44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

Jun 29, 2013

A couple of months ago when it was Mike's birthday, I was trying to think of something to do that would be both fun and, more importantly, free. I happened to see that Alexander McCall Smith would be speaking at the Main Salt Lake City Library courtesy of The King's English. A few years ago, Mike and I both read and enjoyed The No. 1  Ladies' Detective Agency, and since the event was not only on the evening of Mike's birthday but also fit my two predetermined requirements, it seemed almost providential that we attend (although some might argue that hearing an author speak was more of a birthday present to myself).

Mike's sister and her husband also joined us. (Sonja is an avid fan of Alexander McCall Smith and has read all of the books in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.) Alexander McCall Smith was an absolute treat. In his authentic kilt and even more authentic Scottish brogue, he kept us all laughing the entire time.

Two things especially impressed me: first, the sheer amount that he's able to write (he generally publishes 2-4 books a year; he said that he writes 1000 words in an hour and does very little rewriting after the fact), and second, how much he loves his characters (he talked about them like they were real people--chuckling about their ridiculous antics and quirky personalities). He was supposed to sign his new book afterwards, but in spite of the bookstore staff trying their hardest to get him to wrap up, he just couldn't stop talking. We didn't stay for the signing, but I'm sure it was a rush to get everyone through before the library closed.

Anyway, one of the characters he mentioned several times during the course of the evening was Bertie, a little five-year-old boy with an overbearing mother, who resides in the 44 Scotland Street series. I was so enchanted by his descriptions of Bertie that I knew I needed to get the first book in the series.

In the introduction to the book, Alexander McCall Smith wrote, "It is in observing the minor ways of people that one can still see very clearly the moral dilemmas of our time." For me, that statement really summarizes what 44 Scotland Street is all about:

There's Pat, a young woman who is taking her second "gap year" because she's can't seem to get a handle on adulthood; Bruce, who lives in the same flat as Pat and has an extreme talent for conceitedness and self-admiration; Dominica, an older woman in the same building who seems to know everything about everyone but is unassuming and kind; Bertie, a five-year-old saxophone prodigy, and his overbearing and helicopter mother, Irene; Matthew, manager of an obscure and (unfortunately) unsuccessful art gallery; Big Lou, an avid reader and owner of a coffee shop; Angus Lordie, a portrait painter with a dog that has a gold tooth; as well as Lizzie Todd and her parents, Matthew's friends, Ramsey Dunbarton, and Dr. Fairbairn.

Each of these characters interact and associate with each other on some level, and each one has their own little story and predicament that finally gets resolved in the end. The main story involves a painting that is discovered by Pat and Matthew in the gallery which they hope is by the famous Peploe. But really, more than anything, the book is just about the characters themselves and, as Alexander McCall Smith put it, "observing the minor ways of people."

One of the really interesting things about this book, as well as the entire series, is that it was published first as a serial novel. It ran in The Scotsman in Edinburgh (where the novel actually takes place). There are more than 100 chapters in the book, so at a chapter every weekday, it took about six months to complete.

Knowing that it ran as a serial novel first made the book even more enjoyable for me. There were many times when a chapter would end, and I would think, And now, you have to wait until tomorrow to find out what happens next! I can only imagine how much more fun it would have been to be living in Edinburgh, reading about Edinburgh, every day. During his lecture, Alexander McCall Smith mentioned the unique challenges that come with writing a book this way. For example, he said there were times when he was only three days ahead of the printing, so he really didn't have time to go back and change anything, and there were times when he actually forgot about details that he had to then quickly wrap up at the end with very little explanation.

I enjoy Alexander McCall Smith's sense of humor. It's a little bit dry, very witty, and sometimes just flat-out funny. I'm sure I missed some of the more subtle jokes and jabs, but even if some of it did go over my head, there was plenty more that was delightfully obvious. For example, since Pat and Matthew didn't know if the painting I referenced earlier was really done by Peploe or just some other obscure, no-name artist, they decided to call it the "Peploe?" with a question mark. Anytime they referred to it, it was as the Peploe?, and it made me smile every time.

As funny and witty as I found the story however, it was not without its dry and boring moments. There were some chapters where characters waxed eloquent on politics or psychoanalysis, and they just seemed to go on forever. Maybe the politics would have interested me more if I actually lived in Scotland, but then, since I have almost no interest in politics here in the U.S., probably not. As much fun as it would have been to read this as a serial novel, I also think that I might have lost interest and just decided to give up on the story in some of the places where these types of conversations went on for several chapters in a row.

I listened to the audio, which was narrated by Robert Ian MacKenzie. Mike also listened and really liked the narrator. I . . . did not. I thought his female voices were a bit hideous, and even his male voices often went into this falsetto register that I found annoying. Also, many of the characters sounded exactly the same, and since most of them were high and unnatural, it just wasn't the most pleasant listening experience. That said, it wasn't annoying enough that I gave up listening to it. And Mike said he liked MacKenzie's accent (I was too distracted by the high voices to even notice the accent).

There are now eight books in this series with the ninth one being published this year. I believe all of them have been printed as serial novels first. I felt like there were definitely some loose ends in this story that didn't quite wrap up (there was even one character who seemed to just be abandoned part-way through), so I can definitely see how the story could continue. However, even though I enjoyed the characters and the humor, and even though there were some story lines left hanging, I can't say I'm jumping to read the second book. I might pick it up someday, but then again, I might not.

Reading Goals, Six Months In

Jun 28, 2013

June is almost over, which means we're about halfway through the year. (I know, I hate being reminded of this as well, but it is what it is.)

I've been slowly working through the reading goals I set for myself in January, so I thought now would be a good time to give an accounting of myself:

1. Read a new genre (not complete)
I should probably change this goal to "Read a graphic novel" since that is what I have always intended that "new genre" to be.

No, I have not read one yet. This should be such an easy goal to check off, but graphic novels are just so different. I'm just not sure they're for me. But I think I just need to pinch my nose and down one. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised.

I know there are a lot of great graphic novels out there, but I finally decided that I'll read Shannon and Dean Hale's Rapunzel's Revenge. I've already read almost everything else by Shannon Hale, so why not just complete the list? Plus, I've heard good things about it.

2. Finish a series I already started (partially complete)
I decided to finish The Chronicles of Narnia. I had to read the last four books (I'm going by date of publication) to complete the goal. I've read two: The Silver Chair and The Horse and His Boy. I thoroughly enjoyed both, and I'm looking forward to completing this goal with The Magician's Nephew and The Last Battle.

3. Begin and finish a series (not complete)
Yikes! I haven't even started this one. What's more, I still don't even know what I'm going to read for it! I set this goal because I have such a difficult time finishing series in a timely matter that I wanted to see what it was like to have some continuity and finish a series from beginning to end in a respectable amount of time. But obviously . . . I'm afraid of it. I dread thinking about this goal.

So, suggestions are welcome! What series should I read in its entirety this year? I think I'm going to have to restrict my options to trilogies (so, sorry, as much as I want and need to read Harry Potter, it's not going to happen this year (at least not all seven books)). Help me out, and name your favorite trilogy--one that will be so gripping, I won't have any trouble reading all three books in a row!

