26 July 2013

"Dappled and Drowsy and Ready to Sleep"

Isaac decided a few years ago that he is going to own a zoo when he grows up.  And Matt and I are going to work there.  This idea has stuck, though it has morphed a little -- now he will own the zoo and Matt and I will work there while Isaac is an absentee-owner off playing pro-football.  I am not sure how to realistically support his football dreams, but I am all for him following the zookeeper path.

We have spent a lot of time at zoos in the past 8 years.  We have a nice zoological park less than an hour away and in town there is an impressive smaller zoo that we like to visit.  On vacation last month we went to the Prospect Park Zoo and the New York Aquarium.  I am glad to provide Isaac with experiences to support his interest.  There are worse goals in life than to take care of animals, and most zoos are involved in conservation and environmental education efforts -- endeavors which I believe are important.

On my end, I have decided that if I am going to be working at a zoo, shoveling animal poop and creating enrichment toys, then I want to work with the sloths.  I kind of like these funny looking animals and their outlook on life, though not as much as Kristen Bell does.  Isaac likes them, too, so I am confident he will include them in his exhibits.  We saw a sloth when we were in Costa Rica a few summers ago, though we were looking through a magnifying scope at the sloth sleeping in a tree a hundred feet or so above us.  But the experience of seeing this exotic, elusive animal, even from so great a distance, has stuck with Isaac.

At book fair last spring, there was a book that can only be described as adorable that Isaac picked out.  It is adorable because of the subject matter -- baby sloths.  A Little Book of Sloths by Lucy Cooke chronicles the adventures at the Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica where baby sloths lounge around, play and cuddle.  Reading this book meets your cuteness quota for about two years.  There is not much factual information about sloths in the book.  The author and photographer is more focused on showing the animals' personalities than explaining their biology or habitat needs.  But for a kid (or adult) who is fascinated by this deceptively lazy animal, this book provides beautiful and entertaining images.

I can't look at a sloth or read a description of their "laziness" without also thinking of Eric Carle's book "Slowly, Slowly, Slowly," Said the Sloth.  In this story, jungle animals passing by the sloth, who is hanging out in his tree, ask him why he is so lazy.  His response refutes their assumption and offers up a smorgasbord of fun, rich vocabulary words.  He is not lazy -- he simply likes to take his time and do things slowly.

Isaac has taken to describing himself as a sloth, mainly because Matt and I frequently express our frustration about his reaction time to our requests, usually ones that he would prefer to pretend not to hear.  But it is summer and it is time for us all to take a lesson from a sloth.  We are not being lazy -- we are just choosing to do things, slowly, slowly, slowly.  As Simon and Garfunkle remind us, "Slow down, you move too fast."

20 July 2013

No Princes Needed and Other Thoughts

I have some comic book recommendations to pass along.  Matt and Isaac are bigger fans of comics than I am, but I have found a couple recently that I really like.  I am even thinking of setting up a subscription at our local store to make sure that I do not miss any issues.


Matt discovered Princeless a little over a year ago.  We recommend it to friends who have daughters, but it is great for boys, too, and Isaac likes it.  The story is about the Kingdom of Ashland and its Royal Family, the Ashes.  They have seven daughters and one son.  As each daughter reaches marriageable age, their father the king locks them in a tower to be rescued by a brave knight.  This works fine, except the knights, though brave, are not able to defeat the dragon/curse/monster/etc. that guard the girls.  The next to youngest daughter gets impatient and frustrated waiting to be saved and thinks it terribly unfair that she and her sisters have to be locked up.  She saves herself by befriending her dragon, disguises herself as a knight, and sets off on an adventure to save her six sisters.

I had a mentor early in my career who got excited whenever a new children's book came out that featured a strong female protagonist.  She loved books like Alice the Fairy by David Shannon and
Apples to Oregon: Being the (Slightly) True Narrative of How a Brave Pioneer Father Brought Apples, Peaches, Pears, Plums, Grapes, and Cherries (and Children) Across the Plains by Deborah Hopkinson because the girls in them were interesting and independent.  During my first few years teaching my mindset was also attuned to looking for books about strong girls.  My colleague has since retired and the focus in education has shifted due a concern that boys are not reading on the same level as girls.  And I am raising a son now so we read books at home that interest him.  It is conventional wisdom that girls will read books with main characters of either gender, but boys are less inclined to read books about girls.  For the most part, this holds true.  But there are books about girls that cross-over to boys.  When Isaac bought How to Steal a Dog, I was surprised and pleased.  The main character is a girl but the plot is one that will engage a boy.  

