All Posts by MaxedOutKid

Book Review: Beauty by Robin McKinley

Technically this is more of a young adult novel, but would work as a good bridge for students at the upper level of middle grade novels who are ready to stretch.  There’s no mature or objectionable content.  My best friend and I fell in love with book in middle school, before we ever saw the movie, so this has always been the definitive version for me.  I return to over and over, for comfort and inspiration, much like I turn to my best friend.

This isn’t Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  Beauty has two kindly sisters, and the village folk are friendly.  Instead of a swaggering town bully, Beauty’s admirer is a painfully awkward and completely forgettable young lad.  The castle is crowded with magic and disembodied voices, but no tap-dancing cutlery.  McKinley’s story was written long before the Disney version, and clearly provided inspiration for the strong, intelligent, self-sufficient heroine.

McKinley follows the classic story’s original format.  A wealthy merchant, a reversal of fortune, a selfless trade to save her father’s life.  Beauty befriends the Beast.  After a brief trip home, Beauty realizes the Beast’s good nature is the key to her happiness.  Voila, happy ending.  McKinley crafts a world that is familiar to us and yet uniquely her own.  The wealthy merchant has three daughters, Grace, Hope, and Beauty.  Grace and Hope are “lovely, with every eligible young man – and many more who were neither – dying of love for them.”  Grace is engaged to a ship captain, and Hope to a blacksmith; McKinley thus sets the stage for valuing character over worldly gain.

Then the ships – and Grace’s beloved ship captain – are lost at sea, and their fortune disappears.  Hope’s blacksmith sweeps them off to his family’s cottage in the distant forest to start fresh.  There is a quiet murmur of magic in the background, but its greatest feat seems to be that no one notices it.  Until the fateful night her father comes home from a trip, bearing a single perfect rose.  He tells of a magical castle, a fierce Beast, and a terrible offer.  Beauty doesn’t hesitate.

McKinley’s power lies in her superb craftsmanship.  The story unfolds slowly as a rose, and just as beautifully.  She describes the Beast’s enchanted flowers “as if each were a gem, and the polish of each facet the life’s work of a fairy jeweler,” and her writing is much the same way.  Each place seems real and yet beautiful, from the smell of the horse sweat to the whispering of silken skirts.

Interestingly, there is no real villain in this tale.  Beauty’s father loses his fortune not through greed, but the simple misfortune of sunken or missing ships.  The sister’s true love is torn away, again, by circumstance.  The Beast is never a threat, but simply a sad victim of his own actions.  There’s no pitchfork-and-torch mob, or even any hungry wolves.  If anything, Beauty’s only nemesis is her own introversion.  She enjoys the simple things in life – her horse Greatheart, her family, her books.  She likes the Beast, but doesn’t realize that he might be necessary to her happiness.

The pace of the story may be too slow for some readers.  There’s no exciting action or breathtaking suspense.  It’s a slow, thoughtful immersion.  Tween girls – let’s face it, the readers will be mostly girls – will identify with Beauty’s general awkwardness.  Beauty doesn’t match her name; throughout her growing years she is short and plain and even pimpled.  It doesn’t help that her sisters are achingly beautiful.  Beauty busies herself with books and horses, but she’s also the clever, capable one.  She’s the first to step up and tackle problems.  Beauty’s determined, thoughtful nature can be an excellent guide for young girls preparing to face the larger world.

Book Review: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

Ah, The Dark is Rising.  This is a classic story that hits all the right notes.  It follows typical Arthurian / Welsh mythology.  There is a young boy, his wise mentor, a quest for magical artifacts, an epic battle of good versus evil.  It appeals to every child’s sense that there is magic in the real world, just out of sight.

It is primarily plot-driven.  Will – the youngest of a dozen children – is already old for his age and does not mature much beyond assuming his new powers and responsibilities.  He lives in a quiet, modern-day (well, modern for the early 1970s) village that honors its ancient history.  On his 11th birthday, he learns that is the youngest member of the circle of the Old Ones, and must wield the powers of The Light to vanquish The Dark.

Sure beats an X-box.