4. Read and reread a book (complete)
Done and done! I read Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men by Leonard Sax in April, and then six weeks later, I read the entire thing again.

I've discussed it with my education group and will also discuss it with my family for our book club during our family reunion. It is such a powerful book.

I'm hoping to write up my thoughts in more detail about the experience of rereading a book so soon after reading it for the first time, but let's just say that I could definitely read it a third time and still learn new things and retain more information.

5. Read something less well-known by an author I like (complete)
One of my very favorite books is Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. To complete this goal, I decided to read Hesse's newest novel, Safekeeping. While I enjoyed it, it didn't come anywhere close to Out of the Dust for me.

If I have time, there are several other authors who have lesser-known books I want to read.

6. Read two classics from the 19th century and two classics from the 20th century (not complete)
Hmmm . . . have I read anything this year that could be labeled a classic? The Silver Chair and The Horse and His Boy are classics, right? Yes! 20th century done!

Just kidding. I'm not about to cheat like that as the whole point of the goal was to encourage me to read more classics.

For the 19th century, I'm pretty sure I'm going to read A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (haven't read any Sherlock Holmes yet) and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (I'm saving that one for October).

For the 20th century, I'm thinking of being brave and reading something by John Steinbeck (anyone have a favorite?). And then I still need one more idea, so any suggestions?

7. Read at least four Newbery candidates for 2014 (partially complete)
I've read one: The Center of Everything by Linda Urban. It was okay, but I hope there's something better out there. I'm still kind of waiting to see which books are getting the most nods (although I do have Navigating Early from the library right now).

Right now, I'm leaning towards reading The Water Castle, Navigating Early, Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, or maybe The Thing About Luck.

8. Read Blackmoore by Julianne Donaldson
It's scheduled to be released September 28th, so I guess you know what I'll be doing on September 29th (unless I can miraculously get my hands on a copy of it sooner!).

If you took the time to add them up, you know that I have to read at least 20 books to complete my goals. So far, only six of the books I've read this year have contributed to these achievements. I definitely need to get crackin' and make up some lost ground.

Art That's Worth Wearing

Jun 27, 2013

Lately, one of the boys' favorite activities is to draw . . . and draw . . . and draw. I don't even want to tell you how much paper they've gone through for fear you'll turn me into the environmental police. Let's just say they've used up more than their fair share of trees in the last couple of months...

I'm actually quite thrilled with this current obsession. I mean, all I have to do now is pack a spiral notebook when we got to church, and Aaron is set for the full 70 minutes. He just tucks himself into a corner of the pew (far away from Bradley's kicking feet) and draws to his heart's content. (Unfortunately, I see more of monsters and vampires in his art than prophets and scriptures, but hopefully he's not totally deaf to the things that are being said.)

Anyway, with all the drawing that's been going on, I knew that some sort of art project was definitely in order for Father's Day--not only to capture in a more permanent way some of their signature illustrations (the ones I see on almost every piece of paper) but also to capture this stage in their lives (because even though they love to draw now, I'm not convinced that art will play a major role in their futures--but who knows?).

Then I saw a post by The Artful Parent on No Time For Flashcards about how to transfer drawings onto t-shirts, and I knew that would be the perfect way to document this stage (and what kind of a father doesn't want to wear his kids' art?!).

Below, I'll share the projects we made, but if you're interested in doing your own t-shirts, I recommend checking out the full tutorial on No Time For Flashcards.

First, I had both Aaron and Max draw several different pictures on plain white copy paper. Then, out of those selections, I had them each choose their best work. A couple of Max's sketches were giant blobs he claimed were California and Utah, but he eventually settled on one of our whole family. 

That's me with the bright pink hair. I'll bet you're jealous...

Then I used our (very old) printer to make a color copy onto the fabric transfer paper. (I think you can pick up fabric transfer paper just about anywhere: craft, office supply, superstore, etc. I bought it at Wal-Mart in the office/school section: 6 sheets/$8. Kind of pricey, but since I only used two sheets, and I got the t-shirts for $4 each, it was only about $5.50 per shirt.)

There are two different types of fabric transfer paper: one is used for light fabrics and the other for dark fabrics. I went ahead and purchased the one for light fabrics because it was cheaper and looked easier to use.

After the drawings were copied onto the fabric transfer paper, I cut each one out, leaving only a very small margin (per the instructions).

Then I put the paper, drawing side down, onto the shirt, which was laying flat on the desk (the instructions said not to use an ironing board). My iron was set to a high cotton setting with no steam.

I pressed firmly on part of the picture for 20 seconds, then moved to the next section for another 20 seconds. I made a couple passes over the entire thing to make sure I hadn't missed a spot and had also given it enough heat and time to transfer.

I let the shirt cool completely. Then came, what the boys and I dubbed as, "the magic part." I peeled off the paper, and it literally looked like Aaron and Max had taken a marker and drawn the picture onto the shirt itself. The boys were absolutely amazed and pleased as punch. I was pretty happy, too. 

These are Aaron's signature monsters. He has filled up almost an entire notebook with pictures that look very similar to the ones above. He has already started moving onto other drawings (vampires and rocket ships), so I'm glad to have something with which to memorialize the monster phase.

(It's probably obvious, but I should also mention that the image gets flipped when you iron it on, so Aaron had to write his name backwards so it would come out looking right.)

The boys were more than a little excited for Mike to open his presents on Father's Day.

And Mike gave the proper "Wow, boys! These shirts are awesome!" reaction.

Maxwell's shirt ended up looking a little more girly than we'd intended (all that pink hair, you know), so Mike has to look super tough (haha) when wearing it (or just wear it when he's going to bed). He's definitely a good sport about it.

I just have to share a funny story about these photos: After we put the boys to bed one evening, we went into the backyard so I could quickly snap a couple of photos of Mike wearing the shirts. As he was posing, he suddenly got an embarrassed smile on his face and said, "Oh, hi." There was our neighbor standing at our gate. She asked, "Would you like one of both of you?" "Oh, no," we assured her. "Don't all parents take random portraits of themselves for fun when their kids are in bed?"

(Note: If you decide to make a t-shirt, please read the fabric transfer instructions carefully. There are several brands of fabric transfer paper, and the instructions will probably be a little different for each one. What worked well for me may or may not work well for you.)

I shared this post at Raising Memories.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Jun 26, 2013

In the last year, Code Name Verity has received a lot of attention, praise, and awards (including a Printz Honor). And it finally got to the point where I was hearing about it so much that I thought, Enough already! I'll read the book! (Actually, I was a little irritated with myself because I kept forgetting to put it on my to-read list (yet another testament that my memory is bad enough that I really do need Goodreads), and so it was a good thing it kept popping up everywhere or I probably would have never remembered to read it.)

