Book Review: Ugly Rescue Dog is a Hero

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The first time I read this book to the children in my life, their reaction was a combination of fear and concern. I had to encourage them to read the story to the very end, so we could enjoy the happy ending.

The reason there was such a strong reaction is because the main character is Spike, a dog who is naturally so ugly he wins an ‘Ugliest Dog in the Universe Contest.’ Immediately after winning the contest, his owner ties Spike to the porch and moves away, leaving the dog behind. Not only does this awful man abandon the dog, he also gleeful shouts insults at the animal as he drives away.

Yeah, that guy is mean.

The neighbor boy starts caring for Spike and wants to adopt him. As it turns out, Spike is an extremely well-behaved dog, so the only objection the boy’s mother has is financial. They can’t afford a pet.

All of this is told, first person, by Spike. The pictures are lovely and there is nothing scary, violent or threatening about the images. The tension is created by the story itself. But the experience of being called names, forced out of a family or circle of friends and wanting to belong are easy for children to empathize with, and Spike is a genuinely nice and lovable dog who doesn’t deserve to be treated so badly. So, around this household, the reaction to the story was rather emotional during the first reading.

In the end, not only is he adopted by the neighbor boy, Spike also rescues the neighbor’s cat (a prize winning show cat) from a would-be kidnapper and is featured in the local newspaper as a hero dog, which is much better than being the ugly dog.

Spike is thrilled when people ask if Spike is the Ugliest Dog, and his new owners respond with:

“Actually, he’s the most beloved dog in the universe – and this is just the boy to take care of him.”

The happy ending is an excellent resolution and the story is equal parts sad, exciting and happy. After that first reading, this became a family favorite. It’s the kind of story kids like to hear because they know how it will end.

Spike, the Ugliest Dog in the Universe by Debra Frasier

Moral Worth of Social Systems

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Calls from liberal and left social critics for advantaged people to recognize their privilege also underscores this emphasis on individual identities. For individual people to admit that they are privileged is not necessarily going to change an unequal system of accumulation and distribution of resources.

Instead, we should talk not about the moral worth of individuals but about the moral worth of particular social arrangements. Is the society we want one in which it is acceptable for some people to have tens of millions or billions of dollars as long as they are hardworking, generous, not materialistic and down to earth? Or should there be some other moral rubric, that would strive for a society in which such high levels of inequality were morally unacceptable, regardless of how nice or moderate its beneficiaries are?

What the Rich Won’t Tell You, Opinion, New York Times, written by Rachel Sherman

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Thanksgiving Book Review: Dinner with Criminals

I have to admit to being conflicted about this book.

The good: The illustrations are wonderful and the story is an exciting wild west adventure whose main character is a girl!

The bad: The adventure involves meeting (surviving), sharing Thanksgiving dinner, and dancing with the notorious outlaw Butch Cassidy. The story paints Butch Cassidy as…well…a really nice guy!

The quotes listed HERE illustrate this conflict, particularly this one:

“Well, a poster don’t tell the whole story of a man,” Butch said. “We’ve all worked as cowhands here. These people have been good to us. And we’re just saying thanks today.” He winked. “We won’t rob your train. I wouldn’t want to scare your mama after she’s had such a nice time.”

While Butch Cassady’s life story isn’t as violent, bloody, and pro-confederate politics (e.g.: slavery) as wild west criminals like Jesse James, he was still a thief who robbed banks, payroll payments (read: taking the entire paycheck for the vast majority of a small town), and ranchers (e.g.: cattle rustling).

These were facts that I kept rolling around in my head while I read this story about a little girl who is smart and brave enough to identify the man in the wanted poster as the benevolent host of an impromptu rescue of a snow-bound train and the Thanksgiving feast that hosted a large number of strangers from that train.

This book would make an excellent starting point for a discussion about the many different ways that people can behave, as well as the many different ways that history can be presented.

Note: The book is written for older kids, with significantly more text than is generally found in picture books.

An Outlaw Thanksgiving by Emily Arnold McCully
Winner of the Caldecott Medal

Ordering Books: Whether you are building a family library or simply looking for a fun way to build-up to the holiday celebration, having brand new books shipped to your home, in your child’s name, is a great way to do it. To a child, it is super exciting to receive a package in the mail, addressed to them! They may even want to read their brand-new book immediately AND before bed.

