By Deborah Markus, from Secular Homeschooling, Issue #13.
It all started with a simple review. Or what should have been a simple review, anyway.
My son and I had just read the third and most recent book in the series of Emily the Strange novels (by Rob Reger and Jessica Gruner), Dark Times. We both love them, to the point that we arm-wrestle to see who gets to read each new title first. While Emily's comics tend to be grotesque genuinely dark, the novels only pretend to be. True, 13-year-old Emily wears only black, sleeps all day and stays up all night, is obsessed with list-making and the number 13, and is indifferent to what many girls her age find hugely important (clothes, boys, grades); but behind her scowl is a ferociously kind heart. She rescues spiders (and instructs her cats not to eat them). She cries when her cats refuse to cuddle. And when she finally recovers from a bad case of amnesia, her mom is in the top four (out of 13) things she likes best about home.
And best of all — Emily the Strange doesn't go to school.
In the first book, The Lost Days, she's too busy trying to figure out where her memory went to worry about anything else. When the occasional stranger asks, "Why aren't you in school?" Emily replies, "Oh, I'm IN school." Which is exactly the kind of thing a homeschooler delights in saying, just to puzzle the civilians. When the truancy officer finally hauls her in, she only spends one day under the "tyranny of maniac teachers." Then she manages to maneuver everyone into letting her pursue her own goals. The girl constructed a golem that would make Dr. Frankenstein weep with envy, and keeps a diary that would make Mary Shelley doubt her own writing abilities. She's the only one in town who can calculate terminal velocity. School has nothing to teach her.
The second Emily book, Stranger and Stranger, takes place during the summer, so school is a non-issue. At the end of the book, Emily does ask herself how she's going to get out of going to school next year.
"It's not that I object to education," Emily muses in Dark Times, the third Emily novel. "Not at all. I just haven't found any in the schools I've been to so far." Granted, Emily has only spent 13 days in actual classes, which she tallies and describes in her diary. ("Kindergarten, Day 2: Was expelled from school for vandalism. Hey, I was young.") She briefly considers enrolling for the benefits that a student ID would confer, but the administrator refuses to allow her to sign herself up even though Emily's been legally emancipated since the age of three.
So Emily decides homeschooling is the way to go. "It's always been my habit, whenever some Adult inquires why I'm not in school, to casually respond, ‘Oh, I'm homeschooling myself.' I swear, if you say something casually enough, I don't care how nonsensical it is, no one will question you. Anyway, I think that this year, I'm actually going to homeschool myself. If I present it to Mom as a done deal, she's not going to complain. Hey, it's better than me getting expelled again."
At this point, Reger flubs a bit. Emily and her mother talk about it as if homeschooling must be school-at-home-ing. "I always kind of thought that if we ever actually tried homeschooling, I'd get to teach you a class myself," Emily's mother says. I know a lot of homeschoolers. None of them refer to "classes" unless they're attending something that someone else is teaching. Emily and her mom also talk a lot about assignments and tests. Ironic that Emily is utterly outside the box in the rest of her life, but can't quite get past the conventions in this respect. She's been out of school for pretty much her whole life before this, but as soon as they call it homeschooling, it's all schooly. It doesn't ruin the book, but it is a bit silly.
Still, at least it's better than how homeschoolers usually fare in young-reader novels.
I suddenly realized that other than a vague memory of the movie Nim's Island being based on a book about a homeschooler, I couldn't remember coming across homeschoolers in novels for young readers at all. Other than the "Wright on Time" books by Lisa M. Cottrell-Bentley, which were specifically written about homeschoolers, for homeschoolers, by a homeschooler — where were we?
I mean, we're not that tiny a minority. People have heard of us. We're legal. We're even sort of mainstream. Aren't we?
I made some clumsy attempts with my search engine to find titles with homeschooled characters, and had no luck at all. Thank goodness for loops, librarians, and Facebook. I put the word out and got some feedback. People were eager to help, but the pickings were pretty scanty.
