A Game for Bedtime Cleanup

Feb 27, 2015

Lately, my kids' rooms have been driving me crazy. None of our kids have their own room. They're split in half: the two older in one room, the two younger in another. Even though most of our toys reside in the basement, somehow their rooms can go from clean and orderly to messy and chaotic in less than 20 minutes.

It's a combination of things: the toys migrate upstairs; they throw their dirty clothes on the floor (even though the laundry basket is an impossible two feet away; Aaron and Max do a lot of projects in their room to keep them away from the baby, so there are always paper scraps and markers and the accursed rainbow loom bands.

Telling my kids to clean their rooms is like telling them to fly to the moon: it feels and looks impossible to them and therefore, it is. Part of the reason it seems insurmountable is because I often wait too many days before having them clean it.

One night, I had an epiphany (it's an epiphany that most of you moms have already had, so don't get too excited): Do a quick cleanup every night before bed.


Given my personality type (more on that in a minute), it's not as if I'd never thought of a nightly cleanup before. I'm a big fan of routines, and they definitely make undesirable tasks easier and less arguable. The thing is, bedtime already has the tendency to drag on mercilessly, and so I'd always avoided adding one more thing to the already lengthy routine.

But one night, I just couldn't take it anymore, and since then, they've been cleaning it up every night before we read stories.

Now before you think, Oh, it was that simple? She should have done that a lot sooner., let me assure you that it has definitely required time, energy, and commitment on the part of Mike and me. If we just told our kids to "Go clean your room," it would never get done.

My solution to this is to stand in the room giving directions (and sometimes becoming an active participant): Now pick up the trash. Here's a bag for it. Fold and put away your clothes. No, those books do not belong under your bed.

That's because I'm an ISTJ (i.e., introverted - sensing - thinking - judging), and for the content of this blog post, emphasis on the S and J. Was that an unexpected jump? I warned you that I was going to talk more about my personality. And I meant it literally.

For the past couple of months, I've been reading and slowly internalizing a book called MotherStyles by Janet P. Penley. She uses the Myers-Briggs test and applies it specifically to mothers: What does a J mother look like? What does she look like when combined with I . . . and S . . . and T (spoiler: she looks like me). What are her strengths? And weaknesses?

It's been quite the eye-opener, and it's making me okay with who I am and also, who I am not.

And one thing I am not is wildly creative or imaginative. When it's time to clean a bedroom, you clean a bedroom . . . quickly, efficiently, methodically. It's not that I'm opposed to the games that would make the task a lot more fun. It's that I never think of them in the first place.

But wait. Isn't this post called "A Game for Bedtime Cleanup"? That's because Mike is not the same type as I am. We share the first three letters, but while I'm a J, he's a P. And that one little letter makes a big difference . . . especially when it comes to having fun.

The first night we instituted the nightly bedroom cleanup, I helped Bradley with his room, and Mike helped Aaron and Max with theirs. It was obvious from the get-go that they were enjoying the task a lot more than we were. And it was because, just like that, on the spot, Mike came up with a game to make the job more fun.

If you've made it this far in this post, then you definitely deserve to learn how to play the game. It's quick, simple, and requires no other props except your hands (and a messy room).

The leader hides a number behind his back (for ex., 5). The cleaners take a guess at the number (for ex., 4! 9!). The leader reveals the number, and then the cleaners have to clean up that number of items (in this example, 5) . . .

. . . Unless (and this is why my kids love this game so much) one of the cleaners happens to choose the correct number, then he doesn't have to pick up anything for that round. Every time one of them guesses the right number, it fuels their energy to play another round. Apparently, being lazy is an addictive prize.

So there you have it: a game invented by an ISTP to complete the routine of an ISTJ.

Do you do a nightly cleanup? How do you make it happen? What's your personality type (and if I know you personally, then don't think I haven't analyzed you already)?

Henry and the Paper Route by Beverly Cleary

Feb 25, 2015

Before I write about this book, can I just go on a little rant?

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I was at Costco and found a collection of fifteen Beverly Cleary books for under $30. I looked it over and noticed two of the Henry books (Henry and the Paper Route and Henry and the Clubhouse) and one of the Ramona books (Ramona Forever) were not included, but at less than $2 per book, I couldn't pass it up. I just thought I would add in the missing books later. No big deal. I might have to pay $7 or $8 for each one, but when I was saving so much on the others, it really didn't matter.

I gave the set to Aaron for Christmas. He loved it. Still loves it. I was congratulating myself on a brilliant purchase.

Then,  a couple of weeks ago, as I was deciding which books to get the boys for Valentine's Day, I decided to fill in a couple of those missing books. I checked on Amazon, but couldn't find the 2007 edition. (<----- The one pictured over there.) No problem. I went to Barnes and Noble. Couldn't find it. I tried The King's English. They didn't have any of them. Finally, I went to Frost's, a local new and used bookstore. They had several Beverly Cleary books in that edition but not the ones I was looking for. So I asked one of the salespeople, and she dropped this bomb:

"That edition is no longer in print."

I felt a little foolish because that's something I should have been able to figure out pretty quickly on my own without running around to three different stores, but I guess I just never expected something that was being sold at Costco two months before to be out of print.

It's not that big of a deal really. I'm sure I can track down those books on ebay or at Saver's (I already found and purchased Ramona Forever), but the main reason I'm irritated is because I don't even like that edition! The updated illustrations clash with the 1950's text. I only went with it because it was convenient and I thought it would be easy to get a matching set. But now I'm going to have the hassle of piecing it together anyway (and I will piece it together because I do want them all to match).

Anyway, on to Henry and the Paper Route. (Since it's one of the ones I'm still searching for, we just checked it out from the library.)

If you've read the other Henry books, you'll already know that Henry is very envious of Scooter's paper route. In fact, in Henry and Beezus, Henry has a chance to fill in for Scooter, and it almost turns disastrous when Ribsy won't leave the newspapers where they've been tossed. Scooter can be insufferably cocky at times, and he's no different in this book, but one day, as he pedals by delivering the papers, he asks Henry if he knows anyone who wants their own paper route. Yes, Henry knows someone. Himself! But Scooter says there's no way that's going to happen since Henry isn't eleven yet.

So Henry sets out to prove that he is a responsible almost-eleven-year-old. In the meantime, he acquires four kittens (one of which he gets to keep), collects the most paper for the school paper drive, folds Scooter's papers for him, and meets the new boy down the street. Oh, and enough time goes by that he actually turns eleven, too. Just when he thinks things he'll finally get the job of his dreams, it slips out of his grasp. And if not for a certain annoying four-year-old (i.e., Ramona Quimby) it would have stayed far out of reach.

Every time I read one of the Henry books, I get a little inkling of how much the world has changed in the nearly 60 years since they were originally published. For example, do you regularly see 11-, 12-, and 13-year-old kids delivering newspapers on weekday afternoons? Because I don't. And I never have in any of the places I've lived. All of the "paper boys" I know are actually adults who nearly run me over when I'm out running early in the morning as they toss the papers from their cars.

And then there's the paper drive held by Henry's school as a way to raise money for a new curtain in the auditorium. Henry diligently sets about collecting all the unwanted paper around the neighborhood (if he accumulates a stack of papers that measures 30 inches high, he gets a prize). What a difference from the fundraiser Aaron brought home earlier this week! (What unwanted, unnecessary item would you like to buy from this catalog? We settled on the chocolate-covered caramels and sent the form back with him the next day without ever asking any family, friends, or neighbors.) Can you even recycle paper for money these days? I have no idea.

But some things remain the same whether you were born in 1958 or 2008. At Henry's birthday party, "the boys entertained themselves by practicing artificial respiration on one another." I just had to laugh when I read that because it was so random, and yet, I happen to know a bunch of adolescent boys who would be quite amused by that (and likewise, I know very few (if any) girls who would come up with that as a fun activity). Once again, Beverly Cleary hit the interests, humor, and frustrations of boys spot on. She's pretty amazing.

Even though this was not my favorite Henry book, we still enjoyed it immensely. Like Ramona, we can always count on him for a story worth reading.

KidPages: Home by Carson Ellis

Feb 23, 2015

When it comes to picture books, I think I'm definitely partial to ones with a clear story arc and memorable characters. When they're just centered around a particular theme without any cohesive plot, I tend to feel rather noncommittal; I can take it or leave it, but either way I won't remember much about it by the next day.

Home would be an exception to this rule.

It had me on the title page. And I would happily read it again and again and again.

You can probably already guess what it's about: each page shows a different home and its occupants . . . which, at first glance, might not sound all that interesting or even original. But keep an open mind. This book takes you to homes you've never thought about or known existed.

It begins with the homes you might expect . . . one in the country, one in the city. But it quickly veers off into the unexpected: the lair of thieves, the underwater home of Atlantians, the cozy cottage of a Moonian (with an enviable view of planet Earth). It somehow crosses over all cultures and time periods, showing homes of people, animals, and fictional characters. It pairs the most unlikely houses side by side (that of a Japanese businessman on the left page and the home of a Norse god on the right, for example).

It leaves some of the story up to the imagination of the reader: Who do you think lives here? And why do you think they live there? And it ends with the homes of the people most invested in the story--that of the author and the reader.

I believe this is the first picture book that Carson Ellis both wrote and illustrated, and the illustrations make the book. I believe they're done in watercolors, and it gives them a subtle and soft look that works very well with the quiet comfort of homes. I'm no judge of this, but it would not surprise me at all if this received some Caldecott recognition come 2016.

I've been trying to come up with why I like this book so much in spite of its not following the formula I traditionally like, and I think it comes down to this: it took something so basic and familiar but made me think about it in a new way.  People have been living in homes of one kind or another since time began. It doesn't matter where you live in the world, you have a place you go to at the end of the day and usually (hopefully), it is a place that brings you both peace and comfort. My own home is a refuge, a place for me to be with my family where I feel safe and loved. This book captured all of those feelings but added something new, too. It made me realize how vastly different homes can be while still providing those same feelings of happiness and security. It is a beautiful book and one our whole family enjoyed.

Many thanks to Candlewick Press for sending us a hardback copy of this book. I was compensated in no other way for this review, and all thoughts and opinions are my own.

He's Done!

Feb 20, 2015

We're celebrating over here today because Max finished the last lesson in Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.

We've been looking towards this day for a long time (we did the first lesson in August 2013, a year and a half ago!). We took our time and worked slowly and steadily, taking breaks when needed and supplementing with other books.

That poor book is battered and bruised. Well loved and well used.

Max is celebrating his accomplishment in a big way . . . with a ring pop. :-)

As if on cue, Bradley has spent the last couple of weeks asking me constantly, "what's this word . . . and this word . . . and this word?" It's like he knows his turn is just around the corner.

Speaking of which, as much as I have loved Teach Your Child . . . , after going through the entire book twice, I'm getting a little bored with it and might want to try out another method. I'm looking into Phonics Pathways or The Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading. Any thoughts?

Overall, it's been a joyful process of discovering and learning with Max. I've enjoyed (almost) every moment. This marks an ending of sorts. But now the real fun of reading will begin . . .

P.S. I remember when Aaron was at this stage. It was exciting then, too.

