Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Nature Books for Kids

I enjoy being outside, whether doing archaeology, studying natural history and ecological relationships, or just looking at plants and animals. I also read a lot, and have two children (ages 4 and 9), so it isn't too surprising that I try to combine all of these pastimes by finding books on nature that I can share with my kids.

John Himmelman is the simply the best author and illustrator of kid's books on the natural world that I've seen. We have A Pill Bug's Life, A Slug's Life, An Earthworm's Life, and A Hummingbird's Life, and I wish we had all of the others in the Nature Upclose series (monarch butterfly, Luna moth, woodfrog, dandelion, mouse, salamander, house spider, ladybug, and mealworm).

His stories (aimed at ages 4-8, but appropriate for much younger children, and yet still interesting for older kids and adults) all feature exquisite and environmentally accurate illustrations of a creature, its life cycle, and its interactions with its world - which include children. This not only makes the books more interesting to kids, but it reminds them (or shows them) how they influence nature, and that ecosystems aren't something confined to rainforests half a world away or an Animal Planet documentary. And unlike Eric Carle's books (as much my kids love The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Very Quiet Cricket, with its battery operated chirper), there's little anthropomorphizing in Himmelman's books. The pillbug* doesn't get grouchy (or talk), it just finds a place to sleep for the winter.

I wish we lived near Connecticut, because I see from his website (linked above) that Himmelman does school programs, and I'll bet they are wonderful.

Another couple of kid's books that my family enjoys are The Salamander Room, by Anne Mazur, and Where Do You Live?, by Eva Knox Evans - an old out-of-print Golden book (published in 1960) that survived my parents' garage sale culling to get handed down to the next generation.

Both of my kids also spend an inordinate amount of time just paging through the Audubon Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders and the Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds - Eastern Region - my daughter has her little plastic tiger "looking at the bug book" as I write. And while getting the links for the Audubon guides, I found that Robert Michael Pyle (see The Thunder Tree review) did the Audubon field guide for butterflies! We must have that book before the summer is over. Just this morning we tried to identify a strange caterpillar (ewww, some big grey hornwormish thing), and didn't find it in the regular bug book.

Here are some nice online lists of nature books for kids for you to browse:

Outstanding Science Books for Kids K-12 from the National Science Teachers Association

Growing Good Kids Book Awards from the Junior Master Gardener program

Nature Books from the Center for Children's Books at the University of Illinois

The Nature Section at Embracing the Child - a nice list organized by author with many links to author websites and an illustrated descriptions of many of the books.

We found a couple of new favorites from the last list - Eliza and the Dragonfly, by Susie Caldwell Rinehart, and My Favorite Tree: Terrific Trees of North America, by Diane Iverson. And we also have an abundance of non-fiction books on starfish, bats, animal tracks, how tadpoles turn into frogs, etc., mostly picked up for a quarter each at local library book sales.

We also have a few books that drive me crazy with their flowers blooming out of season, or in the wrong ecozone. That's why I love John Himmelman's books so much - he gets absolutely everything right.

And speaking of getting it right - there's one "nature book" I can't endorse: Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, by Susan Jeffers. When I taught a course titled Archaeology & Environment, I started the course with a little background on American archaeology and Native peoples, history, and stereotypes - and Brother Eagle, Sister Sky was one of the bad examples of stereotyping and poorly researched history. As much as I like the environmental ethic in the book, the use of Plains Indian costume and the totally fabricated speech by Chief Seattle is just too appalling to ignore.

Furthermore, it was one of the stars of Oyate's List of Books to Avoid on Native peoples - read the review by Doris Seale for some specifics, and for some of the Suquamish leader's eloquent but decidedly not picture-book-material words. Oyate (a Native organization promoting more honest portrayals of American Indians) also has a wonderful catalogue of good books, by the way.

While googling, I ran across The World of Chief Seattle, by Warren Jefferson - I haven't seen it (my Michigan library doesn't stock too many kid's books on the Pacific Northwest), but the cover looks promising. Sorry, Jennifer from Under the Ponderosas, I just don't have much on your neck of the woods. Let me know what you discover, ok?

