KidPages: Three Pumpkin Tales

Oct 31, 2012

Happy Halloween! The boys and I are hurrying to finish reading the last of our Halloween books before the day is up. We have to pass the time somehow before they can put on their costumes and go trick-or-treating. In a few hours, I'll be ready to bid witches and ghosts a fond farewell, but in the meantime, let's celebrate the day with three more Halloween titles. It's probably too late for this year, but put them in the back of your mind for next Halloween. It will be here before you know it.

A couple of weeks ago, I shared three of our favorite witch stories. Today, let's focus on pumpkins:

1. Seed, Sprout, Pumpkin, Pie, Jill Esbaum
Just what you'd expect from a book published by National Geographic, this one is chock-full of absolutely gorgeous photographs. Seriously, that's why I like it so much. Plus, do you realize how how infrequently picture books feature actual photos? It's nice for a change.

If you didn't already guess it, this is a non-fiction title. It explores the beginnings of a pumpkin from when it is planted as a seed all the way to being carved as a jack-o'-lantern. The very end even shows the leftover pumpkins being used to feed cattle and composting back into the soil.

Aaron and Max's favorite photo was the one of some people floating down a river inside a pumpkin. Yep, it's true. You better check it out to see for yourself. My favorite picture is on the very last page. There are patches of snow and frost covering the trees and several pumpkins lying on the ground. I love the contrast between bright orange and white/gray. And I love how it shows the progression of the seasons.

I think pumpkins are kind of like the bridge between Halloween and Thanksgiving, so this book would be the perfect lead-in to the next holiday. And if you like this one, I saw that National Geographic also published one called Pilgrims of Plymouth. You can be sure we'll be checking out that one.

2. Pumpkin Heads! Wendell Minor
On Halloween every pumpkin becomes a pumpkin head. Thus begins this enchanting book depicting, you guessed it, a multitude of jack-o'-lanterns...from scary ones that sit outside a spooky haunted house to cheerful ones that sit atop a hay wagon. There's even a picture of a pumpkin snowman.

With Seed, Sprout, Pumpkin, Pie, it was the photographs that pulled me in. This one, it's the illustrations. The text is simple and direct, which really makes it so the illustrations can just shine. They are vibrant and realistic and showcase pumpkins in a totally unique way. (And if you like this one, then I highly recommend that you check out Wendell Minor's America the Beautiful. Breathtaking.)

Aaron and Maxwell loved to explore and study all of the different pumpkin faces. In fact, if you walked past our house this very afternoon, you'd see that the carved pumpkin on our front step bears a striking resemblance to one of the pumpkins found in this book.

3. The Very Best Pumpkin, Mark Kimball Moulton, illus. Karen Hillard Good
Unlike the first two titles, this one is an actual story. It is about a little boy named Peter. His grandparents own a farm and cultivate a large pumpkin patch. One day, Peter follows a long vine to a small and lonely pumpkin growing far away from all the others. Peter decides to care for it himself. At the same time, a new girl named Meg moves in next door. She spends the summer watching Peter nourish the little pumpkin, and when it comes time to harvest the pumpkins, Peter gives his special pumpkin to Meg.

I loved this story of friendship and that it emphasized making new friends. I also loved that it didn't end with the giving away of the pumpkin but that it showed how Peter and Meg's friendship continued to grow through winter, spring, and summer. I think this is another one you could read to get in the Thanksgiving mood because it focuses on those relationships that are so important this time of year.

You'll notice that all three of these books focused heavily on harvest and the beauty of autumn rather than trick-or-treating or costumes. We've read dozens of Halloween-themed picture books this year, but I always find myself drawn to the ones that have a little more depth and aren't creepy or morbid. If that's you too, then I think you'll love these three pumpkin books. Have a safe and fun evening!

The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden

Oct 29, 2012

I've discovered that Aaron and Max listen best to chapter books if there are 1-2 pictures per chapter. It gives them a place to anchor their eyes and it helps clarify some of the details. I think this was actually one of the reasons we didn't love Mr. Popper's Penguins...the illustrations were spaced too far apart plus many of them were on the boring side. Hopefully, illustrations won't always be a deciding factor in which books we choose/like, but for right now, they are very important.

And the illustrations for The Cricket in Times Square? Perfect. It probably goes without saying since it was Garth Williams, and honestly, how can you go wrong with Garth Williams? His attention to detail is unparalleled. It's obvious that he read the story (maybe multiple times) because he captured the most minute information (for example, Aaron and Max loved that they could see the little stack of coins inside Chester's cage with Chester perched proudly on top).

We didn't just love the illustrations though. The story was great, too:

When Chester Cricket hops into the picnic basket in his Connecticut meadow, he is only thinking about tasting a little liverwurst. But he falls asleep and when he wakes up he is on a train bound for New York City. He finally manages to escape the basket at the subway station. He realizes he is a long way from home, but before long he is picked up by a young boy named Mario whose parents own a newspaper stand, and then he meets Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat who become very devoted and loyal friends. Chester loves to "sing," but everyone is surprised and amazed when they hear him playing not only cricket songs but copying any song he hears. Soon his fame spreads throughout New York City.

I suppose some might find the beginning of this book a mite slow, but it was perfect for us. Each character is introduced one chapter at a time, so initially, before we began reading each day, we would review who we already knew: "What is the mouse's name?" Um, Tucker! "And the boy? What's his name?" Um, Mario! Aaron and Max were deeply invested in these characters and would mention them like old friends. (The hardest name for Max to remember was Mama Bellini. What's the mama's name again? "Mama Bellini." Oh yeah, Mama Bellini...and said in the voice of a two-year-old, that's about the cutest thing you will ever hear.)

This story opened up a whole new world for Aaron and Maxwell. They've never been to New York City. They had no idea what a subway was nor a newspaper stand nor Chinatown. And sure, I could have told them what a subway station was, but now that they know that's where Chester and Harry and Tucker lived, they'll never forget it. (I am so curious to know what their mental picture of a subway station is and how accurate it is to real life.)

