Five Favorite Picture Books – June 2015

In the latest newsletter I wrote about moving our younger preschool age picture books from the basement upstairs to the breakfast room where we also house our school books.  This way they are right where we spend a lot of time and we have been having such a good time rediscovering old favorites that we used to read all day long when the big kids were littles.  Up to now Eliza has had plenty of read-aloud time with the books the other kids were hearing for school, our family read-alouds, and her collection of board books, but it’s really high time that she get to love the great picture books  as well–which she never did when they were hiding in the basement.  So I thought perhaps I would highlight a few of our favorites every month, in case they might remind you of your favorite picture books too!

blueberries-for-sal-mainBlueberries for Sal probably goes without saying.  Having just gone strawberry picking, we observed that two-year-olds really do eat berries directly from Mother’s pail, and although strawberries to not hit a basket with a satisfying “kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk” that is ok because the big kids will say it anyway.  Everything about this book, from the pictures to the illustrations, to the perfect capturing of a toddling kid and mother, makes us love this book.

turnipThe Tale of the Turnip is such a funny retelling of a fairy tale.  You know a book is  winner when phrases from it enter your family’s everyday language.  The way we say “what, what, WHAT?!” comes from this book.  Plus the characters say things like “stone the crows!” that the kids think are hilarious.  This book has the formula for greatness: well-told story, excellent illustrations, and funny asides that make us happy to read it again and again.

tiger teaThe Tiger Who Came to Tea may not be as well-known, but it should be!  In this fabulous story, Sohpie and her mummy are having tea when there is an unexpected knock at the door.  Who can it be?  The milk man came already, the grocer’s boy doesn’t come today, and Daddy is at work plus he has a key.  It turns out that a tiger has come to tea. And eats the family out of house and home so Mummy and Daddy and Sophie must go out to dinner instead of eating the supper Mummy had prepared.  The book is sweet and unexpected, with great pictures and a satisfying ending.

the_cow_who_fell_in_the_canalWe first fell in love with Cow Who Fell in the Canal after my dad brought Hannah back a copy from a business trip to Holland.  The story follows a cow named Hendrika who dreams of seeing the market in the city, so when she falls into the canal near her pasture she makes her way into town.  Along the way she sees windmills, Dutch architecture, housewives cleaning stoops, and a marvelous marketplace full of hats and round cheeses and people in wooden shoes.  Peter Spier’s illustrations make this book even better.

seuss abcDr. Seuss’s ABC  is absolutely our favorite ABC book.  It’s not actually a sub-genre we read in heavily, but this book is so silly and funny that it’s really more like a regular book than an ABC.  This is another favorite we quote from.  Highly recommended.


Have you found any new favorite picture books this month?


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The Flamboya Tree

The-Flamboya-Tree-Kelly-Clara-Olink-9780375506215In The Flamboya Tree: Memories of a Mother’s Wartime Courage Clara Olink Kelly writes a touching and compelling tribute to the astounding ways her mother kept her and her two brothers alive during World War II.

Just weeks after giving birth, Kelly’s mother gets a few hours notice that she and the children are being taken to a Japanese concentration camp on Java, where their family–Dutch by nationality–has been living due to Kelly’s father’s business.  Raised in a wealthy family, and used to luxury, Kelly’s mother nonetheless acts with incredible presence of mind and determination for the next several years.  Conditions in the camps were atrocious–I can’t imagine what it must have been like to watch your children slowly starve in front of your eyes, with each person only getting one small handful of dirty rice per day to eat, never enough water, in filthy, diseased conditions, constantly fearing sadistic guards.  In addition to trying to keep her children alive, Kelly’s mother had the terrible job of having to keep the sewers open in the camp.  Imagine spending all day wading in sewage, not having any water or soap to wash afterwards, and then sleeping on an old bug-infested mattress crammed in a room with countless other people walking all over each other…it’s incredible what people can live through!  And yet Kelly’s mother taught the children to read, read to them every day from a children’s Bible she had packed, and kept hope and kindness alive.  What an amazing woman.