I realized right away that defining terms was important. The first batch of suggestions I got were classic novels — books old enough that the fact that main characters didn't go to school wasn't remarkable. The Secret Garden, for instance. Alice in Wonderland. The Little House books — sometimes they went to school, plenty of the time they didn't. Little Women — Amy went to school, but didn't like it, and the rest of the young characters were homeschooled or privately tutored. Although of course they didn't use the word "homeschool" back then.
Which made a point. When it comes to curling up with a novel, it might be nice for homeschooled kids to have a break from chatter about school; but it isn't quite the same as finding themselves in print. For the purposes of comparison for my review, The Turn of the Screw wouldn't count as a novel about "homeschoolers." Although while we're on the subject: one book that was suggested for this article by several sources was The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, a nineteenth-century menaced-governess story written by twenty-first century author Maryrose Wood, who is far funnier than Henry James. Being educated first by wolves and then by a graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females isn't exactly what one would call homeschooling, but it's still fun to read about.
Piling up in the suggestion bin right next to the homeschooled-before-homeschooling titles were novels in which school isn't an option because school doesn't exist in the book's world. Homeschoolers aren't the only young people who enjoy fantasy and science fiction novels; but I wonder if they enjoy them a bit more than outschooled children, or at least a bit differently, just because it's such a pleasure to read about adventures that have nothing to do with school, school, school. (Though outschooled children clearly relish away-adventures, too. It can't be a coincidence that two of the Narnia books have to do with rescuing children, at least for a time, from the horrors of the English boarding school.)
So: what about contemporary human kids of a certain age from the planet Earth as we know it who don't go to school? Where are the novels about them?
So far, the closest thing I'd found as a comparison base for Emily the Strange was Pippi Longstocking. Both are strong female characters living completely outside of convention, surrounded by loved and loving animals (Emily has four cats, Pippi has her horse and monkey), indifferent to any idea of prettiness or attracting boys. I'm not sure if Pippi could really be considered in the same "too cool for school" class as Emily, though. And Pippi isn't so much homeschooled as non-schooled. Still, it was a start.
I managed to locate less than two dozen mainstream young-reader books in which homeschoolers of some sort feature as major characters. It pained me that many of them might have been fine reads, if I hadn't been so tired of seeing the same stereotypes over and over again. Since I got sick of having to say, "This book would be great, if it hadn't been for...", I decided to give each book two grades: one for how it fared as a just-plain book, and one for how it might strike weary, wary homeschoolers.
Category: Creepy backwoods illegal homeschooling
Summary: Occasional trips into town for supplies are the only times Moon gets to see anyone other than his father, or glimpse the world outside their tiny, hidden home. Just before he dies, Moon's father advises Moon to leave their Alabama home and go to Alaska to seek out others of their kind — those who know how to live off the land and refuse to have any relationship with the government. The fact that Moon is only ten when his father dies doesn't stop him from setting out to follow this final injunction. Fortunately, he doesn't succeed, though the reader becomes increasingly sympathetic with his wish to. Moon ends up in the home and family he needs, and learns the difficult lesson that you can love and honor someone and still not agree with him — even if he's your father.
Conclusion: The "Little House" books will seem kind of creepy for about a week after you finish this.
Rating as a novel: A brilliant, beautiful book with subtle characterization and a terrifically clever court scene that ties up all loose ends. Ideals of love, redemption, friendship and forgiveness permeate the story.
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: Key is writing about one very unusual child in one very unusual situation. Good luck explaining that to friends and relatives who read this book and panic all over again about your decision to homeschool.
Category: Oceanic-adventure unschooling
Summary: Nim Rusoe lives with her scientist father Jack on a secret island. They have all the technology they need to make them happy and keep them in touch with the rest of the world as much as necessary (Jack sells the occasional article electronically and orders in supplies once a year). When Jack goes off to collect plankton for a few days, Nim decides to stay home with the animals — a sea lion named Selkie and an iguana named Fred. Adventures include Nim rescuing a famous writer and surviving a volcanic eruption.
