A Birthday Trip to San Diego

Jan 27, 2016

Without question, January is my least favorite month of the year. It is cold. It is dreary. It is dark. (Oh, how I hate the dark!)

The fact that my birthday falls in January has always seemed like some cruel sort of joke, especially since the thought of growing older depresses me anyway without the gloom to go along with it.

But a few months ago, I had a rather brilliant idea (stolen from an acquaintance), and I broached it with Mike: "You know, I think I might actually look forward to my birthday if I got to celebrate it somewhere warm and sunny." Call it a not-so-subtle hint, but Mike almost immediately started planning.

His first idea was for the two of us to go to San Diego for the weekend. But San Diego is actually a place we've wanted to take our kids for a long time. So we tacked a couple more days on the beginning and end, and it morphed into a family vacation. Because of that, we could give it as a Christmas AND a birthday present. (And although I usually hate it when I have to share my birthday with Christmas, this time I didn't mind in the slightest. The planning included things for me and things for the boys, so it made sense to share.)

The boys opened up the plane tickets on Christmas Day, and they were so excited. Bradley has been dying to fly for so long (he's actually the only one our kids that hadn't flown before, and he took it rather personally).

For the next three weeks, we talked and planned and anticipated. The Christmas decorations came down. The inversion settled over the city. The streets became a slushy mess. But we didn't care. We had a bright spot of sun in our future, and it made everything seem so much easier to endure (which was exactly the point . . . ).

I was anxious on two points the week before we left: that it would be raining the entire time we were in San Diego (the week before was a week of storms) and that we would be throwing up the entire time (it seemed like everyone we knew contracted the stomach flu a few days before our scheduled departure).

But we escaped on both accounts. And we had a truly fabulous time.

Highlights included:

The flight . . . Even though Aaron, Maxwell, and Clark had all flown before, none of them remembered it, and Bradley had never been on a plane at all, and so it was pretty magical. But don't worry--Clark insured that we didn't enjoy ourselves too much.

Legoland . . . Mike and I expected to endure this for the sake of our Lego-obsessed children, but we loved it, too. It wasn't crowded, our kids were all at the perfect ages to enjoy everything, and the apple fries were delicious!

Sea World . . . We spent part of two days there. Bradley and Aaron sat in the soak zone for the killer whale show, and when the first wave came crashing over, Bradley didn't handle it well.

The beach . . . The water was too cold for my liking, but the warm sun on my back was not. I could have sat there listening to the waves crashing on the beach forever. (And actually, my kids didn't seem to mind the cold water one bit.)

San Diego temple . . . I have loved this temple through pictures since I was a little girl. Seeing it in person was breathtaking. (Our kids complained of being too hot while we were there, but it felt perfect to me.)

Mormon Battalion Historic Site . . . We were looking for something appropriate to do on Sunday, but this would have been delightful any day of the week. The tour was fantastic, and the boys loved panning for gold at the end of it.

Meeting the Gardners for dinner . . . No, these friends do not live in San Diego. They live a mere twenty minutes away from us in Utah, but they happened to be visiting at the same time, so why not?

Listening to The BFG . . . At one point, Mike was trying to point something out to the kids, so I turned it off, and Maxwell said, "Please turn it back on!! It is one of my most prized possessions!"

The seals at La Jolla . . . We went early one morning to see them, and it was practically just us and the seals on the beach. Our kids could have gone right up to the seals if we'd let them (we did not).

Giant lollipops . . . We were going to take the boys on the Old Town Trolley, not realizing that it wasn't some 15-minute trip through Old Town, but an extensive two-hour ride through parts of the city . . . and it was going to cost us $130. So we opted for $6.50 lollipops instead.

Of course, we had some rough moments where the kids were all screaming and crying, and Mike and I were threatening to never bring them on another vacation, but when it was all said and done, we agreed that it was 85% good, and that seems like a high enough percentage to do it again.

The ups and downs of traveling with children aside, this trip did exactly what it was supposed to: it gave us a six-day break from winter, the three weeks leading up to it were a little brighter because we knew what was coming, and the week since we got home hasn't been as bad either because we have the memories to lift our spirits (although the icy rain/snow was not a very nice welcome home the morning after we got back!).

And you know what? There are some things I appreciate far more since we went away: our water (it's so crystal cold here!), my hair (it couldn't handle the humidity), our house (staying in a one bedroom condo was the cause of most of our meltdowns).

So I'm glad we went. I'm glad we came back. And I can survive winter. (And I'm already planning my next birthday getaway!)

The Lake House by Kate Morton

Jan 25, 2016

I don't think I'd necessarily list Kate Morton as one of my favorite authors. I've had mixed feelings about her books: I didn't like The Forgotten Garden; I loved The Secret Keeper; and I quite enjoyed this one, The Lake House. I feel like, after three books, I have a pretty good feel for her style, and I like it, but not enough that I'm going to rush out and read everything else she's written or wait with bated breath for her next release.

I don't even know if I dare attempt a plot summary of this book. Like the other Kate Morton novels I've read, it's full of multiple characters spanning several generations and places. It's a lot to keep track of even while reading, let alone in a little summary, but here's my attempt.

When the story opens, it is 1933. Alice Edevane is sixteen years old. It is night and raining, and she is burying something. We don't know what it is, but from the way she's acting, you get the feeling that it's something that would implicate her to something horrible.

Fast forward seventy years. Detective Sadie Sparrow is visiting her grandfather in Cornwall. She's there on a forced leave of absence after she became too emotionally involved in a missing person case and leaked an unconfirmed fact to the press in order to keep the case going. Her partner thought it best if she left London until the backlash had settled down.

