Hiatus Haiku

Sep 30, 2015

Guest Poem by Mike

Amy takes a break
I fill in and post a bit
No bright side for you

Go-To Author #2: Jeff Shaara

Sep 28, 2015

Guest Post by Mike

My second go-to author is Jeff Shaara.  His novels are historical fiction that give first hand accounts of wars or battles.  I will note that I consider his books as more history than fiction.  They are well researched, and all characters and events described are true to history.  The fiction comes in the form of added dialogues and character musings that were not recorded.  They are included to give the stories more flow, heart, and interest.  Shaara takes care to make sure everything he writes would be in line with what is likely to have been said or thought based on what we do know of the people involved. 

These books are so good for helping you understand what happened in the conflict and why.  The cast of characters almost always includes high ranking officers and lowly foot-soldier types from both sides.  That way you get to see the overall flow of the battle, and how it felt to be fighting in it.  Shaara found a pattern that works, and he applies it repeatedly to help us understand American history through the wars we have fought

Here are a few of my favorites:

The Killer Angels.  I'm starting my list off with this one, even though it wasn't written by Jeff Shaara.  It was written by his father, Michael Shaara, and was the original novel that began the Shaara legacy.  It is an account of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, and was the basis for the 1993 film "Gettysburg."  This book is touching, enlightening, educational, and inspiring, and it is one of my top ten books of all time.  I even bet Jeff would agree with me that his father's work is the true masterpiece of the genre.

To the Last Man.  Loved this book!  I grew up loving histories and movies about World War II, but I hadn't studied much about World War I.  To the Last Man brought the Great War to life for me.  There is one story line in the novel that especially astounded me.  Shaara follows a French-American flying ace (Raoul Lufbery) whom I had never heard of before.  It is tragic that more people don't know his heroic story.   Please read this book and help turn that around!

The Rising Tide.  Like I said, I've always loved learning about WWII.  This is the first in a three book series that describes the war in Europe.  All three are very good, but I'm only listing the first one to get you started.  The top brass characters are Erwin Rommel (amazing!) and Eisenhower.  The enlisted men are great too.  I also highly recommend the audiobooks of this series.  Very well done.

Admittedly, I'm a war buff, but I think anyone who likes a good story will enjoy these works.

Go-To Author #1: Brandon Sanderson

Sep 23, 2015

Guest Post by Mike

I need to make sure you know about my favorite author, Brandon Sanderson. If I'm ever in a pinch and need to find a book fast that I know I'm going to enjoy, he's my go-to guy. I have yet to find something he's written that I didn't love. (With the possible exception of Elantris, which I did like a lot, but it wasn't to the point of love, but it was very interesting, and it was his first novel, so I'll lean his way on that one too).

A selection of Brandon Sanderson books.   The top three are the original Mistborn series.  
I actually haven't read Warbreaker yet.  I can't keep up with him!

What I like most about his writing is his incredible imagination.  I often stop and ask myself, "How in the world did he think of that?"  The worlds in which his stories take place are truly fantastic, inspiring the reader just the right mix of childlike wonder at the magic and a more mature intelligence that underlies everything.

I somewhat agree with the criticism that fantasy can get a little tiring when new, more powerful spells and creatures keep appearing out of the blue to threaten or save the main characters in their hour of need.  It takes away the excitement and feeling of danger when you don't know the rules and the magic is unrestrained.   Brandon Sanderson doesn't work like that.  There are fanciful phenomena, but there are also clear boundaries. They are fun stories, but not fluff.  And he's not afraid to do some pretty stunning plot twists or even kill off beloved main characters. 

If you don't like hard core fantasy, you might want to try some of his lighter stuff, like the Alcatraz books.  They are geared to a younger audience and take place on earth... sort of.  It's an alternate earth where the oppressed people (such as America) are brainwashed under the oppressive hand of the evil librarians.  I've only read the first one, but was laughing out loud most of the way.  Very fun.

Perhaps the next step up is The Rithmatist.  It's another younger audience book. I found it so creative that it must have literally blown my mind since I can't think of anything else to say about it.  
But Sanderson is also a great destination for the serious fantasy lover. The original Mistborn trilogy is what got me hooked on him in the first place.  It is so well written, such a good story, great dynamic characters, and plot twists that will leave you reeling.  

He then takes the basic premise of the Mistborn books, and translates it to new time periods to create the Wax and Wayne series.  It's kind of a genius mix of steam punk and fantasy. Coincidentally, the latest of these books (Shadows of Self) comes out in a couple weeks.  I don't know how he turns out the volume of books that he does while continuing to change the game.  He has the production rate of a factory with the touch of an artisan. 

I need to sign off for now, so I will save talking about the Stormlight Archives series (probably my favorite of his so far) for another time.

But I think you got the point.  I'm a Brandon Sanderson Fan. 



What to Expect In Amy's Absence

Sep 21, 2015

Guest post by Mike

Amy has given me the keys to her blog while she takes her little hiatus.  I thought I should start out with a list of what kinds of things (good and bad) you are likely to see from me over the next few weeks. 

Book Genres
Most of my posts will be about books that Amy is not likely to read any time soon.  While a large part of what I read comes from Amy's recommendations, I also love a couple of genres that Amy is less interested in, specifically science fiction/fantasy and war history.  Branching out!

Review Content
Don't expect a lot of in depth analysis.  I read most of these books some time ago and might not remember much more than that I liked them.

It sounds like a lot of work to get relevant images to accompany posts.  I don't like a lot of work.  You'll be lucky to get a six month old picture of me in a lawn chair with a nerdy shirt.

I should let you know that I'm more stream of consciousness than Amy with less patience for proofreading.  So I mite even have sum more grammar errors then her. 

I'm planning to post some original poetry written specifically for this blog. We're talking World Premier! It might not be much more than a Haiku, but you'll want to stay tuned for that.

Amy is very structured and consistent.  I am not so much.  The spacing of my posts will likely be less predictable, even if I keep posting the entire time Amy is planning to be gone, which is not a sure thing.

