Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Little Something for the Last Day of National Poetry Month

Two days ago I took my ten year old son and his friend to a lake near our house after school. They built an elaborate sandcastle all about design and structure but not about pretending. Then they chased each other around the beach, menacing one another with buckets of cold lake water, calling each other "dude," and eventually jumping in to swim. I noted to myself with some sadness that they are closer to their teen years than to their toddlerhood. It put me in mind of Billy Collins' beautiful and bittersweet poem, "On Turning Ten." Here's a bit of it:

At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

Wow, right? Fortunately, my ten year old still sometimes pretends and plays as if he has the magic in him. Fortunately, he doesn't yet seem to feel the wistfulness of the speaker, but it's coming, and that's why this poem moves me so. You can find it in its entirety, along with 94 other poems, in Poetry Speaks to Children, a terrific anthology with an accompanying CD which has 52 of the poems read aloud, many by the authors. All the greats are in there: Robert Frost, W.B. Yeats, Roald Dahl, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Galway Kinnell (on why crying lots is a must), Tolkien, and more. We are rounding third base on the school year, and if you are looking for a good gift for a teacher, this would be a nice addition to any first through fifth grade classroom.

If you'd like to hear some of the selections, including our beloved Roald Dahl, click here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Antidote to a Heatwave

I know Poppleton in Winter doesn't seem a likely title for a book to read in April, but we've been experiencing a bit of a heat wave (90 degree temps) here the last few days and a book about icicles and sleigh riding enjoyed by the world's second best pig- there's no topping Wilbur- has proved a great release from the heat. If you are not familiar with the Poppleton books written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Mark Teague, I'm sorry for you. They are delightful books about a sincere and sweet pig named Poppleton humorously going through everyday experiences. He has great neighbors/friends including Cherry Sue a llama (or alpaca?), Fillmore a goat, and Hudson a mouse. They all show up in this easy to read three chapter book. In this installment, Poppleton befriends a finch after an incident involving icicles, gets very creative as many of us do during the long winter months, and enjoys a midnight sleigh ride with friends. Poppleton in Winter put a smile on Ethan's face as we read it together this week, and I do believe it lowered the temperature in the room by a few degrees. I always find books about this gentle pig make great gifts for preschoolers through first graders. Both parents and kids seem to enjoy them.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

For Accuracy's Sake

I called our state wildlife management office yesterday about the situation behind our house and was put through to the "Bear Unit." I think that needs to be the next CSI or Law and Order show they come up with. Don't you love that: CSI: Bear Unit? Anyhoo, when I mentioned the newborn cub who appeared on Friday afternoon and we can hear "crying," the young woman on the phone laughed derisively at me. She informed that it was no doubt born in January and just emerged from the den for the first time on Friday. When I expressed concerns about my children's safety she said there are too many bears in NJ, they can't remove her, keep reporting incidents like this so maybe our governor will allow a bear hunt, and maybe try shooting her with a paint gun to get her to move on. Then it was my turn to laugh derisively at her. Apparently she's never seen a display of my sorry eye-hand-coordination nor can she imagine what would happen with my sons and a paint ball gun under one roof. I asked to speak to someone else and then had a frustrating chat with a self-described bear biologist. He too believes the cub was born in January. When I again expressed concern that one of my three children who each weigh less than 70 pounds might inadvertently get in between the mother and cub and she would attack, it was more derisive laughter and I was told I had "bought into the Disney story about bears." Damn straight! I bought into the one about Prince Charming too. That one worked out for me. When I asked him what I can do, he suggested I make life unpleasant for her by leaving no food out and using an air horn, car alarm, etc. every time she comes around. Well. look, I've made life loud and unpleasant around here for years and my husband and kids haven't moved on. We'll see what happens. The point of all this is that I wanted to clear up my inaccuracy and say the cub apparently emerged from the den but was not born on Friday.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

What I've Learned About Party Planning

This is what I learned on Friday: if you are planning a Game Night birthday party for your turning nine year old daughter and are stressed out that the fifteen relatives you've invited won't have fun, or the charade topics will be too difficult, or the games will be a bust, arrange to have a black bear give birth to a cub in your yard earlier in the day. You and your guests can watch this display of cute for hours. Hours after giving birth the mother will commence teaching her puffy cub to climb trees, nudging it up with her ample bottom when necessary. It is sweeter than a box of kittens wrapped in cotton candy and tied with a chocolate bow. It worked for me! I did also learn that charades were a big hit as well as my mother-in-law's recipe for Spinach and Artichoke Dip! Although nobody called the next day for an update on the dip.

