Just Right Reading

This is the best thing I’ve read about guiding kids’ reading habits, and it perfectly reflects our beliefs here: beautiful picture books are a good thing for all ages; alongside that Harry Potter she may well read Diary of a Wimpy Kid or FreckleJuice; Captain Underpants is perfectly appropriate; so was My Pretty Pony; there is such a thing as too soon…

In our house, the rule is that if you can read it, you are allowed to read it.

Squanto’s Journey

A confession:  I love Pilgrims.

I think Pilgrims are underrated, misunderstood, and oversimplified.  “Pilgrims” by the way accurately refers only to those Puritans who sailed on the Mayflower and established a colony at Plymouth in 1620.  For instance, while Pilgrim chastity is the stuff of legend, you might be interested to know that all sexual deviance–from homosexuality to sex with turkeys and goats (which really is historically documented: in one incredible scene in which a young man accused of the latter actually points out the specific turkeys he had relation with…)–was considered the same order of sin.  And while they did believe that everything was Providential (according to God’s will) they knew one could never really, truly know that one was elect. You might be pretty certain, but you could never be positive.  This led to much study and scholarship, cultivated soul searching and personal responsibility. The rebelled against the corrupt Anglican church and thus cultivated, ironically, a kind of independent thinking.  They worked hard and were humble. All those stereotypical New England Puritan virtues are based in some interesting historical fact.

Moreover, their journey from grave persecution in England to Holland to the “New” World took over 13 years, and the passage and arrival was difficult and epic.  They arrived in winter, in Massachussets, to a wild and unforgiving coast. True, the Native Americans had survived there for a long time, and there were other colonies, but the Pilgrims were ill-equipped for the task.  Plus, nearly half of their 100 members died that first winter. It was a difficult and terrible time, and no one was certain of survival. But thanks to the help of the Wampanoag and especially the Pautaxet Squanto, they survived and even thrived. Thus, the first Thanksgiving really was a feast of plenty and of thanks, and it was attended by twice as many Native Americans as Pilgrims. Also, it lasted 3 days, at the end of which the Indians shot and offered 5 deer to the colonists, which no doubt helped them through the 2nd winter. And while this interval of good will between Pilgrims and Indians did not last, it was real and significant, and it marked a turning point in the colony’s success.

So one of my missions (in life? in my family?) is to translate what was incredible about their story in a meaningful and balanced (and, of course age appropriate) way. I think that if you consider the first Thanksgiving in the context of the Pilgrim’s really extraordinary exile, hardship, adventure, starvation, illness, compromise, and reliance on the Indians,  it becomes, truly, a kind of miraculous story of survival and success and a moment of peace and possibility.  Modern Thanksgiving is about none of this, and I think that’s kind of too bad.

For instance, how many of us celebrates Thanksgiving as a religious holiday? (Which was certainly part of the Pilgrim’s feast, since everything returned to God..)

And how many of us really, truly celebrates it as a feast of harvest or plenty?   How many of us shop exclusively at farmer’s markets for the season’s bounty for tables? How many go and shoot the abundant native fowl or deer in our regions? Or even bother to search out an heirloom bird? Or fish in local waters for the abundant catch available at harvest time? (there were a lot of lobsters in New England).  That we don’t is okay, of course. Traditions morph.  But I do think it’s important to remember what started all of this feasting anyway, and remember that simply being thankful for family and health and abundance in our middle class home is something we should do everyday of the year. It seems sort of empty to me to make this the only focus of the holiday. Then again, I do have a PhD in American literature. I love history. And Pilgrims.

In sum: I think the day is enriched for kids if it’s put into an accurate historical and sort of somber historical context.

Thus: every year, we make a Thanksgiving movie (See 2007 & 2008). This year, Ella, who is on the fast track to becoming a spy reporter and has a penchant for writing nonfiction decided we had to make an Historical & Fun movie.  Of course, I leapt at the chance in and in less time than it takes to Google Mayflower, I was parsing my grad school copy of William Bradford’s journal-turned-formal-account of Pilgrim History, Of Plymouth Plantation and reading her the juicy bits about the journey and the landing at Plymouth and the first Thanksgiving (but not, of course, the turkeys…)  The book became our primary source for the film (which should be released this weekend, God of the Pilgrims willing) and I never thought I’d see the day my 7-year-old parsed a footnote of a 17th century text looking for a detail.

Of course, I’m not recommending you all go read the entirety of Bradford’s account, which really is best studied in a PhD seminar, but the short DVD William Bradford: The First Thanksgiving in The Animated Hero classic series is excellent as far as Pilgrims go.  It’s historically accurate and gives children a good sense of their decades of hardship and deprivation as well as the absolute necessity of Squanto and the Wampanoag in their surivival.  Paired with the really excellent Squanto’s Journey by Joseph Bruchac, which details Squato’s kidnapping, the decimation of his tribe, his return to America and his providential meeting with the colonists,  your child can have a fuller, deeper, more balanced and accurate sense of what that first feast was all about and why any of us should give a damn about the Pilgrims and Indians and in the first place.

