Picture Books

The Baby Shower Blog, or Alison’s Favorite Board Books

Hi, my name is Alison, and I disregard baby registries.
I hope someone picks up my slack and gets you the bottles and onesies and Diaper Genie I know you need, but I’m bringing books to your shower.
There is almost nothing that makes me happier than giving books to kids. I feel like that’s one of my callings. I do it as often as opportunity presents itself, and sometimes I create the opportunity.

And after years of experience, I do it pretty well. I’ve read a lot of kids’ books—with my kids, with my students, and in my comfy chair all by myself, and I promise I’ll bring the kind of books you won’t get sick of reading after three times, because it’s important that you have the stamina to read it ten times if your kid wants to hear it ten times.

The market for little kids’ books is glutted with poorly written drivel, with saccharine rhymes and trite morals, because lots of people still write down to kids. I promise to find charming books that make you want to read them. Some that make you happy to make silly noises or silly faces, and some that make you both laugh. Some you can sing, and some that make you sigh. And if you’re interested, as your kiddo grows, I’ll make more suggestions.
Alison’s Starter List of Board Books for Babies:
1. Kiss Goodnight (A cuddly “Sam” book by Amy Hest, illustrated by Anita Jeram)
2. Mouse Paint (A color book with a last sentence that rings: “But they left some white because of the cat.” By Ellen Stoll Walsh)
3. Jamberry (An aural and visual feast by Bruce Degen)
4. Is Your Mama a Llama? (An animal book with more than just puppies and kittens—not that there’s anything wrong with puppies and kittens, but let’s face it: it’s a big world—by Deborah Guarino, illustrated by Steven Kellogg)
5. Doggies (A counting and barking book by Sandra Boynton, who could grace this list many times, but I’ll stick with this one because we need to know all the different ways American doggies bark at least as much as we need to know how to count to ten)
6. The Runaway Bunny (Because someone else already bought you Goodnight Moon, but you need this one too, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd)
7. Freight Train (A book full of color and action and noise and because, as Paul Simon reminds us, “everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance” by Donald Crews) 
8. Grandfather Twilight (A beautiful, calming, winding down sort of book for the end of a busy day, by Barbara Berger)
There are more, but I’ll stop there tonight.  Happy reading.

Didascalicons, or What to Read and How to Read It

I have always been interested in education, and when I chose to study medieval Europe, it was a natural draw for me to see how they studied and what they valued in terms of learning. When relatively few people were literate, and most of those had strong ties to the church, reading was viewed quite differently from today. Texts were produced laboriously, often by many different artisans, even before one considered the text’s author. Reading was serious work—serious enough that people worried about doing it wrong—with bad intentions or just badly (reading that is superficial or frivolous, not reflective and enlightening). Thus there was a need for a Didascalicon.
Hugh of St. Victor wrote the Didascalicon as instructions toward productive study and correct reading. He includes directions on what texts to read, what areas to study, and what order of subjects leads to fullest understanding. We might presume that the idea of reading rightly may have had more clout when there were fewer readers and fewer texts, and most of them were associated with the church. One should read with the elevation of one’s soul in mind, of course. But I think we still fret about this.
There’s a shift, to be sure.  Dante writes in his Inferno (Canto 5) about a couple who fall in to the sin of lust while reading the tale of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere’s affair. He worries (not unreasonably) that his own books might lead people to sin if they were read badly—quickly, shallowly, or misdirectedly—if they were misinterpreted. The idea that his current book, which he intends to lead readers to salvation, might also lead some to Hell, hits him like a ton of bricks.
But Dante was writing in the Catholic Middle Ages. So was Hugh, a century before him. We live in the 21st century. Surely we don’t need people telling us how to read or what to read.
Or do we? The advantage that medieval readers had over us is the same thing I listed as a deficit above.There were far fewer texts, and the cost of producing a text meant someone had to really want to produce and disseminate that text. That means, if not quality control, at least quantity control was built right in to the system.
Hugh is worried about us reading so that we get maximum gain from what we read, but he’s not worried about our reading texts that are deliberately misleading. No “Alternative Facts” or propaganda in a medieval romance. No Buzz Feed lists and no satire sites that are so carefully crafted that readers have to check their sources to make sure they’re satire.
Face it. We still need help reading. Now we need help knowing what to read, what not to read, and what not to believe, if we do get sucked down a rabbit hole.  We worry about images we can’t “unsee” and spending too much time reading things that really upset us.  The context is different (I think the number of people afraid of being damned for reading something is down, at least per capita), but the result is the same—people worry about wasting time, being misled, and even being psychologically affected  by what they read.
What do we do to combat the overwhelming amount of text and image that we encounter on a daily basis?  We read lists that other people have compiled. Blogs are full of reading recommendations, as is Pinterest. We publish lists of bestsellers, and we award prizes for excellence. Some of us check the list of challenged and banned books for suggestions. We teach classes on how to tell reliable sources from biased or commercial ones, and our librarians teach us to use the CRAAP test to ferret out questionable sources. And I’m afraid we get pretty cynical and set our default on “mistrust” rather than believing what we read right away.

