February Reading

Fiction Read in February:

American Housewife by Helen Ellis
Wickedly funny collection of short stories. I listened to this one on audiobook which made it even better. It’s read by multiple women and the different voices combined made it even more enjoyable. It got me through several mornings on the treadmill. 

The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester
Mystery set among the suffragettes in late 19th century London. Trapeze artists and circus acts and the fashion of corsets all mixed in.  I didn’t love this one but I did find the history of the struggle for the vote for women fascinating. I still find it unbelievable that women have had the right to vote for less than 100 years.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley
The latest installment in the Flavia deLuce series. Enjoyable as usual and the more we get to know Flavia the more real she seems and the more I like her. 

Echoes of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon edited by Laurie R. King
This is the third (or fourth) in a series of short stories by well-known mystery writers inspired by Sherlock Holmes. Very fun to read (especially after enjoying the latest episodes in the BBC Sherlock series). Some of the short stories are very obviously directly related to the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Others are only related in a tangential way but they are all excellent for mystery lovers. 

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
This one was an out of the box reading choice for me as a YA Science Fiction novel (and winner of the YA Speculative Fiction Cybils category). I gave it to my oldest to read and he enjoyed it so I thought I’d try it. Quite engrossing (as several way past my bedtime reading sessions attest to). There is a zombie creating virus, a out of control artificially intelligent computer, spaceships and two star-crossed (literally) teenagers. The story format is that of files relating what happened after one rival mining company attacked a mining settlement on a distant planet and set off a chain of horrific events. There is also some disturbing violence, a fair amount of rough language and sexual talk between the teenagers. If you have teens that have read The Hunger Games they can probably handle this one but if you have younger or more sensitive teens you might want to wait. 

Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer
Read for the Newbery Challenge at Hope is the Word. I loved this story of a young girl in New York City in the 1890’s. It reminded me of other books with feisty young girls as heroines: All of a Kind Family, Caddie Woodlawn, the Moffats, Anne of Green Gables.

Non-Fiction Books Read in February:

Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel
Story of Galileo and his daughter who was a nun. Gives new perspective on the idea that Galileo was the beginning of science vs. religion. Galileo believed in science but in science as a way to understand God. 

Books for Living by Will Schwalbe
I typically really love books about books. This one was ok, but didn’t really resonate with me as others in the genre. There is more on Schwalbe’s life than on the books he highlights and sometimes it seemed to me that he was stretching to make a particular book fit with the point he wanted to make. 

Marbled Flowers


For a fairly quick art project this week, we made these spring flowers using the marbled paper from a few weeks ago. I got the idea for the project from Deep Space Sparkle. The directions are simple. Using a piece of  construction paper folded in half, we cut a vase out along the fold of the paper. We then cut out the flower centers, petals, and stems from the marbled paper and then we glued flowers and vase onto a larger sheet of construction paper. I did suggest to the kids that they arrange all the shapes on the page before gluing so that they could figure out how they wanted it to look before committing.


David chose to glue his petals in a way that they curled off the page, giving a 3-D effect. I also liked that his finished result is very asymmetrical on the page.


Ruth found the cutting and glueing to be a little more challenging that David. It was a good project for her because it worked on skills that she hasn’t mastered. It also was inherently more freeform than some other art projects. She’s a bit of  a perfectionist so I always like giving her art projects that encourage her to not worry about “getting it right”.

Read Aloud Thursday

If it’s the last Thursday of the month then it’s time for Read Aloud Thursday at Hope is the Word. Check it out. This week Amy has a lot of great early readers and picture books to share.

Part of our “read-aloud” culture is audiobooks. We almost always have a current audiobook going in the car. In the past few years we’ve enjoyed listening to several series in full. The current series we are totally absorbed by is Maryrose Wood’s  The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place6609748We’ve  loved the first four in the series and finally got the fifth installation from the holds list at the library.

The plot is fairly typical of a middle grade mystery/adventure. The Victorian setting is unusual but the basic plot-line of mysterious orphans in some kind of vague danger will be familiar to readers of other juvenile stories. Penelope Lumley, a recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females goes to work as a governess at Ashton Place. Her three young charges are unusual: they were raised by wolves. As the books progress the mystery of just how the Incorrigibles ended up in the forest intertwines with other mysteries: What is the howling coming from the attic, Why is Lord Ashton so obsessed with his Almanac, How did Penelope end up at the Swanburne Academy as a young girl and most importantly, Exactly what is in the hair tonic that the Swanburne headmistress insists that Miss Lumley use?

