Friday, April 30, 2010

Thoughts on Self-Publishing and Writing Books

I'm vowing publically to never again do a book review on a self-published author. Well let me revise to say I will not accept any more review copies from self-published authors, no matter how tempting (because I've already accepted some self-published books that I should do reviews on).

I'd already made this policy but was tempted when I met an author in person. I was so excited for the project and I wanted it to work. I am so disappointed in what I'm reading. It is also not easy to write a review when I've met the person and liked them. It is not easy to deliver bad news.

I started out as a champion for self-publication because I feel that some very good information is not making it to publication due to ignorance of book publishers. They don't always realize that the public needs or wants certain information (I'm talking about non-fiction books for that issue). In some cases maybe the issue is the market is too small to justify publication expenses but that doesn't mean the information is not needed. Some would buy it if it was available, and self-publication may work best for those niche markets. An example is a book about homeschooling, something more specific than the general topic that can be sold at homeschool conferences where the speaker is a vendor.

The fact is I have read too many self-published books in the last two years that have serious issues. Major principals of good writing are ignored by these authors. The books can be boring, fiction can be poorly written, and non-fiction information can be repetitive, too detailed, or poorly organized. This is in addition to sometimes the books having poor English grammar and spelling mistakes.

The problem is perhaps that the self-published authors sometimes also are too emotionally attached to their writing and they don't want to hear truthful feedback. It is almost that they are blind to see reality. The problem is the original idea is a good one but I think the authors have not edited it and revised it enough to turn from it's infantile state to something good if not great. These books are in need of serious editing, not just to catch the spelling mistakes but they need the advice and wisdom of an editor to help the writer see where improvement is needed. "This idea needs to be expanded more, this area is unclear, this is repetitive, this section is dull, the book has an uneven tone" are some examples of constructive criticism.

Authors who are not self-published sometimes write for a full year before their book is finally complete. I have heard that some books have gone through twelve full revisions. Some fiction stories have been changed in major ways including new plots hatched and entirely different endings. Characters are killed off and other original ideas are nixed.

Perhaps some book authors are holding on too dearly to their original idea and fear editing and changing. They should instead remember they are creating a story or a non-fiction book that a reader will want to read and will enjoy or find useful. What matters is that the final state of the book is worthy. The reader does not know or care about the first and second draft, or how the original idea may have been different than the final version and the author should not care either. If in the end the book is great who cares that the ending is different than was originally conceived? Writers need to learn to let go!

Any author who writes for publication and wants to actually sell the books needs to care about marketability. A bad book will not sell well, or if it does sell, it will not be loved or even read through to the end by its owner. Some customers will feel ripped off and resent being duped into buying that author's book. After all that effort doesn't the self-published author want their customers to actually read the book and enjoy it? I'd think so!

Some self-published authors somehow get to delete customer reviews that they do not like. The fact that Amazon would do that surprises me because sometimes those reviews help Amazon customers remain happy Amazon customers (happy with Amazon overall).

Once I bought a "book" from Amazon that had flattering customer reviews. The publishing house had a name and I assumed it was a professional company. The book was not even a book, it was a print off of a power point presentation done on 20 pound computer paper printed on one side only and comb bound, and had a low page count. The printing quality was terrible. The writing was bad, the content jumped all over the place, and the graphics were horrible. It had a combination of digital photos, cartoons, and clip art and some of the artwork was not sized in proportion, so it was distorted, like a person's face looking like they were in a fun house mirror. Also the block of information was just one small part of the page leaving the rest of the page empty. Why wasn't it at least blown up to fit the page completely? I bet it was because the author didn’t know how to resize, since the way it printed was the default size! Some of the font was so tiny I couldn't read it in its small-size state. This thing was nonsense and a piece of junk, it wasn't a book.

I didn't know how I was duped into buying this for $18.95, so I revisited the product page on Amazon and realized the best "customer review" was the author's own review (but using some initials instead of his first name so it was not obvious). I realized that this "book" was self-published (and probably comb-bound at his kitchen table). The author attacked the customers who did negative reviews and some of what the author was saying was pretty scary and revealed a lot of anger and possibly some mental instability! I also learned right on the author’s own customer review that he lived about 45 minutes from me. I returned the book to Amazon for a refund (minus my postage expense). I was tempted to give this book a negative review to warn the other potential customers but decided not to as I didn't want to be attacked by the author.

In other cases I'd been asked by self-published authors to read their books then when I published a less than five star review the author had the review(s) deleted. This was frustrating to me because first I suffered through reading the book I'd committed to read and then I labored over how to write the review, trying to be objective by giving constructive criticism. I’d given concrete examples to justify my statements, and it was for naught. It is much more difficult and time consuming for me to review something I don't like than what I like or love.

Recently while reading a book "What's Your Story?" which I’m using to teach a class of homeschooled students, I read the author's statement asking the reader if they really want to write a book or do they want to have written a book. Read that phrase again and see if you see the difference. I love it.

I used to say I wanted to write a book. Right now, I'm still saying I want to write a book someday, but that day is not today. I don't have time right now to write a good book. So for now I'm not even trying. Having written a good book is not easy. A good idea does not instantly turn into a great finished book. The editing can and should take a lot more effort than the ease of having that original idea pop into your head. I don't know if I'll ever make the time necessary to write a book because I don't know if I'll ever choose to use my time in that way. At present I have other, higher priorities for how I'm choosing to spend my time.

There are tried and true components that explain what constitutes good writing. All writers should know these things. All students should be taught these things as part of learning to write (writing composition). The general rules of writing should be followed, period. Anyone who has decided to write a book should invest their time in learning these basic principals. Please for your reader's sake, learn these things before you start writing a book. Don't waste your time, don't spin your wheels, life is too short to spend your time trying to write a whole book then trying to get it published and to market it if it is not any good.

If you want to be a writing hack you can always just blog. It's free for the blogger, and it's easy to publish. You don’t need to know anything about HTML or computer coding. You don't even need to market yourself if you don't feel like it. Readers may or may not choose to read your blog, and since it's free for them to read they won't get too upset if they don't like what you say or how you say it, they'll usually just not return. You probably won't even know about their opinion of your writing (most people never leave blog comments), so your feelings won't be hurt either.

On the other hand, if you blog and use it for writing practice and you improve your writing along the way, and if you develop a loyal audience, it may fuel your fire to begin the arduous task of writing and editing a book and pursuing publication with a traditional publishing house! You may be the next J.K. Rowling or David McCullough.

P.S. My book reviews are honest. If you are a self-published author and I’ve praised your writing, it was my true opinion. If you have provided me with a review copy of a book and I have not yet published a book review you may be in the category of books I’m postponing reviewing due to not liking the book. Before you get angry with me for not yet publishing my review, ask yourself if you’d prefer a negative review being published or no review being published.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How a Homeschool Family Tests a Video Surveillance Camera

My boys were standing with me when the Amazon Vine newsletter was released. This is an online list of products that are being offered to me. I can request usually two items to test. Most of the time these are books but on this day last month one item was a home or small business video security system, a video surveillance camera with video recording ability and a motion activation option.

