War of the Seasons Book 1: The Human – A Fantasy Novel

Image - www.ailionora.com

The Human is the first book of the War of the Seasons series by Janine K. Spendlove. This book is an engaging fantasy novel that follows a young girl named Story as she journeys to a strange new world and the quest she embarks on to save it.

I love fantasy books, and the ones that involve someone from our world going to a fantasy world are some of my favorites. I think this may have something to do with the fact that I would love to find myself magically transported to a magical world.

The Human is this type of book as it follows 17 year old Story as she finds herself in the world, Ailionora, after falling in a cave while spelunking. She gets drawn into this strange, new world finding that she is in the middle of an ancient feud that exists between the elves and faeries of Ailionora.

Story is quickly joined by an elf named Eirnin. This book, in part, revolves around the relationship between these two characters as Eirnin helps Story along her way, teaching her about Ailionora as they go.

This is a tale that has many levels. On the onset, it seems like most fantasy novels, but it does have a deeper layer as Story tries to discover who she is, what her strengths are and how to deal with extreme loss. I enjoyed this book immensely and I look forward to being able to read the next book in this series.

The Human is now available for pre-order, and will be launching at Origins Game Fair, June 22nd-26th, 2011. It will also be available in eBook formats, such as for the Kindle and Nook.

Note: I received a copy of this book for review purposes.

Review:The Meowmorphosis by Franz Kafka and Coleridge Cook

A few weeks ago, I received an advanced review copy of The Meowmorphosis, courtesy of Quirk Classics (@quirkbooks).

meow-cover-large-197x300The Meowmorphosis is the latest edition of literary mash-ups published by Quirk Classics. Mashed by Coleridge Cook, a pseudonym, at the base of The Meowmorphosis is Frank Kafka’s Metamorphosis, with additional parts added from the rest of Kafka’s literary works. However, instead of waking up as a bug, the main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up as a kitten. One would think this would change an otherwise depressing and pathetic story into one with more humor. Well, I suppose that depends on your point of view.

I do not envy anyone who takes on the task of grabbing a piece of what is considered to be influential literature and adding in new elements. It cannot be an easy task. Large portions of The Meowmorphosis were taken directly from The Metamorphosis. The sections which refer to Samsa as a bug were rewritten to ‘kitten’ Samsa. Coleridge managed to do this quite flawlessly.

Normally, I do not like to compare and contrast books for review purposes. That is the type of thing I feel should be reserved for high school and university English Literature courses. However, I cannot help but to do it for this type of book. When I was reading the Austen/Graham-Smith mash-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I couldn’t help but think to myself, the entire time I was reading it, “Well, this is quite an interesting literary exercise.” I found myself thinking the exact same thing while reading The Meowmorphosis. It was impossible for me to disengage my academic brain, allowing my leisure brain to be entertained.

Even though I did not enjoy Austen’s original work—I have yet to read one of her books beyond the first chapter or stay awake for more than 20 minutes through one of the movies—I did find the insertion of zombies into the story to be rather drôle. How can one not laugh at the image of the Bennet sisters fighting off hordes of zombies one moment then going back to societal caterwauling the next? I did not find the same humor in The Meowmorphosis. In fact, I found the main character to be even more wretched and pitiful, causing me to sympathize with him to a greater extent. I do not think it helps that I have a huge dislike for cats. I would rather have a pet insect than a cat. To be even more clear about how much I do not like cats, having a cat would be my very last choice for a pet. The exception being worms, but only because I have a true phobia of worms.

A lot of the reasons I do not like cats, Coleridge describes in this book. I think the easiest way to sum it up: Cats are selfish animals, caring only for themselves. They are fickle, flighty, react before thinking, and are the type to rub their rear-end in your face, whilst thinking, “Who’s a pretty hairball?” This puts Samsa’s feline nature at huge odds with Samsa’s human nature; one where he has given up his own wants in order to do right by his family. Throughout both the original and the mash-up, there is a large internal struggle going on within Samsa. He is very much at odds between what are his wants and what is his station in life. I found these struggles to be heightened in the mash-up. For me, it was easier to sympathize with a character trapped in what many consider to be a cute and cuddly animal than one that many consider grotesque.

For me, this was not a fun read. Kafka’s writing style is not one that I enjoy. Because of the style, my English Literature brain would not disengage. Because of my background in Psychology, I couldn’t help but to dissect the character, profiling both him and the original author in the process. I almost felt as if I were back in university. One thing that this book accomplished: It made me want to read the original, which I did at http://www.kafka-online.info/. Also, it made me want to find out more about Kafka, as he is not an author we were required to study in school.

Is the book well-written? Yes. Did Coleridge Cook do a good job interweaving his story with Kafka’s original? Yes and quite wonderfully. For me, any failing this book has is only due to personal preferences. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves English Literature. I would recommend this book to anyone who is curious to read another mash-up. Would I recommend this book to someone who is wanting a fun, humorous and light read? That would depend on what your definitions of fun and humor are. As for a light read, there is nothing light about this story, despite the book being 208 pages. The story’s underlying human themes are still dark and morose.

I may not enjoy Kafka’s writing style, however I did enjoy the journey of personal torture taken on by the story.

Garden Gnome Survival Guide

How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack - book cover
Essential reading for anyone who wants to live.

You may never need a garden gnome survival guide. Not if you are an urban dweller who varies her movements and activities every day, and who lives with an extended family and a large attack dog.

If, however, you live anywhere near a lawn or, worse, the woods, especially if you have ever seen a lawn ornament, beware. Garden gnomes are watching for routine patterns of your entrances and exits, waiting for their opportunity to invade your dwelling. They will even crawl up through heating vents and in through open windows.

The risks are terrifying. If you want to live, read How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack: Defend Yourself When the Lawn Warriors Strike (and They Will).

Author Chuck Sambuchino, by day an editor for Writer’s Digest, has put everything he knows about surviving garden gnome attacks into his guide.

Sambuchino knows a lot about survival guides, for he also writes the Guide to Literary Agents blog and regularly speaks at writer’s conferences around the country. I caught up with him in French Lick, Indiana, where he advised writers conference attendees on the highly coveted survival skill: How to Find an Agent.

The French Lick Springs Hotel, where the “Everybody Has a Story” conference took place, is surrounded by the tangled woods of southern Indiana. We knew the wild proximity was particularly dangerous terrain, so we began by scanning the lobby for signs of gnome creep, under settees and behind the fireplace wood rack, anyplace that might camouflage a lurking lawn warrior.

photo of gnome on a bathroom counter
Learn to defend yourself, for lawn warriors will attempt to invade your personal space. Image: Andrew Parsons.

Side note useful to working children’s book writers: Once we knew we were safe, Sambuchino reverted to his role as a professional writing and publishing guide. He proceeded to coach me on the proper way to say Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators. (tip: Nobody says all the words in that professional association title. It’s ridiculously cumbersome and time consuming.) Instead, say the cumbersome but brief initialism “S.C.B.W.I.” I practiced stringing together those five letters all the way back home, sustained by the tongue twister advice I’d recently gotten from a recent GeekMom article, “Get Your Tongue Out of Whack”.

