Marguerite Marsh’s Life of Service

On an early August morning when many of us were barely holding it together in the stultifying heat, Marguerite Marsh was fielding telephone calls, consulting with her personal assistant and planning a visit to the nonprofit she cofounded. She was dolled up in hot pink leggings, a bright aqua tunic dotted with pink flowers, plus matching sandals and eye shadow. She topped the look with coordinated gold link jewelry.
The 91-year-old Marsh is known for her charisma and empathy. “She’s a light like no other when she enters a room,” says Suzanne Gilman, who has served with Marsh as board members/supporters of Cancer Support Community Pasadena and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. “She is always impeccably dressed, beautifully coiffed; her style tends to be a little bit flamboyant, a little bit spicy,” she says, adding that Marsh is “the only person I know who could actually pull off wearing a feather boa.”
Marsh’s vibrant personality, zest for life and deep commitment to philanthropy has earned her many admirers. She’s a model of how much one person can accomplish and contribute. “I have a very curious mind,” says Marsh, a former therapist with a Ph.D. in psychology. “I love to keep learning and doing and helping.” She says she adores fashion, and if her outfits “can bring joy to other people, that makes me happy too.”
Marsh, in fact, used to make all her own clothes and belongs to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Costume Council. This is how a chat with Marsh goes: Ask about her interest in music and you’ll discover she’s an accomplished singer (mezzo alto) who soloed with regional orchestras and even sang opera professionally in restaurants. Inquire about hobbies and you’ll learn she’s a pilot, equestrian, tennis player, skier and, most of all, fervent volunteer.
Marsh’s peripatetic interests stem from what Bettina Luttrell identifies as her “insatiable curiosity.” Luttrell is a Maryland-based painter and gallery owner who has known Marsh since fourth grade. “She’s a very sensitive, caring person. And she’s very generous.”
Marsh’s devotion to good works is rooted in her Seventh-day Adventist upbringing. Her father was a minister and missionary; her mother, a teacher. She was born in Shanghai in 1927, relocated to London and then grew up primarily in Takoma Park, Maryland, near the Adventists’ world headquarters. Her family followed the Adventist lifestyle, which included a nearly vegetarian diet, exercise and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs. And they observed the Sabbath on Saturdays. “I never felt deprived,” she says. “I feel very fortunate. My parents were very practical Middle Westerners.”
Just prior to her high school graduation, Marsh’s father took on fundraising for the new Adventist medical school in Loma Linda, so the family moved west. She’d sung in church choir since adolescence and chose to study music at La Sierra University in Riverside. (Marsh has endowed a scholarship for singers at this Adventist college.) “My father wanted me to be a doctor. My mother wanted me to get married and do the music,” she says. If you count the doctor of philosophy, she did both.
Marguerite may not have become a medical doctor, but she married one. She met Robert L. Marsh because their parents were college classmates. They married when she was 21. Robert, a surgeon, graduated from Loma Linda in 1943, served in the Air Force in World War II and practiced medicine in Glendale for 37 years. He was also a singer (tenor), and the two enjoyed performing together at social events.
Marguerite Marsh went on to study voice at USC and the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. She sang in her church choir and was hired to solo with the Hollywood Presbyterian Church. “Now I was singing on Sunday as well as Saturday,” she recalled in a 2005 speech to students at La Sierra, “and finding those we used to call ‘outsiders’ were really kind and appreciative people.” She was invited to join the Glendale Symphony board, which led to her joining a slew of cultural and civic institutions, including the Glendale Chamber of Commerce, the L.A. Master Chorale board, the L.A. Music Center Blue Ribbon (a women’s support group founded by Dorothy Chandler), the Adventist Health Glendale Foundation board and the Opera League of L.A.
Then a young mother, she continued to perform, raise her two children — Christopher and Victoria — and volunteer through her church and at Glendale Adventist Medical Center. The Marshes enjoyed traveling and visited some 90 countries. Six trips included “medical missions” for which they volunteered in hospitals and medical clinics in the developing world, including Africa, the South Pacific, Asia and South America. This is among the work Marsh is most proud of. “It was not easy, but unforgettable. I always felt I got more in return than I gave,” she says. It prompted her to enroll in anthropology classes at Glendale Community College. “I realized I needed to know more about the tribes we were working with,” she explains.
Around her 39th birthday, her kids nearly grown, Marsh reevaluated her life. At dinner one night, she turned to Robert and said, “I want to find out who I am.” He was confused. So she explained: “I have been my parents’ daughter, I am also your wife. I am my children’s mother…but who is Marguerite?”
Marsh had started keeping a list of goals when she was 22. “I just wrote down some of the things I wanted to do,” she says. “The list became a powerful tool.” She would file it away but pull it out regularly to see if she was on track. On her list: “flying” and “psychology.” She told Robert she wanted to learn to pilot small planes and study psychology. She said, “I may shock you now when I say that I really want to learn how to dance.” (Traditionally, Adventists viewed dancing as a “worldly amusement” that should be shunned.) To his credit, Robert, also an Adventist, supported her through it all.
Marsh enrolled in a master’s program in marriage and family counseling at Phillips Graduate University in Encino. In 1979, she set up a practice in her husband’s medical office, as well as at her church. At the church, she led seminars, teen groups and women’s groups. She earned her doctorate from Kensington University, a now-defunct correspondence school. For her dissertation, she compared private and church counseling programs.
After 24 years in Glendale, the Marshes moved to La Caňada Flintridge, where she lived for more than two decades until they downsized to a condominium in Pasadena. In the late 1980s, an acquaintance pressed Marsh to do something to support the psychological needs of cancer patients. So she observed therapists at Santa Monica’s The Wellness Community (now the Cancer Support Community Los Angeles), a support group for survivors and their families, and decided to start a chapter in Pasadena. With the help of three others, in 1990, she launched the highly successful Wellness Community–Foothills. Known today as Cancer Support Community Pasadena, this chapter has served over 24,000 people with groups and workshops run by specially trained mental-health professionals.
Raising the funds to launch the nonprofit was a major undertaking — one that deployed many of Marsh’s talents. “She’s a tremendous influencer,” says Gilman. “And there’s definitely a steel structure underneath that beautifully dressed, charming woman.” Despite her abundant energy and varied interests, Marsh is focused and organized. Gilman says she “very carefully selects how she wants to serve and remains loyal to serving that group.”
Marsh is still devoted to the Music Center and the L.A. Master Chorale, especially their outreach programs for children. “I feel that if you have children who get interested in music, they have a whole different take on life,” she says. “They rarely get into trouble if they get into music.”
The last four years have been hard ones for Marsh: first her husband and then her daughter passed away. Yet she finds joy in her grand- and great-granddaughters and believes that her involvement in the arts has eased the pain. Encouragement from friends at Cancer Support Community Pasadena has also helped. “I think we’re all here for a reason,” she says, “and if I can make the world a little better, then I’m really happy.”

