Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Silver Spoon For Children

Bookivore is always looking for ways to help her children enjoy foods that are real; i.e. not shaped into a nugget first and then fried into oblivion. The children, naturally, resist. But this book, this book just might give them the nudge they need to start seeing food as, well food, rather than spending whole meals accusing me of trying to kill them with vegetables.

The Silver Spoon for Children is delightful. It's loaded with luscious recipes and even more loaded with cooking technique -- how to chop, dice, slice, even gives a little background on Italian cooking.

While the dishes are photographed, the instructions are all meticulously illustrated. They made me think of the kind of field guides you'd find in a nature book. They're child-friendly without being patronizing. You feel like you're reading a 'real' cookbook, and you are.

The recipes cover a range of things, from classics like spaghetti and tomato sauce to risotto and caprese salad (which I noticed was light on the basil -- definitely something that would have a high ick-factor for my kids). But it also covers snacks , lunches, and, most importantly, desserts. I liked that it wasn't gimmicky -- no cartoon characters, no celebrities, just yummy food.

I can't vouch for the recipes, whether they work or taste great, but they look yummy and I am itching to try them. This strikes me as a great gift for a child who's just old enough to truly help out in the kitchen and is eager to make stuff herself (or himself, for that matter). It might also be fun as a summer project, teaching your child or children to make a few things that fall within their ability level.

The cover price is $19.95, but Amazon has it for $13.39 online and it would be worth checking with your public library -- they often have awesome collections of cookbooks. And what the heck, it might even get them to try something new.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Hot Town, Summer in the City

Bookivore doesn't like to have kids wandering around aimlessly all summer. It's bad for their brains. More importantly, it's bad for my sanity. So for the last few summers I have done something that if it were really structured and thought-out would be called Home School, but since I am just sort of winging it, we call it "Lessons."

Generally, I pick a theme of some sort and go wherever that takes me. One year we did the Ocean, one year it was the Rainforest, another year we did the Desert. However, aside from the ocean unit, which I devoted a ton of energy and thought to, the last few summers have suffered from a lack of cohesion. We'd start out like gangbusters, then gradually the challenge of engaging children with widely separated ages and abilities would get to be too much and we'd just decide to skip lessons and go to the pool.

Not so this year. I found a wonderful study program that lends itself to all three kids. I can plug in as many additional activities as I want, or just roll with it as written.

It's called Passport to the World and you can find it here. Not only does it have an impressive and comprehensive book list, it also provides sample lessons for most of the books and printable "passports" for kids to record the places they visit through literature.

What I like about it is that it's literature based. Each lesson revolves around a book, which we will find at one of our public libraries (I already checked and only 5 books on the list aren't available. I will make a decision later about whether I want to buy them or find an acceptable substitute that we can check out).

By virtue of the books selected, it's geared toward 4-8 year olds, which just barely covers the span of my kids' ages. It will be a little tough for the almost-4-year-old and a little easy for the almost-9-year-old, but I think with the right activities it can work and be fun.

The point is to "visit" other countries and cultures through the medium of books and I thought it would be fun to do both the activities in the lesson plans and also add a few of my own -- like maybe earning enough money to buy a goat for an African family, planting squash, cooking soba noodles or cornmeal porridge. Whatever pops into my head. One of the books is about releasing birds to make wishes, so maybe we could make origami birds -- there are lots of good tutorials for that sort of thing online. Our big, downtown farmers' market has lots of multicultural food booths, so we may take a little field trip down there some Saturday, or we could visit a specific ethnic restaurant. I can also add on things I want my kids to work on over the summer like handwriting and math and of course, we'll be reading.

I figure we can do one book a week with several activities or two books a week with one or two activities. That should last us easily through the summer. The goal is to spend about an hour each time, including reading and activities, about 2-3 times per week.

It's low pressure, it has the potential for lots of interesting exploration and fun, it's multicultural, and it's mostly laid out for me already so the really hard work is done.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Mini Books: A Summer Reading Activity

Summer is almost here! Have you got your summer reading plans in place? If not, here's an easy, high-interest way to get your kids reading. Start with a simple 2-up photo book. The one above is a cheapy from Target, but you can find them anywhere. Just make sure it's CHEAP, because it's going to become the property of your kids. I used some leftover stickers to do the title, but you could write it in with a sharpie or print something out and slip it in.

Next, you need some cardstock. I used scraps from my scrapbooking stash, but you can buy it from Hobby Lobby or Michaels. If you buy it for this purpose, get the 12x12 sheets: they cut down into an even number of 4x6 pieces, which is what you're going to do with them. I would recommend actually cutting them slightly smaller than 4x6 so they slide into the sleeves more easily, but 4x6 proper works as well, just a little tighter. Technically, you could skip this step if you use actual photo paper -- the idea here is to have something with more substance (and stiffness) than just typing paper.

Find some pictures on the Internet that your child is interested in. This book was for my nearly-4 year old daughter who is completely obsessed with bugs. There are many, many talented photographers out there posting images on the web. It's a simple matter to Google "Katydid images" or "dump truck" images, or "red-eyed tree frog images" and get tons of great results. As long as they're not copyrighted, you can right-click on them and paste them into another program. I use powerpoint because I think it's pretty flexible -- it lets you move things around on the page so you can maximize your paper usage. I am all about maximizing my paper usage. But you could use Microsoft Publisher or Word, too.

Do use better quality paper with a higher mil rating. Not photo paper, but printer paper with more thickness to it. Thinner paper tends to buckle under the moisture from ink-jet printers and the colors tend to bleed through the back, making the whole picture look a little muddy. Better quality paper will give you crisper pictures. I use a paper with a 4.9 mil rating. If your paper doesn't show a mil rating, like my HP Multipurpose paper that I let the kids mess with, it's probably too thin.

