Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Classic for the New Year

I often get asked for books that are good for older kids and families to read together. Even though I have a teenager now, I still read to my kids at bedtime, and it's a time we look forward to each night. While sometimes we throw in a picture book for the kindergartner's sake, we go through a lot of fun novels as well.

Instead of considering bedtime reading a new year's resolution (something you know will flounder around, oh, February, if you're doing really well), simply pick up books at night as a treat for both parent and child.

What to pick? In the near future, I'll post a great list of middle grade and young adult titles perfect for reading together as a family.

For now, here's one fantastic idea, one that even my teenager (a boy!) enjoyed and laughed over. You've surely heard of this classic, which celebrated its 100th birthday a few months ago:

Four months after the novel's 1908 release, Mark Twain wrote to the author and declared that the heroine was “the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.”

Readers agreed, in droves, and today, they still do.

The book went on to be translated into dozens of languages. It spawned seven sequels. Several stage plays and motion pictures and at least one musical have been made of it. A national park in Canada is centered around its heroine. Tourists who love the story enjoy annual events and 3-day tours around beloved Prince Edward Island.

2008 marked the one-hundred-year anniversary of the debut of Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. Twain was right; a century after he made his statement about Anne, there’s a good chance that worldwide, more readers have read about her—and loved her—than Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

Lucy Maud Montgomery was born on Prince Edward Island in 1874, and she spent most of her growing-up years there, raised by strict grandparents. After attending Prince of Wales College and Dalhousie University, she taught in local schools and worked at two newspapers. During that time, she worked hard on her craft, writing and selling poems and several dozen short stories.

She returned home to PEI in 1902 to care for her ailing grandmother, still writing and publishing her short stories, and decided to try her hand at a full-length novel for the first time. First she looked over a notebook where she kept story ideas, and she came across an entry about an elderly couple wanting to adopt a boy but who were mistakenly sent a girl.

Thus Anne of Green Gables was born. The book flew off shelves when it was released June of 1908. Montgomery continued writing books for decades, following her first success with Anne of Avonlea, Kilmeny of the Orchard (a rework of a previously published short story as a novella), and The Story Girl.

Shortly after her grandmother’s death in 1911, she married a minister, Ewan Macdonald, and moved with him to Canada's mainland, where she lived for the rest of her life, returning to PEI only for visits.

If you’re looking for an excuse to gather around and enjoy literature this winter, use Anne’s recent centennial as a way to bring your family together. There’s something in the book—and in all of L. M. Montgomery’s work—for everyone.

Young girls love Anne’s imagination and feel for her when she gets into scrape after scrape.

Older children—including boys (remember mine?)—laugh at the wry humor from Marilla and Mrs. Lynde.

And adults appreciate the deeper themes and wit.

Already read Anne of Green Gables? Try some of Montgomery's other work. Read one of the following Montgomery books aloud as a family or enjoy alone with a cup of hot chocolate on a cool winter day next to a roaring fire:

The Blue Castle is one of only a few her books that focus on an adult protagonist rather than a child, and the only one that does not feature Prince Edward Island. Valancy is an old maid living with her oppressive mother and aunt. She wishes desperately to live her own life but lacks the courage until she sees a heart specialist who tells her she has only a year to live. She keeps her diagnosis a secret and determines that her last year will be meaningful. For the first time in her life, she stands up for herself—leading her strait-laced family to believe she’s lost her mind. Poignant, moving, and laugh-out-loud funny, The Blue Castle is one of Montgomery’s best.

Rilla of Ingleside, although part of the Anne series, is actually about Anne’s daughter. Rilla (named after Marilla from Green Gables) is the youngest in her family. The Great War (World War I) breaks out in Europe, and the reader experiences the challenges and worries families on the home front endured when the world’s future was unsure and frightening. Rilla grows up fast as she sends her beau to war, becomes an adoptive mother, and watches her dearest brother, Walter, enlist as well. Some of the description and angst over the war come from Montgomery’s own journals. Rilla is arguably the best of the Anne series.

Emily of New Moon and its two sequels, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest, while less-known, are just as delightful as the Anne books. The story is fictional, but certain elements make these books the most autobiographical of any of Montgomery’s work. Emily’s mother dies when she is only a toddler, just as Montgomery’s did, and Emily’s one memory of her mother comes almost verbatim from Montgomery’s journal remembering her mother’s funeral when she herself was just twenty-one months old. Other autobiographical elements include Emily’s creative “flash” and her ambitions of becoming a writer.

