Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ready for Corn!

I wanted everyone to see how hard I have been working - two major project these last two weeks and one was getting the area for corn ready.  It would have been easier if  I didn't also have to protect the rows from a toddler that likes to tromp through rows of dirt and an evil cat.

This was the area I had for corn.  Doesn't look like much, does it?  When I bought the house, this was all barkdust and rock, on top of black plastic, which was on top of more barkdust, more plastic, more barkdust and more plastic.  Three layers!  We found this out last year when we set the raised beds.  We had to rake back the barkdust, cut away the plastic, rake, cut, rake, cut - you get the idea.  I wanted to make sure I had some drainage at least.  In the year since getting rid of the plastic - well, most of it anyway, grass, weeds, etc took over.  I had several cubic yards of soil dumped in the front to finish the bean raised beds, and planned on using the rest for the corn.  And so I started pulling grass and weeds.

This was the first row of corn planted.  I needed to get it in as soon as possible.  so this was done about the first weekend in May.  I had some scrap pieces of row cover I had saved for this area - good thing too, as we have had rain and rain and some hail storms since planting the corn.

I had a wonderful four-day break from work, courtesy of my job (an unpaid furlough day), a weekend, and one day of vacation.  I took that time to finish ( between rain showers) the corn area, plant another row of corn with my granddaughters help, and build a gate - to keep her in.  She is not too happy about the gate.

Along the green plastic fence we will be planting sunflowers.  And I have two more areas for corn.  Once the corn is 4 inches high, I will be planting another variety of pole bean.  this will add nitrogen to the soil and help stabilize the corn - we get a lot of westerly winds in this area.  Soon I will also plant winter acorn squash - the large leaves on the vines will help keep the weeds down ( which are nutritional competition for the corn - a heavy feeder.  The hay in the rows also will help keep weeds down ( after all, I did all that work to get rid of them) and will also add nutrients as a mulch.  This trinity of corn, squash and beans is following a centuries old practice that first nation people used - this continents first organic farmers.  I can't plant anymore until I have a way to cover what I plant ( because of granddaughter and evil cat) - so have to wait till payday!  It is supposed to rain for the next week anyway, so that gives me some time ( to weed the beds by the grape area).

Sorry to throw three postings at you all at once - I am done for now!  If you want more info, just let me know.  I have had several requests from friends and am working on getting those answers to them - but probably not till mid-June sometime.


May Garden Update

When not writing pithy postings, I am usually out in the garden frantically trying to get everything done in between rain showers.  So here is a picture-strewn posting of where we are at in the garden.  I would have included the ten or so strawberries that were ripe, but a certain two-year old denuded the beds of anything remotely red.

Tomato's are doing well, these ones in front are Amish Paste and Roma grown from seed

Blue Lake Pole Beans are finally up!
Planted in front of the beans is Calendula officinalis, an old world marigold mentioned in British herbals.  They are both used as a medicine and are edible. Seeds from Nichols Nursery

 Broccoli is doing well under its light row cover - not one sign of any cabbage moths yet.  Yeah!  Almost time to increase the height of my tubing though.

 First row planted of corn is coming up - took about 8 days - 
This is golden Bantam - an open pollinated non-hybrid corn from the early 1900's
Germination temp is supposed to be 80 degrees - I cheated by increasing the soil temp with row cover

Grapes are finally leafing out - this is a real learning curve for me, so stay tuned as I figure out how to grow these - using our Master Gardeners as a resource

Second year for the Marionberries - this patch is just covered with blossoms!

These are Tall telephone (Alderman) peas, an heirloom variety, open pollinated - pods are about a week away from being ready to pick.  Oregon sugar pods have not started blooming yet, but I have high hopes for them - if we could just get some sun...

