Tag Archives: book reviews

Ode to empathy

There’s a village in Kenya where dozens of cows are branded on each ear with two small upright bars symbolizing the twin towers lost in the attacks on 9/11. At first, there were just 14 of them — all presented to a diplomat from the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in the tragedy’s aftermath, all symbols of solidarity between Americans and the Maasai people. “To the Maasai,” writes Carmen Agra Deedy, “the cow is life.”

Deedy authored a book called “14 Cows for America,” which is illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez. It was created in collaboration with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah, a member of the Maasai tribe who was studying in New York City when terrorists struck America on 9/11. Naiyomah carried the story of 9/11 back to his people, asking tribal elders to bless his only cow as a gift to the American people. Others joined him by offering their cows as well, all tended to this day by a tribal elder.

Reading “14 Cows for America” with your children feels especially poignant each time another 9/11 anniversary approaches. Instead of focusing on a single act of savagery, the book explores the gentle, compassionate act of strangers living a world away. Its lessons translate beautifully to the challenges presented by even ordinary days, suggesting we all have something precious to share. I hope one day it’ll be adapted for the stage.

The “14 Cows for America” website has information about Maasai history, culture and language for those eager to learn more — plus a teacher’s guide featuring activities related to social studies, language arts, creative writing, problem solving and art. The website also lists additional books on the topics of Maasai culture and 9/11.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to explore other offerings from Peachtree Publishers

Coming up: Sidewalk meets world history

Musings from Meowville

I learned of “We’re All Different But We’re All Kitty Cats: First Day of School” after writing “Bullying in Arizona: 11 Who Took a Stand” for Raising Arizona Kids Magazine. The book by Peter J. Goodman features illustrations by Nicolás Milano. It’s written for children ages 3 & up, and published by dreamBIG Press in Washington, DC.

DreamBIG books are meant to “bring adults and kids together” for conversations about “important social issues” early in children’s development. The “We’re All Different But We’re Kitty Cats” series addresses “topics that relate to developing social and emotional skills.” Each book ends with questions designed to jumpstart child/parent dialogue.

I was most impressed by its treatment of children’s emotional lives. When a mother cat in Meowville asks her son Carlos whether he’s excited about the first day of school, he tells her he’s nervous. “It’s okay to be nervous,” she tells him — showing that she’s both listening to his concerns and respecting his feelings.

Once Carlos gets to school, he joins fellow kitties in Miss Bobsie’s class. The teacher starts by asking students to “say your name and tell us two things about yourself.” Miss Bobsie goes first, sharing that she likes to wear funky glasses and that her favorite color is green.

Dylan has a bushy tail and likes playing tennis. Allie has yellow eyes and like having tea parties. There’s a class clown named Sammy, a kitty who likes scooters (he needs a helmet) and another who plays dress up with her friend Marla. Vinny has several sibs and a fondness for football.

Carlos tells the class he likes books, but hesitates before sharing his second fact. “I have no fur,” says Carlos. The class laughs. Carlos cries. We never see how the teacher reacts, but a pair of little girl cats discuss the episode while walking home. One says she feels bad and another adds that they “didn’t mean to make him cry.”

When they see Vinny bullying Carlos, Flo and Marla intervene — illustrating the concept of being an “upstander” rather than a bystander. Carlos gets home safely and talks with his mom about the day’s events. She points out his many special qualities, saying “One day you’ll see how special you are.”

The next day, Carlos returns to school — where he’s lauded by the class for knowing the full alphabet. We all want our kids to be smart, and hope they’ll never feel tempted to dummy themselves down to fit in with peers. In this sense, I suppose, what transpires during alphabet lessons reinforces something lots of parents value.

Still, one of my college-age children — inspired to explore the book by its striking cover design and illustrations — felt this segment of the story lacked realism. When classmates are bullies, she reminded me, showing your smarts rarely compels their conversion. In the end, the book’s resolution feels too easy and swift.

