new books to check out at your library

We recently read this year’s Newbery Medal winner:


CJ, a main character in the book, reminded me of my own boys – of how they have responded to helping our “often overlooked neighbors.” My boys may come reluctantly, sometimes complaining, but by the time it’s over they’re glad they were included. The no-nonsense grandmother in the story made me smile. And pointed out a truth that transcends generations: “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

We also picked up the 2016 Caldecott Medal winner at the library:


“If the bear’s so famous how come I’ve never heard of it?” my eight-year-old asked. Once we read it, we discovered it was about a bear we’d heard of – and read about – before: Winnie-the-Pooh. The mom in the book is telling her son a bedtime story, a true story about the boy’s great great grandfather and a bear he found on the way to his assigned post as a veterinarian during World War I.

My favorite part of the book is where the boy says he doesn’t want the story to be over. His mom tells him, “Sometimes you have to let one story end so the next one can begin.” The boy wants to know how you know when that will happen. “You don’t,” the mom says. “Which is why you should always carry on.”

A brand new book of concrete poetry was another fun read:

pict wet cement

This book includes poems that allow the reader to look at and think about common things such as a firefly, hanger, balloon, and xylophone in new ways. The last poem challenges readers to give poetry writing a try.




homemade jam

Last month we broke open the seal on our last pint jar of mulberry jam. It took us back to the summer days when the mulberry tree on the Elmhurst Cemetery fence line was laden with ripe fruit. “I wish we could pick mulberries now,” one son said.

We recalled how the tree had been loaded with mulberries and we’d gotten permission from the cemetery manager to pick the berries, promising him some mulberry cobbler in return. He was surprised some days later when we actually delivered the warm dessert, fresh out of the oven. “This cobbler is best the first day,” I told him. He responded by saying we should help ourselves to more mulberries if we like.

Throughout the month we picked enough for two small batches of mulberry jam, three cobblers and over a month’s worth of smoothies. Plenty of the berries also went straight into the boys’ mouths, staining their lips a deep purple. One time when we were picking, my younger son climbed the chain link fence to reach some berries that were higher in the tree. When his older brother attempted the same thing, he scratched his knee. I sent the crying boy and his younger brother home together. Daddy was there to wash the wound and wipe away the tears…

Now the last of the berries are gone -I scraped the jar clean this morning – and the apple butter we made last fall is history too (we shared, really). I was trying to figure out what sort of jam to make this time of year. I pulled out Old-Time Farmhouse Cooking for a bit of inspiration and found “Anna’s Carrot Jam,” coming from a newspaper clipping circa 1914. “Composed of the humblest ingredients, it never fails to prove a pleasing combination,” the author claimed. I had never heard of carrot jam before. I did a bit more reading and found some other recipes courtesy of the World Carrot Museum.

My preschooler and I gave it a try this morning. I peeled and cut up about a pound of carrots and simmered them in a little water until tender. After I had drained them and tried to mash them I realized I should have cooked them a bit longer for easier mashing. Nothing that additional cooking time and an immersion blender couldn’t fix, though. We added two cups of sugar and the juice of one lime, cooked the mixture a few minutes, put the blender to work, and then simmered the jam until it jellied. “Someone might think it’s marmalade,” my son said even before he tasted it. I couldn’t argue – it is orange with a fairly strong citrus flavor. He sampled it and pronounced it good. I told him that he doesn’t need to tell his brother (who has a strong dislike of cooked carrots) what’s in the jam. Final reviews will be out after breakfast tomorrow.

of child’s play – and life

Last week our preschooler had a friend over to play. They started out by pouring out the contents of the toy box and picking through it for the most interesting things. Those items in the toy box are rarely touched these days, but when looking at them through a new set of eyes, my son did end up thinking a few of them were worth his attention again, at least for part of an afternoon. But it wasn’t too long until they pulled the marble ramp from the closet, followed by the wooden train set. They played with each for a good ten minutes before casting about for something else. Then my son started creating something out of K’nex while the other boy became engrossed in the workings of a submarine. Soon it was time for each to revisit their favorites among the toys scattered around the living room and one bedroom. I heard marbles going down the ramp again…

When the play date was over, we had a lot of things to pick up and put away, but I had good help. And I have few complaints of this kind of play: two boys enjoying each other’s company as they mostly do their own thing, but everyone once in while cooperate to make things go better – or have a brief conversation.

