Reading Classics With Kids (Even as Comic Books)

My dad told me about a series of comic books that were available when he was young—comics based on the plots of books commonly assigned to schoolchildren, which served as CliffNotes in those pre-Internet days when plagiarism generally meant that you copied either from a classmate or from the saved papers of students a year or two ahead of you. I’ve never actually seen one of those comic books, but I always liked the idea of them, even though I’ve pretty much always been the sort of student who reads the book.

(Except for The Martian Chronicles, which was assigned in 9th grade and which I simply did not read.)

Yet even though I’m generally a fan of reading the whole, real book before seeing the movie (or taking the exam)—I read, and loved, an unabridged translation of Les Miserables as a teenager—I’ve discovered that shortened and child-friendly adaptations of classic books can be very good things. I mean, I’m no expert in reading instruction or in child development or in anything else in particular, come to think of it, but there is something about allowing children to absorb great stories, even in a sketched-out form, that seems to be pretty powerful.

A few years ago, my husband started telling the children a child-friendly version of The Lord of the Rings, and they continue to ‘play the story’ in Lego and out in the yard, mulling over the endurance of Frodo, the faithfulness of Sam, the pitiable nature of Gollum, and the dangerous allure of the ring of power. About a year ago, my father read them a children’s adaptation of Moby-Dick, took them to the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, and watched the classic film (with Gregory Peck). Again, the story figures into their thinking and playing still.

And recently, I read them a children’s version of the epic poem Beowulf, one of the oldest surviving works of literature in (Old) English. They could hardly wait for each successive chapter, and they cried real tears over the death of the old knight Beowulf. Don’t tell them I told you that.

Graeme's version of Beowulf v. Grendel
Graeme’s version of Beowulf v. Grendel

This is not at all to slight classic children’s literature, which I also love (I cried reading Karen Swallow Prior’s chapter on Charlotte’s Web in her literary memoir Booked), but only to say that even as children can absorb stories from the Bible in simplified form long before they can understand theology or read passages from the Good Book itself, they can meaningfully encounter great stories in ways that open up their imagination and creativity long before they’re ready to read Melville—and even if they’re never ready to read Melville.

In Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis wrote that one way to know you’ve encountered ‘myth’ (by which he meant not not true but rather a transcendently powerful story) when even reading the bare bones of the plot moves you in some way, or, in his words, a myth has “value in itself –a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work.” I think that when my children take little child-sized bites of Beowulf, Moby-Dick, Lord of the Rings, and Arthurian legend, it begins to open up the back of the wardrobe.

Sometimes In Spite of Your Best Preparations, The Thing You Hope Doesn’t Happen Happens.

We have the best sort of bed nets, treated with insecticide that’s harmful to bugs but not humans.

We have the best sort of malaria-prevention drugs, the kind with few side effects, and we take it every day.

We have treated our clothing with the spray that’s harmful to bugs but not humans (see above.)

{You could say that, like my father before me, my motto is “trust God and be as prepared as humanly possible.”}

Even so, our son Graeme (age 4.5) came down with a mild case of malaria this past week, along with some sort of infection that sent his white blood cell count a-soaring and gave him a fever.

There’s nothing like your children getting ill to make you feel powerless. Oh, you take them to the clinic or the doctor’s office or the hospital, or some combination thereof, you fill prescriptions, and you Google various treatment options.

(I used my husband’s computer for a moment, and when he came back to it, he remarked, “you know it’s a hard day when your most recent Google search is “oral rehydration solution recipe.” True enough.)

But even with all our efforts at healing and comfort, we are not fully in control. We can’t filter out the p. falciparum or the streptoccocus or whatever strain of influenza is making the rounds. We can’t wave a magic wand and make it all better now!


I hate this so much, because I like to believe that all my good preparations (see above) and even, to some degree, my worrying, will keep bad things at bay. When the lab test came back showing that Graeme had malaria in his blood, well, it was as if the universe was laughing at those plans. I do not like this one bit.