What We're Listening to Right Now #1: Nine of Our Favorite Children's Albums

Feb 18, 2015

Lest you think we only read books around here, let me tell you that we also listen to a lot of music. And just like children's books, children's music can be really hit and miss. Some of it literally makes me want to run for the hills. But there is some that is so witty and catchy, even Mike and I can't help singing along.

Today I want to share nine of our favorites (not affiliate links--for your convenience only):

Nine Fantastic Music Albums for Children (and Adults!)

1. Mozart's Magic Fantasy (and other Classical Kids albums)

I grew up with these albums and still owe a large part of my classical knowledge to them (four semesters of music history notwithstanding). Each one takes a composer, a story (sometimes somewhat biographical), and his music (I say "his" because, to date, they have not done any female composers, but if they ever spotlight Clara Schumann, I will buy it in a heartbeat), and weaves it  into an unforgettable listening experience. If you're wanting to introduce your kids to audiobooks, I highly recommend these as a good transition; the music and full cast dramatizations keep it fast-paced and engaging.

Favorite song: "O Zittre Nicht"

2. Family Tree (and any of Tom Chapin's other albums)

One year during a church talent show, some good friends acted out Tom Chapin's song, "The Nick of Time." I was probably 14 at the time, but I thought it was absolutely hilarious. For years, I remembered the chorus ( " . . . not one, not two, not three, not four, but the nick of time, on five"), but I had no idea who sung it or what album it was from. Finally, just a few months ago, I decided to renew my search for it and found it on the album Family Tree by much-beloved children's singer, Tom Chapin. We have since listened to many of Tom Chapin's other songs (and love pretty much all of them).

Favorite song: "The Nick of Time" (obviously), but he also sings one called "Library Song" that is pretty fabulous as well.

3. Super Why! You've Got the Power
I don't know about you but any song that refers to reading as a superpower is pretty much an instant win for me. I like Super Why, the show, just fine, but I really like Super Why, the music (mainly because it doesn't put my kids in a cranky mood when I have to turn it off). Also, there's something about hearing my three-year-old singing "B-O-A-T, boat, boat, boat!" that just cracks me up.

Favorite song: "Woofster" (at least that's my kids' favorite)

4. Diego, Dora, and Friends' Animal Jamboree
Okay, I'm kind of embarrassed about including this one on the list. We are not big Dora or Diego fans around here (although my kids do watch them occasionally), but I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that this is one of my kids' very favorite music albums . . . and has been for the last two years. It's a collection of well-known songs ("Rockin' Robin," "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," etc.) but sung in Dora's and Diego's voices. So if you can't stand them, then this is definitely not the album for you. However, Mike and I have had to listen to this fairly regularly for the last two years, and even though it isn't what we'd necessarily choose to listen to, we don't beg our kids to pick something else either. In fact, when Bradley was a little younger and sang along with "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep," we quite enjoyed it. ("The Piranha Song" though? It's rather disturbing.)

Favorite song: "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep"

5. Scripture Scouts
My siblings and I grew up on the Scripture Scouts albums. They're about three kids (Skyler, Sue, and Baby) and a dog (Boo) who meet together in Skyler's treehouse to act out scripture stories. They're a mix of dialogue and songs, and we now own the entire collection (thanks to my mom). I don't know if my dad would agree that adults enjoy them (he never could stand the voice of Boo), but even now, when my siblings and I are together, we'll break out and quote entire segments. Although the albums for The Book of Mormon and The Articles of Faith are definitely geared toward the Mormon faith, I think families of any Christian denomination would enjoy the ones about The Old Testament or The New Testament.

Favorite song: "No Room in the Inn"

6. Watch Me Sing (and other albums from Brite Music)
Another favorite from my childhood! I don't know if I would like these as much if I was listening to them for the first time as an adult (so take this as a cautious recommendation), but as it is, every time I hear one of the songs, I'm instantly six years old again and running, skipping, and dancing around the coffee table with my younger brothers. I wondered if they would sound too old-fashioned to my kids (they're definitely reminiscent of the 70's and 80's), but nope, my kids love them. The Watch Me Sing albums are filled with action songs while the I Have a Song for You albums contain songs about the holidays, weather, animals, people etc.

Favorite song: "See Me Run"

7. Silly Songs and More Silly Songs
I think every family needs an album or two of just classic, well-known, much-loved children's songs. C'mon, we have to pass down "On Top of Spaghetti" to the next generation! We've sampled our fair share of these types of collections , but these are the ones we've purchased. We like the selection; we like the arrangements; and we don't mind the vocalists (even though some of them sound like Mickey and Minnie). If you're looking for a collection of kids' classics, give this one a try.

Favorite song: "Cupcakes and Lemonade"

8. Jake and the Neverland Pirates
My three-year-old is a little Jake and the Neverland Pirates obsessed--and has been for many, many months now. Back when the obsession first hit, I checked out the soundtrack from the library, thinking he would get a kick out of it. Imagine my surprise when I actually liked it . . . and so did my husband. We did not see that one coming at all. But the lyrics are witty, the tunes are catchy, and there's not a one of us who complains when we turn it on in the car.

Favorite song: "Shipwreck Shuffle" (mostly because of the didgeridoo)

9.  Pancake Manor

This is the wild card of the bunch. Last fall, I was teaching our little preschool group about the solar system. I wanted a song to help them learn the names of the planets, and when I searched for something on Youtube, I found this one. I bought it so I could put it on our ipod, and my boys listened to it on repeat for weeks. Seriously, they would sometimes listen to it twenty times in a row (and boy, did they know their planets!). I really liked the sound of the group (the only thing I can think to compare it to is that it's like Owl City for kids). We finally bought the rest of the album for Christmas and have all enjoyed it ever since (and in putting this post together, I found a brand new album of theirs that came out a couple of months ago, so I'm pretty sure Max will be getting that for his birthday).

