Summer Fun: Sand Dough

Jul 30, 2014

My kids love play dough. I think they'd play with it every day if I didn't mind cleaning up the aftermath. Unfortunately (for them), I usually prefer the less messy activites like, oh say, reading.

But some days I decide to be the fun mom and let them play with playdoh to their heart's content.

And sometimes I decide to be the really fun mom and let them make the playdoh and then play with it.

(This happens, oh, about once a year. I certainly don't want them expecting such entertainment every day.)

A few weeks ago, I saw this recipe for sand dough on Blog Me Mom. It's called sand dough because it has cornmeal in it, which gives it a grittier (i.e., sandier) texture. The gorgeous pictures showed soft balls of dough in summery colors next to a pile of rainbow "sand."

Um, okay, even when I'm being a really fun mom, I'm not five-colors fun. Just to clarify.

So here you get the overly simplified version.

But you know what? My kids still loved it.

To make sand dough, you'll need:

1/2 cup white flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons oil
1 1/2 tablespoons cream of tarter
One koolaid envelope (0.13 oz.)
1/2 cup boiling water

Stir the flour, cornmeal, salt, oil, cream of tarter, and koolaid together.

Add the boiling water (adult assistance required).

Adjust the ratios as needed. After the boys started playing with it, we ended up kneading in some more flour to reach a less sticky consistency.

Squish, roll, cut, smash, repeat.

We've had our sand dough for over a week now (stored in a plastic bag), and it's still good and playable. 

(For more of our summer fun, click here.)

Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Jul 28, 2014

For so many years, I have heard friends and strangers alike express tender fondness for the Little House on the Prairie series.

Having not grown up on the series, I didn't think I would ever express similar sentiments, especially since, when I finally did read them, I didn't particularly love the first two books. I began the series more because I thought it was an iconic piece of American literature I should be familiar with and less because I had any real interest in the Ingalls family's homesteading adventures.

But I have done an about face. A complete 180. Somewhere along the way, I went from enduring to adoring. I now feel like I'm on a mission to convert as many readers as I can, especially if their initial response, like mine, was unenthusiastic.

When this book begins, Laura and her family are back out on their claim after the long, hard winter. One evening Pa comes home with news about an opportunity for Laura to earn some money helping Mrs. Clancy make shirts. It's not what Laura would choose to do, but she wants to help Mary go to college as soon as possible, so she accepts the offer. She earns nine dollars, and it is enough to outfit Mary for her first year of school in Iowa. There is a sad emptiness in the family after Mary's departure, but Laura is soon busy studying for exams, participating in the Friday Night Literaries, and trying to understand Miss Wilder's dislike for her. Beneath it all is Laura's desire to get her teacher's certificate when she turns sixteen so she can continue to help keep Mary in college.

One thing that continues to impress me with these stories is the strong work ethic of the Ingalls family. It's not just the obvious things (Laura taking on a job she doesn't like or Ma and the girls tirelessly chasing away a swarm of blackbirds), but the details that are mentioned in passing, so small that they might go unnoticed if they were not so different from today's attitude. For example, one afternoon as Mary and Laura return from picking violets, they come upon Pa planting corn. "'Had a nice walk, girls?' he smiled at them, but he did not stop working." For some reason, that statement, "but he did not stop working," stood out to me, perhaps because without it, I think we might mistakenly assume that Pa would take the opportunity to catch his breath and relax his muscles for a moment.

Contrast that with this quote from when Pa is expanding the claim shanty and making it into a real house: "Laura helped him all the time, Carrie and Grace watched, and picked up every nail that Pa dropped by mistake. Even Ma often spent minutes in idleness, looking on." It is so unusual for Ma to be idle that the reader has to be informed about this occurrence. It makes the transformation of the shanty even more exciting because we see that even Ma can't help but stop her work in order to watch the progress.

I'm also marveling at the perfectly placed details, which are often so simplistic, you wouldn't think they'd be all that memorable. But they're often brought back at just the right moment to deliver a heartrending punch. For example, early in the book, it's mentioned that Carries does the buttons on her dress outside in because she can't reach to do it the other way. At the time, I just thought it was a cute little tidbit about Carrie. But then later in the book, it comes back when Laura and Carrie participate in the school exhibition: "Carrie's thin face was strained and pale as she made her way to the aisle. All the buttons up the back of her plaid dress were buttoned outside-in. Laura should have thought to button her up; but no, she had left poor little Carrie to do the best she could, alone." Carrie's fright that could have been lessened by Laura's attention and Laura's guilt that would have been absolved if she'd only noticed little Carrie are both perfectly summed up with those outside-in buttons.

Throughout the books, Ma often chides her girls with being too vain, so then I had to laugh when she tells Laura she will ruin her figure if she doesn't wear her corset to bed (yes, that's if she doesn't, not if she does). Ma reminisces that when she got married, Pa could circle her waist with his two hands. Ma is also quite worried about Mary being dressed in all the latest fashions when she goes to school (and one has to wonder how many people will even see Mary's clothes since she is, after all, going to a school for the blind). She even makes sure that Mary's dresses can accommodate hoops just in case they find that hoops are in style when they get to Iowa. It seems that even Ma might need to guard against vanity.

