About Alice

I'm a part-time pediatrician and full-time mom of two boys and one girl.

A Mother’s Day Wetlands Walk

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For Mother’s Day we spent the afternoon at one of our favorite places. It was a gorgeous green day, the first warm and sunny day in a long stretch of cold rain.

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We saw a lot of animals, some that we had never seen before: a water snake, leeches (!!), numerous tadpoles, geese, red-winged blackbirds (my favorite), frogs, turtles, a crayfish, and an unconfirmed bald eagle (spotted in a tree and reportedly an eagle according to people who had binoculars).

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By far, the most exciting sight was this mother cardinal feeding her babies in a nest that we spotted on our way out. Very fitting for Mother’s Day indeed.

April Reading

Fiction Read in April: 

Nelly Dean: A Return to Wuthering Heights by Alison Case
I loved this companion to Wuthering Heights told from the perspective of Nelly Dean, the faithful servant to the Earnshaw family. I have mixed feelings about Wuthering Heights itself. At one time I though it a beautiful, dark and sad, but romantic story. I haven’t read it in a long time but I think I would see it with a different eye now. I certainly see it with a much different eye after reading Nelly Dean. Similar to how I felt after reading Jo Baker’s Longbourn, I wondered how I could have read the original and not wondered more about the life of the invisible servants. Not that Nelly Dean is invisible in the original, she is the narrator and very much a character. But she isn’t really given the chance to feel or think or be anything other than “housekeeper”. She only has a life in relationship to the life of Catherine and Heathcliff and the rest of the family. 

 I did a term paper on it in high school so I know the story fairly well but if you haven’t read the original you probably should do that before reading this book. Case refers to events from the original but without much explanation and it would be much harder to appreciate Nelly’s story without also knowing the rest of the story.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Another beautiful jewel of a book by Strout. Lucy Barton is lying in a hospital bed for weeks recovering from a surgery when her estranged mother comes to visit. The novel is told in short reminisces and stories that weave together to give us the picture of Lucy’s life. Partially about the mother-daughter relationship, partially about surviving abuse and childhood trauma, partially about what it means to be a writer and write your story, this short novel is a joy to read. 

China Run by David Ball
Eh. A thriller pressed on me by a friend. It was a good light read when I needed it but just an ok book.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (audiobook)
For about the first third of this book (shortlisted for the Booker Prize) I wondered what all the fuss was about. It was classically Tyler: well-drawn realistic characters, family dynamics in a Baltimore suburb. Then the structure of the book suddenly changed and I got why I’ve saw this on a lot of best of lists last year. The story could be described as an “epic family drama looking at generations within a family” but the brilliant thing is that Tyler telescopes into the past so we look at the family backwards instead of forwards in time. By structuring the book this way we see how characters memories of events differ from each other and change with time. The theme of memory and what is the “true” story weaves throughout the book but as always with Tyler it is the characters that are like people we all know that make the book so readable.

Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark (read for Newbery Challenge)
I enjoyed this coming of age tale of a young llama caretaker in Peru but still can’t believe that it won the Newbery the year that Charlotte’s Web got an Honor Book. 

Non-Fiction Read in April 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My book club was looking for a book to read and someone asked if we could read something not depressing. I started talking about this book that I’d heard about on NPR that sounded really interesting…about a young neurosurgeon who died of cancer. They all looked at me like I was crazy and someone suggested that maybe I didn’t understand the meaning of “not depressing”. In the end we picked When Breath Becomes Air as our selection and everyone loved it and agreed that it wasn’t at all depressing. Sad, yes. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that Kalanithi, a brilliant man, dies tragically young, just as he is about to begin his career. However, his voice is powerful and speaks eloquently about what it means to die with grace and even more to live with appreciation for life. The end is full of redemption and hope, not a small achievement for a book that is essentially a memoir of dying. 

In a Different Key: A Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker
I didn’t realize this one was going to be 500+ pages when I put it on hold at the library. It’s worth reading every one of those pages though. Donvan and Zucker tell the history of autism from the first description of the disorder by Leo Kanner to the modern controversies over vaccines and the concept of “neurodiversity”. They anchor each new topic or time period with a case study/story. This makes the book very readable. It’s not just a series of interesting stories: their thorough research is evident all through the book. 

