The Rules of the House

26245753You may have noticed I rarely review picture books anymore. This is for two reasons.

1) We read a lot less picture books. I find that kind of sad but also just part of having kids get older. I don’t think my kids are too old for picture books and they all still like them. We  still get a stack out of the library each time we go. But now all three kids read on their own and typically go through that stack before I even get to crack a cover. Our family read-aloud time is usually chapter books or books that are somehow related to school.

2) I blog a lot less than I used to (shocking news, I know). Most of the time I know that a hundred other more prolific and faithful kid- lit bloggers have already reviewed anything that I have read. Even when I do read a picture book that I think “Oh, I really need to share this,” it’s rare that I then find the time to write about it.

All that to say that The Rules of the House was one of the few picture books I’ve read lately that I felt compelled to write about. I haven’t looked to see how many other reviews there are because I just don’t care. I loved this book and want to tell you about it.

I’m not always a fan of Mac Barnett books. I have absolutely adored some (Extra Yarn, Battle Bunny) and been left cold by others (Chloe and the Lion). But one thing I do really appreciate about all his books is that they are unexpected. I kept thinking I knew what predictable thing would happen next in this book, and then something else happened. And the something else was always way funnier than the thing I expected.

A brief synopsis of the plot is that a brother and sister go to the woods on vacation with their Dad. The brother always follows rules. The sister always breaks them. The story is about what happens when the sister breaks the rules of the house they are staying in. As you can tell from the cover, there is some mild scariness. It’s a great book for this time of year, although it doesn’t actually mention Halloween.

We read this one along with a bunch of others from the library basket one morning before starting school. I can’t remember why exactly, but Ruth was grumpy. It was the week after we returned from vacation and she was jet-lagged and sick and just not wanting to do school. So to ease her into the day, I offered to have reading time. She, David and I snuggled into bed and read through a bunch of books. None of the others stood out as much as The Rules of the House but the sweetness of the time together reminded me that we should find a way to do that more often.


Tickled Pink about Writing

We’ve been back from our vacation for just under two weeks. It took us about a week to get over jet-lag (worsened by illness). This past week we got back into the groove of school and activities and it felt good to return to a routine.

Overall, the school year is going well. The subject that I consistently agonize over the most is writing. I’m never completely happy with what we are doing. I have about four different writing “curriculums” and we’ve used parts and pieces of all of them at different points. I’ve flirted with Bravewriter for so long that I finally broke down this year and bought The Writer’s Jungle. I haven’t actually read it yet, mind you, but it’s sitting on my desk.

However, one of the projects we’ve done this year that I’ve been the happiest about was an extra writing/language project working with idioms. I made a list of 50 different common idioms. (There are tons of these lists online; I picked from one that was geared towards middle schoolers and that I thought had a good amount of expressions that my boys didn’t know.) The first week I gave the list to my boys (5th and 8th grade) and had them come up with definitions to see how many they already knew. Then we went over the real definitions together and discussed them.

The second week I put slips of paper with the idioms on them in a jar. I had them each pick five pieces of paper and write a paragraph using those five idioms. All three kids (2nd, 5th and 8th grades) joined in. The stories were hilarious. My 8th grader (who claims to hate writing) wrote a particularly funny story using the five idioms he picked correctly and also as many idioms as he could remember literally. There was a character who literally walked on eggshells, for example.

The third and fourth weeks we kept the slips of paper in the jar and played two different games. One was a game where everyone took turns drawing an idiom and then restating it in literal terms without using any of the words in the idiom. For example: “If you live in a house made of breakable material you shouldn’t throw hard spherical objects.” The other game was idiom charades. Both were a lot of fun and a huge hit with the kids.

When we do fun things like this I end up being glad and feeling like we should do more of this kind of activity in our homeschool. But then I start to worry about things like spelling and grammar and punctuation and the FIVE PARAGRAPH ESSAY. Right now, we are still using somewhat of a mish-mash of formal and informal writing approaches and it’s working ok. I have another writing project (on codes) planned, but got thrown off a bit by our travel. I plan on beginning that this coming week to add a little fun into our weekly routine.




Scenes from Paris


Part 2 of our Europe vacation was Paris. When we talked about taking the kids to Europe we narrowed it down to Paris or London. We knew we couldn’t afford a multi-country many week trip and wanted to concentrate on one place. We wanted to be based in a larger city with options for side-trips. We also wanted it to be fairly easy and comfortable for us. Both England and France were countries that we felt comfortable traveling to. H. did a study abroad program in England and we had both traveled there several other times, including on our honeymoon. The language barrier was obviously not a problem. Both of us had also been to Paris multiple times, including once with John at 15 months. I have very rusty high-school French but H. speaks the language well enough to get by and that made it an easier option than something like Amsterdam or Berlin or Prague.


We gave the kids the choice of London or Paris and everyone voted for Paris. I think they were at least partially swayed by our description of Paris which included “really good bread, chocolate, croissants, onion soup, coffee, pastries, crepes…”And we did indeed eat very well while we were there. dscn1894dscn2150

Because this was their first trip (or for John, the first trip he remembered) we concentrated on the big attractions: Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur. The history and art provided a great contrast to the natural beauty and outdoor focus of the Iceland part of the trip.


We spent one day outside the city on two side-trips. In the morning we ventured to Giverny to see Monet’s Garden. It was beautiful. In the afternoon we went to Versailles to see a very different gaudier beauty.


