“I’m gonna send your vote to college” (or 2nd grade anyway)

When, during the Democratic National Convention, they paid tribute to the late Ted Kennedy, I sat down on the sofa to watch even as the chaos of the dinner and homework hour pressed on. I expected to have to ignore the crashes and whines that usually come in the wake of my getting sidelined by something that holds my attention a little longer than 2ndgrade word problems and cleaning up spaghetti from the floor.

But there was no whining, no pasta casualties. There was the peace that comes when children sit riveted in front of the glow of the tv. And yet it was neither Phineas nor Ferb who had gotten us here. It was footage of a bombastic and committed Ted Kennedy—the flawed, but effective Senator who captured my own bleeding heart at a young age. Beside me my 7-year-old daughter sat, glued as I was to the bluster of Ted Kennedy’s speeches, his handshakes, the fights he fought on behalf of all of us. Who IS that? She asked me. And I told her a little bit about him, a little bit more about the election, about who is running, and about how people tend to vote based on the things that are most important to them.

Even my 5-year-old sat still-ish, pretending to concentrate on words like “healthcare” and “education.” The evening ended with said 5-year-old’s attention span tumbling into a heap along with the stool he had been teetering on, but it did not end without my daughter declaring that she was a Democrat. I choked back my melodramatic, proud-to-be-political tears and patted myself on the back. I was raising a good (if slightly left-leaning) citizen. Okay, a Kennedy-loving, social medicine endorsing, card carrying liberal, but still. She cares about the election!

Then, as I tucked in my newly anointed politico, something strange happened. “Will something bad happen if Mitt Romney wins?” she asked me. And she had a lump in her throat—a frightened lump. What had I done? And how could I fix it?
I looked at her seriously. “Nothing,” I said. “Nothing bad will happen. There might be some changes, but we get a say in those too.”
     Because the truth is, we have a pretty good system.
     And with every election, we have the opportunity to expose our children to that system–the excitement! the energy! the mobilizing! the yelling! the laughing! But mostly we get to expose them to things like the way our kind of democracy works—the bell ringing and enthusiasm of the electoral college, the crazy costumes and buttons of convention attendees. And we all get to entertain the possibility of change.
     But here is the most important thing about all of this. We get to teach our children to vote. We get to tell them that every person of legal age in this country gets to participate—to cast their vote for the person who they think will be the best leader. And we get to teach them that the end of the day, the whole system is set up so we don’t have to be afraid. After all, for every president we don’t agree with, there is a congressperson who also doesn’t agree. This was by design and it is part of what makes our country special and great and it is also part of what makes it frustrating when you want change (and you want it fast.)
     I had the opportunity in my editorial life to spend an entire day with the late Senator Kennedy (we were doing a book about his beloved dog, Splash, and his dog’s eye view of the political process). It was a day I will never forget—I got to sit in his office and talk about process, all while trying not to gawk at the wall of Kennedy memorabilia—snapshots with his parents, his brothers, their letters, their little-kid handwriting. And I got to witness first-hand Kennedy’s dedication to the process itself, his hustle toward a vote, his trying to accomplish something at every turn. The thing I took away from that day besides an adrenaline rush that took years to die down, was how much Kennedy believed in the system and how he worked it, and how it paid off for our country.
     But never mind that now. Right now, with two weeks left, we can use this moment not to teach them to be afraid, but to teach them NOT to be afraid. Because we have a process. And it kind of works and we should all be really proud of that and we should all bring our kids inside that voting curtain and pull that lever like it is our job. And then let them stay up late and watch election results with Stripes and Blues Terra chips in front of them on the sofa!
     And if you’re just not that into all of this, the least you can do is school your kids 80’s style in the ways of bill making and the election process and by the end, you might just all be participating. And cheering, E-L-E-C-T-O-R-A-L! All thanks to

I look 12, but it’s me (with Ted Kennedy!)

some good old-fashioned Schoolhouse Rock.

The books!
Somehow, even the well-meaning books designed explicitly to help kids understand the process of electing our leaders evoke controversy. Dare to scroll down into the comments section (I know, I know) and there it is: vitriol.  (The author has it all wrong! We are no democracy! Down with the electoral college!) But here are some good ones:
For 5 and up
Duck for President by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin
My Teacher for President by Kay Winters and Denise Brunkus
My Senator and Me: A Dog’s Eye View of Washington, D.C. by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, illustrated by David Small
7 and up:
Babymouse for President by Jennifer Holm and Matt Holm
Vote! By Eileen Christelow
Grace for President by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by LeUyen Phem
So You Want to Be President by Judith St. George, illustrated by David Small
Madam President by Lane Smith

Have the day you have!

