And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Oct 31, 2013

I read Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express more than ten years ago when I was still in high school. It was the first murder mystery I had read, and it was a completely new reading experience for me. Even though it was fiction, I had to stay alert to every detail the entire time in order to piece together the evidence and solve the mystery before Hercule Poirot did (an impossible feat, I soon realized).

And Then There Were None was no less gripping but definitely more terrifying. There's something about beginning a novel with ten characters and knowing that by the end, all ten of them will be dead that just fills you with an intense feeling of dread. (And lest you think, like Mike did, that I'm spoiling the ending by mentioning the fate of the characters, I'll just refer you back to the title: And Then There Were None. Pretty obvious from the get go.)

The story begins by introducing the cast of characters: Mr. Justice Wargrave, Vera Claythorne, Philip Lombard, Miss Emily Brent, General Macarthur, Dr. Armstrong, Tony Marston, Mr. Blore, and Mr. and Mrs. Rogers. They are all on their way to Soldier Island, a modern estate wrapped in mystery.

(I almost listened to this book, and in the end, I'm so, so glad I didn't. It took me awhile to become firmly acquainted with everyone, and I spent the first thirty pages or so flipping frequently back to the beginning to remind myself of one thing or another.)

Their host (a Mr. U.N. Owen) is strangely absent at their arrival. Soon after dinner on their first night, a detached voice comes blaring into the drawing room. It accuses each of them of murder. By the end of the night, one of them is dead. Suspicion and fear quickly mount as they realize they are trapped on the island, and it appears that someone (maybe one of their own?) is determined not to let them leave it alive.

This was the kind of book where, when I was in the middle of it, I couldn't put it down because I was so desperate to find out who did it and why. But then, after I finished it, I looked back at the scope of the story and thought, Wow. If that had been a news story, I would be officially freaked out right now. When you look at the bare bones of the story, it is horrifying, to be sure. That it's fiction certainly makes it a little less horrific, but still, it isn't the kind of story I could read a lot of without needing a break.

That said, even though it deals with the murder of ten individuals, it is still rather mild: most of the killing happens off stage, and none of it is described in any detail whatsoever. It is a novel that is more suspenseful than gruesome. That's why I said that in retrospect, it's horrible, but in the moment, it was absolutely gripping.

Agatha Christie is frequently referred to as The Queen of Mystery. Some might think this has to do with the sheer volume of mystery novels she wrote during her lifetime (and I'm sure, to some extent, it does). But I also believe she earned that title because she knew how to craft a truly excellent mystery.

About this particular novel she said, "I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning." This is obvious from the beginning. The story is layered with intent and guilt and motive. There is not a single detail mentioned that is not important. Although there are a few perspectives she surreptitiously leaves out and perhaps a few misleading comments, the evidence is there. And that is why I loved it so much: it was a mystery that I should have been able to figure out. And yet, for the life of me, I couldn't. My thoughts ran wild: I suspected everyone and no one. I thought about it when I wasn't reading, but puzzling it out never resulted in any conclusions, which made me desperate to get back to it so more of the story could unfold.

At the end, the two inspectors are discussing the case, and in looking over the evidence, they are just as baffled as I felt. The final sentence from them is, "But in that case, who killed them?" For a moment, I thought that was the end of the book. I could see there were more pages, but I honestly thought they were just an author bio or some essay. I actually shut the book, so disgusted and disappointed. C'mon, Agatha! You mean you didn't know who did it either? What a cop out. 

But then I decided just to make sure. I opened the book back up, and much to my relief, it was the rest of the story, with all of the answers neatly laid out. I only feel the need to discuss an ending in detail when I am frustrated or angry about it. In this case, I am happy to keep my lips sealed because the ending was just right. (I thought of using the words "satisfying" or "perfect," but somehow those just seemed wrong in connection with murder.) Everything made sense to me; there were no surprises that weren't accounted for (which drives me absolutely batty with some mysteries). And really, once I knew everything, I was convinced it would have been impossible to imagine and construct and write such a story without an insane amount of planning.

Besides trying to figure out who the murderer was, it was also engrossing to determine who might be the next character to meet his (or her) tragic end. This was an element that is not a part of most murder mysteries, and it was just one more way the story kept up its captivating pace.

The mystery also had a creative framework, which I really liked. The entire plot is based on the nursery rhyme "Ten Little Soldiers," where one by one, the little soldier boys are eliminated. Personally, I think it's pretty gruesome for a nursery rhyme, but judging from Grimm's fairy tales, things have not always been so carefully packaged for children as they are now. Even though I don't approve of it as a nursery rhyme, I thought it provided an intriguing structure for the story.

If the ending hadn't wrapped things up so well, I know I wouldn't be praising this book nearly so much. But because she delivered the whole package, I have no reservations saying this is one of the best mysteries I've ever read. It was one I not only loved while I was reading it, but now, after the fact, I just keep thinking, That was incredible.

It was a perfect Halloween read. Even though the holiday is almost over and you're all probably in candy-induced comas by now, you might want to put it on your list for next year. Hope you all had a great Halloween!

Old Black Witch's Blueberry Pancakes

Oct 29, 2013

Last night we decided to have pancakes for dinner. We rarely, almost never, have pancakes for breakfast. But pancakes for dinner? About once a month. It is one of the few meals we eat that I don't have to hear any complaints about. Perhaps it has something to do with it being laden with sugar . . .

Since recently reading (and loving) Old Black Witch, we decided to make her famous blueberry pancakes.

In reality, these pancakes are pretty much just your average flour, baking powder and eggs except for the magical chant you repeat three times while stirring in the blueberries:

Gobble dee gook
With a wooden spoon, 
The laugh of a toad
At the height of the moon!

We practiced several times so we could say it without stumbling. And then, while Maxwell stirred, all five of us (yes, even Mike, who was home by then) chanted the magic words. It was quite thrilling. I was reminded that in order to make something special, you don't have to do anything grand or expensive. You just have to act like it's special, and then, magically, it is.

Old Black Witch's Blueberry Pancakes

1 1/4 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
3/4 cup milk
3 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 cup blueberries (thawed or fresh)

Mix ingredients together, and then pour in 1/4 cup amounts on hot griddle. Flip when all the bubbles have popped.

