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Monday, May 10, 2021

Charlotte Mason and Language Arts, Part I

 My kids are all grown now. Four of them have gone or are currently in college.  They write well, and it isn't just me who says so, their college teachers have said so, too.  Some writer better than the others, because that is their knack, and children are born persons.  The one who doesn't think she writes well at all actually is a very clear communicator when she writes, she just doesn't like it. That is also okay because she can communicate, and she has amazing talents in areas she does enjoy, and children are born persons and we stay that way- persons. Individuals.  

I think I can attest that Mason's approach to language arts does work. However, to say that CM’s methods do or don't work, we have to know what they are.  Many people think her methods are ‘do nothing but narration and maybe copywork (and the approach to copywork is often nothing like what Mason proposed), and then start formal grammar at 13,’ but this is not accurate.  CM’s approach to grammar and composition is subtle, nuanced, complex.  She didn't teach formal grammar as early as formal schools do, but her methods are actually laying a foundation for grammar and composition skills from early on, incorporating painless and seamless grammar and composition into their lives even before the children have started writing skills.

It's brilliant, painless, and practically invisible to the naked and uninformed eye.  Uninformed is not derogatory.  It just means there are some clever, insightful ways Mason incorporates the tools of language arts into her methods and they are easily overlooked.  I overlooked them the first few years I was reading her volumes and incorporating her methods.

Here are just a few of things Mason has children doing that contribute to the later development of skillful written work and the understanding of grammar:

In the early years children are building advanced vocabularies through hearing oral story telling, nursery rhymes, poetry, and well-written books. Oral story telling helps them picture things in the mind's eye, as do the nature walks where children look carefully at a scene and then describe it back to you, and good writers have to be able to do this- picture things in their minds and then describe them.  Picture study also helps build this skill.

In their early years children are building a feel for the rhythm of language, for word smithing as they develop their skill with language through poetry, Mother Goose, and those folk songs that too many people imagine are unnecessary.  Those who include the folk songs and nursery songs suitable for this age group notice that their children start improvising, making up their own words to the tunes they know and singing about them- sad songs, happy songs, silly songs, working songs, descriptive songs.  What happens here is that the children are  joyfully playing with language, again building the skill of picturing things in the mind's eye, and best of all, without you or the child noticing, by switching out the words but keeping the same rhythm and rhyme pattern, they are internalizing rhyme scheme and structure, rhythm,   There should be almost no screen time for this age group.

The children have immense time outdoors interacting with the real world and building up real life experiences. Sometimes you ask them to look at a scene hard, so they can see it with their eyes shut, and then you ask them to describe it to you- with their backs turned to it.  This is oral narration, the telling back, which will later lead to composition skills. It's not formal narration.  You do not request any formal narration before age 6, but you will often get them anyway as a child excitedly tells you about something the child saw, did, heard, dreamed. Listen as much as you can, interact naturally.  No need to turn this into something stilted or official  It is okay to sometimes say stuff like, "Did you tell grandma about what we saw at the zoo?" 

You are telling them stories- again, developing the mind's eye as they picture what you are telling them without external aids. They are also learning to associate stories with happy, pleasant, cozy times. Bible stories, early folk tales (Goldilocks, The Teeny Tiny Woman, the three little pigs, the Little Red Hen), and stories about when you were a little child are all part of this oral story telling.

You are reading them only the best in picture books- no twaddle. You are familiarizing them with the best in language, in story.

You are reading and reciting nursery rhymes, vitally important to further nurture both a love of language and a sense of the rhythm of language.

You are singing folk songs and nursery songs (Where is Thumbkin, itsy bitsy spider, etc).

You give them lots of experiences, and words for those experiences.  You visit the zoo, you plant a garden or grow a lettuce or a daisy in a pot. You go to parks and creek banks, beaches, whatever is available to you, and you talk about what you see.  You admire the dandelion bouquets and come see the pigeons at the bird feeder. You point out the buttercup and the dandelion and notice the difference between the two. If you don't know this, you will learn it, because an important skill for later writing is using the right word in the right place. They play in mud, digging, irrigating, watching the soil in the yard erode when the hose is sprayed on it with force, and making dams and mudpies.  They are learning textures, geography, the feel and sounds of the world around them.  This, too, goes into the making of a writer as well as many other things.

When the child is ready to begin formal lessons (usually no earlier than 6), you continue with the excellent standard in literature. You add formal narration now, and not before. This addition of narration is simply not optional. The children must narrate their school readings. This is also oral composition. They do this for years before they begin writing them down. I will share more about all the wonderful things narration does for your children in later posts, and I will also continue with the things you incorporate into schooling that are also part of language arts in later posts.

A word about discouragement first- I realize this is easier said than done, but if you read the above list and are convicted that you haven't done those things and now you've ruined your child because your young scholar is ten and you never did nursery rhymes, or whatever- stop.  Please, please, don't be discouraged. You may find you've skipped some or several or all of them, not realizing their importance, so now you think it's too late and you're kicking yourself for a failure. You are not. We are all busy parents with a lot of things on our plates. We may be dealing with heavy burdens, much suffering, and complicated lives.  Many of us may go through more than one season where we cannot accomplish Miss Mason's ideal. But all is not lost- if we understand what she recommended and why, then we can make informed decisions about how to compensate for what we think we missed.  You can pick up where you are.  So long as you both live, it is never too late to sing silly songs, quote nursery rhymes and then make up your own zany versions, go to the zoo, make sand castles on the beach or clay critters with the mud in your backyard or play dough at the table (or shape loaves of bread).  


Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Beyond a Single Story books

Note: This post contains affiliate links. 
 This post will be updated whenever I find new books to add, or whenever I have time to add books I hadn't gotten around to adding the first time.  So revisit us from time to time and scroll down for updates.

What does Beyond a Single Story mean? The title is taken from a Ted Talk on including more cultural stories and characters in your reading.  If you have not already seen it, scroll down to the bottom of the post for the video of Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie's Ted Talk.  That's explains one reason to look for stories that aren't just about white English speaking kids in America or England.  

Another is that children are drawing conclusions about the world around them, so I wanted to give my kids as many views of that world and as many experiences and  ideas as I could.

Sometimes we don't know the conclusions they are drawing.  Once when I happened to mention that a new guy at church was a doctor one of my daughters was shocked.  "How can he be a doctor?" she asked. "Only women are doctors!"  People always laugh when I tell them that, which is interesting because mostly the same people would be indignant if it was the other way around. But both conclusions would have been drawn from the same data- the world around the child.  We were a military family in Japan.  As it happened, all the pediatricians my daughter had seen were women.  She was probably six or seven.  I hadn't really noticed because of course, I had a background of years of experience my little girl didn't have yet.  Also, there were plenty of male doctors at the clinic we went to, they just weren't the ones my child saw in her visits. 

Heiritage Mom tells a similar, but more heart-rending tale of a similar event with her son, when he blurted out that angels could only be white.  (wee bit of irony there, for years one of my favourite Christmas decorations has been a black angel that hangs on the wall during the season)

The interesting thing that both these stories have in common is that the kids only blurted out the false conclusion they had drawn when they were confronted with an event or statement that challeged their assumptions about the way the world worked. If they hadn't been surprised into blurting out out their assumption, neither mom would have known about it until later- if at all.  Kids are looking at the world and figuring out how it works, drawing conclusions based on what they see and experience, making assumptions built on those things. That's normal. It's how we figure things out. And the thing about assumptions is we take them for granted. 

 A Charlotte Mason education is wide and generous.  There are many benefits to this, and one of them is that it gives us the opportunity to challenge and correct false assumptions, and head them off before they occur.  There are many ways to do this in real life, but this post is about books.

