Happy cozy reading, friends!
If you're a fellow bibliophile who has endorphin zings when viewing art, being in nature, or reading
Happy cozy reading, friends!
If you're a fellow bibliophile who has endorphin zings when viewing art, being in nature, or reading
We Read to Know We're not Alone...
So yet again this week, I've had two sleepless nights. My brain just would not shut down. Sometimes life is plain overwhelming. After a few hours of laying there, I finally groped around in the dark on my nightstand for my tiny new reading light (Thank you, Christmas stocking! Santa must be an insomniac too...). I clicked on the bitsy light, picked up my fresh library book, and hallelujah (why hadn't I done this sooner?), my over-wrought brain was whisked away into someone else's troubles and adventures, and leaving my own behind. Fifteen minutes later, I was free of anxiety, set my book down, and dozed back off to a peaceful sleep.
This. Is one of the many reasons why books are our friends. Why do YOU read? Really, think about it...what keeps you going back to read even when there are so many other distractions in this world?
And here's another question for you...if you're here reading this very book review, right now, why do you choose children's lit so often? Here's one reason for me: picture books were the first source of media to spark a sense of compassion, empathy, and melancholy in my three year-old soul--it was an awakening sensation to read of the The Little House's plight (in Virginia Lee Burton's classic so many years ago) to have the city encroach around the quiet country cottage--eating up her peaceful countryside. And then to have the great-great grandchildren of the little house's residents save her and take her back to the country, far from the cacophony of the maddening crowd. The full circle of life and closure and what brings peace, which Burton illustrated so beautifully, captivated my childlike imagination. And hasn't let me go since.
Looking back, pulling a magical picture book by Mark Teague or Mark Buehner off the campus book store shelf during my college years, gave me a care-free escape (for just twenty minutes) from the pressures of exams and essays. Falling into the imaginary world of childhood wonder again let me day-dream a bit about being a children's book writer and illustrator myself someday. (Still working toward that goal, ha ha!).
And lastly, and most importantly, reading great children's lit with my own little ones saved my sanity as a young mom of toddlers. And brought us great amounts of pleasure, coziness, rapture, and joy.
Just one short decade ago when the house nearly always felt like a disaster, the sink was perpetually full of dishes (we had no dishwasher but my own hands), my feet were aching from standing at the stove, the newborn needed nursing, and the short residents were fighting--needing a wonderful distraction...I would grab the nearest picture book, sit on the sofa, and gather everyone in.
Voilà! We would escape into Audrey Woods' The Flying Dragon Room, Melanie Walsh's Monster, Monster lift-the-flap classic, or the blueberry muffin-scented mint green techmobile of Chris Van Dusen's If I Built a Car.
By the end of reading just one ten minute picture book, my nerves were calmed, I could put the tanked-up baby down for a nap, send the kids out to play in the yard, and face the sink full of dirty dishes. Picture books were a panacea for my younger mom self. They still are such a source of joy for my artist's heart. My writer friend, Julie, and I joke that we're now the only ones in our homes who bring home picture books anymore from the library. But that's okay, we just label it "research."
I watched a nine month-old baby for a friend this week, and was reminded of what a hard, long-suffering (often thankless), job motherhood (parenthood) is. If you haven't had an infant of your own, whom you've diapered, fed mushy food, rocked to sleep day-in, day-out, bathed, potty-trained, and entertained for three + years, then you won't have any idea what I'm talking about.
But if you're a young, exhausted mother, who sees no end in sight to the sleep-deprivation, never-ending entropy, and continual mess, then know that there is actually an end. And it will suddenly come upon you abruptly one day. Either when your youngest starts school, or your first child leaves home. OR, the joy and madness leave all together when the baby of the family grows up. (I haven't visited that one yet, and would rather not think about it...) But there does come a time as a mom when the kids actually can help more than hinder, and the house can stay clean for a good seven-hour stretch of time. YEE HAW!
In the meantime, there are picture books to help bring adults and children together. Some of these masterpieces in board book form are so brilliant--looking at you Sandra Boynton and Nadine Bernand Westcott--that one wonders how people can be so clever and consistent as to come up with them.
So, if you know a young mom or dad who needs a fresh stack of children's books to recharge their parenting well, and be reminded they are doing THE MOST CRUCIAL WORK ON EARTH of laying a foundation of stability, patience, and compassion for the next generation, here are six fantabulous book recommendations to remind us that we read picture books to bond kids and adults together, and to know...we're not alone.
1) The Next Great Jane
by (Michael L. Printz Honor-Winner) K.L. Going
The Next Great Jane Is one of those books that helped ease my mind back into rest recently, when I needed a nighttime escape from mom anxieties. I picked it up to see if one of my daughter's might enjoy it. But I was the one who ended up riding the wave of a ride.
Get ready for various modern nods to the classic Pride and Prejudice--I lost track after about fifteen.
Here's the blurb from Goodreads:
Jane Brannen wants nothing more than to become a famous author like Jane Austen--she just needs to figure out the key to literary success! Her chance to uncover the secret arrives when famous author J. E. Fairfax visits the tiny lobster town of Whickett Harbor, Maine. Unfortunately, a hurricane rolls in and Jane gets stuck with the author's snobbish son, Devon, instead. But when the skies clear, Jane realizes the wind has blown in something worse than annoying boys: Her mother, Susan, and Susan's new fiancé, Erik, have flown all the way from Hollywood to file for custody and bring Jane back to California. Now she needs to find a mate for her marine biologist father and figure out what's truly important about Whickett Harbor, so she can prove to her mother that this is where she's meant to stay.
2) What's in Your Pocket
Collecting Nature's Treasures
Written by Heather L. Montgomery,
Illustrated by Maribel Lechuga
What do Charles Darwin, George Washington Carver, and Jane Goodall all have in common? They were once all kids who loved to spend time in nature and fill their pockets with treasures for examination and study!
If you know a little scientist who has a passion for collecting fossils, seedpods, seashells, dead butterflies, pressed flowers, turkey feathers, or bits of lichen, you'll want to check out this book. Your little observer will see how others with similar interests have gone on to let their observations guide them to making groundbreaking discoveries!
And the illustrations are a sheer delight!
3) Measuring a Year: A Rosh Hashanah Story
Written by Linda Elovitz Marshall
Illustrated by Zara González Hoang
Jewish holidays are something about which I don't know much. But I love learning about other cultures, especially with children. It's what adds the spice to life.
If you feel the same, you'll find this book a simple gem, and very timely, as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mark the beginning of the Jewish New Year, and give children the chance to ponder on the present and the past, and to “measure” a year and ourselves and how we've changed through time.
Don't let this naive-looking picture book deceive you, though. Its contents are thought-provoking and a perfect conversation-starter for families to discuss how we've grown in a different blocks of time, helping us take stock of the happy times as well as any painful regrets, remembering relationships made along the way, and new skills learned over time.
Happy New Year! Shana Tova, everyone! (less)
4) Dadaji's Paintbrush
Written by Rashmi Sirdeshpande,
Illustrated by Ruchi Mhasane
Raising my own children so far away from my own parents is one of those reasons I sometimes don't sleep at night. In this tender depiction of the "painting bond" between a grandpa and his grandson, is a lushly-illustrated story of how those we love become part of us--instilling in us a connection that transcends space and time.
5) Our World Is Relative
Written by Julia Sooy,
Illustrated by Molly Walsh
The flap inside the book says it best:
Size, speed, weight, direction, distance
This book is such a clear snapshot of a day-in-the-life of any child going to public school. I felt as though I were re-living a week of my elementary school memories--for good and bad. But in the heroine's case of this little story, she starts noticing that her arm doesn't work like it should on the playground (curling up at her chest). And her vision starts to go a little fuzzy. Then her legs don't quite do what she expects them to.
When the mom of this fun-loving, mustache-sticker-wearing Maddie tosses her an avocado one day after school, and Maddie's curled-up arm doesn't reach out to catch it, Maddie's mom is worried. She looks up Maddie's symptoms, and the next day after calling the doctor, Maddie is checked out of school to go "immediately" not to the doctor's office, but to the hospital. Maddie has a brain tumor.
Based on the true story of the authors' (husband and wife writing team) daughter, the empathy invoked by the reader for our brave little heroine here is why we read.
How many of us throughout our lives haven't experienced being poked and prodded with needles in a doctor's office at some point, feeling the uncertainty of facing an upcoming surgery, or even the suffocating claustrophobia of being inside a noisy MRI machine? If we haven't, we most certainly love someone who has gone through one of these uncomfortably-frightening scenarios...
The humor and imaginative personality of the little main character in this story is contrasted so poignantly as she faces such a bleak, somber prospect of brain surgery.
As my community and close friends are dealing with a difficult prognosis of someone we love very dearly who's facing the very same outlook, this book feels like a balm for me. And I hope Maddie's story can bring some peace and closure for some of those also struggling who love our ward matriarch, Emma, in our faith community .
We love you, Emma and family! Praying for you daily!
Reading and writing to know we're not alone is a gift that we share as people. Books are pretty incredible little packages of thought--transferred from one person's heart and soul--transcending time and geography, to enter the heart and mind of another human being weeks, months, or even hundreds of years and thousands of miles away. How cool is that? Like time and space travel for ideas!
As I get excited to help some of my close friends, Brandon and Cristina Boey, launch Brandon's very first book, Karma of the Sun on Tuesday January 17, 2023, help us celebrate by commenting below to enter a drawing to win a signed copy of Brandon's book. All you have to do is share one title of a book you think everyone should read in 2023 to escape from anxiety and enjoy the transmittal of hopeful ideas through time and space!
I'll announce the winner of Brandon's signed book on the homepage this coming Tuesday, January 17th, 2023. Now bring on your favorite titles to share in the comments below, and you'll be entered in the drawing to win a signed copy of Karma of the Sun!
So stir up some hot cocoa, grab a blanket, share your favorite recommendation below, and enjoy your cozy winter reading, friends!
Things to Look Forward to...
"Keep your hopes up," one of my favorite gospel teachers, David Butler, said on his Don't Miss This! Youtube show recently, along with darling co-host Emily Belle Freeman. Dave went on to share what the label sewn inside his favorite pair of church pants says:
"Make no little plans that have no magic to stir men's[and women's] blood. And probably will not themselves be realized. Make BIG plans, aim high in hope and in work."
Bet you never thought you'd hear a pair of church pants being quoted. Now you have.
Back to making no little plans that have no magic to stir men and women's souls...I've committed to a small group of three other writer friends to pump out 1,000 words a day until Christmas. This means I'll be writing every week day(!) working on my book again! Yeehah! (It's been too long...)
I can't express how thrilling this prospect is--to carve out at least an hour a day to build on paper the story world within my mind and heart. All with the hopes of stirring a bookworm's blood--your blood. If you'll give me the chance someday?
So over the next few weeks I'll be finishing the outline of my book, then jumping into the second draft of my manuscript to find out if it matches up with the plot events I've been carrying around in my head these past fourteen years. Basically, do the words I've already written down actually say what I think they do?
In the meantime, here are six super exciting books for us all to enjoy...starting with Sophie Blackall's newest release coming out TODAY! Without further adieu, on to the happy book review...
Written and Illustrated
by Sophie Blackall
(RELEASE DATE: September 13, 2022!)
EEK! People, I have waited ALL YEAR LONG for this glowing slice of sunshine pie to find its way onto my family's reading plate.
If any of the rest of you are following the creation of this book, you'll know that two-time Caldecott Medalist, Sophie Blackall, first came across the actual "farmhouse" when she was debating whether or not to purchase the farmland on which the house was crumbling in upstate New York.
Apparently, Sophie wanted to renovate the barn into a writer's and Illustrator's retreat--which she has done impeccably--calling it Milkwood. But the old house was beyond saving. So before having a crew raze the structure, and sew wildflower seeds on the spot (*gasp!*), Sophie walked through that dilapidated home (full of leaves and decay), and rescued artifacts of a simpler era. In doing so, Ms. Blackall discovered the clues that pieced together the story of one real-life family who raised their twelve children to work together and keep a dairy farm running like clockwork.
After collecting forgotten articles of clothing, an ancient pump organ, pieces of vintage wallpaper, and whatever detritus that wonderful family left behind as they grew and moved on over the years, Sophie felt an inescapable telling of this family's story well-up within her. Hence the creation of her newest picture book. Lucky us!
So would you like Sophie Blackall herself to give you a guided tour through the pages of this stunning wonder-on-the-page? Then follow the link below to sink your reader's teeth into a delight more yummy than homemade yogurt made from freshly-milked cows...
(Just don't forget to come back--there are five more titles in which to revel...)
Going back to a slower time is always on my docket of things to do. Couldn't help finding a spot to sneak in this picture from our P.E.I. trip, as this little ride was so peaceful, so soothing, so full of trilling red wing blackbird song, that I had to share it here. (From Matthew's Carriage Ride at Park Corner, Silverbush, in P.E.I., Canada.)
What do you look forward to, creative people? Accomplishing big goals? Or the little things? Or both? I love watching for the purple-hued mushrooms springing up through the spongy moss floor of the New England woods. Or anticipating raucous thunderstorms dumping sheets of rain on an ominous summer afternoon. How about the first scent of spicy air outside when the summer season cools into crisp autumn...
(At right: my fun niece and fellow writer, Danie, during a downpour while on a summer visit to Maine...)
2) Anne of Green Gables
a Graphic Novel
Written by Mariah Marsden,
Illustrated by Brenna Thummler
Title numero two, is a book I loved "looking forward to" giving as a birthday gift to one of my daughters on our family road trip to Prince Edward Island, Canada last month. This gem is a true treasure for L.M. Montgomery fans.
And don't quote me on this, but I may or may not have caught each one of the guys in my family thumbing through this book as well...it's that good.)
I can not speak highly enough of this graphic novel spin on such a classic. If you're the type of person who can't (or refuses to) watch any other version of Anne of Green Gables than the Megan Follows portrayal, this book will thrill you to your Anne Shirley-est depths. Because I feel even Lucy Maud herself would approve. Wait and see, my kindred spirits...I think you will NOT be displeased...
