Reading With the Seasons: New Year's Wrap-up

Jan 31, 2013

It's the last day of January, and I am not sad to kiss (or maybe I should say kick?) this month good-bye. The arrival of February means we're one month closer to spring. Happiness.

As a farewell, here are some of the books that were suggested (or that I found throughout the month) that would be great reads to begin the new year with.

In my post at the beginning of the month, I mentioned my plan to read both Happier at Home and Bringing Up Bébé. I will be reviewing them shortly, but they were both very good and totally rejuvenated my attitude and my motivation. I also mentioned Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, which I loved and reviewed here. I also finished A Thomas Jefferson Education.  And last, I also mentioned my nerdy speed reading book, which I'm diligently trying to implement and also The God Who Weeps, which I've been reading in small doses.

And here are a few new suggestions:
  • Alli said she's reading Les Miserables (unabridged) by Victor Hugo. With the new movie, I know a lot of people who are reading or re-reading this classic.
  • Kendra mentioned The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom, 5 Spiritual Solutions for Everyday Parenting Challenges by Richard and Linda Eyre, and An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski. I thought all of these were great suggestions for getting the year started off right!
  • Lindsay suggested some thought provoking reads: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich and The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.
  • Samantha said she was reading Villette by Charlotte Bronte--always nice to start off the year with a classic!
  • At Writing Beckles, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey was suggested as a good winter read. 
  • One of the books that got some Newbery buzz (but didn't win) was Twelve Kinds of Ice by Ellen Bryan Obed--a short book of vignettes that sounds appropriately winterish. I'm saving this for next year.
And now, it's time to move onto the month of LOVE! Get ready to share and suggest your favorite love stories and relationship books tomorrow!

KidPages: Five Great Winter Books

Jan 29, 2013

Today as I chipped and shoved away the snow trapping my car, I looked longingly at the boys' neglected bikes and the long, long driveway and remembered what it was like (was that only a few months ago?!) to send them outside to play with nothing on except a pair of swimming shorts. Ah, sweet, sweet memories.

In the meantime, here are some books to help make this long, dreadful winter more pleasant. (Randomly, I just realized that I can't read winter books in summer because they give me anxiety just remembering that winter will someday return, but I also can't read summer books in winter because they make me bitter and resentful that it's not currently 80 degrees outside.)

Now, onto the books:

1. Snow, Cynthia Rylant, illus. Lauren Stringer
Sometimes when I wake up in the morning and find the world blanketed in white, I wish for a way to perfectly describe the beauty around me. (Because, in spite of how difficult it makes my life, even I can't deny that there are times when it is absolutely breathtaking.) But when I try to write about it, I can't think of what to say that could possibly help me remember what it looks like and what it feels like.

But somehow, Cynthia Rylant found the right words.

Snow is basically description after description of different kinds of snow. There's the "snow that comes softly in the night, like a shy friend afraid to knock" and the snow that falls "in fat, cheerful flakes while you are somewhere you'd rather not be." If you live in a snowy place, then you know exactly what she's talking about. But if you live in a warm place and wish you knew what snow was like, then read this book, and you'll know. My favorite line is: "The snow loves them back. It gives them angels and new friends," and the accompanying picture is of children playing and making snowmen and snow angels.

The illustrations are a perfect complement to the text: they capture the cold nip in the air and the feathery, wet feeling of snowflakes, and the warm comfort of going inside. There's one picture that I especially love where the snow has a pinkish hue cast over it at the end of the day.

This book reminds me that even with all the hassle and frustration and misery that snow brings, it is still, and always will be, magical.

2. Chilly Milly Moo, Fiona Ross
This is a silly one, no question. But for all its silliness, it also has a certain amount of charm and surprise that instantly delighted all of us.

Milly Moo (a cow) dislikes the heat. In fact, she is so bothered by it that she can't seem to produce any milk. The other cows don't understand it. They claim that the sun helps them make milk and think it should be the same for Milly Moo. The farmer, being not too sympathetic to her discomfort, tells her that he can't keep her if she won't make milk. Fortunately for Milly Moo, the night before her last chance, a storm hits and the temperature plunges. Suddenly Milly Moo feels quite comfortable, and when the farmer goes to milk her, she doesn't just produce cold milk but something much, much better.

The surprise ending is probably the best part of this story, but I also appreciated that it addressed some important issues, such as including those who feel left out or are different. And also recognizing that everyone contributes in different ways (Milly Moo couldn't make milk when it was hot, but the other cows couldn't make it when it was cold--all of the cows were important for different reasons).

The illustrations are simple and have a two-dimensional appearance. (The sun is just a big spiral in the sky; the grass is just little staggered lines.) They contribute to the general quirkiness and silliness of the book.

I know I need to be a little more sympathetic to the people in my life who, like Milly Moo, actually prefer the cold and snow of winter to the dry heat of summer. (I'm especially thinking of my brother, Blaine, who feels the same anxiety with the approaching summer that I feel with the approaching winter.)

3. A Perfect Day, Carin Berger
This is another book that paints snow in the best and most magical of lights. (Believe it or not, there are other less enchanting snow books out there, but I tend to need a reminder of why snow is a good thing.)

The reader follows a group of children (Emma and Leo and Otto and Willa and a whole bunch more) through the events and activities of a perfect snow day. There's the joy of making the very first tracks in the untouched white and making a snowman and a snow fort and sledding down a long hill. At the end of the day, they all go home to "warm hugs and dry clothes and steaming hot chocolate." Perfect.

The text is very simple and direct--not more than a line or two per page--but it uses those few words to tell a beautiful story. One of the things I loved is that all of the children had names. Even though we didn't get to know any of the children very intimately, just the fact that they have names made it seem like we were peeking in on an actual village and not just some random place of the author's imagination. Besides just a description of winter, it was a story, too.

The illustrations are totally unique. They are collages made from all sorts of random paper: catalogs, letters, receipts, etc. The hills of snow are really interesting to look at because if you look closely, you can actually read the random text on the paper the hills were created from. Sometimes I have a difficult time understanding or appreciating this more abstract style of art, but this one was very accessible to a non-artist like me.

4. All You Need For a Snowman, Alice Schertle, illus. Barbara Lavallee
Unlike Snow and A Perfect Day, which talked about all of the fun things you can do in the snow, All You Need For a Snowman focuses on just one: the classic snowman.

"One small snowflake fluttering down--that's all you need for a snowman. EXCEPT..." And with that opening line, the book launches into all the time, physical exertion, and accessories needed to make a really perfect snowman. And what if you have leftover snow? Even better. Then you can make a friend, too.

Aaron and Maxwell really liked this one. Even though we have a LOT of snow, they aren't really big enough to play in it by themselves (especially since it's so deep, it's past their waists). When Mike's home to play with them, he usually takes them sledding, so they haven't even built a snowman this year. But this book made them want to build one, and I think they will in the near future.

And while I usually try to make some comment on the illustrations, in this case, I have nothing to say except that they do their job.

5. White Snow, Bright Snow, Alvin Tresselt, illus. Roger Duvoisin
I think what I like best about this book is the overall structure. In the first four pages, you read about a postman, a farmer, a policeman, the policeman's wife, some rabbits, and some children. They are all noticing, in their own way, that it seems like it might snow. Then the snow begins to fall, and you go back to the postman, the farmer, the policeman, etc. and see what they all do with the falling snow. By the end of the book, you know that if you are reading about the postman, you will eventually finish the cycle with the children.