Kelly writes that she still has nightmares from her life in the camp, but her writing is suffused with hope.  She notes that although her memories are traumatic and full of evil, they are also marked with love and joy.  I thought The Flamboya Tree was an excellent memoir–one of the better examples of the genre, and such a worthwhile read.


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The Buried Giant

the-buried-giantIn The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro uses his prodigious talent to explore themes of war, memory, love, and loss using a framework of Arthurian legend.  Although the book is squarely in the fantasy genre, Ishiguro’s trademark style of somewhat sad thoughtfulness gives depth and realism to the setting and story events so the result is a complex literary novel in spite of elements like pixies, dragons, and elderly knights of the Round Table.

Being, as you well know if you’ve followed A Spirited Mind for long, a huge Anglophile, I loved Ishiguro’s imagining of ancient Britons.  The way that he wove traditional Arthurian legend into much more modern topics like genocide and the tension between memory and forgetfulness in healing the rifts of war is nothing short of amazing–it takes a master to play with genre forms in a literary novel and reading a well-done example is a huge treat.  I loved the story and the literary elements.  As in Ishiguro’s other works, the world-building is impeccable but doesn’t overwhelm the thoughtfulness or depth, and the high concept themes don’t bog down the actual storyline.

The Buried Giant would make an excellent pick for a book club–with a multi-layered story and plenty of issues to discuss, I think this book would be even more enjoyable if read with a group.


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The Bookmarked Life #12

2The Bookmarked Life is my take on catch-all posts–a record to help me remember this season of life.

Right now I’m:


I just finished a book about a family who spent several years in a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia during World War II.  With very little advance warning, they were able to pack a suitcase before being taken away, and as it turned out the mother chose very wisely, both in practical items like fabric and cod liver oil, and in bringing a Children’s Bible and a small painting that provided small spots of beauty and hope in the squalor and terror of those years.  I’ve thought before about what I would save if the house was on fire or we had to escape from something, and most of the items I list are of the feed-your-spirit variety.  I figure some things are easily replaced (clothing, books, kitchen utensils) and some are not (pictures my great-grandmother painted, a crystal decanter that’s been in our family since before the Civil War).  As a child I moved around a lot and so my sense of home is very fluid, but there are a few items that make home for me wherever we are.  I think the mother in the book made a wise decision in allocating some of her limited space to that painting.

…Furnishing My Mind

DSC_0366Jack turned eight last week, and asked that his birthday cake be themed “Harry Potter.  Or Batman.  But preferably both.  And shaped like an eight.”  With that creative direction, I cobbled together a vague approximation of Harry Potter and Batman playing Quidditch, and the contrails from their flight making an 8.  I used a gold dragee to make the Snitch.  Not my finest work, but Jack seemed pleased.  Right now Jack’s favorite things are reading (especially fantasy and adventure), riding bikes, jumping off of high and dangerous things, making up rhyming songs, wearing bow ties, and building with Legos.  This year his curls are pretty much gone, but fortunately I furnished my mind and my photo archives with his formerly lovely locks, so all is not lost.  And he’s still very handsome.

In an unrelated aside, Hannah taught Eliza to curtsy.  In case you wondered, few things are cuter than a just-turned-two-year-old performing a curtsy!

…Cultivating Routines

IMG_4247I got Crystal Paine’s Make Over Your Mornings course when it was on special for $5.  At the moment, I have good morning and evening routines in place, and most of the material so far is things I’ve read about in books (including Crystal’s!), but I thought it would be worth having the course because while my routines are solid now, they do shift as children enter different stages and I knew that it would be a good reference for those episodes.  One thing I do in the evening that helps us enter the next morning more smoothly is to take a few minutes to set out everyone’s independent assignment for the day (usually part of a math lesson, some handwriting, and copywork or a writing assignment) and update our whiteboard with the next day’s plan.  The kids have really liked being able to reference the whiteboard to see what’s coming next, and I like being able to defer the zillions of “what’s for breakfast/lunch/dinner?” questions I would otherwise receive.  I redecorate the board for each month and then just have to switch out the date, day of the week, menu, and daily happenings.  These two simple things take me about five minutes total to do at night, but save a lot of hassle in the morning.

