Friday, July 31, 2009

The Clever Stick

One afternoon this week, I read John Lechner's new book, The Clever Stick, to my kids while they ate lunch, my daughter reread it herself, and then I read it to everybody again. It's a short book and I don't provide especially large lunches. According to my daughter, "It's short and sweet, but it has a point." Get it? A point? It's about a stick. Hyuk. Hyuk. The Clever Stick tells of a stick that is quite clever; it appreciates beauty, enjoys poetry, and solves math problems. There was just one problem in that the stick can't speak and its cleverness goes unnoticed. This was the point which inspired the most discussion from my kids. Is it important that other people recognize your talents? Passionate opinions were expressed. Fortunately for the stick, he learns to draw in the sand, and the world, or at least the plants and animals where he lives, appreciates what he can do with his "voice." The whimsy of this quiet fable appealed to my ten year old son and he and his six year old brother agree that this is "the kind of book they read in school." I believe the "they" means teachers and librarians. I agree with them and think it would be a nice addition to a kindergarten and first grade classroom library.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Spending an Afternoon in the 1960s

Rail all day yesterday forced the kids and I inside. Around the time animals in the neighborhood lined up in pairs with ears cocked for the sound of a hammer, we took a virtual field trip to Manhattan in the 1960s. First, we read a few chapters of Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy. My nine year old daughter read it herself last year and chose it for our current read aloud. My sons
are enjoying it, but I can tell they'd appreciate a bit more action. Of interest to all of them is the idea that the parents of a girl not much older than themselves allowed her to roam around New York City (or at least the Upper East Side) for hours every day after school. When we put Harriet down, we created MadMen avatars of ourselves over at AMC. I love the setting of that show. The costumes remind me of pictures of my parents when they were dating and newlyweds. Here's how my son pictures himself looking in 30 years:

My daughter would have me looking like this in 1964:

I gave myself a more schoolteacherish look
The sun is shining today so I think we're gonna get out there and enjoy July 2009 while it lasts.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Today's Special

For most of elementary and middle school, I attended a Catholic school which served hot lunch only once a week. The high school I attended provided a mere 25 minutes for lunch. In order to spend more time yakking with my friends and touching up my 80s hairstyle and less time on line, I never once purchased a hot lunch in those four years. Rather, I bought from the a la carte menu (one turkey or roast beef sandwich, one can Diet Pepsi, one bag Dipsy Doodle chips and either a Reeses peanut butter cup or package of mini powdered donuts if I had an athletic practice that day). As a teacher, I always brown bagged it. Therefore, I've had minimal contact with lunch ladies in my life. For all I knew, the hairnetted stereotypes and Chris Farley SNL skit could be spot-on accurate.

That is until I sent my oldest son to first grade. Every once in awhile, I would send him to school with money for the oh so exciting purpose of buying lunch. Apparently he impressed the lunch ladies with his eagerness and manners. Right before his birthday that year, I received a phone call at home from one of the lunch ladies who said something along the lines of, "Hi, I'm Mrs. So and So, I'm a cafeteria worker at your son's school. I hope you don't think this is strange and I wanted to clear it with you. Can I give your son a birthday present? I love talking with him and I found a gift I think he'll love." That's how we ended up with a Sea Monkey tank on our kitchen windowsill for two years.

That same son of mine has moved on to fifth grade. At his current school, there are days when he is the only customer for soup. I send him in with a bagged lunch most days and a dollar for soup. He comes home raving about the Italian Wedding Soup, the minestrone, the navy bean, and so on. Sure, lots of kids purchase chicken noodle and tomato, but on other days, he's the only soup eater. The lunch ladies see him in the hallways and tell him what the soup of the day will be. They have also hand delivered cups of soup to his lunch table and given him free refills. He loves those ladies. So of course I'm going to have to get him Jarrett Kroscoczka's new graphic novel Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute. It's the first in a planned series aimed at seven to ten year olds. I don't know much more about it yet, but it certainly looks fun!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Home Smelly Home

The Book Benchers are home from a relaxing week in Maine. It was the kind of vacation you imagine all year (unless you are an extreme sport, go-getter, action type of vacationer). Everything was perfect except for the mountain of disgusting and malodorous clothing and linens we brought home and dumped in a laundry room containing a gerbil cage and fish tank badly in need of cleaning. Ah well, it's a small price to pay. I hope you'll indulge me by viewing a few vacation pics.

