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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!


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.

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.

Twitterature: Faith, race, and dump trucks

15 Dec

Twitterature = a compilation of short(ish) reviews of books I’m reading these days, inspired by the brilliant bibliophile blog Modern Mrs. Darcy.

Let me show you how dedicated I was to getting this blog post together: We just moved yesterday, and I carefully labeled a box so I knew where my latest books were:

recentbooksThen again, I’m an overly specific box-labeler anyway. I’ve learned from sad experience what a pain it is to open up a dozen boxes just to find one thing–it’s much easier to label beforehand!

Now, back to the books. (Book title links are Amazon affiliate links.)


weepsThe God Who Weeps, Terryl and Fiona Givens (5 stars)

The subtitle is “How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life,” but it is so much more than that. The authors examine what centuries of thinkers–theologists of both Christianity and other faiths, scientists, philosophers, poets–have pondered, reasoned, imagined, and believed about the purpose and meaning of life. It was refreshing and faith-restoring to see my own faith deconstructed and then built back up from scratch. I appreciate and admire the authors’ approach in drawing from such diverse sources, in valuing reason as well as faith, and in weaving it all together in a poetic style that mirrors the inspired works they quote. And their thesis that God is powerful yet vulnerable–it is a game-changer. Aside from the Book of Mormon (obviously), this is the book I would recommend to anyone interested in learning about Mormon beliefs, or anyone intrigued by the idea of a personal yet powerful God. #gamechanging #faith #requiredmormonreading

doubtThe Crucible of Doubt, Terryl and Fiona Givens (5 stars)

For me, this book and the Givenses’ previous book (above) were incredibly helpful reads at a time when I had questions about my own faith. We tend to have a language of certitude in the LDS Church–we hear people say “I know the Church is true” and think that if we don’t know, we’re failing. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Jeffrey R. Holland, an apostle, recently spoke about believing and knowing, and the Givenses offer a more in-depth view of how we can productively approach doubt. #faith #requiredmormonreading

My favorite quote from The God Who Weeps, which also applies to The Crucible of Doubt:

“Whatever sense we make of this world, whatever value we place upon our lives and relationships, whatever meaning we ultimately give to our joys and agonies, must necessarily be a gesture of faith. Whether we consider the whole a product of impersonal cosmic forces, a malevolent deity, or a benevolent god, depends not on the evidence, but on what we choose, deliberately and consciously, to conclude from that evidence” (p. 3).

nienieHeaven is Here, Stephanie Nielson (3 stars)

Stephanie Nielson’s blog was popular from the early days of mommy blogging, and Nielson made headlines after surviving a plane crash with her husband that left severe burns on much of her body. I’ve only checked out a handful of her blog posts–when it comes to Mormon mommy blogs, I tend to prefer the satirical kind. I admire her resilience in overcoming significant physical and emotional challenges and was fascinated by the details of her difficult recovery. There were some details that rubbed me the wrong way, like the fact that she nonchalantly bought a ($400 to $700) Vitamix blender as a gift even though she had noted her family would be living off money donated by caring friends and strangers (and turns out, most of their hospital bills were covered by insurance or forgiven). Still, her memoir is an absorbing and inspiring read. #memoir #mommyblogger #survivalstory


dumptrucksDump Trucks, by Charles Lennie (5 stars, even after the millionth time)

Lars is really into trucks these days. The library just got this new “construction machines” series, including books about cranes, excavators, concrete mixers, loaders, and bulldozers. We’ve been reading Dump Trucks, Cranes, and Concrete Mixers on repeat.  #dumptruckoverload #kidlit

hughesPoetry for Young People: Langston Hughes (5 stars)

You all know why race is in the news. Lars, not yet two, is too young to have meaningful conversations about race (or why he shouldn’t throw his dinner on the floor…). But I’m a believer in the power of literature, and I think exposing him to diverse books is a great start. Even though this isn’t a board book, I have been pleasantly surprised that Lars loves it. Maybe it’s the illustrations? Or he is magically enthralled by the lyrical lilt of Langston Hughes? Who knows. There are so many beautiful selections, and it’s haunting how many are still relevant decades after being written. Favorites: “I, Too,” “Note on Commercial Theatre,” and “Harlem.” #kidlit #poetry #weneeddiversebooks #larsloveslangston

afroamPoetry for Young People: African American Poetry (5 stars)

