A Halloween Craft (Candle Jars) and a Book

Oct 31, 2014

For a simple Halloween decoration, try making these candle jars with your kids. They're easy and spooky and the possibilities are endless.

Halloween is not even close to my favorite holiday, but since having kids, I enjoy it much more than I used to. Ever since Aaron was born, we've planned our costumes around a theme (this year we're going as pirates), and I'm hoping my kids will humor me with this tradition for at least a couple more years.

Fall break was earlier this month, and since Mike couldn't take any time off work, we didn't have any really exciting plans.  But out of all my kids, Aaron is the one who just lives for crafts, so I knew if I had just one thing for us to make, he would consider it a successful break from school.

I found these Halloween lanterns at Red Ted Art and thought it would be a fairly simple craft. Plus, my kids love decorations, and, I'll admit, I do very little decorating for Halloween, so now they'll at least have one thing they can pull out every year.

If you're looking for a way to fill the hours before trick-or-treating tonight, you might give these Halloween candle jars a try:

What you'll need:

Glass jar (we used a couple of mason jars and an old olive jar
Orange, green, or white tissue paper
Mod podge
Foam brush
Black paper

First, tear all of the tissue paper into pieces--the more irregular, the better.

For a simple Halloween decoration, try making these candle jars with your kids. They're easy and spooky and the possibilities are endless.

(The night before I wanted to make this, I went through all the supplies (all five of them) in my head to make sure we were good to go. However, the next morning when I went to get the tissue paper, it wasn't where I thought it was supposed to be. I could find some white and green, but no orange. I had no desire to run to the store with four kids in tow (these are the times when I wish my mom lived next door) just for tissue paper. In my search through the house, I found some orange crepe paper left over from a trunk-or-treat several years ago. So we used it instead. It didn't hold up to the glue quite as well as the tissue paper, but hey, it worked and saved me a trip to the store.)

Put down a layer of mod podge on the jar. Arrange the pieces of tissue paper on top (some overlap is good).
 For a simple Halloween decoration, try making these candle jars with your kids. They're easy and spooky and the possibilities are endless.

Go over all the tissue paper with another layer (or two) of mod podge. Aaron could do most of this on his own (but not without a big glue mess all over the table), but the other two needed quite a bit of help.

For a simple Halloween decoration, try making these candle jars with your kids. They're easy and spooky and the possibilities are endless.

Cut out pictures or jack-o-lantern shapes for the front. For the silhouettes, I just printed them, and then we cut them out. For the jack-o-lantern, I freehanded it out of black cardstock.

 For a simple Halloween decoration, try making these candle jars with your kids. They're easy and spooky and the possibilities are endless.

Put the pictures where you want them and then mod podge over the top.

Let it all dry. Put a candle (or in our case, a tealight) in the bottom and enjoy the spooky light while reading a scary (or not-so-scary) book.

Like this one:

The Midnight Library is a super sweet book that can be read at anytime of the year, but it's especially fun for Halloween.

I reserved very few Halloween books at the library this year. I don't know why. I guess I just wasn't feeling it.

However, I did check out this new book by Kazuno Kohara. We love her other Halloween-esque book, Ghosts in the House, and The Midnight Library was delightful as well.

It's about a little librarian who works in a library that is only open at night. The story focuses on one night in particular when some of the patrons forget to use their library manners. The little librarian finds creative and kind ways to help them with their problems.

The story itself is fine and cute and all that, but it's the illustrations that make this book a real treat. A limited color palette (light orange, blue, and black) with the characters being outlined instead of colored in makes these pictures fun and different to look at. I seriously would like to frame four of them and put them up as Halloween decorations.

I hope all of you have a safe Halloween filled with yummy treats, awesome costumes, and fun neighborhood activities.

What are your Halloween plans for the day?

KidPages: Blizzard by John Rocco

Oct 29, 2014

I don't know about you, but our fall has been pretty much perfect: clear, sunny days, comfortable temperatures, and beautiful colors. (This is the first fall since we moved into our house, and I am loving how the big bush in front (the one Mike threatened to cut down) burst forth in fiery red brilliance a couple of weeks ago.)

With the weather cooperating so nicely, it seems a little wrong to talk about a book called Blizzard, but . . . it's coming, folks. And from what I've heard, this winter is going to be a doozy.

Blizzard is based on actual events from the author's childhood during the blizzard of 1978. On a Monday afternoon the snow started to fall, and when it finally stopped, there was forty inches of it on the ground. At first, it was fun: the kids went outside and played in the deep drifts and then came back inside to hunker down with a mug of hot chocolate. But after a few days, the novelty wore off and everyone started to worry about when the snowplows would finally clear the roads so they could get to the grocery store for food. John decided to stop waiting and do something about it. He strapped two tennis rackets to his feet, took up his sled, and trudged the long way to the store. And finally, almost a week later, the snowplows arrived and dug out the town

I liked John Rocco's popular Blackout (it won a Caldecott Honor in 2012), but I loved Blizzard.

Part of it was nostalgia. I grew up in northeastern Colorado (out on the plains), and the snow doesn't know how to fall straight down there--only sideways. I can still remember making our own trek through the storm to get to the grocery store. (In our case, I don't think the blizzard had gone on long enough to make us worried about running out of food, but there was something in particular we wanted (probably hot chocolate) and the roads were not driveable, so we bundled up and walked.)

I remember another time when the blizzard came on a Sunday, so we couldn't go to church. Instead, we put on our snow clothes and walked a block away to our adopted grandma's house. I can still remember what it felt like to push against the whipping snow and what a contrast it was to enter her warm, cozy house and feel the plush (peach) carpet under our numb toes.

But you don't have to have survived your own blizzard to enjoy this book. The illustrations are enough to make you feel like you're experiencing it right along with John Rocco and his family: from the stop sign nearly covered in snow (along with the complementary words, ". . . and I thought it would never stop") to the fold-out page of his route to the store to the gorgeous sunset on his return trip home.

My kids loved it too. For them, it was partly the novelty since I don't know that they've ever seen a real blizzard. (Snow, yes. Blizzards, no.) Plus, reading this in October made them super duper excited for the coming change in the weather. (Last week, I found them bundled up in all their winter gear even though it was 75 degrees outside. Silly boys.)

So for now, go out and enjoy the last beautiful days of autumn. And then, when the snow and wind and the cold comes, comfort yourself with this delightful book.

P.S. For more snowy reads, check out this post or this one.

P.S. Many thanks to Disney-Hyperion for a review copy of this book. All opinions (and blizzard memories) are my own!

Where to Find a Good Children's Book

Oct 27, 2014

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about where I went for book recommendations. I thought about that post recently and realized that, while some of it is still current (I still rely heavily on the library catalog, award lists, and book lists for new ideas), the blog section is woefully out of date.

The only two from that list that I still check with any sort of regularity are No Time For Flashcards (where I usually head when I'm planning out a preschool lesson and want a book to match a specific theme) and Everyday Reading (a blog I obsessively follow--Janssen's recent Summer Unplugged series was chock-full of new ideas for books we'd never read).

So yes, I thought it was high time to update my list and spill all of my book-finding secrets.

But first, I just have to say that the book lists that often get the most attention on Pinterest and the web are usually not the most helpful for new ideas. In my experience, those lists of 101 Best Books of All Time are usually a) made up of the same 101 classics that have been praised and mentioned for the past 25 years (classics? yes, read them; new ideas? not so much) or b) recommended without ever having been read by the person recommending them.

