The Great Good Summer

greatgoodsummerThe Great Good Summer by Liz Garton Scanlon begins with God and ends with wonder, which may or may not be the same thing, I suppose, depending on how you decide to read this story.  In the middle, though, is a story of family, faith, and questions that will pull you in no matter where you stand on the God/not-God continuum.  At least it did for me.

For some people, religion means having answers and Truth with a capital T.  For others, that’s what science is for.  Most, I’d venture to say, are somewhere in the middle of those two poles.  I have long held that it’s the questions that are the interesting part, but everyone is different. For Ivy and the rest of her community in Loomer, Texas, church is a way of life.  Ivy has never thought of it any differently or questioned her faith at all until this summer.  Her mother has left with a preacher named Hallelujah Dave.

Her mother was as constant in Ivy’s life as God was, and her absence calls everything into question.  As Ivy starts looking at the world with questions rather than answers, she finds that not everything is as she thought.  Her favorite teacher, Mrs. Murray, has statues of Buddha in her home.  Ivy wonders as she looks at the statue, “Is there something holy or magic here that might help me find my mama, or even help me know if what I’m about to do is right or wrong?”  And she makes a new friend.  Paul Dobbs is the local “science kid,” and he makes it clear that he doesn’t believe in God.  At first he and Ivy butt heads over their differences, but he turns out to be one of the few people who will really listen to Ivy and try to help her.

One thing leads to another, and Ivy and Paul are off to find her mom and bring her back.  They are on the same side through thick and thin (despite some squabbles along the way).  When they set their sights on what was ahead, it didn’t seem to matter that they believed different things.  It wasn’t about that.

You might think that a book that begins with God and spends so much time talking about faith would be preachy, and with most books, I would say you’d be right.  But there’s something about Ivy that keeps the preachiness at bay in this story.  Maybe it’s her questions.  Or maybe it’s her sincerity.  I don’t really know.  Whatever the case, the story didn’t feel, to me, like it was trying to change my mind, and I appreciated that.

This story is not about changing minds.  It’s more about considering why people believe the things they do, why they sometimes question long-held beliefs, and what it means to listen to yourself.

In the end, Ivy seems to find a place where it’s okay if truth doesn’t have a capital T.  At one point she says, “My fingers find the little cross I wear on a chain around my neck.  It was Mama’s when she was a little girl, and it’s been mine since Daddy got her a new one.  I love it, even though the gold has worn off in places and you can see a sort of unshiny silver underneath.  Which I guess means it’s fake, but that doesn’t really matter much to me.”

I spent most of my life with a capital T Truth, so I related to a lot of Ivy’s experience of faith and questioning.  These days I identify as a Unitarian-Universalist, a religion in which truth is never capitalized and sometimes it’s in quotation marks.  So I appreciated Ivy’s feeling that it was what you do with ideas that mattered more so than what one believes or doesn’t.  That resonated with me a lot.

I could quibble with parts of the the story that I didn’t agree with, but I will leave those things be.  We won’t always agree with everyone or everything around us, and that’s okay.

When Ivy finally finds her mom and speaks her piece about feeling like her mother abandoned her, they are in a car.  Ivy listened to her mother’s explanation and apology. “I still don’t turn to look at her, but I listen.  I think Paul’s listening too.  I mean, really, what choice do we have?”

We’re all in this together.  If I can teach my daughter any one value, it is that.  We are all in this together.  We have to learn to listen to one another, to connect, and to move past our differences.  What choice do we have?


Humanism, perspective, and being a joiner

More people are leaving churches these days than are joining them.  There has been a fair amount of media speculation on “the rise of the nones.”  I’ve followed it all with some curiosity as a “none” myself.  Little did I realize when the study was published in late 2012 that I would be trading in my non-affiliation for a church membership just one year later.

The first Sunday of 2013 I decided to try a new church.  It was a bit of a whim.  I was interested in exploring my options, and a new year seemed like the right time to test drive a new Sunday morning routine at the nearest Unitarian-Universalist society.  It was nice.  The sermon was about new beginnings, and it incorporated a guided meditation mini-session, which I thought was pretty cool.  But it didn’t stick.

Six months into the year, whimsy struck again.  I found myself sitting in the last pew back at that same Unitarian-Universalist church listening to a sermon about change–about life as a series of changes.  After a moment of silence, the congregation stood to sing a haunting melody in four parts.  The words “Who are we? Where are we going? Life is a mystery” seemed so light they could float.  It was really quite beautiful, and I decided in that moment that I was going to be back the next week.

duckrabbitSince then I’ve hardly missed a Sunday.  The sermons have addressed all sorts of topics from climate change and other social justice themes to various aspects of humanism.  I always leave feeling inspired.    “No two Sundays are alike,” the minister says almost every Sunday.  While that statement may stay the same, he’s right about the larger point. It’s always something new on Sunday mornings. This past week, for example, the children were invited to the front for a story, which was projected for the rest of us to enjoy as well.  They read Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and talked about how we disagree with people when we see things differently.  Do you see a duck?  Or a rabbit?  It could be either, and you don’t get an answer in the book any more than you do in a lot of real life situations.  You only have your perspective–unless, of course, you can listen to the people around you and consider their perspectives.

