A Little of This and That in February

Feb 29, 2016

Well, friends, we made it! Here we are on this final bonus day of February, right on the cusp of leaving winter behind us. We've already had a few little glimpses of spring, and I can feel my soul waking up from its winter sleep.

That said, I'm happy to say, we didn't just endure February, but really enjoyed it. This month was spent . . .

Escaping . . . the inversion. I love almost everything about living in Salt Lake except for the horribly nasty air that gets trapped in our valley during the winter months. Right around President's Day, we literally had the worst air on record. It gave me a headache, which it's never done before. I really wanted to go to San Diego again, or at least St. George, but we settled for a couple of hours in the mountains instead.

Hosting . . . book club. We discussed The Children Act by Ian McEwan, a book I didn't love but that made for one of the best discussions I've ever been to (in part because my friend, Jen, who was the discussion leader, knows how to ask really thoughtful, probing questions). I always get really nervous to host because throwing a party is not one of my strengths, but it turned out really fun (and now my turn won't come up again for awhile!).

Touring . . . the new Provo City Center Temple (formerly the Provo Tabernacle). The tickets were in high demand, so we settled for Friday morning at 7:00am. That meant we had to be out the door, dressed in our Sunday best no less, at 6:00am (oh, and did I mention that Mike had returned from a work trip at midnight the night before?). But it was so worth it. I have a tender spot in my heart for that building because I spent so much time there during my college days (including my senior recital). The craftsmanship was gorgeous and I was so humbled by the symbolic reminder that Heavenly Father can transform great tragedy into wondrous blessings.

Delighting . . . in all of Clark's new words. In the last month, he has turned into quite the little talker. It still sounds like gibberish to most people, but we in the family can understand almost everything he says. Our favorite words are, "O-tay," "Why?," "I'm fine," Nie-nie [night-night]," "tee-tee [pizza]," "That's Daddy's!," "Addie [his cousin]," "amen," "hot dog," "spidey-spidey [spider]," and "tane-too, Mommy [thank you, Mommy]."

Basking . . . in the warm, spring-like weather we've had the last few days. Max has picked up right where he left off in the fall in his search for bugs. Mike has been anxiously checking his raspberry plants that he transplanted in the fall. The soccer ball has come back out, as well as the bikes, scooters, and wiggle cars. Everyone is coming out of hibernation, and it feels like our neighborhood is alive again.

Listening . . . to Anne Bogel's new podcast What Should I Read Next. Oh my goodness, I'm obsessed. Anne asks her guests for three books they love, one book they hate, and what they're currently reading and then gives them three recommendations for what they should read next. The book talk is perfection. Her guests are well-spoken and witty, and even when they're talking about a book I know I'd never want to read, the discussion itself is just so interesting. Of course I've thought about how I'd answer those questions for myself, and man, it would be hard to decide (although I know exactly which book I'd mention for one that I hated).

Celebrating . . . Valentine's Day with chocolate waffles, origami hearts, date night, and, of course, books.

Beginning . . . a "no treats for a month" fast. I'm dying. I knew I was addicted to sugar, but it's been two weeks, and I'm still absolutely craving it. I think, according to Gretchen Rubin's definition of it, I'm an abstainer rather than a moderator, but I don't think I can give up treats long term. Nor do I want to.

Judging . . . the easy readers/early chapter books for the Cybils Award. This is definitely something I hope to participate in again in the future.

Teaching . . . joy school. More than half-way through the year, and I still think they're the cutest little group we've ever had. Plus, Bradley has a crush on Jane, which is super adorable.

Writing . . . a guest post for What Do We Do All Day. We played with our city of Lemonopolis all month, and it was so much fun.

Welcoming . . . a new niece to the family. My brother and his wife had a baby at the beginning of the month, and her two older siblings stayed with us for a couple of days. We loved having them, and I just love new babies.

Reading . . . quite the variety of books. Everything from a reread of The Happiness Project to some medieval fantasy to some nonfiction with Aaron.

Stressing . . . about school decisions for 2016-2017. There's nothing to decide yet, but that doesn't mean I don't worry about it. One thing I can tell you though, we just can't do the two schools thing again. I'll write more about it later. (And if you know me in real life, I'm sorry. It seems I can't have a normal conversation without bringing it up at some point!)

What were you up to this month?

Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt

Feb 26, 2016

You know that uncomfortable feeling you get when you really like a book and then everyone else hates it? Or, conversely, when everyone else raves about a book and then you read it to see what all the fuss is about and it falls totally flat? It sort of makes you question everything about your reading taste, especially if you're disagreeing with someone whose tastes generally match your own.

That happened to me with Keturah and Lord Death, but I'll hold off telling you if it was a love/hate or hate/love scenario until after I've briefed you on the plot.

Despite living in the poorest village in the kingdom, Keturah and her grandmother are happy. Keturah hopes to one day find her "one true love," but she isn't in a hurry. One day, she follows the great white hart into the forest and becomes lost for three days. Her life is slipping away when Lord Death appears to escort her the rest of the way. Keturah is desperate to hold onto her life and so bargains with Lord Death with the only thing she can think of: a story. She weaves a tale of loss and love and then cuts it off abruptly, promising to tell the rest at the end of the next day. Lord Death agrees and even promises to spare her life completely if she can find her "one true love" before her time is up.

Keturah returns to the village with a determination to do two things: find someone to fall in love with and warn Lord Temsland about the impending plague that will surely ravage their village if they don't do something. But both tasks prove more difficult than anticipated, so Keturah keeps holding off Lord Death, but with a price.

I have so many friends who adore this book. In fact, I think I first heard about it from Julianne Donaldson (author of Edenbrooke) who listed it as one of her very favorite books. I value and respect the opinions of these friends. I've loved some of their other recommendations in the past. I share many of the same favorite books as them.

