Read aloud books for raising progressive children

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One of the greatest gifts we can give to our children is to read to them from a wide variety of literature. The more stories and concepts they are exposed to, the more they will be able to form their own well-informed and well-rounded views. Forming that view themselves and coming to a progressive world view themselves is also important: education should never be about indoctrination. Rather, through wide exposure to literature and encouragement to think and reason for themselves, education should be an antidote to ignorance or wilful malevolence.

These are some of my (entirely subjective) favourite read-aloud books for raising progressive children. My list is never going to cover all the books that are out there. I’m always looking for more and I’d love to hear any recommendations of others!

1. ‘In My Heart: A Book of Feelings’ by Jo Witek, illustrated by Christine Roussey.

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This lovely book encourages emotional intelligence and mindfulness of the child’s own feelings and others’ feelings. Being able to recognise and articulate their own feelings and the feelings of others is a crucial skill in developing empathy.  The ability to feel empathy for others who are different to oneself is one of the cornerstones of raising a child who is thoughtful and compassionate.

2. ‘What Shall We Do, Blue Kangaroo’ by Emma Chichester Clarke.

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A modern Australian classic, this makes my list because every time Lily asks for help and the grown-up is too busy, Lily says “I’ll have to try and do it by myself” and in the process she discovers she is far more capable than she thought. A good early introduction for fostering independence and having a go on your own.

3. The ‘Alfie’ Series by Shirley Hughes (especially ‘An Evening at Alfie’s’ and ‘Alfie Gets in First’).

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Absolute classics. These make my list though because of a minor character: Mrs. McNally’s Maureen. This teenaged girl is a great role model for Alfie and all children. She is sensible and confident, and keeps her head and problem solves when things go wrong. One of the things she is thinking about being when she leaves school is a plumber. She is quietly yet unabashedly badass.

4. ‘Some Boys’ by Nelly Thomas

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This book is the perfect book about inclusive masculinity and accepting boys as who they are, in every way that might look like. ‘Some Girls’ by the same author similarly celebrates all the different ways to be a girl.

5. ‘Just The Way We Are’ by Jessica Shirvington and Claire Robertson

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A great ABC published book that celebrates families of every shape and size. It has as its core message “my family might not look like yours but that’s okay, we are perfect just the way we are”. It includes a family with foster kids, a family with two dads and a family of just one parent and one kid.

6. ‘I’m Australian Too’ by Mem Fox, illustrated by Ronojoy Ghosh.

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This picture book tells the stories of Australian children from different cultural backgrounds, including an Indigenous child, a child from Afghanistan who came by boat, and another child who is still in detention. Beautiful and not in the least bit subtle, the overall message is we share our country and everyone is safe and welcome here.

7. ‘When I Was Little, Like You’ by Mary Malbunka

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I was educated for seven years in the Australian school system and six in the New Zealand school system. But my knowledge of Māori and Māori culture vastly exceeds my knowledge of Australian Indigenous cultures. I’m by no means an expert on Māori culture, history and language, but at least I feel like I have some understanding of it and in that sense I feel New Zealand does a much better job of honouring their Indigenous populations and including Māori in education. I’m trying to learn more about Australian First Nations cultures and make an effort to expose my children to an outlook that recognises that we live on land stolen by our ancestors from the world’s oldest continuous civilisation. This book is not about the Ngunnawal People, who are the traditional owners of the land we live on, but written by a Warlpiri/Luritja woman who grew up at Papunya, 250km west of Alice Springs. I love it because it talks about her childhood in a really relatable way for children and introduces Luritja words within the text in a similar way that I was exposed to Māori as a child in New Zealand.

8. ‘Ziba Came On A Boat’ by Liz Lofthouse, illustrated by Robert Ingpen.

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Based on a true story, a gentle but moving tale of a little girl who misses how her life used to be before she and her family lost everything and she went on a brave journey to make a new and safe life in a foreign land.

9. ‘A Year On Our Farm’ by Penny Matthews, illustrated by Andrew McLean.