Back on the topic that’s relevant and, in fact, urgent for all: Sambuchino recommends preventative measures that will stop invading garden gnomes before they cross onto your property. In the chapter “Passive Fortification” he says, “Your first order of business is a comprehensive program of passive fortification. With traps and barriers, your goal is what military experts call area denial. ”

In what I believe to be the most useful chapter, “Ten Tips That Could Save Your Life,” Sambuchio urges us to keep counter tops clutter free. Gnomes are particularly adept at hiding in plain site.

Geek Mom discovers garden gnome in her personal space.
Image: Andrew Parsons.

The guide also includes gnomeproofing strategies, how to recognize nonverbal gnome communication, as well as essential gnomenclature.

As an expert in children’s books in particular and the use of genre classifications in the publishing industry at large, Sambuchino is very clear that his guide is NOT a children’s book. It is found in the non-fiction section of the book store. (Technically, in the humor section, but don’t let that distinction mislead you. Warrior gnomes are a real and growing threat.)

Side Note: Both my kids, ages 13 and 16 think the book is hilarious.

Geek Credentials: Sambuchino juggles a lot in his very full life. In addition to saving us from garden gnome attacks and helping authors find their way in the publishing world, by night he’s a musician for a Cincinnati-based rock cover band, One Not Taken. He credits his geek pedigree to the low brass music training of his teen years. He says, “Band Geeks Rule”.

2011 Golden Kite Awards Announced


The Golden Kite Awards are given each year to the most outstanding children’s books published during the previous year, and written or illustrated by members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The following blurbs are from the SCBWI Press Release.

Jennifer Holm’s novel Turtle in Paradise receives this year’s Golden Kite Award for Fiction. Based on stories Holm’s mother used to tell about her childhood, this hard-scrabble, Depression-era coming-of-age tale follows 11-year-old Turtle who is sent to live with relatives in Key West, Florida from New Jersey. Hilarious and heart-warming, Turtle in Paradise draws in the middle-grade reader with vibrant imagery and a fast-paced plot with an adventurous twist.


The award for Non-Fiction goes to The Good, the Bad and the Barbie by acclaimed nonfiction author Tanya Lee Stone. In passionate anecdotes and memories from a range of girls and women (including a forward by Meg Cabot) this compelling book takes an insightful and incisive look at how Barbie became the icon that she is–and at the impact the doll has had on our culture (and vice versa.)


Rooted in the experience of an immigrant family, siblings of all nationalities will see themselves in Rukhsana Khan’s Big Red Lollipop, this year’s winner for Picture Book Text. Illustrated by Sophie Blackall, Khan’s honest story reminds us of how assimilation is transformed from generation to generation, and offers a heartfelt, moving, commentary on sisterly relationships.



The Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Illustration goes to A Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes in which Salley Mavor’s gorgeous fabric relief techniques offer precise and intricate illustrations of beloved nursery rhymes. Even old poems are fresh and new in this beautiful reinterpretation that will delight many generations.


The 2011 Sid Fleischman Award for Humor goes to Alan Silberberg’s second novel Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze. Hilarious and poignant, the story of 13-year-old Milo’s struggle to come to terms with the loss that hit the reset button on his life comes to life through text and cartoons.


Simon Says “App”

Seymour Science, “the dean of children’s science writers,” has launched his first mobile app. SCIENCE FUN TO GO features in-app purchase of original eBooks for kids on both the iPhone/iTouch/iPad and Android platforms. You can download Simon’s original eBook, FUN FACTS ABOUT PETS, for free-it’s available exclusively for either the NookColor device or the NookKids for iPad app.

The book (which is for ages 4-7) answers  funny questions about favorite household pets–such as: Why do cats go night crazy? Is it true that pot-bellied pigs can open the refrigerator when they are hungry? And why do dogs’ feet sweat? Other pets profiled are: bunnies, goldfish, guinea pigs, hamsters, lizards, parakeets, snakes, and Shetland ponies.

In this NookKids Read to Me book, children can choose to hear the story read aloud (this one by Actress Leslie Carrara of Sesame Street), tap to enlarge text and pinch & stretch to zoom in on pictures.

Seymour Simon’s books have always been a favorite in our house–just the right mix of great photos and interesting text. SCIENCE FUN TO GO brings Simon’s brand of kid-friendly science on the road, and anywhere else kids need to read.

A GeekMom Award for Jasper Fforde!

Close shot of Jasper Fforde
Author Jasper Fforde, 2006/7. Picture credit: Mari Fforde.

Is Jasper Fforde a geek? That’s still undecided (read his answer below). But he’s undoubtedly a mom !

Wait a minute, Jasper Fforde’s a man, how can he be a mum?
Well, he deserves to be. If there was such things as GeekMom Awards, he’d get one for sure.

For now, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, which means we’re actually going to get a new Thursday, as the 6th issue of her adventures will be released on Marc, 8 (or February, 21 if you are British, lucky you!)

As part of this happy occasion, Jasper Fforde agreed to an interview with GeekMom.

As you’ll notice, he’s able to give smart answers even to silly questions (and I cut the silliest one… even if I have to recommend again the wonderful Entroposcope: any Geek Family should have one).

GeekMom : We’d like to thank you heartily in the name of every geek mom ! We were recently regretting the lack of strong mother characters in books we love, mothers who love their children, and care for them, but still had their own issues. And Thursday Next was the first name we came up with (on a very, very short list). Do you feel the same lack? Did you plan to make Thursday a mom from the beginning? And if not, did you consider to stop writing about her since she became a wife and mother? And if (still) not, did her motherhood change your vision of the character?

Jasper Fforde: Mothers, like teachers and librarians, are overlooked in fiction. It needn’t be so, but I can understand why: the sometimes dreary travails of motherhood just don’t make for very exciting reading. It needn’t be thus, as it is the writer’s job to be able to make drama out of anything.

One of the central tenets I tend to write by is ‘always choose the less worn path’.

It’s a simple statement and one that would have thought was fairly obvious, and embraced by many – but you might be mistaken. The well-worn path is well worn for a very good reason. If you have a strong female protagonist, the obvious route to deal with the personal side of her character (always important, like comedy relief, to get away from the main action for a breather ) is to introduce vast  quantities of unsuitable boyfriends, and have the loneliness and solitude as one of the facets that drives their character along. This happens a lot, and my reaction to this was, no, let’s have Thursday as a total one-guy gal, who finally kicks in with the love of her life in her mid-thirties and is with him from then on.

The question then remains is to how do we pepper her life with interest now she is in a stable and mutually respectful relationship? Infidelity? Too mundane. How about having Landen not just killed but eradicated by time travelling blackmailers attempting to get Thursday to do something she doesn’t want to do? Perfect. TN2 is essentially a book about a woman trying to get her husband back, and failing. It adds a level to her character that I really enjoy, and also set the tone for how we deal with Thursday and family throughout the series, and what sort of a guy Landen is – a rock, essentially, who understands and appreciates that his function is to support a wholly remarkable woman with no ego, no fuss, and no complaints.

The same ‘less trodden path’ deal came into being when the children arrived, too. They are kind of unusual, but it doesn’t stop Thursday being Thursday, nor Landen being Landen, and since I have many children of my own, it wasn’t a subject I was going to shy away with – I was just going to add my own way of looking at it. One of the themes in TN5 was ‘How can I engineer a plot device so that a teenager can save the world by doing nothing?’ There are many, many teenagers out there who think they can and are doing precisely that, and equally, a lot of parents who long for the day when the hairy object in bedroom three can once again talk. I wove this in with the plot, and it worked very well. She can do what she does and be a mother, and the two get very well.