Conclusion: When your paradise-island-dwelling father wonders if he's being selfish in depriving you of a "normal" life, inform him that he's out of his mind and stay on the awesome island.
Rating as a novel: Lots of fun for all ages.
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: Ditto.
Category: Homeschooling on the high seas
Summary: Sequel that seems to have been written in order to give Nim the chance to have adventures in the so-called real world. Perfectly all right, but lacks the enchantment of the first book.
Conclusion: Flying away from an island paradise (and possible romance with island hottie) just because a preteen girl has a minor hissy fit is a bad decision.
Rating as a novel: Not bad.
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: Ditto, though could have done without the obligatory homeschooler-has-never-watched-TV-before scene.
Category: Homeschooling, presumed dead
Summary: After they lose their jobs, eleven-year-old Michael's parents decide to live a dream and sail around the world (with Michael, of course). All goes well, until one night Michael is blown off the boat and missing-assumed-dead by everyone but his mother, who presses on in search of him. She finds him, months later — months he has spent living an island life that is in many ways beautiful and valuable, but haunted by the forced separation from his family and the knowledge that they must think he drowned.
Conclusion: Homeschooling is a thrilling adventure that might kill you.
Rating as a novel: Very good.
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: See conclusion, plus ask oneself why such a comparatively high percentage of novels with homeschooled protagonists are about families at sea when so comparatively few of us actually live that way. Ordinary school kids get to read about ordinary school kids in books; why don't ordinary homeschoolers?
Category: Homeschooling that follows every possible stereotype, even the ones that don't actually go together
Summary: Peter and his family meet some long-lost cousins who stage a home invasion disguised as a family visit. The cousins homeschool, which means that the children: have no friends ("Our girls are lucky to have each other," their mother chirps when asked about her kids' social lives); have no social skills (the twin daughters tend to burst into songs about the moon, the stars, and love; the younger brother bites and licks people); have never seen a TV; are hypnotized when they do see one (and this includes the parents, by the way, who marvel at the wonders of the Weather Channel and reruns of I Love Lucy); and aren't allowed to listen to pop music, go on sleepovers, read "series" books, or go trick-or-treating (because all that candy is bad for your teeth — though the father is always running around ordering hot fudge sundaes for the whole family).
What really makes Double Fudge a snarling howling nightmare is the scene in which the homeschooling mother — who is both an uber leftist and completely cowed and dominated by her husband — says to the homeschooling father (who has reservations about the girls going to college, since he's heard they have coed dorms now), "You know, Howie... maybe it's not a bad idea to give our girls just an itsy-bitsy taste of freedom." The ellipses are in the original, in case you were wondering if I cut out the magic words that would somehow make that sentence less scream-inducing. Nope. Homeschooling equals-sign-with-a-line-through-it freedom.
Conclusion: Oh, those wacky homeschoolers!
Rating as a novel: Right — like I'm going to be able to give this one an unbiased grade.
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: What are you, blind?
Category: Homeschooler needs to go to "real" school in order to learn important lessons
Summary: From page 5: "I used to be homeschooled until two years ago. But I go to regular school now. Mother thought I needed to be around other kids. She said she didn't like how grown-up and stuck-up I was acting. Only, I can't help it if I'm cute and smarter than most kids my age."
Conclusion: Good to know that our legal battles to educate our children as we see fit and struggles for social acceptance are taken by at least one author as nothing but a shorthand method of signaling to the reader just how obnoxious a character is. I mean, she's not just spoiled — she's homeschooled.
Rating as a novel: You really think that I'd spend my limited time on this planet reading past that paragraph?
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: Duh.
