Biblical Names of Christ Ornament Set

Nov 30, 2013

Note: I was given a set of these ornaments to review, but all opinions and photographs are my own.

Yesterday we made the transition from Thanksgiving to Christmas. We took down the turkeys and pilgrims and finally threw away the last of the pumpkins; we put up the tree, strung up the lights, and pulled out the advent calendar I made last year.

The excitement and joy of the season is rushing upon my kids, and they are bursting with even more energy than usual (is that even possible?!). As their little hands reached into the boxes to pull out ornaments and nativities, I caught myself sounding exactly like my mom: "Don't grab . . . wait for me to hand you something. Just wait your turn."

This year, I'm especially enjoying this banner Mike and I made from a set of ornaments I was given to review.

The ornaments have the Biblical names of Jesus Christ imprinted on them: Prince of Peace, King of Kings, Shepherd, etc. Each star is made from tin (or some other lightweight metal) with a pewter finish. I was expecting them to be heavier, but the lighter weight actually makes them much more versatile. (You could use them in so many other ways besides a banner: as gift tags, on a wreath, on a little tree, etc.)

At first, I was just going to hang them on our tree, but I was afraid they would get lost amid the beaded candy canes, salt dough stars, and other ornaments my kids insist on hanging up. Plus, I think they're really more powerful as a set. I love seeing so many of Christ's names together.

So I decided to make a banner.

We don't have a fireplace or mantel in our home, so I had to just string it up across the top of our bookshelves. But I really like the way it turned out.

Here's how I made it (with a lot of the grunt work being done by Mike):

Biblical Names of Christ Ornament set (can be purchased online here)
Floral wire
Two contrasting colors of one-inch ribbon
Cranberries (or any kind of trimming)

Step One: Measure the length of the area you want the banner to hang from. Cut the floral wire two feet longer than desired length to account for hanging and attaching the ornaments.

Step Two: Attach the ornaments by stringing the wire through the hole and then twisting the wire one or two times around the ornament so it won't slide or move.

Step Three: Temporarily string up the wire (with attached ornaments) and start twisting one-inch wide ribbon around it.

Step Four: Take the contrasting ribbon and twist it around the wire, going the opposite direction as the first ribbon.

Step Five: Poke short cranberry branches into the ribbon and attach with more floral wire.

Step Six: Hang up and enjoy the whole Christmas season. (How did we attach it? Um, see those stacks of books? Yeah, they're on top of the wire. Really professional, I know.)

If you walked into my living room right now, you would see our Christmas tree, eight different nativity sets, and this banner. We are not anti-Santa, reindeer, snowmen, etc., but I love that in this room, which is the heart of our home, the focus is clearly on the Savior. This new set of ornaments only adds to this theme, and I'm grateful for the tone they help set in our home. The set includes twelve ornaments with a scripture listed to go along with each one.

It's true that my kids are probably not going to look at this banner and think about how it reminds them of the Savior, but if I point to one of the stars and say, "Look boys, one of Christ's other names is Emmanuel. Let's read a scripture about that . . . " then their understanding and knowledge is increased and they understand a little more why our family loves Christmas so much.

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If you are interested in this ornament set, it can be purchased by clicking on this link: Biblical Names of Christ Ornament Set

(Just fyi, this is the only site online that carries these ornaments this season.)

KidPages: Sarah Gives Thanks by Mike Allegra

Nov 28, 2013

I wasn't as prompt this year with putting Thanksgiving books on hold at the library, and consequently, they'll all be coming in . . . next week. Sad! I'm pretty sure we'll be happily submerged in Christmas by then and Thanksgiving (at least the holiday, hopefully not the gratitude) will be the farthest things from our minds.

However, we did read one new Thanksgiving book that was such a treasure, I think it's worth mentioning today.

Sarah Gives Thanks is about Sarah Joseph Hale, a real woman who lived in New England in the 1800's. In 1822, her husband, David, died, leaving her to support their five children. 1822 didn't offer a lot of career opportunities for women, but Sarah had the gift of writing. Even before David's death, Sarah had had several of her poems published. So she turned to writing as a way to make a living. She sold short pieces and poems to ladies' magazines and eventually had a book of poetry as well as a novel published. In 1827, she was offered the job of "editress" of a new women's magazine.