With the Kids: 
Ruth and I finally finished all the books in The Doll People series. I decided to go with a classic for her special book: The Trumpet of the Swan. She and I also read the Ivy and Bean books together during school as her reading practice. The boys and I are almost done with A Pocketful of Murder and looking towards what our next book will be.

Up Next/Ongoing:
I’m listening in the car to the delightfully creepy Dark Coners by Ruth Rendell (her last book, sadly). I think I’m going to read The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs next. Our book club selected  H is for Hawk as our June selection so I’ll be reading that soon.

How to Host a Potluck Lunch (and Why)

For the past 16 years we have been part of a lunchtime fellowship group that meets every other Sunday after church. This group has gone through slight variations but what has survived is the basic structure: we meet at a different family’s house every other 1st and 3rd Sunday. Roughly it rotates so each family hosts every third time, or about every 6 weeks. The group is informal: it’s open to anyone who wants to come. One of the good things about the group has been that over the years it’s become a natural place to invite visitors after church.

Being a hostess is not natural to me at all but I’ve learned that the most important thing about hospitality is simply being willing to open your home. Everything else is icing on the cake. Here a few of the lessons I’ve learned over the years.

1) Your House is Clean Enough. I promise.

Really. It’s ok. You don’t have to scrub your house down before people come over. You don’t have to decorate. If you like to decorate, then go for it. But if not, keep it simple.  Assuming you keep your house reasonably clean (a little dog hair on the floor and fingerprints on walls are ok…moldy dishes in the sink not so much), then just do whatever normal cleaning you do for your own family. Our house is relatively clean but it’s not Pottery Barn perfect and that’s ok. If anyone decides to do a white glove test or check for dust bunnies under the beds, then they will find them but that’s ok.

2) Use What You Have

Over the years we’ve amassed a collection of very basic inexpensive dinnerware, glasses and flatware from places like Ikea and Crate and Barrel. The plates and bowls are all white but mismatched in styles. Paper products are also fine and we have used them plenty in the past. Now that we have enough non-paper stuff  we’d rather use it to save money and the planet. You don’t have to have a matching set of dishes for everyone invited or special themed party paper plates. People can have as good of a time eating off of a paper plate as china. Perhaps more.

3) Food….it’s a Potluck! 

The beauty of the potluck is that by nature you don’t have to plan and it’s supposed to be spontaneous. In 16 years we’ve never ever had a time where we ran out of food. There have been times when the food choices didn’t go together perfectly or we had a ton of one item but it all works out. On a recent Sunday we had no less than 5 pans of cornbread. The last person to bring the cornbread confessed later that she was impressed that I remained calm when she arrived with her offering. I laughed and sincerely told her that it didn’t bother me. I might have worried about it 10 or even 5 years ago but now it’s just a funny story.

In reality, our lunch isn’t a true potluck. Usually the host family provides something a bit more substantial and then everyone else brings other foods. Some families choose to have a “theme” or to let people know what they are making so others can make food that goes with it. H.’s preference is by far to just say “it’s a potluck” and see what we get. And it always works out.

There are some foods that we’ve found work great to feed a crowd and that can be made ahead (since we want to cook before church). Soups and chilis are great. Baked potatoes with toppings or a taco bar also work well. Anything where people can make their own ______ is good for a crowd because it allows for lots of different tastes. One of our favorite new approaches is a bowl meal where we put out lots of various toppings (beans, meats, cheeses, guacamole, salsa, olives, nuts, veggies, sauces all work well) along with a base like rice and people can make what they want.

4) The Hard Part

As an introvert, the hardest part of these lunches for me is definitely talking to people I don’t know well. Even though this is the part of being a hostess that most pushes me out of my comfort zone, I’ve found that it’s gotten easier over the years. The first trick I’ve learned is that almost everyone likes to help in the kitchen, especially if they are new or don’t know many people. It gives them something to do. It used to be when people would ask what they could do to help that I would answer “Nothing”, thinking that it was nicer for them to have the time to just hang out. But then I would see them kind of standing around awkwardly. So now I save a few easy jobs for someone else to do. Slice bread. Arrange something on a plate. Make lemonade.