This book won the Caldecott Medal in 1948, and I love everything about the illustrations except that the faces of the people are a little too orange for me. Maybe that's because the color palette used is fairly limited (yellow, gray, white, orangish pink), but I would have preferred a more familiar skin tone. One of the things I really liked is that throughout the book, a lot of gray is used, which kind of makes the cold and snow feel a little more dreary, but then, immediately following the page describing the snow on everything is a two-page spread where everything looks clean and white. I thought this was a really nice contrast to the gray of the previous pages.

But my favorite part of the book? It ends with the coming of spring.

ALA Youth Media Awards: My (Unbiased and Nonjudgmental) Reactions

Jan 28, 2013

The ALA Youth Media Awards were announced this morning (aka, Newbery, Caldecott, etc.). The suspense and anticipation may have led me to break my newly made resolution to stay off the computer from 9am-1pm. I discovered that it's actually difficult to find out the results immediately following unless you kept pretty close tabs on the play-by-play.

Of course I have some thoughts on the winners:

Newbery 2013
(I was ridiculously proud to have heard of all four titles even though I had read a whopping zero of them.)

Medal: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

I remember when this title began popping up on mock Newbery lists. At first, I had no interest in it. Big gorillas starring as main characters are not that appealing to me. But the more I heard about it, the more I wanted to read it, and you can be sure I'm going to read it now (it's already on hold at the library). Stay tuned for more of my thoughts.

Honor: Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

I had this book checked out over Christmas, and you can be sure I'm kicking myself now that I didn't make reading it more of a priority. (Why, oh why did I choose to read After Hello before this?!) I'm actually really excited about this one winning an honor because it looks like a totally original plot, and I've heard that Schlitz's writing is gorgeous.

Honor: Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

I only recently started to hear a lot of buzz about this title. It definitely sounds intriguing, and I'm glad that a nonfiction title made the list.

Honor: Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

Another one that I had checked out from the library, but this one I deliberately decided not to read. After reading the summary (spunky Southern girl living in a town full of quirky characters solves a mystery), I decided that it was probably a book I wouldn't enjoy very much if I read it but would perhaps enjoy quite a lot if I listened to it. So I'm still waiting for our library to acquire a copy of the audio. That, and I really didn't think it would win anything. That'll teach me...

Caldecott 2013
(What? FIVE honors? Seems a little excessive, especially since I didn't particularly love any of them.)

Medal: This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

It actually pains me a little to write that this was the winner. Yes, we've read it. Yes, I think we even laughed a little. But seriously, I am beyond disappointed that this won the medal. I would so liked to have been a fly on the wall when this book was being discussed by the committee. I'm just wondering what merits they thought it had that pushed it ahead of so many other fantastic books. The illustrations? Sure, they're fine--on the simple, neutral side, but nothing wrong with that. They're just not anything that when friends come over for dinner, I'd pull it out and say, "You have to look at these illustrations!" (yes, I really do that). The illustrations do contribute significantly to the plot, but is it really that great of a plot to begin with? Not in my eyes.

That said, I'm willing to eat my words. I certainly did not have a great love for Mo Willems when first I read, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, so we'll give Jon Klassen another chance.

HonorCreepy Carrots illus. by Peter Brown

We checked this out around Halloween, and it was definitely one of the stand-out Halloween books (though we didn't review it, I think mainly because everyone was reviewing it). I love the colors that are used (black, white, and gray, with splashes of orange). It's another humorous one, but as with This is Not My Hat, I didn't find it that funny.

Honor: Extra Yarn illus. by Jon Klassen

I'm a little bit bitter about this winning, too (man, can't I be happy about any of these Caldecott choices?). I mean, the guy already won the medal! Did he have to get an honor, too? Let's share the love a little. I actually liked this book quite a bit better than This is Not My Hat, so I would have been fine with keeping it if we could have kept out This is Not My Hat. I think I only read this book once when we had it from the library, but I do remember that my dad read it to the boys while he was visiting, and he thought the ending was strange and confusing. I didn't have that impression, but I'm going to check it out again.

Honor: Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

This one was definitely a favorite to win, so I'm not at all surprised to see it on the list. Aaron was a huge fan of this book, but he is a huge fan of the color green, so of course he was destined to like it. It's another one that I need to give a second chance. I've noticed with picture books that sometimes I can tell on the first page if I'm going to like a book or not, but sometimes my love grows with the book, and I have to give it several rereadings before I truly understand, appreciate, and love it. I think that may be the case with this one.

Honor: One Cool Friend illus. by David Small

We just read this book for the first time two nights ago. It was good--funny and cute with a surprise twist at the end. As I was reading it, I actually thought, If I do a post featuring picture books with great manners, this is going to be on the list. The boy has exceptional good taste and employs highly polished speech.

Honor: Sleep Like a Tiger illus. by Pamela Zagarenski

This is the only one we haven't read (actually, haven't even heard of), but I put it on hold this afternoon.

I will say that I think five honors attests to the fact that this was a great year for picture books. (And also, am I the only one who notices the use of subtle and monochromatic colors as being a distinct theme among the winners?)

Theodor Seuss Geisel 2013
(a few, simple thoughts for the books that win for a few, simple words)

Medal: Up, Tall, and High by Ethan Long (It was cute, funny, and clever.)

Honors: Let's Go For a Drive by Mo Willems (we read it approximately 250 times over Christmas break--so good!); Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons by Eric Litwin (Pete never disappoints us); Rabbit & Robot: the Sleepover by Cece Bell (we haven't read it but will soon).

There were other awards announced, but those are the ones that matter the most to our family. Congratulations to all the winners!

P.S. You have no idea the pleasure it gives me to write my thoughts about the winners. Last year, I didn't have this blog, but I had followed the Newbery/Caldecott buzz and had some strong opinions about the winners, but I had no place to share my thoughts. That was one of the (many) experiences that pushed me to start this blog.

The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth

Jan 23, 2013

Somewhere recently, I think probably on What Do We Do All Day? (one of my favorite websites for book recommendations), I saw The Enormous Egg. I had completely forgotten about it, but I knew my family had, at least at one time, owned a copy of it. I could distinctly picture the book's spine tucked in among others on one of our bookshelves. My memory did not fail me. When we were at my parents' house over Christmas, I did a quick glance-over and almost immediately located the yellow spine with the blue lettering.

Despite my near-perfect memory of the book's appearance, I remembered next to nothing about the story. And yet, I had a feeling my boys would like it. I mean, a dinosaur coming out of a chicken's egg? How could I go wrong?

Nate Twitchell lives on a farm in small town Freedom, New Hampshire. His life is pretty ordinary until one day when one of the hens lays the most gigantic (excuse me, I mean, enormous) egg he has ever seen. It takes weeks for it to hatch, and Nate has just about given up on it when out comes a baby Triceratops. Nate and his family are shocked, and Dr. Zeimer, a paleontologist who happens to be visiting Freedom over the summer, is ecstatic. The dinosaur is a fascinating novelty for a few weeks, but once he hits 897 pounds (with no end to his growth in sight), Nate and Dr. Zeimer know they're going to have to think of another solution...and fast.

