Family-friendly audio books for long car trips

Because my family lives half a continent away, the kids and I have long car trips down. Yes, twelve-hour drives as the solo adult with five kids including a nursing infant are possible. One reason this works is because four out of the five are potty trained and three of the five can not only take themselves inside a bathroom stall, but can also wash their own hands AND hold the baby (not simultaneously, of course) during a stop. Much easier than the days when I traveled with three under three.

Another reason this works is audiobooks.

Whether you’re making a long car trip or simply motoring about town, a good audiobook series can make a ride much more enjoyable for you and the children. Here are a few of the series we’ve enjoyed of late (all available through our library’s OverDrive app, which you should ask your library about, but also easy to find through Audible–a 30-day free trial might be a good choice if you’ve got a big trip coming up!).

mysterious-benedict-societyThe Mysterious Benedict Society series combines a mystery with a quest and riddles and teamwork and very clever wordplay to create a bang-up story that the kids and I loved. We listened to Book One on audio and have the next on hold, but meanwhile Jack enjoyed it so much that he spent his own money to purchase a copy of the first book for himself, and Hannah liked it so well she asked if she could give a copy to a friend for a birthday present.

Apart from being a thrilling tale, I particularly like that the main characters in The MBS are all kids who are a little unusual. They are kind of weird or have unusual abilities or are lonely, and yet they come to see how their unique skills and life experiences put them in exactly the right spot to do great things. This is a fantastic message for kids, especially if you have some who feel odd sometimes.

wingfeatherI’ve heard about The Wingfeather Saga for a long time, but we finally began it this summer and we are hooked. If you’re looking for an adventure series that is also well written, very funny, and excellent to read aloud (and who isn’t?) these are the books for you. We listened to On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, then switched to reading aloud for North! Or Be Eaten! and I’m not sure if we will proceed with audio or reading aloud for the rest of the series, or if I will just turn the big kids loose to read for themselves.

If you’re nervous about the whole “darkness” and “being eaten” themes, rest assured that the bad guys (for example, the Fangs of Dang) are scary, but offset by the silliness of their names and the fact that the good guys fight for Truth and Justice and Right and are never forsaken.

Not only did the big kids and I like it, but even Eliza (3) is engrossed and asks for more chapters.

narniaThe Chronicles of Narnia should go without saying for read-alouds, and we have read them all aloud together. The big kids have also read them individually. But we still really enjoyed listening to them on audiobook. Several of the readers were uncommonly excellent.

There are a couple of versions out there, so you want the unabridged. I haven’t tried the dramatized versions to know if they are any good. And please, whatever you do, please do not put The Magician’s Nephew first even if it is chronologically accurate. Read or listen in published order–it does make a difference to when you discover things!

I think of all the books, my favorite is probably The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, although I found The Last Battle particularly poignant as we listened to the part about Aslan’s Country after my grandmother died, so the allegorical Heaven was touching for me.

What have you been listening to this summer?

 

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How Dante Can Save Your Life

danteWhat a title, right? I love the premise of Rod Dreher’s book How Dante Can Save Your Life–it’s a personal memoir structured around a book (well, three books actually, but part of a set) that deeply changed the way the author sees the world.

Although Dante’s Divine Comedy (note: I have the Mandelbaum translation–there are many) may not strike you as hard as it did Dreher, most readers will identify with the transforming power of literature. My aunt who recommended the book to me was also taking a class on Dante at the time, so she enjoyed the memoir alongside a deep dive into the source material. I read Dante in college and didn’t really feel the need to re-read it, so you can certainly read the memoir as a stand-alone.

On the other hand, I might suggest that you not read Dreher’s book and assume that you now know about Dante. Although the book does contain information about Dante and clips from the Divine Comedy, it’s really a book about Dreher. And whether or not you like the book may come down to whether or not you wind up liking Dreher.

I didn’t, much.