We doubled the recipe, and as we heartily consumed almost all of them, we had to agree they were some of the best pancakes we'd ever eaten.

We're sure it's because of those magical words.

LibraryPages: Borrow, But Don't Read

Oct 26, 2013

Note: the following is not meant to be unduly critical of the library. I love the library! I just want to express my feelings and then hear your wise and unbiased opinions.

Yesterday, Aaron and I went to the library. When I tried to use the self check-out, a little message popped up and said there was a problem with my card. This was not surprising since our library recently revamped their computer system and changed their check-out/check-in systems, and in the last two months, I always seem to encounter some kind of problem.

So I made my way over to one of the real, live librarians and told her I couldn't check out. She scanned my card and said it was because there was a $29.00 fine on it and they only allow fines to go up to $25.00. My mouth gaped open in astonishment, and I spluttered, "That cannot possibly be true." I said that in good faith since I had checked my account just that morning and seen with my own two eyes that my fines amounted to a measly 80 cents.

"It's for a damaged item," she said. "A Mind at a Time."

I had just returned that book a few minutes before, and I feverishly racked my brain for what kind of damage I had done to it. Thrown it into the fire? No. Stomped on it in a wild dance? Not this time. Ripped it up in a fit of rage? It wasn't that kind of book.

The librarian could see I was getting flustered, so she beckoned to another librarian, who came over holding A Mind at a Time. I refrained from snatching it out of her hands.

"How is it damaged?" I asked. As she opened up the front cover, I remembered.

When I checked out the book, the first grouping of 20 pages was beginning to pull away from the binding. During the few weeks of opening, closing, holding, and reading it, the pages had come all the way out--but were still glued together in their own little group.

So there it was. My abuse was not in burning or stomping or ripping, but in reading.

I rushed to defend myself: "I didn't do that! The pages were already coming out when I got the book."

Apparently, the librarian holding the book had been in the process of writing me an email. I almost wish it had been sent before we got things resolved. I would have loved to know what she was saying. Instead, she said, "Oh, that's fine. Next time, just make sure you tell us about the problem when you return the book."

So the fine is gone. And I should be happy. But I'm still a bit rankled for three reasons:
  1. I check out well-used items from the library all the time: board books with flaps missing, paperbacks that are bent and scuffed, DVDs that are so scratched they skip more than they play. Am I really going to have to start reporting how all these items are damaged when I return them just so that I don't accrue unwarranted fines?
  2. As items get read and used, it should be expected that a certain amount of wear and tear will occur. Even under the best handling, an item can only be passed between so many hands before it starts to show its age. How do you decide who is responsible for the damage when it was the work of several different people reading the book?
  3. The book was still very readable (so readable I forgot to even mention the damage when I turned the book in--and, rather ironically, I did mention some problems with a picture book I was checking in at the same time). Even if the damage had been completely the result of my negligence and my mistreatment, I still don't think I should have had to pay the full cost to replace the book. If the book was so damaged it had to be retired, then yes, of course. But if it was merely going to be repaired and placed back on the shelf? Then charge a fine for damage but not an entire replacement fee.
Mike and I were talking about the whole situation, and we both half-seriously agreed that I maybe should have paid the $29.00 just as a way of saying thank-you for the thousands of dollars worth of books we've checked out over the years. Or because our own little bits of damage (a DVD scratch here or a crease or small tear there) have probably added up to $29.00. I certainly do not want to be stingy in regards to the library because I love that system so much, and my life would be completely different without it.

However, I also want to be fair.

And in all fairness, there have been many times when I've mentioned damage that we've done to books. I'm definitely not trying to get away with abuse. The funny thing is, because the damage was small, they've always just smiled and said something like, "Oh don't worry about it. That book has been around forever. That's what happens when you read a book."

This time was just so surprising and unexpected. I don't know if they're trying to crack down a little and make patrons more responsible or if this particular librarian was just a little over-zealous.

I would welcome any feedback, particularly from current- or former-librarians. Is it too optimistic to hope I have a silent reader or two who works in one of the Salt Lake City libraries? How about other moms who have had to deal with the dilemma of reporting damage? Do other libraries charge a damage fee, or is it all or nothing? Please share your opinions (but of course, do so kindly!).

KidPages: Three Books for Halloween

Oct 23, 2013

Every October we check out a lot of Halloween-themed picture books from the library. I'm sure your house is filled with them too. My children prefer scary (of course, they don't know what real scary is), and I prefer cute. This little list is a mix of both (but all of them end with cute).

1. Old Black Witch!, Wende and Harry Devlin
We read this book for the first time yesterday. Yes, yesterday. At the time, I already had the beginnings of this post in my head. For the sake of keeping the post a decent length, I planned on limiting myself to three books (which, you can see, I stuck to). Originally, one of the three books was going to be Cranberry Halloween, which we read earlier in the month and really liked. But then we read this one, and we liked it even more. Since they are both written by Wende and Harry Devlin and definitely have a similar feel, Cranberry Halloween got cut (but you should still go check it out!).

Old Black Witch is living in an old, abandoned house when Nicky and his mother purchase it and begin the process of fixing it up and turning it into an adorable little teahouse. Old Black Witch is outraged: "There aren't many old, broken-down houses left, you know." Nicky's mom kindly offers the attic room to Old Black Witch, which suits her fine since it is the only part of the house still occupied by cobwebs and bats and layers of dust. When the teahouse opens, Old Black Witch makes occasional appearances, and all of the customers find her quite charming--even though she is just as ornery as ever. However, her orneriness proves to be a valuable asset when two thieves decide to break in and steal from Nicky and his mom. The Old Black Witch will have none of that!

If you've never read anything by Wende and Harry Devlin, then you're missing out on a rare treat. Theirs is a unique brand of storytelling: at times simplistic and at other times detailed with the unmistakable charm of the 1960's upon it. It's on the wordy side of picture books for sure, but even two-year-old Bradley had no trouble sitting through it.