And now the tricky part - how do I possibly give a summary of a book whose very essence lies in its carefully cloaked secrets and guarded identities? It's not like some books where the twists all happen at the end; if I start explaining or describing practically anything, I will most certainly make an inadvertent slip of the keyboard and tell you something that should be kept under lock and key. Maybe you're like me and rarely remember plot summaries, but I would not dare risk that and spoil it for someone.

So you get the most basic facts: It is historical fiction that takes place during World War II. It is about two young women, but I can't even tell you their names. Both of them take a turn narrating the story. One of them is a spy who has been captured by the Nazis and her narration is in the form of a confession (I don't think that's giving away anything important since I'm pretty sure the reader knows that right from the start). It is a fascinating tale not only because it is about two women who were both intimately involved with the war but also because it tests the true meaning of honesty, friendship, and sacrifice.

I have to say, this book was a slo-o-o-o-o-o-w start for me. If I wasn't a bit OCD about finishing books, I think I would have given up on it. I listened to it, and it literally took me a full four CDs (out of nine) before I was fully invested in it. After that, it flew, and I was quite happy I stuck it out. The first part talks a lot about flying and planes and technicalities that I just wasn't all that interested in. But in the end, I could see that it was a needed and worthwhile set-up, and the rest of the book was awesome. I'm telling you this just so you know that if you're like me, you might have to read half the book in order to give it a fair chance. (I totally understand if that's not worth it to you, but just know you'll be missing out.)

I listened to the audio, and both narrators (Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell) were amazing. It is a really emotional book, and they relayed that emotion so poignantly that I felt it. There is one point in the story where one of the women is crying, and her tears are spilling onto the pages she's writing. Even though I wasn't actually crying (at least not at that point), it was still like I could feel tears dripping down my cheeks and off my nose. Of course, this is also evidence of the incredible writing, but I know the excellent narration also added to it.

Mike listened to it, too, and although he was a little wary of its lack of male leads, he ended up liking it (except he arrogantly insisted that he liked the ending he thought up a lot more than the way it actually ended). I always like it when we read the same book because then I have someone to talk with about it. He did burst my bubble in a couple of places by pointing out how unlikely it would have been for a couple of the (major) events to take place, but then I countered by telling him that a good story is built on unlikeliness. I also thought it was interesting that he preferred one main character, and I preferred the other.

There were two phrases that were repeated regularly throughout the story (and both were used by both characters). For me, these two phrases summed up some of the underlying themes of the novel.

"Careless talk costs lives" was the first one. Much of the book focuses on the power of words: one word might save a life while another word might destroy it; also, the same words can be taken and interpreted in a multitude of different ways; sometimes, it's the things left unsaid that mean the most; and also, the mouth (and pen) is something that should be kept carefully guarded because once the words are free, we no longer have control over them.

The second phrase was, "Fly the plane, Maddy." Sometimes this was meant very literally while at other times, it seemed like there were some underlying messages: keep going, keep fighting, no matter what; focus on the task at hand; do your duty; enjoy the wonders of this life; turn off your emotions and go.

I really love a book that uses repetition in a creative and multifaceted way. Even if the author didn't intend for me to find inspiration in these memorable phrases, I found them nonetheless, and that's why reading is magic to me.

If you've read the book, you might be interested in reading this lengthy interview with Elizabeth Wein on Bookwitch. I'll be honest, I haven't read the entire interview, but it does go into a lot of interesting detail.

And also, I just heard that Elizabeth Wein has a new book coming out in September called Rose Under Fire. It is also about a female pilot in WWII (Wein herself is a pilot, so it makes sense that she would write about them), but it takes place in the infamous concentration camp at Ravensbruck.

In spite of its slow beginning, Code Name Verity was one of the best stories about friendship I've ever read. If you've read it, I'd love for you to share your thoughts about it.

Content note: there is some offensive language.

The World's Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne

Jun 25, 2013

When I heard that this memoir was written by a librarian who works at the Main Library in downtown Salt Lake City, I was instantly intrigued. Although that's not the library I regularly go to, I've been there several times for various events, and there's something about reading a book set in your own neck of the woods that just makes it that much more exciting (especially when you know it's being read on a national level).

So when I saw a giveaway for this book on Entomology of a Bookworm (after being depressed by the long hold list at the library), I decided it couldn't hurt to enter. And then I saw that only a handful of people had entered (apparently other people weren't as intrigued by SLC librarians as I was), and I realized I might have a decent chance of winning it.

Soon after entering, I was suggesting this book as a possible choice for our next book club. Realizing that the long hold list might make it difficult for people to read, I mentioned that I might WIN! a copy. That seemed like a lot to count on, but then, what do you know, I actually won it! That pretty much made my week, especially when it arrived in all its stiff, unblemished glory.

Josh Hanagarne is not your average librarian: he has Tourette Syndrome; he's 6'7"; he bends horseshoes on his lunch break; he can bench 350 lbs.; he's a Mormon. Tell me that combination doesn't make you slightly interested.

Anyone can write a memoir. I'm not being facetious; I really mean that. Everyone is living a life and therefore has something that, if pressed, he/she could write down. The catch is, not everyone has a life that other people want to read about. In the case of Josh Hanagarne, his story is worth reading not only because he has had remarkable success with subduing and controlling his Tourette's (memoir-worthy in and of itself), but also because he writes about faith, doubt, love, and endurance in a very real and honest way.

Before I go any farther, might I coerce you to watch the book trailer?

You might decide after watching it that you don't need to read the rest of this review; you just want to go read the book. That's what I thought when I saw it for the first time (except for the part about skipping this review, which was not an option). However, I found that some of the expectations I formed while watching the video went unfulfilled when I actually read the book.

Writing a review of a memoir can be tricky because critical statements can be taken more personally: instead of just criticizing the plot or the writing style or the climax, it's like you're criticizing the actual person.

I have no intention of doing that, but I do want to make a few broad and general statements that reflect my own impression of the book.

First, there is a hefty amount of foul language (I lost track of how many times the f-word was used). In almost every instance, the swearing was coming from someone Josh was quoting: a belligerent library patron, a homeless man on the street, the army guy he trained with, etc. I can appreciate the fact that he was trying to accurately portray some of the people he had contact with. However, I think he easily could have cut down the offensive language by half (especially in the case of the trainer), and I still would have formed the same mental picture but without having to read so many nasty words. (On the other hand, it's quite possible that he already had edited their language, and I actually was reading the "clean" version.)

Along similar lines, I was disappointed with all the crude humor and slang. This, even more than the foul language, felt gratuitous, probably because most of it came from Josh himself. And yet, it's a memoir, so I guess it doesn't necessarily make sense that he would clean up his language (although I haven't noticed the same kind of crudeness on his blog, so which one is the real Josh?).

As I contemplated what I wanted to mention in this review, I debated whether I should even address any of my feelings about the religious aspect of this book. I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (i.e., a Mormon), so maybe I can't offer a completely objective opinion, but I can at least add my opinions and thoughts to Josh Hanagarne's.

Although Josh went on a mission and was married in the temple, he has struggled with the conviction of his faith for much of his life (at least, that's the impression I got from the book). I can definitely relate to some of his doubts. I think seeking for answers to those doubts is a natural way for us to extend our faith and strengthen our testimonies.

