Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Teacher Letter

Forget the latest John Grisham novel or one of the Harry Potters, in late August in my town, the most highly anticipated piece of writing is "the teacher letter." At the end of the summer, the local elementary schools send each student a letter with the name of his or her teacher for the upcoming school year. No one knows exactly when the teacher letters are going to be sent out from year to year. Parents and children alike check the mailboxes more frequently in these dog days of August. When the letter arrives, it is four pages of school information, but all anyone cares about is the one line of type with the teacher's name on it. My soon-to-be third grader (my brother tells me the term is "rising third grader") received her letter on Friday. Someone should have shouted "And they're off!" The phones were off the hook that is. Little girls were calling each other all around town answering ,"Who do you have?" quickly before dialing the next friend. We saw several families we know at the grocery store and it was more of the same. except for my rising fourth grader son who did not receive his letter that day. He had no answer for the question on everyone's lips. This was yet one more piece of evidence to support his theory that the universe has conspired against him and in favor of his sister. When the mail arrived on Saturday, he sprinted to the mailbox, tore open the letter, and frantically scanned for the name of his teacher. I had a brief nausea-inducing vision of the future and college acceptance (or rejection letters). Calls were made, messages were returned, and he has at least one friend in this year's class. Thank goodness we're back to looking for the latest issues of American Girl and National Geographic Kids magazines in the mailbox. They carry much less emotional impact.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Darn These Two

Most evenings, between 9:30 and 11pm, I can be found reading in bed. Thanks to these two fellas, very little reading has been done lately.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


My kids and I were flipping tv channels the other night, and a commercial/teaser for an "entertainment news" program flashed video of the barely clad pop group the Pussycat Dolls. I'll admit it- I share an inexplicable love of "Don't Cha" with much of America (tell me it's not on your ipod!), but I don't need my kids watching, or worse, imitating, the booty poppin'. Before I could change the channel, the announcer promised more of the "feisty felines" later in the evening. That phrase caught their ear. "What's a feisty feline?" "Isn't a feline a cat?" Not wanting to dwell on the bustiers and pouty lips, I tried lamely to come up with examples from the kids' tv shows and books. Garfield, anyone? How about Crookshanks from the Harry Potter books? I floundered. Hayden is reading Bunnicula. I held up Chester, the cat from that book, as a cat with attitude. They all kind of looked at me blankly until five year old Ethan, lover of comic books and superheroes, said "I know! Catwoman! She's a feisty feline!" I was oddly pleased. Maybe because he so fully got the connotation and denotation of feisty or maybe, at least, because his example came from a book and not a lounge act.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Happy Birthday, Aidan!

I have one nephew who is also my godson. He is funny, athletic, smart, kind, enthusiastic, sometimes silly, and always a joy to know. Today is his ninth birthday. I gave him a few books at his christening with a note saying that I planned to give him one hundred books by his tenth birthday. So far I've given him 87. (I have a list to keep track.) Here are a few of my favorite titles from the last nine years:
  • Mr. Brown Can Moo
  • Wrapping Paper Romp
  • Z is for Zamboni
  • Flat Stanley
  • Toilets, Telephones, and Other Useful Inventions
  • The Legend of Spud Murphy

I don't know for sure what books I'm going to include with his birthday gift this year. Luckily, I have a nine year old of my own to advise me as I shop. What I do know is that it's been awfully fun knowing this great kid for the last nine years!

Monday, August 25, 2008

State Plate Count

As you know if you read this blog, we packed our license plate book, along with towels, bathing suits, clean clothes, and an unnecessary number of stuffed animals, and headed on vacation a little more than a week ago. The license plate book really did give the road trip some fun and facts. If you have been waiting for the final plate count (and if you have been, I'm going to assume you are someone who likes to watch paint dry and grass grow), our total was 35. We won't count Canadian provinces. No offense to our Canadian readers. We are most proud of spotting an Alaska, but Washington state was quite a coup for us as well. Keep on truckin'!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Weighing In on The Water Horse (to page 72)

We came home from yesterday with a few more chapters of Dick King-Smith's The Water Horse read. It has kept everyone's interest. In fact, we gained another listener in a nine year old family friend who was in Maine with us. The strange egg has hatched into a water horse (like a little Loch Ness monster). He is very hungry and growing everyday. Kirstie and her family must transfer him, first to their goldfish pond and then to the lochan (little lake). We have learned about otters, herons, omnivores, carnivores, and useful sailor phrases. So far, so good.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

We Love This Guy

While reading Roald Dahl's Mathilda last week, my eight year old daughter said, "I love this guy!" I asked to which character she was referring. She replied, "The author." Millions of fans of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, and James and the Giant Peach agree.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Keeping it in the Water

