The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen

Sep 29, 2012

I would describe myself as a fairly cautious reader. When it comes to violence, language, or sex, I tread carefully and usually stop or skip if it looks like it's going somewhere I don't feel comfortable with. I rarely read a book without it first being recommended to me by someone I trust. As intriguing as the find-the-most-captivating-cover-on-the-library-shelves method sounds, I just can't do it. Choosing blindly leaves me tense as a reader, wondering what kind of content is lurking just around the next page.

So it was with joy that I found this list of "Clean Romances" on Teri Harman's blog. Teri is a Utah blogger and author, and I've really enjoyed the segments (like this one) she's put together on Studio 5. Anyway, I was so excited to see The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen featured on this list. I had been wanting to read something by Allen for quite some time, and the label "clean romance" was just the green light I needed.

In her introduction to this list, Teri assured, "All of these books are free of graphic/descriptive sex scenes," and then she added the disclaimer, "In a few of the books sex occurs, but it is only mildly described or happens 'off-stage.'"

This...was not the case. (But more on that later...)

After her mother dies, 17-year-old Laura comes to live with her grandfather in small town Mullaby, North Carolina. Early on, she finds the town prejudiced against her because of secrets surrounding her mother. Contrast that with Julia, a woman in her 30's who has returned to Mullaby after a long absence. Her teenage years were troubled and difficult, and she is still working through some of the pain she felt during that time. For both of these characters, there are wrongs to be made right, secrets to be discovered, and romances to be pursued.

I listened to this book right after finishing Gone With the Wind (yes, that was more than a month ago...). Contrasted with that, it seemed incredibly fast paced. Important plot details and intriguing questions were introduced in the first chapter. It was just the kind of book I was in the mood for. Besides that, Allen's imagery was beautiful. I could see why people like her writing so much.  I was already making plans for reading some of her other novels.

But then...

Early on in the story, there is a flashback to Julia's turbulent teenage years. She is different and a social outcast. So when Sawyer, one of the most popular boys in school finds her alone on the football field and offers her comfort, she welcomes it, and after one night, she is pregnant. It was not a descriptive scene, and it was a moment from the past that was important to the present, so I felt like it was tastefully done. However, it did put me on the alert and not unnecessarily. Later on in the story, and back in the present, Julia and Sawyer's romance is rekindled, and before long they are sleeping together, and this time it was descriptive enough that I skipped over large chunks, all the time becoming more enraged that this was labeled as a "clean romance."

But what or who was I really upset with? Obviously, the label "clean" carries with it the same subjectivity that any label does. What one person calls "mild," another might call "offensive."  For me, I was disappointed that something labeled "clean" could  contain a descriptive bedroom scene, and also that those actions could be portrayed as a wonderful part of the story, a positive step forward in the relationship and something that should be applauded and dreamed for. (Just to clarify, Sarah Addison Allen did not give her book the "clean" label, so my disappointment has nothing to do with her ability or talent as a writer.)

This, of course, opens up a whole other topic, and one that hinges strongly on personal morals and values, which cannot be pushed onto anyone else but which nevertheless distinctly govern your own life. The reason a scene like the one I described above bothers me so much is because I believe that intimacy between a man and woman is sacred and should be reserved for marriage. When it is tossed around frivolously and joked about, it is cheapened. And once it is cheapened, then it is easily thrown into any relationship, and it means less and less each time to the point that now it can be included in a "light" romance and promoted as "clean." That's not right.

Sorry, personal soapbox. I hesitated even discussing any of this because I'm a conflict-avoiding wimp. Even though I have strong opinions, I hesitate sharing them with just anyone. You just never know how your words are going to be taken. At first I worried that if I ranted about the  book's content not being clean, then people would think I was prudish or overly sensitive. But guess what? I am prudish and overly sensitive. So I might as well say it like it is.

Besides all of this, the book was just not my favorite anyway. I could not get into the whole "glowing" gene. It seemed contrived and out of place.

If you've actually read this whole review, I'm sorry that it turned into more of a personal rant than an actual review. But I'm not sorry for the way I feel. Because convictions and beliefs? That's what defines us. That what makes us who we are. And there's no shame in that.

The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann

Sep 26, 2012

I've read a lot of good books lately, but this one was the most fun book I've read in a long while. I think Mike got quite tired of me telling him that he should listen to it, too, and I even called my mom and told her that she must buy it for my twin brothers for Christmas. Must. It was an order.

The story begins with The Purge, an annual occurrence in the land of Quill where the Unwanteds are separated from the Wanteds. (You are an Unwanted if you show any natural inclination towards creativity in music, art, drama, storytelling, etc.)  Alex is named as an Unwanted (he has been caught drawing with a stick in the dirt), but his twin brother, Aaron, is saved as a Wanted. (Incidentally, their parents are Necessaries, a group of laborers held in low regard.) The Unwanteds are taken to be eliminated in the Great Lake of Boiling Oil (sounds pleasant, no?), but upon arriving they are escorted past the mirage into a magical land called Artime. It is the home of the Unwanteds and is ruled by a wise and kind man named Mr. Today. Even though
Artime is kept hidden by magic, Mr. Today knows it is only a matter of time before Quill discovers them and a battle of power ensues.

You can see that the review across the top of the cover says, "The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter." While this comparison might be a bit extreme, I did find this book to be the perfect blend between dystopian and fantasy.