Comment Moderation
I literally haven't checked my email since July, and I make no promises to respond to blog comments. 

With all that said, I think this is going to be a fun exercise for everyone. At the very least, we will all come out of this with more appreciation for the work Amy puts into having thoughtful, meaningful articles.

We'll talk soon.

Six month old picture of me in a lawn chair with a nerdy shirt.

Taking a Step Back

Sep 18, 2015

At least for me, motherhood has been a slowly expanding juggling act. After my oldest was born, I quit working full time and found myself with loads of time on my hands. Aaron was a fairly easy baby, and so I had these long stretches of nap time where I cleaned my (already clean) house, read, made dinner, watched our local morning show, or took a nap myself.  I didn't even have the internet to waste time on since Mike was in school at the time and took our laptop with him every day.

For an introvert like me, this was not a bad life. Many days, I just held Aaron for all of his naps because I couldn't get enough of him, and it wasn't like I had anything pressing to do. Sometimes I dream about those days. I didn't appreciate them enough.

As the months, and then the years, went by, I added a ball here and there to the ones I was already juggling. I began teaching piano lessons; I had another baby (and then another and another); my children acquired their own activities: soccer, gymnastics, piano, school; my house didn't stay clean; the laundry pile exploded; and I started this blog.

These have all been good things, and I feel blessed that I've had the opportunity to fill my life with so many of the things I love.

But lately, it feels like I can't stay on top of it all--like maybe, just maybe, I'm trying to juggle one or two too many balls. I've tried lots of things to manage everything (schedules and routines and multi-tasking and delegating). I've tried cutting back (I whittled down by piano studio to twelve students; I didn't commit to as much volunteering this year at the school). I've tried to use the hours at the edges of the day productively (I shifted my blog writing to the early morning; I spent the evenings putting the house back in order).

And yet, with all of that, I still find myself feeling frayed and frazzled for most of the day. I'm tense with my kids. I'm frustrated with my house. I'm disappointed with myself.

For a long time, I've wondered if I should give up my blog because it takes up a lot of my time (and, I'll admit, sometimes adds to the tension I feel when I'm being interrupted for the dozenth time while writing a post). But it's also something that brings me a lot of joy and satisfaction outside of motherhood, and I think that's important.

I thought about just taking a break, but the word "break" scared me. I'd seen what happened on other blogs: "Just taking a short break while I find myself!". . . and then they never posted again.

But a few weeks ago , I was taking some much needed time to read my scriptures and ponder my situation. The word "break" again flitted across my brain, and this time, it didn't scare me. In fact, for the first time, I was excited by the prospect. \

I remembered an experience one of my friends had shared about her husband's business. He was working overtime, putting every possible minute into helping his business take off . . . but it wasn't working. He was frustrated. His family missed him. Finally, they just decided that, regardless of the consequences, they all needed a break. They pack up their camper and went into the mountains for a week. And while he was away from work, he could suddenly look at it very objectively from a distance, and he knew what was missing. He went home rejuvenated and with a new plan (and it worked).

I wondered if the same thing might happen with my blog. If I stopped thinking and worrying about it 24/7, if I simply put my focus on something else for a few weeks, maybe I'd be able to see things more clearly and figure out a solution. I decided it was worth a chance anyway. But definitely not without a plan.

I learned from Gretchen Rubin's Better Than Before that stopping a habit can be disastrous. I know marathoners who immediately sign up for the next race as soon as they're done with one just so that they don't get into the habit of sleeping in. One of the stories Gretchen tells is about a yoga instructor who wouldn't let his clients "stop for the summer." Instead, he just cancelled the appointments during those months, but they still had their next appointment scheduled on the calendar, so it didn't feel like a big ordeal to start up again in the fall.

As I've been thinking about my break, I've planned it out very purposefully and strategically. It will be three weeks long (which I hope is long enough for me to make a clean break of it but not so long that I feel like I've completely abandoned ship). Gretchen Rubin said, "When faced with an unavoidable stopping point . . .  it helps to commit to a specific day to jump back into the habit." So I've done just that with my break. It will run from September 21st to October 11th (going over conference weekend, which is always a contemplative, reflective time for me).

This will be a break not only from the blog but the internet in general. That means no Instagram, no Facebook, no checking other people's blogs. I know. It's going to be tough. I am giving myself permission to check my email during that time just because I feel like that's necessary in order to be a responsible adult, so you can still get a hold of me that way.

All this might be coming as a shock to you, like it's something I've done on a whim, but it's been in the planning stages for weeks, and I have to say, I'm kind of excited for it. There have been some things I've shoved to the back of my life that I hope to give a little more attention to during the next few weeks: an online photography class I bought months ago, some non-blog writing, a little organizing. I also plan to keep track of how I'm spending my time and note my observations in my journal.

When I told Mike about my plan, he totally surprised me by saying, "I'll guest post for you during that time!" You have to understand, during the last three-and-a-half years, Mike has taken only a passing interest in my blog, so for him to actually volunteer to write on it? That's huge. You're in for a treat, that's all I can say.

So that's what Mike will be doing during the break. And I actually have something for you (yes you, dear readers) to do during the break as well. For a long time, I've had some questions bouncing around in my brain: How do people find my blog? What makes them stay (or better than that, come back)? What makes them leave? etc. I finally just decided it was time for Sunlit Pages' first ever reader survey.

I know. Everyone has a survey they want filled out. But this one will literally take you five minutes (or less) and will be so helpful to me in taking the pulse of this blog. And obviously, a response from one hundred of you will be vastly more informative than from just ten of you, so please, even if you haven't ever commented on this blog, please take a couple minutes to do this for me. Thank you so, so much. (It's embedded at the bottom of the post.)

Regardless of what happens during the next three weeks, it's a pretty sure bet that I won't just fade away into the internet abyss. You can expect me back on October 12th because it's written on the schedule, and I am nothing if not a strict adherer to schedules. See you in a few weeks!

(Also, let me know in the comments or by email if you have trouble taking the survey. Since this is my first one, I'm still trying to figure out the best way to get it to you.)