Time to start cutting back and harvesting my sage

The above pic shows the first stage in my succession planting for salad makings.  From left to right, you see Nichols Mesclun Mix, Chantenay Red Core Carrots, and Champion Radishes.  I will plant a section about every two - three weeks.  these are two weeks old, so will plant three more sections this weekend.  that way I constantly have a supply of salad makings - and I know from experience, I will have plenty to share with friends and neighbors!  the thing about Mesclun is that you don't pull it - you cut it about two inches up, and then it will keep on growing.  these plantings are on the north side of the bean poles, so I have to grow them now before the beans get too high and make this too shady.  although at the NW end, I will probably be able to grow mesclun all summer long - it gets some afternoon light, but doesn't get the heat of summer - lettuces like the cooler temps.  I love this mesclun mix - It contains Red Romaine, Simpson Elite, Salad Bowl, Royal Oak, Red Oakleaf, Red Russian Kale, Mizuna Mustard and Garden Cress.  this makes the best salad ever!  This is the salad mix you pay $7 to $10 a pound for in the markets.  Last year I used a small package that cost about $4-$5, still had seed left over, even after giving a third of the packet to my son in Seattle.  And we had lettuce all summer.  If you think it is too late for planting anything, you are wrong - you can keep planting until it gets too hot.  The heat of summer isn't always the best for lettuces, unless you have a spot that gets afternoon sunshine only.  If you are not ready to plant now, go ahead and get your area ready; you can seed in full sun areas probably in September, and keep harvesting until it freezes ( maybe longer if  you use row cover)

Well, I have more to post.  But will start a new posting for the next bit.

The Velociraptor and Hitler’s mistress

The velociraptor “shows extraordinary intelligence, even problem-solving. That one... when she looks at you, you can tell she's working things out.”  (From Jurassic Park 1)  Meaning “speedy thief”, velociraptor is my nickname for my granddaughter.  She watches you, working things out.  How are doors opened?  How do I get through every barrier they put up to keep me out of things?  How do I climb like a cat?  A lot of my garden defense strategy is not to keep bugs or animals out, but my granddaughter.

At the Ag Fair in Salem - not intimidated by anything bigger then her

She loves to run through piles of dirt, climb into freshly planted raised beds, “pick” the plants I have just planted – after all, she did watch us harvest stuff last year.  Given free range of the garden, a two-year-old can cause a lot of havoc.  So can an evil cat.

I don’t know why my daughter and son-in-law named the stray they befriended last summer after Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun.  Eva is not a nice cat – well, she wasn’t at first.  She hissed at everyone, hates the other cats, will never be fully tamed.  But she was grateful for a winter indoors, where she slept and ate a lot, even mellowing out some.  And then spring came, and she was outdoors all day.  Using the onion bed as her personal digging space.  So I covered that up. 

 My "Onionsaurus"

Then she switched over to the cucumber bed.  And I covered that up.  

I have been following that cat around the garden shooing her out of raised beds and creating coverings so she won’t dig in them.   
She has sat in the parsley I raised from seeds and destroyed them.   
She has attacked my catnip (along with a few other cats in the neighborhood) and I have had to protect that from her, since that is a cash crop for me.

I knew the catnip would be an issue this year, so was proactive in protecting it
At least this year the catnip has had a chance

Cold weather, rain, bugs; these are not the only dangers to your garden.  As you plan your garden, you have to take into account your pets, the strays that wander through your yard, your children; all those plants have to be protected against these threats.  Which is another reason why row cover rocks!

Still, I would rather face these threats, then 15-20 deer that can come in at night and wipe out a garden.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Defining, "Living Simply"

Simple, from the Latin simplus. to reduce in complexity, reduce to basic parts, to make easier to understand.  It also means not complex, elaborate; not deceitful, sincere.  It can also mean a fool, and I have felt like one of those often enough.

In the context of the title of this blog, I think I am going for reducing in complexity. Did you ever think, “My life is too complicated, I wish it were simpler?”  But how do we accomplish that?   Neighbors walking past me working in my garden last summer would comment on how they wished they could live the simple life like I was.  Simple? Have you ever tried to grow enough food to feed your family through the winter?  There is nothing simple about it! 

I know there is an idyllic viewpoint about people who garden, can their own food, sew their own clothes, eat organically, recycle everything; but none of these choices are simple.  In some ways living this way can increase the complexity of your life.  So how do we find a way to live that is less complicated?

For me, it is all about choices – not just for now, today and this week, but for years to come.  It is less complex for me to eat out every meal, until I add in the factor that I would have to work more to pay for that choice, which would increase my stress, and my health would eventually suffer from all the preservatives, fat and sugar I would consume.

I have spent a lot of time finding suppliers of organic foods, but that is also an expensive choice, so I save money growing my own food   But that choice adds complexity to my life also.  I have to research, decide what type of seeds to plant, when to plant, pick slugs off the plants, and weep when worms destroy my cabbage.  I have a friend who struggles ever year to keep her dogs away from the broccoli – she has yet to harvest any, but she has really healthy dogs.  In making these choices, we are growing toward a vision of what we want our life to be, and that satisfaction is where “Living Well” comes into focus.

