why I won’t abandon the picture book even though my kids think we should

Our ten-year-old has become known for devouring thick books, but he has very definite ideas about what he likes to read. He’s recently made it though the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series and has moved on to Heroes of Olympus. A few weeks ago he was a bit agitated when he was out of said reading material and still had one more day to go before his next library visit at school. His affection for 500-plus page tomes sometimes leaks out as scorn for picture books, a sentiment that his younger brother has picked up on. Not to be left behind, our seven-year-old has also expressed a preference for chapter books. Trouble is, he can’t read too many of those himself.

So, I’ve been adding more chapters to our read-aloud times. I insist the older boy put down his other book when I’m reading a chapter book aloud. He’s been known to express his displeasure about this, but he is often drawn into the story more than he’d like to admit. We recently finished reading Caddie Woodlawn together and both of the boys have brought up topics from it for discussion later. My younger son even retold the Pee Wee story from the book at a recent family story time. (His dad and and an aunt who was here hadn’t heard it before.)

But I’m not ready to give up picture books, so I still scan the shelves at the Rice Street Library during most of our visits. Sometimes I even find a book that pulls both boys in. Last week, I was reading The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt aloud to my seven-year-old, and about half way through, the ten-year-old joined us. He’d been listening, I could tell, because there was no request to turn back or start over. Both boys had had their imagination captured as we read this story set in an “ancient and distant kingdom” in which three great warriors each sought “a worthy challenge” and hoped to prove themselves in “the glory of battle.”

I considered it a victory for the picture book, a subtle reminder of the power of a good story to engage, amuse and provide fodder for conversation.




snow day(s)

Yesterday, as a sub at my sons’ school, I walked the kids to their buses through about 8 inches of unshoveled snow. I had a pretty good hunch that the roads were a mess. The snow had been falling all day; the plows couldn’t keep up. What ever happened to good old fashioned snow days? (All the pressure from working parents, I know.) Or at at least an early out? (The logistics of staggered school end times in a large urban district, I know. But STILL.)

After seeing all the second graders to their buses, I collected my own sons and prayed that we’d make it home without incident. But my compact car wouldn’t climb the last little hill on Cumberland Street. Too much snow in the street, with just enough slickness underneath to spin and spin. I ended up backing down and turning into the driveway of the apartment buildings across the street from where we live. With steamed up windows and cars waiting for me to get out of the way, I did several turns of forward and reverse, sweating all the while, before finally making it into that driveway. My thought was to drive through their parking lot to Idaho Street so I could approach our house from the west instead. But a stuck car blocked us, that car owner and a neighbor shoveling, trying to drive, shoveling some more… Fed up with driving – or even sitting in a car – I parked by the curb of one of the apartment garages, my older son protesting that we couldn’t just park here without permission.

I told him we’d ask after we got out, which is what I did, flagging down the skid-steer driver who had just cleared the spot where we’d parked our car. He was the grandson of the apartment building owner and I imagined his okay would buy us at least a few hours time. So then we walked the last block home and pulled out our snow shovels. I handed one good shovel to each boy, and I took the old bent up cast off shovel left behind by the previous home owner. The goal was to get the driveway cleared before daddy got home so he could make it up the steep incline and into the garage. We shoveled for about 45 minutes before I brought the boys in, fed them some grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, and went back out by myself to finish clearing snow and put some sand on the driveway…

All told, the district’s choice not to close school turned out to be a public relations disaster, complete with stuck buses and stranded students. It’s probably what impacted their decision to close today. We got the robo-call at 9 p.m. informing us school was cancelled for Tuesday.

The boys were already asleep. They found out this morning. “No school today,” we told our ten-year-old, who tends to be the first awake.

“I don’t know if I want to laugh or be disappointed,” he responded.

Then our seven-year-old came out of his room. “No school today,” we informed him.

