Ruins of Aristotle’s Lyceaum in Athens.

Educated: A Memoir is a current bestseller written by a young lady who broke away from her family’s systematic brainwashing, graduated from Harvard and Cambridge Universities, and gave the world of readers plenty to think about.

But being educated has much more to it than finding the right teachers and environment, as families are discovering in the present shut-in days of e-learning.  

A child learns to read, and then reads to learn.  A very simple statement, but it embodies the whole idea of independent education.  Teachers, mentors and coaches are needed for modeling, encouragement and advice.  It is important for them  to promote independent learning as much as they can.  Students will go much further than solely completing requirements of the best elementary schools, high schools, and universities.

The ancient Greeks are responsible for the finest education “best practices”  in history.  Socrates’ method was questioning, Plato had an academy in a garden next to a gymnasium, and one of the first think tanks.  His student, Aristotle, worked in a building called the Lyceaum (pictured above) in which he had a big library and regular “serious” morning classes, but also symposiums, or festive meals in the evening.  Nothing like food you get your protoges’ attention.  He emphasized the hands-on, including studying habits of insects and dissecting larger creatures.

Movers and shakers in our nation’s past were prime independent learners.  James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, spent his sickly childhood reading all the books in his father’s library; Theodore Roosevelt, also pretty much an invalid until he willed himself into better health, taught himself to be a naturalist with knowledge comparable to that of a supervisor in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History.

On the back cover of The Amazing Bird Collection of Young Mr. Roosevelt which I published in 2014, I listed some of his traits: curiosity, learning from playing and imitating animal sounds, making up his own games, taking risks, making observations in notebooks, sketching, and sharing the information he found with family and friends.  Sound familiar?  Your kids do the same.

If you look up characteristics of independent learners, you will find some of these —

  • Being  active instead of passive
  • Being ready to change rapidly and apply new skills
  • Structuring learning time themselves
  • Assessing themselves, focusing on process rather than product  

All right on.

In Indiana the Lilly Foundation provides teacher fellowships every summer for instructors’ and administrators’ independent study, but are not required to be  in the recipients’ field: just something they are curious about.  I can tell you from participating in two of these grants that the knowledge and experiences I gained go far beyond any course or plan of study.  And I have learned much from other fellows in all areas.

Emotion drives learning, as parents and caregivers are realizing with every day of current stay-at-home rules.  One source I looked at said that a drawback of independent study is cost, but that’s bunk.  Field trips to the back yard can be enlightening, and so many resources are available on the Internet. from Colonial Williamsburg has scads of things to offer about American History, as does The Library of Congress (  Book lists, especially those of Newbery Award winnners, are a good place to start for reading selections.  Babble Dabble Do on Facebook offers art, math and science activities which I would be using in the classroom if I were not retired.  I’ve seen many others shared by excellent teachers.

I do not suggest that the 20,000 hours children spend in the classroom from Kindergarten through Grade 12 are not needed.  However, kids require more exploring time rather than testing time.  They should be excited to experience more about anything which interests them.  Pedagogical terms and guidelines are OK, but the way to get a kid to learn is to inspire him to find out things on his own.

^   ^   ^   ^   ^   ^   ^

Sources of information include,,,  I was disappointed to find I could not read articles from National Geographic and The Washington Post unless I subscribed.


Two Authors, and the History of Two Centuries

This post is the complete opposite of my last one about an old time Christmas celebration, which came easily and took a short time to write.  A month’s wave of procrastination does not change the will to begin it.

You may notice, while you’re reading, that these words exist in a slightly more streamlined format.  This is I suppose in part due to the style of someone I’ve been thinking about for many weeks – a writer whom I admired greatly – Sylvia Jukes Morris.

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The Morrises chat with President and Mrs. Reagan in the 80s.  (NY Times)

It was a shock to learn in early January that she had passed away at her sister’s home in England,  only eight months after her husband’s death from a sudden stroke.

Sylvia was the author of three definitive biographies, one volume on Edith Roosevelt, and two on Clare Boothe Luce.  The latter, of the twentieth century elite, is probably not a household name, but her life story embodies the society and politics of the time.

Sylvia was married for fifty years to Edmund Morris, Pulitzer Prize winner and prolific biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, Ludwig von Beethoven, Ronald Reagan and Thomas Edison.  Like his wife, he found the research on Roosevelt too much to present in a single book, so ultimately he composed a trilogy.  The sum of their work adds much to our knowledge of the 1800s and the 1900s.