Speaking of fantasy, it is not my preferred genre, but the magic in this book was truly enchanting. In the land of Artime, the Unwanteds not only improve and perfect their talents, but they use those talents in magical ways...painting themselves invisible, drawing 3-D doors, singing enemies into a deep sleep, etc. I know I don't read nearly as much dystopian and fantasy as some people, but in a genre where there are so many spin-offs and retellings and hashing out of the same old ideas, this story really felt fresh and new.

The plot was captivating, the pacing perfect, and the characters unique and realistic. Occasionally I was frustrated when something was said that didn't make sense, and I wondered if I somehow missed or forgot some important detail. In the end though, everything was explained or revealed. I usually like stories where there are little teasers of future events or questions from the past which are gradually thought through and resolved, but for some reason it seemed more confusing than intriguing this time.

I listened to the audio, and I can't recommend narrator Simon Jones enough. I'm a sucker for British accents, but he really was top-notch. His voices were so distinct and varied that I could immediately tell who was speaking before I was told.

I can think of so many people I would love to recommend this book to. It's written for the 10-14 year-old crowd, and I have a couple of nephews in that age bracket who I'm sure would love it (if they haven't already read it). Even though Alex is the main character, there is another boy and two girls who make up his circle of friends, and much of the story is told from their perspectives, so I really think it would appeal equally to both girls and boys. But obviously, I also enjoyed it as an adult, and I can think of several of my friends who would also like it. In a few years, I would love to read it aloud to my boys and share the experience with them. And then, I already mentioned how many times I've told Mike that he should read it.  So really, you should just get the audio, pack a bus full of friends and relatives, and all enjoy it on a road trip together. And if your destination is to somewhere new and fun, well then, even better.

P.S. It is the first book in a trilogy (the second installment just came out this month), but this story could easily stand on its own. 

Birthday Backfire

Sep 24, 2012

Yesterday, Bradley turned one. It pains me to write it, but it's true. Now he's tagging along behind his older brothers, as if being the grand old age of one entitles him to climbing, wrestling, running, and jumping and giving up such babyish tendencies as falling asleep in my arms. What is with these kids and growing up? Enough already, I say!

As part of the birthday festivities, I told Aaron and Max that they could each pick out one book to give to Bradley. (I have an ever-growing stash of books purchased for next-to-nothing that I keep on hand for just such a purpose as this.)

Now, I must confess, I already had it in my head which two books I wanted them to choose: a touch-and-feel puppies book (because Bradley is in love with dogs) and What Does Baby Say?, a board book by Karen Katz (because anytime we read anything by her, Bradley laughs at every page).

And so I tried to rig the book selection.

Um, yeah, you read that right.

See, I wanted them to feel like they were getting a choice...without actually giving them a choice.

So I purposely threw in two other books I knew they'd have no interest in: Guess How Much I Love You (a classic, but not one my boys are enraptured with) and Gossie and Gertie (cute, but easily glanced over). I set out all four books and called Aaron into my bedroom to make his "choice." (Bwahaha.)

Immediately, he went for the book about dogs. "Bradley loves dogs, doesn't he?" I hinted. Aaron moved on. Painstakingly, he went through each book page by careful page.

Suddenly he stopped, in the midst of Gossie and Gertie. "Look! There's a spider!" And he pointed to a teeny, tiny, minuscule spider, a mere dot on the page. I could have smacked myself in the forehead.

Sure enough, five minutes later, he came to me with Gossie and Gertie. "I'm going to give this one to Bradley. It has two spiders in it!" (He found another one later on.)

"Oh? Because Bradley loves spiders?" I questioned innocently. "I thought Bradley loved dogs. Shouldn't you choose the book you think Bradley will like best?"

And this is where the real battle began.

"Well, I like it, and so I'm giving it to him."

"But I just don't know that it's the one Bradley will like. You should think about him first."

"Then why was it in the pile?" And Aaron fixed me with a hard, probing look. I was caught. Why, indeed? Aaron continued, "It's my choice, and this is the one I choose."

Much as I hated to admit defeat to a four-year-old,  his reasoning was beyond argument. You cannot imagine what a kick Mike was getting out of this whole episode. Every time he walked past me, he gave me a knowing smirk. He was delighted at my being caught in my own trap.

I showed the three remaining books to Max and held my breath. Bless his heart, he immediately chose the one about puppies. At least one boy in this family thinks like me.

Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater

Sep 21, 2012

In a nutshell, Mr. Popper's Penguins was not as wildly funny and entertaining as I was hoping it would be. I'm wondering how it has managed to stand the test of time.

Mr. Popper is a husband and father who paints houses for a living and dreams of Antarctica for the rest of the time. One day, just after the painting season has ended, a package shows up on his doorstep, and wonder of wonders, it's a penguin! Mr. Popper couldn't be happier. He names his new pet Captain Cook and enjoys taking him on walks. Then Captain Cook grows lonely, and through a series of fortunate events, a female penguin (Greta) is also sent to Mr. Popper. Together, Captain Cook and Greta have ten baby penguins. Mr. Popper is in heaven and lives to be down in the freezing basement watching his beloved birds. But Mrs. Popper realizes that they will soon be out of money. And thus, Popper's Performing Penguins is born.

