Sunday, October 19, 2014

Interview with Jacqueline Davies, Author of The Lemonade War Series!

The boys and I have been huge fans of The Lemonade War series for years now, and I was so excited when Jacqueline Davies said yes and generously donated her time to answer questions here at The Stone Age Techie. Several of these questions pertain to The Sincerity Project; as you will read, Ms. Davies thinks about this kind of thing too. If you would like to know more about Jacqueline Davies, please go here. My questions are in black, and her answers are in red.  And now, without further ado, our interview!

1. Welcome Jacqueline Davies, author of The Lemonade War series! These five books are about a brother and sister, Evan and Jessie, and are so well written with such real characters that you feel almost as though you could knock on their door and asked them to play in real life. My boys and I loved the stories, narrated alternatively by Evan and Jessie so that we see the world from their perspectives; the challenges their family experiences, and the children's thoughts and ideas, are so well expressed. Are there aspects of The Lemonade War series, or what it is like to be their author, that you would like to share about?  
I do a lot of school visits (about 50 a year) and I love going into schools and talking with kids about their responses to the books. Many of them have a particular favorite out of the five, and it's almost always because of a personal connection they make to the story. I hear things like, "That book reminded me of my grandmother." "Jessie is just like my little sister." "My parents are divorced, too." I like to think that I've written stories that allow kids to seem themselves in the pages.
2. I love the feeling that we, the readers, are right there in the action, and there is so much action! How is it that you come up with your ideas? 
The first book in the series was unusual in that I wrote it very quickly; the first draft took just 19 days to complete. So the ideas for that story unfolded very quickly. A lot of the ideas came from things that had actually happened in my childhood or in the childhoods of my three kids. But some of the ideas just bubbled up out of that deep, dark unconscious place where thoughts and feelings dwell, just below the surface of articulation.
3. One of my favorite things about books is that you never label a condition or problem; as a result, a character with fairly severe autism or advanced dementia is treated as a regular person, and the other characters in the book approach that person not as A Person With X, but instead treat that person as they would treat anyone. I feel like, in our society, too much emphasis is placed on labels and not enough on people. I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue, and also I'm wondering if you planned from the start to have Jessie and Evan approach the world in this way? 
I agree with your thoughts on labels. Sometimes we use them because it seems to make a complicated world less complex—and I'm not sure that's a particularly good thing. Also, quite frankly, I think if we broaden our ideas about The Spectrum (and I'm talking here about any spectrum that can be applied to many conditions or states of being) then we're all somewhere on that spectrum. There are a lot of traits that Jessie and I share. I don't have Asperger's Syndrome, but if you stretch that spectrum far enough on either end, you'll find me on it somewhere down the line. So I suppose my inclination to avoid labels is also about strengthening connections—between characters in the books, between readers and the characters, and between myself and each of my characters.
4. Did you have to work to avoid labels, or is that something that comes naturally to you? I ask because I have spent more than a decade working to avoid them, in my interactions both as a teacher and as a parent. 
In this case, it came pretty naturally. It just "felt right" at the time of writing that first draft, and then later, as I pondered my choice more carefully, it continued to feel right. I can't tell you how many letters I've received from parents of autistic kids who thank me for writing the books without trying to turn them into some kind of lesson on autism. They're so grateful to have a book to share with their children and others that presents a character with Asperger's that isn't about Asperger's.
5. Do you think that not using labels helps avoid stereotyping? Is there any situation in which using a label might be beneficial, in your opinion? 
Plenty of kids who read the books identify Jessie as a child with Asperger's. They're familiar with the syndrome, and they recognize it and name it. There's nothing wrong with that. Other kids just notice that Jessie's different, but they still identify with her in a lot of ways, and so they have the chance to get to know Jessie and like her without first applying whatever thoughts, fears, prejudices they might have about Asperger's. That's a useful approach, as well. The same is true with the grandmother, who is an important character in the third book, THE BELL BANDIT. She's displaying signs of the onset of Alzheimer's, and Jessie and Evan are frightened by the changes they see in her. But without a label, they need to approach her and relate to her as she is, rather than how Evan and Jessie might expect her to be, given her condition. It makes their interaction more authentic, I think.
