Four Facts for Friday (5)

Mar 29, 2013

A fact about our transportation: Remember how our car got run into? Well, while I was in Colorado with the boys, Mike found a good deal on a Honda Odyssey. It is far from new, but we love it anyway (we christened it Fern). Somehow it makes me feel more like a real mom, driving my van around with my three kids in the back.

Another fact about our transportation: Tonight I was going to go over to our church to practice the organ, but I couldn't get the doors on the van to unlock. For some reason, we can't open the locks with the key (either there used to be a different key for the locks or the locks were of those mysteries that comes with buying a used vehicle). Anyway, the battery on the van was dead, which was why the key fob wasn't unlocking it. The problem was we couldn't unlock the car so we couldn't open the hood so we couldn't hook up jumper cables so we couldn't restart the car. Urgh. There's nothing more frustrating than trying to (unsuccessfully) break into your own car. (I'm speaking for Mike here.)

A fact about my reading speed: Last month after reading my speed reading book, I said that by March I'd like to be reading 600 words per minute. Well, here it is March, and I am not reading that fast. Based on the book, it should be fairly easy to get up to 600 wpm. Based on my personality and obsessive compulsive habits (like rereading any sentence I don't understand), not so much. I'm still working on it, and I am faster, but I'm not as fast as I want to be.

A fact about our future: Things are starting to pick up and get a little bit exciting! After years of Mike being in school, graduation is finally on the horizon. This week, he had a job interview, and next week, he has another one. I've been waiting for these decisions for so long, and turns out, now that they're finally here, they are kind of stressful. (But mostly just exciting.)

Maxwell's Preschool: P is for Penguin

Mar 25, 2013

When I realized that my turn to teach Maxwell's preschool would fall on the letter P, I had a hard time deciding what to focus on. Puppies? But I did dogs when I taught the letter D. Pears? I didn't think I could plan an entire preschool around one piece of fruit. Planets? Would a three-year-old be able to grasp what a planet was?

I finally decided on penguins because then I could talk about Antarctica at the same time and easily incorporate some shapes and numbers activities.

I always like to use a book for the basis of my lesson plans. I read through a huge stack of penguin books before deciding on A Penguin Story by Antoinette Portis (with a close runner-up in Penguin and Pinecone by Saline Yoon, which I also really love).

Edna is a penguin. Every day she sees lots of blue, black and white. While the other penguins enjoy swimming, sliding, and eating, Edna dreams of something more. What that is, she's not exactly sure, but she knows there has to be something besides blue, black, and white. Then one day, she sees it: a bright orange something flying in the sky. She follows it and discovers she was right! There is more than blue ocean, black night, and white snow. After visiting the orange scientists (for that is who was in the orange airplane), Edna continues wondering, "What else is there?"

I love this book because it teaches kids to ask questions and to look beyond their own sphere of knowledge. There is more to discover! More to learn! More to experience! The book doesn't encourage kids to be discontented but just to always be on the lookout for new things.

I also love the illustrations. They start out pretty neutral (blue, black, and white), so when the orange airplane enters, it really pops out of the page. The penguins are blocky and simple, and the detail is minimal. Also, the text, while expressing some pretty big ideas, is pretty sparse, leaving a lot up to implication and the reader's imagination.

So after I'd decided to use this book for preschool, I thought, Why not make it into a flannel board story? (You must remember how much I love cutting stuff out of felt.)

So I did, and even though it didn't translate to felt quite as well as I was hoping it would, I still used it with the kids, and they seemed to enjoy it.

First I created an entirely new back drop for my flanne lboard:

This involved a lot of cutting and piecing together (and sorry, I used some gray for the mountain, but the book used gray also, so I figured it was legal).

 Edna off looking for "something": she sees the orange plane.

Edna makes the long trek over the mountain and finds the camp of the scientists. She is mesmerized by all the orange. (I know the proportions are off, but I wanted to keep Edna as the star.)

Edna goes back home, gets a few friends (by necessity, they had to be small friends :-)) and brings them back. As the scientists pack up, one of them gives an orange glove to Edna to keep as a memento.  She likes to wear it on her head.

When she gets back home, she wonders what she might discover tomorrow (as a green ship begins making its way onto the page).

I don't know what it was that made me not love the way this turned out...maybe I tried to include too many details? or too few? or Edna was too big for the board? or the mountain took up too much room? It's maybe just one of those stories that isn't meant to be told on a flannel board.

At any rate, I read the book to the children first, then reenacted it with the board, each of them getting a turn to put on one of the pieces, and it was a fun way to remember the story.

After the story, we went downstairs where I'd set up an Iceberg Number Walk (or feel free to think up a different name, if you like). Besides the letter P, we were also focusing on the number 16. I've noticed that the children have a difficult time comprehending the bigger numbers ("bigger" meaning anything past 10).

So I was hoping that by spreading all the numbers out in a path across the floor, they would not only get a visual idea for how many 16 is, but also get some practice navigating the ever-troublesome "13, 14, 15."

The way we played was like this: I taped 16 icebergs to the floor with a number written on each one. Each child pretended he or she was a penguin and hopped or walked from iceberg to iceberg. We took turns, so while one child was walking, the other ones were chanting out the numbers.

To mix it up a little bit, I put a goldfish cracker on one of the numbers each time. This brought some individual attention to actual numbers, and the kids loved pretending they were penguins eating fish. (Yes, they ate their fish each time! I think it was clean enough!)

Next we had a snack. I couldn't come up with a good penguin snack, so I just went with the letter P, and we ate popcorn and pears. 

We did spend a little time talking about the kinds of food penguins eat, so we pretended the popcorn was krill and the pears were fish. 

After that, the kids made their own penguins. I found this adorable Circle Penguin Craft at Reading Confetti. (I think this is also where I first came across A Penguin Story since Lori paired this craft with that book. Two great finds!)

I cut out all of the circles ahead of time. But I wanted to give the kids a little bit of cutting practice, so I traced an extra circle onto a piece of paper for each of them. I figured if it turned out, they could use it in place of one of my circles, but if it didn't turn out, they would still have enough circles for the picture.

The kids loved gluing the circles onto the paper and watching the penguin take shape.

Since A Penguin Story focuses on the magic of color, as a personal touch I had each of the kids choose a favorite color. Then we cut out a circle out of that color, and they wrote the letter P in the middle of it. Then they glued it to the bottom corner of their picture.

I mentioned that part of the reason I chose penguins for our theme was so we could talk about Antarctica. We talked about it a little bit with the Iceberg Number Walk, but for our final activity, we talked about it some more. 

I saw this great idea for "Arctic Ice Sensory Play" at No Time For Flashcards. Unfortunately, my execution did not turn out as well as theirs. They took a tub of water, weighted down a smaller container in the tub, and then froze the whole thing. Once it was frozen, they took out the small container, filled up that space with water, and played with little plastic animals in the ice and water.

