Meet Stripey

Aug 29, 2014

If there's one thing to know about Maxwell, it is that he is obsessed with bugs. (The mention of bugs has not been neglected in any way on this blog. For additional reading, see: Favorite Bug Books, Even More Bug Books, and Some Bugs.)

A few recent examples will suffice to demonstrate this boy's dedication and devotion to all things creepy and crawly:
  1. At our family reunion last week, Max told my sister she could be his favorite aunt . . . if she would catch grasshoppers with him.
  2. He has been known to say (on several occasions): "Bugs love me. They hear my voice and come to me." The bug-whisperer right here, folks.
  3. A couple of nights ago, there was a fight between the three boys over who got to catch the mayfly that was bouncing its way around our window. Because who wouldn't want to cup a mayfly between your hands? ( . . . not me)
 So yes, Maxwell (and Aaron and Bradley too) love, love, LOVE bugs. Earlier this week, my sister-in-law called to say she'd found several monarch caterpillars in her yard, and would we like one? Of course I couldn't say no.

Max was in love the minute he saw the caterpillar. I, on the other hand, was a little nervous. Did I really want the responsibility of trying to keep a caterpillar alive? Where was I going to find fresh milkweed for him to eat every day? What if the leaves were too big or too mature or too dry for his liking? (Please, if you've kept a monarch caterpillar before, share your tips with me!)

Also, I had no idea how much caterpillars eat. There's a reason there's a book called, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Luckily, another sister-in-law knew about a nearby patch of milkweed, so he's not going to starve. It's kind of crazy to watch him munch away on a big green leaf. He's already grown quite a bit.

Who would have thought I'd be sitting here typing away about my little caterpillar, now known as Stripey? See what four boys have done to me?

P.S. For a little reading on the subject, here are a few books we like:

1. My, Oh My--A Butterfly! by Tish Rabe 2. Becoming Butterflies by Anne Rockwell 3. See How They Grow: Butterfly by Kim Taylor 4. A Butterfly is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards

Aug 27, 2014

I did something very brave.

I read a book with no pictures to my children. Did you hear that? Zero pictures. As in, none.

I'm pretty sure this is an event that will go down in our family's history.

Because not only did we read it, we loved every. single. word.

When Ben, Tom, and Lindy meet Professor Savant in the zoo one Sunday afternoon, they have not the slightest inkling that their lives are about to become significantly more interesting. The professor tells them about "an imaginary creature of undefined character" called a Whangdoodle. But he is only imaginary because hundreds of years ago everyone stopped believing that he existed. The professor tells the children there is only one Whangdoodle left in the world, and he lives in a magical land that is inaccessible to humans.

For years, Professor Savant has been trying to catch a glimpse of the infamous creature, but it takes a healthy and vibrant and perceptive imagination to bridge the gap between reality and fantasy. The professor thinks the Potter children might just be imaginative enough to try it.

With the help of their scrappy caps and a lot of practice exercises, the children and professor enter Whangdoodleland. They are immediately in awe of the golden river and purple trees and flutterbys, but being in Whangdoodleland is only half the achievement. They still have to get to the Whangdoodle, and the prime minister (known as the Prock) will do anything to stop them. Soon they are facing Tree Squeaks and Sidewinders and a terrifying Gyascutus, but it turns out the real obstacle isn't in Whangdoodleland at all . . .

Before I started reading it, I warned Aaron and Max about the lack of illustrations. For many months now, they haven't even needed the illustrations the way they used to. Lately, they've just been icing on the cake. But needed or not, there were still times while we were reading this book when we all asked, "Wouldn't it be fun to see a picture of the Whiffle Bird or the soda fountain or the Brainstrain?" In many ways, it seemed like the type of book that would be illustrated.

However, in the end, the lack of illustrations seemed fitting since the whole book is about using your imagination and believing in the impossible. Somehow, it just wouldn't seem right to give the Potter children all the fun and not allow the reader to use his/her own imagination. Little did I know this was actually Julie Andrews' intention. After we finished the book, I read the author's note where she said, "My publishers asked me if I wished to have the book illustrated. The tale is about using one's imagination (and discovering what is under one's very nose), and I hoped that readers would discover the Whangdoodle for themselves--just as I had--so I decided not to." How fitting then that this happened to be our very first chapter book without pictures.

The book is magical in every way. Whangdoodleland feels like something akin to Oz, and every bend in the road revealed a new delight. One of my favorites? The Fruit-of-the-Month Tree where every month produces a different kind of fruit. I wish I could grow one of those in my backyard.

Of course I loved Lindy, Tom, and Ben, but two of my favorite characters were actually the Prock and the professor. The Prock was the perfect villain for my four-year-old and six-year-old because he was intimidating and threatening, but he wasn't evil. In fact, by the end of the book, he had worked his way into our affections (but lest you think he displayed a sudden, unbelievable change in personality, he didn't, but his actions finally made sense).

And while the Prock was the perfect villain, the professor was the perfect mentor. He possessed childlike faith that he exercised frequently, almost to a fault (as when he told the children to leap from a speeding train). He was immature enough that he could relate really well to the children (except in the instance where Tom and Ben joyfully hopped onto Gazooks, thinking that they were actually minibikes--then suddenly, he was all reproachful that they'd let themselves get deceived. In my opinion, he was a little unfair, and Lindy concurred as much) but also wise and cautious.

