Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Color of Water - James McBride

My childhood friend, Sarah, loaned this book to me.  She is a teacher and a mother of three young children.  Attempting to balance all that life has to offer is a frequent topic of conversation when we get together.  This book tells the story of Ruth McBride, a Polish Jew born in 1921 who made her way to New York and at the age of 17 married a black minster and raised twelve children.  Needless to say, the woman is an inspiration when it comes to finding balance.  Once married, and essentially shunned by her family, Ms. McBride refused to acknowledge that she was white, choosing instead to pass as light-skinned.  She faced racism and poverty, but pushed for her children's education - and they all graduated from college, many going on to grad school.  She spoke rarely about her past, and this book is her son James's attempt to uncover more about his mother's life.  This is an interesting portrayal of the importance of race - Ms. McBride chose not to focus on it - to instead look at a person's character and contributions.  But, it's clear from the narrative that her mixed-race son faced difficulties growing up with respect to his racial identity.  Because his mother was unwilling (or unable) to discuss race, I felt like she did her son a disservice.  While so much of who we are is self-perception, when it comes to race, so much can be shaped by how others categorize and define us.  Without an open environment to discuss these difficult issues, my fear is that this is where anger, misunderstanding, and ultimately racism fester.  I think this would be a fantastic book for a book group - particularly one made up of teenagers.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Clara's Pick of the Week: Harold at the North Pole

Harold at the North Pole by Crockett Johnson:  Like many children, my kids are fans of Harold and the Purple Crayon.  I didn't realize until recently that there are more books in the series, including this one, which is obviously appropriate given the time of year.  In this adventure, Harold must find a Christmas Tree before Santa gets to his house on Christmas Eve.  Along the way, he encounters Santa and helps him load up his sleigh with gifts for children all around the world.  Given Clara's fascination with Rudolph, she particularly loves the pages where Harold draws the reindeer to guide the sleigh.  This morning, Clara insisted on bringing the book with her to school to share with all her friends.  Hopefully she will let go of it long enough for her teacher to actually read it to the class.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Halloween Straggler: Frankenstein's Cat

Frankenstein's Cat by Curtis Jobling: Ben suggested this book to me after he read it at school - we couldn't find it at the library, so I ordered it on-line and unfortunately it didn't arrive until after Halloween - but fortunately, the kids don't seem to care and it is has been in the daily rotation for the past couple weeks.  Frankenstein's Cat is kind of a sad little tale about a cat put together by Dr. Frankenstein, before he made the monster.  The cat is made, in part, from a smelly alley cat, which makes the cat smell.  As a result no one wants to be his friend, so he asks Dr. Frankenstein to make him a friend - with disastrous results.  The basic gist of the story makes me a little uncomfortable - everyone being mean to the cat because he smells.  But, the illustrations are colorful and the story a bit silly - so the kids seem really drawn to it, and haven't seemed to adopt the idea of teasing each other for smelling or anything like that, so I think I will give this a tentative thumbs-up endorsement.  At least for the Halloween fun, if not for any deeper moral reason.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Rainy Day Stories

"Rain rain go away, come again another day.  Little Alice wants to play..."  My girls have been singing this song all week - and though here in Northern California we absolutely do not want the rain to go away, I have enjoyed hearing their songs.  The rain has also been a good opportunity to read some books about rainy weather.

Last night, Ben and I read the beautifully illustrated Umbrella by Taro Yashima.  In Umbrella, three-year-old Momo receives her first umbrella.  She is so eager to use it that she invents reasons to take it out in sunny and windy weather.  But, he mom convinces her to save it for a rainy day.  When that day arrives, Momo is filled with music and happiness.  I enjoyed this blog post about the book which provides some background on the author's life and some of the illustrations from the book.

Other rainy day children's books we've enjoyed include:

What Can You Do in the Rain? by Anna Grossnickle Hines
Who Likes Rain? by Wong Herbert Yee
Who Likes the Rain? by Etta Kaner
Come on, Rain! by Karen Hesse
Rain Feet by Angela Johnson

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ben's Pick of the Week: Secret Agent Jack Stalwart

Recently Ben discovered the Secret Agent Jack Stalwart series by Elizabeth Singer Hunt at the library.  Jack Stalwart is a nine-year-old Secret Agent for the GPF.  His older brother, Max, went on a secret mission and has disappeared.  In Jack's quest to find Max, he finds himself transported to countries all over the world solving mysteries.  The series has been named a "must read" for boys by the British Education Secretary.

Currently, there are fourteen books in the series taking Jack everywhere from Nepal to the Arctic to France.  It does not seem that the books necessarily need to be read in order, and we started with The Pursuit of the Ivory Poachers which takes place in Kenya.  The plot of the book was pretty simple.  Jack arrives in Kenya and learns that someone is illegally poaching elephant tusks.  Eventually, he finds the culprit.  The excitement of the story lies in all the secret gadgets Jack has at his disposal to help him get out of trouble and outsmart the bad guys.  As this book was set in Kenya, it also had a lot about animals which Ben enjoyed - and it sparked a discussion about poaching and endangered animals (also started back when we read Danny the Champion of the World).

We've just started on The Search for the Sunken Treasure set in Australia (a country/continent Ben loves thanks to Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day).  In this one, Jack investigates the disappearance of a diver off the Great Barrier Reef.  Since we've been focused on maps and geography lately, these books have been an unintended supplement to our work, and Ben has enjoyed looking at the world map on his wall as we read through the books and talk about Jack's travels.

