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Hitting the sweet spot at the science fair

I read the article “Science Fairs Aren’t So Fair” (The Atlantic) with some interest, given that my kids are longtime participants in our local and state science fairs. As a parent who hasn’t fallen into the helicopter-parent trap that the writer describes, I thought I’d enjoy her little exposé.

Only two kinds of science fair parents, really?


Families enjoying each other’s board during our local science fair’s public hours.

As a short recap, the article starts with the premise that there are two kinds of parents: the parents who dread the science fair because it asks students to do something they aren’t prepared to do, and other parents who basically do the work for their kids and compete with each other. I don’t disagree that these two groups of parents exist, but at least in my experience, they don’t make up the majority of science fair parents. More importantly, I can’t agree with her conclusion that it’s the kids of the pushy parents who end up winning.

It depends on how you define winning.

Our science fair experiences have included both sets of parents described above. The hovering helicopter parents are certainly annoying—they create gorgeous boards for their kids, write their reports for them, and then train their kids to answer the judges’ questions like performing animals. Sometimes their kids win at their school and county levels—but are they really winning?

The article goes on to quote Google’s first science fair winner, who says that those helicopter parents started turning up in elementary school. She describes standing next to another kid whose project had clearly been completed by an over-involved professor-dad.

But here’s what she doesn’t point out:

She won the Google Science Fair. Not the kids whose parents let them use million-dollar equipment. Not the kids whose parents coached them and created beautiful boards. She won. She doesn’t say why, but I bet I can guess.

But kids can’t do science!

Here’s a quote from the writer of the article, who falls into the “science fair dreaders” camp:

“Much of the parental anger seems to stem from the fact that the bulk of science fairs ask children to produce something, in some cases competitively, that is well beyond their abilities,” she writes.

These parents who act put-upon about being asked to support their kids in inquiry learning outside of school are closer to the helicopter parents than they want to believe. Inquiry-based science isn’t a mystery—it’s something that preschoolers do every day. But we train our kids to think is “hard” and “serious” once they enter elementary school.

It seems to me that the put-upon parents are acting just as competitively as the helicopter parents, except they’re choosing to be the slackers on campus rather than the geeks.

Finding a middle ground


Yucky moldy bananas in my kitchen. It must be science fair time!

So how should parents who want their kids to succeed in the science fair offer support? Well, first of all, if your kid isn’t into it, that’s totally fine. If your 10-year-old needs to do inquiry-based science at home for an assignment, find one of the basic, fun, and yes, hardly original experiments that they can do. Put some fruit out on a tray and take photos of it as it gets moldy. Create three kinds of paper airplanes and hypothesize about which one will fly the furthest. It really doesn’t matter what you do—the main point is to have fun and let your child know that anyone can do this.

Science is not a mystery—babies practice it every day.

If your child is into it, however, you are not required to be a helicopter parent. In fact, you won’t be helping if you do all the work. Let your child struggle; let him make mistakes; let her go in a wrong direction and document it. That’s science. That’s learning. On the other hand, don’t let your child drown in service of your wish not to be a helicopter parent. Offer all the support you can, and if you can’t support your child, find another adult who can help out. The key is that it’s your child’s goal, not yours, that you are supporting.

How to avoid hovering

My son, for the record, does all his science without any help from me. After the first few sentences of his report on the programming language he invented, all I’m doing is scanning for typos. His knowledge is more advanced than mine and I know it. However, he does need support in a few areas. One is scheduling: I know that it helps him to put the various stages of preparation on the calendar with reminders, so once the dates are announced we do that together. Another area he asks for help with is, yes, the board. But the sort of help I give—cutting, pasting things on straight, and comments like “I think that font should be bigger”—are support, not “doing it for him.” (In fact, I would love to design cool boards for him, but he complains if I make even the smallest decision about the visual design. So much for my attempts to live through my children!)

Why do we work this way? First, early on I was attracted to the “I’ve got your back” theory of parenting. This came from a mom who was describing to me why she couldn’t go with behavioralist style parenting techniques that make the parent the enforcer. She said, “If nothing else, I want my kids to know that I’m there for them. When they’re having trouble, I want them to know that I’ve got their back.”

Second, research into child behavior, learning, and brain development is all pointing the same way: Kids who are supported and feel comfortable learn more easily, but kids who struggle in their learning learn more deeply and go further. So in preparing for the science fair—and in parenting in general—I hope to hit the sweet spot between raising kids who know that their parents love and support them, and raising kids who learn the value of struggling through something hard to reach a goal that they set themselves. I suspect that the parents of kids who excel at the top levels of science fairs, such as Google’s, have parents who have hit the sweet spot particularly well.

Why do so many parents go to extremes?


Any kid can do fun experiments in the density of different liquids. You don’t have to do cutting edge research to have fun and learn.

Let’s face it:

It’s easy to be that complaining parent who says that their eight-year-old isn’t capable of inquiry learning.

And it’s very tempting to live through our kids and make sure that they succeed at all costs.

