2012 Books

Dec 31, 2012

I had a goal to read 52 books this year. I figured if I could read an average of a book a week, that was pretty good considering my slow reading speed and busy life. I'm happy to report that I read a total of 60 books, so I even exceeded my goal by a little bit. :-)

At a glance, here are all of the books I read. All titles will be linked to my original reviews (unless I haven't written them yet, in which case they're coming soon). Also, I'll make note of whether it was an audio book. And last, be on the lookout for which ones made it into my Top 5 of the year because, you know, those are the ones you should read no matter what.  

1. State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett, partial AUDIO, 1/10
The year had a rough start. I enjoyed most of the book, but the ending RUINED the ENTIRE book.

2. Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli, AUDIO, 6/10
I liked it, but now, almost a year later, I can remember very little about it.

3. The Parenting Breakthrough: A Real-Life Plan to Teach Your Kids to Work, Save Money, and Be Truly Independent, by Merrilee Boyack, 9/10
With Boyack's detailed plan for how to raise truly independent kids by age 18, this is one of my very, very favorite parenting books.

4. Anne of Windy Poplars, by Lucy Maud Montgomery, 8/10
As always, great characters.

5. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, AUDIO, 10/10, Top 5
Every time I tell someone about this book, I am amazed all over again that it is a true story. 

6. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, AUDIO, 3/10
I know it's a science fiction classic. I know it's about books. But I could not wait to be done with it.

7. Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby Love Good Food, by Gill Rapley, 8/10
Outlines a whole new approach to introducing solids to babies without using any purees. I used it with Bradley with great success (mainly because it made me much less stressed about all the whens and whats).

8. Peter and the Starcatchers, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, AUDIO 9/10
All about how Peter Pan became Peter Pan, this book had the perfect blend of adventure, magic, and a great deal of wit.

9. Taking Off, by Jenny Moss, 7/10
This historical fiction, with events surrounding the Challenger disaster, was interesting.

10. Midnight in Austenland, by Shannon Hale, 7/10
Nothing too memorable but very fun to read.

11. Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, AUDIO, 5/10
I was intrigued by the steampunk genre, but it was a little too out there (or something) for me. I have no intention of finishing the trilogy.

12. The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde, 8/10
The plot is funny, the lines are funny, the characters are funny.

13. The Mouse and the Motorcycle, by Beverly Cleary, 6/10
Ralph S. Mouse and his obsession with vehicles was a great choice for Aaron's first chapter book.

14. The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin, 10/10, Top 5
This book changed my life. Really. I still think about it frequently.

15. Key Lime Pie, by Josie S. Kilpack, 6/10
The fourth one in a series of culinary mysteries, this one was just as fluffy as the others, but I read it when I was in the right mood for it.

16. My Father's Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett, 7/10
Great little story about a young boy's adventures trying to save a dragon.

17. Funeral Potatoes, by Joni Hilton, 6/10
Not my genre of choice but not a bad way to pass the time during a long road trip.

18. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by, E. Lockhart, AUDIO, 7/10
I really enjoyed this story about a feisty teenage girl outwitting all her male counterparts, but there were some things I didn't like about it, too.

19. Edenbrooke, by Julianne Donaldson, 10/10,  Top 5
I feel happy every time I think about this book. Pure pleasure. Gets the award for best leading man.

20. Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever, by Mem Fox, 8/10
How could I not like a book that tells me the best thing I can do as a mother is read to my children?

21. Peter and the Shadow Thieves, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, AUDIO, 7/10
I didn't like it as well as the first one, but it was still very good, and I would definitely recommend this series to 10-14 year-old boys.

22.  Elmer and the Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett, 6/10
I actually can't remember a single thing about this book except that I didn't like it quite as well as My Father's Dragon.

23. The Penderwicks at Point Moutte, by Jeanne Birdsall, AUDIO, 9/10
Really, really liked this third installment about the Penderwick sisters. These books say "summer" to me like almost nothing else.

24. Sink Reflections, by Marla Cilley, 8/10
A bit on the cheesy side (okay, a lot on the cheesy side), but after I implemented many of the suggestions in this book, my house stayed much cleaner. (Sadly, I lost a lot of my good habits when we moved. Yes, I know that was four months ago.)

25. The Littles, by John Lawrence Peterson, 6/10
I enjoyed reading this book from my childhood to Aaron and Max.

26. The Littles Take a Trip, by John Lawrence Peterson, 6/10
After reading this one, I decided I'm probably just going to let the boys read the rest of these on their own someday. It was cute, but it was a little juvenile to be truly enjoyable for me, too.

27. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, 10/10, Top 5
Francie may well be one of the best main characters I've ever encountered. And the writing is an absolute treat.

28. Heaven is Here, by Stephanie Nielson, 9/10
This book made me appreciate all the good things in my life just a little bit more.

29. The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster, AUDIO, 6/10
I thought I would like this children's classic more than I did.

30. ScreamFree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids By Keeping Your Cool, by Hal Edward Runkel, AUDIO, 8/10
Some really great ideas. I should already reread it.

31. Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America, by Firoozeh Dumas, 8/10
This memoir was both entertaining and enlightening. It cast America in a new, but not unfavorable, light.

32. Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale, AUDIO, 9/10
I enjoyed this book the second time just as much as when I first read it. 

33. Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos, AUDIO, 8/10
I really did love this partly autobiographical story (and Mike did, too).

34. Bringing Up Geeks: How to Protect Your Kid's Childhood in a Grow-Up-Too-Fast World, by MaryBeth Hicks, 9/10
I felt like I was reading a parenting manual written by my own parents. I agreed with practically everything in it. I want my kids to be geeks.

35. Emily of New Moon, by Lucy Maud Montgomery, AUDIO, 8/10
I loved Emily almost as much as Anne Shirley.

36. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloo, 9/10
I have not stopped thinking about this book and all the ethical and moral questions it raised. Also, I never thought I would find cell cultures so fascinating.

37. Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White, 10/10
Aaron and I enjoyed this book equally well. A true classic.

38. Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, AUDIO, 9/10
I'll still go with my original summary: this book is heartachingly perfect.

39. What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, by Malcolm Gladwell, 8/10
I will never think the same way about ketchup, birth control, or a multitude of other topics.

40. The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner, AUDIO, 6/10
Not really my favorite.

41. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain, AUDIO, 9/10
This book validated my introverted personality. I will forever be grateful for it.

42. The Girl Who Chased the Moon, by Sarah Addison Allen, 3/10
Not what I was expecting and not what I liked.

43. Mr. Popper's Penguins, by Richard and Florence Atwater, 5/10
I thought this story was a bit on the boring side and not all that funny or cute.