Ideas for Middle Grade Readers and Their Parents

When my son was a tot, I delighted in reading to him from my favorite picture books — Frog & Toad! Stuart Little! — and zealously sought out new titles for us both to enjoy. Even when he could read without my help, I spent a lot of time scoping out books for him. But I knew less about what he was actually reading.
Then along came Harry. My son devoured the Potter books and was eager to discuss them. My husband and I wanted to know what the hoopla was all about, so we headed to Hogwarts ourselves. Our 9-year-old would beg us to catch up — but not read ahead of him.
Thus was launched an explosion of middle-grade book reading in our house. We all read Rick Riordan’s The Red Pyramid, then we split off, the boys reading the action/adventure titles, mom and son discussing realistic fiction.
For too many kids, reading for fun drops off in the tween years, says my colleague Kitty Felde, host of the Book Club for Kids podcast, which I produce. “Middle school is the battleground where we lose readers,” she says, “so if we can hook them there, we’ve got them for life.”
In school, young children first learn to read, but as they get older they read to learn. The more your child reads, the more fluent he becomes, so, dear Reader, I offer some suggestions:

Readers in Chief
The best thing you can do to support your child is read yourself. “If you’re a reader and you are talking about how fabulous it is,” says Carrie Ann Johnson, reading specialist and adjunct professor at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, “that really sets the tone for the household, especially if you have both parents as readers.” She adds that it’s also important to tell kids about your experiences not liking a book: “Then reluctant readers get the idea that it could just be the book, it’s not just me.”
Parents frequently run on empty, and reading middle-grade and young-adult (Y.A.) novels yourself is an energy-efficient strategy. Plus, there’s a lot of writing talent here, including Linda Sue Park, Kate DiCamillo, Katherine Applegate, Kwame Alexander and Avi. Granted, you will find some of your kid’s favorites insufferable, but you’ll get a better sense of her interests and gain insight into the minds of tweens and teens.
To find the good stuff, I scour The New York Times Book Review, two bookstores — Vroman’s in Pasadena and Once Upon A Time in Montrose — online lists of funny middle grade books and the library. I also listen to the recommendations of kids featured on the reading podcast at BookClubforKids.org, and I charmingly (embarrassingly) interrogate my kid’s friends.
When a book seems like it might interest my kid — let’s call him by his podcasting handle, Mr. Waffles — I’ll dive in. If I like it, I’ll keep reading and recommend it to Waffles. Many books are rejected: too scary, too mature, not interesting. I don’t finish most of them, but usually I’ve read enough to pass some on with a comment such as: “You might like this, it’s about a dragon whose best friend is a mouse.”

So Many Books
Johnson says the financial success of J.K Rowling’s books prompted publishers to invest in middle grade and Y.A. books: “So there is a plethora of material — the variety is immense.”
Mr. Waffles enjoys a wide range of books, although mostly fiction. His favorite genres are fantasy, animal stories, realistic fiction and some historical fiction. Other kids, however, are tougher customers. “This is why you need to be an expert in the market, so you will have the knowledge to pull the book that will be perfect for your child,” Johnson says.
You can also outsource — librarians are eager to help. “Our goal is to match your child with books they enjoy,” says Katherine Loeser, head of the Glendale Library Children’s Department. “It’s not that you are ever interrupting us, we are just keeping busy until you come and see us.”
Fantasy is an especially popular genre these days. But some of these books can be intense — loaded with conflict and violence, so you might want to review them first. Don’t shy away from historical fiction, though: You’ll learn something you can discuss with your kid.
Mr. Waffles especially appreciates well-written funny books. Authors we recommend: Richard Peck, Stuart Gibbs, Gordan Korman, Jennifer Holm and Jack Gantos.
Which reminds me, just because your kid can read a book targeted at older kids doesn’t mean she should. In particular, so-called high-low books are designed for older kids who aren’t strong readers. They’re a good choice for reluctant readers, but can be too mature for younger kids.
And while I’m at it, please don’t assume your child will only enjoy books about kids like himself. The popularity of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder shows us that kids appreciate stories that find the common humanity among diverse people. Mr. Waffles loves the young reader’s edition of Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography, I Am Malala, as well as William Kamkwamba’s autobiographical The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

It’s All Good
Another hot genre is the graphic novel. Just because it’s popular with reluctant readers doesn’t mean it’s for dummies. In addition to great art, many graphic novels use sophisticated vocabulary and cover complex topics. Also, the pictures help readers interpret the text. Johnson says studies have shown that kids who love graphic novels often become superior readers in the long run. “So it’s actually an excellent choice,” she says.
Now that you’ll be auditioning a lot of books, I’ve got a few financial tips. One, the Pasadena Public Library will transfer books from any Pasadena or Glendale library to your nearest branch, no charge. Two, ThriftBooks.com has a giant selection of used books for around $4 apiece. (But please frequent your local bookstore; there’s no substitute for the advice you’ll get there.) Three, swap books with friends.
Reading Levels
While a reading level can help you identify a book that’s in the ballpark, especially for beginners, once your child is a solid reader, you need only scan the first few pages to see if it seems right.
Insisting that your child stick to books that are challenging is a good way to kill his enthusiasm. “The accelerated reading has taken the pleasure out of some books,” says Loeser, referring to a system of rating books and rewarding students for reading more difficult ones. It saddens her to watch children “who [want] a 3.5 book put it back to find a 4.5 because they’ll get more points.”
If your child reads a lot, she’ll be exposed to a wide vocabulary, so there’s no need to strong-arm her into reading fewer, more difficult books. “Reading specialists will argue if the child is truly passionate about and compelled to read a book, that is the book they should be reading,” says Johnson.

Beyond Books
Reading material is everywhere, so load your child with opportunities. Some popular options at our house: the new monthly kids’ section in the Sunday New York Times, Los Angeles Times Sunday comics, magazines like National Geographic Kids and Muse in the car and newspaper articles for discussion at the dinner table (check out the website Newsela.com).
Audiobooks! Mr. Waffles has been an ardent Audible subscriber for nine of his 11 years. He likes to revisit books he’s already read and finds some nonfiction content more palatable in audio form. “There are amazing audiobooks out there, and there are high- level actors who are now [voicing] audiobooks,” Loeser says.

