Magic Tree House Books

Magic Tree House BookNote: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 5, 2014.

For over a year, my husband has been reading the Magic Tree House Books by Mary Pope Osborne to my seven-year-old every night before bed. There are over fifty titles in the series, and currently they are reading #39, Dark Day in the Deep Sea. My son is thrilled because the two protagonists, Jack and Annie, are going to meet an octopus! Though I haven’t read the series with him, I’m privy to many retellings of the stories.

Jack and Annie are a brother and sister, and in the first book, they find a magic tree house and travel back into prehistoric times. In every book, they are sent on an adventure throughout time to different places and even to mythical places.  Through these books, my son has been introduced to Ancient Egypt, Leonardo da Vinci, the Civil War and the American Revolution, William Shakespeare, gorillas in the Congo rain forest and so much more.

The books are a great introduction to history and mythology, and there are even companion non-fiction books that will teach children more about the people and places Jack and Annie meet in their adventures, though we aren’t using those.

Starting with book #29, the books are referred to as “The Merlin Missions.” They are longer and the reading level is higher, so children can continue to be challenged as they grow with the series.

I have heard some criticism from other parents about the quality of writing in the books, which can make them unappealing for adults to read. But my husband has enjoyed reading the series with my son. He says the writing is simple and appropriate for kids, and he considers them to be fantasies and adventure stories for children. He thinks the author does a good job of getting kids excited about history, and he appreciates the author’s attempts at depicting the daily life of everyday people in the time periods the characters visit. From a history professor, that’s not a bad review.

Though we discovered the books while browsing at the bookstore, we only own two of them. My husband has been able to find all the books at nearby libraries by checking online first to find where the next book in the series is located.  No library seems to own all the books, but he has found them all by searching for them at the Winder, Auburn, Statham and Bogart libraries. Since they are short books, he checks out three or four of them at a time. That way they always have something to read each night.

Since I haven’t read the books myself, I thought I would interview my son about them. This is what he said:

Me: Why do you like Magic Tree House books?

My son: I like it because they do all these adventures, and there’s magic, and they meet all sorts of giant animals like a cloud dragon and an octopus and a sea serpent.

Me: What is your favorite book in the series so far?

My Son: Dragon of the Red Dawn, #37

Me: Is there a subject you wish she would write about?

My Son: She already has lots of cool books, but maybe one about going to a volcano and seeing a fire-breathing dragon.

Me: Are you glad Daddy is reading the series to you?

My Son: Yes.

Me: When you finish the Magic Tree House books, what series will you read with Daddy next?

My Son: I want to read Robin Hood with daddy. It’s not a series though.

Me: Anything you want to add?

My Son: They’re really good.

So there you have it from the seven-year-old himself.

Have you or your child read these books? What did you think?

Book Review: Project-based Homeschooling by Lori Pickert

PBH book coverNote: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 27, 2013.

How many children realize that education is for them, so they can do whatever they want to do in life…?  ~ Lori Pickert, author of Project-based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-directed Learners.

Friends of mine know that I’m a fan of Lori Pickert’s book Project-based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners.  I had begun following her blog before her book came out, and it peaked my interest in this style of homeschooling that is based on the Emilia Reggio Approach, an educational philosophy for early-childhood that began in Italy shortly after World War II.  Now there are Reggio-inspired schools around the world.

I don’t like that Pickert titled her book with the word “homeschooling.” To me, it’s a manual for every parent who wants to become a better mentor for his or her child.  Though homeschoolers have the luxury of time, any parent can use the strategies in this book, especially since the work you would do with your child would have no time restraints.

If you want to understand how you can support your child’s interests and foster independent thinking and entrepreneurship, then you need to read this book.

Broadening our perspective about how our children should learn is a good idea anyway. According to Cathy Davidson, author and professor at Duke University, “65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.”

I got that quote from an interview with Davidson on Mindshift, an excellent education blog, and one of her suggestions to parents is to have students embark on meaningful community projects. “Dreaming big, taking risks, and scaling back if and when you have to are fantastic skills. These skills are hardly ever taught in the school room….” she writes.

This sounds very much like the kind of learning Pickert writes about, though projects could be big or small. They could be shared within your family or outside of it. Whatever the size, they are going to give students a chance to direct their own education.