I have a vivid memory of my oldest daughter bringing home from school a “Just Say No!” button, from an anti-drug program.  She told me I needed it more then she did; and she was right.  I had bought into pressure from media, peers, friends and neighbors that in order to be a good parent, I needed to say, “Yes” to anyone and every program that asked for volunteers.  I was a single mom that worked full time, but was also a 4-H leader, a Sunday school teacher, sang in the choir, baked for fundraisers, chauffeured my kids to school events and clubs, and I was tired all the time.  I had very few friends that I could hang out with – I was too busy.  In the end, all I was teaching my kids is how to fill up their day with busyness; some of it had value, and some did not. When I received that button over fifteen years ago, it was a wake-up call.  Since then, I have been happily saying, “no”, and spending more time playing games with my kids, reading good books,  watching sunsets and working on making my life less complicated.

In the 1970’s, a friend gave me some prose she had written on what it meant to be “earthy”; that was the catchphrase of the day forty years ago.  Her list was comprised of things like riding a bike really fast with the wind blowing your hair back and feeling joy in that, jumping into a cold lake on a really hot day; simple things that you could take pleasure in.  My list would include working in the garden early in the morning and there are no sounds in the neighborhood, just the birds singing, and a nuthatch flying down and perching in the vine above my head and singing to me (probably hoping I will expose some bugs).  It would also include watching my granddaughter become a passionate gardener – planting, and watering and being introduced to the joy of helping things grow.  Being earthy is not caring about your manicure (hard to do as a gardener – and think of all the money you save!); getting giddy over the radishes poking their leaves through the dirt – when something simple can fill you with a moment of pure joy, then you know you have simplified your life.

For more thoughts on living a simple life, check out the May-June 2011 issue of Connection – a newsletter for NW Friends.

I especially appreciated Colin Saxton’s musings on one of the Friend’s Queries, “Is your life marked by simplicity? Are you free from the burden of unnecessary possessions? Do you refuse to let the prevailing culture and media dictate your needs and values?”

For the uninitiated, Friends Queries are questions that we muse on, to help center us, to remind us about the things that ought to be important to us.  So I continue to wrestle daily with defining how to live simply.  What choices do you make that lead you to a simpler way of life?

Strawberries are ripe!

The power of row cover prevails!  There were 5 ripe strawberries this morning.  Left them for my granddaughter to pick.  Sorry - no pics now, but will post some when I get home.


My granddaughter thought they were delicious!  We'll have more by this weekend...


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Back to Eden

I was sixteen when I bought a book that was life-changing for me.  I was walking by a display of books at a local grocery store when a title caught my eye; “Back to Eden".  On the cover was the quintessential half-naked couple sitting by a stream with a garden/forest in the background.  I was in a hurry that day and didn't really look to see what the book was about, but liked the title and the idea it embodied (it was the 1970's) so paid for it and brought it home.  Later that night I opened it up, thinking it was about going back to a more natural way of living, and found it was a reference book about herbs.  Herbs? what are herbs?  It looked boring and I was mad at myself for spending the money and stuck it on my bookshelf. 

A bit worn, but this is the original I purchased in the 1970's

Eventually I picked it up and started reading through it, amazed that something you could grow yourself had the ability to cure you of all sorts of ills.  My mom didn’t cook with many herbs; mainly bay leaves, and occasionally oregano.  There was no place to get seeds of herbs that I could find, no internet to do research, so my knowledge of herbs grew very slowly.

In 1977 I worked in NW Portland; on my lunch hours I would walk around the historic neighborhoods and came across a shop on West Burnside called, “Jean’s Herb Shop”.  I walked in, and my true education about herbs started.  I visited Jeans shop almost every week, until we moved to West Virginia.  Shortly after my first daughter was born, we had an ice storm and the entire SE are of Portland was coated in ice – no one was going anywhere.  

My daughter had what I thought was a cold, but was getting steadily worse.  Her breathing sounded awful, and at only three weeks old, she couldn’t cough to clear her bronchial tubes.  I called the doctor but they said there was nothing they could do or recommend unless it was bringing her in, and no ambulances were moving that day.  So I called Jean and told her what was going on.  She asked me what herbs I had in the house and I named them off to her.  I ended up making up a weak tea of slippery elm and getting some spoonful’s into my daughter (FYI, it is nasty tasting stuff, so I added a bit of peppermint tea).  After twelve hours her breathing was clear and she was fine.  I was convinced of the efficacy of herbs. (I don't normally recommend giving anything to an infant like this, but I was desperate).

