What I Read in May

May 31, 2018

I enjoyed everything I read in May, but there's only one book I wish I could gift to every parent in the whole, entire world. Read on to find out which one that was:

1. The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood
This book was on Anne Bogel's 2016 Summer Reading Guide, and I've heard her mention it many, many times since then. (It's a book she says she never would have read if not for a bookseller's insistence.) When the audio was on sale a few months ago, I purchased it, and I very much enjoyed listening to it. And even though I didn't read it in the summer, I can wholeheartedly get behind it as a perfect summer read.

Ona Vitcus, a 104-year-old Lithuanian woman, has grown quite fond of the odd little Boy Scout who comes over to help with jobs around her house when his father shows up in his place one Saturday. She doesn't know he is the boy's father at first and goes off about how she thought she finally had a Boy Scout who was reliable and responsible, but now she sees that he was just the same as the others. But then it comes out that the boy passed away suddenly and Quinn, the boy's father, who was never close to the boy when he was alive, is now there to fulfill the last few weeks of his son's obligation.

As the story progresses, we learn more about the boy, who was obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records and was convinced that Ona Vitcus had a chance at being the oldest living person (if she can hold out for another thirteen years or so and get proof of her birth date . . . ). He asks Ona if he can record her life story. It's for a merit badge for scouts, but as Ona talks, she shares things she hasn't thought about in a couple of lifetimes. Meanwhile, the story moves forward in the present where Quinn develops his own friendship with Ona and confronts some of the issues of his past and the guilt he feels at not having been the father he should have.

The structure was fascinating because even though the book is about the boy, he stays somewhat concealed behind the recording of Ona Vitcus' life story, so even when we're in the past, we're only catching snippets of him. We never even learn his name. Everything about him is pieced together by the way he interacted with and influenced others, even after he had passed away.

There were some really humorous moments (Ona Vitcus is a real firecracker), and my favorite one was when Ona takes Quinn and his twice-ex-wife, Belle, on a road trip to visit her son to see if he has her birth certificate. Ona gave up this son for adoption when he was a brand-new baby, so she never had much of a relationship with him, and she was quite irritated at finding him a ninety-year-old man in a nursing home with a wandering memory.

I loved this quote: "Can memory be revisited to allow us to see now what we didn't see then?" If I had to distill the point of this story into one sentence, it would be that. Remembering events from the past enables the characters to see things in a new light and move forward with renewed hope.

Content note: Some bad language, including heavy use of the f-word in one scene; some offstage immorality.

2. Ramona's World by Beverly Cleary
We knew this day would come, but that doesn't mean we weren't sad when it finally did. We finished the last book in the Ramona Quimby series, and it felt like the end of an era. For the last five (six?) years, we've been slowly working our way through both the Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby series (which I kind of think of as one big series since there is some overlap between characters). We finished the last Henry book over a year ago, but we held off on the last Ramona book because we've been pacing ourselves so that Ramona's age matched with Aaron's age. But with the end of Aaron's 4th grade year fast approaching, we knew we couldn't hold out any longer.

So we read it. And it was a sweet end to the series. The slow maturing of Ramona through each book is masterfully done. By the time she's in fourth grade, she has cast off a lot of her childish habits while maintaining her spunky creativity, which still leads to some embarrassing accidents (I think the scene where Ramona falls through her friend's dining room ceiling will remain on my kids' favorite list forever).

The blow of having these two beloved series come to an end can only be softened by one thing: Start over. (And, incidentally, that's exactly what Bradley and I have been doing. Beezus and Ramona, we love you.)

P.S. In writing this review, I was shocked to discover that I never wrote up a review of the seventh book in this series, Ramona Forever. I don't know how this happened. One of those unintentional oversights.

3. McBroom's Wonderful One-Acre Farm by Sid Fleischman
When I was in probably the fourth or fifth grade, I had to write a tall tale. To learn the key elements and style of a tall tale, I read stories about Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. If I'd known about Josh McBroom, I could have added him to the list, and I think I would have enjoyed his story most of all. I mean, how could you not like a tale about a farmer with eleven children who buys an eighty-acre farm, only to find out he's been hoodwinked and seventy-nine of those acres lie below ground. But then he finds out that the soil on his one-acre is the most fertile he has ever known. It can grow beautifully ripe vegetables in under an hour and a forest overnight. Perhaps McBroom didn't get taken after all.

