Seeking Heavenly Mother

19 Jan


{Image from here}

Our little family recently moved back to Philadelphia, where we lived a few years ago. We found an apartment close to where we previously attended church, and are thrilled to be back both in the city and the branch (Mormon congregations are called wards or branches). It feels like home.

This Sunday Dave and I were assigned to present talks about Heavenly Father. However, I asked if I could speak on Heavenly Mother—in part because the LDS Church recently released an essay about the topic, and in part because I have spent much of the last year researching and pondering the topic. Our branch president, a dear friend, kindly assented to my slight course change.

I was especially concerned that both the content and tone of my talk speak to all members of our branch—a diverse group of people that includes lifelong Church members, recent converts, and visitors; West Coast transplants and native Philadelphians; high school–only graduates and Wharton MBA students; young families and older single women; and a range of nationalities and languages that delightfully resembles the United Nations.

When I posted on Facebook that I would be speaking about the Feminine Divine/Heavenly Mother, I was encouraged by how many friends expressed interest. This is partly because I am friends with lovely, encouraging people, but I think it speaks to the far-reaching hunger to learn more about Heavenly Mother. Many people requested a copy of my talk, and because it’s such a tender topic, I would love to wrap a printed copy in red-and-white baker’s twine and mail it to each person… but I figured my blog would be the simplest medium for the job.

Style note: The text below is as delivered, minus a brief introduction of our family. Sources are in parentheses, using a slightly abbreviated reference system. I included page numbers where applicable and links to either the full text or the book’s Amazon page. I fact-checked all quotes myself, because I am too legit to quit.

* * * * *

Dave and I were asked to speak about Heavenly Father. The first Article of Faith states simply, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.”

However, there is another divine personage that we as Mormons recognize—our Mother in Heaven. She is also known as Heavenly Mother, God the Mother, the Feminine Divine, and the Eternal Feminine. I asked [our branch president] if I could speak about this today, and he said yes.

Before I begin, I should say that one former prophet, President Gordon B. Hinckley, has said that we should not pray to Heavenly Mother, because Jesus Christ taught His disciples to “always pray unto the Father in my name” (“Daughters of God,” Ensign, 1991). And although modern prophets have not spoken specifically about how Heavenly Mother fits into the Mormon concept of the Godhead, a recent essay published in the Gospel Topics section of confirms that “the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother is a cherished and distinctive belief among Latter-day Saints” (“Mother in Heaven,”, 2015). (Regarding the Godhead matter, Elder Erastus Snow did say, “We may never hope to attain unto the eternal power and the Godhead upon any other principle … this Godhead composing two parts, male and female” [cited in David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “A Mother There,” BYU Studies, 2011, p. 79]. This presents some intriguing possibilities, such as the sometimes suggested notion that “Elohim” refers to a combination of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, or that the entire Godhead has a combination of male and female attributes woven throughout, although that opens up questions about which attributes are male and female. Also it brings up the fun question of whether Mormons are monotheists or monolatrists. It is now obvious why this train of thought was not in my original talk.)

It wasn’t long ago that I considered the Mormon belief in a Heavenly Mother as merely a fun fact, a theological novelty. But I’ve come to realize it is more like a referendum on the fate of half the human family.

There is a lovely play called Mother Wove the Morning by Mormon author Carol Lynn Pearson (she wrote the Primary song “I’ll Walk With You”). It explores the journeys of women throughout history seeking to know the Feminine Divine. One character declares, “If you can see no femaleness in God, you will see nothing of God in the female. But if you can, you will see God in everyone!” (p. 53).

My primary purpose is first, to dispel the myth that we are not allowed to talk about Heavenly Mother, and second, to explore Her character and Her role, and how we can seek Her.

Dispelling the myth

If you have heard anything about Heavenly Mother in the course of your membership in the Church, you have probably heard that yes, she exists, but we are not supposed to talk about Her because she is too pure and sacred, and that Heavenly Father is protecting Her name “from the kinds of slander that human beings direct toward the names of the Father and the Son” (quoted by Kathryn H. Shirts, “Women in the Image of the Son: Being Female and Being Like Christ,” LDS Women’s Treasury, 1997, p. 53).

This line of reasoning has disturbing implications in two ways. First, it suggests that God the Father is strong and powerful enough to withstand the blows of blasphemy against His name, but God the Mother is too weak and fragile to do the same. This is precisely the kind of reasoning that has been used for centuries to put women on a pedestal that is in reality a cage—that woman is too tender for full freedom and personhood (see Frontiero v. Richardson, U.S. Supreme Court, 1973). I happen to believe that both women and God the Mother are full people. Second, the idea of “protecting” Heavenly Mother suggests that our heavenly parents’ power is weakened when humans reject them. But that is not true. In Doctrine & Covenants 121 God explains how godly power operates: “What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri River in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints.” Furthermore, the scripture points out that God’s power is not exercised with coercion or brute strength, but “only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge.” (For more on the relationship between godly power and vulnerability, read The God Who Weeps by Fiona and Terryl Givens.)

Thankfully, we don’t have to accept these disturbing implications, because this requirement for so-called “sacred silence” is a misunderstanding and myth—not doctrine. This censorship concept has not been taught by any Church president, apostle, or other general authority (Paulsen, p. 75). (However, there is the case of one scholar who was excommunicated in part because she wrote about the doctrine of Heavenly Mother, which is part of a painful history of intellectuals and feminists being monitored and excommunicated by the Church. The recently published volume Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings is an excellent starting point for exploring these issues.)

A 2011 article published in BYU Studies “attempted to identify each distinct reference to Heavenly Mother as found within content endorsed in some fashion by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1830 to present” (Paulsen, p. 74). This article was cited by the recent essay on This article found that many Church leaders have spoken joyfully of Heavenly Mother as a divine person, a procreator, a co-creator of worlds, a co-framer of the plan of salvation with the Father, and a concerned and loving parent involved in our mortal life (Paulsen, p. 76).

Now I’ll provide a sampling of some of the statements about Heavenly Mother and what they can teach us about Her character and role. There are many sources, in the scriptures and elsewhere, from which we can interpret knowledge about Heavenly Mother—we could talk about apocryphal sources that cite goddess worship and matriarchy in ancient Israel, or the woman depicted in Proverbs 8 who was present at the Creation (which was brought to my attention by this interview), or the possible Feminine Divine symbolism in the Tree of Life in Lehi’s dream. But to avoid preaching “false doctrine” or focusing on my own personal interpretations, I will focus on statements made by modern prophets and Church leaders, since they speak in plain, direct, irrefutable language.

Divine person

The most basic belief about Heavenly Mother is that she is a divine person. The most well-known expression about Heavenly Mother is the hymn “O My Father,” which was initially titled “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother” (Paulsen, p. 95).  It was written by Eliza R. Snow, the second general president of the Relief Society and a plural wife of both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

The hymn declares:

“In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare;
Truth is reason—truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.”

Eliza said, “I got my inspiration from the Prophet’s [Joseph Smith] teaching. All that I was required to do was use my Poetical gift and give that Eternal principal in Poetry” (quoted in Jill Mulvay Derr, “The Significance of ‘O My Father’ in the Personal Journey of Eliza R. Snow,” BYU Studies, 1997, p. 100).

Several close associates of the Prophet Joseph Smith recorded his teachings on a Mother in Heaven. Zina Huntington Young, who was the third general president of the Relief Society and a plural wife of both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, said that when her mother passed away, she asked Joseph, “Will I know my mother as my mother when I get over on the Other Side?” He responded, “Certainly you will. More than that, you will meet and become acquainted with your eternal Mother, the wife of your Father in Heaven” (Susa Young Gates, History of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, 1911, p. 16).

