Saturday, January 31, 2009

P.G. Wodehouse Anyone?

Have you ever read anything by P.G. Wodehouse, or Plum, as he was known to his friends? I have not. I was dimly aware that he was a British humorist, but that knowledge comes more from attempting crossword puzzles than from reading his works. For whatever reason, his name keeps popping up in my reading lately. First, he was mentioned in a kidlit blog I recently visited. According to the Daily Beast interview I mentioned here on Thursday, Daniel Radcliffe is currently reading a lot of Wodehouse, and in Life With My Sister Madonna by Christopher Ciccone (Hey, hey, hey, don't get all judgemental with me! I just finished Toni Morrison's A Mercy, and everyone knows that one Toni Morison or David McCulloch book completed entitles the reader to one free unauthorized celebrity biography. It's very similar to the mathematical equation that states that ten minutes read of The Economist in a doctor's waiting room =ten minutes with People or Us Weekly magazine.), Christopher Ciccone refers to himself as Jeeves to Madonna's Bertie Wooster, both Wodehouse characters, I believe. So, to those of you who answered yes at the beginning of this paragraph, should I read some Wodehouse, and if so, what?

Friday, January 30, 2009

D is for Dragon Dance on Foodie Friday

I am going to continue my celebration of the lunar new year by sharing a great little alphabet book, D is for Dragon Dance, written by Ying Chang Compestine and illustrated by Yongsheng Xuan. Some element of Chinese culture or the celebration of Chinese New Year is presented for each letter of the English alphabet, going from a for acrobats to z for zodiac. Most of them include a bit of explanation. For instance, it is explained that (R) red envelopes given to children contain good luck money. As with most cultural celebrations, food plays an important role in Chinese New Year. D is for Dragon Dance includes n for noodles, o for oranges, p for Peking duck, s for steamed dumplings, and two recipes at the end, one for dumplings and the other for soy garlic dipping sauce. This nicely illustrated and informative book would make an excellent addition to a preschool or kindergarten classroom where you often find collections of alphabet books.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Popularity of Orphan Lit Explained

Monday's Daily Beast included a great interview with Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who plays Harry Potter. The interviewer, Kevin Sessums, called Harry perhaps the most well known orphan in all of literature, and there is quite a genre of orphan literature. As you can tell from my effusive review yesterday, I am glad Ren of The Good Thief has joined ranks with Oliver Twist, Harry, Anne Shirley, and Pippi Longstocking. I've begun reading The Mysterious Benedict Society aloud to my kids at night. That too has an orphaned protagonist. Why have I fallen for so many orphans? I certainly never envied their circumstances. Daniel Radcliffe gives some insight by quoting James Carville of all people, who said that Americans love an underdog but hate a loser. As far as explanations go, that works for me.

Don't Make Me Drive to Punxsatawney!

I am so over winter! My kids had another snow day yesterday. It was one more day of supply and demand issues (it seems only one of our three sleds goes really fast), complaints about tight, wet boots and itchy hats, and general cabin fever. On top of all that, the kids wanted me to teach them how to play a new board game that happens to have about 6,000 rules. The game ended when one participant stormed out of the room. Moreover, I've had it about up to here with shoveling. I swear on a stack of soggy snowsuits if that stupid groundhog doesn't have some good news for me come next Monday, I will drive the minivan to Punxsatawney and personally give PETA something to get in an uproar about. Believe me, it's better than giving Child Protective Services cause to knock down my door as I was nearly driven to yesterday!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Good Thief

I am feeling empty and rather purposeless this morning. I finished reading Hannah Tinti's amazing novel The Good Thief last night, and now I don't have it to look forward to as I did the last few nights. It was the best adventure I've been on since I don't know when. The Good Thief tells the story of Ren, a scrappy twelve year old orphan missing his left hand. He is plucked from the St. Anthony's orphanage by Benjamin Nab, a charming, clever con man, horse thief, grave robber, and friend. Ren accompanies Benjamin and Tom, his alcoholic partner in crime, on a furiously paced series of adventures through New England farms, whaling villages, and factory towns. This plot driven novel introduces Ren and the readers to a cast of colorful characters including, but not limited to, a roof dwelling dwarf, a gigantic hit man, a crazed bosslike mousetrap factory owner, and a deaf landlady. Each night this week, I've put off reading The Good Thief until my kids were asleep so I could savor it uninterrupted, and I had to force myself to put it down each night. Ren's adventures, frightening and thrilling, make this page turner an exciting read, but Ren's desire for a family and efforts to create one make it a tender read as well.
There is a high school English department head somewhere who's very lucky I am currently a stay at home mom. Otherwise, he or she would be spending the next few weeks being pestered to purchase a class set of The Good Thief immediately. I'm already looking forward to giving it to my own children when they are teenagers.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Everyone in the Pool!

