March 31, 2006

Old friends

I've learned from Susan's Chicken Spaghetti weekend reading list that Beverly Cleary, the eternal Ramona, is alive and well and will be celebrating her 90th birthday on April 12th; just as remarkable an achievement, all 39 books she has written since 1950 have remained in print. But her last, Ramona's World from 1999, marks the end of the line and, according to the Newsweek interview, though Mrs. Cleary "admits she's made 'notes on another book,' she doesn't plan to write it. 'It's important to know when to stop,' she says."

Stopping by Mrs. Cleary's own website, though, I learned that Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, and Ribsy will live forever in bronze at the Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden for Children in Portland, Oregon.

And from Kelly at Big A little I learned that Mike Mulligan's and Mary Anne's friend Dickie Berkenbush (misspelled in 70 million copies as Birkenbush) is alive and well at 81, and was recently profiled by The Boston Globe. My kids were thrilled to learn that little Dickie, who in real life as in print came up with the idea of using Mary Anne to provide steam heat for the new town hall, grew up to serve as both the fire chief (for 37 years) and police chief (for 10) of Popperville, er, West Newbury, Massachusetts. The interview came about to publicize the special display mounted by Mr. Berkenbush's wife Sue at the GAR Memorial Library in West Newbury, celebrating the life and work of author and illustrator Virginia Lee Burton, a close friend of the Berkenbush family. The exhibit runs through next month.

I'm such a big fan of Burton's, with clear memories of borrowing Katy and the Big Snow and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel from the library week after week during my own childhood, and a newfound adult appreciation for her lyrical The Little House and Life Story, that the other year I bought a copy of Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art for myself, from BookCloseouts. Highly recommended, for her own life story and her beautiful art.

March 30, 2006

Poetry as broccoli, and a wrap-up for National Poetry Month

With apologies to Joyce Kilmer (poems are made by fools like me):

I think that I shall never see,
A poem lovely as a tree,
Unless it is my broccoli.

A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
Nearby a child with mouth, too, pressed,
'Gainst vegetable with ranch sauce dressed...

In her Young Readers column last week, the Washington Post's Elizabeth Ward (tip to Kelly at Big A little a) took National Poetry Month to task for rendering the subject thoroughly unappetizing to kids:
The American Academy of Poets obviously didn't consult children when it decided in 1996 that poetry deserved the kiss of death as much as black history or crime prevention and gave it its own official month. The result has been a decade of Aprils reinforcing the idea of poetry as broccoli: You'd like it if you'd only try it, kids, and besides, it's good for you!
Erm, maybe yes, maybe no. I can see Ward's point, which is much the same as my father's curmudgeonly take years ago upon discovering National Children's Day -- "What on earth do they mean? Every day is children's day!" But for the kids who aren't going to have any broccoli or poetry at all unless someone reminds the adults in their lives once a year, a national month isn't such a wretched idea. And you can't really blame the Academy for trying to fill the breach -- as we've seen, schools are busy redesigning and/or gutting curriculum (poetry got the old heave-ho a long time ago); compared to iPods, poems are hopelessly old-fashioned, compared to X-Box hopelessly boring; and, I could be wrong about this, but I have the feeling that not too many parents read poetry to or with their kids. Not to mention the fact that poetry can often take some time and effort, and the former at least seems to be in very short supply these days. So what's an Academy to do, short of sneaking into kids' rooms at bedtime?

Of course, I come at thoughts on the subject from a decidedly peculiar vantage point; I have kids who enjoy both broccoli and poetry, and sometimes, over lunch, even at the same time. And it didn't happen by accident, though it didn't require a lot of work either. In fact, I suspect that my kids like both broccoli and poetry, for many of the same reasons:
  • Broccoli and poetry have each been a fixture and a staple of our daily diets, so the kids have just grown accustomed to the fact that they're around, in the air, in the fridge, on the table, on the shelf. It just wasn't an option, as far as my husband and I were concerned, not to offer our kids the same tasty treats we enjoy (this is part of that old chicken nugget theory, by the way). I'm also a big fan of poetry for every occasion. If you have Favorite Poems Old and New selected by Helen Ferris on the shelf, you can find poems for and about the seasons, holidays, historical figures, not to mention cleaning the house and getting the mumps.
  • I try to serve up each tastefully. Raw broccoli can look like trees, or trees with snow (dip or ranch dressing), or keep other brightly colored vegetables company on a pretty plate. When I cook it, I try not to overdo it into grayness and mush (this is also useful to remember when helping your kids learn something by heart, too). For very special heart attack occasions I'll even make Blender Hollandaise for drizzling. When it comes to poetry, especially for young children, illustrated books, spoken poetry, well-written poems, on subjects that are particularly appealing (though not necessarily gag "relevant") can make all the difference. Poetry Speaks to Children (book and cd), Caroline Kennedy's new A Family of Poems, and My Kingdom for a Horse are all marvelous examples of poetry that can appeal to children on many different levels, certainly not just as printed words on the page.
  • The kids have a say and a hand in what and how much poetry and broccoli they consume. Daniel prefers his broccoli raw, and his poetry fairly muscular; Davy enjoys his broccoli both raw and cooked, and prefers poetry more moving and pastoral (erm, about transportation and farming); Laura is stretching her wings to include such things as hollandaise sauce and Shakespeare, though she's always happy with something about horses and fairies.
Here are some recent Farm School posts on the poems and poetry books our family has enjoyed lately:

*Something different, the list from at right of What We're Reading, Watching, Listening To & Playing With: The Poetry Month Edition

*Adding even more poetry to your life, just in time for National Poetry Month

*Poetry Is Life

*Poetry sings

*Poetry festival selections I

*Poetry festival selections II

*Poetry festival selections III

*Irving Layton, 1912-2006

March 27, 2006

Our newest addition to the farm

The first calf of the year was born this afternoon, on a beautiful warm spring day. Okay, so we got nine inches of snow yesterday, but Tom was able to clear away a lot of the snow around the corrals with the tractor, and after some telltale grunting earlier today, we knew to move the heifer into the calving barn, so she could continue the birthing process in privacy and more comfort. Mother and calf -- we can't tell yet if it's a little bull or heifer -- are busy bonding and doing well.

Added Tuesday morning: The kids asked me last night for this poem instead of a story as usual.

The Pasture
by Robert Frost

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha'n't be gone long.--You come too.

I'm going out to fetch the little calf
That's standing by the mother. It's so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha'n't be gone long.--You come too.

Homeschool heresy

I've decided something akin to heresy in my local home school support group circle -- we won't be attending the provincial homeschool conference and trade show (i.e. shopping binge) next month.

For the first two years of our homeschooling, the big provincial conference and trade show definitely provided something I couldn't find elsewhere, particularly when it came to companionship and curriculum, because I was so new to homeschooling and living in the boonies to boot. But now with a few years of experience and confidence under my belt, not to mention ever-more bulging bookshelves, and a better grasp of what's available online (for both companionship and curriculum), Tom and I can save our money and wear and tear on the truck tires.

The first year we had a grand time. I got to ogle and fondle books and programs I had only read about in catalogues. There were a few speakers and subjects we were interested in, such as Donna Ward on Canadian history, and a few we didn't even know we'd be interested in, like Steve Demme of Math-U-See, who made a big impression on Tom and left him marvelling, "I wish I had been taught algebra this way." This from my husband the math whiz, so I figured there must be something to it, which is why we supplement Singapore from time to time with MUS.