This is a photo of the mama back when I was calling her "him" just before giving birth. We obviously didn't go near enough to the mother and cub to take any pictures.

This is what I learned today: If in lieu of a birthday cake, your daughter wants polka dotted Rice Krispie treats at her party with girlfriends, let her do the decorating herself because
  • your Type A perfectionist personality needs a day off
  • nothing is cuter than the tip of the birthday girl's tongue poking out the side of her mouth as she concentrates (except maybe a newborn bear cub)
  • it will keep her from asking "How long until my party?" for about half an hour
  • the look on her face when handed the tube of frosting is the look I imagine would be on the face of a seventeen year old handed the key to a brand new Ferrari. "Really? I can drive this?"

Again, it worked for me.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Foodie Friday- Apples and Oranges: Going Bananas with Pairs

This fun picture book is what I like to call a tongue loosener. It gets readers talking. Author and illustrator Sara Pinto opens with a nice picture of an apple and an orange and the question, "How are an apple and an orange alike?" The reader might answer that they are both fruit, they are both food, or they both grow on trees. Turn the page and Pinto answers her own question with an illustration of the fruit now bespectacled and the words, "They both don't wear glasses." Guess how a book and a letter are alike? They both don't go out for sushi. At first, readers want to answer the "alike" questions practically, but then start having fun coming up with wacky answers more like Pinto's. In addition to its wonderful title, Apples and Oranges: Going Bananas with Pairs presents a number of food and utensil pairings that made it my Foodie Friday pick for this week. It's a silly good read for preschool through first or second graders.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Great Moments in Book Talks

My eight year old daughter has been reading and enjoying Cornelia Funke's Inkheart for several weeks now. She carried it down to the school bus stop this morning in order to read it on her bus ride. She happily told me of her plans to renew it today at the school library and check out a different Cornelia Funke book, Inkdeath. She also thinks there is another title, maybe Inkspell, she said. "What's that? Inksmell?" asked one of my sons. "No, that would be Inkfart!" You'd think Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams was walking among us from the way they laughed. "Wait, before the guys farts, it's called Inkswell!" "If he gets possessed by the devil, it's Inkhell!" More guffawing from the kings of comedy. I doubt my daughter will be starting up a book club with those two anytime soon. To her credit, she just gave them a withering look and continued telling me about the story of Meggie and her father who have the ability to read a book aloud and make the characters come to life.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Greetings and Readings from the Garden State

Perhaps I've mentioned that my family likes to spot license plates when we are on car trips. On our recent drive from New Jersey to Washington DC to West Virginia and back home, we listed over thirty different state plates we saw. As my kids have been doing this for years you would think we know all about the fifty nifty United States by now. However, there's always more trivia to learn. For his recent tenth birthday, my mom gave my son a great source of more state facts, Greetings from the 50 States:How They Got Their Names written by Sheila Keenan and illustrated by Selina Alko. It is colorful, interesting, and devotes one map and one page of text to each state. The book provides just enough information to entertain without overwhelming. I like that it includes how each state got its name and nickname(s). I've always known that Ohio is the Buckeye state and Oklahoma the Sooner state, but now I know why. Greetings from the 50 States is terrific for the middle grade reader interested in nonfiction, geography, or headed out on a road trip soon.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


This is Susan Boyle. She recently performed "I Dreamed A Dream" from Les Miserables on a television program called "Britain's Got Talent," and has since become, as they say, "a YouTube sensation." If you haven't seen the performance, go there now. I'll wait. (I was unable to link up to it.) I'm quite curious to know if, like me, you get emotional watching it and have difficulty getting the whole thing out of your head.

Why am I so invested in this unemployed 47 year old woman from Great Britain who lives with her cat, admits to being unkissed, and sings so beautifully? I suppose it has something to do with her choice of song. Yes, I'm that girl. I saw Les Miserables on Broadway twice and love Fantine, Jean Valjean, Javert and the gang. It's a good thing Susan Boyle didn't sing "On My Own" or my keyboard would have malfunctioned from all the tears I would have undoubtedly shed on it.

