Tuesday, June 9, 2015

NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson, Ashley Merryman

Now that I have a grandson that is a toddler I find myself reading parenting books again like this one. I raised my daughter during what the authors call the “ 1980s self-esteem” craze. I was a “praise junkie” too and didn’t learn until I went into education that the focus needs to be on effort; otherwise, a child’s confidence is undermined. There are quite a few studies in education on reward systems and praise. The authors introduce basic concepts and while the title of the book makes this nonfiction text sound like it contains earth-shattering revelations, I think its just information that is repackaged in a way that is easy-to-read. It is not a dense academic piece and should generate good discussions.

Some of the studies quoted had me wondering as they oversimplify several topics such as cultural differences on raising kids between Chinese and American mothers. Like any well-written persuasive speech, the authors use data to support their claims even when the research seems obscure or a repackaging of different educational programs. So while the topics are interesting, keep in mind the book slants toward whatever bias the authors are trying to prove such as the program “Tools of the Mind” that uses sociodramatic in primary years. It is one of many good programs; however, the authors do not compared it to others good programs. It is compared to some poor practices in public school programs, but is not understood within the education field as a whole.

I did find the beginning of the book more helpful than the end. I also liked the chapter on “color-blindness” and how parents need to talk to children at a young age about diversity and races. The thinking is that this can be done later in life but children do in-group separation at an extremely young age. Race needs to be discussed so that the next generation can learn about tolerance. Recent literature encourages librarians to talk about race and diversity with children at a younger age and more picture books are allowing this with their content. I read "The Grudgekeeper," and it has a young white boy marrying a black girl. It triggered an interesting discussion about race with my grade 2 students, except we talked about mixed Asian marriages.

The chapter on how children lie is something teachers figure out pretty quickly. The 4-5 year-old students always tell me they returned their library books and my first inclination is to doubt them. But I've never really thought about it as lying. I just think of it as their development age and that they don't understand the library concept of returning their books. Maybe some do lie. I don't really know. I wasn't really sure about the phrasing of some things in this book. Can you tell? That's why it is good for discussion.

The writing in the book is easy-to-read. It is not a dense, academic book. It is also six years old and feels a bit dated or maybe it is the word "shock" in the title. It is not really shocking. The focus is more on private than public education and the authors sometimes are insensitive in tone toward public education. I don't think a balanced view of education is presented. The authors are trying to persuade specific points-of-view and the tone can be overly dramatic. It's interesting though and has some thought-provoking ideas. Just don't use it as a sole reference.

3 Smileys

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Demon Dentist by David Walliams, Tony Ross (Illustrator)

Twelve-year-old Alfie hates going to the dentist. His teeth are yellow and brown and he loves sweets. He had an awful experience at the one-and-only dentist in town, Mr. Erstwhile, and has refused to go since then. Erstwhile croaks and a new dentist, Miss Root, shows up at Alfie's school to promote good dental hygiene. Or so it appears. But something is off... she's an odd tooth, saying that she will not give gory details on Erstwhile's death, but then gives the gory details: Erstwhile was found in his surgery room lying in a pool of blood with a dental probe through his heart.

Irony abounds as Miss Root sniffs out Alfie's rotten mouth-full of teeth in the school auditorium like a bloodhound. He gets pegged for an appointment at her office that he is determined to miss. Alfie describes the creepy dentist as, "The pupils in her eyes shone black. On second look, they were blacker than coal. Blacker than oil. Blacker than night. Blacker than the blackest black. In short, they were black." Like a stand-up comedian, the author has great timing that includes some hits and misses. This book needs a "snort-laugh ALERT." If you like silly books with exaggerated characters, then you'll like this comedy.

Alfie teams up with Gabz when he sees Miss Root acting suspicious. She is younger than him and he calls her his "girl friend" which all they adults interpret as his girlfriend. The two sputter in anger every time this happens and I laughed every time as it got more preposterous. Take Raj, the endearing dork of a newsagent, who says to Alfie: "'Your girlfriend?! Ooh...' cooed Raj. 'No, no!' exclaimed Alfie. 'She isn't my girlfriend. Gabz is just a friend who's a girl.' 'Your friendgirl*?'" The author puts an asterisk with a footnote: "*Made-up word ALERT (any letters of complaint to be addressed to Raj.) Move over spoiler alerts.

David Walliams pokes fun at evolving social cultures such as the boy who misses out on all the action at school because he texts 24/7. Or the drama teacher that thinks the social worker, Winnie, driving a moped throughout the school is part of an improv act. Or Winnie, the social worker, that eats and drinks like a piston with no sensitivity or respect to others. Then there is some toilet bowl humor with farting (that is in the top five next to "poop" and "butt" for kids at my school) along with some terrific scary parts, the need for false teeth, and "witchestry*". A snortingly* fun at the beach book. Okay. I would not make team Walliams made-up word list.

When kids at school start receiving gross items like bat wings, an old man's toenail, and an eyeball under their pillows from the tooth fairy, Alfie is sure it is connected with Miss Root. He teams up with Alfie, Raj, and Gabz to solve the mystery. The straightforward plot is easy to follow and Miss Root is a one dimensional villain. I did think Walliams walked a fine line with Winnie or maybe it is the illustrator. Come to think of it, Walliams implies she is black but never says so. Anyway, she's black and dresses in a kaleidoscope of outrageously bright clothes with bangles on her hands and a big bum. This stereotype is somewhat redeemed by Winnie's generous actions at the end, but I was uncomfortable with his descriptions and when she loses her clothes on the fence, I thought it was weird. That seemed unnecessary and a miss on the target audience. Walliams is consistent, however, creating adult characters that are extreme and exaggerated from the police officer to the head principal.

