About Alice

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

Africa Picture Books

21965198We recently finished a unit study on Africa (part of a larger year long world geography/cultures study). I previously shared some of the broader survey type of books we read and some of the young adult and middle grade fiction that we’ve read. We also read quite a few non-fiction and fiction picture books. Interestingly, many of the non-fiction picture books fall in the general category of “inspirational stories”.

Laurie Ann Thompson’s Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmauel Ofosu Yeboah is certainly inspirational. It tells the story of a young boy born with a severely malformed right leg who grows up to bicycle across Ghana with one leg. More than just succeeding at a challenge for himself, he aims to change the view in his country of people with disabilities as people who are worthless or cursed. It’s a beautiful story (and has also been made into a documentary) that was nominated for the Cybils this year in the non-fiction elementary/middle grade category.

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Another inspiring story and Cybils nominee is Miranda Paul’s One Plastic Bag: Isatou
Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia.
 This one tells the story of how one woman began a campaign to clean her country of the thousands of plastic bags that were littering the countryside. She learns how to cut the plastic bags into strips, crochet them and make them into purses. You can see how they do this on this YouTube video (and there are links to purchase the bags themselves if you are so inclined). Another inspiring story of enivromental activism was Franck Prevot’s Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees. Maathai was the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work in reforestation in Kenya. 23688743

The Red Bicycle: The Extraordinary Story of One Ordinary Bicycle by Jude Isabella is not about one person’s inspiring story but instead looks at the good one donated bicycle can do. A red bicycle is loved by Leo, a boy in a small North American town. But eventually he outgrows the bike and he decides to donate it to an organization that takes bikes overseas. The bicycle is followed as it belongs first to a  young girl in Burkina Faso who uses the bike to help her grandmother bring items to the market and then as it finds a third life as a hospital ambulance.

Other Africa themed books we read and enjoyed: 

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba
Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema
Zomo the Rabbit: A Trickster Tale from West Africa by Gerald McDermott
Anansi and the Talking Melon by Eric Kimmel (just one of many Anansi stories)
Old Mikamba Had a Farm by Rachel Isadora

 

 

Scenes from a Wetlands Walk

For my recent birthday, I called a day off from regular school and we headed to Huntley Meadows, one of our favorite places for a nature walk. Admittedly, not everyone was excited about the walk but I pulled the birthday privilege card and the less than happy child did a good job of not whining (too much). We also read some books at lunch and made a library trip so all together a pretty good “non-school” day.

 

January Reading

Fiction Read in January: 

The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny
American Born Chinese by Gene Yang
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
What is the What by Dave Eggers
Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

A Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
The latest in the Coromon Strike series. These mysteries border on the too-graphic for me, sort of like some of the Elizabeth George books. Similar to those, I’m pulled back by the ongoing character development of Strike and his assistant Robin and to see what happens as the relationship between them grows and changes.

Smoky the Cowhorse by Will James
Read for Amy’s Newbery challenge.  I’m enjoying reading through the Newbery books, but found this one a little slow for my taste. I’m probably not enough of a horse girl to appreciate the very detailed and loving descriptions of the life of a horse. The ending was also tainted by some very blatant racism, something that I’m not surprised by in books from that era (1920’s) but that still felt pretty ugly.

Non-Fiction Read in January:
Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson
I plan to post more about this memoir in the next few days. Suffice to say for now that I already know that it will be on my list of best books of the year. 

Read with the Kids:
The Doll People by Ann Martin
Ruth’s recent bedtime book. She loved it and has requested the next one in the series. 

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig by Chris Kurtz
We all were charmed by the story of Flora, an intrepid pig who wants to be part of a sled dog team. Part Charlotte’s Web, part Babe and part it’s own quirky self, this was a fun read. On a recent long and difficult walk in the snow I got Ruth to keep going by chanting Flora’s mantra , “Pigs. Don’t. Give. UP.”

The Mystery at Meerkat Hill by Alexander McCall Smith
Picked to read during our Africa studies but we got a little behind. I didn’t have another lunchtime read-aloud so we sped through this one in a couple of days. It’s meant more as an early chapter book for a young reader and for that it would be perfect. It was a little simple as a read-aloud. The “mystery” is very gentle and not at all scary.

