Summer is coming and the fourth Shanna book is here

The turning point of the new moon is just hours away. And that makes this a perfect moment to announce a new beginning.

The fourth book in the Children's Wheel of the Year has finally arrived. This is, of course, the long-awaited Summer Solstice story, the previous three having focused on Imbolc, the Spring Equinox and Beltane. 

The Summer Solstice is one of the nature-based holidays that gets the least attention and there are remarkably few books out there for kids on the subject. Of those that are available, most either teach about the traditions of various cultures in the past, such as The Longest Day, or mention the Summer Solstice with a host of other holidays such as Rupert's Tales or An Ordinary Girl - A Magical Child.

For many people who don't follow a major religion in our modern society, it is hard to feel connected to holidays that have lost much of their tradition and essential magic to commercialism. One alternative many people are now embracing is the celebration of naturally occurring transitions, such as the solstices and equinoxes. Some spiritual paths also hold these as holy days, but even for atheists and agnostics, these moments can fulfill the human need for bright gems of interest amid the routine of daily life. 

The summer solstice has been celebrated in cultures all over the world--from the equator to the poles--for thousands of years. It is the time of flourishing life in each hemisphere, a moment of fullness and a turning point in which seasons begin to swing back.

The summer solstice is the top of the pendulum, the height of a swing. And like a child's swing it gives us all that giddy feeling children get at the moment of weightlessness as the chains of the swing stop propelling them forward and hesitate before pulling them back. That is also the moment where the swing set is no longer visible and you feel most as if you were flying. The summer solstice is the cosmic equivalent of that giddy instant. Our faces are in the sun and for a moment it feels like everything is possible and we are far more capable than we knew.

The title of the fourth book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series is Shanna and the Goddess, and it is a story about the accelerated growth, confidence and courage that can result when we are challenged by adversity and we are capable and ready to meet that challenge.

In this book, eleven-year-old Shanna and her eight-year-old brother Rye take on grown-up responsibilities when their mother breaks her ankle at the beginning of the summer. Shanna is determined to save the newly planted garden from drought and neglect. Rye takes on cooking with some interesting and tasty results. Both gain confidence and skills, but their courage is tested when a massive hail storm threatens to flatten the garden. 

Instead of being primarily a teaching tool, like many other books about natural holidays, the Children's Wheel of the Year series offers adventure stories linked to the themes of earth-centered holidays that are fun to read and listen to. The Shanna books are not focused on teaching kids how the holidays were or are supposed to be celebrated. There are examples of traditions in the books because the family in the story celebrates the holidays. But the focus is on a kid-friendly story. 

Shanna and the Goddess is available in paperback and kindle formats here

Kids, household tasks and that feeling that the sun is inside you

About childhood chores, I remember mostly boredom--a million cherries pitted, a thousand apples picked, countless weeds pulled, endless Saturdays spent scrubbing the bathroom, vacuuming and--longest of all somehow--cleaning my own room.

But then there was apple juice spilling from the spout of the press. The first drink--so rich it makes your teeth ache, yet it slides down your throat like perfect music. 

There was the realization that my classmates in college didn't know what to do in a kitchen, being known as "the techie one" because I knew how to turn on a vacuum or unplug a drain--even though in reality I'm rather technically challenged. Today there is that sense of wonder at a basket of food grown with my own hands, food that was just seeds a few months ago and the realizations that I had learned this as a toddler. 

Creative Commons image courtessy of Georgios Liakopoulos

Creative Commons image courtessy of Georgios Liakopoulos

Viral internet videos have made famous the 2014 Braun Research study which reports that only 28 percent of kids today do chores. People watch the cute pictures of three- and four-year-olds doing chores and cooking, and they gush about how important the skills and the theoretical sense of responsibility they gain is to those kids and to the world. 

In my generation, just a few decades ago, the digits were reversed. 82 percent of the parents of today did chores as children. We have those memories of aching boredom, frustration and watching the sun slowly march across the sky, stealing our play time on a glorious, sunny Saturday. My husband recalls his own childhood on a South Bohemian farm as one endless era of forced labor in the garden beds, weeding and picking. 

