Thursday, December 29, 2016

Writing for Children

Isaac B. Werner believed in educating children as the best hope for their own improvement and for the nation.  He helped build the country school and often made repairs on his own, just to keep the school, its grounds, and the out buildings in good condition.  He also shipped some of his own books to his young nephew back in Pennsylvania.  Although he never had children of his own, he cared about young people.

Among the list of responsibilities suggested by Neil Gaiman were two suggestions for writers of books for children; however, I think both suggestions are good advice to teachers and parents.

First, he urged that writers recognize " obligation to our write true things...not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages...not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers' throats like adult birds feeding babies."

Collection of Fairy Tales from several countries
That advice should be heeded by those of us buying books for children.  I love to give nursery rhymes as baby gifts, and I love fairy tales.  Have you really paid attention to these rhymes and stories?  They are tough stuff!  What did the old lady who lived in the shoe with too many children  do?  "She gave them some Broth without any bread; She whipped them all soundly and put them to bed."  And poor Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel!  Frog in "Wind in the Willows" is always getting into trouble.  Charlotte the spider dies.  Yet, children read these traditional tales and identify without being traumatized.  They recognize the hardships of Black Beauty and cry, and as Gaiman says, they learn empathy and finish reading slightly changed.  Classic stories for children include the realities of life, without sugar-coating or slamming children with it, and through literature they become better equipped to deal with life's challenges.

Too many modern books for children are heavy handed in delivering these messages, or they don't give children enough credit for figuring out the lessons without preaching or explaining the lessons for them.  Not everyone loves nursery rhymes and fairy tales as I do, but there are also modern classics whose authors have avoided preaching, lecturing, and moralizing.  It is our responsibility as teachers, parents, librarians, and friends to find the modern classics that kids will enjoy and cherish.

Scott Gustafson, Robert Ingpen, & Kinuko Y. Craft
Second, " understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we've lessened our own future and diminished theirs."  The same advice applies to those of us who buy books for children, or who make trips to the library a regular part of their lives and who fill our homes with books.  (See last week's blog, "Responsibilities Toward Building Literacy," 12-22-2016" and "Literacy Then and Now," at 12-8-2016 for more of Neil Gaiman's wisdom.)

Although Gaiman does not address the importance of children's book illustrators, I believe illustrators are equally important in developing a taste for the arts.  Three of my favorite illustrators are Scott Gustafson, Robert Ingpen, and Kinuko Y. Craft; however, there are so many incredible illustrators that I could name, working in a variety of styles.  Recently, the style of children's book illustrations has shifted away from the fine artists I admire toward more cartoonish drawings.  In my opinion, children see enough flashy, cartoon-like pictures on TV and in advertisements without having that sort of imagery in their books, especially when there are fine artists illustrating books for children.  I would paraphrase Gaiman by saying we should 'understand and acknowledge that as illustrators for children these artists are doing important work.'  (The books pictured above are Gustafson's "Classic Fairy Tales," Ingpen's "The Wind in the Willows," and Craft's "Beauty and the Beast.")

The balance between turning children on to reading and turning them away from reading isn't easy, but the three blogs in which I have shared Neil Gaiman's suggestions are a good place to start.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Responsibilities Toward Building Literacy

More "T'was the Night Before Christmas"
Although Isaac B. Werner was involved in the populist political movements of his time, he believed most of all in the importance of education.  He encouraged his local Farmers' Alliance group to buy books to educate themselves, and he donated dozens of his own books to that cause.

Isaac's efforts were in keeping with Neil Gaiman's belief that each of us has "responsibilities to the future."  Two weeks ago, I shared Gaiman's thinking about the importance of encouraging children to read fiction and of having libraries in their communities.  This week I will share the responsibilities Gaiman believes that each of us has to help create a literate and numerate future population.

