Saturday, April 13, 2013
When I first read this book in 2005, I had only been teaching for a year or two, and my own sons were just a baby and toddler, respectively. And while I had my own childhood to reflect on while reading his book, I didn't have as much experience with other children to test out his premise: that the lack of "nature" that kids are getting in the United States is linked to the rise in ADHD, obesity, depression, and other problems that are turning into a genuine plague. Reading the book back then, I was struck by this idea--not that it was a new one necessarily, but the way Louv was able to articulate these feelings that I've had for some time. Living in Utah, where there's more outdoor activity than indoor for much of the year in my family, I see the benefits of being surrounded by nature. But there are other families and other communities that have decided to cut themselves off from the outside world, sometimes out of real danger, but more frequently out of supposed danger. We worry about wild animals, we worry about Lyme Disease, we worry about kidnappers...and we spread that worry to our kids.
While I enjoyed the entire book, the heart of it is in chapters "Why the Young (and the Rest of Us) Need Nature" and "The Best of Intentions: Why Johnnie and Jeannie Don't Play Outside Anymore." The first explores the health benefits of being outside, including a more active lifestyle, but also looks at Gardners theory of Multiple Intelligences. For decades, Gardner said there were only seven intelligences--ways people learned and were smart, for lack of a better description. So you might learn verbally, or kinesthetically, while someone else would learn differently. Gardner has recently revised his list, and included an "eighth intelligence"--and that's an almost intuitive connection with nature. Having a "green thumb" is more than just a folk saying--it's a true gift. And one we can nurture, if we try. This chapter also explores the connections between nature and creativity, and how we can use nature to generate new ideas with our children--and ourselves. The other chapter, "Johnnie and Jeannie," gives some perspective, and looks at how the United States has changed over the last few generations. That includes fears of "bogeymen," but also about how education has changed, teaching us from books and (heaven forbid) PowerPoints instead of firsthand experience and investigation. Louv describes other ways of teaching that would help students to become natural scientists, using their instinctive curiosity and intelligence to empower them, instead of just telling them everything they need to know and having them take notes. A good reminder for me, going into this new school year.
Now that thousands (millions, I hope) have read Last Child in the Woods, the latest edition is peppered with advice and shout-outs from other people who agree with Louv, and have used his book to reshape their own families and communities. And what they're finding is striking. Something that Louv brings up repeatedly is that it's more engaging for kids to be in a truly natural environment--not necessarily manicured lawns and parks--but that any little bit of nature time will help. And that's what people are finding. They've written into Louv about their techniques, strategies and experiences, and are changing the world. Several states have started a "No Child Left Inside" movement to try and combat their obesity stats, and are starting to see progress--I need to see if Utah has one started up yet. I know that with the students I teach (from fairly stable, middle-class families), there's a marked difference socially and often academically between the kids who are indoors with their computer and video games all day and those who spend some time outside. I take my classes outside as much as I can, and although it gets me some odd looks sometimes from other teachers, I find that it helps the students to have some activity that has them out of their desks and out of the building.
I still believe that Louv oversimplifies some of the problems confronting our students; there are still students that do require medication. He doesn't tout his "cure" for Nature-Deficit Disorder as a cure for ADHD or depression, but a treatment in addition to counseling and medication that can help families cope with these problems.
As a parent, I love this book because it reminds me of my childhood the way I grew up--the not-yet developed fields west of my house where we'd disappear for hours on end, only coming home at dusk--finding horny toads and other lizards, burrowing owls, rabbits, and even occasionally a coyote. We built forts, we dug ditches, and we imagined. Now, it's harder to find those undeveloped areas, and we've all been conditioned to think that if our children are out of sight they've been kidnapped. I tend to fall into that over-cautious category myself, and I'm not going to stop. But reading Louv's new edition of Last Child in the Woods, I've also been inspired to go with my boys into those wild places--to find them, explore them, and let them use their imagination--and give mine a stretch too.
The best part of this new edition is the last fifty pages or so, Louv's "Field Guide." This includes two major sections--the first is about how to get involved in an official "back to nature" movement at a state or regional level. This is good, and helps you to foresee stumbling blocks that might come up. The part I liked more is "100 Actions We Can Take"...tips for families, educators, government officials, and health care officials. There are lists of recommended books for each group, and even discussion questions at the end of the book to help book groups and families talk about some of the ideas that Louv writes about.