However, although the plot is somewhat unexceptional, there is much about this series that is truly exceptional. The characters are quirky but never snarky. There are frequent asides about topics as varied as synonyms and ferns and the dodo. Like the best Victorian literature, the reader is often addressed directly. There are running gags (like the fact that Miss Lumley or the children often imagine a modern invention like the phone or airplane but then are too busy to pursue actually inventing it.) The Incorrigibles themselves are model students if you are a teacher who wants students who are energetic, creative, and eager to learn. They may be distracted by squirrels but they are always ready for whatever lesson their beloved Miss Lumawoo has planned for them.

If you like slightly quirky books with a touch of mystery and a lot of sweetness underneath the off-beat humor, I highly recommend this series.


Homeschooling High School


John is 8th grade this year. That means that we are right on the edge of a scary, yet exciting step in our family life. Yes, I mean high school. We’ve always said that beyond a certain age that the decision to homeschool (or not) is up to the each individual child. John has chosen to continue homeschooling through high school. I’m excited about that. And nervous. So, I’m doing a lot of research and thinking about curriculum. I’m also finding that the response from other people is similar to what I heard 9 years ago when we began this journey. I think a lot of people can imagine homeschooling a 1st grader but when it gets to high school they can’t imagine what that would be like. And in all honesty, since I haven’t done it yet, I can only guess what it will be like. But I thought I’d answer some of the many questions I’ve been getting recently.

How do “they” know that you’re doing all the required classes?
The answer to that depends on the state you live in. We happen to live in a state with very minimal requirements. So for us, the answer is really that there aren’t any required classes. I do have to notify the state at the beginning of the year about our plans to homeschool and tell them our basic curriculum. We also need to do some kind of end of year evaluation to show progress. But we don’t have to follow the same curriculum as the public schools.

That said, most homeschoolers I know do try and have their high schooled students meet the same rough requirements as public schooled kids for the sake of college. So if most students in your state take four years of history, it’s probably a good idea to not do only 1 or 2 years. But you don’t really have to study the same material that they do in public school.

What about PE?
This is sort of the same question as above but it seems to get asked separately. I think there are some states where homeschoolers do have to document PE as well as other specific requirements. We don’t have to do that so I don’t plan on doing any kind of formal PE. Being active and exercising are different. John is a year-round swimmer and active with Scouts. He bikes and hikes and is fairly active. So in my mind PE already has a nice checkmark by it.

What about socialization?
Ok, no one actually asks that question in those words. They did back when we were starting out in kindergarten. But now the question is asked in different ways: What about prom? What about hanging out with friends? What about sports?

I wrote a long time ago that socialization is not the non-issue that some homeschoolers might say it is. As my kids have gotten older I’ve also realized that their need for social interaction varies widely. John is an introvert, like me. He has a good small group of friends but he isn’t someone who needs (or wants) to be with people all day long. As he’s gotten older we’ve purposely invested more time in activities that enable him to deepen his relationships with his closest friends.

Also, it won’t come as a shock to other homeschoolers, but there is a homeschool version of just about every high school social activity. Our co-op has a student government, a yearbook, a graduation ceremony, a very active drama group, a high-level speech and debate club and multiple social events yearly. There are multiple homeschool proms in the area and multiple different organizations that offer varsity level homeschool sports.

How will you teach Math? And Science?
I get this question a LOT. Ironically, these are the two subjects I worry about the least. For me the question is more how to teach a foreign language. Or writing. Or music. But it’s the same idea. How do you teach a subject that you are not an expert in?

There are oodles of options for homeschoolers who don’t feel able to teach a particular subject themselves. There are co-ops. There are online classes meant for homeschoolers. There are also other online or non-traditional classes meant for anyone. There is dual enrollment at a community college. There are tutors.