44. The Unwanteds, by Lisa McMann, AUDIO, 9/10
Really, really great. This was the perfect blend of fantasy, magic, and dystopian.

45. The Witches, by Roald Dahl, AUDIO, 9/10
The story was great. The narrator was amazing.

46. Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, 10/10
Told from several different viewpoints, I loved this story about a 10-year-old boy learning to overcome his challenges.

47. The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigian, 6/10
I should have loved this story, but the writing draaaaaged.

48. The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden, 8/10
Aaron or Max will mention Chester or Harry or Tucker or Mario at least once a week.

49. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, AUDIO, 10/10, Top 5
The writing was exquisite, the plot was captivating, and even now, I get lost in the story just thinking about it.

50. The Aviary, by Kathleen O'Dell, 8/10
Unlike anything I've ever read before, in a good way.

51. Mr. and Mrs. Bunny--Detectives Extraordinaire by Polly Horvath, 8/10
I dare you to read this book and not laugh out loud.

52. Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl, AUDIO, 9/10
Opened my eyes to the subtle flavors of food and the powerful influence of appearance.

53. Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver, AUDIO 8/10
A strangely sentimental and beautiful story about a girl and her ghost.

54. Liar & Spy, by Rebecca Stead, AUDIO 8/10
So fun to see how all the pieces came together in the end.

55. Dinner: A Love Story, by Jenny Rosenstrach, 8/10
Yummy recipes intermixed with a great commentary about the importance of eating dinner as a family.

56. Matilda, by Roald Dahl, AUDIO, 8/10
I didn't know it until this year, but I love Roald Dahl.

57. Lost December, by Richard Paul Evans, AUDIO, 7/10
It has the Richard Paul Evans flavor for sure, but that's what I expected, so I liked it.

58. A Dog Named Christmas, by Greg Kincaid, AUDIO, 8/10
I don't love dogs, but I loved this book.

59. The 13th Day of Christmas, by Jason F. Wright, 7/10
Everything you would expect out of a Christmas story: heartwarming, tear-jerking, happy.

60. The Mansion, by Henry van Dyke, 9/10
Very metaphorical and thought-provoking. 

And that's it! Thanks, 2012! You've been a great year!

Reading with the Seasons: Christmas Wrap-up

Dec 29, 2012

People didn't come forward with as many ideas for Christmas books as I was expecting, but I'll share the few that I received or collected on my own.

At Silver Shoes & Rabbit Holes, Danzel recommended The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas, part of the Austin Family series by Madeleine L'Engle. (I didn't even know that Madeleine L'Engle had written these!)

My good friend, Amy, recommended Christmas By the Book by Beverly King and also The Christ Commission by Og Mandino.

My other good friend, Amy, gave me The 13th Day of Christmas by Jason F. Wright. I read it on the drive to Colorado and enjoyed it.

Samantha @ The Musical Feast recommended Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge. I think I read this one when I was younger, but I don't remember anything about it. It seems like it would be great for January, too. Samantha reviewed it recently and said it didn't quite meet her expectations.

And as for the other books I was planning to read, I loved The Mansion, Lost December, and A Dog Named Christmas. I gave up on The Christmas Train (there were parts I liked but there were a couple of red flags I was nervous about). And I sadly never got to Jacob T. Marley. Next year!

Book Haul, Christmas 2012

Dec 29, 2012

We are in Colorado enjoying some post-Christmas festivities with my family. We are also enjoying our Christmas presents, some of which were, of course, books. I love choosing books for each of my boys, deciding which ones they will like best and also which ones are worth making permanent residents of our collection.

This year:

Bradley: Yawn by Sally Symes and Nick Sharratt  

Bradley: Who Said Moo? by Harriet Ziefert and Simms Taback (I really wanted to get Chomp! by Heather Brown, but it wasn't in stock at our local bookstore, but this was a good runner-up.)

Bradley: At the Farm, a Read & Sing Along book
(This was a gift from Uncle Ben and Aunt Meagan who know that Bradley loves both animals and books.)

Maxwell: We Are in a Book! and Let's Go For a Drive!, both by Mo Willems
(Someday soon I will devote an entire post to Elephant & Piggie and our undying devotion to Mo Willems.)

Max's expression when he unwrapped the books. His joy is clearly visible. Love that boy and his book obsession.

Aaron: Mercy Watson to the Rescue and Mercy Watson Fights Crime, both by Kate DiCamillo, illus. Chris Van Dusen
(Mercy Watson Fights Crime introduces the infamous Leroy Ninker, a hopeful cowboy turned thief, one of my all-time favorite characters.)

Me: Wonder by R.J. Palacio
You probably know by now that I'm fairly selective with which books I allow to stay forever in my home. So Christmas and birthdays always present such an internal struggle because I love getting new books, but the debate is always: Should I ask for something I haven't yet read and run the risk of it being a book I don't actually want to keep? or Should I ask for something I've read and know I want to own but miss out on the excitement of having something new to read? This time, the tried and true won out, and Santa brought me Wonder, one of my favorite books of the year, and one that I am thrilled to display on my bookshelf because I know I will reread it..

Me: The Christmas Wish by Richard Siddoway
My mom gave me this one. My whole family loves the movie that's based on this book, but I've never read the book. Given my great love for Christmas stories, it's time I changed that.

My dad: The Candy Bombers by Andrei Cherny
Earlier this month, my dad and I went on a daddy/daughter date to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert. It was fantastic, and the crowning moment was when Tom Brokaw (the guest narrator) told the story of Hal Halvorsen who dropped candy to children in West Berlin following World War II, and then 92-year-old Hal appeared himself. Anyway, my dad enjoyed the story so much, and Mike loved this book when he read it a couple of years ago, so we got it for him.

 At the concert

Did you get any books for Christmas? Please share!

The Mansion by Henry van Dyke

Dec 25, 2012

Merry Christmas! For the last several weeks, Max has been asking every day whether or not it is a holiday. He asked again this morning (after he had already opened all of his presents), and he was thrilled to hear that, yes, it finally was an official holiday. I hope all of you are enjoying some wonderful, relaxing time with family and friends.

While Mike and the boys are out playing in the fresh, new snow that came last night (how perfect is that?!), I thought I'd take a minute to write about a wonderful story I just finished.

I mentioned at the beginning of the month that I had been wanting to read Henry van Dyke’s, The Mansion. When I was growing up, I was very familiar with The Gift of the Magi. My dad read it aloud to us many times, and we also had the made-for-TV movie starring Marie Osmond (a true treasure if ever there was one). But I had never heard of The Mansion until a couple years ago when President Monson mentioned it in the annual First Presidency Christmas Devotional. He said that it is a tradition of his to read The Mansion, along with A Christmas Carol and the Christmas Story as recorded in Luke 2 every Christmas. Ever since then, I have been meaning to read it. I finally did last week and found it filled with gems of wisdom and insight.