Last year I signed us up mainly so I could follow Jim Weiss around for two days and listen to him speak; I'm sure he must have thought the crazy woman who kept showing up in the back of the room was a stalker, but he was very gracious when I bought one of his CDs and asked him to autograph the kids' favorite, which I had brought from home. I particularly enjoyed his talk on how to teach history with stories, and the importance of narrative. He repeated some bits from Merle Miller's oral biography of Harry Truman -- "When I was in politics, there would be times when I tried to figure somebody out, and I could always turn to Plutarch, and nine times out of ten I'd be able to find a parallel in there. ... It was the same with those old birds in Greece and Rome as it is now. I told you. The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know" -- and I was in heaven.

But this year's slate -- "How NOT to Be the ULTIMATE Homeschooling Mom", "World View and Home Education", "Maintaining Hope Amidst Tears", "How Does Dad Fit into Your Homeschooling?", among other things -- doesn't hold much appeal, and I think we're pretty well set for books and curriculum for the next year or so. Laura will be starting fourth grade, and that will be mostly a continuation of whatever books we're using now; plus we're stretching out SOTW3 into two years, and quite honestly we've done more unschooling science than chemistry with Living Learning Books. Next year, Davy will be my third child in about as many years to head through first grade, so I'm more than ready for him. Plus I still have several gift cards for Chapters as a result of trading in some miles in our Air Canada Aeroplan accounts, which should come in quite handy.

I also have to admit that I don't really seem to have all that much in common with many of the other homeschooling parents I meet at the conference beyond the obvious fact that, yes, we are all homeschoolers. The first year, it was a tremendous kick (and a huge relief for Tom) to see an entire hall full of home educating parents and think, yes, there are others out there. But on closer inspection, of and by us, it seems that as classical secular types, few homeschoolers in this neck of the woods know what to do with us. The more urban secular types tend toward unschooling and think we're tormenting and traumatizing our kids with Latin and history and poetry memorization, plus they seem to avoid this large, fairly sectarian gathering in favor of smaller, more nonsectarian ones in Edmonton and Calgary. The more rural types are, well, considerably more conservative politically and less secular than we are, and I feel a bit out of my element when public prayers and such are offered up at the conference and other get-togethers, or that I'm expected to nod in agreement as I pass the creation display where a large toy plush gorilla sits with a sign, "I'm not your grandfather!" Thank goodness for the internet, where through yahoo groups and blogs I've been able to assemble my own community, where I can get information and inspiration, fun and friendship, tea and sympathy (well, comfort really), at any time. And this seems like a very good time to say a very heartfelt thank you to all who stop by here, especially the regulars, and to those whose blogs have become my own stopping places.

The other favorite part -- the two of us spending a whole weekend together, staying in a hotel, going out to eat, doing a bit of shopping, having long talks in the truck on the long drives there and back -- well, we had a chance to do that twice last year, at the homeschooling conference and the organic farming conference, and who knows, there may be a bed and breakfast in our immediate future....

Besides, this year it would be wonderful to be able to take some longer trips with the kids, who are turning into some wonderful and enjoyable companions, maybe to Calgary to see the Glenbow Museum (Laura has been the only one of our kids to go, but she was three months old at the time and snoozed the visit away in the Baby Bjorn), or Drumheller, Alberta, to see the dinosaurs and the Badlands and the Hoodoos. In a weak moment, Tom even mentioned going to Vancouver, to visit some island friends of ours who are transferring to the Four Seasons Hotel there. And we're thinking of surprising Daniel with a trip to the waterpark at West Edmonton Mall, and possibly even an overnight stay in the Wild West room at the Fantasyland Hotel, for his birthday next month. It's not the Four Seasons, but it could be a swell birthday bash.

Poetry Is Life, and some Great Books too

Sunday mornings after breakfast are my favorite time with the radio, because that's when CBC's "The Sunday Edition" with Michael Enright is on, followed by lunchtime with Stuart McLean and the Vinyl Cafe. I'd listen to Michael Enright read the phone book, though I'd rather listen to him talk about it, because I know he always has something interesting to say.

The other weekend, "Sunday Edition" treats included an interview with bestselling author Sarah Dunant who always sounds so wonderfully enthusiastic, and a feature on the history of the saxophone. But my attention belonged to the last part of the six-part series, "Poetry Is Life and Vice Versa" with Bruce Meyer. I've found over the years that anything with Dr. Meyer on CBC is worth catching. Not only is he a very companionable radio friend, he knows what he's talking about. He's a poet himself, as well as a scholar of literature and poetry with, among other things, several books of poetry, some short stories, two books of interviews with Canadian writers, and two textbooks to his credit.

I missed the first four installations of "Poetry Is Life" because of our trip, so I was delighted to find that all of them are available for free online as audio files; each segment is about half an hour long, and the segments are: How Poems Sound (Jan 22/06); How Poems See (Jan 29/06); How Poems Think (Feb 5/06); How Poems Dance (Feb 19/06); How Poems Feel (Feb 26/06); and How Poems Read (Mar 12/06). And because the series has been so popular, it will be available for sale on CD in mid-April, just in time for National Poetry Month, tra la.

From what I heard the other weekend and today, this series seems to be as good as Meyer's two previous ones for CBC Radio, The Great Books and A Novel Idea: An Exploration into the Evolution of Story Telling. The Great Books series was also made available on audio, in three parts, and if you dig around you can find the cassettes, or, preferably, the cds. Or you can get Meyer's book, The Golden Thread: A Reader's Journey Through the Great Books, which covers Homer, Virgil, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, up through A Room of One's Own and The Wizard of Oz; the book is out of print in the US but still available in Canada. The audio version of the Novel Idea series, too, is apparently still available on audiocassette.

I know, covering the Great Books isn't a particularly original idea, having been covered already and in great depth by everyone from Harold Bloom (How to Read and Why) and Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren (How to Read a Book) -- which has even spawned a study guide, How to Read 'How to Read a Book' by Maryalice Newborn -- to WTM guru Susan Wise Bauer (The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had), but Meyer does it well. One of the nice features of Dr. Meyer's book is that it's very conversational and accessible, considerably less pedantic than some of the other works on the subject, and yet more learned and less how to-ish than others. It's definitely, as the subtitle says, a reader's journey rather than an expert's lesson, with a particularly learned friend along for the ride.

Paging Charlotte Mason. Miss Mason to the front desk, please...

Yesterday's New York Times reports that
Thousands of schools across the nation are responding to the reading and math testing requirements laid out in No Child Left Behind, President Bush's signature education law, by reducing class time spent on other subjects and, for some low-proficiency students, eliminating it.
Which means that the educrats have twisted already twisted enough legislation to wring any possible joy or educational benefit from the curriculum. Now, don't get me wrong. I tend to think that kids, especially in the early years, need a solid foundation in reading and math. But I don't think that spending hour after boring hour on math and reading will help any child learn math and reading, let alone to love math and reading, especially if that time is spent in the later years rather than in, say, Kindergarten or first grade.
At Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High School in Sacramento, about 150 of the school's 885 students spend five of their six class periods on math, reading and gym, leaving only one 55-minute period for all other subjects.

About 125 of the school's lowest-performing students are barred from taking anything except math, reading and gym...
Maybe, just maybe, if the schools considered reading and math so important in the early years, through about fourth grade, then maybe the poor junior high school students wouldn't have to be forcefed, like miserable geese, a diet of little more than reading and math.
"Only two subjects? What a sadness," said Thomas Sobol, an education professor at Columbia Teachers College and a former New York State education commissioner. "That's like a violin student who's only permitted to play scales, nothing else, day after day, scales, scales, scales. They'd lose their zest for music."
And if you don't believe him, what about this poor eighth grader?
"I hate having two math classes in a row," Paris said. "Two hours of math is too much. I can't concentrate that long."
And both classes are, argh, back to back.

