Oct 29, 2014

KidPages: Blizzard by John Rocco

I don't know about you, but our fall has been pretty much perfect: clear, sunny days, comfortable temperatures, and beautiful colors. (This is the first fall since we moved into our house, and I am loving how the big bush in front (the one Mike threatened to cut down) burst forth in fiery red brilliance a couple of weeks ago.)

With the weather cooperating so nicely, it seems a little wrong to talk about a book called Blizzard, but . . . it's coming, folks. And from what I've heard, this winter is going to be a doozy.

Blizzard is based on actual events from the author's childhood during the blizzard of 1978. On a Monday afternoon the snow started to fall, and when it finally stopped, there was forty inches of it on the ground. At first, it was fun: the kids went outside and played in the deep drifts and then came back inside to hunker down with a mug of hot chocolate. But after a few days, the novelty wore off and everyone started to worry about when the snowplows would finally clear the roads so they could get to the grocery store for food. John decided to stop waiting and do something about it. He strapped two tennis rackets to his feet, took up his sled, and trudged the long way to the store. And finally, almost a week later, the snowplows arrived and dug out the town

I liked John Rocco's popular Blackout (it won a Caldecott Honor in 2012), but I loved Blizzard.

Part of it was nostalgia. I grew up in northeastern Colorado (out on the plains), and the snow doesn't know how to fall straight down there--only sideways. I can still remember making our own trek through the storm to get to the grocery store. (In our case, I don't think the blizzard had gone on long enough to make us worried about running out of food, but there was something in particular we wanted (probably hot chocolate) and the roads were not driveable, so we bundled up and walked.)

I remember another time when the blizzard came on a Sunday, so we couldn't go to church. Instead, we put on our snow clothes and walked a block away to our adopted grandma's house. I can still remember what it felt like to push against the whipping snow and what a contrast it was to enter her warm, cozy house and feel the plush (peach) carpet under our numb toes.

But you don't have to have survived your own blizzard to enjoy this book. The illustrations are enough to make you feel like you're experiencing it right along with John Rocco and his family: from the stop sign nearly covered in snow (along with the complementary words, ". . . and I thought it would never stop") to the fold-out page of his route to the store to the gorgeous sunset on his return trip home.

My kids loved it too. For them, it was partly the novelty since I don't know that they've ever seen a real blizzard. (Snow, yes. Blizzards, no.) Plus, reading this in October made them super duper excited for the coming change in the weather. (Last week, I found them bundled up in all their winter gear even though it was 75 degrees outside. Silly boys.)

So for now, go out and enjoy the last beautiful days of autumn. And then, when the snow and wind and the cold comes, comfort yourself with this delightful book.

P.S. For more snowy reads, check out this post or this one.

P.S. Many thanks to Disney-Hyperion for a review copy of this book. All opinions (and blizzard memories) are my own!

Oct 27, 2014

Where to Find a Good Children's Book

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about where I went for book recommendations. I thought about that post recently and realized that, while some of it is still current (I still rely heavily on the library catalog, award lists, and book lists for new ideas), the blog section is woefully out of date.

The only two from that list that I still check with any sort of regularity are No Time For Flashcards (where I usually head when I'm planning out a preschool lesson and want a book to match a specific theme) and Everyday Reading (a blog I obsessively follow--Janssen's recent Summer Unplugged series was chock-full of new ideas for books we'd never read).

So yes, I thought it was high time to update my list and spill all of my book-finding secrets.

But first, I just have to say that the book lists that often get the most attention on Pinterest and the web are usually not the most helpful for new ideas. In my experience, those lists of 101 Best Books of All Time are usually a) made up of the same 101 classics that have been praised and mentioned for the past 25 years (classics? yes, read them; new ideas? not so much) or b) recommended without ever having been read by the person recommending them.

If you feel like you keep running into the same recommendations, I would definitely start following some of these blogs. You won't be disappointed.