Have I really found a church that shares humanist values, embraces questions rather than answers, and uses picture books during the service as a learning opportunity for all ages?  I’m in.  I’m officially a Unitarian-Universalist.

Of course, regardless of my religious affiliation or lack thereof, the only thing I’ll be preaching about here is books.  Duck! Rabbit! is a good one for sure.  Highly recommended for families who are all about life’s journey with all its mystery.

Find Duck! Rabbit! at your local library or buy it at an indie bookstore.  Check out my For Secular Families page for more posts about children’s books supporting humanist values.

Thursday 3: Random Acts of Kindness

No need to check your calendar.  I know it isn’t Thursday.  I’ve been dealing with computer issues all week, and it has made keeping up with my blog schedule a bit tricky.  But I didn’t want to let Random Acts of Kindness Week slip by without any mention after my colleague brought it to my attention on Books in Bloom, so here is a belated Thursday 3.

Three Small Ways to Be Kind This Week (and beyond):

  • treatsomeoneShare your books.  This reminds me that I have been sorely neglecting the Little Free Library in my neighborhood.  Something about the weather lately has kept me from walking by it as often as I used to.  I will have to change that today.  I love leaving a book or two on my way to the store and noticing that the book is already gone when I walk by on my way home.  If you don’t have a Little Free Library nearby, you might send your books with our troops overseas with Operation Paperback, which was recently featured on The Blogunteer.
  • Treat someone.  My company treated us to Valentine’s Day cupcakes this past week, and I treated my 5 year-old to the heart-shaped ring from my cupcake.  Everyone was happy.  I’m thinking of who I might treat today.
  • Say something nice.  Positivity and appreciation are always great. If you need a little inspiration to see the positive, check out Ten Things I Love About You by Daniel Kirk (because picture books are the answer to everything in my world), in which two friends manage to see the positive qualities in each other even when you think they are getting on each other’s nerves.  It’s a lesson story, but it has the comedic timing to make it gentle enough to open a discussion with little kids about friendship issues.

Or just smile.  It’s good for you.  :)


Happy Random Acts of Kindness Week!

Other posts about kindness: Choosing Kind and In the Spirit of Kindness

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Choosing Kind


wonderWhen I first read Wonder by R.J. Palacio, I had no idea how popular it would become. Frankly, I was distracted by my disappointment that it hadn’t been published in time to include in my article about books that explore physical differences.  I blogged about for my employer twice (naming it a “promising bloom” here and mentioning the multiple narrator device here), and it’s come up this blog at least once that I remember.

Since then it has become a bit of a phenomenon.  There was award buzz, a hashtag, and a whole movement surrounding this book.  And it’s moving beyond kids: in the UK, there is an adult/all ages version of the book on shelves.  I’m happy whenever you get adults to consider young people’s point of view by getting them to read children’s books, but this book in particular, I’d like to push into the hands of the general public.  It is an opportunity to see out so many difference eyes, to see why people make the choices they do, and what the consequences of those choices might be.  The best way to get people to make kind choices is to share stories like this one.

If I haven’t convinced you to read it yet, perhaps the book’s trailer will do so:

Kindness is an all ages choice, and this book spans a wide range of ages, as I mentioned.  But for those with preschoolers or primary graders looking to explore kindness and empathy, try one of these:

  • homeforbirdFairy Goes A-Marketing – this is a picture book version of a poem about a fairy who sets her caged animals free or gives away she things to help others.
  • Say Hello – Explores the feeling of being left out and encourages kids to include everyone.
  • Jamaica’s Blue Marker – Jamaica doesn’t want to share her markers with Russell until she learns to look at why he acts so mean at school.
  • Each Kindness – A new girl starts at Chloe’s school, but she won’t play with her.  It is only after the new girl has moved again that Chloe realizes she could have been kinder to Maya.  
  • A Home for Bird – A little frog goes to great lengths to help a new friend find a home.

These books are great for starting discussions, but in all honesty, any story will do.  In the words of Pulitzer Prize winning author Jane Smiley:

“Reading fiction is and always was practice in empathy — learning to see the world through often quite alien perspectives, learning to understand how other people’s points of view reflect their experiences.”

Wonder stands out because it is the story of someone who is very different and it explores the choices we make when faced with difference, but I believe that fiction can create a kinder world if we let it.

Please, choose kind.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.  A portion of purchases made from these links benefits this blog.  Thank you for your support!

Take a Book, Leave a Book

For most of my life Saturdays were spent in service.  It was part of my family’s values to give our time to our church whenever we could.  As kids, this meant that Saturday mornings weren’t for sleeping in and watching cartoons.  They were for the volunteer ministry.

It seems that old habits find a way.  My religious beliefs have changed, but I still value service, volunteering, and generosity.  Without noticing I was doing it, I started a new Saturday morning routine that involves a walk or bike ride with my daughter down to one or more Little Free Libraries to leave a book or two.  Sometimes we take a book, but we always leave at least one.