However, I have to admit that as I read Josh's definitions and explanations of Mormon culture and doctrine, it felt foreign to me. His tone alternated between being flippant, cynical, and snide (along with a more reverent side I'll talk about in a minute). I was a little disturbed to realize that if this was my only exposure to Mormonism, I would probably not be interested in learning any more about it.

For example, when he's talking about callings (assignments or jobs within a ward/congregation), he said, "Not everyone has a calling, because the decision to call someone rests on the answers that a church leader receives during prayer. So maybe you'd make a great teacher, but if you never flash into someone's head while he's trying to figure out the best person to fill that slot in Sunday school, your number might never come up." Maybe I'm being too sensitive, but his tone suggests that he's not convinced that callings are made in the right way, nor does he acknowledge that many of these callings are often discussed and prayed about by several people.

But in all fairness, there were other times when he talked about some of his experiences in very reverent and respectful ways. For example, during his mission, he began to have more and more difficulty with his Tourette's, to the point that he was no longer able to do the work of a missionary. When he talked to the mission president about being released, he related, "He [the mission president] had the kindest eyes...'Oh, Josh. You've done enough. You served with honor and if you choose to leave now, you need to know that you served your entire mission. You did all you could and you did all that was asked of you.'" Anytime he spoke about his contact with church leaders, he only had positive things to say.

These were my thoughts, but I understand that belief is something which is highly, highly personal. Josh tried to capture his own beliefs and relate them so that other people would be able to understand him and his relationship with his religion. It's not the way that I would write about Mormonism, but it's not my memoir. It's his. And I think he tried to be very honest in how he related his feelings. That's something that, even if  I was a little disappointed in the content, I can still appreciate and respect.

As I wrap up this review, I have to tell you that it's one of the hardest reviews I've ever written. I wrote and rewrote paragraphs and sat at the computer just thinking about this book and how I could best sum up my feelings. I felt like every sentence was a struggle...definitely not my favorite way to write.

I think I had such a hard time, in part, because I didn't love the book, but at the same time, I did love the insight I gained by having an inside look at another person's life. There's something completely priceless about that. It would be a difficult book for me to recommend, but I still completely admire and respect Josh Hanagarne for his honesty and sincerity, for all the ways he has helped people with Tourette's, and for being willing to put himself in a vulnerable position by putting it all into a book.

When Books and Sewing Collide...

Jun 20, 2013

I think I've established the fact that I like to read. But did you know I also like to sew? It's true. I took private sewing lessons from the time I was 12 all the way to 18, and then I also took an intermediate sewing class in college even though it had absolutely nothing to do with my major. I know! Be impressed. (I wish that meant I actually sewed on a regular basis.)

Consequently, there are several sewing blogs I love to read, and my very most favorite one of those is No Big Dill. Wow, talk about talent and creativity that just sends my little jealous heart a-flutter! If I had even a pinky's worth of Katy's skills, I'd be ecstatic.

Anyway, as if her blog wasn't amazing enough as is, she also hosts a series called Once Upon a Thread where she, along with other guest bloggers, design a project based on a children's book.

Are you kidding me?

Here are just a few of the projects that have been featured:
When I look at these projects, I can't really say I aspire to copy them because they look sooooooo labor-intensive. However, they are definitely just a pleasure to gawk at, and they do provide me with a smidgen of ambition to go ahead and tackle a few (very simple) book-inspired projects of my own.

Right now, Once Upon a Thread is right in the middle of Chapter 4, so if any of these projects make you ooh and aah in amazement, you might want to keep an eye out for the rest of the posts as they come out. I know I definitely will!

The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had by Kristin Levine

Jun 18, 2013

If someone confronted me with the question, "What is your favorite genre?" I'd be hard-pressed to narrow it down to just one. Last year, my five favorite books were all from different categories: Unbroken (nonfiction, historical, biographical), The Happiness Project (nonfiction, self-help), Edenbrooke (fiction, Regency romance, chick lit), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (realistic fiction, historical fiction (early 20th century), classic), Rebecca (fiction, Gothic, classic). (Disclaimer: I'm no English major, so I'm categorizing these books to the best of my knowledge.)

But I definitely have favorites genres (emphasizing the plural), and one of those is historical fiction. Of course, once you say "historical fiction," that opens up a whole new set of classifications. For me, I tend to gravitate toward books set in the 20th century in the United States or Europe but am willing to try almost any time period.

This is all just background fluff so that when I tell you that my book club selected The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had (historical fiction set in 1917 Alabama), you'll know that I was more than happy to read it.

Harry "Dit" Sims is twelve years old and somewhat lost in his family of ten children. When his best friend goes on vacation, he resigns himself to a summer of boredom. But then, a new postmaster moves into Moundville, and Dit is hopeful that he will have a son just his age. When Emma Walker steps off the train, Dit can see instantly that she is refined, intelligent, and definitely not a boy. She is also black. Dit befriends her out of a sense of duty, a spirit of kindness, and a fit of boredom. But as tension increases between Big Foot (the sheriff) and members of the black community, Dit and Emma's friendship grows into something real. Soon they team up together to save the town barber from an unfair death sentence, and Dit realizes that Emma is not only a girl worth knowing but also his best friend.

This book reminded me so much of a middle grade version of To Kill a Mockingbird. It's set in the South (Alabama even). It deals with the trial and subsequent  sentence of a black man. It examines questions of race and friendship and fairness and loyalty. It definitely didn't pack the same kind of punch as To Kill a Mockingbird, but then, it also ended happier.

I loved the contrast between Emma and Dit. Emma comes from the North (Boston, I think). She is well-bred, has fine manners, reads like crazy, speaks well, is honest, and is very kind. Dit is an average student, has grown up on a farm, is polite with an unsophisticated way of talking, and loves going hunting and fishing. I've read a lot of books with friendships between black and white children (or adults) but never one with quite these same dynamics, and I loved it.

I listened to the audio, which was narrated by Kirby Heyborne. I was somewhat hesitant about him as a narrator, but I ended up liking it quite a lot. He had to do a lot of variations on the Southern accent, and it was well done. I always like it when I can distinguish the voices just by how they sound, and I definitely could with this one.

There were some really great and insightful moments in the story. One of the scenes that happens several times is Big Foot (the sheriff I mentioned earlier) coming into Doc Haley's barbershop. Big Foot brazenly picks up a bottle of hair tonic and walks out without paying for it. Dit becomes so frustrated and annoyed by this, and he asks Doc why he doesn't demand payment. Doc says, "Well, Dit, there are some things in life that are worth making a stink over, but a bottle of hair tonic ain't one of them." Even though Doc eventually changes his mind and decides to take a stand, I still think this is some great advice. I know for me, there are many times when I get angry, but the more I think about, the more I realize the repercussions of lashing out would be far worse than just dealing with or overlooking whatever is bothering me. For Doc, he finally realized there was an underlying issue that was big enough for the repercussions to be worth it.

