God and Goodnight Moon: Finding Spirituality in Storybooks for Children

After three weeks of heading deep down the rabbit hole into the life of babies, where they come from, and what to to do with them once they’ve arrived, I felt like I had reached my saturation point. Don’t get me wrong – this is all exciting and necessary information, but I’ve started to really look forward to my (slow) elliptical workouts at the gym, because for forty minutes a day, I get to read fiction, and it’s absolutely glorious. I find myself drawn to books with plenty of swashbuckling adventure, inappropriate language, and over the top romance to balance out all the studying I’ve been doing. 

It probably doesn’t help, of course, that aside from reading all these baby books, I’ve also been taking a class for the last eight weeks to hone my skills writing for children. I scheduled it back in January when I was absolutely lousy with energy, and by the time it started in March, I felt like a sponge that had been wrung out to dry. The first week, I absolutely despaired. How could I possibly get through my class reading, plus check out all the children’s books recommended as supplementals, while also getting my assignments in on time and staying on top – if not ahead – of all my actual work that has to be done before the baby arrives? 

There might have been some crying and some gnashing of teeth, but eventually, I settled into a routine (a routine that absolutely required and justified an hour long nap every afternoon) that was doable, and I remembered exactly why I love taking writing classes when I have the chance. It feels amazing to stretch parts of the brain that have been atrophying, and even though I’ve had the best of intentions in regards to several projects for younger audiences in the last year, none of them had even made it into the solid outline stage. Taking this course was exactly the kick I needed, and I found that it actually energized other writing projects simply by forcing me into more of a time crunch. Truly, nothing motivates me to work on a new chapter or essay like the threat of missing a deadline (as an anti-procrastinator, it really is a marvelous scramble to stay ahead!).

As a nice addition to my classwork, a couple of months ago, my parents sent me a book that’s less of a sit down and read than it is a reference for families looking to explore the themes of some of their children’s favorite stories within the context of Christianity (in this instance, “Christianity” is defined as a value system that encourages tolerance, compassion, understanding, and equality while using stories from the Bible to supplement these themes). I read through it this week, and while I doubt it will be my go-to activity book (I liked a lot of the ideas, and I’m sure I’ll use some of them, but I also have years of preschool teaching materials that may well see more use), I did get a chance to learn about some wonderful children’s lit that I had either forgotten about or never heard of in the first place. 

The absolute best thing about the book was how diligently researched it was to find such wonderfully diverse books for children. Not only were children of many races represented, but also children with different abilities, children from all sorts of families, children from countries around the world – each suggestion had been carefully chosen to intersect between the deeply well known (Goodnight Moon, The Velveteen Rabbit) and the joyfully affirming (Crow Boy, Hope, The Story of Ruby Bridges). As I was reading, I found myself making a list to take to the library, and at this point, anything that gets me that excited to move off the couch gets a thumbs up in my book.

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, Anne Lamott

The friend who told me about this book has four children, a full time job as a UCC minister, and a husband who commutes every day about an hour each way to his job as a child advocacy lawyer. To say that they always have a lot on their plate would be a massive understatement, and yet whenever we have a chance to visit them, their house is always filled with the most joyful kind of chaos. Everywhere I look, there’s learning happening, and negotiations between siblings, and exploration sanctioned by loving, tolerant parents. Nobody there has a minute to waste trying to make life look perfect because they’re all too busy being fully engaged in the passionate need to be doing. I should have known, then, that a book recommended by a mom who seems superhuman yet manages to be completely down to earth, self-deprecating, and hilarious would be exactly the right sort of thing to read while on the precipice of this new journey. 

Of course I was crying by the time I’d finished the introduction and had to put the book down to email and scold her for telling a hormonal pregnant woman to read such a thing. She was appropriately amused by the situation and pointed out that when she read it, parenting blogs didn’t exist and it was books like this one that kept her sane after she had her first baby. I tried (and failed) to imagine how much harder that would have been. I’ve followed at least five parenting blogs for years, all written by mothers who are willing to be honest about the shit storm that is parenting – how it can be the most precious gift in the world and still completely miserable at the same time. These women write about situations that don’t always pop up in that stream of adorable kids pics on Facebook or Instagram, giving hope to all the struggling parents out there that, yes, this insanity is completely normal, and no, you’re not a terrible person if you sometimes have to lock yourself in the bathroom with a handful of gummy worms and an episode of Orange is the New Black streaming on your phone.