What My Kids Are Listening to Right Now #3: Nine of Our Current Favorites

Sep 16, 2015

Last winter, I shared nine of our favorite children's music albums with you. I still stand behind that list 100%, but in the meantime, we've added some more favorites.

1. All Around Ralph's World

This one probably should have gone on the original list since we first listened to it years and years ago back when we only had two children instead of four. The first song we heard of his was "Wiggle Your La-Di-Dah" during library story time. I immediately tracked down the librarian afterward to find out the name of the album it came from. Several months later, we danced to "Drivin' in My Car" at our little music co-op. Both songs were instant hits because the words supply their own actions, and we've been pleased to discover that many of his other songs are just as dance- and action-worthy.

Favorite song: "Wiggle Your La-Di-Dah" with "Drivin' in My Car" following as a close second (it's on a different album, I believe)

2. The Little Mermaid Broadway soundtrack 

A few weeks ago, Mike and I saw The Little Mermaid at our favorite local theater. Neither of us would claim it as one of our favorite Disney movies, but we've always liked the music, and I was dying to see what the set would be like at this theater (it did not disappoint). Anyway, we ended up loving the play (who knew?) and decided to purchase the Broadway soundtrack.  As you might have guessed, our kids fell in love with it, too. I think they'd only seen the movie once and couldn't remember much of it, so it was entertaining to hear them try to piece together the details of the story based on the music. Within just a few short days, they had all the words memorized.

Favorite song: "She's in Love" (Maxwell put this one on repeat and probably listened to it twenty times in a row.) 

3. Up to Something Good by Sunshine Collective*

This is not a children's album per se; the songs aren't about the alphabet or going to school or playing outside. But I only had to put it on once for my kids before they were hooked on these light, carefree songs. In fact, a few days ago, Maxwell was begging for it, but he couldn't remember the name of it. It wasn't until I, lucky for him, coincidentally put it on a little while later that he exclaimed, "This is it! This is the one I wanted!" It's recorded by a husband and wife team, and I just really enjoy their style, and so do my kids.

Favorite song: I wish I could say "Up to Something Good" because parts of it really are my favorite, but it has this strange section in the middle that morphs into something reminiscent of Mission Impossible, and it just doesn't work for me (but now you're probably intrigued, huh?). So instead, how about "I Love You" because after Bradley heard it for the first time, he came up to me and said, "Mom, I do love you." 

4. Play! by Milkshake

Another amazing find from library story time (I'm telling you, it's worth the hassle of going). As I recall, the theme from that day was superheroes. The librarian had put together this fantastic playlist of superhero songs, and I begged her for her list afterwards. One of the albums was Play! by the group Milkshake. I checked it out, and my kids immediately fell in love with it. We happened to get it right before we went on our road trip to Nebraska this summer, and they put it on repeat and listened to it almost the entire way there and back (and by the end of it, Mike and I weren't pulling our hair out, so that's saying something). They're just a lively group of musicians who capture the fun of childhood. (I actually just purchased the album for Bradley's upcoming birthday, so there's another endorsement.)

Favorite song: "Superhero" (Even though we like all the songs, we've listened to this one the most. I give it two thumbs up because they mention reading as a superpower.)

5. Brains On!

This is not a music album. It's a podcast. And my kids are addicted to it. It's kind of like Bill Nye the Science Guy in podcast form. Each episode explores a different science topic. We've learned about lightning and thunder, cuttlefish, volcanoes in space, cats, bridges and tunnels, and underwater breathing. They interview scientists in the field and let kids ask questions and explain the topics in a way that's easy to understand. Just a warning: sometimes they get a little silly and ridiculous (again, think Bill Nye), but my kids don't seem to mind one bit. Highly recommend.

Favorite episode: Bridges vs. Tunnels (because we had such a good family debate about it--I'm in the bridge camp myself. How about you?)

6. Imagination by Play Date

This is another husband and wife team, but unlike Sunshine Collective where only of them sings and the other accompanies, Play Date is very much a joint effort with both of them playing and singing. Their music is fun with a good bounce and beat, and their voices complement each other really well. I often catch myself singing along while we're driving in the car. This is the group's first album. Their second album was recently released, and sadly, I was disappointed. Maybe I haven't given it enough of a chance, but it didn't even sound like the same group to me. So just a heads up there.

Favorite song: "XYZ" (we love it when they start singing through the alphabet super duper fast)

7. Classics For Kids 

This is another non-music-album recommendation (although I have seen that you can purchase a collection of the episodes in CD-format if you wish). In each segment, Naomi Lewin highlights a composer (or genre). The episodes are short, informative, and filled with the music of the composers being featured. I'd heard it at random times on our classical radio station, but it wasn't until recently that I realized you could access all of the past episodes on their website (which is another absolutely fabulous resource, by the way). Each one is about five minutes in length, which is the exact amount of time it takes us to drive Aaron to school. So we've been listening to one each morning, and my kids are now insistent on it. It has become part of our routine, and they won't let me forget. If you want to work a little classical music and history into your day without overwhelming your kids, this is the perfect solution.

Favorite segment (so far): John Philip Sousa--American Military Bands (there's just something about those marches that gets you feeling all proud and patriotic.)

8. The Kerplunks

This Canadian music group has a very eclectic style. The first song on this album is reminiscent of the big band era, but the more we listened, the more I realized their songs touch on a wide range of genres. This group is fun and silly and teeters right on the edge between wacky and bizarre (two of the songs--"Ooligan" and "Dog Toy"--definitely fall off into the bizarre range for me). But without fail, we turn this on and immediately want to dance and sing along.

Favorite song: I'd have to go with "Ants Dance" because I love its subtle nod to Glenn Miller, but my kids would probably say "Gumboots." (Although maybe we all should just settle on "Rutabaga"--that song cracks us up every time and is so fun to sing along to.)

