Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What to Read After the First Snowfall of the Year

It snowed here in northwestern New Jersey yesterday. The first snowfall of each year is, of course, the most magical one. It begs twirling and touching, and leaning one's head back with a tongue out for collecting flakes. The first snowfall of the year reminds us that miracles and mysteries are happening in the sky. Subsequent snowstorms, at least for adults, are more about shoveling than sharing. In our family, we love a beautiful and inspiring picture book called Snowflake Bentley, which captures the wonder of snow. This Caldecott medal winning book written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated with woodcuts by Mary Azarian, tells the story of Wilson Bentley. He was born in Vermont in 1865, and in the author's words, "Willie Bentley's happiest days were snowstorm days. He watched snowflakes fall on his mittens, on the dried grass of Vermont farm fields, on the dark metal handle of the barn door. He said snow was as beautiful as butterflies or apple blossoms." As a boy, Bentley observed snowflakes under an old microscope and drew scores of snow crystals. Often the crystals melted before he could record them. As a teenager, he longed for a camera with its own microscope. Part of the beauty of this book is its illustrations, part is Bentley's enthusiasm, and a great part is the fact that his dairy farming parents spent their savings to help him buy that camera. Over the years and with much experimentation, Bentley was able to make hundreds of pictures of snow crystals even though his Vermont neighbors laughed at the idea of photographing something so common. Though he never became wealthy, in his lifetime he did publish a book of his photographs and receive recognition from scientists for his contributions. It was he who revealed the hexagonal shape and infinite possibility of designs in snowflakes. Snowflake Bentley is the perfect book to read once warm inside after enjoying the first snowfall of the year. It's also ideal in any season to encourage children to follow their passions and interests.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Burt Family Pumpkins Revisited

If you think the pumpkins look happy to be out in October snow, you should see their carvers!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Burt Family Pumpkins 2008

A Natural Progression

For years the most popular Halloween book in my house was Five Little Pumpkins, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino. This wonderful board book has very simple text, the popular rhyme which begins, "Five little pumpkins sitting on a gate. The first one said, "Oh my, it's getting late." We hear what each pumpkin has to say until, "Ooooooooo went the wind and out went the light. And the five little pumpkins rolled out of sight." It is great in so many ways, from the bold illustrations to the counting skills involved. No wonder my kids have loved it for years. But they are older now. Ghost stories and chapter books have entered the picture. They have also discovered Extreme Pumpkins and Extreme Pumpkins II by Tom Nardone. Even though my five year old thinks they are fabulous, I do not recommend these for very young children. The creativity and gross-out factor will appeal to older kids however. The books include "Diabolical do-it-yourself designs to amuse your friends and scare your neighbors." Some of the pumpkins are creepy, some are funny, like the peeing baby pumpkin, and some are gross, such as the puking pumpkin. Nardone has also put together a great website, that is fun to explore. We consulted it before carving our own family jack o'lanterns last night. While my boys especially enjoyed a creation that looked like a guy "chucking a moon" as we used to say, I'm relieved to report that they ended up drawing more traditional faces on their own pumpkins, perhaps inspired by all of our many readings of Five Little Pumpkins over the years.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Is Stephen Colbert Reading TheBookBench?

Last night on The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert read from a Richard Scary book and mentioned Paddington Bear! That's my kind of political satire. Although he was even more brilliant earlier in October pointing out "parallels" between Obama and Hamlet and McCain and Macbeth (Macmaverick) with Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean scholar and author of Will in the World. It's on YouTube and worth the search.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Why I Am Jealous Of My Children And May Be Kicked Out of Oprah's Book Club

I have been reading David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. It has gotten some very good reviews and is Oprah's current book club selection. That means it was sold at 40% off on a day I happened to have a gift card to my local bookstore. I'm a sucker for a little buzz and a big discount, so I bought it. It's a good book, but I've been finding it a little slow going. My daughter, on the other hand, is flying through Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy. She's been reading it in bed and at the bus stop. She took it into the bathtub the other night. On her recommendation, my son is reading and loving Roald Dahl's Matilda. He is having fun retelling the funny bits to me, and there are quite a few of them. We all get a kick out of the name of Matilda's school headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. So of course I'm envious of my children with their juicy, engrossing books, or at least I was until Sunday afternoon. On Sunday, I picked up a copy of Trenton Lee Stewart's The Mysterious Benedict Society. Holy cow, this book is awesome! I intended to save it as our next nighttime read aloud book, but couldn't resist reading just a few pages. I cannot put it down. I'm halfway through it. Last night my daughter woke up around 11 and came into my bedroom where I was reading it and said in an accusatory voice,"I thought you were going to wait to read it with us!" Look who's jealous now!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Christmas in October

