Thursday, December 23, 2010

Velveteen Mama

OK, so this isn't exactly a blog about a children's book (though you'll find one does play an important part), but it seems to fit in too well not to include it here.

From my "other" blog, The First Day of The Rest of Our Lives:

The Velveteen Mama  

Today, I read a blog entry from one of my favorite bloggers.  It's about a recent discussion she had with her daughter on what makes a mother or brother "real".

This is a topic all adoptive parents deal with as they raise their children.  Who IS the real Mom, Dad, sibling, grandparents, etc?  The message that "birth = real" comes in loud and clear from every societal contact children have.  Schools still do the "Family Tree" exercise where you identify family members and place them on branches showing the "begats" from one generation to another (and, incase you aren't aware, there's a different "connection" for adopted children vs. birth).  Children's books still reinforce the "traditional" (though I challenge the use of THAT word anymore!) family of married Mom & Dad with 2.2 kids and a station wagon.  And, movies talk of "evil" step-parents who can't possibly love the child as much as their "real" parents.

I've had this conversation many times with Janan.  Though we (thankfully) haven't gotten to the, "I HATE you & wish I lived with my REAL mother!" teen angst conversation that is probably still forthcoming, we have had the "I wonder what my real Mom is like." or "You're not my real Mom, but I still want to call you Mom, okay?"

Every time this topic comes up I feel as if someone simultaneously stabs me in the heart and kicks me in the gut.  She doesn't mean it in that way (yet) any more than the co-worker who, just after Janan came home, said, "Wow!  If she's this crazy about this baby, imagine how she'll be when she has her own!"  

But, what came to me today after reading this amazing blog post is that adoptive parents are much like the Velveteen Rabbit.  And, we should ALL take to heart the words of the Skin Horse when he told the Velveteen Rabbit, "Real isn't how you are made.  It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real." 

So, I don't need a magic fairy to come and make me the "real" Mama.  But, I envision a day when "real" family is defined by what truly matters - love.  Another quote from the book sums it up perfectly,

"Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

Monday, November 1, 2010

"Independent Reader"

I definitely have an independent child.  Yes, she taught herself to read at 2, her first sentence was "I DO IT!" (stated emphatically with tiny hands on hips and a foot stomp for good measure) and she also "just decided" one day to use the potty at not quite 1 1/2.

Here's how THAT story goes.  Because she was already "ahead" of the other children, the daycare asked to move her up with the two-year-olds (something that generally didn't happen until 2 1/2).  At first I said no, because I truly believe children should be with their own peer group. But, after much discussion and a couple of trial days in the two-year-old class I finally agreed.  

When I picked her up after her first full day the teacher said to me, "I didn't know Janan was potty trained! How wonderful!"  I thought for sure she had confused my daughter with someone else so I said, "THAT'S my daughter (pointing to the child she apparently didn't know was mine.) She's not potty trained, yet!  I don't think she's ready."  The teacher then gave me the oddest look and said, "Well, she's been using the potty all day!"

Truly thinking this woman had lost her mind, I knelt down and said to Janan, "Honey, did you go potty in the big potty?" and, as is typical with this amazing child of mine, she simply looked at me and said, "Gaby-elle go pee pee in the potty, Nee-Nee go pee pee in the potty!"  (Gaby-elle was actually a little three-year-old girl named Gabrielle getting ready to move up to the next class and she & Janan - she called herself Nee-Nee at the time - had apparently become fast friends).  From that day forward, she only used the potty.  

Needless to say, she LOVES reading about children (especially girls) who are very independent.  What little girl could be more independent than Pippi Longstocking?  Designated for children 9-12 years of age, Janan began reading Pippi around age 6.  She loved the fact that Pippi had no parents, a monkey and her very own horse living on her front porch.  

Pippi also has a delightful way of taking any seemingly bad situation and turning it into a true adventure.  She's convinced her father, blown overboard during a storm at sea, is living on a island with cannibals and as soon as he can build a boat will come and make her the princess of the cannibals.  

