Archive for May, 2012

Backyard Birthdays for Tweens—Are They too Cool for All That Kids’ Stuff?

May 31, 2012

All my 8-year-old wants is a trip to laser tag for his birthday, yet my Tween wants me to recreate Middle Earth in our back yard. Go figure.

Much like Gus’s 10th birthday last year, I expected that this would be the year he’d opt for more standard fare, the trip with friends to the movies or a baseball game.  Frankly, I was a little relieved, as given his birthday comes just days after the baseball season ends, I’ve always found it a bit hard pulling off the magic backyard birthday party while also coaching two teams.

Alas, Gus is still a very imaginative fella, and loves fantasy play.  At school, he’s involved in the Hunger Games tag game the 5th graders invented for recess, an interesting sociological study in itself, as the so-called “popular kids” immediately gravitated to the role of the Career tributes in the book/movie despite the fact that those tributes were certainly not painted in a positive light.  And last week he bought his little brother an Iron Man mask with his own money just so they could play Avengers together.  It seems the drab details of reality have yet to make an impression on him.

Gus as Ring Wraith for Halloween 2011. Guess I should have seen this coming.

So, once more into the breech, dear friends.  This year Gus asked for a Lord of the Rings Party, his fantasy North Star.  But while the lure of having the birthday boy and his guests simply jump into the characters of those legendary books/movies, as I Googled “Aged Paper” in order to give the electronic-invitation a period feel, my inner nerd (okay, maybe not so inner) kept reminding me of last year’s party.  There I set the scene in modern times and had the kids involved as themselves rather than trying to get them “in character.”  This tactic seemed to work better for the Tween-types where suspension of disbelief becomes a more difficult trick.

But how does one bring Middle Earth to today’s kids?  Well, in true nerd-boy fashion, I decided to tell a story—the fourth book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, if you will.

Here’s the intro to the story in the form of the invite.  I believe I mixed in enough Hunger Games dystopia and a little zombie allusion while keeping to the spirit of the classic.  I told Gus that he would be free to reject this for a more straight-forward LOTR party.  He responded, “No, I really like this, as long as it has Orcs.”  Fair enough.

I’m pretty sure I know how to pay the party off, but I’m still thinking out a lot of the setup.  Any ideas from the crowd will be greatly appreciated and likely stolen without compensation (other than my thanks).

I’ll keep you posted on this party as it develops, and will give you a full report on whether the Great Eye of Blood (reusing a Halloween costume, hooray!) will cast the world into darkness, or will rise the Age of Children—though to be honest it’s been the Age of Children going on for going on eleven years in my house.

Read It Then See It: E. Aster Bunnymund and the Warrior Eggs at the Earth’s Core!

May 17, 2012

I gave one of my younger son’s friends a copy of Nicholas St. North, the first book in this Guardians of Childhood series, and he read it in a day.  He has now read this one four times and is begging for the third book to “come out already!”  My almost 11-year-old tore through the first one and dove immediately into this one.  A book that can be independently red and enjoyed as well by first graders as it can fifth graders is not extremely common, from my experience. UPDATE 4/23/13: Here are my reviews of the other two books,   Nicholas St. North and Toothiana, as well as my review of the Rise of the Guardians film.

The Book
E. Aster Bunnymund and the Warrior Eggs at the Earth’s Core!, By William Joyce.  Originally published in 2011.  Second in The Guardians of Childhood series.

The Movie
Rise of the Guardians, DreamWorks. Release Date, November 21


Age Appropriate
5 and up.  Much like Nicholas St. North, the language in this may be a little complex for very young readers.  The illustrations are excellent, but a bit more sparse than they were in the first book (I wonder if the push to get these out had something to do with that).  I would say that the peril to the children in the story feels perhaps a little more scary as well, as Joyce does a nice job building the tension off of the first book, so if your little one is easily frightened, be aware, though not to worry, it all turns out okay in the end.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes. While I found the story not quite as rich as the first, I was still quite entertained by the imagination of it all.