The story is rich with the exaggerated language of tall tales:
". . . when I poked the gun barrel out the window, well, the wind bent it like an angle iron. The buckshot flew due south. I found out later it brought down a brace of ducks over Mexico."
"The air got so thick with hoppers you could swing a bucket once and fill it twice."
"Those infernal dinner guests had eaten the socks right out of my shoes . . . All they left were the holes in the toes." 
Anytime McBroom needs his family, he calls all eleven of his children in one long breath. Of course we had to try it out for ourselves, and the boys and I each took a turn trying to remember all eleven names and stringing them together just like McBroom: "Willjillhesterchesterpeterpollytimtommarylarryandlittleclarinda!"

My one complaint is that this book was much, much too short, but luckily there are more McBroom adventures, which I'm sure we'll read this summer. I can't recommend this enough as a great summer readaloud.

4. Refugee by Alan Gratz
I think this book has been quite popular on some school reading lists, but I hadn't heard anything about it until it was chosen as the middle grade novel for our May book club.

It follows three refugees: Joseph escaping Nazi Germany in 1938; Isabel leaving Cuba in 1994; and Mahmoud fleeing Syria in 2015. For the time periods and cultures and circumstances being so different, it was amazing to see the similarities between their stories.

Maybe too similar . . .

The book was presented in a way that really showcased the parallel nature of their journeys, and I'll admit that at times it seemed a little too contrived or formulaic. For example, first we had the set of chapters where a character fell into the ocean; next came the chapters where each main character did something brave and heroic to help his family survive; those were followed by the chapters where a loved one was lost. Subtle, this book was not.

I understand that it was written for children, but I don't believe the similarities needed to be so overt in order for kids to pick up on them.

However, in spite of the less-than-subtle parallels, I still ended up learning a great deal about these three events, one of which is, sadly, not finished. I appreciated the author's note at the end, which shared a little bit more about the historical accuracy of each story. And I loved the connections between all three characters at the end, even if it was a little contrived.

So I would definitely recommend this book, and I plan on having Aaron and Maxwell listen to it over the summer.

5. The Read-Aloud Family by Sarah Mackenzie
I saved my favorite for last. Oh, this book. I loved every part of it. I spent the whole time nodding my head and fist pumping the air and shouting, "Yes, Yes, YES!!!!" Everything I love and believe in about reading aloud as a family was validated among these pages.

For those who may not know, Sarah Mackenzie is the host of the fabulous podcast, The Read-Aloud Revival, which, as the title suggests, is all about igniting, or rekindling, as the case might be, a love of literature and stories as a family and in the process building lasting connections with one another.

The book is a continuation of this topic. The first part looks at the why behind reading aloud, the second part shares strategies for how to make reading aloud successful, and the third part shares
lists of potential read-alouds that will be enjoyed by all ages.

I obviously didn't need to be convinced that reading aloud is a great use of my time as a mother, so some might wonder if I actually found this book to be all that helpful. But I did! It fired up my passion just in time for summer vacation; it inspired me to make reading to Ian more of a priority (I admit that I find reading to one-year-olds a little bit exasperating); it helped me know how to start up conversations with my kids about what we're reading together and what they're reading on their own (seriously, the chapters on mastering the art of conversation and how to ask compelling questions were a goldmine of information); and the book lists at the end brought out my nerdy side--I read them straight through while simultaneously putting at least a dozen of the recommendations on hold at the library. They weren't just a rehashed version of other book lists; they included very new and current books and were highly curated to be the most beneficial in a read-aloud setting.

I plan to make this one of my go-to gifts for new moms because honestly, what better tradition could you start than one of reading aloud as a family?

What did you read in May? I'd love to hear!

A Little of This and That in April

May 21, 2018

April might just be my favorite month of the year. I love the warm weather and the flowering trees and the rain. I love the memories of Aprils past: the end of the college semester, graduation, my wedding day, Ian's birth. I relish the added minutes of sunlight each day. And . . . I'm always super annoyed when it snows. But it always does. So at least now I just expect it.