I’ve learned from H. (who is excellent at talking to just about anyone) that most people respond well when asked questions about themselves. H. has a technique where he asks questions (some that can appear very random) about things he is interested in. Eventually he hits on some common interest or topic that then sparks a conversation.

I’ve gotten better at talking to people I don’t know well but I’ve also learned to accept that it’s not my strength. Part of being a good hostess is providing the atmosphere and space for others to have an opportunity for fellowship and conversation. Just by opening our home to people and inviting them over, we provide a space for conversations to happen, even if on a given Sunday I might not have been directly involved in most of those conversations.

5) The Good Part

Our closest friends are part of these Sunday lunches. Our kids have grown up together. Sometimes our lives get very busy but we know that every 1st and 3rd Sunday we will get together for lunch. Sometimes the group is very small, which can be nice. Sometimes it is very large and full of virtual strangers, which is nice in a different way.  Over the years we’ve had many people pass through our church who have also passed through our home. We might not still be in touch with them regularly but our lives are richer for the time we did spend getting to know them even a little bit. Who comes any given week is just as much of a potluck as what food we have.

I leave you with a challenge. If you don’t open your home now to friends and strangers, try it. You will be pushed out of your comfort zone but you will find that it is not as hard as you think and that it is much more worthwhile than you imagine.

March Reading

Fiction Read in March : 

Kim by Rudyard Kipling
My first time for this classic. I was surprised by how much I thoroughly enjoyed it. John and I each read it and then discussed it together as part of his schoolwork. The discussion might have contributed to the enjoyment. 

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad
I had heard great things about this debut novel. I came away thinking that Mona Awad is a powerful writer that I would be interested in reading again but that I wasn’t in love with this book. The main character is Lizzie, the eponymous fat girl, who we see in a series of 13 sketches at different points in her life. Lizzie is not likeable for many reasons. I’m ok with an unlikeable protagonist but I was bothered by the lack of insight she gains in the end. She starts out a weight-obsessed, needy, bitter fat girl and ends a weight-obsessed, needy, bitter thin girl. Perhaps realistic, but it was just depressing to see her remain the same without any small glimmer of redemption. 

Jar City by Arnaldur Indrioason
I enjoyed this mystery set in Reykjavik although the city is depicted as a bit too gloomy, cold and rainy to make me excited about our fall trip there. A good, solid police drama type of mystery. 

A Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George
I keep returning to George’s Inspector Lyndley novels like a moth to a flame. The last few have been a little too graphic for me but I keep coming back because I love her characters, even when I don’t always love what she does to them. I liked this book a lot more than the last few in the series EXCEPT for two fairly major plot points at the end that still kind of bug me. But maybe that’s why I keep returning, even when I’m annoyed by the ending, I still find myself more engaged than with other more satisfying but forgettable books. (Did I just describe myself as having a co-dependent relationship with a mystery series?)

Fog Magic by Julia Sauer
The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes

Non-Fiction Read in March: 

Lit Up: One Reporter, Three Schools, Twenty-Four Books that Can Change Lives by David Denby
Denby spends a year sitting in on an English class in a small public magnet type of school in New York City. He also visits two other high school English classes. Along the way he meets teachers who are managing to engage students as readers in a world that supposedly is saying that kids of their age are no longer interested in books or reading. Much more an ode to reading and education than a “how-to” manual, I put this in the category of enjoyable books about books. 

 Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation by D. A. Carson
Finished this month, but read slowly over the past 6 months with a group of women from church. Carson inspired and transformed my thoughts about prayer. 

With the Kids: 
Ruth and I continue to work our way through Ann M. Martin’s Doll People books. We are also enjoying the Ivy and Bean series as team reading during school. The boys and I are reading A Pocketful of Murder (reviewed on Semicolon’s blog). We are still happily ensconced in the world of the Melendy’s as our car audiobook.

Up Next/Ongoing: 
I am almost finished with In a Different Key: The Story of Autism. It is very long, but fantastic and well-worth the time spent. I’m listening to Anne Tyler’s In a Spool of Blue Thread in the car. And like most of you, I expect, I have a stack of books on my nightstand waiting and calling out to me to be picked next.