Favorite song: "The Planets Song" or "Pancake Party"

And that's it (at least for right now--we actually have more favorites that I'll share another time).

Are any of these songs popular at your house? What are some of your favorite kid's music albums? I would love some new ideas!

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Feb 16, 2015

I may have only finished all of the books in The Chronicles of Narnia in 2013, but The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and I go way, way back. My family had the 1979 animated version of it, and I must have watched it dozens of times when I was a child. It stays surprisingly true to the book, lifting a lot of the dialogue straight from its pages. So when I read it for myself for the first time when I was eight or nine, it was basically like reading the movie, which made it really easy to read but not all that exciting.

For that reason, I'm so glad my boys got to experience it for the first time as a book, rather than a movie. It was their imaginations that created the pictures in their heads, not some film director's. Even now, reading it as an adult, the pictures and images and sounds and voices that came to my mind were from that darn 1979 movie, and even though I'm sure they'll see one of the film adaptations at some point, I hope when they read the book, they always come back to their very first impressions of it.

I'm guessing you know the story. It's a good one. It is the 1940's and four children (Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy) have been sent away from their home in London to escape the air raids. They come to live at the Professor's house, a large sprawling estate that is just begging to be explored.
One afternoon during their exploration, they come into a room that is empty save for a wardrobe on one side of it (incidentally, my boys had no idea what a wardrobe was). Peter, Susan, and Edmund take a quick look around and then leave, but Lucy decides to take a peek in the wardrobe. She climbs inside (making sure to leave the door open "because she knew that it is very foolish to shut oneself into any wardrobe"). She walks forward, expecting to find the back of the wardrobe, but it never comes. And after a few steps, she finds herself in a snow covered woods next to a lamp post.

All is quiet and still when suddenly she sees a faun (Mr. Tumnus) carrying an armful of packages. They make their introductions and he invites her to his home where he tells her more about the land she has stumbled into. It is called Narnia, and it is ruled by the White Witch. She has made it so that it is always winter and never Christmas, and she is well aware that if the four thrones at Cair Paravel are ever filled by two Sons of Adam and Two Daughters of Eve, her reign will be ended. She is determined not to let that happen.

My kids absolutely loved this book. I don't know if I've ever been interrupted so often while reading. Over and over again, they'd break in with guesses or questions for what was going to happen next or exclamations or protestations for something that just happened. Each night, after we finished reading, the two of them would look back over the chapters we'd already read and then read the titles for the upcoming chapters. They could hardly contain their anticipation, especially when the next chapter was something like, "In the Witch's House" or "What Happened About the Statues." It was one of those books that really held its weight in between readings and that we just couldn't wait to return to at the end of the day. In fact, there were even a couple of days where we knew we had activities that would prevent us from reading at our usual time, and so we read earlier in the evening because we couldn't bear the thought of skipping a day.

For all that we loved it, however, I will say this: it is scary. We haven't read very many books with actual, evil, frightening villains, and I'm sure those of you who have read it will agree with me that the White Witch is one of the scariest villains out there. Max especially had some moments of terror where he told me to stop and not to read any more. (And if you knew how often during the other times he was begging me to continue reading, you'll appreciate how scared he really was.) I couldn't blame him. The scene where the dwarf ties Edmund to a tree while the White Witch sharpens her knife and he is only saved because a host of Aslan's subjects comes upon them in the nick of time is particularly terrifying (even though the scene is short and the details are limited). I basically had to spoil the whole book for Max (no one dies, the White Witch is thwarted, etc.) so that he could enjoy it without worrying about what was going to happen next.

One of the reasons I personally love reading the Chronicles of Narnia is for the symbolism, but I wasn't planning on pointing any of it out to Aaron or Max. I just thought we'd enjoy the story, and if they picked up on bits of it here and there, then great. However, as we came to the scene where Aslan submits himself to the Witch at the Stone Table, the reference was too strong. I couldn't help myself. "Does Aslan remind you of anyone?" I asked, and after a little thought, they both said, "Jesus?" "Yes, Jesus," I said. "Isn't that just exactly like what Jesus did for each of us?"

Some will say that making such a quick connection means the book is too overtly religious. I guess I can't make a definite conclusion one way or the other, but to me, it seems like if you're not religious, it will just read like a really good story with a villain and a hero, but if you are religious, then it adds depth and added insights to your beliefs, which I find to be a wonderful bonus.

For me, one of the new insights I gained with this reading came just after the scene I already mentioned. Once Edmund is rescued, they can't find the Witch or the dwarf. They think she has escaped, and so they return to Aslan. But then this: "It was perfectly still and presently the moon grew bright; if you had been there you would have seen the moonlight shining on an old tree-stump and on a fair-sized boulder." These two objects turn out to be the White Witch and the dwarf, "for it was part of her magic that she could make things look like what they aren't." I think this made an impact on me because of things I've come across lately (on facebook, in the news, on blogs) that on the surface seem honorable or noble but leave me feeling troubled. Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish truth from its counterfeit.

Out of the entire book, there's only one scene I would change, and I wouldn't even change it per se--just add some emotion to it. It happens right after the four children get into Narnia. As you might expect, Lucy leads them to Mr. Tumnus' home only to find the door bashed in and the whole place in ruin. You might expect, as I did, that Lucy will act shocked, angry, devastated, or sad. But she is none of these things. In fact, the reader gets Edmund's and then Peter's and then Susan's reactions before Lucy is even mentioned. Maybe I'm just more emotional than C.S. Lewis (although I have my doubts about that since the scene between Aslan and the girls is very tender), but this seemed like a really inexcusable oversight.