9. Get on Board by Alex and the Kaleidoscope*

As I come to the end of this list, I'm noticing a trend with most of the music on it. I keep wanting to use the same words to describe each one: lively, upbeat, fun. And this one is no exception. As soon as we heard the first song on the album, I knew it was going to fit our requirements. The songs highlight some of my kids'  favorite things--bugs, dinosaurs, being outside--and do it with catchy melodies, a strong beat, and lots of percussion. I will say that there was one song on this album that surprised me. "Oh, Won't You Sit Down" has a strong Gospel feel to it. The rest of the album is not religious at all, so this one seemed a little out of place, but we still liked it.

Favorite song: "Get on Board" (great for driving in the car)

That's it for this time! Hopefully you've found a few new things to try, and, as always, please share your current favorites with us! We are always up for trying something new.

*I received complimentary copies of Up to Something Good and Get on Board and was happy to give them each an honest review because we liked them both so much.

Raising Readers: Make a Library in Your Home

Sep 14, 2015

I have always wanted a library in my own home. I set my sights high at age eight when I watched Beauty and the Beast for the first time. That library! Walls of books, so high you needed a ladder to reach them, and balconies and a cozy fireplace. Sign me up.

But wealthy princes-turned-beasts are not in abundance, and as time went on, my library ideals also changed. I still wanted a space reserved for books, but I realized I'd rather have something cozy and comfortable instead of elaborate and spacious.

When we moved into our home last year, we didn't know what to do with one of the little rooms in the basement. It didn't have a closet, so we didn't plan on using it as a bedroom. For a couple of months, it was the playroom, but the toys always migrated to the family room. One day I had the brilliant idea to turn it into the library. True, it wasn't the perfect room for it, but I was determined to make it as perfect as possible.

Even though Mike wasn't nearly as enthusiastic about the project as I was, he was a good sport and willingly did all the little jobs I gave him. The room is an odd shape because it jogs out a couple of feet on one side, so one of the first things Mike did was to make that little section into a bench seat (it opens up for additional storage). We hired someone to make the cushion for it, and then, because every library needs a nook, we hung curtains so a little reader could close himself in.

The room took us forever to finish, but I'm very happy with the result. Who knew this little basement room could be so cute? I think having a room dedicated entirely to books sends a strong message to my kids that our family loves and treasures reading. Books are some of our most prized possessions, and because of that, we want them to be accessible and located in a place that's pleasant to be in. This room isn't the only room we read in, nor the only one with books in it, but it's a guaranteed, cozy spot, perfect for reading, any time of the day.

Your home might not have the perfect place for a library either. But I would encourage you to be creative and figure out if there's a little corner that can be turned into your own little library.


Tall bookcase: IKEA (but we got it from a friend who was getting rid of it)
Little Tikes table and chairs: yard sale
Turntable bookshelf: yard sale
Red chair: given to us by a friend
Blue, green, and white pillow: made by me
Peter Pan print: Litographs
Hanging light: IKEA (this particular color is not on their website)
Small, black frames: IKEA (we took out the mirrors and replaced them with prints)
Children's book prints: starting in the top left and going clockwise: All the World (free from a cereal box), Make Way for Ducklings (thrift store), Blizzard (unbound copy from publisher), Harry the Dirty Dog (thrift store) 
White bookcases: garage sale
Window curtains: made by me
Window valence: made by Mike
Bench seat: made by Mike
Bench seat cushion: fabric purchased at Jo-Ann
Body pillow: Smiths
Knitted pillow: made by me
Wall lamp: IKEA
Long curtain panels: Target
Area rug: Target (similar)
Book timeline: made by me (more info here

I would love to hear about your cozy reading spaces and/or how you make your books accessible for every family member. Please share in the comments (or send me an email: sunlitpages [at] gmail [dot] com).

Why I Decided to Make My Life Crazy and Send My Kids to Two Different Elementary Schools

Sep 11, 2015

It's an innocent enough question: Where are your kids going to school?

But for me, it has a long and complicated answer.

This year, Aaron is in second grade, and Maxwell is in kindergarten. They're not going to our neighborhood school. And they're also not going to the same school.

When people find out about this, their natural response is, "Why?" And the underlying implication is, Why on earth would you do that to yourself?(!) (I wonder that myself on a daily basis.)

But I did have my reasons (still do), and so I'm writing all of them right here so that, in the future, when I get asked that question again (which I'm sure I will), I can just direct people to this blog post where they can read all the juicy details for themselves.

Let's start back at the very beginning (two whole years ago).

Aaron attended kindergarten at our neighborhood school. We loved it. We walked to school almost every morning. We had lots of friends in the neighborhood. His teacher was absolutely amazing.

And then, towards the end of his kindergarten year, we moved. Not far, but far enough that it put us in a different school district. And a bunch of options opened up to us.

Our new district has thirteen schools with dual language immersion programs (our former district had just one). You know what those are, right? Students have half of their days in English, and the other half in the target language (French, Spanish, or Chinese are our choices here). You apply to get in, and then if there are more applicants than spots, there's a lottery. All of the language immersion programs begin in first grade, so we were moving into the new district at the perfect time to get Aaron into one of them.

Our neighborhood school happens to house one of the Spanish programs, so the decision should have been so easy: put him in the neighborhood school, and by sixth grade, he'll know Spanish. Who wouldn't want that?

But the neighborhood school didn't appeal to me for three reasons: first, when we moved into the neighborhood, there were hints of some recent drama at the school (it had pretty much blown over by the time we got here, but I like to avoid drama (although, turns out, not going to the neighborhood school causes some drama of its own)). Second, I wasn't set on Aaron learning Spanish (the school also has a traditional classroom in each grade, but that's where some of the drama was...). Third, the school wasn't within walking distance, and once I realized I'd have to drive no matter where Aaron went, I was more open to other options.

Even with all those reasons though, I probably would have considered going to the neighborhood school if everyone in the neighborhood actually went to that school. But they don't. Not by a long shot. In fact, within just one block of our home, I know of kids going to seven (yes, seven!) different elementary schools. I don't want to diverge into the controversial topic of immersion schools, but I will say that before we moved here, I had no idea that, regardless of whether you love them or hate them, they do tend to divide up the neighborhood.