At that time, Thanksgiving was not a national holiday. It was celebrated in some states (mostly in New England) but not on the same day. Sarah used her influence as an editor to push for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday. In 1849, she started writing an annual letter to the president of the United States asking for his help. She was ignored by four presidents, but finally, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln paid attention and declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday.

Thanksgiving books usually fall into two categories: Pilgrims/American Indians/First Thanksgiving or These Are the Things I'm Thankful For. I had no idea there was such a great Thanksgiving story hidden away in the 1800's. I love true stories. And I love it even more when I can share these true stories with my children in a way they can understand and enjoy.

It's crazy to think that without Sarah Hale, I might not be going to my in-laws for Thanksgiving dinner in an hour. There might not be seven pies scattered around my kitchen. I might not have a reason to pause and think about my blessings. What a travesty! It took Sarah thirty-six years of determined effort before her dream was realized. I'm so glad she didn't give up after thirty-five.

I love it when I find a story about a strong, opinionated, dedicated woman from our early history. Sarah couldn't vote or hold political positions, but she still could (and did!) make a difference. I'm grateful that women have more opportunities today than they did then, but I'm also so grateful that their lack of opportunities wasn't a reason to hold back women like Sarah Hale.

Early in the story, it mentions that since the Pilgrims settled in the northeast, Thanksgiving was mainly considered a New England holiday. I love the statement that follows: "But, to Sarah, Thanksgiving was not about the Pilgrims and the Indians and their famous feast. Thanksgiving was about what that feast meant. The holiday helped Sarah to look beyond her personal problems and appreciate what she had. That message could be of value to everyone, she thought, form North to South and everywhere in between."

I am grateful for Thanksgiving. I'm grateful that I can spend a special day remembering and thinking about and being grateful for my blessings. I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday and that knowing about Sarah Hale helps you appreciate the day itself a little more!

Meet Our Thankful Turkey

Nov 25, 2013

This entire month, we have been recognizing our blessings as a family by each sharing something we're grateful for before we go to bed each night.

I know there is nothing the least bit original in this tradition. Many people take the opportunity to make November a month of gratitude, and I think it's fantastic. It's so refreshing to hear people acknowledging the good instead of complaining about the bad.

Even though we're just one more family on the gratitude bandwagon, I thought I'd still show you how we've done it in our home. Ours is neither the simplest nor the most complicated variation of this activity, but it works perfectly for our family.

At the beginning of the month, we decided how we would showcase our gratitude. Last year, we drew a tree and wrote down our blessings on various-colored leaves before gluing them up.

This year, the boys wanted a "thankful turkey."

(I can't remember why I bought that obnoxious shade of red/orange last year, but this year, the other side was still beautifully empty, so we used it. Next year, we're switching to a much more mellow color. Hopefully, these pictures don't hurt your eyes too much.)

Our turkey is now quite be-feathered, and we're having to be creative with where we put them so we don't cover up what we've already written (notice how Aaron turned one feather into the turkey's wattle).

Each night, we gather in Mike's and my bedroom, pull out a new feather, and ask each other what we're thankful for. Our responses range from the serious to the practical to the ridiculous. 

Without fail, Bradley always says, "I'm thankful for . . . Jesus!" And then we always tell him it's wonderful to be thankful for Jesus, but since Jesus is already on the board, maybe he can think of something else.

(Just in case you're curious, the numbers are so we can keep track of who said what: Mike is 1, I'm 2, Aaron is 3, etc.)

Of course, we didn't have to make a thankful turkey in order to share our blessings. We could have just gathered together each night and said, "Okay, everyone, let's hear what you're thankful for today!" That would have still fulfilled the purpose of becoming more grateful.

But I love what we decided to do because (1) it wasn't hard (you can tell this is not a masterpiece . . . it literally took us less than 15 minutes to draw and cut everything out); (2) it gave us something tangible to attach our blessings to (sometimes I catch Aaron reading all of the feathers); (3) it made the magnitude of our blessings seem obvious (we only have to glance at our crowded feathers to realize how blessed we are); and (4) it made it fun for the boys (it is seriously easy to please young children, and you can bet they don't let us forget to add a new feather every night).

What have you done to help yourself be more grateful this month?

Homer Price by Robert McCloskey

Nov 22, 2013

Aaron selected this book himself. He found it on one of our bookshelves and told me, "I know which chapter book I want to read next."

I'm pretty sure it was the doughnuts on the cover that enticed him. That boy is nothing if not his father's child.

So we read it. And it was one of those books that had to be accompanied by a lot of explanations.

