can write IVY LOU, you can draw an owl.

owl

Another series I love is based on shapes.  Chris Hart has a whole line of illustration instruction books, but the ones I go to all the time are his very basic shape-based ones: Draw a Triangle/Circle/Square, Draw Anything.

drawAgain, the key to the success of these books is step-by-step instruction and instant gratification.  My son’s hockey team, whose logo was a deer, made it to the finals in their division a few years back.  For luck, I decided to give them all lucky underwear (inspiration from the coach, who had a pair) and I went to this book to find a super-simple image of a deer to draw onto the underwear.  Huge hit.

20Finally, I have fallen in love with a great series of books that encourage artists not only to make art but to find a style that suits them: the 20 Ways to Draw series from Quarry books.  The illustrations are a lot more advanced, but the books demonstrate various styles for illustrating the same object, from simple to more complicated.  There is no step-by-step instruction, but there is a lot of inspiration!

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TMN-logo_Square1A reminder that voting is open for the best mom blog of 2014, for which we are thrilled to have been nominated.

Please head over to Toronto Mom Now and check out the other nominees.  You can vote for your favourite three.  Voting closes on Monday, July 14.

 

(Multiple) Guest Post: Mothers in Children’s Books

Oh, the glories of book shops!  Where you can go along of a summer evening and listen to a group of interesting and funny women talk about books, and mothers in kids’ books to boot.

Kerry Clare and some of the other contributors to The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood gathered at Parentbooks on Harbord Street to discuss the representation of mothers in children’s books.  They brought books and food and insights and laughter to share and it was a wonderfully intimate discussion about  finding or not finding mothers on the pages of our kids’ books.

Kerry began by telling us that one inspiration for the topic was a blog post by Liz Harmer about how, at one point in her parenting life, the picture books she was reading to her children were more helpful to her as a struggling mother than parenting books:

in the horror-show that was my life after the second child was born I had already found my parenting identity in martyrdom. All I knew how to feel was guilt. I had no idea that a new baby would find all of the breathing room in my full life and take it for herself. I had no idea that the toddler would respond to my being overwhelmed by cranking up her own despair.

At this point, any parenting advice was a smart to the open wound I’d become.

And so, we began to talk about mothers and parenting and how they unfold on the pages of children’s books.  What do we find there and how does it speak to or about us?

pippi_longstocking1Heather Birrell read from her own childhood copy of Pippi Longstocking and talked about how, while her own daughter is rather indifferent to the book, as a writer and a mother, she loves the fact that Pippi is motherless.  She is successfully independent as an orphan of nine, and a lot more likeable than the kids up the street with intact families .  The absent mother in kids books, a remarkably frequent thing, allows kids independence, freedom from rules and from cloying love or authority.  Pippi’s mother, so Pippi imagines, watches her from her perch in the sky through a little hole in the clouds, and Pippi is always able to assure her that she is doing perfectly well.  As a writer herself, Birrell said she is always killing off mothers in her short stories.  It’s just so much more convenient to the engine of the plot and character development to have them out of the way.

We agreed that it was wonderful to find yourself, as a mother, celebrating books that did away with mothers so that kids can bloom, because isn’t that what we want for our kids, after all?

roseiAmy Lavender Harris talked about how grandmothers often fill the maternal role in the Eastern European tradition, and she read from Rosie’s Dream Cape by Zelda Freeman to illustrate the multiple roles that the grandmother fulfills; she is the figure of authority, conscience, forgiveness, generosity and connection to the old world and to the missing mother.

 

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Heidi Reimer read from one of Sarah Garland’s Eddie books, Eddie’s Kitchen, and made the wondenderful observation that the illustrations enable a kind of covert and underground conversation, mother-to-mother.  The illustrations are wonderfully lush, and the house is packed and cluttered.  The mother in these books exemplifies grace in the chaos of family life, though the illustrator is also careful to portray her outside of her role as mother.  At one point, she is huddled on the stairs, alone, speaking on the phone to a friend who is having a rough day.