*aka wood louse or roly-poly bug. One of the only terrestial crustaceans, as we learned from John Himmelman, which once led my "everyone must always have facts correct" son with OCD into an argument with a school librarian who repeatedly insisted it was an insect.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Virginity or Death! Book Review

Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time, by Katha Pollitt, is a collection of short essays - almost 90 of them - originally published in The Nation, spanning the years from 2001 to early 2006. While waiting my turn for my library's copy of Virginity or Death!, I went ahead and checked out an earlier collection - Reasonable Creatures (it didn't have a waiting list) - which I enjoyed so much that I thought it was pretty unlikely that I wouldn't like Virginity or Death!. And I was right.

The essays are intelligent, sharp, insightful and timely. Furthermore, Pollitt exhibits something that not all feminist ideologues manage to manifest - an abundance of common sense, and a wicked sense of humor.

Soon after I heard about the publication of Virginity or Death! and put it on my library request list, I saw the feminist blogosphere erupt over Anna Marie Cox's New York Times review, Woman of the Nation. And although I thought some of the reaction to the review was a bit overblown (I didn't see Cox as totally panning the book, although she didn't say much positive, either), after reading Virginity or Death!, I just found Cox's review weirdly off the mark and unsatisfying. Here are some of Wonkette's (i.e. Cox's) criticisms:

[Pollitt is] "stubbornly unapologetic in championing access to abortion and fixated on the depressingly slow evolution of women's rights in the Middle East."

"There's a certain preserved-in-amber quality to some of the thinking here."

"But when feminists start lecturing about wrong choices, it lessens their numbers. I wish I had an easy answer about how to navigate between stridency and submission. Then again, I wish Katha Pollitt did too."

Pollitt is pretty stubbornly unapologetic about championing access to abortion - in one essay ("If Not Miers, Who?"), she even makes a joke about her views as "a matter of endless, possibly even tedious, record". But at least 80% of the essays make no mention of abortion at all. And as for the essays on the Middle East (which were definitely not all on women's rights) - well, she writes about Abu Ghraib and cluster bombs and.... Damn, there just weren't that many essays on the Middle East to complain about. And that part of the world is rather relevant to "current political issues of our time", so shouldn't Pollitt write about it?

I couldn't see any "preserved-in-amber" qualities that really date Pollitt's work, either. I'm 43, though, so maybe my (liberal feminist) cataracts are interfering with my views of fossilization.

And strident? Not "that old chestnut", as my nine year old says when my husband makes a particularly bad pun. Sometimes Pollitt is assertive, but compared to many of the socio-political essayists I've read, she hardly qualifies as overwrought. She isn't obnoxious, she is often gently self-deprecating, and she never patronizes her readers, which I appreciate.

Now choice. That's the buzzword in feminism these days, isn't it? What Pollitt actually says is that "Women have learned to describe everything they do, no matter how apparently conformist, submissive, self-destructive or humiliating, as a personal choice that cannot be criticized because personal choice is what feminism is all about." As much as I support personal choice, I have to agree with Pollitt that not all choices are equally good. That kind of extreme relativism is just ridiculous, and I thought that Pollitt balanced choice vs. absolutes (not exactly the same as submission vs. stridency, forgodsakes) fairly well. Unlike Linda R. Hirshman, to pick another feminist I'm reading right now.

Pollitt's response to the Cox review was highly entertaining and right on the mark (and unfortunately no longer free online unless you're an NYT subscriber): Thank You for Hating My Book.

Now for a bit of criticism, since I don't just want to be a fawning fan here. To my surprise, I didn't enjoy Virginity or Death! quite as much as I did Reasonable Creatures. Partially because many of the pieces in V or D! were less timeless and eye-opening for me than those in Pollitt's earlier work (just her essays on literature reading lists in college and "difference feminism" in Reasonable Creatures made me vow to buy a copy for myself soon).

The essays in V or D! were also usually much shorter. Plus, her chronicles of the last five years' politics - well, let's just say reviewing the screw-ups and creeping disintegration of civil rights perpetuated by the right wing, not to mention the war - isn't always a huge barrel of laughs. Though to give her credit, Pollitt does manage to find the (sometimes dark) humor where she can.