I’m not sure what threw me off, but I wound up rooting for the antagonists in Dreher’s narrative. I wanted to like him–he’s a writer and a deep reader and a homeschool dad and his story is actually pretty interesting–but the tone of the book kept veering toward whining and the histrionic. I’m not sure if that’s just my reading of it or if the structure rubbed me the wrong way. Dreher opens each section with a segment from Dante that applies to the next step in his own narrative, and ends each section with an abrupt text box of vague application, here’s-how-YOU-can-change-YOUR-life type of prompts. That was an odd choice, and I think it asked too much of the book–like Dreher (or his editor, maybe–they felt tacked on) was making the book do too much at once and the structure couldn’t handle it.

I don’t want to pan How Dante Can Change Your Life, because the premise is great and the story is interesting. If you’re familiar with Dante and can get past the structural hiccups you might enjoy the book. My aunt, who is a great judge of books, really liked it. Even though I had issues with the book, I might still recommend it, especially to anyone considering writing memoir–different structures are always interesting to consider. If you do read it, I’d be interested to know your thoughts!

 

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Do you always finish a series?

silo

You may have heard of Hugh Howey–the one-in-a-million author who put a short story up on Amazon and wound up with a serialized best seller and a book deal–and his Silo Series. I hadn’t planned on reading it, but when a book club I’m part of (I wonder how many meetings one can miss and still style onself “part of” a book club…this one is hard for me to make for some reason) chose Wool for the July book, I decided to give the series a whirl.

The series–set in a dystopian future–uses terrific world-building and Howey managed multiple angles simultaneously in a way that drove the plot rather than getting confusing. As I read I wondered how much Howey changed his idea along the way, since he was getting feedback after every installment.

The first book, Wool, is the strongest. In it, Howey establishes the setting and introduces characters who slowly unravel just enough of the complicated mess to move the ball down the field a bit and leave the reader wanting more.

Then comes Shift, which delves more into how the mess got started. It’s still good, but a little less compelling. Sometimes backstory should stay backstory. The second book definitely felt like, “fans are demanding to know more about this fascinating scenario!” rather than a solid story in its own right.

By the third book, Dust, I was getting sick of the main characters. The bad guy is too bad (and I kept mentally thinking of him as Snow from the Hunger Games) and the heroine is too annoying. Several other characters felt two-dimensional and either too saccharine or too clueless. There were some plot elements that came out of nowhere and went nowhere (fast, at least) and at several points I asked myself why I was devoting my limited lifespan to continuing this series. And then the ending was too pat.

I know, the point of diminishing returns and everything. But it’s hard to let go of a series once you get started. If I were you, and if I were looking for a good summer read with a strong plot and fast pace, I’d read Wool. But then I’d let Shift and Dust go and move on to other things.

Once you start a series, do you always finish it?

 

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On reading with my grandmother

IMG_5928I’m trying to recall the first book my grandmother offered to discuss with me. It may have been The Little Colonel, or it might have been Freckles. I’m almost certain Christy came later, but the order doesn’t really matter. In any case, she would sometimes recommend a book to me, and tell me we could talk about it once I was done.

I don’t remember the details of the initial conversations, but we did continue to trade books off and on when I would visit. Once I got to be an adult, I would mail Grandmama a copy of a book once or twice a year, and she would send letters suggesting other titles I might like. I still remember the phone call when we discussed The Help. We talked for nearly two hours about the maids that had had an impact on her life in one way or another.

IMG_5929That was about the time Alzheimer’s was taking hold of Grandmama and walking her away from us slowly so I hardly realized it. We discussed a couple of other books after that, but soon it seemed she wasn’t really able to read anymore, or not all the way through a book.

It was harder to talk on visits, once we didn’t have shared reading. And once she stopped always knowing who I was exactly. At my cousin’s wedding two years ago she saw me and said, “Now, who are you?” My aunt reminded her that I’m Little Catherine. I’m always Little Catherine in family gatherings, no matter how old I get.

My grandmother looked at me and smiled so brightly at that, and said, “Well, you turned out beautifully!” Like it was such a happy surprise to see me all polished up.

IMG_5980On the last good visit we had, about a year ago, we looked at photo albums together. She didn’t know who I was, but she remembered stories from the pictures. It was so sweet to see pictures of her when she was young and happy. And to read notes from her friends during World War II when they were so brave and idealistic and certain that their friends and brothers were dying for a great cause.

