Review of Thirty Million Words, by Dana Suskind, MD

Thirty Million Words

Building a Child’s Brain

Tune In, Talk More, Take Turns

by Dana Suskind, M.D.

Dutton, 2015. 308 pages.
Starred Review

The thirty million words of the title refer to the number of words children hear from birth to 3 years of age. But that’s not the total number of words — that’s the gap between the number of words children from language-rich families hear and the number that children from language-poor families hear.

The number is based on a study done by Betty Hart and Todd Risley.

The data answered the paramount question: Was a child’s ultimate ability to learn related to the language heard in the first years of life? Three years of painstaking analysis left no doubt. It did. Counter to prevalent thought at the time, neither socioeconomic status, nor race, nor gender, nor birth order was the key component in a child’s ability to learn because, even within groups, whether professional or welfare, there was variation in language. The essential factor that determined the future learning trajectory of a child was the early language environment: how much and how a parent talked to a child. Children in homes in which there was a lot of parent talk, no matter the educational or economic status of that home, did better. It was as simple as that.

When they followed up with the children years later, the trend continued.

The essential wiring of the human brain, the foundation for all thinking and learning, occurs largely during our first three years of life. We now know, thanks to careful science, that optimum brain development is language dependent. The words we hear, how many we hear, and how they are said are determining factors in its development. The significance of this cannot be overemphasized since this window of time, if neglected, may be lost forever. When Hart and Risley looked at their data, the influence of early language on a child was unmistakable, the negative impact of a poor early language environment critical, including the effect on vocabulary acquision. Even more significant was evidence of the effect on IQ at three years of age.

Also important was what was said.

But quantity of words was only one part of the equation. While the number of words a child heard was important, imperatives and prohibitions appeared to stifle a child’s ability to acquire language.

“We saw the powerful dampening effects on development when [a child’s interaction with a parent] began with a parent-initiated imperative: ‘Don’t’ ‘Stop’ ‘Quit that.'”

Two other factors seemed to have an effect on language acquisition and IQ. The first was the variety of vocabulary the child heard. The less varied the vocabulary, the lower the child’s achievement at age three. The other influence was family conversational habits. Hart and Risley found that parents who talked less produced children who also spoke less.

This book is ultimately a book of hope, about teaching parents how important their words are.

The incredible power that helps nurture the brain into optimum intelligence and stability is parent talk. If the most profound mysteries of the brain are still to be discovered, that truth has already been revealed. And it shows you how smart the brain really is, because, in absolute evolutionary brilliance, it harnesses a plentiful, natural resource as the key catalyst for its own development. The process is so simple and hidden that you aren’t even aware it’s happening. You can’t sell it, you can’t store it, you can’t list it on the New York Stock Exchange, but a caregiver’s language is the essential resource of every country, every culture, every person, extending into every crevice of who we are, what we can do, and how we behave.

The book goes on to talk about how parent talk helps in every area of brain development.

But then it talks about how to turn this research into action. In the Thirty Million Words Initiative, parents are being taught effective ways to talk with their little ones.

I like the memorable Three Ts that parents are taught: Tune In, Talk More, Take Turns.

A little bit more about each one:

Of the Three Ts, Tune In is the most nuanced. It involves a parent’s making a conscious effort to notice what a baby or child is focused on, then, when it’s appropriate, talking with the child about it. In other words, focusing as the child is focused. Even if the child is too young to understand the words being spoken, even if the focus is constantly changing, Tuning In refers to a parent’s following and responding to a child’s lead. It represents the first step in harnessing the power of parent talk to build a child’s brain. If a parent is not Tuned In, the other Ts will not work.

The second T, Talk More, seems self-explanatory.

Talk More, which goes hand in hand with Tune In, refers to a parent’s increased talking with a child, especially about what the child is focusing on, not to him or her. While this may seem a subtle distinction, it is fundamental to the TMW approach. Talking More with a child requires a mutual level of engagement between the child and the parent. Like Tune In, it is another critical element of parent-child attachment and brain development.