Patricia Storms chose Tomi Ungerer’s No Kiss for Mother from which to read and reveled in the illustrations that would never pass muster today: a depiction of kids smoking stolen cigars and parents punishing their kids (with canes no less!).  Originally published in the 1970s, the book has been reissued by Phaidon, and perhaps the fact that the family in the book is a family of anthropomorphic cats makes it possible to publish it again today.  She admired that the conclusion of the book does actually provide a conclusion to the tension between an adoring mother and a son who does not like to be coddled and kissed.  They compromise; each gives ground.  The ground has shifted for both of them by story’s end, and the rebellious child is not simply drawn back into the normative family fold.  That family has had to change, just a bit, to accommodate him.9780714864754

Kerry finished off the night with a discussion of one of Shirley Hughes’s Alfie books, Alfie Gets in First.  Kerry remarked on how wonderful it was to read about another mother struggling with the mind-numbingly boring but immensely difficult negotiations of motherhood: how to get the stroller through the door and up the stairs, ditto with baby.  Predictably, Alfie gets into the house before mother and stroller and baby and locks himself in and them out.  Panic ensues.  Kerry was grateful for the feeling of solidarity she felt with the mother in the illustrations and how she felt a lot less alone reading those books to her children.  Again, the illustrations are lush and chaotic and depict the clutter and detritus of the busy family home.

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Kerry finished up with a reading of Stephany Aulenback’s lovely  If I Wrote a Book About You and talked about how motherhood enables creativity and productivity and how finding solutions to the stupid problem of the stroller on the sidewalk and through the narrow door could be worthwhile in and of itself as well as leading to all manner of other kinds of creativity.

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Motherhood is Like a See-Saw

10267762_10154070721210014_6298337845483811914_nI met Nathalie more than 4 years ago. At our first meeting sitting across from each other at the Momoir writing class, she described her feelings of ambivalence about motherhood to the circle of six women.

I remember the woman sitting across from me had a shocked look on her face and while there were no words, her message was clear: how can you feel so-so about being a mom!?

Nathalie went on to explain that ambivalence doesn’t mean, “take it or leave it”. It means having contradictory feelings about something or someone.

That evening, sitting on a plush couch in a darkened Forest Hill basement, I found my way. Nathalie gave a name to the feelings that had taunted me for the past three years. I was finally moored.

For me, motherhood is a constant state of contradiction. My opposing feelings struggle to take center-stage, demanding to be heard. Parenting isn’t about attachment or a helicopter, a tiger or a presence of mind; it’s a harrowing see-saw ride with such soaring highs that it can shock the breath right out of you and thud-to-the-ground lows that will diminish you, gut you, scare-the-shit-out-of -you.

The essayists featured in The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood, narrate ambivalence thoughtfully – with reflection, humility and honesty. Heather Birrell’s Truth, Dare, Double Dare, starts off the compilation and immediately I felt the same sense of kinship that I did years ago when I first met Nathalie.

I have re-read Heidi Reimer’s The Post-Maia World several times, each time gleaning more from her intimate narrative. Like Reimer, I am baffled, completely flummoxed by the contradictions that make up motherhood.

My emotions alone, and the intensity in which I feel them and express them, are like two sides of a coin. Reimer writes about emotion after becoming a mother:

“I yelled more, cursed more, became gripped with stronger rage . . .I smashed objects against of the floor and pounded my fists into walls.”The Post-Maia World

It’s what keeps me awake at night. Are my children going to grow up and their dominant childhood memories include me screeching at them, an ugly snarl on my face, to hurry-up, get dressed, stop fighting and get to school. Are they going to remember the time I smashed the truck plate in two jagged melamine pieces because I could not bear to listen to yet another squabble over whose turn it was to eat a grilled cheese off of it? Is the time, when in a rage of impatience I regrettably zipped-up a winter coat and a lip in one angry jerk, going to be what they remember of me?

I hope not.

I want them to think back on their childhood and recall all the times that I tried to kiss them a million times in a row, when I traced letters on their back, and squeezed our hands together in a cryptic code.

Of course they will never know how intensely I love them, how I have never loved anything with every fiber of my being, the way that I love them. The connection that I feel to them is visceral, so powerful that words could never suffice but Reimer is able to describe the initial feelings that overwhelmed me those early days with such uncanny accuracy.

“ . . .our connection to each other was primeval, animal, beyond rationality; it grew through nine months’ gestation, an umbilical cord between us, a birth canal, a mouth on my breast, hormones clamouring, “You are mine and I have never loved anyone before you!”The Post-Maia World

The emotional extremes that I experience are just one of the contrasting aspects that, for me, define motherhood.

