New Fiction Inspired by John Holt's Writing about Learning

Books about homeschooling tend to be nonfiction and educational in tone, so it is a pleasure to see an increase in novels written by homeschoolers that add fresh perspectives and stories about homeschooling and family life. I’ll be writing about more fiction about unschoolers written by adults that I’ve read in coming weeks, but I want to call out these two novels because they share a common inspiration—John Holt’s writing.

Unschoolers is a dynamic, upbeat novel about how three women keep their local homeschooling support group afloat among its colorful cast of characters. The story unfolds in a mosaic fashion, using a variety of styles—live tweets, a homeschooler’s literary magazine, online invitations and forums—that add to the sense of how many different ways and people there are for us to learn and communicate with today. Unschoolers starts with the Home Learning Together (HoLT) Directory of Families, followed by an online news article that describes homeschooling and unschooling through interviews with some of the characters. Then we meet the many vivid characters and their daily hustles and bustles with their children. The tales and observations are told concisely, and the urban setting will be recognizable to many as the children are taken to various play dates, museums, classes, park days, and so on while the adults talk with one another while they hang out, or exercise, walk dogs, carry babies, work, cook, and gossip.

The characters are all at various stages in homeschooling, from highly experienced to newbie, and their personal concerns about their children are explored. Among the cast are Sam, a mother of two boys who stopped being a professional musician and is slowly getting back into music now that her boys are less demanding; Priscilla, who wants to explore homeschooling but whose husband is not into it; and Nasim, a homeschooling, fulltime dad.

The three main characters are the group’s organizers—Teresa, Pina, and Carmen—who are putting on the biggest HoLT potluck supper of the year. They are the veteran homeschoolers in the group, as this selection of the reflections of Teresa Ellstrom nicely shows.

“Homeschooling had been great for the kids, allowing them to pursue interests, play for hours on end, sleep late, have plenty of family time, and avoid arbitrary testing, amongst other things. But it had been equally amazing for her. It’s not like she stayed home and closeted herself with her kids. She had the freedom to arrange her life to please her, rather than school’s schedule. She had time to pursue her own interests, to put family first, and to make long-lasting friendships in this weird little boat of homeschoolers, riding the waves out here on the fringe. She had learned so much from her kids too, about trusting and respecting children.”

The authors don’t sugarcoat family life—strife is in the lives of children and adults in the book—but they don’t make it bleak either. The possibility, the hope that things can change is present and the characters, despite their flaws, all try to do their best by their children. I especially enjoyed how easily the children were worked into the stories and lives of the adults in the book. The book celebrates, in warm detail, a variety of family and individual rhythms that merge and culminate in events of learning, community, and the making and sharing of food. In addition to being a fun read, it is also a wonderful portrait of how a community can self-organize and grow through mutual and individual efforts.

The Paradise Project is a wry and funny novel inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The main character, the bookish Elizabeth Benning, is 32, “unmarried, unemployed, and living in the guest cottage behind her parent’s house.” She receives a Christmas gift from her mother, two books, The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin and Never Too Late by John Holt. From these titles she develops a resolution to move forward with her life: The Never Too Late Happiness Project.

Elizabeth’s devout family operated a now-closed local bookstore in their town, and they have deep ties to St. Albert’s, a Catholic liberal arts college in their town. Author Suzie Andres, a homeschooling mother, creates characters that echo their equivalents in Austen’s book but she makes them fresh. Their struggles are contemporary—one of the book’s themes is the disruption of the book business, and a scene about speed dating for single Catholics is memorable.

The book’s bright dialog reminds me of the classic movie screwball comedies. For instance, when Elizabeth tells her brother that she wants to try a month in a convent to see if she has a vocation, her brother replies, “Doesn’t make sense. Your resolution’s for happiness and you’d be miserable, plus you’d make the other nuns miserable.”

In one exchange, Elizabeth says to Ralph (Darcy): “The last time I exercised it made me unhappy. That was in eighth grade.”

He whistled. “No wonder you haven’t been happy this year. How about the other year, before I knew you? Have you suffered from depression?”

“Lots of very happy people don’t exercise, and for the record, depression is a serious illness which often requires medication as well as talk therapy. You can’t just play basketball and be happy. I mean maybe you can, but I can’t. Not that I’m on medication, but you know what I mean.”

“But you’re not depressed, right?”

“I wasn’t even unhappy until you told me I had to exercise.”