But Sadie is not one to sit around and relax. While she's out running one morning, she comes upon an abandoned house. Although overgrown and in need of repair, she can tell just by looking through the windows that whoever lived there left it just as it had always been. She's intrigued but even more so once she realizes that it belongs to the Edevane family and that they left it in 1933 after their eleven-month-old son vanished in the night and was never found.

Although the case was closed decades before, Sadie is drawn to the unanswered questions. She becomes obsessed with learning about the family and trying to figure out who took baby Theo all those years ago and what happened to him.

I think one of the reasons Kate Morton's novels are difficult for me is that they are somewhat impenetrable. I feel like I am completely in the dark for at least the first thirty pages, and I have to reread sections and flip back to earlier chapters in order to keep track of who's who. I love mysteries and questions, but I don't love feeling like I'm constantly missing something, and that's how I feel with Kate Morton's novels. Many authors employ different perspectives and time periods to tell the story, but usually it's somewhat predictable: first this character, then this one. Back and forth. But with Kate Morton, it's not like that at all. First we're in 1933, then 2003, then 1911, then 1931, and then back to 1933. We're getting the perspectives of old Alice and young Alice, old Eleanor and young Eleanor, and present day Sadie, and it's all just a little bit hard to settle into.

Along with that, there's no question that it's Kate Morton calling the shots. She leads you down one path, making you think you're figuring it out on your own, but then all of a sudden, you realize that there are still 300 pages left in the book, so that can't be it, and sure enough, it's a dead end. Then she does the same thing again, leaving little clues so that you reach a conclusion just a hair before the main character, but then it turns up false again.

I was definitely manipulated by her storytelling in many areas, but there was one belief I held firm to throughout the book, even when she was making a good case for something else, and I'm pretty proud of myself because I ended up being right. Also, Kate Morton is known for her mind-blowing twists. There were two in this book, and one of them caught me by surprise, but I figured out the other one before it happened, and that's never happened to me with her novels (I'm blaming it on my excellent sleuthing skills).

For me, one of the most intricate and captivating themes in this book was that of the role of mother. There's:
  • Constance (Alice's grandmother, Eleanor's mother), who gave Eleanor everything she needed for her physical well-being but withheld her love in a truly despicable way.
  • Eleanor (Alice's mother), who is carefree and fun until she can't be and becomes strict and responsible. And yet, she cherishes her baby boy, Theo.
  • Nanny Rose (Theo's nanny), who loves Theo like a son and will do anything to protect him.
  • Sadie, who is a mother by birth only. She gave up her daughter for adoption just hours after she was born but, fifteen years later, still remembers what it felt like to hold her.
  • Ruth (Sadie's grandmother), who took her in at a difficult time and loved her fiercely.  
  • Sadie's mother, whose name I've forgotten, which says something about the kind of mother she was.
  • Maggie, who supposedly abandoned her daughter even though she always seemed like a conscientious mother (it's this case that Sadie is in trouble for).
  • Nancy (Maggie's mother), who won't give up on her daughter's case--something about it just doesn't feel right.
  • Gemma (Maggie's ex-husband's new wife), who steps in to care for Caitlyn when Maggie leaves her.
  • Sophie, a French woman who we only get a small glimpse of.
  • Deborah (Alice's older sister), who wanted children but was never able to have any.
  • Clemmie (Alice's younger sister), who loves Theo with such a fierce and devoted love, she's pretty much a second mother to him.
  • And someone else, whose name I better not mention or it will give away important information.

All of these mothers beg the question, What makes a mother a mother? Biology? Love? Sacrifice? Dedication? The threads of these women's stories weave together in an intricate but complicated way, and for me, this was definitely the most impressive and well-crafted aspect of the book.

Beyond my initial frustration with not being able to get into the book, it was a delight to read. It was one of those novels that's just fun to be in the middle of. I found myself thinking about it at random points during the day, and it was a pleasure to return to each time and uncover a little more of the mystery. There were things I didn't love about the ending--things that seemed a little too implausible and wrapped up a little too neatly--but for the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The characters were multi-layered and heartbreaking. Eleanor was my favorite. I didn't love all of her choices, but she was inspiring nonetheless, and it was because of her that I shed some real tears at the end. And I loved, loved, loved the setting. I'm ready to hop on a plane to Cornwall right now.

If you've read and loved Kate Morton's other novels, you will love this one. If you've felt somewhat lukewarm like me, I think you'll actually enjoy this one. And if you've never read anything by Kate Morton, then this would be a great one to start with.

Content note: some infidelity but nothing too descriptive
P.S. Oh, and just a little unrelated announcement. Suzanne and I will be holding our next blab this coming Wednesday, January 27th, at 7:00pm MST. Come join us!

Five Things I Started Doing in 2015 That Changed My Life For the Better

Jan 21, 2016

I wouldn't say 2015 was a groundbreaking year for me. It was a good (and, in other ways, a hard) year, but it wasn't one of those where I look back and think, Wow, what a crazy ride. I can't believe all that happened. Has it not even been a year since ______?

However, even without any monumental changes, there have been a few things I started doing consistently that now, stepping back, I can see that, even though they're small, they've blessed my life in a significant way. And let that be a lesson to me: small steps, consistently taken, sometimes have a bigger long-term impact than world-rocking ones (and, if I'm being honest, I actually prefer those types of changes as opposed to the ones that leave me reeling).