…Living the Good Life


We went strawberry picking this week (local friends, check out Fields of Joy – it’s a great place and is owned by a family that goes to our church) and had a great time.  We came home with about 20 pounds of berries, of which many were unripe, overripe, or had already had bites taken out of them (thanks kids!) but for us it’s most about the experience not the harvest.  After we picked berries the kids climbed trees and ran around with a friend who joined us and had a blast while the moms relaxed and had a chat in the shade.


I’ve loved the term schedule we adopted this year (6-7 weeks on, 1 week off, 1 month off in summer) because it has helped us to avoid burnout and I think it will make the re-entry after summer break easier (after three months off last fall, we had to spend a lot of time reviewing). But it is hard to hold the line when the neighbor kids are all on summer break and we are still doing math.  However, I’m trying to stay firm since getting in a couple of extra weeks this June will mean I can take a bit of a maternity leave this fall after the baby arrives.

…Boosting Creativity

After reading about it on The Art of Simple, I decided to try writing down 10 ideas every day on different topics to boost my creativity.  So, for example, I might list 10 How To Books I Could Write (example: “How To Handle Laundry For A Family of Six Without Wanting to Defenestrate Yourself”) or 10 How To Books I Wish I Could Write (example: “How To Spot Reduce Fat From Your Thighs”) or 10 Ways to Incorporate Refried Beans Into Every Meal.  They don’t have to be good ideas (see previous reference to refried beans) but it really is challenging to get ideas 7-10, especially when the topic is deep or wacky.  It’s fun.  Try it.

…Seeking Balance

After reading an entire book on being overwhelmed, one of my takeaways is that to make this whole working/homeschooling/parenting thing work I really need to work on not splintering my focus.  When I’m trying to review document edits for a work project, help someone with math, and keep an eye on the stove, it makes me feel pulled in too many directions and stressed.  Some things have to be multi-tasked and many things don’t matter.  I don’t feel the need to give 100% to menial housework.  However, in terms of work and my family relationships, I do need to move toward focusing on one important thing at a time.  As Brigid Schulte wrote, “When you’re riding Icelandic ponies, RIDE Icelandic ponies.”  That struck me as funny so I added it to my desktop inspiration frame.

…Listening To

A friend loaned me her hypnobabies set, and because I’d rather not have a reprise of the difficult last half hour of Eliza’s birth this time around, I’m dutifully listening to the affirmations in hopes of changing my mind about birth.  It’s mostly “birth is completely natural…my body was designed to deliver my baby…I focus on everything going right” type stuff.  But some of it offends my analytical nature.  “I deserve a comfortable, easy pregnancy…Birth is easy and comfortable…”  What is this deserve business?  And if I can expect a completely comfortable pregnancy, what is the meaning of this back pain and vein trouble and epic nausea?!?!  I plan to keep at it for a bit longer, and maybe work through the getting rid of fear part but I’m not sure this is overall a good personality match for me.  Have any of you tried hypnosis-for-pain thing?

What are you bookmarking this week?


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Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity

restIf you are caught in an endless cycle of activity and really have no idea where to start on the concept of Sabbath or rest, Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity might be a good gentle introduction when more substantive and deep books might overwhelm you.  While not my favorite on the topic, the book contains some good points and reminders.

Kent recommends easing into the countercultural idea of taking rest, and she writes about a variety of ways you can do that.  The book avoids prescriptions so you won’t feel judged or bludgeoned into anything.  That said, in so doing it also avoids being particularly challenging or in-depth.  It’s a short book, and yet I kept feeling like I was re-reading a loop of the same points–I might have suggested tightening up the structure to avoid that problem.

Although I disagreed with Kent on a few points, I do think this is a worthwhile book, especially if you really are just beginning to think about the concepts.  After that, I’d recommend moving on to meatier books, with Dan Allender’s take being my favorite so far.