I think Princeless is one of those cross-over books.  There is adventure and Adrienne, the main character, has a sarcastic wit that will appeal to boys.  There is also a message that girls are just as strong as boys and should be valued on their abilities, not on their looks, that boys will benefit from reading.  Pixar tried to do with Brave what Jeremy Whitley has accomplished with his comics.  I ranted about Brave last year, so I won't repeat myself.  Princeless succeeds in creating a story about a girl who doesn't need a prince to save her that is fun and entertaining for girls and boys without having to emasculate all of the male characters in the story.  (Sidenote: Whenever I read this comic I also hear in my head Jonathan Coulton's song "The Princess Who Saved Herself.")


In the Free Comic Book Day bag this year was an issue of Finding Gossamyr.  It is the story of siblings Denny and Jenna.  Denny, who is autistic (or so the story leads you to believe) solves a theorem that opens a portal to another world in which everything is governed by the principles of mathematics.  The siblings are transported and their adventures begin.  There are good guys and bad guys, and good guys who may be bad guys, and vice versa.  People are healed with a magic derived from a math formula and answers are solved by working out long equations.  There are three chapters published, so the story is just beginning.  I really like this one so far and am looking forward to following the series.  


When we stopped by our local comic store yesterday, the owner recommended a new Batman comic to us, Batman '66.  It is based on the old 1960's TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward.  The characters are drawn to look like the actors from the show and the story reads like a script from one of the episodes, with some modern ideas thrown in.  It was fun to read (I actually read this one to Isaac myself last night).  The story is much sillier than more modern Batman stories, but the show was pretty silly itself.  Isaac and I enjoyed this new one and will be reading more.


I provided links to the comics I mentioned so that you can see what they look like.  I would encourage you to purchase them at your local comic book store rather than buying them online or from a large retailer.  You will get more personal help from people who know the genre and maybe even discover something new.  In Greensboro, check out Acme Comics/Acme Comics Presents on Lawndale.

And if you like Coulton's song "The Princess Who Saved Herself, check out his Zombie song.  It is Isaac's favorite.

16 July 2013

Who are Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman? A letter to Isaac explaining as best I can.

Dear Isaac,

Last Sunday on the way to church, you asked that question in response to a story we heard on NPR.  It was the big news of the morning because the jury had come to a decision the night before and many people in the country had been waiting for the verdict.

Your father and I explained the basic facts of the case and what the jury had decided. But they do not come close to explaining who Trayvon Martin was, who George Zimmerman is, or what the case was really about.  Based on what the law says and the evidence that was presented for the jurors in the courtroom, I believe that the decision that was handed down was the right one.  That does not mean that I also think that what George Zimmerman did was right or that I defend his actions.  But we are a nation that is governed by the rule of law and a system is in place to ensure that the actions of men and women in our country are brought before our courts.  A person's guilt or innocence is decided based on facts, not emotions or biases. If the facts prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the person is punished in a way that has already been determined by the law.  If the facts do not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the person is free. This system protects people from being punished for crimes they did not commit or from being punished too harshly.

But Isaac, we have to remember that our government and our laws were created, written and are carried out by people who are not perfect, who make mistakes and who view the world through their own sets of biases and beliefs.  The system does not always work and our laws are not always fair.  Though I know that it does not always work the way it was meant to, I believe that our system of government is a good and just one.  It is people who corrupt it and people who hurt others.  There are a few questions that I hope will be looked at more closely as a result of this case by people who come to the table with a mind to heal the hurts, not simply bandage the wound.

Why was George Zimmerman patrolling his neighborhood with a loaded gun?  This is an important question for me.  I don't want you to think that I don't want people to own guns, but knowing that someone is walking around our neighborhood with a loaded gun looking for troublemakers would not make me feel safe.  Zimmerman's gun gave him the power to protect himself at the cost of Trayvon Martin's life.  But what if the gun had gone off during the altercation and killed an innocent bystander?  By having a gun, Zimmerman felt powerful.  That power, possibly, made him engage in an interaction that he otherwise would have avoided.  It is one thing to drive around your neighborhood and make sure nothing "funny" is going on and alert the authorities if you see anything that looks suspicious.  It is another to take on the role of neighborhood protector/defender.  Isaac, if you ever own a gun -- and let's face it, since you are your father's son, you probably will at some point in your life -- you need to remember that ownership of a gun means that you need to be more careful, not less so.  Having a gun does not mean you are automatically protected against threats.  It means that you need to take great care to protect others against the threat you pose once you hold that weapon in your hands.