But that sweet spot is like balancing in the middle of a seesaw. It’s not simple, and it never stops being a challenge. However, when parents support their children in a goals they set, they always see success—even when their children don’t win awards. To see our children striving, learning, and growing should be all the success we’re looking for.

Posted in Education, Parenting.

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Five Writing Mistakes I Learned from Harry Potter

I wrote this essay a couple of years ago after attending a rather dispiriting writing workshop, which was led by agents who pretty much insisted that if you aren’t doing what everyone else is doing, you will never get published. Each of the rules below were ones I heard at this conference. I’m republishing it now inspired by this weekend’s SCBWI Golden Gate Conference, a lovely, supportive environment wholly at odds with that other one. This piece was originally published on the Write for Kids blog.

Harry Potter

What do you do when J.K.Rowling does everything you’re not supposed to do?

I once heard a writer of adult literature read an essay she’d written about how Checkhov proved all truisms about what makes a well-written story wrong. But writers of children’s literature don’t have to go literary to get examples of their own. Here are five rules of writing I learned in children’s writers workshops, and what a quick rereading of the opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone says about such advice.

1) Kids’ books should never start with adults, a.k.a. “kill the mother.”

True, Harry doesn’t have a mother. But the first book immortalizing this character starts with the Dursleys, who aren’t even major characters. Their names are apparently Mr. and Mrs. Their son is “small”—definitely not a middle grade fiction reader. As we move forward with the confusing narrative, we meet elderly wizards sitting on a wall. This goes on for seventeen pages. The wizards talk about a baby. A giant arrives (OK, this sounds exciting, except he), bursts into tears, and needs to use an enormous hanky.

2) Kids’ books need to introduce the central tension immediately, without any confusion about “what this book is about.”

Yes, we do find out that Harry has been orphaned and he is going to live with “Muggles,” whatever they are. But we don’t get a whiff of the central tension of this book, or the series, anywhere near the first pages of this book. The Dursleys, who open the book, are always bit players, the tragi-comic relief of the series. You-Know-Who is mentioned but is apparently dead. And Harry himself, the boy who lived, literally sleeps through the scene. Judging from the opening, what the Harry Potter character “wants” is a good night’s sleep!

3) Kids’ books need to stick with a kid’s point of view.

Students, take note: Kids don’t want to read about what grown-ups are thinking and feeling. Never, ever write about a grown-up’s perspective or a grown-up’s concern. This line from Harry Potter must be a fluke: “It seemed that Professor McGonagall had reached the point she was most anxious to discuss, the real reason she had been waiting on a cold, hard wall all day…”.

4) Never start with generalized background descriptions of our characters.

I need only quote the second paragraph of Harry Potter: “Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

I could stop there (it’s pretty self-evident), but I must channel now the voices of JK Rowling’s writers’ group, who all learned what children like when they took writing classes as adults. “Now, Jo, you’ve got to cut all that Dursley nonsense. All those details can come up when they’re necessary. No kid is going to get past that first page with an expository paragraph like that!”

5) Children get impatient with long descriptions—keep it to a few words.

I can’t do better than Rowling, who stakes her £560 million on the belief that children do love a delicious description: “Nothing like this man had ever been seen on Privet Drive. He was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, bright, and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked as though it had been broken at least twice. This man’s name was Albus Dumbledore.”

So what does it tell us that the biggest selling children’s series in history breaks every one of the “unbreakable” rules offered in children’s writing workshops? I think it tells us a few things:

First, it tells us that great writing makes its own rules. I’m sure that if Rowling had followed all of the above advice, one of the twelve big publishing houses that rejected the book would have published it. And I’m equally sure that there would now be no Harry Potter mania of the sort we’ve seen. It would have been a fine book, as dismissible as the other fine but dismissible books that publishers feel safe publishing.

Second, it tells us that writers who want to rise above the din need to stay true to themselves. If the story that speaks to you is about wizards, it just can’t matter that the publishing industry says (as they did before HP) that kids are over wizards and are looking for dystopian romance or some such. A fine writer can crank out fine books that sell well by catering to the market. A writer who wants to do more must follow her muse, which may be whispering a long paragraph full of flowery adjectives in her ear.

Finally, the success of Harry Potter tells us that the publishing industry is too quick to elevate practical advice to received wisdom. Every piece of advice quoted above is good advice in many cases, but that doesn’t mean that it’s law. Of course, good writers work on their craft, and they try out advice to see if it improves their writing. But good writers, unlike mediocre writers, are not beholden to the rules.

As Harry Potter himself might say, when what you know to be true is at stake, there’s no point in following rules just to stay safe.


Posted in Books, Writing.

On brain understanding and mental health

I recently had a conversation with two people, one adult and one teen, about intelligence. I pointed out that modern research is showing that to a certain extent “intelligence” (however we define it) is determined by our genes. Just like our height, the color of our hair, and other clearly physical characteristics, we’re given a physical brain at birth that is all we have to work with for the rest of our life. Of course, raise a child with “tall genes” in poverty with an extremely restricted diet, and he’s unlikely to achieve his full height. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have “tall genes” that his children, raised with a healthy diet, will be able to express.

