Finally! Self-published books that rock

Each day I receive one or two books from authors and publishers. I want to tell you I give most of them away, but most of them are terrible. In a lot of cases even our local library will not take them.

A lot of career books I receive are self-published. I used to take a look at every self-published book that came to my front door. I stopped because every book sucked.

So I stopped getting the self-published books about business and careers. And I started publishing photos of my garden, hoping people would send me gardening books.

But soon after that I started writing about homeschooling, and the education books came pouring in. Most of those books from mainstream publishers dance on the edge of homeschooling without crossing the line. For example, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, by Ken Robinson. (Kids find their passion out of school, not in school, but he doesn’t tell anyone to homeschool.) Or How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough. (School teaches sticking to a curriculum and getting the right answers, both the opposite of grit and curiosity, but he doesn’t tell anyone to leave school.)

I grew frustrated with how every education reform book made a great argument for homeschooling but stopped short of recommending it. So I started skimming the self-published homeschooling books. And guess what? Some of them are great. By far the most honest, genuine and helpful books on education reform are self-published books on homeschooling. Because those are the books that present real solutions rather than just the problems.

Here are three that I really enjoyed:

Rise Above School, by Jeffrey Till

This book is a guide to making the decision to homeschool. Till makes an interesting distinction between intellectually knowing that there are better ways to spend childhood than in school and conquering the emotions that prevent you from taking your kids out.

He talks about having empathy for children and he writes a lovely chapter about the turning point in his own heart: “I realized that we had to homeschool because there was no way I would send myself to school understanding what I knew about school. If faced with the choice, I wouldn’t make myself unhappy, I wouldn’t waste my time, I wouldn’t put myself through the torture of school. With any empathy, how dare I send my children? How dare I treat them in a way that I wouldn’t treat myself?”

Hill deftly lays out the reasons why school doesn’t work. But increasingly I’m talking with parents who know the data about how bad schools are, but they still can’t get themselves to take the next step. It seems too scary. That’s an emotional barrier that needs to be met with an emotional answer to why homeschool, and this books provides that.

The Working Parent’s Guide to Homeschooling, by Robyn Dolan

Dolan is not just a working parent. She’s also a single parent. She gets child support, but not enough to cover family expenses. Still, she takes her kids out of school because there’s nothing else that works. (She tries a charter school that is terrible — not surprising.)

The book goes step by step through Dolan’s initial approach (homeschool recreates regular school) to her decision to jettison that plan for a more unschooling approach. She is honest about her missteps, making her story relatable to all parents, not just single parents or dual-career parents.

I have always thought that the best way to have a career and homeschool your kids is to move away from curriculum. The kids are happier and easier to manage if they are doing what they like to do, and the parents feel success sooner, both in career (there’s more time for that) and homeschooling (kids thrive when they do what they want to do). Dolan shows how this transformation happens and I really like that she shows, at the same time, that homeschooling is possible for a single, working parent.

Radical Homemakers, Shannon Hayes

In the 1970s defining one’s work in terms of being a wife was not cool. “Homemaker” was the solution. As a kid I saw the world this way: every time I filled out a form that asked for my parents’ professions, I was lucky to say my mom was an executive. Homemaker is what kids put in the form when their mom did nothing.

Today I have a more mature view of stay-at-home moms, but I confess that I still think of “homemaker” as a desperate attempt to feel meaningful.

Until I read this book. The book blew me away in terms of how differently Hayes sees taking care of a home and a family. It includes homeschooling, of course. But by after the first ten pages I felt totally out of date as to how I saw the homemaker role. She paints a visionary, new and shockingly logical picture of what the role can be.

And I think that is why the self-published books on homeschooling are so exciting: they are at the forefront of new thinking. Too new to be mainstream enough for a big publisher. But those are the most exciting ideas, and among these three books, there is at least one, new, exciting way to see the world for everyone.


18 replies
  1. Jessica from Down Under
    Jessica from Down Under says:

    Thanks, Penelope! I’m always on the lookout for good book to read and inspire me…I’ll check these out!

  2. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    Huh. I had no idea Radical Homemakers was self-published. I read it years ago, because I saw it on a library endcap and it looked interesting. I ended up really liking it and recommending it to friends. I’m going to check out the other two.

    (I also thought it was ridiculous that Robinson didn’t mention homeschooling. Have you heard of his new book? It’s called Creative Schools, and it’s basically all about a mix between unschooling independent/democratic schools, but those are SO few and far between location-wise, I don’t see them as a viable option. Homeschooling is location-independent. Feels like a second facepalm for Sir Ken.)
    Sarah M

    • Julia
      Julia says:

      You have to consider that the vast majority of parents just aren’t going to homeschool, whether you like it or not. Robinson writes about reforming education for an audience that is never going to even want to replace school with homeschool. There is a reason that his books are published by Penguin and even the best books on homeschooling are self published. So it’s not a facepalm, it’s obvious market forces at work.

      • Sarah M
        Sarah M says:

        You’re right, I agree that most parents won’t homeschool their kids and there are ‘obvious market forces at work’, but to advertise democratic schools and not even mention the *option* of homeschooling-that’s the facepalm.

        I disagree with this statement, “[he] writes about reforming education for an audience that is never going to even want to replace school with homeschool.” Actually, that’s exactly what democratic schools are-it’s homeschooling with teachers who follow the student’s lead, which is, more or less, what homeschooling is.

        The amount of kids who go to democratic/ecclectic schools is minute compared to homeschoolers, and the people who are taking their kids out of traditional school to homeschool (statistically) have high education levels and read a lot of books…to not mention it is an oversight on his part.

        • Julia
          Julia says:

          It has nothing to do with the philosophy or educational approach though. The vast majority of parents do not want their children at home all day and do not want to be their child’s primary educator. Democratic and eclectic schools are appealing to parents who want to reform education but still keep their children in school, even if they don’t actually send their children to democratic schools.

