Impactfully Yours.

I saw an advertisement for a class offering to “improve your writing in one day,” and this advertisement included the phrase “make your writing more impactful.” This has inspired me to offer my own, FREE writing improvement instruction, right now. It won’t even take a day. Here:


There you go. Class dismissed!

I probably shouldn’t admit this online, but I am afraid of my phone at work. It has a screen and far too many buttons and one time I was trying to see who had called and pressed what I thought might be the button for that and the phone talked at me loudly in its Lady Robot voice until I snatched at the receiver and quickly hung it up again to make it stop. So far the phone hasn’t been an issue, because everything happens over email or intra-company IM, but probably I am going to have to figure out how it works at some point, right? Don’t get me wrong, I can make calls (it only took me a few tries—shhh!), but I haven’t set up my voicemail or anything. If I could just have a private moment to figure it out, I am sure I could, but the fact that it talks at you so very loudly when you press buttons make me disinclined to try. Who thought that was a good idea? Maybe I am old fashioned, but I believe inanimate objects should speak only when they are spoken to.

Parenthood has so much to offer, especially in the area of new ways to feel like an idiot. Simone asked me a while ago whether monkey tails have bones. This is the sort of thing children are always asking. In no other area of my life am I expected to have such a wide-ranging command of trivia. And perhaps this seems like an easy question, because yes, of course monkey tails have bones! Well, good for you. I was less certain, I guess because monkey tails are so…bendy? They curl them around branches and—I mean, this is why Simone asked in the first place. Monkey tails don’t LOOK like they have bones. But I figured they must, probably, so I looked it up discreetly on my phone and then was able to report with authority that yes, monkey tails have bones. I explained with ill-earned confidence to Simone that it was like the chain of my necklace, in that each individual link is made of a hard, inflexible substance, but when you put them all together they make something which can move as sinuously as string. Or as a snake, which also has bones (I am 99.9% sure on this), and which I probably should have thought of in the first place. The point is, I feel like parenthood has significantly undermined my faith in my own cleverness. There are so many things that I am certain I know, right up until Simone asks me about them—one example being the old classic, “Why is the sky blue?” For the record, I OBVIOUSLY know why the sky is blue. It is something about how the light…spectrum…and only the blue part is reflected, or wavelengths or something. For reasons you may be able to discern, Simone was unimpressed with my explanation, and I was made unpleasantly aware that maybe a little refresher course in All The Information I Thought I’d Already Learned is in order.

Sometimes I wish there were a market for my time-wasting skills, as they are prodigious. Do you have extra time and no way to waste it? I can help! I recently spent an embarrassingly lengthy period trying to remember a certain series of books I loved when I was about Simone’s age. In the days before the Internet, there would have been little hope of wasting a significant amount of time on this, unless I actually went out and combed used bookstores, and at least then I’d have gotten some exercise. But in this gilded (or chromed, anyway) age, I was able to spend hours of valuable leisure time on the project. I Googled the parts I could remember (“children’s book two girls grocery store,” and many similarly useless iterations), and then a few days later remembered in a flash that the girls had been maybe? possibly? been called “M& M,” and then I found the books online (“Meet M&M” and “M& M and the Big Bag” are the two I best recall) and then I spent further time locating the editions I remembered, with the correct illustrations. It was not unlike the DAYS I once devoted to searching out particularly nice copies of the various Ramona books with the original illustrations. The covers have changed rather a lot over time, which was bad enough, but at least they all contained the original illustrations by Louis Day. The newest version changed even this to make Ramona look more contemporary, which saddened me, as she no longer resembled Ramona. Ramona as illustrated by Louis Day was timelessly kid-like, and anyway, there are plenty of details in the books that place Ramona squarely in an earlier time, and also let’s give children a little bit of credit, please. This is a common peeve of mine, and has been since I was a child—a child who deeply resented being underestimated and pandered to (I was, truly, a delight).

Take Chuck E. Cheese: why did he need to be made over into a douchey, backwards-hat-wearing skater mouse? When I was a child, Chuck E. Cheese wore a vest and a small bowler hat with a flower stuck in the brim. This may surprise some of my more youthful readers, but in my time small bowler hats with flowers stuck in the brim were not actually de rigeur among the younger (or any) set. No one was confused by this, or assumed Chuck E. Cheese’s arcade was a venue only appropriate for olde-timey vaudevillian types. Also? He is a cartoon mouse. Why the concern with verisimilitude between fictional characters and the children they are marketed to?

(I do understand the reasons behind this, by the way, I just fail to find them compelling.)

Semi-relatedly, Simone is at last able to read. I was very determinedly hands-off about this–we’ve read together since she was a baby, and she’s been READY to read for a long while, but I didn’t want to push her because I want her to LOVE reading and books, not only because it was the source of around 85% of my childhood joy but also because genuinely loving reading and doing so much of it is, I firmly believe, why I am able to write, and I believe just as firmly that a general facility with language will make life easier and richer for anyone. But I won’t lie, I was a little unsure of whether she should have been reading already, I suppose because I was reading 300-page books by second grade and it just seemed unlikely that a person could go from not reading anything to reading practically everything in a couple of years–I mean, is that really how it happens? It is nearly as improbable as a sleeping lump of newborn turning into a small walking person in the that amount of time, but I am trying to have faith.

