wocket in my pocket

Looking for the unexpected in the mundane.

Move Over, October

Although it doesn’t feel necessary at all yet, we are battening down the hatches here despite the August-like feel in the middle of the days. In landlocked, rural PA, that means clearing out the gardens, planting garlic, digging sweet potatoes, maybe nurturing some lettuce in homemade cold frames.  The pigs have been set to plowing the garden, where they clearly enjoy their privileges among the dried bean stalks and tired zinnias. The black pig, Petunia, is supposed to “piggle” as we jokingly call it, but she just doesn’t have babies. I am thinking she is even looking slimmer recently, so who knows? Maybe her relationship with Brutus is platonic.

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The zinnia blooms that persist are still a-flit with monarch butterflies that should be hurrying south. We all feel a little confused by fall this year. There is no color. It’s still green here, folks. The leaves that have dropped are tan, brown, or speckled with a tinge of orange, but no brilliance. It’s an odd result of a very wet summer/abundant chlorophyll and unseasonably warm temperatures, the experts say.

This fall for the first time ever we wound our way through a corn maze, shot small pumpkins with a sling-shot, played corn hole and pumpkin checkers, and had fun in general.

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I feel the urge to clear out all the spider webs in my house, but it is a futile effort because the spiders keep diligently moving in. They aren’t fooled by unseasonable warmth. Also the stink bugs– I don’t even know if they have another more formal name, but they don’t deserve it if they do. I vacuumed 17 of them off my bedroom curtain one day. They seemed surprised and emanated their cilantro stench so strongly I smelled them every time I vacuumed for a long time afterward.

The vacuum cleaner smells like moth ball crystals at the moment. “What’s that sweet stink?” Rita asked. Upon investigation, I found that someone had spilled them in the closet after they did their sweet-stink duty in keeping yellow jackets away from our applesauce production out on the deck.

We live in deep apple territory. It’s amazing! We go to the orchard and walk along the apple crates on the porch, sometimes with as many as ten varieties of irregulars that are so cheap you can’t let them there. Then I remember what a friend who lived in the orchards said about the sprays, so I soak the apples in a white vinegar/water solution before cooking them. Whether this actually works to remove all the pesticides is open to debate, but it makes me feel better. I did the math this year to see if applesauce making is worth the effort. At Aldi, a pint of applesauce was 1.29. That’s 2.60 per quart. We did 55 quarts this fall. That’s $143 at Aldi. The apples cost us $45. Okay, so we saved $100 with just four hours of mildly strenuous effort. Even with overhead costs, a concept I just explained to Gregory this morning in his math lesson, I know it’s worth making applesauce. Also it counts as a school day, so we’re definitely in the clear here.

I am waiting for the Granny Smiths to be picked so that I can make real apple dumplings. Have you ever had them? The combination of mouth-puckering sour with flaky pastry and buttery syrup? Ohh, I sigh with delight at the thought. Once, and only once, I used whole wheat pie and pastry flour to healthify them. It was a fail that I will not repeat. If you need to healthify your apples, just eat them raw.

The boys have been working on painting the barn doors, which ended being constructed of raw wood after someone stole a pile of weathered red siding boards that would have become doors. The boys have also been making it their mission to get rid of the rats that have moved into the barn. (Shut your ears if you are squeamish.) Gregory has a string stretched between two small trees where he hangs his trophies by the tail. The count is holding at three, but there is a really big one they call Templeton that defies all their ingenious traps and steals the corn anyway.

In other news, we just finished our first quarter of school. Shew! One day at a time, they say, and they are right. The days pile up like sand in an hour glass and one day they will be all filtered through and we will understand percentages and fractions and phonics rules and it will be spring!

Gabriel is now exactly 6/11 of the way to his bachelor’s degree. He perseveres on through much trudging and some very boring assignments, to my way of thinking.

Our read-aloud book at the moment is Girl From Yamhill, Beverly Cleary’s memoir which was printed at least 20 years ago, but has seen a renewed circulation since she celebrated her 100th birthday. We love Beverly Cleary with her Klickitat Street, Henry and Ribsy, Beezus and Ramona, and a host of other unforgettable characters. The book is written about her childhood with an adult viewpoint, so there are occasional passages I edit for my small children’s sake. Our favorite line so far is her description of fourth grade: “one long quest to find the lowest common denominator.”

There isn’t a good way to conclude this kind of post, so I leave you with Addy’s Quote of the Day, after she was reprimanded by a sibling for her loud singing in the car.