But like all books, we needn’t agree with every word to find their value. Both the book’s illustrations and plot points make intriguing topics of conversation — and it’s a perfectly enjoyable choice for parents of preschoolers who favor simple storytelling over morality tales. I was pleased as a cat owner to find “fun facts about kitty cats” noted on one of the book’s final pages.

The book series website features bullying prevention and humane education resources, games and activities for children, and tips for parents and teachers. While kids may return again and again to the book’s pages, I suspect plenty of parents will find the website a more valuable tool.

I’ll be watching for future titles in the “We’re All Different But We’re All Kitty Cats” series, which will tackle empathy, illness and loss, independence, making and losing friends, confidence and more.

“A Trip to the Big City,” the second title in the series, is scheduled for Spring 2013 release. Its cover shows seven kitty cats, including Carlos, standing amidst the bright lights of Broadway (with a sign for the musical “Cats” in the background).

Though I was dismayed to see the “First Day of School” kitty cats wearing backpacks slung over a single shoulder, I’m happy to share the author’s assurance that “No kitty cats were harmed or feelings hurt while making this book.”

— Lynn

Coming up: Best art books for kids, Dance meets bullying prevention, The fine art of literacy, Generations joined by art

Hidden treasures

Folks can enjoy all sorts of art adventures south of the Gila River, many of them documented in Lili DeBarbieri’s “A Guide to Southern Arizona’s Historic Farms & Ranches” recently published by The History Press. It’s a fascinating mix of farming and ranching with history and culture.

DeBarbieri’s book profiles nearly two dozen “rustic Southwest retreats,” highlighting ties with agriculture, art, wildlife and more. Seems you can enjoy a nature museum at the Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson, a sculpture path at the Triangle 2 Ranch Bed and Breakfast in Oracle, and exhibits of visual art at Rancho Linda Vista (also in Oracle). None of these hidden treasures had crossed my path before reading DeBarbieri’s book.

Several of the places DeBarbieri profiles have seen stagecoach, train and car traffic. One was once inhabited by Apache Indians, and another was once home to Pima Indians. One is considered the site where Geronimo was born. And another once hosted an intriguing visitor in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Seems the Simpson Hotel in Duncan even has ties to the case of the Great Orphan Abduction, which went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Many have welcomed famous guests through the years. DeBarbieri notes that John Wayne was a guest at the Hacienda Corona de Guevavi in Nogales. Guests of the 3C Ranch in Oracle included Mae West and Richard Nixon, and guests of the Kenyon Ranch in Tumacacori included Cary Grant and Ricky Nelson. President John Kennedy, Steve McQueen and Walt Disney all stayed at the Triangle T Historic Ranch in Dragoon.

Even fans of film, modern art and musical theater will find fascinating tidbits in DeBarbieri’s book, which explores the Oracle ranch where Andy Warhol filmed the Western movie spoof “Lonesome Cowboy” in 1968, the Amado farm boasting corn fields featured in the opening scene of the movie “Oklahoma” and the Tucson ranch where movies starring Ronald Reagan, George Clooney and others were filmed.

DeBarbieri also reveals getaways of famous folk like Natalie Wood, Paul Newman and Gene Kelly — and shares details about a ranch near Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s childhood home. She’s even uncovered tales featuring folks from Shirley Temple Black to Johnny Depp, making the book a compelling read for those who follow celebrity adventures. Clearly Southern Arizona trumps the Jersey Shore.

Folks who follow a different sort of wildlife will enjoy reading about all the desert critters spotted around Southern Arizona farms and ranches. Seems guests of the Triangle L. Ranch Bed and Breakfast in Oracle sometimes spot hawks, ravens, rabbits, roadrunners, quail, chipmunks and songbirds by day — plus owls, javelina, bobcats and coyotes after nightfall.

