Reading Has To Do With Play

games to build reading skills

To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.  – Victor Hugo

Reading readiness and reading advancement has little or nothing to do with educational toys, apps, or enrichment programs. It has much more to do with what kids naturally like to do: move their bodies, enjoy stories, take part in conversation, and play freely.

Why?

Movement helps children develop sufficient brain-body maturation so they can successful decode abstract symbols into meaning.  This includes complex neurological pathways as well as sufficient kinesthetic awareness and proprioceptive sense.  (Find out what movements are essential in “Reading Readiness Has To Do With the Body.”)

Reading aloud every day, starting in babyhood, helps children associate reading with closeness and pleasure.  Even a board book builds vocabulary, demonstrates left to right sequencing, and promotes comprehension. We can fold reading time into daily rituals like story time before naps and again after dinner. We can also show how much we value reading by letting kids see us reading our own books and magazines.

As kids get older it’s important to avoid offering rewards for reading or make reading a precondition for privileges. That’s because rewards, even for something kids already enjoy, significantly diminishes their own intrinsic motivation. Telling kids “20 minutes of reading before you can play games on the tablet”casts reading as an obligation, leading kids to devalue reading  while enhancing the appeal of digital entertainment. (No wonder “eat your broccoli before you can have ice cream” makes broccoli the enemy and ice cream even more tempting.)

Stories stretch the mind and imagination. They help us, at any age, develop empathy and give us a larger context for our own lives.  That’s not limited to the page. There’s extraordinary power in telling family stories. When we share tales of our doubts, misdeeds, and triumphs we’re not only building family cohesiveness, we’re also (according to science) helping kids grow up with greater confidence and self-control.

Daily conversations, including all those questions kids ask,  helps them advance in reasoning and social skills while bringing us closer to each other.  Let’s admit, a great deal of parent and child interaction isn’t true conversation so much as directives, complaints, and reminders (because, well, life) so it helps to create openings for conversation. Hold a space for kids to talk about what’s on their minds —- this often seems to happen on a walk, a drive, or at bedtime —- good times to avoid earbuds and screens.  Make a practice of showing you’re listening by using eye contact and avoiding interruption. Talk about big issues and dilemmas in your lives, in your community, and in the news. Big topics have a way of stretching young minds.

Free play is an essential part of childhood. It also helps kids develop the skills necessary for reading well. It may look like fun, but in ways deeper and more vital than we can imagine play is a process of learning. We don’t have to engineer their play. Play is, and always has been, a universal language. Give kids as much time for free play as possible. But when you want to play along, here are a few ideas.

 

Word Play

games to improve reading

  • Tell simple jokes (sorry, this includes Knock Knock jokes), attempt tongue twisters, call each other made-up names, say goodbye in rhymes like “Out of the door dinosaur!” and “See you later excavator!
  • Play Cherries & Pits to get conversations started. Very simply, each person takes turns telling the best things (Cherries) about their day and the worst things (Pits) about their day.
  • Tell round robin stories. One person starts a story with a character and setting (“The elf woke up to find a large bird staring at him.”). The next person adds a few sentences before passing it along to the next person. This works well with as little as two people and nearly always becomes amusingly improbable.
  • Turn socks into puppets for impromptu plays. Puppeteers can hide behind a couch or sheet-covered table to perform, although socks in my house tend to talk on their way to the laundry.
  • Make story stones  (pictures on stones or tiles) and grab a few to prompt a story idea. Other stones can be added as the story goes on.
  • Ask off-the-wall questions. “Would you rather be a monkey or a lion?” “What would it be like if people had wings?” “If we could go on an adventure together what would we do?”
  • Write messages to each other. Scratch a few words in the sand, leave a message in magnetic letters, designate a place (under each other’s bed pillows, perhaps) where secret notes can be left, share a question and answer journal (taking turns asking and answering any and all questions), and leave little love letters for kids to find.
  • Sing songs with familiar tunes and invented lyrics. Those tend to be somewhat scatological in my family, a favorite faux opera here has to do with encouraging dogs to go out and get their elimination duties over with….

 

Games

reading games

  • Play impromptu memory games. For example, take turns tapping out a beat, seeing if the next person can repeat it. Or try imitating movements in sequence (first person jumps, the other person jumps and adds clapping, first person jumps and claps and adds a turkey gobble, and so on).  Or take turns memorizing a sequence of unrelated words to repeat back in two minutes or ten minutes or the next day. Be prepared to lose to your kids!
  • Play hand-motion games like Wheels on the Bus, Itsy Bitsy Spider, and Cee Cee My Playmate.  Show kids jump rope rhymes. (You might check out Anna Banana: 101 Jump Rope Rhymes by Joanna Cole.) And don’t forget  hopscotch rhymes.  Research shows these simple games help kids become  better spellers, have neater handwriting, and better overall writing skills.
  • Encourage classic games like checkers, mancala, and chess. Games of all kinds typically help kids understand sequencing, grouping, and memory. No need to choose specifically educational games.
  • Make your own board games along with your child.
  • Set aside one evening a week as a family board game night or set up a kids’ game club with friends. (There are even great games for kids three and under like Roll & Play, First Orchard, and Feed the Woozle.)
  • Waiting in line with kids? Find objects that begin with each letter of the alphabet together, from avocados to zeros. Or play the classic Going on a Picnic game. Start by saying, “I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing an aardvark (or any “A” word). The next person continues with “I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing an aardvark and a basketball (or any word starting with a B) and so on. The last person to remember and repeat the list is the winner.
  • Encourage active games. Consult Great Games! 175 Games & Activities for Families, Groups, & Children! by Matthew Toone and Mom´s Handy Book of Backyard Games by Pete Cava.
  • Use the dictionary (print copy!) to play surprisingly addictive word games like Blackbird.

Map Play

games to help readers

  • Encourage kids to draw maps of places they know well (your kitchen, your house, your street) and maps of imaginary places (alien planets, mythic kingdoms, ninja training camps).  Draw a map of where you’ve hidden packed lunches for them to discover or the bedtime chapter book you’ll read.
  • Encourage children to set up obstacle courses. Indoors this may include three somersaults through the hall, chairs to wriggle under, a rope to hop over, and a bunk bed ladder to climb. Outdoors the course can be more ambitious.
  • Enjoy regular treasure hunts. First hide a prize or two. Then place clues through the house or yard. These can be simple words or sentences, symbols, or pictures. Each clue leads to the next. The prize doesn’t have to be a toy or candy (it could be a note saying “we’re going to the park!”) the fun is in the hunting. Encourage children to set up their up treasure hunts too.
  • Letterboxing combines walking, navigation, and solving riddles. Clues help seekers find “letterboxes” hidden outdoors. Seekers mark their logbooks with a rubber stamp found in this box, mark a logbook in the box with their own personal stamp, then leave the box for the next seeker. For more information and links to regional clues, check with organizations such as Letterboxing North America  or Atlas Quest. Or use the guidebook, It’s a Treasure Hunt! Geocaching & Letterboxing.
  • Try orienteering. This sport combines navigation, map reading, and decision-making. Participants walk, run, bike, or ski using a map and compass to choose the best route on or off the trail. Consult Orienteering Made Simple And Gps Technology: An Instructional Handbook by Nancy Kelly.
  • Take turns playing Line Zombie. Draw a line on paper with a pencil or on the ground with chalk, using arrows to indicate direction. The other person must follow the line either by tracing on the paper with marker or walking on the chalk line. Zombie noises optional.

