Raising Readers: The Example of an Older Child

Jan 30, 2015

The selection of our very first chapter book to read aloud was a long and agonizing process. Aaron was three-and-a-half at the time, and I was very concerned about it being a positive experience so that he would want to do it again (and again) (and again).

I finally decided on The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and I can still remember introducing (essentially, selling) the book to him: "See? This book is divided into chapters. We read one or two chapters at a time. Then we put in a bookmark to save our place and we come back to it the next day. There are only a few pictures, so you just listen and make a picture in your head instead. Isn't that awesome?!"

In the three years since that time, we've read dozens of chapter books. A few days ago, I realized, with something of a start, that Bradley is now the same age as Aaron was when I made the grand chapter book introduction.

But Bradley needs no introduction.

As the third child, he is very well acquainted with the concept of a chapter book. Although he has yet to listen to one from beginning to middle to end, he has been listening in on snippets for years. He knows Ramona and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Charlie Buckets. He knows what a chapter is (the other night, he asked, "What's the name of Chapter 7?" and when I told him, he said, "Oh! Chapter 7: Alone in the Dark. Dad! Do you know what Chapter 7 is called? Alone in the Dark."). He knows that there are only scattered pictures (and often asks, "Is there a picture yet?").

This prompted me to think about all the other things I haven't taught Bradley but he has just absorbed through the examples of his older brothers.
  • A pleasant afternoon can be spent looking through a stack of books
  • The idea that letters on the page make words
  • How to listen to a picture book
  • What speech bubbles are
  • How to listen to an audiobook
  • The library is a thrilling place
  • We treat books with respect
  • It's exciting to receive a book as a gift.
But most importantly, he has learned that reading is fun, enjoyable, and exciting. He has observed and applied with virtually no instruction from me.

Of course, it's easiest to have the "example of an older child" if that older child is a member of your immediate family. But cousins, friends, and, yes, even adults can also provide a wonderful example. In retrospect, I'm wondering if I could have utilized someone else's example a bit more with Aaron (or even now, who might provide that example for him for the new reading experiences that are still coming down the pike).

I'm very interested to hear from all of you about how the examples of others have influenced your child's love of reading? For those of you who have only children, do you feel like there was a particular person (or people) who provided an example that got your child hooked on reading? Or, like me with Aaron, have you had to make a special effort to introduce new ideas?

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

Jan 28, 2015

This is the kind of book that makes me want to start throwing around superlatives: monumental, extraordinary, miraculous. But even the superlatives pale in comparison to the sheer magnitude of this story. It is epic. (See, I can't help myself.)

It's the kind of story that should be unreal, but it isn't.

In 1914 Ernest Shackleton set off on an expedition with 27 other men. Their goal: to cross Antarctica from one side to the other (known as the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition). Their ship was called the Endurance. It was supposed to take them through the Weddell Sea and land in Vahsal Bay where they would begin crossing the continent on foot.

But it never made it that far.

As it navigated the icy waters of the Weddell Sea, the Endurance became trapped in an ice pack. Unable to escape the floes, the crew wintered on the ship. They thought they would be able to get out in the spring, but the breaking up of the ice put extreme pressure on the ship and crushed her in October 1915.

Up to that point, I was interested in the story, but in a half-hearted sort of way. Mike (who read the book a couple of years ago) kept asking, "Where are you now?" only to be disappointed at my slow progress. He finally said, "I guess it's just not that interesting to you."

But with the loss of the Endurance, things picked up rapidly until I was the one badgering Mike about it and saying (over and over and over again), "This book is CRAZY! I cannot believe this ACTUALLY happened."

Shackleton and his men survive on an ice floe for several months until it literally disintegrates around them (one of the more harrowing moments occurs when a huge crack opens up right under one of the tents in the middle of the night, and they have to find and save one of the men from the frigid water), whereupon they begin to navigate the treacherous Antarctic waters in three small boats. They alternate between being wet and frozen, nearly die of thirst, and navigate the majority of the time in the dark. When they finally make it to the uninhabitable Elephant Island, six of them leave for South Georgia for a rescue ship while the remaining men stay on the island with only the barest of supplies.

The story mounts to an unbelievable climax. In fact, if the tale was fictional, I'm afraid I might have criticized the author for taking it a bit too far, leading the readers along to the last possible, the ultimate, second. But the whole thing is true, and instead of criticizing, I'm just awestruck. There was one point where Alfred Lansing tried to convey the futility of what Shackleton and two other men were about to attempt. He said, "Not one man had ever crossed the island for the simple reason that it could not be done." He wasn't being facetious; these men were literally attempting the impossible.

As I was listening to this book, I kept thinking, How is it possible that I am a member of the same species as these men? How is it possible that we are breathing the same oxygen or that the same blood is flowing through our veins? It is incredible how much they were physically able to endure, but even more than that, I couldn't believe how well they kept up their spirits through the long ordeal, which I think is a testament to Shackleton's amazing leadership.

For example, after they lost the Endurance, Alfred Lansing noted this:
They were castaways in one of the most savage regions in the world, drifting they knew not where, without a hope of rescue, subsisting only so long as providence sent them food to eat. And yet, they had adjusted with surprisingly little trouble to their new life, and most of them were quite sincerely happy. The adaptability of the human creature is such that they actually had to remind themselves on occasion of their desperate circumstances.
One of the most tender moments for me was a scene that easily could have been left from the book. It was really rather inconsequential in the vast scope of the story, but I think it gives a glimpse into maybe why these men were able to survive with one another for so long. One day, Greenstreet (the cook) prepares their daily ration of warm milk. As he passes it around, his own portion gets spilled. He is devastated (when you have so little to look forward to, even such a small thing can be crushing). Instantly, several of the men pour a little of their own precious milk into his cup. That one scene really humanized the book for me--it not only showed that they were not immune to sadness and disappointment but also that they would band together to be kind and help out one another. Even though this particular moment had a real impact on me, Lansing filled the book with many similar examples.