“WWWWhhhyyyy?” he asked, hurrying to look out the window. There wasn’t any more snow than when he’d gone to bed last evening. And the roads had been plowed. We didn’t need the snow day today as much as we could have used it yesterday, but we’re going to make the most of it.

questions that emerge at the start of winter break

It was 3:30 p.m. on the last day of school before winter break, but the boys hadn’t burst through the door yet, as is their custom when they race in off the bus. I looked out the window and saw them rolling around in the snow. After a bit they brought their backpacks in and let me know they were going back out to play some more. “No throwing snowballs,” I reminded them. (That game had led to tears earlier in the week.) They resorted to playing with sticks. The possibility of this ending well seemed quite small. Why do boys see nearly every object as a potential weapon?

Soon a neighbor boy got off his bus and joined the game. “Hi, Auntie!” he ran over and greeted me when I was walking to the mailbox. “I’m playing while I’m waiting for my sister’s bus.” I smiled. His smiles are contagious. And I like that he calls me “Auntie” even though we’re in not at all related. He ran back to the “stick game” and played until his big sister walked him home. Why are such occurrences of spontaneous play with the neighbors so rare?

While I was making dinner that evening, our first grader informed me that he had no homework. His teacher had told the class that this was her gift to them – no homework. My son’s take on it was, “Seriously? What kind of gift is that? I want homework.” Why can’t this enthusiasm for school last?



how our kids see themselves

“…on the iPad I chose white and African American because, you know, Dad.” my seven-year-old told me a few weeks ago.

“Oh, you’re talking about the thing we had to answer with questions like, ‘My teacher encourages me to work hard,’” my 10-year-old chimed in.


“I chose not to answer,” the older boy said. “I thought you could only choose one… You can only choose one,” he told his brother.

“No, Mrs. K. said you can choose more than one. She gave an example about a student she had last year whose dad was black and mom was white. She said that student marked both white and African American.”

“That sounds right – you can choose more than one,” I said.

“I thought you could only choose one so that’s why I chose not to answer,” my 10-year-old said.

“If I had to choose only one, I’d choose white,” my seven-year-old said.

Another day it was the boy’s dad who inadvertently brought up the topic. “You need new ears,” he told our older son, turning his frustration into a joke. “Go to the store and get yourself the best pair of ears you can find.”

“What if they don’t match his skin color?” our younger son asked.

In a biracial family, references to racial identity do come up. Sometimes I wonder whether we’re parenting well in this area. When doubt is high, I’ve been known to go the library and pick up a book like I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla or Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. But the books don’t seem to contain any earth-shattering insights, and I’ve come to realize it’s just one more aspect of helping my sons accept themselves as they’ve been created – and helping them understand that more important than the color of one’s skin is the content of one’s character.

on lemon pie and other writing quandaries

“How long does it take to make a lemon pie?” my fourth grader came into the bedroom and asked as I was lying there awake but not quite ready to get out of bed and face the new day.

“Oh about an hour – or hour and a half,” I said, thinking that it could vary quite a bit depending on whether it’s got a homemade crust or not. Are we talking about a pudding pie or a lemon meringue pie? I’ve never made either for a long as my son has been around so I wasn’t sure what he was thinking of…

“How about I say an hour? Is that realistic?”

“Yes,” I said, deciding I don’t need to help him over-think it. He returned to his spelling sentences at the dining table and I got out of bed.

Last year I’d read about an author that mentioned writing her first story of length in third grade. She had written a chapter a week using the spelling words she’d been assigned to use in sentences. It was a clever enough idea that I thought it worth passing along to my son. He wasn’t interested in creating such a challenge for himself, but I’d thought it couldn’t hurt to pass along the idea. Who knows whether he might take it up some day…?

When I came to the table with yogurt for breakfast he showed me the sentence he’d been working on, which included the phrase “hot lemon pie.” I told him lemon pie would probably not be served hot. He’d added the adjective to make sure the sentence met the 10-word length requirement, I knew, so I suggested a replacement.

Last month I’d glanced at his spelling sentences. Three in a row contained the word “vary” so I took the opportunity to point out that adding “very” to a sentence usually isn’t necessary. It’s an overused word, and more precise describing words are far more useful. (This was when he had explained that each sentence with a spelling word should contain at least 10 words. “Vary” adds to the word count, at least.)

He’s struggled with writing ever since he’s been asked to produce his own prose. He over-thinks it, his teachers often conclude, at the expense of fluency. And every time I hear that it feels like sort of a déjà vu moment, taking me back to my own elementary school writing habit of sitting and staring at a blank piece of lined paper, wanting to writing but knowing that whatever I put down on the page wouldn’t be as good as it could be…knowing that I’d hate it and not want anyone else to read it.

It’s not easy to watch my kids struggle with the same things I used to struggle with (or still do). It’s unsettling to doubt whether my help is truly helpful. Yet it’s provided with the hope that he strives to improve, that in future assignments he chooses to think of a more precise word than “very” or that his imagination would be captured by the idea of weaving all the words into a story.



alphabet forest

Today is day 10 of our 12-day celebration of words at the Minnesota State Fair’s Alphabet Forest.

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Our shaded oasis is all about literacy development, supported by amazing authors and beautiful books. Countless children and other diligent denizens have won words and completed an Alphabet Forest game card in order to earn a blue ribbon.

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Hundreds of volunteers have helped provide the one-on-one interaction with learners of all ages that Debra Frasier envisioned when she designed this shaded oasis for fair goers.


It’s been humbling to lead the whole endeavor. I’m thankful for lots of guidance and support from a committed core group, some of whom have helped keep this place going for eight years. It’s a marathon of a job, that’s for sure, but the positive feedback we’ve gotten has made it all worthwhile.


home cooking

Aunt Betty has a stack of grandma’s recipes. She’s been hanging on to them since her mom down-sized and moved out of the house, I think. The thing is, none of them seem to be the recipes for the things that grandma made the most. Those were the recipes she carried around in her head, I’m guessing, and some of them were never recorded. So when I asked Aunt Betty for grandma’s bread recipe she sent me one that was close – it had the same ingredients that grandma used to use, she’d written – but it wasn’t the exact recipe. I pulled it out Saturday morning and made that whole wheat bread. By the time the smell of baking bread was coming from the oven, I was half done frying the bajiya that we were taking to the community garden potluck.

“Why are you making bajiya for the potluck?” one son asked.

“They said bring a food that represents your ethnic background,” I explained.

“That’s not my ethnic background,” he said. Neither of our boys are fond of bajiya, fritters of ground black-eyed peas spiced with turmeric and coriander.

“Yes, it is. You’re half Somali,” I reminded him.

“Well, it’s not your ethnic background,” he said.

“It’s the one I married into.”

Grandma Wolters did pass along some of her cooking skills, though. Perhaps the first thing she taught me was how to make homemade frosting. She’s the one who taught me how to make gravy too. There was never a recipe we referred to for either one – it was a little of this and a little of that until you got the right consistency and the right quantity. Taste and adjust as needed till it’s just the way you like it. That’s actually how I make most of the foods I grew up eating. But I’m an adventurous eater and crave variety more than anything. So I collect recipes too.

When I first asked my husband how to make bajiya he wasn’t even certain what the main ingredient is, but I found a recipe for it online. Now I make it sometimes for company and sometimes just for us. “It reminds me of my childhood,” my husband has said.

I sometimes wonder what foods my sons will remember from their growing up years. And what foods they’ll know how to make from memory… In case they ever change their mind about bajiya, the recipe will be right there in my recipe box.




lessons from a visit to the farm

Your grandpa’s farm can be a rather intimidating place when you’re six years old and have spent most of your life in the city. But you’re a good sport about it. Not long after you arrived last Monday, Rojo the dog knocked you over a couple of times and left a scratch on your face. So you had reason to want to stay in the house, but your mom sent you back outside with your brother and cousins, reminding you stay close enough to one of the bigger boys who could make sure the dog didn’t knock you over again.