I don't know if I've mentioned before that I've been listening to the audio of all of these books. They are narrated by Cherry Jones. I remember listening to the first chapter of Little House in the Big Woods and wondering if I would be able to stand her voice. I laugh whenever I remember I thought that because I now love her voice so much. It has a gentle roughness about it that is just perfect for these stories. Plus, she is just brilliant with interpretation and can pack so much emotion into one simple sentence. One of my favorite listening moments from this book was when Laura and Carrie were getting ready for the school exhibition: "Then Carrie's hair was perfectly sleek from the middle parting to the two stiff braids hanging down her back. 'There, now you look just right!' Laura said. [Obviously she didn't look at Carrie's buttons.] 'Your new plaid dress is beautiful.'" The way Cherry Jones spoke those words, it didn't even sound like Laura. She sounded too gentle, too much like Ma. But then these words followed, "Her voice did not seem to be hers, it was so serene." And I thought, If Cherry Jones can convey that nuance without me even hearing the explanation, then she is truly a master.

There was more to love about this book (the darling name cards (all the latest rage) and Almonzo's shy requests to escort Laura home and Nellie's wretched ego), but I must end this before it gets any longer. Just know that I could turn around and read this book again, I loved it that much.

Summer Goals . . . For Kids!

Jul 25, 2014

At the beginning of summer, I wrote a little about the flexible structure (no, that's not an oxymoron) I planned to implement. Part of that plan included doing one new activity each week (if you've missed any of our Summer Fun, click here). The other part centered around summer goals.

During the first week of summer break, Aaron, Maxwell, and Bradley each made a list of things they wanted to accomplish over the next three months. (Clark didn't participate since his goals consist of eating, sleeping, and crying, and he needs no motivation to accomplish them.) Mike and I helped them think of ideas.

For my part, I wanted their goals to be diverse, measurable, and attainable.


My hope was that their goals would teach them new skills, exercise their minds, and be fun.

One of the first things I did was consult the master plan (adapted from Merrilee Boyack's excellent book, The Parenting Breakthrough) to see which skills they were each ready for. Then I made biased suggestions (you can do this when your kids are 5, 4, and 2). Aaron ended up with learn to tie shoes, learn to make sandwiches, and learn to vacuum on his list. Maxwell got memorize address and phone number and learn to wash dishes. And Bradley's list included learn to use the toilet, learn to wipe off the kitchen table, and learn to sort laundry.

Then there were the academic goals. For Aaron, these included finishing a level in his piano books, completing a math workbook, and memorizing four Articles of Faith. For Maxwell, they encompassed doing twenty reading lessons, learning 30 sight words, and memorizing four Articles of Faith. And for Bradley, they involved learning his letters and numbers and writing the letter B.

And finally, the fun goals. These included doing puzzles, playing chess, and listening to music.


My boys (especially Aaron) love charts. In order for this plan to be successful, I knew they would need to be able to see their progress.

So we typed out the goals, printed them, and taped them to the kitchen wall. Nothing fancy, I can assure you. (In fact, since I see them every day, I've been a little annoyed that we didn't at least keep the wording consistent throughout, but oh well, we know what they mean.) Each goal has a little box by it that can be covered with a star when it's complete.

We broke down some of the goals even further so they could mark their gradual progress. For example, Aaron's piano book has eight units, so there are eight boxes next to that goal.

It has been very motivating for them to see their own progress as well as each other's. (I will admit, they're a little competitive and keep track of how many stars each one has.)


We had to come up with goals that were both realistic and challenging. Goals are not any fun if you set the bar so high as to make them unattainable. Likewise, without a challenge, there won't be a feeling of success when they're complete.

For example, one of Maxwell's goals is to learn 30 sight words. I've been helping Max learn to read for many months now. I knew what he was capable of, and I also knew what would be overwhelmingly daunting and impossible for him to achieve. We settled on 30 words because if we broke it down to about five words a week, he could easily learn them all in three months with plenty of review in between. At the same time, it wasn't something we could leave for the last two weeks and expect to come out on top.

Now that we're seven weeks into the goals, I think we hit just the right balance on every single one of them except . . . toilet training for Bradley. Part of me wonders if we were being overly optimistic on that one. Those of you who've done this before know that it isn't something you can really force. But in the last week or so, he has made significant progress, so I'm still hopeful.

We've settled into a flexible routine. Each morning we wake up, eat breakfast, and play for a little bit. Around 9:00, I tell the boys it's time to work on chores and goals. Their chores often include the skills their working on (for example, Maxwell usually gets to wash the breakfast dishes and Bradley helps me with the laundry). I help Max with his reading and Aaron with his piano, and if they don't get too distracted, then they're done with everything in an hour or so.

I will add the disclaimer that this takes an extreme amount of effort on my part. I feel like I spend the entire morning running from kid to kid. Maybe once my kids are a little older, they'll be able to take on more of the responsibility themselves, but for right now, it's a lot of reminding and teaching and helping. However, I actually love it (unless Clark is needy and crying--then I'm just stressed) because goals are my thing, and I love watching their progress and cheering them on.

Oh, and rewards! I forgot to mention the rewards! That's the best part. At the end of each month, as long as they've been making progress, we get to do something fun together. In June, we went out for snow cones, in July we'll go to the aquarium, and in August we'll go to the Lego store (and they'll each get to fill a Pick-a-Brick container).

So far that's what we've been doing. I'll talk about a few of the goals a little more specifically in the coming weeks. If you have questions or have been working on summer goals of your own, feel free to leave a comment!

All About Sam by Lois Lowry

Jul 23, 2014

I have very distinct memories of my mom reading this book aloud. I don't know how old I was, but I remember laughing my head off at some of Sam's antics. When the book begins, Sam is a brand-new baby (still at the hospital). He sees a bunch of smiling, happy faces surrounding his crib, but he thinks one of the people has his head on upside down (it turns out to be his father who is bald and wears a beard). I have remembered that scene from the book for over twenty years because I thought it was so funny to get Sam's perspective as an infant.