 

Portions of this post adapted from Free Range Learning.

17 Ways to Show Authors Your Love

image: vjcx.com

We know how to love celebrities and athletes in our culture. We hashtag them, go to their performances/games, read about them, imitate them, talk about them, and in many other ways make these people an ongoing presence in our lives. (Note: there may be a strange reason we’re so obsessed with celebrities.)

It’s less common to love writers, far less common to show it.

Today’s publishing houses expect authors (other than the most commercially promising ones) to do their own book marketing. We’re expected to blog, tweet, arrange book signings and readings, do interviews, and otherwise connect with potential readers as if there’s nothing awkward about begging people to buy our words.

But we know that books, articles, essays, poems, blog posts, (actually, all forms of writing) live on only when they’re read. It’s even better if they’re discussed, shared, and remembered. My writer friends and I do our best to promote one another’s work to a wider audience. Most writers do this for each other. If you’re inspired, take a tip or two from us and show some authors your love.

Share a great author interview or book review. Share a passage from a book, article, blog post, or poem. Toss it out there on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, whatever social media you use.

Quote. If you’re writing a report or giving a presentation, sprinkle in a relevant quote or line of poetry. It’ll add another dimension to your work.

Review books you love on Amazon.com, Goodreads.com, LibraryThing.com, BarnesandNoble.com, wherever you go to check reader reviews. You can make it easy on yourself by simply leaving a bunch of stars. Take it up a notch with a glowing one-line opinion. On Amazon, you only need to click “like” to boost a book or other people’s reviews of the book. Your viewpoint really does help potential readers find what to read next.

Contact local authors. Ask an author to answer questions for an interview you’ll publish online or in print. Invite an author to do a reading or lead a discussion for your organization, club, or business either in-person or via Skype.

Advocate for writing that has changed your outlook, expanded your interests, led you in entirely new directions. A few months ago Facebook bristled with personal lists of 10 Life Changing Books. I love hearing what books impact other people and I’m often inspired to read those titles too. (Here are 10 that occur to me at the moment: The Secret GardenOriginal Wisdom, The Continuum Concept,  Nature and the Human Soul,  A Paradise Built in Hell Pronoia Is the Antidote for ParanoiaMan’s Search for MeaningBeyond WarSpontaneous Evolutionanything by Charles Eisenstein.)

Give books as gifts. They make wonderful presents for birthday, holidays, and milestone celebrations. They’re great to give simply when it occurs to you that a specific book and a specific person might go well together. Give books to children for special occasions but also for fun. Don’t forget to leave an inscription even for the youngest. If you like, pair a book with a small related present. Tea, coffee, or something more spirited is a perfect accompaniment to any book gift.

Try something different. Indulge in your favorite genres and let yourself branch out from there. A fan of historical novels set in a certain era? Try poetry from that time period, non-fiction books about the art or science of the era, biographies of people from that time, as well as history magazines and related sites. I’ve come across writing I normally wouldn’t read only to discover a passion for science-y novels, tomes on evolutionary biology, sites offering vintage maps, work by outsider artists, and other fascinations.

Request. I couldn’t possibly afford to buy a fraction of the books I read. Instead, I’m a unrepentant library addict. If there’s a book you’d like, order it from your local library. They’ll call or email you when it’s available. If they don’t own a copy, ask them to purchase it. Some library systems put request forms online, other systems prefer you go directly to a librarian to request a book acquisition.

Hang out with other book lovers. Our boys’ book club lasted till they all went off to college, over 9 years of lively bookish gatherings. And I’m a long-time member of an adult book club. It prompts me to read books I wouldn’t normally read and our wide-ranging discussions are a delight. You can start up a book club with friends or join an existing group. Check out nearby clubs through Reader’s Circle, your local library, or Meetup.

Offer books for sale through your business. If you have a bike repair shop, offer guides to bike trails along with some bike-riding memoirs. If you run a stand at a farmer’s market, offer a few cookbooks and urban farming volumes. If you own an art gallery, sprinkle a few poetry and art books among your offerings. (I am endlessly grateful that Elements Gallery  in Peninsula, Ohio sells copies of my poetry collection.)

Give magazine subscriptions as gifts. There are a wealth of options, from boat-building magazines to literary journals to kids’ science publications.

Recommend. Create your own list of favorites on a topic via Amazon’s Listmania. Perhaps “Little-Known Poetry Books You Should Read…” or “Alternative Education Books We Use….” While you’re at it, search all the Listmania lists of interest to you.

Link. An insight or idea sticking with you? Link to (or at least attribute) books or author sites when you write about ideas they’ve prompted in you.

Talk about writing you love. I tend to go on and on with vast enthusiasm about what I’m reading. I adore memoirs from the sublime to the hilarious: A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders, A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and Kick Me by Paul Feig. Beautifully written, unforgettable novels such as All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr,  The History of Love by Nicole Kraus, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, and Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. Animal books, a worthy indulgence, including The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery and A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler. Sci-fi like The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant and Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi. And  books that don’t fit in any category like Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. Really, read these books!

Promote. The Southern Independent Booksellers Association started a YouTube channel called Parapalooza! Submit a video of yourself reading a passage from a favorite book to parapalooza@sibaweb.com. If you live in the UK, contact Steve Wasserman of Read Me Something You Love. He’ll come out to record your reading of a passage you choose, along with some conversation. If it’s poetry you adore, read one you love aloud for Record-a-Poem. You can also reach out to others in your community who’d like to share a favorite poem through the Favorite Poem Project or start up a poetry-sharing group on Meetup.

Read already. Titles piling up on your Kindle, overdue library books, a teetering stack of magazines next to the couch are all evidence that you want to read. But you’ve got more to do than you’ve got time. Admit it to yourself, you’ll never defeat your in-box. Might as well go lie on the grass or in the tub or on your couch and read!