Before we had the opportunity to connect with other people like this online though, there were writers like Anne Lamott bravely breaking down the parenting experience. As a single mother and recovered addict, her journey through the first year of her son’s life is a tumultuous one, and she doesn’t spare her readers from the gory or glory of it all. She is blessed to be surrounded by a solid tribe, friends and family who continuously offer help when she’s at the end of her rope. I was in awe of all the people who lived nearby and were willing to jump in and lend a hand when Lamott felt like she was so buried she’d never survive.

Because the book is an exquisitely shaped journal of that first year, the highs and lows come heel to heel. One moment, she is so blissed out feeding her son that life seems like a hallelujah chorus, and in the next, she hasn’t slept for a day and a half and can hardly stand the sight of the little boy she loves so dearly. I don’t know if everyone can relate to such a feeling, but even just today I was thinking about how fortunate I am to be doing a basket of stinky gym laundry because it meant I actually had the time and energy to work out this week, and the next, I was furious about having to clean the kitchen for what felt like the tenth time. 

I wondered at how I could have felt so completely zen about my circumstances only to have everything fall apart into frustration. There was no logic to it, no reason for one moment to be as easy as breathing and the next, an epic struggle, but it made me feel profoundly close to Lamott. Here is a woman who understands and fights through these ridiculous ebbs and swells – here is a writer who wonders whether her baby is stealing her ability to be creative and productive, whether her work will ever circle around to what it once was. 

It made me feel so safe to read a book published twenty years ago that could have been taken straight out of the lives of countless parents I know. This journey is chockfull of the unknown, and at times it’s lonely and unbearable, but admitting that can be hard when it seems like every other parent must have a better way of handling the stress. Lamott makes it seem okay to embrace the crazy because she knows it brings the sublime along with the shit. 

The Food of Love, Kate Evans

I have to be honest. At this point, I’m amazed I’ve made it through two child-rearing books. The amount of anxiety these books give me, after repeatedly and forcefully telling me it’s alright if I don’t do things a certain way – then proceeding to dump three hundred pages of advice that, if ignored, will turn my child into a depressed, obese, alcoholic – is getting steadily higher. I went from being the expectant mother with very few expectations to the expectant mother who’s clearly a reprobate for leaving all this research until the seventh month.

It makes me a little resentful because I’ve always trusted and loved books, and now I eye them with an air of suspicion. What will this one dictate? What will that one prepare me for that I had never even considered before? Will the pictures in this one scar me for life, and if I do feel scarred, what kind of person am I that I can be so easily damaged by photos or drawings of a completely natural and healthy process?

I miss my uncomplicated relationship with well-worn paperback novels. I miss the hours of escape the right book provides. I especially miss feeling a little guilty for reading a book with zero literary value. Reading books like this one remind me that in a very short time, my life will be drastically different, and there will be no going back to the way things were before. Sure, every few days and weeks, something will change; one of the most critical things I learned in the years I worked with three month to five year olds is that little is constant when it comes to small growing humans. This is not comforting. It’s familiar, in the way that observing and learning about anything becomes familiar after you’ve done it for long enough, but viewed through the filter of imminent arrival, it’s not comforting.

Many people find that comfort in research. I get it. I personally take more of a measure once, cut twice approach to life, but I’m not fairly confident that’s not the best approach, so I absolutely don’t judge those who want all the data possible before making a decision. That’s where books like these come in. It can be incredibly helpful to have resources like Evans’ book available both before and after a baby arrives. In fact, I learned more from reading this book than I could have possibly imagined. She’s thorough, funny, and of course, consistent in reminding me that although breast is best, formula fed babies probably won’t be horribly scarred for life.

I’m joking…sort of. On the one hand, I definitely plan on bringing this book with me to the hospital when I go into labor because I found it that helpful. On the other, I occasionally felt like taking up arms for a more neutral stance on the baby feeding bandwagon on behalf of all my friends who, for whatever reason, weren’t able to breastfeed and have amazing, well-attached, sweet, smart children who I love to spend time with.

