July/August Reading


Fiction Read in July and August:

War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
Read in preparation for John’s first unit study of the year. 

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
A retelling of the Snow White story, told from the perspective of the stepmother (Boy) and her daughter (Bird). Oyeyemi explores issues around race and the perception of beauty in our culture. An intriguing book that deserves a longer review, or at least more attention than I’m giving it here. I’d recommend it for those who like both well-crafted stories and pondering bigger issues. 

And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass 
Kip is a somewhat lost middle-aged art history professor who recently didn’t get tenure and finds himself drifting through life. His wife, desperate to kick-start him into some kind of action, sends him off on a journey to discover who his biological father is. Told from multiple perspectives and in flashbacks, this story weaves through the lives of a New England family and their friends. It was a good read although not particularly memorable. 

A Garment of Shadows by Laurie R. King
The latest installment in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. I’m now caught up before the next one is published in early 2015. 

The Giver by Lois Lowry
Read in preparation for John’s unit study. More on that in the next few weeks, hopefully. 

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
Also read for the unit study, this was my first MacDonald book. I quite enjoyed it and see why C.S. Lewis considered MacDonald a great writer of Christian allegory and fantasy. Lewis once said about MacDonald, “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.”

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

Non-Fiction read in July/August

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
I got this one out for the description of the title essay which is partially about the author’s experience being a model patient for medical student’s practical exams. It’s actually much more about her experience having an abortion. The rest of the essays vary widely in content (from an essay on saccharine to one on extreme endurance races to one on the West Memphis Three). The thread that holds all the essays together is the theme of empathy. Jamison particularly ponders her own medical experiences, including a heart surgery for an arrhythmia, a violent attack in Central America where she was punched in the face and her abortion. I was quite impressed with Jamison’s ability to write beautifully and intelligently on such a wide range of topics. And I appreciated some of her musings on the nature of empathy.

Ironically I found at times that that it was difficult to be empathetic towards Jamison.  At times I felt like saying “Yes, these things happened to you. Now it’s time to move on.” Then I felt kind of sheepish as she has a whole discussion in her essay on women’s pain about how society often has that approach to hurting young women. In the end I decided that this read to me like a young book. It’s similar to listening to a teenager tell you about the current crisis in their life. You know it’s big to them. You want to have empathy. But sometimes it’s hard. 

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
 Somewhat better known as a novelist, Patchett has also had a long career writing non-fiction for magazines. She began at Seventeen magazine, largely to pay the bills and ended up at places like Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly. This collection of essays roughly serves as a memoir of sorts as she collected a sampling of her non-fiction over her life. 

I really enjoyed this book and it strikes me now that’s probably in part because it’s from a more mature voice than the previous one. The essay on caring for her grandmother with dementia was lovely and touching without being overly maudlin. Ditto the essay on her dying dog and companion of many years. The early essays on how to become a writer are excellent and would be worthwhile reading for anyone who thinks they might want to pursue a career in writing. 

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead 
Part literary criticism, part biography and part memoir this book is unlike anything else I’ve read. Rebecca Mead looks at Middlemarch, the book that has been the most important influence her own life. I expected this to read mostly like a memoir but I was pleasantly surprised to find it was so much more. Mead includes her own experience but only where it illuminates the book or where the book illuminates her experience. I mostly appreciated Mead’s love for Middlemarch and her extensive research on George Eliot and insight into how Eliot’s life may have influenced her books, particularly Middlemarch. Like all the best books, this one made me want to read more: Middlemarch again, more Eliot, more on Eliot. 

Scenes from a wetland walk


IMG_1019 IMG_1020 IMG_1030 IMG_1050IMG_1091 IMG_1084 IMG_1087 IMG_1089 IMG_1107 IMG_1022Friday we took the opportunity to take a field trip to one of our favorite nature spots.