“When I grow up, I am going to hum for people. For a living.”

 

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Quite Likely Events

I am a fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. They are such fascinating studies of human behaviors, what makes people tick when they are not even aware of it, how trends take hold, why the small people sometimes inexplicably roust the huge ones, etc.

These are the ones I have read or listened to:




I know some people hate his studies. They think he oversimplifies things, puts them into neat boxes when there really are no boxes. But there are! There are categories and predictable behaviors, but there are also boxes for the totally unexpected, and those are the best ones of all.  I like this quote:  The point isn’t necessarily to accept his conclusions, but to be jolted – even if via the improbable medium of ketchup – into seeing the whole world afresh. This galls some critics, who’d prefer it if Gladwell made smaller, more cautious, less dazzling claims.

We listened to Gladwell’s Ted talk on David and Goliath this summer, and you should too. If you don’t agree with his ideas, at least it will take your mind for a little spin of possibilities. The entire book is comprised of anecdotal evidence that giants are not as powerful as they seem. The chapter on how difficult it is to parent well when you are rich was quite affirming. Studies have shown that over 75K in annual income will make it significantly harder to raise well-adjusted children than when your income falls in a lower bracket. Whew! At least we are safe on that score!

My favorite is still The Tipping Point, probably because of my fascination with people’s behavior. When I got to spend a day at the Mother Earth News Fair, I had just as much fun watching people as I did checking out the vendors and listening to the keynote speakers. That is where I saw the impeccably flawless lady who seemed to be having a bad day. Remember her from my last post? I didn’t actually interview her, so I cannot know for sure why she was giving her husband such sour looks.

Maybe she had a sore in her mouth that was causing her to see the world as grey and hopeless and even drinking water hurt. She couldn’t eat any pretzel if she wanted to. (Ouch! the salt!)

Maybe her favorite granddaughter had just dropped out of med school in favor of joining a band of farmers living communally off the soil in the hinterlands, and she came to the fair to try to understand what her granddaughter was thinking!

Maybe her husband had an autoimmune disease that caused him agonies every time he ate gluten, and she knew he would be moaning to her all evening after he ate that pretzel.

Maybe he wasn’t even her husband, just some nettlesome guy who knew her back in highschool and still thought she was pretty.

Okay, that is getting a little far out, but you really never do know and it is just a smidge arrogant to assume that the other person’s behavior is uncomplicated. I still lean toward my first impression that she was just being catty.  At any rate, it’s interesting, which is why I suggest you give the Gladwell books a try. Check them out at the library if you feel doubtful. Tell me what you think. 🙂

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Getting Home Safely

I have been reading stories from the book of Daniel to my little girls at bedtime this week. Last night we covered the bit in chapter 7 where Daniel has a terrifying vision of four great beasts coming out of the sea. Fantastical creatures: lion with eagle’s wings, bear with an unsteady gait and three ribs in its mouth, a leopard with four heads and wings, and lastly a terrible monster that crashed and gnashed about with iron teeth and bronze claws and ten horns. Pretty scary stuff!

After a while their dominion was taken away. Here is Daniel 7:9, 10.

“As I looked,

thrones were placed,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames;
its wheels were burning fire.

A stream of fire issued
and came out from before him;
a thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;
the court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.”

He goes on to describe how the beasts had their dominion taken away and the Great Beast was killed and his body thrown into the fire to be burned. The ultimate victory thrills me, as does the descriptive language of these passages. Daniel himself said, “The visions of my head alarmed me.” When he asked about the great beast which had so terrified him, the interpretation was that it was a kingdom unlike others, “devouring the earth, breaking it down, and stamping on the pieces”.  This would be a kingdom that blasphemes the Most High, wears out the saints, and imagines itself more powerful than times and laws.

It all comes to an end, up-side-down gets turned upright and righteousness reigns in the earth. We looked for a long time at an artist’s imaginative painting of the New Earth and knew that even in our wildest dreams we have so little idea what God has prepared for those who love Him. (Go read Daniel if you want to have your mind stretched and your faith strengthened. It is more fantastic than many of the modern fantasies/allegories that I have read. )

Why read this stuff to my children? Maybe I should just stick with the lion’s den? Actually, my reasoning wasn’t complex. This story came next in the Bible storybook, and they really wanted to hear about the beasts. As it turned out, it coincided with a lot of things I had been thinking about recently due to what I was reading.