The best moment of the book for me was when the professor and children had almost reached the Whangdoodle's palace. They had only to cross the bridge, and they'd be there. And . . . the professor couldn't see the bridge. This was so startling and heartbreaking. In spite of his creative mind and youthful heart, his age betrayed him. With this revelation, the story took on new meaning for me. As hard as we might try, it is sometimes impossible to cast off the responsibilities of adulthood. And I loved that because of this, the reader could see why the children were absolutely essential in this adventure and how the professor relied on them as much as they relied on him.

I'm so glad I didn't let the lack of pictures scare me away because this was definitely one of our favorite readalouds of the summer. It encapsulates all the magic of childhood in one adventurous story. In the words of the professor, "Miracles, contrary to popular belief, do not just happen. A miracle is the achievement of the impossible, and it is only when we put aside our greed, anger, pride and prejudice so that our minds are open and ready to accept it, that a miracle can occur."

P.S. I was a little hesitant to read something by Julie Andrews since it often seems like famous people can write anything and people will buy it just because they wrote it, but this one is actually quite well-written and can be enjoyed equally by Julie Andrews' fans and not.

That's a Wrap

Aug 25, 2014

. . . And just like that, faster than a sudden rainstorm, summer's over.

But what a glorious summer it has been.

If I could have hand-picked every activity and rolled them all into the ideal summer, it would not have looked any different from the summer we actually had, right down to the slow mornings and long evenings.

It has been perfect in every way, and there's a part of me that knows there will never be another summer like it again. That doesn't mean there aren't more fun summers in our future, but this one will be hard to beat.

  • read lots of books
  • splashed in rain-soaked streets
  • watched the moon rise over Mt. Olympus
  • went on morning and evening walks
  • ran through the sprinklers
  • grew and picked and ate garden vegetables
  • put together puzzles
  • ate snow cones
  • went bowling
  • made popsicles and ice cream
  • played at the park
  • loved baby Clark
  • made new friends
  • went to the cabin
  • visited the aquarium
  • set off fireworks
  • went swimming
  • slept in a tent
  • sang around a campfire
  • went to reunions
  • tried our luck at fishing (no luck)
  • covered the driveway with chalk art
  • blew bubbles
  • rested in the hammock
  • rocked on the porch swing

Even if our future summers are not as lazy or unscheduled as this one, I'm glad we got to experience this kind of summer at least once so that I now know it is indeed possible.

Today was Aaron's first day of first grade, and it was significantly harder for me than his first day of kindergarten last year. This felt like the real deal.

I kept checking the time and thinking, Will this day ever be over? Will the clock ever make it to 3:45 and release me so I can go pick him up?

My mind has been going to strange places today. Like when I was driving home this morning, and I saw a teenager cross the street with his skateboard. I thought, That kid was in first grade once, and I just wanted to bawl because of it.

Then I thought of dear Mrs. Bitner with a brand-new kindergarten class and realized (somewhat resentfully) that she's probably forgotten about Aaron and most of his classmates from last year. How could she seem so fond of them and yet move on to 22 new kids without so much as a backward glance?

Later in the day, I made lunch for Max and Bradley, after which we sat down on the couch to read stories, just like we always do . . . except that Aaron wasn't there to steal one of the spots next to me. And I wondered, What gives life the right to glibly gloss over something as drastic as a missing person from our regular routine?

I've been stressing about the most ridiculous things: Should I send Aaron with lunch money? Or pay it online? Or go to the office? Will he be comfortable in those shoes? Will that waterbottle leak in his lunchbox? What time should I leave? Should I be ten minutes early? Or fifteen? Or five? Would it be too overbearing if I parked the car outside the fence and watched him during recess? 

Luckily, Aaron was only excited as he got ready for the day (although he did get very quiet and somber when he got in line with the rest of his class), and when I picked him up, he came galloping out on a stick mustang (their mascot) and exclaimed, "That was the best first day of first grade ever!"

KidPages: Come On, Rain! by Karen Hesse

Aug 22, 2014

This was one of those books my kids kept passing over in favor of more colorful and enticing ones. It sat forlorn and forgotten in the library basket for weeks until I, tired of their judgmental exclusion, picked it up and told them I was reading it and they could listen if they wanted.

As soon as I began, I knew this was one I would not have wanted to miss. The story begins on a sweltering hot day. The plants are wilting with the dry heat, and Tessie and her mamma are wilting too. A rainstorm would be just the thing to revive the land. Tessie keeps her eye on the sky and sees a mass of gray clouds on the horizon. She leaps to action, making her mamma comfortable, putting on her bathing suit, and finding her friends, and her efforts are rewarded as the first big drops begin to fall. Tessie and her friends laugh and play, and soon even their mammas can't resist the call of the fresh rain.

As you might guess, it is often the illustrations that first grab my attention and make me want to read a picture book. Not so in this case (although, I must hurry to admit, not because they're not captivating in and of themselves). The words are wonderfully rich and descriptive, with a certain depth and insight I don't usually expect from picture books.

I hadn't thought to look at who the author was before I started reading, but you can bet it was the first thing I did after I read the last page. Karen Hesse. I should have known! There had been something familiar about the writing, something that immediately drew me in and made me feel the extreme contrast between the dry heat and the cool rain. I could immediately see the similarities between this story and my beloved Out of the Dust. In a way, I'm glad I didn't know it was Karen Hesse to begin with because it was wonderful to fall in love with her writing all over again without any pretense.

