10 Novels That Explore What It’s Really Like to Grow Up

From the struggles of self-identity, domestic violence, and suicide and loss, these 10 new YA novels poignantly tackle the tough issues.

It’s been a long time since I was a teen, but I remember the challenges of dealing with that first broken heart, watching my body morph from a child into a woman, and entering the threshold of adulthood — without a plan or any direction. The teenage years are full of change, pressure, and uncertainty. Even in stable, solid families, teens grapple with a wide range of issues as they grow and develop.

The statistics are shocking:
  • About 20 percent of teens will experience depression before reaching adulthood (DoSomething.org).
  • Roughly 75 percent of girls with low self esteem reported engaging in negative activities like cutting, bullying, smoking, drinking, or disordered eating (DoSomething.org).
  • Almost 40 percent of homeless people in the U.S. are under 18 (Covenant House).
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens. A recent survey of high school students found that almost 1 in 5 had seriously considered suicide; more than 1 in 6 had made plans to attempt suicide; and more than 1 in 12 had made a suicide attempt in the past year (Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide).
  • LGBT youth are at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, suicide attempts, and suicide (Centers for Disease Control).
  • According to statistics, about 30 percent of teenagers in the U.S. have been involved in bullying, either as a bully or as a victim of teenage bullying (Family First Aid).
  • Living with domestic violence significantly alters a teen’s DNA, aging them prematurely 7-10 years (Childhood Domestic Violence Association).
  • During the past month, 26.4 percent of underage persons (ages 12-20) used alcohol, and binge drinking among the same age group was 17.4 percent (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).
  • By the twelfth grade, about half of adolescents have abused an illicit drug at least once (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services).
  • When a parent talks to their teenager regularly about the dangers of drugs and alcohol they lessen the chance of their child using drugs by 42 percent! However, only 25 percent of teens report actually having these conversations (National Institute on Drug Abuse).

It’s critical that we have the difficult discussions with our teens and arm them with resources that can help. Books are one way to empower them.

From the struggles of self-identity, the trauma of domestic violence, to the unthinkable heartbreak of suicide and loss, these 10 new YA novels tackle the tough issues — poignantly and with unforgettable prose.

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Books for teens Life Before by Michele BaconLife Before 

by Michele Bacon

Life Before is a modern coming-of-age story that finds 17-year-old Alexander (Xander) Fife excited to finish high school and start college so that his future can finally “begin.” Unfortunately for Xander, his violent, abusive father has other plans. Xander ends up on the run and on his own for the first time in his life. Author Michelle Bacon does an incredible job painting the canvas of emotional chaos experienced by children who grow up in violent and abusive homes. Teens will connect with Xander’s raw, emotional journey, and the honest voice in which his story is told.

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Books for teens This Ordinary Life by Jennifer WalkupThis Ordinary Life

by Jennifer Walkup

Jasmine Torres has so much going on in her life, it’s a miracle she hasn’t suffered a nervous breakdown or run away from home. She is the glue that keeps her dysfunctional family together, dealing with her younger brother’s epilepsy, her mother’s alcoholism, and her broken heart — all while aspiring to become a radio star. But how do you fulfill your dreams with so many other responsibilities? When so many others depend on you? Hope. This Ordinary Life is a wonderful story about the love between siblings and never losing sight of your dreams, no matter what obstacles lie in your way. This beautifully written book is far from ordinary.

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Books for teens Draw the Line by Laurent LinnDraw the Line 

by Laurent Linn

Sometimes the superhero isn’t the big guy, the outgoing guy, the guy who has all the girls. Sometimes the superhero is waiting in the background; waiting to ‘come out’ and turn the world upside down. When a violent hate crime occurs at a local hangout, 16-year-old Adrian must stand up and come out, or he will forever be stuck in the background. A magnificent story about self-identity, courage, and finding your way. This groundbreaking book defies genres and takes a serious look at some timely, hard-hitting issues.

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Books for teens Pearl by Deirdre Riordan HallPearl 

by Deirdre Riordan Hall

Pearl Jaeger has survived being the daughter of a drug-addicted, has-been celebrity mother. She has survived living with her mother’s abusive boyfriend. She has survived fleeing that turbulent environment and bouncing from homeless shelter to homeless shelter. Now the real test begins. Can she survive boarding school — her one chance at a new beginning — or will her mother’s struggles emerge and become her own? A book intended for mature teens looking for realistic fiction addressing the struggles of addiction, love, and self-identity.

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Books for teens Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky AlbertalliSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda 

by Becky Albertalli

Heart wrenching, yet appropriately infused with humor, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is another remarkable piece of realistic fiction — a geeky coming-of-age story about the not-so-openly gay Simon Spier whose secret is about to come to light in the form of a wayward email. Albertalli creates a masterful world filled with relatable characters, in a happy bounce of a book.

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Books for teens My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine WargaMy Heart and Other Black Holes 

by Jasmine Warga

Sixteen-year-old physics nerd Aysel is severely depressed and fixated on suicide. But she is too scared to do it alone. After discovering a website specializing in “suicide partners,” she meets Roman and they form a pact. The two couldn’t be more polar opposite and as the end nears, Aysel finds herself questioning if she really wants to die. Can she convince Roman that life is better than death? Before it’s too late? Novelist Jasmine Warga addresses teen suicide and mental illness with grace and honesty.