If Miss Mason is busy, maybe Marva Collins can have her way...

March 26, 2006

Paperwork season

Last night brought another four inches or so of snow, and it's still falling; I feel sorry for the early geese and bluebirds.

So while the kids are out playing with the new unexpected gift, Tom and I are settled down, he in the living room with the TV set to curling, and I at the kitchen table accompanied by CBC radio, to start working on this year's organic farming certification paperwork. I'm hoping that we're done by tonight, so I can photocopy the whole shebang and Tom can mail it off in town tomorrow. Yes, I know I should get back to work, but I'm taking a break without any paper involved.

Between March and April, we (mostly I...) have the organic application; the first quarter of GST receipts, expenses, etc.; and then, ta da, a couple of homeschool paper pile bonanzas -- our second visit of the year from the facilitator, to make sure we're on track with the province's requirements (a joke but the kids and I still have to spend several hours on this when there are so many other more fun and useful things we could be doing), and filling out the homeschool resource expense form. I hate this time of year, and I'm actually pleased when the weather isn't unseasonably springlike, because it's always much easier to concentrate on the nasty but necessary task at hand.

Right about now, for oh so many reasons, I'd be happy to settle for mud season.

March 24, 2006

Night of the long pitchforks

Sadly, my entire 12 years in Alberta have been lived under the regime of Tory Premier Ralph Klein, whose enormous political missteps (from turning up drunk at a homeless shelter and lambasting the residents to gutting the health care system to eliminate the debt, and now that we're rolling in money planning not to fix health care but to privatize it) have always vanished in an Unsinkable Molly Brown routine that makes Ronald Reagan in his Teflon suit look like a piker.

Last night, after a three-and-a-half hour emergency caucus meeting, Alberta politician Lyle Oberg, who made some recent intemperate and not particularly politically savvy comments, was not only stripped of his cabinet post (Infrastructure & Transportation) but also suspended from caucus. Earlier this month after much too much coy dithering, Klein finally made some formal plans about his departure, saying he'd leave in October 2007. Okay, here's your bag, don't let the door hit you on the way out! Bye-by--- But then he moved that date into 2008, depending on the results of next weekend's leadership review. Which of course means the official campaign to replace him won't begin for a year and a half, but Klein has directed that any leadership hopefuls in cabinet resign their posts by June 1 of this year, to ensure a "level playing field." Makes me think of the neighborhood kids no-one ever wanted to play with because they made up the rules as they went along, so that they always won, and you...didn't. Not helped by the fact that they were always the ones with all the marbles or the baseball bats.

Why the big emergency? Because Oberg recently told a meeting of his constituency association back in Brooks, Alberta, that he wouldn't ask members to support Klein during the leadership review. According to an Edmonton Journal report on the meeting, Oberg said "there is a leadership vote coming up, and a week ago I was ready to come up here and say that you should support Ralph. Today I am going to stand here and say you must vote with your conscience [note to American readers: voting your conscience, if it means voting against caucus, is a huge no-no in Canadian politics, even more so in Alberta; not, however, that this makes Oberg any kind of political hero]. I will not stand here and say you must support Ralph." According to another reporter present, "at that point the constituency members burst into cheers and applause." Oberg also called Klein's directive that ministers wishing to succeed him leave cabinet by June 1 was "a bombshell" and could backfire, and added, "When I take off the gloves, my gloves come off completely...Everything is fair ball now, everything is open. It's going to be very interesting what happens in the next while." He also warned that "if I were the premier, I wouldn't want me sitting as a backbencher... I know where all the skeletons are."

Interestingly, Klein missed yesterday's meeting because of a convenient previous engagement and on Wednesday had said through a spokeswoman that he had no plans to fire Oberg because of his remarks: "The premier said sometimes people say things they shouldn't and they regret it and he accepts that, but he's part of this team and they will get through it."

So who pulled the pin? As I see it, the responsibility can be doled out three ways. Oberg obviously made some unwise comments and got carried away much too early. The Tory caucus also had all ten fingers in the pie; after Oberg was booted from caucus last night, its chairman announced, "In our PC caucus, we work as a team. We have informed the Premier of our caucus decision and he supports what caucus has decided"; apparently the team didn't much care for the idea about Oberg knowing whereall of their skeletons are hidden. Though I do find both scenarios -- caucus is acting on its own, presenting a fait accompli to the premier, or caucus doing his dirty work, while he gets to stand around innocently, with a "Who, me?" expression on his face -- rather disconcerting. But the biggest blame goes to Klein (yes, you) who started playing this "long goodbye" game two years ago, when he first announced his intentions to retire. With any luck, enough responsible Tories next week will tell Klein with their votes what they think about his Cher-style farewell tour, and bring his childish fits, strongarm tactics, and long goodbye to a swift and merciful end. And with even more luck, when the election finally does roll around, Albertans will decide they've had enough of the Tory Team's games and machinations and elect a party that actually has a reasonable plan for the province's future. But then what do I know? I'm just an American-born home educating housewife...

March 23, 2006

What the cat dragged in

A repulsive piece of grammar is like a mangled frog left by the cat in the middle of the kitchen lino. It is not necessarily ill-intentioned, but the repellent effect increases according to the frequency of the offence.
So writes the ever-delightful and pseudonymous language maven Dot Wordsworth in her lively and not particularly complimentary review of The Cambridge Grammar of English (thanks to Joanne Jacobs for the tip). She further endeared herself to me by writing that
Grammar is a question of manners, practically of morals. Please don't take me for a language policewoman. Prepositions at the ends of sentences are easy to live with. For us to casually split an infinitive seems no worse than for a Frenchman to split the negatives ne and pas with an interposing verb.

On the other hand, "Whatever", that infuriating response from the passively aggressive, is just rude.
Among the other rude and repulsive pieces of grammar cited by Wordsworth are "like",
as in, "I was like, 'Wow!' He was like, 'Come off it'." It is hardly a bit of grammar at all, more a kind of oral punctuation. The people who use it, usually young or would-be young, are extremely annoying.
Almost as annoying as The Cambridge Grammar, written by professors Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy, who are nowhere near as discriminating as Wordsworth, choosing, as she writes, the "Panglossian ideal" that "Everything that is is right":
English as she is spoke possesses all the rules of grammar needed to construct new sentences never heard since those days at the dawn of our language when half-drunk Angles settled down in their smoky mead halls to hear the well-loved tale of old Beowulf. By listening to millions of words, a child learns the rules of his mother tongue. The wee creature may make mistakes, saying "wented", perhaps, instead of "went", by false analogy.
Wordsworth finishes up,
To refuse to correct the children's spelling mistakes and grammatical blunders in their writing robs them of the chance to gain employment. Grammar for beginners must be as fiercely prescriptive as playing scales is for anyone who wants to play the piano.

Without a knowledge of grammar, the young will be no more able to write down their thoughts coherently than they could text-message without knowing how to use a mobile phone. This will frustrate them, and relegate written English to the same kind of ghetto of incompetent self-expression with which we are familiar from graduates of art schools who have never learnt to draw.
As the t-shirts say, I'm with her. And if you enjoy Wordsworth's thoughts and writing, it's well worth tracking down her "Mind Your Language" column for The Spectator, preferably the print version at a decent local library, since all the good stuff is held hostage by the greedy grasping online subscription edition. Gah.