Listening to a Conference Talk Every Morning
Every April and October, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (of which I am a member) holds, what's known as, General Conference. Lasting for two days, it consists of four general sessions filled with dozens of talks from leaders in the Church. Those are some of my favorite days of the year. They're a time for me to be filled up spiritually, and I always come away with a stronger testimony and sense of purpose.

Around the time of last April's conference, I was trying to figure out how to give more priority to my spiritual life. I was reading my scriptures every day but usually that was happening at night and sometimes I could only get a few verses in before I fell asleep. I knew I really needed something at the beginning of the day to give it a boost and help me stay focused on the most important things. All of the conference talks are archived, and I decided to start listening to one talk every morning as I got ready for the day.

This has made a huge difference in my spiritual well-being. It hasn't replaced my daily scripture study but it's been a way for me to start the day off building my faith and thinking about my Savior, Jesus Christ, without having to find a quiet place to read my scriptures (which is pretty much impossible in the crazy chaos of the morning). Instead, I can just pull one up on my phone, put in my headphones, and listen while I'm making lunches or cleaning up the house or doing my hair. It was one of those habits that slid into my normal routine so easily that it was like it was meant to be there. (Two of the talks I've returned to the most from last conference have been Yielding Our Hearts to God by Neill F. Marriott and Faith is Not By Chance, but by Choice by Neil L. Andersen.)

Going on Weekly Dates
This has been something Mike and I have tried to do our whole married lives, but once we added children to the mix, it became much more difficult. Finding a babysitter stressed me out and often,  it felt easier to just stay home than try to coordinate all of the logistics to make an evening out happen. Plus, I harbored a little resentment because, when we did go out, I felt like I was the one who did the bulk of the planning, and it seemed like something we should both be invested in.

Then, early in the year, my sister-in-law, Sonja, mentioned that she and her husband were trying really hard to go on weekly dates. They traded off the planning every other month, and that sounded like a pretty awesome idea to me. I sold the idea to Mike as a competition (we would each take a month and keep track of the dates and whoever ended up planning the most dates would be the winner), but within just a couple of months, we stopped talking about the competition aspect of it. We were just having fun spending quality time together. Since we trade back and forth, I actually enjoy when it's my turn to do the planning because I get to do things that are fun for me, and when it's Mike's month, I relish not planning anything while knowing the dates will still happen.

Doing it this way has also helped us branch out from the standard "go out for dinner" or "stay home and watch a movie" dates we were used to. In the past year, we've gone to an art exhibit, been on a couple of hikes, gone to concerts and plays, and even done a room escape mystery.

Also, over the last nine months, we've discovered that we love middle-of-the-week, middle-of-the-day dates. They feel so indulgent.

Making lunches for the boys
A few months ago, Janssen mentioned that she was packing lunches for both of her older girls, even though only one of them is in school (an idea she got from Miranda). When I read her post, I had one of those lightning bolt moments Gretchen Rubin talks about. What a genius idea, and why had I not been doing such a thing all along? I was making a lunch for Aaron every morning anyway so it wouldn't be that difficult to just pack lunches for Maxwell and Bradley at the same time.

I started that very day, and I haven't looked back. It was one of those habits that fit our lifestyle and our schedule so perfectly that it took virtually no effort on my part to adopt.

And it has transformed my life.

I know, that sounds so dramatic, but I promise you I don't make such a statement lightly. Think about it. What is usually one of the worst times of the day? Lunchtime, right? (The only time of day that could possibly compete with it is the 4:30pm witching hour.) My kids tend to go a little psycho around 11:30am, which tends to make me go a little psycho. But by making the lunches in the morning, when things are relatively calm (and I'm just listening to my conference talk), I've eliminated the stress and craziness of that time of day entirely.

And if we ever decide to go to the park or a friend's house, I can just grab the lunches on our way out the door.

I'm telling you, transformative.

Learning to knit
Early last spring, a sweet older lady in our neighborhood taught me how to knit. It had been something I'd wanted to learn how to do for a long time. I started with a dish cloth (isn't that what you always start with?). Then I moved onto a pillow. And right now, I'm halfway through making a vest for Bradley (I'm using small needles, so it's taking me a long time.)

Everything about knitting is calming and relaxing to me (well, except for trying to decode the pattern, but luckily, my teacher hasn't abandoned me). I love the feeling of the soft yarn sliding through my fingers, the methodical click of the needles, and watching the finished product magically grow beneath my hands. It's the perfect thing to do while listening to an audiobook or watching a movie or just sitting tucked up on the couch watching the falling snow. I'm constantly planning out future projects, all while continuing to enjoy the project I'm currently working on.

Plus, learning to knit was one of my actual goals for 2015, and it felt so good to be able to check it off after wanting to learn for so long. I thought I would have to take a class or find some tutorials on the internet, but instead I formed a wonderful friendship with someone in our neighborhood, and that has had its own blessings.

Poetry Snack Time
When I first heard about "poetry tea time" on the Read-Aloud Revival, I decided to try it with my kids, just for fun. The idea is that you combine reading poetry with eating, and that just sounded like a winner combination to me. However, these types of things are often hard for me to stick with simply because, since it's not something we do every day, it can be tricky to know when to fit it in.

But again, as with everything I mentioned above, this tradition took hold with virtually no prodding from me. My kids immediately fell in love with it and look forward to it every time. Over the summer, we did it once a week. Now we do it about once a month (or every other week if we're lucky). I've tried not to force it into our schedule because it's meant to be fun, not essential.

