Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Book Review: Why Smart Kids Worry

I remember what it was like to be a kid filled with worry and anxiety over the issue of medical visits and upcoming shots. I spent hours obsessing over the inevitable. I also worried about dying in a fire, for some reason. I remember countless nights of pouring out my heart's great fears to my father and having him pray over me to silence the concerns I felt. While prayer is a wonderful, powerful tool for helping a child to cope with anxiety, this book offers additional tools for parents to use if and when their children face anxiety and intense worry.

In Why Smart Kids Worry: And What Parents Can Do to Help, licensed professional counselor Allison Edwards guides parents through the issues of anxiety in children. The first half of the book is devoted to exploring why smart kids tend to worry. Gifted children often have a higher intellectual processing ability, and therefore tease out possibilities to a further extent than other children. While an average kid might realize that some people die, a gifted child can take that thought to the next level and realize that he/she might be one of them. The second part of the book focuses on tools a parent can use to help alleviate or diminish some of those feelings of anxiety. I felt the tools were the most valuable part of the book and therefore, if you have a child experiencing anxiety but lack time to devote to the whole of this book, you could really skim the first section and focus your attention primarily on the tools at the end of the book.

I can appreciate the author's warning that our children are presented with more information than ever before. I lived a fairly shielded life. I don't remember my parents discussing awful things going on in the world. I don't remember watching the news with them or hearing about epidemics or diseases or warfare. Yet, I know that I was a child filled with anxiety. My own life experiences had caused me to fear shots and medical situations and to be aware that children sometimes die of cancer (my childhood friend died of cancer). However, when I think about my own children, it is clear that efforts to shield them will be far more difficult to manage. They simply have access to far more information than I ever did.

For example, I made a point of telling my husband not to mention the Ebola situation to our boys and yet, not a day later, my middle son came to me to ask what Ebola was because he saw it mentioned on a vine he had watched. I know there are some parents who simply don't allow their children to have access to computers without their constant supervision (how do they manage that?), but inevitably the subject is viewed by other kids and brought up on the school playground. So, even if I restricted my son from watching vines, he would probably still come across information which could prompt great anxiety.

I believe, as a parent, my goal is not to shield my child from every possible ill or anxiety, but more to teach them to monitor their own use and manage their own emotional needs. Thus, I was quite interested to note several of the more promising tools suggested in the final portion of the book. These are tools which would not only assist children with anxieties, but also parents who experience anxiety (thus, they are things I will attempt to employ in my own life).

Here are some of the more helpful tools mentioned: "Square-breathing." You encourage the child to visualize the four sides of a square and using this image, then breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, breathe out for four counts, and rest for four counts. "Worry time" emphasizes the need to schedule a particular, limited time for focusing on worries. "Changing the channel" simply encourages you to switch gears so the child can move on to something different with the promise of returning to the worry at a more conducive time. "The five question rule" limits the child's obsessing by putting a boundary on how many questions a child can present. The "I Did It List" focuses on encouraging the child to make a list of times when they have accomplished something big, so they can build confidence. Other tools utilize positive reinforcement, role-playing, reverse psychology, providing structure and routine, employing the child's help to solve a similar anxiety in another hypothetical child, and expending physical and emotional energy so there is less available to plow into anxieties.

One of the tools I will use on myself in the future, is the concept of a "brain plate." Kids are encouraged to see their brain as a plate. Imagining a plate in front of them, they are asked to place all the meals for the whole week on their plate and then asked what would happen if they tried to eat all of those meals in one sitting. They obviously can understand that they would get sick and you can then shift gears to explain that, in a similar way, the brain cannot handle all of life's future anxieties in one dose. This encourages an individual to bite off only today's troubles, instead of being overwhelmed with troubles from the future. I loved the George MacDonald quote the author used, "No one ever sank under the burden of the day. It is when tomorrow's burden is added to the burden of today that the weight is more than one can bear."

If you are troubled by a child who is experiencing inordinate anxieties over possible life scenarios, this book certainly provides a healthy discussion of the topic, along with strategies for approaching this dilemma. No parent wants to watch their child immobilized by fears and anxiety. While providing a listening ear is helpful and offering up prayers encourages their faith, having a few tools at your disposal for approaching anxiety can only benefit the parent of an anxious child.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Nanowrimo Approaches

It's that time of year again. The time when I settle down all my writing energies and focus on churning out another book. I've done it five times before and have been fairly satisfied with my results. This year, however, I'm approaching it with the most trepidation I've felt yet. There are many reasons for my hesitation and angst.