Guests at the McKenzie Inn Bed and Breakfast in Eloy sometimes spy buzzard, burrowing owls, coyotes, bats and rabbits. DeBarbieri’s book also recounts the sighting of a rare leopard frog by a guest at Across the Creek at Aravaipa Farms in Winkelman, and notes that the best Arizona place to view sandhill cranes is just two miles from Sojourner’s Homestead Bed and Breakfast in McNeal. Horseback riding is available at many of the farms and ranches she profiles, and one is set up for “BYOH” riders.

Folks can learn plenty of new skills while enjoying agritourism in Southern Arizona. Across the Creek at Aravaipa Farms in Winkelman offers jam-making classes, Simpson Hotel in Duncan has workshops in canning and drying garden produce, and Amuniyalde los Zopilotes in Patgonia will send you home with new gardening techniques. Just reading DeBarbieri’s book will introduce you to new recipes for blueberry pie, minted melon soup, green chili pie, desert Sonoran hummus and other ranch or farm specialties.

Some farms and ranches offer volunteer opportunities, and many help visitors up their knowledge and appreciation of organic foods. Some have special activities for children, and evening meals that make a perfect setting for family members to talk about each day’s adventures. While some have a more social feel, with plentiful opportunities for guests to meet and mingle, others feature more solitary fare. So ask about such things before you decide which places to explore.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn more about “A Guide to Southern Arizona’s Historic Farms & Ranches” by Lili DeBarbieri

Coming up: Madison meets Malibu

Musings on “Me to We”

I first met the fine folks from “Me to We” while making a coffee run last year at the Phoenix Civic Plaza. I was attending the Arizona thespian festival, but happened on another conference while stepping out to Starbucks for a spell. It was sponsored by the Arizona Center for Afterschool Excellence, and they graciously let me take a spin through their exhibit area so I could connect with various purveyors of parenting-related fare.

While there, I encountered plenty of familiar faces, including folks from Workshops for Youth and Families and Arizona Dance Coalition. But also several resources I’d yet to encounter during my 20+ years of parenting — including “Me to We,” which describes itself as is “an innovative social enterprise that provides people with better choices for a better world.” I was intrigued because my kids have long been champions of social justice and volunteering.

I spied a book while there that I never got around to ordering, but spotted once again at this year’s Raising Arizona Kids Magazine Camp Fair. It’s “The World Needs Your Kid: Raising Children Who Care and Contribute” by Craig Kielburger, Marc Kielburger (founders of Free the Children) and Shelley Page (writer and mother of two children from China) — and they were kind enough to send me home with a copy to share with my kiddos, all in college and eager to change the world.

The book opens with a foreward by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and an introduction covering “the three Cs” — compassion, courage and community. The book has 16 chapters organized around these three themes, with headings like “Find Your Passion,” “Curing the Gimmes” and “Learning Through Service.” Also “First Person” accounts from folks like Jane Fonda, Mia Farrow, Jane Goodall, Ellie Wiesel, Steve Nash, Jason Mraz, Desmond Tutu and Robert Kennedy, Jr.

I’ve read lots of books for youth about “being the change you wish to see in the world” (a phrase attributed to India’s Ghandi), and this is clearly among the best. It’s interesting and engaging, practical and inspirational. “The World Needs Your Kid” is an empowering read for children, teens and adults. There’s oodles of information conveyed in small snippets, and gorgeous photography throughout. Think quotes, tips for taking small actions every day, stories of ordinary people lifting others’ lives and more. Even a section near the back titled “100 Tips to Raise Global Citizens.”

Turns out “Me to We” also offers a variety of summer programs based at the Windsong Peace & Leadership Center — their 40-acre ranch in Patagonia, Arizona. Those noted on their RAK Camp Fair handout include a “Take Action Academy” (ages nine-19) June 24-30 and “Me to We Arizona Trip” (ages 12+) July 1-14. Also “Me to We Advanced Facilitation Training” (ages 16+ with extensive leadership experience) July 16-24 or Aug 21-29 and a “Me to We Arizona-Mexico Trip” (ages 12+) Aug 5-18.