While shopping for candy corns in Target two weeks ago, my boys started shouting, "Look! Look at the light-up reindeer!" That made no sense, as it was early October and I was standing next to Halloween costumes, but I followed the sound of their voices (not a difficult task), and what to my wondering eyes should appear but Christmas decorations. There was a story about this phenomena on the news that weekend. It seems the marketing people have pushed the Christmas merchandise out early in an attempt to deal with the situation of the American economy being so deep in the toilet. What's good enough for the people at Target is good enough for me. I'm not even trying to sell anything; I'm just going to tell you about some lovely Christmas books.
As I'm sure you know, there are hundreds of holiday board, picture, and chapter books in print. I kind of love them all because they combine two delicious acts, anticipation with reading, often with good illustrations. Perhaps my favorite Christmas book of recent years is my favorite because of its gorgeous illustrations, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, illustrated by P.J. Lynch and written by Susan Wojciechowski. I read it to my children at Christmas, and they love it, so last year I read it to the fourth grade CCD class I teach, and my students hung on every word and wanted to discuss the plot and pictures long after I was done reading. It tells the story of a widow and her son who come to ask a woodcarver, Jonathan Toomey, to carve a new creche for them. It is the kind of book that you read and immediately think of people to whom you will give it as a gift.
So you can imagine how thrilled I was to learn that P.J. Lynch has illustrated another holiday classic, O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi. We all know the story of the married couple Della and Jim who sell their most prized possessions in order to afford Christmas presents for each other. She sells her hair to buy a chain for his pocket watch, and he sells his pocket watch to buy combs for her hair. This story is taught in so many English and writing classes. I think this version would be particularly nice for high school students to visualize the time and place. Lynch's warm illustrations bring their humble flat and turn of the century New York City to life.
Finally, I'll mention the book I plan to give my eleven year old niece at Christmas. It is not a Christmas book and it's not illustrated by P.J. Lynch, but I'm going to tell you about it anyway as it does relate to my Christmas shopping. It is Patricia Reilly Giff's Nory Ryan's Song about the Great Hunger of 1845-1852 in Ireland. This fictional account of a twelve year old girl and her family's love and suffering is well written and moving. Written for a middle school and young adult audience, the book condenses time a bit and clearly explains the situation of the potato blight and English rule without ever getting pedantic.
Now that I've given you some holiday books to think about, and there will be more in the weeks to come, get back to carving your jack o'lanterns!

Monday, October 20, 2008

This Hockey Mom's List of Hockey Books

The NHL season is on, college hockey starts soon, my nine year old son's squirt level hockey team has its first league game of the season this Saturday, and hockey moms are all over the news lately, hence this list. These are five hockey books we enjoy:

1. Z is for Zamboni: A Hockey Alphabet This is a wonderfully illustrated alphabet book with rhymes for each letter, such as "Puck begins with the letter P black rubber to the core. It's what the players try to shoot past the red goal line to score." For older readers there is much sidebar information on the history, rules, and culture of the game.

2. Hockey in Action by Niki Walker and Sarah Dann is part of the Sports in Action series which is an easy to follow primer on the sport of ice hockey, suitable for elementary school age readers.

3. Hockey for Dummies by John Davidson with John Steinbreder. You've seen the For Dummies series with their distinctive yellow and black covers. I have found this to be a very useful reference book on a sport that I had little experience with before my child began playing it. My children do wonder why someone would carry around a book that advertises its holder is a dummy.

4. and 5. Ice Magic and Wingman on Ice by Matt Christopher. These sports chapter books are great for second through fifth graders interested in sports in general or hockey in particular.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Where Are The Deer?