Library Holds: If you’d prefer to review the books before buying them, or need to maintain a tight budget, then use the local library. Go to the library website, locate the book and place it on hold. When the notification arrives, bring the child along and let them help find the books in the on-hold shelves.

Thanksgiving Book Review: Playing Football

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This is a story about a boy who eagerly anticipates the Thanksgiving feast and the annual turkey bowl. The ‘turkey bowl’ is a rough-and-tumble game of football played by a motley collection of family and friends.

After everyone has had their fill of turkey and treats, the turkey bowl begins – in a nearby open field, in the winter wind and snow:

All afternoon Ethan, Alex, and all the kids from the block dove for passes and lunged for tackles. Finally, on the last play of the Turkey Bowl, Alex dropped back for a pass and threw a bomb. Ethan raced down the sidelines. Deep in the end zone, he soared high above a defender…”Touchdown! Touchdown!

This is a wonderful portrayal of the many ways that people spend time with family and friends over the holiday.

Turkey Bowl, written by Phil Bildner and illustrated by C. F. Payne

Suggestions for Building Excitement Over The Holidays

Ordering Books: Whether you are building a family library or simply looking for a fun way to build-up to the holiday celebration, having brand new books shipped to your home, in your child’s name, is a great way to do it. To a child, it is super exciting to receive a package in the mail, addressed to them! They may even want to read their brand-new book immediately AND before bed.

Library Holds: If you’d prefer to review the books before buying them, or need to maintain a tight budget, then use the local library. Go to the library website, locate the book and place it on hold. When the notification arrives, bring the child along and let them help find the books in the on-hold shelves.

What I Came For

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Amazon.com

I stared out over the land in a demolished rapture, too tired to even rise and walk to my tent, watching the sky darken. Above me, the moon rose bright, and below me, far in the distance, the lights in the towns of Inyokern and Ridgecrest twinkled on. The silence was tremendous. The absence felt like a weight. This is what I came for, I thought. This is what I got.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

  • Pacific Crest Trail: Website and Twitter

Book Review: Trump Is a Nasty Knight

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Nick and the Nasty Knight by Ute Krause was published in 2012. The book is not anti-Trump protest literature. It’s just a story about a boy who lives in an impoverished town where the political power (the nasty knight) uses taxes, sleazy political (legal) maneuvers and physical violence to drain every last penny out of the residents.

This knight lives in an enormous castle where he keeps all of the gold locked up, forces people to carry him around because he will not be bothered with walking and…get this…he uses a golden toilet.

Much like Maurizio Cattelan’s “America“, the similarities and political applicability are almost eerie. While it’s important to note that Trump’s golden toilet is an internet myth, it’s symbolism is very much a political reality.

When I first read this book to the children in my life, I was hoping for an anti-bullying or a problem solving story. Every once in a while I will come across a kids book with excellent pictures and some good hard advice for dealing with people – this is not that book.

The story is about Nick, a child who is taken from his family, by the nasty knight, as a slave (yes, he is actually taken as a slave) because his family is poor and had no more money to give to the knight when he came pounding on their door during one of the all-to-frequent tax-collecting tours. Nick is trapped in a never-ending cycle of work, the reality of which is well illustrated without being excessively scary.

He decides to escape his indentured bondage by climbing out a castle window and accidentally stumbles across the knight’s secret room full of (stolen) gold. Nick steals one coin and successfully escapes. Once in the woods beyond the city, he encounters a group of bandits and thieves who are just as horrible as the nasty knight – possibly worse.

At this point in the story I’m feeling both impressed by the realism and a bit disappointed in the lack of proactive resolution. The main character just can’t get a break.

The bandits find the single gold coin and Nick tricks them into returning to the castle. He leads them to the secret room filled with gold and sounds the alarm, causing an enormous brawl between the knight, his soldiers and all of the bandits.

Side note: the knight won’t walk to his golden toilet but he’ll jump into a potential bloodbath of a battle to protect his gold…interesting.

Ok, that was pretty good. Tricking bad guys into fighting bad guys is an impressive maneuver.