If you feel like you keep running into the same recommendations, I would definitely start following some of these blogs. You won't be disappointed.

1. What Do We Do All Day
I've lost count of how many times I've mentioned Erica's blog (but hint: it's a lot), but this list would be incomplete without her blog on it. If you're a fan of the list format, Erica's the book blogger for you. She has lists on Books to Inspire Artistic Creativity, Science Fiction Picture Books, and almost any other subject you can imagine. She also highlights her favorite new books from the current year (usually in quarterly installments) and (one of my favorite things) she features lesser known books from decades past. But the best thing of all? She only recommends books she has already read and loved with her two boys, so you know they're going to be good.

2. This Picture Book Life
Danielle's blog is eye candy for picture book lovers. Seriously. Go ahead, click over, and you'll see what I mean. She does a regular book pairing series (basically a list of books on a certain subject) as well as talks about the life and work of  various picture book authors. She knows how to present picture books as their own art form, and I always find good ideas when I scroll through her posts.

3. Growing Book by Book
Jodie's blog is a great resource, not only for finding new picture books, but also for book extension activities and crafts. (Also, her facebook page is a wealth of current literacy ideas of all kinds.)

4. The Picture Book Review
I used to look at this blog all the time, and then there was a period of several months without any new posts. But, I'm happy to say, since the spring of this year, Tiffa's been posting regularly once more. Her reviews follow a very structured format, which makes them really easy to read and glean the essential bits from. Plus, she always links to other reviews of the book, and I love being able to find them all in one easy spot. (Also, check out her list of favorite Halloween books for a timely read.)

5. Read-Aloud Revival
I was not a podcast listener until a couple of months ago. But when I found the Read Aloud Revival podcast, I was instantly hooked. Sarah McKenzie talks to educators, parents, and authors about the benefits of reading aloud and how to build your family's culture around books. (Basically, she's a kindred spirit from afar). I can't listen to an episode without feeling rejuvenated and inspired (which can be a bad thing if I'm listening at 10:30 pm--it makes it REALLY difficult to fall asleep.) Sarah is well-spoken and engaging and relatable, and I always get fantastic ideas for new books to read. My favorite two episodes so far are with Ken Ludwig and Alice Ozma.  

6. A Fuse #8 Production
Betsy Bird is the New York Public Library’s Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She regularly reviews picture books (usually new ones), has written her own picture book, and is a great source for interesting book news. Her writing is engaging and witty, and I'm dying for the day when I can go to New York and hear her speak.

7. J House Vlogs
My good friend, Kendra, recently started a daily vlog with her family. As part of that, she has, what I think is going to be, a regular feature showcasing their favorite finds at the library. There are only two library episodes so far, but this is definitely one I'll be keeping my eye on. Kendra has excellent taste in books, and I trust her recommendations completely. (Plus, she has four kids--almost all the same ages as mine--so we are at a similar place where kid's lit is concerned.)

8. Jen Robinson's Book Page
Jen is a voracious reader (seriously, I don't know how she gets through so many books), and her thoughts are both insightful and honest. Another perk is that she's not limited to just picture books but explores a wide range of levels and genres.

Of course, I haven't even mentioned where I go for middle grade and adult recommendations (I have many sources for those too!), nor did I talk about any of my favorite blogs in general (because, believe it or not, on occasion I do read about things not related to books). I'll save those for another day.

And now it's your turn! Where do YOU go for tried and true book recommendations?

The Power of Everyday Missionaries: The What and How of Sharing the Gospel by Clayton M. Christensen

Oct 26, 2014

I don't normally post on Sundays, but this seemed like an appropriate review for the day.

If you know anything about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (i.e., Mormons), it might be that we focus heavily on missionary work. In fact, I don't know of another religion that devotes so much attention, time, or money on spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  No matter where you live, there's a chance you maybe have run into, or had your door knocked on, by Mormon missionaries.

The stereotypical missionaries are clean-cut young men in dark suits with name badges, but young women also serve missions and so do senior couples. It is expected that every young man who is worthy and able will devote two years of his life to sharing and teaching the Gospel. While young women are not under the same obligation, their service is still valued and appreciated.

Several of my family members have served missions: before my mom got married, she served in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Mike served in the West Indies. One of my brothers served in Sydney, Australia. Another brother served in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And I have another brother who is currently serving in Fresno, California.

 My brother, Gordy (on the right), serving in Australia

I did not serve a full-time mission. At that time, young women weren't able to serve until age 21 (the age has now been lowered to 19), and I got married when I was 20. However, all members of the Church are encouraged to share their beliefs with their family, friends, and acquaintances (David O. McKay, who served as prophet of the Church from 1951-1970, coined the phrase, "Every member a missionary.")

But sometimes it's difficult for me to share those beliefs because I'm worried about being overbearing or offending someone or even finding the right words to clearly explain some of our doctrines. Plus, I live in Utah where there is a much higher concentration of members of the Church, and so it's easy to assume everyone has already been asked a million times if they want to know more about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I'm worried I might seem pushy, even though my motives for wanting to tell other people about my beliefs are pure (for more about why ordinary members of the Church want to talk about the Gospel, read or watch this excellent talk by Elder David A. Bednar).

And now that I've told all that, you might not be surprised to hear that I would read a book called, The Power of Everyday Missionaries: The What and How of Sharing the Gospel. Because, let's be honest, even though I strongly believe in the doctrines and practices of the Church, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to share those beliefs with others.

My brother, Ben (on the right), serving in Pennsylvania

Honestly, I might not have picked up this book if it hadn't been the assigned reading for a family reunion last month. In fact, I maybe began reading it a little halfheartedly. I think I was a little worried it was going to be really intense and make me feel guilty if I'm not delivering Books of Mormon to all of my neighbors.

But in fact, it did just the opposite. It talked about how to share our beliefs in as natural and authentic a way as possible (and let me tell you, knocking on my neighbor's door with a Book of Mormon in hand is not authentic or natural (at least for me).

Clay Christensen talked about including the tenets of our faith in normal, everyday conversations, which I definitely feel like I do both here on this blog and in real life. Going to church, reading the scriptures, and praying are so ingrained in my daily habits, it would be virtually impossible for me to censure myself and never bring them up. If I'm talking about my life, then I'm talking about my faith because I can't separate it from who I am.

I really appreciated Clay Christensen's emphasis on discovering the questions of interested family and friends. Missionary work is not formulaic; it is individual and personal. It wouldn't be productive or even helpful for me to launch into an explanation of temples if my friend is really just curious about why we don't drink alcoholic beverages.

 My brother, Steve (wearing glasses), in the missionary training center (he is now serving in California)

I also really liked his thoughts about keeping an open mind and never pigeon-holing people into prescribed boxes of "definitely interested," "probably interested," "would never be interested." Only the Lord knows peoples' hearts. And so it's important to live our lives authentically (as I mentioned before) and not hide that authenticity from those we think might be offended by what we have to say.

Within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have many organizations that present many opportunities to serve and teach others. For example, Relief Society is the organization for the women. Besides meeting together on Sundays, we have weeknight meetings approximately once a month where we learn a new skill, listen to a speaker, or participate in a service project. These meetings are a time for women of all faiths to come together and learn from one another, and I'm grateful that other women in my community are willing to share their talents and expertise in these types of settings. In this book, Clay Christensen devotes an entire chapter to the importance of asking for help from people outside of our faith. This gives them a chance to see what the Church is like from the inside and also gives us a chance to be blessed by other people in our community. He said, "Even though many prosperous, comfortable people don't feel like they need religion, almost all of them have a need to help other people."