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Another distinctly Australian book that follows a family through the changing seasons and the cycle of life on their farm. I love that the months line up with the southern hemisphere seasons, and that the book doesn’t shy away from the reality of animals dying on the farm. Part of learning to care about our environment is learning about it through observation. Learning about our food chain, climate and broader sustainability is also introduced gently within the story. Animals are born, animals die, there are rain and dry periods.

10. ‘Walking with the Seasons in Kakadu’ by Dianne Lucas, illustrated by Ken Searle.

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A weather nerd at heart, I love observing the changing seasons around me. This book is beautifully illustrated and describes the six seasons in Kakadu including the weather and what plants and animals are doing each season. Even though these seasons don’t align with what we experience here in Canberra, it is no more foreign than reading books about the four seasons of Europe and North America and in truth far closer to home. This story is another way I can remind my children about how relevant the ancient knowledge of the First Nations People is to this day. I would love to find a similar book about the seasons we experience here in Ngunnawal Country. I have Sprinter and Sprummer by Timothy Entwisle but I’d love to find a children’s book if anyone has any recommendations.

11. ‘Oh The Places You’ll Go’ by Dr Seuss.

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An activist’s guide to life. What’s not to love about a book that encourages children to get out there and make a difference, to weather life’s challenges, and all in verse to boot.

12. ‘The Barefoot Book of Children’ by Tessa Strickland and Kate De Palma, illustrated by David Dean.

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Through the eyes of children from all over the world, this book is a celebration of diversity of cultures and families, while also drawing together the things and values that unite us as people. This is a multi-age book: younger children can connect with the story and illustrations, older children can delve into the encyclopaedic guide to the illustrations at the back to learn about what the illustrations are depicting.

A bonus entry: ‘The Bananas in Pyjamas’ series by Katrina Van Gendt
(Bedtime Book, Playtime Book and Holiday Book).

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Now sadly out of print, these sweet and simple stories have fantastically detailed illustrations that kids love. They make my list because I love how a quintessentially Australian icon promotes and normalises all kinds of families: even those consisting of six adult Bananas co-parenting 12 (somewhat) diverse Teddies.

There is an interesting point to make as I come to the end of my list and cast my eye over the authors on the list to check for gender balance. When looking for books in shops and in fact while raiding my children’s bookshelf looking for progressive texts, I have never specifically gone looking for any particular group or subset of authors: I judge what gets included purely by content of the book. In this context I feel it is noteworthy that the list I have compiled has 14 female authors to 1 male.

 

*** Disclaimer ***

These are books I have purchased myself over the years and that I read to my children. The list and the reviews are my own but the links to the books are affiliate links.

 

For the love of trees

Twelve years ago Angus and I used to wander around the older parts of Canberra looking at the trees. We learnt to identify trees we liked and researched how fast they grew, how tall they grow and whether they were protected. We wanted fast growing, strong, deciduous trees for summer shade but that would still let in winter sun. We collected seeds from our favourites: oak, elm, ash, robinia, and started them in pots of the windowsill of our third storey apartment. When we bought this place in April 2007 we brought them with us and planted them out.

We watered them and waited.

And waited.

In the summer of 2011 when we got chickens they weren’t big enough to provide any shade yet.

We planted some “emergency” pittosporums and put out table tennis tables covered with tarps for shade in the interim.

And each year they grew a little.

Then it seemed like all of a sudden, around 2015, they were providing meaningful shade. Two of the pittosporums were now not necessary so we pulled them out.

And two summers ago we realised they were big enough to hang swings and hammocks from.

So here I am today. Chilling in a hammock that is hanging from two seeds that I planted in the ground 12 or so years back.

There’s still a few more trees I want to put in (more fruit trees especially) but present me is super happy with past me right now.

Its 37°C (98°F) today. But under the awesome power of natural evaporative cooling I am content.

They say the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.

I really really hate Christmas

I hate Christmas. Like I really really detest it. Not just for the rampant over-consumerism, the over-the-top decorations that appear in the shops in late October or the awful music the permeates every area of public space.