Somewhere along the way, play tends to get more complicated so that by the time you’re eight you’re much more likely to be absorbed in someone else’s script. Earlier this year and at the end of last, our second grader was consumed by Star Wars. (No coincidence that it started shortly before the release of the latest Star Wars movie.) There was – and still is – a lot of Stars Wars going on at the school playground, if my son’s stories are any indication. The boys who have seen the movies or have some other good source of Star Wars information are the ones who get to tell everyone else how to play. They teach the others the names of the good guys and bad guys, explain who does what, when and how … In such games, my son is a follower. He hasn’t seen the movie – and most probably won’t for several years since it is rated PG-13.

Maybe that’s not quite as big of a deal now as it was three weeks ago, though. Because that’s about when our second grader came home with four Pokémon cards that Eli had given him at school. Since then there has been no rest about adding to his “collection.” More specifically, he believes we need to go out and buy some more cards. Right. Now. (I’ve put him off till the end of February at least. I hope they’re on to a new topic by then.) It’s the same scenario about following someone else’s script. The kids with the most knowledge about the Pokémon trading card game are the ones who dispense information about this fictional world, including details such as who is a “fire type” – and what that even means.

Every day I am reminded what a heavy dose of pop culture comes with public education. I’m left with a lot of questions about how we as parents help our son navigate that, especially as the pop culture values seem to grow more and more divergent from our own.

on the subject of pets

“Mom, I wanna get a potbellied pig,” my five-year-old told me yesterday.

“Where are you going to keep it?” I asked.

“I don’t know…They defend their owner,” he said.

“From what do you need to be defended?”

He didn’t have any real answer for this question either.

But it’s only a matter of time until he learns that he’ll need to think through his proposal before he presents it to his mom. He could take a cue from his older brother.

The last time our eight-year-old broached the subject of pets he was lobbying for a snake. He said I wouldn’t have to feed the snake – he’d do that himself. I said that’s right: when you get your own place and your own snake you’ll be the one to feed it. And as far as I’m concerned, the only pet we’ll be bringing in to our home anytime soon is a pet rock.

“Rock?” he asked.

“Yes, a pet rock.”

“But a rock doesn’t DO anything.”


To the boys, I suppose I sound just as infuriating as my dad used to when we asked him to get us a horse. (Because, you know, all the cats and cows we had on the farm weren’t enough.)

Perhaps one day my boys will be on the other side of the conversation. Then they’ll understand my point of view.

what’s the cook to do?

It’s time to cast my net wide for ideas of how to deal with the complaining that accompanies the start of meal times far too frequently. It can become demoralizing to hear “ew” and “yucky” on a regular basis when I’m serving up dinner.

One potential solution: it’s time to put the 8-year-old to work in the kitchen. I’m not sure I’m ready to hand over the planning and the bulk of the food preparation for even one meal a week, but in the long run, the benefits will out-weigh the inconveniences, right?

Another idea came to me while checking my inbox this morning. It was prompted by my word of the day email. Today I learned the word rechauffe (ray-sho-FAY). The first meaning given was “warmed leftover food.”

This is just the word I need to add to my vocabulary. It sounds so sophisticated, so exotic. Not that my sons like exotic, but it’s all about the marketing sometimes.

I can imagine the conversation already.

Son: What’s for dinner, mom?

Me: Rechauffe.

Son: What’s that?

Me: Wait and see.

Son: Just tell me.

Me: It’s really good…




an evening of reading and talking about books

My sons and I had last Friday evening to ourselves, so after an early dinner we settled down on the couch together with a stack of new books from the library. Earlier in the day I’d been able to collect six of the Star of the North Picture Book Award nominees and so I thought we’d read, discuss and rate them. What a fine stack of books it turned out to be.

First we read Ninja Red Riding Hood by Corey Rosen Schwartz because my boys thought they would like it best. This book introduced some martial arts terms that they were interested in learning more about. They thought the book was okay, but neither ended up choosing it as their top pick.

Penny and her Marble by Kevin Henkes was okay and it got us talking about paying attention to our conscience, but it wasn’t as good as some of the other books we’ve read by Henkes. None of us gave it the highest ranking.