I'm sharing a list of some children's books that go beyond a single story for white, English speaking Americans.  It's perfectly okay to be white and English speaking, of course, and there's nother wrong with reading books about kids like that.  But it's really easy to find good books by and about white English speaking kids in America or England.  It's getting easier and easier to find the others, but it does get harder as kids age out of the picture book stage, so I sharing some books I like that help stretch a kid's reading life beyond a single story.  If you are an AmblesideOnline family, most of these books would be good options for free reads. 

There is no one single culture or group represented here. The selections are somewhat random.  It's not a comprehensive list. There are gaps. I don't recommend books I have not read and I am only one person with limited time and funds. I tend to prefer to own the books I read because I don't like paying the inevitable library fees when I don't return it on time, or when I inadvertently shelve it among my thousands of other books and then have to pay the replacement fee to the library, but I do borrow what I can via Kindle.  I will add to it as a find new books, so bookmark the post and come back to it from time to time.

I blog here as an individual, not in my official capacity as a member of the AO Advisory.  That means I have an advantage here- the best one is that I do no have to limit myself to books currently still in print. I don't have to think about page counts.  If we add a book to AO we usually need to suggest one to remove as well so that the curriculum isn't even more loaded than it already is.  That's not my problem here.  I just get to have fun sharing books I read and liked and let you worry about how and where to use it.  Some of the books are here for depictions of different cultures, including Black American culture (if you don't think there is such a thing as Black culture, would you also claim there's no such thing as Southern culture?).  Some are more about representation.  I promise you I do not consider myself 'Woke' because that has entirely too much baggage. I am not a Marxist, not even kissing cousins to one.  And I am not a believer in critical race theory.  Nevertheless, representation does matter, which is what the two stories I shared up above illustrate.  So some of these are here just because they represent normal kids having bookishly good times (bookishly meaning just the same kinds of good times found in other books featuring white kids).  We can all read both, but as the godmother to two dearly loved black godsons, I really do like to provide stories to them that show kids like them doing fun stuff.  I don't prefer 'problem stories', heavy handed message fiction, about anybody, so I tend to avoid those.

Anyway, so this list is just my recommendations based on my experience reading.  I do actively look beyond a single story books.    I am open to suggestions, but I am even more open to book donations or loans of kindle or hard copy books for me to read.=).  Please do feel free to leave your own reviews and recommendations in the comments so others benefit.  

I am not going to list picture books for the most part, because those are super easy to find.

The Season of Styx Malone- by Kekla Magoon.  Black family, mainly the two brothers around 10-12, and a 16 year old neighboring foster kid.  I really loved this story.  It was crazy, wild, good fun, but some of you are going to need a bit of hand-holding through it.  The kids are naughty sometimes.  Maybe a lot of the time.  They are dangerously misbehaving a couple of times.  The narrator, the younger of the two brothers involved, is enamoured with Styx, but he is an example of the 'unreli able narrator' in fiction, a literary type you should know.  I love Styx, but I wouldn't trust him as far as I can spit, which isn't far. He's not *bad* kid, but he is a deeply troubled kid in need of having his moral compass recalibrated.  Caleb gives away far too much trust, but Kekla deftly reveals his misjudgement in subtle but clear ways.The attentive reader will realize much sooner than Caleb does that Styx needs help, not a starry eyed yes-man.  This is a good story which reveals some good lessons by the way and subtly shows a couple problems, but it's really well told and the characters are real people in my mind. It's not message fiction because story and the characters far outshine whatever messages there are.  I hae a fuller review of it up on Goodreads, where I am also Wendiwanders, if you want to know more.   I would guess this is suitable for ages 10-14 or 15. 

Kekla Magoon has written a lot of books.  I am waiting to get a couple more in the mail, but she has a series called Robyn Hoodlum- it's a trilogy, and a reboot of the Robin Hood Story with Robin reimagined as a black girl and it works.  Weirdly, my library has the middle one available for e-loan but not the first or the third.  I liked it. Probably more for ages 12-14 or so.  Dystopian fiction, mysterious prophecies, Robyn is, obviously, part of the underground fighting back.  Fun stuff.

 Sounder- Sounder is a dog story and it will require kleenex.  Sounder's people are a black American family during the early 1900s. This book was a Newberry award winner, and was written in the sixties. The author is white.  This is also a movie.  The book is a short, quick read, but not easy. 

Gregor the Overlander Series- there's not a lot said about it and nothing stood out to me as culturally black (not odd since the writer is white),  but Gregor and his family are black.  Gregor's dad is a scientist or science teacher (or both) although, like Wrinkle in Time, he's absent for nearly all of the first book because he's been missing for a year.  It turns out he's been kidnapped by one of the mysterious underworld groups, which includes a group of human beings, descendants of a British colonial, giant speaking rats, spiders, and cockroaches and I am not sure what else. I have only read the first in the series and I liked it better than I expected to. The author wrote The Hunger Games, and this is much kinder and gentler, even though there are still warring factions and divisions and battles and so on. Probably about 8-14 or so.

Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series- it's another world and another reality, but as you read you gradually realize that Ged and his people are dark-skinned, which made the weird 80s series about it even stranger than it already was. 

Flossie and the Fox- I know I said I wasn't going to do picture books, but this is exceptional.  It's been a favourite for nearly 3 decades in my family.  I think I read it to my sixth girl at least fifty times, and Patricia McKissack is one of my favourite children's authors.  Probably my favourite folk tale.  I love this story. I love the illustrations. I love the sassy and clever Flossie. I delight in the poor baffled and bewildered fox, outwitted and tricked by Flossie at every turn.  

Flossie is black.  The setting is Southern and probably turn of the century in timing, but it could be anytime, really, from about the mid 1800s to the early 1920s. Flossie is a young black girl sent on an errand to deliver some eggs to another farm. She is warned to watch out because a fox has been seen around and he loves eggs. Flossie does meet up with the fox, but she insists he is not a fox at all, so there is no reason for her to be frightened.  He wears himself to a frazzle trying to present her with all the evidence that he is a fox, but Flossie insists the same evidence could prove he is some other animal altogether, perhaps a cat, or a squirrel.  It's funny.  This is not a black substitute for Little Red Riding Hood.  This is a story that stands on its own as its own thing, and there is no good reason for an American kid, especially, not to have both.

Special Mention:  I lke to look for books illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon.  This amazing couple met in art school, married after graduation, and illustrated books together for fifty-five years, until Leo died in 2012.  Now Diane illustrates books with their son.  Leo's parents immigrated to the U.S. from Trinidad. Diane is a white girl from L.A. Their teamwork was and is simply phenomenol. Diane once  said:  
“We could look at ourselves as one artist rather than two individuals, and that third artist was doing something neither one of us would do. We let it flow the way it flows when an artist is working by themselves and a color goes down that they didn’t quite expect and that affects the next colors they use, and it seems to have a life of its own.”"