If you enjoy these books, you might want to look into Montgomery’s other works, such as Jane of Lantern Hill, the 2-book Pat series, A Tangled Web, and Magic for Marigold, not to mention some ten volumes of collected short stories, which are also great for bedtime reading.

Lucy Maud Montgomery exploded on the world’s literary scene with Anne in 1908, leaving a legacy to last for generations to come. The one hundredth anniversary is an event definitely worth celebrating.

So gather the family around the fireplace, pull up a chair, and begin with Chapter One: “Rachel Lynde Is Surprised.”


Return to the Neighborhood.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Literacy Changes Lives

I found my son staying up well past his bedtime, a book hidden under his covers. With a stern voice, I reminded him that it was a school night.

“Can I finish this chapter? Pleeeeease?” he begged.

I pretended to deliberate. “Well . . . okay. But turn your light out right after that.” I closed his door. And did a jig.

My excitement went beyond him finding adventures between the covers a book. Something far more crucial was at stake: his future.

Literacy and Poverty
According to ProLiteracy, an organization dedicated to worldwide literacy, 70% of adult welfare recipients in the U.S. are illiterate, and nearly half of Americans with poor literacy skills live in poverty. The lowest two levels of literacy (as defined by The National Assessment for Adult Literacy) have a combined unemployment rate of 32%.

Life for the illiterate population wasn’t always this bad. Back in the 1950s, 60% of jobs required no advanced education—only common sense, muscle, and a good work ethic. Today only 20% of jobs require no education, and those jobs have low pay.

No matter what a child wants to be—doctor, movie director, artist, architect, teacher—they’ll need to read and write to get there. And they’ll continue to need those skills to keep their jobs as they communicate with colleagues, managers, and customers.

Literacy and Health
Being able to read a book or write a letter doesn’t seem to have much to do with your physical health, but the connection is big. According to ProLiteracy, illiterate individuals are 52% more likely to be hospitalized. They’re at higher risk for diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer.

Illiteracy affects the entire family: uneducated adults are more likely to have children with poor health, for several reasons, like not knowing basic nutrition or being able to buy healthy food. Literate families understand germs and hygiene. They know the warning signs of illness, when to see a doctor, and what questions to ask, so they’re better advocates for themselves. They can understand medical forms, pamphlets, and prescription information.

A literate person is twice as likely to understand a disease and how to treat it as an illiterate counterpart. ProLiteracy reported that most diabetics with low literacy skills couldn’t identify a normal blood sugar reading—a deadly piece of information to lack. Those with low literacy skills are more likely to become sick—but they can’t afford medical care, and their costs end up being paid by the literate population.

The Next Generation
The same study showed that children and teenagers with illiterate parents have low grades. They exhibit anti-social behaviors, are more likely to drop out of school, and are at high risk for drug use and teen pregnancy. A parent’s attitude toward education—often a result of their own educational level—tends to be passed on, so their children don’t reach past their parents’ schooling.

But when parents were given literacy training, the negatives turned around: children’s grades went up, they made friends, they were healthier, they stayed in school, and their risk of deviant behavior dropped.

Literacy and Women
Women with poor literacy have an even tougher hill to climb, particularly in countries where educating girls isn’t valued. If an illiterate woman needs to work—and chances are, she does—she’ll earn 70% of the paltry amount an illiterate man on the same literacy level makes.

Educating women reduces poverty because of the many resources a woman brings home. Her family benefits financially and nutritionally, but she also has a tremendous influence on her children’s education and their future.

The higher a woman’s education, the better off her children are at every stage, from before birth (uneducated mothers have more pre-term births and infant mortality) through the school years (uneducated mothers pass on poor hygiene, poor health, and have children with low grades and high dropout levels). Children of uneducated teen mothers often repeat the cycle, dropping out of school and having their own children in poverty.

Latter-day prophets have long understood the need for education. In the early years of the Church, schools were one of the first buildings in any new city. Temples sometimes doubled as university classrooms to teach science, literature, and languages.

President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “It is so important that you young men and you young women get all of the education that you can. . . . Education is the key which will unlock the door of opportunity for you. It is worth sacrificing for” (“Inspirational Thoughts,” Ensign, Jun 1999, p. 2).

What You Can Do
As a parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or friend, you can make a difference.