And the final T puts it all together.

The final T, Take Turns, entails engaging a child in a conversational exchange. The gold standard of parent-child interaction, it is the most valuable of the Three Ts when it comes to developing a child’s brain. In order for the necessary serve-and-return of conversational interaction to be successful, there has to be active engagement between the parent and child. How does the parent achieve this? By Tuning In to what the child is focused on and Talking More about it. The key, whether a parent has initiated interaction or is responding to a child’s initiative, is for the parent to wait for the child to respond. That is what sets the stage for the critical Taking Turns.

The book goes on to talk about practicalities, and how this applies in many different ways and many different subject areas. But I like how nicely the content is summed up in the title alone.

As a children’s librarian, reading this book urges me to communicate these important principles to parents and helps me realize how important parent talk is, even from birth. I recommend this book for all parents, but also for anyone who works with babies or parents of babies. A powerful, hopeful message.

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Review of Some Assembly Required, by Anne Lamott, with Sam Lamott

Some Assembly Required

A Journal of My Son’s First Son

by Anne Lamott
with Sam Lamott

Riverhead Books, New York, 2012. 272 pages.
Starred Review

I so love Anne Lamott’s writing! She is honest and writes with humor about the failings and foibles we all have. Along the way, a deep faith shines through and a desire to be compassionate to everyone — though she is not afraid to tell us where she is not compassionate at all.

In many ways, Anne Lamott paves the way for me. She’s a little older than me, and her first son was born a year after mine. However, she has become a grandmother before me. In this book, she looks at the beautiful experience of being a grandmother and all the difficulties of letting her son be a father without undue interference from her.

There are some beautiful passages about Jax, the miraculous and wonderful grandbaby:

After I was sure he was sleeping soundly, I touched the flush of his cheeks in that light brown skin and traced those bold eyebrows. Of course, like all babies, he wakes up with a startle, slightly groping and low-level graspy, but with no sense of a time bomb about to go off. The beauty of the curve of his head — how it rests in the crook of his elbow — almost makes me want to flog myself, out of a desperate, unbearable love. All grandparents I’ve mentioned this to have felt this. He’s a Fibonacci spiral, like a nautilus shell — one of those patterns in mathematical expression with a twisting eternal perfection.

Or when she tells Jax the Secret of Life:

Dear Jax: Yesterday was your first Thanksgiving, and it is time for me to impart to you the secret of life. You will go through your life thinking there was a day in second grade that you must have missed, when the grown-ups came in and explained everything important to the other kids. They said: “Look, you’re human, you’re going to feel isolated and afraid a lot of the time, and have bad self-esteem, and feel uniquely ruined, but here is the magic phrase that will take this feeling away. It will be like a feather that will lift you out of that fear and self-consciousness every single time, all through your life.” And then they told the children who were there that day the magic phrase that everyone else in the world knows about and uses when feeling blue, which only you don’t know, because you were home sick the day the grown-ups told the children the way the whole world works.

But there was not such a day in school. No one got the instructions. That is the secret of life. Everyone is flailing around, winging it most of the time, trying to find the way out, or through, or up, without a map. This lack of instruction manual is how most people develop compassion, and how they figure out to show up, care, help and serve, as the only way of filling up and being free. Otherwise, you grow up to be someone who needs to dominate and shame others, so no one will know that you weren’t there the day the instructions were passed out.

I know exactly one other thing that I hope will be useful: that when electrical things stop working properly, ninety percent of the time you can fix them by unplugging the cord for two or three minutes. I’m sure there is a useful metaphor here.

