Friday, September 19, 2014

friday's five

It's time to jump back into the world of picture books, because we're quickly approaching that time of year again... get ready to NOMINAAAAAAATE!

Yup, we're talking about the Cybils Awards, and the nomination period begins on October 1st, so it's time to start thinking. What book do you want to make sure the judges see? The categories are broad across children's and YA literature, but you've got to know that there's one that's always dearest to my heart, right? I'm grateful to have been chosen to be a part of the Fiction Picture book judging team. This time around, I'll be working during Round Two with four other judges to select a winner from the short list of finalists provided by the Round One team. This means that I won't be storing hundreds of books in my dining room as in previous years, but I'll still try to at least take a look at as many of them as possible, even if I don't need to keep a pile of 200 books under my side table!

In the spirit of picture book love and pre-Cybils excitement, I'm happy to share five books that I've recently enjoyed sharing with my own children and my babysitting kids. As always, a big shout out to our public library, which provides the lion's share of our exposure to new books!

1. Found by Salina Yoon -- Pudge read this one to me the other night, and before we even got to the story, we were both enamored with the inside cover! I briefly explained the concept of a flyer with the snipped tabs at the bottom, and then we had fun with the plethora of puns and silly flyers on the pages. Then we spotted our favorite-- a shout-out to Jon Klassen's I Want My Hat Back. Brilliant! The story itself is tender, and my six-year-old was happy to discover that he made several correct predictions as we read it, making me proud that he was able to think in the kind ways that the characters do, as well. I'm highly recommending this one for the whole range of pic book readers- from the young toddlers to the early elementary kids, this is a hit.

2. Why Are You Doing That? by Elisa Amado and illustrated by Manuel Monroy -- This small-sized picture book caught my eye on the library shelf because of its size, and then the title immediately reminded me of the toddlers with whom I spend my days. As I read through it on my own, I was happy to see that the universal theme of curious, constant-question-asking children was presented in more-diverse-than-usual manner for picture books. Little Chepito lives in a rural community that appears to grow the majority of their own food, and as he roams around his neighborhood, he interacts with several other members doing their part in contributing to the shared food supply. A handful of Spanish words are used, which are easy to figure out in context even if you have no previous experience with the language. I'm going to have to look for this duo's first book now!

3. Books Always Everywhere by Jane Blatt and illustrated by Sarah Massini -- Looking for a larger-sized picture book to share with your youngest babies and toddlers? How about celebrating the joy of books at the same time? This one will do the trick. With only a few words on each page, this book is filled with engaging illustrations and tons of smiling babies loving on books. I haven't read this one with young friends, but I have a feeling it's going to be a hit with a few of them.

4. Where's Mommy? by Beverly Donofrio and illustrated by Barbara McClintock -- Though my eight-year-old daughter has pretty much stopped reading picture books on her own anymore, I picked this one from the library because I think that she'd especially appreciate the parallel story lines going on between the young girl and the little mouse. As they both look for their mothers, their friendship is described in the text, and the ending brought a smile to my face. It's sweet and entertaining, and McClintock's illustrations are always gently beautiful.

5. Tyrannosaurus Wrecks! by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and illustrated by Zachariah Ohora -- This one was a delight to the two- and four-year-old crowd I had today! Though I'm not sure they understood the word play going on with the title, which is a repeated chorus throughout the book, they did get the messages about appropriate behavior and how to be a good friend. The messages aren't shoved down kids' throats, but the book does make for a great discussion starter about how to behave, especially in a classroom setting. If I was still teaching preschool, this one would most definitely be on my bookshelf.

As we near the start of the nomination period for the Cybils Awards, I'll be continuing to feature new(ish) picture books that have been a hit with the kids I know. All in prep for the hard work ahead for those Round One judges as they have to sort through 200+ picture books to find the brightest shining gems! Start thinking now of the books that wowed you this past year, and come back next week for another round from me.