Connect. Follow authors on Facebook or follow their tweets. Write to them care of their publishers. You might send a brief note about how much you enjoyed a book or how it or improved your life. You might send suggestions, questions, a cheerful aside. Writing is a solitary occupation. When an author hears that his or her work made a difference, I guarantee it’ll have an impact. On a few rare occasions readers of my first book let me know it changed the way they parent or educate and how that’s impacted their lives. These communications are the sort of wealth I’d never believed possible. Utterly priceless.

Some days I like to imagine a world where we love our writers and artists and scientists and volunteers with the same passion we show celebrities. A girl can dream.

Alejandro Mallea's flickr photostream

Alejandro Mallea’s flickr photostream

“The writer’s way is rough and lonely, and who would choose it while there are vacancies in more gracious professions, such as, say, cleaning out ferryboats.”

Dorothy Parker

I Can’t Hear You, I’m Reading

can't hear when I read, lost in reading, unreachable reader,

“Girl Reading” Pierre-Auguste Renoir (public domain)

I don’t simply get lost in books. When I read, I am unreachable.

Getting too absorbed in reading was a problem when I was a kid. I didn’t notice if I’d been reading in the tub so long the water turned cold. I didn’t notice the lamp I surreptitiously turned on after bedtime was still illuminating my page close to midnight. I didn’t hear my mother tell me to “get your nose out of that book and go outside” or hear her call me for dinner. I wasn’t trying to disobey. When you’re swooping aloft on the air currents of a story it’s hard to notice what’s happening back on Earth.

The problem was worse in school. I’d get done with some inane social studies assignment and sneak a library book from my desk. Soon I’d lift off, finding myself in the howling winds of a Siberian blizzard or the scorching plains of Africa. Eventually the poke of a classmate’s finger would rouse me. I’d look up to an odd silence only to realize the class had moved on to math and the teacher had called on me.

I got lost in more than books. I started reading daily newspapers when I was ten or eleven years old. (Trying to figure out the nonsensical world of grown-ups, something I’m still trying to do.) My younger brother tells me I was entirely unreachable behind the paper. He had repeated nightmares that he ran into the room yelling, “Dad has been kidnapped!” only to hear my preoccupied “uh huh.”

When I became a mother I didn’t let myself read for fear of ignoring my babies. Okay, that’s a lie. I read when they were asleep or safely occupied. (Surely they needed a break from my constantly loving gaze and all those vocabulary-enhancing conversations.) I took my babies out twice a day in any weather passable enough for a jaunt, often walking with a book propped on the stroller handle. (This was possible only because there was no traffic in my neighborhood.) I also read while nursing, peeled potatoes with a book on the counter, read well into wee hours of the night despite chronic new mom exhaustion. Admitting this to people unafflicted with a library addiction as severe as mine feels uncomfortably revealing.

I thought my lost-in-books-syndrome had eased somewhat by now. That is, until I missed a flight because I was reading.

I rarely fly, so I’m super responsible about the details. I print out copies of my flight information for my family, compact everything I need in a small carry-on, take healthy snacks, and arrive at the airport ridiculously early. Apparently what’s really irresponsible is allowing myself to take reading materials.

Last time I had to fly I was heading home from San Francisco. My fellow homebodies will understand why I chose a non-direct flight, one that stopped in a small Texas airport, simply because it departed earlier in the day and let me get home sooner. I had almost two hours between connecting flights but didn’t waste a moment getting to the the departure area. In this not-so-big airport with its small departure gates I couldn’t find a seat unencumbered by people or their luggage or their Cinnabun bags. So I sat on the carpet, my back against the wall, and started reading The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. I made sure I was no more than 10 feet from the desk to ensure I’d hear them call my flight.

I repeatedly looked up to check the clock until I lifted off into the book, becoming lost to linear concepts like time. When I looked up again (after what seemed like only moments) the area was empty.

A plane was taxing away from the window.

I wasn’t on it.

A bored employee assured me the flight had been called several times. They saw me sitting there but I didn’t look up. There were no flights heading north or west after mine till the next morning.

I got to spend the entire night on a hard plastic airport bench. The lights were dimmed but informational announcements about keeping your luggage secure played every 15 minutes. All. Night. Long.

I finished my book. I read everything on my Kindle. I memorized the posters on the wall. I thought bitterly about living on a backward planet where transporter beams are not yet a reality.

Perhaps I should start a support group. Hello, my name is Laura. I’m an Unreachable Reader.

Math Instruction versus Natural Math: Benezet’s Example

Louis Benezet, natural math,

1930’s classroom (forestpark4.wikidot.com)

Children are intrinsically eager and able to learn. If we step back from our limiting preconceptions about education, we discover learning flourishes when we facilitate it rather than try to advance it through force, intimidation, and coercion.

Over 85 years ago a pioneering educator proved that delaying formal instruction, in this case of mathematics, benefits children in wonderfully unexpected ways. Louis P. Benezet, superintendent of the Manchester, New Hampshire schools, advocated the postponement of systematic instruction in math until after sixth grade. Benezet wrote,

I feel that it is all nonsense to take eight years to get children thru the ordinary arithmetic assignment of the elementary schools. What possible needs has a ten-year-old child for knowledge of long division? The whole subject of arithmetic could be postponed until the seventh year of school, and it could be mastered in two years’ study by any normal child.

While developing this rationale, Benezet spoke with eighth-grade students. He noted they had difficulties putting their ideas into English and could not explain simple mathematical reasoning. This was not only in his district; he found the same results with fourteen-year-old students in Indiana and Wisconsin. Benezet didn’t blame the children or teachers, he blamed introducing formal equations too early.  So he began an experiment, abandoning traditional arithmetic instruction below the seventh grade.

In the fall of 1929 I made up my mind to try the experiment of abandoning all formal instruction in arithmetic below the seventh grade and concentrating on teaching the children to read, to reason, and to recite – my new Three R’s. And by reciting I did not mean giving back, verbatim, the words of the teacher or of the textbook. I meant speaking the English language.

To start, he picked out five classrooms, choosing those districts where most students were from immigrant homes and the parents spoke little English. Benezet knew that in other districts the parents with greater English skills and higher education would have vehemently objected, ending the experiment before it started.

In the experimental classrooms, children were exposed to what we’d call naturally occurring math. They learned how to tell time and keep track of the date on the calendar. The students played with toy money, took part in games using numbers, and when dimension terms such as “half” or “double” or “narrower” or “wider” came up incidentally, they were discussed. Instead of math, the emphasis was on language and composition. As Benezet describes these children,

They reported on books that they had read, on incidents which they had seen, on visits that they had made. They told the stories of movies that they had attended and they made up romances on the spur of the moment. It was refreshing to go into one of these rooms. A happy and joyous spirit pervaded them. The children were no longer under the restraint of learning multiplication tables or struggling with long division.

