There’s a redbellied woodpecker in the neighborhood who is very happy with my birthday present. Back in December, Scott bought me something I’d wanted for a long time: a heated deck-mounting bird bath. Because, yes, I am that big a geek.
He installed it on the back deck where I can see it from the family-room sofa. The suet feeder hangs from a hook nearby, and on the other side of the bird bath is the tube feeder with the fancy millet-sunflower-peanut mix that all the best birds go crazy for. At least, in theory they do. This year we’ve had mostly juncoes, mourning doves, and bluejays. A lone titmouse made several visits early in the season, and for a while two sociable cardinal couples dropped by every morning to gossip and munch on sunflower seeds, but I haven’t seen them since before Christmas. I’m hoping the bird bath will woo them back if the weather takes a downturn.
Mrs. Redbelly certainly displays an appreciation of the modern conveniences. Every morning, just about the time we’re finishing our breakfast, she arrives for hers. She dines on suet, refreshes with a few sips of water, and preens a while on the sun-drenched deck rail. It’s like her own personal spa.
The local mockingbird gets his kicks by harrassing her as she pops back to the suet feeder for another nibble, but Mrs. Redbelly isn’t easily cowed. She flaps at him and brandishes her rapier beak. He quickly retreats. Smugly, Mrs. Redbelly darts to the tube feeder for a peanut, showering a hail of millet seeds on the lawn below; then she returns to her sunny corner to watch the grateful juncoes feast in the grass.
Every year the kids and I count birds for Project Feederwatch. Mrs. Redbelly is the first woodpecker to visit our yard since we moved here three years ago, and it is with immense satisfaction that I click the “redbellied woodpecker” box when we enter our data each week. The official Feederwatching season lasts through April, but I hope Mrs. R. will continue her spa visits well into the spring. The mockingbird would be bored without her.
If you didn’t sign up for Project Feederwatch this year, you can still help count birds! The Great Backyard Bird Count is this weekend, February 18-21. Check it out at www.birdsource.org/gbbc.
I admit it: when it comes to writing curricula, I’m a snob. After all, Scott and I both write for a living; we are the kind of word geeks who sit around discussing sentence structure for fun. I’ve never felt the need to use a writing program with my kids: that’s one area I can handle on my own.
But every time I go to a conference, people ask what writing curriculum I recommend. In an effort to do justice to this frequent question, I’ve purchased several books and programs for review. None of them was anything I felt enthusiastic about passing on to other families—until I encountered Julie Bogart’s Bravewriter.
A friend tipped me off to Julie’s website, and I visited it in the same informational spirit in which I’d reviewed various other writing resources, to see if this was something I could wholeheartedly recommend to inquiring homeschoolers. Imagine my surprise when I found myself chomping at the bit to try out her ideas on my own kids—and heck, on myself! Julie’s energy and insight get me jazzed up to sit down and work. She’s a writer who loves writing about writing, and the dish she’s serving up is like mental energy bars—she makes you want to get moving, get those words down on paper! Life is rich; let’s articulate it!—that’s Julie’s message.
So I couldn’t resist. I ordered The Writer’s Jungle, joined Julie’s Bravewriter Lifestyle list, and began serving up her feast to my kids. Jane (who served as a reluctant guinea pig for trials of certain other materials whose very names now cause her to wrinkle up her nose) thinks Bravewriter is delicious. Tops on her list: doing dictations from her beloved Redwall books (full of quite challenging words to spell, I might add) and freewriting, which she loves for its license not to worry, for the moment, about spelling and proper punctuation. I’m including her latest freewrite below. Her mission was to spend ten minutes writing anything she wanted about a subject she “knows a lot about and wants to know more about.” Here it is exactly as she wrote it, spelling errors and all.