Ben went a little crazy checking out books this week, so we also have Japan, Cambodia, and Great Britain adventures to look forward to in the upcoming weeks.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Mixing Colors

My son has had a recent interest in mixing colors - while painting and drawing with crayons.  He likes to ask what happens when you mix certain colors or how to make other colors.  In an effort to help him better understand how this works, we've checked out a few books about color mixing.  Some of the ones we've enjoyed are:

Colors for Zena by Monica Wellington

Mix it Up by Herve Tullet

Monsters Love Colors by Mike Austin

Magic Colors by Patrick George

We've also done some work with the color wheel to help the kids gain a better visual of how the colors are all related to each other.  I'm also always on the look-out for children's books with vibrant colorful illustrations just so we can be exposed to different ways to use color.  Exploring color has been a fun uplifting exercise!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

I Spy Storytelling

My kids love books where the goal is to search for a given object.  Some of their favorites include:

I Spy
Can You See What I See?
Where's Waldo
Look & Find Disney Friends
I Spy Art Series, which includes:
     -  I Spy An Alphabet in Art
     -  I Spy Shapes in Art
     -  I Spy Colors in Art

Often, all the kids want to do is find the images they're looking for and then turn the page.  But sometimes, I can get them to linger on a page for long enough to start talking about what is going on in a given scene, what the people are doing, why the objects are there in a given way.  I particularly like the Can You See What I See? books for this because each page of the book follows a story along.  For example, in Toyland Express, the reader follows the train from creation in the toy shop, to the toy store, to the home of a child opening it in a brand new box, to abandoned in the attic, to refurbished and played with all over again.  Because these book tend not to have too many words (the I Spy books do usually incorporate a small rhyme), they are wide-open for children to use their imaginations to start learning how to tell a story.

Recently, our friends at Carrots are Orange and An Everyday Story introduced us to another set of books that are in this category:

Welcome to Mamoko
The World of Mamoko in the Year 3000
The World of Mamoko in the Time of Dragons

The Mamoko books are written by the same people who wrote another favorite I recently shared, Maps. They are wordless books intended to promote storytelling in children - at the front is a page with a number of characters that appear throughout the rest of the book.  Then, as you flip through the pages you can choose to look at the scene as a whole or follow a given character through the book.  While it is fun just to search for each character on a page, slowly my kids started to get the idea of telling the story of each character - including interesting funny backstories.  Here is an explanation by the authors of the books and explaining their thinking behind their creation:  We had so much fun getting know the world of Mamoko.  We can't wait for more to come!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ben's Pick of the Week: Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?

As we make our way through the month of giving thanks, we have been exploring a lot of Thanksgiving themed books.  When I brought home Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? by Dr. Seuss from the library, Ben immediately recognized it as a book they had from his class.  He thought the image of the man telling his story from atop a prickly cactus was hilarious.

This past week, we've read the book several dozen times, and I'm not quite sure what to make of it.  The gist is that we should all consider ourselves incredibly lucky because out there in the crazy world there are many many other people who are much more unfortunate than we are.  This is a tricky lesson.  On the one hand, I certainly agree that we should all count our blessings and be grateful for what we have.  But on the other hand, I'm not sure this should be simply because there are other people who have it worse than us.  And, I also think that even though there is probably always someone who does have it worse, we all have the right to be sad or feel unhappy about things once in awhile.   Grief and sadness aren't comparative emotions

That being said, Ben is three years old, so I don't think he needs a comprehensive analysis of the message.  He appreciates the basic idea - that we all have so much to be grateful for - and loves the illustrations and rhymes and silly made up words.  Which brings me to my next dilemma with Dr. Seuss.  I love Dr. Seuss.  I loved him so much as a child and have so many fond memories or working out his stories, falling in love with the characters, and simply treasuring his words.  But, one of the things I have been emphasizing with Ben is to "use his words" - to be clear about his emotions and needs.  One thing he does when he is shutting down is start making up words.  I see it as a screen - something to distract from his need to address his feelings.  So, we're working hard on finding ways to enjoy silly words - like many children, Ben has always had a fascination with language, repeating words, making rhymes- and I want him to continue this love of words.  But, not at the expense of learning to communicate with his real words.  A struggle that is a bit off point and not truly relevant to this book - but a reminder that we find our lessons and encounter our challenges in the oddest of places.  This won't stop me from bringing Dr. Seuss into our home, but it is a reminder for me to be more mindful of it when I do.

Free Choice?

When I make a trip to the library with my kids, I let them pick out a few books on their own, and then I pick out a few I think they might like (or some of my old favorites that I hope they might like).  It is easy to allow them to choose their own children's picture books because while some of those books might not be my favorite, in general they don't depict anything too offensive or objectionable.  Chapter books, however, are another story.  When Ben and I first started reading them together a few months ago, I made all the choices.  I have gravitated toward my favorite childhood authors like Roald Dahl and E. B. White.  A couple month ago, Ben chose a Flat Stanley book - I was excited to learn about Flat Stanley, and I appreciated Ben's participation in choosing what we would read in the evenings.

But then...a couple weeks ago at the library, Ben brought me two paperback chapter books that he wanted to check out:  Zeus and the Thunderbolt of Doom and The Dark Knight: Batman Undercover.  My first (unspoken) reaction was to suggest that he pick something else, that maybe these books had themes I did not particularly approve of.  But, when I looked at his excited face, I knew I could not go the route of teaching him that reading is awesome - as long as you let other people tell you what to read.  I want him to investigate and explore on his own, and to have the confidence that he can choose what he wants (of course, there is always a line with this, but I didn't think this was the line).  So, we borrowed the books.

And then we read them...and let me just say that these stories are (in my opinion) terrible.  But, Ben loved them.  I think he liked the excitement of reading something that he kind of knew he wasn't quite ready for.  The plot was a little complicated, but the villains we SO COOL.  And there was FIGHTING in the books.  Needless to say, the stories engendered a lot of discussion.

