A Mind at a Time by Mel Levine

Feb 22, 2014

As I contemplated this review, I realized it could either be very long or very short.

If I went the long route, I would outline the structure of the book (Levine devotes a chapter to each of the mind's systems: attention control, memory, language, spatial and sequential ordering, motor, higher thinking, and social thinking), share some of my favorite quotes, and discuss the surprising discoveries of strengths/weaknesses in myself and my children.

If I took the short route, then I would briefly write about what I liked/didn't like about the book and call it good.

Honestly, I invested so much time and mental energy in reading and trying to apply this book that I think my original enthusiasm slowly drained, and I don't have much left in me to write a thorough review.

So the short route it is.

I know I'm making it sound like I didn't like the book. In fact, I liked it very much. But I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that it's a dense, technical book. Levine shares many personal examples from his practice, but he also uses a lot of classifications and scientific terms (many of them made up by himself for his own use) that really made this feel like an academic read. When I finally finished it, I felt some of the elation, but also some of the exhaustion, I used to feel after finishing a college course.

There was so much information to consume and digest and process and apply. In many ways, it was too much information. My brain couldn't retain it all. (I'm really grateful we read it for my education group so that I could at least discuss it with someone else.) After watching a 20-minute TED talk this afternoon, I sadly realized that I probably will remember more from that one talk than my 4+ months of reading this book.

That said, I thought Levine was a good teacher. He explained every concept thoroughly and with tangible examples. I admired his dedication to the needs of all children and appreciated the way he acknowledged that every child has weaknesses and strengths. I think this will be a great resource as my children grow up and their learning styles evolve (which, Levine points out, often happens--a child might originally show strength in a certain area, but then when he gets into the upper grades and has to apply more higher thinking, he might unexpectedly begin to flounder).

Obviously, you can tell from this short review that this is not going to be a book I recommend to everyone. However, I really am glad I persevered and finished it, and I wish it was required reading for every teacher . . . I think we teach too much to a pre-designed, unwavering formula, and it just doesn't work for the wide variety of children's personalities, temperaments, and learning styles.

Okay, I can't resist. I'll leave you with just one quote: "...I deal with this issue of fairness all the time, but I believe fervently that to treat all children the same way is to treat them unequally. Different kids have different learning needs; they have a right to have their needs met."

KidPages: Bear and Bee

Feb 19, 2014

I generally like to write about at least three picture books in a KidPages post. I think it makes it nice for those of you who want to read the books to be able to pick up several at one time from the hold shelf. But I recently realized this self-imposed "rule" was actually making me write about fewer books because it required more of a time commitment. And there are so many good books I want to talk about! So from now on, expect to see more single reviews of picture books on this blog (or until I decide that's not working very well either).

Bear and Bee by Sergio Ruzzier was one of those rare books that took no warming up to. It didn't require multiple readings to endear itself to me. It didn't even take multiple pages. In fact, I can tell you the exact moment when I said to myself, This book is a treasure.

The book begins with Bear, who says, "I'm hungry." He spies a beehive and exclaims, "Mmm . . . Honey!" Bee, who is flying close by, asks, "Would you like some honey?" Bear says he would love some, "But what about the bee?" It is at that moment the reader realizes poor Bear has never met a bee before. It was also at that moment I realized this was far from the run-of-the-mill friendship book I was expecting.

Bee investigates a little further and finds out that Bear thinks bees are big monsters with large teeth and sharp claws. Bee points out that Bear is big with large teeth and sharp claws. Bear jumps to the irrational (and hilariously funny) conclusion that he must be a bee!

Things are finally resolved, and in the end, this story does in fact turn out to be about friendship. But it is much more than just that. It is about misconceptions and the danger of preconceived ideas. It is about keeping an open mind and not judging too quickly. It was a message I could appreciate and relate to since I have made many false assumptions about people based on my first impressions of them. It was also a story Bradley (2.5), Maxwell (almost 4), and Aaron (5.5) could all hear and enjoy and apply.

I honestly thought it might be too simple for Aaron (or at least appear that way to him). The text is so sparse and the illustrations are so delightfully juvenile. But he loved it. In fact, after I finished reading it, he immediately sat back down on the bed and read it again to Maxwell. I think the moment in the story I already mentioned ("But what about the bee?") caught him by surprise as much as it did me. Everything about the situation was just so funny, and if there are two things Aaron loves from a story, it's surprise and humor.