I think that Brian Jacques CONTRADIKS himself! On the Redwall “ask Brian” webpage thing they had a cople of years ago, one question said “will there ever be a good rat, fox, ect. or any bad badgers, mice, ect.” and Brian replied, NO! All the bad guys are BAD & all the good guys are GOOD. There are no crossovers, no gray areas.” But not 1ce but 2 times he contradicts himself! First in Mossflower, the wildcat Gingervere & later his wife, Sandingomm. And then again The Bellmaker! that time a searat named ______.
(“I have to look up his name, Mom,” she told me when she’d finished. “I can’t get the book now because it’s in the bedroom where Beanie is napping.”)
What I love about this piece of writing—besides its obvious passion and intensity—is that it is the beginning of legitimate critical analysis. In the weeks to come, Jane will return to this piece and flesh it out. I’m eager to hear more. In what ways do Gingervere, Sandingomm, and the unnamed searat shatter the bad-guy mold?
And what a great topic for discussion! She thinks Brian Jacques is mistaken about the nuances of his own characters. Can writers be wrong about their own work? This was a hot topic in my grad school lit classes; it’s meaty stuff. Ten minutes of scribbling at the kitchen table revealed a bubbling stew of opinion I hadn’t known my 9-year-old possessed. We’ve had great fun lunching on these ideas all week.
Looks like I finally have an enthusiastic answer for those conference inquirees.
Wonderboy had new ear molds made last week. Ear molds are little custom-fitted silicone doohickeys that fit a person’s ear canal exactly and attach to behind-the-ear hearing aids. The actual hearing aids last for years, but a growing baby needs new ear molds every three to six months. Wonderboy’s current pair have started to fall out occasionally, so it was time to get new ones made.
Jane brought a friend along to the audiologist’s office to watch the procedure. The girls enjoyed watching the audi shoot goo into Wonderboy’s ears, one at a time—pleasantly blue goo which looked like gaudy swirls of cake frosting when she was finished. Wonderboy was less amused. But he’s a good sport and allowed himself to be distracted by our beloved infant hearing loss specialist, C., during the short wait for the goo to firm up. Then pop!, out it came, a perfect impression of his ear canal.
The impressions are sent to a lab, where they are used to make the new molds. Jane and her pal were dazzled by the choice of colors…didn’t I think he’d like purple molds, or maybe lime green? I opted for the faintly blue transparent kind–but they glow in the dark, so there was satisfaction all around.
I was unprepared for how much I would adore Wonderboy’s hearing aids. I love that he likes wearing them, fusses if I don’t put them in first thing each morning, tips his head expectantly while I check the batteries. They are officially my favorite form of technology, surpassing even this computer (gasp) and my propane fireplace (which is saying something—that thing draws me like a magnet).
I love that when I turned down the volume of the CD player in the car yesterday to field a question from the back seat, Wonderboy started calling out “Mah! Mah! Mah!” This is his all-purpose syllable; it means, depending on context: “Mom,” “More,” “Dad,” “Jane,” “Could you hurry up with those peas, please!” In this case, I understood it to mean, “Turn the music back on.” We were listening to the CD that came with our Signing Time videos. He knows the songs and wiggles his fingers while he listens, watching his own hand intently—his way of singing along.
“Mah!” he insisted, and I had to laugh at myself, because in my last Charlotte book I wrote a scene in which young Charlotte is inordinately proud of her baby brother for packing so much meaning into the word “Buh.” Well, maybe Charlotte was overreaching, but Wonderboy really is working to pack content into the few sounds he can currently shape. And he’s succeeding: that “Mah” speaks volumes. Driving down the road, I cranked up the volume, singing my own internal ode to hearing aids and ear molds.
Related post: Making ear molds
In the car today, Beanie launches into a story about “Bonny Kate.” She says it fast, one word: “Bonnykate.” It takes me a minute to figure out what she’s talking about; until she mentions Bianca, I am flummoxed.