This book reminded me a little of The Trumpet of the Swan. Both Louis the Swan and Chester the Cricket play music that is not only recognized by humans but wildly applauded and appreciated. However, I guess the stories would be more similar if Chester couldn't make any sound with his legs and had to learn how to play a miniature violin...or something like that.

The Cricket in Times Square is just such a classic tale of friendship. Hard things happen: Chester eats a two-dollar bill, Tucker practically burns down the newspaper stand, Mama Bellini wants to throw out Chester...but through it all they stick together and work out solutions. The story itself may be more than fifty years old, but in my opinion, it has just as much charm as it must have when it was first published.

P.S. I'm curious...has anyone read any of the companion stories to this one (Tucker's Countryside, Chester Cricket's New Home, etc.)? Were any of them any good?

The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani

Oct 26, 2012

This book was a slow start for me...and by slow, I mean no less than 100 pages of initial drag. And even after it "picked up," it never really took off. In fact, I'm kind of surprised I came back to it after I took a break and devoured Wonder. I can be determined sometimes.

At the turn of the century, Ciro Lazzari and Enza Ravanelli live in northern Italy in two different villages spaced just a few miles apart. When the story begins, Ciro's father has just passed away (in a tragic mining accident in America) and his mother is leaving him and his brother at a convent. Enza, on the other hand, is the oldest of six children. She is strong, kind, and hardworking. Enza and Ciro meet when they are both fifteen but shortly after that Ciro is sent away to America to work for a shoemaker. He leaves without saying good-bye to Enza. Eventually, Enza and her father also end up in America to work and earn money to build a new home in Italy. Over the years, Enza's and Ciro's lives sporadically converge here and there until they get married and settle in Minnesota.

First, let me start with what I liked because obviously I liked something or I wouldn't have kept reading:
  • The time period and historical nature of the book; 1905-1945 is a time period that I always tend to gravitate toward. I like the culture, the music, the styles, as well as the big industrial changes that were taking place. The two World Wars always pull at my emotions as well...I think they just feel a little closer to home than the wars before them.
  • The setting; I could see the mountains of Italy, the crowds of Manhattan, and the simplicity of Minnesota. I wanted to visit all three places.
  • The Metropolitan Opera; by far, my favorite part of the book was when Enza was working as one of the costume designers for the Metropolitan Opera. It sounded like such a romantic and exotic world, working behind the scenes of such vast productions. I was more than a little disappointed when she moved to Minnesota.
And now, what made this book draaaaaag for me:
  • The time period; I realize I'm contradicting myself. Did you notice the span of years I mentioned above? 1905-1945? That's not just one period; that's more like four, or even five, depending on how you break it down. That's a lot to cover in one book. I love each one of those spans of years, but altogether, it was just too difficult to maintain an even and captivating pacing. 
  • The writing; it just was not my style. It was repetitive (I can't even count the number of times it mentioned Ciro's desire to marry a good woman who would go through life with him). It was mainly just that their same thought processes and feelings were described over and over again in much the same way. Also, you know how in every creative writing class, they tell you, "Show; don't tell"? I felt like the whole book was all telling. (I should probably tone down the superlatives, but that's what it seemed like.) Then, for all its repetitiveness, I felt like some things didn't get explained well enough...they just happened (starting their own business and moving to Minnesota, for example).
  • Ciro; I didn't like him. And that was a major problem since he was the leading man and all. I think he was kind of supposed to encapsulate the stereotypical Italian man (whatever that's supposed to mean): handsome (although he was blonde...not saying that's not attractive, just not very stereotypical Italian), emotional, moody, romantic, lover of beauty. I don't know that any of those qualities are particularly redeeming anyway, but then he was also selfish and inconsiderate, and he was not pious or virtuous (there are a couple of references plus one scene that describe his immoral conduct). He is hardworking and kind and does place a great deal of importance on family, but even as the book progressed and he matured and settled down, I still never really liked him all that much
  • The romance; there wasn't enough substance to make it believable to me. As I stated in the summary, over the course of ten years, Enza and Ciro have a few brief and scattered meetings. Enza loves Ciro from the beginning and pines for him, but Ciro never pines for her, and then, bam, he decides he wants to marry her, and he does. All I'd seen up to that point was Ciro acting like he liked Enza whenever they ran into each other, but then promptly forgetting about her and running after another girl. It was a romance that I knew was inevitable but that I was not necessarily cheering for.
  • Poor editing; I found more than the usual number of typos and little inconsistencies (Enza putting on her coat twice in one scene, for example). With all the other aforementioned repetition, it just added to my annoyance. 
I had really high hopes for this book. It has received a lot of praise and attention, and I think it really did have a lot of potential, but in the end, I found it long and not overly engaging.

Learning with Lentil

Oct 24, 2012

One of my great internal debates over the last year has been about whether or not to put Aaron into a real preschool. Since he will be in kindergarten next year (unless I hold him back...another internal debate...), I thought it would probably be good for him to be in a more structured setting with more kids. Preschool is definitely the norm around here, and I felt a lot of pressure from the other moms to sign him up. There are many good ones in our area, but most of them are completely out of our price range. I did put him on the waiting list at one of the high schools, and I probably would have had him go except that I didn't hear that he was in the class until last week, and by that time, we'd made other plans, and it seemed like it was going to be a hassle to have him go. And really, there are going to be enough hassles in the future as the boys grow older and get involved with more things, so why choose it right now? We were already involved in the little preschool co-op I mentioned a few days ago, and it was going great and offering just the right amount of learning, socialization, and fun. Plus, I didn't know it when we started, but I actually LOVE planning and teaching, so it's good for me, too.

Aaron's little group consists of four children: two boys and two girls, ranging in age from 3.5 to 4.5. We have been using the curriculum, Five in a Row as a basis.
For those unfamiliar with it, Five in a Row uses children's literature as the framework for learning (sounds like something I would like, yes?). Each week, a different book is featured, and everything (science, geography, math, vocabulary, art, music, etc.) is taken from the book. It really is incredible. I think you don't realize how much there is to talk about and learn from just one simple book until you begin to dissect it. Want to see what I mean? Last week, it was my turn to teach, and we used Lentil by Robert McCloskey.