One of the best things about this story is the dialogue: simple and direct, it cuts through to the heart of the matter. I love this exchange:
"Is there thunder?" Mamma asks. 
"No thunder," I say.
"Is there lightning?" Mamma asks.
 "No lightning," Jackie-Joyce says.
"You stay where I can find you," Mamma says.
"We will," I say.
 "Go on then," Mamma says, lifting the glass to her lips to take a sip.
Tessie is a wonderful character. You'd think a picture book wouldn't offer a long enough glimpse to really make you love someone, but there were two details especially that made Tessie feel very real: first, she tells her friend Jackie-Joyce to get on her swimming suit, knowing that if Jackie-Joyce shows up in a suit, her Mamma is more likely to let Tessie get hers on, too. Then, she makes her mamma some iced tea and drops a spoonful of sugar in her mouth before she adds one to the cup. These two little tidbits told me that Tessie is inventive, creative, kind, a little bit devious, and has a sweet tooth. How can you not love someone like that?

I brushed past the illustrations at the beginning of this review because I was so mesmerized by the words, but the pictures (by Jon J. Muth) are really nothing to trifle with. They're done in watercolors, and the blurred quality lends itself perfectly to a story about rain. The older I get, the more I love the subtle brilliance of watercolors.

If you've been looking for the perfect book to read in August, this is it. I haven't read anything that captures the oppressive heat and the magic of a much-needed rainstorm so perfectly and so well.

"The rain has made us new." That says it all. 

The End of the Summer Reading Program

Aug 20, 2014

In July, I wrote about the two summer reading programs we were participating in.

I expressed a little disappointment that with three (or four) set prizes, it encouraged my kids to read but not to read more.

But then we went to claim the final prize at the county library (a free book), and all disappointment immediately dissipated.

Last year, I wrote about the final book prize because I was so surprised (and pleased!) when there were dozens of high-quality books to choose from. I didn't think I would write about it again this year because either a) it wouldn't be as good so not worthy of mention or b) it would be as good so I'd basically be repeating myself.

But then we saw the books, and I practically did a little happy dance right there in the library, and I knew I would have to brag about our good fortune.

It was so nice to see such a wide selection: recent titles alongside older ones, award winners and character books (not what I would choose, but I suppose they have their place), easy readers and more sophisticated books. With so many good books out there and such a wide range of book tastes among kids, I was so glad they didn't do what would have probably been the easier thing and restrict the choice to two or three unmemorable books.

The book prize could be claimed anytime during the month of August, so of course (since our charts were already filled up) we went early in the month to capitalize on the best selection.

I may have done a little coaxing to get the boys to stay away from the more commercialized books, but in the end, they were all super happy with their choices.

Aaron selected Barnum's Bones: How Barnum Brown Discovered the Most Famous Dinosaur in the World by Tracey Fern. We had never read it before, but it's the true story of the first Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever discovered. You know how I feel about picture book biographies . . .

Max went with Z is For Moose by Kelly Bingham. I wrote about this book a year and a half ago when the boys and I were making predictions for the 2013 Caldecott. It has remained a favorite ever since, and we're so happy to own our own copy of it now.

Bradley chose Mitchell's License by Hallie Durand. I fully intended to write about this book for Father's Day because it is the sweetest, funniest story about a little boy who gets to "drive" his dad to bed. My boys had forgotten most of it but soon fell in love with it all over again. They started laughing uncontrollably at the part where Mitchell honks his dad's nose. I couldn't even continue reading for a good long while because they were laughing so hard. I'd be happy to read it over and over again just to hear those giggles.

Like last year, I asked one of the librarians to inscribe their names in the front so they could remember the summer when they got these books.

And me? I participated in the adult summer reading program and decided to take home one of my all-time favorite books (but one I didn't own yet), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

P.S. I should mention that the Salt Lake City Library also gave a book to each child, but at the beginning of the program when they signed up. We missed the kickoff day (new baby and all that) so missed the best selection but still found three great books to bring home.

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

Aug 18, 2014

Several years ago I read East by Edith Pattou. Last year I read Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George. Both were retellings of the Nordic legend, "East of the Sun, West of the Moon."

You might think, given its title, that this book would be another retelling of the same tale, but it's not. However, it is beautifully woven into the plot.

Astri's life is hard. Her mother died several years before, and then her father left for America, leaving Astri and her younger sister, Greta, with an aunt and uncle. He promises to send for them when he has earned enough money, but quite some time has gone by without any word from him. Then the aunt decides to sell Astri to the goat man (she's not what you would call kind and nurturing), and that is when life becomes truly unbearable. Gathering all her courage, Astri and Greta set off on a dangerous journey to find America that is "west of the moon."

This is an insanely clever book. It's part folk tale (at the back of the book, Margi Preus lists 14 folk tales that come into play at one point or another), part historical fiction (the diseases and journey by ship are all accurate to the time period), and even (very slightly) part biographical (the story was inspired by Preus' great-great-grandmother). The melding of these various genres was absolutely beautiful.

First, the folk tales. I know I didn't pick up on all the references, but the ones to "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" are pretty obvious, mainly because throughout the story, Astri recounts bits and pieces of the legend and then relates them to her own life. For example, this, in Astri's own words: "When the youngest daughter arrived at the bear's house, it was a castle she found, with many rooms all lit up, rooms gleaming with gold and silver, a table already laid, everything as grand as grand could be . . . Not so for me, for when I come to the lair of Mr. Goat, it is a hovel, and filthy inside." The story wouldn't have been even half as good without the framework of all those old tales holding it up and tying it to the past.

