Friday, March 22, 2013

Stories that keep families together

This past weekend I read a wonderful article in the New York Times. Entitled, "The Stories that Bind Us" it spoke about the human need to know where we come from. Within families researchers have found that young children who know the most about their family stories are more assured, bounce back from setbacks more easily, and are better equipped to handle challenges! 

Here we often extol the power of story to educate, develop character, encourage, etc. Yet the research cited in the article clearly shows that developing a "strong family narrative" is one of the best things you can do for your family. Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University has researched families for decades and honed in on one aspect of his work to try to discover what kept families together. In an era where divorce and family dissolution is rampant, he was interested in finding out what families could do to counteract this trend. In a fortunate twist, his wife works with children with learning disabilities and she was noticing that the students who were the most successful in navigating the challenges their disability posed were those who seemed to know a lot about their families. So Dr. Duke decided to dig deeper. Read the article here for the whole story as it's definitely worthwhile. 

Points that stuck out to me were that in numerous tests the results were always the same: "The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness."
This finding was tested in an extreme way when the September 11 attack happened. And the results held. The children who had a sense of who they were in relationship to a family history were better equipped and more emotionally resilient.

As a child I loved hearing the stories of my parent's childhoods. My dad had hilarious stories about his friends, who he gave nicknames like Meat Man and Bean Bun. My mom would tell us about how she and her seven siblings once thought their neighbor was hanging his wife, only to discover she had a bad back and was being suspended by her feet to get some relief from her chronic pain. We would laugh over the bullies who stole my dad's lunch and smashed bananas on his head. Both of my parents are consummate story tellers and I doubt that they were intentionally trying to create a "family narrative" but that is what they were doing. I also spent hours reading through a collection of stories recorded by a great aunt about her father, my great grandfather, growing up in North Dakota when it was still pretty wild. There were funny stories, boring stories, stories of adventure, stories of failure, and stories of success. And that brings me to a very important point. In the research, the psychologists found that there are three types of family narrative:
"First, the ascending family narrative: 'Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you....'
Second is the descending narrative: 'Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.'”
'The most healthful narrative,' Dr. Duke continued, 'is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: "Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family." ' ”
It is essential that the family story not be whitewashed, nor ought it to be all doom and gloom. Of course, waiting until a child is of an appropriate age to reveal more mature details is wise, but children need a realistic and accurate understanding of their roots.

And I think this can be extrapolated out to a broader level. Could it be that one of the reasons our nation is so fractured is because we have failed to maintain a national narrative? History is taught not as a story but as facts to memorize and forget after a test. Both on a national level and a wider human level the loss of our story has very sad consequences. If knowing the stories of our families makes us want to work harder to keep them together and gives us a strong sense of belong and identity, wouldn't the same be true about a national narrative? Wouldn't it be helpful if our elected officials had a historical perspective and knew that our country has been deeply fractured in the past but pulled together for a greater good? Might it be better to have a fully colored history taught in our schools that recognized our nations strengths as well as her failures? And is it possible that greater human narrative may show us that we're not so different from everyone else? It may be a simplistic to think that but perhaps if we instill a strong sense of our family story within our children, they will go on to think more broadly and see the benefits of working together to preserve the things we love.

So if you don't already, start telling your children the stories of your childhood. Tell them how their grandparents met, if their marriage was a happy one or maybe a strained one. Tell them about that strange uncle who was always off doing his own thing, or that gossipy sister, or the caring aunt who was a second mother. You'll be surprised by how much your children absorb and take with them. And to broaden your children's understanding of the national narrative, check out our new book, A Child's First Book of American History, now on sale for a limited time.

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Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Child's First Book of American History

We are pleased to announce that A Child's First Book of American History is at the printers! We know many of you have been waiting for a long time and after a year-long process, it's going to be arriving soon. When we first undertook the project of bringing this book back into print we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into! Rea has been working on this book for over a year, tweaking color adjustments, redoing the entire text layout, and dozen other things. 

And now for a sneak peak into this beautiful book. Click on any picture to enlarge. 

This is America! and this is its glowing, epic story, from the days of the Viking expeditions to the birth of the Atomic Age. Here are the explorers, the Indians, the settlers and fur trappers, the soldiers, the statesmen, the men and women who have shaped our country and its destiny. It is a continuous tale of adventure, of wars, of industry and invention, of hardship and growth; it is an unparalleled tale of courage, high ideas, hard work–and a precious thing called Freedom.

Perhaps more happened, faster, in the history of this country than in any other. Earl Schenck Miers tells its story as it should be told: in terms of the great moments and events, and through the lives and experiences of individuals.