Did her motherhood change her character? Not really. She was always very passionate about stuff, and now she had an extra dimension to be passionate about. I think you’d have to be very, very stupid to threaten Thursday’s children or husband – Goliath stay well away for that reason.

GeekMom: You seem to like science, incredible gadgets, use Star Wars parodic lines, feature a Lorem Ipsum’s speaking baby… and I don’t even talk about the amount of various references in your books.
So, do you consider a geek yourself? Are your books designed for geek readers?

Jasper Fforde: I’m interested in everything, as humans are fascinating creatures, with almost no end to their creativity, ingenuity, and stupidity. So I love all Stuff.

More recently, I’ve got into the Stuff of Stuff, which is far more interesting than just Stuff. I like Apple computers, but the whole background to Apple is equally amazing. Yes, Gaudi was an astonishing architect, but who were the people who had the foresight and vision to commission his work? The Stuff of Stuff.

The books are designed primarily for me. A writer should always write about what interests them. If they didn’t, I think they would come out all forced and a bit faux. If people didn’t share my mildly odd view of the world, then I’d still be a writer writing stuff, just unpublished.

GeekMom: As I’m also a literature teacher: when will I be able to come with groups of students into the BookWorld? Will they be allowed to follow Jurisfiction‘s affairs for a day? Which device could I use if I don’t want a Goliath one?

Jasper Fforde: I think we enter the Bookworld whenever we read a book. I’m not sure Jurisfiction much care for having Outlanders visit, nor for letting Outlanders know they exist. Many ‘SuperReaders’ try to hack their way into Text Grand Central, but few succeed – the surroundings are painted in soporific paint, so any hackers that do try to get in, immediately nod off.

GeekMom: More seriously: do you think that our world is becoming like Thursday’s RealWorld in First Among Sequels? With more reality-shows and less reading, and a shortening Now? Or are you more optimistic and think that we are saved from this danger and our Now is growing again?  (subliminate question behind this one: can we Geek Moms save the world by trying to lengthen our children’s Now?)

Jasper Fforde: Thankfully, reality shows seem to be on the wane, but don’t forget that we are changing into our own parents, and tutting at things that our parents used to tut to us about, so whinges we may have about how rubbish things are today might simply be because that’s what happens when you start getting older, and objectivity is not as clear cut as it should be.

Mind you, our kids aren’t objective either. Perhaps there is a moment, eight minutes in length sometime around one’s 27th birthday when you finally get it, and everything is truthful and clear cut. But then someone cuts the queue in front of you and you get all self-righteous, and the moment’s gone. Yes, I think attention spans should be longer, and rather than trying to decrease our tragically short window humans seem to find themselves in – about four years, it seems – we should attempt to broaden it. Sadly, I don’t think we’re wired that way.

It’s evolution’s little joke: Eye-popping intelligence, but almost no wisdom. The world needs a few more grown-ups in positions of power, to be honest.

Should we try and instill a longer Now in our kids? Of course. But they probably won’t like it. If there is a clash between popular culture and a parent’s waggy finger, guess who’s going to win. My view on this whole deal is to introduce your kids to good and worthy stuff when you still have any control, then wave the white flag during the dark teenage years. You’ll be surprised how much stuff bubbles to the surface later on.

GeekMom: How is it to tour the USA for a writer? Does it involve a lot of sex, drugs, and experimental writing?

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, by Jasper Fforde, books on a bookshelf falling on a tiny female character
Thursday Next 6th book, American edition cover

Jasper Fforde: Great fun, actually, as all tours are. Meeting people, and hearing which parts of my books appealed to them is of especial interest. It also allows me a period of guilt-free non-writing, as I rarely have a moment to myself on tour, and believe me, guilt-free procrastination is very hard to come by. Two books a year is a stretch, so I have to write all day most days. Doesn’t work that way, but I feel I’ve wasted a day if I haven’t got something down.

Tours are very frenetic. If my only view of the States was from my book tours, I would be able to say categorically that 95% of America was Airports, Bookstores, Cabs, Hotels, Starbucks and trying to find somewhere that can do laundry in under eighteen hours.

To be continued… with GeekMom’s review of One of our Thursdays Is Missing. For now, you may pre-order your own copy !

You may also compete to win the two millionth copy of his book, a ‘C’ format UK 1st edition of Shades of Grey, signed by Jasper Fforde, by entering the TN6 Sleuthing competition. Questions will be posted up there on the 1st March 2011.

Is Jasper Fforde coming somewhere close to you? Check the dates of the UK and USA/Canada Tours.

Am I the Spawn of a Tiger Mother?

My sister Margaret and me, Hong Kong, December 1994. She sported the headphones WAY before iPods made them fashionable! Photo: Patricia Vollmer

Amy Chua’s latest book has certainly been causing quite a stir, hasn’t it?

I’ve come across several opinion and editorial articles on CNN.com. Ms. Chua herself has been making the rounds through the media trying to provide some clarification in the wake of a very controversial Wall Street Journal essay, which brought the world’s attention to the book just before it was published.

As a response to the WSJ article, GeekDad Jonathan Liu weighed in on his personal experiences as an offspring of Chinese immigrant parents, and his take on Amy Chua’s parenting style.

So this past weekend I picked up a copy of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I finished it last night, and boy did it strike a chord with me. Not a “Wow, that’s my life exactly!” chord, but a “Wow, even though I experienced SOME of the Tiger Mother, my Mom balanced it with western methods quite well!” chord. As Jonathan hypothesized in his post, the point of the WSJ article was to generate buzz (which it did), and sell books (which I can attest to after spending $25.95  so I could start reading it right away!). That article was only a small part of her story.  Read the book and you will learn the rest.

The book itself was a fast, surprisingly easy, read.  It took me about four hours total over three days, and I’m not usually a super-fast reader. The book is a succinct chronology of Ms. Chua’s 18 years of parenthood, with some brief family history to set the stage. You learn how she is the daughter of immigrant Chinese parents (Ms. Chua herself is not an immigrant, which to me was ironic), how she “rebelled” against her father by applying to (and getting accepted into) Harvard without his consent, and how she attempted to balance a very busy career while starting a family.

Her stories of how hard she pushed her two daughters are beyond psycho. You’ll want to hate Ms. Chua from the start. You want to call Child Services on her. You want to scream at the book! Her oldest daughter Sophia takes the pressure pretty well, but you find out that her youngest daughter Louisa, or Lulu for short, was the strong-willed one, and towards the end you see how Ms. Chua has no choice but to relent if she was going to save her relationship with Lulu.

On the other hand, you’ll be awe-inspired by the stories of how prodigious her daughters were at music. They won numerous competitions, and were invited to play concerts worldwide. The oldest daughter played piano at Carnegie Hall at age 14, the youngest daughter was invited to study violin with a Julliard professor at age 11. While there was likely some natural talent there, Ms. Chua’s incredible drive to not only make her daughters practice practice practice, but stand by their sides during the practice session, and develop practice session outlines and drills was pretty amazing. Would I do it with my own kids? No, not at all! I guess I’m too lazy. But despite how psycho I thought she was, I had to admit that took a lot of motherly dedication.