Sylvia and Edmund were a team unequaled in talent, poise and personality.  They invited my daughter and I to their Manhattan home in 2006.  We were doing research at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, and I’d asked for an interview.  It helped that my husband had created a model of Sagamore Hill, the Roosevelt family home, for Mr. Morris.

I remember a spectacular, monochromatic apartment with stairs leading up to a bookcase-lined mezzanine which overlooked Central Park.  The couple pulled some of their books and autographed them for us.  My daughter identified a modern artist whose original painting hung on their dining room wall, with Edmund complimenting her,  “Good eye!”

We saw them again at a Theodore Roosevelt Association book talk in New York City a few years later.  “Margaret!” she said warmly in her beautiful British voice.  I was pleased she remembered me, and we told her we’d seen her recently on C-Span’s Book TV.

I was hoping very much to go to a book signing when Edmund’s Edison was published, but it was not to be.  The first bound book was delivered to their home in Connecticut shortly before he died.  Then, I hoped we could see her after her period of grief subsided, but that was not to be, either.  “It doesn’t get better – it gets worse,” she told a friend in the fall.

They were so close.  And perhaps it was merciful that she didn’t have to face her first Valentine’s Day without him, but instead join him where their marriage had been made.

A moving tribute to Sylvia may be found at this link:

Those Little Orange Books

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First edition of one in the biography series which appealed to boys and girls.

I often had my nose in a book after the third grade, and usually it was a biography.  Stories about famous people which centered on them when they were my age fascinated me.  I read what they said, what they did, what their families were like and how their way of life differed from mine.  There were over 200 in this series; all were published in the 1940s and 50s by the Bobbs-Merrill Company of Indianapolis.

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The covers morphed into blue by the time I checked them out in grade school.

Reading one after another before we studied American History in school, I found that Martha (Patsy) Dandridge and Abigail Smith grew up to be important figures in the colonies. Children who would be leaders on the frontier often had poor childhoods but close families.  The little biographies are classified by some as fiction, because they contain conversation that we don’t know happened, but might have.  The events which the talking evolves around really did, though.  And we were smart enough at the time to realize nobody had an electronic device to record what was said.  Even if they did, who knew the kids would turn out to be key figures of our past?

I just reread Teddy Roosevelt, All-Round Boy, publication date 1953.  From years of doing research about our 26th president, I find most of it to be correct.  Many facts are drawn from TR’s autobiography written in 1913.

I was fortunate to find an old library book in good condition which previewed my current collection of Theodore Roosevelt biographies.

Someone is checking up on the vintage books and issuing revised copies.  Florrie Binford Kichler, who formed Patria Press in 1997 (Bobbs-Merrill was acquired by Howard Sams and then Macmillan in 1985), had read many of the books in her own childhood.  She said she’d had rheumatic fever when she was eight, which required bed rest for three months. “My face lit up every time Aunt Mary came to visit with an orange biography.”  Her first was about Mary Todd.

Silhouetted drawings interpreted events in each subject’s life.  I know from spending time in the Houghton Library at Harvard that this amusing incident took place.  Theodore Roosevelt, and his friend, Freddy Osborn, tipped their hats to the wife of the US Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish.  They forgot that the frogs they had been collecting were in the hats.

Baby Boomers also recall the faceless illustrations on the inside pages.  They resemble scherenschnitte, or paper cutting, which was popular in the early American colonies.  Very different than today’s Who Was… series which plop on the covers a post-modern-looking giant head and shrunken body of the subject.  They, of course, are starkly accurate and leave little to the imagination.  I always liked to think I was there in the chapters of the Bobbs-Merrill ones.  It felt like I could have been in the same room or yard or school, watching and listening.

How about it?  Were you interested in those little orange books?  If so, did it lead to a lifelong love of history?  I’d be interested to hear your story.

A Book Club is a Book Club



From top: Katherine Paterson, Nikki Grimes, and Kate DiCamillo.

It would be hard for an author to turn down a book signing at the meeting of the American Library Association in their home base of Chicago — maybe almost as hard as it is for a reader to turn down the opportunity to go.

Last Saturday I joined hundreds weaving in and out of the bright colors of publishing house displays where prolific writers sat greeting and chatting.  Assistants passed them names to inscribe in books while they listened to stories of how much they and their work are loved.

Katherine Paterson, whom I consider the Dean of Fiction, says that reading can be “a key to a secret garden, which if tended, will transform all of life.”  Her Bridge to Terabithia as well as Jacob I Have Loved, Newbery winners for the best in children’s literature, have helped young people accomplish that goal.  Growing up in a missionary family in China, her own work in Japan and experiences as a pastor’s wife have given her insight.  She says, “Characters walk into my imagination and begin taking over…”

Nikki Grimes’ poems and novels have earned both the Coretta Scott King and Laura Ingalls Wilder Awards.  Born in Harlem and raised in family and foster homes, Grimes says she is grateful she lived to tell about growing up.  A high school English teacher guided her to her career, and her many books include Thanks a Million, Jazmin’s Notebook, Words With Wings (poetry), and a brand new one based on Psalm 121 and illustrated by Bryan Collier, The Watch.

