Seen: Two Great Blue Herons, Five or Six different kinds of turtles and too numerous to count Canada Geese. We also think we saw some Red Headed Woodpeckers but they were high in the trees and we didn’t really see the distinctive heads very well. We wouldn’t have even known to look but a very nice birder on the trail stopped us to point out the distinctive sound and to tell us that they had been spotted.
We’re still technically on break and not “doing” school until next week. However, on our walk in addition to looking at the birds we discussed prime numbers, Charles Lee and the duel in Hamilton, the nature of heaven (with Ruth after she asked me what I thought I would do the first time I saw God) and hibernation. There was also a lot of Narnia and Harry Potter discussion due to our recent and current read-alouds. When I got home this morning the boys were replicating Galileo’s famous gravity experiments by dropping objects off the stairs to see which landed first. This was because David had been reading about gravity in his Science Encyclopedia. Over break we’ve also had spontaneous discussions about iambic pentameter (thank you Incorrigible Children), mythology and even grammar.
I have no way of knowing if other families find themselves discussing math and grammar and gravity over breakfast. It seems normal to us. I suspect that homeschooling makes this more common because we are used to school and life all being one rather than in separate spheres. It’s one of the many advantages to learning as a family.
Susan Jeffers’s The Twelve Days of Christmas is pretty much exactly what you would expect and that’s a good thing. The text is mostly just the familiar song. The illustrations are the lush colorful paintings typical of Jeffers complete with plenty of glitter. Jeffers adds a bit of a story to the carol, told mainly through the illustrations and a little bit of added text. A girl named Emma breaks her snow globe and is transported to a magical land by Santa. If you have a girl who enjoys other Jeffers books, she will likely be delighted by this one as well.
We love the Duck books by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin. This Christmas edition is just as fun and goofy. Duck as usual is up to his old tricks and manages to get all the animals stuck in Farmer Brown’s chimney. Luckily there is someone coming who can save the day!
Our Christmas book basket has become our favorite Advent tradition. (As I might have mentioned once or twice or a hundred times.) Some days we read funny books (like Click, Clack, Ho! Ho! Ho! )Some days we read beautifully illustrated books. Some days we read books with favorite characters. Some days we read books that make me cry. Some days we read books that remind us all of the real reason for Advent.
So far what has been the most memorable book of the season is one that is none of those things. In fact, it is memorable mainly for being so bizarre that we all couldn’t stop laughing from the sheer weirdness of it. Christmas at the Toy Museum by David Lucas is just weird. The story is basically that the toys have no presents to unwrap so they decide to wrap themselves. Then they take turns unwrapping each other and being excited. Alert readers may have discovered the problem with this plan. What does the last toy that gets unwrapped have to unwrap? Perhaps it’s enough to say that my 13 year old loved this book because of it’s so awesomely stupid (his words) and couldn’t wait for me to blog about it. I’ll leave it at that.
A few of the new-to-us books in our Advent Book Basket this year. Kate Westerlund’s The Message of the Birds is a sweet simple story about the birds of the world spreading the message of Christmas to the children of the world. It bothered me a bit that the message of Christmas becomes distilled down to Peace on Earth. That is part of the message but not the whole message. I don’t mind secular Christmas books but ones that are a watered down version of the real story do bother me. The illustrations by Feridun Oral are beautiful, especially if you like birds. My kids also really liked the last page that featured a word cloud of the word Peace in many different languages. We’ve been to several Christmas events this Advent season with different languages featured which has stirred a general interest/awareness of languages in the kids and this was a nice addition to that.
Maple and Willow’s Christmas Tree is the newest addition to the Lori Nichols’s Maple and Willow series about two young sisters. I really like this series because I think is a perfect example of what has become rare in children’s fiction: simple non-quirky, non-snarky stories about real kids. This Christmas addition is just as sweet as the other books. The girls are thrilled to get their first REAL Christmas tree but then it turns out Maple is allergic to the tree. They figure out a way to make Christmas special. Another thing I like about this series is that Lori Nichols gets the relationship between sisters perfectly. It’s sweet but not unrealistically sugary sweet. My favorite dialogue: “I’m sorry for ruining Christmas”. (Maple) “I’m sorry you ruined Christmas too.” (Willow). As the parent of three kids, I could completely hear that being said in our house by siblings that love each other (most of the time).
The Reindeer Wish is another book that is part of a series, although we hadn’t read the others. The story is by Lori Evert and features breathtaking photographs by her husband Per Breiehagen of their daughter Anja. The story is fairly predictable: Anja discovers a baby reindeer and raises it but then must one day realizes he would be happier living with other reindeer. So she delivers him to Santa to live and work with Santa’s sled team. The photographs are amazingly beautiful though and will make even the most snow-hating person want to move to a Nordic country to live.