I honestly can't praise Alfred Lansing's writing enough. The book was published in 1959, but it reads with all the gripping realism we've come to expect from more recent books like Unbroken. After finishing, I was so disappointed to find out that he didn't write any other books during his lifetime. One of my very favorite lines came after Shackleton and two of his companions slide down a mountain. He said,
"They were breathless and their hearts were beating wildly, but they found themselves laughing uncontrollably. What had been a terrifying prospect, possibly a hundred seconds before, had turned into a breathtaking triumph. They looked up against the darkening sky and saw the fog curling over the edge of the ridges, perhaps two thousand feet above them, and they felt that special kind of pride of a person who, in a foolish moment, accepts an impossible dare and then pulls it off to perfection."
I listened to the audio version of the book, and Simon Prebble carried out Lansing's words brilliantly. His voice rose and fell with the intensity of the situation (and there were times when I thought he couldn't possibly get any more animated, but I was wrong). He made each of the characters come alive with different and distinct voices. In short, he was the perfect narrator for this story.

I fully intend on buying our family our own copy of this book. Even though my oldest child is only six years old, I've already started collecting ideas for when he is in middle school or high school and looking for new reading material. This is one book I want to have readily available and on our shelf. It is exciting and intense without being dark or disturbing. (I keep wanting to compare it to Unbroken, but where I wouldn't feel comfortable with a 13-year-old reading that, I would be completely okay with a 13-year-old reading this. Man vs. nature is infinitely easier to read about than man vs. man.) With a home full of boys, I have a feeling our copy will be quite battered and bruised in ten years.

Early in the book, Alfred Lansing quotes this praise: "For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you're in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton." Now that I've read this story, I can see why someone would say such a thing. Although not a perfect person by any means, Shackleton knew how to keep up morale and how to make impossible decisions. It was an unbelievable, but very inspiring, story.

(Oh, and if you're feeling a little down about January, this book does wonders with helping you see you actually don't have it so bad.)

Skills Overload

Jan 26, 2015

I'm not shy about admitting that I have a least favorite stage of early childhood.

It runs from approximately eight to eighteen months. It is the stage of constant motion and no sense; tantrums and whining; and BIG messes. It requires constant supervision. It is an exhausting time of life (and not just for the child).

I thought Clark was going to give me a few months of leeway. For weeks he has had little interest in moving (believe me, there's plenty of entertainment around these parts without moving a single inch). In fact, he was perfectly content to just sit on the floor surrounded by a half dozen toys (and since the other three boys all learned to crawl before they could sit up, it was a stage I was fully relishing).

And then . . . Clark learned to do practically everything in the span of a single week.

I'm still reeling.

Last week, Clark learned how to:
  • go from lying down to sitting up all by himself
  • roll over with the rapidity of a steamroller
  • spin around in circles
  • chow down on finger foods
  • pivot from sitting to hands/feet and back to sitting
  • pull himself to standing
  • perfect the downward dog position
  • scoot forward and backward
  • cough-cry and blink his eyes whenever he's upset
  • only be satisfied with cords, paper, and iPhones as play toys
  • crawl on hands and knees
None of my other boys ever learned so much so fast. In true fourth-child fashion, Clark caught us all off guard and pulled a fast one ("You think you know everything about babies? Well, watch this!"). Seriously, when he started crawling on Saturday (like, the real hands-and-knees deal), all I could do was gape. We thought we still had weeks, if not months, before we had to worry about the troubles that come with a baby in motion, so we have literally been scrambling to baby-proof the house.

Oh, and did I mention that Clark decided to learn all these things on little to no sleep? He went from napping 4-6 hours during the day to a whopping hour (or less).

When I put him in his crib, it's as if he doesn't know what to do with all his new-found energy and skills. He sit up; he lays down; he stands up; he falls down; he rolls around; and he cries and complains the entire time. One afternoon last week, I peeked in on him after he finally quieted down and found this:

Unfortunately I didn't feel like I could leave him in that position, so I laid him back down, and he woke up (of course).  

So say hello to the new Clark. I think he just lost his status as favorite child.

KidPages: Red Sled + Extension Activities

Jan 23, 2015

Remember long ago when I used to write up my lesson plans for Max's (and before that, Aaron's) preschool? I actually still have a few that I want to put up (my Olympics-themed lesson from last February was pretty awesome. But who cares about the Olympics in 2015? No one.), but no promises that it will ever happen.

You might wonder though why I haven't been writing up the lesson plans from this year's preschool. Well, it's a long story.

After Clark was born, I decided that I wasn't really interested in participating in another preschool co-op, at least not for this year. I think I was just a little burned out, and having a new baby gave me a great excuse. But guess what? June is not a good time to start registering for preschool. In fact, it's a little embarrassing because everyone's like, "Don't you know you should have registered back in January?" Plus, there are zero slots available.

In spite of putting Max on a couple of different waiting lists, August rolled around without any options. So when a friend told me about a preschool co-op in my neighborhood, I jumped at the chance to participate.

It is the most laid-back, relaxed preschool co-op I've been a part of. It meets once a week for ninety minutes. In some ways, this is great: planning is a snap and my turn only comes up about once every six weeks. But in other ways, I'm missing the structure and the extra time to run errands with only two kids during the week. Still, it's something, and we're enjoying it.

But anyway, I no longer have the long, extensive lesson plans of years past. However, I do have short little extension activities, and today I thought I'd share the most recent ones with you.

One of our favorite wintertime books is Red Sled by Lita Judge. In it, a little child props a red sled against the house at the end of a long day of sledding. A passing bear sees the sled and decides to take it for a joyride. Pretty soon a moose, rabbit, possum, (two) raccoons, porcupine, and mouse have all joined in on the wild ride. The next morning, the child can tell that something crazy (and wonderful) (and exciting) happened during the night.