I love the way Sam talks about his son:

It used to be kind of an accident that he could get his feet to his mouth, but now it’s a tool in his movements. He grabs his feet to shift his weight forward, and to sit or roll. Now it’s a lever, to use. He’ll use his feet as a lever, as handles. He’s discovered, “Wow, they’re attached to me. They have weight to them.” It’s evolutionary, and it caught me by surprise because the foot phone seemed like a phase, but it was evolution — him starting the movement process, of rolling over, and rocking forward inch by inch, like someone with no arms. Now you can’t take your eyes off him for a second. He’ll go from being on his back to being on his stomach, with an arm trapped beneath him, and hurt himself. Now if you look away, he can get hurt.

But my favorite is where Anne Lamott reflects about Jesus:

I would say that my deepest spiritual understanding is that God also sees and forgives my smallest detail, even my flickery, prickly, damaged, jealous, vain self, and sees how I get self-righteous and feel either like trash, often, or superior, and like such a scaredy-cat, and God still understands exactly what that feels like. Because God had the experience of being people, through Jesus.

Jesus had his good days and bad days and stomach viruses. Not to mention that on top of it all, he had a mom who had bad days and good days of her own. She’s like me and Amy, like all of us; she would have been as hormonal, too. And she must have been jealous sometimes of the people Jesus chose to spend time with instead of her. Jealousy is such a toxic virus. “Who are these people? And what do they have that I don’t have?” It’s pretty easy to be deeply selfish when it comes to sharing your child. Even Mary must have been like: “Back off! He’s mine.

Anne Lamott makes the particular experience of being a grandmother a universal experience that we can all share with her.

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Review of Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten! by Hyewon Yum

Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten!

by Hyewon Yum

Frances Foster Books (Farrar Straus Giroux), New York, 2012. 36 pages.
Starred Review

I would have never checked out this book. I mean, come on, how many books do we need about getting ready for Kindergarten? When I did read it because it is being considered for the Capitol Choices list, I became convinced that we don’t need any of the other books. We need this one!

This is a book about the feelings of a kid and his Mom when the child is starting Kindergarten. Those feelings are beautifully expressed by size and color. I especially love the way the sizes and colors change from page to page, because feelings on such a momentous day are volatile. Feelings change.

At the start, the big boy is excitedly waking up his little, blue mother, because he’s ready to start school.

Mom makes my lunch and she starts to worry. “Do they have snacks in kindergarten? What if you don’t have time to finish your sandwich at lunch? You’ll be so hungry.”

“I can eat fast, Mom.”

The picture on that page clearly demonstrates the big, confident boy wolfing down his breakfast in an Enormous Mouthful. All Mom’s other worries, he can handle. And he’s consistently pictured as large and confident, while Mom is much smaller and completely shaded in blue.

They rush to school, with the big, happy, confident boy pulling along his tiny Mom. The reversal of the usual tropes continues, and the big boy mounts the steps to the big school.

Mom doesn’t look happy.
“We don’t know anyone here. I miss your old teachers and your friends.”

“I like to make new friends, Mom, and you’ll make new friends in no time.”

I say hi to the girl with a pink ribbon.
She says hi.

And her mom says hi to my mom.
My mom smiles back.

On that page, color beautifully dawns on Mom’s face and body. She smiles with pink cheeks, and the pink and yellow radiate into her blouse. The top of her head and her legs are still blue, but you can see that she’s warming up.

And then, on the next page, they’re back to life size. The boy is tinged with blue as he faces the open classroom door. Mom’s bigger now, and colorful, and she provides a stable place for him to hug. (There’s some blue at her waist where he’s hugging her.)

The teacher comes out to greet them, and the boy gets his confidence back. And his large size. There’s a wonderful picture on the page when the teacher says it’s time for the parents to leave. “Mom hugs me, and kisses me, and hugs me, and kisses me.” The boy is about to pop from the force of the hugs, and Mom’s face is blue again, but she’s smiling.

Then we get to work.
Kindergarten is awesome.

There’s a truly wonderful double page spread at the end of the day when the Kindergartners are lined up, ready to go home. They are all huge and confident, completely filling the page and smiling. “When we line up, I feel so much bigger.” He looks bigger, too.