Yet More Tips
Meeting a favorite (or soon-to-be favorite) author can be inspirational for kids. Mr. Waffles even cadged an interview for his book podcast, The Book Meese.
Loeser attributes her love of books to a mother who continued to read to her long after she could do it herself. Johnson also endorses reading aloud to older children; she expands the material her 11-year-old twins are exposed to by reading noteworthy books to them.
Sometimes kids just need a little boost, so reading even the first pages of a book to your child can help him get hooked.
Still, even voracious readers have days when they’d rather be playing video games. So here’s my final tip: snacks. When encouragement is needed, invite your kid to join you for popcorn while you take turns reading an exciting new book.

If your child, school or library is interested in participating in the Book Club for Kids podcast, email me at bookclubforkidsproducer@gmail.com. More information at BookClubforKids.org. You can find Mr. Waffles’ middle-grade books podcast (SoundCloud.com/BookMeese) in iTunes podcasts and on the RadioPublic and KidsListen apps.

More and more grandparents are raising grandkids as drug addiction ensnares their own children

When Mike and Amber St. Germain were anticipating retirement, they envisioned traveling a couple times a year to Italy and other dreamy destinations. But in 2012, their daughter, then 18, had a baby. She moved in with her parents — her baby, Addison, and Addison’s father in tow. After stealing from a neighbor, Addison’s father disappeared, and her mother, who had a substance abuse problem, was incapable of taking care of her.
So the St. Germains moved Addison’s crib into their bedroom, and their daughter moved out when she refused to follow “house rules” or take care of her baby; the grandparents established guardianship in 2013. Their daughter consented, said Mike St. Germain, because she knew her “lifestyle” was unhealthy for a baby. Now 5 years old, Addison knows her grandparents as the only parents she’s had. “She is a fantastic child,” said Mike St. Germain, 46, who retired from his job as a UPS regional manager in 2014 and lives outside of Atlanta with wife Amber, 45, two sons in their 20s and Addison.
“Initially, there was a lot of struggle, which is why we started a closed support group on Facebook [Grandparents Raising Grandchildren], so we could all talk to each other,” he said.
The St. Germains have plenty of company. About 2.6 million American children are being raised by their grandparents or other older relatives in what social scientists sometimes describe as “grandfamilies.” Experts say this number is rising sharply as the opioid epidemic and other kinds of substance abuse devastate families and communities across the country. A newly released book — You’ve Always Been There for Me: Understanding the Lives of Grandchildren Raised by Their Grandparents (Rutgers University Press) by Rachel Dunifon — analyzes data gathered from grandfamilies in New York to determine their distinct challenges and strengths.
Dunifon, a professor of policy analysis and management and chair of the human ecology department at Cornell University, notes that grandchildren benefit from the time-accrued maturity, wisdom and patience of grandparents who are raising children for a second time. But she notes there also can be struggles stemming from a sizable generation gap, age-related health problems, increased stress and worries over finite finances. Grandfamilies, a growing variant of the American family, are largely invisible to the public eye and rarely get the assistance they need from social service agencies, policymakers and family researchers.
“I would like to see how best to support this new family system, grandparents, the adult children and grandchildren, so that all are getting the support they need in this new phenomenon,” said Annette Ermshar, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist with practices in Pasadena and San Marino. “The percentage of grandparents who have taken over parenting has doubled. U.S. Census data says that in 2012, 10 percent of grandparents lived with their grandchildren compared to 3 percent in 1970. There is not a lot of research in terms of the mental health of the grandparents and the grandchildren.” In Los Angeles alone, some 300,000 grandparents are raising children, according to the L.A.-based Alliance for Children’s Rights.
With the opioid addiction crisis fueling the rise of grandfamilies, help arrived by legislative action last month. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) who chairs the Senate Special Committee on Aging and ranking member Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) co-authored the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act. The move followed a May 2017 hearing featuring testimony from grandparents and others about the pressing need for older caretakers to have easy access to resources that would assist them.
The bill, signed into law last month by President Donald Trump, will create a one-stop shop of resources to support grandparents and other relatives (so-called “kinship families”) raising grandchildren. A federal advisory committee, led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will be established to identify, promote and distribute crucial information about the best ways to help caregiving relatives meet the unusual health, educational, psychological and nutritional needs of children they’ve taken in. A grandparent and another older relative raising a grandchild will be part of the committee. A report will be issued to Congress after six months, and again in two years on best practices and resources, along with noted gaps in services.
Caregivers’ need to maintain their own physical and emotional and mental well-being will also be addressed. Forty advocacy groups for older adults and children supported the bill. “Many of today’s low-income grandparent caregivers — sometimes great-grandparent caregivers — find themselves forced to cut their own retirement finances and defer their dreams” to care for their grandchildren, Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that promotes policies and programs to assist grandfamilies, wrote in Forbes Magazine after the bill was signed into law.
Caring for grandchildren may come at a high cost to grandparents, but it provides a huge savings for the government. Older relatives providing safe haven to their imperiled grandchildren saves the U.S. government $6 billion a year, according to The Conversation (theconversation.com), an independent nonprofit online source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Custodial grandparents raising grandchildren are overrepresented in racial and ethnic minority groups, and 67 percent are younger than 60, while 25 percent live in poverty even though half of custodial grandparents are still working, according to the website. For grandparents worried about outliving their financial resources, the added expense of raising a grandchild adds layers of stress, worry and anxiety. But out of love, and without regard to the cost, grandparents swoop in because there is no other option.
Indeed, with the rise in heroin addiction and other substance abuse, grandparents taking charge is often precipitated by devastating struggles with their own adult children that leave them emotionally wrung out — whipsawed between anger, sadness and exhaustion. Like the St. Germains’ daughter, Judi LeCompte’s daughter moved in immediately after giving birth to Gianna in 2008. When LeCompte’s daughter, who had an oxycodone addiction, tried to put Gianna, then 18 months old, in a booster seat instead of a car seat for a ride in a Honda Civic with four adults and two other kids in car seats, LeCompte “lost it.”
“I just went insane,” said LeCompte, who is 60. “It was a nightmare. I just said, ‘You no longer live here. She is mine.’ So we had to figure it out. Either Gianna lived with us or she went to foster care.” LeCompte, who lives in a Philadelphia suburb with her husband, Karl, 65, called state Children and Youth Services and the next day, an order was drawn up limiting Gianna’s mother to supervised visits with her daughter twice a month for three hours. The court also gave LeCompte the right to drug test her daughter anytime she wanted.
LeCompte said she has legal guardianship of Gianna, now 9. A federal bankruptcy manager for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Philadelphia, she said she will not adopt Gianna out of fear it would push her daughter, who suffers from mental health issues as well as addiction, over the edge. LeCompte also has a second daughter who is a heroin addict currently in jail on a felony drug conviction, although she has tested clean for over a year. That daughter’s child, Arianna, lived with LeCompte for nine months along with Gianna. Arianna now lives with her paternal grandparents. “You cannot imagine how tragic this is unless you are in it, every day,” said LeCompte.
When a parent is struggling with addiction and mental illness, it leaves grandparents with a whirl of decisions to make — most often in a moment of crisis. For many, postponing retirement, navigating school systems, securing custody through the court system, finding mental and emotional-health supports and overcoming a generation gap are part of a web of challenges that accompany a second round of parenthood. The grandchildren are often fragile and damaged from what they been through. Grandparents are “replacing traumatic pasts with loving and hopeful futures,” as Sen. Collins told AARP.org.
“These children have emotional baggage,” said Carmen Hoffman, director of the Los Angeles chapter of Grandparents as Parents (GAP), a program of OneGeneration, a Van Nuys–based nonprofit supporting seniors and grandfamilies, which last month added GAP, a 31-year-old nonprofit, to the organization’s offerings of resources. “They don’t know why they feel this way. And these grandparents, it is all new to them, the technology has changed, everything has changed [since they raised their children].”
OneGeneration’s GAP program runs 10 support groups throughout L.A. County (a Pasadena group disbanded due to poor attendance; the closest one is in Pomona). The groups are free and vital to grandparents who often feel isolated in their plight and in great need of peer-to-peer counsel with the guiding hand of a facilitator. The power of shared experience diminishes those feelings of isolation, said Hoffman, who runs a group in Santa Clarita where the majority of grandparents are raising youngsters whose parents have succumbed to opioid addictions. Facebook support groups like St. Germain’s Grandparents Raising Grandchildren have provided a powerful place to share and vent, especially for people with no access to in-person grandfamily support groups. Websites and Facebook pages like The Addict’s Mom, The Parents of Drug Addicts and Before The Petals Fall are also helping to fill that void.
After the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes ran a segment in May on grandparents raising grandchildren due to the ravages of the opioid epidemic, St. Germain said his Facebook group almost tripled within a month, increasing to 2,000 from 700. There are now 4,500 members with more joining at a rate of 15 to 20 a day. The group is closed, meaning people have to request permission to join. In a 28-day period last month, St. Germain, the group administrator, said there were 138,000 posts from grandparents raising grandchildren and that 90 percent have adult children in the grip of addiction to opioids, methamphetamines, benzodiazepines or “all of the above.”
“Sometimes they post just to vent, sometimes it is to share information — look what I found on this website, or about a book,” said St. Germain. “Especially with children of addicts, they have all these unique issues. Some are developmental delays, Asperger’s, autism, physical disabilities. Some are as simple as ‘How in the world do I potty train this child?’”
Though grandparents can apply for Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF), foster care payments, subsidized guardianship, child support payments, social security benefits or tax credits, navigating a bureaucratic maze is complex and daunting. Each funding source has advantages and disadvantages and should be evaluated for what best fits a grandfamily’s particular needs, according to Generations United. GAP did have a staff member assigned to the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park to assist grandparents establish guardianship, but the post has not been staffed due to lack of funding. In lieu of a personal navigator, Hoffman recommends downloading the Resource Family Approval Toolkit at kids-alliance.org, the website of Alliance for Children’s Rights.
Many of the government-funded assistance programs require grandparents to adopt rather than establish guardianship, which can create an additional hurdle. Judi LeCompte will not adopt her granddaughter Gianna because her daughter refuses to agree to it, and that means that her Social Security benefits cannot go to Gianna. This is a source of deep worry, she says.
For Mike St. Germain, anything that compromises his daughter recovering from her addiction, getting back on her feet and becoming a healthy mother to Addison is not an option. He and wife Amber fear that if they apply for government help, the state or federal government could seek child support payments from their daughter, whose addiction started when she began stealing her father’s pain pills prescribed for his back and graduated to benzodiazepines. She’s currently on probation following incarceration for credit card theft and must test drug-free to stay out of jail. Said Germain: “I tend to not want to step over that line because it will just make her position that much more difficult.”