Among the fifty chapters: the faith and longing for freedom of worship that brought the band of Pilgrims to Plymouth's shores, James Smith's own account of his capture by the Indians in 1755, excerpts from Davy Crockett's diary telling of the last days of the Alamo, a young Southern girl's description of the burning of Columbia, South Carolina in the Civil War, the story of the transcontinental railroad, and much much more. Miers has unforgettably recreated the hardships of a cattle drive, the the inspiring story of Booker T. Washington's fight to overcome great obstacles, the suspense that held America under its spell in 1927 when a young man named Lindbergh flew to Paris all by himself.

This telling of the American story is dramatic, ever engrossing–and it is based on careful scholarship. The more than 200 illustrations by James Daugherty–most of them in color–are an integral part of the book. A great artist and a superb scholar-storyteller have joined forces to produce a memorable record–an instructive, immensely readable and heart-warming book about the country we love.

About the Author: 

Earl Schenck Miers was an American historian (1910-1972), who wrote over 100 books, mostly about the Civil War. In the words of another notable historian–Paul Angle, Miers was one "who stressed the essential drama of events and brought the human beings of the past back to life." Despite struggling with cerebral palsy from birth, which made even holding a pen or pencil nearly impossible, Miers began writing as a youth, by carrying a typewriter to school each day. He attended Rutgers University where he studied journalism and founded the Rutgers University Press. Some of his more popular children's works include the We Were There series published by Grosset & Dunlap. 

About the Illustrator:

James Daugherty, an illustrator and author (1889-1974), was passionate about the American story and believed it ought to be told through vigorous illustration and spirited text.He is best known for his folksy all-American retelling of the fable of Androcles, in Andy and the Lion, which earned the author/illustrator the Caldecott Honor Medal in 1938. In Carl Sandburg's Abe Lincoln Grows Up, a perfect marriage blended Sandburg's lyrical prose with Daugherty's tender yet powerful sketches of Abe as he grows from a boy to a young man. In The Magna Charta, Daugherty tells the often humorous, yet inspiring story of one of Western civilization's most significant milestones in the progress of civil liberty–the signing of the Magna Charta by King John at Runnymede in 1215. Of Courage Undaunted brings Daugherty's manly illustrations to full flower in the adventure of Lewis and Clark's remarkable exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. Poor Richard captures the essential nature of Benjamin Franklin with energetic and dramatic three-color lithographs that reveal the witty and ever-genial printer, inventor, statesman, diplomat, and brilliant Founder. Beautiful Feet Books is honored to be providing a number of Daugherty's works to a new generation of young Americans.

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Friday, March 15, 2013

FAQs: Using Fiction to Teach History and the Necessity of Poetry

When a parent or teacher decides to use literature to teach history they are faced with an interesting question. Growing up attending home school conventions where I worked with my parents and siblings answering the questions of parent educators, one of the most frequently asked questions was "All these books are factual right? There's no fiction, right?" It was a difficult question to answer and I usually answered with something like, "The majority of books used in our programs are historical accounts based on first-person narratives or by respected historical writers and biographers. Our curriculums also include some historical fiction books to make history come alive and communicate to students that history is about real people who had interesting lives. These books help your students realize that history isn't just a boring list of dusty names and dates." That usually satisfied parents and teachers and we could then move on to discussing student learning styles, or where there was a good place to grab lunch nearby.

I think that that answer is valid but I also think that there is a better reason for including historical fiction in any study of history. In Poetics by Aristotle he addresses the different types of writing and genre, poetry and prose. By Poetry one is not supposed to simply think rhyming verse but the genres of epic, lyric, tragedy, and comedy. These would include works like Homer's Iliad, Aeschylus Oedipus Rex, ancient comedies like The Birds, Shakespeare's comedies, plays, and history, basically every classic work that is on one of those often overwhelming lists of must-read titles. 

Aristotle also differentiates Poetry from History in the following way:  
It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen–what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse on in prose. The work of Herodotus [the father of history] might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.
What Aristotle is communicating here is that while History teaches us the whats of humanity, the names, dates, facts, events, Poetry tells us the why. It answers the questions of the soul. In this way a holistic approach to teaching the events of the past should include both History and Poetry.

For teacher and parents concerned with both intellectual and character development, including the seminal works of poetry along with contemporary literature in your study of history is essential. Focusing solely on the facts of history results in a one-dimensional understanding of the human past. It fails to provide instruction to the soul. By simply reading that the early Anglo-Saxons were plagued with invasions from the northern Vikings you understand only one aspect of that culture. By including Beowulf in your curriculum of medieval history your student benefits from a colorful account of Anglo-Saxon mores and cultural values. The inclusion of this poetic work, even though no one would argue that a deformed descendant of Cain was in fact stalking the moors of northern England, provides a more complete historical portrait of this time and place. It shows us the vulnerability of the human condition and the universality of that knowledge. It also teaches the value of courage, the pitfalls of greed, the risks of rash action.