We bring all of that to what we read, you know? Who we are and where we’re from and what shaped us. I wish that I had really known my grandmother as an adult, before she got sick. I’d love to talk to her about what it was like to have four daughters and one son back then (the same family mix I have now), or how her life changed her perspectives on what she read. In my memory she’s a pretty complex person–fun and vivacious but also a person of…shall we say…strong will. There are pros and cons to that inheritance.

IMG_5925Even though I didn’t get to be friends with her as an adult–maybe that’s never how generational ties work–I’m so glad that we read books together. I wish we had done that more. A big reason I keep writing book reviews is in hopes that my kids (and maybe grandchildren, down the line!) will someday know me a little better, or have some insight into who I am as a person, not just as Mama.

My grandmother died this week, at 93 years old. Even though I feel like I’ve already been missing her for years now, it’s still hard to know I won’t see her again when I drive through the mountains.

So I think I will go home and pile the kids on the couch and introduce them to some of those old favorite books. And I will tell them how I read those stories with my grandmother, who was complicated, but pretty wonderful.

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Two odes to food: a novel and a cookbook/memoir

Ruth-Reichl-My-Kitchen-YearThere is something so wonderful about reading a book written by an author who is deeply passionate about her subject. And when the author is Ruth Reichl and she’s writing a cookbook/memoir like My Kitchen Year? It’s perfect.

Reichl is my favorite foodie memoirist (Garlic and Sapphires, Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples) because of her grace and humor, as well as her strong voice and keen sense of structure. In My Kitchen Year, Reichl covers the year following the unexpected closing of Gourmet, the iconic food magazine of which she was the editor. From shock to depression to re-evaluating her life, Reichl works through her emotions and problems in the kitchen. Drawing on her background and the freshest local ingredients, she weaves in personal memoir with excellent recipes that are unique and intriguing without being overly precious or fussy.

What I love about Reichl’s recipes is her unusual ability to drop a note where someone (ahem) might be tempted to cut a corner. Instead of just throwing out ingredients and instructions, Reichl explains why not to make a substitution if you really shouldn’t. Having been at this whole cooking-three-meals-a-day-for-a-large-family gig for years now, I have learned a lot about what can and can’t be done, but I appreciate not having to guess and check. This is how we learn and improve as cooks!

Unlike her other memoirs, My Kitchen Year is more of a cookbook. I marked so many recipes to try, and have set myself a goal to try one of them per week as seasonal ingredients allow. The few I’ve tried so far have been excellent.

REICHL_DeliciousHaving read My Kitchen Year, I was interested to see the Reichl also wrote a novel based on her experience. While there were some parts that could have been edited better, for a first novel I thought Delicious was pretty fun.

What made the book so enjoyable for me was again the clear sense of how much Reichl enjoys food! You can’t help but want to taste everything she describes. The book also conveys Reichl’s love for New York, especially NYC food culture. I considered making a list of things to search out when next I visit (I say that like I go to New York frequently, but in fact I have not been since 2001, sadly).

Delicious is a mystery of sorts, and has an interesting epistolary component, but really it’s an ode to food culture, and worth reading for that reason!

I enjoyed both books so well that I have already gifted them once! So if you have any foodies on your list, I think My Kitchen Year or Delicious (or both as a set!) would be a great choice.

 

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The Awakening of Miss Prim

the-awakening-of-miss-primI find it interesting that The Awakening of Miss Prim is an international best seller. The book takes a setting reminiscent of the movie The Village, adds a Mr. Rochesterish male love interest, and turns a love story kind of like Sound of Music, plus it’s a paean to classical literature and hybrid homeschooling and faith, and includes a lot of Quotable Deep Thoughts (QDT).

What’s not to like?

I expected to love this book. The premise is really interesting–a throwback community in a staunchly secular modern world, communal education based on classical principles, combined conversion to faith and love that is decidedly counter-cultural. And yet, I felt the book was a swing and a miss. Why?

Upon reflection, I think this book suffers from being too short–had the QDTs been spread through a long story it might have come across as less preachy and didactic. In such a short volume, the story is totally overwhelmed by talkiness. While the length probably contributed to sales, it really detracted from the book’s development. The author missed opportunities to flesh out the characters, describe the intentionally isolated village and its benefits and pitfalls, and make us care about Miss Prim. I didn’t buy her change of heart, but I think that’s because I didn’t have time before the book was done. Moreover, the child characters are not believable, even as presumably gifted kids who are exposed to great educations. They came across like that annoying little boy in The Sixth Sense who stage whispered about seeing dead people. Overly precious and two dimensional. Perhaps this is a problem with the translation?