This is a wonderful book for families, for teachers, for anyone who fondly remembers their own childhood ties to the wonder of nature...but is watching that slip away from their own children, their own communities. My sons spend most of their time outdoors. Not just during the summer, but during every season. And I spend a lot of that time with them...it's a magical thing, to watch them hiding in the lilac bushes, to have them trace the route of a vine from tendril to root, to see them chasing dragonflies. Richard Louv has inspired me, but only to follow my better instincts...and to become a better father. If you haven't read Last Child in the Woods yet, it's time.
Saturday, April 6, 2013
The full title of Lynas' 2008 book is "Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet." Chapter by chapter, he explores how each degree Celsius of an increased global average temperature will change the planet we live on. Starting with One Degree, then Two, Three, etc. through six degrees of climate change--the point that many scholars are saying we'll be at by the end of the 21st Century.
This linear view of how an increasing temperature will change our lives is an interesting and logical one. We won't just wake up one day to a radically different world, but we will start noticing changes. Lynas looks at each continent, and whether it's changes to the plant, animal, or human kingdom, the changes are startling, and in some cases, moving.
Some examples at each degree of change:
The Western United States (where I live) would return to a Dust Bowl, this time permanently. The loss of the snowcaps of the mountains means that the natural reservoirs that serve to sustain the human population of the West would disappear, making the already precarious relationship with water a disastrous one. The fabled Snows of Kilimanjaro, which are already disappearing, would be gone forever.
This surprised me more than some of the other changes in the book, for the two degree point is the point at which the Arctic Icecap would melt, and much of Greenland and Antarctica's glaciers would start to sluice away. Lynas refers to a "tipping point" at which the glaciers and icecaps would no longer refreeze, and going past that point would guarantee a global rise in sea levels, dooming places like Bombay, Bangladesh, and other lowlying cities. That includes New York and Miami. They could be saved at the expenditure of billions (or trillions) of dollars, but we'd essentially be turning each coastal city into another New Orleans--a city largely below sea level, just waiting for disasters to strike.
The Amazon Rain Forest, and the Amazon River itself, will dissipate and disappear, potentially turning the forest into a constant raging fire in the dry seasons. What that will mean for the planet's oxygen production is uncertain, and it would mean extinction for hundreds of species of plants and animals, many that we haven't even had a chance to discover yet. The Amazon turning into a desert isn't what's happening all over the world, as Northern Europe (North of the Alps) will probably be wetter for much of the year, causing flooding that used to be seen once a century every two or three years.
One study conducted by the United Kingdom and Chinese governments suggests that by the latter third of the 21st Century, if global temperatures are more than three degrees higher than now, China's agricultural production will crash. Yields of staple crops like rice, wheat, and corn will decline by nearly 40 percent, perhaps more if water supplies for irrigation run out. China will face the unenviable task of feeding 1.5 billion much richer people--300 million more than now--on two-thirds of current supplies. In Sudan and other African countries, we're already seeing the results of drought-exacerbated violence--what will happen when a country as large as China goes through the same hunger pangs?
Much of this chapter explores the human reaction--and the reaction of our governments--to these changes. Could the United States invade Canada in an attempt to have a safe haven for our people? Will Northern Europe accept the refugees from other countries? History has shown what happens in times of need--the Great Depression helped Hitler, Mussolini and others to rise to power, along with leaders I'd put at the other end of the spectrum, like FDR. The point is clear--that we haven't coped well with need historically, and what lies ahead could tear countries apart.
This chapter is filled with nightmare scenarios, from methane clouds released from their subsea continental shelves to the Gulf Stream shutting down, creating an anoxic environment that would kill most ocean life. Despite these nightmares, Lynas assumes that humanity will survive, since, unlike other earlier mass extinctions, we possess the capacity to store food for years, and will probably do so. That doesn't mean that the majority of the human family will suffer, it just means that some people will find a way to survive, on this altered Earth.
The final chapters of the book are about things we can do to make a change, but Lynas is necessarily pessimistic about our chances. He feels we may have progressed past the tipping point already, and that what we do now might be too late for the icecaps, the Amazon, and other fragile environments. That said, in order for life to continue, it's best that we switch from fossil fuels to other alternatives. He doesn't like most of the alternatives currently available, since many of them (ethanol and other biofuels, especially) use as much energy in production as they save by using them as a gasoline substitute. Wind and solar power have potential, but we need to start now if we're going to make an effective change.