I'm guessing many of you are acquainted with the Anastasia Krupnick series. I think I read most of them as a pre-teen. All About Sam (and the three books that follow) focus on Anastasia's little brother, Sam. Although not told in first person, they offer a glimpse of the Krupnick household from Sam's point of view.

With a new baby of our own, I knew Aaron and Maxwell would also love this book. When Sam is a baby, he is often misunderstood. For example, at one point he gets distracted by his mobile when he is supposed to be eating. His mom stops feeding him, and a few minutes later, he realizes he's still hungry. So he yells, "I FORGOT TO EAT, AND NOW I'M HUNGRY." But it sounds like "Waaaaaaahhhhh." As we read about Sam's frustrations, we wondered what our little Clarky is trying to tell us with his wails and squawks? Plus, as Sam gets older and turns into a walking, talking toddler and preschooler, his activities result in quite a lot of mischief (flushing his sister's goldfish, hiding broccoli under the rug, etc.). My boys thought every episode was more hilarious than the last.

I, on the other hand, found that I was less enchanted with Sam as an adult than as a kid. As much as I like Lois Lowry, I thought most of the story was a little flat. The characters and Sam's shenanigans seemed formulaic. For example, in the chapter where Sam decides to steal a pack of gum, the episode unfolds in a very predictable way: Sam wants candy, he pockets a package at the checkout stand, he feels guilty, he confesses, he feels better. There was just nothing that made this particular scene stand out from the hundreds of other preschoolers (fictitious or real) who have been overcome with similar temptations. (In contrast, in our recent read of Ramona the Pest, Ramona also gets into common scrapes, but the execution and resolution were always wildly creative and unpredictable.)

In addition to that, I also found the book quite dated (and not in the charming way of, say, Ramona or Betsy-Tacy). When Sam comes home from the hospital, Anastasia carries him on her lap (my kids were rather surprised he didn't have to be in a car seat). Also, Sam and his little friend, Adam, are obsessed with guns and bombs (which is still the case with many little boys but not talked about so innocently anymore).  And Sam's father smokes a pipe (and it made me realize that smoking fathers are not prominent characters in books anymore because I had to explain some things as we went along). It just didn't seem like the way a book would be written today, but it also didn't have that classic feel about it in any way.

The one chapter I truly loved was when Sam cut his hair, and it didn't turn out at all like he wanted it to. His mother is horrified, and quite frankly, Sam is too. He wails, "I'm a porkypine! An ugly one!" And his mother says, "For the very first time, I feel a terrible desire to spank you." Sam feels so bad, he says, "I want to spank myself." But then his mother asks, "Do you think that we could try to laugh, instead?" And so they try. And pretty soon they don't have to try anymore; the laughter is effortless and real. I loved this example of how thy turned an awful mistake into a hilarious memory. I wish I would choose to laugh a little more often when my kids unpleasantly surprise me.

If I had to rate this book for myself, it would probably be a 5/10. But if I rated it according to my boys' enjoyment, it would jump up to at least an 8. I think they loved it just as much as I did when I was a kid, and that made me enjoy it a lot more.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Jul 21, 2014

For me, a really good book = a vividly beautiful location + realistically flawed characters + a sweet (but not overdone) romance + an historical backdrop + moral tension/resolution.

A really amazing (or insert superlative adjective of choice) book  = all of the above + gorgeous writing.

The Light Between Oceans was amazing (or awesome, fantastic, wonderful, magnificent, etc.).

When Tom Sherbourne returns from World War I, he just wants to continue to do his duty. So he requests a light keeping position off the coast of Australia. Janus Rock is almost no bigger than the lighthouse that sits on it and is completely uninhabited save for the lightkeeper, with visits from the supply boat once every three months. But when the post at Janus Rock becomes available, Tom takes it.  The quiet order of lightkeeping suits him fine and gives him lots of time to sort out his guilt over the War.

Meanwhile, he takes up a tediously slow correspondence (exchanging letters once every three months isn't a terribly effective method of communication) with pretty and vivacious Isabel Graysmark. Even with the distance between them,the sparks fly, and they get married when Tom gets shore leave.

Life on Janus Rock is idyllic for the newlyweds (even with all the work of maintaining the light, it's like an extended honeymoon), and Isabel is convinced the only thing that could make it better would be a child of their own. Two miscarriages and a stillbirth later, her dreams seem shattered, and she is on the brink of despair. Tom, who is also grieving deeply but much more quietly, doesn't know how to comfort Isabel.

One morning, Isabel hears a baby's cry carried on the wind. She's sure she must be hallucinating but then hears Tom calling from the shore. A boat has just washed up carrying a dead man and a crying baby girl. In a moment, all of Isabel's motherly instincts have fired up and she calms the crying baby with joy and gratitude. Tom wants to signal the authorities immediately (it is regulation, after all--he must account for every occurrence on the island), but Isabel begs him to wait just until morning, and by that time, she has already given her heart and soul to this tiny infant . . . who belongs to someone else.

On the surface, the whole scenario seemed pretty cut and dry: of course Isabel should have let Tom send for a boat immediately. As I was reading, my mind was practically screaming the instructions, Don't listen to her, Tom! She's still grieving her lost baby, but there will only be more pain if you keep a baby that isn't yours. Do your duty. Do what you know is right. 

