Archive for January, 2012

January 30, 2012

how long is an hour if “a second is a hiccup”?

I am not proud of this: But whenever my son asks “how long is that, I’m never quite sure how to answer. As in, I tell him there’s an hour before bedtime and he asks “how long is an hour?” Or I tell him that we need to wait 15 minutes for something and he asks “how long is 15 minutes”? So everytime, even though I hate doing it and even though I know it is not at all helpful to him, I give him a television comparison. 15 minutes is the same as one Dinosaur Train. 30 minutes is two Dinosaur Trains or half a Sesame Street. And hour is a Sesame Street. Of course, this doesn’t help at all because he has no sense of how long these things are. It’s also unhelpful because the relative nature of time is hard to explain to a three year old. Even if he had some idea of how long Dinosaur Train lasted, those 15 minutes surely go by faster than 15 minutes at the dentist. Once or twice, I’ve opened my mouth to try to explain that, but then I bite my tongue. I often find myself having to remember that he’s only three.

So I was really excited to see this book! It explains the concept of time in a way kids can understand. And while he still likely has no idea how long an hour, month, or year is, this book has given us some kind of common language with which to talk about it and visualize it.

Title: A second is a hiccup
Author: Hazel Hutchins
Age: 3 and up
: Picture Book, Nonfiction, but in a fun, fiction-y sort of way

Some things you could do with this book that would be really fun: get near a clock that ticks loudly if you have one. If you don’t, you could sit by a large clock with an easy-to-read second hand, but the ticking noise would probably be easier for a child. Then practice counting seconds: you could count to five, every time the hand moves. Or you could follow the script of the book and make a hiccup sound for every tick. Or even more fun: give mom a kiss every second! I’m sure you can think of lots more ways to practice noticing the seconds tick by!

What about a minute? The book suggests a minute might be “one small song / Chorus, verses, not too long”. So why not try it? Sing a few songs with your little one and a stop watch? Or while watching the second hand go around? Or if you are getting to that point in the day when you really want the kids to get some exercise, how about another one of the book’s ideas–60 hops to make a minute?

What about you? Any ideas to teach time to the little one? Or are you waiting so that on those days when you are tired, you can put them to bed at 6:30 instead of 7:30 and hope they don’t notice the difference? ūüôā

January 30, 2012

what if you had to die again and again? and again…

I don’t really have a good parenting story for this book because I have toddler boys instead of teenage girls (says a small prayer of thanks). Toddler boys have their issues, but high school popularity contests, alcohol, sex, and suicide are not among them. I realize that’s a lot of weighty issues, but don’t let them turn you away from this book. Its’s weighty, but not in a preachy way. And not in an over-the-top way. Just in a very real, very honest way. It’s a very good story with very good writing, which at the end of the day, is a great way to spend some time.

Title: Before I fall
 Lauren Oliver
Genre: Fiction
Age: High School or Upper Middle School (but the topics are definitely high school rated)

After not really liking the first chapter (I was thinking, is anyone really THIS shallow?), I got into the book until it had such a hold on me I couldn’t put it down even though the baby has been keeping me up and I really needed to sleep. Here’s my two cents, and I think this would be a GREAT book for any teenage girl and her mom to read together. Even if you are at the point in your relationship where this main character is and you don’t talk much, just the shared reading experience would be great. As a mom (or a dad!) you would be sending the message to your daughter, that yes, you are up for topics like this, that you are willing to read about them and even talk about them, that you were a teenager once, too.

(Although please do not ask your child to read it and then give them any high-road morality lectures about alcohol or driving or sex. Trust me, the book speaks for itself. That is the beauty of it. If you have a close relationship with your kid, treasure that and talk to them about the characters, their lives, and their decisions. Let your teen lead the way with the discussion. Don’t push it.)