By the way, if you want an Oxbridge book for adults on English grammar and want something a) good, b) slim, and ) far cheaper than the above-reviewed doorstop, try A Grammar of the English Language, written by William Cobbett in 1820 as a series of letters to his 14-year-old son and available from Oxford University Press in a handsome paperback edition. As Cobbett writes in the introduction, addressed to young James,
The particular path of knowledge to be pursued by you, will be of your own choosing; but, as to knowledge connected with books, there is a step to be taken before you can fairly enter upon any path. In the immense field of this kind of knowledge, innumerable are the paths, and GRAMMAR is the gate of entrance to them all. And if Grammar is so useful in the attaining of knowledge, it is absolutely necessary in order to enable the possessor to communicate, by writing that knowledge to others, without which communication the possession must be comparatively useless to himself in many cases, and, in almost all cases, to the rest of mankind.

Something told the wild geese...

that it's spring. They're back. We saw two yesterday overhead, flapping determinedly over the snow, not too far from the house. Can the gophers be far behind?

In other spring fever news, I bought a new set of sheets for the master bedroom, floral cotton with a heavy thread count, while we were at Sears yesterday (on the way to buy drywall lifters for Tom's next job, the remodeling of a local grocery store -- gather ye rosebuds where ye may), which makes me very happy. One of the few disadvantages to living here is the well water, which has a habit of making white/whitish fabrics dingy before too long. And who wants dingy sheets for spring?

You don't say

"Book ban hasty: Clifford OK, so is Disney" read the headline at the LA Daily News earlier this week, on the subject of the Antelope Valley school board's decision earlier this month to remove 23 books from a list of books to consider purchasing for the school library. Among the books caught in the dragnet were, as I wrote then, "some of the usual suspects like Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and a couple of Artemis Fowl titles, but also some more unusual and you'd think innocuous ones like Clifford the Big Red Dog, Disney's Christmas Storybook, and Princess School: Beauty Is a Beast".

Now comes news, and I hope you haven't been holding your breath this whole time, that some of the axed books were selected by mistake because -- this can't possibly be -- the trustees hadn't bothered to read them. Of course, we already knew that some of the selections "were books with which they were unfamiliar"; I snarked several weeks ago about
two enormous, wrong lessons the Antelope Valley students are learning from the board's decisions. First, that it's correct to judge a book by its cover, disapproving of a title with which one isn't even familiar; is it too much to expect these trustees, even the ones who aren't former teachers, to read the books bothering them? It's not as if these are doorstop tomes such as War and Peace that might be expected to tax bears of little brain and their ilk. We're talking Princess School, people, which isn't much longer or more taxing than the average shopping list.
Here's the official, it's-alright-we-just-ran-out-of-time explanation from this week's paper:
Trustees indicated that these books, such as three bilingual Clifford the Big Red Dog books and Disney's Christmas Storybook were not objectionable, but were nevertheless lumped in with the rejected books.

Board member Marlene Olivares explained at Thursday's meeting that there was a three-day weekend before the Feb. 16 meeting, and there was not enough time to check out all the books.

"When it came time to say which were acceptable and which ones weren't, they picked a bloc of books that had Clifford and Disney, that they really had no problem with, but they were in the same group that they did have concerns about," trustee Maurice Kunkel said. ...

[School Superintendent] McNabb said once the guidelines [with which McNabb is charged with developing] are approved, the Clifford and Disney books will be brought back for approval.

McNabb said Olivares said the board should have first set aside the entire 68-book list, resolved their concerns, and then brought the matter up for board consideration.

Olivares declined Friday to comment.
Just two more words from me on the matter, and I'm done. I still think that the school library can come up with something better than the Disney Christmas Treasury, which is just twaddle amd a waste of precious school funds, not to mention gray cells. Second, trustee "Kunkel said the board wants books that 'build character by looking at the bright side and are anti-witchcraft and anti-criminality'." Be afraid, be very afraid. And if you're in Antelope Valley, voting might not be a bad idea.

Thanks to Camille at Book Moot for following up on this.

UPDATE: Melissa at Here in the Bonny Glen has more on this as well.

March 22, 2006

More from the correspondence file

In this evening's in-box:

Becky, I am not going to argue about all of this further because you obviously have your mind made up and that's fine with me. The only thing that I can say is Gena absolutely thinks the death of that child is horrific. We just talked about it last week and she even states something to that effect on her blog (I don't have the time right now to go find it). I know what conversation she had with that journalist and her remarks were TOTALLY taken out of context.

I did not in any sense belittle your choice to boycott or to unsubscribe from my list. But NONE of these people involved in this boycott know Gena personally and that's what I mean by not knowing "ALL the facts."

The Suarezes are my friends and I will stand behind them through this situation because I KNOW them and their family and I also know first-hand what kind of parents they are.

I wish you well .. sincerely, I do.

Sent in reply:

Dear xyz,

As I mentioned previously, I wrote initially only to explain my unsubscription, which seemed the polite course of action given the circumstances. I wrote the second time because, in all honesty, I was quite surprised to receive any more of a response than something along the lines of, "I appreciate your concerns, and while I don't share them, I can see your point. Thanks for letting me know."

I don't want or expect any sort of argument. That we disagree on this subject is obvious by the fact that I felt the need to unsubscribe in the first place.

All best wishes,


Boycott business

I realized last night that one of my Yahoo groups is sprinkled with mentions of The Old Schoolhouse (TOS) magazine, its free offers for new subscribers, and that the list owner has a blog through homeschoolblogger which is advertised at the bottom of the Yahoo posts. So I unsubscribed but also sent a private email to the list owner explaining my reason,

Dear xx,

Just wanted to let you know that I've unsubscribed to xyz Yahoo group because I'm boycotting The Old Schoolhouse Magazine and their over their support of the Pearls' book.

I'll miss my subscription, and hope that you'll consider switching your support from TOS.

Many thanks and all the best,


This morning I received a reply -- sorry, you won't be able to read it in its entirety because I don't think that's quite right -- which prompted me to send my own reply, which I am going to share, along with the pertinent parts from the list owner's reply, highlighted in blue.

Dear xxx,

>This whole thing has been blown WAY out of proportion

Considering that a four-year-old boy died at the hand of a parent who suffocated him by wrapping him in a sheet, and that his body, and those of his two living siblings, were found to be covered with heavy bruising, and that these ideas for discipline and training were taken by the mother from the Pearls' book, "To Train Up a Child" -- which book and authors have at the very least the tacit endorsement of Gena and Paul Suarez at The Old Schoolhouse Magazine -- I don't think it's possible to consider that this subject "has been blown WAY out of proportion".

>I know the hearts of The Suarez' and they are NOTHING but the most Christian people I have ever met.

I can't claim to know the hearts of the Suarezes. What I know of Mrs. Suarez's character rather than her heart is limited to what I've read in the magazine, its website, and her blog; and her current blog posts, since the tragedy, give me conisderable pause.

I'm particularly dismayed and concerned by Mrs. Suarez's comments on her blog, where, rather than offering any comments of condolence or the horror of the tragedy, she was rather more busy criticizing what she considers the "liberal media", but not denying, retracting, or apologizing after the fact for her newspaper quote,
“[The Pearls] are talking about something that would fit in a purse,” Suarez said. “The only way you can kill a child with that is by shoving it down his throat.”
Primarily, she was unhappy that the quote was taken out of context. And yet Mrs. Suarez has no problem mustering outrage at public school teachers who wield knives or make students eat pencil shavings, in one case, as Mrs. Suarez points out, with allegedly fatal consequences.

As for the Suarezes being good Christians, I tend to think that my own standard of Christian behavior is rather different, more in line with that demonstrated at Gentle Christian Mothers.