4 Snapping turtles
4 Painted turtles
3 Great Blue Herons
2 Egrets
Many unidentified birds
1 Daddy Long-Legs Spider
2 Cicadas
Many many frogs
Too many to count snails and minnows
1 Pair of brand new pink sneakers

One of the best things about going back again and again to a favorite spot is seeing the seasonal and cyclical changes.

Previous visits this year:
April 2014

March 2014

Jan 2014

And one of the best things about blogging is documenting the changes that also occur in the humans:

Jan 2013

Sept 2011

Oct 2009

Kindergarten: The moon, some milk and some Oreos.



Along with reading books on cats and moons for Ruth’s first week of school we did some fun activities to go along with our study of Kitten’s First Full Moon. Just for fun we did a Milk Color Changing Demonstration from Steve Spangler ScienceIMG_0514Drop four drops of food coloring into a shallow bowl or plate of milk. Touch the middle with a Q-tip. Nothing will happen. Then put a drop of dish soap on the other end of the Q-tip and touch the middle again.


The colors go crazy. The explanation for why is on the Steve Spangler site and has to do with what happens when the chemical bonds holding the proteins and fat in solution in the milk are disrupted by the polar (both hydrophilic and hydrophobic) soap. For Ruth, we stuck with “Ooh! Pretty colors!” I made sure John and to some extent David understood what was going on behind the magic.


We also spent some time talking about the phases of the moon. This cool Oreo demonstration was a win-win. Easy to do, a great visual picture of the moon phases and tasty too. Which I guess makes it a win-win-win. We had them for tea time while we read some of our moon books. We also spent some time working through a couple of activities from one of our Delta Science in a Nutshell kits on the moon. We are starting the year with a unit on astronomy for science which went along perfectly with Ruth’s book this week.


Of all the things I planned, I think what Ruth liked best was this somewhat spontaneous idea I came up with one day to give her something to do while I worked with the boys on math. I traced a picture from Kitten’s First Full Moon and outlined it in Sharpie marker. My idea was to then have her try and shade it in black and white to mimic the illustrations in the book. She, however, was adamantly against that idea and wanted to use as much color as possible. I gave in and we talked briefly about why the illustrator might have chosen black and white over color and then I gave her the colored pencils and turned her loose. By the end of the week she must have done 10 of this pictures and David also did a few.

All in all, a good first week.

Kitten’s First Full Moon


We have a new kindergartener in our house. Ruth won the “Little Miss Enthusiasm” award this year from her swim team coaches and that pretty much sums up her approach so far to everything school related. (It’s only the second week so we’ll see if it will continue.) Last year she and I dabbled in preschool. I had big plans to do a “round the world” preschool for her but they fell apart quickly. We ended up reading loosely on themes but I could tell she wanted and was ready for more. I used Five in a Row with both boys for preschool and kindergarten but I had thought about using something else for Ruth, just to keep it fresh for me as a teacher. But I finally came back to more of a “why fix what isn’t broken?” point of view. She and I are going to do Five in a Row and I find myself newly excited at the thought of going through many of the much loved books with her.

Our first book of the year was Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes. Astute readers will notice that it is in fact, not a Five in a Row book. And such is the benefit of homeschooling the third time around. Kitten’s First Full Moon is a beautiful, perfect book for this age group. (It’s also a Caldecott Medalist.)  It’s a sweet story of a kitten who thinks the full moon is a bowl of milk and tries and fails over and over to drink it. The illustrations are entirely done in black and white which is an unusual choice for a kid’s book but so striking that you wonder why more books aren’t monochromatic.

My approach for doing Five in a Row is to use the main book as a jumping off point. We read a lot of other books about the same topic and we do some related activities. We usually read the main book more than once but not necessarily the prescribed five days in a row. Another benefit of homeschooling the third time around. We read a lot of books to go along with Kitten’s First Full Moon. Some about cats. Some about moons.