Our nightly ritual of reading a book aloud together has fallen off lately. I'm still reading a picture book to Ethan before bed each evening while the older kids read to themselves in bed, but since we finished Little House in the Big Woods, we haven't started a new book together. Summer activities that run until bedtime, and now the Michael Phelps-a-thon, that is the Olympics, have otherwise occupied us. The older kids have been asking when I would read to them again, so I decided to pick something short and hopefully interesting.
Last night (in the twenty minutes before the prime time Olympic coverage began), we met on my bed and began Dick King-Smith's The Water Horse. I know it was released as a movie last year, but we never saw it. So far we know that it is set by the sea in Scotland in 1930. A girl named Kirstie and her younger brother Angus find something like a giant mermaid's purse washed up on shore and bring it home to their bathtub to see if it will hatch. With mystery and water and well drawn characters, all three kids are hooked and looking forward to tonight's installment.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Fifty Nifty United Plates

The Burt family heads off another road trip soon, this time to Cape Cod. We will have the ultimate roadtrip book with us. No, it's not Kerouac or an atlas or AAA guide: it's a spiral bound book of reproductions of United States license plates. Each state plate is represented with facts and trivia on the back. This book is perfect for us as the kids try to "collect" or spot as many different state plates as they can during our vacation. We have gotten as many as forty on one trip. There are some elusive states we have not yet bagged, such as Hawaii and Alaska, but you should hear the car go wild when we spot a plate which comes from a state far from our home in New Jersey. ("Wisconsin" Is that a Wisconsin? Yes! Yes! America's Dairyland! Write it on the list!") So we're nerdy; I've come to terms with it.
About four years ago, we bought Paul Beatrice's Nifty Plates from the Fifty States for our oldest son. It was an instant hit and taught us all some interesting state trivia. Sadly, after many car trips, it eventually fell apart. That happens to well-loved books. At a Scholastic Book Fair this winter, I bought a replacement called Fifty State Plates Fun Travel Trivia and Quizzes. It follows the same spiral bound format of license plates printed on coated heavy stock paper. It will be the first thing my son packs for our upcoming trip and frequently consulted throughout. If you are on the highway in the next few weeks and a minivan seems to be riding up tight on your bumper with adults squinting to read your license plate and children flipping frantically through a little book, wave hello.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Books for the First Day of Kindergarten

I'm sending my third child off to kindergarten this September. There are tons of books out there about the first day of school/kindergarten. Some are good; most are junk. These are our family's favorites:
  • Lily's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes. I love everything by this author, and he has some great books that deal with school experiences. While not specifically about beginning kindergarten, this one in particular honestly shows that not every day in school will be happy happy joy joy-perfect, but teachers and parents can help with problems, and school can be a very good place.
  • The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn. My sister-in-law who is a thoughtful and creative elementary school teacher herself gave this book to my oldest son before he began nursery school. We have reread it countless times. It is a good read for the beginning of a new school year or anytime a young child is sad or anxious about separating from home.
  • Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slade. The text is fast paced and the details of Miss Bindergarten's classroom are fun for children to keep an eye on. There are other Miss Bindergarten books as well.
  • Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus by Barbara Park. I bought this one, again for my oldest, to get ready for riding a school bus. Little did I know it would usher in the age of chapter books in our house. While controversy surrounds Junie B's less than perfect grammar among parents and educators, kids love her. She gets herself into some funny and wild situations. My kids all knew that, no matter what their worries, their first day of kindergarten could never go as badly as Junie B.'s

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Momentous Occasion

Five year old Ethan obtained his first ever library card today! He signed his name on the required lines with a very serious face. He broke into a huge grin when the card was issued to him, and when it was time to check out his books, he slapped it onto the counter like it was a Visa Platinum card. Let the record show that the first books charged to his card were Geronimo Stilton: The Mysterious Cheese Thief and Geronimo Stilton: It's Halloween, You 'Fraidy Mouse.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Alien Abduction!

One day last week, as my children and I drove from errand to errand, it was nothing but the constant kvetch I hear in my sleep and will most likely still hear in the grave: "It's not fair!" That particular day's injustice was that my daughter went to see WALL-E in the movie theater with a friend several weeks earlier and my sons still haven't been to see it. "It's not fair. It's probably going to be gone from the theaters soon! You promised. Wah! Wah! Wah!" Soon after I loudly declared something along the lines of "tough luck," we were in a Borders bookstore picking up a present. I must have zoned out in the cookbook section and someone abducted my sons and replaced them with alien mutant android clones! There is no other explanation for what I heard the older one say. "This is even better! Mom, can we buy this WALL-E book? I promise I'll read it to Ethan." Can we? For $3.99, I bought the book, ended the kvetching (that day's at least), and saved probably 30 bucks and 3,000 calories in admission and buttered popcorn. It's more than 72 hours later and the alien clone boy is finished with the book and willing to settle for renting the movie when it shows up at Blockbuster.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Conversation Starter

While on vacation last month, I read and enjoyed Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl. Since then I picked up Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident, and I'm enjoying it even more. What is really interesting and pleasant about these books is how it they work as a magnet for ten to fifteen year olds. This demographic doesn't (in my experience) generally strike up conversations with women my age. However, in the past few weeks, as I've sat at swim meets, our local lake, and our library reading it, kids of that age group, seeing the cover, have felt compelled to say things like, "Isn't that a great book" and "You should read the next one." A ten year old girl struck up a conversation with me today after seeing the book poking out of my bag. She highly recommends that I read Artemis Fowl: The Lost Colony. I have to say that as much as I have enjoyed the humor, action, and characters in these books, I've enjoyed these interactions with random kids as much or more. Who knew?!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Enter Horrorland