Another great library find. Lars isn’t as enamored with it as he is with Langston Hughes, but I like it. This and the Langston Hughes book are part of the Poetry for Young People series. I’ve been interested in poetry lately thanks to my friend Allison, who wrote a poem a day last month (read them all!), and I appreciate that this series offers brief notes for each poem, providing historical and literary context, and even definitions for less-common words. They’re perfect for people young and old who are new to poetry or to a particular poet. #kidlit #poetry #weneeddiversebooks


rightmindThe Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt

This has been on my to-read list forever. Reading the Givenses’ thoughtful analysis of faith motivated me to look this up again. I’m not far in, but so far so good. #psychology #religion #politics #audiobook


yesplsYes Please, Amy Poehler

I say “yes please” to this book and to Amy Poehler because she is awesome. If you shudder at swearing (Mom), there is some of that. But just like Amy and her many alter egos, the book is delightful. This is what got me through a week of packing the house! Definitely get the audiobook (narrated by her and other guest stars). #humor #audiobook

What are you reading these days?

Twitterature: Best-sellers

15 Nov

I still need to make good on my promise to recap my “adventures in feminist summer reading” as mentioned when I started the 31 days of girl power series, but first I feel obligated to cover all the other books I’ve been reading. As it happens, they’re all best-sellers. Here’s a list of short(ish) and sweet reviews, inspired by the twitterature of the brilliant bibliophile blog Modern Mrs. Darcy (which I discovered thanks to Charlotte).

First, two questions for you:

1. Does best-selling status make you more or less likely to read a book (and why)?

I can see both ways–sometimes I don’t mind the sticker of approval from the masses–I am terrible at picking books on a whim at the library or bookstore. But I’m also skeptical–popularity doesn’t equal literary virtue.

I can kind of relate to Britta on Community, who proudly declares that she only just started watching a Game of Thrones-esque show because “I don’t start watching shows until they’re so popular that watching them is no longer a statement.”

britta2. Do you read discussion questions at the end of the book? Do you like them, learn from them? Do you care if they’re written by the author?

I ask because I thought the questions written by Kathryn Stockett for The Help were uninspiring and slightly cheapened the satisfaction I felt at completing the book. But the Q&A section John Green wrote for The Fault in Our Stars was nearly my favorite part of the book. Perhaps because he was answering questions and not posing didactic questions? Anyway, let me know what you think.

On with the reviews! (Links are to Goodreads, although next time I may get fancy and use Amazon affiliate links.)


The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (4 stars)

Procrastinated reading this–assumed it was a best-seller because it’s a feel-good girlfriend novel. Nope. Female relationships were sometimes catty but still believable. Gained perspective on the grueling racial discrimination and violence of the not-so-distant past. Enjoyed character development and dialects. Loved Aibilene, and her tenderness for and teaching of Mae Mobley. Loved the NY editor. Fave quote: “Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.” #fiction #worththehype

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (4 stars)

Loved the glorification of reading/books, appreciated the commentary on war and learning about a little-known story of the occupation. Found the ending so forced and ridiculous I thought my audiobook had somehow cut out the real ending. (Maybe it’s because the author’s niece helped her finish?) A little annoyed by the saintliness of the two protagonists (Juliet/Elizabeth). Still, an enjoyable, rewarding read. #historicalfiction #perfectaudiobook #goodbookbadending

2612The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell (5 stars)

Gladwell takes complex/important/abstract ideas and makes them seem obvious. (Actually, he uses the phrase “this may seem obvious, but…” a lot.) Fluid writing, solid research, compelling synthesis of ideas. #nonfiction #audiobook #obviousnotobvious

11870085The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green (4 stars)

It’s hard to separate my admiration for John Green from the story. Love his Crash Course videos and nerdfighteria, love his belief that “books belong to their readers!” and love the Q&A at the end. The book is brilliant because it capitalizes on classic YA tropes (teen geniuses, star-crossed lovers, a manic pixie dream girl boy) but still finds ways to challenge its audience. #YAfiction #worththehype #onlycriedonce #ihavenoheart

3636The Giver, by Lois Lowry (5 stars)

Reread this classic to refresh my memory (still need to see the movie). Always love seeing things in a novel I didn’t discern as a younger reader. Also interesting to contrast to currently popular dystopian YA novels, as this was the first of the genre. On this reading: most compelled by the denigration of birth mothers in the novel’s society, and the overwhelming truth that an existence without pain is without progression and without love (an idea reinforced in my current book, The God Who Weeps). Worth listening to the audio, if only for the narrator’s amusing pronunciation of the word “awkward.” #YAfiction #audiobook #justsaynotosamenes

Currently reading… The Crucible of Doubt and The God Who Weeps, both by Fiona and Terryl Givens.



