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Netflix for French Kids’ Books

Have you ever had the experience of finding this amazing thing you didn’t even know existed, but it’s exactly what you need? On Sunday, one of my closest friends called me to tell me a funny story she’d overheard at the grocery, where a clerk was telling the guy in front of her that he should really look for the Game of Thrones series at the library, “the library, man,” he said. “It’s got everything. It’s like Netflix for books.”


Just yesterday, I was thinking about how I want my kids to read in French every day this summer. The problem is that it’s hard to find French books at just the right level that they will want to read – and also, generally, they’re expensive. So, for example, I bought Enid Blyton books (in translation) for them for Christmas, but they were too hard. Then I got a Max et Lili book, which seemed to be about the right level, but they wouldn’t read it because Max and Lili get in trouble for shoplifting. (My kids don’t mind characters getting run away with by a wild horse or hanging to the edge of a space shuttle by their fingertips – no, they don’t worry about those characters – but have a character get sent to the principle’s office? They slam the book shut and run for the hills.) So I was tooling around the internet, looking for some kind of package of books that I could buy for the summer and we could read a bit everyday. And somehow, I came across this:


It’s netflix for French kids’ books! I mean, it’s not Netflix – everyone I tell this to seems to assume it is the actual Netflix company, which doesn’t even do books, as far as I know, expanding into French kids’ books! – but it’s the exact business model. You choose from different levels (how many books at a time, limited or unlimited per month), pay a monthly fee and Voila, French books at your door. You can choose your own books or you can let them choose for you. I signed up yesterday, and my daughter immediately found a book she’d been dying to read last summer, but the mediotheque across the street from our apartment in Lille didn’t have it. The other three, we let them select for us – you tell them the age range you want, fiction or non-fiction, boy or girl, and they will find you something they think you might like. Just like Netflix, it comes with pre-stamped envelopes. You mail the books back two at a time and they send you more. I am very, very excited about this. They already sent out our first shipment! It’s coming all the way from California, but still I’m hoping it will be here by the weekend.


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The Qur’an

One of the first things I learned in graduate school was that it’s a mistake to compare Jesus to Muhammad and the Bible to the Qur’an. The proper analogy – or at least the one that works better – is that it’s the Qur’an in Islam that plays the role of Jesus in Christianity; it’s the Qur’an, not the Prophet, that is the central focus of the religion. The Prophet’s life can help us better understand the Qur’an but it’s the Qur’an, not the Prophet, that Muslims should center their lives around. While the analogy isn’t perfect, I do think it can help someone who was raised Christian to better understand Islam.

People used to ask me all the time why I didn’t/hadn’t/hadn’t yet convert(ed) to Islam. I was thinking about this recently in connection with reading, because you would think that a religion centered around a text rather than a person would have a powerful appeal to someone like me, who is so much better at interacting with written words than with people. And there were lots of things about Islam and the Qur’an that I did find appealing: the simple 5x a day prayers; the clarity of its vision of God, the rhythm and beauty of its prose; the Meccan suras with their emphasis on the natural world. I still love Sura al-Fil.

But there were two major stumbling blocks. I suppose only one of them really mattered in the end. The first was the judgmentalness of the community. To be fair, maybe many/all religious communities are like that. But although I was raised by very religious parents, we were never really part of a religious community in the same way. I always remember my friend deciding, as a joke, to tell his cousin that I had converted to Islam. And literally the first thing out of the cousin’s mouth was “If you’re going to be a Muslim you can’t wear jeans like that.” Not “congratulations” or “welcome to the umma” or “God changes the heart of those He wills it” or anything like that. But a comment on my clothes.


Of course there are all kinds of Muslims and maybe I could have found a more accepting, liberal, tolerant community. Certainly now that there are a lot more converts and a lot more Muslims in North America, there’s a larger number of communities to choose from. So ultimately maybe how alienated I felt by Muslims policing each other’s behavior – like the Shia Muslims I knew in Montreal who had to pretend that they were homeschooling their daughters because it would have ‘tainted’ them in the community if others knew that they went to public school – probably wouldn’t have mattered.