Category: Homeschooling that may not even be legal, but let's call it homeschooling anyway
Summary: Joey Pigza's mother decides he'd be better off "in a homeschooling situation," as she puts it. Not that she'll be teaching him herself — she's too busy being a hairdresser and getting into screaming-and-hitting matches with her ex, Joey's dad. Joey is sent to a neighbor, Mrs. Lapp, though the legality of doing this in Massachusetts is shaky at best. Mrs. Lapp asks Joey "What would Jesus do?" every time he (Joey) knocks at her door. Joey is being homeschooled along with Mrs. Lapp's daughter, Olivia, who is blind and bitterly unhappy about being homeschooled, as is Joey. Happy ending: both Joey and Olivia end up getting to go to school after all.
Conclusion: Isn't it awful when parents deprive their children of school?
Rating as a novel: Surprisingly good, and very moving at times (especially regarding Joey's grandmother).
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: Oh, come on.
Category: Cool and groovy unschooling
Summary: Bad boy Jake Semple is sent to be homeschooled by the Applewhites, a family so artistic and creative that they can't keep track of little things like the date or whether or not there's any food in the house. His protective layer of surliness is peeled away bit by bit as his hidden talents are uncovered. Meanwhile, the only one of the Applewhite clan who craves organization and structure ends up finally having her talents appreciated by the rest of the family.
Conclusion: If I ever walk into a homeschooler's house and see a sign that reads, "Education is an adventurous quest for the meaning of life, involving an ability to think things through," I'll be too busy dry-heaving to take said sign down and feed it to its author, much as I'd like to.
Rating as a novel: Fun, if you don't mind the fact that the songs from The Sound of Music will be going through your head for days after you finish reading.
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: Fun, but I'd like someone who knows these things to tell me just how much ballet dancing an unschooler without a trained teacher can actually do on her own without inflicting serious damage on her own body.
Category: Cool and groovy eclectic semi-unschooling
Summary: Basically Junie B. Jones with a serious case of twee goes to school, hates it, is homeschooled instead, and has to go back to school when her mother gets cancer. Learns that school is not so bad, at least if you have a nice teacher.
Conclusion: When homeschoolers talk to the trees, the trees talk back.
Rating as a novel: The writing leaves no middle ground for the reader. You will either love this book so much you want to marry it, or use it to fuel your next barbecue.
Rating as a book about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: See all of the above. Also, young homeschoolers may find the premise unnerving.
Category: Please excuse my child from school. She has magical powers.
Summary: Piper McCloud can fly. She was just born that way. Worried about what the neighbors will think if they find out, the McCloud parents homeschool her and keep her away from the other children in their small rural town. In spite of strict instructions never to use her powers, Piper's secret gets out and she is taken away to what's supposed to be a school for special kids like her. Willing, obedient, and desperate to be loved, Piper learns with deep reluctance that although freedom doesn't always bring happiness, happiness is impossible without freedom.
Conclusion: No one — not even a kid with extra-natural powers who's been homeschooled in a tiny farm town all her life — has ever said, "Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit!" Someone should explain this to Victoria Forester.
Rating as a novel: Good.
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: Although continuing strong in the "homeschoolers are weirdos" theme, at least we're good weirdos this time. Also, Piper spends the early pages in the novel longing to go to school with the rest of the kids in town, but at the end of the book she's offered that chance and turns it down. For once, homeschooling = freedom.
Category: Please excuse my child from school. He has latent mystical powers.
Summary: Carter Kane is homeschooled — "if you can call it ‘home' schooling when you don't have a home." Carter spends his life traveling to various dig sites with his archaeologist father, until the supernatural bursts into his life and Carter and his sister have to use their newfound powers to resolve an ancient Egyptian conflict.
Conclusion: Apparently, if you take your children around the world showing them amazing stuff most people only get to read about, they'll gripe just as much as they would if you sat around in the boondocks all day being boring.
Rating as a novel: Good adventure novel — a quick read with plenty of humor.