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Books for teens The Loose Ends List by Carrie FirestoneThe Loose Ends List 

by Carrie Firestone

Seventeen-year-old Maddie O’Neill Levine lives a comfortable life. She and her friends are excited to spend their pre-college summer on the lake with her social butterfly grandmother (Maddie’s closest ally). Her happy world turns dark when she learns that Gram is terminally ill. The summer won’t be spent with friends; it will be spent with family on a secret “death with dignity” cruise ship. The Loose Ends List is a story of endings and beginnings, of laughter and tears, of first love and of falling in love with your family all over again. Author Carrie Firestone tackles the hard discussions — death, dying, and grief — in a fresh, clever, and thoughtful way. It’s a book that once picked up, you can’t put down.

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Books for teens What We Saw by Aaron HartzlerWhat We Saw 

by Aaron Hartzler

What We Saw is a thought-provoking, sensitive, and spellbinding story about the courage it takes to do what’s right. Inspired by true events in the Steubenville rape case and told from the first-person account of a girl called Kate, this powerful narrative takes on themes of sexism, rape culture, feminism, and consent. It’s a novel that has the power to change the way people think, and a must-read for all young adults.

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Books for teens What Happens Now by Jennifer CastleWhat Happens Now 

by Jennifer Castle

Seventeen-year-old Ari is recovering from the emotional and physical scars of cutting when she meets Camden and instantly falls in love. But Camden isn’t the glamorous boy she has imagined. He’s damaged and could easily pull Ari down. What Happens Now is a riveting tale of first love, possibilities, and overcoming the demons within. Castle handles the sensitive topics of depression and self-harm with great compassion. She not only describes what Ari is going through in words, she makes you feel her journey and the healing power of love.

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Books for teens What Happens Now by Jennifer CastleThe Way I Used to Be 

by Amber Smith

The Way I Used to Be details the aftermath of a sexual assault from the first-person perspective of Eden. This is a powerful book about the long-term effects of rape on a girl’s life. Teens who have experienced the pain of sexual assault or abuse will appreciate this honest, raw reflection of courage and hope.

8 Books For Children That Every Adult Should Read

Great children’s literature captures the wisdom of human truth in a manner so simple, even grown-ups can understand.

Great children’s literature captures the wisdom of human truth in a manner so simple, even grown-ups can understand. I started reading these aloud to my children more than 20 years ago, and I have returned to them again and again.

For maximum benefit, I suggest reading them aloud. To yourself, if you don’t have the benefit of a young listener.

The animal family by randall jerrellThe Animal Family, by Randall Jarrell

Except for this first, the books are not listed in order of importance. But if you can read only one, make it this one.

Jarrell is a poet, so every word in this story resonates with exquisite light and tone. If you want to understand grief and joy, longing and love, if you want to learn how to accept what comes into your life and what doesn’t, then you need seek no further than this beautiful and tiny – it quite literally fits into the palm of your hand – story.

Or is it a poem? Or a song? A whisper on the breeze? No matter. Call it what you will, it will live in your heart forever.

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The wheel on the schoolThe Wheel on the School, by Meidert Dejong

A question is born out of wonder. That seed is planted in the fertile imagination of those who are willing to consider possibilities – even impossibilities.

With cultivation, a devotion to explore unfolds, where the known is sifted through for the overlooked and the unknown is braved for the unexpected treasures it holds. Discovery leads to awe. This is a journey we all must take, at least once.

Why not begin here, with storks and wagon wheels?

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The Fox In Sox, Dr SeussFox in Socks, by Dr. Seuss

Read this for the sheer joy of its hyper-kinetic velocity and gleeful linguistics. And because it features tweetle beetles. In a battle. With paddles. In a bottle.

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Wolf Story Wolf Story, by William McCleery

It is always about the story. The story within the story, and the story within that story. The different permutations of the same story. The telling of the story and the listening to the story, and way the one affects the other.

Never doubt again the necessity of story, or your ability to change the story.

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Walk when the moon is fullWalk When the Moon is Full, by Frances Hammerstrom

As we all carry on with our days, and our nights, there are other lives being led right among us, but it is so easy – too easy – to not see. To not know.

This gentle chronicle of 12 walks on 12 moonlit nights is a reminder to us all that we can travel to a whole new world without ever leaving our own. All we need do is make one small shift in our own perspective. In this case: change the time, and see with child’s eyes.

In other words, look with curiosity at the people and the landscape that we encounter every day.

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Winnie The PoohWinnie the Pooh, by A. A. Milne

A gentle and loving portrait of the spectrum of human temperament, the original Winnie-the-Pooh (no substitutions, please!) tempers its profundity with the driest of humor.

Oh, don’t we all know a glum Eeyore? An excitable Roo? An anxious Piglet?

Haven’t we all felt a bit 11-o’clock-ish?

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Frog and toad are friendsFrog and Toad, by Arnold Lobel

Whether you have the full box-set or only one, Frog and Toad provide a primer on patience (or the lack of it), on acceptance (or the lack of it), and, most especially, on friendship.

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Harold and the purple crayonHarold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson

This is more than a bedtime story. It’s about creating a world with one’s imagination.

It is a tale of simplicity and dreamy focus: of artistic flow where one crayon – not sixty-four, just one – is enough to draw up a solution from within.

Leo Lionni’s Frederick & Creativity in a Post-Work World 

Frederick reconfirms that the creative process is work, and it reinforces one of art’s many purposes.

