2015 Reading: Second Half

Dec 30, 2015


I had a goal to read 65 books this year. When I recapped the first half of the year, I was a little worried because I was only up to 30. But between taking a three-week blogging break and reading some quick reads (shhhh), I managed to read 38 books during the second half of the year, which brought my total up to 68. Maybe 2016 will finally be the year when I break the 70 mark.

Here's what I read from July-December. (Book titles are linked to my full reviews.)

1. Henry and the Clubhouse by Beverly Cleary, 8/10 (readaloud)
Ramona is in fine form, and Henry takes it all in stride (except for the part when she locks him up in his own clubhouse--then he kind of loses it).

2. Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary, 8/10 (readaloud)
A little more serious than some of the other Ramona books. Having your dad lose his job will do that to a story.

3. It's All Too Much: An Easy Plan For Living a Richer Life With Less Stuff by Peter Walsh, 7/10 (audio)
I appreciated that he treated stuff as stuff rather than faithful companions, but his actual outline for purging got a little repetitive and tedious.

4. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Ewles, 9/10 (audio)
This book totally transformed my attitude towards The Princess Bride from indifferent, maybe even a little cool, to devoted fan. Also, the audio version is a must.

5. Conversations With a Moonflower by Christine T. Hall, 5/10
The metaphor was a little overdone in this short book, but it made us plant a moonflower in our backyard and the flowers really do open up extremely quickly.

6. Design Mom: How to Live With Kids: A Room-By-Room Guide by Gabrielle Stanley Blair, 8/10
A design book about living with kids that makes you think the author must have actually lived with kids (she does, in fact, have six of her own).

7. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, 8/10
A book about books and the unpredictability of life. Told in sparse but mesmerizing language.

8. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, 8/10 (audio)
A poignant story that surprised me in a dozen delightful ways.

9. Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, 5/10 (readaloud)
My kids enjoyed this book far more than I did.

10. Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain, 8/10
If you're looking for a good book club book, pick this one.

11. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, 8/10 (readaloud)
Pippi gave us plenty to laugh about. She's one of a kind.

12. Emily's Quest by L.M. Montgomery, 8/10
My favorite of the trilogy, and it has a good nail-biting scene at the end.

13. Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl, 7/10 (readaloud)
My kids are still singing the song about Boggis and Bunce and Bean.

14. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, 7/10
I liked it, but I think I'd be praising it a lot more if I actually enjoyed post-apocalyptic fiction.

15. The Story of the World: Early Modern Times by Susan Wise Bauer, 7/10 (readaloud)
Perhaps the most challenging book I read to my kids this year, but so rewarding. (And you have to check out our timeline . . . that's my favorite part!)

16. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, 8/10 (audio)
Really loved the way this story was told--with the events of the past eventually colliding with the present. I like happy endings though.

17. Believing Christ by Stephen E. Robinson, 8/10
The parable of the bicycle, which has made this book so well-known and loved, was not worth reading this book for. Other parts, however, were.

18. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling, 10/10 (readaloud)
What can I say? Harry Potter is casting his spell on a new generation, and my kids are included.

19. Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin, 5/10
I started out being completely fascinated by this book, but by the end, I was completely disgusted. Two thumbs down.

20. The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton, 9/10 (audio)
This book has one of the best twists I've ever read.

21. Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, 3/10
In spite of a good 100-page run in the middle, the beginning was too confusing and the ending was too horrific for me.

22. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, 8/10 (readaloud)
My kids love a despicable villain, and Miss Slighcarp is one of the best (i.e., worst).

23. Morality For Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith, 6/10 (audio)
Mma Makutsi gets the gold star for this book. She basically saves two businesses and then solves a mystery in her downtime.

24. The Little Leftover Witch by Florence Laughlin, 6/10 (readaloud)
Cute story, but I'll probably have forgotten most of it by next Halloween.

25. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, 8/10
There are things I could complain about (and I do in my full review), but overall I loved this creative spin on The Jungle Book.

26. The Unrest Cure and Other Stories by Saki, 8/10
I searched (and searched) (and searched) for a short stories collection that I would like and finally struck gold. Witty, with a touch of the morbid.

27. Honey For a Child's Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life by Gladys Hunt, 8/10
The book lists that make up the second half of this book are treasures. (Also, sometimes I get overwhelmed by all of the good books I haven't read yet, and this was one of those times.)

28. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande, 10/10 (audio)
Probably the book I talked about and recommended the most during 2015.

29. Dominic by William Steig, 7/10 (readaloud)
Dominic's adventurous spirit and positive attitude are contagious.

30. Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, 10/10 (audio)
If you think you can't find parenting advice in fiction, read this book.

31. Sideways Stories From Wayside School by Louis Sachar, 8/10
I read this book because Aaron was reading it, and I enjoyed it just as much as he did.

32. Santa Maybe by Aubrey Mace, 6/10
I couldn't get a single new fluffy Christmas book from the library, so I reread this one from a few years ago. Although still entertaining, it didn't hold up very well to a second reading.

33. The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron, 4/10
Feeling really sad that I wasted so much of my year on this book. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't what I was hoping for either.

34. My Life in France by Julia Child, 8/10 (audio)
I think I would have been totally intimidated by Julia Child in real life, but I sure loved reading her memoir.

35. Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, 10/10 (readaloud)
Contented sigh. I love this book.

36. The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made by Bruce Watson, 7/10
Really fascinating biography about A.C. Gilbert, the man who invented the Erector set. (Full review coming soon.)

37. The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson, 8/10 (readaloud)
Perfect read for this time of year. (Full review coming soon.)

38. Wayside School is Falling Down by Louis Sachar, 8/10
I wasn't really planning on reading another Wayside book, but Aaron told me I had to.  And I'm glad I listened to him. (Full review coming soon.)

It has been such a great year of reading for me, and I hope you can say the same. Have you read any of these books? Tell me what you thought about them!

Reading Goals: I Did It!

Dec 28, 2015


I just thought about how sad it would be if I sat down to write this post and realized that I'd inadvertently forgotten one of my goals. I guess there would still be a few more days before the end of 2015 to try to cram it in, but I'm not a fast reader, so I'd probably just have to admit defeat. Luckily, I don't think that happened. I guess I'll see as I write up this report (book titles linked to full reviews).

1. Read a past Newbery honor and a past Newbery winner
I loved this goal. It helped me consider anew books from several (or many) years ago instead of focusing on just all the up and coming books. There are so many truly fantastic books that have already been published that even if all the publishing houses closed their doors for 2016, there would still be more good books than I could possibly read in my lifetime. However (and thankfully), I don't think that's going to happen, and my one regret about this goal is that because of it, I didn't really pay much attention to the current middle grade novels. Now the Newbery is going to be announced next month, and I don't even have a book to cheer for. Next year, I'm going to try to strike more of a balance between past and current.

April 2015: Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes (Newbery medal 1952)
July 2015: Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary (Newbery honor 1978)
July 2015: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (Newbery honor 2010)
October 2015: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (Newbery medal 2009)
December 2015: The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson (Newbery Honor 1959)

2. Read two classics by female authors
This was one of my favorite goals to accomplish this year for two reasons: I felt a major sense of accomplishment when I finished Middlemarch (April 2015) by George Eliot (a new-to-me author), and I discovered a new favorite book when I read Little Men (November 2015) by Louisa May Alcott (a new book by an author I'd read before). In fact, I loved Little Men so much that I'm trying to figure out a way to incorporate more of Louisa May Alcott's work into my goals for 2016.