This is, to date, the fastest we've read a chapter book. And it's because both Aaron and Maxwell could not get enough of it. They asked to read it every day, and we would often read several chapters at a time. Our one rough patch came after Nate and Dr. Zeimer move Uncle Beazley  (that's the dinosaur's name) to Washington D.C. After an unfortunate incident where Uncle Beazley knocks over a truck, the police and then the government find out that the National Museum is keeping a living, breathing dinosaur. This leads to Senator Granderson getting involved and submitting a bill which would outlaw the keeping of any living dinosaur in America. All of the political talk was really confusing (and boring) to the boys. It did give us a chance to talk about how senators are elected and how they put forth the voice of the people and that if they don't do what most of the people want, then they won't get voted for again. But judging from Aaron's brief summary to Mike that Senator Granderson was going to "get thrown into the zoo if he hurt Uncle Beazley," I...don't think he got it.

For my part, I was highly entertained by the fact that there is a dinosaur that is living in Washington D.C., and the government is trying to kill it. And also that no one, save for a few nerdy paleontologists, seem to think this is a big deal. (While the dinosaur is still in Freedom, NH, he gets some attention, but after that, not a whole lot). I just am trying to picture a dinosaur hatching out of an egg in real life and it not being international news and a great source of publicity and pride for the United States. Maybe having three boys who are obsessed with dinosaurs just makes me think a living dinosaur would be kind of amazing. I also was kind of amused that the government was so worried about the cost of keeping this dinosaur and not wanting to waste the tax payer's precious dollars (hello, national debt of $16 trillion!) and also that the government was so casually talked about in such a negative light.

The story is told in first person from Nate's point of view. I didn't give much thought to this until Aaron said, "Nate's telling the story, right?" Then I realized that since most picture books aren't written in first person, this was one of Aaron's first exposures to this style of writing. Maybe that doesn't seem like anything worth mentioning, but I was happy that he noticed the difference.

While this story has a 1950's feel to it, I still think it's very relatable to the 2013 child, especially one that has an obsession with dinosaurs. Many of the dated references are cute and in some ways made me long for those years when a 12-year-old boy was slightly annoyed taking care of an egg because it was cutting in on his fishing time. This is a highly imaginative and very creative read that we all completely enjoyed.

I'm sharing this post at The Children's Bookshelf.

A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders For the Twenty-First Century by Oliver DeMille

Jan 22, 2013

A good friend of mine told me about A Thomas Jefferson Education almost a year ago. At the time, it interested me because education always interests me, but I didn't rush out to read it. But then, another friend told me about an "Education Principles Group" her sister-in-law had just started. And what was their first reading to be? A Thomas Jefferson Education. I jumped at the chance because I always get more out of somewhat dense and heavy texts if I have someone to discuss it with.

I guess that means I just called A Thomas Jefferson Education "a dense and heavy text," which it kind of is but also kind of is not. It is because it discusses ideas that, in order to really understand, you have to think about, ponder, discuss with others, and then think about some more. I have a feeling I barely scratched the surface with this reading. However, on the other hand, it isn't "dense or heavy" in the sense that it uses a lot of difficult words or complex sentences. It's written in plain, pretty simple, English.

And just what is "A Thomas Jefferson Education"? It's education that is guided by mentors and the classics but which places the responsibility for learning squarely on the shoulders of the student. It is returning to the same kind of education received by our forefathers (hence, the name "A Thomas Jefferson Education"). It is the kind of education that will produce great leaders.

And who is learning the TJEd way? Oliver DeMille says it would be wonderful and ideal if everyone was learning this way (and he claims that it is possible in a public school setting), but really, it's most often implemented through home schools. However, I think you'll notice every time that those who are truly successful and become great and influential leaders were heavily influenced by one or more mentors and the classics (classics not just reserved for literature but meaning the classics that are found in every subject), regardless of what their formal schooling was actually like.

I think it's definitely possible to take any education and turn it into a TJEd. Parents guide and direct the education of their children in all settings, but obviously if they're going to public school, they're away for seven or more hours a day, and so that doesn't leave very much time to learn from mentors and the classics unless they're getting that in school.

I thought DeMille made an interesting point in the book when he said this: "In the history of education, the current American system is very non-traditional, very different from what has been done for generations. Almost everybody in America today is getting the kind of education that has historically been reserved for those who simply had no other options." (pp. 26-27) If you look at the past, those who were well enough off went to a private school or engaged a private tutor. It was only those who couldn't afford better that went to public schools. While I think this is interesting to note, I'm not completely sure I agree with it. I know there are many flaws in our current education model, but I also know that there is much to be gained from studying and learning together not just alone or with an elitist group.

Which is not necessarily what Oliver DeMille is even saying. Later on in the book, he discusses the "Five Pillars of Statesmanship," as he calls them. And two of these ("simulations" and "field experience") both involve working with other people. Also, he frequently states the "Five Environments of Mentoring," which includes group discussion.

(See what I mean? Even trying to write a review of this book is difficult because there are so many competing ideas and avenues of thought.)

DeMille frequently refers to the "conveyor belt" method of education, which seems to be the standard method in most public schools. DeMille explains it this way: the "...standards and grade levels are set at a low enough level that virtually everyone can get through and be a finished product. What happens if you try to get ahead? A factory worker moves you back into place. What if you get behind? A 'special' worker pulls you up to speed." (p. 25) DeMille says we use this type of method because it is moderately successful in training the future workforce of America, but it is not successful in training future leaders.

Let me try to sum up some of my thoughts with a series of questions and answers:

Q: Do I agree with a TJEd?
A: Yes. I believe that mentors and the classics are essential to a good education. I also believe that teachers inspire students to learn on their own. No teachers actually teach.

Q: Do I disagree with a TJEd?
A: Yes. I think in a lot of ways DeMille idealizes the education of the founding fathers. But then, I also realize I have a lot of my own reading and studying to do, so I can't offer a very solid opinion on this yet.

Q: Will I use the TJEd model in my own home?
A: Yes, of course! Mentors and classics are essential. We are already employing them as much as we can with our young children.

Q: So if I homeschool, will I use a TJEd?
A: Yes, to the extent I stated above, but no, I will not structure it as DeMille suggests. He talks about the four phases of learning. The first phase (the Core Phase, encompassing the years 0-8) involves a lot of free play and exploring learning in a very unstructured way. Even the next phase (the Love of Learning Phase, encompassing ages 8-12) is still very much child-guided as they choose what to learn about and what interests them. In this way, this method reminds me a lot of what I've heard about "unschooling." (I've also heard those who are familiar with both adamantly refute that they are not the same, so again, I need to do more research and studying.) This unstructured type of learning is not the way that I learn best, and so I don't think I could guide my children very well using this type of method either. (But I would never say "never" because I have no idea what growth and change might happen over the next ten years that might make me change my mind.)

Q: So will I homeschool?
A: At the current time, no (meaning in the formal sense and not that there will not be any learning going on in our home. Far from it!). But in the future? Possibly. Right now, I'm quite happy and content with the thought of Aaron going to public school. But I'm still exploring my options.

A Thomas Jefferson Education is worth your time no matter what your thoughts on education are. I guarantee you'll find something to like and dislike. And you might even discover some things you want to change in your current approach to education.

KidPages: Three Potential Caldecott Choices

Jan 21, 2013

One week from today, the newest Caldecott winner will be announced. (No, I have NOT been counting down the days, but yes, I am looking forward to it.) And so, I thought it would be appropriate today for the boys and me to put in our two cents about who we think the winner will/should/ought to be.

Aaron and Maxwell don't understand the significance of the Caldecott Award, of course. They hardly even notice the shiny stickers attached to past winners. That being said, some of our very favorite books have received the award (The Lion and the Mouse, Kitten's First Full Moon, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, to name a few), so it's worth paying attention to.

