Monday, June 30, 2014

Happy Birthday, America!

We live in a small town that LOVES the Fourth of July.  Folks begin putting their chairs out along the parade route the Sunday before, so I figured this was also a good time to start our celebration. Here's what we've been doing to prepare for the big day.

In the music department, the kids have enjoyed learning Yankee Doodle.  I also taught them When the Saints Go Marching In, because even though it has nothing to do with Independence Day, it is played by the jazz bands in our town parade.  The kids love singing it while they play "marching band" through the house.  We have a lot of bells, so in one of my never-too-successful attempts to introduce my kids to poetry, I read Longfellow's The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere  while they ran through the house ringing their bells and chanting "one if by land, two if by sea!!"  Not quite as stealthy as Paul Revere, but I hope something might sink in.

Ben's Fourth of July Fireworks
We've had a few red, white, and blue art projects, including coloring pages, which I always have on hand for a quiet morning or evening activity.  We also tried this simple Straw Fireworks Painting Project.  There are also so many great cooking projects for kids that come with the Fourth.  We made some red finger jell-o the other night, but I look forward to trying some of these other patriotic recipes.

As for books, here are a few we've been reading:
Another one about the American Revolution that I haven't read since elementary school (but did just request from the library) is My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier.  I probably read it around age 8 and it was the book the began my love of historical fiction.  For young adults, I recommend Johnny Tremaine by Esther Forbes. 

For adults, excellent biographies on the key players in the Revolution abound.  My favorite is probably Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson.

Stamping out fireworks
While I love the celebration of the Fourth of July: the food, the parades, the fireworks, I am well aware of the fact that freedom and independence aren't enjoyed by everyone in this country.  To this end, I encourage everyone to speak openly with their children about what this country stands for, the ideals that we strive for, and what we can all do in our communities to ensure that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are equally accessible to all.  I truly welcome any and all suggestions for books and activities folks have found to help raise awareness in children.  We wish everyone a happy and safe Fourth of July!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dealing with Death - Helping our son grieve

Last September, my brother-in-law and Ben's favorite uncle passed away.  He was someone Ben saw several times a week and they had grown quite close.  When he died, Ben was 2 years, 7 months, and most certainly not old enough to understand death.  While I'd hoped he would be older when I had to start trying to explain it to him, my husband and I wanted to find a way to be honest and give him room to ask questions with the hope that he would come to a better understanding over time.

Of course, I turned to books as a way to introduce the topic.  I collected recommendations and read through a number of them in advance.  There are a lot of options out there, and depending on a child's age and family's beliefs, there is certain to be something for everyone.  The books we read that seemed to be helpful in terms of getting Ben to open up included the following:

Books I have found comforting in the face of death and understanding my own feelings - these are links to my blog pieces on each of these books:
When books and words are too much, it's also nice to have a quiet place to go and just remember.  Ben's aunt has a Zen Garden in her backyard where she has a memorial to her late husband.  It's a beautiful place, and while Ben has shown some reluctance about going to it when he visits, he often talks about it as a place where he can visit his uncle if he ever wants to.  I know he is still a little confused by the concept, but at the same time, I feel like it does bring him some comfort.  I definitely don't always have good answers for all his questions, but in an effort to keep the memory alive of the ones we love, it's nice to be able to keep having the conversation. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Children's Author of the Week: Gyo Fujikawa

Gyo Fujikawa, born and raised in Berkeley, California to Japanese parents, passed away in 1998 at the age of 90.  She created and illustrated more than 50 books for children.  We first discovered her when my mom bought Ben a copy of her A to Z Picture Book.  The illustrations are just adorable and each page is filled with pictures and words to help build vocabulary.  Ben loved the "B is for busy babies" page the best and would spend upwards of 15-20 minutes at a year-and-a-half just looking from baby to baby and talking about what each one was doing.  We also enjoyed the "C" page which pictures a baby named Clara who is "crawling."  Another favorite book is Good Morning.  Alice, in particular, loves the pages with kids doing two of her favorite things:  eating a huge breakfast and playing in the mud.

The books are written in simple language or rhymes and are perfect for children who are at the age where they are fascinated by babies (for my kids around 14-22 months) as many of the illustrations feature babies or young children.  The books are colorful and busy with so much to talk about and imitate.  And everything, from my perspective, is just so much fun to look at.  While my kids are getting a bit older, I can still see myself wanting to decorate their rooms with some of the prints.  Or maybe I'll just seek out a few for my own room!