Motherhood is just hard. As Julie Booker writes, “It’s really fucking hard.” Twin Selves.

Other Mothers

10267762_10154070721210014_6298337845483811914_nThere’s something I’ve noticed about the way I occasionally think about and judge myself as a parent.  I love structure and order and discipline, and for the most part, I stand by the parenting decisions that fall under that category of order and predictability.  Sometimes, though, sometimes the further outside of my comfort zone I stray, the more unlike my usual self I am, the more I feel that I deserve some kind of a parenting gold star.  It’s as if by not being myself, I am being a better self.  The hard work of keeping life on schedule and enforcing rules of civility actually feels pretty effortless to me.  It’s allowing the rules and the schedule to relax that feels like hard work.  To be honest, sometimes fun feels like hard work, and that’s when I most doubt the parenting path I have chosen.

I let the kids splash in rain puddles, I give myself a pat on the back for not freaking out about the mess (while secretly freaking out about the mess).

I say “yes” to letting the kids dog-sit, professing a kind of generosity of spirit while feeling anything but generous.

I let them stay up late to watch the hockey game, and for most of every minute past bedtime, I’m on edge, but I congratulate myself for being able to let fandom prevail over clock-watching.

More troubling, I herd my children home from the park for bath and bed and watch other parents letting their little ones stay up later and get dirtier than my kids (ie. letting them have more fun) and I wonder if they are doing it better.  Do those Other Mothers have more gold stars?  Are the mothers who say “no” less often better in some essential, incontrovertible way?

Fruitless feeding of the mommy guilt machine.  It’s the dark side of empathy: moving so much outside of yourself that you begin to question that self and all it holds dear.

The really refreshing thing about reading many of the essays in The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood, was that I could really immerse myself in other ways, in others’ ways of being and simply enjoy that otherness without thinking, “I have to be more like that.”  It was glorious to look into that kaleidoscope and feel as much myself as ever; it was wonderful to look at difference without feeling the need to be different.

Carrie Snyder’s wonderful essay about reveling in being a mother of four did not make me feel like I had to have a fourth in order to keep up.  I simply enjoyed her telling of her tale of motherhood.

Heidi Reimer’s essay about adopting her infant niece made my heart fill with joy that there are such generous and daring people in the world, people who can let love into their lives, and make it multiply, in spite of the enormous emotional risk.

But I was most affected by the essays by women who are not mothers, by choice.  It’s dangerous territory, walking with the happily child-free.  It’s not like I, a mother of three, could ever go there.  Would they make it sound too appealing?  Would their profession of their child-free bliss, their certainty, open some part of me to gnawing jealousy or doubt?  Would my hard-earned share of parental satisfaction be diminished by opening myself to their stories?

Not in the least.  As certain as they are about being childless, I am certain that motherhood, and the way I am practicing it, is exactly the right choice for me.  It was the best kind of exercise in empathy.  It was a chance to have a privileged perspective on another way of being without feeling in the least bit diminished by it.  On the contrary, I felt enlarged by reading these essays, I felt certain about my own choices without the least trace of smugness or self-righteousness.

Sometimes what defines us is what we are not.  Sometimes that’s a tricky thing to negotiate.  In this collection of essays about motherhood, in all its manifestations, nothing felt tricky.  None of the stories about what I am not made me think less of myself.  Some of the essays were difficult to read because they tackled difficult topics, but they did what good art does: it moves you, it purifies and purges the emotions and offers renewal and restoration.

The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood

Nathalie, Beth-Anne, and I treated our minds and hearts last month when we attended the launch of The M Word:  Conversations About Motherhood at beautiful Ben McNally Books in Toronto.  Kerry Clare, editor of the collection of 25 essays and author of Pickle Me This, introduced the book, after which several if its contributors read excerpts of their pieces.

I think it’s fair to say that we were captivated.  The essays span a wide spectrum of motherhood experience, including the reality of being defined by motherhood whether or not one is actually a mother.   They were textured and raw in and of themselves, but being read aloud by their authors only infused the words with more richness than they already possessed.

We’ve all read The M Word, and this week we want to write about it.  And we have outdone ourselves, if I do say so myself, in scoring Kerry Clare to write with us on Friday to close the week.  There is so much packed into this book, and we are thrilled to  have the curator of its stories share some of her thoughts with us at 4Mothers.

Please tune in – we are in for a great week!