I’ve read Frederick by Leo Lionni to my kids almost as many times as I’ve read Goodnight Darth Vader and James Kochalka’s Glorkian Warrior books.

Though published in 1967, the Caldecott Honor recipient remains a favorite in our family not only because of its visual appeal, but also because of its emphasis on the value of creative work and community interdependence.

Predictions that creativity will be the next generation’s most valuable skill keep popping up. (A few examples can be found at The New York Times, on Medium, and at The Atlantic.) What does this mean? I initially wondered, admittedly leery about reading another article that would make me feel like I’m shorting my kids. I wasn’t sure whether it meant that jobs in the arts would be on the rise (hard to imagine), or employers would be hiring more workers with creative skills (not as hard to imagine). Turns out, neither guess was completely correct.

These articles—written by educators, economists, and futurists—refer to the job market my kids will enter as a “post-work” world and suggest that simply knowing things and being skilled at something will not be enough to make individuals competitive in emerging job markets. Why is this logic sound? If information is readily available and jobs are replaced by technology, individual workers will need to set themselves apart and/or develop new types of work via what’s known as creative destruction.

“There is a solution,” writes Dustin Timbrook, Media Director of Lowe Mill ARTS and Entertainment, “and it doesn’t involve tired, useless attempts at suppressing technology. Like most good solutions it requires a trait that is distinctly human. I’m speaking about creativity.”

Book-Review-Frederick-by-Leo-Lionni

Frederick follows a small community of field mice as they prepare for the coming winter. Each mouse does a job—gathering and storing food, preparing their home for the cold. But one mouse, Frederick, doesn’t appear to be doing anything but staring out at the meadow. When the other mice complain, he tells them he’s gathering colors because “winter is gray” and sun rays for “cold dark winter days,” insisting all the while that he is working. He’s not lying around dreaming, he says, but “gathering words” for when the mice run out of things to say.

It’s not until the end of the book that Frederick’s work is revealed: he has written poetry, which he recites on the darkest and coldest of winter days after the mice have run out of food. The words comfort the mice and carry them through the final winter stretch in anticipation of a new season of growth.

Frederick’s message with regard to art and creativity is twofold. It reconfirms that the creative process is work, and it reinforces one of art’s many purposes.

Creativity is not a new contender in the educational boxing ring. For decades, parents, teachers, and advocates of the arts have fought to keep instruction in the creative arts part of school curricula. Today’s conversation about this topic often involves two thought modules represented by two acronyms: STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math). This translates to education without the arts versus education with the arts. Forbes magazine offers a simple illustration of the applied difference between the two:

When we craft educational strategies to address purely economic outcomes – jobs, manufacturing, growth and so on – we draw constraints around innovation. It’s not that the areas of study or the curriculum itself are wrong, so much as we are studying for the wrong reason. If our curriculum is aimed at preparing young people to do a job, how likely is it to prepare them to create jobs?

Frederick isn’t still popular fifty years after its publication because of its cute mice. It’s popular because it’s still relevant to our cultural and economic conversations. We’re still defending the value and role of the arts in curriculum and in our economy.

Even if your kids are too old for this classic (it’s best for 4 – 7 year olds and Step 3 readers), it wouldn’t hurt to give it a read yourself so that you can be mindful about how you foster creative opportunity and support in your child’s life and education. These opportunities are important because we never know who among us will turn out to be the poets and creative destructors. Teachers can find instruction about the book’s philosophy for the classroom here.

5 Great Books For Storytime As Winter Winds Down

There’s little better than staying inside with a good book or two. Here are five wintery books that we’ve enjoyed this year.

There’s little better than staying inside with a good book or two, even in a mild winter like we’ve had this year in Vermont.

With a growing child, I’ve been taking more and more joy in perusing the shelves of my local bookstore for new and exciting things to read at story time. Here’re five wintery books that we’ve been reading recently.

Here are five wintery books that we’ve enjoyed this year.

Katy and the Big Snow, Virginia Lee Burton

 

23539_4This is a book I remember from my childhood: the story of an engine named Katy in the city of Geopolis during a major snow storm.  It’s a book full of wonderful illustrations that are rich in detail. When the city is snowed in, it’s Katy who plows everyone out, saving the day. Strength and persistence are the key theme here, and it’s the perfect book to read when we have our next big storm.

Beyond the Pond, Joseph Kuefler

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It’s the cover of this book that drew me in a boy and his dog looking deep into a pond, with reeds, fish, sharks, and squid lurking below the surface. The boy’s pond goes deeper than expected, and with bold, minimal illustrations, he goes in search of exceptional adventures, discovering a fantastic world on the other side. It’s a story about being brave and curious, but also that even small places can be exciting to explore.

Over and Under the Snow, by Kate Messner and art by Christopher Silas Neal
Winter

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Perfect for exploring the outside world, crunching over hard snow. As a young girl and her father go skiing in the woods, they learn all about the hidden world under the snow. Squirrels, foxes, bears, owls and more live in the forest throughout the winter months. I’ve found this to be a great read for a curious child who loves animals. The story is fantastic, but at the back, there’s a great appendix with blurbs about each animal featured in the book.

The Tea Party In The Woods, Akiko Miyakoshi

tea-party-woods

I reviewed this book the other day, and I honestly have to say that this is probably one of my most favorite children novels of all time. A young girl goes out into the woods to take a pie to her grandmother, and along the way, stumbles upon a fantastic party in the woods. This is a story about friends and sharing, and it’s accompanied by some wonderful artwork.