“Bianca is the most beautiful,” she tells me. “Bonnykate gets mad. That’s why it’s called ‘The Temper of the Shrew.’ ”
Aha. Suddenly I understand. My four-year-old is narrating Shakespeare. Okay, she’s a little off on the title, but as her tale continues it is clear that she has a firm grasp of the plot. Thank you, Jim Weiss. His CD of stories from Shakespeare has been a favorite of the girls since before Beanie was born. This got me thinking about how many threads Jim’s fabulous storytelling CDs have woven into the tapestry of our life.
We discovered him in the Chinaberry catalog when Jane was a toddler, and many years (and many hours of enchanted listening) later, Scott and I had the great pleasure of meeting Jim and his wife Randy in person at a homeschooling conference. When we introduced the children to Jim, they were dazzled: he is a big star in their universe. It was Jim’s fluid voice that introduced them to Paul Bunyan, Scheherazade, Rip van Winkle, Theseus, Puck, and Percival. Much as I would like to take credit for the many literary allusions peppering my children’s talk, I have to admit that the plum goes to Jim and Randy Weiss.
I can always tell when the girls are listening to Jim’s retelling of the Archimedes story: it’s when a burst of laughter explodes into the post-bedtime hush of their room. Beanie will narrate that tale with gusto to anyone who’ll listen—after all, what small child can’t relate to a person so excited about an idea that he runs naked through the streets to share it?
Jim’s Sherlock Holmes stories inspired Jane, at age eight, to tackle the Arthur Conan Doyle originals. Rose requests The Jungle Book over and over again. All of them, at one time or another, have chattered away to me about the doings of Titania and Oberon and their crowd of fairy attendants…I recall a time when I was under orders to address Rose as “Peaseblossom,” thank you very much.
I’m pulling into the driveway, and Beanie is still going on about “Bonnykate-whose-weal-name-is-Katewina” and her hot temper. “When I’m a mommy I will name my daughter Bianca,” says Bean thoughtfully. “But I like Katewina best because she gets mad. That’s why it’s called the Temper of the Shrew. Oh, wait. Mommy, what does ‘taming’ mean?”
And another great discussion is launched. Thanks, Jim and Randy.
Scott threw his back out, unfortunate man, so it has not been a week for writing. It has been a week for trotting up and down the stairs (me), jumping on the sofa (Bean), learning the sign for “up” (Wonderboy), making a ham sandwich All By Herself (Rose), and devouring the new Brian Jacques novel (Jane). A busy week, a getting-into-the-spirit-of-Lent week.
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. After Mass, the kids and I stopped to pick up a cheese pizza. Scott was home in bed, flat on his back in quiet agony. I paid the cashier and handed the baby to Jane so I could carry the pizza. Wonderboy dove into her arms, grinning his many-toothed grin. Behind us in line was an elderly couple; the ashes on their foreheads told me they too had probably just come from Mass. “Oh, how sweet,” the woman said, watching Wonderboy smush his face against Kate’s cheek. It may have been an attempt at a kiss. More likely he was angling for a place to try out those teeth. Because sometimes love bites.
As Scott found out, swinging Beanie around on her birthday. She loved it, but it came back to bite him. Poor Daddy. He’s back on his feet today, for short periods. Which is why I’m off mine right now, and back (at last) in this chair.
Rose, who is obsessed with Ancient Greece these days, was sitting at the kitchen table when she heard Scott’s footsteps on the stairs.
“Listen!” she announced in a stage whisper. “Here comes the mighty Zeus!”
Speaking of Ancient Greece, here’s a website the girls have been enjoying. Thanks to the creative folks at Snaith Primary, we are following the adventures of two families, one in Athens, one in Sparta, during a war between the city-states in 430 B.C.
And of course no visit to Ancient Greece would be complete without some Jim Weiss stories on CD. Rose’s favorite tale is “Atalanta and the Golden Apples,” while Beanie is partial to the story of Hercules.
Fannie in the Kitchen: The Whole Story From Soup to Nuts of How Fannie Farmer Invented Recipes with Precise Measurements
by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter.