I admit, sometimes it would be easier to just take some well-meaning person’s word for what we should read and what we should get out of it. But we don’t do that anymore. We can’t afford to. Maybe it’s better. We all have to come up with our own Didascalicon.

Living · Teaching

How We See Changes What We See

I took my kiddo to get his senior portraits taken last week. He was every inch the contradiction that we all are on the hybrid space where childhood flows in to adulthood. I wanted him to dress up; he wanted to wear a tee shirt.The props he wanted to bring were a thousand-page novel and some pieces from some games he plays. He wanted me to stay in the lobby, but he welcomed me back when I intervened to tell him to go ahead and switch to the casual clothes. He couldn’t decide on a smile.
But the photographer was terrific. We knew him, which helped. In fact, he was my son’s photography teacher last year. As I was watching the last few minutes of the shoot, I was struck by the photographer’s style and process. I could tell he looked at my son differently than I did. He never stopped imagining him in the next pose.
I’m pathologically curious, so I asked him about it. Does he just go through the world looking at people and framing them in his head? Yes. Yes, he does. He’s always interested in what the lighting of a particular setting does to a person’s image. Photography is all about light, and he sees the world in light and subjects, and has trouble turning off that vision.
Recently I had a similar conversation with my massage therapist, who I am certain is a genius, and who invariably sees people out of joint in her daily life—a man at the bank with a foot twisted inward she can see stems from the hip, or a woman who hunches and just needs to loosen up her neck and shoulders—and she can’t help thinking about what she would do to fix them. It’s a completely different way to see humanity, as so many imperfect machines in need of various levels of tuning up.
And both of these make me wonder about how we learn our perspective. Is it training or disposition? Are we inclined to view people in a particular way, or do we learn it in school or work? I think I was trained to think about literature like a critic, but I think I had a natural orientation toward language—what some of my teachers over the years called “having a good ear.”
Whether it’s innate or trained (I suspect both, really), the way it manifests in my head is that every new book I read, movie I watch, song I hear, or even news story I see passes through the filter: Could I teach this? How? In which class? With what comparable texts? That’s the part of my head I can’t turn off, and the part of my job I can’t leave at work. Yes, there’s the grading and the prepping, but deeper and more importantly, there’s my orientation toward the world as an opportunity to find a teachable moment.
I include all these various examples of people I consider artists because I want to add teaching to the list of arts that give one a particular lens on the world that becomes more inherent the longer one works. Just like a painter tries to capture what she sees in paint, or a playwright uses actors and scripts, we pick our medium and try to share what we see with others.

My desire to help others see what I see is just my particular artist’s effort, to help people see what I see —that medieval literature is funny, for instance, or that the connections between languages are cool. And after this past horrible weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, I want people to notice that some stories keep coming back and we can find strength and strategies in our past history and literature to help us win again.  


A Case for General Education, or Your VFOGI and You

I had occasion to discuss the General Education requirements of a university degree with some friends and colleagues recently, and I came home shrieking to my kids that they need to take advantage of them. (My eldest is applying to colleges in the fall; it’s not like they’re three and five, and I’m raving like a mad woman–much.)
But it seems there are some folks who don’t really get it, so I’m going to make the case I made to my kids.
First, the difference between a university degree and a trade school is GE. You are required to take a number of courses from a variety of disciplines before you “settle in” to your major curriculum. Students who wish violently that they wouldn’t have to take classes they didn’t “need” overlook the fact that most don’t know what they need, really, and even if they did, there is value in knowing a little about a lot of things.

My dear friend’s grandmother called this your VFOGI. VFOGI stands for Vast Fund Of General Information, and for context, she used it to justify spending money on astronomy classes or art exhibits because they made you a more interesting, and she believed, better person. In college my friend and I extended this notion to watching movies we wouldn’t normally be drawn to and trying cuisine we hadn’t grown up with. I admit, I stole the concept shamelessly. 