I managed to snag a virtually free copy of Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture on paperbackswap.com, so I'll have to see if reading Pollitt's take on the late 90's is any more fun than the first part of the 21st century. I'll let you know.

Friday, August 18, 2006

On My Nightstand and In My Bookbags

Inspired by a series of posts by my favorite autodidact, here's a look at what I'm reading or just read or want to read soon. I went to page 18 of each book and picked the first complete sentence for a quote.

Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time
, by Katha Pollitt

A major studio is ready to greenlight the minute your offices comes through with co-financing.

The quote's from a snarky and insightful essay on faith-based initiatives. A big thank-you to Caitlin Flanagan and Linda R. Hirshman for indirectly leading me to this sharp, intelligent writer through Pollitt's funny essay on them (Mommy Wars, Round 587). While on the library request list for Virginity or Death!, I went ahead and read Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism, which was published in 1995. How come I've never heard of this before? It's funny, it's smart, and a couple of the pieces are so wonderful that I want to buy the book so I can read them again. Amazingly, many of Pollitt's essays are also available for free online,
at The Nation.

Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, by Linda R. Hirshman

I have dubbed this watered-down version of feminism choice feminism.

This came up on my request list at the same time as Virginity or Death!, and I find Pollitt a much better writer and thinker, so despite the fact that I want to do a blog review of Hirshman's book, I've put it on the back burner (hmm, Hirshman would no doubt sneer at such a housewifely metaphor). I will note that for a $19.95 hardcover book (which my library bought with my taxes), I expected more than 94 pages of text. And I'm not buying the quality vs. quantity argument here, either: what I've read just isn't that good, or that different from what Hirshman's written online.

The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

Of course, the basic story of of Dracula has been hashed over many times and doesn't yield much to explanation.

This was my book club's summer selection - we didn't meet in July and so we had two months (which we needed) to devour Kostova's 642 page opus on Vlad the Impaler and Romanian history and modern libraries and historians. I liked The Historian a lot, even as I was seriously annoyed by some of it. One of the best reviews I ran across was here, by the Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books, though one of the things that made this book such a literary bestseller last summer was its deliberate lack of trashiness. It was also fascinating to us Ann Arbor-Dexter-Saline-and -assorted township inhabitants, because Kostova is a local author who made the bigtime after years of obscurity. She mentioned in one interview that her favorite at Zingerman's was macaroni and cheese, which made us want to go there and sample it. It may be overpriced (would you pay $47 for a coffee cake, no matter how good?), but I have a feeling it's a lot better than Kraft dinner.

Sing a Song of Tuna Fish: Hard-To-Swallow Stories from Fifth Grade, by Esmé Raji Codell

The toys they sold were pretty good: bubbles, dolls as tall as I was, toy cash registers, doctor's kits with candy pills, and bags of little plastic dinosaurs that my brother liked (you could also get army guys or farm animals if you preferred).

I got this partially for myself, and partially to check out for my soon-to-be fourth grader. It is a memoir of Chicago circa 1979, and the sentence above is about Woolworth's, an old-fashioned five-and-dime that has largely been replaced by a combination of Target and dollar stores. It looks like an absolutely delightful read.

Nature in the Neighborhood, by Gordon Morrison

On a flat gravel rooftop, near the ball field, the nighthawks are raising two chicks.

I've been checking out children's nature books for an article I'm writing, and this was highly recommended. And rightly so, as it is exquisitely illustrated and a perfect antidote to the "nature only occurs in exotic, unspoiled places" theme that is so prevalent in both juvenile and adult books and videos. How often have you seen trash on a curb next to melting snow in a nature book? Or milkweeds growing in abandoned lot, sheltering cottontails and providing food for monarchs? It made me think of nuthatch's remarkable posts - with incredible photographs - of Detroit's urban prairies (here and here).

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Coffee Crisp in the US!

How did I miss the news that Coffee Crisp is now available in the US? Around here, they are supposed to be at Meijer's, CostPlus World Market, and Dollar Tree stores. I should have dragged the kids to Meijer instead of Target this afternoon. I could be eating one right now, instead of that half-melted Reese's peanutbutter cup that looked like it was in my husband's pocket a bit too long.