I still don't know if I'm going down the right path.  He learns a lot at school from the older kids about superheroes and weapon play and all that - I don't think the books are the biggest corrupting force in his life.  I also know that maybe I don't need to contribute to it by reading these books to him.  But for now, I'll keep slipping my choices in there and give him the freedom to choose the others.  I hope, in time, his interests will change, but his love of reading will stay with him.

Here are a few articles I've found on line on the topic:
Parents 'must let their children choose what to read'
Want your kids to read?  Let them choose their own books
How to Motivate Students By Letting Them Choose Books

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Ben's Pick of the Week: Maps

I have previously mentioned Ben's love of maps - he loves looking at where things are in relation to each other, seeing where people live, and what is going on in different places.  We recently discovered this awesome book - Maps by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinska.  Maps is an over-sized atlas with intricate illustrations of continents and countries.  Within each map is information about the landscape of the given place, along with historical and cultural information, as well as detail about the types of plants and animals that live there.

I left the book out on our coffee table for Ben to discover.  It is so huge, there was no way he could miss it.  He has enjoyed flipping through it on his own and studying the illustrations and then asking me various questions about which country he's look at, why there are certain things in the country, whether we have those things where we live, etc.  It has been fun conversation starter in that way.  He has also enjoyed just flipping through each page and trying to figure out if there is some sort of drawing of a car on the page (Italy, Germany, and Japan were the favorites in this category).  He has let me sit down with him and actually read some of the factual information, but right now I think the visual sensory overload is so great that he's enjoying just having the book to himself.

Ben is learning about Africa in school right now (Egypt is his favorite African country), as well as about volcanoes, so this book has been a great compliment to those lessons. There is also a page in the back with a picture of the flags from each country and he has liked flipping from the country page to the flag page to show me where they are the same.  I'm looking forward to more discoveries as we continue to explore this book in the coming weeks!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Pippi Longstocking - Astrid Lindgren

Ben and I recently finished reading Pippi Longstocking.  He enjoyed meeting this zany character, and I enjoyed re-living my love for this strong independent troublemaker.  Like most children's book heroes, Pippi doesn't have any parents - her mother died when she was a baby and her father has been lost at sea.  But, instead of being left in the care of evil aunts and uncles or shipped of to a wizarding school, Pippi just lives with her horse and her monkey and bankrolls her adventures using using gold coins from a treasure chest given to her by her father's ship crew.

For the most part, Pippi is a somewhat normal child - or what you would assume a child would be like if left to their own devices at such a young age.  She doesn't go to school, she eats pancakes for dinner, and she doesn't have any social graces.  But, the one super power that Pippi possesses is incredible physical strength.  This ability is never explained, but it does keep her from being taken advantage of by thieves and other n'er do wells.

The original Pippi Longstocking was published in 1945 in Sweden.  I don't know what other books were like back then, but this book is very different from what is commonly written now - namely that the story doesn't really teach any morals.  The whole basis is that there is this wild child who lives next door to two ostensibly properly raised siblings, Tommy and Annika.  They take breaks from their normal lives to have fun and go crazy, and then go home for supper.  No one learns any lessons, they just have fun.

Following the original book, Lindgren published two additional full-length books about Pippi: Pippi Goes Aboard and Pippi in the South Seas.  The are numerous other Pippi picture books, chapter excerpts, and of course a number of movies and animated shows to help you get your Pippi fix.  I highly recommend her for good-old fashioned fun.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Adult Fiction: Legal Thriller Round-Up

I'm a sucker for a good legal thriller.  I like detective stories and mysteries, books where the main characters are cops or lawyers, or where the book itself centers around a legal case.  Here are a few I've recently read:

Scott Turow is no stranger to the criminal justice system - not only is he an attorney, but he has written numerous well-researches fiction novels, and a could non-fiction evaluations of the death penalty.  I always find his writing entertaining, and this one was no exception.  Identical tells the story of identical twin brothers, Paul and Cass Giannis.  Cass has spent the past 25 years in prison for murdering his girlfriend, while Paul has established a successful political career.  Upon Cass's release from prison, the family of the victim launches a re-investigation into the murder in the hopes of implicating Paul in the crime and sabotaging his political aspirations.  What follows is, of course, a complex web of deception, twists, and turns - the hallmark traits of any Turow novel.

I better write the review of this John Grisham book before I get my hands on a copy of his most recent release, Gray Mountain, which came out earlier this week.  Sycamore Row is the sequel to the A Time to Kill and stars Jake Brigance who is dragged unwillingly into a wills and estates fight when he is named the executor of a wealthy man's will.  When the man commits suicide, Jake is left to work out the meaning of his second will, combat challenges to the will by the man's greedy children, and to figure out just why such a successful white man would have left all his money to his black hired help.  As far as Grisham's books go, this was pretty much par for the course.  A little slow (I mean, like The Testament, how interesting can you make a book that is about someone's will?) but generally delivered as all Grisham books do.  If you like Grisham, chances are, you'll be fine with this one.

I have read a lot of praise for Louise Erdrich over the years, but failed to ever read one of her novels.  I am so glad I started with  The Round House after I saw that it won the National Book Award back in 2012.  Set on a Native American reservation in North Dakota, The Round House begins with the brutal assault on young Joe's mother. When Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation, and the actions of his father, a tribal judge, he takes it upon himself to figure out what really happened to his mother.  In doing so, he becomes entrenched in the frustrations of justice, and life in between two worlds.  The writing in this book is simply exquisite.  I was absolutely enthralled by the story-telling, not just the plot itself but the careful language with which the story was told.  I am eager to read more of Erdich's novels very soon.

