Review x 2: Free Range Learning & Last Child in the Woods

Jul 31, 2013

I decided to review these books together for a number of reasons:
  1. I finished both of them within days of each other.
  2. I read both of them for my education principles group.
  3. Free Range Learning quotes Last Child in the Woods.
  4. Their contents overlap somewhat.
  5. I'm behind on my reviews.
  6. I breathed identical sighs of relief when I was finally finished with each one.

Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything by Laura Grace Weldon

My education principles group includes a pretty even mix of homeschoolers and public/private-schoolers. Our discussions are very well-rounded and inclusive, and it is actually one of the few places where I don't feel like I have to defend or explain any of my parenting/educational/family decisions. It has filled up a part of my life that used to feel like an insecure and puzzling hole. It was truly a tender mercy to find this group.

We try to select a variety of educational titles, but I've noticed that we tend to lean in the homeschooling direction. I am not at all opposed to this, having been homeschooled myself and contemplated homeschooling many times. In fact, I am continually amazed with how a book that is blatantly pro-homeschooling (as this book was) can be so applicable to the population at large.

Free Range Learning makes no apologies for insisting that homeschooling is the best and most ideal method of education for all children. Early in the book, Weldon shared a story from the mom of Jerod, a bright and inquisitive little boy who had a lot of energy and a lot of questions. His experience in public school was unsuccessful from the beginning. His teachers didn't know what to do with all his ideas nor how to keep him entertained and learning for the entire day. His parents eventually started homeschooling him, and his mom later said, "I understand that it would be too hard to have this much learning energy in a classroom. To have twenty-five or more Jerods in one room would be impossible without limiting them somehow."

I have thought about this quote again and again and again. I think it really highlights the differences between public school and homeschooling, and I have come to accept that there is a marked and unchangeable difference. Public school will never be able to individualize education at the same level that homeschooling can. And so if you want that sort of individual attention, you have to homeschool.

And yet, even though I have no immediate plans to homeschool, this book empowered and inspired me. There is so much I can do to guide Aaron's education and love of learning even when he will be spending part of his day learning with the masses.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is mainly a discussion of learning while the second gives resources and ideas for a whole host of subjects from science to history to physical education.

I really enjoyed the first half, particularly chapters 1-3, and that is where most of my inspiration came from. I recognized the importance of letting my children play on their own and be masters of their own education. I've been trying to pay better attention to what they're interested in and provide opportunities for them to run with that interest as much as they want to.

The second half is jam-packed with resources, but (how shall I say this?) I found this section to showcase homeschooling's weirder side (and I say that as affectionately as possible). I didn't look up every single website and book mentioned, but I did investigate the ones that piqued my interest, and most of them were outdated or poorly designed or dealt with the strangest and most unusual subjects. Many of the suggestions within the chapter were also a little non-conformist and unique. In addition, the benefits of video games were lauded about ten too many times for my taste and severely damaged the credibility of the rest of the book for me.

I liked it, and I would recommend some sections of it to others, but to read the entire book was both tedious and time-consuming (I've only been reading it since March). The size of the pages made it feel much longer than 275 pages. Hence, the sigh of relief when it was finished.

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv

I was excited to dive into this book since, besides seeing it referenced in Free Range Learning, I had heard about it from numerous sources.

The basic premise is that nature is, sadly and frighteningly, becoming a thing of the past. We are gradually removing our children from the outdoors or giving them man-made, artificial nature experiences. Not only are we losing our connection with the land, but it is contributing to distressing consequences such as ADHD, environmental problems, and a loss of many beautiful places.

As I listened to this book, I couldn't help but think about my own experiences with nature. Growing up in a rural part of Colorado meant that I was fortunate to spend lots of times in wide (and wild) open spaces. Even though we lived "in town," there were many vacant lots (which receive an inordinate amount of praise in the book). I spent a great deal of time in the little grove of olive and plum trees that ran alongside our house. A wilder place I never saw. It belonged to our neighbors, but they never mowed or pruned or trimmed anything, so it was a perfect hideout and escape.

As a child, I never realized what an extreme privilege it was to be able to hop on my bike and ride anywhere I wanted, but now, knowing that my own children are not going to have the same opportunity, I'm seeing it for the blessing it was.

The book is filled with many personal stories from Louv's own life and the lives of his acquaintances. If I only remember one of those stories, I hope it's the one from the mom who always told her daughter to "Pay Attention" rather than to "Be Careful." I know I tend to lean in the overly cautious and protective direction, but I want my children to feel confident and content in nature, and I think if I changed this one phrase in my vocabulary, it would help them develop the right sort of caution and avoid the debilitating kind.

This should have been a book that I liked, but for some reason I really had to grit my teeth and muscle my way through it. I don't know if maybe it just wasn't the right time to read it (perhaps it was following too close on the heels of other similar books) or if it felt too repetitive or, as someone in our discussion said, "verbose." Whatever the case, it was not an easy, nor very enjoyable, read. In fact, if I hadn't been listening to it on double speed, I probably wouldn't have made it through the entire thing.

Speaking of double speed, here was a case where I was extremely grateful I recently made the transition to listening to books at a faster speed. You would not believe how slowly this narrator (Jonathan Hogan) spoke. Sometimes I'd start listening and have to make sure I actually had it playing twice as fast because it sounded so normal. Then I would switch it back to real time for just a moment so that I could be amazed that anyone would actually listen to it at that pace (which, sadly, would have been me a few weeks ago). I wish I knew how to put up an audio clip of it just so that you could be amazed too.

Honestly, my favorite part of the book may have been when the Conference Center here in Salt Lake City got a shout-out as being an environmentally friendly building because it has a green roof. And my least favorite part of the book? All of the fishing stories. I can tell that Louv loves fishing, so I'm sure it's only natural that he would use fishing as a frequent example. But for someone who doesn't love fishing, it was a little much.

I really am grateful to have read both of these books. I gleaned a lot of great ideas that became more firmly lodged in place as I discussed them with the other women in my education principles group. But I'd be lying if I didn't say I am both relieved and happy that I now get to move onto other books!

Raising Readers: A New Series

Jul 25, 2013

A couple of months ago, I wrote a review about Raising a Reader: A Mother's Tale of Desperation and Delight.  Ever since finishing that book (and probably even before I read it), I've been thinking about the things I've done (and am currently doing) in my own life to foster a love of reading in my kids.

Rather than just making a bulleted list of ideas (there will probably still be many of those anyway), I decided to give this topic its own spotlight on my blog.

It's still in the planning stages, but I've been thinking about it for months, and I finally decided if I didn't just start with something, I would never start with anything.

So forgive me for brainstorming a little with you right now . . .

I'll probably do a post in this series one to two times a month, although I'm not opposed to more (if I have a backlog of ideas) or less (if I have nothing to share).