Homer lives in the small town of Centerburg. His father owns a tourist camp [insert explanation] and a filling station [insert explanation]. Homer helps out a lot, but he also likes to build radios [insert explanation]. Homer's Uncle Ulysses owns a diner and loves labor-saving gadgets [insert explanation], which is how the ill-fated doughnut machine comes to be.  Besides catching robbers with his pet skunk and helping out the Super-Duper, Homer is fascinated with Michael Murphy's musical mouse trap and the cookie-cutter housing development going up [insert explanation]. For being such a small town, Centerburg is not the least bit short on excitement.

Even with all the things they didn't understand, Aaron and Maxwell still really liked this book (and I say, as long as they're enjoying it, it's not a bad thing to get to expand the ol' vocabulary). Unfortunately, the last chapter was definitely our least favorite, and combined with the long break we took in the middle of it to read Billy Miller, it just felt like it ended on a bit of a bad note. (I guess we just don't have much of an interest in a new housing development built in honor of old Uncle Ezekiel, nor in celebrating one hundred and fifty years of Centerburg progress. That chapter required so many explanations, I was doing more explaining than reading. Plus, there was just no way for it to compete with a chapter about dozens of doughnuts rolling non-stop down a chute.)

The illustrations are delightful. This is Robert McCloskey after all. Would you expect anything less? Since I can't seem to talk enough about the doughnut chapter, I'll also tell you that I would love to get prints of some of the pictures from that chapter and hang them in our future library someday. The piles and piles and piles of doughnuts are just too much for this doughnut-loving family to handle.

However, speaking of the illustrations, do you want to know what galled me the most about this book? In the first chapter, the one where Homer has a pet skunk named Aroma and uses her to catch a band of robbers, it repeatedly says that there are four robbers and every picture shows four of them. Every picture but one. In the picture of all of them in the same bed, there are unaccountably five robbers. Five! It makes no sense. I have gone back through the chapter in search of who the fifth person could possibly be, but it appears that Robert McCloskey simply made a mistake. How does this happen? He wrote the chapter! He illustrated all the other pictures correctly! What would make him add a fifth person in one picture? Maybe he did it on purpose to drive readers like me crazy.

With Henry Huggins, Billy Miller, and now Homer Price, I feel like we've been on a small-town, average-kid, simple-adventures kick. It's been wonderful. I love the example that all three of these fictional boys have been to my own boys. They are kind but curious, sensitive but rambunctious, obedient but creative. Expect to see many more similar books from us in the future.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Nov 19, 2013

When I made the goal back in January to read "two 19th-century classics," I knew one of those would be The Woman in White. I also knew that I wouldn't read it until October. I didn't know much about it except that one of the characters was a mysterious woman who dressed all in white and appeared in unusual places and at unusual times, but that was enough to convince me of its appropriate creepiness.

It actually took me the entire month (and then some) to read and finish it. It is a longer book (almost 700 pages), but I listened to it, and usually I get through audio books fairly quickly because I can listen to them while doing other things, and earlier this year I started listening to them at double speed (good thing, too, for the readers of this book were painfully slow, even going twice as fast). I guess I wasn't spending enough time washing the dishes.

The book begins from Walter Hartright's perspective. Mr. Hartright is a drawing master and recently obtained a notable position teaching two young ladies at Limmeridge House in Cumberland. The night before he travels there to take up his position, he is returning home late at night and comes upon a woman dressed entirely in white and distressed beyond words. He helps her as best he can but finds the whole situation very odd and slightly disturbing. The next day, he arrives at Limmeridge House. His employer, Mr. Fairlie, is an insufferable invalid, but his niece, Laura Fairlie, and Laura's half-sister, Marian Halcombe, are delightful.

They enjoy a few weeks of uninterrupted companionship before trouble strikes, beginning with the uncomfortable fact that Mr. Hartright is in love with Laura Fairlie (and she is in love with him, too), but she is betrothed to one Sir Percival Glyde (hiss and boo). Marian advises Mr. Hartright to leave immediately so as to not make the eventual parting any more difficult on himself or Laura. But with the way things transpire, it would have been far better for him to stay close.

Sir Percival Glyde and his sinister friend, Count Fosco (can you think of better villain names than those?), are in the depths of financial troubles. Laura Fairlie's inheritance provides the answer for them, if they can only figure out a way to get their hands on it. And in the midst of all of that, there is the mysterious woman in white who holds a precious secret . . . the unveiling of which could be the means to Laura's freedom and Sir Percival's downfall.

