This Tickled My Funny Bone

February 3, 2005 @ 2:47 pm | Filed under: , , ,

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.

Picture Book Spotlight: Fannie in the Kitchen

February 2, 2005 @ 1:24 pm | Filed under: ,

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.

Life on the Trail

February 1, 2005 @ 9:13 am | Filed under: , ,

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.

Picture Book Spotlight: Boxes for Katje

January 28, 2005 @ 2:17 am | Filed under: ,

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.

The Mouse in Winter

January 27, 2005 @ 2:28 pm | Filed under: ,

MacBeth Derham writes:

As I promised in my “resolutions” post for the New Year, I have written the first in a series of monthly articles on nature study.  The articles are meant to appeal to elementary students, but links are provided for some high- school-level study. Here is the beginning:

“Last night, as we pulled into the driveway after 11 p.m., my daughter Libby saw something moving along the outside of the window.  We all sat in the car for a few moments and watched a mouse crawl along the sill in slowly-sniffing mouse-like fashion.  I have been able to keep mice out of the house this winter, so observing this little mouse was a welcome addition to homeschool nature study.  Neither a “city mouse” nor a “country mouse,” this suburban mouse knows his way around the outside of our house as well as any of us, and finds its food, we have discovered, under the birdfeeder, and its shelter under last fall’s leaves…”

Read MacBeth’s whole article at: The Mouse in Winter.

Comments are off

Mealtime Read-Alouds

January 27, 2005 @ 9:42 am | Filed under:

I love to read aloud to my kids. Before they were born, I imagined myself curled on the couch amid a passel of captivated children, doing voices for the characters and receiving a chorus of eager pleas for one more chapter, please, Mom…. And I got that, with my first child, and my second. Then Beanie came along, and suddenly, family read-alouds weren’t fun anymore. It’s not that I expected her, at age one or two, to listen raptly to the novels that entranced her older sisters. I just figured she’d be happy playing somewhere nearby while I read. This was not the case. She was a high-energy toddler who had to be moving at all times. Usually on my head. She’d bounce back and forth across the couch; she’d mess with my hair; she’d torment her sisters. She had no interest in going somewhere else while I read, or in playing with toys that delighted at other times. And it would have been contrary to my reasons for wanting to homeschool in the first place to banish her from the room every time I wanted to read to the others. I didn’t want her to feel exiled during storytime. That certainly would not inspire in her a love of stories.

What I had to do was find times to read when Bean was naturally occupied in some activity even more absorbing than Distracting Her Sisters. Her naptimes were an obvious choice. And at bedtime, when Daddy read to the big girls, I spirited Beanie away to another room for some special cuddle time with Mommy. I read to her, and by that time of day, she was ready to be still and listen. And of course, the books were at her speed, not her sisters’.

But bedtime and naptime isn’t enough time. Too many great books in the world! Fortunately there was an activity Beanie enjoyed even more than jumping on the sofa: eating. Three times a day, she was (and still is) a captive audience.

Some of our best family reading times are over meals. I read to them at breakfast—usually poetry. At lunch I read novels like The Bears of Hemlock Mountain (with its delightful refrain of “No bears, no bears, no bears at all”) or By the Great Horn Spoon. I read picture books like Peter Rabbit or The Maggie B. or Tikki Tikki Tembo—books my older children have almost forgotten, and my younger ones are discovering for the first time.

A little side note here about picture books. They aren’t just for little kids. In The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease tells about a high-school teacher who reads Judith Viorst’s picture book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day to her students every year. Her teenagers listen raptly. They can relate to Alexander’s plight. Sometimes whole months of adolescence feel like a no good very bad day.

Back to our mealtime reading. I’ve learned to refill milk cups without breaking stride in the narrative. My picky eater forgets to pick—she’s into the story. And my wild wall-climbing preschooler shovels in her peas with her eyes fixed on the the picture I’m holding up.

Our breakfast poetry readings have done more to instill a love of poetry in my children than any curriculum I could have bought. I don’t make them memorize poems, but they do, because they ask for certain favorites over and over again. I read a mix of old favorites and new discoveries. Often I pick poems appropriate to the day’s weather, or the current season or holiday or animal we’ve been reading about or bird we’ve spotted on a nature walk. I read nonsense poems and serious, lyrical poetry. My little ones know Tennyson, Dickinson, Shakespeare, and Frost—not because I’ve taught these poets as schoolwork, but because they’ve joined us for breakfast so many a morning.