My sons begged me to get it.

We already have a very good home security alarm with monitoring by a professional company. Well now we have a video system that we control! This is a small unit with one camera that retails for just under $300.

My twelve year old hooked it up in less than fifteen minutes. It was that easy.

The first test was done by doing live monitoring in the living room with the kids jumping around and walking past it. Fine and well.

The second test was testing the night vision by putting the camera inside a huge fort made using the couch and its cushions and blankets the kids took off their beds. One kid went inside and made faces while the other watched the television screen to see that indeed the camera has night vision and we can see in the dark.

The data card was defective and we could not record until we took the card out of my camera and changed the formatting to accept the video camera's data.

We set up the camera outdoors (it is an indoor/outdoor product). At night we placed a too-old piece of ham from Easter on the grass and set the camera to record by motion detection. We wondered what animal would come to eat the ham. We took bets, two of us said a raccoon and two of us said a coyote. (We have a coyote den in the neighborhood and it is seen in the morning by the kids waiting for the bus stop regularly.)

During that test is when we realized that the jack for the power was defective. By itself the thing loses its connection and goes on and off all by itself. The next morning the ham was gone but the only video that recorded was the first one when we put the ham there. I am not happy that this set has both a defective power jack and a non-functioning card for recording.

The next night we set the camera up for another test to see if we put food out what would eat it. On this night it was raining and the raindrops falling in front of the camera triggered the recording. This is NOT good. However we proceeded with the experiment. We put out a gingerbread cake that my son made from a recipe on the Internet that never said the baking time and pan size so it was partially raw.

This time the power stayed on and there were three videos of an opossum slowly nibbling around the edges, between 10pm and 11:30pm. Then at 11:41pm a coyote quickly dodged in and picked up the cake in its mouth and backed off. The cake started to slip so it paused and got a better grip on it before running away. The coyote looked skittish and it was fast. It was also small (like the experts say they are) not like a giant German Shepherd as my neighbor says she sees often.

The resolution on the video is not great and it shows motion as kind of a stop-start, jerky way. However when fiddling with the controls I saw an option to make the resolution better so that will be the next test. We decided to wait until the multiple days of rain stopped and to do another test with the better resolution using my son's gingerbread creation from Christmas--Percy Jackson's sword. This is glued with icing onto aluminum foil covered cardboard so if the coyote comes back he'll have a challenge to get it off so we can get a better look at him.

I'd also like to video the compost bin. I hardly get any finished compost from all the stuff we put into it. I suspect mice and possibly raccoons and opossums are eating from it. I know something is as the less edible stuff we put in is sometimes found 15 feet from it (corn husks, tops of pineapples).

So that is how this homeschool family tests a video surveillance security system!

Note: My BlogHer contract prohibits me from sharing the name of this product as it costs over $40. I think this story is acceptable since it doesn't tell the product name and therefore cannot be labeled as an advertisement or endorsement or a true product review.

Quick Thought on Your Homeschooling Philosophy

If you homeschool to provide your children a customized, unique education do you expend energy trying to make your homeschool look like someone else's? Do you worry if your choices are different than others and are you trying to match what you do to what others do?

Stop and ponder the illogical nature of that action.

Remember your reasons for homeschooling. Remind yourself of your goals. Now re-align your plans and choices with YOUR family's vision.

Don't you feel better already?

Carnival of Homeschooling Week 226 Published

The Carnival of Homeschooling Week 226 was published at Dewey’s Treehouse yesterday.

This Carnival provides a lot of homeschool-related reading. Take a look!

I have an entry in this week’s carnival.

If you have a blog or a website and write about homeschooling I encourage you to consider submitting an entry to this weekly blog Carnival. For information on how to make a submission, see here.


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Carnival of Homeschooling Week 225 Published

The Carnival of Homeschooling Week 225 was published at Homespun Juggling on 4/20/10.

This Carnival provides a lot of homeschool-related reading. Take a look!

I have an entry in this week’s carnival.

If you have a blog or a website and write about homeschooling I encourage you to consider submitting an entry to this weekly blog Carnival. For information on how to make a submission, see here.


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Monday, April 26, 2010

Loving the Homeschool Co-Op

Starting off with a setting like this, the new homeschool co-op can't help but get off on a good foot.

The lovely colonial home that dates to the 1800s is charming and inviting with its creaky pine floors and its many windows with lovely views.

I am so happy with this co-op. It's going so well the last thing I'd do is complain about the driving time.
(My friends think the drive is too far.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Stinging Nettle

Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica, a wild herb plant that is edible and has medicinal properties.  There are thin needles on the stems and leaves, double click on the photo to enlarge.

While on a nature walk with my twelve year old son at the site of his wilderness school (a homeschool program) I asked him to show me some stinging nettle as I've never seen it in real life. Well, I might have seen it in my garden path last year but I'm not sure. He knew right where it was (taught to him by his naturalist teachers).

Photo taken 4/22/10 by ChristineMM in Fairfield County, Connecticut.

What I Like About Homeschooling (by My Nine Year Old Son)

Homeschooling is quick and easy and fun. When doing lessons at home you can go through lessons fast because there are not many people. You don’t have to wait while other kids are still trying to understand the lesson. My lessons at home don’t take all day, they take two or three hours not eight like school does. The smart kid(s) in a class might go through the lesson fast then they have to wait for all the other kids to catch up. When you get all your work done fast you can have the rest of the day for personal time like playing outside, going on the computer, playing video games, watching TV and seeing other friends. When school is still in session the homeschool kids get to see each other.

Homeschooled kids get to go to fun classes during the week while school is still in session. They can go to (name of the experiential nature class my son takes), the homeschool park day, filmmaking class, poetry class with a cool teacher (Rock Wilk), and do a homeschool co-op. (Notice all these classes are on weekdays.) Most of my friends go to school and they don’t get to go to all these fun classes. Their day is packed full of school and homework and they only have two days a week to have all their fun time and go do fun things.

My school friends also say they hate school and all the kids and grown-up’s I meet ask what school I go to. When I tell them I homeschool they tell me that I’m lucky. Two of my friends say their three favorite subjects in school are lunch and recess and gym. My favorite things to do for homeschool lessons are spelling, fiction reading, and taking guitar lessons.

At the homeschool co-op's cooking class, April 2010.


The above was dictated to me by my nine year old son today. This was homework for his homeschool co-op class on journalism. He was told via email today, to start to write an article about homeschooling by writing one sentence or one paragraph. The only reason I had him dictate it versus write it in longhand on paper is I was in a hurry and wanted it done and over with so I could go do other things on this Sunday.

He came up with the main topic by himself. I did not compose this for him but did prompt him to make a sentence more clear to the reader, or to give an example in some cases. This took him about five or six minutes to do. He surprised me by using parenthesis and the "kid(s)" part, I didn't put those there.