The best thing about loving Michael Connelly is that you never run out of books to read!  The Gods of Guilt is his most recent one in the Mickey Haller series (most popular for including The Lincoln Lawyer).  Haller is a successful but struggling defense attorney who discovers that one of his former clients has just been murdered.  In discovering that he may have been the one to put her life in danger, Haller works in his tireless fashion to uncover the truth behind her death.  This novel is standard Connelly - suspenseful, some good courtroom drama, some unnecessary drama in Haller's personal life, and generally entertaining.  I like having these sorts of books to consistently come back to - I always know what I'm going to get - not winning a Pulitzer anytime soon, but certainly never disappointing.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Adult Fiction: Benediction - Kent Haruf

I am a fan of Kent Haruf, having previously read his novels Plainsong, The Tie That Binds, and Where You Once Belonged.  His books are always quick reads about everyday working people in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.  This one focuses on a dying man and the lives of those in the community around him.  I think Haruf is best read in a single sitting on a lazy afternoon - treating his novels like a slightly long short story, engaging in the characters, and living life in the small town if only for awhile.  His stories remind me of simpler versions of Richard Russo's - but engender the same feelings of familiarity.  Great stories about the importance of friends and family in difficult times.  

Halloween Surprise by Corinne Demas

Halloween Surprise has been a reminder to me that you never know what books your kids will take to.  This month, I have been dropping in at the library with and without my kids a couple times a week.  Each time, I borrow a big stack of Halloween books, and return the ones that the kids didn't seem that in to (mostly because they are too scary!).  On my last trip, I picked this one up - it didn't seem remarkable in any way.

It is the story of a little girl who can't figure out what to be for Halloween.  She goes through a wide variety of costumes but each one is not quite right.  And then she finally settles on one, trick-or-treats at her own house, and gets some candy.  And, she does happen to have two kitty cats.

I don't find the artwork in this book particularly appealing - nothing wrong with it, it's just not my style.  But in a stack of twelve Halloween books, I probably would have ranked this one about number eleven or twelve if you had asked me which ones the kids would like.  And yet...Clara went right for it.  She has asked me to read it over and over the past couple days, and when I take a break to read a different book to another one of the kids, she takes this book with her and reads it to herself.  I'm not sure if it's the different costumes or the kitty cats, but Halloween Surprise is a huge hit in our house.

Like I said, a good reminder to let your kids pick out the books they want from the library, or just borrow a ton and see what strikes them!  Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Musician of the Month: Billie Holiday

The Musician of the Month at the kids' school for October is Billie Holiday - the American jazz singer, songwriter, and actress.  I am not a huge jazz fan, but I am definitely a fan of any strong amazing woman who overcomes brutal adversity to become one of the most iconic figures in our history.  So, this has been a great opportunity for me to learn, along with my kids, about Lady Day, her music, and her legacy.

Billie Holiday lived a tough life of abuse and addiction, and perhaps for that reason, there don't seem to be a lot of children's books out there about her.  But we did find one called Mister and Lady Day: Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her which tells the story of her career alongside her best dog friend, Mister.  My son was very excited to have the opportunity to share this book with the rest of his class.

For children who are a little older and able to understand and discuss the more difficult issues of The Great Migration, I recommend God Bless the Child.  The lyrics from a Holiday song of the same title make up the text of the book.

The rest of our efforts to get to know Billie Holiday, of course, consist of listening to her music.  YouTube is always great for that.  We played this in the background this evening while working on our Billie Holiday coloring sheet.  We also found some wonderful old footage of Holiday on stage, but after reading the above children's book, my girls just kept asking to see her dog!

For the adult set, you can also watch a BBC documentary about her incredibly accomplished (but also painfully tragic) life: The Billie Holiday Story and listen to more from her in this NPR piece about her ability to convey emotion through her singing.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Our Latest Favorite: Bears on Chairs

With Thanksgiving coming up, I have been on the hunt, not just for books specifically about Thanksgiving, but for books about gratitude and giving.  For small children, I've found that many of these focus on the concept of sharing.  So, I've recently checked out a few just to see if any resonated with me, or presented the idea of sharing in a way that I thought might actually encourage my children to share - with each other and with others.  I'm not sure this book, Bears on Chairs by Shirley Parenteau, does the trick, but all three of my kids LOVED it from the very beginning and we have been reading it upwards of ten times a day since we borrowed it last week.  I think they like the colors and the cute illustrations of the bears (and it introduced them to a new descriptive word: calico).

The basic story is that there are four little bears and they each have a chair, so they don't have to share.  Then along comes a big bear.  There is no chair for him, and it doesn't work when he tries to share one chair with one other small bear.  In the end, they need to push all four chairs together and that makes enough room for all five bears to sit comfortably.

I did notice last night that my kids were eager to all sit together on the same couch - something that doesn't often happen.  Even though the couch is clearly big enough for all three, there is always some disagreement about who gets more space, who can't fit, etc.  So, while they are learning only the most concrete lesson from Bears on Chairs right now, perhaps in the future we can expand it to other things.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Getting Ready for Halloween!

There is no shortage of wonderful Halloween books to read this month.  Our local library has a special shelf dedicated to Halloween books (they rotate the books for each season/holiday) - so I've taken to borrowing a big stack a couple times a week to look through more carefully at home - and to keep and return as needed.  We've been rotating through quite a few since the beginning of the month!