It was at this point that I really started reading Back to Eden and taking it seriously.  I started using herbs for basic complaints that we all get, keeping several herbs on hand at all times.  I now have over thirty years’ experience using herbs.  I want to say that I have no hesitation taking my kids to the doctor or the hospital – the work they do is amazing and I am in awe of the knowledge they have.  I have been fortunate that the doctors we deal with are aware of herbs and vitamins and their uses and encourage us to use them as a first line of defense.  Recently my daughter who has congestive heart failure had a stroke and her medicines needed to be adjusted.  Because of this, she started having migraines all the time.  Her neurologist recommended CoQ10 and Feverfew.  Feverfew is an herb that has a long-standing reputation for the treatment of migraine headaches.  It takes a few weeks to build up in the blood stream, but once it does it should lessen the incidents of migraines.  That is certainly what happened to my daughter.

When my daughter was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, I researched the herbs that she would need to support her and help give her more energy.  I started her on those herbs and she took them steadily for about a year.  But then came a week where I had forgot to fill them, and decided to see if not taking them made any difference.  Wow, what a difference not taking those herbs made to her energy level, her mood, etc.  So now she takes them every day, and her cardiologist supports her taking them.
Those herbs are hawthorn, garlic, and cayenne

Over the years, I have dosed my kids, and made recommendations to many people on what herbs to use, and in almost everycase they have given relief.  But you should let your doctor know if you are taking any herbs or vitamins if you are currently on medication, because some can actually interfere.  For instance, Dandelion capsules (dried leaf) are something I took for a variety of reasons; it is a liver tonic, and also helps with chronic joint pain which I get with my fibromyalgia.  When I was diagnosed with diabetes, I had to cut down on the amount of dandelion I took, because it also lowers blood sugar, and can interfere with my diabetes medication.  

So work with your doctor, read really good reference books, do research on the internet – a lot of sites will tell you if you shouldn’t take the herb if you have a certain condition. 

And for all of you who fight to kill off dandelions in your yard, shame on you!   

The fresh juice of the Dandelion can be applied externally to fight bacteria and heal wounds; it has a strong antibacterial action.  Dandelion is used to treat gall bladder, kidney and urinary problems, used as a diuretic in edema, which is an issue with high blood pressure and heart problems – and it doesn’t deplete the body of potassium like some other diuretics.

Dandelion is used as a tonic, blood purifier, for constipation, joint pain and liver issues.  The old timers in West Virginia ate dandelion leaves in the spring to get rid of toxins, made a tea from the leaves ( sometimes along with sassafras)  and the roasted roots are a good substitute for coffee (and better for you)
So what are the herbs that I keep around all the time?


Chocolate Peppermint


Peppermint – my house has not been without peppermint tea since I first started using it in 1977.  Peppermint will help with nausea, will strengthen your entire system, and I use it to mix with other herbs that don’t taste so well.  This herb is so amazing; there is not room in this posting to cover all it can do.  So read in a good herbal reference book (Like Back to Eden) all that this does.  It also is beautiful to look at, and fresh peppermint tea tastes great!  We have a chocolate peppermint ground cover around some of our vines that my granddaughter just picks and eats.  I always encouraged my kids to drink some peppermint tea when they got home from school – it has a calming effect.  (Probably one of the reasons it was used in mental hospitals a hundred years ago).

Favorite Peppermint story:  In the 1980’s a master chess player was teaching me how to play chess.  He started coming over about 2-3 nights a week to play a couple of games, and I would always serve peppermint tea, which he really liked.  He was a professional chef, and like most, a little high-strung.  After a couple of weeks we had a game that lasted almost an hour – he used to be able to checkmate after about 10 minutes.  He shook his head and said he didn’t know what was wrong with him, he was usually much better at chess, and he had lost his edge at work – he just felt so laid back and mellow (which apparently you don’t want as a chef) – he was really worried about what was wrong with him.  So I told him. It was the peppermint.  He was drinking too much, and it was mellowing him out.  He was horrified, and wouldn’t drink it after that.  So if you want to be on edge all the time, adrenaline pumping, etc., don’t drink Peppermint tea.