What Mama loved best about Pippi is her ever generous spirit and gregarious nature.  Sadly, many of the independent girls in books are brash, bratty and rude (e.g. Junie B. Jones - yes, Janan read every one of those books, but Mama was never a big fan; and, yes, I know how unpopular it is to say that.).  Now, Pippi definitely has her faults!  She's known for stretching the truth a bit (OK, a LOT) and she's quite mischievous, but she's not purposefully mean-spirited or rude.  

Also, because these books were written originally in the 1950's there are some things that had to be discussed while Janan was reading these books.  At the very beginning one of the gifts Pippi gives her friend Tommy is a "dagger with a shimmering mother-of-pearl handle" and at the end of the book Pippi finds, among other things, "...three pistols and a sword" in a chest in the attic and fires off the guns.  

As with any book, I think it's important to keep the communication open.  Ask about what they're reading!  Not only can it create some great conversation, but it gives you a chance to clarify when something like children firing guns comes up.  

Sunday, October 31, 2010

And We Search Mama's Childhood for Some Options...

When Janan was about 4 or 5, I was once again desperately seeking books she could read.  Digging into my own childhood I remembered one of my all time favorites had been the Strawberry Girl series by Lois Lenski. 

Sadly, we quickly discovered it wasn't for Janan (I still hope it gets in there somewhere).  She didn't like the use of the dialect (they use words like "ain't" and "purdy" which are, of course, grammatically incorrect, but true to the dialect - something she couldn't get past) and a bit "too serious" (her words, not mine).  Now, if you have a child who likes the Laura Ingalls Wilder books you should DEFINITELY try out the Strawberry Girl series!  

One thing I did discover upon making this recommendation was that Janan was TOTALLY intrigued with learning about the books I had enjoyed as a girl (even if she didn't want to read them herself).  So, I began thinking back to the books I liked best. 

I was never one for the science fiction/fantasy, but as soon as I thought "books about magic" Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (by Betty MacDonald) came to mind!  

One thing Janan really loves is a book with a sense of humor.  Throw in magic and it's the "piece de resistance".  With those requirements, what could be more perfect than Mrs. Piggle- Wiggle?  If by some strange, horrific childhood deprivation you haven't been introduced to Mrs. Piggle Wiggle let me say right here, she's worth a read no matter your age.  

As you learn in all of her books, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle loves children and they love her back.  What makes her so endearing?  Unlike most parents, she doesn't get upset if you dribble candy cane juice in her dictionary causing the pages to stick together and, crashing through her basement window into her coal bin in your wagon will only cause her to laugh hysterically and then lean "....through the broken window and sa[y], "Hand me the putty knife and that can of putty off the shelf and...that pane of glass...because putting in window glass is something that every boy should know how to do.  Especially boys who ride wagons with their eyes closed."

But, it's not just the children who like her.  Parents love Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle just as much.  In a very Mary Poppins way, she can cure whatever is "ailing" a child. You know, those horrible childhood habits like Tattle Telling, Interrupting, Not Being Truthful, being a Slow Poke, Picky Eating and so much more that many parents don't know how to handle?  Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle can fix them in one chapter!

There are five books in the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series:
  • Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle
  • Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Magic
  • Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Farm
  • Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle 
  • Happy Birthday, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

Our only "negative" about these books?  We wish there were more!  

But, don't fret! When you finish all the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggles you can move on to Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren!  (We'll tell you more about Pippi later.  She DEFINITELY needs a posting all to herself!) 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Today a friend posted the most amazing video on Facebook.  It brought me to tears and made me think of how hard I have tried to get this vital message through to my daughter.  Watch.

**Caution: Strong language!**

I immediately started thinking of all the books I've collected over the years that reinforce this message.  Not all, as a matter of fact, most, are not girl specific they're simply books with the message of 'loving and being who you are'.  

First up are two more amazing books from my all time favorite publisher Illumination Arts.  (You've met them before here when I blogged about the book Cassandra's Angel and that book would fit beautifully in this blog, too!)

First up is one of Janan's all time favorites.  We read this book so often I had it memorized!  It's called Little Squarehead.  Written by Peggy O'Neill, a 3'8" "little person", this book reinforces the message that no matter how different you are on the outside, it's who you are on the inside that makes you more beautiful than you can imagine.