But then it turns out that the coin the boy stole was a magic coin, which ultimately transforms all of the bad guys into alligators. This saves the town and returns peace and prosperity to all. Here’s a quote:

When the people up in the castle saw what had happened, they began to cheer. Without the Nasty Knight, they were once again free!…From that day on, Nick made sure that at last his poor mother and his family had enough to eat every day.”

(sigh)

It’s a good story for kids. The ending to the plot is pretty standard in literature and film but…

I really wish the resolution hadn’t been reliant on a magic coin or the elimination of a handful of bad guys. Neither scenario is real and there are other ways to resolve the story.

Even so, this book remains on the family bookshelf and is pulled out from time to time because acts of bravery and defiance in the face of corrupt powers and politicians is a good place to begin. It’s an excellent story to enjoy and to talk about; because, sometimes, the flaws in stories lay the groundwork for excellent discussions about what is fun fiction vs effective in real life.

In this case, the symbolism is fitting and powerful: It’s a story about using money to take down a corrupt politician with a golden toilet.

There may be a few adults in your life who would appreciate listening to this story over the holiday break.

What To Do When You Are Facing Homelessness

This is a follow-up to my post How To Help Someone Facing Homelessness. If you are trying to help someone else who is facing homelessness, then read the first post – it’s long and detailed, but it contains a lot of important information most people don’t think about. After you’ve done that, start making a plan by thinking through the suggestions in that first post, researching the websites listed below and reading books like these:

If you are facing homelessness…

The events that ultimately result in homelessness are wide and varied. There are literally thousands (millions?) of stories behind the financial emergencies that ultimately result in homelessness. However, when facing the reality of homelessness, focusing on the reasons behind the current crisis is a luxury you do not have.

Here is a list of actions to take and facts to consider. (Note: This information is specific to the United States of America.)

All Homeless, Regardless of Age

  • Contact every trustworthy human being you know. Ask for suggestions and help.If there is an option other than the sleeping on the street, take it. Do not stop until you have exhausted every last resourced you have.
  • Contact every nonprofit, government agency and similar resource you have. If they have help to offer (including advice) take it. Do not stop until you have exhausted every last resourced available.
  • Keep your mind fierce. You are human and worthy of respect. Remain focused on moving through this crisis and into something better. People will try to tear you down mentally and emotionally because they can. Predators will try to convince you that you are worthless and should just give up. Don’t let them succeed.
  • Be polite and practice gratitude for all help received. This for your own mental health. While it is extremely important to remain on good terms with trustworthy people who provide assistance, it is equally important to maintain a positive perspective. A meal at a soup kitchen isn’t fun, but it’s keeping you alive and well-enough fed to avoid a mindset of desperation. Desperate people make bad decisions. remain grateful, recognize the necessity in what little you receive and force yourself to believe that things will get better.
  • The party isn’t worth it. I don’t care who is going to be there or how tired you are of talking to people, politely asking for help and getting verbally kicked-in-the-teeth for trying. Do not go to any parties or bars.  If you are under-aged or if anyone there has illegal drugs and the police show up, you will find yourself on a fast train to prison. When you are homeless, association and prejudice are the law of the land. Without money, you can’t pay for a lawyer – and people who hate the homeless (of which there are many) know this. Avoid those circumstances like the plague.
  • Remember your place. Frankly, it’s unfair and frequently degrading, but it’s reality. Review the expectations of Deserving VS Undeserving Poor and learn to play the game. Simply going out for a beer, and being seen by the decision-maker of XYZ nonprofit, can result in being denied for all sorts of necessary services. Being impolite to the wrong representative can trigger a cascade of nasty phone calls that will stretch out your homelessness and/or make your life significantly worse. There are many truly good people who are really and honestly trying to help people facing financial emergencies, poverty and homelessness. Sadly, there are also plenty of spiteful-gossips (and a few predators) employed by those same agencies. When you are homeless, you do not have the luxury of responding to nasty people in the manner in which they deserve.
  • Trust no one: This applies to everyone but anyone under 21 must be doubly careful. There are nasty adults who will offer desperate children ‘help’ – and the result is far worse than sleeping on the streets. Be careful. Be very VERY careful.

