Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier

Jun 28, 2016

Two years ago, I was really into the Newbery and stayed really current with all the trending books. (I have not been doing nearly as well this year--the only contenders I can think of off the top of my head are Wolf Hollow and Pax, neither of which I've read (yet).) Anyway, one of the books that kept popping up on everyone's lists two years ago was The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier. It didn't end up winning anything, but I kept it on my to-read list anyway because it sounded like a great choice for a future October read.

I still haven't made time for it, but a few months ago, Carolyn mentioned Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, which was actually Jonathan Auxier's first book. It sounded decidedly less creepy than The Night Gardener (I can be a bit of wimp sometimes), and it also seemed like the perfect summer read to hand to Aaron. I didn't want to miss out on the fun though, so I read it, too, and I think it's going to be one of those books I'm recommending to every 8-12 year-old (and their parents too!) that I know. It was just such a good, fun read.

As an infant, Peter Nimble (christened such "after a misremembered nursery rhyme") had his eyes pecked out by a raven as he floated in a basket in the ocean. Not exactly the sweet and soothing beginning most babies hope for, but Peter's quick fingers, adept at untying knots and popping locks and slipping into pockets, soon attract the attention of one Mr. Seamus, who forces the blind boy into a life of crime. Between Mr. Seamus' training and Peter's natural talents, he soon becomes really good at stealing things, which earns him the title "the greatest thief who ever lived" (although he doesn't know it).

One day, he comes upon a haberdasher, who is trying to sell hats to a group of unimpressed customers. Peter helps him win them over and then does a little "looking" around for himself (not with his eyes, but with his hands). The haberdasher's carriage is well-locked, which just makes Peter all the more intrigued (he can't resist an intricate lock), and when he breaks in, he passes up the bag of money for a small wooden box. There's nothing special about the box itself, but he senses that there's something valuable inside.

When he gets back to Mr. Seamus', he examines the contents of the box, which he thinks are six eggs, but which actually turn out to be three pairs of eyes: a gold pair, a black pair, and a green pair. When he slips the gold pair into his sockets, he instantly vanishes from the port town where he has lived all his life and ends up struggling for air in the Troublesome Lake.

And that is how his adventure begins.

I love good characters and an exciting plot, but the more I read, the more I realize it's the writing that contributes the most to my overall enjoyment (or, on the flip side, dislike). In someone else's hands, Peter Nimble's story might have still been creative and fast-paced, but in Jonathan Auxier's, it shone. The narrator's voice had me hooked from the first page. Not only were there frequent nods and winks to the reader (one of my favorite literary devices), but he just captured the true essence of Peter, without which the book would have fallen flat.

For example, about midway through the book, the narrator breaks through the fourth wall to say,
"By now you have witnessed how truly gifted Peter Nimble is, despite his handicap. You have heard him referred to as a master thief by multiple authorities, and you have seen him work his way out of numerous dangerous situations. You may be thinking that his blindness is no handicap at all, and that it somehow gives him an advantage over the average seeing person. Some of you may even be thinking to yourselves, 'Boy! I wish I were blind like the great Peter Nimble!' If you are thinking that, stop right now. Because whatever benefits you may believe that blindness carries with it, you must understand that there are just as many disadvantages."
This was one of my favorite scenes because it had been set up so well. By this point, you really are thinking Peter Nimble is extremely talented and not at all hindered by his inability to see. All of his other senses are so fine-tuned that he doesn't seem to need his eyes at all. But in the next paragraph (which I won't spoil for you here), you see exactly why eyes are sometimes so necessary, and it's almost chilling the way the narrator lets you in on a impending betrayal that Peter is completely unaware of.

Fantasy is not my favorite genre, as any frequent reader of this blog is well aware, and that is why I know it's because of the writing that I loved this story as much as I did. There are times when I had to suspend my belief just a little bit more than I wanted to (usually Peter notices the slightest change in the air or the most imperceptible sound, but then, there are moments when his concentration slips for just a moment and he overlooks something he shouldn't have missed), but it was well worth it.

Peter begins the book as a lowly blind beggar who survives by stealing things for his "benefactor." By the end of the book, he has grown into a confident and intelligent leader, one who makes split-second decisions and inspires confidence. There are many adventures and dangers and mistakes that make this transformation happen, and it's pretty fun to be along for the ride. (Peter also happens to have one of the best sidekicks of all time, which didn't hurt.)

Aaron loved this book too, and I might have let him stay up past 11:00pm to finish it. Having already finished it myself, I knew what the ending was like and couldn't imagine leaving him hanging until morning. This is what summer is all about anyway. Now he's telling Maxwell he has to read it (even though I'm pretty sure he's already spilled the majority of plot twists and nail-biting scenes). I think it's a bit long for Max to read on his own, so the audio is probably in store for us.