A movie came out in the 1970's called "Magic." I never saw it. I never want to. The creepy commercials featuring a scary ventriloquist's dummy were more than enough for me, thank you very much. In fact, those commercials alone made me really weirded out by the idea of toys, puppets, and playthings coming to life. Obviously, I'm no fan of "Gremlins" or Chuckie. So, it was hard for me several months ago to go along with my nine year old son's purchase of Revenge of the Living Dummy, the first in R.L.Stine's new Goosebumps Horrorland series. The cover depicts a red-eyed demonic looking ventriloquist's dummy beckoning the viewer into a haunted amusement park. When Aaron was reading it back in the spring and would leave it lying around the house, I would flip it over to avoid looking at the illustration. The blurb on the back cover isn't much better: "STARE INTO THE WOODEN FACE OF FEAR!" Interestingly, these books don't scare my son or my eight year old daughter. They haven't inspired any nightmares or phobias (in my kids at least).
Am I a bad mother for allowing my son to read a series of books that a generally brave adult (me) can't face? Well, if I am a bad mother, at least I'm not alone in it. R.L.Stine has cranked out dozens of his horror fiction books for children since the 1990's. They've been selling like scary hotcakes ever since. The Goosebumps series also spawned board games, a television series, and websites (the latest is The books combine science fiction and horror, often with "Twilight Zone" like twist endings. They often make references to those genres of literature and film, especially in the titles. For example, The Night of the Living Dummy puts one in mind of The Night of the Living Dead. The antagonist of that book, Slappy the Dummy, comes back for R.L.Stine's current Horrorland series. Horrorland is a theme park Stine describes as "the scariest place on Earth." Why a reader would want to go there, I cannot fathom, but my son does. Today he bought the fourth book in the series, The Scream of the Haunted Mask. Luckily, possessed masks don't creep me out quite as much as possessed dummies do.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Sweet Ghost Story-Pun Intended

Ever since my mom first read Wende and Harry Devlin's Cranberry Thanksgiving to me in about 1975, I've been a sucker for kid's books with recipes. I still make "Grandmother's Famous Cranberry Bread" from that book every Thanksgiving and Christmas. So of course I picked up The Bake Shop Ghost, written by Jacqueline K. Ogburn and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, when it showed up on the new book shelf of my library's children's section. It has a great story and ends with a recipe for "Ghost Pleasing Chocolate Cake."
The book tells the story of Cora Lee Merriweather, a bakeshop owner with a severe hairstyle and lemon-pucker mouth but a talent for baking the best cakes and pies around. The lists of baked goods make for delightful reading, as in: "Few looked up from the glass-fronted cases filled with fluffy meringue pies, glistening fruit tarts, flaky strudels, and most of all, cakes. Layer cakes, sheet cakes, cakes with glazes, cakes with fillings, cakes with frosting finer than Irish lace, chocolate cakes, white cakes, tiny petit fours, and towering wedding cakes." The Bakeshop Ghost is not all just menu; it has a good plot as well. Cora Lee Merriweather dies and haunts the bakery, vandalizing it and driving out all new owners until plucky pastry chef Annie Washington takes over the shop and sets about winning over the ghost. The illustrations really convey the action of the story as well as the delicious baked goods.
We are all looking forward trying out the recipe for "Ghost-Pleasing Chocolate Cake" and we hope it becomes a family favorite like our beloved cranberry bread.
Warning: This book will make you hungry!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Of Books and Blueberries

We just returned from a perfectly relaxing week of vacation in Maine. We sailed our little boat, caught (and released) fish and frogs, swam, read lots of books, and generally loafed around. As you can see from the photos, we went blueberry picking as well. One thing that concerns me about my children's lives is how far removed they are from the production of the foods they eat. Most of their food experiences would lead them to believe that it just shows up at the grocery store, wrapped in plastic. So my husband and I have had a little vegetable garden in the backyard and we take them apple and pumpkin picking each fall, but I think the best thing we've done is to incorporate learning about local agriculture into our family vacations. For example, we have had the great good fortune to tag along with my father-in-law as he tends his oysters and clams on Cape Cod. We spent one of the best afternoons ever working on board The Lucky Catch lobster boat in Portland, Maine two summers ago, and this year we spent a few hours on a hill in Maine picking low bush wild blueberries. The hill looked just like Blueberry Hill in one of the most perfect picture books ever written, Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal. After we picked our pound of berries, and, like Sal, ate a good many more, we went home and baked them in coffee cake, sprinkled them on vanilla ice cream, and read Blueberries for Sal. We went on to read McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings as well. What could be better? By the way, the blueberries are full of antioxidants and only cost one dollar for the pound! Get out there and support local agriculture wherever you find yourself.

A Reason to Read Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal