Small Animals, by Kim Brooks***

SmallanimalsBrooks is a journalist and also a parent; she is nearly sent to prison for having permitted her son to remain in the car watching a video while she bopped in to a big box store to purchase headphones. The experience provided a catalyst for discussions and research she has done on structured parenting practices versus a looser model, for which she advocates. The resulting book is a plea for greater flexibility and more options for parents that either question the wisdom of tight societal controls on parenting, or that cannot find or afford the childcare that their children are legally required to have when the parent or parents must go to work.

I read this intense manifesto free of charge in exchange for this honest review. Big thanks go to Flatiron Books and Net Galley for the review copy.

Brooks has an engaging writing style, and at the outset of the book I was with her entirely. I wouldn’t leave my child in the car as she did, but the legal fallout sure seems like overkill. Whatever happened to a warning first? But later in the text I find some outrageous logical fallacies and suppositions that she uses to bolster her argument in favor of free range parenting. I quickly moved from being supportive, to questioning, to feelings of hot indignation, and several times I felt it best to set the book aside while my temper cooled.

I suspect I have a lot of company out there. I’m a grandmother now; my children are raised, and though I love my grandsons, I am also happy not to be the one that is raising them. So I have the benefit of a bit of space and distance when I look at this controversy. Fresher are my feelings as a teacher, because there are plenty of hot buttons here that connect with educators, and I haven’t been retired from the classroom for long. More on those hot buttons in a minute.

My favorite part of this book is the research behind and inside of it, and she includes some material that is new to me. For example, I wasn’t aware that nearly three-quarters of Americans in their twenties are childless, or that childcare is so hard to find at any price that more mothers—including low income women—are stay-home mothers. There are a lot of great quotes. However, the conclusion Brooks draws from that research leaves me scratching my head.

The head-scratching as well as the hot buttons all have to do with the suggestion that children, including those in early elementary school, be permitted to roam by themselves to whatever family-oriented public locations their busy parents approve of. An example is the public playground. She reasons that if a mom that works fast food for a few hours after school lets out says her kid is allowed to leave school and go to the park, then the kid should be able to go to the park; likewise, if a writer such as herself wants some alone time, she should be able to drop her kid at the park and go home to her keyboard.

This assertion is bolstered by an assertion that very few children are harmed by strangers, and she proves this thoroughly for those that didn’t already know. In addition, she points out that there are already a lot of parents and other adults at the park.

This is the point at which my jaw drops open and I start closing doors and drawers a little extra hard just thinking about what she’s said. Brooks blithely overlooks the common ways that children at the playground get hurt. Let me count the ways: kids run in front of moving swings. Kids climb the slide someone else is sliding down and maybe both kids are injured. Kids chase a ball into moving traffic. Kids have an allergic reaction when previously nobody knew they were allergic to a single thing. Sometimes kids quarrel with other kids, and whereas many parents deal with this appropriately, there are inappropriate parents out there. If your child upsets Poopsie and Poopsie’s mama decides to unload on your kid, who’s going to step in? If an older child invites yours to play doctor in the bushes and wants to show your child something he’s seen mom and her boyfriend doing, who is going to stop them? Never mind the dangerously strange adults; most of us know there are few of them. But what about everyone else, and what about the accidents that a kid can have anywhere, and for which quick action can make a big difference?

Now let’s look at it from another angle. Which stay-home mom at the park wants to be responsible for your child? What if the park is emptying out and she wants to take her children and go get dinner started, but there’s this one solitary, anxious child that will be left behind? What can she do if one of the above-mentioned accidents befalls your child and he or she is unconscious? She calls an ambulance, and then what? Without parental approval, medics cannot even treat your child. An epipen? An IV line? A trip to the hospital? Some states and municipalities may allow a professional to start treatment, but even if they can, most hospitals won’t admit a kid whose insurance details are not known. And then of course there’s liability. If that parent—the one doing his or her job—gives your child a band-aid or a cookie and it turns out to be the wrong thing, what then? No good deed goes unpunished. And right about now, every reader that has ever worked in a public school is vigorously nodding their head.

Then too, many stay-home parents have made a choice to live on less money in order to create a better life for their family. The closest distance between two points is the stay-home mother and whoever has no childcare and wonders if she could take care of their kid because (fill in the blank.)