I'll be writing about such topics as "how to make time for reading," "finding the right level for your early reader," "teaching reading on the sly," etc. Since I have no professional background in teaching (unless the thing being taught includes musical notes), my "knowledge" will all be experiential and restricted to young children (five and under), until my test subjects grow up a little more. :-)

At this point, all three of my kids love books, but if there's one thing I've learned about parenting in the last five years, it's that kids are anything but predictable; they might wake up tomorrow morning and refuse to even cast a glance at a book; they might have learning disabilities; they might (gasp!) prefer other activities. Why, just the other day, I asked Aaron if he thought I liked to read (sometimes my children's perceptions can be most enlightening). "Yes," he said, "you love to read. But I don't." Oh, stab me in the heart, why don't you?!

So just know that this series will be a continuing and evolving one. It will probably be fairly disorganized--sometimes it will be about toddlers or preschoolers or kindergarteners or all three together; there may be times where I say one thing, and then in the next post I have to reclaim it or add an addendum; hopefully, I'll be able to convince a few of you to contribute your own ideas in the form of a guest post. What I'm saying is it will definitely be an "in the trenches" type of series.

Let me know if there's anything you'd like me to address specifically (ha! as if I'm in a position to be taking questions...). And if you have a good idea for the title of this series, I'd love to hear that as well.

Look for the first post next week!

The Versatility of Reading

Jul 24, 2013

Our summer is measured by the number of reunions we can squeeze in. Last weekend was the first one. We still have three more to go, plus a two-week trip to Colorado. So, if my blog posts are a little more spread out than usual, now you know why. (Try as I might, I just can't seem to write posts ahead of schedule. It would be so convenient to have a few that are ready and waiting to be published, but I guess I'm just not a fast writer.)

Anyway, the reunion was great and made better by the fact that Mike's cousin, Rachel, and her darling baby girl spent an additional two days with us. What good fortune! Rachel is an avid reader and writer herself, and so we spent far too much of our time (according to Mike) comparing notes and opinions on books and giving recommendations to each other. It was very sad to say good-bye to her.

During our book conversations (yes, there were many), I kept coming back to the thought, Reading fills so many niches in my life. It is not just one activity, one passion, one interest. It fulfills so much of what I need and want.

Sometimes I'm in the mood for something light but engaging, a book that will pull me in and keep me turning pages late into the night. That's exactly the kind of book I wanted to read this last weekend. Luckily, I'd just received an ARC of Blackmoore in the mail (yes! an ARC! my excitement over this could fill an entire blog post by itself), and it fit the bill perfectly. (I wish I was still reading it...)

I know a lot of readers who want this type of book every time they read. Reading is their escape, and if it takes too much effort to escape, then it's just not worth it.

But for me, the need to escape is only one of the reasons I read:

I read to learn. I love nonfiction. When I was younger, I don't think I had any idea how much I would love it. But there's something so invigorating about learning something new or thinking about a subject in a new way. True, the words don't slide by quite as easily, but making the effort is so worth it.

I read to laugh. The Great Brain was one of the first books I really remember laughing over.

I read to cry. Reading is often a very active experience for me. It gets my emotions all fired up, and even if the story is completely fictional, I feel joy and sorrow in very real ways.

I read to discover other times and places. History becomes so much more real to me when I invest the time to read about it.

I read to grow my imagination. Even though I consider myself a pretty dull person, when I'm reading, I don't feel so dull (although, considering the fact that I'm sitting there with my nose in a book, maybe I should...).

I read to improve myself. It might be my parenting skills or my attitude or the way I manage my time or keep my house clean. I love diving into a book and resurfacing with good ideas (even if I already knew those things going in).

I read to spend time with my family. I was reminded of this last night when I was reading to Aaron and Maxwell before they went to bed. They were each tucked in on either side of me and listening intently to Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great by Bob Shea. After one particularly funny line (that went something like this: Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah...hilarious, right?), those two little boys cracked up. They laughed themselves silly. They threw back their heads and melted into heaps on the bed. I couldn't even continue for at least a full minute, and every time they thought of that part of the book, those same infectious giggles bubbled up again. I wouldn't have traded that moment for anything.

I read to stretch myself. That's why I made myself try a new genre this year. Reading helps me go outside my comfort zone in a very safe, introverted way.

I read to be inspired. Did you know there are people out there who have done some pretty amazing things? Reading about what other people have gone through and overcome makes me think I can conquer my battles, too.

I read to ponder. I love reading a book that makes me stop mid-page and puzzle over something in my mind or that comes back to me later in another place.

I read to be amazed by words and language. I appreciate beautiful writing so much. I know it not only takes a hefty amount of talent but also a lot of hard work and dedication to make a sentence sing or a phrase leap off the page or a word burn deep into my heart. When I encounter writing like this, it engages all my senses and fills me with awestruck gratitude.

I know there are many people who stick strictly to one genre, and I have such a difficult time understanding that. Reading extends into every part of my life, and I'm so grateful that no matter my mood or my circumstances or my needs, there's a book for that.

Why do YOU read?

KidPages: Four Great Books for Summer

Jul 18, 2013

Summer and I are getting along famously.  Of course, I am not crazy-in-love with the 100+-degree days, but I'll tell you what I am in love with:
  • Gorgeous mornings - do you even realize what the world is like at 6:00am? I do, and it's heavenly.
  • Bare feet - my neighbor has repeatedly told me I need to put shoes on my kids, but does he not notice that I am also shoeless? If I had his yard full of ouchy weeds, then I might consider shoes, but I don't, so I won't.
  • Quick go time - take away the abundance of winter accessories (coat, socks, boots, hats, mittens, etc.), and we can be out the door pretty darn fast. It's so nice to be able to say, "Let's go!", and the only thing we have to grab are pairs of flip-flops (yes, I do require some form of footwear out in public).
  • Light nights (not be confused with nightlights) - I'll admit it is more difficult to get my kids in bed by a decent hour, but man, it's nice to be able to stay outside until 9:00 and enjoy playing and working and making friends.
  • Barbeques, swimming, bike rides, parks, outdoor concerts, camping - do I need to go on? It's so easy (and cheap) to have fun in the summer.
Honestly, the heat doesn't concern me because (unlike winter) there are still pleasant periods every day where it is enjoyable to be outside. And for those stifling hours where all you want to do is stay parked in front of the AC? Well, that's what this book list is for. Enjoy!

1. Butterfly, Butterfly, Petr Horáček
Every time I open this book, I think, Oh, Summer, how nice that you've arrived. The colorful illustrations, depicting a carefree little girl who spends all day outside, make me think of my own childhood that, in many ways, was just as idyllic.

The story begins with Lucy who sees a butterfly and plays with it all morning. The next day, she can't find her butterfly friend so goes in search of it. She finds a worm and a spider and ladybugs, among other creatures, but it isn't until the very end that all her hard work pays off.

This book is geared toward a young audience, which makes it perfect for my family. It has limited and simple text. It also includes little cut-outs on several of the pages and a beautiful pop-up butterfly at the end (which was thankfully still intact when we borrowed it from the library...hope it's still that way when we return it). 