It is much easier to include foundational works of Poetry in curriculums for older students. Junior and high school students can tackle Homer, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Aeschylus, the writings of the American founding fathers, and other such works. For younger students it's more challenging. In seeking out works that have both historical and poetic value teachers are left with fictional stories based in historical settings. While there is an abundance of such material, most of it is valueless. It's either historically inaccurate or morally blasé. Thankfully there are books that fulfill the high standard of combining historical authenticity with the poetic. Stories like To Kill a Mockingbird are included in our American history curriculums because they provide a rich and accurate portrait of what life was like in the deep American south in the mid 20th century. They bring history to life, giving our students  poetic images of what it would have felt like to be alive at that time and place in history. In doing so, To Kill a Mockingbird is also a deeply moral book, one that shapes the reader's soul.

In a study of Early American history, youngsters can read books like Pilgrim Stories and receive instruction both in events that happened in 17th century England, Holland, and America. Yes, the Pilgrims were a group of people who wished to worship God in the manner they chose and they left England in order to pursue that freedom. Those are the basic facts of the story. But in reading Pilgrim Stories a child will understand how this quest cost them greatly, how they had to leave established homes and loved ones, escaping in the darkness of night to slip away to Holland, a country where they did not speak the language, where the customs were strange, and where people wore wooden shoes! While you may not consider this to be Poetry, it is. I spent hours as a child reading Pilgrim Stories, pouring over the accounts of young pilgrims ice skating on the canals in Leiden, Holland, learning about the Dutch love for tulips, feeling sad for the hardships endured by the Pilgrims during their first winter at Plymouth. The images conveyed in this collection of stories showed me the value of hospitality, compassion, conviction, and courage. And as a youngster I also knew that the Pilgrims went to Holland before they settled in Massachusetts, something most adult Americans have never been taught. So my historical knowledge was not reduced by the inclusion of fictionalized historical stories, it was enhanced.

Now, it is important that the Poetry you include in your children's curriculum is not didactic. Even as a child I could tell the difference between a great story that made me want to be a better person and one that was written strictly for the purpose of communicating some value. A great classic like Oedipus Rex has not survived for millennia because people really feel that warnings against killing one's father and marrying one's mother are necessary. No, it has survived the test of time because it's an amazing story. It is a superb tragedy and the fact that it teaches us about the dangers of forbidden knowledge and pride are secondary to the fact that it's a poetry that captures our imaginations. This should be the criteria for which you choose the stories for your children.

Having been raised on the poetry of stories like The Courage of Sarah Noble, The Matchlock Gun, Miss Rumphius, Obadiah the Bold, The Hundred Dresses and others that engaged my imagination, I can remember feeling distinctly frustrated by a series of books that were given to me as a youngster. The Elsie Dinsmore series promised parents that these books would provide a guide to the "meaning of godly womanhood." To my young mind, these books were hopelessly boring. The transparent intent of its author was to instruct young girls in a distinctly 19th century understanding of moral character. She certainly did not care about constructing a good story. I worked my way through several volumes of the series, each time frustrated by a character who was unrelatable, a plotline that was completely flat, and characters who were lifeless. Additionally, I found Elsie's father to be creepy and overbearing. Even though I was separated by two thousand years and countless cultural boundaries, I found the young characters in The Bronze Bow much more relatable and instructional. Why? Poetry. The poetic imagination of Elizabeth Speare in creating a trio of friends in 1st century Palestine meant that I could feel the emotions of a young Jew and a Roman soldier more easily than the young American Elsie Dinsmore. From The Bronze Bow I learned what a revolutionary figure Jesus of Nazareth was, what it felt like to be a Jew living under Roman rule, and I was given a fuller picture of life in ancient times. I have read The Bronze Bow more than four times, while the Elsie Dinsmore books gathered dust.

It is with all these things in mind that we choose the books we do for each of our studies. While the Teaching Character Through Literature studies may seem like the perfect place for books concerned with "teaching a lesson" there is not one didactic title in it. There are only great stories, books that speak to our souls. And throughout our history curriculums we've endeavored to provide the best history and the best poetry available. It's the only way to provide a complete historical education.

As a reminder, we're offering free shipping until the end of March on all orders over $50.00. Check it out here.