I recommend reading this book to get the full gist of Ms. Chua’s journey through parenthood. The media blitz isn’t quite doing it justice. While you’ll be in shock with much of it, there are several laugh-out-loud anecdotes, and in the end you are hopeful that she continues to accept “Western” parenting little by little.

I think she’s trying to make two things clear. First, all-out total “Chinese parenting” isn’t always the best method, especially in America. Americans aren’t wired to be automatons. Secondly, she contends that there are many positive facets of “Chinese parenting,” such as instilling a good work ethic, helping your child realize his/her full potential, and teaching children the importance of respect for their elders. If you’re a parent, reading this book will force you to explore your own upbringing, and what ideas you have for bringing up your own kids.

On a personal level, I want to share what I was expecting going into reading the book, and what I came away with.

I thought this would be like reading a book about my mother, and the way she brought me up. Like Ms. Chua’s daughter Sophia, I’m also the oldest daughter to a Chinese mother and a Caucasian father. Like Sophia I have a younger sister. Both my sister and I were also musicians; I played the violin and my sister played the cello.

After reading this book, I think my mother raised my sister and me in a decent balance of “Eastern” and “Western” (by Ms. Chua’s standards) styles of parenting.

Obviously things weren’t perfect. When I began to exhibit signs of being left-handed as a toddler, Mom wanted to “train” me with my right hand. She apparently was nervous about my being different, being a standout. Perhaps she was nervous about teaching me to eat with utensils, chopsticks, or learn to knit/crochet (her favorite hobby!). My father, one of the most sensible, reasonable people I know, convinced Mom to let me instead perfect being left-handed. For some reason, I play sports and my violin right-handed just fine.

Mom’s idea of keeping my sister and me out of trouble was to keep us (in her words) “busy busy busy.”  Music, sports, Girl Scouts. She was unfailingly strict; doing our best was expected of us always. That just went without saying. Straight A’s were expected (although I only ever earned straight As once in my life). I’m still like that now with myself. On the other hand, I was never punished for bringing home bad grades. (I knew several non-Tiger-parented kids who were!).

Similar to the book, I seemed to be the daughter who abided with whatever was cast upon me, layering on the sports, music, grades, and social life. If I complained, my parents’ steadfast stance was usually enough for me. I was good at violin, but I’d never have considered myself great. I’m incredibly grateful to my parents for pushing me to excel at violin, but not fanatically so. Parents SHOULD wring every ounce of potential they can out of their kids. My parents worked very hard to make sure I had the best music teachers, and drove me all over the state of Virginia for assorted auditions and performances. While I chose to pursue science instead of music in college, I’m grateful I was good enough at both science and music to have that choice in front of me at the time.

My sister was the rebellious one. If I was considered “good” at the violin, she was exceptional at the cello. She attended Virginia’s Governor’s School for the Arts, and played for the Guam Symphony Orchestra as a high school student in Guam. I can’t say whether it’s a consequence of her having to move from one end of the earth to the other not once but twice during high school, but her rebellion was met with less resistance. The logistics of traveling to/from potential college auditions from Guam was near impossible, and she ended up heading in a different direction than music after she graduated from high school.

In contrast to the book, my sister and I were allowed to make numerous choices with what direction we wanted to take with our music. The same went for many of the major decisions in our lives. Whatever choices we made, our parents insisted we performed to our maximum potential. They set the stage for us to succeed on many fronts: athletically, academically and with good common sense.

So…am I the spawn of a Tiger Mother? I think I am, but mildly so. I look back on my childhood positively, and I’ve found that I’m tapping into some of my parents’ tactics with my own kids. Thanks Mom and Dad!

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Photo: Andrea Schwalm

I cannot think of Karen Armstrong without then mentally reciting the opening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

And then, on Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would get nailed to anything.

Armstrong really does just want us to be nice to each other, though.

A failed Roman Catholic nun and English Professor, she is best known as an author, comparative religious historian, and recipient of the 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Prize for innovative ideas. The TED Prize came with a $100,000 monetary award and Armstrong used those funds to create the Charter for Compassion, an online document calling for people of all faiths (or no faith) to “restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life” by reaffirming the golden rule, Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you.

“Not simply a statement of principle, the Charter is above all a summons to creative, practical and sustained action to meet the political, moral, religious, social and cultural problems of our time.”

Intimate yet awe-inspiring: The Celeste Bartos Forum in the Stephen Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

In short, the Charter is a crowd-sourced, online  think tank aimed at reframing any ideological extremism that ignores “the divine in each of us.”

Through its’ “Learn,” “Share,” and “Act” subheadings, we are all invited to affirm the Charter, share our thoughts and success stories around compassion, and support others as we work to develop our own personal senses of empathy “all day, every day.”

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the worst financial crisis since The Great Depression, and the continued social fragmentation of both family and community, Armstrong believes that our  best hope for world peace–and individual happiness– lies in “dethroning ourselves from the center of our world” and taking care of each other…something that sounds logical though simplistic to say aloud and that is borne out by emerging science on happiness, but actually requires the intentional, life-long effort of the entire human community to achieve.

On Tuesday, January 11, I saw Karen Armstrong speak about her new book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, at the New York Public Library’s Celeste Bartos Forum on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue. (PS: Her talk was part of a larger series of discussions, lectures, and classes on the three major world faiths continuing at the library through February, and coincides with a free, online and real-world exhibition entitled Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam showcasing holy relics and codices from all three traditions.)

For those who have seen Armstrong’s 2008 TED Talk, this most-recent talk did not cover a great deal of new ground. Once again, she discussed how the idea of compassion, integral to all humanity, evolved separately in all of the worlds cultures, from Confucius’ concept of shu (consideration) and the Buddha’s call for maitri (loving kindness) and karuna (“the resolve to lift all creatures from their pain”), through to Jewish scholar Rabbi Hillel’s summation of the Torah, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor…the rest is commentary.”

Question and Answer Session With Guy on Right Coming Out of Nowhere. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

However, Armstrong wants to do more than simply rehash history or discuss lofty ideals, she wants to continue to provide a concrete action plan for change. Her new book, The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, is her action plan for “being the change we want to see in the world,” and like all effective “12-Step” programs, it is set up so that the individual does not have to work alone.

“After all, we come together when we work together,” she explained.

After purchasing and reading the book, individuals are encouraged to further process and internalize its ideas by starting a reading group, joining monthly, hosted discussions on Facebook, and sharing their commitment to “activating the golden rule” (as well as any stories that result) on the Charter for Compassion’s website. Additionally, because Armstrong (who personally ascribes to no faith tradition) believes that religion can be both a source of close-minded, violent fundamentalism and a wellspring for transcendent hope, the book also includes a lengthy “Suggestions for Further Reading” appendix designed to provide historical background and address issues of scriptural interpretation.

Armstrong closed her talk with these words:

“Let us care for all creatures as a mother does her only child.”

That one sentence provided me with a perfect perspective from which to begin my own work.

My children are in their teen/pre-teen years and even on a quiet day, there is still a good amount of spirited debate that takes place in this house over chores, homework, TV rights and family obligations. Additionally, despite my intention to adopt a patient, wise, guitar-slinging Maria-Von-Trapp parenting style, it turns out that I can lose my patience more quickly than I’d like–particularly now that I am working again after 14 years as a stay-at-home parent…

At least once a week, my children and I will have to sit down, apologize to each other for becoming loud, and try to figure out how to handle whatever the conflict du jour might be. However, even before the post-mortem begins, while the stomping and ranting (and emphatic counter-wiping) is in full fury, I know that I do not want any harm to come to my children. I love them. What I want desperately at those moments is a bridge: I want us to listen to each other, respect each other, support each other. I am bonded to my children so that even as they jump on my last nerve, I am looking for that teachable moment, that mutual understanding–for all involved parties.