I've read similar books to this, but enjoyed the organization and language that Lynas uses. He keeps the science at a lay level, but includes copious notes if your scientific language is up to it. He explains why detractors hate the idea of "Global Warming," and throws them a bone or two. He uses concrete examples from around the world, which makes the book more appealing and more usable. Of course, all of these scenarios depend on a number of factors, and hopefully we can dodge some of these consequences. At some point, the Piper will have to be paid...and it's not going to be pretty.
Friday, March 22, 2013
Written chronologically, the 246-page book starts with a Foreword by James McPherson, and then a section explaining the layout of the text. You can look up presidents in the Table of Contents, or by the years that run along the bottom of each page. There are important events and people listed in the index in the back of the book. Each president warrants at least four pages of text and full color pictures, although the presidents who served more than one term or who were more popular or accomplished get more than that.
Each president's chapter gets the same format: the Presidential Campaign addresses the opposing candidates, key issues of the campaign, and turning points that led to the election of that particular president. There are also campaign posters and buttons, and still photos from television ads with most of the campaigns. The Statistics at the head of each president's page will tell you the birth date and place, the death date, political party, first lady, children, vice president, and even the nickname of the president. Manifest Destiny Maps chart the growth of the United States, so for presidents who expanded the country by adding states or territories, they're shown there. Paintings, Photographs, and Newspaper Clippings are also included for each president, so you know more about their appearance, but also about the times they lived in.
As an example of what to expect with each president, take Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States. His term of office lasted from 1869 to 1877. He ran as a Republican, under the campaign slogan "Let us have peace," and the Civil War hero won overwhelmingly, even though Southerners didn't support him. His presidency saw the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the beginnings of the Gilded Age, the advent of professional baseball and the invention of the telephone. Susan B. Anthony, Financial Scandals, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and the Great Chicago Fire all marked high points and low points of Grant's presidency, and all are given at least a paragraph in the Scholastic Encyclopedia of the Presidents and Their Times.
Not much has changed between earlier editions of the Encyclopedia and the 2009 edition, except of course the completion of Bush's presidency and the election of President Obama. Looking at these controversial and polarizing men, you see how even-handed the this book handles even difficult topics. It does get into Hurricane Katrina and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also points out that by the time Obama is elected, the economy was really the deciding issue of the 2008 campaign, not the war.
The appendix includes election results for each election from 1789 through 2008, including the electoral college vote and the popular vote. There's also an 18-page History of the White House, showing Jefferson's original anonymous submission for the residence, Hoban's own original plans (for a mansion four times larger than what was eventually built), and paintings, drawings and photographs showing the evolution of the White House over time.
In all, the Scholastic Encyclopedia of the Presidents and Their Times is a good overview to American History, the lives of the U.S. Presidents, or a starting point for kids to learn about specific leaders. If you have older editions, the- newest version is the same, plus a little extra. If you love history and want your kids to like it too, check it out.
Friday, March 15, 2013
Book Review: What To Do About Alice? How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove her Father Teddy Crazy!
A great newish one is What To Do About Alice? by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. The 2008 Robert F. Sibert Honor Book is the third picture book biography from Kerley, following on the heels of The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins and Walt Whitman: Words for America. The colorful hardcover is a great read for kids or teens, and explores the life of Alice Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th Century.
Alice was born in 1884, and her mother, Teddy Roosevelt's first wife, died two days later. The death devastated Teddy, but he lavished love on Alice, and spoiled her rotten. She felt distanced from her step-siblings, but being raised in privilege, she decided she wanted to "eat up the world" instead of being insulated from it. By the time Roosevelt ended up in the White House, she became something of a liability, fodder for gossip columns and something of a wild child. Teddy famously said, "I can be president of the United States, or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both."
Eventually she became a sort of goodwill ambassador, and brought the party no matter where she was--expositions, tours to Asia, visits to Cuba and Puerto Rico. The world loved her, and even as she made some conservative women's groups mad, she put a face to the White House that people could relate to. During Teddy's second term, she got married, and that was the social event of the decade. She never did get reined in, staying involved in politics and the social scene in Washington D.C. for years after her father's presidency ended.