Simone has a truly extraordinary memory, which means a lot of reading, for her, is just memorizing words, which she then notices all over the place. It makes driving fun because I will be shepherding us carefully through a blizzard and suddenly she will shout “THIS!” because she sees it on a billboard, and I struggle to regain control of the vehicle. The most difficult part, though, of having a new reader is answering her questions about the inconsistencies of English pronunciation, because the English language is just terrible. Simone will learn a little rule, and proudly sound something out using said rule, and inevitably I will have to inform her that in this particular case it is pronounced entirely differently. Why? Well, because English is just LIKE that, that’s why. It drives me mad, so I can only imagine how annoying she finds it. When there IS a reason other than “English; preposterousness of,” it is usually related to etymology (I first typed entomology, but it is very seldom related to that), and explaining to Simone that some word is pronounced in an entirely unintuitive and patently ridiculous way because it is from GREEK or something is not helpful at all. In short, Simone is learning to read, which is a miracle.


  1. electriclady says:

    I never answer my work phone. Never ever ever. I bet you could go a really long time without figuring out how yours works.

  2. GingerB says:

    My cleverness wanes hourly. Today I tried to explain suspension of disbelief to a sick seven year old watching Cirque du Soleil (who thought we might do something similar, natch). I feel your pain, oh yes, I do.

  3. Alison in Toronto says:

    I mostly agree with you about redone covers, though I replaced my Ramona books about 10 years ago, and was delighted by the new covers that more closely resembled the Louise Day illustrations inside. I have always loved those drawings, especially the one of her and the toothpaste in Ramona and Her Mother…
    If you are looking for books for Simone, my six year old spent all of last summer totally engrossed in The Sisters Eight series. Something about the mix of eight girls, eight cats, and a bit of magic worked very well for her.

  4. Susie says:

    1. ‘Impactful’ always, ALWAYS makes me think of constipation.
    2. I have worked in the same place for over four years, and I do not know how to check my voicemail. Solution: People don’t leave me voicemail.
    3. Learning to read seems so magical. I do understand why we can’t remember not knowing how, but that lends even more magic to it somehow, and oh. I hope my kids like it.

  5. elana says:

    i feel the way you do about reading. i did the same with my kids as you did with simone. my daughter went from not reading when she started kindergarten to reading a bit halfway through kindergarten. by the middle of 1st grade she was reading huge 3rd grade chapter books. it really can happen that fast.

  6. Corinne Brzeski says:

    I remember how delighted I was when my daughter learned to read. She was already quite good at Super Mario Brothers, so with the reading underway, I really felt as though I’d created the perfect child. (I stand by that, 3 years later.)

  7. Learning to read seems impossible – I just don’t understand how it works. Magic, clearly!

    I cannot wait until this baby is slightly older soI can read Ramona again . I mean, read Ramona to the baby. (I know I COULD start now, but the baby has an upsetting inability to enjoy more than a few pages at a time, and also her preferred method of reading is shoving the whole book into her mouth.)

  8. Beth says:

    Not sure if the same will be true of your work phones, but ours speak out loud only if you haven’t picked up the receiver. If you have it talks into your ear. Much more civilised!

    One day my colleague and I decided to press every button to see what they all did. It was more amusing than it sounds :)

    You would be within reason, IMO, to ask someone to show you how they work. We had actual training when our latest phone system was installed! Crazy but true.

    More than you ever wanted to know about phones, no?! :)

    • MJ says:

      This is exactly what I would have said if I were cleverer.
      And at my office there is also an actual phone training class. So don’t be embarrassed that it’s not obvious to you how to make the phone work.

  9. j.edamjones (Ms.) says:

    I, too, am overwhelmed by my work phone, and in the first 2 hours of having it hooked up, I somehow managed to change the menu language to what was possibly Polish, which the IT guy didn’t even think the phone could DO.

  10. Katherine says:

    Learning to read is certainly mysterious. My older son managed to teach himself and I (somewhat embarrassingly) didnt realize it until he was quite good at reading. I finally had an inkling and handed him a picture book (which I didn’t realize was quite more advanced vocabulary than a beginning reader has) and he read it fluently. But then, I didn’t feel so bad when his kindergarten teacher didn’t realize for months more that he could read and in fact didnt believe me when I told her. Then my second son came along and was plodding along, sounding out words towards the end of kindergarten. I bought a big stack of level 1 and 2 books at a yard sale so we could really work on the reading over the summer. Not 2 weeks later, (when I’ve been out of town for most of the time and grandma has been too overwhelmed with 2 kids to hardly read to them at all), I look in the back seat of the car and my non-reader is sitting there reading a Junie B. Jones book! I still have no idea how that happened, the a switch flipped and all of a sudden I had another reader.