1. What Do We Do All Day
I've lost count of how many times I've mentioned Erica's blog (but hint: it's a lot), but this list would be incomplete without her blog on it. If you're a fan of the list format, Erica's the book blogger for you. She has lists on Books to Inspire Artistic Creativity, Science Fiction Picture Books, and almost any other subject you can imagine. She also highlights her favorite new books from the current year (usually in quarterly installments) and (one of my favorite things) she features lesser known books from decades past. But the best thing of all? She only recommends books she has already read and loved with her two boys, so you know they're going to be good.

2. This Picture Book Life
Danielle's blog is eye candy for picture book lovers. Seriously. Go ahead, click over, and you'll see what I mean. She does a regular book pairing series (basically a list of books on a certain subject) as well as talks about the life and work of  various picture book authors. She knows how to present picture books as their own art form, and I always find good ideas when I scroll through her posts.

3. Growing Book by Book
Jodie's blog is a great resource, not only for finding new picture books, but also for book extension activities and crafts. (Also, her facebook page is a wealth of current literacy ideas of all kinds.)

4. The Picture Book Review
I used to look at this blog all the time, and then there was a period of several months without any new posts. But, I'm happy to say, since the spring of this year, Tiffa's been posting regularly once more. Her reviews follow a very structured format, which makes them really easy to read and glean the essential bits from. Plus, she always links to other reviews of the book, and I love being able to find them all in one easy spot. (Also, check out her list of favorite Halloween books for a timely read.)

5. Read-Aloud Revival
I was not a podcast listener until a couple of months ago. But when I found the Read Aloud Revival podcast, I was instantly hooked. Sarah McKenzie talks to educators, parents, and authors about the benefits of reading aloud and how to build your family's culture around books. (Basically, she's a kindred spirit from afar). I can't listen to an episode without feeling rejuvenated and inspired (which can be a bad thing if I'm listening at 10:30 pm--it makes it REALLY difficult to fall asleep.) Sarah is well-spoken and engaging and relatable, and I always get fantastic ideas for new books to read. My favorite two episodes so far are with Ken Ludwig and Alice Ozma.  

6. A Fuse #8 Production
Betsy Bird is the New York Public Library’s Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She regularly reviews picture books (usually new ones), has written her own picture book, and is a great source for interesting book news. Her writing is engaging and witty, and I'm dying for the day when I can go to New York and hear her speak.

7. J House Vlogs
My good friend, Kendra, recently started a daily vlog with her family. As part of that, she has, what I think is going to be, a regular feature showcasing their favorite finds at the library. There are only two library episodes so far, but this is definitely one I'll be keeping my eye on. Kendra has excellent taste in books, and I trust her recommendations completely. (Plus, she has four kids--almost all the same ages as mine--so we are at a similar place where kid's lit is concerned.)

8. Jen Robinson's Book Page
Jen is a voracious reader (seriously, I don't know how she gets through so many books), and her thoughts are both insightful and honest. Another perk is that she's not limited to just picture books but explores a wide range of levels and genres.

Of course, I haven't even mentioned where I go for middle grade and adult recommendations (I have many sources for those too!), nor did I talk about any of my favorite blogs in general (because, believe it or not, on occasion I do read about things not related to books). I'll save those for another day.

And now it's your turn! Where do YOU go for tried and true book recommendations?

Oct 26, 2014

The Power of Everyday Missionaries: The What and How of Sharing the Gospel by Clayton M. Christensen

I don't normally post on Sundays, but this seemed like an appropriate review for the day.

If you know anything about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (i.e., Mormons), it might be that we focus heavily on missionary work. In fact, I don't know of another religion that devotes so much attention, time, or money on spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  No matter where you live, there's a chance you maybe have run into, or had your door knocked on, by Mormon missionaries.

The stereotypical missionaries are clean-cut young men in dark suits with name badges, but young women also serve missions and so do senior couples. It is expected that every young man who is worthy and able will devote two years of his life to sharing and teaching the Gospel. While young women are not under the same obligation, their service is still valued and appreciated.