One of the sub-themes is Dit's desire to become a man (he turns 13 during the course of the story). I loved how choosing kindness and non-violence actions were major factors in letting go of immaturity and becoming a real man. If only more men would value these characteristics.

If you're like me and love good historical fiction, particularly of the middle-grade variety, I would definitely recommend this book.

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

Jun 15, 2013

After my kids' lukewarm reaction to Half Magic followed by a brief and unsuccessful stint with How to Train Your Dragon, I decided that a return to a tried and true children's classic was in order. And what could be more of a classic than Winnie-the-Pooh?  

Wow. Even I was impressed with how Aaron and Maxwell responded to it. It was one of our best readalouds yet.

I'm assuming that all of you know the story: Winnie-the-Pooh (also known as Edward Bear) is the stuffed bear of Christopher Robin. Most of the story takes place in the Hundred Acre Wood (created by the boundless imagination of Christopher Robin and his father). Winnie-the-Pooh and all of his friends (Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Eeyore, Kanga, and Roo, with occasional appearances from Christopher Robin himself) go on lots of adventures: hunting for Woozles, looking for Eeyore's tail, saving Piglet from drowning, etc. This story encapsulates all the magic of childhood.

Okay, confession: this was my first time reading this book. My mom read a lot of wonderful classics to me when I was little, but not this one. There are just too many good books out there, you know? So now, as an adult, I've been picking up a lot of the classics that I missed: The Phantom Tollbooth, Matilda, Bridge to Terabithia, to name a few. Even though I have truly enjoyed these missed classics, I can't shake the undeniable feeling that something is missing from my reading. And that something is almost certainly nostalgia. Since I didn't read these books as a child, I have no memory attached to them and therefore no expectations or anticipations. While this can be a good thing if you're trying to look at a book objectively or analytically, it usually leaves me with a sort of sad, lonesome when I don't have any memories to fall back onto. (Luckily, since my mom did read to me a lot, I do have lots of other books that I've been revisiting as an adult that have lots of memories attached to them.)

But here's what I've discovered: if I read one of these overlooked classics to my children, it's almost as good as having my own childhood memories: I still get to have the benefit of reading it from an adult point-of-view, but I also get to see how they like it and therefore how I might have liked it if I had heard it when I was three or four.

And the truth is, they loved it. I know this was in part because of the abundance of illustrations scattered on almost every page. Most of these were quite small (just Eeyore in some silly position or Pooh Bear touching his toes), but it didn't matter. It gave Aaron and Maxwell something to anchor their eyes to and therefore, their minds were engaged with the story.

Even though I didn't read the book when I was younger, I did watch the Disney adaptation many times (which follows the book pretty closely). I wondered if this colored my experience with the book? (Who am I kidding? Of course it did! I couldn't read the part about Pooh pretending to be a little black rain cloud without hearing Sterling Holloway's voice.) Would I have thought Eeyore's doom-and-gloom view of life and Owl's ridiculous monologues were clever and endearing or confusing and strange?

Just for the record, I do find the characters clever and endearing (more on that in a minute). I'm only asking this because while I was reading the first few chapters, I felt like there were many introductions and explanations left unsaid and sometimes what was said added more confusion than clarity. For example, in the chapter when Piglet is introduced, the entire first paragraph is about Piglet's grandfather who was supposedly named Trespassers W. This paragraph gets funnier with age, but the first time through, it's rather bewildering and would, I imagine, be even more so if you didn't already have some inkling as to who Piglet is.

Speaking of humor, the wit and charm of this story cannot be overlooked, mainly because it is witty and charming for both children and adults. Truly an impressive accomplishment. One of Maxwell's favorite stories was the one where Winnie the Pooh is desperate for some honey--so desperate that he's willing to roll in some mud and float on the end of a balloon in the hope that he will be mistaken for a little black rain cloud. He thought it was funny because it was perfectly obvious to him that Winnie the Pooh did not look like a rain cloud . . . but at the same time, he was overcome with the exciting prospect of fooling bees and floating in the sky.

Aaron, on the other hand, loved the story about the expedition (or "expotition," whichever you prefer) to the North Pole. There was something so delightful and entertaining with the idea of looking for a "pole" when everyone knows (especially know-it-all four-year-olds) that the North Pole isn't just any old random pole. 

For me, the clever and absurd dialogues were the best part. Here are a few of my favorite lines:

"There's just one thing," said Piglet, fidgeting a bit. "I was talking to Christopher Robin, and he said that a Kanga was Generally Regarded as One of the Fiercer Animals. I am not frightened of Fierce Animals in the ordinary way, but it is well known that, if One of the Fiercer Animals is Deprived of Its Young, it becomes as fierce as Two of the Fiercer Animals. In which case 'Aha!' is perhaps a foolish thing to say."

"Now then, Pooh," said Christopher Robin, "where's your boat?"
"I ought to say," explained Pooh as they walked down to the shore of the island, "that it isn't just an ordinary sort of boat. Sometimes it's a Boat, and sometimes it's more of an Accident. It all depends."
"Depends on what?"
"On whether I'm on the top of it or underneath it."

I also loved all of the references to Rabbit's relations, which is a detail that Disney left out entirely (as far as I remember) and which I find so incredibly funny: "And all Rabbit's friends-and-relations spread themselves about on the grass, and waited hopefully in case anybody spoke to them, or dropped anything, or asked them the time."

I'm sure this is a favorite book for many of you, and so I have to ask: Do you like the ending? I'm asking this because, to be perfectly frank, I didn't. I loved the rest of the book but was both surprised and sad about the ending. Maybe I'm just too used to contemporary novels where everything has a moral and where kindness is the ultimate objective. But, guys, what about Eeyore? Did your heart not break when he stands up to give his acceptance speech and you know he's in for a bitter disappointment when he finds out the party is actually for Winnie the Pooh? Did you not want to cry when Piglet says, "I'd sooner it was [your party] than Eeyore's." Did you not silently wish that Pooh would see Eeyore's disappointment and give him one of his pencils or say a kind word or give him a little shout-out? Did you not cry out in disbelief, "What?! This is the end?! You're going home?!"

When I got to the end of the story, I did all of those things. Aaron and Maxwell looked at me strangely. It didn't bother them in the same way it did me. And to be honest, I've never heard anyone else even mention the ending, so am I just being overly sensitive? Maybe I just have a soft spot for Eeyore.

In spite of the ending, this book was a treat. The boys and I couldn't wait to read it every night, and the chapters went by much too quickly. It is so fun for me to see how a book that is almost 90 years old can still hold a young audience completely captive.

Virtual Book Club: Inch by Inch

Jun 12, 2013

Leo Lionni was the featured Virtual Book Club author for May (yes, May--since I was posting about Christmas last week, it should come as no surprise that I'm a month behind with the Virtual Book Club as well).

We checked out several Leo Lionni books a couple of months ago and immediately fell in love with Inch by Inch.