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sum it Up - Pat Summit

Like many people, I have a fear of dementia.  As a result, I am drawn to books about people living with dementia, caring for those who have dementia, and any type of neuropsychological study aimed at preventing it.  I previously reviewed two fiction books featuring main characters suffering from dementia, Still Alice and Turn of Mind.  Yet, I was reluctant to read Pat Summit's memoir - perhaps not really wanting to a real non-fiction account of one facing dementia, especially a woman so known for her strength.

To be fair, this is not a book about living with dementia.  It is a book about a truly extraordinary woman making a name for herself in what was once perceived as a man's world.  She is a woman who worked hard no matter what and made incredible sacrifices on and off the court.  There is a lot of basketball in this book - and I think a reader who loves the game will take more from what Summitt has to say, but clearly the book has a more universal appeal.  Pat Summit is amazing.  That she has now gone public with her diagnosis is just one brave act in her lifetime of brave acts, and I hope that as she becomes one of the many faces of early-onset Alzheimer's she will help others see the need we have for more research in this area, and help people understand the true courage of those living with the disease, as well as those caring for them.

The World is a Rainbow

Currently my girls are learning their colors, and I'm looking for all kinds of ways to reinforce what they're learning - through the usual painting and coloring - and of course, through books.  There are a million and one books for children about colors, and our local library has a section of them which makes them easy to find.  In addition to the usual board books about colors, here are some of the fun ones we've been reading lately:

One by Kathryn Otoshi: When Red bullies all the other colors, they must learn to stand up for themselves in this book about colors, numbers, and speaking up when things aren't right.  Clara took to the brush painted illustrations in this book immediately, asking to read it over and over.

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrations by Jon Klassen: this is not a book that sets out to teach about colors, but it is a charming story about a young girl who lives in a black and white world and finds a box of colorful yarn.  There are a number of morals within the story, but I liked the idea of paying more attention to the beauty and colors all around us, and used it as a way to talk about the colors in our world.

Press Here: Herve Tullet - This is an interactive book Ben received a few years back from his cousin.  It focuses on Red, Blue, and Yellow, as well as counting to five, and asks the reader to "press" certain color circles, to shake the book, to blow on the book - all with fun and silly results.  The instructions ensure that kids are actually listening.  Another one that we read over and over and over again.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity - Andrew Solomon

I finished reading this book over six months ago, but have put off writing my review of it because it's one of those books I simply cannot convey the importance of through my own writing.  In this non-fiction tome about parents and children, Solomon explores several different categories of exceptional children, from dwarves to prodigies to the deaf to autistic and many more, Solomon questions how much parents should simply accept versus how much a parent should do to understand.  Each chapter of the book is dedicated to a different group, so while the 800+ page volume of the book might be intimidating, I would recommend everyone pick it up and at least read the one chapter that seems most relevant in your life.  In addition to being almost a guide to parenting, I felt the book advocated the idea of community - each of these categories of people were exceptional in their own way, but for the most part wholly different from their parents (but not always.  For example, there were dwarves whose children were also dwarves, deaf parents with deaf children), such that their parents could never truly understand what it meant to be in their children's shoes.  And in these cases, I thought the idea of finding community for those children became so important, as well as finding community for those parents (among other parents with the same kinds of children).  This book was monumentally educational for me with respect to groups I knew absolutely nothing about, and I felt incredibly fair regarding the groups that I do have some experience with.  It also provides so much insight into both the children and the parents in these various groups, I feel it is an important work for helping to increase awareness and empathy.  Again, I can't write a review to do this book justice, but there is a website about the book that is powerful in its own way and provides additional background:

Sisterland - Curtis Sittenfeld

I enjoyed two previous novels by Curtis Sittenfeld, Prep and American Wife.  So, when this one came out - and I found out it was about identical twins - I was eager to read it.  The books is about identical twins, Kate and Violet, who grew up in St. Louis and were ostracized for either possessing, or believing they possessed, psychic powers.  Years later, Kate strives to distance herself from her sister, while Violet years to gain back their closeness.  While I didn't think the actual plot line was that interesting, I found the relationship between the two sisters fascinating - just the concept of closeness - the fact that so many people desire to have that closeness with someone, but for those that have it, it can often be suffocating.  This idea, however, could probably have been explored in a more interesting was (and has been in the non-fiction book about identical twins, One and the Same by Abigail Pogrebin).  I have not read Sittenfeld's novel, The Man of My Dreams, but will do so only on the strength of American Wife.  When it comes to Sisterland, I'd recommend taking a pass.