PUFF, William Wondriska

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At a certain age, toddlers fall head over heels for trains. This book is a cute, minimalist take on train stories, about a small engine named Puff, who helps at a freight yard. When a huge snow storm makes it hard for the diesel engines to move a train, Puff fulfills his wishes to see the world by stepping up to save the day. This book is filled with bold, simple images and typography, and it’s a neat little story.

What books would you recommend for a winter story time?

Books for Kids That Celebrate Getting Outside in the Winter

This week’s selections include First Snow, The Snowy Day, and Toys Meet Snow for kids aged 4 – 8.


First Snow by Peter McCarty (2015)

first snow

Cousin Pedro is coming to visit. He’s never seen snow, and he doesn’t think he’ll like it–too cold. But Sancho, Bella, Lola, Ava, and Maria jump at the opportunity to introduce him to all the adventure and fun that snow makes possible. McCarty’s ink-and-watercolor illustrations lend appealing textures to Pedro and the rest of the anthropomorphic animal cast.

A great pick for the child who might need a little encouragement to brave the blustery outdoors. (Recommended for ages 4-8)

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1962; anniversary edition 2012)

snowy day

This Caldecott Award-winning classic follows Peter as he explores his urban neighborhood the morning following a snowfall. Bundled in his iconic red snowsuit, Peter revels in the simple joys of building a snowman and making snow angels, while Keats’ bright collage-style illustrations highlight the magic of a city blanketed in snow.

A perfect picture book with universal themes of independence, exploration, and the comfort of sharing your adventures with a loved one at the end of a busy day. (Recommended for ages 2 and up)

Toys Meet Snow by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (2015)

toys meet snow

The delightful plush protagonists of Jenkins’ previous chapter book series make their picture book debut. The Little Girl is away, so her toys Lumphy, StingRay, and Plastic (a red rubber ball who can’t help it that her name doesn’t match her body) set out to explore the first snowfall of the year.

The toys wonder and wander through a wintry afternoon, discussing their discoveries in terms both poetic and practical. Just like the day’s culminating delicious strawberry-red sunset, Jenkins’ prose and Zelinsky’s soft digital illustrations make this a sweet treat.(Recommended for ages 3-7)

Posted on Categories Book Review, Culture

“Unfinished Business:” Work and Family, Success and Survival

In her new book, Anne-Marie Slaughter covers the vicious tradeoffs parents and caregivers are forced to make when it comes to balancing family and career.

A few years ago I was tasked with the unenviable job of developing the first employee handbook for a start-up I was working for. It fell to me to define everything from work hours to vacation to family leave. The first draft included a generous paid family leave policy which I had benefitted from after having my first child—four months of leave, two paid at 100% of my salary.

But when I gave it to my boss to review, she told me she “didn’t believe in paternity leave” and insisted we only give that benefit as a “pregnancy leave”—in other words, it was only for women who carried babies and gave birth. Everyone else was allowed 6 weeks unpaid leave. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. Did she not believe that dads want to raise their kids, too? What about families who adopt or use surrogates?

We argued extensively about it, but in the end, my boss was shockingly straightforward about her rationale. Bearing and raising kids—especially babies—was women’s work. And if she, a highly successful woman in her own right, could somehow run a household and also run a company, then we all could.

Sadly, the bias baked into that policy—and the reasons behind it—is not at all unique. Despite the massive cultural and demographic transformations American families are undergoing, traditional notions about who is responsible for childcare persist.

Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter
Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter

This puzzle is at the core of Anne Marie Slaughter’s important book Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, which she wrote after an article in the Atlantic on the same subject matter went viral in 2012.

Slaughter’s own journey began when she had to to leave her round-the-clock position as a foreign policy advisor for Hilary Clinton to attend to urgent family needs. Although she was already a full-time tenured professor at Princeton, the reactions of her peers showed that they subtly devalued her decision. The decision to “spend time with the family” was for women who had given up on promising careers and abandoned the ambition of “have-it-all” feminism which pushed women to simultaneously run their households and lean into punishing careers with no room for error.

Slaughter’s book is a clarion call to value caregiving and breadwinning equally, and to restructure our policies and laws to reflect the importance of family in our pursuit of living happy and fulfilled lives.

What’s holding us back? As Slaughter observes, it’s not just that we lack the political will and leadership to enact change, but on a more basic level (as my experience with my former boss shows), outdated notions of care persist up and down the socioeconomic spectrum and in all kinds of workplaces.

Slaughter systematically debunks the “half-truths” that women, men, and employers tell themselves, and which are responsible for maintaining the status quo. Most women cannot have it all even if they “are just committed enough” to their careers, “marry the right person,”  or “sequence it right” because none of us can predict what’s going to happen in our careers, marriages, with our health or our kids.

Workplaces that frame work/life balance as a “women’s problem”  shut women out from having the type of career they want while also erasing men from the caregiving equation. Flexible or part-time work schedules are not the answer, because research shows that, when it comes to things like salary and promotion, they penalize the caregivers—again, mostly women—who choose them.

All this may seem particularly surprising to younger generations, who are being raised at a time when the composition of the modern American family and workforce is radically changing. Today, 40 percent of women are the breadwinners in their families; in 60 percent of families in which there are two parents, both work; and over half of children are being raised in “nontraditional families”—with single parents, grandparents, or same-sex parents.

