A Joyful Mother of Children: The Magic and Mayhem of Motherhood by Linda J. Eyre

Apr 30, 2013

If you are a parent living in Utah, it's kind of an unspoken rule that you have to read something by the Eyres. You might think I'm joking, and I guess I kind of am, but I hear their names spoken and wisdom touted in virtually every type of parenting circle I find myself in. For the longest time, when their names came up, I felt like I was on the edge of the circle, with very little to contribute, because I hadn't read anything of theirs. But no more! Now I can speak my opinions with the best of them.

There are certainly more well-known books by the Eyres than this one (Teaching Your Child Joy has been on my to-read shelf for years), but it just so happened that a friend recently reviewed this one on Goodreads, it looked interesting, my library had a copy, I was almost ready for a new book, I was feeling that familiar feeling of motherhood insanity, and I thought, "Hey, I haven't read anything by the Eyres yet!", and before I knew it, I was halfway through the book.

Richard and Linda Eyre are the parents of nine children. As I already said, if you live in Utah, then you've almost certainly heard of them. But even if you live in a different state, or even a different country, chances are good you've run across their names. For years, they have spoken all around the world on the importance of strengthening the family. They have also written numerous books and made appearances on national TV.

A Joyful Mother of Children is a little bit different than some of their other books because it is specifically geared toward mothers (although, of course, much of it can be applied to both parents), and it was written by just Linda (rather than co-authored by the two of them).

Over the past five years, I've read my fair share of parenting books. The ones that are heavily anecdotal almost always begin with some sort of disclaimer, such as: "Please don't think we're perfect. Let me assure you, we are far from it!" So when I began this book, I braced myself for this kind of statement, and sure enough, there it was in the preface, right after introducing all their children: "We are truly blessed with this wonderful family. But before you draw any conclusions about a perfect family, please know that we struggle with life just like everyone else."

I don't know why this type of disclaimer irks me, but it really does. For some reason, just the fact that they're saying, "Don't worry, we're not perfect" always leads me to think, They must think they're pretty close to perfect or they wouldn't feel the need to point out how imperfect they are. They probably think they're doing their readers a favor by assuring them of how normal and flawed they are, but why do they have to tell us that? Can't they just show us?

The reason why I feel the above statement is completely unnecessary in this case is because Linda Eyre does show us: the book is full of funny, relatable, down-to-earth, heartwarming stories that show how normal and realistic her life is. And I loved all these stories: they made me laugh or grit my teeth or want to cry because in the few short years that I've been a mother, I've already had similar experiences.

My knowledge of the Eyres wasn't completely nonexistent before I read this book. I had seen them interviewed a couple of times and had a general impression of their philosophies. I could also tell that they were extremely organized.

That trait definitely came through in the book as well. In order to successfully raise nine children, you probably have to be at least a little bit organized, but the Eyres took it to a whole new level, beginning with about fifty million meetings. For starters, Linda and Richard each have personal Sunday Sessions, where they each retreat to their bedroom alone for an hour of planning time for the week. They also do a monthly Five Facet Review together where they discuss how each of their children are doing. They also do another meeting on the first Sunday of every month where they give "reports" on their responsibilities (Richard is the General Partner for things outside the home, Linda is the General Partner for things inside the home). She also gives her kids one-on-one time with Mommy Dates. And they have a monthly family meeting where the older children are invited, and they share schedules, make plans, check up on goals, etc. Plus, she describes several other meetings that happen less regularly.

So, yes, that's a lot of meetings. And that's exactly what kept going through my head as I was reading: That's a lot of meetings. But, I have to admit, I am implementing several of them (the monthly Five Facet Review, the personal Sunday Session, and the Mommy Dates). I'm especially excited about the Five Facet Review because it sounds like a fun date to me (go out to eat and talk about our kids), and I think it will help us stay on top of problems and concerns.

Another section that I really liked was the one about continually expanding your horizons. When I first became a mother, I felt like my horizons were shrinking, and I was getting dumber by the day. But since then, I have found ways to continue to push myself and learn new things, even as I am a full-time, stay-at-home mom, and I love it. One of the things she mentioned was that after we learn something new, we then have the opportunity to teach it to our children. (And as my kids have gotten older, I've found that this is actually one of my very favorite parts of mothering.) She gave some suggestions for how moms could teach their kids in various areas (art, music, dance, literature, etc.).

Her section on music particularly intrigued me because she gave several suggestions of classical works that interest children, and it was kind of a wake-up call for me: I need to expose my children to good, uplifting, cultivated music, not just catchy kids' tunes (though those have their place, too). One of the pieces on her list was Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," which I actually mentioned in my post yesterday. I checked out a recording of it from the library, and Aaron and Maxwell have fallen in love with it. It gave me confidence to try out some other classical works on them as well.

I loved the title of the book, which is based on a scripture in Psalms that reads, "He maketh a barren woman to keep house, and to be a joyful mother of children. Praise ye the Lord."  I loved the emphasis on finding joy now--not after my children are well-behaved and my house is clean, but right now.

At one point when she was talking about enjoying the little (or, as the case may be, big) things, she said, "...anyone can experience those unexpected twinkles of joy that make a magical moment. At these moments, you feel true, deep joy because of a great new insight, a beautiful prospect, or a glimpse into the radiance of another soul. They are the magic moments when life seems better than you ever realized..."

Soon after reading that passage (maybe later that very same day), I had one of those moments. And because I had just read about the importance of recognizing those moments, I noticed it, and it lodged itself (I hope permanently) in my memory. It was on one of our first truly warm days of spring, and the boys were reacquainting themselves with all the things they could do outside. They had their shovels and were digging in the dirt. I was in the kitchen when all of a sudden I heard a piercing shriek. I raced outside, sure that someone had gotten hurt. But it was just Aaron racing across the lawn shouting, "I found a worm!" and Maxwell and Bradley huddling around him in an excited circle. As I looked out at them, it really did seem like a perfect, magical moment.

The more I look for them, the more I am aware that my life is literally packed with those little magical moments. Sometimes it's really hard for me to maintain that perspective when Bradley has thrown his cereal and milk across the kitchen again (which, sorry, but no matter how I look at it, I don't think that one will ever be magical--for me at least), but I really am so, so grateful that I get to spend all my days with them. Dealing with the cereal-throwing is more than a fair trade if I get to be a bystander on the worm exultations, too.

Celebrating Screen-Free Week with Normal, Everyday Activities

Apr 29, 2013

You might remember this post from several months ago. In it, I talked about how a punishment of "no TV for a week" turned into a real blessing as my kids started playing much more creatively and cheerfully.

Well, since that time, the TV has insidiously crept back into our lives. And once again, I am seeing its effect on my kids: they whine, they complain, they pester, they cry. When I tell them it's time to turn off their show, they act like I've delivered the worst news of their lives.

We were definitely in need of a break again, so Screen-Free Week came at just the right time.

Luckily, my kids only watch about an hour's worth each morning, so it is fairly easy to cut out. The times I really "need" it are when I am teaching piano lessons and trying to keep them downstairs. However, it's amazing how once it's not even an option, they find a multitude of ways to entertain themselves.