I woke up this morning to seven deer munching on my back lawn. I stood at my kitchen window for a few minutes before one lifted her head and seemed to look right at me. She had a great big yellow leaf stuck to the side of her mouth. She put her head down, munched a little more, and looked up again. The leaf was still on her face. If it were a group of seven dogs, I totally could have imagined one of her companions to be like, "Betty, you got a little something" and indicate her face. None of the deer did, even in my imagination. Which is why when I mentioned anthropomorphism and children's books, I didn't have any examples of deer as protagonists. Lots of dogs, cats, bears, monkeys, turtles, and other animals came to mind, but no deer other than Rudolph.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bear Share

After writing about Paddington for a few days, I asked my children what other books about bears they like. Why should I have to do all the work here? I was surprised how enthusiastic they were on the topic. Hands down, Don Freeman's Corduroy is their favorite. That pleases me no end because I love an old school literary character. Thank heavens they didn't choose some robot bear or something, leaving me in despair over their taste! Here are some of their other selections.
Board Books
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See by Bill Martin, Jr. and illustrated by Eric Carle. You can't go wrong with these two collaborators. In fact, this book my now be required reading for any child entering kindergarten in the US.
We're Going on A Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. I could go for the cliche here and wish for a nickel for every time I've read this to my kids. I'd be loaded. I could also go for the nostalgic and reminisce about doing this chant on a hayride with my mom when I was about four years old, "We're going on a bear hunt. We're going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day! We're not scared."
Moonbear's Canoe by Frank Asch. This is great for toddlers. They love all the different animals who squeeze into Moonbear's canoe and the funny ending gets a laugh every time.
Jamberry by Bruce Degen isn't necessarily about a bear, but features one prominently in this joyful rhyming board book.
Picture Books
You're All My Favorites by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram is a must-have for any household with more than one child. The creators of Guess How Much I Love You use a a bear family with three children to beautifully and wisely answer the question "Which one do you love best?"
Bear Wants More written by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Jane Chapman. All three of my kids cited the illustrations as the best part of this book.
Nonfiction Picture Book
Knut: How One Little Bear Captivated the World by Craig Hatkoff, Juliana Hatkoff, Isabella Hatkoff and Dr. Gerald R. Ulrich. I defy you not to say "Awl" out loud at least three times while looking at the photographs in this fantastic book about a polar bear cub born at the Berlin Zoo!
Do you have a favorite bear book or character? Share your bear in the comments!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Paddington's Appeal

We had another enjoyable installment of Michael Bond's A Bear Called Paddington last night. My kids are so into it that I've been trying to pin down exactly what his appeal is. The book has slapstick humor and fish out of water situations which are always popular with children, but it is Paddington himself who is the real draw here. He is an outsider who tries hard but never quite fits in, he's always hungry, has good intentions but is often misunderstood. Who among us can't relate to that? Plus, he's a bear. Bears are cute. And, he's a bear. I think anthropomorphism in children's literature is a good thing. I remember back in graduate school disagreeing with a classmate who said she was sick of all the talking animals in kids books. That was before I had children of my own. I feel more strongly about it now that I've seen them fall in love with so many "talking animals." I think when characters in kids books are animals who think and feel as kids do but don't look like any real kid, all kids can relate to them. In my opinion that is the reason Marc Brown's Arthur series is so successful. Arthur isn't black, white, Asian, Latino, or other. He's an aardvark who faces many conflicts and decisions real children do. He's everyboy. Similarly, we all, adults and children, can identify with Paddington.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Bear Called Paddington

My husband came home from work last evening and told the kids that he had read on the internet that Paddington is 50 years old. He mentioned this beacuause Michael Bond's A Bear Called Paddington is our family's current nighttime read aloud book. We are all greatly enjoying it. Aaron read it independently last year in third grade and I last read it about thirty years ago. Let me say, this well mannered bear from "darkest Peru" stands the test of time. I find myself explaining Londonisms (the Underground, big red buses, sixpence- England wasn't on the euro fifty years ago either) more than historical points. In case you are unfamiliar with the story of Paddington, the Brown family of London find him on a railway platform in Paddington station, carrying an old suitcase and wearing a tag around his neck that reads, "Please look after this bear. Thank you." His Aunt Lucy has entered a home for retired bears and made him emigrate from darkest Peru. The Browns welcome Paddington into their household which includes a son and daughter and a serious housekeeper, Mrs. Bird, who fortunately has a soft spot for bears. Paddington's optimism and good manners, coupled with his love of marmalade and curiosity, lead to all manner of sticky and humorous situations. This book is satisfying a wide range of ages in our family, from five to upper thirties. I must warn anyone planning to read it aloud, this book will put your British accents to the test. I have been accused of recycling my Professor McGonagall (from Harry Potter) for Mrs. Bird. My cockney taxi driver, on the other hand, was roundly praised, but I think the credit belongs more to the author than my delivery of his price quote, "Bears is sixpence extra," he said, gruffly. "Sticky bears is ninepence!"