Happy reading,

Monday, September 15, 2014

it might be simply pink vs. blue here, but it means so much more elsewhere

The night I found out I was pregnant for the first time was an emotional one, filled with tears, fear, excitement, and even more fear. I had recently turned 24, and my husband and I had been married for a year and a half, living in a not-so-spacious third floor "one bedroom + den" apartment. Still an undergraduate student with six months to go until graduation, my husband was doing an exhausting daily grind of classes, student teaching, and working in the evenings, while I worked full-time on the same campus. A baby? Now? Well, apparently so. After the initial shock, we were most definitely excited, even amid our surprise, but I had a whole lot of questions swirling around in my head. How could we make this work? Would we have to move? How would we afford this new stage in life? Where would we find child care? Were we ready for this yet?

But not even once did I ask the question, "What will I do if this baby is a girl?"

Sure, I wondered about the gender, but that curiosity stemmed from my imaginings of what life would be like way in the future. Would this baby grow to be a bride someday, or give birth to my future grandchildren many, many years from now? Would this baby be an awkward teen boy in coming years, towering over me as he speaks from under the beginnings of a mustache? The differences I imagined had less to do with childhood experiences, but more about the adult the baby would someday become. The growing stacks of pre-washed and delicately folded baby clothes had more yellow and green hues than any other colors, so it wasn't about stocking up on the seemingly required pink or blue. Even at that early stage in my career, I had worked with enough groups of young children to know that kids of both genders love to be silly, get dirty, explore, play, and be wild. "Boys will be boys," had just about the same meaning to me as the lesser-said, "Girls will be girls." I'm more of an "All kids can be really freaking wacky" kind of person.

Even as I intended to provide a universal experience for my not-yet-born child, thinking of all the constructive, open-ended, non-gender based toys I would stock up on, planning to place the baby dolls right next to the trucks on the shelf, I still longed to know my baby's gender before birth. I went in for that mid-pregnancy ultrasound fully expecting to know by the time we walked out of the building. As with my two subsequent pregnancies, my main motivation was so that I could start calling the unborn child a name. Yes, I talked to the baby in utero. I was that person. And I wanted to call the baby his or her intended name. While I had wickedly vivid dreams each time that revolved around gender announcements, I really wanted the visual proof that an ultrasound would provide.

Alas, it was not meant to be at that time. As we've come to know so well, our firstborn's stubbornness was there from the very beginning. Baby would not move those legs to let anyone get a look, so we left with no clearer answer than before. Other than my sadness of not yet being able to decide upon a name, my thoughts of the future and what this baby would bring to our family were no different than before. Boy or girl, our life would simply begin anew as we fell into the roles of first-time parents.


I've spent the last two weeks wholly immersed in the nonfiction wonder from investigative journalist Jenny Nordberg, The Underground Girls of Kabul, to be published tomorrow, September 16, 2014. With each story of the consequences of being born female in Afghanistan, my heart broke again and again. I thought of how much I took for granted- for both myself as the parent and for each of my unborn children- as I wondered about their gender during pregnancy. My curiosity and my desire to be able to assign them a name seem so ridiculous compared to the weight carried by women in so many parts of the world, as they wait to see if they have produced the right kind of child, the kind who will bring the family pride and not shame, the kind who will boost her status to the highest level wife of her husband, the kind who will have freedoms known only to his kind. A boy, of course.

A few-hours-old JAM and his still-stunned parents

Though not planned, the suspicion of a slight complication warranted me a second ultrasound during my first pregnancy. About two months after that first time under the wand, soon-to-be-named JAM decided to make his gender apparent, and we walked out of the medical complex with the understanding that we would soon be the parents to a baby boy. We celebrated, but not because of the power he would soon assume in our family, but because we were excited to know just a little more about the child who would be the first person to ever call us Mommy and Daddy.

This post was inspired by The Underground Girls of Kabul by journalist Jenny Nordberg, who discovers a secret Afghani practice where girls are dressed and raised as boys. Join From Left to Write on September 16th as we discuss The Underground Girls of Kabul. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is fascinating and heart-wrenching, and it needs to be read. The testimonies provided by each incredibly brave woman in these pages deserves to be heard. You can also follow Jenny Nordberg via her websiteTwitter, and Facebook.

Reiterating that you must read this book,

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

the inaugural "I loved them when I was your age" film festival

Our guinea pig child, aka the firstborn, turned fourteen this summer, and often when I look at him, I can't help but think back to my own early teenage years. At his age, I can vividly remember loving to watch any movies or TV shows that made me laugh. (As a result, my parents sat and watched In Living Color with me every Sunday night, even if it wasn't exactly their favorite. To this day, though, I can still get a smile out of them with my Fire Marshall Bill impression.) So many tapes were popped into the VCR for 90 minutes of stupid humor, and we laughed and laughed at them all.