Saturday Review of Books

Semicolon hosts the Saturday Review of Books each week. Bloggers may contribute links to their posts with thoughts about books, or full reviews. Take a look and consider submitting.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Wild Parsnip

Here is some wild parsnip I saw growing in a field. Actually wild parsnip is just the cultivated parsnip brought from Europe to North America by settlers, which has esccaped from the garden and now grows wild. 

Some of this is growing wild in my garden paths and on the edges of my woods on my property, where the lawn or driveway meets the woods.

One thing everyone should know about wild parsnip is that if you touch the leaves with your bare skin then expose it to sunlight you can get a terrible, painful rash. It is said to be a long lasting rash and can cause scarring. The research I did said it must be exposed to sunlight to cause the problem with the skin. There is a lot of information on this topic on the Internet if you want to learn more just google it.

The plants I see now (April) are about a foot high and are in bloom. These can get 2-5 feet tall over the season and do continue blooming as time goes on, I've seen them also blooming in May and June.

Again this is just the cultivated plant whose seed has been released to the wild and is self-sowing. Therefore, the root of this plant is the edible parsnip that we buy in grocery stores!

(Legal disclaimer before eating any wild growing plant educate yourself and check with an experienced wildcrafter.)

Friday, April 23, 2010


I enjoyed watching this chicadee so close to me while my older son and I were on a nature walk. It wasn't afraid of me at all. Then my cell phone rang and it was my husband calling from work and I had to stop and talk and the little thing flitted away. Darn.

Photos taken by ChristineMM on 4/22/10 in Fairfield County, Connecticut.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Met Author David Gumpert

Two days after finishing up reading "The Raw Milk Revolution" (and having blogged my review and tweeted about it), my friend (who read both of tidbits sent through cyberspace) shot me both a tweet and an email to let me know the author David Gumpert would be speaking right in my neck of the woods this very week!  My friend and I made plans to meet at the coffee shop and to hear the lecture.

Gumpert's author lecture style was "summarize the book in about 75 minutes". (After having heard many author lectures there are a few basic formats, you never know what you'll get, sometimes they talk about things not even in the book at all.)

The audience was comprised of some bloggers, some locavores, a couple of raw milk farmer, one raw cheesemaker, a reporter, a book reviewer (that's me), people interested in preserving our food rights and personal freedoms and a bunch of people who have been negatively affected health-wise by the factory made or altered foods they've eaten that have had positive results by changing their diet to a more old-fashioned, getting back to 'real foods'.

The Q&A session after was interesting as we got to hear from some of the farmers and talked about government. It was said that there is a federal bill that the Senate will vote on this week or next week (I didn't even know that)! It's already passed in the House.

I was inspired to keep talking about these issues, blogging them, tweeting them, and writing book reviews on books that are on important topics that people need to hear about. If people keep talking, others will hear, open their minds and maybe learn something. A core issue here is individual rights, our freedom to eat what we want and to avoid eating what we don't want. Too much government legislation in the name of "protecting the consumer" by doing processes to the foods to "make them safe" can have unintended negative consequences for our health (which is ironic).

We were offered samples of low pasturized, non-homogenized and raw cow milks as well as some goat milk. Also exciting was I learned that Ed Hartz of Newtown Connecticut is starting a business to do home delivery of low pasturized milk from Ronnybrook Farms (NY) and raw milk from CT farms as well as hopefully organic grass-fed beef and eventually locally grown organic produce. His company is called The Milkman.

The discussions I had with people in the audience afterward were enlightening and interesting also. What a great night!

Here are some photos of me with David Gumpert.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Home Without Him Ain't No Home to Me...

Today I'm sorting through my CD collection and letting go of some. There was the Showboat audio CD, neglected for a number of years. It was a gift of the salesperson who took my husband and I to see the show on Broadway in 1994 or 1995 when we were engaged to be married. We had fantastic seats a few rows back in the center. I used to listen to the soundtrack while driving my car commuting to work, with the volume cranked up loud, as I sang along.

That seems like so long ago.

And I'm not getting rid of any of my Broadway show tunes in case you're wondering!

Forging Our Own Path and Refocusing

Coming off a wonderful group learning experience with other homeschoolers (Science Olympiad), and joining a new co-op has left me feeling happy about combining learning with others. Add to the mix that my kids are once again in the six hour long drop off class for homeschoolers, the experiential classes outdoors in the wilderness, and I'm feeling grateful that such opportunities are available to my children.

This spring though, I am spending less time with my kids yet the time we have together is more intense (and that’s good). For the first time the experiential wilderness school is happening on two different days of the week. So one day a week I have alone time with each son. I've been noticing for about two years, and it is getting amplified the older they get, that each kid acts differently when alone than when they are together. The dynamic between the two boys is not as harmonious as it used to be. As my oldest has entered puberty this has gotten worse. He gets annoyed with his younger brother when it seems to me there is nothing to be aggravated about. Also certain things with my younger son does can brush everyone the wrong way if he does them, but these things happen only when the two boys are together.

After a rocky start with some bullying and pecking order stuff, Lacrosse for my younger son is now going great. As I had hoped, the intense physical exercise is good for him physically, as is the team spirit and the confidence that he is building as his skills improve. These are all good changes. Yet the time commitment is huge and it changes our whole family schedule. Dinner together in a traditional sit at the table and eat in a relaxed manner way has been reduced to three nights a week instead of seven.

In two days I'm going to attend a big homeschooling conference. I have been so busy living life that I have not followed any of my own advice for planning before a conference. It is better, before being faced with thousands of homeschool curriculum products, to know what I need or want to buy lest I overspend on things I don’t need or even want and never use. I think is best to reevaluate or reaffirm our homeschool philosophy lest I get swayed by others with different goals and priorities while at the conference.

Another learning opportunity has been on my mind lately, something we may add in the fall but how to carve out the time? What must give way to make room for this? Since it doesn't cover the basics of education how will my kids learn those things?

Yesterday I found out that the property the wilderness school is on is up for sale (again). If this land, presently acting as a nature preserve (although I guess it's not legally defined as such) is sold for private use or for development (housing most likely) then my kids may lose this wonderful program that provides them with some education, good exercise, group social opportunities (pretty much being with the same kids week after week, year after year).

How can I possibly make quick decisions for homeschooling plans for next fall in the next two days? I don’t think I can. But I’m trying. I’m hashing out my thoughts by sitting and writing this out, while my kids are still sound asleep upstairs.

The reason I wanted to attend this conference this year is because there are some good speakers there. I guess my focus will be to listen to what they have to say and see what I can take away from it. The budget is the best this year than it's been in years, but I'm overloaded with homeschooling materials and curricula here. We are literally overflowing and we’re even tripping over stuff. I'll not focus on spending money at the conference this time around, even though I could spend guilt-free this year.

We were on a road of independent homeschooling for so long. I taught my kids most everything and they did some enriching things with subject matter experts. I considered these non-essential but icing on the cake. A nature class given by a passionate naturalist outdoors at an Audubon Center, a pottery class taught by an artist and public school art teacher, those are some examples of good things that I couldn’t teach at home. Then the day-long wilderness school was added in.