Monday, October 13, 2008

Another Kind of Weekend

The boys in our family returned from their testosterone-fueled weekend in Maine last night. Five year old Ethan walked in the door, pumped both fists in the air, and announced, "I used the chainsaw and shot Uncle Andrew's BB gun!" I can't say I'm sorry I missed that. After many stories about working and painting, eating chili and wrestling, my older son Aaron reported that it had been a good idea to pack You Gotta Be Kidding!, his treasured book of "Would you rather..." questions (previously mentioned in my June 5 and 6, 2008 posts). He now knows if his uncles and cousins would rather eat a hair sandwich or an earwax omelet. He knows who would prefer 20 pounds of seagull poop on their head to a camel spitting all over them if forced to choose. Good manly fun!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Girls Gone Mild

My husband and sons spent the weekend in Maine, and my daughter and I spent the weekend in nerdy, egg headed, old ladyish bliss. After her soccer game on Friday night, we took long hot bubbly baths, donned fuzzy pajamas, and met in my bed for a few hours of reading with an enormous bowl of buttered popcorn between us. Hayden read and thoroughly enjoyed the classic The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden. I finished my book club's selection for this month, Jennifer Cody Epstein's The Painter from Shanghai.
On Saturday we hit the town wide garage sales on a successful mission for Roald Dahl books. Hayden purchased Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and George's Marvelous Medicine for fifty cents apiece. We played Scrabble in the afternoon. Dunce, oxen, and haters were the highest point earning words of the match.
I fear all of these wonderful but spinster-like activities may have unnaturally accelerated the aging process in Hayden. She did have a girlfriend over to watch High School Musical and spend the night on Saturday evening. With any luck that reversed the process in her and she won't head off to the third grade on Monday with a wad of extra tissues in her cardigan sleeve "just in case" and a line of stray cats behind her!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Books About Apples

We spent several hours yesterday picking apples at the beautiful Pennings Orchard in Warwick, NY. The weather was perfect, the view of the fall foliage was stunning, and the apples were crisply scrumptious. I wish I could share some of my apple pie with you, but that doesn't really work via blog. Instead, I've included a photo of some of our massive bag of apples and a selection of a few of our favorite apple books. There are dozens of apple books to choose from. Apples show up frequently in preschool and primary grade science lessons as well as in library story hours, so we've been exposed to a great number of apple picture books over the last few years .The Apple Pie Tree, written by Zoe Hall and illustrated by Shari Halpern, is ideal for children from preschool to grade two. Its text and paint and paper collage illustrations follow two siblings following the cycle of an apple tree over the course of a year. The book includes the contributions of bees and weather, the family of robins who nest in the tree, and a delicious apple pie at the end. Nancy Elizabeth Wallace's Apple, Apples, Apples is another charmingly illustrated picture book introducing young children to the science of apples. Wallace's Leave! Leaves! Leaves! and Pumpkin Day are worth checking out during the fall as well. For slightly older children, I highly recommend How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World by Marjorie Priceman. In it, a young baker considers how to gather up ingredients for an apple pie if the market is closed. It will involve taking various modes of transportation to get to Italy for the semolina wheat, Sri Lanka for cinnamon, Vermont for apples, Jamaica for sugar cane and so on. It is a lovely combination of geography and whimsy that shows readers that our food doesn't just magically appear, shrink wrapped in plastic, in our grocery store. (As you might remember from my Aug. 4 post "Of Books and Blueberries," this is an issue for me.)
For second through fifth graders, here's a book that we use throughout the year, not just during apple season, in my house. Apple Fractions by Jerry Pallotta and illustrated by Rob Bolster enlists adorable elves to divide different types of apples into fractions. Some interesting apple facts are presented along with a math lesson in fractions. For example, on two facing pages showing the elves dividing up a Gala apple into five equal parts, using miniature wooden tools, the text treads, "A Gala is a medium-sized apple. It is about the size of your fist. The largest apples are as big as grapefruits. The smallest are the size of cherries. This Gala is cut into five equal pieces. Each piece is one-fifth. One fifth plus four-fifths equals five-fifths. When the numbers above and below the line are the same, the fraction equals one whole."
Finally, the award for best children's book with apple in the title goes to Deborah Hopkinson's Apples to Oregon: Being the (Slightly) True Narrative of How a Brave Pioneer Father Brought Apples, Peaches, Pears, Plums, Grapes, and Cherries (and Children) Across the Plains. And don't forget that there are literally dozens of books at all levels from easy reader to young adult about Johnny Appleseed. How about them apples?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Say Cheese