Different families use outside options to a different extent. Some families outsource almost all of their high school classes. Others teach almost everything at home. We will likely use a mix. Next year, John will continue to do Latin online with the same provider that he did Latin I with this year. His Math program is AOPS which is meant to be done independently. He loves it and it’s a great fit for him so we will continue to use it. I plan on having him do science at our co-op even though I’m comfortable teaching it at home. We happen to have some excellent high-school science teachers at the co-op and it’s a good way to lighten my teaching load a bit. The other classes for next year are more up in the air. Right now the plan is to do them all at home (rather than outsourced) but I’m researching options.

And the implied question…Isn’t it weird for a teen to want to be home?
No one has exactly asked this. But even from other homeschoolers there is an assumption that teens in general and even more so boys don’t want to be home with their parents. And if they do, there is something slightly odd about them.

I’m not foolish enough to think that John is choosing to homeschool in order to be with me. He’s choosing it for a lot of reasons. The main one is most likely that it’s what he already knows. It’s easy to continue doing the same thing. He also knows that the amount of free time he has is far greater as a homeschooler than in a traditional school. I joke that he’s the perfect homeschooler: he works hard but likes to do it in his own way and time. But in many ways that’s true. He gets up later than most kids his age, drinks coffee, reads the paper, and then gets to work.  I briefly check in on him several times a day and then we meet for longer times during the week for deeper discussions.

I do think that John doesn’t see being home with me as a bad thing. We get along well. We have similar personalities and like a lot of the same things. That isn’t to say that things are all sunshine and happiness. He’s a 13 year old boy and nowhere near perfect. He annoys me at times and I know I annoy him. However, overall we have fun together. And he (mostly) enjoys being with his brother and sister during the day. It’s not the main reason we are choosing to homeschool but it is a nice bonus.

Stay tuned. We’ll see what I’m saying four years from now when we’re coming to the end of his time at home. I can’t say for sure what high school will bring but if it’s anything like what we’ve done so far it will be a mix of the good and the bad. Regardless, I’m looking forward to this next part of our homeschool adventure.



Marbled Paper

I am not a particularly arts and crafty person. But I have kids who love art. Ruth, in particular, loves crafts. She makes things all the time: scarves out of T-shirts, bracelets for her stuffed bunny, a  monogrammed sign for her door out of cardboard and patterned duct tape, etc. Her favorite part of the week is any kind of art project that we do. So, I’m always happy to find a project that is a new technique for us to try.


Last week we tried this very cool marbled paper project from The Artful Parent. Like the best projects it was fairly simple and turned out beautiful results. Full instructions are at the link above but basically you put shaving foam in a pie plate or small baking dish and then drip liquid watercolor on it. You then swirl the drops together (we used a chopstick). Then you dip a piece of paper on the top and scrape the shaving cream off the paper. The result is really cool marbled paper.

img_2396We used posterboard for the paper cut into smaller squares. The edges curled quite a bit but then flattened out nicely after a few days under some books. If we did it again I might go with stiffer paper (like cardstock). We found that we could get one or two dips before it worked better to add a new color. I thought the process worked best to start with one or two colors and then add more as we went. My kids liked just to add a bunch to begin so there paper got more and more solid as they went. We then just got fresh shaving cream when it got too muddy looking. We also found it hard to scrape off the shaving cream with cardboard as in the original link. Instead I used a chopstick and then wiped off the excess with paper towels. It was a somewhat messy project for us, but since the materials were easily washable it cleaned up easily.

Afterwards, we used the paper to make Valentines for Ruth’s class at co-op. We just cut hearts out of the paper and she wrote a message on each. Then we tied the heart to a lollipop with some ribbon. It looked really cute and she was so excited to give them to her friends.

January Reading

Fiction Read in January:

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
I picked this one up off the “new” shelves at the library somewhat at random. I had read one other book by Barnes and liked it. The Noise of Time tells the story of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, something I knew less than nothing about before reading the book. For that reason alone, it was an interesting read. It also explores issues of art and power as Shostakovich struggles with living in the Soviet Union and the line between being doing what he has to to survive and create art and becoming a hypocrite or someone who is just a pawn of the state.Barnes’s style is not for everyone. It’s somewhat dry and crisp. It’s not necessarily my favorite style, yet, the two books of his that I have read have lingered in my mind long afterwards. 