Next year, it’s Squanto’s turn.

NO!

 

In light of the recent war toys debate, here, which has not faded in our house in spite of my son’s new addiction to LEGO (which does include lots of swords and whips and guns, accessories which I painstakingly pulled out of all his earlier sets but now wouldn’t think of editing out…), I wanted to share an anti-war book for kids.

NO! by David MchPhail is exactly the kind of book that can help define the difference the between real and imagined violence and further complicate the discussion about the consequences of aggression.

Dedicated “to teachers everywhere,” the near-textless book relates the story of a young boy living amidst war and occupation.  There are overtones of the Third Reich and, for me, of occupied cities of Belfast, where young children really did see, everyday, heavily armed solidiers and tanks on the streets of their neighborhoods. Many of the images are disturbing (soldiers kicking down a door, dogs chasing and biting a foot, billy clubs). On his way to mail a letter to “The President” the boy is bullied, and responds with an emphatic, “NO!”

In the wake of this powerful the bully relents, the dog is pacified, the soldiers lay down their guns, presents are exchanged on the street, a war plane parachutes a bicycle, the smoke from the bombed cities is transformed into clouds.

On the one hand, the book might be naive & sentimental dreaming. On the other hand, the poetry of the illustrations and the elemental narrative make this a profoundly moving book.  It demonstrates the visceral horror of war, which is something we actually do discuss with our oldest. I have not shied away from conversations about September 11, Osama Bin Laden, slavery and the Civil War, and, most recently, Adolf Hitler and the reasons for the Second World War.  I try not to frighten, but I do not shelter her.  This book presents war and violence as the reality for some young lives, and it shows clearly that violence and aggression against others might be a matter of degree more than of kind.

But most important, it shows the power of No, which is the refusal to participate in what is wrong, harmful, and unjust. This refusal might be as simple as standing up to a bully on the playground or as complicated as becoming a conscientious objector–or anywhere in between. It’s a book which gives children a voice and begins to show them how they might use it to make a real difference in their very own lives. And this, I would submit is the difference between teaching your children what is right and wrong and allowing them to play imaginatively with light saber on a ship bound for the high seas….

 

The Man Who Walked Between The Towers

I’ve been quiet here partly because we’ve been gone for much of the summer, but also because we’ve been slowly figuring out what community service and civic life mean for our young kids now that the immediate energy and opportunity of the election has passed. These are sobering times, and getting involved certainly requires more effort. But the process of educating young children is always embedded in the family, and for the very youngest, I’ve been reminded that it can be embedded in play.

Last year we discovered the excellent picture book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein.  It’s a biography of Phillipe Petit, which captures all the drama and poetry of his career and its culminating walk between the towers of the World Trade Center.  My children were both captivated by it, especially Finn, who spent one morning reconstructing a cardboard model  of the site.

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We also made the decision to show them both Man on Wire, which Ella astutely realized “was just like detective movie” in the first minutes.  And indeed, it is, and they were both mesmerized by the film and its images. (There is definitely one questionable, celebratory naked scene at the end, but it passed right by them while we held our breath.)   But  because of its context and visual imagery, the film is also for the astute adult observer, not simply an homage to the poetry and majesty of Petit’s accomplishment, but a requiem for the Towers and those who perished there.   My children didn’t realize this exactly, of course, but they did have a sense, watching it,  that something had once been that no longer was.

The book, written post September 11,  states simply that the Towers no longer exist.  When we read it to Finn, we explained exactly why.  The story offered me another opportunity to discuss the tragedy, and terrorism, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with Ella.   Everyone in my family lost a friend or a colleague or a childhood acquaintance in the Towers, so the tragedy is immediate and personal for us.

And so, when we visited the east coast this summer, we drove by the Pit, as some New Yorkers call the site of Ground Zero, on our way to Brooklyn, and they both got to see the tremendous scale of the event.  We didn’t stop, but it was sad and satisfying that they got to see something of the reality of it, and that they could begin to understand some of its hard significance.  It’s a lot for a small child, I know.  It’s a lot for me, and for all of us. But it is as much a part of their world as endangered panda bears and polluted lakes, and this book, and that movie, and the actual site are ways that begin to make it real and meaningful.  They are ways slowly to begin the hard and difficult discussion about what happened and why and where we are now and what might come next.

Why _is_ Obama our first Black President?

That’s the question I fielded not so long ago from the back seat of the car, while we were waiting to pick up Ella’s brother from preschool.

I was not unprepared, but really, how do you explain institutionalized racism to a 6-year old? Ella, of course, had been excited about the election for every reason but race, but clearly, now she had figured out that there was something else exciting and different about his victory.

For a long time, I avoided the slavery issue by carefully picking the books we read. But last year, I felt she was ready because  Ella had specific questions, raised by Lincoln’s birthday celebration and the Civil War.  We had long discussions about those things and racism and about Martin Luther King, but it was all on a need-to-know basis, and directly related to concrete examples that had surfaced in books.

So now I responded by asking her a question, “Do you remember how most Black people first got to this country?” And I asked her to retell me the story we had just read which she did with precise recall.