The illustrations are also simple with broad, crayon-like strokes and minimal detail. The colors are bold and vibrant: deep blues, happy yellows, flamboyant reds. It feels like summer because it seems to be bursting with life and energy.

Bradley (who is now a couple months shy of being two) loves this book. He loves pointing at the various pictures and saying, "'Sap [what's that]?" It can get a little tedious actually. Many times, it takes a full three minutes to even make it past the page that's directly inside the cover because he won't let you turn it until you've identified everything on it. So don't be fooled by it's short length. Bradley can drag it out a good ten minutes.

2. The Watermelon Seed, Greg Pizzoli
There was a time in my life when I didn't love watermelon. In fact, as recently as two years ago, I would pass it up at most picnics in favor of other fruit. But no longer. I am fully converted. When people say, "But it's, like, all water," I say, "I know! Isn't it fabulous? It's like drinking a fruit!" Seriously, what other kind of food can quench your thirst? Plus, I love that we can buy one on Monday and still be eating it on Saturday.

The crocodile in this story also loves watermelon. But one day, he gets a little overzealous in his chomping and slurping and fails to notice a big, black seed . . . until it is too late. He worries and worries about all of the terrible things that will happen to him with a watermelon growing inside him, but luckily, an epic burp saves him just in time.

This book works for me for a number of reasons: First, as with Butterfly, Butterfly, the text is very simple. The crocodile narrates, and he proves to be a reptile of few words. Second, the color scheme is delightfully different--lime green, watermelon pink, white, and black. That's it. It sets the perfect mood for this fun and quirky book. And third, it takes a common fear of childhood ("What will happen if I swallow a watermelon seed?") and treats it a little bit seriously but mostly just comically. I think it's impossible not to laugh at the crocodile's predicament, both because you can relate but also because you see just how ridiculous it is to succumb to such far-fetched worries.

3. A Camping Spree with Mr. Magee, Chris Van Dusen
Need I tell you again that Chris Van Dusen is one of our favorite authors/illustrators? We've read every single book he's published and have yet to find one we didn't love.

We were originally introduced to Mr. Magee and his little dog, Dee, in Down to the Sea With Mr. Magee. If you haven't read that one, read it first (it would be another great summertime choice), and then check out this one, which is all about their unexpected adventures while going camping.

Their camping trip begins innocently enough: the drive up into the mountains is pleasant, their campsite has fantastic views, and the roasted hot dogs and marshmallows really hit the spot. But then, after bunking down for the night, an unwelcome visitor arrives. He's only after that bag of marshmallows (a good lesson in cleaning up your campsite), but in the process, he accidentally unhitches the camper, and away it rolls down the mountain and right to the edge of the . . . waterfall!

The story is told in rhyme, and it's just the kind of poetry I love to read out loud; it isn't sophisticated, but you don't even have to think about how to read it. You just start, and within seconds, your mouth has fallen into the pattern, and it's like driving with the cruise control on. There are no unexpected bumps or jolts--a missed syllable here or an unnatural inflection there. It lilts and flows perfectly.

You want an example? Sure:
As the embers went out, they felt tired and dozy, / So they climbed in their bunk beds, all comfy and cozy, / But while they were falling asleep without care, / Along came a stumbling, bumbling bear.
It's actually kind of addictive: once I start reading the words, I just want to keep going and going and going. Try it. You'll see what I mean.

The other thing I loved about this particular story is that it follows the same structure as Down to the Sea... It begins the same way (by stating the time and the plans for the day); everything is all sunshine and happy anticipation; then suddenly, in the middle of the story, Mr. Magee and Dee are confronted with a most unexpected problem which involves them being precariously stranded many feet up in the air; and finally, at the end of their story, they make the best of their day and find that sometimes it's just as fun to stay home. There is another Mr. Magee book (Learning to Ski With Mr. Magee), and it also follows the same outline. The familiarity is delightful and also ingenious.

4. Sam and the Firefly, P.D. Eastman
Most of the time, I love where we live, but every summer, a part of me yearns for the states farther east for one reason only: fireflies. My grandma lives in Nebraska, and every summer, we'd visit her and spend hours in the evening catching those magical bugs. They were slow enough you could just reach out and cup your hands around them. Their little tiny light was fixating, and when you put several in a jar, you created your own little lantern.

My grandma also owned this book, which was definitely a favorite. Sam is an owl--a conscientious, intelligent, and kind owl (with high morals). His friend, Gus the firefly, is much more fun-loving, mischievous, and downright naughty. One evening, Gus gets into a heap of trouble by writing words in the sky with his light. It started out as just a fun game, but soon Gus is causing traffic accidents and angry customers. The man running the hot dog stand is quite put out and traps Gus in a jar and drives him into the country. Unfortunately, his truck gets stuck right on the railroad tracks just as a train is making it's way around the bend. Gus is the only one who can save him in time.

This book was an instant hit with the boys. I pretty much love it when I don't even have to try to make them love books from my childhood. I just started reading, and they were hooked. They liked the first half because it was funny (unfortunately, they found Gus's antics quite hilarious). They liked the second half of the book because it was exciting: the train was coming, getting closer and closer, and Gus was trapped inside a jar.

Besides the comedy and excitement, however, I think one of the main reasons my boys love this book so much is because fireflies are such a novel idea to them. It's like snow for Arizonians. They've never seen fireflies before, but just reading this story makes them desperate to hold one in real life. (And when they finally do get to see them, it will be even better than they imagined.)

This is meant to be an easy reader, but I promise you, it will not be one of those books you cringe to read because the words and sentence structure are so painfully simple. And, if you happen to have an early reader like I do, then it's even more perfect because after you read it once, then he will happily read it a second time...and a third...and a...

Those of you who grew up with fireflies, tell me, am I idolizing them too much?

If, after reading these four books, you're still desperate for more, here are a few more ideas:
  • Erica @ What Do We Do All Day? recently posted a great list of summer books (our favorite new find was The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson).
  • All of Robert McCloskey's books have a particular summer feel to them, especially Blueberries For Sal. I actually was going to feature one of our favorites, One Morning in Maine, on this list, but then I couldn't decide if it actually took place in the summer or not (can you dig for clams in the summer, or is it restricted to the winter months? This Utahn has no idea.). Regardless, all his books are reminiscent of simpler times and carefree days
  • What could be more summery than bugs? Check out our two lists of bug books here and here.
P.S. I shared this post with the Kid's Co-op.

Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson

Jul 15, 2013

If you want to see how the Newbery award has changed over the last 91 years, look no farther than one of the old winners.

Aaron, Maxwell, and I recently finished Rabbit Hill, winner of the Newbery Medal in 1945, and, well, let's just say that times have changed (more on that in a minute).