I have a wonderful twelve year old niece who is an all around great athlete. One of the sports at which she excels is swimming. Every year for her birthday and Christmas, I want very much to buy her a good book about competitive swimming, like a Matt Christopher sports book but for a girl audience. I've had very little luck. A few years ago I recommended the fantastic picture book America's Champion Swimmer about Gertrude Ederle, but I didn't give it as a gift because she was a bit old for picture books. I did give her Liz Kessler's chapter book The Tail of Emily Windsnap, but that's more a book about a seventh grade girl who goes to a swim class and finds out she's a mermaid. It's a good read, but not quite what I wanted to give her. A few months ago I found a book that would have been ideal to give my niece back when she was in first, second or third grade. It is Swimming with Sharks by Betty Hicks, one of her Gym Shorts series. It's a fun and easy to read chapter book about a girl and her friends who swim competitively. My own eight year old daughter read and enjoyed it. It got us talking about why kids choose different sports and how they deal with difficulties.
Even more recently, I finished a fantastic book which tells of a teenage boy's experiences swimming the butterfly on his summer swim team. It is warm hearted and hilarious, but not quite appropriate for my twelve year old niece. If, however, you are looking to get a high school boy a book he will enjoy, even if he's not into swimming, Don Calame's Swim the Fly is a great first choice. Fifteen year-old Matt and his best friends Sean and Coop get themselves into a number of awkward but very funny situations as they try to achieve their summer goal of seeing a real live naked girl. There is plenty of gross out humor and crude nicknames, but also a lot of loyalty, and persistence, and sweetness too. I think somebody out to hurry up and make a movie out of this before Michael Cera gets too old to play Matt.
So my quest for the perfect swimming themed book for a sixth grade girl continues. Please tell me if you know of a good one!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Happy New Year!

I don't know if or how you celebrate the lunar New Year, but if you do, have a happy one! Here's hoping you get plenty of red envelopes and much happiness in the year of the ox! My kindergartner was told to wear red to school today, and I put fortune cookies in all three kids' lunch bags. We'll be ordering Chinese take out for dinner tonight and reading Paul Yee's Tales from Gold Mountain. It's not really about Chinese New Year, but it has amazing illustrations by Simon Ng and fascinating tales of Chinese people in the New World. We may also read D is for Dragon Dance by Ying Chang Compestine and illustrated by Yongsheng Xuan, but more about that book on Foodie Friday. Gung Hay Fat Choy!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

This Land Is Your Land

I was at my parents' house earlier today and my mom shared with me a great picture book she recently checked out of her public library. It is Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" wonderfully illustrated by folk artist Kathy Jakobsen. The vibrant and detailed pictures are a tribute to America and Woody Guthrie. I love singing "This Land Is Your Land." Who doesn't? I often sing it with a lump in my throat, remembering singing it myself as a kid, and remembering my own kids singing it in the bathtub, the car, at preschool sing-alongs, at Fourth of July fireworks displays, and so on. I especially loved singing along in front of the television last week when it was sung at the Inaugural concert in Washington, D.C. It was so gloriously moving to see 89 year old, formerly black listed, folk singer Pete Seeger belting it out alongside Bruce Springsteen. You can tell it was a thrill for both performers. Here it is in case you missed it. And, thanks, Mom, for sharing the book!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Confessions of a Paper Piling Pack Ratty Hoarder