We survived school picture day this week! All three kids got onto the school bus in clean, relatively wrinkle-free, decent clothing. Nobody fell in the mud, ripping his pants and muddying his hands while running for the bus like last year. Nobody broke eyeglasses the morning of the picture this year. My daughter did get off the afternoon bus grumbling, "Why did I have to bother wearing a skirt? I stood in the second row." Apparently skirts hinder her monkey bar fun at recess. It occurred to me that school picture day is a rich mine of conflict and comedy. Surprisingly few children's book authors go there. With kids' obsession with missing teeth, parents' obsession with looks and good hair days, and the struggle over wardrobe in many households, there's a lot to write about. Our family has enjoyed Barbara Park's Junie B. Jones Has A Monster Under Her Bed in which Junie B. cleverly places her bad school picture under her bed to frighten away the monster she fears lives under there. So many of the Junie B. books ingeniously deal with school situations that can be stressful for kids.David Shannon's picture book David Gets in Trouble doesn't go into much detail about picture day but includes one fantastic two page spread illustration of young David's class picture. David is the one crossing his eyes and making a goofy face along with the words, "I couldn't help it!" This is a book that always makes us giggle, but hopefully won't give my youngest any ideas! Three other picture books/easy readers I found on the topic are
Class Picture Day by Andrea Buckless
Mrs. Toggle's Class Picture Day by Robin Pulver (deals with the teacher's bad hair day)
School Picture Day by Lynn Plourde

In case you are wondering, I am in the middle row, second student from the left in the picture above.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Signs of Fall:Flag Football and Soft Core Porn in the Mail

Thebookbench is inspired by what my family is reading. I have tested the limits of that in the past by including the ingredients list of a SlimJims package as reading material. I hope catalogues count. Here goes.
Saturday afternoon was a piece of autumnal perfection here in New Jersey. My family happily spent it at five year old Ethan's first flag football practice. As soon as we arrived, Ethan ran onto the field and nine year old Aaron found another kid his age with whom to play in the nearby woods. Our eight year old daughter Hayden saw two girlfriends at a picnic table and hung out with them while Bill and I were able to enjoy the football from the bleachers. Ahhh, peaceful. Hayden came over to us after about twenty minutes. We asked her what she had been up to. She answered that she and the girls had been picking out their favorite costumes from a Party City catalogue that arrived in the mail that morning. Bill and I gave her the absent minded "Oh, that's nice." We focused on the football. She continued to flip through the catalogue. Hayden asked us some question about what she was reading. Surprise took so over my brain that I can't remember the specifics, but it was something like, "What's the difference between a pirate and a pirate wench?" or maybe it was "Why is this nurse named Hot Flash?" I do recall that it prompted me and Bill to simultaneously say, "Let me see that," perhaps with different intentions. Trust me, I wrestled, I mean got to it, first. While toddlers, boys, girls, and men each had about two pages of costumes, four plus pages were devoted to the Adult Female category. And I mean adult in the adult bookstore sense of adult. Since when did Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, firefighters, and "Straight A Students" all start wearing micro miniskirts, push up bras, and thigh high stockings? Hayden questioned why referees would wear high heel shoes and super short shorts. You don't see many NFL game officials showing that much skin, well, at least not in Green Bay. I'm all for women, and men for that matter, feeling attractive and having fun with a little dress up if they want. Although let me point out that there were no sexy male costumes, just goofy or ghoulish ones. My problem here is that these supersexualized images arrived in my mailbox and in a deceptive way. The cover of the Party City mailing does not have Treasure Pirate, Joy Rider, and the other girls on it. Instead, it looks like it is going to open up into a catalogue full of family friendly Halloween costumes.
Back to the football field. Once Bill and I established that our daughter and her friends had spent most of their time choosing from the Girl and Teen Girl sections (one wants to be Gabriella from High School Musical, one a skeleton, and one a Glam Witch), we sent Hayden into the woods to play with her older brother sans catalogue. Despite the bears, we figured there would be less trouble there. I should just be happy Hayden only looked at Party City's print catalogue and not their website version which includes zoom and 360 degree view features, more pouting, and sexier posing. On the one hand, it bothers me that I have to think twice before sending my kids to bring in the mail. On the other hand, maybe this is all just sour grapes on my part. I thought I had prepared to dress up as my husband's fantasy this Halloween. After all, I've got a comfortable Starbucks hat and apron waiting in the closet. I guess I'm going to have to tart them up somehow. Where oh where will I find bright green thigh high stiletto boots?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Thanks for Sharing!

Voting has closed on the first official thebookbench poll. Thanks to the six of you who voted! Four of you are more likely to read a book based on a recommendation from a friend and two of you base your book selections more on a written review. We need to work on voter turnout here. Speaking of opinions, several of my friends have responded to my American Girl Doll post of October 2 (alas, only verbally and not in the comments of the blog.) Their responses fall into two basic types: a) I agree. Don't you just love American Girl? and b) What in the name of Gloria Steinem are you doing pushing more dolls on girls? Thanks to all who have shared their opinions with me this week!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist

For several weeks now I've been seeing movie trailers for Nick&Norah's Infinite Playlist opening October 3. It stars Michael Cera as Nick and looks like a movie I would have loved as a teenager but probably don't have the patience for now. That is how I felt about the book it is based on as well. I decided to read the book before the film's release. In the young adult novel with the same title, Nick is a teenage bass player in a queercore punk band and Norah is a Manhattan-music scene loving teenager from a wealthy New Jersey suburb. Nick is still mooning over his ex-girlfriend and Norah over an ex boyfriend. The two are thrown together on a first date of sorts that lasts all night and wanders all over Manhattan. The book, coauthored by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, captures Nick and Norah's love of hard, fast, angry punk music as well as their obsession with and dissection of their own emotions. How is this for post-breakup teen angst, "I think Tris will like this band, and the fact that I know this stabs me again, because all the knowledge of what she likes is perfectly useless now." I think many teen readers can relate. I would caution that the book is more for high school juniors and seniors as it hits the ground running with foul language and sexually explicit topics and never slows down. I'm curious to see the movie's reviews. At least from the trailers I've seen, it appears to be going more for laughs than heartstrings. I imagine Michael Cera will be a big draw as well. Didn't you just want to bring him home after Superbad and Juno?

Michael Cera's sweetness aside, my recommendation for a more grownup movie about relationships and music (in this case mix tapes, remember those?) would be High Fidelity starring John Cusack. Or even better, read the Nick Hornby novel from which it was adapted. I take that back, read the book and see the movie. Jack Black is not to be missed in it. Speaking of mix tapes and books, I also really enjoyed the very poignant Love is a Mix Tape:Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Christine's Money Saving American Girl Doll Tips

1. Check the books out from your library.

2. Individual and boxed sets of the books can be found at

3. Hit garage sales for clothes and accessories.

4. If you decide to go to the American Girl Doll Place and share a meal with the girl in your life and the doll in hers, go for afternoon tea. It's the most budget-friendly and so fancy!

