photo friday: pale

Posted by on October 11, 2013

Big O, little o– forming letters with blocks.

I think of fall as the opposite of pale; it is saturated with earthy colors and the sun can still shine very intensely. But a few mornings ago I noticed a change during breakfast. I needed a sweatshirt to sit comfortably by the open window. Our October this year is too-warm and fall is not cooperating. But mornings are behaving more appropriately fall-like, before the day gets to feeling like early September again. These October mornings are obediently shedding the characteristics of summer, moving in a winterly direction. And it occurred to me that winter mornings are pale; it’s the quality of winter paleness I’m noticing these days in the early hours.

I need to bring our oil lamp out of the basement for the breakfast table. Incandescent overhead light is too jarring for me in the early hours of the mornings. And actually, I have just recently devised a new plot to make breakfast time a reading time with my girls now that they are not running out the door in their pajamas like wild things first thing in the morning, as they did most of the summer. So far it is working, but it might help even more to have a cozy lighted wick in the center of the table to draw everyone’s attention even more inward.

We are settling into homeschooling more. My focus has shifted onto books. We go to the library at least once a week. I realized that I have a dream deep inside: to expose my children to beautiful language, beautiful stories, and the best of everything literary. But always they manage to pick out books about sparkling princesses, or– mysteriously, almost instinctively– books containing rude themes like burping or peeing, in the name of teaching children manners. With these supposedly good manner themed books, my girls sit in the back seat of the car and giggle all the way home from the library at the words and themes that I try, unsuccessfully, to limit to the confines of the bathroom. This sort of thing used to stress me out badly and even smite me with a feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness. I confess that I am afraid if the Crass World.

But now that we are homeschooling I feel myself far more able to relax. I know that the time we spend with Good Books will be the majority of our time, and this makes the Bad Books less of a threat. I know that my girls are close to me, and this makes the Crass World less menacing, less engulfing. I never felt that public school itself was crass, but I learned that I couldn’t trust it to keep the crassness out.

But now I can relax a little and let small amounts of crassness in, like germs and dirt, hoping that some exposure will build up resistence and even innoculation. So I let them make multiple trips to our library table, bringing back stacks of Tinker Bell and random picture books that to me look like sorry excuses for children’s books (because, really, there are too many shoddily executed children’s books in the world). Then while they are not looking, I put at least some of them back on the cart for re-shelving and give them the satisfaction of bringing home some of their ever-erratic kid-picks. Meanwhile, I pick out a big selection of titles that are, in my snooty opinion, a bit more classic and ennobling.

I’m enjoying my new role. I have had so much fun reading through quite a few chapter books lately, like Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski, The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare, and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken. There are some truly amazing juvenile books out there that completely passed me by in school. Even though I have fond memories of reading some of these great titles when I was a kid, like Where the Red Fern Grows and The Island of the Blue Dolphins, I realize now that I only experienced a small pool of the great books that sit inert on library shelves, waiting. I am so excited now to hunt them down, create a reading wish list, and read through them now as an adult. I never read (to name one conspicuous example) A Wrinkle In Time. I checked out a copy and plan to read it next.

In these pale mornings while I drink my coffee and the girls eat their breakfast, I’ve started reading a series of books by Maud Hart Lovelace about three girls named Betsy, Tacy, and Tib. Yes, they are old fashioned books. But I concluded that their literary merit stands alone, almost in spite of their quaintness. They transcend sentimentality. Maud Hart Lovelace possesses that special understanding for children that great children’s authors seem to have. I laugh so much reading them and the girls always ask for one more chapter, which, at their age, does not often happen with books that are mostly text and almost no pictures.

More and more I am seeing my oldest daughter exhibiting the traits of a future bookworm. I find her more and more on her own with a book. Sometimes I cringe if the book she is curled up with looks like it popped out of a cartoon Disney book-making-machine in a batch of one thousand. But just as often the book is about something like the story of St. Brigid’s cloak or the poems of Shel Silverstein. And I cannot deny that this makes me really proud and happy. And if all else fails, I blitz her at bedtime with the audiobook version of the Laura Ingles Wilder series as she lies in the dark and finally grows entranced in the words.

I feel as if something special is beginning in our house. While the girls were in school (and preschool) I never felt as if there was time to explore or go deep with books. Now we have the leisure to read and go deep with books that deserve someone’s– anyone’s– attention. Beautiful language and beautiful stories deserve the attention of a lifetime, beginning with childhood. Is there anyone in this frenetic world who will stop and give themselves to all of these worthy books. Who in this world finds it worthwhile to read Strawberry Girl, with its archaic Florida cracker dialect and simple, unvarnished themes of homesteading in a sandy land inhabited by alligators. I saw the curriculum in the public school valuing themes like economics– the consumer and the producer– for my first grader. I saw that they were working on things like how-to books in kindergarten. I’m sure that somewhere along the way there would be some kind of summer reading list with Caldecott and Newbury winners, but for the most part, I could perceive that these kids were never going to get around to more than a small sampling of the total pool of great books that are possible for grade school level kids. Maybe only the stray, unconventional oddball, here and there would ever get around to a book like Strawberry Girl. And so I feel myself making an inward declaration: Let our family be the unconventional oddballs who stay home and pay homage to as many great books as time will allow.

So, I am happy for the coming season of inwardness that the paleness of fall and winter bring so that I can burrow into the world of books with my children. And not just books. We will burrow into conversations when my older daughter asks what “fair trade” means on the outside of the coffee canister. This alone turns into a lesson in geography, economics, and ethics. We will burrow into good language through good songs, like the Scottish songs my daughter is learning through her children’s choir (we sang them together and I had her copy out Dream Angus in her own handwriting today, which counts for language arts and music at the same time). We’ll do things with our hands with yarn, thread, and other materials. We’ll go on nature walks and talk about tree identification and the cycle of the year. We’ll have the library to ourselves during the school day.

My neighbor next door will ask me casually, delicately, and suggestively whether I plan to give them standardized tests so that I can measure whether or not they are on track. I’ll say I might but deep down I know that I really do not trust those tests, even though I admit that I would want my kids to do well on them.

There is some anxiety wrapped up in all of this. But I realize that delving deeply into books quells this anxiety for me, as if books form a sturdy rope bridge over a psychological abyss. Maxim Gorky said: “I came to appreciate what good books really were and realized how much I needed them and they gradually gave me a stoical confidence in myself: I was not alone in this world and I would not perish!” Certain authors have always had the power to make me feel less lonely, supported, comforted, and confident. It occurred to me that as I grow into this role of my children’s teacher, children’s authors will likewise be there to lend a hidden joy, confidence, and security in an endeavor that can be really very lonely.

Photo Friday

  1. Anonymous
    October 12, 2013

    First, your writing is just lovely, and I enjoy reading your posts. You put into eloquent words everything I felt but could not verbalize when I was homeschooling my two when they were younger.

    You are right to not worry about the "crass" books. Keep reading great literature to them and letting them read it on their own. They'll learn what good writing is on their own. I always considered the "poo" and "burp" books as a small mental break for them in between the good stuff. By banning it, the kids would just think those books are just more alluring.

  2. Julia
    October 12, 2013

    Thank you for your kind comment and sharing your own experience!