Kate DiCamillo thinks herself “enormously lucky” because she gets to tell stories for a living.  She has also won the Newbery Award twice, for The Tale of Despereaux and Flora and Ulysses, which, like her other books, center around animals.  They include the popular Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tiger Rising.

A series of unfortunate events led me to arrive after the line to see Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), had been cut off.  I’m sure if anyone would appreciate that downer, it would be him.  Up-and-coming authors who in due time will surely share honors were autographing books in other aisles.

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An unlikely speaker at the event was Sarah Jessica Parker, who introduced the first selection of Book Club Central, the ALA’s platform for reading recommendations.  She remembered the comfort of going to the public library as a child, amid her large family’s frequent moves around Cincinnati.  “We couldn’t leave the house without a book,” she said, and that nowadays she makes a priority of going with her own children to their neighborhood library branch in Manhattan.

With Parker was Stephanie Powell Watts, the author of No One Is Coming to Save Us (Ecco, 2017).  It is a “story of loss — industry, ghosts and the last of Jim Crow,” she explained.  Parker said that she appreciated getting to know characters who were unlike her and far away, which she would not have been able to do had she not read it.

Watts, a professor at Lehi University, distanced herself from the usual advice when she told the audience they don’t necessarily have to write every day.  It’s OK to think it through, perhaps even a whole book, before putting anything down on paper (the way some people clean house?).

A book club is a book club.  Readers can choose to go with a particular author, like Paterson, Grimes, DiCamillo or Watts; a genre, such as historical novel or memoir; or a recommendation from Oprah or Sarah.  No matter.  When they share good literature, they are spending time thinking, learning, and celebrating life.

Quotes are from the authors’ websites.














The Gift of a Good Read

While I was growing up, there was always a book with my name on it under the tree on Christmas morning.  It might be a Nancy Drew (The Mystery of the Old Clock), a popular girls’ read (Donna Parker in Hollywood), or a classic from Louisa Mae Alcott, but no matter the title,  I spent holiday afternoons off school poring over a new story.

Later, one of the things I relished while Christmas shopping for our young daughters was choosing books for them, and these days I look for just the right ones for our grandchildren.  I still try to find books for the adults on my list, though gift certificates to Barnes and Noble or Half Price Books also serve the purpose.

Here’s one I recommend for anyone who prizes history and biography.  Edmund Morris, biographer of presidents and earner of the Pulitzer and American Book Award, compiled forty years of his work in 2012 in This Living Hand and Other Essays.  Some of the 59 pieces were previously unpublished; they range from researching Roosevelt and Reagan to describing his own journey as a writer and a naturalized American citizen.

I gifted myself the book in 2014 before we heard him speak in New York City.  I have been working on it since then, but admit I have not gotten to them all.  Absorbing individual essays is quite a bit slower than taking a joyride through a novel which keeps asking you to finish just one more chapter before putting it down.

Arranged in chronological order of the dates they were written, the first is from 1972, about a boyhood experience in Kenya when he discovered an improbable and forbitten fruit called a bumstitch.  The last is an explanation of his unorthodox point of view for Dutch, Ronald Reagan’s biography.  An illustration or photograph heralds each chapter, squeezing out more of its intent.


Morris is a master of thoughts and an artist with the words to convey them.  He writes of figures in history, music and literature: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Adams, Ludwig van Beethoven, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh, James Gould Cozzens, Thomas Edison…

His time at work in the Library of Congress probably transcends that of any living writer.  We read about the great institution, which he compares to Thomas Jefferson’s brain, in one chapter: serendipitous experiences like holding a William McKinley autographed piece of silk once meant for promoting a campaign, and the voluminous journals of Theodore Roosevelt.  It is a place where he discovered original musical scores composed by the father of Clare Booth Luce, something Edmund’s wife Sylvia had dreamed of finding for her own book’s research.

Sylvia Jukes Morris, biographer of Luce and Edith Roosevelt, is also the subject of a chapter, but you have to read it yourself to get an idea of the admiration and respect her husband has for her.  It is great.  He paid her a high compliment in saying that if something happened to him while writing one of his books, she could finish it herself.

