An Open Letter to Governor Jan Brewer:

BootsWhile we road-tripped through your great Grand Canyon State last week, I worked with my daughter on her rocks project for school. With all that red rock and limestone all around us, she and I were charged with delving into the architecture of the Jefferson Memorial—a grand and important monument made solidly of Georgia marble and limestone and built in the image of the Pantheon of Rome. Things a third grader knows.

We also learned about the words inscribed in the dome and on the walls of this wide, open-to-the-public structure. And so very much was evident. Self-evident if you will. And yes, I know. We all know that Jefferson wrote those gorgeous words, but perhaps didn’t mean them just that way. But, to my nearly 9-year-old daughter, there is no context for their meaning. They mean what they mean.

Things like:

“I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man…”

So, what is tyranny? A question easy to answer with examples from other perilous times—The Holocaust, Slavery, etc. But I didn’t use those examples. I used the current one. Yours. Your state. A state my mother lived in for a long while, attracted to its ambiance, its seeming closeness to God. It does really feel spiritual there.

And the thing is, I so wanted to post pictures of our trip to your state the minute I returned home. I wanted to show my friends and family my kids smiling faces and their fake-falling-into the-Grand-Canyon poses.  I wanted to advertise the exceptional Pink Jeep Tour we took in Sedona at sunset. It was so mind-blowingly beautiful. It raised my depressed, wintered-out Northeastern spirits right up to the pink and purple sky, I swear. And every last person we met, well they were so kind, so open, their skin glowing with all that Southwestern sun you’ve been hoarding down there.

But now I’m wondering, would they have smiled so broadly, given my kids one more loop around the rocky road on that Jeep tour if they had known that the proud grandfather of my children is also a proud gay man?

Would they have been so kind and loving toward my son when he left his baby blanket behind, sending it free of charge to our deep blue state? I’ll never know. I only know that the one teensy downside of our entire trip was this bill that’s on the table. Your table, Governor. A bill so horrid from its very design, from the very tiny seedling planted in some hateful person’s mind, that I’m not sure I can forgive your legislature for even trying.

That said, I would. I forgave you for allowing a man with a not-so-concealed weapon to shop for cowboy boots right along side my young children. And I’m a Northeast liberal, so that’s saying something.

I would forgive you and your state if you veto, Governor Brewer. And I would post those pictures, and I would even come flying back to suck in some of that fresh, desert air and Southwest cooking. Or else, maybe I’ll go to California. There’s plenty to do elsewhere. From sea to shining sea.

Things a third grader knows.

Thank you for your consideration,

Beth Ain

“I cried so much, I’m washed enough.” (or, The Genius of Kevin Henkes)

billy miller

I spend a lot of time with a 6 year old boy, which is to say that I spend a lot of time tripping over forts improbably made out of board game boxes and empty toilet paper rolls. I don’t ever get used to it either. I’ve written about the tiny little pieces of things that send me over the edge sometimes, and I picture myself making good on all those promises to throw it all away or better yet, give it all away to a deserving, imaginary child who will take good care of these things, sorting it all into tidy boxes at the end of each day.

And I notice right away when a space is absent of boys. I might walk into the home of a person who has two girls or even four girls (four!), and maybe there is noise, maybe there is a karaoke microphone set up and Taylor Swift songs screeching into the quiet, and maybe it smells a little like cheap nail polish and the inside of crayon box. But I never trip over anything. I don’t step on a stray lego piece on my way to the kitchen. I don’t sit down on the sofa and, like the princess and the pea, feel the need to dig my hand into the crevices and pull out a matchbox car or a flashlight.  There are no ottomans turned over, no shoe boxes with holes ripped out of them so that the poor stuffed animal inside can breathe.

Six year old boys are special—maddeningly creative, smart, intuitive. They are builders and designers, ball throwers and questions askers.  And sometimes they read, but mostly they need to be read to. Sometimes zombie stories and the diaries of forlorn little brothers. But most times, Frog and Toad and Stuart Little and a little Amelia Bedelia just so they can feel especially in the know before they fall asleep at night.

But what has become of books for this age group, for this type of enterprising, wheels-churning kid? Where to go after Encyclopedia Brown and the Boxcar Children have solved their last case?

