May 30 2013

Little Old Man

There’s no getting around it. This kid looks a lot like my grandfather, the late Ned Fritz of Texas. I hope he inherits the hair! The razor-sharp mind, the passion for environmental justice, and the playful love of kids and songs and poetry…that would be nice, too.


May 28 2013

Reading Lessons

So, I’ve been doing some formal reading lessons with Robin. The impetus was learning that if he gets into the Urban Montessori Charter School next year, he’ll be placed in first grade—I don’t want him to start first grade not knowing how to read. I sort of had this idea that if you read to kids, they naturally pick it up, but although Robin knew his ABC’s and letter sounds really early on, and had a handful of sight words (“cat,” “dog,” et cetera), he hadn’t moved much past that stage. He wasn’t able to pick up a book and read it.

It turns out that the pedagogy of teaching kids to read is a real minefield. The reading wars, as they are called, essentially consist of the “phonics” camp pitted against the “whole-language” camp in a tribal deathmatch. And it is tribal: the debate has become entirely bound up in identity politics, with conservatives flying the phonics flag and liberals marching with the whole-language brigade. I’m a liberal, so my instincts aligned rather neatly with the whole-language side, and I probably never would have thought to challenge those instincts except that Robin wasn’t making much progress towards true literacy.

But after reading more on the subject, I learned (to my own dismay) that, nice as it is, the whole language idea has not yielded good results anywhere that it’s been put into exclusive implementation. Most educators currently endorse a “balanced” approach that includes at least some phonics instruction.

So, I bit my lip hard and ordered a phonics-based workbook for Robin. I got the one that had the best Amazon scores: Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.

And I hated that book. Everything in my nature rebelled against its didatic, joyless, prescriptivist approach. Nontheless, it had really great reviews, and Robin was quite happily up for the idea of “doing lessons” with Mama. (Davy was muuuuuuch less thrilled with the concept of a thing Robin and I would do together without him…and I suspect that his opposition was part of the draw for Robin. Oh, the joys of siblings.)

By lesson eight, something had clicked for Robin. He got the central idea of “sounding things out.” He wanted to page ahead and look at the new words in lessons further along. So I quite gleefully ditched the boring workbook and went back to reading real books with Robin—except now, I stop every now and then and have him identify a word before we go on. Sometimes he can do it because it’s one of the ever-growing number of words he recognizes on sight; sometimes he can guess the word from context; and sometimes I help him sound it out.

Today, for the first time, I had the experience of sitting down with a picture book Robin hadn’t seen before (it was actually a workbook my mom sent, First Words Sticker Workbook) and realizing that Robin can read every word on the page, by himself. The pictures are great context clues, of course, but he’s also identifying the starting sounds of the words and using that information to guess the word correctly. He is, in other words, using all of the tools at his disposal to truly read. He can pick up unfamiliar material and read it. He is in the early stages of actual literacy. I was so impressed that I texted Sam and demanded to know whether he’d read that book with Robin already! (Answer: No.)

So, it all makes me feel a bit more confident about homeschooling for kindergarten, if that’s the path we end up taking. I can teach him things, even with the distractions of a new baby and a demanding two-year-old. I can teach him reading and writing and ‘rithmatic. I have, to some degree, already done it.

May 27 2013

Book Reviews: Unnatural Creatures, The Woman who Married a Cloud, Practical Magic

Cross-posted from my Goodreads account

Unnatural Creatures

I really like short stories. Conventional wisdom in publishing has it that short story collections don’t sell, but personally I seek them out: there are some ideas that aren’t really meant to be novels, and a well-crafted short story can pack a huge depth of emotion and resonance into just a few pages. A short story is just the right length to meet a character, explore an idea, or pay off a simple plot twist. And a short story collection can either show off an author’s versatility, or it can showcase variations on a single theme.