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: The narration about how Carter's father "sort of" taught Carter "whatever he thought was important," which meant that Carter's education consisted of Egyptology, basketball stats, and "dad's favorite musicians" sounds too much like the stuff we hear from people who worry about unregulated homeschoolers — how do we know they're not just going to teach their kids Rolling Stones' lyrics all day? (That's an actual quote from an actual anti-homeschooler, by the way.) And Carter stresses that because he doesn't go to school, he doesn't have friends. Somebody should send him the news that plenty of kids who do go to school don't have friends, either. And plenty of homeschoolers have plenty of friends — but maybe that's too revolutionary a concept.
Category: Please excuse my child from school. I'm a vampire, and she might be one, too.
Summary: See above.
Conclusion: Be nice to homeschoolers. Or we'll bite you in the neck.
Rating as a novel: Beyond awesome. I already have the sequels on order, since my library is stupid enough not to carry them. If Twilight left you unimpressed, grab this book. If you liked Twilight, grab this book to see what a really good vampire novel looks like.
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: Well, the civilians think we're weird anyway. Might as well really scare them while we're at it.
Category: It's 1906 and I'm a girl, so people won't notice much if my parents keep forgetting to send me back to school.
Summary: Theodosia's mother is an archaeologist; her father is the head curator of the Museum of Legends and Antiquities. What with one parent being off on digs in Egypt much of the time and one perpetually distracted and irritated by work, it's easy for eleven-year-old Theodosia to lie low and keep from being sent back to school — a "horribly dull and boring" place. Quite aside from protecting herself from the evils of school, though, Theodosia's presence at home protects her innocent parents from a more literal evil. Some of the artifacts the museum receives (or her mother brings back from Egypt) are saturated with a sinister energy only Theodosia's special powers can detect. Through constant study and work, she's learned how to nullify curses and measure the depth of evil involved. When her mother comes home from her latest dig bearing an artifact called The Heart of Egypt, Theodosia really has her hands full, but finds allies (and enemies) in surprising places.
Conclusion: Keep your daughter home from school — the world you save may be your own.
Rating as a novel: Terrific for kids and grownups alike.
Rating as a novel about homeschooling: See above, and also a testament to the value of independent education and child-led learning.
Category: I'm not a homeschooler — I just need a cover story.
Summary: Cammie Morgan is a typical teenager, other than the fact that she's a super-genius who goes to an all-girl spy school. On her first surveillance mission, she's pretending to be a nice normal girl out for a nice normal night of fun at the carnival, when a nice normal boy looking for same decides she's cute. She's not allowed to say where she really goes to school — and after all, her mother is headmistress of the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women — so posing as a homeschooler seems like the best way to go. Until, of course, this random encounter develops into something like a real relationship and Cammie has to wonder how long she can keep lying.
Conclusion: Finally — a school so weird it makes homeschooling look normal in comparison.
Rating as a novel: Terrifically funny without being forced, and a plot that's much more than just the gimmick it could have been. Highly recommended.
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: Realistic. Cammie's recon device is disguised to look like a cross necklace, so she goes along with Josh's assumption that she's homeschooled for religious reasons. One of his friends asks if she realizes how weird homeschooling is; another, a girl who likes the same boy Cammie does, says she thinks homeschooling is "really nice." Josh himself thinks it sounds "cool." This isn't really a novel about homeschooling, but it was interesting to see that at least we're mainstream enough that none of the characters are surprised or baffled by the idea of homeschooling.
Category: Please excuse my children from school. I'm a religious nutjob.
Summary: Teenaged Marina has always been a churchgoing Christian, but then her mother joins a charismatic-leader sect and her life changes drastically. First they're pulled out of school. Then there's no television (here we go again), no caffeine, and no friends unless they're religious. Finally, the leader of their church decides that the world will end on a certain day in the not-so-distant future, and the true believers must flee to a mountaintop in order to be saved.
Conclusion: Homeschoolers are really, really, really nuts.
Rating as a novel: A fast, compelling read.