The witch is depicted as short and stout with a red face and a big nose. There is a certain quirky cuteness about her that is only intensified by her prickly personality. She's like the typical old lady who lives across the street: she hates children (and people in general), but she's as loyal as they come.


2. The Costume Copycat, Maryann Macdonald, illus. Anne Wilsdorf
I've read enough mediocre Halloween books to be able to spot one a mile off. 

Or so I thought.

But The Costume Copycat did not turn out to be even half as mediocre as I was expecting. No cut-and-paste dialogue. No Halloween classroom parties. No redundant rhymes.

Instead, what I found was a sweet story about two sisters: Angela (the younger one) and Bernadette (the older one). Every year, Bernadette picks just the right costume to be a smashing success in the neighborhood. And every year, Angela picks up Bernadette's costume from last year (in the hopes of enjoying some of the same popularity as Bernadette the year before) but finds that for some reason she just doesn't seem to have the same effect on people. But then one year, Bernadette's hand-me-down costume (a gypsy) won't fit Angela, and so she has to come up with her own. She discovers (as I'm sure you can guess) that her own ideas can be pretty amazing, too.

The thing that makes this story so delightful is the stark (and very amusing) contrast between Bernadette's and Angela's years with the same costume. The year that Bernadette is a white rabbit, their neighbor, Mrs. Walker, exclaims, "Oh, look at the cute little bunny!" and insists on taking two pictures of Bernadette. The next year, it rains all evening, leaving Angela a wet and muddy and bedraggled rabbit. Mrs. Walker, not unkindly, tells her, "You're a wonderful rat."

For almost the entire story, Angela is consumed with jealousy while trying desperately to have her moment in the sun. At the end, when she finally feels noticed and appreciated, it is amazing how she instantly stops being so selfish and begins using polite words and shows love for Bernadette. Just a little self-confidence goes a long way. It definitely makes me want to look out for those kids (perhaps living within the walls of my own home?) who are feeling overshadowed by an older sibling; I want to recognize their strengths and let them shine in their own way.

3. What was I Scared of?, Dr. Seuss
If you had asked me ten years ago what I thought of Dr. Seuss, I probably would have said something about fond memories in regards to green eggs and ham, but other than that, not a lot of affection or admiration. In fact, I really didn't think about him much at all.

I have since changed my tune.
While I don't think I'll ever love The Cat in the Hat, I now count some of his books among my most favorites (I think I could read The Grinch Who Stole Christmas a dozen times in December and not get sick of it). The more I read of Dr. Seuss, the more I love him.

We first read this book, hmmm, probably over a year ago. But I checked it out from the library again this month and was surprised by what a perfect Halloween story it is: a creepy pair of green pants with nobody inside them? pants that follow around an unsuspecting and innocent creature? pants that only come out at night? Definitely scary.

So scary, in fact, that my two-year-old was led to exclaim as we turned the page, "Oh no! Green pants!!!!!"

It ends up being that the green pants are just a little lonely and in need of a friend, which isn't so much scary as it is very weird. But you know what? It works.

The reason why I can't get enough of Dr. Seuss is because he is so fun to read aloud. Seriously. Try this stanza: "I ran and found a Brickel bush. / I hid myself away. / I got brickels in my britches / But I stayed there anyway." Brickels in my britches? Tell me that line alone doesn't just make you want to read the rest of the story. It's almost therapeutic for me to read his rhymes. Once I begin, the predictable, undulating meter pulls me in, and I am content to ride it out to the end.

You may have noticed from the cover that this is a "glow-in-the-dark encounter." Does anyone else think that a glow-in-the-dark book is like the dumbest idea ever? I mean, it's almost always closed up tight; the only time it sees the light of day is for the brief 30 seconds spent on its page; plus, who ever heard of reading a book in the dark? We have yet to look at this book in the dark because it would take so much time to get it ready. 

That's what we've been reading lately. Have you found any new favorites this month?

The Story of the Dragon and the Dinosaur - by Aaron

Oct 21, 2013

A few days ago, Aaron was reading Houndsley and Catina--a book about a dog and a cat who are best friends. Catina is a self-proclaimed author: "Every evening after dinner, she would make herself a cup of ginger tea and sit down to write another chapter in her book."

Her book contains seventy-four chapters.

Aaron read that sentence, and his mouth gaped open in amazement. Seventy-four chapters?!?! He had no idea a book was allowed to have so many chapters. Obviously, Catina must be quite the accomplished author to be able to write so many (ironically, she is not).

The next day, I found Aaron sitting at the table in the playroom. He had a large stack of blank paper on one side of him, and a pile of completed pages on the other.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Writing a chapter book."

By the looks of it, he had ambitions of surpassing Catina's mark of seventy-four.

I have to admit, I was intrigued. Ever since he started school, he has been much braver about spelling words on his own. But still, I had never seen him write so much in one sitting.

Each chapter consisted of a title and one sentence.

He petered out at chapter 10, and, like Catina, he had a rather difficult time keeping the plot going, but I love this first attempt at a novel.

For your reading pleasure, here are chapters 9 and 10 (with original spelling) of The Story of the Dragon and the Dinosaur:

Chapter 9
Verey Verey Verey Best Fres

then they became verey verey verey best fres.

Chapter 10
Verey Verey Verey Verey Best Frens

Then they wre verey verey verey verey best frens.

Since it seems there were only good things on the horizon for Dragon and Dinosaur's friendship (and a lot more "verys"), the story came to a happy and satisfying end.

Princess of the Silver Woods by Jessica Day George

Oct 18, 2013

In case you hadn't already guessed from my reviews of Princess of the Midnight Ball and Princess of Glass, this was the trilogy I decided to read for my "Begin and finish a series" goal. I was immensely proud of myself for reading all three books in two months.

But then . . .

. . . my mom and my two sisters saw what I was reading, and they all decided it looked like something they would enjoy, too. My sisters stole the books from me and read all three in a week's time. One week! They didn't even bat an eye about this. They acted like there was nothing unusual at all about reading an entire trilogy in one breath without reading something else in between.

Hmmm. It seems like maybe I'm the unusual one, and I should keep my pride about such ridiculous things to myself. (Even as it was, I read three books in between the second and third books. I couldn't help myself.)

