Monday, November 16, 2009

Great Christmas Reads

It's that time of year: the snow is falling, the air is crisp, and the temptation increases to curl up with a cup of hot cocoa and a great book.

As the years have gone by, our family has collected several Christmas picture books that we have made it a tradition to read the days leading up to Christmas. A novel or two has managed to sneak into the pile, as well as a few others, and this year, I'm adding yet more books to the stack.

It's no secret that books play a big role in my life and that I try to instill that love into my children any way I can. Reasons abound, but some of them include that how important not only reading and writing will be to them as they grow up, but so will understanding the world around them, expanding their imaginations, learning to be compassionate individuals, and so much more, all of which can be learned through reading.

Trying to make them great readers hasn't been easy all the time, but gradually, they've all come to love books.

One thing we've done is develop a tradition in our home for Christmas, one our children look forward to each year. On Christmas Eve, each child gets two gifts from Mom and Dad: a new pair of pajamas and a book.

(I must say, books are getting cheaper as they age; paperback novels cost so much less than hardback picture books!) Some years the kids get surprised by their Christmas books, while other years, they beg and plead for a specific book for Christmas.

I love that they care as much about a book as they do about anything they ask Santa for, that Christmas morning, they're just as likely to be hanging out in their new pajamas curled up with that new book as they are to be playing with their new toys.

Score one for literacy.

This holiday season, whether you're trying to find just the right gift for a friend or family member (a book, a book!), trying to find another good novel to read to the kids, or something that the little ones will enjoy by the light of the twinkling lights of the tree, give some of the holiday titles below a shot.

They all have my stamp of approval.


The Crippled Lamb, by Max Lucado
This sweet story is about a lamb who can't go on a trip with the rest of the flock because of his deformed leg. His best friend, a cow, has always said that God knew him and that he was special, but on that night, the lamb is particularly sad because he's left behind. And then a man and woman arrive, and a baby is born and is cold because it has no clothing. While the man goes to find something to wrap the child in, the lamb has the honor of warming the Savior of the world. It's a sweet, touching story, and a reminder that while we're all weak and crippled in our ownway, God can still find a powerful use for us all.


Mooseltoe, by Margie Palatini, illustrated by Henry Cole
A silly Christmas story about a father moose with a giant mustache who does everything to make the holiday perfect . . . but in the process, forgets to buy a tree. When he finally goes to getone, they're all sold out. In the end, the children decorate him.


The Tale of Three Trees, Angela Elwell Hunt and Tim Jonke
Here's one story that's just as appropriate for Easter as it is for Christmas, because it focuses not just on the birth of Christ, but on His entire life and mission. The three trees each get to be a present and part of his life at significant locations and moments: the manger, the boat, the cross.




The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry
A classic tale of selflessness told by the master, one that's been retold dozens of times. Find one that has good illustrations to do the story justice.


The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson
I loved, loved, loved reading this classic to my kids again when they were finally old enough to sit still and listen. We read a chapter or two a night to get through it so they wouldn't squirm. I laughed. I cried. I hope they understood it. If they didn't last time, they'll get another chance this year.



The Forgotten Carols, by Michael McClean
The year my husband and I got engaged, we spent a night reading this book and listening to each carol and we came to it. As our kids came along, we kept the tradition going, but eventually it would take a good week to get it, since little people have a hard time sitting that long. While it was a great experience, we finally broke down one year and decided to get the DVD to watch for Family Home Evening. The kids loved it. I still recommend the book and CD way of doing it, but for families, the DVD is a great shortcut. Michael McClean performs the main role of John himself, and his two sons are also major parts of the show.



Santa Maybe, by Aubrey Mace
New this year (and newly read by me!), this novel is a sweet, funny read for any hopeless romantic out there. Abbie is 30, single, and insists she's happy being that way. But one Christmas Eve she admits to herself that she is lonely, that she'd like more to her life than what she had. In a private (and, to herself, rather silly) moment writes a little letter and leave it by the tree for Santa asking for a husband. "I'll take good care of him," she promises.

In the middle of the night, she's woken up by a thump coming from her living room, where she finds a man lying under her tree with pajamas, some money . . . and no memory.




All Is Bright
This brand new collection of true Christmas stories was recently published by Covenant in time for the 2009 Christmas season. It features stories by Anita Stansfield, Annette Lyon (that's me!), H. B. Moore, Gregg Luke, Kristen McKendry, Lynn Jaynes, Matthew Buckley, and Julie Wright. Many of the stories are downright heart-warming. It's only $4.95 at Deseret Book.