The story is set around 1850. It begins in Norway and ends in America. Astri is an uneducated farm girl and is highly superstitious, but all of her unfounded beliefs actually have logical explanations. For example, there is a girl in the story whose joints and back seem to be curved. Astri is convinced she must be the daughter of a troll, but more likely, she probably is suffering from the long-lasting effects of rickets.

Astri was such a wonderful main character: headstrong and brave and loyal, but she continually doubts herself and is disappointed by her failings. At one point, she steals the goat man's Black Book (among other things). She is convinced the Black Book contains powerful secrets that might help her, but she also worries that it is evil and she belongs to the devil because of it. At one point she says, "It's said that it can be dangerous even just to listen to words from this book . . . But I only want to use it for good! Is it all right to use a bad thing for a good cause?" Her struggle is so real and so admirable.

Although this is a middle-grade novel, I would put it in the upper-age bracket of that category. There were a few intense moments (the goat man forces himself (very briefly) on Astri and then promises that once he marries her there will be no escape; later on, Astri cuts off his fingers when he tries to steal her mother's brooch, and the resulting blood and tetanus are not pretty to behold) that I think warrant a more mature reader.

The book itself (I'm talking about the physical, hardcover, paper pages book) is gorgeous. I want to own it someday just so I can flip through its stunning pages. The first few pages are black with white printing and surrounded by a frame of leaves. I also love the choice of fonts.

Three of my favorite themes from the book can be summed up in these three quotes:
  • "There are more things in heaven and earth than can be dreamed."
  • "It makes me dizzy to consider it, but I feel suddenly how all things are woven together, all things seen and unseen, all things alive now and that once were, for generations back and generations to come, woven of a kind of golden thread . . . "
  • "Oh, it's just a trifle. A trifle here and a trifle there. But as we well know, a trifle can be enough when luck is on your side."
All around it was just a really great book, one that I would definitely recommend to 12-year-old girls, although I think there's definitely enough action (and blood) to keep boys interested as well. And as far as the 2015 Newbery? I guess it's probably obvious I wouldn't be one bit disappointed (or surprised) if this one won.

P.S. I've said before that I don't like to read reviews before writing down my own thoughts, but after I finished writing this, I went over to For Those About to Mock and read Rachael's thoughts. We expressed many of the same sentiments (which must mean it really is a good book), but she did it infinitely better. 

Road Trip Reading

Aug 15, 2014

This morning, we are off for a week-long reunion with my family.

For some of you, the thought of traveling nine hours in a van with four children (including a two-month-old baby) sends you quaking with fear.

But for me? I've been looking forward to this road trip for weeks. Nine hours in the car equates to nine hours of uninterrupted reading time.

Okay, not uninterrupted. Slight exaggeration. Four kids means there are usually multiple interruptions per hour (or per minute, depending on their moods).

But generally, my kids are pretty good travelers (Clark being the wild card--he has not yet been tested on the infamous trek). Of course, it helps that they have a fondness for shows. I'm sure their eyes would stay glued to the screen for the entire nine hours if I let them.

But it won't be just me spending some time with a good book. Here's what we have lined up for the family:

1. The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

2. The Fenway Foul-Up by David Kelly, Afternoon on the Amazon by Mary Pope Osborne, Andrew Lost Under Water by J.C. Greenburg, and My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett

3. Dancing on Broken Glass by Ka Hancock, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman, The Art of Flying by Judy Hoffman, and Things a Little Bird Told Me by Biz Stone

4. Can You See What I See? Treasure Ship, I Spy Spectacular, and Where's Waldo?

5. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards, Henry and Ribsy by Beverly Cleary, and Toy Dance Party by Emily Jenkins

6. Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary and James Herriot's Treasury for Children

I'm usually prone to optimism when it comes to reading (notice the number of books I'm bringing for myself compared with Mike). That, or I like variety.

Oh, and if all my well-laid plans backfire in my face (remember, Clark = wild card), you have my permission to laugh.

Review x 2: These Happy Golden Years and The First Four Years

Aug 13, 2014

I did it. At 29 years old, I finally finished all of the books in the Little House on the Prairie series.

Aside from the last book (which I'll talk about in a moment), it was a wonderful experience, and I've already mentioned several times my deep regret with not reading them when I was younger. (I actually read several of the spinoff series' as a kid (including all eight books in The Days of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Thomas Tedrow), and my mom is baffled (and now I am too) why my enjoyment of those books didn't prompt me to read the books that inspired them.)

Anyway, I'm going to give my boys another year or so and then we'll definitely be reading Farmer Boy. (Remember when I talked about why I wouldn't start with Little House in the Big Woods?)

In a way, it doesn't seem right to review these two particular books together. Even their titles seem to reflect how different they are: These Happy Golden Years (warm, pleasant, joyful); The First Four Years (bleak, unembellished, factual).

These Happy Golden Years recounts Laura's experiences teaching school and being courted by Almanzo Wilder. Every time Almanzo pulled up to the house in his cutter or had to circle the yard because Barnum was too feisty to stop or sang with Laura on the drive home from Singing School, I smiled.

I absolutely loved the chapter where Nellie Oleson hijacked the outings, and Laura gave Almanzo the clear ultimatum that he would have to choose between her or Nellie, and poor Almanzo was just clueless why it was even a problem because he was just letting Nellie come along to be nice and not because he had any intention of courting her.

It was also nice to see Pa prospering and being able to afford such luxuries as an organ and a sewing machine. I loved Mary's visits home from school and seeing how accomplished and confident she became. In every way, this book felt like it should be the final installment in the series.

And that is why The First Four Years just felt wrong to me.