Do you see those bookshelves? They are a miracle of will power and a hardening of my heart. Each of my children have bookshelves in their rooms. In fact, the luckiest of the three has bookshelves built into his bed. They are responsible for organizing and maintaining their own shelves however they see fit. In our basement, we have some glorious built in shelves. They were a major selling point for me when we bought the house. For better or worse, my husband and I have filled them completely. Three of the shelves (pictured above) are devoted to children's books, holiday books, outgrown board books, reference books, whatever the kids don't want in their own rooms. Only the books were squeezed in too tight and had spilled over into piles on the floor and a nearby desk. They needed weeding, but I hate weeding. It pains me, really. I'm sentimental and illogical when it comes to throwing away or passing along my kids' books, schoolwork, and drawings. Let me illustrate for you how poorly my mind functions. My daughter creates about five or six pictures a day. Last Tuesday, she made these three. Well, I couldn't throw away the Tinkerbell inspired fashion sketch. What if she becomes a famous and successful designer someday? Won't she want this early work? I put it on the Keep pile.
She also produced this portrait of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. Remember him from the Muppets? How could I toss this example of how alike my daughter and I are in our senses of humor? Keep.

Finally, she made this excellent portrait of our newly inaugurated President. I couldn't throw that away, and not because it seemed disrespectful our traitorous to send our Commander in Chief to the recycle bin along with old magazines and takeout menus. Nope, I couldn't throw it away because she had dated it "Januray 20, 2009." For some reason, I find misspellings by people under the age of 12 endearing and over the age of 12 annoying. The sweetness of "Januray" assured Mr. Obama a spot on my kitchen counter for at least a few months.

This illogical approach to what I save is much worse when it comes to books I've read with my children. One may tell me there's a book in his or her room that they no longer read, and I can donate it somewhere, but if I remember who gave it to them, or that we read it once at a park on a sunny day, or just about anything else about it, I put it on the basement shelf. But it was getting out of hand, and yesterday I went to work. I tried to keep sentimentality at bay and remind myself that I would donate the books to good homes. The result: that ten inches or so of space on the bottom shelf. It may seem insignificant to you, but it's a source of great pride to me!
What is difficult for you to throw away or recycle?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Foodie Friday Visit with Amelia Bedelia

I feel as if I'm reaching back into the archives on this Foodie Friday to visit an old favorite, Peggy Parish's Amelia Bedelia. This was a guaranteed laugh out loud book for me as a kid, and my own children enjoy it today. In case you are unfamiliar with Amelia who made her debut in 1963, she is a very literal minded girl who is hired as the new housekeeper for Mr. and Mrs. Rogers. Mr. and Mrs. Rogers leave Amelia with a to do list and head out for the day. When the list says to draw the drapes when the sun comes out, she takes out paper and pencil and starts sketching. When the list directs her to change the towels, she gets busy snipping them with a pair of scissors. It is humorous and a great introduction to idioms. It's perfect for kids because they spend their days wading through semantic ambiguity. They can relate to Amelia so well. So much of what Mr. and Mrs. Rogers request seems ridiculous to her just as so much of what adults request seems to defy reason for kids. Some of the idiomatic confusion makes its way into the kitchen. Mrs. Rogers wants Amelia Bedelia to trim the steaks. She decorates them with ribbons and lace. Mrs. Rogers wants the chicken dressed, and Amelia Bedelia wonders if she should dress it as a boy chicken or a girl chicken. She measures rice with a tape measure. All of the miscommunication leads to Amelia Bedelia's firing, that is until Mr. and Mrs. Rogers taste her heavenly lemon meringue pie. A reading of Amelia Bedelia would be a great springboard for a discussion of language, idiomatic expressions, and clear communication, and it's also a really good excuse to share a slice of lemon meringue pie!
There are many other books in the Amelia Bedelia series of easy readers. Peggy Parish's nephew Herman Parish started writing more in 1995. They are fun easy readers, but the original remains my favorite.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

For the Little Historians

I just posted about Doris Kearns Goodwin, and her Team of Rivals is everywhere you look with good reason, but I have to write about another wonderful new Lincoln book. Lincoln and His Boys by Rosemary Wells is a well researched book about Abraham Lincoln and his relationship with his sons Willie and Tad. Great events in American history and the small events of a family's life are revealed through the boys' eyes. It is an extraordinarily well written book, ideal for readers from about eight to twelve years old. They will see Lincoln as a major historical figure and a devoted father to his rambunctious sons. Lincoln and His Boys is illustrated with warm, gorgeous paintings by P.J. Lynch. I know I've raved about Lynch's work on this blog before, but these illustrations are really special. This book is definitely worth sharing with the young history buffs in your life!