 

 

Newbery Challenge- 1940’s

1014090I’m participating again this year in Amy’s Newbery Challenge. This month was the 1940’s. I re-read one of my favorite books from childhood: Eleanor Estes’ The Hundred Dresses. It’s sort of a sad book and I remember liking it somewhat because it was sad instead of despite the sad. It tells the story of Wanda Petronski, a young Polish girl in a small town in Connecticut. Two other girls, Peggy and Maddie, daily make fun of Wanda. This is partially because of her claim that she has one hundred dresses at home even though she only wears the same old dress to school daily. But it is more because she is poor and foreign and because she is different from them.Wanda ends up moving away and the girls later discover that her story of a hundred dresses was true in a way. She leaves behind a hundred sketches of beautiful dresses. The girls try to find a way to contact her and apologize but it’s too late. In the end, they do hear from Wanda and there is some sense of forgiveness on her part but it’s not a completely satisfying ending.

I think the most compelling character in the book is Maddie. The main instigator of tormenting Wanda is clearly Peggy who is sort of a Mean Girl precursor. Maddie is Peggy’s best friend and is clearly less confident. She’s a little conflicted about mocking Wanda but never speaks up. This may be in part because she is also from a family who is poor. But I think most kids will recognize the conflict of knowing what the right thing to do is but not doing it because you don’t want to lose a friend or stand out or become the victim yourself. I think perhaps that is what attracted me to this book as a kid.

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I also read a new to me book: Fog Magic by Julia Sauer. This one was enjoyable; a girl who finds herself mysteriously drawn to thick fog in her Nova Scotia town learns that she can travel back in time through the fog. Her adventures are fairly tame, she mostly just goes back and visits a local family and becomes friends with a young girl in the past. But the story is sweet and appealing to anyone who has ever dreamed of going back in time.

Up next: the 1950’s. I plan to read The Secret of the Andes which beat Charlotte’s Web for the Newbery Medal in 1953 (Charlotte was an Honor Book). I’ve always been curious about the book that bested Charlotte.

Happy Easter

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Easter by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Break the box and shed the nard;
Stop not now to count the cost;
Hither bring pearl, opal, sard;
Reck not what the poor have lost;
Upon Christ throw all away:
Know ye, this is Easter Day.

Build His church and deck His shrine,
Empty though it be on earth;
Ye have kept your choicest wine—
Let it flow for heavenly mirth;
Pluck the harp and breathe the horn:
Know ye not ’tis Easter morn?

Gather gladness from the skies;
Take a lesson from the ground;
Flowers do ope their heavenward eyes
And a Spring-time joy have found;
Earth throws Winter’s robes away,
Decks herself for Easter Day.

Beauty now for ashes wear,
Perfumes for the garb of woe,
Chaplets for dishevelled hair,
Dances for sad footsteps slow;
Open wide your hearts that they
Let in joy this Easter Day.

Seek God’s house in happy throng;
Crowded let His table be;
Mingle praises, prayer, and song,
Singing to the Trinity.
Henceforth let your souls always
Make each morn an Easter Day.

1,000,000 baby steps

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Yesterday I reached Day 100 of a 10,000 steps a day streak. I’ve been a fan of the Fitbit for a couple of years (I have the Zip). It has helped me to see just how sedentary I am left to my own devices. But even using it, I’ve had mixed results. I will walk consistently for awhile and then get busy and find reasons not to get out and move.

Back in the fall I started challenging myself to do 10K steps for a certain number of days in a row. I started with 7 and then went to 14 and then 21 and then 28. I didn’t have a certain number in mind, just that I wanted to see how many I could do.

As a New Year’s Resolution this year I said I would walk outside every day. Originally I said I would take a photo and post it to Instagram. The photo-a-day didn’t last very long as I quickly realized that half of my photos were in the dark and not all that interesting. I also found that I was spending too much of my walk thinking about what I could take a photo of. So I gave up on that part of the idea. But I kept walking. And somewhere along the way I decided to set 100 days as my goal.