American Girl Dolls: Not Just Tea Parties and Hairdos

Several weeks ago, my husband Bill went into my daughter's room to tuck her in at bedtime and was alarmed to find her weeping. It turns out she was reading Meet Addy, one of the American Girl Doll Collection books. The main character is Addy Walker, an African American girl living in 1864, whose family has been separated by slavery. Hayden loved the book and was moved to tears by it. Bill does not get that; I totally do. Maybe it's a girl thing. The next day I downloaded a picture of Addy and knew I would blog about the incident sometime soon, but then we had a more intriguing American Girl Doll book moment that has been buzzing in my head ever since.

Bill and I have been trying to explain the economic situation our country is currently in to our children. It's no easy task. I'm finding it extremely challenging explaining the bailout plan. They listen to the news from time to time. The older kids have asked about the banks going under and the devastating hits the stock market has taken. At some point, either Bill or I mentioned people losing confidence in financial institutions. A light bulb turned on. Eight year old Hayden said it's like the Great Depression when people tried to buy things on credit and many lost their homes. She also understood how stock and other investments lost their value. Yes!, but how did she know about that? "From my Kit Kittredge American Girl Doll books."

American Girl is a line of dolls, accessories, and books based on pre-teen girl characters from various periods in American history. They were first sold in 1986, and according to Wikipedia (I know, I know), 14 million American Girl dolls and 123 million books about them have been sold since. I have some experience with these dolls. My daughter owns Samantha Parkington (1904) and Bill's cousin brought Kirsten Larson (1854) as a guest to our wedding back in 1997. We have read many of the books that feature the American Girls. Each book includes a few pages of historical background about its heroine's time period. Hayden all but devours these books.My sons have no interest in the fiction part, but enjoy those back pages. They especially want to know were there cars at that time, and if so, what did they look like. The Molly Mc Intire (1944) books gave them a much better understanding of World War II and what life was like for their great grandparents during that time.

Back to Kit Kittredge (1934). While Hayden does not have this doll, she has the boxed set of six books about her (Thanks for giving it to her for Christmas, Mom!), and has apparently paid attention while reading them. As I said, she has some basic knowledge of the Depression. She was able to tell me that during that time, people recycled even though they didn't call it recycling. They used flour sacks and animal feed bags to make clothes and turned old clothes into quilts. She had also learned that many people lost their jobs and often went hungry. The entire Kit series, along with Molly, Felicity, and Josefina, was authored by Valerie Tripp who holds a Masters in Education degree from Harvard University. In an excellent article called "The Thinking Girl's Barbie?" (July 3, 2008) four women writers from Slate discuss American Girl Dolls and books. While they do worry some about the "training in consumerism" the dolls provide, they generally come down in favor of them. One goes so far as to describe the American Girl collection as "a history gateway drug." Hey, I'm all for getting girls hooked on history.

Here's my only big fear: That Republicans are going to mail Joe Biden Kit doll and book sets. Meet Kit makes it clear that Herbert Hoover was President of the United States until 1932 when FDR beat him by a landslide. However, Joe Biden seems like such a nice guy, I'm sure he'd pass them on to his grandkids or maybe Sasha and Malia Obama who I've read are American Girl doll fans themselves.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Here's A Little Trick I Picked Up At The Doctor's Office

One morning last week I had to pick my daughter up from school and bring her to the doctor's office. Her teacher had accidentally poked her in the eye. Normally, a long stretch of time in the waiting room sees Hayden reading a book or Highlights magazine and me furiously catching up on what's happening with Brad, Angelina, Britney and the rest of the gang in People magazine. However, since Hayden's eye was hurting from the poke and swelling from the subsequent crying, she asked me to read to her. The Hollywood scuttlebutt didn't seem appropriate, so I read to her from a parenting magazine, the kind with lots of ideas for crafts that I could never complete and healthy recipes my kids would laugh (or cry) at. Hayden is much craftier in the pipecleaner and glue sense than I am, so she loved it. We read the coolest article with camera tricks- easy but impressive ones. Our favorite recommends putting colored Post It notes in front of the flash of your camera and snapping for cool colored effects. We only have yellow Post Its at our house, but we have tons of flyers sent home from school printed on obnoxiously bright paper. Once home from the doctor and pharmacy, we cut a bunch of those flyers into little squares to tape in front of my camera's flash and got down to experimenting. My five year old, as you can see from the pictures, loved being our model. It helped us happily pass what could have been a miserable afternoon. We've got big plans to take some spooky Halloween pictures with our new trick.