The story is about John Weightman, an important man with substantial influence and power. Among other things, he has funded the building of one school, three small churches, and a wing of the hospital. He is proud of the recognition and respect he has attained through his many good works. One night, he has an argument with his adult son, who would like to give some money to a friend with a life-threatening lung condition. John Weightman thinks it a poor investment since there is no guarantee the young man will live, and even if he does, he may or may not amount to anything which will further the reach of John Weightman’s good name. After the argument, John falls into a troubled sleep where he finds himself traveling on a road with a large group of people who are being taken to the mansions that have been prepared for them. John is the last one to reach his, which turns out to be a humble shack in a desolate field. He is indignant since he has lived such an honorable life. But he learns that it is not just his actions but his motivations for those actions that count in the grand scope of eternity.

I couldn’t help but compare this story to A Christmas Carol (especially knowing that President Monson always reads these two texts back to back). Ebenezer Scrooge is a very different character than John Weightman. He is miserly, selfish, unfeeling, and, at times, even cruel. He never gives a penny to anyone, and so he is visited by three ghosts to show him how his actions have negatively affected his past, present, and possible future. John Weightman, on the other hand, has filled his life with noble works but only the kind that will be recognized by a large number of people; none of that anonymous donor junk for him.

When he sees his pitiful “mansion,” he has an interesting discussion with the Keeper of the Gate. The Keeper never discounts the good that John Weightman accomplished during his life. In fact, he acknowledges and respects it, but he says, “Were not all these carefully recorded on earth where they would add to your credit? They were not foolishly done. Verily, you have had your reward for them. Would you be paid twice?”

That phrase, Would you be paid twice?, has stuck with me. In life, John Weightman was solely concerned with how his actions would move him toward his far-reaching, worldly goals.  But then, once he was in heaven, all of a sudden he wanted all of his actions to be rewarded there as well.  It is very reminiscent of the story of the Pharisees in the New Testament who prayed in public places and made themselves appear to be fasting “to be seen of men.” But then Jesus reminds them, “they have their reward.” 

When John Weightman first sees his shack, my first thought was that it was a punishment for his hypocritical actions. But when John demands, “Why have you not built it large and fair, like the others?” the Keeper of the Gate says, “That is all the material you sent us.” This placed the responsibilities and consequences squarely on John Weightman’s shoulders. I loved this angle because I truly believe we are in charge of our own destinies. John invested his time and energy in the things that were important to him, just as every day I choose how to divide myself among the many duties, wants, and necessities I find myself faced with. John chose to spend all of his energy building an earthly mansion and so there wasn’t much wherewith to build his heavenly mansion. But the important thing to remember is that it was his choice. Heavenly Father would have loved to bless him with more. In fact, when the shack is being described, it says that it was “put together with cares and pains, by some one who had tried to make the most of cast-off material.” Heavenly Father always blesses us with the very best He can, and it is always more than we deserve.

In this way, this can be seen as a perfect New Year’s story, even more than Christmas. It talks about kindness and goodwill, which are definitely Christmas themes, but it also causes a lot of introspection: Does the person who people see on the outside match who I really am on the inside? Why am I doing what I do? Who am I trying to please? These types of questions inspire great changes for the new year.

The edition I have pictured above is not the one I read. This new one was published last year, and I am in love with it. The story is simplified and abridged and accompanied by beautiful illustrations. But the complete and unabridged text is also included at the end of the book. I almost bought this edition a few days ago. I was this close. In fact, I walked around the store for probably a good fifteen minutes, clutching it possessively, until I regretfully put it back. But next year…next year, I will get it. Instead, I read this edition from the library, which, while not nearly as pretty, is every bit as authentic

This story is short and could easily be read in a single afternoon. The beginning is a little slow (I tried to read it aloud to Mike when he was driving, but it was putting him to sleep), and the ending is a little abrupt, but all in all, it is a wonderful story that will fill your soul with Christmas goodwill and propel you to make positive choices for the New Year.  Merry, merry Christmas!

Read Your Way to Christmas

Dec 24, 2012

For the last few months, I have been on the lookout for Christmas books whenever I visit my local thrift store. Along with my other advent calendar, I really wanted to count down the days to Christmas with books. The night before December 1st, my friend and I had a book wrapping party, and much to my horror, I discovered I was a couple books shy of 24. This, of course, wasn't the end of the world; I had about a million Christmas books from the library that I could have wrapped up, but instead I decided to splurge and buy a book I was desperately longing for. (More on that at the end of the post...)

Aaron and Max took turns selecting and unwrapping a book each morning. (On the off days, the other one got to hang up the picture on the other  advent calendar.) This was definitely one of the highlights of the month. It brought a little excitement to every day.

And now, starting in the top left hand corner and working your way down, moving left to right (like you're reading a book), here are our 24 books to Christmas:

1. *Room For a Little One, Martin Waddell, illus. Jason Cockcroft
I love the soft illustrations and quiet text. One of my favorite picture books about the nativity.

2. Country Angel Christmas, Tomie dePaola
A sweet story about finding your own place and way to help, no matter how small you are.

3. Drummer Boy, Loren Long
I love the gentle rhythm of the drummer boy's song.

4. *Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree, Robert E. Barry
I love this book! I may or may not have pushed for this to be opened at the beginning of December so we could spend the whole month enjoying it. A cute story about a tree that is perpetually too tall, and the top continues to be cut off and handed down to someone smaller.

5. Three Snow Bears, Jan Brett
While it doesn't have anything to do with Christmas, this retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears features plenty of snow to make it worthy of the season.

6. The Night Before Christmas
I still own my copy of this book, which I received for my very first Christmas in 1985.

7. *Bear Stays Up For Christmas, Karma Wilson, illus. Jane Chapman
If you're acquainted with the other Bear books, you will not want to miss this Christmas story where Bear fights off hibernation so he can spend Christmas with his friends.

8. The Stable Where Jesus Was Born, Rhonda Gowler Greene, illus. Susan Gaber
A nice rhyme to go with the nativity story.

9. The Christmas Story, Carol Heyer
Beautiful illustrations.

10. Henry and Mudge and a Very Merry Christmas, Cynthia Rylant
We love Henry and Mudge, so adding Christmas only makes them better.

11. The Littlest Christmas Elf, Nancy Buss, illus. Terri Super
I received this when I was four years old in a preschool gift exchange, but then it was tragically lost. I liked it so much that my mom bought a replacement copy and re-inscribed the name of the little boy who gave it to me.