Of course, we were able to make sure that Graeme was getting the best possible treatment, and to monitor him carefully and offer him lollipops in a variety of flavors to take away the bitterness of the quinine syrup and so forth. We are the lucky ones, the unimaginably blessed ones, at least materially speaking.

He is already feeling much better, but I can’t stop thinking of those mothers and fathers who don’t have the luxury of phoning tropical disease experts and consulting with different doctors to optimize treatment plans. I can’t stop thinking of how grateful I am not to be in that position, but also, of how, even with all these advantages, there’s very little I can control, and I find myself still just begging God to be merciful, and to give me the grace to extend that mercy to those who don’t have those luxuries.

What I Have Learned About Writing and Life from Lego (and my kids)

Three and a half years ago, after my son Aidan broke his leg on the slippery floor of a Franprix supermarket in Paris, and after the initial shock and pain began to wear off, we had to figure out what on earth we were going to do with a suddenly immobile almost-4 year old. One can only watch so many movies, and I wasn’t at all sure I was ready to introduce him to video games.

So I consulted my Paris guidebook, located the nearest toyshop on the map, and headed over with my mom and Graeme, who was then a 1-year-old cherub with golden curls. I don’t remember what-all was purchased on that day—there may have been some crayons and coloring books, long since consumed—except that this was when we bought our family’s first box of Lego (and one of Duplo, so as not to leave out the cherub.)

We set Aidan up in bed with a tray upon which to build, and build he did—and hasn’t really stopped since.

Within the year he was creating his own designs, based on things we’d see around town, things he saw in books or in movies, cars and trucks he saw driving by, and so on. (And of course, he was making Lego swords and other weapons, too, sigh.) Every birthday and Christmas saw his collection increase, and the vast majority of toys brought to Malawi from home are…Lego, of course.

What I love about Lego is that most Lego bricks—even if they come as part of a kit—are fabulously open-ended. A piece from a castle can become part of a spaceship or part of a digger or part of a scabbard or part of a ship. I love that there is simply no limit to what can be made with them—they have made binoculars and dragons and medical equipment. I love that when they hear a new story or go on a new sort of adventure, they come back to the pile of Lego and recreate what they’ve encountered…in Lego. They are always confident that the exact right piece exists and that they can find it. They’re always tweaking their creations and improving them. And it’s not work for them…it’s pure pleasure.

Screen shot 2013-01-07 at 2.43.47 PM

When I watch them build, or when they proudly present their creations to me, I feel like I’m encountering something that’s so pure and important, not because of childhood innocence or some such thing, but because they work with the raw materials of their craft with such fearless confidence. They see a Land Rover, determine to recreate one in Lego, gather the pieces, build it, play with it…it might take hours, but they will do it with such focus and seriousness that it’s easy to forget they are children at play.

This is the kind of thing, I think, that most of us are—or were—capable of; that self-forgetfulness, that feverish making-of-things, even if the things we are making are made only (only!) of words. We encounter something that inspires us—on Pinterest, or at the market, on a hike, or in a book—and we are determined to make something of it with whatever it is we have at our disposal: pen and paper, fresh ingredients, fabric and thread, acrylic and canvas. We can use whatever we have and take our time, and we can always take a break to eat some peanut butter and crackers or page through a Tintin book. We end up doing more than just distracting ourselves from boredom and pain and (what feels like immobility.)

We are binding up the broken bits and mapping our way through streets and wildernesses unknown, one brick, one word, one glimpse at a time.

The Writing Mama (Part 2 of Many)

There’s a kind of a myth of the stay-at-home (homeschooling optional) mom as the perfect homemaker who more or less singlehandedly cooks, cleans, sews, bakes, knits, gardens, preserves her own food and creates beautiful, Pinterest-worthy scenes of domestic bliss. Oh, and writes her own homeschooling curriculum (or at least curates the best) and teaches the kids Latin.

Also, she has many babies and fits into her jeans right away and captures everything in perfect blurry edged photographs.

(She may or may not make her own soap, lotion, bath salts, and lip balm.)

And she writes.