Reading at Macksville Grade School
Although most of this blog will be about reading, I will add an example about what electronic aids have done to hinder a numerate future population.  My husband was flying with an exceptionally bright young man one day, and the need to calculate when to start their decent arose.  My husband did the calculation in his head, using current altitude, reasonable feet of descent per minute, and distance from the airport to determine when to begin their descent.  He had the answer in the time it took the young man to reach for his phone to do the math.  The young man exclaimed, "How did you do that?"  My husband explained the system of rounding off numbers to get a close approximation that those of us who attended school long before calculators and fancy phones could be carried in our pockets had been taught--a bit of 'magic' to this young man's intelligent but less numerate mind.

Reading at the Macksville Library Summer Reading Program
That is just one example of how instant answers from electronic aids are making young people less literate and numerate.  However, Gaiman's lecture focused on our adult responsibilities for helping children become more literate, so what follows are some of the responsibilities Neil Gaiman urges adults to practice:

" read for pleasure, in private and in public places.  If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations.  [AND] We show others that reading is a good thing."

" support libraries.  ...If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom.  You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future."

Reading Baum's Wizard of Oz
" find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean."

[To practice] " obligation to daydream.  We have an obligation to imagine.  ...individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different."

" clean up after ourselves, and not to leave our children with a world we've shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled."

" vote against [public policies] and politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy.  This is not a matter of party politics.  This is a matter of common humanity."  

Gaiman closed his lecture to the British Reading Society with a quote I have used in this blog before--one of my favorites.  Albert Einstein believed:  "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.  If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales."

Reading to grandnieces
Among the responsibilities Gaiman defined, I will close with one of the most important for parents, grandparents, and everyone else with the privilege of having children to whom they can read.  Gaiman reminds us " read aloud to our children.  To read to them things they enjoy.  To read to them stories we are already tired of.  To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves.  We have an obligation to use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside."

For many families, reading 'Twas the Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve is  family tradition.  Neil Gaiman would approve.  If that is not yet your family tradition, it is never to late to start a new tradition for your family!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

How Does it Work?

Alexander Hamilton
On December 19, 2016, the electoral college will assemble in their respective states to cast their votes for President of the United States.  I am interrupting my series on reading and books with this blog in order to be relevant to the current news.  The promised blog about encouraging reading in our children will continue next week.  

Most Americans have a vague notion of the electoral college but don't understand why it was created nor exactly how it works. Since historically the popular vote has aligned with the vote of the electoral college most of the time, many voters tend to think that their ballots decide who our President will be.  Only four times in our history has the popular vote and the electoral college vote differed, but two of those times have happened in recent years--when George W. Bush was chosen over Al Gore, and the current likelihood that Donald Trump will be chosen over Hillary Clinton.

I was curious to better understand why the Founders created our system of elections, and the best answer can be found in Essay #68 of the Federalist Papers.  Considered by many to be the third most important document in American history, after the Declaration of Independence  and The Constitution, The Federalist is not widely read by most Americans.  Yet, it is perhaps the best source for what the Founding Fathers were trying to achieve.

The collected essays were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, `and John Jay to gain support for ratification of the Constitution.  Essay #68 was written by Hamilton in an effort to explain why the popular vote was not the best means for selecting our President, but rather having citizens select wiser men "...capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements that were proper to govern their choice.  A small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation."

That, in a nutshell, explains the objective of our two-tiered election process.  Most of the time Americans pay little attention to that process; however, when the popular vote exceeds the designated electors from each state, calls are made for reforming the system, or pleas are sent to the individual electors to support the popular vote.

In Isaac B. Werner's old home state of Kansas, a Republican political stronghold, the current election garnered 57%  for the Republican slate of electors.  Each state has the number of electors that represents the combined total of US Representatives and US Senators which, in the case of Kansas, is 6 of the total 538 electors.  Under Kansas law, the electors are not bound to vote for the candidate of the party for which they were chosen.  Some other states, however, impose penalties if their electors deviate from the party's slate of electors for whom they were elected.