3. Read a book I put on my to-read list in 2010
I made this same type of goal last year, and it's a great one because it makes me look with new eyes at all those books that have been sitting, neglected and overlooked, on my to-read shelf for five years. I read The Education of Little Tree (May 2015) by Forrest Carter (which I added in July 2010) and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (October 2015) by Joan Aiken (which I added in March 2010). Next year, I'll be tackling a book or two from the books I shelved in 2011.

4. Read a children's classic
I read Just So Stories (August 2015) by Rudyard Kipling to fulfill this goal, then realized it might have been a better choice for my short stories goal. I also realized that defining a children's classic is a bit arbitrary. How does something become a children's classic? Does it have to be a certain age or read an estimated number of times or have several editions in print? In other words, this goal was more vague than I was planning on. I think I could also count The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (March 2015) by L. Frank Baum and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (February 2015) by C.S. Lewis as children's classics (although I didn't count them originally because it was my second or third time reading them).

5. Read a book on writing
This goal was kind of a flop. I take full responsibility for choosing the wrong book (AND for deciding to stick with it), but The Sound of Paper (almost all of 2015) by Julia Cameron was not really what I was hoping for when I made this goal in January. I was looking for a book that would give me some tools to become a better writer and some prompts to practice with. This was more of a book of encouragement for writers (and artists in general), but it has prompts so it fooled me for the first one hundred pages.

6. Read a short stories collection
This was the most nail-biting of my goals because I tried so many collections before I landed on a good one. I actually had almost given up hope and decided short stories just weren't for me when I struck gold with The Unrest Cure and Other Stories (November 2015) by Saki. I enjoyed these stories so much. I'm glad I didn't just settle for any short stories collection I could find (I should have followed the same method for a book on writing).

7. Read something of a religious nature
I ended up reading two books for this goal, and I liked both of them: Mere Christianity (June 2015) by C.S. Lewis and Believing Christ (October 2015) by Stephen E. Robinson.

8. Read two more installments in series I've already started
This goal will probably continue to show up on future goal lists because I'm notorious for starting series and then never returning to them . . . although I don't know why because it is so fun going back to much-loved characters. This year, I fell in love all over again with the Penderwick girls in The Penderwicks in Spring (April 2015) by Jeanne Birdsall and cheered for Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi in Morality for Beautiful Girls (September 2015) by Alexander McCall Smith.

9. Read a food memoir
After much deliberation (and not being able to get my first choice), I settled on My Life in France (December 2015) by Julia Child. It was so good! I loved learning about this spunky, determined, talented lady. (And then, because I recently was talking about Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl and literally felt hungry for her words, I picked up her latest book, My Kitchen Year. I don't think I'll get it finished before the end of the year, but I'm finding it very enjoyable.)

10. Finish a series
This goal has been on the 2013, 2014, and 2015 lists, and it's been very rewarding every time. This year, I finished the Emily trilogy by L.M. Montgomery. It wasn't quite as ambitious as the two series I finished in the previous two years since it only required me to read two books instead of four or five, but I'm still pretty certain it wouldn't have happened this year without that goal, so I'm glad I made it. I thoroughly enjoyed Emily Climbs (March 2015) and Emily's Quest (August 2015), but Emily will never replace Anne for me because Teddy Kent doesn't hold a candle to Gilbert Blythe. And that's the truth.

I have so many reasons why I love making these goals, not the least of which is that they prevent me from basically ever falling into a reading slump. If I ever can't decide what I should read next, I just turn to my year's list of goals, and the options open up. I'll be talking about my 2016 reading goals next week!

Tell me about the books you read this year! Favorite? Most ambitious? Most tedious?

One of My Favorite Christmas Scenes

Dec 25, 2015


But in the toe of the sock there was still something more. It was small and thin and hard. Almanzo couldn't imagine what it was. He pulled it out, and it was a jack-knife. It had four blades.

Almanzo yelled and yelled. He snapped all the blades open, sharp and shining, and he yelled,

"Alice, look! Look, Royal! Lookee, lookee my jack-knife! Looky my cap!"

Father's voice came out of the dark bedroom and said:

"Look at the clock."

They all looked at one another. Then Royal held up the candle and they looked at the tall clock. Its hands pointed to half past three.
--From Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

May your Christmas be just as joyful as Almanzo's (although, for your sake, I hope it doesn't start quite so early). Thank you for being such faithful readers of this little blog. It is a pleasure sharing and discussing books and reading and life with you. Merry, merry Christmas!

P.S. For more holiday reading, visit these favorite posts from the past:

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Dec 23, 2015

One of the things I enjoy most about being a mom is sharing my favorite books with my kids. It's almost like I get to experience those stories for the first time all over again. My kids' excitement (or anticipation) (or fear) (or disgust) become mine, and it's absolutely delightful.

Unless . . . they don't like the book.

That happened with The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo. And also with The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright. In both cases, it wasn't so much that they didn't like the books but just that I'd jumped the gun a bit and introduced them a little too early when they were too young to really understand and appreciate them.

Because of those two fails, I've been worried about when to read another favorite of mine: Farmer Boy. I'd almost picked it up several times before but let it go a few months longer. But then, as this year's holiday season approached, I knew it was either now or wait another year (it's just such a good book to read around Thanksgiving and Christmas).

And so we went for it.

But not before I clutched the book to my chest and told Aaron and Maxwell, "This is one of my very favorite books. You have to like it." Bad form, I know.

Luckily, they pretty much ignored my plea and just let the story work its own magic, which it did.

Farmer Boy is the only book in the Little House series that stars Almanzo Wilder (Laura's future husband). His growing up years were completely different from Laura's. He grew up on a farm in New England--a very stable and secure farm. His father loved his farm and had no intention of going anywhere. He definitely didn't have the same wanderlust bug that Charles Ingalls had.

Their farm is very prosperous, and they are incredibly self-sufficient. They make money by raising and selling horses, as well as potatoes, hay, and grain, but I kind of wondered what they were spending that money on. They raise everything they eat. They make everything they wear. They build everything they use. Money for them seems purely for pleasure and not for survival.

Almanzo is the youngest, coming after Royal, Eliza Jane, and Alice. Unlike Royal, who plans to be a storekeeper one day, Almanzo loves the farm, and especially the horses. Almanzo wants so badly to help break Starlight, the youngest colt, but his father won't let him go near him. Almanzo is only nine years old and can't be trusted yet not to teach the colt bad habits.

Through the year, he gradually earns that trust by breaking a young head of oxen he gets for his birthday and raising his own pig and helping haul wood and a dozen other things. His father sees his hard work and maturity and finally trusts Almanzo with the very thing he's been longing for.

The book begins a little intense (scary or exciting, depending on how you look at it). There is a new teacher, Mr. Corse, and the big boys in the school are determined to thrash him and throw him out just like they have the previous two teachers. These are not just obnoxious or disruptive boys. They are tough and violent. They hurt one of the other teachers so badly that he later died. They aren't the type of boys to take lightly, yet Mr. Corse knows he has to firmly set rules and boundaries right from the beginning or they will never be satisfied and will continue to demand their own way.

I have to admit, I'd forgotten about this opening story. It's interesting how everything takes on a different hue when you're sharing it with your kids. I was a little worried it might traumatize them and make them afraid to go to school. But not at all. They viewed those bullies the same way they do all villains: as someone to be defeated. So the showdown between Mr. Corse and the bullies was extremely exciting, and Mr. Corse got the upperhand, which was very satisfying.

