Four Obscure Children’s Books—And One Classic—That Every Adult Should Read

Great children’s literature captures the wisdom of human truth in a manner so simple, even grown-ups can understand. I started reading these aloud to my children over twenty years ago, and I have returned to them again and again. For maximum benefit, I suggest reading them aloud. To yourself, if you don’t have the benefit of a young listener.

  1. The Animal Family, by Randall Jarrell.

Except for this first, the books are not listed in order of importance, but if you can read only one, make it this one. Jarrell is a poet, and so every word in this story resonates with exquisite light and tone. If you want to understand grief and joy, longing and love, if you want to learn how to accept what comes into your life and what doesn’t, then you need seek no further than this beautiful and tiny—it quite literally fits into the palm of your hand—story. Or is it a poem? Or a song? A whisper on the breeze? No matter. Call it what you will, it will live in your heart forever.

  1. The Wheel on the School, by Meidert Dejong.

A question is born out of wonder. That seed is planted in the fertile imagination of those who are willing to consider possibilities—even impossibilities. With cultivation, a devotion to explore unfolds, where the known is sifted through for the overlooked and where the unknown is braved for the unexpected treasures it holds. Discovery leads to awe. This is a journey we all must take, at least once. Why not begin here, with storks and wagon wheels?

  1. Fox in Socks, by Dr. Seuss

Read this for the sheer joy of its hyper-kinetic velocity and its gleeful linguistic Dadaism. And because it features tweetle beetles. In a battle. With paddles. In a bottle.

  1. Wolf Story, by William McCleery.

It is always about the story. The story within the story, and the story within that story. The different permutations of the same story. The telling of the story and the listening to the story and way the one affects the other. Never doubt again the necessity of story or your ability to change the story.

  1. Walk When the Moon is Full, by Frances Hammerstrom.

As we all carry on with our days—and our nights—there are other lives being led right among us, but it is so easy—too easy—to not see. To not know. This gentle chronicle of twelve walks on twelve moonlit nights is a reminder to us all that we can travel to a whole new world without ever leaving our own. All we need do is make one small shift in our own perspective—in this case: change the time—and see with child’s eyes. In other words: look with curiosity at the people and the landscape that we encounter every day.


We Are Only as Good as the Mistakes We Allow Ourselves to Make

Last week, I was sitting in the bleachers during the intermission of one of my son’s hockey games, talking with the team’s skating coach. She is the real deal. She used to coach in the National Hockey League: the pros.

She said that she wanted our boys to shoot more on the power play– a common coaching refrain– and specifically, she wanted them to try one particular shot.

But, she said, they were all afraid to do it, to take the shot and risk losing possession, so they passed the puck instead.

My son signed a contract with a Junior Hockey team this year– in the NA3-EHL for those of you who know and care. This is how most hockey players make it onto college teams. The players are mostly 18-20 years old, and they are good. Some of them are really good.

But that doesn’t stop them from being afraid.

From being limited by their fear of making a mistake.

Fear really can be a good ally. There are some mistakes that you just don’t ever want to make.

But there is a fine line between maximum effort and a mistake. And I believe that we, as parents and educators, need to encourage, allow–celebrate!– mistakes more. Yes. I am pointing a big accusatory finger at our school system, where everything is graded and god forbid anyone do something that isn’t “up to standard.”

But the truth about learning is that there is always a period when we are awkward in applying a new skill or concept. When we need to explore what works– and what doesn’t.

When our children were little, we used to pass the time on road trips by telling stories and jokes. When my son was a toddler, he decided to join in with “knock-knock” jokes.

“Knock, knock,” he’d say.

“Who’s there?” we’d answer.


“Parrot who?”

“Parrot DUMPTRUCK! Bwaaa ha ha haaaa!”

And we laughed, too, because it was funny how not-funny it was.

He totally did not get it. The point of the joke was lost on him. No grasp of anything but the most basic rhythm and pacing.


The essence of comedy isn’t words. It’s rhythm and pacing. I know this because when my husband tells a joke, everyone is rolling on the floor, and when I tell the same joke–same words– well, we’ll just be generous and say it doesn’t work out as well.

So our son had a hold on one piece of the process, but it would be years of practice before he would finally grasp the play on words. And we laughed at every single one of his jokes. The flops. The ones that almost worked, and then the ones that were successful zingers.

Can you imagine if he had been graded on his early performance? If he had been held to a standard that someone somewhere decided was representative of the entire population of two year olds?

OK– deep breaths. This is not about standards. Not. About. Standards.

No. It’s about mistakes.

If even the guys who are really good at what they do are afraid of messing up– are afraid that they CAN’T AFFORD to mess up, we have a problem with how we respond to mistakes.

What if we considered a mistake as an effort needing some refinement. Yeah, yeah. I know. Eventually, we need to see results. But I challenge you to find one mistake today–that you or someone else makes– and let it shine in the light of your approval. Just for a moment, before you go about “refining.”

Room for Chaos

My daughter once told me that my motto could be: “Throw it out or melt cheese on it.”  I had to laugh at that– she had me nailed. But later, I wondered: that’s a pretty pedestrian motto. What does that say about me?

I do love cheese, and I’m willing to take something tired or bland and enliven it with a little warmth and love.

I don’t waste a thing.

I make do with what I have.

Long before Marie Kondo, the author of The Life-Channging Magic of Tidying Up suggested it, I made a habit of keeping only those objects that I love, whether for their beauty or their practicality, which is, in my mind, a type of beauty.

I prefer giving to receiving. I’ve always gravitated toward simplicity in my physical surroundings. My willingness to chuck virtually anything has come in handy in my writing: no word, phrase, scene or chapter is too precious to cut.

But like the Sprats of nursery rhyme lore, I am a neat-nik married to a man who saves everything. I once found a grocery list from a previous decade in the pile on top of his dresser. He just shrugged that time, without giving me his usual, “But honey, I might need it someday.”

It used to drive me nuts– all that “potentially useful” stuff. But my husband is a MacGyver-type guy. He can fix anything with a zip-tie, the lint in his pocket, and maybe that one item he finds after rummaging around for a half hour. The one time I did convince him to toss something that I considered unworthy, we needed it later–or a part of it.

So I learned to temper my desire for order and minimalism, and he learned to contain his largest piles in certain areas: the basement, the garage, a closet, his office. A compromise with an eye toward harmonious living.

But I have learned to go beyond tolerating his “messes” to having some–admittedly only some!–appreciation for them. Once, my young son decided he was going to build a fishing rod, including a reel, from scratch. Sticks collected from the wild corners of our pasture, bits of stray wire, even that old license plate from the car we sold were all put to use.

There is creative potential in clutter. In chaos.

I like my desk to be clean when I sit down to write (see header photo on this blog). I empty the dish rack in my kitchen before I start to cook. But after my vegetables get a head start in my garden, I let the weeds come. Not because I am lazy, but because their flowers invite beneficial insects. (I am lazy: I let the bugs do my work.)

There is a time and a place for everything, even chaos.

Kondo suggests that we pick up every object in our houses and ask ourselves if we love that object. I suggest that we also look at every area of chaos and ask, “What does this invite?” If the answer is “ants,” you might want to consider moving it or getting rid of it. But if it invites imagination, creativity or even the possibility of it, you just might want to find a place for it, in your home and in your heart.











A Shot at Forgiveness

A few years ago, when I was struggling with forgiveness (and don’t get me wrong–I had struggled with it since long before then and will, it appears, continue to struggle–I am just fixing this particular moment in time) I picked up Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. It is a stunning and thought-provoking book that poses this question: “You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for your forgiveness.  What would you do?”  The responses of over fifty people follow.

I was deeply moved.  And also a bit confused.

Because, for me, it was as if they were all driving the wrong way down a one-way street.

Do I have it backwards? I always thought that forgiveness was a process that the victim engages in to release him/herself, not the perpetrator. The perpetrator finds absolution– and self-forgiveness–by making amends, not in seeking forgiveness. Even if the amends can never erase the harm, the perpetrator puts the stone of his intention to make things right onto the balance– and he does so not to fix the victim, but to heal himself. As much as is possible.

This is one of the reasons why I spend so much time in my parenting book, Parenting in the Here and Now, encouraging parents to treat their children’s transgressions as mistakes, as signs that their children need more guidance. Mistakes need to be noticed and corrected without shaming. If harm has been done, amends can be made. By teaching our children to not fear their mistakes, but to be responsible for them and, when needed, to make amends for them, we teach them mercy–self-mercy.

And no, I am not equating childish mistakes with the Holocaust. I am just saying that we all need to be educated– practiced– at making amends and forgiving. Starting with the small stuff, so that we have a template for when the stakes are higher.

I am coming late to that class. I am still learning. I am humbled to acknowledge where I am in the process, but stating the truth is part of it. Here is one story of my journey:

What is your understanding of forgiveness? I really want to know.

Mama Bear: An Example of Parental Authority in Action

Watch this little clip of film. (Warning: in the last second, one of the people filming says sh*t, so mute if you want to avoid hearing it. The sound of the clip is not relevant.)

Notice Mama Bear’s weight. She is a Big Mama. Her years of loping through meadows and browsing through forests to find grubs and berries and all the other nourishments her world has to offer her shows—she has gravitas. Not just because she is large and there is more mass for the forces of gravity to work upon, but because she KNOWS. She has been around the block—or the lake.