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleve
As a contrast, Everyone Brave is Forgiven was an engaging and beautifully written book but not one that I think will necessarily stand out when I look back at the end of the year. Partially that is because it’s yet another WWII era book set in London with brave sympathetic characters. I loved the people and the story but I’ve read many others like it. 

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan
One of the Cybils nominees in the poetry category, this novel in verse tells the story of year in the life of a fifth grade class whose school is doomed to be shut down at the end of the year. Each poem is told in the voice of a different student with the conceit being that the students are leaving their story for a time capsule that will be left at the site of the school.

My Brother Sam is Dead by Christopher and James Lincoln Collier
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
I assigned both of these Revolutionary era novels to my eighth graders. Astonishingly, it was the first time I had read either. The different views of war told in each made for some good discussion (and an upcoming compare and contrast paper for him). It was especially interesting to discuss these two in comparison to Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson which gives yet another very different perspective on the Revolutionary War. 

Non-Fiction Read in January: 

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
by J. D. Vance

Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything by Jennifer Armstrong
If you watched TV in the 1990s this is a fun read. It got a little too detailed but overall it was a fun inside look at the world behind the hit TV show. 

Grit: Passion, Perseverance and the Study of Success by Angela Duckworth
Grit is the new EQ…the secret to success and the thing everyone wants to talk about. How to get it. How to cultivate it in kids. How to know if you have it. Duckworth has a lot that is very interesting to say about grit and what drives successful people. She does a good job of balancing the psychological research and stories with more nuts and bolts questions (how do we cultivate grit in our kids). The biggest missing piece for me was that she never really defines what success is. A central idea of the book is that “gritty” people have an overarching life goal that drives all the smaller goals in their life. As a Christian, I think more in terms of purpose than goal and I would say that the purpose of life is, “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” I finished the book feeling vaguely dissatisfied with how to apply the concepts to that kind of purpose or to a life where success might look very different than a striving for a very specific kind of wordly success. 



Read Aloud Thursday

read-aloud-1-300x300 Amy is back with Read Aloud Thursday! It’s a great place to get recommendations for books to read with your kids. She has a fantastic recommendation today for a math picture book that I’m going to add to our list.

We read less and less picture books together as a family. This makes me sad sometimes, but it’s also because my kids are reading more and more on their own. So it’s more bittersweet than bitter. This month I got all the Cybils fiction picture book nominees out of the library and read them with various combinations of kids. (Mostly with the 7 and 10 year old. But my 13 year old still always reads all the picture books in the basket on his own even if he’s not around when we read them together.)

My favorite of the nominees was Brendan Wenzel’s They all Saw a Cat. A cat travels 28101612through the world “with its whiskers, ears and paws….” and encounters a dog, a child, a bird, a bee, a fox, a mouse, a snake, a fish, a flea, a skunk, a worm and a bat. Each page shows how the different creature sees the cat. We see differences in perspective (a bird’s eye view) and differences in how animals see (the snake sees in heat waves) and differences in perception (the mouse sees the cat as a huge scary beast). The text is simple and repetitive but the illustrations elicited a lot of good conversation from my kids about the way each creature “saw”. Bonus points because the repetitive refrain reminded me of one of my favorite poems by Pablo Neruda.

Honorable mentions for me would go to:
A Hungry Lion or a Dwindling Assortment of Animals by Lucy Ruth Cummins
There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins
Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev

Cummins’s book is funny and unexpected. And vaguely disturbing (comment by my 10 year old vegetarian son). Collins’s Bear and Mouse reminded me of the Bear and Mouse in Bonny Becker’s fantastic series of books except that in this case it’s the Mouse that is the curmudgeon of sorts. And Mantchev’s book about a boy with a tiny elephant pet who is left out of the neighborhood pet club is sweet and funny.

Our current family read-aloud is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s been fun to read these out loud. The boys have read them on their own but this is the first time through for Ruth and we are enjoying sharing the world of Harry with her. We also listened to Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon as our most recent audiobook. We have multiple audiobooks on hold as our next potential listen but I’m not sure what to do next as our next read aloud. Any suggestions?

And don’t forget to stop by Hope is the Word for more reading aloud!


Thoughts on Religion and Politics

Michael Gerson’s editorials in the Washington Post have become must reads for me as a Christian who finds herself deeply troubled by our new President and by the embracing of his policies by so many of my fellow Christians. I find Gerson offers salt and light.