At the end of the first school year, Benezet reported that the contrast between the experimental and traditionally taught students was remarkable. When he visited classrooms to ask children about what they were reading, he described the traditionally taught students as “hesitant, embarrassed and diffident. In one fourth grade I could not find a single child who would admit that he had committed the sin of reading.” Students in the experimental classrooms were eager to talk about what they’d been reading. In those rooms, an hour’s discussion went by with still more children eager to talk.

Benezet hung a reproduction of a well-known painting in the classrooms and asked children to write down anything the art inspired. Another obvious contrast appeared. When he showed the ten best papers from each room to the city’s seventh-grade teachers, they noted that one set of papers showed much greater maturity and command of the language. They observed that the first set of papers had a total of 40 adjectives such as nice, pretty, blue, green, and cold. The second set of papers had 128 adjectives, including magnificent, awe-inspiring, unique, and majestic. When asked to guess which district the papers came from, each teacher assumed that the students who wrote the better papers were from schools where the parents spoke English in the home. In fact, it was the opposite. Those students who wrote the most masterfully were from his experimental classes.

Yet another difference was apparent. It was something that Benezet had anticipated. He explained, “For some years I had noted that the effect of the early introduction of arithmetic had been to dull and almost chloroform the child’s reasoning faculties.” At the end of that first year, he went from classroom to classroom and asked children the same mathematical story problem. The traditionally taught students grabbed at numbers but came up with few correct results, while the experimental students reasoned out correct answers eagerly, despite having minimal exposure to formal math.

Based on these successes, the experiment expanded. By 1932, half of the third- to fifth-grade classes in the city operated under the experimental program. Due to pressure from some school principals, children in the experimental classrooms were back to learning from a math book in the second half of sixth grade. All sixth-grade children were tested. By spring of that year all the classes tested equally. When the final tests were given at the end of the school year, one of the experimental groups led the city. In other words, those children exposed to traditional math curricula for only part of the sixth-grade year had mastered the same skills as those who had spent years on drills, times tables, and exams.

In 1936, the Journal of the National Education Association published the final article by Benezet. His results showed the clear benefits of replacing formal math instruction with naturally occurring math while putting a greater emphasis on reading, writing, and reasoning. The journal called on educators to consider similar changes.

As we know, schools went in the opposite direction.

Louis Paul Bénézet

Louis Paul Bénézet

This article is an excerpt from Free Range Learning. (Next post, the extraordinary benefits of emphasizing natural math over math instruction.)

A Dozen Ways To Revel In Poetry

poetry fun, celebrate poetry, exquisite corpse, traveling poetry, set poems free,

It’s all about how the letters are arranged. (mosswaterss)

1. Leave poems where they’ll be discovered. Write a poem on the sidewalk with chalk, crayon it on your child’s lunch napkin, tack it on your market’s public notice board, or tuck it into a friend’s coat pocket.

2. Pull a poem from a hat. Romanian poet Tristan Tzara was denounced by his fellow Surrealists when he proposed making a poem by pulling words from a hat. Try the “Dada Manifesto on Feeble & Bitter Love” method.

Take a newspaper. Take some scissors. Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem. Cut out the article. Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag. Shake gently. Next take out each cutting one after the other. Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag. The poem will resemble you. And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

3. Dine with poetry. Linger over some beautiful lines as you savor each mouthful.  The poems don’t have to be about food, but that can add to your pleasure. Find a rich assortment in The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink edited by Kevin Young and in Appetite: Food as Metaphor: An Anthology of Women Poets edited by Phyllis Stowell and Jeanne Foster. Or let these poems nourish you.

~”From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee

~”Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo

~”Love Poem with Toast” by Miller Williams

~”The Invention of Cuisine” by Carol Muske-Dukes

~”Onions” by William Matthews

4. Sign up for poem-a-day sites. This month my wonderful library system is offering 30 days of poetry by email, featuring the work of local poets along with prompts for your own work.  You may also want to subscribe to The Writer’s Almanac or Poetry Daily.

5. Watch poetry-infused movies.

6. Play Exquisite Corpse. This strangely fascinating game was created by the Surrealists in Paris. To play with several people, each person writes a phrase on a sheet of paper, folds the paper to conceal the words, and passes it on to the next player to contribute the next line. Each participant must be unaware of what the others have written, thus producing an absurd but often delightful poem.

7. Let yourself fall in love with spoken word poetry. 

~”Human the Death Dance” by Buddy Wakefield

~”Drunk Text Message to God” by George Watsky

~”OCD” by Neil Hilborn

~”Shrinking Woman” by Lily Myers

~”Accents” by Denise Frohman

~”Place Matters” by Clint Smith

8. Go on a poetry diet.

9. Set poetry books free. Leave them where strangers can find them, perhaps a coffee shop, a hospital waiting room, a dentist’s office, a barber shop, or a muffler repair shop’s waiting room.  If you’d like, register them with BookCrossing.com to see where they travel.

10. Take a poem into nature. It doesn’t have to be wilderness, simply under a tree or near water, and the poems don’t need to reference nature although these do.

~”Catechism for a Witch’s Child” by J.L. Stanley

~”The Silence of the Stars” by David Wagoner

~”The Seven of Pentacles” by Marge Piercy

~”Sometimes” by Sheenagh Pugh

~”Hum” by Mary Oliver

11. Hang on to poetic life lines. Some lines read long ago wait in our memories, rising to awareness at just the right time. The Academy of American Poets offers some time-honored life lines.

This line by art historian Bernard Berenson came to my mind recently as a friend struggled with cancer.  “I would have stood at street corners hat in hand begging passers by to drop their unused minutes into it.”

12. Curate a collection of your favorite poems. If a poem truly resonates with you, save it. Print such poems out out and paste them in a lovely scrapbook, or copy them by hand in a journal, or calligraph them on fine paper, or (as I do much less artfully) keep them in a word doc. After a few years you’ll have a highly personal, completely invaluable collection.

It’s About Reading For Pleasure

One week during the summer I was twelve, I had a crisis.

I ran out of library books.

Sure I rode my bike, went swimming with friends, and listened to music trying to figure out what the lyrics meant but I also indulged in hours of reading every day. Books transported me. My mother would call me to dinner and I’d look up, astonished to find I wasn’t a wolf on the tundra but a girl in shorts lying on the carpet. Or someone would knock on the bathroom door and I’d remember that I was soaking in the tub, not eluding soldiers in a medieval battle.

My parents supported reading, but they had no problem saying “get your nose out of that book and go outside.” They didn’t take us to the library more than two or three times a month, so the stack of books each of us brought home had to last.

