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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Review of The Cat in Numberland, by Ivar Ekeland


The Cat in Numberland

by Ivar Ekeland

illustrated by John O’Brien

Cricket Books, Chicago, 2006.  60 pages.

I love this book!  It takes the concept of “countability” which I learned about in upper division math classes and graduate school, and makes those concepts accessible and understandable for elementary school children!

It starts with a hotel in Numberland, run by Mr. and Mrs. Hilbert.  The Numbers all live in this hotel, the Hotel Infinity.  Number One lives in Room 1.  Number Two lives in Room 2, and so on.  “For instance, Number One Million Two Hundred Thirty-Four Thousand Five Hundred Sixty-Six lives in Room 1,234,566.”

The numbers have certain games they like to play together, and there are certain quirks to the owners.

Some more fun begins when Zero comes to visit and wants to stay, but the hotel is full.  How could they possibly fit him in?

They come up with an ingenious solution:

“Everyone moves up one room:

Number One moves to Room 2,

Number Two moves to Room 3,

Number One Million Two Hundred Thirty-Four Thousand Five Hundred Sixty-Six moves to Room 1,234,567, where he finds a bigger bed and is more comfortable.

Room 1 is now empty, and Zero moves in and goes to sleep.

All the other Numbers go back to sleep in their new rooms, and Mr. and Mrs. Hilbert go back to sleep in their old room.

Only the cat by the fireplace does not go back to sleep, because she is trying to figure it out.

The hotel was full, she thinks.  There was one guest in each room.  Now it is full again, and there is still one guest in each room, but there is one more guest in the hotel!  Zero was outside.  Now he has moved in, and yet nothing has changed!  How is that possible?”

This is only the beginning of the perplexities facing the cat at this amazing hotel, based on the work of great mathematicians Georg Cantor and David Hilbert.

I find this book absolutely delightful!  I wish it had been around when I was taking Real Analysis.  Or, better yet, when my little boy was obsessed with infinity, and kept inventing “numbers” that were “bigger than infinity.”  I think he would have enjoyed this story.

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Review of Eclipse, by Stephenie Meyer



by Stephenie Meyer

Megan Tingley Books (Little, Brown), 2007.  629 pages.

This was my favorite book of the Twilight quartet, which is phenomenally popular now with teenage girls.  I read it at the same time as a co-worker, just in time to read the fourth book of the series, and we had a lot of fun discussing it.

If you haven’t read any books of the series, you definitely need to start with Twilight.  Once you’ve read that one, you will know if you want to keep reading or not.

Yes, they are vampire novels.  But these are not typical vampire books at all.  These books are for lovers of romance who don’t mind a little over-the-top plot situations.

Edward is not the typical vampire, dark and evil.  He and his “family” do not drink human blood, instead hunting large game animals.  (Having read Barbara Kingsolver, I think that they would run out of wildlife on the top of the food chain in a very short time.  But let’s not bring quibbles about reality into the story….)  These vampires stay out of sunshine not because it would harm them but because they are too dazzlingly beautiful for sunlight.  They are also super strong and super fast.  With this group not drinking human blood, where’s the drawback?

Eclipse explores more of the backstory of the vampires.  We learn more about their history and motivations.  Bella and Edward actually share some thoughts instead of just restrained passion.  We learn why Bella doesn’t want to be a teen bride and why Edward is reluctant to let Bella become a vampire.

They also explore more of Bella’s relationship with Jacob, her friend the werewolf.  I like the way the way the werewolves and the vampires end up needing to work together.

Here’s another fast-moving plot with plenty of tension, romantic and otherwise.  This story was more unified than the other books.  Instead of a crisis tacked on at the end, this one has a unified theme.  Some young vampires are terrorizing Seattle, and it appears that, as usual, Bella is in danger.  The entire book builds up to dealing with that danger, in a satisfying way.

I still believe that a lot of the intense romance of these books is built into the restraint.  Bella and Edward’s relationship is chaste, since to consummate it might kill her, but loaded with tension.  I hope teen girls don’t read this and think there are boys out there who’d be able to sleep with them every night and have Edward’s self-control.  But what a romantic dream — a strong, incredibly handsome, self-controlled, powerful protector whose love is for Bella alone.  Throw in vampires and werewolves, and you’ve got a tremendous hit!