I'm actually so sad this book is over already. We whipped through it even faster than usual because we all loved it so much. But I'm sad not just because it's over but because I want to read the next one to them, but it's Prince Caspian. Out of all the books, that's my least favorite, and I just can't get that excited over it. Maybe it's time for me to let Mike take a turn . . .

Books Can Be Valentines

Feb 13, 2015

I love reading Kate DiCamillo's posts on facebook. Each one is like her books: relatively short, nostalgic, with words that pack a punch.

Yesterday it was about the card her mom gave her every year on Valentine's Day. She never missed one, even as she neared the end of her life. Now that she's gone, Kate thinks about those cards, none of which she kept.

But then she said this: 
But I do have the books (Ribsy, The Cricket in Times Square, Lincoln, The Borrowers, All of a Kind Family, Paddington, The Twenty-One Balloons) she gave to me.
Those books were valentines, too, I suppose.
They are still valentines.
It made me so happy to read this because of what I have hidden away in my nightstand drawer, just waiting for tomorrow morning:

For Aaron: Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
For Maxwell: Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride by Kate DiCamillo
For Bradley: Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin
For Clark: Animal Spots and Stripes by Britta Teckentrup

Books are not the only way I say I love you to my kids. But they are definitely one of the ways.

When I give a book, I'm saying:

Here's a gift of literacy, friendship, and stories that never die.

Whether they end up keeping the book or not (and to be honest, I'm kind of hoping they'll let it stay here when they leave), they'll take that love of reading with them.

It's one of the best and longest lasting gifts I can think of to give them.

P.S. Are you giving books for Valentine's Day?

P.P.S. Yes, I love it that one of the books I'm giving tomorrow happens to be by Kate herself. Our Mercy Watson collection is almost complete!

El Deafo by Cece Bell

Feb 12, 2015

For several months leading up to ALA Midwinter, I'd been hearing about El Deafo. It seemed like there were many people rooting for it to win the Newbery. Even though one of my goals in 2014 was to read four Newbery contenders, this book didn't make the cut for me because, quite frankly, I didn't think it would win.

And then, last Monday, it did--an honor, at least, and when only two books are awarded Newbery honors, that seems like a (excuse the pun) high honor indeed.

I immediately reserved it at the library and read it in a day.

It was good. Very, very good. I enjoyed it immensely. But . . .

. . . I don't think it should have won an honor.

Difficult for me to say, but there it is.

I honestly haven't read very many reviews of it because I like to form my own opinion independent of anyone else's. But from the little bits I've seen, I think I'm definitely in the minority. And that's a scary place (for me) to be. But I pride myself on being honest on this blog, so I'm going to share my thoughts, and then you can share yours, and then we can all rejoice that reading is so personal and wonderful and that there's something for everyone.

El Deafo is the graphic novel memoir of Cece Bell. When she is four years old, she contracts meningitis and loses her hearing because of it. Through hearing aids and lip reading, Cece learns to navigate the hearing world, but she is very self-conscious about what makes her different from her peers.

The book chronicles her life from age four through fifth grade. Over the years, she has a variety of friends: Laura (who likes to be in charge and bossy), Ginny (who insists on using a loud, slow voice when talking to Cece), Martha (who is overcome with guilt following a minor accident), and Mike (the boy next door and Cece's first crush).

In many ways, the story could be about any fourth or fifth grader. There are the friendship dramas, the lazy summers, the sleepovers, and the school triumphs and failures. But Cece's hearing loss gives the story added depth and dimension. By the end of the memoir, she has really grown into a confident young woman--one who owns every part of herself, including the hearing loss she detested for so long.

My opinions of this book can really be broken into three categories: what I liked, what I didn't like, and why I don't think it should have won a Newbery Honor.

First, what I liked:

Really, there's a lot to like about this book. I loved the way Cece's secret identity (El Deafo) was worked into almost every situation. When confronted with a seemingly insurmountable problem, she would retreat into her mind and think about what El Deafo would do to come out conqueror. Her superhero-self is aptly named because she almost always uses some part of her disability to rectify the situation. Very clever and it gave a great unity to the book.

I also loved the way Cece's four main friendships provided a solid framework for the story. They showcased both her insecurities and her strengths, and I could see her changing and growing with each one.

And finally, I loved the format. A graphic novel was the perfect way to tell this story, and I was so impressed with Cece Bell's style. There were so many little details provided by the pictures and the size and shape of the words. One of my favorite sequences is at the beginning when Cece has many appointments with various doctors. Every time her mom comes to get her, she's in her red and white polka-dot swimming suit. You can tell she just loves that thing based on how often it appears in the first few pages. She also captured each age really well: you can see how she is growing up by the way she looks, but also in the way she talks and acts.

Now for what I didn't like:

The potty language. I don't feel like I need to go into this since I've talked about it many times before, including in this review and this review. But even if it's an accurate portrayal of 8-12 year-olds, it's an immediate turn-off for me and probably always will be.

There were also some little details that just didn't match up or resolve, and they just left me feeling a little unsettled. For example, when Mike's family moves into the neighborhood, there's a picture featuring a little portrait of each family member. In that, Mike's mom is clearly named "Kathy." But later on when Cece and her mother go over to Mike's house, they call her "Nancy." She also looks completely different. I can pretend that she just dyed her hair and got a haircut, but the name change? Maybe I just missed something from the pages in between.

Also, there's another moment where Cece catches her mom and Ginny's mom drinking and smoking in the kitchen. Cece thinks something like, "Mom? Smoking?" and the whole sequence has a very bizarre and uncomfortable feeling to it. As far as I could tell, it was an isolated incident, but I kept wondering if there was something hidden there or if I was just reading too much into it.

