Sunday, November 17, 2013

REVIEW: The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book opens with a scene that, in the movies, would leave you holding your breath, popcorn forgotten. It only gets creepier from there, but that's not all. Gaiman is funny, too, and the world he's built for Bod is unique and mysterious. At times it feels like winter breath.

One of the best parts of reading The Graveyard Book is trying to puzzle out all the hints before the end, so I'm not going to reveal anything that's not already on the back cover. Even though an adult can figure out several of the pieces and fit them into place, kids are kept guessing. Not one of the kids in my daughters' book club fit it all together.

What I will tell you is: you'll have fun keeping track of the hints regarding both Bod's guardian and the man Jack. The Indigo Man gave me shivers. Voicing the Sleer made me feel like I was in on a deliciously surprising secret, though I had no idea what it was. The ghouls? The ghouls were great fun to read aloud, in spite of the fact that I can't maintain a fake English accent for more than a few sentences in a row. If that.

I'll also share that Bod's childhood is as normal as the inhabitants of the graveyard can make it; they take their responsibility as seriously as any parents, as any neighbors, as any teachers. Bod has playmates and lessons to fill his days. He has rules to obey. Like any kid, Bod pushes boundaries, gets into trouble, and needs help getting out again.

There is an excellent list of discussion questions LitLovers; the same list is also available on BookBrowse. With a gaggle of tweens in my living room, I try to keep the discussion no longer than thirty minutes, so I didn't use all the questions linked above, especially since several of them lead down rabbit-holes. (When is it okay to cross boundaries? What makes something or someone evil?)

Graveyard Cupcakes
(Headstones were craft foam)
One question that provoked an unexpected response was the first, about Dave McKean's illustrations. Meaning absolutely no offense to McKean, I want to share that none of the kids liked his illustrations. They agreed that the final illustration, of the Grey Lady, was the best, and that the drawing at the end of Chapter Seven made it look like the Sleer enjoyed pizza. Personally, though I can't draw anything beyond stick men and figure-eight puppies, I liked McKean's illustrations. Many of them felt as ethereal as the scenes Gaiman penned, and my favorite was at the end of Chapter Four. But then, I think I loved Liza even more than I loved Bod.

The Graveyard Book is perfect for kids looking for something creepy and fantastical. There's no gore, nothing gratuitous, but plenty of reasons to leave the hallway light on.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Adventures in Sock Dyeing

Close-up of the lace
I knit socks. It's more fun than a 5000-piece puzzle, and a lot more useful. Plus, it's impossible to have too many socks, unlike hats. People only need one hat, maybe two. It's also the only way I can have socks where the heels don't poke out of the top of my shoes like an extra pair of noses. The fact that I get to stick my feet in front of people's real noses and show off my wicked cool socks is just a bonus.

The last pattern I knit was called Screaming Girl Lace by Heatherly Walker and it's available for a small fee on Ravelry. The real fun with these socks happens after the knitting, though, because you knit them in white yarn and then you splatter-dye them with red dye. I knit them up with some Valley Yarns Charlemont because I had almost a full skein left over from the lettering on my TARDIS socks.

I've never dyed socks before, but the internet is my friend so I headed over to DyeYourYarn and psyched myself up. No matter how they turned out, my socks would be one of a kind. As usual.

Splattered and drying
My friend Mel came over on Saturday and we got down to business. I slipped on a few plastic grocery store bags, then the socks, and stood on a paper bag. Mel squirted red food coloring on my socks. She went for the "arterial spray" effect and I smeared the bottoms of the socks around in the puddle we created. It was brilliant! Totally original CSI!

We left them to dry on a rack in the garage and tried to scrub the red off our fingers, but even my pumice stone wasn't up to the task.

On Sunday morning, to a round of Breaking Bad jokes, I commandeered the candy thermometer and the pot Dan uses to make chocolate syrup. I added the vinegar, then the socks, and heated the whole mess to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Then I added more vinegar, waited until the temperature reached 180, and turned off the heat. (I'm generalizing, here. For accurate instructions, please visit Dye Your Yarn.) My socks sat on the back burner, cooling, until after dinner. I behaved myself and did not lift the lid, but I will confess to attempting to peer through the condensation on the glass. It didn't work.

Cool rinse, cool rinse, cool rinse... the dye ran a lot more than I expected. I know the directions I followed were for hand-painted yarn, but I thought the vinegar was supposed to keep the color from bleeding all over the place.

Bleeding! Because I used red dye! And the socks are called Screaming Girl!

Almost as bright as the sun
My new socks are fiercely bright. It's best if you wear sunglasses, and don't look directly at them for more than a second or two. If you must stare, please use one of those pinhole eclipse viewers. I've no doubt that when I wear my Screaming Girl socks, heads will turn...away from the blinding glare. But it's all okay, because nobody else has socks like these. Also, the vinegar bath made the fabric, which is already 20% silk, so soft I want to rub my face in them. Before I put them on my feet. Because after would be weird. And beyond my abilities.

But a teeny bit of me pines for those arterial-spray socks. So I ask you, citizens of the internet: Does anybody know if there was a way I could have kept the rest of the socks white? Because I have enough of the Charlemont left for a pair of footies.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

REVIEW: The Tail of Emily Windsnap

This month, the kids read The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler. I'll admit, this one was far more popular with the girls than the boys. Still, everyone had fun sharing what they thought would be the best and worst things about being a mermaid or merman. Ned* was even brave enough to admit to the group that he thought the book was "pretty good."