Usually a book such as this one will make a strong case for more federally funded childcare, and if that was Brooks’ s main focus, I would be posting a review of this book to every possible outlet in an effort to create a more vocal bandwagon. But instead Brooks really just seems to want other people to watch her kid free, and leave her occasional bad choices unmentioned. (She suggests that the person that called the cops when she left her kid in the car should have spoken to her in person; can you even imagine the hell that might befall anyone that openly questions a total stranger’s parenting practices?)

So if you are looking for a conversation starter for your book group, this might be a good choice, because it is loaded with controversial ideas. If you want to see where those kids come from—the ones that wander in unsupervised and seem more needy than the kids that have a relative, day care supervisor, or nanny in attendance—here is your epiphany. But if you are a prospective parent looking for advice, I suggest you run in the other direction. Run fast.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, by Lindsey Lee Johnson*****

themostdangerousplaceThe place is Mill Valley, California, the most affluent community in the USA, and yet there’s serious trouble in paradise. Although this title is being marketed as a novel for young adult readers, a lot of adults will want to read it. It’s thought provoking and a real page-turner. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. I actually finished this book some time ago, but often I find that the most interesting, complex books are ones I will want to give considerable thought to before I review them; everything I have read and thought has to gel. So I apologize to the publishers for my tardiness, but it’s not a matter of not caring; maybe it’s a matter of caring too much.

My own background is in teaching inner-city teens and street kids, but Johnson makes a good case for attention toward the privileged yet sometimes neglected children of the upper middle class. This sophisticated story features a number of characters—teachers and students—in detail. We follow them from eighth grade into and to the end of high school. There’s baggage and drama left over from middle school that high school counselors, teachers, and administration won’t know about, and it carries over and influences events in ways no one can foresee.

One key player is Molly Nicholls, a brand new teacher whose age is closer to that of her students than to many of the teachers she works with, and who can’t tell the difference between caring for students, and becoming their peer; between the professional distance used by her colleagues to protect themselves both legally and emotionally, versus jaundiced burn-out.  Molly is flattered when students come to her with complaints about other teachers, and she loves it when they tell her that she’s different than they are. But then she hits a crisis point that may abort her new career if mishandled; and the fact is, these new ‘friends’ of hers are going to graduate, while she’ll be left behind with the colleagues she’s alienated.

She just doesn’t get it.

That said, we also meet students that are stuck in a variety of unenviable positions. Young Abigail believes that she is special indeed; Mr. Ellison, everyone’s favorite teacher, spends extra time with her, drives her around in his car. His wife doesn’t understand him the way she does; she’s crushed when she realizes that he doesn’t intend to leave his wife, and that they have no real future together. She might be absolutely powerless were it not for the other power dynamic in place here, that of the socioeconomic disparity between the students’ families, who live in ostentatious luxury, and the teachers, who either commute a great distance, or live, as Miss Nicholls does, in a converted tool shed for an apartment. The relationships and the components that skew them are absolutely riveting.

Mill Valley kids don’t worry about where their next meals will come from; they drive cars far nicer than those of their teachers, and instead of allowances, they have bank accounts and credit cards.  But what many of them lack is parental time and attention, and most of them lack boundaries. And adolescents really need boundaries; they need small, frequent reminders to check them when they cross an important line. Their teachers don’t dare provide the discipline and structure; they need these jobs. And the parents often won’t.

For example, there’s cyber-bullying.  Tristan Bloch is a special needs student whose social skills often lead to miscues, and the primal behaviors of adolescents lock onto those miscues like sharks when there’s chum in the water.  Miss Flax, a teacher that counsels Tristan, makes a horrible error when she suggests that he make a move toward Calista, a popular girl who’s going through a family crisis herself as her mother lies dying in a dark bedroom and her father comes unstuck. Calista turns to her friends to deal with Tristan’s unwanted advance.  The whole ugly mess erupts on Face Book, and the result is tragic.

 

 “Teachers like [Miss Flax] were always encouraging hopeless kids like Tristan to inject themselves into the social scene with ridiculous gestures—declarations of love, blind stabs at friendship—as if middle school were a safe haven in which to conduct these experiments,  when in fact it was the most dangerous place on Earth.”

 

Then there are those like Dave Chu, a B student whose parents will be crushed if he isn’t admitted to an Ivy League college. Dave studies constantly, but he doesn’t have the talent to get where his parents need him to go, and they won’t hear of his entry into an ordinary California state college. Dave’s anxiety turns to panic, and ultimately he’s driven toward an extreme personal solution .