Edmund Morris’s writing is both serious and funny.  It comes from many years of trying to get to the bottom of what made people do what they did.  It is for readers of books, lifelong learners like himself; and not much like the noise of bits and pieces we get from electronic media today.  This is one of those books that may be called just one thing: a gift.

Book Fare


Imagine a bunch of excited third graders in the school library for the book fair.  Then expand the scene to adult librarians in a big city convention center for the national meeting of the Public Library Association (PLA), which I attended in Denver last week as a guest of my daughter.  While she went to sessions I could peruse the booths.

The big blue bear outside the convention center really wanted in to get a book, too.


Book giveaways were everywhere.  All these were free…but you had to get them home by yourself.  Most of them had disclaimers on the cover: Advance Reader’s Edition or Uncorrected Proof/Not for Sale. 


Major and independent publishers showed their upcoming books for preview.






Lots of electronic invaders…sometimes change is good.



What’s the solution for illiteracy in America?


This would be a good start.


Next time: authors I was able to meet (and one I wanted to).

Me and My Paper

I could go straight to the computer on Sunday morning to read about what’s going on, but I still walk out to the mailbox in the dark to get the newspaper.

The Sunday paper is not instant.  I like that.  I dissect it slowly, separating ads from the rest.  The ones from stores I’m likely to shop at go into a special pile, along with the comics, coupon circulars and Parade Magazine.

I’ve found Parade interesting since I was in junior high school when my Social Studies teacher referred to an article I’d seen.  After that I figured if he read it, there must be some good material there.  Its editors have toyed with me recently though, reducing its dimensions and therefore the type size.  Don’t they know their clientel likely have to use glasses to see it?

Earlier than that, comics were one of the first published pieces I was able to understand.  They will always have a special place in my heart.  Hi and Lois Flagston haven’t kept up with me, having gone from my parents’ to my contemporaries’ to my childrens’ ages, but they have kept up with the times.  I still think their kids’ feelings are right on.

News stories in the paper are more telling that ones you hear on TV.  Thanks to the good old inverted pyramid, I can read the first paragraph to get important stuff, but am more likely to read all of it because there is useful information I can use to substantiate my opinions and awareness of the world.  This is sadly missing from TV and radio newscasts — not the correspondents’ fault, for it is the nature of the medium and its audience.  I just like to go back over information to let it sink in.

The noisiness (and channel noise – remember Marshal McLuhan?) of electronic devices inhibits my reception.  And, in this land of the free, I turn the page and go on if I don’t care to learn about something a newspaper offers; with a television, I’m just one of a large group being held hostage until the next story which I may be interested in.

Halfway through I make a cup of tea or coffee to rest on a coaster on the coffee table.  I have to do all I can to make the experience last.  It comes only once a week.

After parsing off the sports section and Sudoku puzzle for my husband, who’s fine with getting news that bounces off a satellite and rides the silent radio waves into the blast of television, I get into features and opinions.  I’m glad people still write in to the editor and am interested in what they’re thinking.  Also glad that they are willing to back up their opinions with names and addresses, which we don’t get from trolls who contribute little but disturbing responses to otherwise useful pieces on the Internet.

Book reviews can be seen online, but I like to read them, like the books themselves, savoring the touch of pages of thin, organic substance (not to mention the snackle sound and ink smell).  This reader finds that computers and their screens work better for writing and for catching up with friends.

I have a plan for when major newspapers start to fold.  I’ll save Sunday editions for two years, filing them in a cabinet which will resemble 104 stacked mailboxes in a 4×26 array.  When there are no more printing companies and paper deliverers, I’ll go to the slot which corresponds to the week on the calendar, make my cup of coffee and settle down to divide the sections.  Only that already will have been done.




Used Books

“Previously Owned Cars,” I read on the sign.  Hmmm.  Wasn’t this lot previously called “Used Cars?”

Maybe “Used Books” stores should do the same thing and advertise “Previously Owned Books.”  Or better: “Loved Books.”  For if you’ve really loved a book, you want to share it with someone.

Wouldn’t it be fun if used books stores were visited by more people?



My husband and I went to Half Price Books the other day.  I had a few to sell, and the money I got paid for a new hardback copy of David McCullough’s Wright Brothers.  At a very decent price.  I hope the people who read the volumes I turned in will love them as much as I have.

Erma Made Me Laugh

I was talking with someone the other day who didn’t remember Erma Bombeck.  Of course, he/she was younger than me.  Why does there seem to be more of those all the time?

I owe Erma for making me laugh — when it was easy and when I didn’t think I could.  She never wrote anything rude or lewd to do it.  I think the closest she got to that was when she referred to her expertise in cooking.  “I thought a pinch of Rosemary was something my husband did once at a cocktail party.”  Her columns and books came straight from life, which she was very perceptive about — and often happened to describe things we had in common with her.