Scenes from Iceland



We returned this week from a 10 day vacation in Iceland and Paris. We had wanted to take the kids to Europe for awhile and decided about a year ago that this was a good time to finally do it. We picked Iceland initially for the cheap airfares to Europe but then decided that we wanted to spend several days there as well.

The trip was amazing. Iceland was breathtakingly, ridiculously beautiful. Ruth said it best when she commented that “It’s hard to believe that it’s all real. It’s so beautiful it looks fake.”



We had about four days in the country, so only saw a small amount of what it has to offer. We rented a car (a must if you want to travel anywhere) and did a lot of hiking. Our longest and favorite hike was to Hvergardi, a hike that led to a geothermal “hot river”. After furtively changing behind a wooden screen into a bathing suit we enjoyed a fantastic swim in the naturally warm water. (Top photo is of a different hike to one of many waterfalls.)


The trip was full of firsts for the kids…”first time on a plane”, “first time to a different continent”, “first time bathing in a hot river”….A thrilling first for all of us was first time we touched a glacier. Just seeing it was pretty awe-inspiring.



The coastal landscape reminded me in places of Cornwall (where H. and I spent our honeymoon). I absolutely love  this kind of scenery: rocky cliffs falling to the ocean. All in all, I was surprised by how much I loved Iceland. Obviously, we visited at an ideal time as far as the weather was concerned. But even so, I told H. that I thought the country was made for me: Sparsely populated, rocky landscape, ocean, abundant hot rivers/lagoons for bathing. Not to mention that it’s a country of readers and people who love books and has a culture of swimming (outdoors, year-round…but more on that in another post).

Stay tuned for photos from the Parisian part of our trip tomorrow.


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.


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.

School Days Around the World

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.


A Week of Newbery Winners

I’ve spent the past week reading the 2016 Newbery Award Winners. I didn’t exactly plan to read them all at once, but they all arrived for me at the library at the same time so it seemed serendipitous.

Matt de La Pena’s Last Stop on Market Street is clearly the big topic of conversation this year, as the first true picture book to win the Newbery Medal. It also was named as a Caldecott Honor Book. The book tells the story of a young boy, CJ, and his Nana as they travel on the bus after church to the last stop on Market Street. CJ is a typical young kid who asks his Nana a lot of questions and expressed dissatisfaction with life as it is (Why don’t they have a car? Why do they always have to go where they are going on Sundays? Why can’t he have an MP3 player like the other boys on the bus?) His Nana lovingly and wisely answers his questions and helps to show him the beauty in the everyday world around him. The language is realistic and has the cadence and sound of real people talking but is also sprinkled with lovely and unexpected imagery.

My first impression after reading it was probably similar to a lot of people’s. It is a great book but I was a little confused about why it was deemed the Newbery Medal Winner, an honor I associate with much more complex books. And much longer books. However, the more I think about it the more I like the choice. So often I see parents want to move their kids along from picture books because they are “just for little kids”. As soon as kids start reading on their own we push them towards chapter books and out of the picture book section of the library. But there are so many wonderful picture books out there and I think by giving one of them the Newbery the committee has legitimized the idea that a good picture book is worth reading for all ages of kids, even those who have “graduated” on to much longer books. I love that my seventh grader still reads through the stack of picture books we bring home from the library each week. He likes good books, and I love that he doesn’t see himself as too old to enjoy a good picture book.

After serving on the Cybils selection commitee two years ago, I realize that the very concept of picking the ONE BEST BOOK is just ridiculous. There are so many wonderful books for kids and so many different reasons that a book might appeal to a committee at a particular time. I do think that this book was probably picked partially because the issue of diversity in children’s literature is a very hot topic right now. However, that doesn’t mean Last Stop on Market Street is not also without literary merit. It just happened to be a beautiful book that also fits in with the current thoughts about what is important and desired in kid lit. I’ve been reading along with Amy’s Newbery Through the Decades Challenge for the past year and one thing I’ve learned is how much books reflect their time and place.

I also read the three Newbery Honor Books this week and thought all three of them were very deserving of the honor. The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley and Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan were both WWII era stories. Echo has some fairy-tale and fantasy elements that weave together three different tales about three children in difficult circumstances during WWII. Music is the theme that binds together all three stories. I enjoyed it but I really loved The War that Saved My Life, which tells the story of Ada, a young girl in London with a clubfoot who has been locked inside a room her entire life by her mother. When WWII begins Ada finds a way to escape with the other child evacuees to the country where she slowly begins to find a new life. I loved that the happy ending is not something that is easy. Ada struggles with being afraid of being happy and loved as it might all be taken away from her again. It’s a book that felt very real.

Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl also felt very real. Almost too real, like experiencing all the angst of middle school all over again. Perhaps this is the year of the graphic novel for me as I was totally charmed by this story of Astrid, a girl who is trying to figure out where she belongs. Her best friend is becoming interested in fashion and boys and ballet and Astrid feels left out and unsure of who she is until she finds her tribe at a roller derby camp. One thing I really liked is that Astrid is complex, not always likable, but always realistic and sympathetic. Similarly, we see that the friend isn’t all bad. It isn’t that girls who like ballet and fashion are bad and girls who like roller derby are good. It’s more how do you figure out how to become your own person while still hanging on to the friends you had when you were little and things were simpler. I would highly recommend this one for anyone in the middle school or almost middle school age.

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.


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



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


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.

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”.



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.



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.