I got a bit nostalgic earlier this year thinking about how many of those old screwball comedies I used to love and how few the teen has actually seen. Last summer, he watched Spaceballs, and it was like a whole new world opened up to him. He refrains from dropping his favorite line from that in its entirety in his younger siblings' presence, but "We ain't found shit!" is still pretty funny even when the last word is just mouthed.

In this vein, and partially inspired by a post I saw on Facebook- The 55 Essential Movies Kids Must Experience (Before They Turn 13), I decided to start my own list. Some were culled from that giant list (though I was proud to see that he had, in fact, already seen many of them), and others were thought of at random times. While doing dishes, I'd bust out with a movie title and have to quickly wipe my hands off so I could add it to the growing note on my laptop. I tried to think back to the movies that made me laugh, but I also ended up throwing some on the list that were more serious, too. At the heart of it, though, I really just wanted something special I could share with him. We have way more time together than ever before as a result of our homeschooling, but being both parent and teacher means I need other ways for us to connect that don't involve me giving him directions.

Though I originally planned it as a summer movie fest of sorts, I quickly realized that this would be an ongoing process, because there are simply too many old movies to watch to fit into just one season. In addition, we ended up throwing some other movies in there that were timely to what JAM was reading this summer, and ones that were helpfully provided by our city recreation department's outdoor movie series. It seems that for every movie we've watched, I've added at least one or two more to the list. Thankfully, our library system has had several of these for us to borrow, resulting in zero dollars spent so far in our pursuit!

Summer 2014:

  1. Stand By Me (1986): I started with this one because I remember how affected I was by this movie when I was a young teen. JAM laughed for a while, then it seemed that he started to get the more serious undertones of the characters' lives. By the end, he was telling me that he understood why I said it was such a great movie.
  2. The Princess Bride (1987): This wasn't the first time he'd seen this one, but I'm including it here because it became a big part of our family's lexicon after we all watched it at the outdoor showing in our town. Now that he's seen it a couple times, the quotes are flying more precisely. 
  3. West Side Story (1961): Though he saw at least part of this in school at some point, he didn't remember a bunch about it, so we watched it together. I'd be lying if I said that we were completely serious and totally appreciative of this film while watching it... yeah, we giggled a lot at the supposedly threatening singing and dancing gang members. 
  4. Airplane! (1980): Holy crap, how this made us laugh. We had to put on the subtitles so that we wouldn't miss jokes in between our guffaws. I have no idea how old I was when I saw this for the first time, but I'm pretty sure it was younger than 14!
  5. The Wizard of Oz (1939): I have no idea why none of my children had ever seen this before our city chose it as one of the summer outdoor movies. I don't think it was a specific choice to keep them from seeing it, but rather that we just didn't think about it. I don't think it was one of his favorites of the summer, but at least now he can say that he's seen it. 
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): Not too often do you see this film on a list with the likes of Airplane!, but here it is. JAM read this novel early in the summer, so it was only logical that we watch the movie together, just as my mom and I did many years ago. He was as impressed with the movie, and with Gregory Peck, as I had hoped he'd be.
  7. Young Frankenstein (1974): I knew he'd love this one simply because of the Mel Brooks factor. I was correct. He's doing this annoying thing now where he hits the couch or the floor or whatever he's sitting on when he's seriously cracking up at something. He did that A LOT during this flick.
  8. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): I'm including this one on the list even though I didn't actually watch this with him. It was another of the outdoor movies, but we didn't think that the six- and eight-year-olds were quite ready for this one, so Dad and JAM went to this one on their own. That was probably the better decision, as it's the type of movie more suited to their tastes than my own, to tell the truth. Either way, he ended up loving it.
  9. Better Off Dead (1985): As the last one viewed during the summer, I saved this one remembering it as one of my favorites. JAM and I watched it one night of Labor Day weekend while my hubby was away, and I was happy to see just how much it held up to my memories. Now he understands why I sometimes drop a "I want my two dollars!" or "Have you any idea what the street value of this mountain is?" Yup. This was just as funny as ever, and JAM agreed, even with the wacky 80s fashion and hairdos. 
As we look toward the fall round of this totally fun project, I've got seven more wacky comedies from the 80s and 90s lined up, a few that we actually own and a couple that I'll have to track down through the library, or Amazon Prime, or friends. So far, nine movies in, we've had a lot of laughs and I like to think that I'm doing my part in the comedy appreciation area of parenting responsibilities. 