Princess Petunia, the youngest of the twelve dancing princesses, is on her way to visit the Grand Duchess Volenskaya when her coach is attacked by the Wolves of the Westfalian Woods. Oliver, the head of the Wolves, has no intention of hurting anyone, but then, almost without realizing it, he ends up kidnapping Petunia. Even after he has delivered her safely to the Grand Duchess's estate, he finds that his life has become mixed up with hers, and he can't turn his back on her when he can tell that things are not as they seem and feels that something just isn't right.

This book was fun because it brought back most of the characters from the first book: all of the princesses, Galin and Heinrich, the Bishop, Walter Vogel, and even the old crone. And yes, the King and princes Under Stone as well.

This cast of characters gave the trilogy some symmetry and also a sense of finality. However, in retrospect, it made Princess of Glass seem a little out of place. It just didn't have a strong connection to the other two books. Now that I've read all three books, I think the middle book weakens the trilogy. I don't think it would if the third book weren't so strongly connected to the first book. But because there is that connection, the second books seems more like a detour than a part of the journey.

As long as I'm talking about the connection between the first and third books, I might as well mention the ending (you might want to skip this paragraph if you haven't read this book). I was very dissatisfied with the ending. It was much too similar to the ending of Princess of the Midnight Ball. In many ways, I felt like I was reading that book again (which, if I was following my usual habit of putting three years between books, probably wouldn't have been a problem, but spaced just a few weeks apart, this copying was really annoying). Honestly, as I was reading the scene with all the princesses exiting the ball in exactly the same manner as the first book, I kept thinking, The first time was unbelievable. But this? This is not only unbelievable but very uncreative.

And then (still talking about the ending to any readers who are skipping this part), the actual defeating of the King Under Stone was nothing special. It was all magic and spells and good vs. evil and blinding flashes of light, but in the end, it felt very much like Princess of Glass where all of a sudden everything was finished and good had triumphed, but I wasn't quite sure how we got there. Most disappointing to me was the anti-climatic moment with fire. Throughout the story, you get the sense that everyone in the Kingdom Under Stone is deathly afraid of fire. Petunia smuggled a book of matches in with her and tries several times to get something to burn. In the end, she sets the whole silver woods on fire, but it felt more like an afterthought from the author, like Oh yeah, I have to work in fire somehow, than an actual necessity of the climax. I just felt like there was a lot of potential there to make the ending more original and creative, but in the end, the new little bits and pieces were shoved in under the pretense of creativity.

Sorry, I know that all sounded a bit harsh, but poor endings rile me up, especially when the rest of the book is so good.

And it was good.

I loved Petunia and Oliver. Where I loved Galen but couldn't stand Rose in Princess of the Midnight Ball and loved Poppy but couldn't stand Christian in Princess of Glass, it was so refreshing to have this dynamic couple. They were both brave, self-sacrificing, and smart. My only wish is that there would have been a little more interaction between them and maybe a little more romance at the end.

I also loved the way the tale of Little Red Riding Hood was used throughout: everything from Petunia's gorgeous red cape (seriously, I want one) to the little cottage in the woods to Oliver being a Wolf. The ending might have lacked some creativity, but the retelling of this fairy tale did not.

One of the details I really liked was finding out more about the princes Under Stone. In the first book, we know that they were born to mortal women and then taken down to the Kingdom Under Stone. It was so intriguing to have the Grand Duchess and her grandson Grigori take such an interest in Under Stone and make the threat of connecting the two worlds all that more tangible and real.

While on the topic of the princes, I just have to mention one paragraph that seemed so out of place: " Petunia familiarity had bred a strange sort of comfort. The clothes were slick and strange, the food tasted like it had been sprinkled with ashes, but she had known Kestilan far longer than she'd known Oliver. Longer than she'd known Galen, even, and he was as dear to her as if he had been born her brother." As dear to her?! Where did this even come from? How do you use the word dear in reference to Kestilan?!  There was absolutely no foundation for such a statement, and I found it not only extremely unfounded but also intensely repulsive.

With a mixed review like this one, it's probably a little bit difficult for you to tell if I would recommend this series or not, so I'll make it easy for you: I would definitely recommend it. No question. Yes, the endings left something to be desired, but the reading experience itself was very enjoyable.

Now that I've read all three books, I can definitely see the value in reading the books in a series back to back (or almost back to back). I was able to make connections and remember details that I wouldn't have otherwise. However, at the same time, I think I might have enjoyed the trilogy a little bit more if my memory had lapsed a little bit between books. I'm glad that I forced myself to read in a new way, but I'm not sure I'm convinced that it's better than my old way. I think I'll just stick with reading whatever I feel like, and if that happens to be two similar books one right after the other, so be it. But if not, I refuse to feel guilty.

Helping Young Children Love Chapter Books - Guest Post

Oct 17, 2013

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know that one of my favorite children's lit blogs is What Do We Do All Day. Erica has a virtual treasure trove of book lists, not to mention game and snack and craft ideas. If my only source for new book ideas came from this blog alone, I would still be set for years!

A couple months ago, Erica asked me if I wanted to do a guest post on her blog. I can't even tell you how flattered I was! One of my very favorite bloggers wanted me to write something for her?! Of course I said yes.

So today I am over at What Do We Do All Day sharing some ideas for how to help young children enjoy chapter books. I hope you'll pop over there, read my post, and then explore some of Erica's great posts for yourself!

Maxwell's Preschool: S is for Scaredy Squirrel

Oct 16, 2013

Maxwell is part of another preschool co-op this school year. The group consists of five children, two girls and three boys. We do a weekly number, letter, color, and theme and use the curriculum The Amazing Action Alphabet. (As of right now, I am not overly impressed with The Amazing Action Alphabet, but it is providing some structure, which is nice.) For more preschool ideas, click here.

For my first week of teaching, I had the number 5, the letter S, the color blue, and "feelings and emotions" as a theme.

I thought Scaredy Squirrel would be the perfect lead-in to a discussion about feelings and emotions . . . plus "scaredy" and "squirrel" both begin with the letter S. How convenient.