It is mostly a wordless picture book (with just a few exclamatory remarks from the animals as they fly down the hill). There is little need for words because the animals' expressions capture it all: the joy, the thrill, and the fun. (I have two favorite illustrations--a closeup of the porcupine hanging onto the moose's antlers while his quills blow back in the breeze and one with a tiny silhouette of the entire group all towered one on top of the other.)

It's a pretty lively tale and one that I knew all the kids in our group would love.

After we read it, I taught them a little finger play called "Here's a Hill."
Here's a hill (tilt one arm to make a hill)
And here's a hill (tilt the other arm to make a hill)
All covered with snow (bring hands gently down like it's snowing)

I'll put on my coat (pretend to zip it up)
And jump on my sled (hold onto a pretend rope or jump)
And zoom! down the hill I will go! (clap hands and make hands slide down)

Then they made their own red sleds. I free-handed a sled to look like the one in the book (although my kids thought it looked more like a robot) and then gathered together all our red craft supplies: sequins, paint, foam letters, glitter glue, markers, crayons, yarn, and beads.

Then the kids filled in the white space with all things red, making it a red collage of sorts.

Finally, the title of the book, Red Sled, naturally lent itself to a rhyming game. I borrowed this game from my Snowmen at Work preschool lesson (and I originally got the idea from No Time For Flashcards). I already had all the sticks made, and I just added one more group of rhyming words to go with the -ed ending.

I passed out a stick to each child and then, one by one, I helped them figure out which jar to put their stick into. Most of them needed quite a bit of help. I narrowed it down to two choices: "Do you think "car" sounds more like "tar" or more like "Ted"? And then, if they needed a little more help, I would squeeze the words together: "Car-tar? Or car-ted?"

My four-year-old absolutely loved this game, and I need to just get it out and let him sort all the sticks by himself.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on Red Sled or other winter picture books. Please share!

Nancy and Plum by Betty MacDonald

Jan 22, 2015

We have long been fans of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (click here for our reviews of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Magic), but did you know that Betty MacDonald wrote another book for children, not at all connected with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's cures and fixes? I certainly didn't until it showed up last month on Erica's list of Christmas Chapter Books to Read Aloud. I was intrigued and thrilled when our library had a copy (it helped that it was re-released in 2010) and immediately checked it out, hoping to have time to read it to the boys over the holiday break.

Although Christmas factors prominently in the story (that's how it begins and then ends, one year later), we weren't sad to have our reading of it extend into January. In fact, I think you could enjoy it during almost anytime of the year (although December is certainly the most magical).

Nancy and Plum (her real name is Pamela) are sisters and orphans. When their parents died when they were little, little girls, they were left in the care of an uncle who, unfortunately, knew absolutely nothing about children and was quick to pass them off to the care of Mrs. Monday, mistress of a despicable boarding house. Mrs. Monday is the quintessential villain: she feeds the children burnt oatmeal and prunes, makes them do inordinate amounts of work, and takes away any fun they are looking forward to. (One day, when my four-year-old was mad at me, he said, "You are so mean. You are even meaner than Mrs. Monday." It was the worst insult he could possibly think of.)

One day, Nancy and Plum find a box in the attic. It is addressed to them. Although it is empty, they can tell that it once contained two dolls--one blonde, the other dark. It seems suspiciously coincidental that Mrs. Monday's niece (the repulsive Marybelle) received two such dolls for Christmas.

But the ultimate injustice comes when Uncle John arranges a visit to the boardinghouse, and Mrs. Monday deliberately keeps Nancy and Plum away. The two sisters have had it, and they decide to take their fate into their own hands.

First of all, this is exactly the kind of book I would have loved as a child (forgive the italics--I'm currently reading Emily Climbs, and I just can't seem to help myself). The camaraderie shared by the sisters, Mrs. Monday's cruelty, the thrill of the escape, and the happy ending all would have spoken to the heart of my little girl self. So if you know any nine-year-old girls (or boys!), hand this to them immediately.

Aaron and Maxwell loved it. In fact, after the girls run away, there is a chapter called "Back to Mrs. Monday's," and the boys could hardly stand having to go to bed when it was obvious that something quite awful was going to happen in the next chapter. And when Plum dumps the goldfish bowl on Marybelle's head and then apologizes by saying, "I'm sorry I put that little goldfish bowl on your head. I wish it had been bigger and with a shark in it," oh, how they laughed. (I had to read it twice.)

Okay, now that I've spoken from the children's perspective, I'm going to give you the mom's perspective, which is this: Nancy and Plum are not all docile and innocent. They are feisty. There are several nods to Frances Hodges Burnett's A Little Princess (Miss Minchin and Mrs. Monday seem to be long-lost evil twins), but there's one major difference: Nancy and Plum do not have Sara Crewe's same respect for authority nor her same aptitude for kindness. 

They are kind to the other children (except Marybelle) and also the adults who show them kindness and love (Miss Appleby, Old Tom, the Campbells, etc.), but when it came to the difficult personalities, they never took the higher road. I was rather disappointed by that. I wanted them to stand up for themselves, but I wish they'd done it in a respectful way. There was even one character (Mrs. Gronk, their Sunday School teacher) who wasn't even mean to them--she was just a grumpy old lady with a cold--and they made so many rude comments behind her back.

I'm not saying they weren't driven to it a bit. Given their treatment, their actions were certainly justified. And I really did like their (especially Plum's) spunk. I didn't want to tamp down that indomitable spirit. But I think I kept wanting to cheer for them a bit more, and it was hard to do when they kept calling Marybelle names and complaining and saying other nasty things.

So that's my take on it. My kids loved it, and for the most part, I loved it too.

P.S. And if there were ever characters you just wanted to give a giant hug to, Mr. and Mrs. Campbell would be it. You should read the book just so you can get to know those two.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Jan 19, 2015

Even though I've been wanting to read a book by Jojo Moyes for quite some time now, I was kind of avoiding her on purpose. I had an inkling from reviews I'd read that I wouldn't be completely comfortable with some of her content.