Our favorite chapter was "Keeping House" where Mother and Father leave for a week and put Royal and Eliza Jane in charge. As you might expect, they really live it up the first few days. They make ice cream and candy using the white sugar, which is supposed to be kept for special occasions only. They let the house and the garden go and spend their days fishing and playing. Then one morning, they wake up and realize that Mother and Father will be home soon. In a frenzy, they begin cleaning and putting things in order. Almanzo gets so tired of being bossed around that he and Eliza Jane have a little shouting match which ends when Almanzo throws his blacking brush at the parlor wall, leaving an ugly black splotch.

He is horrified by what he's done and dreads Mother finding out. After she comes home and is so pleased to find everything else in order, it says, "He did not want her to know about the black splotch, and yet he wished she did know. When the worst was over he could stop dreading it." That is the perfect description of guilt--it eats away at you and makes it so you can't focus on or enjoy anything else. Those of you who have read the book will remember what finally happens, and I won't spoil it for the rest of you because it is one of the best scenes in the entire book. My kids were so anxious and worried before finally breathing a sigh of relief.

One of the things I loved the most about the book was the strong work ethic demonstrated by the Wilder family. It defines their lives and gives meaning to them. This quote from the chapter about the county fair shows what I mean:
"There was another day of the Fair, but it wasn't so much fun. Almanzo was tired of having a good time. Three days of it were too much. It didn't seem right to be dressed up again and leaving the farm. He felt unsettled, as he did at house-cleaning time. He was glad when the Fair was over and everything could go on as usual."
Or this one, when Almanzo and his father are threshing wheat and Almanzo wonders why they don't use a machine to do it. His father explains, "All it saves is time, son. And what good is time, with nothing to do? You want to sit and twiddle your thumbs, all these stormy winter days?"

Lately, Maxwell has been waxing eloquent on work, and I have to wonder if it's a direct result of reading this book. After doing his chores, he says things like, "I feel so good after I work" and "Work gives me energy." That's definitely the feeling you get from reading Almanzo's story: work is something to enjoy not endure, to take pride in and feel grateful for. As much fun as it is to laze around, the real satisfaction comes from accomplishing meaningful things, and I think my kids are slowly beginning to realize that.

Another thing they're realizing is how easy and posh of a life they have. They're not getting up at four o'clock in the morning to take care of the stock. They're not spending all day cutting ice or hauling timber. They're not heating water on the stove so they can take a bath once a week (although, a couple of Sundays ago, we ran out of hot water, and Aaron hadn't taken a shower yet. Mike heated up some water in the microwave, and we joked that it was a Farmer Boy shower even though it wasn't anything close to one). This is why reading is the perfect pastime. Through stories, they can learn about a different time and way of life and gain a deeper appreciation for their own lives.

And then, of course, I can't end this review without mentioning the food. The descriptions of food in this book are agonizingly vivid. On more than one occasion, after hearing about the doughnuts and pies Almanzo was scarfing down, Aaron moaned, "Oh, I'm soooooo hungry." They definitely eat well, that Wilder family.

We haven't read any of the other books in the Little House series yet. I purposely started with this one because I thought it was more exciting and interesting than Little House in the Big Woods. But now they're hooked, and I know they'll enjoy the rest of the series (but I'm a little sad that this is the only one that stars young Almanzo).

Which book is your favorite in the series? Would you start with this one or do you think the series should be read in order?

My Life in France by Julia Child (with Alex Prud'homme)

Dec 21, 2015

I like my yearly reading goals to be a nice mix of challenging and entertaining. As awesome as it would be to be really ambitious and set my sights high, I know if I load up my list with only dense, heavy works, I'll burn out very quickly and lose the joy of reading. So that is why I always include a few goals that are purely for fun.

"Read a food memoir" was one of the fun goals this year. I originally planned on reading Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist, but when our library didn't own a copy, I switched to My Life in France.
Before picking it up, I had the very vaguest knowledge of Julia Child. I knew she was an American with a very vibrant personality who liked to cook French food. That was about it. But I soon discovered that while I was entirely accurate with my bare bones knowledge, it's the details that have made millions of people fall in love with her over the last fifty years.

The memoir begins in 1948 when Julia and Paul Child move to France. Paul works for the government and spent quite a bit of time in France during WWII. Julia has never been to France and does not speak French, but she is game to try just about any adventure. Julia is thirty six years old and has done very little cooking (French or otherwise) up to that point in her life, but she soon falls in love with French food and is determined to learn the French style of cooking. She takes many classes at Le Cordon Bleu and eventually passes the official test and becomes a graduate of the school.

From there, she begins to teach classes of her own and eventually ends up collaborating with two French women on a cookbook that aims to teach Americans the French art of cooking. After a decade of testing, tweaking, and writing, the cookbook is finally published in 1961, which happens to be about the same time that television is taking off in the United States. Julia films a few how-to cooking shows to go along with the book, and they are very well received and make her into something of an international celebrity.

I generally consider food memoirs to be fairly light reads comprised of short, comfortable essays and interspersed with tantalizing recipes, but My Life in France was a little more substantive than that and really focused on the minute details of Julia Child's life and didn't include any recipes. After only a few pages of reading, I switched to the audio version. There was just too much French in the book for this non-French speaker to muddle through. I wanted to be able to hear the names of the people, places, and recipes that were a part of Julia's life.

From the very beginning, I was inspired by Julia's zest for life. Upon arriving in France, she launches herself into French culture and customs (she can't fathom why some expats want to live with a bunch of other Americans instead of getting the full French experience). She diligently studies the language (and practices every chance she can get). Once she decides she wants to learn how to cook, she jumps in with both feet.

She's like that with everything. One time they're in England and choke down a terrible meal. She says, "It was truly horrible to eat but a wonderful cultural experience." She seems to always be looking for the silver lining. When Paul gets transferred to Marseille, she embraces the quiet change of pace. When one publisher rejects their book, she's relieved because she doesn't think it would have been a good fit anyway. When a recipe fails, she's thrilled at the process of trial and error.

For many years, she and Paul own a quiet little cottage outside Provence that they name La Peetch. When Paul's health begins to decline, Julia decides it's time to let it go. When someone asks her if she will miss it, she says, "I've always felt that when I'm done with something I just walk away from it--fin!" She just expects life to be enjoyable and exciting, and it doesn't disappoint.

One of the really interesting things about this book was catching a glimpse at the collaborative writing process in the 1960's. Julia writes Mastering the Art of French Cooking with two friends, Simca and Louisette (although Louisette doesn't contribute as much by the end). For much of the book-writing process, they don't live in the same city (and, at times, not even the same country), and so all of their correspondence happens through letters. Julia talks about "firing off" letters back and forth to each other, but I had to wonder how quickly you can fire off anything if you have an ocean between you? In this day, when you could email each other back and forth a hundred times in one day, the thought of asking a question or making a suggestion and not getting a response back for several days seemed indescribably tedious. I have to wonder if this was part of the reason the book took them a whole decade to write (not that I'm forgetting that it's 750 pages long and contains hundreds of fool-proof recipes). It's just such a different time we live in.

But the thing I loved the very most about this book was learning that Julia Child didn't settle into her true passion until she was close to forty years old. I don't know why, but I always worry that I'm not going to have enough time in my life to do everything I want to do. Sometimes I think I'm probably already too old to tackle something new. Reading this made me realize that the sky is still the limit for me. Julia didn't even know how to cook until she was 37 years old, but ten years later she had made herself an authority on the subject.