I remember my mom reading this book aloud when I was a child, and I don't remember disliking it. It seemed like a good choice for my next read-aloud to Aaron because he has quite the sense of humor, and what could be funnier than twelve penguins living in a house?

I guess you can already tell that the book did not live up to my expectations. First of all, it's terribly slow. A whole chapter was spent describing the nest Captain Cook (the penguin, remember?) built in the refrigerator. A walk around town took up another two chapters. There just wasn't anything very gripping about the plot to make us want to read another chapter. (But we plugged along anyway.)

Also, through no fault of its own, the language is outdated. Neither Aaron or Max had any idea what was happening when the "service man" came to fix the "ice box." Of course, this provided some great opportunities for learning new words, but it also made the slow pace of the story even slower since I had to stop and explain what had happened every few pages.

And then there's Mr. Popper himself. He's just not your normal children's book protagonist. In fact, I found him to be odd and quirky but not really in a funny or entertaining way. He's oblivious to the needs of his wife and children, and there's not anything endearing or redeeming about him.

To top it off, the ending was just so ridiculous, even Aaron and Max could tell I did not approve. At the last minute, Mr. Popper hops aboard a ship bound for the Arctic, and without asking a single question, his wife and children happily send him off for the next two or three years. What?! In a single paragraph, Mr. Popper went from odd and quirky to downright irresponsible.

So that's my honest opinion. Now as far as Aaron and Max are concerned, I think they liked it well enough. They were definitely bored at times, but there were scenes that captured their attentions and which they relived in the days afterward. Aaron is still talking about the snowstorm inside the house, and he keeps telling me he wishes he could jump off the chair into a big snow pile. Ahhh, dreams. And a few days ago, my sister-in-law was at our house, and she was acting out scripture stories with the boys. She asked Aaron what his favorite story was, and he said, "Mr. Popper's Penguins!" I'm consoling myself with the hope that he didn't realize she was talking about scripture stories. At any rate, I guess he liked the book well enough to list it as a "favorite," at least for a short time.

My final opinion is that even though this book received a Newbery Honor, it has worn out its popularity. It's not a bad book, but there are many far better books to choose from.

Do you have any good recommendations for a four-year-old? I'd love to hear them!

Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Sep 19, 2012

Picture this: It is the first night of a weekend family reunion. Mike's older sister has just turned on some music, and its intoxicating beat jumps from the speakers. Immediately family members are drawn to the floor, twisting and sliding and leaping in the sort of carefree abandon that happens when you're happy and with the people you love best. There's a boys vs. girls dance competition; soon after, everyone takes a turn performing a short solo in the center of the circle; that is followed by a rousing game of Follow the Leader. Everyone is breathless and laughing. The energy in the room is tangible. Even I can feel it...from my comfortable spot on the couch.

Why on earth was I sitting on the couch?!?! What about the bouncing and jumping and whirling? How could I possibly contain myself?

Turns's not that hard, if you're an introvert like me.

With that story as background, I guess you can see why I loved Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Recently I was talking to my mother-in-law and a couple of sisters-in-law (I think it may have eve: been the same night as the dance party). I mentioned this book and also that I was a true-blue, through-and-through introvert. Immediately, my mother-in-law rushed to my defense: "Oh, no, Amy! That is not true. You are definitely not an introvert!"

But I am. And listening to this book not only helped me see myself a little more honestly but also be content with what I saw.

The word "introvert" definitely has some negative connotations. Introverts are often seen as hermits, social outcasts, painfully quiet, and awkwardly reclusive. So I guess I should take it as a compliment that my mother-in-law was so adamant against me pinning such a label on myself.  But Susan Cain defined introverts as those who are serious and sensitive (check); work slowly and deliberately (check); dislike small talk but enjoy deep discussions (check); recharge themselves by spending quiet time alone (check).

In the introduction, Cain gave a 20-question quiz to determine your own level It fit me to a T. (And I laughed out loud when one of the questions was, "I often let calls go through to voice mail." Yes! All the time. I think it struck me as funny because one of my good friends, who is an extrovert, can't believe that I can just let a call go without finding out what it was about.)

So now that I've spent all this time establishing the fact that I am an introvert, what was the book actually about? First she discussed "the extrovert idea," how we live in a society that really caters to the extroverts...from playtime at preschool to open-area work spaces and team projects. I thought it was so interesting to read her research about collaboration and how so many companies insist on working together as a group, but it often decreases productivity. Second, she talked about the nature of introverts: how much of our personality is set in stone? Can an introvert become an extrovert? (Answer: no, but he can do a superb job of faking it.) And finally, if you're an introvert, when should you push yourself, and when should you embrace who you are?

Overall, I thought it was very well-researched. It had an almost Malcolm Gladwell feel to it. She really looked at introverts from every angle. It's one of those books that probably everyone should read because even if you're not an introvert, you know plenty. Fair warning though: Susan Cain is an introvert herself and therefore paints introverts in a very favorable light, sometimes to the disadvantage of the extrovert. This is great for those of us who are introverts, but if you're an extrovert, it might make you seethe a little.

One of the parts of the book that really spoke to me was when she spoke about "restorative niches"--a time and a place where you can relax, take a breath, and regroup your thoughts and feelings before reentering the world. Cain mentioned how important it is for introverts to schedule a restorative niche into their day...especially if they are working in an extroverted environment. You might think that my job as a stay-at-home mom would just be one big restorative niche. But to that I would say, HA! The boys' nap time is practically sacred to me, and if one of them doesn't take a nap, I find myself much more impatient and on edge. Now, I know why...that nap time is my personal restorative niche, a time for me to enjoy the quiet stillness of my house and refocus for the rest of the day.