And so I can't figure out how my experience with this book could be so vastly opposite of theirs.

Because, if you must know, I didn't really like this book. In fact, even though it's only 200 pages long, it felt like it dragged on and on forever. However, instead of just saying, "Hmmm, I guess that one wasn't really for me" and moving on, I feel compelled to somehow hash out my experience and figure out what went wrong. Here are a few guesses:
  •  Listening to this book was a huge mistake. In fact, I might even go so far as to blame my whole negative reaction on the fact that I listened to it instead of read it. I checked it out from the library through their One-Click Digital program, which doesn't let you speed up the tracks. I've become pretty accustomed to listening to things at double speed, but since it was such a short book, I didn't think it would really matter. Oh, but it did. Every sentence felt stretched out to the point of distortion until I thought I was going to scream at the narrator.
  • The phrase "one true love" (which I normally only associate with Disney movies anyway) was so overused, I thought I was going to gag. (Again though, the way the narrator elongated "onnnne truuuue lovvve" certainly couldn't have helped.)
  • Keturah was about as dimwitted a heroine as they come. She spends all of her bargained time perfecting her pie-making skills in hopes that she will win Ben Marshall's hand in marriage, but she freely admits that she doesn't even like Ben. Her friends, Beatrice and Gretta, are not much better. It's one thing for a reader to be privy to some important information and watch in great suspense for the characters to figure something out. It's another to want to reach through the pages and throttle them because they are so imperceptive.
  • The ending was so unsatisfying . . . and not for the reason all of you who have read it are probably thinking. It didn't surprise or disappoint me. I expected it and saw it coming from the beginning. But I wanted to want it. And I thought that I would want it by the end. But I didn't. And a love story that doesn't make your heart flutter even once feels like a failure. 
One of the reasons everyone seems to love this book is because of the beautiful and unique perspective it gives to death, and for this, and this alone, I will whole-heartedly agree. Here are four favorite quotes:

"If untimely death came only to those who deserved that fate, Keturah, where would choice be? No one would do good for its own sake but only to avoid an early demise."
"She knew it was Death who sweetened the apples."
"His voice is cold at first . . . It seems unfeeling. But if you listen without fear, you find that when he speaks, the most ordinary words become poetry. When he stands close to you, your life becomes a song, a praise. When he touches you, your smallest talents become gold. The most ordinary loves break your heart with their beauty."
"Tell me what it is like to die."
"You experience something similar every day," he said softly. "It is as familiar to you as bread and butter."
"Yes," I said. "It is like every night when I fall asleep."
"No, it is like every morning when you wake up."
I have a feeling that if I read it again (and actually read it this time), I might have a different overall opinion, but I'm not willing to risk such torture again in order to find out.

Come on, friends who love this book: Tell me why you liked it! Defend Keturah and her "one true love." Show me what I was missing. And, in contrast, is there anyone who can commiserate with me? I know the majority of readers love this book, but surely there must be someone out there who was as disenchanted with this book as I was.

Katy and the Big Snow (a Guest Post on What Do We Do All Day)

Feb 25, 2016

Today I'm over at What Do We Do All Day sharing a favorite winter picture book and a sensory activity to go along with it.

From the post:
"One of our favorite spreads in [Katy and the Big Snow] is the map of Geoppolis. All of the buildings are numbered, and then, along the perimeter of the page, there's a closeup of each labeled building. It's one of those pictures you really have to stop and study for at least five minutes before moving on.

That picture was the inspiration for this fun, sensory-related extension activity. We decided to make our own city with various types of "snow" that Katy could dig her way out of."
To read the rest of the post and see just exactly how we made it snow, head on over to What Do We Do All Day. (And while you're over there, be sure to check out Erica's two most recent book lists: one for kids who love Roald Dahl and the other for kids who love The Chronicles of Narnia--I added a bunch of books to our future readaloud list.)

There was something really satisfying in seeing the realization of this activity because it was something I'd had in my head for a long time. Every time we read Katy and the Big Snow, I'd think, Wouldn't it be fun to create our own city, and if we did, what types of materials could we use for snow? My kids really took control of the project and were even more creative and excited (and, I admit, messy) than I imagined or hoped they would be. It was exactly the kind of activity we needed to get us through February.

Truce by Jim Murphy

Feb 22, 2016

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about how I was changing my approach to selecting books for Aaron to read. I'm happy to report that it's going very well on all fronts. The best (or should I say most rewarding) thing I've done so far is just making an effort to read some of the same books as him. When I made my goals for the year, I included one geared towards this specifically: "Read six of the same books as Aaron." I actually hope to read more than six with him, but that seemed like a good starting point.

Awhile back, one of my favorite Instagram accounts mentioned a nonfiction title by Jim Murphy called Truce. I'm always on the lookout for nonfiction authors who write about interesting subjects in an engaging way. A quick look at my library revealed that Jim Murphy has written dozens of books on everything from tuberculosis to crazy inventions to a huge blizzard. I felt like I'd struck gold (or at least, I hoped I had). Such a find could potentially keep Aaron going for years.

I checked out Truce from the library and then decided it would be the perfect book to kick start my goal with Aaron.

In 1914, World War I broke out after a sort of misunderstanding (if you can call something as serious as an assassination "a misunderstanding." There was already quite a bit of tension between Germany, France, Austria, England, Russia, and other countries, and so maybe World War I would have happened at some point anyway, but to this day, it is often viewed as the war that never should have been.

Most people thought it would end as quickly as it had started. Men signed up for duty with promises to their loved ones to be home by Christmas (a "quick and glorious adventure"). But when December 1914 rolled around, the war was far from over. In fact, soldiers were just barely figuring out how to fight in this modern age of tanks, machine guns, and poison gas. They began digging trenches into the ground to protect themselves, and the weather forced the fighting to a standstill.