Danger: Hot Lava Ahead!

Building the volcano
For the past week or so, Ben has been obsessed with hot lava.  He races his cars to and from erupting volcanoes.  He runs around the house and climbs on the furniture to avoid hot lava.  He chases his sisters around the house pretending to be hot lava.  Whatever the source of his sudden interest, I decided it was a good jumping off place for learning about something new.

Playmat made by my mom intended for use with dinosaurs.
Currently used to drive Hot Wheels to and from the erupting volcano
We started with some videos on to learn about volcanoes as geological features in general (neat since Ben recently did a little school project about land masses).  Also watching erupting volcanoes is just pretty cool.  This had the side benefit of featuring erupting volcanoes from Hawaii, which gave us a chance to talk about the fact that my mom and I are from Hawaii and to show him where Hawaii is located on his world map.

Painting the volcano
I then thought we should try making the old tried-and-true paper mache volcano.  We took some time over the weekend to cut the newspaper, mix the paper mache paste, and build our volcano (which ended up looking more like an igloo, but no worries).  Ben found the paper mache a bit messy, but seemed to have fun seeing it all come together.  We then left it to dry overnight.  The next morning we painted the volcano and left it to dry (this project was a good lesson in delayed gratification!).  That afternoon, we mixed together warm water, red food coloring, and dishwashing detergent.  We added the baking soda and vinegar and watched our volcano erupt!  Despite the fact that everyone seems to have done this experiment at some point during their childhood, it was actually the first time I'd ever done it, and I think I had just as much fun and surprise as Ben with it all.  We left the volcano out to dry, so hopefully we can re-visit it periodically for more eruptions while the hot lava obsessions lasts.

Erupting volcano!!
Tomorrow, we head to the library to check out some books on volcanoes, including the following:
Hot lava has been a fun exploration.  It gave us a little science, a little art, new reading material, new youtube videos (frankly, I was growing tired of those garbage trucks!), and some really fun physical activity chasing each other all around the house (though Alice gets a little overly scared of the hot lava at times).  I'm not usually very good with the science activities so it felt good to branch out.  I look forward to Ben's next new random interest!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Everything Old is New Again

I first read the epistolary The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in 2009.  It centers around a writer who is searching for the perfect subject for her next book.  She receives a letter from a gentleman living on the island of Guernsey who finds her name and address in a used book by Charles Lamb.  He asks her if she knows where he might locate more books about Mr. Lamb, and so begins a correspondence primarily about the German occupation of Guernsey during World War II.  My general reaction to the book was that it was a nice story, but I didn't feel particularly strongly about it in any way.

Recently, I picked this book up again.  Even as I read through it, I had absolutely no recollection of the fact that I'd read it before.  I must point out that this is a reflection of my current memory issues, not a reflection of the quality or memorability of the book itself, I am sure.  I only realized I'd read it before when I sat down to write a review of the book for GoodReads and found that I had reviewed five years ago.  This time, however, my review was significantly more positive.  I loved the story and found myself identifying more readily with the characters.  This is the first time (that I can recall) that I have re-read a book and had a more positive reaction the second time around.  Often, I find that I re-read books that I absolutely LOVED as a teenagers or in my early 20s and find that in my older age the characters are simply insufferable.  Examples of this include, The FountainheadThe Catcher in the Rye, and On the Road.  So, while my general practice is not to re-read books, in the (hopefully) rare, instance where I forget that I've actual read it before, it's nice to know that it may become more meaningful with time and perhaps a little more wisdom.

On a separate note, I am in general a big fan of books written through letters.  Maybe because it satisfies a secret desire for gossip, and makes me feel as if I have stumbled upon something I'm not supposed to be reading.  The books also often make for fast reads, which can be nice if one doesn't have a lot of time to read.  Some of my other favorite books written in letter form include:

Friday, June 20, 2014

Reading without Words

Ben and I recently discovered the Caldecott-Award winning picture book, Journey by Aaron Becker.  It is the beautifully illustrated story of a lonely girl who takes matters into her own hands and draws her way into a breathtaking adventure.  Plot-wise, it is akin to Harold and the Purple Crayon, but where Harold draws his mode of transport, as well as the simple purple world around him, the girl in this book uses her drawing to transport herself into complex and otherwise existing worlds and adventures.  It is not to say that one is better than the other, but simply that Journey is a book that could probably play to a wider and older audience.