Occasionally, I felt like the research she cited contradicted itself a bit (I guess that's the nature of research). For example, early in the book, she talked about introverts' sensitive natures and how they can often read a crowd and notice the interest level of an audience and then tweak their own facial expressions, speech, etc. to match the dynamics of the room. But then later on, she explained a study where introverts and extroverts talked on the phone, but in this case, it was the extroverts that (at least in the beginning) read the conversation correctly. Anyway, I felt like some of this conflict in research, while maybe giving a more honest view, actually weakened some of her points.

So let's go back to the dance party: Was I on the couch for the whole evening? No. There were times when I pushed myself onto the floor and other times when I succumbed to a little reckless abandon of my own. As an introvert, I've learned that if I don't push myself a little, I sometimes miss out on some things that I actually will enjoy. But for most of the time, I was happily content on the couch, watching Mike's sisters gracefully and beautifully improvise. It was so much fun. And really, the only thing that made it not fun was the worry that everyone was wondering why I wasn't on the floor making up my own dance moves. In a room full of extroverts, I worried that they'd feel a need to encourage, invite, and include me when I really was just happiest watching from the sidelines.

But that's why this book was so good for validated my personality and made me realize that, yes, I am more comfortable dancing in the kitchen by myself than amidst a large group of people, but that doesn't mean that I dance any less joyfully.

The Waiting Game

Sep 17, 2012

It is a personal mantra of mine to never be caught waiting without something to read. A few examples to illustrate:

If I'm going somewhere in the car, I always bring a book with me. This is true regardless of whether it's a 15-minute run to the store or a nine-hour trip to my parents' house. It's true. Just ask Mike.

However, as much as I love audio books, if I'm the one driving, I rarely listen to one in the car. I just get too distracted and engrossed in the story, so it's not safe.

I definitely bring a book to appointments where I'll have to do some waiting. (And if it's an appointment where I didn't bring my boys along, then I even hope I'll have to do some waiting so I can get in some good reading!)

But here is what I've discovered about waiting...

While I might hope to fill in all that empty time with a book, my expectations often go unfulfilled.

For example, when my kids are playing outside and all I'm doing is supervising, I grab my book in anticipation of some relaxing fun in the sun. Check out this picture:

See? Doesn't this just look heavenly? Me, stretched out in the soft grass with the warm sun resting on my back, lost in the world of a good story with the laughter of my children merely a delightful soundtrack in the background.

Well, guess what, folks? This photo was STAGED. 100%. My four-year-old took it. (It only took us about fifty tries to get one that wasn't blurry). And I didn't read a single word during that time. Instead, I was doing a lot of this:

(Pulling Bradley out of the dirt)

And this:
(Rescuing Bradley from the tree house.)
(We didn't get a clear version of this one. When working with a four-year-old, I have to take what I get.)

And, no, these photos were NOT staged.

But the good thing about me is that I never give up. Just this morning, the boys and I went to one of our favorite parks, the one that always proves to be uncrowded with plenty of shade. In a display of true optimism, I brought along a book. And guess what? I actually read five pages!! Not all at the same time, but hey, I think I'm making some progress.

Sorry, though, no photographic proof. The four-year-old was busy riding his scooter.

(I linked this post to Where in the World are You Reading?, hosted by Lisa.)

What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell

Sep 15, 2012

I'll take just about any excuse I can get to talk to someone about books...sometimes going to great lengths to coerce people into a discussion.  Case in point: Mike's family had a family reunion the first week in September, and I came up with the brilliant idea (inspired by Janssen) of having a book discussion as one of the activities. Luckily, Mike's parents and eight siblings (and spouses) are all readers themselves, so I didn't have to twist too many arms or offer too many threats to make this happen. ( offer threats? Yeah, right.)

But then I was faced with the daunting task of selecting a good book. Not only did it need to appeal to men and women, but also to a group of diverse talents and interests...from Mike's English major oldest sister to his computer-savvy brother-in-law to his nerdy physics professor brother (sorry, Jon). I polled the family and finally decided on What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell.

What the Dog Saw... is a collection of essays taken from Gladwell's writings for The New Yorker. The essay format worked really well for this type of book group because it provided not only flexibility (you could read anywhere from one to all nineteen essays) but also variety (everything from stock markets to birth control). Plus, almost everyone read Outliers a few years ago, so there was the added advantage of them already being Gladwell fans.

Each essay felt like a mini-version of Gladwell's larger works. He takes an idea (the scope and limits of taking pictures, for example), and he explores it in a completely unique way. One moment, he's talking about mammograms and then all of a sudden he's talking about bombing aircraft in WWII. It would be a little jolting except that somehow, he brings everything together beautifully, and who would have known, but bombing aircraft really does help us understand the benefits and pitfalls of mammograms. To be able to make seemingly random connections the way Gladwell does makes me realize that he must not only be a genius with research  but also have a gift for seeing the big picture and tying those elements together.

