Archive for the 'Book and Movie Reviews' Category

The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister (Book Review)

By: Linda Ravin Lodding
Illustrated by: Suzanne Beaky
Published October 2011 by Flashlight Press

We’ve reached an interesting turning point in children’s literature when the message of a kid’s book is aimed at both parents and children.

The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister by Linda Lodding captures the essence of the over-scheduled child in a fun and friendly way. With so many activities in her schedule, Ernestine has no time to do what she really wants to do – play. Until one day, Ernestine takes control and changes her schedule.

Lodding gently critiques the philosophy that so many of us adhere to. Ernestine’s parents tell her to ‘make every moment count’ and ‘live life to the fullest’. But trying to pack in too many activities can be disastrous. While Ernestine suffers from activity overload, her parents believe that they are providing the best for their daughter.

While the book’s message can be sobering, The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister is far from serious. This light-hearted story will entertain any elementary school-aged child as they read about Ernestine knitting with Mrs. Pearl Stitchem and practicing yoga with Guru Prakash Pretzel. The illustrations by Suzanne Beaky are bright and engaging.

The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister is a wonderful reminder that play is just as important as – if not more important than – organized activities. Dr. Stuart Brown, author of Play and founder of the National Institute for Play, reminds us that play allows children to get in touch with their innate talents. If children are confined to scripted activities all the time, they will never get a chance to explore other interests.

Released just in time for Christmas, this book will make an excellent gift for the child [ahem, parent] who needs a kind reminder to relax and take time to play.

Available October 1, 2011, where children’s books are sold. Visit Amazon or Barnes and Noble to order online.


The Limits We Don’t Talk About – Celebrating Pride Week

Thanks to a woman who I greatly respect, today I have been inspired to pay heed to the fact that it is Gay Pride Week here in Edmonton. How does this fit into slow parenting, you may ask? The answer is in assessing all the limits that we place on our children.

Free-range kids, defined by Lenore Skenazy, are kids who are offered independence. They have the freedom to explore on their own and make their own mistakes. They have parents who do not over-protect them or micro-manage their lives. They have parents who are willing to challenge limits that are ordinarily placed on children.

Free-range parenting followers often talk about lifting ordinary restrictions from childhood – let them play in the park without adult supervision, let them bike to school on their own, let them travel on their own. Don’t worry so much about defining your child, let them out to discover the world and define themselves. But free-range parents rarely talk about lifting other restrictions that we unthinkingly place on our children.

Our family is pretty boring. We are white, heterosexual, and able-bodied. We are the family represented in the predominant social narrative around us – we are the family of children’s books, the movies, the stories of ‘tradition’. The Bear and Banana can (for the most part) find their likeness all around them. They find comfort in finding their life story affirmed for them.

To me, this is a great limitation. It is subtle, usually unquestioned, and extremely powerful. I am frightened by the idea of our girls growing up to think that they are ‘normal.’ And perhaps, anything outside of ‘normal’ is somehow wrong. This is a limitation that needs to be challenged often. Children who are unexposed to difference, or perhaps aren’t taught about understanding difference, are limited.

In my definition of free-range parenting, I would include the need to free children from the limits of ‘normal.’ I would aim for lifting restrictions that impede children from acknowledge the differences all around them.

Part of challenging the limits of ‘normal’ is to change the social narrative. Try reading a book to your child that is outside of their ‘normal’. In honour of Gay Pride Week, here are some picture books that contribute to a narrative that includes homosexuality.

Movie Review – Babies

Babies, now on DVD and likely in your local library, is a 2009 film from Focus Features. Director Thomas Balmès and producer Alain Chabat follow four babies from four countries: Namibia, Japan, Mongolia, and the United States.

Relying on superb cinematography and the characters of the babes, Babies captures the growth of these four babies through their first year. Without the use of narration, it reveals charming moments of universality while also exposing stark differences in parenting and cultural perceptions of children.