Scaredy Squirrel is afraid of everything. He never leaves his safe nut tree, and he never varies from his very reliable schedule. But just in case disaster were ever to strike, Scaredy Squirrel is well-prepared with his emergency kit. (And if all else fails, he knows he can always play dead.) Then one day, something unexpected does happen. And Scaredy Squirrel realizes the "unknown" isn't as awful as he feared . . . even if his emergency kit falls out of his tree.

(There is a whole line of Scaredy Squirrel books, and all of them are funny and creative and present a new set of problems and fears to overcome. Our other favorites are Scaredy Squirrel at Night and Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend.)

After beginning with our opening routine (welcome song, days of the week song, calendar, weather, pledge of allegiance, reading the story in the alphabet book, and doing a little worksheet), I read Scaredy Squirrel to the children.

But first, we had a little discussion about things that we're scared of. Even though the kids were very influenced by what each other was saying, we still heard a variety of ideas.

I only got to the first page before I had to stop. The first page reads, "WARNING! Scaredy Squirrel insists that everyone wash their hands with antibacterial soap before reading this book." So of course, we had to stop and put on some hand sanitizer. We wanted to follow Scaredy Squirrel's request.

Personally, I sometimes find Scaredy Squirrel a little tedious to read aloud because it contains lots of lists and diagrams and such (which are all absolutely hilarious but make it difficult to maintain the flow), but the kids LOVED this book. Some of them are a little energetic sometimes, but all of them were motionless while we were reading.

After reading it, we gathered around the table to make our own charts of things we're afraid of. Scaredy Squirrel's chart looked like this:

The kids' charts turned out like this:

Looking back, I wish that I'd labeled all of their squares just like Scaredy Squirrel's. Some of their pictures are more difficult to interpret than others, although I know tarantulas, bees, and sharks all made an appearance straight from Scaredy Squirrel's own list.

Top left corner, going clockwise: shark, ghost, a stuffed snake named Luvvy, and bees

After that, we had a snack. Since Scaredy Squirrel loves nuts, we had "acorns"--really chocolate kisses, vanilla wafers, and pretzels, glued together with frosting. Super healthy, I know.

In the book, Scaredy Squirrel shows several similar emotions: fear, anxiety, stress, terror, and panic. But I wanted the kids to think about more emotions than just those ones. So I decided to let them give Scaredy Squirrel whatever emotion they wanted.

I drew my own picture of Scaredy Squirrel but left off his face. Then I laminated him. I made one of these for each child.

I put dry eraser markers out for everyone (and lectured them about the importance of keeping them away from their clothes :-)). Then we talked about some of the other ways Scaredy Squirrel might feel. I had a white board, and as the kids thought of various feelings, I drew an example up on the board. They could then copy it on Scaredy Squirrel or come up with their own ideas.

I was surprised with how imaginative the kids were with this activity. They loved it, and they were really quite good with adding little details to change Scaredy Squirrel's expressions.


There is a little twist at the end of Scaredy Squirrel. As he jumps to save his emergency kit, Scaredy Squirrel discovers something amazing: he is a flying squirrel. Since he had never ventured beyond his nut tree, he never knew he had this amazing talent.

Of course, Scaredy Squirrel wasn't really flying, but gliding. I thought this would be a great time to talk about how falling objects slow down based on how well they're able to catch the air. For the sake of this lesson and our obsession with the letter S, we called this soaring. 

I found a great book of science projects for 2-6 year-olds called Science Play by Jill Frankel Hauser.

It just happened to have a whole experiment focused around air resistance.

The book suggested using paper strips in three different ways:
  1. As itself - no folds or cuts anywhere
  2. A larger rectangle with a long slit coming in from either side, then opened up and taped to make a triangular shape.
  3. A little snip in each end that were then interlocked to make a fish shape
  4. I added the fourth rectangle and later let them cut, fold, and tape it however they wanted to make the absolute best flier they possibly could

Then it was time to test the fliers. First we tried the paper strip. 

Then we tried the fish shape. This one was actually really cool because it spun around and around all the way down.

After that, we tried the triangle shape. Now that they had three different flying examples, we went inside to work on the green piece of paper.

I was amazed with their creativity. They cut and folded, and they used lots and lots and lots of tape. All of them looked so different!

As a final activity, I put a basket under the club house. I told the kids they could use whichever flier they wanted. Then they had to drop them and try to get them in the basket. This was much more difficult than I was expecting.

That was the end of the first day (we hold preschool two times a week).

On the second day, the first thing we did (after our opening routine) was go into the kitchen and make some pretzels. I wanted them to have a more tactile experience with the letter S. I gave each of them a ball of dough and let them roll and twist and shape it into an S.

I had made the dough the night before (I used this recipe). I've never let the dough sit overnight before, but it worked out just great.

While the pretzels were cooking, I had them work on a little number 5 worksheet.

While they were doing that, I took the pretzels out of the oven and brushed them with butter and sprinkled them with cinnamon and sugar.

We ate them while they were still warm. They were so yummy! One of the little boys is kind of a picky eater. He was in Aaron's preschool co-op last year, and I almost never could find a snack that he would eat. But he LOVED these pretzels, so I felt very gratified.

To go along with our feelings and emotions theme, we read another book: Happy by Mies Van Hout.

This one is absolutely delightful. It shows one fish on each page displaying a different emotion. The emotions range from your basic "happy" and "sad" all the way to "shocked" and "jealous" and "furious." I love the variety. It's the only book I've found that covers so many feelings, and it's amazing how well the pictures express what the fish are feeling.

(My two-year-old has this book memorized, and it is so adorably cute to hear him say big words like "curious" and "confused" while making the appropriate faces.)

As I read this book to the kids, we tried to copy the faces of the fish. I explained any of the feelings they weren't familiar with.

Then I had all of them sit on the couch. Each one had a turn leaving the room and deciding which emotion from the book they were going to express--a simple version of charades. It was wildly entertaining to see these emotions on the children. We played several rounds of this game, and I think they would have just kept playing if I hadn't moved them on to another activity.

In Scaredy Squirrel, there are a couple of pages that outline Scaredy Squirrel's schedule each day: at 7:00 a.m. he eats a nut, at 12:00 p.m. he eats another nut, etc.