Many of our kids are also being raised by parents who are working in the “gig economy” or part-time jobs with no benefits, low-wage jobs with unpredictable hours, or workplaces with no paid family leave or sick time policies to speak of.

Maybe our kids will throw everything out the window and start from scratch when they become adults. Until then, Slaughter argues, just as the physical infrastructure of our nation—our highways, bridges and railways—needs updating and repair to support our modern ways of travel, our infrastructure of care—family leave policies, childcare supports, and workplace policies—need updating and an overhaul to support our modern way of parenting and working.

But where to begin? Slaughter argues that the type of change we need requires massive social, cultural, and political shifts, and so proposes tackling change in two realms—the personal and the political.

In our personal lives, Slaughter proposes we use a language of equality that does away with qualifiers like “stay-at-home” (implying that the office is the norm). She encourages us to talk about things other than work at social gatherings, to ask our potential hires how they plan to divide up care responsibilities at home, and to avoid overpraising dads for doing all the normal things that women do as a matter of course without praise (changing diapers, taking kids to the playground, taking the lead role at home while a spouse travels for work, etc).  

Some of Slaughter’s advice is naive: she urges couples to have, well in advance of adding a child to their family, the difficult conversations about careers and the trade-offs they’ll have to make.

It’s theoretically practical advice that’s unlikely to be followed by people who can’t really imagine the transformation that’s on the horizon. The arrival of a child is not like renovating a kitchen–you can’t draw up plans for what life will look like. Identities shift, career and life ambitions are revisited, prioriites and even personalities change.

And when Slaughter encourages us to think about our careers in terms of “interval training” (pushing hard, then stepping back), I can’t help but think about the number of women I know with advanced degrees who “stepped back” only to find it nearly impossible to step back into a workplace that penalizes them for ever leaving to begin with.

Slaughter points to promising models that are springing up around the country on an ad-hoc basis: for example, workplaces that are experimenting with results-only models of work, where employees co-create the policies, and where there are radically flexible work hours.

These are worthy examples, to be sure, but the irony is that these types of arrangements tend to flow to the people who can already afford other types of care, or have the skills available to go elsewhere. Slaughter has been accused of purveying a white-collar, elitist brand of feminism; and the “lifestyle” recommendations of the book’s second half do seem to shed the concern for working-class women, same sex couples, and other groups to whom she makes inclusive gestures in the book’s opening chapters.

Still, Slaughter knows that all the small-scale transformations in the world will not be able to compensate for a lack of a comprehensive infrastructure of care created and supported by government policies; it’s here where her recommendations are most inclusive and important.

High-quality and affordable child and eldercare, higher wages and training for caregivers, legal protections for part-time and flexible work, and financial and social support for single parents are among the essential elements of such a plan. Slaughter encourages more women to run for office, and for us to elect them, because female officeholders are more likely to propose and support family-friendly laws.

Unfinished Business stands at the gap between two worlds: the world we currently live in that values work and aggressively devalues care, and a seemingly inevitable world to come.

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In the world to come, women and men equally share caregiving, families aren’t shut out of benefits because they don’t conform to old definitions of what a family is, and, most importantly, caregiving is valued just as much as breadwinning. In our homes, Americans have already started this great transformation–never before have so many of us been modeling new norms of caregiving. It’s time for our aging institutions and policies to catch up, or we will all fall behind.

Why We Love “Guess How Much I Love You” So Much

“Guess How Much I Love You” is a tale about the limitless love between parent and child. But mostly it’s about how awesome we are as parents.

“Guess How Much I Love You,” by Sam McBratney, is a tale about the bonds of love between parent and child. It’s a beautiful exposition of how we perceive that love and its grandeur.  That love seems limitless to us and we can hardly express it.  

But mostly it’s about how awesome we are as parents.

We all love “Guess How Much I Love You” because it describes the golden age of parenting, or, in other words, the time in which we are bigger, better, stronger, and smarter than our kids.  

Guess-how-much-I-love-YouThe story details an evening conversation between Little Nutbrown Hare and his dad (uncle, grandfather, father-figure… we’re assuming here), Big Nutbrown Hare.  Little Nutbrown Hare has just realized how enormous his capacity to love really is and is totally stoked to share that with Big Nutbrown Hare.  So he makes himself vulnerable by asking his parent to “guess how much [Little Nutbrown Hare] loves him.”  Little Nutbrown Hare then stretches out his arms to their full extent and declares this distance to be that of his love for Big Nutbrown Hare.  And what does Big Nutbrown Hare say?

Well, of course, Big Nutbrown Hare stretches his arms out as far as they can go and declares the same thing.  Only Big Nutbrown Hare’s arms are much longer than Little Nutbrown Hare’s because as you grow up your wingspan increases.  That’s an important side lesson.

Anyway, the point is, we are bigger than our kids and that’s awesome.

Little Nutbrown Hare rebuts with the fact that he loves his parent/guardian (?) “as high as [he] can reach.”  Oh, Little Nutbrown Hare… so much to learn.  Again, Big Nutbrown Hare is able to prove his bigness pretty easily, because when you’re bigger than someone else it’s usually pretty much all-encompassing.  As parents we love this rule because we are able to show off our bigness often and in many different ways.

