Don’t Miss Almost Missed You

Don’t Miss Almost Missed You

Holly Rizzuto Palker Interviews Jessica Strawser on her debut novel, Almost Missed  You.

Jessica Strawser Book CoverALMOST MISSED YOU by Jessica Strawser, is an intriguing novel involving a husband and two-year-old son disappearing while on a family vacation. I’m not sure how Jessica created this deliciously suspenseful book with so much else on her plate (she is the Editorial Director of Writer’s Digest magazine, and she and her very supportive husband are the parents of two children under age five).

As a mother to three young children myself,  I couldn’t help but catch up with Jessica to ask her some questions about her novel, her family, and her writing journey.

1. One of the most horrific experiences I can imagine would be for one of my children to go missing. What specific parenting moment sparked the idea for your premise?

Fortunately, there was no parenting moment that sparked the idea for my premise, but rather it grew out of a fascination with the idea of “meant to be” and the role of good/bad timing in an otherwise fated relationship. I wanted the relationship to be called into question in a way that would blindside everybody, and that’s where the more horrific premise of the husband running off with the child came from.

2. I’m sure you struggle with the balance between career performance and being a good mom. What makes a good mom?

I think every parent struggles with this, and I certainly wouldn’t hold myself up as an authority on what makes a good mom, though I do so try to be one. I always tell my children that being their mom is my most important job—they know where I stand. All any of us can do is love our children, keep their best interests at the forefront of our minds, and do our best.

3. What experience did you draw on or scenario did you imagine that gave you the ability to believably portray the anguish Violet must’ve felt when she discovered Bear was missing?

I think it would be all too easy for any mother to imagine that anguish—it’s one of the topmost comments I’ve gotten from readers so far, in fact.

4. Violet learns a lot about Finn throughout the course of your novel. Have you ever been in a relationship where you discovered you really didn’t ‘know’ the person. How did this affect you?

I’ve heard stories along those lines from people I know, and of course have read them from strangers, but fortunately it isn’t something I’ve experienced myself. Really there was very little in this novel that was autobiographical, which is part of what made it so enjoyable to write. I had an earlier, unsold novel that was inspired in part by a tragic circumstance in real life, and that writing took an emotional toll. I can also acknowledge from a craft standpoint that I may have been too close to the material. It was freeing, after years on that project, to write something that was pure imagination.

5. What is your view about the treatment of mental illness in America?

I took enough psychology credits for a minor when I was in journalism school, which of course covered only the tip of the iceberg, but certainly we could all benefit from more awareness and more support.

6. The name Bear is very unique. Why did you choose it for Violet’s child?

I just like the name, though Bear Grylls (the outdoor survival expert) is the only one I know of in real life. Some early reviewers have randomly noted their dislike for the name and so I suppose it’s lucky I didn’t choose it for either of my real children!

7. You write wistfully about Asheville, NC. When in your life did you spend time there? Was it a visit or did you live there for an extended period?

I have only visited Asheville, mostly en route to points further south from Cincinnati, but it’s one of my favorite places. Statistically (if I’m not mistaken), they have more sunny days than anywhere else in our region of the country, and I love the art and the nature and the mountain air and the music and the whole warm feel of the town. Any chance I get to stop there for a night, I do.

8. How did you seamlessly weave the non-linear structure and various points of view together in ALMOST MISSED YOU? Why did you choose to use these devices?

In order to get the whole story in ALMOST MISSED YOU, we need all three perspectives, because no one character knows the whole story at the outset. It was great fun trying to discern which points of view were key to reveal certain pieces and to put them all together like a puzzle. I’m not an outliner, and I had only a general idea of where I was going when I started, but I’d write whatever scene was most vivid to me, regardless of chronological order, and then later I made myself a timeline and better tracked the reveals at the revision stage.

9. How did you keep the reader in suspense while still giving her enough information to stay hooked?

I was hyper aware of what was being revealed and when, both to the other characters and to the reader, particularly in the revision stages. I also wanted to leave certain things to the reader’s imagination, to really invite the reader to participate in the world of the story.

10. I can barely find more than a few minutes to write each day with my busy family life. How and when were you able to finish this book with two young children running around and a full-time job?

I write mostly when they’re asleep and the house is quiet. It does take a lot of discipline, as I’m often tired myself, but I also have a wonderfully supportive spouse who helps to pick up the slack on nights when I guiltily shut the door to my writing room with the kitchen still not quite cleaned up from dinner.

11. How did your commitment to writing this book affect your family?

I wanted to show my children that it’s possible to go after a lifelong dream and achieve it, that hard work pays off, and that the creation of books (which they dearly love—bedtime stories are our mutual favorites) is a beautiful thing. The book is dedicated to them, and my oldest, at least, who (at five years old) is more able to understand what’s happening, is enormously proud. I think he was more excited when my author copies arrived than I was!

12. Which women’s fiction authors influenced you?

I’m influenced by authors across all genres, some of my favorites being Jodi Picoult, Chris Bohjalian, Anne Tyler, Liane Moriarty, David Sedaris, Maggie O’Farrell and Alice Walker.

13. How long did it take you to write ALMOST MISSED YOU from your first word on paper to publication?

This summer will mark three years since I began my first draft.

14. How often do you write and for how many hours?

It depends on what kind of deadline I’m on (or what kind of roll I’m on—sometimes I’ll take a whole vacation day from my full-time job just to write in a quiet house), but typically 5 days a week, at least, most often for 90 minutes to two hours a day.

15. What did you edit out of this book?

This book was a rare case for me where the editing involved a lot more adding than cutting. Typically, it’s the other way around, but in this case, I can’t think of anything of note that was cut.

16. How does your career as the editor of Writer’s Digest shape the way you wrote ALMOST MISSED YOU?

Consider that in the course of editing Writer’s Digest, I’ve read each issue cover to cover no fewer than five times—that’s earnest, thorough repetition of written instruction and inspiration that has fueled my writing in ways both intentional and subconscious. The many conversations I’ve had along the way with bestselling authors (for the cover interviews I often conduct) and our contributing writing instructors alike have given me access to some of the best insights into the writing life around, straight from the sources. I could hardly underestimate its influence on me, and my work there has certainly been an asset to my writing life outside of the office.

Holly Rizzuto Palker is freelance writer and novelist. Her essays have appeared in Newsday and Kveller. She teaches movement and drama to children at a local pre-school while raising three of her own children. She’s working on a novel about an American expat living in London. Connect with her on twitter and at








Excerpt: The Imperfect Tense

Excerpt: The Imperfect Tense

Liane Photo

By Liane Kupferberg Carter

“How does staying in an old palace in Paris strike you?” my sister-in-law Jill asked.

“Drafty, but delightful,” I said. “Why?”

Jill told me her daughter was spending a semester in Europe and Jill intended to visit. Jill knew I love all things French. “Why don’t you come with me?”

I sighed. “I wish.”

But the idea gnawed at me. I mentioned it to my husband Marc, trying the idea out on us both. “It’s nice of her to ask, but of course I can’t.”

“Of course you can,” he said. “Don’t you think I can hold down the fort for a week?”

A few days later Jill called and asked again.

“Want to come? We could have such fun,” she wheedled.

“Yes,” I said, surprising us both.

Yes, I would go would go to Paris, because I hadn’t been there since the summer I was sixteen. Yes, although I had never left my children before. Yes, even though the thought made me nervous and giddy.

Jill speaks no French. She told me she was depending on me. Ever the dutiful student, I borrowed my older son Jonathan’s high school French grammar review book, and grappled with conjugations, irregular verbs and the subjunctive. I listened to French radio stations, understanding perhaps every 15th word, and those were only the helper words – avec, avant, apres; nothing substantive. Frustrated, I wanted to beg the radio announcer, Plus lentement, s’il vous plait. Please. Slow. Down. While I struggled to decode one sentence, the radio voice was already two paragraphs ahead. I felt adrift in the sea of language. Reclaiming my high school French was sheer physical exhaustion as I strained to decipher the foreign sounds. I was still floundering with first year phrases like La plume de ma tante est sur la table, while it sounded as if the speakers on the air were parsing Proust.

Laboring to master the rudiments of French all over again, I couldn’t help but wonder: is that what it was like for my autistic son Mickey every day, struggling to make himself understood in English, a language that felt innately foreign to him? The fatigue, the mental strain, the confusion of idioms? I pictured his mind like the old PBX telephone switchboard I manned one summer in college, his brain a bundle of clustered, colored cords, a cerebral scramble as he strained to locate the right plug. “What did you did today?” he often asked me. No wonder he still napped every afternoon. He must be exhausted.

My friend Ellen, a former student at the Sorbonne, tried to help and spoke French to me. When I tried to answer, it felt like striking two keys at once on an old manual typewriter: the keys jammed in mid air, metal trapped over metal. The words stuck; my throat throttled. I could think only in the present tense.

Marc offered to buy me the Rosetta Stone Language learning software program, which I refused. Too expensive. But it occurred to me how aptly it was named. After all, hadn’t I spent the last sixteen years looking for my own personal Rosetta Stone, the key to decoding the mystery of our younger child?


The French grammar book I studied told me the passe simple tense is for actions that have been completed. The passe, compose, though in the past, is still connected to the present and may even still be happening. That was a tense I knew too well, from my endless replay of Mickey’s first few years of life, when it had felt as if Mickey was an ambassador from another world and it was our job to learn each other’s language

The more I studied my French, the more I found myself remembering Mickey’s battles with English. I thought about how at the age of three, he had recognized all the letters of the alphabet, known numbers up to 10, and shown a keen interest in reading signs and license plates. How he had loved to stack alphabet blocks into towers, and knock them over. “More go,” he’d said again and again. How the speech therapist had wondered aloud if he might have hyperlexia, a precocious ability to read words without understanding them. How she’d asked me when he was four to make a list of his words. It had numbered close to a hundred and consisted mostly of nouns he struggled to combine into three-word sentences: “I go home.” “Want more juice.” Verb tenses had been difficult, and pronouns, slippery and situational, had often eluded him. I had waited for a breakthrough, when, miraculously, Mickey would suddenly begin speaking in fluid, full sentences. But just as I would never speak French that way, had it been an unfair expectation of him? Even now, he was still sometimes like a foreigner who spoke laboriously and often ungrammatically as he made his way in a foreign city.

The past few years I’d dreamed repeatedly that the four of us were finally going to Europe. Sometimes it was the hill towns of Umbria, where my college roommate Pat had a home; sometimes the outskirts of London or Rome. But it was always the same dream. I would realize we had been there a week and that it was time to leave but we hadn’t seen or done anything I wanted. I would grow frantic in the dream. I’d embark on a frenzy of sightseeing, only to meet frustration. Mickey would refuse to enter a museum. Gag on new foods. Talk too loudly to himself. Jonathan would be embarrassed and blame me. I’d wake up feeling thwarted. It would hit me: Mickey still couldn’t cross a street unassisted. Would we ever be able to travel as a family?

I bought my ticket. Jill and I made hotel arrangements. I realized I was living too much in the Conditional tense, imagining dire events. What if my plane crashed? The train derailed? A terrorist detonated a bomb in the Metro? I could die. What if Marc had to raise Mickey and Jonathan alone? How could I chance leaving my children without a mother?

I distracted myself with a flurry of housecleaning, file-purging and bill-paying. I unearthed a pile of old love letters I didn’t even remember saving from a college boyfriend and extracted a promise from my friend to toss them out if I should not return from my trip. How dare I take a vacation without my husband? He deserved a respite as much as I did. They say travel broadens; was this still true when it terrified?

The imperfect tense — l’imparfait — is an ongoing state of being. It is hard to accept life in the imperfect tense. And yet, somehow, we do. We must. The imperfect, the present, and the future co-habitate within us.

On some days the tenses loom like landmines: the Future, and the Conditional. But we live, too, in what my French grammar book calls Le Subjonctif, the tense we use to express wishes, emotions, and possibility.

Perhaps Mickey would someday read at 6th grade level. Perhaps he would grow up to have a job that gave him pleasure; friends; a place in a community that welcomed him. Perhaps someday, our family would travel to France, and I would use my grade school French.

More likely, it would be Quebec: closer to home, but still French.

For now, I realized, I needed to stay firmly rooted in the present, and focus on the regular verbs:

Mickey is speaking. He is loving. We have hope.

Liane Book CoverExcerpted from Ketchup Is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism by Liane Kupferberg Carter. (c) 2016 Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Reprinted with permission. This article may not be reproduced for any other use without permission.






6 Halloween Books for Older Kids

6 Halloween Books for Older Kids


By Katie Rosa

Halloween is one of the best times of the year. The pumpkin patch, hay rides, spooky decorations, the excitement shining in young children’s eyes as they await trick-or-treating—a holiday that celebrates gluttony and rotten teeth (what’s not to love about that?) and of course—the smell of pumpkin everything—candles, lattes, bread…

What about those older kids though? They may be too old to show their eager anticipation… too cool for candy and dress-up?

How can we help older kids get in the mood for the creepy? Give them some awesome books to read.

1) Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone. This is a great read for older kids and if yours haven’t read this series yet, they are missing one of the best series ever. The first in the series however but makes for an especially great annual Halloween read. Light and fun, full of witches, wizards, magic, pumpkins, and especially candy, this book will get those kids in the mood for sure. They may even offer to take the little ones trick-or-treating for you…

2) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. This one is not for the faint of heart and boy did these stories get me going when I was a kid—heart palpitating, palms sweaty. Tell the kids to read these with a flashlight under a blanket. But, don’t be surprised if they start sleeping with a nightlight on for a while after.

3) Coraline. Author Neil Gaiman writes books that somehow blend scary and creepy with fun and exciting. Coraline is a little girl who just moved into a new apartment building. She discovers a door that leads into ‘the other world’. Once there she meets ‘the other mother’ and ‘the other father’—versions of her own parents except they have button eyes and long, knife-sharp fingernails. And that was enough to get my daughter’s eyes to grow three sizes and her fingernails to shrink three sizes. I also think she slept in my bed for a week.

4) The Graveyard Book. Another Neil Gaiman story, this one is set in a graveyard with a boy named Nobody Owens who is being raised by ghosts. It opens with a triple murder of ‘Bod’s’ family when he was just a baby. That part was the most intense, but the rest of the story is engaging, with ancient ghosts spouting historical facts and teaching a human boy ghostly tricks. Fun!

5) A Tale Dark and Grimm. A twist on the Grimm stories we knew and loved as children, Adam Gidwitz takes us on adventures through the darker side of fairy tales. With surprises along the way, but just enough of the familiar to keep us grounded, this is a fun, engaging read.

7) Goosebumps. Um, remember those? Dozens of eerie tales to get those older kids in the mood no matter what paranormal creature your kid may be into. Werewolves? Ghosts? Monsters? These books have ’em! And they’re short enough to make for a quick, easy read. You can thank me later when your older kid finally snuggles up to you, as he hasn’t in years, because these books are scaaaaryyyy!

Go on and get the marshmallows roasting. Invest in some light bulbs since your kids might regress to sleeping with every light in their bedroom on until Christmas…Thanksgiving at least. There are many more great Halloween reads for older kids. What are some of your favorites?

Katie Rosa is a writer, former probation officer, wife, and mother to two children, Jocelyn 8, and Liam 3. Jocelyn is her biggest fan and encourages her mother’s writing more than anyone else. You can find some of her work at her author website: or you can follow her on Twitter at @judgemecrazy




Top 10 Audiobook Titles for Family Listening

Top 10 Audiobook Titles for Family Listening

audiobook 3Audiobook

By Robin Whitten and Sharon Grover

Whether you are taking a 5-hour road trip this weekend to see fireworks or driving a few miles to partake in a neighborhood BBQ, why not entertain the family with an audiobook? As the editor of AudioFile magazine, I’m excited to share our picks for middle-grade kids below—there are madcap adventures, familiar classics, and challenges facing friends and family. We can pretty much guarantee that the adult listeners will have just as much fun as the kids.


Written and narrated by Neil Gaiman

Harper Audio, 2002

A lonely, doleful girl discovers an alternative world in the apartment next door, complete with “other,” button-eyed parents who promise love and attention, not to mention better food than the girl’s preoccupied parents provide. When the malevolent “other” parents reveal themselves as evil, our unhappy heroine must sort things back to their rightful places. An intensely creepy story with eerie musical interludes by the Gothic Archies, makes this perfect fare for middle school listeners.

The Crossover

Written by Kwame Alexander

Narrated by Corey Allen

Recorded Books, 2014

Basketball teams with poetry in this 2015 Newbery winner that begs to be read aloud. Corey Allen is more than up to the task of taking twins Josh and Jordan Bell rushing down the court or dealing with family tragedy.

Diary of a Mad Brownie

The Enchanted Files

Written by Bruce Coville

Narrated by Euan Morton with Nancy O’Connor and a Full Cast

Listening Library, 2015

A 150-year-old brownie in Connecticut?! Bound to a very messy 11-year-old girl? Join the fun as a full cast explores the enchanted hijinks in Coville’s (My Teacher Is an Alien) latest supernatural journey linking magical Scottish creatures and an American family in an attempt to break a curse as old as time.

Masters of Disaster

Written by Gary Paulsen

Narrated by Nick Podehl

Brilliance Audio, 2010

What happens when three 12-year-old boys have too much time on their hands? Disaster, that’s what! Nick Podehl shines as he narrates these delightfully ridiculous escapades from the pen of Paulsen — a master raconteur specializing in the dare, the challenge, and the resulting chaos (think dumpsters and methane gas) in which boys excel.

Mutiny in Time

Infinity Ring, Book One
Written by James Dashner
Narrated by Dion Graham

Scholastic Audiobooks, 2012

Is The 39 Clues your cup of tea? Then listen to this series and play the game online. In a future where history is broken, three young friends must band together, travel in time, and save the world. The series has several authors, with narrator Graham providing the glue that binds them together in an exciting, roller coaster adventure.


Written by Sara Pennypacker

Narrated by Michael Curran-Dorsano

Harper Audio, 2016

A boy and a fox are the central characters in this heart-rending story of loss, friendship, and war, narrated with appropriate nuance by Curran-Dorsano. When his father enlists in an un-named war, Peter is sent to live with his grandfather and must leave his pet fox behind. Desolate at the loss of his companion, Peter sets out to find Pax, who is struggling to live in the wilderness. The emotional resonance of the story makes this an ideal choice for family listening.

Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes

Written by Rick Riordan

Narrated by Jesse Bernstein

Listening Library, 2015

Percy Jackson made Greek mythology cool and this long introduction to the heroes of old will be perfect for those rides to school or to sports — just enough time to dip in an out of a very tongue-in-cheek exploration of the likes of Hercules, Perseus, Jason, and Atalanta, with all of their extraordinary exploits.