They did illustrations for picture books, chapter books, speculative fiction (Hugo award winning books), sci-fi, the Narnia books, and more, and they won multiple awards.  They sometimes wrote the picture books they illustrated. I was drawn to their work for years before I really realized it- I haven't always paid as much attention as I should have to the names of artists of my books.  I just always picked up one of their books if I saw it because of the illustrations, without noticing the names. A few year back  I happened on a lovely exhibition of children's illustrators at an art museum in Delaware, and immediately recognized several large illustrations from some favourite picture books and felt a shock of recognition.  The more I read about them, the more I fell in love. 
Some of the books they illustrated which I have read and probably own (this doesn't mean the others aren't worth reading, just that I haven't gotten to see them yet):
From Ashanti to Zulu
Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch by Nancy Willard (their son also contributed to this one)- lucious, wild, gorgeous, delightful, and oop and correspondingly overpriced.
The Hundred Penny Box, Sharon Bell Mathis, black family, focusing on the multigenerational relationship between 8 y.o. Michael and his great aunt. Or great, great.
Why Mosquitos Buzz in People's Ears, West AFrican folk tale
Brother to the Wind, a picture book.  Emeke, an African boy, sets out on a quest to find the Good Snake of his grandmother's stories, to have it grant a wish for him. 
The Porcelain Cat- a sorcerer wants to turn his porcelain cat into a live cat to stop the rats from chewing his books.  His assistant Nikon is sent for the last ingredient he needs for this spell, and learns, in this fairy tale like story, that you cannot get something for nothing.
The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks by Katherine Paterson, who wrote Bridge to Terebythia, which I do not love.  I do love this retelling of a Japanese folk-tale and not least because of the Dillons' remarkably skilled Japanese woodcut style illustrations. It's a beautiful story.  Katherine;s parents were living in China when she was born, and her first language was Chinese.
The Race of the Golden Apples, Claire Martin (the Greek myth)
To Everything There is a Season, the Dillons, the Dillons illustrate the passage from Ecclesiastes with particularly breathtakingly beautiful, magnificent pictures of various cultural representation, accompanied by a nice glossary (also illustrated. Who illustrates a glossary?  The incomparable Dillons, that's who.
The People Could Fly  Black American Folktales
Mother Goose: Numbers on the Loose picture book of numbers from Mother Goose nursery rhymes

For more of their books, see Leo and Diane Dillon at Wikipedia. For more about the awards they won and a photograph of the pair, see here: https://www.illustrationhistory.org/artists/diane-dillon



Books by Lensey Namioka.  Lesey immigrated from China with her family when she was around 9.  Her husband immigrated from Japan- not sure when, but they met when he was a grad student at the same university she was attending.  She has writte a lot of books about a lot of things, including lots of books about China and Japan and immigrants.  One of my favourite series is about the Yang family.  There are four kids, and there is one book for each child.  These are light, gentle, fun, a tiny bit dated because sometimes the kids struggle to grasp American slang, and of course, that changes and the books are about 20 years old. The Yang family are mostly musicians, except the youngest, who has a tin ear and would rather play baseball.   When I lived in the Philippines and tutored English conversation with Korean missionaries and their kids, Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear was one of the books I ended up using.  One precious little Korean girl loved it so much she wanted to read them all, Many of the issues she had as a third culture kid were similar to the ones the Yang kids experienced.  She thought it the family was delightful and funny (they are) and it was also an opportunity for discussion some of those unspoken assumptions I mentioned.  Yang the Third and Her Impossible Family is not the anti-family diatribe it sounds like. Yang the Second and Her Secret Admirers is about the second oldest child of the Yang family.  She is the one who is most home-sick.  The two younger siblings try to get their dreamy big sister interested in a romance at high school because they think this will make her less homesick.  Yang the Eldest and His Odd jobs is about the oldest, responsible sibling and his desire to earn some extra money. His parents' cultural values are more compatible with teens spending any spare time studying or practicing music, not with earning money, which is a grown up responsibility.  Al of these are well written, engaging, good fun books, probably about grades 3-5, maybe 6. 

 Esperanza Rising, inspiring, uplifting, well written story of Esperanza and her family who are hispanic migrant workers (you will never see me use the unsightly made up word 'latinx.').  The author has written others, I just haven't had a chance to read them yet.

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, the author, Elizabeth Foreman Lewis, lived in China for many years in the early 1920s.  This book is a Newberry award winner from the time when this meant real literary quality, set in an older China. Maybe grades 5-7

The Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark.  Clark is a white woman from New Mexico who spent 25 years teaching English to the children of theTesuque Pueblo people. Her school was underfunded and she began writing to generate funds for the children's education.  She also traveled for five years in south and central America and that is the source of the material for this book.  I have read a handful of her other books with my kids and we enjoyed them. Perhaps grades 3-6

Inland China.  grades 3-7
Desert Pilgrim (in the UK) by Phyllis Thompson- about Mildred Cable, Eva and Francesca French, British missionaries with China Inland Mission who served in central Asia for 36 years. 

There are many books by and about Cable and the French sisters.  I have been reading through parts of another book by Cable and I am impressed by her writing. Thompson has also written a lot of other missionary bios, and I would keep my eyes open for those.

  This one deals with the traveling part of their mission.  For many years they had a base and ran a school.  Then they handed the work over to the Chinese converts and traveled the Gobi Desert areas, reaching out to people who had not been visited by Christians since the sixth century. 

This one is slightly dated, but the three women are bold and intrepid travellers who love the people around them and their Lord, and that alone makes it a worthwhile read.  There are geographical and cultural references that are deeply interesting, well told, and just what I want to find in a book to add some cultural diversity to the books kids are reading.  Muslim families probably won't like it (it is, after all, a Christian missionary book)  And even though somewhat dated at times, it's still pertinent today.  

Here's one sample event: They adopt a little deaf/mute child they have been trying to care for.  Initially they thought she lived with her mother, and even though the mother is abusive, they cannot do much for the child beyond feeding her and cleaning her wounds and loving her whenever she runs away from the beatings and she comes to visit them.  There is no social services to protect her, nobody interested in helping this throw away child.

Then they discover that she is not the woman's child.  The woman bought her from somebody else when she was a baby and began abusing her when she realized the child was deaf. They want to buy the girl's freedom but are advised not to do this directly or the price will be astronomical.  So they make arrangements to have a third part purchase the child, and then they adopt her. This part was so interesting, and I was curious about what happened to the child.   This additional information is not in the book, but in looking up her life I found that she had been purchased for ten cents, they kept her with them always, even when they returned to England, and when the three women died, they left her forty thousand dollars to support her (which was enough for a lifetime when they died). 
If you can find it, you want to read this book.


 Black American dad, Brazilian mom, Football, Autism:
The Warner Boys: Our Family's Story of Love and Hope:  

Not easily pigeon-holed.  Mrs. Warner is from Brazil and came to America as an adult.  Mr. Warner is black, from a coal-mining family in West Virginia. The story is about raising boys with autism, though, and not really about race or cultural issues, though it was really quite something to read about how Curtis Warner grew up in a coal-mining town.

As a book, I give 3 stars, which for me is a solid read. It is a stellar story but not 5 star literature. I would love to hear the Warner's tell their story; I imagine that would be an incredibly encouraging experience. I see this is on audible for 1.99, and that format might be better than a Kindle read.

I appreciate that they do not sugar coat the challenges and setbacks, the dreams deferred, the hard, hard work of raising kids on the ivery autistic side of the spectrum. I would recommend this book to anybody with kids on the spectrum or who knows somebody with kids on the spectrum or who deals in any way with some other disability making for difficult communication or behaviours.

This family have such a story to tell, and they just tell it, without self-pity, without undue pathos, without sugar-coating or phony cheery chirpy-bird stuff. But with lots of love and hope. 

I don't follow football, so I didn't know who they were.  Maybe you are already aware that Mr. Warner was a highly successful, professional football player who grew up in a W.Virginia coal town.  His grandparents adopted him and raised him, Grandpa/Dad was a coal-miner. Curt was a football player, went to college on a scholarship and played professionally for  the Seattle Seahawks. He married a girl from Brazil, who was not a big fan of football or football players. They have endured a stillbirth, miscarriages, and then their second pregnancy to full term was the twins who are on the spectrum and will always need to be cared for. When the boys were 12 they adopted an 18 month old girl.

This is not a book about miracle cures, or about sugar coating the hard stuff and the sacrifices made.  They did not get a diagnosis until the boys were 5, so they lost precious time and wonder what might have been (but not for long). They essentially went into lockdown mode for something like 20 years because they really could not take the twins many places or have people over much (one of them escaped once as friends were walking in the door and they found him happily playing in a pond). But they don't wallow in misery, either. They are believers, and their faith is part of their lives, but they don't hit readers over the head with it.
I am not sure most kids would enjoy reading this, unless they have a sibling on the spectrum.  If you ever have the chance to hear them tell their story, jump on it.



