People Watching (aka: What I Learned From Dr. Seuss)

Dr. SeussOne of the things I enjoy doing, whenever I venture out of my cave, is to observe people. Not in a creepy, staring kind of way, but discretely, to satisfy my writerly curiosity about people. While those around me think that I am engaged in reading a book on my iPad, I am occasionally taking sneak peeks, or catching snatches of their conversations. People are fascinating, and one can learn many things just by being still and observing. And what have I learned lately?

That Dr. Seuss was kind of a genius.

read to learn to grow to go places

I know. Most people probably don’t look at his legacy of cute, silly rhyming stories for children and think of the word genius. And in fact, perhaps I am overusing the term. However, it became apparent that Dr. Seuss, like myself, and like most fiction writers, was an avid people watcher. And that somehow, he managed to capture perfectly some of the most common archetypes and struggles of humanity through his humorous and whimsical rhymes. Perhaps the language he used lacked the sophisticated eloquence of Shakespeare, Frost, or Whitman, but he was, in my opinion, no less of a talented poet.

racial prejudice bug

Did you know that Dr. Seuss was once a political cartoonist?

When children listen to Dr. Seuss stories, they may be entertained by his clever rhymes and fantastic characters, like the silly but loveable Cat-in-the-Hat, or the persuasive Sam-I-Am and his strange green eggs and ham. However, if you were to take a closer look at the themes of his stories, you may find some strong political statements   and surprising universal truths revealed.

For example, in the famous book, The Lorax, Seuss uses a humorous children’s story as a barely-disguised political platform against corporate greed, consumerism, and destruction of the environment. In The Sneetches, one of my all-time favorite works of children’s literature, Seuss spoke out against racism, prejudice, and anti-semitism. The SneetchesThe Zax, a very short story about two very stubborn creatures who both refuse to budge, and so neither one goes anywhere. Sound a little like Republicans and Democrats, perhaps? And then there is the well-known Yertle the Turtle, another of my personal favorites. Hitler – oops, I mean Yertle is a turtle who lives in a small pond, but gets the idea that he is king of all he can see. He begins to climb upon the backs of the other turtles in the pond, despite their misery, in order to expand his rule. He takes his superiority complex a little too far, however, and down he falls, as all megalomaniacs eventually must.

“I’m Yertle the Turtle! Oh marvelous me! For I am ruler of all I can see!”

Advertisements

Waiting for My Hogwarts Letter (aka: Still a Harry Potter Nerd)

Happy dance! I am such a proud mother right now. No, not because my kids had great report cards or other outstanding  achievements. I am feeling super-proud of my 9-yo son, who is more than halfway finished reading the sixth book in the Harry Potter series. Not only is he enjoying the books, but he has been happily exploring the Pottermore website and talking with his friends about the books. He and his buddies have even created their own game of wizards, complete with magic wands and spell books full of magical spells to memorize and perform on each other. Hooray!


Harry Potter Book Collection

To understand why that makes me so happy, you must know that I am a hard-core Harry Potter nerd. Or, as we like to put it, a Potterhead. Ever since I first opened the pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone years ago, I became rather smitten – no, obsessed by the mysterious and magical world of Harry Potter. It is an understatement to say that I have merely read all seven books. I have read them each at least three times, and once in Spanish. I have listened to both the Jim Dale and Stephen Fry audiobook versions at least twice, and geeked out by comparing and contrasting the narrator’s styles. (Okay, I said I was obsessed, right?). I have watched each film several (dozen) times, collected the Lego figurines, and even have a beautiful book of postage stamps, which will never, ever be pasted onto a piece of mail. HP postage stamps

And every summer, I stare out of my window, anxiously hoping that this will be the year in which an owl will arrive with my acceptance letter into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. (Or some adult-school version of it).

Creds to http://sammy4586.deviantart.com/

What’s that? Still not convinced that I am a true Potterhead? Okay, well, I was also a member of the Mugglenet community for years, tried my hand at fanfic (not successfully), and yes, I sewed my own Gryffindor quidditch robes and wore them to the July 2007 midnight release party of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Even cooler, I once had the privilege of having my quidditch robes autographed by Arthur A. Levine, the American editor for the Harry Potter books.

My homemade Gryffindor quidditch robes. (I know, I weighed a lot more back then. Shh…no teasing).

Okay, okay, enough of making you jealous. 😉 I’m sure that you’re convinced now that I am a genuine Harry Potter nut. I had such high aspirations for my three kids, too. I was sure that I could pass on to each of them my love of literature, and especially for J.K. Rowling’s amazing world of fantasy. Sadly, my two oldest children are rather indifferent to Harry Potter. Sigh. Muggles. But thank goodness, at least my youngest son has discovered the joy of magic. Smart kid. No wonder the Pottermore sorting hat placed him in the house of Ravenclaw.

Child Discipline (A Cautionary Article)

Little Willie, with a curse
Threw the teapot at the nurse.
When it struck her on the nose,
His father cheered, “How straight he throws!”

–”Eros”

Published in The Westminster Problems Book, 1908.