For those individuals who are investigating the Church and taking the missionary discussions, I was really impressed with his counsel to thoroughly teach the practices of prayer, scripture reading, Sabbath observance, etc. He said, "When investigators repeatedly fail to keep . . . commitments [such as reading The Book of Mormon or praying], we and the missionaries are prone to conclude that the investigators really are not interested. But often investigators don't do these things because they don't know how." I feel like these principles of teaching, guiding, and showing are vital to all, whether we've been members of the Church our entire lives or not. In the Church, all positions are filled by volunteers, and sometimes I think we err on the side of less instruction instead of more. We assume people will know how to lead the music or teach Sunday School and so don't provide them adequate training.

With all of these points, Clay Christensen provided personal examples. These were not only enjoyable to read but also helped me see how to apply certain advice to real life situations.

 My mom (in the blue dress) serving in New Mexico in 1982

If you are not Mormon but have questions about the Church, I would encourage you to seek out an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (such as myself!) rather than searching for answers on the internet. Even if it's just to satisfy your curiosity on a certain point, I would love to hear and answer your questions. Feel free to send me an email: sunlitpages {at} gmail {dot} com.

And if you are Mormon, then I would definitely recommend this as a great resource to help you reach outside your comfort zone and share those beliefs that you hold most dear and precious.

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

Oct 24, 2014

If you want me to read a book, just tell me it's a cross between Jane Eyre and Rebecca. Suspense? Mystery? Romance? Gothic ambiance? Sign me up. Please.

When Linda Martin arrives at the Château Valmy, she is greeted with austere, but kind, hospitality. She is to be the new governess to Philippe de Valmy, a nine-year-old boy who recently lost his parents in a tragic accident. He is the heir to the Château Valmy, but his Uncle Léon and Aunt Heloise have long been the caretakers of the estate. Soon after her arrival, strange things begin happening--a shot in the woods, a crumbling balustrade--and Linda is determined to protect her charge at any cost, all while wondering where the handsome Raoul fits in this dark plot. 

I mentioned this book on my reading list for October. At the time, I hadn't read it yet, so I didn't know for sure if it would be a good book for fall (and incidentally, I decided to save Greenglass House, also on the list, because after I picked it up, there just seemed to be too much of winter and the holidays in it to suit my reading mood). But now that I've finished it, let me tell you that if you like your fall reading flavored with suspense and danger (oh yeah, and elegant estates as well), then this book is perfect for the season (even though it's actually set in the spring).
I'd never read anything by Mary Stewart before (although one of Mike's cousins had recommended her to me on several different occasions), and now I'm wishing I didn't already have a half dozen other books checked out from the library waiting to be read because I would love to go out right this minute and pick up The Crystal Cave or The Moonspinners. I found her writing really engaging (my one complaint was that she tended to bump up against the superlative quite a bit, which made every event, even the more mild ones, feel intense).

One of my favorite descriptions was of Monsieur Florimond, a famous designer who the family knows well: "He wore his conventional, superbly cut clothes with all the delicate care one might accord to an old beach towel. His pockets bulged comfortably in every direction, and there was a cigar ash on his lapel. He was clutching what looked like a folio-society reprint in one large hand, and gestured with it lavishly to underscore some story he was telling Madame de Valmy." Florimond was probably my favorite of the secondary characters.

I thought about writing this whole review without alluding to important details to the plot, but I couldn't do it. So if you plan on reading this book, read no further! I repeat, stop. reading. now. Go to the library and get the book instead.
I've thought a lot about the genre of suspense since finishing this book and what makes a novel suspenseful. Obviously the situation and setting both contribute. Midway through the book, you know without a doubt there's a plot against Philippe for his life; just the idea that someone wants a little nine-year-old boy dead instantly ramps up the terror.

But it's more than that. In this particular book, once everything is finally revealed and settled out, the reader discovers (along with Linda) that for most of the day, Philippe wasn't in nearly as much immediate danger as Linda suspected. After I finished, I felt a teensy bit let down, and it took me a minute to realize it was because I felt a little annoyed about my pounding heart over nothing. (Okay, not nothing. The danger and evil were real, just not as lurking-around-every-corner as I was led to believe.)

But then (sorry to drag you along through my whole thought process), I thought, But Linda didn't know. She had to go with her gut instinct, and honestly, even though the level of danger all but disappeared by mid-morning, if she hadn't stolen away with Philippe in the middle of the night, real tragedy might have occurred. Because the story's being told from Linda's point of view, her fear becomes the reader's fear. I only had as much knowledge as she did, and I was scared right along with her. 

Speaking of fear, I loved this line: "I suppose a rabbit stays still while death stalks it just because it is hoping against hope that this is not death."

So I came to the conclusion that the actual risk means little in a suspense novel. It's all about how the characters perceive their own safety and security because if they feel threatened, then the reader will too (although, in this case, I definitely think there were a few blatant implications made to lead the reader astray).

Written in the 1950's, Nine Coaches Waiting also provides an interesting commentary on the times. Linda Martin herself is a strong female lead who risks her own security to provide safety for a little boy. She stands up for herself and doesn't hesitate to break the rules. At one point, after promising Berthe that she won't go to the police, she says, "I didn't let the promise Berthe had blackmailed from me weigh with me for a second; being a woman, I put common sense in front of an illusory 'honor,' and I'd have broken a thousand promises without a qualm if by doing so I could save Philippe."

But the other female characters are not so bold. Madame de Valmy is on the fringes of a complete mental collapse by the end of the book because she has been manipulated and used by her husband. And it appears that even Linda does not have the highest regard for the other members of her sex because when William Blake asks her who Berthe is, she says:"Oh, nobody. Just one of the nobodies who get hurt the most when wicked men start to carve life up to suit themselves."

Before I wrap this up, I just have to write a few words about Raoul de Valmy. I honestly wanted to like William Blake more than him. If it were me, I know I'd rather have kindhearted William than passionate Raoul. But try as I might, I couldn't actually make myself cheer for William. Raoul (tall, dark, and handsome) was so stereotypical, I begged myself to dislike him, but I couldn't. Against my better judgement, I was very happy with the way things ended up. Not practical, but very romantic.

While Nine Coaches Waiting didn't trump Jane Eyre or Rebecca, it was a delicious mix of suspense and romance, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.

Review x 2: The Trouble With Magic and Hank the Cowdog

Oct 22, 2014

The boys and I recently finished a couple of books. They weren't standout stories by any means, but I wanted to write about them anyway.

1. The Trouble With Magic by Ruth Chew
Erica at What Do We Do All Day recently posted a list of 12+ Books for Kids Not Ready for Harry Potter. She included Ruth Chew's books on the list, and they looked like something my kids would like, so I checked out The Trouble with Magic. On further investigation, I realized that I'd actually read several of her books when I was a kid (Summer Magic and The Witch at the Window among them). Many of them have recently been re-released with new covers, which is why I didn't recognize them right off.

This particular story is about two siblings (Barbara and Rick) whose parents are conveniently away the same weekend they accidentally release a wizard from a bottle (yes, a wizard--not a genie). The wizard (named Harrison Peabody) uses his umbrella to perform magic, which means he can only do it when it's raining. Needless to say, this results in a lot of trouble because the weather can be a little unpredictable.