Even though I ended up listening instead of reading, I kept the book because it contains dozens of photos (including the scandalous bathtub photo that she and Paul used for their Valentine's cards) that contributed so much to giving a very candid look at Julia's life. Out of curiosity, I also had to look up Julia's early cooking videos, which were wonderfully unedited and unscripted (although I think her voice might drive me batty if I had to listen to it for very long at a time). And finally, I've bumped up Julie and Julia on my list of must-watch movies, and I'm planning to follow through over the Christmas break. In short, I just can't get enough of this intelligent, flamboyant, life-loving person.

The Book Blab Episode 2: Pretty Books for Pretty Gifts Plus Two Favorite Books Published in 2015

Dec 18, 2015

This past Wednesday evening, Suzanne and I got together via Blab for the second episode of our new monthly video series. Mike was out of town this week, and so I had to do some serious bribing to ensure that my kids didn't come screaming or tattling into the room while I was recording. Turns out, however, it wasn't my kids I needed to worry about but my other arch nemesis, technology.

So yes, we had a few little technical glitches, mostly on my end. At one point, my connection went a little crazy, and I couldn't hear Suzanne very well, which translated to some blank stares on my part. Luckily, the recording didn't capture those problems (but my blank stares are still there). Also, in listening to it again, there are a few seconds here and there where there is some weird feedback. So I apologize in advance for all of that. I'm discovering that this is one of the drawbacks with doing a live show.

But on the upside, this was an extremely fun episode to record. I honestly think we could have just kept talking and talking . . . and talking, but we showed some restraint so that you can easily watch the replay without it taking up half of your day. You're welcome.

In this episode, we talk about our book buying philosophies, beautiful editions of books, and other related topics. By the end of the night, it was all I could do not to buy every single one of the books we talked about. Consider that your warning: watch at your own risk.

In case you missed it live, you can watch the replay (technical glitches and all) below. And I'd love to hear you weigh in on some of the things we talked about in the comments!

0:20 - Christmas preparations

1:50 - Book buying philosophy
  • 2:10 - Suzanne's
  • 3:53 - Amy's
5:35 - Beautiful editions
  • 5:53 - Suzanne's favorites
  • 8:09 - Amy's favorites
11:32 - The problem of not being able to get the entire series in some editions

15:37 - Collected works (pros and cons)

17:42 - Thoughts on the newly illustrated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

21:15 - (Some of) the books we're buying for Christmas

24:56 - Two favorite books that were published in 2015
  • 25:50 - Suzanne's pick
  • 27:08 - Amy's pick
30:34 - Conclusion



Links from the show:

The Count of Monte CristoPenguin classics hardcover clothbound edition
Emily of New Moon - Sourcebook edition with cover illustration by Jacqui Oakley
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Puffin in Bloom edition
A Merry Christmas and Other Christmas Stories - Penguin Christmas Classics edition
Little Men - Hesperus Press edition
Anne of Green Gables - Puffin in Bloom edition
Anne of Green Gables - Aladdin classics edition
Jane Austen collected works - Barnes & Noble Collectible edition
The Chronicles of Narnia collection - Barnes & Noble Collectible edition
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - Arthur A. Levine Books edition, illustrated by Jim Kay
The Chronicles of Narnia - full color collector's edition by HarperTrophy
Suzanne's review of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee  
Amy's review of The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall
 
Now it's your turn: Tell me about the gorgeous editions YOU love, as well as the books you'll be splurging on this holiday season. (Also, what's your opinion on the newly illustrated Harry Potter?) And stay tuned for the date and time of our next episode, airing sometime mid-January! 

The Sounds of the Season (and How I Found Out the Truth About Santa)

Dec 14, 2015


It happens every December. I hear the opening notes of "The Christmas Waltz," sung by Karen Carpenter, and time suddenly rushes in reverse. I am five years old again, standing in the wood-paneled living room of my parents' first home. I have a sturdy, homemade ornament in one hand and am reaching for another while my mom tells me "don't grab" and "be patient." Out of the hundreds and thousands of Christmas songs, this is the one, more than any of the others, that says to me, "The Christmas season has officially begun." That song has been a part of every Christmas that I can remember. My mom has always loved the Carpenters, and it seems like theirs was always the first Christmas album we listened to (and I think "The Christmas Waltz" must have been the first song on the album). I love this song because it not only links me to my own past but to my mom's as well, who was listening to the Carpenters long before I was born.

This is not the only song that takes me back to my childhood. This month I've been thinking about the other sounds that tug me back to the past and that make this time of year so nostalgic and sweet.

*****

My family loves traditions and holds to them quite unwaveringly. One of those was an annual reading of The Forgotten Carols by Michael McLean. My dad usually read it over the course of several Sunday drives to church (forty-five minutes one way). The story is about a seemingly senile old man, Uncle John, whom Constance, a nurse, has been asked to help care for over the holidays. My dad used a very clipped, no-nonsense voice for Constance because that's the type of person she was until Uncle John softened her heart through the stories and songs of his past. The book has an accompanying music album that features all of the "forgotten carols" from Uncle John's reminiscences. As each song came up in the story, my dad stopped reading and we listened to it. It was always our rule that we couldn't listen to the album in its entirety until we finished the book. My favorite song was, "The Shepherd," which I even wrote an essay on for a school assignment one time. To this day, those songs make me think of starry nights in a softly thrumming car. (Sadly, after I married Mike, we decided to go see the theater production of The Forgotten Carols, and it kind of ruined the story for me.)

*****

Not music, but the sound of the heater coming on will always take me back to my childhood. In December, we had to rearrange the furniture to accommodate the Christmas tree. We swung one of the couches over so that the corners of the two couches touched and created a little square of space the perfect size for a little girl. There happened to be a heater vent in that little hideout, and I loved to grab a blanket and a book and park myself right on top of it, letting the warm air fill out my blanket and create a pleasantly warm little bubble. Just hearing the sound of the warm air rushing through the vent made me feel warmer even if I couldn't take immediate advantage of it. When my parents moved to a new home when I was fifteen, it had a more "efficient" furnace, which meant that the air that came out of the heater vents was room temperature (i.e., cold) instead of toasty warm. Giving up my beloved heater vents was one of the great losses of my childhood. Luckily, I now live in an old house with an inefficient furnace that regularly spews out warm air throughout the day. (And last week, when our furnace broke, I can't even tell you how much I missed that comforting sound. The house felt stark and bare without it.)

*****

If "The Christmas Waltz" signifies the beginning of the holiday season for me, then Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" does the same thing for the beginning of winter. Whenever the first snow came (whether it was in September or December), we put on "Sleigh Ride" and ran around the living room in a gloriously carefree dance. The snow drifted down outside (or, more likely, since it was northeastern Colorado, blew sideways) and inside we were warm and happy with hopes of it never stopping and being snowed in for a good week at least. Later in my childhood, the song took on another memory. When my little sister was about two years old, we had a toy horse (the kind that bounces up and down on springs) that resided in our dining room. It looked out the back doors onto the field behind our house, and my sister loved to have my mom put on "Sleigh Ride" while she mounted her beloved horse and took off. Seriously, it's a wonder the springs didn't snap the way she could bounce and make that horse go.