While I pretty much agree with the author and should be the target audience for Miss Prim, I can’t really recommend it because of the problems in the writing. I partially enjoyed it and wanted to love it but overall was disappointed.

 

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A couple of things about sleep

A friend of mine broke her arm and had to have physical therapy to help her regain full use of her hand. The therapist told her that the motion we use to pull apart a sealed bag (like the ones inside of cereal boxes) is terrible for our hands and no one–regardless of injury–should ever pull one of those bags apart. I don’t have any problem with my hands now, but after talking to my friend I am absolutely using scissors to open those sealed bags from here on out!

Sleep is like that. I am a terrible sleeper. Sometimes I have stretches of decent sleep, but more often I have problems of various sorts, whether or not I currently have a waking baby. Many people, however, seem to have little trouble sleeping. Obviously people like me need to read up on sleep research, but what about people like my husband who–in spite of really bad sleep habits–inexplicably sleep soundly whenever they want to? After reading a couple of books on sleep lately, I think it’s probably wise to understand sleep better even if you’re not having trouble with it.

sleep revolutionIf you’re totally new to healthy sleep, of if you’re not convinced that sleep is important, you might want to start off with Sleep Revolution. The book is kind of like a compendium report of the latest and greatest sleep research, mixed in with all of the reasons you can’t get by on too little sleep (really, even if you think you’re pulling it off, you’re not). While it’s informative, the book lacks much practical punch. The suggestions for getting better sleep are pretty thin, or the sort of thing you could find online in those “10 Ways to Sleep Better” slideshows. Still, if you need convincing or an overview, Sleep Revolution could be your book.

Sleep-Smarter-book

Lots of resources will tell you that sleep is important, so do things like get to bed on time and don’t drink caffeine after 4pm. Those are great tips as far as they go, but some of us need more than that to get good sleep. If you’re going to get REALLY SERIOUS about sleep, I’d recommend Sleep Smarter. This book is chock full of action items to improve your sleep. Some of them are easy to implement, some of them are a little out there, and all are fully discussed in enough detail to really put them into practice. There is a good amount of research included, but it’s readable, and it moves quickly into things you can actually do to improve your sleep.

I’m making several changes to my routines to take action on things I learned in Sleep Smarter, and I’m working on them for me and for my kids.

Of possible interest, Gretchen Rubin linked to this article on insomnia that suggests not eating if you wake up at night. Sleep Smarter suggests a before bed snack high in fat and low in carbs so you won’t wake up hungry. I do find that if I eat something like a hard boiled egg right before bed, I sleep better.

What works for you when it comes to getting good sleep?

 

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Wrapping up the school year

Another one for the books! If you only count Kindergarten forward, this was our fifth year of homeschooling, but if you go by the fact that I’ve been keeping records since Hannah’s pre-K-3 year (I know, I know) this is was our seventh year of homeschooling. In many ways, things that were once difficult are easier, but in other ways, the things that are difficult have gotten more so. I do find that having taken time to articulate WHY I am doing certain things, I have found many areas that work well and require very little planning now.

What worked this year:

  • Convocation – Starting the day with prayer, singing, Bible study, and memory work sets a good tone, and makes sure we get to these things.
  • Checklist – Mine, that is. I’m highly motivated by this to actually get things done, and it also gives me visual permission to stop when we’re done.

What didn’t work this year:

  • Table Time – The consistent accomplishment thereof, anyway. We enjoy Table Time, but it’s hard to make it happen, especially on days when we have a hard stop time and need to get core subjects done.
  • Artist and composer study – We were really good at this for the first three months of the year, but once I went to the hospital it sort of fell by the wayside. Still, we did get some good study in for those three months, and listened to classical music and did some art after that.

At any rate, here is the breakdown by subject and student. I like to read this sort of post because it helps me get ideas, but please DO NOT READ ON if you are going to be tempted to do the whole comparison thing. This is what works for our family, with five kids including a baby and a mom who works part-time. Other families school much longer, or much less, or in vastly different ways, and that is fine. Again, this is what school looks like for us, at least for now.