Our Halloween-themed reading basket
Most of your favorite characters are bound to have a Halloween book about them.  Some of our favorites include:
Maisy's Halloween - Lucy Cousins
Clifford's First Halloween - Normal Bridwell
Fancy Nancy: Halloween or Bust - Jane O'Connor
Duck and Goose Find a Pumpkin - Tad Hills

And after these characters introduced us to Halloween, here are a few of the not-so-scary books we've been reading:
Where's My Mummy - Carolyn Crimi
Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson (thanks to my sister-in-law for the recommendation!)
I Spy Spooky Night - Jean Marzollo (we LOVE all the I Spy books!)
Can You See What I See: On a Scary Scary Night - Walter Wick
Monster Needs a Costume - Paul Czajak
10 Trick-or-Treaters - Janet Schulman

And a few just about pumpkins and the autumn season:
How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin - Margaret McNamara
Apples and Pumpkins - Anne Rockwell
Fletcher and the Falling Leaves - Julia Rawlinson

For kids who are a little older (maybe in the 5-8 range), my favorite series growing up was Dorrie the Little Witch by Patricia Coombs.  These books are not all about Halloween, she just happens to be a witch.  But, she does have a Halloween installment:  Dorrie and the Halloween Plot.  For young teens, I recommend: Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, and Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories.  And for adults who want to get into the creepy Halloween spirit, check out: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield,  Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice, and of course anything by Edgar Allan Poe.

With costumes and candy, there isn't much for my kids not to love about Halloween, and with all the reading inspiration, I almost wish it could last all year!!  Happy Reading!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Back to the Basics: ABCs

What kid doesn't like singing and learning about their ABCs?   There seem to be an endless number of books out there that focus on the alphabet - from the basic to the truly entertaining.  Below are a few of our family favorites.

A is for Activitst - we recently received this book as a gift from our politically active friends at Homeless Action Center in Berkeley.  Each letter is accompanied by social commentary on standing up for the rights of the oppressed.  The very important messages also include a touch of good humor.  I really enjoyed going through this one and look forward to making it a staple in our household for empowering and brainwashing my children!

My Foodie ABC - This one was a gift from a couple of our friends in San Francisco.  It has introduced the kids to foods like quinoa and concepts like a locavore.  Not sure how serious this author is, but at a time when poking fun at foodies and hipsters is all the rage, this is a perfect ABC book to add to any collection.

A few of our other favorites include:

A to Z Picture Book by Gyo Fujikawa
The Z Was Zapped by Chris Van Allsburg
Dr. Seuss's ABCs: An Amazing Alphabet Book!
Curious George's ABCs - H.A. Rey
ABC Transport Friends

Happy Reading!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Our Latest Favorite: The Most Magnificent Thing!

Whenever I go to the library, I let my kids pick out a few books of their own, and then I rummage through the childrens' shelves and bring home a stack to try out.  We then go through each one a home - some stories just don't make sense (and make me think, why don't I get it together and write a children's book?!?), others are fun and we read a couple times, and then once in awhile we hit on a book that one of the kids just takes to right away - and that book becomes the favorite, carried around from room to room, and taken to bed because they just can't bear to let go of it for a minute.  For the past couple weeks, Alice has been in love with The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires.

In The Most Magnificent Thing, a little girl (accompanied by her adorable dog) is determined to build the MOST magnificent thing.  She has all the plans in her head and knows exactly what she is going to build.  She runs around town collecting everything she needs, and then she builds it.  But it's not quite magnificent.  So she builds it again.  And again.  And again.  Until she gets so frustrated that she gives up.  Then her dog takes her for a walk, and the time away gives her a fresh perspective on her creations, and she is able to see that while each one is not quite what she wanted, each one has a great useful part or idea that she can use toward the next really truly magnificent thing she builds.  I love this book for the lessons about creativity, perseverance, and big ideas.  I also love the detailed language about all the tinkering and building that the little girl does.

Alice, of course, loves the expressions of the dog, and the wagon filled with junk that the girl carts around everywhere.  But, I think she is slowly starting to get the idea of tinkering and building and that "things" can be put together and made into creations.  It's been fun to watch her mind working as she "reads" the book to herself (she won't let me read the story to her anymore) and explains what the girls is doing and how she is trying again and again.  It is a wonderfully empowering story with inspiring illustrations.

Along the same lines of girls who build, we have also been enjoying the ubiquitous Rosie Revere, Engineer and Violet the Pilot.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Adult Fiction Round-up

In trying to keep up with blog posts about the books I'm reading with my kids, I've been neglecting update about the books I read on my own - perhaps because there hasn't been anything too exciting to write about lately. Here are a few I've read relatively recently:

The Three Day Affair - Michael Kardos:  Jake passed this one off to me after getting the recommendation, I believe, from Esquire magazine (which has actually been pretty good on he recommendation front, I have to admit).  It's a mystery of sorts about three old friends from Princeton who come together for a boys' weekend.  A stop at a convenience store goes wrong when one of the guy holds up the store and kidnaps the clerk. What follows is the three-day affair during which the friends quarrel over how to deal with the incident, and evaluate and re-evaluate their friendships.  A quick interesting read - I definitely wanted to see how this would turn out, what secrets of the past would reveal about the motivations of each character, and how split decisions perhaps done without thinking can often have such crucial impact on the rest of our lives.

The Interestings - Meg WolitzerThis book seems to have been the book club book of choice over the past year - and for good reason.  It is well written and filled with characters who each make choices that can be guessed and second-guessed throughout the novel.  The book follows six friends who met at summer camp.  As the years pass, they experience varying degrees of success, fall in and out of love with each other, and explore what it means to be in friendships and relationships with each other and with those outside of their magical circle.  While I found this book "interesting" on many levels, I have described it to other people as "basically about white people with middle class problems"  The characters reminded me of people out of a Jonathan Franzen novel, or that movie "American Beauty."  I found myself irritated by their malaise, but still compelled to find out more about them.

 We are Water - Wally Lamb:  This book was a huge disappointment.  I have truly loved Lamb's previous novels, She's Come Undone, I Know This Much is True, and The Hour I First Believed.  I appreciate Lamb's willingness to take on female characters and write them realistically.  So, I had high hopes for this one - about an artist and mother who leaves her husband after nearly thirty years of marriage to explore a relationship with another woman.  The topic is ripe for all kinds of twists and turns, and Lamb goes down many roads, but ultimately, it all fell flat.  Perhaps because there was just too much going on.  I found the characters two-dimensional and their dialogue boring and unrealistic.  I didn't care where the story was going, and all the skeletons in the closet just seemed stereotypical.  Nothing inspired about this book.  I hope Lamb will take some time off and return to the well-written and engaging novels for which he has come to be known and loved.

Adventures with Flat Stanley

I first learned of Flat Stanley when my friend, Ashley, posted photos of herself in Whistler with her friend's niece's little paper Flat Stanley along side her.  I was immediately smitten with the little guy, and quickly learned via Wikipedia that Flat Stanley is a character from a book who is flattened one day by his bulletin board.  In his new flattened state he finds he is capable of all kinds of things, including traveling all over the world just by slipping himself into an envelope.

In 1995, a teacher started The Flat Stanley Project.  As part of the project, kids read the book, create their own paper Flat Stanleys, and keep a journal of his travels.  They then can send the journal to children in other states or countries and learn more about other places and cultures.  Shortly after learning about Flat Stanley from Ashley, I came across this moving article about one of Flat Stanley's adventures.

A couple months ago, Ben and I were talking about the idea of "fame," how people become famous, and what it means to be famous.  After I tried to provide a definition of famous, he said, "Oh, kind of like Flat Stanley?"  Apparently, his teacher had introduced him to Flat Stanley, and he seemed to like the idea but didn't say much more about it.  Then this past week we were at the library and as we walked past a tower of paperbacks, he exclaimed, "Ooohhhh....I LOVE this book!!  Let's get this book!"  And lo and behold, it was Flat Stanley.  So, we borrowed it and I really enjoyed reading the story with Ben and learning all about Flat Stanley and his shenanigans.

Jeff Brown, the original author of Flat Stanley also wrote several other books in the series:
  • Stanley and the Magic Lamp (1983)
  • Stanley In Space (1985)
  • Stanley's Christmas Adventure (1993)
  • Invisible Stanley (1995)
  • Stanley, Flat Again! (2003)
Following Brown's death, several other authors took over and have published additional books featuring Stanley, including:
  • The Mount Rushmore Calamity (2009) - author Sara Pennypacker
  • The Great Egyptian Grave Robbery (2009) - author Sara Pennypacker
  • The Japanese Ninja Surprise (2009) - author Sara Pennypacker
  • The Intrepid Canadian Expedition (2010) - author Sara Pennypacker
  • The Amazing Mexican Secret (2010) - author Josh Greenhut
  • The African Safari Discovery (2011) - author Josh Greenhut
  • The Flying Chinese Wonders (2011) - author Josh Greenhut
  • The Australian Boomerang Bonanza (2011) - author Josh Greenhut
  • The US Capital Commotion (2011) - author Josh Greenhut
  • Showdown at the Alamo (2014) - author Josh Greenhut
  • Framed in France (2014) - TBA
  • Escape to California (2014) - TBA

I love finding a new series and can't wait to follow Stanley on his adventures around the world!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Introducing the Yellow Brick Road

Ben and I have continued to read chapter books at bedtime.  During the day we stick to regular children's picture books - he still prefers ones about cars, planes, and trains - and I think it's important for him to have the simpler shorter stories, and to sort-of follow along as I'm reading (though I have started reading "I Can Read" books to him - more on that in another post!).  But at night we have really enjoyed our foray into chapter books.  We usually read for about twenty minutes - what we are able to get through definitely varies.  I spend about a minute each night recapping where we are in the story, asking him if he remembers what the characters are doing, and what he thinks might happen next.  Then we dive in.  Some nights he just listens to the story.  Other nights he asks A LOT of questions.  Sometimes the questions make me wonder if he is comprehending anything about the story, and other times he makes it quite clear that he has been thinking about what the characters are doing.  On some really great nights he will make a comment like, "Hey, mom, that's just like in that other book we read, remember?" and we'll have a good conversation about actual themes and ideas in the book.

Right now we are reading L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Ben has a recent fascination with natural disasters, so the fact that the book starts out with a cyclone hooked him right away. For the most part, the story has been really easy for Ben to follow, and he has been assisted by the pictures in the illustrated version that we borrowed from the library.

In about the fifth/sixth grade I spent a couple months reading through all fourteen books in the Oz Series.  But, I have to admit that most of my recollections about the story come from the movie.  I remember it being pretty scary, so I have been happy so far to see that the book itself is relatively tame.  While we probably won't read all the books in the series one after another, I think it will be fun to have so many books about a familiar land to turn to whenever we want something new.

Ben also really likes maps.  Not just regular maps where we look at countries or states - he likes those, but he seems to really enjoy maps that look like they are hand-drawn, and have detail about where certain characters live, and that we can look at periodically to see where the characters are at a certain point in the story.  The Land of Oz is perfect for this - the book we have does not include a map, but I found this on-line and Ben likes to refer to it at the beginning of each new chapter.

What I also love about introducing Ben to The Wizard of Oz is that I feel like references to the book are EVERYWHERE.  He is certain to see a few Dorothys at Halloween.  One year, we had the most adorable girl come to our door dressed as Dorothy.  Her little brother was the Lion, her dad the Tin Man, and her mother a Scarecrow.  And after she took her candy, she opened her little wicker basket and her real-life tiny black terrier - actually named Toto - popped his head out!