I felt a mounting, growing dread through the first two-thirds of the story. The pieces of the plot were laid out very carefully, one by one, and each was examined thoroughly before moving on. In this way, the story sometimes felt tedious and slow. But at the same time, it was this slow pace that made that mounting dread feel absolutely terrifying. There was too much time for me to think about how things would play out and how awful the consequences might be. The suspense unfolded itself slowly, and I would come back to reality with a sudden jolt and realize my throat was completely dry and my heart felt like it was being squeezed.

That said, the final third of the book was a bit anti-climatic for me. There were still secrets to be uncovered and villains to be dealt with, but the fear and trepidation I had been feeling was either realized or resolved during the middle third. Don't misunderstand: a lot happens in the last third (Anne Catherick's secret is finally revealed, Sir Percival and Count Fosco finally meet their match, etc.). I just wasn't on pins and needles about it.

This could have been due, in part, to the fact that the final third was narrated almost entirely by Walter Hartright (with just a couple of short explanations/confessions provided by Mrs. Catherick and Count Fosco). During the first two-thirds, the narrators changed a little more frequently, which I think helped keep up the pace.

Also, and here I am being totally biased, my favorite narrator was Marian Halcombe, and I was disappointed that after her first installment, the story never returned to her. Her account was both detailed and emotional, and I found myself missing her cold facts and heated opinions. If you're looking for a classic with a strong female character who keeps her head and is willing to go against propriety to get the job done, this is your book. Marian is absolutely fantastic. At one point, she hides on a balcony at midnight to eavesdrop on Count Fosco and Sir Percival. She squeezes herself between two plants and waits in the cold and rain for the information she wants. Need I say anymore to convince you that she is unconventional, brave, smart, and just simply amazing?

I actually wasn't expecting the changing perspectives at all. Granted, I have not read nearly as many classics as I should have/want to, but I guess I have always thought of this as a more modern literary technique. Obviously not. But now I am curious if Collins was one of the first authors to employ this type of narrative or if I've just been in the dark about some other classic works that tell the story from multiple viewpoints.

Speaking of the characters, I want to talk about a few of them in a little more detail:

Count Fosco was extremely complex, and I have to say that even though I despised him, Collins did a phenomenal job with showing just how persuasive and manipulative he could be. Towards the end of the book, Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe are discussing a kind (and fortuitous) act by the Count. Marian is wondering if the Count could have really done something out of the goodness of his heart and without any evil ulterior motives, and Mr. Hartright says, "I believe it, Marian. The best men are not consistent in good. Why should the worst men be consistent in evil?" I thought this was truly insightful because even though there was no way for the Count to redeem himself, I think it is true that everyone has some good in them, and every once in awhile, even the worst of men and women have a reason for that goodness to peek through.

Then there was Laura Fairlie, who, even though Walter and Marian adored her, I found to be rather spineless, extremely sensitive, and uninteresting. There were a few moments when I really thought she was going to come through and do something grand, but she always fell back to her childlike dependence. (Although, in her defense, at the beginning of the book, she did exhibit some really noble characteristics . . . and she did have some rather tragic events happen to her, which contributed to her neediness).

But Walter Hartright loved her, and even though I couldn't ever fathom why, I liked Walter a great deal. I thought it was interesting that even though he was a rather hopeless romantic (the occupation of artist suited this side of his personality very well), he was also very stable, hard-working, practical and determined. And his love for Laura was extremely devoted.

In fact, when he talked about his love for Laura at the beginning of the book (just before he departed Limmeridge House), I wanted to cry for the sheer injustice of it all:
"The cold fingers that trembled around mine, the pale cheeks with the bright red spot burning in the midst of them, the faint smile that struggled to live on her lips and died away from them while I looked at it told me at what sacrifice of herself her outward composure was maintained. My heart could take her no closer to me, or I should have loved her then as I had never loved her yet."
And this:
"I held [her hand] fast. My head drooped over it, my tears fell on it, my lips pressed it. Not in love, oh not in love, at that last moment, but in the agony and the self abandonment of despair."
Even if I would have preferred him to have a more vibrant counterpart, the love story was still bitter and poignant and sweet.

