Thanksgiving Adventures

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Thanksgiving break gave us two very different but equally fun adventures. The kids and I spent “Black Friday” at Huntley Meadows, our favorite local nature spot. It wasn’t so much a protest of consumerism as it was just a beautiful day and I hate to shop so the day after Thanksgiving typically finds me anywhere but a shopping mall or store. We saw an owl, a great blue heron, a few frogs, and a bunch of minnows. We had fun trying to identify birds by their songs, something really only David is able to do in any small way. The kids were perhaps most intruiged by the numerous tracks we spotted in the muddy areas of the wetlands. We had fun trying to identify them with the aid of a guidebook and a park employee in the visitor center. In the end we decided that they were most likely muskrat.

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Yesterday, after helping with annual Advent decorating at church, we headed downtown to the Renwick Gallery. This is H.’s favorite museum downtown and it reopened this fall after a two year major renovation. Nine artists created works for the reopening exhibit, titled Wonder. If you are in the area, I would highly recommend going. The works are truly amazing and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. For one thing, the scale is awesome: each work takes up a full room. The materials used to make the art are mostly everyday materials (glass marbles, tires, string, index cards) but are used in ways that are truly mind-blowing. I would highly recommend it if you are in the area.

Our kids were fascinated by the exhibit. Spontaneously, they decided to each come up with one word to describe each piece. It was the kind of cool moment as a homeschooling parent where you think about all the different educational things that are happening but keep quiet and just let them happen.

We also played a few games (Carcassone, Qwirkle, Clue), took a lot of walks, ran a 5K on Thanksgiving (David and John), watched two movies (Free Birds and Miracle on 34th Street), decorated the house for Christmas, had friends over for dinner, completed one decluttering project (cleaning out the shoe and coat closet) and, of course, ate a lot of food. All in all, lots to be thankful for.

Tomorrow we get back to school for the three week stretch before Christmas break. I think of Thanksgiving as like a mini-breather before the sprint to the finish time before the longer Christmas holiday. I feel reasonably rested and ready to go. And that’s definitely something to be thankful for.

Advent Reading

Reposting from 2012, 2013 and 2014. Just like the book box, the post has become an Advent tradition.

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

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

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

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

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.

Recently Read

I woke up with a small thrill of anticipation coursing through my veins. It took me a moment to remember why, but then it came to me: I was due to crack open a new Scientific Notebook. I’d jammed my first one chock-full of many Questions, a few Answers and various observations and sketches…..

But now  it was time to bid adieu to the old one and start the cheerful new red one Granddaddy had given me. I opened it and inhaled the smell of fresh leather and paper. Could anything top the promise and potential of a blank page? What could be more satisfying? Never mind that it would soon be crammed with awkward penmanship, that my handwriting inevitably sloped downhill to the right-hand corner, that I blotted my ink, that my drawings never come out the way I saw them in my head. Never mind all that. What counted was possibility. You could live on possibility, at least for a while.

From The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, p 47-48

Happy Halloween

DSCN9762aHappy Halloween. It’s not my favorite holiday but we had fun. In general, it’s a much bigger holiday in our town and neighborhood than I remember when I was a kid. People go all out decorating. On one hand, I don’t love all the super scary and creepy decorations. On the other hand, it’s probably the one night of the year we talk to the most number of neighbors. One cul-de-sac in our neighborhood even put together a party in the middle of the road with a bonfire and hot dogs and cider. A house was showing an outdoor movie and another house had an optional “Haunted Trail” for the bigger kids. Can’t tell what John is dressed up as in the photo above? Wondering if we adopted a slightly strange fourth child?