Here is my ten year old and a snapping turtle he caught. He spent several mornings in a kayak stalking turtle sunning themselves on rocks. Every time he got too close, they slipped quickly into the water. Finally this guy was a bit too slow. My husband showed us all how a snapping turtle reflexively? instinctively? snaps by placing a stick near its mouth. He immediately clamped down on it. We all yelled "Do it again!" He did. We yelled "Do it again!" This went on for an embarrassingly long while. We have no television at the house in Maine, and we're a bit simple, I guess.

Here we are at the Portland Head Light. It's a very predictable family photo op, but I don't care, because it's a nice one. Speaking of predictable, my youngest son is not looking at the camera even though we were all admonishing him to do so from the sides of our smiling mouths. Of interest to me is that this lighthouse is pictured on the cover of the American literature textbook I will be using to teach this fall.

This shot is of two of the kids eating lunch en route from New Jersey to Maine. Before you alert the authorities, the truck was parked in a lot. While the truck was moving, everyone was buckled into their seats and bickering about elbow room. I just include this photo to show how Beverly Hillbillies we roll. And to give you a glimpse of the beautiful sailboat my husband built.

Finally, speaking of boat, after twelve months of schlepping my kids around to school and sports, play dates and activities, it was nice to be in the passenger seat and let my six year old son do the driving.

As far as books go, I finished To Kill a Mockingbird and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society while sitting by the water. On the car trip to and from, we listened to Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl. We all enjoyed it, even my husband who is usually more of a nonfiction guy.What more could a vacationer ask for?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Be Prepared

We are all packed and ready to go on vacation. We've purchased enough sunscreen to send a family of five to Mercury for a week. We've stocked up on magazines, ice pops, pretzels, and beer. My six year old son found this bag in the attic and insisted on packing his clothes in it:

Farewell, Thomas the Tank Engine suitcase. My boy is shipping out without you. He did, however, pack a few of his men to keep him company:

My daughter learned her lesson last summer when she ran out of books and had to visit the local library. Although, it was kind of fun to visit a library on vacation. She's got an entire bag filled with fat books. We need to decide if we are going to listen to Artemis Fowl or Tuck Everlasting on CD for the seven hour drive and then we're set to go. Well, we have to cram all of our stuff in the car and forget a few things first as is our routine, and then we're off. I hope to see you back here in a week. In the meantime, what are you reading this summer?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Once again, luck has saved the day here at the Book Bench. I was at the public library with all three of my kids yesterday. They were laughing with friends, pulling favorites (books and DVDs) from the shelves, and begging for time on the computer. We were in a bit of a hurry, and I had to keep telling them to "wrap it up." Each kid checked out a few books to bring on our upcoming vacation, then we ran out of there to quickly eat a hastily thrown together dinner before racing off to a swim meet. Once we arrived at the meet, it soon became apparent that goggles and a swim cap had been left on our kitchen table. I left the kids with another mom to warm up with their team and drove like the devil to retrieve the cap and goggles. On my drive home, I couldn't help but think of something I'd read at the library earlier. While the books were being checked out, I managed to flip through the August issue of Parents magazine and read that "Kids who grow up in an organized and calm home are more likely to have good early reading skills at ages five and six" according to a study done by Ohio State University and Teachers College of Columbia University. Having set mealtimes and bedtimes, using a family calendar and turning off the TV during dinner are all key to developing these early reading skills. We don't have a television anywhere near our kitchen or dining room, but those other three challenge me. In light of this study, it is surprising that my youngest son can read at all, given that he has spent the first six years of his life in a state of unrelenting disorganization and hurry. His kindergarten teacher obviously deserves a big thank you, but I also think somebody needs to study the effects of eating a salami and cheese sandwich and banana for dinner in a moving minivan while your older sister reads to you and your mom drives everyone to a soccer game on reading skills. Luckily, that method seems to have worked for us because I know the calm organized home won't appear anytime soon.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Foodie Friday Arrives Early This Week