Living History

Pretty soon, the media is going to let President Obama get down to everyday business. There will be less scrutiny of the Obama family's every move, meal, and outfit change. Sure, the administration will be covered, but the Inaugural hype will die down, and that saddens me a bit because it means less face time with Doris Kearns Goodwin. She's been everywhere these last few weeks, the morning talk shows, evening news programs, and oh my gravy, Oprah Winfrey. That's right; Doris Kearns Goodwin was sitting front and center on Oprah's show yesterday. Listen, I'm not afraid to wear my nerdiness on my sleeve. I'll admit that the funniest thing I've seen since Election Night was when The Daily Show identified correspondent Aasif Maandvi as Aasif Kearns Goodwin Maandvi. Clearly, the writers at The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are not afraid to let their inner geeks show either. I loved seeing Doris on those programs. She is classy, has a great sense of humor, and tells excellent stories. Whether providing presidential historical context on a television show or in her books, she brings historical figures to life. My family, another group of individuals who love history are Doris Kearns Goodwin fans. Several years ago at Thanksgiving, I was in Cape Cod with my husband's family discussing Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Those present who had read it positively gushed. Then a few weeks later several of my relatives happily unwrapped copies from each other on Christmas morning. Yesterday on Oprah, Doris revealed that after reading the book, Barack Obama called her eager to discuss it. If I had known a person could just call her up to chat, I would not have been so jealous when my mother and brother had tickets to hear her speak at a local university last year!
If you, like me, are sad about seeing less of Doris Kearns Goodwin in the next few weeks, console yourself with the fact that she'll probably pop up around the one hundred day mark for the Obama administration or with one of her other books. I personally loved her memoir Wait Till Next Year. There's not much presidential in it, but it's a beautifully written book describing her love of family and baseball.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My Struggle with Six-Word Writing

Smith, the online magazine, has issued another six word memoir book. This one, Six-Word Memoirs on Love & Heartbreak is out just in time for Valentine's Day. It is inexpensive and easy to read with a good 500 six-word memoirs on affairs of the heart. Two of my favorites:
Not always perfect, but so worthwhile.
We were our own Springer episode.
I've been thinking about these six-word memoirs a lot lately. I thought it would be fun to write one about my husband and/or marriage as a Valentine's gift, but that turns out to be impossible. He's great. The marriage is wonderful, but I just keep coming up empty. I am consoling myself on this failure by saying that he and I are too complex and our love too large to pin down in six words. I have, however, composed a few about motherhood. They came. They cried. They captivated and Loud, sticky, hectic, overwhelming, fuzzy bliss.
After that little exercise, I tried penning a six-word summary of the book I most recently finished reading, the superfun YA Book, Swim the Fly by Don Calame. It goes like this: Some swimming. Much teenage boy hilarity.
If you are inspired to write your own six-word composition, I would love to read it in the comments section.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Monday, January 19, 2009

We Found It At The Library

There was a hole in my daughter's childhood. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but something was missing. We tried to give her good memories and positive experiences, we showed her classic films, read her great books, and attempted to feed her healthy food, but there was still a void, some crucial element of my own formative years I was unable to provide in hers. And then we went to our public library on Saturday and happened past the children's DVD shelf. That is where we found Hanna-Barbera's original complete series, that's right, 16 episodes on two discs, of Josie and the Pussycats. What a weekend we've had! Let me say this to all of the reviewers over the last few months who've said Beyonce's (fabulous) "Single Ladies" video borrows mostly from Bob Fosse and Michael Jackson, let's give some credit to Josie, Melody, and Valerie who were rocking out wearing nothing but leotards back in 1970! When offstage, they dress in a remarkably modest way, but they certainly have a Sasha Fierce vibe going on in concert.
Josie and the Pussycats began as an Archie comic book. When the TV series was being planned, Hanna and Barbera originally balked at the idea of a black main character, but wiser voices prevailed. Valerie was one of the first African American animated characters in a regular series. The history of the show is fascinating, and so is all of the foiling of international criminals. And the girls always made it to their concerts on time!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Too Much Information?