Book Availability
Not available in electronic format.  Widely available in print.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Don’t go trying to read this book first, as we pick up pretty much exactly where we left off as Ombric, Katherine, and St. North begin their hunt for the magical moon items that can fully defeat the evil Pitch and his army of Fearlings and Nightmare Men.  We are also introduced to an ancient, egg-obsessed creature called a Pooka, who lives a solitary existence on Easter Island ensuring that time moves on as it should.  Oh, and did I mention he looks like a giant rabbit and loves chocolate?

Not Easter Island, E. Aster Island

Trouble comes almost immediately as Pitch takes advantage of Ombric’s absence from his magical city of Santoff Clausen and casts an evil spell on the town’s guardians.  His army then takes all the children hostage and sets a trap for our heroes deep in the dark bowels of the earth.

Ombric, increasingly frail and tired, stays behind to free the others from Pitch’s spell, and St. North and Katherine take off to find the one creature that might be able to dig a hole deep and fast enough to help them save their friends—Bunnymund.  But the Pooka is at first indifferent toward the heroes’ plight, preferring to stay aloof from the affairs of silly and passionate humans.  But he decides to help them, and takes them to the Earth’s core on a rescue mission.  Pitch, however, has a new weapon, and is determined to possess all of Ombric’s knowledge in order to throw the entire world into darkness.

With the tide turned against our heroes, Pitch’s victory looks certain…unless a certain bunny decides it’s time to take a stand.

Quickie Review
It’s hard to follow-up a good as good as Nicholas St. North, and, frankly, this one is only great, rather than fantastically amazingly good.  Frankly, it just feels like a classic “middle chapter” in that we don’t have the richness of discovery.  We’re taken to the action pretty quickly, and some of that action just feels a little derivative of the first book, particularly the attack on Santoff Clausen.

Also, while I enjoyed Bunnymund’s character, a detached and truly eccentric being, the “connect-the-dots” of Easter-eggs-chocolate felt a little more “It is because I told you so” than the absolutely believable origin of St. North.

And you thought your kid got crazy when all hepped-up on chocolate

That being said, there is a LOT to love in this book.  One of the things I got immediately was the Kirk-Spock relationship between St. North and Bunnymund.  The heroic rush-in where angels fear to tread vs. the aloof logic rubbing up against each other, but finally combining to play off of each other’s strengths.  Also, this book dives deeper into the back-story of Pitch, bringing more depth to his descent into evil, and foreshadowing what I expect to be a Vader-like redemption.  Also the fact that Pitch is actually getting stronger, figuring out ways to make himself nearly invincible, adds to the dramatic tension and fun.

I was a little disappointed that there weren’t as many of the incredible illustrations to help suck you into this fantastic world as there were in the first book, but it is an enjoyable read that does what middle chapters are supposed to do—leave you wanting more.

Overall Read Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Of course, many of the themes from Nicholas St. North are continued in this book, but there are a few new and interesting dynamics in this book well worth mention in their own right:

Power of the Heart: As we learn in the first book, Pitch is a fallen hero, who had a daughter himself who, in a sense, helped to contribute to his demise.  Ombric gives us a closer look at the moment of Pitch’s fall into darkness, and a glimmer that the hero he was may still, indeed be somewhere buried deep inside.  Indeed, Katherine, for a scant moment, seems to bring him partially out of his demonic imprisonment.

This is a wonderful opportunity to discuss the nature of evil with your child.  Even in the midst of battle, Katherine looks to overcome Pitch not with the sword, but by appealing to the good she still sees inside him.  It’s a very “Luke-Vader” kind of moment.  The idea of not seeing your antagonist as an enemy, but appealing to their common humanity is a wonderful lesson that has as much application on the playground as it does at the Earth’s core.

The Power of Perspective: As I noted in the review, the Trek nerd in me really enjoyed the St. North-Bunnymund relationship.  The friction was very reminiscent of how J.J. Abrams constructed the Kirk-Spock relationship in the new Star Trek film.  And, like there, it works very well here, as Nicholas prefers to feel his way through, while E. Aster prefers to remain dispassionate.  It is when each borrows a page from the other that they are able to work best together.