While exploring both “Me to We” exhibits, I spied several fun trinkets my kids would love. Turns out you can explore the works of several artisans affiliated with “Me to We” online — so keep them in mind when shopping for birthdays, holidays, everyday lunchbox surprises and such. Seems you can even shop for social change these days.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn more about a variety of summer camps, many of which offer arts and culture experiences for children and teens. Click here to read a comprehensive review of “The World Needs Your Kid” from The Epoch Times.

Coming up: Going “Gatsby,” Dance meets dirt, Spotlight on “Sweeney Todd”

A boy named Vincent

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh (1889)

There were actually two Van Gogh children named Vincent, but the first was stillborn — and given a burial not usually afforded in earlier times. Van Gogh was born a year to the date later in 1853 to parents Theodorus (Dorus) and Anna van Gogh, who went on to have five more children.

Growing up, Van Gogh was closest to brother Theodorus (Theo). His letters to Theo reveal much of what Van Gogh biographers know of the man and artist known to most for painting “The Starry Night,” cutting off a portion of his own ear after years spent in and out of hospitals and asylums, and dying from a supposedly self-inflicted gunshot wound.

I say “supposedly” because Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Pulitzer Prize winning authors of “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,” postulate in their latest book that Van Gogh died at another’s hand. Their “Van Gogh: The Life,” which is dedicated to their mothers and “all the artists of The Juilliard School,” was published just last year.

Van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1889

It’ll hold special interest for parents and teachers who plan to explore a “Van Gogh Alive” exhibit opening Monday, Feb. 13, at the Arizona Science Center. The multi-sensory exhibit, created by Grande Exhibitions in Australia, uses light, sound, movement and color — and runs through June 17.

The book is a scholarly but accessible work that breaks Van Gogh’s life into three periods — the early years (1853-1880), the Dutch years (1880-1886) and the French years (1886-1890). Chapter titles signal some of the book’s strongest themes — “A Strange Boy,” “God and Money,” “Orphan Man,” “A Grain of Madness,” “The Poet’s Garden” and “Two Roads.”

“Van Gogh: The Life” includes dozens of illustrations  and color plates. My favorites show Van Gogh at age 13 and age 18. We forget too often that famous artists were once children and teens, and Van Gogh’s story makes an especially compelling case for the balance of nature with nurture in human and artistic development.

Family life in Van Gogh’s day was dramatically different in many ways from our own, though remarkably similar in others. Family meals were a must, and reading was a daily occurrence for those fortunate enough to count themselves among the literate.

Seems Van Gogh took an early interest in both poetry and fairy tales — especially the works of Hans Christian Andersen. One favorite, Andersen’s “The Story of Mother,” is a dark tale — not surprising when you consider Van Gogh’s conflicted feelings for the mother he was both supremely attached to but unable to please.

The latest biography about Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh fared no better with his father, a Reverend disappointed by his son’s troubles with staying in school and making a decent living.

I wondered, while reading “Van Gogh: A Life,” how many family conflicts resulted from perceived differences between parent and child — and how many from unrecognized similarities.

The book explores both its subject and the surrounding society, and reveals much about parenting a child in Europe during Victorian times. Their parenting instruction materials were quite different than our own.

Calvinist principles, for Protestant families like the Van Goghs, weren’t applied with today’s finesse. Patriarchal families began exploring more democratic models after the French Revolution inspired folks to think in less hierarchical ways.

Still, it’s the little boy named Vincent that I returned to again and again while reading “Van Gogh: The Life.” It’s easy to picture the young Van Gogh reading and writing with great fervor, taking long nature walks alone or with brother Theo, learning to draw and paint from his mother, collecting things like bird eggs and wildflowers.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to explore the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

Coming up: There’s a rap for that!