Several of my family members have served missions: before my mom got married, she served in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Mike served in the West Indies. One of my brothers served in Sydney, Australia. Another brother served in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And I have another brother who is currently serving in Fresno, California.

 My brother, Gordy (on the right), serving in Australia

I did not serve a full-time mission. At that time, young women weren't able to serve until age 21 (the age has now been lowered to 19), and I got married when I was 20. However, all members of the Church are encouraged to share their beliefs with their family, friends, and acquaintances (David O. McKay, who served as prophet of the Church from 1951-1970, coined the phrase, "Every member a missionary.")

But sometimes it's difficult for me to share those beliefs because I'm worried about being overbearing or offending someone or even finding the right words to clearly explain some of our doctrines. Plus, I live in Utah where there is a much higher concentration of members of the Church, and so it's easy to assume everyone has already been asked a million times if they want to know more about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I'm worried I might seem pushy, even though my motives for wanting to tell other people about my beliefs are pure (for more about why ordinary members of the Church want to talk about the Gospel, read or watch this excellent talk by Elder David A. Bednar).

And now that I've told all that, you might not be surprised to hear that I would read a book called, The Power of Everyday Missionaries: The What and How of Sharing the Gospel. Because, let's be honest, even though I strongly believe in the doctrines and practices of the Church, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to share those beliefs with others.

My brother, Ben (on the right), serving in Pennsylvania

Honestly, I might not have picked up this book if it hadn't been the assigned reading for a family reunion last month. In fact, I maybe began reading it a little halfheartedly. I think I was a little worried it was going to be really intense and make me feel guilty if I'm not delivering Books of Mormon to all of my neighbors.

But in fact, it did just the opposite. It talked about how to share our beliefs in as natural and authentic a way as possible (and let me tell you, knocking on my neighbor's door with a Book of Mormon in hand is not authentic or natural (at least for me).

Clay Christensen talked about including the tenets of our faith in normal, everyday conversations, which I definitely feel like I do both here on this blog and in real life. Going to church, reading the scriptures, and praying are so ingrained in my daily habits, it would be virtually impossible for me to censure myself and never bring them up. If I'm talking about my life, then I'm talking about my faith because I can't separate it from who I am.

I really appreciated Clay Christensen's emphasis on discovering the questions of interested family and friends. Missionary work is not formulaic; it is individual and personal. It wouldn't be productive or even helpful for me to launch into an explanation of temples if my friend is really just curious about why we don't drink alcoholic beverages.

 My brother, Steve (wearing glasses), in the missionary training center (he is now serving in California)

I also really liked his thoughts about keeping an open mind and never pigeon-holing people into prescribed boxes of "definitely interested," "probably interested," "would never be interested." Only the Lord knows peoples' hearts. And so it's important to live our lives authentically (as I mentioned before) and not hide that authenticity from those we think might be offended by what we have to say.

Within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have many organizations that present many opportunities to serve and teach others. For example, Relief Society is the organization for the women. Besides meeting together on Sundays, we have weeknight meetings approximately once a month where we learn a new skill, listen to a speaker, or participate in a service project. These meetings are a time for women of all faiths to come together and learn from one another, and I'm grateful that other women in my community are willing to share their talents and expertise in these types of settings. In this book, Clay Christensen devotes an entire chapter to the importance of asking for help from people outside of our faith. This gives them a chance to see what the Church is like from the inside and also gives us a chance to be blessed by other people in our community. He said, "Even though many prosperous, comfortable people don't feel like they need religion, almost all of them have a need to help other people."