Personally, I didn't love this book. For one thing, Harrison Peabody creeped me out--not because he was actually creepy but because, fantasy or not, I didn't like it that two children were being asked to hide and care for an adult.

For another, the story had no depth. The children met the wizard, had a few mishaps with magic, fixed what they could, and then Harry went off to traumatize other children left. As far as chapter books go, it is on the young end, which might be why it felt a little bland, but I've read enough books at that level to know that it's not impossible to write a good story for the nine and under crowd. So yeah, a little disappointing.

That said, my kids liked it quite a bit (especially the parts with George, the sea monster), and I didn't hate it so much that I wouldn't read another one by Ruth Chew. (And I definitely didn't hate it so much that I won't urge my kids to read the rest of her books on their own.)

2. The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog by John R. Erickson
I have this distinct memory of myself as an eight-year-old, wrapped up in my pink quillow (that's a quilt that can turn into a pillow, for those of you who were never privileged to own one), sitting on top of the heater vent in the little corner created between the couch and the loveseat, (a habit I acquired young) and reading, Hank the Cowdog. It's a sweet, happy memory--one that I longed to recreate for my kids.

And so I checked out Hank the Cowdog.

. . . I should have stuck with pink quillows and heater vents and left Hank out of it.

In short, Hank is a cowdog and the Head of Ranch Security. One morning, he wakes up to find there's been a murder overnight: a chicken is dead, and he's determined to find out who did it. 

Why didn't I like it? Let me count the ways:
  1. Hank is rude. ("Idiot," "Stupid," and "Dumb" are among his favorite insults.)
  2. Hank has a potty mouth. (I talked about how much I dislike this type of talking in this review. There was a lot of editing on my end, yes there was.)
  3. It is violent. (There is an epic fight at the end, and I was disturbed by how much they said, "I'm going to kill you" and "You're going to die" and talked about tearing out each other's throats. I'm grateful it didn't give my children nightmares.)
  4. They get drunk and engage in other obnoxious and disreputable habits. All the characters are all-around, horrible role models. 
  5. When it wasn't any of the above, it was super cheesy with lots of slap-stick humor and idioms that went right over my kids' heads.
So you're probably wondering why I read the whole thing.

Because my kids loved it. So embarrassing to admit, but it's true. I begged them to let me stop reading it, but they were so excited to find out what happened. In between readings, they talked about it: "Remember when Hank and Drover were teasing Bruno, and his owner came out of the store, and they laid down and pretended they were asleep? Wasn't that so funny?" And the night we finished it, Aaron said to me, "Wasn't that such a good book?" I was completely honest and told him I didn't like it at all, but I was glad he enjoyed it.

The only thing I liked about the book (and it's really taking a lot of effort on my part to come up with anything) was the voice I used for Missy the coyote. I really nailed it, if I do say so myself.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh on poor Hank? Which books have you muscled your way through because your kids liked them?

I Just Got a Whole Lot Smarter

Oct 20, 2014

Last week I left the Dark Ages.

I bought a smartphone.

I went from this:

to this:

Even though I didn't get an iPhone 6, it was still quite the major upgrade, as you can see.

For years, I prided myself on not needing a smartphone. In fact, as recently as six months ago, my little phone with its pull-out keyboard and horrible camera and no internet capabilities suited me just fine.

When I read Tsh Oxenreider's thoughts from Notes From a Blue Bike, they rang true for me: "I was a late adapter to the smartphone phenomenon [She got her first one in October 2012. What does that make me two years later?]; I found them a colossal waste of money and brain cells. People honestly need to carry around their computers in their pants? I can live without that. I'm civilized."

My thoughts exactly.

But then little things started to bug me: I'd be at the zoo with my kids, and I couldn't take a picture of them next to the lions. Mike and I would be out on a date, and we couldn't look up restaurant ratings. I'd go to send a text to someone and be reminded again that my inbox was 98 percent full, even though I had just cleaned it out two weeks before.

What's more, it began to be a social inconvenience. Friends would text me a picture, and my phone couldn't receive it because it was too big. I'd be out shopping with someone and couldn't pull up an address or a coupon. I'd be scheduling a play date but couldn't look at my calendar to see if we were free on Monday afternoon. (Not to mention that people felt a little awkward when I pulled out my dinosaur so I could add them as a contact . . . except for my little five-year-old piano student who saw my phone laying on the piano one day and said, "That is the coolest phone I've ever seen!" in the same way you might say, "That is the coolest typewriter I've ever seen.")

This holding out until the last possible moment is nothing new for me. I was a late arrival to the cell phone party. My freshman year of college, I called my parents every few days from my dorm phone with a calling card. When I finally got a phone, I can remember rationing my minutes, finding out which service all my friends used, and limiting my calls until after 9:00 at night (when minutes were free). Pretty soon after that, I was the only one not texting. Even though my phone could receive texts, I never opened them because extra fees would be charged if I did. I had to constantly remind people, "I don't open texts. Please call instead." But eventually, the inconvenience grew to be too much, and I finally caved (which, for an introvert like me, was definitely a good thing since I much prefer texting to calling).

Over the last few months, I have felt the same nudging irritation I felt before. I only knew of one of my friends who still used a dumb phone, and honestly, one of the reasons I kept holding out was because I would think, If Jen can do this, so can I. But then, a couple of months ago, even Jen showed up to book club with a smartphone, and I knew it was finally time (plus, I had secured the bragging rights of resisting the pull of the smartphone longer than she did . . . as if that's anything to brag about).

Since getting the phone last week, I've been rather like a kid at Christmastime. I delight in badgering Siri with questions. I gape when I take a picture and it identifies where I am. I thrill at the simplicity of downloading a podcast and listening to it instantly. Even though they've been around for years, I am newly amazed at what this tiny little device can do for me.

Last Wednesday, I was shopping at Michaels. I was there to purchase a jar of mod podge. The cost was $8.99, and it wasn't on sale. I wish I'd remembered to bring a coupon, I thought. Bing! Light bulb went off. I reached into my back pocket for my phone, pulled up a 40-percent off coupon, and waited nervously in line. Act casual, I told myself. "I have a coupon," I told the cashier and showed him my phone. I watched in breathless anticipation as he scanned the bar code. $3.60 saved, just like that. "Thank you," I said demurely. It took all my self-control not to click my heels as I walked out the doors. I'd only had that phone for two days, and it was already saving me money!

Strong Mothers, Strong Sons: Lessons Mothers Need to Raise Extraordinary Men by Meg Meeker, M.D.

Oct 17, 2014

A couple of years ago, my dad told me about a book he was reading called Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters. He liked it so much and was learning so many good things from it that he was even having monthly discussions about it with another father. It sounded fantastic, but seeing as how I'm not a father nor do I have any daughters, I didn't feel a strong pull to read it.

But then earlier this year, I saw that Dr. Meeker had just written another book called Strong Mothers, Strong Sons.

And that was something I could get behind.

This book explores it all: from babyhood to adulthood, Dr. Meeker talks about every stage and transition as well as the broader picture of what mothering sons looks like. There's a chapter about how to make your home a safe place where your son can learn how to express himself, make good choices, and live responsibly (and actually, this idea of home = mom = love permeates the entire book). Another chapter gives suggestions for how you as a mom can help him connect and form a lasting relationship with his dad. There's also a chapter about the importance of letting go and how to do it appropriately when he's a toddler, a teenager, and an adult. 