Mom, waiting out in the school yard, is back to blue. But when they have a big hug, she’s back to normal color and size.

Until the boy has his final question:

“Mom, can I take the school bus tomorrow, please?”

This book is perfect in so many ways. It so wonderfully shows the feelings taking place here, using the art to say so much more than words can. Then there’s humor in the Mom’s worries, and the confident, reassuring child. But I love that even he has moments of being blue, because that’s the way it really happens.

If you know of a child getting ready to start Kindergarten, I can’t think of a better choice than this book!

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Review of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

by Amy Chua

The Penguin Press, New York, 2011. 235 pages.

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle reading this book. Here in Northern Virginia, there are so many Tiger parents pushing their kids, and I had a feeling I’d feel sorry for the kids. Either that, or I’d be filled with guilt that I hadn’t been more of a Tiger Mom and ended up with prodigy children.

But Amy Chua handles the delicate topic with grace and humor. Although she acknowledges that there are stereotypes involved here and every single Chinese mother is not one way and every single American mother the other way, she does point out that the culture in which she was raised was completely different than typical American parenting culture.

“There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids’ true interests. For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it’s a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.”

However, she also uses the book to show that, no matter how strong your convictions about parenting, every child is different, and what works for one may not work for another. We all make mistakes, and the important thing is to do your best.

And nothing shows you your own weaknesses and misconceptions like being a mother.

Amy Chua tells a good story, too. She tells of her noble quest to sacrifice to raise perfect children, and the obstacles and drama along the way. I found myself a fascinated by how well it was working out with her prodigy children, though she definitely shows her own defeats. And, what do you know, the girls did not turn out to need years of expensive therapy.

“All the same, even when Western parents think they’re being strict, they usually don’t come close to being Chinese mothers. For example, my Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments thirty minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It’s hours two and three that get tough.”

And this Tiger Mother believed her way was definitely best:

“As I watched American parents slathering praise on their kids for the lowest of tasks — drawing a squiggle or waving a stick — I came to see that Chinese parents have two things over their Western counterparts: (1) higher dreams for their children, and (2) higher regard for their children in the sense of knowing how much they can take.”

All in all, this book made me feel much less judgmental of the overachieving parents I see come into the library. And other people who don’t parent the way I do. The fact is, everybody can think they have the one right way to parent, but there are strengths and weaknesses with every approach, and every child is different. In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, you can read along as Amy Chua learns that lesson.

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Review of NurtureShock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman


New Thinking About Children

by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman
read by Po Bronson

Hachette Audio, 2009. 7 CDs.
Starred Review

This audiobook was a fascinating one to listen to. I put a copy of the print version on hold, so I’d have some surprising statistics to quote for this review, but too many people want to read it and my copy still hasn’t come in, so I will have to go by memory of what I heard and be more general.

NurtureShock reviews studies on child development and breakthroughs in our understanding of nurturing children that have come in the last ten years, particularly studies that had results contradictory to prevailing belief.

The authors cover many different aspects of raising children and cover child development at all age levels. They begin with studies that show that too much praise is actually counterproductive for building a child’s self-esteem. They go on to studies about many other things, and cover each topic in great depth, explaining the implications of the studies and how the researchers approached their surprising results.

We learn about the importance of sleep for children — it’s much more important for children and teens than it is for adults. They look at the lies children tell, which happens much more often than their parents realize. It turns out that children know they are lying much younger than their parents realize, but it also serves a developmental purpose.

We learn that baby videos — with disembodied voices — actually slow down a baby’s vocabulary development, that responsiveness to the baby’s initiation is key. We learn that children’s programming like Arthur actually increases aggressive behavior. (The neat summing up at the end doesn’t seem to make up for all the unkindnesses portrayed earlier in the story.)