For all her many and varied perfections she’s rewarded with sainthood and/or thousands of fan-followers who kind of simultaneously love and hate her for being so amazing while at the same time wanting to BE her and hating themselves for not being able to come close.

It’s this Perfect Woman who, we think, has something to say to the rest of us. Regular women, the kind who forget to make dinner and dress kids directly from the clean clothes in the dryer, don’t have it in us to write things that other people will read.

sometimes the writing mama will ignore the mess and continue writing with poor body posture.

The truth is that life doesn’t unfold in photgraphable moments and everyone, everyone, everyone has messes in their lives. Once upon a time, I idolized Edith Schaeffer and the way she woke up at 4 to pray and hike and make criossants and put fresh flowers on the table always and stay thing and look pretty and cheerfully serve her husband and children and whatever greasy hippies were passing through while managing to write whole piles of books, sew her own clothes, garden, and–you get the idea.

And then when her cheeky son goes ahead and writes some ‘tell-alls’ we find out that Francis Sr. wasn’t all that nice to Edith, that she may or may not have been slightly unbalanced or at least partially insomniac and enabling of her husband’s rageaholicism, and so forth.

(This isn’t to cast aspersion on dear old Edith. I think she’s a bright, creative and interesting woman, and, moreover, I would be furious if my sons wrote some kind of tell-all about me while I’m still alive. Point is, she had issues. AS DO WE ALL.)

Which, I think, is why so many people love writers like Anne Lamott, who makes no bones about perfection and lets her unbalanced, self-absorbed nutcase flag FLY in a way that makes people feel less alone and so loved and chosen in God’s eyes.

In other words, she offers the reader grace.

But what does this have to do with the writing mama? Just this: your life, writing mama, is allowed to look messy. Your home is too. You CAN serve cereal for dinner once in awhile, you can and should rely on help if help’s available, and your kids don’t need a sanitized home nor one that looks like it would make Martha Stewart proud, because if you want to write, you should, and NO ONE can really do it all.

(If it looks like they can, don’t be awed. Be concerned.*)

And think about your writing as just another part of the work YOU MUST DO.

You think Ma Ingalls left off the butter churning or hoeing because one of the children needed quality time? She didn’t really have that option. She had important work to do at home, so she gave that tiny girl a job, or else tied her to a picket line so she wouldn’t disappear on the prairie and she did her work. If it’s in you to write, then you need to write. Think of it as your necessary work, just as necessary as growing crops, and don’t feel bad when you need to insist that the children play on their own for a while or even (heavens!) watch a DVD while you scratch something out in the fertile soil of your mind. That kind of pioneering sustains your life, too.

*none of this should be taken to mean that in order to let everyone know how ‘authentic’ you are you need to make a full confession before/after/during your writing. Not everyone writes in the confessional mode and, let’s face it, most readers probably don’t care that much to hear all the messy details, unless you manage to make it redemptive, even if only ‘redemption by humor.’ But once upon a time I thought no one would read my writing until I had reached some authentic pinnacle of excellence or something. Somehow or other I figured out that pretty much no one has it together, even and perhaps especially those who most seem like they do.

My Son’s ‘Chinese’ Tattoo

My boys love temporary tattoos. The love of tattoos seems to skip generations in our family. I’m not tattooed (sorry to be morbid, but I’d like the option of Jewish burial); my dad’s tattoo was an homage to his much-beloved, long-departed, tattooed grandpa.

Recently, a local artist was photographing tattoos and collecting the stories of the tattoos and so she photographed my dad and recorded his story, and then requested a snapshot of the boys with him, showing off their tattoos:

My dad brought a whole packet of tattoos from the toy store and, because they are temporary, the boys enjoy picking new ones. Graeme was really excited to pick this one after the Jolly Roger one, even though he doesn’t look happy in the picture (he has a touch of fever)–

He kept calling it a ‘Chinese’ tattoo, which puzzled me until we brought home the supplies for our sacred weekly ritual: Chinese takeout.

Look! Graeme said. It’s my Chinese tattoo!

Well, okay. Guess I passed on that part of American Jewishness…