Sometimes, in the course of my day, I step on the tiny little pieces of whatever my five-year-old has collected from the universe of tiny little pieces and then methodically arranged across his floor–turning his bedroom into a rigged, land-mine experience for us and our bare feet.

I can’t freak out, though. I have to move on.

But throw enough tiny little things in front of my 7 year old, and you will watch a storm blow up inside her and explode all over the place—pushing those tiny little pieces out of the way with giant globs of misery. The fallout of this is mine to manage and manage I do.  These days are the terrible ones, the horrible ones, the no-good very bad ones.

Yes, I know, I stole that. From the pages of the timeless Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day, which brings Alexander’s bad day to life with its muddy reds and blues, its scritchy-scratchy pen and ink drawings, its ambience of misery. Ah, how we laugh and groan with sympathy when we read this book—the gum! no toy in the cereal box! sneakers without color! There is so much injustice in Alexander’s day that the book reads like one big foot stomp.

I just recently noticed, though, that absent from the narrative of this book is the voice of Alexander’s mother. There is no one trying to calm him down, bribe him back into good humor with the sneakers of his dreams. No one calling around to other shoe stores to see if maybe, possibly they could get the sneakers with the stripes—hoping the perfect new kicks might draw her third child back from the dark side.  I’m not even sure the mother knows just how bad Alexander’s day is because, honestly, she has three sons and a day to get through.

Which brings me to a lesson I recently learned from a movie trailer. I haven’t seen the movie The Odd Life of Timothy Green, but this one brilliant line really stays with me. When Timothy is walking into school his father shouts after to him to have a good day. Jennifer Garner’s character quickly tells him that he’s putting too much pressure on their home-grown child, so he quickly shouts a correction: “Have the day you have!”

What a wonderful way to take the pressure off! What relief! Somehow, I think we have given the message to our children that their days are all supposed to be winners, and therefore they stomp and they slam when their day turns into a real loser. And how did we get here anyway? To this place where our children get so easily frustrated by the small obstacles we all have to move through to get to the end of a lousy day?

I think I know. I think it is our fault. We are, after all, a parenting generation of pleasers—trying to manage our kids’ moods, trying to make them happy with the meals they want, the shows they want, the play dates they want. So much so, that they can’t make sense of it when things get in the way of their happiness.

And some days we just plain step on things, get gum in our hair, and things don’t work out just so at school, and they don’t have the right shoes at the shoe store, and yes, all of these tiny pieces get in the way of having that good day they were hoping for. Which brings me back to Alexander.

At the end of the book, we find out that his mom tells him everyone has bad days, even in Australia. What good work she did, telling him that this is just the day he was dealt. Because I think this is what we are supposed to do—let them have the day they have, instead of supporting and managing and trying—trying so hard that their well-outfitted feet hardly ever land on those prickly pieces in the first place, keeping them protected and fragile, even when they stomp.

So the next time I’m at a shoe store and they are out of the sneaker of my kids’ dreams, I’m going to try out some Judith Viorst, get them the pair of sneakers they NEED, and move on with the day. And when we get home, maybe they will retreat to their rooms and sulk a little, and then yes! they might just snap out of it and maybe they will make good of their bad day—and hopefully, if I have done right by them, they will make something big and meaningful out of all the tiny little pieces.

Reading list for a lousy day (for everyone):

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz

When Sophie Gets Angry, Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang

Mouse Was Mad by Linda Urban, illustrated by Henry Cole

Taking a Bath with My Dog and Other Things That Make Me Happy by Scott Menchin

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

A Good Day by Kevin Henkes

Mrs. Biddlebox by Linda Smith, illustrated by Marla Frazee

Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes

For middle-graders:

Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary (tin-can stilts alert!)