Anyway, back to Aaron and the decision of where to send him for first grade. I was very interested in a school just a couple of miles away that housed both the French immersion program and the gifted/talented program. (We were more interested in French than Spanish because Mike speaks French.) My sister-in-law's kids had been going to this school for years (two of them were in the French, two were in the gifted), and they loved it.

So we applied for the French program and also had Aaron tested for the gifted program, and then we (mostly I) stressed over deciding between the two. On the one hand, we were very tempted by the French program because we were amazed by our nephew who, by fourth grade, was speaking beautiful French. It can't be argued that knowing another language is going to be more and more of an advantage in this global world.

But the gifted program matched my own educational philosophy and goals a little bit more. You might think this is silly, but one of the main things I was excited about was when I learned that the gifted teachers gave out virtually no homework. That's a big deal to me. I'm not sending my kids away for seven hours a day only for them to come home with an hour (or more!) of homework every night. No thank you.

So we went with the gifted program, and that is where Aaron spent first grade. No regrets there. It was a great experience for him and us.

Now enter Maxwell.

The logical choice would have been to send Max to the same school as Aaron, right? But it wasn't as simple as that.

For starters, there was only one kindergarten teacher at Aaron's school, and we hadn't heard the most flattering things about her, so I wasn't super enthusiastic about sending him there, although I'm sure he would have been fine.

The more pressing concern had to do with Aaron. Yes, Aaron. See, a few of months before the students in the gifted program begin third grade, everyone gets retested. In first and second grades, the gifted program is really just an accelerated reading program, but in third grade, it morphs into an accelerated program in all subjects. Retesting ensures that everyone who would like to be in the gifted program gets a fair chance. Just because a child learns to read at four years old doesn't necessarily mean that he or she is "gifted" (it could just as likely be a case of overzealous parenting). But by third grade, you assume that those who didn't get the head start, but are truly gifted, will be excelling by that point and ready for something more.

It's an idea I wholeheartedly agree with (I remember first reading about it many years ago in NurtureShock), but it feels a little bit different when it's your own child's intelligence on the line, and you realize there's a chance he might get nudged out of his spot. It might sound like I don't have faith in him, but I think I'm just being realistic--there are a lot of smart kids out there.

So anyway, part of my reasoning behind my decision for Max had to do with what my plan was going to be for Aaron if he didn't get to stay in the gifted program after this year. By third grade, he wouldn't be able to get into any of the immersion programs, so I wanted a traditional classroom that would be a good fit for him. And that's when I started thinking about the charter school that's a five minute drive from our home.

We have many friends in our neighborhood who go to it, and we'd heard amazing things about it. In fact, we tried to get Aaron into it for kindergarten, but we were two blocks outside the boundaries. Now however, we were within the boundaries, so I knew our chances of getting in were much greater. I realized if Max got in for kindergarten, then Aaron would have a fairly good chance of getting in for next year because of sibling preference.

So we handed in an application, Maxwell got in, and that's where he's going for kindergarten.

As of today, Aaron has been in school for three and a half weeks and Max for two weeks, and so far, the two schools thing hasn't been horrible. We have some great carpools worked out, which means I'm not doing four different drop-offs and pick-ups every day. However, I anticipate some frustrations in the coming weeks when they both have their school carnivals on the same night and also when their breaks don't match up (since one is a charter school and the other is a public school, their calendars are not the same).

But whether or not it proves to be a hassle is not really the point. It most likely will be a hassle, but the point is, Is the hassle necessary? And right now, I'm not sure.

Gabrielle Blair (aka, Design Mom) recently wrote a post about school and how their family's philosophy is basically, "We don't fix it until it's broken." I agree with that. Why make our lives harder if the simple solution (in this case, sending our kids to the neighborhood school) works perfectly fine? But that's exactly what I did. I might have loved our neighborhood school, but I never gave it a chance. Part of that was driven by a fear of missing out on opportunities (it's easiest to test into the gifted program in first grade; your chances are better of getting into the charter school in kindergarten). Part of it was driven by family and friends who were going to the schools we were interested in. And part of it was driven by the right things clicking into place at the right time.

I kind of meant for this post to be the explanation of all explanations (hence, the length) so that I wouldn't have to explain my decision any more. But in writing it all out, I'm realizing that I really just opened a giant can of worms. I could talk so much more about public school, immersion programs, gifted programs, charter schools, or even homeschooling (why am I not homeschooling? I ask myself this very question more often than you might think).

I'm hoping this will be our only year at two different schools. I want my kids to see each other in the hall or on the playground. I want them to be able to share stories of teachers they had in common or memories of the same projects. At this point, I know which school I'm hoping they both end up in, but we'll just have to wait and see which way things fall. Dividing them up between two schools might not even be necessary, but if it is, I'm sure I'll be glad I did it.

Education can be a touchy subject, but I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments (as long as they're kind, of course). Also, if you have any questions for me, I'm happy to try to answer them.

KidPages: Six (Recent) Board Book Favorites

Sep 10, 2015

Something rather miraculous happened a few weeks ago, and most of the world didn't even acknowledge it: Clark finally started to love books. Before that blessed day, he would usually only tolerate one or two pages at a time. Now he will happily sit through an entire (six-page!) book and then ask for it again. Miraculous, I tell you. I always expect my kids to enjoy books much sooner in their young lives, but with all of them, something finally clicks around their first birthdays (or shortly thereafter).

In light of this development, I thought I'd share six of his recent favorites. It should be noted that many of the books he loves right now (What Does Baby Say?, Simms Taback's Farm Animals, and Chomp) have already been reviewed on the blog, so definitely go back to some of the other board books posts for more ideas.

1. Hi! by Ethan Long
Can I just tell you how much I love a book without flaps? Not that they don't have their place, but sometimes it's just so nice to be able to sit and read a book without a million little hands touching the page and trying to get to the flap before anyone else. This book doesn't contain a single flap, but it does have all sorts of animals saying "hi" in their own language: Meow, Bow-wow, Moo, even Slurp (for an anteater). Clark loves animal books right now, and I always love Ethan Long's illustrations.