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliet (audiobook)
We finally jumped on the bandwagon for this very popular mystery series for kids. I had mixed feelings. I liked the quirkiness and the details about art and the kids that were unapologetically intellectual and geeky. But the overall plot bugged me. It depends a lot on coincidences (which itself is part of the plot…whether or not things are really coincidence or some bigger universal force at work). Much of the mystery is solved by the kids suddenly getting a feeling that a place or a number or a color is important and then having it actually be a critical clue. The kids seemed to like it for the most part, although John made some snarky comments about all the coincidences. I think that’s more being twelve than the book’s fault. 

Ongoing/Up Next:
Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin (audiobook)
My current audiobook to listen to when I’m alone in the car. About a small Southern Catholic school run by nuns. I enjoyed Godwin’s memoir on Publishing at the end of last year and wanted to read something else by her and this was what was on the library shelf. 

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink
Recommended by Sherry. I’ve only just begun but it’s looking fascinating. 

A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his Prayers by D. A. Carson
A group of women at my church is reading through this book on prayer together slowly. It’s challenging and led to some great discussion. 

The boys and I are reading Mossflower by Brian Jacques. Ruth has requested the next Doll People book for her bedtime book. John has repeatedly requested that we listen to The Saturdays and other Melendy books in the car so I think those will up next for audiobooks.

How about you? What are you reading?

 

Scenes from a Weekend in NYC

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H. and I were able to get away for a trip to NYC this past weekend. Highlights were a food tour of Chelsea Market (with an outrageously fun tour guide) and seeing King Charles III on Broadway. We also rode the Staten Island Ferry twice (we stayed there Friday night and used the parking lot for our car, a great deal compared to Manhattan parking) and walked the length of the High Line. We walked a lot, in actuality it was the main thing we did, racking up over 27,000 steps on the FitBit. We ate really well: steak tartare and sea salt caramels on the food tour and delicious Turkish food and fabulous bagels for breakfast. The main event though was having the extended time together to talk and be and just enjoy each other.

 

Black Dove White Raven

20454599Continuing in the Africa theme for the month of January, I recently read Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein. Like so many people I loved two of Wein’s previous novels (Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire). Like her other novels, Black Dove. White Raven has teenage pilots as the protagonists and takes place around the time of WWII. However, the setting is pre-WWII Ethiopia instead of Europe and one of the two protagonists is a male.

Teo and Em are the children of female stunt pilots who are and also best friends. When Delia, Teo’s mother, dies during  a flying accident, Em’s mother fulfills a promise she made to Delia to take him to Ethiopia to raise him. Teo is the son of an Ethiopian father and Delia wants him to grow up away from the open racism she sees in the United States. Initially their new home on a cooperative coffee far is like an idyllic paradise for the family. However, an impending invasion of Ethiopia by Italy sets in motion events that change their lives.

I knew absolutely nothing about Ethiopian history before reading this book. And I realize that I still only know about a tiny sliver of that history. But know I now that there was a Italian-Ethiopian war preceding WWII in which most of the rest of the world failed to intervene because of the fear of escalating tensions in Europe at the time. I know that the Ethiopian church is believed my some to be the home of the actual Ark of the Covenant. I know that slavery was still legal in Ethiopia until 1942. I think one effect of reading is sometimes realizing all the things that I don’t know.

Black Dove, White Raven is a YA novel but the themes and language are as complex as many of the adult fiction books I’ve read. At the same time, although Wein doesn’t shy away from dealing with complex issues like war and slavery, the descriptions aren’t disturbing or graphic. I would be fine with my 12 year old reading it, although I don’t think he would be interested. (He doesn’t love realistic or historic fiction and will only read them as an assignment). It would have been a book I would have greatly enjoyed as a young teen and I would recommend it for middle school or high school students who like historical fiction or strong female characters.