I love a gyro. Love as in I'd like to marry one. Back in college, my friends and I were convinced that a gyro consumed from a grease truck (aka roach coach) at 2 am, walking home from a bar would stave off a hangover in the morning. In reality, it didn't work, but it was delicious trying. Here's another story about me and this bit of meat, vegetable and yogurt heaven wrapped in flat bread: seven years ago, my husband and I went to a diner for dinner. I ordered a gyro and moaned and licked my fingers all the way through it. I woke up the next morning knowing I had to have another. I stopped off at the mall, bought one at the food court, and consumed it standing up. On day three, I insisted we go back to the diner for another gyro dinner. I wanted one again the next day, but decided I might not be setting the best example for my two young children. Several days later, I found out, much to my surprise, that I was seven weeks pregnant. Let's just say, if you are what you eat, my third child is extremely lucky he didn't emerge from my body looking like a Greek diner specialty.

Today's NYTimes has a great piece entitled "The Gyro's History Unfolds." It is really well written and full of fascinating gyro facts and history. It attempts to answer "who is the Henry Ford of the gyro?" and suggests that in an economic downturn, the gyro business is a good one to be in. Plus, it has a video. "The Making of a Gyro Cone." I have to admit, I never knew such a thing as this big BandAid colored round of mass produced gyro meat existed, but I never thought deeply about it. I just craved them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Subject:British Chick Lit Penned by a Dude

I finished Holly's Inbox by Holly Denham about a week ago. Don't be fooled by the cover. It is really Holly's Inbox and Sent Mail and it was written by a guy. It is a fat book, over 600 pages, but can be read in about a day as each page contains a handful of emails and a whole lot of white space. This fast paced story, told completely in emails, chronicles Holly's time working as a receptionist at a busy corporate bank in England. I love a good British chick lit offering as much as the next gal, but this one didn't do it for me. I have the feeling the author studied the Bridget Jones and Shopaholic books and tried to deliver up more of the same for women readers. It contains zany, sharp-tongued friends, romance, mishaps, weight worries, and a dysfunctional family who mean well, but it falls short of the mark.

Monday, July 13, 2009

While I'm Not Reading Important Literature

That's right. While I am not reading the literary classics that I should reading to prepare for my soon to commence paid employment, my nine year old daughter is polishing off about a book a day this summer, including H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man That girl needs more household chores! And she needs to stop putting her mother to shame by making her so proud!

American Literature, Procrastination, and Two Sweet Boys

After nine years of full time stay at home motherhood, I'm headed back to work in September. I'll be teaching high school English. Ever since I began sending out my resume last spring, I've been plagued by guilt and fear. I'm working through the guilt as I also felt guilt about not bringing home some bacon or providing my children with a working mother role model. Darned if you do darned if you don't. The fear, actually more of a bad case of nerves, is still affecting me. So many people have told me that the teaching profession is sooo different now and, worse, that teenagers are sooo different. Can they really be so changed in a decade and what is the cause? Texting? Harry Potter? Twilight? Ipods? So I've been trying to prepare myself. I've been all over educational websites and blogs. I've picked up the textbooks I'll be using. I should be reading this