His mentor is Merriman Lyon, the first of the Old Ones, who is incognito as the butler on the nearby manor estate.  The owner of the estate is The Lady, a wise and kind old woman.  She is the most powerful of the Old Ones, and serves as a guiding light.

Will is the Seeker – he must find four Things of Power (Cooper isn’t big on linguistics like J.K Rowling.  She cuts straight to the most painfully obvious name).  The first is the Circle of Six Signs, which are all mandalas representing the Light.  Will has to hop through time (although, conveniently, not through space) and face challenges to fetch each Sign.  If your child likes video games and apps, they will appreciate this task-and-reward system.

While there are certain protections around Will and his family (who have no clue about his true identity), they are in very real danger from the Black Rider, who is obviously a Dark One.  In olden times, the Rider wears a black cape and rides a black horse and can be as sneeringly evil as he pleases.  When he steps into modern times, he hides his villainous intent behind charming manipulation.  He wraps the village in the blizzard of the century to put the squeeze the Stanton family.  Everyone moves into the manor estate for warmth and supplies, demonstrating that charmingly British keep-calm-and-carry-on wartime spirit.

 

In the confusion, the Rider kidnaps Will’s sister, and Will must risk his life to save her.  I know it sounds like the classic scenario of the damsel tied to the railroad tracks while the villain twirls his mustache, and it kinda is.  But all the magic and mythology make it poetic.

 

Like I said, not much character development.  Evil people stay evil, and good people are good.  Will learns caution and discretion in handling his new powers and identity, but otherwise it would be hard to tell if he was 11 or 41.  The book relies on the classic plot and smooth story-telling.

 

This is actually the second book in the five-part series.  But it’s the best to start with, because it sucks you into the world and gets you invested in the struggle between the Dark and the Light.  The first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, is about ordinary children on the fringe of the great struggle.  It’s a good addition to the series, but not gripping enough to make the reader commit to the series.  It’s like C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew.  It technically comes first in the timeline, but you don’t need to appreciate the story, and it might actually ruin some of the suspense and surprise.  I recommend reading The Dark is Rising first, then Over Sea, Under Stone, and then continuing with the rest of the story. The ordinary children – siblings Simon, Jane, and Barney – join forces with Will in the third book, Greenwitch.

Keeping Kids’ Brains Keen: Encouraging Engagement in an Electronic World

“Sure, Mom.”

He mumbles it without glancing up, eyes glued firmly to the screen. I have a sneaky suspicion bordering on certainty that he has not listened to a damn word I’ve uttered.

“I’m throwing your Legos away.”

“Hmm.” The flicker of the electronic glow reflects back to me from vacant eyes.

“Every last one,” I singsong, leaning in over the counter to be sure he’s heard me correctly.

“Yep, okay. Got it, Mom.”

Sound familiar? Of course it does.

Probably one thing almost every parent in the world struggles with is the alluring distraction of electronics, those tantalizing beacons that draw our children into the world of technology like a veritable Pied Piper. A little engagement with gadgets of the electronic variety isn’t a terrible thing, but most experts agree our children suffer negative effects when they spend more than an hour or two disengaged from their environment. When kids spend the majority of their time as passive consumers of entertainment, they aren’t connected to activities that will keep their brains active and stimulate them. As parents, though, we struggle with the need to limit screen time. Sometimes, Mommy just needs one more minute of blessed silence. Or Dad needs to take one more sip of coffee before he jumps in to referee the next blood-pressure-raising squabble.

 

Is balance possible? Can I lure my kids away from the glow of their electronic companions?

 

Absolutely. It takes just a little ingenuity and guidance, but tucking in opportunities for learning into every corner of your lives together is not only doable but fun. I promise. Try a few of the following strategies to keep your kids’ brains working at peak performance and your kids growing into something besides ravenous media zombies.