Evans’ strength is really in the palatable way she breaks down the information a new mother might need about how to breastfeed, what kind of help to ask for if things are going awry, and how to handle the strain this process can put on a mother’s body. After I finished the book, I looked back and counted fourteen pages I’d flagged so that I could go back to those sections quickly if I needed a reference. I certainly felt better prepared to approach the process, which before had seemed like a complete mystery to me, with confidence. I’d also made note of some questions I wanted to ask the friend who’d given the book to me, a mom who had great success with breastfeeding her children and who I feel comfortable asking questions that make me feel vulnerable and sound (probably) idiotic.

I actually have a hard time imagining a better written reference guide for families interested in breastfeeding, or for those who are struggling and would like concrete solutions for their problems. It was a light-hearted read, especially considering the topic, and if I hadn’t felt the author’s occasional pressure about making the “right” choice for my baby, I would have been completely smitten. As it was, I finished the book with the feeling that I had a well-intentioned if slightly preachy friend on my side for tackling this particular hurtle of parenthood.

That being said, after I was done, I ate half a sleeve of Thin Mints and binge-watched some really trashy tv in an effort to keep from going full-on crazy mom mode. It seemed like a fair trade off for all this responsible pre-parenting…

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, Ina May Gaskin

Sometime in the next two months, (by June 1 at the latest), I’ll be taking parental leave from reviewing books (as well as my other work, of course!). I expect my leave to last about three months, although if things go well, I may be back, at least sporadically, sooner than that, but I’m making no promises. You’ll have to muddle through the hot months of summer without me, although hopefully you have a shelf full of books to read on the beach, or while commuting to and from the office on a train with intermittent AC while surrounded by folks with even questionable hygiene, or while sipping a cool drink on a tiny balcony while the sun stays out until ten pm. Wherever you choose/have to spend that time, I know it will be full of stolen moments reading whatever your guilty pleasure is (because what is summer for if not indulging in things like ice cream for dinner, or taking an extra long lunch out in the sunshine sans work email, or reading a book other people might judge you for?!). I suspect I will be doing quite a bit less reading than I’m used to, at least for a while, and what I do read will probably have a lot of rhyming and primary colors. 

In the meantime though, I’m taking April to read the many books people have gifted me with over the last seven months in preparation for this major life change. I realize this may not be of much interest to some of you, and for that, I apologize. Nevertheless, if I want to feel the least bit prepared, I have to sacrifice some of my preferred reading habits for a more educational bent, and I have to say, I couldn’t have picked a better place to start. 

Like most people (I presume) who have not had children, what I know about labor and delivery comes from Hollywood. I vividly remember watching a cesarean section on The Learning Channel in the eighth grade when I was babysitting. This was back when TLC showed mainly educational programming, and there was definitely no sugarcoating or cutaway shots. Aside from that experience though, I mostly owe what little knowledge I had to hour long medical dramas, and it wasn’t until we took our birthing class a few weeks ago that I realized how much of that information was inaccurate and misleading. 

Our teacher for the class was wonderful (and I’m saying that after eight hours in a room with her on a day when I was nursing a painful back injury), and over the course of the day, I realized just how ignorant I really was about the process. While she gave us a lot of wonderful information, I also realized that I would benefit from reading some of the resources given to me by experienced friends who had been through the process several times. I picked Gaskin’s book primarily because it’s the only one I have (aside from what my doctor recommended) that actually talks about the experience of labor and delivery, and it seemed to make sense to go in a sort of chronological order.

I cannot recommend this book more highly to women who are pregnant or who may want to get pregnant. For the last few months, I’ve been thinking about my own delivery as though it were a marathon – not a metaphorical one, but an actual 26.2 mile run. My experience becoming a runner in my late twenties has been a huge part of shaping who I am. I am not fast or particularly well-designed for running, but I love it, and one day I hope to complete a marathon, which is possibly why this challenge of giving birth has presented itself to me this way. I see it as something to train for, both mentally and physically, because as much as it’s a big deal, and by many accounts painful, it’s also a process that the human body is designed to succeed at.

Ina May’s book is such a positive experience when thinking about the process that it actually inspired to me to feel excited rather than terrified about the big day. It even made me feel less crazy for comparing labor to running, since running is something I have to use a lot of positive mental energy to accomplish. It’s not an activity I go out and do with great ease, and it’s not always painless. In fact, when I ran the Bolder Boulder last year, despite months of great training, I felt nauseous and rundown the day of the race and made it through (barely, and with a lot of unplanned walking) only through strict mental fortitude. I knew that my body was capable of completing the race even though it felt horrible to run. There were periods of time when my mind went completely blank as I focused on moving one foot in front of the other, and still longer periods where all I could do was coach myself to dig deeper. Everyone around me seemed to be in high spirits, and it was all I could do not to cry, and yet I crossed the finish line in one piece with the valuable knowledge that I could trust my body to do what it had trained for, even if it didn’t do as well or as easily as I had planned. This kind of failure crops up often for me in running, and it seems like it might end up being the best possible way to have prepared for an experience like labor and delivery.