When I realized I was bookless, I turned in desperation to a volume my older sister read as a class requirement. It had tiny print and a not-too-inspiring title, The Scarlet Letter. “It’s too hard,” she told me. “It’s a classic.”

I didn’t know “classic” meant it was good for me, like a bitter vitamin tablet. I insisted I was out of other options.

I promptly fell into Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words. They were exquisite in a way I’d never experienced, centered on the inner life and all its convolutions, something I already knew well but didn’t have the sophistication to express. I wasn’t aware such books existed. Instead of racing through it, as I did with every other book, I savored it. It felt as if I could run my fingers over the page and feel the texture of shame and longing. When I finished I was newly in love with the idea of classics, so I got books by Charles Dickens out of the library. I worked my way through two of them that summer although they didn’t live up to my great expectations. I thought Dickens droned and was nothing like Hawthorne.

Several years later I had to read The Scarlet Letter for English class. Everyone grumbled when assigned more pages to read. Those piercing insights, when listed in bullet points on the board, didn’t sink into my heart. Lectures and assignments obscured the book’s beauty. I didn’t read it with a cloak thrown over my head or the prick of a rose thorn in my skin. It lay dead, like a victim on the autopsy table.

Then I realized that my love of books had developed entirely outside of the classroom. I’d never really fallen in love with any of the books assigned in school, although the ones our teachers read aloud after recess, a few pages a day or an entire chapter on special days, still stood out in my mind. Reading, for me, was about pleasure. It was more than a habit, it was an integral part of my being. The books I read helped form my outlook and character. I dare say that many of us, if we look back, will find that favorite books from childhood have a surprising link to who we are today.

If I could, I’d reclaim reading for all of us, from earliest childhood on, as pleasure first and foremost. Turning to the written word for information and edification then becomes a pleasure too.

10 Reasons To Become A Library Addict

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Image: CC by 2.0 ricardo266)

My name is Laura. I have a chronic library habit.

Sure, I have other, less socially acceptable habits. We can talk about those another day. Right now I’m trying to convince you to become a fellow library fanatic.

I’ve already been successful with my kids. The stacks of books my family brings home may be pushing up the state average. Now that my kids are older they are surprised most of their peers don’t bother with libraries, in person or online. And I’m surprised to see how many of my friends don’t use libraries either. Some haven’t been since high school. For those of you who don’t bliss out over libraries, or worse, dismiss libraries as dim places with a distinctive old book smell, here are the ten best reasons to get hooked on libraries.

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1. Magic water.

magic water, As a small child I was convinced there was something magical about drinking fountain water at our local library. It tasted better than water anywhere else. I wondered if it had to do with enviable proximity to all those books.

When I had kids I  rhapsodized about the water at libraries. And they’ve always been able to taste the difference. Even though I realize there’s no factual basis for this belief, library water still seems more deeply refreshing than ordinary water. Try it and see for yourself.

 

2. Awe.

library addict, library love, A much more vital magic is evident in libraries around the world.

It has to do with a sense of history, of freely shared knowledge, and awe-inspiring architecture. When traveling I make sure to hang out in libraries. Most recently I found time to soak up the atmosphere of one of NYC’s awesome libraries.

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3. Librarians.

love librarians, librarian stereotypes,

ala.org

Surely you celebrate the annual Hug Your Librarian Day. These folks are amazing. As  Erica Firment writes on Librarian Avengers,

People become librarians because they know too much. Their knowledge extends beyond mere categories. They cannot be confined to disciplines. Librarians are all-knowing and all-seeing. They bring order to chaos. They bring wisdom and culture to the masses. They preserve every aspect of human knowledge. Librarians rule. And they will kick the crap out of anyone who says otherwise.

Librarian stereotypes aren’t relevant or cute. Don’t believe me? Check out The Bellydancing LibrarianThe Steampunk Librarian, and Miss Information. Still think of them as chronic shsser’s? Then read Your Librarian Hates You.

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4. Library materials are free!

new library services, Our taxes pay for them whether you use them or not. Only suckers don’t get in there to scoop up books, magazines, movies, digital downloads, recorded books, electronic readers, programs, classes, performances, and more. My kids and I have strolled out after a library visit with well over 100 items checked out on a card or two.

Today’s libraries offer much more than well worn books and a chaotic Story Hour. Click over to your library’s website. You’ll find an amazing array of offerings well beyond the newest bestsellers. There are probably programs to get you started in fencing or felting or fraternizing with fellow foodies, just this week alone.

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5. Ordering.

order library materials, library request, OMG, I love ordering materials. In my area library systems are linked, so holdings can be sent from libraries in quite a few counties right to my own little branch. I can read a review of a book before it’s released, then go to the library site to pre-order it. I can order special book group offerings for our book group (up to 20 of the same book) that come organized by some saintly librarian with supplemental materials. I order obscure specialty books that were published back in the 1920’s and earlier.

We’ve homeschooled on the cheap thanks to our library system and the wonders of ordering materials. No way could I afford to expose my kids to the depth of information and range of experiences they’ve gained via libraries.

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6. Online renewal.

library perks, I don’t know about your library system, but mine permits renewals up to five times. Online. That gives me several months to adore most materials. Those months are necessary. I use books in my work, take them with me lest I have a dull moment, and leave them around for my family members to pick up when their eyeballs are unoccupied.

Sometimes I find books so precious that when they are finally and irrevocably due I end up buying a copy. But let me point out, I only buy books after proving their worth to myself. No regrettable book purchases here. Yay savings.

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7. Library privileges.

I’ve been in a steady human relationship for a loooong time, but I’m a non-monogamous library user. Judging by the number of library cards in my name, I’m a pushover for the sweet allure of any library’s New Acquisitions section.

It’s hard to unearn library privileges. Late fees are usually minimal and in many systems there are no late fees for seniors, teachers, and homeschoolers. Even when my account is labeled “delinquent” due to a late book or two I’m still able to check out and reserve materials. I don’t mind a few dollars here and there to make up for my late return crimes. Totally worth it. Unlike most human relationships, my library is always buying me something new, forgiving me when I atone, and consistently planning unexpected ways to lure me.

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8. Research databases.

library search functions,Library systems subscribe to pricey online database services that none of us could afford on our own. I access most of them from my home computer, simply logging in with my library card number. These databases include genealogy, academic research, news archives, digital images, health, and much more. I relied almost entirely on the resources of my award-winning Medina County Library for the research necessary to write my book.

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9. Book Zombie Fuel

book diet, reading addict,

sundaykofax via Flickr, CC by 2.0

A wealth of materials is essential for those of us who are Book Zombies. We absolutely must gorge on fresh brains books, feeding an insatiable hunger for that oblivious-to-the-world swoon we call reading. We don’t hear or see what’s happening in our “real” lives when lost in a book.