This book is really well-written. Told from the point of view of a popular high school girl who dies in a car crash and has to relive her last day over and over, it’s a beautiful story about life and the way we live it. It’s a great story about the lessons we learn along the way, by one girl who learned those lessons way too late. I was a little worried it was going to be too predictable–she starts out so shallow and obviously she is going to learn, change. But it wasn’t like that at all. For one, she learns lessons in a really honest, believable way. For two, what seems so shallow at first is explained so well in later chapters that depth is added to her character and she becomes so alive. Which is only somewhat ironic, given that she’s dead.

I think teenage girls would really relate to this book, even if they’ve never stepped into the popular circle or touched a cup of beer to their lips. This book is about growing up. It’s about finding out what’s important. It’s about the changes we make on purpose and the ones we don’t realize we’ve made until they are already a part of us. It really makes you think about how you live your life. In a good way.

From a parent perspective, here are two of my favorite observations, which you could talk about (or not) with your kids:

For page references purposes, I had a library-bound hardcover.

Page 225:¬†It’s the weirdest thing. I’m popular–really popular–but I don’t have that many friends. What’s even weirder is that it’s the first time I’ve noticed.

Page 194: Here’s one of the things I learned that morning: if you cross a line and nothing happens, the line loses meaning. It’s like that old riddle about a tree falling in a forest and whether it makes a sound if there’s no one around to hear it. /¬†You keep drawing a line farther and farther away, crossing it every time. That’s how people end up stepping off the edge of the earth. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to bust out of orbit, to spin out to a place where no one can touch you.

That second passage is a really good reminder for parents. It can be so hard to draw that line–and once drawn, to keep its meaning. When I worked as a principal, I saw so many parents struggling with it. But it’s so important, and this is why. Kids WANT that line, they crave that line, even if they could never, ever express it for themselves. I used to tell parents that, and they wouldn’t always believe me.

I remember hearing an NPR interview a long time ago with a woman who had once worked as a dominatrix. I don’t remember what she had turned herself into that landed her later on NPR, as that was likely less interesting. But this is exactly what she was talking about. She said she never had any boundaries growing up. So she just kept pushing and pushing, looking for the walls. She tried alcohol, she tried drugs, she tried stripping, and she just kept going. Unfortunately, I never found a polite way to share that story with parents, but I wish I could have–if that didn’t make them give their kids some boundaries, I don’t know what would. This book, might, though.

January 27, 2012

When the bananas are screaming

Welcome to the first edition of The Family that EATS Together Fridays, which will focus on recipes you can make and eat with the kids.

It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like banana bread. It’s even harder to find someone who doesn’t like banana bread with chocolate in it. And it’s almost impossible to find a family that doesn’t, at least occasionally, forget to eat all the bananas before they turn that wonderful color of brownish black that screams “time to make the muffins!”

Here’s what my 3yo and I did a few days ago, when the baby was asleep and we heard the bananas screaming.

First, we printed out my absolute favoritest banana bread recipe. It is SO banana-y. (And to my mother-in-law, who accounts for about 2% of my subscribers, I love yours, too.) ūüôā You can find it by searching for Tyler Florence and banana bread.

Then we got out the muffin pan, because no matter how many recipes I have tried, I have NEVER made a loaf of banana bread that was perfect. It is SO hard to get the inside cooked before the outside is too brown. I solve that problem by making muffins, which are cuter anyway.

Then we followed Tyler’s¬†directions, with a few exceptions. One, I used whole wheat pastry flour. Whole wheat pastry flour is my new true love. I use it almost exclusively now, and find that, with the exception of really delicate recipes like crepes (which I think it makes too bland), it¬†is completely interchangeable for white flour. Two, I used coconut oil instead of butter. Why? Well, I thought banana-coconut was a good combo, although the coconut flavor didn’t come through too much. But also because I’ve started cooking a lot more with coconut oil. True, it’s a saturated fat, but it is made up of medium chain fatty acids, which people are realizing might help in certain areas like heart disease, and might also help raise the good kind of cholesterol. There are also claims that it helps with a myriad other things, including weight loss. It’s also a great moisturizer for skin and hair (and one of the only things I use on my own skin and hair–I just keep a jar in the bathroom!). Three, I used half sugar and half honey. If your bananas are really sweet, you can cut down on the sugar, but while mine were definitely overripe, they didn’t smell ubersweet, so I used a half cup of sugar and about a third a cup of honey. (He says to use a cup of sugar, but that’s crazy talk.)