Unnatural Creatures does the latter. It’s an anthology featuring stories by some of the biggest names in fantasy—along with some new-to-me authors—and each story features a different fantastic beast. There are unicorns, dragons, werewolves, and a bunch of less-standard creatures (the dimension-hopping carnivorous plant was rather memorable). The stories were selected by Neil Gaiman and are almost all excellent. In fact, Gaiman’s own contribution (which has been published before in his own short-story collections), while amusing enough, was one of the weakest of the bunch. Taken as a whole Unnatural Creatures is everything a satisfying anthology should be: both broad and deep, and full of characters that are interesting to meet and don’t outlast their welcomes.

The Woman Who Married a Cloud: The Collected Short Stories

This collection, on the other hand, failed from my perspective. I surprised myself by disliking it as much as I did, since I thought Carroll’s novel Bones of the Moon was haunting and masterful. But these stories were choppy—one ended so abruptly, and with such pointlessness, that I actually wonder if the Kindle edition might not have dropped some pages—and were mostly unpleasant even when they felt complete. I don’t need all my stories to have happy endings, but me to there’s a distinction between fiction that looks at the struggles and sorrows of human existence and finds some kind of meaning or redemption or catharsis there, and nihilistic fiction that simply wallows in unhappiness. These stories felt like wallowing, to me.

Practical Magic

As guilty-pleasure books go, this one is aces: it’s written in a breezy, catchy style that keeps the pages turning, and the plot is loaded with magic and romance. I say it’s a “guilty” pleasure because it’s really a chick lit book at heart—there’s nothing the least bit challenging here, and the male characters especially come across less like believable human beings and more like Love Interest-shaped tokens dropped into the narrative at the appropriate points. But it’s a great beach or airplane read.

May 23 2013


Pappy, by Betsy Phillips

I love this photo of Sam’s dad, taken by my lovely and talented sister in law, Betsy Phillips. I feel like it shows an essential element of Sam’s background. We’re both city kids who grew up rural—me in the Ozarks, Sam in the shadow of the Sierra Nevadas. I see that modern-day mountain-man element in Sam, in a lot of ways.

Also, Sam is a wonderful father. And I think that men who take easily, naturally, to parenting generally do so because they had close and nurturing relationships with their own fathers. So when I look at this photo, I see one of the people who made Sam into the man that I love so much.

May 17 2013

Well Nourished Infant

Sol had a great check-up today! He weighs ten pounds and two ounces, which puts him back on a normal growth curve, and the pediatrician gave me a print out that says “General appearance: well nourished infant” right up at the top, so that I can take it out and look at it whenever I’m feeling blue. And he’s 23 and a half inches long, so almost two feet. The doctor also exclaimed over his enormous feet.

He’s starting to “talk” more, grunts and coos and other funny little sounds, so it’s possible to have amusing conversations with him now–at least if you’re the type that’s easily amused. He’s a remarkably chill little guy most of the time. He cries when he’s hungry or needs a change, but otherwise he’s pretty content to hang out and observe. I think that might be an adaptive trait in a household with two loud and energetic older brothers!

May 16 2013

The Weird Thrill of a “Good” Rejection

I wrote a new short story just before Sol was born, and I tried submitting it to, which is aiming high—they’re currently the best-paying fantasy market that I know of. Today I got a rejection note, but it was a nice rejection note: “Thanks so much for submitting to, and for your patience while we evaluated your story. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that ‘The Fairy
Midwife’ isn’t quite right for us. It’s always hard to reject a good story, and this is fun and inventive. I think it hasn’t lived up to its potential—there are tools here for a deeper emotional impact than I felt—and so I wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere. Please send us more of your stories in the future!”

This is indubitably a “good” rejection. Good rejections are when you get personalized feedback (as opposed to the generic “does not meet our needs at this time”) and the editors express a desire to see more of your work. I think I went through like a dozen rejections before I made my first short fiction sale (to Dragon magazine back in 1994), and they got progressively nicer and nicer until I finally sent something they actually bought. First it was just the printed slip; then it was the printed slip with a handwritten note on it; then it was an actual letter from an actual editor with detailed and specific feedback; and finally it was an offer letter with contracts to sign. So there’s definitely a hierarchy of rejections. And a good one can kind of make my day.