“Alec’s Primer” is one of the most excellent, invaluable books for children you could hope for. It tells the story of a young boy, born into slavery, who is secretly taught to read by his master’s granddaughter, and which skill–reading–helps him to escape to freedom.  It is a true story, based on historical documents, and it avoids completely the kind of sentimentality and soft-peddling of slavery that can happen in some fiction books. It offers some of the most brutal facts–beatings, thwarted escapes, restriction on education, separation of families–without overwhelming a young reader with the sheer horror of it.  It made an enormous impression on Ella in many ways–the hard, horrible facts of slavery, the extraordinary bravery of Alec, the vital necessity of reading and education.

So, as she remembered Alec’s story, we talked about what happened after the slaves were freed by Lincoln, and that even though they were free, they still weren’t equal.   She learned then about separate counters in restaurants, separate drinking fountains, separate restrooms, separate schools. The ban on interracial marriage, the danger of friendships across the color line. We didn’t get to the back of the bus, but I imagine that Rosa Parks will take care of that very, very soon.

She was thoughtful.  She wanted to know if Obama’s family were once slaves, so I had to explain no, not in American, but maybe some of his family was stolen from Africa a long time ago. I explained that at all times in our history white people had treated dark skinned people hatefully–Chinese in the late 19th and early 20th Century, Japanese during WW II,  Latinos, still.

She asked about “good” white people, who didn’t own slaves, who worked the underground railroad, about Lincoln.  Then the spiral began.  She wanted to know about war. Was there a war now? Do we know people in it? Were people dying? Yes. Yes. And probably.   We briefly touched on the concept of “just war”–though not in those terms, since I had to explain that soldiers, innately & by profession, were not necessarily bad.  Sometimes, I said, people had to fight wars.  Which is a concept I still wrestle with.

And then the clincher:  Why did people fight wars anyway?  Lots of ways, I said.  What’s the main reason, she wanted to know. Tell me the main reason people fight wars.  Power, I said. And resources. More land, more water, more oil. By this point, we had moved well beyond race, and the dialogue had gone well beyond the back seat of the car.  I figured my point had been made well enough for the time being. “Need to know” is a tricky concept with a voraciously curious child, their education ongoing.

Other great books about immigration and race, that fueled our talk:  Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say; Landed by Milly Lee

Booklist: The Coming of the Pilgrims

A new category of posts: books for young readers about issues related to American history, politics, democracy…

With Thanksgiving coming, we grabbed a stack of Thanksgiving books from our local library, including:  The Coming of the Pilgrims by E. Brooks Smith and Robert Meredith.

Written by two scholars, with the idea of introducing the original source material to children, the book is a really interesting, well-done account of the Pilgrims emigration from England, to Holland, to Plymouth, and the story of their subsequent hardship and struggle over that first brutally hard winter.

What’s most interesting about the book is how closely it hews to Governor William Bradford’s original text (Of Plymouth Plantation). It has strong echoes of his language throughout–many, many times “it pleased God” to help the Pilgrims, etc. et. al.–and it makes use of several of the more interesting events in his account–the near drowning and surprising salvation of John Howland, for instance, or the near explosion of the Mayflower by that “foolish boy” Francis Billington (but by God’s mercy…no harm was done).

The book is absolutely not without problems, and it certainly does nothing to tell the Native American side of the story.  But if you read this book with your child, there is ample opportunity for close and careful reading, and to discuss what exactly the Pilgrims did wrong with respect to the “Indians”-they stole their food, for one, and went at them with muskets, for another.

While we were reading, Ella and I had a good discussion about whether or not God really favored the PIlgrims over all others as they believed (she decided not), and what happened after that first Thanksgiving (the slaughter and exile).  She began to understand exactly what it took for the Pilgrims to get here, and what they did right and wrong as they set out to build their colony.

Mostly, I love this book because I’m a history geek.

I read many of the original Early American documents in graduate school (Winthrop & Edwards sermons and speeches, Mather’s tome on witchcraft, William Appess, etc.), including the whole of Bradford’s account, more than once. These books are not easy going (you would probably never read them unless you were getting a doctoral degree), but they’re really interesting, and the Pilgrims are interesting, too. They were extraordinarily brave, they faced unbelievable hardship, they survived against many odds, and their faith and deep belief in God’s providence–they he had a guiding plan for them–is truly something to marvel at, if only because the psychology is so foreign to our modern sensibility.  To understand early American history, you have to understand that Pilgrims didn’t think like we do. And this book is a really excellent introduction to that practical and psychological history.  If you can take time to read it with your children, they’ll have a complex understanding of just how things played out in the first days of the colony.

Ella and I decided that the pilgrims did many admirable, brave things, but that they also did some terrible, wrong things. They were complicated, and interesting, and far from perfect.

Sort of sadly, if you want this book, you’ll have to find it at your library or buy it used on Amazon because it’s quite old and no longer in print. But if you’re interested in the earliest American history, it’s an interesting find.

But you might find this unbelievably weird and dry.  So tell me, what are your favorite history-of-Thanksgiving books to read with your children?