First, we read the book. The story is about a boy named Lentil who has a dream of making music, but he cannot sing, and he cannot pucker his lips enough to whistle. So he buys a harmonica, and in no time at all, he is quite fluent. Meanwhile, the town of Alta, Ohio is gearing up for a big welcome for Colonel Carter, a wealthy former citizen who donated the money for most of the buildings. It's a big deal...there will be a band and a speech from the mayor. Everyone is excited except for Old Sneep, who has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. The morning of Colonel Carter's arrival, everyone gathers at the train station. Old Sneep sits above everyone sucking on a lemon. The slurping and the sucking makes everyone, including all of the band members, pucker up. The only one spared is Lentil because, remember?, he doesn't know how to pucker. So he saves the day by playing his harmonica.

(I will say that when I first read this story many months ago, the whole puckering thing seemed unrealistic, but now, I absolutely love it. Sometimes that happens with re-readings.)

After reading the story, we went into the kitchen for a taste test. The lemon/puckering in the story was the perfect lead-in to talking about the four (easily recognizable) tastes: sour, sweet, bitter and salty. Each child had four different things to taste at his/her seat: a lemon, sugar water, unsweetened chocolate, and salt water.


After each item was tasted, I asked the children which taste they thought it was and then recorded it on this chart:

The thing about this age group is that if one says one thing, everyone else goes along with it. I think they were all surprised that the chocolate did not taste good. And they all loved the lemons! No puckering from them; I had to cut more wedges so they could suck on them some more.

After tasting, we hand-squeezed the lemons (not the ones we'd been sucking on), and made lemonade. I think the kids were amazed with how difficult it is to squeeze out lemon juice. It was also a good lesson in how we can change the taste of something by adding sugar.

We then moved onto music. I had purchased harmonicas at the dollar store for everyone with the idea that we would learn the values of quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes and play them on the harmonicas. Unfortunately, the dollar store lived up to its cheapness, and the harmonicas hardly worked at all. Very disappointing.

Since the story takes place in a small fictional town in Ohio, it was the perfect opportunity to talk about the United States. I gave them a blank map of the United States and had them find and color both Utah and Ohio.

One thing that has been very difficult for Aaron to understand is how he can live in Salt Lake City and Utah and the United States. So we did this little activity to help conceptualize it:

On the smallest circle, they drew a picture of their house, then their city, state, country and world on each bigger circle. Each time we moved to the next thing, I would say something like, "Is your state bigger or smaller than your city," and they would shout, "Bigger!" So even if they still don't understand it perfectly, I think it definitely helped.

Then we had a snack, and they all declared their homemade lemonade to be the best lemonade they'd ever tasted.

The illustrations in the book are done with charcoal (I meant to take a picture of them, but you can go here for a few examples.) I thought it would be fun for the children to experience a new art medium, so I purchased some sticks of charcoal. They thought it was the greatest thing ever. I didn't see a whole lot of beautiful art produced, and I had no idea how messy it would be, but I think it was a good experience.

The idea of Five in a Row is that you read the book and do a correlating activity for five days in a row (hence, the name). Where we only do preschool one day a week, it makes it so that you don't get to cover a lot of material. For example, with this particular story, we didn't even get to learn about acoustics/sound waves, fractions, instruments, patriotism, or small-town America in the first half of the 20th century. That's what I's amazing all of the ideas that come from one story. I love it.

P.S. Besides the manual, there are many great resources online. My favorite is Delightful Learning.

Saved By a Spider

Oct 22, 2012

This afternoon, Aaron was in a temper. First of all, he was upset because he could not find the hat that goes with his spider costume. Of course, it was my fault that I didn't pay attention to where he flung it when he took it off. So he was already frustrated, but then he grabbed a fistful of Cheeze-Its, stuffed them all into his mouth at once, and half of them fell back out as crumbs. I told him he would have to clean up his mess. That made him even angrier because didn't I know that he needed to be a spider right that very minute? And I'd already failed him once by not knowing where all the parts of his costume were, but then I also wanted him to clean up his mess. It was all just too much.

I wouldn't let him go downstairs, so he stalked out of the kitchen. Ten seconds later, I saw a not-so-small spider scurry across the kitchen floor (no, it was not Aaron in his costume...this was the real deal). All of a sudden it was there. I have no idea where it came from. It literally seemed to appear from out of nowhere.

I freaked out. (Can I just insert that one strike against autumn is it always seems to invite the spiders inside, and they are most certainly not welcome.) I shrieked, "There's a spider! Aaron! AARON! Grab a shoe! There's a spider!" Aaron came racing into the kitchen, wielding a shoe like a sword, his eyes shining with anticipation. Not five minutes before, he had been threatening not to like me anymore, and now he could think of nothing else but saving me from the thing that makes me shudder and freeze and run all at the same time.

"Where is it, Mom?" And with a mighty slap, he brought that shoe down on the intruder and squashed him to his death. That's my boy.

That one little act completely turned around Aaron's mood. All of a sudden, he was smiling and laughing and kind and sweet. Much as I hate to admit it, a spider, something I detest with every part of me, had actually saved us from our downward spiral. It had given us a fresh start. Our bad moods had vanished.

I said, "Aaron, since you killed the spider for me, I will sweep up your crumbs for you."

And with that, we were even once more.

KidPages: Three Witchy Favorites

Oct 19, 2012

Aaron, Maxwell, and I (and occasionally Bradley, too, if he's in the right mood) have been steadily making our way through a great pile of Halloween books. We've read some much-loved ones from years past and delved into new ones, and slowly but surely, some favorites have begun to emerge. We are not at all into the spooky, gruesome, scary Halloween stories, so these three with cute and fun and helpful witches as the stars have been just the thing for us.