But when my book club chose this book for January, I knew this was my chance. It just gives a book a higher purpose when you know you're going to be able to discuss what you liked and didn't like with other people. Plus, out of all the books Jojo Moyes has written, this is the one that most interested me.

Sadly, my inkling proved correct: it was full of language and a few (thankfully, not very explicit) sexual scenes. For that reason, it's probably not going to be one that I recommend very often (if at all), but there was a lot to think about and discuss.

Will Traynor has his life exactly where he wants it: he is successful and wealthy, athletic and adventurous with a beautiful girlfriend. But one day, while simply crossing the street to catch a taxi, Will is hit by a motorcycle and becomes paralyzed from the neck down.

Two years later, Louisa Clark is looking for a job. The little cafe that she has worked at for the past six years is closing, and there aren’t many other jobs in Lou’s little tourist town. But one day a job is posted asking for someone to be a companion for a disabled man. The position doesn’t require medical training, so Lou applies (and is subsequently hired).

Of course, you can probably already guess that the disabled man is Will (not the elderly gentleman Lou is expecting). He is cynical, rude, and arrogant. Lou spends the first couple of weeks telling herself to just hang on and endure. The position is for six months only, and Lou’s parents are really dependent on her income so she knows she needs to stick with it.

But then a couple months into the job, Lou discovers why she was only hired for six months, and she becomes bent on helping Will rediscover his will to live in spite of his permanent dependency.

If you had presented Will’s choice to me before the book—live with his disabilities or willingly end his life—it wouldn’t have even been a choice. Given my religious beliefs, life should always be chosen. We were sent to earth to experience trials and experiences that help us learn and grow and ultimately become more like God. We do not get to choose when we die, only how we will live.

But wow, if you take religion out of the equation (which this book effectively does, even though both Will’s and Lou’s mothers are somewhat religious), the choice becomes so much grayer and harder to define. Will is living a life vastly different from the life he wants to live. He can’t do the things he loves, even little outings are huge ordeals, people stare at him, and he is constantly at risk of infection, illness, or other complications. I could turn off my own convictions for a minute, and yeah, if you didn’t believe that there was more to your life than this short little blip on earth, then I could totally see why you might not want to put yourself through years of torture and misery.

But then, at the same time, I couldn’t. Even looking at it from a purely secular point of view, there was still so much more to consider than just one person’s selfish interests—things like family and friends and living for others instead of just yourself and the challenge of learning new things and creating a good life with what you have.

Lou’s life is a striking contrast to Will’s. She’s 26-years-old and has lived her entire life in a tiny little tourist town with almost no ambitions, and yet she is physically able to do anything. Will has done almost everything a person can do but now is confined to a wheelchair without even the use of his hands and arms. So really, this story becomes as much about Lou making the most of her life as Will making the most of his. And I really liked that aspect of it (although I found Will's attitude of "You need to make something of your life!" rather aggravating since he refused to make anything of his).

My least favorite character in the book was Patrick, Lou's long-term boyfriend. I felt like he was created for the sole purpose to dislike so that everyone would be so happy when she fell in love with Will instead. Making him so disagreeable, self-centered, and oblivious to Lou's happiness seemed totally unrealistic. They'd been in a happy relationship for seven years, but a few months before the book starts, Patrick becomes obsessed with building his body for extreme sports and doesn't give Lou very much time or thought. The whole thing was turning sour as just the right time, and it felt a little contrived to me.

I already admitted in my 30 things post that I dog-ear pages. When I read something I like, don't like, or want to remember, I gently turn a little corner down. Then, when I sit down to write my review, I go back through all the dog-ears, and it helps me focus and organize my thoughts. Usually the book is riddled with dog-ears, but when I went back through Me Before You, I found only three (and two of them were on the same page and reserved for a different post I want to write). For some reason, that's really telling to me. I liked the book, I found it thought-provoking, but in the end, I guess there wasn't much I particularly wanted to remember.

If you've read this book, I'd love to hear your opinion of it!

Bradley's Signature

Jan 16, 2015

There's something so magical about writing your own name. I'm sure I'm not the only one who, at 14, practiced my signature over and over again, tweaking it here and there to give it just the right flair.

When I started dating Mike, I often found myself doodling in the margins when I was supposed to be taking notes: my first name followed by his last name--just to see what it might look like.

With each of my children, it has been an exciting milestone to see them learn to write their own names. It gives them a sense of ownership to be able to see in print that thing that is so crucial to their identities. Even if someone else has the same name, no one else has the same signature. It is one of the few things that is uniquely theirs.

Ever since reading Brown Girl Dreaming late last year, I've been thinking about how being able to write your own name opens the door to a whole new world of possibilities. This poem, entitled "On Paper," made me think of my three-year-old's primitive signature, still wobbly and unsure but definitely all his own: 
The first time I write my full name
Jacqueline Amanda Woodson

without anybody's help
on a clean white page in my composition notebook,
    I know

if I wanted to

I could write anything.
When he first began writing the letters of his name, I thought about taking the easy route and shortening his name to "Brad." The extra three letters required to make it "Bradley" just seemed unnecessarily daunting. But we so rarely call him Brad that it didn't seem fair that he couldn't be Bradley on paper as well as in person. So we went for the full seven letters.

I still find myself coaching him through the letters ("a circle with a tail," "a line and a little hump," etc."), but I no longer guide his hand. I love seeing his name scrawled at the bottom of a page or arranged haphazardly across the middle of a picture, and I'll be a little sad when those letters eventually tighten up into something the rest of the world can recognize.

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond

Jan 14, 2015

Sweet, little, accident-prone Paddington was almost a complete stranger to me. Somehow I knew that he liked marmalade (I guess when you're as iconic as he is, something of your hobbies, interests, and passions gets around) but little else. Aaron, Max, and I enjoyed getting to know him together.