All ten chapters tell you fascinating things about children and teens and their developing brains. Not only do the authors present the surprising results, they also come up with plausible reasons for why those results are happening.

I highly recommend this book for all parents, and anyone who works with children or teens. People will also be fascinated who are interested in how the human mind works. Every chapter has interesting and surprising things to think about, and it may change the way you parent your kids. It would be nice if this book could even be used to change some school district policies.

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Review of The Mother’s Book of Well-Being, by Lisa Groen Braner

The Mother’s Book of Well-Being

Caring for Yourself So You Can Care for Your Baby

by Lisa Groen Braner

Conari Press, 2003. 181 pages.
Starred Review.
2008 Sonderbooks Stand-out, #7 Nonfiction Personal Growth

Here’s another book I’ve been meaning to review for a very long time. The author was one of our nicest customers at the library on Sembach Air Base in Germany. Again, the time when I moved was a time of upheaval for me, and I got way behind on book reviews. On top of that, this is a book to be read slowly and savored, which I did.

I did give the book to a book-lover friend who was a new mother. She said it brought tears to her eyes and was the best present she got!

The Mother’s Book of Well-Being consists of 52 meditations for each week of your new baby’s life. Each one is only a few pages long, so you ought to be able to get that much reading time in a week! These meditations are not about the baby’s growth, but about your own growth as a woman and as a mother.

In the Prologue, the author says, “That’s where this book picks up — at the point when you can’t possibly go one more moment without sleep, without a shower, without a smidgen of the life you once lived. This is a time of celebration, and also one of healing and learning. When you gave birth to your baby, you also gave birth to yourself as a mother. You’re responsible for another soul and, unexpectedly, newly responsible for yourself.

“The passage from woman to mother is complex. It causes us to reexamine who we are and who we want to be for our children. The ‘guard’ of generations has changed. Becoming a mother suddenly places you in the seat of true adulthood. My feet dangle from that chair often. I hasten to touch the ground and sit up straight in my newfound responsibility. Motherhood is a role in which it takes time to become comfortable and confident. The changes are great and the expectations high. We live in a culture that reveres and elevates motherhood to a superhuman stature. So often we come to the role with perceptions of how it will be, and realize how unprepared we really are. All of the plans you made for yourself and your baby before you gave birth may be hard to take during this time of recovery. This may be the first time you’ve ever been ‘called’ to devote yourself to a job so unconditionally. Some moments will find you strong and tireless, and others will find you exhausted and unsure.

“Be gentle with yourself. You are not alone.”

The weekly chapters have gentle meditations that remind you to look after yourself. Sometimes, they refer to your baby’s growth, as in this passage from Week 30:

“Too often, we miss the sanctity of the present. The present usually arrives peacefully, offering itself as a refuge over and over again while we sit muddled in our minds. We might believe that our thoughts are productive or even interesting, but we’re really ignoring the gift of the day before us.

“This is where our children can teach us. Babies absorb the world around them, touching, tasting, and seeing. They delight in their senses, enjoying the unexpected swoop of a robin or the warmth of the sun emerging from a cloud. Let’s suspend our thinking for a change, return to the simple and original mind with which we were born. Let’s immerse ourselves in the river of the senses — to drift, swim, and float in the day.”

In Week 3, she encourages mothers to find some time to ourselves, somehow.

“Babies tune our hearing outward. We distinguish between cries of hunger and cries of fatigue. We listen for them while we’re awake and asleep. Having a baby pulls us outside of ourselves by necessity. But let’s not forget to keep an ear open to the cry of our inner voice too. Finding thime for solitude encourages us to listen to ourselves. In those quiet moments alone, ask yourself what you need to feel nourished. Honor the answers that come. As mothers, we meet our children’s needs a hundred times a day. Let us remember to ask ourselves what we need to feel nurtured at least once a day.”

My favorite chapter is Week 21, “Literary Escape.”