Since finishing it, I've been mulling over what rating to give it. It wasn't life-changing, but three of the questions I ask myself when determining a five-star book are: Would I buy my own copy? (yes, I already did), Would I recommend it? (yes, to everyone I've talked to in the last week--sorry!), and Would I want Mike or my kids to read it? (yes, all of them). So I think that's my answer (and all of yours, too: read it).  (I also think The Night Gardener just shot to the top of my October reading list.)

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Do you have a recommendation for another book Aaron and I would both enjoy?

What We're Listening to Right Now #6

Jun 23, 2016

Wow, sometimes a week slips away just like that. We went to Colorado to visit my family, and I didn't plan ahead. Hence, no blog posts.

All of that driving gave us a lot of time to listen to music in the car though, and so now that we're back, I thought I'd share a few of our recent favorites.

1. Shining Like a Star by Laura Doherty
I honestly can't remember how I found this album--whether it was by random chance at the library one day or if someone actually recommended it to me. What I do remember is that my kids started to sing along with it as soon as I turned it on in the car. I made a mental note of that because it was so unusual. Typically, it takes them a few times through an album before they're comfortable enough to start singing, but with Laura Doherty, they picked it up instantly. I think it's because her songs are somewhat intuitive with a predictable pattern that kids can latch onto easily. Her style reminds me a lot of Laurie Berkner, who you already know we love.

Favorite song: Mine is "Tap Dance," but I think my kids' is "Hula Hoop"

2. Bubble Wrap by Eric Herman and the Thunder Puppies*
I'm going to be completely honest and tell you that this isn't my favorite album on this list, but it might very well be my kids'. After they listened to it for the first time, Maxwell begged for me to put it on his iPod--something he hasn't requested in a long time. They love the clever lyrics and Eric Herman's upbeat, somewhat eclectic style. Many of his songs have been turned into music videos, including most recently, "Take a Bath," which, even I have to admit, is pretty funny.

Favorite song: "Bubble Wrap" (my kids totally relate to this one!)

3. Tumble Science podcast
This is one of our more recent podcast discoveries, and we love it. Similar to Brains On, which I mentioned in a previous listening post, each episode focuses on a different scientific question--from black holes to the bottom of the ocean to whether or not your dog actually likes you. It is co-hosted by Lindsay and Marshall, who are witty and entertaining and share this fun-loving dynamic that should come as no surprise since they are married. The show involves real kids and real scientists, and going from one end of the spectrum to the other like that makes it both authentic and educational. Maxwell especially has really fallen in love with science because of both Tumble Science and Brains On. His own head is constantly buzzing with questions, and these podcasts have given him the confidence to know he can find the answers.

Favorite Episode: "The Puzzle of the Friendly Dog"

4. Ocean Eyes by Owl City
I realize this is the odd one out in this group, but occasionally, we listen to something that's not strictly kids' music, and for the past couple of months, it's been Owl City. I admit, half the time I have no idea what the lyrics are even talking about, and generally I'd say music with a strong electronic influence is not my favorite, but somehow, this particular combination works for me. My kids love dancing to these songs, and it's also the perfect music for summer road trips. For whatever reason, listening to Owl City almost always puts me in a good mood.

Favorite song: "Vanilla Twilight" (one of the few songs that doesn't make me feel like I entered the twilight zone)

5. Jungle Gym by Justin Roberts
Do I dare admit that one evening when Mike and I were on a date, this album happened to already be in the car . . . and we didn't turn it off? True story. The lyrics are so incredibly clever and funny and just so true to life that whether there are kids with us or not, we find the songs really entertaining. From sleepovers to little brothers to playground injuries, it's just spot on every single time. And you know how sometimes musicians can carry a funny thing too far and then it's in your face and not funny anymore? Well, I have yet to have that happen with Justin Roberts. I think the only slight criticism I could make is that his voice took me awhile to warm up to, but now I like it, too. This album gets two thumbs up from everyone in the family.

Favorite song: "Trick or Treat" or "Sign My Cast" (sorry, I can't choose just one)

6. Catch the Moon by Lisa Loeb and Elizabeth Mitchell
Sometimes the right song just plays at the right time, and then, even if you weren't inclined to love it, you have to because it was just too perfect of a coincidence. That kind of happened to us with this album (although I think we would have liked it anyway). On our recent fishing adventure (the one where the boys all caught their first fish), we went to a place called Silver Lake. This album happened to be in the car as we were driving there. The very first song is "The Big Rock Candy Mountain," and this version has a line that goes like this: "There's a silver lake, and a gold one too. You can paddle all around 'em in a wooden canoe." As soon as my kids heard "silver lake," they got even more excited, and then of course, on the way home, we had to listen to it again because by that time they had four fish in the cooler, and it just felt like this song had brought us luck. But coincidence aside, if you haven't heard the sweet, simple songs of Lisa Loeb and Elizabeth Mitchell, you're missing out. They can do folk music like no one else.