Our April was filled with . . .

Going . . . to General Conference on Temple Square. It was Maxwell's first time to go to the Conference Center, and the look of wonder and excitement on his face when we walked into that majestic hall was priceless.

Working . . . in the mornings. I mentioned a few months ago that I got a job as a manuscript reviewer with Deseret Book. Now that I'm several months into it, I can tell you that I am enjoying it so much, and it has fit into my day just exactly like I wanted it to. I get up at 5:30 in the morning and read/write for about an hour. This translates to about three manuscripts a month. I have only read a couple of things that were truly painful or tedious to get through, and a few have been quite exceptional. It's been a great way to start my days, and I'm grateful that I'm able to work just the amount of time that I wanted.

Getting . . . in a few more hugs from Mike's parents before they flew back to Germany.  Their visits are never long enough, but we sure try to pack in as much time with them as possible.

Spending . . . time with Mike's cousin, Laura, and her ten (yes, ten!) kids. We went to his family's cabin and spent the day roaming the woods, roasting hot dogs, and talking. Most of the time, I feel like I have a pretty big family with five boys, but that day, I felt like a total slacker! But really, it was so much fun to spend time with them, and all of my kids had a friend (or two!).

Being . . . released from my church calling. For the past three-and-a-half years, I have been serving as a counselor in my ward's Relief Society presidency. It was a wonderful, stretching experience for me. By far, my favorite part about it was getting to know all of the dear women in my neighborhood. I will treasure those relationships forever. But, I'm not going to lie, I'm feeling pretty free now without so many responsibilities!

Losing . . . a first tooth . . . and a second tooth . . . and a third tooth. Actually, the third tooth didn't come out until the beginning of May, but Bradley lost all three within a period of ten days. That's a pretty fast way to make money for a six-year-old. Two interesting and related facts: Maxwell has still not lost any teeth (and so Bradley lords it over him just a bit); Ian has exactly the same three teeth Bradley does not have (which we all find incredibly funny).

Listening . . . to audiobooks. Last year was not a great audiobook year for me, but this year, I'm back on the bandwagon and loving it. I find myself justifying knitting for an hour if I can get through an hour of an audiobook at the same time (actually, two hours, since I listen at double speed). That's a suuuuuuper productive way to maximize my hobbies, don't you think?

Dyeing . . . Easter eggs, one week after the fact. This was a lesson to me about not forcing activities into some preconceived time slot. We didn't have time to dye Easter eggs on Easter weekend, and rather than trying to cram it into a fifteen-minute window or just giving up on it all together, we just decided to wait until things had calmed down. And it was so great. We dyed them on a quiet evening with no other plans, and the kids literally worked on them for two hours.

Hosting . . . our 4th Annual Pie Party. In the past, we've tried to hold it as close to March 14th as possible, but every Saturday in March was either rainy or snowy or booked with another activity. So it didn't happen until April 21st, which also happened to be Ian's first birthday. He took a nap through most of it, but it was quite a party: 44 pies and over 180 guests. And the most beautiful sunshiny weather we could have asked for that was well worth the postponement.

Realizing . . . that having older kids is not half bad. In fact, it's pretty awesome. One day Aaron needed a book from the library, and the library closest to our house didn't have it, but another branch did. I was out with all the kids, and I really didn't want to get all of them out of their seats for just one book, so I sent Aaron in alone. And even though he had never been in that library before, he found the correct section of the library, located the book, and checked it out all by himself. That's just one small example, but it totally made my day.

Celebrating . . . our two April birthdays. Mike got a cherry pie (that he made for himself), and Ian got a chocolate kitty cake (because his first word was "kitty").

Starting . . . a couple of new knitting projects: a little dress for a new niece (which I've already finished) and a shawl for one of my aunts. Oh, and buying yarn for three more projects.

Attending . . . my sister's graduation at BYU. She received her masters in piano performance, and I am so proud of her (and also a little sad that there will not be any more concerts or recitals to go to).

Scooting . . . in an unusual way. Ian decided it was too difficult to go from sitting to crawling, so he decided to just scoot around on his bum instead. He wiggles his hips from side to side and gets around pretty quickly if he's on a smooth surface.

Going . . . on some fun dates, including to a performance of Riverdance and out to dinner for some Aussie barbeque with Mike's brother and sister-in-law. Making weekly dates a priority is one of the best things we've done for our marriage.

Suffering . . . through one of the worst colds of my life. I thought it was just going to be a mild spring cold, but then it moved into my sinuses, and it felt like they were filled up with concrete. I was so miserable, I actually went to the doctor for an antibiotic (which I hadn't done since I was pregnant with Bradley).

Getting . . . away for the weekend to celebrate our thirteenth wedding anniversary (and the successful end of our diet!). Dates are great, but mini-vacations are even better. This one was just to Park City and only for one night, but it didn't matter. We weren't on anyone's timetable except our own. We ate like kings. And we slept in until 7:30! (Our kids have us trained, and we couldn't stay asleep longer than that.) Our friends met us for dinner, and then we wandered the nearly empty streets because we timed our trip perfectly for the off-season (bad if you like skiing, good if you don't like crowds). Oh, and did I mention the weather was perfect?

Playing . . . with friends: Clark, all day, every day. He never has had enough of friends, and this introvert is having a hard time understanding it.

Watching . . . the boys in their Hamilton performances. The drama teacher at the boys' elementary school taught each class a song from Hamilton, which they then performed during Art Night. The performances themselves were very well done, but Art Night was so packed and chaotic and crazy that we almost missed both Maxwell and Aaron.

Hearing . . . Ian say "bye-bye." He might not be walking (or crawling), but we're hearing a new word every few days, and I love it. One of my favorites from April was when Mike was leaving for work, and I said, "Bye," and then Ian waved and said, "bye-bye" like he had been saying it his whole life.

Reliving . . . some of my happiest days. When I was down in Provo for my sister's graduation, I had a glorious walk across campus all by myself. Mike dropped me off on the south side of campus at the base of the long flight of stairs I must have climbed a thousand times over my college career. As I started walking up them, I experienced this overwhelming rush of happiness. It was as if every single happy memory converged in that moment and instilled itself into my soul. That sounds extremely dramatic, I know, but I can't think of any other way to describe it.  Even though I can't take a good selfie to save my life, I had to document the moment. I was simply elated.

I think that's a wrap on April. And now May is far enough gone, I might as well get started writing it up, too!

What did you do in April?

The Book Blab Episode 17: All Things Book Clubs Plus Two of Our Favorite Books for Mother's Day

May 10, 2018

Well, that was kind of a long hiatus, but Suzanne and I are finally back with another episode of The Book Blab! This one was worth the wait though, I promise.

Long-time readers will know that I have been a dedicated member of my book club (actually, several) for many years. Suzanne, it turns out, is the same, and between the two of us, we have quite the array of experiences. We had fun reminiscing about the various book clubs we've participated in, and we also shared a few tips and tricks for how to make a book club work no matter your situation.

The time flew, as it always does, and so we never got around to actually talking about the kinds of books that work well in a book club, so stay tuned for part two of this discussion!

As always, we'd love to hear about what your experience in a book club has been like, what some of your favorite book club reads have been, and why you think book clubs are so amazing (because you do think they're amazing, right?!).

Enjoy! (Oh, and p.s., please excuse the little technical glitches in this episode. We had a bit of a slow connection.)

1:00 - Life updates
1:50 - Today's topic: book clubs
2:40 - Why would you want to be in a book club?
  • 3:20 - A book club lets you discuss those books that beg to be discussed
  • 4:08 - A book club helps you see a certain book in a new way
  • 4:16 - It's fun to socialize with other readers
  • 5:10 - A succinct answer to that question
5:58 - A few descriptions of some of the book clubs we've been in
  • 6:17 - Suzanne's traditional book club in Chicago
  • 7:50 - Suzanne's casual book club in Houston
  • 8:03 - Suzanne's Learning Circle through the Power of Moms organization
  • 9:22 - Amy's education group
  • 10:15 - Suzanne's brand new book club in Kansas City
  • 10:33 - Suzanne's virtual book club with former college roommates
  • 11:57 - Amy's neighborhood book club
  • 12:58 - Amy's very traditional, very serious book club
  • 15:55 - Amy's family reunion book club
  • 17:00 - Suzanne's family book club (and surprising confession!)
  • 17:53 - Amy's plans for a book club with her kids this summer
  • 19:30 - The Book Blab mini-book clubs
20:18 - Helpful tips for making a book club work well
25:36 - A few ideas for how to start a book club
29:26 - Two of our favorite books about motherhood
  • 30:05 - Suzanne's recommendation
  • 31:20 - Amy's recommendation
33:47 - Conclusion