A yearning for “happily ever after” is in our DNA. My girls like good endings to stories. I hope and pray that they will see how even sad stories can be happy endings because there is life beyond the now. I fully expect us to face suffering for our faith that is more than the ridicule that we currently get. I want them to have strong faith that what is seen with our eyes is only the tiniest part of Reality.

Here’s another book recommendation for you, written to people under severe trial in approximately A.D. 67: the book of Hebrews. When I studied it as a bracing message to Christians who were faltering under the weight of discipline and the struggle of endurance, it opened to me as a beautiful narrative of hope. Chapter eleven alone is enough to make one’s heart burn with courage. That long line of the faithful who were obedient to what they knew God wanted for them, and so they pleased Him. It brings tears when I read how they were looking for a city that was prepared for them, looking for the reward, the better life. “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” (Heb. 11:13)

It may sound shallow to look for the reward, but it’s what motivates us, isn’t it? How else would anyone have fortitude to stay faithful while being sawn in half as part of a torture session?

My third book recommendation is Safely Home, by Randy Alcorn. The author contrasts the life of an all-American businessman with the life of a Chinese friend and former roommate from college. As you follow the story, you get this knot of sadness, knowing that it isn’t going to end well for everybody. It’s not easy, light reading, even if it is classified as a novel. In fact, I cried for a good portion of the book.

I will tell you that the tears at the end were tears of overwhelmed joy because the end was not the end. Death had lost its sting.

My friend Heidi, who has a little girl in heaven, has recommended Randy Alcorn’s book titled Heaven to me. She describes it as thought-provoking study from the Bible as to what heaven may be like. From her description, I think Mr. Alcorn modeled his novel on his theological studies on heaven.

Maybe you, like me, feel oppressed with the brokenness that seems to whack and crush people down. It doesn’t seem right and it’s not OK. We feel in our souls that we ought to fix things, pray them away, not let bad things ever happen to anybody. This is an intrinsic part of a person who loves righteousness- the compulsion to right wrongs and do something about injustice. In fact, the Hebrews heroes of faith “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, quenched flames, were valiant in battle… the dead were raised to life.”

Then there were others who were tortured, facing jeers and flogging, and when they weren’t in jail, they were living in holes in the ground. “They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated.” I don’t think that mess felt okay to them. Yet the world was not worthy of them. And why?  Their faith. The rule of the beast would not last forever and they knew it in their souls.

We have to live in hope, my friends. The best is not yet.

 

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March Potpourri

It’s spring now and the sap of life is rising. It gurgles to the surface: life that has been there all along, just frozen. Even though our winter was a joke to people like my husband who wanted Serious Snow, I rejoice and feel myself full of ideas thawing and ready to go!

Rita and I went on a soggy walk one day when she was feeling blue. She is cut out of the same cloth I am and we both cheered up when we found twigs with leaf babies to bring inside.

We had our First Day of Spring Party today. It being Monday, I thought maybe I could wait until tomorrow, but the children were not having it. “We have to have a tea party today! It is important.” So we decorated with a pastel piece of fabric and paper doilies, then set out the China and prettied up the food. Frilly toothpicks stuck through ham and cheese chunks cut out with flower-shaped cookie cutters, a simple chicken broth with alphabet pasta, crackers and party mints in pretty bowls, and we were set. Dessert was vanilla crepes with raspberry sauce. Oh, and tea, of course. Mint tea.

Last weekend I got to attend a conference for mothers where Sally Clarkson was speaking to us from her years of wisdom. It was one long, refreshing drink, one that I needed to give me courage. Here is what it looked like in NC on my way to the conference. I pulled off the road and put on my flipflops.

Sally mentioned that typically women in their twenties have a few babies and spend a lot of time establishing ideals. In the thirties they start to feel the burn and it sinks in that this is for the long haul, no short cuts or selfishness allowed. By their forties most mothers are tired. The crowd of godly mothers thins out a bit as one by one they quit, saying, “Let these children figure out their own way now. I am done with this mothering thing. It’s too hard, all this eye-rolling and investments that aren’t valued anyway.”

I have felt it: I am in the tired spot and needed some pep talking. Sometimes I don’t know how weary I am until I hold still for a while.

Here are a few more Sallyisms that I am phrasing as I remember them. Listening to her gentle humor in person was much better, but I know that some of you read her books and will enjoy this.

You are called to live your own story. Nobody else’s. That is your place to be faithful. It’s like a puzzle, and all you have to do is fit your own pieces into your own puzzle. Nobody else’s. Your puzzle will look different from every other puzzle when it is finished.

If God gives you a vision when you are young and idealistic, don’t just chuck it when it gets hard. Everybody in the world will give you permission to compromise. If He says something is valuable, it is!