As far as when a label might be beneficial—in fiction, I would say almost never (it's often a shortcut, and a lazy one at that), but in medicine, I would say certainly (it provides the protocol for treatment).
6. It is clear that, in your books, nearly all the adults take the children very seriously, really respect their thoughts and ideas and treat them as rational thinkers. I'm thinking of Evan and Jessie's mom and teacher especially; do you have memories of being taken seriously by the important adults around you? 
Honestly, that comes directly from my experience as a single parent of three very different children who had very specific parenting needs. I've always liked children—I like their honesty and spontaneity and depth. But the concept of taking them seriously—which to me means seeing the world from their perspective and truly respecting that perspective—didn't come naturally to me. My own needs as a young, harried mother with three kids to raise clouded my view of their needs. So that was something I really had to work at, and I'd say it's the bedrock of my relationships with all three of my children, who are adults (or close to it) now.
7. Can you think of a time where a grown up in your life either got it right, understood and really took you seriously – or, failed spectacularly to do that? For example, when I asked my 14-year-old son, Max, if there was a time where I failed to take him seriously, he told about a time when he was six and his younger brother Jay was two; my husband and I were outside gardening, and the boys were inside, we thought perfectly safe as we checked on them frequently, but there was a two-or-three minute period were Max was trying to alert us to the fact that Jay was hanging by his hands from Max's loft! As he put it while we were talking about this recently, our not taking him seriously was an "epic fail." 
Growing up in my childhood home, there was one thing that was always downplayed, and that was illness. This is peculiar because my father was a physician, but perhaps that's at the heart of it. Spending his days taking care of truly sick patients might have made him less inclined to take our aches and pains seriously. So in my family, sickness was never taken seriously, until it was really serious! We had a motto: "If you're not dead, you're fine." I can remember a few times when even I didn't take my own pain seriously. When I was in the sixth grade, I was playing on the jungle gym after school and fell, broke both my arms, and then walked home, because I figured it wasn't all that serious. (I wasn't dead, so I must be all right!) My instinct wasn't to look for help or to assess my condition, but my instinct was to go home.
8. These days, you don't have to look very far to find a parent who is more engaged with his or her smart phone than his or her child; a private worry of mine is that children, and their thoughts and ideas, garner far less respect because parents are so distracted. Do you share this worry, or do you feel more optimistic about this than me? Any advice or ideas for parents to help them take their children more seriously? 
Oh, no optimism here. I think our brains are being eaten alive by the electronics in our lives, and the situation is only get worse as we allow ourselves to be more and more wired (think the Apple Watch). There's all kinds of research about the neuroscience behind our addiction to meaningless digital input, the ways in which those little hits of useless information and hollow contact stimulate the brain in an illusionary simulation of pleasure. The advice I have is simple. Get off the digital merry-go-round. Take control. At specific times of the day, in specific situations, turn off the device. I know it's hard to do. I live a large part of my day on my laptop (writing) and hooked up to the internet (doing research). But I set specific limits. When my teenage daughter walks in the door after school, I walk out of my office. I can't pay attention to her when I'm sitting at my computer. So I leave the computer behind. As for cell phones—oh, just put them away. You're missing your life when you're on your cell phone.
9. Are there any new projects on the horizon that you could talk about? 
I'm writing a four-book series about two smart girls in a very small town who can't help but get into trouble because they're bored. (Think Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as seventh-grade girls in the 21st century.) The pub date for the first book is Fall 2015. And I'm writing a middle-grade time-travel novel with a thirteen-year-old boy protagonist who finds himself traveling on a ship of ghosts, which will be released in Spring 2016. Also, in the Summer of 2016, I will have a picture book out that's called PANDA PANTS. It's about a boy Panda who wants pants and his father who just thinks that's ridiculous. (Back to the idea of parents not taking their kids seriously!)

Monday, September 15, 2014

Non-Linear Learning

You never know where something you're interested in is going to take you.