From today’s editorial:

Third, conservative Christians need to remember that — throughout the cautionary tale of Western history — when religion identifies with a political order, it is generally not the political order that suffers most. It is the reputation of the faith.

For the full article go here.

Cracking the Cabbage Code

I have always been a cabbage hater. Also not that fond of cauliflower or broccoli. Especially broccoli. I didn’t like Brussel sprouts until about a year or two ago and then had my world turned upside down when I tried a recipe of them roasted with a little maple syrup and orange juice. Still, cabbage. Blech. I never choose cole slaw as a side and stay away from anything remotely cabbage like.

Recently, though that has all changed. First, I tried this Warm Brussel Sprout and Pear salad from Budget Bytes. Oh, my! So delicious. Soon after that H. made a kale and cabbage slaw for Christmas. Equally delicious. (Kale was another vegetable that I felt was completely overrated.) H. remarked after the kale slaw was a hit that he felt like we had “cracked the code” on how to make really yummy slaw like salads. And since then we’ve made a bunch of slight variations on the same dish and they have all been hits.

Basically the recipe is:
Some kind of hearty shredded veggie (kale, cabbage, Brussel sprouts)
Some other veggies (red peppers, carrots, snap peas, broccoli)
Something sweet (pears, currents, figs, dates, raisins, dried cranberries)
Something crunchy/salty (cashews, peanuts, walnuts)
Some kind of dressing (make your own or bottled)

You could get fancy and add feta or olives or bacon or shredded chicken or whatever. All of these variations are incredibly easy and quick to make and mostly cheap. My kids also love them and eat them which is a revelation.

And now that I’ve had a ton of leftover cabbage from all our salads I’ve been trying other recipes and enjoying them also. I made this Beef and Cabbage Stirfry and Okonomiyaki (Savory Cabbage Pancakes) in the last week. Both were gobbled up by the kids and me (I made the stir-fry without beef and then added it in after the vegetarian in the family took his share.)

Alert readers will notice that all the recipes linked are from Budget Bytes. I’m not sure my family would ever have anything to eat other than cereal and scrambled eggs if it wasn’t for that website. I like that the recipes make an attempt to be frugal but more importantly I like that they are always tasty. And perhaps even more than that I appreciate that they are realistic. The ingredients are ones I have (or can easily substitute). The directions don’t involve a cooking degree or hours in the kitchen. If she says a recipe will take 40 min, it takes 40 min. If you aren’t using Beth to help you plan your meals, you should be!

A New Year’s Resolution

I love new beginnings: a new school year or semester, a new blank journal, a new  year. I say that I don’t like to make New Year resolutions but the truth is I often have some secret resolutions or plans. I might not label them as such but I know what they are. I think I like new beginnings because I like planning. I like lists and organizing and making a plan. But I’m not as good at the execution as I am at the making of the plan.

So far the plans swirling around in my head are the usual: walk more, exercise more, eat better, read more, write more. But the one thing that I think might actually have the most impact is the one thing I am least excited to do.

At church on New Year’s Day we had a guest pastor who preached from Ephesians on prayer. During the sermon he talked about praying for our enemies. Not just praying “Lord, make that person less rude.” Or even, “Lord help me to love that person better.” But to actually pray for them. For their salvation, for prosperity and peace in their lives, for health and happiness.

Something about that idea struck me like a blow. I was also convicted to think about who my “enemies” are. I think the word enemy sounds so harsh to modern ears. I don’t want to call anyone my enemy. I might say in my mind that I find someone difficult or I might just think that we aren’t meant to get along with everyone but surely those aren’t enemies, right?

Maybe it’s just words but I think by refusing to admit to myself that I do see certain people as opposed to my happiness and really as enemies than I am also refusing to admit that these are the very people in my life that I am called to pray for. So I somewhat reluctantly made a resolution to pray for my enemies.

So far I have to admit that it’s been crazy hard. It’s amazing how resistant I am to praying for good things for the people in my life that I find the most difficult. I keep finding myself reverting to sneaky ways of asking God to change the person to make them less annoying to me. And then I sort of get dragged back to what I am supposed to be praying for.

I don’t know what God is going to do with this resolution and I have to say that even though I think it will be good I kind of dread it. Even more than exercising more.