I also love that this will be an easy book for us to return to when one of us is having a difficult time accepting something new. I can say something like, "Remember Bear? He had no idea what a bee was. And once he found out, he was really happy to meet one. Maybe we should __________ [say hi, try this new food, go down the slide, etc.]."

A book that is surprising, funny, has a great message, AND can be read in under three minutes?! That's a winner for sure.

Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

Feb 17, 2014

I've already talked a lot about this book: first, when Aaron and I heard Kate DiCamillo speak last September and she signed our copy of this book; and then again a few weeks ago when it surprisingly won the Newbery.

My thoughts have run the gamut with this book and have become all mixed up as I have considered my own thoughts, my children's response, and whether or not I think it deserved the Newbery.

When I first heard about the Newbery, I was thrilled (and I said so right here), but the more I have thought about it, the more I wonder if my feelings of elation were more related to how much I love Kate DiCamillo and less about how much I loved this book.

This isn't to say I didn't like the book. I did. In fact, there are scenes and sentences that I could read again and again and never get tired of because of the sheer wittiness and hilarity of them. But I also think my original gushing has subsided a little bit, and overall, I am not quite as enchanted.

But before I get into that any further, let me tell you about Flora . . .

Flora is a self-proclaimed cynic. Diligent reading of issues of The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto! and TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU! and The Criminal Element is Among Us have made her pretty well prepared for practically anything (including her parents' divorce). Nothing can touch her. Nothing can surprise her. Until one day, she watches her neighbor, Tootie Tickham, vacuum up a squirrel in her front yard. That surprises her. (And this scene produced my very favorite lines in the entire book: "'Watch out!'" [Flora] shouted. 'You're going to vacuum up that squirrel!' She said the words, and then she had a strange moment of seeing them, hanging there over her head . . . There is just no predicting what kind of sentences you might say, thought Flora.")

Flora ends up reviving the squirrel by using a modified version of rescue breathing and CPR. It soon becomes obvious that she has saved no ordinary squirrel: he is incredibly strong, he types, he composes poetry, and he flies. (And his name is Ulysses.) But Flora's mother has no interest in her daughter keeping a super squirrel, and she becomes bent on getting rid of Ulysses by any number of foul means. This forces Flora to label her mother as "the arch nemesis." Before long, a hilarious cast of characters are involved (temporarily blind William Spiver, Mr. Claus (a psychotic cat), a much-beloved shepherdess lamp named Mary Ann, Flora's shy and socially awkward father, trusty neighbor Tootie, and slightly senile Dr. Meescham). And right at the center of everything are Flora and Ulysses.

My opinion of this book is far from objective. Since I read it aloud to my five-year-old and almost four-year-old, I looked at everything from their perspective. And this is what I saw: the beginning and ending were funny, exciting, and engaging. They begged for me to read more. They wanted to see what happened next. But they lost interest in the middle portion of the book. In fact, there were nights when Maxwell chose to go to bed and I just read to Aaron by himself.

The middle deals with a lot of issues: Flora's mother is selfish and unsympathetic (by the end, she's going a little crazy and doing a lot of smoking to help herself deal with the insanity around her); William Spiver (the temporarily blind boy) is confronting his own insecurities and frustrations over his mother's boyfriend; Flora's father is trying to figure out how to be a good dad when he's not around all the time; Flora is developing confidence in her own decisions (and also exploring her unusual feelings for William Spiver). In other words, it was a lot to either explain or ignore (as I saw fit), and if it hadn't been for the pictures and extremely short chapters, we may have given up completely in the middle. I think this would be a great book for 10-year-olds, but it was probably pushing it a bit for five-year-olds. (In my defense, I will say that I planned on reading it by myself, but since Aaron actually met Kate DiCamillo, he insisted we read it together.)

Since it won the Newbery during the time we were reading it, I think I became more critical while reading the last seventy pages. One of the main concerns critics raised about the eligibility of the book was the comic-strip illustrations throughout. Some thought the plot of the book was carried forward by the illustrations and that the story couldn't stand on its own without them. I didn't find this to be the case. The story always seemed to make perfect sense if I read the last sentence of the previous chapter, skipped over the comic strip, and read the first sentence of the next chapter.

. . . That is, it seemed to work until the very last one. In the sentences preceding the comic strip, Flora hears her mother scream and thinks she is worried about her precious shepherdess lamp. Then in the comic strip, Flora's mother says, "Please, George. Tell me that Flora is here!" which makes us (and Flora) realize that Flora is actually much more important to her mother than a silly old lamp. When the text picks back up, Flora is shocked by what her mother has revealed. But the whole thing makes absolutely no sense without the pictures in the middle. However, there is text included along with the pictures, so maybe a case could be made that it still works without the illustrations as long as you can consider the included text. I'd be interested to check out the audio and see how it handles the illustrated sections.

When I try to determine how I personally felt about the book (without considering my children's response or the Newbery criteria), I have to admit that I liked quite a lot of it.

I liked the humor, showcased so well in this paragraph:
 "It was certainly possible that Mrs. Tickham had a brain tumor. Flora knew from reading TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU! that a surprising number of people were walking around with tumors in their brains and didn't even know it. That was the thing about tragedy. It was just sitting there, keeping you company, waiting. And you had absolutely no idea. This was the kind of helpful information you could get from the comics if you paid attention."
I liked the way individuality was acknowledged and valued:
Was Flora strange? [Ulysses] supposed so. But what was wrong with that? She was strange in a good way. She was strange in a lovable way. Her heart was so big. It was capacious. Just like George Buckman's heart.
I liked seeing hope prevail over cynicism:
Do not hope, Flora thought. But she couldn't help it. She did hope. She was hoping. She had been hoping all along.
So while it's not my absolute favorite book by Kate DiCamillo (it would be very difficult to knock Edward Tulane down from his pedestal), I liked it very much.

And really, my kids liked it, too. The ending was so well-executed, so triumphant, so exciting, they couldn't help but bounce up and down on the bed. And I had to laugh when we read this line about Ulysses, "And maybe there would be a poem about a horsehair sofa. And one about a vacuum cleaner," and Aaron exclaimed, "What?! He remembers the vacuum cleaner?!" And Max replied in a very matter of fact way: "Of course he remembers it. He's a super hero. He's like me."

Currently on my Nightstand . . .

Feb 14, 2014

. . . and I'm not just reading it for fun (although I am one of those crazy people who enjoys reading birth stories).

No, I'm reading it in preparation for Baby #4, due to arrive sometime in the late spring!!!!!

I went natural with my other three kids (for clarification, that just means I delivered them without medication, but it was definitely in a hospital). Mike and I took a natural childbirth class before Aaron's arrival and then again before Maxwell's. Then with Bradley, I figured I'd been through it twice already and knew what I was doing, so I just skimmed through my HypnoBirthing book and called it good.

This time, I really feel like I need to prep myself mentally. This is our biggest gap between kids (2 years, 8 months), so, you know, there's been some time to forget . . . and also remember. You'd think with the fourth child, I wouldn't be afraid of labor, but in some ways, I'm more afraid now than I was with Aaron (when I was blissfully optimistic that it would be as smooth and beautiful as the HypnoBirthing class made it out to be). Now I know that it hurts. A lot.

Hence, Ina May's Guide to Childbirth, which many of my natural birth friends have recommended as an excellent source of positive birth stories. It is that for sure, but it's also a little on the . . . extremely unconventional . . . side. What I'm trying to say is I might not be enough of a hippie to embrace most of what it's saying. We'll see.

Enough of that. Should I tell you more about the actual baby?

Besides being our fourth child, this will also be our fourth BOY! We've had three ultrasounds that all confirm this as fact. And we couldn't be more excited about adding to our own little basketball team (or something . . . neither Mike nor I are really big sports people). I will probably devote a whole post to why I think having a fourth boy is awesome in every way (since everyone seems to think they should offer condolences instead of congratulations), but for now, just know that we are really very happy about it.

My actual due date is May 30th, but I usually tell people I'm due in early June--both so that I don't get my hopes up and also so that I don't have people asking me on May 1st why the baby isn't here yet.

I'm 25 weeks today, and this is actually the first pregnancy picture I've taken. That's one of the differences between Baby #1 and Baby #4. The other is that at 25 weeks, I look like I did with Aaron at 34 weeks. Trying not to be depressed about that.


Feb 12, 2014

I have a book review that's only half finished.

But all my laundry is folded.

And I saw Dominique Gisin and Tina Maze tie for gold in the women's downhill.

And I watched Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov skate a nearly flawless performance to win the pairs figure skating gold.

Once again, I have been sucked in by the Olympics.

I never watch TV. I never care about sports.

But now I can't get enough of either.

See you in a couple of weeks.

Just kidding.