Emily Windsnap and her mother live on a boat and Emily has wanted swim lessons for years. Maybe it's her mother's inexplicable fear of the water, maybe it's something else, but Emily is never allowed the lessons. One day, she finally prevails. After her first foray into the pool, though, Emily begs to quit the lessons. The worst thing in the world would be for her classmates to discover what she has just learned: Emily is a weirdo, a freak... a mermaid. She may be afraid for her classmates to learn her secret, but that doesn't stop her from sneaking out to test her new tail and fins at night. She befriends another mermaid and finds herself intrigued by the world beneath the surface of the water. Finally, someplace she feels at home!

A quick read, The Tail of Emily Windsnap is a fun book with twists that adults will likely see coming. However, my daughters and their friends figured out most of those twists right alongside Emily, so the book hits it target audience at the right level. With Emily having one human and one merfolk parent, the theme of love knowing no boundaries is central, but it's not necessarily a slippery slope. There are families of all sorts in our book club, so I chose to keep that part of the discussion focused on the general idea that love is love.  Emily's story contains plenty of other themes to concentrate on which are far more pertinent to kids' everyday concerns, like what makes a good friend, the difference between having one best friend versus several good friends, and whether or not disobeying a parent (or other adults) can be anything other than foolish.

Hennepin County Library in Minneapolis, MN has a discussion guide with some thought-provoking questions as well as a bunch of fun ones. Orion Books provides this teacher's guide, which has interdisciplinary lessons and activities, many of which can be easily adapted to suit smaller groups of kids.

There are three more books in the series. Though I haven't read them yet, Emma is looking forward to getting them.

And oh, yeah... our post-discussion snack spread included sushi, Swedish Fish and doughnuts with extra sugar.

*a pseudonym

Monday, September 30, 2013

Banned Books Week, Belated

Last week was Banned Books Week, and though I was down with a head cold which rendered me mostly incapable of rational thought, I did read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. 

Persepolis was challenged then banned from the middle school curriculum in Chicago Public School system earlier this year. From everything I read, high school teachers were still allowed to teach it. Last Sunday, as the book lay on my kitchen counter, with crisp corners and an uncracked spine, I thought, I can understand parents of seventh graders wanting to reassurance about the contents of a heavy book before their kids read it, but by high school, kids need to know this stuff. Whatever "this stuff" was, I didn't precisely know. I hadn't read the book yet. 

Now that I have, I can say the thing that struck me most, is that Satrapi is about my age. What does that mean, exactly? 

It means that Satrapi begins her story with the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when she was ten years old. My daughters are ten years old.

It means that in 1984, when I was swooning over the members of Duran Duran, Satrapi was fending for herself in an Austrian Catholic boarding school. And that while I was whining about having to read The Odyssey in verse and writing poetry instead of paying attention during AP American History, Satrapi was devouring essays by Freud, probably in German.

Most of all, it means that there was barely a two-page spread in Persepolis that didn't teach me something, and that in spite of the semester of Middle Eastern history I opted for in college, I know next to nothing. How does something like that happen? I'm still flipping back and forth in the book and Googling events and places to make sure I have the timeline straight for the fifteen years Satrapi chronicles.

I'm not sure if I should feel ashamed of or grateful for my sheltered upbringing. What I am sure about is that most seventh grade kids can handle the contents of Persepolis. Are violence and torture depicted? Yes. Much more than violence, though, Satrapi depicts her struggle to understand, to belong and to thrive on her own terms. What teenager can't identify with those desires?

I see no reason why our middle school students shouldn't read it, discuss it, and let it seep into their psyches. I've already decided to include Persepolis in the history curriculum for Pen and Em when we cycle back around to modern history. They'll probably be in the seventh grade.

What about you? What did you read for Banned Books Week? And what do you not know?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

REVIEW: Chomp by Carl Hiaasen

I'll admit, I was surprised at the bite in Carl Hiaasen's Chomp, probably because this is the first of his books I've ever read. (ducks barrage of paperbacks) Don't get me wrong: this book is hilarious, and will have your children chanting eee-ka-laro! and affecting Australian accents. They may also beg for eclairs. Amidst all the hijinks, though, Chomp deals with some serious issues, including adult responsibility foisted upon too-young shoulders, concern for animals and the environment around us, and child abuse. It's Hiaasen's use of humor that enables him to include such weighty subjects, but Chomp is far from preachy. In fact, Hiaasen never delves too deeply, instead leaving enough room for readers to ponder the topics as the story progresses.

The novel begins with Wahoo Cray accepting a job on behalf of his animal-wrangler father, who is laid up with lingering headaches from an iguana-inflicted concussion. Wahoo's plan is to work the job alongside his father, stepping in just enough to make it look like his dad, Mickey, is fit for wrangling. Add a buffoonish Hollywood "survivalist," an abused teenage girl, a terrified bat, a thunderstorm in the Florida Everglades, and try to keep up. Better yet, try to put the book down: Penelope kept reading ahead and Emma stayed up until eleven one night to finish it.

You can find an excellent free educator's guide here at the Random House site. There are also lesson plans available for purchase on the sites Teachers Pay Teachers and BookRags but I've only seen the previews so I cannot vouch for the quality of the full units.

I put on an episode of Man Against Wild so my daughters could get a better idea of the type of show Hiaasen mocks, but we could hardly hear the episode over our own laughter. We also did a little research about the Florida Everglades and watched some videos of airboats to get a feel for how they worked and sounded. Those things are loud!

The kids' verdict? All ten kids in the book club enjoyed Chomp tremendously, though Emma and her friend Jade* both felt it started slow, the pace picking up only when Derek Badger arrives in his motor coach. 