Adults and children learn best when they are studying subjects of their choosing, and with a good mentor, they’ll take their learning to a higher level and find ways of sharing it with other people. After all, teaching what you know to others is the final stage of learning.

What Pickert has done with her book is explain in an easy-to-read and practical manner what parents can do at home to ensure that children will take charge of their own education and gain essential skills. If that sounds far-fetched, I suggest you read the book.

Project-based learning (PBL) is for any parent who wants to be involved in their children’s education. What I found inspiring in the book is the way she insists parents must live the lives that they want their children to aspire to. After all, to be a mentor, you must be doing the work yourself.

One way to teach your children how to fulfill their goals is to show them how you work toward your goals. Your children will learn from your example. Your goals don’t have to be lofty – Everyone has work, hobbies or other interests that they can share with their children, and sharing your disappointments are just as important as sharing your victories.

In PBL, children chose their projects and make long-term deep inquiries into their chosen subjects.  Unlike traditional school where students have time restraints, PBL students can take the time they need to dig deep.  They could take months or years to complete a project. It may branch off into other projects.  Letting them make mistakes and learn from them is a key component in PBL.

As mentors, parents will be writing down their questions, reminding them of what they wanted to know, documenting their work, and most importantly, scheduling dedicated project time. You will ask them what materials they need to do their work, and you’ll make suggestions when they get stuck.

What you don’t do is take over the project or push your agenda on the child. That’s not easy, but Pickert gives practical advice on how to do it. I love how she includes lists of “things you might do” which includes materials you might have on hand. (Environment is considered the “third teacher” in the Reggio Approach.) She even suggests things to say to your children when you’re trying to get out of the rut of doing things for them.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten from Pickert is that parents need to pay attention (vs. giving empty praise) to what they want their children to do more of. By writing down their questions, recording their progress, photographing their work, hanging their artwork on the wall, you are sending them a message that this is meaningful work. If you do this (and don’t give attention to the less desirable acts), kids are going to want to do more of the good stuff.

After reading the book, I had many questions about how PBL would look for young children like mine, so I asked Lori if I could interview her on this topic. She said yes! Please come back next week for my three-part interview with Lori Pickert on Project-based Homeschooling for Young Children. (Yes, she’s so thorough I had to break it up into three posts!) Lori will also be available to answer your questions at the end of the interview, so I hope you won’t miss that.

Book Review: RAISING BOYS by Steve Biddulph

From my archives: Boys visiting a farm

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on February 29, 2012. You can read the online version by clicking here.

Last week I finished reading Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph.  Not long ago I wrote about one of his other books, The Secret of Happy Children.  Like that one, Raising Boys is short and easy to read.  I found it full of useful advice.

Some of it was similar to Michael Gurian’s book, The Wonder of Boys, which I reviewed last year, but there’s enough difference that I highly recommend both.  Busy parents may find Raising Boys more concise and practical for their needs, however.

Biddulph begins the book by noting that thirty years ago, a huge effort was raised to help girls gain confidence. While this was good (I think I benefitted from that), there was neglect when it came to boys. He writes, “…today, it’s the girls who are more sure of themselves, motivated, and capable. More girls than boys finish school, more girls go on to college, and they get better grades than boys.”

While this isn’t true for all boys, I have noticed other articles about boys and education reporting similar findings.  But work has been underway to change how we treat boys.

Much is known now about the differences between the developments of boys and girls brains.  Boys’ brains develop more slowly, and the left and right hemispheres of their brains are less well connected.  Since we know this, we can take steps to help boys and girls as they develop.

Biddulph advises, “…when you chatter, interact and tell stories to babies, toddlers and school-age boys, you’re actually building their neural linkages so they will become men who are good with words and feelings.”

In the book Biddulph writes about the three distinct stages of development for boys.  From birth to approximately six-years-old, boys are in the “learning to love” years.  This is a time that mama is the star of the show, although dads are very important too.  From six to fourteen, however, is “when fathers count the most.”  After fourteen, boys begin to seek a wider world.  They need mentors and caring adults in addition to their parents.

I learned in the book that boys like structure and need to know who’s in charge.  “Wherever you see a gang of boys looking unruly, you know the adult leadership is failing,” Biddulph writes.  Later he adds, “If the teacher, scoutmaster, or parent is kind and fair (as well as strict), boys will drop their macho act and get on with learning.”

He also explains that “if girls are anxious in a group setting, they tend to cower and be quiet” (that’s true for me!), but boys may run around and make noise.