Subjects we do together:

  • History – We covered the 20th century (Tapestry Year 4) by Easter, then started Ancient Times (Tapestry Year 1) again. We put the bookmarks in part way through the Trojan War and we’ll pick back up again in August. It’s SO fun to hit the ancient world again for the second time. It’s amazing how much Hannah and Jack remember. We will move through at our own pace–and will probably linger with the Greeks and Romans because they are awesome. I like not having to keep up with–or wait for–other people as we work through integrated subjects chronologically. We take a literature-based, living books, ideas and integration approach.
  • Literature – Our literature integrates with history, so has also been 20th century and then back to ancient times. The 20th century was a little rough, as I was trying to stay true to the issues and use living books, but also remain age-appropriate. There is so much excellent literature for children about the Greeks and Romans, so Year 1 is easier to navigate.
  • Science – To tie in to the lab class Jack was taking at co-op, we did Apologia Swimming Creatures this year, and learned many fascinating things about sea life. We then took on Nature Anatomy for more of a natural world angle), and recently started Apologia Chemistry and Physics (covering current interests for Hannah and Jack) after we finished Swimming Creatures. We read some good biographies about scientists, and also picked up Childcraft Mathemagic, which turned out to be a very fun read-aloud with math games (not technically science, but sort of related).
  • Geography – We study maps as they integrate with our history and literature study. We reviewed states and capitals, although I’m not a stickler for that given that I didn’t ever memorize them in school myself. I know, that’s not a good excuse. 🙂
  • Poetry/Memorization – We memorized lots of good poems together this year, with the latest–and by far the most dramatic–being The Destruction of Sennacherib. We render that one with tremendous emotion. 🙂  We also learned several chapters of Scripture and kept reviewing previous ones as part of our convocation time. We learned some new hymns to add to our rotation, and added catechism memory tied to our morning Biblestudy. 
  • Art – I mentioned dropping the ball on artist and composer study in second semester. The kids do a lot of art stuff on their own, which is great, and I’m past the point of feeling guilty for not being a craft mom. Still, we can strive to improve!
  • Vocabulary/Dictionary – Two or three times a week during table time (or, more realistically, during lunch) each kid looks up a word in the dictionary. Often they already know what it means because we discuss definitions when we come across an unfamiliar word in our reading, but it builds good skills to look things up.
  • Latin – I should do a post sometime on our Latin journey. Suffice it to say, we are now doing I Speak Latin together during table time, and enjoying it. It’s fun, and I intend for the kids to do Latin independently starting at age 10 (see Hannah’s section below) so fun is good for our group!

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Hannah – 4th Grade

Hannah has made great strides in handling her work independently. This semester she seemed to make a huge jump up across the board, such that I’m now sort of thinking of her as being in her middle schooling years (if you break the pre-college education into three parts, which is arbitrary).

  • Math – Having completed Saxon Math 6/5, Hannah is about a quarter of the way through Saxon Math 7/6. She is really being challenged by this book, which is great! I’m being very careful about checking all of her problem sets and having her re-do things she missed, so as not to skip important concepts.
  • Language Arts – Hannah finished First Language Lessons 4, which pretty much wraps up grammar and diagramming, at least for now. This quarter she started Writing With Skill, which builds on FLL and Writing With Ease. It seems like a great bridge between written narration and advanced composition. Although she continues to struggle with spelling (the woes of not being a natural speller!), Hannah did finish All About Spelling 4 and is in All About Spelling 5, with significant improvement over last year. She does copywork in cursive, and I sort of think she spells better in cursive since she has to think about it more as she’s forming the words.
  • Latin – In addition to the Latin we do together, Hannah started Visual Latin 1 and is doing great with the program. I investigated this at length, and am pleased with the overall scope of Dwayne Thomas’s approach. Visual Latin is structured as a high school Latin course, and can be graded and recorded thusly, but they also say you can start it as a 10 year old if you grade it a bit differently, and we have found that to be true. It’s sort of amazing to me that concepts that are stretched out over YEARS in various early start Latin programs are covered in a few short lessons in Visual Latin–and covered well, and actually retained. Lesson learned for Mama! It’s also a big relief to have most of the in-depth teaching for her level out of my court.
  • Typing – To facilitate faster writing and revision, Hannah started learning typing with some free online programs. We started with the BBC’s Dance Mat Typing, then moved on to Typing.com. Both work fine and get the job done.
  • Independent study – I’m assigning Hannah readings in history and literature each week, with the thinking and accountability questions/topics from Tapestry’s Dialectic (middle school) level. So far this is working fairly well, although I’m still trying to get a feel for how best to structure our discussions on what she has read. I’ve assigned her writing projects based on the independent reading but I’m still thinking that through.
  • Other – Hannah continues to take piano lessons, and she took Spanish, Indiana State History, and BizTown (economics/civics) at our co-op this year. We also tried out swim team this spring with great success, and intend to take that back up in the fall. Hannah reads like a maniac, taught herself to make soap, and enjoys making up imaginary worlds and inventing games to play with her friends and siblings.