1. A Job for Wittilda, Caralyn and Mark Buehner
I love this husband and wife team (their Snowmen books are magic to me). This particular story has just the right hint of Halloween without being all trick-or-treating and ghosts and vampires.

Wittilda is (presumably) a witch. (It never specifically says that she is, but she can only cook batwing stew or roast newt, she wears a pointed hat, and she flies on a broomstick, all of which are pretty good indicators that she is, indeed, a witch.) She owns 47 cats and has begun to realize that she does not have the means to feed so many mouths unless she makes some money. So she goes in search of a job. The one she really wants is with Joe Dingaling's pizza, but she has to prove her abilities by delivering five pizzas faster than any of the other applicants.

I just love the blurring of the line between fact and fantasy with this one. There's nothing spectacular about delivering pizzas, but delivering pizzas on a flying broomstick? Now that's cool. Also, Wittilda is one of those characters you wish was real: she's quirky and fun and uses her heart to make decisions.

The illustrations are full of Mark Buehner's traditional charm: shapes and pictures in the clouds, etc. And if you know anything about my boys, you'll know that they love the lurking spider hidden in all of the pictures.

2. A Woggle of Witches, Adrienne Adams
This is an old book...not like, "my great-great-grandmother read it in a one-room school house" kind of old, but more like, "my mother might have checked it out from the library when she was a kid." So, about forty years old, in case that wasn't clear enough for you. But, for all it's been around, this year was the first time I had read or even heard of it. (So, clearly, my mom must not have checked it out as a child, or at any rate, it didn't make an impression on her.)

The book follows a "woggle" (see note below) of witches through an evening of fun. They begin by eating bat stew, which is followed by joy riding on their brooms until they take a break on the face of the moon. They know it is time to go home when they hear a band of trick-or-treaters approaching. They zoom back to their home in the forest as fast as their brooms will carry them.

The illustrations are charming: they're dark (because the story takes place at night), but not boring in any way. I love the changing color of the sky throughout...dark periwinkle, mossy green, chocolate brown. There's not a lot of variation in the witches' faces, but they all look like they're having a rollicking good time, which I love.

Note: Now the question I'm sure you've all been asking: is "woggle" a real word? From what I can tell, yes and no. Yes, if you look it up, you will find a definition. No, it does not mean "group" or "gang" or "clique" as seems to be the general meaning in this book. (For some reason, every time I say, "a woggle of witches," my thoughts follow with, "a gaggle of geese.") What is the real definition? A-hem: "the ring of leather through which a Scout neckerchief is threaded." I think I like it far better when referring to a gaggle of witches, don't you?

3. Winnie the Witch, Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul
Winnie is a witch who lives in a completely black house. Everything is black: the carpet, the dishes, even the bathtub. (However, Winnie herself is not black. She is actually quite colorful.) A black house would all be well and good (for a witch, that is) except that Winnie owns a black cat. And Wilbur the cat is continually being sat upon or stepped on or tripped over because he blends in and Winnie can't see him. So Winnie comes up with some rather creative (and funny) solutions.

This book is just fun, and I love it for that. It made the boys giggle, and it made me giggle, too. There are times in the book when Wilbur the cat looks so indignant and sometimes embarrassed that you just have to laugh.

Because most of the illustrations are black/gray/white, it makes any color practically leap off the page. The absence of colors makes them even more vibrant when they appear.

And now it's your turn: if you have a personal witchy favorite, we'd love to check it out!

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Oct 17, 2012

Wonder was my next choice for my goal to read three potential-Newbery titles. From what I can tell, it has been getting the most hype and attention overall...and with good reason. It was fantastic.

August Pullman was born with severe facial deformities. By the time he is ten, he has been through countless surgeries, everything from changing the structure of his jaw so he can eat to implanting a piece of his hip bone to create his chin. He has been homeschooled his whole life, but when he reaches fifth grade, his parents think it might be a good time for him to adjust to the real world. (And I'm thinking, Really? Because middle school is so accommodating with its students all going through puberty, identity crises, and social insecurities?) Auggie agrees to try it, with the understanding that he can quit at any time. The book follows him through all of fifth grade, told from not only his own perspective but that of his sister, two of her friends, and two of his friends.

Overall, I loved the changing points of view. When the story is told through the eyes of six different people, you always run the risk of it either sounding like all the same person or losing its continuity. And to be perfectly honest, the voices did all run together to a certain extent (but then, they were all middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, so you know, if the voices had been too different, it wouldn't have been authentic). In some cases, I felt like Palacio was purposely changing something just so it would be different and distinct. For example, when it is Justin's turn (he's August's sister's boyfriend), all capital letters and quotation marks are dropped. This felt like kind of a cheap shot to Palacio couldn't figure out how to make him sound different so just made his section look different instead.

That said, I'm still really glad the story was told by six different people. It broadened the story and made the whole thing feel more well-rounded and complete. If it had just been told from Auggie's perspective, it would have still been good and enlightening, but I think sometimes when talking about handicaps, we forget that everyone is affected by it, even random strangers in a small way. As a reader, I thought it was so thought-provoking to hear not only Auggie's thoughts (how he perceives and is hurt by people's reactions and behaviors) but also his sister, Via's (who for once just wants to be identified for who she is herself and not that she has a brother with a deformed face) and also his best friend, Jack's (who likes being Auggie's friend but sometimes cracks under the social pressure).

This book made me reflect on my own behavior towards those with physical handicaps. I'm always worried about hurting or offending someone, and so I know I've been the kind of person described by Auggie who immediately looks away and avoids eye contact with someone who is handicapped. I don't want to stare and so I go to the other extreme, which is just as glaring and noticeable. August's story not only helped me recognize my own actions but identify some ways to change them. For that reason, I think this is one of those books that will stay with me and that I will re-read at some future point.

One of the things that I really appreciated about this particular story was that August's handicap was only physical, not mental in any way. So often I think we assume that physical and mental handicaps go together, but that is not always the case. One of my favorite scenes was when August's friend, Jack, asked him, "Are you always going to look this way, August? I mean, can't you get plastic surgery or something?" August smiled, pointed to his face and said, "Hello? This is after plastic surgery!" Jack started laughing and said, "Dude, you should sue your doctor!" August and Jack both cracked up. I think I liked this scene so much because it showed the kind of friendship that is possible when pretenses are dropped and insecurities are left behind. You can only joke like that when you truly know the other person.

There were also some really good one-liners that made me think. For example, the first time Jack saw August was when they were little boys. He was caught so off-guard by August's face that he and his brother and his babysitter immediately walked away. His babysitter realized how this had looked to August and his mom and sister. She felt so bad about it. Jack was confused because they hadn't done anything intentionally mean, and his babysitter answered, "Jack, sometimes you don't have to mean to hurt someone to hurt someone. You understand?" So, so true.

I felt like Palacio took a very sensitive subject and handled it in a beautiful way. So often, it seems like stories like these are emotionally draining, but this one was uplifting and hopeful in every way. It wasn't like Auggie didn't have struggles in school: some kids were mean to him in awful ways. But he had a great home life with really supportive and loving parents, he made a couple of friends who after a time stuck up for him in big ways, and August's confidence steadily grew throughout the book. I loved the positive undertone throughout.

As an adult, I am curious if this is a book kids would like. Where it was hard for me to put down, I'm not sure it would hold their interest. However, even if it's not an exciting story per se, I think it would be such a good book for middle schoolers to read; so much of it could be applied to real life.

When I started reading this book, I was in the midst of reading another book (The Shoemaker's Wife), which was due at the library. Because I hate library fines, I returned it but put it on hold at our other library so I could keep reading. There was only a day or so without it, so I just thought I would start Wonder while I waited for the other copy of The Shoemaker's Wife to come in. But once I started, I couldn't stop. August's story captured my interest completely, and I had to see it through without going back to the other book first.

I would actually love to see this win the Newbery. It was published in early 2012, so it has probably gotten too much attention for its own good, but even if it doesn't win anything, it is a story worth reading once...and then again.

P.S. Just in case I didn't convince you to read this, check out the trailer. I think it really captures the general feel of the book.

A Pet Peeve of Mine, or Why Parents are a Big Fat Bunch of Hypocrites

Oct 15, 2012

As you already know, I'm an introvert. Which means, I avoid face-to-fact confrontations and conflicts. But which doesn't mean that I don't have an opinion.

I just need a safe place to give voice to that opinion. I know! How about this blog? No eye contact required.

Excuse me while I ascend my soapbox for a moment.

I participate in a little once-a-week music class with my boys. It's super fun. Each mom has a turn to plan and carry it out. We sing old favorites. We learn new tunes. We dance around the room and play instruments.

And we talk.

Picture this: the moms are seated in a circle with their kids. The mom in charge is at the front of the room demonstrating the actions to a new song. But no one can hear her because of all the moms who are yakking it up. They are pretending to participate (they're sitting on the floor, after all), but really, they're catching up on the latest gossip and sharing their most recent parenting woes.

This bothers me on so many different levels:

First, and most basic, I can't hear what the instructor is saying. Nor can my children. But now I know that Baby Johnny is teething.

Second, it is rude to the mom in charge. It is hard enough to corral a rowdy bunch of two- and three-year-olds without having to calm the mothers down as well. It puts her in an awkward position: should she ask the moms to quiet down? But they're her friends. Plus, she might be doing the same kind of talking next week.

Third, I've noticed that the louder the moms are, the more the kids feel at liberty to disengage themselves. They are off climbing the chairs or hiding behind the chalkboard. The moms create a din, and it makes it difficult for everyone else to focus.

Fourth, we expect our kids to be still and quiet when we take them to adult events (church or wedding receptions or funerals), but we think we don't have to be still and quiet at their activities. We are setting a very poor example, and they are paying attention to it.

I'm not just ranting against other people. I'm ranting against myself, too. I know I've been guilty of talking during activities like these. The fact is, I like to talk; I like to catch up; I like to have a sympathetic ear.

But lately, I've been making a conscious effort to zip my lips when it's someone else's turn to talk. I can do my talking before or after but not during. I want my boys to listen and be respectful. I'm raising the bar for them, and I'm going to hold myself to it as well.

If you think this doesn't apply to you, the next time you're with your kids at storytime at the library (because it happens there, too), pay attention to what you're doing. It is so easy to fall into the talking trap. And while you might not realize your mouth is moving, everyone else around you does.

Descending soapbox. Thank you for listening.

Dog's Colorful Day and Other Tidbits from Preschool

Oct 12, 2012

This fall, I'm participating in two preschool coops, one for two-year-old Maxwell and another for four-year-old Aaron. With the two of them being only 19 months apart, you would think I could maybe have them both in the same one, but there is a world of difference between two and four. Where Aaron can already read, the only letter Max consistently recognizes is M, so the focus of each group is very different.

Max's little group consists of three boys and one girl. We have it one day a week for an hour and a half, and each mom takes a turn teaching. We focus on a different letter and number each time. (Max now knows at least three letters...not bad!)

It was my turn to teach this week, and I have to say, I am having so much fun planning these little lessons. The internet is a wealth of good ideas, so the only hard part is deciding which ones to choose. The letter of the week was D, and so we did a lot with dogs and dinosaurs.

At the beginning of the school year, I made a flannel board to use with my lessons. I attached the flannel to the back of a white board I already owned, so it cost me almost nothing. You cannot imagine the immense pleasure I feel over having my own flannel board to play with. I should feel geeky, and I do a little bit, but mostly I just feel giddy with the possibilities. (I highly recommend that you check out Flannel Friday's Pinterest page if you want some great flannel board ideas.)

Since dogs were part of the theme for the day, I used Dog's Colorful Day by Emma Dodd for inspiration. In this book, Dog goes about his day and acquires nine different spots from various activities (a pink spot from a drip of ice cream, a green spot from rolling in the grass, etc.). This is a great book because it's so simple (both the text and the illustrations), but it offers so many possibilities for things to discuss: colors, numbers, and counting, as well as the roaming and friendly natures of dogs. It also provides memory opportunities for children: can they remember where he got his blue spot? or his yellow one?