KidPages: Three Incredible Biographies

Feb 10, 2014

In all my reading of picture books, it seems like one of the most challenging genres to fill is the picture book biography. There is a vast difference between biographies a fifth-grader might use for a research project and biographies a three-year-old will want to sit through. But I don't want my three-year-old to have to wait until he's eleven to learn about the lives of amazing people. So I am always on the search for great biographies with captivating illustrations and engaging text--biographies that will be the gateway to helping my children (and me) learn about incredible men and women.

Here are three of my favorites (but I could give you at least a dozen more if time would allow):

1. Stand Straight, Ella Kate: The True Story of a Real Giant, Kate Klise, illus. M. Sarah Klise
Don't let the cover persuade you not to read this book. I almost talked myself out of picking it up at the library because I didn't like the cover, but I would have missed out on a truly inspiring story.

When Ella Kate Ewing was seven years old, she hit a growth spurt. And she kept growing and growing and growing. When she was thirteen, she was almost six feet tall. And when she reached her final height, she was 8' 4", with a shoe size of 24.

Ella Kate had a gland disorder, known as gigantism. At the time (late 19th-century), doctors didn't really know how to treat such a condition. Ella's growing up years were marked by unkind and cruel comments. But her parents always told her, "Stand straight, Ella Kate."

Although shy and reserved by nature, by the time Ella was an adult, she decided to embrace her unusual height. She made money by standing in a Chicago museum where people would pay money to stare at her. Eventually, she traveled all over the country and the world as a circus show star. She was able to build herself a house that was just her size and loved seeing the wonders of the world.

I don't know what it would be like if Ella Kate were growing up in today's world. Certainly we are more tolerant and respectful of differences. But at the same time, I think we try to look past and normalize those differences. Instead of embracing our uniqueness, we try to pretend that we're all the same. I think it's wonderful to be kind and accepting, but I hope it's not at the price of hiding what makes us different and special.

The story is told in first-person, which I loved. It doesn't gloss over the fact that living a life when you are 2-3 feet taller than all the other adults around you is hard. Very hard. You feel cramped everywhere you go; people call you a freak; nothing fits you the way it was designed. But it's also very hopeful: you can do anything you want and become who you want to be no matter the setbacks or discouragements you might face. This is honestly one of the most fascinating and inspiring picture books I've ever read.

2. On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein, Jennifer Berne, illus. Vladimir Radunsky
To condense one person's life into picture book format would be difficult enough. But to try to condense one person's ideas into something simple and understandable would be even more daunting. Especially if the ideas you're referring to happen to be Albert Einstein's.
And that is why I love this book: atoms, E = mc2, and the theory of relativity--they're all there, but they're mentioned in such a matter of fact, ordinary way, you'd never guess (or rather, your three-year-old would never guess) there was any reason not to believe that everything is made up of atoms or that time would be altered if he approached the speed of light.

At the same time, I never felt like the author downplayed the significance of Einstein's discoveries. For all her candid simplicity, she also gives his work the praise it deserves.

I also just love the structure of the book: it follows the timeline of Albert Einstein's life: childhood, young adulthood, and mature years; there are random, interesting tidbits (such as that Einstein liked to wander around licking an ice-cream cone while deep in thought or that he liked to wear shoes without any socks); it touches on his frustrations, as well as his successes; and it gives the spotlight to his daydreams that resulted in some of the most important milestones in the history of science. And it does all of this without ever becoming wordy or tiresome.

Will you know everything there is to know about atoms when you're done? No. But will you have a firm impression of Albert Einstein's life and character? Yes.

The illustrations are a brilliant complement to the text. They are also simple with a careless, almost sloppy, feel about them. One of my favorite pages depicts Albert Einstein in bed with his feet poking through the rungs of his foot board while above him sketches of a planet, clock, bus, and bike swirl in murky darkness.

But perhaps the best part of the book is the take home message: "[Albert Einstein] asked questions never asked before. Found answers never found before. And dreamed up ideas never dreamt before . . . But still, Albert left us many big questions . . . Questions that someday you may answer . . . by wondering thinking, and imagining." Wow! Is there anything more exciting to a kid?! What an empowering book: someday you can carry on where Albert Einstein left off. You can discover amazing things, too.

3. Snowflake Bentley, Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illus. Mary Azarian
This is not a new book. In fact, it won the Caldecott Medal fifteen years ago in 1999. But the boys and I read it for the first time last winter, and I think it's fast on its way to becoming a traditional winter read for us.