Soviet Russian prison camp to Soviet Russian single parent home- life under Stalin.  Grade school.  Talk about getting another point of view, another experience, life in different culture!  This is fantastic:
Arkady's Goal by Eugene Yelchin (UK Amazon/ Canada Amazon)
Five stars out of five.  Ten out five, even.  Loved this.
This is a great boy's book. It's a great read aloud story for any family looking for stories of other times and cultures.
Arcady is a kid in a Soviet prison camp because his parents allegedly were enemies of the state. He has no future outside of prison camp. Except...
No spoilers.
Really well done, gently addressing trauma kids, life in a communist regime, and soccer.  Yelchim includes a short chapter talking about growing up in Soviet Russia and the long term effects of Stalin's regime, and it's so moving.  He tells the story of finding himself in a New York cab driven by another Russian expat, who tells him that his own grandfather was taken away by Stalin's red guard, and nobody knew why or what happened.  Chillingly, even though it's something like 70 years later, in another country where it is perfectly safe, the cab-driver starts whispering when he tells the story, and Yelchim didn't even notice at first, because that's so natural to him, too.   When you talk about Stalin and theRed Guard, you whisper.  It's dangerous.   That's how deep the fear went.  Three generations and a totally different culture have not been enough to erase the fear. People still keep secrets and whisper when they say Stalin's name.  Actually, in many former Soviet countries, people still keep secrets and whisper about many things that aren't really that important, but that's how deep the conditioning is.
I will be looking for other books by this author.  You should, too.


Singapore, the 1930s or so, a mystery for teens and adults.
The Frangipani Tree Mystery (Crown Colony #1) by Ovidia Yu

I read the Kindle version.  Set in 1936 in the Crown Colony of Singapore  The main character is a Chinese girl, just 16 years old (although in one glitch in the story she seems to say she is older than a 17 year old character) who comes from a well to do and influential Chinese family.  However, her parents are dead, and she is slightly crippled because of polio as a young child.  Orphans and handicaps are bad luck so her grandmother sends her to a British girls' school for an education. She has just graduated and wants to find work as a secretary. Her British school's headmistress thinks she should  work as a nanny, her teachers think she could become a teacher, and her family want her to get married. She finds herself temporarily working as a nanny/governess for the 17 y.o. daughter of an important British family (relatives of her Headmistress). The girl is developmentally about 7, due to an illness when she was young. The previous nanny died in mysterious circumstances and an investigation by Chief Inspector Thomas LeFroy follows, in which the main character, Su Lin, gets involved because of her own incessant curiosity.

This was a fun read, somewhat the feel of an English cozy mystery. The author includes a lot of information on Chinese culture in Singapore at the time, as well the English treatment of Chinese There are some additional adult themes (beyond murder), but they are not spelled out in florid detail. A single woman is pregnant and there is speculation about the father and possible adultery. There are rumours the dead nanny took nude pictures of herself. There's a gay character.  I'd let an older, mature teen read this.  Su Lin is awfully clever and independent for a 16 y.o. Chinese girl before the war, but the anachronism is an area I was willing to suspend disbelief, largely because I enjoyed Su Lin so much.  I don't think I'd recommend this to that mature teen unless they had a special interest in British colonial Singapore and murder mysteries.

India, environmentalism, poverty, the importance of studying:
  Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins- (AmazonUK/ AmazonCanada)  very good read.

Grades 4 and up might enjoy this story of life on the Sunderban islands in West Bengal, India. The main character, Neel, must decide if he wants to study hard enough to win a scholarship that will take him away from his beloved island home for a few years. In the meantime, there is a tiger cub to save from poachers who want to kill it, and money worries in his family. A graceful, respectful depiction of every day life, customs and culture, along with larger issues of conservation and stewardship.  I will also be looking for others by this author.

Black American, biography, how the west was won... middle school and up:
The Legend of Bass Reeves, by Gary Paulsen (UK AmazonCanada Amazon)
Bass Reeves grew up on a small cattle holding on the edge of Indian Territory before the Civil war. He was a slave, and his life was hard. However, he did have advantages other slaves did not- because of the isolation where they lived and the danger from possible Indian attacks (Commanches had killed several white families in the area), he was allowed to carry a gun and ride a horse out into the wilderness looking for cattle.  The only people living on the ranch were himself, his mother, one other slave, and the white owner.  At 17, Bass had to flee because of an unavoidable fight with the drunken owner.  He lived alone in Indian territory for a couple years. He lived with Creek Indians for many years. He learned several of the Indian languages.  He married and brought up a family.  After the Civil war he was made a U.S. Marshall, and he brought in thousands of felons and was widely respected for his sense of justice and his courage.  He brought in his own son when the son caught his wife with another man and shot her.  He started writing his memoirs but died in his 1880s before he'd finished. They were not published until the 1970s.
I mostly loved this.  HOwever, in the introduction, the author begins by debunking all the other western heroes you might have heard of.  I question that choice, since the effect it had on me was to make me cynical and suspicious of the Bass Reeves story, too. You don't need to know or care about them to appreciate Reeves.  Beyond that, there are a couple of expletives, and there is a reference to the Comanches brutally torturing women and girls before they are killed. kIt isn't graphic, but it's still hard to read.   Recommended for maybe grade 7 and up.  Well told, fascinating character, and Paulsen's books are nearly always popular with boys.

Bass Reeves, Tales of the Talented Tenth, volume 1, Joel Christian Gill (UK AmazonCanada)
This is a graphic novel, which is not my personal favourite format, but it is the favoured format of several young men I know.  This is a bit grittier and darker in places than the Paulsen bio.  There's a caricature of a black person used in the speech bubbles every time somebody might be assumed to be using the N word, which is kind of a lot.  It's well done, and there are some details about Reeves not in the Paulsen book (and vice versa).  Probably high school, in my opinion.

Native American boys, Omaha tribe- The Middle Five, free online at Google books.  First person narrative, true story of five boys in the Omaha tribe and their lives at an American boarding school.  They didn't want to be there, but their parents thought they could help their people by learning here. Written around 1900, the boys were at a mission school probably in the 1870s.   Amazon description: "The Middle Five, first published in 1900, is an account of Francis La Flesche's life as a student in a Presbyterian mission school in northeastern Nebraska about the time of the Civil War. It is a simple, affecting tale of young Indian boys midway between two cultures, reluctant to abandon the ways of their fathers, and puzzled and uncomfortable in their new roles of "make-believe white men." The ambition of the Indian parents for their children, the struggle of the teachers to acquaint their charges with a new world of learning, and especially the problems met by both parents and teachers in controlling and directing schoolboy exuberance contribute to the authenticity of this portrait of the "Universal Boy," to whom La Flesche dedicated his book. Regarded by anthropologists as a classic of Native American literature, it is one of those rare books that are valued by the specialist as authentic sources of information about Indian culture and yet can be recommended wholeheartedly to the general reader, especially to young people in high school and the upper grades, as a useful corrective to the often distorted picture of Indian life seen in movies, comics, and television."  This would be an enjoyable family read aloud, or a free read for students about fifth grade and up.  Recommended.  Note that the school he attended was fairly mild for the Indian schools, and you probably want to clarify with your kids at some point that it was not always such a generally benign experience.  His own experience may not have been as easy as he retells here- he wasn't writing an expose but a book for children.