Favorite song: "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" (for obvious reasons)

As always, I'd love to hear about what YOU'VE been listening to lately. You always give me more good ideas for things to try. In fact, we discovered Justin Roberts because of one of you, and so thank you, thank you, thank you for your recommendations!

*I received a copy of Bubble Wrap in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Review x 2: Heart of a Samurai and By the Great Horn Spoon

Jun 16, 2016

I always have multiple books going at the same time (it's one of my biggest tips for how to fit in a lot of reading). At the very least, I have one book I'm listening to, one book I'm reading, and one book I'm reading to my kids. Usually this works out just fine because the books are different enough that I have no problem keeping them straight in my head. But occasionally, the themes of two books will be so unexpectedly similar, it turns into one jumbled, confused mess.

This happened with Heart of a Samurai and By the Great Horn Spoon. On the surface, they look nothing the same. And actually, at their heart they look nothing the same either. But somehow,  at just the right point in the story, they are almost identical. Each book has a part in it where the main character takes a ship down the east coast of South America, around the tip of it, and back up the west coast to California. Both characters are hoping to strike it rich in a gold mine. In By the Great Horn Spoon, it's kind of the point of the book. But in Heart of a Samurai, it's more just like a little diversion (the book spans eleven years, and this adventure takes up just one of those years). However, as I was reading that part, I kept thinking, Didn't I already read this?, only to remind myself that the same things had happened in the other book. What's more, I was also reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader around this same time, and even though there is no California Gold Rush in it, it still takes place on a ship and uses a bunch of nautical terms. Stories that happen on a boat are not my favorite to begin with, but multiply it by three, and I was feeling a little sea sick by the end.

But ship lingo aside, I really enjoyed both of these books.

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus begins with a storm. Manjiro leaves his widowed mother and siblings without telling them where he is going. He isn't planning to be gone long. He's just on a fishing boat, hoping to earn a little money for his family. But the storm doesn't care about his plans, nor about the fact that if the boat goes outside the designated perimeter set by Japanese officials, they won't be allowed back in the country.

The storm pushes the little boat farther and farther out to sea. The crew runs out of food and water and almost a will to live when they spy land. It's an uninhabited island, but it does have a lot of birds on it, which make excellent meals, and it's a place for them to repair their boat before they try again.

As it turns out, being shipwrecked is only the beginning of Manjiro's story. In fact, as I mentioned above, the book shows events over the course of eleven years. When the book begins, Manjiro is 14, fairly old for a middle grade novel, but by the end, he is 25, and that just seems positively ancient for the targeted audience, but somehow, it works. The majority of the book is spent on the water, and the acts of navigating and rowing and fishing don't necessarily come with an age attached to them. Manjiro, of course, grows and matures, but it happens in a way that even fifth or sixth graders can relate to.

Because of the kindness of the captain of the ship who rescues the stranded sailors, Manjiro ends up in America. (I should probably mention, this book is actually based on real events and Manjiro, or John Mung as he came to be known in America, is believed to be the first Japanese person to come here.)  He encounters the prejudices that come with being in the minority, but the story also looks at the misconceptions that pop up regardless of your race. There's one character in the story, Tom, who is a classic bully. He's mean and rude and always looking for a fight. He and Manjiro challenge each other to a horse race. Tom is a natural horseman, and Manjiro finds it "odd that Tom was so gentle with his horse . . . yet could be so mean to people." But then, after the race, Manjiro finds Tom in a ditch, his face bruised and bloodied by his own father, and Manjiro makes this observation, "It seems we didn't really know Tom at all."

I've read one other book by Margi Preus, West of the Moon, and I remember really loving her writing in that one. That's not to say I didn't love it here as well, but I didn't feel like the styles were exactly the same. There were glimpses of the writing I loved in West of the Moon, like this one: "Sea and sky were velvety, the night embroidered with a million glittering stars, every wave frosted with silver moonlight." But overall, it felt less poetic and more orderly.

Throughout the story, there is this underlying theme of what true greatness looks like. Manjiro dreams of becoming a samurai, an impossible wish in his country where aspirations are limited by birth. And yet, that doesn't mean he can't take on the traits and qualities and talents of a samurai. With everything he does, he keeps that standard in mind. And so it is that by the end, when he is summoned to go before the daimyo and a messenger says, "Well, since he has neither the family nor the upbringing of a samurai, I hope he has the heart of one! He is going to need it," he totally does.

By the Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleischman is very different (except, of course, for the uncanny similarity I mentioned above), but oh, it is so much fun. My kids loved it, and it was the perfect sort of high adventure story that seems made for summer.

The two main characters are Jack (an orphan with two younger sisters who lives with his Aunt Arabella) and Praiseworthy (the aforementioned characters' butler). It's an unlikely pairing, but you see, Aunt Arabella is in financial straits and is going to have to sell her house, and the only thing Jack can think of is to leave Boston, sail around the continent, and strike it rich in California. Of course, Praiseworthy, being an excellent butler, can't let Jack go alone (the very idea!), so he accompanies him.

Everything would have been just fine (as fine as a year-long adventure without your guardian's permission can be) except that the money that was going to pay for their passages is stolen out from under them on the docks. So they do the next logical thing and stow away in a couple of barrels of potatoes until they are well out to sea without any option of turning back.

The rest of the book is just as full of adventure as the opening chapter. There are thieves and bandits (referred to as "road agents" in the story), fist fights and guns, bears and burros, ship races and storms, imposters and friends, and lots and lots of gold. At one point in the story, when Jack and Praiseworthy are still at sea and hoping their ship, the Lady Wilma, makes it to San Francisco before their rival, the Sea Raven, it says: "It seemed to Jack the most exciting moment of his life." And that's how my boys treated the whole book, like it was one exciting moment after another. Every chapter brought something totally unexpected and thrilling.

I have to say, my favorite part of the story was seeing how Praiseworthy gradually shed the pieces of his profession (the bowler hat, the umbrella, etc.) and acquired a red miner's shirt, a four-shooter, and whiskers. But even as his appearance changed and he began to look more like a Californian, he was still as unflustered and proper and polite as he was at the beginning. He always thought with his head first before he reacted physically (except when a road agent tried to take away his picture of Aunt Arabella--then all trace of niceness vanished). He was just such a great character.

I also really liked that this book was completely different from anything else we've ever read: part-historical fiction, part-tall tale adventure, there were just so many new things to talk about.

And I won't spoil anything, but I'll just say that the ending totally kept pace with the rest of the book, which is the mark of a great story, in my opinion. This is one that will stay on our favorites list for a long time.

Have you read either of these books? I'd love to hear your thoughts! And also, what have you been reading lately?

Summer Goals For Kids: 2016 Edition

Jun 13, 2016

Some moms like to fill their summer days with vacations or day trips or play dates. I like to fill ours with the pool, reading, and . . . summer goals!

For the past year, I've been keeping a running list of possibilities, and two days after school got out, we sat down as a family and made everything official.

I gave my suggestions and the boys gave theirs. Mike mostly nodded his head and said everything sounded good (although he did come up with one goal, which I'll talk about in a minute).

As in years past, we made goals that were practical, educational, and fun. We tried to keep the list to a manageable size, but it was hard because there were so many contenders, and I think we (read: I) may have gotten a little overly ambitious. We'll see . . .

Here are the boys' goals for 2016, broken down by category:

Aaron, age 7 (almost 8)
  • Practical
    • Wash dishes and utensils [This is his daily chore. He's rockin' it, and it's such a help to me!]
    • Memorize Dad's phone number [We realized none of the kids knew it! Ooops.]
    • Make macaroni from a box
    • Follow six recipes
  • Educational
    • Finish seven units in piano 
    • Complete 4th grade math book [This is one of the overly ambitious goals. We may need to cut it down to size a bit.]
    • Memorize four poems and four scriptures
    • Learn U.S. capitols
    • Read Mathematicians are People, Too [We actually have an entire subset of reading goals, but I'll talk about them in a separate post.]
    • 10 minutes of scripture reading every day
  • Fun
    • Kick a soccer ball farther
    • Run a mile and improve time
    • Art Fraud Detective [I'm going to have to write more about this fun book that introduces kids to famous pieces of art. My boys are loving it.] 
    • Create a comic strip [Gotta put all that Calvin and Hobbes reading to creative use!]
    • Catch a fish [This was Mike's contribution. I thought he should go for something more attainable, like, "Go fishing," but he'd never caught a fish before in his life, and so he was bound and determined to do it with his kids.]
    • Three family hikes 
Maxwell, age 6 (some of his goals are the same as Aaron's, some are different)
  • Practical
    • Memorize Dad's phone number
    • Make sandwiches/lunches [I'm keeping up with my daily lunch-making routine over the summer, and Max is helping me. For some reason, he loves this goal.]
    • Fold laundry [I don't know if the daily battle is worth it with this one. I hope so, but it is a battle, and it does happen every day.]
  • Educational
    • Finish seven units in piano
    • Memorize four poems and four scriptures
    • Complete 1st grade spelling workbook
    • Read Mathematicians are People, Too
    • Learn the names of all 50 states
    • Learn to tell time
  • Fun
    • Kick soccer ball farther
    • Swim across the deep end of the pool
    • Build something out of wood [This one was totally his idea, and he was very insistent about it. I'm letting Mike take the lead.]
    • Create a comic strip
    • Catch a fish
    • Three family hikes
Bradley, age 4.5 (you'll see some duplicate goals with him, too)
  • Practical
    • Memorize Dad's phone number
    • Clean the bathroom counter and mirror
  • Educational
    • Complete My First Piano Adventure, Level A [Bradley just started piano lessons this summer. It is not unusual for new students to be enthusiastic, but Bradley takes enthusiasm to a whole new level.]
    • Complete kindergarten handwriting workbook [Bradley loves workbooks. I think I'm going to have to get him another one because he's already almost done with this one.]
    • Memorize four poems and four scriptures 
  • Fun
    • Kick a soccer ball farther
    • Swim with side breaths
    • Pump a swing
    • Follow directions in a drawing book
    • Catch a fish
    • Three family hikes
At this point, I feel like I need to add a disclaimer. Helping my kids make, work on, and accomplish their summer goals is so fun for me. I am not doing it out of any sense of obligation or duty. I am doing it because it's fun. I have a Type A personality. I like structure and routine. I like making lists and checking them off. I like helping my kids learn new skills. I honestly wake up in the morning looking forward to, not dreading, making more progress on those goals. If it weren't fun for me, I wouldn't be doing it. I repeat, I would not be doing it.

But it is fun and luckily, my kids are similar enough in personality to me that they love it, too. Now that we're two weeks into summer, our days have taken on a predictable rhythm: Goals and chores; swimming; quiet time; repeat. It works for us.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the rewards for making progress on and accomplishing our goals. You have to have rewards! That's part of the fun. We'll go miniature golfing in June, we'll see an IMAX film in July, and we'll go to Timpanogos Cave in August.

You may have noticed Clark doesn't have a list. I may be overzealous, but I'm not crazy.

What are your plans for the summer? Big or small, boring or exciting, lazy or ambitious, I want to hear about them!! Also, if you have any questions about our goals, ask away! I'm happy to answer them, except for, "Are you insane?" because the answer might be yes!

Review x 2: Ramona and Her Mother and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Jun 8, 2016

Summer is here, which means I have more time to read to my kids! Both of these books were finished before school ended, but I thought I better combine them because we have a lot more now coming down the pike. 

Two book reviews: Ramona and Her Mother and The Voyage of the Dawn TreaderRamona and Her Mother by Beverly Cleary
I've noticed that when a read aloud has been rather slow and tedious, my kids and I tend to turn to something quick and fun and familiar afterwards. This happened most recently after we finished Rascal. Don't misunderstand, we liked that book a great deal but it wasn't a fast book for us, and I could tell that we needed a little pick-me-up to rekindle the reading bug. It should come as no surprise that the author we chose to remedy the problem was Beverly Cleary. She is our tried-and-true favorite, and Ramona was just the ticket.

Ramona is known for her seeming talent for finding mischief and getting into scrapes, but in this book, she thinks she is past all that. After all, she is seven years old and in the second grade. In fact, when she overhears someone compare Howie's annoying little sister, Willa Jean, to herself, she gets a little offended. Her pride takes another blow when someone else refers to Beezus as "her mother's girl."

But still, no matter how much she wishes it or tries to be more grown up, Ramona can't help getting into trouble. In this installment, she dumps a bottle of blueing all over herself and Howie, squeezes out an entire tube of toothpaste, and tries to run away. She is definitely more conscious of her actions (and more defiant about them when she knows it's something she shouldn't be doing), but she is still very much the same Ramona who, at four years old, ate a bite out of every apple in the basement.

The similarities between Willa Jean and Ramona throughout the book cannot be missed, and it is a brilliant tool for expanding Ramona's character. Through Willa Jean, we are able to look at Ramona from all angles: how other people see her and how Ramona sees herself, and we're also able to draw our own comparisons. Seeing Willa Jean in action reminds us of Ramona's escapades from years past. We also see how she's matured while at the same time staying very much one hundred percent Ramona.

One of my other favorite parts of the book is when Ramona's parents get into a really big fight one evening after a very long day. There were delays with picking up the car from the repair shop after work, and so everyone is tired and hungry when they get home. They expect dinner to be ready and waiting for them, but Ramona's mother had forgotten to plug in the Crock-Pot when they all left that morning. Their only other  option for dinner is pancakes (but they still plug in the Crock-Pot so that they can eat the stew the next night, and I was thoroughly grossed out about that), but Ramona's parents are sarcastic and rude and start throwing insults at each other (or actually, at Mr. Quimby's grandmother) until Mrs. Quimby grows so frustrated, she swats Mr. Quimby with the pancake turner and stalks out of the room.

There are many books with parental fights in them, but most of the time, there is some deep, underlying cause. I love this one because it shows what a good, old-fashioned quarrel looks like. Sometimes people just get tired and hungry and cranky and ornery. But the next day, after a good night's rest, the issues magically dissolve because they weren't really issues in the first place. Mike and I have similar quarrels (almost always the result of not enough sleep or not enough food), and I loved that my kids got to see this quarrel played out in a very similar way to their own parents. (But, in my defense, I've never smacked Mike with a pancake turner. :-))

This book just had all the heart and humor and authenticity I've come to expect from Ramona. You can tell we haven't been ripping through this series, and it's because I never want it to end. I always want there to be a new Ramona book to fall back on when we need something light but substantial. I guess eventually, we'll just have to start rereading. That will be fun, too.

Two book reviews: Ramona and Her Mother and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
After the boys and I finished Ramona and Her Mother, we decided to move onto another partially finished series and read the next installment in The Chronicles of Narnia. I never read this book as a kid, but it's now the third time I've read it as an adult, and that kind of surprises me since I don't reread a lot of books, and I wouldn't list this as one of my favorite books of all time or even one of my favorites in the series. Still, it's the type of book that holds up to a reread very well.

Lucy and Edmund Pevensie have been sent to spend the summer with their Uncle Harold and Aunt Alberta and insufferable cousin Eustace (who, at least in the beginning, all bear a rather unflattering resemblance to Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and cousin Dudley). When they are alone, they relive their Narnian adventures, and there's one picture in a tucked away bedroom that especially reminds them of Narnia because it looks like a Narnian ship floating on the sea. One day, as they're looking at it, Eustace comes along and starts taunting them. But that quickly ends when the ship in the picture literally starts moving and the waves start splashing and then they're actually in the picture and being pulled up out of the water into the ship.

The ship, as it turns out, is indeed a Narnian ship, and who should be on board but Prince Caspian himself. They are searching for the seven lords who left when Caspian's uncle, Miraz, was in control of Narnia. Lucy and Edmund are thrilled to be a part of the adventures, and Eustace eventually comes around too.

When I read this book for the first time, my favorite scene was definitely the one where Aslan helps Eustace shed his skin after he becomes a dragon. The symbolism made such a profound impact on me. This time, it was my kids who loved that scene (which I totally called before we read the book), but I found myself touched by other parts of the story far more.

One of those instances happens towards the end of the book when they get to, what they later call, Ramandu's country. They find a table spread with a bounteous feast and three of the lords sitting at the end of it, deep in an enchanted sleep. A girl comes out to greet them and tells them about what happened to those three lords and also the history of the table. At the end of her narrative, Edmund says, "I'm sure I don't mean to be rude. But we have had a lot of queer adventures on this voyage of ours and things aren't always what they seem. When I look in your face I can't help believing all you say: but then that's just what might happen with a witch, too. How are we to know you're a friend?" The girl responds, "You can't know. You can only believe . . . or not." That really resonated with me (and actually brought me quite close to tears) because I feel like that's where I am with my faith right now: I can only believe or not. And I choose to believe.

And finally, I really loved the part where they are getting close to the end of the world, and the sun is getting bigger and brighter every day, but somehow, as it increases in intensity, something changes within each of them, and they are able to bear it. It reminded me of a scripture: "The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth." I just love the way the image of light is portrayed so strongly in this book as they get nearer and nearer Aslan's country because I truly believe the kingdom of God is more glorious and beautiful and light than we can dare to comprehend or endure at this time. Of this increasing brightness of the sun, Edmund said, "Though lots of things happened on that trip which sound more exciting, that moment was really the most exciting." And I think that's the way it will be as we near the end of the world as well. It will be thrilling. (And, in stark contrast to that, Max and Aaron both agreed that the earlier adventure on the Dark Island was one of the scariest moments they've ever read, and neither of them expected to be so terrified by it.)

Those are the things that stuck out to me this time, but I know that if, or I should probably say when, I read this book again, there will be other things that make an impression. It's just that kind of book.

What books have you been reading to your kids lately?

Raising Readers: Everyday Tips (Guest Post)

Jun 6, 2016

I feel a certain kinship with today's Raising Readers guest. Ana is a mom of four boys who loves to read. Sound familiar? (wink wink) I found her blog several years ago and felt that instant connection that comes from similar interests and experiences. Her boys are a little bit older than mine, and I love her posts about what they're reading (she breaks it down into the 4-6 and 8-12 year range) because I always come away with new ideas for my own kids. I also enjoy the things she shares about the books she's reading herself, personality types (we're both introverts), parenting, and cooking.

In this post, she gives a number of easy-to-implement, but instantly rewarding, tips for raising readers. We follow pretty much all of these in our home in one form or another, so I can vouch for them! Please share your own tips in the comments!

By reading a book, we learn compassion and empathy by walking alongside a character with a completely different worldview and life experience than our own.  We can relive history, or explore fantasy worlds that exist only in the imagination.  Reading engages our creativity and imparts wisdom.  It connects people across time and space.  It allows us to vicariously experience things we would never otherwise be able to.

I've always been a bookworm, so it makes me happy and proud that today my boys are all strong readers.  However, they weren't all born loving to read.  Anyone, child or adult, can develop a love of reading.  Reading is something I've spent time nurturing and reinforcing in my children, because I feel it's important.  Here are my secrets to raising kids who love to read:

Start early, if you can
Two of my four boys started life out as preemies in the NICU.  The doctors and nurses encouraged us to read to them, so we sat next to their crib, making our way through piles of children's books.  Babies love the sound of your voice, and the earlier you can start reading to them, the better. However, I freely admit that this strategy was much more difficult to implement with my last baby.  We logged a lot of reading time in the quiet NICU, but once he came home, one-on-one time was scarce, as I also had a houseful of older brothers to contend with.

Use technology to include reading in more active parts of their day
I often play audio books when the boys are busy with Legos, trains, cars, art projects or play dough.  (This helps the overall noise level of our house as well, which helps keep me sane).  I fight my type A personality's tendency to push pause if one of them leaves the room, or to meticulously note the exact second where we left off at our previous listening session.  I think they absorb a lot while the audio book plays, even if it doesn't have their undivided attention.

We also use audio books on car trips of 45 minutes or longer. It makes the time pass so much faster, and is great for books that are slightly above their reading level.

My oldest son really enjoys listening to books on playaway devices, which he checks out from our library.  If you're not familiar with them, a playaway device is about the size of a deck of cards.  They're battery operated, and you listen to them with ear buds.  They're so small and light, you can take them about anywhere.

Don't overwhelm kids with books too far above their reading level
I have learned to relax and adjust my standards a lot over the course of my parenting journey.  I read Farmer Boy to my oldest son when he was three years old, and I expected him to sit quietly and listen attentively for long periods of time.  I had this idyllic image of him sitting for hours on end, enraptured with the story, and I was disappointed when that didn't happen.

As a bookworm parent, I knew the world was filled with great books, and I just couldn't wait to introduce the boys to my favorites!  So I jumped the gun a little.  Many classic books have early reader abridged versions for children, and even picture book adaptations for toddlers.  These are wonderful ways to introduce characters and story lines to children, and as they grow, they can revisit these familiar friends in more advanced and original editions.

Let them read what they want to read
One of the most important lessons I've learned when it comes to books and kids is that reading is reading is reading.  Often what I want my boys to read doesn't line up with what they're interested in.

One of my middle sons didn't begin life as an enthusiastic reader.  In my struggle and frustration, I searched for anything he would read, and I struck gold with Star Wars.  In my desperation, I brought home bags of Star Wars books home from the library, and they ended up converting him into an eager reader.  He now reads well above his grade level in school and reads a (mostly) wide variety of books.

I often remind myself that I loved Baby Sitter's Club books as a young teen.  Even if your children NEVER read the classic literature you want them to, reading books improves the mind.  Period.  (Although on the flip side, I also believe in gently encouraging your children to stretch their comfort zone in the reading material they choose).

Reward reading and encourage growth in reading selections
This summer, I came up with my own reading program, which we'll do in addition to our library's summer reading program.  My program gives more points for reading books they've never read before, and less points for books about video games.  There are also bonus points available for types of books I would like them to read.  They're still free to choose what they want, but hopefully the incentive will influence their book choices.

We let our boys check out anything (appropriate) they want from the library. I also check out things I hope they'll read, and leave the books around the house in plain sight. It doesn't always work, but it often does, and I don't make a big deal out of it if they don't want to read my choices. I just keep requesting more.

Visit your local library regularly, and for more than just the books
When the boys were little, we were regulars at our library's story time. We're really blessed to have a great library system that has lots of quality children's programs and events. Just making the library a familiar, happy place with good memories in it, lays the groundwork for the habit of reading.

Libraries  are a goldmine of resources for all kinds of interesting learning experiences for children and adults.  Our library has classes on making artisan ice cream, growing berries, reading clubs for children and adults, concerts put on by local musicians, and much more.

Limit screen time
Outside of school, our boys get 30 minutes of screen time of their choosing, for either TV or games/other electronics. Some families probably think that's too harsh, and some probably think it's too lenient, but it works well for our family. As a result, our house watches little TV, which means more time for reading.

If you watch a movie, make sure to read the book first
I also try to always have my boys read the book first, before we watch the movie version. Often, movies are somewhat empty shells of books, and that's even when they're done well. Most books contain way too many details to fit into a hour and a half time frame, so lots of things get cut. By reading the book first, it forces their imaginations to do all the work.