When I pointed out this fact about intelligence, the adult responded that talking about intelligence, even in this way, sounds like bragging.

What is intelligence?

brain scan

Modern science shows us that brains are different, and we need to stop pretending that they aren’t if we want all kids to be able to reach their potential and live fulfilling adult lives.

It’s true: as a culture, we are very uncomfortable talking about intelligence as an attribute. First of all, we can’t seem to come to a popular definition of intelligence. What the average person might view as intelligence is not necessarily what shows up on an IQ test. But even when we get past that, we react very differently to a mom talking about her child’s sports prowess and a mom talking about her child’s academic achievements.

So why talk about intelligence at all? If Gardner’s theory is true, don’t we all have multiple intelligences, and isn’t this a good thing? Although brain research hasn’t actually given any support to Gardner, I do like his approach in the sense of reminding everyone who works with children that all sorts of skills and interests are valuable in this world.

What I think is interesting and important about talking about intelligence, though, is that by talking about it we can promote self-understanding, which in general leads to happier people who find fulfilling work and meaning in their lives.

Strengths and deficits

I find it sad that we persist as a culture in denying that people’s brains are different and that this is meaningful. Imagine that we as a culture denied that height had anything to do with being a good basketball player. No one admitted it, and every single child was expected to be able to excel at basketball if he or she really wanted to. The short kids would pretty quickly get the message that they simply weren’t trying hard enough, which would lead to the obvious conclusion that there was something wrong with their general ability to achieve.

Just as damaging would be a culture in which every tall person is expected to be phenomenal at basketball. (My very tall brother-in-law tells me that this is actually pretty true of our culture!) What if a tall person simply hated basketball or simply wasn’t good at it, no matter how hard he or she worked? These tall kids would receive an equally damaging message that they have some problem with their general ability to achieve.

But I don’t like math!

When I was a child I took some sort of aptitude test and received the results at school. I remember looking at that piece of paper that said that I should look forward to a future as a mathematician. Math? Sure, I was good enough at math, but I had no interest in it. I wanted to be a writer. It’s not that my verbal skills were particularly bad, but they certainly didn’t test high enough that I had a “should be a writer” note on my test results. Now, let’s not even get into the question of why students in my school received this piece of paper to take home, rather than having it sent to the parents! But past that, if an adult had explained the results to me our conversation might have led me down a very different path.

“These results show that you have a very high aptitude in math. That means that math probably comes easier to you than average. The test shows that you have pretty average verbal skills, and I want to make sure you understand that it’s fine to be average. You’re doing well. This test doesn’t tell you what you enjoy, just how easy or hard certain tasks will be compared to people in general. Many people end up pursuing careers in things they enjoy but have to work hard at it.”

Instead, I remember looking at dismay at the piece of paper, wondering what am I going to do? I don’t want to be a mathematician! I want to be a writer. And that was it, the end of any education I got into how my brain works.

Mental health from self-understanding

Though I can’t say I would have made any different choices in my life, I am certain that my feeling of well-being would have been enhanced by understanding myself as a person, which starts with understanding oneself as a brain.

This is how I’d like to see us use our growing understanding of how the brain works in education and parenting:

  1. Kids should learn that every person is born with a physical brain that may have strengths and deficits
  2. Kids should learn that how we use our brain affects how it develops over our lifetimes
  3. Kids should learn that far from limiting your options in life, understanding your brain can lead you to greater growth and achievements

With those little pieces of knowledge, we could raise children to withstand all the uncertainty, self-doubt, jealousy, and unnecessary comparisons that kids struggle with every day. Few short kids feel bad that they aren’t star basketball players—they would be unable to proceed with life if they let a simple fact of their biology stop them. They figure out that it’s a goal they can’t achieve, and they find something else.

Yet when it comes to other possible careers, so many kids are uncertain whether they can attain goals that they secretly have.

So many kids suffer from self-doubt as they try to achieve something they don’t seem to have a natural ability for.

So many kids suffer from the jealousy they feel—and the jealousy that others feel toward them—because our culture pits kids against each other rather than celebrating the hard work and achievements of each individual.

It’s a lot to work against. My own children, who have grown up with a homeschooling mom who has tried to raise them with a “growth mindset,” say things about themselves that stem from culturally instilled ideas about their abilities and deficits. It’s frustrating to hear my kids limit themselves like this.

This is a task that needs to be championed by more than just a few parents, a few teachers, and a few psychologists. All of us need to agree to stop paying attention to which kids are “smarter” than others, and, conversely, stop insisting that all kids are the same.

We need to stop assuming that a bored kid who refuses to do easy, repetitive homework is lazy. We need to stop making one-size-fits-all educational decisions like standardized high school exit exams that keep some kids from demonstrating their very important skills and interests. We need to start emphasizing how fun it is to work hard for a goal, whether or not you achieve it.

The data is in: The outdated idea that your genes determine your destiny is wrong. The newfangled idea that you can do anything you set your mind to is wrong.