12. Max's Christmas, Rosemary Wells
I love Max and Ruby, but I'll be completely honest: I will replace this one as soon as possible. It's kind of dumb.

13. *Gingerbread Baby, Jan Brett
The gingerbread baby gets chased all over the village until he finds a gingerbread house just perfect for him. You can't go wrong with Jan Brett's illustrations. Love her.

14. *Snowmen at Christmas, Caralyn Buehner, illus. Mark Buehner
Imaginative and creative and easily puts you in a holiday mood.

15. *Merry Christmas, Big Hungry Bear!, Don and Audrey Wood
If you love The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear, then I think you'll love this one just as much. Instead of the sly, manipulative ending of the first, this one has a very sweet ending.

16. Christmas Mouse, Vivian French and Ernest's Special Christmas, Laura T. Barnes
Both of these are kind of lame. I was hoping by wrapping them up together, they would add up to something not as lame. I don't think it worked.

17. *The Christmas Train, Thomas S. Monson, illus. Dan Burr
My one splurge this year. See the end of the list for more of my thoughts.

18. The Bears' Christmas, Stan and Jan Berenstain
Oh, Papa Bear! This book is just full of silly and ridiculous moments and is sure to get a few laughs. (And bonus: it's a great one if you have an early reader in your house.)
19. Carl's Christmas, Alexandra Day
In this book, Carl doesn't have to watch the baby, so he goes out for some fun of his own.
20. The Crippled Lamb, Max Lucado
A sweet Christmas story.

21. A Wish to be a Christmas Tree, Colleen Monroe
A great story about the importance of helping everyone feel loved.

22. Olive, the Other Reindeer, J. Otto Seibold
Convinced that she is a reindeer, Olive (a dog) helps Santa on Christmas Eve.

23. I Spy Little Christmas, Jean Marzollo, illus. Walter Wick
My boys love the I Spy books, and this simplified one is perfect for them at their current ages.

24. The Cheerios Christmas Play Book, Lee Wade
Not a Christmas classic, but good for entertaining small fingers nonetheless.

So The Christmas Train...I can't remember the first time I heard President Thomas S. Monson share his boyhood story of receiving a beautiful electric train for Christmas but then still being greedy when it came time to take a little windup train to a boy down the street, but I have loved it for awhile now. So when I saw that it was turned into a picture book this year, I could think of little else. I wanted it so much. When I finally had a chance to look at it, I wanted it even more. The illustrations are beautiful, and the text is simple and short. Some similar books to this one (think Christmas Oranges or A Christmas Dress For Ellen) have really lengthy texts, but this one involved no more than a few lines per page. When we read it the first time, Aaron thought that Tommy should get to take one of the cars from the neighbor boys trains because "he didn't have one like that," but then I think he caught the message of the joy of giving. I'm so glad we own a copy of it now.

If you didn't get a chance to read any of these this year, be sure to check them out next Christmas!

*indicates a favorite in the Johnson household

A Dog Named Christmas by Greg Kincaid

Dec 20, 2012

Books are amazing. That probably goes without me saying it since I'm writing this on my own little book blog, but it's worth repeating now and again. Books are amazing. Not only can I visit, say, Paris in the, say, 19th century, but I can suddenly and without warning care about something I wouldn't normally care about.

Take dogs, for example. Yes, dogs. When I was a kid, I was scared of many of them and found their constant slobbering, licking, jumping, and barking indescribably annoying. Now that I'm an adult, I'm scared of some of them, and I still find their constant slobbering, licking, jumping, and barking indescribably annoying.(I know I'm in the minority here, so don't hate me, all you dog lovers out there!) But while I was listening to this book, for a brief few hours in time, I was totally wrapped up in the story of one dog, to the point that if Todd (a character in the story) had called me up right then, I think I would have agreed to adopt a dog for Christmas. That's the power of words right there.

The story is narrated by George, a middle-aged father of five whose youngest son, Todd, still lives at home. Todd is warm-hearted and kind with a passion for animals and painting their barn all colors of the rainbow. Although an adult, Todd has some developmental challenges which keep him from venturing out on his own. One December, he hears about the animal shelter's program to adopt a dog for Christmas. Todd becomes fixated on this one idea and won't let it rest until George agrees to let him bring home a dog for a week. Before long, Todd has extended his plan and sets out to make sure all the dogs at the shelter have somewhere to go for Christmas. Meanwhile, having a dog around brings back some painful memories for George, memories that he has kept hidden away for many years. Finally, he is able to confront his past and feel at peace.

A few years ago, Hallmark made a movie based on this book. I watched it with my family last year and liked it so much that I decided to read the book this year. For the most part, the movie followed the book really closely, and I like both for different reasons.  As my dad was saying to me, and which I agree with, in the movie you feel like Todd is the main character, and in the book, it seems like George is. I loved the maturity Todd gains in the movie (and which is definitely present in the book), and I loved the way Todd and Christmas (the dog) and the family all facilitate George's healing in the book (which is also present in the movie).

Todd is a great character. The author never attaches a name to what is different about Todd (but it seems like it's something somewhere on the autism spectrum), and I loved this. It made it so that I didn't attach any expectations to Todd; I just got to know him as I would anybody else. I also loved Todd because I know people like him, and I love them. I think Todd perfectly embodied the things I love about my loved ones, which is in part summed up in this one quote: "Before you knew it, his urgent need became your urgent need." I love the enthusiasm that is so infectious with these types of people.

The story takes place in a very small town, and maybe some of you remember that I also grew up in a very small town. In addition to the fact that both towns only have one stoplight, I felt like there were so many other little similarities that the author could have been using my hometown as a model for the town in the book. I can see Todd and his family being involved in community events and driving down the dirt street in their old pickup. Their brightly colored, mismatched house would fit in just right.

This is a sweet, simple Christmas story. I would read it again, no question.

Caramels and a Cute Way to Package Them

Dec 19, 2012

The first year we attempted homemade caramels was a disaster.

You know the caramels that are wrapped in wax paper and literally seem to melt when they hit your tongue? That's what I was envisioning. Instead, after standing at the stove and stirring the ingredients for hours (I think it actually was over an hour...that makes it plural, right?), the temperature finally reached the appointed 250 degrees, I poured it into a pan, and the next morning I found it brick hard. I can remember pounding a knife into it and not even making a dent.

But we didn't give up, and since that time, we've learned a few things and can now whip up a pretty darn good batch of caramels (if I do say so myself) without hardly even thinking about it. In case you've experienced a few caramel woes yourself, here are a few lessons learned from our own trial and error.

