Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How to Clean Up Used Children's Books

I shop thrift stores for great children's books the way other women hunt for vintage peacoats. I've been amazed at how many books I'm able to find used; some of which are old favorites and some of which are new to me and thus somehow even more delightful if they're a "hit." The best example of that is Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, which I'd never heard of before and which is just so musical and fun to read.

Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb   [HAND HAND FINGERS THUMB-BOARD] [Board Books]

That said, many of the books I pick up are in fairly shady condition, but so long as it has all the pages and the crayon scribbles are limited to one or two pages of text and aren't too distracting, I'm interested. I find that most kids limit their drawing in books to the flyleaves, which speaks of a certain delicacy and propriety amongst toddlers who aren't expected to have manners or respect for books. To which I can only say, kids, thank you. I also thank you to whomever is donating pristine, brand-new books to Goodwill. I've gotten brand new copies of Make Way for Ducklings and Stella Luna, and just today found a brand-new hardback copy of The Color Kittens.

The Color Kittens (Little Golden Treasures)

All of which leads up to how easy it is to take a used book from grungy to great. Step one is removing the thrift-store price tag and any remaining price tags from the book's first life. This almost always leaves sticky residue, which I remove with an outstanding product called Goo Gone. If you don't have it, get it. I'm just about done with my first small bottle, and when I go back to the hardware store to replace it, I'll be getting the jumbo size. Such useful stuff! Then I just spray a household cleaner (we happen to have a lot of Formula 409 in the house, thanks to an overzealous bulk purchase at Smart & Final years ago) on a rag or paper towel, and you would not believe the gunk that comes off the covers of these books! Just years of accumulated grime and slime; but after a through wipedown, the books really do listen. Very occasionally some of the tint on the color printing (especially yellows for some reason) will rub off, but all in all the operation is usually a success.

I've redeemed dozens of books this way, with just one casualty (a terribly copy of Danny and the Dinosaur that was so gross it seemed like some kid must have puked on it) and I love that I can expand Jackson's home library for cents on the dollar.

Anybody else out there enjoy rescuing and repaired thrift-store finds?

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Five Memorably Good Pieces of Advice about Pregnancy and Babies

* OBGYN: Skip WTEWYE and read Girlfriend's Guide to Pregnancy instead.

All of the What To Expect books annoy the hell out of me; they're too unstructured and highly alarmist, not to mention populist to the point of being useful for no one. Vicki Iovine, on the other hand, has memorably funny advice that relates actual human women and their actual human babies. Also, when she was younger, she was a Berkeley women's studies major or law student or something who infiltrated the Playboy Mansion for thesis research and ended up becoming a centerfold. Used to be married to Jimmy Iovine, but they just got divorced after four kids and 20-plus years. In any case, I love her, and I've heard that she's an amazing person in real life.

* MOM: Put the light in the baby's room on a dimmer switch.

My mom convinced us that the room we wanted to use for the baby was infested with mold, so we had to rip out the windows and remodel the whole thing. There was no mold, but it was probably a good thing to do anyway--Jackson now has the nicest room in the house. In the midst of this remodeling upheaval, mom also suggested that we put the light on a dimmer switch. Oh how I resented this advice at the time, but she was firm that it was a good idea, helpful for soothing babies with soft light and such. Well, the lady was right. It's awesome to be able sneak into Jackson's room at night, skootch the light up just a bit, and be able to see him and make sure he's doing OK.

* JEN P.: Get the hands-free pumping bra.

Typing while pumping! Most liberating thing ever for a breastfeeding mom. Can't recommend it enough.

* THERAPIST: Join a mommy and me class.

Best friends I ever paid for and an absolutely invaluable education in parenting. Pricey, to be sure, but worth every penny.

* LADY AT BABIES 'R' US: Get an activity gym.

Newborns mostly live in a blurry, vague, warm, well-padded world, but it's nice to give them a little stimulation every so often. Jackson loved the lights and music in his gym, and having something cool to look at. If there is a "next time" with babies, I'm getting a matching set of Fisher-Price activity gym, swing, bouncy seat and jumperoo. On one level it's all useless, and on another, it's great to be able to put the baby down and have 15 minutes to yourself.
My Take on the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I'm about to sell my copy of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua, on (We live on a boat and don't have room to store unnecessary books.) Before I let it go, I thought I'd share some reaction and some informative elements from the book, thus hopefully saving you from having to buy it yourself. Overall it's pretty useless (it is in fact the kind of book she's been defending it as: a sentimental personal memoir ), but if you wanted a how-to manual, here are some of the more explicit exposition about her method:


1. "Your children must always be two years ahead of their classmates in math." (p. 5)

