Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Reading Ourselves into Great Literature

I was recently listening to a podcast in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and was struck by the solipsism of the contributors. Each contributor appeared to be in their thirties, possibly early forties, and reflected the cultural blindness that is so prevalent in much of criticism these days. All three contributors loved Austen and had read Pride and Prejudice many times but were crippled in their analysis in that they did not have the tools to understand the historical, moral, social, and cultural roots of this book. Instead of trying to determine what Austen was trying to communicate to her readers, they simply brought their own 21st century opinions and mores to the book. I do not blame the contributors for their lack of ability to analyze this special work because I am painfully aware that even the best school systems have traded serious literary scholarship for personally reflective responses to literature. These commentators simply, and unwittingly, reflected our cultural tendency to view books through our own prejudices and backgrounds. Of course, this is a very human tendency but it came through so strongly in this podcast that I began wondering at how much we are losing through this approach.

In the podcast, Jane Austen's most popular novel was ultimately reduced to the status of "romantic comedy" and the commentators claimed that it was still popular 200 years after its initial publication because it was so "relatable". The tragedy of this is that Pride and Prejudice is vastly more than this...not to mention the idea of "romantic comedy" did not even exist when the book was written. And the argument that the novel is great because it is "relatable" is laughable. When the book is evaluated for its portrayals of romance and character likability, it becomes nothing but emotional fluff of the Jan Karon variety, and I can guarantee you that people will not be reading Karon two centuries from now, however enjoyable her novels may or may not be today! The commentators further displayed their absolute ignorance of Austen's deeply moral convictions by stating that they thought Lydia, the daughter who runs away with shady Wickham, was one of the most attractive characters for her willingness to stand up against the social standards of the day. Commentary like this boggles the mind!

In presenting Pride and Prejudice as relatable, Lydia as attractive, and Lizzie as merely witty, these commentators fail to see the very essence of the novel. Austen's examination of social mores, class divides, frivolity and seriousness, pride and prejudice, is rooted in a very deeply held moral conviction. Her novel, for all its witty banter, is a very serious book. One that warns of the dangers of carelessness. One that shows the price of prejudice. One that reveals the emptiness of the pursuit of worldly gain. One that upholds social standards as safeguards against foolishness and ruin.

I believe that Pride and Prejudice is still popular 200 years after Austen wrote it because it speaks to a moral vacuum that exists in our culture today. In a culture that idealizes the individual, it's refreshing to read a story deeply rooted in community. In a society that favors relativism, we find comfort in the old standards. We also can rejoice in the restoration of broken relationships, when too often today we're encouraged to abandon inconvenient friendships and marriages. While our heroes today are more likely to throw a football well or swim really fast than stand for any sort of principle, we can thrill at the moral fortitude of Mr. Darcy, the kindness he displays to his servants, and his humility in not revealing his actions to save Lydia. We love Lizzie for her wit and Darcy for his nobility, but their real value comes in their willingness to reevaluate their prejudices, admit error, seek restoration, and extend grace. Austen's novel may be called a story of manners, but it is also, and more importantly, a novel of universal truths. The characters are relatable because they are deeply human, flawed, sinful, and redeemable. There is not a single character in the novel that is drawn in one dimension. All have their strengths and weaknesses. In order to be truly impacted by a novel like Pride and Prejudice, it is essential that we not make the mistake of reading ourselves into the book, surely the ultimate error of pride and prejudice. The book's richness only comes through when approached with humility. Then, and only then, will the reader experience the book's amazing ability to be a mirror shining light on our own character flaws and on the social ills that exist today.

Reading in such a way is a skill that seems to be rapidly disappearing. It requires historical knowledge, literary tools of analysis, and a critical eye. But the most important ingredient is humility. In order to encourage the development of this skill in your reading and in your student's reading, I think you can begin by changing one thing. Instead of asking, "What did you think of this story?" try asking "What is this story trying to teach me?" Encourage your students to look beyond how the story affected them, to the truths that are inherent in the story. Avoid any sort of reflective analysis that has to do with personal opinions and feeling. Instead stick to the story, assess the plot, analyze characters, research historical setting and background. Once your student has these skills, he will be able to truly learn from the books he reads, instead of merely seeing his own views reflected back to him.