By the time I finished reading it, my book looked like this:

So to say that I found value in it would be an understatement.

I'm pretty vocal (both in real life and online) about how much I love having boys. I think part of the reason I'm so vocal about it is that, as someone who began motherhood thinking I'd like to have all girls, to this day I'm still surprised with how satisfied, happy, and absolutely content I am with all boys. (See, On Having Four Boys for more about how much I love having only sons). It's not just that they're my own flesh and blood (although that certainly helps); it's also that I find their interests and personalities so fascinating and entertaining (and so wildly different from my own).

But one thing that I've said all along is that while I love having little boys, I'm terrified for them to grow up: I feel inadequate to deal with the struggles and temptations of boys. I worry that once they hit puberty they'll stop talking to me. And okay, if I'm being totally honest, I'm jealous of the girl each one will fall in love with someday who will steal all their affection and leave me the despised mother-in-law. (Incidentally, I have no grounds for this belief since I happen to love my mother-in-law and have never felt the least resentment from her for marrying her son.)

I regret to say, this book basically confirmed all those fears, BUT it also gave me tools for how to deal with those important transitions and gave me hope that many of the painful parts of adolescence are necessary to raise a kind, successful, and confident man.

One of the things I wasn't expecting (but that was a pleasant surprise) was the religious undertone of the book. There's even a chapter called "If God Wore Lipstick, He'd Wear Your Shade," which focuses on a mother's impact and influence on her son's spirituality. While I didn't agree with all of Dr. Meeker's beliefs, I agreed with this idea that mothers need to be firm in their own testimonies so that as their sons navigate the tricky waters of belief, they'll have a rock to lean on. The following quote is one of the many that I bookmarked:
"The best way a mother can teach her son to have hope is to lead by example. When you are down and feel that the future looks dark, you can articulate to your son, regardless of his age, that you have faith that things will ultimately work out well. This is far easier if you have a religious faith. If you do, you can hold on to a belief that God is real, that He is good and that He can be trusted with your life. Faith allows you to keep hope more concrete because it helps you put your trust for your future into the hands of a more powerful being than yourself."
On a similar note, I also loved Dr. Meeker's thoughts about how having a strong core belief helps our sons (and daughters too) in those unavoidable moments when we, as parents, fail. It helps them to know that even though we might not be perfect, there is Someone who is and that even though we might make mistakes, there is Someone who won't. Even though I still have young children, I can see how helping them have confidence and trust in Someone other than myself would really empower them.

At one point, Dr. Meeker said that in those moments when we're failing and unsure of what to do, we can tell our sons that we need to pray and seek guidance from God. And then she said this: "Then ask your son to pray for you, just as you pray for him." For some reason, that was really eye-opening. I'd never thought to ask my children to pray for me during those times when I'm struggling to be patient, but I can see how this would be a really good thing, especially for my four-year-old who currently thinks I don't do anything right.

Another thing I really appreciated was the conversational tone of the book. Even though Dr. Meeker is a pediatrician and draws heavily on her experience with patients for much of the book, she is also a mom (of three daughters and one son). Of course she spoke from a professional viewpoint, but for much of the book, she just spoke as a mom . . . a mom who, just like myself, has made mistakes and worried and been afraid. I loved that she was able to write from both sides. It made the whole book much more authentic and made me trust what she had to say.

While I found all of the practical tips very helpful (and I will surely be revisiting the chapter titled, "Sex on the Brain and What My Mom Says" again and again in the the next 20 years), it was the overall message of unconditional love that really impacted me. Dr. Meeker said, ". . . our sons want to know--need to know--that if they did nothing else for the rest of their lives but sat in a closet, we would adore them."

I can't even tell you how many times I have thought about the importance of unconditional love over the last four months (the length of time it took me to read and think about and digest this entire book). It's safe to say it has changed the way that I parent.

Of course, if you'd asked me a year ago, "Should you (and do you) love your children unconditionally?" I would have said yes. Of course yes! That's an easy question in theory, but I don't think my actions fully reflected this belief. My kids are still young enough they're not even capable of making any really big mistakes yet, but I think I was still subconsciously withholding my love from them when they'd throw a tantrum or hit each other. In the last few months, that has changed. Now, even when they're having a complete meltdown at the zoo and screaming about how much they dislike me (that may or may not have happened this week), I try to still let them know (either through words or gestures or both) that I still love them.

I want them to know that they could have a dozen tantrums at the zoo and make me look like the worst mom on the planet, but that that love isn't going anywhere. It doesn't matter what they do or say, I will always, always, always love them for the simple reason that they are my sons. It doesn't mean that I won't teach them or discipline them or guide them. But if in the end, they don't heed any of my efforts, that love will still be there. It isn't tied to any action or accomplishment. It just is.

Yes, I loved this book. Yes, I hope I remember how to talk to them when they're angry or encourage them when things go badly. But if I end up forgetting all the details and only remember the importance of love, it will be enough.

Many, many thanks to Random House for a copy of this book. All opinions are entirely my own.

KidPages: Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

Oct 15, 2014

It's my turn to teach preschool next week, and I still haven't decided which picture book to base our lesson on. However, in my search for the perfect book (our theme for next week is space if you have any good suggestions!), I stumbled across an old favorite: Stuck by Oliver Jeffers.

I know I'm not alone in my admiration for Oliver Jeffers' work, and this one might well be my very favorite (although he has a new one out this year (Once Upon an Alphabet) that I'm dying to take a look at).

It's about a boy named Floyd who is spending a carefree day flying his kite when he steers it a little too close to a tree and, as kites often do, it gets stuck. So Floyd does the only thing he can think of: he throws his shoe at it to knock it loose. But that gets stuck, too. Without giving it much thought, Floyd begins chucking anything he can get his hands on up into the tree: a bucket of paint, a ladder, a chair. And they all get stuck. Gradually, the items being launched get bigger and more and more ridiculous until there is no more room left in the tree, and then . . . well, you'll have to read it to find out what happens.

The story travels from the likely (what kid hasn't thrown something--be it kite, ball, or frisbee--and gotten it stuck?) to the far-fetched (a kitchen sink? really?) to the truly unbelievable (I'm going to draw the line at the blue whale). Because it begins with such an ordinary event, the subtle transition to the absolutely ridiculous is all the more hilarious: a cat is pretty funny, but the mailman? Now that's funny

The illustrations, which look like they've been lifted from a sketchbook and then enhanced with color and detail, are wonderfully original. Who would have thought you could fit a house, a big boat, and a lighthouse, along with a dozen and more other things, into a tree? My kids are amazed every time we read this book: no, there's no way, no possible way, that's going into the tree! whoa, I never would have believed it . . . It's quite the feat of imagination and skill to get that many objects into one tree.

This is one of those books I can read to my kids again and again and never complain about because it's funny, it's not too long, and the pictures give a little more each time.

P.S. Check out this fun video of Oliver Jeffers himself reading this book:

P.P.S. And, to be inspired by other people much more creative than me, take a look at this adorable dress inspired by the book, complete with detachable items.

P.P.P.S. Have you read this book before? What's the craziest thing you (or your kids) have gotten stuck in an unreachable place?

Current Obsession: Puzzles

Oct 13, 2014

We have a new obsession around here: It's PUZZLES (as in, the jigsaw variety).

Back in June when we made our summer goals, you might remember that they were broken down into three categories: educational, practical, and fun. In the fun department, the boys decided to improve their puzzle skills.