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Jack – 3rd Grade

Jack is one of those people who, when he takes an interest, goes after it with full gusto. Whether it’s birds, physics, World War II, exactly how original sin works, or what-have-you, Jack is one to dig deep. But when he does not feel personal interest…he goes after it with…umm…double-plus-UN-gusto. This presents a challenge. I spend a lot of time trying to balance encouraging his interests with equipping him to do hard things even when he doesn’t want to apply himself. We want him to be a good steward of his potential, but don’t want to break him of his temperament, which is, after all, how God constructed his personality. Parenting only gets less and less simple, doesn’t it? But the rewards are many and so we press on!

  • Math – Jack finished Saxon Math 5/4 and proceeded to Saxon Math 6/5, which is not challenging him.  However, at this level I’m reluctant to skip things in case he misses something critical, so I let him do only every other problem and keep reminding him that once he puts in his time he can get to really cool things in math and physics and inventions. Although he’s able to do math easily, he still hates to write things down, so math is often a struggle.
  • Language Arts – About how Jack hates writing things down…we come to language arts. He finished First Language Lessons 3 and likes how grammar works but loathes putting actual whole words into the diagram he’s drawn. He is a decent speller and is neck and neck with Hannah in All About Spelling 5, but, again, abhors writing things down. So we figured out a lot of ways to do things out loud, which is time-intensive for his individual teaching time, but it gets the job done. I’ve read that a lot of boys resist writing even up to age 12. That is simultaneously encouraging and terrifying! 🙂 For some reason, cursive is easier for him than printing, which I think is because cursive feels more like drawing to him. And because he only has to do small chunks of copywork in cursive.
  • Other – My husband is teaching Jack guitar sporadically, and Jack likes messing around with the guitar he got for his birthday. He took Spanish, a science lab class, and PE at our co-op this year. Swim team was a hit, so he will do that again this fall. Other than that he likes reading, keeping notebooks of random things he learns (the one time he doesn’t mind writing things down), constructing models and inventions and giant pieces of art, building with Legos, and running around yelling and jumping off of things.

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Sarah – 1st Grade

Sarah is such a dedicated student, and is the sort of person who gets up early to get her independent work done without being reminded. I’m not sure how long this phase will last, but it has been lovely!

  • Math – On the last day of school, Sarah took the final test for Saxon 3 and completed the book. She catches on to new concepts quickly and didn’t have any trouble with this level.
  • Language Arts – Sarah finished First Language Lessons 2, and it was fine for basic grammar. I put her in Writing With Ease 2 this semester because I noticed she was not being as careful with narrations, and WWE does a great job of training the student to listen attentively and both narrate and summarize. Having worked through several books of cursive, I finally just started giving Sarah cursive copywork like I give the older kids. Being more of a natural speller, she’s about halfway through All About Spelling 4. I still had Sarah read out loud to me every day–just a chapter from a Laura Ingalls Wilder book–because reading out loud is a different skill than reading to yourself.
  • Other – Sarah takes piano lessons, and took art, Spanish, and PE in co-op this year. She also liked swim team, so will continue that this fall. She’s looking forward to playing soccer this fall in our church soccer program (one day per week–perfect). She likes to read, make pretty things from art supplies, play dress-up and dolls, and play with the baby. She also has a great Broadway singing voice, which she never consents to perform for anyone outside the family.