Libraries feed that hunger, gladly buying books for us and storing them until we’re ready for more.

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10. That smell.

foreign language library, Children of Chernobyl, Libraries don’t smell like someone’s musty basement. The odor is something entirely different. I’ll tell you what it reminds me of, right after I tell you about how much I appreciate Russian language library materials.

For five summers we hosted a little girl from Belarus  through the Children of Chernobyl project. And every summer before she arrived I called the librarian in charge of the foreign language collection at the Cleveland Public Library. We talked over Tatiana’s age and interests, then every few weeks through her three month stay this librarian sent to our rural library branch a wonderful selection of Russian materials including Harry Potter books, children’s magazines, recorded children’s books, popular music, and much more. When my kids curled up with books or went to bed listening to CD’s, Tanya was able to do so as well. I hoped it eased the hunger she must have felt to hear her own language. Beyond that, it built connections between us almost immediately.

The first day she arrived, exhausted from long flights and weak from some medical problems, there was no way we could really communicate. It became obvious that our efforts to learn Russian had been laughable and as a seven-year-old her grasp of English was limited to “yes” and “thank you.” Then I remembered those blessed library materials. In a few minutes all of us were dancing to the Russian version of “Hokey Pokey” and laughing before collapsing in a heap on the couch together to giggle as we paged through a Russian/English picture book, challenging each other to pronounce the words. That stack of Russian library materials smelled, more than anything, like home. To me, every library smells like my place. Bet they smell like your place too.

38 Unexpected Ways To Revel In Snail Mail

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The Force is strong with snail mail. (Image: CC by 2.0 Wikimedia Kev pittsburgh,pa)

Most of us don’t get anything interesting in the mail. Opening a personal letter seems like a pleasure from another era, irrelevant as a starched collar. Lets reclaim that experience. (The letter, not the collar.)

But first a rant. Here in the U.S. our postal service is often described as inefficient and unprofitable. I beg to differ. When I mail a letter in Ohio, it’s often delivered in Boston or Denver the next afternoon. I’ve mailed plenty of letters to distant countries. They show up in a week, tops. A few ounces of paper arrives in the one place in the world I want it to go, all for less than a buck. That’s pretty impressive. And the post office lets me mail unwrapped shovels too (more on that later).

Unprofitable? That’s not the real issue, unless you count the postal system having to pre-fund it’s retirement system 70-some years in advance. Name a company that can do that and stay in business.

I’m all about going postal. Sending and receiving mail helps us slow down, savoring time in a way that’s often missed in our terabyte-speed lives. Here are some ways you can make snail mail a pleasure.

Mail something unwrapped.

1. Try mailing a full-sized paintbrush, a basketball, a flip flop. All you need is a legible address and the correct postage. You might feel a little silly standing in line at the post office with an address-adorned plastic dinosaur, but it’ll be worth the look on your recipient’s face. I’ve mailed all sorts of silly things to a friend, mostly in response to oddities she mails to me. The strangest thing I’ve sent was a two foot metal shovel with a wooden handle. I used a permanent marker to write a note to her on the handle and the address on the metal part. It got there just fine.

2. For more ideas on what you can send through the mail, check out happy mail ideas at Giver’s Log or the Pinterest board 13 ounces or less. Check USPS regulations on what cannot be sent by mail.

Investigate the peculiar history of unwrapped mail.

3. In 1914, five-year-old Charlotte May Pierstorff was sent via U.S. mail as a package to visit her grandparents. It was the only way her parents could afford the trip. My kids and I learned about her journey from the picture book, Mailing May, by Michael O. Tunnell. She’s not the only person to be sent as cargo.

4. The most inspiring example is Henry Box Brown, who in 1849 was a slave in Virginia. Using his savings to pay for the clandestine delivery, he had himself mailed to an abolitionist in Philadelphia. The trip took 27 hours, much of it upside down despite “this side up” instructions on the box.

5. The quirkiest unwrapped mail history I’ve run across involves W. Reginald Bray. In 1898 this British accountant began to send all sorts of unwrapped objects via mail. That included, but wasn’t limited to, a rabbit skull, a bowler hat, a turnip, his Irish terrier, and a bicycle punk. He also mailed himself, twice. He liked to test the logic of postal employees by mailing cards with addresses written as puzzles or clues. You can find out more about Bray in, The Englishman who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects by John Tingey.

Get back in the habit of writing letters.

6. Send a letter to your great aunt or a former neighbor.

7. Write letters to deployed service members.

8. A mailed letter has a greater impact on your elected officials than calls or emails, so if an issue is troubling you take the time to write out your concerns. Only a tiny fraction of the country’s citizens have ever done this.

9. Write to an author (his or her publishing house will forward your letter).

10. Write to a business. My son once wrote to a pen company to settle a bet he had with me. He said my habit of leaving pens uncapped  would dry them out. He not only got a response confirming that he was correct, but the pen company’s PR person sent eight different pens for him to enjoy as well as an admonition to keep after his pen-wrecking mother. For other ways to inspire kids (or the kid in you) to write letters, check out any of Letters from a Nut books by Ted Nancy.

11. Groups of kids (classes, scouts, homeschool groups) can participate in letter exchanges with Peace Corps volunteers through the Coverdell World Wise correspondence program and with long distance truckers via Trucker Buddy.

12. Find a snail mail correspondent through The Letter Exchange.

13. Join the Letter Writers Alliance.

Make your own envelope out of something unexpected.

14. Use a leftover scrap of wrapping paper, a torn out magazine page, a file folder scribbled with equations, an old map, whatever you’d like.The simplest way is to pull apart an envelope to use as a template, sealing your new envelope with a glue stick once you’ve popped a letter inside. For more detailed instructions, head over to Instructables.

15. If you don’t want to seal your one-of-a-kind envelope with ordinary tape or glue, make your own flavored envelope glue.

Let your stamp make a statement.

16. There are amazing USPS stamps out there reflecting practically every interest, but they don’t stick around (stick, hah) very long. Every time I go to the post office I check to see what they’ve got available. No flag stamps for me. When they had Buckminster Fuller stamps, I stocked up. This year’s stamps include O. Henry (the author, not the candy bar) and Rosa Parks.

17. Or make your own customized postage. Our cows’ faces could be stamps, the smiling cactus your kid drew could be stamps. USPS authorized vendors include stamps.compictureitpostage.com, and zazzle.com.

Send postcards, get postcards.

18. Register with Postcrossing. When you send a postcard you’ll receive a postcard back from another participant anywhere in the world. So far, 16 million Postcrossing postcards have been exchanged. Check out their Flickr postcard photopool.