I don’t actually have anything else to send to right now—before this story, I hadn’t written any short fiction for a long time—but I’ll send “The Fairy Midwife” somewhere else. It’s fun and inventive, after all!

May 10 2013

Book Reviews: Among Others, You

It’s coincidence that I read these two books within a couple weeks of each other, but they are in many ways mirror images of each other. Both are stories about stories, and about growing up as the kind of person who is drawn to certain kinds of stories. Among Others is about a geek girl shaped by the science fiction and the fantasy books she reads. She also talks to fairies, struggles against her evil witch (literally) of a mother, and searches to find her a place in a world that’s not really set up for people like her. She’s different—Othered—along a number of separate axes: disabled, geeky, a survivor of abuse, and that’s not even getting started with the witch thing. Yet her inner voice is intensely relatable. It’s funny how she’s given a number of different quests (survive boarding school, save the world, yadda yadda) but the one that feels most pressing is her need to stop being alone. The books she reads give her mind the companionship it needs until she’s able to find like-minded friends. I think for a lot of nerds her inner journey will be very, very familiar.

And You is the mirror image, except instead of being about a girl and books, it’s about a boy and video games. But both books center on the experience of growing up nerdy and finding solace or salvation in a certain kind of story. Among Others touches on a whole library shelf worth of classic texts, and You does the same for classic video games. I was so struck by the experience of recognition, again and again—hey! I played that game!—that I had to look up the author’s biography, where I discovered that he’s worked as a game designer. This probably explains the central plausibility of the genre plot. I mean, it’s not really plausible, but of all the books or movies that offer plots wherein the hero must save the world by playing video games, this one is far and away the least stupid. That sounds like damning with faint praise, but actually I enjoyed this book from start to finish. Not quite as much as Grossman’s first novel, the utterly marvelous Soon I Will Be Invincible, but enough that I’m very much looking forward to seeing what he does next.

(Grossman also has a free short story up at, “Professor Incognito Apologizes,” which is in the style of Soon I Will Be Invincible. If you like one you’ll probably like the other!)

May 9 2013






Right, I remember! This is the stage where the baby changes from “a strange, somewhat frightening little creature I must take care of” to “a marvelous funny person who I love.”

May 7 2013

Cutie Bug


I think there might be some red in his hair! (And his shoulders are broader than they look here, it’s a funny angle.)

May 7 2013

Days of Milk and Formula

Sol is visibly plumping up. I am so, so relieved. It took him a few days to get used to the bottle, but it turns out our doctor was right: supplementing with formula has made this problem vanish.

I was struck by the fact that every mother who left me messages of support, to say they had been in the same position, also talked about how hard it had been to confront the stigma that surrounds formula, and the sense that anything less than exclusive breastfeeding makes you a Bad Mom. There is a whole industry out there that has a vested interest in pushing the “breast is best” philosophy to an irrational extreme: “the lactation-commercial-industrial complex,” as my BFF calls it. It’s like the crunchy-granola mirror of the formula companies—I mean, those are still more evil, but at this point they are less insidious.

Every mom in my demographic can reel off the studies: breastfeeding makes healthier babies, even smarter babies. (It doesn’t, actually, but never mind.) And of course we want the best for our babies, so women are quite literally torturing themselves in a struggle to live up to the breastfeeding ideal. I had one friend, whose baby was prone to a painful latch, describe to me how she would spend each nursing session weeping from the pain. Another, who spent a small fortune on lactation consultants and breast pumps, told me that her failure to exclusively breastfeed made her feel like she wasn’t a real mother to her baby.

This is crazy, and cruel. There’s no One Right Way to be a mom, and while nursing is lovely, formula is fine too. I’m still nursing Sol a lot, but I don’t feel the least bit ashamed of giving him a bottle as well. I’m just glad that he’s getting what he needs to grow.