But my heart? Another matter entirely. Especially since just two months ago, I was still pregnant and experiencing the daily anxiety, What if something happens to this baby? I already had so much love for him, and I hadn't even officially met him yet. And then once I did meet him? He instantly captured my affection and love and adoration.

So as I read and silently begged Tom to give up the baby, I held my own sweet baby boy and felt his contented breathing against my chest, and the emotional side of me just ached for Isabel. Decisions that are so black and white when we use our heads are much more difficult when we involve our hearts. And guess what? We're humans, which means it's virtually impossible to cut our hearts from the equation entirely.

I think it's fascinating to see how people balance the mind/heart conflict. In this case, Tom and Isabel are so different: Tom can't ignore his mind, and Isabel can't ignore her heart, and if it were just a struggle between those two alone, it would be heart wrenching enough. But then you factor in a whole host of other characters (Hannah, Ralph, Septimus, Lucy, Gwen, Violet, Bill), and you see that even if you live on an isolated island, your decisions have the ability to affect and hurt others.

And beyond that, events are not isolated to one moment in time. For example, Tom's decisions are affected not only by his experiences in the war but even before that, to the abandonment he felt as a child. Human nature is incredibly complex. Every time I thought I had a grip on the whole situation, Stedman would expose another layer and send me questioning everything again. This is truly great writing: to be able to present a problem in such a real way and give you so much empathy for every character that you feel the pain and trauma as if you're making these decisions yourself.

But in spite of all the mistakes and irrational decisions, there was only one point in the entire book where I held my breath in agonized suspense. Ultimately, my satisfaction with the story hinged on this one moment and the decision of one character. I don't want to give anything away, but if it had gone one way, it would have just been too much for me to bear, and I would have hated the book. As it was, there was still much sadness (this is not a sunshine-and-roses type of story) but also redemption.

One of the things I loved the most about this story was the lighthouse. It was both a tangible object and a constant analogy for life. I knew very little about lighthouses before reading this, but Stedman described everything so beautifully (the mechanics, the functions, the purpose). I could almost feel the strain in my legs from climbing so many stairs and see the shimmering glass of the lens. The lighthouse really provided an anchor for the entire story--all things led back to its constancy and steadiness. It was really, really beautiful. 

With a story like this one, that kept me guessing and hoping and cringing and pleading the entire time, I always wonder how long it will stay with me. Will I still be thinking about it in a week? A month? A year? As the details start to fade, will I long to return to these much-beloved characters and watch the struggle unfold again? These are not questions I can answer yet, but I have my suspicions this is not a story I will soon forget.

Content note: some foul language, including one use of the f-word and multiple deity terms.

Summer Fun: Popsicles

Jul 17, 2014

Pinterest is overloaded with popsicle recipes right now, and I've pinned my share of them. But last week, when my kids and I decided to make some, I fell back on the popsicles my mom always made when I was a kid. Turns out, it was possible to be a fun mom twenty years ago in the Dark Ages before the internet.

Jello/Kool-aid popsicles

1 (3 oz.) package jello (any flavor - and you can see I'm not particular about the brand)
2 cups boiling water
1 (0.13 oz.) envelope kool-aid (any flavor)
2 cups cold water
1 cup sugar

First, pour the jello into the boiling water. If you're having small children help you, keep their hands away from the measuring cup. Give it a good stir until completely dissolved.

Then, pour the kool-aid contents into the cold water. Give it another good stir.

Pour the two liquids together. You definitely don't have to use the same two flavors. Here we used raspberry jello and lemon-lime kool-aid (not because we were trying to be creative but because it's what I had in our pantry).

Pour in one cup of sugar and stir until dissolved. (One of the reasons I like these popsicles better than, say, just frozen juice is because the jello gives them a slightly softer texture, making them easier to bite into (if that's your thing)).

Pour the mixture into molds. With these particular molds (which I think are made by Tupperware--I picked them up at a garage sale for a couple of dollars), I made about two dozen popsicles.

Freeze for 4-6 hours.

Enjoy on a sweltering hot day, and think about what flavor you want to make next (lemon/lemon is one of my favorites!).

Books of 2014, First Half

Jul 15, 2014

In addition to my reading goals, I also made a more general goal to read 60 books this year. I know that probably seems like petty cash to those of you who read 150+ books a year, but 60 is proving to be more ambitious than I originally thought. At the end of June, I had only read 26 books. (Last year, at this same point, I had read 34 books, which I guess is why I thought 60 books was a reasonable goal.)

Nevertheless, here's what I've read. (Click on the title to go to the full review.)

1. The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty, 8/10
I'd have a hard time recommending this one because of some of the content, but man, I'd be lying if I didn't admit it was a gripping read and I've thought about it a hundred times since then. Plus, I just love Liane Moriarty's writing.

2. A Mind at a Time by Mel Levine, 5/10
This is the way to take an interesting and informative topic and make it draaaaaag on eeeeeeendlessy.

3. Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu, AUDIO, 6/10
I didn't like it as much as The Real Boy, but it was the perfect thing to listen to on a cold January day.

4. By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder, AUDIO, 8/10
My eyes are being opened: it's pretty obvious why this is a favorite series of so many.

5. Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, 7/10
Not my favorite by Kate DiCamillo but contained some pretty hilarious moments. 

6. The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, 10/10
Remind me to read this book if I'm ever feeling depressed about the cold and snow. 'Cause I'm pretty sure it will help me appreciate my nice warm house and little niceties like, um, food.

7. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, half-AUDIO, 6/10
Made me realize how very little I know about this world I live in. Also, I would love to read another memoir by Malala in fifteen years.

8. Henry and Beezus by Beverly Cleary, 10/10
Pretty much a perfect book.

9. Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper, AUDIO, 6/10
The writing wasn't exceptional, but the story impacted me nonetheless.

10. Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, 8/10
Well, my kids are still fighting, but I still feel like this was a helpful read.

11. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, half-AUDIO, 10/10
I think I could read this book a dozen times, and it would still be one of my favorites.

12. Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville, 5/10
I'd say it was just me except that my boys, who usually love dragons, weren't totally enamored with this book either.

13. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, AUDIO, 7/10
I wish I could say my eating habits were transformed after reading this book. But definitely some small changes were made with hopefully more coming in the future.

14. Ina May's Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin, 8/10
I'm not this much of a hippie, but I gleaned some good information nonetheless (that, and I can never resist a good birth story).

15. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton, half-AUDIO, 6/10
Intricate and intriguing but not as gripping as I was expecting. 

16. Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool, 10/10
Now that I've read it a second time, I know my devotion and praise were not misplaced.

17. Quinny & Hopper by Adriana Brad Schanen, 6/10
Cute and fun. My boys loved it.

18. Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan, AUDIO, 8/10
Don't even think about reading this book unless you're going to listen to it.

19. Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary, 9/10
After realizing that Ramona was my boys' favorite character in the Henry books, I knew we had to give her series a try. We were not disappointed.

20. Babe, the Gallant Pig by Dick King-Smith, 8/10
Super, super sweet.

21. All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior, 8/10
Aside from the fact that it made me absolutely terrified of having teenagers, I thought this was a fascinating book.

22. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Magic by Betty MacDonald, 6/10
I liked the first one, but this one is better.

23. Runaway Ralph by Beverly Cleary, 6/10
I guess I like boys (Henry) and girls (Ramona) better than mice (Ralph).

24. Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary, 10/10
Oh, Beverly Cleary, I don't think I'll ever get tired of you.

25. A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, 6/10
Bizarre, but it all makes sense in the end.

26. A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd, 8/10
Absolutely spindiddly.

What has been your favorite book so far this year?

A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty

Jul 14, 2014

Okay. I admit it. Sometimes . . . I decide to read a book just because I love the cover so much.

I'm sure I read the summary of A Corner of White before I started it. I think I even read a review of it. But really, the only reason I decided to read it was because of the cover.

Those red boots. The sparkles in the sky. That brilliant white card. The flying umbrella (which, incidentally, is still a mystery to me even after finishing the book).

It was even one of those books I checked out and had to return to the library before I read it, and I still went to the effort to check it out again just because I wanted to see what was behind that cover.

And what I found surprised me. Not necessarily in a bad way. Not necessarily in a good way either. Just . . . different. Surprising.

First there's Madeleine. She and her mom recently moved to Cambridge, England, but Madeleine misses her old life, which was filled with adventure and spontaneity and glamor. Now she is participating in a strange homeschooling arrangement with her two friends, Jack and Belle.

Then there's Elliot. He is not from Cambridge. He lives in Bonfire, a remote village in the Kingdom of Cello. A year ago, his father, uncle, and the high school physics teacher were attacked by a Purple. His uncle was killed, and the other two disappeared. Elliot knows the chances of them still being alive are miniscule, but he is determined to make every effort to find them, just in case.

The two worlds are separate. Completely unconnected. Until one morning, Madeleine walks past a broken parking meter and sees a small corner of white paper sticking out. She reads the cryptic note--"Help me! I am being held against my will!"--and, thinking it is a joke, decides to write back (and of course Elliot is the one who finds it).

This sets off a correspondence between Madeleine (who knows nothing about Cello and thinks she is exchanging letters with someone who may not be completely sane) and Elliot (who is well aware of Cello's break with The World hundreds of years before and realizes he has discovered one of the infamous "cracks" between the two worlds).

Besides the cover, there actually was another reason why I wanted to read A Corner of White. Jaclyn Moriarty is a sister to Liane Moriarty (author of What Alice Forgot and The Husband's Secret). You might recall that I adore Liane Moriarty's writing. I was curious to see how Jaclyn's writing compared, especially since her books are geared toward young adults, and I was hoping they'd maybe be a little cleaner than Liane's adult novels.

Their two styles are completely different. I remember I was smitten with Liane's writing from the very first page. With this book, I honestly spent the first hundred pages (at least) wondering what Jaclyn was smoking when she wrote it. There were horoscopes and auras and Colors and ditzy princesses. Every character acted just a little too weird for comfort. It was bizarre. That's the best word for it. It's a wonder I actually finished it. And I mean that. I considered sending it back to the library numerous times because I was so frustrated with the insane amount of confusion I was feeling.

But . . . I pushed my way through it (which isn't something you're supposed to say about a "light" read). And my persistent benefit of the doubt paid off. The ending was stellar. It was somewhere in the last 100 pages that I realized, Hey! I'm actually enjoying this! When I finally closed the book after reading the last page, my opinion of Jaclyn Moriarty had changed. I was awed by her creativity and surprised with the direction she took the story.

I won't say the ending completely redeemed the beginning because it didn't; 100 pages is too much of a commitment to expect from readers without acknowledging their efforts. BUT, it was comforting to see that there was a plan behind the madness. And by the end I no longer felt like I was going crazy. Always a good thing.

