Are you going to be yelling at your TV tonight and want your kids to understand why? Here are my picks for some great election and political books to start talking to your kids about what it means to live in a democracy. (And no, you don’t have to start with negative campaigning, although it appears that’s a big part of it now…)
I’m not sure how old I was when I realized that I didn’t have to save the world to have a meaningful life, and to be honest, I’m still not sure how I feel about that realization or whether or not I actually agree with it or think it’s a cop-out. Am I relying on others saving the world, or just hoping that if we all do our part, something will happen? I’m not sure, but I loved the message in this book of just-graduated high school seniors on a road trip, one of whom is going through a very existential crisis: he’s been a child prodigy all his life, something he reminds us is very different than being a genius, as prodigy implies that terrifying of terrifying things: potential. Well, he isn’t a child anymore. So what is he? And what happens to “potential” when you grow up?
Summary and Review:
Colin Singleton is a half-Jew child prodigy who thinks, upon graduating from high school, that he’s all washed up. After all, he can’t be a child prodigy if he’s not a child anymore. Not it’s time for him to prove his worth and accomplish something. But what? After being dumped by his 19th Katherine (yes, that’s right, he’s had the dubious honor of ONLY dating–and only being dumped by–girls named Katherine), he decides to invent a mathematical theory that will predict the course of a relationship. With this theorem in hand, he reasons, not only will he have fulfilled his long-studied potential, but he will also know when the heartbreak is coming before it comes. Somehow, he thinks this will be a good thing.
He’s hanging out with his best friend, a devout Muslim and fellow outcast, who (at least until this road trip) is completely sworn off drinking and women, and whose lifelong goals include lying on the couch and watching Judge Judy.
Together, they embark on a road trip that takes them to a small town in Tennessee where adventures with their first jobs, two local girls, neither of whom are named Katherine, and a small factory-dependent community, the two boys unwittingly learn a little bit about life.
Follow-up with the kids:
If your kid is a math genius, you can ask him or her to decode the formula for you. Apparently, as it exists and evolves in the book, it actually works according to the rules and histories of the characters and relationships experienced in Colin’s life. Despite helpful footnotes and a lengthy explanation at the end, this was math beyond my level of comfort. Maybe I could have handled it fifteen years ago (that’s a scary thought), but that part of my brain has more recently been sacrificed. On the plus side, I can now change diapers and wipe noses, which going back to the idea of fulfilled potential, should be some encouragement.
There’s also something to be said in this book about what it means to have potential and what it means to fulfill it. We all have potential to do a lot of things. In no way are we going to fulfill all of it, so how do we choose? And my favorite question, if we have the potential to do something, are we thus obligated? I think a lot of kids grow up today thinking this way, and that’s why the book has rung so true to so many of them, even if they aren’t child prodigies studied by development experts and put on TV game shows. If they have the potential to be a great piano player, is it okay if they choose to be a mediocre guitar player instead? If they have the potential for an ivy league school, is it okay if they choose to travel the world instead? And pick up their education ten years later at a state university? Well, I know what I think the answers are for my own life. But what is your answer, and does it agree with your child’s? And if not, is the disagreement putting a strain on your relationship or your child’s own view of his or her self-worth?
These are tough things to think about and tougher things to talk about. But I was just told by a friend of another high school suicide. Star athlete, the whole shebang. I don’t know the story of why. I don’t know that, in this case, it had anything to do with potential, realized or not. But I do think these things are important enough to be work the effort of conversation and understanding.
(BIG DISCLAIMER ON THIS POST: One of the major quotes for this article in the NYT was taken way out of context and the parent has cleared this up on her blog, The Zen Leaf. I try not to spread rumors when possible, but really, I didn’t think reposting a New York Times article would be akin to spreading rumors. Sometimes I worry that journalism isn’t just dying because of the internet, but that journalists are giving up on it themselves.)