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Review of November Blues, by Sharon M. Draper


November Blues

by Sharon M. Draper

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York,  2007.  316 pages.

Sharon Draper is the author of the amazing and moving book, Copper Sun, a story of escaping slavery.

November Blues begins as 16-year-old November Nelson discovers she is pregnant.  She knows when the baby started, since it was the night before her boyfriend died.

In some ways, this seems like just another story of teen pregnancy.  It’s good, and it’s absorbing — the writing pulled me in so that I checked it out rather than shelving it at the library, and then kept me reading until early morning — but in some places the dialog and situations felt stilted and stereotypical.

A teen pregnancy novel is a hard one to write.  Because the situation itself involves thousands of teens, but a novel must focus on one particular teen.  What happens to that one teen will feel symbolic of what happens to the other teens in that situation, and that’s a bigger burden than a young adult novel can necessarily carry.

Taken as a story, this is a fun high school tale, with some sobering things to think about.  The no-good backstabbing popular girl gets her comeuppance, and November learns who her true friends are.

November has to choose between keeping her baby and giving the baby up to her dead boyfriend’s rich parents.  I found myself wanting to shake them and say, “Isn’t there an alternative?  Can’t you let November keep the baby, but provide her support and be a huge part of your grandchild’s life?  Does it have to be all or nothing?”  Again, this was one particular story, but the situation felt so prototypical, I found myself wanting the author to present all possibilities, more than I would have cared in a novel about, say, choosing between a career in art or science.

An enjoyable story about a typical teen in a difficult situation.

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Review of Coraline, by Neil Gaiman



written and performed by Neil Gaiman

with original music by The Gothic Archies

HarperCollins, 2000.  3 hours, 3 compact discs.

Coraline is an exceedingly creepy story, in a delicious, shivery sort of way.  (I recently read an author interview where he said that parents find the book more disturbing than kids do.  I’m not surprised.)

There is a door in Coraline’s apartment that leads to a brick wall.  Once it led to another flat, but when the house was split into apartments, the door was bricked up.  However, one day Coraline follows a shadow through that door.  She finds there a woman who says she is Coraline’s other mother.  She wants Coraline to stay with her forever, and has some wonderful inducements.  But they turn out to be less and less wonderful.

Everyone on the other side has black buttons where their eyes should be.  Things look normal, but turn out to be seriously disturbing.

And leaving the other flat is not as easy as entering.

Neil Gaiman’s performance of this story is wonderful, enhanced by the incredibly creepy songs of The Gothic Archies.  I chose this book to listen to on our trip to Florida because I thought my 14-year-old son would enjoy it, too.  I do think I found the story creepier than he did.  But tremendously well-written and well performed.

Not for the faint of heart.

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Review of Lionboy: The Truth, by Zizou Corder


Lionboy:  The Truth

Book Three of the Lionboy Trilogy

by Zizou Corder

read by Simon Jones

Highbridge Audio, 2005.  6 hours on 5 compact discs.

The Truth brings the Lionboy trilogy to a most satisfying conclusion.  In the earlier books, Charlie’s parents were kidnapped, and Charlie went after them.  In the third book, Charlie is the one kidnapped.  His parents and the friends he has made along the way come to his rescue, but in the end Charlie’s own ingenuity, courage, and loyalty save the day for far more people and animals than just himself.

There are a few outrageous coincidences in this book, as there were in the earlier books.  However, it’s all in good fun.  This is a rather wild adventure tale set in the near future.  The action takes Charlie across the globe to the very seat of the sinister Corporacy.

Charlie can still talk to cats, and in this book he becomes better acquainted with Ninu, a chameleon who can not only take on the colors around him, but also the languages.  With Ninu’s help, Charlie can talk to any person and any thing.

Like the rest, this makes good listening material, and would be great for a family car trip.  There is plenty of action to keep you diverted, and once again the narrator has a delightful voice (and accent) to listen to.

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Review of How I Learned Geography, by Uri Shulevitz


How I Learned Geography

by Uri Shulevitz

Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 2008.  32 pages.

Starred review.