We've tweaked a few things since we started, and I keep meaning to write a full post about it. Hopefully soon.

And that's it. I'd love to know what things YOU started doing in 2015 (big or small!) that changed your life for the better.

A Few Thoughts on the 2016 Newbery, Caldecott, and Geisel Awards

Jan 13, 2016

There's nothing quite like the announcement of the ALA Youth Media Awards bright and early on a Monday morning to get your week off to a good start. (At least for me, anyway.)

I didn't stay as current with newly published books during 2015 as I would have liked (I'm going to take 75% of the blame and give the remaining 25% to my library because, seriously,  they are so slow when it comes to processing new books). Because of this, I don't have as many opinions on the winners as I have in past years. But I'll share the few I have.

First, the Theodore Seuss Geisel award (given for the most distinguished beginning reader book).

Last year, I said I wished we could get a bit more variety in the easy reader department instead of Mo Willems, Mo Willems, Mo Willems (although I will say he deserves all the recognition he's received), and I got exactly that this year. Not a Mo Willems book in sight (but not because he didn't write some good ones. Just check out Diva and Flea if you don't believe me).

The medal went to Don't Throw It to Mo (I guess since Mo Willems didn't win anything, something with Mo in the title had to win), and A Pig, a Fox, and a Box, Supertruck, and Waiting won honors.

I think I've mentioned that I'm a Round 2 Cybils judge this year in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter books category, and both Don't Throw It to Mo and A Pig, a Fox, and a Box happen to be on the Cybils shortlist. Because of that, even if I had an opinion on them, I couldn't share it here. However, you maybe remember that our library doesn't seem to be a fan of promptness, so it's not hard to keep my mouth shut because I haven't read them yet. Grrrrrr.

I wasn't surprised to see Kevin Henkes on the list. Everything he writes/illustrates seems to be gold. I actually haven't read Waiting yet though because of that one thing I already mentioned twice so far in this post. Nor have I read Supertruck because of . . .  my own negligence (I can take the blame when it's my fault). So obviously, my opinion is worth about zippo in regards to the Geisel.

Then there's the Randolph Caldecott award (given for the most distinguished picture book) .

Trombone Shorty, Waiting, Voice of Freedom, and Last Stop on Market Street won honors. And Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear received the medal.

I have to say, I have been waiting months to read Finding Winnie, and that's not an exaggeration. It was published during the last quarter of the year, but the book world was buzzing about it long before then. There happened to be two picture books about Winnie-the-Pooh published this year. The other one was Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the Pooh. That one was published at the beginning of 2015, so we've read it. I've been dying to know how Finding Winnie compares, and by the looks of its shiny new medal, it must be even better. (Let this be a lesson to me, sometimes it's worth it just to buy the book.)

As for the other winners, I've only read Last Stop on Market Street. I really did awesome this year with keeping up, you can see.

And finally, the John Newbery award (given for the most outstanding contribution to children's literature):

Before the Newbery was announced, I thought to myself, Well, there's no way I read the Newbery winner this year since I only read one eligible book. (I couldn't even stay current with the easy readers and picture books, remember?)

But then a picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, won the medal, and so I had, in fact, read the winner after all. That was a real shock, and also, kind of a delightful surprise.

It is not unheard of for a picture book to win the Newbery medal, but it's only happened once before (in 1982). However, you may have noticed, Last Stop on Market Street also won a Caldecott Honor, and I don't know that the same book has ever been awarded a Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor (I'm sure someone has figured that out by now, but not me.) So it was kind of a record-breaking year.

Three books were awarded Newbery Honors this year: The War That Saved My Life (I've had this reserved at the library a couple of times this year and still haven't read it, although the audio won the Odyssey award, so maybe I need to listen to it instead), Roller Girl (sigh. another graphic novel--remember how I felt about the one that won last year?), and Echo (a book that I know very little about but sounds great).

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the awards this year and look forward to reading many of the winners, I must admit that the longer I follow these awards, the more disenchanted I become with them. For one thing, I'm finally acknowledging the fact that the winners are selected by a committee of human beings who are governed by their own personal biases, tastes, and beliefs, and I believe that shows in the books that are selected. If you took the same set of books but had two different committees judge them, you'd come out with different winners. Maybe not all completely different, but some of them for sure. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's kind of fun to see what themes and trends emerge every year. And I know each committee takes their responsibility very seriously, and I respect them for that, but they're still human. So I'm starting to give less and less credibility to that shiny gold sticker on the front that says "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." Most distinguished in the opinion of fifteen people, you mean.

Also, as with so many other things, the ALA awards have become as much about making a political statement as honoring the best literature. It's frustrating and annoying and oh so aggravating to me, but it's the way it is. Because of that, I can guarantee you that some of the more recent winners in the last five years are not going to stand the test of time. In fifty years, our children and grandchildren are going to look back at some of them (I'm not pointing fingers) and wonder why on earth we thought that was "distinguished" literature.

I'm curious to hear what you thought about the winners or just your opinion on the Newbery and Caldecott awards in general.

Review x 2: The Family Under the Bridge and Wayside School is Falling Down

Jan 11, 2016

Although both middle grade, these books have basically nothing in common except that I finished both of them at the end of the year, and I wanted to get caught up with my reviews. This is probably the first (and last) time that they will ever be paired together.

1. The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson

You know I love seasonal reading, and so I have been so grateful for Erica's list of Christmas chapter books, which she put together last year (her follow up list this year was also very good). It was because of this list that we read Nancy and Plum last year and The Family Under the Bridge this year. Both books were perfect complements to our holiday festivities, and I'm grateful there are still many books left for us to try during future Decembers.