This has come up a lot around here lately, as the boys get older and put more and more of their own ideas into what they do all day. It's made me remember, from what seems like a long time ago, when I could say to them "hey, that class about rocket science/archaeology/drawing sounds interesting, want to try it?" and confidently expect an unequivocal – enthusiastic – "yes!"

Even strewing things nonchalantly around the house doesn't work as well as it used to, although that is probably because I still strew things based on pre-tween interests… Books about building with Lego or paper airplanes just don't get picked up anymore.

Now, strewn items are more likely to be those that Ben and I just forgot to pick up, which brings me to my original point. When somebody is done reading, for example, Smithsonian magazine and leaves it open on the table to an article about Abraham Lincoln, just by accident, and then Owen sits down next to it to eat breakfast, is the article about Abraham Lincoln what he reads? No, he is far more interested in the side effects for the prescription drug advertisement on the facing page. He giggles his head off, reading about some of the really sickening side effects and asks: why would anyone in their right mind take that medicine when it causes such awful side effects, sometimes even causing what it supposedly cures?

Which inevitably leads to this: It's happy! It's fun! It's Happy Fun Ball!
(Best line: Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.)

Which leads to one of our many conversations about advertising, truth, incentives, ethics… and suddenly both 10- and 14-year-olds are excited, engaged, laughing, sharing, thinking for themselves.
We have entered an age where an interest in Green Day leads to the mastery of bar chords, where the desire to share about Dungeons and Dragons leads to a writing game called The Silent Conversation because the only way I can stand to hear one more fact about D&D is silently.

Sometimes, it is still really hard to embrace the non-linear learning, because I wonder, what if they're not learning the right stuff? I wish the learning could be more linear, that there was some proscribed path leading brightly into the future for them. At times like that, I try to look to the past, especially the very recent past in which they have made wonderfully sound decisions for themselves that carry their interests forward. Luke, working with power tools, plumb lines, and angles to help build our new gaga pit; Owen striving to improve his bike riding skills to ride all over the campground with his cousins, both expert riders.

Could it be that they really are on a proscribed path leading brightly to the future?

Monday, June 23, 2014

How to Have a Great Idea

One of my favorite podcasts, Innovation Hub, recently did a show on how people get really inspired ideas – the kind that change the course of their lives or careers. Host  Kara Miller (a favorite radio personality, she always asks such great questions) spoke with Frans Johanssen, author of The Medici Effect, and at the end of their conversation Kara asked listeners how they get ideas… And I thought, I can answer that!

My great ideas come from a combination of three things: creative constraint, percolation, and interaction with people, books, and media (like awesome podcasts!)

I'll take the last one first: thank goodness,  my life is full of great conversations, listening, and reading. Ben and I have always loved talking together (well, except for that one time when the kids were away and we had a huge fight about, for some reason, incentive pay for teachers), and Luke and Owen ask the most amazing questions, starting from when they were really small. Personal favorite, when Owen was two: "Mom, where was I before I was in your belly?" As a family, we often talk about history and current events. Mostly our conversations focus on academic-minded topics, like using technology to solve problems, or behavioral economics. About a year ago, I put the book Freakonomics into 13-year-old Luke's hands, and it changed his life – then, he took a Harvard Secondary School Program class in game theory, and changed mine right back. (I am currently kind of obsessed with game theory.)

In his great book, Talk Like TED, Carmine Gallo discusses the 18-minute maximum length of a TED talk, referring to it as a creative constraint – I guess in public speaking, an 18-minute presentation is  super short, which helps the speaker distill his or her presentation into the clearest, most crystallized form.
In my life, these last three years have been quite a restrictive form of creative constraint; with an arthritic-like tendon condition that affects every part of my body, I have sometimes felt like I am in a box that keeps getting smaller and smaller. To preserve my sanity, I have had to find ways of stimulating my brain without  overusing my limbs, enjoying participation in the world of ideas through reading, podcasts, and more recently with voice recognition software. Also, music has been a huge help –Spotify in particular is a favorite in our home, because of its serendipitous nature and fabulous playlists – and meditation has saved my bacon too, even though I am the world's worst meditator.

Owen, at four, 'meditating' with a book
But there's more to this than just preserving sanity; the biggest change has to do with the inner life I have been developing in these years of limited physical ability. Fascinatingly, it turns out that the end-runs that I must do around my physical limitations have led to an expansion of the abilities of my mind. In other words, I am not just coping with disability – the disability is leading to some higher-level thinking that I never would've had, without the disability. Creative constraint, baby!

Luke, at about 10, showing the patience needed for gardening
 Patience turns out to be another gift these last three years have given me. I have learned several different forms of patience, from waiting for pain to subside after a tough physical therapy session to spending months helping my muscles return from extreme atrophy. But my favorite form of patience is the kind that I've come to call percolation – it happens with, say, the idea that you write down at night, and when you wake up in the morning, it has morphed into something a little bit more interesting, or relevant, or viable. Sometimes this process takes days, or weeks even, and is always so rewarding.

Most of my ideas have to do with home, hearth, and family, which makes good sense given that I am a homeschooling mama. They are perhaps not life- or career-changing, but they make our household run a little more smoothly, help the boys figure something out in their learning, or bring  us all closer together.

But recently, I had an idea that is about a little bit more than just our family. It has to do with the changing face of childhood in our culture, with how we treat kids growing up in this place and time. As an educator, I learned that giving kids – even very young kids – real choices and real control over their lives helps them learn better. However, as a society we seem to be doing the opposite and causing a crisis with our young children. That link up there will bring you to a study, Crisis in the Kindergarten, by Joan Almon and Edward Miller and endorsed by the Alliance for Childhood, a group that is full of early childhood luminaries and geniuses such as Howard Gardner and Vivian Gussin Paley, two of my heroes. The study shows that, nationwide, the time that children spend making their own choices in a school day is mostly extremely limited, and sometimes nonexistent.

It seems that we are scheduling our children's days to be full of learning experiences, which sounds like a good thing. But between test prep, squeezed budgets that limit recess and other self-directed time in a day, and the kind of hectic, crazy lives that we all live with as we try to get everybody to their music or sports practices, kids are losing the ability to stretch their own imaginations, and implement their own ideas.

Anyway, the idea that came to me (through creative constraint, reading and conversation, and especially percolation) was this: when we take away a child's ability to  make choices and have some control, we fail to take them seriously.

Think about that for a minute. Think about how, when a decision that concerns you is made without your input, how disrespected that can make you feel. Think about how difficult that is to combat – even as an adult.

My idea for exploring this is called The Sincerity Project, and even though it seems like quite a small shift in perspective, it is leading to big changes in how I view teaching, learning, and parenting. I can't wait to share more about it!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

So, Books!

A winter and spring in which you can barely use your arms for keyboarding, screen-scrolling, cooking, or pretty much anything else leaves you with a lot of time to sit with a book open on your lap – silver lining city!
Here are some favorites that have kept me amused, and have helped me learn, sometimes about stuff I never even knew I needed to learn about. So, in completely random order:

The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine totally blew my mind. Written by a psychiatrist, it details a phenomenon with which therapists nationwide are currently grappling, namely, that children and teens who outwardly appear to have every need taken care of are instead full of anxiety caused by pressure to succeed, and in huge numbers are turning to alcohol and drugs, destroying their futures and inner lives at the same time. It is a real eye-opener for anyone with children or who cares about children, and the author shares many great ideas for helping now.

The Lost Art of Feeding Kids by Jeannie Marshall was a favorite for so many reasons: the recipes, her description of the wonders of living in Italy with children, and especially for the analysis of how and why our foodways have become so broken. Read this if you've been wondering about the how and why, and also about how to start fixing.