1. Start with a good recipe
There are basically two kinds of caramel recipes: those that use cream and those that use sweetened condensed milk. Although a confectioner would probably look down her nose at me, Mike and I both agree that you should go with the sweetened condensed milk version. With that very first batch of caramels, we really were standing and stirring it for soooooo looooong. Part of that was due to a temperature problem (see #2), but we were also using a recipe that called for cream, and it just takes a lot longer to heat up than sweetened condensed milk (speaking from observation and not any kind of scientific knowledge).

2. Find the right temperature
You know how a lot of cake recipes will give alternate baking directions if you're baking at a higher or lower altitude? Well, altitude also affects the temperature candy needs to be cooked to. A general rule of thumb is to subtract two degrees Fahrenheit for every 1000 feet above sea level. Which means that since my elevation is over 4000 feet, I need to subtract at least eight degrees Fahrenheit from whatever the recipe says. Trust me, a few degrees can literally be the difference between soft/chewy and hard/harder.

A couple tips: (1) use a thermometer (we used to use a candy thermometer, but I broke it when we moved, so this time, we just used our digital thermometer, and it worked just fine) and (2) test your candy in a cup of cold water (drop a small bit in the water, then take it out and examine the firmness/consistency). Really, you should use both these tips in conjunction with each other. It's like making a decision with your heart AND your head. :-)

3. Guess what? You can start over!
Four years ago when we had our first miserable failure, I was so depressed because not only could we not eat the candy (unless we wanted to break all our teeth), but we had also wasted a whole vat of ingredients. And I hate throwing away money.

But then my sister-in-law told me you can reheat the caramels, melt them down, and basically start over...with the same ingredients! We tried it, making sure to aim for a lower temperature, and, hooray, it worked! You do have to add a little liquid to replenish what boiled off, but then you're good to go. Just think about it: you can take one pot of ingredients and basically keep reheating and cooling until you've perfected the art of the perfect caramel! (Just kidding, I actually don't know how many times you could reheat it and still get good results.)

The caramel recipe we use is from some dear friends who go to our church. They have been making delicious candy longer than I've been alive, so they know what they're doing. Here is their recipe:

Melt-Away Caramels

Wipe down a large, heavy saucepan with butter (this will help cut down on crystallization). Combine the following ingredients in the prepared pan:

1 cup butter
1 1/2 cups white corn syrup
1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk
2 cups sugar 
(I didn't say these were healthy.)

Place pan over medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture comes to a boil. Wash crystals down from side of pan with pastry brush and water
Continue stirring until candy reaches the softball stage, which they said is between 229 and 232 degrees Fahrenheit. When we do it, we like it closer to 234 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pour immediately into a buttered 9x13" pan. Allow to cool. Then Mike flips out the whole 9x13" chunk and then uses the kitchen shears to cut long strips of caramel, and then he snips those strips into smaller squares. (Kitchen shears=genius idea) Then wrap the individual pieces in wax paper (Mike takes the entire roll of wax paper and cuts it all at the same time).  At this point, enlist any willing children, or make sure you have a good movie to watch (or audiobook to listen to).


Now all you have to do is package them up and share them with family and friends. If you don't want to go with the traditional cellophane bag or Christmas-y tin, try this classy way my friend showed me::

Start with a square piece of pretty paper (mine was about 10x10"). Fold the paper approximately where the lines are (don't judge me too harshly; I was just proud of myself for getting any lines at all on the picture).

I tried this two ways: creasing the folds sharply and also leaving them rounded. The first way makes it more like a little envelope packet. The second way leaves it in a cone shape, making it seem more like what I envision roasted chestnuts come in. Both ways are cute, just depends on the look you're going for.

 Secure the second edge with a couple pieces of tape

 Take the top triangle and fold it over

 Secure with tape

 Now add a ribbon and label and ta-da! Cute, with a bit of class.

KidPages: Three Silly Christmas Books

Dec 17, 2012

Remember how I sent my Christmas cards out the day after Thanksgiving to help myself have a more relaxing December? Well, it didn't work! We're definitely getting in a lot of fun, and I think the boys are getting more excited for Christmas every day, but it's not leaving me a lot of time for blog posts; I have SO MANY either in my head or halfway finished, but a lot of them are connected with Christmas and the holidays, and they'll be just like expired milk if I don't get them out before the 26th! (Sorry, poor analogy, but that's really what it feels like!)

Anyway, we've been reading a LOT of Christmas books around here (surprise, surprise). We have huge stacks from the library, and we've also, like so many of you, been unwrapping one book each day as we count down to Christmas. (Our list of 24 books we're counting down with has been one of the posts I've been meaning to write).

As I already said when I wrote about Thanksgiving picture books, it seems like we have to wade through a lot of so-so ones before we find a few that we really like. There seem to be a lot of Christmas books that are meant to be funny but come across as just being dumb. But here are three that we just discovered this month that had all of us in stitches (hopefully I'll write about some of our new favorite serious ones in a few days--another well-intentioned post).

1. Santa Duck, David Milgrim
On the day before Christmas, Nicholas Duck is thrilled to find a package on his doorstep, containing a bright red coat and Santa hat. Nicholas immediately puts on his new digs and goes in search of Santa because he still hasn't made his Christmas wishes known. On the way, he runs into lots of friends who all start spouting off their wish lists to him! Nicholas is so confused until he remembers he is wearing a Santa hat. When he finally does catch up to the authentic Santa Claus, his sharp and excellent memory prove a huge asset to Santa's busy night.

This really is a silly book. There's not a whole lot in the way of morals and messages; in fact, you could say that Nicholas is kind of a selfish duck, thinking only of making sure Santa knows what it is that he wants for Christmas. But this book made my boys laugh so uproariously that I couldn't help but like it, too. (If you have never heard Aaron laugh, you are missing out. It is truly infectious.) I think their favorite part was when Nicholas was singing "Jingle Bells" like this: "Jingle quack, Jingle quack, Jingle all the quack." I have a feeling I'm going to be hearing their own versions of that for days to come...

2. Merry Un-Christmas, Mike Reiss, illus. David Catrow
You've heard it said that if you had Christmas every day, then it wouldn't be special anymore, right? Well, this book takes that admonition literally.

For Noelle, it is Christmas 364 days each year. Every day, she is given beautiful new presents. Every day, she and her family eat a tremendous Christmas feast. And every day, she doesn't go to school because she is on Christmas break. She can't wait for Un-Christmas, that one unmagical day of the year where everything is boring and normal.

Isn't one of the laws of humor to take something familiar and twist it? That's exactly what this book does, and that's why it's so funny. It takes everything kids love about Christmas (presents and Santa and treats) and makes it seem average and not-in-the-least special, and takes everything from just a plain ol' regular day (the mailman and school and leftovers) and makes it seem out of the ordinary and spectacular.