The thing I couldn’t get past was the idea that Islam is the One True Religion. I couldn’t bring myself to tell 5 billion people in the world, “Hey, get with the program, I’m right and your wrong.” I really like our diverse, multicultural world, the fact that there are so many different ways to be and think and act and believe. For me, the greatest gift to myself that I brought back from years of living in the Arab world was the understanding that other people have different ways of doing things and that sometimes those ways are better. And the way I was forced to rething and reconsider things that I had just accepted at face value as the way things were. I think I develop a critical way of thinking that I bring – or at least I hope I do – to other aspects of my life.


After I returned from the Middle East, I went to Montreal and studied Islam from an academic viewpoint. After that, there’s no real turning back. You have to have a strong faith, I think, to remain a Believer while investigating the origins of a religion in a critical way – to become a Believer at that moment, well, I didn’t know anyone it happened to. Although there was one brief moment…


But that’s a story for another time. This post is too long as it is. And I have, of course, tons and tons of recommendations for reading about Islam and books set in the Muslim world and conversion stories but I will leave this, for now, with Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam. He was an academic, and the books are extremely well researched and accurate, but also very easy to read.

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The Rebel Heart

I could never be one of those bloggers who has to react in real-time to current events, because it always takes me a while to think before I come up with something semi-original to say. But since this is my own blog, I can be as out of date as I like. So here are my thoughts on last week’s story of the day:


I was pretty much transfixed by the story of the couple who took their 1 year old and 3 year old and decided to sail across the Pacific Ocean with them. About six hundred miles offshore, they ran into trouble: the baby got sick and the ship started taking on water. Eventually the Dad radioed for help and the US Navy went out and rescued them.


I think part of why this fascinated me was because, in a weird way, I can see myself doing – well, not this but something like this. Or I could have, if I hadn’t married someone so grounded. Let’s face it, I didn’t always consider all the possible ramifications before I leapt into adventure when I was younger. And more than most people I know, I did without a lot of the ‘necessities’ when my kids were young – I never had a changing table, or a crib, or all kinds of things that people thought were absolutely essential. I remember my sister-in-law telling me that my non-existent nursery was in stark contrast to most of the other people she knew.


But the other thing that drew me in and that, I think, drew in a lot of people, was their blogs. Well, really, the Mom’s blog. It goes back seven years, to just before she moved in on the boat with her husband. And it includes a very detailed and very personal account of her difficult days on this trip, explaining exactly what her qualifications – and lack of them – are for making such a long voyage.


Debate raged on a number of different sites. People are very judgemental – I try not to be, but I am too – it seems to be human nature. How could they take such a long voyage? She only did it to please her husband. She didn’t really like sailing anyway. She’s a terrible person – look at that post where she hid the cake from her hungry child and ate it all herself. Then of course the contrarians hit back: You’re only saying all that because you don’t have the courage to do it. Why shouldn’t they live out their dreams? They were prepared, they had all the right medications, etc. They too used evidence from her blog.


And I was thinking about how yes, people would have judged them anyway, but the blog gave evidence to do so. I have this love-hate relationship with personal blogs I guess – just the other day I found myself drawn into the blog of a complete stranger that detailed her marriage falling apart. And I admire people’s willingness to put all their personal thoughts and feelings out there for anyone to see, to make themselves vulnerable, maybe partly so other people can get some insight from them. (I admire that in the people who submit personal essays to our magazine too.) At the same time, I’m a bit scornful of it. I know that seems ridiculous: how can I admire it and scorn it at the same time? But I guess the thing is, while it’s brave, it’s also a bit naïve. Because really do you want your life to be used as evidence for someone else to make their personal/political/social points?


Does writing a personal blog stem from the same impulse that encourages people to try out for reality TV shows? Is it ‘look at me, look at me’? Or is it more, here’s a forum where I can try to work things out, document my life and maybe get input from others?


So writing a short, insightful post on a topic in the news is a LOT harder than I thought. Maybe that’s the reason I’m not one of those people who has a job blogging on current events.