Judy Moody was in a Mood by Megan McDonald

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Things I learned from Footloose…(in honor of banned books)

banned books

There is a scene in Footloose (the real Footloose, not the fake-let’s-please-pretend-it-was-never-remade-Footloose) when the straight as a line Reverend Shaw Moore is called down to the library to deal with a group of creepy book burners. Earlier in the movie our fiery, Men at Work blasting hero, Ren, has already made the mistake of telling the town he read and even—gasp—liked The Slaughterhouse-Five, and now here we are waiting to see how the fire and brimstone Reverend reacts to setting said book on fire.
      Well, as it turns out, even the man who banned rock-and-roll and dancing in Bomont cannot abide this. He delivers a couple of powerful lines right there outside the library, a pile of books smoldering before our eyes. Among them,“Who elected you to be the saviors of everybody’s souls in Bomont?” It’s a good scene and one that was, from all reports, cut from the fake Footloose, but I digress.
      Footloose, in all of its time-to-dance glory, came to mind because we are in the thick of banned books week, which got me thinking about a phenomenon we are all guilty of at some point or another—not book-burning so much but this: My point of view must be your point of view. This, of course, has also been the fuel for so many political and social fires throughout human history. And it is what continues to fuel the banned books debate to this day. So, when someone says, we do not want this book on our children’s library shelves, or sold at our bookstores, and you had better get rid of it or else, I ask, or else what?
      Or else it might spontaneously fly off the shelf and into your child’s trembling hands, opened to the page with all the SEX, POLITICS, and WITCHCRAFT? It is this “or else” mentality that requires our attention and our parenting skills. My kids will often concern themselves with the sports team loyalties of their friends. Is it okay if Johnny is a Mets fan? I chuckle because at 5, my son would basically rather both teams win than one of them feel bad for losing, but never mind that. He’s a brainwashed Yankee fan and that’s that. “Well sure” we always say, “what fun would it be if we were all Yankees fans?”
      But that’s the thing. For the moment, we are his moral compass and likewise it isn’t anyone’s job but ours to make decisions about what information he processes and how he processes it. We trust ourselves with this job and we trust our children’s teachers and their librarians, too. Every day we rely on this gate-keeping system—we assume our teachers won’t teach our kids calculus in the 2nd grade, that they will hold off on explaining the gas chambers to kindergartners. Why don’t we trust them (or ourselves) with the books? Which ones to read, and which ones to leave on the shelf for someone else to explain to THEIR child.
      If we make edicts about books that are too difficult, too filled with fantasy and not enough about God, too explicit about sex, too violent, too gay, well then we are not equipping ourselves or our children with the ability to discern their own taste for these things from the next person’s. What we are stripping ourselves of is free will. Even the Reverend Shaw Moore knew this much (and in the end even he comes around to music and dancing and twinkly lights, thanks to a little old testament gem Ren turns up).
      Now, perhaps you don’t want your child to read And Tango Makes Three, the story about how two male penguins conceived a baby penguin, and that is your right. But does that mean my kids shouldn’t read it? And if your child happens to come upon it at my house, and feels shocked by it or moved by it, will you say, well it’s true that happened? Or will you pound your chest and say, no, no, no, not THAT—anything but THAT?
      We must ultimately do our jobs—filtering information, of course, but also helping our children process the information that pushes us out of our comfort zones. I truly believe that if we remain active participants in the school, social, and reading lives of our children, we needn’t worry about the little bits of strange that slip through the cracks—the book that scares them? No problem. The book that worries us? Done.  The book that maybe shouldn’t have been published in the first place? We can handle it.
      Later in their lives, my children will get to read something that shocks them and moves them again. The Slaughterhouse-Five perhaps. Or maybe my daughter will read the oft-challenged, Go Ask Alice her freshman year of college, like I did, and maybe she will have to lay her head down on her dorm bed for a while, like I did. And then maybe she’ll talk with her friends about it, like I did. Wonder who wrote it, how the diarist had gotten to such dark place, feel sad all afternoon and all night. But she will get to own that experience, just like I did.
      She will get to do all that because we sent her out into the Brave New World, prepared—prepared to cry, to mourn, to celebrate, to worry, to be horrified perhaps by what she is exposed to in fiction and in life.  But prepared. And then she will maybe go out for sushi and thank God that she isn’t that narrator and maybe she will feel confident that while she is a little bit tormented and a little bit brooding the way college freshman often are, she isn’t quite that lost. And she will have gotten somewhere from the experience.
      And I will be so grateful that she was allowed to have it, that we fought against censorship of books that shake us up a little, so that my kids’ lives might be shaken and stirred to move through the world with open, blazing minds, with warm hearts, and yes, the conviction of born and bred Yankees fans.
Save Slaughterhouse-Five and Go Ask Alice for much, much later and check out these books, which also have made someone’s challenged or banned list. (There are so, so many books I haven’t listed here, but I hope this gets you going):

For little ones on up:
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
Strega Nona by Tomie DiPaola

For 2nd graders on up:
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Jame and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
The Lion, the Witch , and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

For 3rd graders on up:
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis
*Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle

*updated list to add this one today because well, someone banned it this year