Here is John with his second head, later named “Jimmy” (the head). His costume kind of evolved from being the headless horseman to the horseless headman. He had a plan to kind of float the head out in front of him but it didn’t work out so he improvised and stuck it in the hood of his coat. This year’s costume was a bit of a minor ethical dilemma for me. We usually discourage the super scary costumes. His didn’t turn out that scary but it did give his sister nightmares the night after he was painted it in our kitchen. I was appreciative that he wanted to do something creative instead of opting for something manufactured or easy. We talked briefly about making sure it was all in fun and about how there is a line we don’t want to cross. I admitted that I’m not sure exactly where that line is. We do Halloween as a family and we don’t avoid all the references to ghosts and skeletons and monsters. I’m a Christian who believes that Halloween is pretty much about having fun dressing up and getting candy. At the same time, there are some scary things that we won’t do. I want the kids to kind of figure out where that line is for themselves. And I can totally understand why having a floating head or second head is a really funny costume to an 11 year old boy.


Earlier in the day we engaged in a much more terrifying activity. The boys have birthdays close together so this year we combined their main present and got them a trapeze class at The Trapeze School of New York (in Washington).


All kidding aside, they had a fantastic time and weren’t scared at all. I thought it might be at least a little disconcerting to watch our kids flying through the air well above our heads but the school does a great job of making everyone feel safe and comfortable (parents included). I’m sure they want to go back.


Ruth was sad that she didn’t get to do it also. They do allow six year olds but since she had just turned six we weren’t sure if it would be appropriate for her. I guess we will have to go back because we promised her that next time we’d sign her up also.

In general, I find we are moving more and more to giving experiences rather than things for gifts. Part of it is that we have very generous family members who give our kids all they need (and more). There is really nothing they need in terms of stuff. They always want more (they are kids after all) but really, how many Legos can you have? Giving an unusual or special experience has been a good way to limit the amount of clutter a least a tiny bit and also to expose them to a variety of fun and different activities that we might not have done otherwise.


Chicago with Kids


We spent the beginning of September on a week long trip to Chicago. The excuse of sorts for travel was a pediatric conference I attended, but we turned that into a week long family vacation. Long car trips have reputations as being hellish experiences with kids. I have found that I (mostly) enjoy them. Yes, by the end of the day everyone is grumpy but many of our funniest memories are from long car trips. We pack up a stack of audiobooks, some not so healthy snacks and make sure to take plenty of quick breaks.


I wanted to post all different photos from my previous Chicago post but this one photo deserves a second post. On the way home I asked all three kids what were the top three things we did were. All three put the Mirror Maze at the Museum of Science and Industry at the top of the list. It was a great museum in general but the mirror maze was a unique experience for all of us.DSCN0893aI think I’ve shared this tip before, but many science museums and children’s museums offer reciprocal membership benefits. (Zoos and Aquariums also often offer the same thing). Before a trip, we will look for museums we might be interested in visiting and then look for another museum somewhere in the country to join that offers the best reciprocal benefits. It takes some research on H.’s part but it has gotten us some great deals at museums in several cities. In Chicago, we got free admission to the Museum of Science and Industry and to the Field Museum.


Another great deal to take advantage of if you are a Bank of America customer is the Museums on Us program, which offers free admission to participating museums around the country on the first weekend of the month. We were able to get free admission for all of us to the Art Institute of Chicago.


I would say our kids usually have mixed feelings about art museums. One hates them, one likes art but is just too active to want to look at anything for very long and one is fine as long as she can dance and sing in the middle of the gallery. Before this trip, a swim team friend recommended the books The 68 Rooms by Marianne Malone which tells the story of a boy and girl who shrink and have adventures inside the Thorn Rooms at the Art Institute. I think the kids would have been mildly interested in the rooms before listening to the audiobook, but having listened made seeing them so much more fun. In fact, they surprised me by enjoying it so much that they went back the next day while I was finishing my conference. The book served as the hook to get them to the museum. And then while they were there they happened to see so much more. The Thorn Rooms were voted one of their top attractions as well.