*a pseudonym 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Great Expectations

So it's fall, and I'm back, stressing out about the impending yard sale. But I'm not stressing out about the girls' schoolwork, even though we're starting fifth grade and stepping up our expectations. Another thing I'm not stressing out about is the kids' book club.

We had our first meeting this afternoon and kicked off the school year discussing Carl Hiaasen's Chomp. I'm a little annoyed that I forgot to take a photo of the bat on the cheesecake, but no matter. We've got a fantastic schedule lined up this year, and I'll post a short review of each book on the Monday after we've run our discussion. I'll even include links to discussion guides. In February, I'll talk about why and how I started our book club. Pssst! Because dissecting books with kids is freakish fun!

Just because we're homeschoolers and our meetings are in the middle of the week (and the middle of the day), there's no reason why you can't start up a book club for your own kids. Of course, I'm assuming that you're like me. Surely I'm not the only person accoutered with paperbacks, accosting people and demanding that they join me in analyzing a character's motives. If you're not like me, don't sweat it: you can throw your arms up in self-protection and drive me back with the threat of a reality show. As I cringe and back away, however, please consider making a deal with your best friend: you'll bring the snacks if she'll run the discussion. Elaborate cakes are not a necessity.

Here's what you can look forward to:
September - Chomp by Carl Hiaasen
October - The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler
November - The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
December - Tucker's Countryside by George Selden
January - Smile by Raina Telgemeier
February - Running a kid's book club
March - Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan
April - The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
May - Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
June - Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Cholenko

Sunday, June 9, 2013

...I got a rock...

June in New England means the weather is sometimes hot enough for bathing suits and the sprinkler, and sometimes cold enough for jeans and sweatshirts. There are days when the kids hedge their bets and wear bathing suits under their sweatshirts. Gardening in New England is like being Charlie Brown on Halloween.

Plum thundercloud #2
(in hole #4)
We've spent the past week digging holes for trees. We have a young honeygold apple tree that's not doing as well as we'd like and yes, we've transplanted it during the growing season. We know it might die, but it's been loitering in the front yard for weeks, humming "Strawberry Fields Forever." We had to do something before it started inviting Pippin and Braeburn trees over and blasting The Presidents, U2, and Warrant all night long. We also planted two plum thunderclouds and a June Snow dogwood. I'm partial to any dogwood because I grew up in Virginia, where it's the state flower. Finding a dogwood tree that likes Massachusetts is better than seeing a double rainbow and having it still be there sixty seconds later when you haul your kids over to the window.

The first hole took us two hours on a Friday night. Dig, dig, clink! Excavate...toss... Dig, dig, dig, clink! Sigh. We're living it up, I tell you! Using the 2-hour-per-hole baseline, we figured we'd be digging holes all afternoon Saturday and Sunday, but that we'd get all four holes dug over the weekend. We could have three trees in and the fourth relocated by Tuesday evening.


To dig three holes, we spent four hours each afternoon on Saturday and Sunday, another two each on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings, and a final four hours on Thursday.  To be fair, about two of those hours were given over to planting the trees. On Wednesday evening while Dan and I were entering our third hour of excavating the Alps-shaped behemoth in the fourth hole, we called Penelope and Emma outside and told them to order a pair of pizzas. You'd have thought we'd said we were moving to Universal Studios. WE get to order the pizza? Call them and everything? 

*not* a chocolate bar, a whale,
or a coffin
Thursday afternoon we were back outside, still working on that rock. More stubborn than a beagle, it threatened to keep me from writer's group, and Dan from his bug fixes. Dan's suspicions loomed like the thunderstorms forecast for that evening. I'd have called the rock our white whale, but having explained to the girls (while digging hole number two) that the white whale was the obsession that eventually destroyed you, I was reluctant. We just kept enlarging the hole, wiggling the rock, then levering it up a few inches and bracing it with smaller rocks. Finally, at five o'clock, we prevailed! It took the two of us to roll it over to the pile and maneuver it into a safe position. Then we nestled the last tree in its new home and rewarded its patience with compost, a long drink, and mulch. I speed-scrubbed myself clean enough. I hadn't written more than 500 words in the past week. I needed writer's group. S.D. had promised strawberries.

In the end, I made it to group where I enjoyed both strawberries and applause for conquering the rock. Dan fed the kids and dove back into his code. Last week, Dan and I were Cash and Jewel, wrestling Addie's coffin across the river, except we succeeded without crushing any limbs. Plus there were no buzzards. Just a lot of rocks.

Monday, May 13, 2013

I scream, you scream, we all scream


All Sunday night and all day Monday, I was worried. Sunday night I tossed and turned, thrashing about like a suffocating fish and ripping the blankets away from the disgruntled beagle. Monday morning I dragged my butt out of the five-foot-long gully in the mattress -- so early, too early, okay 8 am, so not early at all -- and leashed up the (still disgruntled) beagle. Emma and I walked the beagle (Heel. Heel. Heel. Good heel! Heel. Heel...) while Penelope and Dan went jogging.

While the girls worked on their spelling and writing I paced back-and-forth, mixing it up every few minutes with a little to-and-fro. The girls subtracted decimals like the smart consumers they are. Do we have to show our work? We do this in our heads at the store. I distracted myself for two glorious hours by thinking up fake song names about fiber crafting for a Twitter trend. I had no idea what to blog about this week. I was minutes away from hyperventilating, then we baked the ice cream bread.

First off, there are recipes for this stuff all over the place. They are all the same. Everybody raves about it. People make comments like "ZOMG THIS IS DELISHUS!" and "I'AM NEVR EATING OTHER BREAD AGIN EVAR!!!1!" I don't know who these people are, but I suspect they have no taste buds. Or dictionaries.