Set in Paris, The Family Under the Bridge stars an unlikely hero: an old hobo named Armand who enjoys his responsibility-free life and guards his heart against becoming attached to any people, particularly children. But then one day, he returns to one of his favorite spots under a bridge along the Seine and finds three small children occupying it instead. Having been evicted from their apartment, their mother moved them there while she continued to work and look for another home.

Armand takes pity on the family (although he warns himself not to) and helps them find food. Their mother is very resistant to any sort of charitable help, but she finally realizes that her situation is such as to leave her no choice. This all happens during the month of December, and when the children have the opportunity to see Father Christmas, Suzy asks him for a real house for her family.

The request seems impossible, but Armand finally realizes that he will give anything and be anyone if it means keeping those children safe and happy (that darn heart of his!).

This story gave me a chance to try on my French accent, which is lacking in so many ways. In fact, as much as I loved the story and enjoyed sharing it with my kids, the French names and accents about did me in. Anytime Mike was within hearing range, I banished him from the room (he speaks French, and I was too embarrassed to let him hear me butchering his beloved language). I kept telling him he should be the one to read this one, and finally one evening, he volunteered to give it a try. After just a couple of pages, he admitted defeat. If the entire thing had been written in French, he would have been fine, but he was also having a hard time with the accent.

Little by little though, the accent, although not authentic in anyway, became more comfortable to me, to the point that I actually started to enjoy reading it aloud. My kids are very forgiving, too, which gave me more confidence.

The story is sweet and different (how many other stories can you think of about a homeless family and a friendly hobo?). It's also short, and I actually would have liked a little more, particularly between chapters seven and eight. Seven ends on Christmas Eve, and eight picks up after Christmas, skipping the big day entirely. Armand has already told the children that Father Christmas will not be bringing them a house for Christmas, but still, I felt like there had been a lot of buildup to Christmas Day, and then it passed with nary a word. The hole felt so blatant, in fact, that I kept turning back the pages because I was sure we'd accidentally overlooked a chapter, but no, the story really does brush over Christmas Day itself.

The other part I was expecting more from was when the policeman returned to the gypsy camp (where Armand and the children had been staying) and finds that all of the gypsies have vanished. He has a wallet full of money that one of them lost at a cafe, and he was planning on returning it to him. For some reason, I thought that the money would somehow ending up helping Armand and the children, but it didn't.

That's not to say that I didn't like the ending. It was actually one of the most touching and satisfying endings I've ever read. Sometimes it's better when your predictions don't pan out, and seeing Armand step up and become a responsible citizen was infinitely better than watching him inherit a large sum of money.

2. Wayside School is Falling Down by Louis Sachar

After Aaron and I finished reading Sideways Stories From Wayside School, I figured he would just finish the other books on his own. I enjoyed the first book very much but felt like my time would be better invested reading a new series or author with him. However, as soon as he started the second book, he told me I had to read it. I don't know that he's ever told me that before, so I had to oblige. And honestly, it wasn't any sacrifice at all. It was a treat to share another of these funny books with him.

It was a seamless continuation of the first book. More zany stories. More bizarre happenings. More wacky kids.

Highlights included:
  • a visit by Allison to the nonexistent nineteenth floor
  • Miss Mush's infamous school lunches (my favorite exchange happens when Sharie asks her, "What do you have?" and Miss Mush replies, "Potato salad." Sharie asks, "What else is there?" and Miss Mush says, "Nothing." "Okay, I'll have that," says Sharie. "Potato salad?" Miss Mush asks. "No, nothing," says Sharie.)
  • Bebe Gunn's fictitious baby brother
  • A backwards chapter (that literally had me screaming to myself, "What is going on?!")
  • A case of mistaken identity when everyone calls Benjamin Nushmutt Mark Miller (but Mark Miller is actually on the nineteenth story where everyone there calls him Benjamin Nushmutt).
Each chapter feels kind of like a standalone story, but it isn't one. Details get tossed back and forth from chapter to chapter (and even between books), and after awhile, they start to feel like inside jokes, which makes you feel special and included that you know what's being referred to. For example, when Sharie brings a hobo to school, Rondie raises her hand to ask a question. The hobo calls on her by saying, "Yes, the girl with the cute front teeth." But, as anyone from the first book will know, Rondie is missing her two front teeth, but people are always complimenting her on them.

Or there's the time when Jason needs a pencil so he can do a work sheet. Myron looks at the paper and says, "I don't feel like doing this stuff" and hands his pencil to Jason. In an earlier chapter, Myron signs for his freedom, and for some reason it was hilariously funny to me to see him so casually decide not to do his work.

There is a tiny bit of rudeness that I didn't appreciate, but it was gloriously free of potty language, so I'm calling it a win. Afterwards, I checked out the audio version from the library, and now Maxwell is addicted to the series too (although, he listened to it one night as he was going to sleep and got a little freaked out when Mrs. Gorf's face suddenly appeared in Miss Mush's potato salad).

Now Aaron is telling me I have to read Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger, and I don't know that I'll be able to resist.

Have you read either of these books? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

2016 Reading Goals

Jan 8, 2016

One of my favorite things about a new year is a new set of reading goals. Some of these will look familiar as they're basically goals I've made in previous years and others are brand new and probably will be here for 2016 only. Here's what I will be working on.

