Thursday, October 25, 2012

Happier at Home – wouldn’t that be nice?

Gretchen Rubin openly admits to being happy.  Even at the point when she decided to start her Happiness Project, she wasn’t miserable.  She had a great husband, beautiful children, a busy and fulfilling career and a lovely home in a city she loved.  She was happy; but she just felt that there must be ways to allow herself to be happier.

So began her year-long investigation into how to be happier, taking a different topic for each month (health, family, home, money and so on), which fed into her blog, which resulted in her writing a Manifesto for her personal happiness (which included her twelve personal commandments and eight splendid truths, paradoxes of happiness and other happiness theories she rejects).  Rubin’s first book The Happiness Project became a world-wide sensation apparently overnight, spawning not just her website, blog and second book, but an International happiness movement.  Happiness Groups have been formed, with hundreds of blogs featuring her readers’ own happiness projects.

Rubin’s second book, Happier at Home, was published last month and this week she visited Houston as the speaker at the October meeting of the Great Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce, and I was pleased to have been allowed to sneak in to see her (even though I’m not a member and I’m not in commerce).

At first glance, it appeared that Gretchen Rubin was addressing a room full of already happy women (and a couple of happy men).  They appeared to be professional, successful, smartly dressed, eloquent and intelligent – lawyers, realtors, entrepreneurs, bankers, life-coaches, financial advisers – so what could she tell them about being happier in their lives?  But when she began by suggesting that one of the most important secrets to being happy was getting enough sleep, the assembled crowd laughed and shook their heads and muttered as one, “I wish”.  They nodded in agreement when she suggested replacing huge holiday festivities with easily manageable ‘holiday breakfasts’ (and waved her secret weapon – a packet of food coloring – so pink Valentine’s scrambled eggs and green St Patrick’s pancakes etc).  They typed notes into their smart phones about her suggestions for an immediate energy boost (jumping up and down a few times, making sure both feet leave the floor at the same time), or a cheap and speedy mood enhancer (having a hit of your favorite scents, using candles, small vials of liquids, or even just sniffing the vanilla essence in your baking cupboard at home).

None of Rubin’s suggestions to make yourself happier at home are rocket science, none of them come from deep clinical investigation (though many come from her extensive reading of philosophical and literature figures, particularly Samuel Johnson who features in the subtitle for the new book); her suggestions are all very obvious to anyone.  But because of that, they are easy to miss, to forget or to dismiss as too easy or without value.  She also told the audience that while her suggestions for happiness might not be able to clear a path through a huge trauma in someone’s life like illness, divorce, financial problems or bereavement, they are still useful tools to create moments of relief in what can sometimes feel like relentless misery.

Over the next few months, I will try to report on my own responses to her tools for happiness including my newly created empty shelf and my recent addiction to sniffing vanilla extract and coffee beans!), because couldn’t we all do with feeling a little bit of happy every day?

You can sign up for Gretchen Rubin’s daily happiness quotes, her regular email newsletter and also for her short and always sweet videos at The Happiness Project.   

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Lois Lowry visits Houston

I was thrilled last weekend to take my kids to see the amazing Lois Lowry give a reading and a talk as part of Inprint’s Cool Brains series.  She is currently doing the rounds to promote her new book, Son, the fourth and final book in what was The Giver trilogy, now a quartet.    Lowry wrote The Giver, she explained, as a simple stand-alone book in 1993.  It centers on Jonas, a boy about to turn twelve, who lives is a society where everything is tightly controlled by those in charge.  At first glance, it is a wonderful existence - people are assigned to their perfect professions, matched into perfectly compatible couples, are kept free from pain, from war and from all negativity;  couples are provided with babies which they raise to adulthood, and everyone is fed, clothed and housed perfectly.  The society is unfailingly polite, children are well behaved, and no-one complains.  However, it is only as Jonas receives his work assignment at the age of twelve that he begins to understand everything that this perfect society does not have – color, weather, landscape, freedom, feelings, memory, independence, or conscience.  As Jonas becomes the receiver of the memories of all these things, he begins to understand how dark this ‘perfect’ world really is and is determined to escape from it.

The Giver, a short novel even by children’s book standards, was awarded the Newbery Medal (the highest award for a children’s book in the US) in 1994.  It courted controversy – both for its apparent encouragement to child to challenge authority and also for its handling of what Lowry refers to as “the stirrings” within pre-adolescent children.  Some school authorities immediately added the book to its list of set texts while others banned it from school property.  Either way, The Giver had an enormous impact on children’s literature.  If a young reader is facing the current flood of dystopian fiction for children and young adults (The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner etc), The Giver is great place to begin.

Lois Lowry went on to write several other books before she returned to The Giver in her mind.  In 2000, she published Gathering Blue, followed by Messenger in 2004, and these two books were called ‘companion novels’ to The Giver, rather than sequels.  They were set in other communities, with very different problems but within walking distance, so some of the characters reappeared, and in her inimitable fashion, Lowry tied the threads of all three beautifully together to make a perfect trilogy.

So why add a fourth book more than eight years after the trilogy was complete? 

“Because,” she told her audience last Sunday, “It was because for all those years after The Giver was published, I continued to receive letters and emails from children and their parents and teachers, asking ‘But what happened to Gabe?’”  Gabe appeared in The Giver as a baby, and was briefly mentioned on one page in Messenger, but otherwise disappeared.

Two years ago, Lowry decided to answer those questions with a fourth novel, Son.  It not only tells the story of Gabe, now almost a teenager himself, but also of his mother, Claire.  Set in the same community as The Giver, it begins around the time when Jonas and his class-mates were given their work assignments, when one of the girls was chosen as Birthmother.  It was explained that birthmothers were well looked after, kept in comfort and fed well through three pregnancies.  The babies were then given away to the assigned couples to raise to adulthood.  Once the birthmother’s third baby was born, she was reassigned to a lowly position in the community in food production or factory worker.    Claire causes an unexpected blip in this perfect system, and like Jonas, she becomes aware of what she has lost and what the rest of the community is missing – love and belonging.

Lowry said “The working title for this book was in fact ‘Birthmother’ since it is as much Claire’s story as Gabe’s, but I soon realized that no young boy would want to buy a book called that, so I changed it to ‘Son’ instead.”

To mark the publication of the new book, Houghton Mifflin Books for Children have reissued the other three books with new, very beautiful covers created by illustrator Charles Brock of Faceout Studio.
Lois Lowry has a great website and blog, on which you can find information about all her books (Gossamer and Number the Stars are two of my other favorites), but you can also read transcripts of her major speeches, including her fascinating acceptance speech on receiving the Newbery Medal for The Giver.  You can find her at:

Lois Lowry came to Houston as a guest of Inprint, Houston’s fantastic literary development agency.  Inprint bring ‘grown-up’ writers to Houston too, but for me Inprint’s Cool Brains series of children’s authors is one of the outstanding resources available to children, teachers and parents in this city.  My children all felt as if they had (or actually did have) one to one conversations with some of the best kids’ writers in the USA today: Gary Paulsen, Kate DiCamillo and Rebecca Stead, all of whom have been honored in the Newbery Awards, as well as Pseudonymous Bosch and TA Barron.  Coming in February 2013 will be John Scieszka, creator of the Stinky Cheese Man, among others, and founder of the Guys Who Read movement which aims to encourage   a passion for reading among young boys, with the philosophy that boys love to read most when they are reading things they love.  The talks are always on a Sunday afternoon at Johnston Middle School.  You can sign up for email reminders from Inprint by clicking here.