I love the part in the story when Noelle's mother says, "Guess what we're having for Un-Christmas dinner?" and Noelle and her father excitedly guess, "Meatloaf?" or "Leftovers?" and then give a thrilled cheer when she says, "Even better! We're having TV dinners!"

And I love the picture of the mailman. He totally looks like Santa Claus, but instead he's bringing bills and junk mail, and Noelle couldn't be happier.

My favorite line is at the very end as Noelle's mother is tucking her into bed at the end of Un-Christmas. Noelle says, "I wish it could be Un-Christmas every day." And Noelle's mother says, "Oh, I bet you'd get tired of it after a while." Oh, the irony of it!

3. The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy, Jane Thayer, illus. Lisa McCue
In the same vein as Merry Un-Christmas, The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy takes a classic childhood wish (a boy begging his parents for a dog) and flips it (a dog begging his mother for a boy).

When Petey tells his mother all he wants for Christmas is his very own boy, she says she thinks she can manage that. But after searching all over the city, she comes back with the sad information that "they're terribly short of boys this year." So Petey goes in search of a dog who would perhaps be willing to give his boy away.

This book is sweet because it takes all of the things boys and dogs love about each other (playing fetch, going on walks, etc.) but lets the reader see it through the dog's eyes instead. For example, at one point in his search for a boy, Petey sees a bulldog in a car with a boy. He thinks it would be wonderful to own a boy who had a car so he could for lots of rides. And I can imagine there are lots of boys who wish they had a dog to take on road trips in the car. It has a great ending where Petey gets more than he could have ever wished for.

This book--the illustrations, the text, the story itself--has the feel of a classic Little Golden Book (although I don't think it was ever published as one). It is just heartwarming and cozy and almost makes me forget that the last thing I want for Christmas is a dog.

I hope you're making time for some good reading this holiday season. I'd love to hear about your great finds this year!

Lost December by Richard Paul Evans

Dec 15, 2012

When I was a music major, it was considered good taste to turn up your nose at almost all New Age composers and performers (as well as a host of other not-so-classical genres). One of the composers I remember getting a particularly bad rap was Jon Schmidt. (If you're not Mormon, you may or may not know who Jon Schmidt even is, although he has become more popular and well-known in the last five years or so since launching The Piano Guys--which I adore, btw). Anyway, I can distinctly remember hearing the rippling cadences of "Waterfall" being plunked out rather badly by some amateur pianist, and all of the music majors rolling their eyes at each other in disgust. But the truth was, under all that eye rolling, we kind of liked to let loose on a Jon Schmidt piece or two ourselves, when no one was listening, that is.

Sometimes I kind of feel like Richard Paul Evans is like a New Age composer. Those of us who pride ourselves on being "readers" turn up our nose at such books because we definitely have better taste than the people picking up the latest NYT bestseller at Costco. I know I've been at my book club before when we've been discussing what to read next and someone (maybe even me) smirkingly suggests, "How about Richard Paul Evans latest?" which is then met by a series of groans and yeah-right laughs. But then, what's that tucked under the magazines on the nightstand? Um, yeah, that's what I thought.

So maybe this is all just personal confession and not really general observation, but every Christmas, I like to read at least one book by Richard Paul Evans. They're usually sappy and on the predictable side, and not always particularly memorable come January, but they're an easy and fun story to get lost in.

Lost December is a modern spin on the biblical parable of the prodigal son. Luke is the son of a wealthy businessman,who is the founder and CEO of a large chain of copy centers. Luke and his father work really well together, and it is assumed that Luke will eventually take over the company. First though, his father wants him to get a good education so he can decide for himself if this company is really what he wants. While he is away at school, Luke becomes friends with a wild and free crowd, and when he graduates he decides he'd rather take his trust fund and "really live" instead of get tied down to a family company. In the process, Luke sees who his real friends are and learns that his father's love will never waver.

For the most part, Evans took the basic structure of the prodigal son story and just cast it in a modern light (right down to Luke eventually losing every penny and living on the streets without any of his former identity). The only element that is really missing is that of the prodigal's older brother. One of the reasons this parable in the Bible is so wonderful is it can be looked at and applied from several different angles (the father, the older son, the younger son). Each time you read it, you can think, Who am I in this story? What do I need to change about myself? But this modern retelling is just a story. Sure, it can still give you pause to think about your own life. But the main purpose is just to entertain. And so, it is Luke's story. And that's why I wasn't bothered by Luke being an only child. If there had been an older brother, he might have encroached on the story too much, adding another dimension that really wasn't supposed to be there. So I thought it was wise of Evans not to try to include him.

The story is predictable, especially since it's based on an ancient text: you know Luke's going to get in with the wrong kind of friends; you know he's going to squander his money and then be left alone; you know the distant and abrasive girl in the copy center is going to be someone special (oh wait, I guess that's not in the scriptures, but it's still obvious, nonetheless); and you know his father will welcome him home with tears and open arms. Despite this predictability though, the story was not boring or tedious. Sometimes it's nice not to have any major jolts or turns in the road but instead be able to see the path clearly and enjoy the story for what it plainly is.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It was what I wanted it to be. There are popular authors that drive me crazy, but Richard Paul Evans is not one of them. The only book of his I haven't liked is, ironically, The Christmas Box. (I'm still not sure why that one was the launchpad for his career.) That said, I probably won't read Lost December again. As long as Evans keeps writing, there will be another one just like it next year.

Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver

Dec 11, 2012

The following information will probably only solidify the fact that I am a book nerd: One morning, not too long ago, I woke up and realized I did not have an audio book to listen to that day. This seriously was not acceptable, and I felt a little bit panicked over it. After all, how could I possibly be expected to clean the house, or do any other monotonous tasks, if I didn't have something to make it feel worthwhile?! I make it a point to never have a break between books. I always have something waiting in the wings. This might seem a little obsessive (okay, yes, it's obsessive), but think of all the good reading you're missing out on if you have a week or two, or even a few days, between books! As I said before, definitely not acceptable.

I hadn't known I was going to be without a book. The night before, I had finished one and within the hour, started another. But it wasn't what I was expecting, and I was only twenty minutes into it when I decided I didn't want to finish it. So it was that I was without anything to listen to, and I decided it was finally time to try downloading a book from the library's website (I'm afraid I will always and forever be at least five years behind the rest of the world).

Believe it or not, there is a reason for this totally engrossing back story. I selected Liesl & Po not because it was on my to-read list or because I had read amazing reviews on it, but because, as I was frantically scrolling through the options (I had to make a selection before Mike took the computer to work with him), it was the first title that I vaguely recognized and that wasn't also already checked out.