Since this is a "special" week, we are filling it with "special" activities (read: all the weekly activities we normally do with a couple new ones thrown in).
  • Books (of course!) - We have a huge pile of picture books to read and enjoy. I'm also reading Winnie-the-Pooh out loud. And I just checked out the audio of Charlotte's Web. (I read this aloud several months ago, but Aaron really wanted to hear it again, so I thought we'd give this a try.) Aaron has also been reading Mercy Watson to me. And I'm sure we'll have plenty of moments where we're all sitting down just enjoying reading (or looking at) our own books.
  • Music - particularly Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, which Aaron and Max have been a little obsessed with lately.
  • The zoo - We have been dying to check out our zoo's new Lego exhibit, and I think this week's the week. Anyone want to join us?
  • Ice Art - I found this idea at Train Up a Child. My boys will love it!
  • Bug Hunting - Nothing special about this one...just good ol' fashioned diggin' in the dirt. This is what they spend most of their spare time doing anyway. (Good thing it's the TV going away and not bug hunting or I might have an uprising on my hands.)
  • Bike riding - Have you noticed the way nice weather makes it so much easier to turn off the TV. Love it!
  • Shadow Play - I found this idea at Reading Confetti. I don't know that we'll necessarily use The Gruffalo's Child to make the shadow puppets...we'll put our own spin on it!
  • Library storytime - We rarely miss a week at library storytime. We have found some of our favorite books and learned some of our favorite songs and finger plays this way.
  • Playing at the park - As long as there is nice weather, we are going to be outside enjoying it!
So you can see, nothing overly complicated but definitely lots of fun to look forward to. What will you be doing this week?

 No better way to cure boredom than a heaping stack of books from the library!

A note: Obviously, since I am writing this post, I am not banning myself from the computer this week. However, I am cutting it out completely in the morning, and I also won't be watching any TV (which, I have to admit, is not a sacrifice at all for me since I haven't been watching anything lately).

Eight is Great

Apr 28, 2013

Eight years
Seven favorite things to do for date night*
Six favorite ways to eat Mike's bread**
Five homes
Four cars***
Three children****
Two arguments (haha, I wish!!!)
One happy life

I can't think of any other way I would have rather spent eight years!



*1. plays at Hale Center Theater 2. Chopped episodes 3. temple sessions 4. BYU events 5. new restaurants 6. games nights 7. long walks

**1. baguettes 2. rolls 3. bread sticks 4. garlic cheese bread 5. cinnamon rolls 6. whole wheat bread

***1. Wally (Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra) (2005 - 2008) 2. Millie (Buick LeSabre) (2008 - 2013) 3. The MPV (Mazda MPV) (2011 -  2012) 4. Fern (Honda Odyssey) (2013 - )

****1. Aaron 2. Maxwell 3. Bradley

Aaron's Preschool: The Story of Ferdinand

Apr 25, 2013

Note: This school year, I have participated with four other moms in a little preschool co-op for our 3- and 4-year-old kids. We have loosely based our curriculum on Five in a Row. For some of my other preschool posts, click here.

When it was my turn to teach Aaron's preschool last month, I decided to focus my lesson around The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. This old classic is one that I'd (sadly) never read before I had kids, but it has since become one of my very favorites. But it's not just a great story--there are more things to learn from it than you might think at first glance.

Ferdinand is a young bull. While all the other bulls like to "run, jump, and butt their heads together," Ferdinand is content to sit under a cork tree and smell the flowers. Time passes, and Ferdinand grows into a big, strong bull, but still his favorite pastime is sitting under the cork tree and smelling the flowers. One day, five men come to select the biggest, strongest, fastest bull for the bull fight in Madrid. By an unfortunate accident and subsequent misunderstanding, the five men choose Ferdinand. Of course, Ferdinand has absolutely no interest in the banderilleros, picadores, or the matador. The crowd in Madrid is disappointed, but Ferdinand is just happy to eventually be returned home where his cork tree and flowers are still waiting for him.

I have to say that one of the things I absolutely love about this story is Ferdinand's mother. As any good mother would, she worries about her son. She thinks he must be lonely sitting under that tree day after day all by himself. She asks him why he won't go play with the other bulls, but Ferdinand insists he likes the solitude. And then come my favorite lines: "His mother saw that he was not lonesome. And because she was an understanding mother (even though she was a cow), she let him just sit there and be happy." I feel like one of the hardest jobs as a mom is finding the right balance between what you want for your child and what he wants for himself. Ferdinand's mother could tell that he was happy, and who was she to decide that butting your head into the head of another bull was a more worthwhile pursuit than enjoying the beauties of nature? So she let him be. Sorry for the tangent, but there's a great lesson right there.

And now, here are some of the activities we did to go along with this book:

First, is it possible to read a book about a bull who loves flowers and not make...flowers? No, I really do not think such a thing would be possible. So after reading the story, we sat down at the kitchen table and made some flowers out of coffee filters. (I found the idea here.)

The kids colored on the filters with markers. We found that lots of squiggles and loops and circles work best, and also try to avoid complementary colors (orange and blue, etc.). Best to stick with purples and blues or reds and oranges, unless of course, you prefer a sickly shade of brown.

Then lightly spray the filter with water. You want the colors to get wet enough that they spread into each other but not so wet that they run off the paper. Don't worry though, we definitely had some overzealous squirters, and the flowers still turned out great.

Then fold the coffee filter in half and continue folding and crinkling it up. The more crinkly, the better. I set ours outside to dry (middle picture above). Once they're dry, unfold them, stack two (or more) together and poke a pipe cleaner through the middle. I folded the end of the pipe cleaner over a few times to create a knot for the center of the flower. Then I looped the other end over to make a leaf shape.

While the flowers were outside drying, we switched to a different subject. In the story, there is a picture of Ferdinand as a full grown bull standing next to a tree stump with his height marked off on it. I wanted the kids to have a chance to measure some things for themselves. I made a little list of items (pencil, foot, book, toothpick, person) and gave them each a tape measure or ruler to measure the item with. (Unfortunately, I didn't get any good pictures of the measuring actually happening.)

Then they wrote down the length of each item. (I need to remember that my writing activities don't go over too well with four-year-olds. They would have been much more content just to use the measuring tools and leave the pencils behind.) (I found the idea for this activity here.)

Of course, you could vary this activity in millions of ways by changing what you measure and the unit of measurement you use. (For the sake of simplicity, we stuck with inches, but stay tuned next month because I have a fun activity--still in my head--for the next virtual book club that will involve measuring!)

Ferdinand loves to smell the flowers, so for our next activity, we headed back into the kitchen for some experimentation with smell. (I found the idea for this activity here.)

I filled seven plastic cups with various scents (lemon, cinnamon, orange, Cheerios, garlic, banana, and dishsoap). Then I rubberbanded some wax paper over the top of each one and poked some holes in it so the scent could escape.

I wrote all of the correct answers on a whiteboard, which I then covered up (not that any of the kids can read that well...). I left space on the left side where I could write their guesses.

Before we began, I showed them an illustration in the Usborne First Encyclopedia of the Human Body, and we talked about the tiny receptacles in your nose that send a message to the brain and lets you recognize hundreds of different scents.

Then each child got a turn to be the first guesser with one of the cups. If he/she was stumped, someone else got to take a guess. And then, of course, everyone got to have a turn smelling each cup. I was surprised with how quickly they identified most smells. The only one they didn't get right was the garlic, but they guessed an onion which I thought was really close. (When I let one of the little girls smell the banana, a sigh of extreme pleasure escaped her as she whispered, "Banana..." It cracked me up.)

This was for sure the favorite activity of the morning. Even after the rest of the kids left, Aaron and Max had to smell all of the cups again and again. And then, they were so excited to take off the wax paper and actually see the items inside.

Since the story takes place in Spain, it would have been remiss not to touch on Spanish culture in some way. We found the country on the globe, and I sent each child home with a picture of Spain's flag to color.

I asked my brother-in-law who served a mission in Spain for some ideas of kid-friendly snacks from the country. He suggested patatas bravas, which are like potato wedges with a dipping sauce. Although most recipes are spicy and with a tomato-based sauce, I just went with lightly salted potatoes and a mayonnaise-based dip. (But for all my efforts to find something "kid-friendly," those kids still turned up their noses at this snack. C'mon, kids! It's french fries and fry sauce, for crying out loud.)

