Three Recent Readalouds: "B" is for Betsy, The Show Must Go On, and Gooney Bird Greene

Jul 22, 2019

A couple of months ago, with the approach of his fifth birthday, I felt like I needed to make more of a concerted effort to invite Clark to listen when I was reading aloud to the other boys. I mean, the invitation was always there, but he almost always opted for Mike to read a picture book to him instead (definitely not a bad thing). I couldn't really blame him since the last few books we had read hadn't exactly been preschool-friendly.

So I followed my own advice and picked several books with short chapters, lots of pictures, and characters/plot that would appeal to a five-year-old. My older boys were super accommodating, which proves that kids just love to be read to, even if it's not what they would choose to read on their own.

1. "B" is for Betsy by Carolyn Haywood

This was a really sweet and adorable story. It felt like a cross between Betsy-Tacy and Ramona with that innocent old-school charm (it was first published in 1939) and just a touch of spunkiness (although not up to Ramona levels).

Betsy enters first grade at the beginning of the story (which, we soon realized, was more like kindergarten would be today). She meets Ellen on the first day, and they become fast friends. She gets lost on her way to school. Under her teacher's gentle supervision, her classroom grows tadpoles, organizes a gift for an older friend in need, and create their own circus.

You might think that this story would be too old-fashioned or too girly for my kids, but the truth is, we all enjoyed it. And it was especially a winner for Clark. The plot wasn't intense or complicated. He could keep track of all of the characters. And he latched onto all of Betsy's little adventures because, even in 2019, they still sounded like just the kind of thing he'd like to do, too.

Although this wasn't Clark's first time listening to a chapter book, it was the first time with all of his older brothers listening as well. And I think it made him feel like part of the club. He enjoyed jumping in with the answers when we did a little review every night and coming up with his own ideas for what was going to happen.

And it meant he got to have his back scratched, which Clark is always in favor of.

2. The Show Must Go On! by Kate and Sarah Klise

This was our second readaloud with Clark. And while it was a cute story, in retrospect, I actually wish I hadn't read it aloud.

I always say that first readalouds should have lots of pictures, but it turns out that it actually is possible to have too many pictures, and this book is the perfect example. There were pictures on almost every page, which in and of itself wasn't necessarily a bad thing. The problem was that many of the pictures contained speech bubbles or other textual information that was actually critical to the plot of the story but that had to be explained if you weren't reading it yourself (i.e., "This is a conversation between Gert and Bert"). It was a bit like reading a graphic novel aloud, which would be very difficult.

When Sir Sidney decides to take a much needed rest and go on vacation, he leaves his circus in the seemingly capable hands of Barnabas Brambles. But Barnabas is only interested in making money, and in just a short week's time, he has effectively done way more damage than good and has literally only made a dollar in the process.

It was a fun story, and we made it work as a readaloud, but I honestly think it would have been much more enjoyable for my kids if they had just read it on their own.

3. Gooney Bird Greene by Lois Lowry

I started reading this one with just Clark, but the other boys were around during the final three chapters, and even though they pretended they weren't listening, they totally were (especially Max, who picked up the book after we were finished so that he could read the first four chapters).

Turns out, this was actually a really easy book to just jump into the middle of because each chapter is kind of its own self-contained story. In fact, the art of storytelling is really the whole point of the book.

When Gooney Bird Greene arrives at Watertower Elementary, everyone can tell she isn't an ordinary girl (and it isn't just her name, although that alone is enough to make a person look twice). When Mrs. Pidgeon teaches the class about the format of a good story (it must have a beginning, middle, and end, etc.), all of the students agree that the story they most want to hear is about Gooney Bird Greene. And since that puts Gooney Bird right smack in the middle of everything, she is happy to oblige by sharing absolutely true stories about herself.

The thing is, they don't sound like true stories. One of them is titled "How Gooney Bird Came from China on a Flying Carpet." Another, "Beloved Catman is Consumed by a Cow." But by the end, the kids realize that Gooney Bird actually has lived a fairly ordinary life, but when presented in just the right way, it sounds rather extraordinary.

We liked this book, but it wasn't until the final chapter that I finally saw the genius behind it, and then I kind of loved it. Everything came together beautifully as Gooney Bird revisited the stories she had told and showed the class how each one of them also has similar experiences that are just waiting to be told.

I don't know if teachers use this book as a way to introduce the story format, but I can't imagine that they don't. This book is just too perfect not to use in a classroom setting.

What are some other short, easy readalouds Clark would enjoy?

A Little of This and That in June

Jul 7, 2019

June was bliss. Pure bliss. I wouldn't have changed a thing about it. Now we're into July, which is crazy busy and packed full of trips and reunions and activities, and I'm just so glad we had June to really soak in what summer is all about. You might have found us . . .

Creating . . . giant bubbles. We've tried giant bubbles before, but this formula was the golden ticket. The boys stuck their sticks and string into the solution, and then held them in the right direction of the breeze, and the bubbles grew and expanded and gently floated away. It was amazing. It entertained us for a good hour, and we didn't stop until we ran out of the solution.

Reading . . . a ton! Our family summer reading program is in full swing, and so far the boys have been raking in the prizes. The first week, Maxwell read 22 hours, and the second week Aaron read 24. Popular prizes this year have been iTunes songs, popsicle coupons for the pool, and extra minutes of screen time. Aaron burned through the Series of Unfortunate Events, and Max is still plugging away on the many Warriors series. Even Clark has been logging away the hours, and consequently, his reading has been rapidly improving.

Eating . . . doughnuts. The first Friday of the month brought National Doughnut Day, and we celebrated with a box of melt-in-your-mouth glazed doughnuts. This is not the only day of the year that we eat doughnuts (are you kidding??), but it's funny how my kids look forward to this day with great anticipation. This year also brought a well-timed lesson for Clark. We picked up enough doughnuts for everyone in the family to have two each. Clark took his first one, and then ran off to the neighbors' to invite his two friends over for a doughnut . . . except that we hadn't bought enough to feed all of the neighborhood kids as well. When they showed up, we told Clark that he would need to split his second doughnut in half to give to them. Well, that wasn't his plan at all, and he went crazy at the realization that he was going to miss his other doughnut. I was actually so glad it happened exactly as it did because it was a perfect real-life lesson. Clark is often very rash and spontaneous and doesn't think through consequences. Of course I want him to be generous, but in this situation, he just expected someone else to give up their doughnut for his friends instead of him. I hope next time he will talk through his plans with us instead of heedlessly making promises he doesn't actually want to keep.

Suffering . . . through a case of swimmer's ear. It's kind of surprising that with all of our swimming, this was our first time dealing with this infamous side effect. And I think Aaron (the unlucky victim) hopes he never has to deal with it again. Even though we took him to the doctor and got him on antibiotics pretty quickly after the initial onset of pain, it still took him a good five days to recover. If anyone has any great tips for guarding against it in the future, we are all ears (wink, wink).

Reaching . . . the terrible twos. We thought we might get past this phase unscathed, but apparently Ian was just a late bloomer. In June, he turned into the most contrary, obstinate, bossy child I ever did see, and it's taking a toll on all of us. But he makes up for it when I put him down for a nap and he says, "I love you soooooo much."

Writing . . . for the Johnson Times. At the beginning of summer break, Aaron and Maxwell decided to start a newspaper. They each created a comic strip (Aaron: Hobo Joe; Maxwell: Monsters) and took turns writing a couple of articles for each issue. They kept up a daily circulation for about a week before it fizzled, but I quite enjoyed it while it lasted.

Going . . . to see Matilda at our favorite local theater. A year ago, we took Aaron, Maxwell, and Bradley to see Newsies there as one of the rewards for making progress on their summer goals, and at that time, the 2019 schedule was already out. They saw that Matilda would be performing this summer, and they were wild to see it. Out of all of the books they've ever read, Matilda is quite possibly their very favorite. They have listened to it probably at least one hundred times. So we decided it could be their first goals reward of the summer. But as our ticket date got closer, I began to feel less enthusiastic about it because my sister-in-law had seen it with her girls and given it a less-than-glowing review. She said it hadn't kept the Roald Dahl feel, and I knew if that was true, it was the one thing I wouldn't be able to look past. But the opening song didn't give that impression at all. And as the play progressed, the more I loved it: the vibrant, whimsical sets, the surprising dissonant notes in the songs, and the highly stylized acting all contributed to bring Matilda to life. But best of all, it exuded that dark and twisty, but in the end triumphant atmosphere I've come to expect (and love) from Roald Dahl. The cast was full of children, and I was so impressed by all of them that when the play was over, I jumped to my feet because I wanted to make sure my standing ovation was for them, too. Maybe my expectations were just low, but it far surpassed them in every way. I love when that happens.

Shaving . . . five seconds off his breast stroke. Aaron had a swim meet and competed in the 100 freestyle, 50 breast stroke, and 50 backstroke. He did well in all three, but he was especially excited to take five seconds off his old 50 breast stroke time.

Chancing . . . a thunderstorm in favor of a hike. We had planned to go on a hike one evening, but as we were getting ready to leave, our valley was surrounded by dark clouds. So we ditched our planned hike and headed for the one bright patch of sky on the horizon, which turned out to be the Mueller Park Trail. We were able to get in a decent hike before the clouds caught up to us, and we reached our car just as the first rain drops began to fall, which meant we timed it just about perfectly.

Gaining . . . new swimming skills. Clark did two weeks of swimming lessons at the beginning of June and learned how to push off from the wall in a back float, move his arms in a big way, and take side breaths.

Celebrating . . . Father's Day. Ever since Aaron and Maxwell were small, we have filled out little questionnaires for Father's Day. I come up with different questions every year and then interview the boys to find out their answers (I do this even after they are perfectly capable of reading and writing on their own). Then we add a photo and drawing on the other side and I laminate the whole thing. My kids love reading back through their answers from years ago, and it's become a fun little keepsake. This year was Ian's first time to participate, and his answers were . . . unique. The evening of Father's Day, we went over to my parents' house for dinner, so I got to celebrate my own dad as well.

Tasting . . . chocolate ice cream. Just for fun, we did a blind taste test of six different brands of chocolate ice cream and then ranked them. The contestants were Kroger, Cheap, Hรคagen-Dazs, Graeters, Bryers, and Howdy Homemade (a local ice cream shop). The clear winner was Howdy Homemade, but it was surprisingly difficult to differentiate between quality once your palette was saturated by chocolate, and I'm embarrassed to admit that the Kroger was equally delicious to me.

Hiking . . . the "Y." Later in the month, we went down to Provo to hike our beloved Y Mountain. The boys had seen the Y many times, but this was their first time hiking the trail. We chose a day when the temperature had dropped by twenty degrees, which was a good thing since that trail is in full sun the entire time. It is a relatively short hike but very steep, and I wondered if Clark was going to be able to handle it. But he did amazing! In fact, the only child that we had any trouble with at all was Ian (who shouldn't have complained since he was getting a free ride on Mike's back). We hiked to both the bottom of the Y and the top. I think all of my kids were surprised that going back down the trail was actually harder (or at least more painful) than going up. Mike and I both had achy knees by the time we reached the bottom. We're getting old. Afterwards we went to Brick Oven (a popular Provo pizza joint), and we all agreed that ice cold root beer never tasted so good.

Seeing . . . my first manuscript published! Okay, not my manuscript. Do you remember that I read and review manuscripts for a small publishing company? Well one of the first manuscripts I read (which was about 18 months ago) was published this month! It is called Dreams as Revelation, and it was so fun to page through it and see what it grew up to be! Even though I only had a very small part in it, it still gave me a little thrill to hold the hard copy in my hands.

Touring . . . a few homes. My mom had tickets to Parade of Homes this year. I had never been before, so I went to see a few houses with her. We picked the biggest ones, as one does, one of which was over 22,000 square feet and came with an indoor racket ball court, two swimming pools, a huge gym, a theater, and an indoor tennis court. And all of that, but only the tiniest little loft with a few measly bookshelves. I know! Definitely not the house for me.

Taking . . . a knitting class with my sister, Anna. I had been wanting to learn the brioche technique but it seemed really difficult and intimidating. So when I saw that my local yarn shop was offering a class teaching this technique, I jumped on it. And then I convinced my sister to take it with me so that I would have some company. We practiced the technique by making a simple hat (which incorporated both one-color and two-color brioche). True to the rumors, it was a little bit tricky at first (it kind of breaks some of the most basic knitting rules, which requires a bit of a mind shift), but once I got the hang of it, it wasn't difficult at all. And it creates a very bouncy fabric that is a delight to squish! I'm so glad I could take the class with Anna. It was so great to spend time with her, and I loved working on the same project and being able to check in with her. It makes me think we should choose another pattern to work on together.

Switching . . . bedrooms. For the last two and a half years, Maxwell has been sharing a bedroom with Clark, and he was ready for a change. So we did a little bedroom switcheroo, and now Aaron and Maxwell are together, and Bradley and Clark are together. (Ian is still in his own room.) I was a little nervous about how it would all go down, but so far, I think it's been a positive change. I can remember rearranging my room when I was kid, and it always seemed to breathe new life into a tired old space. This had the same effect.

Catching . . . a fish. We don't have the greatest luck with fishing, but the boys are always eager to give it another try. Mike sometimes checks to see if any of the lakes have been recently restocked, so when he saw Silver Lake on the list, we decided to head up there for the evening. It's one of our favorite spots anyway, but it was an added bonus when Bradley caught a lovely rainbow trout. And that led to Maxwell finally fulfilling his dream to gut a fish.

Watching . . . the miraculous metamorphosis process. We bought a cup of five caterpillars and had so much fun watching them transform throughout the month. They started out as the tiniest, itty-bitty caterpillars and got noticeably bigger every day. Then, one by one, they spun silk and hung from the lid in a J-shape. We were fortunate to catch all five of the caterpillars turn into chrysalides, which was kind of unbelievable since it only takes about ninety seconds from start to finish. Two of the chrysalides formed at exactly the same time. It was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. Then, exactly a week later, all five emerged as pretty painted lady butterflies. We watched them for a few hours, and even kept one of them overnight, and then let all of them fly away into the wide blue sky. We loved watching the whole process so much. I'm sure we'll do it again.

Enduring . . . Ian's antics. Just to give you a sampling of the kind of mischief we're dealing with, one day I went into the bathroom to put in my contacts only to find my contact case already open and my contacts missing, supposedly rinsed down the drain. Another day, Ian was playing in the car, and I was doing things in the house. I heard him come inside, push a chair over to the dryer, grab a set of keys from the basket, go back outside, and by the time I chased him out there, he had inserted the CORRECT key into the ignition. He's up to no good these days.

Reaping . . . a harvest. Our garden has been quite successful so far. The spinach, peas, basil, rhubarb, and raspberries have already been producing, and we've been trying to keep up with everything as well as we can. It looks like we will also have a crop of zucchini, tomatoes, blackberries, green beans, carrots, beets, onions, watermelon, squash,and possibly peppers (they're still looking a little weak). It is so fun to go out to the garden and check up on the progress of everything.