The Hutchinson News reported that Kansas electors are receiving e-mails, phone calls, and other communications pleading with electors either to abstain from voting for Donald Trump or to vote for another Presidential candidate or even another Republican that was not on the ticket. The Kansas Republican Party Executive Director is one of the electors, and his opinion is that "The party selects as its slate of electors only people who are 100% reliable to vote for the winner of the state's popular vote."  Another elector, out-going State Representative Mark Kahrs indicated that he would vote for Trump, "Absolutely, unequivocally, without question." 

Popular vote, Political Parties, or Constitution
Kansas Republican Party Chairman Kelly Arnold pointed out that the current movement urging electors to abstain or vote for Republicans not on the ballot, like 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, or cast their vote for the winner of the popular vote, seems a wasted effort to him, since Republicans have the majority in the US House of Representatives where the decision would go if no single  Presidential candidate received a majority of the electoral votes.  Of course, if the candidate with the popular majority were to receive a majority of electoral votes, that being Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, it would not need to go to the House.

In Essay #68, Hamilton writes:  "This process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of president will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.  Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honours of a single state; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole union, or of so considerable a portion of it, as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States." 

It is rare, even in states where electors are free to make an independent judgment about the qualifications and character of the candidates when they cast their vote as an elector, that electors would choose to vote for someone other than the person their slate of electors was chosen to support; however, it has been done and in this election some electors have indicated a willingness to do so.  For many electors, they feel a duty to support the slate upon which they were elected, without regard to popular vote or their personal view of the fitness of the candidate.  However, that position ignores the purpose stated by Alexander Hamilton in Essay #68 of The Federalist in which the role of the electors is described as a responsibility to independently analyze the fitness of the person for the highest office our nation can bestow.  That responsibility is not merely symbolic, and the duty of electors is likely to be argued each time a Presidential election is close or the popular vote exceeds the electoral college vote.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Literacy Then & Now

Journeys Through Bookland
Isaac Beckley Werner loved his books.  One of the most popular blog post series that I have done is the request for readers of the blog to share their favorite childhood books.  Recently I finished a book by British writer, Neil Gaiman titled "The View from the Cheap Seats."  This week's blog post has grown out of a lecture Gaiman gave to a British organization created to encourage literacy in children.  The lecture is titled, "Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming," and I hope the many of you who shared your favorite books and who have told me that the blogs about books and libraries are among your favorites will particularly enjoy this post and will share it with teachers, librarians, and readers who might also enjoy the wisdom of Neil Gaiman.

I have often regretted that I was not guided to some of the children's classics when I was growing up, nor encouraged to explore the stories inside the covers of "Journeys Through Bookland" on the family bookcase.  However, Gaiman would not have agreed with me about the need for guidance.  "They [children] can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories," he believes.  "Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child's love of reading:  stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like,  ...You'll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant."

Gentleman Don
One of the books that I found for myself belonged to my older brother, a gift to him from our Great Aunt Anna Marie that was already seriously old-fashioned when he received it.  Yet, I loved it so much that long after I was grown I inquired to see if my brother still had the copy I had read.  Apparently he no longer knew its whereabouts, so I found a copy online and bought it.  When I reread it as an adult, it had lost its magic, but I still love the memory of reading that special book.  Gaiman would understand my feelings, for he writes:  "A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn't hackneyed and worn out to someone encountering it for the first time.  You don't discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing.  Fiction you do not like is the gateway drug to other books you may prefer them to read."  Certainly I would not hand Gentleman Don to a young girl today, expecting her to fall in love with it as I did, but perhaps it was a "gateway" for me to tackle other 'grown-up' books with thick pages about other times in history.

There is a huge difference between imposing what a child should read and guiding children to things they might otherwise miss, and Gaiman emphasizes the importance of librarians in today's world of overwhelming information.  "For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something.  ...Information was a valuable thing..."  Today, however, "we've moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut."  The role of librarians has become increasingly important, as is the support for libraries.