Class in Mommy Wars and Feminist Carnival XXI

Journalist Susan Nielson has a refreshing take on the mommy wars, highlighted here in Salon's Broadsheet, along with an interesting paper by Michael Selmi and Naomi Cahn in Duke University's Journal of Gender Law & Policy.

Also, the 21st Carnival of Feminists is now up at Being Amber Rhea. Women and technology, sex positive feminism and defining feminism, male feminists and allies, and body image are featured topics. And there's a podcast!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Old Houses

We spent the weekend in north-central Illinois visiting my parents. I wish I'd had time to take more pictures of this old house. My grandfather grew up there in the early part of the 1900's, when there was a patchwork of thriving family farms in these rural townships. Now this house (and many others) are magnets for vandals in their isolation in the corn and soybean fields. Next week the volunteer fire department is going to burn it down to practice their firefighting skills.

My kids did get a chance to sleep on my parent's sleeping porch (above), which I see has only eight double windows, not the twelve I remembered. This does make a total of sixteen handles to crank when a storm blows up, however, as it did at sunrise Sunday morning, so my kids got to experience that part of my childhood.

The Happy Feminist has an interesting post on Home and Rootlessness. I grew up in the same house my that father did (the one pictured above that his father built), went to the same grade school a block and a half away, and even had the same third grade teacher, who retired the year after I had her. I grew up hearing stories about my ancestors in the area (see Captivity of Sylvia and Rachel Hall), with grandmothers who were interested in genealogy. I think this "sense of place" probably contributed a lot to my adult interests in archaeology, history, and environment. And though it's hard to imagine living in my hometown again, I know I would feel a great sense of loss if it vanished or was bombed out of existence - and not just because of all of the family members that still live there.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Zoom Clouds

In Praise of Porches

The heat wave has finally broken, and because we have a good sized front porch, we can keep the front windows wide open with the curtains billowing in, even with a real downpour coming from that direction. This is much better than yesterday's hermetically sealed situation, though everything feels a little damp. Earlier, we had fun sitting on the porch swing watching the streets and sidewalks flood.

NPR had a couple of good stories on front porches and their come back this week: Sitting on the Porch: Not a Place, But a State of Mind and Porches Knit Together New Urbanist Communities.

I love porches in all their variety. My parents (who still live in the house that I grew up in, which my grandfather built in the late 1920's) have three porches: a front porch, with chairs and ferns, where my father used to smoke cigars and watch the neighbors; a screened-in back porch, where we used to eat dinner on hot summer evenings; and above the back porch, the sleeping porch, a wonderful room with knee-to-ceiling windows on three sides, surrounded by trees. I remember being excited when my brother went to college, because then I got the sleeping porch all to myself. Waking up on the sleeping porch as a storm blew in was particularly exciting - cranking twelve old casement windows closed as lightning flashed and rain blew at you really got the adrenaline going.

John Richard Lindermuth
blames the loss of porches on the advent of tv and air conditioning. I think that a preference for decks (mostly in the back of the house) might also have something to do with it. Anyway, here's a neat photo essay: The Evolution of the American Front Porch.

Edited on 4 Aug 2006 to add another cool link: The Rise and Decline of the American Front Porch, from the Montana Heritage Project. This author ties the rise to transcendentalism and increased interaction with nature (along with architectural pattern books), and the decline to a loss of community and car exhaust. Maybe.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Dog Days

We're there. The doldrums, the dog days, the days when the humidity is so high that my 9 year old's glasses get steamed up the minute he goes outside. Usually when we're home in the summer, we have the sliding glass doors and windows wide open, and the kids and the bugs (bugs usually in containers) and the dog are in and out constantly. Last week we even went out during a couple of downpours.

This week, with a heat index of 104 and above, I turned the central AC on. We might as well be on another planet, or trapped by a blizzard, but at least I'm not sweating just sitting here, getting increasingly and irrationally irritable.

Cool Comfort: America's Romance with Air-Conditioning is an entertaining read on the history of AC, if you don't try to take it too seriously and you have a tolerance for academic jargon. As much as I agree that porches, sleeping porches, and big windows are wonderful, on days like this I am happy to press a button to cool most of the house down.

Poverty, Class, and Lebanon

..are featured in the 20th Carnival of Feminists at Super Babymama. Go and read it.