 

  1. Read, Read, and Read Some More

The joy of reading is, without a doubt, one of the most important gifts you can give your child. If you don’t have a voracious little reader yet, don’t panic. There are many ways to encourage literacy. Establish a daily story time and stock those bookshelves with fun titles that appeal to your child’s interests. You might be intimidated by all the bookstore ads and recommendations that assure you that you’re investing in the next “classic,” only to watch it languish unloved on the shelf. Don’t worry too much about the material. Your kids can engage their minds reading anything: magazines, cookbooks, restaurant menus, signs when you’re outdoors, or even movie schedules. Buy second-hand books cheap at local garage sales or online. Let them choose what they want to read and find out what interests them. Kids will go on reading tangents sometimes, blasting through every corny mystery they can get their hands on or insisting you read the same book over and over. It’ll be excruciating. You will hate that damn book with a passion. But don’t give up! Although some of these titles are never going to top the award winners’ lists, if your child is reading and engaged with the story, you’re doing something right.

Want to unlock the next level of parenting accomplishment? Ask questions about what your children are reading and encourage them to make connections and explore parallels. Achievement Unlocked. Parenting Level: Expert.

 

2. On The Road

It is said that parenting is 25% chef, 75% chauffeur. Truth: You spend a lot of time in the car. We all do. Take advantage of your captive audience and try some of these mind exercises and games while you’re on the go. They’ll help pass the time, keep the kids in the backseat from trying to whack each other over the head with toys, and provide you with a feeling of superior parental satisfaction. “See,” you’ll say to yourself, “We do stuff. Important stuff.”

 

  • Story Time

Strap yourself in and double-check those restraints. You’ll need to get creative here and tell a story. I know! You’ve been adulting so long that this is hard. Unleash your inner goofball and just go with it. You can start by saying something like “I love going to the amusement park because of the Big Dipper.” Then it’s time for the kids to get in on the action. They have to repeat what was already said and add to it. For example, “Mom loves going to the amusement park because of the Big Dipper, but I enjoy go-karting because I like the speed of the cars.”

Everyone in the car gets to build on the story, repeating everything in order and then adding to it. In this way, kids not only engage their memories but also learn about association, logic, cause and effect, and the first steps of writing and building a story.

 

  • License Plate Fun

Have everyone look for license plates and write them down. Take out the letters and just keep the numbers. Then have everyone add up the numbers and see who has the largest number.

You can take it even further. Now ask them by how much the number is larger, what would it round up to, what would it round down to, what’s the biggest number in the license plate, what’s in the tens place, what’s in the hundreds place. You can get creative and ask them all sorts of questions relating to the numbers. Maybe even include a bit of multiplication and division or subtraction, too. Your little mathematicians will astound you with the speed at which they pick up these concepts. And they’ll continue to use and apply them, adding up prices at the grocery store or successfully negotiating a higher allowance. You’ve been warned.

 

  1. Math, Glorious Math

Numbers. They’re everywhere! And a strong understanding of math can stimulate a lifelong interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects that will ensure a successful future for your very own brainiac. Try these fun games while outdoors or in the comfort of your home.

 

  • At the Store

Ask your kids to look at labels on food. They can look for things like the serving size as well as the number of servings per package. Now get them to think about how many packages would be needed for 4 servings, or 5 servings. For older kids, try to make the calculations a bit harder; for example, how many packages would be needed for 50 servings. When you go to the produce section, tell them how many pounds of fruit you need. Let your shopping companions pick out the fruit (or the vegetables) and weigh them, adding or subtracting to get the correct weight.

Moreover, this is a fabulous time to teach your kids a little about nutrition. Kids can benefit from learning early about the content of food, healthy ingredients, and appropriate serving sizes. After all, you are what you eat. (So apparently, we’re all made of refined sugar and hydrogenated oils. Yuck.) Reading food labels is also a major exercise in vocabulary improvement. Can you pronounce half that stuff? Neither can I. But it’s the phonetic effort here that counts.

 

  • Kitchen Activities

What’s not to love about cooking? It involves deliciousness combined with a possible mess. Help your kids roll up their sleeves and get to work. Pull out a cookbook and look at the ingredients. Get your little chefs to figure out how to double or even triple the recipe. Or halve it. Fraction fun! If they’re too young for all that, get your smallest helpers to show you the right measuring tools and dole out the ingredients. They’re gaining fine motor skills every time they pour, shake, and pinch. It’ll be worth the countertop disasters.

