Aramink

Engaged with the World

Category: Conversations With Children (page 1 of 2)

Teaching Children Critical Thinking

I get asked a lot about how I approached the question of religion when my son was young. Did I insist that he follow my lack of belief?

No, I did not. That he has a vivid imagination but a rational and humanistic lifestance is attributable, I think, to making sure he knew how to think for himself.

One of the things we most urgently need to instill in our children is the to think critically about the world around us. Not just when it comes to religion, but when politics, ethics, and personal conflicts are in issue, having the skill to think rationally about things is crucial to a better life.

carlin question everything

I taught my child to question everything. Lots of times, I taught him to do it by asking him questions. Yes, my son was raised by Socratic Method. We had rules, but we felt it was important for him to understand the reasoning behind the rules.

  1. I never said no to him without giving him a reason. “Because I said so” is not a reason. “Because I don’t feel like it” is.
  2. If he calmly and rationally rebutted me, I listened. If his argument was better than mine, I changed my position. That being said, if he was argumentative or rude, he automatically lost the argument and often got sent to his room to calm down. If only this process were observed in the political arena, we’d be in great shape!
  3. We explored his questions and his interests together. We did science experiments in the kitchen and back yard. And because Dinosaurs Are Awesome, we kept a notebook full of dinosaur information, and added newspaper and magazine clippings to it regularly. I still have that notebook.
  4. Bedtime stories were just as likely to be stories from history and science as they were from Narnia or Hogwarts. We told each other stories we made up, and we made up stories together.
  5. When he was preschool and elementary school age, we bought age-appropriate books of Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Native American, and other mythology, which we read right along with the children’s Bible our son’s grandmother gave him.
  6. He played the video game “Age of Mythology,” which taught him about the capriciousness of deities. Later he graduated to “Age of Empires,” and when he told me William Wallace was his hero, I knew for sure that these games were okay.
  7. We played the “what if” game, to imagine how things might be different if one thing about the world was different, and we explored the best possible uses of a time machine.
  8. Magazines full of popular science were in every bathroom and on every tabletop. Discover. Archaeology. National Geographic. Smithsonian. We read those articles together, too. When he got older, he would pick up the magazines himself and read them.
  9. We watched science, nature and history shows together. Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin was at his pinnacle when Jack was growing up, and there was a lot of really good stuff on that show. We grieved his death. The Walking with Dinosaurs documentary series (not the new movie) was on the Discovery Channel – back when the Discovery Channel still was about science. Connections – that James Burke documentary series that combined science, history and technology in wonderful ways – was a favorite, too.
  10. I spent time in his elementary school classrooms, and talked not just to him but to his classmates about how to tell stories, all about fossils, dinosaurs, how the legal system works, how amber is formed, and more. I even organized a field trip to the local juvenile court where his classmates and my lawyer friends put some naughty dinosaurs on trial. After the trial, we visited a real juvenile detention facility.
  11. I took him to Sunday school. I felt like I needed to, because I wanted him to understand where his religious friends were coming from. He went to Bible School one summer, too. He was in about second grade. We only did this for about a year, because I’m atheist and it was on Sunday mornings, when civilized people lounge around the house in pajamas reading the New York Times and doing crossword puzzles. I wanted him to learn, but not be indoctrinated.

This is when I knew I had succeeded:

When he was about 11, I asked him whether I had to do the Easter Bunny schtick again that year. “What do you mean, ‘schtick’?” he asked.

“Your father never helps me and I have to stay up late and I really don’t want to,” I told him. (Yeah, I was kind of whiny about it, I admit.)

“You! What about the Easter Bunny?”

“Son, do you really think a bunny hops around the house after we go to bed hiding eggs and pooping jellybeans?”

“Well, no … but can I still have the basket? And all the candy?”

“Sure, sweetheart.”

Fast forward to summer. He had lost a tooth and I forgot to put money under his pillow.

“Mom, the tooth fairy forgot last night.”

“I’m sure she was just busy and lagged behind. She’ll get to you tonight if you put it under there again.”

The next morning he reported that the tooth fairy had once again forgotten. “Just go get my purse. Get a dollar out of my wallet.”

“What? You’re the tooth fairy, too? First the Easter Bunny, now the tooth fairy – what’s next? Santa Claus?” I could tell he was annoyed, but I needed to get to work.

“Yes, son. And right after that comes God,” I said.

He looked at me in pure shock and horror for about three solid seconds, and I wondered what I would say next. Then he burst out laughing.

“I knew all along, Mom.”

Eventually, I sent my son to an Episcopal school. I did this because, after working in the juvenile justice system for a decade, I was terrified of gangs in our local public middle schools. There weren’t a lot of private school options, so I chose the least religious of the bunch, where I thought he would get a good education (that included evolution as real science, not as part of some non-existent controversy). He was inoculated against religion before he went, because critical thinking was automatic and habitual with him by the time he was enrolled there in 5th grade.

He had to take religion classes for one semester both in middle school and in high school. That was fine with me, because I doubted he’d read the Bible otherwise. Let’s face it: it’s a lousy, poorly-written book with plot holes big enough to fly 747s through, but knowing enough to be able to talk intelligently about it is pretty important in our culture.

In middle school, he pretty much kept his head down and just did his work. In high school, though, Father John wanted more out of him. The very first day of class, the priest threw out a question:

“Jack, What do you think prayer does?”

There were pockets of laughter around the classroom as Jack hesitated.

“Yeah, Jack! What do you think?” asked one of the students.

“What’s so funny?” asked Father John.

“You asked an atheist what he believes prayer does!” one of Jack’s classmates blurted. Jack was probably grinning, too. I hope he was.

He said, “I don’t think prayer does anything, but I can understand how it might be helpful for some people.”

I’m happy with his response. My son the critical thinker is also much more diplomatic than I am when it comes to this subject.

We need to give kids credit for being able to think for themselves – but we need to teach them to do it, too. It’s part of our jobs as parents, to give them the tools to understand and deal with the world, and to be able to determine for themselves what is credible.

In Jack’s Next Care Package

 

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Après la Chirurgie

Did you hear? I had a softball-sized tumor removed from my neck three weeks ago.

I noticed it about a year ago and shrugged it off, thinking it was a little lipoma that wasn’t any big deal. Then I began having trouble turning my head. The lump was getting bigger – about the size of a golf ball – and I couldn’t comfortably wear turtlenecks or even mock neck shirts. I named my lump Esmeralda and patiently waited for her to gain sentience.

When Esmeralda started aching, I decided to go to the doctor. I hate going to the doctor, especially if I think I’m going to get bad news. I’ve had cancer twice, so having a tumor made me think that number three was here. If I pretended it didn’t exist, it would go away.  I’m a very bright girl in these matters. I knew exactly what I was doing when I ignored the wretched thing for so long. Really.

My doctor looked at it and said that there was no question that it needed to come out. Clearly, it was causing me trouble. Even if it was probably just a lipoma and not something devastating, it was in a bad place. And, he said, even for a lipoma it was, well, kind of big. There was definitely an asymmetry to my non-gazelle-like neck. A bump about the size of half a golf ball hung off the side it.