Ponijao is born in a hut in Namibia. He lives in a small village with other families. The entire community, including his older brothers and sisters, take care of him. Mari lives with her parents in the heart Tokyo. As an only child, Mari lives an urban lifestyle and is doted on by all the adults in her life. Born in Mongolia, Bayarjargal and his older brother live in a yurt on the family farm. Hattie lives in San Francisco, California. Growing as an American, she is taken to play groups and cared for by both her parents.

What struck me most about the film is the amount of time children were left alone versus being entertained. Ponijao, from Namibia, is never alone. He is surrounded by his village at all times and therefore imitates their behaviour, language and skills early on. He is the first of the four to learn to walk – and that’s walking bare foot in the gravel! Yet he never receives any structured activities or entertainment. I am sure his parents wouldn’t understand the concept if it was suggested. The two urban babies, Hattie from San Francisco and Mari from Tokyo, are frequently left alone. They have many toys or devices to keep them busy. However, the two girls take part in regular structured activities – play groups, yoga, and storytime. Bayarjargal, from Mongolia, seems to straddle both these worlds. While he lives in a yurt and is frequently left to his own devices amongst the farm animals, his family also has a stroller and other toys familiar to westerners (for example, MegaBlocks).

This film will help any parent reflect on how culturally programmed we are in our parenting. Babies can help generate a discussion on why we do the things that we do as parents. On the flip side, Babies is a lovely way to discover that there are developmental and playful moments that span all borders.

Fifty Dangerous Things (you should let your children do) – Book Review

I recently wrote about Gever Tulley’s video on TED about dangerous things you should let your children do. He has just released his new book on the subject titled, Fifty Dangerous Things (you should let your children do).

Written to look like a classic how-to manual for an adult safety class, each dangerous item has its own simply laid out page. Each activity includes a bulleted how-to section, a list of required materials, an indication of the level of difficulty, and any warnings. The opposing page even has space to write notes and observations. The lay-out makes it appealing to both children and adults. Rather than start at dangerous activity #1 and work your way through the book, children will want to flip through the book to find activities they are attracted to.

Some might question why parents or children would need to engage in such activities. Tulley responds in the foreword, “Engagement with the world in these ways usually occurs in Kindergarten classrooms, or graduate level programs at university. They are often the most powerful in terms of cognitive development, but unfortunately, this type of behaviour is seldom endorsed in our schools, street corners, or homes.”

Tulley recommends the book for ages nine and up, but also comments that, “every child is unique; your child may be exceptional in one manner but awkward in another.” Indeed, most of the suggestions were beyond the Bear’s four years. But we did find some dangerous activities that she was comfortable to attempt. We did the ‘go underground’ activity which involved finding a culvert or other underground cave to explore. We also made a ‘bomb in a bag’ where we added baking soda to vinegar in a Ziploc bag and then watched the chemical reaction make the bag explode.

Other activities include: making a slingshot, walking home from school, playing with the vacuum cleaner, driving a car, licking a 9-volt battery, going to the dump, playing with fire, and standing on the roof. Most of the fifty activities were not that surprising. They are activities that were part of my growing up, and I’m sure part of yours. But it is interesting that I needed a book to help me remember the activities. Tulley has found an obvious need for a book to remind parents of the everyday science and wonder in such daring things.

Fifty Dangerous Things (you should let your children do) is an excellent gift for children. I’m sure most parents would raise their eyebrows to see that their child received such a gift until they read the contents and got excited about doing the activities alongside their children. There is much inherent value in each of the activities, but it is also a book that simply provides ideas for parents for some exciting, well, dangerous time with the kids.

A great book to purchase and keep on the shelf for those days when the kids complain of being bored. Ideal gift for children aged five to 18 (and the parents will love it too!)

Play; How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul – Book Review

Play; How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul
By Stuart Brown, M.D. with Christopher Vaughan
Published by Avery, a member of Penguin Group Inc.; New York, New York; 2010

Take a moment to “consider what the world would be like without play. It’s not just an absence of games or sports. Life without play is a life without books, without movies, art, music, jokes, dramatic stories. Imagine a world with no flirting, no daydreaming, no comedy, no irony.”

When we try to imagine this possibility, we begin to understand how much play is integrated into our lives. We also start to think about its significance and the importance of fostering its existence.