So I decided to turn the book into a flannel board story. First, I copied a picture of Dog (and blessed Emma Dodd for her simple, two-dimensional drawings...) and cut out colored spots in various sizes. Then I got all of the pieces laminated. (Have I mentioned how much I want my own laminator for Christmas? Mike, I hope you're reading this.) Then I put velcro on Dog and the spots so the spots could be easily taken on and off. I also drew a bathtub for Dog so he could get all clean, and then I covered the backs of Dog and the tub with felt so they would stick to the flannel.

And ta-da! Dog's Colorful Day, flannel-board style. I was a little too proud of this project and had to practice a couple of times with Aaron and Maxwell just because it was so fun to use all the pieces.

The whole thing was a big success with the kids this morning. First I read them the actual book so they could get acquainted with the story. Then I gave them each a couple of spots, and they got to put them on Dog as I re-told the story (and Aaron got mad at me because I got a few of them out of order). They helped me count them all and also tried to remember where Dog got each one.

And if you're interested, here are the other things we did today:
  • Practiced writing the letter D with window markers.
  • Learned about the number 4 and did two different dinosaur poems/songs to count up to four and down from four. I used the flannel board for this one, too.
  • Went "digging" for dinosaur bones in the backyard. Mike used a laser at school to cut out this super cool T-Rex skeleton for me. I just hid the pieces around the yard...there wasn't any actual digging involved...and then we put the whole thing together.
                 The whole thing was cut out of cardboard, and my one regret is that the tail got cut the wrong way so the ugly side faces out. Bummer.
  • Glued shapes onto paper to make their own dinosaurs.
 Max's creation...he definitely took some artistic liberties
  • For a snack, we ate Chex puppy chow. They pretended it really was puppy chow and that they were dogs eating it (hope that doesn't come back to bite anyone!).
It was a really fun morning, and I am really enjoying spending time with these sweet kids and watching them learn.

The Witches by Roald Dahl

Oct 11, 2012

Confession: This is the first book by Roald Dahl I've ever read. Of course, I'm familiar with his stories, and I have a vague recollection that my mom might have read James and the Giant Peach aloud, but I honestly can't remember. So I am counting this reading of The Witches as my first real exposure to Roald Dahl.

I can assure you, it won't be my last.

When I first had the idea to read this for Halloween, I gave no thought to the possibility that I might actually enjoy it, only that it was a perfect book for October. But I honestly had not even listened to a minute of it before I was hooked, and more than once I thought, I can't believe I'm enjoying a book about witches so much.

The story is narrated by a young boy who goes to live with his Norwegian grandmama following the death of his parents. His grandmother is an authority on REAL witches...those dangerous creatures who masquerade as kind and sweet women. All witches hate children, and it is their life's work to dispose of as many of them as possible. After warning him and sharing a few tales of other children's disappearances, the grandmother gives him a few tips for recognizing a witch in normal, everyday life (for example, a witch will always be wearing gloves to hide her claws). The boy takes this advice and manages to escape the tactics of a witch who tries to lure him out of his treehouse. But a few weeks later, he finds himself trapped in a hotel ballroom with not just one, but nearly a hundred witches, including the Grand High Witch herself.

In the beginning, I thought the narrator was a girl. I don't know if this was because the audio was read by a woman or if there was some other detail that turned me in that direction. So it was rather a rude awakening when a couple chapters in, I realized the story had been about a boy, not a girl, all along. It took me a moment to make the mental switch. I guess that's one good reason to read the jacket synopsis ahead of time.

The writing was delightful: just the right mix of humorous and frightening. When the boy (sorry, I would call him by his name, but it is never mentioned), gets trapped in the aforementioned ballroom, I literally felt the terror creep over me as he looks around the room and takes note of the gloves and the wigs and all the other things his grandmother warned him of. Even though I knew all along that the "Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children" was really going to turn out to be a meeting of murderous witches, it did nothing to lessen the goosebumps that prickled my skin when the Grand High Witch took off her mask.  Mixed with some funny characters and incredibly witty lines, the whole story was thrilling.

The audio was read by Lynn Redgrave, and, as you might expect, she was fantastic. Oh, she was so good: the grandmother's Norwegian accent was charming (I couldn't help but say, "My darling" just like she did anytime I talked to my boys), the Grand High Witch's voice was grating and obnoxious, and there were times when the boy was so delighted by something that I could literally hear the smile in the words as she spoke them. The whole time I was listening, I kept thinking about how much fun it will be in a few years to read this out loud to my boys, but now the audio has ruined that for me. Much as I love reading out loud, I could never do this story justice the way Lynn Redgrave does.

If you haven't had the pleasure of reading this book, or even if you had, read it this month! It's a fast read, and it will get you in the mood to go trick-or-treating.

And, um, it will also make you look at your nice elderly neighbor with a discerning and wary eye. You just never know what's behind that sweet face!

A Punishment's Silver Lining

Oct 8, 2012

Last Sunday, we came home from church, fed the boys lunch, and put them down in their beds for naps. Then Mike and I collapsed on our own bed and within minutes, seconds maybe, we were soundly asleep.

Within my sedated state, I vaguely remember hearing the gleeful laughter and giggles of the three boys. They all three share a room, and usually this is not a problem at all, but occasionally it does turn into something of a playfest. I usually put an immediate stop to it, but sometimes I let it go because I love hearing them have so much fun together. On this particular afternoon, however, I didn't do anything because of sheer, wonderful laziness.

Mike eventually went to put a halt to their fun, and he found that they indeed had been having "fun." They had found a black marker (I have absolutely no recollection of leaving a marker in their room) can probably imagine what I'm about to tell you: they had colored all over themselves (in their ears, on their faces, between their toes...everywhere), all over their sheets, and they had drawn big gigantic circles on the carpet. Miraculously, the walls were virtually unscathed (it was probably only a matter of time).