Abraham H. Cannon recorded in his journal that Joseph Smith invited Sidney Rigdon and Zebedee Coltrin to “accompany him into the woods to pray.” They experienced a succession of four visions. Cannon wrote, “They did so [opened their eyes] and saw a brilliant light surrounding a pedestal which seemed to rest on the earth. They closed their eyes and again prayed. They then saw, on opening them, the Father seated upon a throne; they prayed again and on looking saw the Mother also; after praying and looking the fourth time they saw the Savior added to the group” (Abraham H. Cannon Journal, Aug. 25, 1880, LDS Archives; cited in Linda Wilcox, “The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven,” Sunstone, 1980, p. 79).

In 1895 Elder Orson F. Whitney explained that “there was a time when that being whom we now worship—that our eternal Father and Mother were once man and woman in mortality” (Paulsen p. 77).

In 1916 the First Presidency issued a declaration titled “The Father and the Son,” in which they assert that our heavenly parents passed through “several stages or estates by which [they] have attained exaltation” and together “propagate[d] that higher order of beings called spirits.”

Elder Melvin J. Ballard taught, “No matter to what heights God has attained or may attain, he does not stand alone; for side by side with him, in all her glory, a glory like unto his, stands a companion, the Mother of his children. For as we have a Father in heaven, so also we have a Mother there, a glorified, exalted, ennobled Mother” (Bryant S. Hinckley, Sermons and Mission Services of Melvin Joseph Ballard,  1949, p. 205; cited in here by Rachel Hunt Steenblik, who contributed to the Paulsen article).

Elder Dallin H. Oaks stated, “Our theology begins with heavenly parents. Our highest aspiration is to be like them” (“Apostasy and Restoration,” Ensign, 1995).


One frequently cited role of Heavenly Mother is that of procreator—the literal mother of the spirits of humankind. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” issued in 1995 by the First Presidency of the Church, states that “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

Heavenly Mother is most often invoked when a speaker wishes to instill in the listeners a sense of their divine nature and eternal potential, to motivate righteous choices. In these cases, Church leaders generally use the term “heavenly parents” rather than singling out Heavenly Mother.

For example, Julie B. Beck of the Young Women general presidency told women, “You have light because you are literally spirit daughters of Deity, ‘offspring of exalted parents’ with a divine nature and an eternal destiny. You received your first lessons in the world of spirits from your heavenly parents. You have been sent to earth to ‘prove’ yourselves” (“You Have a Noble Birthright,” Ensign, 2006).

But sometimes the Mother is singled out. For example, President Spencer W. Kimball told women, “You are daughters of God. … You are made in the image of our heavenly mother.” (Conference Report, Mexico City and Central America Area Conference, 1973, p. 10; cited here).

Co-creator of worlds

“Some authorities have described Heavenly Mother as an active participant in the process of creation” (Paulsen, p. 80).

For example, President Harold B. Lee said, “Think of the significant statement contained in the scriptures describing the creation of man. ‘And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.’ If you consider carefully those in whose image and likeness male and female were created, I wonder if you will not also discover the organizers of intelligences in the world of spirits” (Clyde J. Williams [ed.], Teachings of Harold B. Lee, 1996, Chapter 2 [I have the e-book, so sorry, no page number]).

Co-framer of the plan of salvation

“In addition to her participation in creation, Heavenly Mother helped the Father direct the plan of salvation” (Paulsen p. 81).

Elder M. Russel Ballard taught that “we are part of a divine plan designed by Heavenly Parents who love us” (When Thou Art Converted: Continuing Our Search for Happiness, 2001, 62; cited here).

The Church’s 1978 Gospel Principles manual taught: “Our heavenly parents provided us with a celestial home more glorious and beautiful than any place on earth. We were happy there. Yet they knew we could not progress beyond a certain point unless we left them for a time. They wanted us to develop the godlike qualities they have. To do this, we needed to leave our celestial home to be tested and to gain experience” (Paulsen, p. 81).

Chieko Okazaki, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, stated that “at the end of this process, our Heavenly Parents will have sons and daughters who are their peers, their friends, and their colleagues” (Paulsen, p. 81).

President Thomas S. Monson taught that the necessary experiences of personal growth that come in this life “could come only through separation from our heavenly parents” (“Ponder the Path of Thy Feet,” Ensign, 2014).

Loving parent

Church leaders have taught that despite the separation, our heavenly parents are concerned and involved in our lives.

In 1963, President Harold B. Lee taught: “Sometimes we think the whole job is up to us, forgetful that there are loved ones beyond our sight who are thinking about us and our children. We forget that we have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother who are even more concerned, probably, than our earthly father and mother, and that influences from beyond are constantly working to try to help us when we do all we can” (Paulsen, p. 83).

“Sister Okazaki has written that our heavenly parents are cosufferers with us in our mortal trials” (Paulsen, p. 83).

In the most recent general conference, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “To all of our mothers everywhere, past, present, or future, I say, ‘Thank you. Thank you for giving birth, for shaping souls, for forming character, and for demonstrating the pure love of Christ.’ To Mother Eve, to Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, to Mary of Nazareth, and to a Mother in Heaven, I say, ‘Thank you for your crucial role in fulfilling the purposes of eternity’” (“Behold Thy Mother,” Ensign, 2015).

Many leaders also speak of the heartwarming parent-child reunion that awaits us after this life. Another hymn, “O, What Songs of the Heart” by Joseph L. Townsend, sings:

“Oh what songs we’ll employ …
As the heart swells with joy
In embraces most dear
When our heavenly parents we meet!”

President Spencer W. Kimball reasoned, “Knowing how profoundly our mortal mothers shaped us here, do we suppose her influence on us as individuals to be less if we live so as to return [to heaven]?” (Paulsen, p. 85).

What we don’t know

So far I have sought to accumulate the most impressively authoritative quotes from the upper echelons of Church leadership, attempting to prove my own orthodoxy and to lend legitimacy to this precious concept of a Heavenly Mother. The aforementioned myth about staying silent makes me feel a bit defensive, so forgive me if it sounds too much like I’m presenting evidence in a legal case.

But I’d also like to acknowledge the evidence we lack. Though there are many quotes to be had on this subject, many of the quotes briefly acknowledge “heavenly parents”—then any reference to action or concrete characteristics are attributed solely to Heavenly Father. The Family Proclamation, for example, cites “heavenly parents” once, but thereafter discusses only the “Eternal Father,” “His plan,” and “His children.” The Young Women theme that girls recite each week states, “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves us, and we love Him.” Perhaps someday those words will be changed to reference both loving heavenly parents. Likewise, a recent general conference talk by Rosemary Wixom of the general Primary presidency spoke to women and girls of their “divine nature and destiny” (“Discovering the Divinity Within,” Ensign, 2015). Sister Wixom proclaimed, “Heavenly Father generously shares a portion of His divinity within us,” yet there is glaringly no mention of what divinity might be derived from our Heavenly Mother. Is the gift of divinity not as much from our Mother’s DNA as from our Father’s? I hope that these kinds of oversights are unintentional, merely the effects of a culture that conditions us to accept male pronouns and male anything to stand in for the general (or at the exclusion of the female). As the always-diplomatic Mormon author Neylan McBaine says: “I’m not saying this is wrong; I’m saying it is hard” (Women at Church, 2014, p. 53).

Reaching for the Mother

I have felt kinship with a poem by Carol Lynn Pearson called “I Live in a Motherless House”:

“I live in a Motherless house,
Motherless and without a trace
Who could have done this?
Who would tear an unweaned infant
From its Mother’s arms
And clear the place of every souvenir? …
I am a child—
Crying for my Mother in the night.”

I feel encouraged by the content of the statements I’ve shared here, but my journey to seek Heavenly Mother has still been difficult. Sometimes it feels like the things I’ve learned are clever clues in a scavenger hunt where She is waiting at the end of the rainbow. Sometimes it feels like a grieving process, a mourning of a great loss.