          • Julia
            Julia says:

            Sorry, should have finished my thought before posting. The other consideration is that probably a huge portion of his audience is teachers, or more likely, students training to be teachers. Another audience that dwarfs the homeschool crowd and doesn’t want to read about homeschooling.

          • Julia
            Julia says:

            And one more… All that aside, Robinson is a prolific author and if he hasn’t written about homeschool yet, it may well be forthcoming.

  3. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Even though it’s been 20 years since I was an editor in a publishing company, it’s amazing how many wannabe authors there are out there who, when they find out about that part of my career, ask me for advice on how to get chosen by a publishing company.

    I tell them all to forget the publishing company and self publish. But first, use social media to find an audience. If I were doing it I’d blog and link my blog to a Facebook page, and promote the crap out of it. And I’d stay wicked focused on topic, and come across as an authority. Try to drive/hope like heck for shares to reach more people. And when you get an audience, self-publish and promote through that channel.

    This is going to be hard as hell. But I think it’s at least equally hard to get the attention of a publisher when you’re essentially a nobody.

    The publishing company I worked for had A, B, and C titles. The A titles were always written by the well-known authors, and got 80% of the marketing budget. The Bs and Cs had to fight it out for the rest. Frankly, we printed just 10,000 copies of those and felt like we’d won if we sold through the print run. Which didn’t always happen.

    If you can show up at a publisher’s door with a built-in audience thanks to social media, and the ability to show you’ve already sold 10,000 copies of a self-published book, you’re going to get their attention.

    Again: very hard. But possible. And probably easier than getting a publisher’s attention when you don’t have a name.

    What I learned from my time in publishing is that the publisher doesn’t care what’s printed on your book’s pages as long as it sells through the print run. It’s much the same as when I worked in radio: my boss once told me, “If pigs oinking got better ratings than the music we play, I’d program the pigs 24/7.”

  4. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    There seems enough space for both to happen; a dramatic increase in homeschooling and a complete reinvention of public schools. Hopefully both things do happen.

  5. Jennifer McCormack
    Jennifer McCormack says:

    Librarian here chiming in to say that if they are terrible books why would you offer them to a library? We are in the business of developing good collections for our customers!

  6. Caitlin Timothy
    Caitlin Timothy says:

    Thanks for the suggestion, Penelope!

    I never thought about how useful ideas about education would definitely *not* come through mainstream publishers- that’s such a good point.

  7. Cáit
    Cáit says:

    I was thinking something about unschoolers. They often write warmly about the possibility of schools that use their educational philosophy but are usually critical of workbook and textbook homeschoolers.
    I was wondering which point they identify as more critical in their approach: delight directed learning or the home environment over institution? It seems the former by what they *say* but I’m not sure that is where the biggest difference really is between them and public schools. I say this as a workbook homeschooler making an observation.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think you may be describing two different types of authors writing about education – education reformists and education activists. The education reformists will, as you say, identify the problems in the education system and recommend changes to it usually without offering specific steps to significantly alter it. The education activists are willing to recommend more substantial and disruptive changes to the way education is delivered with specific instructions included. I’m glad that both types of authors are publishing both by mainstream and self publishing.

  9. Sarah Holm Norton
    Sarah Holm Norton says:

    I was incredibly unhappy with my life as an at-home parent until I read “Radical Homemakers”. You could never confuse me with any sort of activist (unless the act of simply living differently than those around you is activism), but it helped me understand what I was doing had more value than I had given it.

  10. jessica
    jessica says:

    By coincidence, I just finished Paul’s book. He in fact did leave school his first semester of Columbia, and then jumped around doing other random things before taking an internship and then quitting his job at NYT to write the book for three years, which happened to be the same first three years of his own infants life. All this to say he finds himself wondering throughout the book the same things you do- what does it meant to quit or fail, how much does character matter (a lot), and thus how does and can the education system influence and help build character over IQ?
    I found the book hard to digest as he covers a multitude of studies in a bit of slapstick fashion, but what I appreciated was his in depth coverage of the few reformers that question what they are in the process of doing and develop new strategies based on research (at times even, they find the research was focused on the wrong outcomes such as IQ over character qualities). He focuses on poverty, and then has a couple paragraphs on the Ivy track (and how that can be detrimental to those who feel they can’t and should not fail- meaning don’t try).
    I can’t seem to find his thoughts on homeschooling, even though he does have a book called Helping Children Succeed. He seems to deflect all questions there.

  11. Ellen Hawkins
    Ellen Hawkins says:

    Unless I am mistaken, isn’t Ken Robinson’s primary audience people who work for the traditional schooling establishment? Yes, he speaks at Ted Talks which can be viewed by anyone online. He’s a good communicator, but he’s talking about problems everyone already knows exists. Nothing new there. Has he ever spent time engaging (not one-way talking to) the families that have made the shift away from traditional schooling? He puts a good face on the school-reform supportive group, but I’ve never heard him bring up anything like the “independently flex-learning” life such as what we do. How can kids have time or energy to find passion during nonschool hours during the school year? A few kids manage to find a passion in school sports, arts, etc, but doesn’t the word “passion” imply that it is the priority, focus, primary devotion? It’s pretty hard to achieve that when kids don’t have any input into how the best hours of their day is spent. (I’m going to read Robinson’s book, though, out of personal interest.). This all make me very glad that yesterday I spent the “school day” biking up a high mesa plateau with my 15 year old daughter doing what she is passionate about, pushing her self-knowledge of what she can do out in a place of magnificent beauty, followed by a reward of tubing down a mountain river. Everyday isn’t like that; but she has the freedom to choose it when she wants to, and I’m happy to spend it with her.

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