Read stories of hope and faith to give you courage. Read them to your children. Fill them with stories of beautiful, true, honorable things. Give them a solid framework in a twisted world.

ABIDE. This is not formula or fear. It is not control. It is just a state of being.

If you make mistakes, repent and get over it. God is a Redeemer. Your difficulties are where your children see a walk with God modeled. The hard things you go through are the platform where you gain influence.

I had registered for this conference 5 months ago, and it was so strengthening. Sally speaks hard truths in the kindest way possible. Not least of the enjoyment was sharing the experience with two of my sisters-in-law. We talked long and late, ate chocolate and drank coffee, found common ground and encouraged each other.

I can unequivocally recommend a few books that Sally has written for moms. If you need to hear from someone who has walked the long road and been tested, but stayed steadfast, listen to her admonitions in print. She will not give you permission to slack and feel sorry for yourself; you will be blessed.

In the spirit of making a lifegiving home, I have been working at my March decluttering. So far I have taken out a bag of mismatched plastic containers and lids that I do not seem to be able to chuck into the trash when the sour cream is empty. I passed on a box of boys’ clothes and a bag of girl clothes. The boys were bribed with a dollar per trash bag filled in their room. It took them 30 minutes to fill 4! (I was so proud of them, but not especially proud of myself.) There were a few children’s coats and snowpants that were ripped beyond repair, with zippers broken, etc. that I burned when they weren’t looking.

One painful day I cleaned out my fabric stash and was quite severe with what I allowed myself to keep. I went through my closet and took out all the stuff that I never wear (too small/makes me look fat/bad color/what was I thinking? 😦 ). I donated the Clarks shoes that pinched my heels to Goodwill, as well as a pile of books that were taking up more space than they were worth. Most recently I cleaned out my kitchen cupboards and threw out the chipped and broken things that I had stashed for a Super glue session. Seriously, do I really like this dish that much? No. I do not.

I cleaned out my fridge and fed the pigs. It is oddly satisfying to toss a rotting cucumber to a grateful hog who then turns it into bacon. It makes me feel less wasteful that I forgot the cuke in the salad drawer for too long. The best project in terms of satisfaction was replacing a set of lace curtains that I have had for 15 years! I bought them at the Dollar General soon after we were married and thought they looked all right, but one day I looked at them and said, “So 2000.” I made simple window toppers with a vintage French print and now I can look at them and say, “So ’70’s.” Haha. I need this sort of  illogical hilarity in my life.

I still have the bathroom to sort through and the entire basement, but there is no point in deep cleaning the school room until we finish the term.

Olivia mastered the straight seams on a dress that she has been longing for ever since my mom gave her fabric for her birthday. She made a matching ensemble for her rag doll and learned the fine art of running a seam ripper. No scrapbooking has happened, but I am hopeful. I just need to get in the zone for one more child, then I plan to go digital. All the older children have a lovingly crafted photo book from birth to five years. I never waited until they were 5 to get started, but that is what Addy will get.

Gardening seems a long way off with everything outdoors squishy. I have my seeds, though, just waiting. On Saturday I spent hours making paper flowers for a garland to replace the pine swag I had above the sink instead of cleaning the bathroom. The children gasped when they saw me tearing pages out of an old book, but they soon got into the spirit of the project and helped shape flowers. It is spring, after all!

What have you been doing with yourself?

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10 Delightful Books for Girls

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Although this is a story about an entire school, mostly boys, it was Lina who asked the important question, “Why do the storks no longer come to Shora?” It was Lina, too, who had an epiphany while staring into her wooden shoe. I love this delightful story, and so will your children.

Jean Fritz has a genius for writing compelling historical fiction. This is a tale of a girl whose family has moved further west in Pennsylvania’s frontier days. Ann misses her friends, but soon finds life exciting in the wilds.

This is a beautiful true story of faith in a terrible time, with a little girl lost in the woods, and God’s provision for her survival. Your children will never forget Sarah Whitcher’s Story.

Another true tale of a small girl in the wilderness. “Keep up your courage, Sarah Noble,” her mother admonished her when she bade her farewell. Sarah and her father went ahead of the rest of the family to build a home in the wilderness. I almost cannot bear the bravery of this child, but if you are looking for a book that teaches about courage in the face of fear, look no further.

Cynthia Rylant wrote this story about the years that Laura Ingalls Wilder skipped in her book series. Rylant did a lot of research and tried to mesh the book with Laura’s writing style. She produced an excellent book that lovers of the Wilder family will thoroughly enjoy.