But I accept this struggle, because I know growth comes out of struggle, and that specifically, an essential struggle of this mortal life is to be separated from our heavenly parents so that we can learn and grow and, through our actions, demonstrate the true desires of our hearts. And along the way, I find hope in many sources.

I find hope in the proclamation of the woman Wisdom in Proverbs 8, who says “All the words of my mouth are in righteousness … They are all plain to him [or her] that understandeth, and right to them that find knowledge.”

I find hope in the Savior’s repeated reminders that “He [or she] that hath ears to hear, let him [or her] hear.”

I find hope in the fact that “the Restoration is an ongoing process” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Are You Sleeping Through the Restoration?” Ensign, 2014). Doctrine & Covenants 121:26, 28 speaks of knowledge “that has not been revealed since the world was until now; a time to come in which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be one God or many gods, they shall be manifest.”

Most of all, I find hope in my faith in the Savior, because I believe that, as James E. Talmage wrote, “the world’s greatest champion of woman and womanhood is Jesus the Christ” (Jesus the Christ, 1916, p. 475). Even when I feel like I have blank spaces in my understanding of and relationship with Heavenly Mother, I believe my faith in Jesus Christ can help heal my sense of loss. And I’m pretty sure that’s what the gospel is about.

* * * * *

Post-talk thoughts

I was quite nervous to deliver this talk because of the sensitivity of the subject. I was not the most composed speaker, but I got through it, and I’m so grateful for the kind words from branch members afterward, and of course for Dave’s support.

Preparing this talk was a way to gather and reflect on the information I’ve encountered so far, but it also opened my eyes to areas I’d like to explore further. I realized after giving my talk that part of my thesis was to “explore Her character and Her role, and how we can seek Her,” but really only talked about Her role, because that is what most authoritative statements focus on.

Understanding the character of God is a lofty task, but an essential one. Joseph Smith taught in 1844, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, Chapter 2). To mirror his words, if women do not comprehend the character of Heavenly Mother, they do not comprehend themselves.

As for how we can seek Her, that is something I am figuring out along the way. I try to find a balance between being open-minded to the possibility of finding truth anywhere, and also being a critical thinker who questions and tests everything. I think Doctrine & Covenants 91 is a good guide for faithful Mormons seeking Heavenly Mother. The revelation is about the Apocrypha (biblical writings that are not part of canonical scripture), but it can apply to any nontraditional source:

“There are many things contained therein that are true … There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men. … Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him [or her] understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom; And whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited.”

I was hesitant to share this publicly because it still feels tenuous and raw, and because it feels like my understanding is so immature. But I hope something here is helpful to others on their own truth-seeking journey.

Recommended reading

David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “A Mother There,” BYU Studies, 2011. This survey of historical LDS teachings serves as the perfect starting point for research on Heavenly Mother.

“A Mother There” Art and Poetry Contest. The winners are featured online and they are lovely. I also started a Pinterest board about Heavenly Mother.

Carol Lynn Pearson, Mother Wove the Morning, 1992. This is a quick read and covers not only the LDS concept of Heavenly Mother but also notions of the Feminine Divine across history, culture, and geography. The reading list at the back provides an excellent starting point for a broader exploration of the Feminine Divine.

Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright (eds.), Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings, 2015. This invaluable anthology shares the historical and theological foundations for today’s Mormon Feminism movement, which includes explorations of the Feminine Divine.

Fiona and Terryl Givens, The God Who Weeps, 2012. Although the BYU Studies article offers numerous quotes about the roles of Heavenly Mother, this book offers a viewpoint on the character of God. The focus is on Heavenly Father but could possibly be extended to Heavenly Mother.

Send a #RefugeesWelcome postcard!

18 Nov

Postcard_AmericanThis week the governors of more than half the states in the country, and several Republican presidential candidates, proclaimed that they would not accept Syrian refugees in their states, or that only Christian refugees should be permitted.

I believe this rhetoric is shameful on many fronts. It flagrantly ignores the reality that prospective immigrants to the U.S. are already subject to a lengthy, rigorous screening process. It pretends that security can be achieved by discriminating against a broad swath of people based on their religion and nationality, and that doing so is not an affront to American values. It sneers at compassion and revels in enmity–and only for the sake of enmity.

I have been disheartened by the displays of fear and prejudice in the name of Christianity, but heartened that several religious groups have shown support for the plight of refugees, and hope that those voices prevail over the fear-mongering ones. In particular, I appreciate the statements by Pope Francis, the National Association of Evangelicals, and (my peeps) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sympathizing with the refugees.

If you, like me, want to show support for welcoming refugees to the U.S., may I offer a suggestion?

Send a postcard.


According to this TED talk, a handwritten note is one of the best and simplest ways to reach your elected representative. And according to my own experience, putting pen to paper and then slipping a card into the mailbox feels so much more joyful and human than sending an email that slithers off into the abyss. (Although even an email to your representative is better than just complaining on Facebook or mumbling discontentedly to yourself whilst reading the news.)

Are you on board? It’s quite simple, then.

1. Download a PDF of a postcard. (I adapted them from vintage government posters, available here and here at the Library of Congress.)

Download “For Liberty’s Sake” postcard [PDF]

Download “Thrill of Liberty” postcard [PDF]

2. Print it on cardstock.

3. Write your message on the back. (If you’re out of practice with postcards, just remember: message on the left, recipient’s address on the center right, stamp in the top right.)

4. Find out who your elected representatives are with an online search tool, follow the link to the representative’s website. The address is usually listed on the bottom of the home page, or you can search for the contact or office locations page. (And keep that info on file for next time you have something to say!)

+50 points to Gryffindor good citizenship if you write to more than one representative

+10 points if you review the representative’s website to find statements he or she has made on this issue, and respond specifically to those statements

+10 points if you sincerely thank them for their service (even, and especially, if you disagree with them)

5. Address it, stamp it, and slip it in the mail!

The conversation about refugees will continue to evolve, but I hope you join in this simple, concrete way to share your thoughts with your elected representatives.

P.S. You can also donate to groups that provide on-the-ground support to refugees, like the International Rescue Committee or UNHCR.


My toddler and Chewbacca, a comparison

26 Jul

140517-news-mcconaughey-starwarsWe are all Matthew McConaughey watching the Star Wars trailer.

Of the innumerable utterances of my two-year-old, I can decode about 70 to 80 percent. My husband is close behind that, and other folks tend to fall into the 30 to 50 percent range in translation accuracy.

Sometimes I flatter myself that my knack at understanding Little L’s toddlerspeak dialect is thanks to an unbreakable parent-child bond. But the fact is, it’s more a matter of quantity than quality: I am his primary caretaker. I am there every time he discovers a new word or constructs a new phrase. I have the context of remembering (if fuzzily) how he has spent virtually every waking minute and how he and his language have evolved, word by word.

* * *

When I saw the trailer for the new Star Wars movie, what really got my Matthew McConaughey tears pumping was the final shot:

anigif_enhanced-9098-1429208948-4Image from here.

Part of it was my nostalgia and affection for the characters and their relationship and the entire Star Wars universe. And part of it was the thought, “Whoa! My linguistic relationship with my toddler is like Han and Chewie’s relationship!”

tumblr_looetiRWvW1qe8di7o1_r1_500Not unlike this revelation in Community.

The initial connection I made was that Han must have learned to speak Chewbacca’s language simply because they spent a lot of time together, much like L and I do. They hang out on the Millennium Falcon and roam the galaxy; L and I hang out in our apartment and roam the parks and bus routes of our city.

It seemed unusual, though, that a scoundrel like Han Solo managed to communicate so fluently in another tongue. He just never struck me as a polyglot, you know?

Turns out, according to (natch) Wookieepedia, “It was not uncommon for beings to speak at least two languages in addition to their native tongue, particularly among those involved in space-faring occupations and those who had attended military or educational academies.”