It was during this month that a rather remarkable thing began to happen. Across the miles and miles of trenches and against the express orders of their commanding officers, men began calling truces. The most widespread one happened on Christmas Day when thousands of soldiers on both sides crawled out of their hiding places and entered No Man's Land. Not a shot was fired. They greeted each other, shook hands, and shared what little they had to offer. In the enemy, they saw men just like themselves, "good fellows" who were just trying to follow orders and get home. In some places, the truce lasted just a day, but in others, it continued until spring.

One of the things I really appreciated about this book was that it focused most of its attention on one specific part of the war. It didn't try to cover all four years or give a chronological recap of everything that happened, which I'm sure would have resulted in both Aaron and myself feeling completely overwhelmed. Instead, it set things up by going over the events that prompted the declaration of war and then spent the rest of its time on this remarkable truce.

I thought it was interesting that Jim Murphy mentioned in an author's note at the end that he originally planned on writing a book that focused on the role of African-American soldiers in the war. However, after he was well into his research , several books on this same subject happened to be published, and so it seemed redundant to write about it again. Rather than move onto something else entirely, he continued to read about World War I and became intrigued by the accounts of this practically universal truce that happened on Christmas Day. And that's how the book came about. It's short (right around 100 pages), but it's not a book I'll be forgetting.

Jim Murphy doesn't have the same gripping narrative style as Steve Sheinkin (author of Bomb), but I liked it nonetheless. It was compact and clear-cut and drew on many personal histories and photographs to make it come to life.

It ended up being a great one to read with Aaron because we both learned something new (I've read far more books on World War II than World War I), and it was nice to be able to discuss it in between chapters, summarizing what had happened and clearing up anything we were confused about. Jim Murphy is definitely going to be one of my go-to nonfiction authors from now on.

Have you read anything by Jim Murphy? Who is your favorite nonfiction author for kids?

On Being Authentic

Feb 19, 2016

Recently I was at a meeting which focused on improving teaching skills. The meeting was two hours long, and all of the information was presented by one person.

One of the main points I took away from the class (and probably the one that was given the largest percentage of the two hours) was, "Don't talk too much." This simply meant that the teacher should be a facilitator of discussion rather than a lecturer because the students would remember the information better when they took an active role in the discovery and application of it.

The irony in this situation was that the teacher who was presenting the information was doing quite a bit more talking than the class members. She asked some questions and was always extremely respectful and attentive to whomever was answering, but she seemed intent on saying everything she'd written down even when many of her points had already been mentioned by members of the class.

Early on in the evening, she said something like, "If this was a regular classroom, I would be doing very little talking, but tonight's format is going to be a little different. There will be a little of, 'Do as I say, not as I do,' so please don't go home saying, 'Oh my goodness, she talked so much!'"

Unfortunately, that's exactly what I went home saying.

The whole class seemed to be a study in contradiction, and I had no idea why a class focused on teaching skills couldn't benefit from employing the same techniques it was teaching. It made no sense to me. Furthermore, I've been in other situations with this same teacher, and all of them have been very lecture-heavy, so it was hard for me to believe that this was the exception to her normal teaching style.

This past month, I've been rereading Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project for one of my 2016 reading goals. The day after the above experience, I read a portion of the book that not only gave me insight to the experience from the night before, but also helped me understand myself better.

Gretchen was talking about some of the anxiety she felt while working on her project. Sometimes she would imagine what her various critics might say: "You have it easy...You're not depressed...You're not spiritual enough...You just talk about yourself." It bothered her, but then she realized, "If I do the project my way, I'm unspiritual and gimmicky [according to her critics]; if I tried to do it a different way, I'd be inauthentic and fake. Might as well 'Be Gretchen.'"

I read that paragraph. And then I read it again. And then again. Everything from the night before gained clarity when I looked at it through this lens of authenticity.

The teacher in question is a gifted speaker. I think she feels quite comfortable behind a microphone with an audience in front of her. She delivers her words with authority and conviction. This is one of her talents, one of her strengths.

And yet, the information she had to present stressed, "Let the students do the teaching. Open a discussion. Don't feel bound by your prepared agenda."

It was in direct conflict with her personality. She might have believed it. She might have wished she could teach that way. But it wasn't who she was.

And so, she did what she felt comfortable with: She presented the information as a lecture.

Once I came to this realization, I felt much more forgiving about the two hours, but I also felt sad. Although, in the end, she'd been authentic to her preferred teaching method, her words didn't have as strong of an impact because she couldn't back them up with her actions. I wondered if it would have been better for her to share teaching techniques she could have supported through example and left the ones she couldn't to another day and another teacher. Yes, the current trend in teaching is to guide the students to make their own discoveries, but there is more than one way to teach just as there is more than one way to learn. What a stagnant world this would be if we all taught in exactly the same way using some proven method for success.

This whole situation has made me reconsider my own actions. Am I being authentic? Or am I trying to fit some pre-prescribed model? Are the clothes I wear and the books I read and the music I listen to dictated by other people or what I'm truly interested in?

I've mentioned before that I've never thrown a friends birthday party for any of my children. Sometimes I feel guilty about this, especially when my sister-in-law gives me a little nudge, "Maybe just when they turn seven?" However, organizing a birthday party that involves twelve seven-year-olds sounds chaotic and noisy and crazy to me. If such a party were in my child's best interest, I think I'd force myself to make the sacrifice, but I'm not sure it is. So can't I just acknowledge that birthday parties aren't my thing and celebrate and make my children feel loved and special in ways that I feel comfortable with? Can't I just adopt Gretchen's first commandment and "Be Amy"?