In this book, a little green inchworm is on the verge of becoming a hungry robin's breakfast, but he hurriedly explains that he is an inchworm and therefore a very useful creature because he can measure things. The robin is intrigued: "Measure my tail!" he commands. The inchworm stays busy after that, measuring the legs of the heron, the beak of a toucan, etc. All is going well until a nightingale says he must measure her song or be eaten. The inchworm tells her to start singing and then slowly inches away...

Bradley adores this book. I do, too, but I must confess that at this point, I've read it so many times I'm rather thrilled at the prospect of it going back to the library tomorrow. And yet, I can see why he loves it: it's kind of like a seek-and-find book for babies. The inchworm, albeit the main character of the story, takes up no more than an inch of space on each page. So even though he holds a prominent position on each page, it is still a bit of a challenge to find him, what with him being so small and blending in with the grass and all. So it gives Bradley an inordinate amount of satisfaction to point to him on every page and exclaim, "There he is!" (And you better believe that he will not let you turn the page until you acknowledge his job well done.)

The story itself is somewhat unique because of its focus on different kinds of birds instead of just showcasing a variety of animals. I also like the emphasis on why measurements are useful and how it's possible to measure with something besides a ruler.

It was the measuring aspect of this story that made me come up with the following activity.

My boys love using measuring tapes to determine the length of various objects. I always think it's funny when they say something like, "Mom, this is seven pounds long."

I wanted to help them make their own inchworms, so they could use them to measure things. At first I was going to have the length of the inchworm translate to an actual number of inches, but then I realized it really wouldn't matter to my kids. The point of this activity was really just to teach them that we can use different things as measuring tools and that even though "seven inchworms" and "seven inches" may not mean the same thing, "seven inchworms" still gives us a relative idea of how long something is.

If you want to make your own inchworm, here's what you'll need:
  • a piece of elastic (it can be any length (the pieces we used were about three inches long) and any width (we used 1/2" wide elastic))
  • some colorful yarn
  • hot glue gun
  • fabric paint or googly eyes
I let the boys stretch the elastic to figure out how much they wanted. Then I glued the end of yarn to one end of the elastic.

Then the boys wound the yarn all the way up the length of elastic...

...and back down (that way, you still had pretty good coverage even when he was completely stretched out).

I found that it needed a little dot of glue here and there along the way (especially at the ends) to keep the yarn in place. A long stripe of glue along the finished worm didn't work because it all just cracked when the inchworm was stretched out. In all honesty, I never found the perfect method for keeping the yarn in place, but what we did was enough for the boys to still have fun with the worms for awhile.

After they finished winding, and I finished gluing, we added a couple of fabric paint dots (you could use googly eyes instead), and the inchworms were ready to use!

We took them outside, and the boys stretched them out...

...and scrunched them up...

...and then definitively declared: "This step is 22 inchworms long!"

KidPages: Four Books For Father's Day

Jun 11, 2013

With Father's Day just around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to share a few of our favorite picture books that give the spotlight to dear ol' Dad. I hope you enjoy them!

1. The Daddy Mountain, Jules Feiffer
What is it about kids and climbing? Or are my kids the only ones? They're like little monkeys. (Bradley nearly gave me a heart attack a couple weeks ago when he scaled to the top of a six-foot fence and almost made friends with a cow at a farm we were visiting.) But perhaps nothing is so inviting as their tolerant, patient dad.

That's what this book is all about: a little girl trying to make it to the very top of her own tolerant, patient dad. She begins at his feet and narrates the arduous climb with detailed instructions: "I have to be brave. I crawl up a leg of the Daddy Mountain. I hold on tight and go not too fast. It's harder than you think." She eventually makes it, and victory is hers...until her mother sees her.

I am annoyed by one small thing about this book, and that is that it feels like a couple of the pages had to be added in because the book wasn't long enough to meet the standard page requirement for picture books. I won't mention which ones; you just get the book for yourself and see if anything stands out as unnecessary and redundant. Maybe I'm crazy.

I love the illustrations. For most of the book, the dad (aka, mountain) is still and immoveable, gray and granite-looking. Since the book is narrated by the little girl, we see her dad through her own eyes--and she is so lost in the intensity of her climb that she really sees him as an obstacle to be overcome (although she does have the presence of mind to remember that if she grabs his skin (instead of his clothes), he will get mad).

The real reason I love it though is because I have seen my own three boys treat Mike like a mountain--sometimes alone, sometimes all three together (if it's a group hike). I am so happy that a talented author/illustrator observed this favorite past time of children and decided to capture it with words and pictures.

2. The Fathers Are Coming Home, Margaret Wise Brown, illus. Stephen Savage
Lest you be fooled, this book is not about a father coming home from war. Maybe it's just me, but when I first saw the cover and the title, I totally thought I was going to find a story about a Navy father returning home to his young son after serving in World War II.

But, no. Instead, this book is about a wide variety of fathers returning home to their children after a long day's work. There is a fish father and a rabbit father, a bird father and a dog father. And yes, at the end, there's a sailor father who "comes home from the sea, home to his little boy."

One of the things I found so interesting about this book was that, and I quote, "the lion father lives alone, so he comes home to himself." I wasn't disturbed that they showed a father who didn't come home; certainly nature is full of fathers who are totally oblivious to the fact that they even have children. I just thought it deceptive that the lion was singled out as the anomaly, the one and only father who does not care anything about his young, when the book also features a fish, ladybug, daddy longlegs, and snail, all of which, I'm pretty sure, have absolutely nothing to do with their offspring. I just don't really understand the point of the lone lion.

Aside from that, the book is very sweet. There are so many sentimental books about mothers (too many, actually, for my tastes), so I really liked seeing the dads get some of that attention. And this is a sentimental book that actually holds the attention of my kids, which is very rare. It jumps from animal to animal, and so they're kept busy anticipating the next one instead of yawning with boredom. The illustrations are simple, mainly silhouettes, which complement the "end of the day" feeling of the book.

I don't think there's any part of the day that my boys anticipate more than the fifteen minutes every evening when they're watching for Mike to round the corner on his bike. This book perfectly captures that joy.

3. Faster! Faster!, Leslie Patricelli
I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a huge Leslie Patricelli fan. It took me a couple of tries to really warm up to her style (and I still can't say that I love The Patterson Puppies series), but now I'm hooked. Most of her books contain very little text (I think The Patterson Puppies are the only exception to this, which is maybe why I don't like them as much?), and I am consistently amazed with the wit, insight, and creativity she expresses on each simple page.

Faster! Faster! is a perfect example. A little girl begs her daddy for a ride. He gets down on his hands and knees, she grips his necktie in her small hand, and they're off. With her cry of "Faster! Faster!," he picks up speed, and soon she is racing away on a "dog." Then she challenges him again, and with a new burst of energy, she's on a "rabbit." They make their way through a series of faster and faster animals until suddenly she is on a "turtle" and asking, "Faster? Faster?" At that point, they flash back to reality where the daddy is collapsed on the grass, his tongue hanging out in obvious fatigue. But it is enough for his little girl who happily exclaims, "You're fast, Daddy!"