Putting all that aside however, I still have one complaint: Madeleine was too young for this story. For the entire first half, I pictured her as being fifteen or sixteen. Elliot is fifteen, so I assumed Madeleine was a similar age. Plus, her maturity, attitude, and action all seemed to represent a character in her mid-teens. Then, somewhere along the way, it comes out that she is only thirteen. This was a huge mental shift for me, and I never completely came to terms with it. Maybe I would have been okay with it if I'd known it from the beginning (and maybe it was mentioned somewhere early on, and I just missed it). Regardless, I still think it feels more like a young adult than a middle grade novel, so Madeleine's age is a problem.

This is the first book in a trilogy (is it absolutely impossible for young adult authors to write standalone novels anymore? Just asking . . . ), and I can't decide if I'm going to continue reading or not. The ending left me in a good mood: full of questions but also lots of answers. And yet, I can't completely forgive the beginning and don't know if I'm willing to invest so much time in something I might only enjoy half of. And I know I need to decide soon, or I'll have forgotten everything, and I'm not really committed enough to reread this one before reading the next one.

And finally, just so this review comes full circle, I have to show you the Australian cover:

It's definitely more dramatic than the American one, but I think it shows a different side of the story, which I like.

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

Jul 9, 2014

I usually don't like books with an abundance of quirky characters.

I usually don't like books set in quaint and cutesy small towns.

I usually don't like books narrated in first person by wordy 11-year-olds.

But in spite of all of that (or maybe, just maybe, because of it), I loved A Snicker of Magic.

The moon is full the night Felicity Pickle and her mother and sister arrive in Midnight Gulch, Tennessee. Felicity is so tired of new beginnings (and it seems like her mother is addicted to them), but she is hoping that Midnight Gulch will finally be the place they can call home. It has a few things going for it: it's the town where her mother grew up (and where her Aunt Cleo still lives); it used to be full of magic (and still seems to have "a snicker of magic" flowing through it); and it's the home of the Beedle (who soon becomes Felicity's best friend).

As for Felicity, she is a girl who loves words. And she sees them everywhere she looks: suspended in the air, slithering across the floor, popping out of nowhere. They take on shapes and colors and give her glimpses into the mind and heart of those around her. In a fit of desperation to keep her mother still for a couple more weeks, Felicity signs up to share her words with the whole town at the Duel (a talent show of sorts). She is scared out of her mind, but as she learns more about the history of the town, she thinks this might be the way to free her family of the century-old curse they seem to be prisoners to.

In the weeks since I finished this book, I've pondered why I liked it so much. It was kind of a cross between The Center of Everything (which features a donut-obsessed town and Ruby's fear of reading her essay in front of a bunch of people) and Savvy (where Mibs and her family have certain magical gifts). In this case, the town is ice cream--not donut--obsessed; similar to Ruby, Felicity is afraid to share her words; and instead of a family with supernatural powers, there are a number of characters with certain unusual gifts or talents. But where it definitely didn't work for me in The Center of Everything or Savvy, something clicked here. And I can't figure out why.

Maybe I felt a certain connection with some of those quirky characters. Or maybe it was because I found their quirkiness absolutely endearing (Jewell Pickett's Lube & Dye; Rosie Walker's cowboy boots;  Day Grissom's gnarly beard; Boone Harness's banjo).

Maybe the wide assortment of ice cream flavors (Blackberry Sunrise, Chocolate Orange Switcheroo, Chocolate Chip Pork Rind) were just more novel to me than donuts.

Maybe it was the element of mystery that threaded its way through the entire story. Or maybe I liked the link to history and the past.

Maybe it had to do with the fact that Felicity wasn't just trying to help herself but also her mother and Florentine and everyone else who'd been affected by the events of the past.

Maybe it was because the writing painted a distinct and vivid picture. (For example, this: "The base of the sky was turning orange and pale pink. I figure that was the sun's way of yawning and stretching before it puts its hands on the hills and pushes on up into the sky.")

Maybe it was because even though the ending was very satisfying, it wasn't perfect.

Or maybe something about me is different. Maybe I've changed. Maybe I'm less cynical. Maybe I'm more willing to believe in "a snicker of magic."

For whatever the reason, I was completely smitten with Felicity's story. It has received some early Newbery attention (Betsy Bird of A Fuse #8 Production predicted it to be "the most divisive book of 2014"), and I personally would not be one bit disappointed to see it receive a little Newbery love. That said, I can understand why everyone might not love it. Quite frankly, I'm still surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and a part of me wants to read it again to see if it was just some weird sort of fluke.

But love it, I did. And admit it, I will.

Raising Readers: Summer Reading Program

Jul 7, 2014

If the 100-degree temps didn't give it away, it's the peak of summer right now. And while we love swimming, biking, and playing outside, sometimes the activity that's most tempting is retreating into the air-conditioned house with a good book.

One of the first things my boys and I did this summer was sign up for our local summer reading programs. Did you sign up your kids, too? Reading is always fun (of course!), but reading for prizes? Even better.

In this post, I want to share some details from our current experience and also hear about how the summer reading program goes down in your neck of the woods.

But first . . .

 . . . can I tell you about the summer reading program when I was a little girl?

Because really, it was awesome.

I've talked about my small hometown library before. I have many fond memories of that little brick building, but perhaps none so fond as those surrounding the summer reading program. Here's how it worked:

On the first possible day, my siblings and I biked over to get signed up. Our library only had one librarian, Jan, and she gave us our reading logs. For every two hours of reading we did, we got one prize. That's it. Simple, right? So if we read four hours in one day (which we often did), that translated to two prizes.