As Rosa, the main character, walks through town each day with her head hung low, she's taunted by the town's people with, "There goes Rosa Redhead.  She's a Little Squarehead."

The story teaches the importance of courage, confidence and compassion.  Showing that if you love who you are, others will love you.  

The second published by Illumination Arts is called All I See Is Part of Me by Chara M. Curtis. When a little boy asks the sun, "Who are you?"  The sun beams back, "We are one."  From there, the sun goes on to tell the little boy that he's also part of Sister Star who, in turn, shows him how he is interconnected with everything in the Universe and more than just the body in which he currently resides.  

Really, how can a child who discovers they are part of all believe they are less?  

This book is written all in rhyme, so even the youngest children will love it.  It even affirms they are, "...found in candy bars!"  

The next two books I found before Janan even came home from Guatemala.  

The Lovables in the Kingdom of Self-Esteem by Diane Loomans I found at a used book store and immediately fell in love with.  The beautiful watercolor-like pictures of animals jump right off the page.  On each page a different animal affirms they are "lovable", "courageous", "capable',  and so much more!  

Each affirmation is written in short rhymes children can quickly memorize and recite along with you.

The Twelve Gifts of Birth by Charlene Costanzo tells the story of how all princes and princesses (children) are granted twelve gifts upon their birth by their fairy godmothers.  Gifts such as Strength, Beauty, Courage, and Compassion are simply reinforced with a statement like: "May you speak and act with confidence and use courage to follow your own path."  Each statement also has a full-color photograph to go along.  

Another used bookstore find was All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka.  This simple picture book shows how children come in all shapes, sizes and colors.

"For love comes in cinnamon, walnut, and wheat,
Love is amber and ivory and ginger and sweet
Like caramel, and chocolate, and the honey of bees.

Children come in all the colors of the earth and sky and sea."

I love the imagery the words create in this book.  

Now here is not only an old favorite, but one we STILL pull off the shelf sometimes.  The Lion Who Wanted to Love by Giles Andreae is about a vegetarian lion who is kicked out of his pride for refusing to eat meat.  

As vegetarians, this book was often called upon to help reaffirm our lifestyle choice.  Of course, in the end, he is welcomed back into the pride (still as a vegetarian!) because he goes out into the world and does many brave and loving things. 

The book, The Witch Who Wanted to Be a Princess by Lois G.  Grambling tells the story of a witch who, duh, wants to be a princess.  However every time she tries the spell, "...her wand went limp, or sputtered.  Once it even started to hiccup."  She then discovers (after consulting her computer), "Due to sharply declining numbers, witches have been declared an endangered species by the grand wizard.  No witch (not even you, Bella) is allowed to change herself into anything.  Especially a princess.  That's final!  Have a nice day. :)"

After reading a personal ad about a handsome prince seeking a beautiful damsel, Bella decides she's beautiful (warts and all) and, upon meeting the "handsome" prince (he looks a lot like Frankenstein) they fall in love and get married.  Of course, since he IS a prince she finally becomes the princess she always wanted to be.  

Now, for me, this book is a bit of a double-edged sword.  I'm not a fan of the love-at-first-sight-marry-a-prince-and-all-your-dreams-come-true story.  In many ways it degrades the value of young girls and reaffirms the societal message that she's not "complete" without a husband.  

So, you have to make that call for yourself and your child.  I always found these types of "personal dilemmas" created a great dialogue between my daughter and I.   Being open about the fact that I didn't like the underlying message of this book brought it into the light of day, so to speak, and gave her something to think about without just accepting.  

Finally, the book Extraordinary Girls by Maya Ajmera, Olateju Omolodun, and Sarah Strunk is a beautiful book about girls from all over the world who have done something extraordinary.  For example, there's a piece about Beth Peres, of the United States, who discovered boys allowances averaged higher than girls - DESPITE the girls reporting they did "four times as many chores" - so she wrote about it and was published "in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and many other newspapers."