2. Letters Are For Learning by Andrew Neyer*
There are very few alphabet books that I gush over because I feel like the children's book market is absolutely saturated with a million that all seem almost exactly the same. So although I'm not going to gush over this one, I will say that we do like it. The letters correspond with action words (M is for Marching, J is for Juggling, R is for Racing, etc.), and then the pictures show an animal that begins with that same letter engaged in the activity. The thing I like about this book in particular is that the illustrations hint at many more words that begin with the featured letter. Clark, of course, doesn't pick up on any of this cleverness, but my older kids do. (For example, "I is for inviting" shows an iguana writing out an invitation with ink. He has an icy drink nearby and a little inchworm for company.)

3. Wiggle! by Taro Gomi
Sometimes I wonder why I waste my time on board books with fancy textures or tempting flaps or delicate pop-ups when a book like this is much more simple and a lot more fun. The book has a hole going all the way through it, just the perfect size for a little finger to poke out of. And so, your finger becomes the star of the show. First, it's the tail on a cat, then the trunk on an elephant. There's nothing to bend or rip or tear, but it's still really interactive. I'm sold. (P.S. I also really love Taro Gomi's Hide and Seek, even though it doesn't have a hole in it.)

4. Baby Happy Baby Sad by Leslie Patricelli
I have ulterior motives here. I'm dying to hear Clark say "baby," and I'm convinced if I read him this book enough times, the word will somehow make its way out of his mouth. So far, it hasn't worked, but this book is adorable nonetheless (as are all of Leslie Patricelli's books). In it, two similar activities are paired side by side. One makes the baby happy (like holding onto a balloon), the other makes the baby sad (like watching the balloon float away). I particularly like the page where the happy baby is giving the kitty some love, and the sad baby is watching the (happy) cat escape. That is a daily scene in our house.

5. How Fast Can You Go? by Kate Riggs, illus. Nate Williams
The cover art is what made me pull this book off the shelf for a closer look. I love the retro colors and the spattered texture. It immediately won Clark over because not only does it showcase a different vehicle on every page, but a dog and cat are featured very prominently throughout, and Clark is a bit obsessed with dogs and cats, especially when he can find and point to them. (Also, I don't know if you noticed, but this is the only book on this list that has both an author and an illustrator. It seems like most board books are written and illustrated by one person. Forgive my sarcasm, but I guess I'm wondering how much time and effort it takes to come up with, "The car zooms down the road." Apparently, enough effort to earn a spot for your name on the cover.)

6. When? by Leo Lionni
I cannot look at the little mice in this book without getting flashbacks to my own childhood. We had the one (also a board book) where the mice turn different colors. I always loved the elegant page where they turned black and wore fancy top hats. So looking at this book with Clark is very nostalgic for me, but I'm almost certain I would love Leo Lionni's simple, collage-style art even if this were my first time seeing it. This book is part of series (the others are Who?, Where?, and What?). Each one explores common childhood questions.

Since we now seem to be on a roll, I'd love to hear about your favorite books for your littlest ones (not that I'll be able to get them from our library though since they won't let us put board books on hold . . . so frustrating!).

*I received a copy of Letters Are For Learning from the publisher. All opinions are my own!

The Story of the World: Early Modern Times by Susan Wise Bauer (book review plus timeline)

Sep 8, 2015

The Story of the World, Volume 3--a book review and timelineI knew we were being ambitious when "Read Story of the World" made it onto our lists of goals at the beginning of the summer. And ambitious it was. When we finished it over the weekend, there were cheers and smiles and a general feeling of major accomplishment. We had done it. By chipping away at it a little every day, we had done it.

We read volume three, which covers the two hundred and fifty years between Elizabeth the First and the Forty-Niners (1600 to 1850). I didn't purposely choose to skip volumes one and two. It's just that volume three was the one that was available from the library when we were ready to start, so that's what we went with. It was daunting not only because of its length (nearly 400 pages) but also because of its content (although by reading volume three, it meant that at least there were a few historical figures, like George Washington, that my kids were already familiar with).

Even though it's written for elementary school-aged kids, it's still fairly dense and detailed. It covers the globe, traveling from England to America to China to Russia to Australia and back again. It talks about dozens of different people: some with crazy hard names like Aurangzeb or K'ang-hsi, some with nearly identical names like Louis the XIV and Louis the XVI, and some blessedly familiar names like William Bradford or Patrick Henry.

The whole point of reading this book was to broaden our world view and introduce us to significant historical events. But before we even read the first chapter, I could see we were going to be in trouble fast unless we did something to help organize and keep track of the abundance of names, dates, and places.

So we created a timeline.

The Story of the World, Volume 3--a book review and timeline

It wasn't anything fancy. I splurged and bought a pack of index cards (and marveled that you can still buy something that isn't a pack of gum for under a dollar). Then Aaron and Max took turns drawing their interpretations of the events we were reading about. And then we taped the card to their bedroom wall. Done.

So easy, but this timeline made all the difference for us. It forced the boys to conceptualize what we were reading about and find a way to visually capture it. The act of drawing helped anchor those events in their brain. And then, being able to look at and review the cards on their wall anytime they felt like it helped them remember and also grasp how all these seemingly unrelated events fit together in the grand line of human history. (I also wrote down a brief summary on the back that we could refer to if we ever forgot what the picture was showing.)

The chapters were divided into sections that were each about three to five pages long. This seemed to be the perfect amount of information for each drawing. If it had been any longer, it might have been difficult to narrow it down to one picture. Sometimes I would help them think about what they could draw, but the artwork itself was all one hundred percent theirs. Often times it didn't look anything like what I envisioned, but it didn't matter. Their own personalities and styles really came through in the pictures.

The Story of the World, Volume 3--a book review and timeline
(One of my favorite cards, depicting Meriwether Lewis being chased by a bear. Maxwell 
decided the bear needed labeling to avoid any confusion. Bears are tricky.)
I love this wall so much because it's something tangible that I can later take down and keep to help remember our summer and the current stages of my kids (by next summer, I'm sure their artistic styles will both have changed). Plus, my own knowledge of world history grew so much while reading, and I'm really grateful for that.