This has definitely been an autumn of mysteries for me (and I'm still hoping to get to one more), but I'm especially glad to have read this one. Wilkie Collins is considered to be one of the creators of the mystery genre (or so I gather from the little bit of reading I've done on him), and he set the stage for many of the great mystery novelists who would follow him. The plot was masterfully executed, and I'm so glad to have read it.

Pumpkin Roll by Josi S. Kilpack

Nov 15, 2013

I debated writing a review of this book since I reviewed Blackberry Crumble earlier this year, and before that, I read and wrote short reviews of the four preceding books in the series. Since they're all just light mysteries with a lot of the same plot twists and I also always seem to hate the endings, I wondered if I would really have anything new to say about this one.

But then, the plot actually was different, and I actually didn't hate the ending, so I thought, Might as well.

When the story begins, Sadie and her boyfriend (Detective Pete Cunningham) are in Boston babysitting Pete's three grandsons for a week. (Sadie and Pete are both in their 50's, widowed, with grown children.) On their very first night, they look out the window and notice the neighbor across the street acting very strangely: digging in the dark, making odd hand gestures in the air, etc. When this woman thrusts her fist into the air and a light bulb in the room Sadie's in simultaneously explodes, Sadie is officially creeped out. But of course, being creeped out doesn't mean she'll ignore the disturbing happenings in the neighborhood. In fact, they spur her on to putting her nose where it doesn't belong, baking up a storm, and ultimately answering some pretty difficult questions.

I've read a lot of reviews from people who say this series gets better with each book. If you've read my reviews, you know I don't exactly agree with that. While I think the quality of writing sees some, but definitely not drastic, improvement over the course of the series, I've been disappointed with the final resolution/reveal at the end of almost all the books. In fact, I would have to say that up until this one, I probably enjoyed the first books in the series (Lemon Tart) the very most because even though the plot wasn't as creative as some of the others, the ending didn't leave me totally frustrated and dissatisfied.

So I was pleasantly surprised with Pumpkin Roll. It maintained all of the things I've liked about the other books (which is why I keep reading them): Sadie's crazy antics, an interesting plot, some funny dialogue, etc. But then, it also had an ending that I felt was completely plausible. I didn't guess who the perpetrator was, but when everything came out, I looked back and remembered the little hints that had pointed in that direction. The story had a great set-up, execution, and resolution. The ending was still a surprise (for me at least), but it wasn't an unbelievable shocker.

Also, this story actually did not involve a murder, which I found totally different and refreshing. Instead, there were dangerous psychopaths, seemingly supernatural occurrences, and a (maybe) witch. Added to the stunning backdrop of Boston in the fall (even if many of the descriptions were, in my opinion, rather superficial), all of these details combined to make this a really great read for Halloween. (At the risk of revealing my nerdier side, I'll tell you that for months I've been trying to time it just right so I'd be in the mood for a Sadie Hoffmiller book and be ready for this particular book in the series in October. It worked out almost exactly the way I wanted it to: I started reading this book on the day before Halloween.)

I also really liked the little bit of suspicion and distrust that surrounded Pete in this installment. He's usually such a stable, no-nonsense kind of character (a great counterpart to Sadie), so learning about some of the secrets from his past was a nice little twist (even though I'm pretty sure Josi Kilpack herself didn't realize Pete Cunningham had such intriguing secrets until this novel).

I am curious how long this series will be able to sustain itself (this is #6, and #10 came out a couple months ago). I only wonder this because with each book, Sadie's mental health (as well as her good standing in her small community) slip a little more (who can blame her when she keeps stumbling into dangerous, life-threatening situations?). This story especially involved more of a personal attack against Sadie herself, and I can tell from looking at the next book that she will suffer some psychological repercussions because of it. I'm interested to see if Kilpack can eventually restore some of Sadie's sanity because if it keeps trending the direction it's looking, Sadie will be a total nutcase in about one more book.

After I finished this book, I decided it was time for something a little more substantial, so I plunged back into A Mind at a Time. But I only read one more chapter of it before I decided I was ready for another break. Light, fun reads definitely have their place.

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

Nov 13, 2013

The Year of Billy Miller was first brought to my attention in a review on A Fuse #8 Production. When Betsy Bird compared Billy Miller to Ramona (and Beverly Cleary's books in general), I was instantly intrigued. Then a few weeks later, I read Henry Huggins to my boys, and we all loved it so much, I became almost desperate to get my hands on a copy Billy Miller. Unfortunately, it hadn't been released yet, and in spite of the immense popularity of this blog, Harper Collins didn't ask me for a review. So I waited and periodically verified that  the release date was still September 17th. I checked my hold list at the library more times than I care to admit to see if the book was being processed yet. (Yes, maybe I should have just bought it. I just have such a hard time buying books I haven't read yet.)