So perhaps the toddler/Chewie analogy wouldn’t work, I thought. Darn, no nerd points for me! But then I read further in Wookieepedia, reaching the entry about Shyriiwook, the language of the Wookiees. Here’s the peculiar thing about Shyriiwook:

“The unique shape of the Wookiee throat made Shyriiwook a very difficult, even impossible language to speak for most non-Wookiees. … It was also incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for most Wookiees to learn to speak Basic [English]. As a result, most inter-species communication involving Wookiees had to be carried out in a bilingual format, usually with the Wookiee speaking Shyriiwook and the other party speaking Basic.”

Now here’s an analogy I could work with–because sometimes it does feel like I’m talking to my toddler bilingually. When he speaks his own little version of English, I can (usually) understand him, but I don’t exactly replicate what he said–either because it was too garbled for me to catch or because I prefer to model standard grown-up English (even though I adore how he says “Yegos” instead of “Legos”). So, much like Han and Chewie speaking Basic and Shyriiwook, Little L and I speak grown-up and toddlerspeak, and we manage just fine.* Of course, unlike Chewbacca, L has the vocal chords to eventually be able to speak grown-up. Though if he grew up to speak Shyriiwook I would not be disappointed.

I realize my linguistic Star Wars parallel is a stretch. Maybe I just really enjoy attempting to liken Star Wars to my life, OK? (It was fun dressing my kid as an ewok.) But there is also the obvious toddler–Wookiee analogy: they both have a short temper. L’s second birthday has ushered in a new affinity for tantrums, and just as with a Wookiee, it’s often wise to let them win if you want to keep your arm sockets and sanity intact.

* * *

Language acquisition is hands-down my favorite part about being a parent so far. Nothing has made my heart swell with joy and exhilaration and pride and love and awe quite as much as hearing my two-year-old fashion complex concepts into coherent strings of words. “I play in room.” “Don’t hit; hitting’s bad.” “Cookies! I eat it?” “I wuv you, Daddy.” “Mama. Read stories? Sit next to me?”

Plenty of times, Little L is simply parroting what my husband and I say or what he hears when we’re out and about (he cheerfully echoes “Stop Re-quest-ed!” on the bus). But much of his speech is carefully self-constructed. And it’s not that my kid is some Baby Einstein; delightful TED talks like this and this and books like this testify of the hidden grammatical and statistical genius of all babies. Young children are an absolute marvel.

Day-to-day, minute-to-minute child care is often mundane, but it is a privilege to be a stay-at-home/work-from-home parent, not only for the relative financial stability that implies but also for the opportunity to watch this tiny being observe and make sense of the world–the chance to serve as copilot for this tiny being during his first few years of roaming the galaxy.


* Sometimes I wonder if Little L thinks I’m the one who’s the novice at this whole language thing. One day he asked for a “paci” and I said sorry, he couldn’t have it for now. He frowned, made firm eye contact, and sounded it out slowly: “Pac-i-fi-er.” As if the only possible explanation for me denying his request was that I am too dimwitted to understand him. (You do what I tell you. Capisce, Mom?) Now I am imagining a series of books written for toddlers like How to Deal with Your Slow Parent, filled with advice just as reassuring and inane as any parenting book. Get on that!


19 May

Whats-The-Deal-With-3Hey! Let’s talk about concubines! Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Here’s the story: Whilst casually browsing Twitter one day, I came across a tweet by Bronwyn Lea, who has a lovely blog about faith, family, and life, asking for help to understand concubines and their place in the history of God’s people. Though polygamy is part of my Mormon religious history and even my family history, I hadn’t given too much thought to polygamy, but after the recent essays on polygamy by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, combined with my growing interest in girl power, I had started exploring the issue (including this excellent podcast).

You can read the result of my explorations on Bronlea’s blog. My answer to the question of concubines is very much a work in progress–I am sure my understanding will evolve and grow over time, as human understanding is wont to do. I look forward to the day that I can fully understand difficult issues like this, but for now, I wanted to share what I’ve learned–and welcome you to share anything you have thought about or learned. Please feel free to weigh in with comments here or on Bronwyn’s blog.

I also wanted to add a few thoughts to my initial answer. (Because I am never, ever brief.) Namely, what can we do?

What More Can We Do?

For me, making peace with difficult elements like concubines in the Old Testament is not simply a matter of saying “OK, I’m fine with this,” and shelving the matter. There are things we can do while we wait for further understanding.

First, we can confront the manifestations of inequality in our own time. As you mentioned, sex trafficking is tragically prevalent today. The Half the Sky Movement advises that we put pressure on officials worldwide “to shut down jail-like brothels, investigate criminals buying underage girls, and crack down on corruption and trafficking across borders.” You could start with writing to your elected officials to let them know what you think, and consider supporting an organization that helps victims of trafficking.

Second, we can remember and ponder about the women we read about in the scriptures—like Sarah and Hagar or Rachel and Bilhah. Their stories deserve more than to be glossed over or explained away. We can consider what their lives were actually like, what their relationships were like, what they might have struggled with and how they found joy. (I am also discovering wonderful resources that explore women in the scriptures, like this blog and this book.)

Third, we can draw closer to Jesus Christ. Whenever I struggle with something—in the scriptures, in church, in life—Christ is what gives me the greatest hope. He is hope; he is the light and the life of the world.

Christ gives me hope specifically in regards to women. The first person to whom he declared His role as the Messiah was a Samaritan woman. He showed compassion for the woman taken in adultery. The first witness of his resurrection was not an apostle but a female disciple, Mary Magdalene. I believe what James E. Talmage wrote in Jesus the Christ: “The world’s greatest champion of woman and womanhood is Jesus the Christ.”

And Christ gives me hope in all things. The good news of the gospel is that Christ allowed himself to be broken, and in doing so overcame this broken world (concubines and all!) and wants to help us do the same. As we invite him into our hearts and our relationships, we can be healed and united: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Mad Men, Granite Flats, and “family-friendly” TV

8 Apr

graniteflatsUpdate 5/7/15: I just read an article in BYU Magazine by Scott Swofford, the producer of Granite Flats. It’s a must-read for Mormons who, let’s face it, could all use a little more humility, authenticity, and love in their efforts to share their beliefs with others. But it also provides some interesting background about the evolution of the show and of BYUtv. Also, some cast members (including my girl crush Parker Posey) were apparently on the Today Show this morning, so that’s cool.

I originally wrote this just to convince friends to start binge-watching this show so I have more people with which to wildly speculate about exciting plot points. Then it devolved into philosophizing! Yay! (If you’re not into that, maybe scroll down to the bulleted list.)

Do you like Mad Men? Do you hate Mad Men? Either way, you’ll probably enjoy Granite Flats.

The show, which just released all episodes for its third season online, begins in the same decade as Mad Men, but is set in a small military town rather than on Madison Avenue. The first season offers intrigue in the form of a deadly explosion, a mysterious crash landing, and an eerie psych ward. The second and third seasons escalate into a tangled web of secrets involving the CIA, the FBI, the KGB, and a trio of meddling kids. There is also a police chief with uncannily Don Draper–like chiseled features and brooding gazes.

mormondondraperReally, he’s just Don Draper minus the ennui.

When it comes to Mad Men, I relate to both fans and haters: I quit watching after three episodes because I found it too depressing, but I’m still intrigued enough by the show to indulge in reading the occasional think-piece about it (like this, this, or bwahahaha this).

Granite Flats offers some of the elements that make Mad Men shine—complex characters and storylines and a meticulous historical authenticity that captures both the aesthetic (read: awesome vintage dresses!) and the spirit of the times in 1960s America. Yet Granite Flats strives for a decidedly more hopeful spirit than Mad Men, and it’s just as realistic and compelling. As a New York Times article said of the decade: “Glamorous debauchery and cynicism may have underpinned the marketing of floor wax and cigarettes, but earnest yearning and anxiety were twitchingly, poignantly alive then, too.”