The third favorite attraction was more difficult and more variable. I think for H. it was taking a long bike ride along Lake Michigan. The kids enjoyed that as well, especially going down the sledding hill on bikes. We of course enjoyed the Crown Fountain in Millenium Park and the three kids got completely soaked. I think Ruth and I both picked the water taxi ride we took one night as one of our top three things. (Water taxi = cheap version of river boat tour.) We took one from downtown out to Chinatown to eat dinner one night and then came back at night when we could view the sparkling skyline at it’s finest. Navy Pier and the Ferris Wheel topped H’s list.


At the risk of being corny, I would say that all the things we saw and did were really the chocolate syrup on top. (Photo from Margie’s Candies, home of enormous sundaes and amazingly good caramel.) The real value of the trip was just being together. We are together a lot at home but there is always something special about being away on a vacation. All of the other distractions are gone and we can just enjoy each other. That was less true this trip as usual as I was at a conference part of each day. However, H. and the kids had adventures in the mornings on their own and we had the rest of the afternoon and evenings together. As our kids get older I’m reminded again and again how important these kids of concentrated times together are.

Previous Kids and Travel Posts:

Tips from a trip to Pittsburgh with a 2 yr old and a 4 yr old 
Tips from a long car trip to New Orleans with a 3 yr old, a 6 yr old and a 9 yr old (part 1)
And New Orleans, part 2
Niagara Falls and Toronto with Kids

A bump in the road.

Our summer started off with a bang. Or maybe I should use John’s words, a giant “kerplop”. David broke his right arm in two places on May 31st roller-blading. We’re at Day 17 of the awkward, heavy, itchy, hot and very very non-waterproof plaster splint. Breaking your dominant arm anytime is hard. Breaking it when you are eight years old and it’s summer is even harder. Breaking it when you are eight years old and your summer revolves around swim team and being at the pool all day is even harder than that. Breaking your arm when you are the kind of kid who spends most of every day outside climbing trees, roller-blading, skateboarding, biking, and generally running amuck may be the hardest of all. It’s been a tough start to the summer, to say the least.

David is usually not a kid who deals well with frustration or disappointment. All our kids have strengths and things they need to work on. David is generous to a fault; several times I have had to forbid him from buying his sister presents at the store. He is sensitive and empathetic. He is loving and kind. He is quite funny and often wise in a way that surprises me. He is a peace-maker and rarely selfish. But usually he is someone whose day can be undone by a missing Lego piece or a thoughtless word from a sibling. I think this might be because he has such a strong sense of fairness and kindness that he can’t understand when the world isn’t being fair and everyone isn’t being kind.

I said he usually has a hard time dealing with frustration. This has not been one of those times. He has consistently astonished me with how well he is handling this fairly major hurdle in his summer plans. The orthopedist had originally said he could get a waterproof cast last week but when we went in to the appointment felt like he needed one more week in the splint to ensure proper healing. David broke down very briefly and then kind of shook it off (a la Taylor Swift) and moved on.

I realized that, as a parent, I want the best for my kids. I told David that I would have broken my arm for him if I could and I would do anything in my power to have him not have to go through this. However, I see how this experience is molding his character in a way that is good and that I think will bear much fruit in the future. Seeing him go through this has made me see how my natural desire is to smooth over every bump in the road , to solve every puzzle, to ensure that they don’t have to deal with disappointments  big or small, to banish mean kids and unfair coaches and rainy days from their lives. I know of course that I can’t do those things and part of me knows I shouldn’t. But oh, how I want to. I’m learning that my job as a parent isn’t so much to smooth over those bumps but to cheer them on as they navigate their way around them. In reality, the best thing for my kids isn’t always the easy road.