I know.

Read The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes. Read it every night, with the lights low and while your little boy, who is maybe emotional but definitely not dramatic listens to every single word of a book so quiet and so memorable, your voice cracks when you read it out loud.

Billy is the rarest of characters. He is a very real reflection of the kind of boy I live with—the one with all the fort ideas. The one who pays very close attention when I explain something. The one whose fears are quiet and small, and hidden easily behind little shrugs and deep breaths.

Billy is scared the way kids this age are scared—not of monsters and lightning, but of not being smart enough, of not being able to handle second grade or the sassy girl at his table. Scared of hurting someone else’s feelings, too. And the kicker here is that he summons the courage to do some very challenging things all by himself in that internal way that boys do things, even as he challenges others—to a stay-up-all-night sleepover or to a new way of looking at art.

And then—ahem—there is chapter three in the section called Mother. And I can’t write about it or even think about it without feeling so grateful for it, for the portrayal of a mother so complicated and capable and a boy so very interested in her. To find the courage as a writer to tell the real story of how little boys and their mothers share moments, private and important and damp with night air but no tears. Well, this chapter is what makes this writer so special to me. This book is what makes him great.

What Henkes is so brilliant at here is showing how eventually those tiny little pieces of boyhood get picked up and clicked back together and they become the building blocks of little men. Little men who use big voices and who want to do well every day, and who—in between building volcanoes and making mudballs—are mindful of others. Little men whose bravery reduces the voices of the mothers who read to them in the low lights at night to small, cracking whispers.

Ultimately, The Year of Billy Miller is a family portrait. A smart and funny and charming look at the average American family. But if you look closely, you will also see what you look like on a bad day, and later on in the best possible light. And you will see your children dragging sacks of weird things down the stairs and making each other laugh. And you will see the disappointments and the triumphs of each day you spend trying to do better. You will see yourself in here and I suspect you will return to it time and again because it feels good and because you love it, and the best part is that your kids will love it to. Because it is a portrait of them and when you get down to it, what kid doesn’t like to stare at themselves making faces in the mirror?

New Year, Newish Me*

*(Nothing to do with kids’ books, everything to do with #jewishgirls twitter prompts…)

I sometimes read Goop—Gwyneth Paltrow’s aspirational online lifestyle magazine–browsing the recipes and clothes that might change my life if I could just…would just…shop for the ingredients, do the gritty work celebrity fitness addicts do in their kitchens all afternoon, soaking beans, sautéing greens, developing new ways to keep quinoa at center stage–brush my teeth with it? Does it do anything for teeth? And I would track down those dance pants—the cool ones no one knows about yet, the ones from the real deal dance studio in LA, the ones that would make me return to a dance class ruled by Lululemon and girls who elbow each other for the front row to a round of applause for being the coolest.

The freaking coolest.

But I don’t do any of those things ever. I read Goop for fantasy. Because I already buy organic enough, sauté enough, eat quinoa enough (or at least from time to time), having sworn off gluten and its devilish ways years ago. And because those girls in my dance class will always look better—and dance better, let’s face it–in their lulu than I would ever look in anything, even underground dance pants from LA.fresh start

But a few weeks ago, I read in Goop a fine piece of writing by Jill Kargman (http://www.goop.com/journal/make/240/back-to-school-mag) that had nothing to do with any of these things. It had to do with Fall and the Jewish New Year and hitting a reset button after a long, sticky summer of routine-less days. And I felt her in that piece—her dismay at the lazy haze of a summer spent, in my case, nursing an injury that precluded my usual exercise routine, a summer spent staring at a blinking cursor on a laptop I practically had to dust-off for all the breaks I took in between writing.

I too, love fall, and partly because of Rosh Hashanah and the apples and the changing trees, and partly because of the changing me. I don’t make resolutions so much, but I do clean out my kids’ rooms for a new school year, shed my bulletin board of last year’s announcements, entering picture day and parents’ night into my calendar with double reminders.