Earlier in the morning, I had them help me shake up the potatoes with oil and salt and mix up the ingredients for the dip. (Unfortunately, to save myself time, I'd cut up the potatoes the night before which left them looking a little bit discolored. That may also have effected the kids' appetites.)

I happened to think they were delicious, and since no one liked them, there was plenty left over for me!

For our last activity, we talked a little bit about the properties of cork (since Ferdinand loves sitting under a cork tree). I asked them if they thought a cork would float or sink, and then we tested it in a bowl of water. I talked about how cork is made up of lots of little air pockets which make it lighter than water. (Idea found here.)

Then I gave them corks and toothpicks, and they made their own little floating devices, which we then floated in the bathtub.

Like I've mentioned before, each book in the Five in a Row curriculum is meant to be studied for a full five days, and there was so much more learning that I could have done with this book if I'd had that much time. Each time I dissect a book like this, I am truly amazed at the wealth of ideas contained in just a simple picture book. It's awesome.

I shared this post with the Kid's Co-op, The Children's Bookshelf, and Link & Learn.

Reading With the Seasons: Mother's Day Edition

Apr 20, 2013

Was anyone looking for Reading With the Seasons last month as Spring made its grand entrance into 2013? No? Well, no matter. I'll console myself with the knowledge that there was one person wondering where it was--my brother, Gordy. He's the one whose photographs I featured in the New Year's and Valentine's editions, and I asked him if he would also like to contribute to my spring post. He sent me a couple pictures and then noticed several weeks later that I still had not put up anything.

That's because, and it's rather sad to admit, but aside from The Secret Garden, I could not think of a single book that said "spring" to me. I couldn't think of any books set in the springtime, nor could I think of any that felt particularly spring-ish (you know, the hope that comes with the promise of new life, etc.). This was actually a little depressing for me because spring is my very favorite season, and yet, I guess I don't have any go-to spring literature? This must be remedied before next spring! If you have any ideas, please comment or email me! (If you don't have any ideas, feel free to comment anyway.)

However, when it comes to Mother's Day, I happen to be bursting with good books to share, so I'm going to move on past spring and share what I'll be reading (or have already read) to help me feel more appreciation for the women in my life and remember how blessed I feel to be a mother. 

I read this book right after I had Bradley. I don't know how I would feel about it now, but I loved it then. It was exactly what I needed as I navigated the tricky transition from two children to three. It helped me view those frantic and chaotic days through a humorous, realistic, joyful, and even spiritual lens.

I actually just finished this book last week. Look for a full review of it soon. Linda Eyre is the mother of nine children, so she is able to offer down-to-earth, in-the-trenches, very practical advice. It gave me a little pick-me-up as well as some ideas I'm excited about implementing.

This book has been on my to-read list for a long time, but my interest in it was recently rekindled when Melanie mentioned it as a book everyone (man, woman, and wildebeest, as she put it) should read. 

Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry by Katrina Kenison
This one comes highly recommended from my friend, Sarah. It is all about how to simplify and balance all of the daily demands in order to truly get the most out of life. I could definitely use some help in that area.

I know absolutely nothing about this book, but the title was enough to pull me in and want to give it a try.

Maybe some of you already saw this as an advertisement on the sidebar of Goodreads. That's where I saw it, and it looked interesting enough that I added it to my to-read shelf (don't worry, it's only #277) and am also telling you about it. It's the memoir of a mother of a child with Down's syndrome.

I just have to pause here to ask if anyone else noticed the abundance of subtitles in this list of books? I guess it must be impossible to write a book about mothers and not add a qualifier or description. Typical.  Oh, wait, here's one:

My friend, Holli, has been trying to get our book club to read this for months. I'm going to push for it in May because it seems like the perfect Mother's Day read: It is short and is written in the form of a letter from the author to her children.

I honestly have so many other books I could add to this list, but these are the ones that I have the most interest in at this moment in time. You might notice though the lack of fictional books on this list. That isn't because I don't think there are some great mothers in fiction (Marmee from Little Women immediately comes to mind), but I was having a hard time thinking of very many. So I hope you'll share your own favorite mother books (fiction and/or nonfiction) in the comments!

P.S. Given my introduction, it probably goes without saying, but photo credit goes to my brother, Gordy.

Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men by Leonard Sax

Apr 20, 2013

When I first met Mike (9+ years ago in the JSB), he had three nephews: James, Steven, and Sam. They were adorable. I remember James' clear, intelligent way of speaking, Steven's never-ending number of facts, and Sam's sweet, easy-to-love face. At the time, it never struck me as unusual that Mike had only nephews. Probably because it wasn't unusual. Many families have three nephews and no nieces.

But now, almost a decade later, that number has grown substantially. Now there are nineteen boys countered by only two girls. That's a little more unusual.

Three of those boys are mine, of course. So I think it's only natural that I would be interested in a book about some of the problems facing boys today--not only because I have three of my own but also because, from the looks of things, unless the stars change their alignment, boys are all I'll have in the future, too. (And that's fine with me--spending all my time around boys has made me become fiercely attached to them...)

And I'll tell you what, you can't spend the majority of your day around boys and not realize that some frightening trends have taken shape over the last thirty years.

I read this book for several reasons: I'm worried about my own sons growing up in a world of poor role models and dangerous hobbies and wanted some ideas for how to combat these growing problems; I wanted to better understand and help the boys I work with on a weekly basis (through church, piano lessons, and preschool); and last, my sister-in-law insisted it was a book I needed to read, and I have never regretted any of her recommendations.

I'm sure all of you know at least one boy who fits at least some of these characteristics: hates school, unmotivated, not interested in the world around him, refuses to work, receives no pride or pleasure in a job well done, lives in a virtual fantasy world, and/or has no goals or aspirations for life. Dr. Sax describes several such boys in the opening chapter of Boys Adrift.

He then introduces and expounds on the five factors he believes are driving this "growing epidemic": Changes at school, video games, medications for ADHD, endocrine disruptors, and lack of positive role models.

First, changes at school. By this, he means the way schools have evolved over the last 30+ years to be more accessible to girls than boys: kindergartners are now being taught the same curriculum as first graders from several decades ago, the structure has become much more rigid and stationary and less hands-on and interactive, and most of the competitive elements are gone. I found it so interesting that he never once mentioned homeschooling in this section, which I personally think would solve most of the education problems he mentioned. Instead, he advocated all-boy private schools, which, I have no doubt, probably do exhibit some major advantages but which also, let's face it, are probably not a viable option for most of us. This section definitely made me rethink a lot of things, including the way I teach piano to several of my boy students.

Second, video games. I'm about as opposed to video games as you can get, and this section only added fuel to my fire. He said that video games cause boys to disengage from the real world--neglecting experiential play in favor of virtual success and power. Video games are addictive and a time-waster. Plus, scientists have found that playing video games turns off blood flow to the DLPFC (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), which subsequently interferes with the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain in charge of drive and motivation. So it seems video games actually do make boys more lazy. I'm glad that, at this point, our family has been able to avoid video and computer games. Mike used to have a few games on his iPod, too, but he has since deleted all of them. We do have a TV (which I have a love/hate relationship with), so I'm glad video games are one daily battle I don't have to face.