Ages 0 to 12

  • Ask your friends for help. Can you stay at their place for a while?
  • Talk to your teachers and counselors at school. Ask for resources and suggestions for places to stay.
  • Talk to coaches or youth workers at local community centers and organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, the YWCA and your place of worship.
  • Contact other family members and/or every trustworthy adult you can locate and ask for help. If you are going to be placed in foster care, then making contact with trustworthy family will significantly help your situation.
  • If you are avoiding DHS and trying to stay out of foster care, then find other kids and team up. A child on the street alone is an easy target. Being properly housed and protected by trustworthy adults is better, but (when that’s not possible) there’s some safety in numbers.
  • Contact government agencies. DHS (a state managed program falling under HHS) is not the only government agency offering assistance, Family and Youth Services Bureau has additional resources.
  • Locate a youth shelter and get connected to their services. (Hopefully, they will have enough room for you to stay there instead of on the street). Sadly, there are far too few of these shelters available and many do not advertise. The local adult shelter will (should) know where these shelters can be found. (See blog post: Homeless Youth Shelters)
  • Contact the adult shelters and talk to the people who work there. They will not even consider providing services or allowing you to sleep at the shelter (don’t be surprised) but they will have connections to the organizations that provide assistance to homeless children.

Ages 13 to 15

  • Everything listed in Ages 0 to 12 applies to you.
  • Find a job. You are now legally able to work a W-2 (legal, above-board) job. Do everything you can to get one.
  • Get your GED. Dealing with homelessness and high school is both stressful and risky. With a GED you are legally eligible for a full-time job, which makes getting a permanent apartment (owned and paid for by you) significantly more possible. Missing out on high school can be a disappointment, but survival takes precedence. Completing a GED as soon as humanly possible directly (significantly) improves your chances of survival.

Ages 16 to 17

  • Everything listed in Ages 0 to 15 applies to you.
  • Get a drivers license and a car. Surviving homelessness is significantly easier when you have a car. Getting and keeping a job is also significantly easier when you have a car.
  • Join Job Corps. Job Corps provides assistance, jobs and training. If you qualify, take advantage of the program.
  • Research technical training programs. Don’t give up on the possibility of college, just plan to complete technical school first. This is long-term planning. being trained and certified as an automobile mechanic translates into immediate and reasonably well-paying work. A bachelors degree in art does not.
  • Look for grants and scholarships. Talk to government agencies and social workers (and everyone else you can think of) and ask for help locating funds to pay for technical school.
  • Look for a women’s shelter. If you are 16, female and running from an abusive situation, a woman’s shelters will (should) provide assistance.
  • Contact an abuse hotline. If you are running from an abusive situation (regardless of gender) there are services available.

Ages 18 to 21

  • Everything listed in Ages 0 to 17 applies to you.
  • Keep looking for youth shelters. Adult shelters will not admit people under the age of 21. Some will not admit people under the age of 22.
  • Apply for assistance. You are an adult, so applying for assistance through government agencies is a possibility. Start filling out forms and keep it up until you’ve applied for everything (EVERYTHING!).

Ages 22 and older

  • Look for an adult shelter. Adult shelters will now admit you – and youth shelters will (literally) refuse to unlock the door if you come knocking. Contact an adult shelter and talk to the people who work there. If the shelter is safer than the street, try to get admitted.
  • Get a car. Having a car greatly improves your ability to survive homelessness and get a job. If at all possible, get yourself a working and reliable vehicle.
  • Get your GED. If you don’t have a high school diploma or a GED, then make it your top priority. Not having one will make life very difficult.
  • Apply for assistance. Start locating agencies and filling out forms. Keep it up until you’ve applied for everything (EVERYTHING!).
  • Apply for the military. The military offers many benefits that are extremely helpful to people trying to get out of poverty. If you qualify and have a personality that is suited to the military, then it is an excellent choice. However, the military has a very specific and extreme culture. Not everyone is suited to the environment and early discharge does not look good on your record. If you realize the military is not a particularly good fit after joining, then do absolutely everything in your power to keep your nose clean. A dishonorable discharge is a HUGE BLACK MARK on your record. Employers rank this right up with a felony on your criminal record. Follow orders, remain polite and respectful and do not attend parties where drugs may be involved. Just be careful, finish your time, get an honorable discharge and move on with your life.
  • Get a job. Everyone you encounter will give you this advice. It’s going to become annoying very quickly. Bite back your pride, proceed with the job search and target the highest paying work you have the qualifications and skills to perform.
  • Apply for work through targeted work programs like those offered by the Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and non-profit Restaurants.
  • Apply for Senior Assistance. Be honest about your age. If you are old enough to qualify for programs targeting seniors (housing, employment, medical, etc), then take full advantage.