I knew all this before he told me. I knew he’d have to refer me to a surgeon. That’s why I was there, right? So, deep breath, I got the referral and made the appointment and went the next week to see when I could divorce myself from dear Esmeralda, who I was beginning to think of as my dicephalic parapagus conjoined twin.

He sent me to an otolaryngology clinic. Otolaryngologists  cut on people’s necks when the spine isn’t involved. I was glad my spine wasn’t involved, although I did wonder if that was because I simply didn’t have one. What kind of person, being possessed of a spine, was afraid of what was probably just a harmless little lipoma?

At the otolaryngology clinic, I got a CT scan of my neck. Back in the examination room, the surgeon pulled up the scan on the computer screen. “Wow, it’s really big!” he exclaimed. He showed me what to look at. The difference in the two sides of my neck was obvious. One side of the screen looked like what you’d think a neck should look like on a CT scan. By that I mean it had not much flesh and a big amount of bone. At least, that one side did. The other side? Well, it was different. Waaaay different.

lipoma-scan
There was a vast blackness that took up a lot of space on the right half of my neck. It looked as though Darth Vader himself had taken up residence there and his helmet was pushing things around.

The doctor pointed out how my muscle was stretched over this dark growth, how my nerves and blood vessels were pushed out of place, and how much space the thing took up.

“It’s sooo biiiig,” he said again. And again. And yet another time, just in case I hadn’t heard him before. That’s right.  Only I could have a freakishly large tumor in a place with as little flesh as my neck and not notice it for years on end. Evidently, I can’t see a damn thing with my eyes full of sand.

Lipomas usually grow just right under the skin and are fairly simple to remove. Unless they become bothersome, it’s not necessary to remove them at all. Mine was different. It was under the muscle, which, the doctor graciously postulated, was probably the reason I had never realized it had been growing there for so long. It was also pressing on important nerves and blood vessels. There just isn’t a lot of room in a neck, and there’s a lot of important stuff there. Like, say, the carotid artery, which feeds blood to the brain. Which my lipoma had shoved out of place. In fact, it had shoved things so far out of place that I was in danger of soon looking like the Elephant Man.

Surgery wasn’t just an option; it was necessary due to both the size and the location. If Esmeralda really did get large enough to become sentient, state law would forbid me from removing her. I mean, I could already forget about using federal funds. Her presence could no longer be disguised with loose clothing or makeup. I had to act, and act quickly.

The problem was, the size and location of the tumor meant that a different doctor needed to do the surgery. Someone who specialized in cancers of the head and neck.  Swell. The”C” word again. Fortunately, I liked the new surgeon. I liked the old one, too, but the new one was quick-witted, funny, and personable. And probably married. (sigh)

My family rallied around me. My sister went with me to the pre-surgery appointment. My mom took me to her house after the surgery so I could be pampered. Jack came to see me that night.  I felt pretty raw, and my throat, complete with a drainage tube, wasn’t pretty either.

scar

Wanna see?

Three weeks later, I’m still a little tired, but I’m fine. Some mornings it’s harder to shake off the latent effects of the anesthesia than others. Of course, staying up until 1 a.m. to finish a novel I can’t put down sort of contributes to the problem, but I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do. (The books are really good. Brent Weeks is a new, young author and he has time to grow. I can’t wait for his next offering.)

night-angel-trilogy

My son, Jack, has demanded credit for cajoling me into reading this series.  Here you go, son.

I have an awe-inspiring scar on my throat. I can come up with plenty of tales to explain its presence.

I’ve told the story of Jack the Ripper to my wide-eyed nieces and youngest nephew (they’re 11, 8, and 6). I have the scar to prove that I narrowly escaped him.

Next, I plan to work up a tale of the Bride of Frankenstein for their entertainment. I’ve already got the white hair at the temples going on, so between that and the scar, I’m not going to have to spend a lot on costuming.

bride-of-frankenstein

The surgeon said that the tumor had to have been there for a very, very long time to be as large as it was. How the hell does a softball manage to hide in a neck for years and only show up as a golf-ball sized bulge?

The size of the thing was apparently really impressive. Every time I call his office his nurse exclaims, “Oh, you’re the one with that really huge lipoma!” Every time. Every stinkin’ time. I’m beginning to wonder if I ought not to have saved the damn thing and taken it on the road. I could have made a living in the sideshow as the girl with the softball in her neck.

Maybe I should have had the thing cut in two and used it for a boob job. Next time, if there is a next time, I’m going to think that through carefully.

Happy Birthday, Daddy

Today is my Dad’s birthday. He would have been 71. He died five years ago and I miss him more than ever.

My Dad was my champion. His confidence in me never flagged, even when I was an angry, incorrigible teenager bent on self-destruction. He always told me, without any qualifying adjectives, phrases, or conditions whatsoever, that I could be and do anything I wanted in life. I’m 45 years old and I still believe him.

Daddy wasn’t perfect. He drank too much. You know the kind of drunk I’m talking about. He was perfectly functional during the day – had a pretty high-profile position in the little community where he lived, in fact – but evenings were a different story. He was a melancholy drunk, the kind who wanted to sing “Danny Boy” and worry about the re-institution of the draft.

No kidding: when I was a teenager the draft was one of his favorite drunken topics. He was on the county draft board during Vietnam and the experience scarred him, I think. He objected strongly to the war and did all he could to keep kids from our area from going. He had a cousin who was on the ground in Vietnam, a brother who spent his tour with the Navy just off the coast of Vietnam, and a brother in law who was about to be shipped out when his luck changed and he was sent home instead. Wars that were nothing but someone’s political agenda pissed Dad off. You can imagine what he’d think about Iraq Redux.

Dad made Christmas magical. His birthday, coming on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, meant that the whole season was special. We had a tradition when I was young, that he and my sister continued after her divorce: Christmas Eve meant a trip to the closest Wal-Mart, 40 miles away in the town of Searcy. Dad wasn’t looking for significant gifts on that trip. If he saw something perfect for someone, he’d pick it up, of course, but the purpose of the trip was really to grab silly gifts, stocking stuffers, and prepare for Pre-Christmas, a tradition our family held dear.

My family inherited Pre-Christmas from Dad’s family. The legend goes that on Christmas Eve the kids were allowed to open one gift, and the adults, being who they were, didn’t want to get left out. They started exchanging gag gifts on Christmas Eve, accompanied by really bad poetry. There was a $10 limit on any Pre-Christmas gift when I was growing up. This encouraged creativity in gift giving. A rubber chicken was always the booby prize, and one lucky person a year got it. It was a badge of honor to receive the chicken, which was always dressed up a little differently and presented with new panache.

I cooked my first Thanksgiving turkey at the age of 22 and had to call my mother to find out, halfway through cooking, that the giblets were in a package in the turkey’s neck. That Pre-Christmas I got the chicken with feathers stuck in its butt, intended to resemble the turkey. The chicken’s head had been cut off and, um, things were inserted in it. I don’t remember the poem (who can remember those horrible poems?) but I assure you it was appropriately insulting. A new chicken was purchased the next year to replace the poor decapitated capon.