Black America, Slavery, upper elementary to middle school:

 Stealing Freedom by Elisa Carbone  (Amazon UK, Amazon Canada)
Publishers' Weekly Review: "This dramatic, often poignant historical novel on the life of Ann Maria Weems, a Maryland slave who, disguised as a boy, escaped to Canada at the age of 13. When the story opens in 1853, the 11-year-old, her mother and siblings are the property of Charles Price; her father is legally free, yet he, too, works "from first light to last light." Though Papa assures Ann Maria that Price would never break up a family, "Master Charles" hits on hard times and sells off the three Weems sons and later insists that Ann Maria remain his slave when Mr. Bigelow, an abolitionist, buys her mother and sister. In one of the tale's most wrenching scenes, the girl watches her parents and sister ride off to their new life and realizes that "the fabric of her family had been ripped again, and she was the piece that was being torn off." Ann Maria's harrowing escape, masterminded by Bigelow, gives youngsters an immediate, at times thrilling account of the workings of the Underground Railroad; the view of the Weemses' family life provides some idea of the incredible determination and ingenuity of slaves aspiring to freedom. Imaginatively and sensitively adapted from historical records, this portrait will evoke admiration for the courage of both those who resisted slavery and those who endured it. Ages 10-up. "


Very enjoyable read.  For very conservative parents, you probably want to know that there is one scene where Ann Maria's mother uses her daughter's rags (used for monthly menstrual cycles) to hide her pregnancy from Mrs. Price, and another scene where Ann Maria is indignant that she is valued at less than her mother or sister, and her sister explains it is because Ann Maria isn't yet of childbearing age, and they are worth more because they can have babies who will also be enslaved.   This would be a good book for free reading.

Sierre Leone, child soldiers, amputees.  Probably high school.

The Bite of the Mango, Mariatu Kamara, Amazon UKAmazon Canada

This is Mariatu's firsthand account of growing up in a small village in Sierre Leone, coming under attack by rebel soldiers (child soldiers, many of them), and having her hands brutally amputated.  She was 12.  She struggles to find her way to safety, and eventually finds her way, with some help, to a makeshift hospital.  She spends a few more years in a refugee camp, and then is sponsored for schooling in Canada. She is still in college when she narrates this story, which is both harrowing and uplifting. She has an incredibly positive attitude and she loves her people and has hope for the future.  There is a child rape and subsequent pregnancy in the story, and also a brief discussion of AIDS (she finds healing in working with a drama troupe, and one of their performances is to educate people about AIDS prevention and treatment),  so probably not for young readers.

Black America, fiction, upper grades to middle school.
The Young Landlords by Walter Dean Myers  Amazon UK  Amazon Canada
I really enjoyed this story.  It was written and set in 1989.  Kids who protest a local slum-lord and demand he clean up his building (which only has about 8 rooms for rent) end up saddled with the building themselves.  They find that it is not as easy as they thought it would be to improve the building, keep the city codes, and deal with all of the tenants.  There is some teenage romance and kissing. 

The Toothepaste Millionaire by the author of The Pushcart War, another story with some good ideas about work, production, economics, etc.  It did have more math than I prefer, though.=)  First person narrator is a white girl living in a black neighbourhood.  She's the new kid. Her best friend is a black boy who is quirky, innovative, entrepreneurial, and really a whiz at math.  a bit dated, but still good.

 I think it would be terrific to pair this reading with The Year Money Grew On Trees, which has a similar, but rural story- kids get an adult property and have to take on some adult responsibilities to make it work. Along the way they learn some things about the adult world they hadn't realized, respect some of the adults they know more than they did before- or at least, understand them.  Both stories are really well written, fun to read, and would be interesting to compare and contrast.  Mary Emma and Company, by Ralph Moody has a similar theme but set in an older time.

South Africa
Nelson Mandela's Favourite African Folk Tales  My second daughter tells me she read this with her five kids and it was a big hit, and very well done.   UK Amazon  Canadian Amazon

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky- by Kwame Mbalia-  Middle school.  Rick Riordan presents series.  Riordan hit on a winning formula that sells well in today's market. It's a fun idea- remaking traditional gods and heroes from myths and legends into modern tales where they interact with modern kids in the modern world.  I just wish he had provided his collection of authors with some better editing.  This had so much potential to be a great, terrific, *timeless* book.  It still could be with some editing.  Meanwhile, it is still a really fun, good story for kids to read today.  Tristan Strong is a middle school kid, a boxer who hasn't won his match and thus disappointed his dad adn grand-dad who are also boxers.  His best friend died in a traumatic accident. He spends the summer at his grandparents' farm to get in some rest and peace. Instead, he accidentally lets loose some havoc over in the fairy and folk tale world of African fairy tales and legends and African American folk tales. He has to go fix what he broke (and find his best friend's notebook, which was stolen).  I have not read the other books in the Rick Riordan presents series, but I have read some similar concerns about a couple of the others.  Here is one example of the editing problem (from the second book which I haven't finished):
 'Nana stood in front of me... both hands on her hips as she waved a dough covered spatula at me.'

Nana really does just have two arms. I don't see how this slipped past an editor.  It's probably the most egregious error I have seen, but there are just several things that could have done with tightening, clarification, or other editing assistance.  The plot and the stories, the world building, these are fun and very cool. 

I will be adding more books later.

Dragons in a Bag: Black American boy is the lead character.  His best friend shows up briefly (with little sis in tow) and their last name is Patel.  They will return in the sequel, which I haven't read yet.  Amazon says 8-12, I think 12 seems a bit young. There is a witch, and she's good, for those who want to know about those things.  
Jax and his mom live in an apartment where the landlord is trying to evict them. She has to go to court, so she leaves him for the day with an old lady she calls Ma. Jax has never heard of her before.  A mysterious package, a sentient squirrel, time and parallel universe travel, magic in Brooklyn, or not... Fun stuff.  'Ma' is not related to Jax, she's just a feature staple in some Black neighbourhoods, the grandma figure who helps raise kids whose parents need that help.  She raised his mom.  Ma is a witch who is getting to old for th ejob and is ready for retirement, and she wonders if Jax might be the apprentice she needs.  

The Kebra Nagast- high school and up. From Ethiopia, probably written in the fifth century (early 5th century) The link is to a kindle translation done by Wallis Budge.  Hang with me a sec.  This is a little unusual for me to recommend.  If you or your young adult student enjoys mythology  and legends from around the world this is an interesting read.  It is a religious text, but also stories (like the accounts in Daniel or 1 Kings, or some of the Apocrypha).  Ethiopia has a tradition that when the Queen of Sheba, an Ethiopian Queen, went to visit Solomon she got pregnant with his child. She returned home and birthed her son there. When he came of age, she sent him back to his father for a time, and then he returned to Ethiopia bringing the Ark of the Covenant and other artefacts with him and he reigned as Menelik the 1st.  Ethiopia officially became a Christian nation about the same time this book was written, and the Ethiopian church has been in existance longer than any white European churches that I know of (I'm not a Catholic and don't believe Peter was the first Pope), and they have their own traditions and so forth. This is part of it.  It reads like, say, some of the stories of Gilgamesh or Susannah from the Apocryphah. The Queen of Sheba has a goat's foot in this story (the way it reads sounds to me like a clubfoot), and Solomon tricks her into showing her feet, but part of his trick also accidentally causes her foot to be healed (accidentally for Solomon, it was always part of God's plan in the story).  He also tricks her into coming to his room at night, which is how we get Menelik.  I haven't finished reading it yet, but I am enjoying it the same way I enjoy Stephen Fry's Mythos or reading through a well done translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Apocrypha. So this would be for you teenager who is a bit on the geeky side and into myths and epics at a more serious level than Percy Jackson.

Viva Durant and the Secret of the Silver Buttons- maybe grades 4-7.  Only via Audible.  Beg the author to hurry up and publish a sequel.  This is just good fun stuff.  Viva Durant is spending vacation with her no-nonsense Grandma in New Orleans.  She stumbles across an interesting mystery related to the skipping rope rhyme Miss Mary Mack (all dressed in black, with silver buttons all down her back).  Can she uncover the mystery before vacation is over?  Yep, this is for the kid who is at the state to enjoy Nancy Drew, but this is so much better than Nancy Drew.  The plot is interesting, the characters are well rounded, the bits and pieces of history and culture thrown in are like chocolate chips in your cookie.  I've reviewed this elsewhere, and many times. I *really* like this book and want to see a series, so the more support the creator gets, the better.  She's talented!