To begin with, I have no idea what to focus on this time around. Since I'm struggling with finding an interested market for my Christian young adult fiction, I believe I should shift my focus to something else. Women's fiction is probably the best bet for a wider market, in terms of finding an agent and getting the manuscript read. But, I haven't come up with an idea for a story or a character to launch a story. Nata. Zilch. Nothing! Even though I've been in that position before, late in October, on the verge of the writing month, it is still an unsettling place to be.

Then there's another option. I have been toying with working on a memoir. The only problem with this is that the memoir, while primarily about me and the struggles I have faced in a particular area of life, necessarily involves other people. By nature of being on the periphery of my life, they fall into the story and I'm not sure how to handle that. No doubt they would like their lives to remain private, even if I am willing to bare my soul about an important, complex life issue. Plus, while it would be great writing practice, part of me thinks that such an endeavor would end up merely being a therapeutic venture with little prospect of future publication.

I actually started another young adult novel outside of the Nanowrimo month, but I don't think I have enough skill to pull off the story. It is a thriller based on a contemporary what-if question. Even if I think it holds merit and would not necessarily end up being in the narrow "Christian" market, it feels too difficult to pull off. I don't think I have what it takes to make the story well-rounded and consistently gripping.

In searching for an agent to pitch, I have come across loads of specific information about what agents are eager to see. None of what I write tends to appeal to those dramatic interests. I don't write paranormal. I don't write dystopian. My books seem too lame for the present market. Aren't there young adults out there looking for morally wholesome literature with a good story line and interesting characters? Apparently not. Apparently, they all want some new futuristic, gimmicky plot-line. Thus, I'm feeling down about my writing and that is never a good state to be in before launching into writing another book.

Moreover, I'm feeling the added external pressure of my husband's desire for me to abandon this dream. He doesn't word it like that, of course. But, he has said that "if this next book doesn't find an interested reader, perhaps it is time to look for a job and help out financially." Obviously, I'm aware that my writing hasn't panned out to a single cent of remuneration. I'm not really interested in the financial aspect. But, with his desire for me to give up, it makes it harder for my own sentiments to remain steadfast.

Finally, we're throwing another wrench into the mix because we've decided (me grudgingly) to go ahead and get the boys another dog (this time much smaller than our last dog). I don't know how much this will factor into the equation. Will my attention be diverted? Will I have to be responsible for the lion's share of training and acclimating our new pet? Who knows? It is something I definitely don't feel equipped for and something I certainly don't relish experiencing. Maybe I should write a novel about a woman who dreads getting a dog but desperately believes that every boy should experience the benefit of growing up with a dog. Ha!

What sort of book are you interested in finding or reading? Do you have any bones you could throw me to trigger an idea for a story? Do you have any advice for a new, reluctant pet owner? Any and all feedback would be appreciated.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Book Review: Insurgent

Insurgent, the second book in the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth, was as intriguing and engrossing as the first book. It continued the action nicely and didn't merely feel like filler, which sometimes happens when an author tries to pull out a story into three separate installments. So far, I'm deeply impressed with Roth's ability to build a believable world and people it with interesting characters in dire dilemmas.

The first book established that Beatrice Prior is a Divergent individual, meaning she doesn't easily fall into the categories of factions in her futuristic society. Being Divergent is dangerous, however, and it seems like everyone (especially the Erudite faction, under the control of Jeanine) wants to find them and either use their uniqueness to glean information or kill them.

The second book picks up after a failed simulation where the Erudite attempted to use the Dauntless in order to wipe out the Abnegation faction. Tris and Tobias are fleeing the city toward the Amity headquarters in hopes of finding safety there. They regroup, but are quickly forced to flee and return to the city, where they take up with the Factionless, who are eager to rise up against the Erudite and create a society free of the divisions into various factions.

Tris is dealing with internal guilt over killing a good friend during the simulation, simmering beneath the surface, but fails to inform Tobias of this. Tobias is holding his own secrets as he meets with the Factionless and decides to help them in their goals. When Tris sides with Tobias' cruel father in an attempt to return and access some secret information which Jeanine is holding, she risks losing everything - her relationship with Tobias, her only remaining family member (a brother who betrayed her to Jeanine), and her very life.