Little Nutbrown Hare comes up with a new idea which he is sure will make him the victor in this whole who-loves-who-more game.  He stands on his hands and leans his feet up against a tree, saying that he loves Big Nutbrown Hare “all the way up to [his] toes.”

But Big Nutbrown Hare comes in with the curveball here by swinging his son into the air and saying that he loves Little Nutbrown Hare all the way to his toes (which is a greater distance now that the rabbit is elongated thusly. 

We parents have lifting abilities that need to be flaunted whenever possible.

So Little Nutbrown Hare is left feeling somewhat Nutbrown bummed and wishing he hadn’t even brought this love thing up in the first place.

He decides to use his athleticism to try and gain some ground here, so he claims he loves Big Nutbrown Hare “as high as he can hop.”  But, as predicted, Big Nutbrown Hare demonstrates his remarkable hopping skills and has us all beaming with pride.

Little Nutbrown Hare, at this point crying out (some may say out of excitement, but I wager it’s just because he’s overcome with rage), says that he loves Big Nutbrown Hare all the way out to a river that happens to be visible to him in that moment.  Big Nutbrown Hare can see farther because when you are taller it’s easier to see over things like trees and rivers.  Another important side lesson. 

(We all love this part because we are reminded of how much better we are than our kids at most stuff.)

Meanwhile Little Nutbrown Hare just wishes Big Nutbrown Hare would shut his Big Nutbrown mouth.

Finally, Little Nutbrown, using his last ounce of willpower, rather inquisitively considers just the sheer hugeness of the sky above.  He whispers that he loves Big Nutbrown Hare “right up to the moon.”  Big Nutbrown Hare just can’t let it go — just cannot lose this game — so he administers the line we all remember most from this book, “I love you right up to the moon and back.”  

We cherish this moment as a perfectly natural one, where parents claim their place of superiority over their kids and all is right with the world.

But at this point, Little Nutbrown Hare is fast asleep, having given up on this stupid game entirely.  And that’s when we realize that, not only is it super cool to flaunt our awesomeness to our kids, it’s also a really great way to piss them off into a slumber.

Way to go, parents.  Keep being badasses.

“NeuroTribes” And The Surprising Truths About Autism

Especially for parents raising kids on the spectrum, “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity” is nothing short of a revelation.

Earlier this year, my 5-year-old son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  The diagnosis did not come as a complete surprise.

Over the previous year, my husband and I had grown increasingly aware of our son’s socially averse behavior and rigid thinking. He avoided eye contact with most people and melted down if routines or food weren’t precisely as expected. And he seemed not to understand – or even be concerned with – social cues.

Still, despite his social and behavioral challenges, my son had unusual abilities.

He had taught himself to read when he was four and was a book lover with an incredible memory. His singular focus over the previous year had been learning everything – EVERYTHING – about outer space, writing “books” about the solar system and drawing thousands of pages of the planets in fine detail, including the hundreds of moons which he knew by name.

He often spoke like an adult and could sit and focus on tasks for long stretches of time. Although his introverted nature was not unlike many of our nerdy, socially awkward family members, we knew he probably had Asperger’s syndrome, that particular part of the autism spectrum that applies to kids like him: verbal, focused acquirers of information who can’t seem to make sense of the social world around them.

The moment the developmental pediatrician confirmed that our son had Autism Spectrum Disorder (Asperger’s syndrome having been folded into a broader umbrella diagnosis in 2013), we found ourselves part of the strange fellowship of parents with children on the autism spectrum who are told to look at their child’s challenges and strengths with new eyes.

While it was a relief to have an explanation for the behavioral challenges we were confronting on a daily basis, in the context of an autism diagnosis, our son’s precocious ability to read was reframed as a “splinter skill.”

His unusual ability to focus was “perseverating.” And his passion for data and facts was determined to be a “classic sign of autism.”  “I wish I had better news for you,” the doctor said apologetically as we left his office, “but at least some of these kids are really smart!”

We were frustrated. How was it possible that his strengths and abilities were pathological?  In the months that followed, we waded through the morass of behavioral, dietary, psychiatric and educational advice, becoming more confounded. The dominant focus on autism seemed to be on research into causes, preventions, and cures. Why? Where was the chorus of experts providing us with advice on how we, as parents, could champion and channel our son’s abilities while helping him cope in a world that would always seem alien and confusing?

Cover-largeFor a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity is nothing short of a revelation.

Silberman’s premise, which he makes clear from the beginning, is not only that is there a place in the world for autistic intelligence, but that one of our greatest challenges as a society (especially given the rising number of autism diagnoses, which currently stands at one in 68)  is creating a world in which that intelligence is fully utilized, where neurodiversity is not just “accommodated,” but celebrated.

The book grew out of reporting Silberman did for Wired magazine, largely in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, one of the regions where the “epidemic” of autism has been most closely watched (and where two crucial countercultures – that of the nerdy tech sector and the vaccine-fearing counterculture – find strange intersections).

The book begins with a lengthy history lesson, and indeed, it is through Silberman’s sweeping and lovingly detailed history of the evolution of autism that the reader unlocks the understanding of how our society came to our current understanding and response to autistic people today.

Although autism has always been present in humans, its characteristics were not fully articulated, nor was it identified as a unique disorder, until the 1930s, when it was “discovered” simultaneously by Hans Asperger in Austria and Leo Kanner in Baltimore.  Both Asperger and Kanner noticed behavioral similarities amongst some children brought to their respective clinics. These were children who had difficulty making eye contact and with social interaction were preoccupied with rules and systems, and had extraordinary abilities in areas like math, art, music, and science.