The tenderness Ms. Brenda Thummler employs in drawing Anne, Marilla, and Matthew's expressions is full of dainty sensibility and emotion.
At first glance when I opened the book (as an old-school illustrator, myself), I was taken aback and unsure of the fresh stylization. (Especially with the abrupt nose given to Anne's character...but I suppose in the stories, Anne does have a distinct nose after all. So there you go...)
I had to keep reminding myself not to waste "gawking at the gorgeous scenery" for reading the book, because we'd have the book for years to come, right? But the trip would end before I could finish reading that graphic novel.
You'll see what I mean. After delving into the carefully-adapted story for just a few minutes, when someone breaks the spell and pulls you out of Anne Shirley's fairyland, be prepared for an odd suctioning sensation around your head--like you're moving through a rubber portal out of the 1870's--away from broken slates and chalkboards, and back to cell phones and e-mails from kids' teachers.
Like Anne, I feel so glad to live in a world where there are Octobers. And people who create books as lovely as sitting in a cherry tree all abloom in the moonlight would be. And grateful to know that there are really places that actually exist that truly inspire such stories and world-building.
So, bosom friends, get ready to grasp your one-way ticket on the train from Charlottetown to Bright River with a one-way stop in Cavendish. So you can bask in Mariah Marsden and Brenna Thummler's epiphany-of-an-adaptation on Anne of Green Gables, their brilliant new graphic novel...ENJOY!
“'Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive–it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything would it?'"
3) What Was I Scared of?
Written and Illustrated
by Dr. Seuss
Many of you picture book aficionados will have seen this lesser known tiny diamond-in-the-rough book before. But a few will have not. So if you're one of those few, and you (or someone you know) struggles with anxiety, this might be a mini therapist-of-a-picture book for you.
To me, this is Dr. Seuss's nod to acknowledging that the dreaded situations we humans fear most (e.g. public speaking, childbirth, moving to a new place, surgery, exams in school, etc.) can become something we just might even look forward to the next time around, because working through those hard challenges makes us stronger, healthier, and more adventurously-resilient in the long run.
Just like the little Dr. Seuss character in What Was I Scared of? never thought he'd make friends with a pair of pale green pants with nobody inside them. If you don't know this tiny gem of a book, you must get acquainted...(since we're talking about surprises coming from empty pairs of pants...)
I love those words from those Roman pants of Dave Butler. Because I've always been the type of goofy, dreamy person to make big plans. But if fear is the nemesis of creativity, how do we create--with a dread of judgment looming just beyond our pens, paintbrushes, chisels, and woodworking tools?
We jump into the shocking waters of risk, making fear our friend! Submerging ourselves in the startling rapids, and letting ourselves be carried down-river a bit with the fear of it. Then float back to the safety of shore to obtain what we really want--the beautiful outcome on the banks of peace.
All this, knowing we'll bump into fear again along the way the next time we have to do that scary action of ______________ (YOU fill in the blank...). But fear is just going to have to be an acquaintance time and again, right?
The good part is, the older we grow, the more we work through those terrifying acts (coming nose to nose with our personal phobias). So the more we do something, the less terrifying our phobias become, and the less power they hold over us. HA! Take that, spooky pale green pants with nobody inside 'em--we'll become friends after all...
4) Up in Heaven
Written and Illustrated by
Emma Chichester Clark
Maybe it's the recent passing of the Queen of England, and how very British Emma's books feel, or perhaps it's the love of my kids for our dog, Mr. Teds, but this book keeps popping into my consciousness lately.
If you know a little person who loves a pet as a best friend, and has been heart-broken at their passing, or will someday. This is a book that might bring some comfort.
Don't these pictures just make your heart swell and ache with their soft beauty?
Emma Chichester Clark's gentle illustrations are always a pleasure to peruse, and the story here isn't so much of a thing to look forward to itself (as a book), but that of an idea that can be discussed in families--when someone we adore goes beyond the veil to that new reality and dimension that exists, but is not seen by us, what do we have to look forward to? The adventures that await us all once we come closer to figuring things out here. That last great journey (here) that leads to the new beginning there!
On a lighter note, if you just want something fun to watch with your kids because you dig Ms. Chichester's artwork, and want to hear about her creative process, look below for a video clip of Emma describing her process of illustrating Alice in Wonderland in her London studio. Her spiel will make you laugh--what she says about arguing. It's simply spiffing!
(Again, don't fall down Alice's rabbit hole by forgetting to come back, as the last two incredible book recommendations are still below...)
5) Things to Look Forward to
Written and Illustrated (again!)
by Sophie Blackall
For starters, this is not a children's picture book. It's a book with pictures for adults. Many more philosophical kids may also enjoy it, though. I, myself, brought it home for my teens (despite the second item Sophie Blackall lists "to look forward to" as being a cup of coffee. My kids and I don't drink coffee, and will never do so), we can still appreciate looking forward to coming home from school or work in the winter to a steaming mug of hot almond cocoa.
This soothingly-designed tome is wonderful Ms. Blackall's response to the dreariness brought-on by the global pandemic. She shares how even baking something for someone (muffins for the builders who restored the Milkwood Barn) gave her immense hope and joy at seeing their pleasure in receiving them each day. Plus, Sophie got to test out the muffins herself as she delivered them.
Rather, this book is a collection of the basic things in life that Sophie considers gifts to humankind. The first thing she mentions: "The Sun Coming Up." She then opens by quoting one of our US presidents words, "No matter what happens, the sun will rise in the morning."
So no matter what ridiculously foolish thing we say, or how badly we trip in front of the entire class, or how terribly we stutter at someone we admire, or how dark and long the night may feel..."the sun will rise again in the morning."
WHEW! As Anne with an 'e' would say, "A fresh new day, with no mistakes (or shattered slates over Gilbert's head...) in it yet."
The real treat here, to go along with Ms. Blackall's lovely stylized illustrations, is realizing that so many ordinary happenings in life DO bring us immense joy and pleasure, without our even realizing it. For instance, that wellspring of news at hearing about the birth of someone else's child--even a complete stranger's--transcendence! The rewarding feeling of working up a sweat during your morning exercise, and knowing you just cleansed your physical body. Or how about the absolute comfort of coming home after a long time away? Ahhhhh....so nice, right?
Just to give you a taste of Sophie's Things to Look Forward to, here are several of the items she's highlighted in this book:
-A hot shower
-Baking something for someone (multi-grain blueberry muffins!)
-Learning a new word (all of you logophile friends will devour this entry!)
-Drawing on eggs (surprise--I thought my family were the only ones who did this!)
-Scattering wildflower seeds
-Patting a friendly dog
-Rain (in any season!)
-New glasses (You mean the trees have individual leaves?)
-Mending a hole
-Collecting pebbles (my kids and I dig this one)
-Rereading favorite bits of a favorite book (YES.)
-Moving the furniture around (My husband gets endorphin zings from this every time.)
-Finding something you thought you'd lost
-Tidying up (Thank you very much, Marie Kondo!)
-Dinner (I love when my kids are happy about this one, not so much when they're not...)
-Visiting a museum (Oh, boy! Oh, boy! Oh, boy!)
-Finishing something (Indeed!)
-Falling in love (everyone understands...)
-Writing a letter, and getting one back in the snail mail box. (Love you, dear penpals!)
-A drink of water (we drink transparently-silver liquid--pretty darn cool!)
-A nap, and
-Growing one's own food. So very satisfying (Unless you go to P.E.I., hypothetically, of course, while the green beans come on. And return to harvest them all and have them called "horse beans" when your spouse spies the steroidal-looking mountain of tough pods on the counter...Ha ha! But that would never happen...)
6) Karma of the Sun
Brandon Ying Kit Boey
So, I haven't read this last book recommendation. (And it's not a children's book.) How then, can I share this title in good conscience? Simple. I know who the author is. (And I pay to run this website, so I can recommend whatever books my flights of fancy choose, right? Hee hee...)
I also have great confidence in what an articulate, powerful public speaker Brandon Boey is, what a kind friend and husband he is to his wife, what a fun and encouraging dad he is to his handful of young children, and what a wise and steady Sunday school teacher he's been to my own kids and other adults over the years here in Maine.
So I'll just say this...I can hardly WAIT to read this book, as I also know a bit about the writer's own fantastic journey on this great green earth. And I am thrilled to spread the word that Karma of the Sun will be released on January 17, 2023!
Check out the synopsis on Goodreads here:
Then order the book anywhere you usually would: amazon, thriftbooks, barnesandnoble, or directly through the publisher (CamCat Books).
Jump back over on October 18, 2022, to the homepage to read an
interview with Brandon Boey and his wife, Cristina.
They'll set you up to spreading some good karma of your own.
Happy reading, bookworm friends! If you know Brandon Boey, you know what a powerful public speaker he is--we can only imagine what an escape Karma of the Sun is going to be. Pre-order your own copy on Amazon, and...
Don't forget to enter your three answers from the Brandon Boey interview/quiz from the homepage in the comments below to be entered into a drawing on January 17th, 2023 for one lucky winner to receive a signed copy of Karma of the Sun...Good luck!
It's winter. It's frigid in Maine. And everything outside (and sometimes in) feels dead. So, what does one do to push through the long months before the thaw? READ to each other out of the best books, of course! One of my favorite gurus of the story-editing world, Shawn Coyne, once said:
"Change, no matter how small, requires loss. And the prospect of loss is far more powerful than potential gain. It's difficult to imagine what a change will do to us. This is why we need stories so desperately."
Stories show us how a flawed character, just as weak as we are ourselves, makes it through the darkest moments of life and comes out the other end of the abyss, stronger after the storm. And able to divulge the secrets of how to conquer the forces of evil, how to overcome the bad guys, and what courage it took to glean the meaningful life lesson of not giving up when the stakes were the highest.
Cue scenes in your mind of Laura Ingalls and Pa, twisting straw fibers into tight kindling sticks until their hands were cut and chafed, from sun-up to sun-down--just to keep the stove barely burning continuously so their family wouldn't freeze to death.
Laura would step away from twisting, with stiff hands to grind (using the last of the wheat berries they had left), just long enough to make flour so Ma could bake one rationed loaf of dark bread a day. This never-ending grunt work kept the real-life Ingalls family from starving to death for days on-end throughout the interminable 1880 blizzard of the southeastern Dakota territory in Laura's autobiographical account of The Long Winter.
The resolution my daughter Beatrix and I felt, after reading that book, when the storm ended, was like eating a freshly-baked apple pie with vanilla bean ice cream after a long fast. Knowing the Ingalls family made it through--watching them in our minds' eyes--stepping outside into the sunshine after the blizzard finally subsided, tucked away into our brains that seed of assuring endurance for our own situations later.
Indeed, story tells us repeatedly that at the end of every storm, the sun really will beam again. Reading through that book just months before covid struck impacted me in ways I never imagined a children's book could.
In an odd way, Laura Ingalls Wilder prepares all of her readers with a mindset of resilience and self-sufficiency. In my own situation, I felt her stories prompting me, as a mother, to bolster my family's own food storage and supplies before we even realized the pandemic was creeping up on the world. Granted, my church leaders had already encouraged us to do this for decades. So we had been.
But I hadn't realized I'd never stocked up enough toiletries to last for months. Food? Yes. Paper supplies? Not so much. T.P.? Really, not nearly enough. Reading The Long Winter was the final hint from the Spirit that I needed. So that winter while my little girls and I read about the Ingallses struggling, I felt an urge to stock up on extra T.P. And guess what? Weeks later when the supply chains collapsed, and factories closed because of the pandemia, we did have sufficient toilet paper to quell the uprising that likely would have ensued in my household if we'd been unprepared, and instructed the kids to gather pine boughs or dead leaves from the woods enough for eight people to make it through for several months. That could have been a most prickly situation.
Thanks, Laura Ingalls wilder. Thanks, Pa! And thanks, Ma--for raising a writer who could help another family make it along their own journey one hundred and forty years later! That, my friends, is the power of story-telling.
When we can see the whole character arc of of another flawed protagonist go from grappling with hardship--to facing it, to slowly building muscle, to winning the battle...those strengthened champions hand over their tools to us! Our own toolboxes are suddenly replete with (T.P., or rather...) the secrets of life. And, we are now equipped to deal with the nasty blizzards in our own "real-world" paths.
So put on your wool socks, push that overstuffed armchair in front of the hearth, stoke up a blazing fire, heat up a mug of hot chocolate, and revel in the following five titles with your own favorite little bookworms...so you can let story guide you through your own real life character arc of a journey...
1) Joplin, Wishing
Written by Diane Stanley
The protagonist in this book was all too-relatable for me--rather a Jane Eyre of children's lit: small, mousy-haired, quiet, and bookish. Maybe like many of us. She's just likable for the reader. And the details throughout this adventure (like the new best friend being named "Barrett Browning," after "Elizabeth Barrett Browning" the poet), and a kind fairy-godmother-of-a-librarian, were a delight.
The fascinating mystery that unravels, affecting three generations in one family after a selfish alchemist traps a young girl from the Dutch seventeenth century into a Dutch platter (reminiscent of a genie's wishing lamp), is an unusual story that's as interesting as the happily-illustrated cover.
In my opinion, the author deftly ties up all threads of this tale one-by-one, until the conclusion is so satisfying, you won't want to lay it down on your nightstand after reaching the last page at two in the morning. No one would do that though, right? Ahem...
A heartfelt and magical middle grade novel in the tradition of Tuck Everlasting and Bridge to Terabithia, about family, wishes, and the power of true friends to work magic.
2) A Place to Hang the Moon
Written by Kate Albus
Okay. Again, maybe it's my former illustrator's heart, but just the cover alone sold me on this book. Talk about bibliophilic eye candy! And the jacket depicts a library from 1940's Britain. What could be more delectable than that?!
Just to warn you, I think the author was enchanted with the Narnia books, and gave a nod to the middle of the Pevensie children from the series, by naming the middle child in this book Edmund. If you don't mind fan fiction, it's perfect, as you can just go on imagining a grumpy but tender-hearted Edmund in this story too.