I know I mentioned J.J.’s version, but I’m an old-school nerd

Both recognizing and valuing different perspectives is a core lesson in Conflict Partnership, and having this lesson taught by Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny is incredibly original.  Here, we see that neither of them are “wrong” in what they are seeing, they simply have divergent views as to both the nature of the problem and the solution.  Getting frustrated when people don’t immediately see things your way does not actually get you any further toward actually solving a problem.  Katherine’s role as mediator between the two, and finally as a point that unites them (a-la Kirk-Spock-McCoy, to extend the nerdiness) helps to show that by combining strengths, rather than focusing on differences, can we get to solutions where everyone (except the Fearlings and Nightmare Men, of course) wins.

The Hero’s Journey: Ombric is traveling down a well-worn path, the elder mentor, aged and failing, imparting wisdom to the next generation.  You can play a game with your child thinking about the many times they may have seen or read this before (cue Obi-Wan, Dumbledore, and Gandalf here).  But then you might ask why we see this convention used so often?  Is it that the mentor needs to disappear in order for the hero to truly become the central figure?  Is it a metaphor for growing up?  And what the heck is a metaphor?  This literary tact is an engaging way to talk to your kids about their own perspectives on what growing up means to them.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 4 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie
As I noted in the St. North post, from the preview, Rise of the Guardians looks like the movie will be an amalgam of the Guardians characters (though only the first two are out so far).

I found out that Joyce is actually serving as co-director on the film.  This gives me some added hope that we will get some of the same spirit in the story as we are getting from the books.  The fact that we seem to have the fully white-bearded Santa makes me think that we’re not going to get that same relationship between St. North and Bunnymund that I so enjoyed in the book.

As for E. Aster, rather than an ancient and eccentric Pooka, it seems the Pooka is a cross between Bugs Bunny and Crocodile Dundee.  It feels very mainstream to me—like the studio just didn’t get the delightful quirkiness of the book’s character and said, “Hey, he’s from the South Pacific, right, so why don’t we have him be some kind of sassy Australian guy!”

That said, there may be a lot to be said for telling this story differently on the big screen, so I’ll try to practice what I preach and go to the film with an open mind for different perspectives.

Next in this series: An unexpected journey.

“Could You Just Shut Up, Please?”

May 3, 2012

As I’ve noted in past posts, I coach both my sons’ baseball teams; a hectic, exhausting, and absolutely exhilarating endeavor.  My younger son, Gunnar, is really showing some signs of natural skill.  He’s developed a very pretty left-handed swing (far better looking than his old man’s) and is one of the few kids on his team that can consistently catch pop-flies and throws from his teammates.  Indeed I think we’re going to try and jump him to kid-pitch this fall and test out to see whether he’s ready for that big step.

First kid I know to break a metal bat. It died a hero.

Gus, my 10-year-old, however, has shown no such innate ability.  He’s not especially fast.  His arm is average at best. He does not have lightning quick reflexes and is naturally a bit ball shy.  His depth perception is not particularly good, making fly balls an adventure.  When he swings a bat, or fields a grounder, it all looks extremely robotic—like he has to think through every single step.

But despite this complete lack of natural talent, Gus has willed himself to become a very good baseball player.  So good, actually, that he got invited to play on the all-star team this past fall.  Every single coach he has ever had—myself included—all say the same thing about Gus: he’s a hard, hard worker.

At baseball camp in NC. 100 degrees and ready for more.

So for the past few weeks, Gus and I have been in the back yard, the cages, and baseball fields from dusty to swampy getting himself ready for the tryouts for the spring all-star team.  For while he was asked on the fall team, the spring team is much more competitive as many of the best athletes in the area play a sport other than baseball in the fall.  We had him in the best possible shape and he felt really good going into the tryout.

As we were driving there, I was chatting with him incessantly about what to remember.  “Relax and attack.”  “Run to the spot of the ball.”  “Glove to the ground.”  Nothing he hadn’t heard a thousand times before.  Amazingly, one valuable comment did escape my mouth.  I said, “Gus, normally I’m your coach, but here you are trying out for other coaches, and today I’m just your Dad.  So do you want me to give you advice during the tryouts, or just shut up?”  He paused for about, oh, three-tenths of a second, and replied, “Could you just shut up, please?”