Does your family rest on Sunday or another day of the week?  Have you built any other rhythms of rest into your life?


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overwhelmedI hadn’t planned on reading Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time because I felt like I didn’t need an excuse to dwell on the aspects of my life that feel fragmented and times when I feel overwhelmed.  However, I’m glad that I did finally read it because the overall tone was not “golly, we are all screwed” but rather the encouragement that I’m not alone or uniquely unable to get my life together, and the inspiration of plenty of ideas for changing my perspective and reducing the feeling of frenzy.

What was most helpful for me was how the book challenged my usual narrative about the causes for what the author calls “time confetti.”  I have four kids, I homeschool, I am self-employed, and I am pregnant.  I avoid listing everything I have going on because that in itself is overwhelming.  Sometimes I think if I had a regular job, or if my kids were in a traditional school, or if we lived in a walkable city rather than a suburb I would be less overwhelmed.  This book helped me to see that overwhelm is a cultural condition shared by working moms, stay-at-home moms, homeschool moms who don’t work, and women without kids.  Men can be overwhelmed too, but in our culture we have a set of assumptions that does overwhelm women more than men.

I also realized that actually, given my circumstances, I am not as overwhelmed as I could be.  We have made a lot of deliberate choices that minimize stress and avoid being too busy, and I tweak my life a lot to experiment with ways to make time for what is truly meaningful.  So at times my life feels crazy and often my leisure time comes in very short snippets, but overall I think I’m on a good track.  That said, I did get some great ideas for further reducing stress and overwhelm that I plan to try out, especially as I’m looking for even more ways to streamline with a new baby on the way.

Aside from personal take-aways, I loved how Overwhelmed contained a lot of research and data to spur thought on our culture and challenge our mindsets.  So many deeply entrenched roles and ideas are tied up in what makes us overwhelmed, and it helps just to expose our biases.  Schulte looks at the Western idea of the “Ideal Worker” and how many people believe in it like a religion, in spite of vast amounts of data that show how dumb it is in practice.  She also examines the roots of the “Distant Provider Father” and “Self-Sacrificing Mother” roles, and looks at alternatives and ways people are trying to be more involved dads, moms who put their families first but don’t burn out, etc.  Along the way the reader is challenged to think about his or her individual priorities, what he or she really values in life, and how to actually implement those in a daily routine.  Schulte points out that choosing not to live an overwhelmed life is a deliberate and often counter-cultural act, and yet encourages readers to take workable steps toward a different perspective.

As the subtitle suggests, Overwhelmed is loosely organized into how to combat fragmented, frenzied lifestyles in our families, our work, and our leisure.  The writing is excellent and highly readable, thought-provoking and insightful.  I think students of society and culture, men and women who are interested in navigating a meaningful life, and people interested in how policies impact the lives of real people would find this book fascinating and useful.

How do you deal with feeling overwhelmed?  


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May 2015 Read Alouds

We have a lot of read-alouds to share this month!  Maybe this is good timing if your kids are looking for suggestions for summer reading programs.  Speaking of which, hit me with your recommendations of good quality chapter books for young boys.  Jack loves fantasy (Tolkein, Narnia, Harry Potter) and adventure and we want to keep him occupied with good stuff so he doesn’t spiral into a summer of twaddle!

return of the kingWe finally wrapped up our epic Tolkein adventure by finishing the unabridged Audible version of The Return of the King.  Our only complaint is that the narrator’s attempts to sing the many, many songs included in the books fall very flat.  The kids would shout “Oh no!  He’s singing AGAIN!” and to be honest, in this last book we did fast forward through the songs.  I’m sure we missed something, but we couldn’t stand it.  One thing that struck me in listening to the book rather than reading it is how the actual climax action scene occurs only a bit over half of the way in.  After Frodo disposes of the ring there are still something like eight hours of audio left!  The kids thought that made perfect sense, because of course we want to know what happens afterwards especially in the Shire.  It just seemed funny to me since that’s not a normal narrative structure.  We’re glad we listened to this series (and read the Hobbit aloud prior to that) and would recommend them, especially for long car trips.