1. Read a book I put on my to-read list in 2011
I'm kicking off the list with a familiar goal. In 2014, I looked at my 2009 to-read list. Last year, I gave attention to 2010. So of course now it's 2011's turn. There are some good ones that have been hanging out there for the last five years: Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George (which I might read to my kids), Mitten Strings for God by Katrina Kenison (which I think would be a perfect one to read around Mother's Day), or How Green was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn (which feels like a book I should have already read ages ago), to name a few.

2. Read a female author I've been meaning to read
There are so many authors I've had on my radar for years but haven't gotten around to trying yet. This is the year to make it a priority. I'm not putting any restrictions on genre or publishing year. They can be classic or current, high-brow or chick-lit. Some choices include Eva Ibbotson, Susanna Kearsley, and Edith Wharton.

3. Read a male author I've been meaning to read
I like to be fair. Okay, not really. But I have a handful of male authors I've been meaning to read for a long time, too, so I might as well have a reason to read at least one of them too. Same rules apply as to the goal above. I have my eye on Wallace Stegner, P.G. Wodehouse, or Ivan Doig.

4. Read (don't listen) to something by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens
This is the big one. Over the last few years, I've learned that I definitely prefer listening to classics instead of reading them. It's easier for me to get immersed in the story and not get bogged down by the dense writing. But now that I know that, it's time to push myself out of my comfort zone. I specifically chose Jane Austen or Charles Dickens because they're authors I'm already familiar with and I've been wanting read something else by them anyway. I'm a very slow reader, especially with classics, so this goal alone might take me six months to complete. I'm not joking.

5. Read six books with Aaron
When I say "with," I mean "separately but together." Last year we read Sideways Stories From Wayside School and Wayside School is Falling Down together, and it was so much fun. I like reading the same books as him because it gives me a reason to become more familiar with the literature for his age group and, more importantly, I love being able to discuss what's going on in the story with him. Mike is taking up this goal as well (although not as formally), and between the two of us, we should be able to enjoy a lot of great books with Aaron.

6. Read a book about the Olympics or an Olympic athlete
This is the wild card on the list. I have absolutely no idea what I want to read for this goal, and having really open-ended goals has not worked out for me in the past. But the Olympics are happening this year, and I love the Olympics, so I want something to help get me in the mood. Suggestions and recommendations are welcome.

7. Read another book by Louisa May Alcott
I enjoyed reading Little Men so much last year that I knew I needed to give Louisa May Alcott her own goal this year. I thought of making it a "finish a series" type of goal like I've had in the past, but I wanted to be able to branch out to Eight Cousins or something else of hers if I wanted to.

8. Read five Newbery related books
Last year I focused on past Newbery winners. That was really rewarding, and it made me read some books I'd been meaning to for a long time. But . . . it meant that I didn't give nearly as much focus as usual to trending books. Consequently, the Newbery is being announced on Monday, and I don't have a single book to root for. I'm pretty sad about that actually. This year, I'm trying to figure out how to strike a balance between past and present, and so I'm going vague. "Newbery-related" can be interpreted as a past winner (of the medal or an honor) or a book that has the potential to win the Newbery in 2017. I wish that I was a faster reader and could bump up that number to ten or even twenty, but I know that even five will feel like a challenge with everything else I want to read.

9. Read a verse novel or poetry collection
I'll be honest, it's kind of nice to have one goal that I can easily knock off in a day or two if I'm feeling behind. Plus, the more poetry I read, the more I love it.                                                                                                                 
10. Reread Edenbrooke and The Happiness Project
I could have just said, "Reread two books," but I'm being super specific here because these were both books I was meaning to reread last year and never got around to it. This year it will happen. Edenbrooke is purely for pleasure and The Happiness Project is to review all of the things I learned the first time and hopefully implement a few more of them.

In terms of quantity, this is my most ambitious list of goals so far. I'll need to read 21 books in order to complete these goals (last year, it was only 14). However, many of them can be completed with fairly quick reads, so I'm hoping it's doable (but still challenging). If you want to see some really ambitious goals, check out my friend Carrie's list.

What reading goals do you have for 2016?

A Little of This and That in December

Jan 6, 2016

December was a crazy, busy, fun, memorable month for us, filled with activities such as these:

Sitting . . . in front of the space heater. This is not unusual, but at the beginning of the month, our furnace broke, and so we were especially attached to the portable heaters for a few days. Luckily, Mike fixed it. (I thank myself pretty much every day for marrying an engineer.)

Shoveling . . . tons of snow. We got dumped on in the middle of the month. Then the temperature dropped, which ensured a white Christmas.

Spending . . . time with family. We didn't go to Colorado like we usually do, but we still had lots of parties with all of our siblings who live nearby.

Capturing . . . Clark's first long word on video. It was "dinosaur."

Acting . . . out the nativity. As a Christmas present for Mike's parents, Mike's sister recorded all of the grandchildren performing the nativity. We also recorded all of them reciting the story from the scriptures, and then our brother-in-law, Rob, added music and edited it all together to make a truly touching film (a time-consuming labor of love).

Wrapping . . . hundreds of caramels to deliver to friends in the neighborhood. Mike and I high-fived each other when our kids did all of the delivering. Finally, they're beginning to earn their keep.

Reading . . . lots of Christmas picture books. In addition to doing a book countdown to Christmas, we checked out many new books from the library. New favorites included Who's That Knocking on Christmas Eve?, The Reindeer Wish, and The Reindeer Christmas.

Keeping . . . secrets about presents and an upcoming trip to San Diego.

Missing . . . Mike when he was gone for four days on a work trip. Hoping there will be fewer work-related trips in 2016.