Before I talk about my favorite essays, I just wanted to mention a couple nit-picky observations. First, at times I found the writing to be a little more technical than I was expecting. This might not have been a problem if I had listened to it, but there were a few essays (especially the ones with lots of financial terms) that were a little hard for me to get through. Also, the paragraphs are reallllly long (like, over a page in some instances). This must be their format in The New Yorker (I guess I just blew my cover...I've never read The New Yorker), but it was hard on my eyes not to have the page broken up a bit more. That, and if you know how I do some of my reading (while trying to watch my kids simultaneously), it was hard for me to keep my place while looking up so frequently.

But enough of that. This book got me thinking in a multitude of ways about things I normally wouldn't think about. And I love a book that makes me think.

One of my favorite essays was about the art of failure (in fact, it was the one we spent the most time talking about at the family, probably because I was leading the discussion!!). Gladwell talks about the difference between choking ( our detriment...on the things that should be second nature) versus panicking (we stop thinking and revert to instinct). Gladwell says that we often think of choking and panicking as the same thing (maybe even using the words interchangeably) but they are completely different in terms of their causes (choking happens because we think too much and panicking happens because we think too little).

I think I was particularly fascinated by this topic because I have experienced both types of failure in my life. As a music major, I performed frequently. Without fail, those times of high pressure would lead to me choking. All of a sudden, it was like I was reading this music for the first time...I couldn't remember what fingering I had used or where I went immediately after the page turn. It happened because I started overthinking instead of letting my hours of practicing easily carry me through. Likewise, as a mom, I've had moments of panic where one of my children has been hurt or momentarily lost, and I revert to freezing in total confusion. One time Max darted out into the street a few feet in front of a (slowly) moving car. I can remember watching in helpless shock...I didn't run, and even my scream was slow in coming out. It is just so interesting to look at these two very different instances and see that what made me fail in both cases wasn't the same reaction, but two very different reactions.

As another example, in the essay, "The New-Boy Network," Gladwell explores the idea of first impressions and just how much we can really gather from our first meeting of an individual. I found his research absolutely fascinating, mainly because in the end, he concluded that it is very hard to get a good grasp on a person's personality or character in fifteen or thirty minutes. In my own life, I have definitely had some first impressions go completely awry in both good and bad ways. For example, when I first met one of my sisters-in-law (I have nine, so I feel pretty safe with this staying anonymous), I didn't like her at all. I thought we were extremely different and found her hard to be around. But now? She is one of my best friends, and I could talk to her for hours. Contrast that with someone in my neighborhood. The first time I saw her, I thought, I hope I get to know her better. She seems like she is just my type. Now, years later, I could not have been more wrong! Even though we are congenial acquaintances, our personalities and interests are completely different. These experiences, plus reading the research behind it, have made me much more careful about judging others.

Finally, I loved the essay about late bloomers. Gladwell talked about those who come into their talent a little bit later in life...or maybe they started out doing one thing and then decided something else was calling more loudly. It was inspiring to read about people who weren't successful until they were fifty or sixty. Sometimes I worry that I've already explored the talents I have and that at 27, I'm stuck with my initial decisions. But I'm not. I still have a long life to live, and there are any number of possibilities left to discover. That's exciting.

These were some of the essays that I liked and which have really left me thinking. But if these topics sound incredibly boring to you, don't let that dissuade you...there's still hair dye, pit bulls, ketchup, or many other subjects that will make you think outside the box.

The Boy Can Read!

Sep 13, 2012

Before I was a mom, I was determined to be objective when it came to my children.  I was not going to turn into one of those bragging, "my child is the best" kind of moms. My child would not be the cutest, smartest, or sweetest, and that would be okay.

But then, Aaron was born, and, lo and behold, he WAS the cutest, smartest, and sweetest, so how could I help but say it like it was? :-)

And so, sadly, Aaron was forced to withstand all my overzealousness as a first-time parent. As a baby, he endured daily practice sessions strengthening his trunk and neck muscles. As a toddler, we drilled colors, shapes, letters, and numbers. And once he hit three years old, I could not stop thinking about teaching him how to read.

The thought of Aaron reading had already been teasing my imagination for many months before. I read How to Teach Your Baby to Read by Glenn Doman and was so excited by the idea that I made up dozens of sight words on note cards. Aaron loved it and quickly learned to recognize many words. (Oh, how we loved to impress people on the pew behind us at church when we whipped out our trusty magnadoodle and started writing words for 2-year-old Aaron to spout off.)

But in the end, I abandoned the method. I really was uncomfortable with Aaron learning how to read solely with sight words. Maybe it would have worked, but it made more sense to me to give him some basic reading tools so that he would be able to figure out unknown words on his own.

Several people, including my mom, had used Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons with great success. It appealed to me because everything needed was contained in the one book (lesson plans, stories, practice words, etc.), and my need for structure loved that it was divided up into 100 neatly packaged little lessons; it was a way for me to measure progress.

We started doing lessons in January. Aaron was three and a half. He knew all his letters and sounds, but this was not a requirement for this method. (In fact, they would prefer the child not know any basics going into it, but I personally didn't think it hurt and maybe even helped.)

Well, we have just finished Lesson 80, and Aaron can read. It's so crazy and fun and exciting and magical. He can read!!

I know there are many voices on both sides of the argument of whether or not children should be able to read before Kindergarten. I actually don't have much of an opinion on the matter: if they can read, great; if not, they'll learn soon enough.