 

Survival 101

So Jonas is coming. Jonas being a storm that is being called words like “paralyzing” and “historic”. Despite the fact that it hasn’t actually happened yet. Yes, we live in a city that is notoriously wimpy and panicky about snow. But the predictions are fairly consistent that this could be a big one. I’m kind of looking forward to it. We haven’t had any real snow yet this year, or even much wintery weather. The first snow is always kind of fun. And this one which is predicted to start Friday afternoon and go through Sunday could mean a nice weekend at home for all five of us. No pressure to try and make it into work. The list of things that might get canceled is long: ballet, basketball practices x 3, a swim meet, church, basketball games x 3, swim practice. It was shaping up to be a busy weekend but the snow might bring some long lazy days in front of the fire. A girl can dream, right?

As we are apt to do here in the land of snow frenzy, we went grocery shopping last night and stocked up. We have milk, bread and toilet paper. We have dog food and bottled water. We have marshmallows for the hot chocolate and flashlights and candles.

Most importantly, we have books. The library being a much more essential pre-storm trip than the grocery store.

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Random picture books for everyone.

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David’s stack of graphic novels. Did I mention that he is really into this genre right now?

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A little Pinkalicious makes any snow day better.

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Some chapter books for David and John. I pulled Hamster Princess off the new shelf for Ruth. It looked too old for her but looked really funny so I got it anyway for David to try.

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And a few for me. I had told myself I shouldn’t check anything else out since I have an overly full TBR pile already. But I just couldn’t help myself.

Ok, Jonas. Bring it on. We’re ready.

 

 

What is the What

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What is the What is one of the most challenging books I have ever read. Challenging because it asks me as a white American Christian living in abundance to examine my life. It’s impossible to come away from reading this book without thinking about why some people are born into abundance and blessing and others are born into extreme hardship and poverty. It’s also impossible to come away from reading this book without thinking about what my reaction should be to this story and whether I will be changed by it or allow myself to forget what I have read.

The book is the fictionalized account of the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese Lost Boy. The story is essentially Deng’s autobiography as told to Dave Eggers, however, due to his young age and incomplete memory during many of the events they elected to call it a novel rather than non-fiction.

I know several people who have told me they tried to read it and couldn’t because it was too depressing. It definitely is difficult to read. But the overall feeling I came away with was a sense of hope and redemption. It’s somewhat like Unbroken in that it’s amazing how the human spirit can survive and even triumph over extreme adversity. It helps to know that Deng not only made it out of the refuge camps that he despaired might be his home forever, but that he returned to Sudan to build schools and was named the Ministry of Education for his home state recently.

So, not a comfortable or easy book to read. But one very much worth reading.

 

Africa with Kids

550120This year we are doing a world cultures/geography study as part of our homeschool. For each area of the world we study the geography, talk a little about the history and a bit about the different cultures. This isn’t by any measure a comprehensive study of any one area but instead it’s a survey course where I want the kids to get a taste and feeling for different areas in the world and appreciate just a bit the diversity of the world we live in.

One thing I’ve emphasized with each area is that we are looking at that part of the world with broad brushstrokes. We can’t learn everything about Australia or Canada in three weeks. I also want the kids to realize that when we talk about “South American art” or “Australian food” we are usually talking about something that is a stereotype and not something that is representative of every single person or even most people in that country or continent. I have felt like no where is this more true than our current area of the world, Africa. Too often in the west our view of Africa is one of the savannah with a few nomadic tribesmen roaming the wilderness. When I was planning this unit I realized that if my kids come away with an appreciation for how diverse Africa is then our study will be a success. Maybe the best way to think of it is that I want them to know what they don’t know.

Africa is Not a Country by Margy Burns Knight is an excellent book for beginning a study of Africa with kids. Knight begins by explaining that Africa is not one country but instead 53 (now 54 with the addition of South Sudan). She uses the illustration of a pie cut into slices to explain how much of the land is different ecosystems (savannah, desert, rainforest). She then goes on to describe a “typical African day” by highlighting a child from a different country on each page. Some of the kids are in villages, some in cities. There is snow and desert. There are kids playing soccer and kids gathering water and kids going to school. There are dark skinned kids and light skinned kids. It’s a long book to read-aloud but kept the interest of my first grader.