For me it’s almost a philosophical argument. I believe we should work to become the best versions of ourselves, and learning all sorts of kooky things contribute to that. I believe in the “constellation” theory of humanity—that we are all composed of our experiences, encounters, knowledge, and even the books we read and the television we watch and the people we love and hate. If you believe that, you want to make your constellation as big and varied and interesting as possible.
General Education can be a big part of that. GE classes are requirements to leave your comfort zone.  If you come to college knowing you want to be a doctor and limit yourself to biology and chemistry classes, you confine your life in ways I just can’t support. Doctors go home too, or they should, and they need to be able to do something besides read anatomical handbooks and pathology journals.
If you want to be an English major and never want to take a chemistry class because it’s irrelevant, you just lost half the world–maybe more. You might read a book that makes use of chemistry, but you won’t be  able to tell if the person is a blowhard, and you might not even understand it. And those examples don’t even touch on the value in everyone’s life of psychology or architecture or art history or kinesiology or….
The case for GE is manifold. Lots of students change their majors after taking a GE class because they fall in love with a field they didn’t know enough (or anything!) about before taking the course. If we were all limited to becoming what we knew about by 18, what a terrible waste that would be. I never heard of Chaucer, for instance, until my junior year of college, and I got my job of the last fifteen years essentially based on my ability to teach Chaucer.
Finally, you don’t have to love all your GEs. You can’t change majors as often as you take GE classes, and you wouldn’t want to. But those other classes that don’t change your life still have value. They build the framework of your brain in some very real ways. I took a Cultural Anthropology class in college, and I can’t remember a single individual fact I learned to pass it. But if someone talks to me about anthropology, I can carry on a conversation. The framework is there, so I can learn something new during that conversation. It’s not just like throwing information at my head that bounces back because I can’t follow. Because I took Anthro, there’s a place in my memory for new conversations to stick.

The bottom line is the world is just very, very big. There are so many facets of humanity and the natural world and our societies and our history, that to limit ourselves to learning about one tiny slice seems morally wrong to me. I feel an obligation to stretch my brain; it’s designed to be stretched. I have an obligation to know enough about the world to vote thoughtfully and enough about people to understand those beyond my family and close friends. General Education isn’t the only way to such understanding, but it’s certainly one way.
(The picture is from a campout at Palomar Mountain, where the world looks big and beautiful.)

In Praise of Pulp

As someone who gets paid to read (and teach) Chaucer and Dante and others whom people view as “classics,” I still spend a lot of time reading genre fiction.
I don’t even have excuses, not real ones, anyway. I could tell you I cut my reading teeth on my mom’s romances (I did—at 14 I devoured much of the Danielle Steele oeuvre in a summer). If I were to go there, I’d also praise RL Stine for keeping my boyo in books through much of 3rd and 4th grade, by the end of which he was an avowed reader, one interested even in writing his own books.
So we could say so-called “pulp” novels and series are good gateways to other books. We could say they train one how to read fiction, and therefore, literature.  They introduce us to plot and character, and each genre has its own conventions in terms of stock characters and structure. Enough trips through a fictional world, or a science-fictional world, or a murder mystery milieu, and you know what to expect, whom you’ll meet, and roughly the order of things as they proceed. The spunky heroine will win over the rugged, taciturn maverick; the butler will be discovered; the signature RL Stine twist will appear and satisfy.
They’re no Dante, but… they’re not supposed to be.
I’ve read hundreds of mysteries now (I switched gears from romance to mystery sometime in my 20s and never looked back), in addition to my Dante and Chaucer, and I can say a few things.  First, there is something very satisfying about the speed of reading a popular novel.  You can really get swept away, engrossed, lose track of time, and come out disoriented because you are fully steeped in the world you’ve just given yourself to. You flip pages like a demon, trying to get deeper immersed, trying to chase the characters, unfurl the mystery, get to the end.  That speed, that rush, that voluntary oblivion, you don’t get in Dante.  And it’s cool.  It’s a fine reason to read.
You can also get to know characters very well if they have several books to develop.  In that way, reading a series is akin to watching a television series—lots of time to see the characters in action and lots of different circumstances, developing different aspects of their personality. But in a book, you do considerable work to construct the characters. You imagine their physical appearance, and you have more freedom in seeing them act. Television actors are intermediaries, offering you their reading of a character. When you’re reading, it’s all you, and there’s something magic in that.
Finally, one thing Agatha Christie has on Dante is volume.  Dante is awesome—one of my favorites—but I mostly read and reread the Divine Comedy. Agatha Christie wrote eighty novels. One of my modern—living (gasp!)–mystery writers has written well over 200 and is not dead yet. That means, despite the conventions of my chosen genre, (and remembering there are conventions in all texts, even “high literature”), I have a nearly inexhaustible supply of new stories. That’s worth a lot.
So popular fiction has the rush, the characters-cum-friends, and the novelty cards.  Not a bad hand.  I’m not going to quit my day job or anything, but I’m also not going to put my book down long enough to respond when someone asserts that I’m reading pulp.