Book Love: Review and Interview with Melissa Taylor

What’s better than falling asleep with a few good books? Even if her chosen titles this week push the limits of “good” in my mind (you might have spied a few sparkly princesses in the stacks), she was thrilled with the collection of Tiara Club books she scored from the library. Most of her joy came from carrying the pile around the house, periodically counting them to ensure that she still had exactly nine. I read one of them aloud, all of it, which is what finally got her down for a Saturday nap.

She’s already a book lover, interested in every title she can get her hands on, repeating back the refrains with just a few comic reversals. She rocks Pete the Cat and The Big Red Barn. She’s already coveting her brother’s books, even the ones without pictures. She’ll sit by herself, flipping through chapter books; reading, reading, reading.

Sam’s relationship with books has been rockier. We’ve always been heavy on read-alouds, and he still loves that, thankfully. The rockiness arrived last year, in kindergarten, with phonics lessons and vowel patterns and guided reading groups. He could not, would not read for twenty minutes each night. He even went on a library strike, boldly proclaiming, “The only thing I like about the library are the DVDs.” Oh my. A dagger to my heart, mainly because reading has been my preferred obsession since I was four years old.

I also assumed that my master’s degree focused on language and literacy development in young children would sort of be my golden ticket in terms of teaching my own children. Sam’s book loathing has been a wake up call, yet another reminder that raising and teaching kids has got to be a group effort. This year, I’ve been thankful for his saintly first grade teacher. Now he’s coming home quoting Charlotte’s Web and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and he’s beginning to check out the book shelves in the library again.

In addition to the encouragement he’s finding in his classroom, I’ve been able to implement  more interesting reading experiences for him at home, thanks in large part to the work of Melissa Taylor, a local author and founder of the comprehensive literacy blog Imagination Soup. When I found out that Melissa was looking for bloggers to assist with the launch of her newest creation, Book Love: Help Your Child Grow from Reluctant to Enthusiastic Reader, I jumped at the chance. She had me with the title, so I couldn’t wait for the chance to preview the text.

Book Love (currently released on kindle, soon to be available in print), lives up to its title. Melissa uses her own deep knowledge of literacy development, honed as a teacher, a literacy specialist, and a parent, in order to demystify the reading process. She addresses the roots of literacy and the most common challenges that kids face as they learn to read, with pertinent descriptions and examples. She avoids academic jargon, favoring clear, helpful tips that families can implement immediately.

Melissa begins the book by describing four of the main reasons that kids don’t enjoy reading. Her descriptions helped me pinpoint the areas that are most challenging for Sam. I realized that he was getting the hang of decoding words and identifying sight words, but the texts that match his reading level are very boring. The texts that he finds interesting are just beyond his grasp, so he gets frustrated and gives up. We’ve been on the lookout for compelling books that are at his reading level, and we’ve implemented many of Melissa’s innovative ideas around bringing excitement back to reading. We’re ‘breaking the rules’ and letting him read in bed with his flashlight (and he’ll be getting a headlamp for Christmas). We’ve cleared out an upstairs closet and created a secret reading hide-away. We’ve also been checking out more comics and graphic novels, as well as books based on movies.

This is a book worth owning if there’s a child in your life who is struggling with reading. Melissa includes more than a hundred tips, activities, and games that have the potential to inspire readers at any level. The work is accessible for families, but would also be useful to teachers, especially those who are new to the craft of teaching reading.

As both of my kids grow, I’ll be using many of the ideas to keep the magic in our Saturday morning library visits.  And even though the book is designed for reluctant readers, my already-enthusiastic reader is also benefitting from Melissa’s recommendations.

This is a gratitude post for the book that Melissa published, but I’m also thankful that she jumped in and answered a few “She Made It” questions, even as she was immersed in a book launch.

What do you make?

I write a blog called Imagination Soup about making learning playful, fun, and engaging. I also freelance write for websites like Parenting.com and magazines such as Scholastic Parent and Child

How did you begin?

When I decided not to return to the classroom, I read Strengths Finder 2.0 and it helped me focus on writing. I started taking a lot of classes and reading books on freelance writing and the craft of writing. In an entrepreneur group, someone suggested I start a blog as a way to showcase my writing ability and to promote my writing classes. The blog and my online writing eventually took off. I’m always learning and setting new goals for myself.

Why do you continue to make stuff?

I love, love, love what I do. It makes me so happy! 

What’s the best thing you’ve made lately?

I’m so proud of my new book, Book Love, it’s exciting to see this project come to fruition because I know it will help many parents and children.

How do you balance your creative life, with everything else that needs to be done?

I’m getting better at it. I really do try to be present with my kids and intentionally set time for work and time for kids. When the kids are home, I don’t work unless it’s an urgent deadline. When they’re gone, I work. But, the other stuff — house stuff – gets neglected a lot. I’d rather be writing.