But aside from those little annoyances, the main thing I didn't like was the ending. Early in the story, the reader finds out that with her phonic ear, Cece can hear tiny little sounds at far range as long as they are coming through the microphone that is connected to her hearing aids. This means that when her teacher leaves the classroom, she can hear all of her conversations and activities through the entire school. This ability is, in part, how Cece's secret identity is born, and she keeps it hidden until the very end of the book. Then, she tells Mike and a handful of neighborhood kids, and he decides they can use it during school: when their teacher leaves during "quiet math time," they can goof off, and Cece can keep track of where she is and alert all of her classmates to it so they can all be quietly in their seats by the time she returns. They try their plan, and it works out beautifully. Cece is a hero! The end.

Okay, it's not as abrupt as all that. But that really is the climax of the story and really the turning point of Cece's opinion of herself, and I was really disappointed about it. Successfully deceiving a teacher hardly seems to be something worth getting excited about. If anything, it should have come earlier in the story so that more growth could have happened afterwards not connected with that moment.

And finally, apart from what I liked and didn't like, I don't think it should have received a Newbery Honor for the simple reason that it is not "distinguished" without the pictures.

The Newbery criteria states: "The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective." Well, the illustrations definitely don't make it less effective (I think everyone can agree on that), so therefore, they shouldn't have been considered.

And if they're not considered, then I just can't see a case being made for it as distinguished literature (but obviously, a case was made--a conversation I would have loved to be a witness to).

Here are the things I thought about while reading it (as it pertains to this point):
  • Can the text stand on its own?
    • Yes. You can understand the story without the pictures.
  • But does the story carry the same weight with just the text?
    • No. The text provides the bare bones framework, and the illustrations add depth and color.
  • Is the text distinguished on its own?
    • No. It has its poignant moments, no question, but I honestly can't imagine it getting a second glance if it was published as a text-only memoir.
And this is where I just start getting riled up. Even if you can look at just the text and make sense of it and enjoy it and be moved by it, that was never Cece Bell's intention. She chose the graphic novel medium because she wanted to be able to tell her story through words and pictures. Taking away the pictures is literally taking away half of the story. Personally, if I were the author and had taken the time to tell my story in this way, I wouldn't want it to be torn in two like that.

Whether it is distinguished or not (and honestly, even if we could consider the story in its complete form, the aforementioned problem with the climax would make me question this award), it does not follow the Newbery criteria. The problem doesn't necessarily lie in the book itself, but in the award.

Now that I've said all that, do I really think I've said anything new? Do I really have the audacity to think that I thought of something the committee didn't think of (oh, pictures add depth and meaning? Why didn't we think of that?!)? No, of course not. I have the highest respect for them and this search for the most distinguished contribution to children's literature. I admire their creativity with interpreting this award in a new way, but I think it is my right as a reader not to agree with it.

Now go read the book. And then come back here and tell me your opinion.

A Book and Craft for Valentine's Day

Feb 10, 2015

Yesterday I put an envelope in the mail. It was addressed to my family in Colorado, and it contained three paper chains--one from Aaron, one from Maxwell, one from Bradley. They were inspired by the picture book, The Giant Hug, and as such, we like to call them Hug Chains.

To find out more about this book and craft (including what we wrote on the Hug Chain), check out my post on What Do We Do All Day.

Read the full post here.

What did your kids send their loved ones for`Valentine's Day?

KidPages: Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise by Sean Taylor, illus. Jean Jullien

Feb 9, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, two of my nephews came over to play. My kids were in heaven, and I hardly saw any of them during the five hours they were here. But during one of the rare lulls in their play, I asked if they wanted to hear Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise. They did. And then once it was over, they immediately wanted to hear it again. I obliged, and they would have been happy to hear it a third time if I hadn't had to rush off to an appointment. It was definitely a fast-favorite, and I think you'll soon see why.

When the story begins, it is the middle of the night, and Hoot Owl is ready for his lunch. He's not too worried about finding it. After all, he's Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise. But after several failed attempts (where he disguises himself as a carrot, sheep, and then a bird bath), he's beginning to lose steam. Luckily, he has one final plan, and it is sure to succeed!

Because it takes place at night, an inky black backdrop is used throughout. The illustrations are big and bold and outlined in thick, chunky lines, which makes them pop out of the dark pages. They're the type of pictures kids take an instant liking to and will want to try and draw for themselves.

Hoot Owl has a lot of personality. For one thing, he's pretty full of himself but in an amusing, rather than obnoxious, sort of way. He has this habit of comparing himself to other objects, and it's just hilarious (he's like "a wolf in the air" and his eyes "glitter like sardines").  He might be a little overly confident in his skills, but you love him for it.

The story is told through a lot of repetition, and my kids (as well as my nephews) immediately latched onto this. By the end, they were all wanting to chime in and say the lines with Hoot Owl. For this reason, this really makes a great read-aloud (whether at home or in the car or at the library).

The ending though is what really makes this book fantastic. I don't want to give it away, but let's just say that after trying to catch a rabbit, a sheep, and a pigeon, Hoot Owl finally turns to something so tried and true that probably almost every parent has given into its simplicity and availability in a busy, starving moment. Don't worry, even Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise, knows that sometimes it's the only thing that will satisfy.

Many thanks to Candlewick Press for a hardback copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own, and I was compensated in no other way for this review. I know five little boys who will gladly listen to it over and over again.

Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary

Feb 6, 2015

Ramona is like comfort food to us. Sometimes, we like to be adventurous and try new characters and plots and settings, but every few books, we come right back to her. We know we’ll love whatever she does, and so we can immediately settle into her without any false hopes or pretenses.