Stolen Christmas: Stories of the Season
This book features the winners of a Christmas short story contest. The book is titled after the winning entry, which was written by one of my favorite writers. "Stolen Christmas" is by Sarah M. Eden, who was a Whitney Award finalist in the Romance category in 2008 and whose next book will be out with Covenant next summer. Many other great writers' stories are featured in the book, which costs only $7.99 plus shipping. Buy it HERE.
























Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Kids and Chores: The Constant Battle

As parents, we know it’s important to teach our children the value of work. But even after teaching them to do the job, there’s the tricky bit of getting them to actually do it—without the nagging, without the whining, and without the punishments or anything else negative attached. It's exhausting and enough to make a parent want to give up.

Don't give up. Instead, give some the tips below a try. No method will work all the time for all children, but that’s okay. I’ve found that shaking things up a bit from time to time can keep them willing to work, or at least be more willing to get it down now rather than put it off.

Even Little Ones Can Work
When my youngest was a preschooler, she certainly couldn't mop a floor or mow the lawn like her older siblings. But she was still part of the family, and as such, I needed to find chores for her to do. While it was awfully tempting to do them myself—I knew I can do just about anything better and faster than she could—it was important that she, too, contributed to the family and felt part of the dynamic.

So instead of lumping entire rooms into a single chore, I split them up by difficulty. In the bathroom, a toddler can change towels, empty the trash, and maybe even clean the mirror, while an older sibling can scrub the shower, the toilet, and the floor. When all the kids are older, I'll probably lump the rooms together, but until their skill levels are equal, we'll keep it this way.

Daily Chores
In addition to having big Saturday chores lists, each child has an assigned a daily chore. These vary by age and ability, and they rotate every six months. Daily chores could include things like taking out the garbage and recycling, emptying the dishwasher, picking up the family room or living room, or sweeping the kitchen. The littlest one gets a daily chore as well, even if it’s a small one. No one is allowed to play with friends unless they've done their daily chore.

Checklists
Children often need a way to visibly see their progress so they can keep going without getting discouraged. To help, I create checklists for each child on Saturday morning, complete with a box next to each chore they get to mark when it’s done. When our children were too young to read, we’d draw a picture representing each job, such as a rectangle and a rag to represent washing a mirror.

My kids love toting their lists around the house and making nice, big red X’s in each box as they go. It keeps them motivated and on track.

The Mystery Chore Method
During summers, when chores seem more boring than watching grass grow—and the kids are itching to get outside and play in that grass—we sometimes do things the “mystery” chore way. On slips of paper (or even better, on card stock), write down all the chores that need to be done to get the house clean over a 1- or 2-week period. Label two envelopes, one as “To Do” and the other, “Done.”

Each weekday, the children draw out a certain number of slips. As each chore is complete, the slips go into the “Done” envelope. By the time the “To Do” envelope is empty, the house has gotten one thorough cleaning. Dump the slips back into the “To Do” envelope and start over.

A Little Guidance
When one of my girls was quite young, I sent her off to clean her room. Half an hour later, it didn’t look any better. Near tears, she said, “Mom, it’s too hard. I can’t do it.”

She was fully capable of making her bed, cleaning up her toys, and putting her dirty clothes away. But the scope of the job intimidated her; she couldn’t figure out where to start. Instead of cleaning for her, I went to her room and gave directions. “Put those four books on the shelf. Good. Now pick up those Barbies and put them away.” When I broke the job down into manageable bits, she kept on track and got the job done—and I didn’t do it for her.


Games
Younger children especially need motivation, and that’s where getting creative can help. A few ideas we’ve tried:

  • Give each child a small plastic cup. You keep the cups—plus a bag of chocolate chips or other small treat—nearby. When given a signal, the kids race around the dirty room, picking up messes, including garbage and small toys. Each time they reach 10 items cleaned (or another predetermined number), they get a chocolate chip into their cup. It's amazing how fast they move just to see their cup fill. (The next time, up the number required to earn the treat!)

  • Identify one area that needs cleaning. Set a timer for five or ten minutes, promising that after it goes off, they can be done. Then see how much everyone can do in that short period. Knowing the end is near can be liberating for children. Clean yourself during the countdown; kids work faster when you’re at their side.

