Confession: I’m a Millennial who’s addicted to her phone.
I knew it would happen. I put up a good fight. I held on to my flip phone for as long as humanly possible. I held on for so long, in fact, that my friends all mocked me for being a Luddite. But I knew that once I got a Smartphone, it would be near-impossible to deny the siren’s song of social media, constant scrolling, and group texts. And I didn’t want to be that person. I didn’t want to crash my ship. It helped to have technological barriers that couldn’t be transcended. My flip phone (despite not having a headphone jack) was the metaphorical wax in my ears. But when it died, I gave in. I got a Smartphone. As it turns out, I wasn’t wrong. Know thyself. The scrolling began and has rarely paused. I commandeered my ship not into a swirling vortex but right into a Facebook Wall. Mark Zuckerberg bared his sharp teeth and pulled me down into the depths.
The pandemic has not helped matters.
This past year, the lines between work (or school) and home have been considerably and consistently blurred. Though I’ve loved the days of the week when I’m scheduled to work from home with my feet nestled snugly in a pair of cozy bunny slippers, creating a healthy work-life balance & knowing when to “turn off” has been a struggle. I’m a completionist who finds it hard to stop working (especially if I’m deep into a project) just because the clock reads 5pm. This means that I’ve spent a lot of time at home staring at screens.
But it hasn’t been all business. Some of it has been...if not pleasure, exactly, then at least sanity-saving. Our phones have helped us to stay connected when we felt (& were!) distanced and socially-isolated. But all of this has made it that much harder to put them down.
Don’t judge me too harshly. I’m not just a Millennial with a phone glued to her palm. I’m also a person who loves nature, and wonder, and the world. I love books and long stretches of becoming fully immersed in a story. I love my husband and my pet house rabbit, and I know that all of these loves are far more deserving of my time and attention than whatever’s going down on Instagram. I know that I should be looking at the blossoming buds on trees and at my loved ones’ faces; I shouldn’t be so distracted. Honestly, I’ve been feeling a lot of guilt about this lately. Maybe you’re reading this and acknowledging that you’ve felt similarly.
I’m thrilled to have a week specifically earmarked for rededicating myself to the things and people that I want to fill my days & shape who I am. I’m looking forward to moments spent with intentionality and mindfulness instead of screens. The pandemic has, in some new ways, gifted us with time (though I’m not blind to the fact that, in different ways, it’s also taken it away). As this time winds down and we begin to conceive of our return to the more harried pace of “normal” life, I don’t want to waste a moment.
Should I need an excuse to reclaim my time? No. But I’m grateful for one. And I hope it sticks.
Of course, I’ll still be using screens. I need them for work (as I’m sure many of you do, too). But I’m hoping to look down less and look up more.
As the poet Mary Oliver writes, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” If, like me, you’re eagerly anticipating this coming week as a way to shift your attention -- & you’re hoping to repledge some of that devotion to books and to a quiet, sustained focus on them, I have a few recommendations.
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Nezhukumatathil normally writes poetry and you can tell. She is eloquent, fierce, and gentle, and her words will help you open your eyes to the beauty that surrounds you. Each essay is dedicated to a specific example of flora or fauna, from the peacock to the corpse flower, many of them conjuring up feelings of nostalgia for simpler times. The essays are accompanied by gorgeous watercolor illustrations by Fumi Nakamura. The collection begins and ends with fireflies; you’ll treasure each glowing moment that you spend reading.
Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver, a long-time resident of Provincetown, Massachusetts, who passed away recently in 2019, moved at a slow pace and she noticed everything. This book is perfect for dipping in and out of and for changing the way you move through the world (even if only for a week). The following passage is indicative of her writing. She reflects,
“With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness.”
Read this book. And stick your nose in some violets.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, also worked (anonymously, for a long time) as an advice columnist. This book compiles letters written to her and her wise -- & oftentimes witty & blunt! -- responses. While many of the books on this list focus on nature, this one focuses largely on people and how important these connections are for a well-lived life.
Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin
Nina MacLaughlin was a successful journalist, writing for The Boston Phoenix, until it suddenly dawned on her that she was sick of staring at screens and that she wanted to work with something tangible and real. She abruptly quit her job and, with no experience and a lot of luck, began working for another woman as a carpenter’s assistant. There are literary references aplenty in this fascinating story of professional and personal growth and change, as well as reflections on gender and sexual politics. After reading it, I still wouldn’t be able to identify nor hand someone a Phillips-Head Screwdriver, if asked, but it’s a satisfying and unique read.
The Humans by Matt Haig
Matt Haig’s newest book, The Midnight Library, has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for 21 weeks. But my favorite book of his is The Humans, published back in 2013. Haig has always struggled with mental health, which makes his ruminations on what makes life worth living all the more impactful. While I’ll freely admit that the premise of this one (aliens) may not be for everyone, I hope you’ll give it a shot. You’ll come away feeling endlessly grateful for family, friends, love, dogs, peanut butter, and white wine.
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
This is a bonus pick because I haven’t actually read it (whoops). It’s been on my “TBR” (to-be-read) list forever, though, and this is the perfect week for it! Plus, the cover design is full of vivid, floral blooms and undeniable Springtime appeal.