I found it interesting that he noted that schools such as Montessori schools which engage boys in interesting hands-on work have less of a problem with unruly behavior.  He also explains that girls can certainly behave like boys too, and many of the differences between girls and boys are slight.

Biddulph is a big proponent in having boys start school one year later than girls.  I have read this many times and even talked to a kindergarten teacher about it, which is why I wouldn’t enroll my five-year-old in Kindergarten until next year, if I weren’t homeschooling.

Boys’ fine-motor skills and cognitive skills develop slower, so most of them would benefit from starting school later.  Just watching my little boys, it’s evident to me that they need to move a lot.  I don’t make my five-year-old sit at a desk for lessons for more than 20~30 minutes, and even when we are learning, I allow plenty of wiggling.

The book has a chapter each for fathers and mothers and explains the important roles each of them have in their boy’s development.  There is also advice for single mothers, a chapter dedicated to finding and creating the right school environment for boys and much more.

My favorite quote from the book is: “Family life is a work in progress. You only get in trouble if you have to be right and you have to show them who’s boss.  If you are human, it goes much better.”  Raising Boys is an essential read for parents with young boys.

What parenting books would you recommend about raising boys and girls?

Book: Reflections on The Secret of Happy Children

Recently I read the book The Secret of Happy Children by Steve Biddulph, which is an oldie but goodie in the world of parenting books. The title appealed to me because like every mother, I want my kids to be happy.  I also like the fact that it’s not a long book, and Biddulph writes with ease and humor.

He also gained my trust by writing at the beginning of the book, “I still believe experts are a hazard to your family!  If you listen to your own heart it will always tell you what the best way is to raise your children.”

I liked that because up until this last year, I have been loath to read many parenting books.  I know I’m not an expert, but whenever I start reading about parenting, I get anxious because there’s always something in those words of wisdom that I’m not doing.  I let my kids watch more T.V. than the experts say they should, I lose my patience, and I don’t always remain calm.

Yes, I know it’s normal, but when you start to read parenting advice, the logical part of you that says, “Nobody is perfect, and kids don’t need perfect” gets blurred because you want to be a good parent.

But it’s better to be informed.  How can we get better if we never educate ourselves?  So I read the book, and I’m glad I did.  I know I won’t be perfect, but it gave me some things to think about.

In his first chapter, Biddulph talks about the negative programming parents give their children when they are unaware of it.  Most of us adults come equipped with the programming our parents gave us.  Did they tell you that you would never amount to anything?  Compare you to someone else?  Tell you that you were lazy or selfish?

“Children,” Biddulph writes, “with their brilliant, perceptive ways, will usually live up to our expectations!”

He writes that while any of us would recognize the extreme negative statements, most of the programming is subtler.  “Observe children playing in a vacant lot, climbing trees,” he writes, “‘You’ll fall!’ ‘Watch out!’ ‘You’ll slip!’ cries the voice of their anxious mother….”

“Don’t be a pest” is one example he also gives, and I have to admit, I have used that myself.  If used continually, this kind of talk will create “seeds that will grow and shape the child’s self-image, eventually becoming part of his personality.”

I think it’s hard to be conscious of everything we say to our children.  When I’m tired and burned out by being a mother, who knows what kind of messages I’m sending just with my attitude?  But since I read his book, I’ve been making strides at keeping myself more well rested and with a grateful attitude.  I know I’m a more uplifting mom when I can do that.

The rest of the book offers alternatives to this kind of parenting, including chapters on “active listening” and the “assertive parent” (vs. the aggressive or passive parent).  It covers what to do with tantrums, whining, and reminds us to foster a healthy relationship with our partners and also to take care of our own needs.

What stuck with me the most was his chapter on “What Children Really Want.”  Though it should be common sense, every parent can use the reminder that when kids act up, it means that they have unmet needs.  And usually what they want the most is our love and attention.  Not half-the-attention-on-them and half-the-attention-on-our-smart-phones, but our full attention.

I read somewhere else recently that toddlers need at least one hour of sit-our-butts-on-the-floor and play with them per day.  This may not seem like a long time, but if you are a parent, you know one hour is a very long time to sit and give our full attention to playful activities that are thrilling to children yet mind-numbing to adults.