muleForty Acres and Maybe a Mule was a school read-aloud covering Sherman’s brief (and quickly rescinded) order to give freed slaves farms.  The kids really got into the story, and it was easy to read aloud, although I did change some dialogue where the grammar was difficult (I’m sure it was historically accurate, but difficult to the ear nonetheless).  I thought the book gave good insight into Reconstruction, and the difficult process of former slaves changing their mindsets to match their legal status as freed.  If you’re reading about the post-Civil War era, this would be a good choice.

heidiHeidi was a re-read for us, but since we loved it the first time we didn’t mind.  One of my book clubs does an annual meeting for the kids and my older three were excited to attend and talk about the book.  One interesting note that emerged in the adults discussion was the differences we found between translations.  Apparently the Great Illustrated Classics version is so seriously abridged that it completely removes entire critical swaths of the story.  I’d avoid that one.  But those of us that read the unabridged version also found interesting differences–in the way the translators handled German words (some opted for “Miss” instead of Fraulein, translated animal names directly into English, or came up with entirely different names altogether).  I guess that just goes to show that if you don’t like one version you could choose another at random and get a completely different feel!  We have the Young Reader’s Classics version and like it very much for reading aloud.

winnie-the-pooh-book_1724We have read Winnie-the-Pooh aloud so many times, but it never gets old.  I was hunting around on the shelves for something to follow Heidi and thought I’d pull out this old favorite because it’s been a while.  Milne was such a clever and funny writer, and so in tune with childhood, that you can’t help enjoying these stories.  The kids like them and seem to find them funnier the older they get.  Be sure you get a traditional version illustrated by Ernest Shepard–not the Disney-fied version.  Not as a jab against Disney (although I do think their version is a distant second to the real thing) as much as a shout out for Shepard’s illustrations, which are poignant and funny and great stories in themselves.

victoriaIn the Days of Queen Victoria presented an interesting (and very tame) counterpoint to the grown-up narratives I read on this monarch recently.  I think the book was really strong in its storytelling about Victoria’s childhood, but it did peter out at the end.  It makes sense to gloss over some of the less savory aspects of Victoria’s life and reign in a book intended for children, but in some instances I felt the book went a bit too far in gilding the truth.  However, we did really enjoy the beginning part, and as we read the final pages about Victoria’s funeral, we listened to a YouTube video of bagpipers playing the Lament of the Black Watch, which added tons of atmosphere I must say.  This book is free on Kindle, but may be available in hard copy at your library.

trialThe kids really enjoyed Trial by Poison, a story taken from the life of Mary Slessor, a Scottish missionary to Africa in the 1800s.  Slessor was pretty remarkable in that she went to the field as a single woman and lived and dressed as the people in the jungle villages she served.  She also took in all sorts of unwanted kids, such as abandoned twin babies (who were believed to be cursed).  The story is a dramatic episode involving an unjust practice of dosing enemy prisoners with poison to see if they were guilty of causing an accidental death, but it also highlights Slessor’s commitment to the Gospel as a truth applicable to all cultures, not just Western culture, which I think was unusual for that time.  The book is full of adventure and appealed equally to my girls and boy.  The illustrations are mediocre at best (as is true for this whole series of missionary stories, much to my chagrin) but I just don’t bother showing the pictures and we move on.

What was your family’s favorite read-aloud this month?  


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Nurture by Nature

nurtureNurture by Nature ranks as one of the all-time most helpful parenting books I’ve ever read. Usually I prefer less practically focused books in this genre, but in this case it’s the incredibly detailed specificity that makes the book a winner.

The book begins with the premise that many (not all, but many) parenting issues are actually rooted in how we relate to our kids. In other words, the problem is not always what is happening but how it is going down. By understanding our own temperaments and the different temperaments our children possess, we can overcome many misunderstandings of motive and intent, and parent our child in the way that is best for his or her particular bent.