*****

Every year, my family and I bundled up and went caroling to the neighbors. It was something of an ordeal because we took more than our voices along. Instead, we were a caroling family band and went with trumpet, trombone, baritone, French horn, and bells. (I played the trombone and kept the mouthpiece tucked into my hand between stops so that it would stay warm enough to produce some sound.) But it's the bells, the wrist-shaking variety, that mean the most to me in my memories. Maybe it's because I no longer play the trombone, but we do have an identical set of bells that my kids like to shake. Every time I hear them, I remember those caroling trips, but also something else . . .

*****

When I was eight years old, I began to wonder if Santa was real. I don't remember what planted the idea in my head (maybe just growing up), but I determined to find out. Every Christmas Eve, after we acted out the nativity and set out a plate of cookies, my siblings and I put on boots and coats and went out into the frosty night to see if we could see Rudolph's nose or hear Santa's sleigh bells. Miraculously, we usually could see a little red light in the distant sky and hear the faint sound of bells floating by on the wind. Giddy with delight, we'd rush back into the house and jump into bed, confident that Santa was very close to landing on our roof. But that Christmas when I was eight, I wasn't caught up in the magic so much as I was discovering the truth. While my siblings were outside jumping up and and down and pointing wildly, I was back in the house, noiselessly crossing the kitchen floor and creeping down the stairs. As I peeked around the corner, I saw my dad sitting below an outside vent and shaking those infamous bells. Our eyes locked, and the bells abruptly stopped while I sputtered out an accusation. My dad quickly hushed me and took me into a room where we had a quiet heart to heart. I think I was disappointed, even if not surprised (I maybe even shed a few tears in my bed later that night). However, that disappointment melted away once I realized that it's even more fun playing Santa Claus than waiting for him.

I'd love to hear about those sounds that are inextricably linked to YOUR past. Please share your memories in the comments!

P.S. This Wednesday, Suzanne and I will be hosting our second blab. Come join us on December 16th at 7:00 pm MST. You can go directly to the blab website, or watch from either of our sites. Additionally, we'll put up the recorded video with show notes on Thursday or Friday.

The Sound of Paper: Starting From Scratch by Julia Cameron

Dec 11, 2015

When I made my goal at the beginning of the year to "read a book on writing," it was with the hope that I would actually improve my own writing in the process. I was looking for a book that would give little prompts and assignments and that would encourage me to think outside the box and stretch my writing muscles.

I thought I'd found that in The Sound of Paper. The book consists of short, essay-type chapters, and each one ends with a "Try This" exercise. I enjoyed the first fifty or so pages and completed many of the prompts (my favorite was the task to describe myself as I "would a literary character, in the third person").

But then the essays began to feel very repetitive and had almost nothing to do with improving writing. Every essay seemed to be about the drought in Taos, New Mexico (where the author was living at the time), which turned into a metaphor for the droughts that all artists face at one time or another in their careers. I began to see that this was not so much a book about writing as it was a book of encouragement.

By this time, I was about one hundred and fifty pages in. I considered abandoning it, but I had already invested so much time in it, and I didn't really have the heart to pick out something else at this late date in the year. So I muscled my way through the second half. And that is literally what it felt like. I would pick it up, grit my teeth, dive in, and read as much as I could before I couldn't take it anymore.

Luckily, there were a few gems, which rewarded my efforts:
  • This advice, from a friend of hers: "I write a draft, then I let it breathe for a while, and when I come back to it, I have a new perspective." (This sums up my own writing process perfectly.)
  • "Unlimited time became the luxury I yearned for, but because I didn't have it, time became what I learned to use. A minute here and a minute there, and there was, surprisingly, 'enough' of it." (Sound advice for me in the stage of motherhood I'm in right now--I can't sit around and wait for the perfect stretch of time. I have to use what I can get.)
  • "Doesn't the inner perfectionist always hook you in the ego? 'You're not going to be any good,' the inner perfectionist spits out. When we respond, 'That's okay. I think I will try it anyhow,' the inner perfectionist comes up fresh out of stratagems. There's no fighting humility." (Some of my best writing has happened when I take all the pressure off myself.)
  • "A piece of art needs a recipient. Otherwise we are pitching pennies down a well with no bottom. There is no tiny splash or 'plunk' of connection, and so we feel lost, crazy, shallow, immature." (This is why, even when I tell myself I'm just writing this blog for myself, I still look forward to the comments from you, my dear blog readers.)
 I agreed with her thoughts on daily writing through Morning Pages. I appreciated her recognition of divine help. I thought her own writing was beautifully descriptive. But in the end, it was just too repetitive and not exactly the kind of help I was looking for, so it turned into something tedious instead of something enjoyable.

Review x 2: Dominic and Sideways Stories From Wayside School

Dec 9, 2015

I'm combining reviews today. One is for the book, Dominic by William Steig, which I read aloud to my kids. The other is for the book Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar, which I read along with Aaron.

Dominic by William Steig

Dominic went on my library list immediately after I read Erica's post about fall family read-alouds (an all-around excellent list if you're looking for some ideas). I could tell just from her brief synopsis that it would be a story my kids would love. And I was right.

Dominic is a dog in search of adventure. One day he decides that there isn't "enough going on in his own neighborhood," and so he sets off in search of something exciting. It doesn't take him long to find it. On the second day, he falls into a deep hole dug by the nefarious Doomsday Gang. They have big plans for their prisoner, but Dominic isn't one to sit around and bemoan his fate. While the gang is sleeping, he digs his way out and takes the road of adventure once again. Along the way, he meets new friends, sees new sights, and, yes, continues to get the upper hand on the Doomsday Gang.

My kids were sold on the book as soon as they met the Doomsday Gang. If there's anything they like more than an honorable and brave hero (which Dominic is), it's a motley group of villains for him to defeat.

For my part, I fell in love with this book because of Dominic's contagious optimism towards the unpredictability of life. For example, when he's trapped in the hole, "which was now getting a bit stuffy, what with the logs covering it, Dominic wasn't a bit worried. Challenges were his delight. Whatever life offered was, this way or that, a test of one's skills, one's faculties; and he enjoyed proving equal to these tests." I could use a good healthy dose of that.

The very first individual Dominic meets on his journey (even before his run-in with the Doomsday Gang) is a witch-alligator who offers to give him a glimpse of his future: "For twenty-five cents I'll reveal your immediate prospects . . . For half a dollar I'll describe the next full year of your life. For a dollar you can have your complete history, unexpurgated, from now to the finish." As someone who likes to plan for the future, I would certainly be tempted to plunk down my dollar and get my life's summary, but Dominic says, "I'm certainly interested in my fortune. Yet I think it would be much more fun to find out what happens when it happens."

In addition to all of this, Dominic is kind and thoughtful and willing to go out of his way to help other people.  At one point, Dominic comes upon a small cottage in the forest. In it, he finds Bartholomew Badger, an old sick pig who is all alone in the world. Dominic's sensitive nose is assaulted as soon as he entered the house: "The room smelled like a sickroom. The air was stale. And the pig smelled like a sick pig." That description is enough to make anyone turn and run. But not Dominic. He saw someone in need, and he did what he could.

This attitude (challenges are a delight + the future is exciting + it's worth the trouble to help other people) could go a long way in making this world a better place. This book brought these things into clearer focus for me and hopefully for my kids too. But whether or not they picked up on those subtle messages, the story is one grand adventure after another, and it's fun to go along for the ride.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar

I never read any of the Wayside School books when I was a kid, and now, as an adult, I feel like I missed out just a little bit. I don't really consider them children's classics, but raise your hand if you read them when you were eight years old. That's what I thought. So although maybe not a classic, they do seem to be something of a rite of passage.