As with The Daddy Mountain, this book celebrates how much fun it is to play with Dad. I'll be honest: I don't give my kids a lot of piggy- or horsey-back rides. Sometimes. On occasion. But not a lot. But Mike? It's pretty much a nightly activity, and Aaron, Maxwell, and Bradley live for it. There is something so different in the way the two of us play with our kids, and they definitely seem to thrive on the variety.

I also love the way this book races through the animals. Each page shows the animal the little girl just abandoned (panting and worn out), the animal she is currently riding, and a hint of the animal that's coming up next. It's such a great way to engage my 20-month-old.

I'm convinced that anyone who says board books can't be great literature (or great entertainment, for that matter) has never read Leslie Patricelli.

4. That's Papa's Way, Kate Banks, illus. Lauren Castillo
This story is narrated by a little girl who goes fishing with her papa one day. She describes their adventures from sunup to sundown: the worms they dig out of the ground, the way her papa whistles as he rows the boat, the waiting, and the first catch of the day. She makes note of the things they do differently but also the really important things that they do exactly the same.

Throughout the story, the little girl frequently makes the observation, "That's Papa's way." Because this phrase is repeated several times, the story could have easily become formulaic and fallen into a predictable pattern of, "we did [such and such] because that's Papa's way." But it didn't. The repetition of "That's Papa's way" ties the story together but doesn't dictate how the story is told.

I love the illustrations, which, to my untrained eye, appear to be done in colored pencil and watercolor. This mixed media has the effect of softening some edges and sharpening others, and even though my lack of artistic talent renders my opinion completely negligible, I still think they're really lovely.

I was instantly endeared to this book because I've always called my own dad "Papa." So even though fishing was never one of our past times, I still felt a certain kinship with the little girl in the story. 

Even though all of these books refer to "dad" or "father" or "papa," each of them could easily be adapted to uncles or grandpas or friends or whoever fills that special place in your life.

Aaron's Preschool: The Legend of the Candy Cane

Jun 6, 2013

Note: This last school year, I participated in two different preschool co-ops--one for my three-year-old son and the other for my four-year-old son. For the older group, we loosely based our curriculum on Five in a Row. For more of my preschool posts, click here.

I'm sorry to revisit December two posts in a row, but this was one of my favorite lessons I did this last year for Aaron's preschool, so I couldn't just let it go undocumented.

The Legend of the Candy Cane is not a Five in a Row book, but I wanted to use it anyway. One of the good things about using Five in a Row is it teaches you how to extend stories and illustrations in ways you never would have thought of before. Consequently, even though I didn't have an actual lesson plan for this book, I was still able to think of lots of ways to extend it and learn from it (and of course random strangers on the internet also helped a great deal...).

The story begins with a stranger riding into town, stopping in front of a boarded up store, and saying, "That will do." He quietly begins working while the townspeople speculate about what he is going to use the store for. Everyone watches from a distance, except for a little girl named Lucy who asks the man if he could use some help. He lets her unpack glass jars and then fill them with candy. That is when Lucy realizes that he is opening a candy store, which is exactly what all of the children were wishing for. In the midst of the unpacking, Lucy discovers a box of candy canes; the man gently explains that the candy cane is a symbol of Jesus Christ--of His birth, His life, and His sacrifice for all of us. Amidst the joy and excitement of a new candy store, the two of them share the message of Christmas with the whole town.

Obviously, this story contains strong Christian themes. Since all of the children that participate in our little preschool co-op are Christians, I knew this would be an appropriate story to share. (Although, I will disclaim that even if you are a Christian, you might not agree with everything in this story: I read a review from one mother who liked the story well enough until she reached the part where it explains that Jesus "bled terribly" and that the red on the candy cane reminds us of His blood and infinite sacrifice. She was horrified at the thought of sharing this with her young daughter. For me personally, I want my children to know that we celebrate the birth of the Baby Jesus because of what He would eventually do for us, and I thought this detail in the book was treated both simply and reverently, so I was not at all offended by it. I share this contrast only to make the point that everyone has different opinions and expectations.)

The illustrations beautifully depict a small town, probably somewhere in the Midwest, around the turn of the century. I saw that a few years ago a new edition of this book was published with new illustrations by Richard Cowdrey. I prefer the original illustrations that were done by James Bernardin. They have a more realistic look about them.

There are a lot of fun Christmas books that I like (and also a lot of fun ones that I find absolutely ridiculous and stupid), but I have a hard time finding serious ones that are both interesting to my children and treat the details of the Christmas season with the quiet and joyful respect I feel they deserve. This book is absolutely perfect because it places those details against the backdrop of a candy store, which is something that intrigues almost every child and makes those details easier to remember and relate to. 

Speaking of candy stores, after reading this book to Aaron and his preschool friends, our first activity focused around our own little candy store.

First, I did a little money lesson with the kids. I explained that a penny is equal to 1¢ and that a nickel is equal to 5¢ or five pennies. We worked on a little addition: 6¢ = one nickel + one penny, 4¢ = four pennies, etc. I don't know how much they actually grasped, but I gave them each their own handful of nickels and pennies and turned them loose in the "candy store."

They were in heaven! They all stood in line and took turns coming up to the candy counter, choosing what they wanted, and paying for it at the cash register (I played the part of the clerk). I think they would have been happy to rotate through the line for the full two hours. Even though there were only five varieties of candy, each time they came through the line, it was like they were experiencing the delight and wonder of the choice and the purchase all over again.

(And no, in case you're wondering if actual candy canes were sold in the store, they were not. Instead, candy canes were featured prominently in the snack. See below.)

The book began on a "dreary evening in the depths of November." Later on, "the town was whipped round by blizzard winds." I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to discuss winter weather, particularly blizzards.

I grew up on the plains of northeastern Colorado. There, it is so windy that almost every snowfall turns into a blizzard.  But here in Salt Lake City, we are protected and sheltered by the mountains, and to see the snow fall sideways instead of straight down is definitely a rarity.

So rare in fact that when I asked the children what a blizzard was, I got a line-up of blank stares. And when I told them about blizzards, they thought they must be one of the coolest tricks winter could offer.

With that in mind, they all sat down to make personalized snow globes. A few days before preschool, I had all of the parents send me a picture of their child bundled up in winter gear. Then I printed the pictures, laminated them, and cut them out.

I took an old Christmas wreath and disassembled it so that we could use the leaves, berries, and evergreen needles in the snow globes as well.

I had each child take the lid of their jar and assemble all of the pieces the way they wanted them. We used a pile of small rocks to make a little nest for the other items to stick into. I used the hot glue gun to glue everything into place.

We filled the jars with water, a little corn syrup to help the glitter fall more slowly, and glitter. Then we carefully inserted the little scene and screwed on the lid.

The kids gave the jars a good shake and watched the glitter swirl around themselves in a beautiful "blizzard."

(Aaron and Max kept their jars for all of December. By the end of the month, some of the pieces had come off the base and the lids were leaking a little bit, so we threw them away, but we loved them so much, I think we'll make them again next December!)