What is self-defense?  Your father and I have told you that we would support you if you struck back at someone who hits you first.  You would be defending yourself. (But, please never do this on school grounds, at least not at as long as I am still teaching.)  But if you hit someone because you believed they were about to hit you, then, I am sorry son, you would be in a world of trouble.  But, by definition of the law as it stands in Florida (and other states), you would be within your rights.  By law, George Zimmerman did not have to be in imminent danger, he just had to believe that he was in imminent danger before he defended himself, in this case with a lethal weapon.  We were not there.  We do not know what was actually happening -- who was the aggressor, who hit whom first, who was holding whom down.  But to take violent action against someone because you think he might be a threat to your life is not self-defense.  Not by my definition.  And this, Isaac, is where I think the law is wrong.  But I am not a legal expert.  That is simply my gut feeling.  And if someone walked into our house and I thought he was going to hurt you, I cannot say that I would not find a weapon and make sure he could do no harm to you or anyone else, ever.  And I would probably claim self-defense. I do not know what it feels like to wonder if I am going to live through the next few minutes, and I pray that I will never know what it feels like to wonder if you will live to see your next birthday.

Why do we have gated communities?  I think this is the most troubling of the questions that I have asked myself as the incident was flushed out through various news outlets, and as the trial went on, and now as the analysis of the process and the various opinions are written in the aftermath.  Throughout history there have been the "haves" and the "have-nots."  There have been the privileged classes who live inside their walls so they do not have to interact with the lower classes.  George Zimmerman was patrolling his gated community because there had been break-ins and trouble from, supposedly, people who did not belong in the neighborhood.  He saw Trayvon Martin and assumed he was one of the people on whom these "troubles" could be blamed.  Martin did not belong there.  He was an outsider and Zimmerman was suspicious of anyone who was not part of his community.  Now in reality, Isaac, Trayvon Marton, was visiting a friend, had walked to the store and was on his way back to the house he was visiting.  He was a guest in that community.  Instead of inquiring where he was going and trying to interact with this guest, Zimmerman was suspicious and angry that Martin had come within the boundaries of his safe haven.  Martin was unknown and therefore not to be trusted.  Isaac, I hope your father and I have taught you to be open and welcoming to people outside your "group."  If our society continues to put up walls, then there will be more Trayvon Martin's and more George Zimmerman's.  You are being raised in a church family, Isaac.  And it is a church family that, I believe, is good at opening its doors to outsiders.  It will be up to your generation to take down the gates and the walls and the tracks that divide society.  As long as they stand, the message of love and tolerance and equality that we are supposed to take to heart will be muted by the false boundaries that these boundaries erect.

What image do you project to society?  This, Isaac, is where I go a bit right-wing on you.  Brace yourself.  You are not quite eight as I write this and we have not had major battles about how you dress.  I do not fuss about whether your athletic shorts match your t-shirt and I only make you "dress-up" for special occasions.  I try to respect who you are and what makes you comfortable.  Thus far, you have probably assumed that I sympathize with the people who are angered by Trayvon Martin's death and George Zimmerman's acquittal.  This is where I switch things up.  Trayvon Martin was wearing a "hoodie" pulled up over his head and "walking slowly" the night Zimmerman confronted him and was shot.  What Martin did after that we will never know because he is not here to tell us.  What we can assume, though Zimmerman did not take the stand to testify to this, is that what he saw when he looked at Martin walking down the street was a young man who was part of a culture that was identified with unlawful activity.  In short, a "thug."  Isaac, I am not sure you have caught on yet, but I do censor what you wear.  I will never buy you a t-shirt with a slogan that I think portrays an attitude of disrespect or angst.  And I will never let you buy one.  It may not be fair, but "you are what you wear."   If you show society an image that is subversive or antagonistic, then you will be thought of as subversive and antagonistic.  If you dress to emulate a certain culture then you will be seen as belonging to that culture.  I do not know whether or not Trayvon Martin was a thug, but he was dressed like one.  Is it fair to judge him for that?  No, but society does and Zimmerman did.  If he had been dressed in a polo shirt, khakis and a peacoat with a pair of loafers on his feet, I would not be writing this to you today.  Isaac, know this -- you will be judged by the culture with which you choose to identify -- rightly or wrongly.  Choose wisely and make sure your actions always emulate the values that you have been taught.  And if you try to walk out of the house wearing something I deem inappropriate, then game on, son.  If you will not safeguard your image, then I will.