Another book that we enjoyed more for the illustrations than the story was Santa Claus and the Three Bears by Maria Modugno (illustrations by Jane Dyer and Brooke Dyer) . That is probably due more to my kids ages than the book itself. This was a straight-forward telling of the familiar story of the Three Bears but with Santa Claus instead of Goldilocks. The illustrations are fun with lots of details. Recommended for families with preschoolers as fun Christmas reading.
One of the (many) good things about having three kids is that I can repeat projects and activities I did with the oldest years ago and they are new to the youngest member of the family. We’ve done this Advent art project twice before and it’s become one of my favorites. It’s super simple, allows for some open ended creativity and makes a pretty finished product.
First, you take old crayons and shave them. You can do this with a crayon sharpener. We’ve also used a vegetable peeler with good results. Then you cut out a shape using white paper. The first two times we did this I had the kids first draw a simple picture on the paper and then cut around it. However, I realized that the picture gets kind of lost in the end so we skipped that step this time. Next, you place the shape you have cut out on a piece of wax paper that is bigger than the shape. Then sprinkle crayons over the paper. I don’t give a lot of instructions at this point, other than to point out that large clumps of crayon will likely turn brown in the end.
The next step is the most fun. Place a second sheet of wax paper over top of the white paper and crayons. Then apply heat with the iron. It does not take a lot of heat to melt the crayons and have the two pieces of wax paper seal together so watch the kids carefully at this step. Finally, cut around your white paper shape , leaving a border of wax paper.
They end up looking pretty in a window. It was a fairly grey and rainy day when we did these but they look especially nice in the sun. We also experimented this year with leaving out the white paper and just dropping crayon shavings between two pieces of wax paper. I liked the way that turned out as well. We ran out of time but I think if we do this again I would experiment more with that method.
With art projects for kids there is often a struggle between process and product. A lot of adults will talk about being more “process driven” and I agree that the value in doing art with kids is often more in the doing itself than in having a perfect finished product. But I also find that my kids like product. One of my kids in particular worries more about having the finished product look “right” even when I purposefully talk about their being no “right” answer in art. One of the things I like about this project is that it’s so obviously open-ended and loosey-goosey that even a perfectionist kid can have fun just playing around and seeing what you end up with.
The last two times we did this:
In 2012 with a 3, 6 and 9 year old
In 2009 with a 3 year old and 6 year old
Part of the fun of the book basket is re-reading beloved favorites year after year. And part of the fun is discovering new books. Yesterday we opened the first new-to-us book of this year. Chris Barton’s The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition is an unusual look at the history behind the Nutcracker in America. This is a different perspective than usually given in kids books about the ballet. It’s not about E.T. A. Hoffman’s original story or the adaptation by Alexander Dumas or even really the ballet by Tchaikovsky. Instead it tells the story of how and why the Nutcracker became the most performed ballet in America.
I’ve seen the Nutcracker countless times as a child and as an adult and I admit to never really wondering how it became a holiday tradition. I was somewhat shocked to learn that it was first performed in America in 1944; I had imagined it as being an older tradition than that. It was also interesting to learn that about the three Christensen brothers who loved ballet and how the Nutcracker became a shared love of theirs, especially in the shadow of WWII.
I enjoyed this new addition to our Christmas book list. Ruth takes ballet and we are going to see her first “real” Nutcracker this year and I think she also enjoyed the idea of learning more about the ballet. The boys were ok with it but I’m not sure it will become a yearly read for us. It’s an interesting story but might not hold the attention of kids who aren’t especially ballet obsessed. However, if you have a ballet lover or are just looking for a Christmas book that is somewhat different, this is a good choice.
Reposting from 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.
The favorite Advent tradition in our house is our book box. I wrap all our Christmas books and put them in a box. Each day the kids get to pick a book and we read it. I’ve posted in the past about the individual books we enjoy year after year. I thought this year that I’d compile a list with links to some of those past reviews.