And then came the blessed day when my inbox contained the words: The following item(s) are being held for you: The Year of Billy Miller. The boys and I had been reading Homer Price, but I asked them if we could just try out the first chapter of Billy Miller, and after that we couldn't stop. Sorry, Homer.

Billy Miller is seven years old and starting the second grade. As he walks to school on that very first day, he is consumed with worry that he won't be smart enough for second grade.The worry began a few weeks before when he fell on his head during a family vacation. Afterwards, he heard his mom expressing her own worry that even though the doctors said he was fine, he might have retained some damage that wouldn't show up until later.

With a beginning like that, you might think the story's going to be about head injuries and learning disabilities and fitting in, but it isn't. It's just about Billy, an average kid with a blessedly simple set of average problems: when he stops worrying about being smart enough for second grade, then he starts worrying about how to say he's sorry to his teacher, Ms. Silver and how to help his dad not feel so discouraged and how to write a meaningful poem for his mom. With so many of today's books tackling big issues and giant problems, I can't tell you how refreshing it was to read about a little boy with just some everyday worries.

Of course, since I'd already read Betsy Bird's review, I couldn't help but compare Billy Miller to Henry Huggins. Even so, the similarities are striking enough, I like to think I would have made the connection on my own.

For one thing, Kevin Henkes writes in that same simple but perceptive style that is so pronounced in Beverly Cleary's works. He knows just the right things to highlight without making an overly big deal about them. For example, this note that Billy writes to his three-year-old sister: "Dear Sal, Will make it to morning next time. Your ok. Your brother, Billy." The misspellings are realistic. In spite of what he thinks about himself, he's a bright kid. He isn't going to misspell "morning" or "time," but he probably isn't going to remember when he should use "your" and when it should be "you're" instead. Ironically, these are mistakes that a seven-year-old who is reading this book probably won't even pick up on.

(There was only one place where I felt like Henkes broke the seven-year-old mold and inserted adult-thoughts-masking-as-children-thoughts, and it came when Billy said this, "The poem can be about a parent or a brother or a sister or a grandma or an uncle or someone who helps your family like a good friend, because all families are different." It wasn't the list of relatives and friends; it was that little explanation at the end: "because all families are different." The seven-year-old boys I know wouldn't have added that. They would have just assumed that you knew that all families are different and that is why you could write about any of those people.)

Another similarity to Cleary's writing was just in the way the story was organized. It was divided into four parts ("Teacher," "Father," "Sister," "Mother"). Each part was like a little snapshot of an incident from Billy Miller's second grade year. We get a glimpse during the first week of school, the second when it's fall, another when it is cold enough to snow, and the final one when spring is in the trees and summer break is on the horizon. In between, there are gaping holes where we don't really know what's happening in Billy's life (but we can assume it isn't tragic or life-changing).

For example, at school Billy sits by a girl named Emma who is stuck up and condescending. Towards the end of the book, Emma looks over at a picture Billy is drawing on an invitation and makes a rude comment. Then comes this: "Billy moved his drawing closer to his chest and tightened his grip on his marker. After months of sitting by her, Billy had learned that the best way to deal with Emma was to ignore her." Because the book only focuses on a few select experiences (with a lot of the "action" happening at home), we don't really see this learning taking place; we simply see the end result.

I think the point of a story like Billy's is not so much about what happens but about how it affects and changes him. This is exactly like Henry Huggins: there's the chapter about him digging up night crawlers to fix a mistake, and then we fast forward to the Christmas play. In both Billy and Henry's case, the result is the same: as the reader, we get some excellent, self-contained stories that contribute to the overall character development of both boys.

One last similarity between Henkes' and Cleary's writing is that each chapter has some sort of special, poignant moment. It's not overly gushy or sentimental, but it's there to twist the reader's heart just a little. Like this one when Billy apologizes to Ms. Silver (for something he didn't intentionally do but which he is perceptive enough to know hurt her a little nonetheless): he brings her a half dozen silver objects (to go along with her name), and then he whispers, "'I'm really a nice person.' He couldn't look at her, but he could feel her eyes upon him like a net. His heart was thrumming. 'I can tell you're a nice person,' she said. Billy sighed. 'A very nice person.'"