Isaac, I wish there were easy answers to your questions and I wish that I could say that the jury's verdict was the final word.  But there aren't and it most certainly is not.  I wish that I could say I believed that by the time you were raising children of your own that cases like this would not exist.  But I don't.  All I can say is that I hope you will keep asking questions because that is how you learn about the world around you - the good and the bad, the right and the wrong.  Be open to new experiences and be curious before you give in to suspicion.

And I pray that you will always feel like you can ask me or your father anything.  If we don't know the answers, then we will discover them with you.


13 July 2013

Visiting the City That Never Sleeps One Book at a Time

You can take the children's librarian away from her books, but you can't stop her from associating everything she sees with a children's book.

We were on vacation in New York City last week.  We spent seven days wandering around, seeing sights, navigating the subway, and having our senses overloaded with new images, good food and interesting characters.  One thing I realized during the trip is how much what I do for a living informs how I experience the world around me, especially new places.  I had grown up visiting NYC on field trips with school and scouts, and on occasional family trips, but most of the places we went on this trip were new for me.  And at every spot I had a children's book to associate with it.

I had a few must-sees for the trip, the 9/11 Memorial being one of them.  It was an emotional experience, as I suspected it would be.  Matt and I both walked around with tears in our eyes as we viewed the pools that have taken the place of the towers and read the names of those who lost their lives.  I have visited the Vietnam Memorial in DC a handful of times, and it struck me how much more visceral my response was to the 9/11 Memorial. They are very similar experiences, reading names of the dead carved in stone.  But having lived through 9/11, having watched it unfold on TV, and having experienced the aftermath gave me a different association with the Memorial.  We did not take a family picture at the Memorial.  It didn't feel right to pose together with smiles on our faces in this place that made us feel so somber, despite the many families around us doing just that.  I couldn't help, though, thinking of some of the children's books that I pull off the shelves each September.  We visited just a week after Nick Wallenda walked across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope.  Since that image was in my head, I thought of the book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein about Phillipe Petit who walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center Towers in 1974.  And I thought of the many who came to help that day, some of which are written about in Maira Kalman's Fireboat about the John J. Harvey and her crew who were called into service.  They are both stories about determination and hope and the indomitable spirit that our nation showed during the tragedy of 9/11.

Another must-see, for me, was the New York Public Library.  Fortuitously, the day we visited was the last day they had the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights on display, documents that are rarely on show simultaneously.  That was another emotional experience, seeing these two documents, written hundreds of years ago, that are the foundation of the freedoms that are at the heart of who we are as a country.  Visiting on the heels of the recent Supreme Court Rulings concerning DOMA and California's Proposition 8, I was reminded that, though our laws do not always reflect it, our country was founded on the principles of equality and fairness and eventually we will figure out how to apply those beliefs to every one of our citizens.  Also at the time of our visit to the NYPL, there was a special exhibit on children's books called The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter.  It was an historical perspective on the importance of children's books to childrens' development and how they have evolved and been used over the past couple hundred years to educate, indoctrinate and entertain.  Examples of English 18th century readers were on display along with books from other countries and comic books from earlier this century.  They also had examples of original artwork by illustrators.  I pointed out to Isaac an especially complicated collage by Ashley Bryan so he could see what the picture looks like before it shows up as a flat image in the book Let It Shine.  Throughout the exhibit the curators had posted quotes from educational theorists and explanations of the evolution of how children's books are seen to fit into a child's education and emotional development.  That visit was very affirming for me -- the two exhibits reminded me to be hopeful that Isaac will one day live in a country that truly does give all of its people their God-given rights and to be thankful for the opportunity to be in a profession whose purpose is to share the joy of books with children.