The Browns find him in Paddington Station. He's a bit lost, having just arrived from Darkest Peru and not knowing a soul in London. The Browns take him in and call him Paddington (since they can't pronounce his Peruvian name), and pretty soon he becomes like one of the family. He is very polite and kind and grateful, but somehow he manages to get into the most interesting of scrapes (my favorite being when he accidentally gets into the store window and knocks down the entire display but ends up drawing such a crowd that the storekeeper is thrilled with the mess he made). It's easy to see why generations have loved Paddington.

I have to admit, my recurring thought through the entire book was this: Is there not a soul in all of England that thinks it's somewhat unusual for a small bear (one that can talk, no less) to be adopted by a human family? This line, which comes just after Mrs. Brown finally finds Paddington (who got lost in the subway station), cracked me up:
[The inspector] started after the retreating figures of Mrs. Brown and Judy with Paddington bringing up the rear and then he rubbed his eyes. "That's funny," he said, more to himself. "I must be seeing things. I could have sworn that bear had some bacon sticking out of his case!"

The inspector did not say, as I was expecting him to, "I must be seeing things. I could have sworn that was a bear holding onto that case." No, it's the bacon that surprises him.

I guess I wouldn't have wondered at everyone's acceptance of Paddington if there had been any other talking animals in the book. But from all appearances, he was the only one. No one else had a bear for a pet, and the only other animal that was ever mentioned was the dog who trailed after Paddington's bacon (and a dog trailing after bacon didn't seem the least bit unusual). For all its unbelievability though, I liked it. A bear like Paddington deserves to be the only one of his kind.

This was actually a really difficult book to read aloud. I try to differentiate between the different characters by giving them different voices. Naturally, since Paddington is from Darkest Peru, it seemed like he should get a Peruvian accent; and since the Browns reside in London, they all needed British accents. But I have a hard enough time managing one accent, and the interchange between the two just about did me in. Every time we sat down to read it, I felt like I was experimenting with it all over again, so I wasn't at all consistent. And it never sounded the least bit realistic. I have the audio version on hold at the library (Maxwell loves to re-listen to books (over and over and over again) after we've read them), and I'm looking forward to hearing someone else read it.

One of the best parts of the book for me was the postscript. I'm just like my mom in that I love a good back story, and it was interesting to learn that Paddington was created as a remedy for writer's block. Michael Bond was doing the writer's version of doodling--just trying to get something onto that blank sheet of paper--and he happened to choose the stuffed bear that was sitting on their mantle as his subject. He liked that first random paragraph so much that he continued to write, and ten days later, he had a book.

One evening while the boys and I were reading, Mike came into the living room and I asked him if he'd ever read Paddington. He said, no, he didn't think he had, but then asked, "Is he the one who likes marmalade?" I'll tell you what, that marmalade is memorable.

Weekend Festivities

Jan 12, 2015

 turning 30 calls for a cheesy photo

I had a different post planned for today, but then my weekend was so different from what I was expecting (in a good way) that I thought I'd share.

On my birthday (thanks for all the birthday wishes, by the way! they made my day!), Mike ended up taking me out to lunch while my mother-in-law watched the kids (thanks, Jill!). Since it's extremely rare for me to be without children in the middle of a weekday, that alone made for a pretty great birthday.

birthday card from aaron

Our original plan was to celebrate on the weekend, but since Mike took me out on my actual birthday, I was pretty sure he would count that as "the celebration." I'm not criticizing his birthday planning, but with it following so close on the heels of the holidays, he's usually a little burned out by the time it rolls around. Plus, I had already had a cake when we were in Colorado with my family, so it didn't seem like there was any celebrating left to do. Time to get on with being 30.

That's what made the weekend so awesome. Each little happening was a new surprise.

On Friday evening, Mike took me shopping. We still haven't purchased anything because the thing we went shopping for was . . . a bedroom set! The decision is proving to be a bit difficult. In all our years of marriage, our bedroom furniture has consisted of: a mattress on a bed frame (no headboard, etc.), a dresser purchased from the classifieds, a nightstand Mike made in high school, a three-drawer rubbermaid organizer, and a cedar hope chest Mike's parents gave me when I graduated from college. So it's going to be pretty incredible to have a bedroom that actually looks like it goes together. I might actually enjoy being in my room!

On Saturday afternoon, I got to meet one my blogging friends, Melanie, from Melthoughts. It has been fun to be friends online (we share several of the same interests, reading being the most prominent one), but I discovered it's even more fun to meet in person. We met at RubySnap, a cute little cookie shop with unlimited samples. I ended up ordering the Judy, a soft cookie full of orange zest and topped with cream cheese frosting (it will sound disloyal after recently admitting to my deep devotion to chocolate chip cookies, but it was incredibly delicious). We spent an hour chatting, and Melanie was just as nice in real life as she is on her blog. (And I realized after I left that I didn't get a picture of us; I totally meant to.)

I came home from the afternoon relaxed and happy. When I opened the back door, the house was still and clean and quiet. I don't need to tell you that in our house, such a combination is extremely rare. My senses were on high alert as I walked into the living room and saw the banners, seconds before hearing, "Surprise!" and seeing Mike, my boys, and all of my Utah siblings jump out from their hiding places. It was my first-ever surprise party, and I really was surprised.

birthday cake from "the store"

Yesterday we had another party with Mike's family. There are seven January birthdays (yes, seven! who knew it was such a popular birthday month?), and Mike's sister made every single birthday person (even the two that weren't there) their own cake. She kind of takes things up to the next level. Even though all the little kids (including my own) seemed to be a little more ramped up than usual, it was so fun to be with some of my very favorite people.

five of the seven january birthdays, with mark holding a facetime call with one of the missing guests of honor

And finally, a few presents worth mentioning:
  • My friend, Shauna, showed up on the night of my birthday with a big plate of chocolate chip cookies, still warm from the oven. I was in heaven.
  • My kids all made me birthday cards, and my heart just about melted when I read the inside of Aaron's: "Mom you are the nicest mom ever. I can't ask for a better one."
  • A homemade bookmark from my brother. His wife and I were trying to figure out the best way to use it since it's too short for a regular-sized book, but it's the thought that counts, right? 