DISCLAIMER: I should preface these three books by saying that we're not basing any of them on any official Caldecott criteria. We just each picked our favorite from the potential candidates.

Maxwell's pick:

Z is for Moose, written by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

Zebra is putting on an alphabet show. Moose can't wait for his turn, so he keeps popping up prematurely. And then, the letter "M" comes and goes without any mention of Moose. It's almost too much to bear. Luckily, Zebra thinks of a way to save his friend's pride.

Maxwell's not so detailed but extremely enthusiastic thoughts: "It's FUNNY! I love it 'cause it's funny. I love it 'cause the zebra says Moose doesn't start with 'Z.'"

Zelinsky's artwork is delightful. Aside from the text, it is completely witty in and of itself. Zelinsky won the Caldecott Medal in 1998 for Rapunzel, so who's to say he couldn't do it again?

Actually, Maxwell mentioning that this book is funny may be the best possible description you could give it. The first time we read it, the boys were practically rolling on the floor.  I couldn't keep a straight face either. In a world of hundreds of dry and boring alphabet books, this one shines through as a keeper. It still goes through the alphabet letter by letter, but interwoven between all the letters is the story of Moose's antics, Zebra's frustrations, and ultimately, their unwavering friendship. A delightful story + the alphabet = what more could you want?

Aaron's pick:

Randy Riley's Really Big Hit, written and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen

When it comes to math and science, Randy Riley is a whiz. But when it comes to baseball, Randy Riley is a flop. He loves to play but just can't seem to hit the ball. One night, Randy is looking through his telescope, and he sees a fireball headed straight for earth! By calculating trajectories and speed and potential mass, Randy devises a plan for how to smack that fireball right out of this world.

Aaron's not so detailed but extremely enthusiastic thoughts: "I like that he made that really big robot and the robot hit the fireball. [Ooops, spoiler!] That's my favorite thing. And it was cool that it had cool pictures. And it was exciting.

If you know anything about my family, it is that we are all in love with Chris Van Dusen's books. Honestly, The Circus Ship might well be our favorite picture book of all time. I'm kind of indignant that he has never won even a Caldecott Honor, so I obviously don't understand what the committee is looking for. His illustrations delight and captivate us like no one else: they are original, funny, full of quirky details, and always seem to be bathed in sunlight.

Randy Riley does nothing to lessen our opinion of Chris Van Dusen. The rhyming text rolls effortlessly off the tongue, the story builds to a hair-raising climax, and the illustrations feature unusual and creative perspectives. And like Aaron said, it involves a robot built by the genius of a small boy, so I dare you to find a small boy who won't like that. (Incidentally, it is extremely entertaining to read Chris Van Dusen's bios because you get the distinct impression that he is living the dreams of his childhood by drawing them out in bright and vibrant color.)

Also, I should mention that this book has a great moral, which is that everyone is blessed with different interests and talents. Sometimes what we are interested in is not what we have a talent for (Example: as a child, I loved figure skating and read books and watched documentaries and competitions, but I had absolutely zero ability when I put on a pair of skates myself). But this story shows that you can use your talents in amazing ways to do amazing things, and those amazing things might just involve the other things you're interested in.

My pick: 

Baby Bear Sees Blue, written and illustrated by Ashley Wolff

The book follows Baby Bear and his mother through the sights, sounds, and smells of a single day.

My not so detailed but extremely enthusiastic thoughts: I love this book. When I look at the pictures, I am lost in stillness and beauty. I feel like I'm lying in a meadow on a warm day in late spring (which sounds like HEAVEN right about now). It's a sweet and simple story full of color and everyday magic.

I've already reviewed this book once because, um, I looove it. So if you want to read even more of my thoughts and gushings, go here.

Besides these three, we have loved a whole host of other books that were published in 2012, so I doubt we'll be disappointed with the winners. You can be sure I'll be sharing my thoughts next Monday.

I shared this post at The Children's Bookshelf and the Kid Lit Blog Hop.

Guess What Came in the Mail Today?

Jan 19, 2013

 This! Isn't it pretty?

One of my favorite blogs is Avid Reader's Musings. Melissa writes about a wide variety of books; I especially appreciate her thoughts on the classics. She also does a fun feature called Reading By the States where she makes lists of books that have been written in a particular state and also talks about any authors who have lived there. And when she says she's an avid reader, she's not kidding. In 2012, she read 149 books! And most of them were not short (The Count of Monte Cristo, for example).

Earlier this month, she was hosting a giveaway to celebrate her blog's third year anniversary, and I couldn't help entering since she was giving away a Penguin Clothbound edition of Jane Eyre. And guess what? I won!

This was so exciting, not only because I love Jane Eyre (and didn't own a copy of it), but I have also had my eye on the Penguin Clothbound editions for years. So to receive not only one of my favorite books but in the very edition I wanted was about as good as it could get.

I have been wanting to re-read Jane Eyre for some time, and now I won't be able to help myself! Thanks so much, Melissa!

I think I found the perfect spot for it. I've been walking past it all afternoon just to admire it.

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George

Jan 18, 2013

One of my friends recommended this book to me a couple of years ago. She said it was her favorite book by Jessica Day George. At the time, I had very little desire to read it. George's other books, Princess of the Midnight Ball or Princess of Glass, sounded much more intriguing. Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow just sounded cold...and bleak...and desolate. All things I dislike very much.

But then January came, bringing with it subzero temperatures and piles of snow. And suddenly, I wanted to read about ice and snow. I wanted some sort of comrade in my misery. (I'm writing this sitting on my bed while a space heater blows hot air in my face.)

In the icy and unforgiving north, the lass is born. She is the last of nine children, and her mother is so sick of having children and bitter that this last one is another daughter that she refuses to name her (which is her maternal duty and responsibility). Early in the story, the lass finds the white reindeer, a magical creature who grants the lass a wish. She first wishes for her eldest brother, Hans Peter, to be happy (he came home from a voyage at sea a changed and troubled man). But when the white reindeer refuses, she asks for a name instead. After the white reindeer departs, she discovers that not only did he give her a name but also the ability to understand and converse with animals. One night, a great white bear (an isbjorn) comes to her family's home and begs the lass to come stay with him in a palace for a year. She agrees. At first she is enraptured by the wealth and elegance and beauty all around her. But before long, there are too many unanswered questions about the enchanted castle, the missing servants, the unseen trolls, and a mysterious nightly visitor.

This story is a retelling of the Nordic legend, "East of the Sun, West of the Moon." A few years ago, I read East by Edith Pattou, which is a retelling of the same legend. I didn't realize Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow was the same story until I was a few chapters in, and it began to sound really familiar. I remember really liking East except for the ending, which was overly long and drawn out. So I tried not to let my expectations get too high as I was listening to this one. I was really enjoying it, but I was worried the ending was going to fall flat again. Happily, I loved the ending. Everything I didn't like about East's ending was absent in this retelling (mainly, the journey back from the troll castle).

I thought the pacing of this story was perfect. There weren't a lot of moments of the lass wandering aimlessly in a frozen wasteland, which is what I was both dreading and expecting. Even on her journey to the troll's castle (which I'm remembering as being incredibly lonely in East), she has contact with three old women, the four winds, and her pet wolf. (I thought her conversations with the wolf would annoy me, but they didn't. I found them highly entertaining, and I think they helped break up some of the potentially monotonous parts of the story.)

I also thought Jessica Day George worked up to the first climax perfectly (the one that happens in the lass's bedchamber, for those who have read it). I was literally holding my breath while I was listening to it, and I couldn't get my hands to move even though I was supposed to be washing the dishes. (And I even knew what was going to happen since I was familiar with the basic story.)