Off to get more DVDs,

Monday, September 01, 2014

and then, apparently, summer was over

I don't want to admit it. As much as craziness is the order of the day when my children are out of school, it's counterbalanced by a whole bunch of positives when we're not bogged down by lunch-making, homework-helping, uniform-washing, bus-catching, comb-your-hair-reminding, get-out-of-the-house-on-time-remembering, and so forth. Even on summer break, I still require at least some sort of routine, but what's not to like when the routine involves heading to the pool most afternoons?

Because of a vacation that was planned before the snow days of last winter began to pile up, the children were treated to a little over eleven weeks of summer break, instead of just the ten that they should have received. But, I'm thinking that they probably learned more from their experiences with family, friends, and nature during our week in Deep Creek than they would have had they been partying and cleaning up classrooms with their peers for that last scheduled week of school.

In those eleven weeks, there were hikes, swims, jumps off the diving board (even for Pudge, who passed the swim test!), books, weekly library visits, more books as a result of those weekly library visits, games, chalk drawings, playgrounds, museums, baking, playtimes with friends here and at their houses for the kids, visits with friends old and new for the adults, garden planting, praying mantises, Lego robotics classes, pink hair dye jobs, buzz cuts and mohawks, birthday celebrations, outdoor movies, beach trips, sharks' teeth, festivals, ice cream, youth circus performances (four of us as viewers and the teen as participant) and even a trip to Connecticut to hang with the grandparents, aunts, and great-grandma. What looked like a daunting amount of squares to fill on the Google Calendar back in June now feels like just a blip.

As much as I hate to admit it, it appears that summer has gone and made its exit for another year. With so little humidity and seemingly endless days of mild temperatures, outdoor activities were unusually pleasant for the most part, even at the height of the season. The kids were unusually pleasant for the most part, too! ;)

School has been back in session for part of a week now, and so far, so good. I remain cautiously optimistic... but reality hasn't completely set in just yet for the younger two, so I'm not quite ready to exhale and relax. The big guy is on the precipice of finishing up his eighth grade homeschooling program, before launching into high school later this month. It's odd walking this line between school years-- a beginning for two while a major milestone ending for the other. I feel like we'll be back and forth in our celebrations for a couple weeks, from "Yay! Completion of 8th grade!" to "Good luck as you begin high school!" in a matter of two and a half weeks or so. I'm holding on to hope that by late October, our lives will have once again settled into a routine for all.

But alas, it is time to move on to school uniforms and signed permission slips, lunchbox packing and backpack checking. While I adore crispy fall air, wintry snowfalls, and springtime blossoms, I believe I live my life for summer time, so there's a part of me that gets back into chug-chug-chugging mode, counting down the weeks until we can focus on nothing more than sunblock, swim goggles, and long days with few responsibilities.

Not quite ready for this change,

Friday, August 01, 2014

friday's five

When I first started writing about children's books on this little blog, I wondered if anyone was ever really going to see the posts. What I present is just a snippet about a handful of books that made me smile or giggle-- books that I enjoyed reading with my own children or others for whom I've cared that I want other adults to share with the kids in their lives. The first time that I heard from an old friend that she had looked for some of the books I had recently recommended, I was so excited. Then it happened a couple other times, and I began to feel like maybe I was having some tiny influence on the reading experiences of some children out there who I'll likely never even meet. That makes me happy. I had a similar interaction today in which a friend asked about books for her two-year-old, saying that she trusts my recommendations implicitly. What a compliment! So when the kids and I went off to the library today, I kept her in mind as I looked through the shelves of new books that I didn't get to last week. I think the five that I'm highlighting today are perfect in both length and complexity for the toddler set, but don't take that to mean that they're overly simple, or exclusively for the youngest of book lovers. Take a look.

