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.

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.

our summer bucket list

This morning we stopped by our community garden spot to pick snap peas before heading to the library. Just-from-the-garden fresh and crisp, those snap peas disappeared in no time. “As sweet as candy,” my older son declared.

At the library, the boys each got to choose a book to keep for completing ten of the reading program activities. Then they participated in a dinosaur scavenger hunt. We checked out a week’s worth of reading material and arrived back home just in time for lunch. There’s much to savor in the simple summer routine that we’ve settled into, and Friday library visits are one of our anchor activities. (During the past three school years, it was just me and the preschooler.)

Summers also afford the chance to do things we may not get around to during the school year. I recently read an article in Minnesota Parent advocating for a realistic summer bucket list. I quite agree that an attainable list of meaningful family experiences and activities is better than an over-the-top list that goes undone. So I’ve written down some of the things that have been and I’d like to see continue to be a part of our summers:

attend VBS

make popicles

complete the library summer reading program

take swimming lessons

memorize a psalm

grow our own tomatoes

go camping

check out a new swimming spot

read one of the Chronicles of Narnia

participate in a Lego Mini Build

send the boys to Camp Clair

bake zucchini bread (because there is nearly always someone who wants to pass along one of those “too-big-to eat” monsters and we can only eat so many zucchini fritters)

We’ve already completed – or have in progress – about half of these. My plan is to hang on to this list for inspiration as we move in to the second half of the summer.

What’s on your summer to-do list?


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.

two types of vacations

In June we took a family vacation. I recall one mom who used the term “taking the show on the road” for such trips because although they do offer one kind of rest – a break from doing the same things in the same way – it is not necessarily a break from such tasks as planning meals, cooking, washing dishes, and all that. In fact, there’s a fairly intensive pre-trip planning that’s required unless you’re willing to shell out a bunch of extra cash for things you forgot. As we packed everything we’d need for several days of both camping in the woods and camping in a friend’s empty apartment, I couldn’t help but think that it would be much easier to just stay home. A little change of scenery is good for us, though. And we’re making memories.

As it turned out, this year there were plenty of memories to be made. It started with a car breakdown just as we were turning into our camp site at Devil’s Lake in Baraboo, Wisconsin. We couldn’t get a tow truck to come get our car until the next day. Then they needed a full day to repair the power steering line. So we ended up staying an extra day at our campsite. The good thing: it was a lovely place to be stranded. Our boys enjoyed sleeping in a tent, roasting marshmallows, observing slugs up close and taking in plenty of the simple delights of being outdoors all day long. But on our second night, just as it was time to retire for the evening, it started pouring. For two hours straight. We had a river running between our tent and the ground cover. You know how when you’re camping you reassure yourselves by saying that if it gets too bad you can always hop in your vehicle? Well, there was no car at our camp site just then; it was still in the repair shop. The boys’ sleeping bags absorbed a good deal of water. The next morning my son said, “It felt like I peed my pants, but I didn’t.” My husband threatened to never go camping again. Thankfully we got our car back so we could pack up our wet gear and move on to phase II of our adventure, which involved sleeping with a roof over our heads and the use of an electric range for cooking. Such luxuries. We got more sleep there, explored the Madison zoo, swam in a pool and splashed around at a splash deck. That was our June vacation.

In July we had a vacation of an entirely different kind, the kind in which parents who are used to having their children around all time time are suddenly at a loss for what to do without them. One very thoughtful sister of mine offered to take care of the kiddos for two nights of camping at their Grandpa’s farm. My husband and I couldn’t believe how quiet the house seemed. We went downtown, slept in until 7 a.m. (the latest I’d slept in months), and visited a different church on Sunday, just because. I realized that after a few hours of stillness, I’m ready to hear our boys’ laughter and commotion. I’m ready to have one boy or the other come to find me with a question when I’m cooking or writing. I’m ready to have someone ask me to read a book. I’m not ready for a week with no children around.

Now I know.

popcorn and poetry

“I don’t like poetry; I like non-fiction,” our first-grader said as I scanned titles in the poetry section of the library. “I like animals.” I took it as a challenge. It’s national poetry month after all. The first book I grabbed was a book of animal poetry that looked like it held promise: animal poetry Some of the poems in this book qualify as nonfiction, though not all of them. But the pictures alone earned the book high marks with my two young book critics. Then I found a book of nature poems by an author we know and like, Jane Yolen: count rhyme The poems are fun, and it too has outstanding pictures. It was a quick read with some memorable poems, as was a similar title by the same author:   color rhymeWe’re likely to check both of them out again. Another winner was an anthology edited by Mary Ann Hoberman: forget me notsThis book has a lot of classics in it as well as contemporary poems, organized by topic. Some made us laugh out loud. I also appreciate the tips on memorizing poems, a skill too few people value these days. The book would make a great gift for the child in your life.

So last week when I suggested we read poetry, we had options. “Popcorn and poetry!” Our younger boy welcomed the idea but insisted that popcorn was a part of the package. We had my sister to thank for this, but I don’t mind a bit. There aren’t many things I enjoy more than sharing a book with my boys before bedtime.

We persuaded their daddy to join us. “Which do you like better – popcorn or poetry?” he asked.

“Both!” my four-year-old said.