As I mentioned last week, one of the things I decided to do to be more involved with what Aaron was reading was to read some of the same books he was reading at the same time he was reading them. It was not by accident that this happened to be the first book we read together. I knew if we started out with something heavy and dense, he would forevermore be wary when I said that I was going to read a book with him. I wanted this to be fun--an experience that he would enjoy now and look forward to again in the future. So I picked a book that was wacky and silly but still had a certain reputation that comes from having been read by millions of children.

We both enjoyed it immensely.

When Wayside School was built, it was accidentally built vertically instead of horizontally. That means that instead of thirty classrooms all on one level, it has thirty classrooms stacked one on top of the other. This book is about the students on the thirtieth floor. There are thirty chapters in the book--one for each student (except in the case of the three Erics) with a few teachers thrown in.

This book made me laugh. There was Joe, the student who couldn't count but always ended up with the right answer. The dialogue was so funny, I had to read it aloud to Mike (who did read Sideways Stories as a kid): "[Mrs. Jewls] put five pencils on the desk. 'How many pencils do we have here, Joe?' Joe counted the pencils. 'Four, six, one, nine, five. There are five pencils, Mrs. Jewls.' 'That's wrong,' said Mrs. Jewls. 'How many pencils are there?' Joe asked. 'Five,' said Mrs. Jewls. 'That's what I said,' said Joe. 'Can I go to recess now?' 'No,' said Mrs. Jewls. 'You got the right answer, but you counted the wrong way. You were just lucky.'"

There were the three Erics: Eric Bacon (who is the skinniest kid in the class, but everyone assumes that all the Erics are fat so they call him "Fatso), Eric Fry (who is the best athlete in the class, but everyone assumes that all the Erics are clumsy so they call him "Butterfingers"), and Eric Ovens (who is the nicest kid in the class, but everyone assumes that all the Erics are mean so they call him "Crabapple").

And there was Calvin, who was given the impossible task to take a note to Miss Zarves on the nineteenth floor. When Wayside School was built, the nineteenth floor was accidentally not included (the builder said he was very sorry). Calvin's task is impossible, but Mrs. Jewls won't listen to reason. Calvin thinks: "Boy, this is just great. Just great! I'm supposed to take a note that I don't have to a teacher who doesn't exist, and who teaches on a story that was never built."

Seriously, I feel like I could just sit here and quote the whole book to you. And that's basically what Aaron and I did. Every night, one of us would ask, "Where are you in the book?" Then we would read snippets of our favorite parts, laugh at our favorite characters, and give little teasers for what was coming up. (Aaron, with a twinkle in his eye: "Have you got to the nineteenth chapter yet?" (There isn't a nineteenth chapter because, as already mentioned, there isn't a nineteenth floor.))

This is a book that was made ten times better because it was shared with someone else. I'm already planning out the next book Aaron and I can read together. In the meantime, he has a couple more Wayside School books he can't wait to check out from the library.

Raising Readers: Discovering Kids' Books on Audio (Guest Post)

Dec 7, 2015

In my Raising Readers post last month, I opened up the series to you, my readers, and asked for your unique perspectives and insights. I received emails from many of you who were interested in sharing your experiences through a guest post. Thank you so much (and if you'd still like to participate, please contact me: sunlitpages [at] gmail [dot] com).

It is with great pleasure that I introduce Linnae Harper, the very first Raising Readers guest. Linnae and I met through this blog (she has been a loyal commenter for many months). We connected over our shared loved of children's literature and discovered that we have similar tastes. Today she'll be sharing some of her tips and tricks for listening to audio books with kids (a subject near and dear to my heart, as you might remember that my own Maxwell is an avid fan of audio books). Please join me in welcoming Linnae to the blog!


Hello, blog friends! I’m happy to be here on Sunlit Pages sharing my love of books. Before I had kids, I was a children’s librarian for 3 years, which was a dream job for me.  I am now happy to be a full-time mom of three, 2 boys with a girl in the middle, ages 7 ½, 6, and 3. I haven’t made the leap to a book blog (yet!) but you can find my book reviews on Goodreads.

So let’s get started! I love reading to my kids! Over the past few years, our reading time together has really blossomed into something wonderful, that we all look forward to.  That being said, discovering kids’ books on CD changed our world for the better. (We have not made the jump to other listening media yet. Perhaps just a matter of time?)

It all started with a Christmas present: a $30 boombox/cd-player.  It was simple enough for the kids to use all by themselves. At first, it was mostly for music. Then we checked out some picture books with narrated CD’s from our library. Then we made the leap to chapter books on CD. Before we knew it, we were having marathon story listening sessions!

It’s like having an on-call grandparent, ready and eager to read whenever they want it! While I would never use it to replace my reading time with them, there are some things I really like about it.

For instance:
  1. This one is obvious, but it’s been huge: I don’t have to be there for it to happen! If they want a story, but I’m making dinner or helping someone else, they can take care of that all by themselves! It’s tremendously empowering, particularly for my younger children who can’t read on their own yet. 
  2. They get to hear someone else’s pronunciations, inflections, accents, and overall take of the story. I think it’s good for them to realize (consciously or not) that there’s more than one way to interpret a story. (Also, I learned I was mispronouncing “porcine” from the Mercy Watson books. Oops!)
  3. Often the CD’s include music or other sound effects which adds to the fun.
  4. I don’t have to read the same story a thousand times in a row! Let’s just be honest—there are some books where I mentally zone out on page one and my mouth just knows what to do until the end. We’ve read them THAT MANY TIMES. Listening to it again and again can also become annoying, but at least I can be actively doing something else, while my child revels in the familiar story. I call that a win!
  5. Car trips, particularly those with long twisty roads where I am too carsick to read. Simply pop in the CD and stare at those little yellow lines on the road. Done.
So if you are new to audio books for kids, my biggest tip for delving in may seem counter intuitive at first: start with books you have already read to them. Repetition is comforting to kids, not boring!  Already knowing the plot seems to make my kids more eager to listen to the story, not less. They’re snuggling down with a familiar friend, rather than getting a surprise. Believe me, once you find a few they like, they’ll be listening to them over and over anyway! (see #4, above).  There are several of our books on CD (Magic Tree House, I’m looking at you!) that I could probably quote word for word. Not kidding.

Once you find something you like, branch out with other books in the series, or by the same author. Often the reader will stay the same over a series, which will give that instant feeling of familiarity.  When you decide to try something new, don’t be afraid to stop and try something else if you or they don’t like the narrator. No harm done, and probably better to not ruin a good story!

As far as recommendations, the Magic Tree House books, read by Mary Pope Osborne herself, are excellent, and would be a great place to start. You can readily tell when it’s Jack or Annie speaking, and she has great accents for the villians and other minor characters. They’re almost all in the 30-45 minute range for the entire story, which is just right for a transition activity, or a slightly longer car ride. Also, there are so many of them! If you get hooked like we did, you’ll have days of listening pleasure ahead of you (probably weeks, really, by the time your kids listen to each one on repeat.) 