Asperger was convinced that it was possible for children with this disorder (which he called “autistic psychopathy”) to thrive with the help of tailored teaching methods that would draw on their fascinations, and he foresaw important roles for them in contributing to the betterment of society.

Asperger was also the first person to recognize that autism was clearly a continuum, with nonverbal and verbal children sharing core characteristics. He called these children, affectionately, his “little professors,” since many of them were prone to talk about their pet interests at length. As the Nazis accelerated their plans to rid society of “mental defectives” with a large-scale campaign to euthanize disabled children and adults, Asperger gave the world’s first public talk on autism, in which he defended his patients’ right to exist.

Cognizant of the Nazis’ intolerance of visibly disabled children, Asperger focused on what he called the “most promising cases” of children in his care, arguing that these children were not only capable of accomplishing great things in the world, but that their social difficulties were inextricably linked to their gifts. His framing of autism likely saved the lives of many children, but before he was able to disseminate his work widely, his clinic was destroyed in an air raid–and with it, the case studies of all of his patients.

Silberman’s examination of Asperger’s life and contributions is made all the more poignant when one considers Leo Kanner’s radically different understanding of autism, which was to shape the diagnoses and approaches to treatment for decades to come.

Kanner, who saw only the most challenging cases of autism, determined it to be a very rare disorder consisting of a narrow range of behaviors. More significantly, he promoted the idea that autism had somehow been triggered by cold and distant parenting styles. “Refrigerator Mothers” were likely to blame, and only psychiatry could ameliorate the damage that had been done.

By emphasizing the most debilitating aspects of autism, and by implicating parents, Kanner paved the way for decades of mistreatment of autistic children.

The chapters detailing the lifelong institutionalization of children in horrific conditions where shackling, neglect and corporal punishment were the norm, as well as a chapter on the darker side of treatments such as Applied Behavior Analysis that are still widely used today, will be particularly difficult for parents to read.

Perhaps most significantly, Kanner’s work shaped the current emphasis on finding causes, prevention and “cures” for autism, rather than focusing on expanding services and designing adaptive technologies and spaces for autistic people. It also ensured that autism remained stigmatizing for families–a legacy that sadly persists today. From the moment of diagnosis onwards, parents are told to view their child’s strengths as deficits, to question the causes, and to hope for a cure.

NeuroTribes Review

It wasn’t until the 1970s that Asperger’s work was rediscovered by the British cognitive psychologist Lorna Wing, who was seeking answers to the variety of autistic traits she was discovering in the general population.

Largely due to her efforts, the clinical definition of autism was expanded to include the true spectrum it is today, and Silberman makes clear that it is the broadened diagnostic criteria that have been responsible for the rise in autism cases.

In addition to Asperger and a handful of researchers willing to question the status quo, the true heroes of Silberman’s book are parents and autistic people themselves who have fought for the full inclusion and acceptance of autistic people in schools, workplaces and the public sphere.  Without the parental advocacy groups of the 1970s, disabled children would still be denied the right to a public school education; and parents are still on the front lines of fighting for services for their children in their schools and communities every single day.

Autistic people themselves have also stepped out of the shadows with the rallying cry “Nothing About Us Without Us,” proudly carrying the autistic label and insisting on full inclusion in policy discussions having an impact on their lives.

The neurodiversity movement is leading efforts to promote social support systems and highlight the necessity and value of neurological differences. And while Silberman’s focus is on autism, the concept of neurodiversity extends to anyone whose brains are wired differently, including those with dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, and mood disorders.

Silberman, who spent years with autistic individuals and their families to write this book, is  remarkably restrained when detailing the medical interventions approaching quackery that certain members of the medical community have pushed on parents desperate to help their children. However, he clearly believes that we need to redirect at least some of the money that is being poured into the research identifying causes into expanding services and destigmatizing autism, and he makes a persuasive argument based on history alone.

A portion of Silberman’s work chronicles autistic innovators: from Henry Cavendish to Nikolas Tesla to Temple Grandin to Silicon Valley’s geeky workforce, many innovations in the modern world have come from autistic minds.

I recently got together with a group of parents who have young autistic children. As we shared stories of parenting our kids, two common themes emerged: the extraordinary abilities our kids have, and the immense challenges we all face in getting access to the services and support that our kids need. One of the strangest things about receiving an autism diagnosis for your child, in fact, is simultaneously receiving the message that your family is now part of a ballooning “epidemic,” even as the experience of advocating for your child often feels like a solitary exercise in having to proffer the same explanations and reinvent the same wheel, over and over.

Parents like myself are mired in the daily worries, exhaustion, and yes, joys of raising a child on the spectrum.

For me, the greatest contribution of NeuroTribes is that it reinforces and gives historical vindication to our instincts to create learning and living environments that respond to our children’s challenges while supporting their abilities.

That Silberman combines this analysis with so much warmth and respect for his subjects–autistic children, their families, and their champions–makes the book not just part of a parent’s toolkit, but also a source of wisdom and companionship, as if the caring hero of Silberman’s narrative, Hans Asperger, were still among us.