For further reading, I would recommend Karen Prior Swallow's article on literary analysis, available here. And Rea Berg has written an engaging post about how not to be a Mrs. Bennet! Check it out here.

And for help in teaching history using literature, check out Beautiful Feet Books' study guides!

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Friday, July 26, 2013

Chincoteague Ponies

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As anyone who has read Marguerite Henry's classic Misty of Chincoteague knows, each year wild beautiful pictures of the event over at the Times. Also check out the images over at the Huffington Post - they're amazing!
ponies living on the island of Assateague are made to cross over to Chincoteague Island where several dozen will be auctioned off to benefit the local fire department. The event has become a well-loved spectacle. Well, that happened once again yesterday and there are someIf you want to make the next crossing a family event, there is all sorts of information available at the Chincoteague Pony Swim website. And if you're in the area, you may be able to make it over for the swim back to Assateague as that takes place today!

For those of you unfamiliar with this event, check out Misty of Chincoteague. It's a great book and your children are sure to enjoy it. It's also a part of our History of the Horse curriculum, perfect for all horse-lovers and aspiring equestrians!

Have a wonderful weekend! 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Reasons To Choose Home Education

Lisa Nielsen, a public school administrator and teacher, has compiled a list entitled "The 12 Most Compelling Reasons to Homeschool Your Child" and you can read it here. The list contains many valid reasons for choosing this educational method for your children and many that I hear about in my conversations with home educators. What was missing from the list, in my opinion, are some of the opportunities to make education less self-centered and more intuitive. And so, to Nielsen's very good list, I would add the following:

1. The ability make education a family affair:
The modern educational system divides students arbitrarily, according to age or talent. The decision to homeschool breaks down these boundaries as education becomes an endeavor undertaken by the entire family. It's much easier to create an atmosphere of learning when parents see education as part of their responsibility. This is different from making sure that children do their homework. When a family homeschools everyone contributing to education. Older siblings can teach younger siblings. Parents learn along side their children. Learning together builds strong relationships as each person sees himself as an integral part of the family, and a contributor to the education of others.

2. The ability to take learning out of the classroom:
When you homeschool, I think that a switch is flipped and you begin to see that education is not something that just happens in a classroom. It's a lifestyle. Think of all that your child learned before she was formally enrolled in school. Even if she began attending preschool, there was an incredible amount of learning that happened before then, major accomplishments like speech! Children learn by observation and doing. When we take these inquisitive minds and send them to a school, telling them that this is where they will learn, we begin to divide learning from living. Of course, many students flourish within a classroom, and many families do a wonderful job of continuing to educate their children outside the classroom. But for those who find classrooms stifling and uninspiring, it can be a short leap from "I hate school" to "I hate learning". Homeschooling does not create artificial boundaries around the learning process.

3. The ability to see outside one's world:
When children are enrolled in schools according to zip code, there is a high likelihood that he or she will be attending school with other children from the same socio-economic circle and racial background. While there is comfort in this, there is also a lot of danger. As our nation becomes more and more segregated by factors such as income, we are losing our ability to empathize with people different from ourselves. While neighborhoods used to be much more integrated in terms of economic class, a startling trend of self-segregation has taken place across the US, resulting in homogenized neighborhoods. It used to be that bankers, doctors, school teachers, auto mechanics, and people working minimum wage jobs could all be found in the same neighborhoods. Now it's rare to live next to someone who is from a decidedly different economic background. This distance has allowed for an increasingly calloused view of the poor and an antagonistic view of the well-off. When you choose to homeschool, you can make a conscious effort to show your children how other people live. Whether that means volunteering in a homeless shelter, visiting the elderly at an affluent retirement home, or giving your time to a cause you believe in, you will be giving your children the ability to understand the world beyond their own neighborhood.

4. The ability to relax:
While school systems are being crushed by constant reforms, increased paperwork demands, and constant evaluations, you have a lot more freedom. Yes, your state may require testing or a submission of lesson plans, but you can set up your own schedule. You can work with your student's own learning style. When you sense that your children are fed up and you're at your wit's end, you can call it a day and go to the pool. While you may feel a lot of pressure, it's so important to remember that your children are constantly learning. It's important to have fun together, to read together, to play together. And when you're homeschooling you have so much more time to do those things.