Our children’s grandma is what we like to refer to as a non-practicing atheist. She has no religious beliefs, but if you rocked up to her place at Christmas (or Easter for that matter) you would never know it. She observes holidays HARD CORE. She migrated from England to Australia several decades ago and therefore was heavily invested to all the English Christmas Traditions and Trimmings: decorations aplenty, much of Christmas day spent stressing over a full roast dinner (with Yorkshire puddings of course), eating and drinking all day long, far too many presents, general merrymaking and being with family at all cost, even if that means tensely ignoring any difference of opinion for the day so that there is just one day where everything is perfect. She has mellowed a lot in recent years and all things considered is very understanding and accommodating of my reluctant Christmas participation. She has however instilled in our children a love of Christmas that even though I can appreciate that she is making special memories with them, I really struggle with in general.

Because I hate the entire basis Christmas.

We are not Christian, so celebrating the birth of a god on a historically questionable and somewhat arbitrary date makes no sense to me. The last Australian census put “no religion” as the biggest population group, so it could reasonably be argued that Christmas doesn’t deserve to even be a national holiday anymore. I suspect this would go down like a tonne of bricks if anyone in parliament was game to suggest it though: we Aussies like our days off work. 

This is just the first part of my loathing of this particular holiday. When you remove the Christian traditions of Christmas you get a holiday with various elements of pagan origin. Plenty has been written about why these were integrated into modern Christmas, essentially that elements of Yul and Saturnalia which were pagan winter celebrations were assimilated or appropriated into Christmas in an effort to get the locals on board as Christianity spread.

But this pagan seasonal root is also then especially problematic for southern hemisphere people celebrating modern Christmas today. A winter celebration just Doesn’t. Make. Sense.

We bring evergreen (and introduced) species of trees inside to decorate with plastic sparkly stuff when we could just look at the abundance of greenery exploding outside in the glorious beginnings of summer. We decorate with fake snow that comes in a can to spray on your window so that you can pretend the weather outside is frightful in the completely opposite way to what your senses tell you it is. It is not the delights of a fire we should be worshiping but the icy cold blast of an air conditioner that saves us from 35°C heat. As well as melting outdoors along with the tar on the roads, we melt indoors from the oven that is cooking a traditional Christmas roast. Sure there have been local adaptations. People barbecue seafood. Eat cold platters of meat and salads instead of a roast. Go to the beach. Use plastic trees that can be reused for many years. But I just look at it and think: What Even Is The Point?

Why the fuck do we decorate with millions of twinkly lights when it is light until 9pm? We already have glorious light at this time of year. It’s called the sun and it produces around 15 odd hours of natural daylight each day. If you want to take little kids out to see the magic of pretty lights you have to stay up late and pay for it the next day with overtired crankiness.

So I have been desperately trying to opt out of Christmas for about seven years. We celebrate the solstices and equinoxes with the children and talk about the scientific reasons for the seasonal changes we can observe. We give gifts on the Solstices (usually the most gifts end up being on the Summer Solstice) and books on the equinoxes. There isn’t a particular reason why, that is just what we did once and suddenly it’s now a family tradition. (Ha. Irony.) 

Opting out of Christmas worked really well until Lily was at preschool where of course she was exposed to the countdown to Christmas hype and to the concept of Santa for the first time. Santa is another thing I really hate about Christmas. I don’t understand how this guy got so big. It is essentially lying to your children though manufactured evidence and making it all about a judgement of children’s character. I’ve recently possibly been swayed by Dale McGowan’s excellent writings on this by reframing Santa as the ultimate dry run for critical thinking. 

I sort of took this approach with my children, but without the manufactured evidence. It’s been really interesting to see how this has played out with my kids. Lily and Olivia are still firmly in the believer camp even though I have never given them any evidence to suggest this is the case: Angus and I give them our surprise gifts on the Summer Solstice and they get surprise gifts from their grandma on Christmas day, none are attributed to Santa. But the girls still invent countless ways that Santa could be real (“maybe he is like a wizard with a time-turner” etc). Lily I’m sure knows the truth but she is still holding out hope that Hogwarts is real too so I think Santa may be in the same area in her mind. 

Sam however basically heard about Santa as was like “Wot. Lol. Nope.”