When Laura and Manly get married, Laura agrees to try farming for three years. They experience hailstorms, drought, diphtheria and debt. They think their luck will surely take a turn for the better during the fourth year, but it is even worse: the death of their baby boy, a fire, not being able to prove up on the tree claim, etc.

And while all these things are going on, Pa and Ma, Mary, Carrie, and Grace are glaringly absent. Laura goes home a couple of times, but those visits receive only a brief mention without any of Pa's optimism, Ma's wisdom, or Mary's friendship. I wondered how the hailstorm affected Pa's crops, whether or not Mary moved back home, what Ma said to comfort Laura, but it's almost like she's been abandoned.

It's rather horrible to watch it all unfold, and this quote impacted me, "[Laura] was tired of waiting for the wheel to turn. And the farmers were the ones at the bottom, she didn't care what Manly said. If the weather wasn't right they had nothing, but whether they had anything or not they must find it somehow to pay interest and taxes and a profit to the businessmen in town on everything they bought, and they must buy to live." It just seems so unfair that Manly and Laura could work so hard and still be left with nothing. (And then I read a little about their real lives, and it just depressed me even more--I hate it that their independent spirits were broken to the point that in their later years they became dependent on their daughter, Rose.)

I'm sure there's been much written about whether or not The First Four Years should have ever been published, but my own opinion is that it should not. These Happy Golden Years was published in 1943; The First Four Years was published posthumously in 1971. Laura didn't pass away until 1957, so there was plenty of time for it to be published in her lifetime (since the manuscript appears to be from around 1940). She had already written eight successful novels. If she had wanted it published, it would have been published.

It's not that I have to have a happy ending or that I can't handle reading about hardships or the injustice that sometimes is life. But it makes me angry that Laura didn't get to choose whether or not she wanted to share those experiences with the world. And also that when it was published, they decided to tack it onto the end of a series that was already complete and beautiful as it was.

The one and only reason I'm happy it was published is it's nice to see what Laura's writing was like without any editing from her daughter. But in any case, it doesn't seem like it should have been published as part of the original series. It leads the reader to think it was always meant to go with the other books, and it wasn't.

But despite my strong feelings about the final book, I absolutely loved this series as a whole, with some of the books (Farmer Boy, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie) taking up special residence in my heart. It's crazy how often I think about them during the day (particularly when I'm doing laundry and wishing we only had three outfits per person). I fully expect to enjoy them many more times over the rest of my life.

Tell me about your feelings towards the books. What do you think about The First Four Years? Which one is your favorite book?

Max's First Book

Aug 11, 2014

We hit a milestone last week: Maxwell read his first official book. All by himself.

I say "official" because he's done plenty of reading prior to this: lots of lessons in his reading book, quite a few Bob books, and bits and pieces of other books.

But this book was more than five pages long, was funny and entertaining (no "Pat sat" here), and was checked out from the library. Yep, definitely official.

Erica at What Do We Do All Day recently posted a list of Easy Reader Books That Are Actually Easy. One of the books she mentioned was See Me Run by Paul Meisel. I wasn't familiar with it but judging from her description ("very simple words and lots of repetition"), I thought it might be one Max would be able to read on his own.

So I checked it out. And a few days later, I said, "Max, how would you like to read a real book?" He was eager and willing.

He read. He sounded out words. He looked at the pictures. He giggled. And when he turned the last page and closed the book, he beamed with pride.

That evening, when Mike got home from work, Max rushed to find the book. And then, with that same adorable smile, asked, "Dad, would you like me to read it to you?"

There's no comparison for this kind of confidence. It is its own reward.

P.S. You can probably guess that I'm pretty happy to see that Paul Meisel wrote another similar book called See Me Dig.

P.P.S. When I was taking these pictures to document Max's first real book, Aaron asked, "What was my first book?" I couldn't remember! It made me so sad that I hadn't thought to write it down.

P.P.P.S. What was your child's first book?

Dangerous by Shannon Hale

Aug 8, 2014

When I gave Mike a summary of this book, he said, "I kind of love it that you're reading an alien book."

It's true. This is not my usual book fare. At all.

But I am a devoted Shannon Hale fan. So I figured if she could branch out and write something that's a little out of the box for her, I guess I could branch out and read it.

Maisie Danger Brown's name was a bit of a joke. Her parents were just planning on giving her a middle name of Amalia (after her grandmother), but then they thought about how funny it would be to say, "Danger is my middle name" and have it be true.

But up to this point, Maisie's life has been anything but dangerous; "sheltered" would be a better description. She was born without her right hand, and so her two scientist parents decided to homeschool her. She has no brothers or sisters and, apart from Luther, almost no friends.

But things begin to pick up when she sees an announcement on the back of a cereal box telling about a chance to win a three-week stay at Howell Astronaut Boot Camp. Maisie has always been fascinated by space, so she enters the contest and, of course, wins.

The camp is everything she could have hoped for (even more, since she somehow secured the attention of popular Jonathan Wilder). At the end of the three weeks, it is announced that her team has the highest overall score and therefore wins a chance to fly to the equator and see the launch of the space elevator.

Somehow these five teenagers convince the two directors to allow them to ride to the halfway point where they get implanted with supernatural alien tokens that will help them save the world.

. . . wait, what?

No, seriously, that's what happens. I knew it was going to be science fiction, but I was not prepared for pink floaty aliens.

To be honest, the whole thing started out a little gimmicky for me. A sweepstakes on the back of a cereal box?  (Do 15-year-olds really enter such things? Or only sheltered, nerdy, and homeschooled teenagers?)  A missing right hand? A fast and furious teenage romance?