And I do kiss my kids faces hard on the first day of school and tell them to be their best selves, to be curious, to be good to their friends and their teachers. Some of this I do to be organized and less of a yeller, but some of it—that last stuff for sure I do, because I pounded on my chest in a synagogue while my kids played tag in the lobby. Berating myself for things I could have done better or could have done without. And how is it going, you #jewishgirls asked in your prompt for this week? (http://www.thestatenislandfamily.com/jewish-women-unite-join-us-let-voice-heard-jewishgirls/)

So far my kids are still smiling on their way out of the car, I haven’t yelled (so much), and I even combed their hair for picture day. Also, and this one’s important—like high holy days important—when my daughter asked me what to say when her friend asked her with some disdain why she was wearing a certain plaid, button down shirt (too preppy, prehaps?), I didn’t tell her to do any of the chest-pounding-worthy things I would have said pre-fast.

I said, “tell her you love her shoes.”

So far, so good.

“After Miranda was done saving her own life, she called someone who could commiserate…”

Sex_and_the_City_Miranda_Chokes_Season_2_92830123_thumbnail

I was at the movies this weekend and it was crowded, so crowded I had to sit in one row with my first-born while my husband sat a few rows up with our second child. It was a funny movie and I found myself glancing behind me and up, trying to catch my husband’s eye—searching, I guess, for a shared moment.
 
Afterward, he said, “didn’t you love the Isaac reference?” We had seen Despicable Me 2 and it was loaded with in-jokes for the parents. Brilliant, really. “I did,” I said. I didn’t tell him that I had tried to get his attention and not just because of the Love Boat thing, but others, too. I didn’t tell him this, because what a luxurious life I lead. And I don’t mean physical luxury like a house and car and a being able to afford to take our children to the movies on a Saturday night.
 
The luxury for me, is having a partner in these things. Someone who will continue with the math lesson when I have to leave and throw something against a wall, someone who will figure out if we should re-finance our house, someone who will run to my child when they fall off a swingset because I am too chicken to look. Someone who will find ways to keep me writing and thinking when I can’t see the story through all the backpack flyers and dishes to do. Someone who will call 911 if I can’t get to a phone.
 
There is a scene in an old Sex and the City episode where Miranda almost chokes to death by herself in her apartment, triggering a big worry over whether or not anyone would have known. My mother always references this when she tries to explain what it feels like to live her home life all alone. We laugh at this because it’s funny in an absurd way.  It could happen to any of us when we are home alone—it doesn’t really mean anything except to the person who is actually alone. The person who has to do most things by themselves.
 
We tell a funny story in my family about the time my mom took my brother and me to see Scarface in a movie theater when we shouldn’t have been allowed past the ticket counter. She loves Al Pacino, my mother—then and now. What I think is that she did not have a sitter, did not have a date either, and decided to take us along for the ride. A ride that ended not so far into the movie with my mom yanking us out of the theater all at once, and coping with the new middle of the night concerns of her children. Concerns like how to get blood off of a shower curtain.
 
And by and large this is how we lived, with one parent trying to do the emotional and physical work of two. One parent, trying to make it to carpool pickup on time in the wake of starting her own business, finding some semblance of a social life, and also knitting herself into the fabric of a community that was built on the backs of couples and families with long legacies, and not single mothers.
 
She has never had another person with whom to exchange knowing glances, to talk about what’s going on at work, what’s going on with the kids. She has had people, but not one person and it’s different. And lately I’ve been thinking more about this. Every night, when the lights are off and the kids are asleep and the dishwasher is running (having fought about who should load it, run it, unload it again in the morning) my husband and I talk in the dark, sometimes very late into the night—what starts out as a grocery list might turn into a list of where we want to go on vacation, where we want to go in life. It’s all a big gossip really, but when we fall asleep, him deeply, me less so–angsty about mysterious noises and potentially waking children–what luxury to have him to call on, just in case.
 
You are not alone, I always tell my mom. Because you carpooled us and took us places and showed us new things (the plantations of the South! the Freedom Trail! Andre Agassi! Gary Hart! Israel! Bloomingdales! Scarface!), and picked us up when we were belly-flopped on beds (me, sobbing through most of my teenage years) and found ways to build us up without someone else to help with the heavy lifting–to consult with, fight with, laugh with, sit on a sofa and breathe with. Because of all that, you have us.
 