1600 to 1850 covers the time period when so many countries decided to declare their independence. There was the American Revolution, of course, but also the French, Haitian, Venezuelan, and Mexican Revolutions (among others). Seeing all of these revolutions all lined up next to each other made me realize again what an absolute miracle it was that the American Revolution was such an overwhelming success. Not only were they able to successfully break away from England, but they also set up a government system based on equality and freedom that is still going strong today. The revolutions of so many other countries failed because they were driven by power and greed. They were done in the name of freedom, but in the end, they couldn't figure out how to run a country without a dictator. And sometimes, just trading dictators didn't leave a country any better off than what it was like originally. Reading about this period of history made me so grateful for the country I live in and for the founding fathers who weren't greedy for power.

One of Aaron and Maxwell's favorite stories was about Marie Madeline, a young 14-year-old girl who defended a fort in the French colonies. The Iroquois Indians attacked it, and almost everyone in the fort cowered in fear. But Marie Madeline, along with her 10- and 12-year-old brothers and an 80-year-old man, held the fort for eight days. That's the kind of stuff you could expand into its own novel.

And it's for that reason that I was so impressed with this book. Every chapter covered an important event in the history of the world. Entire books could be, and have been, written on each subject. It's an overwhelming amount of information to try to condense into a single volume. I can't imagine the amount of research that went into it and how time consuming, and at times frustrating, it must have been to try to determine how to tell such a big story in just a few words.

But Susan Wise Bauer did just that, and I feel like the boys and I really accomplished our purpose in reading this book. We're not history buffs, but we're a lot more knowledgeable than we were before we started. I love seeing my kids' faces light up when they overheard a now-familiar name, like Louis the XIV or Frederick the Great, and they exclaim, "Hey, I remember him!"

The Story of the World, Volume 3--a book review and timeline

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Sep 4, 2015

Okay, before I start this review, you have to understand that this is not my normal type of book. I consider myself a fairly eclectic reader, but I've read very few (um, maybe not any?) post-apocalyptic books (this review is getting off to a rough start since I can't even spell "apocalyptic"). For my part, I found this story both fascinating and frightening, but at least part of that was due to the fact that I was dropped into a world I've never really imagined. This could be just your standard, run-of-the-mill, end-of-the-world story. I have nothing to compare it to. But my hunch is it's a little more of a standout than that.

The story centers around two unrelated events that happen almost simultaneously: a famous actor dies suddenly of a heart attack while performing the part of King Lear; and the world is all but obliterated by the highly contagious and deadly Georgia flu. Within this framework, the main characters are all linked by some connection to both events.

One of these characters is Kirsten Raymonde. She was eight years old and playing the part of one of King Lear's daughters the night Arthur Leander had a heart attack. She watched him fall, saw a medical crew try unsuccessfully to revive him, and waited for her parents to pick her up from the theater (they never did). Twenty years later, she is part of a group that calls themselves the Traveling Symphony. In a desolate world, they travel between the small settlements of survivors, performing Shakespeare and music and trying to keep some beauty alive.

In one of these settlements, they find a religious cult, led by a man known simply as "the prophet." His words sound peaceable and friendly enough, but Kirsten and the Symphony can sense the underlying danger. They leave the prophet's village as quickly as possible but with disastrous consequences.

One of the few possessions Kirsten owns is a set of two graphic novels given to her by Arthur Leander shortly before he died. They were created by Miranda Carroll, Arthur's first wife, and feature another planet (actually a space station about the size of Earth's moon) known as Station Eleven. When Earth was invaded by enemy aliens, Dr. Eleven took a group of rebels and escaped on Station Eleven into the vast expanse of deep space. Station Eleven is covered almost entirely by water, and most of its inhabitants dwell in the Undersea. Many of them are tired of living meaningless lives in the middle of space. They want to return to Earth.

So there you have a few glimpses of the story: Kirsten and the Traveling Symphony; Arthur Leander; the prophet; and Station Eleven. There are other details and people and events that I haven't mentioned but that nonetheless play critical roles in how the story plays out. It's really incredibly well-crafted: here you have these two seemingly unrelated events--Arthur Leander's untimely death and the unexpected arrival of the Georgia flu--that somehow impact everyone in the story. The one seems minuscule in its scope: one man having a heart attack. The other is vast and far-reaching: 99% of the population is wiped out in a few weeks' time. You would expect the pandemic to completely overshadow Arthur's death. After all, when millions of people die from a disease, is it really memorable or significant that one person died of something so isolated as a heart attack? But somehow it does matter. For me, the juxtaposition of these two events really drove home the idea that the life (and death) of the individual matters.

But while I'm on the subject of the individuals, I will say that the book felt a bit harsh to me . . . almost as if, in the face of such unspeakable tragedy, the characters were each stripped of all emotions and personality. In other words, none of them exhibited the very things that should have made me love them. I don't quite know how to describe it except that I didn't personally make a connection with any of the characters.

I didn't recognize my indifference until two-thirds of the way into the story when one of the characters dies. The other characters are quite shaken up about it (understandably), so I was surprised by my reaction. First I found myself wracking my brain for who exactly this character was, and then I tried to muster up some emotion, but I found myself almost devoid of feeling. I considered the other, more prominent characters and realized that my reactions to them were the same. It wasn't that I disliked them, and it wasn't that I didn't know them. It was just like there was this invisible barrier between us, and I couldn't get close to them on an emotional level. I'm curious if anyone else who's read it felt the same way. I'm not sure if this harshness was intentional, or if it was just my perception.

While I may not have felt a connection with any of the characters, that's not to say that the story didn't prick at my emotions. There were some really haunting images throughout the book. The post-pandemic world that's described is both foreign and eerily familiar. As Kirsten and her friends travel through this wasteland, little details are mentioned--they see a blank television screen or they set up camp in the lawn/garden section of an abandoned Walmart--and you get this weird feeling that things are amiss in your own world. Even after all the other details of this book have faded away from my memory, I don't think I'll ever get the image of the abandoned, gridlocked cars on the freeway out of my head.