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Info for Readers and a Special Offer

Google announced yesterday that they are shutting down their Reader service on July 1. For those of you who use Reader to keep track of the blogs you read, this means you'll lose all those great subscriptions and favorites, etc. For readers of this blog who subscribe through Reader, I wanted to offer another option for keeping up with our entries. Check out BlogLovin. They have information on how to transfer subscriptions from Google Reader along with how to set up your own free account. Feedly is also offering an alternative to Google Reader and has information on making the transition as seamless as possible here. And if you're really sad about Reader shutting down, there are plenty of petitions to sign.

And for all of you who have been wanting an excuse to expand your family library, add some great read-alouds to your collection, check out a new study guide, we're offering free shipping on all orders over $50.00! Offer is good until the end of March so get those book wishlists out! Simply use the code "FREESHIP". Offer expires March 31!

In case you missed it:

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Historical Women: Pocahontas

Last Friday was International Woman's Day and on our Facebook page many of you shared your favorite female authors.  It was fun to see a few votes for the Elliots, Pearl Buck, Jane Austen, Harper Lee, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. We also love the writings of all these amazing women and are thankful for their contributions to the literary world. Their writings have made our lives richer and it is worth celebrating! If you haven't shared your favorite author, be sure to chime in here.

March is also Women's History Month and we thought this was a great opportunity to share with our readers a few of our favorite women from history. These women, like those wonderful authors above, made indelible marks on the world. They challenged the status quo, stood up against injustice, showed courage and compassion, fought for their beliefs, and provide great role models for us today.

Today we'd like to talk about Pocahontas. This incredibly brave and adventurous young woman only lived to be around 22 years old, but those brief years were packed with daring. While the exact year of her birth is unknown, it is thought that she was born around 1595. Her father was Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacommacah, an alliance of around thirty Algonquian groups and small tribes in what we now know as Virginia. Her mother was one of dozens of temporary wives taken by the paramount chief. In this custom, each wife bore the chief a single child before being sent back to her village where the Powhatan would continue to support her until she found another husband.

It seems clear from historical documents that Pocahontas was "the most deare and wel-beloved" of Powhatan's children but that does not signify that she would have been an "Indian Princess" as is commonly portrayed in popular culture. In seems that Pocahontas had quite the endearing nature as her name means "little wanton" indicating a playful, loving, and "frolicksome" nature.

Pocahontas life takes an unexpected turn when the English arrive in America seeking to establish a permanent colony. In a dramatic account of his capture, John Smith records the story that preserves Pocahontas in the historical record. Smith had been captured by a hunting party and brought before Powhatan when "two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could layd hands on him [Smith], dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death..." Incredibly daring for a young girl, thought to only be 10 or 12 at the time! 

Pocahontas would continue to help the English, bringing supplies of food to the starving settlers at Jamestown. Despite Pocahontas' friendly relations with the explorers, relationships between Powhatan and the English broke down and in 1609 the two parties went to war. Pocahontas was captured by the English as a prisoner of war and held for ransom. While the English demanded that Powhatan release various English prisoners of war and furnish the settlers with tools and supplies in exchange for Pocahontas' release, the young woman grew accustomed to living with the settlers. She converted to Christianity and was baptized taking the name Rebecca. 

During her year-long capture, it seems that Pocahontas grew disenchanted with her father at his refusal to fulfill the conditions of her release. When an encounter with a member of her tribe allowed her to send word back home she rebuked her father for valuing her "less than old swords, pieces, or axes" and
stated that she would continue to live with the English.  She soon caught the eye of John Rolfe, a tobacco farmer, who had lost his wife and child during the voyage to Jamestown. The two were married April 5, 1614 and lived on Rolfe's farm for two years. Their union is the first recorded interracial marriage in America! And so the Indian chief's daughter becomes the English farmer's wife, ushering in a period of peace between the two nations. in 1615, Ralph Hamor wrote: "Since the wedding we have had friendly commerce and trade not only with Powhatan but also with his subjects round about us."
Pocahontas' next adventure would take her back to England where she would not only be celebrated and feted, she would meet the king and queen!
As so the girl who defended a defenseless man, possibly changing the course of history, became the elegant and celebrated woman who would stand before the king. 
There are so many other wonderful details to this amazing story and I would encourage you to dig deeper. And check out these books:

Pocahontas by Ingri and Edgar d'Aulaire

The World of Captain John Smith by Genevieve Foster

You may also enjoy these other blog entries featuring important historical discoveries or places:

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Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Romance and Virtue

Today I want to share with you a discussion on virtuous romance that Rea Berg was asked to participate in. You can listen to it over at The Redeemed Reader by clicking here. In the podcast host Emily Whitten discusses ideas of romance as presented in children's literature. Along with Gina Dalfonzo, founder and editor of Breakpoint Youth Reads, Rea and Emily take on Dickens, Downton Abbey, Twilight and much more. I hope you enjoy!

