Words

Cabin Fever Kids

After the story ends

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

A camera pans to actor Ed O’Neill, who is sitting in a red chair near a large window, preparing to read author and illustrator Uri Schulevitz’s book How I Learned Geography.

In a measured voice rich with inflection, the Married…With Children and Modern Family alum tells the tale of a young boy forced to flee his war-torn country with his parents to an unfamiliar city where summers are hot, winters are cold and food is scarce. One night, the boy’s father brings home a large map of the world rather than the bread he was supposed to purchase. The trio goes without supper, and familial tensions rise.

Soon thereafter, however, the acquisition transforms the house made of clay and camel dung. In addition to the vibrant colors adding life to the space, the sprawling map becomes a portal to other lands—places the boy visits in his imagination without ever leaving the room. He spends “enchanted hours far, far from our hunger and misery.” Most importantly, he forgives his father.

It’s not a fairytale ending, but it is a story that begs for bigger questions to be explored—a goal Humanities Washington had in mind when it launched its Cabin Fever Kids project last year. A related digital book released in late February features fascinating (and fun) questions based on children’s literature, and is designed for parents and teachers looking to get kids thinking more deeply about life’s big issues.

The 38-page book, which is free to download, comes at a time when many schools across Washington state remain closed or in flux due to the pandemic. In that vein, it is also meant to be an aid for parents and educators still navigating the ins and outs of remote learning.

How I Learned Geography is the second of many stories featured in Cabin Fever Kids, which was itself inspired by Humanities Washington’s Prime Time Family Reading series. In pre-COVID days, the program would take place each year at dozens of libraries around the state, with storytellers leading families in guided discussions after the tale came to a close. Working together, children and adults would probe why the characters made the choices they did, and explore how they might apply those choices and ideas to their own lives.

When the coronavirus closed libraries and shuttered public gatherings last spring, Humanities Washington pivoted by making the events digital ones. One or two times a week, people would receive a reading of a beloved children’s book in their inbox, along with open-ended questions about the story rooted in philosophy, critical thinking, sociology, psychology and other disciplines. With the future still uncertain, the powers that be decided to compile these offerings into a single digital book.

In the discussion of How I Learned Geography—which includes a YouTube link to the reading by O’Neill and an option to support your library system by downloading the e-book or audio version—the questions go deep. Participants are asked what they would leave behind if they had to flee from their home in search of peace, and why they would choose to take what they did. Putting themselves in the father’s place, they are then queried if they would choose to purchase a tiny amount of food or a map. They’re also asked what magical places they would like to visit, and why.

Additional books such as Julius, the Baby of the World, Harry the Dirty Dog, Enemy Pie, Zombies Don’t Each Veggies, and The Big Orange Splot bring topics such as sibling rivalry, runaways, family secrets, and naughty and nice neighbors to the fore (among many other things).

In the “Tips for Reading Together” preface to the stories, Humanities Washington organizers point out that discussing stories out loud helps people better understand their beliefs and question the world around them.

“Talking about books doesn’t mean the family has a strenuous philosophical debate,” they say. “Rather, it encourages a deeper level of engagement that connects with the mind long after we close the book. Given how reading together can help connect adults and children alike, we hope you’ll make reading and discussing stories part of your everyday family activities. Doing so can transform home into a place of exploration and learning.”

Photo courtesy of Humanities Washington. Download the Cabin Fever Kids book at http://www.humanities.org/blog/introducing-cabin-fever-kids.

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