 This book is full of affirmation about what the human body is capable of if we approach it with the right attitude, much like some of my favorite books on running have been. Her advice is straightforward, compassionate, and body-positive, and her experience in the field is exceptional. She supports a holistic view of health and views birth as a wellness experience instead of a trauma. Her tone didn’t feel judgmental toward the possibility of a hospital birth versus a home one but rather focused on the inner strength women have to make whatever path they choose as joyful and informed as possible.

It’s always amazing to me to find books like this one – books that focus on building up the image of ourselves as strong emotionally and physically in order to tackle seemingly impossible challenges. We don’t often get the chance to see our best selves reflected back at us this way, and when we do, it feels like a precious gift. I look forward to the day when I can apply that same powerful response to crossing the finish line of a race like the Boston Marathon, but in the meantime, I’m happy to have found it as I get ready to face this next challenge.

For more about Ina May Gaskin, head here.

Too Fat For Europe, Joe Leibovich

In honor of my mother’s birthday, I’m taking today to talk about one of our shared passions (beside books – books are definitely at the top of the list, and chocolate is a relatively close third), travel. I’ve loved and pursued the love of exploring the world for many years now, placing the ability to get up and go above many other material pleasures (most notably, owning a house, and for many years, a car). When I was in junior high and high school, my mother and I would go on a little trip together every year – something separate from the car trips we would take with my brother and dad once a summer – usually connected to an event she had to lead in another part of the country. This typically meant we would go a few days early and stay in a cheap motel or at the house of a friend who was out-of-town, do some exploring, and then I would fly home alone while she went to work.

When I was in high school, I opted to go on my first international trips with the Junior World Council and the Biology Club, a decision to this day that I’m grateful for. I had a glass jar each year that I filled with money from babysitting jobs or summer work that would then go toward plane tickets and expenses. This meant that by the time I graduated, I had been to Belize, Italy, and the UK, and I was thoroughly hooked. It also meant that I found the most valuable time in college was spent during my semester abroad, where I was able to use the Netherlands as a jumping off point to visit twelve other countries. While I’m sure I also learned something from the classes I was taking at the time, none of those lessons stand out as clearly as the ones I learned in places where I had little money, no access to a shower, and couldn’t understand a word around me.

During that semester, I was enrolled in a class on travel writing taught by a wonderful Dutch professor who understood that while we might want to learn from her, our attention spans were limited by the ever sneaking possibility of new places. She used this to motivate us to write deeply about the experiences we had over our three or four-day weekends, forcing us to carry our notebooks everywhere to try to capture more than a cursory perspective on where we had been. Mine had a permanent home in a backpack that otherwise carried only the most basic necessities – change of underwear and tee shirt, an extra sweater, a passport, my Discman with a few CDs, and any printed instructions we could glean from what was a very different internet than the one I use to travel now. To this day, I still have that notebook and cherish it, as corny as some of the reflections are. I was clearly in a much more, shall we say dramatic frame of mind that I am today, but it still informs my decisions when it comes to planning new trips.

Since those early days of exploring, I’ve read a lot of amazing travelogues and memoirs from people far smarter and more adventurous than I am, but it’s rare to find a book like this one, written by a friend of a friend in Memphis, from the perspective of a newbie international traveller. Leibovich is a comedian, an attorney, and, I dare say, a historian (he at least retains a lot more data than I do about the art and architecture he saw on his first trip abroad) who is completely open about his own blunders in the pursuit of an expanded horizon. He makes some mistakes that to me, at first, seemed impossible in this day and age, but upon further reflection were not obviously avoidable without experience (although I maintain that trying to see three countries in one week is a goal only of the truly insane or clinically optimistic). In later chapters, I envied his ability to easily connect with people he meets on his travels, as I’ve always struggled to feel comfortable with strangers in my own language, much less in another.