Read Aloud Thursday: From the New Shelf

We read a lot of picture books, although less than we used to and less than I wish we did. Today I have to share a small, somewhat random sample of some recent finds from our library’s new shelf that we have enjoyed. The first, Penguins in Peril, finds a penguin the unwilling captive of three dastardly cats. The cats have spent all their money on movies instead of food and craft. They come up with a plan to perpetrate the most daring robbery of all time and get all the fishes they want. But first they need a secret weapon: the penguin. The penguin outwits them in the end and the cat’s plan is thwarted. A first book by Helen Hancocks, this one definitely takes a dry sense of humor to appreciate. The somewhat flat text and graphically simple illustrations have a certain plain-Jane charm. My kids liked it when reading it the first time but I haven’t seen them reading it again on their own or seeking it out for second or third readings.

On the other end of the spectrum from the conniving cats in Penguins in Peril, is Sarah Weeks’ Glamourpuss, the title character in what can best be described as the Fancy Nancy of the feline world. Glamourpuss is, well, glamorous. The most glamorous pet ever. But then Bluebell, a tiny toy dog, comes to visit. Bluebell wears fancy clothes: hoopskirts and tiaras and fruit-covered turbans. Bluebell dances and does tricks. Glamourpuss starts to doubt herself. Then however, Bluebell tears up all her fancy clothes and Glamourpuss realizes that maybe there is room for two fabulous pets in the same house. David Small’s (one of my favorite illustrators) humorous illustrations are a perfect paring for this quirky and sweet story.

And for my last offering, we go back to simple, at least in concept. Mac Barnett’s Telephone takes the game of telephone and imagines how it would go as played by birds on a wire. The concept is simple but the execution is picture perfect. The message gets more and more garbled. Illustrator Jen Corace’s birds tell a story of their own as each bird changes the message according to his own job or hobby.

One reason we don’t read as many picture books as I might like is that with older kids, we spend more time reading chapter books. Chapter books are great fun as well to read, and I love our nightly “special book” time. But I think too often parents think that once their kids are old enough to move on to reading “big books” that the time for picture books is over. I recently discovered that my sixth grader still reads every picture book I bring home from the library on his own. It makes me happy that he doesn’t feel too old to enjoy what some kids might feel are books just for little kids.

Stop by Hope is the Word for Read Aloud Thursday and share what you family is reading together.

Read Aloud Thursday: In Defense of the Series

Ruth and I just finished Beverly Cleary’s Ramona’s World, the last in the Ramona Quimby series. She was filled with excitement at finishing the series, not because she was glad it was over, but I think because she saw it as a celebration. We’ve had such a fun time sharing these books. I should add that even though I say Ruth and I read these together I should really say that all the kids listened to these. It was technically Ruth’s “special book” but the boys liked it just as much as she did.

The boys and I just finished Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three and are starting the next in The Chronicles of Prydain series, The Black Cauldron. Somehow, I missed these as a kid but I’ve heard fantastic things about these fantasy novels and had them on my to be read list for years. We loved the story of Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper and his companions and are looking forward to the rest of the series.

In certain bookish and literary circles, the term “series” is almost a bad word. I’ve heard people bemoaning the fact that their kids will only read series books. The truth is that kids love series. And for good reason. A good series is comfortable, it’s like visiting the same friends over and over again. A really good series creates a new world for the reader and each new book in the series expands and defines that world a little more.

There is something to be said for reading books that are not part of a series and something to be said for reading books that are not comfortable. Kids need challenge, just like adults. And it’s true that not all series are created equal. However, both my boys really got pulled into reading through series (and not always all that high quality). And as a family, many of the most memorable read-alouds we’ve done have been part of a series. There is something wonderful about inhabiting another world all together for an extended period of time.

Great Series to Read-Aloud:

The Melendy Quartet by Elizabeth Enright
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
The Moffats by Eleanor Estes
Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley (We’re currently enjoying #4 as an audiobook in the car.)
The Frog Princess by E. D. Baker
Humphrey the Hamster books by Betty Birney
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
Narnia by C. S. Lewis
Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (Yes, they are long but one of my best memories with John is reading these together.)
Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace

I’m a little late to the party, but it’s not to late for you to stop by Hope is the Word for Read-Aloud Thursday. Be sure to share what you are reading aloud with your family!