It is still a badge of honor to receive the chicken. Jack and his cousins would be devastated every year when they’d open their pre-Christmas gift and it wouldn’t be the chicken. We had to contrive chicken gifts for them three years in a row just to get it out of the way. It’s hard to come up with a rubber chicken idea and poem for a ten year old!

But this isn’t a blog about Pre-Christmas. Dad made Christmas special in several other ways, but I should have written about that at Christmas. At least I have blog fodder for next Christmas. No, this is a blog about my Daddy, whose birthday is today.

I was Daddy’s Girl. Dad had two daughters, but I was It. Every girl, even my sister, should be a Daddy’s Girl. Sis got double billing with me as an adult, but as children we were very definitely divided. She was Mama’s and I was Daddy’s. We sort of shared our little brother, who came along half a decade later and was the only boy.

As Daddy’s Girl I had the seat of honor. I considered it the seat of honor, anyway. I think I more or less took the seat, but I had it nonetheless. I sat on the floor at his feet when we had company. I sat to his right at the dinner table. On weekends I snuggled with him on the couch and watched John Wayne and Henry Fonda and James Stewart. If he went somewhere I was the child who accompanied him.

When I was about eleven years old I rebelled completely against going to church, which I thought was stupid and pointless. I just didn’t buy the whole “god” concept, which was no more believable than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny in my mind. The story of Jesus and the ultimate sacrifice he made seemed ridiculous, and I said so rather vehemently. Martyrdom was foolish, no matter whether it was Jesus or Galileo. The choice between burning at the stake and telling a bunch of threatening men that I lied would have been easy for me. I’d be Galileo’s twin.

But at the tender age of eleven, too young even for confirmation in the church, it was Dad who told me that before I declared myself an atheist (I had no idea there was a name for it) I needed to consider whether there was a “Mover of the First Part.” There may not be a benevolent intelligence watching us now, but at some point, something, or someone, set the thing in motion. This was my first real theology lesson. It intrigued me a lot more than any Bible story ever could.

Because of this conversation with my Dad I was agnostic for years. I had to come to intellectual grips with the concept of infinity before I could put agnosticism away completely. Thanks to my dad, I actually studied theology, philosophy and religion instead of just saying, “This whole ‘Jesus and God’ thing is nonsense, and I want no part of it.” I still study religions. Maybe I’m still agnostic in some ways. Nah….

I have my Dad’s sense of humor. All three of his children do. The three of us have all remarked on multiple occasions how glad we are that we have Dad’s quickness to laugh, that we inherited the song that was in his heart. We are all basically happy people. We are happy on the outside and we are happy inside. My brother and I both struggle with depression, a genetic problem that comes from Mom’s side of the family. Believe it or not, though, even when we are depressed and at our worst, we are still optimists with a sense of fun. We are quick-witted. We see the irony in situations that make us sad.

Like Dad, all three of his children often laugh inappropriately. At the funeral of a family friend not too long ago, my brother and I walked in together a little late. Mom and Sis sat on the other side of the church. Jay and I opened the hymnal and the book that had the funeral service in it. We read the paper program. Then I noticed what I thought was a theme to the funeral.

“Jay!” I whispered, nudging him. “Do you notice that all these hymns have something to do with being submissive to God?”

He looked. Sure enough, each hymn had something about bondage or submission. He nodded. “Do you think the deceased and his wife were into BDSM?” I asked.

He moved a step away from me and turned red, trying to keep the laughter in. The widow was and is a woman of a very strong, dominant nature, and we were on the receiving end of her dominance many times growing up. The notion of her dominating her kind, soft-spoken, wheelchair-bound husband wasn’t far-fetched at all, but the idea that she’d do it in leather and with a flogger was making us snort.

Then came the concordant reading. More submission stuff. More bondage. Both of us were trying hard to keep a straight face, and we were not doing a good job. The homily was just as bad. Accepting death as God’s will, submitting whether we want to or not…

Yes, we laugh inappropriately. We should not have read anything naughty into the chosen hymns and texts of the funeral service. We were very bad. We will now submit to be punished, but only by the widow dressed in leather. (giggle) Dad would have found that to be hilariously, and inappropriately, funny as well. Too bad he missed it.

I was Daddy’s Girl. I didn’t care one thing about disappointing my mother or doing what she wanted me to do. If I thought I had disappointed Daddy, though, it was worse than being spanked, grounded, or otherwise punished. I never wanted to let my Daddy down. When Dad got angry at me, I knew I had truly screwed up. I knew I had to fix it.

When I was in my early 20’s and living 1500 miles away from him, I had a decision to make. It was a major decision, and I wanted him to tell me I was doing the right thing. I laid out the paths I could possibly take and I asked his advice. He said, “Why are you asking me? You’re just going to do what you want to anyway.” He said it gently. I realized that he was pointing out a flaw in my nature. I wanted him to reassure me that a decision I had already made was the right one. I didn’t really want his input.

Years later, when my husband said essentially the same thing to me, I understood that even though I had tried to be more conscientious about heeding the advice I was given, I wasn’t asking for it in the right way. I still have this flaw. Thanks to my dad, I am aware of it and it gives me a really guilty feeling whenever I realize that I’ve done it again. Gee, thanks, Dad.

Dad died very suddenly, either because of an aneurysm in his aorta or more probably from a deep vein thrombosis – a blood clot. He had been having problems with numbness in his left foot for several years and no doctor had been able to determine what was wrong. It’s likely that he had a clot in that numb area that finally made it to his heart and stopped it for good. His death devastated all of us.

Jack was ten years old when Dad died. We were talking about Dad one day not long after the memorial service, and Jack put his finger on what really made my Dad special. “You know what was great about Papa? He listened.”

That was really and truly what was great about my Dad. He did listen, and he listened well. He didn’t interrupt with advice. He didn’t change the subject because he was uncomfortable. He listened, he asked relevant questions, and he led us to the answer. He wasn’t afraid of feelings. If we needed to vent, he understood that and he let us vent. He only tried to solve problems when we asked him to. He helped us see solutions and he did it with humor, diplomacy, and quiet support.

My Dad was a great man because he listened.

I hope that when I die someone can say something that good about me.

I went to college where I did, then went to law school because of my dad. I accomplished what I have because of my dad’s support and encouragement. I look at life the way I do because I am my father’s daughter. I am who I am because I was Daddy’s Girl.

I love you, Daddy. Thank you for making me me. And Happy Birthday, you old fart.

Christmas Classic

~~This is a re-post of last year’s Christmas blog, for all you perverts who asked for it. ~~
~~My sister may never forgive me.~~

Jack and I went to my sister’s for Christmas dinner. When we got there, Sis put a pork tenderloin in the oven and we gathered around the tree to open gifts. Sis’s two boys, ages 15 and 13, were there, as was my mother. We spent a lovely hour ooohing and ahhhhing over what everyone got and gave. It was a very nice time.

We were almost through opening gifts when Sis got up to go check the tenderloin. She was gone for a few minutes. The rest of us waited to open any more gifts until she returned.