I thought it would be a good opportunity to have a simple lesson on telling time. But first, we had to make our own clocks.

I did quite a bit of the prep work for this project ahead of time. I cut out the arrows for the clock hands. I also wrote out the numbers 6-12 on squares and glued them around half of the paper plate.

I wanted the children to have both writing and cutting practice, but I knew it would be too overwhelming for them to try and write all the numbers. So far, we've learned the numbers 1-5, so I gave them a strip of paper with several squares marked on it. I had them write the numbers on the squares and then cut them apart. Then they glued them onto the paper plate to finish the clock.

Then I showed them how the little hand tells us the hour, and when the big hand is right on the 12, it is exactly three o'clock (or five o'clock or whatever).

We played a little game where I told them what time it was (seven o'clock, for example), and then they scrambled as fast as they could to show that time on their clocks. Then they flipped it around for me to see.

By this time, they were all getting a little restless, so it wasn't quite as fun as I was hoping for. However, when my five-year-old got home from school and saw the clocks, he had to make one, and I've since used it to help him learn to tell time, with good success.

We only did one more activity after this, and it was very unstructured. Since we were learning about the number five, I told them to go on a five scavenger hunt. They could go anywhere in the house or in the backyard and round up a collection of five. It could be a collection of anything, even mismatched or random objects, but it could only have five objects in it.

Here are two collections--one of animals and another of leaves.

I think it's kind of funny that both last year and this year, my weeks to teach fell on the letter S. So while I don't have any lesson plans for many of the other letters, I now have two completely different lessons for the letter S.

This Family Gives Books

Oct 12, 2013

It seems to be birthday party season around here. Or maybe it's just because Aaron is in school, and so our pool of potential birthday invites has increased.

Either way, I thought this would be a good opportunity to give everyone this fair warning: We give books as birthday presents.

I know this is a small source of embarrassment for Aaron. He watches the gifts being opened . . . he sees the cool action figures and craft kits and dart guns and Lego sets; he hears the exclamations from the birthday kid and guests over each new gift; he joins in the fun of playing with the new toys.

And he knows there will be no such excitement over his gift.

I've debated whether or not I should change my gift-giving tradition. After all, what if the birthday kid doesn't like books? Should I succumb to the fads and whims of the day? Should I try to be the cool mom?

But every time, I give myself a resounding NO!

Reading is important. And one of the best ways to learn to love reading is to live in a home that is filled with books. I want to contribute to the home library.

I take pride in giving good books--high quality children's literature that our family has read and loved. You won't see any Sesame Street or Dora books coming from me, I promise. (Okay, I take that back. I think one time I did give a Dora book to a little friend who was madly in love with her, BUT I also gave What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? to make up for it.)

I would love it for my own children to receive books for their birthdays. In fact, I always use their birthdays as an excuse to buy a couple of our recent favorites.

I think this has been on my mind because Aaron went to a birthday party just yesterday afternoon. It was a Lego party. I was this close to going out and buying a Legos set for this little boy. But at the last minute I decided to hold my ground.

Instead, Aaron gave him the complete set of My Father's Dragon (all three books bound into one hardback) and The Escape of Marvin the Ape. (I seriously had a hard time giving up the copy of My Father's Dragon.)

When I picked up Aaron from the birthday party, all the kids were in the backyard playing with the new toys. Not surprisingly, not one of them was sitting under the tree looking at the new books.

But that's okay. Books have a way of giving long after the other toys are broken or retired.

What do you think? Are books a good birthday gift? Or do they brand you as a loser?

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Oct 9, 2013

In the course of this review, I mention key points of the plot, so continue at your own risk.

When I decided that East of Eden would be one of my four classics this year, I was scared and intimidated. Now that the time has come to write about it, I feel scared and intimidated again. But sandwiched in between the before and after was the glorious period where I was actually reading (I mean, listening) to it. The story was beautiful and awful, moving and soul-wrenching. I was so engrossed in it, I never even thought or remembered to be scared and intimidated. 

The story begins with Adam and Charles Trask, half-brothers who are different in every possible way. The Sam Hamilton family is also introduced early on (and I must admit, I had to go back and listen to the first hour again because I was sure I'd missed some important connection between the Trask and Hamilton families, but no, turns out the connection comes later on). Ultimately though, the story is about Caleb Trask, the son of Adam and the twin brother of Aaron.

There is a lot of buildup to the heart of the story though. As you might expect, judging from its 600 pages, the characters and plot develop slowly and meticulously. Sometimes, it seemed like an event didn't contribute directly to the plot (I was particularly curious to know why Tom's story was so critical to include), but looking back on it now, I realize that each little detour or description was important to the overall feeling I came away with. By the time I finished, I knew those characters better than many of my real friends.

That said, there were times when I was expecting more to happen. I was sure the narrator was going to play a bigger role in the story since it is obvious from the beginning that he is not an omniscient narrator but intimately connected with the Hamilton family (based on John Steinbeck's real family). The narrator does show up a couple of times as a little boy (he is the grandson of Sam Hamilton), but for some reason I thought he would end up marrying into the Trask family or something like that . . . probably because he seemed to know the events of their story more intimately than was realistic otherwise.

How much of the story is actually autobiographical, I don't know, but the narrator does have some profound and insightful thoughts. And since the narrator's name is John Steinbeck, I have to assume that at least in those thoughtful, contemplative moments, he is speaking for himself.

Here's one such paragraph, which, when I first read it, struck me as important enough to write down:
And this, I believe, that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can, by inspection, destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it, and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.
I can't remember for sure where this appeared in the story, but I know it was before the halfway point. Now that I know how it all turned out, I can see that it described, what I consider to be, the main theme.

The first half of the book is all about Adam Trask (Caleb's father): his tumultuous relationship with his younger brother, Charles, his disillusionment with his father, his marriage to a vile woman (who, in spite of all common sense, he is rapturously in love with), the birth of his twin baby boys, and the extreme depression he sinks into after his wife leaves him.

The second half focuses much more on Caleb: his conflicting feelings toward his brother, Aaron, the yearning he feels to be loved by his father, the anger he feels toward his mother (if you can even call her that), and the overwhelming dislike he feels for himself.