But I was overlooking all of that until the alien tokens made their appearance, and then I just about walked away right then and there. But this is Shannon Hale we're talking about. And like I said, I'm devoted. So I kept reading.

And you know what, after awhile the missing arm no longer seemed like a contrived weakness. It seemed substantive and believable and, honestly,  pretty awesome.

And after a while longer, the romance hashed itself out and deepened into something that at least somewhat resembled a mature relationship.

And there even came a point when I no longer laughed at the thought of the kind of book I was reading. Who knew aliens and supernatural powers and saving the world could be so gripping?

(However, I never did get over the fact that the whole story began with a cereal sweepstakes.)

As far as I know (and someone correct me if I'm wrong), Dangerous is a standalone novel, which I appreciated more than I can possibly say (and which honestly seems quite unusual for young adult novels these days). I know Shannon Hale originally said it would be a trilogy, but that was back in 2010, and I can't find anything else that concurs with that statement. But regardless of what happens down the road, the book is a complete story in and of itself. And this is one reader who is so grateful to read all of the lead-up, the action, and the resolution in one succinct novel without any of it feeling rushed or brushed over. Well done.

Also, overall it's pretty clean, but surprisingly, I had some issues with that. Maisie and Wilder tread dangerously close to the edge (pun not intended), and if it had been Wilder's decision, they would have gone right over. But Maisie holds her ground and says, "When you kiss me, my brain stops working. I don't want to make a choice without my brain. And if I cease to be rational, then I've lost myself."

In this, and other areas, Maisie showed herself a strong, responsible, and smart heroine. I loved her for it.

But . . .

I have to wonder what message this is sending to teens: you can get this close to the line; you can almost touch it; you just have to stay in control and not lose your head. As if! Maybe some teenagers have that much willpower, but they're not the teens I know.

I guess I was disappointed because I feel like Shannon Hale probably kept it clean on purpose but may still have sent teens a damaging message.

Moving on . . .

Let's talk about the humor in this book, shall we? Given the plot, this could have been a fairly heavy and dark book, and certainly there were some such moments--there were a fair number of deaths and some parts took a rather violent turn. However, Shannon Hale's humor was always lurking just around the corner to lighten up the mood before the next round of action. Here is one of my favorite quotes, taken out of context but still funny I think:
"Day two I was swimming deep, feeling weightless and strange, when I was knocked hard in the side. Silver against black water, a dorsal fin sharp as a blade, it circled and came back. Adrenaline flared in my heart. Shark! Big, toothy, scary shark! Then I remembered who I was. And I ate it."
Another thing I really loved about this book was that it kept me guessing who was (and was not) trustworthy. I hate it when authors introduce a supposedly loyal and kind character (sometimes a mentor, sometimes a friend), and then, bam, at the end they turn out to be the sleezy villain. Not fair. But in this case, there was give and take through the whole book with multiple characters. They would do something honorable and then something disappointing, which made them seem that much more real and also kept me engaged as a reader so that I always felt a little on edge and cautious.

Going into it, I didn't think this would become my favorite Shannon Hale novel, and it's not. But it was funny, fast-paced, and original (all things I've come to expect from her), and so I was not disappointed.

KidPages: Three Recent Favorites

Aug 6, 2014

On the agenda for today: the library. And sadly, it's time to take back several of our recent favorites. So I'm writing about them here so I don't forget about them. Hopefully someday, we can make them permanent members of our collection.


1. Ninja!, Arree Chung
After a little boy puts on his ninja costume, he sneaks and creeps so skillfully he catches his dad completely by surprise. All is going well until he nabs his sister's milk and cookies . . .

My boys are typical boys: they love superheroes. But I . . . do not. Thus, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and all their friends and associates are banned from our house. (We won't talk about Aaron's Spiderman sheets that Mike bought when I wasn't with them. It may or may not still be a point of contention between us.) I know, I'm a controlling mother, and it will probably come back to bite me, but if you can't make the rules when you're the mom, well then, what can you do?

However, this is the kind of superhero book I can handle. For one thing, there's nothing commercial about it. For another, it's about a little boy using his imagination in wild and crazy ways. And for a third, in the end he decides to teach his little sister "the way of the ninja." Nice big brothers are my weakness.

The illustrations are awesome--the perfect blend between reality and fantasy. We see the dramatic light and fire of the boy's imagination alongside ordinary items like a bookcase or kitchen counter. Most of the pages are done in a sort of comic strip style with several images dividing the space. After all the action, the dark page with the mother's pointing finger and the little boy hanging his head in shame is even more dramatic.

My boys love this book. Even before reading it, Bradley was obsessed with pretending to be a ninja (he has the best stance and intense glare). And now, it's like all of their games have been brought to life. Plus, it turns out, the little boy's name is Maxwell. Instant plus.

2. Falling for Rapunzel, Leah Wilcox, illus. Lydia Monks
From ninjas to princesses, this is another recent favorite.

On a bad hair day, Rapunzel lets out a cry of frustration from her tower. A prince who happens to be passing by mistakes it as a cry for help. He calls the familiar line, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Let down your hair." Unfortunately, Rapunzel is a little hard of hearing and the things she throws down grow more and more ridiculous. However, it all works out in the end, but not in the way you might think.