The animals are all astir on Rabbit Hill. Finally, after a vacant period and unsatisfactory owners before that, new Folks are coming to live in the farmhouse! Father Rabbit, Little Georgie, Porkey the Woodchuck, Willie the Fieldmouse, and Phewie the Skunk are bursting with excitement and anticipation. There are worries, of course, and Mother Rabbit articulates many of them, but in the end, the New Folks prove to be as near to completely perfect as can be.

Rabbit Hill was cute (how could it not be with a young rabbit named Little Georgie and a skunk named Phewie?), but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it was a slow, tedious read. For Maxwell. For Aaron. And for me. I know we were all a little grateful when we turned the last page and closed the book.

For Aaron and Max, I know one of the main obstacles to get past was the language. It was so hard for them to understand. I like to think that they have at least average vocabularies, but this was well outside their realm of comfort.

Father Rabbit was one of the main culprits, as he was given to long, wordy, and superfluous speeches. Here's an example (it was not difficult to find one):
"'In such an event,'" he said, "'we should merely be forced to change our place of residence. Our present location down here in the hollow, although made dear through long association, is, at certain seasons of the year, indubitably damp, not to say wet. I have noted of late a slight tendency toward gout (a family inheritance) which might be greatly benefited by a removal to a somewhat more elevated location.'"
I have no problem with explaining words or sentences to the boys. I've said before that one of the reasons I love reading to them is because it gives us a chance to talk about words and learn new things.

But honestly, having to explain every little thing was not only tedious, it also tragically disrupted the flow of the story. And really, when you have to take a paragraph like the one above and cut it down to "they might have to move to a drier, safer place," it somehow loses any of its original charm. So sometimes I explained, and sometimes I didn't. But when I didn't, their eyes glazed over, and I could tell their minds were definitely not on Rabbit Hill.

Now, of course I realize that cutting out all of Father Rabbit's monologues would have been akin to discrimination. He was perfectly cast as the well-bred and intelligent Southerner, and I certainly wouldn't want to change that. I, for one, thought his speeches were both witty and amusing. But for three- and four-year-old boys? They just didn't work.

Likewise, even when Father Rabbit wasn't speaking, the language was still difficult to understand. One of my favorite lines came after describing the summer rains when it said: "It was good weather for gardens but bad for dispositions." But I realized that even a simple sentence like that required a follow-up explanation.

My huge hangup was my absurd inability to keep the story in my head. Each time we picked it up, I absolutely could not remember what had just happened or who all the animals were. This happened regardless of whether we had a few days between chapters or just a few hours.

I realize this is sadly a reflection of my own inadequate ability to retain information. But, in my defense, I will say that the slow-moving (even at times, stagnant) plot must have contributed somewhat to my lack of retention. I can't tell you how many pages were spent anticipating the new Folks arrival; it went on and on, with plenty of words from Father Rabbit and crotchety old Uncle Analdas thrown in.

Even in the "exciting moments" (little Georgie leaping over an enormously wide river while being chased by a dog; or later on, being hit by a car), it felt aggravatingly uneventful, like a warm summer day with the occasional fly buzzing around. There was a climax of sorts, followed by a very happy ending, but we definitely took the scenic route getting there, and the scenery wasn't all that interesting.

Part of me feels disloyal making such statements since I usually vote in favor of rich character development and beautifully vivid descriptions, but I just never fell into the rhythm with this book.

Honestly, I think the best part of the book (for both the boys and me) was Little Georgie's song. Man, that catchy little tune and those repeating words got stuck in our heads like you wouldn't believe. But instead of being annoying, every time we started singing them, we could totally understand how that little song could have been passed from animal to animal to human back to animal all over the Hill.

When I said at the beginning of this post that times have changed, I meant it as a neutral statement. Rabbit Hill is very different from most children's books that are published today. That's not a bad thing, but it does mean that some stories just aren't as accessible now as they were then. I hope that doesn't mean that our children are dumber now than they were in 1945, but I can't help but think that in some ways, we do over-simplify things to a fault.

Now does this mean that I am not going to read older books to my kids? Are you kidding me? Goodness, no! Our favorite books so far (Winnie-the-Pooh, Charlotte's Web, The Cricket in Times Square, and The Enormous Egg) have all been older titles. What's more, just after finishing Rabbit Hill, we started reading Betsy-Tacy, and it was like a breath of fresh air: still describing an older time and place with some words they didn't know, but one hundred times more engaging. I wish I could put my finger on what the difference is. Maybe one of you can.

Don't get me wrong, this really is a sweet book, and I hope I haven't discouraged you from giving it a try. I think if I'd read it by myself, I would have enjoyed it more. It was just difficult for me to find it interesting when I could tell that it was going over my boys' heads. But obviously, we liked it at least a little bit or we wouldn't have kept reading.

Beyond the Wood by Michael J. Roueche

Jul 12, 2013

Three years ago, I read Killer Angels in early June right before visiting Gettysburg. Two years ago, I filled July and August with Uncle Tom's Cabin. And then last year, I spent a good chunk of the summer reading Gone With the Wind. Are you seeing where I'm going with this? Probably not, because I think it's just my own weird brain that has somehow linked together the Civil War and the heat of the summer. (Okay, so Uncle Tom's Cabin is not actually set during the Civil War, being written before it began, but Abraham Lincoln supposedly called Harriet Beecher Stowe "the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war," so close enough.)

I've realized for a long time that I have a slight obsession with reading books at the appropriate time of year (hence, the Reading With the Seasons series), but I had no idea that I'd carried it so far as to impose certain seasons onto periods in history. Obviously, the Civil War was not restricted to just the summer months, but now when I think of the Civil War (which is not that often, I assure you), I always picture green forests and humid heat.

I very well might have broken this strange tradition if not for my friend, Sarah, who gave me a copy of Beyond the Wood at the very beginning of summer. Call it fate or coincidence or lucky, but there I was with a book set during the Civil War just thrust upon me, and what else was I supposed to do but read it? (That was frightfully perceptive of you, Sarah.)

The story begins in present day Virginia as a young man named Reid makes his way to a Civil War battle site. It is a journey he promised his late father he would make. One of their ancestors, Henry Gragg, fought in the war, but Reid knows very little about him. Luckily (or miraculously?), when he arrives at the battlefield, there is a young woman who knows, quite intimately it would seem, the story of Henry "Hank" Gragg.

Hank was born in Virginia, but when the Civil War broke out, he signed up with the Union. A couple of years before, he had been refused by the love of his life, Betsy. In angry embarrassment and grief, Hank had abruptly left home and moved to Indiana where he later joined the army. After his first battle, he accidentally crossed paths with a dying Confederate soldier who begged Hank to take a letter to his wife. Hank agreed and soon found himself facing danger, friendship, grief, and hope as he strove to keep a promise and find the love and acceptance he so desperately wanted.

While I love historical fiction, I'm not a huge fan of war details (which often presents a problem since so many novels are set during periods of war). When Mike heard that I was looking for a complete series to read this year, he suggested Jeff Shaara's World War II series (The Rising Tide, etc.). Yeah, right. Not unless I want to impose agony on myself. (Although, in all fairness, I quite liked the aforementioned Killer Angels, which focuses completely on the Battle of Gettysburg, but it was a slow read for me.) It's not the violence itself that bothers me (usually) but rather all the details and descriptions and strategies and layouts and geography that I just can't seem to keep track of or make myself care about.