We need to put our modern understanding of brain health squarely in the middle of how we parent and teach.

Posted in Culture, Education, Parenting, Psychology.

Not plants, not animals, but full of life

The hunt was on! Today my mother, three of her grandchildren, and I tromped down into the woods on a mushroom hunt.

Not gonna tell you where, no way.

It was a pretty fruitless search, it seemed. We kept seeing Deathcaps—gorgeous, shiny mushrooms that will kill you. We saw one very waterlogged and rotten King Bolete. Disconsolately, we took the path toward home.

Three enormous bags of chanterelles. Don't ask me where we found them!

Three enormous bags of chanterelles. Don’t ask me where we found them!

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something golden peeking up from the chaff. It was a chanterelle, the lovely mushroom every mushroom hunter in Northern California is out looking for right now. My daughter and I were lagging behind, so we called ahead that the others should stop. We dug up the mushroom and saw that it was in an advanced state of decay, waterlogged and inedible.

“Oh, well,” my mother said when she arrived. “We can come back her another day. Let’s take it with us, in any case, so no one else sees it.”

Just then, my daughter’s eyes got big. She pointed up into the chaparral on the hillside. “Mommy?” she said. “Do you see that?”

Through the brush we could see a bloom of golden-colored mushroom tops peeking through the chaff.

“Wow!” yelled my nephew.

And we were off. Up into the tangled underbrush we went. My mother stayed below, offering up cloth grocery bags as we needed them.

First we thought we’d found lots of chanterelles. Then we realized we’d found the motherlode.

We didn’t weigh them, but I’d say we got around 30 pounds. The retail price is probably dropping rapidly as the pro’s find stashes like the one we found, but last I looked it was over $20 per pound.

Will we sell them? No way.

This is something I love about California. The bounty of the land doesn’t just include those things we sow ourselves. We go mushroom hunting. My brother-in-law goes diving for abalone. My daughter loves to pick berries and miner’s lettuce in the woods.

I suppose this goes for a lot of places. The only foraging I remember from my childhood home in the Midwest was the excellent jam we made from deep dark purple wild grapes. But obviously, it made a pretty big impact on me that I still remember it now.

If you’re in the cold North, now is not the time for foraging (unless you tap maple trees!). But if you’re out here in CA, I highly recommend you take your kids out on a hunt. If you’re nervous about identifying mushrooms, you don’t have to pick them. Just looking for them and finding them is rewarding enough.

Santa Cruzans: One more day of our excellent fungus fair! See you there!


Posted in Culture.

Taking ownership

I was out on a mushroom hunt this morning with my mother, going to a place where we knew there would be chanterelles, but we took a wrong turn in the forest and weren’t sure we were on the right path.

So we tried three solutions: first, push on to see if we were mistaken that we were on the wrong trail (we weren’t); second, go up to the top of a hill to see if we could get a sense of which direction we were off by (we couldn’t); finally, start back at a new starting point where we knew we could find the right trail—success!

Three enormous bags of chanterelles. Don't ask me where we found them!

Three enormous bags of very dirty chanterelles. Don’t ask me where we found them!

Result: Bucket full o’ lovely chanterelles!

I got to thinking that the mushrooming experience is a perfect metaphor for how I want my kids to approach their education. People in homeschooling groups have been discussing this article that ran in the New York Times a few days ago. In one group I’m in, someone pointed out something a professor posted in the comments:

“… By and large home-schooled kids tend to be bright, energetic, and with appalling focus issues – they are great at doing what immediately interests them, dreadful at doing “the boring stuff”. They also have remarkable amounts of detail about some topics and huge lacunae in other areas. …”

I actually agree with the professor that this is a danger that homeschoolers face: In allowing our kids to pursue their own educations, we sometimes don’t encourage them to develop the focus and grit that will help them be successful as college students and beyond.

In our house, we take a two-pronged approach to this problem. First, we let our younger kids follow their muse when it came to education. Certainly, we tried to expose them to a variety of things, but we didn’t force them to continue studying something they hated. We modeled perseverance, but we didn’t enforce it.

But now that we’re homeschooling a teen, we’ve altered that approach. While following your muse is great, sometimes when you pursue a goal you come upon obstacles. We feel it’s very important to help him learn to navigate the real world, in which not every class is interesting, not every teacher is a soulmate, and not every subject you study rocks your world. But, for example, if you want to be a computer scientist you are simply going to have to study algebra (sorry, kid).

So how do we foster perseverance and grit while also allowing for personal choice, inspiration, and dabbling—all important in their own right?

Cleaned, chopped, and ready to cook. Without perseverance, no yummy mushrooms!

Cleaned, chopped, and ready to cook. Without perseverance, no yummy mushrooms!

For us, it’s like my mushrooming trip:

First, simply deal with the fact that not every class you take is going to be fun, not every skill you learn will be easy to master, not every person you have to interact with will be a bosom buddy.

Second, be willing to push on and persevere if there still seems to be benefit in the path you’re taking.