Not envisioning the actor (Skandar Keynes) who portrayed Edmund in the Chronicles of Narnia movies is nigh to impossible. But that's okay for me, as I thought he was darling. I rather liked continuing on with his character, even if he's in a different family. The eldest brother here, William, could almost be another Peter, but Anna, the youngest of the three siblings of the book, doesn't feel like she was meant to be a carbon copy of Lucy. (Anna cries a smidge oftener than perhaps a relatable heroine ought to, in my opinion). But, all in all, the story made me look forward to folding laundry every night with my littlest girls, as one of them read this story aloud. Hey, we all have to do laundry...why not enjoy it?
Anyway, the premise is three orphaned siblings during WWII stick up for each other after evacuating to the countryside from London bombings--amidst bullying and hardship. While searching for a family of their own, they discover what to look for in a parent who loves them enough to think these children "hang the moon."
The climax of this book is so deliciously cozy, so delectably satisfying a conclusion, that it's a perfect read to make one want to make home a beautiful place for others. My eight and ten year-olds loved the ending.
3) Sweet Home Alaska
Written by Carole Estby Dagg
The author based this book on the real-life FDR-founded colony of Palmer, Alaska during the Great Depression. The historical research is excellent, and the characters feel like they've stepped right out of a Shirley Temple movie.
When book-loving Terpischore's (pronounced: Turp-sick-oh-ree) dream of pioneering in the wilderness just like Laura Ingalls Wilder, really comes true, she must find a way to convince her mother that sticking it out with the mosquitoes, cold temps, and log-cabin dwelling without a piano is worth it. Besides, anyone who ever dreamed as a child of stamping a library book would get thrills galore with this story as Terpsichore starts her colony's first lending library. So fun! And you should have seen how giddy my two little girls became when the widowed grandma got a love interest. Made me laugh aloud! (At such young ages, I didn't know they had romantic bones in them...)
4) Astrid the Unstoppable
Written by Maria Parr
Okay. If you loved the Pippi Longstocking books as a second-grader, BUT think they make absolutely zero sense now, have too much swearing, and are simply cuckoo from an adult's perspective, this book is for YOU!
And, this story makes winter feel like a crystalline gift. Astrid's jaunts (do you like the clever bow the author Maria Parr gave to her real-life writing hero, Astrid Lindgren, there?) through the pine-covered mountains of her Norwegian village, to zip brazenly down the slopes on the home-built sleds her best buddy builds, are absolutely invigorating.
If as a parent, you want to read a book to your children that has meaning, makes sense, and wraps up nicely with some closure of someone's else's life-long (deep) problem being solved, you'll find all of that in this book's beautifully-intertwined sub-plot. Enjoy! Read it while the snow is still on the ground, as you won't begrudge winter anymore when you read the gorgeous reverence this writer gives its beauty.
5) Adventures with Waffles
Also Written by Maria Parr
These book covers are so delicious, are they not? If you liked Astrid the Unstoppable, you'll probably enjoy Adventures with Waffles. I liked Astrid best, but both give that comfortable sense of hygge. Read this definition again after reveling in the books, and tell me the two aren't absolutely compatible!
"The Danish concept of hygge, or hyggelig (adj.), refers to finding comfort, pleasure, and warmth in simple, soothing things such as a cozy atmosphere or the feeling of friendship. The Scandinavian term encompasses a feeling of coziness, contentment, and well-being found through cherishing the little things." (Straight from the mouth of afar.com)
That about describes these books, via the lens of friendship and family.
Plus, they eat waffles.
Because I've about blabbed myself out, here's the Goodreads synopsis of the plot
Lena is Trille's best friend, even if she is a girl. And there is never an ordinary day when you've got a best friend like Lena. Hardly a day passes without Trille and Lena inventing some kind of adventure that often ends in trouble. Whether it's coaxing a cow onto a boat or sledding down the steepest and iciest hill with a chicken, there is always a thrill--and sometimes an injury--to be had. Trille loves to share everything with Lena, even Auntie Granny's waffles. But when Lena has to move away and Auntie Granny leaves the world, it sometimes seems like nothing will ever be right again. The warmth of friendship and the support of family suffuse this lightly illustrated novel, proving that when times are tough, a little taste of sweetness can make all the difference.
Well, there you go--five fun chapter books to make it through til spring. Now, don't leave without giving me YOUR top favorite from this year to get us (the Mainers who don't have spring until May!!!) through until we see the crocuses peeping up.
Happy reading, bookworm buddies!
What gets your creative juices flowing? Which reservoirs of inspiration do you draw from to prime your own pump? Observing nature on my daily walks with our wild Puerto Rican lab mix, Mr. Teddums, does it for me. Sniffing out the oddities of nature with Teddy, and witnessing the genius and humor of our Creator sets the endorphins zinging!
Dogs like chicken--Chicken of the Woods, that is, or by its formal name: Laetiporus sulphureus.
I thrive on listening to the podcasts (The Creative Penn) by writers Joanna Penn, and (Write Now! by) Sarah Werner, or Fiction Writing Made Easy by editor Savannah Gilbo. And hearing interviews with exceptional illustrators (like Sophie Blackall) in the children's picture book field helps me remember this process takes time--years of it.
Theodore Roosevelt is attributed to having said, "Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life – Endurance."
Microglossum rufum (Common name: Orange Earth Tongue.
How does the woodland air taste, my tiny spore friends?)
Everything worthwhile takes baby steps of dedicated time. Lucky for us then, there are so many incredible resources along the way to help us. Each of those inspiring creators, I listed above, dives into the craft of creative writing, or illustrating and helps me overcome the resistance to create art--making the gears and cogs in my head whir with new understanding.
A thrilling prospect is to lace up my tennis shoes, step outside with some earbuds, and smell the fresh morning air. Hearing others' new perspectives incorporates fresh knowledge into editing the second draft of my novel, and the picture book ideas I'm working out.
Last week as Shmoo (the kids' second nickname for the dog) and I crested one hill on our walk, we were blasted with the spicy scent of freshly-cut field grass. How can something so simple make one's heart so swoony? (Or was it two hearts? Was Teddy swooning? I don't know. I think other things make him swoon like the kids' dirty socks stuffed into their shoes when they come home from school...)
Nature stocks up our wells of inspiration for later when we need ideas. As Shlub (Pup's nickname #3) and I stood there, breathing in the delicious scent at the top of that hill, I thought, What is the word my brain associates with this delectable scent? Aaaahhh,,,Honey--honey"suckle" (to be exact, from my grandparents' front walk in Overton, Nevada. From which my mama took a start, and transplanted it into our own front flower bed in Utah)! My brain holds so many years of stored-up connections of walking barefoot across the hot sidewalk of summertime past those enticing trumpet blossoms of nectar. Sensations and beloved faces come to heart and mind when we immerse ourselves in a few minutes of nature a day.
Asclepias incarnata L. (Common name: Swamp Milk Weed)
That ambrosia scent on the wind was heaven, and brought back so many images and sensory experiences. If I hadn't gone walking that day, I would've missed those simple gifts of recalling actual places and time spent with people I love--all from smelling the zephyrs of the ordinary plants around us.
I couldn't see any honeysuckle, but that sweet cut hay was definitely reminiscent of it. And moments like those for writers and artists can add tools to our imaginative tool boxes for creating works of art at a later date.
More Laetiporus sulphureus (Common name: Chicken of the woods, or Sulphur Shelf)
Now in the future, maybe I'll use that word "honeysuckle" to describe a scene in my manuscript describing the sensation of standing in a field of freshly-mown grass or hay.
Just the word "honeysuckle" conjures up scenes of plucking blossoms, pulling out the pistil from their centers, and sucking out the teensiest drip of nectar from the petals' tubular ends--all on a lazy summer morning as a child, and later when my oldest kids were little.
Just as smelling that grassy scent of the wind in autumn is as similar to inhaling a wafting vine of honeysuckle in mid-summer, our minds make connections between two disparate objects or places, and recall similar sensations to link a visual and add layers of depth to a "sense of place."
When...we pay attention.
Who can identify this pretty purple 'shroom? Is it Cortinarius violaceus? Until one of you who really knows confirms it, that's what I'm guessing from my book...And don't anyone worry--
I'm not picking or eating any of these mushrooms. I have too much to do to die a
dramatic, fairytale death half way through my life!
In all professions, we build on the brilliance of others, then add hours of devotion and tweaking to layer-on our own perspectives. That uniquely-individual outlook is what makes life interesting, no?
Not looking for perfection in art, so much as our own input after years of trial and failure, right?
Russula silvicola (Going off my Mushrooms of the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada field guide book, "Russula silvicola" is the name I'm sticking with to classify
the blushing beauties above.)
My family, several friends, and I recently loved what a spiritual leader (Elder David L. Buckner) shared with us a few weeks ago concerning making mistakes: "Fail. Fail fast. Figure it out. And fix it." (I'll take the liberty of adding a fifth F: "Forgive" (yourself and others). And what about two more F's? Go "forward" with "faith"--in art and life.
The Eye of Sauron in the woods? Nah, I touched it--
just an odd wooden nub growing out of the ground. Pretty cool, though...
Clavaria amethystina (Coral fungus)
Think about it, J.R. Tolkien created an entire world from his years spent in the trenches of war. Enlightening and uplifting masterpieces often come from pain, loneliness, and sorrow. As one mountaineer, Fred Beckey once said:
"Beauty is paid for, in part, with the currency of suffering."
Think of childbirth. That baby in one's arms is exquisite, because a mother (and couple) just endured nine months of slow, heavy waiting, and then excruciating pressure and "walking through the valley of the shadow of death" to get it here. Suffering as a payment for joy. Will that mama give up that baby anytime soon? Not likely. She sacrificed to get it!
Dacrymyces chrysospermus (aka, Jelly Fungi). I think my kids would call these "Blobby Babies!"
C.S. Lewis wrote one of the best crowd-pleasing children's book series of all time. Perhaps because, as we all know, he wasn't exempt from experiencing love and loss in childhood. Even before losing his mother. As a four year-old, he lost his dog, Jacksie, who was hit and killed by a car. Clive demanded to be called Jacksie as he mourned his poor canine bestie, and only later, settled on being addressed as "Jack" when he grew older. That's pretty loyal, to insist on being called after a dog--what a huge heart!
But Mr. Lewis didn't forget those feelings of love, hurt, and longing for that cherished puppy dog friend. And he deeply remembered how much he'd basked in the gentleness of his mother when she was alive. So locking away those emotions, he brought them out again decades later to write of the love and healing that Lucy, Edmond, Susan and Peter Pevensie all felt for Aslan--a character so giant, so gracious, so wise and merciful, that Aslan's love was a reflection of what C.S. Lewis felt long ago for his dog, and then his mother, then his wife (Joy), and last and greatest of all, his Savior, Jesus Christ.
So as creators, let's pay attention to the world around us. And use the good, the hard--the beautiful and the disastrous--for the ultimate lifting-up of the best of humankind.
One last recap of what can be gleaned from Julia Cameron in The Artist's Way:
"The quality of life is in proportion always
to the capacity for delight.
...The capacity for delight is in the
gift of paying attention."
So tell me what you've been learning in life lately while paying attention! And how that translates to joy. Happy autumn, creative friends!
P.S. Don't forget to share (in the comments below) any fabulous meal planning techniques you employ to make family dinner time happen. Or jump to the homepage here if you missed the free meal planner...). And by all means, let me know if you have ideas to improve it...
ER: To start with your beginning, Justin, would you share with us what you were like as a little kid? (What were some of your interests and misadventures? Why am I imagining Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes but with brown hair and a ukulele?
Justin Roberts: "I was labeled the 'absent-minded professor' by my kindergarten teacher. I would show up to class late with my pockets filled with leaves and sticks that I’d collected on my walk to school. I almost became an absent-minded professor (I was enrolled in an MA/PhD program at University of Chicago) but then took a detour to pursue children’s music."
ER: What was your dream job as a kid? What did you want to be when you grew up?
Justin Roberts: "I wanted to be a magician when I was young. I would dress up in a checkered suit with a black top hat and do tricks to no one in the driveway. My book, The Great Henry Hopendower, is based on that memory. Later I wanted to be an actor and remember interviewing a local actor for a school assignment after seeing him perform as Willy Lowman in 'Death of Salesman.'"
ER: For all of our bookworms reading this interview, what was your favorite childhood book, and what is your favorite title as an adult?
Justin Roberts: "My favorite childhood book was The Little Prince because my favorite babysitter gave that book to my brother and me as a gift. Also a big fan of Pierre by Maurice Sendak because its dark humor made me laugh. My favorite book as an adult is Cane by Jean Toomer, an early Harlem Renaissance writer who I discovered in high school and ignited my interest in reading fiction again."
ER: Which musicians made a deep impact on you in your teen years?
Justin Roberts: "My favorite records in high school were R.E.M. Murmur, (I played in an original band that was basically a rip off of early R.E.M.), Elvis Costello This Year’s Model , Van Morrison Astral Weeks, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, and the Replacements Let It Be."
ER: Who do you love to listen to nowadays when you’re just doing dishes or odd jobs about the house?
Justin Roberts: "This list is constantly changing, but I’m currently enjoying these: Fruit Bats - Pet Parade, Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, Robin Williamson - The Iron Stone, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway self-titled, Weezer - OK Human, and Allison Russell - Outside Child."
ER: What was the first song ever that struck your heart with an incisive impact—making you realize that music could stir the soul?
Justin Roberts: "The soundtrack to Fantasia. So probably like Tchaikovsky or something. Also the soundtrack to the film version of Oliver. I would listen to lps at preschool and the teacher was worried because I never wanted to talk to the other kids, just listen to music."
ER: Please give us an idea of your songwriting process…
Justin Roberts: "Songwriting is somewhat stressful for me. I would say there’s a lot of doubt and days where nothing good comes out. I’m a tough critic and I try to silence that part of me when I’m writing. But, when I get in a groove or find an opening line or a melodic moment, I really enjoy fleshing the song out and finding just the right words. But, it takes me a long time to get there. I generally sit down and start singing and playing at the same time (whether on guitar, ukulele, or piano) and then I start working on the song in Logic so I can arrange it as I write it. I like to be able to add additional vocals and melodies when I hear them in my head."