So I was somewhat wary going into this novel, particularly because it started right off the bat with a battle. But it turned out to have just the right balance (for me) between battle descriptions and emotional character development. The battles that were described drove the plot forward and had a definite purpose beyond just a lot of gratuitous violence.

Rather than war details, the balance tipped heavily in favor of romance and suspense/drama outside the war. The romance is a bit on the cheesy/unbelievable side--Hank becomes completely consumed with imagining a romance between himself and the widow of the Confederate soldier; he has a few letters from her on which to base his attachment, and even goes so far as to say at one point that "topping the list as his most important reason for living was the woman." What? An imagined romance was more important than his very real family?

I'm not saying I didn't like the romance (quite the was one of the main reasons I wanted to keep reading), and I actually left out some important details that give a little more depth to the whole relationship, but I will admit that there were times when I thought, Really, Hank? Are you that desperate?

I mentioned that the book begins in present day Virginia. And except for this beginning prologue, a few pages in the middle, and two pages at the very end, most of the book is set firmly in 1862-64. Because of that, I really would have preferred not to have Reid's story at all. The reader is told that Reid has been unsettled for many years: "He had done poorly in school, lost a couple of jobs, failed in romance." I felt like the prologue set up the reader to really experience this story through Reid's eyes. I thought I would get to see how the story changed him and helped him. I was expecting some more back story so I could fully understand why it was so vital that he visit this place.

But none of that happened. It didn't feel like Hank's story was being narrated by anyone in particular...certainly not the woman Reid meets in Virginia who is supposedly telling the story. And even though Reid is moved and touched by the details, the reader never gets well-enough acquainted with him to really care. I think Reid's story was supposed to bridge the years and connect the generations and give modern relevance to the Civil War, but instead it felt out of place. For my taste, there either needed to be more or none at all.

But where the novel really fell short for me was with the ending. I felt like everything was set up so well but then just left unfinished. I realize that there is going to be a sequel to this book, but if the final scene was purposely left vague to act like a cliffhanger, it had the opposite effect on me. It doesn't seem likely that the author will pick up the next book exactly where this one left off, but even if he did, that final scene will not be the same coming at the beginning of the book rather than the end. There was a lot of suspense and foreshadowing leading up to it, but then it felt only half complete. The characters didn't finish their discussion; the scene just cut off, almost mid-sentence. What had so much potential to be a beautifully sweet and poignant moment instead felt awkward and inadequate. Maybe I'm just too much of a romantic.

The pages leading up to that final scene were also somewhat dissatisfying and disturbing. Hank's behavior confused me, there was almost no closure to a horrific scene, and justice was avoided. I liked the rest of the book so well, so to have the ending feel like it completely fell apart was very disappointing for me.

But if I forget about the ending, I can honestly say that I really liked this book. I loved the characters, especially Margaret and Naomi. One of my favorite scenes occurred when Margaret is faced with the decision to forgive or seek revenge. She spends much of the night struggling and battling within herself, and eventually she feels a deep and powerful peace. I thought that process was beautifully felt both familiar and empowering.

In spite of its 500+ pages, the story had plenty of drama and excitement to keep the pages slipping away. I wasn't ready for it to be over (obviously. see above), and I'm really looking forward to the next book. This book was printed through an independent publisher, so it's a little bit hard to get a hold of (if you rely heavily on library copies for most of your reading material, as I do). But if it sounds interesting to you, I would encourage you to buy a copy (not an affiliate link), or you're more than welcome to borrow my copy (provided I don't have to ship it to you...). The content is clean, so I can recommend it without reservation.

And now that I've read a Civil War novel in the summer for four years in a row, I think it's safe to say this has become an annual tradition for me. Now accepting suggestions for Summer 2014!

The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis

Jul 10, 2013

After reporting on my reading goals last month, I realized that I needed to check off a few more of my goals pronto. I already had The Magician's Nephew from the library, and with my newly-acquired, super-fast listening skills, I blazed through it almost before I could blink.

It was a fabulous book.

When I read The Silver Chair, I was pretty sure it would be my favorite in the series. But then The Horse and His Boy surprised me by so completely surpassing my expectations that I thought the last two books would have to be disappointing by comparison. I can't speak for The Last Battle yet, but The Magician's Nephew was so wonderfully different from the first five that I immediately fell in love with it. I'm tempted to say it's my favorite one so far, but then again, I think it might be impossible to choose a favorite. That, and I'm still basking in the glow of having just finished it, so I don't think I can offer a reliable opinion at this point. Maybe when I'm completely done with the series.

This story begins well before Lucy Pevensie's fateful step into the wardrobe. It stars Digory, a young boy who has come with his ill mother to live with his aunt and uncle, and Polly, the girl who lives in a nearby apartment. One afternoon when Digory and Polly are exploring, they stumble unexpectedly into Uncle Andrew's forbidden room. Uncle Andrew, an amateur magician of sorts, is only too happy to have a couple of guinea pigs and soon convinces Polly to take up a beautiful yellow ring. Upon touching it, Polly instantly disappears, and Digory is left with no other choice (much to Uncle Andrew's delight) than to go after her and bring her back. Their adventures take a definite turn for the worse when they unleash the Empress Jadis from a powerful spell. Within minutes, she is on a quest to conquer the world, and the children are baffled how to stop her.

This story answers a great number of questions about how Narnia and the White Witch and the wardrobe came to be. Because it is a prequel to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it is now most commonly placed at the beginning of the series and read first. I think this is a grave mistake. Just as this book sheds new light on Narnia and its characters, knowing what's to come also provides a certain amount of insight into the events in Digory's story.

For my part, I think I would have enjoyed reading this book far less if I hadn't read it against the backdrop of the six previous books. I've been reading the whole series in the order of publication, and up until The Magician's Nephew, it didn't really seem like that big of a deal. But now it does. Putting The Magician's Nephew at the beginning rather than the end would provide a completely different reading experience. Maybe there is merit and value to both orders, and I have a feeling this topic could evolve into an entire blog post of its own, but I am going to make my stand firmly in the camp of publication order. Anyone else with me?

(However, it is interesting to note that C.S. Lewis actually started writing The Magician's Nephew after finishing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but he didn't finish it until after he finished writing The Last Battle. So theoretically, it seems you could make the case of reading it at just about any point in the series.)

This is the only Narnia book where an adult (actually three adults) cross the barrier into the Narnian world, and it introduced some unexpected twists to the plot and also a great deal of insight.

I was especially interested (and at times, amused) by Uncle Andrew's reaction to this new, unimagined world. Even though it was he who was playing with magic that resulted in them all (Digory, Polly, the cabby, Strawberry (the horse), eventually the cabby's wife, and himself) being transported to Narnia, he resisted it the entire time. Rather than embrace what he was seeing, he chose to ignore or fight it.