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book: The Mowgli Stories

Written by Rudyard Kipling

Narrated by Bill Bailey, Richard E. Grant, Colin Salmon, Tim McInnerny, Bernard Cribbins, Celia Imrie, Martin Shaw

Audible Digital Download, 2015

The real story of the man-child Mowgli, raised by wolves and hunted by a relentlessly evil tiger, unfolds in this full-cast aural delight. The lightweight Disney animated feature pales in comparison to this battle for jungle supremacy, complete with the sounds of the tropical rainforest and the frightful roaring of Shere Kahn.

Treasure Island

Written by Robert Louis Stevenson

Narrated by Alfred Molina

Listening Library, 2007

This swashbuckling exploits of a young boy, a foolish squire, an adventuresome doctor, a menacing pirate, and a search for buried treasure is truly the stuff of classic literature. Molina’s (Doctor Octopus in Spider Man 2) rich vocal characterizations brings this old-fashioned adventure to life for modern families.

Who Could That Be at This Hour?

All the Wrong Questions Series

Written by Lemony Snicket

Narrated by Liam Aiken

Hachette, 2012

A teenaged Lemony Snicket shares his (ahem) autobiographical story of how he became a famous sleuth in this hysterically morose first installment of a series sure to be as popular with his fans as were his adventures with the Baudelaire children. Cliffhangers abound, so be sure to sign up for all installments to get your burning questions answered!

Robin Whitten is the editor and founder of AudioFile magazine. AudioFile publishes a print magazine 6x a year, maintains an active web site,, featuring the curated booklist Audiobooks for Kids & Teens, and runs the popular program SYNC that gives free audiobooks to teens every week during the summer. She has seen audiobooks evolve over 25 years of writing about and reviewing them.

Sharon Grover is a Youth Services and Audiobook Literacy Consultant. She chaired the American Library Association’s Printz (2013) and Odyssey (2010) Committees. Her book, co-authored with Lizette Hannegan, LISTENING TO LEARN: Audiobooks Supporting Literacy was published in 2011.







Ten Classic (and Destined to Become Classic) Books to Read Aloud with Tweens and Teens

Ten Classic (and Destined to Become Classic) Books to Read Aloud with Tweens and Teens

Brown+Girl+DreamingBy Sally Allen

When it comes to reading to young children, advocacy abounds. I stumble on at least one article on the daily – whether in a magazine or newspaper, on a blog or website – emphasizing the importance of reading aloud for developing crucial early literacy skills and encouraging parent/child bonds. Yet when the picture book stage ends (typically between the ages of six through eight), reading together can lose steam or stall completely. Yet isn’t it just as crucial during the tween and teen years?

Sharing reading experiences with our older kids allows us to keep them close while giving them distance. If this sounds paradoxical, consider: Reading together during these years cultivates opportunities to share beautiful moments or discuss difficult subjects through the filter of characters’ experiences. Choices and implications can be explored and dissected in a way that would be infinitely more loaded if it were personal. These are 10 of my favorites for these purposes.

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

White’s wry, elegant prose and timeless story of the friendship between a spider and a pig make for a magical read aloud. Fair-minded, eight-year-old Fern saves Wilbur, the runt of his litter, from the axe and does such a good job raising him that he is moved to her uncle’s farm down the road. There, he will eventually be slaughtered, except he meets Charlotte. The clever spider conspires to save Wilbur a second time, by using her cunning and forming alliances among a diverse cast of variously motivated animals (life lesson alert). Fair warning: May result in an aversion to bacon.

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond

Most of us have encountered some version of Bond’s iconic bear. The first novel in the series reveals how Paddington was found and brought home to live with the Brown family and shares his (mis)adventures around town. These include learning to navigate the Underground and escalators, accidentally becoming a theater star, and generally attracting all manner of unintended, and sometimes unwelcome, attention to himself. The hidden gem in these whimsical episodes is their capacity to resonate with young readers who may also at times struggle to navigate a world that can seem overwhelming and strange.

01afb00ff0ab3a3098e05d50fbe2b6c550f6479a25All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

Taylor’s novel is the first in a series about five sisters growing up on the Lower East Side during the early 20th century. The chapters are largely episodic, finely wrought vignettes that bring history to vivid life. Readers spend a day at the New York Public Library, the junk shop of the sisters’ beloved Papa, Coney Island, and the busy market. They discover how Jewish and American holidays – among them Purim, Sukkot, Passover, and the Fourth of July – were celebrated 100 years ago. Threaded through these charming stories are gentle lessons about personal responsibility, family, community, and the importance of people over things in the pursuit of meaning and happiness.

Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers

Unlike Disney’s rosy-cheeked, dulcet-toned nanny, the Mary Poppins of Travers’ imagination is mercurial, prone to fits of grumpiness, and exceedingly vain (favorite pastimes include staring at reflection in any reflective surface). Readers who have seen the film will enjoy familiar outings – having tea while bobbing gently near the ceiling at Uncle Albert’s house, jumping into one of Bert’s chalk paintings. They’ll also embark on new adventures, including a birthday party for Mary Poppins held at a zoo and an evening spent painting stars onto the night sky. The book’s episodic chapters are perfect for bedtime reading and brim with nonsense and whimsy that will spark the imaginations of readers of all ages.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

In Konigsburg’s 1968 Newbery Medal winning novel, 12-year-old Claudia Kincaid, feeling unappreciated by her parents (sound familiar, anyone?), runs away from home. With her nine-year-old brother (and his well-stuffed piggy bank) in tow, she takes up residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The siblings sleep in the opulent bedroom exhibits, bathe in the (now defunct) fountain, and refill their coffers with coins collected from said fountain. When a mysterious marble statue turns up at the museum, the kids resolve to uncover its origins. Along their journey, Claudia discovers several pertinent truths likely to resonate, almost 50 years later, with t(w)eens and their parents: While finding one’s place in the world involves a constant negotiation between the needs of self and community, it’s okay to want something of one’s own to cherish.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon copyWhere the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Lin’s enchanting 2010 Newbery Honor novel was inspired by the Chinese folktales she enjoyed as a child, which also provide the inspiration for her protagonist, Minli. She and her parents live in the Village of Fruitless Mountain, where neither animal nor crop can thrive, save rice. Her father’s tales of dragons, kings, and fortunes lighten the day’s burdens for Minli and inspire her to seek the Man in the Moon, whose Book of Fortune is said to “hold all the knowledge of the world.” Along her journey, Minli befriends a dragon who longs to fly, a young boy with a mysterious friend, a mischievous king, and a vengeful dragon. Lin’s lush, sensory language and dramatic cliffhangers make this a delightful, and hard to put down, read aloud.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Winner of the 2014 National Book Award, Woodson’s memoir unfolds in vibrant poems that capture what memory feels like – imagistic and sensory. Individual details gradually accumulate to form larger pictures, as elements in pointillist paintings coalesce into wholes, as understanding dawns gradually from fragments. Woodson describes her experiences growing up between Brooklyn, NY and Greenville, South Carolina, creating powerful word paintings of the Civil War era South, city life in New York, sibling rivalry and love, friendship, jealousy, loss, respect, and discovering inspiration and finding one’s purpose. Woodson’s lyrical verse begs to be read aloud and the subjects she raises – from large scale to intimate – to be discussed.

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-Li Jiang

Covering the years 1966 – 1968, her 12th – 14th years, Jiang’s memoir shares a deeply personal experience of national upheaval. During these first years of China’s Cultural Revolution, citizens were exhorted to stamp out the “Four Olds” – “old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits.” With a landowning past, Jiang’s family had bad “class status” linking them to the very ideology the Cultural Revolution sought to root out and destroy. Her parents burn family photos and destroy heirlooms; still, her father is imprisoned. Jiang faces an unfathomable choice: To discredit and disown her family or face an uncertain future herself. Not an easy memoir to read, it’s an important one.

Enchanted-Air-672x1024Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle (15 – 17 years)

As with Woodson’s memoir, Engle renders her childhood experiences in verse. Raised by her American-born father and Cuban-born mother during the 1950s and 60s, Engle grew up feeling pulled in two directions: “Am I free to need both,” she asks, “or will I always have to choose / only one way / of thinking?” Her feelings intensify when hostilities between her two countries explode in the 1960s. Saturated with luxurious descriptions – often of the places she inhabits: Cuba during summer visits, California where she lives, Europe during a summer vacation after she is no longer able visit her mother’s home – her poems capture and cast into sharp relief the internal struggle immigrants and their children can experience, especially during times of international conflict.

Sally Allen holds a PhD from New York University. She teaches writing, literature, and communication and is the author of “Unlocking Worlds: A Reading Companion for Book Lovers.” For more information, visit

Book Review — First Bite: How We Learn to Eat

Book Review — First Bite: How We Learn to Eat

March Book Review First BitReviewed by Hilary Levey Friedman

When I think about my childhood home I think about Buddy’s pizza, Leo’s Coney Island Greek salad, and Lelli’s zip sauce. In other words, I conjure up memories of food—tastes, settings, celebrations. According to Bee Wilson, food critic and historian and author of the recent book First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, this is not at all surprising. Wilson writes, “Memory is the single most powerful driving force in how we learn to eat; it shapes all of our yearnings.”

I can confirm that when I was pregnant I indeed had yearnings for comfort food. After my boys arrived though thoughts changed to do things: how best to feed them and how best to lose my “baby weight.” In reading First Bite, I have come to see these desires as interrelated, and almost certainly in ways I still do not fully understand, but which will surely influence my children’s eating habits, and thus those of all my descendants.

Over eight chapters Wilson takes us on a food journey that roughly parallels a child’s development, with detours into disorders (turns out that “eating disorders are as numberless as snowflakes”) and meditations on hunger. After each analytic and reflective chapter, eight specific foods get a mini-essay about themselves, like beets, birthday cake, chocolate, and potato chips.

Two of these food mini-essays—chocolate and potato chips—capture the tone, factual research, and complexity of First Bite. When it comes to chocolate Wilson convincingly explains that, “Female chocolate cravings are an archetypal learned behavior.” As for potato chips, she argues that our love of them may go back to our primate ancestors for whom crunchy insects were an important source of protein.

In a somewhat controversial move, Wilson departs from the worldwide guidelines that infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. But she rationally makes her case for this, explaining that between the ages of four and seven months, “there is a window when humans are extraordinarily receptive to flavor, but by following current guidelines on exclusive breastfeeding, parents tend to miss it.” While Wilson discusses Baby Led Weaning in Chapter 4 on feeding, she generally thinks that picture is not all positive, instead suggesting that parents expose children to a range of whole foods as early as four months, making repeated attempts even if a child first resists by making a face. The trick is persistence. And listening to a few simple “rules” like those listed in the epilogue. Two of my favorites include: 1) Eat soup, and 2) “Sugar is not love. But it can feel like it.”

For parents interested in learning more about how to feed their younger children the focus should be on the first half of the book, especially Chapter 1 on likes and dislikes and Chapter 5 on siblings. But parents should also be thinking about their own relationship with food, as that is essentially the single biggest predictor of how your little ones respond eat. In Chapter 6 on hunger, Wilson explains:

The latest January diets often claim that if only you follow all the steps, you will never feel hungry again. It’s taken me a long time to realize that part of eating well is making friends with hunger. We are not the starving children. To feel mildly hungry two or three times a day—when you are lucky enough to know that another meal is coming soon—is a good thing. All my life—except when I’d been attempting weight—I’d responded to the gentlest of tummy rumbles as something that needed to be urgently canceled out. It is only now that I see you can easily live with an hour or two of slight emptiness. In fact, it makes the next meal taste better (‘Hunger is the best sauce,’ as the proverb goes).

I have certainly become a more varied eater as I have gotten older, moved around, and reconstituted my social experiences from the restaurants of my suburban Detroit youth. But as I now seriously strive to last the last of that baby weight (or, more appropriately now, “toddler weight”), I am having to learn to live with some hunger again, and remind myself that this is not in and of itself a bad thing.

In reading First Bite I also learned why I am one of the few people I know who dislikes both coffee and beer. Wilson explains that I am likely a supertaster, or someone who tastes more, so bitter things (oh, like coffee and beer) aren’t my thing, despite being two of the most popular beverages in the world.

When people find out that I don’t drink any coffee at all they are often shocked, explaining they would be far less productive if they did not drink some brew each day. Somehow I get through each busy day without coffee (though I do consume caffeine through either Diet Coke or tea!), but starting next month I will have one less thing on my full plate as I will be stepping down as Brain, Child’s Book Review Editor. As I wrote in 2014 when I began this position, I hope books suggested by our magazine have helped you find meaning as both readers and parents, and not just in the words, but in the spaces in between them.

Whether it has been sharing books or meals with Brain, Child readers and writers I’ve enjoying our interactions. And, don’t worry, I won’t stop reading, writing, or eating for that matter, and you can continue to follow me through various forms of social media or on my website, linked below. Although I might be able to cut back on the caffeine just a touch…

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the outgoing Book Review Editor Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She teaches in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.

Book Review: Catastrophic Happiness

Book Review: Catastrophic Happiness

catastrophichappinessBy Lindsey Mead

Catastrophic Happiness by Catherine Newman is a series of essays, which masterfully combine story and reflection. In the prologue, titled IT GETS BETTER, Newman captures the particular joys and indignities of raising small children – riding in the back of the car with them, distributing string cheese, the way a dental appointment feels like a spa vacation because nobody needs you, the droopy sorrow of a weaned bosom, a toddler inhaling sand at the beach – with her trademark perfection. I laughed out loud several times. And then, in the prologue’s last scene, Newman describes a mother sitting in bed between her sleeping children, “boo-hoo[ing] noiselessly into the kids’ hair because life is so beautiful and you don’t want it to change.” Haven’t we all done that? I know that I have. Newman goes on to introduce the years that come after that sleeping-toddler scene, the messy years of the book’s subtitle, by telling us that “…you will feel exactly the way you feel now. Only better.”

The essays that follow trace this getting-better with stories of Newman’s children, Ben and Birdy. My own children are similar in age to Ben and Birdy, though two years stair-step younger (my older child and Birdy are the same age). I related intensely to this book. Each of the seven chapters in Catastrophic Happiness contains power, sentiment, and visceral emotion.

Newman’s observations run the gamut from deep and profound to hilarious and true. For example, within pages in the first section, she states that “happiness is so precarious,” and that “I don’t always understand the children or what their problem is.” Isn’t this one of the defining features of parenting, the way things can swing from dense feeling to trite confusion in a matter of minutes? The hilariously confounding and overwhelmingly holy coexist, at least for me, in most hours.

Over and over again, the lines of Catastrophic Happiness made me gasp and sigh, underline and laugh, text a friend and say “OMG, read this,” and even email Newman herself and ask: “Are we the same person?” For example:

I am so glad and grateful, I am. But sometimes the orchestra plays something in swelling chords of luck and joy, and all I can hear is that one violin sawing out a thin melody of grief.

Newman’s pieces, just like life itself, touch on, and interweave, the sacred and the mundane. The seven chapters are broken into smaller pieces, each of which revolves around a specific memory of a point in time. These are presented in loose chronological order and all have marvelous “How to” names, like “How to Have Complicated Feelings,” “How to Share a Beating Heart” and “How to Hang On By a Thread.”

My favorite section is “How to See the Light Behind the Trees,” which begins in a damp, unpleasant campground bathroom with Birdy, “her pants pool[ing] around her ankles on the wet cement floor.” What parent doesn’t read that and find themselves immediately thrust back into a situation where they wait for their progeny, if not a cement campground outhouse then in a filthy rest stop toilet stall? This is one of parenting’s universal, largely unpleasant scenarios. Newman and her family visit the same campground every year, which makes it the perfect place to reflect on how quickly time is moving. Her memories remind me of our own annual summer vacation, and of the way that an annual visit to the same place provides a unique lens on both time’s passage and the way that the past is animate in the present. There’s heartache to this experience for me, and Newman captures this brilliantly:

I used to picture time as a rope you followed along, hand over hand, into the distance, but it’s nothing like that. It moves outward but holds everything that’s come before. Cut me open and I’m a tree trunk, rings of nostalgia radiating inward. All the years are nested inside me like I’m my own person one-woman matryoshka doll. I guess that’s true for everybody but then I drive myself crazy with my nostalgia and happiness. I am bittersweet personified.

Yes. Me too. Oh, me too.

In some of Catastrophic Happiness’ later sections my identification with Newman’s writing was even more powerful. When she writes how “privacy and independence come on suddenly, like a sleeper wave of separation, and children experience this with simultaneous relief and dread,” I felt like someone was reading my mind. Yes. With children at 11 and 13, I’m riding that wave right now, alternately grateful to be able to see the horizon for the first time in many years and utterly swamped by seawater.

Newman has a true gift for making the reader feel intimately connected to her family. She draws indelible images that are deeply personal to her family and hugely universal at the same time: Birdy, with unraveling braids, in a doctor’s waiting room; Ben cheerfully helping his mother with a flooded basement, the face of a beloved, well-worn beanbag toy that Birdy sleeps with every night.

In Catastrophic Happiness Newman has trapped lightning in a jar, allowing us all to admire its dazzle. In her book’s short, lovely pages she captures life as a mother, life as a human being, life in general, in all of its gorgeous, complicated grandeur. It’s hard for me to choose a favorite passage, but I’ll try.

Life isn’t about avoiding trouble, is it? It’s about being present, even through the hard stuff, so you don’t miss the very thing you’re trying so hard not to lose.

In Catastrophic Happiness, Catherine Newman both powerfully reminds me of what it is I’m trying so hard not to lose, and helps me stay present to it. In my opinion, there is no surer mark of a great book, or no higher compliment.

Lindsey Mead is a mother, writer, and financial services professional who lives near Boston with her daughter, son, and husband. Her work has appeared in a variety of print and online sources, several anthologies, and she blogs regularly at A Design So Vast.


Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of our Hidden Genes

Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of our Hidden Genes

Reviewed by Hilary Levey Friedman

unnamed-5You know the phenomenon where as soon as you learn a new word, or hear about a new activity or condition, it seems like it is suddenly everywhere? This is what happens to Emily Urquhart when her daughter, Sadie, is born on December 26th in Newfoundland.

Sadie is diagnosed with albinism[i] and Emily begins to notice albinism all around her—in the news, in family photos, and in pop culture. For example, have you ever noticed that the villains in The Da Vinci Code, The Matrix Reloaded, and The Princess Bride have albinism? After making this connection Urquhart observes, “Despite our perceived modernity, much of our faith and knowledge is wrapped up in make-believe.”