Granite Flats can be seen as a reaction to the “debauchery” depicted in Mad Men, but it’s also a reaction to, well, debauchery writ large: The producer said the explicit goal was to create an entertaining, watchable show that forgoes the violence, sex, and profanity prevalent on most hit shows. That’s why they chose to wind back the clock by fifty years—“to make conservative social mores feel intrinsic.”

A show steeped in nostalgia for the sixties also makes sense given that the show is hosted by BYUtv, the network of the Mormon-owned Brigham Young University (my alma mater). The fact is, the 1950s and early 1960s was a good time for Mormons. A New York Times article chronicles a moment in 1962 when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir starred in a Cold War satellite broadcast that vaunted American culture to audiences abroad–the choir sang with Mount Rushmore in the background, interspersed with feel-good scenes of baseball games and Niagara Falls. After nearly a century of tension and anti-Mormon sentiment, Mormons appeared to have finally assimilated: “The Church had become closer to mainstream American life than probably any period in history, before or since.” Then, as Neylan McBaine points out in her book Women at Church, it wasn’t long before “Latter-day Saints in the 1960s and ’70s weathered cultural wars that forced us to leave behind the comfortable acceptance of the 1950s.”

While Granite Flats eschews any distinctly Mormon identifiers, it does embrace faith. And rather than promoting a particular faith, it supports the idea of many paths to faith. (The show’s producer has touted the fact that the writing team comprises a Buddhist, an Orthodox Jew, a lapsed Catholic, and two Mormons.) Many characters attend a generic Protestant church, with varying levels of devotion. Some are ambivalent, some seem to go through the motions, and some routinely seek out the pastor for counsel. There’s even a family of secular humanists, and although one of them may be considering conversion, their lack of religious belief isn’t fixated on as something to be fixed.

What pleasantly surprised me (and the New York Times) is that the show doesn’t use the vintage setting and the no-swearing policy as an excuse to avoid storylines about people with real flaws and struggles. Unfortunately, this is less true of Season 1, which is often sluggish and one-dimensional. As the Mormon Iconoclast blog observed, “By insisting on creating an entertainment that doesn’t have certain elements, they haven’t really defined what they want to do instead. As a result, the show seems peculiarly undramatic.” But the second and third seasons evolve to show actual drama and characters who are more morally complex.

The approach of Granite Flats to a morally complex world is, unsurprisingly, different from that of Mad Men. In Mad Men, love is merely something invented to sell nylons, and characters frequently spiral into self-destruction and rationalize (or are oblivious to) selfishness, to the point where such a path seems inevitable. (But hey, I’ve only seen three episodes! Correct me if I’m wrong here!) In contrast, Granite Flats depicts a world where people struggle, and often make mistakes, but also find ways to extend forgiveness to each other and themselves, to comfort each other, and to press on despite darkness and confusion.

A more important difference than Granite Flats vs. Mad Men is Granite Flats vs. typical “clean” or “family-friendly” entertainment, which too often is dull, preachy, or unrealistic. (As Jim Gaffigan wrote in Dad Is Fat: “As a parent, I know ‘family-friendly’ is really just a synonym for bad.”) But over the course of the series, people negotiate complicated relationships (like a woman with her foster son and his alcoholic father) and confront ethically fraught situations (like a nurse deciding whether to stay involved in a questionable government program in which she is trying to protect a patient from harm)–and that’s what makes it interesting. And while some characters come off as one-dimensional heroes or villains in the first season, a fuller picture of their motivations is gradually revealed.

GFLTS_LargeSee what they did there?

Granite Flats isn’t perfect, of course, but I’m grateful it’s out there. It shows that “family-friendly” or “faith-based” doesn’t have to be boring, and more importantly that it doesn’t have to mean tidy black-and-white moral choices. In fact, faith cannot exist in black and white. It’s natural to crave black and white. Everything is easier that way! But it’s when we feel we are in the grey—or in the utter dark—that we have to reflect on what we know and what we feel, then act in faith. And as we experience the consequences of our choices, we continue to learn and grow.

This touches on the distinctive Mormon view that the purpose of this life is to be tested and thereby refined so we can ultimately become like God in the next life. Answers that are self-evident don’t make a very effective test—nor do they make for interesting television. In life and in TV, we require nuance and paradox to uncover and mold our best selves. That’s just the sort of idea Don Draper might say he invented to sell nylons, but it’s what I believe, and I’m glad Granite Flats is attempting to articulate it in a way that appeals to audiences.

* * *

On a not so high-minded note, here’s an assorted list of what I like and don’t like about Granite Flats. If you’re convinced to check it out, you can watch the series online. (And then let’s talk!!)


  • Season 1: Sluggish and one-dimensional compared to Seasons 2 and 3 (but worth watching for the setup of various plot points).
  • Kids: Two of the kid characters are painful to watch. Their dialogue and storylines together are overwrought, like a garish parody of Hermione and Ron. Anytime they’re onscreen together, my husband and I are just like BARF BARF PLEASE MAKE IT STOP PLEASE INTRODUCE A STORYLINE WHERE THEY GET HIT ON THE HEADS WITH A METEOR.
  • Stiff acting and dialogue: It’s hard to tell which is the culprit. The writers are ambitious in sprinkling casual conversation with literary references; sometimes it comes out clunky. And the actors earnestly try to channel the dialects and manners of the era; again, sometimes it comes out clunky.


  • The plot!!! The tangled web of espionage and family secrets is delicious, particularly because the storyline about a secret government program called MKUltra is based on real (and troubling) events.
  • Parker Posey: She steals every scene she’s in and elevates the rest of the show. And she rocks blue eyeshadow.


  • Other guest stars: George Newbern (from Scandal) lends a natural ease to his scenes. And Cary Elwes and Christopher Lloyd do an excellent job of channeling the character types they’re well-known for.
  • Character development: Even the admirable characters have flaws and make mistakes, and even the unlikeable characters have understandable motivations at times.
  • Intertextuality: Each episode has a lofty-sounding title drawn from literature or scripture, and characters frequently cite Shakespeare, Whitman, and the Bible. Sometimes it’s executed gracefully, sometimes not, but either way it deepens the meaning of the story.
  • High production quality: I’m no film expert, but the set and costume design, cinematography, etc. is lovely.

Twitterature: Girl power

16 Mar

womanreadingWoman Reading, Édouard Manet, The Art Institute of Chicago

Twitterature = quick reviews of books I’m reading these days, inspired by the brilliant bibliophile blog Modern Mrs. Darcy. This edition of Twitterature is overdue (and, sorry, NOT CONCISE AT ALL)–it’s a summary of books I read mostly last summer and fall that inspired my 31 Days of Girl Power series.

tannenYou Just Don’t Understand, Deborah Tannen (4 stars)

I regret it took me so long to read this book–it is a fascinating combination of linguistics, gender, and sociology. Tannen’s thesis is that male-female communication so often perplexes and challenges us because we are, without realizing it, speaking different dialects. Girls and boys are socialized differently–girls are encouraged to be cooperative and boys to be competitive–which leads to different conversation styles. Not only that, the purpose and goals of conversation are viewed differently: for men, conversation is a way to negotiate power and status; for women, conversation is a way to negotiate closeness, confirmation, support, and consensus. Tannen deconstructs these differences and gives illuminating examples from real life, research, and literature. While she makes it clear that the communication clashes tend to harm women more than men, she impressively maintains that each gender’s typical conversation style is equally valid–but we have much work to do in understanding the other style. (My only quibble is that Tannen’s analysis was sometimes lost in the sea of examples, and a short summary accompanying each chapter would have been helpful.)

halftheskyHalf the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (5 stars)