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Eliza – Pre-pre-pre-K and School Mascot

I did much better this year at getting preschool time in with Eliza. This is really simple–just reading from a children’s Bible, an Aesop fable, some Mother Goose, five or so picture books, and practicing saying ABCs and counting to 20. She sits in on everything else with us, so she also gets memory work and singing and read-alouds, either while sitting on my lap or doing lacing cards or playing with Legos or something. If anything, I’d like to read more to her, but for now having a dedicated 20-30 minutes just for her seems like a win.

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Margaret – Official Baby and Vice Mascot

Everyone reads to Margaret. She listens in on lessons while I hold her, or while sitting around on her toy mat. Sometimes, she naps. Other times, she yells. In short, she is a baby and we have acclimated to doing school with her in the mix.

AND NOW, LET THE WILD RUMPUS START! SUMMER VACATION IS ON FOR JULY!

 

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Ordering the rhythms of our tables, calendars, and hearts

We live in a time in which we are fortunate to have lots of options. You can eat strawberries in November and wear sweaters in July. From where we live to how we eat, even to how we observe or ignore the weather, we pretty much get to chart our own course.

Because we have this freedom, it’s even more important that we pay attention to the underlying framework that drives our choices. I’ve recently been reading and thinking about this in light of seasons and rhythms.

I’m not against the convenience of modern life. I’m writing this post in my air conditioned office while it’s 94 degrees outside. I’ll be putting a can of tomatoes in tonight’s dinner, and I buy everything from books to pajamas to eyeliner on Amazon. But I do see a difference between using modern conveniences as tools and being blindly co-opted by our consumer culture.

As I read I began articulating some impressions of unease I’ve had about how (or if) my life reflects my beliefs on a number of fronts. I’ve made some steps to change our rhythms with things like moving to a term schedule for school (generally six weeks on, one week off), and we’ve always done a Jesse Tree for Advent. Still, in reading thinkers like James K. A. Smith and others, I’ve found myself examining our life looking for the liturgy embedded therein–we all live a liturgy, Smith says, it’s just a matter of what we base it on.

circle of seasonsIn a roundabout fashion this brought me to Kimberlee Conway Ireton’s excellent book The Circle of Seasons. Ireton didn’t grow up in a high church tradition, so her study of the church year as an adult gives her a valuable outsider perspective. Ireton avoids the temptation to create or uphold empty ritual, and digs into the value and symbolism of various church traditions.

For example, in looking at Advent as a season of waiting and preparation for Christ’s birth followed by a twelve day feast of Christmas, Ireton ties in ways Christians can move beyond the commercial Christmas to enjoy a season of peace and then extend joy and love when everyone else is tapped out and suffering a post-holiday slump. What if we had a Christmas party the week after Christmas? What if we invited people over for a Christmas dinner on December 28? How would that impact our family’s ability to enjoy Christmas and be a blessing to others?

Likewise, Lent offers a chance to think about the true purpose of fasting–not self-denial or being absorbed in yourself, but creating space for God to work in and through us.

I appreciated how Ireton thoughtfully examined ways that the church calendar can break us out of our tendency to passively trudge through life, and make us more mindful of our days.

irrational seasonI’ve already mentioned The Irrational Season, but it bears repeating here because in the book Madeleine L’Engle writes her reflections on the year in a way that is informed by and immersed in the church year.

L’Engle did a masterful job of showing how being aware of the church calendar can direct our thoughts and contemplation. Thinking about Jesus’ coming birth during Advent leads to being watchful for His return. Considering the events of our lives in light of Epiphany, Easter, or the Trinity helps us to understand them in a truer light, and orient our own experiences in light of a bigger story.

Reading The Irrational Season won’t be so much a practical primer on how to celebrate the church year as an inspiration for how being aware of seasons and traditions can be a rich avenue for study and contemplation. I’m thinking about this a lot as I structure our school terms for next year.

feastOne of the e-books in a bundle I bought recently turned out to be an interesting resource on the Christian year. Feast! is full of practical tips and recipes for aligning your family culture with church culture.