Third, ADHD medications. This chapter was fascinating and, at the same time, terrifying. It literally made me feel sick. I really do believe that, like Dr. Sax suggested, ADHD is mis-diagnosed and over-medicated. He mentioned that currently the common course of action with a boy who exhibits some indicators of ADHD is to try a low dose of medication and see if it helps. If it does help, then he must have ADHD. But the problem is, and Dr. Sax cited a study to prove it, when people without ADHD are given an ADHD medication, they exhibit the same kind of improvements as people who are diagnosed with ADHD. So there are many boys who get put on medication in kindergarten because they can't sit still, but what would have really helped them is just holding them back a year and then enrolling them in a school with lots of hands-on activities. Once they're on medication, it interferes with the nucleus accumbens (like video games) and makes it very difficult to later take them off the medication because of the changes that have happened in the brain. Dr. Sax is not saying that ADHD is not a real diagnosis, but he does present a very convincing argument that far more boys are diagnosed with it than actually have it.

Fourth, endocrine disruptors. This is another scary one, and one that I feel like I have less control over. Sure, I can put a ban on video games and avoid ADHD medication, but how do I live in this world of plastics and chemicals and pollution and keep them safe from endocrine disruptors? Endocrine disruptors are the chemicals in plastic water bottles like bisphenol A or phthalates that "accelerate puberty in girls" and "delay or disrupt the process of puberty in boys." There is also growing evidence that they may be a cause of ADHD.

Fifth, lack of positive role models. Dr. Sax says that all enduring cultures have one thing in common: men teach boys how to be men. Our culture is straying away from this. Boys are learning how to be men from television or video games but not from their own fathers or other mentors. I think this is one of the reasons I have banned most superheroes from our house: they are not providing the kind of positive role models I want for my boys.

After expounding on the first four factors, Dr. Sax described a phenomenon he called "Failure to Launch," which basically refers to men who can't make it on their own; they live with their parents, they work a few hours a week, they have no interest in relationships. Dr. Sax shared a letter from a successful man who said he was "only a marital separation away" from living such a life. He said he would need very little to be satisfied in life but that he worked hard in order to provide a nice life for his family. He said, "Take my dear ones away and I need none of it." After I read this letter, I asked Mike if he thought it described him--not that he would be a bum on the streets if he didn't have a family but just if it's his family that provides him with the drive he needs to succeed. He said that the few times the boys and I have visited my parents without him (usually because he has a lot of work to do), he lives a very simple life: he eats cereal and frozen pizza and spends the majority of his time away from home (whereas when we are here, he can hardly wait to come home so he can play with the boys). I just think it's so interesting that so many men today are choosing not to get married or have a family, and that it could be those very things that would help them have the motivation to be successful.

Incidentally, after I started this book, I told Mike he really needed to read it, too. So he also listened to the whole thing, and it was so nice to have someone to discuss it with, especially the someone who is also responsible for raising our three sons.

I am convinced that this is a book every person should read: single, married, parents, everyone. I know that sounds really over-arching, but I can't think of a single person who wouldn't benefit from reading this: maybe you're a teacher with a classroom full of boys taking Ritalin, or maybe you're dating a guy who can't decide on a career, or maybe you are that guy who wants to live in his parents' basement forever, or maybe you help with Cub Scouts at church, or maybe you have a little neighbor boy who drives you crazy...we all interact with boys/men on some level, and I really believe that reading this book would help all of us identify problems and figure out solutions that would help curb this epidemic of "unmotivated boys and underachieving young men."

P.S. This is also another candidate for my re-read of the year. Now if I can only convince one of my book clubs to read it...

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

Apr 17, 2013

When I decided to buckle down and finish reading the last four books in The Chronicles of Narnia this year, The Horse and His Boy was the one I was most dreading. I'm not exactly sure why--just little things people had said: It's very different from the others...the main character is a Narnian...it's a little slow--that sort of thing.

The funny thing is, all of those statements were true, but they didn't make me dislike the book; they made me love it! It just goes to show that I cannot always trust my first impressions and/or perceptions. They're sometimes so wrong. Everything deserves a fair chance. (Does "everything" include Twilight? Okay, that might be carrying it a bit too far!)

The Horse and His Boy is about Bree (the horse) and Shasta (the boy). When the story begins, both are longing to escape the land of Calormene--Bree because he is a Narnian-talking horse who was captured and enslaved many years before and he is ready to return home and Shasta because he is about to be sold to a cruel man. They realize that together they might have a chance of breaking free. A short ways into their journey they meet Aravis, a Calormene aristocrat, and her horse, Hwin. As they travel, they discover that there is much, much more at stake than just their own freedom.

Like I said above, people had warned me that this book felt very different from the others in the series. (Yes, it really did come across as a warning, whether intentional or not, which is why I think I have this book linked with a dark feeling of foreboding.) But, case in point, different isn't usually bad.

In talking about it, my friends and family got so caught up with warnings, they failed to make any mention of the fact that Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter play a part in this story, albeit a backseat role. This would have been a huge selling point for me (so make note of it, any of you out there who are afraid of this "different" Narnian story). In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we don't really hear about any of the siblings' adventures from the time they became kings and queens of Narnia to the time they returned home. We only know they spent a number of years ruling the land. All this time, I thought that really was the extent of the details during that period of Narnia.

So it was a great, wonderful surprise when I began this story and found out that it took place smack dab in the middle of their reign. There were actual conversations between Lucy, Edmund, and Susan (Peter is only ever referred to--too busy with affairs at Cair Paravel, I guess). I found this utterly delightful. Seeing them through the eyes of Shasta cast them in a new light. I found that when I wasn't tied up in their emotions and objectives and angles, it helped me understand them in a new way.

Finding the Pevensies in the middle of this book really did feel like some amazing discovery to me--almost like this book hadn't been a part of the series for, oh, sixty years, but that it was only recently found at the bottom of some trunk in some unknown attic. Ridiculous, I know, but I'm kind of glad I didn't realize it before I started it. It made the story even more fun.

I felt like the religious symbolism was a little less prominent in this installment. I think this may have been due, in part, to the fact that Aslan is totally unknown to Shasta and Aravis. They have been brought up in a different world, one that does not believe in Aslan. So even though he is still there and orchestrates much of their journey, they are unaware of it until the end. So overall, maybe this one is actually the most symbolic of all--showing the conversion process from total ignorance to feeling the undeniable love of God. I think Shasta's response and "faith" is very similar to those who investigate Christianity: he didn't understand a lot of things, was even a little bit fearful, but he felt that settling in his mind and heart that told him Aslan was good and true.

There were a couple of other symbolic moments that I also really liked:

The first was when Shasta, after saving Aravis from the lion and getting everyone to safety, is told that he must run to Archenland to relay the news of Prince Rabadash's impending attack. Shasta is exhausted and wants to rest and eat with the others. These two lines were especially poignant to me: "And he writhed inside at what seemed the cruelty and unfairness of the demand. He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed, your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one." Isn't that true? The harder we work, the more notable and helpful our efforts, the more others come to rely on us. And when I think about it, this description fits in perfectly with the way I view God's plan for me: as I honor the responsibilities I've been given, He blesses me with more, thereby helping me grow, little by little, more like Him.

At the end of the book, there were another few lines that really resonated with me: "There was a short silence, and then they all stirred and looked at one another as if they were waking from sleep. Aslan was gone, but there was a brightness in the air and on the grass and a joy in their hearts, which assured them that he had been no dream." I think I like this so much because this is what my own testimony feels like: bright and joyful, something that is not necessarily tangible but still undeniably present.

I meant to mention this when I reviewed The Silver Chair, but Alex Jennings, the narrator for the audio versions of both this book and The Silver Chair, is incredible. One thing that particularly impressed me, especially in The Silver Chair, was the way his voice became whatever character was speaking. I especially think it's difficult for male narrators to convincingly narrate female characters--either they try to make their voice sound too feminine so that it just draws glaring attention to itself or they still sound awkwardly masculine. But with Alex Jennings, you just forget. It's not that he necessarily sounds like a girl; but the female voices just fit in and blend so perfectly with everything else that you forget you're even listening.