The basics:
2 cups of ice cream
1 1/2 cups self-rising flour
(If you don't have self-rising flour, no need to look for the car keys. Just add 1 1/4 tsp baking powder and 1/4 tsp salt to each cup of all-purpose flour and sift together. Boom! You just saved yourself thirty minutes and three dollars.)

Mix it all together until just combined, put it in a greased 4x8 pan, and bake at 350F for about 45 minutes.

First, let me just say that I still can't feel my fingers. I typed this with my toes. Because my fingers froze. Because of the ice cream. Even if you let the ice cream get kinda melty, kneading this dough for even one minute is five times worse than kneading a 6-quart bowl full of raw eggs and ground meat. But I mixed the chocolate ice cream together with the flour and what-not until just combined. I squidged it into the baking pan. It didn't looked mixed enough to me; there were patches of flouriness. But hey, the ice cream will melt a little and things will combine, right? Just in case, I baked it for only 40 minutes.

It But then, so do my applesauce muffins, and those are heavy and moist and gone by the end of the day. So I sliced off two pieces and we all had a taste. Emma couldn't wait to get to the trash, so she spit hers right into her hand.

Whaddya think: Instagram?
It's not that it was dry. It's not that it was tasteless. It's that dry white toast from any National Breakfast Restaurant Chain is moister and more flavorful. It's that I wasted two cups of premium, micro-dairy chocolate ice cream and couldn't taste a lick of chocolate. At least, if it tasted like dry, crumbly chocolate, I could have mounded some vanilla ice cream on top of a hunk, drizzled some chocolate syrup over it and shouted, dessert! At least I have something to say, and I didn't even have to wait until Wednesday or Thursday to find it. And I'm going back to the ten-ingredient Holly Hobbie Hey Girls Muffin Maker Chocolate Muffins recipe that Penelope and Emma downloaded when they were five. Say that five times fast and you'll run out of breath. You'll also have twelve bakery-sized chocolate muffins.

Have you ever made ice cream bread? Did I do something wrong or am I a food snob? It's okay if you say "both."

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Guess what mom? I've grown up to live in a pig sty!

The past few weeks have been crazy around here. I suspect most people go through periods of frenetic activity every few months. I know mine are annual events that I should be ready for by now, but do I plan ahead? Not so much.

I finally realized this weekend that I don't have to let these events sneak up on me every year. Just like I have a set routine around the holidays, I can create a Recital Season routine and a Soccer Tryouts routine so I don't find myself after two weeks with a fridge bursting with furry produce and grease-laden takeout containers. I'm tired of emerging from Crazy Time to wade through two weeks' worth of clothing on the blaundry room* floor. I've been averting my eyes every time I pass my writing desk, which is buried beneath mounds of leotards, makeup bags, shoe boxes, and fiber-craft reference books. I know it's under there. I can see the corner and almost bumped into it last night, when I added a landscape design book and a stack of clean wool socks to the hodge-podge.

This afternoon, I'm cleaning it all up...again. I've banished the spoiled remains of the last meal I cooked, which was chicken paprikash. Or pulled pork. Or chicken and chickpea chili. It was vaguely orange with tan chunks. In the produce drawer, I found several bell peppers that had morphed into peaches (I think) and a zucchini that resembled Senator Kelly right before he melted all over Storm's shoes. At any rate, I have a freshly sterilized cadre of plastic containers back in the corner cabinet.

As soon as we're done with the last bit of schoolwork for the day, I'm going upstairs. I think I'll put on some music, something cathartic like Lisa Loeb. I'm considering opening the windows. Because tonight, after a normal, cooked-at-home dinner, I'm taking back my writing time. Chapter Five is getting nose-prints all over my laptop screen and the only way to clean them from this side is to get the words out of my head and onto the hard drive.

*blaundry room: the combination laundry and bath room found in many modern homes. I wanted one until I had one. Now I'm not sure what I want.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

REVIEW: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

You know those mystery books where you can tell whodunnit before the end of the fifth chapter? Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game is not one of those books.

When I was in sixth grade, I wanted to be Turtle Wexler.* Although Turtle was an afterthought to her parents, she was cool. She played the stock market, snuck into haunted houses, and got away with kicking people. As the oldest of three, sometimes I wanted to kick people. Turtle also slept in a closet years before it was all the rage.

I recommend reading The Westing Game with your child; you'll have fun comparing theories and sharing suspicions. As in any good mystery, everyone has a secret and nobody is entirely who they claim. However, it can be a difficult book to read aloud. Raskin lets you peek into many different minds, and sometimes the point-of-view shifts are sudden. When I read it to my daughters last year, I often had to redo the internal dialogue once I realized it had shifted. That's what I get for trying to give each character a unique voice without reading ahead first.
Safe to look. No spoilers.  :)

It's the disjointed nature of the story, though, that makes it such an exciting read. You know you're not getting the whole story...and also that you are. In spite of the head-jumping, this is Turtle's story and I promise, all the clues are there. But I'm betting you won't figure it out.

*I also wanted to be Harriet M. Welsch, Meg Murry, Mary Lennox, and Lucy Pevensie, but that's another issue.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Love that Dirty Water

We live about forty minutes outside Boston, and were relieved to find that none of our friends or their families were wounded in last Monday's bombing. Okay, that's an understatement. Still, watching the news this week was different in our house than watching past tragedies for one reason: our daughters watched the news with us.

Sandy Hook was just a few months ago, and neither of our kids wanted to know what was going on. At six weeks shy of age ten, they were scared and what little they did see and hear gave them a few nights of bad dreams. This week, they wanted to watch. They asked questions. They evaluated the actions of the police as well as the news crews. It mattered. I try to follow their lead, especially when scary stuff is involved, so I let them watch. As they went up to bed Friday evening they called down, "Come up and tell us what happens. Tell us when they get him out of the boat." Then they both commented that they hoped nobody else got hurt.