I want to continue to hone that evolving emotional mechanism and bring it to all of my relationships. That is why I am reading Karen Armstrong’s book and planning on participating in the online discussions…and it is why I believe that you should, too.

Katie’s Book: May the Force Be with Her!

Katie's Book from Epbot.com

The geek solidarity of Katie’s story continues, thanks to Epbot!

If you remember, Katie was being bullied about her spectacular choice in water bottles. There was an outpouring of geek support and even a Star Wars day was held. The wonderful Geekgirl at Epbot took it a step further. She and some cohorts put a book together for Katie that includes all of our comments! What a thoughtful idea! You can see her book here.

She used a self publishing site called Lulu to put the book together. Lulu is a self-publishing service which offers multiple formats: ebooks, calendars, hardcovers, CDs, you name it. They also have support services that assist with cover design, editing, formatting, marketing or general publishing process. It makes it easy for you to publish those stories your grandpa wrote or your kids artwork into a keepsake.

Check it out — and go Team Geek!

12 Days of Awesomely Geeky Gifts: Day 1 – Millennium Falcon Book in 3D + Giveaway!

From roughly the next twelve days, I’m going to be highlighting one awesomely geeky gift per day. Most of these gifts are items I’ve been able to personally review, so you’ll get hands-on suggestions for giftgiving as we propel at light speed toward the holidays. I mean, really? Where does the time go?

First up is the book Star Wars Millennium Falcon: A 3D Owner’s Guide. I first stumbled upon this book at our local Costco warehouse, sifting through the mountain of publications they haul out around the holidays. I had seen some of the other 3D books, and while they’re generally pretty cool, nothing took my attention like this book.

As you turn each page, a new level of the famed Millennium Falcon is revealed, all with useful information on each part of the ship and how it works. There’s even an adorable little Han Solo on one of the first pages, ready to pilot the ship toward new adventures in spice smuggling. I learned more about the ship than I ever imagined, and my son absolutely loves paging through the book and exploring each part. It really brings a whole new level to the Star Wars tech geek! It’s absolutely a must-have for Star Wars fans of all ages. The detail alone is worth the price.

But wait, it gets better! We’ve got five copies of the book to giveaway to readers, just in time for the holidays. That’s right!

Just comment below with your favorite Star Wars character for a chance to win. Winners will be determined randomly. Sorry, but US residents only.

And if the book review itself doesn’t get you, check out this rockin’ book trailer:

Book Review: Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex…

After reading my November 16 GeekMom post on talking with your kids about sexuality, one reader, Angie, commented:

Ok, immediately, as in right now, go to Amazon, and buy this book: Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask) by Richardson and Schuster…Andrea, this is EXACTLY what you’re looking for. It is the geek parent’s holy grail of parenting your kid’s sexuality at every stage, chock full of current scientific data and psychiatric research, without religious leanings. The authors attempt to give you, the parent, the tools to instill your cultural or religious “norm” in your children while simultaneously recognizing your child as a healthy sexual individual.

After reading Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask), I have to agree with Angie: this is the kind of book that I was looking for:

It is comprehensive. That is, it considers all aspects of sexual education from the “fact-based” conversations and questions of early childhood to the “feelings-focused” practical and ethical discussions that may take place in a family as teenagers begin to explore their sexual identities.

It is respectful of the culture and beliefs of individual families. I was looking for a book that would steer me toward topics that I might want to consider at each stage of my children’s development. However, in lieu of preaching one perfect public health or moral solution, I wanted to be acknowledged as the person who understands my children best and then encouraged to come to my own informed conclusions on how to effectively guide them.

Its suggestions are made using peer-reviewed studies and research. I wanted suggestions that were, as often as possible, based on reliable, replicable scientific research. In almost all cases, the authors were able to support their suggestions with research.

The questions posed throughout the book are direct, thought-provoking and real, for instance:

  • How will you react if your middle-school daughter wants to wear provocative clothes? If your middle-school son visits online porn sites?
  • What values do you want to communicate to your children? What does abstinence mean? Are virginity pledges effective? Does promoting birth control promote promiscuity? 
  • If asked, will you share anything about your sexual experiences? (I was concerned that the authors might err on the side of “oversharing.” Instead, they provided a great baseball analogy, a la Dr. Spock: “There is no need to focus on your child’s technique with the ball—it is more important for your child to feel affirmed than to feel coached.”)
  • What special considerations are there to consider if your child is atypical? Disabled? Has a chronic illness? Is gay?
  • Am I really  helping my children by talking about…all of this? (“Of those kids whose parents had spoken to them about sex, 87 percent thought their parents insights were helpful.”)

The book’s authors, Justin Richardson, MD and Mark Schuster, MD, PhD, have both been published in key journals: Harvard Review of Psychiatry, The American Journal of Public Health, and Pediatrics (Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics). Dr. Richardson is a full-time analyst affiliated with Columbia University and New York Presbyterian Hospital (interesting aside: and is the “psychiatric advisor” for the HBO miniseries In Treatment). Dr. Schuster is UCLA’s Chief of General Pediatrics and its Vice Chair for Health Services, Policy, and Community Research in the Department of Pediatrics, as well as the Director of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at UCLA’s RAND Center. Together, the two authors bring more than 30 years of education, research and experience to the creation of this book.

In my assessment, this book is a good starting point for parents worried about talking to their kids about sexual health, but you can decide that for yourself by taking a look at selected chapters at the book’s website: RICHARDSONSCHUSTER.COM.

What’s To Read After Harry Potter?

Book covers: Scholastic Press. Mashup: Kate Miller.

Readers, I’ve got something explosive to say. OK, here goes (nervous throat-clearing sound):

I just don’t like Harry Potter.

I don’t loathe Harry Potter, I just don’t see the magnificence and originality that others do. The first book left me cold, and even my boys lost interest at around book three.

There, I’ve said it. Please don’t yell at me or arrest me. I’m just speaking out for a tiny, overwhelmed minority in America. We Potterphobes cower in our closets.

So why am I posting on our Harry Potter week? Just to be a downer? To be the critic everyone hates? No! My job here is to recommend an alternative series, good for Potterphobes as well as Potterphiles who are ready for fresh material.

And my recommendation is – drumroll, please — the Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins. My older son and I picked up the first book a couple of years ago when I was still reading aloud to him. We buzzed through the next four books with the urgency of addicts. Like Harry Potter, the protagonist of this series is a boy with a mysterious destiny who moves between the real world and an equally real alternate world. But the resemblance ends there.

Gregor is a smart and troubled 11-year-old New York kid who inadvertently discovers the Underland, a human civilization living in enormous caverns deep beneath the city. There, humans uneasily co-exist with species of rats, bats, spiders, mice, cockroaches, and other creatures, all grown to enormous size. These creatures are also highly intelligent, armed to the teeth, and as flawed and unpredictable as humans. It’s a blazingly original landscape. Shifting alliances and misunderstandings propagate the plots, and we watch as Gregor navigates. He’s decent. And conflicted. It’s awesome.