Is it “best-seller”? “Best seller”? “Bestseller”? I prefer “best-seller,” but here’s what the style guides have to say:

  • AP Stylebook: best-seller Hyphenate in all uses.
  • Chicago Manual of Style: No explicit guideline, but one example in 5.54 states “the writer whose book was a best seller.”
  • New York Times Style Guide (it is their list, after all): best-seller list Make it the New York Times best-seller list when the newspaper’s name serves as a modifier or The New York Times’s best-seller list when the newspaper’s name serves as a noun. But the books are best sellers.

Guest Post: Why writing is awesome

24 Sep

Have you ever stumbled onto a blog and think, Oh my gosh we would totally be friends in real life? (Because obviously, blogs are their own separate reality distinct from real life.) Well, that’s how I felt when I found Leah’s blog The Ordinary Snowflake. Superficially, we have Mormonism, Californiaism, and BYUism in common, but more importantly I enjoyed her writing style, her sense of humor, and her views on feminism, pencil skirts, and April Fools’ Day. So I reached out to her to guest post here, and she graciously accepted. Enjoy:

writingpostitHey! My name is Leah, and I blog over at The Ordinary Snowflake. I’m really excited to be over here on Spifftacular today!

I decided to call my blog “The Ordinary Snowflake” to poke fun at this weird blogging culture we’ve found ourselves in. What I mean is that the internet is full of “special snowflakes” who blog incessantly about their lives as if they were important or famous or, otherwise, people cared. And I’m one of them! I’m a blogger. It’s great fun. We’re crazy, I know.

I believe that despite our (admitted) vanity and silliness, we bloggers are onto something — something powerful and important. I’m talking about the fact that we write.

The simple action of writing stuff down is incredibly valuable — so valuable, in fact, that I believe everyone should make a hobby of it! And you don’t have to be a professional writer to reap the rewards. It’s just about getting your thoughts out via pen or keyboard.

Here are just a few awesome things about writing that might motivate you to get started (or keep going) on this amazing hobby:

1. Know yourself

Writing helps you get to know yourself better — especially those parts deep in your subconscious that can be hard to get at. Creating a record of your own thoughts not only documents the kind of person you are, but also it helps you confront your own voice. It’s like when you hear your voice in an audio recording — a little weird at first. It helps you see the presence you project to the world around you.

2. Clear Mental Clutter

Do you ever feel like you have a million thoughts going through your head? In our hectic world, it can seem impossible to focus on anything for longer than a few seconds. Writing forces you to choose one of those thoughts and ponder it enough to actually form coherent sentences about it. Writing helps you sort through the junk and figure out what’s really important to you.

3. Unlock buried ideas

As I already mentioned, the mental process of writing involves intense focus. And when you’re writing about an issue or a problem at hand, you may surprise yourself with the solutions you come up with. Even just writing down a problem and staring at it on a page can give you incredible perspective. (Sometimes that perspective is something like “wow, this isn’t actually much of a problem.”)

4. Watch yourself grow

Documenting your experiences can help you track patterns of growth and change in your life. Seeing these patterns, whether good or bad, can motivate you to improve. It can also help you make better decisions to achieve a happier life. What if you looked back on an old journal and remembered a forgotten hobby that made you happy? You might decide to pick up that hobby again.

5. Recall hidden insights

“You learn something new every day”, right? The little lessons and insights you gain in your day-to-day life are so valuable. Writing about them allows you to ponder on them and document them for future reflection. I believe that focusing on those little insights can turn “the daily grind” into a profoundly enlightening life.

Again, it doesn’t matter how “good” you think you are at writing. It’s not about writing a novel or publishing blog posts or creating the perfect resume (though those things are also valuable). All I’m talking about here is taking the time to rummage through your brain enough to generate a cluster of coherent sentences. That’s all! There’s absolutely no pressure.