Of course, this is not to say that I shouldn't be making the effort to seek improvement and become better. The decision to "Be Amy" shouldn't become a crutch or an excuse for mediocrity. But there are many, even hundreds, of ways I can improve and stretch myself and grow within my own sphere of interests. I can "Be Amy" even while striving to "Become a Better Amy."

Going back to the teaching experience from awhile ago, I almost wish I could sit through the two hours again. I know I would be less critical and more attentive. I know I would look for the bits of wisdom that resonated with me rather than focusing on the little contradictions. I know I would embrace my own uniqueness even while embracing this teacher's. I know I would recognize the simple wisdom of being authentic.

I'm curious to know your thoughts on authenticity: How do you stay true to yourself even while striving to improve? Are there things you don't do that everyone else does? 

Thoughts on the 2015 Cybils (and What it was Like to be a Judge)

Feb 17, 2016

Way back in August, I did something brave. I applied to be a judge for the 2015 Cybils Awards. (For those who might not know, the Cybils is an annual literary award given by bloggers of children's and young adult literature. I believe this was its tenth year.)

It was brave simply because it was outside my comfort zone. I had to fill out an application and link to a few blog posts that demonstrated why I was "qualified" to judge children's literature. I didn't want to be turned down, but I also worried about the time commitment I was signing up for if I made it onto one of the panels.

I shouldn't have worried. I wasn't rejected, and I had such a wonderful time serving as a Round 2 judge for the easy readers/early chapter books category (along with Emily, Freya, Teri, and Kurt).

I loved being a part of the process. All five judges brought different opinions, preferences, and personal biases to the table, but we were still able to have thoughtful, respectful discussions about each finalist. I always like to say that there is such a variety of books out there because there's such a variety of people reading them. We don't all have to like the same book because there's truly something for everyone. I could see the truth of that in our own little group. We had different favorites and different least favorites, but in the end, we came to a consensus we all felt happy about, and that was pretty thrilling.

Because these books took up a big chunk of my reading time in January (but I couldn't divulge any of my thoughts until after the winners were announced), I thought I'd give a brief summary/recap on each of the finalists before I move onto other things.

First up, the seven easy readers:

Sofia Martinez: Picture Perfect by Jacqueline Jules
I'm not exactly sure how this one made it to the group of finalists. Sofia is a cute girl, and it's nice to see a Latino main character, but the story was bland, and the inclusion of Spanish words felt gimmicky (but maybe just because they were bright pink).

Slither Snake (National Geographic Readers) by Shelby Alinsky
I love all of the National Geographic readers, and I was particularly impressed with this one because it was very simple (it's a pre-reader), but it still managed to share some interesting facts. And of course, the photographs were wowing.

Rosa Parks (National Geographic Readers) by Kitson Jazynka
I was inspired by Rosa Parks' quiet dignity and desire to make a difference in the equal treatment of all people. Although an easy reader, I learned new things about her life (such as that she had a history of not giving up her bus seat, even before that fateful day that everyone remembers). The photographs made it all come to life.

In! Over! and On! (the Farm) by Ethan Long
This one was high on everyone's lists. The text is simple, the story is funny, but it's the pictures that take the cake. I don't think there are many kids who could resist this one (my kids have not been able to). At the same time, it's at the very easy end of the easy reader scale, so most kids will be able to breeze through it in twenty seconds. Still, I love an author who can tell an engaging story with only a few words, and Ethan Long definitely does it here.

Don't Throw it to Mo! by David A. Adler
I think I was the only one on the Round 2 panel who loved this one. But love it I did, and I'm sticking with my original impression. The story shows hard work and success, and there are a lot of really delightful details that help the reader get to know Mo. (One of the Round 2 judges took issue with its happy ending, and I've been giving that a lot of thought and will probably write a longer post about it at some point.) Plus, it won the Geisel Award recently, so at least my liking of it was backed up by good company.

A Pig, a Fox, and a Box by Jonathan Fenske
This was my personal favorite. It was clever, creative, and oh, so funny. I love easy readers that confine the text to speech bubbles because it makes it easy to take turns reading ("you be Fox, I'll be Pig," etc.). Bradley loved reading this one. My only criticism is that it was too short. I felt like it needed one more chapter in the middle.

Ling and Ting: Twice as Silly by Grace Lin
And here it is! The winner of the easy readers! I've been a fan of Ling and Ting ever since I discovered them when Max was first learning to read, and they charmed every single one of us on the Round 2 panel. Each story ends with a little twist or joke, and the final story ties everything together. Ling and Ting approach life with an enthusiasm and energy that is contagious.

And then, here are the seven early chapter books:

My Pet Human by Yasmine Surovec
This was a clever idea (a stray cat finds a human he thinks will do fine as a pet and begins training her), but the execution was rather flat. There were lots of pictures (in some places it read almost like a graphic novel), but they didn't engage me much either. I think this is a book plenty of kids will like, but it wasn't one that could hold up to adult scrutiny.

Ranger in Time: Rescue on the Oregon Trail by Kate Messner
I love historical fiction and had high hopes for this book since there isn't much (of quality) for this age group. Sadly, this is just another one to add to the pile of formulaic, dull books about events in history. It has an interesting premise (a dog goes back in time to help a family on the Oregon trail), but it felt like the author started with a list of disasters, checked off each one, and then called it good.

West Meadows Detectives: The Case of the Snack Snatcher by Liam O'Donnell
As with the two above, I think this book will definitely find readers among its targeted audience, but it didn't feel finalist-worthy to me. Except for Myron and his best friend, Hajrah, every other character seemed stereotyped, and the mystery itself was both predictable and unbelievable (the teachers and parents were conveniently stupid, if you know what I mean). All of this could have been forgiven if the writing had been outstanding, but it wasn't.