This year we are doing more than ever with other kids, more learning in groups, not just focusing the majority of our time with other kids for fun play or Scouts. My sons are taking an art history class and some other classes taught by subject matter experts and professional teachers. I have come to believe it is good for my kids to be around other kids in group learning environments (whereas formerly my belief was to supply my children with the best experience possible and if that was with me as teacher at home then so be it). It is good for my kids to have some other adult holding them to an academic standard rather than thinking I'm being too strict or I'm the bad guy teacher for having expectations and high standards. I think this is partly because my kids have never been in school and they think what I want them to do is possibly too much, since they have no clue what the school kids are expected to do.

I also think it is partly because we are not radical unschoolers. When there are few rules and no expectations everything is more harmonious because anything that is done is portrayed as being wonderful and is thought to be ‘enough’ of something. Baking a cake = enough fractions for math. Watched a documentary = enough for Ancient Egypt. Going to Plimouth Plantation one day = enough learned about Colonial America.

I am not quite ready to enroll them in school full time in order to learn that lesson of what teachers may expect from students and how I’m not unreasonable, but I needed them to get a taste of what it's like when the content and expectations are driven by another adult.

I also like that my kids are seeing how the other kids act in class, or how their acquaintances are academically. My kids have this thing going on that other homeschooling parents tell me goes in with their kids too, they don't know where they stand in comparison to the other kids. For some reason my kids think they are not good students, that others must be doing better than them, that they are not smart while the other kids are smart. I'm consoling myself by saying it's better to be humble than arrogant rather than freaking out that my kids are suffering from poor self-esteem (which they are not).

The idea that they are not measure up is not true for all homeschooled kids though. The other end of the spectrum with some homeschooled kids is they have been praised so much that they think they are brilliant little scholars whose every thought and opinion are gifts to the universe. That some young children can have such an air of superiority makes my skin crawl, especially when their flaws and gaps of knowledge are so glaring to anyone watching or teaching the class. They think they know it all when they know so little. Their minds are so closed that they think they're done learning that they miss learning new things being taught right in that class, or at that museum. Well my kids get to see some of them stumble in class and not get it, which shows them the kid is not as great as they think they are.

How their peers act in a group environment is a valuable thing to know and are a part of socialization I don't seek to shelter my kids from. In fact, I'd like them to see more of it as it is teaching them how they do not want to be. Being annoyed by peers is one of the best things. It has taught my kids how to behave, it has reinforced the things I'd told them to do or not to do (which apparently doesn't always seem justified to them). They get it when they see the wrong thing being done in real life. When they are annoyed when a kid does a certain thing they vow to not do that lest they be a pest to the others.

As I ponder which group activities to do and which to avoid it is clearer now than ever that we need to forge our own path. While I would like my kids to be with certain other kids for social experiences I can't let that drive us completely. For example one family I'd not mind being with every day of the week has made it clear that their children have a certain high priority that is not on our priority list at all (it happens to be something in the arts that is a low priority in public education today). They are letting that one thing determine whether they do this or that other opportunity. Hey, that is their right, and I’m glad they are following through on their priorities. How far I can stretch to try to do things with them should also be determined by our core beliefs about home education (and for my older son it happens to be that core academics and a focus on math and science are what he needs if he is to get what he wants).

If we go too far to follow the pack so we are doing that cool thing with that group and then doing this other great thing with that group but these are all taking time away from the things that are most important to my kids (core academics) then it's wrong, it’s an error in my judgment. I need to keep our goals and the path to achieve them clearly defined and to align our actions with that in mind.

I've got five years left before my older son begins college. He is firm with his plans and desires to seek an engineering degree. We should not duplicate here what the family is doing with the student who wants general admission to a liberal arts college for an unknown major. I should not judge our homeschool plan against the family who I bet will have a child in art school. I'm not going to push the same plan as the kid who probably will major in English Literature who may spend time or even minor in drama. The history buff kid who is now on a track in college to become a college history professor should not make me feel bad that my kids have not and do not want to read that many books on history when she was my kid's age. And the radical unschooler who tells me that she’d be happy if her child never went to college should not be the one influencing how my engineer wanna-be kid spends his homeschool high school years.

So the group activities which may not fulfill core components of an education need to be picked carefully. The stuff that seems wonderful yet is above and beyond the basics, or goes deeper and more thorough into a topic than what public schools do can't take so much time away from the basic parts of my children's home education. This year I felt that doing these things with groups and the time spent with other kids kept my kids happy socially which then allowed us to keep homeschooling.

This year it sometimes got to a point where I felt one of my sons might be better off with groups more and that maybe the only way to accomplish that would be to enroll him into public school (private school was not in the budget then). So if doing 'fluff' and 'extra' stuff in groups that may be a pain in the schedule or maybe isn't always a stellar educational experience but kept my son able to continue to be homeschooled which is good for him developmentally and academically (due to home studies) then it's good that he do those things. So I won't complain about a class that isn't perfect, or worry that the trip to the museum wasn't milked to the maximum.

I feel like I'm at a transition point. I have been so involved with the local homeschool community, doing things with groups for eight years now. I have given my kids tons of opportunities for socialization and being with other kids doing different things.

But now is the time to refocus and think about what my older son needs for the long term big picture and to figure out how to get there (because five years seems suddenly like such a short time period to me). For him, the challenge is academic, making sure he learns certain topics that are required for that degree, and also test taking skills and standardized test prep work for later.

For my younger son the social aspect is more important right now. Academically I feel he's just fine, if I put him in school tomorrow he'd do great. Actually the way he produces work is perfect for public school. He can quickly learn systems and procedures and he would and could learn to play the school game easily. He'd be a great student on paper. But my husband and I don't want a great public school kid on paper. We want more out of an education and higher standards, access to different learning materials than those dry, biased textbooks. We want more than read the chapter and answer the questions at the back. We want more than cramming for short term memory recall for the quiz or test. We want more; we want our kids to think about things and to form their own opinions, not to learn to pass a test after having shallow learning. We don't want school to be just what is done before moving on to adulthood where real living is done.

Last night I had a discussion about all of this with my husband. We are on the same page. I am so grateful that our homeschooling is something that we are in alignment with (it was his idea in the first place actually, a seed planted thirteen years ago, also in the spring if my memory serves me correctly). Actually let me be clear we are in alignment with everything we do, and being that way is what we both feel cemented our relationship when we were dating and made us realize we’d be good marriage material for each other. (Of course we have some different opinions and sometimes disagree on small actions to take to get there but we work it out with negotiation and compromise.) We’re approaching fifteen years of marriage (and nineteen years being together) and so far, so good. In the harder times we’ve had, being strongly linked in our core principals and sharing the same goals has been what has kept us together.

I guess having too many good homeschooling opportunities and feeling conflicted about which to do and which to leave behind is a good problem to have. In light of all these great group experiences, I need to redefine which things I still will be in charge of teaching, which materials and methods to use, and then the most important part: being disciplined enough to actually do what we've planned at home. I've always been more responsible about getting my kids to their paid classes and events than I have with following through with the work we are supposed to be doing at home. I have no problem pondering and planning and buying stuff like curricula, but actually using it in the way I'd imagined is sometimes the hardest part, and perhaps that is something that I should be focusing on instead of worrying about signing up for this great class or that great thing.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

15-15-15 Book and Blogging Challenge Day 4

The book for day four is “My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family, and Big Sur” by Romney Steele.