And finally, know when to give up and try a better path.

Balance is the key here: But balance absolutely doesn’t mean that kids should be taught always to suck it up and continue with something that’s not working. That’s the school approach, one we have rejected.

In our house, we believe in following through with commitments. If our kids make a commitment and then one day say, ‘Oh, this is getting hard, I’m going to drop it,’ we don’t simply let them do it. We ask them to take stock of the situation, be clear about why they want to quit, and consider whether they’re quitting because of something important (the teacher is truly awful and they’re getting nothing from the experience) or something easily surmountable (this teacher’s style is not one they terribly like, but when they look at what they’ve done so far in the class, they’ve learned a lot in unexpected ways).

If they end up deciding to quit something, they are expected to take ownership of that decision. They can’t blame the teacher for not being a good teacher, for example. Instead, they can make a positive decision to use their time in a different way to achieve the goals of the class they were taking.

I hope this is teaching them that when working toward goals, they will almost always run across obstacles along the way.*

I hope that when they come up against “the boring stuff” that they have to do in order to succeed in their field, they see it as an obstacle that they can tackle in one way or another.

If not, perhaps they’ve started down the path that leads to amanitas instead of chanterelles.


* I hope that when they get to college, if they run into that professor, they’ll perhaps alter his opinion about homeschoolers a bit. However, anecdotal evidence shows that many people out in the wider world only notice homeschoolers when the homeschoolers do something to justify their low opinion of homeschoolers. So perhaps the professor won’t notice our kids at all, which would be a victory as well.

Posted in Homeschooling, Parenting, Psychology.

Empty Shelves for Gifted Readers

This article was originally published on the Write4Kids industry blog. I was inspired to republish it (since it has dropped off their blog in recent times) by this notice in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin ( “There is a lack of age appropriate books for elementary children who read at a higher level than their grade… The only fiction available for their reading level are young adult books and the middle/high school subject matter is not appropriate for younger readers.” What I said a few years ago!

Most parents wonder how to get their kids to read more.

In our house, we had to have a penalty for unbridled reading! We’d send our son to his room to get dressed, and twenty minutes later we’d find him on the floor, pants half on, reading. He’d read anything he could get his hands on. He’d probably have starved if I didn’t physically take his book away at lunchtime.

Green glass sea

This is a lovely book for aspiring girl scientists—or any girl who doesn’t fit in.

Though voracious readers like my son aren’t the majority, there are many. Enough, in fact, that their parents find each other online to ask the same question, over and over:

What should I do? My child has run out of books!

Specifically, at two points in these readers’ young lives, there is a dearth of books aimed at high reading capacity but lower social/emotional development. I’ll use my son as an example.

Most, though not all, gifted readers start young. My son didn’t start young; he started to read at the boringly average age of 6 3/4. But unlike the other kids in his first-grade class, he didn’t slowly progress from ABC books to early readers to chapter books. In October, he was still pronouncing “the” as “tuh-HUH.” In November, he was reading anything he got his hands on.

The problem was, he was still six, and an emotionally young six at that. He blew through all the classic children’s repertoire in about a year. I remember my gratitude upon finding that there were over 30 books in the Oz series.

The advice we got from other parents, teachers, librarians, and booksellers was almost always off. Sure, Dick King-Smith books are adorable, but a kid like this can eat one up in half an hour. Harry Potter started out a boy, and the early books were just on the edge of too scary, but as Harry ages, the books get more terrifying to a young psyche and further from her experiences.

What these kids need is good, thick books with compelling storylines, rich vocabulary, and little-to-no violence. Writers could look to the past for models: White, Baum, and Wilder got these kids.

Somehow, we got our son through this period. We thought it would be smooth sailing till one day in the library he said, “I’ve read everything here.”

It was true, sort of. He’d read every possible book that wasn’t aimed at young adults. He was now going on 11, and entering that period of human development when all kids become more sensitive. Correspondingly, highly sensitive kids experience a fearful change in themselves and in the world around them.

And so I turned to my friends online again, and found out that once again, our kids were in synch. Though some of their kids had graduated to YA fiction with no problem, many of them tried it and responded like my son, with nightmares, repulsion, or just plain boredom.

Once again, my son needed more depth, more breadth, bigger stories and bigger conundrums. But he did not need more things to make him feel fearful, awkward, and uncertain. As an adolescent, he had enough of that racing around with his hormones.

A great lover of kids’ fantasy, he couldn’t take YA fantasy with its violent imagery and scary plotlines. As an emotionally young 11-year-old, he had no interest in the teen emotional world. He had read all the older classics for middle grades years before.

Though some of these kids can just skip straight into adult classics, my son found them difficult. (Also, when I read Oliver Twist out loud to him, I remembered that even nineteenth-century writers can’t be trusted not to include a horrific, vividly described murder scene!)

Some books that we have found to work really well for him include the Mysterious Benedict Society series, Carl Hiaason’s books, and Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series (which is, like early Harry Potter, just on the edge of too much graphic violence).