1. Nest by Jorey Hurley -- I have a special place in my heart for nature-themed picture books, and ones that make the natural world especially accessible to the youngest of readers delight me. This one is no exception. With just one word on each page, the actual reading time won't be long, but don't think that's the only thing to do with this book. Each page can be discussed as long as a toddler can sustain attention. A passage of time, changes of season, and much of the life cycle of a robin is portrayed in this book, and the illustrations are simple but inviting with bold blocks of color and just enough detail to help propel the basic story. No need to wait until spring to pull this one out, though it will become particularly meaningful if you look for real-life birds and nests after reading it.

2. Cat Says Meow and Other Animalopoeia by Michael Arndt -- What I love best about this book is how it can work on a couple different levels. With a young toddler, I'd approach it pretty straightforwardly reading the text and making the fun animal sounds, maybe with an older 2 or 3 year old, pointing out the letters that help form the illustrations. With my own elementary school age kids, it becomes more of an appreciation of this super cool design idea! The title will make more sense to older kids who may have heard of the literary concept of onomatopoeia, which might just be the kids of language geeks, but whatever. Either way, this book is fun to read, and even more delightful to look at!

3. Big Bug by Henry Cole -- Here's another fabulous example of a seemingly quite simplistic picture book that actually contains some complex ideas! When viewed really up close, a ladybug can look big, until you take a step back and compare it to the leaf it sits upon. Then the ladybug is small, while the leaf is big. But next to the flower towering over it, that leaf is now small, while the flower is big. Following this pattern, size is compared again and again, both from small to big, and then back down to small again with new sets of compared objects and creatures. I read this to a friend's toddler, and I could practically see the wheels turning in her head as she processed the concepts of big and little. It's quite similar in theme to another book I've recently enjoyed and reviewed over on 5 Minutes for Books- You Are (Not) Small by Anna Kang. I love pairing similar books together for reading times to see what young children can notice on their own about the ways they are alike, and these two would work perfectly for that purpose.

4. You Know What I Love? by Lorena Siminovich -- Just look at that cover. How appealing is that to a young child? I know several toddlers, of both genders, who have loveys/dolls/stuffies that are the object of their adoration, and this illustration conveys that love beautifully. The sentiment of the story could be applied to any loved one in a young child's life, but I particularly like how they've illustrated the object of affection as a beloved doll. Parents may get a wee bit weepy (if you're overly emotional, like me, ahem), as they read the statements of love in this book, but with or without tears, this story provides an opportunity for caregivers and children to share the things about each other that they love.

5. Thank You, Octopus by Darren Farrell -- Okay, this is most definitely the wild card in the bunch. It's wacky, it's silly, and it requires a bit of imagination, something that toddlers are just in the beginning stages of developing, but... it's such a funny book, I couldn't help but include it here. Inexplicably, a young boy is cared for by an octopus who appears to be helpful, about every other page. Each declaration he makes seems, at first, to be productive in assisting the boy in getting ready for bedtime. Yet, each is followed up by a second part that totally messes up the process. A warm bath... full of egg salad? Drying him off... with a tuba?? Seriously, I'm a big fan of the silly in this, and I look forward to reading it soon to a particular toddler who I know LOVES when people say ridiculous, out-of-context things. Developing a sense of humor is right up there with the other important milestones in my book, and a story like this helps to introduce a particular type of joking around.

If you happen to come across this and find a book that is a hit with a young'un in your life, I'd love to hear about it!

Happy reading, as always,

Friday, July 25, 2014

friday's five

A happy end-of-the-week to you all! Yesterday saw me and my two younger kids out for our regular Thursday library trip, and while they were off looking for more Boxcar Children, Captain Underpants, and various other chapter books, I strolled over to the "New Releases" section of the picture book area, and I was blown away! It had been two weeks since I browsed the selection on those shelves, but apparently, in that time, my town's library branch had secured at least 60 picture books I hadn't seen there before! I was kicking myself for only bringing a smallish bag when we hopped on the bus, so I knew I was only going to be able to take home a small percentage of the section's offerings. Anyone nearby must have thought I was a lunatic, because I kept oohing and aahing over the titles I was seeing-- some that I had wanted to read but hadn't found yet, and others that I didn't even know had been published. My pile got to a particular size when I knew I had to force myself to stop, even before I had gotten to all the shelves! The total haul was just about 20 books, and today's focus is on five new(ish) releases from some authors and illustrators the kids and I really love.