Urquhart is uniquely suited to make this observation because not only is she Sadie’s mom, she is also a folklorist. Beyond the Pale is the beautiful product of her merging together two strands of her life. She explains: “I study folklore, the intimate truths we reveal through the stories we tell. Legends, fairy tales, and beliefs are the screens onto which we project our fears, hopes, secrets, and desires. After my daughter was born, I felt that knowing the cultural tales about people with her condition, whether they were frightening or beautiful, would help me understand the shape of her life.”

As you can tell from these lines Urquhart is also a master storyteller, choosing evocative words to describe situations that are both knowable and unknowable to all parents. After officially receiving Sadie’s diagnosis (which is neither terminal nor degenerative, but means a lifetime of limited vision and being careful in the sunshine), which she sees as succumbing to her DNA, Urquhart dives into medical journals and parenting memoirs. It is some time before she can return to fiction but when she does so she hones in on the importance of stories: “Science can tell you how genetic anomalies and birth defects happen, but not why they happened… Here is the value of folklore: it gives shape to the unknowable.”

Over the course of Beyond the Pale Urquhart takes the reader on a few journeys—actual physical ones. In one the family of three goes to St. Louis for a conference on albinism that gives Urquhart confidence in Sadie’s future (like her ability to drive someday and make friends without fear of being bullied). In another she goes to Tanzania to help children with albinism who are being brutally attacked for their limbs, which some believe to have “magical powers.” (I found this to be the weakest entry in Beyond the Pale. While these are atrocities that need to be shared, the travelogue here was not as well integrated with Urquhart’s family story which ultimately is at the heart of the book.) Finally Urquhart goes with her father to Niagara Falls to meet and reconnect with old family members, who it turns out are the children of a number of aunts with albinism.

In Sadie’s young life she intersects with many people due to her relatively rare genetic mutation, some who are family and others who are part of the medical profession. In an observation that will resonate with all parents Urquhart says that one of Sadie’s doctors will, “always be a central character in the story of Sadie’s life.” Most parents will always recall the doctor who delivered their child, or their pediatrician; but that doctor more than likely will not remember.

In the end, in trying to suss out her story, Urquhart discovers that her network and story are less complicated than she once thought. In her own words: “It took a long time to distill out story into those five words: It runs in the family.” In weaving together genetics, folklore, travel, and parenting memoir Urquhart has used her strong voice to create a story that will stay with the reader in many ways for a long time. And she provides a new model for albinism beyond the pale villains in fictional thrillers: her spirited, fair daughter, Sadie.

[i] Urquhart explains that use of the term “albino” is no longer considered polite, so I use the term “albinism” here.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the Book Review Editor Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She teaches in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.

Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship: A Book Review

Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship: A Book Review

Reviewed by Hilary Levey Friedman

Modern Families coverWhere do I come from? Who am I? These are some of the most fundamental questions humans ask themselves. In many cases, the answers have to do with family. But, what, then exactly is a family?

Joshua Gamson tackles these complicated issues in Modern Families, a book about contemporary tales of family creation including adoption, in vitro, surrogacy, and more. Gamson is a sociologist who has previously written books on fame, tabloid talk shows, and sexuality, but this book is far more personal. This is also the story of the creation of his family.

Unlike Mitchell and Cameron on “Modern Family,” the ABC sitcom that inspired the name of the book, Gamson and his husband don’t go through international adoption (though other couples in Modern Families use both domestic and international adoption to create their own modern families). His first daughter, Reba, was conceived using the egg of a friend and the uterus of another friend, what is known as “collaborative reproduction.” His second daughter, Madeleine, was carried by a paid surrogate who liked to refer to herself as a “fetus sitter.” It’s no wonder then that when describing Modern Families Gamson explains, “More broadly, you might read it as an intimate view of the much-remarked-on transformation of family structures, as seen through the experiences of people who have been, out of necessity as much as anything else, making their families up.”

Gamson successfully weaves together the personal and the academic throughout the book. He takes personal stories and situates them in more complicated institutions and social structures. In the Introduction (titled “Impertinent Questions” about the probing questions strangers sometimes ask about how their daughters were “got”) he usefully describes the book as the “love child” of two different types of writing on reproduction.

The first type of writing is what he calls Repro Lit. These personal stories, usually memoirs, double as how-to books and are ultimately celebratory about the process—think Peggy Orenstein’s Waiting for Daisy. Repro Crit on the other hand is more of a buzzkill focusing mainly on institutional structures and the circulation of power within them and how this literally reproduces inequality. Though less well known, a book by the name of Outsourcing the Womb, suggests the tone of this category.

Like Repro Crit Gamson points out forces of inequality throughout (mainly to do with financial issues, but also sometimes social class and cultural knowledge that impacts legal processes), but the narratives are often emotional and triumphant, with some how-to advice thrown in. Gamson details the legal workarounds they used with their surrogates in Kentucky and Massachusetts, and one of the best lines in the book is when he writes that Kentucky had out-liberaled California (where Gamson and his husband live) when they listed “parent” and “parent” on their daughter Madeline’s birth certificate, and not “mother” and “father” like California.

In the end it is the stories we are left with, mainly because there is a little serious research on families like Gamson’s, partly because they are so new. The various stories of family creation told in Modern Families—the struggles and the successes—are quite moving. On multiple occasions while reading I was moved to tears, usually tears of joy. One caution is that while this is a book you can dip into and out of, it can be hard at times to keep all the families and the people who make them up straight (no pun intended) given the multiple families featured.

A lasting theme of Modern Families is: “How extraordinary you are, and yet how ordinary.” While the families profiled here were brought together thanks to various types of technology, often in extraordinary ways, in the end the children and their parents are ordinary. Gamson insightfully writes, “It’s one of the things these family origin stories share with more typical ones: every family story has silences and secrets. More to the point, the farther away you get from the conventional, the less you can fit your story into a familiar script of family creation and the more you’re likely to face disapproval. For those of us who grew up in a culture of disclosure—in which, for instance, coming out is an act of empowerment and Facebook is a verb—becoming parents has posed the jarring challenge of figuring out what not to tell.”

As the extraordinary, yet ordinary, children whose creation stories are relayed here age, they will have the lasting evidence of just how much they were wanted, just how much their parents were willing to tell on social media and beyond to create their own modern families.

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She loves all modern families, including her own.

A Q & A with Modern Families author Joshua Gamson

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Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting: A Book Review

Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

61nvr3kwpnL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_It has been said that the Bard’s words can be applied to any human situation. James Andrews, a British humorist, puts that to the test in Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting, just released in the United States. In a month full of planning and parties, this short book (155 pages) is a great way to wind down, reflect, and chuckle as you head into a new year.

William Shakespeare had three children—first a girl and then twins, a boy and a girl. While he must have been familiar with the demands of children (including but not limited to dirty diapers, sleepless nights, teenage insolence, etc.) none of his works are devoted to the topic. Enter Andrews who organizes quotations from Shakespeare’s oeuvre into timeless and timely comments on parenting.

The book is divided into five acts that are roughly chronological. Act I focuses on newborns, so the issues here are evergreen. There is crying, breastfeeding, and calming. Of the latter Andrews pulls out a quote from The Tempest to apply to a father who tosses his child, with these words in a thought bubble above the baby’s head: “Prithee, do not turn me about. My stomach is not constant.”

And then, of course, there is the biggie, loss of sleep:



Notice that the drawings that accompany the quotes are very basic, which adds to the charm of Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting. The words are the stars, but the images do add to the sardonic tone that is pervasive throughout the volume.

That tone is evident as Act II begins, with a focus on the toddler years. Sleep remains an issue, as these two pages on “Up In the Night” illustrate with not one, not two, not three, but four lines from different Shakespearean works (both tragedies and comedies):














Act II also begins to take on some of the more modern challenges of parenting, like tantrums in supermarkets. Andrews and Shakespeare advocate for a denial approach, captured in this line from Much Ado About Nothing: “No part of it is mine; this shame derives itself from unknown loins.”

Acts III and IV continue to wind through way through childhood, both perennial and contemporary (car trips, sweets, hobbies, siblings, school refusing, and the list goes on), while the penultimate act, Act V, culminates with teenagers, who present new challenges.


For parents of female teens, there is this about clothing:



And for parents of male teens regarding food consumption:


Modern audiences need to keep a sense of humor when reading about punishments, and remember that Andrews is not advocating physical abuse or food deprivation, but rather cleverly using Shakespeare’s words (and even when taken out of context of a play, remember that disciplinary standards were quite different in the 1500s and 1600s!). For instance, a quote from Titus Andronicus regarding “smacking:” “You shall know, my boys, your mother’s hand shall right your mother’s wrong.” And another from Titus about children who act improperly at the dinner table declares, “There let him stand and rave and cry for food.”

Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting draws exclusively from the plays, and does not include any lines from sonnets. You can imagine that the tone of the book would change quite substantially if it included lines like, “Thou art more lovely and more temperate…” as opposed to, “My womb, my womb, my womb undoes me.”

The purpose of James Andrews’ illustrations and commentary in the end is to make you smile, and perhaps provide some reassurance for those days when you say to yourself in your head the line from The Tempest: “Good wombs have borne bad sons.”

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She has two good sons borne from her good womb.

Buy Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting

Book Review: Are Our Kids Maturing Faster?

Book Review: Are Our Kids Maturing Faster?

The New PubertyBy Hilary Levey Friedman

Louise Greenspan and Julianna Deardorff’s The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls 

Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley’s It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health 

Joyce T. McFadden’s Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women 

Jonathan Zimmerman’s Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education

Few things in life fill people—adults and children alike—with as much trepidation as puberty. And while the contours of puberty are unchanged, the age at which it occurs and the implications of that have in fact shifted. So how can we prepare our children, and ourselves, to handle these bodily and life changes with grace?

Four books help show us the way, all with a different focus but in the service of helping adolescents develop a healthy relationship with their own bodies and with others. Jonathan Zimmerman’s academic study of the history of sex education gives us a sweeping big picture view of how we got here, Louise Greenspan and Julianna Deardorff’s The New Puberty not only breaks down what happens biologically but what may or may not have influenced young girls’ biology in more recent times, Joyce McFadden’s Your Daughter’s Bedroom describes the potential long-term implications of not properly addressing puberty with your daughter, and Robie Harris and Michael Emberly’s It’s Perfectly Normal provide a guide you can have your children read so you can have an open discussion together.

It’s Perfectly Normal first appeared in 1994. Since then it has appeared in 35 different languages and in 2014 its 20th anniversary edition appeared with updates on gender identity, sexting, and social media use. Both Your Daughter’s Bedroom and The New Puberty identify It’s Perfectly Normal as one of the best books to use when teaching your children about puberty (boys and girls alike). When you look at the 100-page book it is easy to see why; it tackles sometimes uncomfortable topics with directness and humor thanks to the beautiful watercolor illustrations, especially the Bird and the Bee who appear on every page. While the authors say the book is appropriate for ages 10 and up, it could also be used for children as young as 8, especially because the best time to talk about changes is before they start occurring.

According to Greenspan and Deardorff, pubertal changes are in fact happening earlier than ever before. But not across the board—and it is one of the major strengths of this book that the authors give lots of detail and measured caveats without resorting to attention-grabbing headlines. The New Puberty explains that puberty is a process much more like a long hallway than a single doorway. What hasn’t changed is that puberty in girls typically starts with breast development, then armpit and pubic hair, often acne, followed by a growth spurt, and at last menstruation. The authors explain that, “Girls today tend to experience breast budding at a much earlier age than girls in the 1970s, but they don’t necessarily get their first period that much sooner than their 1970 counterparts.”

Why does this matter? Greenspan and Deardorff explain, “For girls, puberty is unique. It not only foments a complex array of emotional issues but also heralds the development of visual cues of sexuality (e.g. breasts, wider hips) to a degree that boys just don’t experience.” For these reasons the book focuses on females, though advice offered in The New Puberty about how to build emotional closeness and develop healthy habits can be applied equally as well to boys.

Because of changes in the timing of puberty—to which Greenspan and Deardorff carefully show cannot be attributed to any one change but rather a combination of hormone mimickers in the environment, stress, fat, race and ethnicity, and still other factors (one of the best chapters in the book is Chapter 3, “Nature versus Nurture: An In-Depth Look at Puberty Prompters”)—they argue sex education should start earlier than ever. They offer reassurance in The New Puberty that, “Although you may feel like it’s all happening too fast, maturation is actually a slow process, so there’s time to develop this conversation in a way that feels natural to both of you.” But when breast buds begin developing at age 8 for many girls today, should sex ed really wait until middle or even high school?

Jonathan Zimmerman in his new book, Too Hot to Handle, shows how sex ed has been handled differently across the world and in different time periods. When sex education began the United States was one of the leaders, mainly because of its early investment in public education and secondary schools. Though today it lags behind many countries, especially ones like Sweden, which became the first nation in the world to make sex education required in all public schools in 1956.

Venereal disease has been a driving force behind increased sex ed (note it often goes by different names to make it more palatable, such as population education, social hygiene, human relations, or marriage and family education), like during World War II in the 1940s and in the 1990s following the HIV epidemic. But what has always stifled good sexual education remains true across borders and time: parental resistance, religious objections, and poor teacher preparation. Four topics in particular are seen as taboo: abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and masturbation.

Masturbation is one of the more surprising focuses of Joyce McFadden’s Your Daughter’s Bedroom. McFadden, a psychoanalyst, decided to conduct an online survey in 2005 called the Women’s Realities Study. One of the most interesting results of that survey is that the topics women most want to talk about, but don’t always, include masturbation, menstruation, and women’s relationships with their mothers. In fact, McFadden argues, the beginning of menstruation is often the start of distance between mothers and daughters. She wants to enable mothers to feel more comfortable with their own sexuality so that they can pass on that confidence to their daughters. In her own words, “Your Daughter’s Bedroom, is the first book to address the psychological and emotional elements of the sexuality of both mothers and daughters. It offers mothers outward and inward prescriptions for change, because it’s intended to encourage mothers to be introspective and reflect on our own sexuality while learning how to give our daughters the ability to live more comfortably with theirs.”

In talking about It’s Perfectly Normal, McFadden points out that lots of mother’s today give their daughters books about menstruation. However, they just give the books and don’t often have conversations about the contents and answer questions that inevitably arise. So not only does sexual education need to improve in schools, so too does it at home. In order to raise girls, and boys, who are comfortable with their bodies they must receive proper education, support, and guidance from all of the adults in their lives. By being open, honest, and loving about puberty we can raise children who know more about themselves and how to be healthy as they grow and develop over the life course, influencing future generations along the way.

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.


Buy The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls

Strengths Based Parenting—Developing Your Child’s Innate Talents: A Book Review

Strengths Based Parenting—Developing Your Child’s Innate Talents: A Book Review

By Julie Burton

strengths-based-parenting-9781595621009_hrIn today’s world, so many parents feel the mounting pressure to not only “do it all,” but to be good everything they do. To top it off, doing it all often includes raising kids who also can do it all, and, of course, do it all well.

Thank goodness Mary Reckmeyer’s new book Strengths Based Parenting—Developing Your Child’s Innate Talents offers an alternate approach for parents to raise happy, confident children who become joyful, fulfilled adults. Reckmeyer, Executive Director of Gallup’s Donald O. Clifton Child Development Center, gives parents permission to let go of the “all” and urges them to focus on discovering and nurturing their child’s innate talents, instead of trying to fix their weaknesses. Strengths Based Parenting suggests that parents need to embark on this journey along with their children in order to gain a better understanding of how to utilize their own strengths in their parenting, and to model this behavior.

Reckmeyer draws the reader in by presenting heartwarming stories about parents who utilized strengths based parenting principles. Take Steve, a boy who did not perform well in school, was bullied by his peers, and had trouble finishing projects that didn’t interest him. As it turns out, Steve had dyslexia that went undiagnosed for years. But Steve’s mother, instead of parenting him by the “deficit model” noticed that he loved photography and making movies. I won’t ruin the surprise and tell the last name of this boy and how he continued to use his strengths to become a very famous man,  (it’s in the book), but let’s just say, he has made some of the biggest blockbuster movies of our time.

As a mother of four, ages 21 to 11, I processed Reckmeyer’s anecdotal stories, interviews, research, and advice through the lens of my personal experiences. My son, a college freshman, despised writing all through middle school and his first year of high school. It didn’t come naturally to him, he did not feel successful as a writer, received low marks on his papers, and basically stopped trying to improve. While my husband and I nurtured his strengths (he currently plays college baseball and studies economics and Spanish), I did feel the need to address his issues with writing. With a tremendous amount of effort on my part, met with equal amounts of pushback from him, we worked on strengthening his writing, and he was very happy to become a strong and confident writer by the time he left for college.

While I agree with Reckmeyer’s strengths based approach as one method for parents to utilize in their attempt to help their child thrive, I think there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, how a person expresses them, and how they are interpreted. Chapter Two, “Can Weaknesses be Fixed?” gave me pause as I thought about my experiences with my own children. Over time, my husband and I realized that my son’s issue with writing was not that he was necessarily a weak writer, but his under-par writing stemmed from behavioral issues relating to frustration and defiance, which were blocking him from success.

Laurie Hollman, psychoanalyst and author of Unlocking Parental Intelligence—Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, would most likely say that my husband and I used “parental intelligence” to help our son through these challenges. I only wish I would have read Hollman’s book earlier in my parenting journey, but it is not too late! Thanks to Hollman’s book, my two children who still live at home, and my two children who I parent from afar, will benefit from my clearer understanding of what parental intelligence means, how essential it is for a healthy parent-child relationship, and how to put it into practice.

To help parents like me clearly identify their own and their children’s strengths, Strengths Based Parenting contains two unique access codes (valid for one use only) that can be used to take the Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 (for ages 15 and older) and the Clifton Youth StrengthExplorer (ages 10-14) assessments for free (you can also take these on-line assessments without the access codes for a fee). These assessments, originally developed by Reckmeyer’s father, Donald O. Clifton (now deceased), who was known as the Father of Strengths-Based Psychology, are used to identify your and your child’s top “themes of talent” (top five for adults and top three for kids), which you receive in a report of the findings. Reading this book without having taken the assessments (although I do plan to do so and would love my kids to do so as well) was still worthwhile and provided me with some new, exciting, and useful information to add to my parenting toolbox. I was, however, a bit deflated when I realized that pages 89-329 (the end of the book) is the “Clifton StrengthsFinder” section, which contains the definitions, action items, and questions to consider for all 44 themes of talent that are included in the assessment. I found myself skimming through them, trying to figure out which ones sounded like me, my husband, my kids, and grabbing nuggets of helpful information when something resonated with me. Truthfully, I was craving more of Reckmeyer’s stories.