I hope you feel inspired to get out there and write! Thanks again to Holly for having me over on Spifftacular today. I’d love nothing more than to become writing buddies with all of you, so feel free to come visit me and say hi so I can meet you!

The importance of prepositions

6 Sep

You’ve probably seen this grave reminder of the importance of punctuation:

commagrandma{Image via Zazzle}

There are plenty of other juicy examples out there, and some best-selling ones (see: Eats, Shoots & Leaves), but you get the idea.

Now I would like to share with you the importance of another taken-for-granted element of language: prepositions.

The importance of prepositions | spifftacular.Yes, I made this graphic myself. I am just very passionate about this particular application of prepositions. For example, this morning I paired some Golden Grahams S’more Bars with my bran cereal and spinach scrambled eggs:


And thanks to prepositions, I am completely satisfied with my decision.


Is anyone else out there enjoying dessert for breakfast and feeling unabashed about it? Are there any other aspects of language that you think are due for some recognition?

Indispensable Word: ALAS

4 Aug

romeo-juliet{Image via Wikimedia Commons}

As a bona fide language lover, I tend to a small menagerie of favorite words. There are words that, almost as onomoatopoeia, evoke exactly the feeling they mean, like peppy (you cannot say that word unpeppilly). There are words that are unusual and obscure enough that you can take self-satisfied delight in slipping it oh-so-casually into a sentence or conversation, like quaff or twee. There are words that are simply fun to say, like tintinnabulation. And there are words that are absolutely indispensable.

One of those words is alas.

It’s categorized as the most unstuffy of the parts of speech, an interjection. According to Merriam-Webster and, alas can be used to express all kinds of emotions: sadness, sorrow, disappointment, unhappiness, pity, concern, grief, or even “apprehension of evil.”

On the dramatic side of grief, we have Juliet’s lament, “Alas, poor Romeo! he is already dead.” In my own usage, though, I tend to use it a bit more casually, as a charming alternative to unfortunately.

First, it’s only four letters! Economy is so valuable when you’re trying to quickly text one-handed on a tiny screen.

Second, I like that it is slightly more optimistic and qué-será-será (which is generally my attitude anyway) than unfortunately. Compare, for example:

Sorry, I’m running 20 minutes late. Unfortunately, the train was delayed.

Sorry, I’m running 20 minutes late. Alas, the train was delayed.

Third, the more neutral connotation is particularly handy when you’re trying to distance yourself or others from blame for the grief.

Sorry, I’m running 20 minutes late. Alas, I slept through my alarm clock.

Sorry, I’m running 20 minutes late. Alas, baby pooped right before we had to leave.

Alas, mistakes were made.

The neutrality is also useful when you want to make excuses and express regret but are inwardly kind of #sorrynotsorry.

Sorry, we can’t make it tonight! Alas, it’s after baby’s bedtime.

Finally, it has pizzazz. It’s so much more fun to express your disappointment when you’re emulating a star-crossed lover.

Wish I could think of a sufficiently clever final example for this word. Alas.


Do tell–what are your indispensable words?

This is how a word nerd and a map nerd decorate their kid’s nursery

24 May

When you give your baby a name like Lars, you hope that he’ll have the gumption to pull it off later in life. Dave and I joke that hopefully he’ll just grow up to be a linebacker and no one will give him any trouble with it.

But the reality is, Lars’s destiny is to be a nerd. He is, after all, the child of a writer/editor obsessed with puns, grammar, and typography, and of an urban designer whose idea of fun is analyzing street patterns or comparing blocks of desert cities. We also share a fond appreciation for all things Scandinavian, a part of our heritage.

Fortunately, we have accepted and embraced our nerdiness and fully plan to nurture it in our little guy. In that spirit, we designed a few festive pieces for his nursery:

Baby’s family birth map

Baby's family birth map - spifftacular.wordpress.comDave mapped where his and my ancestors were born all the way to ten generations back. Purple represents my ancestors (obviously), and orange represents Dave’s. The size of the dot correlates to how many ancestors were born there. Opacity represents how long ago they lived there (meaning the darker dots are more recent). Locations listed in the key are simply numbered left to right.