Enjoying . . . lots of slow, cozy mornings during Christmas break. I am a homebody at heart, and my favorite days of the break were the ones with no place to go and nothing to do. My kids liked those days, too. 

Listening . . . to Christmas music nonstop. I went out of my way to try some new albums and found a few new ones that we really liked: Wave Your Antlers by Bobs and Lolo, Christmastime by Hilary Weeks, Christmas Songs by Diana Krall, All is Bright by Mercy River, and A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas by Kristin Chenoweth.

Blabbing . . . with Suzanne about pretty books we'd love to own. Such a fun conversation

Defending . . . the Christmas tree from attacks by Clark and the cat. Seriously, I was ready to take down the tree after the first day because those two would not leave it alone. And the times when they happened to be under it together? Even worse. It's a wonder it survived the month.

Singing . . . "Once There Was a Snowman" a dozen times just to see Clark do the actions again and again.

Marking . . . off the days until Christmas with our advent calendar. (Sadly though, the boys lost one of the squares, and it still hasn't been found.)

Sledding . . . on Christmas Eve with cousins. Clark was ready to go home as soon as we got out of the car. Aaron could have stayed all day.

Staring . . . in disbelief and shock when the mantel above the fireplace came crashing down . . . at midnight . . . on Christmas Eve . . . shattering a glass cup and several pieces in two nativities . . . and waking up a certain five-year-old in the process. Not exactly the magical way you imagine Christmas Eve ending. The bright side? At least I had already drunk the milk from the glass before it broke.

Building . . . Lego creations. Okay, not me. Aaron. It's pretty much all he wanted to do over the break.

Enduring . . . endless talk about the new Star Wars movie. I live in a house with boys who are obsessed with it, and I couldn't care less. I watched the first (or was it the fourth? Whichever one was made first) several years ago, and it was torturous. I have a feeling I'm going to be roped into seeing the new one though because everyone loves it (even non-Star Wars fans).

Assembling . . . a new art table for the boys. They love to do art projects in their room so that Clark won't bother them, but I was getting tired of the markers, paper, and scissors constantly scattered on the floor. The new table was designed by Mike and uses Ikea's Trofast system so there's plenty of storage. I'm still hoping to put together an entire post about it, but it's really hard to get pictures in Aaron and Maxwell's room.

Ringing . . . in 2016 with my brother's family. (Bradley crashed at 10:15pm after a bitter loss in Pass the Pigs.)

 What were your December days filled with?

Raising Readers: A Tale of Two Boys (Guest Post)

Jan 4, 2016

I have mentioned Erica of What Do We Do All Day at least a dozen times on this blog. She is one of my go-to resources for book recommendations, math activities, and game suggestions, and today I am so pleased and thrilled to welcome her to Sunlit Pages.

Erica is the mom of two boys, both of whom approached learning to read in very different ways. At one level or another, I think this is something most parents can relate to, and so I asked Erica if she would talk a little bit about how she embraced and and encouraged these different styles of learning. Her advice is both practical and applicable, and I'm pretty sure you're going to love it.

Sunlit Pages // How to encourage readers with different learning styles (guest post from Erica of What Do We Do All Day)

Reading aloud to my kids has always been a mainstay in my parenting toolbox. It is my go-to activity when my kids are annoying, fighting, tired, needy, upset -- essentially all those kid behaviors that I find very difficult to manage without losing my mind. I can always diffuse a difficult situation by picking up a book and starting to read aloud. My kids will stop what they are doing and come right over. The lure of stories is much greater than the lure of annoying one’s brother. You might argue about the merits of this parenting technique but one positive result is that both of my boys, ages 7 and (almost) 11, adore books.

(Not) Teaching My Kids To Read

Even though I read aloud to both boys as much as possible they each took very different paths towards learning to read. Whereas my approach to reading aloud was “do as much as possible”, my strategy to teach reading was exactly the opposite: do almost nothing at all.

Kid #1: Early, Often and Everything

My older son surprised me by teaching himself to read at the tender age of 3.5.  Of course I attributed this to my totally amazing plan of reading aloud all the time! Okay, not really. He just has the kind of brain that picks up systems really easily. As soon as his brain realized that decoding text was a system, he figured it out.

From that point on my entire job was to find appropriate books for him to read. I had only to set a stack of books in front of him and he would sit down and read them all. Six years later, even though he now chooses his own books, my son cannot see a book without picking it up and reading it. Non-fiction, fiction, short, long, easy, challenging – if it contains words, he reads it with zero coaxing from me.

Let me tell you that having a young child who loves to read independently is wonderful when you need a break from the daily grind of parenting.

Kid #2: Late, Rarely and Selective

My second child took a much more typical path to becoming a reader. Although I read no less to him than I did to his brother, he did not show signs of sounding out words until the age of 5, neither did he express any desire to learn to read. I wrote about how I decided not to force him to learn to read and some of the alternative strategies I employed but mostly I was hands off. We are lucky to be in a school which exerts zero pressure on kids to learn to read before they are ready. (I know this is not the case in many schools.) All his teachers confirmed that his skills were age appropriate, and all I needed to do was continue to read aloud.

So, that’s what I did.

It took about 2 years of very, very slow progress, and he now reads at a level appropriate for his grade. But can I put any type of book out and expect him to read it on his own?

No way.