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Reading as Setting


First in an occasional series…


The Brothers Karamatzov is on my top nine list of books. (It is not the ninth book; there are only nine books on the list.) Sometimes when and how I read a book imprint themselves on me so deeply that they are almost inseparable (for me) from the book itself. My best friend recommended The Brothers Karamatzov to me just before I left for Tunisia on an adventure that was to span several continents and half a dozen countries. “It’s a really compelling murder mystery,” she said, I remember. We were sitting in the car, parked outside of my house, because I didn’t want to go in and she didn’t want to go home. “The thing about it, though, is that I don’t even remember who the murderer was because it didn’t matter.”  I like to remember who the murderer is, in general, but she’s one of the few people who generally shares my taste in reading, so I trusted her.  Plus the book was big and fat and I knew it was going to be hard to fins anything in English, where I was going.


My first or second weekend in Tunis, I packed it in my back pack and took it to the beach. I took the subway – I remember that car very vividly: it was white and packed with people and it was air conditioned, which pleased me because the day outside was very, very hot. I remember pressing my hot face up against the cool metal pole – there weren’t any seats – and fumbling with the top of my back pack to get my book. And then I read and I read and I read. At some point I must have sat down, because I remember looking up and realizing that I was going the wrong way. Yes, I had gone all the way out to the beach – at least a half hour ride – and was so engrossed in my book that I didn’t even realize it.


I decided to go back to the hostel to finish my book. I came out of the subway station with my finger marking my page. I was walking with the crowd down the wide Tunisian boulevard, sun shining off the pavement, sandals slapping on the sidewalk, but it was as though I was caught in a blizzard in deepest Russia. When the sun blew the hair off my neck I thought, for just a minute, that it was the first few pellets of snow. And then someone called out, “Boston! Boston!” It was so divorced from where I was and from where my head was – two completely different places – that I didn’t know he was talking to me until he grabbed my arm. “I forgot your name,” he said. “But I remember you told me you’re from Boston.” It was my friend from the museum gift shop, the journalist with the half written novel. “Come,” he said, “Let’s go to a cafe, let me buy you a coffee.”


No,” I said. I remember that clearly, because I hardly ever said no those first few days in Tunis. “I want to go home and read.” I held up my book, which was still in my hand.


Come back to my place and read,” he said. “I want to read too.” So I did. Not the wisest move, perhaps – I wasn’t the wisest person in those days – but I went back to his house and all was fine. We drank red wine on the floor, reading together in silence.


And so every time I think of the Brothers Karamatzov, I think of Tunis, I think of the heat and the sunshine, I think of a quiet room on a winding Arab alley.

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562 Candles for Leonardo da Vinci

I find that scientific picture books can be read, enjoyed and learned from by older kids who might think that reading picture books is too babyish.  (And to be fair, while my 12-year-old reads them, he refuses to take them to school.)  One of the best, in my opinion, is Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonardo da Vinci.  This picture book pairs da Vinci’s prototype drawings on one page with the realized invention on the opposing page.  So for example, the Neo page is 1903 – the Wright Brothers inventing the airplane, while the Leo page, across from it, has da Vinci’s sketches for a man-powered aircraft.  The sentences are simple, but the book is packed with information – did you know, for example, that da Vinci came up with idea for the contact lens scuba equipment and maybe even the bicycle?


If you’re kid gets really into Leo, take it one step further: my daughter loves Amazing Leonardo da Vinci Inventions You Can Build YourselfIf you have a ton of money and you’re not in the mood for inventing, you can always take a trip to Amboise where Leo once lived; you can see his old quarters and there’s a garden out back where many of his inventions have been built for the first time.  It’s actually very cool and definitely worth a look.