One of the scenes that affected me the most was during the creation of Narnia. Under Aslan's song, the trees and animals began to appear, and Uncle Andrew shut himself away from the experience.

Forgive me for quoting such a long passage, but perhaps it will impact you as it did me:
[Uncle Andrew] had disliked the song very much. It made him think and feel things he did not want to think and feel. Then, when the sun rose and he saw that the singer was a lion ("only a lion," as he said to himself) he tried his hardest to make believe that it wasn't singing and never had been singing - only roaring as any lion might in a zoo in our own world. "Of course it can't really have been singing," he thought, "I must have imagined it. I've been letting my nerves get out of order. Who ever heard of a lion singing?" And the longer and more beautiful the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring. Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan's song. Soon he couldn't have heard anything else even if he had wanted to. 
Sadly, Uncle Andrew's experience struck a chord of familiarity within me. As I grow older, I find myself growing more and more skeptical and less and less trusting of experiences I have. I witness miracles and then in the next moment think, What a lucky coincidence!  Sometimes, I'm hesitant to acknowledge the hand of the Lord in case I'm being naive. And sometimes I'm afraid to trust because it makes me feel vulnerable.

Seeing Uncle Andrew's behavior helped me look at my own doubts and fears a little more honestly, and I realized that it is so easy to let those doubts and fears overcome good judgement and common sense. It reminded me of this quote by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland that I have thought about continually since he said it in last April's General Conference: "Honestly acknowledge your questions and your concerns, but first and forever fan the flame of your faith, because all things are possible to them that believe." As silly and ridiculous as Uncle Andrew was, he really embodied the qualities that so many adults have today as they rely heavily on only logic and evidence.

There were many other moments of wisdom throughout the story (another favorite (said about the fruit of the tree): "All get what they want. They do not always like it."), and once again, I was amazed at the quiet symbolism that was unpretentiously waiting behind a really great story.

Some think that this was the hardest book for C.S. Lewis to write because it took him so long, and he left it several times to work on other things. Regardless of whether or not that is true, it does seem plausible that the other books influenced this one and that the plot and pacing and structure probably changed over time. If Lewis had finished (and published) it before writing the rest of the books, I'm sure it would not be the same novel we have today. And what a tragedy that would be.

Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis For Girls by Leonard Sax

Jul 5, 2013

One of the reasons I loved Boys Adrift so much (yes, I'm talking about that book again) is because I have three boys of my own, so it felt very applicable as well as necessary (because, honestly, who wants their sons to turn into 26-year-old men who still live with their parents and sit around playing video games all day? Not me.).

I read Leonard Sax's book about girls for different reasons. (Obviously. In case you haven't noticed, I am in the extreme minority in our house.) First, it was selected as June's reading for my education group. Second, I noticed how Boys Adrift helped me understand all boys better, not just my sons. I was hoping for the same result with girls. Third, I may (or may not) have a daughter one day. In that unlikely event, it's best to be prepared.

But the one reason that never entered my mind, but that now seems the most glaringly obvious, is that, hello, I'm a girl. Most days, I don't consider myself "on the edge," and I think that's why I didn't think about the book applying to me personally. But it did. I could see my past self (that 14-year-old Amy) reflected in several of the girls' stories. And I could also see how there was a lot of wisdom that I could still apply to my life today, right now.

"The four factors driving the new crisis for girls" (which I was too lazy to include in the title above) are: sexual identity, the cyberbubble, obsessions, and environmental toxins.

The chapter about sexual identity was difficult to listen to. I was shocked, shocked I tell you, to hear about all the shallow, meaningless ways that teenage girls today are using their bodies. This is not one of the parts of the book I related to. As a teenager, I lived a very sheltered and naive life (in many ways, I still do), and if this type of behavior was going on with my peers, I honestly knew very little about it. It makes me sick and sad to know that so many girls feel uncomfortable with who they are and feel the need to present an image or persona of someone they're not.

I definitely would not say I felt comfortable in my own skin when I was 14. I felt awkward and insecure and ugly and stupid, but at the same time, I think I realized that my problems would only get worse, far worse, if I tried to be someone I wasn't or tried to get attention in an unhealthy way. One thing I can say for myself during those years is that I was, for the most part, very genuine.

That said, the chapter that my 14-19 year-old self related most to was the one about obsessions. He talked about eating disorders, sports, and academics as all being things that girls obsess over. For me, I didn't care one whit about what food I ate (or how much) or how athletic I was (that was a lost cause), but I did care A LOT about academics--about being the one who could play anything on the piano, answer questions intelligently, and make good choices. In the end, I think I came through okay (and avoided so many of the joint problems Dr. Sax mentions), but looking back, I can see there were many times when that desire for perfection translated into a physical need that I had to appease.

In another section of the book, Dr. Sax talked extensively about the benefits of single-sex education. This was a topic he also spent a great deal of time on in Boys Adrift. He related a lot of research in both books about why boys learning with other boys and girls learning with other girls is so beneficial--and the reasons are totally different. For boys, they're able to focus more on competition and kinesthetic learning. Girls are able to focus more on the emotional aspects of their subjects and also not worry so much about what others are thinking about them.

Of course one of the natural questions that arise from single-sex education is, "How can we possibly prepare kids for the real world if we separate them? The real world is made up of men and women working together." Dr. Sax addressed this issue over and over again. I found this subject particularly interesting when he was talking about sports and how much more dangerous it is for girls to coached in the same way as boys.

He said: "In the gym, as in the classroom, we teach girls pretty much the same way we teach boys, simply because there hasn't been much serious consideration that maybe what works best for boys might not always be the best way for girls. I still encounter suspicion when I suggest that girls should be taught differently, either in the classroom or on the playing field. Any such suggestion may elicit the response, 'Are you suggesting that girls can't do what the boys can do?' But ignoring differences between girls and boys doesn't provide a level playing field. As we will see, it often puts girls at a disadvantage and at risk."

This is what I find so interesting: here we are, trying to make everything fair and equal, and in reality, in many cases, we're putting both boys and girls at a disadvantage because it is so difficult to find satisfactory middle ground.

I have to say that the more I read about single-sex education, the more I like it. I don't think it's necessarily the best option for all children, but as Dr. Sax points out, if you have at least three classrooms per grade, why not make one of them all girls, one all boys, and the third one co-ed? Each child learns so differently anyway, why don't we make it a little easier on ourselves (and on teachers) by focusing teaching methods so they are more gender specific? And as far as making sure girls and boys know how to work together, he gives several examples where the actual subject is taught to boys and girls separately but then they come together for all sorts of other activities where they can just have fun and socialize and work together.

Since I don't have any children in school yet, I really can't speak to any of this, but I do know that if, in the future, one of my boys is struggling in school, I would definitely consider finding a single-sex classroom or school (which will be mighty difficult in Utah) or organizing a group of like-minded parents to request that some changes be made (or, I might just homeschool...).