Both halves parallel the Biblical recounting of Cain and Abel. But Adam seems to take after Abel while Caleb (or Cal, as he's known for most of the book) more closely resembles Cain.

It is interesting to see the similarities and differences between all three stories (Cain + Abel, Charles + Adam, Caleb + Aaron). But even more interesting is seeing the different perspectives the various characters offer to the original story. When I read the account in Genesis (and yes, I reread it a couple of times while reading this book), I've always had a certain measure of pity for Cain (the Lord didn't accept his offering, after all), but ultimately my affections and sympathies go with Abel.

But in this case, although Adam's (i.e. Abel's) story was moving, it was Cal's (i.e., Cain's) that was really powerful. Cal struggled against the weaknesses in his own personality to become the person he really wanted to be. He was a character worth cheering for because he was so very human.

One of the most beautiful moments of the book happens at almost the exact midpoint. Lee, the Trask's Chinese servant (but really more like a mentor) is talking about his study of the Cain and Abel story. He is intrigued by this verse, spoken by the Lord to Cain: "If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him."

It is the phrase "thou shalt" (as translated in the King James version) that intrigues Lee. He looks at the American Standard translation, which says "do thou." And then he looks at the Hebrew, which says "thou mayest." Then Lee says,
"Don't you see? The American Standard Translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James Translation makes a promise in "thou shalt," meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word "timshul", "thou mayest," that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world."
The words "thou mayest" really become the keystone of the whole book. They are played out in Cal's life. First he believes he is doomed because of who his mother was and because he has part of her inside him. But eventually he realizes that he is the master of his own self and that he doesn't have to succumb to every whim of his personality.

At one point, Lee counsels, ""Maybe you'll come to know that every man in every generation is refired . . . Cal, listen to me. Can you think that whatever made us would stop trying?" So beautiful.

Speaking of Lee, he is one of the best mentors I've encountered in literature. He is bold and wise and self-sacrificing. I loved the part where he tried to leave the Trask family in order to start his own little bookstore, but he just couldn't do it. He was back at their house before the month was out because he loved Adam and his boys so much.

As of yet, I've hardly mentioned Cathy, later known as Kate, who married Adam Trask and gave birth to Aaron and Cal before leaving the family. She is a villain in every sense of the word. The reader (at least this reader) can't feel sympathy towards her because she expresses no real motive for her actions, and she seems to feel no emotions (save it be fear every once in awhile). There are some rather mature scenes in the book (and also some strong language, just fyi), and all of them involve Cathy. She is vile and wicked and hurts some of the characters profoundly. It makes me shudder to think about her. There was truly nothing redeeming about her.

The writing is nothing short of stunning. I wish I had something original to say, but my mouth is too busy gaping open in awe. I'll just give you a little sample instead. Here is one paragraph I actually wrote down because I loved the way it sounded: "And as happened with most of the old families, the land slipped away. Some was lost in gambling, some chipped off for taxes, and some acres torn off like coupons to buy luxuries--a horse, a diamond, or a pretty woman."

Mike listened to this book also, and it provided us with many good discussions . . . first, while we were listening, as we tried to decide where the story was going and what was going to happen, and then, after we were finished, what we thought about various points and how we interpreted certain actions. After all was said and done, we asked each other, "Was it a five-star book?"

For me, the answer is an unequivocal YES. It has all of the attributes I expect in a five-star book: exquisite writing, real characters, and engaging plot, but then it also meets all the deal-breakers, which are that the book must make me think in a new way; it must open my eyes to new situations; it must stay with me long after I finish it; and it must be something that I would consider reading again. And this book did all that and more.

I know my analysis of the book's strengths are probably rather juvenile and others have examined it much more thoroughly and profoundly, but I wanted to record my own thoughts because I wanted to preserve my own reading experience.

And so, because of that, I can't help but share one final quote: "But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed because "thou mayest."


KidPages: Four Favorites From 2013

Oct 7, 2013

I don't often say I like the bookstore more than the library (you do have to buy the books there, after all), but it is better in at least one area, and that is that it's much easier to see at a glance what the most current books are and the new books that have been published this year. As much as I love discovering old books, it is equally fun to read brand-new ones and to know that fantastic picture books are continuing to be published and that there are so many talented authors and illustrators who are creating new stories every day.

These four books were all published this year, and I would happily go back to the bookstore and buy all four of them. They are keepers for sure.


Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown
I think my first thought while reading this book was, "How did someone (specifically, Peter Brown) come up with this idea?!" It takes a theme that's common in picture books (be yourself) and treats it in a completely unique way.

Mr. Tiger lives a proper existence. He wears a top hat, a tuxedo, and a bow tie. He uses good manners and never misses tea time. But he is so bored! One day he tries something new. Something wild. He gets down on all four paws. Mr. Tiger feels invigorated and alive. But everyone else is scandalized. However, Mr. Tiger has made the first break in social conventions, and before long, everyone else is able to be a little more relaxed (and a little more themselves) too.

One of the best things about this book is the great balance between the text and the illustrations. Some pages include just a few words while other pages include no words at all. This makes it so that both the words and the pictures are able to shine and pack a punch as needed.

And oh, the illustrations. I really, really love Peter Brown's style: the texture, the colors, the square corners and silhouettes and straight lines. Plus, a tiger in a top hat? Totally awesome. I would love to see this get some Caldecott recognition come January. 

Ah Ha! by Jeff Mack
This little gem uses just two letters (and some really great pictures) to tell its story. It is about a frog who spends an eventful day being chased, being caught, and outsmarting his captors. All of the characters express their thoughts and emotions using some combination of "A" and "H."

 There's "Aahh!" (relaxing and enjoying the sunshine), "Aahh," (said with a hint of relief), "Aahh!" (screaming in fright), "Ah ha!" (I have a great idea!), "Ah ha!" (like, "I've caught you now!"), and "Ha ha!" (said in a taunting way).

It is a great one to read aloud because you get to vary your tone and inflections in all sorts of ways to convey the underlying meaning of each word. And my kids think it is so funny (especially when the frog is sticking out his tongue at the turtle, crocodile, and flamingo and saying, "Ha Ha!" as he makes his escape).