Library meets latte

I’ve been teen taxiing to North Scottsdale for years, taking kids to orthodontist appointments and such — but always driving past the blue sign with white letters near Shea Blvd. and the 101 freeway that reads “Mustang Library.” But I decided to check it out with my son Christopher a few weeks ago, and was thrilled to be greeted as we entered by a gentleman running a lovely little latte cart.

Now that a nearby bookstore has covered all their outlets, an attempt to ban the rising class of laptop squatters, folks are likely looking for new places to get both caffeine and electrical charge. They’ll have to beat me to the Mustang Library bistro table or hope I’ve taken to one of the library’s comfy seating areas instead.

Turns out the nifty snack and beverage cart wasn’t the only thing to surprise me that day. I also discovered a children’s area vastly different than those I enjoyed as a child, or a new mommy. I was plenty excited when our neighborhood library added beanbag chairs to its kids’ area. But nowadays that would never suffice.

Children’s titles at the Mustang Library, a branch of the Scottsdale Public Library system, now live near an area full of parenting information and activities with a child development spin. The day we visited, several moms were enjoying soft conversations between themselves while watching their children try out all sorts of cool activities.

Recently the Scottsdale Public Library was was of four libraries nationwide “recognized for providing cutting edge technologies for customers.” Seems a book recommendation tool called “Gimme!” that we discovered during our visit to the Mustang Library caught the eye of folks with the American Library and Library Information Technology Associations.   

Patrons can visit “Gimme!” on their computer or smart phone to get book recommendations based on categories they select — plus reviews by library staff members, book information and a quick link to reserve the book. “Gimme!” even integrates with “Goodreads,” a social media site that allows users to share, review & rate books they’ve read.

But we found more than high-tech tools at the Mustang Library. We also spied large windows and bright, inviting reading spaces — plus a library shop with nifty t-shirts, travel coffee cups, shopping totes and other gear to help you rock the literacy vibe. Artwork is plentiful too, as are helpful librarians no longer chained behind counters that deter interaction with patrons.

A young librarian who noted us admiring a work of art near the teen section cheerfully explained that it was once a piece of butcher paper covering a teen activity area. Seems the teens went to town with markers and such, turning the paper into a colorful work that’s now framed for all to enjoy.

If you’re still thinking of libraries as dusty and musty, it’s been too long since you gave one a whirl. They’re gathering places for folks of all ages and walks of life — and home to books, computers, seating areas, artwork and classes. And in the best of all possible worlds, lattes.

— Lynn

Note: A reader from Lichtfield Park alerted me this morning to possible library cuts within some Arizona school districts, and noted that those who support school libraries might wish to sign an online petition you can read by clicking here.

Coming up: Childsplay presents “Tomás and the Library Lady”

“Curious Critters”

As the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix prepares for the Sept 12 opening of the “Dave Rogers’ Big Bugs” exhibit, I’m getting in the mood with a soon-to-be-released book titled “Curious Critters” featuring text and photography by David FitzSimmons.

My son Christopher, now 22, has been curious about critters since early childhood — volunteering with several places devoted to critter care and conservation. So I eagerly snatched up a preview copy of the book, scheduled for a Nov. 7 release, when it was offered. We both fell in love with “Curious Critters” the instant we saw the Gray treefrog on the book’s cover.

It looks green in the photo, of course, but there’s a simple explanation — which the frog explains for itself on the page it occupies opposite a Bush katydid that looks a mix of pink lemonade and cotton candy.

Each critter photo is accompanied by “a vignette, told from the critter’s perspective.” A sappy idea, perhaps, but superbly executed — achieving the author’s goal of both educating and entertaining. Not just the children, but adult readers too. Never mind that it’s meant for four to eight year olds.

Christopher was especially fond of the book’s reptiles and amphibians. Think Spotted salamander, Eastern box turtle, Fox snake and American toad. The insects and arachnids, which include a Chinese praying mantis and Jumping spider, are equally dandy.

I’m more of a fur and feather kind of a gal, so I warmed up to the birds and mammals first — a Southern flying squirrel, Blue jay, Eastern screech owl and more. Crustaceans simply aren’t my style.