Well, we only have the freezer above our refrigerator, which definitely does not have enough space to freeze one, let alone two, tubs of water. (I thought to avoid conflict, I should have at least two containers so the kids weren't all crowded around the same one). Anyway, undaunted by our lack of freezer space, I thought it was plenty cold outside to do the job. 

Apparently, the temperature needs to be quite a bit below 32 degrees Fahrenheit to do an adequate job. I did get a thin sheet of ice across the top, but mostly it was just cold water.

But kids like playing in water, right? Undaunted once again, I scooped up some snow to add to the water and ice, gave the kids some penguins, seals, and other animals, and let them have at it.

They really did like it, but their poor fingers got very cold. Still, I was surprised with how long they stuck with it.

All in all, it was a really fun morning learning all about the letter P, Penguins, and the number 16.

Safekeeping by Karen Hesse

Mar 22, 2013

One of my reading goals for 2013 was to "Read something less well-known by an author I liked." When I made the goal, I had my eye on a few authors, one of them being Karen Hesse. Ever since reading (and loving) Out of the Dust, I have wanted to read something else by her.

I didn't know what to expect, but what I found was that Safekeeping bore very little resemblance to Out of the Dust. Out of the Dust is written in free verse; Safekeeping is written in prose. Out of the Dust is for middle graders; Safekeeping is for young adults. Out of the Dust is historical; Safekeeping is futuristic. Out of the Dust is text only; Safekeeping includes 90 original photographs.

I can't say I loved it as much as Out of the Dust. That would have been difficult since I love that book tremendously. However, I definitely liked Safekeeping. It was really refreshing to see how Karen Hesse can (successfully) write in two very different ways.

As the cover states, Safekeeping is "a novel of tomorrow." The reader is never told the could be five years from where we are now or fifty. I have no doubt this was intentional. It lends a timeless quality to the novel--in theory, these events could happen anytime; because we don't know when they were supposed to have happened by, they are still a possibility in the legitimate future.

When the story opens, 17-year-old Radley is on her way home from Haiti, where she has been volunteering in an orphanage. She has just received word that the American People's Party in the United States has taken power. She knows this will not have good results, and so she feels a driving urgency to get back to her parents. When she lands, there is no sign of her parents at the airport, even though the head of the orphanage sent word that she was coming home. Radley waits but eventually assumes her parents didn't receive the message and so starts out on a 60+ mile walk to her hometown of Brattleboro, Vermont (where the author currently lives, by the way).

Being an only child, Radley isn't at all used to making her own decisions and fending for herself. She is more than a little proud of herself when her home comes into view. But that short journey turns out to be only the beginning. Her parents are not at her home, and it is obvious they haven't been there for quite some time. Fearing they fled because of their opposition to the American People's Party, Radley decides to head to Canada, hoping to find her parents along the way or at least wait things out until the government fixes itself.

This is not your typical dystopian novel. In fact, I probably shouldn't even describe it as dystopian, but a more appropriate term alludes me. Yes, the government falls apart as different groups fight for control. Yes, there is violence and fear. Yes, freedom is suddenly a rare gift. But Radley (and by association, the reader) is far removed from all of this. By the end of the story, the government is establishing itself once again and the chaos has ended, but Radley did not have a hand in helping this happen. (In fact, at one point, Radley says, "They have nothing to fear from me. They never did. I don't want to topple a government.") So really, it is more about Radley's own journey and self-discovery. The political side of it merely sets the stage and then takes a quiet backseat.

That said, there is an undeniable political undertone to the whole story, and while I think "agenda" might be too strong of a word, I can't help but think that Karen Hesse is trying to get some personal point across. I have to admit that when it comes to politics, I am pretty oblivious. Occasionally, Mike will bring me up to speed on some important issue so I don't make a fool of myself during casual conversation. Maybe if I were more politically minded, I might have been able to tell who the American People's Party were supposed to be, but I'm afraid that although I could sense it through the whole book, I couldn't apply Hesse's forecast to real life.

Although this book is not written in free verse (as I already mentioned), Hesse's writing is still stunningly lyrical. Sometimes it almost reads like a poem. For example, there's a part where Radley is remembering a dress given to her by her grandmother. The dress was made of a yellow fabric with brown horses on it. Radley could never bring herself to wear it. Then she says this: "I feel a deep pain, like a punch to the gut. I'd wear it now, if only I could have my parents, my grandparents, my old life back. I'd wear it now."

One of the truly unique things about this novel is that it contains 90 of Karen Hesse's own photographs. I have to say that while the story itself was a tad lukewarm for me, the photographs made it so vivid and real that I found myself entranced. It wasn't that the photographs were amazing per se (although there were some that I truly loved) but that they complemented the story perfectly. Really. In the author's bio at the back of the book, it says, "Despite having a vast body of existing images to choose from, Hesse was determined to travel the entire route herself at the same time of year as Radley." Some of the photgraphs are beautiful, some are frightening, some are peaceful, some are breathtaking, but they all are authentically real. Even though Radley is fictitious, the images were real, and they made the story come alive for me.  I didn't find them distracting (even though there's one on nearly every page for the entire middle section), but rather, I felt like I was walking with Radley and observing a field here and a flower there...things that she herself didn't mention but which were there just the same.

This story features a very small cast: really there's only Radley, Celia (who travels to Canada with Radley and becomes a dear friend), Madame Seville (an unknown benefactress for much of the book), and a young man named Julian (oh, and Romulus the cat and Jerry Lee the dog). This lack of superfluous characters made the story feel more close-knit and personal but also a little bit isolated and lonely. Celia especially is very quiet and tight-lipped, and so even though she plays a part in most of the book, it takes a long time to get to know anything about her.

I felt like Radley's tie to Haiti was a little contrived. It seemed more like the author loved Haiti and wanted to raise awareness and sympathy and less like it fit into Radley's story. Which is a funny, and maybe false, observation considering the fact that Radley is in Haiti when the book begins, thinks about it through her entire journey, and goes back to it at the very end, so it actually plays a huge part in who Radley is. But it still felt forced to me, like the author wanted it there, and so there it was.

I have to say that my biggest gripe with the book was over something ridiculously small. So the main character's name is Radley, right? Radley. A name I can't say I'm particularly fond of. But then, you might remember, I have a son named Bradley. A name I happen to like quite a lot. Radley and Bradley. They sound so similar, and yet I dislike the one and love the other. Somehow, my brain couldn't reconcile these two facts, and so the whole time I was reading the book, I cringed every time I said "Bradley" because all I could hear was "Radley." I was worried (and resentful) because I thought this book was forever going to taint my love for my son's name. Thankfully though, this phase seems to have passed, and today was the first time in days I've remembered the similarity.