19. To set up a specific postcard exchange (or other snail mail swaps) put up a request on Swap-Bot.

20. When you’re out, even on a day trip, encourage young children to mail postcards to themselves or their siblings. Just a quick sentence helps establish the day as memorable (and reinforces literacy skills). It’s also fun when that postcard arrives at your home in a day or two.

Get involved with or instigate a mail exchange.

21. I love art exchanges. I’ve participated in them on and off over the years, writing and decorating a page in a journal before sending it along to the next person or contributing to themed art challenges. My favorite was a Barbie art challenge. I glued a Barbie’s long hair into stiff twisting strands, gave her some theatening-looking facial features, and mounted her disembodied head into a tiny cardboard replica of a TV set with a “Medusa” remote. Find mail art calls through the International Union of Mail-Artists as well as Mail Art Projects.

22. Propose a mail exchange on a forum, blog, or other group. Make it themed, for example followers of a food blog send each other local foodstuff. Fans of a particular musician send each other her lyrics re-imagined as comics or movie scenes.

23. All sorts of parenting lists host exchanges for kids who want a postcard from each state, a letter answering the same 10 questions from 100 participants, or favorite jokes. Suggest an exchange your kids would like.

Write to kids.

24. Chances are you know children who would adore getting mail addressed to them, either your own kids or kids in your extended family. Try for at least a once-a-year tradition like a note on the child’s birthday. Or more memorably, on a quirky day. How about a letter every year on Waffle Day (March 25) or Go Barefoot Day (June 1)?

25. Consider writing letters as if from an imaginary creature telling a series of tales, perhaps the adventures of a rollerblading squirrel and her sidekick, a jogging possum. No less than J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and illustrated a holiday letter for his children every year, arriving as if from the North Pole. See his drawings and text in Letters From Father Christmas

26. Write about your experiences when you were the child’s age.

27. Encourage return communication when you write to kids. At the very least, send them pre-addressed envelopes with stamps. You might write with a challenge. (Okay, a better one than the following example!) How about enclosing a length of string and the question: How many ways can you use this string?  Maybe offer a prize if they write back with more than a dozen ideas.  Or send response letters you’ve made with fill-in blanks to answer questions like:  This week I was surprised when ________. If I could go anywhere tomorrow I’d like to go _________. If I ran the country, the first thing I’d do is __________. Most people don’t know that ______.

28. Write to toddlers well before they can read. Print a simple sentence or two, replacing some nouns and verbs with rebus pictures. (If you’re not familiar with this, it means drawing a cat face instead of writing the word “cat.”) Add something to the envelope that the child might find interesting, like stickers.

Mail a simple thank you note.

29. Even a few lines of thanks come across differently when they’re written on paper and sent by mail. They seem more earnest and carry more meaning than the same few lines in a text or email. John Kralik discovered this when he was at the lowest point in his life and vowed to mail one thank you note every day for a year. Somehow, the effort of thanking others  brought unexpected returns to his life including business success, weight loss, and richer friendships. Read his story in A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life.

30. Send a thank you to a favorite teacher, a former mentor, the local bookstore owner whose business you appreciate, someone who did you a kindness that you haven’t forgotten.

31. Consider writing a letter to someone you see everyday. Your child, your spouse, your co-worker. Tell them something you cherish about them or how they enrich your life.

When the situation calls for it, tell your truth with an un-thank you note.

32. Of course it’s best to handle negative situations immediately, but I’ve gotten some dire predictions from professionals that proved false over time. This surgery is absolutely necessary. You’ll have a maladjusted child if you homeschool. Ritalin is the only solution for that behavior.  It’s my contention that sending a respectful letter updating a doctor, teacher, or other expert is a kindness to the people they will advise in the future. There are ways to write a useful unthank you note. Chances are you won’t get a response but you’ll feel lighter.

33. If you want to tell the world the truth anonymously, mail a postcard to PostSecret. Keep up with these powerful, often artfully shared secrets via Facebook and check out the TED talk by founder Frank Warren.

  Use handwritten notes to advance professionally.

34. It seems counterintuitive when there are faster ways to communicate, but that’s the point. A letter to a business contact makes a lasting impression and does so at just the right speed.

35. The go-to guide for this is Business Notes: Writing Personal Notes That Build Professional Relationships by Florence Isaacs.

 

Inspire yourself to write letters by reading epistolary novels.

36. The Color Purple is told through letters and if you haven’t read it, this book isn’t to be missed. The Historian centers on a medieval book that opens clues to Dracula’s existence. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society reveals memorable characters living on the island of Guernsey during the Nazi occupation. Any of the Griffin & Sabine books have intriguing tiny envelopes inside, giving the reader the sense of peeking at private correspondence.

37. For teens: Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, about two cousins drawn up in a alternative universe complete with romance, wit, and magical chocolate. Or for more romance plus intrigue at Australian high schools, two very popular books by the same author, Feeling Sorry for Celia and The Year of Secret Assignments

38. For young children: Help Me, Mr. Mutt!: Expert Answers for Dogs with People Problems as well as any of the many books starring the ever-clever letter-writing dog Ike LaRue.

For more motivation, spend time with those who exult in snail mail.

365 Letters

Mail Me Art

Letter Matters

Letters of Note

Always First Class: The Pleasure of Personal Letters

Escaping Into Novels

good novels, book addict, library addict, book zombie, novel recommendations,

fictionchick.deviantart.com

Books have been my escape mechanism ever since I started reading as a child. I’d load up with all the books I could carry from the library with absolute glee, launching into the first one in the backseat on our drive home. I couldn’t wait for the power of a story to overtake me.  While reading I was completely oblivious of my surroundings, caught up in another world entirely. This got me into trouble at school plenty of times. I’d read after getting an assignment done, never noticing as the class moved on to spelling or math or even lunch. That’s the down side to being what I call a book zombie.

I continue to have a pretty advanced case of library addiction and plunder the stacks on a weekly basis. Unlike my earliest years, I mostly read non-fiction. I don’t know why I’ve come to associate facts with the reading equivalent of a meal, necessary and good for me in a way that dessert is not. That doesn’t mean I don’t indulge in novels. In my reading-intensive life I usually stuff in a novel a week, plus several non-fiction books (and lots of online reading).

But this week I haven’t opened a single non-fiction book. I’m in complete escape mode—all dessert. That’s because my beloved husband has been in the hospital for some extensive spinal surgery. That first day I relied on a stack of novels to transport me away from his nearly seven hour surgery plus many more hours of waiting for him to get out of recovery. The next few days I found that, between visits, I didn’t have much gumption to get my work done. Okay, no gumption whatsoever. I kept sneaking back into novels where I lingered quite happily for hours. Thank goodness I stocked up. It’s like having a whole pantry full of goodies.