I taught Aaron to read for purely selfish reasons. Because I love reading so much, I wanted to be the one to teach him this skill. No matter where his interests lie or the career path he chooses, he will read for the rest of his life, and I was the one who got to hear (and celebrate) the first struggles to make meaning of letters. I was the one who heard him haltingly and awkwardly sound out his first word. I didn't want anyone else to get those moments. I wanted them, all for myself.

But enough with the sentimentality. If this sounds like fun to you, then I would definitely recommend this method. Here are a few of the suggestions I would make should you choose to try it out with your child:
  • Read the introduction. Sure, it's long (and sounds just a little conceited at times), but the last thing you want to do is jump in and then have to figure it out with your child looking on. You have to be confident so they will be, too.
  • Make a chart. I had no idea this would be such a big deal to Aaron, but it has been. It validates his hard work and provides a way for him to visually see his progress and show it off when Mike comes home. (And as a side benefit: he has learned all of his numbers through 100. That was not my intention; it just happened as he studied his chart.) As you can see, this is a VERY elaborate chart and took me all of three minutes to make. :-)
  • Sound blending. This is one of the very first things you teach. You hold out the sounds and blend them into each other (for example, mmmmmaaaaat instead of mmm  aaa   t. After the child says it slowly, you have them "say it fast," and as if by magic, they're able to say the word, which they cannot do if they chop up the sounds.) This took a great deal of practice and patience for Aaron, but it was worth it. (Some sounds can't be held out, like "c," for example. So if you're reading the word "cat," you have to say it with the next sound, like this: caaaaa, and then of course add the "t" on the end. In other words, you never separate the sounds because it makes it too hard to hear the actual word.
  • Find a time of day that works well for your child. This one is so important and such a struggle for me to adhere to. If I decide it's a good time to do it, then by golly, Aaron must think so too. Wrong. Sometimes he's on and sometimes he's off. It can even be the same time of day, but sometimes it just doesn't work. Whereas if he's not hungry or tired or grumpy, man, he just whips through the lesson like you wouldn't believe. We used to do it in the afternoons, but recently I switched to the morning, right after he has eaten breakfast, and it has worked great. I just can't stress this enough...if it's not a good time of day, don't do it.
  • Don't push it. Sometimes I just want to finish the lesson so badly, but Aaron is whining and complaining and rolling all over the floor and climbing all over the furniture and only reading two words before he has to tell me something, and I am getting frustrated and begging him to finish. Well, you know what? It's not worth it. The whole reason to teach a 3-year-old to read is for the fun of it. A 3-year-old does not need to be able to read. He doesn't. So don't push it. If he doesn't want to do it right then, just drop it. Try again later. It has to stay fun with no pressure or expectation attached.
  • No shortcuts. Reading the stories a second time through really does make a difference. And so does reading the sight words the fast way. 
  • Divide up the lessons, if needed. When we reached about lesson 50, the stories became much longer. Plus, like I said, you're supposed to read the story twice. This was much too long for Aaron's attention span, so we cut the lesson in half (sight words and first-reading-of-story one day and second-reading-of-story and writing the next day). In recent weeks, we have even started dividing it into three sections. Since we aren't in a race to finish by a certain date, the extra time doesn't matter. If there are any other moms out there who have used this method, I'd be interested to know what your experience was for the second half and how you handled the long stories.
These are the things that have worked for us, but it will be different for every child. Here are a few of the ways we have strayed from the method:
  • Writing. At the end of every lesson, the child spends some time writing a couple of letters. Aaron has struggled a little bit with this, and so I usually only have him write one letter (as opposed to two), and I'm not very picky with how the letters look. If he makes the effort, then that's enough for me.
  • Reading other material. The beginning instructions essentially forbid you to let your child read anything else until he has completed all 100 lessons. In my opinion, this is ridiculous. If I want him to really love reading, then he needs to begin seeing right away how words are used in real life. It hurt a little to break the "rule" (because I am an intense rule-follower), but I point out words to him in the books I'm reading aloud. He reads a verse from the scriptures every night. He reads short little easy-readers. And we pay attention to signs and advertisements when we're out and about.
  • Letters and sounds. As I already mentioned, teaching your child letters and sounds before beginning is discouraged. But I didn't know this, and so Aaron already knew them, and I don't think I will do it differently with Max.  
Whoa, so I maybe went a little overkill with this post. Sorry. I guess you can tell that this has really been something I've enjoyed. If you have any questions, I'd be more than happy to offer my opinion!

What I Envy

Sep 11, 2012

Tonight as I was watering the flowerbeds in that time just past dusk, just before dark, I was listening to Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I have been loving this book. I am a pretty classic introvert, and it has validated many aspects of my personality. I will be giving a thorough review of the book in the near future, but tonight one thing was said, and it deserves a post of its own.

She was talking about how introverts often get into careers they don't really love because they push themselves into something they think they should like. She gave three guidelines to identify your own "key personal projects" (i.e., something you would really love). And her third guideline really made me think. It was:

Pay Attention to What You Envy

Instantly, I knew what she meant. I have a whole list of jobs I envy quite regularly:

1. School Librarian - One of my favorite blogs is written by a former school librarian. She used to write about the activities she would do with the students. Mock Caldecotts? Helping a reluctant reader find just the right book? Reading aloud? Yeah, that's for me.