You learned that pigeons get little mercy when they disturb the barn insulation as they’re trying to build a nest. So you got to witness your cousin and uncle shooting some of those birds with a BB gun.

You thought the hay mow, which is essentially off-limits to the dog, would be a good place to hang out. It was, until your shoe got stuck between two of the hay bales somewhere and no one – not your cousins, brother, uncle, aunt or mom – could find it. You learned, as it turns out, that looking for a shoe in among the bales of hay isn’t that much different from looking for a needle in the haystack. So you had to take the sock off the foot with no shoe, and you decided that totally barefoot was better than one shoe off and one shoe on.

While in the hay mow, you got a good look at a cat skeleton, which no one else seemed to want to touch. Apparently you thought it was worth picking up – and swinging around a few times (perhaps to prove YOU weren’t grossed out by it). Nothing like a brief overview of cat anatomy in a natural context.

After the shoe was history, you figured out how to climb to the top of the stack of round bales in the hay shed. You seemed to think that was a good perch and even when your brother decided to find something else to do, you were happy to sit up there and take in the view from 20 feet up. “I know how to get down by myself,” you boasted.

I think it was fair to say that you’d learned a lot that day – the kind of learning a kid gets during summer break.

sharing a feeling

Last week I was subbing in a preschool classroom. Annika was one of the five kids at my table for small group work. Though the other kids had scattered to various play areas after finishing their worksheet, she lingered at the table. “Today after school, I have to say with Nana, but I want to be with my mom,” she said.

“Is your mom working?” I asked.

“Yeah, and she comes back after dark,” Annika said. “She spends a lot of time with her boyfriend. I don’t get to be with her that much.”

“How does that make you feel?” I asked.

“Sad,” she responded.

“Maybe you should tell your mom that,” I suggested.

“I already did,” she said.

“And what did your mom say?”

“She said, ‘Oh, I do spend time with you,'” Annika told me.”But I want to be with her more.”

We sat together for a few moments, that sweet five-year-old and I, each thinking our own thoughts, sharing a similar feeling. I wished I could make it better for Annika. I wish Annkia’s mom realized that her little girl isn’t going to be little for long, in the grand scheme of things, and that she should savor every moment.

The only thing I could offer this little girl was a listening ear – and perhaps a story. “Do you want to read a book?” I asked.

She brightened. “Go get one you like from the bookshelf,” I told her. She came back with the colorful I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More and we let the silly, sing-songy story distract us for a bit.




a culture of boredom

During the discussion of Sounder in my son’s book club last week I asked about “night loneliness.” The book tells us it’s part fear, but I wanted to know what else these third graders thought might be involved.

No one had much to add so I made a case for why it might include boredom. As an aside, I added that my husband comes from a culture where the term “bored” simply does not exist.

“Oh, he’s lucky,” one girl exclaimed. “Then he never gets bored.”

I suppressed a laugh and refrained from telling her that her parents were equally lucky because they were from the same culture. And we didn’t have time to get into a discussion of whether something can exist even if there’s no word for it. But according to my sources, people in Somalia rarely if ever find themselves in a situation in which they’d be tempted to declare they’re bored. As city dwellers, at least.

My husband explained that there are always people around, and in an oral society such as theirs, they are skilled at filling the time with narration, discussion and debate. Creating their own diversion is second nature to them, it seems. Kids never have a shortage of playmates, and they know how to create their own toys and games. Even they don’t get bored.

I recall one Somali-American mother telling me about how easily her children toss around the phrase, “I’m bored.” In her mind it is a sign of assimilation. Just for the record, my husband now gets bored too. At least that’s the reason he’s given at times for singing aloud to himself and for making tea.