The Highline was a must-see for both Matt and I, having heard about it on NPR, read about it online and been told about it by friends who live in the city.  It is a reclaimed rail line that has been made into a public park.  To me, it is a wonderful example of how the initiative of a few people can take root and become a movement that benefits all.  It is another example of a place that is filled with hope and a spirit of determination.  There isn't anything to do on The Highline but walk and sit and soak up the atmosphere.  Outside the edges of the park the bustle of the city was taking place, but inside the boundaries was a calm oasis created by and for the people to preserve the city's history and offer respite from its present.  I remembered the book Home by Jeannie Baker.  It is a wordless book that tells the story of a family that moves into a run-down city neighborhood and slowly helps transform it into a vibrant community where trees grow, children play in grass-filled yards and neighbors help and support each other.  It is about community, and I think that is what the Highline is about -- finding and preserving community.

Matt and I were doing most of the planning on the trip -- deciding where we would go and when.  But Isaac had a couple of must-sees, as well.  One of his was the American Museum of Natural History.  He specifically wanted to visit the Planetarium.  I was interested in visiting, too -- that was one place that I had visited as a child that I wanted to experience again, and there was a book connection that I had in my mind the entire time we were there. Finally after watching Journey to the Stars, seeing various exhibits on ancient cultures, and viewing the Squid and the Whale, I told Matt I had to find the wolf diorama.  If you have read Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick then you know the importance of this exhibit to the story.  If you have not read it, I will not give it away.  But seeing the actual diorama and remembering the narrator's description of it from the book brought the story alive for me in a new way.  That was one of my geekier moments on the trip.  I think I could have walked straight to that small hallway, viewed the wolves, and walked right back out and felt like I had gotten my money's worth from my visit.  But I think that is something that books do for us -- they help us experience the world around us, sometimes by broadening our perspective and other times by helping us hone in on specific experiences.  I may not remember anything else from our visit to the AMNH, but I will remember those wolves.

We filled our days in NYC and visited other spots.  Another must-see for Isaac was a baseball game.  We opted for a minor league Brooklyn Cyclones game over the Yankees or the Mets. And I was reciting "Casey at the Bat" in my head while we watched the game.  We chose to go to the Prospect Park Zoo rather than travel out to The Bronx Zoo, and I was picturing Mo Willems' Knuffle Bunny books since we were in his neighborhood.  Matt had to visit the Museum of the Moving Image and the old film equipment brought to mind another Brian Selznick book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  We were guided around the Metropolitan Museum of Art by our friend who works there and, of course, I was thinking of Konigsburg's classic book From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

And then there was the night, July 4th, when the friends we were staying with fired up the charcoal grill, Isaac and I played badminton in the backyard, Isaac caught fireflies in a mason jar, and we all ran down the street following the music of the ice cream truck.  We listened to the fireworks going off around the neighborhood, enjoyed the company of friends, and relaxed in lawn chairs until Isaac declared it was time for bed.  It was a peaceful evening in the middle of a busy, adventure-filled week.  And it was just about perfect.

01 July 2013

Father's Day (a bit late)

Matt doesn't wear a tie often, so neck-wear has never been a go-to Father's Day gift for us.  Most of the time when I ask Isaac what we should get his father for Christmas or a birthday or Father's Day the answer is "a video game."  That is usually a good choice because it is something the two of them enjoy doing together.  But this year we went with books.

Matt had a book in mind that he wanted, Joker: A Memoir by Andrew Hudgins, and it just so happens that Carl Hiaasen's newest novel Bad Monkey was coming out that week.  So he got something he had been wanting and I got to surprise him with something he wasn't expecting.  We had a book fair the last week of school, so Isaac picked him out a book, too, Because I'm Your Dad by Ahmet Zappa.

Recognize the last name of that author?  Because I'm Your Dad is written by Frank Zappa's son as a tribute to his father and his happy childhood.  It was really the perfect story for Isaac to give Matt -- many of the things the father and daughter do together in the book are things that Isaac and Matt enjoy doing together.  There are many books celebrating mothers, but not as many for fathers.  This is a fun one that is quirky and sweet.

Isaac hit the jackpot when it comes to his dad.  I don't celebrate him or their relationship enough, but Isaac would not be the cool kid he is if it weren't for Matt.  We don't make a big deal out of holidays like Father's Day or Mother's Day, or any other random "Day" that the Hallmark commercials want you to buy cards for. But we do recognize them in small ways.  This year on Father's Day weekend we went camping for the first time with Isaac, got to see the moon and Saturn through some whopping telescopes, and had fun spending time together.  It was the best way to celebrate our family, Isaac's awesome dad, and their relationship.