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: Hateable on every possible level. Stereotype city. Even the fact that Marina has plenty of friends after they start homeschooling is creepy, since she's only "allowed" to be friends with other homeschoolers (and we all know how awful that must be). And of course part of the happy ending is that Marina is "allowed" to go to school again. Whee.
Category: Please excuse my descendant from school. I never got over the ‘60s.
Summary: Capricorn Anderson must attend public school when his grandmother and homeschooling guardian is injured and unable to take care of him for a few months. Cap is so naïve, he doesn't understand how relentlessly unpopular he is — at first. But eventually he becomes the school leader in every sense of the word. He teaches by example to give selflessly and live to help others, but is betrayed by a friend into dressing up as a member of another school's football team and being tackled simultaneously by every member of his own school's team. Might have been okay, but shortly afterward, Cap puts himself in front of an incoming fist in an effort to help his fellow students understand that violence never solves anything. Is seen being driven away in an ambulance. When students are told that Cap won't be returning to school — ever — they decide he must have been killed. He returns in the midst of a candlelight vigil the students decide to hold for him, and assures them that he isn't dead at all. Oh, and during his time on earth — I mean, at school — Capricorn manages to learn the name of every single one of his eleven hundred fellow students.
Conclusion: Homeschoolers are Jesus.
Rating as a novel: Fast and funny. Innovative combination of multiple perspectives with first-person narrators (the title of each chapter is the name of whoever's telling the story at the moment).
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: A bloodbath. The only thing more depressing than so many stereotypes under one cover is the fact that Korman apparently doesn't realize that these are widely held stereotypes about homeschoolers (he said as much in a letter to Adam and Lizzie Chesak, two frequent contributors to this magazine). Since his research didn't turn this up, let's let him know now: yes, people really do think of homeschoolers as a homogenous group, and according to mainstream ideas, the members of that group don't watch (or have) TV, don't have friends, dress funny, have only a passing acquaintance with the real world, do phenomenally well on standardized tests, and have no social skills. Yes, Mr. Korman, you were writing about just one person, rather than about homeschooling in general. Might have helped if everything you wrote about that one person who just happens to be homeschooled didn't just happen to fit so beautifully with the stereotypes people already have about every homeschooler in the world.
Category: Hippie-dippy homeschooling from another planet.
Summary: Stargirl, a homeschooler, decides to enroll in Mica Area High School. "I wanted to make friends," she says. Doesn't work, in spite of all her efforts. She gives little gifts to everyone. She has learned the names and birthdays of all the other students, and sings "Happy Birthday" to each student whose birthday it happens to be. First the kids are fascinated, then admiring, and finally repelled by her — she's just too nice. The pet rat is cute, and the hippie clothing is okay, but when she becomes a cheerleader and starts cheering for everyone instead of just her school's team, she goes too far. She falls in love with the narrator and tries to be conventional and boring because that's what he wants. Can't keep it up. Climax of the book is when she goes to the big dance alone, leads an ecstatic bunny hop, and when slapped by the gorgeous popular girl, responds with a kiss on her cheek. Leaves town next day, never comes back, but is a legendary figure in this desert town forevermore.
Conclusion: Homeschoolers are Jesus, if Jesus were a Buddhist.
Rating as a novel: Depends on how high your tolerance is for this kind of prose poetry: "She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow. She was the faintest scent of a cactus flower, the flitting shadow of an elf owl."
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: Shoot me now. Makes Korman look positively restrained in the stereotype department. "In her answers in class, she often spoke of sea horses and stars, but she did not know what a football was. She said there was no television in her house." (See, Mr. Korman?) Stargirl is of an age to be a sophomore in high school, but doesn't have a single friend other than her pet rat. Her clothes are so outlandish that "'normal' for her were long, floor-brushing pioneer dresses and skirts." (See, Mr. Korman?) Spinelli would undoubtedly argue that he's writing about one magical person rather than homeschoolers or homeschooling. Well, okay. I mean, most people know plenty of homeschoolers and certainly don't tend to lump us all together based on what they heard somewhere, or are afraid must be true about homeschooling, since it could be. Stargirl is obviously a fantasy — just compare it to all those straightforward novels about ordinary homeschoolers. Oh. Wait.