Ideas for Middle Grade Readers and Their Parents

When my son was a tot, I delighted in reading to him from my favorite picture books — Frog & Toad! Stuart Little! — and zealously sought out new titles for us both to enjoy. Even when he could read without my help, I spent a lot of time scoping out books for him. But I knew less about what he was actually reading.
Then along came Harry. My son devoured the Potter books and was eager to discuss them. My husband and I wanted to know what the hoopla was all about, so we headed to Hogwarts ourselves. Our 9-year-old would beg us to catch up — but not read ahead of him.
Thus was launched an explosion of middle-grade book reading in our house. We all read Rick Riordan’s The Red Pyramid, then we split off, the boys reading the action/adventure titles, mom and son discussing realistic fiction.
For too many kids, reading for fun drops off in the tween years, says my colleague Kitty Felde, host of the Book Club for Kids podcast, which I produce. “Middle school is the battleground where we lose readers,” she says, “so if we can hook them there, we’ve got them for life.”
In school, young children first learn to read, but as they get older they read to learn. The more your child reads, the more fluent he becomes, so, dear Reader, I offer some suggestions:

Readers in Chief
The best thing you can do to support your child is read yourself. “If you’re a reader and you are talking about how fabulous it is,” says Carrie Ann Johnson, reading specialist and adjunct professor at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, “that really sets the tone for the household, especially if you have both parents as readers.” She adds that it’s also important to tell kids about your experiences not liking a book: “Then reluctant readers get the idea that it could just be the book, it’s not just me.”
Parents frequently run on empty, and reading middle-grade and young-adult (Y.A.) novels yourself is an energy-efficient strategy. Plus, there’s a lot of writing talent here, including Linda Sue Park, Kate DiCamillo, Katherine Applegate, Kwame Alexander and Avi. Granted, you will find some of your kid’s favorites insufferable, but you’ll get a better sense of her interests and gain insight into the minds of tweens and teens.
To find the good stuff, I scour The New York Times Book Review, two bookstores — Vroman’s in Pasadena and Once Upon A Time in Montrose — online lists of funny middle grade books and the library. I also listen to the recommendations of kids featured on the reading podcast at BookClubforKids.org, and I charmingly (embarrassingly) interrogate my kid’s friends.
When a book seems like it might interest my kid — let’s call him by his podcasting handle, Mr. Waffles — I’ll dive in. If I like it, I’ll keep reading and recommend it to Waffles. Many books are rejected: too scary, too mature, not interesting. I don’t finish most of them, but usually I’ve read enough to pass some on with a comment such as: “You might like this, it’s about a dragon whose best friend is a mouse.”