I received a review copy of this from the Amazon Vine product review program. I had never heard of this famous restaurant in the Big Sur. I was tempted to read it because of a few rave reviews I saw at the time saying it had great recipes with good stories mixed with artistic photographs. I love great recipes, great photos, and great storytelling (especially memoir).

I had just been too busy to pick the book up and do a read through cover to cover. To be honest I have not finished it yet but am working on it. Indeed it is filled with stories, memoir type stories written by one of the grandsons of the creators of the restaurant. He was raised on the property and grew up with the restaurant in full swing. Yes the photos are lovely and artistic (think: Martha Stewart Living). The recipes are mouth watering.

My only complaint is the thick matte paper doesn’t do the photos justice. It really would look better on glossy paper I think.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book through the Amazon Vine product review program. I was not paid to blog about this book. For my blog's full disclosure statement see the link at the top of my blog's sidebar.

15-15-15 Book and Blogging Challenge Day 3

The book for day three is “What's Your Story: A Young Person's Guide to Writing Fiction” by Marion Dane Bauer.

I am reading this book to cull ideas for a homeschool co-op class that I'm co-teaching. The kids are writing a fiction story and also making a book and illustrating it. I needed more ideas for exercises to do to get the kids moving from ideas in their head to more fully developing the story.

I'd purchased this book used on a whim at a homeschool used curriculum sale. While looking for ideas to teach this class I redisovered it on my bookshelf.

The book is actually fantastic. It is intended for young readers (teens I th ink). It's actually better and more direct than fiction how-to books written for adults but the content is completely applicable to adult readers. It's a fast easy read, and inspiring too.

Disclosure: I was not paid to blog about this book. I purchased the book for my family's use. For my blog's full disclosure statement see the link at the top of my blog's sidebar.

Virus Sound Familiar to Anyone?

(Writing from another PC.)

My PC has a virus, I'm pretty sure. I turned it on today and my startup page with the password to get in was gone. It went to the default background (like Teletubby Land). All my desktop icons were gone (that I added). Only about six desktop icons were there including a program I installed just a few weeks ago.

When I opened Internet Explorer it brought me to MSN homepage (that is not what I had set).

It looks like all my installed programs, or most, are gone.

As I was checking pop-up's would come up from my various former programs like Google Calendar asking me to hit the button to install it. Other ones wanted my user name before it could install.

I only had the PC on for about two minutes (or less) before I did an emergency shut down.

The thing is I have a hardware firewall plus anti-virus software set to autoscan. I haven't had any notices lately that anything has been detected.

We did use a flash drive (ours) which had been used on someone else's laptop. We haven't installed any new software in a few weeks.

My PC will sit there untouched until my husband gets home from work when he can check it out.

If this sounds familiar to anyone let me know the virus name. I have been searching on the Internet by symptom to see if I can find it and so far only w32silly sound like it (low risk).

I have not backed up my hard drive in about six months (shame on me). So I have lots of documents with data and my writing that may be lost.

It is going to kill me to worry about this all day and not to be able to start diagnosing this!


Update: In the evening we turned on the computer to fix it and it is perfect. My husband thinks it's related to my PC doing an automatic update. I am so relieved.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Raw Milk Revolution Book Review by ChristineMM

The Raw Milk Revolution Book Review by ChristineMM

Title: The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America's Emerging Battle Over Food Rights

My Rating: 5 Stars out of 5 = I Love It

Summary Statement: A Very Important Book About Food Rights. Now Can Someone Make a Documentary Movie Tie-In Please?

My primary interest in this book is the issue of food rights and government regulation of the foods we consumers are able to purchase. As a homeschooling parent I have similar issues regarding my children’s education (parts of this book could have substituted the word ‘homeschooling’ for ‘raw milk’ and the issues and arguments were identical). Secondarily I wanted to learn more about the opinions on wellness and health related to consumption of raw milk (pro and con). Thirdly, I have concerns about how government regulations seem to be squeezing out small farms in favor of large corporations and wondered how this book may touch upon that topic.

This is a detailed, serious nonfiction book. As I read it, I found if I started to skim it or if I didn’t pay attention enough I got lost and had to go back and re-read pages so it makes sense. Only the most dedicated reader will read every word of this book, I think.

This is that it is an important book FOR THOSE WHO CARE AND ARE INTERESTED enough in the topic to put the time in to read this thoroughly. It shows the real issue that is going on with the U.S. government and food regulation. Consumer freedom is being stifled due to state regulations some of which are nonsensical. Test results and specimen collection is sometimes suspect.

I’m a good reader and this was not a fast easy read for me. The book contains lots of legal information and so many details (the author David Gumpert is a reporter). I have been wondering if this book could have been shortened or simplified to make it faster to read or to just get to the point faster but I bet Gumpert feared that leaving out certain details, the reader would miss the issue or not get the complete picture. The problem is the government, its inspectors and the laws hang on details of what happened, so details are what are necessary to make some of the points. Others who want to understand or already understand these issues may love that so much detail is in this book.

I personally appreciate having learned some of the new things. I already knew some of this stuff from my past work in the medical field or from previous reading I’ve done on these topics.

I wish this book would be made into a documentary movie which would be more dumbed down than the book and would be on the level with FOOD INC and KING CORN. More people need to hear this information and I worry that not everyone will take the time and energy to read this book. Documentary movies can be powerful communicators, getting big messages across in two hours or less. Visuals and video interviews can make a large impact on viewers. Please make a documentary out of this material!

Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program for publication on the site. I also purchased a copy of this book. I did not get paid to write this review or to post the review on my blog. For my blog's full disclosure statement see the link at the top of my blog's sidebar.

Sweater Quest Book Review by ChristineMM

Title: Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously
Author: Adrienne Martini
Publication: Free Press March 23, 2010
ISBN: 978-1416597643
Full Retail Price: $15.00

My Star Rating: 4 Stars out of 5 = I Like It

Summary Statement: A Light Fast Read (but a Bit Disappointing)

I first heard of this book last year when the author was interviewed on a knitting podcast (Cast-On with Brenda Dayne) and I decided back then that I wanted to read it.

This book is about Adrienne Martini’s year long project to knit a difficult Fair Isle sweater. The sweater pattern book is out of print so just getting your hands on a copy is a daunting and expensive task. The designer of the sweater pattern is Alice Starmore, and without getting too much into it, there is a big story to explain why the books and the yarns that Starmore created with her name as the brand name are no longer available (unless you can find them secondhand). Starmore’s patterns are considered complicated to knit. I was surprised that Martini didn’t seem to respect Alice Starmore much. Over and over we are told what bugs her about Starmore and it seemed to me she was closed-minded and had made up her mind early on to hate Starmore.