  11. Dead Bug says:

    The non-reader-to-reader timeline has been a total shock to me. Feels like I spent a year on the edge of cross-eyed frustration trying to help them sound out words, and then…whoosh! From picture books to Pinkalicious to Nancy Drew to Harry Potter in the space of kindergarten to second grade. Enjoy the ride!

  12. tree town gal says:

    Feel spoiled that I get to enjoy your lunch hour, too – what with all the fabulous posts.

    Magical… the reading thing is magical especially when it is on their own schedule and not tied to the classroom.

    Moomin books? Yet to read with my passle but another brilliant writer highly recommends.

  13. Cori says:

    The monkey tail question would not have stumped me, which might be one of the few benefits to my degree in Anthropology. However, my own kids ask questions that might be more suited to an English or Philosophy major. “What does ‘should’ mean?” “What’s a god?”

    At this point they are starting to look at me with some skepticism and ask, “Are you smart?”

    • Alexa says:

      Haaa. Yes. “What does ‘should’ mean?” is one I got recently as well, and I think I handled it perfectly: “It means you…should. You OUGHT to.”
      “What does ‘ought to’ mean?”
      “It means you SHOULD.”

  14. Gina says:

    If you find someone to pay for your time wasting abilities, please pass the knowledge on. I, too, am incredibly gifted in this area! I spent a great deal of time in the last month searching for the perfect Charlie Brown stickers, actually Woodstock stickers. I may be nuts…
    I’ve taught lower elementary reading and it is just incredible to watch. I would recommend the Mercy Watson series by Kate DiCamillo to read with Simone.
    The Four Blocks reading series for teaching reading taught me a lot about not only the entomology of words also fun facts like “brave” and “have” used to rhyme and no longer do, who knew!

    • Alexa says:

      Mercy Watson has been a long time favorite! Also, because it is adorable and slightly relevant to your comment, I must tell you that Simone calls Woodstock “Woodstocking” and I will never, ever correct her.

  15. Robin says:

    I love everything about this post… I have been spending a ton of time lately looking for books I loved when I was little, and THEY HAVE TO HAVE the same illustrations. The Princess and the Goblin has proved an especially tricky one to nail down.

    And I commend your approach to reading with Simone. My husband has been pushing our 6- year-old to read with nightly workbook activities, and I’m of the belief that if we read TO him enough he’ll want to figure it out for himself. Oh, and comic books.

  16. dayman says:

    I read somewhere that they revised Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, to remove the references to maxi-pad belts, and I was HORRIFIED because how else are we supposed to know what our mothers went through with those ridiculous belts? it’s a piece of cultural anthropology! (…I think.) For gods’ sake. Also, one summer I worked as a CNA at a community hospital and they only had pads with belts (This was close to twenty years ago, but still! it was the 1990s!! The 1990s were twenty years ago!) and this really ancient CNA had to teach me and another young 20-something how to use them (I mean, for patients, we didn’t use them ourselves) and we giggled hysterically the whole time and I was so excited to finally have a visual for whatever the hell Margaret Simon was talking about. And it is really too bad we didn’t have smartphones and facebook back then because I could have educated a generation. BUT I DIGRESS. My original point stands: they should not be messing with classics.

    • Alexa says:

      YES. This was an OUTRAGE. My terror/confusion over those belts was a rite of passage I had hoped to pass on to my daughters. I am very jealous that you got to actually see one, though I must correct you on one point: the 90s were not 20 years ago. I’m afraid that would be impossible.

  17. Martha says:

    I just want to say that I enjoy hearing about you life and I love your writing. I’m often checking in here and am always excited when I see a new post. I’m looking forward to your next book, which I’m sure we will see in due time.

    • Alexa says:

      Thank you Martha. I am so pleased there are still people coming back, after I neglected this spot for so long. (And I am working on my next book, but suspect it will be a while before it sees the light of day…)

  18. Connie says:

    I’ve been a volunteer reading tutor for years, attempting to help kids make that jump from struggling to read to enjoying reading. Most of the kids belong to families whose parents have not been lucky enough to have the education I’m assuming most blog readers have had. Many come from families that speak another language at home so they just don’t have the chance of learning all the words as easily as English-only kids.

    Before any child can turn into a reader, that child needs to figure out that reading is worthwhile, especially if they never see their parents doing it, perhaps because they can’t or because they’re working two jobs to pay the rent and buy groceries. If you can find that child’s hot button and some books to exploit it (make friends with children’s librarians), you can watch the miracle unfold.

    Give some serious thought to becoming a reading volunteer at your local elementary school. You don’t need to be an ex-teacher. You do need to be a reader who wants to help a child.

  19. Mariana says:

    Lovely, lovely post.
    As a native Spanish speaker, I feel for kids that get to learn to read in English. It is a crazy language when it comes to pronunciation, and even after fifteen years of near fluency it I’m still learning new gems (haphazard and realm were recent discoveries. Why yes, I pronounced them HAPH-azard and reelm for way too long), and totally understand that children have trouble with spelling.
    Also, tails have bones? Wow!

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