Overcoming . . . his fear of the water. Ian had a rough entry into the pool this year. The big boys were a little overzealous when he wore his floaty for the first time. They yanked him away from the step to try to show him how well he could float and instead he felt super insecure and unsafe. For the next few weeks, whether he had his floaty on or not, he refused to leave the top step of the pool. Sometimes I would take him out with me, but he just screamed the entire time until I put him back on the step. But little by little, I coaxed him out, and he is finally happily bobbing around in the water.

There's more. Of course there's more. But I can't mention everything, and that's a pretty good recap for now.

How's your summer going so far?

Upstairs at the White House: My Life With the First Ladies by J.B. West

Jul 3, 2019

When I was growing up, my mom always tuned into Paul Harvey on the radio while she was making lunch. Besides the news and interesting stories, he also had a segment called The Rest of the Story where he revealed the little known history behind famous and well-known events.

This book was a little like that radio segment, giving a backdoor view of some of America's First Families.

J.B. West served as Assistant to the Chief Usher and then later as Chief Usher of the White House from 1941 to 1969. I have to admit, before I read this book, I didn't even know there was such a position as "Chief Usher," but basically Mr. West's job was to work directly with the First Ladies, helping each one make the White House her home, ensuring that social events ran smoothly, overseeing the staff, and generally helping with all of the ins and outs of daily life. As such, he had a unique view of the President of the United States and his family, one that was often more personal than was portrayed by the media.

During his time at the White House, he served Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, and Pat Nixon. As each presidency turned over, Mr. West introduced the reader to the new First Lady and immediately shared little anecdotal stories that helped create a clear impression of this woman that contrasted sharply with all of the others. These women did not run together in a blur of First Ladies. Each one was uniquely her own person.

As I neared the end of the book, I wrote down the name of each First Lady and any words that came to mind that would help me remember her. These are merely my own observations and as such are not necessarily an accurate or complete representation of these women:

Eleanor Roosevelt: somewhat aloof, very busy, boundless energy, politically active, more interested in things outside of the White House than in it, distant relationship with the President

Bess Truman: simple, practical, not flashy, well-informed, adviser, private, very much in love with her husband and daughter

Mamie Eisenhower: vivacious, spunky, sparkly, opinionated, formal, elegant, high-class, openly affectionate

Jackie Kennedy: quiet, unassuming, sophisticated, witty, ambitious, educated, dedicated to history and the fine arts, unemotional 

Lady Bird Johnson: selfless, people-pleaser, social but private, loyal, friendly, hands off but particular 

Pat Nixon: reserved, decisive, warm (J.B. West only worked for her for six weeks, so she was the least well-known.)

One of the things that surprised me was how much freedom the First Ladies had to change around the White House and make it work for their families: bedrooms into dining rooms, the swimming pool into a press room (J.B.West's biggest regret), walls torn down and new ones built, a schoolroom designed for Caroline Kennedy and later transformed into a teenager hangout for Lucy Johnson, trees planted for privacy, furniture swapped in and out, a whole network of phone lines added, and the plumbing completely reworked to get strong enough water pressure for Lyndon Johnson (they were never able to actually please him).

I also appreciated how respectful J.B. West was of the privacy of the First Families. If you want a book that is full of scandalous details, this isn't it. And I felt like that was as it should be. Mr. West had a very personal relationship with each of the First Ladies, and trust was an integral part of that relationship. Even though the relationship technically ended once the President left office, I think it shows the kind of man that Mr. West was that he would still hold that trust sacred even once there wouldn't have been any negative repercussions.

And finally, there was just something so comforting in seeing the orderly way in which the Presidency was transferred each time. It was methodical and unemotional. At exactly 12:00 noon on the day of inauguration, the staff unpacked the new President's belongings with crisp efficiency so that by the time the First Family arrived, it was as if they had always lived there. In a world where emotions run high and people have strong opinions and biases, it is nice to know that some things continue to run the same no matter who is in office.

When I started reading this book, I didn't know that it would end up feeling like just the right lead-up for Independence Day. It was a hearkening back to the past while giving hope for the future, and its subtle undertone of patriotism was just perfect.
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