But my biggest take away from both Reckmeyer’s and Hollman’s book is inspiration. Spending the past several years studying motherhood and self-care for a forthcoming book, I believe that both of these approaches are empowering for mothers. While the authors do put the onus on the parents to be thoughtful, engaged, and aware, they provide manageable roadmaps for how to help you and your child be your best self.  

Julie Burton is a freelance writer, blogger, co-founder of the Twin Cities Writing Studio, a yoga instructor, and a wife and mother. Her first book, “The Self-Care Solution—A Modern Mother’s Essential Guide to Health and Well-Being,” will be published in May 2016.

The Happy Kid Handbook: A Book Review

The Happy Kid Handbook: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

The Happy Kid Handbook coverAbout a decade before I became a mom I interviewed parents of young children as part of a large research project. We would talk for over an hour, sometimes two, and toward the end of our conversation I always asked, “What are your long-term expectations for your child?” The vast majority of the time most parents gave the same answer—one that I came to dismiss as “pat,” but now that I am a mother I appreciate much more. The answer? “I just want my children to be happy…”

If anyone understands this nearly universal parental instinct it is Katie Hurley, a licensed clinical social worker and the author of the just released The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World. Hurley acknowledges parenting experts are sometimes part of the cause of our stressful world, a group of course to which she belongs, but her goal is to offer as much practical advice as possible.

Hurley draws on her own experience doing play therapy with a variety of children in California; she presents very little other research in the just-under 300 page publication. But her direct tone will appeal to those who like to read a book that sounds like a conversation with a friend. Most of all, her very do-able practical tips will provide parents a wealth of choices for picking the right activities or exercises for kids and families.

The Happy Kid Handbook is divided into two parts; Part I, “Raising Happy,” focuses on building seven specific pro-social skills and Part II, “Lessons in Coping,” looks at how to equip children to deal with the ups and downs of life. The seven skills emphasized in Part I include powerful play, understanding emptions, learning to forgive, building empathy, developing assertiveness, embracing differences, and cultivating passion. The first chapter in this section focuses on introversion/extroversion and I felt a bit concerned that this was the main focus of the book, since so many hone in on this distinction/continuum these days, but that is just a small component of The Happy Kid Handbook (Though it did yield a good quote that I have already been reminding myself of during the busy fall transition time, “Fair isn’t about everyone having exactly the same thing. Fair is about everyone having their needs met… Fair, as it turns out, is increasing your child’s happiness by figuring out who your child really is.”).

In all parts of the book Hurley is pragmatic, offering incremental tips, so you don’t feel overwhelmed, and concrete activity suggestions. For example, at the end of Chapter 1 she reminds us, “While the ultimate goal tends to be to raise independent, HAPPY kids, this is a goal best accomplished in stages.” In Chapter 7 I loved the apple picking exercise, to help children see and appreciate differences. I also loved Hurley’s suggested exercise in Chapter 10 about anxious kids and her straightforward explanation as to why a worry box works, “Kids love concrete strategies. When they can see it, feel it, and keep it nearby, it gives them a sense of control over the situation. A worry box is a great way to help kids put their worries away for the night.” Her practical attitude is reinforced in the suggestion to play lots of Chutes and Ladders as that will help kids build frustration tolerance—and this non-crafty mom was relieved that not every suggestion involves creating something physical from scratch.

The other major strength of The Happy Kid Handbook is in the way it frames stress. Hurley explains, “Many kids get to high school before they even understand the meaning of stress. They might experience it along the way, but because it isn’t talked about frequently in elementary and middle school, they don’t make the connections between what they’re feeling and what’s actually happening in their lives.” She urges parents to talk about all emotions, including stress, and to model self-care for children as a strategy for mitigating our stressful world.

Usually with parenting books like this, where the author is a practitioner-turned-expert with a particular point of view, the audience who reads it is often a receptive one. In other words, parents who might benefit from the advice or tips in a book are the least likely to pick it up and those who read it are already sympathetic to its message. In this case though I think The Happy Kid Handbook might reach those anxious parents and not just preach to the choir both because of the title, the cover art, and the overall tone. Because, after all, we all just want our kids to be happy, right?

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the Book Review Editor Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She teaches in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.

Buy The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World

Top 10 Breastfeeding Books

Top 10 Breastfeeding Books


By Jessica Smock

It’s been a while since I read a book about breastfeeding purely for informational purposes. My ten-month breastfeeding journey with my second child, a daughter, has been relatively uneventful to date. In contrast, my brief breastfeeding experience with my son was difficult from its unhappy start to its painful finish. He had latching issues, colic, reflux, and severe milk protein allergies. We were both miserable — in pain, exhausted, and frustrated — for several weeks, despite help from a lactation consultant and two doulas. When his pediatric GI doctor suggested that it was perfectly okay to consider a special, prescription hypoallergenic formula, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Breastfeeding, many of us think before our babies are born, should be the most natural thing in the world. However, what is “natural” is not always easy, or even best, for every family. I know that not every woman makes the choice — or has the choice to make — to breastfeed, and I included a few books that will appeal to all mothers and parents of any age, no matter how they feed the babies in their lives.

Instead of breastfeeding guides describing how to breastfeed I’ve recently found myself more drawn to books about the emotional and political aspects of breastfeeding in our culture. As a consequence this list has a little of both: how-to guides as well as literary, scholarly, and humorous examinations of the challenges and triumphs of breastfeeding. I make no attempt to include all of the informational books and guides about breastfeeding, of which I’m sure there are many excellent ones, just a few that were most useful to me.

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by La Leche League (revised and updated eighth edition) and The Nursing Mother’s Companion by Kathleen Huggins

No list of books about breastfeeding would be complete without these two classics. Both books have been revised and updated to reflect the needs of today’s nursing mothers and families. They’re both full of practical, reassuring advice about preparing to breastfeed, getting through the first difficult weeks, overcoming common challenges, and returning to work. I would recommend either book to pregnant moms who would like to breastfeed their babies, and I would particularly recommend that they read the “newborn survival” chapters before the baby is born.

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding was first published in 1958 as a loose-leaf pamphlet and has come a long way since then. The new edition is well-designed and fun to read. It was the book that my doula gave to me when I asked her for the best book she knew about how to breastfeed.

The Nursing Mother’s Companion is now in its seventh edition. In this book, I particularly liked its quick reference “survival guides,” set off from the rest of the pages, that focus on the most immediate breastfeeding concerns.

Bestfeeding: How to Breastfeed Your Baby by Mary Renfrew, Chloe Fisher, and Suzanne Arms

If you’re like me (and most new breastfeeding mothers), it’s not enough to read explanations about the perfect latch and the various breastfeeding positions. What sets this book apart from most other guides is the inclusion of dozens of pictures and diagrams that help make learning to breastfeed easier. The illustrations and pictures show new mothers not only what they should do but also what not to do, in terms of incorrect positioning. It’s written by three midwives with decades of experience between them, and they successfully combine their interpretations of academic research with their own clinical experiences.

Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family from La Leche International

For many breastfeeding mothers (but certainly not all), sleep can be a challenge. In contrast to my formula-fed son, my daughter has struggled with sleeping longer stretches. Even now at 10 months, she wakes at least once or twice at night for a feeding. Unlike my son, she preferred to co-sleep and nurse frequently throughout the night during her early months. Some may not relate to this book’s emphasis on co-sleeping and bedsharing — or agree with many of its claims about sleep safety and the supposed dangers of sleep training (I do not) — but many breastfeeding families may find that it provides much-needed practical tips and reassurance about patterns in baby sleep. I particularly like the way that it is organized around a breastfeeding baby’s developmental stages and needs.

Unbuttoned: Women Open Up About the Pleasures, Pains, and Politics of Breastfeeding. Edited by Dana Sullivan and Maureen Connolly

This intense and relatable anthology includes 25 writers’ reflections of their breastfeeding experiences. I was especially interested to read essays from a few of my favorite authors, such as novelist Julia Glass and frequent Brain, Child contributor Catherine Newman. If the previous how-to guides are primarily about the mechanics and logistics of breastfeeding, this collection is focused on the emotional ups and downs. Several of the writers discuss the internal and external pressures to breastfeed, as well as the shame they felt when breastfeeding was difficult or unsuccessful. Many of the essays are quite funny in parts, describing incidents of spraying milk on unsuspecting bystanders or attempts at dating and romance while lactating.

The Breastfeeding Cafe: Mothers Share the Joys, Challenges, and Secrets of Nursing by Barbara L. Behrmann

This book also focuses on the lived experience of breastfeeding for mothers, this time from the perspective of ordinary women rather than professional writers. The author, a sociologist by training, weaves her own story with insights from women’s first-hand accounts through interviews, and journals, and online interactions. The book does not back away from controversial topics, such as sexuality and “swap” nursing, and includes a diversity of voices, including women from a wide spectrum of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.

How My Breasts Saved the World: Misadventures of a Nursing Mother by Lisa Wood Shapiro

I was chuckling along with this book before I even opened its cover. This breezy, witty memoir from a writer and filmmaker tells the story of her daughter’s first year — from birth to weaning — along with advice, information, and encouragement. You can get a sense of the tone of the book from a few of the chapter titles such as “Don’t Bite Your Newborn,” “The Panic and the Pain,” and “Red Angry Nipples.” The main message of the book is that breastfeeding is difficult but rewarding and often gets easier with time (and a sense of humor). And, of course, that no new mother should ever have to go through it alone.

The Places You’ll Feed by Lauren Hirschfield Belden

An even more hilarious take on the triumphs and tribulations of breastfeeding comes from the recently published parody of the Dr. Seuss classic. The author felt blind-sided by how challenging her breastfeeding experience was and wrote this book to celebrate both the joy and stress of breastfeeding. The illustrations and rhyming style are funny and quite truthful, featuring lines like “Your pumping machine/likely came with a case,/which you’ll find yourself dragging/ all over the place.” Belden’s goal was to make women — who often do not feel like breastfeeding is always the pleasurable, idyllic experience that they are meant to feel like it should be — feel less alone. Because of her sympathetic message, this would be a perfect gift for any new mom, even one who did not continue breastfeeding. While it would make a good shower gift it is humor best appreciated after experience.

Is Breast Best? Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood by Joan B. Wolf and Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t by Suzanne Barston

These books examine the research evidence and concludes that much of our public understanding about the health benefits of breastfeeding are overstated and not substantiated by the medical literature.

Wolf’s book attempts to challenge the notion that “breast is best,” the widespread belief that breastfeeding is scientifically superior for infants than bottle feeding. Rather, she argues, our modern preoccupation with breastfeeding is an expression of our cultural acceptance of the value of “total motherhood,” in which mothers must selflessly devote their entire emotional and physical beings to their children in an effort to reduce all possible risks. I found Wolf’s discussion of our cultural aversion to certain forms of risk (and ignoring others) and the media’s and general public’s difficulty with interpreting statistical evidence to be the most compelling components of the book as she effectively dissects the reasons why so few research studies are able to assess the effects of breastfeeding in a statistically reliable way.

Between the two, I found Barston’s mix of memoir and reporting, including interviews with medical professionals, academics, and feminists, to be more empathetic and accessible to most mothers, who may want reassurance about their personal feeding choices.

After Birth by Elisa Albert

It might seem strange to include a novel in a list of books about breastfeeding, but this raw, darkly humorous, and provocative portrait of modern motherhood allowed me to explore my own thoughts about birthing, caring for a newborn, and reinterpreting one’s identity after a baby is born. And, yes, in this novel, breastfeeding — as it is for many mothers in real life — takes center stage. The main character Ari has a nearly one year old baby but is depressed, full of buried rage and subversive opinions on lots of things, and friendless. The friendship at the heart of the book blooms when Ari begins breastfeeding her new friend’s baby when the friend initially struggles. The book isn’t for everyone, but I found it brave, honest, absorbing, and funny.

Jessica Smock is aneducator and researcher who earned her doctorate in educational policy in 2013. She is the co-editor of The HerStories Project, whose newest anthology Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience will be published in November. 

BreastFeeding COVER7-31-15 copyPurchase Brain, Child’s newest archive collection eBook. On sale this week for $2.99.

Brain, Child Writers on the Joys and Challenges of Breastfeeding.


7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess: A Book Review

7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess: A Book Review

By Christina Krost

7 cover artI am sitting on the floor trying to reconcile fifth- and first-grade school supply lists with things we already have on hand when my daughters wandered in to inspect my neat piles.

“Isn’t that my stuff from last year?” Yes, I kept those blunt-tip scissors.

“Why can’t we just get all new stuff like everyone else?” Because that three-ring binder and pencil box can be embellished with patterned duct tape.

And so begins a typical battle in the war I’m waging against excess. It’s true that we can afford all new school supplies, but does that mean we must buy everything new, every year? Of course we all want the best for our kids, but does it always have to cost us?

This is the basic premise of Jen Hatmaker’s book 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. Hatmaker, her family, and “The Council,” a group of close friends and advisors, embarked on a seven-month experiment against waste in their households. Hatmaker chose seven areas in which to reduce: food, clothes, possessions, media, waste, spending, and stress. She focused on each area with her family of seven for an entire month.

Hatmaker, a pastor’s wife, writer, and speaker, journals her struggles and successes giving up what we would consider common American comforts while working through her desire to follow religious teachings about possessions. For example, during the food month she and her family chose seven foods to eat: chicken, eggs, whole-wheat bread, sweet potatoes, spinach, avocados, and apples. During the clothing month she chose and wore only seven articles of clothing. She gave away much of what remained in her closet. The possessions month went the same way–she gave away seven items each day.

The media month shut down seven screens including TV, gaming, Facebook, Twitter, and radio. Cell phone use was limited to emergencies and the Internet was only used when necessary for jobs or schoolwork. The family learned to recycle, compost, and garden during waste month. They drove only one car and bought only local or thrifted goods. Spending month had them funnel their money to only seven vendors—a gas station, farmer’s market, online bill pay and Target.  During stress month they kept one night a week as a “sabbath” to recharge as a family.

Though Jen Hatmaker is an author and was likely paid in advance to turn her experiment into a book, her purpose was to see what would happen to her heart, her family, and her close friends by living with less. No one died from lack of anything. In fact, the family started truly living.

How? Hatmaker’s family began living with purpose. Instead of falling victim to the affliction of immediate gratification, they started watching their dollars carefully and intentionally. They saved more and gave more away. They found that their basic needs could be met with far less than originally thought. They waited before making purchases to see if after a month they still needed it or simply forgot about it. They stopped being slaves to stuff. As they stopped consuming they started reducing their impact on the Earth, but increased the impact they were making in their community.

7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess is written by someone raised in a Christian tradition. I would have liked to read more about how other faith traditions handle consumption or prosperity theology. I am certain we have much to learn from each other and that much common ground exist between us.

It’s been a few years since the Hatmaker experiment with excess, and I’m curious if all the lessons stuck. In my work with an Earth care non-profit, I see this happen frequently: people are inspired to make real change after presented with information about smart energy and climate change or sustainable food and land use, but a few months later they’ve slid back into old routines. But in the end, Maya Angelou’s famous words ring true: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

I sent my kids off to school this year with old backpacks and lunchboxes, reused pencil cases, binders, scissors and folders. We bought new crayons and markers because, well, I’m not a monster. We purchased tree-free bamboo tissues and paper towels for the classrooms. I spent slightly less than usual, but I feel slightly more in control of our consumption. And that’s an excess I can live with.

Christina Krost is teacher, mother, and United Methodist pastor’s wife who works for an Earth care non-profit. She lives with her husband and three young daughters in rural central Illinois and blogs at

Child, Please: A Book Review

Child, Please: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

Child, Please cover art (1)“Honey, please.”

“Carston, PLEASE.”

“Carston Friedman, PUH-LEASE.”

With a three-year-old in my house I find myself using these three escalating statements fairly often. According to Ylonda Gault Caviness I ought to add “Child, please,” to the repertoire… Though more often than not I should actually be saying those words to myself and not to the children.

Caviness recently released Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself. The book could, sadly, not have been more timely. Just before its release Caviness wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times that went viral—”What Black Moms Know“—after the Baltimore riots. The piece describes her reaction to worries about college admissions (when your child is in preschool), the “Mommy Wars,” and Toya Graham, the Baltimore mom who gained nationwide attention after grabbing her rioting son and smacking “him upside his head.” If you liked the Times article you will also enjoy Child, Please, though it does differ from the book.

You might expect Child, Please to offer advice on raising kids today, and while the book does so it comes in a different guise than other parenting books you might know. Caviness has really written a motherhood memoir; stories about raising her own three children and her relationship with her mother form the story’s scaffolding. The major narrative arc traces Caviness’ early experiences as a pregnant woman and takes us through her pregnancies (including miscarriage) and how they affected her relationship with her own mother. The forays into her mother’s past bring up issues of region in America, class, and of course race. Caviness deftly weaves this cross-generational mothering story together with her strong and entertaining voice. It’s her mom’s hard-won pearls of wisdom that form the advice part of Child, Please.

Take for example Chapter 3, “Don’t Start Smelling Yourself,” likely the most evocative chapter in the book. Caviness pulls no punches writing, “White parents are punks.” She goes on:

Before you go and get yourself all offended, I hope you realize I’m sharing this information only out of love. The way I figure, if we want to know the crazy thoughts whites have about black people, all we have to do is watch Fox News. But you poor white people have no way to get the 411. If you tried watching BET, you’ve probably already been led astray, because, honestly, not that many black folks have as much sex as the average hip-hop star….It’s a scientific and well-researched fact that blacks and whites operate under a different set of expectations—a different set of goals—when it comes to parenting. Many black parents believe that obedience and respect for elders are the main measures of a kid raised right—which explains why you’re more likely to see a black child get yoked in public if he acts out. I don’t think most white parents place as high a premium on compliance (duh?). Instead, they rank things like confidence and autonomy high on the scale of ‘good kids.’

Definitely entertaining and assertive with lots of truth. But here, and in other places in Child, Please, I found myself hungering for more about the “scientific and well-researched fact.” Describing those findings and using them to bolster the wisdom and experience of Caviness’ family would have taken the book to another level. Similarly, given that Caviness was a parenting editor for several years I found myself wondering if she thought articles directed at black moms significantly differed from articles targeted at Jewish or Korean moms. Caviness has access to various databases that could have showed just how crazy some white moms might be for peeling a pea (full disclosure, I had never heard of this before reading it in Child, Please!) and it would have made for a different contribution alongside the memoir and folk wisdom.