“Do you ever feel housebound? The weather might be whipping outside, or your baby might be sick with a cold. Whatever the condition, the walls of one’s home can become confining at times. Rather than slink through the day, engage your fingertips and mind by opening a book. There must be at least one book on your shelf that has not yet been read. Perhaps there is even an old favorite that begs to be reread.

“I escape often to Italy, France, and Spain, walking the landscapes of each and taking mental notes along the way. I must remember to return to Tuscany when the olives are harvested for oil. I love Provence when the lavender is lush upon the hills. I’d like to drive winding roads again in Andalucia, amidst lemon trees bending ripe with fruit. Mental travelers need not pack diapers, snacks, or car seats. You’re free to travel alone, which is even lighter….

“It’s refreshing to roam the world — plunging into different countries, meeting new people and tasting their cuisine. If walking another step in your home leaves you less than inspired, sashay into a well-told story. The charms of being at home return after sampling new horizons. Books are an open invitation to another place and time. A baby will usually allow you to sneak a few pages throughout the day. Good books lead us to discover that it is not our house that binds us, but rather the dullness of our thoughts. Reading refreshes the mind and the imagination.”

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Review of The Parents We Mean to Be, by Richard Weissbound

parents_we_mean_to_beThe Parents We Mean To Be

How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development

by Richard Weissbourd

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2009. 241 pages.

Here is an interesting look at how we can help our children to grow up to be morally and emotionally strong. I recommend the book more for people who work with children or teens and are interested in cultural trends, but individual parents will find it interesting, too.

One significant point from the the book that struck me was reminding the reader that we are never done developing as a moral and emotional person — and our children are watching us. He reminds us not to hide our struggles and our growth from our children, because they are definitely watching.

In the introduction, the author says,

We are the primary influence on children’s moral lives. The parent-child relationship is at the center of the development of all the most important moral qualities, including honesty, kindness, loyalty, generosity, a commitment to justice, the capacity to think through moral dilemmas, and the ability to sacrifice for important principles. . . .

“What I am acutely aware matters most as a parent is not whether my wife and I are ‘perfect’ role models or how much we talk about values, but the hundreds of ways — as living, breathing, imperfect human beings — we influence our children in the complex, messy relationships we have with them day to day.”

The book was based on research, including surveys, interviews, and focus groups. It presents some very interesting conclusions that don’t necessarily match what we think about kids learning “values.”

Richard Weissbourd says about the research,

“Much of what we found was heartening. Many parents care deeply about their children’s moral qualities, and we uncovered a wide variety of effective parenting practices across race, ethnicity, and class. This book takes up key, illuminating variations in these practices.

“Yet we also found much that is troubling. Some adults hold misguided beliefs about raising moral children, and some parents have little investment in their children’s character. And the bigger problem is more subtle: a wide array of parents and other adults are unintentionally — in largely unconscious ways — undermining the development of critical moral qualities in children.

“This book reveals this largely hidden psychological landscape — the unexamined ways that parents, teachers, sports coaches, and other mentors truly shape moral and emotional development. It explores, for example, the subtle ways that adults can put their own happiness first or put their children’s happiness above all else, imperiling both children’s ability to care about others and, ironically, their happiness. It shows not only how achievement-obsessed parents can damage children, but also how many of us as parents have unacknowledged fears about our children’s achievements that can erode our influence as moral mentors and diminish children’s capacity to invest in others. It explores why a positive parent instinct that is suddenly widespread — the desire to be closer to children — can have great moral benefits to children in certain circumstances but can cause parents to confuse their needs with children’s jeopardizing children’s moral growth. It reveals how the most intense, invested parents can end up subtly shaming their children and eroding their moral qualities, and it shows the hidden ways that parents and college mentors can undermine young people’s idealism.