I thought the book would be more about the process of knitting this challenging sweater. I thought it would have funny stories or struggles to try to get the technique down, like a knitting memoir of sorts. Instead the book wound up being hardly anything about the knitting of the sweater. After not mentioning it for a while the author says nonchalantly that the technique was not hard to master after all (cue the sound of the last of the air being let out of a balloon), how disappointing. Give us more! I wanted to root for her knitting journey but apparently there was not much to cheer for as it wasn’t so hard after all! And then the question is do we need to have a book centered on it?

The book is more about related nonfiction knitting topics. Martini tells about the history of Fair Isle knitting and about meeting various current popular knitters in the knitting blogosphere (i.e. The Yarn Harlot and one of the Mason Dixon Knitting authors).

On the one hand I found this entertaining light reading but on the other, I was let down in the end by this book as I hoped for more. If you read books by the Yarn Harlot I don’t think this measures up to that. Still it was light easy reading perfect for before bed reading. It does remind me of the type of writing I can (and do) read for free on knitting blogs which either makes me think now that some bloggers deserve to have a book published or leaves me asking if there was really enough material here to justify publishing as a book. It reads like a combination of a knitting blog post or Ravelry forum post crossed with a magazine article on knitting. It has a bit more of an air of the writing of a freelance reporter but not as deep or serious as an investigative journalist.

I think the issue for me is that when we are being told about a topic it was so often stuff I already knew (and I’ve not even been knitting for two years). I’ve read the Yarn Harlot’s books, I don’t need them quoted or referenced so often. Tell me something I don’t know, educate me on some obscure topic that is not common knowledge. I guess I was hoping for writing something more like the food memoir LIBATION A BITTER ALCHEMY (which is deeper and more thorough with information the reader would not already know with excellent writing that almost seduces the reader).

If you want some light reading about knitting read this for fun, you’ll enjoy this. If you can’t get your hands on enough books about knitting you’ll love this.

Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program for publication on the site. I also purchased a copy of this book. I did not get paid to write this review or to post the review on my blog. For my blog's full disclosure statement see the link at the top of my blog's sidebar.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

15-15-15 Book and Blogging Challenge Day 2

Day 2: April 17

The night before I got a head start. I picked up a detailed, serious nonfiction book "The Raw Milk Revolution" that I got as an Amazon Vine review copy. I read it at my son's Lacrosse practice. In a car alone while it poured rain outside I was able to read with concentration. It was slow going and I checked and figured the book was taking me three minutes per page to read (three times my usual speed for thorough reading). Also if I skim it or don't pay attention enough I get lost and have to go back and re-read pages so it makes sense. I have my work cut out for me if I'm to finish "The Raw Milk Revolution" in one day -- when most of my reading is not done alone with silence but with kids around me or in public and getting constantly interrupted or distracted.

I read before going to bed too. Then I wound up also reading at 2:30 a.m. which is when I was awakened by my husband who was getting home from the hospital where his mother was just admitted for an emergency. After I got the update on what happened, I couldn't sleep so I read until about four in the morning.

This day (a Saturday) wound up very busy with our whole family being in and out of the house for thirteen hours doing various errands and a hospital visit topped off by dinner at a jammed restaurant.

I read the book in every spare moment including while visiting in the hospital while the patient-relative slept and later while standing up in the restaurant vestibule waiting for a table for over an hour. (I was stared at for that let me tell you.) I did not read while I was eleventh in line to pay at the American Eagle store only because I'd left the book in my car. It killed me to have boring free time and to not be reading!

Note to self: take the book everywhere.

I read before bed again but had about 50 pages to go. I was exhausted from not getting enough sleep the night before and the worrying and really needed to go to sleep so I put the book down. I vow to finish this on day 3. I promise.

What I will share about "The Raw Milk Revolution" is that it is an important book FOR THOSE WHO CARE AND ARE INTERESTED in that it shows the real issue that is going on with the U.S. government and food regulation. Consumer freedom is being stifled due to state regulations some of which are nonsensical.

The book really should be made into a documentary movie which would be more dumbed down than the book and would be on the level with Food Inc. and King Corn.

This is not a fast easy read for me. The book contains lots of legal information and so many details (the author David Gumpert was/is a reporter). I have been wondering if this book could have been shortened or simplified to make it faster reading to just get to the point faster but I bet Gumpert feared that leaving out certain details, the reader would miss the issue. The problem is the government, its inspectors and the laws hang on details so details are what are necessary to make some of the points.

The book will be too detailed or too technical for some readers. Others who want to understand or already understand these issues may love that so much detail is in this book. I personally appreciate having learned some of the new things. I already knew some of this stuff from either my past work in the medical field or from past autodidact activities such as reading.

I also note that by using chapters to make certain points sometimes the base information or cases have to be discussed in multiple chapers which sometimes seems like too much duplication and "I've been told of this story twice or three times total now, enough is enough."

In General---

I decided my goal is going to read non-stop and to not pick easy books just to finish the challenge with the strictest rules. My goal is to read books I have on hand that are in my most urgent to be read pile (TBR pile). I want to have averaged out 15 books in 15 days and shooting for a blog post discussing each book on each of the 15 days.

I will also be doing official reviews of the books which will be tricky as that robs time away from the actual reading! Yikes!

Disclosure: I received a review copies of The Raw Milk Revolution through Amazon Vine for the purpose of publishing a review on I was not paid nor did I agree to mention those books on my blog. My viewing of the documentaries mentioned was done with a libary copy. For my blog's full disclosure statement see the link at the top of my blog's sidebar.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

15-15-15 Book and Blogging Challenge Day 1

For the 15-15-15 challenge I am focusing on starting and finishing books I accepted review copies of and also finishing those I have glanced at or am one or a few chapters into but put down for various reasons (the book not holding my interest being the main issue as to why I'd procrastinated reading it).

Here goes for my report for day 1.

On Friday April 16, I finished reading "Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously" which was a light fast nonfiction read about knitting which I learned of last year via the Cast-On knitting podcast and wanted to read when it was published this year. It was offered to me as a review copy for Amazon Vine. I was thrilled to get pre-publication access to the book and free too boot. It felt great to finish a book as I have so many books in progress right now.

This book is about a woman's year long project to knit a difficult fair isle sweater with something like different colored yarns. The sweater pattern book is out of print so just getting your hands on a copy is a daunting and expensive task. The designer of the sweater is Alice Starmore and without getting too much into it, there is a lot to talk about and consider about why the books and the yarns she created and sold with her name as the brand name are no longer available.

The book is light easy reading, it's a fast read. Knitters are the target audience for this book.

I thought the book would be more about the process of knitting it, funny stories or struggles to get the technique down, like a knitting memoir of sorts. Instead the book wound up being hardly anything about her knitting and more about related nonfiction topics. She tells about the history of fair isle knitting and about meeting various current popular knitters in the knitting blogosphere or published hot knitting book authors.