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
This pandemic, many of us have taken to cooking as a way to fill our time. Articles with titles like, “Why Everyone Is Baking Banana Bread Right Now” abound. Finding a new hobby to be passionate about is also a way to cut your screen-time. This vibrant, YA novel is full of that passion. It’s about a teen who isn’t going to let the circumstances of her life derail her dreams of going to culinary school. You’ll dream right along with her, smelling cinnamon the whole time.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (Adapted for Young Readers) by Trevor Noah
You may know Trevor Noah from the screen (he’s a comedian most famous for his work on The Daily Show) but he shines just as brightly on the page. This is a memoir not about his rise to fame but about his childhood growing up in South Africa. With a Black mother and a White father, Noah’s existence was literally illegal under apartheid (which wasn’t abolished until the 1990s). There’s knowledge to spare, here, and readers will learn so much. But somehow, it’s also utterly hilarious.
Nobody’s Secret by Michaela MacColl
National Poetry Month may be drawing to an end — but its spirit lives on! This is an historical fiction mystery featuring (poet) Emily Dickinson, in the role of girl-detective. It’s chockful of suspense, murder, and intrigue...and it’s set in the 1800’s. Talk about a lack of technology!
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
Beauty pageant contestants crash-land on a desert island where there’s absolutely no WiFi signal. Though they were meant to be fierce competitors, they have to forge alliances to survive. This book is fiercely feminist, with a strong message of anti-consumerism. Readers will laugh out loud and come out feeling strong and empowered.
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Maggie Stiefvater is one of my favorite YA authors and this is definitely in the running for my favorite of her books. You’ll forget all about your phone as you are transported to a fictional, Celtic setting: the Isle of Thisby. It’s all ocean; vicious, deadly, mythical horses; and magic.
Children's Picture Books
Bear Came Along by Richard T. Morris & LeUyen Pham
With a natural setting of the woods and a rushing river, this story humorously conveys, “We’re all in this together.” It’s an important message for 2020/1 and kids will love identifying all of the different animals who become friends in the course of their exciting, death-defying adventure!
The Digger and the Flower by Joseph Kuefler
A great one for construction-loving kiddos -- with an environmental message about the importance of protecting the world and all of its natural beauty.
Windows by Julia Denos & E.B. Goodale
Denos’s book would pair perfectly with a screen-free, family activity: a quiet, dusk-time walk around the neighborhood. The illustrations are the real star here: brightly illuminated windows in the near-dark infuse warmth onto every page.
Run Wild by David Covell
A stunning call to notice the world around you, this rhyming picture book begins, “Hey you! Sky’s blue!” A brilliant reminder to look up, look out, look in, and notice your feet pounding and your body breathing.
Tap the Magic Tree by Christie Matheson
An interactive experience for an engaged lap-sit read-aloud. Together, you & your child will make a tree grow and bloom, encouraging it to burst forth from the pages with simple movements & directions.
Never Smile At a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember by Steve Jenkins
All of Steve Jenkins’s books are fantastic but this is one of my favorites (second only to Actual Size). It’s about poisonous or dangerous animals (which often look unassuming, like the tiny blue-ringed octopus or the seemingly goofy platypus). The added element of danger thrills young readers who will shout aloud as they learn.
What Will Hatch? (& What Will Grow?) by Jennifer Ward & Susie Ghahremani
Another perfect spring-time read-aloud that engages readers by asking them to guess which animals will appear from humble beginnings.
You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey & Soyeon Kim
Blow your child’s mind with science -- and introduce the calming concept of mindfulness and breathwork at the same time.
To Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Doreen Rappaport & C.F. Payne
Teddy Roosevelt and his legacy of conservation is an excellent subject to learn about during Screen-Free Week! This is also one of the prettiest picture book biographies I’ve ever read. For other books along the same vein, check-out anything illustrated by Wendell Minor (especially Rachel: The Story of Rachel Carson).
Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews and Bryan Collier
Experience the joy of music and dance after reading Trombone Shorty, the Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King award-winning picture book biography about Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, a Grammy nominated musician who grew up in New Orleans. Take off your shoes, and get ready to groove and shake the house down! Nothing will take you out of your head like activities that place you firmly within your body.
Children’s Graphic Novels & Chapter Books
Narwhal, Unicorn of the Sea by Ben Clanton
Screens can’t work underwater! Narwhal loves reading, waffles, and the ocean, and if that isn’t the winningest combination of them all, I don’t know what is! These simple graphic novels are just a short step up from Mo Willems’s popular Elephant & Piggie series.
Laser Moose and Rabbit Boy by Doug Savage
Laser Moose and Rabbit Boy are the quintessential animal odd couple: Laser Moose always expects the worst and Rabbit Boy is all sunshine & roses (& carrots). This graphic novel is good for a lot of laughs -- and an undercover message about protecting the environment.
Surfside Girls: The Secret of Danger Point by Kim Dwinell
Along with a very pleasing color palette, this graphic novel offers up a ghost story (with an extremely light romance) and a pair of girls who believe that they can save their community (and the planet!) through friendship & science (specifically, in this case, marine biology).
Keeper by Kathi Appelt
A great choice as we near the Summer season, this is a mermaid book with plenty of heart! It’s all about acceptance and found family.
Pax by Sarah Pennypacker
A story about a boy and his pet fox that will tug on your heartstrings. The message here is about finding peace in turbulent times. How spot-on is that?
Be sure to request these titles as soon as you can, so your whole family will be ready to go Screen-Free in the week(s) ahead!
Happy Reading -- and Happy Being!