It was chosen out of desperation but enjoyed just as much as if I had been wanting to read it for months.

The night the story begins, Liesl has recently lost her father. Her grief is almost unbearable as she didn't even get to say good-bye to him. Liesl's stepmother (a truly wicked one) has kept Liesl locked up in her attic room for months under the guise that she didn't want Liesl to have to see her father so sick before his death. That very night, as Liesl is crying anguished tears, a ghost appears in the room next to her. Although a bit alarmed, Liesl is surprisingly not very afraid. She is terribly lonely and finds a welcome companion in this ghost, named Po, and its pet, named Bundle. Po is able to make contact with Liesl's father on the other side, who says he wants to go home to the willow tree. Liesl knows she must help her father find peace. Meanwhile a young alchemist's apprentice named Will accidentally switches a box containing the most powerful magic in the world with a container holding Liesl's father's ashes. Along with a host of other seemingly unrelated characters, the two stories converge and depart and converge again until all is made perfectly right.

So as soon as I started this, I realized that it would have been the perfect story to read in October, what with one of its main characters being a ghost and all. You know how I feel about reading books at the right time of year. But I tried not to let the fact that I was reading it a month late bother me. And you know what? It was just fine. I may be completely obsessive sometimes, but I survived. Still though, it would have been perfect for October, so just tuck that away in your brains for future use.

Out of all the characters, I think I was most impressed with the characterization of Po. When asked if it was a boy or a girl, Po said it didn't know; it had been a ghost too long to remember. The same for the pet, Bundle: it was unknown whether it was a dog or a cat. But little intimations are given throughout the story that lead the reader to suspect that Po probably had been a little boy: Po's feelings of jealousy toward Will, always wanting to one-up Will, protecting and watching over Liesl, etc. (At the end, the reader does find out for certain.) I also loved how Lauren Oliver made Po both ghost-like and human. Ghost qualities: sliding through doors and walls, usually insensitive to and confused by human emotions, etc. Human qualities: wants to help Liesl, feels a certain longing for some vague past, etc. Also, I loved the way she gave personality to Po. Even though he was just a shadow, sometimes barely perceptible, he would flicker or fade or brighten depending on his mood. Really, really well done.

I already mentioned this in the summary, but I loved the way every character mattered to the story. Even seemingly minor characters unexpectedly popped up later, and everyone ended up being connected somehow in an unusual and twisting fabric. It actually reminded me a little of Dickens, except that it was only a tenth as long which didn't give me much of a chance to thoroughly forget the minor characters before they miraculously reappeared.

At the end of the book, there was a very poignant note from the author. She wrote this story following the sudden death of her best friend. I loved what she said: "Liesl & Po is the embodiment of what writing has always been for me at its purest and most basic--not a paycheck, certainly; not an idea, even; and not an escape. Actually, it is the opposite of an escape; it is a way back in, a way to enter and make sense of a world that occasionally seems harsh and terrible and mystifying." I liked the book before I read this, but reading the story behind it brought all of the characters into much clearer focus for me. I think this shows the absolute importance for each of us to have some sort of creative outlet to sort out our feelings and emotions. It doesn't have to be writing, but we all need some way to express the things that matter most to us.

This audio book was narrated by the well-known Jim Dale (narrator of Harry Potter and more). He is a wonderful narrator, and I've listened to him narrate several other books besides this one. But it wasn't until this reading that I realized I don't love him, and here is why: his voice is too memorable. I would know his voice anywhere, and for me, that's a problem. This book had absolutely nothing to do with pirates, and yet, I could not get pirates out of my head because awhile ago, I listened to Jim Dale narrate Peter and the Starcatchers. It's just a little bit annoying to have such a deep association between the sound of his voice and the books he has narrated. That's just my opinion.

Really a great read, but I'm left to wonder: Is the moral of the story that I should always have two books ready and waiting? Or none? Because when chance and coincidence lands me a book like this one, I'm thinking it might be better not to plan.

Christ the Savior is Born: Advent Calendar

Dec 8, 2012

As a child, one of the highlights of the Christmas season for me was the day-after-day anticipation leading up to Christmas itself. Even now, at almost 28, I love the excitement of looking forward to events almost as much as I love the events themselves.

During her first year of marriage, my mom made an advent calendar that we have used every year since then. I believe she got the idea from a friend and used her calendar for a pattern. You've probably seen one like it: a bare Christmas tree surrounded by 24 pockets. In each pocket is an ornament, and by Christmas Eve, the Christmas tree is completely decorated.

I loved this calendar. I thought the sequin numbers were so pretty and the presents under the tree beautiful. I had my very favorite ornaments that I hoped would be in my pocket when it was my turn to pull it out (which, with eight kids in the family, was only about once a week!). Each year, as we decorated the house, my heart would give a little leap of joy when my mom hung up the calendar, and I was practically wild with excitement as I waited for December 1st to come around.

In those days, the days dragged by in an endlessly slow march, but the advent calendar made it easier to see that we were making progress and that the days were slowly but surely being ticked off 'til Christmas Eve.

Ever since getting married, I have wanted to make (or buy) an advent calendar that we could use year after year and which Aaron, Maxwell, and Bradley could look forward to just as I had done. But I felt a lot of pressure to find just the right one. I could have easily copied my mom's, but I didn't really want to. I wanted that one to remain a part of my childhood. I wanted something new and different for this new phase of my life.

I searched the internet for ideas and took note of the various advent calendars in my friends' homes, but nothing seemed quite right.

Until I saw this one:

This seemed like the perfect idea for our family. Maybe you haven't noticed, but it is not difficult to get kids excited for Santa and presents and treats, but sometimes it is hard to remember why we celebrate this time of year. I liked the idea of something like this hanging in our home to be walked by and looked at many times over the course of the day. It would make the remembering a little easier while still contributing to the fun, excitement, and anticipation.

Below, I'll show you how I made mine. I made some changes from the one I linked to above, and it is just right for our family. (And, of course, even though I've had making an advent calendar in the back of my mind all year, I was putting the finishing touches on this one the night before December 1st.)

I started with a 12x16 wooden plaque I bought at Michaels. I had a 50% off coupon, so I believe it was $7. I painted the sides a deep red.

For the numbers, I used a sheet of 12x12" scrapbook paper which already had the numbers printed onto it. I was really drawn to the simplicity of just slathering it with mod podge and slapping it on the board without having to do a lot of cutting and measuring and individual gluing.