The Egypt Game- 10-14  I first read this when I was a kid, so that is a few decades ago.  I really loved it and read and reread my copy.  The lead character is white, her best friend and the friend's little brother (who goes everywhere they do, pretty much) are black.  The fact that this book is available today to buy new tells you something about it's staying power.  IT is spooky, and deals with some hard things, like child murder.  The kids are obssessed with ancient Egypt and play something they call the Egypt Game in an abandoned yard in the neighbourhood.  Gradually a few other kids join in.  Meanwhile, bad things are happening in the area and nobody knows who is causing them.  It does turn out well, but it's a bit scary.  Also, for those who will want to know, the children's game includes setting up a makeshift alter and performing rites and ceremonies they believe are ancient Egypt style.  Essentially, they are playing at being historicial re-enactors. 

Island of the Blue Dolphins- by Scott O'Dell.  Maybe 8-14?  Surely needs no intro.  Based on a true story, much fleshed out by O'Dell, an Indian girl and her brother are accidentally left behind on an island and nobody will be able to come back for them for anytime soon.  They have to figure out how to survive. He dies early on, so she's on her own. One of the most iconic survival stories ever.  

The Zero Degree Zombie Zone- I think around grades 3-4, maybe 2-5.  The Zombies are more like frost giants, and so less icksome and disgusting to me. I hate zombie stories, and this one didn't really bother me.  The writing here is just good, it's not going to be a story your kids can't wait to share with their kids when they grow up, but that's okay.  There is room for just good, light reading, especially in this very narrow and hard to find genre of Black boys just being boys and having fun or at least having adventures, since being chased by zombies, even frozen ones, isn't exactly fun. 
Bakari Katari Johnson and his friend Wardell are both at the low end of the classroom pecking order, but they don't mind because they have each other. Most of the other kids leave the alone, except for the very mean Keisha and her cousin and minion Tariq.  And now Bakari has really come under their unwanted attention because Wardell, thinking it would help Bakari make friends with more kids, put his name down to run for hall monitor, against Tariq, who has always been hall monitor and who is good at everything he does.  While BAkari is still processing this and trying to figure out how to avoid being bullied by Keisha, he tries to hide out in the bathroom but he falls through another dimension into the land of the zero degree zombies where he is accused of stealing a special ring that belongs to Zenon, ruler of the frost zombies.  Zenon tells him if his ring is not returned shortly, He and his frost zombies will destroy Bakari's whole world by turning it into a frozen wasteland like Zenon's realm.
Bakari doesn't have the ring, but Zenon doesn't believe him, so he has to try and find it, return it to Zenon, and also block Zenon's treachery all by the end of the schoolday.  Of course,  Tarik and Keisha get involved, as well as Wardell, and by the end of the afternoon the four kids have saved the world, protected it from future threatsfrom Zenon, made friends, and  the hall monitor situation is resolved as well. I say they've made friends, but while Keisha tones it down a couple notches, she is still pretty awful.   I kind of liked that.   In my experience, natural bullies do not generally become gentle, docile, easy to get along with kids just because of one adventure with zombies.
Some of the kids use bad grammar a couple of times, which is realistic, although I wish they wouldn't.  There are other books in the series which I would give a try if I had kids, especially black kids, in this demographic, butI don't. I only read this one of the series, so that's all I can review. Again, it's not stellar literature, but it was a fun, goofy read with black kids being kids and having adventures a

Ell-Ray Jakes the Dragon-Slayer!- black family, parents are nice, but very human and often distracted by their work.  This is book four of 9 books in the series, and the author has other books that may be of interest as well.  It's the only I have read.  I thought it was fun and cute.  Ell-ray Jakes is in the 3rd grade. His sister Alfie is four, and she has a problem.  She is being bullied by a very mean but sneaky kid at her daycare/nursery school.  That's the dragon Ell-Ray has to figure out how to take care of.  He has a couple issues in his classroom as well. He's a pretty clever kid, if not exactly always sweetness and light, but he loves his little sister and he's not going to let people be mean to her.  Not anybody.  I don't exactly love how he resolves it, but I also remember what it was like to deal with bullies who don't play by the rules adults imagine exist and who haven't read the pyschology books that explain how to handle them.  His methods are effective.   Good writing, realistic characters and situations, fun story, no hard sell messages, no gloom and doom,  Ell-Ray is maybe too clever for a 3rd grader, but he sure is a fun and interesting kid.

Tippy Lemmey- by Patricia Mckissack, long a favourite author in my house. This is one of her sweetest stories.  Three black kids, every day life. This is a short story, probably about grades 3-7, or a family read aloud.  It's a delightful story.  Set during the Korean war.  An older couple have moved into the neighbourhood and their only son is fighting in the war overseas.  They have a dog (it's a chow) that chases the kids, snapping, snarling, and growling, every time they ride their bikes by the house.  There a detour, but it's along a dry riverbed and one of the girls is forbidden to play there, because it doesn't stay dry all the time.  They enlist one of the girls' parents for help, but in the telling of the story she forgets to explain that Tippy is a dog, and her dad thinks Tippy is the neighbours' bully of a son, and he goes to the parents to complain about their son, and that misunderstanding has to be cleared up.  The dog belongs to the boy who is overseas, and the kindly elderly neighbours try to convince the kids that he is a sweet and friendly dog who just wants to play but they don't believe it.  There's a dog thief, and the kids save the day (and Tippy) and it's just a really good tale.  This *is* the kind of story your kids will grow up and want to share with your grandkids and it will be totall worth it.  

Dragonwings, by Lawrence Yep. Asia.  Probably ages 10-14 or so.  Yep is a prolific author, and I've read and enjoyed a lot of his books.  I have not read one I did not like. All the ones I have read feature Asian characters, some Asian-American, some FOTB (fresh off the boat), some 2nd and 3rd generation, and some are set in China or someplace like it.  All the ones I've read are historical fiction or fantasy.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Shakespeare is the birthright of every human

 It seems that every week I read another story of another school removing Shakespeare or some other 'dead white' writer from the curriculum because.... they are irrelevant, boring, white, racist, misogynist, or have committed some other crime against today's groupthink.  And every week I think of Maya Angelou's connection with Shakespeare, and how her exposure to Shakespeare and other dead white poets, plus a host of black poets and writers, helped her recover from the horrible trauma of being raped as a very young child.  In the aftermath of her brutal experience, her uncles killed the man, and as victims all too often do, she blamed herself, and stopped speaking for several years, except to her beloved brother. It was a retired teacher in the community who put her in touch with Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, and others and this combination gave her back her voice.

Maya Angelou on Shakespeare : ' 'I found myself, and still find myself, whenever I like stepping back into Shakespeare. Whenever I like, I pull to me. He wrote it for me. "When in disgrace with fortune in [sic] men's eyes / I all alone beweep my outcast state / and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries / and look upon myself and curse my fate / wishing me like to one more rich in hope / featured like him, like him with friends possessed / desiring this man's art and that man's scope / with what I most enjoy contented least. . . ." Of course he wrote it for me; that is a condition of the black woman. Of course, he was a black woman. I understand that. Nobody else understands it, but I know that William Shakespeare was a black woman.'' 

http://bardfilm.blogspot.com/2015/04/shakespeare-was-black-woman-maya.html?m=1 

 And this: ""Angelou's message was that there is more in poetry—and, by extension, all art—that unites than divides us. Not only can a long-dead, uber-white male writer like Shakespeare voice an experience so universal that it speaks truth to power for a poor black girl living in the Jim Crow American South, but that same girl can reflect years later on how the poetry of her beloved Edgar Allen Poe reads "like it was written by LL Cool J." (And that same girl can get kicked out of a theater for heckling a famous actor when he reads "The Raven" more like a Shakespearean actor than a rapper.)"https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theatlantic.com/amp/article/272667/.


You can also see what Kelly Miller,   has to say about Shakespeare and other dead white guys in his 1908 collection of essays, "Race adjustment; essays on the Negro in America".

Kelly Miller was a "mathematiciansociologistessayistnewspaper columnist, author, and an important figure in the intellectual life of black America for close to half a century. He was known as "the Bard of the Potomac"(Wikipedia)

"Genius has no age, no country, no race ; it belongs to mankind — who cares whether Sir Isaac Newton or Watts or Fulton was red, or white, or brown? Shakespeare means no more to you than he does to me, except in so far as you may have greater capacity of appreciation and enjoyment. Bacon and Darwin appeal to the world. Do you think that when the candle of genius has been lighted by fire from above it can be hid under a bushel of racial exclusiveness ? Nay; rather, it is set on a candle- stick and gives light unto all who grope in dark- ness. The Negro enters into the inheritance of all the ages on equal terms with the rest, and who can say that he will not contribute his quota of genius to enrich the blood of the world?"

He also references Chaucer, Dante, Milton, Plato, Homer, Virgil, and more modern poets. He is particularly fond of Walter Whitman. 
He notes that the literature of his time and that contemporary with American slavery does too often degrade and demean those of his race, and take their inferiority for granted and this is unacceptable. In that context he says: "The same spirit does not obtain in the Oriental and classical literatures. These never refer to the Negro except in terms of endearment and respect. The gods of Homer are not too fastidious to spend a holiday season of social intercourse and festive en- joyment among the 'blameless Ethiopians.'"

I recently read an early 20th century anthology of black poetry, and I was struck by how many of those poets referenced their reading of many of those dead white guys as influential in their own discovery of and development of their own poetry.

Every English speaking child should be exposed to the stories and poems of the Shakespeares, Miltons, Dantes, Homers, Dunbars, Langston Hughes, Angelou, and others.  
Removing Shakespeare is an impoverishment of the soul.  It's a crime against the mind.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Spread the Readings Out

 I know many of us have resentful memories of not being allowed to read ahead in our school books back when we sat row by row in our public classrooms. Or we read ahead anyway and received some sort of reprimand or punishment for it, and it still chafes.

 So when we meet the CM method and are told to take more time with the books, read slower, spread them out, slow down, we question it. And when our kids fall in love with a school book and want to speed read to the end, we resent being told that isn't really in keeping with the principles of a cm education. "You know your child better than anybody else, do what you want," counsels somebody else who isn't really familiar with the principles either. 

 It is true, you know your child better. but it might also be true, even so, that strangers to your child could still have a better grasp on educational research, Charlotte Mason, and/or how the brain works, how memory happens, what conditions best foster learning.

 I am reading a book called Learn Hangul in an Hour! In the intro the author tells readers to spread this hour out over 2-3 days in 20 minute sessions, rather than attempting to "burn your way through in one sitting." "Break time is essential to assimilating the information so don't skip it. Studies also show that our brains tend to remember the first and last parts of information the easiest so it makes sense for us to create as many 'firsts' and 'lasts' to take advantage of our brain's natural tendencies."

Modern research supports Charlotte Mason. When reading schoolbooks we don't plow through them. We take small bites, giving children many firsts and lasts to take advantage of the way the brain works. We leave them hungry to more and the naturally go over the reading in their own minds, hunting for clues to what comes next, eager to think about it.  If you asked them to devote this much thinking time to review, they couldn't give it the same fresh, eager hunger to consider that material.  But this way, you aren't asking. You are taking advantage of the way minds function. It's letting the design of the universe work for you instead of you trying to push against it. You are using round wheels on a smooth track instead of square 'wheels' on an uphill footpath full of stones.  Some hard work is worthwhile.  Some is simply kicking against the goads.

Don't make extra work for yourself. Don't make extra, unproductive, or at least less productive work for your child.  Take the easy road and read through a schoolbook with plenty or built in starting and finishing points, and lots of natural incentives for thinking carefully built in in between.

I want to see you succeed with joy. This is part of it. Come  along with us on this path.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Nature Study When Quarantined















above are a few opportunities for indoor nature study.


 Many places are lifting restrictions. Some are still locked down. Theses ideas are adaptable to other conditions- when weather prevents much outdoors time, apartment living, illness in the family, etc.


First remind yourself of the purpose and methods of nature study.

The purpose is knowing their immediate world and the method is personal observation.


"Nature-study not only educates, but it educates nature-ward; and nature is ever our companion, whether we will or no. Even though we are determined to shut ourselves in an office, nature sends her messengers. The light, the dark, the moon, the cloud, the rain, the wind, the falling leaf, the fly, the bouquet, the bird, the cockroach they are all ours.

If one is to be happy, he must be in sympathy with common things. He must
live in harmony with his environment.  One cannot be happy yonder nor to-
morrow: he is happy here and now, or never. Our stock of knowledge of common things should be great. Few of us can travel. We must know the things at home."

From: "THE NATURE-STUDY IDEA,”

By L. H. BAILEY, printed in Comstock’s Nature Study Guide

Study and observe the insects you find in your home or yard.

Study and observe your weeds and houseplants. Grow some if you haven't already. Sketch them regularly. Note growth patterns, shape and textures, find out as much as possible from first hand observation. Even failures have value.

What is in your kitchen? Look at your fruits and vegetables. Note seed patterns. Try to grow leafy green tips from root vegetables. Try planting seeds from peppers and beans. Sprout lentils and sunflowers. Grow sweet potato vines. Try to  grow a plant from an avocado.
Sketch and observe in as much detail as possible. Notice patterns, differences and similarities. I grew a turnip top to flowering stage this winter and remembered they are in the mustard family because of the flowers.
I picked a stem of basil and the shape of the stem reminded me it is in the mint family.

Observe pets and any animals in your neighbourhood-  what do you notice about the feet? Tails? Ears?  Ask open ended questions like this. Ask questions like, 'what does the rooster's beak look like? How many times does it have? What does a pigeon beak look like? What does the moth antennae look like? What does it remind you of?

Set out food to attract... Birds, frogs (the bullfrogs in the Philippines loved our dog's food bowl), butterflies....

Have a fishbowl and observe your fish. Raise a garden snail.

Learn about clouds, stars, the stages of the moon. Sketch the moon every Monday night. Sketch the clouds every Thursday morning.
Note temperatures and weather daily.

Set a brick in a pot of dirt near your door and periodically lift it up to see what is beneath it.

Buy and dissect some fish,  seafood, or a chicken. 

Look around your house and see what you are taking for granted.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Follow The Drinking Gourd

CHORUS: 
Follow the drinking gourd
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is a waiting 
for to carry you to freedom
Follow the drinking gourd

 When the sun comes up [or back]
And the first quail calls
 Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is a waiting
For to carry you to freedom
 Follow the drinking gourd

CHORUS

The riverbed makes a mighty fine road
Dead trees to show you the way
And it's left foot, peg foot travelling on
Follow the drinking gourd


CHORUS
The river ends between two hills
Follow the drinking gourd
There's another river on the other side

Follow the drinking gourd

CHORUS

Follow the Drinking Gourd was first published in 1928.  The song collector who published it said he heard it from others, but most students of folk song and spiritual songs think at best he was exaggerating, as the circumstances seemed unlikely and no other collector ever seems to have heard it.
Peg-Leg Joe seems to also be the stuff of legends, much like Paul Bunyan and Mike Fink.  There may have been such a person, or perhaps he just grew around out of stories told. It would seem like a peg-leg would be too easily identifiable to make him an effective conductor on the Underground Railroad, but perhaps clever travellers and conductors made the story up to misdirect slave-catchers and others wishing ill to freedom seekers.  That's mere speculation, but who knows?

What isn't mythical is that the North Star, seen in the dipper or drinking gourd constellation, was important to enslaved Black Americans before and after freedom. They used it practically as a compass to help them to make it freedom in the north.  They used it symbolically.  As a symbol it inflamed imaginations,  inspired hearts, spurred hopes, infused dreams.  It was claimed that every enslaved mother taught her child to identify the North Star as early as possible.

Charles Ball in his account of years of slavery and his escape to freedom (written with the help of a friendly abolitionist, as literacy was denied Ball by law for fifty years of his life) references the practical use of the North Star:

" I now began to feel the want of shoes, mine having long since been worn out, my boots also beginning to fail so much I was obliged to bind straps of hickory bark about them to keep them from falling to pieces. It was now November and I was yet in South Carolina. I determined to abandon the roads altogether and advanced steadily. though slowly. for four or five nights. setting my face to the north star when I was again delayed by dark weather and kept in idleness nearly two weeks. On the second night after this, my course was arrested by a broad and rapid river, which I believed to be the Catawba. This I crossed by swimming, resting at some large rocks near the middle. I now considered myself in North Carolina. The month of November is always a season of clouds and vapours, but at this time the fine weather vanished early in the month and all the clouds of the universe seemed to have collected in North Carolina. From the second night after passing the Catawba I did not see the north star for three weeks, and in that time made no progress..."

John Pierpoint, staunch abolitionist and popular antebellum period American poet, used it in his poem about slavery*:
Star of the North, I look to thee        20
While on I press; for well I know
  Thy light and truth shall set me free;—
Thy light, that no poor slave deceiveth;
Thy truth, that all my soul believeth.

Below are a few samples taken from the book,  The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c., Narrating the Hardships, Hair-breadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others Or Witnessed by the Author : Together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisers of the Road. This book written by William Still, a freeborn black man from the north, secretary of The Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery's Vigilance Committee, I believe sometimes treasurer, and frequent funder of Harriet Tubman and others on the Underground Rail Road.  He seems to have been quite a remarkable man in his own right, and was uniquely positioned to note the accounts of the men and women who took their fredom in their own hands and made the harrowing journey North to freedom.

 In the preface he explains: "In these Records will be found interesting narratives of the escapes of many men, women and children, from the prison-house of bondage; from cities and plantations; from rice swamps and cotton fields; from kitchens and mechanic shops; from Border States and Gulf States; from cruel masters and mild masters; — some guided by the north star alone, penniless, braving the perils of land and sea, eluding the keen scent of the blood-hound as well as the more dangerous pursuit of the savage slave-hunter; some from secluded dens and caves of the earth where for months and years they had been hidden away waiting for the chance to escape; from mountains and swamps, where indescribable suffering from hunger and other privations had patiently been endured." 

Still relates the account of Edward and his two brothers, held in bondage by the same man. Upon discovered they had been sold away down south, they were "Moved almost to desperation at their master's course in thus selling them, the three brothers after reflection determined to save themselves if possible, and without any definite knowledge of the journey, they turned their eyes towards the North Star, and under the cover of night they started for_Pennsylvania, not knowing whether they would ever see the goodly land of freedom..."

In another account he says, "The Vigilance Committee for aiding and befriending fugitives" held regular meetings but could not hold them "too publicly, as we almost always had some of the travelers toward the north star present whose masters or their agents were frequently in the city in hot pursuit. "

 I can find few better examples to illustrate just how much import the north star had in inspiring and sparking the flames of imagination in those seeking freedom than the fact that Frederick Douglass named his abolitionist paper The North Star. You can read the introductory article and search for others at this very informative website.

Found at Mudcat (where many informative discussions of folk songs are held):

 Botkin, B.A. 1944. A Treasury of Southern Folklore. Crown Publishers, NY. "Follow the Drinking Gourd" was first documented by a folklorist, H.B. Parks, in Texas. His account of discovering the song and the story behind it are difficult to obtain ("Follow the Drinking Gourd." 1928. Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, Frank Dobie, ed). Botkin's account of the song is essentially a reprint of Park's publication.
Botkin quotes verbatim from Park's article except the music, which is from People's Songs, vol.1, No.2, p.12 (1947), as sung by Lee Hayes. Another reprint of the Parks article is in Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore, edited by Alan Dundes (University Press of Mississippi, 1990, pp. 465-468), with the original music and lyrics.
Parks records the story by "an old Negro" he met at College Station, Texas (date not given) as follows:
He [i.e., the old Negro] said that just before the Civil War, somewhere in the South, he was not just sure where, there came a sailor who had lost one leg and had the missing member replaced by a peg-leg. He would appear very suddenly at some plantation and ask for work as a painter or carpenter. This he was able to get at almost every place. He made friends with the slaves and soon all of the young colored men were singing the song that is herein mentioned. The following spring nearly all the young men among the slaves disappeared and made their way to the north and finally to Canada by following a trail that had been made by the peg-leg sailor and was held in memory by the Negroes in this peculiar song....
One of my [i.e., Park's] great-uncles, who was connected with the railroad movement, remembered that in the records of the Anti-Slavery Society there was a story of a peg-legged sailor, known as Peg-Leg Joe, who made a number of trips through the South and induced young Negroes to run away and escape through the North to Canada....
Parks had heard this song sung by "a little Negro boy" in Hot Springs, North Carolina in 1912; by "a Negro fisherman" in Lousville in 1913; and by "two Negro boys" at Waller, Texas in 1918.
The story behind the song seems to have mainly come from the anonymous "old Negro.""

Parks also said that the first time he heard the song sung in 1912:
"It is very doubtful if this part of the song would have attracted anyone's attention had not the old grandfather, who had been sitting on a block of wood in front of the cabin, slowly got up and, taking his cane, giving the boy a sound lick across the back with the admonition not to sing that song again. This excited my curiosity and I asked the old man why he did not want the boy to sing the song. The only answer I could get was that it was bad luck"

Like George Washington's little axe and the cherry tree, the song of the drinking gourd may be somewhat apocryphal, but then again, they both may be more of an exaggeration than an apocryphal tale, and both tell us something deep, rich, and meaningful about the people who hold the stories dear.

You can read William Still's inspiring account of escapes on the underground rail-road online free here: https://archive.org/stream/undergroundrailr1872stil/undergroundrailr1872stil_djvu.txt
You can buy a text or an audible version here: https://amzn.to/2YHnn7f
A short review of one of the drinking gourd picture books and some other Black history and stories to read here.

These are all valuable additions to your family reading and singing.  However, let me also suggest that you do not let all or even the majority of the stories your kids read about Black Americans be about slavery. There should be a healthy number of good stories about regular black kids having regular black lives and regular black kid story adventures as well as biographies about black Americans known for other accomplishments. Some recommended books at that link, and I'd like to make an extra plug for WHOOSH!.

Taj Mahal sings it here (an Amazon song you can download)
Kim and Reggie Harris sing it here (.99 to download)

For more about why this is a valuable song (it was important to the Civil Rights activists) even though its origins are not reliable here.  It's great folklore. It's not strictly underground railroad history.

*John Pierpont- in a strange twist, while John was so strongly anti-slavery, James Lord Pierpont,one of his sons, widowed and failed in business left his children to his father to rear, moved to Georgia, remarried and began a second family, wrote minstrel songs, and when the Civil War began he wrote pro-confederate songs and joined the Confederate Army, even as his 76 y.o. father served as a Chaplain in the Union Army (which proved too taxing for Pierpont Senior's health, so he retired and worked for the Post Office).  James Lord Pierpont, author of minstrel and pro-confederate songs, also wrote Jingle Bells.