The first two sections–on Advent and Christmas–were particularly helpful. I liked the ideas for ways to build up to Christmas and make that our focus, but without seeming Scroogey or anti-Christmas. A lot of the tips were ideas that would help to keep December less frantic by spreading out all the things we love about the season into a longer and more relaxed celebration. I’ve always felt that Christmas was this weird abrupt stop after a couple of weeks trying to cram too much in. I really like the idea of a more restful Advent and then a great fun long Christmas with plenty of time to listen to music, make gingerbread houses, and read Christmas books rather than putting everything away. The authors suggest adding to your Jesse Tree until Epiphany, which I remember my mom trying to do for us some years. The Stewarts suggest adding the names of God or attributes of Jesus for those extra twelve ornaments. I have this on my list to try.

I will say that after the Easter ideas the book wasn’t as applicable for me. The authors are Catholic and so they have special saints days they celebrate at different times, which isn’t something we do. But there was enough good food for thought in the other sections to make Feast a worthwhile read for me.

life giving home

Sally and Sarah Clarkson’s book The Life-giving Home is arranged around the year too, although I didn’t take as many notes on practical things to do in January versus May or anything like that.  Those ideas are there, but I found the book to be more helpful to me in giving me a stronger vision for the way that my home and life can better express the truth and beauty I believe in, versus specific decorating or menu ideas.

I love the point the Clarkson’s make about how our homes and family cultures are ways to engage with the broader culture and a means to tell the story of what is most important to us. This is true no matter what we believe, and certainly worth serious thought. Are our lives–from our time to our traditions to our decorating aesthetic–telling the story we want them to? Are they restorative and life-giving for our families and friends and neighbors?

jameskasmith-youarewhatyoulove

If you want to dig more deeply into how our lives tell a story of what we love and reveal our vision of the good life, you should certainly check out James K. A. Smith’s latest work, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. This book is powerfully insightful and profoundly challenging.

Smith talks about the way that our worship must incorporate not just our minds, but also our hearts. If we fail to capture and reorder our hearts, our head knowledge will not be enough. “You are what you love,” Smith writes, “because you live toward what you want.”  When we have misdirected loves it’s not because we have bad ideas, but because “our desires have been captivated by rival visions of flourishing. And that happens through practices not propaganda.”

So if we are formed by liturgies whether we admit it or not, we ought to devote careful consideration to what those liturgies are. As a parent and teacher, this gives me a lot to think about. Of course we want to give our children truth and sound ideas, but are we going beyond that to capture their hearts with truth and beauty? Does our worship and our family culture give them a vision for what it means to flourish, or are we giving them second-rate music and sappy stories and then wondering why their palates incline them to cartoons and the mall?

This has so many implications for how we structure our time, our family culture, our schools, our work…while the book may seem the odd one out in this post, it really forms the basis for why and how we follow (or don’t) seasons, rhythms, and traditions–Christian or otherwise.

There is so much in You Are What You Love that I can’t begin to touch on all of it, but I highly recommend it if you’re interested in habits, virtue, the good life, spiritual life…well, really I’d recommend it for anyone.

I haven’t finished thinking all of this through yet, so can’t give you my conclusions, but I’d be interested to know if you’ve considered these things and, if so, how you shape your family’s calendar or traditions as a result?

 

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An odd and interesting quick fiction read

Be Frank With Me coverTo be frank with you (sorry, couldn’t resist), I almost didn’t read Be Frank With Me because the title is silly and I didn’t like the cover.

Yes, these things matter.

It’s too bad that the title and cover weren’t better, because the book itself turned out to be odd in a most interesting way and I’m afraid you won’t take my word for it and might therefore miss a great choice for your pool/beach/vacation bag.

Be Frank With Me follows a young editorial assistant assigned to help a reclusive writer and her precocious/weird/charming/maybe-slightly-autistic son. I really appreciated the author’s ability to portray an out-of-the-box kid with compassion, while not sugar-coating his difficulties. She also did a great job with the narrative voice. The setting and plot are unique and well-conceived.

If you’re looking for a quick read for the pool or beach that’s quirky enough to be more memorable than most, I’d recommend Be Frank With Me.

 

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