Perhaps another reason I'm humming "I Dreamed A Dream" around the house and talking to you about this is that I enjoy a good underdog story. I think we all do. We cheer for David with his rock, the Texans at the Alamo, Jamal and Latika, Harry facing Voldemort, The Average Joes up against The Purple Cobras, even Underdog attempting to stop Riff Raff and Simon Barsinister. Is it because we relate to the underdog? I don't know that I can relate to the aforementioned underdogs. What have I got in common with them? Although maybe I can relate a bit to Susan Boyle in that we all think we've got talents that go unrecognized. Is it because we want to level out injustice? For many people, it probably is. I'm not sure that I'm that essentially noble. For me, I think I just love the drama. I don't go to fiction or even reality TV for reality. I go to them for drama.The more unlikely the hero, the more I'm hooked. I like tension, nail biting, and insurmountable odds. As much as I relish the tension, I do hate when people cry on these shows. I prefer the look of surprise and pleasure on Simon Cowell's face as Susan Boyle shared her gift on the "Britain's Got Talent" stage. I especially liked the pleasure. He enjoyed the music. As did I. I cannot wait to hear what she sings next

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hope Won!

We are back from a fantastic four days in Washington DC and West Virginia. While we did not spot Sasha, Malia, or the new First Dog, we did see the new bees being kept at the White House. Do you see that cabinet looking thing down below on the left? I believe it's the source of the Presidential honey.

We were very lucky to have warm sunny weather for our trip. We hit a bunch of the DC highlights on foot- obviously the White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial (a family favorite), the Capital Building, several Smithsonian museums including Air and Space, Union Station, the World War II and Vietnam War memorials, an ice cream cart, and half of the public restrooms in town.
In my opinion, it's true; hope won. Here's how I know. After a long day of touring the city with three kids who each had strong opinions and desires, I was hot, tired, sticky, and edging towards grumpy. At dinner, I ordered a cocktail, and the waitress asked for proof of my age. God bless America!
From DC, we headed to West Virginia which is about as pretty a place as you can imagine. It was especially beautiful to us as spring has taken hold there a bit more than it has here in northern New Jersey. While there visiting relatives, we went underground to tour natural caves full of stalagmites and stalactites. It was awesome. It called to mind Harry's first trip to Gringotts with Hagrid and enhanced the way we imagine Bilbo Baggins' adventures. My photo does not do the experience justice.

Our final bit of tourism was a trip to the Civil War battlefield at Antietam. Despite the fact that I look like a college student to waitresses in DC, I went to college a long, long time ago and cannot remember as much as I would like to from the Civil War and Reconstruction course I took. The trip inspired me to pick up a book on the topic.
We listened to about five hours of the second Mysterious Benedict Society book as we drove, and it was a hit with the entire car. It was a great trip, but as always, it's nice to be back home!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Road Trip!

The BookBenchers are on a road trip! We've packed the audio book of the second Mysterious Benedict Society book, lots of snacks, and headache relief medicine for the front seat passengers. I'll see you back here in a few days!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Main Difference Between Books and People

For me, the main difference between books and people is that I love when a book proves me wrong. That's happening with two books here currently. Perhaps I've mentioned that I am reading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit aloud to my children in the evenings. When my daughter suggested it awhile back, I was all, Really? Dragons, goblins, elves, and swords with names? Must we? 184 pages in, I am so happy the kids persisted. They are questioning, laughing, and making predictions as I read. In other words, they are really engaged in the book, rooting for the hobbit on his adventure.
In my own reading, I am being proven wrong by Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I've resisted it for several years now despite its good reviews. I have a problem with fiction created from the terrorist attacks of September 11. I know that doesn't make sense as I have read other works of fiction based on major historical tragedies such as slavery and the Holocaust. Perhaps its the nearness of 9/11; I don't know, but I've finally started reading it. It is wonderful and different and quite moving. Eccentric nine year old Oskar Schell who lost his father in the World Trade Center owns my affection with his earnestness and sincerity, not to mention the enormity of his loss. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of those books I'm reading more slowly as I go in order to make it last longer.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Fascinating Nonfiction

I just completed a very satisfying read of Atul Gawande's fascinating book, Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science. Medicine may be imperfect, but this book is pretty near flawless. It's not surprising it was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award for nonfiction. Gawande combines his experience as a surgical resident with his easy, informative writing talents in this book of essays which examine the fallibility of doctors and the challenges and mysteries of working with the human body. Rather than creating a sensationalized account of the mistakes doctors make, Gawande presents the variety of challenges they face along with the philosophy, science, ethics, and even economics involved in practicing medicine today. I am so glad I gave this one to my sister for her birthday back in January (insert evil genius laugh here). I knew it would make it back to my night table eventually.
Speaking of putting nonfiction reading in the hands of others, I have been selectively sending out my resume hoping to go back to teaching in the fall, and my ten year old son got hold of my resume. I've never seen him so intrigued by anything in his life. He even requested a copy of his own. He seems fascinated by and skeptical of any experiences I had before his birth. Moreover, he had never really thought about the fact that grownups have to work to find work. So I guess that's a good thing, but it's kind of weird at the same time.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