I was let down in the end by this book as I hoped for more. If you read books by the Yarn Harlot this doesn't measure up to that. Still it was light easy reading perfect for before bed reading. It reminds me of the type of writing I can and do read for free on knitting blogs or posts on crossed with magazine articles on nonfiction topics (it has a bit more of an air of the writing of a freelance reporter but not so deep or serious as an investigative journalist).

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from Amazon Vine. I was not paid to mention this book or to blog about it. For my blog's full disclosure statement see the link at the top of my blog's sidebar.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Fifteen Books in Fifteen Days on Fifteen Blogs

Care to join us? The challenge was hatched by Girl Detective and it is to read one book a day for fifteen days and to blog about the book. It runs April 17 through May 1, 2010.

Now I'm glad I'm in between knitting projects. Thanks to the DVR I can catch up on watching TV shows after May first.

Some of my books are adult books and some will be kids books.

Please join us!

Found via Mental Multivitamin

Kids in Serious Sports

Today I'm pondering over the hectic pace of life that kids live when they play a serious sport. I have been talking to parents of kids on my son's lacrosse team and hearing how they manage this lifestyle and I've been talking to my relatives who have two kids in a serious sport year round plus with the father coaching one. This is a more complicated than I had imagined it was.

I used to have not good things to say about pushing competitive sports down to young aged kids and negative ramifications on the family and relationships. I think now in the end it boils down to not anything bad the sport puts into the child but what doing that sport prevents the child from doing with the family (or eating good meals or doing their homework). This same argument is what the AAP uses to try to dissuade parents of kids under age two from watching ANY television. They say the child aged 0-2 needs to do other things with their time and the TV robs those experiences away.

My opinion of kids in sports is starting to shift. This is yet another 'not all black and white' issue; it has lots of shades of gray. Since every child is unique what is good for one child is not good for another and some kids need certain things that participation in a sports team can provide while other kids seem fine without any of those experiences.

Today what I want to share is that I feel a little sorry for the young kids in sports and the hectic pace of their lifestyle. Here are two peeks into private league sports that kids in my town are eligible to play.

Football: My neighbor told me her son is thriving in football. The league begins in grade two. In August there are three hour practices Monday-Friday and the team does not allow the child to miss any practices. So the family can forget a summer vacation in August. It is hot and humid here in August and these outdoor practices are brutal on the body.

Once September hits there are three practices on weekdays and a Saturday. The games are Saturday and Sunday and are held across two states. The commute to each game can be as long as 90 minutes in each direction. The family must drive their child or they have to carpool. Some games on Saturday or Sunday begin at seven in the morning so the family has to leave the house by 5:30 a.m.

The mother told me on Halloween night (a Friday school day) that the husband and son were getting up at five in the morning to head to a town in New York state after a late night trick or treating followed by a Halloween party. She worried that both her son and husband were going to be too exhausted to handle that.

On top of that busy schedule, the games frequently would change up to eight hours before game time an email would be sent changing it to another earlier or later time or to the next day. Sunday church services must be skipped if the game conflicts but most skip it anyway as it winds up being the only day in the week the child can sleep late. Once she'd planned a birthday party for her son on a Sunday afternoon and the game changed from Saturday early morning to mid-afternoon Sunday and she had to postpone the party with one day's notice!

Lacrosse: This seems more lenient but it was made clear the players who will play in the games are the ones who attend practice not necessarily the ones with the highest skill. This is the biggest challenge for kids trying to play two sports (Little League baseball or AYSO soccer).

Still I went into this thinking it was a three weeknight and a Saturday commitment. There are lots of last minute changes such as changing the field/town we practice in, lengthening the practice from 90 minutes to two hours or adding additional practices to five a week total. This was the last straw and I finally switched from an old no frills mobile phone which I barely used to get a Droid so I can check email and use the Internet (to get addresses for fields) while I'm away from home.

I also didn't understand there could be both a Saturday morning practice and a Saturday game so the sport may use both our morning and afternoon.

Lastly that the three practices on weekdays are separate from the games so the child may have three practices and two games on the other two weeknights plus the Saturday practice.

The fact that games can be a good 45 minutes drive one way (without traffic but the kicker is that the weekday games ARE in rush hour) means the kids who go to school are basically getting off the bus, grabbing a big snack or early dinner while they run to get changed and jump in the car to get to the game. They arrive home between 8-8:30 p.m. Some are still hungry so a snack or a second dinner is eaten then. Next they have homework before they get to bed (after showering of course).

You would think a mother-at-home would have it easy but not necessarily. If the child has one or more siblings, all these activities are happening at the same time: Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, horse riding lessons, music lessons, so forth and so on. Getting a kid to another town for a practice or a game with strict times for arrival and departure can be tricky! I am struggling with this and I have just two children, one in a sport and Cub Scouts and the other in just Boy Scouts. This is a low amount of extra-curricular activities for kids living in Fairfield County!

Dual income families with married parents have it especially hard. The parents are juggling work, some with long commutes into Manhattan and some have business travel. Children of divorce have it harder when the mother with custody works outside the home and if the father is currently employed.

Carpools seem almost necessary even for one child in a sport. Sometimes a carpool with a pick up and drop off is not good enough though. The carpool parent might have to take the kids back to her house for pick up later (unless a young child is a latch key kid which is risky depending on their age). I saw a nanny at a game this week and some parents I've never met as the child is in a carpool so often.

I now can see why school kids in one sport have no time for TV or video games. There is hardly any time for school, homework and the sport. Oh and the sport has homework too (throw 100 balls using each hand, etc.).

There are positive benefits to participating in a sport which can justify all this nuttiness. But today what's on my mind is just trying to schedule it all and to share that I'm feeling a bit bewildered about how parents of schooled kids pull this off. It's challenging to say the least.

For us with homeschooling it sometimes is easier and sometimes harder. I am already finding a conflict with some homeschool events. Sometimes the sport will mean we cannot sign our son up for a certain academic thing happening at that same time which I'd planned for him to do which lessens his homeschool experience as I'd intended.

This week after six hours of hiking in an experiential homeschool class my son had to play a game. The poor kid had legs of lead by the end of the day. I'd thought that night of the week was always off but sometimes there are games (apparently).

But we also can let our son sleep late if he has no appointments for homeschool events the next morning (we have two days of the week like that). On some days I have more time at home (than a mother working outside the home does) to figure out what to make us all for dinner on the go. I am presently researching ideas for healthy foods that can be eaten on the run rather than converting to deli meat sandwiches every single night and without overly relying on eating pretzels and crackers to substitute for real meals.

This is a bit of a rat race.

We're adjusting. So far the positives outweigh the negatives, but that's a story for another day.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Timing for Animation Book Review by ChristineMM

Title: Timing for Animation second edition
Authors: Harold Whitaker, John Halas, updated by Tom Sito
Genre: nonfiction
Publication: Focal Press, September 2009
ISBN-13: 978-0240521602

My Star Rating: 5 stars out of 5 = I Love It

Summary Statement: Tons of Information for Beginner and Intermediate Animators (Just a Bit Over My Kid's Heads)

Both of my sons (aged 12 and 9) are into comics and want to create their own. After a couple of classes with different art teachers they have mostly been teaching themselves at home. The books and classes we’ve accessed so far are about general comic drawing and none addressed the timing issue. How should we show action from panel to panel? When is too much being shown to show movement through panels? What should be shown to imply the action as the artist intends? The publisher states on the back cover this book is for beginner to intermediate animators. I thought this book might be perfect for our family. Since we homeschool, I'm their facilitator and often read and use books alongside my children.