My older son and I liked Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. We found it to be a compelling true story and declared it to be the best of the three we’d read so far. As it turned out, it stayed right up there at the top after we’d worked our way through all six books. It’s a bit long to hold the attention of a five-year-old, but was fine for an eight-year-old.

Next we read Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel. My boys found some of the injustices mentioned in this book unbelievable, and were appalled to hear about Clara’s broken ribs. It’s kind of a heavy topic for kids this age, but the book ends on a positive note. We thought it was almost as good as the Growing Table book we’d read just before it.

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt is a light-hearted story that appeals to a kid’s sense of humor. This is the story out of this bunch that my five-year-old liked best. We read it twice, the second time paying attention to how the boy in the story addressed each crayon’s concerns in his final picture. We read it the following day as well.

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert is autobiographical in nature. I think it’s probably most interesting if you’ve already read several of her other books because she discusses her writing process with examples from previous books. It was fun to learn about how her parents helped cultivate her interest in art and books. I thought it was probably the second best book of the six we read that evening. One of the librarians said it seems to be more for adults than kids, but I’d say there’s plenty there to inspire a child in his or her creative pursuits.

This reading and discussion took a good hour and a half, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend an evening as a family. We’re looking forward to reading the other four books on the list soon so we can finalize our vote.

familiar and unfamiliar territory

“Fresh cranberries. What are you going to make?” the Aldi cashier asked me.

“I was thinking of cranberry applesauce,” I said.

“Oh, an old family recipe?”

“No, I just made it up.”

“Oh, wow, you’re adventurous,” she said.

That’s often how I cook. It generally works well when I use familiar ingredients. But for the last two weeks we’ve been trying out a mostly vegan diet in an effort to help my husband feel better. (He’s been suffering from abdominal pain that all the medical tests conducted to date have been unable to explain. We’ve wondered if eliminating hard-to-digest foods might help.) So many of the recipes in my usual rotation are out of the question these days, and I feel like I’ve ventured into unfamiliar territory. I’ve been looking at recipes that call for things like white miso paste and chick pea flour. I can’t even find those things in the two grocery stores where I typically shop.

“Can I wear shorts today?” my second grader asked on Wednesday morning. “It’s above 40 degrees!”

“No. It’s not summer anymore,” I said, reminding him that the forecast was calling for colder weather the next few days.

This conversation quickly escalated into an argument. Just one of the many instances lately in which my son has been trying out his negotiating skills. He seems to think everything is up for negotiation, and that the longer he persists the greater likelihood of success. It gets exhausting – exhausting in a way that’s not so easily remedied by a good night’s sleep (although I’d say it always helps to be a well-rested parent). How much easier it was when my son simply thought mommy was right and the days were filled with things like play time, reading time, lunch time and nap time. Kids don’t remain toddlers – for which we’re truly glad – but as we move into uncharted territory I’m feeling the need for extra wisdom and grace.

I wrote a letter to the editor last week about how our school district’s discipline policies seem to be leading to an unsafe, unproductive learning environment. It was published in the Pioneer Press yesterday (third letter from the top). As a result, a reporter from Minnesota Public Radio called me this morning to ask for an interview. I can express myself fairly well with the written word, but producing coherent sound bites for a radio interview isn’t something I have experience doing. I’m hoping I don’t sound like an idiot. I guess tomorrow we’ll find out.

learning from failure

I recently read The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey.

Gift of Failure This book offers an alternative to today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting approach, which “has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation.” Lahey begins the book by describing her dawning realization that she had been overparenting and chronicles some of her own struggles to grant her sons more freedom and more responsibility. She makes a compelling argument for allowing children the safe space they need to fail – and learn from that failure – at a young age when the stakes are still low.

The controlling parent or the one who always comes to the rescue of her child is challenged to begin parenting for autonomy and competence, which involves setting clear and specific expectations, being physically and emotionally present and offering guidance when a child is frustrated or needs redirecting. She argues for giving children responsibility around the home as an important part of helping kids feel autonomous, competent and connected.

In a discussion of motivation, the author describes how overparenting inhibits intrinsic motivation and essentially teaches children that without parents’ help they’ll never be able to surmount challenges. By protecting kids from failure, she argues, we’re communicating that we don’t have faith in their ability to overcome the challenges they face.