So Many Books
Johnson says the financial success of J.K Rowling’s books prompted publishers to invest in middle grade and Y.A. books: “So there is a plethora of material — the variety is immense.”
Mr. Waffles enjoys a wide range of books, although mostly fiction. His favorite genres are fantasy, animal stories, realistic fiction and some historical fiction. Other kids, however, are tougher customers. “This is why you need to be an expert in the market, so you will have the knowledge to pull the book that will be perfect for your child,” Johnson says.
You can also outsource — librarians are eager to help. “Our goal is to match your child with books they enjoy,” says Katherine Loeser, head of the Glendale Library Children’s Department. “It’s not that you are ever interrupting us, we are just keeping busy until you come and see us.”
Fantasy is an especially popular genre these days. But some of these books can be intense — loaded with conflict and violence, so you might want to review them first. Don’t shy away from historical fiction, though: You’ll learn something you can discuss with your kid.
Mr. Waffles especially appreciates well-written funny books. Authors we recommend: Richard Peck, Stuart Gibbs, Gordan Korman, Jennifer Holm and Jack Gantos.
Which reminds me, just because your kid can read a book targeted at older kids doesn’t mean she should. In particular, so-called high-low books are designed for older kids who aren’t strong readers. They’re a good choice for reluctant readers, but can be too mature for younger kids.
And while I’m at it, please don’t assume your child will only enjoy books about kids like himself. The popularity of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder shows us that kids appreciate stories that find the common humanity among diverse people. Mr. Waffles loves the young reader’s edition of Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography, I Am Malala, as well as William Kamkwamba’s autobiographical The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

It’s All Good
Another hot genre is the graphic novel. Just because it’s popular with reluctant readers doesn’t mean it’s for dummies. In addition to great art, many graphic novels use sophisticated vocabulary and cover complex topics. Also, the pictures help readers interpret the text. Johnson says studies have shown that kids who love graphic novels often become superior readers in the long run. “So it’s actually an excellent choice,” she says.
Now that you’ll be auditioning a lot of books, I’ve got a few financial tips. One, the Pasadena Public Library will transfer books from any Pasadena or Glendale library to your nearest branch, no charge. Two, ThriftBooks.com has a giant selection of used books for around $4 apiece. (But please frequent your local bookstore; there’s no substitute for the advice you’ll get there.) Three, swap books with friends.
Reading Levels
While a reading level can help you identify a book that’s in the ballpark, especially for beginners, once your child is a solid reader, you need only scan the first few pages to see if it seems right.
Insisting that your child stick to books that are challenging is a good way to kill his enthusiasm. “The accelerated reading has taken the pleasure out of some books,” says Loeser, referring to a system of rating books and rewarding students for reading more difficult ones. It saddens her to watch children “who [want] a 3.5 book put it back to find a 4.5 because they’ll get more points.”
If your child reads a lot, she’ll be exposed to a wide vocabulary, so there’s no need to strong-arm her into reading fewer, more difficult books. “Reading specialists will argue if the child is truly passionate about and compelled to read a book, that is the book they should be reading,” says Johnson.

Beyond Books
Reading material is everywhere, so load your child with opportunities. Some popular options at our house: the new monthly kids’ section in the Sunday New York Times, Los Angeles Times Sunday comics, magazines like National Geographic Kids and Muse in the car and newspaper articles for discussion at the dinner table (check out the website Newsela.com).
Audiobooks! Mr. Waffles has been an ardent Audible subscriber for nine of his 11 years. He likes to revisit books he’s already read and finds some nonfiction content more palatable in audio form. “There are amazing audiobooks out there, and there are high- level actors who are now [voicing] audiobooks,” Loeser says.

Yet More Tips
Meeting a favorite (or soon-to-be favorite) author can be inspirational for kids. Mr. Waffles even cadged an interview for his book podcast, The Book Meese.
Loeser attributes her love of books to a mother who continued to read to her long after she could do it herself. Johnson also endorses reading aloud to older children; she expands the material her 11-year-old twins are exposed to by reading noteworthy books to them.
Sometimes kids just need a little boost, so reading even the first pages of a book to your child can help him get hooked.
Still, even voracious readers have days when they’d rather be playing video games. So here’s my final tip: snacks. When encouragement is needed, invite your kid to join you for popcorn while you take turns reading an exciting new book.

If your child, school or library is interested in participating in the Book Club for Kids podcast, email me at bookclubforkidsproducer@gmail.com. More information at BookClubforKids.org. You can find Mr. Waffles’ middle-grade books podcast (SoundCloud.com/BookMeese) in iTunes podcasts and on the RadioPublic and KidsListen apps.

More and more grandparents are raising grandkids as drug addiction ensnares their own children