All week I wondered if they'd have nightmares, but they didn't. What made the difference? I don't know. What I do know is that at some point, our children begin paying attention to the world around them. One day, a terrible event on the evening news is something they want--and need--to follow. For Dan, it was the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (he was ten). For me, it was the 1982 crash of Air Florida flight 90 (I was eleven). The world becomes simultaneously bigger and smaller not just because of the tragedy but also because for the first time, we want to understand.

The evening of the marathon, my mom called to talk about the bombing. I told her we'd been at a friend's house when the news broke and in the car when our friend texted to say there had been fatalities. When I'm driving I toss the phone into the back seat and have the girls read and respond to any texts, so we found out together. My mom wanted me to talk to Pen and Em about the importance of not attending events that could draw out disturbed people, but I couldn't let her continue. I said, "Mom, that's the exact opposite of what I want them to learn."

Embracing life and each other.
What Dan and I tell our daughters is that the goal of terrorism is to incite terror. It's right there in the name. We tell them that when something horrible happens, it's okay to be scared. It's okay to cry. People who are sick, who take pleasure in hurting others, are out there. They're not going away, and they're not going to play by the same rules the rest of us use. But don't let those people stop you from doing the things you love. Don't give up on your dreams, or walk away from your passions, because of what they do. In fact, don't let any of the scary things that happen stop you from embracing life. It's one thing to say it, and a harder thing to live it, but living is the most important part.

Devastating events rock us all in some way, even when they're far-removed, but our reactions shape our futures as much as they are shaped by our past experiences. If your tween hasn't already poked his head up and noticed the world around him, he will eventually. Someday, something horrible and scary on the television will matter. He'll need to watch and understand. Because as we grow up, one by one we wake up, look around, and have to decide what we think and how we'll react.

After Emma's surgery a few summers ago--once we had the house to ourselves again and a few days to breathe--we looked around. We had one daughter who'd just had her life irrevocably altered and another who'd been scared she would lose her sister and best friend. Dan and I had reeled through the days feeling like marionettes in a windstorm. Vacation was out. So was summer camp. Normal kid activities like biking and skating and horsing around were off limits while she recuperated. But Emma needed to feel like a kid again. She needed to know that she was okay and the things that made her life, life weren't gone. So we threw a Harry Potter Film Festival.

Every night for the week before Deathly Hallows Part Two opened, we showed the first seven movies in order, one film each night. We invited all our local friends. We made Knickerbocker Glories and put out dishes of lemon drops, licorice snaps, and Every Flavor Beans (with a spittoon). One family brought butterbeer. Penelope and Emma came with us to see the last film in the theater. It was exactly what Emma needed to feel normal again, which means it was exactly what our whole family needed.

What are we doing this time? Dan and I are getting our enormous butts off the couch so all four of us can take part in the Harbor Walk and Run. This fundraiser benefits the hospital where our daughters were born and which has saved Emma twice. Two sick men blew up people in Boston, so we're heading in. Boston, you're our home.

Monday, April 15, 2013

REVIEW: My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian

My daughter Emma chose My Life as a Book as her book club selection because like her, Derek only wants to read Calvin and Hobbes or other cartoons. The opening scene is hilarious with Derek's mom sailing over laundry piles as she chases her son, who is determined to avoid even a discussion about reading. Derek is very real: he could be my kid or the boy down the street. Like Calvin at his best, he often asks the questions adults would rather not answer. Reckless and goofy, passionate and clever, Derek sometimes takes things too far, but never out of malice.

Derek's big beef with reading is that he'd rather live all those adventures himself, not hear about someone else's amazing experience. As it stands, he's facing a long, boring summer with the required reading booklist when his best friend Matt heads off to Cape Cod and Derek gets sent to Learning Camp. The summer turns out better than expected as Derek gets caught up in solving a decade-old mystery and finds friendship in unexpected places.

The illustrations in the margins of My Life as a Book further personalize Derek--who clearly has a good sense of humor--and liven up reading for kids like my daughter. As we read, we scanned the sketches in the margins and looked for the corresponding words on the page. Emma had an easier time staying engaged in the story knowing there would be two or three breaks from the text, especially when reading on her own.

During our book club discussion, the kids pointed out that the comics Derek prefers have something in common with camp counselor Margot's visualization technique: they both make reading more accessible to people who are stronger visual than verbal learners.

The verdict? We aren't waiting to put the sequel on next year's book club list: we've already ordered it. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Story of a Reader

I have a new book review all ready to go, but earlier yesterday I found out about Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, on Shannon Messenger's blog, so everyone's going to have to wait (including me). Starting next week, I'll post my Middle Grade book reviews on Mondays.

In the meantime, I thought I'd talk a little about myself as a reader. I was the kid in elementary school who never knew what was going on in class. It was during the fourth grade that I fine-tuned my strategy and began sitting cross-legged in my seat, my binder and textbook on the desktop and a novel in my lap. If someone said my name (three or four times) I'd look up and attempt competence, but for the most part I was about as attentive as Calvin was in Miss Wormwood's class.

Okay, so I usually knew what subject we were on. But I bumped into plenty of things (usually walls or people), because I rarely put my book down. When I was forced to close it (like at the breakfast table), I substituted whatever was handy and continued reading. (Note: the back of the Cheerios box gets boring after a few days. It may very well be impossible to get through the jumbo-sized boxes fast enough to keep your brain from going numb. Even if you add bananas and keep refilling the bowl with cereal, then an attempt to finish both at the same time.) The walk to school was an opportunity to read in peace as long as I glanced up every few paragraphs and before I crossed the street. At night, after my sister was asleep, I'd duck my head under the covers and read by flashlight. Night after night, my parents pulled the still-blazing light from my hand, marked my place in the book, and laid them beside my backpack on the desk.

Over thirty years later, nothing has changed. I still take a book with me everywhere, and I often read on my Kindle. I love having a virtual library in my purse, but there's nothing like burrowing deep into the blankets with a book bent back upon itself just shy of the spine-cracking point. Yes, I do still fall asleep reading almost every night, only now it's my husband who slides the bookmark into place and clicks off my reading lamp.

I continue to read adolescent literature because it's alive in a way that little else is. Don't misunderstand: I enjoy grown-up material as well, both contemporary and classic. I stayed up all night one January 1st reading Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone. (I spent the next day at Magic Mountain with my future husband, where we rode Superman five times in a row until they closed it due to rain. Best January 2nd ever.) Kids, are deep in the trenches that most of us would never again dare to enter. They're artists, shaping and molding themselves like clay figures, and the process is intense and desperate. Reading adolescent literature is like peeking into the kiln, hoping that none of them crack. But even when they do--because none of us escape without a few fissures--the end result is inspiring.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

REVIEW: The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden

I never read George Selden's The Cricket in Times Square as a kid, but I wish that I had. First published in 1960, Selden's book may not be a modern kid's first choice, but it's a sweet story about friendship, loyalty, and integrity. Chester Cricket finds himself in New York City because a liverwurst sandwich proved too scrumptious to pass up. Once there he is rescued by Mario, whose family runs a small newsstand in Times Square Station, then befriended by Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat. Mario adopts him as a pet, even procuring a cricket cage from a shop in Chinatown.

There are lessons in friendship (New York City cats and mice have worked past the age-old rivalry), integrity (Chester refuses to abandon the newsstand after an accident that will surely be thought his fault), and loyalty (Harry and Tucker help Chester fulfill a deep longing, even though it means they may never see him again).

Adults may be uncomfortable with the linguistic caricature of Mr. Fong and the fact that Mario seems to work a lot of late night shifts on the weekends, but these are excellent discussion points. How do modern authors deal with foreign accents? Why is Mario, an elementary-level student, working until past midnight on Saturdays? A little exploration of child labor laws and cultural stereotypes can lead to a lively discussion and an excellent opportunity for children to practice their critical thinking skills. It is the combination of weighty discussion material and positive lessons in The Cricket in Times Square that makes it a superb choice, especially for a kids' book club.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

REVIEW: The Emerald Ring by Dorine White

The Emerald Ring (Cleopatra's Legacy), by Dorine White, opens with the coolest dream sequence I've read in a middle grade novel. Dreams and fear are big issues for Sara Bogus. Sure, she's starting middle school and that's enough to scare anyone, but Sara doesn't have the kind of nightmares where you show up to math class in your underwear. Sara's dreams are linked to the ancient, powerful ring she found in her grandma's attic--and someone else is after it. To make matters worse, Sara is pretty sure she's losing it. How else can she explain hearing voices that seem to come from nowhere?

Throughout the book, Sara's dreams become more intense as her connection to the magic relic deepens. Sara, her best friend Heidi, and their new friend Kainu work together to uncover the ring's past. They turn to an expert, fortune-teller Angela, to help Sara learn to master the ring's intense power. In the process, Sara finds the inner confidence she'll need to survive her encounter with the dangerous thief and maybe even middle school. 

The Emerald Ring was a fun book. White's characters are well-developed: her tweens are sufficiently reluctant to confide in adults, but the adults are responsible and concerned. I was glad to find the dialogue between Sara and her friends fresh and modern, but stopping short of sounding like a sit-com. Although the subtitle "Cleopatra's Legacy" and the details surrounding that legacy leave plenty of room for the author to build a series, Sara's story was satisfying and complete.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Perils of Puppyhood

Our breeder has a Facebook page for her clients, and some of the newest puppy parents shared a quandry. When you have smaller children and the puppy does not want to play nicely but wants to chew, jump on, and nip, what are some good tactics for dealing with this?

Puppies dont like this! (Masha at 13 yrs)
I'm not an expert, but I am an experienced dog owner. My parents got our first dog when I was about seven. Over the past 35 years, I've only not had a dog when I've been mourning the loss of one and during the four semesters I lived in a dorm. Shortly after I moved into my own first apartment, I adopted a dog of my own. Dogs are a different kind of responsibility than cats. When I worked, I had to head home immediately after work every day to take care of Masha. I jokingly called her my "test run for children" but the comparison is not far off. No, I don't think of my kids as dogs...everybody calm down. But if you look at the first year or two of a dog's life in terms of a human childhood, there are plenty of parallels. When you have human kids as well as canine kids, paying attention to your puppy's stage of childhood can save everyone a lot of pain and frustration.

Most of the breeders and shelters I'm familiar with will only adopt puppies out to families with children older than four or five, so I'm going to assume you have children who are old enough to reason. Puppies require a tremendous amount of work and patience; if you are thinking of adopting a puppy and you still have young preschoolers around, I recommend waiting. The first few months with a puppy will remind you why sleep deprivation is such an effective form of torture. Plus, once children are old enough to pour their own bowls of cereal or come find you when the doorbell rings, they can help care for the puppy and understand its behavior.