2009 Caldecott Honor Book.

When Uri Shulevitz was a boy, he and his family were refugees from Poland.  This vibrant picture book tells a simple story.  One night, when they were hungry but had little money, Uri’s father went to the market.  Instead of buying bread, he came home with a large map of the world that brightened up one wall of their little room.

Although Uri was angry, and hungry, at first, eventually he pored over the map and was caught under its spell.

“I found strange-sounding names on the map and savored their exotic sounds, making a little rhyme out of them:

“Fukuoka Takaoka Omsk,

Fukuyama Nagayama Tomsk,

Okazaki Miyazaki Pinsk,

Pennsylvania Transylvania Minsk!

“I repeated this rhyme like a magic incantation and was transported far away without ever leaving our room.”

This lovely book presents a simple idea in a beautiful way.

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Review of Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig, by Kate DiCamillo


by Kate DiCamillo

illustrated by Chris Van Dusen

Candlewick Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2008.  74 pages.

Here’s another book perfect for a beginning reader who’s ready for chapters.  Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig has 15 very short chapters.  The pages are loaded with colorful, hilarious illustrations.

Mercy Watson is a pig, a porcine wonder.  She is treated like a person by Mr. and Mrs. Watson, but sometimes she indeed acts like a pig.  For example, when she smells the flowers her next door neighbors have planted, she can’t resist eating them.  This prompts Eugenia Lincoln to call Animal Control Officer Francine Poulet, who has never dealt with a pig before.

In the hilarious chain of events that ensues, you can be sure that Mr. and Mrs. Watson retain their shining faith in their sweet Mercy, and that there is plenty of buttered toast.

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Review of Down Girl and Sit: Smarter Than Squirrels, by Lucy Nolan


Girl and Sit

Smarter Than Squirrels

by Lucy Nolan

illustrated by Mike Reed

Marshall Cavendish, New York, 2004.  64 pages.

With four chapters, lots of pictures, and lots of implied humor, here’s a book perfect for a child ready to read chapter books on his or her own.

Down Girl, a busy dog, narrates this book.  She and the dog next door, Sit, have an important job. 

Down Girl says,

“It is up to us to keep the world safe.  Sometimes Sit and I wish we had help, but we’ve gotten used to doing the job alone.

“The secret to our success is simple.  We are smarter than squirrels.

I don’t think people realize how many birds and squirrels are out here.  If they did, they’d never leave their houses.

Birds and squirrels steal almost everything in sight.  What they don’t steal, they eat.  They are very clever, but they are not as clever as we are.  Guess where we chase them.  We chase them up trees!

“You never see a dog in a tree, do you?  That’s because dogs are smart.  We know it would hurt to fall out.

“Birds and squirrels never remember this.  It’s easy to keep the world safe from birds and squirrels.”

Down Girl’s master is named Rruff.  It is obvious that Rruff loves Down Girl, since he shouts her name so often.

When a new creature comes to the neighborhood named Here Kitty Kitty, the dogs know their job has gotten more challenging.  Fortunately, Down Girl and Sit cleverly rise to the challenge.

A look at life from a dog’s point of view.  Lots of fun!

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Review of A Death in Vienna, by Frank Tallis


A Death in Vienna

by Frank Tallis

Grove Press, New York, 2005.  458 pages. 

Here’s a murder mystery with a fascinating historical setting.  The hero of the book is Max Liebermann, a doctor proficient in the new science of psychoanalysis at the turn of the twentieth century, a friend and colleague of Sigmund Freud.

Liebermann’s friend Oskar Rheinhardt, a police detective, is presented with an especially perplexing case.  A woman is found dead in a locked room, clearly dead by a bullet wound, yet there is no bullet found in her body.  The woman was a practitioner of the occult and a regular leader of seances.  Could she have offended the spirits?

Max Liebermann reads people well, understanding Freudian slips at a time before the general populace knew about them.  His perceptive analysis of people makes him an ideal assistant to his friend the detective.

This book was a perfect break for me in between volumes of the much more emotional Twilight series.  A Death in Vienna appeals on a more cerebral level, with a challenging puzzle and an intriguing historical background, when the practice of treating psychological ailments was far different than it is today.

A big thank you to the library customer who told me about this book!

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