I Am Easily Tricked

Two nights ago, I dropped off my quiet eight year old daughter, her books, her knitting, an overnight bag, and her penchant for long bubble baths at my mom's house. I drove home with the loud nine year old boy who lives with my mom, his Nintendo DS, his overnight bag, and my own two equally high energy sons. About an hour later, as my house seemed to be filled with a pack of howler monkeys in fleece pajamas, I imagined my sweet natured mother and daughter who, unlike me, never use crude language, nonetheless laughing at me behind their knitting needles, saying, "What a sucker!" and "What a rube!" After my charges exhausted themselves inflating, deflating, inflating, and then endlessly jumping on the AeroBed, they finally went to sleep. In the morning I drove them to a basketball facility about half an hour from my home for three hours of well, basketball. Then I was free to browse the many strip malls littering the nearby highway. Once I had crossed enough items off my to-do list, I treated myself to an hour in a bookstore. It's my yoga. I used a gift card to purchase Gordon Korman's Swindle for my kids. I had never heard of it, but Korman is the author of the second 39 Clues book which was a big hit here. That evening, when all children were in their respective homes, I gave them the book. The third and fourth grader were very excited, telling me how it is always checked out of the school library, there is a waiting list as long as your arm for it, and classmates named Sierra, Chris, Justin, and Martin highly recommend it. Later that night, I found my son asleep in bed with it, drooling onto page 15.
I see the last two days as a sort of What Color is My Parachute exercise in career guidance. My perfect job: Book picker outer. A good second choice: monkey handler. Contract lawyer, sports agent, hostage negotiator or used car salesman? Not so much.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Play Ball!

To celebrate Major League baseball's opening day, I've got a lineup of some of my favorite baseball books new and old. My most recent discovery is B is for Baseball: Running the Bases from A to Z. The text of this wonderful ABC book is written by Sara Gillingham. It is much better than your run of the mill alphabet book. B is for Baseball is an interesting primer on the game incorporating original artwork and archival photos to present rules, history, and trivia. I think it would appeal to a wide range of ages, from about four to nine or ten. So would Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man, a gorgeous and inspiring picture book written by David Adler and illustrated by Terry Widener. That duo has the Midas touch. Their books on Gertrude Ederle and Joe Louis are equally good at combining great stories with American history and fantastic artwork.
Another inspiring baseball book is We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. Kadir Nelson's words and paintings have created a compelling experience in this book. I don't know what audience to say this book is for. Clearly it is a picture book, but I can't imagine an adult who wouldn't be riveted by the artwork and story. Kadir Nelson paints a picture of the dignity, heroism, and athleticism of the players of the league and presents the history of segregation for his readers. The title comes from a quote by Rube Foster, the founder of the National Negro League, "We are the ship; all else the sea."
Since we're on the topic of American history, I have to mention an old favorite of mine that I used when teaching high school students about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. It is Baseball Saved Us written by Ken Mochizuki and illustrated by Dom Lee. It begins, "One day, my dad looked out at the endless desert and decided then and there to build a baseball field." It is a very different field of dreams; one of stolen dreams actually. This book always provided me a solid "in" to discussing the internment camps before we started reading heavier, more adult writing about it.
Last on deck is a new piece of baseball fiction, Six Innings, by James Preller, author of the beloved Jigsaw Jones books. Six Innings, a well written, character driven baseball story, is written for readers a bit older than Jigsaw Jones fans. I would say it is best for baseball fans between the ages of nine and thirteen. It tells the story of a championship game between two Little League teams and the backstory about the players as well.
It's officially baseball season and you should be out there watching a game, playing in one, or just having a catch outside, but if rain should cancel those activities, I recommend checking out any or all of these baseball books.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Foodie Friday- Easter Basket Edition

As you can guess from the Peeps on my dining room table, I'm getting excited about Easter. If I could have my fantasy job, I would be a custom Easter basket filler. You would tell me a bit about the recipient, and I would fill the ideal basket for him or her. It would incorporate a balance of elements, chocolate and jelly beans, fun novelties like wind up bunnies, seasonal gifts such as baseballs or golf tees, a great book, and of course, marshmallow chicks. I think every baby, toddler, and preschooler should find Kevin Henkes' Owen's Marshmallow Chick in at at least one Easter basket of their childhood. It is spring colored, charming, and relatable. Owen wakes up on Easter morning to find gumdrops, buttercream eggs, jelly beans, and a chocolate bunny in his basket.(I am salivating on the keyboard right now!) He enjoys them all, but his favorite is the yellow marshmallow chick which becomes a plaything and friend. Sorry about the pun, but it's too sweet for words.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Thanks A Lot!