“At the same time, this book describes inspiring parents, teachers, and coaches who avoid these pitfalls, as well as concrete strategies for raising moral and happy children. And it makes the case that parents and other adults have great potential for moral growth. Moral development is a lifelong project. Parenting can either cause us to regress or cultivate in us new, powerful capacities for caring, fairness, and idealism, with large consequences for our children. What is often exciting about parenting is not only the unveiling of our children’s moral and emotional capacities, but the unveiling of our own.”

Definitely interesting reading!

I also found it significant that one of the author’s conclusions is that we need community. This is exactly what my church stresses as one of the most important parts of the Christian life. Doesn’t this paragraph support the importance of community?

“Reducing parental isolation — giving parents more opportunities to support one another — and creating a sense of communal responsibility for children is a second critical challenge. When parents have trusting, respectful connections with one another, they are more likely both to be effective with their own children and to monitor and guide one another’s children.”

Now, the author recommends building up community family support programs, but the way this talked about the benefits of community resonated for me with what I was hearing at church. We’re better parents if we don’t try to parent in isolation.

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Review of Hello Baby! by Mem Fox and Steve Jenkins

hello_babyHello Baby!

by Mem Fox

illustrated by Steve Jenkins

Beach Lane Books, New York, 2009. 32 pages.

Okay, this one you simply have to look at yourself. Yes, again Mem Fox has created lyrical, soothing rhymes to share with a baby:

“Hello, baby!
Who are you?
Are you a monkey with clever toes?
Perhaps you’re a porcupine, twitching its nose.
Are you an eagle, exploring the skies?
Perhaps you’re a gecko with rolling eyes.”

But what makes this book stunning and unforgettable are the incredibly detailed cut-paper illustrations by Steve Jenkins. I’ve raved about his illustrations before, in my reviews of Actual Size and Dogs and Cats. They only seem to get better with each new book. When I saw Hello Baby! I had to pass it around to my co-workers to watch them marvel as well. He makes cut paper look alive.

These animals aren’t necessarily the traditional ones you’d teach your baby, including warthogs and geckos. But I’m sure the visual feast here will capture your child’s attention. There’s a final cozy question:

“Then who are you, baby?
Wait, let me guess–
Are you my treasure?
The answer is . . .

I like the way they made the hands reaching out to each other a range of colors, so you can see almost anyone’s hue there. That’s one place it doesn’t look as lifelike, because no real person’s hand has all those colors, but the use of mottled paper in that place works so that it could apply to anyone.

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Review of Love, Magic & Mudpies, by Bernie Siegel


Love, Magic & Mudpies

Raising Your Kids to Feel Loved, Be Kind, and Make a Difference

by Bernie Siegel, MD

Rodale, New York, 2006.  241 pages.

Here’s an inspiring book of musings and tips on inspiring your kids.  I read them through at the rate of about one musing per day, which gave me a nice little daily dose of inspiration.

Bernie Siegel says in the introduction:

“The title of this book says it all.  Love is necessary for our survival and is the key ingredient for both the parent and the child.  Children see the magic in everything, and loving parents can and will experience so many magical moments while raising their children.  Mudpies can be fun at times and also leave us covered with dirt.

“When you look at your children and yourself, I’d like you to accept that you are all part of this special magical relationship.  While creating your family, I’d like you to be in awe of life and its wonder but not hesitate to dive into life and take the risk of a mud bath now and then, too….

“I want to help parents not only survive the ups and downs of parenting but help them make it a blessing, too.  The magic excites and enlightens us, while the mud can become the fertilizer for our lives and relationships.  In this book, I will share with you the gems I have garnered from my medical practice and family life.  From my experience as a father of five, grandfather of eight, pediatric surgeon, counselor to those with life-threatening illnesses, and a Chosen Dad for suicidal and abused children I have met, I know our childhoods have a profound effect on our lifelong health.  I’ve seen that what we learn in our earliest years has a direct effect on our self-esteem, behavior, and choices.  It makes me realize that the parenting we receive is truly the number one health issue in most people’s lives….

“Remember, parents are the co-creators of life; so decide what you desire to create, and begin now.  Your children are the finest raw material you will ever have to work with.”