What advice do you have for others, who want to complete any type of creative project?

Jump in. You’ll never be ready so don’t over think it. Just do it.

How do you know when you’re finished with a project?

Sometimes you just have to be done – usually for me it’s a deadline, and knowing that it works. But, it’s never really done – I could revise forever. 

Speed Round – The A-List

Artist: Me

Author: The Dream –almost there

Activist: Standing Strong

Aspiration: Growth and Giving

Action: Forward Movement

Advice: Therapy. It’s priceless for anyone who is creating and wants to grow.

She Made It: Lori Pickert

I was living in Hawaii, with a curious, active two-year-old. When he napped in the afternoons, I’d surf the internet (it was an hour long drive to the ocean), and I stumbled upon the most beautiful blog. Camp Creek was a gorgeous compilation of educational philosophy, project-based homeschooling ideas, inspirational photos, book and material recommendations, not to mention a community of parents, engaging in on-line dialogue with the author, Lori Pickert. I was inspired by the way Lori brought the processes of art, learning, and family life together, into a meaningful, self-sustaining circle.

I’ve continued to follow her work over the years, so you can imagine how happy I was to buy a copy of her new book, Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners. Before launching into my short interview with Lori, here’s an excerpt from the book, on the topic of authenticity:

This approach doesn’t work if it isn’t authentic. Your values have to match how you really live. Whatever you think is important for your child should be reflected in your own life and your own choices.

Your core values must align with your goals, which must align in turn with your everyday choices.

Really listen to what adults around you say about children – not their own children, but children in general. Many adults think very little of children and their abilities and motives – possibly because they think very little of themselves and their own abilities and motives. They transfer their negative beliefs onto children. If adults thought of themselves as strong, capable learners who enjoy challenges and want to contribute, presumably they would see children the same way.

Although the title includes the term homeschooling, it’s a book about learning, creating, and living authentically – important themes for all creators. Whether you’re homeschooling, unschooling, public schooling, or charter schooling, this book will feed your thinking about the way people of all ages learn. The questions and ideas presented are thought provoking, no matter what your relationship is to educational systems – if you’re a learner, then there’s probably something for you in Lori’s book.

As for the interview, please make note of her answer to the fourth question – housekeeping is highly overrated – move your creative priorities up the list and go make something! After reading the interview, of course.

What do you make? How did you begin?

I’ve made a business, a school, a family. Most recently I wrote and published my first book about children and learning.

I started my first business when I was only 22. My husband and I have spent years hacking our life. We’ve done a lot of interesting things: ran the business together, renovated the top floor of a historic building for office space, founded a school, built our own space to hold our business and the school, built a barn house. We had two sons who we took with us everywhere.

I think the beginning for me was working my way through college and realizing that I had no interest whatsoever in working a regular 9-to-5 job. Then, starting a company in my early 20s, I got used to living an alternative lifestyle. Being in control of your life is addictive.

Why do you continue to make stuff?

I’m motivated to create because I want to make my vision come to life. I’m not good at settling. Whether it’s a house for my family or a school for my kids, if I can’t find what I want, I make it.

Thoreau said something in Walden: “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” I think a lot of makers and doers feel this way. I would rather make something myself and have it be imperfect in general but perfect for me.

One of my favorite things to create is community. When you articulate your vision, there are always other people who are looking for the same thing. You share the same values and priorities. So when you make something, whether it’s a physical product or an experience, you’re also making friends, community, a life.

What’s the best thing you’ve made lately?

A few months ago I published my first book, Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners. It’s the culmination of everything I know how to do — writing, publishing, helping kids be in charge of their own learning.

Along with the book, my husband and I made a new site with a forum — so we created a community as well. This project really combines all the things I love.

How do you balance your creative life, with everything else that needs to be done?

There’s other stuff that needs to be done?

I relentlessly prioritize. If it’s not really important to me, it falls to the bottom of the list. (That’s where you would find things like housekeeping.)

Being with my sons and working with them is a vital part of my creative life. They are the best collaborators. I feel so lucky to be part of their lives, watching them create. They’re my biggest supporters — and I’m theirs. That goes for my husband as well. Our family life is centered around helping each other learn and make.

My work life isn’t something separate from the rest of my life. My need to work and make things is woven into my family life, my home, and my relationships.

Even when I ran my school for seven years, that just became part of my creative life and my personal life. I love to learn, and I loved the experience of making something that huge and complex. I loved the people. I suppose my answer for balance is not to keep things separate. Just make everything creative. Absorb what you have to do into what you want to do.

What advice do you have for others, who want to complete any type of creative project?

Be deliberate about your choices. Define who you are and what you want out of life, then make it your everyday mission to live that life. Surround yourself with people who fill you with peace and energy; stay away from negative people. Make your environment support your goals — everything you see and touch should remind you of your priorities and values.