  • Let kids catch you reading—especially if you’re male. When boys see only female role models reading, they sometimes get the message that reading is “girly.”
  • Read aloud to kids.
  • Volunteer at a school, library, or literacy center.
  • Read what they’re reading so you can talk about it.
  • Have a family or neighborhood book club for kids.
  • Visit the library. Check out books, attend story time, and get involved in events.
  • Make it fun. Don’t insist kids finish a book they find boring. Read a book and then watch the movie based on it. Talk about what you liked and didn't. Hear kids' opinions.
  • Listen to audio books.
  • Keep books where kids can reach them. They won’t be read if they’re out of sight or out of reach.
  • Encourage kids to enter reading and writing contests.
  • Use the Church’s literacy program. Often tutors from one ward will help individuals from another to maintain anonymity. Contact your ward literacy specialist for more information.
  • Donate. Schools and libraries can always use more funding. Donate money or books.

A community’s literacy affects everyone, for better or worse. Working to help the next generation learn and grow is one of the best things we can do for our future.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

How Five Colors Can open a New Level of Scriptural Understanding

Right up there with "I'm going to lose weight" (which nearly everyone on the planet resolves each year) is another New Year's resolution, one that's almost as common among Latter-day Saints as shedding those pounds:

I'm going to study—no really, study—my scriptures this year.

Feeling like you're failing already? Try approaching your scriptures from a new angle. It's one that has brought me an almost startling amount of understanding to literally hundreds of Biblical passages.

Like the time when I learned that the Lord didn't harden Pharaoh's heart, that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.

Or the time when I read the parable of the Ten Virgins and gained more insight when I realized that instead of the bridegroom telling the foolish ones, "I know you not," he actually said, "Ye know me not." (Emphasis added.)

These are just a couple of examples of literally hundreds of times I've had an “aha” moment from a passage in the Bible—after reading a clarifying footnote.

Had I not marked my Bible footnotes ahead of time, I would never have noticed these gems that added to my understanding.

In the summer of 1979, a new edition of the Standard Works rolled off the printer. This new set included literally thousands of additions that could, in Elder Packer’s words, open up the scriptures to "anyone who can read."

Among the resources we now have in Standard Works:

  • Thorough footnotes in all the standard works but especially the Bible
  • Topical Guide
  • Bible Dictionary
  • Joseph Smith Translation appendix
  • Gazetteer
  • Maps
  • Enhanced chapter headings
  • and the Triple Combination Index.

The “new” version of the scriptures has been out for nearly thirty years, but how many of us take advantage of all that these amazing resources can bring us in our personal and family scripture study? Do we use them in such a way that the scriptures can be “opened” to us as Elder Packer promised?

In future posts, I’ll discuss some of the other elements included in the “new” version and how we can use them to increase our gospel and scriptural understanding, but today we’ll focus on the one that has had the most profound effect for me personally in enhancing my understanding of the sacred words of the Bible.

If you take the time to really use your footnotes, your scripture study in 2008—and beyond—will never be the same.

The footnotes, which provide an amazing amount of clarity to the scriptures, were painstakingly created over many years by scholars under the direction of Church leaders. Some of the added understanding they provide is from alternate Hebrew and Greek translations. Other elements include insight to culture, geography, or other conditions from scriptural times. And of course we have some of the most important Joseph Smith Translation (JST) passages as well.

There’s just one problem: Actually recognizing that the footnotes are there as you read along.

How likely is it that you’ll glance down after every verse to make sure you didn’t miss a Greek translation, a clarification, or a JST citation—especially when the majority of footnotes are simply cross references and Topical Guide notations, which you aren't likely to need right now?

The chances are pretty slim, which means a wealth of understanding is quite possibly being passed over by millions of Latter-day Saints every day.

The solution is simple: Take time to mark the relevant footnotes in your Bible. If you do that, then as you read along, you’ll know immediately whether any given verse has something below that can open up your understanding.

Color Coding
I chose five colors to identify the different types of footnotes. This makes it easier to know at a glance which ones are connected to which verses and what kind of information each footnote contains.

You can use whatever colors you like, but here were my choices, along with explanations for each type of footnote.

RED = Joseph Smith Translation (I used this color because to me the JSTs are the most important footnotes.)

Shorter JST footnotes are included right on the page where the relevant passage is. Longer ones direct the reader to JST appendix. Note that text in italics are words added by the Prophet Joseph Smith to the King James text.

You may notice that the verse numbering in the JST citations don’t always line up with the chapter they belong to. This is because the full JST has many additions, which changes the verse numbering. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not own the JST transcript (which still belongs to the former RLDS church), so our printing of the Bible cannot include them all. Those deemed most important to include were selected by a Church scholar.

Readers interested in reading the entire JST can purchase it at LDS bookstores in a separate volume that compares the King James Version (KJV) with the JST side by side.