For those individuals who are investigating the Church and taking the missionary discussions, I was really impressed with his counsel to thoroughly teach the practices of prayer, scripture reading, Sabbath observance, etc. He said, "When investigators repeatedly fail to keep . . . commitments [such as reading The Book of Mormon or praying], we and the missionaries are prone to conclude that the investigators really are not interested. But often investigators don't do these things because they don't know how." I feel like these principles of teaching, guiding, and showing are vital to all, whether we've been members of the Church our entire lives or not. In the Church, all positions are filled by volunteers, and sometimes I think we err on the side of less instruction instead of more. We assume people will know how to lead the music or teach Sunday School and so don't provide them adequate training.

With all of these points, Clay Christensen provided personal examples. These were not only enjoyable to read but also helped me see how to apply certain advice to real life situations.

 My mom (in the blue dress) serving in New Mexico in 1982

If you are not Mormon but have questions about the Church, I would encourage you to seek out an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (such as myself!) rather than searching for answers on the internet. Even if it's just to satisfy your curiosity on a certain point, I would love to hear and answer your questions. Feel free to send me an email: sunlitpages {at} gmail {dot} com.

And if you are Mormon, then I would definitely recommend this as a great resource to help you reach outside your comfort zone and share those beliefs that you hold most dear and precious.

Oct 24, 2014

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

If you want me to read a book, just tell me it's a cross between Jane Eyre and Rebecca. Suspense? Mystery? Romance? Gothic ambiance? Sign me up. Please.

When Linda Martin arrives at the Château Valmy, she is greeted with austere, but kind, hospitality. She is to be the new governess to Philippe de Valmy, a nine-year-old boy who recently lost his parents in a tragic accident. He is the heir to the Château Valmy, but his Uncle Léon and Aunt Heloise have long been the caretakers of the estate. Soon after her arrival, strange things begin happening--a shot in the woods, a crumbling balustrade--and Linda is determined to protect her charge at any cost, all while wondering where the handsome Raoul fits in this dark plot. 

I mentioned this book on my reading list for October. At the time, I hadn't read it yet, so I didn't know for sure if it would be a good book for fall (and incidentally, I decided to save Greenglass House, also on the list, because after I picked it up, there just seemed to be too much of winter and the holidays in it to suit my reading mood). But now that I've finished it, let me tell you that if you like your fall reading flavored with suspense and danger (oh yeah, and elegant estates as well), then this book is perfect for the season (even though it's actually set in the spring).
I'd never read anything by Mary Stewart before (although one of Mike's cousins had recommended her to me on several different occasions), and now I'm wishing I didn't already have a half dozen other books checked out from the library waiting to be read because I would love to go out right this minute and pick up The Crystal Cave or The Moonspinners. I found her writing really engaging (my one complaint was that she tended to bump up against the superlative quite a bit, which made every event, even the more mild ones, feel intense).

One of my favorite descriptions was of Monsieur Florimond, a famous designer who the family knows well: "He wore his conventional, superbly cut clothes with all the delicate care one might accord to an old beach towel. His pockets bulged comfortably in every direction, and there was a cigar ash on his lapel. He was clutching what looked like a folio-society reprint in one large hand, and gestured with it lavishly to underscore some story he was telling Madame de Valmy." Florimond was probably my favorite of the secondary characters.

I thought about writing this whole review without alluding to important details to the plot, but I couldn't do it. So if you plan on reading this book, read no further! I repeat, stop. reading. now. Go to the library and get the book instead.
I've thought a lot about the genre of suspense since finishing this book and what makes a novel suspenseful. Obviously the situation and setting both contribute. Midway through the book, you know without a doubt there's a plot against Philippe for his life; just the idea that someone wants a little nine-year-old boy dead instantly ramps up the terror.

But it's more than that. In this particular book, once everything is finally revealed and settled out, the reader discovers (along with Linda) that for most of the day, Philippe wasn't in nearly as much immediate danger as Linda suspected. After I finished, I felt a teensy bit let down, and it took me a minute to realize it was because I felt a little annoyed about my pounding heart over nothing. (Okay, not nothing. The danger and evil were real, just not as lurking-around-every-corner as I was led to believe.)