This kid has had his bullshit detector cranked up to 11 since before he could talk. He gives me this look and I can see the cogs turning in his giant brain weighing up the evidence. I knew he was bright when he lost all interest in sucking his dummy at 4 months old when he discovered it had a hinge on the handle. He would turn it over and over in his pudgy hands examining the moving part trying to figure it out. This week a conversation I overheard went down like this:

Olivia (aged 5) says: I am a zillion percent excited for Christmas.

Sam (aged 6) says: no, that is not right. Percent means out of one hundred. You can’t use a number bigger than one hundred to show what you mean as a percent. Also a zillion isn’t a real number.

I have some religious friends and I have literally apologised in advance for stuff I know that will come out of this kid’s mouth given the right circumstance. Any mention of God and he will look them in the eye, cock his head and just straight up say “But you know gods aren’t real, right?”

I digress. Back to my hate for Christmas.

Tim Minchin has a quite beautiful secular song about Christmas called White Wine in the Sun. It talks about how Christmas is great and even though he is an atheist all he wants to do at Christmastime is be with his family, at home, where the people he loves are. It’s a lovely song. And this sentiment is great in theory.

But I don’t particularly want to be around people. The pressure of Christmas parties and big family get togethers where I’m obligated to make small talk with people and everything has to be perfect and magical is only manageable for me if I am uncomfortable and constantly focussed on doing and saying the right thing and am then subsequently so exhausted I need a nap. Self medicating by drinking is of course a commonly chosen coping mechanism but this is problematic for many reasons not least because it also usually means I still need a nap.

So I think ideally I would like to just not do Christmas at all. I have done this in the past. One Christmas I cleaned out the garage. Another I built a garden bed. Those were good times. But now my kids are older and have more opinions it’s harder to get away with just opting out. It’s taken 13 years but I think my mother-in-law is really starting to understand my position on this too. She said to me last week that she really appreciates that I indulge her at Christmas time and said I was welcome to just nap on her couch through the whole thing if I would like to. I appreciate that. So I will continue to indulge them all in this silly season and I will even try to be less grouchy this year though I probably realistically will still take a nap.

In the meantime, Happy Summer Solstice everyone.

 

Topping up

The snow peas I planted a month or so back have not done well. A combination of starting late, old seeds and neglect, I suspect. This weekend I topped up the bed with some indoor-sprouted seeds:

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They took a few days to germinate on the kitchen windowsill.

For either inspiration or demoralization, my dad’s snow peas look like this:

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Wine glass for scale and sustenance.

Happy winter solstice 2014

Happy solstice to all for tomorrow, and warm thoughts to everyone south of the equator. Tomorrow marks the shortest day of the year for us. Each day will bring us more hours of daylight thereafter: trickling slowly at first and then with increasing speed. This torrent of extra daylight will slow down again in autumn, stopping at summer solstice.

Tomorrow in Canberra it will be 9 hours 46 minutes between sunrise and sunset. By contrast that figure will be 14 hours 32 minutes in 6 months time.

Keep warm all: see you again on a longer day.

Winter garden 2014, part 1

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The beginnings of snow peas. Also on the left is Urtica dioica, the stinging nettle. Our soil was too dense, dry and low in nutrients to sustain then before, so I take their arrival as a good sign. If they grow well, I might try a nettle soup this year. To the right is a self seeded fennel plant. Getting a bank of edible plant seeds in the soil is a step towards a self-sustaining edible garden for us.

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These are broccoli and silver beet, chard, etc. The garden they’re in doesn’t get quite enough sun, so we’ll see how they do.

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Here’s the bodge greenhouse. It’s two discarded windows over a raised bed. The bed isn’t quite full of soil, so there’s a comfortable gap between glass and seedlings. It’s rocket and kale in here, which don’t really need coddling like this but I had the windows so why not?

Curing in 2014 part 2

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Curing progress: this is the progress on my second batch. A pork neck, in two pieces, which is now under the house, and a beef skirt, which is now in red wine. The cuts were two weeks in cure in the fridge.

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Hanging from a beam under the house. Looks a bit sinister, but in 6-8 weeks it will be porcine bliss. The beef will join them in about 4 days.

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