This is another book I postponed reading for years. Frankly, I thought it would be too depressing. But once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. Yes, it details the harrowing experiences of women and girls around the world who suffer from violence, neglect, and oppression. It’s hard to confront that reality, particularly in contrast to my own comfort and freedoms. But the stories of survivors are infused with hope and resilience, and the authors offer pragmatic suggestions for making a difference in the lives of these women. It was painful and visceral to see so vividly that injustice toward females runs wide and deep, even in this supposedly enlightened age. Still, that knowledge drives me to seek ways to get involved in the fight against injustice.

malalabookI Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai (4 stars)

I’ve discussed previously why I’m a fan of Malala. Her autobiography offers details about her infamous experience of surviving being shot by the Taliban, but even mundane aspects of her life demonstrate her courage and conviction. What also shines through is the heroism of her father, who always encouraged Malala to learn and to stand for education. I also appreciated the explanations of the region’s geography and history and a new-to-me perspective on the war in the Middle East. As a teenager when 9/11 happened, I clearly remember the picture painted by politicians, of a people who rose from desert caves and attacked us simply because they hate our freedom. It was easy to project that image onto the entire region. But of course, it’s more complex than all that.

dewWomen and the Priesthood, Sheri Dew (3 stars)

I came into this book with high expectations, hoping it would neatly answer all my questions about, well, women and the priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So perhaps it was no surprise that I was disappointed. First, those are high expectations for any book. Second, though I continue to admire Sheri Dew’s writing and gospel thinking, the approach in this book simply didn’t work for me. Throughout the book, she mentions that she is not concerned about this or that gender-related Mormon doctrine or practice because of her own testimony–which isn’t very helpful to readers like me who picked up the book because they do have concerns they’re struggling with.

Furthermore, some of the arguments seem contradictory. For example, she mentions that LDS women in the early days of the Church were more empowered than other women because 19th-century “society at large was still highly patriarchal and, as such, strictly limiting of women’s rights.” Then she mentions the idea that the LDS Church has a “hierarchical structure” where “men make the rules and they enforce the rules.” But rather than refuting the idea, her examples only address how nicely men make and enforce the rules. Which, in my experience, is generally true. But benevolent patriarchy is still patriarchy, which Dew herself defined as inherently limiting to women. It’s something I’m still trying to make sense of.

All that said, I still found the book to be full of insights on womanhood, motherhood, prayer, and humility–and most importantly that “the doctrine of the priesthood is known only by personal revelation.” It helped me realize I can’t rely on one book; I need to find my own answers through study and prayer.

mcbaineWomen at Church, Neylan McBaine (5 stars)

I was the opposite of disappointed by Women at Church. Amidst the controversy about the group pushing for female priesthood ordination in the LDS Church, Neylan McBaine had commented that “ordaining women won’t end sexism.” The premise of her book is that, assuming there were no changes to priesthood doctrine or Church leadership structure, there is still “much more we can do to see, hear, and include women at church.” She suggests strategies aimed at the local level, reasoning that we won’t be ready for systemic, Church-wide change until we exercise our “spiritual imaginations” to implement smaller-scale solutions. The local-only approach isn’t foolproof, but I think the suggestions are a very good place to start, and admire McBaine’s consistently optimistic, pragmatic perspective in this book and on her blog.

She speaks both to women who are currently struggling with the place of women in the LDS Church, and to people who don’t understand that struggle. (Her own biography seems perfectly positioned for street cred on both ends of the spectrum–she grew up in NYC and is a working mom who kept her maiden name, but she’s also a lifelong Mormon living in Utah doing marketing for the LDS Church.)

More broadly, McBaine deftly navigates the myriad paradoxes a faithful person confronts: “How do we reconcile the eternal search for knowledge with the sincere claim that we ‘know’ the Church is true? … How do we honor the prophets, writers, and editors of our scriptures while holding at the same time a concern that half of their populations are silent? How do we reconcile millennia of male-centric priesthood while also having faith in our doctrine of eternal gender equality and Restoration-born improvements for women? … How we do this, how we wrestle with this tension, is a true test of our spiritual maturity.” Fittingly, McBaine advises that through our wrestling, we look to the example of Jesus Christ, who was “mature, principled, and selfless” in even the most vexing circumstances.

Rather than tidily answer all my questions, Women at Church articulated my feelings more clearly and concretely than I could on my own, and helped me progress in my seeking. I am in awe of and grateful for Neylan McBaine’s careful thinking and writing.

talmageJesus the Christ, James E. Talmage (5 stars)

Reading Jesus the Christ was a truly enriching experience. It covers what we understand of Christ’s life and mission, from before we came to Earth, to His mortal life, to the prophecies of His return. Though I have learned about Jesus Christ since I was very young, this book gave a new level of cohesion to His story and helped me better understand and appreciate His love for us all.

Favorite quote: “The world’s greatest champion of woman and womanhood is Jesus the Christ.” (A recent Church magazine article also discusses this quote.)

womenNTWalking with the Women of the New Testament, Heather Farrell (4 stars)

I know the Bible is filled with wonderful eternal truths, but I have a hard time getting through the violence, slavery, and women-are-unclean-and-property business. The real challenge is to discern which painful elements were not of God and simply due to the failings of men, and which were OK but have become obscured because we lack the historical, social, and theological context to understand their value.

In this book, Heather Farrell shares her rigorous yet accessible approach (it’s primarily exegetical) to scripture study, and the insights she has gained in her study of women in the New Testament. I learned so much from her treatment of topics like menstruation, birth, and adultery, and from her illuminating commentary on each woman’s story. Many of the women I had never noticed or given much thought to, and I found new ways to look at the well-known women like Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. This book, as well as her blog, is a great starting point for improved scripture study habits and greater understanding of women in the scriptures. (This writer/editor’s nitpicky quibble: There was an awkward amount of blank space between chapters, and it could have used a slightly closer copyedit.)

pinkblueParenting Beyond Pink and Blue, Christia Spears Brown (4 stars)

This book offers a solid evidence-based approach to understanding gender differences in children. (It was a great complement to reading about adult gender differences in Tannen’s book.) The book is dense with research and analysis, yet thankfully avoids opaque academic writing and instead opts for straightforward prose and clearly organized points. Plus, the author tells her own stories from the front lines of parenting as well as research to make sense of the concepts presented. Though I agree with many of the author’s conclusions, I liked that the book was focused on research, so I could assess the evidence and draw my own conclusions.

Favorite quote: “The process of paying less attention to gender and more to the individual child begins by noticing how little gender really predicts our own children’s skills and abilities. Because we tend to exaggerate the differences between groups but overlook the differences within them, we rely on stereotypes without intending to. The goal, then, is to start paying more attention to each individual child.”

girlschoosegodGirls Who Choose God, McArthur Krishna, Bethany Brady Spalding, and Kathleen Peterson (5 stars)

This is a lovely new children’s book about women and girls from the Bible, with a focus on courageous choices they made. The book highlights well-known ladies like Eve, Mary, and Esther, and lesser-knowns like Zelophehad’s daughters. The storytelling is inspiring but not preachy, and the illustrations are absolutely beautiful.

backlashBacklash, Susan Falaudi (want-to-read list)

OK, so technically I haven’t read this yet. But I’ve read a handful of articles about it, if that counts for something. Matter magazine did a series of interviews with people about each chapter and how the book, which was written in 1991, relates to today. Falaudi argues that the 1980s saw an anti-feminist backlash, led by the mainstream media, basically telling women that they were only unhappy because they were too darn liberated, and the cure to their alleged unhappiness was to return to their traditional status/roles. It was, Falaudi wrote, an “attempt to retract the handful of small and hard-won victories that the feminist movement did manage to win for women.” When I actually get around to reading this book, there will definitely be a full post about it.

Note: Amazon links are affiliate links.

Pat Benatar is my interior designer

5 Mar

lovecloseupThis is not the first time I have had a harebrained decorating idea inspired by Pat Benatar. No, my friends and Internet acquaintances, this is the second time.