This isn't a book I would urge you to rush out and buy right now, but I wouldn't discourage you from reading it either. It's quiet and slow-moving but deep and tinged with meaning. I was glad to have read it.

P.S. I actually love the cover image. Don't you?

Virtual Book Club: What the Ladybug Heard

Mar 20, 2013

...or What the Ladybird Heard if you're British.

This month, the Virtual Book Club is highlighting the work of Julia Donaldson. We've read many of Donaldson's books, and although some of them are only so-so for me, I really LOVE What the Ladybug Heard. (Other favorites: The Spiffiest Giant in Town, Where's My Mom?, and The Gruffalo.)

The ladybug lived on a happy farm: there was a cow, hen, goose, duck, horse, hog, sheep, dog, and two cats. They all lived in contented harmony. All of the animals were very noisy in their own way except for the ladybug: she "never said a word." But she had other talents, watching and listening being among them. One night she saw two thieves intent on stealing the fine prize cow. She listened to their conniving plans, all perfectly laid out in a simple map. The ladybug knew she had to save her friend. She broke her silence to tell the other animals what would transpire that night. Together, they came up with a plan to lead the thieves in the wrong direction and save the fine prize cow.

I was inspired by this page from the book, which shows the map of the two thieves:

I thought, I'll bet we could draw up our own maps. And that is exactly what we did.

First, I drew up a couple of maps for Aaron and Max to follow. My sister helped me because she is a better artist than I am. The first map included six locations: the piano, the kitchen, the trampoline, the swing set, the washer/dryer, and the toy horse.

For this first map, I helped the boys decode and follow the pictures. I did leave a small treat at the end but nothing at the little stops along the way. The idea was just to have fun following the course of the map. The boys loved it, and it gave us a pretty good workout, too!

Aaron and Max wanted another map to follow, so we headed to the park with this one:

Aaron carefully studied it on the way to the park, and by the time we got there, he didn't need any help from me.

 (Picnic tables, twisty slide, swings, teeter-totter, house, and jungle bars)
(Looking at these pictures makes me realize that even though it's starting to feel like spring, the grass doesn't know it yet!)

After the escapade at the park, Aaron did exactly what I was hoping for...he wanted to make his own map! I thought he would want some help thinking of locations or figuring out how to draw items, but he wanted none of it. I left him to his own inspiration, and he came up with this:

 (His bed, the trampoline, the slide, the swing set (a popular landmark, it seems), the TV, and the apple tree)

I was actually totally impressed with his map, not only because he thought up some different locations on his own, but also because he grasped the sequencing idea--that one location would follow another in a specific order. (Also, Aaron has only recently become interested in drawing, so just the fact that he actually drew something out of his head was pretty awesome.)

Aaron thought it was even better following his own map than following my map. He liked it so much, in fact, that he decided to draw another:

(Mailbox, slide, game, toy horse, train set, toilet, and scooter)

I liked this map because he used certain objects to represent a specific location (the game for the room where the games are kept, etc.). 

By this time, we had run out of treats to put at the end. (I had a little bag of jelly beans, and each time they completed a map, they each got two.) Up until that point, I was pretty sure they were partly so enthusiastic because they got a treat each time. But when the last jelly bean was consumed, Aaron said, "Now we can still make more maps, and we just won't get a treat!" And off he went.

You know how sometimes you have a great idea in your head, but when you try it with your kids, it falls flat? This was NOT one of those times. My boys loved it. Aaron especially would have kept making maps all day if he hadn't had to, you know, eat dinner and other trivial things like that. Even this morning, he was talking about making another map. It's the activity that just keeps on giving. 

I hope you map out some fun (heh, heh!) for yourself as well!

(I'm also sharing this post with The Children's Bookshelf and the Kid Lit Blog Hop.)

Blackberry Crumble by Josi S. Kilpack

Mar 18, 2013

Last night, Mike told me that my posts are much too long. I agreed with him--I realize that very few people probably read them through in their entirety--but then, I remembered why I keep writing all these reviews anyway. One of the main reasons is just to help myself remember what I read. Quite often, I include certain details to help spark my memory months or years later, in effect making it so that the book lasts much longer than just the time it takes me to read it.

So, sorry but not sorry, folks, you get a pageful.

(Mike also had the audacity to inform me that really great writers use fewer words to get their point across, but I never claimed to be a really great writer. So there.)

And now, on to this book, which, admittedly, is just a quick read and doesn't have a lot of substance, but which I (surprisingly!) have a lot to say about nonetheless (sarcasm intended).

This is the fifth installment in a culinary mystery series starring Sadie Hoffmiller, a 50-something retired school teacher who can't keep her eyes and ears out of other people's business. Unfortunately, for the last nine months or so of her life, "other people's business" has included murder, and Sadie has become directly involved. At the beginning of this story, Sadie finds out that an article about her has just been printed in the Denver Post. It casts her in a very unfavorable, even scandalous, light, asking how it is possible for one middle-aged woman to be in the middle of so many murder investigations. All of her acquaintances begin whispering about her, and Sadie is mortified. You would think then that when an unknown woman approaches Sadie, asking her to look into and investigate her father's sudden and unexpected death, Sadie would run the other way (and work to build back her reputation!). But of course she takes the case. She's Sadie, after all, and she can't stand an unsolved mystery.

As with the other books in the series, this was just a fun one to be in the middle of. I've discovered that with these books, I far prefer the actual reading to the finishing because I almost always hate the endings (this one was no exception). You would think the endings would maybe dissuade me from reading any more of them, but I keep coming back because I like the middles so much.

Yes, unfortunately, the ending left me dissatisfied and irritable. (Warning: spoilers ahead! Read at your own risk, starting now...!) I've read enough of Sadie Hoffmiller to know that the murderer is going to be the person I least expect, which now means that the least-expected person is the MOST-expected person (so it seems like Josie Kilpack's system is backfiring).

But even I, with all my prior Sadie Hoffmiller experience, did not originally suspect Lois (the kind, elderly neighbor with a penchant for trendy fashion). However, later in the book, I realized it had to be her because a) she was the least suspicious and b) Kilpack has never had a female murderer, so to make it an elderly female murderer? Oh, too perfect. I audibly sighed in exasperation when I realized who the murderer was. I had been enjoying the book so much, and now, once again, it was ruined. I didn't hate it because she was an old lady, and old ladies are always perfect and innocent in every possible way. I hated it because Kilpack refuses to cast the real murderer in the same suspicious light as all the other suspects. She gives you nothing to question, so then, in the grand and dramatic reveal, you feel like you've been knocked flat on your back.