Some other audio book series to try:
  • Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle / Betty MacDonald 
  • Geronimo Stilton / Geronimo Stilton: My 7-year-old can’t get enough of these! 
  • Ramona the Pest / Beverly Cleary 
  • Henry Huggins / Beverly Cleary 
  • Mercy Watson / Kate DiCamillo : My kids still quote this one sometimes, especially the policeman 
  • Harry Potter / J.K Rowling, read by Jim Dale : If you’ve already introduced your kiddos to Harry Potter, these are excellent!
Great Stand-Alone Titles: 
  • The Collected Stories of Winnie the Pooh / A. A. Milne: this one is a full-cast dramatization. We loved it! 
  • Love, Ruby Lavender / Deborah Wiles 
  • The Secret Garden / Frances Hodgson Burnett 
  • The Little Princess / Frances Hodgson Burnett 
  • Peter Rabbit and other stories / Beatrix Potter, read by Jim Weiss 
  • Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon / Ruth Stiles Gannett
This just in! Okay, I just found out about Focus on the Families’ Radio Theater productions. I am so excited I can hardly stand it! They have full cast productions of many classics, musical score and sound effects included. I already ordered The Secret Garden for my daughter for Christmas. (You can find them on Amazon.) Just browsing their selection, they have the entire Chronicles of Narnia, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Oliver Twist, Les Miserables, Ben-Hur, The Screwtape Letters, A Christmas Carol, The Legend of Squanto, and more. Have I mentioned how excited I am?  Obviously, not all of these are children’s books. I want some in my stocking!  (Maybe I can give old Santa a nudge!)

Do your kids listen to audio books? What are some of your family’s favorites? We’re always on the lookout for more!

Linnae grew up in Alaska, as the only girl in a family of 10 boys. Her vote always counted extra! A former children's librarian, she is now a full-time mom. She has found that many of the same skills apply. Her book reviews can be found on Goodreads under the user name Linnae Harper.

Choosing Books With Intention (and Why I Changed the Way I Was Doing It)

Dec 4, 2015


My oldest son, Aaron, is in second grade this year. We made it through the easy reader phase. Then the early chapter book phase. And during the last year or so, we've been settling into the chapter book (or middle grade or children's novel or whatever you want to call it) phase.

It's been a challenge.

I'm kind of surprised to hear myself admitting this, but it's true. Usually I love the book selection process, but it has not been easy with Aaron.

For one thing, he is totally impassive when it comes to books. Whatever I put into his hands, he will read. That should make it so easy, right? I could literally indoctrinate this kid with whatever I wanted, and he would just shrug his shoulders and go with it.

But it's not easy at all. I have nothing to gauge books off of. The only author he has ever admitted to liking without any prompting from me was Roald Dahl, and we all know Roald Dahl is in a class pretty much by himself.

I have never seen Aaron get so caught up in a book that he stays up late into the night because he can't wait to see what happens next. He never stops mid-chapter and says, "Mom, you have got to read this book!" He never tells me to get more of the books in a series or, alternatively, not to bring anymore of them home. If he comes to the library with me, he spends the entire time in the craft book section and just expects me to pick up something good for him.

For a long time, I selected his next book from book lists I felt I could trust. There are worse ways to pick a book for sure, but my method had one little flaw: I was trying to find books I had no interest in reading.

As you know, I read aloud to my kids a lot, and we've enjoyed dozens of excellent children's novels together (many of which Aaron has later reread). We've read the first books in many series (Paddington, Poppy, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Wizard of Oz, etc.). These should be excellent jumping-off points for Aaron, but I have hoarded them rather selfishly. What if I want to make the next book in the series our next readaloud and he's already read it?

So instead I gave him Origami Yoda and Captain Awesome and The Clubhouse Mysteries--not necessarily bad books but definitely books that I knew I'd never have the desire to read aloud, so they were safe.

The problem was, I actually had no idea what was in those books, and Aaron is not the type that will give a complete plot summary just by asking, "So, what was the book about?" The more he read, the more disconnected I felt . . . even though I was the one choosing the books!

But then, several weeks ago, I was reading Honey For a Child's Heart, and it was like a switch was flipped, and I could finally see quite clearly the holes in my reasoning and the problems with my book selection process. What was I doing?! Something had to change, and fast.

Let me insert one thing before I go any further: like I said before, I really didn't have a problem with the books I mentioned above. If Aaron had shown even a spark of interest in reading on in any of those series, I know I would have encouraged it. However, the problem for me was that since I had no interest in those books, I couldn't really engage in any sort of discussion with Aaron about them. Something was missing. Reading had become a chore for him (and for me).

I made some immediate changes, which included: using the Honey For a Child's Heart book lists, choosing a book to read along with Aaron, printing off Sarah Mackenzie's quick start guide with discussion questions, and letting Aaron continue on with series we'd already started.

Let me talk about each of these in a little more detail:

Use the Honey for a Child's Heart book lists

I already talked about this a little bit when I reviewed Honey For a Child's Heart: Gladys Hunt's book lists focus on classic books that teach good morals and values. She doesn't really include any trendy (or, as some like to label them, "twaddley") books on her lists, which I appreciate since those are fairly easy to find on my own. Her lists are good just for simply reminding me of good books I've read that I could pass along to Aaron. However, I am a little wary of handing him books from the list I haven't read yet simply because I didn't always agree with her age recommendations for books I did know and also, I don't think she really has a problem with recommending boring books (not that such a thing would necessarily be a problem since, like I said before, Aaron will read pretty much anything I give him). However, what I'm really excited about with these book lists is how they will help me with the next change I'm making.

Read a book with Aaron

I'm not talking about reading aloud to Aaron (that's something we're already doing a lot of and will continue to do). Rather, I want to choose a book that we can both read separately but simultaneously.  (This would never have worked with my previous method because I don't think I could have gagged down Origami Yoda, but now that I've opened up our options, there are literally hundreds of great books I've been dying to read that he would probably enjoy too.) This is where Gladys Hunt's book lists will come in handy because we'll have more ideas than we could ever possibly get through. Also, since I'll be reading it along with him, if I run into one of the problems I mentioned in the section above (i.e., boring or too advanced), I won't make him suffer through it. (In the last couple of weeks, we actually already read one together (Sideways Stories From Wayside School), and I'll be talking more about that experience when I review it.) Mike has also agreed to read a book here and there along with Aaron. Right now, they're both reading, The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane by Russell Freedman.

Use Sarah Mackenzie's quick start guide

Part of what was missing with Aaron was just any type of meaningful discussion after reading a book. I usually just asked him, "Did you like it?" and he responded with, "Sure," and that was the end of it. (Ironically, this question works like a charm with Maxwell. That kid needs almost no encouragement when it comes to chatting with me about things.) Sarah Mackenzie's guide is thoughtful, and she gives five questions that are easily adapted to practically any book. (However, I've discovered the first three questions don't work very well if I don't have any knowledge of the plot, which is one more reason for me to do some reading along with Aaron.) My plan is to use these questions both with the books Aaron is reading solo and with the books we are reading aloud as a family. They can be used either while we're still in the middle of the story or after we're entirely finished. Right now, it feels a little scripted, but I think the more we engage in meaningful discussions, the more natural it will become.

Let Aaron continue on with a series we have already started

Guess what? There are a lot of great books in this world. So many, in fact, that I am not going to have the time to read all of them out loud. That is the sad truth I have come to accept over the last few weeks. So even though I'd like to read all of the books in the Tales of Dimwood Forest or The Chronicles of Narnia, it might not be logistically possible. But just because I can't finish them all with my kids doesn't mean Aaron shouldn't have the chance to find out what happens. Now that I've loosened up my hold, we have so many more options, and I can keep him well supplied in books I already know I approve of (and having a discussion is much easier because I'm already familiar with the characters). And if I decide I really want to read a book aloud that he's already read, I know he's not going to mind listening to it again.


I'm curious: How do you choose books for your kids to read on their own? Or are they opinionated enough that you don't get much of a choice? Where do you go to find good books?