My boys are not usually fans of anything with pink or frills, but this book is hilarious enough to make up for it. The rhymes are catchy and of course perfect for the continual misunderstandings. For example, when the prince asks for twine or a ladder, there are any number of rhyming possibilities. In this case, twine translates to swine, ladder to pancake batter, and the prince's resulting frustration is just too funny.

The art in this book is a mix of paint and paper montage (or something like that . . . I'm not an artist). So, for example, the trees' trunks are drawn while their tops are cutouts of photographs. This is not always my favorite medium, but in this case, it's done very tastefully, and I actually love it.

3. Gaston, Kelly DiPucchio, illus. Christian Robinson
From the beginning, it is obvious that Gaston is not exactly like his sisters. He is bigger, louder, and faster, but he tries his best to be a good poodle. Then one day in the park, they run into a family of bulldogs, and the mothers can tell right away there's been a terrible mistake. Somehow Gaston (a bulldog) ended up in a family of poodles and Antoinette (a poodle) ended up in a family of bulldogs. They switch them back, but the results are disastrous. It seems Gaston and Antoinette were already exactly where they were supposed to be.

I love this book because it is equal parts funny and heartwarming. Having two adopted siblings of my own, I think it is a great reminder that family members don't always have to look exactly like each other in order to belong together.

My favorite part of the book is when we get introduced to the poodle family: Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, Ooh-La-La, and Gaston. And then the reader is asked, "Would you like to see them again?" just in case he missed the noticeable difference between Gaston and his sisters the first time. Later we're introduced to the bulldog family: Rocky, Ricky, Bruno, and Antoinette. Then, we're asked, "Would you like to see them again?" First of all, I love it when a story reaches across the divide and interacts with the reader. And second, I just love saying those names. They are so perfect.

And I'm not the only one who loved the names. A couple days ago, I heard Bradley saying, "Ooh-La-La" (in a prissy voice) "and Gaston" (in a tough voice) over and over and over again. He cracks me up.

Have you found any great picture books lately?

Raising Readers: The Power of Rereading

Aug 4, 2014

A few months ago, I mentioned that Max and I were taking a break from Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. The lessons had become quite tedious, and neither one of us was having much fun. So we switched to the BOB books, played with our whiteboard, and learned sight words.

But then, at the beginning of the summer (and as we sat down and made some goals), I thought it might be time to give the structured lessons a try again.

Lo and behold, it was like working with a different child. Suddenly, we were getting through an entire lesson with nary a tear or a complaint. He was sounding out words smoothly and effortlessly. He was remembering what he learned and applying it to reading in real life. My jaw was practically dropping open, I was so shocked by the transformation.

This experience taught me three things: sometimes a little growing up can go a long way, it never hurts to try again, and remaining flexible is absolutely essential.

When Maxwell made his goals for the summer, we decided to try to get to Lesson 70 in the reading book. He was at Lesson 50, and I thought twenty lessons was a reasonable goal, especially because we do each lesson twice.

Why do we repeat each lesson?

In Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, a second reading is worked into every lesson. There are instructions for what to do the first time through and what to do the second. Still, I know parents who use this method and skip the rereading, so it's definitely not a requirement.

But here's why I think rereading is so, so, so, invaluable:

Establishes flow

When Max reads the story through the first time, it is halting and slow. He has to stop and sound out words, which often makes him lose his place and distracts him. When he comes at it again, the sentences are more seamless, simply because he's already navigated the territory once before. Think of a pioneer blazing a trail across the prairie. The imprint of the path becomes deeper and more familiar with each footstep that passes over it. It is the same with rereading.

Aids comprehension

Because the flow isn't broken as much the second time through, it makes the sentences easier to understand. Instead of a mass of disjointed words, they come together to express an idea.

Increases word recognition

The more times you see a word, the easier it is to remember it. So if you read the word "mother" seven times in the first reading, you get it seven more times in the second reading, and by the end you hardly need to think about it anymore.

Builds confidence

This is the real reason I am so adamant about rereading. If you only have your child read through something once, all he knows about reading is that it's tedious and long and a struggle. Every time he reads, he feels overwhelmed. He doesn't feel like he's getting better because each lesson introduces new words he's never seen before. But, if you have your child read through the same material a second time (or even a third or a fourth), the flow and the comprehension and the recognition will all come together, and he will feel like a real reader. He will feel so proud and may even want to demonstrate his skills for a grandparent or aunt or uncle.

A couple of weeks ago, I recorded a portion of Max's reading session. You'll notice some of the things I already mentioned: slow, laborious, lots of sounding out, easily distracted, etc.

Then a day or two later, I recorded him reading the story a second time. We've done a lot of reading lessons together, but even I was shocked with the results. He read the same portion in less than half the time and hardly stumbled over any of the words.

As far as videos go, these aren't very exciting, and I don't expect you to watch them in their entirety. However, I really wanted you to be able to see the noticeable difference between a first and a second reading.

Of course, every child is different, and depending on the age and temperament of your child, he/she may not benefit as much from rereading. You will have to decide. But I definitely think it's something worth trying, especially for a child who might just need a little boost of confidence to enter the next phase of reading.

(For more Raising Readers posts, click here.)

Review x 3: Toys Go Out, A Mouse Called Wolf, and Mostly Monty

Aug 2, 2014

We've finished several books in the last couple of weeks, so I'm combining reviews once again. Plus, these ones were all short, so I don't have as much to say about them.

1. Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic by Emily Jenkins

I first heard about this book from Erica's list of Read Aloud Chapter Books for 4-6 Year Olds (an excellent list, by the way, if you're looking for books for that age group). And then of course (as so often happens), as soon as I checked it out, it seemed like everyone I knew was reading it. But with good reason . . . if you like awesome books, that is.