And just as a funny side note but related to audio books: is anyone else surprised by some of the spellings of names or places when you finally see them in print after listening to them for many hours? When I write these reviews, I usually try to look up the spellings of any names I'm using because often they're completely different than I pictured them in my head. For example, I never would have spelled Hwin (Aravis's horse) H-W-I-N. It took a moment for it to even register that Hwin and Winn (the way I saw it in my head) were the same horse.

This story was a wonderful, delightful surprise. I liked it so much more than I was expecting and am now looking forward to the last two books in the series.

Virtual Book Club: Jangles--A Big Fish Story (by David Shannon)

Apr 15, 2013

I'm excited to participate in the Virtual Book Club again this month! I'm in love with this idea of focusing on an author, reading lots of his/her books, and creating an activity to go along with one of those books. I hope you're checking out some of the other ideas that various bloggers share. I'm continually amazed at the creativity of some people and wish I had more time in my day/week to be able to try out all of the wonderful activities with my kids.

David Shannon is the author for April. While I can't say that I fall into the No, David! fan club (I think my boys already come up with enough bad ideas on their own...), there are many of his books that I sincerely enjoy.

This month, we checked out several that we'd never read before. I happened to love A Bad Case of Stripes, but there was no question that the all-out favorite for Aaron and Max was Jangles: A Big Fish Story. I can't tell you how many times they've requested this book. Luckily, we had some family visiting last weekend so we were able to coerce some new readers for this book.

Jangles is a big fish--"the biggest fish anyone had ever seen." He got his name from all the lures and fishhooks embedded into his jaw from the times someone had almost caught him before he broke the line and got away. Because Jangles always got away. Until one day when he chomped a boy's fishing line. (Incidentally, "the boy" is the father of the narrator, who is telling one of his father's childhood stories.) Jangles pulls on the line and takes the boy to his home underwater where he tells him stories from the beginning of time. When the boy finally decides to go home, he just can't let Jangles, the uncatchable fish, go free. No one would believe that he'd actually caught the huge fish. He battles with his conscience, finally deciding to let Jangles go, and Jangles gives him a wonderful parting gift.

As the title suggests, this is a "big fish" story. It contains a glimmer of truth, but mostly, it gives the impression of being retold and stretched, retold and stretched many, many times. Many unbelievable things happen to the boy (not the least of which is the idea that he can still breathe underwater), but the whole time you're wondering, Did he really catch Jangles, or was that just made up, too? Aaron and Max couldn't decide on the answer, and I think it was that blurriness between truth and fiction that made this story especially appealing to them.

After reading the book (several times), I thought the boys might like to make their own Jangles and come up with their own big fish story.

First, we gathered our supplies:
  • felt, various colors, for making fish, fins, spots, etc.
  • googly eyes
  • paper clips
  • beads
  • buttons
  • pom poms
  • scrunched up aluminum foil
  • anything else that seems especially jangle-y
  • hot glue gun (for moms only!)
I looked at a picture of Jangles in the book, and then free-handed my own fish pattern, which I then cut out of felt. (Aaron wanted his fish to be green, no surprise there.)

Then I used the hot glue gun to attach a googly eye and some fins.

The Jangles from the book has spots. At first, I thought we could simplify and leave off the spots, but then Aaron said, "And I want his spots to be black" as if there was not even a question about whether or not he would have spots, so I cut  out a bunch of black spots, as requested.

They laid out the spots how they wanted them, and then I glued them on.

Then we added the "jangles"! We unbent a paper clip, and the boys added beads, buttons, etc., to turn it into a tempting lure.

Then I helped them poke one end of it through the bottom edge of the fish and gave it a twist so it wouldn't come out.

They added a few more hooks, and ta-dah! Jangles! Or "Mike," as Aaron decided to call his:

And "Naxty," as Max named his:

But what is a fish without a story? A few days later, I sat down with Aaron and had him tell me all about Mike. Even though he makes up dozens of stories when he is playing, this "telling-a-story-and-writing-it-down" was a new concept for him. He needed a few promptings/suggestions from me to help get him going, but he quickly caught on. He especially liked drawing the pictures to go along with the story.

Since it was a little bit challenging for Aaron, I decided not to try it with Max. But that boy had a story, and it was just bursting to come out. When he saw what Aaron was up to, he was more than ready to start dictating, and dictate he did. This is word for word, stream of consciousness Max:

The Great Story of Naxty
Naxty destroys people's cups and spiders. 
Naxty has a bad skin. If you touch it, it could kill you.
Naxty has a bad dot on him. So if you touch his dot, it could break off your hand.
If Naxty eats bad food, he will not die. He really eats bad bats.

This probably seems totally random and even a little bit ominous and violent, but it's not quite as weird as it looks. I'm pretty sure Naxty's "bad skin" was inspired by the poison dart frog, which we read about just the other day and which really does have poisonous (i.e. "bad") skin. 

We were also recently reading about a snapping turtle, which, you may recall, has the strength to bite off a person's finger. I think this is why Naxty can "break off your hand." As to Naxty's other attributes, I'm just as clueless as you are.

Even though we didn't do anything fancy for these books (just white copy paper stapled together), Aaron and Max are so proud that they made up the words and drew the pictures. They feel like real authors/illustrators, especially when they can add their book to the stack of books at bedtime, and I read them right alongside Eric Carle or Jan Thomas or even David Shannon!

Four Facts for Friday (6)

Apr 12, 2013

A random fact about this Friday night: I have spent the evening reading Free Range Learning, eating a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream, and working on a blog post (not this one). It has been an almost silent evening, interrupted only by two phone calls from Mike (who is, as usual, spending the evening at school with his dissertation) and watching the welcome back song for the second season of Studio C.

A random fact about boys and bikes and hills: If you put those three factors together, they may or may not lead to injuries requiring stitches. They did for Aaron. Thankfully, his chin took the full brunt of the crash, and although it required two internal stitches and six external stitches to piece it back together, the rest of his body received nary a scratch.

A random fact about onions: I'm turning over a new leaf! I used to abhor onions in any form, but lately, I've started loving them, especially if they're slowly caramelized. (However, I still can't say that I enjoy them raw.)

A random fact about kindergarten: I've decided that preparing for your first child to go to kindergarten is about like preparing to have your first baby--you can prepare and plan all you want to, but there are some things that are simply impossible to know until you experience them for yourself.

KidPages: Three MORE Favorite Bug Books

Apr 10, 2013

You didn't ask for it, but you're getting it anyway. Here are three more favorite books about bugs:

1. Ten Little Caterpillars, Bill Martin Jr., illus. Lois Ehlert
You would think that with such a team as Bill Martin Jr. and Lois Ehlert, I would have heard about this book sooner, but I read it for the first time only a couple weeks ago. And it promptly received stamps of approval from all of us.

It's a simple book, as you might expect from Martin and Ehlert. It follows the activities of ten different caterpillars--from the melon bed to a little child's glass jar to the apple tree.

The text is short enough that Bradley (18-months-old) can easily sit and listen to it, but the illustrations encourage so much learning and exploring for Maxwell (3 years old) and Aaron (4.5 years old). For example, "the second little caterpillar wriggled up a flower." This page features four different kinds of flowers: delphinium, gaillardia, foxglove, and snapdragon (I didn't know their names, but the book told me). There is a caterpillar crawling up the snapdragon, and if you flip to the back of the book, you learn that that is a buckeye caterpillar, and he likes to eat snapdragon leaves (hmmm...probably that's why he was climbing up that plant!). There's also a picture of what he will look like when he turns into a butterfly.