Category: Still more hippie-dippy homeschooling.
Summary: Stargirl's story picks up where it left off in this series of letters to the guy she left behind in Arizona.
Conclusion: Turns out, even homeschooled teenagers write poetry with lines like, "Can forever have a now?"
Rating as a novel: Far more bearable than the first book, though you'll still need to keep your bad-poetry galoshes close at hand.
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: Never mind stereotypes. If you're going to write about American homeschoolers, could you at least do ten minutes of research and get the legal stuff right? Do not talk about a homeschooler needing extra help from a wise grownup friend "when the State of Arizona came testing." The State of Arizona does NOT come testing, at least not for homeschoolers.
Also, homeschoolers generally don't run around saying things like "even homeschoolers have Saturdays off." Especially when the homeschooler in question is a hippie-dippy sort whose "school" day is often something like this: "My mother sends me to a small area in town where my assignment is to hang out for the day and then write a poem about my experience there." Yeah, she'd definitely need to rest up for a couple of days after a week like that.
Category: Real live actual unidealized unstereotypical homeschooling.
Summary: Michael's going through a rough patch in this first-person narrative. He and his family have just moved into a house that needs a lot of work and already has a strange and rather alarming occupant that only Michael seems aware of — assuming this creature exists at all. His baby sister was born too early, is frail and sickly, and soon has to go back to the hospital. His next-door neighbor, a sharp-tongued, sharp-minded homeschooled girl named Mina, helps him see things clearly and sort things out. What's wonderful is that Mina not only isn't a stereotype, she isn't perfect or otherworldly — she's a real person, she goes too far sometimes, and her relationship with Michael is a realistic give-and-take friendship. Together they sort out the beautiful secret haunting Michael's new home.
Conclusion: Magic grabs science by the wings and takes the reader on a fantastic flight.
Rating as a novel: Perfect.
Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: Perfect.
The title of this article was inspired by a book we carried at the feminist bookstore I worked at years ago: All the Women are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies. Customers and clerks alike always giggled when someone requested this book — its title was such a mouthful. I admired the writing, and loved the editors' insistence on a title that would make readers think before they read so much as the first page.
At the time I worked at this bookstore, the movie Basic Instinct was released. Initially, I couldn't understand the controversy. Yes, gay and bisexual characters were bad guys — but so were straights, and anyway, that didn't mean that the writers or anyone else thought that any of the characters were supposed to be representative of any group. When I voiced this opinion, I was correctly informed that this was just the latest example of the mainstream hauling out gay and bisexual women as creepy, mysterious villains — fascinating people who weren't to be trusted. TV and movies never portrayed them in any other way (this was true at the time), and they were sick of it.
Homeschoolers are in roughly the same position, so far as media representation is concerned. Most people don't have any personal experience with homeschooling, and many of the people who do never learned that you're not supposed to draw conclusions about an entire group from a teensy sampling. In fact, if memory serves, you're not supposed to make broad sweeping generalizations about an entire group at all. But that's what people do, and believe me, those sustained stereotypes are doing damage. Only recently, someone posted a comment on an article about homeschooling. She mentioned that she has met some homeschoolers, and we all have the patience and attention span of toddlers.
Just one person's admittedly misguided opinion? Maybe. Except that this person works at a college. In the admissions department.
It may not be the responsibility of individual writers to teach the world what homeschooling and homeschoolers are really like. But writers need to understand that every time they write about homeschoolers, they're either reinforcing stereotypes or fighting them. When they reinforce them, they hurt us. It's that simple.
Maybe by the time our kids are old enough to homeschool their kids, there will be a plethora of novels for them to read about ordinary, believable homeschoolers. For now, the sad fact remains that we don't make it into print unless the writer really needs a weirdo.