Red Raspberry Leaf

Red Raspberry Leaf – this to me is a miracle herb.  If you are irregular, it will correct that.  If you are constipated, or have the opposite problem, it will fix that.  It brings you back to normal.  Because of Red Raspberry Leaf and Peppermint tea, my kids never really had symptoms of the flu.  When my mom had gall bladder surgery, she was miserable for months afterwards, because she had the runs.  Couldn’t get rid of them.  Her doctor tried all sorts of medication, but nothing was working. Mom was so miserable she wanted to die.  I was living back east at that time, and of course, no internet, phone, etc.  So when I finally found out what was going on, I told her to drink Red Raspberry and Peppermint tea.  After three days, her misery was ended – she was normal again.  

Sage ( from my garden)
Sage – most people think of sage as a flavoring for breakfast sausage and stuffing, but in my family, it is the tea you drink when you have a sore throat.  We mix two spoonfuls of sage with a spoonful of hyssop and a spoonful of lemon grass, and then let that steep in a large teapot (or quart jar) for about 5 – 10 minutes.  Pour into a cup and add honey to taste – drink a couple cups a day for sore throats when you have a cold.  One of my daughters was an RA in college and all her girls would come to her for sage tea. I had to send her a pound of sage to keep up with the demand!  (FYI – that is a lot of sage!).
Hyssop – as mentioned above, excellent to take for colds, especially when you have asthma (which several of us do).  Here is a great link for more info:
Lemon Grass – I so love this herb.  My dream is to be able to grow it, but since it needs to be brought indoors during the winter because it is so tender, and our cats eat anything green that is brought in, I would have to have a fenced off sun-room.  We use it in our sage tea for sore throats, but it is an ingredient in one of my favorite teas, Lemon Lift.  Here is a website to see what all this herb can do:

Turmeric – thought this was just an ingredient in Indian cooking like curries, didn’t you?  I keep this on hand for cuts and slivers that get dirty – a constant hazard working in the garden. Mixed with a little olive oil, I put the salve over the cut or other skin irritation – it draws the infection out and helps it to heal faster.  Check out this link for the other amazing things turmeric does:

Slippery Elm – I keep the capsules on hand at all times.  If you have a cold that is hanging on, this will help when you get over it.  Many of my fellow co-workers have taken this and can attest to its effectiveness.
I just realized that if I listed all the herbs that I keep on hand and how important they are, this blog posting would be way too long to read.  So do this – get yourself a copy of Back to Eden, or, any other good modern Herbal guide.   I have another guide I use a lot that is all about Kitchen remedies – herbs and spices you commonly find in your kitchen and what their medicinal uses are.  That is how I started using Turmeric, cayenne and ginger for common health problems.

Where to get herbs?  You can grow some of them, but others you will need to purchase.  We are lucky in the Northwest that Fred Meyers carries a lot of the common herbs like Peppermint, Red Raspberry leaf, sage, etc., in bulk in the natural food section.  In Portland, there is Limbos on 39th next to Trader Joe's.  If there is no local supplier, a reliable source on line is  

This business supports sustainable agriculture and is certified organic.  If you are buying bulk herbs, buy just what you think you can use within a month or two.  Do not store in plastic, but store in glass jars, and store in a darkened cupboard – exposure to light can weaken the effectiveness of herbs. 

Again, check with your doctor if you are on any medications.  Or if you are seriously ill I would see a doctor first.  But give herbs a chance – it is amazing to me how many studies are currently going on studying the effectiveness of herbs (and then the pharmaceutical companies try to imitate with chemicals the natural substance so they can make money on it).  

Ah – it is time for some hot peppermint tea - perfect after a day working in the garden.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Bean House

“Beans, Beans, the American Fruit,
The More you eat, the more you toot”

I heard these words at least three to four times a week growing up; every time we sat down to dinner and had green beans.  It took me a long time to figure out that the words my dad quipped upon beholding the green beans were not about green beans, but referred to dry legumes, like navy or white beans.  So it was probably something that he grew up with that he had to say.  And he said this so often because green beans were always on our table; they were a staple in our diet.