There are many books that employ the back and forth timeline: a chapter in the present alternating with a chapter in the past. But the timeline in this book was all over the place. The years leading up to the pandemic and then the twenty years after it were filled in randomly, like pinpoints of light on a grid: Here we got a snippet from fifteen years before the Georgia flu, then seven years before, then six months before. Then we saw a bit of what happened in Year One, Year Two, Year Fifteen. Then back to seven years before, etc. It traveled between characters almost as haphazardly: first to Jeevan, then to Kirsten, then to Arthur, then to Clark, then back to Kirsten. It wasn't predictable, but it felt intentional. It was like coloring in the little squares of a picture: this image gradually started to form, and it was really quite beautiful.

I think the most poignant moment of the story for me, the one that made me pause and think This is the whole point of the book, happened at almost the exact mid-point of the story. A character named Clark (friend of Arthur Leander/survivor of the Georgia flu) is interviewing a woman named Dahlia. This is three weeks before the pandemic, and Clark is still hard at work at a job he doesn't love but doesn't hate: he is hired to improve businesses by diagnosing specific problem areas (usually surrounding the boss). He does this by interviewing various people within the company. On this particular day, he's interviewing Dahlia, who is somewhat skeptical of his approach but is forthright in her answers nonetheless. As she's describing her observations of her boss, Clark starts to feel a little uncomfortable because it seems almost like she's describing him. She says, "I think people like him think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by vary occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mostly mean distraction." She labels people like that "high-functioning sleepwalkers."

And that's it, right there, the point of the book (at least for me). We should not just be going through the motions of life, passing ourselves off as being busy and successful, getting our work done, enjoying the weekend. We should be finding real joy in life--in the people we associate with and the tasks we perform and the leisure we partake in. Even when the world was empty and desolate after the pandemic, those moments could still be found: Kirsten found them while performing the part of Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Clark himself eventually found them while sitting quietly in his recliner and looking at his collection of artifacts. Even the comic book story of Station Eleven, which is this binding thread through the whole book, points to this idea as being important--it's not enough just to be safe if you're not progressing and trying to make the world better in a meaningful way. Hopefully, we don't need something so drastic to occur before we'll recognize the good things in life and invest our time in the things that truly matter to us.

Content note: Some foul language (including the f-word) as well as some hints at immorality off-stage.

Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl

Sep 2, 2015

Aaron has informed me, on more than one occasion, that Roald Dahl is his favorite author. This probably doesn't seem all that significant, maybe not even worth mentioning, except that Aaron never makes decisions about anything. He seems to have inherited both Mike's and my non-committal gene, and, as the first child, it has compounded into something unmanageable. He is unwilling to make a decision on just about anything. ("What was the best part of your day?" I didn't have a best part. "Would you rather have a banana or a peach in your lunch?" Which would you rather I have? "Do you want to go to the pool or the library?" Hmmm, I don't know.)

So the fact that he actually settled on a favorite author and that he's mentioned it several times and that it was not prompted in any way by me is actually pretty amazing. Roald Dahl, you've worked a miracle.

Fantastic Mr. Fox only further cemented his devotion. In fact, all three older boys (Bradley included, which doesn't always happen) loved this book.

The story begins by introducing the reader to three farmers: there's Boggis (an enormously fat chicken farmer), Bunce (a short, potbellied, duck and goose farmer), and Bean (a thin and clever turkey and apple farmer).

There's also Mr. Fox and his family. Every evening, Mr. Fox asks his lovely wife, Mrs. Fox, what she'd like for dinner, and then he goes and pilfers it off of one of the three farmers. It's a pretty sweet gig, filled with variety and deliciousness.

But the three farmers have had it with the stealing. They know the fox is the thief, and they devise a plan to put an end to him once and for all. Their plan is simple: surround his hole, wait for him to come out, and shoot him. And they come so close to succeeding. They shoot off Mr. Fox's tail (a loss he mourns for the rest of the book) before he sees them and dives back into his hole.

At that point, the game is on. It's one set of wits against another. But it isn't called Fantastic Mr. Fox for nothing.

At under one hundred pages, this is a short book that could easily be started and finished in a single afternoon. The chapters are short, the pictures are frequent, and the pacing is quick. However, with the start of school, we didn't have a long afternoon to devote to it, so we read it in four installments instead. And now, in retrospect, I'm kind of glad.

If we had read it all at once, I'm afraid we would have forgotten it pretty quickly. It would have just been a little spark along our reading continuum, nestled between books that took us several days or weeks to finish. And the truth is, when you spend more time with characters, you remember them better. By spreading out the reading of this book, even though the actual time spent reading it was the same, we revisited the characters several times, which forced us to review and remember what we already knew about them and the story. I'm not saying I recommend reading it in four sections instead of one, just mentioning that I don't regret the way it worked out.

Even though it's short, it still had all the elements we've come to expect from Roald Dahl: really despicable characters, clever solutions (although, for my part, I seriously wondered why Mr. Fox had to get to the brink of starvation before he came up with, what seemed to me to be, a rather obvious solution), characters worth championing and cheering for, and just the right dash of quirkiness.

My kids were quite eager for Mr. Fox to outsmart Boggis, Bunce and Bean, but does it seem odd that I actually felt a little bit sorry for the three farmers? I'm not saying they're pleasant characters by any stretch of the imagination. Just that, if I had a fox sneaking in and stealing from me several times a week, I might be a little grumpy too. I loved this poem about them:

Boggis and Bunce and Bean
One fat, one short, one lean.
These horrible crooks
So different in looks
Were nonetheless equally mean.

Obviously, if I had to choose between characters, I still wanted Mr. Fox to win. But I was not without sympathy for the three farmers and what they were up against. (My kids did not share my feelings and felt nothing but dislike for the three. The sooner Mr. Fox outwitted them, the better.)

Really though, it was just a fun, entertaining book. One that if, like Aaron, Roald Dahl is a favorite author of yours, you will definitely not want to miss.

Just for fun, tell me what your favorite Roald Dahl novel is. (This is a question Aaron would not be able to answer.)
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