I feel like a broken record since I know I've said similar things about the first four books, but I have to say them again since they (unfortunately) still apply: a really well-thought-out mystery will make the reader slap their forehead in disbelief and say, "I should have seen that coming!" instead of pound their head on the table in frustration and say, "And the person with the spotless record is once again villainous." What I'm trying to say is that, however hidden, there should have been little hints or details along the way that I'll be able to look back on and say, "Oh, yes, she really was capable of murder because of this, this, and this." Instead, even once I know the motive, it still feels unbelievable to me because there didn't seem to be a proper set-up.

(Spoilers over)

This is the type of book where you get the impression that there's no overarching goal for the entire series (which, I don't think there is and never was intended to be). The way the book ends, there's the potential for more (and there are currently four more published), but it could also easily be the last one. I'm just curious about Kilpack's writing strategies (here I go again, analyzing and supposing things that are none of my business): when she sits down to write a new Sadie Hoffmiller mystery, does she review the previous ones and think, Oh, it's too bad I had ________ happen in the second one because I really wish I could do _________ in the sixth one, but now I can't. I think for me, who really likes to plan ahead, this would be a difficult way to write (and it seems probable that she does plan ahead to a certain extent and saves ideas for later books, so I'm not totally negative in my judgment).

Another thing I've mentioned with the other books, and that applies to this one as well, is just that sometimes the writing includes details that don't really seem necessary and just contribute to the overall wordiness. Like these two sentences: "She hurried to the bedroom for the cordless, then hung up the wall phone after verifying that Gayle was still on the line. Then she went to the living room and twisted the wand to open the slats." For me, all the information about switching phones and opening the blinds is just superfluous to the plot at hand.

There were also some details that didn't match up in the story, and that annoyed me a little bit, too. For example, at first Lois said that Jeremy was Jolene and Gary's younger son, but then later on, Sadie refers to him as their firstborn. Also, May insists that Sadie buys organic of everything, but then later on, it appears that she doesn't care anything about the quality of what she eats. I understand that these books are being published fairly quickly (usually two each year), but it still detracts from the story when details don't match up.

So why, if I have so much to say about what I don't like, am I still reading these books? Because I really do like them! Here's proof:
  • Sadie is funny. I love her personality. Here are a couple of my favorite lines: "Not only had she lost her quarry, but she was going to get her first ticket in twenty-five years for not-really-talking on a cell phone." And this one: "Finally, after what she assumed was eight full minutes--she might have to write to Reader's Digest about that--she heard another creak of the chair." I know I'm taking these both out of context, so they're probably not funny to you, but Sadie is constantly making me laugh and smile.
  • They're fast-paced and intriguing. I think Kilpack does an excellent job of setting the stage and introducing the characters and including a lot of interesting complexities. I wish it played out differently, but I can't deny that I'm hooked until I've turned the final page.
  • The recipes--it's a culinary mystery because Sadie loves to cook. Each book includes 12-ish recipes. And having the recipe right there is different than just describing what she's eating; I can almost taste it. (And of course, it's always fun to try out a couple from each book--makes me feel like Sadie and I are friends.)
  • The covers--I really do love the covers. They're aesthetically pleasing, and they pull me in every time.
I've kind of come to terms with these books. I realize going into them that there will be things that make me crazy but that it will be a fun ride anyway.

(And it looks like this will once again be a review that Mike will not have the stamina to get through. Did I say Josie Kilpack was wordy? Oops.)

Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by Sy Montgomery

Mar 15, 2013

Over Christmas, my mom told me that I had to watch the HBO movie, Temple Grandin, a dramatized depiction of the real Temple Grandin's life. So I did. And I absolutely, positively, completely loved it. It stars Claire Danes as Temple Grandin, and she is really fantastic. Up to that point, I had never even heard of Temple Grandin, but since then, I haven't been able to stop talking about her, and I've seen and heard her name popping up all over the place. (Does that happen to anyone else? You learn about something or someone new, and then all of a sudden, it's EVERYWHERE, and you wonder if it was always right there under your nose?)

This book is one of the things that popped up. It was published last year and is a condensed and simplified account of Temple Grandin's life, geared toward children.

Temple Grandin was born in 1947. Even before her first birthday, Temple's parents could tell she was not the same as other babies: she wouldn't make eye contact, she didn't laugh, she didn't want to be cuddled or held. In 1952, she was diagnosed with autism. At the time, autism was still a new and very misunderstood condition (Temple's mother was told that it was a type of schizophrenia, which it is not). Temple's father wanted to put her in a mental institution, but Temple's mother believed in greater things for her. Amazingly, even miraculously, Temple persisted through all kinds of challenges, both internally and externally, and emerged triumphant. She went to college where she earned not just a Bachelor's but also a Master's and PhD. She has done so much to improve the treatment of livestock animals and also to improve the face of autism. She is fast becoming one of my heroes.

It's normal for a person with autism to be really focused and passionate about a select few topics. With Temple, it's animals. But it's also autism. She has written books on both subjects, lectured on both subjects, and researched both subjects. I am so impressed with the way she has divided her life between these two passions. From what I've read, it sounds like Temple was really the first autistic person to describe what autism is like. In speaking candidly and openly about all aspects of autism, she has really changed how people view it and respond to it. I just admire her so much for actively changing the world for the better.

So...a bit more about Temple's animal passion: She loves them so much. Especially cattle. I'm guessing that even if you are an animal lover, a cow does not top your list of favorite animals. But for Temple, it does. And because of that, she has been able to overcome and improve major issues in the livestock industry that no one else deigned to pay attention to (but which were really important).

For much of the book, I was completely mystified why Temple Grandin (who loves animals so much she lies down amidst the cattle and lets them walk around her and touch her face) would devote much of her life to finding more humane ways to slaughter them? Wouldn't she want to stop the killing altogether? The answer is one of the reasons why I really love and respect Temple Grandin. Sure, she would love it if all people stopped eating meat . But the fact of the matter is that 95% of Americans do eat meat (according to the book) and probably aren't going to quit anytime soon. (I found it really interesting that even Temple eats meat--she tried to cut it out of her diet and really suffered with dizziness so had to add it back in.)  Anyway, it sometimes seems like animal-rights activists have unrealistic expectations, but Temple looks at the current situation and thinks, How can we improve it NOW? What can we do to improve these animals' quality of life and give them a death that is free of fear and misery? (Incidentally, in recent years, Temple has become more vocal on the animal rights front, so she is striving to improve the lives of animals from all sides.) I thought that I might find all of the chapters dealing with Temple's feedlot designs a bit of a drag, but I actually found them fascinating...the author calls Temple's ability to "think like a cow" a sixth sense.

Another thing I love about Temple Grandin is the way she views (and talks about) her autism in such a positive way. She recognizes all of the good she is able to do because of autism (like her sixth sense with animals I just mentioned). She even says that if she were given the choice of living her life over again without autism, she wouldn't do it. She says that autism is a part of who she is. With a condition that has so much negativism attached to it (because it does include so many hard and difficult symptoms), it was really eye-opening for me to recognize that Temple Grandin would not have been able to do so many amazing things if she hadn't had autism.