But then (sorry to drag you along through my whole thought process), I thought, But Linda didn't know. She had to go with her gut instinct, and honestly, even though the level of danger all but disappeared by mid-morning, if she hadn't stolen away with Philippe in the middle of the night, real tragedy might have occurred. Because the story's being told from Linda's point of view, her fear becomes the reader's fear. I only had as much knowledge as she did, and I was scared right along with her. 

Speaking of fear, I loved this line: "I suppose a rabbit stays still while death stalks it just because it is hoping against hope that this is not death."

So I came to the conclusion that the actual risk means little in a suspense novel. It's all about how the characters perceive their own safety and security because if they feel threatened, then the reader will too (although, in this case, I definitely think there were a few blatant implications made to lead the reader astray).

Written in the 1950's, Nine Coaches Waiting also provides an interesting commentary on the times. Linda Martin herself is a strong female lead who risks her own security to provide safety for a little boy. She stands up for herself and doesn't hesitate to break the rules. At one point, after promising Berthe that she won't go to the police, she says, "I didn't let the promise Berthe had blackmailed from me weigh with me for a second; being a woman, I put common sense in front of an illusory 'honor,' and I'd have broken a thousand promises without a qualm if by doing so I could save Philippe."

But the other female characters are not so bold. Madame de Valmy is on the fringes of a complete mental collapse by the end of the book because she has been manipulated and used by her husband. And it appears that even Linda does not have the highest regard for the other members of her sex because when William Blake asks her who Berthe is, she says:"Oh, nobody. Just one of the nobodies who get hurt the most when wicked men start to carve life up to suit themselves."

Before I wrap this up, I just have to write a few words about Raoul de Valmy. I honestly wanted to like William Blake more than him. If it were me, I know I'd rather have kindhearted William than passionate Raoul. But try as I might, I couldn't actually make myself cheer for William. Raoul (tall, dark, and handsome) was so stereotypical, I begged myself to dislike him, but I couldn't. Against my better judgement, I was very happy with the way things ended up. Not practical, but very romantic.

While Nine Coaches Waiting didn't trump Jane Eyre or Rebecca, it was a delicious mix of suspense and romance, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.

Oct 22, 2014

Review x 2: The Trouble With Magic and Hank the Cowdog

The boys and I recently finished a couple of books. They weren't standout stories by any means, but I wanted to write about them anyway.

1. The Trouble With Magic by Ruth Chew
Erica at What Do We Do All Day recently posted a list of 12+ Books for Kids Not Ready for Harry Potter. She included Ruth Chew's books on the list, and they looked like something my kids would like, so I checked out The Trouble with Magic. On further investigation, I realized that I'd actually read several of her books when I was a kid (Summer Magic and The Witch at the Window among them). Many of them have recently been re-released with new covers, which is why I didn't recognize them right off.

This particular story is about two siblings (Barbara and Rick) whose parents are conveniently away the same weekend they accidentally release a wizard from a bottle (yes, a wizard--not a genie). The wizard (named Harrison Peabody) uses his umbrella to perform magic, which means he can only do it when it's raining. Needless to say, this results in a lot of trouble because the weather can be a little unpredictable.

Personally, I didn't love this book. For one thing, Harrison Peabody creeped me out--not because he was actually creepy but because, fantasy or not, I didn't like it that two children were being asked to hide and care for an adult.

For another, the story had no depth. The children met the wizard, had a few mishaps with magic, fixed what they could, and then Harry went off to traumatize other children left. As far as chapter books go, it is on the young end, which might be why it felt a little bland, but I've read enough books at that level to know that it's not impossible to write a good story for the nine and under crowd. So yeah, a little disappointing.

That said, my kids liked it quite a bit (especially the parts with George, the sea monster), and I didn't hate it so much that I wouldn't read another one by Ruth Chew. (And I definitely didn't hate it so much that I won't urge my kids to read the rest of her books on their own.)