(So, I have to admit my "simple" idea turned a little complicated when the paper kept bubbling as I was trying to mod podge over the top. I've used mod podge very rarely and am not very good at applying it. When it started bubbling, I freaked out a little because it was practically the last thing I was doing, and I knew that instead of being a family keepsake, those bubbles would make me hate it every time I looked at it. But folks, that's why I married an engineer...he really comes in quite handy when it comes to fixing my problems. I don't even know how he did it--I left the room because I was so frustrated looking at it--but the bubbles are gone.)

If you don't like the one piece of scrapbook paper idea, you could definitely just cut out your own individual squares and numbers. That's what my friend, Kathy, did. We made our calendars together, and I really benefited from her good ideas. In the end, our calendars ended up looking very different from each other.

The top part of my board is also covered with a sheet of scrapbook paper. Mike cut the letters for me on a laser he has at work (I'm not fancy enough to own a Cricut yet, but I am fancy enough to have a husband who has access to a laser. What can I say?), and then I just mod podged them on.

 I put "The Savior" on a piece of thin MDF to make it stand out a little more and give the board more of a 3-D look. You probably recognize the words from "Silent Night," one of my very favorite Christmas hymns.

Now about the little squares that hang on each of the numbers. They are made out of MDF. Mike cut them to be 2x2 inches. I painted the sides the same shade of red I used on the wooden plaque.

I had 25 pictures of the Savior that I mod podged to one side of each of the squares. (Deseret Book has little packages you can purchase, although nothing this small, so they'd have to be cut down. You could also cut out pictures from the church magazines, or if you have an old Greg Olsen calendar, you could cut out the little pictures on the back cover.) I wanted the pictures to cover all parts of the Christmas story and then move forward with rest of Jesus' life.

Then on the back of each square, I put a scripture and an activity for the day. The scripture correlates with the picture on the front.

Here is the list of the scriptures I used. (I am Mormon, so some of the scripture references are from The Book of Mormon and The Doctrine & Covenants, just in case you're scratching your head thinking, Who is Nephi?) Numbers 1-19 go in chronological order. The last six were selected specifically so they could be used at any point during December. Some of the activities can only be done on certain days, so I needed a few flexible scriptures I could throw in as needed without disrupting the flow of the Christmas story. Does that make sense? I'll explain more in a minute. Here are the scriptures:

1. Luke 1:26-38 ("Behold the handmaid of the Lord")
2. Matt. 1:16,18-25 (Joseph)
3. Luke 2:1-5 (traveling to Bethlehem)
4. Luke 2:4-7 ("she brought forth her firstborn son")
5. Luke 2:12 and 2 Nephi 19:6 (wrapped in swaddling clothes)
6. 1 Nephi 11:13-20 (the virgin Mary)
7. Luke 2:8-14 (shepherds abiding in the fields)
8. Luke 2:15-17 (shepherds go to Bethlehem)
9. Luke 2:25-35 (Baby Jesus presented to Simeon)
10. Matthew 2:7-12 (wise men)
11. Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 (leaving Egypt)
12. Luke 2:40 and Doctrine & Covenants 68:28 ("and the child grew")
13. Luke 2:41-52 (Jesus converses with the learned men as a young boy)
14. Matthew 13:54-57 ("Is not this the carpenter's son?")
15. Matthew 3:13-17 (John the Baptist)
16. John 13:4-5, 12-17 (Jesus washes His disciples' feet)
17. Matthew 26:36-44 and Doctrine & Covenants 45:3-5 (Jesus suffers in Gethsemane)
18. Luke 24:1-9, 36-39 and 1 Corinthians 15:19-22 (the Resurrection)
19. John 14:1-3, 6 and Doctrine & Covenants 76:22-24 (the Millennial Savior)
20. Luke 15:4-7 and John 10:14 (the Good Shepherd)
21. John 9:1-7 (healing a blind man)
22. Matthew 5:1-3, 14-16 (the Sermon on the Mount)
23. Matthew 19:13-15 and Doctrine & Covenants 50:40-42 ("Suffer little children")
24. Mark 4: 36-41 ("Peace, be still")
25. John 14:18, 27 ("Let not your heart be troubled")

Now for the activities, I was very adamant that they be fun or meaningful without being complicated. This was an absolute must for me. I wanted this to be something I looked forward to as much as the kids, and I knew if I filled up the days with craft after craft, then I would dread the advent calendar, and I really didn't want that. So I went simple, sometimes excruciatingly simple (notice "sing Christmas songs" and "make hot chocolate and stir with candy canes"--I knew we could do those things even on our busiest days). Also, I didn't want to add in a bunch of extra stress in an already busy month. So I took the things we would already be doing (making treats for our neighbors or going to the family Christmas party) and stuck them on a square. You'll also notice that some of the activities are date specific, meaning that they only happen on a specific day in December (like the First Presidency Christmas devotional). This is what I was talking about earlier; I wanted to be able to put in these time-sensitive activities on the dates they went on without disrupting the flow of the Christmas story. So I assigned scriptures to those activities that were more just about the Savior's role or personality rather than a specific point on the timeline of His life.

1. Write a letter to Santa
2. Drive around and look at lights
3. Make paper snowflakes
4. Make hot chocolate and stir with candy canes
5. Make gifts for neighbors
6. Deliver gifts to neighbors
7. Make Christmas ornaments
8. Do a random act of kindness
9. Write a letter or draw a picture for someone
10. Sing Christmas songs
11. Christmas movie night
12. Dance to Christmas music
13. See the lights on Temple Square
14. Go out for a Christmas treat
15. Read stories by the Christmas tree
16. Choose a toy to give away
17. Wrap Christmas gifts
18. Give gifts to teachers
19. Visit an elderly friend or relative
20. Christmas shopping
21. Attend a live nativity (specific date)
22. Watch First Presidency Christmas devotional (specific date)
23. Special Christmas activity (specific date) (Every year I like for us to try something new or do something we don't do every single year. That's why this one is so vague. This year we'll be going to Zoo Lights.)
24. Ward Christmas party (specific date)
25. Family Christmas party/act out the nativity (specific date)

Mike pounded nails in the wooden plaque and drilled little holes in each of the squares. I put all of the squares in a little treasure box. Each morning, I lay the one for the day on top (the others are covered with a tissue). Aaron and Max take turns opening the chest, and taking out the square and hanging it up. This has become such a fun part of our morning routine, and they both can hardly wait to see what the picture is and what we'll be doing during the day. (So far, I think the "Christmas movie night" has won as being the activity they were most ecstatic over. Poor, deprived children.) I'm just happy because it has fulfilled everything I was hoping for in an advent calendar. No, it doesn't involve any candy, but it takes in the things that matter most during this time of year.

P.S. If you have any questions about how I made any part of this, feel free to send me an email or ask in the comments, and I'll do my best to answer!

This post is linked to Organize and Decorate Everything.
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