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

Dec 2, 2015

When I was growing up, we had a family friend who lived in a nursing home. On at least one Sunday every month, we would drive an hour to go visit him.

I dreaded these visits.

The rooms at the nursing home were small to begin with but felt even more crowded once my large family squeezed inside. We often had to arrange ourselves around a large contraption that was used to lift our friend from his bed to his wheel chair. A curtain divided the room in two, and our presence sometimes annoyed the resident "next door." The only personal thing I can remember about the room was a bulletin board where our friend could thumb tack up birthday cards or newspaper articles.

Walking through the halls, past the other residents, made me so uncomfortable. They looked bored and lonely and often unkempt. The smell that assailed my nose every time I walked through the glass sliding doors made me want to turn and run.

In retrospect, I can see how desperate our friend was for a little company. For his sake, I'm so grateful my parents insisted that we make those visits a priority, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that the thought of entering that building still makes me shudder.

And after reading this book, I feel like my revulsion was totally understandable and justified. There aren't many worse places in the United States than a traditional nursing home.

Being Mortal is about the way we view life and death. It is about recognizing and accepting when the end has come and living out our life to the fullest in the meantime. This is one of the most fascinating books I've read all year and one that I haven't been able to stop talking about (and chances are, if you know me in real life, I've already subjected you to a synopsis).

Atul Gawande has been a surgeon for over fifteen years. This book was prompted in part because the more surgeries he performed, the more he realized that these operations often sacrificed quality of life in exchange for (possibly) more time, and that trade off didn't sit well with him. Doctors were avoiding the very types of discussions their patients needed most. In this modern age, science has come so far that doctors can keep people alive for a very long time, but it's not always the best solution. Death is a natural process, and Atul Gawande believes that as we become more comfortable with acknowledging and discussing it, we can live out our days more fully and conscientiously fill them with things that bring us joy.

The first section of the book focuses on the elderly--an ever-growing percentage of our population. The average human being can now expect to live to nearly 80 years old. That's incredible. But this ability to live longer is not necessarily because we've slowed down the aging process (we really haven't) but reflects the choice we now have to keep patching ourselves up with medication and surgery. This is good. But at what point are those extra years more of a burden to yourself and your family? What sacrifices are worth it in order to gain a few extra months?

Atul Gawande is in no way suggesting that once you're sick of life, you speed up the process of dying. What he's saying is, parents and children need to have very frank discussions about how they want to live out their final years. I can't think of a single person who would choose to spend their last days in a nursing home where they sit around in a wheelchair all day watching TV or playing bingo and don't get to decide anything about the food they eat or the schedule they keep or the medication they take.

Of course, it's much more complicated than I'm making it out to be (the mental health and financial security of the individual being two of the biggest factors), but I was just so riveted by the options and heartbroken about our friend who didn't get much of a say at the end. In their prime, those who are now elderly contributed so much to the world, and I wince to think of what many of them are reduced to at the end and the lack of respect that is shown to them. (As a side note, it was also depressing to hear that even those doctors who would like to specialize in geriatrics aren't because, even though that is one of the fastest growing populations in the world, that is exactly where the funding is being cut from.)

The second half of the book focused on individuals who are dying, not necessarily from old age, but from accident or disease. As you might expect, this was the harder of the two sections to listen to. Many of the stories that were shared involved people who were still in their prime with a family or a career or dreams that they were still very much involved in.

One of the stories impacted me especially because of the similarities it shared with my sister-in-law, Alisa, who passed away earlier this year from melanoma. The woman in the story was in her 30's and pregnant with her first child when doctors discovered lung cancer. The cancer was much faster-growing and aggressive than Alisa's was originally. This woman ended up getting less than a year whereas Alisa was able to fight for eight years. But when the end finally came for both of them, their stories were strikingly similar because of one word: hope.

These two women were willing to do anything (and I really do mean anything) for a few extra months or weeks or even days. When your life is being mercilessly ripped away from you too soon, even the smallest increment of time is precious. Alisa was in constant search of a cure, and every time she tried something new, she hoped it would be the magic she needed.

In the book, Atul Gawande tells about another patient who was diagnosed with a terminal illness.
"The news was devastating. But then he began looking at the graphs of the patients' survival curves. Gould was a naturalist and more inclined to notice the variation around the curve's middle point than the middle point itself. What the naturalist saw was remarkable variation. The patients were not clustered around the median survival but instead fanned out in both directions. Moreover, the curve was skewed to the right with a long tail, however slender, of patients who lived many years longer than the eight month median. This is where he found solace. He could imagine himself surviving far out along that long tail."
It was that same long tail that tantalized Alisa. There's no way to know where you're going to fall on that curve. Doctors can't make that prediction and neither can their patients. In fact, one of the things I found so fascinating about this book was our inability to define what dying is. When confronted with the question, "Am I dying?," doctors are unable to answer it. They realize that technically they could keep people "alive" for a very long time, whether they're actually doing much living or not.

I saw Alisa struggle with this question herself. Even when her condition took a serious downhill turn a few months before her death, no one realized (and/or accepted) that it was the end. She had bounced back so many times before. Surely it could happen again. But in March, she wrote, "Hospice was whispered around the room yesterday. The word is a whisper." That description has stayed with me ever since because it's so true. I think we all have a certain fear of hospice because we see it as a resignation to fate. There's a certain finality in that word. It sort of feels like giving up or giving in.

But I can honestly say that this book completely changed my opinion of hospice (and actually, it was already in the process of being changed when I saw glimpses of it during the final few days of Alisa's life). It is so much more than just helping patients not feel any pain. It's doing what many doctors are afraid to do: holding frank, honest discussions about goals and priorities so that patients can do the things that are most important to them for as long as possible. Atul Gawande said that there are so many positive results that come from these discussions that "if end-of-life discussions were an experimental drug, the FDA would approve it."

In the book, Atul Gawande tells a really interesting story about a patient of his that he was operating on. I can't remember all the details (and I no longer have the book from the library), but I know that she had a type of cancer that was metastasizing rapidly. He had basically two options: a less invasive procedure that would bring her immediate relief or a much more dangerous surgery that could potentially do a lot of damage with the slight chance that she would see some longer-lasting results. She opted for the less invasive procedure because by that point, it was more important to her to be able to actually do some of the things she wanted to with her family rather than just have more time.

Going back to the story I mentioned above about the man who hoped that he would be among those that would beat the odds and live longer than eight months, he got his wish. And because there are stories like his (and frankly, like Alisa's as well, who lived for three more years after they discovered twenty-five tumors in her brain), it makes hope a thing to hold onto for as long as possible.

The thing that I found interesting about these end-of-life discussions, however, is that you don't wait until you know you're at the end before having them. You have them early on, while you're still relatively healthy. You talk to your doctor about your priorities. One of the patients Atul Gawande mentioned said that as long as he could watch football and eat, life would be worth living. These priorities would, of course, be different for every patient. But I think having such a discussion makes it easier for doctors to help guide their patients towards the best course of treatment because they know what things are not worth giving up in exchange for a few more months.

This review has gone on far too long, but, if anything, let the length be a witness to how much I loved this book. Atul Gawande is an excellent writer, and the subject matter is of course deeply personal to each of us because of the unavoidability of death. One of the stories in the book is about Gawande's own father, and I think this made the book even more meaningful because he wasn't just speaking as a doctor but also as a son. It will definitely be one of the books that will stay with me the most from my reading this year. Highly recommend.
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