ER: Of all of your compositions, which has felt like sheer inspiration--and how did it come about--like a slow sunrise, or more like a bolt of lightning?
Justin Roberts: "'Fruit Jar' came out pretty quickly. All in one sitting. That’s one of my favorites and not really sure where it came from. But, my grandmother had recently died and I had some jarred cherries sitting in front of me and I just started to sing. One of the bits of that song “way past the moon” is a little nod to Jean Toomer whom I mentioned earlier."
ER: How did you come up with the idea of making a song called 'More Than Just a Minute' that really lasts exactly only one minute? (So CLEVAH! And...is its marimba-like sound a nod to Paul Simon? I’ve always wondered...)
Justin Roberts: "Rounder Records put out an album of songs called Here and Gone in 60 Seconds -- all were a minute long [https://www.amazon.com/Hear-Gone-Seconds-Various-Artists/dp/B0000AYL27]. They asked me and 30 other artists to write a song for that and that’s what came out. Totally aping Paul Simon (not the first time and not the last time)."
ER: Which of your songs is the most autobiographical? Why? (It’s "Henrietta’s Hair," isn’t it?)
Justin Roberts: "They are all auto-biographical in some sense. Even when I’m pretending to be someone else, I feel like it’s only a good song if it hits me emotionally and feels true to who I am or what I care about."
ER: The song “From Scratch” takes us back to memories of our own grandmothers' timeless kitchens. In an era of conveniently-processed foods, your lyrics and gossamer melodies motivate cooks to want to cook enticing meals for their own families--as a way of making home the place family wants to be. Would you tell us about the inspiration for your near-tangible imagery in that gorgeous song, please? (Makes me want to cry and laugh at the same time every time I hear it.)
Justin Roberts: "My grandmother inspired that song. She passed away just before I made 'Pop Fly,' and she had been the person who woke me up to cooking as a way to communicate and give to others. I love to cook and it’s from watching her make homemade strudel as a child in her old fashioned kitchen. When she was in her 90s, I visited her one time and made her a three-course meal with handmade pasta for her and her sister. She, of course, was happy to sit and watch and offer some guidance when things weren’t quite right. But it was amazing to get to return the favor of all those meals she had made for me. One of my favorite simple recipes that she made for me was a poached egg on toast. I recently did a bunch of really weird “Cooking with Justin” videos on my Youtube channel and you can find that one there. It might be the first episode! "
ER: What is the background behind the celestial lyrics, “Where Were You?” from the album Why Not Sea Monsters?
Justin Roberts: "That’s one of the songs I didn’t write. It’s written by my friend Craig Wright who is a songwriter, playwright and television producer. He played it for me many years ago when I was visiting him and when I was making my Sea Monsters records, I thought of that song and asked him if I could record it."
ER: All of your songs are a blast to hear, but many have deeper layers and nuggets of truth about life, family interactions (Thinking of “Supper Time,” “I Chalk,” and “Get Me Some Glasses"), and our purpose here on earth. In Why Not Sea Monsters?, some of the songs are based on parables from The Bible, such as the story of Jonah and the whale, the Good Samaritan, and the miracle of the loaves and fishes. I loved discovering this album,—it’s a rarity in the market today. The world would be a happier place if it had more songs like these with such unabashed integrity. Justin, how in the world did you pull this off?
Justin Roberts: "Most of those songs were commissioned by Augsburg Fortress (the publishing company of the lutheran church) for vacation bible school. I was a philosophy of religion undergrad at Kenyon College and got an MA in Divinity from University of Chicago. I had many hilarious professors who did wonderful retellings of biblical stories, often bringing out the incidental characters and really bringing the stories to life. I especially loved Elie Weisel’s retellings of Hebrew Scriptures in his Messengers of God, Kierkegaard's retellings of Abraham and Isaac, the novels of Kazantzakis, and the book God by Jack Miles. I think all of that influenced the way that I chose to write songs based on bible stories."
ER: Over the last fifteen years or so, every time my family and I listen to the song “Sandcastle,” on the Meltdown CD (yes, we still have a ratty but trusty old CD player and our old beat-up disks!), one of my kids wonders what the life story is behind such a bittersweet song. It’s been quite an entry into deep conversation. Would you mind sharing any insight on who inspired that hauntingly-transcendent piece?
Justin Roberts: "Yes, I wrote that for a grown up friend of mine whose mother died of cancer. She was actually the person who told me I should write a song about getting shots (“Doctor, Doctor”). Many years ago a family who had lost their father/husband requested that at an outdoor concert and let a balloon go during the song. Ever since working as a preschool teacher, I’ve tried not to shy away from songs about difficult subjects in addition to writing silly songs about brontosauri and whales."
ER: Whenever the first day of summer arrives, and I can smell freshly-mowed grass, or my kids stir up a big pitcher of sugar water and lemon juice, I have to text my husband and all my friends a link to your “Lemonade" music video. It’s becoming an annual ritual. You and those kids look like you're having way too much fun in those clips! And those singing lemons with the googly eyes! Who wouldn’t break into a smile and feel refreshed after watching such a boost?! That song is like Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine condensed down and rolled into one quick video! What childhood memories of summertime are the most golden in your heart and mind?
Justin Roberts: "My sister Staci, who is a producer and actress in LA, directed that video and my friend Colin Davis filmed it. That is his lovely family in the video. I love how that turned out. My lemonade memory is of my brother (who was always an entrepreneur) having a lemonade stand and charging 1 penny per glass (...way under market rate) but people felt sorry for him and ended up giving him a dollar instead."
ER: Pop Fly has got to be one of my top five most-listened-to albums over the last two decades. And not just with kids around. It just brings my soul joy. Your sense of reminding us as adults to look at our own children with empathy and renewed remembrance of what it’s like to experience this world for the first time is truly a gift. Just remarkable. How do you do it? What drives you to create songs of innocence, purity, truth, and so much joie de vivre?
Justin Roberts: "Thanks. My favorite songs are often the ones where I find connections between a childhood experience and an adult one. Like in “Giant Sized Butterflies”, when the mother is comforting the child who is worried about a first day of school with the line, “When you first came into this world, we felt the same. We had giant sized butterflies on that first day.” Or in “Never Getting Lost” where the child recognizes the emotions that he is feeling in his own mother. “When I saw her face, I could almost see, she was looking just as lost as me.” I think reminding adults that kids “contain multitudes” and have emotionally rich lives and experiences and reminding adults of that part of them that is still a fragile child full of wonder is what is most rewarding to me about writing songs about childhood."
ER: To wrap things up, could you tell us a bit about your most recent album, Wild Life, and any other exciting projects for you on the horizon?
Justin Roberts: "Wild Life was an album I hadn’t planned to make. I was trying to write a big Recess-like record for the band and ended up writing all these songs about the birth of my first child, which on paper sounds terrible to me. But, I wrote the songs more for myself and my wife and my soon-to-be son. And my wife Anna kept telling me I should make a record of these songs and eventually that’s what happened. I’m really proud of these songs, it’s a softer, more meditative record but some of my very favorite compositions ('When You First Let Go', 'Hide and Seek,' 'Maybe She’ll have Curly Hair') are on this record.
ER: Thank you, tremendously, Justin! Hearing answers to these questions (so many of us have wondered about for years now) is an absolute gift! As someone close to my own childhood heart said recently:
"I know that Justin Roberts' music is for kids, but it's carried me through a lot of trials as an adult. It comforts me."
Yes! Your songs totally comfort us, Justin--like the best security blankets, or the most loyal dogs. Really, your music is like hearing the self-soothing child in each one of us remind ourselves that we've all made it through some difficult firsts as kids, and we can keep overcoming new challenges as we grow into older adults and parents who rely on divine guidance to help our own children navigate this rough world now.
So, friends, go to Justin's official website to peruse his vast repertoire of titles. Or check out links on the book review below for fun videos of Justin performing with the coolest singing lemons you'll ever see! And especially don't miss the link (in the album review below...) to Justin's latest stirring video release of "Wild Life" featuring his miniature self--his tiny son!
Last but not least, COMMENT BELOW with the title of your favorite Justin Roberts song (and why you love it!) to be entered into the drawing to win the free hand-printed "Emerald Flight" (18x18" lino cut print). I'll announce the winner this Friday, July 9th, and mail it to you next week! Happy listening...
Summertime means even more hours at home together for families. (Is that possible after this last bizarre school year of remote-learning hybrids?!) So to make your summer break a delight, here are five remarkable albums that will make everyone from toddlers, to teens, to even the dads, swing with the joy of transcendent music.
by Justin Roberts
Funny how songs trigger the most poignant of memories. Turn on a Justin Roberts tune, and suddenly you're transported--dashing bare foot through cool grass on the first day of summer vacation after the second grade. Try it! (But don't blame me if you can suddenly gleek water between the gap where your front two teeth should be!)
Yep, this Paul McCartney of children's music even nails down how wondrous it is for a young family to experience a "baby moon" during those first few weeks after bringing home a new infant to meet older siblings. (Check it out on youtube: "Cartwheels and Somersaults.")
But the spectrum of Justin's music is wide. One of his songs even touches on the poignance of saying goodbye to someone so loved, that it physically aches to lose them, as in his song "Sandcastle." (Listen for a moment here:)
These are my top six picks from Meltdown:
1) I Chalk
2) Get Me Some Glasses
3) Cartwheels and Somersaults
4) My Brother Did It!
5) It's Your Birthday
If you haven't tasted any of these tunes yet, try a sampling of Meltdown h'ors d'oeuvres on youtube at this link:
2) Pop Fly!
by Justin Roberts
Want to teleport back to your Grandma's house and sink your teeth into her freshly-baked cookies? Knowing there's someone two generations more-experienced and steady who's got your back? Listen to the song titled, "From Scratch," at the link below, to close your eyes and inhale her aromatic Sunday roast (Just seat belt-in your emotions first. I warned you! P.S. This just may be my favorite Justin Roberts' song...):
Top favorite titles from this album:
1) Pop Fly
2) Henrietta's Hair
3) The Backyard Super Kid
4) From Scratch
5) Giant-sized Butterflies
Henrietta's Hair will make you laugh every time--the lyrics are all too reminiscent of the battles of brushing tangles out of any eight year-old's head of hair! Justin just replaces squabbles with grins. :)
3) Why Not Sea Monsters?
by Justin Roberts
This album doesn't take one back to childhood, but to the meridean of time--Bible Times! All I can say is, these melodies are timeless. And haunting. And serenity itself. But still fun. Justin's song about Ruth not leaving Naomi--gorgeous! I would order this album sight unseen, or "hearing unheard, or whatever you want to call it. It's that solid.
Here are my top five faves from this album:
Why Not Seamonsters? (12 Songs based on stories from the Old and New Testaments:)
1) Why Not a Spark? (A song about God's creation of the world.)
2) Nothing Much in Tarshish
3) Giddyup, Giddian
4) Were you There? (This one is soooo pretty--unmissable!)
5) Ruth 1:16-17 (The story of Ruth in the Old Testament--get ready for higher ground.)
Here's just a sampling from a concert where Justin performed "Were You There? with the Saint Barnabas Choir. This song makes me want to cry and sing at the same time. Click on the link (below), not the photo above to watch the video...
by Justin Roberts
No matter how old and stodgy we grow up to be, no one forgets the anticipation of running a lemonade stand on a hot July afternoon. Nor can one forget the steel drum beat that pumps through the limbs while hearing this cover song, "Lemonade." So get ready to squeeze some citrus while doing the Twist...
2) Long as I Got You
3) How Lucky We Are
4) This Is How We Bring in the Sun
5) Tree Home
If you need to smile at this very moment, in fact, check out this happy link (below) to Justin's video of "Lemonade" (you'll want to gather the kids in your life around for these goggle-eyed singing puppets..):
5) Wild Life
by Justin Roberts
Justin's latest album. My own family doesn't own this one yet. But I know what will be finding its way to our mailbox for the next birthday. Anyone's birthday! It's already ordered, actually. Yippee! Just sample the cover song from this little video. It's a whirling waltz of cello heartstrings mixed with some pretty sage advice. (One of my teens listened to this four times in a row the other day. And it still didn't get old. It's lovely. ) Link to the music video...(but come back after watching the clip, for a chance to win the original watercolor below...)
So, if you've never heard the rapture of Justin Roberts' music before, make this the one artist you look into this summer. Your family, and your own child's heart inside, will be so glad you did. Justin Roberts somehow gets life in a nutshell, and magnifies the essence of its goodness. And...as Justin's lyrics for "Wild Life" encourage us, maybe they'll help us "get to that wedding feast in the promised land."
So, tell me which of Justin Roberts' songs you love the best in the comments below, and to help promote Justin's latest CD, Wild Life, I'll put the names of everyone who comments into a hat and have my husband Matt draw out two winners. The first name will receive the artist's proof of my Lino cut print, Emerald Flight (18x18"), featured on my homepage. The second name drawn will receive the watercolor, Luna Study II, above. I'll announce the two winners around 10ish p.m. on Friday, July 9th, 2021.
Happy listening and kitchen-dancing, guys!
1) The Big, Red Lollipop,
Written by by Rukhsana Khan,
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Like a kid who squirrels away candy in a sock drawer for months at a time, I've been waiting to review this book all year...
Big Red Lollipop is one of the THE most enjoyable picture books a person can read with children. Why? Besides the fact that the illustrations by Caldecott medalist, Sophie Blackall, are sweeter than an all-day sucker, this story touches on topics that resonate with everyone: injustices that everyone may have felt at one time or another being an outsider because of one's beliefs or culture, sacrifices made to keep the peace at home, and what it means to let go of one's own desires for the greater good of others.
Goodreads can give you the best run-down on this unusual story:
Rubina has been invited to her first birthday party, and her mother, Ami, insists that she bring her little sister along. Rubina is mortified, but she can't convince Ami that you just don't bring your younger sister to your friend's party. So both girls go, and not only does Sana demand to win every game, but after the party she steals Rubina's prized party favor, a red lollipop. What's a fed-up big sister to do? Rukhsana Khan's clever story and Sophie Blackall's irresistible illustrations make for a powerful combination in this fresh and surprising picture book.
And the child's voice that reads-aloud this book on youtube is downright delightful:
The truly amazing highlight of this book is the altruistic turn it takes in the end (*spoiler alert!*) when the older sister, Rubina, forgives her mother's blind insistence, and her whiny younger sister's selfishness.
Rubina surprises us with such a generous portion of empathy for her younger sister, that it reminds the reader that kindness, in return for meanness, is simply the better way. Readers feel a heightened level of hope for humanity--a sense that despite injustices paid to a person, one can choose to let go of hurt, and turn the other cheek.
By stepping up out of the cycle of "me-first," by giving back charity instead of revenge--the protagonist in Big Red Lollipop ends the cycle of anger, and lifts everyone up. I can't praise this book enough.
2) I Go with My Family to Grandma's,
Written by Riki Levinson,
Illustrated by Diane Goode
Just one more book introduced to me from the magical home library of my dear friend Christa. (As a side note, you can snoop on her beautiful block prints/hand-crafted cards here:
I framed the cards she gave me as they are original artwork--for just four dollars per hand-printed piece, people! And no, she has no idea I'm advertising her masterpieces...sorry, Christa, my dear--your artwork is too beautiful not to share!)
Now back to the book! The unique perspective of this gem directs a child to stop and ponder on family connections. By putting the reader in the position of watching several families travel their own respective routes to meet up with their cousins at their grandparents' home in New York City, children remember that family bonds have deep roots of love and heritage, and can carry on even though they branch out to start new generations and traditions of their own as they grow. Love binds and spreads.
As a side note, I must mention the funny culmination of the gathering at the end of this story! (It's every father's worst nightmare--a huge family photo session replete with wailing babies, fleeing children, and grumpy uncles being forced to stand still waiting while a photographer captures the moment for all to emblazon on their memories!)
So fun. But so painfully real. (Or maybe that's just my family, as between my husband and me, we have fourteen siblings, besides us, to be photographed, and a bajillion beautiful nieces and nephews!)
3) Seven-Day Magic (Tales of Magic #7)
Written by Edward Eager,
Illustrated by N.M. Bodecker
Do your kids enjoy the Edward Eager series? I have a few children who've read these books multiple times. I wish I'd known about them myself when I was a child--they have such a classic, relatable voice.
The best part of this book, Seven-Day Magic is the spot-on depiction of the sometimes-squabbling, sometimes-fiercely-best-friends/siblings' relationships. Fortunately, and satisfyingly so, in the end, the children in these two families always stick up for one another when it really counts.
Plus, what kid wouldn't revel in reading about a magic book (checked out from the library) that, when opened, is a record of the very conversations the children just had, and grants them their wildest wishes? In turn, the children learn the consequences of wishing for impractical things, and what is ultimately important--family.
4) Aunt Minne McGranahan, and
Aunt Minnie and the Twister,
Written by Mary Skillings Prigger,
Illustrated by Betsy Lewin
These books. I could never enjoy them too much. Tweaking what Dr. Seuss says, "I would read them in a box, I would read them with a fox."
While enjoying this story (based on actual events), the reader yearns for single Aunt Minnie and her nine adopted nieces and nephews to succeed, One can't help rooting for them as their load is heavy. And any parent with toddlers and a household to run has been there. So this story is equally satisfying for grown-ups and kids alike to read.
And who wouldn't want to see illustrations of a house that was picked up in a tornado and set back down again--but with the front facing the back yard, and the Johnny house? Good thing the johnny house wasn't lifted off its base too! WHEW!
Kirkus Review shares some cool insights:
If you like the Click, Clack, Moo, Cows that Type books, you'll definitely dig the pictures by the same illustrator, Betsy Lewin--so loose, but so accurate, all at once.
Lastly, the meat of the Aunt Minnie books is the time-worn values that Aunt Minnie teaches her nieces and nephews--that hard work leads to independence, and laughter gets us through the rough patches. That if we stick together, we're going to make it just fine. We might even even thrive.
5) That Book Woman
Written by by Heather Henson,
Illustrated by David Small
Okay, guys, why would I include a story about a pack-horse librarian in a review about family?
Because I am SO very grateful to have the public libraries opening up again after the worldwide shutdown last spring, that I've realized upon seeing my librarians' welcoming faces once more, that I've always honestly felt as if librarians ARE family! Don't you agree?
Besides, I've got a tender spot in my heart for soft-spoken, bookish souls who forgive me my mounting fines--or let me pay them without judging my utter absentmindedness. (FYI, I had a roommate in college who NEVER once had a library fine! Are you reading this, Meeja Mae? I am still amazed.)
And the sweet, unassuming family in this book and the change of tone in the protag's relationship with his bookish younger sister is super endearing. Here's a sampling of why this book's prose is so Pleasant:
Now me, I do not care one hoot for what that Book Woman has carried ‘round, and it would not bother me at all if she forgot the way back to our door.
Isn't that a lovely snatch of story? You can read the entire text and see the interior illustrations by following this link:
But even more fascinating is the actual history behind this story from the Great Depression era with FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt's Pack Horse Library Program. These women librarians who volunteered to serve remote citizens of the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky were true heroines. They faced harsh conditions and risked much by taking distant residents the gift of reading (hope, really) up on the mountain tops through a difficult era of American history. After going without libraries for several months last spring, I think we all appreciate our own libraries and the librarians (who serve us so patiently) on new levels.
You can hear about the Works Progress Administration and the pack horse libraries program (with hot tips for several other adult books on the subject reviewed by a charming librarian with a cute accent) by following this link:
Enjoy the book! It will warm the most bookish cockles of your heart.
6) Andrew Henry's Meadow,
Written and Illustrated by Doris Burn
Given this is the very last of my monthly book reviews, as I begin homeschooling my two littlest girls on Thursday, it would only be fitting to share my all-time favorite picture book from my own childhood. From one avid reader to the next, I give you Andrew Henry's Meadow, written AND illustrated, by Doris Burn.
Who else of you knows this book? If you do, YOU MUST SHARE below and revel with my thrills! As a girl, I got lost in the incredible pen and ink drawings of this wonder every time I pored over it.
If you know this book, and adore it as I do, most definitely, tell me what struck you about it, and tell me if you too tried and failed miserably to replicate forts like those that Andrew Henry built. This book is a child's fantasy--escape the constricts of adult supervision and start a utopia for the all the neighborhood children with bothersome hobbies.
Please, share with me the way it made you feel as a child, if you remember this unique tale. It's such a classic book of imaginary escape and empowerment for children. I would love to know who else laid on their belly, chin in hands, poring over its detailed, whimsical sketches.
If you don't know of this book, Doris Burns's pictures are reminiscent of a slower, Norman Rockwell-esque era--when life was a little more predictable, perhaps even more stable. (Though society today would throw back its head and howl at me for saying so.)
The hours of playtime these fictional children in this book spend out-of-doors (sans devices, video games, or tablets) is WONDERFUL! This is childhood at its best! (Though the search by families and police at the end of the story...perhaps is a little too terrifying for real parents to experience. But for kids, they don't think about that stuff...so hey, it works in a picture book.)
So yes, I absolutely understand life is different now. Technology is inescapable--we all need it to get by today. Or so we think, right? (For Pete's sake--I've been clacking away at my laptop for three hours straight now this early morning!)
But, this book is a gentle reminder that we can give our children (and the next generation) the gift of living a real life--a tangible, touchable one, by encouraging them to go outside more. To feel the wind on their faces, to know the burn of their quad muscles as they race bikes around the neighborhood, and even to let children suffer injuries by experiencing the throb of pain after slamming their thumbs with a hammer, or skinning their knees after crashing on their push scooters.
I love to hear seasoned grandparents talk of letting kids get bored. It may have been easier way back when to let children roam freely, when there weren't so many forms of available digital entertainment...But we can let our own kids get bored (gasp!) too, by getting used to the idea of just turning screens off. Once we start hiding devices, or putting our feet down to not buy them, we can let kids find their own methods of entertainment! Novel idea!
"Can I play some Mine craft?" "Nope. Go catch bugs and get muddy." Yes! Easier said than done for a parent to let their child just run amuk in today's world--and it's not always possible (I know what it's like to bring babies and busy toddlers into this life in a tiny, two-bedroom home on a quarter of an acre, on a busy street corner with cars zipping by. It's tough. But even in inner cities, there are beautiful parks, trees, lovely grassy areas, and streams. Moms gravitate to them, right? Not to mention museums and fantastic libraries when there isn't much nature. And friends. Friends make everything okay, anywhere. So grateful for you close friends who have always made life so beautiful. You know who you are.
I know not everyone is surrounded by safe places. But in denser populations, if kids can travel in packs (where there are siblings to go round, or neighborhood friends available, we can feel a little better about them exploring the out-of-doors when we say, "Go outside and play!" Right?
So, if some days this fall, your kids go crazy with remote learning, and can't get to the grass, or the park, they can at least enjoy it vicariously in Andrew Henry's Meadow.
And if you as a parent feel like an old soul struggling in a modern-day body, (ahem...not that you or I would know anything about that, right?) you'd better watch this "read-aloud" video. (Just don't mock the tender sweetheart-of-a-gentleman who caresses the book with fondness as he introduces it. He'll make you chuckle out loud. Hey, I understand the guy. I love Andrew Henry too.): www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqsZQP62DkI
And just because I have cherished chatting over the most wonderful picture books ever with you over the last year...here is one last extra treat of a title about a boy who did find a way to play outside, even in the heart of Manhattan:
Up in the Leaves:
The True Story of the Central Park Treehouses,
Written by Shira Boss,
Illustrated by Jamey Christoph
I won't say much other than, Up in the Leaves is worth buying sight unseen. It's that golden. And the true story was written by the hero's wife, nonetheless.
it's poignant and touching. And just a feel-good tale about growing up, persevering, and surprisingly good things coming out of overcoming opposition. Check it out. You and your little people are going to love it!
So don't forget me (forget-me-nots pictured above, wink, wink...) as I disappear from monthly posting. For this, my friends, is the end of my stint as a book reviewer. ("Whew!" You're saying, "She was WAY too long-winded for the job." Yeah. I know.
Which is part of the reason I'm winding down. So one year ago, I set out to write a baker's dozen (thirteen months' worth) of reviews of my favorite children's books. Well, I finished the thirteenth this month!
And now I'm changing gears from working as artist and illustrator (and wannabe writer) to full-time homeschooler to my two youngest daughters for this crazy Co-vid year of 2020.
So, I'll be doing my best to teach my 2nd and 4th grader with everything Rightstart Math, Memoria Press, and Noeo Science, can instill! I'm actually VERY excited to spend the school year learning, experimenting, equating, cooking, reading, and playing with my two little brownies. We'll be learning Latin together. How exciting is that?! Excitando temporibus!
And now, since I won't be scrambling to write a book review monthly, perhaps I'll get around to using my early morning writing time to actually write the second draft of my novel manuscript this fall.
If any of you are interested, I'll be posting a chance to sign up for an e-mail list in the next few months. I'm looking for beta readers willing to go over my manuscript and give me their red pen scribbles come winter! My bookworm friends, I would love your input!
So, I may post something fun now and again about books, nature, motherhood, or art, but for now, I'm changing gears, and will just jump on here as time occasionally permits every few months.
So, wish us luck as we try to keep the peace on the remote learning days for the oldest four. Hopefully the youngest contingent will outgrow their knack for mortifying their middle school/high school sibling counterparts. (Sometimes it's a wrestling match from the youngest four while the oldest two are feigning composure during Zoom meetings with classmates. Why, oh, why must all the squawks and door slams always start just after someone has just joined a video call?!
Oh, well. Wishing you the best for education this year yourself, as we are all going to need it! Right?
So, as one last correspondence between us in this review, PLEASE, leave me your best homeschooling advice, or share with the rest of us the title of your most superlatively-favorite children's book ever (chapter or picture book) in the comments below...
Happy learning on your path to joy and meaning in your own quests to seek out of the best books and live creative lives! It's been a fun journey together this year! Wish me luck in homeschooling. And I'll wish you the best in your own creative endeavors.
Sincerely your contentedly-nerdy friend,
So, motherhood. A touchy, but deeply vital subject. A topic I assigned for myself to cover this month almost a year ago. Little did my old self back in 2019 know then, that when I would open up my monthly schedule to see what books I’d be reviewing in August of 2020, I'd find that the discussion of mothering would already be foremost on my mind--a whole year later.
Inside this little booklet my son filled-out at school, there was a list of "Mom's Favorites." For example..."Favorite Food:________." His answer: "broccoli." "Favorite Thing to Do: ________." He wrote, "laundry." How does he know the true me so well?!!! Kids may never know their parents until they become some.
It’s as if my past psyche had an inkling that I would need to self-soothe my future self with a reminder of why mothering is desperately crucial. And that my own mothering skills would need a boost to get me through this pandemic during a busy summer of teaching my kids to garden, cook, clean, and balance that work with fun, while making necessary choices to guide us into the unsettled school year ahead. All of this has brought out my own weaknesses and humbled me to no end.
So I’m writing this month’s review for myself—to help me as a mom. Forgive my indulgence. (What am I saying? There isn’t even more than one person who reads this review regularly—you’re the best, Mom! Okay, maybe my sisters read it occasionally too...Thanks, C.J. and Cryssy! And perhaps a sister-in-law or two might check-in now and again. "Toda," Amelia! "Hi," dear sisters-in-law-of-mine!
So as my husband and I try to keep our own family machine well-oiled and all of the parts moving and working, I'm remembering back to my own childhood and how patient, loving, and positive my own mama was. I want to be more like that--gentle, supportive, yet strong enough to correct when guidance is needed. But not overbearing, not judgmental. Positive.
I think about what the parents of one of my favorite heroes are often quoted as having said: “Cynics do not contribute; skeptics do not create; doubters do not achieve.” (-Ada Hinckley) And it's a great motto for motherhood. Positivity. Someone has to be upbeat or everything goes to the dogs. The mother of that same aforementioned hero (Gordon B. Hinckley), is also quoted as saying, "a happy attitude and smiling countenance could boost one over almost any misfortune." As well as, "Every individual is responsible for his [or her] own happiness.”