Nonetheless, the larger cultural message of Caviness work is so important and rings out loud and clear. For instance, also from Chapter 3:

Black people love their kids, for sure. But historically we never had the luxury of thinking them precious. Special? Yes. There is a big difference. We don’t see our kids as anything akin to fine china, not to be disturbed or broken. In fact, given our druthers, most black parents would chose to ‘break’ their kids before someone else does… We fear that if we wait for our kids to simply outgrow such childishness, they might suffer at the hands of authority, especially those men in blue. Authority, with its billy sticks and handcuffs and black robes, has not been kind to us.

Beyond her writings on race the best parenting advice from Caviness, via her mother and mother’s friends, has little to do with children. Instead it has to do with taking care of yourself as a mother and as a person: “They taught me that, first and foremost, you have to love on yourself. And that doing so was not an act of selfishness, but an act of strength and wisdom and fortitude. This modern habit of mothers, almost bragging that they’ve no time to take care of themselves, no time to care for themselves? It’s not cute.”

During the summer we often think we will have more time, even though we often end up with less. So do yourself a favor, go get that pedicure you’ve been putting off, or head to the beach for an hour or to all by yourself. But don’t forget to bring a book when you do—child, please.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the Book Review Editor Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She teaches in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.

Buy Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself

10 Novels for Summer Reading

10 Novels for Summer Reading

The Small Backs of ChildrenBy Samantha Claire Updegrave

Summer is on. It’s been in the 70s in Seattle. My favorite radio station plays the best tunes in the morning as I scramble eggs and help my little guy open his yogurt. And in the early evenings, my son, who is now six years old, will curl up next to me in the big bed, his own book in hand, and read to himself. I have dreamed of this moment. Granted, he reads out loud, but it’s the experience that counts. Once he finishes, he asks me to read my book out loud so he can hear what I’m reading. For a moment, the tenderness is astounding in a way I never expected when I became a mom.

It reminds me of why I read. If reading literary fiction – with all its ambiguities, emotional complexity, and power to deliver us into someone else’s heart and mind – increases our emotional intelligence and empathy, so does parenting. This list could easily be written in three or four versions with little overlap, so I’ve focused largely on novels from the last four years.


brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

It’s a bit of cheat to start with this one because technically, this is a memoir, and it happens to be written in free verse (poetry that’s not in meter and doesn’t rhyme). It’s up here because this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read. Jacqueline Woodson is a critically acclaimed young adult author with seventeen books to her name so you might also discover some good bonus reading from this one – which makes up for my cheating.

brown girl dreaming is Woodson’s story about growing up in Greensville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York during the 60s and 70s. Between her two worlds, with the civil rights movement unfurling in the background, her family changes shape and geographies, but the deep-rooted family love is steady. In the chapter “off-key” she writes,

My whole family knows I can’t sing. My voice,

my sister says, is just left of the key. Just right

of the tune.

But I sing anyway, whenever I can.

This is a beautiful metaphor as Woodson explores her coming of age, which includes struggles with reading and writing.

Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston

Pam Houston has a self-admitted reputation for writing “autobiographical fiction.” The main character in Contents May Have Shifted is named Pam, and it’s noted on the back cover that the Pam in the book is “a character not unlike the author.”

Contents, like so much of Houston’s writing, is sharp-witted, as warm as it is raw, accessible and dazzling. The chapters are organized by place and flight numbers and take readers to California, Tunisia, New Zealand, and many stops in between, through impossible flights and landings. The short sections make this one great for toting around – you can get lost as the story rolls from one place to the next, or grab it when you only have a few spare minutes. Pam’s journeys are full of friends, her partner, and body workers, and taken in sum her travels and relationships piece together the ways we heal ourselves, one leap at a time.

Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend by Erika Wurth

Erika Wurth’s debut novel about sixteen-year old Magaritte, a drug-dealing Native American, pulls readers through the muck of poverty and addiction, hope and the longing for escape. Wurth packs a lot of tenderness inside raw, vivacious, and humorous prose.

Magaritte wants out of the life she sees other girls falling into – teen pregnancy, drug abuse. Along with her cousin and best friend Jake, who she also deals drugs with, she dreams of getting out and having a real life. But no matter how deep her longing, she repeatedly makes bad choices, landing her in the ER. As things at home get increasingly worse, she discovers she’s pregnant from the boy she’s been dating, and has to choose between living the life she’s always feared and the life she longs for. Girlfriend challenges mainstream expectations and perceptions of race, class, and girlhood, as well as what “choice” really means.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You has to be one of the best titles for a book, ever. Celeste Ng’s debut novel is a staggering study of personhood and familial relations, the narrator as the recorder for the family’s inner, unspoken thoughts and desires.

The book drops us right in at the moment before everything collapses: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.”

Ng then maps the interior landscapes of each member of the family, beginning – “like everything begins: with mothers and fathers” – with Lydia’s parents Marilyn and James when they met in college, their courtship, marriage, their childhoods. The depth of exploration in this novel is as stunning as the writing itself. This was a slower read for me, even though I never wanted to set it down, because I found myself savoring the details of each characters’ inner life. In a way, I feel braver after having read it, more aware of how I want to parent my kid as he pushes to become his own person in the world, the person he’s meant to be.

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Any season is the right season for digging into a Toni Morrison book. God Help the Child is her first novel set in our current time, and though it’s evident the characters carry with them the legacy of slavery’s historic trauma, Morrison approaches these enduring effects by peeling back the layers of her character’s childhoods.

Morrison weaves the story through short vignettes told from multiple perspectives. A woman who calls herself Bride is at the center – young, successful, beautiful, blue-black skinned – along with Booker, the man she loves but whom she knows little about, who leaves her. Sweetness, her light-skinned mother who shunned Bride as a child because she was so dark, frames the story, giving us the hard truth: “What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.”

Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge

Love Water Memory begins with a thirty-nine year old woman waded knee-deep and fully dressed in the San Francisco Bay, peering into the distance for something she can’t place. The voice of a stranger snaps her back to her senses; the cold numbness in her legs, the heaviness of her feet. She has no recollection of why she’s there or who she is. At the hospital psych ward she learns she is suffering a dissociative fugue, a rare form of amnesia the doctor’s believe was caused by an emotional trauma.

When her fiancé Grady discovers she’s been found, the woman gets her name back – Lucie Walker. Love is Lucie’s journey as she discovers who she is as she’s piecing together who she was, tracing a path back to a past so terrible she’d buried it long ago. And it’s Grady’s story too, as he also has no choice but to confront his own wounds and walls that grew from the loss of his father.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch’s forthcoming novel The Small Backs of Children is my most anticipated summer read. I recently read her memoir The Chronology of Water, a roiling account of her life as a swimmer, wife, lover, daughter, sister, writer. It is one powerful piece of literature that continues to stick to my ribs.

Here’s the back cover preview:

“In a war-torn village in Eastern Europe, an American photographer captures a heart-stopping image: a young girl flying toward the lens, fleeing a fiery explosion that has engulfed her home and family. The image, instantly iconic, garners acclaim and prizes—and, in the United States, becomes a subject of obsession for one writer, the photographer’s best friend, who has suffered a devastating tragedy of her own.”

In a bid to save the writer from a spiraling depression, her filmmaker husband enlists a group of friends—including a fearless bisexual poet, an ingenuous performance artist, and the writer’s playwright brother and painter ex-husband—to rescue the unknown girl and bring her to the United States. And yet, as their plot unfolds, everything we know comes into question: What does the writer really want? Who is controlling the action? And what will happen when these two worlds—East and West, real and virtual—collide?”

Yes, please! Out July 1, 2015.

The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finneyfrock

I was touched by this story, which I came to read after devouring Karen Finneyfrock’s poetry collection Ceremony for the Choking Ghost. I wasn’t sure how her prowess as a poet would translate to prose, and there was all the hubbub about how adults should be embarrassed to read YA literature in Slate last year. Some of the criticisms of adults reading YA are that the characters lack the mature perspectives found in adult fiction, ambiguities that are part of real life is largely absent, and the conclusions are often satisfying and overly simplistic. Fair enough, but oh my…. I loved this book. Finneyfrock’s use of language is both honest and bare, no wasted words, direct and exactly how the protagonist, who calls herself Celia the Dark, would know and understand her world.

Revenge is the story of Celia Door, a girl entering the ninth grade with one thing on her mind: revenge against the popular Sandy Firestone, the girl who committed a cruel act against Celia and inspired her to “turn dark.” When Celia is presented with her opportunity, her plan backfires and endangers her best friend Drake and their friendship.

It is true – the ending is incredibly satisfying. But as an adult, I found it healing to read Celia’s version of her story with all my mature perspective in place, because it was a way of seeing myself then, acknowledging all my big and tiny hurts I carried, from the vantage point of who I am now.

Torch by Cheryl Strayed

Another work of “autobiographical fiction,” Torch was Cheryl Strayed first book, preceding her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by several years. This novel, which she began piecing together on the PTC hike chronicled in Wild, tells the story of a loving and strong family that unravels when Teresa, mother and wife, is diagnosed with cancer at age 38 and given only a few months to live. Her children, Claire and Joshua, and partner Bruce, all deal with grief in different ways, which ultimately pulls them apart.

Beautifully rendered, exposing the gaping holes left by sudden loss and grief and the myriad ways we try to fill them in, Strayed’s novel shows us what it is to be human and alive in the face of the unbearable.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Before saying anything about Roxane Gay’s debut novel, I have to warn you that it is gut wrenching, uncomfortable, and violent. And while I am not one to normally read books with detailed accounts of violence, this is well worth making the exception. The writing is engaged with the world of the book, crisp and clear. Having read on the jacket cover that this is a story “of how redemption is found in the most unexpected of places” kept me going. I knew there was more than survival on the other side of the traumas. Redemption. I was holding out for it.

Gay writes with precision and control, exposing the links between wealth, corruption, and violence. Even though she puts us in right in the same room as this brutality, the chaos and terror are always held within this larger framework. And in Mireielle, she also shows us how a woman finds resiliency in impossible situations.

When I first read this novel, my son watched more TV that weekend than he normally does in a month. Even when scenes made me wince, I could not put the book down, not even for a minute. Reading, it never felt like gawking, or gratuitous, never violence for the sake of entertainment. It felt important to be a witness.

Samantha Claire Updegrave‘s writing career began with cut n’ paste zines, and now appears in The Rumpus, Bitch, and Hip Mama. By day, she is an urban planner, and lives in Seattle, Washington, with her partner and young son.  She teaches prose writing at the Hugo House and is a nonfiction editor at Soundings Review.

All In: A Book Review

All In: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

All In Cover ArtBy now you’ve almost certainly heard of Lean In. Josh Levs is hoping you will see similarities between his recently released All In and Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller.

The similarities go beyond the titles. Both books deal with changing the challenging culture for working parents. While All In and Lean In emphasize that work/family balance is an issue for both sexes, the former concentrates on men and the latter on women.

Levs writes from experience as a devoted father of three who also covers family and fatherhood for CNN. In 2013, around the birth of his third child, he asked CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, about his benefits. Specifically Levs wanted to take the ten paid weeks new parents have as an option. But he discovered that those ten weeks apply to biological mothers, adoptive mothers, and adoptive fathers—but apparently not to biological fathers. After speaking with Human Resources, and even the CEO, Benefits ultimately denied his appeal of this policy. Levs consulted lawyers and took his fight public, using his own personal media bully pulpit to get the word out. While in the end he went back to work without the ten paid weeks, Levs came to be seen, and see himself, as a leader in the active fathers’ movement of the 21st century.

All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses—And How We Can Fix It Together is the culmination of his research, reporting, and ruminations on this issue. Levs brings together and discusses the most up-to-date research on fatherhood while also proposing practical and policy solutions. In the Introduction he makes it clear that this isn’t “just” a problem for fathers or mothers: “Overall parents in the United States are working hard and doing their best. It’s the era of all-in parenting. And, by and large, neither gender is letting the other down.” Levs believes that poor family leave policies discriminate against both men and women by taking choices away.

All In isn’t only about paid family leave, but it is a big part of the book, and its strongest. In Part I he discusses the legal components of the Family and Medical Leave Act, business implications, and tax policy. For instance, from this I learned that many employers use disability insurance to pay birth moms. While Levs started this project seeking support for paternity leave he didn’t have strong feelings about paid family leave, but after everything he has learned he now believes that paid family-leave law would make a significant difference.

Another strength of All In is its focus on popular culture. Unlike others who write on this issue Levs devotes a whole section of his book to “Fixing Pop Culture,” explaining, “Any time I’ve interviewed fathers over the years, frustration about portrayals of dads in pop culture has gotten them fired up above all else.” The discussion here focuses on advertising snafus by companies like Huggies, the TV show Friday Night Lights, and mom’s-only groups.

Levs also tries to move beyond the upper-middle and middle class parenting experience (incidentally one of the criticisms of Sandberg’s Lean In is the focus on affluent families) to include a variety of families and family structures. He writes about fathers in prison, military dads, widowers, and he strives to include stories of poor fathers and black fathers as well. While his aim is admirable, at times these sections of the book strike a false note, especially in contrast to other portions where Levs is writing more from personal experience so his voice is stronger and more authoritative.

All In is definitely a book with a specific message and every page is meant to remind us of that message—that millions of (working) dads want to spend more time with their kids but in some way society is boxing them in. Levs sometimes present alternative viewpoints or explanations but it’s clear by the length of those sections that they are not the main focus. All In will most definitely appeal to those sympathetic to its argument, but I’m unfortunately not convinced it will change others’ minds (and I say unfortunately because my own husband is an involved father and I know how much that means to our household).

Levs’ goal is to start a movement much like Sheryl Sandberg. While the impact of All In may not be as deep, the book will give you something to think about and some facts to share with others whether you are all in or just leaning in to working parenthood.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She teaches in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.

Buy All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses–And How We Can Fix It Together

The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Book Review

The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Book Review

By Daisy Alpert Florin

Blue Jay's DanceI met Louise Erdrich in 1992 when I was a sophomore at Dartmouth College and she was a visiting fellow. That semester, I was a French teaching assistant, running “drill” sessions five mornings a week. Erdrich signed up for my section, and so I found myself in the unusual position of being language teacher to an award-winning writer. Erdrich was friendly and self-deprecating—but she was my worst student, her accent thick, her conjugations clumsy.

Reading The Blue Jays Dance, her luminous memoir of early motherhood, it is hard to imagine Erdrich tripped up by any language. Her prose is staggering, breathtaking in places. My copy of the book is covered with frantic underlining and enthusiastic asterisks marking places in which Erdrich captures both the frustrations and joys inherent in raising small children. “Growing, bearing, mothering or fathering, supporting, and at last letting go of an infant is a powerful and mundane creative act that rapturously sucks up whole chunks of life,” she writes. Nearly twenty years after its publication, The Blue Jays Dance remains relevant; by keeping the outside world at bay, Erdrich is able to turn her focus inward, creating a story that is both her own and universal.

Divided into four seasons, Erdrich’s memoir describes a year in the life of a new mother, beginning with pregnancy and ending with a child’s first steps. The baby described is an amalgamation of Erdrich’s three daughters; her husband and three older children hover in the background. The Blue Jays Dance is a record of Erdrich’s internal thoughts and struggles, as well as the story of the natural world as seen from the windows of her office. Erdrich is often alone, her main companions the birds, insects, rodents, deer and cats she watches pass by, as desperate for their companionship as a prisoner.

Halfway through the book, Erdrich follows a wild kitten who has disappeared beneath her house through a heating vent. Slithering along the floor of the dirt crawl space in pursuit, Erdrich worries that the house will collapse on top of her. “How many women are buried beneath their houses?” she asks after pulling the kitten toward her by its tail. “How many startling minds, how many writers?”

Running beneath the lyrical descriptions is this vein of frustration, with babies who won’t sleep, home ownership, Erdrich’s near constant longing for a cigarette. But instead of launching into a litany of complaints, Erdrich leans in to the loneliness and isolation to create art. “Life comes on you all unawares while you are stuck in an interim situation,” she writes about the unexpected joy she finds in waiting for someone who is late. “Sometimes I simply feel myself vitally alive in the moment, the interstice.”

It is in this pause that Erdrich writes The Blue Jays Dance, taking advantage of the space that unravels while the baby sleeps or plays with a trail of toys spread across her office floor. “Sometimes I hold my child in one arm, nursing her, and write with the other hand.” What mother hasn’t felt this sense of division? Out of the wreckage comes this book, the words scribbled down while she waits for the peace needed to tend to her “real work.”

I didn’t read The Blue Jays Dance until I was the mother of three children struggling to find my own voice as a writer. As I read, my mind wandered back to the early mornings Erdrich and I shared learning French. She had probably been up for hours writing or caring for her children while I rolled into class each day, my unwashed hair tucked beneath a woolen hat. Did her mind wander back to the children and work she’d left behind as I drilled her on the subjunctive? While she might have been able to imagine my life as an undergraduate at the college she’d attended, it was not possible for me, at twenty, to imagine hers.

At the end of the semester, Erdrich invited me, along with other students, to a reception at her house. As we ate canapés and drank sparkling water, I sat mesmerized by her as well as by the beautiful blond-haired children who darted around the house. I had no idea, yet, what roiled beneath the surface, no concept of the immense strength required to hold up that house.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a writer and mother of three. Her essays and stories have appeared in Brain, Child, Full Grown People, Kveller, Halfway Down the Stairs and Mamalode, among other publications. Visit her at

Top 15 Birthday Books

Top 15 Birthday Books

By Hilary Levey Friedman

Top 15 Birthday Books in honor of Brain, Child’s 15th!

15logoBooks are the gifts that keep on giving, long past a singular birthday celebration. As we celebrate Brain, Child‘s 15th, this list suggests splendid books to gift to the parents—and the kids—in your life from that first birthday through the fifteenth. From perennial favorites to new classics, you’ll find something for your favorite Brain, Child reader (or future reader!) regardless of their sex or age.

1. Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy Shaw

With fun word play, original illustrations, and an imaginative narrative the first book in Shaw’s popular “Sheep” series will quickly become a bedtime or naptime favorite. Because of the rhymes on each page, the book also lends itself to conversation and language development with your little one. After reading it several (or 100!) times, you can pause at the end of each line and let your growing toddler supply the word, allowing you to really “read” together.


2. Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty

This clever, engaging, and creative book helps kids understand that you can always learn from a “failure.” It also draws a connection between the present and a historical figure, so you can begin talking to your kids about World War II and changing opportunities for women. You might be inclined to only gift this to little girls, but you’d be wrong! Boys love this tale about imagination and creation and it’s just as important to tell boys that girls can be engineers as it is to tell girls they can be.


3. Jo Frost’s Toddler Rules: Your 5-Step Guide to Shaping Proper Behavior by Jo Frost

Parents, forget about the “terrible twos” and start preparing yourself for a “threenager.” Frost’s book was spotlighted in the Winter 2014 issue of Brain, Child; I wrote there that I was surprised how effective the advice of a “TV nanny” was, but her clear style and no-nonsense approach makes for a crisp and useful read. Frost’s suggestions will still be helpful for the day that your threenager turns into a teenager, which will happen sooner than you might expect or like!


4. My Royal Birthday Adventure by Jennifer Dewing

What’s better than a birthday book? A personalized birthday book, of course. Dewing’s rhyming tale can be personalized for your recipient (boy, girls, age, etc.) and the book itself—with glossy, colorful pages—is a lovely present. At this age kids are on the cusp of literacy, with most recognizing their own name, so they get a real thrill out of not just seeing themselves as part of a tale, but “reading” it on their own. Plus, it can be added to a memory box someday as a treasured keepsake.


5. Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg

Like Rosie Revere Engineer, Beautiful Oops imparts a life lesson about mistakes and failures. Saltzberg illustrates for kids that sometimes you can turn something bad, or unexpected, into something beautiful, or at the least pretty neat. Beautiful Oops makes use of different materials to make this point, which kids will enjoy exploring. Each page brings a new surprise and the interactive nature of reading the book makes for great back-and-forth opportunities between the reader and newly-minted five-year-old.


6. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! By Dr. Seuss

You’ll usually find this book given as a graduation gift, but it also makes a great “starting grade school” gift. The beginning of an educational journey can be just as exciting as the end of one and parents will enjoy Seuss’ whimsical language even more when it’s not read through bittersweet tears. Few authors and illustrators can rival Seuss’ engaging, yet trenchant, observations about life. And if you want even more Seuss there’s always The Cat in the Hat, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, Green Eggs and Ham, Yertle the Turtle, The Lorax, and the list goes on…


7. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Just because your child may be reading on his or her own there’s no need to stop reading together. Consider gifting a classic like Charlotte’s Web, which you can read aloud, or you can alternate paragraphs or pages with your proud new reader. Part of the enduring appeal of White’s book is its message of friendship, vocabulary, and of course those magical talking animals. Kids this age will still appreciate the illustrations, even if they don’t want to admit it.


8. The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Oh, how I wanted to be one of the Boxcar Children when I read this series as a child. The adventure, the siblings, the mysteries, the wealthy grandfather! Warner wrote the first 19 books in the series, beginning in the 1940s and continuing through to her death in the 1970s. Books are still being added (at last count, over 150), which young readers who zip through will appreciate. This is a great age at which to start a series, which will engage budding readers for many entries over time. And like Charlotte’s Web, The Boxcar Children can be appreciated together aloud or read with relish independently. Note that the extravagant birthday gift giver might purchase a boxset…


9. This is Childhood: Those precious first years. 10 mothers. 10 essays. Edited by Marcelle Soviero and Randi Olin.

It’s the last year of having a child who isn’t double-digits. This is a great moment for parents to reflect on their journey thus far and think about what is yet to come. Brain, Child editors Olin and Soviero say it best in introducing the ten essays: “We believe you will see yourself in these pages: in the past if your children are older, in the preset if you’re right in the sweet spot of raising young children, and in the future if you’re planning to start a family, pregnant, or a brand-new mother. There is no doubt that the stories here will resonate: the tutus, the knock-knock jokes, the light-up sneakers.”


10. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Can you think of a sweeter gift than the slightly miraculous miracle of first discovering Harry, Hermione, and Ron? Oh, and Dumbledore and Hagrid and butterbeer? It’s hard to believe now that our own childhoods were Harry Potter-less; thankfully that won’t be true for future generations. While the later books take a darker turn with death and destruction (and, yes, even romance) this is a good age at which to start the series—the later, longer books can be saved for another birthday treat.


11. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Koningsburg

A book filled with possibilities, especially for an eleven-year-old on the verge of independence, while still being dependent. This tale of running away, mystery, sibling love, and true adventure (amidst fine art no less!) will stay with a child for years—trust me I still think about statues with unusual markings on the bottom. If your child still lets you, read it with him or her; better yet, read it at the same time and have your own book club at home.


12. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

When I tell you this is the first book that ever made me cry you might think, “Why should I gift that book?” But it’s a remarkable tale of human-animal friendship that harkens back to another time. The story is so enduring that I can still remember some of the evocative language from when I first read the story in fifth grade (this from a girl who isn’t particularly into the outdoors, hunting, or dogs, so it shows how universal the story is as well). Another great selection to spark conversation with your birthday boy or girl.


13. Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence by Laurence Steinberg

Congratulations, you have a new teenager in your life! While some may dread the teenage years, Steinberg reframes them in a positive way, emphasizing what is to be embraced (like the increased tendency to explore) and how to help teens develop skills during this time to help them throughout life. On second thought, perhaps you should tell your thirteen-year-old to gift you this book on your birthday. In any case, it celebrates 13 and the dawn of adolescence.


14. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

At an age when some might stop thinking reading is “cool,” Collins makes being engrossed in a book just that. Teens who want to explore more “adult” issues will relish the violence, romance, and anti-authoritarianism in the series (oh, and a lot of adults will as well). The best thing about this book is that every member of your household will likely be riveted by this original—though now much duplicated—tale.


15. The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel

Here’s a fifteenth birthday gift from which you can both benefit. Sociologist Karabel’s book can double as a door-stopper (at over 700 pages), but it’s worth it. College is on the minds of many families with children this age. Many books capitalize on this fact, and many recent titles talk about how where you go to college doesn’t necessarily determine your fate. Karabel’s detailed history helps explain why college has evolved the way it has over the past 100 years or so. Not only will this book arm you with context to make sense of current admissions frenzies (which you can evaluate with a more clear perspective, and perhaps a jaded eye, after reading the book), but it will also help prepare your 15-teen-year-old for the type of reading and thinking s/he will be expected to do while in college.

And, soon, congratulations instead of happy birthday to all of you for making it through high school and adolescence! Glad Brain, Child could be part of your parenting journey.

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child, the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, and a professor in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.

Where Children Sleep: A Book Review

Where Children Sleep: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

020-20110712-KN-children2020-20110712-KN-children1At the end of the year I am always amazed by how much stuff my kids have. We celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas, and then have two birthdays in January. To say the house is overrun with toys by then is an understatement.

Part of the reason the downstairs is chockfull of playthings is that I limit (or try to) bedroom space to sleep and reading, not playing. Based on bedrooms of twelve American children shown in James Mollison’s haunting Where Children Sleep, I may be in the minority.

Mollison’s coffee table book is one of the more thoughtful books I read in 2014—though in this case the images are sometimes more compelling than the written words. The book, published in 2010, is comprised of 56 diptychs. Mollison took portraits of the children, and then a picture of where they sleep, beginning in 2004 as he travelled the world. He also includes a paragraph on each child that includes their ages, where they live, their circumstances (school, siblings, etc.), their hobbies/how they spend leisure time, and what they want to be when they grow up.

The children in the book range from 4-17 and I have to warn you that the book starts sad (Lay Lay is an orphan in Thailand and all of her positions fit into a drawer) and ends sad (X is in a Brazilian drug gang and he moves around sharing sleeping space with other gang members). But Mollison’s aim is not to make you sad, it’s to make you think. He writes in the Introduction that a bedroom can be thought of as a personal kingdom; seeing it that way enables us to think about the places we sleep as they relate to inequality, along with the power of kids (or lack thereof) relative to adults.

Part of the way Mollison achieves this is by juxtaposing situations. For example, after the austerity of Lay Lay is Jivan, also four, who lives in Brooklyn. Jivan has his own bedroom and bathroom—a gorgeous boy’s room decorated by his interior designer mother. The room is full, but not cluttered, unlike the third child in the book, Kaya, a four-year-old in Japan who has thirty matching dresses and coats, shoes, and wigs. And then there are kids, like an unnamed four-year-old Romanian boy, who don’t even have their own beds, either sharing a mattress with other family members or staying in a dump in Cambodia. If you ever need a reminder, or need a way to show your children, how resources are distributed in vastly different ways across the world, you need only read Where Children Sleep.

I found it striking how many children sleep in communal environments around the world—from orphanages to training centers (a five-year-old in China training in martial arts) to religious instruction (a ten-year-old living in a monastery in Nepal) to a weight loss school (a thirteen-year-old boy in Pennsylvania) to cultural training centers (a fifteen-year-old in Japan learning to become a geisha). Mollison’s attention to alternative living arrangements is one reason why Where Children Sleep is a book you can examine, read, and discuss with your children. Children can be wrapped up in their own homes or rooms, and their friends who have similar experiences, but exposure to different situations can help your child learn more about their own lives and the larger world.

Of course, as Mollison admits, the book isn’t scientific. The children weren’t purposefully selected, they were simply children he found interesting in some way. He argues that the book isn’t part of a campaign, but the implications for inequality are too powerful to be accidental. Just as the pictures and descriptions can serve as a jumping off point for discussion about inequality with children, so can they serve as a jumping off point for reflection on our own goals. I noticed that many international children said they want to be doctors. I wondered what this says about the helping professions and why doctors are held in such high esteem as compared to teachers or police around the world. In what ways will the abundance my children are fortunate to enjoy impact their life goals?

Unfortunately Where Children Sleep is already out of print. While you can purchase a used copy in the usual ways online, it is pricey. Thankfully, Mollison has made many of the diptychs available on his website (though the Introduction and useful map included in the book aren’t available online). But there is a message here too—sometimes you don’t need a lot of new stuff to fill your bookshelves and bedrooms, you can also reuse or visit a library. Even that is a lot more than others have.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

Photo: Kaya, 4, Tokyo, Japan via New York Times/James Mollison

Gathering Around the Table with Bread & Wine – A Book Review

Gathering Around the Table with Bread & Wine – A Book Review

By Christina Krost

imagesBread&WineI’m balancing my lunch plate on my lap, trying to enjoy a sandwich slapped together after feeding my one-year-old. She toddles up to me, eyes focused on my plate. Her gaze meets mine as if to say, “Some for me?” I tear apart some bread crust and hold it out for her pudgy fingers to grab. She mashes it into her tiny, drooly mouth. Sometimes the youngest among us understand best how to be nourished.

Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes by Shauna Niequist is about the sometimes complicated desire to nourish ourselves and the ones we love. Niequist writes from her experiences as a pastor’s kid, musician’s wife, and mother of two boys. And she knows how to feed her people well.

But it wasn’t always that way. Like many girls growing up in the 1970s and 80s, Niequist’s own mother shooed her out of their kitchen, seen as a place of oppression for many women of her generation. Instead Niequist’s cooking chops were earned piecemeal, by devouring cookbooks like trashy romance novels in her college and newlywed years, throwing elaborate dinner parties, and learning (often humorously) by trial-and error.

Niequist saw her cooking forays as exotic, intense, and satisfying. She tried new-to-her combinations—savory bacon-wrapped dates, simple-yet-impressive mango chicken curry, and rich dark chocolate sea salted toffee—which she shares here. The collected recipes remind her of her travels to Spain, Paris, and Italy alongside memories of home in western Michigan, San Francisco, and Chicago. The variety of tastes and favors she cultivates in her cooking helps her articulate her desires for her family. She writes, “I want my kids to taste and experience the biggest possible world, because every bite of it, every taste and texture and flavor, is delicious.”

For those that don’t find cooking thrilling or easy, Niequist offers some advice: “I believe every person should be able to make the simple foods that nourish them, that feel familiar and comforting, that tell the story of who they are…to nourish ourselves in the most basic way and to create meals and traditions around the table and tell the story of who we are….And the only way to get there is to start where you are.” Though this book highlights spiritual nourishment, readers need not be practicing Christians to appreciate her message.

Through different vignettes that jump around her timeline of early marriage and motherhood,   Niequist tackles infertility and pregnancy, grief and loss, body image and acceptance, multitasking and being present, fasting and feast. She introduces you to her varied circles of friends: church friends, musicians, family, neighbors, and her cooking club. By the end of the book, you feel as if you know them, and you’ll want to be part of their club. You can imagine yourself, and them, around her table. Though I myself can’t imagine planning and preparing all of her exotic recipes for my own friends and family due to the lack of “fancy” ingredients in my small central Illinois town [population 1600], I’ve learned that what one makes is less important than how and why it is made.

Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes is a must-read for those who love to entertain or those who want to learn. Definitely not a Martha Stewart kind of how-to book, Bread & Wine presents tried and true recipes with helpful guidance from the author. As we grow closer to holiday celebrations that gather our own loved ones around our tables, Niequist helps remind us that the stress that comes with the holidays is often self-imposed. If you’ve ever invited over friends or cooked for any number of people, you understand how much thought and preparation goes into every bite. Niequist gently guides us to the idea that if you are going to feed the people you love, it’s best to try to do so equitably and safely (whether that means gluten free, nut free, meat free, etc.).

Perhaps the most resonant of Bread & Wine’s lessons is that “What people are craving isn’t perfection. People aren’t longing to be impressed; they’re longing to feel like they’re home. If you create a space full of love…they’ll take off their shoes and curl up with gratitude and rest, no matter how small, no matter how undone, no matter how odd.”

Take a lesson from my daughter: turn to the ones you love, ask for what you need, and eat.

Christina Krost is an elementary teacher turned full-time mom turned United Methodist pastor’s wife. She lives with her husband and three daughters in rural central Illinois and blogs at

Book Review: Instant Winner

Book Review: Instant Winner

By Beth Eakman

Carrie Fountain, Instant Winners coverI teach college writing. A little-known associated liability is that a lot of people feel compelled to show you their work. A significant number have performed poetry aloud on the spot. As a consequence of the last two decades in this profession, my default setting is to brace myself for some serious discomfort. This is especially trying when the writer is a colleague.

So, imagine my relief, when several years ago, I went to hear my colleague Carrie Fountain read poetry from her first collection Burn Lake the 2009 National Poetry Series winner. Clearly, Fountain’s work had been pretty thoroughly vetted and had received the stamp of approval from luminaries of the American poetry world. In the past year, in fact, Garrison Keillor has discovered her poems and has read three on his NPR program The Writer’s Almanac. Still, as the result of many years of reading and hearing less-than-lovely writing, the good stuff surprises and delights me every time. This time I felt physically moved, swept away.

And with her new poetry collection, Instant Winner, Fountain has surprised me, again. In the years since Burn Lake, Fountain has become a mother. Like Burn Lake, which critics often lauded for its strong sense of place (Fountain’s home state of New Mexico), Instant Winner gives readers a strong sense of a very different place: motherhood.

In his review for The New Yorker, June 2, 2014 Dan Chiasson, reviewing Rachel Zucker’s latest poetry collection, wrote: “Motherhood isn’t war, madness, or addiction, but for a writer it can be an adverse condition, undermining the very work it inspires.” Chiasson notes that Zucker, like other contemporary poets writing about motherhood (Louise Gluck, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich), grapples with the fragmentation of time caused by constant interruption.

With Instant Winner, Carrie Fountain’s poems join this conversation. But her poems are less fragments than fever dreams, prayers murmured through the din of chaos. Take: “Giant dumpsters” make “insane thuds… tossed back to the pavement by the trash truck” and wake the baby.

In “Poem without Sleep,” a poem that feels deeply personal to me as a mother and writer, she inhabits the space between the hyper-attentiveness of new motherhood and the inability to focus. If other poets present the unquiet mind of motherhood as collage, Fountain offers a roiling kaleidoscope. “All the things that could happen to the baby came to me last night as I was falling asleep,” it begins. More and more “children of mine….push through” the space between wakefulness and sleep, ending only with the arrival of daylight.

And now, here’s the morning.

Here’s the tree flickering
behind the shade, dumb tree

with its one arm raised to the sky.
Here’s the silent tipping into another day.

And now, finally, finally, the baby, blowing
her famous raspberries down the dark

static hallway of the baby monitor. And now
she begins to whimper. And now she cries out.

And here I go to her, thank God.
Here I go to help her little life.

Fountain’s poems reach through the mundane experience of the physical world in search of the sense of transcendent divinity that comes with motherhood. “I want to describe/ the baby for many hours to anyone/ who wishes to hear me. My feelings for her/take me so far inside myself I can see the pure/ holiness in motherhood….”

While taking the time to read poetry might seem like an extravagance for exhausted mothers, I would argue that its ability to capture the transcendent in the sensory experience of the physical world is in fact economical. Some poems are playful and downright funny (“All I want to do is go home and take off these pants….),” others solemn and profound, prayers and chaos and beauty. (The ominous whine of dying batteries in a child’s toy invokes “…the sound/ of a planet falling/ through one universe/ and into the next….”) Each poem can be read in a few stolen minutes alone, but digested and savored for a long time after even while among offspring.

Whether she’s writing about the desert southwest of Mesilla, New Mexico, or the strange new landscape of motherhood, Fountain’s celebrated sense of place challenges us as readers to truly experience where we are right now as home, to stop the clock and appreciate the only reality that we have, with our eyes and hearts open and our senses engaged. The poems of Instant Winner capture the complexities of motherhood and life and present them with reverence, as gifts.

Beth Eakman teaches writing at St. Edward’s University and lives in Austin Texas with her husband and two teenagers who provide her simultaneously with inspiration and interruptions. Visit Beth at, or on Twitter @BethEakman.

Book Review: The Price of Silence

Book Review: The Price of Silence

By Hilary Levey Friedman

The Price of Silence coverLike Dara-Lynn Weiss before her, writing a negative piece about her child secured Liza Long a book deal. Her emotionally raw blog post, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” (originally published anonymously on her blog The Anarchist Soccer Mom as “Thinking the Unthinkable”), penned in response to the Newtown shootings, quickly went viral after appearing on The Blue Review and then The Huffington Post. The reaction was extreme in both directions, with some applauding Long’s courage and identifying with her family’s struggle and others calling her an imposter and suggesting she is the one who needs mental health monitoring.