Naughty Kids “How do I keep my child from becoming spoiled?” In my line of work, parents of young children often ask me questions such as this. Of course, as child development is my specialty, I try my best to guide parents toward solutions and resources that will help them to effectively discipline their children. There is a tremendous wealth of information on child-rearing these days – enough to make one’s head spin. I will not bother to publish links to my favorite resources, except for this beautifully written article I recently read, by John Robbins, which addresses the ways in which we often spoil our children in today’s culture: What Really Spoils Our Children? Here is one of my favorite exerpts from the article (although I highly recommend that parents read the entire piece):

It’s not love that spoils our kids. They become spoiled when we ply them with too many toys, too much stimulation, and too much of the wrong kind of attention. They become spoiled when they learn, often from our example, to identify their self-worth with others’ approval, with how they look, with how much stuff they have, with how expensive their clothes are, or with how large their homes are.

I will not pretend to be a perfect parent. I, too, am guilty of overindulging my children, of not enforcing consistent discipline at times, and of not insisting often enough that they help out with housework (though my children will beg to differ). But I certainly try, as every good parent does, to teach my children how to become disciplined, kind, thoughtful, creative, productive adults. And, like every good parent, I occasionally seek child-rearing advice from other wise people, such as Hilaire Beloc. demon child spoiled teen

What’s that? You’ve never heard of Hilaire Beloc? Why, his Cautionary Tales for Children have been used by good parents to frighten their children into good behavior since 1907. Not only is the book filled with  sensible and practical moral instruction to prevent children from growing up to become spoiled brats, but the book is also filled with amusing and lighthearted bedtime stories, such as the story ofAugustus: Who would not have any Soup Today or George: Who played with a Dangerous Toy, and suffered a Catastrophe of considerable Dimensions. Here is one of my absolute favorite anecdotes:

Just Can’t Get Enough Great Books

Some books are like a light meal.  Memoirs of a Geisha, The Secret Life of Bees, and The Joy Luck Club all come to mind. They are pleasant, enjoyable to read, and just filling enough to take off the edge. Other books are like a healthy snack — tasty, good while it lasts, but not at all filling, like many young adult novels, and nearly anything by Stephen King. Of course, there is also book candy — those delicious, melt-in-your mouth reads that are thrilling every now and then, but eat too much, and you get a stomach ache. Twilight, anyone? Better yet, how about 50 Shades of Gray? (Did I actually read this? I plead the fifth!).

But I am an avid reader with a voracious appetite. For readers such as I, only one thing can feed our never-ending hunger: Great Books. What are Great Books, you ask? Well, Wikipedia’s article has a very simple definition: “The great books are those books that are believed to constitute an essential foundation in the literature of Western culture.” Philosopher Mortimer Adler goes on to define great books by these three fundamental criteria:

  • the book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times;
  • the book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit
  • the book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.

These definitions are all true, but I also believe that great books and great works of literature are the books that nourish our minds and raise within us the questions which we never dared to ask ourselves, the moral dilemmas that are common to all of humankind. Great books examine human nature, tear it open, and resurrect it in a believable and honest way. They reach beyond the superficial surface and grab our spirits until we are left shaken and stirred and inspired.

Too much? Sorry, I got a little carried away. I have been very busy lately devouring great books, both in English and Spanish. Here is a list of a few great books which I have read (or re-read) fairly recently. This is not necessarily a list of favorites, for it is very difficult to create such a list…it is far too long. But here are a few which are very much worth reading. Haven’t tried these books yet? Then grab one, and curl up in your favorite reading spot. Already read the entire list? Well then, that’s just…great.

10 Great Great Books

1. Brave New World     —    Aldous Huxley

2. Northanger Abbey  —  Jane Austen

3. A Tale of Two Cities  —  Charles Dickens

4. Animal Farm  —  George Orwell

5. The Odyssey  —  Homer 

6. Mansfield Park  —  Jane Austen

7. Twelfth Night  —  Williams Shakespeare

8. Moby Dick  —  Herman Melville

9. Atlas Shrugged  —  Ayn Rand

10. Cien Años de Soledad  —  Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Surrounded By Friends (No Kindles Allowed)

The Kindle is an impressive bit of technology. Really. I can see why so many people love it. Just download a few dozen books, and voila! An entire library in the palm of your hand. No need to surround yourself with cluttered shelves overflowing with books. Such speed! Such convenience! Such an improvement, right?

For some, yes. But not for me. You see, books are more than just clutter for me. During a lonely childhood, books were my faithful companions. Throughout a turbulent adolescence, they were a source of comfort. Whenever the world has grown too noisy, books have been there to soothe me with a gentle whisper of rustling pages and the faint smell of dust and ink.

Many people, I imagine, would prefer to sit in a stark, spotless room and read stories on the glowing screen of an e-reader. But in my daydreams, I am curled up in a soft, shabby chair, worn novel in hand, surrounded by shelves overflowing with my very best friends.

Favorite Books of All-Time

(Note: This list could change at any time, as I am always reading and discovering great new literature).

To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee

East of Eden — John Steinbeck

A Tale of Two Cities — Charles Dickens

David Copperfield — Charles Dickens

Harry Potter Series — J.K. Rowling

The Lottery (a short story) — Shirley Jackson

Brave New World — Aldous Huxley

About Love and Other Stories — Anton Chekov

Pride & Prejudice — Jane Austin

Jane Eyre — Charlotte Brontë

Inherit the Wind — Jerome Lawrence

Websites for Readers

Goodreads

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

Shelfari