Which is why I've chosen the following books with strong, but gentle examples of positive mothers who encourage their children with unwavering hope for a brighter future. As my own mama did, and does, for me still. She believes in me, and I loved her so dearly as a child for waking up each day to face the world with bright, kind eyes, and a gentle smile. When I want to argue with my kids when they're whiny, or difficult, I'm trying to remember how my own mother rarely argued with my siblings and me. Oh, boy! I've got some room for improvement to fill those patient shoes.
So here we go...the titles in this month's list aren't exclusive to just children's lit, but are classic stories for adults as well. These are stories that buoy up mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and care-givers for children from every stage of life.
1) Before I Was Your Mother,
Written by Kathryn Lasky,
Illustrated by LeUyen Pham
When my kids and I first found this book over a decade ago, I was the one pressing them to let us read it just one more time. All the time. The tone of the mother's voice--sharing memories of her own childhood (with her young daughter Katie, feels as genuine to me as the memories of my own mama teaching us to make homemade rootbeer-flavored lollipops for Family Home Evening or of her showing me how to sew Cabbage Patch Kid clothes on her college day 1950's Singer sewing machine.
If you haven't encountered this book before, you will love it! And of course, how could anyone not with the sensitive illustrations of LeUyen Pham?
Watch a read-aloud of Before I Was Your Mother here, if you'd like:
2) How to Get Your Child to Love Reading,
Written by Esme Raji Codell
One of my sisters and a homeschooler, Celestia (see her blog at:
https://treeoflifemothering.com/ clued me in to this book years ago when my oldest were just starting to read. It was like opening my mouth for a drink above Old Faithful.
Ms. Raji Codell is a former school teacher, children's librarian, and bookseller, and absolutely inspiringly, laugh-out-loud funny! Her unorthodox methods used to excite children into ADORING the art of reading for joy, are simply radical. And they work. I've tried them. And now have to threaten to take away books as leverage for getting chores done.
The chapter in which Esme describes how she would lure her reluctant inner-city Chicago students into falling in love with history by giving them the privilege of "time travel" with a book in a time machine (she'd fashioned out of a refrigerator box decorated with tinsel streamers and a snake light inside), was brilliant. So clever, so fun!
This book is a must-have for a new mom's personal library. Years ago (before my children were drinking four to six gallons of milk a week, and I was not on a budget yet) I would buy up used copies of this book to give to friends of newborns. The book is a delight to read as a novel, though it's really a resource. Esme smatters her own real-life experiences throughout and shares experiences from teaching that made a difference. She also includes incredible lists and suggestions on how to jump-start children of all ages to read, read, read!
Here's one review from Publisher's Weekly on Amazon which is spot on:
Codell (Educating Esme) has amassed an exuberant treasure trove for parents who want to help their children develop a love of reading. A strong believer in reading aloud, Codell gives an admiring nod to the work of Jim Trelease (The Read-Aloud Handbook), while presenting her own theory that interest (finding the right books for the child), integration (using reading as a springboard into other disciplines) and invention (when a child's unique ideas are inspired by the writing) can make the difference in how a youngster approaches reading. Codell, a teacher and librarian, resists grouping books by age level, explaining, "don't let somebody else's scoring system define your child, and don't let reading levels level your child's love of reading." Instead, she offers a simple method for determining whether a book is too difficult while pointing out that kids may listen on a much higher level than they read. The witty, comical "Madame Esme" (as she calls herself) offers scores of thematic book lists parents can use to inspire young readers, ranging from topics as diverse as medieval England to dinosaurs or hiccups. Covering a vast spectrum of subjects and authors, Codell casts a wide net as she builds a magical literary bridge between home and school. With appendixes of Caldecott and Newbery winners present and past, the book is akin to having one's own personal children's librarian at one's fingertips. Codell creates a contagious enthusiasm for the enormous value of children's literature, which will leave parents primed for their next trip to the library or bookstore.
3) Papa's Wife,
Written by Thyra Ferre Bjorn
Here's an out-of-print treasure trove (first book in a series), recommended to me by my other sister. I will forever thank you, dear Cryssy, for giving me one of my top five favorite reads EVER! This book helped me through several difficult postpartum periods--encouraging me to face days (and years ahead) of diapering, nursing through the wee hours, cooking meals for messy eaters, washing dishes without a dishwasher for our first two toddlers, and learning to love the welcoming of big spirits in tiny bodies into this world, with JOY and hygge.
Don't you love Dictionary.com's definition of "whoo-guh"? And what a perfect encapsulation of the essence of Papa's Wife! If you haven't read it already, you'll see what I mean after you do.
Because the heroine in this book (really a loosely-based biography of the author's mother) dreamed, nay--longed(!) to be a mother (after losing her own mom at a young age). And that, my friend, she accomplished--eight times over, with gusto and chutzpah.
Maria Franzon, the protagonist in this book, chose motherhood, not because she was "controlled" by her husband in an age in which many considered to be repressive or stifling for women. But because she reveled in the honor and sacred calling of shaping young minds and hearts--of raising children who knew they were loved and cherished, and would grow to bless the lives of all they knew, as an unstoppable ripple effect for good.
My husband's mom often says something along the lines of, "Bringing a baby into the world is a woman's way of sending a message to the future." A message of whatever beliefs she holds dearly enough to instill into a malleable little soul. "Here, this is what I know to be true, now go live by it, and teach the next generation the same."
Now, in a day and age when women are given so much choice in their lives as far as education, career paths, and how to spend their "own" time, it's nice to read about one woman who chose, even dreamed with all her heart, to be a mother--foremost. Above anything. Motherhood is still as important as it once was. I think the world just forgot. Got distracted. We...I, have become distracted--depending on the day. I want to be a better mom. Don't all mothers?
I want my children to know I see hope for them in the future, that they will grow to make the world a more wonderful place, to choose to be people who live by a moral code of ethics and standards of charity, compassion, and faith in Someone greater than themselves.
I'm so grateful to be married to a man who regards family as the most important aspect of his life, second only to his faith in that Someone greater than himself.
Here's a review from My Lady Bibliophile that expresses just how the book Papa's Wife made me feel about family, and taught me to cherish homemaking as a sacred art that slowly changes the world in real, lasting, hard-earned ways--through service and sacrifice which pay back for generations to come.
"The real moment of revelation was another book. Three books, actually. I've had a hardbound trilogy sitting on my shelf for two or three years now, waiting to be read. On a whim (what I thought was a whim) I picked it up this summer. It's a trilogy by Thyra Ferre Bjorn about a mother and daughter: a real life Swedish pastor's family that immigrated to America. The picture of family was so homelike that I couldn't get away from its pages. It held simple charm, ambition, and trust in God's goodness. Just a childlike faith, and deep love for taking care of husbands, children, and grandchildren that one woman passed on to all her daughters.
To see more words on fine books, like the review above by Schuyler McConkey, visit:
4) Papa Married a Mormon,
Written by John D. Fitzgerald
If you happened to read one of my earlier reviews recently about The Great Brain series, and actually checked one of the books out, or already knew about them, this title will THRILL you into staying up to read in bed until 3a.m. (Wait...weren't we just talking about being better mothers? Well, the addictive qualities of this novel might undermine that goal for a few days. Better start being better after you get sleep again once you close this novel after its last page. Ha ha!)
Are you ready to lose sleep?
This book, and its sequel, Mama's Boarding House, are more recommendations given to me years ago by my older sister, Cryssy! MWAH! Love you, Cryssy! Because Papa Married a Mormon is another top five favorite book on my shelf of best books ever written on this earth. The stories it holds are fast-paced, character-driven, and well-plotted. Though some may be over the top. The interesting thing is, J.D. Fitzgerald based many of these tales on threads of truth from his own life, and he lived quite an adventurous one. So, who knows how much of the tales are fiction, and how much is fact? You decide.
Because many parts of the book are similar in prose to Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn novels, Papa Married a Mormon fits the mold of a Victorian look at an era long gone.
And one of my favorite Goodreads buddies, Tatiana says:
I really adored the character of Mama, whose courage and convictions, and just her basic goodness are an inspiration to me. She was one of those believers who understood and lived the real gospel, the part about loving others even if they're different from us, and doing what's right even when it will get you shunned or gossiped about in the neighborhood. I just love Mama. Kids and dogs and people everywhere she went loved her, and so do I.
That's the mothering we can all seek after...And if there's one rabbit hole you go down while reading this book review today, make it this one, the fascinatingly cool website all about the mysterious author John D. Fitzgerald:
https://findingfitzgerald.com/ Incredible stuff, my friends!
5) The Story of the Trapp Family Singers,
Written by Maria Augusta Trapp
Because Rachel on Goodreads has already said exactly how I feel about this book, I'll leave you in her capable hands for a review of the third of my top five favorite books ever:
To say I loved this book is an understatement - it was fabulous, moving, and even funnier than I imagined it would be! Of course I grew up watching the great film, Sound of Music, of which Maria's life was based from, but I'd never read the true story of her life. There was so much more to her life than was portrayed in the film, and it was exciting to really get to know her in her own words.
6) The Seven Silly Eaters,
Written by Mary Ann Hoberman,
Illustrated by Marla Frazee
Every mother can relate (and almost cry out in exasperation) for Mrs. Peters while reading this darling picture book She not only struggles to keep up with the demands of a family that just keeps eating, but like many of us, deals with the same monotonous foods over and over again. The diet of these seven silly persnicketies is so real, so monotonously demanding, that it hurts--because it's all too true-to-life, as many of us live with this reality as mothers. Having two brave girls who have celiacs, and another duaghter who
But the story is so lilting in its prose, and turns out so goofy and fun, that the book is a delight to read about someone else's cooking woes.
Not to mention that I want to live in the architectural wonder of the Peters' cottage, don't you? Bet you've thought the same thing yourself if you've read this book, right?
If you've made it down this far in the review, I would love to hear if you love and revere any of these six titles as well. They're all a bit obscure. But all oh, so powerful in their resonance to ring truth to the mothering heart. Does anyone, including my mama and sisters (in-law) even read this far down? Let's just say, I'm ultra impressed if you do...I don't think I would. I would bore myself silly. Silly eaters, that is. Back to the title at hand...
Being a mom who has to make three separate batches of pancakes for my own six silly eaters (two being gluten-intolerant, and one being allergic to egg whites), I totally commiserate with the fictional Mrs. Peters' crazy antics to nourish her own silly eaters. But I love the author's sense to give her gentle dedication and feel her pain as she succumbs to a breakdown. Been there. Had that mental meltdown.
(Hear Justin Roberts' zany song version of a mom having a meltdown:)
But then we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and move forward with a perfect brightness of hope, because we love these little people we are keeping alive. They are what make the world go round, and life worth laughing about.
Happy reading to you miraculous mothers everywhere. Keep doing what you do best--loving the next generation of parents.
P.S. If this topic of motherhood puts a little bee in your bonnet (hum "They Might Be Giants" here), then make a little birdhouse in your soul by looking into one of those golden books highlighting "mama birds" above. Just don't go eating worms to give to your hatchlings...
And don't forget to share you favorite mothering characters in the comments below. Don't be shy, please tell me why you adore Mrs. Weasley from Harry Potter (up until she shook our trust in book seven by speaking French unnecessarily!), or the humble Susan Garth from George Eliot's Middlemarch, who rolls out pies at the kitchen table while urging on the studies of her children around her.
And don't forget the courageous mother rabbit in The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes who teaches pairs of her twenty-one children how to wash the dishes, launder the clothes, sweep the floor, make the beds, cook the dinner, sing songs, dance to entertain, and to the last little twenty-first bunny, she teaches him to pull out her chair. Brilliant....
So share your own favorite examples of mothering in literature, movies, or your own life. We need to hear of these strong models to remind us how we can be pillars of strength and faith for our children during these crazy, unpredictable times.
These little Eastern Phoebe birds (below) chased off a nasty crow after it snatched their single hatchling right from their nest as we on the ground helplessly watched. The mama bird squawked and pursued that gross old crow. But, sadly, to no avail. So the heart-broken couple left their summer home desolate for several weeks. However...after a month or so, they came back, and happily raised a second brood of FOUR fuzzy-headed babies with a vengeance of hope for a bright new future. That is the spirit of motherhood.
Why do we Americans love the UK so much? What is it about Europe that's just so alluring? A thousand things--the accents, the languages, the phrasing and funny-isms, the history, the art, the culture, the food, the fascinating people, the Marmite. Well, okay, not so much the Marmite...But we all love--or would love--to travel overseas at the drop of a hat (or $5,000!!! Choke!), right?
Since not many of us have the budget, or the green flag for travel at present (to jump the pond this summer), how about we revel in a few fantastic children's books that all have English connections, shall we? Let's!
1) Clever Jack Takes the Cake,
Written by Candace Fleming,
Illustrated by Brian G. Karas
Don’t laugh, this first book isn't even written or illustrated by a creative from the UK. But…hold on to your seats...once you've read this one, you’ll gain a smacking of timelessness that generally comes from stories originating in dear Old England--a feeling, rather, or a conjuring-up of the old world, that usually comes from reading Grimm’s Fairytales.
And this story, has an ending that's so fresh, it could be cut straight from your own heavenly lilac bush.
The story is replete with details of sleeping woods--laced with whispering winds--and four-and-twenty-blackbirds who descend to pluck walnuts off the buttery icing on the cake that a young boy sacrificed his all to bake, as a birthday gift for the princess.
The prose of Clever Jack Takes the Cake uses onomatopoeia of the satisfying variety--like that of the “pfft!” sound that candles make when sputtering out.
Better yet, this is the type of book to spark luscious one-liners for all ages! In fact, phrases from this book just might pop up at the most wonderful moments.
Occasionally a body or two around our table in Maine has been known to select a perfectly gorgeous strawberry (possibly even from our own scraggily patch in the garden), and heard to say, just like Clever Jack,
The reddest, juiciest, most succulent strawberry in the land!”