Then we mixed. It’s a great recipe for a 3yo: he loved mashing the bananas with a potato masher. He always loves a recipe that involves turning on the mixer. (This one has you wisk two bananas with sugar and mash two others, so you get a nice combo of taste and texture running through the muffins.) We poured in the flour (this is much less messy at almost-four than it was at almost-three, I’m happy to say). And we added chocolate chips, even though these were not, strictly speaking, in the recipe. But I add chocolate chips to almost anything I’m making.
My husband likes these best plain. My son likes them best with chocolate chips. I like them best with chocolate chips and nuts. So sometimes I separate the batter at the end and make three different ones before baking. I like to use an ice cream scoop to fill the muffin pans–it’s easy and almost mess-free. (Nothing is completely mess-free with a 3yo is doing it, but that’s kind of the point.)

P.S. Since these are muffins, not a loaf, you will need to shorten the baking time considerably. I set the timer for 30 minutes the first time around and that worked great. You might want to try 25 minutes and check them, then put them in for another 5 or 10 depending on how you like them. You can stick a fork in the middle to see if the inside is done.

I hope you enjoy the recipe, and if you try it, let me know what you think. Do you have a favorite recipe you like to make with your kids?

January 23, 2012

mambo your way into the soul of a good poem

I love my sister. AND (As a teacher writing comments about kids a lot I was taught never to say BUT in situations like this) :), my memories of her learning to play the violin are not pleasant ones. Which is why I vowed that I would never let my children learn to play a stringed instrument until I had a soundproof room in my house. Which is probably why my 3yo (because can’t all 3yo’s read straight into your soul’s deepest fears?) decided that the violin was exactly what he wanted to play.

We are a few months into our lessons and a few stanzas into Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. And let me say this: every time his bow screeches across the strings, twinkle-starring its way through notes both sharp and flat, maybe some at the same time, I smile with pure happiness. Yes, I am that much of a sucker.

Music gets us where it counts. We use it to get us through the work day. We use it when running, to make us go faster. We use it to calm down. We use it to express our love when dancing. It touches every part of our lives and that’s why this book is so good.¬†Just listen to how it begins:

On summer nights
Papi lets me help out
at the music store.

Papi says you can
read people’s souls
by the music
they listen to;
that hearts
fly home
when the music’s
Just Right.

Title: Under the Mambo Moon
Author: Julia Durango
Illustrator: Fabricio VandenBroeck
Genre: Poetry, Fiction
Age: Middle School, High School, Any, really

Summary and ideas:¬†In this book, characters come and go from a record store as music from all over Latin America is played and remembered. Read this book with a record player nearby. (Okay, the internet will do.) Read the book through once and then the second time you read it, play a song every time one kind of music is played. Dance to it. If you really want to embrace the book, learn to dance the different dances. You don’t have to take a formal class; I’m sure YouTube will come through for you. Or if you are reading this with a class or an older child who likes to be challenged, have them write a copycat poem but with their favorite kind of music instead. Mimicking great writers can be a great learning opportunity.

And then tell me: what strong musical memories do you have?

January 21, 2012

I’m talking to you, queen of buttery goodness, spokeswoman for denial

Paula Deen. When she gets on TV with that big smile even bigger hair, her hearty laugh and even heartier eyelashes, her Southern twang and her creamy foods, I swoon a little. I love her humility She doesn’t seem like the a bazillionaire when she’s telling you how to make cheesy grits with about four times as much cheese as grits. I love her family: she’s like a teenager in love when her husband comes on the show. I love her boys: when I think of the two boys I’m now raising myself, I often think, if I could just do as good of a job as Paula Deen did, then I’ll be happy.

But right now, Paula’s making a lot of people angry. Here’s my¬†take on what I’ve read so far:


Anthony Bourdain slammed Paula Deen by tweeting “I’m thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business so I can sell crutches later. Really Bourdain? He’s not the only one to criticize Paula for making America less healthy. Do the people making these arguments really think that Americans would be slimmer if Paula didn’t have a TV show? That Paula Deen’s recipes, and not a history of fattening food and fast-food restaurants are causing the obesity epidemic?


In an unbelievable opinion article on Fox News¬†entitled “Gods, Guns, and Grease” (I couldn’t make that up if I tried)¬†that could have been written in 1865 when the carbetbaggers were arriving in the wartorn South, James Richardson argues that the Paula backlash is Northern prejudice and elitism, and tells Yankees that they don’t understand good Southern family values and cooking on a budget–that’s my favorite part, as if cooking with more butter is somehow cheaper.


In her add for her new drug company, Paula says that she wasn’t about to change her life with her diagnosis, but she is “cutting back on ¬†one of my favorite things: sweet tea” which “for a Southern girl [is a] big deal.”

I’m sorry, Paula. I still love you, but that’s total crap. People look up to you. Don’t feed them this b.s. that they can drink less sweet tea and live the easy life with diabetes. That’s playing right into the American ideal that we can do whatever we want with our lives and a bunch of little pills (or injections in this case) are going to save us. Obviously, that’s what the company you are sponsoring is counting on. But being healthy takes hard work. You pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, Paula. I know you are no stranger to hard work, and that’s why I find this disappointing.


The only article I thought was reasonable, actually, was from food blogger Marion Nestle who had this to say:

According to the Times’ account, Mrs. Dean says that it is elitist to criticize her food:

You know, not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine. My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills. Really?  Does Mrs. Deen think those families can afford to pay the $500 a month drug companies charge for Victoza?


In her big coming out on the Today Show, Paula was asked about her diet and the fattening foods she teaches people how to cook. She had the nerve to say “I’ve always encouraged moderation. … I tell people in moderation, in moderation.” I’ve seen your shows, Paula, and that is a lie. Lying, as I tell my three-year-old, makes me sad.

Here’s what I’d like you to say: Yes, I’ve overindulged. It was fun while it lasted. I hope people can learn from my experience. Make my recipes at the occasional family gathering or party. But we all need to change the way we eat. And then do what you do best, Paula: show us how to do that.

Would it kill you to say that, Paula? Because here’s my concern: It might kill a lot of more people if you don’t.

Be a spokesperson for drugs. Be a spokesperson for doughnuts and butter. But don’t be a spokesperson for denial.

So, reader, what do you think? Do you agree with any of the articles?

January 18, 2012

making the world better with “magic trash”

Occasionally, there’s a picture book that’s much more than a picture book. Something for kids and adults who really want to learn about the world. Something colorful, but also political, social, and ecological. Something with a strong message about the world today. This is one of those.

This book combines some powerful images and stories. A boy wants to be an artist, but first joins the army and works in a factory. A neighborhood struggles with poverty, thieves, politics, and the law. And in the end, art finally wins the day, and the Heidelberg project is created.

Regular prose combined with rhymic and poetic verse:

the young boy paints: “brush greens and blues / on wheels and shoes / slosh, slap, and splash magic trash”

the young adult watches his neighborhood fall apart: “Whoo! Spirits whirl. / New Troubles swirl. / Kick, burn, and hurl magic trash.”

the city tries to tear down his urban art projects: “Old houses talk. / Some neighbors squawk. / Crash, bash, and smash magic trash.”

the adult artist succeeds and completes a beautiful project: “Let rockets fly! / Boards tower high. / Bounce, jump, and dance, magic trash!”

Title: Magic Trash
Author: J.H. Shapiro
Illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Genre: Picture Book, Art, Politics, Poverty
Ages: 4 and up

This book would be great in classrooms and for families who aren’t afraid of a conversation around a story. Talking about what you can do to reduce or reuse your trash, and starting a recycled art project would be fun for anyone on a rainy day.

Do you have a picture book that you think shares a powerful message? Please share it!!

January 16, 2012

predictably, the zebra doesn’t make it in “After the Kill”

I’m too much of a wuss to give this one to my son quite yet. I’m not necessarily proud to be part of the modern tradition of shielding children from basically all reality, but here we are. When my son asks about what animals eat, I tell him. But he usually doesn’t believe me. When he asks if the fish we eat are the same kind that swim in the sea, I tell him. But again, he doesn’t believe me. When he asked recently what bird eat, I told him that smaller birds eat seeds and worms and bugs and larger birds ate smaller birds and mammals. This time, not only did he not believe me, he wanted to challenge me. So he asked his dad to get out his iPhone and test his “hypothesis” (yes, he loves that word) that big birds ate worms and small birds ate bird seed. Now, since the best way to prove something to be true is to google it, his search basically answered the question in the way he had hoped.

Which is all to say that I don’t think he’s quite ready for this book. But I will certainly show it to him someday, although if the past is any indication, he simply won’t believe me.

Title: After the Kill
Author: Darrin Lunde
Illustrator: Catherine Stock
 Picture Book, Nonfiction, Science
Ages: I would say 4 or 5 and up, but maybe 3 if you are less of a wimp than I am (and have raised someone less in denial)

Summary and Stuff to do with the kids:

This is a great story about the food chain out in the wilds of Africa. It starts, rather graphically, with a zebra getting killed by a lioness. Vultures, hyenas and jackals also come along for a bite until the male lions scare them away. When the lions are done, more vultures come and then the beetles “swarm inside the skull, squeeze between the teeth, and wiggle inside the ears.” We are not treading lightly here.

The words make no apology for what is going on, which I appreciate. It is life as life is, and as kids do need to understand at some time. And it is animals acting as animals–they are not anthropomorphized or having conversations, which I also appreciate. The illustrations are gorgeously done, which given the subject matter, could be considered a plus or a minus. ūüôā

This would be a great book to talk to your kids about where food comes from. Or, if the kids are older, it could easily be used in an elementary science class to talk about the food chain. It’s also a great conversation starter about waste: how much food does the average American family throw away after they make dinner? Well, what about these animals? They killed one zebra and lots of animals got their full of it, eating absolutely everything until the bare bones lay scorching in the sun.

Now tell me: when did your kids figure out what their food really was? Were they in denial for awhile? Was it a one-time revelation, or did it just slowly sink in over time? And would you like a book like this to talk with them?

January 13, 2012

The fourth robot-pig: getting creative with “Watch Out for Wolfgang”

Recently while at the library to pick up a few hold items for myself, I gave my three-year-old about 30 seconds to pick up a couple of picture books (I know, top-notch mothering right there), and he was really excited to pick out this one. I was too, even after we read it once, twice, a hundred times.

And even after we discussed the implications THOROUGHLY of what it means to be a robot and be taken apart. (He does NOT like reading about machines that break. It freaks him out in a profound way. This anxiety is increased when the machines have eyes and ears and are friendly characters in a book.)¬†His anxiety about the book translated to an obsession with it and he read it over and over until he loved it. He was excited to show it to his dad, and even more excited to say “and now is the scary part!”¬†(It’s not actually that scary, unless you have a thing about machines being taken apart. Which we do.)

This re-writing of the three little pigs, with three little robots and a robot recycler named Wolfgang, is a great book with awesomely gorgeous illustrations. And the activity I’m going to share with you below was not my idea at all. My son made the whole thing up.

Title: Watch out for Wolfgang
Author/Illustrator: Paul Carrick
Genre: Picture Book, Fairy Tale Retelling
Ages: 3 – 7

Summary and activities to do with the kids:

This is a great book to share with your kids for so many reasons. First, the fact that it’s a retelling of the Three Little Pigs makes it a great way to discuss how the same story can be told in different ways. Even older kids would benefit from making comparisons to the swinier version. The second reason it’s totally awesome is that the third pig (robot) is not a savior because he’s hard-working, he’s a savior because he’s “different”. In a totally great way.

But here’s a fun activity that my son made up: we added a fourth robot.

He first took a flip coloring book with lots of robots in it. He chose the perfect robot for the story. He said that he wanted his robot (Glabby, a boy name in case you weren’t sure) to be like Rod, the first of the three robots in the story. He also said that Glabby’s factory (they build factories instead of houses) was a baking factory, which I secretly thought was brilliant.

Then we read the story and at each page we held up Glabby’s picture next to the illustrations and I made up and read aloud a paragraph about what Glabby was doing. It was so much fun! Glabby, since he was like the first brother, did get recycled by Wolfgang. But since they are all saved in the end by the third robot, Glabby did okay.

But it was so much fun! I would love to hear if any of you try this with your own kids! It doesn’t have to be this book, and it doesn’t have to be a robot, but maybe pick a story your child knows well and see if they can invent a character to add to the story. Have your child invent certain important facts about the character, and then when you read the book, read in their character. My son was so excited and proud of the new story with his inventions in it.

And then let me know. Do you think you will try it? With what book? And if you did try it, how did it turn out?

January 12, 2012

Harry Potter for Christmas

I was so excited to open my Harry Potter books for Christmas, I had to blog about it. It’s over at Nashville Parent if you’d like to read.

January 7, 2012

A fix-it kit so your own Polka-dot can fix kindergarten, too

I don’t remember my first day of kindergarten. I remember second grade, when I met the principal for the first time and I wrote my age (7) backwards. I had to ask for an eraser because my pencil didn’t have one and I was mortified, but he didn’t strike me dead with a lightening bolt so everything turned out okay. This book is about the first day of kindergarten, but it’s a great read for any kid at almost any point in the school year.

Title: Polka-Dot Fixes Kindergarten
Author: Catherine Urdahl
Illustrator: Mai S. Kemble
Genre: Picture Book
Ages: Perfect for 3 and up, or anyone going to preschool, kindergarten, summer camp, or anything else!

Why I loved it and how to use it with kids:

There are a lot of reasons to love this book. Here are some:

  • Her name is Polka-Dot, which is the best nickname for Dorothy I’ve ever heard
  • She lives with her grandfather, and I think books with non-traditional family structures are really important to show kids.
  • She’s spunky and wonderful and afraid of her first day at school.
  • Her grandfather fixes everything with duct tape, polka-dot bandages, and runny soap.
  • He gives her a mini fix-it kit with all three of these things to take to kindergarten and she uses all of them. The runny soap doesn’t fix the mess she makes with the paints, and the bandages don’t help when she’s really sad, but the duct tape does help an enemy turn into a friend, and it saves the day, as duct tape always should.

Not only does this book have wonderful characters and absolutely gorgeous illustrations that would help any kid visualize school, but it gives parents and kids a really good idea. For those children who are too old for a binky or stufftie, or too practical for either, making them a small fix-it kit to take on their first day of a new activity might be just the thing to help them feel in control. Giving kids a sense of ownership and power is often all they need to feel a little less anxious. Maybe this is just what you need for that first day back from winter vacation! Here are some of my own ideas of things you could include in your kit:

  • duct tape of course
  • stickers, if you have that kind of kid (that likes to put stickers on everything to brighten up his/her world)
  • small rocks or shells or feathers if you have that kind of kid (that likes to feel them in their hands to calm down)
  • a small card that says how much you love them
  • a photo of family
  • a card with phone numbers on it

What about you? Any memories, good or bad, from your early school days? And any ideas for a back-to-school kit?