Moving on...

One of my favorite chapters in the book was the one about spirituality and finding good role models among all generations of women. He made a similar point in Boys Adrift, but it didn't mean as much personally to me then.

This time, I easily recognized how my life has been so blessed by the amazing women I've had the privilege of learning from and befriending during my life. Dr. Sax said that every girl should have a few really good friends (at most, five), and that these should be made up of one or two girls her own age, her mom, an aunt or cousin, and/or another unrelated woman in the neighborhood or community.

This advice struck a personal chord with me because this is exactly what I had as a teenager: I had a couple of really good friends that were my same age; my mom was probably my closest confidant; but I also had several other women (my sewing teacher, my organ teacher, and a teacher from church) who I easily related to and loved spending time with.

When I mentioned at the beginning of this review that there was a lot of wisdom in this book that I felt like I could still apply to my life today, this was the part of the book I was referring to. My life is still richly blessed every day by the wide variety of women I count in my group of closest friends.

Dr. Sax mentioned that it is easiest to find and cultivate these diverse friendships if you belong to some type of group or organization which includes women from all ages and walks of life. I can certainly see that the women's organization in my church (the Relief Society) has facilitated and encouraged many of my friendships as I have learned from and served with many other women. I have always loved being a part of Relief Society, but reading this book cast it in a whole new light, and I appreciated it even more.

Before I wrap up this once-again-far-too-lengthy review, I just want to say one word (give or take, haha) about the audio. This was my first attempt at listening to something at double speed. I have to admit, I was afraid to do it. I've played audiobooks on double speed before, but it always sounded so fast that I literally turned it back to regular speed after no more than three seconds.

But then last week, Janssen wrote a post about how to listen to books on double speed, and she said that after you listen for a bit, your brain will adjust to the new speed. I decided to give it another try. I committed myself to listen to at least five minutes of this book at double speed, and if it still sounded like a train wreck, I would give up.

But wonder of wonders, after less than a minute, I totally didn't even notice how fast the narrator was speaking. In fact, she sounded almost normal. I could still hear her inflections and emphases and accents just as if I were listening to it at a normal speed. It was incredible. And I literally flew through the book (or as Janssen so aptly put it, I zipped through it like a book-reading ninja). (And now, of course, I'm kicking myself for not figuring this out when I was listening to Gone With the Wind last summer. Double speed would have made that narrator sound normal.)

Even though there was some repetition between Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge, I found it very enlightening to read both of them. Hey, if I read Dr. Sax's third book, Why Gender Matters, can I count those three books as the trilogy I need to complete one of my goals?

Aaron's Preschool: Roxaboxen

Jul 3, 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.

 For Aaron's very last preschool class of the year, we had it at our house and used the book Roxaboxen by Alice McLearran as the basis for all our learning.

I don't think there is a more perfect picture book for summer than Roxaboxen. It was based on the real summertime fun of real children in Yuma, Arizona many, many years ago (Alice McLearran's mother was one of those children). Roxaboxen was the creation of their combined imaginations. They constructed it on a rocky hill. They used "round black pebbles" for money and made houses from big stones, old wooden boxes, and broken bits of pottery and glass. They had a bakery and two ice cream parlors, as well as a mayor and policeman and a jail (for those who were caught speeding). The years went by, but Roxaboxen remained, always there, waiting for imagination to visit it again.

I actually had never heard of Roxaboxen before I started planning this preschool lesson. The first time I read it through, it was okay. I thought it might not keep the children's interest, but I loved that it was about summer. Then I read it through again and realized all of the fun things we could do with it. By the third reading, I had fallen completely in love with it and been taken in by the magic of a made up place named Roxaboxen. (My brother expressed similar sentiments when he read it to my boys a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, he only read it once, so it never grabbed him in the magical way it did me. Sometimes you have to give a book a second chance!)

I needn't have worried about the children liking it. The name alone, Roxaboxen, was so much fun for them to say and sounded like a place they would want to go to.

Now I have to start with a little disclaimer: This lesson turned out far less magical than I was hoping for. I was really wanting to recreate some of those adventures that were so well-expressed in the book. We tried, but I have to say that three things hindered the reality I wanted: First, two hours was just not enough time. The children took much longer than I was expecting on the two projects we did. I was so happy that they were creating and enjoying themselves, and I probably should have just let some of the other things slide, but I knew they would enjoy everything, so I tried to pack  it all in. Second, I waited too long to give them a snack (which I will explain more about below). Third, Maxwell had perhaps the biggest meltdown of his entire life. Luckily, children are usually able to overlook such disasters, so I think (I hope) it was mainly me that felt flustered and frazzled.

Live and learn from my mistakes. Observe:

For our first activity, the children decorated steering wheels. Yes, steering wheels. In the book, it says: "Everybody had a car. All you needed was something round for a steering wheel. Of course, if you broke the speed limit you had to go to jail."

Don't you just love the soft, warm colors Barbara Cooney uses for the desert?

I didn't think a walk around the neighborhood would produce too many round, steering-wheel-like contraptions. So I had Mike use the laser at school to cut out a simple steering wheel shape from cardboard.

I gave each of the children a cardboard steering wheel and let them paint and decorate to their heart's content.

This was probably the most successful activity of the morning. At this point, we still had all the time in the world, and all of the kids were totally engaged and happy.

Each steering wheel turned out so different and unique! It's so fun to see how the children's personalities come out in their art.

We left the steering wheels on the counter to dry and turned our attention to the desert.

Since the story takes place in Yuma, Arizona, it was a great opportunity to talk about the kinds of animals and plants that live in a desert and also what the weather is like. (Looking at the current temperature in Yuma (109 degrees), I'm surprised that these children were even able to play outside...maybe these were evening activities? The sky is pink or dark in some of the illustrations.)

I helped the children make their own desert scenes. First they glued down some sandpaper (for authentic texture, haha) and drew a sky. I wanted them to have some cutting practice, so I drew a cactus shape onto some green craft foam and let them cut out the cacti themselves. 

I knew we wouldn't have enough time for them to cut out everything for their pictures, so the night before, I cut out a bunch of desert animals for them to color and glue onto their papers. We included a kangaroo rat, roadrunner, scorpion, jackrabbit, rattlesnake, coyote, and a gila monster.

It was at this point that things started to fall apart. We had already been going for over an hour, and the kids were ready for a snack. As I was planning this lesson, I had the "genius" (sarcasm intended) idea to have them help me make homemade ice cream. In the book, it says that Roxaboxen boasted, not one but, two ice cream parlors. And all the children always had plenty of money (round black stones) to spend on plenty of ice cream.

What could be more fun, yummy, and satisfying than making our own ice cream?

Because of the lengthy interest in the art projects, I couldn't get the kitchen cleaned up enough to start making the ice cream until we had about 40 minutes left. As it happened, a couple of the boys had finished their desert landscapes and run off to play, and the others were still hard at work on theirs. So I just started making the ice cream on my own while hurrying around the table and letting the remaining kids dump in the ingredients.