Young Marcia is disgruntled when her mother, anticipating the arrival of a new baby, engages the services of a cook. Even Fannie’s light-as-air biscuits don’t soften Marcia’s heart—it’s the cooking lessons that do that. Fannie’s approach to teaching is to sit back and let Marcia dive in, rotten eggs and all. Marcia comes to appreciate Fannie’s recipes and her methods so heartily that she implores the chipper cook to put it all into a book. Fannie obliges, and the book endures today, for this Fannie is none other than the Fannie Farmer of cookbook fame. Charming illustrations, lip-smacking good story, and an authentic Fannie Farmer pancake recipe at the end—which I have promised to let the girls whip up for breakfast tomorrow. If only I were as patient a cookery instructor as Fannie Farmer…
For more picture-book recommendations, visit my Booknotes page.
It’s been a rough morning. Our wagon tipped over while fording a river, and we lost fifty pounds of salt pork and our only shotgun. Then Rose took sick—cholera, we think—and died before we could do anything about it.
My girls are undaunted by this stunning double tragedy. They push on across the prairie, estimating the number of miles to the next fort. Maybe we can trade our mule for a new gun.
“At least we still have the fishing pole,” says Rose. She seems to have accepted her own death gracefully.
“I don’t like wattlesnakes,” announces Beanie.
Jane cracks up. “Who does? Remember when I got bit, back before we crossed the Platte?”
We found ourselves on the Oregon Trail by way of a great read-aloud, one that vaulted unexpectedly to the top of our Family Favorites list: By the Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleischman. I began reading this hilarious novel to the girls on a cold winter afternoon, but after Scott got caught up in the story during a coffee break, it became a family dinnertime read-aloud. At times, the kids laughed so hard I feared they would choke. We sailed with young Jack and his unflappable butler, Praiseworthy, from Boston Harbor all the way around Cape Horn and up to San Francisco. Along the way we visited Rio de Janeiro and a village in Peru. We panned for gold in California and made friends with half a dozen scruffy, optimistic miners. We found ourselves caring deeply about such oddities as rotting potatoes, dusty hair clippings, and the lining of a coat.
Our westward journey has occurred at a fairly brisk speed. After the Horn Spoon deposited us in the thick of the California Gold Rush, there was much conversation about the many reasons and ways in which people migrated west. Our trail led to other books: Moccasin Trail, Seven Alone, By the Great Horn Spoon!, and now Old Yeller. We discovered the absorbing Oregon Trail computer game and have outfitted a dozen or more separate wagons for various westward journeys. Rose got hooked on the food-gathering part of the game. I can’t tell you how many baskets of dandelions and wild onion she collected. Jane seems most interested in the game’s diary function. She clicked her way through the journal of the young pioneer girl who appears in the animated sequences at certain points along the trail, and then she began to write a trail journal of her own. The sad death of our sweet Rose, the disastrous river-crossing, and Beanie’s encounter with the rattlesnake are now chronicled for posterity.
I don’t know what lies around the next bend in the trail. I’ve stopped trying to pave the road ahead of time. The best adventures, it seems, are to be found in the bumps and detours. We’re well outfitted for the journey with books and maps and eyes and ears and that burning appetite for knowledge that can make a hearty meal out of buffalo grass and brambles.
—Excerpted from an article appearing in the Virginia Homeschoolers newsletter.
Boxes for Katje by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Stacey Dressen-McQueen.
When I read this picture book to the girls, Jane had to take over for me near the end because I was so choked up. Candace Fleming’s beautiful story takes place in a small Dutch village, post World War II. Young Katje receives an unexpected package in the mail: a small box containing soap, socks, and—wonder of wonders!—chocolate, gifts from an American girl named Rosie. What follows is a heartwarming exchange of letters between the two girls, and a vivid illustration of the ripple-effect of generosity.
For more picture-book recommendations, visit my Booknotes page.