Prizes consisted of things like candy bars, juice boxes, Little Debbies, cans of soda, little plastic toys, bookmarks, etc. Jan displayed all the prizes on the shelves by her desk. We could choose whatever we wanted. We usually cashed in on our prizes once a week, and let me tell you, we made bank. We came home loaded with a year's supply of sugar--much to my mom's dismay.

After every 20 hours, we got a free book. It was not unusual to earn three or four, sometimes even five, books in one summer. (I remember the summer after the 1998 Winter Olympics, Jan had a book about Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan. At the time, I was quite the figure skating junkie, and I couldn't wait to read my first twenty hours and claim that book for my own.)

All summer, we carried around our timers so we could keep track (to the exact minute) of all the time we accumulated. We recorded our time in my mom's planner and then added it all up at the end of the week so she could sign off the appropriate number of lines on our reading logs. 

My sons' experiences with the summer reading program are very different from my own. It's still fun for them, no question, but they are not motivated to read a lot, just consistently.

We signed up for two programs since we live in an area with two different library systems. At one library, the boys have to read 20 minutes each day. At the end of seven days, they get a designated prize (for example, the first prize this year was a little prism spy glass).

At our other library, they're also supposed to do a certain amount of reading each day (the parents and child can decide on an appropriate amount). There's one prize for each month, and they can pick it up at any time during the month (in other words, they don't have to reach a certain place on their chart in order to claim their monthly prize, as long as it's all filled in by August).

As you can imagine, for kids who are already consistently reading every day, this does little to motivate them. They can just do what they've always done with the added bonus of a little prize.

At the beginning of the summer, Aaron was all gung ho about reading. He read his first 20 minutes, colored in the first little bottle on his chart and then exclaimed, "I'm going to read some more!" I had to tell him that that was great but that he wouldn't be able to color in another little bottle until the next day, even if he read another 20 or 40 or 60 minutes. "Oh," he said, deflated, "I guess I'll go outside instead."

Let me be perfectly clear: I am not criticizing our summer reading programs at all. They have a limited budget with thousands of kids participating. Of course they have to have some limits and boundaries. (I don't know how many participated in my little town when I was a kid, but I'm guessing it was only a couple hundred). Summer reading programs are great for reluctant and avid readers alike, which is why I'm talking about it as part of my Raising Readers series. I just wish there was a way to encourage the already well-established readers to read more.

Which is why I'm now turning this discussion to you. Tell me, how does the summer reading program work in your area? Our libraries both participate in the Collaborative Summer Library Program (CSLP), which I'm sure many of your libraries also do. But even with the common theme, every library utilizes it in a different way and uses different prizes and incentives. How does your library do it? Or do any of you scrap the library's program and do your own at home? Please share!

(For more Raising Readers posts, click here.)

Summer Fun: Fireworks T-Shirt

Jul 4, 2014

Happy Independence Day! We just got home from a morning at the parade where my boys were wearing their patriotic t-shirts they made earlier this week.

A few weeks ago, I saw an idea for a fireworks t-shirt on Pinterest. My kids all love craft projects, and this looked like something even my two-year-old could handle. Plus, I already had most of the supplies.

If you want to whip out a shirt of your own to wear for the fireworks tonight, you'll need:
  • a white cotton t-shirt
  • a piece of cardboard (to put inside the shirt while painting)
  • paper plate
  • spiky ball (I found these in the $1 section at Wal-Mart)
  • acrylic paint in patriotic colors

To decorate, dip the ball in paint, and then press onto the shirt. We did one color at a time, and I rinsed the balls in between.

We used three colors of paint: red, blue, and gold glitter. I painted their names along the bottom edge of the shirts.

I was hoping the boys would concentrate the paint in certain areas to make it look like separate fireworks. Instead, theirs look more like patriotic confetti. But you can catch the vision, right?

Out of all my kids, I thought Aaron (the five-year-old) was going to be the most excited about decorating a shirt. (He loves painting and dressing up for holidays, so I thought I was well on my way to becoming his favorite mom.) But when I explained what we were going to do, he said, "I don't want to paint with a ball." "But that's the best part!" I cried. "No, it won't look good. I just want to paint with a paintbrush."

I wanted to fight it because I already had everything all planned out. But then I thought, This isn't a big deal. Max and Bradley want to do it my way, so I can let Aaron do it his way. And you know what? It turned out great, and he was so happy with the result.

Review x 3: Mrs. Piggle Wiggle's Magic, Runaway Ralph, and Ramona the Pest

Jul 3, 2014

Since I haven't been brave enough yet to go many places with all four kids, we've been chillin' at home and doing a lot of reading. Consequently, we've been getting through books at a faster pace than usual, so I'm a little behind with my reviews. Here are a few thoughts on our three most recent reads:

1. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Magic by Betty MacDonald
We read the original Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle nearly a year and a half ago, and the boys had forgotten most of it. After briefly recounting a few of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's remedies, they remembered the one where the mom plants radish seeds all over her daughter's dirt-encrusted body, but that's it. From what I remember of reading the first one to them, they seemed to like this one quite a bit more. Whether that's because they're a little older now or because they liked the problems/solutions more, I don't know.

In the first book, all of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's solutions are natural, physical consequences. In this one, she resolves problems through magic:  a little box of white powder for Thought-You-Saiditis, a large black bottle of tonic for the little boy who never wants to go to school, and another powder plus two blowers for the chronic interrupters. The first book never alludes to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's magical abilities, but nevertheless, it's a fun little twist.

