A Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig

Dec 19, 2017

At the end of November, I checked out several children's Christmas novels from the library: Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories by P.L. Travers, Winterfrost by Michelle Houts, and A Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig. I read each summary to the boys, then we took a vote, and A Boy Called Christmas won. I was glad because it was one that I wanted to read last year, but by the time I heard about it, there was no hope of snagging a copy from the library.

It's a Santa origin story, and it begins with Nikolas, who was born on Christmas Day. Nikolas' mother died when he was still quite young, and he and his father have always struggled to get by on his father's meager living as a woodcutter. Nikolas' two most memorable Christmas presents were a wooden sleigh made by his dad and a doll made out of a turnip.

One day, a big man named Anders comes through and convinces Joel (Nikolas' dad) to join his group in their search of Elfhelm. The king has promised a big reward to anyone who can bring back evidence that elves exist. The reward is large enough that Joel and Nikolas won't have to worry about money again for the rest of their lives.

So Nikolas is left in the unkind hands of Aunt Carlotta, and after a short time, he can't stand it anymore, so he runs away. He nearly perishes but is saved just in time by Father Topo and Little Noosh. Elves.

He has made it just where he wanted to be, but he's not greeted with the kind of reception he was hoping for. In fact, most of the elves don't trust him at all and end up locking him in a tower. Their distrust of humans has only recently been acquired (before that, they prided themselves on being friendly and welcoming to all). Nikolas soon gathers that a group of humans visited Elfhelm just before him, and they left with something that didn't belong to them--an elf named Little Kip.

Nikolas knows immediately who must have taken him, and he is determined to get Little Kip back where he belongs. Little does he know that doing so will put him on a path that will change his life forever.

If my kids were writing this review, they would not hesitate to give this book five stars, two thumbs up, and their full stamp of approval. They loved every moment of it.

But I'm the one writing it, and overall, I was less enamored with it. I didn't hate it (it wasn't torture to get through like The Great Ghost Rescue from last year), but I was still rather glad when we came to the end of it.

The writing didn't impress me, and I felt like things in the plot weren't set up or introduced very well. It felt like I was being jolted through the story rather than getting a smooth ride.

It is entirely possible that the difference between my opinion and my kids' could be attributed to a lack of attention (me) and an eager focus (them). I don't know. I'm just giving you fair warning.

The other day I was driving and said something about it being "impossible to turn left." Maxwell called out from the back seat, "Mom, you just swore!" My mind raced back to what I had just said. "No I didn't. What are you talking about?" "You just said the word impossible!" Aaron and Bradley chimed in with gasps of disapproval.

Then Bradley quoted, "An impossibility is just a possibility you don't understand yet."

And I was impressed--that probably was the main theme of this book, but I don't think I could have remembered it if pressed.

And then they laughed about the troll's head exploding. Because that was really their favorite part.

P.S. And apparently, there's a sequel, so I guess I know what we'll be reading next year.

A Little of This and That in November

Dec 15, 2017

I have long said I'd enjoy fall more if it actually lasted a full three months instead of three weeks, and this year, we got that. In fact, this Thanksgiving was the warmest Thanksgiving we've had since 1910. We spent the day outside jacketless and shoeless. Besides that, November also found us . . . 

Trying . . . food and being absolutely disgusted by it. Ian likes sitting at the table with the rest of the family, but he does not appreciate it when we put anything into his mouth. The rest of us are quite entertained, however, by his wide variety of grimaces. He has quickly learned how to keep his mouth clamped shut and start spitting immediately if any food happens to touch his lips. He also tries to sabotage the operation by wresting the spoon out of my hands. Luckily, he's significantly more tolerant if he feeds himself, so we've been doing lots of finger foods in addition to anything pureed. 

Discussing . . . favorite books with Rachel on BYU Radio's literacy show "Worlds Awaiting." You can listen to the episode here. (My segment begins around the eighteen minute mark.)

Sitting . . . up. Ian has been taking his time acquiring new skills (which suits all of us just fine since we are in no hurry for him to grow up), but he finally decided sitting up was fun. Since he doesn't crawl yet, we simply give him a few toys, and he stays happy and entertained. It's pretty much the best thing ever.

Teaching . . . a lesson in Relief Society (the women's organization in my Church). I'd been preparing this lesson for months--not because it was a difficult topic but because I was originally supposed to teach in September, but then Mike and I ended up going to Ohio that week. Anyway, I was happy to have it over, even if it didn't go exactly as planned.

Listening . . . to all of my piano students perform in a recital. I find recitals to be pretty nerve wracking since I feel partially responsible for everyone's success or failure, but this time, the whole thing went off pretty smoothly (except when it was my turn to play and my hands wouldn't stop shaking).

Attempting . . . to knit and read at the same time. I mean, why wouldn't I want to multitask and do both of my favorite hobbies at the same time? As long as I'm working either all knit or all purl stitches, I'm not half bad at it.

Finishing . . . my colorwork mittens. Remember my knitting class from October? I wasn't able to get the mittens done by the end of the class but continued to work on them at home and finished them in November. I think they're so fun, and now I want to knit alllllllll the colorwork patterns. (But, just to clarify, this was not the project I was working on when I was knitting and reading at the same time!)

Planning . . . a service activity for the women in my church. We made feminine hygiene kits for the Days for Girls organization. Days for Girls travels all around the world providing washable menstruation kits and education so that girls are able to stay in school while on their period. As helpful as it is to donate money to great causes like this, there's something so amazing about actually getting in there and doing the work. Even though I've never met any of the girls who will benefit from these kits, I was thinking about them the whole night. It felt good to help, even in such a small way.

Coloring . . . and coloring and coloring. Almost overnight, Clark developed an intense love for coloring. He is extremely meticulous, which means one coloring page can keep him occupied for at least fifteen minutes. Needless to say, I'm giving this new situation two thumbs up.

Sending . . . off my brother, Blaine, on a church mission to Kentucky. He's been preparing for a long time, and we're all very proud of him. He'll be gone for two years.

Sharing . . . my favorite Christmas picture books at my neighborhood's book club. I would be happy to give that presentation a million times over. I love talking about Christmas books.

Losing . . . to my parents at bolo ball (or ladder ball, as some call it). Mike and I were ahead for most of the game (thanks to Mike, not me) when my mom landed all three of her balls on the top rung in one turn (which, if you don't know, earns the highest score possible), and they consequently won the game. With each throw, my brother called out, "Do it again, Mom!" and she did. It was pretty fun to watch, even though it led to Mike's and my immediate demise.

Using . . . parchment paper. Have you ever had something you feel like you should have been using your whole life but, for one reason or another, never did? That was us and parchment paper. Somehow we always got by with waxed paper or aluminum foil, and we never remembered to actually buy parchment paper when we were at the store. But then one day, Mike bought a roll, and now we're big fans.

Eating . . . lots of yummy food, as one will do on Thanksgiving in November.

Addressing . . . and stuffing a huge stack of Christmas cards. But I managed to get them all sent off before the first of December. Bam.

Spending . . . time with Grandma and Grandpa. My parents usually babysit for us a couple of times a month, and it is so nice. I still can't believe they live close enough to babysit. My kids love them so much.

Taking . . . Maxwell on a date to purchase his own set of scriptures. His eighth birthday is approaching, which means he will be getting baptized in just a few months. Getting into a habit of daily scripture study will help prepare and strengthen him. It was such a fun little outing. He loves one-on-one attention (or two-on-one in this case), and he chatted the entire time we were choosing his scriptures and eating ice cream. He's pretty delightful (and blows our minds sometimes).

Trying . . . to convince Ian to stay a baby forever. He's not listening.

How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind by Dana K. White

Dec 8, 2017

At the beginning of the year, I made a goal to read the cleaning book of all cleaning books, Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson. Clocking in at nearly 1000 pages, I was pretty sure it would solve all of my cleaning woes. But after reading the first one hundred pages and feeling distinctly more depressed than inspired and realizing it was going to take me another fifty hours of my life to finish reading about how we needed to use two forks, a cloth napkin, and the second best china at every meal, I made the conscientious decision to abandon it.

But I couldn't abandon the goal--and not just because abandoning a goal would go against my very nature. I needed real help, something that would alleviate the daily chaos that is my current life.

A couple of weeks later, I happened to read this post where Torrie briefly mentioned the book, How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind, and I thought, That sounds helpful, and then I saw the cover (<---), and I knew I'd landed on the right book at the right time.

(But apparently, everyone else thought so too since this book was extremely difficult to get (and keep) from the library.)

When Dana White began her blog, A Slob Comes Clean, she did so under the pen name Nony (short for Anonymous) because who wants to actually admit that they're a slob? But over time, she came to own it for what it was and, more importantly, overcome it. Her secret was two-fold: She implemented little non-negotiable routines into her day, and she relentlessly purged her stuff.

I loved this book--not only because it gave me the hope and the tools to improve my life but also because it didn't completely pulverize my self-esteem the way the other cleaning book had. In fact, as I started reading, I realized maybe I wasn't such a bad housekeeper after all. Dana's first suggestion was to do the dishes. Just do the dishes right now. And then do them the next day. And the day after that. No matter what other catastrophes are going on in your house, just do the dishes every day.

But guess what? I already do the dishes every day. It is rare for them to ever pile up into a heap so daunting I'd rather throw them all away and start over than bring myself to tackle them. In fact, I don't know if I've ever confronted a dishes problem like the one Dana described in this book.

But the point isn't actually doing the dishes. In Dana's words, "If your dishes are always clean, don't switch to my method of doing them. Choose something that's a problem in your own home."

And immediately, I knew what that was for me: clearing and wiping down the table and counters in the morning. It is something that is so simple (probably too simple since it seems like other things always take priority over it), but it makes a huge difference to my mental health to get home from school drop off and walk into a kitchen with clean counter tops. It's not that it was a problem of the magnitude Dana was describing, but when my kitchen counters stay crumb-ridden throughout the day, it colors my whole attitude toward myself and my house. And it only takes me five minutes to wipe down everything. Five minutes! My sanity is worth five minutes.

So that was one routine I immediately added to my morning schedule.

But I think reading this book made me realize that while my house often looks like a slob (actually, seven slobs) lives here, I am not a slob at heart. If I lived by myself, I would not be a slob. And I have proof of this. As a freshman in college, my roommate and I were both very tidy. We made our beds every day. We kept our desks clear and organized. We did our laundry promptly, long before we ran out of clean underwear, and our floor was never strewn with cast off clothes. Our tiny dorm room was a haven, and friends would actually stop by just so they could enjoy being in a clean space for a few minutes. That's what I'm like when I live alone.

But having five kids has changed me. In the last three years especially, it has felt nearly impossible to stay on top of the chores and the messes and clutter. In fact, the only time my house stays clean is when I follow my kids around, quietly straightening and cleaning in their wake. But, believe it or not, this is not how I want to spend every waking minute of my day.

Dana is quick to point out that you can't blame your family for your messy house. It's unfair for me to say, "I'm not a slob! It's my kids!" Especially since my bedroom is often just as messy as theirs (but of course, I have my totally legitimate excuses). I think my point is just that it was somewhat validating to read this book and realize, "Oh yeah, I gravitate toward good routines that produce a clean environment." The problem is I think I've been trying to do things the same way I did when we were a much smaller family. I haven't changed and tweaked our routines as much as I should have to fit with our new family dynamic.

Case in point: the laundry. My arch nemesis. The bane of my existence. It seems we always have a million baskets scattered around the house: dirty laundry waiting to be washed, clean laundry waiting to be folded, with no end. Ever. When Dana started in on the laundry chapters, I could feel myself zoning out because she was pushing for a Laundry Day. That's not a new idea, and it's something I'd already considered and rejected several times. A Laundry Day just wouldn't work for our family because we have so. much. laundry. The thought of a week's worth of dirty laundry literally made me feel sick.

But then she said something like, "Depending on the size of your family, you may have to have more than one Laundry Day," and it was like the light flashed on and I thought, I can have two Laundry Days? Is that allowed? And suddenly, I could see exactly how Laundry Day could work for our family. I realized that the beauty of Laundry Day was that it had a beginning and an end with a blessed break in the middle. And whether that was all of the laundry on Monday or all of the laundry on Tuesday and then again on Friday, it would still have the same benefits.

It's too soon to tell for sure, but this has felt like one of the easiest routines I've ever implemented, and so I'm hopeful that means it will stick.