Her just-published book, The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness, is an expansion of that polarizing post. According to the Introduction this is a book for two different audiences. The first is those families who have a child with a mental illness to let them know they aren’t alone by sharing her family’s experience. The second is for those who are “surprised to learn that one in five children in the United States has a serious and debilitating mental disorder, an audience that believes mental illness is something we still shouldn’t talk about except behind closed doors in private rooms.” The Price of Silence succeeds in addressing the latter audience more than the former.

Long is at her best when describing the labyrinth families must navigate when they have a child with a mental illness. A myriad of acronyms must be decoded, reports must be written, and parents have to accustom themselves to the idea of dealing first with administrators and educators in public schools and then with first responders like police officers before frequently turning to the juvenile justice system. Though “institutions” no longer exist (in many cases, happily so), no good system has developed to figure out how to take care of the mentally ill, especially children. Many have to enter juvenile detention and hope to stay on parole to get actual treatment at an affordable price. Long writes of parents divorcing so their child can access services with a reduced family income, and poverty in general is a big issue when it comes to children’s mental health. She explains, “In some states, this transition from school to prison is so regular that it’s been called a ‘pipeline,’ one that disproportionately affects poor children and their families.”

One of the most practical suggestions Long makes in The Price of Silence is that pediatricians need to be better trained to identify the warning signs of various forms of mental illness, and not just autism. Though it is true that there is much still unknown about the science of mental illness, more is being understood every day through new imaging techniques and DNA analysis. Because Long discusses a lot of of-the-moment research, the book might not hold up well over time. But her message that there is a complex interplay between genetics, parenting, and the environment, and her reminder that people with mental illness are usually the victims of violence (and when they are violent it is usually against themselves) ensure that The Price of Silence is an important book.

The book falls flat in describing what it is like in Long’s family, which clearly has a complicated dynamic with four children, an ex-husband, and a new partner, along with a change of family religion. She refers to an acrimonious divorce and custody battles, but doesn’t get into specifics and if anything is clear it is that the situation isn’t resolved. That murkiness dulls the larger messages of her book and it may have been more effective to limit the more personal to one chapter.

While Long’s blog post did net her a book deal, it also caused a lot of anguish as her ex-husband had their two youngest children removed from her home on the basis of the violence described. At the same time because her piece reached so many it ultimately led her to a child psychiatrist who seems to have at long last provided a diagnosis and treatment for her son. Now diagnosed with juvenile bipolar disorder with a “Fear of Harm” phenotype, “Michael” is doing better and spending more time with his younger siblings. In many ways Liza Long is not like Adam Lanza’s mom because she acknowledges her son’s illness and will never have guns in the house. And hopefully her message and suggestions can help other mothers avoid the sad fate of Nancy Lanza and those impacted by acts of violence by sick young men.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is a sociologist and writer. You can learn more about her work at

Book Review: Overwhelmed

Book Review: Overwhelmed

By Susan Sapiro

WO Book Review Overwhelmed artA few years ago, Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte, by her own admission, would not have had time to read this book review, or pieces in Brain, Child. Like many other busy mothers, Schulte blamed herself for the frantic pace of her life—a state she calls “time confetti—one big, chaotic burst of exploding slivers, bits, and scraps.” Yet, as she began to research for her book Overwhelmed, she soon identified external forces that have changed the way almost everyone loves, works, and plays (or tries to) in twenty-first century America.

In sections on “Work” “Love” and “Play,” Schulte introduces readers to how modern life has created time crises in each of these areas. She also features organizations and individuals with missions to help people create the right fit between personal and work or volunteer commitments.

Technology is one of the main culprits. Expectations of constant connectivity from both our jobs (work emails at night and on weekends) and our social circles (how many times a day do you check and update your Facebook status?) can lead to mental exhaustion. Women’s brains, in particular, find it hard to turn off all the things they have to remember, plan, delegate, and do. This “contaminated time,” according to time-use researchers cited by Schulte, is why women often feel like they have little to no free or uncluttered time.

Schulte explains (based on the pioneering work of scholar/advocates like Joan C. Williams and others) one of the main problems with our work culture is that when women entered the modern labor force, they entered a workplace with attitudes, cultures and policies calcified and staffed with a 1950’s un-reality: the Ideal Worker—the person who seemingly has no outside responsibilities or commitments and can be endlessly responsive to the demands of his (and yes, the model is a man) employer or clients. This Ideal Worker model affects assessments of working mothers who, researchers have discovered, are perceived by both men and women as less committed and less competent than women without children and fathers.

While Schulte does focus on women (mostly mothers) and their often pressured lives (there is a whole chapter on the “Cult of Intensive Motherhood,”) she notes the number of fathers surveyed feeling harried, nearly doubled from 1982 to 2004. She devotes a short chapter to hands-on, involved fathers, some of whom have scaled back their careers, and some who have left the workforce to care for their children while their wives are breadwinners in often demanding jobs. And despite the fact that so many more mothers are working (even full-time) outside the home, time-use researchers discovered that American mothers spend more time taking care of their children now than in the 1960s. Yet, Schulte notes that this increase in caretaking time has coincided with concurrent rising cultural expectations about being a “good/involved parent.”

While not exclusively an American phenomenon, Schulte notes that being mental and physical slaves to the cult of busyness is more prevalent in the United States than the rest of the world, mostly due the U.S.’s well-known lack of supportive family policies. As a Canadian in the U.S., I’ve spent many recent child-bearing years listening wistfully to friends in Canada recall their year-long maternity leaves (at least partially paid, and often shared with their husbands). Yet as I read Overwhelmed, I found a new country to envy—Denmark. Denmark, Schulte writes with amazement, seems like a paradise for working families. Most Danes work flexible schedules, finish work by 4:30 p.m., and the hours between 5 and 8 p.m. (AKA the “Witching Hours” in North American families) are considered “sacred family time” in Denmark. Danish mothers have more leisure time than women in all other industrialized countries, and Denmark has one of the highest rates globally of maternal employment. With a standard 37-hour work week and six weeks of paid vacation a year, most Danes fill their generous leisure time with sports, exercise, and adult education programs. When Schulte asked students in one class if they felt selfish or guilty taking time for themselves with these classes, they looked at her quizzically and laughed.

Back in the U.S., Schulte profiles a few progressive companies, such as a completely virtual law firm called Clearspire, Stanford University Medical School, and the Pentagon, all of which offer flextime and other work-life benefits for their employees. More importantly, these organizations provide the cultural support for their employees to actually use them.

Schulte’s writing is clear, engaging, and deeply personal. One of the book’s great strengths are her personal stories—arguments with her husband over chores, scrambling frantically to find childcare, missing work deadlines, and making painful choices (choosing to go a field trip with her daughter’s class, illicitly checking her Blackberry in the woods, and then working late into the evening after her daughter went to bed)—these will resonate with readers. Schulte’s angry musings on her relationship with her husband and what seemed like the inexorable (inevitable?) descent into traditional gender roles once their children were born reveal many working mother’s frustrations: “Why did I feel like he had a career while I just tried not to get fired?”

One of the most unique contributions of Schulte’s book to the work-life field is her discussion of play.  Women, she notes, have never had a history of leisure. Men have almost always had longer, uninterrupted times of both work and leisure, while women’s leisure time is usually fragmented. And since women are often usually responsible for coordinating the logistics—technical and social-emotional—of everyone else’s play time, they never really end up truly relaxing. But play is an integral part of being human, and without play, scholars have found, we can’t truly be creative, smart and happy. Schulte profiles an innovative group called Mice at Play (as in, what they do when the cat is away), a group of women in New York who meet regularly for various dynamic and creative activities, by themselves, just for fun. This shouldn’t be such a radical concept, but Schulte shows as she reviews research on women and leisure time, women choosing respite without children or family is considered a truly subversive act. Musing on this knowledge, she asks the poignant question: “Did I somehow absorb the idea that becoming an adult, a mother, meant giving up time for the things that give you joy?”

I snuck in small, scattered chunks of time to read the book, something that I found ironic as I read Schulte’s analysis of women’s (lack of) leisure time. Should reading a book in order to write a book review be counted as leisure time or work? Reading Overwhelmed reinforced for me that we will all continue to be overwhelmed unless policymakers and employers realize that both men and women, mothers and fathers, need time for life outside of work.

For an interview with author Brigid Schulte, see Brain Child contributing writer Valerie Young’s posts on her Your (Wo)Man in Washington blog:

Interview Part 1

Interview Part 2

Susan Sapiro is a Westchester, NY based grant proposal writer and fundraising strategy researcher for nonprofits.  She has been reviewing books about work-life issues, motherhood and feminist issues for fifteen years.

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Book Review: All Joy and No Fun

Book Review: All Joy and No Fun

By Kristen Levithan

Book Review All Joy ArtNearly four years ago, journalist Jennifer Senior wrote a piece for New York Magazine that examined “why parents are no happier than nonparents, and in certain cases are considerably less happy.” The article, called “All Joy and No Fun” and provocatively subtitled “Why parents hate parenting,” went viral, inviting comments from parents and the childless alike. In her new book,  All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Senior picks up where her New York Magazine article left off and embarks on a quest to look at and knit together the findings of countless studies “in order to articulate—and in some cases quantify—what today’s parents find so challenging about their lives.” Unlike many parenting books whose focus is on children (or, at least, on how parents affect their children), Senior states from the outset that hers is “a book about parents” and an attempt—wholly successful—to show how children both strain and deepen our lives.

Senior’s book benefits from exceptionally clear, evocative writing throughout. (At one point, she deems parents “avid volunteers for a project in which we were all once dutiful conscripts.”) But its greatest strength and, I would argue, its most significant contribution to contemporary parenting literature is her decision to use the stories and experiences of middle class families to explicate relevant neuro- and social scientific research. (She focuses on the middle class, she explains, because the concerns of the elite are not “relatable” and those of “poor parents as parents are impossible to view on their own.”) Offering her readers a chance to identify with, say, a mom trying to edit photos for an afternoon deadline while the cries of her supposedly napping son blare through a baby monitor and her five-year-old daughter interrupts her repeatedly for help rewinding a movie, makes the countless studies she cites both more digestible and immediately more resonant.

Senior also makes the wise choice to deliver her findings systematically in stage-by-stage fashion. To explain the “bunker years” in which adults trade the autonomy of their child-free lives for the gear-laden, demanding days of parenting young children, Senior shares relevant findings through the stories of families she met through Early Childhood Family Education classes in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Senior elucidates studies on sleep deprivation, flow, and multitasking to show how they help explain why life with little kids often feels like “a long-running experiment in contained bedlam.” In an excellent chapter on marriage and the stresses parenting places upon it, Senior introduces us to Angie and Clint, a shift-working couple of two young sons, to reveal academic research on time-use, social isolation, child compliance, sex, and a fascinating concept called “unentitlement,” in which parents—especially mothers—prioritize family and household chores above their own needs. In the third chapter, Senior introduces the “simple gifts” parenting can bring and the science behind them as she follows Sharon, a 67-year-old raising her 3-year-old grandson alone. Sharon is also the lens through which Senior discusses research on the ways in which parenting children—who, Senior eloquently reminds us, “still have their hands on the world”—allow adults to reconnect to the pleasures of tangible, tactile pursuits; to ponder philosophical questions; and to embrace the chance to practice being our best selves.

Senior departs both the bunker years and Minnesota in her chapters on the later years of parenting. She devotes a jam-packed section to the “obdurate challenges of the middle parenting years” and, especially, the effects the overscheduling of kids has on their parents. For this stage, she heads off to suburban Houston, home of demographically diverse parents trying to help their kids balance schoolwork and demanding extracurricular activities (like the pervasive Tuesday night football practices) in an uncertain culture devoid of the folkways that helped parents navigate for generations before ours. In this chapter, Senior also looks at the shifting pressures on women over the last half-century from “keeping an immaculate house to being an irreproachable mom.” Senior’s chapter on adolescence is not for the faint of heart, chronicling as it does the experiences of several Brooklyn families who deal with everything from sons egging neighborhood houses and surfing Internet porn to daughters shoplifting and self-mutilating. Particularly fascinating in this section is Senior’s suggestion that, though “adolescence, more than any other phase of child-rearing, is when the paradoxes of modern childhood assert themselves most vividly,” its fraught reputation may be because we adults are at a loss when the children who’ve relied on us for so much somewhat suddenly, but quite naturally, begin to pull away, leaving our relationships with them and our partners, not to mention ourselves, up in the air.

If the rest of the book is superb, the final chapter of All Joy and No Fun is transcendent. Senior goes beyond the usual nonfiction tactic of revisiting her earlier arguments to discuss how, despite its trials, parenting gives us access to unparalleled joy, imbues our lives with meaning, and offers us the chance to redeem our past mistakes and leave a positive legacy. Explaining why it’s so much harder to quantify “how it feels to be a parent” rather than “how it feels to do the quotidian and often arduous task of parenting,” Senior leaves parents lucky enough to read her outstanding book with the distinct impression that, both in spite of and because of the sleepless nights, mind-numbing responsibilities, and heart-rending challenges, this parenting business is the most meaningful kind there is.

Kristen Levithan writes about motherhood, women’s history, and mother-writers for print and online publications. Currently at work on a non-fiction book about writers who were also mothers, Kristen lives in New England with her husband and three children and offers cultural commentary and musings on modern motherhood at her blog, Motherese.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

Paradise Imperfect: An American Family Moves to the Costa Rican Mountains

Paradise Imperfect: An American Family Moves to the Costa Rican Mountains

By Kate Willette

MARGOTImagine a mother absorbed with the message of her time: Work hard, make lots of money, raise capable children, have nutritious family meals, maintain deep friendships, be emotionally available, contribute to your community, do everything. Don’t worry. Be happy.

Now give her a job among ruthless millionaires at Microsoft, but make it clear that no matter how hard she tries she will never be one. Add in three children and marry her to Anthony, a kind, cheerful man who could not be less ambitious (at one point she compares him to a sloth) and you get Margot Page. Paradise Imperfect is her story.

A story written with humor, insight and irony throughout, Margot has no problem confronting her demons. Here she is at the end of yet another ten-hour workday in Seattle, chewing her nails at a red light:

So far today, I:

 ·  had procured zero items for Hannah’s middle-school auction—just as I had yesterday, and the day before that,

 ·  had forgotten to pack a snack for Harry to eat between school and practice, and

·  was right on track for making Ivy the last child at daycare to be picked up. Bad-mother hat trick!

Later that evening, she and Anthony walk the kids a few blocks to the home of one of the millionaires for an evening that does a big crazy dance on every one of her exposed insecurities. Fabulously expensive art, furniture, electronics. A sweet stay-at-home mom whose offhand comments about her own privileged life provoke a frustration in Margot that’s so bitter you can taste it.

That’s the night that ends with Margot trying to soothe herself to sleep by making a list of what she’ll definitely get done tomorrow. She fails. She is un-soothed. She is, instead, wide awake and suddenly sure what needs to happen next: they should all go spend a year in Costa Rica, in a town they once visited for a week. She shakes Anthony awake and poses the plan. Here is the entirety of his part of the conversation:




Then he goes back to sleep. (He may just be the drollest husband in literature.)

No matter where they go, though, he isn’t going to deliver what she wants from him. He can’t change her, and he doesn’t see any need to change himself. She wants to be in charge of every plan? Okay. She wants to cram every second of all their lives with her personal version of success, purpose and meaning? Go for it.

And yet it works—the marriage, the family, the year in a foreign country. It’s Anthony, in his charming, dissociated way, who underlines the metaphor. From Costa Rica, Margot is on a chat window with him, using a broken keyboard with no space bar. He’s away on a quick trip to Seattle. At one point, looking at her jammed-together words on his screen, he kindly makes her an offer:

Here are some extra spaces. You seem to be out again.

That’s it exactly. Spaces. She’s been so desperately out of spaces for so long. Here she is in the rainforest:

Standing at our laundry line, I could see past the guava tree, over the foothills and down, down, to the thin blue band of the Gulf . . . I walked back and forth. I remembered to look at the sky.

Costa Rica turns out to be about space. Margot is airing out her life in this book; she’s lifting up each scene—beautiful or troubling—in its turn and holding it still for our appraisal.

She wrote Paradise Imperfect with ten years’ distance between today and Costa Rica, which means we get a pleasantly detached view of things that were definitely not pleasant in the moment. The children are now mostly grown and happy. The job has not consumed her. The mid-thirties woman we get to know has become a mid-forties woman it’s easy to like, and this sharing of her loopy, loving year on the side of a mountain in the rainforest is a gift.

Kate Willette lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she writes about family, parenting, neuroscience, and disability. Her latest books include Some Things Are Unbreakable and Working 2 Walk 2012.

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A Good Birth: New Mothers’ Birth Experiences

A Good Birth: New Mothers’ Birth Experiences

By Rachel Rose

A GoodBirthThe statement, “If patient-centeredness defines midwifery, then no doubt any of us who attends birth—whatever our degree or relationship to technology—should be a midwife” is a provocative one, especially coming from an obstetrician who had all of her children via cesarean section. But this is exactly what makes Dr. Anne Lyerly’s book A Good Birth a standout. I wish that I’d had a copy of A Good Birth in the early stages of my first pregnancy, as I struggled with decision-making about where, how, and with whom in attendance to give birth. It was hard not to feel wistful as I delved into Dr. Lyerly’s research on what makes a good birth, drawn from interviews with the only people who can possibly know: women who have recently given birth. The experiences of mothers are central to Dr. Lyerly’s research, and inform both her practice and her thesis, which is that women can thrive under all kinds of birthing conditions, and feel that they’ve had a good birth even in adverse situations, provided they have agency.

Interviews with new mothers about what made their birth experiences good (or bad) is fascinating reading material for anyone who has ever created and birthed a baby.  Somehow, medical professionals have divided into camps, with midwives pushing natural birth and obstetricians pushing medicalized hospital birth, and left it up to women to choose what they are most comfortable with (or least uncomfortable with). If I were pregnant now, I would only go to a maternity care provider who had read A Good Birth, or who had already incorporated the lessons from Dr. Lyerly’s book. Her epilogue “Common Ground: Notes to Maternity Care Providers” is worth the price of the book alone. She speaks passionately about the collateral damage in the birth wars: mothers.

“I can tell you that the birth wars have had an effect, though perhaps not the one advocates

may have hoped for. They have set the stage for guilt and self-doubt among childbearing

women who face stark and false choices among caricatured versions of birth rather than

the authentic and messy and uncertain options that birthing, wherever you do it, entails….”

Ideology—whether from the natural birth movement or the medicalized obstetrical movement—divides women, setting them up to judge other women and themselves as successes and failures for where and how they give birth. We as a society can do better, ensuring that all birthing women are able to feel connected with their care providers, are able to give birth in a way that fits their values and their circumstances, and are honored for the new life they are bringing forth.