Sure, there are people out there who think parents who give kids chores are looking for cheap labor and they put negative comments on those chore videos. But I can pretty much guarantee that those people either aren't parents or they have never asked a kid to do a chore, because any parent who has knows the exponential amount of effort and work it takes to teach and persuade kids to do chores than it is to do it one's self. Even if the task is something kids want to do, like cooking a special treat, the amount of work parents do to "help" kids learn, do and clean up from the task is massive.

But the Braun study found something else interesting. Even though only 28 percent of kids today do chores, 75 percent of parents believe chores would help their children learn skills and gain responsibility. 

So what is the problem in this generation? Parents believe it's good for kids to do chores but very few actually follow through. Why?

Creative Commons image courtesy of Darien Library 

Creative Commons image courtesy of Darien Library 

I can think of several reasons right off the top of my head:

  1. Parents are busy and over-stressed. It really does take several times the time and effort to teach or even persuade a child to do a task than to do it one's self. We don't have kids do chores in order to get things done faster, at least not for several years and even with older kids the stress involved can outweigh any minor time savings.
  2. Kids are busy. There is a social expectation that good, responsible parents will provide their kids with at the very least a sport, a foreign language and a creative experience. That means that on top of school and homework, kids are racing between soccer, Spanish and ceramics classes. Some say parents then feel guilty about giving kids chores on top of all this. I contend that the 15-hour, kids-awake-time day is simply over. Guilt of no guilt. 
  3. Attachment parenting is all the rage and forcing is unfashionable. Last but definitely not least. a myriad of books and media today tell us that it is the emotional development of children that is most important to their future success and survival and that the only way to ensure their emotional health is to defer to their pure and natural desires and ensure that harsh words never pass our lips. Discipline is supposed to be all about "natural consequences," even thought they don't tend to materialize in the insulated, safe worlds of our homes. That doesn't leave much room for persuading kids do do boring tasks that no one without a couple of decades of experience can see the value in. 

I am far from a perfect housekeeper, cook or gardener and not a day goes by when I find that I lack a skill that my mother tried to teach me. How do I make sure the meat is cooked all the way through? What cleaning tools or supplies might help in scraping and scrubbing some of those deep, dank corners? Why aren't my pumpkin plants sprouting this year? 

I do know the basics of gardening--soil, compost, seeds, water. It's simple right?

Well, actually it isn't. After ten years of trying, I'm now just barely a decent gardener. And when I remember my initial attempts to cook in college, having come from a mother who was famous for delicious and seemingly instantaneous meals, I laugh. I did know how to boil rice and fry eggs though, and watching young adults who don't have the slightest idea where to start with either task today is disturbing. 

More disturbing is looking at more studies on human behavior. One of the longest longitudinal studies ever conducted on humans, the Harvard Grant Study, found that the factor most closely linked to professional success was the length and early on-set of childhood chores, i.e. the more chores kids did and the younger they started, the more successful they are as adults today.

It's an average, of course. There are a few kids who had it easy with no chores and were handed a high-paying job by their families and continue to manage not to screw it up. But most who didn't do chores, either don't make it to success or crash and burn if success is handed to them. 

Illustration by Julie Freel from the book   Shanna and the Goddess  --a story about growing maturity and empowerment

Illustration by Julie Freel from the book Shanna and the Goddess--a story about growing maturity and empowerment

And that study was done on the 82-percent-doing-chores generation, in which many of the 18 percent who didn't do any chores "failed to launch" and became the modern joke of "kids" over thirty who still live with their parents and can't seem to find their way.  I'm not going to speculate about the generation with only 28 percent doing chores, because most disaster predictions turn out to be wrong. But yeah, it's disturbing.

One of my kids has special needs that make dealing with chores much more difficult than it would be with the average kid. The younger sibling is seven and still needs a lot of help doing household tasks. I know the stresses and strains and doubt I'll live up to a perfect standard or teach my kids even as much as my mother taught me.

But I'll try. Not just because I want my kids to be successful (or at least move out by the age of thirty). More important than that to me is the feeling I get from knowing how to do things that take care of my home and food.

It's primal, I think. It is one of the most intoxicatingly empowering feelings, the sense of competence. The sun is inside me when I cook a great meal in record time or pull in the first garden harvest of the year or take a deep breath and look around at that brief moment when my house is clean before the kids demolish it again. 