It was just an all-around fabulous weekend, and even this wet, dreary January Monday can't dampen my mood.

A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes From My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg

Jan 9, 2015

Our flight to Australia was 12 hours long. It began at 10pm on Wednesday and ended at 8am on Friday. We crossed over the international date line sometime in the middle of the night, which effectively eliminated Thursday, November 20th, from our lives forever. (It's so weird to see that date missing from my journal, not because I forgot to write but because I didn't get to live that day.)

Several times during that endless night, I tried to begin the audio of A Homemade Life. It was dark in the cabin, and I didn't feel like being the only light disrupting people's sleep or movie watching, so I thought listening to a book would be the perfect solution. However, every time I turned it on, I fell asleep within five minutes. I couldn't fall asleep without it, but I couldn't stay awake with it, so I heard the first five minutes probably five times before giving up entirely for the rest of the trip.

When we got home, I considered just returning it to the library since it didn't seem to hold my interest very well. But I thought I should give it a fair chance in the daytime, fully awake, when my sense of time and place weren't severely warped.

And what do you know? It was actually super interesting and engaging and very enjoyable to listen to. And it's about food. Bonus.

When Molly Wizenberg was growing up, her father liked to say, "You know, we eat better at home than most people do in restaurants." (I heard that sentence almost a dozen times since she mentions it twice in the introduction, and, as I explained above, I listened to the introduction multiple times.) Her family loves food. And they love to create it, not just eat it.

Molly is the only child from her father's second marriage. She has three (much older) half siblings, but she basically grew up as an only child. She was always very close to her parents (as evidenced by an essay she wrote as a teenager describing their midnight raids on the kitchen), and so when her father is diagnosed with cancer, it is absolutely devastating.

While she certainly spends a fair bit of time on her father's illness and the effect it has on her, she also talks about the years she spent in Paris, the development of her blog, and dating her eventual husband, Brandon. Every story, regardless of the actual subject, begins and ends with food. Her wedding, for example, carries with it all the normal planning and stresses . . . but also pickled grapes. (Brandon loves vinegar, so they spent hours together pickling red onions, carrots, and grapes for their rehearsal dinner.)  I have to admit, I was more intrigued than disgusted by the thought of pickled grapes.

This book is loaded with recipes. I didn't count them all but it has to be at least 45 since there's one (or more) at the end of every chapter. (I've heard that her second book, Delancey, contains only 12 recipes, which just seems paltry when compared with this one.) Molly's descriptions are mouth-watering. She can make anything sound absolutely delicious, including the aforementioned pickled grapes.

After I finished listening, I checked out the actual book from the library because I was dying to try the "Banana Bread with Chocolate and Crystallized Ginger" (which I did, and, mmmmmm, scrumptious, it begged "to be cut into big, melty slices" just as she said it would). One of the disappointing things for me about the audio was that the recipes were not read, so even though I could usually tell which recipes Molly was sharing, and I still got her thoughts and descriptions, I didn't get to form a mental picture of the actual recipe. (Maybe you think it would be weird to hear an ingredients list being read aloud; I maybe would think that too except that when I listened to Garlic and Sapphires, every recipe was read, and I thought it was fantastic.)

(And while we're on the subject of the audio, I'll just add that the men's lines were spoken exactly as I would speak them . . . and that, unfortunately, is not a compliment.)

So yes, I would consider buying this book for the recipes alone. There are still so many that I want to try: Burg's French Toast (which I wanted to make on Christmas Day but we were just too sweeted out by that point and settled for breakfast burritos instead), Vanilla-Black Pepper Ice Cream, Slow-Roasted Tomato Pesto, and Burg's Potato Salad, just to name a few.

In all honesty, the stories, although adding interest and background to the recipes, weren't my favorite part of this book. Sometimes I found her writing style a little cheesy and trite (particularly at the ends of the chapters). And also (I hesitate even mentioning this because it sounds like I'm criticizing her as a person, which is not my intent at all), sometimes she just sounded so much like an only child that I almost couldn't take it. It was hard for me to relate to her, which definitely is not a necessity for enjoying a book, but regardless of that fact, I kept thinking, I love the way she writes about food, but I just don't think we would be friends in real life.

For that reason, it's a really hard book for me to rate. There were portions that I would definitely give five stars to but then other parts that just didn't do it for me. I'll probably settle for the nondescript, fence-sitting three and call it good. (This is why some of you have dropped rating books altogether, but I still find it mildly helpful--with a grain of salt and all that.)

Criticisms aside, I really enjoyed this book, and it once again confirmed the fact that I love, love, love food memoirs. Which is why one of my goals for the year is: read a food memoir. This one doesn't count since I read it in 2014, so I'm up for suggestions.

What's one of your favorite food memoirs?

How I Find Time to Read

Jan 8, 2015

Sometimes other moms ask me how I find so much time to read. My short answer is: I make it a priority. We all make time for the things that are important to us, and reading is important to me, so I make time for it every day.

My long answer can be found at What Do We Do All Day where today I'm sharing ten tips for finding time to read (without neglecting your children).

Read the full post here.

How do you make time to read?

Leaving the 20's Behind

Jan 7, 2015

I am 30 years old today.

I have to admit, I'm sad to leave 29 behind. It was one of the best years of my life: we bought our first home, I gave birth to our fourth son, and I saw the other side of the world. It's going to be a hard year to beat, that's for sure.

However, since most of my friends are already in their 30's, I feel like I've been waiting a long time to get here, so there's a part of me that's excited to finally join the club. I guess I just always thought I'd feel more like an adult by the time I hit 30. I still feel like something of an imposter.

We just got back from Colorado last night, so I told Mike we should hold off celebrating for a few days, just so we have a chance to catch up with all our work and settle back into a routine. It is actually very freeing to have zero expectations for the day.