My mom and dad had two main crops in their garden; tomatoes and green beans.  They grew enough of these in just a small city garden to feed a family of 5 for a year.  That worked out to about 300 quarts of beans.  In order to get that much from just twenty-five to thirty feet of plantings, you have to start picking when the beans are small – the size of haricot verts.  You have to pick every day, because as soon as the bean plant starts forming beans with actual beans in them, it starts shutting down; it’s job is done.  We usually picked beans up through the frosts in November.  I was so glad when the canning was finally over.

I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have home canned beans till I went off to college.  It was there I discovered the taste and texture difference between our home canned beans and the ones commercially canned.  When I lived in Ohio and West Virginia, I was horrified to find that they grew beans until there were huge seeds in them and the outer part was tough – then cooked then for several hours in bacon fat till they were mush.  I shudder even now remembering the horror of it.

One of the influences behind our purchasing a house in 2009 was so I could grow enough beans to have for the whole year.  One of my daughters is on a sodium-free diet, and there is too much sodium in commercially canned and frozen vegetables.  So I needed to grow a lot of beans!  Having a small yard, I needed to take advantage of every space, which is why I decided to have a bean house.

A play space for my granddaughter

I saw a great pic on the Internet of a “house” where three of the four walls were trellis for beans; the fourth wall was the front of the house with windows and a door. click on the link below for a look at what inspired me:

Bean House

Perfect for my granddaughter, but it wouldn’t give me the amount of space I needed for beans.  So this is what I came up with:

My oldest daughter was visiting from Minnesota last year (2010) for her brother’s college graduation and I talked her into helping me with this project.  It only took a couple of hours to set up, making up 6’ x 8' panels, stringing them with garden twine, and then leaning them together to form a triangle.  Three sets were pushed together, and then bolted together for stability.  The kids removed strips of the sod next to the bean racks, and two weeks later I planted my bean seedlings.  I had to put up some fencing to keep my granddaughter out - didn't keep out the grass though.  This was in mid-June 2010.  Even though I had a late start, we canned about 65 quarts and 25 pints of beans, and gave away 6-7 gallons of beans.  We picked beans up till mid-November; they would have gone longer but we had let too many vines let the beans get too big, so they stopped setting blossoms.

The Bean house was almost perfect.  It did exactly what I thought it would do – draw my granddaughter in – she loved running up and down the grassy area – create a shady spot to hang out, and the beans were easy to pick, hanging down the inside area.  The only drawback was picking the beans at the top – the area was so narrow, you came away with bean leaves stuck all over your hair and clothes from brushing against them.  Clearly a modification would have to be made.

Bean House, circa 2011

During the early spring, I unscrewed the sections, tipped them over, took off the wood that held them together at the peak, and put in spreader sections I had made.  Once I had all three done, I just tipped them back into place and screwed them together.  Then I decided it would be easier if I actually had raised beds to plant the beans in, so added those.  It did take about a cubic yard of soil mix to fill the beds – all 36 feet!  Then I thought back to the original house I had seen on the Internet, and with the leftover cedar fence boards from making the raised beds, decided to seal off the end of the Bean House.

What it looks like now:

Added the section in at the top

 Built raised beds on either side
 Covered the end - being whimsical only takes a little extra time
 Added supports inside for the row cover supports
View from the outside

 detail of support - the other end is pushed down over 24" rebar
 One side complete
 Beans and carrots planted and row cover added

I still need to make a door for my granddaughter to go in and out.  She loves the windows. She filled the window boxes with soil herself, and I planted the flowers for her.

 I had some vines in planter boxes that we just stuck at the ends last year - my son-in-law dug those in for me - they had chocolate peppermint growing in the boxes so that will probably spread as ground cover - unless my granddaughter eats it all - she loves to come out and pick the leaves and eat them.

I still have the other side to do, but had to get the tomatoes planted - they were growing up into my grow lights - still a bit chilly out, but I have the row cover on so hopefully they will do OK. When I have the other side done, I will post a picture of the completed "Bean House".

Monday, May 2, 2011

2011 Children's Book Week

This week marks the 95th Children’s Book Week, started in 1916 as a joint effort of the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association in cooperation with the Boy Scouts of America.  The idea was actually one the BSA librarian Franklin Matthiews had in 1913 when he was touring the country promoting higher standards for children’s books.

In 1945, the newly created Association of Children’s Book Editors took over sponsoring the week, and this group grew into the Children’s Book Council (CBC).  The Children’s Book Week is the nation’s longest-running literacy initiative.  The CBC is also responsible for the “Every Child a Reader” program.
I remember with fondness Children’s Book Week when I was in Grade School (it was held in the fall back in the 1960’s).  I still have some of the books that I was allowed to purchase; Misty of Chincoteage, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, The Yearling, Charlotte’s Web, The Giving Tree and Where the Wild Things Are to name a few.  