It's about Wilson (Willie) Bentley, a farm boy who grew up in Vermont during the second half of the nineteenth century. He loved snow and said it was "as beautiful as butterflies or apple blossoms." He wanted a way to capture and remember all of the magnificent designs and patterns of individual snowflakes. He realized that no two snowflakes were exactly the same.

At first he tried drawing the designs, but he never could finish them before they melted away. Then he heard about an expensive camera with a built-in microscope. His parents were anything but wealthy, but they knew how much Willie loved the snow, and so they spent their savings to buy him the camera. Even with the camera, it took Willie a lot of time and patience to get successful photographs. He became known as "the Snowflake Man," and eventually his best photographs were published into a book.

This book is perfect for young kids because it's told in a simple, conversational style, but then it also has additional facts along the sidebars. The first time I read it with my kids, we just read the main body of text, but we have since branched out in our desire to learn more. The illustrations (woodcut and watercolor) perfectly match the style of the text.

I love Willie Bentley's story because it demonstrates how even our hobbies and interests are valuable and have meaning. Willie never became rich as "the Snowflake Man." In fact, it says that he spent "$15,000 on his work and received [just] $4,000 from the sale of photographs and slides." But his work was still important and people still refer to his book Snow Crystals today. (When I went to Aaron's school for his SEP conference a few weeks ago, his teacher actually had a copy of Snow Crystals sitting on the piano. It was fascinating to look through it and see the huge variety of snowflake patterns.) I think it's exciting for kids to realize that the things they do for fun now (drawing or riding their bike or cooking) can continue to be the things they do for fun later. They might not turn those interests into a career, but they can always get enjoyment and pleasure out of them.

Do you have a favorite picture book biography? Do tell! I'm always on the lookout for more!

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Feb 5, 2014

As part of this review, I refer to key points in the plot. Read at your own risk.

I read Breadcrumbs for three reasons: 1) A few months ago, I read The Real Boy and loved it. I was anxious to get my hands on more of Anne Ursu's writing. 2) One of my dearest friends (and also a bookworm) told me she bought Breadcrumbs and then disliked it so much, she wished she hadn't wasted her money. (Sometimes negative reviews intrigue me so much they actually make me more interested in reading the book.) 3) I wanted a snowy book for January, and this book had no shortage of cold and wintery things in it.

Hazel has always been lucky to have Jack as a best friend, but ever since her dad left, she has treasured his friendship even more (what other friend would be willing to give up his prized Joe Mauer baseball to help her feel better?). But Jack is facing some hard times of his own (his mother has become severely depressed), and one day, for some unexplained reason, Jack shuts out Hazel.

To lose one's best friend is devastating, and Hazel is determined to get Jack back, even if it means going into the wintery wilderness and facing unheard of dangers.

This story was far more allegorical and symbolic than I was expecting. The first half is locked firmly in the present. Then Jack gets a small piece of glass in his eye, and the line between fact and fantasy becomes blurred. The tiny glass shard is supposedly from a magic mirror, which freezes Jack's heart. He is carried off by the white witch, and Hazel is the only one brave enough to find him.

The apex of the story occurs when Hazel is deciding whether or not she should go after Jack or just accept the fact that friendships change and that she and Jack are just both growing up (and growing apart). I loved the following paragraph:
Hazel had read enough books to know that a line like this one is the line down which your life breaks in two. And you have to think very carefully about whether you want to cross it because once you do, it's very hard to get back to the world you left behind. And sometimes you break a barrier that no one knew existed. And then everything you knew before crossing the line is gone. But sometimes, you have a friend to rescue. And so you take a deep breath and then step over the line and into the darkness ahead.
The second half of the book takes place in a fantasy world of cold and snow and ice; a place where people have given up on their dreams; a place where sadness and misery reign. Hazel must fight through this, avoiding the temptation to give up herself, until she comes to the castle of the white witch.

. . . Except it is not entirely clear whether or not the second half is real or just a story created by Hazel to help her get through a hard time. The facts point to the latter: Hazel adores fairy tales; she has a history of daydreaming; she and Jack always loved going on "adventures" (when they were still friends). In many ways, it is easier for Hazel to think of confronting a magical foe than real hardship and betrayal.

The whole story has a deep, dark, menacing thread through it. It's never entirely clear what that thread is or what Hazel actually saves Jack from (depression? anger? suicide?). I don't think we're really supposed to know; that's why it's allegorical: we all have a little of Jack in us, as well as a little of Hazel. At times, we need to be saved; at other times, we need to do the saving. We all have periods of winter in our lives where it seems like we are so frozen we will never be able to feel anything again.