This book also reaffirms different traditions, religions and alternative perceptions regarding physical beauty.  This is a MUST have for all girls!  

WHEW!  That's a lot of books for one posting, but I just couldn't leave any of these out (and believe me, I have more that I DID leave out!).  

Saturday, October 9, 2010

When It's ALL About Science

Yes, she REALLY wanted to take this
one home!
Janan has ALWAYS been passionate about science.  It started early with a love of rocks (which continues to this day) and then progressed from there.  

At three, she became obsessed with Bill Nye the Science Guy.  We found his shows on VHS at the local library and she would check them out over and over (especially the one on condensation).  I went so far as to try and find these shows on DVD and add them to our small collection, but they're licensed only for schools and cost thousands of dollars!  Thankfully, the library was very forgiving on the number of times she checked out the same video because, apparently, she was the only one checking them out!  

When Janan was in kindergarten her teacher, Mrs. Williams, had the kids choose an animal on which they would write a report.  When I went to pick her up from school Mrs. Williams pulled me aside and said, "How did Janan learn about poison dart frogs?"  My response, "Poison WHAT frogs?"  I still have no idea how she learned about them, but while other children chose horses, eagles and kittens, my daughter chose the poison dart frog.

So, we've always been on the hunt for great science books for kids.  Some of Janan's favorites came from the author Seymour Simon.  Mr. Simon's "See More Level One Readers" are early chapter books that cover all types of science topics such as animals (her favorite was, of course, the one about bats), earthquakes and pyramids & mummies. 

The books start at "Level 1" reading (considered pre-K to 1st) and go up to "Level 3" (considered 2nd - 4th).  However, Janan read all of them between the ages of 3 & 4.  The amazing, full-color photography and clear, interesting facts kept her interested.  She loved finding information she thought I wouldn't know and showing she "knew more" than Mama.  

In addition to his "See More" series, he has a full line of books called the "Smithsonian Series".   These are listed as being for children in 4th - 7th, but because of their large size and beautiful photography some make perfect picture books for younger science lovers.  Be careful of some like the one on tornados, though, because younger children may get frightened.

Almost all of our Seymour Simon books I've found at the local used book stores & library book sales!  

So, How DO Babies Get In There?

I know, I left the last blog hanging, didn't I?  I promise to remedy that here.

Let's recap a 2 1/2 Janan asked that dreaded parenting question (not sure WHY we dread it really but being that I'm now on the other side of it, it's no longer such a scary thing, I guess) of, "How does a baby get inside the Mama?" which I was able to deflect briefly until it reappeared just about a year later.  When the question came back around, the book entitled A Child is Born deflected the question for me by having such amazing pictures of babies actually still inside the Mama that she seemed to forget the "how" question!  

I KNEW it would only be a matter of time before I had to answer - and it happened, again, about a year later.  Janan was six and had just found out the mother of one of her school friends was expecting.  Now, as is typical in our lives, this question was made even MORE challenging by the fact that this Mama was in a life partnership with another Mama.  

So, as I was blissfully tucking her into bed one night, the question came out like this...."Mama, I understand that an egg needs a sperm to make a baby and I even get how the baby grows inside the Mama and then is born, but what I STILL don't understand is how the sperm gets IN there in the first place!  And, how could Suzie's (not real name) Mama be pregnant since her wife doesn't HAVE sperm?"  

Now, I've ALWAYS been of the belief that if she straight out asks the question than she's ready to hear the answer (or answers, in this case), so I told her it was a little late to go into all the details that night but that I would explain everything the next day after school.

Immediately, I ran to the computer and started looking for age appropriate books on the subject.  I knew NOTHING short of the full truth would satisfy her (or be the right thing to tell her), but I also was still struggling with the "Should I tell a six-year-old THAT?"

I was excited to see the number of children's books available on the subject, but quickly started finding most of them fell back on the "When a husband and wife love each other very much..."  *SIGH*  Yes, that's ONE story, but there are many, many other versions of this story and I wanted her to know them all.