These books really cause the reader to think about the various parts of our personalities. There are so many ways in which human nature wars against itself and causes great destruction in its wake. Tris' world is bound to crumble. It is just a matter of time and the determination of how it will fall. At the end of book two, the reader is hooked for the third installment with the revelation of the secret information and news of what lies outside the walls and how they arrived at the point they are now in to begin with. I, for one, am eager to listen to the third installment, as soon as it becomes available from either of the two closest libraries to me.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book Review: Eight Twenty Eight

I had noticed the story of this young couple online a few months ago. Ian and Larissa Murphy tell the story of their love in their book, Eight Twenty Eight: When Love Didn't Give Up. Based on Romans 8:28, which says, "We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose," it is an inspiring story of love despite tragedy and a commitment which does not waver.

The back cover author blurb describes their story: "Ian and Larissa Murphy are husband and wife. They love one another. They laugh together. They seek to serve God together all while dealing with the implications of life in a world marked by suffering, yet compelled by love." I love that description - compelled by love. It is certainly a mighty force in the tale of their love story.

Ian and Larissa had only been dating for about ten months, when Ian was in a car accident which resulted in brain damage. At first, everyone thought he would die. His injuries were serious; the prognosis was grim. He was failing four out of every five brain activity tests. As his girlfriend, Larissa writes of this unsettling time, where her desire to be involved with his care and her ache for things to return to the way they once were battle within her. Ultimately, they end up getting married and are committed to a life of love, in spite of the obstacles they face due to his brain damage.

I was expecting the story to be told in a more linear fashion, but they decided to jump back and forth from the married relationship to the dating relationship. At times, this was a little bit jarring. I guess I also expected pictures. It would have really complimented the story well to be able to see both of them as kids among their family members and then together both in the dating stage and in their new married existence.

Still, it was an encouraging, inspiring story. How could you come away from a tale such as theirs without feeling a renewed sense of purpose to cling to your own commitments and vows, no matter what life might throw at you? I loved the closing appeal, written by Ian's father, encouraging the reader to respond not with praise for Larissa's endurance, but with awe for the example it is of our Lord's unwavering love.

He writes: "God is limitless in His capacity to remain devoted to me, though I don't deserve His care.... Larissa's devotion directs my attention to the Savior. It is a glimpse of Christ.... When we see Larissa and Ian together, we should not be amazed by her devotion and love. Instead, we should be pointed to Christ, amazed by His love for us and the miracle it is that we can reflect even a portion of that."

If you can spare ten minutes, this video about their story is well worth viewing:

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

This must not be my month for book club picks. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, is an American Book Award winner, but I just couldn't get behind it. I'm not a big fan of this book. At first, I thought it was merely a problem of the dialogue coming off too choppy. I know the author is trying to convey the mind and thought-processes of teenage boys, but the interactions between these two boys felt like watching a ping pong match. Brief comment by one. Brief comment by the other. Back to the first. Back to the other. Sadly, neither one ever seemed to really score any points in my book.

Aristotle introduces himself to the reader at the outset with three telling, choppy, sentences: "I was fifteen. I was bored. I was miserable." He heads off to kill the day by spending some time at the pool, where he ends up meeting Dante, the boy whose friendship eventually changes his life. Both Aristotle and Dante (who laugh at the irony of their both sharing such unusual names) are equally uncomfortable in social situations and lack a real friend base. The rest of the novel waxes on and on with lengthy discussions of anger and boredom and the inability to assess where they stand with one another.

Aristotle is comfortable with his mother, but distant from his father, who suffers from some sort of post-traumatic stress after being in war and is very tight-lipped around his son. He is also filled with anger over the silence surrounding the loss of his older brother, who was imprisoned at the tender age of fifteen (for something which Aristotle, himself, will encounter toward the end of the book). There's a whole lot of communication breakdown in this novel and yet the message is meant to convey a sense of coming up with the answer to the real meaning of life and love and the freedom a person should have to choose their own path in pursuit of love.

I didn't love the writing. I didn't fall in love with the characters. I didn't care for the story line progression and couldn't really agree with the overall message the book is trying to push. Do these two characters really have to embrace each other in order to "become men?" That's what the reader is encouraged to believe. The only thing I really appreciated in the book was a glimpse at some teens who feel affectionate and loving toward their parents. Otherwise, I wish I had passed on this month's selection.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review: Small Blessings

The description of this book drew me in: "A remarkable new woman at the college bookshop helps a professor - and the son he never knew he had - realize life's small blessings." I did enjoy the book, but there were a few things that didn't sit well with me. For one, the English professor is painted as such a long-suffering saint for staying with a wife who suffers from mental neurosis and lauded for only straying once, in a meager three-week affair. Yet, as soon as she is gone, he embarks on a new relationship, declared to be "love," only days after her demise. Somehow, I couldn't agree to seeing him as a saint. But, if I let go of that, and simply dissolved into the story, the writing did lure me in.