Speaking of the turtle, crocodile, and flamingo (oh, and did I mention that there's also a little boy and a dog?), yes, it is an unlikely combination of animals, but it really works so well in this plot (a turtle disguises himself perfectly as a rock, a crocodile as a floating log, and a flamingo as some tall pond reeds).

The illustrations are bright and vivid. The story could easily be told without any text at all, and because of that, the text is used to add just an extra touch of humor. It is a simple story that is creatively executed.

Chu's Day by Neil Gaiman, illus. Adam Rex
Would it surprise you to learn that, before this book, I had not read anything by Neil Gaiman? I know he is a very strong presence in the literary world right now . . . but . . . his books sort of terrify me. They all just sound so dark and creepy. I'm just not sure they're for me.

But this book? Not dark or creepy in the slightest. (Unless, of course, you consider an enormous sneeze dark and creepy.) In fact, this book is so cute and so silly, you'd never guess it was created by the same person who came up with The Graveyard Book.

Chu is a little panda with epic sneezes. All day long his parents are on guard. At the library, his mother anxiously asks, "Are you going to sneeze?" At the diner, his father also takes the necessary precautions. But when they're at the circus, neither one pays any attention to Chu. And of course, that's when the sneeze finally decides to strike.

This book is so much fun to read out loud. Seriously, I don't think there's any other way to read it. Each time Chu says, "Aah-, Aaaaah-, Aaaaah-, . . . No," my kids erupt in a fit of giggles. Even though the "no" doesn't take them by surprise anymore (oh, I wish I could relive that first reading of this book), it is still uproariously funny. And it's because when you read it aloud, you can do all sorts of things to draw out the "aahs" and make the "no" super small and meek.

And the illustrations are just as hilarious. They're full of the most random animals, and each time you read it, you see new little details in the more busy pictures. (I love the little mice in the library who use the card catalog drawers as their computer corners.)

I should also mention that this would be the perfect past-bedtime read. (You know those evenings where all you want is for your kids to be in bed right this second, but they act as if going to bed without a story equals the crime of the century?) You can read this one in two minutes, and it will put both you and your children in happier, more amiable moods.

The Boy and the Airplane by Mark Pett
Ah Ha was bordering on wordless, but this one is wordless in every sense of the . . . not word. Wordless picture books can be a little hit or miss for me. Sometimes I love them (Chalk, Tuesday, etc.), but when there is too much happening on the page, they feel tedious to "read" out loud. I feel like I have to offer some sort of commentary for what's going on, but it ends up feeling too wordy (which is a weird thing to say about something that has no words at all).

But I happen to love The Boy and the Airplane. The story is a quiet one. It's about a little boy who is gifted a toy airplane. He runs around the yard with it and finally decides to test its flying ability. He pulls back and launches it into the air where it, most unfortunately, lands on the roof. The little boy tries everything to get it down but without any success. As a last resort, he plants a tree. After many years (when the little boy has turned into quite an old man), the tree is finally tall enough to climb, and he rescues his beloved airplane.

The story is quiet for several reasons. First, it features a solitary character. We catch the tail end of an interaction at both the beginning and the end of the story, but that is it. Second, the illustrations are very subdued: pencil with soft, muted background colors of green, blue, and brown. The only more vibrant color is the red of the toy airplane. Also, for most of the story, the boy's face displays only subtle hints at emotions. And finally, this is one wordless picture book that doesn't demand any words at all, but if you're reading it aloud and feel so inclined, a soft narration here and there is plenty sufficient.

Even though the facial expressions are minimal, this is still a really emotional story. The ending is especially touching to me. The old man (who used to be the young boy) is still a child at heart, and the joy at having his airplane back is evident on his face (a rarity, as I already mentioned). But then he does something that is so sweet and kind and really brings the story full-circle. I won't spoil it here, but trust me when I say that this is a treasure of a book you don't want to miss.

I hope I've piqued your interest enough for you to check out these new books. But in case you need one more push, how about if I tell you that all three of my boys like these books equally well? That's a rare occurrence in this house, and one that I totally welcome with open arms.

Reading With the Seasons: Another Halloween Edition

Oct 2, 2013

Remember that little thing I used to do called Reading With the Seasons? The last one I did was for Mother's Day. I didn't do any over the summer--not because I was giving up on the series, but because I didn't have any books that were whispering "summer" or "Independence Day" or "Back to School" to me. And I'm not about to force anything on this blog for the sake of a post.

But now that fall has arrived and pumpkins are gracing doorsteps and my kids are talking constantly about their costumes, my reading list has filled up with books that I feel I absolutely must read this month because they simply won't be as good if I save them until November.

Topping the list is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. I've had this book saved for October since January. Yes, January. I'm weird like that. I'm about a third of the way into it, and while I was hoping for more of a Gothic feel (like Rebecca, which was my October read last year), it is still deliciously creepy and speculative.

Besides this one, I've also been wanting to read The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery. For some reason, I have it in my head that it is more eerie than her other books, but am I totally making that up?

I also have my eye on several mysteries. I know I won't get to all of them, and even if I had the extra time, I'm pretty sure reading that many mysteries in a row would do me in, but here are a few that I have my eye on:  
  • A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle--I've only been trying to get to this book for the last year.
  • Pumpkin Roll by Josi Kilpack--I know that, once again, I'll probably be dissatisfied with the ending, but it's called Pumpkin Roll for crying out loud.
  • Peril at End House by Agatha Christie--I've only read one of Agatha Christie's mysteries, and that was more than 10 years ago. I loved the one I read, so I have no idea why it has taken me so long to return to her.
  • The Moonspinners or Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart--here is another author I've been meaning to read for far too long.
I guess from the looks of this list, it's probably pretty obvious that I stay away from anything that's too terrifying or gruesome, but I still like a good book that will keep me reading with fearful suspense. What do you have on your bookshelf this month? Please share! (Seriously. I mean it.)

Oh, and if you are looking for a few more ideas, check out the roundup list of ideas from last October.
Proudly designed by Mlekoshi playground