A few seemed promising, so I wrote them down and made plans to take my lunch hour the next day at a wonderful bookstore near Janan's old school in Michigan called The Self Esteem Shop.  Not only do they carry some of the greatest books on a wide range of subjects, their staff was always knowledgeable and helpful.  I ended up with the book It's So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies and Families.  

This book made the final cut for MANY reasons:

  1. It, literally, starts from the beginning - with an explanation of male and female anatomy, how boys' bodies and girls' bodies develop and explains the developmental aspects of sexual maturity.
  2. It covers ALL aspects of how families come to be - male & female, in vitro fertilization, adoption, etc.  And shows no bias for one over another!  
  3. It explains things clearly while keeping it all age appropriate.
  4. It's written in easy language, so I knew Janan could go back and re-read anything she wanted.
On my way back to school with the book (I worked at Janan's school), I was both excited and scared out of my wits.  This is one of those parenting moments I KNEW would lay the groundwork for how we approached not only sexuality, but challenging topics many parents and their children never discuss.  I wanted her to know - without a shadow of a doubt - that these types of conversations would always be open and honest.  I also wanted her to have a HEALTHY perspective on sexuality.  To know it's natural and, when shared with someone you love, a beautiful aspect of a healthy relationship.

Sadly, my husband (now ex) was totally against this discussion.  He even advocated for the stork story!  He felt she was "too young" and "doesn't need to know that, yet."  I reiterated my point that if she's old enough to flat out ask the question, she's old enough to hear the answer.

So, without my husband's support (something I had actually hoped for, because I felt the male perspective on the topic would be helpful) Janan and I headed to her room a bit earlier than normal.   I told her I was going to answer the question she had asked me the night before, but that it would actually take a FEW nights for the whole story.  I showed her the book I had found and said we would read this one together, one chapter per night.  

My philosophy here was that there was a lot of information she would need to process and it would take her time to form questions.  I promised that each consecutive night we'd have time for Q & A on the previous night's chapter and that we would re-read anything she wanted.  And, bonus for me, it wasn't until chapter 10 that the actual "how" was explained!  That meant I had over a week to mentally and emotionally prepare myself.

I won't bore you with the first 9 chapters.  Suffice it to say, we had some great conversation and quite a few laughs (the book is written in comic book form).  

On the 10th night, as with every previous night, we headed back to bed a bit early, answered questions from the previous chapter, Mama took a VERY deep breath and we began reading.  Here, finally, came the answer to her question.  She was so excited I had to chuckle to myself.  As soon as I read the explanation, she placed her hand on the book, pushed it down to see my face, looked me straight in the eyes and said, "You mean to tell me he puts his penis INSIDE her vagina?!"  I don't know how I didn't fall off the bed laughing, but her question was so honest I responded, "Yep!"  

A normal six-year-old reaction followed, "EWWW!!!  That's GROSS!!!"  Quickly followed by an LGR response, "Wait, do you and Dad do that?" (Yes.) "So you're trying to have a baby?" (Uh, no.) Thankfully, this book reinforced my response to that question, which was "not all sex leads to babies".  It's another way couples show they love each other, like hugging or kissing.

After the chapter, I did say that some parents don't talk to their children about this and it wasn't really something she should share with her friends.  I told her I had shared with her because she asked and that everyone should learn about this when they're ready with people they love.

Still fearing an angry mob of parents the next day after school, though, I pulled her teacher aside to tell her what I'd done.  She laughed and reassured me that even telling her not to talk to her friends wouldn't keep this out of the conversations, but that if it came up she could handle it.  

Even Janan's teacher was shocked when it DIDN'T come up that day, the next or any time that year!  What we found was that simply knowing the answer had put the question out of her head and she, in typical LGR fashion, moved on to the next!  

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mama, When Was I In Your Belly?

One of my favorite "Mama stories" is from when Janan was 2 1/2 - almost 3 - and we had just left the joint baby shower of two sisters.  One sister had just had her baby weeks before and the second was, literally, due any day.  

We spent a few hours doing the normal baby shower things - cooing at the newborn, touching the expectant Mama's belly, eating cake and watching the opening of baby gift after baby gift.  Of course, Janan enjoyed her own abundance of attention and loved EVERY minute of it.