She could pick out absurdities so apparent that they were lost: “I didn’t fight my way to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian.”

She grimaced about sports widowhood: “If a man watches three football games in a row, he should be declared legally dead.”

She had fun with some issues of the day: “I believe in buying natural products to save the environment, but don’t you think giving up blue plaid toilet paper is going a bit too far?”

But she was vehemently supportive of the Equal Rights Amendment.  No one was sorrier when Congress failed to pass it.  She worked endlessly when appointed to the President’s National Advisory Committee for Women.

Erma was often pragmatic: “No one ever died from sleeping in an unmade bed.”

She could justify almost anything: “I am not a glutton.  I am an explorer of food.”

Once, when my children were young, I was asked to do a reading for a Mother’s Day banquet.  I chose a story where Erma was worrying about her son coming home on his first day of school.  What if the bus windows were steamed up, and he couldn’t see outside and missed the stop?  I laughed so hard I couldn’t finish it.  The audience was laughing partly at Erma and partly at me because I was so tickled.

Her book titles were as good as the one-liners inside the covers.  The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank; If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, Why Am I in the Pits? and I Lost Everything in the Post-Partum Depression dished up more laughs, but she could be serious, too.  I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise was an empathetic look at children with cancer, whom she worked with.

For eleven years she livened the screen of Good Morning America with short segments.  But a couple of sitcoms based on her work did not work themselves and were cancelled.  I think it was because on paper, people could see themselves in those situations.  When actors were involved, it wasn’t the same.  A TV movie was also made based on one of her books.  She once said, “Success is outliving your failures.”

Erma had grown up near Dayton, Ohio, where her efforts as a writing mom gradually grew into a syndicated newspaper column, At Wit’s End.  Her feature Up the Wall appeared every month in Good Housekeeping magazine for women “who at long last had found someone who understood them.”

It was our country’s great loss when she passed away at age 69, in 1996 after a kidney transplant.  For me, the timing was poignant: it was a month before our older daughter graduated from high school.  I guess God thought I could take it from there.  I often go back to my first memories of reading her take on home, family, and life in general.

The University of Dayton, Erma’s alma mater, has a writers’ workshop in her name each year, and maintains a website,, well worth visiting.

“When humor goes, there goes civilization,” she said.  I’m thankful Erma Louise Fiste Bombeck took her turn spinning the plate at the top of the pole.


Last week I visited two libraries: that of my former elementary school, and the public one downtown.  In the first, I watched kids almost too excited for words compete in Battle of the Books.  It warmed my heart to see them, at the end of the school year, answering questions about what they’d read.  After it was over, they lapped up next year’s list like thirsty puppies.  No question what they’ll be doing this summer.


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In the second library, much larger than the first, I walked past the computers to the stacks.  Although I think search programs are fine and great timesavers for locating material, I’d still rather do my own browsing.  On some occasions, instead of looking for a specific book, or the latest book, it’s better to let the library tell you what it’s got.  Nonfiction, usually biography, draws me like a magnet, so I wandered around it for awhile.  Around the corner where some poetry anthologies were waiting, I began to read titles.  I chose one published in 1936 and took it back to a long table to read.

I forget from time to time how much I like to sit and read in the library.




When I was in college, I would climb up a few flights of stairs in the library and look at the cookbooks.  There was one I remember whose author raved about her mother-in-law’s home cooking, and tried to relay some of her techniques.



I’ve always enjoyed picking up the smooth, thin books in the children’s department.  It is one of my earliest memories, and I tried to pass it on to our children, who are passing it to our grandchildren.  It is no secret how proud we are that one of our daughters is a kindergarten teacher, and the other a librarian.  Both are fanning the love-flame of books for others.

One hot summer when they were young, the theme of the elementary reading program at the public library was  “Camping Out With Books.”  We staked up our old canvas tent and the girls would read out there on folding chairs and sleeping bags.  When it rained, a few of the books were ruined.  We drove into town to pay for them (and check out more), and the librarian smiled and said, “You really were camping out with books, weren’t you!”



Of late, a strategy for teachers is to categorize their classroom books by genre in bins.   The covers are in plain sight, which entice kids to rifle through and take them back to their desks to read.  I second any arrangement that will hook a child to a book.



If you have a young person around, or if a young person has you around, encourage him to read.  Better yet, set an example by reading yourself.  Get lost in a book.  The library is a fantastic place in which to browse.

Do you have memories of a special library?