I pick up any of Caroline Haywood’s books that I find. They are 50’s books, so there are pretty many out there in the library discard piles, with the charming illustrations of the 50’s. Betsy is just one of her irrepressible characters. Go read the reviews and see for yourself. 🙂

This is such a fun family story. “All-of-a-kind” refers to a Jewish immigrant family of girls and their escapades in turn-of-the-century New York City. The author based the books on her own childhood, which is probably why it feels so real.

I read this when I was young and only recently saw it again. It is the story of strong family ties in the middle of a very difficult time. Janey Larkin holds on to hope (and her blue willow plate) through it all.

This is another book that I read and reread as a child. I felt so sorry for Elaine, and so grateful for her sake when she buried her misery in the mysterious little garden she found. This is a story of redemption and grace.

This is quite possibly my favorite book about a little girl. Elizabeth Ann is dismayed to find that she has to move to the farm of the country cousins, the Putneys. Her life has been sheltered with a pinched ladylikeness, but the first thing that changes is her name. Betsy discovers that she has a lot of strengths and it is fun to exercise them. The link is for a Kindle edition because apparently the book is out of print.

Enjoy!

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Scribbling in Your Bible?

I am a terribly forgetful sort of person, which is why I put bags of things right beside the front door when I am supposed to take them somewhere, so that I practically have to stumble over them on my way out. I also mark stuff in books and put post-it notes of inspirational sayings beside the kitchen sink. I know a few geniuses who never forget the punchline to jokes and can quote verbatim the sentences that impressed them when they were reading. Not me. Sometimes I can hardly stand not being allowed to underline key passages in library books, because it is so much more clunky to take notes.

The discovery that they print Bibles specifically designed for journaling has changed my devotional life. It’s not really scribbling, but I don’t try to be profound in my notes to myself. The whole idea is kind of like the stones that the people of Israel took out of the middle of the river and piled on the riverbank. Every time they walked past them or stumbled over them, they were supposed to think about where they had been and where they were going and Who was taking them there.

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That is Bible journaling for me. If you have ever considered it, now is a great time to hustle over to Christian Book Distributors and check out their selection. They have a great sale on their Bibles today, with free shipping (use code SHIPBIBLES) on orders over $35. (This is pure sharing of the love. I am not being monetized in any way for this recommendation. 🙂 ) I have this one, because I love the English Standard Version for study.

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Bibles are not supposed to be ornamental. I take mine lots of places besides church. It has wrinkled pages from a leaking water bottle in a back pack, and I fear that coffee slopped on it once when I was rushing out the door in a hurry. A child wrote in it once and my pen developed a leak and spattered a page. Eventually I will get a new one and start fresh with marking the edge columns with the things the Spirit is showing me. I assure you, I would not remember half the things if I did not write them down. Those reminder stone piles  markings give me courage and remind me of Who is in charge of the journey.

When I see my life as a story He is writing, and I parallel it with the stories recorded in the Word, it does wonders for my faith.

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I told you before about the pens I use, but just for love’s sake I will show you again what they look like. Maybe you are more of a colored highlighter sort of person, but these pens are fine point and enable you to write in tiny legible script. They come in different colors, so I had a bright idea and am using a different color each year, just as a sort of reference.

Why not do yourself a February Favor and order a journaling Bible today? (The sale and free shipping end today. Sorry to not give you more notice but I only just saw the promotional email myself.) Challenge yourself to find one thing to comment on each day in your readings, no matter how insignificant. I can assure you that it will invigorate your walk with Jesus, even if you aren’t a writer sort of person.

You are welcome. 🙂

 

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Top Picture Books My Children Love

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Occasionally I get emails from people wanting book recommendations. I know I have made these lists before and I have emailed many of them. They change a bit from time to time, but here’s a current one, starting with the little people. I believe staunchly that the best start to education is reading stories to our babies, instilling a love of words by looking at books with illustrations that capture their attention while you read the story.

I have a friend who said one of her children didn’t care if she read him gardening articles; he simply wanted to sit beside her and be read to. I am guessing that kind of child is rare. Ours look for the pictures, and sometimes there is so much crowding, “Move over! I can’t seeee, your hair is in the way,” etc, that I close the book and rearrange the crowd to more manageable positions.