Big Bad Detective Agency by Bruce Hale
Overall, I liked this one. Sometimes the humor and puns felt a little overdone and trite, but I enjoyed the fairy tale references throughout the book. Both Aaron and Maxwell read it after I did and enjoyed it.

The Magical Animal Adoption Agency: Clover's Luck by Kallie George
With such a title, I had low expectations but was pleasantly surprised on every point. The writing was tight and well done. The story was interesting and unique. And the ending was spot-on perfect. It's definitely on the upper end of early chapter books but, content-wise, still seems to fit into this category very well.

Lulu and the Hamster in the Night by Hilary McKay
I know a lot of the judges felt about this one like I felt about some of the ones mentioned above. They thought it was boring, but I actually quite liked it. Perhaps it was that I set out with low expectations (I have a low tolerance for pet books, and you may have noticed that the majority of the books on this list are pet books), but I thought it was well done, and I especially loved the characters, who felt very real to me.

Dory and the Real True Friend by Abby Hanlon
Dory was in a category by herself. With the other books, some were mediocre and some were pleasantly enjoyable, but Dory was the only one that made me laugh. (Several weeks later, when it was time to deliberate the final decision, I reread several passages from Dory and laughed all over again.) The imaginary friend theme is not a new one, but it felt fresh in the hands (or rather, the imagination) of Dory. It was an easy choice to select Dory and the Real True Friend as the winner.

I am definitely hooked on the Cybils and plan to apply to be a judge again next year. I loved judging the easy reader/early chapter books category because it introduced me to new books I could pass along to my kids, but I would definitely be up for trying another category as well.

Have you read any of these books? I'd love to hear what you thought about any (or all!) of them.

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Feb 15, 2016

I finished The Children Act late one evening. It left me with a million thoughts and questions, but because of the hour, there wasn't anyone I could talk them over with. (Mike was out of town at the time, and I have a hard time going to sleep when he's gone anyway, so finishing a book with such conflicting emotions made it so much worse.)

So instead, I sent my friend this text: "I'm going to reserve judgement until after I've let it sit with me for a few days, but I just finished The Children Act tonight, and it left me feeling completely baffled." (It was this same friend who actually selected this book for our February book club, so you can tell that our friendship does not hinge on liking the same books but rather on being able to discuss them openly and honestly.)

It's been several weeks now since I finished it, and I no longer feel baffled. I've sorted through the various characters and their actions, I've analyzed my own convictions, and I've discussed it with a group of women I highly respect (seriously, it was one of the best book club discussions I've ever been a part of). I don't know that I'll be able to articulate any of that, but I'm going to try.

Fiona is a highly respected family court judge. She is sixty years old and has devoted her life to her career. It has taken precedence over everything, including her marriage to Jack, which, when the story opens, is really suffering because of it. In fact, Jack has just told Fiona that he's going to have an affair unless she gives him a reason not to.

Fiona realizes that she has become physically and emotionally distant over the last seven weeks and one day, ever since she passed judgment on a heart-wrenching case involving conjoined twins. But she can't seem to talk about it or tell Jack what's bothering her.

So Jack leaves, and Fiona submerges herself in an urgent case involving a 17-year-old boy, Adam, with leukemia who is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion because he is a Jehovah's Witness. Fiona must determine if, even though Adam is a minor, he is mature enough to make this decision for himself or if it is the court's responsibility to protect his well-being until he has reached legal age.

The implications of this decision are, of course, extreme--life on one hand, death on the other--and it was fascinating to watch Fiona methodically sort through it all from a legal perspective. The writing was riveting, and, even as Fiona was delivering her verdict, I didn't know which way it was going to fall.

But then . . . things got complicated. There were certain repercussions from her decision that Fiona didn't/couldn't think of, and I found that my own thoughts ran the gamut as I watched the ending play out.

At this point, I'll just warn you that there will be spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.

When we discussed this at book club, the question came up: Did Fiona make the right decision? And I think the general consensus was yes, of course she did. But I disagreed.

Before she makes her final decision, Fiona visits Adam in the hospital. And what she finds is a bright, intelligent, talented boy with a passion for living and a strong belief in his religion. Therein lies the conflict. He is writing poetry and learning to play the violin, but he also believes strongly that a blood transfusion would be going counter to what God wants him to do.

And so he has decided to stay true to his belief even if it means he will die (which he most certainly will). He is happy, confident, and self-assured.

But was that belief misplaced?

I would say yes. (And so did Fiona.)

However, was it not Adam's right to misplace his own belief even if it meant potentially sacrificing his life? This is where my thoughts become conflicted. Adam is, after all, three months shy of being eighteen. Legally, he is not capable of this decision, but Fiona references something known as "Gillick competence" wherein a minor is able to make medical decisions for himself or herself.

Even though Adam is not yet eighteen, he is extremely intelligent and well aware of the consequences of his actions. Can he understand them fully? Of course not. But could a twenty-one-year-old or thirty-five-year-old or sixty-year-old understand them any better? In that same vein, would he make the same decision if he was twenty-one or thirty-five or sixty? It's impossible to know. Some of the decisions I made at seventeen, I would still make at thirty-one. But some I would not. Adam's belief may have grown stronger or it may have slowly faded.

As it is, after Fiona passes judgment and Adam receives the blood transfusion, it is as if his foundation has been ripped out from under him. At first, he is ecstatic. He is grateful for his life and for the opportunities that are opening up before him. But his testimony has been shattered, and he can't seem to put it back together.