A couple of critters get double the real estate, taking up a full two-page spread. Everyone’s favorite, the goldfish. (No, they’re not appropriate as birthday party favors.) Also the Eastern spiny softshell turtle. And the Virginia opossum my 20-year-old Jennifer describes as “scary cute.”

Exploring “Curious Critters” is a fun way to build pre-reading and math skills like finding ways things are similar or different, sorting like objects into discrete categories and noticing small details. It can be a different book each time you read it.

Were my children little again, I’d make a game of “Curious Critters” — hunting for all the critters with four legs, with bright colors, with whiskers and wings and other fun things. I’d compare different eyes and different snouts.

Each critter is seen against a white background meant to showcase “the animals’ colors, textures, and shapes with precision and clarity.” Hence its rightful claim to a place on the shelf with your other art books.

You’ll find a section titled “Curious Critters: Natural History,” which features facts about each creature, near the end of the book. Also a page showing the relative size of each critter. Size is another one of those subjects that pops up a lot in school, and reading books like “Curious Critters” makes thinking about it fun.

“Curious Critters” is the first children’s book from FitzSimmons, who holds a Ph.D. in English from Ohio State University. FitzSimmons says he was “inspired to photograph and write about nature by his parents” — both “active environmentalists and lifelong teachers.”

FitzSimmons credits his wife, a naturalist — plus daughters Sarah and Phoebe — with assisting in his natural history endeavors. How delightful that we can all reap the benefits of their curiosity.

— Lynn

Note: Learn more about “Curious Critters” at www.curious-critters.com. Enjoy the photography of David FitzSimmons at www.fitzsimmonsphotography.com. And get the scoop on “Big Bugs” at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix at www.dbg.org.

Coming up: Remembering 9/11 through arts and culture

Musings on Mamet

When I first cracked open David Mamet’s book titled simply “Theatre,” I tried to work my way through it with a light touch. Normally I read with pen in hand — adding markings like “th” for thesis statements or “hmmm” for ideas I find especially thought provoking. Too many years in college and graduate school, I suppose.

I had hoped to leave a clean copy in my wake in case others in the family felt the urge to move their eyes across Mamet’s musings. I knew Lizabeth, the family’s only artist of the acting variety, would find my markings distracting and downright annoying. Also wrong, of course.

But I’m on my second reading now, tackling “Theatre” with wild abandon and all sorts or things that leave their mark. Sorry, Liz. The yellow highlights are there to stay. It’ll be another thirty years before you learn to cherish them. But you will one day, the same way I cherish notes written in my mother’s own hand.

My first reading of Mamet’s “Theatre” happened during two distinct periods separated by more than a month’s time. It felt terse, arrogant and altogether unhelpful the first time around. But succinct and insightful the next. Reading it for a second time is infinitely more fun. Not just because I’ve got pen in hand.

Mamet’s “Theatre” is part ode to theater, part how-to guide — though Mamet’s own stated intent is clearly closer to the first. The best way to make theater is to “do it.” Actors need talent and will. And audience is supreme.

There’s a little something for everyone in “Theatre.” Audience member, arts administrator, artist. Two types of artists, really — actors and writers. I found plenty of parenting pearls too, which I’ll share in a future post despite my suspicion that this is hardly what Mamet had in mind.

I hesitate to recommend “Theatre” given Mamet’s own confession early in the book that reading lists heaped on him as a young student of the arts weren’t terribly transformative. Still, I consider it a must-read — partly because it’s a different work each time you explore it.

It’s easy to read in big or small doses — and sized just right for hauling around on days you have time to kill but little freedom to choose your own hunting ground. I’m going to need a lot more pens.

— Lynn

Note: Mamet has also authored children’s books, so look for these too when you’re tracking down your own copy of “Theatre.” (And no, it is not okay to write in the margins of your children’s books.)

Coming up: Countdown to the Tony Awards®, Ode to season tickets