There’s a host of controversial material here, and also limitless potential for students’ reactions to what’s provided. I can see parents offering their child with a copy to read, and I can also see other parents hot-footing it to their child’s middle or high school to demand its removal from the curriculum or even from the library shelves. One thing’s for sure though: it’s generated a lot of advance buzz, and that buzz will only get louder with publication. It’s meaty, complicated, and an unmissable read for parents of adolescents, as well as those considering entering the minefield of teaching.

You can buy this book January 10, 2017, and you should.  Highly recommended!

Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan*****

GLITTERANDGLUE

Whoops, nearly forgot! Thank you, thank you to Ballantine Books and the First Reads program at Goodreads for permitting me to read this book free and in advance!

This isn’t Corrigan’s first book, and it shows. At first it appears to be light, fluffy material, a beach read. The confidential one-gal-to-another tone may create the illusion that we’re going to sit down over a cup of coffee and have a little chat, just us, and the book.

It goes deeper than this, though. The complexity of relationship between mother and daughter is not a new topic, but Corrigan is a strong writer, and she makes it feel new. She recounts how she had saved her money so that she could leave home to find out who she was, following college graduation. She needed to go out into the world to do that, she explained to her mother, who thought she should do something more practical with her nest egg.

In Australia, Corrigan runs low on money, and she finds herself signing on as a temporary nanny. The dad has just been widowed, and his 5 and 7 year old children are smarting from the loss. Reminders of “Mum” and mortality seem to be everywhere. And Corrigan, who is for better or worse playing the role of surrogate mother, finds herself channeling her mother. Everywhere she goes, her mother is still in her head. I recognize some of the truisms and turns of phrase from my own mother, though I am about a decade older than Corrigan. And gradually, Corrigan comes to realize that what her mother had said before was true: her father, who always praised her and was always positive, but didn’t deal with any of the details of raising her or disciplining her, was the glitter. Her mother was the glue.

Later she comes to realize that there is not one woman inside each woman, but dozens of them: the mother who has always seemed a trifle harsh, undemonstrative, curt, and (my word) anal at home is “a hoot” at the office. Everyone finds her hilarious there. She isn’t trying to be anyone’s role model, so she cuts loose. What a revelation!

Two favorite moments: toward the beginning when she is a “classic” snoop while babysitting. Whoa, I totally did that, and my friends did too! We used the house phone where we were babysitting to call each other up and announce our findings! Funny. Another favorite was toward the end, when the author, fuming a bit at home in San Francisco because she has been back home to her folks many times, but her mother hasn’t visited her, is told by a friend that she needs to invite her mother. “Maybe she thinks you don’t care.” Again, hell yes! My own mother instilled in me the notion that once your kids are grown, you don’t push yourself at them, sure as hell don’t drop in on them. I have been inside my own son’s house just once, and last summer he made an ironic remark about it. Hey, I was waiting for the invitation! Last thing any mom wants is for her kid to pull back the curtains and hiss to whoever is present, “Oh crap. It’s my mom.” *cringe!*

Ultimately, Corrigan experiences the role reversal that inevitably must come, and she becomes her mother’s glue when she falls ill. Her father is still the glitter.

I end a lot of reviews by saying that the reader shouldn’t pay full cover price, but consider reading it if your library or used book store has it. Not so this time. If you love an accessible yet intelligently written memoir as much as I do, cut loose and buy this when it’s released. If not for yourself, read it for your family. You’re bound closer than you may think.

How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane, and Other Lessons in Parenting from a Highly Questionable Source, by Johanna Stein ****

This is the most hilarious thing I have read in a long time! If you are a parent (really, of any vintage), and especially if you are a mother, you can’t really miss here. Favorite passages brought back oh, so many memories. The childbirth segments brought back exactly four memories, and the Pitocin drip made me wince with what the trendy folk are calling “muscle memory”. And thank you to Net Galley for the free read!

Who in the world, besides this woman, would think to save her placenta to use in a practical joke?

Other great favorites had to do with the Binky Fairy and of course, of course the airline puppet.

The only thing that kept this from earning my fifth star–which indicates, as far as I am concerned, that it is among the best of its genre–were the footnotes. On an e-reader, footnotes pop up in the middle of the text or wherever, and slightly lighter colored print didn’t work for me. It’s jarring. Use the best material in those footnotes in the text, and just cut the rest of them. The book can stand on its own without them.

For the reader, my advice is to get this one on actual paper. It will be funnier if you don’t have to decode it. And there is no doubt whatsoever: Stein is searingly funny!