We just have one of those ice cream makers with the frozen bowl and the turning handle. Of course it took me probably ten minutes to get the seal around the bowl and lid snapped on, and then I cranked the handle like crazy, hoping that it would miraculously turn into smooth and creamy ice cream in five seconds. It didn't.

Meanwhile, the kids were getting restless, so we left the ice cream and moved outside for a speed limit game. By this time, their steering wheels were dry, so they each took their own and lined up on the driveway. I had made several speed limit signs, which one person held at the end of the driveway while the other children raced toward him/her.

The idea of the game was that if he held up a higher number (20 instead of 15), they could go faster. But if he held up a lower number (10 instead of 20), they had to slow down. If they didn't slow down, the one holding the signs could send them to jail (similar to the book).

My hope with the game was that the children would learn to recognize higher and lower numbers in relation to each other. I figured out early in the game that it was really only possible for them to manage two signs at a time, so we just set the other ones aside and switched them out when it was another person's turn to be the speed limit police.

They actually really enjoyed this game, but it got a little out of hand when one of the little boys took off around the corner and up the street. We had to take a little break after that.

Every couple of minutes I went inside to give the ice cream another few turns and to note how un-quickly it was freezing.

Finally, we moved onto the last activity, which I was actually hoping to be able to give the most time to but which ended up getting the least: letting the children create their own Roxaboxen.

I got out the sidewalk chalk and matchbox cars and gave each child a bag of clear stones (like the kind that you would put in a vase). I showed them how they could draw roads or houses with the chalk, and then I left them to use their own imaginations.

You can see how this activity, under different circumstances, could have lasted for hours. I will say that they did enjoy it, but their play was interrupted with cries of "I'm hungry!" and "I'm hot!" so it definitely wasn't ideal.

While they played, I rushed back inside, saw that we had ten minutes left before parents would arrive and decided that the soupy ice cream was thick enough to be called a shake. I dished it up, took it outside to the starving children, and thought that we had made it.

But no.

One of the boys didn't like strawberry ice cream. So I ran back inside for an alternative flavor. Max decided that he didn't want strawberry ice cream either, and that is when the aforementioned melt down struck. He just collapsed and wailed (and wailed) (AND WAILED). (For obvious reasons, I don't have any pictures of the ice cream.)

And of course, it was just at that moment that one of the moms came to pick up the kids. It was a good thing this was the last class of the school year, or I might have been permanently kicked out of the co-op.

I shared this post at Raising Memories.

Books of 2013, Mid-Year

Jul 1, 2013

Last year, I listed all the books I read in 2012 in one post at the end of December. This year, I decided to break up that list and share the first half of it at (where else?) the half-way point. All of the titles are linked to my full review, if you're interested.

1. Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale, 8/10
I loved Princess Academy, but I think I liked this sequel even more. What a great book to kick off the year with.

2. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, 9/10
One of my all-time favorite books. This time, I read it to my boys.

3. After Hello by Lisa Mangum, 6/10
Fun chick-lit but nothing all that memorable.

4. Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George, 9/10
Perfect for January, I loved this retelling of an old Nordic legend

5. A Thomas Jefferson Education by Oliver DeMille, 7/10
I gleaned a lot of good ideas from this one. The appendices were especially helpful.

6. The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth, 8/10
How could Aaron and Maxwell not love a book about a dinosaur hatching out of an egg in the 20th-century? Definitely a favorite.

7. Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman, AUDIO, 8/10
Part memoir, part parenting book--I love books like this one. (And I'm still watching my kids' snack intake.)

8. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald, 7/10
Not quite as funny as I was remembering it, but I liked it nonetheless.

9. The Evelyn-Wood Seven-Day Speed Reading and Learning Program by Stanley D. Frank, 7/10
I know the title sounds totally hokey and ridiculous (and not without reason), but this was actually a really beneficial book for me to read.

10. Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin, 9/10
Everything I loved about The Happiness Project, revisited and expanded. So great.

11. The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis, AUDIO, 9/10
Contains some really amazing metaphors for life all wrapped up in a captivating story.

12. Learning All the Time by John Holt, 4/10
John Holt and I had a major personality clash.

13. Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz, AUDIO, 8/10
The language was rich, and the story was well-crafted.

14. The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer, 8/10
I don't think there are many characters out there as easy to love as Sophy Stanton-Lacy.

15. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, 8/10
Totally deserves its shiny gold sticker--a lot of story is packed into a few words.

16. Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by Sy Montgomery, 8/10
Temple Grandin is a woman worth being inspired by . . . and I was.

17. Blackberry Crumble by Josi S. Kilpack, 7/10
I knew going into this one that the ending would frustrate me, but I liked reading the rest of it.

18. Safekeeping by Karen Hesse, 6/10
An unusual, vague story that bore almost no resemblance to my beloved Out of the Dust.

19. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, AUDIO, 7/10
One of those books that keeps on giving--the more I think about it, the more there is to think about.

20. The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis, AUDIO, 8/10
I was afraid of this book, but my fears were unfounded. Loved it.

21. Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax, AUDIO, 10/10
I'm pretty sure I've talked about this book to death, but that's because I found it so invaluable.

22. A Joyful Mother of Children by Linda J. Eyre, 6/10
I definitely liked the ideas in this book but not always the way those ideas were expressed.

23. What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, 9.5/10
I'd have to recommend it with some reservations, but I'd be lying if I didn't say this has been one of my favorite reads so far this year.

24. Half Magic by Edward Eager, 7/10
This book was a little advanced for my boys, but we still enjoyed it. I think we'll like it even more when we read it again in a few years. (And yes, it is a classic!)

25. The Submission by Amy Waldman, AUDIO, 7/10
Fascinating ideas about acceptance and prejudice post-9/11. Well executed.

26. The Center of Everything by Linda Urban, 6/10
Totally neutral on this one.

27. Raising a Reader by Jennie Nash, 10/10
Yum. If you live and breathe reading, this is (maybe) the book for you.

28. Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne, 8/10
In spite of its heartbreaking (for me) ending, the boys and I adored this book.

29. The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had by Kristin Levine, AUDIO, 8/10
Not your average story about a white boy and a black girl.

30. Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax, 10/10
Ha! You thought you'd heard about this book for the last time! I loved it so much, I bought my own copy and I read it again.

31. The World's Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne, 6/10
Inspiring and disappointing all at the same time.

32. Cody Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, AUDIO, 8/10
A slow first half followed by an amazing second half.

33. 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith, AUDIO, 6/10
The characters were great, but some parts dragged mercilessly.

34. The BFG by Roald Dahl, AUDIO, 8/10
Delightful dialogue and, as usual, a one-of-a-kind story.

If the books of July-December are anything like the ones from January-June, it's going to be a great year! What has been your favorite book so far in 2013?
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