2. The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog by John R. Erickson
I have this distinct memory of myself as an eight-year-old, wrapped up in my pink quillow (that's a quilt that can turn into a pillow, for those of you who were never privileged to own one), sitting on top of the heater vent in the little corner created between the couch and the loveseat, (a habit I acquired young) and reading, Hank the Cowdog. It's a sweet, happy memory--one that I longed to recreate for my kids.

And so I checked out Hank the Cowdog.

. . . I should have stuck with pink quillows and heater vents and left Hank out of it.

In short, Hank is a cowdog and the Head of Ranch Security. One morning, he wakes up to find there's been a murder overnight: a chicken is dead, and he's determined to find out who did it. 

Why didn't I like it? Let me count the ways:
  1. Hank is rude. ("Idiot," "Stupid," and "Dumb" are among his favorite insults.)
  2. Hank has a potty mouth. (I talked about how much I dislike this type of talking in this review. There was a lot of editing on my end, yes there was.)
  3. It is violent. (There is an epic fight at the end, and I was disturbed by how much they said, "I'm going to kill you" and "You're going to die" and talked about tearing out each other's throats. I'm grateful it didn't give my children nightmares.)
  4. They get drunk and engage in other obnoxious and disreputable habits. All the characters are all-around, horrible role models. 
  5. When it wasn't any of the above, it was super cheesy with lots of slap-stick humor and idioms that went right over my kids' heads.
So you're probably wondering why I read the whole thing.

Because my kids loved it. So embarrassing to admit, but it's true. I begged them to let me stop reading it, but they were so excited to find out what happened. In between readings, they talked about it: "Remember when Hank and Drover were teasing Bruno, and his owner came out of the store, and they laid down and pretended they were asleep? Wasn't that so funny?" And the night we finished it, Aaron said to me, "Wasn't that such a good book?" I was completely honest and told him I didn't like it at all, but I was glad he enjoyed it.

The only thing I liked about the book (and it's really taking a lot of effort on my part to come up with anything) was the voice I used for Missy the coyote. I really nailed it, if I do say so myself.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh on poor Hank? Which books have you muscled your way through because your kids liked them?

Oct 20, 2014

I Just Got a Whole Lot Smarter

Last week I left the Dark Ages.

I bought a smartphone.

I went from this:

to this:

Even though I didn't get an iPhone 6, it was still quite the major upgrade, as you can see.

For years, I prided myself on not needing a smartphone. In fact, as recently as six months ago, my little phone with its pull-out keyboard and horrible camera and no internet capabilities suited me just fine.

When I read Tsh Oxenreider's thoughts from Notes From a Blue Bike, they rang true for me: "I was a late adapter to the smartphone phenomenon [She got her first one in October 2012. What does that make me two years later?]; I found them a colossal waste of money and brain cells. People honestly need to carry around their computers in their pants? I can live without that. I'm civilized."

My thoughts exactly.

But then little things started to bug me: I'd be at the zoo with my kids, and I couldn't take a picture of them next to the lions. Mike and I would be out on a date, and we couldn't look up restaurant ratings. I'd go to send a text to someone and be reminded again that my inbox was 98 percent full, even though I had just cleaned it out two weeks before.

What's more, it began to be a social inconvenience. Friends would text me a picture, and my phone couldn't receive it because it was too big. I'd be out shopping with someone and couldn't pull up an address or a coupon. I'd be scheduling a play date but couldn't look at my calendar to see if we were free on Monday afternoon. (Not to mention that people felt a little awkward when I pulled out my dinosaur so I could add them as a contact . . . except for my little five-year-old piano student who saw my phone laying on the piano one day and said, "That is the coolest phone I've ever seen!" in the same way you might say, "That is the coolest typewriter I've ever seen.")