A new book that we both enjoyed was I See Kitty by Yasmine Surovec. Chloe loves kitties. In fact she loves kitties so much that she sees them everywhere. In the sky. In the stars. In cotton candy. The reader can try and spot the kitty along with Chloe. This would be a fun book for very young toddlers and preschoolers as the words are simple, colors are bright and it’s fun to play the “find the kitty” game. But Ruth at almost 5 was also really charmed by the hiding kitties so there is appeal to slightly older kids also.

Another new book we enjoyed was David Kherdian’s Come Back, Moon with illustrations by his wife and Caldecott winning illustrator, Nonny Hogrogrian. I’m not sure if it is based on a traditional folktale but the story has that feel. Bear steals the moon because he can’t sleep. Fox and the other forest animals set out to find who has taken the moon and how to get it back. The story is gentle and slow with soft watercolor illustrations. There’s nothing flashy or overly clever here, as in so many of today’s picture books. I appreciated that simplicity.
Other Cat Books We Recommend: 
Ginger and the Mystery Visitor by Charlotte Voake
Have You Seen My Cat? by Eric Carle
Three Little Kittens by Jerry Pinkney
Posy by Charlotte Newbery and Catherine Rayner
Copycat by Ruth Brown
Cat by Mike Dumbleton
A Kitten Tale by Eric Rohmann

Other Moon Books We Recommend:
Meet Me at the Moon by Gianna Marino
The Moon Book by Gail Gibbons
Red Knit Cap Girl by Naoko Stoop
Moon Dreams by Ruth Martin
Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me by Eric Carle

Today, stop by Hope is the Word for Read Aloud Thursday. 

Tomorrow, come back here and I’ll be sharing some of the activities we did to go with our moon studies.

What we are reading.


I haven’t done this in awhile but I thought I’d take the time to share what books we are reading as a family. We’re still juggling a separate bedtime “special” book for each child. In reality, the boys both listen to both books so eventually, it might just make sense to have one book. But for now, this works for us.

Ruth and I are reading Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins. I discovered this sweet trilogy a few years ago with David. They tell the story of three friends, Lumphy (a buffalo), Stingray, and Plastic (a red rubber ball). The friends have adventures visiting Tuk-Tuk the towel in the bathroom and braving the scary washing machine in the basement. They are sweetly told and a good pacing for young listeners. I like that Jenkins also shows the characters’ flaws (Stingray is kind of bossy and sometimes not a good friend) in a way that kids can probably identify with and learn from.

Back in the spring, when we were going on vacation, I picked up The Frog Princess by E.D. Baker to listen to in the car. Typically, the boys love listening to audiobooks on trips but Ruth isn’t always so excited about them and this can cause some squabbling. My thought was that a book about a princess might get her a little more interested. The boys resisted it a bit, but they are pretty open to any book, even about princesses. As John has said, “I don’t care if it’s about a girl. As long as interesting stuff happens to her.” Ruth ended up being only mildly more interested in that audiobook than any other but the boys fell in love with this series of stories about the magical kingdom of Greater Greensward. We have spent the summer happily listening to the next 6 in the series. Until, horrors of horrors, our library didn’t have the last audiobook. David then asked for the last book in the series to be his special book and we are all enjoying one last adventure with these characters.

Instead of frog princesses, we’re spending time in the car with giant rats, bats and cockroaches. John read this series by Suzanne Collins (yes, of the Hunger Games) a few years ago and really enjoyed it. David discovered Gregor the Overlander in the audiobook section at the library and thought it looked interesting so it’s become our new story for the car. I’ve never read it myself and so far am enjoying it. It’s also a good way to make the boys practice narrating/summarizing. They listen to the story sometimes without me in the car (when H. is driving and I’m elsewhere). So then when I get back in I make them sum up the story for me so I can be up-to-date.

I’ll admit to not being a huge Madeline L’Engle fan as a kid. I liked A Wrinkle in Time okay, but I don’t even remember reading her other books. It may have been that I read them at the wrong time or they were just a little too dense or weird for me. John has been picking as his special books her Time Quartet and we are currently reading A Wind in the Door. I’m still not sure if it might be too dense and a little too weird for me. Or maybe I’m just not getting it all. John agrees that it’s weird but he says he likes it so we’ll keep going.

As a family we also read a different book together at lunch. Currently we’re reading Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. I have seen such amazing love for this series, usually from homeschoolers. I’m finding it a bit slow and dull. It may be partially my fault as we’re taking forever to get through it due to not much lunchtime reading over the summer. It’s a little hard to feel invested in a book 
when the story feels more fractured. I’ve also finding all the sailing references kind of bewildering. Again, the kids seem to really enjoy it and say they want to keep going so we will. It feels like the kind of book that might sneak up on me later and surprise me with how much I like it so I’ll just have to see.

That’s what we’re reading together. John informed us at dinner that he’s reading 11 books on his own right now, but hasn’t quite settled on which one to focus on. He also just read The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald as his first assigned reading of the school year. I’m trying a new reading-based unit study approach with him. So far it’s going well. I hope to write a longer post about the study at some point. David is reading the third Harry Potter book. He really dove into the world of Hogwarts this summer. It’s been extra fun to see him and John sharing this world, both in conversation and in play (they built an entire Diagon Alley one day out of Legos and spent the day making stop-action animated movies using it as a set).

So that’s a bit of what we’re reading. What are you reading as this school year begins?


The Real Boy


Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs is a book that I’ve been meaning to read for awhile but somehow have never got around to. So when I saw her new book, The Real Boy, on the shelf at the library I picked it up for me and John, the resident fantasy novel lover in our house.

Oscar is an apprentice to Caleb, the last magician left on a magic-filled island. Oscar has always known he’s different: he doesn’t understand human interaction and he doesn’t remember any of his earliest years in an orphanage. He may not understand people but he does understand plants. He knows the forest and the language of herbs and medicines. On the island where Oscar lives, there are the magic people who live in the Barrow and there are the Shining City where the Shining People live. The Shining People don’t have any magic or the ability to use magic but they are beautiful and rich and they never get sick.

Oscar’s quiet life is turned upside down when Caleb goes off to the mainland on business and Caleb’s apprentice, Wolf, comes to a bad end. At the same time the Shining People’s children become ill, something seems to be happening to the magic in the forest and there seems to be a monster living in the Barrow. It is up to Oscar and his one friend, Callie, the healer’s apprentice, to figure out what is going on on their island and how to fix it.

I really liked this book. There is somewhat of a reference to Pinocchio, as you may have guessed from the title. However, it’s not really a re-telling of that fairytale. There were twists I didn’t see coming and ones I expected and was wrong about. It’s somewhat of a quieter fantasy, the story is as much about Oscar’s struggle to learn how to become a friend and how to interact with other people as it is about magic. I think for this reason I liked it better than John, who really digs dragons and elves and wizards and epic battles. I wondered at times if Oscar is supposed to be autistic but no diagnosis is spelled out in the book. Still, it may be a good book for a kid struggling with fitting in or one to help a kid understand a friend who might be on the autism spectrum or a bit quirky. I saw The Real Boy described on Goodreads and being “for the Neville Longbottoms” who loved Harry Potter and I thought that was a great description. Oscar is much more of a Neville than a Harry. All in all, I found this an endearing story with an intriguing plot that was beautifully written. I would highly recommend it.

And I’m definitely moving Breadcrumbs up the TBR list.



Applications to be a Cybils judge are available now at the (new and super fancy) Cybils website. I was a Round 1 panelist last year and had so much fun doing it. If you are a blogger who loves children’s literature I would highly recommend it. It’s a lot of work (if you can call reading stacks of books “work” ) but a really great experience.

And it begins.



Tuesday was our first day of school. 6th grade, 3rd grade and …..KINDERGARTEN. The sixth grader and the third grader in the house were only mildly excited (or not really excited at all) about the school year beginning. But Ruth is thrilled to finally, finally, finally be a full-fledged kindergartener.