So, I should have known something was up when my normally talkative, highly verbal 2 1/2-year-old was completely silent as we left the shower, while being strapped into her car seat and during the first 5 minutes of our drive home.

Finally, from the silence I heard, "Mama, when was I in your belly?"  

Having adopted my daughter and always telling her the story of her adoption my response came easily, "Honey, remember, you weren't in Mama's belly you were in Mama Santos's belly.  That's what it means to be adopted."  Thinking to distract her from the "how", I also added, "And, babies aren't in their Mama's bellies, they are in a special place called the womb."

(I got a bit cocky here thinking I had dodged a proverbial bullet and actually smiled to myself as I continued to drive.)

After just a few more seconds of silence, my beautiful daughter responded with, "So, how did I get in Mama Santos' WOMB?"

Now it got sticky.  I couldn't fall back on the "When two people are married and love each other..." because her birth parents were NOT married (a fact she knew) and I didn't know whether they loved each other or not.  So, after a very deep breath to slow my heart rate I said, "Well, a man plants a seed inside a woman and the baby grows there."

Without missing a beat she says, "That doesn't make ANY sense, because if he used a shovel that would HURT the Mama!"

I almost had to pull off to the side of the road.  What was going through my head was "You're right, but I'M NOT SUPPOSED TO HAVE TO HAVE THIS CONVERSATION UNTIL YOUR OLDER!  I'M NOT READY YET!"

So, I told her she was absolutely right.  That the actual process was hard to explain and that was really a conversation for when she was older.  She was fine with that, but just wanted to know how MUCH older.  I wanted to say 35, but I went with "when your around 5 or 6".  (Why I picked that age is beyond me, but I was DRIVING, trying to focus on the road through my tears of yet another Mama moment coming years before it's expected time and for which I was horribly unprepared.)

Now, your question is, "What does this have to do with gifted reading?"  Well, I'll explain.

Just a year later (so she's now almost 4), we were at our local library (our favorite hang out) and Janan's favorite librarian was helping her find some books she wanted.  Janan had really gotten into Bill Nye the Science Guy and condensation, so they were in the science section.  Wanting to grab a book for myself, the librarian told me to go ahead and that she would help Janan find her books.  Happily, I trotted off to the fiction section for my book and returned just a few minutes later to see the librarian with a VERY strange look on her face and Janan sitting on the floor in front of the science section, nose-down in a book with large color photographs of in utero babies.

Turns out "condensation" isn't too far from "conception" and Janan had found a book called "A Child is Born" by Linnart Nilsson.  The poor librarian was worried I'd be upset!  I reassured her it was fine and actually smiled and said, "I knew this was coming."  

I have to admit this beautiful book has the most amazing pictures of fetal development I had ever seen, so I sat down next to Janan and said, "Wow!  What did you find?"  She looked up at me with amazement on her face and said, "Look, Mama!  These are babies in their Mama's wombs!"  We checked out "A Child is Born" and a few books on condensation (which never did get opened, I don't think) and headed home.  The entire ride home Janan sat in awe turning page after page commenting on how at first the baby looked more like a tadpole than a baby, but then you could see their eyes, fingers and even hair!"

This book became her favorite.  She scoured over it day and night.  She took it with her everywhere we went and checked it out the maximum number of times our library would allow.  Thankfully, there was a wonderful, local, used book store at which I found a copy Janan could call her own. 

Interestingly (and much to my relief), the photographs seemed to take away the "how did the baby get there" question and replaced it with an almost medical fascination of how the baby develops over the nine months, how it can "breathe" inside there, and how it is born.  We spent hours looking at the pictures every time she "discovered" something new.

The first chapter of the book does explain fertilization, but the photos of the babies intrigued her much more (whew!).  

So, if your LGR asks that ever looming question of "Where DO babies come from?" I HIGHLY recommend this book.  The photographs create wonderful conversation about the entire birth process and can keep the gifted mind enthralled for weeks!

Of course, the question of "How does the baby get in there?" didn't go away for long...but, I'll leave that story for another blog.