Reading has brought so much enjoyment to my own life, I naturally wanted to share that with my children.  By instilling the love of reading in a child, you broaden the horizons of their world.  For a little while, they can see life through the eyes of a King or Queen, an astronaut, a Roman soldier, a pioneer, an alien or a dog.  Summer is a great time to strengthen your child's love of reading, no matter where they're starting from, so visit your library and help them pick out books they're interested in, and read together.

Ana lives in an old farmhouse, where she wrangles a pack of boys.  When she's not refereeing light saber battles or watching backyard baseball games, she loves to read, garden, craft and cook from scratch. She blogs about it all at Lessons From Yesterday.

A Little of This and That in May

Jun 3, 2016

I think most people will agree with me that May is, in general, a busy month. And it definitely was for us this year. There were end-of-the-school-year activities, holidays, birthdays, family get-togethers, and summer kick-offs. This month found us:

Listening . . . to all fourteen of my piano students play in the spring recital. I think this was maybe the best recital I've ever had. All of them played well, but some of them really hit it out of the park and completely impressed me.

Enjoying . . . the best Mother's Day of my life. Read more about it here.

Experiencing . . . some volatile spring weather. It hasn't really been dangerous like other parts of the country (thank goodness), but more than half the month was cool and rainy and stormy. Not what I usually expect in May.

Obsessing . . . over golf. Not me, but all of the boys. They've been practicing in the front yard and down in the basement. They loved watching the movie, The Greatest Game Ever Played. We took them miniature golfing, and even Clark did the entire course two times. Mike even started a new diet called the "I'd Rather Be Golfing Diet."

Laughing . . . or, if I'm being honest, sometimes yelling at Clark. This kid's personality is just bursting out of him, and half of the time it's delightful, but the other half makes me want to rip out my hair. He has pulled the plants out of the flower pots so many times, I've lost count, but how do you convince a two-year-old to stop?

Reading . . . on my new kindle! I've been holding out for a long time, but I finally conceded that there might be a few situations when a kindle would actually come in handy and perhaps even be more convenient than a real book. I promise I'm still on Team Paper Pages though.

Attempting . . . our anniversary trip to Lava Hot Springs for the second time. And . . . success! No stomach bug, and we enjoyed every minute of the drive, the bed and breakfast, the food, the river, and the hot springs. (We stayed at Lion's Gate Manor, if you're curious, and I would highly recommend it.)

Acquiring . . . a library card for Max. He has been begging for one for months, and finally one evening, we just did it. He acts very much like it's his ticket to life, and I can't say I disagree with him.

Listening . . . to Clark sing. Maybe it's because none of the other boys were early singers, but I just think it's the cutest thing ever. His favorite songs are "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and, embarrassingly, Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off."

Celebrating . . . Aaron's last day of school. It was truly an excellent year for him, and I'm proud of the good student he has become.

Feeding . . . Clark. He wants to eat all the time, and I am not okay with being a 24-hour snack bar. We've been setting some boundaries, but the kid is so independent, he often just helps himself.

Going . . . on a field trip to the farm for the last day of preschool. Out of all the preschool co-ops I've been a part of, I think this year might have been my favorite one. There was just a great connection between this little group of kids. I hope they continue to be friends.

Blabbing . . . with Suzanne about A Man Called Ove. We had some technical difficulties, and then even once we recorded it, most people were not able to view the video, but I think we finally got it straightened out. You can watch it here.

Neglecting . . . our garden. Not intentionally, but every weekend seemed to pass without planting anything. We're still hoping to get in a few things, but I guess we'll have to buy bigger plants to make up for the lost time.

Jumping . . . into the pool. And we plan on doing it again and again and again, all summer long.

Buying . . . plane tickets for a big trip this summer. I'm not quite ready share the details (although, if you know me in real life, I've probably talked to you about it), mostly because, as of a few days ago, I'm feeling so nervous and anxious about it, and that's putting a serious damper on my original enthusiasm.

Blowing . . . out birthday candles. Clark turned two at the end of the month, and with it, the last vestiges of babyhood disappeared. We now have a full-blown kid on our hands, and really, even with all his mischievous antics, we all just adore him so much.

Spending . . . Memorial Day with family. First, my brother and his family. Then, several of Mike's siblings. Good times.

Launching . . . Mike's birthday kayak on its maiden voyage. As much as I didn't want him to buy it, I think we actually will enjoy using it.

Relishing . . . the start of summer break. We've been making summer goals (which I'll write more about) and starting our own summer reading program (which I'll write more about), and basically, I've just been trying to soak up every minute. I live for summer.

For more of our daily activities, follow along on Instagram. What were YOU up to in May?
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