Well, he was polite about it.

And, as agonizing as it was, I did just that.  And he had a very solid tryout.  He caught just about every fly ball, though, as always, each was an adventure.  He wrestled each ground ball into his glove and made solid, if not spectacular throws to first.  He hit a few balls hard, and fouled-off anything he couldn’t catch up to.  He was always around the plate with his pitches, and blocked a number of balls in the dirt when he caught.

When we heard that there would be only one tryout (last year there were two rounds) all of us went home feeling like he had a solid 50-50 shot at making the team.  Gus had spend the next two days talking to every friend, teacher, and building custodian he could find talking about how excited he was about the fact that he thinks he had a better chance this year of making the team than last year, and how nervous he was about it.

While Gus was at school, the e-mail came from the coach.  I opened it and saw it was addressed just to me—not a good sign under these circumstances.  It was indeed bad news: Gus had been among the last players cut from the team.  Here’s a bit of that very kind note:

“We really enjoyed working with Gus in the fall and have seen a dramatic improvement in his skills and his confidence as a ball player.  As always, Gus was attentive, hardworking, and respectful throughout the process and has been a pleasure to coach.  I know Gus will continue to work on his game and will be a better player for it.”

Immediately Kirsten and I started texting and talking a mile a minute trying to figure out the right approach to giving our boy this piece of crushing news.  Coach Joe had said a number of nice things about him, and that he’d like to reserve the opportunity to “call Gus up” if another player was not able to be part of the team for some reason.  So stress the positive, right?  We’re proud of him for giving it his all.  He should feel fantastic at the fact that he’s among the top 10-year-old ballplayers in all of Arlington.

And I used all of these lines, and a few I can’t remember word-vomiting out on the walk home from school.  But none of these words were a magic elixir, as I watched him struggle to hold himself together, his massive blue eyes welling up in disappointment.

I felt powerless.  I couldn’t fix this.  He had tried and failed, and he was devastated.  To make matters worse, he was scheduled to pitch for my team the very next day against the league team that Coach Joe is in charge of.  Unbelievably, my eternal spigot of words had run dry, so I just walked silently with him.  He kept a few paces ahead so as not to make eye-contact.  When we got home, he immediately made a bee-line upstairs to his room, and shut the door.

I could hear his cries of anguish from the floor below—my heart was shattering.  But despite my strongest desire to barge right in there and hug, hold, talk, soothe…to save him—I didn’t go in.  I realized that not only could I not rescue him from this pain, I couldn’t even make it a little better.  He needed to go through this himself.

An hour later, Gus emerged red-eyed from his room, hungry.  As I fixed him a snack, I casually mentioned the game against Joe’s team.  “If you’d rather not start tomorrow, that’s no problem, bub.”  At first, he said nothing.  He just munched his Sun Chips.  When he was done, he got up and ambled toward the bench by our back door where his glove rested.  He picked it up, and, staring down at it, said, “Dad, can we go out in the back yard and practice pitching?”

“Just let me get my glove, big guy.”

The next day, he stared down a lineup of mostly all-star players, and he pitched his heart out.  He gave up a couple of runs to in the first, but only one solidly struck ball.  He struck out a couple of their best hitters, and absolutely dominated the second inning pitching not with his arm, but with his head.  Up, down, inside, outside, fast, faster, slower, slow.  He made the most out of what he had, and kept us in the game for three innings (the first time he’s ever thrown more than two).

We didn’t win the game, but Gus’ attitude rubbed off on his teammates.  When the next team to use our field was showing up, parents looked up at the scoreboard, then looked at all the chatter, fire, and camaraderie in our dugout, and wondered aloud, “Which team is winning this game?”  I could not have been more proud of Gus and the Grays—showing how passion and determination can transcend even the numbers that supposedly determine the difference between winners and losers.

And so this highly-involved, highly-verbose coach and Dad learned that sometimes by holding back, we give our kids the power to feel what they need to feel, and empower them far more than even the kindest words or biggest hugs can.  So while being a hands-off guy is probably not in my future, I’m going to try and remember that sometimes shutting-up is actually the best advice of all.