Maybe that means it wasn't all that strong to begin with. Maybe it would have happened down the road anyway. Maybe it exposed the holes in his belief and made him realize that his belief was misplaced. But what I saw was a boy who had a purpose, something to live (and die) for, and when it was no longer there, it was as if he was drifting on an open sea. Because he no longer had anything to cling to, he lost his will to live (and to die) and that was tragic for me to see.

Of course, there are so many ways to look at this, and we turned it over and around many times at book club: Would Fiona's decision have been different if she hadn't visited Adam in the hospital? If she was religious herself? If Adam's decision had nothing to do with religion? If Fiona had been a mother? But for me personally, I think Adam should have been allowed to make that decision for himself, and I think if he had, he would have either lived or died feeling secure and happy.

I think it was also difficult for me to wrestle with the religious questions in this book. Religious freedom is something I hold most dear and precious, and it was really difficult to see that yanked away from someone (even if that someone was, technically, a child). Looking at my own religion's past, I think there are many things then (and actually currently) that could be considered extreme. I can't think of anything that would have this sort of life-and-death consequence, but still, seeing a person's freedom being taken away made me acutely uncomfortable because I would be so devastated to have my own belief questioned and taken away from me.

Can you see why I couldn't fall asleep after I finished this book? I haven't even mentioned the strangest kiss I've ever read about or Jack and Fiona's relationship after he comes back or whether or not Adam's decision was for himself or for his parents and congregation. I don't know that I've ever read such a short work of fiction (it was only 240 pages long) that gave me this much to think and talk and argue about. If nothing else, it was the perfect book club choice.

Content note: I'm sure it's fairly obvious from this review that this book touches on some mature themes (but nothing is graphic or detailed in any way, except that strange kiss I alluded to). Also, a little bit of language (including one F-word).

Ragweed by Avi

Feb 10, 2016

We read the first two books in the Dimwood Forest Chronicles last summer. We loved them so much that I gave Aaron several of them for his birthday and then the rest of them for Christmas. He read Ragweed by himself but then insisted that I read it aloud to everyone. I didn't think he'd want to hear it again so soon after reading it, but I was wrong. He loved hearing it again, and I can see why. It has all of the elements you would hope for in a great story. (Since finishing, they've been listening to the audiobook on repeat, so apparently it can hold up to third, fourth, and fifth rereadings as well.)

Chronologically speaking, this is the first story in the Dimwood Forest Chronicles. However, it was written after Poppy and Poppy & Rye, and I feel like publishers are doing a disservice to readers by placing it at the front of the series. As you might remember from my review of Poppy, Ragweed (a young golden mouse) is Poppy's boyfriend, and, quite unfortunately, meets his end at the talons of Mr. Ocax in the first chapter. It was sad and a little shocking, but it didn't traumatize any of us because we had spent so little time with Ragweed. The only things we really knew about him were that he was brave, cocky, and independent.

However, we would not have been so nonchalant about his death if we'd read this book first. No way. It would have broken our hearts (and it still hurts a little, even knowing the end from the beginning). In this story, we came to know, love, and respect Ragweed. When the story begins, he is not the self-assured mouse we find at the beginning of Poppy. He is curious and wants to strike out on his own, but when he finds himself in Amperville, he's like a fish out of water. He's used to the forest, and he doesn't know the first thing about finding food or staying safe.

Luckily, he meets Clutch, a sassy, street-smart mouse, right at the beginning, and she gives him a crash course in city living. Their main concern is Silversides, a cat with a grudge, and Graybar, her low-down accomplice. Silversides believes that Amperville's downfall is due to all the mice overrunning it, and she wants nothing more than to drive them out. She nearly succeeds, but by that time, Ragweed is getting the hang of the city and organizes a grand plan to take a stand against the cats and save the city for the mice.

This is the first book that Bradley listened to in its entirety. Up to this point, he has never fully committed to a chapter book (actually, I take that back--I think he did listen to all of Fantastic Mr. Fox, but that doesn't count because it was such a short story). His habit is usually something like this: Some nights he sits in on a chapter; some nights he asks Mike to read him a picture book; some nights he just wanders in and out of the room. But this was not his attitude toward Ragweed. He clung to every word, and he would have cried if we'd read any of it without him. Part of this, I'm sure, is just that he's getting older and he's finally ready to stick with a story from beginning to end. But part of it was because it was an easy story to get swept up in, and he really wanted to know how it all was going to end. (We're currently reading Caddie Woodlawn, and he has not shown the same sort of devotion to it.)

Not all books are fun to read aloud (The Family Under the Bridge was one, I admit, that about did me in), but Ragweed was pure pleasure. The city slang was just so fun to say. Try a few of these yourself: "Awesome. You are the whole thing plus chips." "Hey, like, he just blew into town." "It takes, like, one wicked mind to think of nothing, don't you think?" I never even knew I wanted to talk like a punk, but those were my favorite parts of the book to read, for sure. And it was catching. Every time we finished reading, Maxwell couldn't help talking like Clutch: "Like, I have to go brush my teeth, know what I'm saying?" It would have been annoying if it had gone on for a long time, but since it didn't, it was pretty endearing.

But now, let me return to my original complaint:  If we had started the series with this book, as the publishers want you to do, we would have been devastated by the opening scene of Poppy. But I'm not pushing for Ragweed to be read after Poppy just so that your heart won't break in two. No, I think it's important to read them in the order Avi wrote them because that's how he conceived of the story. When he wrote Poppy, he didn't know Ragweed very well either. And, if I might be so bold as to make this claim on which I have absolutely no information to base it, I truly believe that if Avi had written this book first, it would have changed the nature of the rest of the series entirely. First of all, I don't think Ragweed would have died. And second, I think it's very possible that Avi might have based the whole series on Ragweed instead of Poppy. 

