The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister – Review and Q&A with Author Linda Lodding

Ernestine Buckmeister is one busy girl.

She sculpts, does water ballet, knits, plays the tuba, yodels, studies karate, and practices yoga!  With classes every day of the week, she’s always running off to a class.  Her parents encourage her to “make every moment count” and “live life to the fullest”, and her Nanny keeps track of her very busy schedule and kit bags.

It’s no wonder that she’s exhausted, and regular readers will be entirely unsurprised to hear that what she really needs is more time to play.

Beautifully illustrated and charmingly written,The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister (Flashlight Press) is a funny, warm-hearted and insightful story about one child’s need and right to play – and how she cleverly educates the adults around her about the importance in play in everyday life.

Author Linda Lodding must be pretty busy herself, combining working for the UN with parenting, photographing, writing – and living in a town in the Netherlands which boasts its own windmill.  How cool is that?

She found time to answer a few questions, and for those who want to see more of Ernestine, there’s a trailer and more information on Linda’s website.

1. Did the impetus behind writing this book come from your own experiences as a parent, your professional work, or your conversations with other parents?

When my daughter was younger (she’s now 13), I think I would characterize my parenting style as a mix of Mary Poppins and Mrs. Buckmeister. So, yes, ashamedly, the impetus for this book came by holding up a mirror to my own family. But I have to say that what I saw in the mirror looked like a pretty common parenting style among my friends as well. We were all playing “Mommy Poker”: “my child is taking belly dancing, beginning Urdo and robotics. Well, my child is taking tambourine, advanced pet grooming, decoupage and aeronautics.” It wasn’t meant as malicious one-upmanship, but just reflected the reality of the way our generation tended to parent. Many of us were caught up in what we felt was the best way to encourage our children to be the best people that they could become. The irony, I later realized, is that just letting kids play helps foster imagination, emotional maturity and hones other important life-skills. If I could’ve signed my daughter up for a class with those sort of guarantees, I would’ve!

That’s not to say that after school lessons don’t have their place, (especially as our children get older), but they shouldn’t be at the expense of vital down time and pure play, for play’s sake. So, when my daughter’s African drumming teacher gently pulled me aside and told me that my 4 year-old was falling asleep in class, I knew that it was time to pull back. I didn’t want my child burning out before her kindergarten years were over. Fortunately, I saw the funny side of all this over-scheduling – and channeled that into “The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister”.

2. There seemed to be a theme of adults having to stand by what they say – such as her parents’ catchphrases of “live life to the fullest” and “make every moment count” – even as it becomes clear that they’ve each forgotten what that really means. How do you think this reflects the pressures that parents are under these days, in their lives as parents and as individuals?

Many of us are part of the “Nike generation” when their slogan “Just Do It!” became a rally cry for the way we were supposed to tackle the world. At the same time, the media bombarded women with the idea that they could “Just do it” all – have a successful career, a Martha Stewart-style home, the perfect family – and still be able to maintain a social life.

Today, however, I think many parents have realized that they can have it all – just not all at the same time. And – surprise of all surprises – sometimes what we have been chasing isn’t bringing us fulfillment. Trends toward simple and “slow” living have taken hold which I think is a good thing. Clearly the Buckmeisters have taken the “live life to the fullest” motto to the extreme and the book begs the question – how can poor Ernestine live life to the fullest if she never has time to play?

In “The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister”, it is Ernestine who helps her family reinterpret that “live life to the fullest” motto.

3. When Ernestine is becoming ‘pale’ it’s clear that her parents, despite their concern, don’t recognize the problem or the solution. You’ve made this moment very light (as her father suggests ‘face-painting classes’) but how does it suggest the very real situation of many children today?

For the purposes of humor, many elements in the book are exaggerated. But, to a certain extent, Ernestine’s situation probably reflect some family realities. Some children are so over-scheduled (cue in the ‘Tiger Mama’ debate) that they are burned out by the time they reach their ‘tween years.

My personal feeling, however, is that finding a balance is key: there’s no one parenting model or road map that suits every child. Some children can handle packed schedules and thrive on new challenges, others, with the same schedule, may feel stressed and anxious. I think part of parenting is to read those signs, make informed decisions and figure out what works best for the child.

4. The solution comes from Ernestine herself, her understanding of her own needs and her clever approach to getting it. She effectively ‘teaches’ her adults how to play and why it’s important. What benefits do you see when children are able to take the lead, both with their adults and in their own lives?

While it’s a picture book plot convention that the child character usually solves his or her own problem, it was very clear to me that particularly in this book Ernestine had to be the one who came up with a solution. One of the things that I think makes Ernestine likable is that she has spunk and ingenuity and isn’t afraid to speak her mind – yet she appreciates all that’s been offered to her and is respectful and loving towards her parents. I think it’s very empowering for a child to feel that he or she is being heard.

One of the unexpected joys of having our daughter was that it brought play back into our lives. We found that our daughter led us to the most joyful moments and those usually occurred when we didn’t have anything planned at all. She had certainly taught us how to “live life to the fullest.”

5. I loved the way you depicted the much-needed play that Ernestine finally gets, drawing on ordinary materials, the environment of a public park and passed-down skills such as daisy crowns (as well as her other lessons). Just like Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds, it demonstrates how our ‘ordinary’ world can reveal one of rich possibility through play. What simple, tangible ways do you see for people to help improve children’s opportunities for play?

Thanks, Morgan! And the books’ illustrator, Suzanne Beaky, did such a beautiful job with those colorful spreads. I just want to roll down that grassy hill with Ernestine and Nanny O’Dear! And I love the idea of Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds because they celebrate the idea of spontaneous play.

And I did want to show Ernestine playing in (and celebrating) the ordinary world around her – not relying entirely on toys and gadgets. I think many parents have experienced the irony of our children enjoying a toy’s packaging more than the toy itself. Kids are innately imaginative – they don’t see a box – they see a space capsule launching to Mars, they see a canoe heading down a jungle river, they see a kitchen worthy of a Master Chef! A few chairs and a blanket becomes a secret hide-away; a wrapping paper tube becomes a trumpet, a wizard’s wand, a Knight’s sword. That’s the beauty of play – it’s not dependent on buying anything, just re-imagining the world as given to us.

I’m not a child expert, just a writer and a Mom, but I think the number one thing we can give a child is time – and freedom – to play. Even if this only means one or two afternoons a week of unstructured activities. Many parents are afraid of hearing their kids say the dreaded words: “Mommy, I’m bored”…but out of boredom is born imagination. Maybe we can look at it as child+imagination+time = play.

The next thing we can do is get our children outside and moving. (Which, sometimes, has the added benefit of getting us adults outside and moving!). Organizations, such as KaBOOM! (US), are going to extraordinary lengths (and with much success) to ensure that every child has a playground within walking distance of where they live. Use these playgrounds!

Nickelodeon’s World Wide Day of Play is also focusing on the need to turn off the TV (their channel is going ‘black’ on Sept. 24th in honor of Play Day) and get outside and play. What better way to play than to be outdoors, co-mingling with nature and other children – and it’s free!

By now the benefits of play are well-documented – we just need to learn how to fold those life-lessons into our daily lives – something I’m trying to be mindful of. And when you get down to it, realizing that playing is good for our kids, and good for us, is good news. It’s like finding out that double-fudge brownies are, indeed, healthy!

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