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Happy Belated Birthday, Alfred Butts

So who was Alfred Mosher Butts, born April 13, 1899?  He was originally an architect but when he found himself out of work during the Depression, he decided to try his hand at making board games.  He analyzed the different kinds of games available and decided that there was no good game for words and wordplay.  Eventually he came up with the idea for Scrabble.  The really innovative thing that he did was to analyze the New York Times to try to figure out which letters were used most often.  (This idea of solving a puzzle based on letter frequency originally appeared in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug” which Motts apparently read as a boy.)  You can see how important having the right number of different letters is – imagine if the number of letters in each set were completely random?  You might end up with a whole stack of Xs.


I was thinking about Butts, and his ground-breaking game that’s sold millions of copies and appeared in dozens of different languages (with, of course, different letter frequencies by language – you can’t play French scrabble with an English set!) and wondering how it connects to reading.  There are dozens of wordplay games, both traditional and electronic, that claim they can help your children to read.  Of course I have no evidence, but I suspect that it works the other way around – that people who are good with words and like them, end up enjoying word games and playing them more frequently.


Of course, the champions of Scrabble aren’t always – or even usually – great readers.  As Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Playing makes clear many of the best players are simply obsessive types who spend inordinate amounts of time memorizing word lists.  (Oddly, I’m not that fond of Scrabble, but I see the appeal of memorizing word lists.  I recently memorized all the world capitals for no reason except that I wanted to!  I know, I’m very strange.  Maybe some day, someone will write a book about me.)  (Probably not.)  One woman who attended the World Youth trials recently reported that the vast majority of contestants couldn’t speak English at all, but they knew an awful lot of words!  It reminds me of spelling bees.  Actually, the people in Word Freak did not really remind me of the kids who train for spelling bees, but I think a lot of that is they were older, so the incentives for doing memorizing words and the way they’re spelled are very different.

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Love of Reading…

This week, 37 New York City principals launched a protest against the ELA, which seems to be the New York City state mandated English language exam for elementary and middle school students – the equivalent of North Carolina’s reading EOGs. There are tons and tons of posts all over the internet, including a very well written op ed in The New York Times by a highly regarded Brooklyn principal.  From what I can gather, the two main complaints are that a lot of the reading excerpts were well above grade level and the questions were so convoluted and text-based, even adults couldn’t answer them.


One of the things teachers keep complaining about is that it’s impossible to get kids to love reading and want to read when there’s all this high stakes testing that’s really about just getting the right answer. I was thinking about this yesterday and I think part of the question that no one’s really answering is: what are public schools – or any schools, really – supposed to do? Are they supposed to create a well educated work force that will supply the employers of the future? Are they supposed to nurture creativity and out-of-the-box thinking so that some really creative types can keep coming up with new ideas that will innovate and make life easier, better and healthier (add in whatever adjective you want here)? Are they supposed to figure out what each individual student needs to be successful and give that to him or her? I guess #2 and #3 are sort of variations on each other, but they are really distinct from #1. Maybe a better way to ask this is: do we have public schools/schools for the sake of society and the community or do we have them for the sake of the individual?


And maybe it can be both, I don’t know. Of course the massive conflicts we have in education right now are partially about competing interests – the interests of the kids vs the parents vs the teachers vs the reformers vs the voucherists etc. (I’m using ‘voucherists’ here as short hand for ‘people who want to privatize the schools’) (And also all these groups aren’t necessarily fighting against each other. But even when they align together, they still have distinct interests.)  But I’d like to hear a bit more about the conflict between what the kids need and what society needs. Maybe those are the same thing, but maybe they’re not.


I’m all for inculcating a love of reading in children, of course! That’s why I’m blogging about reading as a passion, as a craft, as something that’s worth passing down to your children. And I wholeheartedly admire the teachers who do this. But I wonder if that’s where some of the furor about this test comes in – what teachers see as their job is not necessarily what the people who made these tests see it.


I don’t really have any great books to give any insights into this post – well, except, maybe The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley. Which I did really like, with some caveats – although I agree with what I thought was her central thesis: kids in America spend so much time and effort on sports that they don’t have time or energy to devote to the actual school work. (I get that that’s not how everyone read the book though.) There are, I’m sure, a ton of books crack under the pressure of being smart and perfect, but the only one I can think of right now is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Catalyst.

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