2. "Always check your test answers three times." (p. 23)

3. "Look up every word you don't know and memorize the exact definition." (p. 23)

4. "To make sure that Sophia and Lulu weren't pampered and decadent like the Romans when their empire fell, I also insisted that they do physical labor...I try to make them carry heavy objects." (p. 23)

5. "Be humble, be simple...The last shall come first." (p. 24)

6. "Never complain or make excuses. If something seems unfair at school, just prove yourself by working twice as hard and being twice as good." (p. 24)

7. "What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something--whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet--he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more." (p. 29)

8. "Western parents are concerned about their children's psyches. Chinese parents aren't. They
assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently." (p. 52)

9. "Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn't get them, the Chinese parent assumes it's because the child didn't work hard enough." (p. 52)

10. Confident parents know what's best for their children..."and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences...While [my husband] Jed was good at saying no to the girls, he didn't have an affirmative plan for them...He wasn't absolutely confident that he could make the right choices for them." (p. 53)

11. "One of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't." (p. 62)

12. "The Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with the skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away." (p. 63)

13. "A fundamental tenet of being Chinese is that you always do all of the extra credit all of the time...Extra credit is one reason that Asian kids get such notoriously good grades in the United States." (pp. 69-70)

14. "Rote drilling is another...practicing more than everyone else is also why Asian kids dominate the top music conservatories." (p. 70)

15. "[My mother-in-law] Florence saw childhood as something fleeting to be enjoyed. I saw childhood as a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future." (p. 97)

16. "I like authority figures. I like experts." (pp. 123) [Me too, and I wonder if the overall success of Amy Chau's approach to parenting is fundamentally determined by deference to authority; Sophia had this, Lulu didn't.]

17. "One of [the] first things Chinese people learn is that you must respect authority. No matter what, you don't talk back to your parents, teachers, elders." (p. 151)

18. This next quote was spoken in the midst of Chau's climactic battle with her rebellious daughter Lulu, with whom her methods had failed, resulting in vicious cycle of rebellion rather than the promised virtuous cycle of achievement. Lulu was declining to some sort of egg dish at a Moscow restaurant they were visiting. Chau excoriated her daughter as things escalated, saying, "And in case you thing you're a big rebel, you are completely ordinary. There is nothing more typical, more predictable, more common and low, than an American teenager who won't try things." Elsewhere in the book she rails against Facebook, Slushees, videogames and obesity, and her point seems to be that the best defense against mediocrity is a strong academic and extracurricular offense. Don't let your kids slip to the lowest common denominator because it's easy, and especially don't let that happen because it's easy for you, the parent.

19. "Just because you love something, I added to myself, doesn't mean you'll ever be great. Not if you don't work. Most people stink at the things they love." (p. 215)


Early in the book, Chau outlines a basic difference between Chinese and Western parenting, at least in her analysis. Chinese parents think their kids owe them everything; Western parents think they owe their kids everything. In Chau's words. "This strikes me as a terrible deal for the Western parent." Many chapters later, in the midst of explaining her daughter Lulu's wholesale rejection of her parenting methods and her mother in general, she reveals that the Chinese method may not be so rewarding to Chinese parents after all.

As Chau explains her blanket refusal to participate in playdates, she simultaneously bemoans Chinese parenting as being "incredibly lonely--at least when you're trying to do it in the West, where you're on your own...there's no one you can talk to honestly, not even people you like and deeply respect...You have to be hated sometimes by someone you love and who hopefully loves you, and there's just no letting up, no point at which it suddenly becomes easy...[It] is a never-ending uphill battle, requiring a 24-7 time commitment, resilience and guile."

She also explains her own grueling schedule coaching the girls through piano and violin (pp. 182-183 have a good example), while juggling her work office hours and book writing demands. Hmmm...Who's getting the bad deal now? That said, the sheer devotion of a parent making a "24-7 time commitment" to his or her child has to contribute greatly to that child's success, at least relative to other children whose parents are not so intensely devoted to their child's development and education.


I'm fairly sure Amy Chau is a classic narcissist--she quote her daughters telling her as much at several points in the book--and she's pretty straightforward about wanting and needing complete control. I don't think I'd like to be her friend and I would have gone insane being her daughter.

However, I think the ultimate success of her system, which isn't really a system at all, is a simple function of hyperinvolvement with her kids, not the haranguing or the implicit and explicit criticism that have made headlines.

If your kids are practicing musical instruments four hours a day, they're not watching TV or learning about sex from other junior high kids who like to hang out behind the Kwik-E-Mart.

Plus, practice and hard work are sure-fire character (and success) building schemes.