This installment leads off with some drama in the park, followed by Mrs. Quimby’s announcement that she is starting a job, which will make it possible for them to build a much-needed addition onto their house. Ramona begins first grade and discovers Mrs. Griggs is nothing like her beloved Miss Binney from kindergarten, and Ramona’s creativity and spunk are under-appreciated (at least in Ramona’s eyes). She can hardly bear the unfairness of it all (and gets into her share of trouble because of it), but in the end things work out, and her indomitable spirit continues to shine.

I was a little caught off guard by the aforementioned drama in the park. Some boys call Beezus a name (her name rhymes too perfectly with “Jesus” and really nothing else), and I didn’t feel comfortable saying it. So I changed it, but then of course, what Ramona and Beezus and Mrs. Quimby were saying in relation to it just didn’t make sense.

(I felt a little too much like Alice Ozma’s father in The Reading Promise when he’s reading Dicey’s Song and begins editing out big chunks with noticeable consequences.)

So we had to pause for a minute so I could explain what the mean boys were really calling Beezus and why I was not okay with saying it. The episode does involve Ramona staunchly reprimanding the boys and defending Beezus, and that is a super sweet thing to witness (even though Beezus is very unappreciative). But I know Max is going to want to listen to the audio of this book now, and I just don’t know how I feel about him listening to that chapter over and over.

One of the things I really appreciated in this particular story was the character of Mrs. Griggs. Ramona doesn’t really like her, and I can’t say that we really liked her either. And yet, there was nothing to really dislike about her. In Beezus’, own words: “She wasn’t my favorite teacher . . . There wasn’t anything really wrong with her, I guess. She just wasn’t very exciting is all. She wasn’t mean or anything like that. We just seemed to go along doing our work, and that was it.”

I think it would have been so easy for Beverly Cleary to make her into a mean teacher, one that punished Ramona unfairly and that the reader could truly hate. But Mrs. Griggs was not that. She and Ramona just didn’t see eye to eye. She couldn’t appreciate Ramona’s feisty personality, and Ramona couldn’t appreciate her stable (but boring) methods. They just didn’t connect. In the world of school, having a teacher that you don’t click with is much more common and realistic than having a teacher who is truly despicable and cruel. And so I really appreciated Mrs. Griggs’ character because she was such a believable teacher.

Our favorite moment was when Ramona says a “bad” word. I could tell Aaron and Max were a little tense, waiting for it to come and wondering what it would be. When Ramona finally let it out and it was, “Guts! Guts! Guts,” oh, how they laughed (right along with Ramona’s parents and Beezus). 

Once again, Beverly Cleary tackled real childhood dilemmas (who among us hasn’t wanted our own room only to discover that it’s pretty lonely (and a little scary) to be by ourselves?) but did it in a completely original way. Nothing is predictable with Ramona, and although things always work out, they never do in the way you expect them to. We sure love that “spunky gal.”

What are YOUR comfort books?

Too Many Opinions on the 2015 Geisel, Caldecott, and Newbery Awards

Feb 4, 2015

I spent two hours on Monday morning watching the announcements of the ALA Youth Media Awards (plus the PreGame and PostGame shows with Betsy Bird and Lori Prince). It was so much fun. For once, I was glad Aaron did not have to be to school until 9:00.

The awards surprised and delighted and irritated me. I haven't read enough to be an authority on any of the awards, but I have still have opinions about the Geisel, Caldecott, and Newbery, so I'll share my thoughts on those.

First, the Theodore Seuss Geisel award.

You are (Not) Small won the medal and Waiting is Not Easy and Mr. Putter and Tabby Turn the Page won honors. We've read (and loved) all three of them.

You are (Not) Small is clever and funny, and I love it when a picture book gets the easy reader award. Let this be a lesson (once again) that the easy reader section of the library is not always the best place to find easy readers.

I bought Waiting is Not Easy after getting fed up with waiting for my turn at the library (the irony did not escape me . . . ), and I'm glad we own it.

Since we are loyal Elephant & Piggie and Mr. Putter & Tabby fans, I was thrilled to see both of these books honored but also a little disappointed too. Year after year we see Mo Willems take away Geisel awards, and Cynthia Rylant is also a household name in the easy reader department (although I believe this is only her second Geisel). They deserve all the praise and attention they get, but there's a part of me that wonders, Where's the competition?

The beginning reader stage is such a critical point in a reader's development. We need strong books that will be both engaging and simple. I would love to see some other authors step it up for future years.

Next up, the Randolph Caldecott award.

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend won the medal, and six books (six! SIX!) came away with honors: Nana in the City, The Noisy Paint Box, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, Viva Frida, The Right Word, and This One Summer.

Out of all these, we'd read a whopping two (The Adventures of Beekle and The Noisy Paint Box). I'm feeling extremely annoyed and frustrated with our library right now. I wouldn't have expected to have read This One Summer (it's a teen graphic novel), but yes, the others I would have hoped I could have read earlier in the year. I'd definitely heard about all the others (except for Nana in the City, which our library doesn't even have in their system), but my turn just hasn't come up for them (I have literally been waiting for Sam & Dave for over three months (since October 25th), and I'm still #15 on the list). I know I shouldn't be annoyed since the library is free and all, but seriously? I really would have loved to have read these books before they won.

Out of the 2014 picture books that I did get to read, Beekle was not my favorite, but I have no real complaints about it. It was cute, and I'm looking forward to reading it again.

And as far as a teen graphic novel winning a Caldecott Honor? I have no doubt the illustrations probably are splendid, but I am still not okay with that.

Finally, the John Newbery award:

The Crossover won the medal and Brown Girl Dreaming and El Deafo won honors.

I'm a little scared to talk about this one since my irritation has only been mounting in the days since the awards were announced.