A year ago, I had grand hopes of doing a "30 things before 30" countdown, but it never materialized. So in place of that, here are 30 things about me that you may or may not know:

1. If I could only choose one dessert for the next 30 years, it wouldn't even be a difficult choice: chocolate chip cookies.

2. I know open-floor plans are all the rage these days, but I prefer our closed-in kitchen. I like it that if friends drop by unexpectedly, they can only see into the living, which usually is not too much of a disaster.

3. Aside from the three months we were house-sitting, we've never owned a dishwasher during our ten years of marriage. I think washing dishes is one of the most relaxing, therapeutic things I can do (and it's great for listening to audiobooks!).

4. I always make my bed. Even when the rest of my bedroom is an eye-sore, at least my bed it made.

5. If you see me with mascara on, you know it's Sunday or a special occasion.

6. One of my favorite possessions is my portable heater.

7. I'm hesitant to admit it, but I dogear books.

8. My favorite number is seven, and my favorite color is red.

9. My bachelor's degree is in organ performance (a major I absolutely loved), but if I ever go back to school for my master's, it won't be in music.

10. I don't like animals, but I don't resent you if you do.

11. My favorite season is spring because it closes the door on winter.

12. I am afraid of heights.

13. I don't like making (or going to) dental, eye, or hair appointments.

14. I think January is the dreariest month, and I'm disappointed every year that my birthday is in it.

15. I don't remember getting in trouble too often when I was a child, but one time when we were on vacation, I was being a sassy little brat, so my parents told me I could either have a spanking or not go swimming. (I took the spanking.)

16. I was homeschooled from third grade through high school.

17. One of the hardest things for me about winter is the dark.

18. I've wanted to learn to knit for 20 years.

19. One of my favorite ways to spend an evening is to go on a walk around the neighborhood and run into lots of friends.

20. I don't like filling up the car with gas and only do it if I'm actually worried I'll run out before Mike can fill it up.

21. When I was a teenager, I went to my piano lesson one time with long, purple nails. My piano teach told me I could either be a manicurist or a pianist. I chose pianist.

22. I am rather obsessed with making sure the doors are locked. And with washing my hands.

23. I wish I was better at decorating, cooking, baking, cleaning, gardening, and organizing.

24. I think falling snow is one of the prettiest things in this world. And week-old snow is one of the ugliest.

25. When I have to give an "interesting" fact about myself, I tell people that I played the bell tower at BYU.

26. I look much more like my dad than my mom.

27. Almost nothing makes me more content than a clean house.

28. I watch very little TV--maybe an hour a week.

29. I would wear flip-flops every day if I could. I've never worn more than a 2-inch heel. I think ankle boots are ugly (but especially when worn with a dress).

30. I love porches and porch swings, and now I have both.

One of the things I love the most about blogging is connecting with the people who read my posts. So in light of that, it would make me so happy to hear from you today. Leave a comment, or, if it's easier, send a quick email: sunlitpages [at] gmail [dot] com. It doesn't have to be anything long or witty or fancy. Just "hey, I read your blog" would be lovely. In fact, it would make this 30-year-old super extra happy.

Reading Goals 2015

Jan 5, 2015

It's 2015, and I'm so excited to tell you about my reading goals for this coming year. I've been thinking about many of these goals for months, and I can't wait to finally get started on them.

1. Read a past Newbery honor and a past Newbery winner
In years past, I've made the goal to read some current middle-grade titles that are potential candidates from the upcoming Newbery award. While I still hope I have time to read some of the new titles 2015 will bring, I want to make a special effort this year to read a couple of the books that have won in the past. I can already tell that the hardest thing about this goal will be deciding which books deserve priority. There are so many awesome winners I haven't read yet! 

2. Read two classics by female authors
I want to explore some older literature this year. For added fun, one of the books needs to be by a female author I've never read before (such as Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, or Anne Brontë). The other book needs to be by a female author I have read before (such as L.M. Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, or Jane Austen).

3. Read a book I put on my to-read list in 2010
Goodreads saves the date of when you add a book to your to-read list. Last year, I focused on those woefully neglected books that I added in 2009. This year, I want to choose a book from the ones I added in 2010. If my records are correct, that means I have fifty books to choose from, and there are some good ones in this group: everything from I Capture the Castle to The Robe to The Potentially Sane Mother's Guide to Raising Young Children. Or maybe I'll finally have a chance to read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, a book my mom has been telling me to read, probably since March 13, 2010 (the date I added it).

4. Read a children's classic
If you haven't noticed already, all of my goals are trending towards books of the past. I think it's because I know that my book club and friends and favorite blogs will keep me informed with what are the must-read books of today, but I don't want to focus on them so much that I neglect the really great books of the past. For this goal, I'm hoping to read Heidi or Little Lord Fauntleroy or The Jungle Book. What is your favorite children's classic?

5. Read a book on writing
It should come as no surprise that I love writing. This blog and my daily journal are both testaments to that. But I would really love to have some motivation to improve that writing. Last year, I heard about two writing books, both of which sound interesting: On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction and The Sound of Paper. I'm not set on either of them particularly, but I'll probably decide soon so that I can begin working my way slowly through whichever one I choose.

6. Read a short stories collection
I'm going out on a limb here. While I've read short stories before, my exposure is very limited--so limited in fact that I haven't even the faintest idea of what I want to read to fulfill this goal. I just know that I want to branch out and try a new genre. So obviously, I could really use your input and suggestions.

7. Read something of a religious nature
I read and study the scriptures every day, but I also love to read religious commentary as a supplement and a way to guide my study. I don't have anything specific yet for this goal, although Mere Christianity came immediately to mind.

8. Read two more installments in series I've already started
This goal is stolen from last year, but I wanted to do it again because it was so fun to have a reason to revisit favorite characters I'd left for too long. You know I'm not great about sticking with a series through completion, but this at least gives me some motivation to continue on with it.

9. Read a food memoir
Because I love them. And there are still so many that I haven't read but want to. My Life in France, here I come.