When Mike and Amber St. Germain were anticipating retirement, they envisioned traveling a couple times a year to Italy and other dreamy destinations. But in 2012, their daughter, then 18, had a baby. She moved in with her parents — her baby, Addison, and Addison’s father in tow. After stealing from a neighbor, Addison’s father disappeared, and her mother, who had a substance abuse problem, was incapable of taking care of her.
So the St. Germains moved Addison’s crib into their bedroom, and their daughter moved out when she refused to follow “house rules” or take care of her baby; the grandparents established guardianship in 2013. Their daughter consented, said Mike St. Germain, because she knew her “lifestyle” was unhealthy for a baby. Now 5 years old, Addison knows her grandparents as the only parents she’s had. “She is a fantastic child,” said Mike St. Germain, 46, who retired from his job as a UPS regional manager in 2014 and lives outside of Atlanta with wife Amber, 45, two sons in their 20s and Addison.
“Initially, there was a lot of struggle, which is why we started a closed support group on Facebook [Grandparents Raising Grandchildren], so we could all talk to each other,” he said.
The St. Germains have plenty of company. About 2.6 million American children are being raised by their grandparents or other older relatives in what social scientists sometimes describe as “grandfamilies.” Experts say this number is rising sharply as the opioid epidemic and other kinds of substance abuse devastate families and communities across the country. A newly released book — You’ve Always Been There for Me: Understanding the Lives of Grandchildren Raised by Their Grandparents (Rutgers University Press) by Rachel Dunifon — analyzes data gathered from grandfamilies in New York to determine their distinct challenges and strengths.
Dunifon, a professor of policy analysis and management and chair of the human ecology department at Cornell University, notes that grandchildren benefit from the time-accrued maturity, wisdom and patience of grandparents who are raising children for a second time. But she notes there also can be struggles stemming from a sizable generation gap, age-related health problems, increased stress and worries over finite finances. Grandfamilies, a growing variant of the American family, are largely invisible to the public eye and rarely get the assistance they need from social service agencies, policymakers and family researchers.
“I would like to see how best to support this new family system, grandparents, the adult children and grandchildren, so that all are getting the support they need in this new phenomenon,” said Annette Ermshar, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist with practices in Pasadena and San Marino. “The percentage of grandparents who have taken over parenting has doubled. U.S. Census data says that in 2012, 10 percent of grandparents lived with their grandchildren compared to 3 percent in 1970. There is not a lot of research in terms of the mental health of the grandparents and the grandchildren.” In Los Angeles alone, some 300,000 grandparents are raising children, according to the L.A.-based Alliance for Children’s Rights.
With the opioid addiction crisis fueling the rise of grandfamilies, help arrived by legislative action last month. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) who chairs the Senate Special Committee on Aging and ranking member Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) co-authored the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act. The move followed a May 2017 hearing featuring testimony from grandparents and others about the pressing need for older caretakers to have easy access to resources that would assist them.
The bill, signed into law last month by President Donald Trump, will create a one-stop shop of resources to support grandparents and other relatives (so-called “kinship families”) raising grandchildren. A federal advisory committee, led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will be established to identify, promote and distribute crucial information about the best ways to help caregiving relatives meet the unusual health, educational, psychological and nutritional needs of children they’ve taken in. A grandparent and another older relative raising a grandchild will be part of the committee. A report will be issued to Congress after six months, and again in two years on best practices and resources, along with noted gaps in services.
Caregivers’ need to maintain their own physical and emotional and mental well-being will also be addressed. Forty advocacy groups for older adults and children supported the bill. “Many of today’s low-income grandparent caregivers — sometimes great-grandparent caregivers — find themselves forced to cut their own retirement finances and defer their dreams” to care for their grandchildren, Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that promotes policies and programs to assist grandfamilies, wrote in Forbes Magazine after the bill was signed into law.
Caring for grandchildren may come at a high cost to grandparents, but it provides a huge savings for the government. Older relatives providing safe haven to their imperiled grandchildren saves the U.S. government $6 billion a year, according to The Conversation (theconversation.com), an independent nonprofit online source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Custodial grandparents raising grandchildren are overrepresented in racial and ethnic minority groups, and 67 percent are younger than 60, while 25 percent live in poverty even though half of custodial grandparents are still working, according to the website. For grandparents worried about outliving their financial resources, the added expense of raising a grandchild adds layers of stress, worry and anxiety. But out of love, and without regard to the cost, grandparents swoop in because there is no other option.
Indeed, with the rise in heroin addiction and other substance abuse, grandparents taking charge is often precipitated by devastating struggles with their own adult children that leave them emotionally wrung out — whipsawed between anger, sadness and exhaustion. Like the St. Germains’ daughter, Judi LeCompte’s daughter moved in immediately after giving birth to Gianna in 2008. When LeCompte’s daughter, who had an oxycodone addiction, tried to put Gianna, then 18 months old, in a booster seat instead of a car seat for a ride in a Honda Civic with four adults and two other kids in car seats, LeCompte “lost it.”
“I just went insane,” said LeCompte, who is 60. “It was a nightmare. I just said, ‘You no longer live here. She is mine.’ So we had to figure it out. Either Gianna lived with us or she went to foster care.” LeCompte, who lives in a Philadelphia suburb with her husband, Karl, 65, called state Children and Youth Services and the next day, an order was drawn up limiting Gianna’s mother to supervised visits with her daughter twice a month for three hours. The court also gave LeCompte the right to drug test her daughter anytime she wanted.
LeCompte said she has legal guardianship of Gianna, now 9. A federal bankruptcy manager for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Philadelphia, she said she will not adopt Gianna out of fear it would push her daughter, who suffers from mental health issues as well as addiction, over the edge. LeCompte also has a second daughter who is a heroin addict currently in jail on a felony drug conviction, although she has tested clean for over a year. That daughter’s child, Arianna, lived with LeCompte for nine months along with Gianna. Arianna now lives with her paternal grandparents. “You cannot imagine how tragic this is unless you are in it, every day,” said LeCompte.
When a parent is struggling with addiction and mental illness, it leaves grandparents with a whirl of decisions to make — most often in a moment of crisis. For many, postponing retirement, navigating school systems, securing custody through the court system, finding mental and emotional-health supports and overcoming a generation gap are part of a web of challenges that accompany a second round of parenthood. The grandchildren are often fragile and damaged from what they been through. Grandparents are “replacing traumatic pasts with loving and hopeful futures,” as Sen. Collins told AARP.org.
“These children have emotional baggage,” said Carmen Hoffman, director of the Los Angeles chapter of Grandparents as Parents (GAP), a program of OneGeneration, a Van Nuys–based nonprofit supporting seniors and grandfamilies, which last month added GAP, a 31-year-old nonprofit, to the organization’s offerings of resources. “They don’t know why they feel this way. And these grandparents, it is all new to them, the technology has changed, everything has changed [since they raised their children].”
OneGeneration’s GAP program runs 10 support groups throughout L.A. County (a Pasadena group disbanded due to poor attendance; the closest one is in Pomona). The groups are free and vital to grandparents who often feel isolated in their plight and in great need of peer-to-peer counsel with the guiding hand of a facilitator. The power of shared experience diminishes those feelings of isolation, said Hoffman, who runs a group in Santa Clarita where the majority of grandparents are raising youngsters whose parents have succumbed to opioid addictions. Facebook support groups like St. Germain’s Grandparents Raising Grandchildren have provided a powerful place to share and vent, especially for people with no access to in-person grandfamily support groups. Websites and Facebook pages like The Addict’s Mom, The Parents of Drug Addicts and Before The Petals Fall are also helping to fill that void.
After the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes ran a segment in May on grandparents raising grandchildren due to the ravages of the opioid epidemic, St. Germain said his Facebook group almost tripled within a month, increasing to 2,000 from 700. There are now 4,500 members with more joining at a rate of 15 to 20 a day. The group is closed, meaning people have to request permission to join. In a 28-day period last month, St. Germain, the group administrator, said there were 138,000 posts from grandparents raising grandchildren and that 90 percent have adult children in the grip of addiction to opioids, methamphetamines, benzodiazepines or “all of the above.”
“Sometimes they post just to vent, sometimes it is to share information — look what I found on this website, or about a book,” said St. Germain. “Especially with children of addicts, they have all these unique issues. Some are developmental delays, Asperger’s, autism, physical disabilities. Some are as simple as ‘How in the world do I potty train this child?’”
Though grandparents can apply for Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF), foster care payments, subsidized guardianship, child support payments, social security benefits or tax credits, navigating a bureaucratic maze is complex and daunting. Each funding source has advantages and disadvantages and should be evaluated for what best fits a grandfamily’s particular needs, according to Generations United. GAP did have a staff member assigned to the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park to assist grandparents establish guardianship, but the post has not been staffed due to lack of funding. In lieu of a personal navigator, Hoffman recommends downloading the Resource Family Approval Toolkit at kids-alliance.org, the website of Alliance for Children’s Rights.
Many of the government-funded assistance programs require grandparents to adopt rather than establish guardianship, which can create an additional hurdle. Judi LeCompte will not adopt her granddaughter Gianna because her daughter refuses to agree to it, and that means that her Social Security benefits cannot go to Gianna. This is a source of deep worry, she says.
For Mike St. Germain, anything that compromises his daughter recovering from her addiction, getting back on her feet and becoming a healthy mother to Addison is not an option. He and wife Amber fear that if they apply for government help, the state or federal government could seek child support payments from their daughter, whose addiction started when she began stealing her father’s pain pills prescribed for his back and graduated to benzodiazepines. She’s currently on probation following incarceration for credit card theft and must test drug-free to stay out of jail. Said Germain: “I tend to not want to step over that line because it will just make her position that much more difficult.”