That's because Ragweed's story is just too good. And Ragweed is just too awesome of a character. Avi would have wanted to do more with him. Don't get me wrong. I love Poppy and Rye and Ereth and all the other characters that fill Poppy's stories. I'm happy to read an entire series about her. But Ragweed is something special, and so he deserves to get special attention from the reader. One way to do that is by coming back to his story rather than starting with it. Just try it. You won't regret it.

Okay, moment of truth: Have you read this story? If so, did you read it first or after Poppy? Do you think I'm crazy for having such a strong opinion on the order? (Maybe don't answer that last one.)

The Book Blab Episode 3: Reading Goals for 2016

Feb 8, 2016

Suzanne and I had so much fun chatting on Friday morning about reading goals. Thanks to those of you who watched us live! We tried a new day and a new time, which was better in some respects and worse in others. Feel free to weigh in with your opinion if morning, afternoon, or evening works better for you.

For those of you who missed it, here is the replay, along with the show notes. It was such a great conversation, and it was hard to cut it off at the end because there was so much more we wanted to say! Enjoy.

0:38 - Amy's laryngitis and Suzanne's special guest

1:35 - Follow up to last month's conversation about pretty editions

2:40 - Goals for the new year
  • 2:55 - Amy's opinion
  • 3:32 - Suzanne's opinion 
4:36 - Reading goals
  • 4:50 - Suzanne's thoughts (what prompted her to start making reading goals)
  • 5:50 - Amy's thoughts
7:00 - Some of Amy's content-specific goals

10:30 -  Suzanne's numbers goals

11:40 - Why Suzanne is not making any content goals

14:10 - How to make manageable reading goals

16:45 - The pros and cons of planning too much or too little

18:00 - Suzanne's reading for school vs. pleasure

19:05 - The pros and cons of setting a numbers goal

20:45 - Two favorite self-help books
  • 22:10 - Suzanne's pick
  • 24:09 - Amy's pick
27:35 - Answering questions
  • 27:45 - Do you prefer physical books over audio books?
  • 28:35 - How is your retention when you read a lot?
  • 29:25 - Do you have any recommendations for time management books?
  • 30:36 - What are some books worth spending audible credits on?
32:45 - Conclusion

Links from the show:

Amy's reading goals: 2013 / 2014 / 2015 / 2016
Suzanne's goals: 2014 / 2015 / 2016
Modern Mrs. Darcy's 2016 Reading Challenge
Suzanne's review of  The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Magic Lessons (Elizabeth Gilbert's podcast)
Breaking Busy by Alli Worthington
Amy's review of The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
Happier (Gretchen Rubin's podcast)
Suzanne's review of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam
Amy's review of The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
Amy's review of  Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

31 Days of #GrowingBookworms

Feb 4, 2016

Important announcement: Episode 3 of The Book Blab has been rescheduled for Friday, February 5th (that's tomorrow!). We're trying a new time, so you can watch us live (right here on the blog) at 9:30 AM Mountain Standard Time. Suzanne and I will be discussing reading goals, as well as sharing a couple of book recommendations. We hope you can join us! 

During the month of January, I participated in an Instagram challenge to photograph my kids reading in 31 different places. It was organized by Jodie at Growing Book By Book, and it was a lot of fun. I had the challenge list running through my head all month and kept books close at hand so that no matter where we were, we could get a picture if we found the perfect spot.

My kids were such good sports about it. During the last few days, Aaron even begged to be in all the remaining pictures because he felt like he hadn't been represented enough.

The challenge didn't receive a lot of participation, and I think I was the only one who actually finished it. My kids wanted to know if I was going to get a prize. I think they couldn't understand why I took something so seriously if there wasn't any external reward, but I am highly motivated by check marks, and for every day in January, I got one. That's reward enough for me.

Also, there's no way I'm going to go to all that work and not show off the photos in one place. So here you go:

 Day 1: Under the Covers

Day 2: In a Fort

 Day 3: At the Table

Day 4: On the Floor

 Day 5: In a Bedroom

Day 6: In the Car

Day 7: On the Go

 Day 8: At the Store

 Day 9: At the Library
 Day 10: At a Friend's House

Day 11: In a Chair

Day 12:  Outside

 Day 13: By the Fireplace

Day 14: Next to a Pet
Day 15: On an Errand

Day 16: At a Restaurant

Day 17: On a Blanket

Day 18: Somewhere Unusual

Day 19: Someplace Yellow

Day 20: On a Bench

Day 21: On a Couch

Day 22: Next to a Loved One

Day 23: On Public Transportation

Day 24: In the Bathroom

Day 25: Next to a Window

Day 26: By the Water

Day 27: A Place With Good Lighting

Day 28: In a Reading Nook

Day 29: Next to Food

Day 30: At the Bookstore

Day 31: In a Rocking Chair

For more book recommendations and snapshots of our daily life, follow me right here on Instagram.

My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business by Dick Van Dyke

Feb 3, 2016

The summer after Mike and I got married, we lived in a house right next door to my parents. As you might imagine, it was quite convenient to be able to just hop fences anytime we needed or wanted anything, including all five seasons of The Dick Van Dyke Show.

During those first four months of newlywed life, we gorged ourselves on the fictional lives of Rob and Laura Petrie. Even though we'd both seen many episodes before, they were so much funnier now that we were married (and had all of three weeks' experience).

Even after we were back at school, we kept a few borrowed DVDs in reserve for those stressful nights when we needed to laugh instead of cry. I can even remember making some of our friends watch a favorite episode or two with us (looking back, I don't know if they enjoyed it or not; I was too busy laughing).

I listened to the audio version of this book, which is narrated by Dick Van Dyke himself. Just even hearing his voice brought a smile to his face. He was 85 when he recorded it, but he still sounded just like he did in The Dick Van Dyke Show.