I would love to hear your thoughts on homeschooling. Why did you decide to make this educational choice? What benefits have you discovered and found surprising? What about drawbacks?

And if you're ordering curriculum for this coming school year, now's the time to do it! Ordering now will ensure that your books are delivered in time to start your school year. And remember, all orders over $200.00 ship for free! Check out our history curriculums and study guides at bfbooks.com.

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Monday, July 22, 2013

Children's Book Exhibitions

From "The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter"
Hello! This blog has been quiet for the past two weeks while I was on vacation and I hope you have all been enjoying the long days of summer, taking time to refresh your souls, feed your imaginations, and rest. There are still a few weeks of summer break for most of us and in celebration of this, I thought it would be fitting to share about an exhibition currently on at the New York Public Library. 
"The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter" looks amazing! Featuring rare and curious items from the library's enviable and extensive collection, visitors are able to peek into the history of children's book publishing, view relics from the past, even interact with a life-sized recreation of the bedroom in Goodnight Moon! This looks like a great stop for families as many of the exhibits are child-friendly and admission is free! The exhibition is described as:
The ABC of It is an examination of why children’s books are important: what and how they teach children, and what they reveal about the societies that produced them. Through a dynamic array of objects and activities, the exhibition celebrates the extraordinary richness, artistry, and diversity of children’s literature across cultures and time.
Our first books stir and shape us as few books ever again can. Goodnight MoonAlice in WonderlandA Wrinkle in Time! For three centuries and more, books made especially with the young in mind have served as indispensible gateways to literature, art, and knowledge of the world. And if, as adults, we find that our own childhood favorites remain as thrilling or funny or heart-stoppingly beautiful as ever, we should not be surprised. As W. H. Auden wisely observed: “There are no good books which are only for children.”
Today’s brightly packaged, increasingly globalized books for young people have complex roots in world folklore, Enlightenment philosophy, nationalist fervor, and the pictorial narrative traditions of Asian and Western art, among other sources. Collectively, they form a vivid record of literate society’s changing hopes and dreams, and of the never-ending challenge of communicating with young readers in the most compelling possible way.The ABC of It draws on collections across the Library to present the literature for children and teens against a sweeping backdrop of history, the arts, popular culture, and technological change. The books and related objects on view reveal hidden historical contexts and connections and invite second looks and fresh discoveries. They suggest that books for young people have stories to tell us about ourselves, and are rarely as simple as they seem.

Doesn't that sound fascinating?!? Here's a write-up from The Atlantic on the exhibition and it is definitely worth reading. I absolutely love the quote from the curator at the end of the article: "So to the list of reasons why children's books matter, add the way that they reflect the times they were created in. 'They are the message-in-a-bottle that each generation tosses out to the next generation,' Marcus says, 'the record of one generation's hopes and dreams for the next.'"

I don't think I'll have a chance to visit before the exhibit closes in March, but if any of you do, please let me know what you thought! Here's the essentials for planning your visit:

New York Public Library
5th Avenue and 42nd Street
202.869.8089 or nypl.org
10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Thursday-Saturday
11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday
Open through March 23, 2014
Free admission

While researching this event, I stumbled upon a blog that also listed other children's oriented book events and thought I'd list a few of them here. 

In Washington, DC you can visit an exhibit devoted to the Little Golden Books! An avid collector as a child, this would be so much fun to see!

LITTLE GOLDEN BOOKS at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Exhibition Description: "Little Golden Books transformed children’s reading habits in the early 20th century. Prior to World War II, large-format, classic story books for children were prohibitively expensive and available to a privileged few. Little Golden Books offered new ideas and modern stories in an affordable format.   The exhibit features a sampling of artist’s proofs from several early Little Golden Books."

Smithsonian National Museum of American History
14th Street and Constitution Ave, NW
Washington, D.C., 20001
10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas.
Free admission
For those unable to travel to DC, there is an online exhibition available. To view, click here.