This is sad. Really sad. Kids should LOVE reading. Or they are not going to read. This should be obvious. I find it interesting that so many adults think kids are going to act differently than themselves. I mean, how many things do you do that you don’t really like? It reminds me of a friend who once said she tried to start eating more healthy foods by buying tofu, until she realized that putting tofu in her refrigerator for a few weeks and then throwing it out when it was old was NOT a good way to get protein. Similarly, buying chapter books for reluctant readers who want to read picture books is NOT a good way to get literate. I mean, seriously, buy them some Captain Underpants.
New York Times article on disappearing picture books
(I think you need to register or log in to read, but it is free).
I would argue that you do have this power. We all do. I’ve never met someone who sees the world the same way I do. This could mean that I’m some kind of mutant. But more likely I think it means that we all see things differently. And by having real conversations with each other, we can spread the color around until all of our worlds become so colorful, so multi-dimensional that we would have no choice but to see the other person’s point of view.
That would be power. The kind of power that changes the world. And in Jonas’s world in the beautifully conceived Giver, that’s exactly what does happen.
Summary and Review:
Jonas is 12 and he is about to learn his profession, chosen for him by the elders in his society and handed out in a ceremony with his peers. But Jonas isn’t chosen for one of the standard jobs of child-rearing or cleaning. Instead, he is chosen to be the next “Receiver of Memories” and as his training begins, he starts to realize things about his world he never saw before.
The first thing Jonas does is stop taking the drugs prescribed to all citizens when they reach adolescence. He notices feelings for girls he never had before. He starts to see in color when before he only saw in black and white (and significantly, the first thing he sees is the red of an apple). And he starts to learn the stories from his predecessor, the stories and memories of all that has been taken from his community, all that came before. He learns about weather that isn’t always perfect. He learns about war and pain, love and loss. He learns what it really means when a child who doesn’t developed properly is “released”. And gradually but finally, he decides he cannot bear the burden of knowledge alone, in a world where these things will never exist.
(SPOILER ALERT) I’ve heard some people complain that the ending is too vague–that they want to know exactly what happens to Jonas. But Jonas is escaping a world where everything is predictable and controlled. The fact that he has even made it into the unknown means he has succeeded. And that, to me, is the whole point.
Possible conversations to have with your kids:
I could talk about this book for months. In fact, I’ve used it in the classroom, to talk with seventh graders about utopia and dystopia and what those themes means. Nowadays, I suppose every seventh grader has read Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy (which I also love) and so they have been certainly introduced to those themes. This book is less violent, perhaps more subtle, more introspective, but no less powerful. And this book isn’t about a community-wide struggle for freedom, but simply one boy’s quest for the truth in the world, even if that quest comes from understanding just how painful that truth can be.
One great family activity after reading this book would be to watch the movie Pleasantville. It has a lot of similar themes–a seemingly perfect society where everything is in black and white, everyone is “happy”, if only in conversation, and the weather is perfect. There is also no outside world. But then two modern kids are zapped through their television (Pleasantville is an old TV show) and they start to change the society. Through their actions the citizens of Pleasantville are introduced to color, love, sex, and knowledge along with hatred, bigotry, and censorship. The image of the red apple also appears symbolically in the film.
(SPOILER ALERT) The movie also ends on slightly vague terms, although not as vague as the book, giving rise to the idea (and great discussion topic) that uncertainty is one of the prices we pay for our freedom.
Simply comparing the movie and the book will give you a lot to talk about and illuminate a lot of important themes. Some other questions you might want to discuss are:
– Why did the people of Jonas’s society decide to create it the way they did? What do you think were the benefits? Do you see any benefit to living in a black and white, seemingly “perfect” society?
– Why did they create a “Receiver of Memories” if they wanted to erase those things from their own memories?
– If you were in Jonas’s position, would you have done the same thing? Why?
– Is there anything in our own society that attempts to make things “more pleasant” for us at the expense of knowledge or experience? What is that? Do you think it’s a good idea? Are there things we shouldn’t be allowed to learn by making our own mistakes or having our own experiences? (Examples might include laws that protect us from ourselves, like a drinking age, school dress codes, internet filters at school or a library, etc.)