It’s a simple way of giving back that suits our current values and situation.  Not to mention, it speaks to the librarian in me. :)

I love Ladybug’s excitement about sharing her own books even though there are rarely children’s books for her to take home.

How do you engage your kids in service/volunteering?

For more about secular family life, see my Secular Thursday page or check out the Books for Secular Families Amazon Book Shop.  A portion of purchases made from links on this site benefit Proper Noun Blog.  Thanks for your support!

Our Secular Bedtime

“May I have a blessing?” Ladybug asked at bedtime one night.

I have to admit, I was thrown.  How would she even know the word “blessing”?  A few questions revealed a bedtime blessing she had heard at a recent sleepover, and while I wasn’t opposed to a general blessing-type-thing, the one Ladybug recited about angels protecting us as we sleep wasn’t going to fly at our house.

So began my somewhat reluctant search for a bedtime blessing (or whatever) that fit our family.  It’s a difficult task for a non-religious family for whom the word “blessing” is a little too far from our comfort zone.  I felt a bit less reluctant about the idea of a blessing after reading Raising Happiness (which I mentioned in this post about gratitude) since it included a recommendation to say a mealtime prayer (or prayer-like thing, the author notes for non-religious families) as a way of modeling shared optimism and gratitude.

My requirements were as follows:

  • Express empowerment or optimism
  • No reference to anything supernatural

Sounds pretty simple, right?  That’s what I thought, but nothing I found in books of children’s prayers and blessings were secular enough for us–even the Unitarian prayers still felt like they were invoking something in a way that wouldn’t feel right for us.

Then one night before bedtime, we found what we were looking for as we finished our bedtime story for the night.  The story had a little bear looking to put off bedtime with request for one more story, one more prayer, one more anything that would mean not sleeping for a few more minutes.  It’s a familiar routine at our house, but it was the end of the story stood out that night.

The final words to Sleepyhead by Karma Wilson are now our bedtime “blessing”:

“Sleepyhead, Sleepyhead

Sleep tight, sleep tight.

Tomorrow’s play is just ahead.

I love you so. Now rest your head.”

That felt right.

I’ve since discovered this post about secular bedtime prayers from Kelly Naturally that might have something that feels right for you.

See more posts about science, religion, and secular family life on my Secular Thursday page.

Disclosure: Amazon Links are affiliate links.

Happy Thanksgiving!

While everybody else was eating turkey yesterday, we were eating tofu curry.  Today while everyone is either shopping or buying nothing, we will be digging into our turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie.

Regardless of the day, though, gratitude is kind of a big deal.  Christine Carter, of the Greater Good Science Center, said of gratitude in Raising Happiness:

“Appreciation is one of the most important ways that we can teach our kids to form relationships with others.  So much of our human relationships are about giving, receiving, repaying–the stuff of connection.  Expressing gratitude acknowledges just how deep those connections run.”

You can learn more about how to start a gratitude practice with your children in this podcast with Christine Carter and Rona Renner as part of the Happiness Matters Project.  For me, the take away point is that expressing gratitude is a skill–something to be learned, something that we need to model for our children.  In particular, this means not getting impatient when your child doesn’t know what to say or repeats the same rote thing every single time.  Don’t give up! (I’m saying that to myself.)

How We Learn

For those of us who are out of school, our learning process isn’t so different from a preschoolers.  We follow our curiosity.  We ask questions, find experts, and figure things out.  We are rarely lectured.  We probably aren’t studying or giving ourselves exams either.  The closest I come to a lecture these days is watching TED Talks, and those hardly resemble the lectures I remember from my college days.

As I listened to the American RadioWorks documentary Don’t Lecture Me, I cheered the changes they documented in some college instruction that seems to focus on helping students make connections on their own rather than simply take in information.  It reminded me of what I read recently in Mind in the Making, which was about early childhood development.  Maybe all education should be like preschool.

“To promote children’s curiosity, be careful not to jump in too quickly to fix things they’re struggling with, since working with the ‘confounding’ situation is where critical thinking is promoted. Instead, where possible,  help them figure out how they can resolve it for themselves.”

The book is a great resource for parents or educators who are interested in practical ideas for promoting skills their children need but don’t necessarily learn in school, like critical thinking, focus, self control.  I found the advice about encouraging a growth mindset (which included parents modeling failure and persistence) very valuable.  Follow that up with this discussion on MPR’s Midmorning* about character education in our schools for a fascinating perspective on how important these social skills are.  They talk about many of the skills that Mind in the Making outlined as key to early childhood education, but they had different words for them.  Dedication to one’s goals despite setbacks became “grit.”  Curiosity and optimism became “zest.”

Whatever you call them, these are traits (skills?) that I want to give (teach?) my daughter.   These are our values, and I have a strong interest in the sort of education that recognizes their importance.

Here are some tips from Mind in the Making for parents and educators trying to promote these essential skills.

See more posts about science, religion, and secular family life on my Secular Thursday page.


*I have no connection to MPR or Midmorning. I just listen to it a lot, and I end up blogging about what I hear.

Disclosure: Book referenced was a library copy.  Links may be affiliate links.