Play; How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul was released last month. Play was written by Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play in California. A medical doctor, psychiatrist and clinical researcher, Brown has dedicated his life to the study of play.

While many people think of the subject of ‘play’ as a topic reserved for children, Brown carefully crafts this book to expand the subject. We play, says Brown, because of a biological drive – it is necessary for our survival. He explains how play is both vital to humans from an evolutionary biological perspective and a philosophical standpoint. But don’t let the academic lingo deter you. Play is written in an accessible way by outlining the academic research and combining it with relatable stories.

Parents will be interested to read about the role of play in their child’s development. Brown warns against imposing adult-like schedules or restrictions on children’s play. Childhood is where play is of utmost importance. It is a time where the foundations of play – experiencing a joy of life – are laid. Preventing children from experiencing this joy – let’s say, focusing on winning the soccer game versus an emphasis on being out in the sun with friends to kick a ball around – has a distinct effect on how children learn to perceive the world and live within it. “The self that emerges through play is the core, authentic self.” Children need to have opportunity to create their own play without adult interference.

Parents of teenagers will also be interested to learn about the role of play in adolescence, a time that the Greeks called ‘sophomore’ and which Brown reveals means ‘wise-foolish’. He writes about how teens cope with a whole new growth in brain development. Encouraging play at this age is vital. Through play, teens develop healthy neurological patterns and engage in activities that will “contribute to long-term life-satisfaction.” Again, Brown warns against parents who focus on adult ideas with their teenagers. For example, too much of an emphasis on career planning and entrance to university can limit a teenager’s opportunity to pursue their own interests. Brown explains that an overly rigid pursuit of goals can inhibit growth. He encourages not five or 10 year plans, but nurturing openness to emotional interests then following those leads.

Whether you are a parent or not, Play will inspire any reader to think about how they can play more in their lives. Brown includes a chapter titled, ‘the opposite of play is not work.’ He reminds us that work can also be play, as long as it brings us joy. He writes about the inherent need in all of us for variety and challenge. When we have that in our lives, our work can be play.

Brown also takes a look at the role of play in relationships. He cites a study done by Arthur Aron of State University of New York. Aron examined the role of play in couples. He concluded that play helps people maintain balance in their relationships. A little risk or novelty in play as a couple goes a long way to bringing two people closer together. Making time to try out new things together – to play together – can help couples be happier and better endure challenges to their relationship.

Interestingly, Brown includes a chapter on what some might see as the dark side of play. He points to issues such as gambling, addiction to video games, bullying or the overly competitive player. Brown argues that if we are to acknowledge a dark side to these activities, then they are no longer considered play. Play that is domineering or compulsive is an activity under the “false flag” of play.

Play concludes with a sort of ‘how-to’ chapter. Brown warns that if we are living without joy – through our work, family or otherwise – play can be the conduit to rediscovering that joy. He emphasizes the importance of play to our world and humankind: “play is our culture, in the form of music, drama, novels, dances, celebrations, and festivals. Play shows us our common humanity. In shows us how we can be free within societal structures that allow us to live with others. It is the genesis of innovation, and allows us to deal with an ever-changing world.”

While Brown’s first-person approach felt paternalistic at times, it didn’t over-shadow the value of the content. I did find Play markedly American in its cultural references and sports analogies. But if readers can look past the American orientation, this book will undoubtedly motivate readers to think differently about the topic of play. Play will inspire readers to seek out play in their own lives and develop a belief that play should be elevated as an activity that is more than just a frivolous pursuit.

Play is a wonderful introduction to an interdisciplinary academic topic that is embedded in all lives. The book builds a case for understanding the role of play in the evolution of humans, as an aid to building cohesive communities, and as a tool to finding joy in one’s own life. We all need play in order to lead a ‘good life;’ “play is what allows us to attain a higher level of existence, new levels of mastery, imagination, and culture.” Play will help readers reflect on what the ‘good life’ means to them and how to live it.

Earth Books

In commemoration of Earth Day, I thought I would share three of our favourite Earth-Day-type children’s books.

1. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

Written in 1971, The Lorax quickly became a classic children’s story that tells of the danger of not taking care of the planet. The story charts the tale of the Once-ler, a creature who discovers that the fictional truffula trees can be cut down to make a ‘thneed.’ The Lorax – speaking for the trees –protests the cutting down of the trees but the Once-ler ignores the warnings as the production of ‘thneeds’ is making him rich. Soon, ‘thneeds’ are being manufactured in a factory and the forest of truffula trees quickly disappears. The Once-ler watches the Lorax vanish as the last of the trees are cut down.

Nearly 40 years later, the fable of The Lorax still helps to explain basic environmentalism to young children. Interestingly, The Lorax has not been without controversy. In 1988, a logging community in California tried to remove the book from a grade two reading list. And the logging industry has also written its own version of The Lorax called the The Truax (you can download it here) in an attempt to tell its own story.

2. The EARTH Book by Todd Parr

This just-released book by Todd Parr is yet another great addition to this author’s collection of children’s books. With his unmistakable illustrative style, Todd Parr makes environmental conservation understandable for children. Bright, attractive pictures make Todd Parr books always a joy to open. His language is accessible and easy-going and always includes a good sense of humour.

While The EARTH Book is an obvious book to include for this Earth Day post, many of Parr’s books are also related. The Peace Book and It’s Okay to be Different are great books to talk about the world and diversity. Most importantly, the Bear loves Todd Parr. They are books that she is happy to thumb through without needing to know how to read.

3. National Geographic, Our World; A Child’s First Picture Atlas

We bought this atlas for the Bear at Christmas and it has proved invaluable. With bright and easy to understand illustrations, the atlas has become a tool for us to use when we are talking or reading about another place. It has been brought out so she can understand that her cousin doesn’t live in another country, just another province in Canada. And it has also been pulled out so she can understand that our friend is now living in Egypt.

An atlas of any sort is a great way for children to understand their place in the world and begin honing a global perspective. Also, from a literacy point of view, it has been interesting for the Bear to learn that not all books are stories that you read from start to finish – some books are used as a reference.

10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget – Book Review

I have been an occasional reader of the WiseBread blog. Their site is dedicated to personal finance tips written by a variety of contributors. In 2009, they published their top 10,001 tips in a book format, 10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget.

The book is divided into two sections, frugal living and personal finance. The frugal living portion offers tips on maintaining your quality of life while saving money. It covers topics such as: food and drink; travel; health and beauty; fun and entertainment; shopping and bargain hunting; green living; and education and self-improvement. The personal finance section offers advice on: financial planning and budgeting; credit cards and debt; investing your money; housing and home improvement; career and money-making ideas.

I picked up the book as I am always looking for new ideas for cutting back and saving money. Upon cracking the cover, I initially felt that I might not be their target audience. Many of the tips seemed obvious to me – buy food in bulk, do your own manicures/pedicures. These were tips that made me wonder about the other readers. I mean, we all know [hopefully] that if you are trying to save money, then eating at home and not in a restaurant is an obvious way to cut back. Other tips were not applicable to my life – how to get more from my healthcare dollar or how to cheaply plan a wedding. And some seemed downright ridiculous – flirt in order to get yourself a free coffee, choose to educate yourself in a career that will forgive your student loan such as teaching or nursing, stash your cash in a tampon box because thieves will never look there.

While the book didn’t hold much advice that I could use on a daily basis, I did glean some tips that may serve me one day. For example, there was a great section on ways to travel the world for free by volunteering or participating on a working farm. There was also some sensible advice on how to evaluate your insurance in order to avoid over-insuring. I also enjoyed reading about one of their biggest money saving tips: Move far away from the Jones. This tip suggests that when you surround yourself with people who over-consume, it’s hard to resist spending more money than you can afford. And while some tips may have been obvious, they were good reminders. For example, the best way to get out of debt is to stop accumulating new debt.

I was looking for a book to give me some new ideas, and 10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget did just that. As it is a compilation of tips, readers will likely only find a handful that will actually fit their lives. But that handful of tips might be just the inspiration they were looking for.

Not a book to read cover-to-cover. Easy to skim. Best as a library book.

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