Her story is told whimsically in What To Do About Alice?, and the heavily stylized illustrations by Fotheringham help set the mood. A dynamic, animated style with lots of vibrant reds popping on every page, it looks like a cross between century-old newspaper illustrations and Disney cartoons from the 1950's.
The text takes an interesting person and makes her more interesting by using turns of phrase, affection and humor. A person whose life started with tragedy refuses to let anything get her down, and she throws expectations out the window, becoming her own person. The book emphasizes her eagerness to try new things and use any resources around to have fun and learn. She's often shown with a giant spoon in hand, "eating up the world" one scene at a time.
This is a great book that illustrates what it's like to be part of the First Family, and gives some context to the history of the Roosevelt administration. It talks enough about Teddy to give it some weight, but stays focused on Alice in a whimsical, entertaining way. The last two pages of the book are a sort of appendix that gives you more facts about Alice's life, her childhood, and the way she approached life in Washington, D.C.. If you're interested in Teddy Roosevelt or in the American Presidency, you'll enjoy What To Do About Alice?
Friday, March 8, 2013
Book Review: Panama Fever - The Epic Story of One of the Greatest Human Achievements of All Time: The Building of the Panama Canal
The United States saw the Panama Canal as an extension of the Monroe Doctrine--that the U.S. was "destined" to control affairs in the Western Hemisphere, and this bottleneck to economic development should be under our control. Treaties, pinpointed revolts, and public opinion all encouraged the U.S. to get involved, even though much of the country was more isolationist in opinion. Parker spends much of the book looking at the United States and how the polticians and businessmen got the country on board with the idea. After the United States is involved, Parker's look at everyday life working on the canal becomes more intimate and more detailed. This is as much a social history as it is an engineering history, and the conflicts of race, culture, and class all come into play as workers from around the world gather to labor on the isthmus.
Parker makes great use of diaries, letters, and even songs to get into the heads of the ruling and working classes building the canal; nowhwere is that more apparent than in the efforts to fight malaria and yellow fever. These diseases killed more workers than any other enemy in the canal, and the symptoms and the battle against the diseases take up a good deal of the book.
Because the Panama Canal has been open continuously since 1914, we all take it for a foregone conclusion that the canal would be completed. I mean, it's always been there--how could this book end any other way? As I read about the struggle to finish the canal, I was impressed at the ingenuity of these men--how they overcame obstacles of technology and geography to complete their task. Their workers (and many of the upper class bosses as well) died by the thousands, but they persevered. It's an amazing tale, and for the most part Parker tells it well, if obsessively detailed.
The 530 page hardcover is a bit more substantial than I really wanted to read, but I feel like I have an understanding of this most famous canal that I wouldn't have without reading it. The illustrations, photographs, diagrams and maps all do a fine job of pointing out where you're at on the isthmus, and exactly what the struggle was in digging "the big ditch."
If you're interested in turn of the century history, personalities like Teddy Roosevelt, engineering or issues of racism and class, you'll find much that you like in Panama Fever. Maybe a little too much. It's a good history and an interesting read, and will be good for the history geek in your family.
Friday, March 1, 2013
This is the setting of Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot: A True Story of the Berlin Airlift and the Candy that Dropped from the Sky. The 2002 hardcover picture book from Margot Theis Raven and illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuysen is a story of compassion, forgiveness, and hope, and is a heartwarming, charming piece of history.
Mercedes was a young girl growing up amid the rubble of West Berlin, trying to gather eggs from chickens who had quit laying because of the bombers flying overhead. She and her friends knew that the Americans were flying much-needed supplies into the nearby airport, and that a new war of sorts was on between the American President Truman and the Soviet Premier Stalin. Mercedes was caught in the middle. One day her mother reads about Lt. Gail Halvorsen, "The Chocolate Pilot." After seeing how desperate the German children were for sweets, Halvorsen started dropping candy packages with handmade parachutes. Eventually other pilots, the Air Force and civilians at home all got involved, and the candy drops became a regular part of the Berlin Airlift. Mercedes wants nothing more than to get one of those candy bars herself, but is too small to get them. Eventually Mercedes writes to the Chocolate Pilot, and Halvorsen started a correspondence with her. He's unable to find her house to make a drop, and she writes back, No chocolate yet! You're a pilot. I gave you a map! How did you guys win the war, anyway?