The books thrum with themes of war and peace. One plot closely parallels Hitler’s rise to power and the Holocaust. Gregor is strategically placed to answer some of those old philosophical chestnuts you toss around in college: “It’s 1939. You have a loaded gun and a clear shot at Hitler. What do you do?” Or, more to the point, what would Gregor do? (WWGD?) These questions sparked lively discussions with my son, for which I’ll always be grateful to Suzanne Collins.

So if you liked Harry Potter — or even if you didn’t – you might give Gregor a try. Oh, and when you do, let me know what you think of Ripred, a vicious and brilliant rat with traitorous tendencies. We adore him.

GeekMom Holiday Gift Guide #1: Books

Regardless of what holidays you celebrate, the end-of-year festivities are right around the corner. If you choose to purchase gifts online, you need to order then in advance to allow for shipping time, backorders, and comparison shopping. We at GeekMom are here to help you with ideas for anyone on your gift list, from babies to grownups. We’ll be running a series of half a dozen or so posts, sorted by category or age group, with suggested gifts this holiday season. Many of our writers have contributed to our series of gift guides, so the ideas run the gamut from popular bestsellers to more obscure, interesting gifts with which you may not be familiar. Chances are there will be something that appeals to you. Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments below.

In this, the first post of the first series of GeekMom holiday gift guides, we start out with books. Books are a gift that can appeal to anyone: babies, toddlers, young children, older children, and of course adults. Books are always a great holiday gift!

Geek Dad by Ken Denmead
Written by our own publisher, Ken Denmead, Geek Dad is filled with geeky projects that you can do with your children. Some are fast and simple, some are more complicated. From binary clocks to aerial photography, this book will fill your quality time with the kids with useful and fun activities.

Image: Houghton Mifflin

Pocketful of Posies and Felt Wee Folk: Enchanting Projects by Salley Mavor
Combining traditional nursery rhymes and breathtaking felt and stitching, Pocketful of Posies is a special way to share well-known and also much more obscure nursery rhymes with your kids. You can even take turns reading the poems with kids old enough to read. By the same author and artist, Felt Wee Folk: Enchanting Projects teaches you how to make your own felt and stitching projects.

Image: Andrews McMeel Publishing

Sneaky Uses Books by Cy Tymony
Sneaky Science Tricks, The Sneaky Book for Boys and The Sneaky Book for Girls are books filled with fun and often scientific projects for kids, or for parents and kids to do together. There is plenty of overlap between books, but each one is tailored to a specific audience. Sneaky Science Tricks teaches scientific principles to do cool tricks and activities. The Sneaky Book for Boys focuses more on boys’ natural tendency to want to be sneaky, detailing science projects and teaching about animals and how to be resourceful. The Sneaky Book for Girls also covers scientific principles, but additionally includes projects such as crafts, magic, and spy stuff. Author Cy Tymony has written many other Sneaky books as well.

Image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Built to Last (and other books by David Macaulay)
Remember the Pyramid, Cathedral, and Castle books? They’ve been around for years and have inspired many students and teachers to learn about history and start their own building projects. Now David Macaulay has combined Castle, Cathedral, and the newer Mosque, totally redoing them for this well-packaged release. Learn how they built these magnificent structures through fictional stories based on the time periods. While you’re at it, check out David Macaulay’s many other books, such as Mill, City, The New Way Things Work, and The Way We Work.

Image: W. W. Norton & Company

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) by Richard Feynman
A timeless classic, this autobiographical look into a fascinating physicist’s life is accessible to scientists and non-scientists alike. You’ll learn, you’ll laugh, and you’ll appreciate a kind of work that most of us don’t do on a daily basis. But most of all, Richard Feynman is an interesting and intriguing personality. This series of anecdotes from Feynman’s life is worth a read and a re-read. Then share your copy with other family members and friends, and discussion will ensue.

Photo: National Geographic

National Geographic Atlas of the World
Newly updated, this most recent version of the National Geographic Atlas of the World is a gorgeous, useful, and clear representation of Earth on paper. It also includes many pages on the cultural and political geography of our planet, and even includes maps of the deep sea floor, the moon, Mars, the solar system, and even the galaxy. An essential reference for every home.

Image: Yale University Press

A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich
This gem of a book is perfect for introducing your children to the history of the world. Its narrative thread takes you from before ancient history up until World War II, and was written specifically for children. Each chapter deals with a different part of history or part of the world, and tells the story in an engaging way that is both accessible to your children and not condescending. It was originally written in 1935 by Austrian-born Gombrich, who spent much of his life in the United Kingdom. He updated the book before his death in 2001. There are many references to days gone by and it is very UK-centric, but it’s such a delightful find for teaching your kids about the history of the western world. The gorgeous woodcuts that accompany each chapter add to your enjoyment. This is a book that you will want to read aloud to your children, since it is as much for the grown-ups who read it as for the children who listen.

Photo: Abrams Books

I Lego N.Y. by Christoph Niemann
For the Lego brick lover in the family who needs to get something beyond just boxes of new bricks this year, a good pick might be a clever book called I Lego N.Y., by Christoph Niemann. While living in Berlin, Mr. Niemann longed for his beloved New York City and began building small, clever vignettes from his son’s Lego bricks. The book has the expected, like the Empire State Building, but also the ordinary, like a man standing on a subway platform. Some scenes cleverly use only a small handful of bricks. An inspiring book for any Lego creator, big or small.

Image: Nathan Sawaya

The Art of the Brick by Nathan Sawaya
When the little (or big!) Lego geek in your family has built every building, spaceship, and robot imaginable, maybe it’s time to branch out. There is no better place to get inspiration than Nathan Sawaya, the world famous Lego brick sculptor. He’s created a book overflowing with pictures of his most amazing projects. It’s called The Art Of The Brick: The Pictorial, and it does not disappoint. From page one to page 68, this book is packed with inspiring pictures. Broken down into categories, like portraits, novelty pieces, large sculptures and museum works, Mr. Sawaya pairs his pictures with fascinating factoids about how some of his pieces came to be. It’s a must have for any serious Lego lover.

Photo: Cartwheel Books

Star Wars ABC by Scholastic
Do you need a gift idea for a new GeekMom or GeekDad who loves all things Star Wars? Or maybe a certain geek baby you know has an empty spot on her bookcase that would welcome a board book called Star Wars ABC. The pictures are fun, scenes taken straight from the movies, and each letter mimics something related to the picture (the E for Ewok is fuzzy). Big brothers and sisters might even volunteer to read this fun book to the little ones in the house.

Photo: Workman Publishing

Star Wars: A Scanimation Book: 12 Iconic Scenes from a Galaxy Far, Far Away.. by Rufus Butler Seder
If you love Star Wars, you might also love Star Wars: A Scanimation Book: 12 Iconic Scenes from a Galaxy Far, Far Away.. where scenes from the movie come to life when the book is turned from side to side. Another pick that big kids just might love as much as the toddlers.

Photo: Judy Berna

Standing Small: A Celebration of 30 Years of the Lego Minifigure by Nevin Martel
If you have a Lego fan on your list you have to see this amazing book, called Standing Small: A Celebration of 30 Years of the Lego Minifigure, by Nevin Martell. Filled with fun facts (Which figure had the first eyelashes? When were females introduced?) as well as pages full of pictures showcasing the hundreds of different variations of those intriguing little people, this book will keep Lego fans, young and old, busy for hours. It is sold as part of a set, packaged with The Lego Book (a wonderful book of Lego history), but is entertaining enough to stand on its own. The set can be purchased for just over $25.00.