Reading this book, I revisited that difficult hour when I was in recovery after my urgent C-section, alone, in pain, without a nurse (shift change) and not knowing how my baby was coping in the NICU. Yes, I had an obstetrically good outcome, in that my high-risk pregnancy ended well, but I did not have a good birth for my first child’s arrival, the point where I became a mother.

So many women can recount traumas and heartaches, and we are told to focus on our blessings, our living treasures, and never mind what we lost: an opportunity for sacred transformation. But even though my last birth was over ten years ago, I found Dr. Lyerly’s book provided a healing opportunity to review my birth experiences, to find meaning and beauty and pride in them, and also to mourn the areas where I felt abandoned. In this regard, Dr. Lyerly’s book is essential reading for those who give birth, as well as for those who attend births. In listening respectfully to pregnant and birthing women, both before and after their births, and in studying their collective wisdom like an anthropologist would, Dr. Lyerly’s reframing of what makes a successful birth experience is a gift to both mothers and birth attendants. This book serves as a wake-up call to care providers, whatever their ideological camp, to reconsider how they practice, and the impact their approach has on the women they serve. A Good Birth is a book I’ll be buying for my friends as they go through this transformative experience. For women who have yet to give birth, A Good Birth is critical reading, as it inspires them to consider the choices they make around birth, and also to ensure that their care providers are held accountable.

Women remember the day we bring new life into the world for the rest of our lives, for better or worse. There is nothing routine about it. It is a sacred day, and Dr. Lyery’s insistence on this truth is central to her message in A Good Birth.

Rachel Rose ( has won awards for her poetry, her fiction, and her non-fiction, including a recent Pushcart Prize. Her most recent book, Song and Spectacle won the 2013 Audre Lorde Poetry Prize in the U.S. and the Pat Lowther Award in Canada.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

The Good Mother Myth:  Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality

The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality

By Lori Rotskoff

Good Mother MythWhy haven’t we done away with the mystique of the “perfect mother”? We know she’s a mirage.  And yet, as editor Avital Norman Nathman writes in her introduction to The Good Mother Myth, the “fabled ideal” of maternal perfection retains its power to make us feel anxious, guilty, and even depressed. The myth of the “Good Mother” reigns on screen and in print, on blogs and on Facebook, flattening the complexity of real mothers’ lives and fostering a “manufactured culture of conflict and judgment,” of second-guessing and self-doubt.

Here, Nathman gathers thirty-six personal essays that hone the raw material of maternal experience into pithy, pointed vignettes that make a strong impact on the reader.  Sometimes confessional; sometimes questioning; and frequently defiant, subversive, and bold, they challenge our understanding of what it means to be a good mother beyond stereotype and social convention.

Some writers plumb the depths of anxiety when a child faces medical problems or life-threatening situations. Parenting experts may chide “helicopter mothers” for stunting their kids’ development, but for a mother like Heather Hewett, whose daughter has severe food allergies, such hyper-vigilance is necessary.  “All parents know the fear of losing their children,” Hewett writes, but for some, controlling a young child’s environment is a daily task in which “perfection becomes an expectation.” Jessica Valenti struggled with a similar issue when her daughter was born premature and spent two precarious months in the NICU. “When I find myself scowling at some other mother’s parenting style, or even being hard on myself,” writes Valenti, “I remember that being ‘overprotective’ is … a mostly reasonable response to the oh-so-scary act of having something exist in the world that you love more than yourself.”

Of course, guilt can arise from less grave circumstances, such as how often Kraft Mac and Cheese surfaces on the dinner table. Any reader who adores her  mother’s holiday cooking will understand the import of Carla Naumburg’s confession: “I’ve never successfully roasted a chicken.  That’s right. I’m a Jewish mother who has never fried a latke or made matzah ball soup.” And let’s not forget the PTA. If you’ve ever found yourself chairing the school book fair against your better judgment, Soraya Chemaly’s trenchant analysis of the gender divide in school volunteer culture might empower you to “just say no” next time. Chemaly doesn’t denigrate the work that volunteers do; on the contrary, she criticizes the fact that female-dominated volunteer groups unintentionally de-value women’s unpaid labor, mirroring and perpetuating the wage gap and sex segregation in the broader economy.

Here, in fact, lies the book’s greatest strength:  illuminating the extent to which mothers’ choices and lifestyles are enmeshed in a broader context, too often constrained by economic insecurity, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of inequality, stigma, and discrimination. Can a woman who takes psychotropic drugs to combat bipolar depression be a “good mother?” Is a poor, teenage mother by default a “bad” one?  What about a mom who smokes pot because it gives her the “patience for just one more puzzle, one more tantrum, and a few hundred more questions” from her three-year-old? Does a filmmaker who makes erotic films about S&M qualify? How about an observantly Jewish male-to-female transsexual whose children resent her radical shift from daddy to mom?

And what about black mothers? Although the book might have profited from more African-American women’s voices, as well as Latinos and women who practice non-Western religions, T.F. Charlton’s piece speaks volumes about the insidious impact of racism and white privilege. “The myth I contend with is not that of the Good Mother, but that of the Bad Black Mother,” Charlton writes.  “It’s a myth that renders my motherhood at turns invisible and suspect…Part of my struggle is to challenge the notion that good motherhood cannot exist in bodies like mine.”

While some essays suffer from vague or familiar observations about pregnancy, childbirth, or toddler mishaps, and most lack the long-term perspective gained through parenting teenagers or young adults, this provocative book is valuable simply because it asks us to suspend preconceived judgments and absorb the stories of women whose experiences differ profoundly from one another, and from our own.  It shows us that the best way to battle the barrage of saccharine sound-bites is to arm ourselves with alternative, candid “tales from the trenches” depicting the messy, real dilemmas of real mothers in an imperfect world.

Lori Rotskoff is a cultural historian, writer, teacher, and co-editor of When We Were Free to Be:  Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference it Made (2012).

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Book Review: Playing to Win

Book Review: Playing to Win

playing to winEnjoy Brain, Mother’s monthly book review. Comment and/or sign up for our weekly blog update and you could win a free copy of Playing To Win:

If you are interested in after-school activities and the future prospects of the children who participate in them, Playing to Win by Hilary Levey Friedman is a must-read. An astute, well-researched and clearly written account, the book examines the ins and outs of today’s competitive youth culture across three different arenas: chess, soccer and dance. It is not, however, a documentation of the lives of rising Grand Masters and Broadway stars in the making. It is a tour of the psychological landscape of middle-class American parenting, as it relates to the ever-present push to create the most “successful” kid possible.

The premise of the book is that parents believe children need something Levey Friedman describes as “Competitive Kid Capital” in order to achieve the “good life.” And that extracurricular activities are the way, par excellence, to accrue it. The process of acquiring Competitive Kid Capital, which includes qualities such as internalizing the value of winning and learning how to perform in stressful situations, starts young: we are talking about elementary-school-aged children. It is also directly linked to competitive (as opposed to recreational) ventures, where scores are kept, rankings are obsessed over and trophies are doled out one after the next.

Playing to Win is, at heart, a sociological study. It is a laying bare of a cultural phenomenon—its history and its infrastructure—not a judgment on that phenomenon. “Are these parents crazy?” Levey Friedman asks. “Have they lost their grip?” Her definitive answer to these questions is “no” and she walks the line between showing us why and telling us why with admirable grace. On the one hand, she lets the data and the people involved speak for themselves: interviews with both parents and children are a hallmark of the book. On the other hand, she is a careful, explicit and non-biased interpreter of her fieldwork.

The chapter on gender, one of the strongest, provides a good example of this balanced presentation. Here Levey Friedman tackles the influence of sex, and also of class, on a parent’s decision to enroll a child in a particular activity. Upper-middle-class parents, she notices, are more likely to promote an “assertive type of femininity” and so choose soccer for their daughters, whereas lower-middle-class parents are likely to favor a “more traditional type” of femininity and choose dance. So too girls are far more likely than boys to take dance classes at all. These trends are outlined with no aspersions cast and with ample opportunity to hear the parents’ own voices.

One of the major themes weaving through Playing to Win is the perceived relationship between competitive after-school activities and college admissions. The US is unique in nurturing such a connection, as it is one of the only countries to “consider admissions categories other than academic merit.” For American parents, therefore, the drive for their children to participate increasingly in these ventures (“to beef up their resumes,” as the dean of admissions at Harvard has put it) is an extension of the desire to get them into the best college possible, which is often narrowly construed as the elite universities of the Ivy League. And yet, in the end, Levey Friedman acknowledges that “we don’t know conclusively that the activities that fill the leisure time of affluent American children are central to maintaining an advantage for these kids into adulthood.”

Playing to Win will leave you ambivalent, just like the parents it chronicles, who seesaw between “the ‘need’ to keep up and their exhaustion from trying to keep up.” It will make you question where you fall on the spectrum of competitiveness for your children, both in terms of the activities they take part in and the process of getting them into college. You will recognize the potential benefits these activities bestow, the confidence, the resilience, the self-regulation. But you will also probably lament the fact that America has gotten to a point where eight year olds are spending hour upon hour of their “free” time honing skills so they can win at sports we used to play for fun. And when you close the book, you will either immediately sign your kid up for chess lessons. Or make plans to flee the country.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

Book Review: Get Smart?

Book Review: Get Smart?

By Kristen Levithan

0-6Enjoy Brain, Mother’s monthly book review. Comment and/or sign up for our weekly blog update and you could win a free copy of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.

In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley shines a spotlight on three countries that successfully teach higher-order critical thinking skills to almost all of their children. Using American exchange students as her field agents, she explores how these countries have done it and questions why we haven’t managed to do the same. Ripley, a journalist known for hard-hitting education writing (like her 2008 Time profile of former DC Education Chancellor Michelle Rhee and this month’s Atlantic cover story, “The Case Against High-School Sports“), is a compelling storyteller who deftly plaits humorous anecdotes and hard data to whip you in the face with her findings. She introduces us to Kim, a sharp, sensitive Oklahoman, who travels to Finland to expand her horizons beyond that of her sports-loving, underperforming public high school; Eric, an affable Minnesotan, who spends a post-graduate year in South Korea; and Tom, a bibliophile from Pennsylvania, who sets off for Poland with visions of Chopin dancing in his head.

From Ripley’s account, it’s hard not to be impressed by the education system in Finland, one that she describes as a model of “balance and humanity” in which the “best and brightest of each generation” make their ways into highly selective teaching colleges and are then rigorously trained and mentored by outstanding master teachers. It’s also difficult not to scratch one’s head at the oddly bifurcated Korean model, in which students spend their days dozing through classes at conventional high schools and their nights cramming at private, for-profit hagwons, ostensibly learning what they were supposed to have learned during the school day. Poland, meanwhile, has enjoyed an upward trajectory of achievement, thanks to 15 year old reforms based on accountability, autonomy at the school level, and early remediation for both students and teachers.

Whatever their methods—and, again, it’s pretty clear that Finland is the country Ripley wants us to be when we grow up—all of these “education superpowers” share a few things in common: highly qualified teachers; parents who act as authoritative “coaches” rather than enabling “cheerleaders”; and, perhaps most of all, a universal agreement that one must succeed in school in order to succeed in the world. By holding these countries up as exemplars, Ripley exposes an American home-school “moon bounce” culture focused more on sports and self-esteem than self-control, endurance, and resilience. According to Ripley, if the U.S. seeks to prepare our students for the global economy, our kids need to take school more seriously and so do we: “To give our kids the kind of education they deserved, we had to first agree that rigor mattered most of all; that school existed to help kids learn to think, to work hard, and yes, to fail. That was the core consensus that made everything else possible.”

So can the U.S. ever attain Helsinkian heights? Well, the new Common Core State Standards that so many of us have seen rolled out in our kids’ schools this fall are aligned with international benchmarks that give precedence to the higher-order thinking skills that the “smart” countries excel at. And perhaps recent economic turbulence will inspire us, just as it did Finland, South Korea, and Poland, to improve education in order to make our people into our most important resource.

Look out Finland; here we come?

Kristen Levithan writes about motherhood, women’s history, and mother-writers for print and online publications. Currently at work on a non-fiction book about writers who were also mothers, Kristen lives in New England with her husband and three children and offers cultural commentary and musings on modern motherhood at her blog, Motherese.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

Book Review: Going Home Again

Book Review: Going Home Again

By Gale Walden
Leaving Tinkertown Cover PhotoEnjoy Brain, Mother’s monthly book review. Comment and/or sign up for our weekly blog update and you could win a free copy of Leaving Tinkertown.

Due to her father’s early onset of Alzheimer disease, author Tanya Ward Goodman is dealing with caring for her parent before she has her first child. She is reverse parenting in reverse order. In some ways, the topsy-turvy is not completely foreign to Tanya, who grew up in Tinkertown, a quirky museum near Albuquerque, conceived and built by her father, Ross (or Roscoe) Ward, who was a visionary of the whimsical.

But this is Alzheimer’s that Ross, at 55, has been diagnosed with—while humor occasionally makes an appearance within the disease, whimsy does not—and when Tanya moves back into the museum in which she was raised, the incongruence seems almost too much.  At one point in the narrative, almost everyone is taking antidepressants amidst the “workings of Tinkertown” where “carefully bent wire hangers, pulleys made from strips cut from old inner tubes, and wooden thread spools along with dozens of sewing machines bring all the figures to life.”

Yet, against all odds, this is not a depressing memoir—it’s more of a testament to the power of women and the ways they can take not only of the man they love, but also of his memory. In addition to Tanya, Ross’s mother, Rose, also moves back home from Aberdeen, South Dakota, to help care for her son again before ending up in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s herself.

One of the most vivid characters in this memoir is La, Tanya’s stepmother, a woman who helped raise her, after Tanya chose to stay with her divorced father.  Tanya recognizes the strengths she has been given from La, who is the realist in a family of dreamers.  She is no saint and not always likeable, but it is clear Tanya respects and loves her.  It’s incredibly refreshing to see “the stepmother” portrayed in a way that is not a caricature, but as a complex person, and to be given a place, not only in the story, but in Tanya’s life: “Thanks to my mother, I have the ability to identify plants and discern a raven from a crow (the raven is bigger and looks blue in the sun).  From La, I get my drive to action, my need to fix things.  These forces brought me to New Mexico.”

New Mexico itself is a force in the memoir:  “On bad days,” Tanya says, “the wind picks up and blows tumbleweeds, dust, and empty paper cups across the roads, filling the sky with a brown dirt haze.  But on good days, when the sun is out the sky is the clean blue of a robin’s egg, I can think of no place I’d rather be.” The west is almost a character itself in the memoir—Tanya moves from Albuquerque to LA and back again, and the adage “you can’t go home again,” is tested multiple times.

Why Tanya, as a youth, chose to stay with her father in Tinkertown when her parents divorced is not explored fully, and that might be understandable, given that her mother is still alive; one of the admirable things about this memoir is that it refuses to throw anybody under the bus.  It doesn’t completely sugarcoat either; Roscoe’s drinking is noted, although not dwelled upon. Tanya’s brother, Jason, has a tendency to disappear when the going gets tough, but everyone’s good qualities are rendered also.  The author’s ethics and balance in trying to be honest and yet not hurt her family is visible and admirable.

One vision I did want to see more clearly was Tinkertown itself.  The museum is a backdrop, a mission, a steadying force in this particular life, and, for someone who has never been there, it is difficult to visualize or to figure out what exactly it looked like, (even though there are some pictures), so for the reader who hasn’t been there, you might be left with enough curiosity to go.

But Tinkertown, as metaphor, that place where we all leave slowly when we marry or have children, or when we start to care physically for the people who have raised us, is a place that is more familiar, as is the reluctance to leave it.

Gale Walden lives in Urbana, Illinois, with her 15-year old daughter, Zella, and their dog, Junebug, and is currently writing a memoir.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

Book Review: Are You Worried About Bullying?

Book Review: Are You Worried About Bullying?

By Hilary Levey Friedman

The first of our new monthly Brain, Mother book review column. Subscribe to our blog and become a randomly chosen winner to receive a free copy of Sticks and Stones.

0-2The 1999 Columbine massacre changed the way we see bullying in schools. Since then 49 states have passed laws addressing bullying. In her recent book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, Emily Bazelon, a lawyer and journalist, shows how in post-Columbine America bullying has become one of the biggest stories about 21st century childhood.

And, yet, according to Bazelon’s research, things aren’t as dire as you might think. The stats show that somewhere between 15-20% of kids are regularly involved in bullying (either as victims or bullies) and while cases of bullycide are tragic, often there are underlying issues such as mental illness. To make her case Bazelon draws on Scandinavian research, analysis of legal cases, and in-depth investigation of three high profile cases involving children in the Northeast.

Sticks and Stones is divided into four parts; the first two focus on the stories of Monique, Jacob, and Flannery, while the third focuses on a synthesis of research, and the fourth on conclusions and tips to combat bullying. I found Part III to be the most compelling, particularly Chapter 9, “Delete Day,” which concentrates on Bazelon’s visit to Facebook and what the social media giant is doing about cyberbullying.

Bazelon writes: “The electronic incarnation of bullying also changed the equation for adults by leaving a trail.” Kids today care more about having a Facebook account suspended than getting suspended by their schools, so she argues that the company should do more protect teens (Bazelon suggests a simple solution that Facebook make the default settings private for any teenage account holder, which Facebook hasn’t yet done).

This links to one of the major takeaways from Sticks and Stones—that adults and social institutions play a crucial role in bullying.  Whether it be parents not intervening, or even intervening too much especially when it comes to the press, or teachers and school administrators not taking threats seriously and missing signs of serious abuse, our educational system and social media sites play a major role in the “drama” between kids. While Bazelon acknowledges that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between typical drama among teens and bullying, she iterates that the best working definition of bulling is verbal or physical aggression repeated over time that involves a power differential between children. Her portrayal of Flannery’s story, related to the national headline-making “bullycide” of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, illustrates just how complicated this can be: Even after talking with many people over a period of months and pouring over legal documents, Bazelon confesses she still isn’t 100% sure what happened.

As a mom I learned from Sticks and Stones that as involved as I am while my son is a toddler, I need to stay that involved as he ages and engages with peers online and in school. Our work doesn’t stop when the kids head into the schoolyard; whether they are bullies or bullied, they are still our children.

Hilary Levey Friedman is a Harvard sociologist who studies childhood, competition, and beauty. Her book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, was recently released—and she now contemplates what activities her sons will participate in someday. Visit her website, for more.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.