For my part, I think I also enjoyed this one more than the first. The chapters followed a less-predictable format, which was refreshing, and they seemed a little more connected while still being standalone stories.

But the best part for me was the last chapter. In the first book, the last chapter followed the exact same format as every other chapter before it, so it didn't really feel like an ending. But this time, the final chapter brought together all the characters in a combined effort to find buried treasure and save Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle from financial ruin (she's worked her way down to her last morsel of food). It's different than the preceding chapters since the children are all helping Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle instead of the other way around (although whether or not it's a contrived dilemma in order to help the children out of their rain-induced depression is up for debate--Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle does cry real tears of gratitude at the end, I'll give her that). Aaron and Maxwell loved this chapter: the suspense of searching through the house and finding dozens of secret drawers (all empty) culminated with Mimi's discovery of the treasure, which was bigger and better than any of them imagined.

But my very favorite line? This one, from "The Bad-Table-Manners Cure": "Gee, Lester, I hope you don't mind but I always listen to a bunch of keen radio programs at five o'clock." Who agrees that we definitely need to bring back the word "keen"?

2. Runaway Ralph by Beverly Cleary
The Mouse and the Motorcycle was the very first chapter book I read aloud to Aaron. At the time, Maxwell was too young to listen, so he'd never met the adventurous mouse, and it was so long ago that Aaron couldn't remember anything about him. So it was definitely time to revisit Ralph and his beloved motorcycle.

In this installment, Ralph is sick of the Mountain View Inn and decides to follow the bugle calls to the summer camp a few miles down the road. He's sure there will be lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to keep him well-fed, but he ends up being captured by a young boy named Garf instead (and loses his motorcycle in the process). So a cage in the craft shop becomes his home, which suits him fine for a time. But then, he begins to miss his motorcycle and the freedom to cruise in the open air. 

Ralph's relationship with Garf is very different than his former friendship with Keith. For one thing, Garf is introverted and unfriendly. He doesn't want to be at camp. Ralph wants to talk to him, but Garf makes him nervous. Ralph doesn't know if he's trustworthy. But Garf and Keith share one thing in common: they both love motorcycles, and they can appreciate a little mouse who lives out their fantasies of riding one. This provided a common link between the two books while still making them completely different stories.

When I'm reading aloud, I love using different voices for the various characters. I'm not great at it (usually my British accent comes out sounding completely unrecognizable of anything remotely British), which is why I only perform for my kids. But I have to say, once in awhile, I hit upon the perfect voice. And that happened with the character of Chum (a grumpy hamster) in this book. The first time he spoke, this combination of stuck up/bored/dignified drawl came out of my mouth, and it was just right. Love those moments.

3. Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
To say my kids are Ramona fans would be a vast understatement. If we were forced to limit our reading to one (and only one) children's series, this would probably be it. They love her even more than Henry Huggins, which surprises me since Henry owns a dog, has the same interests as them, and is, first and foremost, a boy. But I'm not complaining. I love Ramona, too. She is funny, creative, and has that little touch of naughty that is just so endearing and, let's be honest, relatable.

I often shy away from books that showcase any type of behavior I would rather not have my children mimic. But this feels different. Ramona's naughtiness, while not always entirely accidental, is nevertheless mostly innocent and harmless. But more than that, it is just so real. For example, when the boys heard about how much she wanted to boing Susan's curls, they knew exactly how she felt--not because they know someone with boingy curls per se, but because they've also felt intense curiosity about how something/someone will react if pushed/pulled/taken apart/etc. And there's nothing that will endear a character to a reader faster than empathy. 

This one takes place when Ramona is in kindergarten, and we had fun observing the similarities and differences to Aaron's past year at school. One difference? This: "Before long Mrs. Quimby and Mrs. Kemp decided the time had come for Ramona and Howie to walk to school by themselves." Sadly, times have changed.

Beverly Cleary never ceases to amaze me. In the final two chapters of this book, Ramona has a terrible day at school. She gets in big trouble for once more giving into temptation and pulling Susan's springy curls. There's nothing worse for Ramona than thinking her beloved teacher, Miss Binney, doesn't love her. So when Miss Binney says Ramona can't come back to school until she can stop pulling Susan's hair, she knows she will never go back. For days, Ramona refuses to leave the house in spite of her mother's cajoling and her sister's teasing.

But here's what makes this whole episode, in my opinion, rise to a whole new level of storytelling: at the beginning of Ramona's terrible day (before it was a terrible day), she loses her first tooth (at school, right when they are talking about words that begin with T, no less). She is beyond thrilled. She can't wait to show her family and asks Miss Binney to keep it in her desk for safekeeping. Her happiness is actually what prompts the boinging incident (she just can't contain her energy). Then of course, everything falls apart, and it is not until her walk home that she realizes she left her tooth with Miss Binney.

There was something about that little tooth that just broke my heart. At the end of the terrible day, Ramona throws one of the worst tantrums of her life (really, the writing of the tantrum scene was an epic accomplishment in and of itself). When Ramona has finally kicked and screamed herself into a state of exhaustion, she falls asleep, "after all she had no reason to try to stay awake, because the tooth fairy was not going to come to her house that night." It was little reminders of the lost tooth like that that made the days that followed not just sad but really pitiful. Honestly, if it hadn't been for that little tooth, this episode wouldn't have been half so memorable. Plus, in the end, it's the tooth that fixes everything and lets Ramona know that Miss Binney does indeed love her very much.
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