I felt like this story had a depth that wasn't present in East, mainly because there was more back story and more need for saving and redemption than just for the lass's and the isbjorn's sake. I really, really liked Hans Peter's character and the way his story linked the past with the present. 

The audio is narrated by Jessica Roland. I thought she was fine except in her narration of the prince. Oh, he sounded so bad! I think she was trying to make him sound masculine and kind and just didn't work for me at all.

One of our family's favorite picture book author/illustrators is Jan Brett. She bases many of her books on classic tales of the North. We checked out her Christmas treasury in December, and Aaron and Max fell in love with Trouble With Trolls and Christmas Trolls. As I was listening to Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, I kept thinking, If Jan Brett were to write a YA novel, this would be it. Maybe it was just the setting or the abundance of trolls or all the snow, but that's what this book reminded me of, and it made me love it even more.

I think I can definitely agree with my friend that this is one book by Jessica Day George that is worth reading (not that my opinion is that impressive since I haven't read anything else by her). And what better time to read it than in January when you're already freezing?

The Feeling of Accomplishment

Jan 16, 2013

2013 has only just begun, but since the calendar changed, I've completed a couple of big deal goals (big deal for me, that is). I was planning to have both of these done by the end of 2012, but since I didn't, they are just making 2013 look extra good.

The first one is not really my accomplishment, but Aaron's. Yesterday we finished his 100th reading lesson. (If you missed it, I wrote all about the book, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons here.)

This was a long awaited day. Even though there were only 100 lessons, it took us almost a year to finish it (we did our first lesson on January 17, 2012). Some of the later lessons, we had to break into two, or even three, segments. Also, we had a week here and there where we skipped doing any lessons entirely. I think this relaxed schedule worked great for Aaron. We weren't trying to make it to any specific deadline. We were just doing it for fun. (I guess I was trying to get done by the end of the year, but you can tell I wasn't that concerned over it.)

In case you're curious what a child can read by the end, here's a paragraph from the story in Lesson 100: "The tiger came over and licked the old man on the nose. The old man said, 'You can not do that. Tigers do not lick. They bite." So by this point, they've learned how the silent "e" makes a long vowel, a bunch of letter combinations ("ou," "ea," "ar," "ing," etc.), and many sight words (besides just basic phonics). We have already been reading other books, so we will continue to do that so he can continue to improve and learn more. (If you have any easy reader ideas, let me know!)

Aaron was so excited to put the very last sticker on his bruised and battered chart. Then I told him he could pick out a treat for finishing such a big project. He chose a package of gummy worms (this kid sure knows how to dream big!).

Now Maxwell thinks it's his turn, but I think we'll give him a few more months!

My second big accomplishment is that I finished reading the Old Testament. It only took me three years (said with a touch of bitterness). THREE YEARS! I am reveling in being finished.

This was not an easy goal for me to accomplish (hence, the three years). I love reading the scriptures, but...I can't say I loved reading the Old Testament. I loved many parts of it, but there were times when it was so confusing, or even just mundane, and I would think, Why am I torturing myself?

But I knew why.

I wanted to know what the Old Testament was like from start to finish. When it is the course of study at church, it is whittled down so that the entire book can be covered in a year. I wanted to see what was being skipped over (answer: long genealogical lists and temple dimensions/materials). I wanted to find the hidden gems that get lost among the well-remembered and loved Daniels and Jonahs and Esthers. I wanted to have my testimony of the Savior in His role as Jehovah strengthened. And, perhaps the least important but definitely a part of my decision, I wanted to be able to say I read the entire Old Testament (and so, I made sure to read every word, even in Chronicles where there were pages and pages of "the son of Ethni, the son of Zerah," etc.).

Many of my frustrations came from reading slowly and meticulously and re-reading certain sections but then, upon closing the book for the day, not having the faintest idea what I had read about. Maybe I should have read some sort of study guide or commentary along with it.

I most enjoyed reading when I kept a study journal at the same time. After reading for the day, I would choose just one sentence or phrase that had stood out to me and think and ponder and write about it. Sadly, I misplaced my journal somewhere around Psalms and didn't replace it. And that was probably a big mistake.

And speaking of gems, I did find some. They are definitely there. My very, very favorite story and the one that I have thought about multiple times over the last year, was about King Hezekiah, who happened to be an extremely righteous king nestled right between some extremely wicked ones. At one point in his life, he is quite ill, and Isaiah the prophet tells him he is going to die. Hezekiah weeps with the news, begging the Lord to remember his righteousness. And then, miraculously, the Lord sends Isaiah back to tell Hezekiah that he will be healed (2 Kings 20). I have thought about this story again and again whenever I finding myself doubting whether my prayers matter.

I've thought a lot about whether I will ever read again the Old Testament in its entirety. I would hate to say "never" because that sounds so definitive, and who knows what the future will bring, but I think I can safely say that most likely no, I will not read the entire book ever again. I will study sections of it, no question, but I think once through entire genealogical records is enough for one lifetime.

My life has been richly blessed by these two goals, and I am addicted to this feeling of accomplishment. Time to set my sights high and reach for great things!

Maxwell's Preschool: Hetty's 100 Hats

Jan 14, 2013

This is what I did when it was my turn to teach Maxwell's preschool in November (yes, November. I hope I can remember what I did!). (And in case you've forgotten or this is your first time here, Max and his friends are two- and three-years-old.):

Since it was the week to learn about H and 8, I decided to focus on hats. As I was preparing, I checked out a great stack of books about hats, hoping that one of them would be the perfect lead-in for the day and provide a good framework for the lesson. After reading Hetty's 100 Hats, I knew I'd found it. It was just what I was looking for!

Hetty is the proud owner of three hats. She loves her hats and is grateful they keep her dry and warm and safe from the sun. But Hetty is also a girl with a dream. She wants to collect 100 hats. She attacks her goal with a vengeance and creativity. She turns household items into hats, she makes her own, she accepts all the leftover hats from her school's hat parade, and friends and even strangers bestow them as gifts. On her birthday, she is just one hat shy of her goal, but luckily her brother saves the day.

I thought this story taught so many good things: setting a goal and working towards it, how to count to 100, all the different professions and types of people who wear hats, coming up with creative solutions to problems, and using a collection to make new friends. As usual, I loved Emma Dodd's simple illustrations. Our favorite pages were the ones showcasing all 100 hats--it was so fun to look through and count them all!

When the kids arrived, I spread out a blanket and read the story to them. They loved seeing all the ways Hetty acquired her 100 hats.

When the story was finished, I asked the kids, "How would you like to have a hat parade, just like Hetty?" (In the book, everyone in Hetty's class at school made a hat and wore it in a parade.) Max and his friends thought that was an excellent suggestion. I had asked the other moms ahead of time to send their kids with one or two hats, so they all had a variety to choose from.

I put on the song "Marching Feet," which had just the right rhythm and beat to make it the perfect parade song. The kids marched all over the house. They took turns being the leader, and we all made a hat change partway through.

After the parade, we went to kitchen for another Hetty-inspired activity: making newspaper hats. At the very end of the book, Hetty needs just one more hat to complete her collection. She receives a birthday letter from her brother who suggests she make a hat out of a newspaper for her collection. Do you think we could possibly read about that and not want to make one ourselves? We could not.