Of course by now most people have seen the musical Wicked (if not, please go if you can, it is so absolutely wonderful!!), but I am also a huge fan of the book it was based on (Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire), as well as the sequels, Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men, and Out of Oz.

If you're looking for some chapter book inspiration, I came across this list of 101 Best Chapter Books last night.  There are some oldies but goodies on here, as well as some I've never heard of but am excited to check out!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Two for Two: My Latest Book Recommendation

Given that my time to read has decreased significantly in the past 3.5 years (since the birth of my first child), I am a bit more particular about the books that I pick up these days.  While I like to try new authors, I admit that most of the books I read tend to be books by authors I already know I have liked in the past.  That being said, there are some first novels that I have loved so much that I hesitate for a bit before delving into the second - for fear that it will not be as good and that I will have my love of the author tarnished forever.  It is the reason that I have always been secretly grateful that Harper Lee never followed To Kill a Mockingbird up with anything - it may have just been too much of a disappointment.

This is why I was conflicted when I found out that Jamie Ford had recently published a new novel (well, not that recently, it came out last September, but I'm a bit behind the times these days!).  His first novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, was absolutely wonderful on every level.  I simply loved it.  And then a couple weeks ago, my mother pointed out to me that he had a new one (this irked me for reasons my blog post on the first reveals).  So, after hemming and hawing a bit, I picked up a copy of Songs of Willow Frost.  Let's just say, I was not disappointed.

Songs of Willow Frost takes place in Seattle and tells the story of 12-year-old William Eng, who has lived at the Sacred Heart Orphanage since his mother was taken away from him five years earlier.  He becomes convinced that an actress he spies on-screen, Willow Frost, is his mother and is determined to track her down and learn the truth about why she abandoned him.

This book is incredibly heartbreaking on so many level.  The narrative switches back and forth between Willow's tragic story, and that of the the children in the orphanage left behind during the Great Depression.  While I was eager to keep reading to find out what happened plot-wise, I was also filled with a sense of dread knowing that there was likely something even more terrible with each turn of the page.  Given this, however, I did not find much about the story exaggerated, just depressing in its reality.  Because I have an often depressing job, I do find that I don't want to spend my time wallowing in tragic stores.  But, I have a soft spot for novels about families, particularly Asian families.  I also love Ford's straight-forward story-telling approach.  Even going between time periods, everything was easy to follow - he just tells a good story without any unnecessary bells and whistles.  It's been awhile since I almost missed my train stop because I was too engrossed in my book, or stayed up far past my bedtime because I wanted to read just one more chapter.  

So, all this to say that though I usually reserve my list of "favorite authors" for those who have written at least four or five novels, I think I may have to add Jamie Ford to the list.  I truly cannot wait for his next one.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Celebrating Diwali

I love holidays.  I celebrate National Days whenever I can.  I prolong birthday celebrations.  If it involves food, music, lights, and festive decorations, I love it.  So, we're getting into a really great time of year for me - where not only are there a lot of holidays that I grew up celebrating (Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas), but there are so many others to learn about from friends and classmates who come from different countries, cultures, and religions.

One of the best holidays I've learned about in recent years is Diwali, the Festival of Lights.  Diwali is a five-day Hindu, Jain, and Sikh festival celebrated every autumn, with the main celebration on the third day.  This year, Diwali begins on October 23.  I am so grateful to my friend, Nisha, who introduced me to Diwali, which she celebrates as part of her Jain faith.  In the Jain tradition, Diwali marks the day Lord Mahariva attained Nirvana.

Diwali celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil.  One of the most popular stories of the history of Diwali is the Ramayana.  Anyone who has traveled in Southeast Asia is probably very familiar with the the Ramayana.  I have wonderful memories of traveling throughout Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos and seeing the story of Ramayana painted on temple walls.  

According to the Ramayana, Rama, the prince of Ayodhya was ordered by his father, King Dasharatha, to go away from his country and come back after living in the forest for fourteen years. So Rama went on exile with his devoted wife Sita and faithful brother, Lakshmana. When Ravana, the demon king of Lanka abducted Sita and took her away to his island kingdom of Lanka, Rama fought against and killed Ravana. He rescued Sita and returned to Ayodhya after fourteen years. The people of Ayodhya were very happy to hear of their beloved prince's homecoming. To celebrate Rama's return to Ayodhya, they lit up their houses with earthen lamps (diyas), burst crackers and decorated the entire city in the grandest manner.

This year, Ben's school is celebrating Diwali for the first time (early on October 7 - which is great because that means we can celebrate it again on the 23rd!), and I have signed up to help out in his class while we read books, do art projects, and cook food for the celebration.  In preparation, we borrowed a few books out from the library so I can start introducing my kids to the holiday.  I found a couple nice books for providing factual background about Diwali:
But what I really wanted was a fiction storybook depicting a family celebrating Diwali.  We came across a couple:
Another book I came across while searching for Diwali resources was one by Priddy Books (a publisher that our family really enjoys) called Bright Baby Touch and Feel Diwali.  I love the colors and images in the Priddy books and this one would be perfect for an infant. 

In closing, I'd like to leave everyone with this festive tribute to Diwali by Michael Scott from The Office.  However you choose to celebrate through the rest of the year, I hope everyone's days and nights are filled with great food, laughter, and light.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

One Hundred Board

Last night Ben told me for the first time about something called a One Hundred Board that some of the kids at his school work with during Montessori time.  I had never heard of it before, so we looked it up on-line.  Ben explained to me that it helps people learn how to count to one hundred, but he had never used it because "I don't know how to count that high".  He was very excited about the idea of the board, but clearly concerned that he might not be ready for it or know how to use it correctly.  So this morning we made a simple one hundred board.