I'd like to send a big fat thank you to my friend Anne for recently recommending a book to me. Hopefully you read that thank you with lots of sarcasm. Anne never told me it would make me cry. Let me back up and tell you that I probably only wear makeup one day a week. It's not a specific day of the week, it's usually just whichever day of the week I am going to be seen by the greatest number of people. I'm lazy and not very good at applying makeup, but as I get older, my nose keeps getting redder and redder which is making me look like I've hit the bottle a bit too much over the years. This is ironic, as I drink alcohol even less frequently than I wear makeup. So one or two days a week I slap on some foundation, mascara, and lipstick before heading out the door. Back to Anne. At a St. Patrick's Day party this year, she mentioned a picture book, Mars Needs Moms!, she had read by Berkeley Breathed. You remember him from Bloom County and Opus. Anne described it as not necessarily a book for new moms but for the one who's been at it awhile and realizes that her relationship with her child might not be perfect but that's okay. She failed to mention that if I picked it up from my library, had it in the car and happened to read it in the fifteen minutes that I arrived early to volunteer in my son's classroom (on my weekly cosmetics day) that I would go into the classroom looking like a raccoon with a WC Fields nose. Like I said, thanks a lot!
Sarcasm aside, Mars Needs Moms! is a great picture book. It is very different in style and story than anything I've read in awhile. Young Milo doesn't see what's so special about moms. They force a kid to do chores and eat healthy foods, and they have lame senses of humor. Milo gets himself in trouble, is sent to his room, and dreams about Martians who come to Earth because they need moms. Martians , you see, are born motherless out of the ground, but, "They needed driving to soccer! And to ballet! And to playdates, parks, and pizza! Plus cooking and cleaning and dressing and packing lunches and bandaging boo boos!" Some Martians kidnap Milo's mom which is when the story gets really good in my opinion. It's about love and sacrifice and imperfectly wonderful relationships. I guess I should thank Anne with less sarcasm because I'm so glad I read it!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

My Life Has Become a Series of Visa Ads

As a result of the tanking (tanked) economy, I find myself mentally composing Visa commercials all day long. That is, I think about the price of everything. Luckily, there are some priceless things as well. For instance, early yesterday morning I ran out to my minivan with air freshener, Windex, and a garbage bag. There was a chance I would be driving the carpool of parents who had volunteered to chaperone the fourth grade field trip, and the minivan was a disaster. My morning tally went something like this:
cleaning products used to desperately make car decent- $5
cost for ticket to museum- $5
ingredients to pack brown bag lunches for my children and myself- $8
last minute fill up with gas- $38
watching the Mom (not me) who ended up driving the carpool hastily throw sports equipment, empty water bottles, birthday presents, and gift wrap in her minivan's trunk to make room for the parents, thus assuring me I'm not alone- priceless.

Not every facet of my life has that kind of satisfying priceless moment at the end. Raising kids and feeding them, signing them up for sports and activities is expensive and exhausting. It's getting harder and harder and yet more necessary each day to trim the fat. So, although I cannot stop that running tally in my head which adds up the costs of sneakers, books, bathing suits, juice boxes,cold cuts, school supplies, and prescriptions, I'm also trying to find and appreciate the priceless moments. Some are touching like the note my six year old son slipped under my door this week that says, "Huw loves you? Me" Some are the stuff of family memories like our current nightly read aloud from The Hobbit. And some may cost me my dignity but are truly priceless to my children such as when my kids had friends over to play this weekend. Sure my internal adding machine noted the cost of goldfish crackers, ice pops, and pants ruined by mud in the backyard, but my heart will always treasure the looks of shock and delight as well as the belly laughs from my older son as his friend when we were playing Scrabble and I laid down F, R, and T around an open A. Let's just say I didn't spell "frat," and it was priceless!