>If you would read the Disclaimer on the inside pages of their magazine, it plainly states the following:

Disclaimers are all well and good and in quite a few cases legally binding, but there is nothing that says that having a published disclaimer discounts one from being able to examine matters on a case-by-case basis, and deviating from said published disclaimer, especially when a case such as the present one arises. When someone hides behind a legal disclaimer rather than using his or her heart and head to make an exception, I do have my doubts about any concern, which in this instance certainly hasn't even been professed.

>I think that [disclaimer] says it all. TOS is a HOMESCHOOLING magazine ... NOT a parenting magazine.

You see, the fact that TOS is a homeschooling magazine, and a business endeavor established by a homeschooling family rather than, say, an enormous Time Inc. juggernaut gives one all the more hope that when certain situations arise, they can be examined carefully, rather than routinely dismissed based on the fact of the existence of a legal disclaimer.

And I've been a home educating parent long enough to know that one of the arguments in favor of homeschooling that we homeschooling parents bring up exceedingly often, often to the annoyance of non-homeschooling parents, is precisely that homeschooling and parenting cannot be divorced, and few of us would wish it so. And to use the word "parenting" to describe what the Pearls are advocating -- and yes, I have seen and read the book -- is thoroughly inappropriate.

>They have never taken a stand saying that they "support" the Pearls' advice, so I'm not sure why everyone is all in a tizzy over this.

On Mrs. Suarez's own blog, "No Greater Joy" is listed under "Ministries I Like," which presumably is a choice she made without any financial enticement or coercion. And at no point since young Sean Paddock's death have Gena or Paul Suarez made any comments distancing themselves from the Pearls' punishment methods.

Morever, TOS offers one of the Pearls' books ("No Greater Joy") as part of its free gift package for new subscriptions; the Pearls have been scheduled to appear alongside the Suarezes on part of their European tour next month; and the Pearls are contributors to TOS as well as valued advertisers. This goes way beyond the usual strictly business publisher/advertiser relationship. And many publications, large and small, do have advertising standards in place for material that contravenes their standards and which they will not accept.

There is no tizzy. What there is is a boycott, which is a policy of nonintercourse, in this case the exertion of financial pressure on sites and organizations that support, host, or passively allow Pearl endorsements; some are even boycotting*, which continues to carry "To Train Up a Child." And, because of previous pressure, Barnes & Noble no longer sells new editions of "To Train Up a Child", though used copies of "No Greater Joy" are still available there.

>Would everyone be boycotting TOS if all of a sudden, everyone HATED [insert popular math text/program], but TOS continued to allow them to advertise in their magazine? I think not and this is exactly the same thing that is happening.

I think not either, but mainly because this is most certainly not exactly the same thing. Hating [a popular math text/program] and disapproval of a book that promotes an extreme form of corporal punishment are two completely unequal propositions. However, if you're asking if homeschoolers would also boycott a very popular math book/program -- even if that math book math is an integral part of most homeschoolers curriculum, unlike the Pearls' book -- if the math curriculum author were found to be, say, promoting hate speech or child abuse or neo-Nazism, I can't speak for others, but I certainly would. There are other math books and programs in this world, just as there are other books on children's discipline, other free blogging sites, and other homeschooling magazines. Then again, depending on the item and one's principles, one can also do without.

>I'm sorry you feel that you cannot continue to support a stay at home, homeschooling family business

I can appreciate the position of small, family-based business caught in a boycott, but what I cannot do is continue to support a stay-at-home homeschooling family at the expense of the principles I value and that I am teaching to my children, especially when I haven't seen any cogent arguments from the pro-TOS camp. Among our own guiding principles are these:

Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.
(Albert Schweitzer)

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. (Edmund Burke)

Long before we began homeschooling, we were a family with only one spouse working, and the primary business here is farming, so we're more than familiar with financial strain and doing without, and even with being caught in a boycott of sorts when the export of Canadian cattle was halted because of BSE. Many small family farms were caught in a squeeze, and toward the end it was more politics than legitimate health and safety concerns, which made the situation all the more untenable.

>but we are all adults and are allowed to make our own decisions.

>I just wish everyone would get ALL of the facts before they choose to make such rash choices.

We are indeed, all adults that is, and I thought it was only polite and reasonable to let you know of the reason behind my decision to unsubscribe, when I could easily have chosen to unsubscribe without any explanation.

But to have you call that decision "rash", to suggest that those participating in the boycott do not "ALL of the facts," and to belittle my choice, and by extension my principles and values, hardly seems good business sense from someone who would like my financial support to continue, and makes me rather hesitant to resubscribe even if xyz Yahoo group were to withdraw its support from TOS and its blogging arm. As you wrote, we all make our own decisions.

Yours truly,


those interested in petitioning about the book can go here.

March 20, 2006


Today was poetry day at the Arts Festival, and we moved in from just before 9 a.m. until around noon. A long morning, between the recitations and adjudications, but it went very well. First, once he was done with both of his poems, Davy sat on my lap fairly well. Toward the end he did get kind of floppy, and while Laura was reciting the St. Crispin's Day speech, he had to chime right in, and not softly either.

The adjudicator went very easily on all of the younger kids, and had helpful words for all. My three got five first places between them (two poems each -- of course, it helps if you, like Davy, are the only competitor in your category...), everyone got a couple of certificates to gussy up the homeschool portfolios, Laura won a cash prize for doing the best of the seven- and eight-year olds, and best of all --

Daniel told me at the end how much fun he'd had,

and there was not a peep or an inkling from anyone, not last night or this morning, about being anxious, nervous, or otherwise unhinged about the prospect of standing up to speak in front of a crowd of strangers. I'm delighted and proud. I'm also one sneaky mama, who's kept mum about the possibility of nervousness on purpose, so as not to put the idea into anyone's teeny tiny head. There are enough peculiar ideas floating around in there without my planting any. Though I did have to do some damage control afterwards when Daniel was found repeating what his grandmother had told him earlier in the day, after he stalled on a line -- "You're forgetful," she told him, "just like Papa." Naturally, being just like beloved Papa is always a good thing, so Daniel swallowed this one hook, line, and sinker. I had to tell him, and it seems to have worked already, that a) he is most certainly not forgetful (he's got an almost visual memory), b) Papa is not overly forgetful, and c) grrr, sometimes people tell us something that isn't true when they're trying to make us feel better about a mistake we've made.

Which was all followed by an afternoon with friends at their house, with chicken noodle soup, grilled cheese sandwiches on homemade bread, chocolate chip cookies, sledding, Spring cookie baking and decorating (happy Spring, by the way), and as my nice Saskatchewanian homeschooling friend puts it, a jolly chin-wag over tea. I was ready to ask for a few sleeping bags so we could just stay a bit longer, instead of heading home for dinner.

March 19, 2006

Getting ready

Yesterday was spent readying the corrals for the new calves who should be arriving shortly. Tom moved portable steel panels through the deep snow to make a chute/alley way from the big permanent pen, where the 10 hugely pregnant heifers are currently confined (to make sure they don't have their babies out in the snow-covered pastures, hidden away in the trees, where the newborns might freeze to death or fall victim to coyotes), to the big shop building where Tom houses machinery and tools the rest of the year.

We moved the tractor out, and Tom set up some more panels to make a small labor and delivery pen, where the mother can deliver, and we can help if necessary, in relative comfort out of the weather. I can't tell you how many three-o'clock-in-the-mornings I spent, before Tom built the shed, outside in the driving snow, covered with manure and blood and other assorted warm liquids, holding a cow's tail out of the way so that he could ease out a calf stuck at the hips.

Once the pen was set up, the kids and I got our pitchforks and filled it with fresh straw from a big round bale. Now we sit tight and wait for the calves to come.