When Hazel confronts the white witch, this conversation takes place:
"If you wish to live your life out there," the witch continued, "that is your choice. But as for your friend, you do not know what's best. Look at him." She motioned out the window. "He wants for nothing. Would you really take that from him?"
" Yes," Hazel said.
"You know you'll never get him back," she said. "Not really. Even if you take him, it won't be the same."
Hazel looked at the ground. "It doesn't matter," she said in a whisper. That's not what this was about. Not anymore.
I thought this scene was very poignant and revealing. It's where Hazel realizes that even though she might never have her Jack back (the one who raced down snowy hills and hid out in an abandoned house and wiggled his eyebrows through the school window and gave her a Joe Mauer baseball), it doesn't matter. He is her friend. And even if he never returns that friendship again, she will still be as true a friend as she can to him.

So I really did love the whole theme of friendship, and I thought it was executed in a very dramatic and memorable way. But there were also some things I didn't love.

First, in all honesty, it is a very slow book. There is a lot of repetition and not a lot of action. Even the witch doesn't prove to be a very frightening villain. (She is so convinced that Jack will not want to leave that she gives Hazel permission to try and persuade him.) It also felt slow for me because I wasn't sure what was real and not.

Second, the ending was vague and incomplete and not overly happy. There were many loose ends that never got tied up: Hazel's friendship with another girl, her desire to take dance lessons, her relationship with her dad, discovering more about her birthplace (she's adopted), and her struggles in school. Ultimately, I think this story really was about her friendship with Jack, but then it made some parts of the book seem pointless because they were just forgotten about in the end. Also, it leaves Jack and Hazel's friendship in a very vulnerable position, and it is unclear how things will end up between them.

Finally, I am so curious as to how this book has been received by 10-12 year-olds. I wonder if they're really able to grasp all of the underlying messages. And I wonder if the slow pace combined with the two very different settings makes it difficult for them to get into and continue reading.

In the end, I definitely did not despise this book like my friend did (is "despise" too strong of a word, Rachel?), but it won't be a book I readily recommend, nor one I will return to again and again.

But it was a great read for January.

And finally, unrelated to most of this review, but still one of my favorite parts of the book, this exchange between the white witch and Jack after she picks him up in her sleigh:
"Would you like some Turkish delight?" she asked.
"Just a little joke," she said. "Let's go."
 I loved this little nod toward Narnia.

The Christmas That Keeps On Giving

Feb 3, 2014

It's been more than a month since Christmas. The presents are all broken, lost, or forgotten about, right?

Not at our house.

For the first time in my life, I scored with my kids' presents. I've had many failures in the past (let's not even talk about the marble track from 2012 . . . ), and certainly not every present from this year reached "favorite status."

But two of the presents have just kept on giving and giving and giving: Perler Beads and Magformers

Perler beads have been around for a long, long time. I never actually owned any pegboards or beads as a child, but many of my friends did.

Aaron made his first Perler creation at his cousin's house a few months ago, and it was the one gift he consistently asked for through the month of December (aside from the infamous "bullet gun.") He is my kid who would happily do crafts all day long if I let him, so I was sold on the Perler bead idea from the beginning.

I had to laugh when, a few weeks before Christmas, I was at a toy exchange and one of the moms (without knowing about my Christmas gift-giving plans) said: "Whatever you do, do NOT give your child Perler beads. Those things are awful! You'll be sweeping them up for the rest of your life, and every time someone bumps the table before he's done, his creation will get scattered all over, and he'll be crying his eyes out."

I'm so glad I didn't follow her advice because I don't know if Aaron has ever received a better present (maybe his bike, but it's been hibernating in the garage for the last three months). I'm not lying when I say he has made at least one thing from Perler beads almost every day since Christmas. This proves it:

He received a few kits for Christmas, but we've also printed off a bunch of patterns from the Perler bead website. He has also come up with his own ideas, like this toothbrush and pencil:

Maxwell has also joined in, although not with quite the same obsessive fervor as Aaron. At this point, the only thing I can see stopping them is if they run out of beads. And then I will happily buy more.

And then Magformers.

Do you know about these things? They come in a variety of shapes (squares, triangles, pentagons, hexagons, etc.) and are magnetized on all sides. I first saw them at the Children's Museum a couple of years ago and wanted to buy a set right then and there at the over-priced gift store. I didn't, but I've wanted to invest in a set ever since.