For Animal Lovers
Who Would Like a Christmas Tree? by Ellen Bryan Obed
Humphrey’s First Christmas by Carol Heyer
Cat in the Manger by Michael Foreman
Room for a Little One by Martin Waddell
One Winter’s Night by Leo and Diane Dillon
Who Was Born This Special Day? by Eve Bunting
Counting to Christmas by Nancy Tafuri
The Animals’ Christmas Carol by Helen Ward
Christmas in the Barn by Margaret Wise Brown
One Small Lost Sheep by Claudia Mills
Christmas Cricket by Eve Bunting
Dream Snow by Eric Carle
The Christmas Cat by Maryann MacDonald
A Letter for Bear by David Lucas
The Message of the Birds by Kate Westerlund
The Reindeer Wish by Lori Evert
Just for Fun
Merry UnChristmas by Mike Reiss
The Twelve Bots of Christmas by Nathan Hale
The Gingerbread Pirates by Kristin Kladstrup
The Christmas Crocodile by Bonny Becker
Morris’s Disappearing Bag by Rosemary Wells
The Twelve Bugs of Christmas by David Carter
The True Meaning of Christmas
Listen to the Silent Night by Dandi Dale Mackall
Little One, We Knew You’d Come by Sally Lloyd-Jones
How Many Miles to Bethlehem? by Kevin Crossley
A Child is Born by Margaret Wise Brown
The Christmas Story by Patricia Pingry
This is the Star by Joyce Dunbar
Mary’s First Christmas by Walter Wangerin Jr.
The Third Gift by Linda Sue Park
Because You Have To
The Night Before Christmas by Jan Brett
The Polar Express by Chris VanAllsburg
How The Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
A Charlie Brown Christmas by Charles Schultz
Starring Favorite Characters
Llama Llama Holiday Drama by Anna Dewdney
Bear Stays Up for Christmas by Karma Wilson
Humphrey’s Christmas by Sally Hunter
Henry and Mudge and a Very Merry Christmas by Cynthia Rylant
Max’s Christmas by Rosemary Wells
Lyle at Christmas by Bernard Waber
Harry and the Dinosaurs Make a Christmas Wish by Ian Whybrow
Olivia Helps with Christmas by Ian Falconer
Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker by James Mayhew
Fancy Nancy’s Splendiferous Christmas by Jane O’Connor
Maple and Willow’s Christmas Tree by Lori Nichols
Click, Clack, Ho! Ho! Ho! by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin
From a Carol
Drummer Boy by Loren Long
What Can I Give Him? by Debi Gilori
Silent Night by Susan Jeffers
The Little Drummer Boy by Ezra Jack Keats
The Twelve Days of Christmas by Susan Jeffers
I Dare You to Read One of These and Not Cry (I Can’t)
Silver Packages by Cynthia Rylant
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski
And Everything Else
The Nutcracker by Susan Jeffers
Christmas for 10 (a counting book) by Catherine Falwell
Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo
Coming Through the Blizzard by Eileen Spinelli
Christmas Is… by Gail Gibbons
The Snow Globe Family by Jane O’Connor
The Smallest Gift of Christmas by Peter Reynolds
Shooting at the Stars by John Hendrix
Santa is Coming to Virginia by Steve Smallman
The Nutcracker Comes to America by Chris Barton
Santa Claus and the Three Bears by Maria Modugno
A lot of other people do an Advent book basket. If you don’t, I’d encourage you to consider making it part of your family’s yearly tradition in some way. It’s one of the easiest and cheapest (get the books from the library or use what you already have) ways to make some great Christmas memories with your kids.
This year my 10 year old was talking about the books he knew would be in the basket. I asked him if he was too old for this particular tradition or if he was getting tired of the same books. “No way,” he said. “I’m hoping to memorize them all eventually.” So there you go. If you’re a homeschooler this can be your memory work and Advent tradition all rolled into one.
11/26/16- And now, that 10 year is a 13 year old who brought up the empty box for the books on his own because “we always have the book box”. I’d already wrapped them and put them on our shelves this year so I told him not to worry. Even as a teenager he is looking forward to many beloved favorites and to seeing what new ones I added this year from the library.
It’s a little late for you to enjoy this fantastic new picture book for this year’s Thanksgiving celebration but write it down on your to-be-read list for next year. Written and illustrated by P. J. Lynch this book tells the familiar story of the Mayflower crossing and the early days of Plymouth colony through the eyes of John Howland, a young indentured servant on the Mayflower. During the voyage, John is swept overboard during a storm but miraculously catches hold of a rope in the water and is pulled to safety. Along with the other Pilgrims he endures the hardships of the early years and sees many of those who sailed with him from England suffer and die. Howland initially dreams of going back to London to make a name for himself but when he finally gets the opportunity he decides to stay in the New World and make a life in this new home.
The illustrations are gorgeous. Lynch is also the illustrator of The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey and the paintings here have the same realistic richness.