For a fun run-down on the plot of Clever Jack Takes the Cake,
check out this link from the Children’s Book Review:
Other fantastic resources to enjoy, after sharing Clever Jack Takes the Cake with your kids, can be found here:
The illustrator’s website: https://www.gbriankaras.com/aboutme.html#top
The author’s website: https://www.candacefleming.com/video/video.html
2) That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown,
Written by Cressida Cowell,
Illustrated by Neal Layton
Likely, if you're reading this book review, you're already familiar with the first in the Emily Brown series. But on the slightest chance that you're not, I am writing this post JUST. FOR. YOU! This witty story is so cleverly-written, and so satisfying to read, that the only way to not slaughter its charm...is for you to experience it firsthand for yourself.
So, you absolutely must click on the link below to watch the author (a.k.a. Waterstones Children's Laureate [2019-2022]) read aloud from her "shed" in the bottom of her garden in London:
(Pssst...click on the link above, not the screenshot photo below, to watch. It's SOOOO fun! And talk about a dream studio for any artist...I will not covet. I will not covet. I will not covet...)
Cressida Cowell is not only fabulously endearing (as you saw above in her online reading of one of the most fun contemporary children's books available), but her stories are engaging enough, to keep parents wanting to read them again and again in their best goofy faux-British accents. (We all secretly-wish we spoke in a clean, crisp British dialect, don't we?
Admit it. I will. Our own American nasal tones are pretty blech.
I wonder if in heaven we'll be able to Britspeak, or perhaps sound like Aussies(?), if we so desire upon having lived a good life? I better start stepping things up...just in case. (Matt could speak with a Scottish brogue--he does play the bagpipes, after all--and I could speak like I grew up in the Lake District.
3) The Sherlock Files #1
The 100-Year-Old Secret,
Written by Tracy Barrett
Unusual in feel, this book is a pleasantly-innocuous, London-based mystery. My kids and I have listened to the audio version at least three or four times over the last decade.
With all that re-listening, how is it then, that I only recently noticed the "Book 1" part of the title?! Honestly, Einstein! After awakening to this fact last week, we just checked out numbers two, three, and four of the series from the library, and the kids are happily devouring them. Yay!
That being said, I did just come across reviews of the second book, warning that volume two smacks of “Scooby Doo.” (I admittedly adored Scooby Doo as a kid…but any reader in their right mind would deflate instantly upon finding out the swamp monster really was the unmasked butler of the old mansion for the twenty-third time—in a series of books that are totally unrelated with the Hanna-Barbera cartoon!) Still, I can hardly wait to read the whole series as I do love book one.
But, back to the first book in the series, The 100-Year-Old Secret, is written well enough that it can stand alone. Had I all the money for books I wanted, I would easily buy the hard copy to keep on the shelves for any age of my children to read. Nothing creepy, morbid, or crass in this book. Just a wholesome mystery to crack the case of a centuries-old missing painting. Oooh, ooh--art is involved. Yes!
The premise of the cute tweens, Xander and Xena (the matching names may be a bit cheesy, but hey…), picking up where their ancestor, Sherlock Holmes, left off—to solve the case of the missing painting of the girl in the purple hat, sucked me right in. (Perhaps because the first portrait for which I ever had someone pose, was when I was eleven years-old, and my neighbor buddy, Emo Snell Lloyd, humored me by sitting for me on my family’s back steps--wearing a wide brimmed Easter hat.) So this book just struck my soft spot--of wanting to be an artist as a little girl.
Here’s a link to the Looking Glass Review to give you a more thorough synopsis of beloved book one in the series:
4) Kat, Incorrigible,
Written by Stephanie Burgis,
Illustrated by Annette Marnat
If you’re always longing for more of the lusciously-satisfying details of JK Rowling’s world-building, and bask in the fast-paced repartee of sisterly banter in Jane Austen’s works...then Stephanie Burgis’s Kat, Incorrigible series is the perfect intersection for you. And the three of my kids who’ve read this series LOVED it—including one son.
This is a book I've seen those three fans pick up multiple times.
Really, how could one resist a trilogy set in the (Regency Era) English countryside, taking place in a parsonage with three sisters who squabble so realistically, that one almost remembers her own childhood quarrels?
But the genius of these books is that even though the siblings bicker, they ALWAYS stick up for each other when the chips are down. They have each other's backs. This family is so life-like, the reader lives on the page through Kat and her wiser (Elissa), and sassier (Angeline), older sisters.
But Kat's personality has enough grit and spunk that she ends up helping her older sisters to extract themselves from a dodgy betrothal and loads of mischief. As a reviewer named Leslie D. says, Kat can be "frightfully intuitive and woefully ignorant" enough to keep us turning pages at lightning speed.
Not to mention that the details of the Regency era magic (think a magic reticule bag) make a great escape. If you have a reader who loved Harry Potter, and will some day get lost in Jane Austen, this book will probably be a hit.
Here’s Goodreads’ spiel on the plot:
And if you’d like to read a really fantastic take on the book, go to School Library Journal’s Fuse 8 Book Review at:
5) The Giants and the Joneses,
Written by Super Star Julia Donaldson,
Illustrated by Greg Swearingen
After my oldest daughters gobbled up this book years ago, it sat on the shelves for years, waiting...waiting...for my youngest two girls, ages six and nine. They just discovered it, and it makes my heart twirl!
Fair Warning: This book teaches kids how to speak in Groilish, or Giantese. Be aware that after a few days of reading, your child may begin to substitute in a few words of Groilish for their own language, and look at you slyly for signs of feeling out whether or not you know of the language they speak also. It's highly entertaining to watch a six year-old speak a foreign language to you with an empowered, savvy smile! I know something my parents don't! (Oh, just wait kids, after you surpass my educational knowledge in the fifth grade--you'll everything know everything I don't!)
This book has a few sweet lessons about doing unto others what you would have them do unto you. Julia Donaldson has a good mind for slipping a moral or two into her books to educate the next generation.
And if you're not previously familiar with the work of Ms. Donaldson, these are my personal favorite of hers:
• Charlie Cook’s Favorite Book
• Tabby McTat
• The Room on the Broom
• The Highway Rat (a nod to the old poem, "The Highway Man"--yes, the very one that Anne Shirley recites in Anne of Green Gables. AND...the prose in the picture book can be sung with your kids to the melody of Loreena McKennitt's "The Highway Man" song from the album below. Fun, fun, fun!
Here are a few other collaborations between Ms. Donaldson and Axel Scheffler:
• A Gold Start for Zog
• The Gruffalo
• The Gruffalo’s Child
And Ms. Donaldson's latest books (The last on the list, The Smeds and the Smoos, sounds like it was heavily influenced by Dr. Seuss--in creative word usage, rhyme, and the fact that it carries an agenda--think The Lorax, but about discrimination and blind prejudice):
• The Scarecrow’s Wedding
• The Smeds and the Smoos
• Zog and the Flying Doctors
The video below of Zog and the Flying Doctors is read by the most adorable young British voice (worth watching with a little person if you can't find the book):
6) Malala's Magic Pencil
Written by Malala Yousafzai,
Illustrated by Kerascoët
This relevant picture book biography of everyone's young Pakistani heroine, Malala Yousafzai (who still seeks refuge in England), brings a potent message of hope. Her words share with young children everywhere, that one person standing up for what they believe in, can sweep the world with change.
I spoke for all the girls in my valley who couldn't speak for themselves. My voice became so powerful, that the dangerous men tried to silence me. But they failed.
Malala captures the imaginations of children right out of the gate--with her real-life childhood longing to have a magic pen that could draw up a bowl of rice, or erase the smell of the garbage heap outside her window.
You know the story. Later, as Malala grows, and sees the tyrannical leaders of her home town prevent girls from attending school, she begins to understand that she doesn't need a magic pen to make a change, she just needs to write with the one she already has--of her beliefs that all human beings deserve the right to an education.
For a read-aloud of this powerfully poignant and hopeful picture book,
enjoy this with your family below:
And to see Malala's beautifully-sincere acceptance speech as the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize at age 22, go here:
"I'm pretty certain, that I'm also the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize who still fights with her younger brothers. I want there to be peace everywhere. But my brothers and I are still working on that."
Well, every month, I say to myself, "This month, I'm going to write the quickest, simplest book review yet." And then I proceed to blether on absolutely far too much until you're completely gob-smacked by my barminess.
Did you like my use of fun words from the UK? I know. I'm a geek. Even more so, I hope you enjoy the books from the review.
Now, return the favor by going to the comments below, and please tell me which books about British characters, or written by English authors you love the most? Children's books, or adult, I'd love to hear from you about your favorite titles...
So, go be a bookworm, not unlike this slug enjoying his breakfast. Curl up and devour some of the best books! "Shloouuuup!"
Have a glorious summer, friends!
Virtual Road Trip with Audio Books! For the Best of Times and the Worst of Times...
Charles Dickens coined it best in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities with:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, …”
Two hundred and fifty years after the fictional Charles Darnay chooses to live in England--because he can't bear to be surrounded by the cruel injustices of the French social system, here we are--facing the prejudice of our own country that we thought we'd battled ourselves first in the Civil War, and next in the 1950's and 60's with desegregation.
As our world spins out of control around the globe with racial injustice, protests and looting, a halted economy, and fear of the still-unknown dangers of this strange pandemic, I thought we might take a mental and emotional road trip.
Ahhhhh...Fresh air brings a clean-slate of a perspective! Breathe in the summertime breezes blowing through your rolled-down virtual car window. And make a stop in Portland Maine to step inside the childhood home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Now imagine you're sitting in Longfellow's family sitting room, overlooking the courtyard gardens, sandwiched between two tall buildings in the cobblestoned-port city. The mist settles about the trunks of trees and lupine foliage as a storm brews overhead. Can't you almost just hear our young thirty-four year-old Henry scratching out the words,
"Into each life some rain must fall.
Henry is aching over his first wife's death.
And yet another writer whom we all know and love equally understood that sorrow so keenly by saying,
“The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That's the deal.” (C.S. Lewis)
I was reminded of this line at the recent funeral of a beloved uncle. And because for most of us, that metaphorical rain is still falling out in some way or another, and may continue to do so for a while, there won't be many real, physical road trips this summer of 2020. And that's okay. How about then, if we send our minds on an escape instead?
Here are some beautiful summer recommendations that aren't really escapist, but rather a juicy ethical feast:
1) The Running Dream,
Written By: Wendelin Van Drannen,
Narrated by Laura Flanagan
You may have read this book, but have your kids listened to the audio version? All six of mine were GLUED to this story! In fact, it made the child on dish duty (no matter the age from six to seventeen) jump right up after a meal to start loading dishes so they could hear what Jessica was going to go through next after having her leg amputated.
I've listened to this audio book probably four or five times since it came out in 2011. There's just so much meat to think about and discuss, when facing a story full of opposition to overcome. And the author nails the character development for teens on its stubborn head.
This is the type of story that all of us need to hear. So we can remember that we can overcome hard, dark situations in life. Just by working through the next small step, even when it's painful, we can push forward. Jessica's character in this story reminds us that hundreds, and thousands, of baby steps line the path to achieving big goals. Goals take time. Days, months, years. Decades. And if they're really worth it? A lifetime.
Here's Goodreads' synopsis of the plot:
Jessica thinks her life is over when she loses a leg in a car accident. She's not comforted by the news that she'll be able to walk with the help of a prosthetic leg. Who cares about walking when you live to run?
Here's a fantastically-sympathetic interview clip with the persistent Wendelin Van Draanen. She radiates hope and a can-do attitude: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Revi1nl4dg
2) Les Miserables,
Written by Victor Hugo,
accessed free on Librivox.org
Have you ever tried to push through the mammoth tome of Les Miserables, only to hit the brick wall of the war chapters? I've been stymied by them twice. Almost thrice. :)
I even tried checking out the audiobook from the library years ago, then came to the same dry recounting of the Napoleonic wars, and Zzzzzzzz...felt I was facing the front lines with a short saber instead of a bayonet or rifle.
Maybe it just took having a daunting commission last year, with hours of uninterrupted painting time ahead of me, to get through that spot in the story. Or...hearing the audio book on LibriVox! The scenes of Napoleon's downfall actually turned into one of the tenderest parts of the story for me after Napoleon's personality was fleshed out at his up-seating.
Who knew? The history building up to the French Revolution came alive in my mind for the first time ever (well, at least since falling under the spell of The Scarlet Pimpernel when my older college-going brother introduced Percival Blakeney to me and my best friend and sisters as young teens. "Cool!")
And the chapters describing the saintlike priest who forgives Jean Val Jean--showing him mercy and kindness for a second chance on life, and in God's eyes--more than worth the read!
So back to LibriVox. What is it, a few of young'uns might be wondering?
For starters--free audio books! Just as the Latin name implies: "Libri"=free, "Vox"=voice, hence, "free voice." The purpose of Librivox is: "To make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet."
What's included in the public domain, you might ask? Well, the Electronic Frontier Foundation says,
Which boils down to this: Les Mis is read for free. For you. To enjoy. Since it was published 158 years ago, and its copyright belongs now to the people. Because of this...
Just joking around. But here's the catch. LibriVox Works on volunteer fuel. That means that people all over the world record one chapter at a time. So when I listened to Les Miserables last year, one chapter would be read (for instance) from the viewpoint of Marius by a male's Australian voice. Then the next chapter (from the viewpoint of Cosette), would be read by a female British voice. And then the next chapter from the view of Eponine, would be read by a female American voice. And so on...
This unusual mash-up of readers makes for an adventure. At first, I wasn't sure if I was going to like the hodge-podge of volunteer voices. But actually, I was pleasantly surprised by how the readers seemed to fit the chapters they narrated. Don't know how that worked out...Or maybe I just grew used to the readers and their excellent quirks.
Below is a pic of the chapter by chapter format for listening. You don't even have to download a thing. Just go to the website when you have time to listen...the hardest part is remembering on what "SECTION" you left off between listens (tip--write it down on a log) and squeeze in more free classics when you have time!
Here's the link to a random chapter, below, of Les Miserables if you want to see what you're in for:
So, if you want to hear the Dickens, Bronte, or more classics per month than your audio book provider allows for your budget, LibriVox is a fantastic, FREE option, or addition, to your audio-listening habits. Happy "hearing of the people sing," to you!