Writers could fill this hole with more books that offer the exciting plots, highly imaginative worlds, and character complexity of the best YA fiction, combined with a slightly safer world view, less visually stimulating violence, and no need for teen-level understanding of interpersonal relationships.

One of the common reactions of writers and readers of fiction who read this request is, “Well, fiction is all about conflict, so you can’t ask us to take out conflict.” And of course, that’s not at all what’s being proposed.

Instead, I ask writers to reconsider how the recent acceptance in our culture of the violence in visual media has affected their writing, and more importantly, their perceptions of “what YA readers want.” I suspect that my gifted readers aren’t the only ones turned off by the, frankly, stomach-turning and heart-wrenching violence in many YA books.

Recently, my son, 7-year-old daughter, and I listened to the audiobook of Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn in our car. It was so gripping that when we got near the end of the book, we sat in the car for a while and then finally I said, “OK, I’ll pop the CD and play it inside.” We just couldn’t put that book down.

The book turned out to be a perfect example of what we’ve been looking for: Though there is plenty of sexual yearning and a good measure of violence in the book, it was written with the slower pacing and moral footing of the Victorian fiction it was modeling.

The kids were fully able to ignore the romance, and the violence was never gratuitous. When one of the three main characters is killed, his death is properly mourned and relates to the theme of the novel. (Unfortunately, the second book in the series, with its creepier villains, frozen dead bodies, and weird flying squids, was way too much for my son and gave him nightmares.)

For both the age-groups I’m concerned with, modern fiction has done a great job of filling in the holes left in the classics for struggling readers: books that offer ease of reading and more excitement, books that take cues from visual media, books designed to tempt kids away from other pursuits.

But for the gifted reader, the library is shrinking. As the classics recede further into the past, and thus further from our kids’ experiences and language, very little is taking their place. The child who dashes through easy readers at the age of four can finish the whole of English language children’s literature by nine or ten. And the child who has done that might just have to skip to adult classics to fill the hours of reading she yearns for.

Gifted readers, especially adolescents, want to read current fiction just like their peers. Writers were often gifted readers themselves; perhaps they can channel that hunger they had for meaty, compelling, but not too scary books, and offer them up for their future biggest fans.

Visit my book lists for gifted readers:


Posted in Education, Parenting, Writing.

Tagged with .

Decelerated Reader

This morning at breakfast my daughter sadly eyed the book I’d gotten her for Chanukah, Alice in Quantumland. This is the sort of nerdy, unusual book I love to buy—once we’re done with it we’ll donate it to our library and hopefully they’ll make it available to other nerdy unusual kids in our community.

But why was she sad?

A book about quantum physics for kids! Featuring a girl! How could AR pass this up?

A book about quantum physics for kids! Featuring a girl! How could AR pass this up?

When you have kids who are avid readers, they run into different obstacles than the general public understands. Our children’s publishing industry is focused on “hi-lo” books—high interest, low readability. In other words, books that are very similar to the type of kids’ movies that Hollywood puts out. The producers of these books assume that:

  1. Kids don’t like to read
  2. Kids have to be enticed into reading by high concept stories
  3. Kids are terrified to come across a word they don’t understand
  4. Kids will refuse to pick up any book that’s heftier than their iPad

Problem is, there are tons of kids who don’t fit this model, but because they are “doing fine,” no one is paying them much attention.

In the past, I’ve written about two periods of childhood in which avid readers run into roadblocks (pre-K/K and tween) and also how hard it is for science-minded girls to see themselves in kids’ literature (here).

Our daughter, now that she’s doing 7th grade in school, has run into another avid reader roadblock: Accelerated Reader.

In concept, AR sounds great. Kids read books on their own, log into AR at school, take a quiz about the book*, and get credit for reading time. At the beginning of each year, teachers set AR goals for all their students. Not having much of an idea who these kids are**, they set a low goal for the semester and kids like my daughter blow through that goal in a couple of months.

You can guess what happens next: The teacher doesn’t say, wow, this child has mastered everything she needs to in the area of reading, so I’m just going to encourage her to keep reading things she loves and stop worrying about proving that she’s reading certain, approved books. Instead, the teacher says, oh, no, this child reached the goal so early, I’m going to have to set a much higher goal.

So kids like my daughter learn a lesson that perhaps the teacher didn’t mean to teach: If you enjoy something that school cares about, make sure to hide it and pretend you’re just like everyone else. If you don’t, you’ll be punished with more busywork that will keep you from doing the things you want to do.

Here’s why my daughter was sad this morning. She clearly wants to read Alice in Quantumland. But she has to meet this new, high AR goal her teacher set soon after winter break has ended.

And Alice in Quantumland is not listed in AR. That means she can’t take a quiz to prove she read it. That means if she reads it, in her words, “I’ll be reading it for no reason since I won’t get credit.”

Oh, no! Reading for no reason! This terrible impulse must be quashed!