Yesterday morning, the thermometer outside our house read zero degress Fahrenheit. The temperature inside the house was not much warmer as our furnace had broken during the night. Man, was it cold! Eventually, the kids all piled into bed with me and my husband, supposedly to keep warm, but mostly they just annoyed each other. We had a few good minutes of conversation before it all broke down into shouts of, "Get off my arm!" and ""Quit poking me with your elbow!" In those few good minutes, I shared with the kids a dilemma I had faced in the early hours of the morning. I had lain in bed with an achingly full bladder, but unwilling to face the frigid air, tile floor, and toilet seat of the bathroom. Two children quoted me a fact from Susan E. Goodman's The Truth About Poop. Wealthy people in the ancient Roman city of Ephesus used to send their slaves to the public bathrooms to warm up the cold marble toilet seats for them. I favorably reviewed that book here, but I am still surprised at how often it pops up in our conversations!
There is a happy ending to this story, and it's not just that my kids have good factual recall. My sister-in-law Trish, who, like her Roman ancestors, appreciates a hot shower, toasty bathroom , and warm house, invited us over to use hers until our furnace was repaired in the afternoon. Grazie!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Black Swan Green

Who said New Year's Resolutions are difficult? I resolved to read and blog more about books appropriate for teenagers, and boy, did I strike gold with this one. David Mitchell's Black Swan Green is a gorgeously written, truly funny and achingly sad coming of age story. It follows one year, 1982, in the life of thirteen-year old Jason Taylor. Jason is an eloquent tour guide of his English village. Although only us lucky readers get to appreciate his hilarious and often profound observations about his family, neighbors, and classmates. Actually, readers of the poems he sends in to the local parish paper, under the pen name of Eliot Bolivar, get to appreciate his way with words as well. In daily life, Jason struggles from a stammer and has to constantly check what he says aloud in order to avoid the very bottom of the social pecking order. His depictions of the cruelty of adolescents to one another are painful to read. At the same time, it is a pleasure to peek in on his relationship with his brilliant older sister Julia. Unfortunately, Julia heads off to university, leaving Jason alone with his parents and their disintegrating marriage. Mitchell's recreation of Margaret Thatcher's England and of an anxious, thoughtful boy's struggles and joys growing up is a real treat. Although I finished Black Swan Green several weeks ago, I cannot get sweet, courageous Jason Taylor out of my mind.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Foodie Friday on an Empty Stomach

If you came in search of a Foodie Friday suggestion, I've got nothing for you. It's been a hectic week around here. The precious little time I've had to devote to picture books has been spent selecting something to read as Guest Reader in my daughter's third grade classroom this afternoon. It was very nice of her teacher to invite me, but I only had a few days' heads up. What to read? What to read? I decided to go presidential with the Inauguration just days away. I chose Jean Fritz's Just a Few Words, Mr. Lincoln and Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin's Duck for President. Most of today was spent running errands and dashing through the frigid air here in the northeast. Four degrees Fahrenheit this morning! What is that? Anyway, I forgot to eat lunch. I have a friend whose husband tells her it takes a "special kind of stupid" to forget to eat a meal. He's right, and the growlings of my gut as I read to the third graders proved it. Fortunately, or mercifully, they laughed harder at Duck than they did at my stomach's musical stylings. I hope to have a great Foodie Friday book to share next week. See you then!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What I've Been Reading Today

They've got words on them. That counts as reading. And, yes, I know it's only January 15!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Last Straw Has Arrived!

There is a funny scene early in the new Adam Sandler movie, "Bedtime Stories." Adam Sandler is babysitting his niece and nephew, and the kids want him to read them a story before bed. He grabs a few books from the shelf, books we can assume his liberal, earthy crunchy sister purchased. The first two are titled Rainbow Alligator Saves the Wetlands and Organic Squirrel Gets a Bike Helmet. Sandler's character declares that he can't read these communist books and tells the kids his own bedtime story.
Jeff Kinney's latest installment in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, The Last Straw is no communist book. It doesn't have a lesson, touchy feely moments, or a whole lot of political correctness. It does have a lot of laughs and massive appeal for kids, especially boys between the ages of eight and thirteen. Wimpy, manipulative, self-centered Greg Heffley is back in this third Wimpy Kid book released yesterday.
There has been a high level of anticipation for this book in my house, and across the country if last week's NY Times, numerous websites, and my local Borders bookstore are to be believed. I purchased a copy for my two older kids who love the series. When my nine year old son arrived home from school yesterday and spied it on the table, it was almost painful to watch, he was so torn between beginning The Last Straw and finishing the twenty or so pages he has left in the second 39 Clues book. I think that's what they call an embarrassment of riches. My eight year old daughter solved his dilemma by picking up The Last Straw and guaranteeing she'll have it finished by the time he shuts the cover on 39 Clues. I'm sure she will too by the way she is furiously chuckling her way through it. Her latest giggle at the bus stop this morning came from page 110, when Greg writes, "I've heard that when you do good deeds, you're supposed to be all private about it, but that doesn't really make a whole lot of sense to ME. If I start hiding my good deeds, I'm sure I'll just regret it later on." I'm going to have to get on line behind my son to read it too.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What I Just Finished Reading While Wearing an Outdoor Performance Fleece and Sipping a Latte