2. Children's Book Librarian - Not only would I rock story time (in my dreams), but I would love to have parents come up to me and ask, "What would you recommend for my three-year-old son?" (Answer: Chalk by Bill Thomson.)

3. Editor - I already mentioned this when I went to Shannon Hale's book signing. Her editor was with her, and I thought, Why have I never before thought about editing as a career? Not that I understand the first thing about what it takes to be an editor, but I would actually love to read through manuscripts looking for cohesiveness and content or even grammatical or spelling errors. (Of course, it would have to be books/authors I enjoyed in the first long as I'm envying, I might as well reach for the stars.)

4. Book Store Employee - Maybe I'm making it more glamorous than it would be, but think about it: surrounded by books hot off the press? You get to be one of the first ones to see them in all their new splendor! Plus, again, recommending books to customers would be so fun.

But amidst all of this envy about jobs that will probably never be mine, one thought blazed out brightly and triumphantly:

The one job I would envy more than any of the others, I already have.

And the three of them are sleeping peacefully in their room right at this very moment.

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Sep 10, 2012

As a reader, I feel that I am relatively well-rounded. And by that I mean that I don't have a particular genre I stick to at the exclusion of all others. Sometimes, I'm in the mood for some interesting historical fiction; other times, I want a classic.  Sometimes I want a parenting book (yes, I'm weird, I read parenting books for fun and not out of any sense of obligation) and occasionally, I even decide to go for a little fantasy. And within all those genres, I like a healthy mix of children's, middle-grade, young adult and adult.

A few weeks ago, I had just finished a disappointing adult fiction novel, so I was in the mood for something for the younger crowd; something that would be exciting and teeter on the edge of reality just a bit.  The Thief had been on my list for over a year, and it seemed like it fit everything I was wanting at that moment.

When the story begins, Gen is in prison for theft. He wasn't in prison because he got caught, but rather because he was bragging about it after the fact. Turns out, he has an extraordinary talent for taking things which don't belong to him, and the king's magus releases him from prison with the assignment to steal Hamaithes' Gift, a precious stone with rare capabilities that the king wants. The journey is long and dangerous with an interesting mixture of trust and suspicion to go around. The ending is chock-full of surprises.

Greek mythology plays a key role in the story (several myths are told by Gen and the magus, and Gen must steal the stone from a temple which is protected by gods and goddesses), but I have had a distaste for myths since reading a book of them in the fourth grade, so to have them so prevalent throughout didn't really make the book immediately appealing to me.

The whole plot revolves around Gen, the magus and his two apprentices, and a soldier. I am not one to appreciate it when authors add a female or two in the hopes of appealing to a larger readership, BUT I will say that this story lacked some interest for me, and I think it was maybe because it was missing a girl (or that it was full of myths :-)).

I listened to this one (you know, all those hours of packing, cleaning, and unpacking), and the narrator was fine. But I did think that the way the voices were described in the book didn't always match with this narrator's particular interpretation. (For example, Turner describes Gen's voice as being on the rough and uneducated side, and I didn't feel like this was portrayed at all.)

The story itself was pretty slow-paced for me (especially with the ancient myth detour every other chapter), but the ending was fantastic. (And if there's anything that will instantly redeem a book for me, it's a great ending.) The whole time, I had the lurking feeling that there were some things that didn't quite make sense and that there was some secrecy among the characters. I don't want to give anything away, but let's just say that Gen is even more sly and cunning than I originally thought, and everything just plays out delightfully (except for the traitor...shhhh...).

So to sum it up, it wasn't my favorite book, but the ending was so good that I have no regrets reading it.

(Side note: everything I've looked at classifies this book as young adult, but it felt more middle-grade to me. I wonder if that's because the middle-grade category has matured in content in the last 16 years?)

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (Second Half)

Sep 8, 2012

Heart-achingly perfect.

That is how I would describe this book in just two words. Heart-aching because that is what my heart was doing through all the hurtful things said, the repentant things left unsaid, the poor choices, and the tragedies. And perfect because I don't know how Margaret Mitchell could have captured and portrayed those raw emotions any better

And if I'm going to go beyond the two words and the one paragraph? Well, read on because of course I have more to say!

In my review of the first half, I mentioned the didn't drag, but there were times when it felt a little endless--almost like, the more I read, the farther away the ending seemed. But this was not the case with the second half: the pages flew by. I was caught up in the passion and torment of Scarlett and Rhett's relationship, and during the last 100 pages, I really started to put on the brakes because I could tell that things were not going to work out and resolve the way I desperately wanted them to, and I couldn't bear to see the story come to an end. But at the same time, I couldn't tear myself away.

The second half is set during the four to five years post-Civil War. I knew next to nothing about this time in American history. In my knowledge, the south went from slavery to segregation, and I'd never even heard of this time where politicians and leaders from the north were insisting on rights and equal opportunities for blacks and were taking away those rights from former white slave owners. Of course I'd heard of the Ku Klux Klan but had never thought of its members as being intelligent, kind, and fair men. Since blacks were ultimately still mistreated, it was interesting to see this brief period of time where an attempt was made to make things right. This time period shows that there can be just as much (or even more) misery, dishonesty, anger, and greed after the war as during. War has such far-reaching and long-lasting consequences.