10. Finish a series
In 2013, I tackled The Chronicles of Narnia. Last year, I went with Little House on the Prairie. This year, I want to finish the Emily trilogy by L.M. Montgomery. It's less ambitious than the corresponding goals in past years (since I only have to read two as opposed to five books), but I've wanted to finish this trilogy for, oh, just the last 15 years. So yeah, it seems like unless I give it it's own goal, other books will continue to take its place. And that just isn't fair.

If you have any ideas for great books I should read to complete any of these goals, please tell me! Also, I would love to hear about what goals (reading or otherwise) you've made for 2015.

Books of 2014, Second Half

Jan 1, 2015

After only reading 26 books during the first half of the year, I was afraid I wouldn't make my goal of reading 60 books this year. But July - December were good to me (I think summer break and a nursing baby helped), and I read a total of 38 books during the second half.

Here's a brief recap (titles are linked to the full reviews):

1. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, 9/10
Since finishing this, I have learned what a divisive book it is. I happened to love it. It's just the kind of moral dilemma I love (and yes, despite what you haters say, and despite what Isabel should have done, it is a dilemma). 

2. All About Sam by Lois Lowry, readaloud, 5/10
Despite many fond memories of this book as a child, it didn't hold up for me as an adult (my kids loved it though).

3. Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, AUDIO, 10/10
LOVE. If pressed, this might be my favorite book in the series. But there are several close seconds.

4. A Mouse Called Wolf by Dick King-Smith, readaloud, 7/10
After the boys and I read Babe, we were happy to discover many more books by Dick King-Smith. This darling story was one of them.

5. Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins, readaloud, 8/10
Not your rehashed toy book--not by a long shot.

6. Mostly Monty by Johanna Hurwitz, readaloud, 5/10
I have to admit, I was mostly bored by this book (but my kids weren't).

7. Dangerous by Shannon Hale, 6/10
Whoa, aliens and space and sci-fi? Not my usual book fare at all. But I'll try anything if Shannon Hale writes it.

8. These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder, AUDIO, 10/10
Lovely, just lovely. I could read Laura and Almanzo's courtship over and over again. 

9. The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder, AUDIO, 3/10
This book was never meant to be the final book in the series, and I resent the person who made the decision to tack it onto the end.

10. West of the Moon by Margi Preus, 8/10
A lovely melding of genres and featuring one of my favorite folk tales.

11. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards, readaloud, 9/10
A fanciful tale with such vivid descriptions, it does very well without pictures.

12. Dancing on Broken Glass by Ka Hancock, 9/10
I suppose you could say this book is full of too many issues, but I found it heart-wrenchingly beautiful.

13. Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, 8/10
I especially appreciated the way this book helped me to view anger in a more constructive light.

14. Notes From a Blue Bike by Tsh Oxenreider, 10/10
I enjoyed every aspect of this book (except for the title).

15. Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick,AUDIO, 8/10
Really eye-opening and shocking--I still can't believe this level of brainwashing happened during my lifetime.

16. The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner, readaloud, 8/10
The intrigue of four kids living alone in a boxcar did not wane in the 20 years since I read this book for the first time. 

17. Toy Dance Party by Emily Jenkins, readaloud, 8/10
This book confirmed it: we are devoted fans of StingRay, Lumphy, and Plastic.

18. Henry and Ribsy by Beverly Cleary, readaloud, 10/10
Four months later, Max is still making up his own tales of catching a 30 lb. chinook. This was one of our favorite readalouds of the year.

19. Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith, AUDIO, 8/10
I liked this book much better than the first one in the series (and I didn't hate that one).

20. The Art of Flying by Judy Hoffman, 6/10
A fun autumn read.

21. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, readaloud, 10/10
You'd be hard pressed to find another book my kids and I enjoyed more than this one.

22. The Trouble With Magic by Ruth Chew, readaloud, 4/10
It wasn't meant to be creepy, but Harrison Peabody creeped me out nonetheless.

23. Strong Mothers, Strong Sons by Meg Meeker, 8/10
Takeaway message: Love is unconditional. Duh.

24. The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog by John R. Erickson, readaloud, 2/10
I begged my kids multiple times to let me stop reading this book. I hated it that much.

25. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart, 8/10
Suspense, danger, and an elegant (but foreboding) house = the perfect October read. Why have I not read anything by Mary Stewart before?

26. The Power of Everyday Missionaries by Clayton M. Christensen, 7/10
Loved all the personal stories that went along with this.

27. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, AUDIO, 9/10
All-around fantastic.

28. The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt, AUDIO, 8/10
Gave this book a second chance. It was worth it.

29. The Trouble With Chickens by Doreen Cronin, readaloud, 5/10
I read it to my boys, and the change in viewpoint halfway through confused us all.

30. Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman, readaloud, 8/10
Wacky and bizarre--and we loved it.

31. The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma, 8/10
About a father who read to his daughter until the day she left for college. How could I not love it?

32. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, 10/10
I'm not sure if I'm just a sucker for verse novels or if this one was truly exceptional, but I loved it.

33. The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright, readaloud, 6/10
My kids were not fans of the coal gas or fire episodes, but other than that, we liked this book.

34. Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith, 8/10
Written in 1963 about a marriage in the 1920's, I was surprised how much it reminded me of my own early days of marriage in 2005.

35. Fire in the Bones by S. Michael Wilcox, 6/10
It deepened my appreciation of the Bible, no question, but it was a tediously long read.

36. Greenglass House by Kate Milford, 8/10
A cast of unusual characters all on a quest to discover the secrets of Greenglass House. A perfect winter read.

37. A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg, AUDIO, 7/10
The food descriptions were tantalizing, but I felt like Molly and I had almost nothing in common.

38. A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond, readaloud, 6/10
I think I would have liked this book a lot more if I could have nailed the Peruvian and British accents. As it was, I think I just confused my children.

Hoping 2015 is full of just as many good books! Have you read any of these?
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