Our choices for novels are often dictated by what we’re interested in at the moment. In spring, our thoughts turn to green, growing things and fluffy animals. We follow “rabbit trails” of related books, like the year we hopped from Beatrix Potter to The Secret Garden to Redwall. In the winter, when we tend to read for longer stretches of time because we’re stuck indoors, we tend toward adventure stories and historical fiction.

Our suppertime book right now is Eleanor Estes’s hilarious Ginger Pye. It’s almost too funny for a mealtime read-aloud, because it’s encouraging bad manners in my gang—they keep laughing with their mouths full!

What are your family’s favorite read-alouds? Write me and I’ll post your recommendations.

What I’m Thankful for Today Is Plumbing

January 26, 2005 @ 2:18 pm | Filed under:

I’m working on a scene in my next Martha book. In 1700s Edinburgh, there was no such thing as a sewage system. James Buchan, in his fascinating book Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind, writes of servants flinging open the shutters at ten o’clock every evening, calling out “Gardy loo!”—a heads-up for passersby—and emptying the household chamberpots onto the street below.

I am suddenly feeling very fond of my toilets.

Giving Thanks

January 25, 2005 @ 2:47 pm | Filed under: , ,

In March of 1997, Jane was 21 months old. I took her to a friend’s birthday party in Prospect Park. It was my first time driving in Brooklyn. I remember zooming around a curve on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and seeing downtown Manhattan across the river, and feeling so empowered—if I could handle New York City highway traffic, I could handle anything. Jane piped up from the back seat, “Bus!” and I was so excited because she was rather a late talker and had only a handful of words at that point.

The next day, the birthday boy’s mother called to warn me that Tommy had awakened with a stomach virus that morning. Uh-oh. Every kid at the party came down with a really nasty flu—except Jane. She was legendary for her vigorous good health.

A week later, Jane and I flew down to North Carolina on a house-hunting mission. Scott was going to apply to grad school at UNC-G. Our plan was to move down in May and spend the summer freelancing before Scott started classes. Jane and I tooled all around the Greensboro area, and to my utter delight I found a cute little rental house—a former train depot, really—on a farm just outside the city limits. $500 a month, access to the whole farm including the sheep, the donkey, and the duck pond, and there was another family on the property with a little girl whom they too intended to homeschool. Seemed too good to be true. I returned triumphantly to NY and told Scott I’d found the perfect place.

A few days later, I was changing Jane’s diaper and noticed a surprising number of bruises on her legs. I wasn’t particularly worried—she was an active kid, a big climber and jumper, and we’d been at the playground all morning. Still, I decided to run it by the doctor. Unfortunately it was after office hours, so I’d have to wait until the morning.

That night Scott and I had an argument about when he should give notice at work. I was pushing for a slightly earlier date; I was eager to get down to NC and settle in at the Depot House. (It even had a name! I’ve always wanted to live in a house with a name.) Scott thought we should hang in for one more pay period before making the big move. We both went to bed upset, with Jane zonked beside us, her fair skin luminous in the moonlight. I woke in the early dawn, those bruises nagging at my mind. I snuck out of bed without waking Scott and Jane and dug a medical reference book out of the office closet. Bruising: check for petechiae, it said—little red dots on the skin—more than a dozen means bad news.

I crept back into the bedroom and raised the blind enough to let in light from the streetlamp. I remember the cold lump of fear in my stomach. There were more than twelve red dots on one arm alone. It was Saturday, March 22nd, and life as we knew it was over.

The pediatrician had office hours that morning. He took one look at Jane and sent us to the hospital for a blood test. Ten hours later we found ourselves in the PICU watching a nurse hook up machines that would remove Jane’s blood from her body and replace it with someone else’s blood. When Scott called his mother to tell her Jane had leukemia, she thought he was joking at first. He assured her that he would never joke about something like this. It defied belief, but it was real.

By the end of her first week of chemo, Jane had picked up a whole bunch of new words, like “blue IV” and “med-o-tec-tate” (methotrexate). And to think I’d been impressed with bus. Day 8 was Easter Sunday, and she hunted eggs in her hospital room with Scott maneuvering her iv pole around the bed. We thanked our lucky stars that he hadn’t quit his job yet—his company had great health insurance. I wrote a note to the owner of the Depot House, explaining that we wouldn’t be renting after all. Six months of inpatient, high-dose chemo stretched to almost nine months, because of low blood counts and complications. Jane knew more about platelets and white cells at age 2 than I did at 20. We learned how to give injections and push meds through her central line catheter. We watched hundreds of hours of Blues Clues and read picture books until they were stacked as high as the bed.