I seek you out every day, and today especially because it is my birthday and because every ounce of who I am has to do with the things you did and the things you still do on my behalf. Sadly, I have to do more than glance a couple of rows back—I have to dial my phone, or find a facetime opportunity, or book a flight, but when I do and when our minds meet, or our eyes meet, I know that because of the balls life threw in your direction—the ones you caught and the ones you missed—in many ways we have always been partners, always will be–always finding ways to sort it out all together when the movie ends.
 
Luxury indeed.
 

Is it more interesting to be gay or a Kardashian?

A friend recently asked me how she should go about writing a children’s book that Imagerepresents her family’s life.  I admit that on any given day, I might find this question aggravating. While some of the people who solicit writing advice are indeed writers, many of the people interested in writing books for kids are not. And sometimes that matters to me and sometimes it doesn’t. On this day, it didn’t aggravate me one bit–it got me thinking.

The person who asked me this particular question on this particular day is not a writer. She is a mother and a teacher and a lesbian, and she and her partner have several children together along with a golden retriever. This part is not that interesting to me—they are a regular family, dodging a lot of shoes and toys on their way to do a lot of homework. And they are schlepping kids, one parent throwing car keys across the kitchen at the other in haste when she realizes she is late for the next activity, or has forgotten about it entirely.  And there are dishes in the sink and kids in need of dinner and mothers in need of some wine and a deep breath.

So to me, their household looks a whole lot like my household. But to my children, it does not. My children, who have two grandfathers the very same way Heather Has Two Mommies, had a harder time processing this family picture than their own, extended family picture. “How are two women married?” my son asked. I honestly couldn’t believe my ears given that he has never asked this about my father, not once. “The same way Papa is married  to a man, (well not yet, but when they do it will be fierce)” I say.  My daughter, always involved with herself first and foremost responded, “They are not married. I would know, I would have been in the pictures!” She’s not wrong about that.

Forget that my own upbringing was fraught with all kinds of fallout from this very information. Forget that when I was the age my children are now I did not yet know any of this was coming or that it was even possible. Forget that over the years I have watched as Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and loads of activists and other brave souls (some of them even politicians!) somehow helped pushed through an agenda that makes my family’s story (which I have tried endlessly to novelize) read like historical fiction—a very special episode of Little House on the Prairie. (Trust me, I have to re-write it again. It’s just not that shocking anymore. I’m thinking of maybe throwing in a vampire or a Kardashian.)

But forget all that. This is now. This is a time when my friend’s family ought be represented well, and not by a didactic book explaining how all those children found their way into one mother or the other’s uterus and how they now ended up wrestling each other and the dog on the living room floor of their colonial-style house. The story has to be about their lives as they are and not so much how they got here. This is what I told my friend. Write it! Write a whole series about a family like yours, but don’t make a point of writing the what and the how and the why. Just write a story that hangs on your life like a shirt—so, your children have two (wonderful) mothers and a biological father and they have cousins, too, and friends with whom they swing on monkey bars and build forts—just like other children’s book characters.

And this isn’t to say that there shouldn’t or won’t always be stories of how and what and why—the stories that explain what it feels like to be something else, to be the other thing. I need for those stories to exist and lots of them as much as anyone else. And I want them to be told over and over so that all kinds of kids and teenagers and adults, frankly, can find themselves inside of someone else’s story when they really need to. But that is not what this friend was asking me. She wasn’t asking me how to tell her story. She was asking me how to do her family experience justice.

And I say If there’s always room for novels or chapter books or picture books with vibrant and interesting characters who have a little something going on or a little something to say, then she ought to find a way to build that kind of story around her kind of family. Maybe it’s time for a book about kids who get into all kinds of trouble in their daily lives, or who travel to magical places via unicorn, or who have a secret spy lair in the attic, but when they get home at the end of the day, having been sent to the principal’s office, or to another planet and back, back from where the wild things were, it is their mothers–two of them–who wash up their faces, feed them a snack, tuck them in, and make them feel safe. But the mothers aren’t the story, the story is the story.