When they are past the stage where they chew all their books, that’s when the fun really starts because the parent can enjoy this too. The best children’s books do not bore the reader any more than the listener. If you are reading Little Golden Books that make you want to pull your hair with their inanity, you should probably look further. Not knocking Little Goldens… I absolutely loved The Saggy Baggy Elephant as a child. And my own children loved Doctor Dan, the Bandage Man. They have their place, but some are distinctly sub-par and you shouldn’t be fooled just because of the gold wrapper on the spine.

What you want to look for in a picture book is content that engages the mind with ideas while the story is being told. Unfortunately, some children’s books simply tell. It’s not complicated. If you enjoy the plot, your children probably will. And then they will pick that book again and again until maybe you don’t enjoy it anymore, but by then they can “read” it to themselves from memory.

Here’s our list of books that I expect our children to collect for their own children some day.

    • One Morning in Maine
    • Make Way for Ducklings
    • Blueberries for Sal

All of those are by Robert McCloskey, and all are worth getting in hardcover, or in multiple paperback copies when they wear out. In fact, I have never met a McCloskey book I didn’t like. The stories are simple, charming, full of nature and caring for others. Most of the illustrations are beautiful pencil or pen sketches. (We used to make copies for the children to color.) All the stories contain clever little twists and masterful word play that I enjoy.

    • Town Mouse, Country Mouse

There are a lot of these books out there, all with variations on a theme of being happy with the life you have. The one we like the best is by Jan Brett. Her paintings can only be described as exquisite. When we go on walks in the woods, we speculate about holes in tree roots and which ones would make good country homes.

    • Abe Lincoln, the boy who loved books

This is a pint-sized biography with lyrical text by Kay Winters and really fun paintings by Nancy Carpenter. The story follows Abe’s love-affair with books throughout his early years and how this love changed our world forever. The concluding page has Lincoln sitting beside the fireplace at the White House, nose deep in a hefty tome, and these words:

“Abraham Lincoln- born in a log cabin,

child of the frontier, head in a book-

elected our sixteenth president!

From the wilderness to the White House.

He learned the power of words

and used them well.”

    • Little Bear
    • No Fighting, No Biting

These are two of Else Holmelund Minarik’s books, with illustrations by the famous Maurice Sendak. They are gentle stories, with bits of humor that tickle children and adults alike. No Fighting, No Biting has the exact scenario describing above, with children jockeying for the best seat at storytime.

    • The Biggest Bear

In my opinion, this is a book every child should have. Recently I discovered it in the attic with some other paperback books that I read hundreds of times to the boys and Addy was just as delighted as they were. There isn’t a lot of text, but it is such fun to read aloud.

    • Floss, Just Like Floss

The reason Kim Lewis can paint such amazing scenes with a sheepdog’s perspective is because she lives on a sheep farm in England. All of her books are works of art.

    • Moses the Kitten

Of all the Herriot stories for children, this is my personal favorite. We have the collection, but something about little coal black Moses suckling at the piglets’ milk bar is just wonderful.

    • Five O’Clock Charlie

This is such a compelling story about an old work horse who is still not done with adventure, even though he is put to pasture. Marguerite Henry is a master of horse tales, and as far as I know, this is the only one that is published for a younger audience than her line of chapter books.

    • Charlie, the Ranch Dog

I was delighted to find this book by the Pioneer Woman recently. She writes a rollicking good story and we look forward to more from her.

  • A Tale of Two Beasts

What? You didn’t think I would write a book list without including at least one Uzzie? 😀 Let me explain why we think this is such a great book. The story is told from the perspective of a little girl walking in the woods, when she sees a little beast and rescues it. Eventually it escapes back to its tree home and tells its side of the story, how it was kidnapped and made to endure all this horrid petting, etc. When the children are fighting and have many sides to a story, I ask, “So which beast are you?” No Amazon link for this one, but if you are interested, you can contact me. 🙂

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As you may have noticed, I am experimenting with links for Amazon’s affiliate program. I have never made anything on my product recommendations before, but if it helps make ends meet, I shall try it. I don’t like a lot of flashy ads, so we shall see. If you hate it, or I hate it, the links will disappear.  🙂

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The Smartest Kids in the World

“The sign at the door says the purple tags are 90% off,” I mentioned to the clerk. “Does that include things like these roller blades?” She looked blankly at me for a bit, then said, “Yeah, 90% off all purple tags.”

“That’s great. I will take them,” I replied. It was a good deal. The blades were tagged $24.99 and looked new. I dug in my purse for $2.50. When I looked up, the clerk was gone, threading her way across the store with a calculator in hand, calling for the manager. I heard the instructions, “Just take 24.99 times point 10. That’s your price.”

I didn’t want to show my incredulity, but really??? Every 5th grader in our great nation is supposed to learn percentages and 10% is the easiest one to do in your head when you are 11 years old.

I  just finished reading The Smartest Kids in the World, where the author explores how it is that American school children are scoring so very low by international standards. Why is it that entire countries full of children (Finland, Korea, Poland) tend to score much higher than  our American students in matters that require common sense and thinking through problems?

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I  have always thought that my goal is to teach my children to THINK. Yes, I want them to enjoy learning, but that is my secondary goal. If they cannot apply what they are storing in their heads, it doesn’t do much good.

There is a relatively new test called PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) where we U Sers are getting our butts whipped, especially in math. This is the language of logic, of disciplined, organized thinking. There are rules to follow and when you follow them, you get the right answer. I quote Ms Ripley, “Mastering the language of logic helps to embed higher order habits in kids’ minds: the ability to reason, detect patterns, make informed guesses.” (pg. 70)

As a nation we do a lot better in reading comprehension, which is good news. This also means that without the background of logic, we are a nation of people who can feel for others, empathize, recognize problems, etc, yet have no foggy idea of any absolutes or certain outcomes that follow certain behaviors.  Add to this the self-esteem movement, where teachers and coaches dole out praise trophies for just showing up, no effort required. There was a huge outcry in some states when it was proposed that high school students cannot just put in the time in class, but must actually pass exams in order to receive a diploma. Again I give you a pithy quote, “Vague, insincere, or excessive praise tends to discourage hard work and attempting new things.”

The poor children raised under the “You are the specialest person in the world and can always have anything you want” quickly find out in the adult world that they are pretty small stuff unless they are actually prepared to work hard and think carefully about their choices.

PISA also has a lengthy section after the academic questions where participating students spend nearly an hour answering a questionnaire on their background, motivation, and family habits.  The interesting thing about this survey is that there are no right answers. The researchers are looking for diligence, to see if there is a link to overall success. Well. Duh. Those kids who had learned to persist, even through seemingly meaningless assignments, tended to score higher overall.

The author calls it rigor.  It is what they have in Finland, where people have been determined survivors of long, sunless winters and the neighboring Big Guys for centuries. They focus on motivation, self-control, persistence. We might call it character. They don’t skip recess either, even in bad weather. Turns out rigor is a bigger deal than interactive white boards in every classroom and multi-million dollar sports programs where the vast majority of the students sit in bleachers and cheer for the favored few.

Admittedly, there are big problems when education is so dead serious that Korean children have been known to become suicidal if they fail a test. Recognizing this, the government actually has task forces assigned to patrol at night to be sure the tutoring schools close before midnight. These children literally go to school all day. They know how to think, but they don’t really have a life.

Then there was Poland, a country that scored discouragingly low in the first PISA test they participated in, in 2000. The next year they introduced some sweeping reforms: dumbed-down textbooks got replaced with rigorous ones, many of their teachers were required to improve their own education, and fundamental goals were set countrywide with accountability in the form of standardized tests. By 2009 Poland outperformed the U.S. despite spending half as much per student. They don’t have the fancy stuff in their classrooms, but they decided to implement the grit that has kept them alive through some of the most horrendous wars in history. They quit expecting failure in school.

What really matters? How can we best help our children learn to think? Toward the end of the book, Amanda Ripley condenses a vast subject into a few fairly simple expressions:

Conscientiousness > smarts

Self-discipline > IQ scores

Rigor > Self-esteem

In my head I knitted all these concepts about educational systems with our cultural bias against sweat and rules and moral absolutes, and it all makes sense. We are in trouble here in America, but we do not need to despair. We can teach our children to think and to work past failure. Someday it will save them.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is concerned about their child’s education. It will put some steel into your spine when your child/student thinks Algebra is dumb and research reports are too much work and nobody should ever have to do speed drills. Too bad, sonny. This is about your survival! This is about how much I love you. (This is so that you can instantly figure 10% at the cash register.)

 

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Why I Love Children’s Literature

We were on the road, running errands. The eldest son broke his glasses. Again. For the third time in a twelve-month. We needed to pick them up, deliver some books ordered at an Usborne party about 45 miles distant, visit the cousins, do a little shopping because the French press had a mishap in the dishwasher this morning, and then at last come home. It was about two hours of driving time on a cold afternoon, sitting bumper to bumper in the vehicle. What could have been really boring flew right by because we did it with Ribsy on audio, cavorting along, getting lost and found repeatedly. I laughed as heartily as the children when Ribsy chased the squirrel that came to school in a show-and-tell box. We all agreed that obviously, this author has a dog. She described in minute detail how dogs beg and grovel gratefully when they get attention. She even narrated what Mother says when Ribsy wants to ride in the new car with the family, “Don’t pay him any attention! Henry, don’t even look at him!” The children giggled gleefully and said, “That sounds like you, Mama!