On a personal note, this book came at a time when I really needed it. For the last 10 days, the boys and I have been visiting my family in Colorado. (Mike, meanwhile, has been attacking his dissertation with a vengeance.) My youngest brother, who is 12, has a condition known as reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Maybe you've heard of it. It manifests itself frequently in children who are adopted, in foster care, or neglected and abused early in life. My brother was adopted just before his second birthday. Anyway, there are times when he gets quite upset and irrational and becomes really angry and aggressive. He has had a couple of particularly bad episodes while we've been here. After the first one, I was reading this book and read about Temple's horrible tantrums as a child because of all the frustrations she was feeling and couldn't express any other way. Even though my brother is not autistic (although he does have significant developmental delays in addition to RAD), just reading about Temple's experiences changed my feelings of frustration and resentment into sympathy and tolerance. I was really grateful I read this when I did.

As I already mentioned, this book was written for children. I read a lot of children's literature, and many times, I don't even find it's a distinction worth making note of because it seems like I enjoy it just as much as an adult as I would if I were a child. But in this case, I often found that it was quite noticeable that this was written for a younger crowd. Sometimes the definitions and explanations were really simplified and dumbed down. Also, although all the important facts were there, it's obvious that this is an abridged or shortened account of Temple's life and that many of the details have been left out for the sake of the book's length. Don't get me wrong--I thought it was really well done for its targeted audience (and I will definitely share it with Aaron when he gets older), but for me personally, I would have liked a little bit more. (Temple herself has written a number of books, many of them autobiographical. I'm especially interested in Thinking in Pictures.)

One of the main things I noticed while reading this book was how many mentors and supporters Temple had along the way (not saying that she didn't have any naysayers--her own father wanted to put her in a mental institution, remember?). It made me realize how important it is to offer encouragement and help to others, particularly those who are struggling. But also, I couldn't help wondering how many other Temples are or have been out there who didn't make it as far as she did because they didn't have anyone to cheer them on? It breaks my heart to think of the untapped potential of so many. (I should also mention though that while Temple did have quite a bit of support, she is also one highly motivated person. She doesn't take "no" for an answer. She is always looking for another door. She definitely deserves a huge chunk of the credit for her own success.)

If you are like me and just barely becoming acquainted with Temple Grandin, this book is an excellent introduction to her life. Or, if you're not in the mood to read, watch the movie. Either way, I guarantee you will be inspired by this amazing woman.  

The Clock

Mar 14, 2013

The clock now reads 10:33pm. I'm winding down, preparing to go to bed. A week ago, when the clock said 9:33 at this same time, I wasn't even thinking about bed yet. The evening was still young! The clock proved it. It was only 9:33, and I never go to bed at 9:33.

But 10:33? Yes, sometimes I go to bed at 10:33.

Earlier this evening, at 7:05, Bradley seemed tired (and I'll be honest, he had worn me out, and I was (just a little) tired of him), so I started settling him down for the night. A week ago, at 6:05, I would not have dreamed of putting him to bed so early. Instead, I would have watched the clock, enduring an hour of grumpiness and mischief until it was "legal" to say night-night.

I am completely fascinated by this phenomenon of Western culture.

Granted, I am a very time-conscious person. But how is it really possible that I can look at the clock, and just because it says 9:33, I have energy, and just because it says 10:33, I feel tired?

Bradley easily went to bed tonight. If I had really tried to put him to bed just after 6:00 last week, would it have been so easy?

Something in my gut says no.

But something in my gut also says yes.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Mar 12, 2013

Even though this book received a lot of pre-Newbery buzz, if it hadn't ended up winning the medal, it would have been one of those books that quickly faded from my radar. In fact, it's very unlikely that I would have ever read it. But then, of course, it did win the Newbery medal, and that made me take a second look at it and also moved it to the top of my to-read list. The Newbery does things like that.

Initially, I had no interest in reading this book because...well, I tend to be a little prejudiced against animal books. I blame it on the fact that I'm not much of an animal person myself. (Memories of the sheer agony and torture of suffering through Big Red in the fifth grade are flooding back to me now. I seriously thought I'd never make it through that book.) But I've also noticed that when I do force myself to read something with an animal as the main character, I like it better when the animal has a voice.

And let me tell you, if there's one thing Ivan has, it's a voice.

Ivan is a silverback gorilla. He was born in an African rain forest but was taken from his home (along with his twin sister) when he was still in his youth. He was purchased by a man named Mack and eventually came to live (along with several other exotic animals) at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade where they perform shows at "two, four, and seven, 365 days a year." Ivan's best friends are an elephant named Stella and a stray dog named Bob. Ivan has discovered that the only way to survive is to forget what he has lost. But then Ruby arrives, a young elephant fresh out of Africa. And she forces Ivan to remember. Once he remembers, he knows he has to do something.

Although fictional, the foundation for this story is true: there really is a gorilla named Ivan (he currently lives at Zoo Atlanta--EDIT: Danzel brought to my attention that Ivan actually passed away in August of last year. I just assumed since the book was published last year that it was still accurate. Sadly, it is not.), and for 27 years he lived in a cage in a circus-themed mall in Washington state. The real Ivan also loves to paint, just like the fictional Ivan. I love a story like this that has its roots in truth. (The Circus Ship, which I've raved about far too many times, is another one that used a true story as inspiration.) For me, if I know part of the story is true, even if it is just a very small part, it makes the whole story that much more fascinating.

I have no idea what the thoughts of a real gorilla are like, but Ivan's own thoughts and words are pretty convincing. He is brusque and to-the-point ("Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot."), and "brusque and to-the-point" is how I would describe real gorillas. But then, Ivan also has a personality that is distinctly his own: he is gentle but powerful, clever but sarcastic. He hides his pain while at the same time looking for ways to help others through theirs. He sounds like someone you might want for a friend except that he is guarded and distant when it comes to most humans.

The fact that Ivan doesn't mince words meant that this book flew by. I'm visiting my family in Colorado right now, and I easily started and finished it on the drive here (with plenty of singing songs, dishing out snacks, and finding lost markers interspersed throughout). It looks like a decent length, but there is a lot of white space on the page. Ivan is short and concise throughout.

In some ways, I loved how quickly it moved. I loved the way Ivan could say so much with so little. But then, it was over, and I felt like I'd barely spent any time with the characters. And indeed, I hadn't. To think that with some books I might spend several days, sometimes even several weeks, reading and thinking and remembering, but then with this one, even though there was so much to think and remember about, it was over so quickly that the characters didn't really have a chance to sink in. And yet, I can't imagine it being longer. Ivan would have ceased to be Ivan. To add more would have morphed him into a completely different character. (So instead, I'm spending as long writing this review as I did reading the book so I can better remember it.)