The best thing though, was getting to read about his experiences visiting places I already love (the British Museum, the Louvre, a little restaurant that makes unbelievable soufflés). I found myself daydreaming of my own adventures and remembering both the transcendent and the frustrating aspects of succumbing to the travel bug. My mother and I sadly don’t get to travel much together these days, but reading this reminded me of what a gift she gave me by instilling the value of what the wide world had to offer me when I was young and eager to accept it.

Half-Resurrection Blues, Daniel José Older

After my vacation at the beginning of February, I took a sharp left from reading fiction. I’m not sure why, but every novel I started ended up abandoned somewhere between one and five chapters in, even though they were all books I got specifically believing I would enjoy them. My brain just wouldn’t engage in any of the stories or characters, and I felt bored and restless as soon as I sat down. I’ve found this happens every now and again, and often the remedy is either time, or picking up an old favorite and giving in to the well-worn love of a previous happy world.

Neither of those options were appealing to me though. My pig-headed nature wanted to force its way through this slump and into the wonderful arms of a new book. I wanted it so badly that I was willing to take a chance that I would cast aside Older’s new book, having forever tainted it with my bad mood. Make no mistake – it was a risk. I’ve loved his short stories, but that was not a guarantee that his warmth and wit would translate to a longer form. Part of me didn’t want to use him as a sacrificial lamb, but the other half – the dangerous, swashbuckling reader half – won out. Onto the pyre with you, Older, I thought, and let us see how you fare against this zombified brain!

As it turns out, his new series was a worthy opponent. It didn’t completely snap me out of my fiction funk, but the first installment was compelling enough to finish in about two and a half days. It certainly helped that I’ve already read and enjoyed stories about his protagonist in Salsa Nocturna Stories and had some idea about what I was getting into, but I also think Older has the sort of style that makes me want to pull up a chair and inhabit his version of Brooklyn.

For the record, while I’m certainly not anti-Brooklyn, I’m also not hip enough to have any desire to live there in its current incarnation. To be fair, I haven’t visited since I was a child, and in the eighties, it was a much grittier place, but that memory doesn’t put me off nearly as much as what I’ve heard it’s turned into – again, not because its evolution (an evolution much like those that take place in cities worldwide as financial waves ebb and flow) is so terrible, but because even from afar, it doesn’t appeal to me. New York has never been one of my heart’s homes. It’s too brash, too extroverted, too aware of its own importance for me to relax for even a moment when I visit. I constantly feel underdressed and ill at ease in my own body, even as I’m taking in all the wonderful things the city has to offer.

This is surely why it amazed me to find his version of the city so charming and accessible. Older is patiently aware not only of its current existence, but also of its history. He respects the many threads that come together to create such a place and then finds a way to blend Brooklyn’s diverse tapestry into the perfect setting for a ghost war. The city itself is one of his greatest characters and he consistently does right by it, ensuring people like me, with little or no investment in such a place, feel connected and part of the scene.

 

For more about Daniel José Older, head over here.

Bonus Tuesday Post!

For one week, and one week only, my seaside thriller Circ (collaboratively written with an amazing international crew of savages authors) is available for free on Kindle! Here! Or, if you happen to be in the UK, you can grab it here!

If you’ve only joined the J’adore community recently, you can read all about how this book came to be under the Ten to One tag. If you’re already in the know and haven’t had a chance to buy a copy, I hope you’ll take this opportunity to pop over and grab one (did I mention it was free?!).

Circ was an incredibly fun book to write, and I can’t begin to tell you how much I learned about sword swallowing, Romanian history, meat processing, modern art, and close quarters hand to hand combat in the process. Oh, and did I mention fire? I studied everything from how one can swallow it safely, to how long it takes to get untied from a chair in a room engulfed in flames, to what a death from arson can do to a community. Not many of my other projects have pushed me to research such diverse topics, but it was all for the best. I only hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed putting all the pieces together…

Razvan Popescu lives in a flat overlooking the seaside town of Skegness. He keeps himself to himself and few know the man at all. Even fewer know his past, which he has tried to leave behind in the Romanian woods.

But when a tattooed stranger is found murdered on the beach, it is clear that past has followed him to this tacky seaside town. As a battle erupts within the criminal fraternity, dark forces gather around the town and Popescu’s acquaintances find themselves dragged into a world of violence, fire and fairy tales.

One thing is certain: the circus has come to town.