Tom Putnam feels that life has passed him by. He is stuck in a meaningless existence, whiling away the time teaching Shakespeare while sharing the care of his mentally-challenged wife with his live-in  mother-in-law. His own guilt from having a brief affair with a visiting poet eats away at him because it caused his wife to slip further into her neurosis. Then, one day, he receives a letter in the mail, supposedly from the poet, supposedly suggesting that he is the father of a ten year old boy who will be arriving at his doorstep soon for a visit. Once the child arrives, it is clear (because of his race and younger age) that he is not, in fact, the professor's son, but Putnam does the right thing (as his reputation suggests) and embraces the child as his own.

Before Putnam is able to announce the child's immanent arrival, his wife dies in a tragic car accident (possible suicide) and Putnam is drawn into the spell of Rose Callahan, who is a new employee at the college bookstore (his own wife declared her to be worthy of interest, by stepping out of character and inviting her for dinner). How will he deal with the release brought by his wife's death? Will Rose and Tom get together eventually? Who is the child, really, and how did he end up on Tom's doorstep? How will Tom's colleague Russell deal with the loss of his visions of a possible relationship with Rose for himself?

It was an interesting enough story. I did find myself embracing the characters, despite being unwilling to see Putnam as the all-round-good-guy or being quite able to understand the magical lure of Rose, who was an average character, at best. It was intriguing to me to consider how a spouse suffers when a person is mentally unbalanced (especially since I know something of this from watching my husband have to deal with the fall-out of my own clinical depression when I was at my worst). The sense of helplessness that Tom Putnam expressed on behalf of his wife was spot-on. Still, I would hope that my husband wouldn't consider my own death, in the midst of my struggles, to be a welcome release.

I could also relate to Rose's desire to keep moving from one place to another because of her upbringing. I, myself, suffer from a wander-lust driven by my childhood moves of every three years. The thought of staying permanently in this house in Indiana, where I feel devoid of lasting friendships, is excruciatingly painful. I understand Rose's fears entirely.

I agree with the comments on the inside cover, which proclaim this to be "A heartwarming story with a charmingly imperfect cast of characters to cheer for, Small Blessings, has a wonderfully optimistic heart that reminds us that sometimes, when it feels as if life has veered irrevocably off track, the track shifts in ways we never could have imagined." For a debut novel, I think Martha Woodroof pulled off an interesting story, with interesting characters, and a compelling plot. It made me wonder if she could see all the pieces before she started writing or if the bits fell into place as the story progressed from her pen. However she managed it, I think it was a moderate success.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Book Review: The Elite

I couldn't wait to get my hands on the second book in The Selection trilogy by Kiera Cass. Thus, instead of waiting in the long hold list at my library, I went to a town further away and placed my name on their shorter hold list. I didn't enjoy this second book as much as I had the first, but I'm still ending it with an eagerness to seek out the third and finally, discover America's ultimate destiny.

America Singer is one of "The Elite," the six candidates left in "The Selection" for a new princess for the kingdom of Illea (a future caste-structured United States).  The prince, Maxon, has sent home twenty-nine others and still declares his primary interest in America. She, however, is still struggling with her heart. Part of me felt really irked that she would lead two men on, declaring an interest in both Maxon and her hometown boyfriend, Aspen. Frankly, I don't quite understand the appeal of Aspen. As a character he's not very compelling. But, I guess I do believe that a girl in such a situation might want to keep all of her avenues open, in case Maxon decides to select someone else. Still, in my heart, I want her to center on one and stop being so fickle.

When one of the other girls is discovered cavorting with a guard, she and the guard are made an example to the kingdom and beaten in a public arena. America is horrified. You'd think it would be a big neon sign for her to end her own pursuit of her first-love and guard, Aspen. You'd think anyway.

Obviously, I'm deep enough into the book that these characters feel real to me and that is the mark of a good read. I've been sucked into the fairy tale scenario. I feel invested in this selection process. The desire to know who is chosen is strong and I want to know whether it is Maxon's own choice, or the dictates of his father. I'm sure I will seek out the third book as soon as I can. Hopefully, the hold lists aren't too long for that one.