What do indie music, New Balance shoes, Mos Def, and expensive strollers have in common? They're all things white people like, according to Christian Lander, author of the very funny book Stuff White People Like. Speaking of books, they're also in this "definitive guide to the unique taste of millions." According to Lander, "The role of books in white culture is perhaps as important as organic food- essential for survival. However, understand that this is not about literacy or reading, but about the physical object of the book....Just as hunters will mount the heads of their kill, white people need to let people know that they have made their way through hundreds or even thousands of books. After all, what's the point of reading a book if people don't know you've read it?" So, combine that with the fact that I used to work as a high school English teacher (highly revered by white people), I love hardwood floors and Arrested Development, enjoy eating outside and appreciate the idea of soccer, and it's clear that I am a stereotype. All I need is a Toyota Prius and my face could be on the cover.

Stuff White People Like grew out of Lander's immensely popular blog, . I understand that the title might ruffle some feathers, but the satire is more about class and generation, poking fun at affluent, well educated left wingers, than it is about race. And it's pretty hilarious. Who can resist a sentence like this about #49 Vintage, "The love affair between white people and old stuff goes back literally hundreds of years." Moreover, the complex hierarchy of t-shirts is not to be missed.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Imagine If...

As you may have surmised, we are currently reading Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking over here at Casa Book Bench. When we finished a chapter several nights ago, one of the kids asked, "Can you imagine if Mary Poppins met Pippi?" My daughter and I initially felt Mary would quite disapprove of Pippi's lifestyle, but my older son convinced us that they have a lot in common. They both enjoy an adventure, have good imaginations, and neither is afraid of hard work.

We had some fun imagining the meetings between characters of other books. Ethan suggested that Mary Pope Osborne's Jack and Annie would never get back to their Magic Treehouse if stuck with Barbara Park's Junie B. Jones character. We all laughingly agreed. We all wondered if Despereaux Tilling would get along with Stuart Little. Or with Geronimo Stilton? Perhaps not. Really all they have in common is being mice. And we all would love to be there for the mayhem when Fred and George Weasley from the Harry Potter books meet Harold and George from Captain Underpants.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Foodie Friday: Chicks and Salsa and Birthday Cake

Today is my son Ethan's sixth birthday. Happy birthday, you brilliant, funny, scrappy thing! A tradition in our family is to allow the child or husband having a birthday to choose what meal I will cook for his or her birthday dinner. Ethan has chosen to have a quesadilla bar with chips and salsa, followed by cupcakes. His TexMex fiesta selection inspired today's Foodie Friday book, the fabulous Chicks and Salsa, written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Paulette Bogan.

The chickens on Nuthatcher farm have grown tired of chicken feed, and the rooster decides to solve the problem. While perched outside the farmhouse window, he spots the farmer's wife watching cooking shows on television, and he decides to make salsa. He and the chickens "borrow" some tomatoes and onions from the garden and dine on chips and salsa. The ducks are then encouraged to use cilantro and garlic from the garden to create guacamole. The pigs similarly put together nachos. In all three cases, observant readers will be rewarded to see mice providing the more difficult ingredients such as chips and avocados. The animals plan a fiesta, but are disappointed to find all of the southwestern ingredients gone from the garden. The farmer's wife has made tamales for the county fair. Fortunately for the barnyard animals, she leaves a French cookbook at home.