PURPLE = Hebrew translations. Since the KJV Old Testament was translated into English primarily from Hebrew manuscripts, you’ll find the majority of “HEB” footnotes there.

GREEN = Greek translations (easy to remember, as both green and Greek start with the same letters). These footnotes will be mostly found in the New Testament, as it was translated primarily from the Septuagint text, which was in Greek.

ORANGE = OR (Alternate wordings: A word could mean this OR this. Again, the spelling is a cue: ORange)

BLUE = Other miscellaneous clarifying footnotes, including cultural notes and those noted as “ie”

After underlining the actual footnote, don’t forget to color the superscript letter in the corresponding verse. Those letters will be your signals as you read to look down for the relevant footnote in the same color.

Going through all of the footnotes can take a long time (the Bible is big!), so do a little bit here and there over the course of several weeks.

It’s easy if you take a little time, going through a book or two each Sabbath, until it’s done.

Marking your footnotes is well worth the effort. Just wait; the first time you read the Bible after marking the footnotes, you’ll be amazed at all of the things you missed before.

And when December 31, 2008 rolls around, you'll be able to say—Yes! This year you really did study your scriptures.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Mission Possible: Family Scripture Study

We’ve all been there—we’ve heard the weeping, the wailing, the gnashing of teeth. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the War in Heaven. It’s daily family scripture study.

Trying to get the family together to study scriptures—and have it become something other than a verbal wrestling match—sometimes feels like an Olympic event, surpassed in difficulty perhaps only by weekly Family Home Evening.

While there are no perfect solutions, below are ten tips you can use to make family scripture time a more uniting, positive experience.

1-Adapt the time and place according to the changing needs of your family.
It’s easy to get into a rut, thinking that 6:30 am is the only time to get in the scripture reading. (Granted, it might be.) But try to find other opportunities as well. It’s not uncommon for a family’s schedule to change from year to year, so be flexible and adapt.

If early mornings used to work but don't anymore, try dinner time (even if you’re not all gathered together 7 nights a week—even 3 or 4 nights counts). What about right after nighttime family prayer? For years I read scriptures to the kids immediately before cracking open the nightly storybook.

2-Listen to audio scriptures together.
In today’s high-tech society, we have more options for immersing ourselves in the scriptures than ever before. You can now download the scriptures from the Church website onto you MP3 player and listen to them in the car as you drive the kids around to their activities. You can also purchase audio scriptures on CD, but that can is much more expensive.

3-Pause for questions and discussions.
Beware of the “we’ve got to finish the chapter” trap, or you might miss out on poignant questions and the opportunity for sacred discussions. It’s helpful even with older children to take a break mid-chapter and recap what is happening, who is speaking, or what doctrinal concept is being taught and what it means.

Reading this way does use more time. But it’s all right if reading the entire Book of Mormon takes you three years, verse by verse. The point isn’t how quickly you get through it, but that your family learns, grows, and feels the Spirit along the way.

4-Use the Gospel Art Picture Kit
Young children especially are visual learners, and they thrive of seeing images of scripture stories they’ve heard. Help them to learn better by pulling out selections from the picture kit and reading the condensed story written on the back. For slightly older children, have everyone look up the scripture references listed and read them aloud.

This is particularly helpful in learning scripture stories from parts of the Standard Works that aren’t read quite as often and therefore aren’t as familiar to children, such as those from the Old Testament.

5-Take advantage of Seminary and Institute materials.
These lesson manuals created by the Church are excellent, with lots of background and clarifying information, commentary, and glimpses into cultural and other contextual details that help students of all ages understand the scriptures.

Going through one of these manuals as a family can be a great support for current or future seminary students, and provide wonderful Family Home Evening material as well.

6-Take turns reading.
It’s easy for one parent to do all the reading aloud. It’s quicker that way, right? But it’s important for all family members to be connected to the scriptures, to feel as if they are also part of the experience. Even small children can sensed the Spirit as they “read” with help.

Some families rotate around a circle reading one verse at a time, while others do a set number of verses before trading readers. In this case, a preschooler may still do only verse or so while someone else prompts them with the words.

7-Make connections.
To help family members have a big-picture view of the scriptures, it’s helpful to map out time lines, major historical figures, and events as you read and connect them to other scriptures you’ve already covered. For example, finding the places where the Book of Mormon intersects with the Bible, or track the battles in Alma, the relationships between prophets, or major groups of people within the Book of Mormon, like Zeniff’s people and the Ammonites and how they connect with the Nephites and Lamanites.