One of our school-year traditions is to have the kids choose breakfast. This year Ruth got to choose and it was donuts. Then after the donuts we take the annual “First Day of _____” photos. Followed by a treasure hunt ending in some school supplies (fancy pencils or lunch-bags or notebooks or paints). Last year I skipped the treasure hunt as there weren’t really any supplies the boys needed and I thought they might be getting a little old for it. Let’s just say I won’t skip it again. Finally, in the afternoon we go on some kind of adventure. In the past we’ve gone ice-skating, to an indoor water park, to an indoor trampoline place, and to a special Putt-Putt course. This year we started school on a day when H. was at work so we decided to save the special adventure for a day when he could join us. Instead, we went to the cheap theater to see a movie.

Oh yeah, we also did a little math and reading. And some handwriting thrown in for good measure. All in all, a fairly successful first day back.

The Sometimes Vegetarian: Black Bean Enchiladas



Beans have become one of our go-to staples as we eat more vegetarian recipes for our resident 7 year old vegetarian. These black bean enchiladas have become one of my “Quick, it’s 5:0,  What’s for dinner?” meals.  Everyone likes them, even the 4 year old dedicated carnivore of the family. They are also easy and easy to adjust to whatever ingredients you have on hand.


The base is canned black beans. But then you can get creative and add whatever you like: spinach, corn, rice and cheddar cheese are our usuals. You can also add other veggies, for us typically whatever else we might have leftover. A little sour cream to help bind it all together.


They get rolled up and topped with enchilada sauce and more cheese if you please. All in all, pretty quick and tasty. Most members of our family can eat 1-2 of these.

Black Bean Enchiladas

1 can (15 ounce) black beans, rinsed and drained.
1 can of corn (or corn cut off 2-3 cobs, or about 1 cup frozen corn, no need to thaw)
2 cups fresh spinach
1/2 cup leftover rice if you have it on hand
About 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
***Substitue or add whatever other veggies you like, I find leftover veggies work great here (red or green peppers, zucchini, onions, mushrooms)
About 1/2 cup sour cream (more if you like it a lot, it’s mostly to bind it all together and make the mixture a bit wet)
Salt to taste

Mix all of above together. Spoon down center of flour tortilla. Above should make between 5-6 enchiladas, if you want to stretch it to 7-8 add another can of beans and more rice.

Place enchiladas seam side down in baking dish coated with cooking spray. Pour enchilada sauce over top and sprinkle with more cheddar cheese. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350 for 30 minutes, uncover for last 10 minutes.

Borrowed Names


In 1867 three women were born: Laura Ingalls, Sarah Breedlove and Marie Curie. The first went on to become a beloved children’s writer; the second became Madame C. J. Walker, an African-American business woman and founder of a haircare empire; and the last became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman to win two Nobels and the only person to ever win in multiple sciences.

Jeannine Atkins brings together these three women in a collection of poems. The poems center on the relationships between each woman and her daughter. The poems bring in true stories mixed with “imagination to fill in the gaps”. Atkins imagines Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane walking the same line between fact and fiction in the poem Shears:

Let just an edge peek out.
Rose takes back the notebook.
Begin with extravagance, but be ready to trim…

They put in poverty, blizzards, prairie fires,
leave out the milliner who cried
as she tied ribbons around hatbands
chose feathers, folded paper flowers, mourned
the husband who’d left her….

Don’t mention the children
who froze to death on Plum Creek,
the murderers in Kansas.
One family has troubles enough.

They won’t write about the baby
who was buried.
Even good dogs must die,
but such a shame that Jack was bartered.
Let’s let dear old Jack spend his last night at home
curled in a peaceful sleep.
Truth is as much justice as fact.

Due to the nature of the poetry the biographies of the woman are sketches only but rendered in a way that fleshes out familiar figures or makes the reader intrigued to learn more. I think this could be an excellent companion book for a study of the time period, or for a discussion of women’s history. Or just for the pleasure of reading the poems themselves.