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Book Review:UnSchoolers by Sophia Sayigh and Milva MacDonald

Did you ever wonder, what do unschoolers really do all day?

Now there’s a novel to give you a glimpse into the complex and wonderful world of unschooling.

I was excited when on of the authors of UnSchoolers reached out to me and asked if I would consider reviewing UnSchoolers.

The first thing I wanted to know was, who are the authors?

Two moms who unschooled their kids.  
Here is a bit more from their bios on their site:

Sophia Sayigh is a librarian and the mother of two adult children, neither of whom went to school until college. She is forever grateful for the time she was able to spend with them unschooling, and she continues to learn more from each of them than she ever taught them. She stumbled upon John Holt’s Teach Your Own at the library in 1991, and it struck a deep chord, resonating with her own school experience as a “good” student, as well as her then life with a toddler. She is the ultimate homebody, and has supported families through volunteer work as a breastfeeding counselor, contributing homeschool support group member, and family death care/green burial outreach. A perfect moment would be spent outside in lively conversation with family and friends, a cup of coffee, book, and dog within reach.

Milva McDonald is the mother of four amazing adult children, all of whom homeschooled for all or most of their child and teenage years. She started homeschooling in 1991, after reading an essay by John Taylor Gatto and realizing school and the PTA weren’t for her. For three decades she worked for The Boston Globe and writing and reporting about arts and cultural events in Boston. Other pursuits over the years included running a folk music coffeehouse, organizing countless field trips, facilitating creative writing groups for kids, passing hors d’oeuvres at fancy parties on weekends, and performing in several editions of The Christmas Revels. She sings in The Halalisa Singers and blogs at

And I always want to know the why. Why did they decide to write?

Says Sayigh,

“People always ask, ‘What is a typical day like?’ And of course there isn’t a typical daythere are as many different days as there are families, so we had the idea to write through the eyes of a variety of homeschooling families. And it morphed into something richer, because the families also interact with each other over a series of days.” 


“It chronicles the way we homeschooled,” says Sayigh, “and looking back, it appears that it was a unique time in the history of homeschooling. It was accepted as legal in all 50 states, but it was so far off the grid that we really had to create opportunities for our kids by ourselves. Today we see families choosing to homeschool, and being immediately marketed to—as well as almost too many opportunities to join online groups. What can be lost is the do-it-yourself part. We’re hoping the book will show that the kind of empowering organizing and community building that we did is still possible. You just have to put the effort in, it has to be a priority, and sometimes it’s a slog. But there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s worth it.” 

I totally agree with those last two sentences about the value of the effort of building community and the DIY aspect of figuring things out.

In many ways figuring out how to learn what you want and build a community of support and friendship are the most empowering and lasting lessons. What that looks like can be hard to convey in just a few words to someone wondering what unschooling is like and if it is worth it.

I was curious about how a fictional representation of unschooling would work.

  • How would they give background information on homeschooling and unschooling within the story?
  • Would the authors be able to show the diversity of unschoolers as well as common concerns?
  • Would it look like what felt true to me?

So time to dive in and read.

Yes, it felt true.  I couldn’t stop reading.

Ahh the sweet memories of our homeschooling days.

I could relate to the various characters as they wrestled with:

  • finding their way as parents
  • letting go of judgment and control
  • enjoying their children and the process of learning together
  • frustration and fears of uncertainty and forging a new path
  • the tensions between those farther along in accepting and choosing freedom and parents still scared to let go of the system
  • the reality of parenting partners not always being on board with homeschooling
  • the challenges of accepting and embracing differences

Of course most parents want what is best for their kids and try to design a life that will be best for their kids. And all parents come with their own baggage and beliefs about the best way to do that.

Once you decide – whatever your reasons – that you need or want to go outside the traditional path for educating or parenting your kids – you have hopes and expectations about the other adventurers choosing to forge their own paths.

And the confidence to be different and intense idealism does help forge bonds. But the seekers are still endearingly imperfect humans learning as they go.

MacDonald and Sayigh do a wonderful job of capturing the love, desires, fears, questions, and commitment that can lead to enduring and deep relationships between kids, families and friends that choose to create community along with taking ownership of their learning.

Follow-up questions with Author Milva MacDonald

I asked Milva how the response to the book Unschoolers has been, what questions come up, would she change anything, and what next.

She said,

The response to the book has been great. Homeschoolers who’ve read it have been able to relate to it, and non-homeschoolers have found it illuminating. One question people have asked a lot is “Why fiction?” Sophia and I both love to read fiction and agree with the research that says it fosters understanding and empathy. So we thought it could be a good way to help break through some of the assumptions people have about the motivations, belief systems, and lifestyles of homeschoolers. Another reason we chose fiction is that homeschoolers and unschoolers are woefully underrepresented in books. When they do appear, they’re often sensationalized or extreme in some way. People also ask if we’re trying to promote homeschooling or unschooling with the book, and the answer to that would have to be no. In writing the book, we were just trying to tell the stories of the characters.
Would I change or add anything? Probably! I was once in a writing workshop with the amazing novelist Tim O’Brien and on the first day he walked in with of his published books, opened it wide and held it up so we could see that he’d copiously crossed out, underlined, and reworked to the point where the original text was barely legible. He wanted us to know that he was constantly revising. Years before that I was in a workshop with the novelist Ivan Gold. I had brought in a story and told the participants I was having trouble finishing it. Ivan looked at me and said, “The story is done! Send it out!” He was right, of course. I think it’s pretty common for writers to feel like they’re never finished. 
I would love to see more writers incorporate unschoolers into their work. I’ve been leading creative writing groups for unschooled kids and teens for years, and even in that environment the kids are more likely to create young characters who go to school than not. School is deeply embedded in our cultural framework, and even homeschooled kids figure that out. Writing exercises that feature characters who homeschool can help steer them toward including unschoolers in their writing. 
Sometimes it feels like homeschoolers are invisible. I once attended a church service to support a friend who was delivering a lay sermon. Before my friend spoke, the kids were assembled for the young people’s portion of the service. Two of the children were homeschoolers. These kids were also members of the church and well known to the children’s minister, but her discussion focused exclusively on questions about the particular public and private schools attended by the other kids, completely ignoring the experiences of the two homeschooled kids. She may have been so clueless about homeschooling that she didn’t know how to formulate questions about it, but the result was that the two homeschooled kids just sat there while all the other kids talked about their school lives. The more homeschoolers and unschoolers are portrayed in books and movies in realistic ways, the more comfortable people will get about it. 
I’m currently working on a short book on facilitating creative writing workshops for homeschoolers, as well as finishing a novel that has nothing to do with homeschooling.
A sequel to “Unschoolers” may appear at some point, too. We’ll see!

I’m looking forward to more books!

Over to you, have you read Unschoolers, what did you think? 

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