  • Using sticky notes, write down all the chores that need to be done today, one note per chore. Then stick them all over a door or wall. Each child must to do a certain number of chores (say 4 or 5), but gets to pick only one at a time. As soon as they complete one, they can claim their second by choosing another off the wall. Kids are motivated by knowing that if they hurry, they’ll get the chores they want to do.

Combining chores and kids sometimes feel like oil and water, but for their sake, it’s important that you keep at it and teach them to work. Use some of these ideas—and then come up with more of your own.


One day, they just might thank you.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Toddler Testimony

I was what felt like fifteen months pregnant with my third child. I also had a toddler of about three and a half, plus a two-year-old. Hormones raged through my bloodstream, my back hurt, I could hardly walk, and I had a pregnancy-induced migraine.

But even without all that, the day would have been ugly.

My husband was gone all that Sunday morning at church meetings. The kids fought and screamed and threw tantrums. My cute little two-year-old decided she was mad at me—likely for something along the lines of not letting her beat up her older brother again—and in retaliation, smugly left puddles of pee all over the house.

She was potty trained by this point but knew exactly how to push Mommy’s buttons.

The house was a wreck, the kids wouldn’t listen to me, and I was holding down the fort alone. How in the world could I be expected to get the crew ready for church? Why should I bother getting them ready for church, when I was such an obvious failure as a mother?

I collapsed on one of the bottom stairs next to the kitchen and burst into tears. I had two kids I was already failing at raising, and a third ready to pop out. What was I thinking?

The future looked bleak. From here on out, things could only get worse.

I needed some sign that the choices I had made were good and right, and that I wasn’t crazy for wanting to be a mother. That I wasn’t a total failure of a mother. That these little people I had been given charge of wouldn’t regret having me to be the one to nurture them. I was teary-eyed as I cleaned up the messes on the carpet and wrestled with the kids and my abundant self to get us ready for church.

When we arrived, the family filed into a pew and sat down. I’ll never forget the opening hymn: “Home Can Be a Heaven on Earth.”

Someone is mocking me, I thought, unable to sing as my throat constricted and tears blurred the words in the hymnal. "Home" and "heaven" didn’t belong in the same breath, as far as I was concerned.

As the meeting went on, I gave my almost four-year-old son some crayons and paper to doodle on to keep him happy and quiet—a Herculean expectation for a rambunctious little person.

Near the end of the meeting, a woman spoke. I don’t remember much about her talk besides how she bemoaned that her brother had lost his faith in God and now challenged hers. She quoted him repeatedly saying, “How can there be a God if . . .”

After she said this phrase several times, my little guy popped his head up from his artwork and leaned toward me. With a shake of his head, he let out a scoff, then whispered, “Mom, we know there’s a God.” With another sad little shake of his head, he returned to his crayons.

I sat there, an unexpected joy shooting through me that was so strong it was almost painful.

Who cared if he never put his breakfast dishes away as he’d been taught to for months?

Who cared if his sister kept making puddles out of revenge?

The most important thing I could possibly pass on to my children was a belief in a loving God.

Somehow, I’d given that to my little boy.

A single thought came to mind, and this time I believed it:

You’re doing fine.

I wrapped my arm around his little shoulders and kissed the top of his head. “That’s right,” I whispered back. “We know there’s a God.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Supporting Our Soldiers' Families

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, more and more of us know someone who has been deployed or is currently deployed.

It can be hard to know how best to support and offer help to a family in your ward or neighborhood who are facing a deployment. What kind of service is appropriate to offer? What if they want to be left alone? What kinds of things would the family at home even want offered? What should you say? What should you not say?

When a close friend of mine had her husband deployed, I got a backseat view of the struggle she went through. I spoke with four of her friends whose husbands were deployed with the same group, and they shared many of their burdens with me.

Via e-mail, these five women sent me literally pages and pages of thoughts, feelings, and events, pouring out their souls. Reading through their experiences, I wept.

Before this, I'd thought I'd had some clue about how hard deployment was for my friend. I'd thought I had an inkling of what she was going through.

I didn't. Not even close. Reading through those e-mails was so powerful for me that I decided to write a novel about deployment and the families at home. It won't be out until spring 2010.

In the meantime, during the time of year that we celebrate the independence of our country and think about our freedoms, I felt it would be appropriate to list some ways you can help support a soldier's family at home . . . which can only help support that soldier in the field, wherever he or she may be.

