Monday, January 18, 2010

Speaking of Haiti...

Just as the quake struck Port-au-Prince last week I was finishing Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains about Dr. Paul Farmer's work in Haiti and around the world.

Part biography, part scientific travelogue, part social journalism, Mountains Beyond Mountains describes Paul Farmer's attempt to bring a portion of Haiti out of abject misery and into simple poverty. A Harvard-trained infectious disease physician and medical anthropologist, Farmer has dedicated his life to the health and well-being of an entire rural area in the central plateau region of the country-a village known as Cange. His comprehensive public health philosophy includes free medical care, food, water, education and research.

Meanwhile, Farmer has become an internationally-recognized expert in the treatment of both HIV and tuberculosis, particulary drug-resistant TB. Along the way he's pioneered the treatment of near-epidemic TB in such far-flung places as Peru and Siberia. With the help of a few friends and a few millionaires the non-profit organization Partners-in-Health (PIH), located in Boston, administers Farmer's plans far and wide.

The book is a pretty fascinating read, from Farmer's unorthodox American upbringing (eccentric father nicknamed The Warden and near-homelessness), to his genius-level and workaholic-inspired personal sacrifices. The middle of the book lags a bit, describing multi-drug resistant TB in detail. But the book also contains a good introduction to Haiti's particular political history and social challenges. (Why doesn't Haiti have tourism-like nearby Jamaica? Why doesn't Haiti have sustainable agriculture-like nearby Cuba?) Finally, it offers an outstanding example of Margaret Mead's famous quote: "Never the understimate the ability of a small group of committed individuals to change the world." To which Paul Farmer adds "Indeed, they are the only ones who ever have."

A particularly timely read as Americans should now, more than ever, familiarize themselves with this near-neighbor, the poorest nation in our western hemisphere.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Animal Stories

I've been very thankful to have kids who are readers. Well, at least one of them is. One is a super-extreme obsessive-compulsive reader. The other is much more casual about it. For instance, if she broke a leg and couldn't walk, she'd spend a decent amount of time reading.

I'm also thankful one of the things they love to read are animal stories. This saves us lots of parent-child arguments about the quality of material they are reading. We have not had to argue too much about comic books, or Harry Potter (yet), or dragons and unicorns and magic, or Babysitters Club, or Sweet Valley High. I understand the position that states, "as long as your child is reading, who cares what they read?!" I just can't fully endorse it as I believe we need to challenge our kids with quality, stewardship of time, and education from their earliest days. Of course, humor and relaxation are priority values for our family as well. So, while they enjoy Dad's comic book collection from 1975, they are also able to fulfill many of our reading goals and values through several animal classics.

I've already mentioned titles and authors such as Wind in the Willows, Winnie-the-Pooh, Beatrix Potter and Thornton Burgess in an earlier entry. Let me add some more family favorites.

Richard Scarry: The Busy Day Book; What Do People Do All Day; The Best Storybook Ever; Best Read-it-Yourself Book Ever; Best Word Book Ever; Great Big Schoolhouse; Please and Thank You Book; Cars and Trucks and Things That Go; and many more! One can hardly find an author/illustrator who better understands the type of story young children need: short and humorous, yet true-to-life, with detailed illustrations that can occupy for hours. These are great books for boys and girls who love to hear how the world around them works: What happens on a big ship? How do you build a house? How many different cars and trucks are there? How do you make paper? How do you bake bread? His delightful animal characters including Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm guide the readers through the world around them.

Uncle Wiggily's Story Book by Howard R. Garis. For 50 years, beginning in 1910, these short stories of a long-eared rabbit gentleman appeared in newspapers and magazines and were the subject of one of the first board games for children. Uncle Wiggily's adventures center around helping young girls and boys though their mishaps and foibles, often enlisting the help of other animal friends in the forest. While the language is a bit dated and the stories are a bit simplistic, the stories have been a delight for my 5 year old with a short attention span. We worry too much that children won't relate to older literature, when in fact, a classic is a classic due to it's timeless nature. I believe children will always be able to relate to mud puddles, ice skates, Fourth of July, and other encounters with Uncle Wiggily.

No list of animal favorites would be complete without the three by E.B. White: Charlotte's Web, The Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little. I pick up any copies I see at second-hand bookstores to pass on to libraries, schools, friends. 'Nuff said.

Must also mention Beverly Cleary's trilogy: Runaway Ralph; The Mouse and the Motorcycle; Ralph S. Mouse. Fun reads for boys and girls alike.

Phyllis Reynold Naylor's Shiloh trilogy: Shiloh; Saving Shiloh; Shiloh Season. About a boy and his dog, these are nice pre-adolescent options as they deal with some hardships in life. They have been made into a 2-movie series as well.
For a history twist, there's Robert Lawson's Ben and Me; Mr. Revere and I; Rabbit Hill.
George Selden wrote The Cricket in Times Square and several related books.
A few years ago we stumbled upon Freddy the Pig, 26 books written by Walter Brooks in the 1940sand 50s. Again I wondered if my 8 year old would really "go" for these. Wouldn't the stories be too far-fetched? (Freddy the Magician, Freddy Goes to the Moon) Wouldn't the language be dated, or difficult? Neither of those concerns proved true as my daughter devoured all the copies we could find at our local library.

Now we are working on Hugh Lofting's Dr. Dolittle books. These 8-10 books written in the 1920s and 30s are imaginative, humorous and readable. We are working on the first two (The Story of... and The Voyages of...) with fantastic illustrations by Michael Hague. The second title won the Newberry Medal in 1923. Again, no worries here about obsolete language. In fact, I find exposing my kids to these types of books has given them the type of vocabulary that allows them even more options in communicating and writing with detail. I've often heard that if you want to improve your writing, read good writers and I'm sure the same is true for our children.

Next you can select from a huge list of horse books, the first of which, Black Beauty, was written by Anna Sewell in the 1870s. This was a challenging read, but my 8 year old plowed through it handily, with a sensitive appreciation for the plight of English carriage horses.

Walter Farley wrote 21 Black Stallion books! Marguerite Henry has many well-known titles: Misty of Chincoteague; Stormy, Misty's Foal; Brighty of the Canyon; King of the Wind, to name a few. One we haven't read: Will James' Smoky, the Cow-Horse.

Also, Jim Kjelgaard's dog books: Big Red, Outlaw Red, Irish Red, Stormy, and more. Or for that matter, Jack London's White Fang, Fred Gipson's Old Yeller, Wilson Rawling's Where the Red Fern Grows.

Kipling's Jungle Book, or at least his short story Rikki Tikki Tavi!

Of course, the options are endless, and if you have a real power reader you can add in more recent series books such as Animal Ark (Ben Baglio) or The Saddle Club (Bonnie Bryant). But I really think it's to our kids' advantage to tackle many of these thoughtful, well-written childrens' classics first.

Animal stories are timeless, gender-neutral and frequently commercial-free (Littlest Pets aside). As a family we've found they stimulate imaginative, creative play with stuffed animals, or plastic animal figurines. And I'll never forget the time my 5 year old slithered around the bathroom floor so her sister the mongoose could attack her. Finally, when we all grow up we have Animal Farm, Watership Down and James Herriot to look forward to. What could be better?!