Experts’ strategies for picking the right Arroyoland school for your child

After half a dozen years of floating in calm parental waters, I’m once again paddling into the whitewater. My kid and his friends will soon emerge from the cozy chrysalis that is their elementary school and wing it at new schools — middle schools. Their families face a Pasadena Problem — actually, a souped-up First World Problem: Which of the area’s decent-to-excellent public (local, charter, magnet) or private (including independent, with no outside overseers) schools will be best for their child?
I concede that worrying over this decision is making mountains out of mud pies. At least that’s what Morgan Polikoff, associate professor of education policy at the USC Rossier School of Education, believes. “For the vast majority of upper-middle-/upper-income individuals, I honestly don’t know that it matters too much at the margin which school you chose, especially in an elementary school,” he says. He notes that affluent kids have advantages — educated parents, enrichment opportunities, tutors — that mean they’re likely to fare well in all but the worst schools.
Point taken. But parents still have decisions to make. And while no school could transform a young Billy Bush into an Elon Musk, Arroyoland schools do vary in their values, approaches and offerings. So here’s some of the expert advice I’ve gleaned:
Children spend so much time at school that finding a place they’ll enjoy is paramount, according to Terra Toscano, Head of Walden School in Pasadena. “You want them to love learning,” she says. She recommends observing the students at a prospective campus. “Are they happy? You can tell.” (Disclosure: My child attends this independent school.)
“When you walk onto a campus, make sure you feel comfortable and take the name [prestige/reputation] out of the equation,” says Elizabeth Jones, president of the Institute for Educational Advancement, a Pasadena-based support group for gifted children. “It’s about fit,” finding what’s right for your child, she says.
Hold on, I’ve got you touring schools already. Let’s back up a bit. First you need to figure out which schools to visit.
GreatSchools.org allows you to map schools in your area. It also offers data on public schools. But you’ll need context, so be sure to read the “parent tips” on each school’s webpage. (Don’t make too much of the star ratings and reviews; like many online reviews, they’re probably not a representative sampling, but rather the thoughts of people who are excited or irritated enough to log in and comment.)
You can also find public school achievement scores on the California Department of Education’s School Dashboard (CASchoolDashboard.org). The numbers can be misleading, however. “If you’re looking at the percentage of kids who are reading at grade level, that is really not a measure of how good the school is,” says Polikoff. “Those are really measures of who is enrolled in the school and how affluent the school is.” He says more important are growth numbers — the improvement in student achievement from year to year. “That’s a measure of how schools are actually contributing to your kid’s knowledge,” he says. California’s data on that isn’t robust, but it’s available under the “status and change report” tab.
The Great Schools website also maps private schools, but the information provided isn’t as useful as the schools’ own websites, which you can find through the
California Association of Independent Schools. It lists and maps member schools on its website, including many of the area’s private schools.
Of course, the prestigious ones are expensive — around $20,000 a year for elementary school — but paying less might not buy you an advantage. “I don’t think there’s a huge difference between a good comprehensive public school and a second- or third-tier private school,” says Polikoff.
It’s hard to compare public and independent schools because the privates are so good at marketing. “It’s worth going that extra step to find out about your public schools,” says Tracy Hoffman, lower-school science teacher at Westridge School for Girls, a Pasadena independent school. Hoffman sent all three of her sons to San Gabriel city public schools. “With my own children it worked out to where the private schools didn’t offer enough return on investment,” she says. While her kids thrived in public school, some of their friends didn’t. “They needed a different sort of environment [and] a smaller environment.”
Many public schools don’t offer tours, so Hoffman recommends turning up on campus at the end of the school day. Or see if you can attend an open house. “Do talk to the kids,” she advises. “Ask them really open-ended questions and see what they have to say — see if it’s something you would like to hear your child say.”
Once you are ready to tour schools, here are some more pointers. Toscano says all private schools will tell you about their mission. “But what you should be looking for when you walk around is evidence — evidence that it’s not just being sold to you.” If the administration says it values diversity, do you see it? If the school touts its arts programs, do the projects look creative or are they all the same? Pay attention to interactions that aren’t scripted.
Jones advises drilling down on how flexible the school is. Ask if a child is able to move on to new concepts when he/she has demonstrated mastery, and how they would facilitate that. “It’s really asking about the pace of learning, the depth of learning,” she says. And don’t be afraid to ask how they accommodate children who are struggling with a subject.
Also, says Jones, notice how the children relate to each other and the teachers: “Is there respect there — not fear but real respect?”
Progressive schools give children more say in their education and orient them toward making a difference in the world. If that appeals to you, consider Walden (pre-kindergarten through grade six), Sequoyah (K through eight) and Waverly (K through 12). All three are in Pasadena.
When my compadre Colleen Scott Pomerantz was evaluating elementary schools, her primary criteria were a “very nurturing, caring, safe environment.” Now that she’s touring middle schools, she’s paying more attention to the academics. “I want to make sure it’s the right fit for who he currently is,” she says, “but [also] who he’s going to be when he’s a teenager.”
Evaluating curricula is tricky if you’re not an educator. (If you’re gung-ho anyway, look at EdReports.org.) More important than which curriculum is used, says Polikoff, is how well it’s implemented. “Does the district support the teachers with professional development?” he asks. “Is there a coach in the subject to help teachers?”
Pomerantz’s son has requested a school where he won’t be among the youngest. Apparently, his ideas about middle school come from middle-grade books. “He’s convinced it’s going to be bullies and lockers and all this unfamiliar territory,” she says. The kid is onto something: Research suggests middle-graders fare better when there are younger kids around. Otherwise, says Polikoff, “in that transition year, the sixth graders now become the weakest link.”
By high school, you’ve probably got a better handle on the kind of student you’re raising. Private schools put more resources into college counseling, but the elite ones can be pressure cookers. And, as Hoffman points out, there are many excellent colleges that admit students from a range of schools.
She advises parents to ease up. “Let your child choose their path a little bit with what their passions are,” she says. “They don’t have to do everything. If they do a few things that they truly enjoy, their education will be phenomenal.”
Alexa, do any schools offer AP Pokémon?