Image: HarperCollins

The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien
It’s hard to decide what’s more thrilling about this book: discovering a Tolkien book that you never knew existed, or the hand-lettered missives inside, their envelopes bearing this real, if undeniably magical, address — “The Tolkiens, 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford, England.” Beginning in 1933, Tolkien’s children received hand-written illustrated letters from Father Christmas. The book compiles the letters, which share a certain similarity in prose style with the writings of Tolkien himself, with illustrations the North Pole and even the fanciful postage drawn on the envelopes. The letters relate the ancient history of the polar elves and their battles with marauding goblins, and derive much comic relief from the well-meaning North Polar Bear, Father Christmas’ helper, who unfailingly manages to wreak havoc on the holiday.

Photo: EyeThink

EyeThink Board Books
Just when you think the term board books should be changed to bored books along comes this exciting new variation. From the people at EyeThink, these books come to life, with pictures that seem to move when you tilt the book from side to side. There are three variations, Gallop, Waddle, and Swing, and they retail for $12.95.

Photo: Kid-O

Things That Go Wooden Book by Kid-O
Somewhere between book and toy are Kid-O’s wonderful wooden books. Things That Go is a wordless book featuring lovely, simple art of vehicles printed on maple wood, great for those kids who like to rip and chew their books. Also available: Animal Homes.

Stay tuned next week for our second holiday gift guide!

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Geek Author Ethan Gilsdorf Talks Names, Games, and Giveaways!

DSC_0203-EthanEthan Gilsdorf is the celebrated geek author of the very awesome book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. It’s the sort of book that, if you’re a lifelong geek like me, you can’t put down. The book chronicles Ethan’s life as a young geek, his escape from his roots, and then his return. From Tolkien to tabletop roleplaying, from Boston to New Zealand, the book is a pitch-perfect account of one geek’s journey in a very, very wide world.

F_final_FFGG_front_jacketI met Ethan earlier this year at PAX:East, where we sat on a panel together. At that point, his book was just in hardcover: but lo! It has landed in paperback!

So, in celebration this great book going paperback, I asked Ethan to do an interview for us here at GeekMom. And since he’s done quite a few interviews, I didn’t want it to be the same dull questions as usual. So we delved a little deeper into the depths of geekdom to tease out some unusual answers.

Hark! There is more, indeed.

In addition to the interview, Ethan is also giving away 5 signed copies of his book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks to our readers.

How do you win this coveted book, you ask? Ethan, among other things, is also a poet. So I thought it’d be cool if you could give us a verse or two. Be it a free verse, a limerick, a sonnet, a haiku, or a villanelle, on the geeky subject of your choosing (think “An Ode to Harry Potter” or the “Ballad of Bilbo”). Just put your entries in the comments below and we’ll choose the best five entries by Friday!

Good luck, and geek on!

Ethan Gilsdorf Answers GeekMom’s Curious Questions

GeekMom: You’re playing D&D. Your first character choice?
Ethan Gilsdorf: First, a caveat: I come from the dark ages of AD&D, back when we covered our holy texts (the Monster Manual, et al) with brown shopping bag paper and we didn’t have funky classes like Avenger, Invoker, or College Professor, or races like Minotaur, Shardmind, or SpongeBob. No siree! We walked to wizard school through 3 feet of snow and we didn’t have d20s, only d2s and d3s. But to the question: I have always preferred the sneakier, tree-huggier classes like ranger or thief. As far as races, I go hobbit (ooops, silly me, I mean “halfling”) or half-elf. I guess I have a schizophrenic Aragorn … no … Bilbo! fetish. I like the idea of stealth rather than brawn, and I really dig the dark-and-stormy loner types with haunted bloodlines.

GM:  The Hobbit movie. Is it going to happen? Your thoughts on PJ vs. Del Toro, and what is in store for the franchise?
EG: The news on this darned movie changes daily. Now that GDT is out, at least those who worried he’d Hellboy it up too much or front-load it with too much action and creatures and special effects, should be breathing a sigh of relief. GDT is a wonderful director, don’t get me wrong. But there’s some solace in knowing that PJ will be at the helm (at least that’s the last news) and the visual and directorial style will be consistent with LOTR. Now the bigger question is whether The Hobbit will be filmed in New Zealand or not, due to, first, labor/union issues, and now tax break issues, and whether Warner Bros. will want to make a film in a country where the actors threatened to strike. There have been huge rallies in NZ to keep the film there. As I write this, Warners is reportedly headed to NZ to meet with PJ’s company Wingnut Films to move the production offshore. (Weirdly, Facebook pulled a “Keep the Hobbit film shoot in New Zealand” page after it got 10,000 fans — is Facebook in cahoots with Time/Warner?). Tempers are flaring and folks are upset. It’s unfortunate, but since everyone involved stands to make a crapload of money, the film will get made, if not in NZ then the UK or Eastern Europe. (Editor’s note: the film will officially be made in NZ.)

GM: Do you think giving your child a geeky name (Zelda, Frodo, Superman) is a good thing, or a bad thing? Are parents setting their kids up for a geeky upbringing, or will this overt geek indoctrination end up backfiring?
EG: Will naming your spawn Arwen, Neo, Buffy or Leia condemn them to endless torment? I doubt it. There’s already a trend for crazy non-geek mash-up names that seem equally ridiculous, i.e., Breckin? Chance? Maxigan? Attica? Not much goofier than Samwise. Besides, by the time your babies are in high school, Lord of the Rings will be required reading, and they’ll be able to study French, Latin and Na’vi.

GM: What are your geeky black holes? Any fandoms or pastimes you just aren’t into/don’t get/wish you could like but don’t? (Me: Dr. Who, for instance)
EG: One problem is I don’t watch TV as much as I used to, so I’ve missed a lot of the recent shows like Battlestar Galactica and Lost (I know, it’s embarrassing to admit! They’re on my list to get on DVD!). And in terms of gaming, I don’t own Xbox or Wii, so I don’t have much first-person experience with the most ground-breaking games like BioShock or Gears of War. What can I say? My hand-eye was always pathetic (although I’m pretty good at old-school arcade games like Galaga and Robotron 2084). I never got into anime or manga, either (but weirdly loved “Star Blazers” as a kid). Like you, I never connected with Dr. Who, despite it airing each night on PBS between Julia Child and MacNeil/Lehrer. Those BBC special effects were just too cheesy a kid who was spoiled on ILM-quality effects. I’m too old for Joss Whedon fandom and wish I had gotten into Magic: The Gathering. But I do my best to keep up and make sure my black holes aren’t too deep. Lately, I’ve been diving into steampunk for an article I’m writing for the Boston Globe. I even attended a steampunk LARP. That was a hoot.

GM: Gilsdorf. Seems like the name has some geeky undertones. I think Gil-Galad, and dwarf. Were you just predestined?
EG: On my book tour, I’ve gotten a zillion comments from people asking me if my name is real. Yep, I say, my parents actually named me this tongue-twister “Ethan Gilsdorf.”. People wonder if it’s Elvish. Or Elvis. At the time, the name Ethan was about as rare as orc teeth. Friends in high school called me Nahte Frodslig.