CAVEAT: The strategies below worked for me, but there is more than one way to raise a puppy alongside children. Talk to your breeder or your shelter. Talk to your vet. Talk to your Puppy Kindergarten teacher. Take the kids to Puppy Kindergarten with you. It's also helpful to have a training book as reference at home. Check the pet store, the book store, and the library. Choose a recent publication but don't necessarily go for the biggest name out there. Personally, I like Brian Kilcommons' books; I find his attitude reasonable and his advice common-sense based. Above all, remember that you've welcomed another species into your home. It's your job as the human adult to stay in control of your temper and emotions and do all of the problem solving.

First night home. (Maisie at 2 mos)
First things first: puppy-proof before you bring Junior home. Start reminding your kids NOW to keep their toys in the playroom. My first dog, Ginger, ate the head off a Greedo figure. Although my siblings and I took it in stride and he became Headless Greedo (thanks to that altercation with Han Solo...), not every story will end so well. Some toys are irreplaceable and you definitely don't want a trip to the emergency vet. Get down on all fours and crawl around. What looks like fun? Choose an area you can gate off and install the gates. Consider the cleanability of the floor in the puppy's space. I used segments from one of those six-sided stand-alone play areas to block off most of my open-concept kitchen. It wasn't perfect, but it was easy to reconfigure as our confinement needs changed. As Junior grows up and becomes more trustworthy, he can have access to more of the home.

It's important to make sure the kids understand that two-month-old Junior is like a toddler; by the time he is twelve months old, he will be like a teenager. You'll have to reiterate that often over the next year. Do your best to give the kids the puppy's approximate human age. "Junior bites everything right now, just like you did when you were one and two. ...Junior thinks all the toys are his right now, just like your 4-year-old cousin always wants to play with whatever you have. ...Junior is teething right now. Remember when your back molars came in? It hurt to chew hard things and you got kinda grumpy sometimes. Please give Junior a fresh teething toy." It helps when kids can put their expectations in perspective.

When Junior is bitey, separate him from the kids. If he is VERY bitey it's okay to put him in the crate for a while, but don't forget to run through the Dead Chicken List first. You remember that from when your kids were babies: What is NOT wrong? Is Junior hungry? Thirsty? Tired and/or overstimulated? In need of a potty break? Do his teeth hurt? Did his toy roll under the couch? I found that Maisie got very bitey when she was either exhausted or in dire need of a potty break. If she was bitey and her bladder was empty, I put her in her crate and she was usually asleep within minutes.

On her crate. (Maisie at 3 mos)
Regarding the crate: it's crucial to make sure you don't use it as punishment. Even though you're technically giving him a Time Out, when you put Junior in the crate do so kindly but matter-of-factly.  "Junior needs some quiet time. Junior, in your crate." (Pick him up and put him in with a blanket and a toy or two. Shut the door securely.) "Good Junior! Good boy! Junior's crate! Good crate!" Yes, you'll sound like an idiot, but keeping your sentences short makes it easier for Junior to puzzle out the important words. The crate is supposed to be Junior's Safe Zone, and when he's in there, the kids should leave him alone. Eventually, he'll go in on his own when he wants some peace and quiet.

When the kids want to play with Junior, you sit down and play, too. I know: not helpful when you need to make dinner. Still, the best way for kids to learn how to interact with a puppy is to watch you and imitate you. Puppies don't really play with kids any more than toddlers play with other toddlers, though; they also don't like to let go of the ball they just fetched. You'll want to encourage side-by-side play until the puppy is closer to 12 months. "Just sit next to Junior and let him chew his teether/squeaky frog/rope bone while you read your book/watch your show/play video games."

Playtime! (Maisie at 9 mos)
Often, puppies have a huge burst of frenetic activity for 5 or 10 minutes, then konk out. It's okay to let the kids race around with them, but if Junior gets too bitey and jumpy, have the kids go do something else in the next room (or on the other side of the play gate) until he wears himself out. To a puppy, high-pitched squeals, flailing hands, and running mean "This is totally awesome! Let's do it some more!" ...which is essentially the opposite of what your kid means when she screams and climbs on a chair to escape the biting, jumping puppy. "Tug" is NOT the game to play with any dog, though. Somebody has to win, and if it's not the human, that becomes a problem. The same goes for staring contests. Any "challenge" games are a Bad Idea.

Maisie was most bitey when she was teething. Get two or three puppy teethers--the kind you can wet and put in the freezer over and over. Rawhide is too hard for a teething puppy; save it for closer to Junior's first birthday. Rope bones and anything else from the puppy section of the dog aisle is fine, but keep an eye on Junior's progress with his toys. When he disembowels a stuffie, distract him with a more interesting treat long enough for you to take the toy and extricate the squeaker. Baby carrots have never failed me when I've needed to barter with Maisie. Junior will destroy just about everything he can fit in his mouth until he is between one and two years old. The larger the breed, the longer the Destructive Chewing Phase tends to last. 

Not bored anymore! (Maisie at 9 mos)
Maisie ate the arm and leg of my daughter's most cherished stuffed animal. It's the favorite shoes, favorite toys, favorite blankets--and all the dirty underwear--that get chewed to bits most often because these are the items that smell the most like us. Bitter Apple (and similar products) worked very well for me with both Masha and Maisie. If you have a puppy who actually likes the taste, try plain white vinegar or lemon juice. Always test your deterrent on a small or inconspicuous area first. If it doesn't discolor the fabric or wood, then spritz away. I put it on everything: door frames, coffee table legs, the skirt on your couch, lamp can even spray it on your clothing or your skin.