– If you were to design the “perfect” society, what would it look like? What kind of laws would you have?
Save the next generation of politicians, ball players, and world citizens by reading real books like this one
I swear, so many picture/board/early readers about baseball end with the short guy hitting a game-winning home run, that my son is going to grow up thinking that that’s just how baseball games end. But this one goes a lot deeper–a LOT deeper–than most of them, so not only do I love reading it, but my son, who loves any book with pictures of bats and balls in it, loves hearing it. The great thing about this book is that it has a strong message and an important historical lesson without sounding too preachy. The illustrations are beautiful, although I do have a slight issue with books that differentiate between the past and the present with the number of colors used. I mean, seriously, history was NOT actually in black and white. Or sepia.
Summary and Review:
The book follows the story of a young Japanese-American boy who struggles to play on a baseball team in America with kids who are often taller than him. Then he starts to hear a lot of things about “some place far away” called Pearl Harbor and all of the sudden, his school friends hate him and call him awful names. Before he knows it, his family is shipped off to a “camp” with other Japanese-Americans, forced to leave their homes and most of their belongings behind.
The book describes some of the basic details about camp life and then describes how they decided to start baseball games. Our young hero gets better with practice and finds his strength by wanting to defy the armed guard in the tower above him, watching his every move on the field. Later, he returns home and joins another baseball team. He’s still one of the shortest players, but he’s gotten much better. Over all, it’s a story of human strength and perseverance in the face of terrible obstacles.
Possible conversations to have with your kids:
Most people would say you can’t read a story like this to a younger kid–they won’t get it, they won’t sit for all the text, or the issues are too deep. I say “bullocks”. Or “bollocks”. I’m not sure because I’m not British. At any rate, I don’t believe that. When I started reading this to my son, he wasn’t even one, but he liked the baseball picture. I would summarize the text on each page to about one sentence and read the book that way. (I read a lot of books this way and eventually lengthened the summaries until I was reading the entire text.) As far as introducing deep issues goes, I believe that kids will understand what they are ready to understand. By being honest with them from the beginning, we give them a framework in which to analyze the complicated world they eventually must navigate for themselves.
For older kids in grades 3 and up
Even though it’s a picture book, much older kids will relate to this book. Do you have an elementary student–or even a middle school student–struggling to understand something in history class? Too often classroom history takes issues like geography, war, and politics and disassociates them from the reality of people living in that time frame. Ask your kids to read this book and then talk about why the United States created policies and camps like this. Talk to your kids about what they think about that. Talk to them about what these camps did to the people living in them. Then ask them a crucial question–what would they think if something like this happened today? Helping kids relate characters from history to characters today can help them realize that history isn’t just a list of dates–it’s real people living real lives, with all the love, hatred, heartbreak, and adventure that comes with that. Then go back to the issue in history with which they were struggling to understand. Can they picture the people who were going through that? Can they imagine what kinds of things they were doing and how they would have felt? If so, chances are they understand their issue a lot better.
Summary and Review:
Wow. I mean seriously WOW. This book was a LOT to read. In a good way. But also in a deep way. A dark way. A profound way. And a very REAL way. This book is not for the light at heart. It’s for students who want their books to represent their world, not sugar-coated, and probably (hopefully) much darker than the one they inhabit. It’s the kind of book parents want to think their children aren’t ready for and the kind of book that those same children probably need to read. I loved it, but I admit, I loved it even more in retrospect than while reading. It is long; it is complex.
The dark moments are far outnumbered by lighter moments, but they are there and they are not likely to be forgotten. The main character, Wataru, is a young boy whose parents are getting divorced and the boy is going through very real feelings of loss and guilt about that. Simultaneously, he discovers a portal to a fantasy world through which a friend of his–or rather a popular boy who he wishes was a friend–has also traveled. That fantasy world imitates in many ways his favorite video game, a fact which at first irritated me because it seemed so fake, but which I came to love as a metaphor for him inventing this world as he goes, trying to make sense of the real world back home through challenges and parallels he discovers in this new, fascinating, and imaginative world.
The fantasy world is equipped with everything you want a fantasy world to have: great characters, interesting and very different towns, warring peoples, and complex politics. Our young hero starts out with very little power or strength but begins to find his own. The world is full of surprises, challenges, and certainly some scariness. And somewhat intense parallels to Wataru’s situation at home.
The book certainly touches on deep subjects. Wataru’s father is leaving his mother for another woman, and while he sees his father as the culprit in a very black and white way at the beginning of the book, he later learns that his father originally left this woman for his mother and starts to wonder what it all means. The conversations are real, something that kids will especially appreciate. When he and his dad finally sit down to talk about the separation, his dad says “Convictions are important decisions, the kind you can’t go back on.” And Wataru thinks, but doesn’t say “So abandoning me and Mom was an important decision.” But then he asks his father “So what are your convictions, Dad. I mean, Mom is really sad, and Grandma’s furious, and all Uncle Lou does is hold his head in his hands and moan. How can convictions be worth all that?” In other words, Wataru asks what a lot of kids would want to ask. The conversation goes further. Wataru’s dad says that “You only live once/” and that “If you think you’ve made a mistake, you have to fix what can be fixed.” But Wataru doesn’t know the whole history and doesn’t understand. He thinks to himself “Dad’s life was a mistake. So…what does that make me?” He tries to ask these questions to his father, but just like in real life, they get stuck in a generation gap of understanding.
At one part of the book, his friend wakes him up when his mother has turned on the gas in their apartment in at attempt to kill both herself and him. This is a parallel story to something that had already happened to this same friend.
I know some people will be turned away by the darker aspects of the book, and others by the unfamiliar cultural setting–the book was translated from the Japanese. If your child is honestly too young to handle material like this, then that’s probably a good decision. But most children can handle more than their parents think–and there are many children who would benefit greatly from reading a book like this. Besides, I firmly believe that children, like anyone, will get out of a book what they are ready to get out of it, and very little more.
But you know that boy in school–there are many of them–who bury their heads in fantasy novels, rarely read a book less than 500 pages, invent complex games or stories of their own, and might even have parents who are divorced? Please buy him this book. And get it for a lot of other kids, too.
The book’s English edition won the American Library Association’s Batchelder Award in 2008. The author, born and raised in Tokyo, worked first at law offices and has previously written crime novels, which gives this project some more context.
Possible conversations to have with your kids:
This is one to read alongside your child. The darker aspects will have you wanting to engage in a conversation immediately and often–what do you think about this? Isn’t it awful? You’ll want to reassure your children that the world isn’t (always) like this, and likely your instinct will be to hope they don’t really relate. But hold back. Let them experience it for themselves. Let them ask you questions. Let them know you’ve read it, too, and you understand. But let your kids guide you through this one. Otherwise you take most of the magic away.
If you like, here are some possible questions to ask when they are done (although, please, put them in your own words, or you will be met with eye-rolling):
What was the importance of Mitsuru’s character? Why do you think he was portrayed as someone more popular than Wataru, someone Wataru looks up to, but also someone experiencing many of the same things as Wataru? Mitsuru seems to be a symbol of something. What?
How does this family deal with divorce? What have you noticed about any of your friends who are going through this? Does this make you think about it any differently?
What does Wataru learn about himself? How does he learn it? How does the contrasting character of Mitsuru help illuminate what Wataru is learning?
How do you (or your friends) use fantasy to escape or explain your own reality? (This could be a week-long conversation.) Help your child understand that when they go online to play a game or social network (especially those kids who social network and try on different personalities, which is definitely the fad now), they are using fantasy worlds in almost the same way as Wataru, even if it’s much less obvious. See if you can get them to tell you why they and their friends like to do that. And then you may have solved the mystery of the online generation!
Good luck with that!