Simply Keep an Eye Out.
Spouses of deployed soldiers don't want to become burdens on those around them, so they might not ask for help when they need it. Keep an eye out for things you can offer to do. If you notice the lawn getting a bit long, mow it (or send your teen over to do it). In the winter, shovel their driveway.

One wife said that even small gestures were very much appreciated, things that you might think are too small to bother with, like bringing the empty garbage can back from the curb.

Church meetings are a particular challenge for deployed families, because with the Church focus on families, they attend three hours with the hole in their hearts pointed out to them. Remember that small children especially tend to act up under stress. Since deployment is a huge stressor, small kids often misbehave during sacrament meetings, overwhelming the lone parent. Going over to help play with a child or take the baby out of their hands can be a huge help.

Try to notice those small moments where you can jump in and fill a need. One wife told me that those acts of service were the most appreciated.

Babysit
The parent left at home has extra burdens placed on their shoulders. Offer to take the kids for an afternoon or evening so the parent can have time to themselves, especially to attend the temple. All five of the wives I spoke to said that temple attendance became a big foundation for their strength and ability to keep going.

Fill in for the Spouse
If the husband is the one deployed, look for things he used to do and find a way to get them done, whether you can do them yourself, your spouse can, or you can find a home teacher or someone else who has the skills. This can include things like fixing a garbage disposal, a hole in the fence, or a clogged toilet. If the wife is the one deployed, offer to bring in meals, do laundry, or fix children's clothing.

Ask what you can do to help, but also be sure to make specific offers. For example, if you're running to the grocery store, call to see if there's something you can pick up for the family while you're there.

Pray
When you don't know what you can do, or don't feel you have much of anything to offer for a family, pray for them and for their soldier. One army wife insisted that hearing about others praying for her family brought strength in ways nothing else could. She said that if you can do nothing else but pray, "you've done enough!"

What Not to Do
Every wife I spoke with insisted that any act of service, no matter how small, was received with large amounts of gratitude.

The one hard thing was when a specific service was offered . . . but then forgotten and never given. If you say you're going to do something for the family, do it. Don't make a promise if you can't fulfill it.

The kinds of service that fall through the cracks easiest are the ones where something has been promised on a regular basis, such as weekly. If you think you can't keep up that kind of service for the entire deployment (likely a year or more), don't offer it. Give what you can when you can, but don't set up an expectation and then disappoint the family; they're already going through enough stress.

Direct Support
Don't forget the soldiers themselves. You can send fun care packages to them, including personal favorite items (just ask the family what those are!). Some of the most welcome types of items in care packages are things you might not normally consider: inflatable pillows, granola bars, batteries, simple games (card games, dominoes, and dice), and other snack foods. Music CDs, disposable cameras, and long distance calling cards are also welcome. For more ideas, visit this site and others.

Many units also have newsletters you can subscribe to get updates on the soldiers and what they're up to, including promotions and good news that you can celebrate with the family at home.


What Not to Say
While having conversations with the spouse of a deployed solider is a good thing, there are definitely things to avoid. All of the wives I spoke with agreed that having someone who has never been through a deployment say they "understand" makes them frustrated. The other person can't understand unless they've been through it.

"I know what it's like; my husband travels a lot on business," is the most frequently quoted line of intended support that caused unintended hurt.

Yes, a husband may travel a lot, but he gets to fly in a safe jet and sleep in a warm, clean hotel room. He's not under enemy fire, sleeping in the desert, and covered with tick bites. The business trip husband may be AWAY a lot, but unlike a deployed soldier, he's not constantly in HARM'S way. There's a huge difference.

The wife of a business trip husband doesn't wake up every single day wondering if her doorbell will ring with two soldiers on the other side to tell her that her husband has been killed.

Also, don't compare deployment to being a single mom. While that is somewhat what these women expected, they quickly found out that deployment isn't like that. They had no idea how the worry and stress over communications and knowing if their soldier was okay would drain them, keep them awake at night, and how that stress could rub off on their children.

Another line that they don't like to hear is, "I couldn't do what you're doing; you're so strong."

But it's not a matter of being strong, one wife insisted. Deployment is a consequence of her husband's choices to serve his country. As a result, she has to get through this time. It's not a matter of how strong or weak she is. The situation just is, and she has to get through it, somehow.