There are little details like that for all the caterpillars, and Aaron loves studying what they look like as caterpillars and what they look like when they turn into butterflies or moths. This is exactly the kind of information I wished had been included in the Creepy Creatures series I talked about yesterday. If you're looking for a book that's very adaptable for younger or older children, this is the one.

2. Ant, Ant, Ant! (An Insect Chant), April Pulley Sayre, illus. Trip Park
Get your Cub Scout voice on because this book will make you want to clap and stomp and shout and...you know...act like a Cub Scout (trust me, I speak from experience).

Let me give you a little taste of the intoxicating rhythm of this book: "May Beetle, June Beetle, Corn Beetle, Click. Woolly Bear, Water Strider, Walking Stick." It's actually really creative considering that very few words are added besides the actual names of the bugs. Who knew you could get White-lined Sphinx and Painted Lady Butterfly to fit into a toe-tapping, foot-stomping chant? But it works.

Even this one is fairly educational. Besides giving the names of the insects within the chant, at the back of the book there's a glossary with more information and facts about each bug.

The illustrations are not very life-like. They're very cartoonish in appearance, so they may or may not help you identify the real thing. However, they are fun (and also funny).

3. Step Gently Out, Helen Frost, photographs by Rick Lieder
I only have one word for this book: GORGEOUS.

But in case one word isn't sufficient, how about captivating, enchanting, beautiful, breathtaking, vibrant, or awe-inspiring? Because any of those will work, too.

Um, no, we didn't just enter the twilight zone, and yes, we are still talking about bugs.

Out of all six books I've mentioned, this one is probably the most artistic and expressive in nature. The text is limited to a beautiful poem, which includes in part: Step gently out, be still, and watch a single blade of grass. And along with those beautiful words are stunning images. Really, truly stunning. If I had known bugs could look like that, I would not have been so quick to judge and label them as "nasty" and "gross."

I love this book because it strips away all the facts and details and definitions and just lets each insect stand out as an incredible creation of God. As much as I love learning (and once again, I am grateful this book has a little glossary in the back), sometimes it's nice just to be able to gaze in wonder and awe at the little beauties that are all around us...if we only look at them in the right way.

There is one photograph I especially love of a tree branch and spider web encrusted with tiny beads of morning dew; they look like diamonds. I have actually stared at that picture for several minutes. Sometimes I can't believe what a beautiful world we live in.

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

KidPages: Three Favorite Bug Books

Apr 9, 2013

I'm sure I don't need to mention how much I'm loving the flowers pushing through the ground, the new leaves peppering the trees, and the flip-flop appropriate temperatures--all signs that spring as at last and finally arrived.

Aaron, Maxwell, and Bradley are also loving this weather but for a slightly different reason: Bugs. These boys spend practically every waking moment outside in the dirt--digging, collecting, studying. I'm really amazed by their persistence and patience. Max has been diligently trying to share his bug love with other people...the little neighbor girls, my sister, my sister-in-law...all have been supplicated with, "Do you want to hold my bug. He's reeeeeally nice."

When they're not finding bugs, they're engaged in serious research, and I almost haven't been able to bring books home from the library fast enough to quench their insatiable curiosity. Here are three that I would eventually love to add to our collection:

1. The Beetle Alphabet Book, Jerry Pallotta, illus. David Biedrzycki
When I first checked out this book from the library, I knew the boys would love it, but I didn't think I would. I was so wrong. I'm generally not a fan of themed alphabet books or bug anthologies, but I guess something magical must happen when you put the two together because this is an awesome book.

Each page features a different beetle beginning with a different letter of the alphabet; there's the African Goliath Beetle, the Bombardier Beetle, and the Cucumber Beetle for starters. I had no idea there was such a wide variety of beetles. (And apparently, there are WAY more than the 26 mentioned in this book.)

Each page also highlights a really cool fact about the featured beetle. And when I say "really cool," I really do mean "really cool." For instance, did you know that the African Goliath Beetle is so huge, children in Africa tie a string around their "necks" and keep them as pets? Or that the Bombardier Beetle sprays a poisonous gas to protect itself? Each fact is short and fascinating with just enough detail to make it memorable but not enough to make it feel bogged down or too technical. (And lest you be worried, let me assure you that in the midst of all those fun facts are also all the standard insect facts (a beetle has six legs, etc.), so it's a very well-rounded book.)

There are two things I love about the illustrations: first, they look real enough that if I saw, say, a Harlequin Beetle on the ground, I'm pretty sure I'd be able to correctly identify it. Second, on every page there is a silhouette of the beetle shown at its actual size. So my boys can see the large detailed replica but also get a visual idea of what size bug they should be looking for (since they will be looking for it). (The only exception is the African Goliath Beetle which is so large they couldn't include both the colored drawing and the silhouette.)

Last, what would an excellent beetle book be without a few impostors thrown in? There is a bee, a spider, and a cockroach hidden between some of the letters. These pages explain why these particular bugs are definitely not beetles. This book is on my list of must-buys in the near future.

2. Creepy Creatures: Spiders, Valerie Bodden
I know I've mentioned Aaron's love of spiders more than once. The boy is obsessed. He can spot a spider in any book, no matter how tiny or inconsequential. One of his first "real" drawings was of a spider and spider web (after reading Swirl By Swirl). And in real life? He is drawn to them like a magnet. I don't think Maxwell quite shares his fascination, but he definitely enjoys knowing how to make me squeamish.

Even though I can't stand spiders, I am happy to indulge Aaron in this interest, and we have checked out numerous books featuring spiders. This is one of his favorites. The photography is truly excellent. (There is one photo of a garden spider glistening with dew that I find almost breathtaking. And several more that are so hideous they make my skin crawl.)

The real reason I'm featuring this book, however, is so I can talk about the entire Creepy Creatures series, which we have checked out and loved. Besides spiders, the series includes books about centipedes, crickets, mantises, scorpions, and worms. The one about crickets is currently waiting for us at the library, but we've read all the other ones. Aaron and Maxwell literally carry these books everywhere with them. I caught them the other day with several of them outside showing their favorite pages to the neighbor girls through the fence. (The girls, incidentally, were unimpressed.)

I really love the length of these books as well as the information shared. My one complaint is that they don't contain any sort of index or labeling of the featured bugs. So when, for example, I am totally creeped out by the picture of the giant spider next to the words, "Others are as big as a plate!", and I want to see what kind of spider that is and if there is any chance of me ever seeing one in my backyard (or worse, my basement), there isn't any identification anywhere on the page or in the back of the book. It's so frustrating not to be able to answer Aaron's or Maxwell's questions of, "What kind of spider is that?" It's such an excellent series, so it's really a shame they didn't choose to identify the various kinds of featured creatures.

3. Yucky Worms, Vivian French, illus. Jessica Ahlberg
Currently, the boys are collecting box elder bugs, but a few days ago, they were turning over every rock in our yard in the hope of uncovering a long, thin worm (the fat, juicy ones were a little too...fat and juicy for them). This book did much to satisfy their curiosity and answer their questions about worms.

A little boy and his grandma are working in the garden when Grandma digs up "a slimy, slithery, wiggly worm." The boy is disgusted and wants his grandma to throw it away. But the grandma proceeds to tell him about all of the wonderful things worms do and why they are a much-desired contributor to any garden.