Here are a few I’ve been reading that you might enjoy.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is a clever and mysterious book. It’s a quick read but not remotely fluffy. On the surface it’s about the way the love of books intersects with the might of today’s computing power. But it’s also about magic, mystery, the awesomeness of Google, and the singular meaning of real relationships.  (Five stars!)

Truth in Advertising by John Kenney is sharp and funny. It’s follows a man whose current challenge is producing a diaper commercial, whose personal life is barely perceptible, and who takes a sardonic view of anything remotely sentimental. The passages skewering corporate absurdities and fast forward trendiness are delicious. That the story ends on a sentimental note provides a perfect balance. (Five stars!)

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Set in the late 1980′s, this book is told through the eyes of an adolescent girl who had a close relationship with an uncle who recently died of AIDS. A few days after his funeral she receives a strange package, an artful teapot she and her uncle always used when they got together. It was sent by a mysterious man who asks to be her friend. And so begins an unusual relationship that teaches the girl, her family, and this man more than they might have imagined about forgiveness, love, adventure, and being true to oneself. Compellingly written and insightful, this story lingers. I can’t remember loving characters as much as I loved this girl’s uncle and the man who becomes her friend.  (Five stars!)

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is translated from the Swedish language and has sold three million copies. As the title suggests, the tale has to do with an elderly gent who runs away. His life story happens to interconnect with major political happenings around the world, Forrest Gump-style, although this main character is far less innocent especially where explosions are concerned.   It’s a bit of a history lesson, entirely beyond credulity, but nonetheless entertaining. I’m guessing a movie will be forthcoming. (Four stars)

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons isn’t my usual read. I am allergic to most anything with “romance” as a major plot point. But I read a review noting that this is the book for Downton Abbey fans and couldn’t resist. This is meatier, in some ways, than Downton Abbey. The main character is the daughter of a wealthy, cultured Viennese family who seeks asylum in 1938. She ends up in England as a servant. Her culture shock and class shock are interesting, so is life in the remote coastal area that has a unique historic angle. (Four stars)

The Red House by Mark Haddon (author of the absolutely wonderful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) is about family relationships, all happening within a holiday week. The style is faintly jarring, flitting from one point of view to another, sometimes in the space of two paragraphs, but it’s also full of the moments a reader waits for, those quiet but significant insights that are illuminating. (Four stars)

Maybe I’m working my way toward a more balanced reading diet. I still don’t have the slightest urge to pick up a non-fiction books, even the ones I’m supposed to be reviewing. It feels decadent and delightful, like skipping the salad and going right for the chocolate. In a few minutes I’ll be leaving to pick my husband up from the hospital. On the way I’ll be getting his prescriptions, a shower chair, and maybe, if there’s time, books I ordered that are in at the library.

Tell me what YOU are reading so I have more reasons to indulge.

How To Raise Word Nerds

word games for kids, free word games, dictionary fun, play with dictionary, vocabulary-building games, vocabulary fun, family word games,

Dictionary, unplugged. (crdotx’s flickr photostream)

When I tried to throw our dictionary out my oldest threw a fit.

This is a very old dictionary. It was owned by my Great Aunt Mildred. The book is huge, with indents along the side for each letter of the alphabet. It’s also not in good shape. Threads are hanging out of a nearly wrecked spine and the pages are yellowing. Until recently it sat on our living room trunk, ready to answer all inquiries. As my kids got older and Google got ever closer to our fingertips, I figured we didn’t need it. According to my son, I am wrong. He has more than a sentimental attachment. He knows what this book holds — the power to create word nerds.

Here’s how.

In part, we used the dictionary to settle disputes, which happened more often than you might imagine. I’d be happily snuggled on the couch reading aloud to my kids and run across a word new to them. I’d tell them what it meant but one of those little darlings would invariably question my expertise. Having a writer for a mother may make kids more feisty when it comes to words, I don’t know. They’d rush off to drag the huge volume back to the couch where I’d read the definition aloud. Then we’d wrangle over what the definition really meant. Maybe things are more peaceful at your house.

My kids also used the dictionary for games. Something about having that whale of a book right there in front of them inspired word play. Well, that and a few other factors like parental limits on electronic entertainment.

The games my kids played with the dictionary roughly fall into three categories.

Bet You Don’t Know This Word:   Sibling one-upmanship is rarely pretty, but I can overlook it when it’s a vocabulary builder. Simply open the dictionary, find a tough word, and challenge a sibling to define it. The kid with a finger on the word has to pronounce it correctly, otherwise the challenge doesn’t count. (This meant they’d run to me with pronunciation questions until they got a better grip on phonetic spelling.) Winner on either side may torture family with the word the rest of the day. Other family members should sigh in exasperation, but we know the more a word is used the more likely it is to be understood. Win for vocabulary expansion!

Guess the Right Definition:  There are better ways to play this but our made-up version is easiest. Find an esoteric or outdated word to use as a challenge. On the same page find another word with an entirely different (hopefully strange) definition. Or find two other words to make it harder. Read aloud the challenge word, then mix up the different potential definitions as they’re read aloud. Again, winner may torture the family with the word the rest of the day.

Blackbird:  This is my favorite. Think of a question (one that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no) and ask it aloud, like “Why is my hair curly?” or “Should we get a pet hamster?” Then open the dictionary at random and, without looking, put a finger on the page. Look at the word under your finger and read aloud its definitions. It may take some stretching (a nice use of reasoning powers) to make it fit as an answer, but it usually works. For example, my curly-haired child placed a finger on the word “law.” One of the definitions is “binding force or effect” and another is “regularity in natural occurrences.” That led to a nice discussion about genetics and hair. The hamster question led to the word “fury” which takes little effort to decode, especially when one definition is “angry or spiteful woman.” That would be me, faced with one more pet in this house.

  • So leave a (newer, sturdier) dictionary out in your house. Let your kids see you use it regularly. Help them use it and display interest as you do.
  • Play some word games when boredom hits. Need another? Pick three words at random and challenge your kids to make up a story or song or nonsense rhyme on the spot using those words. Yes, your turn is next using three words they pick. This works nicely in the car. Maybe you need a pocket dictionary in the glove compartment.
  • Tsk tsk a little when they look up “bad” words (otherwise it’s no fun for them).
  • Act as if it’s completely normal when your nine-year-old describes a problem as a predicamentimpasse, paradox,or quandary.

If you choose to allow a dictionary to assume this power in your family, I have one warning. Dictionary silliness will lead to language savvy. If your kids use a lot of obscure words in their everyday discourse they’ll need a droll sense of humor, the better to handle their flummoxed peers.