What Should You Say?
Ask how they're doing. Talk about normal things that have nothing to do with deployment. Ask if you can help (even better, offer some specific help). Mention that you're praying for them. Most importantly, talk to them as if they're the same person they've always been, because they are.

Don't expect them to unload all their problems onto you. If they feel the need to share some of their problems, they will.

They need to know that they have a friend who genuinely cares, because even on their "good" days, one wife reminded me, "you're really not okay."

Friday, May 8, 2009

Shhh! It's Good for Them!

In one area of motherhood, I just might be an evil genius. I discovered that if I add the word, "party" to an otherwise mundane word, my kids' eyes light up. 

In an effort to get them reading more--and to be reading together more--I invented "reading parties." We hold them about once a month during the school year, but when Christmas break looms large or (especially!) summer vacation gets boring, I pull out the big guns and we hold an impromptu reading party.

They have no idea how good these are for them, and even better, no matter how old they get, they never get tire of reading parties.

Here's what we do:

First, I make the party announcement. Cheers abound. 

Next, we climb into the car. Everyone brings along any library books they need to return, and we head straight to our public library. The kids often wander the shelves looking for books, but often they'll seek out specific titles based on friend or teacher (or mother) suggestions. Half an hour later (or so), we're back in the car.

Then comes the "party" part. We head to the grocery store, where each child gets to pick a treat to share with everyone. Usually that means a bag of M&M's or Skittles or maybe gummy worms--nothing expensive.

Back at home, we pop popcorn, dump the treats into a bowl, and spread out a blanket. Everyone sits around with a stack of books and munches on treats while I read aloud a chapter from our current bedtime book.

Then I take turns reading something from everyone else's pile: a Berenstein Bears picture book (or two) for my kindergartner, a story from my son's Choose Your Own Adventure book, and so on. When my throat is raw and everyone's getting restless, we settle in for silent reading.

The parties last an hour or two, depending on our mood.

I suppose I could do something similar without the treats, but I think the goodies help. I see them as the Pavlovian part of the event: they make the entire experience positive and fun, so my kids equate reading with a great time even when they're reading alone in their room.

It's probably also significant that I read something from each person's stack. Of course my teenage son isn't going to care much about Berenstein Bears or another sister's Barbie book, and his little sisters don't really have much interest in a cyber-adventure in space. But that's okay. Everyone gets a turn, and everyone's taste is valued. They learn to appreciate different kinds of books.

With our bedtime books in particular, we discuss the novels we read as a family:
  • What did you like . . . and why? 
  • What didn't you like . . . and why? 
  • What do you think will happen next? 
  • Why did this character do that? 
  • What would you do in the same situation? 
  • How do you think the writer could have made that part better?
Between our regular reading and our reading parties, I've discovered unforeseen effect. 

Yes, my kids love books, and I'm thrilled about that. They all read above grade level. Fantastic. 

But what I didn't expect is for them to become such discerning readers and to be able to use that skill to become great writers in their own right.

It's not uncommon for one of them to pipe up with, "That scene was too telly," or, "The author needed to cut that scene down; it slowed the pace too much," or, "That was awesome. I could totally see that fight scene."

They learned this from bedtime books and reading parties. Rock on.

I've been reading aloud at bedtime since my oldest was born. I still read when we're all at home together (not every single night anymore, alas). 

Below are some great books for reading together as a family. Most of them aren't too advanced for grade school kids to listen to, and they have a wide appeal for ages and both genders.


Bedtime Novels for Families

Farworld,  by J. Scott Savage
A fantasy about a boy with magical powers on Earth and a girl without magical powers from Farworld--and their quest to save both planets from destruction.

The Journal of Curious Letters, by James Dashner
Tick gets a strange letter that sets him off on an important but dangerous adventure to prevent the evil Reginald Chu's plan that just might annihilate Earth and the other twelve Realities as well.

Deltora Quest series, by Emily Rodda
A fun series of short books that follows a group as they face life-threatening challenges to find all of the jewel stones from the belt of Deltora, which will redeem the kingdom from an evil overshadowing it.

The Wordeater, by Mary Amato
A silly book that poses the question: What if a worm could eat a word saying something--and then the item itself would cease to exist? Sounds great at first, but that kind of power could cause some serious problems.

A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgins Burnett
Classic novels about young girls and their power to change their own lives.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket
A humorous and ridiculous series about three orphans trying to escape the evil Count Olaf. The series has levels of humor and story that make it particularly fun for older readers, while younger listeners will simply enjoy the wild story.

The Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale
This Newberry Honor-winning novel has a great message, fun characters, and a great story.

The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis
These seven classic books are written at the perfect level for reading aloud to kids. Older readers will catch the deeper symbolism.

Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull
A fun series about a preserve for magical creatures, two kids, and their almost hopeless efforts in the face of huge obstacles to save it. 


Monday, March 9, 2009

Watching out for Our Young Women

In the months after I graduated high school, my church attendance must have been hard to track. It’s not that I didn’t attend. It was the season of missionary farewells, so sometimes I attended two or three wards—just not my own. Plus, I had to pick a ward—my home ward, the local singles’ ward, or the student ward. No one tracked where I was one week to the next. I remember thinking, “If I wanted to get lost in the shuffle and go inactive, I totally could.”

Good thing that I had no intention of doing so. But it took good friends, a welcoming ward, and effort on my part. I shudder to think what my life would have turned out to be like if I hadn’t made that effort or if I hadn’t had the inner drive to know I needed to keep attending. I could have slipped into inactivity all-too easily.

And many—far too many—young women are doing just that.

In recent years, the First Presidency has stressed their concern of this Church-wide problem. They’ve even sent letters to Relief Society and Young Women presidencies, pleading for them to watch over the young women and make sure they make a successful transition to Relief Society.

The fact is, we’re losing way too many young women, and many never return. For some reason, the young men don’t get hit so hard—they don’t get lost in the shuffle quite so easily. That could be because of mission preparation or several other reasons.

I personally believe one reason is that the young men get a sense of belonging with the men in the Church from the time they’re ordained a deacon. They have combined opening exercises with all the priesthood holders from age twelve right on up to the oldest high priest. From a tender age, each boy knows he belongs in that brotherhood and that some day he, too, will be a teacher, a priest, an elder, and then a high priest.

On the other hand, a Beehive never has a reason to feel connected to the “old ladies” in Relief Society. The sisters of the ward might as well belong to another planet as far as they're concerned. That’s the hurdle we need to overcome: to make the girls recognize that they belong and are needed.

Here are a few things we have done in my ward over the years, coordinating between the Relief Society and the Young Women auxiliary presidencies, to help tether the girls and make them feel their membership of the greatest sisterhood on Earth.

Before applying any of these ideas in your ward, be sure to talk with your bishop for approval.
  • Opening exercises. Follow the example of the brethren and have opening exercises together periodically. We don’t do this every week, but we do meet as a complete group for opening exercises once a month. The two presidencies trade off conducting. The Young Women stand and repeat the theme.

  • Include the Laurels in some Relief Society lessons. We chose the fourth week of the month, the lessons taken from General Conference talks, for the second-year Laurels to participate in. Those lessons tend to be a bit less heavy doctrinally than the Teachings of the Prophets lesson and are easier for the instructor to adapt so the young women and their lives. The instructor makes a point of including them and calling on them.

  • Weclome them. If the Young Women participate in Relief Society, encourage sisters to be warm and welcoming to the Young Women, sitting by them and starting up conversations so they feel loved and that they belong.

  • Mentors. A sister in the ward is assigned to each Laurel as a “mentor,” or a friend to turn to. They are there to help the Laurels have at least one sister in Relief Society they can feel comfortable around. Mentors make regular contact with the Laurels outside church, sit next to them during in lessons, invite them to Enrichment activities, and learn about who they are and what they care about.

  • Visiting Teaching assignments. When a Laurel is in her last year of Young Women, assigning her as a Visiting Teacher can be a useful experience. This is especially helpful if her companion is someone she already knows well, such as a current Young Women leader or her mentor.

  • Combined activities. Occasionally, the Enrichment committee and the Young Women leaders can plan an activity together for both organizations to attend.

  • Other involvement. Whether asking a Laurel to fulfill a compassionate service assignment, teach a skill to be taught at an Enrichment activity, or something else entirely, try to find a place where the Laurels can contribute. They’ll experience firsthand how Relief Society works.

Only time will tell whether our efforts will yield success. We’re doing our best to keep our young women far, far away from any cracks they could slip through.

I believe the key will be making sure they feel a belonging to the sisterhood of the Church and that we as Relief Society sisters need them.

That they’ll know that Relief Society isn’t just a room full of women from another generation. That they’ll know they’re loved.

That they’ll want to stick around, because they know this is where they belong.