Aaron and Maxwell loved this book, which kind of surprised me since it contains very few pictures, and all of them are small and only of a single object (a hat, a bird, a bowl, etc.). I guess all of our other chapter book reading paid off and paved the way for this one. In fact, even days after finishing it, Max was still asking, "Can we read Billy Miller now?" and then I had to sadly remind him that we had already finished it.

Overall, we probably liked Henry Huggins slightly  more than Billy Miller but only because Henry dealt more with bugs than poetry. The feeling we got from both books was the same, and I certainly hope Billy Miller has many more stories in his future.

P.S. Can anyone tell me where I can find a babysitter like Gabby (the teenager who stayed overnight with Billy and Sal)? Before Billy's parents come back, she says, "Let's get your rooms in shape before they get here" and "I can make you something to eat right away, or we can make a big brunch and wait for your parents to get here." Do babysitters like this really exist?!?!

KidPages: Three Books for Autumn

Nov 8, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, I shared three of our favorite Halloween books. Today I want to talk about three of our favorite autumn-themed books. These are all new favorites we've discovered within the last month.

1. Sophie's Squash, Pat Zietlow Miller, illus. Anne Wilsdorf
I kind of love it when we find a book with a girl protagonist that we all enjoy. Needless to say, having three sons means that I am well acquainted with books starring dinosaurs, bugs, and ninjas, but not so much with princesses, fairies, and butterflies. This book left out all the pink and lacy frills so that all that was left was the irresistible Sophie. We'll keep her.

One day, Sophie is with her parents at the farmers' market and chooses a squash to take home. Her parents, of course, think that they will eat the squash for dinner, but Sophie rapidly discovers how nice the squash feels in her arms, how easy it is to bounce on her knee, and how perfect it is to love. When Sophie informs her mother that the squash's name is Bernice, her mother wisely decides that pizza might be a better option for dinner. From that moment on, the two are inseparable. But after awhile, Bernice looks like she doesn't feel the best (her skin is all splotchy), and she's lost a good bit of her firmness and shine. The farmer at the market tells Sophie that squash need "fresh air, good clean dirt, and a little love." That night, Sophie buries Bernice in the soft soil and kisses her good night. Winter passes, and with the arrival of spring comes a tiny sprout that reminds Sophie of someone. (I am rather amazed that she didn't instantly dig it up.) She patiently watches the plant grow until finally she is rewarded with two little replicas of Bernice--affectionately named Bonnie and Baxter.

This book reminds me a lot of another one of our favorite fall books, Pumpkin Jack, which is about a young boy who carves a jack o' lantern and wants to keep him forever. Bernice is naturally more portable and lasts longer than Jack, but the lessons of decomposition and renewal are there in both cases.

The text in this book is fantastic. There are so many good lines, like this one: "'Well, we did hope she'd love vegetables,' Sophie's mother told her father." Or this one, "Still, as winter neared, Sophie noticed changes. Bernice seemed softer, and her somersaults lacked their usual style." It's one of those books that you could easily start quoting lines from because they're so memorable. This is actually Pat Zietlow Miller's first picture book, and I'm super impressed.

The illustrations only make it easier to love Sophie. Her pigtails are adorable, and her nurturing nature toward Bernice is so sweet. (Even though Sophie is not frilly, she is most definitely a girl.) (And if you are an especially observant reader of this blog, you will have noticed that the illustrations were done by Anne Wilsdorf, the same one who drew the pictures for The Costume Copycat, which I featured here two weeks ago. Apparently, I really do mean it when I say I love her illustrations!)

I love an autumn book that incorporates all the seasons, which this one does. It still feels like an autumn book because so much of it takes place during those months, but it also shows that life moves forward and that autumn will return again.


2. South, Patrick McDonnell
I rarely look at a newspaper. (I think the last one I perused was my parents' small-town, once-weekly paper while I was visiting over the summer.) Besides being in the dark about all international, national, and local news (oh, I could get that from the internet? you don't say . . . ), I also don't read any comics.

Which means that when we first read South, I had no idea that the cat (I later learned that his name is Mooch) is one of the main characters of the comic strip Mutts. But when Mike picked up this book, he said, "Oh, I love this comic" (he's one of those people who likes to read the newspaper--also news-related sites).