Talking toys vested with human personalities and traits is nothing new. But this does not feel like another rehashed toy book. It is fresh and creative and wonderfully lovable. Part of this, I'm sure, is because the book doesn't star typical toys. No teddy bears or curly-headed dolls here. I mean, a stingray? How many kids do you know who own a stuffed stingray, and a know-it-all one at that? (I love Stingray's facts about basements: "They are dark and full of rats. And there are spiders in the corners with fifty-eight legs, and ghosts hide there when the attic is full up, and there are cardboard boxes that anything could pop out of, like sharks, or knives, or axe murderers, and more dust than you ever saw in your life.") And I don't think stuffed buffalos are overly popular either, especially not ones with such a memorable name as Lumphy. And then there's Plastic, whose identity I won't spoil since an entire chapter is devoted to discovering who she is.

Their adventures are extremely inventive as well. I was trying to settle on a favorite chapter to mention here, but I couldn't do it; Lumphy's introduction to the washing machine (named Frank, by the way, who's at the "top of his game") and the dryer (who mumbles ("Ummmrgh") incoherently most of the time); Plastic's trip to the beach (and Stingray's resulting identity crisis); and Lumphy's exodus to the high bed (followed by Stingray's righteous indignation and sneaky plotting to get him kicked off). Each one was filled with amusing dialogue and clever discoveries you didn't expect.

Basically, I was in love with everything about this book. My boys loved it, too, and we're so glad there are two more toy books to read.

2. A Mouse Called Wolf by Dick King-Smith
After our recent delight with Babe, I knew I wanted to read something else by Dick King-Smith, so I checked out A Mouse Called Wolf. Before I had a chance to begin reading it to the boys, Aaron snatched it away and read it in an afternoon by himself. The little stinker. Luckily, he was a good sport and still let me read it aloud. Let that be this book's own testament: it's good enough for a second reading.

It's about a little mouse (the smallest one of the litter) named Wolfgang Amadeus (his mother decides since he's so small, he needs a big name to grow into). His brothers and sisters shorten it to Wolf, and even his mother eventually reserves his full name only for special occasions. Wolf and his mother live in the home of an old lady named Mrs. Honeybee, and Wolf loves to hear her play the piano. One day, he decides to try to sing one of the songs he's heard, and lo and behold, he has an amazing voice (his mother is ridiculously proud: "Oh! To think that I am the mother of the world's first singing mouse!"). Mrs. Honeybee is amazed as well (and honored to have such a mouse living in her house), and Wolf soon develops a warm friendship with her.

The story is cute and sweet and adorable. There's a little bit of excitement with a cat chase and later, a broken ankle, but overall, it's pretty mellow, much like Babe.

Even though Wolf and Mrs. Honeybee become dear friends, this is not one of those stories where humans and animals bridge the communication gap and converse with each other. Wolf and Mrs. Honeybee have to find their own ways of communicating with each other and thus, never know each other's names. However, at the very end, Mrs. Honeybee decides that she must finally call her mouse something other than "my mouse". She decides on Wolfgang Amadeus since the mouse is something of a musical prodigy. But then she decides, "No, wait a bit, that's too much of a mouthful, I think. Why don't I just call you Wolf?" And then she laughs and says to herself, "You really are a ridiculous woman, Jane Honeybee. Who but you would think of something so unlikely as a mouse called Wolf!" It was the perfect way to unite the two worlds along with the title of the book. A perfectly cute ending to a perfectly cute story.

3. Mostly Monty by Johanna Hurwitz
I checked out this book by accident. Well, sort of. I am the one to blame for putting it on hold, but I thought it was a picture book. When I went to pick it up, I discovered it was a chapter book. I paged through it, thought we might like it anyway, and brought it home. There are worse mistakes to make.

The story is about a little boy named Montgomery Morris who turned six on August 15th, is starting first grade, and has asthma.

Happy coincidences that immediately endeared Monty to us: Aaron just turned six on July 29th, he is also going into first grade, and he (thankfully) does not have asthma.

For all of that, however, I was not immediately in love with the story. My kids enjoyed it, for sure, but I thought it was a little bland. Monty's asthma seemed made up for the sake of giving him something other kids could relate to and sympathize with. It was mentioned at blatantly awkward moments, almost like the author was saying, "And don't forget, Monty has a condition. Don't you want to give him a hug?" I'm not trying to downplay the fact that asthma is a real trial for some kids. I'm only saying that in the case of Monty, it felt more like a plot device rather than something that aided in the shaping of his character.

However, the last chapter made me change my opinion a little bit. In it, Monty decides that he wants a hobby. He loves to read and so settles on "learning about kangaroos" as his hobby of choice. Then he thinks it might be fun to have a kangaroo club where the club members read about kangaroos and share the information at the club meetings. He finds it a bit challenging convincing other kids to join his club (Joey Thomas says, "This is just like school. You shouldn't have to read this kind of stuff if it isn't homework."), but in the end, the club has three other members, and Monty finally has some friends.

The asthma didn't really make me love Monty, but his nerdiness did. Imagining up a kangaroo club (which is so random and yet just exactly the kind of thing a smart, introverted little boy might decide was a great idea) made me decide that Monty was a character worth getting to know after all.

But the thing I'm most happy about is that there are three more books about Monty. I've been having a hard time finding books for Aaron to read on his own that are at his level while still being about characters his age. These will be perfect.

What books have you read to your kids this summer?
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