Chicks and Salsa is a fun book, perfect for preschoolers through second graders. The colorful illustrations are clever with great touches of detail and terrific facial expressions on the animals which help tell the story. Plus, this book provides not one, but three recipes, Hog Wild Nachos, Quackamole, and Rooster's Roasted Salsa. Ole!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Minutes of the He Man Woman Haters/Pippi Longstocking Fan Club

Four boys between the ages of five and ten gathered in my minivan and home over the holiday break while their sisters played together elsewhere. I have tried to accurately record the events of that meeting.

1. One boy answered a question about gifts saying, "My sister got Polly Pocket stuff for Christmas. I hate Polly Pocket." All in attendance agreed that Polly Pocket is "stupid." Strawberry Shortcake and Hannah Montana were similarly denounced as "stupid, dumb, and too girly."
2. Hello Kitty was trashed even harder. "What kind of cat doesn't have a mouth?" was asked to much nodding in agreement.
3. Webkinz were played on the computer, but all "girly" activities were avoided.
4. An indoor bowling game was played repeatedly. The most exciting frames involved light sabers as well as the expected ball and pins.
5. Three vinegar and baking soda volcanoes were created and erupted.
6. A lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches and/or quesadillas, pretzels, goldfish crackers, and cookies was heartily consumed. Several members insisted on either the Incredible Hulk or Scooby Doo lunch plates. The Barbie and Disney princess plates remained in the cabinet.
7. Total elapsed time: 3 hours 2 minutes.

Hours later, in a quiet moment alone with his mother, one of the five year old boys asked, "Pippi Longstocking isn't really girly, right? Anybody can like it." His mother agreed. After all, Pippi is an expert tree climber, can carry a horse, has a pet monkey, and funny is funny, no matter your gender.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Thoughts on the Three Kings

Today is the feast of the three kings, also known as the Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of the three wise men who came to see the newborn Jesus. I knew I would need to cover this yesterday in the fourth grade CCD class I teach. CCD is religious education for Catholic students who attend public school. I teach the class for several reasons including the facts that the program depends on volunteers, it gives me an opportunity to meet my kids' peers, and I have a hole to fill in my resume. My background is in teaching English, and I delight in situations where I get to use it while teaching CCD, such as when a student asked me if God actually used words like "thou" and "shalt" when issuing the ten commandments. I'll be honest, sometimes I sneak literature in there as well. I love when I have an appropriate story or poem to share with the class. Tomie de Paola's beautiful Clown of God was perfect to read before Christmas and really got the kids talking, and yesterday I was happy to read Langston Hughes' poem "Carol of the Brown King" with them:

Of the three Wise Men
Who came to the King,
One was a brown man,
So they sing.
Of the three Wise Men
Who followed the Star,
One was a brown king
From afar.
They brought fine gifts
Of spices and gold
In jeweled boxes
Of beauty untold.
Unto His humble
Manger they came
And bowed their heads
In Jesus’ name.
Three wise men,
One dark like me-
Part of His

It was fun to spend a few minutes talking about rhyme and point of view. Speaking of fun, I didn't lecture them on parody, but I could have with a little ditty my Aunt Mary Alice and Uncle Peter taught me decades ago that begins "We three kings of orient are, smoking on a rubber cigar. It was loaded. It exploded..." I've included the music to the original below in case you care to sing it. I didn't teach it though, as I felt the lovely and dedicated nun who runs the religious education program at our church might not appreciate it. Not that she doesn't have a sense of humor. In fact, she shared a cute joke with me last year about how things would be different had it been three wise women visiting the Holy Family. They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, and at least brought a casserole.

If you are someone who celebrates this day by looking for a trinket in your slice of cake or a treat in your shoe, I hope you find it.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Princess or the Knight?

For several months now, I think since she read Cornelia Funke's wonderful Igraine the Brave, my daughter has had a sort of ice breaker/litmus test question she likes to ask of people. Actually, she only asks it of females ever since her brothers both answered the question with a snotty kind of "Duh" in unison. The question is this: Would you rather be the princess in the tower or the knight who saves her? The princess must sit up there, bored and waiting for rescue while the knight must endure hardship and danger. My daughter is certain she would prefer to be the knight. I generally agree, although on certain crazy days, a few months in a quiet tower sound idyllic. In any event, after reading Rapunzel's Revenge (remember how badly I wanted to read it back in December?), we both want to be Rapunzel. In this fantastic retelling by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illustrated as a graphic novel by Nathan Hale, Rapunzel is a real grab life by the horns type of girl. This version is a twist on the original story, keeping the long hair but setting Rapunzel's story in a sort of Wild West fairy tale land. She teams up with Jack (yes, of the beanstalk) in a witty and fast paced plot. Her adventures made my daughter and I jealous, and the illustrations and humor left us wanting a sequel. This book would make a great gift for tweens and older girls who appreciate comic books and girl power.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Books, Books, and Talking about Books