I folded up the hats for them and then let them decorate to their heart's content. We used foam letter H's (H for Hat, of course), paint markers (which made some fun-sized dots), and regular markers. Their hats all turned out so cute.

For some reason, newspaper hats just give me such a feeling of nostalgia. I think I did make them a couple of times when I was little, but more than that, they just seem like such a classic thing for a kid to make. They're something that kids were making in 1913, and they're still making them in 2013!

By this time, all of them were very hungry. In keeping with our hat theme, I helped them make pilgrim hats (remember, this was in November).

I don't dare mention the quantity of frosting, cookies and Reese's they consumed. It was a frightful amount.

Hats are also a great way to talk about various jobs and careers. I was dying to use my flannelboard again, so I told them the story of Simon, a boy who couldn't decide what he wanted to be when he grew up. Should he be a firefighter and save people from burning buildings, a chef and make delicious desserts, a cowboy and ride a horse, a policeman and keep people safe, or a construction worker and make buildings and roads?

I got the idea for this story from Storytime Magic: 400 Fingerplays, Flannelboards, and Other Activities. (If you are looking for the story, look for it under Milo's Hats. My boys didn't like the name Milo, so we christened him Simon instead.)

For our last activity, we went back to the kitchen to talk about the number eight. I pulled out the play dough, which we shaped into the numeral 8. We also rolled out little balls and counted up to eight. And then we squished it and mashed it just for fun.

It was a fun way to spend the morning. I love teaching these little kids!

I shared this post at The Children's Bookshelf and the Kid's Co-op.

KidPages: Cold Snap by Eileen Spinelli

Jan 11, 2013

I was going to save this book for a later post and feature it with a couple other winter-themed picture books. But today the weather dictated a change in my plans.

We woke up to an abundance of snow--at least 12 inches of beautiful, powdery fluff. I was supposed to teach a couple of piano lessons this morning before school. I didn't. Maxwell was supposed to go to preschool. He didn't. Mike was supposed to take the bus to work. He didn't.

The snow is so thick and so deep that as Mike trudged back home from the bus stop, he had to dig out two cars (in less than two blocks). The roads are so slippery, people are abandoning their vehicles because they can't make it up the dips at the road intersections. And here it is, nearly 1:30 in the afternoon, and it's still coming down, slowly but steadily.

Sorry for the less-than-lovely picture of our recycling can, but it was the best way to show the depth of the snow.

Many schools closed, including Weber State University and Salt Lake Community College. I kept expecting Salt Lake School District to cancel (since the roads were so backed up that traveling even a couple of blocks was nearly impossible), but they never did. Sometimes people should just listen to Mother Nature and hole up in their homes while she has her say.

Which is exactly what we did.

And what's more appropriate on a day like today than cozying up on the couch with a frigidly snowy picture book? Luckily, I happened to have one on hand (hehe).

In Cold Snap, the town of Toby Mills has been hit hard by a winter storm (hmmm, sounds familiar...). For days, the snow falls, the temperature drops, and the icicle on the end of General Toby's nose gets longer and longer. (I should probably mention that General Toby is a statue.) The townsfolk try to make the best of it (the Sullivan sisters knit mittens for all the children, Millie Moffat makes a snow angel, and Pastor Pickthorn takes a nap with hot-water bottles taped to his feet), but in the end, everyone begins filing complaints to the mayor (as if he can do anything about it). In the end, it's the mayor's wife who saves the day and helps all of Toby Mills warm up.

This is such a cute book. The cover biased me from the start (it's covered with glitter, for crying out loud!), but the inside was just as good.

I felt like I had just been plunked down in the town of Toby Mills and it was just assumed that I would already know who everyone was: Millie Moffat and Franky Tornetta and Stix Hartman and Miss Dove and Pastor Pickthorn. This might have been annoying except that it was this assumed familiarity that gave the story an instant homey feel and made me love it right from the start.

The illustrations are done by Marjorie Priceman (of How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World and Zin! Zin! Zin! a Violin fame). She is so good. I love her soft lines and bold textures and beautifully subtle shadings. I would say her illustrations are detailed in a loose kind of way (you can't see every pine needle on the trees and every person has the same black dots for eyes, but she has a way of adding just the right somethings to make you feel like you're on the page yourself.)

Take this one, for example:

See what I mean about the pine tree and the people's faces? But at the same time, can't you practically feel the icy wind whipping around you? Notice the snowy swirls, the flying trash can lid, the scarf caught in the tree and the blowing hair. Brrrrr! (Oh, and in case you're curious about General Toby, there he is on the right side of the page, with his icicle hanging down to his waist.)

At the end of the story, Miss Dove drizzles hot maple syrup over bowls of clean snow, which hardens into delicious candy. At the back of the book is the recipe for "Miss Dove's Sugar-on-Snow Candy." It called for "fresh, clean snow," and since we happened to have an abundance of that...

...we decided to give it a try.

The boys put some snow into bowls (and I noticed that they sampled it to make sure it was cold enough) while I boiled the maple syrup until it reach 250 degrees F.

Then I drizzled it over the snow (without the finesse of Miss Dove), handed out some forks, and the boys dug in. Even Bradley was a huge fan.

It's pretty sweet (what would you expect from pure maple syrup?), but my favorite part of the recipe is the note at the bottom: Some people follow the candy with a bite of sour pickle or a saltine cracker or a doughnut. What? I assume they're trying to cut through the sweetness, but a doughnut? That, I don't understand.

So if you're trapped inside or maybe longing for a little snow of your own, I'd recommend this as a great wintery read.

This post is linked to The Children's Bookshelf and the Kid's Co-op. If you're looking for more great ideas, these are the places to go!

After Hello by Lisa Mangum

Jan 10, 2013

I know just a few days ago I listed all of the self-improvement, inspirational, and soul-stretching books I was going to read this month. But when it was time for our drive back to Utah, all I wanted to read was some chick-lit. And so I read After Hello.

Sara is in New York City for the day with her dad. He is finalizing the sale of his business, and Sara is looking forward to seeing all the sights. Plus, after his meeting is done, they'll be able to have a few hours of quality, one-on-one time, which is definitely something that has been lacking in their relationship. Sam has lived in New York for 18 months. In that time, he has become very familiar with the city and the people in it, to the point of being able to find (and get) practically anything. The morning that Sara is in New York, she sees Sam coming out of a bookstore, and something about him grabs her attention. Before long, their lives become impossibly tangled as they share their heartaches and secrets from the past and try desperately to complete a nearly hopeless assignment.

The story is told from two perspectives: Sara's, in first person and Sam's, in third person. They alternate back and forth with each chapter. I liked this format very much. I usually enjoy stories told from multiple viewpoints, as long as the voices are well-defined and there aren't too many of them to keep track of. Changing between first and third person definitely kept the two characters separate. At first I thought it was a bit of a cop out, like the author didn't know any other way to make them sound different. But in the end, I actually liked it. It made the story distinctly Sara's while still letting me see Sam's angle.

I thought Mangum described the little details of emotion and movement really well, like, for example, when Sara says: "His body was tall and straight, but I saw the exact moment when he shifted his weight forward on his toes. He was ready to run." Very subtle, but also realistic. By the end of the book though, her descriptions had become a bit too much for me; her descriptions were still fresh and new and creative, but they all seemed to contain too many vibrant and vivid synonyms. For example, here's one that I loved about halfway through the book: "I felt like our conversation was suddenly as precarious as the landing beneath my feet. It looked solid enough, but there were dangerous gaps between the rails, places where uncertain feet or unspoken words could slide through." By the end, these types of intense descriptions made me feel worn out.