This book is full of helpful, encouraging, and inspiring ideas and advice.

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Review of Staying Connected to Your Teenager, by Michael Riera


Staying Connected to Your Teenager

How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They’re Really Saying,

by Michael Riera, PhD

Starred review.

Perseus Publishing, 2003.  275 pages.

This book resonated with me.  My sons are 20 years old and 14 years old, and this book gave me good tips for dealing with both of them.  My older son just graduated from college, and my younger son is starting high school.  They’re growing past disciplinarian concerns.  Michael Riera puts into words what I really want in my relationship with my sons — connection.

His introduction says it well:

I respect teenagers a great deal, and I respect the parents of teenagers even more.  Nothing in a parent’s life is more trying, confusing, and frustrating than raising a teenager.  They are moody, self-centered, and full of mixed messages; at least that’s the way normal, healthy teenagers behave.  That will not change.  As the parent of a teenager, you know all too well that your job entails setting limits, having big talks, enforcing consequences, helping them to learn from their mistakes, and putting them on course for a happy and successful adulthood.  Talk about an exhausting task.

What I find curious, however, is that hardly anyone ever mentions the importance of staying connected to our teenagers throughout their adolescence.  Given the enormous To Do List  from the previous paragraph, why isn’t anybody addressing practical ways of staying connected to our teenagers throughout this trying time?  From a practical perspective, all the items on your To Do List  are handled more efficiently, more effectively, and more pleasantly when you are connected to your teenager.  For instance, research has shown that the emotional connection between adolescent girls and their parents (especially their mothers) significantly delays the onset of sexual activity.  When you are connected, everything else comes more easily and naturally.  And when they do misbehave — as they will — nothing worthwhile can happen until your connection is reestablished.  The number one complaint of the parents of teenagers is a lack of communication with their teenagers, but even in the face of this, if you are paying attention, thinking creatively, and maintaining your curiosity, your connection will hold steadfast despite the lack of regular heart-to heart talks.

Beyond effectiveness, there is another reason to maintain your connection with your teenager:  It’s fun.  Teenagers, for better and worse, are some of the most creative and fun people on the planet, and when you stay connected you, too, enjoy these aspects of your teenager; and in doing so, you regularly replenish your parenting batteries.  Besides, sharing humor itself promotes connection.  Or, as the humorist Victor Borge once said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people”….

This book looks directly at the connection between parent and teenager, and aims to give you solid, practical advice, ensconced in psychological and developmental research, on how to understand and how to improve the quality of your relationship with your teenager.

Indeed, Michael Riera succeeds brilliantly at making this a practical, encouraging book.  I was reading the chapter “Extend the Comfort Zone,” right when I was ready to take my son to get his driver’s license.  It so happens that a teen learning to drive is a prime example of a teen expanding his comfort zone in order to learn new skills.

By the end of a story like this, parents have a much better sense of what a comfort zone is and how and why their teenagers would choose to expand it.  It’s important that, as a parent, you are successful in supporting your teenager in expanding her comfort zone, because whenever you do so you deepen the connection you already have with her.  If, however, you push too hard or are too cautious, you miss golden opportunities.  Striking the right balance in this arena is an art form.

Reading Michael Riera’s advice was just in time to help turn the trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles into a positive experience between my son and me.

This book is positive and encouraging.  It shows you how you can use your own common sense to help your teen learn to use his own common sense.  I like the way Michael Riera encourages you to get your teens focusing on their own integrity.  They know how they should act — if you tell them how they should act, they probably won’t want to do it, though.

I think I’m going to buy myself a copy of this book, so I can refer back to it often in the next several years.  It is wise, encouraging, and practical.  And it helps you see what you truly want your teen to grow into — a responsible adult with opinions of his own, who still loves and cares about you, and enjoys discussing those opinions with you.

Here are some excellent quotations from the book:

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