The book is very much a chronological account of his life. He talks about his growing up years in Danville, Illinois, his marriage to Marjorie, the births of their four children, and his career. He is frank and honest about the less-admirable parts of his life (his alcoholism and affair) without sharing every detail. (When I was in the middle of the book, I happened to look at the article about him on Wikipedia and was surprised to see that they'd listed his children in the wrong order and didn't have their birth years correct. It's something I wouldn't have noticed later on, but since I looked at it right after listening to that part of the book, it seemed like a glaring mistake that someone would catch and fix.)

I was fascinated and interested with the first half of the book. He and Marjorie put in some lean years before he landed the starring role in The Dick Van Dyke Show. Hearing about his time on that set was the highlight of the book for me. I recognized every episode he referred to, and it also made me remember some of my favorites (the night when Laura and Rob eavesdrop on their neighbors; the days leading up to Richie's birth; and the time when Rob goes to a different dentist). I also loved hearing about his work on Mary Poppins (we watched this with our kids when we were in San Diego, and it is still such a classic).

But after that, I began to lose interest. He methodically goes through every show and movie he was ever in, and most of his later work I'd never seen and didn't really care about. Early in his career, he said he really wanted to only be in things he'd feel comfortable with his children seeing. I thought that was so admirable . . . until he started describing some of the things he was in during the late 60's and 70's, which didn't exactly sound all that innocent. However, when he was recounting his role in the television series Matlock, he again mentioned this goal of creating family-friendly entertainment, but it seemed like he was only committed to it at certain times.

At any rate, the book began to fall a little flat for me by the end. I started out telling Mike, "You need to listen to this book! You'd really enjoy it," but then reversing my initial endorsement, "Actually, don't waste your time." It wasn't that I felt like I was wasting my time, but I knew Mike would.

I know that, for some people, learning about a celebrity's faults can be quite upsetting and forever ruin their favorite movies. That didn't happen for me at all. Dick Van Dyke isn't perfect, but I didn't go into his memoir expecting him to be so (and I would have been suspicious if he cast himself as such). He made some big mistakes, but he freely acknowledged them and didn't try to make excuses for himself.

And his youthful vibrancy and sense of humor that is so apparent in The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Poppins is real. He has a love of life that is simply infectious, and I think it's amazing that, at 90 years old, he's still acting and doing what he loves.

Any other Dick Van Dyke fans out there? What is your favorite role of his? Any hidden gems that I should see?

Raising Readers: How My Parents Raised Readers Without Being Avid Readers Themselves (Guest Post)

Feb 1, 2016

It's the first Monday of the month, which means it's time for another post about Raising Readers. Today you'll be hearing from my friend, Carolyn--a mother, reader, blogger, and fellow advocate of raising readers.

Over the last year, my path has crossed virtually with Carolyn's many times, and each one has been a delight. She is friendly and encouraging, and she has a wealth of knowledge that is enviable. Her blog, House full of Bookworms, is a great source for new books, book lists, and realistic tips. It's a treat to have her here today, sharing some of her insights on how to encourage reading even if you don't have a lot of time (or interest) for it yourself.

My brother and I have always gotten along well. And one of the greatest things we've always shared is our love of books.
Beginning in middle school, I can remember my brother and I sharing book recommendations with each other and becoming immersed in the same fictional worlds. Even today, we enjoy sharing new series and authors we have discovered with each other.
I've often thought it was a fluke that my brother and I both turned out to be such lovers of books. My parents didn't read much, other than their Bibles, as we were growing up (although they are both readers now, particularly my mom).
Or maybe, I thought, the reading gene had skipped a generation. My grandmother was an avid reader. Maybe my brother and I inherited our obsession with books from her.
But as I've thought more about this topic, I believe there are some very essential things my mom did that fostered our love of reading.
In the reading community there is a lot of talk about what parents can do to create life-long readers. Some of the most highly touted techniques seem to be reading aloud, letting kids see you read, and filling your home with books.
I grew up with none of these. We had some books, but certainly not a large library of them. Nor did my parent take us to the library often. I never remember seeing my parents reading, nor can I recall being read to (though I know my parents read to me before I could read on my own).
So, for my brother and I to have both become avid readers, different forces had to be in effect.
Here are the three things I think my mom did right to foster our love of reading.
  1. My mom took us to bookstores and allowed us to pick what was interesting to us--Now, I'm not saying you should give your kids carte blanche at the bookstore. Things have changed, and even in the children's section, there are many books that may not be appropriate for your child or family. And I should point out that my mom generally took us to the Christian bookstore, so I guess she was able to feel comfortable with whatever we might pick out. Taking your kids to the library is wonderful, but owning your own books is something altogether different and special. I still own most of the books I collected throughout my childhood.
  2. My mom recommended books, but she never took offense that my tastes differed greatly from hers--My mom and I have very different tastes in books. Most of the classics she recommended to me I now adore, like Little House on the Prairie. Some I still loathe after multiple tries (like The Great Gatsby). But, as a kid, I adored fantasy, a genre my mom doesn't particularly care for. But she never criticized my choice of reading material, and she continued to buy me the books I enjoyed while gently recommending others that might broaden my horizons.
  3. My mom made room for free time and allowed us to be bored--I think this is key. We had activities and things we did, but we were by no means over-scheduled (at least not before high school rolled around). Nor were we given many chores (for good or ill). We had time to play outside, think, dream, and read. We also played Nintendo and watched movies. But we read because we had time.
So, I want to say thank you, Mom. You have more to do with my love of reading than you (or I) may have realized.

Carolyn is a Texas gal who believes the proper plural of you is “y’all.” She loves reading children’s books with (and without) her four children. She reviews her favorites (books, not children) on her blog, House full of Bookworms.
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