We used an old cardboard box for our board.  We then measured out squares for the numbers on construction paper.  I had Ben count along with me as I wrote in the numbers on each square.  With a little help, he surprised himself by realizing that counting to 100 wasn't going to be as monumental a task as he'd originally believed.  He then helped cut out the individual numbers which was good scissors practice for him (and a reminder to me that he needs a little more practice in that area).

And that's all we needed.  We then played around with the board and the numbers.  The first time, I placed all the multiples of 10 on the board for him (10, 20, 30, 40, etc) so he would have some reference points for filling in the rest.  I then gave him nine numbers at a time (1-9; 11-19; 21-29) so he would not get overwhelmed and could just concentrate on filling in one line at a time.  After doing that once, we played around a bit with filling in multiples of 5.  As we placed numbers on the board, he (and I) started to see some useful patterns.  Even though he felt like he didn't know the names of all the numbers, he could start to tell what the next number should "look" like. 

I can see a lot of value to the number board for teaching simple addition and subtraction, and it reminds me of a more complicated square I used for learning my multiplication tables.  I feel like many of us are used to learning numbers by listening to them and then counting out loud or counting physical items.  Having this visual reference of the numbers themselves was really fascinating to me. There are a number of videos on-line showing people using the One Hundred Table (and Ben tells me there is a Two Hundred Table and a Five Hundred Table), but I'm curious to hear if others use this board and how they have found it useful with their children - and any fun games you may do with it.  It feels like a really simple but powerful tool.

Now that he has seen a little bit of how it works, Ben is looking forward to trying out the "real thing" at school.  We'll see what he comes home to teach me this week!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Legos & Castles: Encouraging Creative Building

It's no secret that my husband is a chronic home remodeler.  He comes from a family of contractors, construction workers, painters, and building creators of all kinds.  He loves This Old House magazine and HGTV would be on in our house 24/7 if the kids didn't demand that we watch Frozen or Despicable Me every once in awhile.  He is always fixing something or thinking of a better way to design or build something.  Looking at the world in this creative problem-solving way is fascinating to watch, and I constantly find myself wondering what I can do to encourage this quality in our children (hopefully genetics will play some role, as well as the constant exposure).

Ankgor Wat, Cambodia
Like most children, my kids all love playing with legos.  Given their ages, we are still in the Duplo phase - which I appreciate since the pieces are big enough not to get lost everywhere and clean up isn't too difficult.  I invested in a couple baseplates to give them more a more sturdy foundation for their houses, garages, castles, and bridges.  I have also been steadily introducing them to various famous landmarks around the world - so far the Golden Gate Bridge (post specifically on bridges to come!) and the Sphinx have made the most lasting impressions - in the hopes that they will come to appreciate great architecture and perhaps find some inspiration for their own building.  I have shared various travel photos in front of famous landmarks also in the hope that this will inspire a love of travel.

And then I looked into some books about building just to give them some context for the creations they've been making.  A couple of the ones we explored include:

Alice has also recently become obsessed with castles.  Her initial inspiration was the Disney castle she first saw on-screen before one of her favorite movies, Wreck-It Ralph.  She then discovered that the same castle was on the cover of a book she received as part of a set last year for her birthday.  She carried one of the books from the set around with her everywhere on our recent trip to England and slept with it every night, referring to it as her "Castle Wreck-It Ralph book".  

So while I'm not eager for her to get too obsessed with princesses, I am perfectly fine with a castle obsession.  To promote this, I borrowed the following books for her:
  • Castle by David Macaulay (he has a whole series of super cool building books)
  • Castle by Christopher Gravett
We also stumbled upon a fun little castle for her to put together at The East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse - a fabulous store near us filled with all kinds of treasures for all kinds of projects.  Building materials are all around us - from mud and sticks for outdoor villages to sand for sandcastles to pillows and blankets for forts, and everything in between.  Between all this and my husband's encouragement, I hope to have all my kids working on constructing a personal private retreat for yours truly very soon!  


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Santa vs. The Penguins

We have an on-going interest in our house in the North and South Poles.  Ben likes to look at maps and ask about where Santa lives and whether it is colder or warmer than where the penguins live.  So, I decided to get us a bit more focused on learning about what's going on at the ends of the Earth.

Firth, we revisited one of our favorite children's books, The Polar Express - which, of course, doesn't tell us too much about the North Pole, but introduces it as a wonderfully cold and magical place where Santa lives.  For our weekly chapter book, I picked one about the South Pole, Mr. Popper's Penguins - a fun little book about a man who is fascinated with explorations to the South Pole and finds himself with a house-full of penguins.  Both these books have been turned into movies (starring Tom Hanks  and Jim Carrey, respectively).  I haven't seen either of them, but look forward to seeing them, along with Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two (featuring the voice of Robin Williams), when the weather gets a bit colder.  I also wonder if the kids would enjoy one of my favorites, March of the Penguins.

We've also explored a few children's books about Inuit culture, as well as others about animal migration, and a few random fun ones just set in the North or South poles.  They include:
For more scientific information, we visited the non-fiction section of the library and checked out the Eyewitness book, Arctic and Antarctic where we learned more about the differences between the two poles and a great deal about the animals that live there.  We also learned about how climate change is affecting the polar ice caps.  North Pole, South Pole is also filled with fun and easily accessible factual information.

The muskox is one of the few mammals to live in the Arctic year-round
 I anticipate that as winter and Christmas approach that we will revisit many of these books, and a great deal more.  There are also so many fun holiday crafts that incorporate ice and penguins, so while I'm enjoying the last of the summer weather, there is certainly lots to look forward to in the coming months!