Neil Gaiman, photo credit: 
Gaiman writes:  "Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and e-mail, a world of written information.  We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood."  Gaiman sees libraries as "the gates to the future."  

Relying on media and technology to produce these global citizens of tomorrow is not going to work.  Gaiman distinguishes the experience of watching TV or film with reading prose fiction.  "When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people."  In contrast, when you read prose fiction ", and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes.  You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know.  You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well.  You're being someone else, and when you return to our own world, you're going to be slightly changed."

Because our children have mastered hooking up satellite TV, texting, tweeting, navigating Windows 10, googling, and all the other things adults struggle to learn, we tend to see them as smarter than older folks.  Yet, by knowing how to find answers our children are not learning how to reason through ideas to discover answers for themselves.  Gaimin writes, "...our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are.  They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems.  They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable."  It is primarily for this reason that Gaimin sees the need for libraries and reading.

"Books are the way that the dead communicate with us.  The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, the way that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over."

Lyn searching through County Capital newspapers
Using my own experience as an example, I recall the hours I spent in the Stafford County History & Genealogy Museum turning the brittle, yellowed pages of old newspapers, thinking I was looking for some specific information but finding instead many other things that enriched my understanding of the period.  I did not just learn the single specific thing which had brought me to the museum.  I learned many things I didn't realize that I needed to know.

Using a key word to access information from a phone or a computer is handy, but it does not enrich our understanding, deepen our empathy, develop our reasoning skills in the same way that reading does.  

I will conclude this post by hinting about next week's blog, still inspired by Neil Gaiman's book, The View From the Cheap Seats.  He writes:  "[W]e have responsibilities to the future.  Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting."  Next week's blog will share some of those responsibilities he suggests!

(If you enjoyed this post, you may want to go back through the archives to read other posts about books and reading.)

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Isaac Werner's Wagon

For nearly a decade after his arrival on the Kansas prairie, Isaac Werner did not go into debt.  Without a horse, he focused on planting and keeping the trees on his timber claim alive, growing a garden, and tending a peach orchard.  He managed to break some sod by trading his own labor in exchange for having a neighbor come with horse and plow, but the thick prairie sod was next to impossible for a man to break without horses or oxen.

With fewer farmers settled on the prairie and less sod broken, prices for what they raised remained high, and nature favored farmers with adequate rain.  Based on those prices and the accommodating rainfall, Isaac finally decided that he should go into debt to buy a horse, calculating that he could pay the loan back quickly with the crops he raised.

He bought his little mare Dolley Varden and borrowed what he thought would be enough extra to buy the necessary implements.  Unfortunately, Isaac was not the only settler to have decided to expand his farming operation, and as more crops were marketed, prices fell.  To make matters worse, the rainfall did not always come when it was needed.

Isaac discovered that becoming a serious farmer required more equipment than he had anticipated, and he went further into debt.  One of the most expensive purchases was a wagon that he bought from F. C. Shaler in St. John.  He focused on raising potatoes and corn, and he needed the wagon to deliver his crops to market.

Having anticipated paying off his mortgage quickly, he had not negotiated a long-term mortgage, and each renewal resulted in higher interest.  Like many other settlers, the most that Isaac could do was pay the interest owed and renew the note at ever-increasing interest rates.

At the recent Octoberfest in Stafford, Kansas, I saw a wagon which may have resembled the wagon Isaac bought from F.C. Shaler. The wagon pictured in the advertisement from the St. John County Capital is a Milburn Wagon, and the one I saw in Stafford was a Studebaker.

 The Studebaker Wagon was donated by Brian and Kathy Fischer, in memory of Wayne Dean Fischer.  Information from the donors indicates that this wagon was used in the early 1900s; however, it looks very similar to the wagon in the Shaler advertisement.