Initially I started walking to try and get in better shape and to lose weight. I’ve lost only a minuscule amount since I haven’t really changed my diet. I feel like there are health benefits even if the scale hasn’t changed. But the benefits have mostly been other than health related.

I walk alone. Sometimes I walk just with H., sometimes it’s just me and the kids and sometimes we walk as a family all together. Almost always I have our dog Roxy as a faithful and eager companion. Each kind of walk is different. David enjoys walking alone with me and we will often have great conversations in the dusk or dark that we might not have in the day. Our walks during the school day often help us reenergize. The walks alone are much needed alone time with me. I like having an extended time to just be with my own thoughts. Regardless, it’s a time to unplug.

I specifically made my resolution to get outside to walk because I knew I would enjoy it more and therefore be more likely to do it. I’ve walked in rainstorms getting wetter than I have ever been in my life outside of the shower or a swimming pool. I’ve walked in a blizzard. I’ve seen some amazing sunsets and sunrises. We’ve seen beautiful full moons and tried to name the constellations. I’ve spotted the first crocuses and seen more deer in the early mornings around our neighborhood than I can count. All of those are things I would have missed if I was walking on a treadmill.

I know 10,000 steps a day is somewhat arbitrary. But there has been a benefit to me of setting a concrete goal and then meeting it. There have been days when the last thing I wanted to do was head out into the bitter cold and walk. Or when I’ve come home from work and am tired and just want to lie down and read a book but I haven’t gotten my walk in yet. I could have easily not walked outside or not quite gotten 10K steps and probably no one but me would have known the difference. However, the discipline of walking every day has become as important to me as any visible effects of exercise.

And yes, today was Day 101.

 

 

 

 

From the Book Basket

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We are eclectic readers at our house as demonstrated by three of our current favorites in our picture book basket. First up, Barbara McClintock’s absolutely lovely Emma and Julia Love Ballet. McClintock follows two dancers, Emma (who is small) and Julia (who is big) as they wake up, have breakfast and go to the ballet studio for class. Later Emma prepares to go and see a ballet in the city that we see Julia preparing to dance in. The drawings are charming and sweet and any girl who loves ballet will love seeing how the two dancers spend their day. It’s also a book that should become a textbook for how to “do diversity” in picture books. The principal dancer is obviously black, Julia is white. The illustrations show dancers of every color in the classes and performances. Nowhere in the text is this mentioned but kids should come away with the visual picture in their heads of dancers that look like them no matter their skin color. If you have a ballerina in your house or just a girl who likes good picture books, go out and find this beautiful book to share with her.

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No ballerinas or ballet loving kids in your house?  We all also greatly enjoyed and recommend Juliette MacIver’s Yak and Gnu. This is a  goofy story about a Yak and Gnu who are “the best of friends, dear and true” and who set out in their kayak and canoe to row down the river. As they row they sing a song: about how unique they are to be out on the sea.  Well, no one else is like them until they meet a goat in a boat. No problem, they amend their song a bit. Until they meet a snail setting sail and a calf on a raft. And so they try again, setting out singing a new song. I think you can see where this is going. It gets crazier and crazier until it ends with the realization that even if they aren’t so unique they still have each other and that’s what is important.

23309792And just to prove our eclectic tastes I offer up Billy’s Booger: A Memoir (sorta) by William Joyce (pun sorta intended). I grabbed this one off the new books shelf solely based on the title and knowing that my kids would think the idea of a book called Billy’s Booger was hilarious. I was right about that. I wasn’t expecting to like the book myself. I was wrong about that. The story is actually the story of a young boy named Billy who is kind of bookish and unusual. He hates math and sports and loves comics and art. One day he hears about a school contest to see which kid can make the best kids’ book. He excitedly writes a book called Billy’s Booger: The memoir of a little green nose buddy. At first he is devastated that his book doesn’t win a prize but later he overhears some kids reading it and laughing and the librarian tells him that of all the books from the contest his is the one that is checked out the most.