Biddulph says parents should give their children (of all ages) at least half an hour a day of full attention.  Let the rest of the world go, and listen, play, be with your child.  That’s not much time in the big scheme of things.

I am a stay-at-home mom with the luxury of time with my children, but even I can use that advice.  Adults have stress and work that takes our minds away from our kids even when we’re with them.  So I appreciate the parenting advice Biddulph gives, and I highly recommend this book to any parent looking for more insights on how to raise happy kids.

Note: This column originally appeared in the October 7, 2011 edition of the Barrow Journal.

Book Review: Tell Me a Story by Chase Collins

Or How to Use Storytelling as a Teaching Tool



Note: To find more resources on how to start telling stories to your children, see my Storytelling Page.

When we were visiting family in Chicago this summer, I had the chance to read Tell Me a Story: Creating Bedtime Tales Your Children Will Dream On by Chase Collins.  Ever since I read it, my head has been spinning with fairy tales!

The book appealed to me because I know the power of stories and storytelling.  I have always been a lover of stories, books, and the oral tradition.  I had the privilege of knowing the award-winning storyteller, J.J. Reneaux, before a battle with cancer ended her life at the age of 45.  She further inspired me to listen to and tell stories.

Stories do more than entertain.  When I had children, I knew I wanted to use stories to enrich their lives with the wisdom that they could impart.  Children listen to stories much more readily than they do to lectures.

This is why I was thrilled to find Chase Collins’ book because she makes this very point.  Children’s lives are rich with fantasy.  It is something essential to childhood, and their imagination is how they begin to navigate their way through this complex life.

Books are wonderful and necessary, but when parents make up their own stories to tell children, it is a way to validate your child’s make-believe world.  Collins writes, “Your children will be touched to have you affirm the imaginative world they live in, and you will show them that, along with the facts, you also see some magic in the universe.”

By telling your own stories, you will be able to pinpoint specific topics that are important for your child that day.  There may be a specific issue you need to address, but even if there is not, you will be imparting your own values and beliefs through your stories.  You’ll do this almost subconsciously, but Collins also says that telling stories may give you new insights to yourself as well.

If you think you are not creative enough to tell stories, then you need to read this book.  It is a source of inspiration for anyone wanting to be more creative because Collins defines creativity and convinces you that you do have what it takes.  Everyone does.  I found the book to be beautifully written, and through her examples, I felt my creative juices begin to stir.

She also shares what she calls the nitty-gritty basic story structure:

  • There was a likeable hero
  • who had reason to set out on a journey
  • when a threat occurred
  • from which there was a hero-inspired way out
  • which resulted in a safe return and a happy ending.

Yes, it’s the basic structure of many beloved fairy tales, books and movies.

I know what you’re thinking because I thought it too.  Why tell young children stories that may be scary (i.e., the threat)?  And why tell children stories with only happy endings when that isn’t realistic?  Chase Collins convinced me that telling children stories with this structure is important, and though I urge you to read the book for her detailed explanations, I will try to put it into a nutshell:

Children are smart. They already know that the world is challenging.  They tackle new and scary moments everyday even though we may not realize it because we’re looking at their lives through the lens of an adult.  Trying to shield them from scary stuff doesn’t help them because they want guidance from us as to how to confront life.  (I should mention, however, that when you tell your own story, you don’t have to make the threat gruesome and horrifying. It could simply be a problem that needs to be solved.)

Children do not have the experience to see the shades of gray in life that adults do, so giving them what may be a realistic ending to an adult is what may frighten and puzzle the child.  Collins writes that unhappy endings do “…nothing to build a courageous spirit or a willingness to let go of infantile things.”

By telling children stories in which a likeable hero confronts a threat and overcomes it, we are telling them that life is full of struggles, but we know that they have the ability to face them and overcome them.  By giving them happy endings, we are telling them that life is worth living.

After explaining this concept to my husband, he said, “That’s something adults need to hear too.”  Indeed, how many of us have become disillusioned with life, tired, and broken?  We know that life is hard.  Maybe telling some fairy tales can remind us why it’s worth living.

Please sign up for my RSS Feed (or subscribe by e-mail in the right mergin) so that you won’t miss upcoming posts about storytelling or the inspiration that you might need to tell them!  Be sure to check out this list of The Benefits of Storytelling, especially if you aren’t yet convinced that you should tell stories to your children!

This column was first printed in The Barrow Journal on Sept. 7, 2011.