I have had to make peace with the fact that my youngest son primarily reads Star Wars, superhero and Pokemon books. I had a small success with a few others, but not much. For now (and probably forever) I will let it go, allowing him to pick his own reading material, no matter how much I cringe at the quality. Instead of bringing home books for him to gobble up like I did for his brother, I rarely choose reading material for him. He knows where his favorite books are in the library and he heads straight for those shelves. I’m okay with this and the main reason why is that I get to choose our read alouds. I bring home piles of wonderful picture books and read aloud novels that have nothing to do with intergalactic war or superhuman strength. And he loves them. Our favorite novels this year were books like Apple Blossom the Possum, The Perilous Princess Plot, and Little Dog Lost (a book written in verse, no less!). I’m curious to see where his reading path takes him but for now I’m just letting him find his own way.

My (Non) Advice for Raising Readers

I don’t claim to have any wisdom beyond the standard about how to raise voracious readers because honestly, looking back, I took the path of least resistance. I read aloud more than the average parent because I am too lazy to engage in more challenging activities, and I did almost nothing to formally teach my kids to read. This, of course, won’t work for everyone and I readily acknowledge that! I enjoy hearing about what other families are doing to raise young readers. What are your strategies?

Erica chronicles her ongoing parenting adventures on her blog, What Do We Do All Day? where she shares weekly book lists and easy learning ideas. She has outrageously ambitious plans to teach her children to love and memorize Shakespeare in 2016. Wish her luck.

The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made by Bruce Watson

Jan 2, 2016

Aaron's Christmas wish list was made up entirely of Lego sets. I'm not sure what he would have done if he'd actually received every set he asked for (probably keeled over with happiness), but instead, he got one medium-sized set and one small set. Fortunately for him, Maxwell and Bradley each got a set as well, and they don't really love putting them together, so they let him do it for them. He knocked off all 400+-pieces sets in two days.

To say he is Lego-obsessed would be something of an understatement. It's all he thinks or talks about, and I'm sure many of you have similarly obsessed children.

But before there were Legos, there was something called an Erector set. Heard of it? Probably, because it is now one of the most iconic toys in toy history, ranking right up there with Raggedy Ann and the jack-in-the-box.

It was invented by a young man named A.C. Gilbert in the year 1911 and was one of the first building toys of its kind. With a metal box full of nuts, bolts, steel girders, and cogwheels, a child could build just about anything. And he (or rarely, she) did. These weren't just cute models but miniatures of the real thing (although I don't necessarily think of a five-foot zeppelin as "miniature").

But Gilbert didn't just invent a new toy. He completely changed the face of the toy industry. He changed the way toys were advertised (his famous slogan, "Hello Boys! Make Lots of Toys!," spoke directly to the potential builders themselves instead of their parents). He loosened Germany's grip on the toy industry and handed over the responsibility (and the profits) to American toy makers. He created toys that were educational and taught life-skills, something that was really unheard of at the turn of the twentieth century.

Of course I'd heard about Erector sets before I read this book (I think my dad may have even had one when he was a kid), but most of the information was completely new to me.  At times, Watson's writing style was a little presumptuous and exclamatory, but that's not unlike Gilbert's own style, as found in the magazine Erector Tips, so maybe it was appropriate. (I also could have done without Watson's personal stories--they felt totally gimmicky).

But A.C. Gilbert himself fascinated me--a man who called himself a "big boy" and became something of a father-figure to thousands of American boys, yet couldn't relate at all to his own son and had the sternest countenance of anyone around. There were so many conflicting personality traits that, even by the end of the book, he was still something of a mystery to me. But stories like the following made me think that underneath his various personas, he was a good, if not perfect, person:

He was often told that he needed to raise the price on his small tool chests: "We can't sell them for $1.98. We're losing a buck on every one." But Gilbert wouldn't do it. He told his employees to "make up the loss somewhere else." He wanted to keep at least one set affordable for even the poorest of boys.

One of  the subtitles of the book calls Gilbert "the man who saved Christmas." Again, a little presumptuous, but there is some truth to it. In 1918, with WWI still raging, the Council of National Defense proposed a ban on all toy sales. Gilbert and several other members of Toy Manufacturers of America were given fifteen minutes to try to persuade the council otherwise. Gilbert acted as spokesman and said, "The greatest influence in the life of a boy is his toys. A boy wants fun, not education. Yet through the kind of toys that America toy manufacturers are turning out, he gets both. The American boy is a genuine boy and he wants genuine toys. He wants guns that really shoot, and that is why we have given him air rifles from the time he was big enough to hold them. It is because of the toys they had in childhood that the American soldiers are the best marksmen on the battlefields of France." So there you have it. Not exactly the kind of glowing endorsement that would have convinced me that American kids needed Christmas, but it worked its magic on the council. They didn't ban toys, and Gilbert saved Christmas (for that one year).

As my kids have gotten older, I have become more and more picky about which toys I let take up residence in our home. Legos, magformers, games, puzzles, art supplies, and bikes all get an automatic pass. Video games and one-dimensional noisy toys do not. I want toys that will encourage fun and play but also help them be creative and industrious and cooperative. Watson said,
"Today's most popular toys--even those for thirteen-year-olds--are pure fantasy. But time was when toys were mock-ups of the grown-up world, preparing children for it day by day, doll by doll, model by model. When a society is in sync with its toys, children are not afraid to grow up, and those who come of age with such toys can look back and see the person they've become in the toys they once loved."
Gilbert's Erector sets and other kits did that, and there are still many toys on the market that promote those same values. They might not be the most popular, but they're there. And that's where my money will go.

What is the best toy you've ever purchased for your child? Tell me about the toys in your house that just keep on giving.
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