Is that interesting enough?
She asked me. I don’t know what to say. Maybe it is maybe it isn’t. Like any other book it will have to be a combination of things—well written and compelling, it will have to resonate and connect and have a good marketing strategy to boot. Maybe she’ll write it and no one will buy it, or maybe she’ll sell the manuscript and she’ll get lukewarm reviews and it will end up on a remainders table somewhere on the Lower East Side. This could happen to her the same way it could happen to me or anyone. That’s the point, I realize.

I look at my friends—two women, partners in everything they do, working hard and raising children in a small town filled mostly with people who are rooting for them and likely with some who are not.

“Even if it isn’t,” I say, “at least we will have gotten somewhere.”

Until such a series exists, we have these! (Please share your faves in comments!)
Mini Mia and Her Darling Uncle by Pija Lindenbaum (translated by Elisabeth Kallick Dyssegaard)
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson
Uncle Bobby’s Wedding by Sarah S. Brannen
Jack And Jim by Kitty Crowther
Heather Has Two Mommies, by Leslea Newman
Papa, Daddy, and Me by Leslea Newman
In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco
A Tale of Two Daddies by Vanita Oelschlager
A Tale of Two Mommies by Vanita Oelschlager

20 Seconds of Courage (over and over again)

broadway_signThanks to Cameron Crowe, we have a new parenting philosophy around our house. Recently, as a family, we watched We Bought a Zoo, where Matt Damon’s character, Benjamin Mee, invokes 20 seconds of courage as a lifestyle mantra. We don’t learn about it until late in the movie when Mee’s mopey son has something to do requiring bravery. He has to tell a girl how is feeling, he has to tell her that he loves her. And he has to do it in the rain because it’s a Cameron Crowe movie, so of course there is rain and kissing and maybe some Bob Dylan.

  “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” –Benjamin Mee

We come to learn that this 20 seconds of bravery thing has informed a whole lot of Benjamin’s life, enabling him at first to make a writing career of the risk-taking antics he reports on for his local paper. And later, in the wake of his young wife’s death and as a way of setting about saving of his family, he presumably invokes these words again in the purchasing of said zoo.

Later that night, when my own child was scared to go back into the dark kitchen on her own to retrieve something she had forgotten, I gave it a try. It didn’t work, of course, this 20 seconds of courage argument. Because my children can go careening down driveways on skateboards they have no mastery of, but they cannot–will not–walk into a dark room in our own house on their own. Not ever.

That said, I started thinking about all the books for kids about bravery and how they are trying so hard to teach something—as if telling someone over and over to be brave is enough. I realized, watching that movie, and then reading the exhilarating and somehow new Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle—that in order to be brave, you must have something big to be brave for—something that means more to you than protecting yourself. Something worth taking risks for.  Riding a skateboard in the case of my children, riding a bus from Jankburg, PA to midtown Manhattan in the case of Nate Foster—my new hero.

There is something to be said for a 13-year-old boy who by school-day is lost in a sea of middle of Pennsylvania athletes but who finds himself—loves himself even—belting out show tunes in the dark and running improv scenes with his best friend, Libby. She is his lifeline this Libby, and if we are lucky, we’ve all had one. If we’re really lucky, we still do.

But Nate Foster—he is unlike today’s middle grade heroes. He does not battle dragons or wayward wizards, he doesn’t even go up against his larger-than-life bully of a big brother (but nor does begrudge him his athletic prowess). He simply knows his place, knows how to hide his Christian-boot-camp bruises to protect himself from the more stinging hatred of the brother who would only ever act the part by way of blackmail.

All of this is to say that it takes a whole lot of something for a kid to get on a bus at night and head to the big city, where his uniqueness, his resourcefulness will be put to some use. Where his commitment to getting the hell out of a place that would surely suck it all out of him eventually and land him a job in the family floral business, 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh will pay off. Where the rest of his life awaits him. It takes something indeed.

As it turns out, we’re talking about roughly 20 seconds of courage.

Again and again, he takes the city by storm in small ways, in 20 second bursts of funny, of courage and gumption, and again, commitment. Because he believes in himself, wants something so bad he’s willing to risk it all, to be truly brave, to get it. Even his father—the least brave character in the book–thinks so.