Maybe I've already mentioned this, but I had absolutely no knowledge of the plot or storyline before reading Gone With the Wind. None. Zero. (Okay, not entirely true...I knew there were characters named Scarlett and Rhett and that it took place during the Civil War, but beyond that...nothing.) I find it a little hard to believe myself since there are other stories (Harry Potter and Twilight, for example) whose plot points I have been unable to escape simply because they have become such a standard in everyday conversation and jargon. But somehow, Gone With the Wind had been left fresh and exciting, waiting for me to discover it on my own. There is nothing like reading a story for the first time, and I'm so glad that everything was a surprise, even if some of those surprises were tragic. (For example, when Bonnie had her accident, I had no suspicions or worries that she was going to die. So I was completely caught off guard when it said, "On the third night after Bonnie's death..." I was listening to it at the time, and I had to search for the same spot in the book because I was so sure I hadn't heard right or that I'd missed a big section because it seemed so abrupt, and I was completely blindsided by it.)

In my review of the first half, I also mentioned the superb character development, but Mitchell surpassed herself in the second half. Scarlett and Rhett and Melanie were real people to me. Because the book is so long, there is plenty of time to see all dimensions and sides of every character. For example, even Ashley, whose personality is closed off and usually difficult to read, still has moments where the reader is able to catch a glimpse of what drives and inspires him. We know that for all his talk of and allegiance to honor, he is still besotted by temptations and that he is maybe not quite so noble, or at least not as stalwart, as his appearance would, on first glance, lead us to believe. And then Rhett, for all his immoral and wicked ways, is so vulnerable, I literally felt like I was in pain during the scenes right after Scarlett falls down the stairs. It took the second half (and 500 more pages)  for me to really feel like I understood Rhett's character, but when I did, I felt such an acute grief for Scarlett and Rhett's selfish and childish relationship.

While I'm on the subject of characters, I need to mention a word about the narration of the audio book. Although I didn't start out with the audio, I ended up listening to the majority of it mostly because of the unwieldy size of the book. I thought the narrator was phenomenal. (My one complaint is that she was slow, with sometimes long, dramatic pauses.) She could change the tone and pitch and inflections just enough to make a brand-new, distinctive voice for every character. But what really set her apart for me was that she was able to take the same character's voice, and change it to fit the mood or the situation, and yet make it still sound like that same character. For example, in the scene where Rhett is completely drunk, she made him sound plastered but still like Rhett. I don't know how she did it, but the dialogue was masterfully done throughout.

My one real complaint about the book is in reference to Scarlett's romantic obsession with Ashley. For such a long book, there is virtually no background story or set-up for Scarlett's strong feelings. When the book begins, her interest seems flighty, immature, and as if it will be short-lived. Maybe that's the whole point...that there really isn't a basis for her undying love but it goes on for years and years and ultimately plays a part in the loss of Scarlett's real love.

The story itself has a genius structure. The first half ends with Scarlett losing all things of physical importance to her (except Tara). And at the end of the second half, she again loses everything, but this time it is all of her personal and emotional treasures (Bonnie, Melanie, Ashley, and Rhett). This makes the second half much more heart-breaking because, unlike the physical losses which she really had no control over and which she was able to regain and rebuild, many of the emotional losses are a direct result of her own choices and actions. And I think it was that aspect of it that made my heart truly ache as the book came to a close.

This book took me the whole summer to read, but it has given me such a feeling of accomplishment to finish it and to now be intimately familiar with this icon of American literature. It is one of those stories that will stay with me for a long, long time.

And I'm Back!

Sep 7, 2012

Our internet was finally installed yesterday, so I think it's safe to say that I am back to posting regularly. This move has been all-consuming, as moves always are, even when they're only a few blocks away, as ours was.

The house? We love it. LOVE IT. It is twice the space of our old place, and boy, do we feel it! I think my patience has doubled in the last two weeks because I feel like I can finally find a quiet place if I need a place to think...or, as the case may be, calm down. I can send my boys to the basement or outside, and the truth it, usually I don't even have to send them because they're already there! They are loving all the extra room as much as I am.

The neighborhood? So far, we like it. I'm not going to go so far as to say LOVE yet since we've been so busy unpacking and organizing and adjusting that we've met very few of our neighbors, and even the ones we have met, it has mostly just been in passing. So yes, time will tell. (Plus, the good news about only moving a few blocks away is that you basically stay in the same neighborhood, so we get to keep all our old familiar friends and activities). But one thing that I know I love already is the quiet street. I probably see the same number of cars during the entire day that I used to see in fifteen minutes. Even if we didn't have a fenced-in yard (which we do!), I'd probably be okay with letting my kids play outside.

The adjustment? It's been almost unobservable in the boys. Aaron asked to drive past our old house; I was happy to oblige, and that has been the extent of it. Other that that, they seem extremely content. And me? Even though I've unpacked about 93.5% of the boxes, I still feel like I have a looooong way to go with decorating and organizing. But we'll just take it one room at a time. First stop, the front room. We've already painted the wall of bookshelves, and now just have to fill them up with eye-appealing objects. Luckily I have two friends helping me, and they have a much more finely tuned interior-decorating sense than I do, so it may actually turn out looking, dare I go so far as to say, amazing! Only time will tell if I'm willing to post pictures!

There's something a little bit liberating about having almost no connection with the cyber-world (and I've definitely been very productive), but now I feel like I have a lot to catch up on!

So Much to Say...

Sep 5, 2012

...and no internet to say it with. :-(  Stay tuned.
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