We took their current abilities and upped them just a little. Bradley's skills had been restricted to puzzles within a frame, so he made the goal to complete a 24-piece free standing puzzle. Maxwell went with a 100-piece puzzle. And Aaron's goal was to complete a 200-piece puzzle.

It helped that, coinciding perfectly with these goals, my mom came out for a visit to help with baby Clark and took the boys to the store and let them pick out a 24-piece, 100-piece, and 200-piece puzzle, respectively. Nothing like a brand-new dragon puzzle to provide a little motivation.

Within a couple of weeks, all three of them had completed their puzzle goals. But the puzzle frenzy didn't stop. They took apart their puzzles and did them again. Then they took them apart and did them again. And again. And again.

They dug out all our old, forgotten puzzles and put them together. Aaron's birthday came mid-summer, and he received four puzzles as gifts. We visited my parents in Colorado and borrowed another stack.

And still the frenzy continued.

About a month ago, Bradley's skills began to improve rapidly. He was getting bored with his 24-piece options and so branched out to 48-pieces. Then he got bored with those and tried one with 60-pieces. Then he did one with 100-pieces. And finally, just last weekend, he completed a 200-piece puzzle. All by himself. I was kind of in shock.

(As a side note, my mom has long bragged about my younger brother doing a 200-piece puzzle when he was two years old. I was kind of hoping Bradley would knock him from his pedestal, but alas, Bradley turned three two weeks before doing a 200-piece puzzle. My brother's fame is safe. (At least until Clark gets a little older . . . ))

Anyway, the only person that hasn't jumped fully on the puzzle bandwagon is Mike . . . until last night, that is.

Earlier in the week, I found a 500-piece puzzle at Saver's. It was mint in the box and depicted an adorable autumn/Halloween scene--perfect for this time of year. I thought it would be fun for us to put together as a family.

Truth be told, I became a little addicted to it. It was just so relaxing to kneel on the floor and look for matching patterns and shapes. Mike laughed at me every time he saw me snapping pieces together . . . especially when there weren't any children in sight.

But then, last night after the kids were in bed, I sat down to do it, and pretty soon Mike came over and put in one piece, and then another, and before he even knew what was happening, he'd felt the magnetic pull of "just one more piece." He couldn't stop, and neither could I, and we conquered that 500-piece puzzle. Just the two of us. It was so much fun. He claims it was just because he wanted his wife back, but I know better.

At the beginning of the summer, I thought the puzzle obsession would just be a phase that would end after the boys became bored with their new puzzles. But now we're four months in, and I can't tell that it's ending anytime soon. (If anything's going to end it, it's going to be Clark. Once he starts moving, I highly doubt he's going to let us keep a puzzle out on the coffee table without disturbing it.)

It's not uncommon for us to have one or two puzzles in progress with two or three more waiting "on deck" under the table. The boys love putting one together while I read aloud to them in the evening, and it's also a great quiet time activity.  Once they've finished a hard one, they like to take apart one corner or several rows on an edge and do them again. It's the activity that just keeps on giving, and I hope it never stops.

Any other puzzle lovers out there? How do you incorporate this activity into your daily life? Do you have a specific spot in your home set aside for puzzles-in-progress? Which brands do you like the best? With Christmas just around the corner, I'm going to start stocking up . . . don't tell Mike!

On Saying the Wrong Thing (and Maybe the Right Thing, Too)

Oct 10, 2014

We have become so worried about saying the wrong thing that sometimes we don't say anything at all. And that's the bigger tragedy. Say something and we open the door of friendship.

As someone who is perpetually terrified of saying the wrong thing, you'd think I'd be grateful for lists such as, "10 Things Not to Say to [pregnant women, new moms, infertile couples, grieving friends, breastfeeding moms, single acquaintances, etc. etc. etc.]. But no. Rather, they increase my anxiety: if there are that many things I can't say to that many different people, then what can I say and to whom?

Has the old adage of "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all" been condensed to "Don't Say Anything"?

I'm seeing these types of lists and advice posts more and more frequently, and every time I do, I cringe just a little. I have to wonder: In eliminating all the questions, advice, and comments that might be taken the wrong way, are we silencing the very words which might bind us together and deepen our connections with one another?

An obvious response to this would be, Just make sure you're saying kind words. However, the thing about these lists is that, taken one at a time, most of the off-limit comments are not truly mean.

It may be true that if you ask a new mom how her new baby is sleeping at night, she might take offense. Perhaps she only got a combined total of thirty minutes of sleep the night before, and she's sure your question is really your way of rubbing in the fact that your baby slept through the night at two weeks old. So if you follow the advice to never bring up a baby's sleeping habits around a new mom, you won't run the risk of offending her. But then again, if you avoid the topic, you will most certainly miss the opportunity to let her cry her exhausted tears on your sympathetic shoulder. And if I had to choose, I'd say the latter is the greater tragedy.

Mike has an abundance of aunts (seriously, who wouldn't want an abundance of aunts?!), all of them kind and experienced and wonderfully wise. One time one of them said (and I'm paraphrasing) that we have to be willing to talk about the weaknesses that make us feel vulnerable because that's how we connect with one another. And that's true. But in my opinion, it is equally important to ask the questions or offer the words that make us feel vulnerable. It's hard, but sometimes we have to risk saying the wrong thing in order to ever say the right thing.

Of course I've received my fair share of comments that seemed tactless, thoughtless, or even rude. For the sake of illustration,  I'll give one small example, one that (happily for you) isn't steeped in too much emotional drama:

Aaron started first grade this year. He's going to a different elementary school than the one we're zoned for. During the past several months, I've had friends, neighbors, and family members ask me where Aaron is going to school, and when I tell them, they're always very curious about our decision. Consequently, I always feel like I have to add a dozen justifications for why he is going to that school instead of the one in our neighborhood.

Maybe I should write a post: 10 Things Not to Say to a Mom Who Has Just Spent an Entire Year Trying to Decide What To Do For Her Six-Year-Old Son's Education. Because sometimes, I admit, I've felt a little defensive.

But if I wrote that post, and if you read it, and if you applied everything you read and avoided the subject of education completely, I would truly be missing out--on the chance to hear another perspective, to hash out my doubts and insecurities, and to discover commonalities. And I wouldn't miss out on that for the world.

Okay, one more example. Yesterday I looked out on the backyard to find that Maxwell had turned on the hose. Again. All summer long, he's been turning it on, getting himself all wet, and leaving it running until I discover it many hours later. I've told him again and again that he can't turn it on without asking me. So I informed him that he'd have to go inside. And he proceeded to run away. Of course. He ran into the front yard, and our neighbor, who was watching, laughed and said, "He'll be grown up before you know it."

I'm pretty sure that comment is on all of the 10 Things Not to Say to a Mom of a Four-Year-Old lists, especially if you've never had a to deal with a four-year-old of your own. But oh, I'm so glad Kristy obviously hadn't read or applied that advice. If she'd made some safe comment about the beautiful weather or just pretended not to see me, I know I wouldn't have had any reason to smile in that moment. And sometimes, a little smile to diffuse the tension can go a long way.

Of course there are some things you should never say to new moms or old dads or anyone else, but I would hope you wouldn't need a list to know what those things are. And the truth is, the kinds of people who like to make mean-spirited comments are going to make them regardless of a list being out there that says that they shouldn't.