Cool Down

Shady gardens are tricky but rewarding.

Every summer there are days when the heat is sinister — hot outside, hot inside. The A/C is on but my ’20s Spanish home is still 84 degrees. I pad back and forth, feeling like a snow leopard in an Arizona zoo. I eye my garden and pine for shade.

Trees. I need more trees.

“Trees are the most beneficial plants in our urban landscape,” says landscape architect and Cal Poly Pomona professor emeritus Bob Perry, conveniently supporting my obsession. Trees not only shade our homes, he points out, they also sequester carbon from the atmosphere “and transpire their moisture, which [reduces] air temperature and direct-sun heat load on our houses.”

With temperatures rising and Southern California vulnerable to drought (despite recent rain), cultivating shade just makes sense. Sure, gardening in the shade can be tricky, but with a little know-how, you can cultivate spots that are cool, lovely and soothing.

Over the 13 years I’ve lived in San Gabriel, I’ve added shade to my lot: a native Catalina cherry, some gorgeous red-barked manzanitas, a feijoa (pineapple guava tree). But as the trees have grown, the shadows have deepened and I’ve had to reexamine what will thrive.

To state the obvious: Plants need sun to photosynthesize and grow. That makes deeply shady areas, including the north side of structures, a challenge for gardeners. For these full-shade spots, Perry recommends understory plants from temperate or subtropical climates—flora that evolved to grow beneath a thick tree canopy. That includes the Japanese aucuba (Aucuba japonica), an evergreen shrub with variegated leaves; various maples, aspidistras and philodendrons (both commonly sold as indoor plants) and some species of Berberis, such as Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) and creeping barberry (Berberis repens).

Many of these plants need year-round water to look their best, so I prefer plants from Mediterranean climates — California, Chile, South Africa, Australia and the Mediterranean basin. Perry recommends these as well. “It’s a limited palette, but dry shade is as tough as it gets,” he says. “When you talk about dry shade, you are dealing with sort of a double negative.”

Las Pilitas, a native plant nursery near San Luis Obispo, offers an exhaustive list of California flora for full and dry shade on its website (laspilitas.com), with the caveat that many might prefer partial shade. Among the more popular plants on the list are various species and cultivars of coffeeberry, monkey flower, Heuchera, currants (Ribes indecorum and Ribes sanguineum glutinosum) and hummingbird sage.

All of these natives have thrived in shady spots in my garden. On the north side of my home, along a path between the house and a perimeter wall, I converted a dank zone of calla lilies and lawn into a thicket of (mainly) natives. The new plants mostly thrived and didn’t need as much water, but I discovered that each niche had its own microclimate. Several patches turned out to be sunnier than I thought, affording me a wider range of plants.

Jill Morganelli, horticultural supervisor for the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, recommends studying your shade before you plant. “Maybe keep a little journal,” she says. “Go in the morning and see what the sun is, go out there in the afternoon, and then you also have to do that at different times of the year.” 

My thicket matured, providing an attractive privacy screen, but some of the plants, including a nectarine tree, languished as others grew up around them. At the northwest corner of the house, a manzanita caught late-afternoon sun in summer.  It grew slowly but steadily, eventually shading out a coffeeberry shrub.

“Most trees need full sun,” says Morganelli, “and when you start getting into shade and growing against buildings, there’s no air flow, so molds and root rot can really intensify.” She adds that people tend to overwater shady areas, leaving plants vulnerable to disease. 

I’m stingy with water, so my biggest problem is determining whether aggrieved plants have taken too much umbrage or are in need of a drink.

Morganelli strolls among ferns at the Arboretum in Arcadia. She points out other shade-tolerant plants: orange-flowered Clivia, an evergreen, bulb-like (rhizomatous) plant from southern Africa; Peruvian lily (Alstromeria); and shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana), a shrub with blooms resembling crustaceans.

Because shady areas are darker, Morganelli says, variegated and white-flowered plants, including the lighter azaleas, look especially pretty. “At night it literally illuminates your garden,” she says.

On hot days, one of Morganelli’s favorite Arboretum roosts is a bench under a stout coast live oak. ”Don’t try to plant magnificent gardens under oaks,” she advises. “It’s just not going to work.” Indeed, because of the deep shade and chemicals (tannins) this tree exudes to inhibit other plants, nothing is growing under it. “But look at the glorious shade,” Morganelli says.

The Arboretum’s Engelmann oak grove is a refuge for L.A. County’s largest remaining congregation of these rare native trees. I asked Jim Henrich, the Arboretum’s curator of living collections, to meet me there to discuss gardening around oaks.

The Engelmanns slant west in unison, a carpet of weeds at their feet. Henrich hopes to replace the weeds with a few sparsely planted natives, perhaps evergreen currant and bunch grass — but around the periphery. “The best thing of all is not to plant under the tree,” he says, “and just allow natural leaf-litter accumulation. It’s the best mulch.” California oaks are adapted to dry summers. New plantings will need more frequent summer water, which can leave oaks vulnerable to fungus, especially if moisture concentrates near the trunk. (One exception: In the first few years, young oaks benefit from regular water.) For trees generally, it’s best to water at the dripline — the zone under the outer circumference of the branches.

“If you have to plant under the tree, you should probably stay at least 15 feet away from the trunk,” Henrich says, adding that you’ll need to select plants that survive on less frequent but longer (deeper) watering. To avoid excessive root disturbance, keep plantings sparse. It’s good advice for working around any kind of tree.

Perry recommends installing a drip irrigation system at a tree’s dripline. “Cover it with mulch and strategically plant,” he says. “Put an emphasis on plants that spread and sprawl.” Cluster things, he says, so instead of a carpet, you’ll have mulch and “drifts and groupings and islands” of plants.

First and foremost, water the trees. “Our big trees, even coast live oaks, are not necessarily water-thrifty plants,” says Perry. “They have a big surface area to cool.” So prioritize: allow portions of your yard to be drier, rely less on lawn and other thirsty plants. That way, says Perry, “collectively you’re using less water because you are focusing it strategically on the plants that really do the good things for our environment.”

Exactly. Trees. Big shady trees.