Relentlessly prioritize. Drop the things that make you feel good in the short term but aren’t part of your ideal life. I watch TV, but I don’t watch it every single night. It may feel hard to sit down and do your work, but the work will actually give you energy. Meaningful work is nourishing.

Remember that it’s not the end result that matters — don’t focus on rewards or recognition. The reward is living your most authentic life and doing your work every day. The only recognition that matters is yours, when you realize you get to spend your life doing what matters most to you.

How do you know when you’re finished with a project?

Being able to finish is crucial. I’m a reformed perfectionist, so it was hard for me to publish the book when I knew I could make it better. The problem is, you can always make it better. I could have held onto it for the next thirty years and kept improving it, but it doesn’t really exist until you let it go and share it with people.

One of the tenets of project-based homeschooling is that you must share what you make with others — it’s the final stage of learning. To really master something, you have to reach the point where you can explain it to someone else. And you need to help others. Pass your knowledge along to someone who can really use it.

If you focus on helping others, you can stop focusing on yourself. Fail enough times and keep going, and you internalize it as a method of eventual success. I’m a writer and that means writing and publishing books and getting better at what I do over time. In order to be something, which is a never-ending process, you have to keep taking on new challenges. Just push your work out into the world and move on.

Speed Round – The A-List: 

 Artist: Maira Kalman

 Author: Laurie Colwin

Actress: Juliette Binoche

Activist: Eleanor Roosevelt

Aspiration: Help parents help kids take charge of their own learning.

Action: A little every day adds up to a good life.

Advice: To quote Woody Guthrie, “Take it easy, but take it.”

She Made It: Angela Perea

As promised, this month I’m gathering interviews with women who finish stuff. My fellow public-school-employee-by-day, creative-genius-by-night colleague and friend, Angela Perea agreed to jump in and play.

What do you make? How did you begin?

I write, mostly short stories about couples who are non-traditional in the most traditional, Shakespearean way possible. I have two finished novels that have yet to be published, and the musing of a third. I also make short films. I’ve always considered film to just be another story telling medium, and a natural fit for me. I used to draw, but do that less and less as I get older. I would consider myself to be more of a doodler than an artist, and I’m happy with the freedom that this self-proclaimed title brings me. I do a considerable amount of arts and craft projects: crocheting (my mother taught me, she could crochet and watch TV at the same time and never look down), scrapbooking (my sister makes me to keep up with my niece and make one book a year), and some jewelry making (I love beads). I’ve always said that God gave me the crafting bug because he knew I would never be rich and would need to be able to make gifts instead of buy them.

Why do you continue to make stuff?

I can’t imagine what people who do not create something do once they get home from work. Do they just watch TV? Walk the dog? Clean the kitchen? How dreadful. I guess the best answer is I’m wired that way. That creating is how I refuel my life’s tank. Even while raising my three daughters, there was never a time when I didn’t have some project going on. Now that they are grown up, I’ve only ramped things up another notch.

What’s the best thing you’ve made lately?

I made a short film for the 2012 Denver 48 Hour Film Festival. This was my sixth year to participate and this year’s by far my best entry. I’m also crocheting a blanket for my youngest daughter for Christmas and I love the way it looks – all swirls and circles.

How do you balance your creative life, with everything else that needs to be done?

I think I’ve prioritized my creative ventures. Why? Because it refuels me and helps me find the energy for all of the life’s other (and arguable less exciting) details.

What advice do you have for others, who want to complete any type of creative project?

Find others to encourage you. Find others who also refuel with creative ventures and find others who understand you when you say, “I have to create or I’ll just die!” And if you think this sounds dramatic, than you don’t get it. 

How do you know when you’re finished with a project?

This is a tough one. Some projects never feel finished. For short film, there is always another shot you think of, or you meet an actor who would have been even better in a role. For short stories it’s when I stop thinking about them when I’m driving. I do my best thinking in the car and especially when a new story or new characters or new scenes are pestering me. Crafting projects are so much simpler to define as done. When the blanket is finished, when every step in the instruction is complete, or when adding one more thing to it would move it from the “cool” category to the “gaudy” then it’s done.

Speed Round – The A-List

Artist? Matisse, Proust

Author? Shakespeare, Wilde, Lawrence 

Actress? Julianne Moore 

Activist? I can’t think of a single one, which I realize is a reflection on me more than any of the activists that you’re probably thinking of right now.

Aspiration? published, remembered

Action? energy, movement (I realize I just defined the word action but I wanted to stay true to the instructions and not over think).

Advice? Never say “no” if you can say “yes”.

Thank you Angela! I’m personally inspired to get my own writing, painting and photography in gear, each day when I see you at work; it’s definitely an employee benefit to have a creativity coach in-house, just two cubicles over.

Image credits: The typewriter is from etsy vintage. The Denver 48 Hour Film Project mast head can be found here. The letter A, in all its glory, was taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.