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!