Even if I wouldn't have changed it, another downside to Ivan's succinct voice is that a lot of the side stories never get fully fleshed out, nor do they really resolve themselves in the end. For example, there's so much we never learn about Julia and her hardworking father and her ill mother (but then, Ivan probably didn't know a lot about them either). Also, we never really learn Mack's complete story--why his marriage failed and if he was successful after the circus was shut down. Again, I think it was staying true to Ivan's voice to leave these threads hanging, but as a reader, I felt the gaps.

As much as I loved Ivan (and Ruby and Julia and Stella), I think Bob (the stray dog) may have been my favorite character. He was not an act in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall circus show. Rather, he was an uninvited guest and most of the time stayed conveniently out of sight so that "mall workers long ago gave up trying to catch him." There was a small hole in one of the bottom corners of Ivan's "domain" (his word, not mine), and every night, Bob climbed through the hole and fell asleep on Ivan's large and comfortable stomach. Bob's lines were some of my favorite because he had a snarky side to him.  One night, he and Ivan are having a little argument. Bob calls the billboard outside the mall a "monstrosity" since he's not on it. And Ivan reminds him that he's not in the show so has no reason to be on the billboard. Then Bob says, "Technically, I don't even live here. I am homeless by choice." By this time in the story, you know that this is the perfect line for Bob: a little self-righteous and indignant, and it's just funny when you picture a tiny little dog saying it.

About a third of the way through the story, Ivan promises to take care of Ruby and find a safe home for her away from the mall. He becomes consumed with this promise and stays up night after night (much to the annoyance of Bob who wants him for a bed) painting a picture to express to Julia (or anyone who will pay attention) what he wants for Ruby. It never occurs to him that by providing a better life for her, he might provide a better one for himself as well. And then, when it happens, he's so surprised and a little taken aback. I thought this was a beautiful example of true, selfless friendship: even though he has lived in a small cage for many years, he never once thinks about changing that for himself. He only thinks of Ruby.

All in all, it was a beautiful and touching story, well-told and expressed. And as I was writing this review, I remembered other animal stories I have read and loved (Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Trumpet of the Swan, The Cricket in Times Square, to name a few), so guess I should take this as a lesson and in the future not be so quick to judge a book with an animal on the cover.

P.S. Soon after this book won the Newbery, I read a little statement from Katherine Applegate that I loved. She said she "recently found a scrap of paper, something she had written a few years ago. On it were the words, 'Should I give up on Ivan or not?' She [said], 'I was at one of those many places you get to in a book, where I say, "I just can’t make it work." For some reason this piece of paper stuck around. I’m going to have it framed.'"

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

Mar 9, 2013

This was my first taste of Georgette Heyer, and it delighted me in every way. Luckily, she wrote over fifty books during her lifetime, so I think I'm set for a good long while.

When the novel begins, things are a little bit strained in the Rivenhall household: Lord Ombersley has squandered all his money (and he has seven children, so, you know, he should probably feel his duty a little bit more than he does); his eldest son, Charles, is grimly trying to reconcile all of his father's accounts and fill the role of "responsible adult." Cecilia Rivenhall is in love with a ridiculous poet even though a very respectable marriage has been arranged for her with Lord Charlbury. Charles himself is also engaged, and his fiancée, Miss Eugenia Wraxton, is insufferably proper and arrogant. In the midst of all this, Lady Ombersley's brother, Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy, arrives unexpectedly and asks if his daughter, Sophy, can stay with the family while he is away in Brazil. Lady Ombersley is expecting a shy young woman in need of motherly guidance and love. What she gets instead is "the grand Sophy," a strong-willed, independent female who quickly takes their situation in hand and does her best to remedy it.

Sophy caught me by surprise, almost as much as she does the Rivenhalls in the novel. I think I was expecting her to be more like Jane Austen's Emma. And while she does have some similarities (an unquenchable desire to fix everyone's problems being one of them), she is much more spunky, high-spirited, and at times even a little bit vulgar. (She drives wild and dangerous horses, she settles matters with unscrupulous debtors, and she pretends to compromise herself with a man in order to bring lovers together. She even carries around a pearl-handled pistol and uses it quite freely.) There was a part of me that loved Sophy fiercely and another part of me that was pretty certain she would drive me crazy in real life. I could totally relate to Charles' feelings of exasperation but then also couldn't help but laugh at some of her ridiculous and well-meaning antics. As she said so well when she was explaining one of her plans to Lord Charlbury: "Pray don't be afraid of me! I never do people any harm--indeed I don't!"

There were two scenes that I especially loved: first, when Charles discovers that instead of a small, intimate party of no more than 20 guests, Sophy has organized a grand-scale event involving upwards of 400 people; and second, when Sophy is being threatened by the disgusting Mr. Goldhanger but instead of backing down, Sophy pulls out her pistol and threatens him. Even though this novel has all the elements of a regency romance, it has quite a bit of "action" too, which kept me very entertained. The ending was another favorite: the whole scene was absolutely comical, from the little ducklings trying to escape their box to the Marquesa butchering chickens in the kitchen to Lord Bromford's pathetic cold. It just made me laugh.

I thought Miss Wraxton and Sophy posed a striking contrast to each other. Both of them are somewhat meddlesome, always sticking their noses in other people's affairs. But they go about it in such vastly different ways. Miss Wraxton pretends she isn't prying but when confronted with the evidence, she claims she is only doing it for the good of others and using her own spotless reputation and good standing to pull others (namely Sophy) away from their unseemly associations. Sophy, on the other hand, approaches each new problem with candor and good humor and gladly sacrifices herself to help others. I just found it so interesting that although you could use some of the same adjectives to describe these women, they were as different as night and day.

Hubert was another character I found highly intriguing. He was the third child in the Rivenhall family, younger than Charles but older than Cecilia (and Sophy). For at least the first half of the book, I was picturing him as being several years younger than Sophy, maybe 16 or 17, but then it becomes obvious that he is actually older than she is, putting him somewhere in his early 20's. Besides the whole episode where he confesses that he is in a great amount of debt, I found much of his behavior incredibly immature, which is why I thought he was so much younger than he really was. Again, it was just another interesting contrast, 1) because Charles is so well-grounded and you would think his younger brother would have similar traits and 2) because even though Sophy is full of so much levity, you feel like she is clear-minded and wise whereas Hubert is just interested in having a good time. The reality though is that siblings do not all come in the same package, and it is very likely that the oldest child would feel the full weight of duty while a younger child might be perfectly happy to do whatever he pleases.