Books and links talked about during the show:

The Read-Aloud Family by Sarah Mackenzie
Power of Moms Learning Circles
Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin
Mini-book clubs on The Book Blab (Episode 6 on A Man Called Ove and Episode 13 on The Girl Who Drank the Moon)
Educated by Tara Westover (Suzanne's review)
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan (Amy's review)

Deep Thoughts on Having a One-Year-Old

May 4, 2018

I had always wanted an April baby. I guess the fifth time's the charm.

The day was warm and sunny and smelled of cherry blossoms. The birth was relaxed and easy and filled with laughter. Both were perfect in their own way.

So maybe I can be forgiven for idealizing Ian's life just a little bit. Some of my dreams came true that day.

As this past year rushed by (at the speed of light, so it seemed), I found myself clinging to Ian's babyness: those squishy thighs, those soft cheeks, those baby blue eyes. As he reached each milestone, part of me wept, even while cheering him on.

Fortunately, he has taken his time with the milestones--at least the ones that involved movement--and that has helped ease the pain. He rolled pretty much exclusively until he was about ten months old. Then he learned how to army crawl. And just recently, he has begun scooting on his bum. That's because he still doesn't know how to get from a sitting to a crawling position or vice versa. Which means that if I sit him down,  he pretty much stays where he is, especially if he's on something that's difficult to scoot around on, like grass.

Before I had Ian, I knew slow movers existed. I just didn't know how wonderful they were. To be able to hold Ian on my lap and not have him constantly wriggling to get down is such a joy.

Because here's the other thing: in every other way, he's just like a one-year-old. He carries on "conversations" with us, says a few words, copies noises we make, laughs at our funny expressions and jokes, eats like a champ, delights in new toys, claps his little hands, and gives the best snuggles. It is so magical to have all of the personality of a one-year-old without all of the stress.

But I know these days are numbered. In fact, last week I took him to the doctor's for his one year check-up, and although Dr. VanDenBergh wasn't concerned per se about Ian's lack of crawling, it did make him think that Ian's hemoglobin level might be low. So he tested it, and sure enough, it was. We started giving him an iron supplement, and I'm not kidding when I tell you that the very next day (the very next day!) Ian got up on his hands and knees and then pushed up to his feet to get into a downward dog position. So maybe the iron is just the oomph he needed to get himself up off the ground. Either way, he's not going to be content with his current transportation options for much longer.

I've tried to enjoy each of my babies fully, completely, and not wish away the fleeting time. But it has felt more desperate with Ian. Is this how it feels with your last baby?

Because I don't know. There haven't been any flashing lights or loud proclamations, metaphorically speaking. Maybe there never will be. I think a part of me will always yearn for a baby but maybe not because I actually want another baby but rather I just want my own babies back.

I feel all this pressure, but I think it's pressure I've brought upon myself. If Ian really is our last, I want to feel like we're ending on a high note. I want him to be the most perfect baby that ever was and complete our family like the candle on his birthday cake. Because of that I've been quick to identify the good (he takes a binky!!!) and slow to find the bad (he gagged on all solid food for three months!).

When you think about it, this isn't really a bad way of looking at life. But it's also not really fair to Ian if it means I'm putting impossibly high expectations on him, nor is it fair to another possible child in our future who would undoubtedly be compared to our perfect "last" baby.

And so I'm realizing, once again, how important it is to just live in the present. And not just with one-year-old Ian. But with three-year-old Clark and six-year-old Bradley and eight-year-old Maxwell and nine-year-old Aaron.

I don't know what the future holds, but at this very moment, everything feels exactly right. Not that everything is perfect but that I think our family is exactly what it's supposed to be like right now. And that feels good.

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