And that this is where they want to be.

Return to The Neighborhood.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

For Valentine's Day: Safe Romance Novels

There's a reason romance novels are the best-selling category of any kind of fiction . . . by a mile.

The bad news, of course, is that thousands of them don't, well, espouse LDS values. The good news? There are plenty of others to choose from, if you know where to look.

Why are romance novels so popular in the first place? I think it boils down to something one of my university professors taught: "All stories are about one of two things: love or death."

Think about it for a minute, and you'll realize that he was right. Whether the love is romantic, platonic, parental, or even the love of an object or career, everyone has experienced love in some way or form.

You can't say the same about other genres of fiction: not everyone can relate to an alien invasion, a wizarding school, or a detective solving a mystery. But everyone who has ever lived can relate to love, whether it's loving someone else or being loved, whether it's love for family, friends, or a romantic love interest. And we all know how tangled relationships can be.

On the other side, life and death (even personal growth and change, a form of death, in a sense, such as rebirth and repentance) is the state of the human condition. If you're alive, you've experienced love and death in some form.

It makes sense, then, that stories about love, particularly ones that target the entire point we're on the Earth—marriage and family—would strike a chord. It's logical, in a spiritual sense, that we gravitate toward stories that lead two people toward love, marriage, and commitment.

It also follows that Satan would try to warp those stories, turning them from something beautiful and uplifting into something base—essentially, literary pornography. That is exactly what's happening with some novels classified in this genre: they're getting more and more graphic in the bedroom, to the point that even literary agents and publishers debate where the line is between "erotica" (books written with the point to titillate the reader) and simply graphic romances.

It's no surprise, then, that the term "romance novel" has developed a negative reputation. On some level, it's deserved, and those books are something Latter-day Saint women need to steer clear of. Many have found themselves inadvertently sucked into (and even addicted to) the pages of books that are no better for them than visual pornography would be for their husbands.

BUT . . . the great news is that people who love to read and who enjoy a good love story—without the graphic smut—have more options today than ever.

Many publishers have clued in that not all readers are looking for so-called "hot" books, and several have lines devoted specifically to cleaner reads, such as Harlequin's Steeple Hill imprint, which puts out only clean, Christian romances. (As opposed to their Spice line, which you can guess is very different.)

Another good place to look is Tyndale House, which publishes books by writers like Dee Henderson, a Christian author who writes adventurous romances like The Negotiator. Another writer to try is Lawanna Blackwell (who publishes with Christian publisher Bethany House). Her books are popular, clean, historical romances.

And of course, LDS publishers such as Deseret Book and Covenant regularly print many romance titles, and women can pick them up, knowing that they're reading a "safe" book and don't have to be on edge, ready to skip pages.

Below are some LDS romance titles I recommend:
  • Counting Stars, by Michele Paige Holmes. This book won the 2007 Whitney Award for Best Romance, and in my opinion, it deserved the honor. This is a romance that's unpredictable and fresh. You'll both laugh and cry.
  • To Have or to Hold, by Josi S. Kilpack. A classic story of an arranged marriage gone horribly wrong (or maybe right?).
  • Desire of Our Hearts, by Sariah S. Wilson. A love story set during the times of the Book of Mormon.
  • Isabell Webb: Legend of the Jewel, by N. C. Allen. A adventurous (and romantic) trip through late 1800s India. A great yarn with a fun love story mixed in.
  • The First Year, by Crystal Leichty. A hilarious trip through one couple's first year of marriage, with all the ups and downs.
  • What the Doctor Ordered, by Sierra St. James. A classic romantic tale that's laugh-out-loud funny. All of St. James's books are fantastic reads. (Also look for Masquerade and Trial of the Heart.)
  • The Counterfeit, by Robison Wells. Part mysterious suspense, part romance, this is a great story that takes the reader all over the world, even into the catacombs beneath Paris. A funny and exciting read.
  • Spires of Stone, by Annette Lyon. Personal plug here, granted, but my five books, including this 2007 Whitney Award finalist, all have sweet love stories along with fun plots and interesting characters. (If I say so myself!) And my sixth novel, Tower of Strength, will be on shelves in March.

As you can see, just because a lot of romantic book have smut doesn't mean you have to abandon the genre altogether. Remember, some of the most popular stories of all time had romantic themes.