As far as the various romances, I loved the fact that Cecilia fell head over heels for a poet only to realize that he was nothing like what she really wanted and that what she really wanted was what she easily could have had from the very beginning. I thought this passage summed it up beautifully: "Lord Charlbury might be constitutionally incapable of addressing her as Nymph, or of comparing bluebells unfavourably with her eyes, but Lord Charlbury would infallibly provide a cloak for her if the weather were inclement, lift her over obstacles she could well climb without assistance, and in every way convince her that in his eyes she was a precious being whom it was impossible to guard too carefully." I think so often it is the penniless, star-struck lovers that are encouraged and applauded because for some reason, we seem to believe you can only be in love if you're starving. It was a nice change to be cheering for the sensible man instead of the one whispering sweet nothings.

I will just add one word of caution: contrary to what you may suppose, this book actually had quite a bit of offensive language--not in the way of swearing (although there are a few mild words), but many instances of taking the name of God in vain (in a proper, British sort of way). This probably wouldn't bother some readers at all, but I didn't appreciate it.

If you are a fan of Jane Austen, I don't think you could help but love this book. It is witty and cheeky. It has action and romance. And they wear pretty dresses and ride in carriages. Need I say more?

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

Mar 6, 2013

Out of the four Newbery titles this year, Splendors and Glooms was the only one I was really kicking myself for not reading ahead of time. First of all, I had the book in my hands over Christmas break, but for whatever reason, it just wasn't grabbing me so I read other (far less notable) things instead. And also, from all the buzz I had been reading, I think I had an inkling that it was destined for greatness. Oh well, it's almost as much fun reading them after the fact as before. Then when you're saying, as I did while reading this one, "Oh my goodness! This is so good!" you feel like you're opinion is immediately justified because, oh yeah, it just won a Newbery Honor.

While in the midst of this book, Mike asked me what it was about, and I said, "It's unlike anything I've ever read" and proceeded to give a haphazard synopsis that just left Mike scratching his head and saying, "That is unlike anything I've ever read." I'll try to be somewhat more succinct here.

When the story begins, Clara Wintermute is excitedly anticipating the party for her 12th birthday. A few weeks before, she saw Gaspare Grisini's puppet show in the park and was delighted both by the show and also by his two young assistants, Parsefall and Lizzie Rose. Clara begs her father to hire the puppeteer for her birthday party, and although he is very distrustful of foreigners, he has a hard time denying Clara anything. (When she was but five years old, her four siblings contracted cholera and died, which means her parents are a bit overanxious and extravagant when it comes to Clara.) During the party, Clara succumbs to a fit of laughter, which embarrasses and distresses her mother and causes her to say some unkind things to Clara. The next day, Clara can't be found. At first, her parents are worried she ran away, but the more they think about it, the more convinced they become that Gaspare Grisini had something to do with it.

But that's only half of the story (which is why I was having such a difficult time describing it to Mike). There's also an ancient witch, Cassandra, who is desperate to be relieved of a fire opal, a powerful charm that is burning her alive. Many years ago, Grisini, knowing of the fire opal's power, tried to steal it from Cassandra. That attempt ended badly for Grisini, but now Cassandra wants him back. She is convinced if she can only tempt one of his young assistants to steal it from her, she can be freed from the curse which is torturing her.

The adjective "well-crafted" is often used to describe tight, interweaving plots with dense character development. And "well-crafted" is exactly how I would describe Splendors and Glooms. The plot is rich and mysterious and unfolds very slowly and meticulously. I have no idea what Laura Amy Schlitz's writing habits are like, but I imagine her shuffling around the scenes and rewriting them over and over again until they are exactly where and how they should be. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Schlitz can get all the details right the first time, but I think it's more likely that the details take time to come together, and that certain elements can only work themselves out by being written one way and then rewritten another way.

For example, there is one scene where Clara's father is waiting to give a large ransom to an unknown individual. When the scene ends, he is still waiting for the clock to strike midnight and the kidnapper to appear. Meanwhile, certain events transpire that make it impossible for anyone to come for the ransom money. For several chapters, the reader knows, in part, how the events of the evening played out, but what of Clara's father? What was that long, cold, horrible night like for him? In my imagining, I picture Schlitz originally including a description of Clara's father's night not long after the other details are given. But then she deletes that scene, choosing instead to save the details for later in the story when Clara's father shares them with Lizzie Rose. I had to wait a long time for that information, and when it finally came, I thought it was perfectly placed. There are many instances similar to that one where I really had to wait for little details and pieces of information. And the waiting made the finding out so much sweeter. Does anyone else picture the writing habits of authors? Or am I just weird like that? I love to learn about the journeys that authors go on with their stories until the final draft surfaces, uncluttered and clean and beautiful.

Along the same lines, many times as I was reading, I was sure I had figured out some element of the story only to be completely wrong. When Clara recognizes that Parsefall's life is in danger because of the fire opal, I was sure she was going to sacrifice herself and beat him to it. But that didn't happen (at least, not at that point), and I just think it is a delightful experience to always be guessing and supposing, even if half the time you end up completely wrong.

I will say three honest things about this story; these aren't necessarily criticisms, more just observations. First, this is a very slow-moving story. Beautiful, yes. Captivating, yes. Suspenseful, yes. But slow. There are many conversations that go on for pages and pages with very little transpiring in the end. I even found the epilogue, which takes place at a funeral, to be never-ending, even though it was, in fact, the end. So this is not a story you would read if you wanted a fast-paced page-turner. You would read this if you want to get lost in a really amazing story. One upside to slow plot development is that the characters have plenty of time to come alive. I loved them, especially Lizzie Rose and Parsefall. I wanted to adopt Parsefall.

Second, this story is dark. I was actually surprised with how mature some of the content was. If I was recommending it, I would give it to children ages 12 and up. The puppeteer, Grisini, is an evil man. He is physically and emotionally and verbally abusive to Lizzie Rose and Parsefall. He is motivated by frighteningly wicked motives and intentions. There is also quite a bit of violence: Grisini has a near-fatal fall down the stairs; Cassandra uses the fire opal to make him bleed profusely; and Grisini meets his end by drowning and then being frozen under the ice. There were definitely some gruesome moments. Plus, some of the subject matter is just hard to deal with: Parsefall and Lizzie Rose live in really deplorable conditions, and Parsefall's fear and anxiety are really heart-wrenching.

Third, for most of the book moving so slow, the actual climax (particularly the destruction of the fire opal) was a little fast for me. Just my opinion.

I listened to the audio, which was narrated by Devina Porter. She was fantastic. It was a treat to listen to her interpretation of the characters. I think my favorite voice was Parsefall's. She nailed him. He sounded every bit the street urchin I imagined him to be.

It occurred to me more than once that this is the kind of book you expect to receive Newbery recognition. The writing is brilliant. The story is fresh and original. The characters are people you would actually want to meet. And when you're done, it stays with you in a really good way.