I can never get over the irony of being someone who understands how our education system works while listening to politicians and concerned community members talking about education. They want kids to read (mine does), be inspired (mine is), and learn (can’t stop mine from doing that). Yet they push our system for more and more “accountability,” which ends up quashing any interest in reading, any inspiration the teachers might be able to uncover in their students, and any real, deep learning that can’t be proven on a standardized test.

My daughter’s at school only because she wants to be. She knows that when she complains about AR, it’s not my problem. She could be homeschooling right now like her brother is, determining her own curriculum, reading books that inspire and excite her whether or not AR thinks they’re worth reading.

But for some reason, she’s continuing on this social science experiment that she started last year. I still stand firmly behind my reasons for letting her go to school: If I believe in child-led learning, then I have to let her see this through.

But when I saw her lovingly and sadly flipping through her new book, it gave me pause. It’s the last day of school before winter break. I could just say, “Come on, let’s be homeschoolers today.” But she had her celebratory cupcakes for her Humanities class party, and she was ready to go.

“Well,” I suggested. “Perhaps you will have time during vacation to finish your AR goals and then get to this book.”

And then we went to school.

* They take the quiz to prove they actually read the book—I won’t start on my rant about how unnecessary this is if educators were given the time to really work with and get to know their students…

** Another homeschooler rant here: If teachers had fewer students, if there were more continuity in our public schools from year to year so teachers didn’t have to depend on assembly-line teaching to try to serve their students’ needs, if we didn’t think we had to have “accountability” for each and every smidgeon of learning our kids do…

Posted in Culture, Education, Homeschooling.

Tagged with , , .

Sifting and sorting: summer beach magnetorheological fun

Yes, it’s not summer anymore, yet I just was sifting through my blog and found this post I never activated. So keep this in mind for the coming summer. Or if you’re like us, you’ll enjoy a winter beach as well!

When I was homeschooling my daughter, I often wrote about things that we’d do to satisfy her need for tactile stimulation and goal-oriented projects. She just loves getting her hands into something, and when she was small, that meant our house could be, ahem, rather chaotic!

Recently she and her father were talking about iron filings (why were they talking about iron filings? these are the sorts of questions it’s best not to ask!) and he suggested that she get some from the beach. It being summer, we were able to indulge this whim without worrying about getting homework done. (Ah, homeschooling a younger child, how I miss you!)

We made our way to the beach with two strong magnets and three ziploc bags. The bags are important: Of course, you need one to store the filings into. The other two are to cover the strong magnets, because the thing her father warned her about came true almost immediately: if you drop a strong magnet into sand, you end up with a strong magnet covered with iron filings! OK, that in itself is pretty interesting, because we spent a good while pondering the physics of how to remove iron filings from a strong magnet! But I recommend trying to keep the magnets in their bags, because even though we came up with lots of nifty ideas, our magnets are still, to this day, covered with iron filings.

Step 1: Sweep your magnet through the sand and pick up iron-rich sand.


Step 1 if you accidentally drop your strong magnet directly into the sand. (Oops!)

Step 2: Put your magnet and bag into another bag. Pull the magnet out and the sand will drop into the bottom of the second bag.

Step 1, using the bag around the magnet

Step 2, using the bag around the magnet

Step 3: Repeat until you have a bag of sandy iron filings.


Step 2, assuming you have forgotten about keeping your magnet in the bag and instead dropped it directly into the sand.

Step 4: Repeat the attract and drop sequence with another bag or container so that you can further refine your iron filings and filter out sand.

My husband then recommended that we follow these instructions to create a “magnetorheological fluid.” That was pretty interesting, as well, though not quite as satisfying as the sifting process.

Posted in Homeschooling, Parenting.

Mushroom magic

No, today’s post will not be an argument in favor of legalizing magic mushrooms. Move on to the next blogger if that’s what you’re looking for.

The other day I was waiting for my daughter to get out of school. Next to her school is a playing field with a dirt track running around it, and I try to arrive a bit early so I can get a walk in before she’s out.

Recently, they put out new mulch in various garden areas around the track, and I noticed the wonderful spectacle that mulch-plus-rain often offers: a lovely crop of varied mushrooms everywhere. My family are great appreciators of mushrooms in the woods and on our table, so I was enjoying the variety and exuberant growth.

As I rounded the track, I came across something curious. In a grassy area, not a speck of mulch to be found, there was a perfect circle of mushrooms. It was an almost magical thing, to see this perfect circle sprouting from the grass.


Yes, mushroom fairy rings have a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation. But sometimes it’s just lovely to enjoy natural phenomena for the magic they bring into our lives. This fairy ring made me smile.

Just then, the bell rang and the first two kids out were boys, one of whom was carrying a long, cylindrical object. They walked up to the mushroom ring, took a second to voice a “whoa” of appreciation, and then proceeded to destroy the whole thing. The boy with the cylinder played golf, and the other boy grabbed mushroom after mushroom, ripped it from the grass, and flung it as far as he could.

Now, to be fair, as my husband pointed out to me it’s not just boys that do things like this. So I’m not going to make any gender generalizations here. But I am going to bemoan this aspect of humanity—or perhaps it’s the fault of many of the cultures humanity has created—to want to defeat the magic of nature.