In the end, we're just imperfect people making imperfect connections. So please, ask me about my baby's sleep patterns or my children's education. Remind me that small ones grow up too fast and that life is too short. I'll do the same, and together we'll strengthen those life-saving, life-giving, and live-enriching ties.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Oct 8, 2014

Sometimes I'm kind of in disbelief over the books I didn't read when I was a kid.

This is one of those books.

While I feel some sadness and regret that I didn't get to experience the magic and wonder of it all when I was little, I did get to experience those same things as an adult and alongside my children no less, which might be even better.

I don't know that a summary is necessary since I can't imagine anyone is unfamiliar with it (even I, who didn't read it until the ripe ol' age of 29 (and a half), still knew most of the characters and plot twists since I watched the movie adaptation (the one starring Gene Wilder) a few times as a child). But for the sake of habit and as a refresher before the rest of the review, here's a recap:

Charlie Bucket leads a poor (and hungry) life. He lives with his mother and father and four (yep, four) invalid grandparents. Money is scarce, which means that food is too. Charlie gets one lovely bar of chocolate every year for his birthday, and other than that, it's watery cabbage soup.

One day, it is announced that Willy Wonka (owner of the infamous and tightly sealed chocolate factory) has hidden five golden tickets in his candy. The lucky finders of these golden tickets will be granted a never-before-seen tour of the factory (as well as a lifetime supply of candy). Of course, Charlie would love to be one of those winners, but seeing as how he only gets one chocolate bar in an entire year, his chances are slim.

Meanwhile, four other children (gluttonous Augustus Gloop, spoiled Veruca Salt, gum-chewing addict Violet Beauregarde, and TV fanatic Mike Teavee) all find one of the tickets. Then finally, at practically the last possible moment, Charlie is miraculously able to purchase an extra two bars of chocolate and uncovers the last golden ticket (cue enthusiastic cheering from my kids).

The children (and their escorts) arrive at the factory, but one by one each succumbs to temptation until only Charlie is left and Willy Wonka reveals the real prize of the golden tickets.

And just like that, this book earned a place in our (much coveted) list of favorite readalouds. It had all the right things going for it: championing of the underdog (there are many cheer-worthy moments for Charlie), never-before-thought-of-crazy ideas (insert teleportation of a candy bar), an amusing and unusual cast of characters (Violet Beauregard anyone?), and (need I even say it?) . . . candy (I know my kids' mouths were watering in several places). In other words, this is one book that couldn't help but become an instant favorite.

Out of all the characters I've read aloud, Willy Wonka was one of the most entertaining ones to date. Everything he said carried a lilt and excitement with it while being tinged with a slightly sarcastic (and sometimes reproachful) edge. I know my kids didn't pick up on Willy Wonka's sarcasm (in fact, I don't exactly know how they perceived him--to them, he was probably just a fun-loving guy who really was deeply surprised and horrified when Augustus Gloop was sucked up the pipe), but he was cracking me up. His welcoming words to Veruca Salt had to be some of my favorites: "My dear Veruca! How do you do? What a pleasure this is! You do have an interesting name, don't you? I always thought that a veruca was a sort of wart that you got on the sole of your foot! But I must be wrong, mustn't I?" I feel like Willy Wonka's the kind of character you could write a good English paper on if given the chance.

Speaking of English papers, I'd like to read a few with opinions on the following subjects:
  • Is there a villain? And if so, who is it? Are the children the villains? Is Mr. Wonka the villain? Or is human nature (with accompanying temptations) the villain?
  • Does Charlie have a test? Obviously, all four of the other children are confronted with that thing they most desire (Augustus - an endless supply of sweets; Veruca - something she can't have; Violet - a radical new kind of gum; Mike - television). But what is Charlie's temptation? Or is the whole experience one big temptation because it is the polar opposite of everything his life has been comprised of thus far?
  • What purpose have the grandparents? Tell me it doesn't seem strange that all four are confined (permanently) to their bed? Tell me it doesn't seem strange that Grandpa Joe is suddenly imbued with youthful health and vitality once something fun and exciting is finally happening to the Bucket family? Sounds like a big group of moochers to me.
So if any of you have any thoughts about those particular points, I would welcome your insight in the comments!

And finally, I have to say that while I loved reading this book aloud, the Oompa Loompa's songs about did me in. They were so long! And I couldn't come up with a good tune that didn't drive me crazy with its repetitiveness! Maybe I shouldn't have tried singing them? But how could I not sing them when it was well-broadcast that they were songs? That said, I think we're going to memorize the one about television (but as a poem, not a song).

If there's one thing I've learned about reading aloud, it's that the more I do it, the more I'm committed to it and the more I absolutely love it. A few years ago, I thought I loved reading aloud, but it was nothing to how much I love it now. And this book only increased it further.

Raising Readers: Taking Turns

Oct 6, 2014

Maxwell is at such a fun place right now with learning to read. We are at Lesson 80 in Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. For those who might not be familiar with this method, Teach Your Child uses an altered orthography for the first 73 lessons, meaning that the words look something like this:

In our experience, this altered orthography has worked really well as it helps the new reader see which sounds go together and which ones don't say anything at all while still helping them see all of the letters that make up the word.

Beginning at Lesson 74, they transition to a traditional orthography, which looks like this:

Reaching that milestone of 74 is always really exciting because it opens up the world of reading to them (and in our limited experience--two readers so far--the transition has always gone smoothly). By the time they get to Lesson 74, they are ready for it.

Before we reached this important lesson, Maxwell was doing a little outside reading. Now he is doing a lot. I find him trying to read things that are far above his level, and it is so exciting to see his confidence increasing as he has success reading "real" books.

I've said before that I teach my kids to read for purely selfish reasons; it's because I don't want to miss that moment where they suddenly spread those reading wings and take flight. It is absolutely thrilling to behold.

Besides continuing his reading lessons, we've been doing a lot of supplementary reading (I'll share our favorite easy early readers next month), and I've found myself falling back on a practice I used all the time when Aaron was at this stage: the technique of taking turns.

It's as simple as it sounds: he reads a page and then I read a page. Back and forth, back and forth. There are several reasons for doing this:
  • It increases the flow.
  • It aids comprehension (even if he's going too slow on his page to really catch what's happening, he can piece it together when I read my page).
  • It makes a longer book seem less daunting.
  • It's way more fun.
Of course you can use this technique with any book (I remember even using it when Aaron read his first Magic Tree House book), but nowhere is it more fun than with the Elephant & Piggie series by Mo Willems.

I've written about these books before (here are three of our favorites), and if you have a preschooler in your house, then I'm sure I'm not introducing anything new to you.

But in the last few weeks, we've been revisiting them with enthusiasm, and once again, I've been reminded with how perfect they are for this technique of taking turns. Before Max and I begin reading, we divide up the parts. Max likes to be Gerald, so usually I'm Piggie. Aside from the back-and-forth dialogue, there isn't any other text, which makes it so we're never confused about whose turn it is to read.

As an added bonus, these books are also great for teaching kids how to read with expression. Gerald and Piggie express so many emotions (fear, excitement, joy, frustration, sadness, etc.), and it's so fun to change our inflections to match what they're feeling.

As we've made our way through almost the entire series once again, I can tell you that these books are just as funny as the first time I read them. Max and I can't help laughing and laughing as each story unfolds.