8-Use in-scripture resources.
Remember all the resources located in the back of the scriptures, such as pictures, maps, the Bible Dictionary, Joseph Smith Translation, and Topical Guide.

For example, the maps can help you keep track of Christ’s travels through the Holy Land during his lifetime, putting the Gospels into context. Using the Bible Dictionary and triple combination Index can refresh your memory and clarify people, events, and principles, including obscure cultural references that you might be unsure of, like various Jewish feats listed in the Bible, that make more sense when they’re explained.

9-Get everyone their own set of scriptures.
Even if your family has a tradition of buying a nice set of scriptures on a special day such as a baptism, it’s worth getting an inexpensive set that younger children can hold and consider their own, even if they can’t read yet. Personal ownership creates a feeling of responsibility and specialness associated with scripture study.

10-Don’t force it.
When contention breaks out (and it will at times), don’t panic. Let everyone cool off. Forcing the family to finish a chapter tonight—or else—will only breed further unrest. Instead, pause for the day. But most importantly, always be sure to come back tomorrow. Make regular scripture reading a family habit, and you’ll all reap the rewards.

When counseling the Saints the read the Book of Mormon by the end of the year in August of 2005, President Hinckley made a promise that applies as much to family scripture study as it did to his challenge:

“regardless of how many times you previously may have read the Book of Mormon, there will come into your lives and into your homes an added measure of the Spirit of the Lord, a strengthened resolution to walk in obedience to His commandments, and a stronger testimony of the living reality of the Son of God.” (“A Testimony Vibrant and True,” Ensign, Aug 2005, 2–6.)

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Top Reads for Families from 2007

Finding good reading material appropriate for the family gets harder every year. Fortunately, the LDS literary market is now producing more books and higher-quality literature than ever before, and the national market has more LDS authors writing for it than ever.

Below are my top picks, in no particular order, for books published in 2007 that are great for the whole family to read together.

Sheep's Clothing, by Josi S. Kilpack
This book has not only an exciting, gripping story, but vital information for parents and children alike. Kilpack does an extraordinary job of showing the dangers of Internet predators as well as how parents can protect their children in a world that is increasingly cyber-savvy. Read this one with your youth. It'll open up a great conversation between you.

Land of Inheritance, by H. B. Moore
This is the fourth and final volume of the Out of Jerusalem series, a fictional account of Lehi and Nephi's families as they journey from Jerusalem to the Promised Land. Expertly researched and beautifully written, the books bring to life not only spiritual giants of scripture, but what the culture was like, what the women might have experienced, and much more. Now that the entire series is out, you can read the whole thing as a family from start to finish. Begin with Of Goodly Parents, the first volume.

Presidents and Prophets, by Michael K. Winder
How has the top position in the U. S. government been impacted by latter-day prophets? You might be surprised at the connections the author finds between the men who have held both positions since 1830. You'll also uncover fun sometimes surprising trivia, such as which United States President checked the Book of Mormon out of the Library of Congress. (Abraham Lincoln.)

Book of Mormon Who's Who
Perfect for the Sunday School curriculum in 2008, this book has entries on all the people found in the Book of Mormon, complete with explanations and connections. Can't remember who Pahoran was? Look him up and refresh your memory. A great tool for family scripture study and Family Home Evenings.

Bullies in the Headlights, by Matthew Buckley
A fun (and funny!) trip down memory lane, this is a terrific book that all ages will enjoy and laugh along with as they followed the adventures (and misadventures) of the Buckleys and Hagbarts.

How to Take the Ex out of Ex-boyfriend, by Janette Rallison
Rallison is one of the top Young Adult writers in the country, and she's LDS as well. Her writing style will have you rolling on the floor. Best of all, parents won't have to worry about their teen reading anything inappropriate. All of Rallison's books provide a great romp through high school without venturing into the "dark" side that so much of teen fiction tends to gravitate toward.

Santa's First Flight, by Sam Beeson
This is a delightful picture book the family will enjoy together as they read what Santa's first flight might have been like. Using penguins instead of reindeer is just one of the silly problems Santa runs into. Buy it now and hang onto it for next Christmas.

The Wednesday Letters, by Jason F. Wright
From New York Times best-selling author of Christmas Jars, this book helps families remember the importance of telling your loves ones you care. It can ignite a love of writing down those important things on paper and not waiting to share them.

The Fablehaven series, by Brandon Mull
The third installment, The Candyshop Wars, was released this last fall. Families of all ages have had fun reading about Kendra and Seth's magical adventures together.