Back in the halcyon days* of college, I decorated my first non-dorm apartment by cutting out hundreds of cardstock letters and adhering them to the living room wall to spell out the complete lyrics of “Love Is a Battlefield.”** At the time, I was totally into eighties music, and I thought “Love Is a Battlefield” served as a fierce yet fun anthem for life at the peculiar meat market that is BYU.

wall2 wall3This project may have factored into me meeting and falling in love with my husband. But that is a story for another day.

Now, in our current apartment, we have a big, blank wall along a space that basically functions as a hallway in our open-concept living/dining room. I felt it presented the perfect opportunity to reintroduce “Love Is a Battlefield” into our lives. (I was going to wax philosophical about what the song means to me now, but I’ll save that for yet another post.)

Also on my brain was a series of murals called “A Love Letter for You” that’s featured on buildings throughout West Philadelphia along the Market/Frankford Line. We used to live in Philly, and I love finding ways to connect our current home with our former homes. I love the tender sentiment of the murals–as the artist Steve Powers described, it’s “a letter for one, with meaning for all.” And I loved the style of lettering, so I wanted to emulate it in my own design.

Images from here, here, here, here, and here.

I was hoping for a slightly more refined look than my college version, so I opted for a watercolor look. I sketched the letters and traced them on to some watercolor paper I had painted red and blue. Then I puttied them to the wall. I have to admit, it was tricky to kern the letters evenly by hand. It reminded me of this lovely video of stop-motion typography.

And here is the result! (As always, please excuse my amateur iPhone photography.)

lovebednookbattleHere’s a rough outline of the process. If folks are interested, I may scan the templates for my lettering and share the files here.

1. Sketched outlines for letters. (You could also pick a font and print out the letters at the desired size.)

2. Tried to enlarge letters by making a shoebox smartphone projector. Alas, it failed.

3. Used the old-fashioned grid method to enlarge the letters I had drawn.

4. Painted a bunch of pieces of watercolor paper with red and blue watercolors.

AWESOME TIP: Did you know you can flatten the curled edges of watercolor-painted paper by simply ironing it? Just put it on your ironing board upside-down and iron it on a medium or low setting. (Thanks, Mom!)

irontip5. Traced the reverse outline of the letters on the back of the painted papers.

6. Cut out the letters.

7. Adhered the letters to the wall with putty.

This is the wall I see from where I sit on the couch and the dining table, and I am loving the view!


* Is there anything other than days that is halcyon? Someone with more linguistics knowledge (coughAllisoncough) please search COCA and share the answer.

** My roommates, thankfully, were cool with it. Some of them also shouldered the arduous task of removing the letters from the wall at the end of the year–I’m forever grateful!

Diversity in kids’ books: “Why are they always white children?”

27 Jan

This post is in honor of Multicultural Children’s Book Day, which promotes children’s literature that celebrates diversity. I’m also a big fan of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.

whitebooksImage by Anne Zane Shanks/Saturday Review

Why we need diverse books

“Why are they always white children?”

It’s a question a five-year-old black girl posed to the author of a bold 1965 article–“The All-White World of Children’s Books” by Nancy Larrick in the Saturday Review.

It’s a question I’ve wondered about too. As a writer and editor by trade, I am a hyper-critical reader of my kid’s books. I get so dang angsty when I come across clunky syntax or some dreadful grammatical error or flimsy character/plot development. I am also bothered by the extent to which white characters and narratives are dominant in children’s literature. This isn’t helping anyone. I, for one, want my son to read books that help him both make sense of his own experiences and learn from the experiences of others.

The 1965 Review article states that about 9 percent of books that year included one or more people of color (the article uses a different term). That number has risen at least a little since then, right? Alas, wrong. According to numbers gathered by the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the percentage of books by and/or about people of color in 2012 was… 9 percent. Yes, the number is the same as the year Selma took place. Between 1994 and 2012, the number hovered between 7 and 12 percent. Meanwhile, 37 percent of the U.S. population are people of color.

The 1965 article concludes that the cause of the diversity gap is the publishing industry submitting to the pressure of bigots. In a similar article published just last year in the New York Times, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” Christopher Myers writes that “the villain here is elusive,” settling on “The Market” as the culprit:

“… The Market is so comfortably intangible that no one is worried I will go knocking down any doors. The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book, doesn’t want book covers to look this or that way. …”

Childrens Books Infographic 18 24 V3Image via Lee & Low Publishers

In effect, as one Harlem school district librarian told the Review, “publishers have participated in a cultural lobotomy.”

That “lobotomy” deeply harms children from diverse backgrounds. As one report on literacy commented,

“When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”

The narrow representation in children’s books also affects white children and the larger culture. White parents are much less likely to talk to their children about racial issues, assuming that kids are Lockean blank slates and as long as they aren’t overtly racist, the kids will turn out fine. But as numerous studies show, children demonstrate racial preference or prejudice as young as 30 months. (Adults aren’t perfect either.) This 2014 Slate article explores what shapes these early prejudices:

“Beverly Tatum, a race-relations scholar and the president of Spelman College in Atlanta, has referred to this pervasive cultural message as a ‘smog in the air,’ noting that ‘we don’t breathe it because we like it. We don’t breathe it because we think it’s good for us. We breathe it because it’s the only air that’s available.’ Ultimately, kids may infer that the patterns they see in privilege and status are caused by inherent differences between groups. In other words, they may start to think that whites have more privilege because they are inherently, somehow, smarter or better.”

Last year, author Walter Dean Myers wrote in the New York Times :

“Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?”

The bibliophile in me is pained that books–wonderful books!–can be part of that “smog.” (Lobotomy! Smog! What vivid imagery we have going here.)

We must clean up the air, if only in our own sphere of influence. We can choose to read and support books that reflect authentic, empowering stories of diverse people and experiences. Every child deserves to recognize himself or herself in a story, to feel that his or her story is one worth telling, worth reading about, worth understanding.

How to support diversity in children’s literature

Read books that reflect diversity. Obviously. Though the numbers I’ve mentioned here mainly focus on white-vs.-people-of-color representation, diversity is so much more than that. As the Association for Library Service to Children suggests, we need books that foster understanding of “diversity based upon culture, ethnicity, linguistic ability, religion, physical ability, immigration status, and sexual orientation.” You can find lists of book ideas here and here, and check out some books I’m reading below.

Be a critical reader. Just because there is, say, a person of color on the cover doesn’t guarantee it’s a beneficial book. The ALSC shares a few things to look out for:

  • A “tourist approach” to other cultures: “This approach highlights the five Fs–food, festivals, folklore, fashion, and famous people of a particular culture–rather than exploring the daily interactions of people within that culture. …Often this approach focuses on cultural elements that are exotic, flashy, or quaint. Introducing children to unusual fashion or ‘costumes’ and festivals from a culture reinforces a sense of exoticism or otherness rather than fostering understanding.”
  • Authorship: “[S]elect materials that include books written and illustrated by people either from the culture being profiled or with considerable knowledge about and experience related to the culture.”
  • Date: “[E]xamine the copyright date of the materials to identify outdated content.”

Donate diverse books. If you find a book you love, get an extra copy and donate it to your local library.

Participate in a virtual book drive. First Book, a program that provides access to books for children in need, has a great selection of multicultural books that you can choose from to donate. (Many books cost only a few dollars each!) Check it out here.

Support your local library. The greatest demand, and the greatest need, for multicultural books is in libraries–but they continually face funding cuts. If you feel so inclined, contact your local representatives to express support for public and school library funding.