At first, I wasn't sure if Ben would enjoy this book.  There aren't any words, and he has lately prided himself on wanting stories that we can "read" (he's 3.5 and doesn't really read yet).  But, it didn't matter.  He loved asking about where she was going and pointing out what she was drawing and how she was going to get from one place to the next.  When we were done with the book, he jumped up from the couch and said, "Let's go get our crayons and draw our own journey!"  And, of course, that's the exciting reaction I always like to see a book have on a reader.

Other wordless/nearly wordless picture books we've enjoyed include:

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Children's Author Pick of the Week: Taro Gomi

When Ben was born, an artist friend of mine gave him several books by the Japanese writer and illustrator Taro Gomi.  Given Ben's early and continuing obsession with transportation, he immediately fell in love with Bus Stops - which features a bus dropping off passengers at different destinations on each page.  I fell in love with Gomi's illustrations - which are so rich in detail that it allowed us to read the book over and over again always with new pages to focus on or new little stories to find within the story.  It also provided a jumping off point for discussions with Ben about where he'd like to take the bus and what he thought the people would do when they got off the bus.

This week, Alice has discovered My Friends, which features a little girl demonstrating on each page what she has learned from her friends.  Alice's favorite pages include, "I learned to nap from my friend the crocodile," and "I learned to study from my friends the teachers."  Most of the friends the little girl learns from are animals - and in addition to reading the book over and over, we've also enjoyed acting out what each of the animals is teaching - including running, marching, and singing.  Alice, who is now 20 months, has grown so attached to the book that she insists on sleeping with it so she can read it to herself before falling asleep and in the morning when she gets up.

While I recommend Taro Gomi's books for young readers because the stories are simple and the illustrations are beautiful, I especially appreciate that as a Japanese writer/illusrator, Gomi draws Japanese children in his books.  As I make an effort to expose my children to diversity through literature, and to our own family's Japanese culture, it's nice to have such a talented author out there to turn to.  For those who want more information on the need to increase diversity in children's books, please check out the We Need Diverse Books website and their suggestions for diverse books for toddlers (age 3-5).

World Cup Fever!

Ben recently finished his first soccer season.  Having the World Cup coincide with his introduction to the game has been really fun - and we hope watching a few games here and there will help increase his excitement about playing.

While looking for books about soccer at the library last week, I was thrilled to discover the recently published Maisy Plays Soccer.  Ben, Alice, and Clara all LOVE the Maisy books.  They are familiar with the characters, and the stories are simple with colorful pictures.  Clara, who is more than a little obsessed with soccer herself, also loves that Maisy has a stuffed panda.  I read this one to the girls at least five times today, and in addition to providing a good story, it also helped us talked about why we like to play sports, who we like to play with, what our favorite team colors are, and of course, what we look for in a good post-game snack.

I am not myself a soccer player, nor am I very knowledgeable about the sport, but I have enjoyed a few books about the game over the years.  These include the Young Adult Non-Fiction book, Outcasts United by Warren St. John, and Nick Hornby's chonicle of his obsession in Fever Pitch.  There are so many amazing sports books out there for children and adults, I am sure to have a sport-by-sport round-up at some point.  But, until then, Go USA!!!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Where are you going this summer?

I love book lists - whether they come from a friend's book club, from the New York Times, or from a random website.  I also often love to read books in a single category.  A few years ago, I picked a country, and would read five or six books about that country, or by authors from that country, and then move on.  I used it as a way to supplement my own travels, or when I wasn't able to travel, as a cure for my wanderlust.  My favorite book of travel reading lists organized by country is Book Lust to Go.   But now, there's NPR Summer Reading List.  Not only is it a list of suggested books to read, but it is multiple lists and they are categorized by mode of transport.  Each list includes fiction and non-fiction, as well as books for adults and books for children.  Because we are traveling by plane to England next month, I am planning to pick out a few selections from The Fly List.  And because Ben and I just finished enjoying James and the Giant Peach, I think we will also take our chances with a few more from the Dragon, Drugs, or Giant Peach List.  Bon Voyage and Safe Travels to all!