Continue reading Geek Author Ethan Gilsdorf Talks Names, Games, and Giveaways!

Why I Fell In (And Out Of) Love With It’s a Book.

Photo: Roaring Book Press

I happened to have my two younger boys with me when I ducked into work (the library) the other day. I did my usual quick scan of the new book shelf, the place where books sit in our backroom until they’re catalogued and processed.  As I flip, flip, flipped through the row of picture books I immediately had to stop when I found this new treasure.

How can you not stop at an engaging cover like this one? The charmingly simple statement of a title, It’s a Book, forced me to pull it from the pile and open it up. Standing in the middle of the back room of the library I dove into its pages and began to read it aloud to my boys. We were sucked in by the adorable characters and clever exchanges.

The Monkey is deeply engaged in a story book and his donkey friend, typing away on his laptop, is nosey. He inquires about his friend’s latest distraction, assuming it’s some kind of technological device. But it’s “just a book”.

Their exchanges are clever and funny. “Does it tweet? Can you blog with it? How do you scroll down?” To which the monkey replies, every time, with “You don’t. It’s a book.”

My favorite part is when monkey reads a page out of his pirate book to the donkey and donkey immediately converts the words to abbreviated text language (Long John Silver becomes LJS, etc.). It’s a hilarious idea.

It’s a perfectly painted picture of the lives of children today. They have so much technology available to them and yet there’s still nothing quite as special as a simple book. Some critics of this book have complained that it’s not relatable to young children because they won’t understand language like blog and tweet. I’ve lived with a toddler who could use a mouse before he turned two. I think kids are noticing the grown up world of computer language much more than we realize.

Photo: Roaring Brook Press

And because of the conflict between electronics and simple print books, the idea appealed to my older kids, too. The boys I was reading it to are 10 and 14. They were engaged by the whole story. It’s a classic case of picture books not just being for little kids.

Which leads me to the one issue I have with this book. It’s what’s causing a buzz when people talk about this book. The author, Lane Smith, is a well known author and illustrator of many award winning children’s books. He has an amazing talent for storytelling and art. He is the man behind the brilliant pictures in many of Jon Scieszka’s books, including The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. But in my opinion he made a bad call at the end of his latest creation.

In the last pages of this new story, the donkey character, who has fallen in love with this new low tech thing called a book, tells monkey that he’ll be sure to charge up the book before he returns it to monkey. Monkey’s obvious reply is, “You don’t have to. It’s a book.” But he doesn’t stop there. The line actually reads, “It’s a book, Jackass.”

This is where I stopped cold when reading it aloud to my boys. They are both old enough to read so when I paused at the end, they immediately looked over my shoulder at the text. At the same moment both of them were startled. With wide eyes my fourteen year old said, “Mom, that’s not right. You need to tell the library people about that. That’s not right for little kids.”

I had the same reaction. It was such a fun book to read. My boys and I were enjoying it together, so pleased with this new treasure we’d found. I never expected the flow to be interrupted by a swear word that no one in our house is allowed to say, whether you’re six or sixty.

The author himself addresses this criticism in a video that’s posted on the Amazon page for the book. He feels like it fits perfectly. It’s just an animal name. People need to lighten up.

I disagree strongly. Yes, it is the technical word for a donkey. But in this case it’s used, tongue in cheek, as a swear word, obviously making fun of the donkey’s lack of common sense. This is not a picture book of animals and their names. The word is not used as a description. And either way, I’m not comfortable reading it aloud to my children in this context.

The story is strong without it. To me, it just doesn’t fit. Kind of like a movie that has one shot of a nude woman that has no merit to the story, but brings about the R rating. It’s gratuitous and unnecessary.

It’s an unfortunate decision, in my opinion. I was so captivated by this book that before I had even finished reading it I had plans to buy copies for the special children in my life. I was ready to add it to my list of top picture books. I could think of many adults who would love reading it to their children. But that last word changed everything.

I am tempted to buy it and use my own Sharpie to cross out that one violating word. But that feels even more wrong to me than the word itself. So it leaves me just wishing Mr. Smith would have passed on the grown up joke and left a great thing alone. This book would have been a treasure, on many levels, without the cheap shot at a grown up laugh.

If you do decide to purchase this book, maybe for the technology obsessed teen or adult in your life, it retails for $12.99. You might also check out this very informative blog post, written by the author himself, full of details about the making of this book, from the type of art he used to the tiny hat that the monkey so comically wears on top of his large head.

The Gift of Experience: How To Think Outside of the Wrapped Box

GeekDad and Geekette go kayaking

If your children are anything like mine, they get way too many toys for Christmas and birthdays. Their closets and shelves are bursting with items that they rarely play with or have forgotten in the chaos. Their GeekDad and I decided that rather then make wish lists for more toys that they don’t need, we would start making wish lists for experiences. Here are some of the best ones that I have found so far in no particular order:

Fashion Playtes: This site lets the user design their own clothes and then purchase them. You can even do your own collection. They have a variety of tops, bottoms, and accessories — even a jean jacket — that you can customize by fabric type and decoration. Once your design is complete, you purchase it and it gets shipped to you. My daughter found it very cool that she could design her own outfit and was “super excited” to wear it to school.

Pottery studios: These places provide pre-fired ceramics and glazes that you paint onto your chosen piece. Our local Purple Glaze had a variety of items from cookie jars to little horses to plates. On our last trip, we made a 60th birthday plate for Grandma complete with a hand print. They also offer pieces that you can craft mosaics on. Contemporary Ceramic Studios Association seems to have a good number of locations nationwide.

Climbing walls: Most of these are pretty low key and I didn’t find a national chain. Our local place offers safety classes, introductory classes, and even outdoor guiding courses. This is a great way to introduce your child to a new sport that might become a life long enjoyment.

Online art studio: Yuva Studio is a creative playground where kids can stamp, punch, patch, doodle, and draw with the online tools. You can create e-cards, make a book, or even get a t-shirt printed with the kid’s art.

Baking/cooking classes: Research and experience tells us that if kids are involved in making the food they are more likely to eat it. Considering the obesity epidemic in the United States it is more important than ever to teach our kids healthy habits. Most places offering cooking classes for kids are local. Wilton offers cake decorating classes nationwide at various hobby and craft stores. Young Chefs Academy offers cooking classes for kids and has many locations nationwide.

Art classes: Again local is your best bet. Use your favorite search engine and see what you can find in your area. Young Rembrandts has some camps and programs in several states as well.

Write your own book: Barnes & Noble has a site called Tikatok where kids can write and illustrate their own book online and then order it as a hard or soft cover or as an eBook download. This would make a great keepsake or gift for the grandparents.

Dinosaur digs or archeological excavations: If your kids are really into artifacts or dinosaur bones, this would be a great gift. Any natural history museum or dinosaur museum in your area might offer the trip or you can make it part of a family vacation.

Some other experience related gifts that might be good: sports camps, swimming lessons, zoo memberships, animal watching trips if you live near wildlife, cowboy for a day, dude ranches, horseback trip, backpacking trip, dance classes, circus classes, fishing trips, etc.

You are really only limited by your own imagination. After all, some of the best memories we have from growing up are experiences and time spent with our families, not how many toys or things we have.