So Mike fell in love with this book knowing the comic strip background; I fell in love without knowing anything about it. I'm pretty sure that means any and all people will also love it.

The story begins with a flock of birds gathered in a tree. The tree has bare branches save for one lonely leaf. With a last farewell song, the birds take flight, heading south for warmer climates. Then the last leaf breaks free, falling directly on the head of a little sleeping bird. He awakes with a start and realizes that he has been left behind by his family. A friendly cat (aka, Mooch) points which way they went, bu the little bird is so traumatized he can only weep. So Mooch extends his hand, and together they travel by foot through forest and country and city until they hear a familiar song.

Although this story is set during the season of autumn and shows what most birds do when the temperatures turn cool and crisp, it is more about kindness and friendship than anything autumn-related. Mooch sacrifices his time and comfort to help his little friend in need. And the little bird recognizes the sacrifice and is filled with love and gratitude for Mooch.

There are no words (except for the occasional "weep weep weep," which Aaron always makes me read), but the story is easily told through the simple illustrations. You might remember from this previous KidPages post that I only sometimes like wordless picture books. But this one passes the test: the story is easily understood without any commentary at all, but when I want to "read" it, I can do so by inserting a short sentence here and there.

3. Fall Mixed Up, Bob Raczka, illus. Chad Cameron 
If I ask Aaron how his day was at school, he usually gives as short an answer as possible. So I've learned to ask more specific questions, such as, "Did your teacher read any books to you today? What were they about? What were their titles?" Although he can usually remember the characters and plot, he rarely can remember what they were called. You can imagine what this does to me . . . to hear about a new book (and one that he liked no less) but have no way of tracking it down is agony.

So of course I was thrilled when Aaron saw this book in the library bag and exclaimed, "We read that book at school! It is so funny. You have got to read it. You'll love it." One more book mystery solved.

And he was right: it is funny. It's all about the signs of fall, but they're all a little mixed up. The leaves are floating up into the sky, the squirrels are flying south for the winter, and the kids are jumping into piles of sticks. The text is clever and amusing (I love this opening verse: Every Septober, Every Octember, Fall fills my senses with scenes to remember), and the illustrations add to the hilarity (gotta love how the children and animals look with gloves on their ears).

The interesting thing to me is that by making everything wacky and wrong, it helps my boys know what is normal and right. We've read a dozen books that talk about the signs of fall (and some of them we really do like), but this one left a more memorable impression because they had to think about what was wrong (squirrels don't fly south) and figure out how to make it right (geese fly south). My kids love saying, "No! That's not right!" and giggling about the neighbors giving out stuffing and drumsticks on Halloween night. It's so great to read a book that is funny and silly while still providing plenty of opportunities for discussion and learning.

Now tell me about the great autumn books you've been reading to your kids!

Reading With the Seasons: Thanksgiving Edition

Nov 5, 2013

I've been teaching my son's preschool this week, and as fun as it is, it has taken a lot of planning and work. It's kind of draining my energy, as well as my desire to blog. But November is already five days gone, so I know if I don't get this post up now, it will be time to read for Christmas!

If I'm totally honest, I will be spending at least part of this month reading the last three books I need in order to finish my reading goals for the year. The goals I'm finishing are a 19th-century classic (A Study in Scarlet), a 20th-century classic (Their Eyes Were Watching God), and the last book in the Chronicles of Narnia (The Last Battle). I'm counting all of those books as fitting with the Thanksgiving theme because I will be so grateful when my goals are complete (not because I haven't had a lot of fun reading to fulfill these goals but just because I love checking things off).

But here are some other ideas I've had as well:
  • American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food by Jonathan Bloom; we are entering the season of giving, but also the season of waste. I think it's safe to say that with my overindulgence and overeating of the next two months will come that all-too-familiar groan of, "I can't eat another bite" while looking at my still-half-full plate. I hope this book will help me reign myself in and keep a proper perspective.
  • I recently began reading The Continuous Atonement by Brad Wilcox, and it has made me see the Savior's atonement in an entirely new light. My gratitude for this life-saving gift has increased ten-fold already. A great read for November that I highly recommend.
  • And for just some cozy, page-turning reading, I have been thinking about The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton or A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty.
What's on the docket for you this month?

P.S. If you're looking for some other Thanksgiving ideas, here are several posts I wrote last November :
P.P.S. Photo credit goes to my brother, Gordy. Tell me you don't look at that picture and wish you lived in Utah, too.
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