KidPages: Three of Maxwell's Recent Favorites

Mar 4, 2013

In honor of Maxwell's recent birthday, here are three books that have recently been popular with this three-year-old:

1. Let's Sing a Lullaby With the Brave Cowboy, Jan Thomas
Our family first fell in love with Jan Thomas when we read and loved the extremely popular Rhyming Dust Bunnies (extremely popular for good reason). But this one is a very close second.

Cowboy and his cows are hunkering down for the night. Cowboy is singing a lullaby (It's time for little cows to rest their heads...), but his lullaby keeps getting interrupted when he sees scary looking shadows. His cows bravely assure him that there's nothing to be frightened of, until Cowboy sees a shadow that bears a striking resemblance to a large gray wolf...

Jan Thomas has a unique, recognizable style. Her illustrations are set apart with bold, thick strokes, and the details are limited. They kind of have a cartoon-like quality that is both engaging and fun. The text is also a part of the illustrations; it is contained in conversation bubbles and is big or little, colored or plain depending on the emphasis desired. (The one thing I'm extremely curious about is why Cowboy only ever has four fingers on each hand instead of five?)

This book is a great readaloud (as are all of Jan Thomas' books) because of all the delightful little twists and surprises: Cowboy is happily singing his lullaby when, "EEEEEK!" he sees a spider. The "EEEEK!" is perfectly placed for maximum hilarity. Towards the end, Cowboy thinks he has everything figured out--surely that shape that looks like a huge, shaggy gray wolf is really just a big giant bunny rabbit. Such a moment offers the listeners a chance to jump in and shout, "No, Cowboy! It's a wolf!"

It's more than just interactive: the text is simple and sparse enough that Aaron can easily read it, and Maxwell can easily memorize it and pretend to read it. One evening not too long ago, I read it once, then Maxwell read it, then Aaron read it, then Maxwell read it again. The only problem occurred when they kept jumping in on the other one's turn to read. They couldn't help themselves. It's that addictive.

2. Too Tall Houses, Gianna Marino
Sometimes we check out too many books from the library. I know, can you believe I'm admitting that such a thing is possible? But it is. Sometimes we check out so many books in a week that we literally cannot keep up with them. The problem with this is that then, when Max asks me to read a book we've already read, I tell him, "Maxwell, we have a huge stack of books we haven't read yet! I'm not going to read that one again." And that's really too bad. Because sometimes, most of the fun and joy comes in the rereading, and if you never reread it, then you really miss out. It's one of those balance issues I'm trying to work out.

But this book couldn't help but be reread. Not only is it a super cute story; and not only are the illustrations something to be sucked into; but also, it is the perfect length (meaning, it is not too long), and I am far more likely to reread a book that will only take me 3 minutes instead of 23 minutes.

Owl and Rabbit are next door neighbors. Rabbit loves to tend his garden while Owl prefers perching and enjoying his gorgeous view. But one day, the harmony of their universe comes apart when Rabbit's vegetables grow up into Owl's view. So Owl builds his house a little taller, but that throws Rabbit's vegetables into the shade, so he builds his house a little taller. This continues until both houses are high up in space with the earth a mere dot below them. Neither one can enjoy the things he loves. Luckily, both houses go crashing to the ground, which puts an end to the ridiculousness and leaves them with just enough materials to build one perfect house to share.

The illustrations are what really pull the reader into this story. If you think about it, the story doesn't really go anywhere: the whole thing involves the same two characters squabbling over the same piece of land for the entire book. But the perspective is constantly changing, and in such creative ways, too. This makes each page look and feel very different from the one before it.

I actually thought about buying this one for Maxwell for his birthday because he has enjoyed it so much, but the bookstore didn't have it, and I didn't leave myself enough time to order it. (Plus, they did have Let's Sing a Lullaby With the Brave Cowboy, and I decided that one would do just as well.)

3. Yes Day!, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illus. Tom Lichtenheld
We discovered Amy Krouse Rosenthal only a few months ago, but she was something of an instant favorite, and we have now read a sizable number of her books.

In this book, Rosenthal takes an ordinary day and turns it into Yes Day, which basically means saying "yes" to all silly, extravagant, and ridiculous requests. Can I have pizza for breakfast? Yes. Can I stay up really late? Of course you can. It is a kid's dream come true.

Maxwell was completely enthralled. It had never occurred to him that such a day might even be possible. He loved the examples in the book, but he also loved thinking up his own things he would love for me to say yes to.

I've been tempted to give my kids a Yes Day just for the sheer fun of it. But I haven't because I'm also a little worried with what they might ask for, and Yes Day would only be fun if you really did say yes to every single request. I had a little trial run on Maxwell's birthday, but I failed. I asked Max what he wanted for his birthday breakfast. I said, "You can have anything! Whatever you want!" And what do you think that little stinker said? "Oooh, I want candy for my breakfast!!!" It would have been the perfect opportunity to say yes since birthdays are kind of like Yes Days anyway, but I said no and promptly squashed that moment for fun.

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

The Bright and Not-So-Bright

Mar 1, 2013

It's Maxwell's third birthday today. And celebrating his birthday is definitely the bright spot in our otherwise not-so-fantastic week.

On Sunday morning, I felt a little under the weather, but by the afternoon I was being slammed up the side of the head with something downright beastly.

And it has been beastly: a really raw sore throat, a racking hacking cough, no appetite, and complete fatigue. I also lost my voice. Like, completely. On Wednesday, each time my phone rang, I had to send out a text that said, "Sorry. My voice is gone. Can't talk."

Sadly, I've shared my plague with each of the boys, and all but Mike have also gotten it. (Thank goodness Mike was spared. He kept things in order.)

But besides illness, Mike came home late Tuesday night with a paper in his hands. I was already in bed, but I asked, "What's that?" "Something not good," he said.

It was an accident report. While he was at school, someone ran into our (parked) car. Mike is inclined to see this as a good thing since (A) he wasn't in the car, (B) it wasn't his fault, and (C) our car is almost 20 years old and would have had to be replaced in the soonish future anyway. But I like being able to do things on my own time, and I wanted to be able to drive our car for at least another year while Mike finishes school and we save some money. And sadly, it does have to be replaced. (The repairs were going to cost $5000, and the car isn't even worth half that.) Plus, I actually loved our car. It was a '94 Buick LeSabre, and man, it was one posh ride--roomy and comfortable with all the latest gadgets 1994 had to offer. We will miss our dear Millie.

But, like I said, today is Maxwell's birthday, and things are looking up. He's about the cutest birthday boy you ever did see (in spite of his nose, which continues to run). He has exclaimed with pure joy over every delightful happening.

And like any polite boy should, anytime someone wishes him a happy birthday, he says, "Happy birthday to you, too."
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