The Lemonade War Series, five books in all by Jacqueline Davies, is a rarity in that each book is about some different aspect of childhood and deals with serious stuff but in a way that is really appealing to children – and adults! Chapters alternate between the perspectives of a brother and sister, instantly making it a series for both genders, and one of my favorite things is that the author never uses labels. There are characters in these books with serious challenges, and any adult reading will be tempted to put those characters into a labeled box; but children interact with others at a more basic, label-free level, and the author does a fantastic job of highlighting the importance of that. Read these because they are fun and entertaining – and also because they will give you and your children a way to approach complex issues such as sibling rivalry, ill or aging grandparents, bullying, divorce… The list goes on.

Finally, my current obsession is Jane Austen, Game Theorist by Michael Suk-you Chew. Actually, it is a uniting of two long-time obsessions, the novels of Jane Austen and the economic school of thought that is game theory. I know, they sound like two things that could never, ever be united – but the author makes an excellent and compelling case that Jane Austen was in fact the first game theorist. If you love Jane Austen and have never heard of game theory – or vice versa – then you might enjoy this book very much. And, if like me you love both, thenI know you will enjoy this book very much!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Sincerity Project

Recently, I have been thinking about my roots as a teacher of early childhood education. As the boys grow into the teen and tween stages, we are leaving early childhood behind in our family, and I've been thinking about what a truly special time early childhood is in life.

I have been thinking about something else, too, and that is the idea of taking children seriously. It's very easy to just blow off a child's ideas, and the younger a child is, the easier it is to make that mistake.

It really is a mistake – a child who gets the message that his or her ideas do not have merit will stop sharing those ideas, and may even stop having them.

So, if you have kids in your home or your life, try to take them seriously. Try to honor their ideas and their attempts at communicating them. Because children who are taken seriously when they are young grow into people whose ideas can have a big impact in our world.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Eye of the Tiger

Here is something I bet you didn't know about needing a wheelchair: it brings out the crazy in your friends. In the six months or so that I used one, I lost count of the times when friends couldn't resist trying for warp speed while pushing me through a parking lot, or down a hotel hallway, or on a crowded sidewalk in Newport. There was even one night when, after making sure that I was securely on my barstool, a buddy popped wheelies in my chair until he flipped it over.

This past December, as I laced up ice skates for the first time since beginning my unwanted dance with chronic tendinitis, I realized it was almost exactly 2 years since I first needed the chair. The silliness of friends and family is what made that accursed chair bearable; without them, it would only remind me of the howling pain and fear of the unknown which I felt during many of those months. It took a long time, but my legs regained their strength.
The problem with tendons is, they aren't just in your legs. These past few years have been a long series of whanging my head on a proverbial garden rake that I had left carelessly lying around, saying to myself “jeez, I better move that rake,” and then whanging my head again. And again. And…

This time around, the recovering tendons are in one elbow and the other thumb. Poor Ben is doing all my jobs, plus all his usual jobs; thankfully, our homeschooling Village and amazing network of friends and family are helping with moral support and meals. Also thankfully, Luke and Owen enjoy cooking, and are learning great lessons in ability, disability, and home economics. (Luke and Owen, in my completely unbiased opinion, are two of the best kids on the planet. But I'll save my gushing for another post.)

 So, what's a girl to do when she can't use her hands for writing, typing, cooking, cleaning, card-playing, making music, knitting, or anything really, beyond holding a fork? Well, I've spent a lot of time in my own head, learning patience. Also, I have read some great books – again, another post – thunk thoughts both shallow and deep, and used my voice, sometimes for singing, sometimes for conversation and laughter, and sometimes, as now, for writing.

I have really missed blogging. I have missed having my own little corner of the Internet to share my opinions, and more importantly ask yours. I have missed documenting the boys' growth and development through the blog, where I can really highlight their joyful approach to life. Most, I have missed blogging as a space to discuss meta-learning, the learning that has gone on for me above (and because of) my children's learning.

In that last category, I include lessons they have taught me, like the time Luke rang the bell at the top of the climbing wall, things I have learned as the facilitator of their learning, and conversations I've had with others here in this blog about homeschooling, about learning, about teaching.

My hope is to blog again. Probably I will start off with fewer pics and hyperlinks, as both of those require hand power that I don't have.

Can I stave off the garden rake and bring the blog back to life at the same time? Well, we'll see.