This holding out until the last possible moment is nothing new for me. I was a late arrival to the cell phone party. My freshman year of college, I called my parents every few days from my dorm phone with a calling card. When I finally got a phone, I can remember rationing my minutes, finding out which service all my friends used, and limiting my calls until after 9:00 at night (when minutes were free). Pretty soon after that, I was the only one not texting. Even though my phone could receive texts, I never opened them because extra fees would be charged if I did. I had to constantly remind people, "I don't open texts. Please call instead." But eventually, the inconvenience grew to be too much, and I finally caved (which, for an introvert like me, was definitely a good thing since I much prefer texting to calling).

Over the last few months, I have felt the same nudging irritation I felt before. I only knew of one of my friends who still used a dumb phone, and honestly, one of the reasons I kept holding out was because I would think, If Jen can do this, so can I. But then, a couple of months ago, even Jen showed up to book club with a smartphone, and I knew it was finally time (plus, I had secured the bragging rights of resisting the pull of the smartphone longer than she did . . . as if that's anything to brag about).

Since getting the phone last week, I've been rather like a kid at Christmastime. I delight in badgering Siri with questions. I gape when I take a picture and it identifies where I am. I thrill at the simplicity of downloading a podcast and listening to it instantly. Even though they've been around for years, I am newly amazed at what this tiny little device can do for me.

Last Wednesday, I was shopping at Michaels. I was there to purchase a jar of mod podge. The cost was $8.99, and it wasn't on sale. I wish I'd remembered to bring a coupon, I thought. Bing! Light bulb went off. I reached into my back pocket for my phone, pulled up a 40-percent off coupon, and waited nervously in line. Act casual, I told myself. "I have a coupon," I told the cashier and showed him my phone. I watched in breathless anticipation as he scanned the bar code. $3.60 saved, just like that. "Thank you," I said demurely. It took all my self-control not to click my heels as I walked out the doors. I'd only had that phone for two days, and it was already saving me money!

Oct 17, 2014

Strong Mothers, Strong Sons: Lessons Mothers Need to Raise Extraordinary Men by Meg Meeker, M.D.

A couple of years ago, my dad told me about a book he was reading called Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters. He liked it so much and was learning so many good things from it that he was even having monthly discussions about it with another father. It sounded fantastic, but seeing as how I'm not a father nor do I have any daughters, I didn't feel a strong pull to read it.

But then earlier this year, I saw that Dr. Meeker had just written another book called Strong Mothers, Strong Sons.

And that was something I could get behind.

This book explores it all: from babyhood to adulthood, Dr. Meeker talks about every stage and transition as well as the broader picture of what mothering sons looks like. There's a chapter about how to make your home a safe place where your son can learn how to express himself, make good choices, and live responsibly (and actually, this idea of home = mom = love permeates the entire book). Another chapter gives suggestions for how you as a mom can help him connect and form a lasting relationship with his dad. There's also a chapter about the importance of letting go and how to do it appropriately when he's a toddler, a teenager, and an adult. 

By the time I finished reading it, my book looked like this:

So to say that I found value in it would be an understatement.

I'm pretty vocal (both in real life and online) about how much I love having boys. I think part of the reason I'm so vocal about it is that, as someone who began motherhood thinking I'd like to have all girls, to this day I'm still surprised with how satisfied, happy, and absolutely content I am with all boys. (See, On Having Four Boys for more about how much I love having only sons). It's not just that they're my own flesh and blood (although that certainly helps); it's also that I find their interests and personalities so fascinating and entertaining (and so wildly different from my own).

But one thing that I've said all along is that while I love having little boys, I'm terrified for them to grow up: I feel inadequate to deal with the struggles and temptations of boys. I worry that once they hit puberty they'll stop talking to me. And okay, if I'm being totally honest, I'm jealous of the girl each one will fall in love with someday who will steal all their affection and leave me the despised mother-in-law. (Incidentally, I have no grounds for this belief since I happen to love my mother-in-law and have never felt the least resentment from her for marrying her son.)