By the time we got back to the house, everyone's cheeks seemed permanently pink, so we sat down with some hot chocolate and the recently dug-out copy of The Parent Trap with Hayley Mills.

March 18, 2006

April in Paris with chocolate

ench"...Chloé Doutre-Roussel, who is the esteemed chocolate-buyer for London's Fortnum & Mason, finally came out with the book she's spent a lifetime of tasting and working towards. The compact size of her book, The Chocolate Connoisseur, belies the depth of information within.
"The Chocolate Connoisseur is a must have for any chocolate lover, and it's my current bedside reading. Chloé, who was tapped to be the chocolate-expert by Pierre Hermé at Ladurée in Paris, was recently featured in the New York Times, and it's a sweet treat to read about her chocolate adventures. There's notes on tasting and sampling, comparison of brands with lots of opinions, a few decadent recipes, and some facts and fallacies explained and de-mystified. Very recommended reading for all."
This from David Lebovitz's blog, my new spring favorite and almost as good as being in Paris yourself. And from the Publisher's Weekly review at Amazon (see the link above),
Her approach is that of an unabashed and evangelical snob, a bracing combination of Mary Poppins and Miss Manners. Along the way, Doutre-Roussel skewers some sacred cows—Belgian chocolates, Godiva—and lists with approval a dozen brands most people have never heard of, with, fortunately, mail-order and online sources to find them and instructions on how to savor them when found. This is a beautiful little book, chockfull of charming pictures, maps, charts and graphs, sidebars and boxes of advice, lore and even a few recipes.
Since I have plans that prevent me from being in Paris next month, I will be indulging my spring fever and year-round chocolate fixation by tracking down a copy of The Chocolate Connoisseur, and seeing if I can convince French Family Friend (formerly French Houseguest) to send us another box of yummy chocolates, especially the ones with the raspberry centers.

Poetry festival selections III

Laura has two choices as well, though instead of fitting into the lyrical or narrative category, her first choice, part of the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V has been slotted into the solos section under Shakespeare, for 8 and under; she was inspired last summer during our very long Shakespearean rabbit trail at the end of SOTW3, when she got the chance to watch my old video of the Kenneth Branagh production. Her Canadian choice is by Sir Charles G.D. Roberts (1860-1943), known as the "father of Canadian poetry" for his inspiration to those who followed, including his cousin Bliss Carman (1861-1929), considered by many of his contemporaries as Canada's unofficial poet laureate. Roberts, Carman, two others -- Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott -- were known as the "Confederation poets". Which is much more about Canadian poetry than I knew several months ago!

Excerpt from the St. Crispin's Day speech,
from Henry V by William Shakespeare

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

The Brook in February
by Charles G.D. Roberts

A snowy path for squirrel and fox,
It winds between the wintry firs.
Snow-muffled are its iron rocks,
And o’er its stillness nothing stirs.

But low, bend low a listening ear!
Beneath the mask of moveless white
A babbling whisper you shall hear
Of birds and blossoms, leaves and light.

Poetry festival selections II

Here are Daniel's poems. Again, the A.A. Milne poem, also from When We Were Very Young, is one of the official festival selections for Narrative/Dramatic Poetry Solos for ages six and under; the other is his own choice for Canadian Poetry Solo.

Before Tea
by A.A. Milne (from When We Were Very Young)

Has not been seen
For more than week. She slipped between
The two tall treees at the end of the green...
We all went after her. "Emmeline!"

I didn't mean --
I only said that your hands weren't clean."
We went to the trees at the end of the green...
But Emmeline
Was not to be seen.

Came slipping between
The two tall trees at the end of the green.
We all ran up to her. "Emmeline!
Where have you been?
Where have you been?
Why, it's not more than week!" And Emmeline
Said, "Sillies, I went and saw teh Queen.
She says my hands are purfickly clean!"

Winter Weather Watch

by Robert Heidbreder (from Eeenie Meenie Manitoba)

What weather's in the West today?
Snow, snow -- come what may!

And on the Prairies? Out that way?
Snow, snow -- buckets they say!

And by the Great Lakes? Round there, eh?
Snow, snow -- without delay!

And in Quebec what's under way?
Snow, snow -- a white souffle!

And in the Maritimes today?
Snow, snow -- in every bay!

But what about up north, I say?
Snow, snow -- it's there to stay!

Dig out your skis, snowshoes, your sleigh,
Your slick dogsled,
Go out and play!

March 17, 2006

Count me in

I don't have the heart or stomach after reading this article (and it's well worth clicking the links on the sidebar for "related content" for the rest of the story), to dig around for any more pertinent links on the death by his adoptive mother of four-year-old Sean Ford Paddock; the official cause of death was suffocation after being tightly bound, in blankets; his back and buttocks, as well as the bodies of his eight-year-old sister and nine-year-old brother, were covered with severe bruising.

Many thanks to Carlotta who was on this subject before a particular episode turned into a tragedy, and to Daryl, Frankie, and everyone else for spreading the news.

Erin go bragh

To Read:

How the Irish Saved Civilization, part of Thomas Cahill's wonderful "Hinges of History" series

Celtic Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs

Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend & Folklore by William Butler Yeats

Brendan the Navigator: A History Mystery About the Discovery of America by Jean Fritz; about the legendary Irish monk's voyage in his little leather coracle

Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland, picture book biography written and illustrated by Tomie De Paola

Fair, Brown & Trembling: An Irish Cinderella Story, written and illustrated by Jude Daly

Shamrocks, Harps, and Shillelaghs: The Story of the St. Patrick's Day Symbols by Edna Barth
my children love Barth's series about the holidays, with their simple pen and ink illustrations (photocopies make very nice coloring pages)

To Taste:

Irish recipes from 101 Cookbooks (which means yes, they'll work and be tasty):

Irish Mum's Brown Bread

Kiss Me I'm Irish Coffee

To Listen to:

James Galway & The Chieftains in Ireland

If I Should Fall from Grace With God by the Pogues

To Watch:

The Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara; director John Ford (born Sean Aloysius O'Fearna) at his sentimental best.

The Informer with Victor McLaglen. More John Ford, this time during the Irish Rebellion. Don't just take my word on this one; it won Oscars for Ford, McLaglen, also for best score and best screenplay.

To Enjoy:

The Fiddler of Dooney

by William Butler Yeats

When I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Moharabuiee.

I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.

When we come at the end of time,
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits,
But call me first through the gate;

For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance:

And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With ‘Here is the fiddler of Dooney!’
And dance like a wave of the sea.

UPDATE: For more St. Patrick's Day treats, including more Yeats, head over to The Bonny Glen, with its Yeats-inspired tagline. Thanks, Melissa!

March 16, 2006

In order to form a more perfect Union

Crissy at Classical Home [she's now blogging here] is, quite rightly, still bothered that "Americans can more easily identify the Simpsons cartoon characters than the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment"*, as the BBC announced the other week.

To help remedy the current sorry state of affairs, Crissy writes,
I believe our children will learn what we offer, so let us offer this information.
Let's make it interesting. Fun, even.
But let us also help our children to understand how important it is to know our Constitution.
They will be far more likely, as voters, to give up these rights and freedoms if they don't know what they are.
and offers several links, including The U.S. Constitution Online. To which I'll add, for the youngest kids, Shh! We're Writing the Constitution by Jean Fritz and illustrated by Tomie dePaola; A More Perfect Union: The Story of Our Constitution by Betsy and Giulio Maestro; and ...If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution by Elizabeth Levy and illustrated by Joan Holub. Handy for homeschooling parents is The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution by Linda R. Monk.