Children Like Me by Barnabas Kindersley looks at kids around the world. Photographic 835178spreads with a little text highlight what kids in different countries eat, how they go to school, what activites they like to do, what their homes are like, what their clothes are like and what their families look like. We read the pages on kids in African countries to again highlight the diversity of the continent. Both Children Like Me (published in 1995) and Africa is Not a Country (published in 2002) are slightly out of date. However, I felt like they were good introductions to the people of Africa, especially for a younger elementary student.

We also enjoyed Africa by Mel Friedman, part of the True Book series and Introducing Africa by Chris Oxlade. Both were good basic surveys that covered physical geography, animals and well-known landmarks.

 

Scribble Art

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Art is one of those things I want to do more of but we often don’t get to. I think part of it is that I feel the need to over plan instead of just doing art together. I feel like art must somehow coordinate with what we are studying in history or a book we are reading. It’s great when that happens but it’s also great to just do it without worrying about making it part of some big cross-curriculum plan.

This week we did some scribble art paintings. I got the idea from The Artful Parent which is my new favorite website for art ideas for kids. It’s was super easy and simple to do. The materials required were as basic as it gets: paper, pencil and watercolors.

First, scribble a line drawing on a piece of paper with a pencil. I forgot to take a phtoto at that stage but you can kind of see Ruth’s drawing in the photo above. Next, you simply fill in each space with watercolor paint. Easy peasy.

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Perhaps because it was easy, this activity proved to be the center of a relaxing afternoon. We painted and listened to music and watched birds out our big kitchen window. We chatted some and were just quiet some.

This is a great activity if you have kids who are more perfectionists about their art. There really isn’t any “right” way to do it. It’s much more about the process than the product  so they don’t stress about making it “look right”.

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To give you some idea of the finished product, I’m including photos. I’m not sure why the background looks so brown in these, we used regular white paper. Still, you get the overall idea.

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The boys decided to paint their backgrounds black. I’m not sure why but it gave a different finished look. Part of the fun of this activity was that because it was so easy it was a good opportunity for the kids to experiment with watercolors and to learn some basic ideas (less water=bolder color, watercolors bleed into each other). Best of all, all three kids had fun with it, which is ultimately my main objective with art in our homeschool.

Slow Cooker Spinach Lasagna

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About two nights a week I use our slow-cooker for dinner. The boys have swim practice that gets us home at 6:00 pm and it’s either the slow-cooker, a quickie dinner or a late dinner that pushes into our evening time together. There is something very nice about walking into the house and knowing dinner is ready. I love that. But I’ve gotten a little tired of the “meat in sauce” slow-cooker dinners. I’ve even gotten a little tired of soups and chilis.

All that is background to saying that the absolute best thing I’ve discovered in the past month is the use of the slow-cooker for other types of recipes. We enjoyed some roasted veggies in the slow cooker last month and a fried tofu style of dish. I’m especially always on the look out for vegetarian recipes that David will eat. (Yes, he’s still a vegetarian after 2 1/2 years.) My favorite so far is this spinach lasagna. It’s absolute genius! Lasagna is a delicious food but usually a time-consuming dish to make. In the slow-cooker it’s miraculously easy. And I’m not using the word “miraculously” lightly.

When I first made this I roughly followed this recipe at Pinch of Yum. This time I took her literally that you could just “haphazardly throw the ingredients” into the pot. I kind of randomly layered jarred spaghetti sauce, broken (uncooked!) lasagna noodles, ricotta, spinach and shredded mozzerella. Every now and then I sprinkled in some basil, salt and oregano. I’ve seen this recipe other places and most people use frozen spinach. I just used fresh and threw it in as a layer. A bonus was that I used whole wheat noodles which I think my kids would have rebelled against normally. And did I mention that you don’t have to boil the noodles first. Just throw them in! It will be fine.

It comes out delicious, if not the most beautiful lasagna in the world. All my kids ate it, which is always a winner. Some even had seconds.