 

  1. Try out a New Hobby

Lure them away from those pesky glowing screens with the promise of a new hobby. Give them some suggestions based on their interests. Knitting and crocheting, building model planes, playing a musical instrument, photography, painting, or even drawing are all inexpensive hobbies to invest in. Being creative practices different parts of the mind that assist in appropriate development. If splurging for a class isn’t within your budget, find a local community college or recreation center that offers courses. Your children will benefit, not only from learning something new but also from meeting new people from different backgrounds they might not usually be exposed to.

Trying to get to the next level and earn your parenting merit badge? Take a class with your kid. Seeing adults approach learning with enthusiasm is an invaluable lesson for children.

 

  1. Get Active

Kids today are inactive for an alarming amount of time, wedged into the cushions of the couch with their electronic devices for company. For years, pediatricians have sounded the alarm about the health risks of decreased physical activity as childhood obesity reaches epic proportions around the world.

Little brains need physical activity as much as they need mental stimulation. Playing sports or engaging in cooperative outdoor games allows kids to develop strong, healthy bodies and well-adjusted minds. There are Little League, basketball, bike riding, playing cops and robbers outside (remember that?), swinging on the jungle gym, climbing, or even swimming. Studies show that movement actually assists with learning, strengthening connections between different parts of the brain.

One of the best ways to get your children excited about being outside is to introduce them to it yourself as often as possible. Family hikes or walks in the park, meanderings in the woods while looking for insects, and biking around the neighborhood are all ways to show little explorers that a healthy lifestyle is a lifelong pursuit.

 

  1. Memory Games 

Memory is one of the simplest forms of learning that even very small children can practice. Get those memories working by putting some goodies in a box with a lid. Try about eight to ten items. Let them look at everything in the box for about one minute and then take it away. Now the fun begins. They need to memorize what was in there. If there are a couple of kids involved, it will be even more exciting as it becomes a competition. You can let them take turns at selecting items and being in charge of the game themselves.

Very young children can enjoy a variation of this game that stimulates their sensory learning. Put an item in the box and shut the lid without ever letting them see it. Have your children close their eyes and reach into the box to feel the item and try to guess what it is. Older kids will enjoy this game if you try hard to choose objects that can stump them.

Are you paying attention? No, really. Pay attention – because this game is called Concentration. Get a pack of 52 playing cards and spread them out facedown. The kids will need to match up pairs by memorizing where each card is. Younger children can work up to this with a half or a quarter of the deck until they are ready for the more challenging version. You can also do this with copies of photos, clip art that you printed, or store-bought memory cards. The possibilities are endless. And, sometimes, so is the game.

 

  1. Puzzles and Construction Fun

I know. You’re thinking wooden puzzles with knobs. Or those flimsy cardboard puzzles with a thousand pieces that never get finished before the dog eats at least three. But there are lots of different kinds of puzzles, so broaden your mind. Think word searches, crossword puzzles, and Sudoku. Your kids might struggle to pick up the strategies at first, but once they get it, it’ll become a passion.

Another way to get young minds engaged is through imaginative play. This is a great way for kids to learn. Imaginative play is as simple as it sounds. Kids use their imaginations to build things and create things without constant supervision from parents. That’s right, Helicopter Dad. Back off. Some props that can start good bouts of imaginative play are the ever-popular Legos, wooden blocks, sandboxes in which they can create castles or whatever they want, card houses, and big foam blocks. There are loads of manipulative toys on the market too, which allow your kids free rein to use their creativity.

Blocks are probably one of the most versatile toys around. Kids from infants to toddlers enjoy just touching them and gripping them. Two-year-olds start trying to stack. At three, they learn how to put pieces together and start building more complex designs. Four-year-olds recognize designs and structures, and now blocks start to take on a whole new kind of creativity. Once they reach school age, they start to build things that they see around them and become masters of the block universe! Next, they’ll be demanding you spend half your life savings on Legos. This will continue for many years. You should start saving up now.

 

  1. Origami

That’s as inexpensive a hobby as can be: you only need paper and scissors. I used to enjoy that when I was a young kid, though I gave it up when I got older.

 

  1. Do something physical

Become a do-it-yourselfer and invite your curious kids to help you.