Maybe this book is full of genius information (Slob Vision, Dirty Dishes Math, and the Clutter Threshold are revolutionary ideas, I'm sure), but maybe, just maybe, this was the right book for me to read right now. It was simple, repetitive, and funny, but mostly it was just so so realistic. Rather than talking down to me, I felt like Dana was in my corner, lamenting and commiserating but also cheering me on. I can do this! I can make changes and set up routines and get rid of stuff so we can live a happier, lighter life. I still don't know how to fold a fitted sheet (one of the things I was hoping to learn from Home Comforts), but I know how to stay on top of the laundry.

And that's a big win.

Review x 2: The Hundred Dresses and The Moffats

Dec 1, 2017

I've had two of our readalouds from the summer patiently waiting to be reviewed, and since they both happen to be by Eleanor Estes, it makes sense to review them together.

The first one is The Hundred Dresses. Sometimes I choose books for our readalouds that I feel like I should have read as a child but didn't. This was one of those.

But even though I had seen it listed on a handful of lists and heard it mentioned by various friends, I must have never actually read a synopsis of it because it was completely different from what I was expecting.

It's about a little girl, Wanda Petronski, who moves to a new town and school. Almost immediately, the other children tease her because of her different last name and the fact that she wears the same dress day after day after day (in spite of her claims that she has one hundred dresses).

But the story is told more from the perspective of Maddie, who doesn't instigate the bullying but doesn't stop it either. Afraid that if she speaks up, the tables will turn and she will be the one who is picked on, she quietly stands by and lets it happen to Wanda. Her conscience is forever pricked when Wanda eventually moves away, and she never gets to reconcile what she didn't do with what she should have done.

This story touched a tender spot in my memory because I have been Maddie. I was in second grade, and I can still remember the boy's name, although I won't mention it here. His clothes and hair and general appearance were always unkempt and his glasses were taped together. Most of my classmates were not nice to him. And although I don't remember ever saying anything mean to him, I never stood up for or defended him either. I have regretted it for twenty-five years.

One of the mottos at my kids' elementary school is: "Be an ally. Don't stand by." I think this is so important because the majority of kids aren't the bullies; they're the Maddies. And if the Maddies would call out the bullies and befriend the tormented, it would reverse so many of the problems.

Written in 1945, this short story (I wish it had been longer!) was ahead of its time and contains a poignant message that is extremely relevant today.

The second book we read by Eleanor Estes over the summer was The Moffats.

Even though this was our first time reading this story, it immediately felt familiar because we've read so many books with a similar structure and feeling: Starring a happy, loving family (in this case, the Moffats, made up of Sylvie, Joe, Janey, Rufus, and, of course, Mama) with each chapter a self-contained adventure. (The Saturdays, The Railway Children, All-of-a-Kind Family, and Meet the Austins would all fall into this same category.)

It has all of the charm of an old story while losing nothing in terms of adventure and escapades. We loved the chapter where Janey marches behind the chief of police, copying his every move, until the neighbor boy tells her she could be arrested for that, and so she spends the rest of the day hiding in a bread box.

Another favorite was when Rufus accidentally plays hooky on the first day of kindergarten. It wasn't his intent to skip class (he's been dreaming about going to school like his older siblings for years), but when another little boy sneaks out of the classroom, Rufus feels duty-bound to bring him back, and things escalate from there.

Some of the chapters were a little more serious, like when Joe is sent to buy coal with the last money they have until Mama finishes an order of sailor suits (she's a seamstress). (At one point, Janey asks, "Are we poverty stricken?" and Mama answers, "Not poverty stricken, just poor." They're always pinching to make ends meet.) When Joe arrives at the coal yard, he reaches into his pocket for the five-dollar bill and can't find it, and my boys and I spent the rest of the chapter in agony with Joe as he desperately searches for that money.

But even though the book is fairly episodic, there is a running thread throughout, which is the fear that their beloved yellow house on New Dollar Street is going to be sold.

There are three more books in this series, and I think we'll eventually read the rest (although Aaron already beat us to one of them and read Rufus M. on his own soon after we finished this one). They're the kind of books that could be spaced out and revisited whenever we feel like we need a cozy, comfortable read.
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