Picture Credit: The Poorly Defended Rose by Michel Garnier

Monday, March 04, 2013

Are books just magic?

March is National Reading Awareness Month. The NEA has picked this month to celebrate reading and encourage  American school children to put down the video games and pick up a book. Here at BFB we think every month should be a reading month and we know you do too! Of course, May is Get Caught Reading Month, October is National Reading Group Month, November is Picture Book Month, and December is National Novel Reading Month and there are other weeks and days set aside to celebrate books and reading in all their forms.

One thing I have found interesting is the correlation between books in a home and a child's academic performance. Using data from the World Inequality Study, researchers pooled data from over 73,000 people in 27 countries and found that across cultures, ethnicities, and economic differences, books were an essential component to a child's academic success. From the abstract of this fascinating study:
 "Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class. This is as great an advantage as having university educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father. It holds equally in rich nations and in poor; in the past and in the present; under Communism, capitalism, and Apartheid; and most strongly in China."
Isn't that amazing? Regardless of the political regime under which a child lives, the education levels of his parents, or if he is privileged or poor, the number of books in a child's home is the single most common and reliable indicator of whether he will be academically successful. The presence of a large amount of books seems to indicate a "scholarly culture – the way of life in homes where books are numerous, esteemed, read, and enjoyed." The study's authors went about their research in such a way as to determine if this "scholarly culture" was limited to western families in which the parents were highly educated and had achieved some measure of financial success. Or, as the authors themselves put it: "We seek to establish whether it has an impact on children’s education only in a handful of rich Western nations at the end of the 20th century, or whether it is important in all rich nations, or in all market economies, or under Communism, or only in recent decades rather than in past generations."

Trying to control for all these factors, the researchers found that asking study participants about the size of their childhood home library was the single most reliable indicator of the cultivation or neglect of a scholarly culture. Even more interesting, "analysis of many different aspects of the home environment finds that home library size has strong predictive validity as an indicator of parents’ attraction to the teaching role vis a vis their children." 

For home educators this completely makes sense, you are both parent and educator and you do not see a strong distinction between these two roles. It also seems to me to be an indicator of a home culture that nurtures curiosity. People who collect books are curious, they seek to know new things and expand their world. And these people are probably eager to share that knowledge with others and that would, of course, include their children. And so, whether the parent is formally educated or not, wealthy or poor, western or eastern, the size of his library is a key indicator to the sort of parent he will be and the home culture he will create. 

And that home culture is a key indicator of academic achievement for the children raised in that family. "Growing up in a home with 500 books would propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average, than would growing up in a similar home with few or no books. This is a large effect, both absolutely and in comparison with other influences on education," said University of Nevada research team leader sociologist M. D. R. Evans. "A child from a family rich in books is 19 percentage points more likely to complete university than a comparable child growing up without a home library."

And again, this data holds true across cultures regardless of a nation's wealth, political system or culture. There are variations between nations, for example a child growing up in China with a home library of 500 or more books will go on to complete an average of 6.6 years more education than a comparable child from a bookless home. In the US, the same situation would result in 2.4 more years of education. That's the difference between going to college for two years and completing a four-year degree.  

As with all studies, there are exceptions. There will inevitably be families who have loads of books and a child who struggles to read or is simply not academically wired. I do not believe that college is for everyone and I think our culture severely undervalues non-academic skills. I think the value of studies like this is that they show trends that can be very telling. Children benefit from a home culture that encourages learning, curiosity, and exploration. 

For home educators who are fostering that "scholarly culture" this study should provide some encouragement. For those of you who are interested in national trends, educational inequality for the poor, and other social justice issues, this can stand as a warning and call for action. In America, more than half of our children are not read aloud to each day. Other studies show that up to 61% of poor families do not own a single children's book. This means that the educational potential of millions of children is at risk through no fault of their own. 

So during National Reading Awareness Month, maybe it would be a good idea to spread the love a bit. Volunteer at your local library. See if you can sign up to read aloud to underprivileged children. Donate books to a struggling school. Check out First Book, an organization that gives books to children. Give books instead of toys at birthday parties. Encourage other parents to read aloud to their children. And, of course, read a great book with your children.

If you're wondering how to build a great family library, here's some wonderful resources:

Books that Build Character

For The Children's Sake

Honey For a Child's Heart


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