And just in time, So Many Books reviews A Box of Longing with Fifty Drawers: A Revisioning of the Preamble to the Constitution by poet Jen Benka. This slim volume is made up of one poem, in sequence, for each of the 52 words that comprise the Preamble to the Constitution. Here are the first three works/words:

where were we during the convening
two hundred years ago or yesterday
we, not of planter class, but mud hands digging
where were we during the convening
our work, these words, are missing
the tired, the poor, waylaid
where were we during the convening
two hundred years ago or yesterday.


the days wave into months
the sickness claims too many
the bodies overboard
the thick mist finally lifts
the sight of land at last.


crushed dust thrown
across ocean
family bones
a name, my own.
Oops -- almost forgot, even after Stefanie at So Many Books reminded me that I, too, am of the Schoolhouse Rock generation who memorized the Preamble this way:
In 1787 I'm told
Our Founding Fathers did agree
To write a list of principles
For keepin' people free.

The U.S.A. was just startin' out.
A whole brand-new country.
And so our people spelled it out
The things that we should be.

And they put those principles down on
paper and called it the Constitution, and
it's been helping us run our country ever
since then. The first part of the
Constitution is called the Preamble and tells
what those Founding Fathers set out to do.

"We the people
In order to form a more perfect union,
Establish justice, insure domestic tranquility,
Provide for the common defense,
Promote the general welfare and
Secure the blessings of liberty
To ourselves and our posterity
Do ordain and establish this Constitution
for the United States of America."
* "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

March 15, 2006

Spring fever: fairies, frogs, and butterflies

Spring fever hasn't hit here yet -- the boys are out sledding as I type, and at the moment as long as I have more daylight (the sun is still shining when I drive Laura to Brownies at 6:30), I don't really need any warmth and green, not just yet -- but in case it has hit hard at your house, here are a few terrific, timely links.

Melissa at Here in the Bonny Glen offers a delectable assortment of fun fairy books, including ones on how to cook for fairies, how to have a fairy tea party, and making fairy houses. As someone who spent most of her childhood visits to the country making dresses for fairies out of hollyhocks (no to mention a longtime believer in the Cottingley fairies, I can't think of anything better than having a fairy tea party on the first warm day. And don't miss Melissa's lovely post on butterflies.

Over at Sunrise Rants, Doc, who is spending spring with lambs and kids on her farm, has a wonderful list of Spring Resources, loaded with those spring perennials, frogs and butterflies, and some nice Easter activities as well as well.

We'll have loads to do when we put away those sleds...

March 13, 2006

Poetry festival selections I

With the local poetry festival a week from today, I thought I'd put up the kids' selections, starting with Davy's. The A.A. Milne poem, from When We Were Very Young, is one of the official festival selections for Narrative/Dramatic Poetry Solos for ages five and under; the other is his own choice for Canadian Poetry Solo.

by A.A. Milne (from When We Were Very Young)

Has anybody seen my mouse?

I opened his box for half a minute,
Just to make sure he was really in it,
And while I was looking, he jumped outside!
I tried to catch him, I tried, I tried...
I think he's somewhere about the house.
Has anyone seen my mouse?

Uncle John, have you seen my mouse?

Just a small sort of mouse, a dear little brown one,
He came from the country, he wasn't a town one,
So he'll fell all lonely in a London Street;
Why, what could he possibly find to eat?

He must be somewhere. I'll ask Aunt Rose:
Have you seen a mouse with a woffelly nose?
Oh, somewhere about --
He's just got out...

Hasn't anybody seen my mouse?

Dimpleton the Simpleton
by Dennis Lee (from The Ice Cream Store)

Dimpleton the simpleton,
Went out to milk a cow,
Dimpleton the simpleton
Could not remember how.

He pumped the tail, both high and low,
To make the milk come out;
The cow went MOO, the bucket flew,
And smacked him on the snout!

March 11, 2006

Getting back to Gombrich: A Little History of the World

I've been meaning to write a quick review of A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich ever since our copy arrived last fall. I read about the new English-language edition from A Common Reader's online newsletter and thought it would make a dandy addition to the ever-growing shelf of narrative world histories here (see below). And while I was at it, I ordered a copy of Gombrich's Story of Art, too. Since then, the kids and I have found much to enjoy in both of Sir Ernst's books, and we've actually spent so much time with them that it took me a while to get past the draft stage with my thoughts. Chicken Spaghetti unknowingly nudged me a couple of times in the past few weeks, first with Susan's link to Scott McLemee's thoughtful and enthusiastic review for Newsday and most recently with The Guardian's children's history round-up.

E.H. Gombrich was born in Vienna in 1909; I like to think that perhaps he and my maternal grandmother, born in the same city four years earlier, might have crossed paths, perhaps at the the Opera, or at adjoining tables at the cafe, each enjoying coffee and Viennese pastries with friends. At the age of 26, with a doctorate in art history and no job offers at an already difficult time, Gombrich was asked by a publisher friend, Walter Neurath (who would go on to establish Thames & Hudson), to take a look at a new English history book for children, which the publisher was considering translating into German. Gombrich replied that he didn't think the book was worth translating and that he could probably do a better job. Fortunately for us, Neurath took him up on his offer, and A Little History was the result. But only last year was the book finally published in English, much of the task taken on by Gombrich himself before his death in 2001 at the age of 92.

Why "fortunately"? As Gombrich wrote in another edition, "I want to stress that this book is not, and never was, intended to replace any textbooks of history that may serve a very different purpose at school. I would like my readers to relax, and to follow the story without having to take notes or to memorise names and dates. In fact, I promise that I shall not examine them on what they have read."

If you, as I, believe that history textbooks, especially for young children, are generally nasty and rarely belong in the classroom or home bookshelf, Gombrich's "warning" is a very happy and welcome declaration. (I know, I know, I'm beginning to sound like a broken record about textbooks. But really, do yourself and your kids a favor and ditch them as much as you can. There are so many good books out there. Like this one.) And if my kids are anything to go by, examinations won't be needed. I know exactly how much they've absorbed from our readings by casually eavesdropping on their conversations and play.

A Little History is at once both a tiny, very elegantly crafted jewel box of a book and something much larger, a door, or I suppose rather the key, to a much vaster world. After finishing the volume, most readers will not only have a stronger than average understanding of world history through the middle of the 20th century, but should have an interest in learning more independently. Without talking down to children, or any adults who might be lucky enough to get their hands on this, Gombrich explains the history of the world from its earliest beginnings through the end of the Soviet era clearly, charmingly, wittily, conversationally, and memorably in all of only 284 pages. And leaves the door open for readers, as he does at the at the end of chapter 5 (about the ancient Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta): "I could tell you lots more about the Athenians -- about their historians and their doctors, their singers, their thinkers and their artists, but I think it would be better for you to find out about them yourself, one day. Then you'll know that I haven't exaggerated."

Fascinatingly and very cleverly, too, Gombrich refers back and forth to events to help even a child understand just how connected the history of the world is. He had a gift for both understanding and explaining world history in fairly simplified, though not simplistic, terms. In fact, for a children's book, the writing and thinking is deceptively sophisticated, able to convey elegantly and easily to youngsters such concepts as Marx and his theory of class war (chapter 36, if you don't believe me).