Sadly, they're really expensive (like almost $1/piece), and so every time I thought of getting a set, I realized I could only afford the smallest ones, and it just seemed like it wouldn't be that much fun with only 15 pieces to work with.

Anyway, this year I felt like the time had finally come to splurge and buy a big set. But it was kind of a leap of faith because, in spite of my hints and prodding, none of the boys actually asked for them (but then, Maxwell didn't really ask for anything).

It was totally worth the investment! The Magformers have been played with daily. They are durable and versatile. Even two-year-old Bradley can make fun things. Plus, I didn't realize it when we originally decided to get them, but these things clean up easier than any other toy we own. They basically clean themselves up because they all bind together, so then you just pick up a gigantic clump of them and throw them in the bin. As much as I love Legos, these things take the cake when it comes to picking them up.

Seriously, I thought they were expensive at the time, but now the price seems well worth it in comparison with the product I got. I have been so amazed with all the 3-D shapes the boys have made. And it has definitely been the popular toy when we've had people over (both children and adults).

So yes, I'm patting myself on the back a little bit. At this rate, we won't even have to think about Christmas presents for next year.

And the infamous "bullet gun"? It can't even begin to compete in popularity.

P.S. And just to be perfectly clear, this is not a sponsored post. I don't think Perler beads or Magformers need my help endorsing them, but I'll do it just the same.

The Continuous Atonement by Brad Wilcox

Feb 2, 2014

Early last year, I read a wonderful book entitled, The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens. It touched my heart and strengthened my belief in Jesus Christ, and I always intended to write about it. But I found it a difficult book to write about because I didn't exactly know what it was I wanted to share about it. And then, since it was a religious book, I couldn't decide whether I should try to explain things about my religion at the same time or if I should just dive in as if everyone knew exactly what I was talking about.

And so, in the end, indecision made the decision for me. It has now been far too long since I finished it, so unless I reread it (which I very well might), I won't be writing a review of it.

As I came to the end of The Continuous Atonement, I could sense the same kind of hesitancy. I reread over all of my favorite quotes and narrowed them down, and I still had two pages of material from the book alone, not including any of my own thoughts.

Obviously, that’s too much for one post, even for me. So instead, I decided to focus on five specific topics that really touched my heart and broadened my thinking. I’ll try to keep explanations/definitions to a minimum, but if something doesn’t make sense or you’d like to discuss a point in greater depth, feel free to do so in the comments.

But first, a word about why I decided to read this book. In my Church, we have a monthly publication known as The Ensign, which includes inspirational and doctrinal messages from leaders, teachers, and other individuals. In the September issue, I read an article by Brad Wilcox entitled “His Grace is Sufficient.” I read it a couple of times before I decided I wanted more and went to the original speech from which the article was taken. I read (and then watched) the entire speech and then noticed that Brad Wilcox had actually written an entire book on the same subject. So I expanded my reading even further.

Originally, I was a bit hesitant to read anything by Brad Wilcox because he is so connected with youth conferences and EFYs from my teenage years. I almost felt like his writing would be too juvenile (this from the girl who loves to read picture books and middle grade novels). But while I did find his writing (and especially the speech itself) influenced and marked by his many years working with teenagers, I didn’t find the concepts themselves to be juvenile in any way.

The book is a commentary on the Atonement of Jesus Christ: the depth and breadth and scope of it as well as how we can use and apply it every day in order to return to Heavenly Father. But even more than that, it is about just how much the Savior loves each one of us.

First, I learned about the long-suffering nature of the Atonement. Every Sunday, we have the opportunity to partake of the sacrament. Before the bread and water is passed to the congregation, a priest says the words of the sacrament prayer. These words are recorded in the scriptures and are supposed to be said without error. If the priest makes a mistake in the words, the bishop asks him to begin again. Brad Wilcox said, "Although the sacramental prayers had to be perfect, and that expectation could not be lowered, the priest was given a second chance, and a third--as many times as it took. There was no trapdoor that opened up once he had gone too far. The bishop simply nodded and the young priesthood holder started over until he finally got the prayer right. No matter how many mistakes were made and corrected along the way, the final outcome was counted as perfect and acceptable [emphasis added]." I love this analogy. It demonstrates that the Savior does not expect us to be perfect right away, but he does expect us to keep trying and improving. It is wonderful to realize that if we continue to grow and change, all of our mediocre past efforts will be forgotten in favor of who we have become.