1. Boom Snot Twitty by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Renata Liwska -- Though I'm not exactly sure why the snail is named Snot (just the alliterative quality? because he's slimy?), I do like the quiet tone of this book. With that word in the title, I was sort of expecting some of the humor that one would associate with it, but that's not the case here. Instead, it's a story of three friends with very different perspectives on what is fun and interesting, and it chronicles one day of various mishaps and slight adventures, with them all coming together in the end, of course. Liwska's signature illustrative style fits the fuzzy bear and fluffy bird perfectly, and her rendition of a snail is so much adorable than the real life creatures, too.

2. Stella's Starliner by Rosemary Wells -- Okay, I'm going to admit something... I'm not always the biggest fan of Wells' books. Sometimes the story just doesn't flow in a way that I care for, but the illustrations are always delightful, and there's no denying that her books are beloved by many. I hadn't seen her latest book yet, so I grabbed it from the library and upon reading it, I have my usual mixed feelings. There's a bit of an imaginative turn near the story's conclusion that might be a little confusing for some, but overall, I like the book's setting and characters. The conflict presents some good fodder for parent/child conversation, as well, so I think I'll grab my kids and give this one a read to see their take.

3. Hickory Dickory Dog by Alison Murray -- A boy and his adoring dog never fail to make a fun pair, and in this story in the style of the classic nursery rhyme, the dog loyally follows his boy through a typical day, making messes and stirring up excitement, but always wanting to be close to him. As soon as I saw the cover, I immediately remembered how much I adore reading Murray's Apple Pie ABC and One Two That's My Shoe! for group story times, so I know that if I was still setting up a preschool classroom these days, her newest book would be on my classroom library's shelves.

4. This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld -- I love that Tom Lichtenheld keeps pairing up with authors whose silliness and playful humor match his illustrative style so well. The running gag here is that a director trying to make a documentary about moose keeps getting stymied by the fact that the animals don't really want to play along in the way typical animals are supposed to do. You can't make an informative film about moose when the moose aspires to be an astronaut! And when the other forest animals (and others who are inexplicably there, too) keep defying everyone's expectations for wild animals, the director is about to lose it. But then he comes to a realization that changes the entire project... and brings major laughs.

5. The Troublemaker by Lauren Castillo -- Looking at the cover image of this book, one might come to see the young, sword-wielding boy as a bit of a rascal. But don't judge too quickly, for the title of the book might be referring to another pesky creature nearby. Castillo's pen and ink illustrations never cease to enchant me, and this is the perfect type of book to encourage young readers to pay close attention to the pictures, since they are such an integral part of the story's flow. I did read this one with my kids as we waited for our bus to arrive after we left the library, and though it is likely best geared for younger children, even my rising third grade daughter was giggling as she pointed out what was happening in the background of each page. You can't beat the delightful appeal of these illustrations, and the story definitely entertains.

Happy reading,

that old phrase about having your heart walking around outside your body

I'm pondering that sentiment today over at The DC Moms, my first submission there in, well, let's just say way too long. Everyone knows it's not easy to be a parent, and every stage certainly has its own unique challenges, but I'm starting to feel the sting of being the witness to the tough time that is adolescence...

Peering over the edge of his last descent on the ropes course, I saw uncertainty on my adolescent son’s face through the zoom lens on my camera. He’d just spent the last hour flying through the trees in a manner that I could never, ever picture myself doing. One more leap, and he’d be back on stable ground. Safe, or at least, free of the risks of zooming around on ropes 400 feet above the ground. But since he’s still got about five years left of his time as a teenager, I’m pretty sure I’ll continue to feel as if it’s me up on that platform for at least that amount of time.
You know that old saying about the decision to have children being comparable to choosing to have your heart walk around outside your body? As my oldest child will soon turn 14, I’m understanding this sentiment in a whole new way. But the feeling has changed over the years, and while I don’t care to indulge in over-sentimentality, just hear me out.
To read the rest, please click over to The DC Moms, and feel free to share the post if you feel inclined.

Shamelessly self-promoting,