She finished the last round of high-dose chemo on Thanksgiving Day of 1997. We ate Boston Market turkey and stuffing in the hospital playroom while her meds finished running. There were two more years of low-dose chemo to go, but we expected to spend most of that period as out-patients. When we got home that night—home, where we hadn’t spent more than ten days in a row since March—it was late, a cold, clear night, with as many stars as a New York City sky can muster. I remember thinking I couldn’t imagine ever being more thankful for anything than I was to be carrying that little girl up the stairs to our apartment that night.

I was wrong. Today I watched Jane feeding Wonderboy a jar of baby food. He thought it was hilarious to have his big sister be the one feeding him, and he could hardly eat for laughing—big belly laughs that made the other kids crack up, and then the sound of their laughter, which he can hear clearly now with the hearing aids in, made him guffaw all the harder. I stood frozen in the kitchen, holding my breath as if they were a flock of rare birds who might fly away if I moved. Beanie’s curls bounce when she laughs. Rose laughs mostly with her big brown eyes. Jane is like a poster child for joy. It bubbles out of her and spills over to everyone around.

There’s a little part of me that is still leaning over the bed in that crowded Queens apartment, counting tiny red dots on Jane’s skin, slowly awaking to the fact that we had far more important things to worry about than what day Scott should give notice at his job. It’s the part of me that knows, now, never to take a minute of this for granted—to give thanks every hour of every day for these amazing treasures who have been entrusted to my care, and for the guy who gives his all in helping me take care of them. They are miracles, all of them. Especially that golden girl beaming at her little brother as she lifts the spoon to his laughing mouth.

Strategic Strewing

January 24, 2005 @ 1:05 pm | Filed under: , ,

I consider my primary function as a homeschooling mom to be Strewing the Path. Coined by Sandra Dodd, “strewing” is a favorite term of homeschoolers, especially unschoolers, which describes the habit of leaving books, puzzles, games, curiosities, art supplies, and other cool objects lying on tables and counters and in the car where unsuspecting children will find them. (Check out Sandra’s extensive page on strewing here.)

I learned the benefits of strewing from my husband. He hates to be told what to read. In high school, his favorite books were the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He read and re-read them for pleasure year after year. In college, he took a class on Tolkien. A certain number of chapters of The Lord of the Rings was assigned for each class. And Scott found that he never wanted to read the material. It had become “material.” It was an assignment, chopped up into increments and parceled out over a semester. He procrastinated or completely blew off the daily reading assignments. At home the following summer, he lounged under the air conditioner and read the whole trilogy for pleasure.

He told me that story early in our relationship, and I’m glad, because it tipped me off to the fact that if I really want him to read something, I shouldn’t ask him to. Instead, if I have a book I’m dying to share with him, I leave it in the bathroom and take all other reading material out of there. That’s strategic strewing.

It works with my children, too. I know their interests. I know where they like to hang out in the house. So I choose books I think will capture my 9-year-old’s imagination and leave them on the windowsill beside her chair at the lunch table, or on the sofa where she likes to sprawl. I leave baskets of books all over the house; I casually lay a picture book or two on my 4-year-old’s nightstand when I’m putting her down for a nap. I sneak into my sleeping daughters’ room and put books at the foot of their bed, because I know that when they wake up they’ll find them and look at them and maybe I’ll get to sleep ten minutes past dawn the next morning.

I have to be careful, because sometimes this gets me in trouble. Two summers ago I wanted to know what was growing in our unlandscaped side yard, so I checked a book on weeds out of the library. I glanced at it but decided this book was too dry to make it worth the effort and tossed it onto the kitchen table. The next day I returned it to the library. The next day, then-7-year-old Jane summoned me with an anguished wail. “Mommy, where’s that great book I was reading? The one about weeds? It was SO interesting!” She’d found it lying on the table and naturally assumed that it was meant for her. I admitted I’d returned it, and she was crushed. I had to promise to schedule a special trip to re-check it out. Apparently what is one person’s giant yawn is another person’s heart-pounder.

Scatter enough books in their paths, and they’ll find the heart-pounders for themselves.