By this point, the kids were very hungry, so we took a break and made candy cane shakes. As far as snacks go, I have a really difficult time thinking of one that will please everyone. This time, a couple of the children objected to the crushed bits of candy cane and went with a plain vanilla shake instead. Sorry, no pictures. I'm sure you can imagine it: ice cream, milk, candy canes...YUM.

For our final activity, we talked about patterns since all candy canes, even the non-traditional ones, feature a repeating pattern.

We made candy cane ornaments out of pipe cleaners and beads.

Some of the children were happy to create repeating patterns; others decided to follow a less-restrictive route.

Even though we only had time for these activities, you could do a lot more with the book: make candy, learn more about life in America at the turn of the century, learn to use carpentry tools, start a business, practice cooperation, do a kind deed, and focus on the religious elements.

Maxwell's Preschool: L is for Light

Jun 4, 2013

Note: This last school year, I participated in two different preschool co-ops--one for my three-year-old son and the other for my four-year-old son. For the younger group, we focused on a different letter and number each week. For more of my preschool posts, click here.

I hope you all don't mind if I finally write up the details to a lesson I did several months ago for my three-year-old son's preschool. It includes some Christmas elements, which, of course, seemed like a fabulous idea when I carried it out in December, but which seem far less fabulous now that it's JUNE. Ah, well. If you want to plan a similar lesson, you can adapt the Christmas segments to something more summery or leave them out or just save the entire outline for December when it will be seasonally appropriate once again.
The letter of the week was L, so I chose to focus on different kinds of lights.
I began by reading Red Light, Green Light by Margaret Wise Brown. The book follows a small town from dawn to dusk and centers around the motion created by the traffic lights: Green Light they can go. Red light they can't

There are many traffic picture books out there, but I specifically chose this one because I love the muted illustrations and the soft rise and fall of the text. Color is used sparingly: mainly black, grey, and brown with splashes of green and red. The subdued colors are especially appropriate as the day fades into night: everyone returns home, the noise and bustle drift away, and the pages slowly become more dark and quiet.

The text follows the activities of a truck, car, jeep, horse, boy, dog, cat, and mouse. Their paths cross and then diverge, and their lives intersect in interesting and unusual ways. I love the gentle repetition (The truck came out of the truck's house / a garage. The car came out of the car's house / another garage) with just the right amount of change (The cat climbed down from the cat's house / a tree. (This was a wild cat.)).

This doesn't seem to be an especially well-known book, but it is one I would definitely recommend if you get the chance. And it was the perfect lead-in to a discussion about lights.

After reading the book, I taught the children a little rhyme called "Green Says Go." I got the idea from RovingFiddlehead KidLit.

I made a flannel traffic light to use with the rhyme: 

I made the flaps so that I could cover up the other lights when they weren't being spoken about in the rhyme:

But honestly, the kids were just happy saying the rhyme and acting it out, so I really think it would have been better to just prop up a picture of a traffic light and then have fun acting it out without worrying about covering and uncovering the various lights.

The rhyme went as follows:

Green says, “Go!” (march quickly)
Go! Go! Go!
Yel­low says, “Slow!” (march slowly)
And red says, “Stop!” (stop and freeze)
Go! Go! Go! (march fast)
Slow…slow…slow (march slowly)
and STOP! (stop)

Then we went to the kitchen to make our own traffic lights. I got the idea for this project here. I gave each of the kids a black piece of cardstock (1 1/2" x 8", folded in half), two green circles, two yellow circles, two red circles (all cut out of craft foam), and a 24" circle of braided red yarn.

They glued the circles to the front and back of the cardstock.

Some were more generous with the glue than others.

Then we put the yarn between the fold of the cardstock and glued the sides together.

And finally, it was ready to be worn for a rousing game of Red Light, Green Light or just shown off as a pretty awesome fashion piece. 

Next, I wanted them to be able to experiment with light and shadows. I threw up a sheet in our basement and plugged in a lamp behind it (okay, I lied--Mike set the whole thing up, but it WAS my idea).

Then the kids took turns going behind the sheet, while the others stayed on the stairs to watch the shadow show.

They also wanted to see what two people looked like and also what would happen if one person was close to the light and the other person was farther away.

For the snack, we had lemon bars (we had to have something that started with "L"!). (In case you're wondering, I made these lemon brownies which I far prefer to a more traditional lemon bar.)

In keeping with our light theme, we stuck birthday candles into the lemon bars.

I had a feeling that this would be the favorite activity of the morning, and it totally was. What three-year-old doesn't like blowing out a birthday candle? They still really wanted to sing "Happy Birthday" even though it wasn't close to anyone's birthday. But then one of them suggested that we sing to Jesus (remember, we were doing this in December). I love how perceptive kids are.

After the snack, I pulled out another book: Christmas Lights by Ann Fearrington.

One of our favorite activities in December is driving around at night and looking at Christmas lights. This book is one family's tour around their town. The reader gets to see all kinds of lights--from elegant trees in the forest to a tacky snowman at the fast-food place. Of course, seeing the lights in real life is definitely better, but at 10:00 in the morning, that wasn't really an option. I think this book captures the real experience so well that if you have gone for a drive at night to look at lights, then looking at these pictures will instantly take you back to your own memories.

A few weeks before planning this preschool lesson, I had seen this adorable thumbprint Christmas light craft. When I started putting this lesson together, I realized it would go along with the theme perfectly, and I was so excited to have a reason to help the kids make one of their own.

Prior to that morning, I free-handed a light string on a piece of cardstock for each child, leaving off all the bulbs.

I ended up helping with the entire process of dipping each child's thumb into different paint colors and placing it on the paper. Slightly older children could have done the picture completely on their own.

Besides the letter "L," this preschool lesson also featured the number 12. I had seen a cute idea for a Santa number game at No Time For Flashcards and thought I could adapt it to stay with our light theme.

I printed several full-page light bulbs and then covered them with the numbers 1-12. All of the "game boards" included all 12 numbers, but there was some variation, as some of the boards had three 2's while others had only two 2's, etc.

Each child received a game board and a pile of cereal (for game pieces).

We played the game like this: one child rolled the twelve-sided die (stolen from the game Killer Bunnies) and then covered up the corresponding number with a cereal piece. Then he passed the die to the next child and she would do the same thing.

The idea was to continue playing until one of the children filled up their entire board, after which they would be called the winner. But in the end, eating the cereal was more fun than putting it on a boring piece of paper, so we wrapped up the game a little early.

However, as I was preparing this post (six months later...), Aaron and Max saw the game boards, and it was like an entirely new activity for them (one of the benefits of waiting six months to post anything). They had so much fun rolling the die and finding the numbers. It actually worked far better with two kids than five and was a great way for Maxwell to review his numbers.

As long as I'm doing a little Christmas in June, tomorrow I will be posting the lesson I did for Aaron's preschool in December. And then, I will leave all things Christmas until at least November. Promise.

P.S. I am sharing this post with Show-and-Share Saturday and the Kid's Co-op.
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