I love that the framework for this book is a natural dialogue between grandmother and grandson. There is so much great information in this book (like, worms actually eat dirt to help them digest other food; and also, they like moist, damp places but they can't swim; and they help aerate the soil and also fertilize it), but it all happens in such an easy, conversational way. Aaron and Maxwell have a grandma like the one in the story, so that increased our fondness for the book.

I also loved the ideas this book gave for how to explore and learn about worms on your own. It talked about looking for worm casts and also watering some soil to see if any worms would come up; both are things Aaron and Maxwell could do and which would help them make their own observations and apply what they learned from the book in new ways.

I was originally planning on sharing six favorite bug books in this post, but I am just too long-winded, so I decided I had to break it up. So stay tuned because tomorrow I will be sharing three MORE favorite bug books. (I know the anticipation may put you over the edge, but try to be patient. Good things come to those who wait.)

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

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

Apr 4, 2013

Peace Like a River was one of those books that had been sitting on my virtual to-read shelf for months and months and probably would have gone on sitting there for months and months to come if not for my dear friend, Sarah. One of her goals for 2013 was to actually read some of those books that she's been intending to read for a long time. She assigned one such book to every month this year, and when I saw that Peace Like a River was her book for February, I knew it was time for me to read it, too. Nothing motivates me like knowing I'll have someone to discuss the book with when I'm finished.

And what's even better than one friend to share thoughts with? How about a whole roomful of friends? I thought as long as I was reading it, maybe the other women in my book club would want to read it, too. Happily, they did.

So now here I am at the beginning of April. I've read the book. I've thought about and pondered it. I've discussed and argued and talked about it. I've listened to the viewpoints and interpretations of others. And after all that, I still don't know what I actually think about it. So now I'm writing about it. We'll see where that takes me.

The story is narrated by Reuben Land who is reflecting back on his life and recounting the events that transpired during 1962, when he was 11 years old. Reuben had a traumatic birth: he was given up for dead when the doctor couldn't get him to breathe after more than 10 minutes, but his father, Jeremiah, miraculously got breath into him. Reuben has an older brother, Davey, whom he idolizes, and a younger sister, Swede, whom he also idolizes. Reuben is a pretty average kid except for his faulty lungs. (His mother left the family--shortly after Swede's birth, I think.)

Soon into the story, trouble arrives for the Land family. Two punk teenagers harass Davey's girlfriend in the girls' locker room. Jeremiah saves her, but the two boys swear the Land family hasn't seen the last of them. The incident particularly angers Davey, and he wants to see justice done. There are a couple other run-ins with the boys, and then one night, they enter the Land home, and Davey shoots and kills both of them (I promise that isn't a spoiler!).

Davey eventually breaks out of jail and Reuben, Swede, and Jeremiah set out to try to find him. The story is rich with family love, miracles, and ultimate sacrifices. It is both thought-provoking and emotionally moving.

The book is well worth reading if only to get lost in some really great writing. I was especially impressed with Reuben Land as the narrator. I don't think he ever says how old he is in the present, but I'm guessing 30s or 40s. However, for much of the book he is relaying the thought processes and activities and concerns of himself as an 11-year-old boy. Somehow Leif Enger captured both the man Reuben and the boy Reuben perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, that I kept wondering, Is Reuben Land really Leif Enger? If I met Leif Enger today, would I feel like I was meeting Reuben Land? Could Leif Enger create a totally different character and make him as believably real as he made Reuben Land? I've wondered this with other authors as well: how do you get inside another person's head (even if they are fictional) so perfectly unless that person is you?

I read a very timely blog post of Shannon Hale's just this afternoon that addressed the complexities of narration; even though she mainly touches on narration from a third-person perspective, and this is obviously written in first-person, I still found it very enlightening. But really, what I'm trying to say is that I am in awe of authors who can create characters who are so convincing as to leave me skeptical that (a) I'm reading fiction and (b) this isn't their own personality reincarnated. Bravo, Mr. Enger, and well done.

Speaking of fiction, the spiritual/religious side of the book was difficult for me to accept, not because I am not spiritual or religious, but because it was fiction. Does that make sense? Jeremiah Land is a deeply spiritual character. (At book club, one of my friends pointed out that he is a Christ figure...I wish I'd been more aware of this when I was reading it so I could have picked up on all the symbolism.) He is the recipient or perpetrator of several miracles throughout the story: saving Reuben's life as an infant, walking on air as he is praying, driving invisible through a town laden with cops on the lookout for him, to name just a few. At first, these "miracles" really bothered me because they weren't based on actual events. Somehow it's so much harder (for me at least) to accept miracles in realistic fiction because my brain tells me, The author just made that up. But midway through the story, my reservations dissolved--partly because I realized the Jeremiah Lands of the world are real (I think we all probably know one or two--someone for whom heaven seems near and miracles happen as easily and as often as setting the table) and also because I was so engrossed in the story and the characters were so believable that the miracles didn't seem so far-fetched or just a figment of the author's imagination.

There were several really great characters in this novel. I already talked about Reuben, but my personal favorite was actually Roxanna. I loved her so much: her work ethic and compassion and loyalty. I loved the way her love for Reuben's family changed them but also the way their love changed her and really made her blossom, both physically and emotionally. 

I listened to the audio of this book. It was narrated by Chad Lowe, and while I thought he had a fabulous voice for Reuben Land, I have to admit I didn't love any of this other voices. He tried to vary them, but most of them just ended up sounding squeaky. However, it didn't annoy me; I'm only mentioning it because sometimes after listening, I say, "You HAVE to LISTEN to this book! There's no other way to read it!" but with this one, I don't think it's a must-listen-to. (But it is a must-read in some format!)

I'm sorry, but I can't review this book without discussing the ending, so skip this section because there are spoilers ahead...

Okay, so, up until the ending, I really liked this book. And then, Waltzer popped up out of nowhere, shot Reuben and Jeremiah, and Davey took off to Canada. Hmmmm. Wow. Not what I was expecting.

Was I expecting the novel to end happily ever after? No. I think it was pretty obvious from the beginning that it was destined to have an ending that hurt. So it wasn't the sadness per se that bothered me. I actually thought Reuben's death experience was told in a beautiful way, and Jeremiah's ultimate sacrifice seemed so fitting and appropriate. No, what bothered me about the whole thing was Davey. I don't know what I wanted or expected. It's not like I wanted him to have to spend his life in jail, but I also thought he needed to face up to his own actions. From the beginning, I thought Reuben painted him as a loyal and kind brother but also as someone who was tough, independent, strong-willed, and manly. But then in the end, he hid in the back of the car and then slunk off to Canada. Maybe he wasn't ever going to feel any remorse for shooting Finch and Basca, but to not feel any guilt over his father's death and brother's near death? What kind of a man was he? This is the part of the book that no matter how I think about it, I can't figure it out, especially as it relates to the title. Where is the peace in ruining the lives of your family and spending your days as a fugitive? Any thoughts on this?

Okay, spoilers over.

As I was reading (or listening, rather), there were a few lines that really caught my attention because they summed up some aspect of the book for me.

The first one came after Reuben found out that the family friend, August Schultz, gave Davey his old car even though he and his wife asked Davey to turn himself in. Reuben asked himself, "Could a person believe so strongly one way, yet take the opposite route?" To me, this idea guided a large portion of the book: Reuben and his family love Davey...fiercely, loyally. All three of them (Reuben, Swede, and Jeremiah) have their own inward struggle trying to decide how far they can go in the opposite direction of what they believe. Reuben realizes his own limit the night Andreeson goes missing.