 

I’m not speaking of dull, repetitive tasks like mowing the lawn. I’m talking about things like building a piece of furniture for your kid’s room. Instead of buying furniture, buy a furniture kit, and you and your kid can put it together yourself. Kids will be proud to have something they can use that they helped to build themselves. Let a kid use a hammer or a screwdriver once in a while — it won’t kill him.

 

When it comes time to repaint the home, let your kid choose the color of the paint for his room. Then let him paint at least part of it. It’s fun, it’s exercise, and again, he’ll be proud that he did it himself.

 

When your toilet needs repair, invite your kid to help. He can at least remove the new parts from the shrinkwrap and keep things organized while you install them. Toilet flushing isn’t magic, as he’ll see.

Keeping kids’ brains keen for learning doesn’t have to be a huge task or take up much time. If you just add a couple of these activities into your regular routine, not only will you be getting them away from their electronic sidekicks but you’ll also be helping their brains develop to their maximum potential.

Parenting accomplishment achieved. Level unlocked: GENIUS.

An Open Letter to Parents

An open letter to parents trying to interest their children in reading

 

The train car swayed gently from side to side as I stared at my three children occupying all the remaining bunk beds.

None of them were looking back at me. None were glancing out the window. None were talking. All were gazing at phone or tablet screens, their ears plugged with earphones. In the evening dusk, those screens were illuminating their faces with a lifeless, electric glow.

As if they were zombie children.

I was traveling from Zurich to Saint Petersburg in the company of three zombie kids, ages seven, ten, and fourteen.

“Hey, guys,” I said. “Who wants to read my latest story?”

No one reacted. Perplexed, I studied the neat Swiss countryside passing by our window.

After a minute or two, I whistled for attention. “Who wants to read any story with me?” I pulled my Kindle out. “Mary Poppins. Nasreddin Hodja. Long John Silver.”

My ten-year-old daughter, Naomi, shot me a sidelong glance from across the car. She popped an earbud out of her ear and said, “Dad, I need to tell you something.” She glanced around for support, but the others didn’t seem to be listening. “We’re done reading with you.” She sat up and punched the bottom of the bed above her. “Right, Ivan? We’re no longer that small.”

“Yeah,” my teenage son mumbled from the dusk above. “No offense, Dad.” Apparently, he had been paying attention.

Maya, my youngest daughter, kept quiet on the bed above me. She always kept quiet when she felt the tension rising between the members of our family.

“Oh.” My heart rate accelerated a little as I watched Naomi stick the earbud back in, cutting the conversation short.

This was sort of bad.

Okay, I admit it — this was really bad.

I write children’s books for a living. This couldn’t be happening to me. It made me feel like the biggest fraud since Enron.

True, I know lots of parents who struggle to get their kids to read, but … me, of all people?

And yet…

I had to face the facts staring me in the face. Or rather, staring at three little electric screens.

I had to do something. But what?

I said nothing. I sulked on my bunk bed, wondering what the heck to do about it.

You see, whenever people asked me what to do if their kids hate reading, I was always ready to answer with perfect advice. Usually, I had a lot of right words. But now the words escaped me.

How could an author of children’s books even begin to fathom that his kids had become nonreaders?

 

Facing the Horrifying Truth

As I lay there listening to the rhythmic rattle of the train’s wheels, I started to calm down … slowly. The question on my lips remained, “What should I do?”

All sorts of ideas raced through my mind, but not one of them seemed right. Hey, perhaps I wasn’t as great a dad as I had thought. Perhaps I sucked as a father. Perhaps … perhaps I spent too much time writing, editing, and illustrating my books for other kids to read and love, instead of spending time with my own children.

Perhaps I was done being a writer.

Maybe being a railroad engineer was my real calling in life.

 

The “Aha” Moment

I knew how important it was for kids to read. I didn’t need a child psychologist to tell me that.

So how was I going to turn my nonreader kids into passionate devourers of books?

And then…

Then an “Aha” moment hit me right in the gut. And yes, my poor racked brain had something to do with it, too.

 

Up the Ante

I know it sounds a bit odd, but I needed to up the ante — and my game plan too.