My kids love to read as much as I do.  I still have the lists of books they read for summer reading programs at our local library.  My son’s choices should have clued me in to the track he would follow in college.  At the age of four, his reading list, (which we had to read to him) was all non-fiction; an assortment of astronomy, geology, archeology and engineering books all picked from the older kid’s side of the children’s library.  His older sisters who were the readers were none too happy about these choices, but he insisted.  He would later graduate from the University of Washington with a double major in physics and astronomy – yes, I am proud of him.

With children, it is important that they be given access to books from a very young age. That they be read to, and allowed to read as many books as they can manage.  My father told me that if you can read, you can do anything, and that is what I passed onto my kids.  If you can read, and be able to comprehend what you read, it doesn’t matter how much money you make, if you have cable TV, video games or computers at home.  I didn’t have the money to provide all that for my kids, but books at our local library were free, and we went to the library every week.  When my son was given the assignment in grade school to bring in a picture of a favorite place to hangout, he asked me to take him to our local Borders.  He asked the manager if he could climb part way up one of the ladders and take a picture of his favorite corner, complete with a leather chair where he liked to sit and read.  

When I looked at the books that my kids were required to read in school, I was shocked by the omissions.  I obtained a list of books from the American Library Association of the books that you should have read by the time you graduated from high school, and made a goal of them reading books off that list during their summer break.  Even so, my oldest daughter was surprised when she attended college, that there were books the professors assumed students had read that she hadn’t, and she had to scramble to catch up.

Reading was what gave my kids the edge in school, despite our simple lifestyle and lack of money to buy what other families had.  They were honor roll students throughout their school careers; all went to college and did well there.  My oldest daughter has a master’s degree in library science.  My youngest daughter, who is a stay at home mom, is also editor of a local magazine for moms and a writer.  My middle daughter had her education interrupted because of a health condition, but reading is her main joy now, and she writes reviews of new books for a website.  My son is getting ready to start graduate school – he doesn’t watch much TV, but he still makes time for books.  

Shining war-gear in the vessel’s hold
Kids are more able to comprehend than you might think.  I never assumed a book was too old or had language in it too difficult for them to comprehend.  If they didn’t know a word, they should look it up.  A good example of this was when my son read Beowulf.  He was in either 5th or 6th grade at the time.  I was reading a new translation by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (see link below).  I think my son was initially drawn to the book by the cool armor on the cover.  Then I told him that this was a book that normally you didn’t read until college, (I knew that would challenge him).  He skewered me with his most haughty look and demanded I give him the book.  And he loved it.  It was a bit shocking for his teachers to see him carting around a copy of Beowulf – I think this is when they began to notice him for the first time as an outstanding student.

What adults don’t understand is that prose like this is easy for a child to understand:
Men climbed eagerly up the gangplank,
sand churned in the surf, warriors loaded
a cargo of weapons, shining war-gear
in the vessel's hold, then heaved out,
away with a will in their wood-wreathed ship.
Over the waves, with the wind behind her
and foam at her neck, she flew like a bird...
My son was shocked that there wasn’t a copy in their grade school library for other kids to read, so he bought one and donated it to the school.  He did the same thing in his junior high and high school.  How many kids were introduced to Beowulf because a boy loved this book so much?  Adults are the ones that put limits on children, they don’t.  Adults introduce a book, assuming that it will be difficult, not interesting, and too hard to understand.  

In Walden, Thoreau despaired that people got through school, and then when they leave school, “…our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins”.  I belonged to a book group a few years ago where we chose to read. “Saving the Appearances, a study in Idolatry”, by Owen Barfield.  We invited a professor of literature from a local university to join us when we discussed the book.  He came, but was in shock.  He had struggled for years to get junior and seniors in college to read this book, and here we were reading it voluntarily.  I told him that if I had read this book as a young person, it would have changed my life.  It wasn’t an easy book to read, but it was memorable.
Enjoy Children’s Book Week, whether you have children or not.  Perhaps it is time to look as what you may have missed growing up.  I have a coworker in his mid-twenties that never heard of Aesop’s Fables.  I was so shocked; I didn’t know what to say to him.