A traveling exhibition on the history of children's book illustration is visiting several cities across the US in the next year and it looks fascinating.
Exhibition Description:
A good children’s picture book still has the power to whisk young minds off to another time and place—even in today’s world of computer games and high-definition TV. Draw Me a Story: A Century of Children’s Book Illustration explores one hundred years of bold adventures, classic fairy tales, amazing animals, and imaginative ABCs, all seen through the eyes of forty-one artists who created works especially for children.
Originating from the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, California, Draw Me a Story presents 43 original works of art and 5–10 objects in a thematic and nostalgic trip through the history of children’s book illustrators and illustration techniques. The exhibition starts with artists Ralph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway—two of the most popular illustrators of the late nineteenth century, both of whom now have children’s literary awards named after them.
Twentieth century artists include innovators like W.W. Denslow, William Steig and Chris Van Allsburg. Styles featured in the exhibition range from the delicate watercolors of Kate Greenaway’s “Hush-a-bye baby,” to the evocative pen and ink visions of Edward Gorey. Draw Me a Story also explores the process of illustration and its evolution over time, from simple, traditional media to more experimental combinations of pen, pencil, paint, and ink."

Tour Details available here.

Do you know of any other book-related events our readers may enjoy? Please feel free to share in the comments section below. Happy exploring!

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Wednesday, July 03, 2013

150th Anniversary of Gettysburg

The battle that effectively turned the tide of the US Civil War took place 150 years ago. To mark this momentous occasion, On Point, is doing some wonderful radio programs on the battle, the people who fought in it, and its significance in American history. Check out their website for a full list of resources on the battle as well as links to listen to the program. It's fascinating and well worth the listen.

Also check out the Washington Post's article on Civil War reenactors for a fascinating look at the people who devote their free time to studying and keeping Civil War traditions alive. For more resources check out the National Park Service website that has a whole section devoted to the various 150th Civil War anniversary celebrations and events that are taking place nationwide.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Happy Independence Day!

This week marks the anniversary of the independence of the United States. Eight years ago, my husband and I were on our honeymoon in Europe and we were going through a British border station on the 4th of July and were delighted to be wished a wry "Happy Independence Day!" by the very English guard. In honor of this wonderful holiday, I think it is apt to remember John Adam's famous words regarding this special day:

The fourth day of July "will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. you will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even although We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not." (The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784)

John Adam's words, as is so often the case, continue to be so relevant today. As our country struggles financially, spiritually, and politically it is worth looking back and trying to learn lessons from those who came before us and faced similar challenges. Adams wrote this on the eve of going to war with England, one of the mightiest countries on earth at the time. He knew that this declaration would have to be defended at great cost, human and otherwise. While we are facing numerous challenges as a nation today, it is good to place them within a historical narrative to help see them in their proper context. Yes, times are difficult, but we live in an extremely blessed nation and are part of a global community that has never been so wealthy, so prosperous, or so free. So often this is lost in the 24 hour news cycle and it is important to remember. I think that this is why the study of history is so essential today. It provides background and helps us understand our small place in the world. It provides contrast as well as direction. So, on this 4th of July, I think it would be a great time to stop, look back to our founding, and give thanks. Just as Adams saw the the 4th should first be marked by "solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty" so should we take time to recognize his goodness. I have a feeling that if our political discourse and policy could be directed more by gratitude than by fear we would go a long way in solving the problems that seems so outsized and insurmountable. 

For those of you wanting to learn more about the history of America, I highly recommend our newest title: A Child's First Book of American History. One of our lovely customers, Kathy, had this to say about it:
After reading through V.M. Hillyer's books, "A Child's History of the World" and "A Child's Geography of the World" I began searching for a book written on the topic of American history in a similar format. I did find a book titled “The Rainbow Book of American History,” by Earl Schenck Miers which fit the bill. However, the book had gone out of print. Thanks to Beautiful Feet Books, this literary gem is back in print for future generations to enjoy. To begin with the book has a new name, “A Child’s First Book of American History.” The book’s layout has been revised, and the color illustrations by James Daughtery are bolder and brighter thanks to modern technology. “A Child’s First Book of American History” is a storybook, written in a narrative format with the author telling his children the story of our country. The book covers the time period from Leif Erickson to the dropping of the atomic bomb of World War II. To enhance the text James Daughtery has created memorable illustrations to aid the narrative. “A Child’s First Book of American History” is a wonderful way to introduce your child to the people, places and events which have molded and shaped our nation.
To learn more about it, click here.
A very happy Independence Day from all of us at BFB! We hope you can spend time watching and participating in "Pomp and Parade" with family and friends. And if you're looking for some books about the founding of our country, we have many wonderful selections on our website. Check them out here!