The story is made even more appealing because it is true. John Howland was a young man on the Mayflower who fell overboard and was saved. He was a servant and later married a fellow Mayflower voyager, Elizabeth Tilley. Together they went on to have 10 children and 88 grandchildren. (Yes, you read that right. 88 grandchildren.) Apparently millions of Americans are descended from them, including many famous people.
All of my kids enjoyed this one. It’s a long picture book so probably best for older kids on their own (perhaps 4th grade and up) or for any ages as a read-aloud. The parts of the story are divided into short sections so it’s easy to read all in one setting or over the course of several days (Thanksgiving week perhaps).
To find out more:
P.J. Lynch’s website (where I discovered he is Ireland’s laureate for children’s literature)
Pilgrim John Howland Society (where you can see some of the famous Howland descendents)
And Happy Thanksgiving!
Are you watching?
Project Feederwatch is one of the best recurring projects we do in our homeschool every year. It’s simple. You just count birds at a site in your yard up to days a week from Nov-May. You can count every week or you can do it once or twice. Once you count, you enter your data on the website. There is a small fee. The first year you get a great poster of common birds in your area and some other materials. The website stores your data from previous years and it’s fun to go back and look at trends of birds. My kids love doing it and it hones their skills of observation and awareness of nature. It also is a great way to be involved in citizen science.
The season started last week but it’s not too late to sign up and count this year.
And because everything finds its way back to books, a bird themed book list for your young bird and book lovers:
Fiction Picture Books:
Seven Hungry Babies by Candace Fleming
The Perfect Nest by Catherine Friend
Leaving the Nest by Moredecai Gerstein
Those Darn Squirrels by Adam Rubin
Louise: the Adventures of a Chicken by Kate DiCamillo and Harry Bliss
Telephone by Mac Barnett
Feathers for Lunch by Lois Ehlert
Falcon by Tim Jessell
The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett
Non-Fiction Picture Books:
The Boy Who Drew Birds by Jacqueline Davies (biography of Audubon)
United Tweets of America by Hudson Talbott (state birds)
Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward
Look Up! Bird Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate
Bird Talk by Lita Judge
The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate by Scott Nash
Swordbird (and sequels) by Nancy Yi Fan
Our favorite Field Guide:
Birds of Virginia by Stan Tekiela- We have others but we use this one the most because it is organized by color which is such a easy way for a beginner to try to find the bird that you are looking at.
If you aren’t already using the Art Lessons at Deep Space Sparkle in your homeschool or with your kids after school, you should be. It is a treasure trove of art activities for kids. You can buy complete lesson plans or search the website (by topic, by artist, by technique, by grade) for something free that meets your needs. Last week I was looking for a fall art project to do with my 2nd grader and 5th grader. (As an aside, my 8th grader claims to dislike art. He often will join us and can get really into the right project. He also has a lot more other work to do and less free time, so I treat art as a free time option for him most of the time. I figure he’s had plenty of exposure up to this point and forcing him to participate isn’t going to make him enjoy it.) I went to DSS and searched under “Fall” and found this beautiful watercolor leaves project.
First, we sketched leaves in pencil on a sheet of white watercolor paper. Then we used black glue (Elmer’s School Glue mixed with black tempera paint) to outline the leaves. The directions were to use the squeeze bottle to apply the black glue. However, our glue bottle was old and the top was completely stopped up. I found a medication syringe and we used that instead. It worked fine but probably made our glue lines thicker than intended.
After letting the glue dry (it took a couple of days because our glue was so thick), we got out the paints. We reviewed the color wheel first and I asked the kids to paint their leaves using colors that are near each other on the color wheel. We used liquid watercolors which give really brilliant colors. We then did some catechism practice and PE at the same time (nothing like homeschooling for multitasking) to let the leaves dry a bit before painting the background. I asked them to paint the background using more of a complementary color to their leaves. (You can see below that Ruth didn’t really follow my instructions but I think hers turned our great anyway.) Before the background paint dried, we applied table salt as a resist. I had never done this but it was really easy and gave a cool batik like effect. You just sprinkle the salt onto the wet paint and then let it dry. Once dry you gently brush it off.
Ruth’s painting. She ignored the complementary background instructions because she wanted hers to look like leaves sitting in a pile of other leaves. I really liked that she did her own thing and I liked the way it ended up looking.
David’s finished project. You get an idea of how vivid the liquid watercolors can be!
And mine. I was the first one to try the salt and I think I used a bit too much, but it still looks ok. The great thing about art projects like this is that it’s just fun and the process is truly as much the point as the finished product.