Second, I learned that the Atonement is a continual source of good. Sometimes Mormons are criticized for placing too much emphasis on works rather than the grace of Jesus Christ. It's not that we don't believe that we are nothing without His grace. We know that we cannot return to Heavenly Father without His help. But we also think it is important for us to demonstrate our faith in His grace through our works. This scripture is quoted often within our church: "For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25.23). This makes it sound as if Christ's power to save does not come into effect until our own efforts have been exhausted. But Brad Wilcox said (and I believe this is true), "Christ's power is not an emergency generator that turns on once our supply is exhausted. It is not a booster engine once we run out of steam. Rather, it is our constant energy source. If we think of Christ only making up the difference after we do our part, we are failing to keep the promise we make each Sunday to remember Him always."

Third, the Atonement has the immense power to change us in unexpected ways. Brad Wilcox said, “Christ’s arrangement with us is similar to a mom providing music lessons for her child. Mom, who pays the piano teacher, can require her child to practice. By so doing she is not attempting to recover the cost of the lessons, but to help the child take full advantage of this opportunity to live on a higher level. Her joy is not found in getting her investment back but in seeing it used. If the child, in his immaturity, sees Mom’s expectation to practice as unnecessary or overly burdensome, it is because he doesn’t yet share her perspective. When Christ’s expectations of faith, repentance, covenants, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and endurance feel trying to us, perhaps it is because, as C.S. Lewis put it, ‘we have not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make of us' [emphasis added].” This is probably my favorite analogy in the whole book. It strikes a personal chord for sure since so much of my life has been devoted to music lessons, so it's easy for me to translate that perspective to this much more magnificent example.

Fourth, I learned about the singular nature of the Atonement. I think this was perhaps the most eye-opening part of the book for me. It made me consider things I never have before, such as, "If Jesus had not performed the Atonement, would there have been another to take His place?" If I had really thought about such a question, I think I would have known that, no, there was no one else who could take His place, but I had just never really considered such an idea before reading this book. It made me understand why one-third of Heavenly Father's children could reject the Plan and follow Satan. Brad Wilcox put it this way:  "Can't you almost hear Satan saying, 'Are you really going to put all your eggs in one basket? Are you really going to put all of your faith in one person?. . . Everyone knew Lucifer's alternative plan provided no chance for eternal growth or progress. So perhaps one of the reasons he was successful in convincing so many to follow him was by instilling doubt in God's plan."

It was in this chapter that Brad Wilcox told this amazing story about his brother-in-law who, as a young 12-year-old boy, fell off a steep cliff and was literally saved by a single branch that was growing out of the cliff. He fell 60 feet before being caught by the branch, where he was then suspended over fifty more feet. Brad Wilcox likened this lone branch to the Savior, who is our One and Only Chance to return to Heavenly Father. He is the Only One who can save us.
That would be like a boy falling off a vast cliff and then expecting to be saved by one branch.'

Finally, the Atonement is about LOVE. As I read this book, I felt that message again and again, ever more strongly. Brad Wilcox said about the Savior's accomplishment of the Atonement: “Did He avoid eternal punishment? Yes. Did He receive eternal rewards? Yes. But those were not his motivation. They were simply natural consequences that followed His choice at a higher level. Did He fulfill His birthright obligation? Yes. Did He please His father? Yes. But those were natural consequences as well, not motives. What motivated Jesus was the greatest motivation of all—pure, perfect, infinite love [emphasis added].”

I will say that for all the many things I loved about this book, Brad Wilcox's style of writing was not always my favorite. I felt like he used a lot of contrived one-liners, like this one: "Christ’s requirements are not so that we can make the best of the Atonement, but so that—on His generous terms—the Atonement can make the best of us." And this one: "In that moment, we realize we do not earn the Atonement. The Atonement actually earns us." While there is not anything wrong with these statements per se, they were just overused. They probably sound great if you're speaking, and you want to end your talk with one of them, to deliver that final punch. But over and over again in the book, it just started to feel like I was reading the words of a motivational speaker (which, I guess I kind of was).

I read this book as part of my daily scripture study. I would read two or three pages and then look up all of the scriptures that were referenced during those pages. This meant that the book took me two months to read,  but I felt like I got so much out of it because I turned to the scriptures to enlighten and increase my understanding, and I spent a lot of time pondering the words I read.

I know this review is much too long for anyone to have any interest in actually reading it. I really spent so much time writing it for me. I wanted to remember the things I learned and felt while reading this book. Writing helps me internalize what I read, and I wanted to internalize as much of this book as possible.
Proudly designed by Mlekoshi playground