Originally published: 05/01/2016

Believe What You Want

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Amazon.com

“Believe what you want,” she said, turning away and heading for the stairs. But that was impossible and Greta knew it. You could try to believe what you wanted, but it never worked. Your brain and your heart decided what you were going to believe and that was that. Whether you liked it or not.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Holiday Book Review: Life of Santa

This has got to be one of the best holiday season biographies I’ve ever read. Actually, it may be the only holiday-season biography I’ve ever read, since most biographies do not frame their life experiences within the context of a single holiday.

Sal Lizard is a man who spends a significant portion of his life, rear round, playing scheduled and impromptu Santa Clause performances and he is considered one of the best Santa Clause performers in the United States. His body shape and beard are real. The he actually looks so similar to Santa Clause in his regular everyday life that he frequently walks into large toys stores, to take a look around and to familiarize himself with the names and titles of anything new to the toy market, and children will start running up to him with a toy in hand, excitedly informing him that “THIS is want I want this year!”

This biography is filled with stories and anecdotes that include his introduction to the world of Santa Clause performance, many experiences interacting with people while in character and the way playing Santa Claus changed his perspective on life and the way he behaves day-to-day.

An excellent illustration of the way being Santa Claus changed his everyday life was the story of the young single mother who was to poor to buy her child a Christmas gift or a Christmas tree. She’d simply resigned herself to working through the holiday season (she was a food service worker) and not participating in the celebration. There would be no Christmas. Sal decides to help her out directly (he finds gifts for her daughter – mostly used but in excellent condition) and works with some friends to secretly deliver a tree to her front door. While those gestures are wonderful, the funny part is the fact that things just worked out that he knew this woman through his work and he changed jobs immediately after delivering the tree. So, from the woman’s perspective, this kind stranger who just happened to look exactly like Santa Clause hands her a bag full of gifts, delivers a tree to her door (in a locked building) while she is at work, and then vanishes off the face of the earth. When the woman called the company Sal had been working for, to thank him for his generosity, his former employers played along and told her the truth: He left and never came back. (shrug) Can’t tell you where he went, he was only here a few weeks.

My retelling of this story does not do it justice. It actually made me laugh out loud while getting all holiday-season warm and fuzzy inside. Correction, the entire book  achieved those goals. It’s a good-feeling biography that is simply filled with wonderful holiday-season inspired moments that encompass everything from laughter to tears.

If you are looking for a good book to read this holiday season, look no further than Being Santa Claus. It’s simply wonderful!

Quotes from this book can be seen HERE.

Being Santa Claus: What I Learned about the True Meaning of Christmas by Sal Lizard, Jonathan P. Lane

Thanksgiving Book Review: Food and Community

The Thanksgiving holiday has a fascinating history.  There are many reasons and historic events behind the holiday, some good and some bad, but most people think of it in terms of two things: family and food.

Bear Says Thanks, is the perfect representation of Thanksgiving as a family-and-food holiday. It’s similar to the old ‘stone soup’ fable, where everyone brings a little something and the feast they share as a community fills both bellies and hearts.

In this story, Bear is sad because he doesn’t have any food and he wants his friends to come over for the holiday, but he can’t host a gathering without food. His friends come over anyway, each bringing something to share. Bear’s den provides the gathering space and the warm fire. A wonderful time is had by all.

It’s a simple and lovely story with beautiful illustrations that very young children will enjoy hearing over the holiday weekend.

A quote can be read HERE.

Bear Says Thanks, written by Karma Wilson and Illustrated by Jane Chapman

Suggestions for Building Excitement Over The Holidays

Ordering Books: Whether you are building a family library or simply looking for a fun way to build-up to the Holiday celebration, having brand new books shipped to your home, in your child’s name, is a great way to do it. To a child, it is super exciting to receive a package in the mail, addressed to them! They may even want to read their brand-new book immediately AND before bed.

Library Holds: If you’d prefer to review the books before buying them, or need to maintain a tight budget, then use the local library. Go to the library website, locate the book and place it on hold. When the notification arrives, bring the child along and let them help find the books in the on-hold shelves.