If you’re an involved parent, you probably do some of this intuitively. We all know that the same consequences don’t work the same way for different children. We know that some kids are more sensitive or more logical than others. We see that some of our kids need more downtime, more snuggle time, or more freedom to talk things out than others. But how do you really dig into these differences and find tactics that work in a consistent, reasoned fashion?

You read Nurture by Nature. I have read a bunch of personality books, but they make it hard to type kids because they are geared toward adults. As adults, we’ve had years to learn how to cope with our weaknesses, how to function in our society, and how to relate to other people. Kids are still learning those things. So a child manifests a personality type in different ways than many adults. This book does an INCREDIBLE job of helping parents pinpoint differences between personality distinctions using the Myers-Briggs types, which is, while not perfect, a pretty nuanced framework. First you work through your family’s types in light of temperaments (the two most dominant letters in any type—SJ, NT, SP, NF), which can be helpful to start narrowing down the types for any one person. Then the authors walk through distinctions between each of the letter pairs as they apply to children, and then how children evidence each individual Myers-Briggs type by age. I found it enormously helpful to see how each type behaves in age brackets—birth to preschool, elementary kids, and teens—especially because those sections highlight particular challenges for different types of parents with that type of child, as well as techniques that really work for that type and stage and how to show your love and support in a way the child can understand.

My husband and I had a fantastic discussion about this (he finds the Myers-Briggs framework fascinating too) and how we could tweak our parenting and better understand our kids. It was so illuminating to see how certain recurring conflicts have been rooted in our misunderstanding one or another child’s temperament, and also in seeing how to reframe our responses to difficulties. One of our kids has been giving us a major challenge lately, and it was amazing to learn that temperament is part of that—as well as getting insight into how to respond to problems that has REALLY worked as we put it into practice.

This book has changed how I relate to my children and I’m seeing wonderful results, even in the short time since I finished reading it. I also talked over the concept of personality types with my nine year old, who is now reading the book in an effort to better understand the conflicts she has with her siblings.

Nurture by Nature is an incredible resource, and I highly recommend it to parents, other caregivers, and teachers. At the very least it will make you more understanding, and at best it could revolutionize your family relationships.


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Historical Mysteries Set in Tudor England

crownNancy Bilyeau had me at “set in Tudor England” but my desire to read this series–The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry–was cemented by the fact that Alison Weir herself gave the books a glowing review. That’s enough for me!

The series follows a woman of the nobility who attempts to take vows at a priory just before the Dissolution. While still a novice, her house–like most others in England at that time–is disbanded and Joanna is thrown into all sorts of adventures and intrigues surrounding the court of her cousin, Henry VIII.chalice

With excellent historical detail and strong pacing, the books manage to pull off historical fiction and good mysteries, while exploring an aspect of Tudor England–the dissolution of Catholic religious orders–that is not exhaustively treated in historical fiction about the era. I’m not sure if more Joanna Stafford mysteries are planned, but I hope so, as I liked the character and Bilyeau’s writing style.

The books are well written but not overly demanding, making them an excellent choice for your beach week or any time you need a gripping but enjoyable read.  They are a series, tapestryso I’d recommend reading them all and in order.  They might stand well on their own, but the stories do build on each other so you might not get as much out of the later books if you don’t read them as a series.


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The Bone Clocks, Take 2


In my previous review, I suggested that The Bone Clocks would make a great book club selection.  I was right!  One of the book clubs I’m in chose the book for this month’s selection and we had a really excellent discussion.

I re-read the book to make sure I’d remember everything, and even on a second reading it didn’t disappoint.  The story-telling and themes are so complex and well done that even though I already knew how things turn out, I was still caught up in the plot and pacing.

The book club discussion was really illuminating.  I always get a lot out of hearing other perspectives on a book, and because I’m a verbal processor I find I understand books better when I’ve talked them over with other people.  After our discussion I think I understand the ending of the book and the structural design of the story and character arcs much better.

If you haven’t read The Bone Clocks I do recommend it.  It’s weird but worth it.  And if you have a book club, I can now say with the confidence of experience that it makes a great choice!


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