3) The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate,
Written by Jacqueline Kelly,
narrated by Natalie Ross
If you couldn't get enough of Jacqueline Kelly's rock-solid storytelling in her first book, Newbery Honor Award-winning The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, but didn't realize a second installment slipped under the door in 2015, then this is your story.
The audio narration by Natalie Ross is fantastic--she does an especially great job of portraying Calpurnia's Mark Twainesque grandfather with just the right amount of austerity and gentleness.
As a side-note, I still feel that some resolution with Calpurnia's aversion to domestic skills needs to be addressed in a third volume by Ms. Kelly. Perhaps if Calpurnia goes off to medical school, she'll realize that even veterinarians need to know how to cook for themselves--if they don't want to slog through fried eggs and oatmeal for every dish.
And hopefully Ms. Kelly could enlighten Calpurnia to the fact that the sacrificing of one's passions to stop daily (for some of us that's two or three times daily, right?) to prepare food for others, is one of the most vital acts a body can do to continue progression for all, and service to others. (..."when ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God." -Mosiah 2:17, The Book of Mormon).
I mean, if there's one thing we have all learned from CoVid-19, it's how much we DEPEND on hard-working people in the food service industry--produce and dairy farmers, grocers, butchers, bakers, and truck drivers. Thank you every one, for making the world's food happen every day!
So Calpurnia, wake up and smell the hot cocoa (which you need to know how to heat up yourself)!
But as much as Calpurnia's character loathes domestic duties, she's helped my own family find sanity, even joy (hear that, Callie V.?!), while cooking because of her antics. The irony! The stories of Calpurnia dreading to be taught by SanJuanna to whip up egg-whites by hand somehow make it easier for me to do that very act--all while hearing her complain about it. Go figure. We can do hard things. Cooking is not hard. Just tedious, sometimes. Right?
The author here, gives us a look at what went into preparing a single meal for a large family from the side of those who did all the grunt work behind closed kitchen doors. Calpurnia curiously wonders at the efforts, lifestyle, and workload of the people who really keep the show going for her family each day. We see highlights of:
I may never know or understand what hardships so many oppressed peoples have gone through, but even reading fictionalized accounts, can give us a flavor or appreciation.
4) Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller,
Written by Judy Taylor,
Narrated by Patricia Routledge
(Maybe I just soaked up every word of this biography as I love Beatrix Potter so much that I named one of my children after her. Or maybe Ms. Potter just lead a very intriguing life? Either way, this bio is delightful. And a read that older children will enjoy/endure hearing as well.
Audible carries it, and if you liked the movie "Miss Potter," or "Peter Rabbit," I think you'll dig the audio bio that covers Beatrix's courageous battles to preserve 4,000 acres of rural farmland and countryside which she gifted to the National Trust upon her death in 1943, as well as 14 farms. Beatrix Potter was truly a forward-thinking woman, artist, illustrator, sheep-breeder, and conservationist.
Besides, this audio bio is narrated in a lovely, British, school-marmy accent...Can't wait for you to gobble it up faster than the Flopsy bunnies did those soporific lettuces in Mr. McGregor's garden.
(Talk about rabbit holes...that milky juice that oozes from a lettuce stem after being cut fresh from the garden, turns out to be not just be a clever literary ploy on Ms. Potter's part to make her bunnies sleep after all. http://thetanglednest.com/2009/06/soporific-salads-and-lettuce-opium/ I always thought that white bleeding from the spiky stem of the lettuces was weird--now I know it wasn't just my own gardening misadventures gone awry. "What kind of spiky, milk-bleeding monster lettuce is this, anyway?!")
5) Interview with the Robot,
Written by Lee Bacon,
Narrated by a Fabulous Full Cast
This is not my typical genre of book. But if you thought Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card was fun (but didn't revel in the swears--totally unnecessary!), then you'll love the smooth writing and curiously-clean plot of Interview with the Robot. Really, if you're reading this review, you're the type who will dig this story.
In fact, I think anyone would find this book fascinating. My youngest son turned it on to help him get through his afternoon chores each day, and the whole family just happened to hang out where he was listening--for several days...oh, until about the time the book ended. It's that good! Even my oldest girls and husband lingered to hear. If one of us missed a few minutes, we'd ask questions to get caught up to speed.
This cutting-edge story is perfect for any age, but especially tweens! The intriguing plot makes your mind wonder about the ethics of recreating life in robotic form. Plus, the sweet friendship between the two main characters is utterly charming here. Definitely worth a listen if you are an audible subscriber! We loved this book. More like it, please?!
6) The Great Brain,
Written by John D. Fitzgerald,
Illustrated by the Inimitable Mercer Mayer
I think many of us can remember either having this series of books being read to us as children, or coming across them on the library shelves at some point during adolescence. Did you? Can you recall that? Comment below, if you have childhood memories of these books...I'd love to hear about it...
So my husband and I often checked out these audio cassettes (that's how old we are!) for long-distance car rides when our oldest three kids were younger. But now it's time to introduce these classics to our youngest three. The funny thing is, I went to pull the first book in the series off the shelf last night, only to find that the second and third books were missing.
Hmmm...I asked my husband about it, and while I was in the little girls' bedroom reading the first book to the six and nine year-old, he was in our bedroom reading the third book to our eleven and thirteen year-old. Ha ha! Great (brain) minds think alike. I guess it just feels like this is a unique time in the world when we can slow down and empathize with what a simpler, old-fashioned life was like. Not to say it was perfect. There were ills and misguided ideas in that era too. But reading about the past helps us re-evaluate our "family-functioning" (or not-so-functioning, depending on the day!) today--to see where we may have gone wrong, or what we can do better...
Here's one of the best reviews (from Goodreads, naturally) that I've come across to describe the caliber of solid writing in a children's book. It made me laugh as my youngest just did (last night, while hearing book two) exactly what this reviewer describes his son doing while listening to these stories:
I've read a lot of books to my son. A lot. The Hobbit, all three books of The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books, Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, six or seven of the original Doctor Dolittle books, several Three Investigators books, and far more. And he's loved almost all of them (I selected them carefully, from the books I loved best as I child and teen).
And... just in case you haven't read or watched it yet, here's :
• Bonus Book/Movie Recommendation #1):
Written by the brilliant Jerry Spinelli
Hopefully you've already been spellbound by the magic of this unusual book. I've been waiting for years to share it with my own kids, and now that they're finally old enough to enjoy it, it's out as a movie! Ha! I'd better have them read it quick!
My oldest daughter was woken up by a fox circling the chicken coop last week at 4:30a.m., and couldn't fall back asleep after shooing it away. So she went downstairs, turned on this movie, and was swept away before early-morning seminary!
The story is an uplifting reminder to find joy in who we are, let go of fear to make room for friendship, and open our eyes to the situations of those around us.
Here's a link to the fun movie trailer (aimed at the high school crowd, and a great movie for parents and teens to see together--though a certain thirteen year-old I know may scream from the gross factor of two innocent kisses...):
And for me personally to learn more of what I need to understand about the history what it's like to be someone in the minority in America, while navigating this unsettling day and age, here's a title long overdue on my to-read list:
• Bonus Book/Movie Recommendation #2):
Chains (Seeds of America #1),
Written by Laurie Halse Andersen
My two oldest daughters thought it was definitely worthwhile. Having loved Ms. Andersen's book Fever, I'm pretty confident this one will be a poignant reminder of what I have yet to learn to understand what freedom really means. For all. Not just half, nor some, but equality for ALL of God's children.
Here's what good old Goodreads has to say:
ER: Hi, Andrea! As a busy mom of four active kids, how did you find time to write Joshua Little and the Leaves? And was there an incident with one of your own children that inspired the story?
AC: Joshua Little and the leaves was not inspired by any incidents with my own children. In fact, it was written before any of them were born.
Ever since moving out to Utah for school, I had lived close to my sister, Melanie. And when her twins were born I would bike to their house by the Provo Temple after my last class on BYU campus to help out with the babies. Consequently, their children James and Joshua were a big part of my life.
My nephew, Joshua, was about 3 at the time that I wrote the book. He had discovered how fun it was to play in the leaves and...my sister...had bought a new camera and taken lots of pictures of [him]. They were darling photos and I have a tender spot in my heart for Fall because of my years growing up in Maine, and...my birthday is in October. So pictures of my nephew in vibrant piles of leaves combined with my love of Fall is how it all started.
Joshua has grown up every bit as creative and resourceful as the character in my book though. Even as a very young child he would ask questions like “do turkeys have ears?” He has also always been a doer and a builder. One year for Christmas his parents just gave him lumber. Now, even Though he is still only fifteen years-old, he's already worked on a framing crew and builds everything from sheds, outhouses, and horse jumps, to dirt bikes..."
ER: What did you study in school, and how did that influence your interest for writing children's picture books?
AC: I majored in English and minored in German. I also worked in the publication lab at Brigham Young University where local authors would bring in their work and we would help them research markets for their writing and the submission process.
As a result I read and wrote a ton in college. And I saw everyday people writing and submitting their work for publication. It was encouraging. One time I also met with a local children’s book author, Rick Walton, to learn about how he got started. I discovered that he wrote a lot of stuff other than picture books to support his family.
These experiences made me think it was possible to write and publish my own work, but I would say my upbringing also had a hand in influencing me. [My] mom read to us every day. There were plenty of books at home and library trips were frequent. I enjoy many kinds of literature (novels, poetry, plays, philosophy, short stories, essays) but picture books have always been special to me. I never outgrew them.
...Even in high school my mom subscribed to "Cricket Magazine" which was filled with illustrated short stories. In college, when school got especially stressful, sometimes I would go to the library or the bookstore on campus and just plop down for ten to twenty minutes to de-stress with a pile of picture books.
Sometimes that was my date choice when looking for someone to marry. And even now, I mostly check picture books out of the library. I don’t think I will ever get tired of them. And my kids will probably be the same way. When I sit down to read to my toddler, it isn’t long before all three older ones crowd around to listen and see the pictures too :-)
ER: Do you have much time for writing at all now that your hands are so full?
AC: Life has only gotten busier and more demanding the more children I have. Ironically, even though we aren’t running around to appointments or sports or school, it feels even more so with COVID 19 since they are all home all the time and I am now the home school teacher too :-)
Sometimes I am able to spend time writing, but It is really rare. I simply don’t have much free time at all any more since so much of it goes to meeting [my kids'] needs and helping them develop their talents now or simply giving them my time to show them how much I love them.
The most important things in your life are what get your time. For me that includes scriptures, family meals, practicing instruments, reading, one-on-one snuggles at bedtime and all the necessary things that get put in between all that like house hold chores, school and work. Consequently, a lot of things that I really love (like writing, art, quilting etc.) are just on hold at the moment.
I look forward to the day when I have a bit more of my own time back, but for now I am trying to enjoy all the little ones around me while they are home 24/7.
In fact, without Jake (my husband) Joshua Little and the Leaves might never have gone from being a manuscript to a published book.
ER: Thanks, Andrea, for sharing your fabulous story! One ending note of interest for our readers...Andrea mentioned on the phone that if it hadn't been for her husband coming across her old manuscript in a desk drawer, the book wouldn't be in children's hands and on library shelves today.
So kudos to Jake Cluff, for saying, "Hey, Andrea, what about that old manuscript of yours, do you want to publish it, or what?" Supportive spouses make the world a happier place, one writer, one picture book at a time. Thanks to my own good husband, Matthew, for encouraging me to write... instead of going crazy.
As there's nothing quite like the contentment that comes from working a "bit of earth" (as Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary from The Secret Garden calls it), I'm sharing six books this month about the pleasure of gardening. I think we could all use an escape from cabin fever about now...
1) Joshua Little and the Leaves,
Written by Andrea Cluff,
Illustrated by Evgeniya Pautova
When I set this book--atop a stack of others--on my youngest daughter's bed, she jumped up (no exaggeration), and said, "OOOOH! I love that book! It's so funny! Can we read it right now?!"
Wow! Impressive that one "little" story made such an indelible mark on my child's book-loving soul.
So we did read it. And she was right. It's charming! Yes, I know it's not the right season to share a book about leaves falling when the buds are just starting to push up. But the whole point of Joshua Little and the Leaves, is that change can be enjoyed--through every season of life. Even when at first we don't understand, or even like it!
And so fitting a story for little people who don't quite understand why life is changing as it has, from whatever this crazy virus has thrown at them. This book can be a great segue into a conversation about how life alters--when we least expect it. But there are some things we can do to prepare, or to cope. Like play with those we love. (As depicted by Joshua and his mama below...)
Beyond all the serious talk, this book is simple, but graceful. The flow of the text's rhythm and fresh, computer-generated illustrations remind me of Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline...but with a cool 2.0 retro nod.
The illustrations are not overworked. Evgeniya Pautova, how did you make such a lovable little mop-of-a-Scottie dog with so few strokes? And Andrea Cluff, thanks for making the world a better place with one sweet "Little" story.
Readers, check back in one week, on Friday May 8th, to enjoy a mini-interview with author
Andrea Cluff as she answers questions about the inspiration behind her book and the road to self-publishing Joshua Little and the Leaves!
2)Anna's Garden Songs,
Poems by Mary Q. Steele,
Illustrations by Lena Anderson
So I happily stumbled upon this golden treasure at our local GoodWill last summer. Where has this book been all of my life?!! It was published forever ago, apparently! How is it not more widely printed? Painted by the same illustrator as Linnea in Monet's Garden, these watercolors are magic.
If you have a green thumb, these illustrations--paired with cleverly-silly poems--are a dream for every vegetable-pushing parent. See for yourself...
That poem is almost as sweet as a crunchy June pea right off a June vine. Now if only our chickens didn't eat all of ours! Argh! Not so much free-ranging this summer, I'm thinking...(The garden-ravaging stinkers!)
Unfortunately, my kids will completely empathize with this cheeky rhyme:
"I do not think I'll eat
Two of my kids chose potatoes for their "vegetable-to-plant-and-weed" last summer. Not so much happened on the weeding end. But the kids sure went wild when it was time to dig for buried treasure! The happy painting above by Ms. Anderson exactly depict that satisfaction of digging up these "apples of the earth" (as the French call them).
One child was excited for the harvest, the other thought it was work--until he hit gold, rather fuchsia--himself!