and this,
but at the end of very long summer days of making pancake breakfasts (that's preemptive guilt trying to make up for the PopTart breakfasts headed our way), packing picnic lunches, driving the kids to the lake for swim practice, swim meets, and general fun in the sun, applying and reapplying sunscreen, washing the swimsuits, towels, and cooler, making dinner, taking walks and/or evening bike rides, squeezing in some doctor visits or library trips here and there, and scrubbing the bathtub of all the sand that falls off my kids' bodies (seriously, you could build a castle in it most summer nights), when I finally fall into the bed with a book, I fall asleep on top of it. That is getting me worried. I must reacquaint myself with Hester Prynne and Captain Ahab.
This evening as soon as I sat down with the books and hi lighter pens, my sons asked me to take them for a bike ride. Apparently it wasn't fair that their sister had a sleepover to attend and they didn't. I loaded the minivan with their bikes and drove to a local park. I don't think I was overly cheerful about it and as I watched them bike around the park, I berated myself for being snippy with them and then berated myself for not being firmer and just reading those books, when my six year old biked over to me with a Bic pen he found in the parking lot "to use when you do your schoolwork" followed by my ten year old clutching a fistful of daisies for me. Is it odd that I cried? Or that I'm a little choked up typing this hours later? I'm thinking we're in for a bumpy ride come September.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Foodie Friday: Tamales

I have not yet read this book; I just want to because

a) How cute is that bespectacled tamale?
b) I love the idea of anthropomorphized tamales!
c) It's a retelling of a fun classic, The Three Little Pigs.
d) It's fun to say "hot tamales."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Artistic Spirit Is Willing But The Flesh Is Another Story

I had the best of intentions at the outset of summer vacation. The kids and I were going to get ourselves some culture. We were going to drink in art museums and classical music, maybe even some historical sights. Well, we have gone swimming frequently and eaten a lot of ice cream. Does that count as culture? Luckily, I found two great books at our library that don't quite serve as a substitute for a trip to an art museum but have engaged all three of my kids. Katy Friedland and Marla K. Shoemaker's A is for Art Museum is terrific. It is, as the title suggests, an alphabet book, and it presents dozens of pieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A question is posed of each piece as well, helping readers/viewers/art appreciators think about the art. For example Modigliani's Portrait of a Polish Woman faces a page that reads, "N is for neck. Here is a lady with a very long neck. Can you stretch your neck like this?" Van Gogh's Sunflowers is used for the letter S. "S is for sunflowers. Vincent van Gogh loved to paint sunflowers. Can you see where he signed his name?" In addition to the question given for each piece in the book, the authors give suggestions to enhance the readers' next museum visit. If we can organize ourselves to go this summer, I've got some great ideas to try with the kids.
My other fun art book discovery is the Touch the Art series of board books featuring famous works of art. We especially loved Pop Warhol's Top. My six year old son Ethan learned about Keith Haring in art class during the school year and made an exuberant picture inspired by his work so it is not surprising that he enjoyed the Keith Haring pages in this book. It makes 20th century art approachable with fuzzy pages and pop up book type action as well as a bit of background information on each piece. Other titles in the Touch the Art series are Brush Mona Lisa's Hair and Make Van Gogh's Bed.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

My Son's Current Summertime Obsession

This is the source of the giggling I hear coming from my ten year old son's bedroom way after lights out each night. I'm so happy for him!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Fireworks, Fiction, and Family on the Fourth

We had a fabulous weekend over here at the house of The Book Bench. Great lots of food and fireworks were enjoyed. We commenced reading Harriet the Spy together. My husband finished building new bookshelves for my daughter's room. I've happily been following the conversation begun by Nicholas Kristof's NYTimes OpEd piece on "The Best Kids' Books Ever." (Check it out or add a suggestion at The best thing about our weekend was visiting the beautiful, sweet, healthy delightful baby boy just born unto my brother and sister-in-law. You should see this kid! He is perfection all bundled up in a little blanket.

Friday, July 3, 2009

I am taking the long weekend off from blogging to enjoy some family, food, and fireworks. Have a Happy Fourth of July!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Is it odd that a child who spent her own money to purchase I Can Haz Cheeseburger?, a collection of pictures of adorable kittens with precious made up quotes in broken kitten English felt her intelligence was insulted yesterday when I bought the Junior Classics for Young Readers abridged versions of Black Beautyand Little Women? She can giggle for days about a kitty "wuvving" a new best friend but needs the entire original text from Louisa May Alcott?