I regret to say, this book basically confirmed all those fears, BUT it also gave me tools for how to deal with those important transitions and gave me hope that many of the painful parts of adolescence are necessary to raise a kind, successful, and confident man.

One of the things I wasn't expecting (but that was a pleasant surprise) was the religious undertone of the book. There's even a chapter called "If God Wore Lipstick, He'd Wear Your Shade," which focuses on a mother's impact and influence on her son's spirituality. While I didn't agree with all of Dr. Meeker's beliefs, I agreed with this idea that mothers need to be firm in their own testimonies so that as their sons navigate the tricky waters of belief, they'll have a rock to lean on. The following quote is one of the many that I bookmarked:
"The best way a mother can teach her son to have hope is to lead by example. When you are down and feel that the future looks dark, you can articulate to your son, regardless of his age, that you have faith that things will ultimately work out well. This is far easier if you have a religious faith. If you do, you can hold on to a belief that God is real, that He is good and that He can be trusted with your life. Faith allows you to keep hope more concrete because it helps you put your trust for your future into the hands of a more powerful being than yourself."
On a similar note, I also loved Dr. Meeker's thoughts about how having a strong core belief helps our sons (and daughters too) in those unavoidable moments when we, as parents, fail. It helps them to know that even though we might not be perfect, there is Someone who is and that even though we might make mistakes, there is Someone who won't. Even though I still have young children, I can see how helping them have confidence and trust in Someone other than myself would really empower them.

At one point, Dr. Meeker said that in those moments when we're failing and unsure of what to do, we can tell our sons that we need to pray and seek guidance from God. And then she said this: "Then ask your son to pray for you, just as you pray for him." For some reason, that was really eye-opening. I'd never thought to ask my children to pray for me during those times when I'm struggling to be patient, but I can see how this would be a really good thing, especially for my four-year-old who currently thinks I don't do anything right.

Another thing I really appreciated was the conversational tone of the book. Even though Dr. Meeker is a pediatrician and draws heavily on her experience with patients for much of the book, she is also a mom (of three daughters and one son). Of course she spoke from a professional viewpoint, but for much of the book, she just spoke as a mom . . . a mom who, just like myself, has made mistakes and worried and been afraid. I loved that she was able to write from both sides. It made the whole book much more authentic and made me trust what she had to say.

While I found all of the practical tips very helpful (and I will surely be revisiting the chapter titled, "Sex on the Brain and What My Mom Says" again and again in the the next 20 years), it was the overall message of unconditional love that really impacted me. Dr. Meeker said, ". . . our sons want to know--need to know--that if they did nothing else for the rest of their lives but sat in a closet, we would adore them."

I can't even tell you how many times I have thought about the importance of unconditional love over the last four months (the length of time it took me to read and think about and digest this entire book). It's safe to say it has changed the way that I parent.

Of course, if you'd asked me a year ago, "Should you (and do you) love your children unconditionally?" I would have said yes. Of course yes! That's an easy question in theory, but I don't think my actions fully reflected this belief. My kids are still young enough they're not even capable of making any really big mistakes yet, but I think I was still subconsciously withholding my love from them when they'd throw a tantrum or hit each other. In the last few months, that has changed. Now, even when they're having a complete meltdown at the zoo and screaming about how much they dislike me (that may or may not have happened this week), I try to still let them know (either through words or gestures or both) that I still love them.

I want them to know that they could have a dozen tantrums at the zoo and make me look like the worst mom on the planet, but that that love isn't going anywhere. It doesn't matter what they do or say, I will always, always, always love them for the simple reason that they are my sons. It doesn't mean that I won't teach them or discipline them or guide them. But if in the end, they don't heed any of my efforts, that love will still be there. It isn't tied to any action or accomplishment. It just is.

Yes, I loved this book. Yes, I hope I remember how to talk to them when they're angry or encourage them when things go badly. But if I end up forgetting all the details and only remember the importance of love, it will be enough.

Many, many thanks to Random House for a copy of this book. All opinions are entirely my own.
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