Aaron's feet and the carpet
I was livid. I didn't even go look at the damage for a good two hours because I was worried if I saw it before I had time to adjust to the idea, I would completely lose it. While I was calming down, I gave thought to an appropriate punishment. Three minutes in time-out was not going to do it. It had to be something they would notice and remember. One of the things Aaron and Max really like is watching a show in the morning while I'm getting ready for the day. So I decided to cut it...times seven. A whole week of no TV.

It's a good thing I had two hours to convince myself this was a good idea. Truth be told, I enjoy having them watch a show almost as much as they enjoy watching it. It gives me a quiet moment to get a handle on the day. This punishment was going to hurt me, too.

The boys were not thrilled about the consequence (at least I knew I'd chosen a good one!), and Monday was about as painful as I was expecting: they were grumpy and whiny, they didn't want to play by themselves, they made a constant stream of messes, and they were bored. I almost caved, but when it comes to consequences, I am unrelenting. I held out.

On Tuesday, things brightened a bit. After a little coaxing, the boys went downstairs and listened to a picture book on CD. Then they went to the playroom and played until it was time for us to take Aaron to preschool. And it only got better from there.

I won't meticulously describe all the days that followed, but let me just say that the transformation was amazing. Instead of hanging around me and whining, they were playing downstairs or outside. Their creativity skyrocketed. They were playing with toys they had completely forgotten about and sitting at the kitchen table drawing detailed pictures and relaxing on the couch looking through books and making up their own games.

Yesterday, I told Mike I didn't want the week to end. I loved what no TV had done to my boys. The crazy thing is, it wasn't like they were watching TV all day before. They were watching about an hour each morning...none in the afternoon, none in the evening. But eliminating it literally transformed the whole day.

So this morning, I didn't tell them the week of punishment was up.

And they didn't ask.

They were too busy playing.

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Oct 5, 2012

Last year, I caught Newbery-fever and followed a lot of the Newbery news leading up to Dead End in Norvelt grabbing the coveted medal. I anticipated the announcement of the winners almost as much as I had looked forward to Christmas. Nerdy? Yes. In line with that, the last three years, I have read the Newbery winners soon after the medal was awarded.

But with all my Newbery-nerdiness, one thing has been seriously lacking: I've never read any of the Newbery candidates ahead of time. This year, I decided that was going to change. After all, isn't part of the fun being able to cheer for your favorite (even if your cheering doesn't do a bit of good)? And how can you cheer for a favorite if you haven't become acquainted with any of the potentials? I may not pay attention to politics, but when it comes to books, by golly, I'm going to have an opinion!!

So I made a goal that before the awards are announced in January, I would read at least three Newbery nominees. I know, three whole books! If you work hard, you might be able to become an over-achiever like me. Ha! 

But then, I had to choose which three to start with, and seriously, that was one tough choice since there are some very fine books this year. I could have sat down and analyzed all the titles, but I didn't. I took the easy road. The Newbery medalist in 2010 was When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. It was phenomenal, and a book that I still think about to this day. Earlier this year, before I even made my goal of reading three potential Newberys, I saw that Stead had a new book coming out, and I knew I would read it at some point no matter what, so I might as well do it before the end of the year.

In my pre-reading of reviews, Liar & Spy wasn't getting a lot of glowing attention. Everyone was comparing it to When You Reach Me, and it just wasn't measuring up. I think these reviews actually helped me clear my head and go in with a completely open mind. And because of that, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. A solid four stars for me.

When the book begins, Georges (that's not a typo...the "s" is silent) and his family have just moved to an apartment in Brooklyn. Georges' dad lost his job and started his own business, and so they sold their beautiful home and down-sized. While exploring the basement of the apartment building, Georges and his dad see an old and faded sign announcing a meeting of the spy club. As a joke, Georges' dad writes, "What time?" But when Georges goes back down to the basement awhile later, someone has penciled in "1:00?". When Georges returns to the basement at the appointed hour, he meets Safer, a kid his age who never leaves the building and has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Together they begin tracking the mysterious Mr. X. Through this all, Georges is enduring bullying at school as well as never seeing his mom, a nurse working extra shifts at the hospital. Questions come and go unanswered until finally the pieces all snap perfectly into place.

While the ending is not as magical as it was in When You Reach Me, it is just as well executed. Things I thought were real were not and vice versa, but in the end, everything made sense, so much so that I was wondering how I didn't see it coming.

I really liked Georges' character: he is kind of a deep thinker. Throughout the book, the reader occasionally gets a glimpse into his thoughts. For example, What if his dad was the same age as him? Would he be friends with his dad? Or would his dad bully him like some of the other boys at school? It seriously made me wonder what it would have been like if my parents had been my peers instead of my parents...would we have gotten along, had the same interests, hung out with the same people? It was little thought-provoking scenarios like that that made me wonder where Rebecca Stead gets her material? At some point in her life, did she wonder if her dad would be a friend or an enemy? Or did she hear another child wondering about it? Or did it come to her in a stroke of genius while she was writing away?

But as much as I liked Georges, I might have liked Safer (or Safer's sister, Candy) (or Georges' friend, Bob English Who Draws) even more. It's that kind of book...where the characters are rich and varied and intricate and mysterious.

I listened to the audio of this one, but I'm rather impassive about it. Nothing overly remarkable or overly annoying. I don't think it made the book for me, but it didn't destroy it either.

Now, because I read this so I could offer a Newbery Opinion, let me offer a Newbery Opinion. I would highly recommend this book to adults and kids alike (and when I say "highly," I really do mean "highly"), but I don't think it will win the medal or even an honor. I don't know if I think this because Stead recently won or because it isn't issue-y or historical or obscure enough, but my gut feeling says no. I wouldn't be disappointed if it won, but I would be surprised.

And if you'd like to follow the Newbery-hype along with me (did you even know there was Newbery-hype?), here are three of my favorite blogs for all the latest news and analysis: Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog, A Fuse #8 Production, and For Those About to Mock.