She does not doubt what she knows. And in this case, she knows that little bearcubs do not belong on the highway with vehicle traffic. And Big Mama not only knows this, but she acts on what she knows. There is no doubt, no drama, no denial.

This is such a wonderful visual example of Ho Hum in action: acting calmly with parental authority (Ho Hum is a central part of Parenting in the Here and Now.

I am not suggesting that when your children are troublesome, you should pick them up by their heads. I am suggesting that it might help to remember Big Mama: the weight of her calmness and the resoluteness of her action.

Story and Curiosity

This is a re-post from 2013, but it feels relevant now:

My husband gave me my Christmas present early this year: a recording of Bruce McKee reading out loud an abridged version of his book, Story.  We had a six-hour drive to Philadelphia, so we listened while my husband drove and I took feverish notes. The book is geared specifically for screenwriting, but the basic structural foundation for a screenplay differs little from that of a book or a play.

My husband wanted a deeper understanding of the elements of story because, as a lawyer, part of his job is listening to his client’s story, and then re-telling that story to a judge or jury.

I appreciated Mr. McKee’s analysis because I had just finished the first draft of a memoir—and a primer on story structure was just what I needed before I embarked on the hard work of revision.

We were reminded of how important story is to humans. It is the primary way we learn about and understand our world—something I only understood after we began homeschooling.

And it reminded me how closely tied story is to judgment. A rush to judgment allows no time, no consideration for the story behind an apparent fact. That is what prejudice is—a pre-judging—based on the assumption that one already knows the story. Judgment is the end of the story—the period that says this sentence is over. No more questions. No more curiosity.

I used to think that love was the antidote for prejudice, but now I am considering that curiosity would be a better cure. Curiosity is just a hunger to know the story. And to love something that you don’t really know—that has always seemed a bit patronizing to me, or maybe it is just too abstract. But to be curious, to want to know the story, to be interested—My kids might say “Nosy, Mom. Admit it: you are nosy.”– that to me is a great blessing to bestow on another.

Parenting in the Here and Now

Parenting in the Here and Now is officially available for order from Amazon, Floris Books and Steiner Books (And BAM and B&N). It was an exciting day to receive my first copies, but this is an even bigger day, when the book actually makes its way into the hands of readers. I hope that it provides some simple companionship as well as insight for any who take part in raising children. Please pass on the link, and if you are so inclined, I would be so grateful to hear your thoughts and comments here and on the Amazon review page.

My website:

Amazon page

Waiting for Permission

There is an interesting post and discussion about permission over on Steven Pressman’s blog. He is the author of The War of Art, in which he masterfully exposes the role that Resistance (with a capital R) plays in our lives. He speaks of it in the context of being an artist, but it really applies to anything we do. I wrote about it using a different name (Fear, with a capital F) in Parenting in the Here and Now, and when I read The War of Art, I thought, “Oh, yes, we are talking about the same thing.” (To Pressman’s credit, he said it decades before me; I just didn’t know it.)

I won’t re-create the discussion (you can read it here), but the salient point of the post is that waiting for permission to write a novel or form a band or whatever is your artistic dream is a form of Resistance.

I agree, but there are nuances and ironies which I find fascinating.

Just as we must be children before we are adolescents, and adolescents before we are adults, there is a process of growing into maturity as artists, and, I would say, as parents. It doesn’t all happen magically when we turn 21 (or have a baby). For most of us, we go through a period of dependency when we learn through imitation, and then we gradually branch out on our own(with varying levels of encouragement and support) until we are, theoretically, free: the masters of our own selves, making our own choices, no longer needing permission.

In the context of parenting, the equivalent stages are present. An example: a young mother recently asked a group of more experienced mothers if they had ever felt disillusioned with a chosen parenting style. Everyone answered “yes.” This is the adolescent stage of parenting, when the parent realizes that things don’t always work out as promised by any given method and the parent must mature into her own authority, which means making her own informed and independent choices for her family. In other words, no longer seeking permission. That young mother is well on her way.

Just as I don’t believe we can or should hurry our children through developmental stages, I don’t believe we as artists or parents can rush through those stages, either.

I think that often we ask for permission when we really need support and encouragement. But it is a tricky business: depending too much on support and encouragement is a bit like waiting for permission. Resistance and Fear are sneaky devils. But the reality is that few of us become the heroes of our own story, manifesting our dreams despite all the bad guys in our way, on our own.

We have to make that final leap ourselves, but chances are good that along the way, we had some kind of encouragement, and perhaps, at the last moment, we had some permission, too, even if it is only Steven Pressman saying, “You don’t need permission,” which is, ironically, the ultimate permission.