But before I get to that, let me say that I am ecstatic about Jacqueline Woodson's Honor for Brown Girl Dreaming (it also won the Coretta Scott King award, a Sibert Honor and, earlier, the National Book Award). It was one of my very favorite reads from last year, and I even bought my own copy soon after finishing it (and when it comes to buying books, I am rather stingy, so that's saying something). It was a gorgeous memoir, and I highly, highly recommend it.

In fact, my irritation actually has almost nothing to do with the winners themselves. Even though I haven't read The Crossover or El Deafo, I've heard high praise for both of them, and I'm anxious and excited to read them just as soon as I can. (I do have my doubts about a graphic novel (El Deafo) being able to stand on its own without the pictures, but I'll reserve any opinions on that until after I've read it.)

No, my irritation stems from two other areas.

First, that only two books received honors. For the record, I thought the Caldecott's six honors was a little over the top, but only two honors? With so many amazing books published last year, it just seemed rather skimpy. And, you may have noticed, the awards went to one graphic novel and two verse novels with nary a traditional novel in sight.

Which brings me to my second point of irritation:

Since Monday, I've read various opinions about the awards, and people have been throwing around words like, "game changing!" "groundbreaking!" "diverse!" They've been saying things like, "Wow, that committee really made a statement."

Seriously?! Is that what these awards have come down to? Making a statement?

Have we now gone from honoring the "most outstanding contributions in children's literature" to "making a statement"?

Don't get me wrong--I am happy to see authors of all races, religions, and opinions being recognized. I am happy to see books featuring diverse people and situations receiving medals. I am happy to see many different genres earning notice. But . . .

But . . .

I would sincerely hope that the award isn't purposely being jammed and twisted and forced onto a certain book that it doesn't fit simply in order to make it "groundbreaking."

Like I said before, I'm not saying that the books that were chosen weren't the most distinguished. I'm just scared by the words I'm hearing. It seems like everyone is focusing more on how much the envelope can be pushed and less about the actual literary merits of a particular work. I get that a committee is made up of individuals with their own personalities and interests, so it makes sense that some books are going to be favored more one year than another. But I'm scared because, since the committee went with one winner and only two honors, even I'm inclined to think they were trying to make a statement--to make it glaringly obvious that they were trying to create a nontraditional year.

I want to wish my heartiest congratulations to all the winners. They deserve all the praise and attention they're receiving.

But I also want to go on record as saying that I still believe a traditional novel can be distinguished.

I would absolutely love to hear your thoughts about the 2015 ALA Youth Media Awards. Mike cares very little about these awards, and I'm dying to talk to someone else about them!

Five Things That Are Helping Me Endure (and Even Enjoy) Winter

Feb 2, 2015

Sometimes I can't believe that when I was ten years old I said that winter was my favorite season. Was it really? Or was it simply because it held Christmas and my birthday and because I found falling snow to be absolutely magical (even though in northeastern Colorado, it usually came down sideways)?

Whether it truly was or wasn't, it isn't my favorite anymore. In fact, I find myself enduring a lot more than enjoying these cold months, even during a mild winter like the one we're experiencing this year (it's because mild temperatures don't make it any lighter at 5:30pm).

But I don't want to just be enduring four months out of every year. That's a third of my life! So here are five things that are helping me get through, and yes even enjoy, these months.

1. My portable heater

I own two of them. Being able to have warm air on command does wonders for my spirits. I turn it on, tuck my feet beside it (or stick my face in front of it), and relish the comforting warmth. I know it's not the same as soaking up the heat of the sun, but I'll take it.

2. Our carport

When we bought our house, Mike was pretty disappointed that it only had a carport, not a garage (and he immediately set about making plans for how he could add one . . . eventually). But me? I love our carport. Love, love, love it. It has made my life so much easier. Our car stays dry, free of frost, and is a mere three steps from our door. It has cut down significantly on my morning prep time and stress level. Sometimes I don't even make the three kids who are not going to school put on shoes because they don't have to make a trek out to a frozen car parked on the street.

3. Boots

We have not had a lot of snow this winter (as you can see from the above picture), but I still find myself grabbing my boots as my footwear of choice. Mike got them for me last winter. I don't even know what brand they are. I just know that they are soft and warm and very comfortable. I probably won't stop wearing them until I can trade them out for flip flops.

4. Books about ice, cold, and snow

In January 2013 I read Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow. Last winter, I read The Long Winter and Breadcrumbs. This year, I read Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage. I guess it has now become something of a tradition to read about cold during the winter months, and for some reason, it makes me feel so much better. I think it's because when I read about the extreme weather that other people (fictional or not) faced, I realize that my lot is pretty darn good, and I feel so much more grateful for the little comforts (like portable heaters!).

5. A robe

Before Clark was born, I made a few changes to the hospital bag I'd packed with the other three. For example, I brought real clothes to wear during my stay instead of the lovely hospital gowns provided. I can't even tell you what a tremendous difference it made to the way I felt immediately postpartum. One of the other things I brought with me was a robe because I'd heard from several sources how nice and warm and comfortable it made them feel. And so I went out to Old Navy and bought one (I think even at full price--very unusual). But then . . . Clark was born on an unseasonably hot May day, and I didn't feel like wearing any layers, and I was feeling a little guilty about my purchase. But fast forward to October when I pulled the robe back out, wrapped myself in it, and I'm not sure if I've taken it off in the months since. I've remarked to Mike on more than one occasion how that might just be one of the best purchases I've ever made (I think he's a tad jealous he didn't give it to me himself).

Today happens to be an absolutely beautiful February day, and even if that means Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, I hope it's still a sign that spring is just around the corner. I'm linking up at Modern Mrs. Darcy today where lots of people are sharing the things that are making them happy this winter. What things are saving YOU?
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