The story is one of persistence, hope, and compassion in the face of tragedy. The German women and children are trying to sustain life in the middle of this crushed city, and although we could have punished them further, the United States and their allies use the Berlin Airlift as an opportunity to make friends. The plot is compelling, made all the more poignant because it's a true story. The pictures by van Frankenhuyzen are vivid, and the colors of Mercedes' own life are a marked contrast with the beiges and greys of the rubble still cluttering her streets.
The author and illustrator both visited Mercedes and Halvorsen in the course of writing the book, and the now grown woman and very elderly pilot still keep in touch. A foreword and afterword explain the historical context and the "rest of the story" for adults and older children, but the heart of the story--that desire not just for candy, but to know that everything will be all right again, is in the picture book.
If you're a fan of picture books, or of the Berlin Airlift, or World War II and its aftermath, Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot gives you a new perspective on the horrors of war...and the compassion that can heal hearts and nations. It's a wonderful book.
Saturday, February 23, 2013
A few years ago PBS broadcast a Ken Burns documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea. I have a great love for the National Parks of the United States, and their history can be as fascinating as visiting them yourself.
The companion book to The National Parks: America's Best Idea is a great read. The beautifully bound hardcover is more than just a coffee table book on national parks--we've seen those before, and they're fun...but this is something more. The real focus of the book is on the people who dreamed, who fought, and who sacrificed to preserve these parks for our nation..."for the benefit of the people." I picked up the book the day I bought it, thinking I'd be able to hold off on reading it until after watching the documentary, but that didn't happen. This book will become a must-read for anyone investigating the history of the National Park System, and a delight for anyone planning a visit to any of our parks.
Authors Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns tell the story of the enormous National Park System by telling the more intimate stories of the people who put their own lives on the line in pursuit of the greater good. Some of them are names we've all heard--John Muir's passion for Yosemite and the Sierras, Teddy Roosevelt using his political clout to transform the way National Monuments and Parks were created, the Rockefeller family buying up land for millions of dollars and then turning it over to the protection and conservation efforts of the Park System. Others are as famous, but with links to the National Parks that I hadn't considered: Mark Twain's journalistic clout in getting Hawaii's parks created, Ansel Adams photography expanding the protection in California's parks.
Some of the most important characters were men I hadn't ever heard of. Stephen Mather was the first head of the National Park Service, and he was able to use the skills and connections from his first career in advertising to augment the power and productivity of the national parks. They expanded under Mather, and his personal life, prone to disruption by episodes of depression, became inextricably linked to that of the parks. Their decline mirrored his own, and their rejuvenation could heal him. His protege, Horace Albright, was nearly as influential and interesting, and he was able to take the parks in a new direction after his mentor's passing. These men worked in the parks and for the parks for decades, and their journals, letters, and photographs are put to good use in this book.
In many ways, the book is also a succession of struggles, and as we see the evolution of what a national park should be, we also see conflicts with cattlemen, miners, loggers, scientists and conservationists. The spectre of dams being built and flooding the scenery at parks looms large several times--a dam built at Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite becomes a rallying cry that defeats dams in other parks, including ones in Yellowstone, Dinosaur, and Glacier. The movement that mobilized to stop those dams didn't save Glen Canyon, and I'm surprised that this topic didn't surface in the course of the book. The debate over wolves and other predators in the parks is also discussed, and the scientific breakthroughs of George Melendez Wright, the Muries and others are celebrated in the text.
Besides the history of the people who helped to create the National Parks, each chapter ends with an interview with person who has been touched by the National Parks. So we meet Gerard Baker, a Native American who swore he would never work at either Little Big Horn or Mount Rushmore, who has now worked at both. And Shelton Johnson, an African American who visited Yellowstone National Park as a child, and was transformed by the experience. These and other stories speak to the value of the National Parks, and how they can effect all races and classes of Americans. The parks aren't for the benefit of the few who are privileged enough to happen across them, but for all people. Their stories, which at first I thought I could skip past, are compelling and rewarding.
This book is a wonderful one, full of anecdotes and powerful stories, whether you've visited the parks they're discussing or not. Most of the first chapter is about Yosemite, and it's clear that Burns in particular has a special connection with that park. I've never been to Yosemite, but it was easy to discover the significance and power of that valley through the words and photos included in the book. By the time I was done with the volume, I was already planning some trips to take in more of this nation's wonders.