KidPages: Three New Favorites

Oct 3, 2012

With October three days underway, there have been lists of Favorite Halloween Picture Books flying all around the internet. My hold list at the library can't keep up with all the good suggestions I've found. I will for sure be joining the throngs and compiling a list of our personal favorites for the season, but this is not that list.

We are definitely in a downpour of picture books lately. We have found so many good ones that I'm sure I'll never be able to write about all of them. But from the stacks and piles and mountains of books, here are three we liked well enough to read more than twice:

1. It's a Tiger!, David LaRochelle, illus. Jeremy Tankard
When you were a kid, did you ever sing the song, "We're Going on a Bear Hunt"? You know, the one where you go through the grass, swim through the water, climb the mountain, etc. until you get to the dark cave with the bear lurking inside? Well, this story reminds me of the second half of that old classic, where the bear gives chase and you have to hurry back through the grass, water, etc.

The story begins in the jungle "where the tall trees grow and the monkeys swing from vine to vine." Suddenly, you realize that one of the monkey's tails is not a monkey's tail. It's a TIGER! RUN!

Thus begins a crazy chase with the tiger hiding and imitating something else each time (even the captain of a ship at one point). It uses a lot of action words and commands to engage the reader ("If we're very quiet (shhh!) we can tiptoe past."), which is why it reminds me of the bear hunt song.

The illustrations are bright and bold, with many of the features being over-simplified. But the thing I love the most about this story is the ending. Just when you think everything has resolved nicely, the reader is sent on another crazy chase. This circular dimension encourages the fun to go on and on and on...

2. That's How!, Christoph Niemann
This was one of those books where I picked it up at the library and thought I would get it. Then I flipped it open and decided I wouldn't get it. Then I turned just a couple more pages and decided I would get it. And obviously, I'm glad I did.

This story celebrates the wild imaginations of children. The text is limited with a little girl asking her (I'm assuming) wiser, older brother how things work. For example, "How does a train work?" The boy thinks for a bit, then comes up with a crazy explanation: A monkey is cooking a pot of soup (which creates steam), and three other monkeys are on a treadmill trying to get to the soup (and that is what engages the wheels). Confusing? Well, kids' imaginations are confusing sometimes.

One thing that I really like about the illustrations is how a certain color is featured with every invention. The train page, for example, is almost entirely red, the steamroller page orange, etc.

I love watching Aaron (my four-year-old) with this one. Even though, he knows none of these answers are real, I can see in his eyes he wishes that they were.

3. For Just One Day, Laura Leuck, illus. Marc Boutavant
On a recent trip to the bookstore, I saw this one displayed. I always seem to make it into the bookstore without pen and paper, which is a shame because I always see books I want to remember so I can get them from the library. But it's rather hard to remember 25 different titles. Luckily, I remembered this one.

If you've been around a child for any length of time, you know how intrigued he/she is with the idea of being an animal. Aaron loves to pretend to be a grizzly bear. This book follows the imaginations of nine different children, as each one wishes to be a different animal "for just one day."

It was a book my boys liked immediately, in part because it resonated with their own ideas (a grizzly bear is even featured), but also because it gave them new ideas.

But for me, it was the illustrations that made me not just like, but adore, this book. Even though it's fairly new (2009, I believe), the pictures are done in an old school style: kind of a pen and ink approach with soft, retro colors. The bunny page is my favorite.

So if you're already feeling a little burned out with Halloween stories, take a break with these three books!

Reading With the Seasons: Halloween Edition

Oct 1, 2012

Have you ever read a book and upon finishing realized that, intentionally or not, you picked the perfect time to read it?

A couple of Aprils ago, I read The Secret Garden. I had not even connected the arrival of spring in Utah with the awakening of Mary Lennox's garden, but suddenly, while reading about tiny green sprouts poking through bare earth, I looked outside and the same thing was happening in my own front yard. I enjoyed spring like I never have before. The book enhanced my real life, and my real life likewise enhanced the book.

Contrast that with the time I read Backwater by Joan Bauer.  I read it in June, a beautiful June, I might add, with warm days full of sunshine and beauty. Unfortunately, the story took place on a freezing and snow-packed mountain. Ugh. Every time I sat down to read it, the sunlight streamed through the window, tantalizing me to come outside, and I was stuck in a frozen wasteland. Truth be told, I rarely enjoy freezing wastelands, but especially, I discovered, not in June.

Sometimes it's not a particular time of year but rather a particular time of life that coincides just right with a particular book. A couple of weeks after giving birth to Bradley, I read Being the Mom by Emily Watts. It didn't have any earth-shattering ideas in it, but for some reason, it was just what I needed as I adjusted to the challenges and joys of three children.

And so it is that more and more I find myself trying to time the reading of certain books with certain seasons or events. Of course, this could be taken to the extreme, and it would take away all the fun if you felt like you couldn't read a book unless it was just the right season or time of year. But I find that a couple of seasonal books makes me enjoy the holidays that much more.

I have been wanting to read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier for a long time. But one day, I realized that it would be the perfect read for October...just the right mix of Gothic and chilling and mysterious...and I have been saving it ever since. The time has finally come, and it is waiting for me at the library right now!

Also, for a wildly different flavor, I'm planning to read The Witches by Roald Dahl. And then of course there were be plenty of seasonal picture books to enjoy with the boys.

Now, I should clarify, Halloween and I, we are not close friends. I do not do the creepy, gruesome, frightening dead and undead. And so I do not want to read something that is creepy, gruesome, or frightening. But there are many things I love about this time of year, and so I want what I read to enhance it and help me enjoy it even more.

And if you think this is a little OCD, just wait for December. All I can read are sappy, sentimental Christmas stories. I just can't seem to help myself.

As part of this, I hope some of you will join in the fun. If you have a perfect October read, please share, either as a title or a link to your own blog in the comments. I know I don't have a lot of readers, but I'm hoping that enough of you will share that we can make up a pretty good list. Happy October!
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