The second line was given by Waltzer, a character who, by the way, creeped me out like no one else. One night when Reuben was visiting Davey, Waltzer said: "So you can win the battle, Reuben, but the war is lost long ago." This bothered Reuben terribly, probably in part because he had a slight premonition of events to come, but also because I think he could see some truth in it in his own life: his mother left the family because she couldn't face the battle of failure, but she had already lost the war of motherhood. Davey won the battle against Finch and Basca but lost peace and happiness for the rest of his life. Waltzer meant it in a sick way, so maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I think it often happens that the things we focus our energies on (i.e., the battles we choose to win) don't really matter when we look at the big picture.

The third line that stood out to me came when Swede finally forgave Reuben for not telling her what he knew about Davey. He said, "Fair is whatever God wants to do." A large portion of this book centered on faith, and I think that statement describes faith pretty well: you acknowledge that what you want and what the Lord wants may be different but that ultimately, whatever He decides is fair (it may take years to see the fairness in some events, but that's part of faith, too). This was perhaps the essence of Jeremiah Land's life: he displayed firm and stalwart faith and lived his life quietly and with dignity.

The book is full of other themes, some more obvious than these, some less. But I wanted to highlight these three, well, first, because I actually took the time to stop listening and transcribe them, but second, because I wanted to show in a small way how rich and full of meaning this novel was. It's one that I could talk and write about for hours, and there would still be more to talk and write about.
I love a book that ends with questions--not in the pending sequel sort of way but in the mull-this-over-in-my-brain way.

One of my reading goals for the year is to "Read and reread a book." I've been keeping a running list in my head of books I've read this year that would be worth rereading this same year. There are only three so far, and this is one of them.

KidPages: The Deductive Detective by Brian Rock

Apr 1, 2013

You may have noticed that I've been reading a lot of books about education lately. (Some have even approached me, wondering if I'm getting ready to jump on the homeschooling bandwagon. In case you've been wondering, too: Not yet, but it never hurts to be prepared.) Anyway, everything I've been reading has stressed the importance of letting the child be in control of his own education; let him decide what he wants to learn and when he wants to learn it and how much of it he wants to learn.

This type of parenting and teaching takes a great amount of energy and creativity. I don't think I'm quite cut out for it. But luckily, my kids love books, and as long as they continue to love them, there will always be a way for them to learn what they want to know. (Why, just the other day I checked out a fabulous book all about worms because Aaron is currently spending hours a day digging them up.)

Besides a vast number of nonfiction titles to satisfy my children's ever-growing curiosity, there are also many, many fictional stories out there that include some kind of educational spin. The Deductive Detective is one such kind of book. Published by Sylvan Dell (an educational company), I was expecting it to include some science or math concepts, and I was not disappointed.

The book begins with an urgent phone call to Duck: one of the cakes is missing from the cake contest! Duck rushes over to find Fox crying over the disappearance of her beautiful cake. Duck begins to look over the suspects: there are 12 other cake decorators present, so the thief must be one of them. Slowly, Duck begins eliminating suspects: Mouse is too small to make off with such a big cake, Rooster was busy waking everyone up when the cake was stolen, etc. Eventually, he's down to one last suspect who turns out to, indeed, be the (hungry) cake thief!

The educational spin I was talking about came in the form of deductive reasoning and subtraction. At times, it felt a little contrived, like you could tell you were supposed to learn to use logic and subtraction, but honestly, most fictional/educational hybrids I've read felt like they were written for one angle or another.

My boys love this kind of book where they get to look for clues, make guesses, and figure things out. Most of the premises and subsequent conclusions made sense to my 3- and 4-year-olds: they could understand that, of course, the thief couldn't have been Swan because Duck had found an incriminating strand of hair, and Swans don't have hair. The only one that was too much of a stretch for me was Horse, who is freed from suspicion after they see that the lights are off in the kitchen. They conclude that it couldn't have been Horse because he's "not a dark horse." This didn't make any sense to the boys, and frankly, not much to me either.

The subtraction part was fun, especially for my 4-year-old, who has recently been doing a lot of addition and subtraction in his head. The story begins with 12 suspects, and each time one is eliminated, the results are given: 12 - 1 = 11. I think my only problem with this was just that we started with 12, which made the story feel really long. However, the book is geared for ages 3-8, so even though 12 was a little bit high of a countdown for my 3-year-old, it probably helps make it more interesting for the older crowd.

There are quite a few puns and slapstick-type jokes scattered throughout the story.  For example, Detective Duck realizes that the thief couldn't be Tiger because they found some hand prints on the windowsill, and Tigers have paws, not hands. Tiger says, "And I have claws on my paws...That's why I always bake from scratch." Of course, I caught the joke, but it was more eye-rolling than funny to me, and the humor went right over my kids' heads. I explained some of the jokes to them, but mostly I found them distracting and silly.

The illustrations were satisfactory. I would have liked a few more details in places (like a hand print on the windowsill when that's being discussed), but overall they were engaging and fun and went well with the story.

While this maybe was not our favorite picture book of all time, it did what it set out to do. My expectations were well-placed, and I wasn't disappointed or surprised. It taught new skills in an engaging way, and even if it sometimes felt like it was written for the sole purpose of teaching deductive reasoning, it did teach it, and it was fun in the process.

Along with this review, I had the opportunity to ask the author, Brian Rock, a few questions. I hope you enjoy getting to know him!

Q: Where did you get the idea for The Deductive Detective?
A: The Deductive Detective was inspired by my daughter's BFF snuggle buddy, Quacky. I wanted to write a story for them both, but wanted to try to avoid the usual duck themes that had already been done in stories like Make Way For Ducklings and Little Quack. So I started doing some word associations with duck, which led to deductive, which of course led to a detective.

Q: The story includes a lot of puns and other funny lines. Do you enjoy telling jokes in real life?
A: I probably enjoy telling them more than my friends and family enjoy hearing them, but yes. In fact, I used to do a little stand up comedy when I lived in Roanoke, VA (and boy are my legs tired!).

Q:  What made you decide to become a writer? Have you always enjoyed writing? Tell us about something you wrote as a kid.
A: I've wanted to be a writer from as early as I can remember. I think the first time I realized that I could write or say something that would make someone else laugh, I was hooked.When we used to go on family trips, I would take a notepad and write my own comics and jokes and riddles. The earliest I can remember was about third or fourth grade when I wrote a series of comics about a dog, a cat, and a mouse that went on a trip to the moon. I haven't checked in a while, they may be there still!

Q: Did you like reading when you were a child? What was your favorite book?
A: I loved reading. My family moved around a lot as I was growing up so I was always "the new kid." Books and music became some of my closest friends.Some of my favorite books when I was younger were Ferdinand the Bull, Winnie the Pooh, Harold and the Purple Crayon and The Phantom Tollbooth.

Q: What is your favorite picture book (besides your own, of course!)?
A: When I was younger my favorite picture book was Ferdinand the Bull, because I think I related with that character that doesn't quite fit in with others' expectations. Of more recent picture books, I'm a huge fan of the whole Pigeon series by Mo Willems. I'm amazed at how much emotion he can pack into so few words.

Q: Besides writing, what else do you like to do?
A: I also write Country songs with my friends in the group Family Reunion (http://www.familyreunioncountry.com/) Our debut album, Family Album won the 2012 ICMA award for album of the year. I also enjoy playing football in a rec league with my friends. I enjoy cooking with my wife, and of course reading with my daughter.

Q: Do you have any tips for reluctant readers?
A: Explore! If you keep looking, I guarantee you'll find something interesting to read about.
But mainly, my advice is for parents of reluctant readers - let them choose what they want to read. The more interested they are in a story, the more likely they are to read it. Try to avoid that "you need to read this" or the "you ought to read that" mindset. Let kids discover themselves in the books they choose. I know a good one about a duck detective I can recommend!

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and thoughts are my own.
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