Throughout the book, Lahey offers some practical suggestions for parents, including the following:

Allow for mistakes and help children understand the consequences of those mistakes.

Don’t offer to rescue your child from the consequences of his or her mistakes.

Value the mistakes as much as the successes – in other words, support and love them just as much whether they’ve succeeded or failed.

Acknowledge children’s feelings of frustration and disappointment.

Provide feedback that supports effort and guides a child toward seeing his or her mistakes and then finding a workable solution.

Praise kids for their effort, which encourages them to draw the connection between effort and capability.

Encourage risk-taking in learning; fear of failure undermines education.

Emphasize goals rather than grades.

The Gift of Failure is a worthwhile read that may have you rethinking your expectations for your kids. It challenged me to consider what level of independence I will expect of my kids by the time they are young adults and to make parenting decisions in the present that will help them reach that goal.

This school year, after reading the book, I’ve taken more of a hands-off approach to the getting ready for school routine each morning. My son packs his own lunch, though still with some supervision. He’s responsible for getting things into his backpack too. So far, he’s forgotten his homework at home once and forgotten a book that he was supposed to take to school. This is when my temptation to take over kicks in, but for the sake of fostering independence I’m trying not to.

living in the moment

“Is quiet time done yet?” my recently-turned-five-year-old shouted from his room.

“No.” I responded.

“Why not?” he wanted to know.

“Because it’s not yet three o’ clock.”

“I want it to be. Make time go faster,” he suggested. That pretty much sums up how we tend to look at life for the first few decades of life, doesn’t it? It was the same son who just today said, “When I was four, I wished I was five, but now I wish I was six.” I remember couldn’t wait for the day when I started kindergarten myself. Then I always thought it would be better if I were just a few years – or even just one year – ahead of wherever I was at the time.

“Why are parents sad when their kids grow up?” he asked last week as we were driving home from our morning volunteering gig. We’d been giving out coffee and bagels – and tissues – to parents on the first day of kindergarten at his brother’s school. We had just seen more than one teary-eyed, sniffling mom exiting the school building after dropping off a little one.

This does not make any sense to someone who sees adding one more year to his age as a most desirable thing. In the weeks since his birthday, he’s reminded us several times that he is now five. Once his big brother took the opportunity to point out, “You know, you were a premature baby so if you were born for real, you’d still be four.” But he’s not going to dwell on that. He’s five and if it were up to him, he’d be in school now, just like his big brother.

sept 10 2015
Photo courtesy of J. Gebeke via Twitter

I’m still guilty of wanting to fast-forward through seemingly unpleasant periods. (I can’t count how many times I’ve started a sentence addressed to my husband with, “When you’re done with graduate school…”) But as I’ve gotten older, I more often have the good sense to enjoy the moment we’re living, to savor it because it won’t ever be quite like this again. Who knows how much longer my son will hold my hand as we walk together? (Some days he already doesn’t want to.) Who knows how much longer it’ll be that my boys come to me first with nearly every question or random thought they want to share? Such are the gifts of this season.

time for a hair cut

“Mom, I need a hair cut,” my seven-year-old reported yesterday.

“Yes, you do, but I’m cooking dinner right now. Remind me after we eat,” I said.

Apparently that wasn’t soon enough. The boy decided he’d do a little trimming on his own. The first thing I noticed was fine dark hair scattered on the bathroom floor. And the hand-held mirror was lying near the sink with some telltale hair trimmings on it as well. “Oh, no,” I thought.

“Adam! Bring the broom here,” I called. Perhaps he knew this wouldn’t be a pleasant exchange. He retrieved the broom in record time, and I helped him sweep up the floor. Looking at him head-on I didn’t see any bad gashes. Perhaps it was only a little harmless trimming… I reminded him that only grown ups cut hair.

Upon further inspection, I saw a few places in the back that looked like a goat had been at work (as his daddy would say). So after dinner, I pulled out the electric hair trimmer, put on the number 2 attachment and evened out the back considerably. Then trimmed his sides and top too. Just one small spot is shorter than the rest now. The hair should grow in within a week or two.

I gave his little brother a hair cut too. And then the four-year-old illustrated just how badly, in his view, they had needed a hair cut:

2015-08-03 19.23.53

Notice those piles of hair to the right and left of the boy in the chair?