The witch is stereotyped and one dimensional. You've seen her before in many stories. I am reading Jack Zipes, "The Irresistible Fairy Tale," and it is a fascinating look at the evolution of storytelling and fairy tales. Zipes traces fairy tales from pagan societies to Roman Catholicism that "demonized pagan tales, rituals, and customs." Stories that used to have fairies and witches had good and bad ones until the church labeled it witchcraft and they became demonized. His book is very dense and I won't go into it but he shows how the witch in modern Europe and contemporary Western culture evolved into the one-dimensional demonized villain, like the one in this story, to support patriarchal traditions. This book's fairy tale ending follows the happily-ever-after trope and while it follows many traditional conventions, it does depart from some traditions when Gabz rescues Alfie after he fails to rescue her. As Zipes explains, fairy tales are not original but based on "human communication of shared experience" and evolve as societies remember and retell them year-after-year. I wonder what the fairy tale will look like hundreds of years from now and what stereotypes and conventions will have changed.

Demon dentist for me is a combination of slapstick, traditional European fairy tale, and "Struwwelpeter." The latter is a collection of moral stories published in 1845, that show the consequences of bad behaviors or manners often in a violent way. One boy sucks his thumbs and a tailor comes and cuts them off with his scissors. The illustration shows blood dripping from the boy's missing thumbs. Harriet plays with matches and burns herself up. She is a pile of ashes in the illustration with only her red shoes left. But while "Struwwelpeter" is serious in tone (although the cats crying in their hankies suggests otherwise), Walliam's book is not. Oh no. Stamp it with, "Guaranteed to snort laugh." Alfie might lose his teeth because he can't brush, but he gets the last laugh. David Walliams creates exaggerated, preposterous characters that are mostly adults and has great comedic timing with jokes. If you like silly books with a simple plot, then give this one a go.

4 Smileys

Monday, June 1, 2015

Laughing at My Nightmare by Shane Burcaw

Twenty-one year old Shane Burcaw's acerbic, raunchy, cussing look at life from a person with a debilitating disease, is written to teenagers with an authentic voice and good message, but it is flawed by its negative stereotype and insensitivity toward people that suffer from mental challenges. Shane is only affected physically and ironically he perpetuates stereotypes in his comments about those with mental disabilities. Shane is a courageous kid who uses humor to deal with his spinal muscular atrophy, a disease that causes the muscles to waste away. He weighs about sixty pounds and shows how he has slowly lost control of  the muscles that help him hold his head up, chew, and talk. He has never walked and relies on others to help him every day, but this doesn't keep him from living a full life. He reveals in his biography how he has made friends and lived as normal a life as possible playing sports, dating, and starting a nonprofit organization. It is obvious he is living a full life.

Shane's family is loving and supportive. They all use humor as a way to deal with Shane's disease and they are very positive. They have taught Shane that life is what you make of it and that being in a wheelchair does not mean you cannot live and dream like everyone else. It does mean that obstacles will be different and normalcy will take on a different meaning. The book describes Shane's painful surgeries and need for help with sleeping, dressing, eating, and moving around. He does not dwell on the fact that he will not live a long life or that he cannot walk.

As someone trying to help others, I am baffled by the instances where Shane separates himself from others with disabilities that affect social or mental skills and perpetuates stereotypes that this type of person is outside of society and "not like him". In a world that has problems with intolerance and persecution of marginalized people, I was offended several times by his stance. And as a person with a nephew who has autism, I find the book insensitive to my nephew's value of being a member of society. He implies that people like this are not worth his time. Shane does not go after any one disease, but instead refers to kids with mental challenges as having tantrums or drooling and being so different from him that he can't fit in with them. In his quest to be considered normal he unintentionally puts down others with disabilities. The result is it keeps the book from reaching its potential even though for the most part I liked his authentic viewpoint and humor.

I liked the book most when Shane stuck with describing the challenges of having his disease. I laughed pretty hard with his description at the doctor's office yelling football commentaries at the top of his lungs to deal with the pain of getting monthly shots. He uses some good figurative language and captures the terror of not being able to breathe. The budding romance at the end loses this writing style and he sounds more like a hormonal boy out of his mind that he has a girlfriend with most of the descriptions being "fucking awesome." I have a bias where I think authors or characters in movies that resort to a pattern of swearing are being lazy. It is easier to swear than come up with a metaphor or simile describing feelings. I suppose you could argue the swearing goes with his character. He does swear excessively throughout the book. Of course, I work with kids every day all day long and swearing is not in my vocabulary.

Shane spends much of the book convincing himself and other people that he is normal even though he is in a wheelchair. He shows how adults can be patronizing and pitying toward people in wheelchairs. The struggles he has with relying on others to help him all the time are poignant and revealing. Even his terror at a college event and wondering if someone was going to break his neck by hitting his chair so hard running to the stage show how fragile his body is. But he also shows great courage in trying things. He has discovered that through his positive dealings with spinal muscular atrophy, he has helped others through his blog and organization deal with their own struggles in life. His life is valuable and he is contributing to society in a terrific way. You go Shane. Just clean up your mouth a little, would ya?

2 Smileys