I realized right there and then that I, Max Candee, an author of children’s books, had to start involving my kids in my world — my crazy kid’s world. I had to take them along for the ride. Hey, other kids were enjoying my books, so there was no reason that mine shouldn’t get even more involved with them.

 

The Ultimate Team Effort

We continued on our Saint Petersburg vacation, going to the countless museums, palaces, restaurants, and boat rides. My wife soon joined us on her return from Japan, and we had a wonderful time together.

As I watched my children participating in this adventure, studying the freaky collection of oddities in Peter the Great’s Kunstkamera, interacting with a huge toy model of Russia in a children’s museum, dancing to the music of street orchestras in the city’s parks, my plan matured.

Back in Switzerland, I started to act.

First, I brought Maya to my man cave — my sacred writing room. She was allowed to join me there for the first time. Ever.

She seemed overwhelmed by being able to visit my secret place hidden under the roof of our house. She gazed at various souvenirs I’d brought from my travels around the world: silver warriors from Mexico, colorful masks from China, wooden statuettes from Africa… For her, it was a live museum of creativity.

“Why do you no longer like reading?” I asked.

The seven-year-old’s response startled me. “Dad,” she said. “I just can’t find any books that I enjoy. They’re all so boring.”

“Okay,” I said, treading carefully. “What sort of book would you enjoy?”

“Something funny and cool.” She picked up two paper ducks I’d brought from Japan and began acting out a simple story on my writing desk. “Like this!”

I smiled, feeling smug.

Right there, I had my solution.

 

The Big Brainstorm

My wife made us a pizza. I sat down with Maya and told her, “You’re going to help me write my next book.”

She gave me an incredulous look. “What?”

If I had thought to take a picture of how her face lit up, I’d be sharing it with the world … but I didn’t have a camera anywhere near me, so that was that.

“Yep,” I said. “We’ll write the next book together.”

She smiled at me.

And I gave myself a little pat on the back: from a sucky father to a rock star in an instant.

We stood before a massive corkboard that I use to outline my stories. She spewed out all the things that she enjoyed. I added to them, and together, we came up with the next book’s plot.

But it didn’t stop there.

Now we had the outline, but she was determined to make sure this book would be perfect. My other books had done well, but this was a special project. It had to do even better.

 

The Big Book Affair

So my daughter and I wrote our first “together” book. She gave me the words, and I typed them.

She wanted to write about a duck who liked to live on top of a girl’s head.

She wanted to write about her bedroom turning into a pink adventure castle after lights out.

She wanted to write about hiccups, cupcakes, an unlimited supply of sugary drinks, and funny and strange people.

I swallowed all my “Eh,” “But wait,” and “This just doesn’t make any sense” comments and typed on.

I’ll tell you a little secret: Her ideas were pretty darn good.

And here’s what I learned and what I want to share with you: If I wanted kids to read my books — any books — I needed to get kids involved.

And if my kids made my books better in the process, who was I to complain?

 

The Finale…

The book that my youngest daughter and I created together is, to my mind, one of the best books I’ve ever written.

Did this change my life?

You bet.

Things just snowballed from there, and over two years, we created more than twenty books that we published under different pen names.

These days, every book that I write involves my kids. If their eyes don’t light up — well then, I start again, with their help, of course. If they love it, to market it goes!

And the coolest part?

Each of my three kids has asked for a Kindle as a birthday present. They asked for Amazon gift cards for Christmas so they could fill those Kindles with books.

And every day, they read. They read in all the languages that they speak: English, French, Russian, and Japanese.

 

The Moral of the Story…

I’m not sharing this to show you what a cool dad I am (well, that too).

I’m giving you a few strategies to help your kids enjoy reading.

It’s quite simple, really. Find their passions and tap into them. If they aren’t passionately engaged, you’ll have a dusty book or Kindle sitting in the corner of the room, untouched.

So read with them. Better still, write with them, even if you never intend to publish what you create. Go out into the world together and note everything that fuels their interest. Observe them.

If you are able to tap into those passions, to co-create, your young stars will be reading in no time at all.

Reading can be seen as a private, quiet affair. But it doesn’t have to be.

Find the passion, and you’ll find the reader!

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