The next paragraph refers to some important plot details, so consider yourself warned.

The story itself was cute. I love one-day romances. There's something so unbelievable and ridiculous about them that just makes them fun. In this story, I thought there were a lot of other things that were unbelievable, too, not just the romance: Sara's point-and-shoot camera (I'm just thinking that if you're really into photography, it doesn't matter how good you are at composing photos, you're not going to get the kind of quality you want from a point-and-shoot); the fact that she only took 12 photographs during the day (even though she loves photography and she's in New York City where there are a million and one things to take a picture of) and that those 12 photographs were all perfect and exactly as she wanted them; that she was able to not only edit and arrange her photos at Vanessa's house but also print the finished collage (she was really able to print something that was the size and quality that Piper would accept?); that Piper accepted the collage and gave Paul back his job (seems very unlikely judging from Piper's previous selfish and irrational and completely psycho behavior). So yes, a cute story but you definitely have to read it with a bit of a blind eye.

Also, if you've read any of my other reviews, you'll know I don't really like circular conversations, and this book was full of them. Sam and Sara begin broaching difficult subjects again and again, only to move the conversation "to safer ground." That's probably the way we humans converse in real life, but it's still tedious to read.

By this time, you probably are thinking I didn't like the book. But I did. It was clean and cute and well-written and perfect for a nine-hour drive home. Was it my favorite book ever? No. But I definitely enjoyed it, and sometimes that's all I want.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo

Jan 8, 2013

I read this book for the first time several years ago. I adored it. And at the time, I thought, I cannot wait to read this to my kids someday.

So once we had a few honest-to-goodness chapter books under our belt, I brought out my "baby."

And, unfortunately, it was not met with the same kind of unwavering high regard and love I held for it. The themes were just a little mature for a four-year-old and a two-year-old. I'll explain in a minute.

Edward Tulane is a exquisitely handsome china rabbit. He is owned by Abilene, a small girl who treats him as a real person and her very dearest friend. She loves Edward so much. But Edward is selfish and conceited and doesn't care one bit for Abilene's love. In fact, he finds it rather stifling. Then one day, an unfortunate accident takes place which lands Edward at the bottom of the ocean, permanently separating him from Abilene. Over the years, Edward gets passed from owner to owner, and each time, his heart opens up a little more until he finally understands what it means to truly love someone. But then he also learns what it means to have your heart broken.

I loved this book just as much as when I first read it.  Edward is such an interesting main character, partly because he really is a toy. He doesn't come to life when the humans are out of sight. He is stiff and immovable and doesn't talk (but the reader does know his thoughts). And yet, he is still very real with his own emotions and weaknesses and personality.

My boys didn't hate it by an means. They just didn't love it as much as Charlotte's Web or The Cricket in Times Square (which have been their two favorites, so far). Here are some of the reasons why it was a harder book for them:

1. They would have liked more pictures. There was a small picture at the beginning of each chapter, but it was often something not terribly interesting (an empty highchair or a hat or an umbrella). Then there was a full page picture every 2-4 chapters. So, not terribly often, and I think it was especially difficult for Maxwell to focus without something to train his eyes on. However, I definitely don't pick the books we read based on the number of pictures, and several of the ones we want to read next don't have pictures any more frequently. That's okay, they're getting better at visualizing on their own, which is what I want anyway.

2. The china rabbit was difficult to conceptualize, especially for Max. It would have been much easier for him to think of Edward as a real rabbit, which I think is how he thought of him most of the time anyway.

3. The themes of love and loss were a bit mature. At the beginning of the story, Abilene's grandmother, Pellegrina, tells a story about a princess who loved no one and consequently ended up being turned into a warthog and butchered by the castle's cook. The story is told for Edward's benefit because Pellegrina can see that, just like the princess, he also doesn't love anyone. Edward doesn't understand the story at first, but after he loses Abilene, he begins to see the value of love. With each subsequent owner, he loves a little bit more, and each time he is separated from the one he had grown to love, the pain hurts a little bit more as well.

My boys are young. Their experience with love and loss is limited. They feel the love of many around them, and they definitely love their family and friends, but thankfully, they haven't had to cope with much loss. So I don't think they could really understand or appreciate the beautiful pacing of this book as Edward's character grows. Nor did they feel their own hearts tugged with similar emotions the way I did.

4. There are also some mature scenes. These were things I never even thought of when I was reading it myself, but suddenly, reading it to my little boys, I wanted to shield them from the brutality and neglect of the alcoholic father, soften the sadness of Sarah Ruth's death, hide the hurt of Bryce's extreme poverty and loneliness, and keep them safe from the violence of the diner's owner. This is a children's book, so all the events I just mentioned are told about in a simple way with very little description, but sometimes, even with few words,  it is hard to mask the harsh realities of life.

Beyond these things though, we had some really fun moments while reading this book, particularly while we were in Colorado with my family and had enough time to snuggle up and read several chapters at a time. While we were reading, there were a couple of funny moments I can't help sharing:

At the end of one chapter, after Edward has just been kicked out of a train and had a tumble down a long hill, there was this sentence: "A lone cricket started up a song." Max piped in to ask, "Was that Chester?" (meaning, Chester, from The Cricket in Times Square). I just thought that was such a cute assumption.

And then, one of Edward's owners is a little boy named Bryce. For some reason, Max became fixated on this name, and he didn't like it. Anytime I said his name, Max had to add his two cents: "Bryce is a yucky name. I don't like it." Kids are so funny sometimes.

But speaking of Bryce, let me tell you, practically nothing tugs on my heartstrings more than a little lonely boy, especially a little boy with too much responsibility on his shoulders and not a friend in the world, which is what Bryce is. It's always been this way for me, even before I had little boys of my own. I have wanted to weep on more than one occasion when I have observed young boys who have been given a hard lot in life.

Anyway, I would still recommend this book. It is for sure one of my favorites of all time. But I would say, if you want to read it to your children, it might be good to save it until they are at least in kindergarten.

This post is linked to The Children's Bookshelf and the Kid Lit Blog Hop.

My Birthday

Jan 7, 2013

Today is my birthday. With it coming a mere two weeks after Christmas, it becomes a kind of extension of the holiday season. In fact, I feel like my life has been a constant stream of celebrations for at least the entire last month. It's going to be a bit disappointing to wake up tomorrow and not find any presents waiting to be opened, cards in the mail, or family dinners to go to. Ah, well, real life must return at some point, I suppose.

I received a lot of nice gifts, most of them practical and needed (new shirts!--to replace some that I've been wearing for the last ten years) (new pillows!--can't wait to go to sleep tonight) (new sheets--ditto what I said about the pillows), but the one gift that was a true and shameless splurge was a book bag. Have you ever visited the website Out of Print? They make T-shirts, tote bags, notebooks, and other things, all featuring old book covers, usually with a slightly retro flavor. I have wanted one of the tote bags for a long time for no other reason than because I liked them. So I was excited to see that one of our local bookstores (Weller Book Works) carried most of them (especially since I had a Groupon there, so it was like it was 50% off). I tried to pick it out myself, but I still wanted it to be somewhat of a surprise, so I told Mike I wanted one and made him do the actual choosing.

Here it is:

It's Jane Eyre! I should have photographed the back of it, too, because the picture wraps around the other side.
I actually have a really hard time with my birthdays, mainly because I really don't like getting another year older. But between the celebrations with my family, Mike's family, and our own little family, I had so much fun I was almost able to forget the reason for the celebrating.

Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale

Jan 5, 2013

I fully anticipated reading this book as soon as it came out. I had anxiously awaited its publication, re-read Princess Academy in preparation, and even went to a signing with Shannon Hale. But then, other books crowded for my attention, and it kept getting pushed aside--until this week when I was visiting my family, and my mom's copy was ready and waiting, and I was very much available.

All my waiting was not in vain because Palace of Stone did not disappoint. Not one bit.

The story begins several months (maybe even a full year?) after Princess Academy ended. Miri has received letters from Katar and Britta in Asland, inviting her, as well as several of the other academy graduates, to come stay for a year. Miri has the opportunity to attend the Queen's Castle, the prestigious university where she can continue her studies. The other girls will help Britta prepare for her upcoming wedding. Peder gets to come, too, and apprentice a stone sculptor. But once Miri arrives in Asland, she encounters political unrest, traitorous plots, an intelligent, good-looking boy, and a wealth of knowledge--all things she was not expecting.

I didn't read too many reviews ahead of time, but from what I did read, the general feeling seemed to be one of satisfaction but not adoration. People said it was fine but not as good as Princess Academy.

This was not my feeling at all.

In fact, if I had to put one over the other (which I would hate to do since I loved them both), I would surely say that I liked Palace of Stone more.

First of all, it didn't take away any of the things I loved about Princess Academy. Miri is still her intelligent, kind, and strong-willed self. Linder and quarry-speaking still play a huge part in the story. Peder is still there, quiet and strong. Miri and her friends still pull together to solve many of the problems. (I was so glad there were a couple of instances in this book where they all told a story together, each taking up where the other one left off, just like in Princess Academy.) Doter's bits of wisdom are still sprinkled throughout. And it still has some exciting, nail-biting moments.

But then on top of all the things I already loved, it also added some depth and dimension that I didn't find in the first story.

For example, the threatened revolution provides a lot of parallels to actual historical events (such as the French Revolution) and also raises a lot of moral and ethical questions. As a smaller example, linder is explained in greater detail and Miri learns how quarry-speaking is possible and how the linder stone can affect even those who did not grow up cutting it out of the mountain. And then, even deeper than those two examples is Miri's own personal growth as she asks herself difficult questions and decides what she really wants in life. I also thought that life on Mount Eskel and life in Asland contrasted and intertwined and complemented each other in a beautiful way.

One of the big questions Miri asks herself is whether or not she should return to Mount Eskel and the life she left behind. At first, she thinks she should because Mount Eskel has always defined who she is and what she can do. But then a friend tells her, "You are not bound by your birth. You can be who you will." And then Miri thinks: "Is that true? I am not simply Laren's daughter or Marda's sister or the girl my mother held for a week before she died. I am not formed from the mountain alone. I am the girl who left the mountain. I am the face in the mirror, the thoughts in my head. I am not made of them. I am me." I thought this really captured so well the essence of Miri's growing maturity throughout the story.

I didn't know if I was going to like a book about revolution, but I did, and I think the main reason it worked for me was because Shannon Hale took this large event that was affecting thousands of people and brought it down to the level of one. There is a moment in the story where Miri is thinking about how some things can never be replaced. She thinks of an ancient king's diary and the history of Mount Eskel (tying the two places together and also contrasting one person to many over the generations). And then she thinks of her mother and Esa's fat-cheeked baby brother, who both died, and I think at that moment she really begins to realize that you can't measure the value or worth of something based solely on how far their influence reaches. Not all authors can pull a story together so neatly and perfectly. But Shannon Hale did in this one.

I also liked Peder's more active role in this story. I liked having him in the same city as Miri where she could stop by and visit him and watch him in his work. I liked watching their sweet friendship and romance. And I liked adding Timon, another Queen's Castle scholar, into the picture and creating a little love triangle, at least for a short time.

And of course, as always, I loved Shannon Hale's beautiful language. Here is one of my favorite descriptions: "And the strange spring snow fell only in that golden moment of dawn, the turning of the page between night and day." Beautiful.

From the reviews I read, it seems like some readers don't think this has any Newbery potential, and I don't understand that. It seems like an exceptional contribution to children's literature. It is not only beautifully written but really shows how different cultures and people and classes can come together.

I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone (so stop reading now if you haven't read the book), but I loved the way the book ended. After Miri decides her life does not have to be comprised of constantly choosing between two different things she loves, she realizes she can choose both. She takes Peder's hand and the book says they "walked toward home." Since she is walking in the direction of Asland, and if she kept going she would also reach Mount Eskel, the word "home" can literally mean both of those places. What a perfect way to end a perfect story.

Reading With the Seasons: New Year's Edition

Jan 3, 2013

With all my fluffy reading in December, I always feel the need come January for something with a little more substance to it. Plus, the rushing desire for self-improvement hits me full-force. So I tend to gravitate towards books that will improve my parenting, cooking, cleaning, or organizational abilities. Also, books that will help me be more healthy--physically, mentally, or spiritually. And books that will stretch my brain and teach me new things.

With that introduction, here's the line-up for this month:

Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin
Ever since reading (and loving) The Happiness Project last year, I have been dying to read Gretchen Rubin's new book which came out last September. This one focuses more on being happier at home, finding joy and feeling satisfaction with the little things, which is exactly what I need right now. I started it last night and went to sleep with my head full of goals and lists and ambitions. It was great. (I just hope it doesn't drive me crazy that this time, she begins her project in September instead of January.)

A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders For the Twenty-First Century by Oliver DeMille
As Aaron approaches Kindergarten, I find myself more and more caught up with the many questions that surround education. I have tried to keep an open mind as I have explored all my options: public school, private school, charter school, homeschool, as well as language immersion programs, gifted programs, accelerated programs, etc. In November, I was blessed to be introduced to an education group in my area, consisting of parents from all walks of life (many of them much more seasoned and experienced than me) with similar questions, seeking a variety of answers. Anyway, in November, we discussed the first half of this book. And now, at our January meeting, we will discuss the second half. I am so excited for this. This book provides a lot of personal insight, but it is so much more beneficial to be able to discuss it with other individuals.

The Evelyn Wood Seven-Day Speed Reading and Learning Program by Stanley D. Frank
Okay, I feel kind of cheesy putting up this title, but the truth is, I still really want to increase my reading speed. (See my previous post: Like a Tortoise With a Lame Foot.) My brother used this book in a speed reading class he took in college, so I feel like it's fairly legitimate. I'm not interested in the really fast skimming and layered reading because I still want reading to feel like leisure and a relaxing experience (although I think this type of reading would be great if I were still doing a lot of academic reading). I just want to increase my words-per-minute average.

Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman
My parenting tactics have become a bit stale. I feel like I'm not as focused or consistent with providing good discipline and education and love to my children as I have been in the past. This is not a parenting manual per se, more of a memoir, but I think it will be just the breath of fresh air I need.

I'm still reading The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens. It is truly excellent and has really rejuvenated me spiritually. Highly recommend.

And finally, in case I need a little break, I might listen to Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George. Doesn't that title just sound like a good one to read in January?

What about you? Do you have some books you're reading this month that will help you be a better you? Or just a good cozy, winterish read? Please share! (I really mean that. I know sometimes it's hard to break the comment barrier, but please do it! I want to hear your ideas!)

P.S. Do you like the picture at the top of this post? My brother, Gordy, took it. I'm kind of in love with it.
Proudly designed by Mlekoshi playground