From my bookshelf

Here are a handful of books I’ve been reading recently with my toddler. (Kudos to my local children’s librarian for promoting these titles–many of these I picked up right off the display table.)

graceAmazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch (1991)

One of my favorite books as a kid, one of my favorite books ever, and one of my toddler’s favorite books. Also, a Reading Rainbow selection. You can’t go wrong. The story incorporates elements like prejudice from schoolmates and a grandmother’s nonstandard English both elegantly and naturally. Kids will easily identify with Grace’s love of stories.

uptownUptown by Bryan Collier (2000)

A young boy, via conversational prose and cool collage-style illustrations, gives you a tour of the geography and heart of his home, Harlem.


hereiamHere I Am by Patti Kim and Sonia Sanchez (2014)

In graphic novel style, this picture book tells the story of a young boy arriving in America from Korea. The wordless approach beautifully captures the boy’s emotions and experiences as he faces both difficulty and discovery in his new world.

juneteenthJuneteenth for Mazie by Floyd Cooper (2015)

The illustrations are ethereal and lovely. A perfect introduction to the celebration of Juneteenth, as a young girl learns about the struggles and triumphs of her ancestors. On June 19, 1865–more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation–soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, announcing the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery in the United States. Learn more about Juneteenth here.

ronRon’s Big Mission by Rose Blue, Corinne J. Naden, and Don Tate (2009)

I love picture books that offer mini-biographies of little-known yet fascinating people, and this is one of them. (Here’s another favorite.) A young boy uses peaceful resistance to get a library card–and prompts desegregation of the county library. (I’d love to learn more about the library desegregation process throughout the country, too.) This real-life story is inspiring, and my boy loves to read it over and over.

xrayMy Mom Has X-Ray Vision by Angela McAllister and Alex T. Smith (2010)

This is a fun, silly story that just happens to have a black boy and his mom as the main characters, and a diverse cast of supporting characters. What an idea! Anyway, this is totally worth reading for the fact that everyone is pictured in delightfully sixties-British-mod attire.


P.S. A list of the unbearable whiteness of all the things, according to Google.

P.P.S. Favorite scripture about books.


I received a copy of Juneteenth for Mazie and Here I Am from Capstone Young Readers in exchange for my honest review. I was not compensated for this post and all opinions are my own. Amazon links are affiliate links.

Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2015 Sponsors: Platinum Sponsors: Wisdom Tales Press, Daybreak Press Global Bookshop. Gold Sponsors: Satya House,, Author Stephen Hodges and the Magic Poof. Silver Sponsors: Junior Library Guild, Capstone Publishing, Lee and Low Books, The Omnibus Publishing. Bronze Sponsors: Double Dutch Dolls, Bliss Group Books, Snuggle with Picture Books Publishing, Rainbow Books, Author Felicia Capers, Chronicle Books  Muslim Writers Publishing, East West Discovery Press.

Girl crushes

12 Jan

I watched Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s opening monologue for the 72nd Golden Globes tonight, and I knew it was time to make an addition to my girl power series: girl crushes. The way I see girl crushes, it basically translates to wanting to be that person. (I’m pretty sure it works the same way for guys and “man crushes,” no?) While there are many women–friends and family, famous and obscure, past and present–whom I love and admire, here’s a quick list of celebrity-type ladies I am (pardon the Valley Girl-ness) totally crushing on right now.

1. Amy Poehler

Loved her book Yes Please, especially in audiobook form, which she recorded herself. It was my first celebrity memoir; I gave it a chance because I love her so much on Parks & Rec, and I came to love her as a person too. She manages to be both grounded and goofy. She writes about her past and herself with such self-awareness and gratitude. I don’t agree with her on everything, of course, but she has wise words on friendship, motherhood, and being a girl in this crazy world. She has an organization that supports smart girls. And she’s hilarious.

Favorite quote from Yes Please, which Poehler says women should repeat over and over (image designed by me):

Second favorite quote:

Amy Poehler (love her!) in Yes Please: “However, if you do start crying in an argument and someone asks why, you can always say, "I'm just crying because of how wrong you are.” " | via spifftacular.2. Tina Fey

Do I even need to elaborate? She’s Tina freakin’ Fey. She’s funny, smart, and gorgeous. (Also, from Philly! And she mentioned hoagies in her monologue!)

Fey ripping on unrealistic beauty standards for women:

Tina Fey at 72nd Golden Globes: "Steve Carell's Foxcatcher look took two hours to put on, including his hairstyling and makeup. Just for comparison it took me three hours today to prepare for my role as human woman."3. Robyn

(1) It’s impossible to listen to “Call Your Girlfriend” and not dance and feel happy and triumphant. (2) She’s a Swede! (3) This perfect thing Ann Friedman wrote about her: “If pop music’s about sanitised emotions and sexuality for sale, then Robyn’s no pop star. Her lyrics bubble from genuine feeling, and she prefers 6cm platform basketball shoes to tottering in heels. … The lyrics are about being vulnerable but strong, lovelorn but independent, and they’re set to a beat so infectious that dancing is involuntary.”

(Ann Friedman herself is girl crush material–I am addicted to her weekly newsletter and podcast.)

4. Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay: "The "first" of it all is the bittersweet part. I'm certainly not the first black woman deserving of this. You can't tell me that since 1943 there's not been another black woman who's made something worthy of this kind of recognition. But for whatever reason it hasn't happened. The time is now. I thank them for recognizing Selma. I just hope … that we get through all the 'firsts,' that we can just get to the good stuff and that people can just make their work and move on from [that conversation]."Image via WBEZ/Flickr, quote via USA Today.

I haven’t even seen Selma yet (I will!) but I already love this lady. I read this New York Times profile of her and saw her interviewed on The Daily Show, and while both highlighted her talent as a director, what struck me was how she simply oozes power and poise. And that’s just what she needs as a member of, as the NYT noted, “‘a small sorority’ of black female filmmakers, who are part of another modest American sisterhood: female directors of any color.” When most of the people in charge of producing, directing, and portraying stories in film and TV are white men, those stories are inevitably going to have a somewhat narrow view, even if there are good intentions. Ava DuVernay and her work offer an awesome example of how right it is to have greater representation of women and people of color in media. (More gals in the Senate wouldn’t hurt, either.)

5. Bonnie Oscarson

OK, so she’s not a Hollywood type or famous beyond the world of Mormonism, but I’m including her anyway. Bonnie Oscarson is the Young Women General President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When she was called to that position a few years ago, my mom and I had fun poring through her Pinterest page. I like the quote she has on her profile page, and turned it into a design that reflects her cute red-and-white-themed pinboard (see, I told you I’m a fangirl):

Bonnie Oscarson on her Pinterest page: "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things." And may I add just downright cute to the list? | via spifftacular.

I like her style, including her “All things Swedish” pinboard (plus, her username is “mormor,” which means maternal grandmother in Swedish). And I loved her talk about sisterhood and how women can learn from each other and support each other.

Now it’s your turn to share: Who are your girl crushes, and why?

* Links to Amazon are affiliates. Fonts used in designs above are, in order, Quicksand, Raleway, and St Marie.

Hello, 2015

7 Jan

2015fontI’ve been neglecting blogland in favor of pressing concerns like moving, unpacking, last-minute decorating and sugar-cookie-baking, and Christmas-festivity-hosting.

But I’m back!

I have resolutions for the new year, which I may delve into on the blog. I don’t often/ever make or stick to resolutions, but this just feels like a good year for them. How about you–are you making resolutions this year?

Sidenote: I am content to leave behind 2014 because… I’ve never really liked the number four. The Chinese have their reasons for esteeming four as inauspicious, but I don’t have a reason. It’s simply my least favorite number. Five (well, one-five) sounds fresh and crisp; it feels full of possibility.

Sidenote 2: I started envisioning 2014 as some cluttered serif font and 2015 as a clean, ultra-thin sans-serif. That led me, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie style, to search my font collection and the interwebs for a font that PERFECTLY REPRESENTS THE GLORIOUS ESSENCE OF 2015. I have determined that that is not possible, or at least not possible if I want to get any sleep tonight, but for now let’s settle with Code Light by Font Fabric. (Feel free to suggest your own candidate.) Yes, I know I have a problem.

Here’s to 2015!