I wanted to like Larry McMurtry's Books: A Memoir which tells of his experiences as a book scout and antiquarian book seller. I really wanted to, but I didn't. I quit reading it last week at Chapter 34. Before you get all impressed, most chapters are only a page or two in length. I was interested in the early stories of McMurtry's childhood, but the many tales of where he found certain rare books, what he paid for them, and what they later fetched at resale failed to hold my interest.

On Christmas Day, however, I had a conversation with a bright, poised, and much cooler than I was at her age 11 year old girl which could also have been titled "Books: A Memoir." We started by talking about the copy of Twilight she had received for Christmas and had already begun reading. She also received some of The Clique series of novels written by Lisi Harrison and aimed at girls in grades five to eight, as well as a box of Nancy Drew books from her grandparents. She had my full attention. We covered other old favorites including Eoin Colfer. I've said it here before, if you want to get a tween talking, bring up Artemis Fowl or Half Moon Investigations. We moved on to how she organizes her bookshelves, and I was hanging on every word. She may not have penned Lonesome Dove or the screenplay to Brokeback Mountain, but this sixth grader kept my attention with her reading autobiography longer than Larry McMurtry did with his. I wonder if he has a favorite Clique book.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Foodie Friday: Pippi's Pepparkakor

While we did more than enough baking and eating over the holidays, we've done very little reading about food here lately. However, we started Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking as our nightly read aloud about a week ago. Not surprisingly, everyone thinks it's great. I can tell from all of the giggles, belly laughs, and predictions the kids let out while I read. I last read it 30 years ago, and it's even better than I remembered. Don't you love when that happens?

In case you aren't familiar with Pippi, she's the spunky nine year old heroine of this eponymous book first published in Swedish in 1950. Her mother died when she was quite young and her father, a sea captain, was lost at sea, although Pippi is convinced he has become a cannibal king somewhere. She moves into an old house, Villa Villekulla, with her horse and her monkey, Mr. Nilsson, and makes life much more interesting for her next door neighbors, Tommy and Annika.

My kids all laughed at the description of Pippi making pancakes for Tommy and Annika, getting cracked egg on her head, and declaring that she always heard egg yolk was good for the hair. Oh, those carrot red pigtails! Even funnier to my audience is when Pippi bakes pepparkakor, a type of Swedish cookie, by rolling out an enormous amount of dough on the kitchen floor. "Because," said Pippi to her little monkey, "what earthly use is a baking board when one plans to make at least five hundred cookies?"

We've decided to find a good recipe for pepparkakor, or, let's be honest, an easy looking one, and try it. Unlike Pippi, I plan to roll out the dough on the kitchen table. I'll let you know how it turns out.

In order to stick to my 2009 book blogging resolutions, I should say this is a good book for eight to eleven year olds to read independently and can be understood and enjoyed by children as young as five. We are reading a copy nicely illustrated by Louis S. Glanzman, but there are several other versions out there.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Aught Nine Resolutions

I haven't looked at other blogs yet this morning, but I'm assuming New Year's resolutions are the order of the day. So I will share a few of mine but only as they pertain to blogging about reading. (No need to bore you with stuff like good carbs vs. bad carbs, nagging my family less, and dressing like my inner cougar more.) Here goes.

1. Read and blog more frequently about young adult books. I do plan to go back to teaching middle or high school someday.

2. Read and share more poetry.

3. Try to mention all the important information- title, author, illustrator, and appropriate age or reading level.

4. Become more technologically savvy with images, links, and embedded videos. Trying jazzy new fonts is not enough!

5. Read and comment on more blogs in the "kidlitosphere."

6. Drink less Diet Pepsi as I type.

7. Post fewer pictures of myself in ridiculous holiday eyewear.

Happy New Year!

May 2009 bring you health, happiness, peace, love, and plenty of good reading!