We were chatting and laughing in typical Aramink family fashion when Sis tip-toed back into the living room and tapped me on the shoulder. “Come here,” she whispered.

I got to my feet and followed her into the kitchen.

“Have you ever cooked a pork tenderloin?” she asked.

“Yes,” I told her. “Lots of times.”

“Good. I have something I need to ask you, then,” she said, and opened the oven door. She reached in and pulled out the roasting pan holding the meat.

“Is it supposed to look like this?” she asked.


I gasped.

I gaped. I blinked.

Sis put the pan down on the counter and grinned at me real big. “Shhhh,” she said.

We walked back into the living room, and Sis beckoned to Mom.

I couldn’t help it. I was about to die laughing. When Gran headed into the kitchen, I did my best to keep three large teenage boys at bay, thinking they were too young and … ahem… tender… to witness what their mother had prepared for Christmas dinner.

I was unsuccessful. The boys barreled into the kitchen just as their grandmother was in the act of looking perplexed at the slab of meat that faced her. Gran glanced up with a quizzical look. For a second I thought she didn’t get it.

Then she burst out laughing.

The boys crowded around. “What is it? What’s so funny?” they demanded. Their mothers and grandmother were laughing too hard to tell them.

Sis headed down the hall to the bathroom before she wet her pants. When she came back, she suggested that a creamy Bearnaise sauce would be a lovely accompaniment.

That set us off again. Sis headed back to the bathroom.

We females of the family enjoyed every bite. “Mmmmmm.” “Yummy.” “This is delightful,” we said.

The boys, for some reason, opted for a meatless Christmas dinner.

And now, for the crucial question:
If a pork tenderloin is circumcised, does that make it kosher?

First Language

My sister called me from her car.

“I need you to speak Des Arc-ian for my children,” she said.

Des Arc is the tiny rural Arkansas town where we grew up, and from which we both gratefully escaped at the age of 14.  Well, at 14 we weren’t exactly grateful to be sent to boarding school, but in retrospect it was probably a good idea. If we had remained, we might never have learned to speak anything but Des Arc-ian.

“What do you need me to say?” I asked her.

“You are, of course, familiar with the phrase southerners use when they mean that they’re about to do something?” she asked.

“Like when we say we’re ‘fixing to” go to the store?” I really had no idea where we were headed with this.

“Yes,” my sister said, “but that’s not how it’s said in Des Arc.”

“Right,” I acknowledged, rolling my eyes at myself.  I’ve apparently lived in the big city of Little Rock for so long I completely forgot my oral roots there for a split second.

“How is it said?” she prompted me, putting me on speaker so that my nephews could hear the pronunciation. “Use it in a sentence.”

“Boys, I fikina snatch a knot upside jer heads if ya don’t listen to ya mama,” I said, helpfully.

Howls emanated from her passengers.

“Oh, my god,” yelled my 13 year old nephew, Austin. “It’s true!” I could hear nothing but the boys’ laughter.

By the way, for those reading this blog who have never been to Des Arc and encountered a native there who  announced herself to be on the cusp of activity, “fikina” is not pronounced fik-EEN-a.  It’s pronounced “FIK-in-ah.” And the name of my old hometown is “Day-uz Ark.”

There are lots of Des Arc-ianisms that Sis and I recognize as being uniquely Des Arc-ian, and which no one from Des Arc would think odd at all.

For example, if Des Arc had a fast food place with one of those fancy drive-up speaker things at which you could place your lunch order (it doesn’t, in case you’re wondering), you would most likely hear the helpful staff on the other end of that speaker say, “Yont fries widat?” (“Yont” rhymes with “don’t.” )

A Des Arc-ian calling his dog would shout, “Hyah! Hyah, Blue!” instead of “Here!  Here, Blue.”

“Have yerseff a seat rye cheer,” says a Des Arc-ian, beckoning you over and indicating that you should sit on the stool next to his at one of the two town beer joints. In Des Arc, they are not called bars or honky tonks, and there are never more than two operating legally at any given time. Colorful characters with such fanciful sobriquets as “Biscuit” and “Coot” might frequent such places.  Yes, I know and like both Biscuit and Coot.

You may know the material that those white cups suitable for coffee and other hot liquids are made as “styrofoam.” Don’t be fooled. Each little round speck that connects to each other to form that self-insulating cup looks just like a star in the night sky, and spread as thickly as Miracle Whip on Wonder Bread it’s clear why it really ought to be called “starfoam” by everyone.

“Jeet yet?” inquires your friend when you happen by at supper time. He’ll pull out a chair and bring out an extra plate of beans and cornbread and set it in front of you if your answer is in the negative.

My own name has a Des Arc-ian pronunciation. You probably think “Anne” has one syllable.  You’re wrong. It has two.  In Des Arc-ian, my name is pronounced “Eye-un.”  As if that isn’t bad enough, what always makes me cringe is when Des Arc-ians call me by the nickname my father’s family has for me.  No, it isn’t an unusual nickname for a girl named Anne.  It’s a pretty common one.  I absolutely hate the way my Arkansas family and friends say it, though.

“Eye-un-eh” is equivalent to fingernails on a chalkboard for me. I have always corrected every southerner who makes the mistake of calling me “Eye-un-eh,” reminding them that my name is “Anne.”  As a helpful hint, I even pronounce it correctly for them.

Oddly enough, all of my friends from college and all of my Yankee father’s family, almost without exception, have always called me “Annie.”  I’ve never complained.  I actually like it.

I lost my Des Arc accent when I went to boarding school.  Then I lost my southern accent when I went to college. I lost my New York accent when I came back to Arkansas to go to law school.  I didn’t slip back into the accent of my childhood when I returned here, though.  I speak sort of a hybrid of “Educated Little Rock” and “You Ain’t From Around Here.”  I almost never speak Des Arc-ian.

I left there 31 years ago, but on occasion, before my parents moved to Little Rock to be closer to my siblings and me, I did find myself going back to visit, and sometimes on those visits I was in a position where speaking Des Arc-ian was inevitable.  I would be talking to a local friend and I would slip into the patois. That vernacular isn’t something that rolls terribly easily from my tongue, but yes, I speak Des Arc-ian fluently when I want to. 

Now, if you ever talk to me in real life and a Des Arc-ianism slips out of my mouth, please look the other way.  If you simply ignore it as though it were an untentional tummy rumble or the like, my acute embarrassment resulting from the slip will pass more quickly.

Thank you.

Books and Movies

Last night Jack flipped me his copy of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. “Your Rule, Mom,” he reminded me. “You can’t see the movie until you’ve read the book.”

“It’s a good Rule,” I said defensively. “And I’ve been meaning to read it anyway. You took it from my pile of books, remember?”

My Rule about reading the book before seeing the movie applies to all three boys. (All three? Yes, all three. It applies to my sister’s sons, too. Andrew is four months older than Jack and Austin is two and a half years younger. We call them the “cousin-brothers” because they spend so much time together. Hey, we’re in Arkansas. My sister and I co-parent well.)

The Rule came about because my sister and I knew that if they didn’t read the book first and they saw the movie, they’d never bother with the book because they’d think they knew the story. I bet I can get a few confessions from my friends – perhaps one or two of you saw movies when you were supposed to read a book for school assignments.(To Kill a Mockingbird, maybe? A good movie, yes, but a much better book. Since it’s the only book Harper Lee ever wrote, I think we owe the author the courtesy of reading it. Go ye forth and buy it now, Wench commands thee!)

You see, there’s a sneaky thing Hollywood does. It doesn’t make movies of books. It makes movies based on books. There is a huge difference.

The fact was never presented more clearly to the boys than when the first Harry Potter movie came out. Despite J.K. Rowling’s close supervision of the project and her input, the movie just wasn’t like the book.

“Neville didn’t have much of a part at all,” complained Andrew, the older cousin.

“Hagrid keep changing size,” said Jack, unimpressed by the special effects.

“They found the keys too easily,” Andrew groused.

“That chess game was lame,” agreed Jack.

“I liked it,” offered Austin. He was too young to have read any of the books by the time the first movie came out, so he had no problem with it whatsoever.

My sister and I had taken them to the movie together. We both laughed. “See? This is why we say always to read the book. The book is always better than the movie.”

“But why is that?” The kids were really disappointed.They had read this wonderful book and the three that came after, and were absolutely riveted by the story and the characters. The books had already told them what Harry, Hogwarts, and Diagon Alley looked like.

“Why is that? Because your imaginations are much better than anything a movie can show you,” we answered. “Even the best movie-maker is limited by what he can do with the actors and special effects. Your imagination has no limits at all. Anything can happen when you read.”

When Holes was made into a movie, the same sorts of criticisms occurred. Both older boys had read the book and really enjoyed it. Once again, the movie was a disappointment.

“The lake wasn’t as big as it should have been.”

“The casting was terrible.” (They were a little older and more discerning about such things.)

“The vermin in the pits weren’t as scary as they were supposed to be.”

“The climb up the mountain didn’t have the same significance.”

“I liked it.” Austin, again, wasn’t old enough to have read the book.

When I told Jack that movies were going to be made based on the His Dark Materials trilogy, Jack sighed. “It’s been sitting on my shelf for years. I guess we’ll have to read it.”

“Why haven’t you read it before now?” I asked. I had given him the trilogy for some past Christmas after reading a rave review.

“I tried once. I just couldn’t get into the first book. I put it down and haven’t tried again.”

I do that, too, I must admit. Sometimes I pick up a book and it’s just not the story or the style I’m in the mood for at the time. I put it down meaning to get back to it eventually, but it collects dust for a long time waiting for me to approach it again.

When he returned The Golden Compass to me last night, I asked Jack how he liked it.

“It was good,” he answered. “It’s sort of an anti-Narnia. But it did take me some time to get into it. It was slow at first.”

“Do you think the movie will be good?”

“Sure,” he answered.

“Even though all books are better than the movies made based on them?” I grinned, feeling a little smug and superior, pleased at the chance to drive home my point that books beat celluloid hands down.

“That’s not always true,” Jack said.

“Give me one example of one movie that was better than the book!” I demanded in surprise.

“Starship Troopers.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. The movie was better than a book by Robert Heinlein?”

“It was, Mom. I mean, I just don’t like the way Heinlein writes.”

I gaped. Who was this child, this alien being, this life-form from some other planet? He doesn’t like the way Heinlein writes? This… this…. creature… standing in front of me couldn’t be something composed of my DNA.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I managed to gasp.

“No,” he said. “I hated the book Starship Troopers. The movie was good, though. They changed up the plot and the characters so that they were better.”

I’m still dumfounded.

When he was about 10, I gave him a copy of Heinlein’s The Star Beast,assuming that he would fall in love with the Lummox just like I did.

“It’s boring,” he announced halfway through, just as the two kids took off to the hills with the beast to hide her from the hoards of scientists and media.

“You’ve just gotten to the most exciting part of the book!” I objected.

“I’m sick of that book. I’m not reading it any more.”

I backed off. I didn’t want Heinlein to be an assignment, but he had to read him. He just had to.

I gave him The Rolling Stones, knowing that he would be delighted with the twins Castor and Pollux, and that he would even get the mythology reference. He didn’t even open it.

Again, I backed off. Maybe he really wasn’t ready for Heinlein. Maybe when he was older…

Recently he asked to read Stranger in a Strange Land.
“Hell, no!” I said.

“Why not?”

“Are you kidding? That book has tons of sex in it!”

Jack’s face went through several different expressions before he settled on defiance. “But you keep wanting me to read Heinlein.”

“Yes, but you aren’t starting with Valentine Michael Smith and Jubal Harshaw. Nor are you starting with Lazarus Long.”

“Who’re they?”

“Mike Smith is the Man from Mars, and Jubal is his lawyer. Lazarus Long is his own grandfather.”

“No way!”

“Time travel, baby. But at 16 you aren’t yet old enough to grok the Martian version of god or love, and you aren’t yet old enough to find out what Lazarus and his maternal ancestors do for entertainment during long spaceship rides.”

“When will be old enough?”

“Old enough for me to give you Stranger in a Strange Land? About the time you register for the draft,” I retorted. That’s in a couple of years. “About the time you are old enough to order a draft beer legally,” I revised.

I bought a copy of Time Enough for Love and left it conspicuously on a table. It disappeared. I saw it in his bathroom, a bookmark about halfway through it. He started it. I’m not sure if he ever finished it. Hopefully my strategy will work and he’ll swipe Stranger from the bookcase and read it under the covers with a flashlight just because I was so shocked and said he couldn’t. Hopefully he will learn that Heinlein’s place at the apex of the pantheon of science fiction gods is deserved. If he doesn’t, I will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that all of his chromosomes came solely from his father’s side of the family.

I hope Hollywood never makes a movie based on Stranger in a Strange Land.

Pimpin’ His Dream Ride

Over the last year I’ve really had to force Jack to learn to drive. At his age, I was absolutely chomping at the bit, tugging my way toward independence and freedom. Not Jack.

“Driving makes me nervous,” he’d say. I’d tell him that he’d become less nervous as he got used to it.

“Please, Mom, can’t you drive this time?” he’d plead. I’d tell him, no, that he really needed the practice.

“You just want me to drive you around,” he’d complain. Yes, I’d tell him, it was part of the whole slave idea that so excited me when I decided to have children.

His tune has started to change over the summer. His cousin, Andrew, who is just four months older than he is, turned 16 in May and suddenly grew wings. Andrew happily carted Jack around all summer. I was able to send them to the grocery store and to the dry cleaners. They went to movies without their moms having to take them. They got together for marathon games of pool, Risk, and Halo. They still played World of Warcraft from home and chatted with each other online.

“Mom, what kind of car am I going to get?” Jack started to ask.

He has to have a car of his own. After what he did to the Jag (not to mention the garage) in March, driving it on a regular basis is simply out of the question. Besides, I need transportation while his vehicle is parked in the school parking lot. No, I will not be driving him to school after September 18, 2007. I am particularly looking forward to retiring from that occupation.

Jack seems very worried that I’m going to put him in some jalopy held together with duct tape and baling wire. He was annoyed when I told him that power windows and locks aren’t exactly standard equipment on the type of cars we’ll be looking at for him. I told him that the key fob that automatically unlocks the doors and opens the trunk won’t be an accessory, either. He sighed.

He was driving down the street in my Jaguar the other day when he grabbed a disk and put it in the CD player in the dash.

“You know, son.” I offered hesitantly, “the car you get probably isn’t going to have a CD player.”

He slapped the steering wheel in anger. “Jeez, Mom!” he cried. What kind of piece of crap are you going to make me drive, anyway?”

“Um, you know, you can replace a car stereo for a couple of hundred dollars, maybe even less,” I informed him.

“Where am I going to get that kind of money?” he demanded.

I thought to myself of the money he has stashed in his savings account because he squirrels away every penny he gets. I also thought of the doting grandparents whose only grandchild he is, who get him everything he’s ever asked for, even over my objections. And there’s his uncle, who showers him with gifts because the uncle has no progeny of his own. There’s an aunt and uncle on my side, as well as a grandmother who won’t say no to him. Hmmm. Just where will he come up with the money, or with the car stereo and CD player?

“I’m sure it will work out,” I told him confidently.

“Sure,” he said glumly.

Things were going along better, then when I got home from British Columbia last week Jack approached me with his laptop in his hand, a page from eBay displayed. “Mom, I found the vehicle I want!” His almost-sixteen-year-old face was open and hopeful.

I looked. It was a beautifully restored 1971 VW Microbus. My hippie aunt and uncle got one just like it in light blue as a wedding gift that year. Jack’s dream machine has shiny burnt orange paint, brand new chrome everywhere, new gaskets around the door handles, new mirrors, new window seals, a new antenna (for that kickin’ stereo he wants), new lens covers on the turn lights and taillights and reflectors, new kick panels inside the vehicle, brand new bright white upholstery (complete with seat belts, which I don’t think were included in the original 1971 model), new floor mats and carpet, new hubcaps, “jailbars” in the rear window, new door seals, new chrome bezels for the headlights…

Now, the stereo doesn’t work, but that, of course, is a minor annoyance since I have it on good authority (this just in) that his dad would have satellite radio installed. All that remains would be for the regular car stereo to be obtained.

I wonder what Jack will do when he realizes that this gem of a vehicle doesn’t have power steering? That it lacks power brakes? That he’ll have to learn to shift gears and work a clutch? Or that both Dad and I have nixed the “PARTYVAN” and “SHGNWGN”vanity plates?

Should I just find a nice, gently used Taurus like I had originally planned?

How “Star Wars” is Like Jesus

starwars_anewhope_12.jpg

“My English Teacher is ruining Star Wars,” Jack moaned the other morning.

“What? How is that possible?” I was twirling my hair into Princess Leia rolls on either side of my head in the bathroom mirror.

“Archetypes. Only she says ‘arc-types.’ I think English class is nothing more than a conspiracy to ruin every good book ever written, and now it’s being extended to movies, too.” My 10th grade progeny was glum, very glum.

“Give me some examples of how Star Wars can be ruined just by talking about it,” I said reasonably. “I mean, we talk about Star Wars all the time and it’s never ruined it at all.”

“Yeah, but when we talk about it we don’t get the story wrong, and we don’t compare every character to Jesus.”

“Compare every character to Jesus!” I echoed. “I can see the similarity in Obi Wan…”

“No, Mom. According to a substitute teacher we had the other day, every character in Star Wars is like Jesus.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Really. She pointed out the ‘arc-type’ then she talked about it for awhile then she compared it to Jesus. I swear.”

“Fine. How is Han Solo like Jesus?” I demanded, imagining that roguish grin. I have always loved pirates. I have known pirates, and Jesus was no pirate.

“You know how when Luke is making the Death Star trench run? Han swoops in and saves him from evil, just like Jesus would do.”

“Huh?”

“Darth Vader. Evil. The evil archetype. Han saves him, just like Jesus…”

“Oh. Ok. So, how is Darth Vader like Jesus?” I’m sending my kid to an Episcopal school so he can learn THIS? I thought. Mentally I shook myself.

“He dies to save Luke from the Emperor and from the Dark Side, just like Jesus died to save us from all of our sins.” Jack said the last part of that sentence in his best televangelist voice.

“Well, then, the Emperor. How is Palpatine like Jesus?”

“We’re just talking about Episode IV, A New Hope. Palpatine isn’t in that one. It’s Vader all the way.”

“He’s not?” I was surprised, and thought on it. “Who else is like Jesus?”

“Don’t even get me started on friggin’ Skywalker. Whiny bi…”

“Jack,” I cautioned him. “Don’t swear all the damn time.”

“Sorry.” Somehow he didn’t convince me.

“What archetype is Luke?” Aha, I thought to myself. Let’s see how much attention he’s paying in class.

“Luke is several archetypes. First, he’s the Hero. He’s The Young Man From the Provinces. The pupil in The Pupil-Mentor Relationship, the son in The Father-Son relationship”

“Wait a minute. Back up. The Young Man From the Provinces is an archetype?”

“I kid you not.”

“Why can’t you just say he’s the naive young person, or the initiate?”

“Oh, he’s also The Initiate.”

“What’s the difference?”

“The Young Man From the Provinces is the character who is taken away from home and raised by strangers, but returns triumphant to wrest the throne from the usurper. The Initiate is a young hero or heroine who has to go through training and ceremony, and usually wears white.”

“Hmmm. Both Luke and Leia wear white, although I think Leia is already initiated, seeing as how she’s already a Senator and all.”

“Yeah, but she’s also an Initiate, and she’s also in The Platonic Ideal, with, well, Guess Who.”

“Luke. Her brother.”

“But we don’t yet know they’re twins. It’s Mrs. Tyler jumping ahead again. We don’t know of any family relationship. And oddly enough, we’re reading Oedipus Rex in History.”

I laughed. “Jack, I am your mother.”

“Uh huh. And there’s an archetype relationship of Mentor and Pupil.”

“Luke and Obi Wan, as well as Vader and Obi Wan.”

“Right.”

“There’s The Devil Figure, or Jesus, if you will.”

“What? Jesus is the Devil? What is this?”

“Vader is the Devil figure, and as I explained earlier, Vader is also Jesus. Therefore, Jesus is the Devil.”

“I can see how Vader is maybe a Jesus figure once he appears after his death there at the end of Return of the Jedi, but how is he Jesus in A New Hope?”

“Oh, we’re talking at the end of Return of the Jedi. She totally ruined the movies for anyone who hasn’t seen it.”

“Someone hasn’t seen Star Wars? Inconceivable.”

“You’d be surprised. More than half my class has never seen the original trilogy.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. What other archetypes is Vader?”

“Well, in The Father-Son relationship archetype…”

“No! We had no idea about that relationship until the second movie! She really did ruin it.”

“She sure did. She said that Like Han, he’s The Apparently Evil Figure with an Ultimately Good Heart. Oh, and he’s also the wayward son in The Father-Son Relationship with Obi Wan Kenobi. And in a way, he’s The Scapegoat, because Emperor Palpatine is really the Evil One and Vader is just trying to please, or to save his love, or is hopeless until he finds hope in Luke, although Obi Wan is kind of a Scapegoat in that he lets Vader kill him so the others can get away.” Jack peered at me. “You do see the Jesus parallel there, don’t you?”

“Yes, I see.” I was taking it all in. My mind was racing.

“And Han is also the archetype of The Outcast, and he has the archetype of The Friendly Beast, Chewbacca, as his sidekick.”

“How is Chewie like Jesus?”

“He’s always willing to put himself in harm’s way for someone else he believes to be more important than he is.”

“That person being The Lovable Outcast.”

“Exactly. Which makes Han and Chewie the archetypal Hunting Group of Companions.”

“What, Like Beowulf and his men or something?”

“Yes. There are other Hunting Groups of Companions in Star Wars, too.”

“The Jawas. The Tusken Raiders.”

“Not the Tusken Raiders. They’re just the Evil Beasts. Grendels, if you want to use the Beowulf analogy. Luke, Leia, Han, the Droids, Chewie, and Obi Wan make a Hunting Group of Companions, too.”

“That makes sense. But how are they like Jesus?”

“Duh! The disciples!”

I grimaced. Dopey me.

“And then there are the Loyal Retainers.”

“Chewie again?”

“Sort of. Really, though, R2-D2 and C3PO are the Loyal Retainers, especially R2. He’s the one who summons help, and who always comes to the rescue.”

“And he’s like Jesus because…?”

“He summons help and ultimately comes to the rescue. Like Jesus summoned help and ultimately came to the rescue in the sense that he provided a path to everlasting life. Do I have to spell this out for you, Mom?”

“No, no. Pray, continue.”

Then there is the Archetype of the Creatures of Nightmare. The Evil Beasts. Those are the patrons at the Mos Eisley Cantina, or the Tusken Raiders.”

“Creatures of Nightmare? At the cantina?”

“Yeah. Because they’re so bizarre, surreal. And then there is the archetype of The Star-Crossed Lovers. Han and Leia, obviously, Like Jesus and Mary Magdalene. And Greedo did too shoot first.”

“Not in the original movie, he didn’t. In the remake, sure, but not in the first version of the movie.”

“Whatever. Leia is the archetype of The Damsel in Distress. She even wears the flowing robes and has the long, virginal hair, like the Virgin Mary.”

“Not like Jesus?”

He rolled his eyes. “She’s a girl, Mom.”

I cleared my throat. “Right. How silly of me.”

“And there’s the archetype of the soft-spoken, sensible Earth Mother.”

“Princess Leia Organa is no Earth Mother! Well, maybe with the long flowing hair in the third movie, in the scene in the Ewok village.”

“Not Leia. Beru.”

“Luke’s aunt?”

“Yes. And no, she’s not like Jesus.” His eyes and his tone warned me not to go there, despite my temptation to do so.

“There are symbolic archetypes, too,” he informed me.

I waited. Jack was on a roll. I knew he’d go on without my prodding.

“Light versus Dark, Heaven versus Hell, Life Versus Death. You see these in the struggle between Jedi and Sith, the Empire and the Rebellion, the serene light blue of Obi Wan’s lightsaber against the angry dark red of Darth Vader’s lightsaber, the lush natural form of Yavin 4 against the mechanized construct of the Death Star.”

I nodded.

“Then there’s the symbolic archetype of Innate Wisdom that doesn’t speak much contrasted with the Educated Stupidity of constant chatter: again, in R2-D2 and C3PO.”

“I can see that one.”

“And there is Supernatural Intervention. That’s another archetype.”

“The Force, you mean?”

No, The Force is the archetype of The Magic Weapon. Supernatural Intervention is when Luke is in the channel on the Death Star and he hears Obi wan tell him to use The Force, and he hits the target using the Magic Weapon rather than more conventional means.”

“So how is Luke like Jesus?”

“He saves the galaxy. I really do have to spell it all out for you, don’t I?”

“No, no.”

“I mean, Luke’s probably bigger than Jesus, who just saved one species on one planet.”

“Stop right there, kid. You have no idea of the flap John Lennon started with a similar statement.”

Children’s Literature for Adults

Madeleine L’Engle is Dead.

I saw the headline in the online edition of the New York Times yesterday, and a wave of nostalgia washed over me. Meg Murray, the protagonist in L’Engle’s classic, Newberry Award winning series, is one of my favorite literary characters from childhood. I wanted to be her. I probably was her: nerdy, intelligent, sarcastic, a diamond (or at least a white topaz) beneath the rough adolescent exterior of too-thick glasses and a mother who didn’t pay attention to children’s fashion.

When Jack was old enough to read A Wrinkle in Time, I handed him the tattered, oversized paperback I had read so many times myself. He looked at it with a sneer. I sighed. It really was falling apart. I had actually taped a few pages back into it as I reread it before deciding that, yes, it was time for him to learn about fewmets and tesseracts.

Barnes and Noble carried the entire series in hardcover. I bought them. Besides looking really swell on the shelf in their matching dust jackets, I knew that these books would never get outdated. Jack’s children will read them, and maybe his grandchildren. Their grandmother- and great-grandmother-to-be has read them again as an adult and finds no reason not to keep them on the shelf. These are not the kind of children’s books that are outgrown and packed away for a future generation. Like our hardcover Narnia books in their cardboard display box, Madeleine L’Engle’s books are meant to be seen and read regardless of my age or Jack’s.

There are a lot of children’s books that are really, really good even for adults. It seems that the “phenomenon” of Harry Potter surprised some of my adult friends, as well as adults all over the world. Books written for and about adolescents don’t have to be sophomoric. Those that aren’t, that are well written and tell a good story, have universal appeal even if they are sold from the children’s section of the bookstore.

There is a trend to make movies of such books these days. Holes, by Louis Sachar, had a great box office return. The classic story of a teenager punished excessively for something he didn’t do, evil jailers with evil agendas, bullies, friendship, loyalty, and karma had just the right amount of symbolism, philosophy and mysticism to appeal to adult book clubs.

Eragon did poorly at the box office, but that should be no reflection on the book. In the tradition of S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders), Eragon was written by 16 year old Christopher Paolini, who followed it with Eldest. The third book in the trilogy is due to be published within the next year. Paolini is an amazing writer, and I expect to see him producing prolific amounts of real literature as his writing becomes more seasoned. Yes, adults who like science fiction, especially those of us who like dragons, will love Paolini’s books.