The twist of course is that Billy is William Joyce, who grew up to write oodles of books that also made kids laugh (and won awards): Rolie Polie Olie, The Guardians of Childhood books  (that became a movie), and The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore among many othersBilly’s Booger is based on his own childhood and the first book he wrote in fourth grade. A copy of that original book (the booger book) is included in this book, as a sewn in mini-book form. Maybe it was just that I have a fourth grader who reminded me more than a little of Billy the younger but I found this one inspiring and hopeful. I’m hoping that my math hating fourth grader who likes to draw and has expressed that it would be fun to be an author also found it inspirational. I know he found it hilarious, at least the booger part.

School Days Around the World

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We’ve been spending this school year studying about world geography and cultures. This new book by Margaret Ruurs was a fun addition to our studies. It’s a fairly simple picture book but manages to highlight both the similarities of children around the world while also showing the differences that make them unique.

We visit Tamatoa in the Cook Islands who is called to school by a wooden drum and spends recess at the whale-watching fort by the sea. We meet Annika in Denmark who goes to forest school where they spend most of their time outdoors learning. And the one we were excited about: Amy and Gwen who are homeschoolers in Alaska and say, “The world is our classroom!”.

Ruurs includes different types of schools as well as showing the diversity due to different cultures. There are public schools, boarding schools and that one homeschool. There are kids who are blind and who live in an orphanage. There are kids that go to small village schools that have to share the building with other villages. And there are kids at very large busy city schools.

You could argue that this kind of very general survey misses a lot and over-simplifies. Obviously, this is true. The one US school is the homeschool in Alaska and that is a very different experience than most US school children have. However, by focusing on specific individual kids rather than a generic “Brazilian” kid or “German” kid, Ruurs manages to drive home the idea that kids around the world have a myriad of different experiences while still all learning, playing and growing up. Of note, the endpages  mention that all the kids and families in this book are real. My kids liked knowing that. It made the different school environments that much more real to them as well. I would highly recommend this book to go along with any elementary school aged study of world cultures.

 

Why we read aloud

If you read this blog at all or know our family, you know that we read a lot as a family. There are lots of reasons to read aloud and loads of resources for telling you how to read and what to read and why. It increases language development in babies and toddlers. Kids who are read to have bigger vocabularies and do better in school. Kids who are read to are more likely to become readers themselves.

I think though that most families don’t really think about all those benefits when we read aloud to our kids. Or we only think about it a little. Mostly we read aloud because it’s enjoyable. We like to snuggle with our babies and toddlers and preschoolers and share a favorite book. We like to see their faces light up at a familiar beloved book.

As our kids get older we still like to share books together. As a family we have immersed ourselves in the worlds of Gregor the Overlander and the Sisters Grimm and the Melendys. When one of us says “Turn and turn and turn again…”, someone else can say the next line. When we are all sharing the same books together my 6 year old and her older brothers find themselves talking about the same characters and wondering what will happen next. They inhabit the same worlds in ways they wouldn’t without the shared stories.

As I said earlier, there a ton of resources available to help you choose books to read with your kids. I think sometimes that we worry to much about picking “the right books” or making sure all the books we read are quality or on an approved list. It is good to pick good books. But it’s more important just to read a lot, and not worry so much about if each books is the right or perfect book.

Yesterday at lunch we read books on China for our current world cultures study. I find the books we read mostly by just going to our library website and doing searches. At this point (after homeschooling for 8 years) I know series and authors that we like. I end up doing a combination of selecting some books I’m pretty sure will work for us and getting a whole bunch of others that I’m not sure of. One of the books I got out this time was a book on China meant for a much younger audience, probably infant or toddlers.I didn’t realize it was written for much younger kids until I go it home but decided to read it anyway as it looked cute and quick. The concept was cute: a baby travels though China with his family and each page has a “where am I” kind of twist as you see where baby is and learn a little about famous sites in China. Sweet.

BUT. Each page also had a very odd baby doll positioned somewhere on the page spread as the caption asked “where is baby?”. The doll was weirdly creepy and absolutely hilarious. I don’t think the four of us have laughed so hard in a long time as we laughed at that book. I couldn’t even read at some points because of the tears rolling down my face and because I couldn’t catch my breath. My seventh grader literally fell out of his chair laughing.

My thought during all this was “Oh, yeah, this is also why we read together.” Good vocabulary, great literature, a love of reading. All good. But sometimes just as good is the shared laughter over a really bad book.