So I will rewind the tape, which ends with the flinging boy hitting me in the leg with one of his particularly large victims, and rewrite this scene from the “whoas.”

“Whoa,” the boys said in unison.

They looked at each other in astonishment. How could such a weird thing have happened without any sizzle of magic or hand of a god?

One of the boys thought, I bet our science teacher would be able to explain this. But he didn’t say anything.

The other boy thought, I bet I could find out what this is on Wikipedia. But he didn’t say anything.

Instead, the boys’ eyes met, and they knew immediately the appropriate response to this situation. They dropped their backpacks outside the circle, stepped inside, and sat down back-to-back within the ring of mushrooms.

Soon other students drifted away from the school buildings, and many of them were attracted by the unusual spectacle of a circle of mushrooms embracing two of their classmates. Some of them, also, threw down their backpacks and quietly sat down within the circle. Soon the circle was full and other kids stood outside of it, watching.

Impatient parents craned their necks from the parking lot. What the heck was going on over there that was so interesting? The kids were probably just getting itchy for winter vacation. The parents looked back down at their smartphones.

The kids quietly rose from the circle, fetched their packs, and went off to find their rides.

That night, raccoons came and picked the tastiest mushrooms from the circle. Then a drenching rain melted the mushrooms back into the grass.

In the morning, kids walked over the soggy grass, rushing because they were late for school.


Posted in Culture, Parenting.

Mommy brain

Moms congregating in groups at parks, breastfeeding support groups, and cafes often find themselves trading stories about “Mommy brain.” You know, B.B. (before baby) you were a high-ranking partner at a law firm and now you can’t remember where you stashed your favorite nursing bra. B.B. you aced calculus and now you stare blankly at a restaurant receipt, trying to remember how to calculate a tip. B.B. you never missed an appointment, but now you’ve rescheduled your haircut twice because it’s not like you were actually doing anything important, but somehow you managed to forget the only hour you’ve had to yourself in the last three weeks…twice.

This is me performing when I was studying at Stanford. I have blogged before about my beloved lime green skirt!

This is me performing when I was studying at Stanford. I have blogged before about my beloved lime green skirt!

You know how most of the time changes like these can go unnoticed, but every once in a while a ghost of your former self comes out to haunt you? That happened to me the other day. I was going through all my various 3-ring binders that I keep music in. Rather than having any sort of logical system (an idea I’d love to bring about but never have), my music binders tend to represent me at various stages in my life.

So I pulled out the binder I used the last time I performed live in a singing/guitar duo. I have no trouble remembering that time: I was hugely pregnant the last time we performed. My singing partner at the time and I had discovered that by random chance, we’d been born in the same town, so we named our little band after the town. I truly meant to get back to performing after the birth, but at 7 months pregnant, I was swollen up so much that my hands had gone into full-blown carpal tunnel syndrome (which my physician assured me would go away after birth, ha ha ha). Somehow, that return to performing never happened, and now that baby I was pregnant with is fifteen years old.

How did that happen? Mommy brain…

Anyway, here I was opening this binder, which was a little snapshot of who I was then, more than fifteen years ago. I was charmed by our playlist, which included a couple of my favorite Disney songs (“Everybody wants to be a cat” and “Cruella deVille”).

But here’s where my realization about Mommy brain came in: Each sheet had the words printed out, and some notes about how we were performing, but no chords. I rifled through the binder, amazed. Did I really perform without the chords written out?

Yes, apparently I did.

I’m in the midst of getting my song-singing chops back, fifteen years on with two kids, carpal tunnel surgery, and the painful process of creating new guitar calluses behind me. The lime green skirt is long gone, along with any expectation that I will ever again fit into a miniskirt, or dare to think I look good in one.

But it’s hard to see that despite what research might say, Mommy brain in my case is real: I really did perform without chords when last I performed. And when I was twenty and singing out on that patio, I apparently had memorized the words as well.

The best wisdom I have read about aging is that it’s important to remember that along with what we lose (chord progressions, words, our favorite nursing bra), we gain (insight, perspective, depth of understanding, appreciation for clothing that stretches and hides).

But when these occasional reminders come about, I can’t help but be a little sad for my loss. I used to be able to perform without chord progressions in my book. I used to be able to perform…without a book at all. I was good at calculus. (If Mommy brain hasn’t ruined me completely, I seem to remember I got an A+.) I did manage to hold everything important in my life inside my physical brain, before Evernote, cellphones, and even Google.

Now there seems to be so much—two kids’ schedules, a whole family’s needs—that I can’t stuff it all in there.

Car keysI just hope that when I get back out there with my new singing partner (who, as far as I know, wasn’t born in the same town I was), people will forgive us. Here we are, two post-baby moms, hers out of the house and mine plummeting headlong toward that end, making music and loving it.

If nothing else, give us a little applause for getting up there.

In spite of Mommy brain, we managed to find our car keys.


Posted in Arts & Music, Parenting.