It is very good to be self-reliant and competent. And kids get the same sense of that, even with smaller tasks. Of course, I didn't love chores as a kid, but I did love the feeling of the sun shining inside that came at the end. Just like he endorphins after exercise, it is a reward you don't know will come until you've done it often enough. 

When I write children's stories, my goals are to connect with kids through fun, suspense and things that make them feel good about themselves and their values. Our latest children's story, Shanna and the Goddess, goes right too that feeling of confidence and empowerment. In this illustrated, chapter book, a brother and sister named Shanna and Rye must take on significant. grown-up responsibilities when their single mother breaks her ankle. These modern-day kids start out eager to help, but soon they face hard work, callouses, conflicts and a destructive hail storm. They weather these troubles and receive much deserved rewards. 

Shanna and the Goddess is also a story of the modern-day celebration of the Summer Solstice, the day of the longest and most intense sun. The story reflects the natural power and expression of the height of summer through the story of growing maturity and the children discover the sun within as a personal source of empowerment.

Young activists, millions strong

One day in seventh grade is etched into my memory. I was sitting in the second row in a dimly lit science classroom, bored as usual. Our teacher was uninspiring. He was droning on again, something about a military program to train dolphins to attach bombs to the bottom of enemy ships.

I wasn't sure what the science point of the lecture was. Animal behavior maybe? The chemistry of explosions? You never knew with this guy. 

Illustration by Julie Freel from  Shanna and the Water Fairy

Illustration by Julie Freel from Shanna and the Water Fairy

But then this sentence got my attention: "So then these morons from Greenpeace came along and started blockading, so that they had to stop the program and put the lives of our troops at risk." 

I raised my hand. Most of the class was half asleep anyway. I wasn't even sure what I was going to say until he called on me. I tried to find words for the wrongness I felt in the lecture. I think I said something along the lines of, "So you think dolphins should have to do the humans' dirty work?" 

There were a few snickers around the class. The teacher leveled his gaze at me and paced a few steps closer. At least to me as a seventh grader, his voice was low and intimidating. "And you think a dolphin's life is more important than a human life?" 

More snickers and a few derogatory comments were flung my way by some of my classmates. I wasn't one of the popular kids who would get support for mouthing off to a teacher. And apparently mine wasn't a popular sentiment. 

Illustration by Julie Freel from  Shanna and the Water Fairy

Illustration by Julie Freel from Shanna and the Water Fairy

I had all kinds of arguments, all lined up. But I also knew this wasn't one of those times where reasoned argument would work. You don't argue with teachers in front of the whole class, not if you want to avoid trouble. How many times had I been told that? I knew that if I got one more sentence in I'd be lucky. 

And for once I had it. "If they are so concerned about human life, what are they doing blowing up ships in the first place?" 

The snickers stopped. Everyone was watching the teacher and waiting for his reaction. He stumbled a bit over his words, told me I was out of line and went on a rant about "patriotism." But I didn't care anymore. I knew when to quit. 

It was lonely being a wannabe activist in 1988 in rural Eastern Oregon. Today it may still not be the mainstream, especially environmental activism. but at least there are places to turn. If I was thirteen now, I could get on the internet and find like-minded others. In the last few weeks, I could see and join the amazing youth movement for gun regulations. 

We scarcely had books about nature and PBS documentaries. If you were interested in activism for social or environmental causes, it was a long, lonely and mostly silent road. Today there is more media and more connection across distance, especially for teenagers.

For younger kids, there are books like Shanna and the Water Fairy. I wrote this story with kids and parents on the activist road in mind. It's a gateway for kids ages six to twelve, for those who might feel like lonely voices against wrongness in hopes that they may add their voices to the rising tide of young activists for a better future.

This is the third book illustrated with emotive oil pastels by Julie Freel. It tells the story of a sister and brother, Shanna and Rye, who discover a hidden spring on dry waste land behind their school. The spring is a magical pocket of vibrant life in a drought-stricken land, a sanctuary for wildflowers, butterflies and a being they call a fairy. When the children discover that the spring is slated to be bulldozed to make way for another shopping mall, they look for ways to call attention to what would be lost and inspire local activism of their own. 

Shanna and the Water Fairy is the kind of book I longed for as a kid. It is a story that reaches out to every kid who has wanted to be heard and taken seriously for concerns many adults think kids aren't bothered with.

You aren't alone and your voice does matter. This is the time of the rise of young activists, millions strong.