This would be a very different (and lacking!) world without all-time classics like Pride and Prejudice and Romeo and Juliet.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Land Yourself Money for School

If you are (or have) a high school student looking toward a college education, you’re probably wondering how tuition will be paid for. Sure, there are academic scholarships for great grades, and you can always cross your fingers that you’ll get one.

But academic scholarships don't always cover everything, and not everyone can get one since there are only so many out there. The great news is that you don’t have to rely solely on academic scholarships to pay for college—there are other scholarships to be found.

Many corporations, companies, and even individuals sponsor scholarships of all stripes that look for things besides good grades. Bottom line: There really is no excuse to not get the education you need.

Many of these groups award a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, so one scholarship alone won't be enough to pay for all of college. What to do? Apply for lots of them!

Students who apply for several dozen small scholarships can often receive enough funding to pay for all of their college experience—including tuition, fees, boarding, and books. Sometimes the money is paid directly to the school for whatever it's intended for, and other times a check is cut to student.

Amazingly, much of this scholarship money is unclaimed each year, mostly because students don’t even know it exists.

Plan Ahead
In a best-case scenario, students should start thinking about the kinds of information they’ll eventually use on scholarship applications around ninth or tenth grade, even though they won’t be applying for another year or two.

Be involved in school programs, leadership opportunities, school clubs, extracurricular activities, service organizations, honor societies, and more. Note any awards you’ve received and all of your major accomplishments.

Make a list of all of them—they’re the kinds of things scholarship committees look for.

Then expound on them: the more specific, the better. “Participated in a Sub-for-Santa event” won’t hold nearly as much weight as details like: “Spent 45 hours coordinating 15 high school students in a Sub-for-Santa drive, raising $2,400.”

Note that church callings for youth (such as Teachers quorum president or Mia Maid first counselor) can be included in your list, but they need to be phrased in such a way that a scholarship committee (who likely will not be LDS) will know what it means and what the job involved.

Not many scholarship committees will know what a "Mia Maid" is or what a "Teacher" president does. Describe the calling in actions. For example, “For ten months, acted as president of church girls’ group consisting of eight young women ages 14 to 15. Helped plan and carry-out weekly activities that included life skills and community service.”

Note anything about you that might be scholarship specific, such as the geographic area you live in, gender or race, and career goals or interests.

Most scholarships ask for letters of recommendation. To make each scholarship’s deadline, be sure to ask for letters (from teachers, employers, or other adults who know you well) well advance so they have plenty of time to get them back to you before each application is due.

Create Reusable Materials
Many scholarships ask for similar items. You can reuse many of the things you collect and write, including essays. Make lots of copies of your transcripts and test scores. Same goes for letters of recommendation you receive, so you can use them with a number of applications.

While you must tailor your application to each specific scholarship, reusing what you can will save you a lot of time, especially if you’re applying for a large number of scholarships.

Personal Themes and Examples
You’ll need to describe yourself in various ways on applications. Think back to your academic, work, church, and extracurricular activities. Find patterns there, and then use those patterns to describe yourself.

Come up with at least three themes. Possible themes include your interests (athletics, science, music, etc.), service to the community, leadership, your ethnic identity, your unique talents, and so on.

After you’ve picked three themes, expand them with powerful specifics. Write three solid examples of your actions and/or accomplishments within each theme, being as specific as possible. Use your list of activities and awards to create the themes and examples.

Find the Scholarships
  • Start local and work your way out. Ask around at local organizations, such as businesses, radio stations, rotary clubs, etc. Spread the word through family and friends; they may be aware of a scholarship offered by an employer or through another little-known avenue.
  • Talk to your school counseling office. They may have binders filled with scholarship information, and they can often point you toward other resources.
  • Search published scholarship directories. You can find many of them at bookstores and at your local library, such as How to Go to College for Almost Free by Ben Kaplan.
  • Search the Internet. Do a search for, “Scholarship Search Engine,” and you’ll find many great sites (such as http://www.cashforcollege.com/ and http://www.findaid.org/) where you can search for scholarships using criteria that fit you.

A word of caution: Never pay a website or a person to hunt down scholarships for you. Reputable businesses don’t do that, and you’ll be out more money than they’ll ever give you, regardless of their promises.

This is the time of year students need to be thinking about scholarships and paying for college after graduation. Get ahead of the game and claim some of the money for yourself! It takes time and effort, but the rewards of a college education—one that’s paid for—are priceless.

Return to the Neighborhood.