There is so much to love about this book—it’s a journey book, really. It’s about destiny, but it’s funny (so crazy funny and weird) and heartbreaking all the while. And there are no wizards or lightning bolts here. But Nate Foster might as well have been living under the stairs, he might as well have been given an acceptance letter to a school for people just like him.

And Libby and Aunt Heidi and Freckles—all people so well drawn you will wish they were yours—might as well have stood on a street corner deciding the best way to rescue this hero out of a small and dark place and into the big, bright something else (grown-ups in Halloween costumes! Well-lit drug stores! boys kissing boys!).

Nate Foster has a wizardry in this place called Manhattan (he has it in Queens even), but no wand–proving you don’t need actual sorcery to succeed in middle grade fiction. You just need to be fighting for something.

I left Pennsylvania once, too–and I knocked the mirror off the city bus with my u-haul the minute I arrived in midtown Manhattan. And yes, I think it took about 20 seconds to hit the gas pedal again and carry on—knees shaking—toward the rest of my life.

“I Said Ay, Man…” (So, you want to be a Huxtable)

cosby showIf it isn’t enough that my children—thanks to XM radio’s 80’s on 8—think that Beat It and Come on Eileen are current radio hits, add to that my insistence on exposing them to the child-rearing of the Huxtable family and let’s see what we have here. Kids who live in a time warp of one-hit wonders and family togetherness? Check. Kids who maybe shrug their shoulders and list Bon Jovi in their top three favorite singers list? Check. Kids who ask their friends if they’ve seen the one with the Gordon Gartrell shirt and look puzzled when their friends walk slowly away? Check.
 “But why the Huxtables?” you might ask and not the Bradys or the Keatons or the Seavers or, gasp the Duncans. Well, if you’ve heard of every one of these families EXCEPT the Duncans, I think you already know why. Because I trust Cliff and Claire Huxtable, that’s why. And it isn’t that I don’t trust the earthy Keatons or the well-intended Bradys or the having-it-all Seavers.
  It’s that my kids trust the Huxtables, too. And I’ve figured out why.
 First, they’re funny. And I mean witty funny, not Dad walks into a door funny the way tv shows nowadays have funny dads. Heathcliff Huxtable had some funny things to say, and a put-down-your-i-phone-and-watch-this-show-with-your-kids-funny way of saying them.  My kids laugh at his antics, at the things he says, at Claire’s I’m-gonna-teach-you-thing-or-two-abut-life face. And not only do they laugh and laugh and laugh, but they are interested in the lives of every character.
 It is a tribute to this show that my kids sit quietly and listen to Cliff’s parents reminisce about World War II alone on their sofa on their wedding anniversary with nary a sassy kid in sight. It is a tribute also that when Cliff tells Vanessa he trusts her, even after her friend lights up a cigarette in Vanessa’s bedroom, I let out a sigh of relief. I don’t know if I would have done that, I think to myself. But I see now it was the right thing. And making her play a drinking game was both the right thing AND the funny thing.
 And they are creative together, this family—emptying out Theo’s room and turning the house into The Real World Apartments, lip-syncing Ray Charles, and schooling their children in music and history, and morality all at once.
 And nevermind that Stevie Wonder shows up, or that the quality of Phylicia Rashad’s fury should have had its own category for an Emmy, this show gets it right for many reasons. But the one that appeals to me most in these days of kids growing up too fast, of quick and sassy sitcoms where the parents are mostly bumbling through their own lives, serving only as entertainment and the occasional best friend to their kids—it is that these parents are real-deal parents.
 They are teachers and mentors, and cheerleaders and disciplinarians and historians, too. They are people—bright and complicated people with a sense of humor that draws all of us to the sofa to watch and see what will happen. So, I’ve turned off modern-day tv for my kids and I can’t say I’m not hoping just a little bit that the next time my kids ask yours if they’ve seen the one where Cliff pretends not to be a doctor at the car dealership, no one backs slowly away. Maybe they lean in. Maybe they’ll laugh about it together—maybe they’ll even know that Sinbad was the car dealer. You just never know.