The Real Hero of the “Corduroy” Book Is the Mother

Don Freeman’s classic children’s story, “Corduroy” tells the tale of a stuffed bear who travels through a giant mall on the lookout for the button that has gone missing from his green overalls.  On his search, he discovers all of the cool things that department stores have to offer, from escalators to big comfy beds.

The reason that Corduroy goes off looking for his button is because the mother of a child who notices him in the store won’t allow her daughter Lisa to buy the bear.  “I’ve spent too much already,” the mother says, and continues, “Besides, he doesn’t look new.  He’s lost the button to one of his shoulder straps.”

Now initially, we’re thinking that the mother is being a little bit cruel. But we don’t really know the background story here, and how many times have we heard kids tell their mothers that they have been waiting forever for some specific toy?

And how do we know that all that other money spent earlier that day wasn’t also spent on the daughter?  Corduroy could just be one more thing that Lisa is requesting in a long line of new toys.

I mean, let’s be real, as parents we are onto this story, and it doesn’t seem genuine.  Even further, we don’t know that this Corduroy bear isn’t being sold at way too high a price.  Maybe we just can’t afford this bear, ok?  Get off our case!

So, though this mother is coming off as sort of the enemy here, we all know she doesn’t deserve it at all.  We get her.

Then we think about this whole button issue for a second. I mean, even if I had gone to the store for the specific purpose of buying my kid a new bear, and this Corduroy bear was really exactly what my kid wanted, I know I would second-guess myself for at least a minute about spending my hard-earned money on a bear that appears to be used versus buying a new one.

So while we would be quick to think of this mother as the penny-pinching, button-shaming nemesis, maybe we can all just take a second and see a little of her in ourselves.   Because, while we’d like to be on the child’s side in most of these stories, we know that we are all a lot like the mother here.

And, as it turns out, that isn’t all bad.  Because at the end of the story, while it’s often skimmed over in our readings, we notice that the reason Lisa gets to go to the store and buy Corduroy after all is because her awesome and practical mother said she could if, and only if, she used her own money from her piggy bank.  So Lisa had to pay for the bear herself to purchase it.  Which teaches her to value the bear more because she had to use her earnings to buy him.  Ahem, massive character lesson?  Check.

Of course, we parents get the short end of the stick again here because the mother doesn’t even show up in that last scene to accept her medal as best parent around and firmly reform our image of her.  So it’s easy for us to forget that she ended up being everything we’d hope we are after all.

Man, parenting is so unfair sometimes.

The best book for exploring and sharing nature with kids

My very favorite book for exploring and sharing nature with kids is “This Book Was a Tree: Ideas, Adventures, and Inspiration for Rediscovering the Natural World” by Marcie Chambers Cuff. It’s both a hands-on book of crafts and activities and a book of principles and ideas for reconnecting with the natural world.

My very favorite book for exploring and sharing nature with kids is “This Book Was a Tree: Ideas, Adventures, and Inspiration for Rediscovering the Natural World by Marcie Chambers Cuff.

It’s both a hands-on book of crafts and activities, as well as a book of principles and ideas for reconnecting with the natural world. It’s a book for budding scientists, before they even know what science is.

“You don’t need expensive new equipment and supplies to get to know the world; you need only to have an open mind that asks good questions.” – Marcie Chambers Cuff in “This Book Was a Tree”

Through the lens of nature, “This Book Was a Tree” encourages kids to “touch, collect, document, sketch, decode, analyze, experiment, unravel, interpret, compare, and reflect.” Each project is designed to spark an insight, illuminate a scientific principal, or teach a positive behavior.

Sample activities include making a pinhole camera, sketching maps, creating different types of terrariums, inspirations for what to look for when wandering, creating sundials (and using them to schedule a day of exploration), tips for getting dirty, building card-based eco-calendars, measuring natural patterns like tree rings, making natural bug lotions, building nests, creating habitats, guerrilla gardening and so much more.

“All life is an experiment. The more you make the better.” – Emerson

 

While this book is about nature, it isn’t anti-technology:

A funny thing happened on the way to the twenty-first century. In between uploading , replying to texts, friending and unfriending, listening to podcasts, and Googling, we all drifted off the trail. It’s a complicated story, since, in many ways, our complex networked lives have mostly been improved with high-tech devices and gadgets. But, in the end , technology has displaced our exposure to the natural world. 

I love how this book identifies kids as modern pioneers:

And now you— yes, you—are the modern pioneer. Not a leathery, backwoods deerskin-wearing salt pork and hominy sort of pioneer, or a lab-coat-wearing research type, but a strong-minded, clever, crafty, mudpie-making, fort-building pioneer.

“This Book Was a Tree” isn’t overtly a book about “saving” nature; rather, it’s about experiencing and learning about nature.

However, the truth is that we’ve never been more disconnected from nature, or more divorced from our surroundings. Around the earth, ecosystems are being converted into wastelands. Rather than preach or panic, “This Book Was a Tree” simplifies this reality into a practical coda:

“Just do the best you can with what you’ve been given and don’t try to do everything at once. Look around and identify a problem that needs solving, pick a few things to get done, and experiment with ecological alternatives. Every little bit helps.” – This Book Was A Tree

It’s more critical than ever that kids get outside, explore and learn about nature when they’re young. As “This Book Was a Tree” makes clear, authentic reconnection with the natural world comes via the most human pursuits of all: exploring, imagining, making and thinking.

This is a book to own. Get it on Amazon or Powell’s. Marcie shows you how to make seed bombs.