When we read, my children don’t have any concept of gaining insight into human nature or relationships, but that is what happens in great fiction. I just read a study that indicates that people (including children) who read fiction score significantly higher on the empathetic scale because they are constantly walking in another’s shoes while they are reading. Conversely, children (and adults!) who have unlimited screen time score much lower in simple tests designed to identify another person’s emotions using facial cues. It’s not that they don’t care at all, but they simply haven’t been practicing while staring at a device. (That’s just my little Free Rant Bunny Trail for the day.)

The best children’s books are simple themes, with masterful descriptions that take you right to the scene and leave you breathless to figure out what will come next. There is a trend in modern children’s books that tends to dark and heavy topics. I hate it. Stories for young children should be wholesome, real, not burdening a child with a load they aren’t meant to carry. That will come soon enough.

I can still see Jimmy and the Jam Jars and that incredible mess he made when he was sneaking the fresh jam in the kitchen. I can recall holding my breath as Peter Rabbit ducked into a watering can to hide, of all places! and of course he had to sneeze! I can walk the trail with Little Bear when something went pit-pat, pit-pat behind him on the path. These are the books that are a delight to read aloud. Rarely do I read books to my children that bore me. If the illustrations are beautiful, I can manage it, but otherwise just go get another book, Sweetie.

This week we cracked open some brand new books. I got a set from Usborne titled  Anna Hibiscus. Olivia has been spending all her free time in Africa, amazing Africa, with Anna Hibiscus and her extended family that lives in a compound with goats nibbling outside the door and aunties sewing cool dresses and braiding everybody’s hair. The twin brothers, Double and Trouble, are doing what all toddlers do best, getting into constant mischief and Anna is supposed to watch them! These books are genius, and I do not say that lightly. Olivia doesn’t know that she is learning to love a culture that is vastly different from her own, but she knows that a little girl from rural Pennsylvania wants to go to Amazing Africa.

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Here is another favorite from an author that delights without fail: Mr. Putter and Tabby, by Cynthia Rylant.

Mr. Putter has always wanted to write a book. He wakes up to the perfect book writing day, sits in his comfortable chair with his companionable cat and thinks of a title that fits his plot. It is strenuous going and he needs a snack to sustain him. The snack takes a few hours of time, after which he needs a nap. This goes on for days until he decides to just write a list instead of a book. I, a 38 year old woman, love this children’s story.  Wonder why?

That’s the thing: children’s literature is about life and all of us. It may be told from the vantage point of the beloved family dog or a tiny tugboat in an impossibly crowded harbor, but it is easy enough for anyone to understand and say, “Yes, that’s how it really is!”

Tomorrow I will tell you a little more about how my parents raised us to be readers.

 

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Creative Counterpart, Book Recommendation

If you women would like to read a good book with practical ideas and advice for becoming a wife who stands behind her husband and enjoys the tremendous benefits of fulfilling her mission next to him (sub-mission, get it?), I have a book I think you will enjoy.

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Creative Counterpart was first published in 1977 in that era where so much about women’s traditional roles had become suspect and were tossed out. Linda Dillow has a kind, no-nonsense writing style that is firmly grounded in the Scriptures. She is a voice encouraging woman to think about the consequences of their attitudes and choices, both for their marriages and for their children’s futures. I appreciate her emphasis on developing the gifts God gives each individual. Women who say, “I am just a housewife,” or “I don’t have a job. I am just a stay-at-home-mom,” infer that they feel this is an unavoidable but somewhat inferior position to hold. Mrs. Dillow makes it clear that creativity, learning to excel in one area at a time, making things lovely, unleashes an excitement about growing and living well with your husband, in your home. There is no “just” in the job description.

I had never heard of this book until I stumbled onto my copy at a book sale for just a few dollars. Creative Counterpart  was an enlightening guide for me, an older woman teaching the younger in the years when Gabe was going back to school and I wanted to support him wholeheartedly, “but what about me?” In fact, I found Addy’s ultrasound pictures tucked into it when I pulled it off the shelf to do this review. The book was republished in 2003 with a study guide included. I think you will enjoy it. 🙂

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