Lars birth mapHe used FamilySearch to do the research, then used Google Earth to map it and Illustrator and InDesign to design the final graphic. Of course, shortly after he had already dedicated painstaking hours of perusing family trees, he discovered a nifty tool called Rootsmapper that does the mapping work for you. Oh well. Read more about the map on Dave’s urban design blog. You can also check out this post to see some other neat graphics he made about where his ancestors lived and died (we opted not to feature this in the nursery, because birth seemed a more fitting theme than death).

Name punctuation style guide

Baby name punctuation guide - spifftacular.wordpress.comAs a writer and editor, I am naturally a stickler about punctuation. One of my biggest pet peeves is the incorrect punctuation of possessives. Since we gave our kid a name that ends with s, I knew he would face a lifetime of punctuation trickery: Where to put the apostrophe? And should there be an extra s? I was so concerned about this I almost decided against the name even though I love it so much.

I know I can’t prevent his future classmates and colleagues from writing such horrors as Lar’s, but I at least wanted to give him a good foundation. So I compiled excerpts from the sections on possessives from the top style manuals–The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style–into a handy mini (dare I say baby-sized?) style guide. Of the three, two recommend apostrophe + s for singular possessives, and one recommends just an apostrophe. (My personal preference is the former, but I don’t mind the latter.)

To make it even more personal, I also included a few lines about the origin and meaning of the name Lars.

Baby name punctuation guide - spifftacular.wordpress.comI used Futura because it seemed like a fittingly Scandinavian typeface (which until recently was the go-to typeface for IKEA), plus Century Schoolbook because it reminded me of the old copy of Strunk & White I got from my dad; I also used it on the Swedish ABCs project below.

Swedish ABCs

SwedishABCs -

Back when baby was still the size of a blueberry in my belly, I stumbled upon this neat collection of illustrations from a vintage children’s book with an animal for each letter of the Swedish alphabet (except W, inexplicably). The images were a little crooked, so I straightened them out in Photoshop. Then I printed them on cardstock and cut them out. I put some command hooks on the wall, strung some cream-colored ribbon, and used some metal clips from IKEA to fasten the cards.

SwedishABCsCrib - spifftacular.wordpress.comYou Are My Sunshine & It’s A Small World

You Are My Sunshine -

OK, I can’t take credit for these but I’m including them anyway because they’re in the nursery and I love them.

The “You Are My Sunshine” canvas painting is made by my super-crafty mom. “You Are My Sunshine” was a favorite lullaby of my family growing up, and I love that it’s a tradition in my own little family now.

NurseryArt -

Also, a few years ago, long before Lars came along, Dave and I were at Disneyland with my family and found an awesome print inspired by It’s A Small World. I’ve always liked the ride and its aesthetic, and we both thought the print would be right at home in the nursery.

Lars is destined to become a nerd. A glorious, glorious nerd. And I hope his room will help remind him of that.

Library love

21 Mar

IMG_2072I’m only a few posts into returning to blogging and I’m already falling behind, but I’m pretty sure moving to a different state, unpacking, and doing boring grown-up things like working on taxes are solid excuses. Also, baby.

But today, a quick post about my first venture to the local library in our new town. Technically it’s my second; the first was to get my library card. Today I went to pick up a book I had put on hold, so naturally I returned home with nine books. I don’t know what it is, but my eyes are always bigger than my stomach (for lack of a better phrase) when it comes to the library. It probably helps that they’re free to check out. Combined with an unrealistic optimism about the amount of time I can squeeze in for reading, and you have a book checking-out fiend.

Fortunately in this trip it was mostly the kind of books that I’ll skim, rather than a novel that I need to commit to. I have a few things on the brain I’m eager to research: gardening on our new patio, preparing to buy a house (no news yet, very much in the research phase!), and cooking healthfully for baby.

I even restrained myself. I saw a new title tantalizingly propped on one of the new-fiction shelves, A Highly Unlikely Scenario. I have a million other novels I want to read, so I’ll have to add it to the list.

The only sad thing about my adventure is that I didn’t have my camera to capture the beautiful aaah-spring-is-finally-here buds I saw blossoming along the trail as Little L and I walked to the library. And that means no pictures of baby either, alas. Just one reason I am increasingly longing for a smartphone. One of these days… for now, I fully intend to spend the weekend perusing through my library books.