Being a novice, I had not realized this second edition is an update of an old classic that was long held as the best book out there on the topic of timing and animation. The book has been updated by Tom Sito to accommodate so many changes in technology that have taken place since the original book was published in 1981. The book does not teach how to use each software program as there are too many and they change so often, that’s perfectly understandable.

For our family I found this book full of wisdom but over our heads. This is not the fault of the authors. I think we need something more along the lines from a Dummies book (as much as that series’ title makes me cringe). Also because my kids are preteens the writing in the book is a bit too complex, more for upper high school and adults.

This book is NOT dumbed down. The authors are subject matter experts who put into words processes that are hard to write about. As is the case with CUTTING RHYTHMS and THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, the artists worked hard to put into text things that come to artists instinctually or are felt from the gut more than being done after being taught by someone step by step.

Anyone who really wants to learn the art of comics and animated films can learn from this book.

Another comment is if you have already read through more than one other book on this topic I’m not sure how they would overlap and if this book is redundant compared to others already on the market that you’ve found useful and have already learned from.

I rate this book 5 stars = I Love It because it is a high quality book and is useful despite it not being dumbed down enough for kids my children’s ages. (This is not a children’s book, I know that.) I'm holding onto this for my kids to use when they are older.

Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program for publication on the site. I also purchased a copy of this book. I did not get paid to write this review or to post the review on my blog. For my blog's full disclosure statement see the link at the top of my blog's sidebar.

Mama Miti Book Review by ChristineMM

Title: Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya
Author: Donna Napoli
Illustrator: Kadir Nelson
Genre: Children's Picture book ages 4-8, biography, environment
Publication: Simon and Schuster, January 2010
ISBN-13: 978-1416935056

My Star Rating: 3 stars out of 5 = “It’s Okay”

Summary Statement: Fantastic Illustrations, Inspiring Story -- But Fictionalized!

I’ll confess when I agreed to accept a pre-publication review copy of this book for Amazon Vine, I didn’t know who Wangari Maathai was. As I read the read this story about her life, I loved it. I thought, based on Donna Napoli’s writing, that she learned about plants from her people and her elders, and later spread this knowledge on to others. She helped them by giving them knowledge that empowered them to help themselves, in what the author refers to as “the green belt of peace”. The grassroots effort to restore the vitality of the land through the planting of trees was inspiring.

I feel that the story and its repeating phrases will be of interest to young children. It is perfect for a read-aloud.

As an adult reader I didn’t feel the story was entirely clear to explain how planting the trees made Kenya more peaceful (there was a gap of content there), so I’m not sure that children aged 4-8 will understand that either. However I enjoyed the rest of it, and liked the good messages the book conveys.

I was enthralled by the story of living in harmony with nature, knowing the value and use of trees, and not JUST living in a sustainable way but of actually rejuvenating a land that had been abused, having been stripped of trees by man. The picture book has a message of pro-environmentalism, and is uplifting in tone and leaves the reader feeling hopeful. I am grateful the book has a positive tone not an oppressive one like some other books have that tell young kids that ‘the Earth is doomed’.

I can imagine this being used by school teachers and nature educators. It seems perfectly suited for inclusion in academic studies or pleasure reading about ‘green living’ or ‘sustainable agriculture’ or for general environmental content, or in a botany unit.

The fact that this is about Africa (Kenya) and features a powerful African woman means it will be appreciated by anyone seeking to use children’s picture books featuring the topic of geography, Africa, or positive African-American role models. (Please read my review through to the end for more on this.)

Although it is not mentioned in the text of the book, Maathai was the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize this book so this can also be used in biography studies based on those winners which some schools and homeschools do. It can be used in earning the Cub Scout Bear rank (the requirement to read a book about a person who helped the environment).

The illustrations are fantastic. I could tell right away that the collages were composed of fabrics from Africa and I loved that! This is mixed-media, as illustrator Kadir Nelson used oil paints to paint the faces, hands and other body parts.

I’m struggling with my opinion of the book now that I’ve done more research after my curiosity was piqued by reading this book. After the second read-through I read the two pages of information at the back of the book written for adults. It tells more about Maathai, the Green Belt Movement and of her having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. It was in this section that I started to learn of the “deception by omission” of this book. I went on to read more on the Internet including direct quotes from Maathai and watching videos of her speaking about her life and work.

I understand this is a picture book for kids aged 4-8 and I am aware that complicated stories and biographies must be simplified and brought down to a certain level to be age-appropriate. However at present teachers, authors and publishers seem to have no issue with scaring kids about humans destroying the Earth and giving a message to take action to stop or fix the environmental problems that the adults before them created.

I would think then, that kids could handle the omitted facts that it is not common for girls in Kenya to go to primary school and college. Maathai defied the odds and both those things including earning a bachelor and master degree in America with scholarships. She studied for her PhD first in Germany and finished in Africa, being the first African woman to get a PhD. How much of her science degrees were to credit for teaching her the botanical information she used with the Green Belt Movement, I do not know (versus the story’s depiction of this wisdom being passed down from elders in the village). It seems to me that all kids could stand to hear an inspiring story about formal education and college degrees being good and useful in the real world.

Maathai’s experience in America witnessing free speech in action in Vietnam War protests and seeing the ‘common people’ protesting and trying to make change is what she credits as the source of her inspiration to go on to create a grassroots movement in Kenya. The fact that ideas and freedoms in America (not something happening in Kenya at that time) played such a key role in who Maathai became as a person, and how it affected her life work is absent from the book. (What a shame.)

The issue of the negativity she faced and the discrediting the African men in the government and the community did just because this was a grassroots movement comprised of women is unbelievable. That she stood up to this to make real progress is commendable. Again, I don’t know how much of this part of her story would be right for a children’s picture book but my point is that Wangari Maathai’s story is not all nicey-nice nor was it easy as Napoli’s story implies.

In the end this book makes a good story pushing a couple of good environmental messages (which some may label as propaganda). My larger concern is that this book romanticizes what are actually the oppressive traditional African values that Maathai and other women struggled against.

As to the rating, I’m torn. If I didn’t know the more complete story I’d rate this 5 stars for the writing and 5 stars for the illustration. However I’m bringing it down to 3 stars = It’s Okay due to the fictionalization of this story for the intention of pushing certain messages to children while leaving out other positive messages.

Postscript: Lest you think I hate the book, I don't. I liked the book enough to have already purchased a copy to give as a gift to someone seeking books about botany and the environment.

Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program for publication on the site. I also purchased a copy of this book. I did not get paid to write this review or to post the review on my blog. For my blog's full disclosure statement see the link at the top of my blog's sidebar.