Because we've been enjoying them so much, a few days ago I asked our librarian if she knew of any other books that were like Elephant & Piggie (with the speech bubbles and the back-and-forth dialogue and the small cast of characters). Unfortunately, she couldn't think of any, and the only ones I could think of were Geoffrey Hayes' books, but they're still too advanced for Max. (Incidentally, while we were searching the shelves for similar books, the librarian also told me that some parents don't like Elephant & Piggie for new readers because the speech bubbles confuse kids and make it difficult for them to learn to read from left to right. This info definitely surprised me.)

So now, as part of this taking turns post, it's your turn to share your favorite easy readers (whether or not they're similar to Elephant & Piggie) or even just your favorite Elephant & Piggie adventure. I can't wait to get more great ideas from all of you!

For more Raising Readers posts, click here.

Reading With the Seasons: Fall, October, Halloween, etc.

Oct 3, 2014

"When the furnace groaned for the first time in months, the smell of a new season filled my house. I knew it was just dust, but the smell somehow always signified the official end of summer . . . "
That's taken from Dancing on Broken Glass, and that moment happened for me just two days ago when I woke up and the house felt absolutely frigid (it wasn't, unless 68 degrees is frigid, but I could definitely sense that it wasn't summer outside anymore). We caved and turned on the furnace, and I happily sat in front of the heater vent for the next ten minutes (one of my favorite wintertime activities).

Last night, after a chilly T-ball game, Mike started a fire in the fireplace (it was our first time using it since we moved in last March). Call me weird, but I decided I'm definitely partial to furnace dust than wood smoke.

With the cooler weather, my reading has taken a turn in a similar direction. I haven't done a Reading With the Seasons post since the Thanksgiving edition last November, but as I looked through my reading pile, I realized that almost all of the books were spooky, mysterious, or suspenseful--all things I look for in a good October read.

And those books are?
  • The Art of Flying by Judy Hoffman; I reviewed this one on Wednesday, and, like I mentioned then, this is the perfect book to read in October (especially for the 12 and younger crowd). 
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens; am I the only one who thinks that, in general, a Dickens novel just lends itself really well to fall reading? I'm halfway through this classic (I hadn't read it before) and am absolutely loving it.
  • Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart; I'm just a few pages into this one, but I can already tell that it's just the kind of book I love to read during this time of year: the characters are cloaked in mystery, it's set in the elegant (but foreboding) Chateau Valmy, and danger is lurking around every corner.
  • Greenglass House by Kate Milford; this brand-new middle-grade novel has been getting tons of attention on lots of Newbery 2015 lists. I haven't started it yet, but it looks like it's actually set in winter, so maybe October isn't the perfect month to read it in. Then again, here in Utah we often get our first snow of the season in October (don't say it!!!), and it's a mystery, so it might still fit the bill.
  • The Trouble With Magic by Ruth Chew; I'm excited to read this book to my boys. Ruth Chew wrote dozens of fantasies for children, many of which sound much more Halloweenish than this one (like No Such Thing as a Witch or What the Witch Left), but this is the one we have. 

And then I just have to mention a few other books that sound like great choices for this month but that I probably won't have time for:
  • The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier; it's a Victorian ghost story--what more do you want?
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman; I'm kind of terrified to try Neil Gaiman, but I think if I'm ever going to do it, October's the month for it.
  • A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz; one of my friends really liked all the books in this series; it sounds a little gruesome, but I guess that's to be expected with something based on Grimm's fairy tales.
  • The Bone Shaker by Kate Milford; I know next to nothing about this book except that it sounds a bit creepy.
  • Doll Bones by Holly Black; even though this is middle-grade, it might be a little dark for my tastes. Has anyone read it?

And now all I want to do is grab one of these books and curl up in front of the fire heater vent.

Which books are you planning to read this month? Any recommendations for something that seems especially appropriate for Halloween?

P.S. For more Halloween suggestions, see the 2013 list and the 2012 list.

The Art of Flying by Judy Hoffman

Oct 1, 2014

I've mentioned before how much I like to read books that feel appropriate for the season. I've been known to plan out my reading months in advance just so that the proper book coincides with the proper time of year (more on that later this week).

However, other times I begin a book without knowing much about it beforehand . . . certainly not enough to know whether it is best read in September or February or June. So it makes me feel a little giddy when I start one of those books and realize a few chapters in that I couldn't have picked a better time of year for it. Such are the pleasures of a book nerd.

And such was the case with this book.

My reading of the synopsis didn't tell me that the story would take place in November with blustery winds and chill rains nor that the two old ladies would, in fact, turn out to be witches nor that a mangy black crow with a missing eye would be a loyal (and disloyal, depending on who you asked) sidekick. Yet all these things instantly flavored the book to make it perfect for autumn.

The story begins with Fortuna, an eleven-year-old girl who hesitantly offers her help to Selena and Ellie, the old Baldwin sisters. The Baldwin's house has always held a strange, spooky appeal to the neighborhood kids, but Fortuna is still surprised when she finds out they are real, honest-to-goodness witches and that they (accidentally, of course) turned a small bird into a small boy.

Now they need to transform him back before they get into big trouble with the CUE (that would be, the Council of Unnatural Events). But Martin, as they've dubbed the boy/bird, isn't so ready to be changed back. The Baldwins hope Fortuna can befriend him and thereby convince him to return to his life in the trees. But complications arise, not the least of which being that after a couple of days, Fortuna isn't entirely sure if she wants to help Martin turn back into a bird.

I quite liked the setting and the plot, and it was the perfect dose of fantasy for me: magical elements (the witches, Fortuna's notebook, the ability to fly) mixed in with normal happenings (annoying brothers, breakfast, school break). I know it's the kind of book I would have loved as a kid.

At first, I also loved the characters (Fortuna was spunky, Selena was severe, Macabra was cunning), but after awhile I felt like something was missing. By the end of the book, I'd landed upon three reasons for that dissatisfied feeling:

First, the narrative, while not exactly shifting viewpoints, didn't always stay with Fortuna. Thus, it left me feeling a bit confused. Sometimes I felt loyal to Fortuna, but then she was in bed sleeping, and all this other action was taking place, and suddenly I wondered if the story was really about Selena. There were moments when it seemed like Fortuna's presence was an afterthought--almost like, Oh yeah, she's the main character, I guess she better make an appearance even though everything is progressing smoothly without her.

Second, the details didn't always match up. For example, for most of the book, all we know about Fortuna's father is that he plays the trumpet for a living, but from all appearances (he's usually sleeping or practicing the trumpet), he seems to be a pretty easygoing guy. Then, suddenly at the end of the book, we get this other piece of him that doesn't jive with the rest of his character. He comes in from cleaning the garage, rather annoyed that no one is helping him, and says, "Fortuna--I don't see your bike anywhere. Did you leave it at someone's house again?" And then this observation: "He was really strict about them taking care of their possessions." And I thought, What? You mean this trumpet-playing, easygoing father is actually a stickler for order and organization? It was a small detail but one that seemed completely unfounded given the rest of the story.

Finally, for me, the character of Martin was rather empty, and it unfortunately made the rest of the book fall a little flat. Most of the time, he seemed like a shell with absolutely no personality. But then he would do things like squeeze Fortuna's hand or call her by her nickname, and that kind of emotional connection felt superficial.

All that being said, I would most definitely recommend this book to kids. Like I said before, it's the kind of story I would have loved at age nine or ten. And it's a book I'll definitely share with my oldest son in a year or two . . . in October, of course.

Many thanks to Disney-Hyperion for the review copy. All opinions are decidedly and definitely my own.
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