I know it's tough for younger kids to find out that the squirmy bundle of adorableness is more than a living plushie. My daughters were seven when we brought Maisie home and it was still difficult for them. Puppies play just as hard and rough as human kids, but they have sharp claws and sharper teeth. Keep reminding your kids that just like they're growing up and learning more each day/week/month/year about how to behave, so is Junior. When Junior does make progress, be sure to point it out to your kids. "Hey! Junior was bitey because he really, really needed to pee. And guess what? He held it until we figured it out! No puddles on the floor! He's growing up! Yay, Junior!" Make sure you heap the praise on Junior, too. After puddles on the floor!

"Staying" for more frosting. (Maisie at 10 mos)
If your kids are old enough, have them do obedience drills with Junior as soon as you start Puppy Kindergarten. Whatever the family has learned in class your kids can do as homework with Junior. My daughters put Maisie through the wringer every time she wanted a treat: "Maisie, sit. Good Sit! Maisie, down. Good Down! Maisie, stay. Staaaaay. Staaaaaay. Good Stay! Maisie, come!" Obeying kid-given commands helps the puppy realize that they're above him in the pack hierarchy.

Your kids can also scoop out the appropriate amounts of food and refresh the puppy's water every day at breakfast and dinner. Once he's learned how, Junior should sit and stay before the food bowl goes down. Before that, you may have to hold him back or crate him while they deal with the bowls. Will you have to remind them to feed their dog? Of course. But, you didn't get really a dog because you believed the kids when they said they would do all the work without ever being reminded, did you?

A Good Dog at the Beagle Bash 2011.
(Maisie at 1 yr, 10 mos)
The best part about raising a puppy is that you don't have to wait very long to see positive results. By the time Junior is about two, he'll be able to tell which toys are his and which are not (most of the time). He'll be better (kind-of) at not jumping up. He'll sit next to the messiest person in the family and wait for rice and carrots and bits of chicken to fall (because they will). He'll Sit-and-Stay beside your bowl of double-chocolate-fudge-brownie ice cream while you get a glass of water and it will (for real) still be there when you get back. He'll (finally) climb on your lap when you're upset and lick away all your tears with his butt-breath tongue. Then you'll cry all the harder because he's such a Good Dog.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Review: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy picks me up and dumps me right back into the desk I sat in during the sixth grade. I never had a nanny and I couldn't have guessed which borough was which in New York City, but before I finished the story, I had my own notebook.

Harriet, a precocious eleven-year-old, wants to be a writer so she spies, writing down everything about everyone. Her spy route involves climbing onto roofs, peering through windows and even sneaking into dumbwaiters to observe the private lives of people she finds interesting. The people on her spy route are all alone, as Ole Golly is alone and Harriet is alone. It's easy to see the emptiness around Amanda K. Plumber and Harrison Withers--but even the Robinsons, who fill the hole in their life with extravagant, often frivolous items, and the Dei Santis, who orbit one another without ever colliding in a meaningful way--are isolated from those around them.

Compounding her violation, Harriet makes biting criticisms about her subjects. As myopic as she is, Harriet understands neither her transgression nor that the judgments she's made of others apply equally to herself. Throughout the book, Harriet continues to spy--first out of habit, then out of an intense desire to know what people are saying and doing about her.

Ole Golly tells Harriet to always be honest with herself in her writing. What Harriet needs to learn, however, is when honesty is more harmful than a lie. Harriet learns to take responsibility for the contents of her notebook but more importantly she learns how to repair some of the hurt she has inflicted. Ole Golly could have fixed it, and indeed she is instrumental in Harriet's eventual solution and growth, but first Harriet must struggle for weeks, the butt of classroom pranks and as a stranger to her parents. It is only by standing alone that Harriet is able to step into another person's shoes.

Final Note: I feel Harriet the Spy has as much to offer parents as it does children. Most of the Welsh's discomfort stems from the fact that they do not know Harriet well. They flounder and focus on the tangible but ultimately recognize the need for--and seek--assistance. As parents, it can be frightening to admit when we cannot help our children. Sometimes, just being there with them and rolling around on the floor like an onion is not enough and we need a trained, objective observer.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Down with Shift-1

It was Lydia Netzer's idea, but I had to give it a try: boycott the exclamation point for an entire week.

Back in high school, my 12th grade English teacher stressed that writing should be accurate and correctly punctuated. She made a big deal out of overuse and by the time students left vonz's classroom, they knew how to write and punctuate effectively. In the twenty-four years (shudder) since graduating from JMHS, I've let myself slide. What did seven days without exclamation points teach me?

First, I use exclamation points too much. Most of what I typed that week was perfectly fine punctuated by the humble period.

Second, interjections have their place. Sometimes you're excited and you need to shout.

Third, I'm proud to say I even managed to keep my creative prose free of exclamation points during my experiment. There were a few times (usually when writing dialogue) that I was a little worried, but once I thought about it for a few seconds, I found effective choices that I actually liked better than my original instincts.

The biggest lesson for me was that email and social media like Facebook make overusing the exclamation point frightfully easy.

When the goal is to keep up with as many people as possible as regularly as possible, quality suffers. When we're celebrating or commiserating, we want the force of our emotions to come through so we tend to respond using short phrases and exclamation points. We're attempting to replace our body language and facial expressions, but there is no replacement.

Although I started out giving up exclamation points for one week, it wasn't like all those times I gave up chocolate for Lent; I didn't return to littering my text with exclamations the minute my week was up. Not everything my friends say requires an exclamatory response. Sometimes? Yes. Some people might think I'm being stingy with my emotions by withholding exclamation points, and perhaps I am. However, I choose to think that when everything is exciting, after a while nothing is.

PS: I deliberately used one exclamation point during my week-long hiatus: to express my excitement when Penelope's soccer team won the first game in their fall classic tournament. I stand by that choice because if I'd been there for the game I would have been cheering.