Jessica Wakefield, Paula Danziger, and me

If you were lucky, someone likely came along at some point in your life and set you straight–leaving in their wake a person who might have otherwise traveled a different path. A less interesting path. Or maybe just a less inspired one. And if you were especially lucky, this person came along when you were young. Or perhaps it wcatasn’t a person but a moment, or an event, or a book.

I was spectacularly lucky in this way. I got both a person and a book. In tenth grade it was a teacher who I’m certain has no idea he caused the ripple whose effects are felt all these years and miles later. This was a man who would be so into talking about Great Expectations that he’d get lost somewhere along the way and take a big drag off the chalk he had just used to write DICKENS in giant, reverent letters on the blackboard.

He is the same teacher who taught us about Alan Ginsburg and the Beat generation, the same one who encouraged rap in the classroom, and who had us write about modern-day saints. My group chose Madonna. We thought we were being defiant and brave and ironic.  And then one day he asked us to write something inspired by The Grapes of Wrath and something got all fired up inside of me. Out came an essay about the Dust Bowl, complete with a sweltering coffee shop and a migrant love affair. I can still remember the ambience I was trying so hard to replicate—it wasn’t in the manner of Steinbeck at all really. It was in the manner of made-for-tv movies and Nanci Griffith songs. And it probably wasn’t very good, but it was good enough for that teacher to make a point of telling me I was a writer.

Until that moment, I did not know this. I knew I was something–an observer of people, of the aesthetics of the insides of things, high school hallways and stairwells and lockers–something, yes, but not a writer. Those were the days when I begrudged Fitzgerald for Danielle Steel and Sidney Sheldon. And 15 was for me an age that inflicted a daily amnesia on my teenage brain for things in my very recent past.  Things like swing sets and roller skates. And also books, special ones like Sweet Valley High: Power Play and also, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, which as is turns out is The Book.

 

I know now that my tenth grade prep-school self had long since forgotten reading about Marcy Lewis and the excuses she used to get out of gym class. Gone were the incensed feelings I felt when they fired Ms. Finney because she wouldn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance. Same for the disturbed chills I had gotten when Marcy’s father called her fat, told her she was a nuisance, told her to play by the rules.  And lost—buried somewhere with my friendship pins and Tretorns–was the memory of Marcy falling in love with herself through writing, learning from this teacher who wouldn’t salute the flag, to salute herself. To pay attention, to write it down, to tell her story. Because she mattered. But I remember now.

I write because of Ms. Finney and my tenth grade English teacher and because of Paula Danziger and because both pre-fifteen and now well post-fifteen, I have been changed by things people write about in books—early on it was The Trumpet of the Swan and the 2nd grade teacher who read it chapter by chapter, day after day, until the end came and I wanted to rest my head inside my folded arms on my desk and cry. I think in college it might have been Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and recently it was Edward P. Jones’s The Known World. These books are filled with stories and characters and ambience and history and pain and joy and they are filled with the kind of reckoning that comes with resilience and moving forward through life.

So, I picked up The Cat Ate My Gymsuit recently again because I often tell people that the reason I write books for kids is because no books have ever spoken to me quite like the books of my childhood and my adolescence. And it’s true. I carry The Cat Ate My Gymsuit around with me the way others carry around Catcher in the Rye. Mine might not be as high-brow, but it’s mine. And I salute it.

The same way I salute my teacher for taking the five minutes it takes to change a child’s life, and I salute Paula Danziger for holding up a mirror for me, so I could see that I was more of a Marcy Lewis than a Jessica Wakefield anyway. And I salute all the books that hold up, that stay with us, and those that will stay with our children, lighting their way with the sparks that ignite change, and sending them—on fire!—into the world.

The Books I Remember Best…My pure nostalgia reading list (having nothing to do with the wonderful world of present-day books like this year’s Newbery winner, Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan, which will surely stay with and change lives again and again.):

Lyle, Lyle Crocodile by Bernard Waber

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

Millicent Maybe by Ellen Weiss (I was just so happy that someone else had trouble making decisions!)

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Ramona and her Father by Beverly Cleary

Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume

The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger

It’s Not the End of the World by Judy Blume

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

“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