The final chapter, entitled "The Small Part of the History of the World Which I Have Lived Through Myself: Looking Back" contains not only Gombrich's firsthand account of World War II, but also several rather astonishing apologies and confessions of "errors" which are as much a lesson in history for the young as anything else in the book's pages. Here's just one:
One of the things I also learned was not to believe everything I read in the newspapers. I'll give you an example. Because I had lived through the First World War myself, I thought I could believe everything I had heard about it at the time. That is why the last chapter, "Dividing up the world," is not quite as impartial as I had intended. The role played by America's President Wilson was not at all what I had imagined. I described a situation in which Wilson made promised to the Germans and Austrians which he failed to keep. I firmly believed that what I remembered had to be right -- after all, it was part of my own experience -- and when I wrote about it later I just wrote down what everyone believed. But I should have checked my facts, as all historians must be especially careful to do. To cut a long story short, President Wilson did indeed make a peace offer early in 1918, but because Germany and Austria and their allies were still hoping to win the war, they ignored it. ...

Quite how serious and regrettable this error of mine was rapidly became apparent. For, although I did not foresee it, the fact that all those who had been defeated were convinced that their suffering was the result of a gross deception was very easily exploited and transformed by ambitious and fanatical agitators into a raging thirst for vengeance.
Parents may wonder how A Little History handles some standard questions -- how religion and history's brutish bits are handled in a children's book, while others might have concerns about Gombrich's unabashedly western view of world history. The subject of religion is treated fairly and respectfully; Sir Ernst, who was himself Jewish and fled to London in 1936, includes individual chapters on the establishment of the major world religions, including Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam. And unlike some authors of children's history books who don't make a clear distinction between fact and fiction, story and history (the biblical story of Abraham as retold in a few history books comes to mind), Sir Ernst is much more clear and careful with his language.

The author, who lived through two world wars, certainly doesn't shy away from the violent, cruel, or evil threads that wend their way through human history, though nothing is mentioned gratuitously. Indeed, you have the sense that one of his reasons for writing this book was to help future generations learn from the mistakes of the past.

You can't read this book without knowing that Gombrich reveres the classical foundations of Western civilization or without forgetting that he was a European, and as an Austrian literally a Central European. But he is a man of compassion and conscience, who takes no sides, promotes no country, religion, or region over another. As he wrote presciently in his conclusion, several years before the tsunami of December 2004,
Among the constantly growing populations of Asia, Africa and South America the same misery reigns that, until not so long ago, was accepted as normal in our countries as well. We have no easy remedies, not least because there too, as ever, intolerance and misery go hand in hand. And yet improvements in sending information have made the consciences of richer nations a little more attentive. Whenever an earthquake, a flood or a drought in a far-off place leaves many victims, thousands of people in wealthier countries put their money and their efforts into providing relief. And that, too, used not to happen. Which proves that we still have the right to go on hoping for a better future.
This slim little volume is one of the very best of all the world histories, multi- or single volume, written for children. I have to admit here that, yes, we continue to use the Story of the World series (see below), in conjunction with A Little History, because of the depth and detail the four-volume series affords and because of the activity guide. But to help them see the forest for the trees, my kids need A Little History.

Some other narrative world history books on our shelves (not including the non-narrative Kingfisher History Encyclopedia and the Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia Of World History:

Mainly for children

The Story of the World by Susan Wise Bauer (four volumes)

A Child's History of the World by Virgil Hillyer (one volume)

The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon, updated by John Merriman (one volume)

Mainly for adults

Outline of History by H.G. Wells (two volumes)

The New History of the World by J.M. Roberts (one volume); this is the third edition, revised in 2003. I have the old second edition, published 10 years earlier and it's stood me in good stead. (one volume)

Asimov's Chronology of the World: The History of the World from the Big Bang to Modern Times by Isaac Asimov (one volume)

The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant (11 volumes)

Farm School bait: Children's history book reviews

Many thanks to Susan at Chicken Spaghetti who offers a delicious bunch of "Weekend Links," including chicken books, a must if your blog is entitled Chicken Spaghetti or Farm School!

Most interesting of all, though, as far as I'm concerned, is her link to the Guardian's round-up of children's history books, "A light in time's bottomless well," which includes E.H. Gombrich's A Little History of the World and H.E. Marshall's Our Island Story. I've already written about Island Story, though I haven't seen the book yet (I see a paperback version is available in Canada now, hurray), so it's nice to read a review. And I have my own review of Little History still in draft form; maybe I should use the Guardian article as the kick in the pants I need to get it finished and posted here. Might be a good project for the weekend while the kids are still under the weather instead of out in it.

The Guardian's reviewer Amanda Vickery calls it Island Story "heroically insular" and writes,
The government calls for an inclusive, multi-ethnic national history, but the right wants a patriotic narrative that will find the roots of British identity in Anglo-Saxon institutions and the battle of Trafalgar. The Daily Telegraph and the think-tank Civitas have tossed HE Marshall's Edwardian nursery classic Our Island Story into the breach. What would Henrietta Marshall make of this evangelical campaign? "This is not a history lesson, but a story book," she insisted in 1905. Frank about her debt to legend, she said her tale did not belong with the schoolbooks, but "quite at the other end of the shelf, beside Robinson Crusoe and A Noah's Ark Geography". ...

Our Island Story was written at the high tide of Rule Britannia. Edwardian bombast holds it aloft. No quality is lauded more than courage, but rudeness always gets a ticking off. Charles II was "lazy, selfish and deceitful, a bad man and a bad king", but many loved him because as well as being clever and good-tempered he "had very pleasant manners".

It is no bad thing to have Boudicca, the Black Prince and Bonnie Prince Charlie strung together in a sequential narrative. Yet the deficiencies of the national curriculum will not be addressed by a book that gives more weight to Merlin than to Richard II. To recommend Our Island Story as a textbook for nine- to 12-year-olds is like relying on Mel Gibson for the history of Scotland. "Remember," wrote Marshall, "that I was not trying to teach you, but only to tell a story." Just as well for the Maoris, who are written off as a race of savage cannibals.
Which to me, and Lady Antonia Fraser too (nothing like good company), is missing the point, because a) Island Story isn't meant to be a replacement textbook and b) its value is that it isn't a textbook. Although I quoted from her extensively the first time around, her argument bears repeating:
While the idea of a reprint is hugely welcome, you might initially wonder whether it stands up in today's climate or whether it contains racist horrors likely to make one cover the children's eyes. But actually there is not a great deal to cause modern liberal sensitivity to bristle.

There is the occasional eyebrow raiser: in one chapter, the Maoris are depicted as cannibals, which is not an account that would go down terrifically well in New Zealand today. But other than that, the general approach is not all that incorrect. Henrietta Marshall is, for instance, on the side of the colonists in the War of Independence; she believes that one should never have to pay tax without representation. ...

The book is also great in the sense that it shines a light into the nature of the times in which it was written. Anyone thinking of giving it to their children might also think about explaining to the child the fact that it was published in a different age. The fact is that attitudes towards people have changed.

Indeed, the reprinting of this book brings the way that history is taught back into sharper focus. Much has been written about the decline in the learning of "chronological" history, of the fading out of narrative history, of the rise, at the cost to all, of social history that seeks to promote "empathy" yet robs history of its context. Marshall is a great reminder of the power of narrative history. I would regard myself as a narrative historian. I feel very strongly the need for chronology - it drives me mad when people can't place figures or events correctly. This book sticks out now because it seems to say "I will tell you stories", an idea with which I profoundly agree.
While H.E. Marshall doesn't cut much ice with Vickery, Sir Ernst with his more modern views and "expansive sympathy" fares far, far better:
Gombrich opens with the most magical definition of history I have ever read. The past is a bottomless well. Throw a burning scrap of paper down that well "and as it burns it will light up the sides of the well. Can you see it? It's going down, down. Now it's like a tiny star in the dark depths. It's getting smaller and smaller ... and now it's gone." History is the burning scrap of paper that illuminates the past. "And in this way we light our way back."
Submitted for your consideration...