In the world of Eragon and Eldest, there are no more dragonriders, because the evil king, who has the only dragon left in the world, declared war on them and killed them all. When a dragon’s egg appears mysteriously in the mountains where Eragon, a teenage boy, is hunting, he takes it home. He thinks it is nothing more than an interesting stone until it hatches. Suddenly Eragon is bound to Sapphira, the young dragon hatchling, and the two embark on adventures that are destined to change their world, and hopefully depose the wicked king and bring back dragons and dragonriders. Elves, dwarves, battles fought on the backs of fierce fire-breathing dragons: it’s all there. Personally, I can’t think of anything more I need in a dragon book!

Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, is being put on celluloid. The Golden Compass, based on the first book in the series, is due to be released in December. I hope it does justice to the book. As always, I fear for the bastardization of the story. Pullman is a British author. In the UK, the first book in the trilogy was released as Northern Lights. For whatever reason the title of the book was changed to The Golden Compass when it was published in the US.

His Dark Materials have been called the antithesis of Narnia. Parallel universes serve as the backdrop for this series, and demons replace the souls which exist outside the bodies of their humans. Children are being kidnapped and used in horrible experiments with the element “dust” which the religious authority believes to be proof of original sin. The themes in the book pull at religion, authority, and justice without insulting any true existing form of religion. The church in Pullman’s books is perverted from the Christianity in our universe. These books challenge the reader think about authority and faith in different ways. I doubt the movie will be able to convey these themes. I will wait to see.

The Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud hasn’t yet been brought to the silver screen, and hopefully it won’t be. In case you couldn’t tell form my comments already, I just hate it when movies ruin the fantastic books they claim to based upon. (I know, I know- they’re making a movie, not making the book. Still, I think the movie makers ought to be true to the story, dammit.) In the first Bartimaeus book, The Amulet of Samarkand, a boy with innate magical ability is fostered to a magician who neglects him. The boy is determined to learn magic anyway, so he studies on his own. He calls up a demon just because he can, and naturally all hell breaks loose. Bartimaeus is a sarcastic, secretly good-hearted demon, though, and quite a character. Together the boy and the demon expose corruption among the magicians, managing to topple the government of England in the process. Magical duels, subterfuge, roving gangs, other demons with other agendas, exploding buildings, daring rescues from inaccessible towers… sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Cornelia Funke is to German speaking kids what J.K. Rowling is to their English speaking contemporaries. Her first book to be translated into English was The Thief Lord, and it was all the rage among Jack’s 4th grade peers. Since it was a thick book (like Harry Potter), I picked it up. What a story! Think of Oliver Twist and a teenage Fagan doing their work in the labyrinthine canals of Venice. It’s dark, the water is scary, and someone is chasing our orphaned heros… Funke’s next book to be translated into English was probably better than The Thief Lord, though. In Inkheart, a character from a book is called into real existence when Meggie’s father reads aloud. Unfortunately, Meggie’s dad dooms her mother to becoming a character in the book. Someone has to replace the one that was removed, after all! The challenge is to get Meggie’s mom back out of the book, and to put the characters who have escaped back intro the books. Two minor characters, Dustfinger and Basta, really stand out as examples of how a writer creates a fantastic, fully dimensional character.

When Jack reads something and then presses it one me to read, I do it. He reads what I tell him to, as well. This means I’ve introduced him to other books about kids his age that were written for adults, and he’s introduced me to children’s books that ought to be read by more adults.

Jack and I have always shared books. When he was in kindergarten, I’d climb into bed with him and we’d read a chapter or two from whatever book I had chosen. We read the entire Narnia series aloud that year. We also read the first three Harry Potter books that way. I think Jack became a stronger reader because he would follow along in the books as I read them aloud, giggling when he caught me skipping words or saying something that wasn’t actually written. By the third grade he was reading adult level books on his own.

I asked him about books to mention in this blog, and he told me, “Most children’s books are terrible. It’s the same stories over and over again. Kid finds something magic, kid goes on quest, kid meets girl, kid and girl become friends during the quest, kid and girl almost don’t complete the quest, but then find that the thing they need to complete the quest is inside them the whole time, like it’s ‘love’ or something.” Jack liked and likes the books that are original, that have more complexity.

Jim Butcher, the author of the wonderful Harry Dresden, Wizard mysteries, has started a series about people who can call up the elements to do their bidding. Air, water, earth, metal, wood, and fire are at the beck and call of talented individuals in this post-Roman Empire alternate world. The main characters start as teenagers in the first two books, and by the third they begin to come of age. They fight deadly giant insects who possess people making them zombies, go to war against a race of wolf-like creatures, and they get involved in diplomatic maneuvering among nobility with powerful magic. I’m really looking forward to the fourth book in the Codex Alera.

Ender’s Game is a fantastic book to give to any kid who likes video games. Orson Scott Card’s Ender series is probably his best known work, although he is a prolific writer of several genres. The Ender series is pure science fiction. A six year old boy, Ender Wiggin, is sent to battle school where he spends countless hours playing battle-type video games. Although he is initially segregated from the other students, Ender’s status as a strategic battle prodigy earns him the respect of the other students to whom he teaches tactics after regular school hours. Ender deals with bullies among his peers as well as an adult military command that puts him in charge of battle groups over his objection. Spoiler: When it is finally revealed to Ender that every battle he has fought on the video screen has been a real battle against real enemies, he falls into a catatonic state for several days. He has destroyed an entire race of aliens, including their home planet. The books that follow all address xenophobia and mental illness in creative ways. The series should be a classic for adults and kids alike.

Card also wrote an alternate history series with a teenage boy as his primary protagonist. In Seventh Son, the first book in the Tales of Alvin Maker, Alvin is known to be a man of incredible talent. He has a “knack” for making things – out of virtually nothing. His almost god-like powers change the world, and in later books characters from history interact with Alvin and have their own “knacks.” Tecumseh, William Henry Harrison, and the Indian Prophet Tenska-Tewa make their appearances, and Tippecanoe isn’t quite the same.

My philosophy has been to give Jack books that are about kids his own age, and a little older. When I read a story of a teenager who goes on the quest, or is thrust into a position of having to use his wits to survive, I give it to him. Frank Herbert’s Dune is a good one for teenagers because a teenager is suddenly thrust into a position of authority and responsibility, and must act creatively and desperately to save himself. Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shanarra is the classic quest book that Jack complained of, but its complexity is sufficient to keep not only Jack but plenty of others entertained through a long series of books. Likewise, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is about adolescents who are prophesied to save the world and fight against the veritable gods of their reality.

I recently read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Maybe it is a bit of science fiction when a man is chronologically challenged, but when he materializes naked at the age of forty-three in front of his six year old future wife, things get interesting. The wife grows chronologically through the book, but never knows whether she will meet her husband in his future or his past.

A girl is identified by a homeless man to be the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary in The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn by Janis Hollowell. Although her mother tries to protect her from the headiness that comes with being suddenly invested with the power to heal and the power to bless, Francesca’s aunt is more avaricious and sees the potential for making a profit off the situation. As Francesca herself matures, so do her powers. Book clubs loved this selection, because of the possibility of a mass psychosis that either caused or resulted from Francesca’s powers.

I know my list is weighted heavily toward science fiction and fantasy because Jack and I both love the genre. There are other books out there about kids, though, that are great. I’d love to hear what others have read.

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