When you get your pictures into a document, size them to fit your 4x6 mats -- about 3.5x5.5 is right. You can do this by grabbing the corners and pulling in or out, or right clicking on the image, selecting "Format Object" from the drop-down menu, and clicking on the size tab. Then just enter the dimensions you want. If you have to make an image a lot bigger, your going to get that pixelly look, so try to avoid really small pictures.

Add a text box and type in a caption for your picture. I used the names of the bugs. Change the text to white if necessary. You want it to show up clearly against the image. For younger children and beginning readers, use a larger font -- at least 24 point, but even bigger if you can fit it in. You want it large enough that their eyes can follow it. I used 36 point font on my book. Make sure you choose a simple font, like Times New Roman or Arial. Fancy, curly fonts are hard for little eyes to interpret.

Get you some glue. Don't use Elmer's white or school or gel glue: it's got a ton of water in it and will make your paper pucker. Glue sticks work fine. I couldn't find my craft glue stick, so I had to resort to scrapping glue. Normally I wouldn't use this, but it's all I could find.

Mount your pictures on your cardstock. This is so they don't get creased and bent when little hands are looking at the book. Again, you could use heavy photo paper, but it's so expensive, I prefer to do it this way.

Slide your pictures into their sleeves.
Note: if the plastic seams on your cheapo photo book split (mine did in the first 10 minutes my daughter was "reading" it) just use a little clear packing tape to repair them.

Sit down with your child and read 'her' book. Kids love these books and they really motivate them to read because they're so intensely personal. As soon as my older two saw the baby's book, they both said "What kind of book are you going to make for me?" You can adapt it in dozens of ways, for any age child. Choose stuff your child is interested in: trucks, frogs, trees, ocean creatures, puzzles, space, farms, baseball, soccer, the NFL or NBA, a particular sports team. You can make an alphabet book of weather, or flowers, or ballet moves. The list is practically endless.

For older kids, print off a bunch of pictures of a family event or pet and have them write the story to go with it. This summer I am printing off 15-20 pictures of our puppy and then my oldest daughter (9) is going to write the story of how we got her, how silly she is, and how she's changed our family. You could also use pictures from a family vacation or from a sport -- like pictures from your child's soccer season: s/he could tell the story of the skills they worked on and the games they played. My son (7) is going to do 9 pictures from a family trip we took in February. He'll write 2 sentences for each picture. Or they could make a book of friends, describing each one. In this type of set up, you put a picture in one sleeve and leave a blank or lined sheet in the other for the child to write on. Then they can read their story to you or to younger siblings.

Here's a really low-tech version of the same project, completed on a day when I was desperate to entertain my 3 year old. I used 4x6 scraps of cardstock, punched with a hole-punch and tied with string.

Then I let her stick stickers in the book and wrote a little text on each page. This book is a little beat up because it got carried everywhere for about 2 weeks.

Excuse my goofy handwriting. I was desperate. Also, please excuse my messy counter. I'm lazy.

Books like this are great projects for a summer day and keep kids reading and writing. The writing is a nice addition because it helps kids synthesize an event or activity. It also helps them prioritize events as they try to tell the story. Writing also helps them with hand-eye coordination and fine-motor skills. All good brain-builders.

Later this week I'm going to share what we're going to be doing this summer to keep our brains from melting into puddles of goo, but while you're waiting, don't forget to check out these reading incentives -- they start this week.

I'm linking this post to A Soft Place to Land for DIY Day and to Just A Girl for Show and Share Day AND to Fireflies and Jellybeans for Show Off Your Stuff Day.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown

I picked this up at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale for my almost-4 year old and it has become an instant favorite. That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown is written by Cressida Cowell, of How to Train Your Dragon fame; like those books, this one has a little edge and quite a lot of humor.

Emily Brown and her rabbit, Stanley, have many adventures. So many, that they catch the eye of the queen, who immediately decides she wants Stanley (or Bunnywunny, as she insists on calling him) for herself. She sends the army, the navy, even the air force, begging, bribing and finally commanding Emily Brown to turn him over. Naturally, Emily refuses. At last, the "silly, naughty queen" sends her special commandos to steal Stanley in the night.

Emily storms the castle, rescues the now-pink Stanley -- "His name is not Bunnywunny!" -- and explains to the queen the secret of creating a real toy of her own.

Emily is strong and likable, the plot is funny with lots of opportunity for silly accents if you're into that sort of thing for your bedtime reading, and the illustrations by Neal Layton are a nice blend of collage and sketch and watercolor. Having read it every night for the last week, I can tell you that it hasn't gotten old for me yet, which is a good thing, because my daughter shows no signs of letting it go anytime soon.

A great book for any child with a special "lovey." It's been around for a while, so it may be at your public library. Otherwise, snag a paperback at your local Scholastic Warehouse Sale. It's a cutie.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Hidden Boy

"When Bea Flint opened the front door, just a few days before her little brother imploded, she found a stocky man in a sea captain's uniform waiting on the doormat. "

I am a sucker for a good opening line; that one starts things off with a nice off the wall touch. The Hidden Boy, by Jon Berkeley, just gets weirder, but in a unique, inspired sort of way.

Imploding brothers aside, Bea and her family are not your average bunch. Her mother is a tattoo artist, her father is a mountain who used to ride with a motorcycle gang. And then there's Clockwork Gaby, who needs to be wound every day to keep functioning. No one know where she came from: she was simply there when they moved into the apartment. Granny Delphine stares at everyone through her owlish spectacles, which Bea suspects show more than they ought. Add to this the semi-kidnapped neighbor's daughter, several people with some sort of psychic powers, a presumed-dead leader, a missing parrot, and a clan of menacing, dough-faced burglars and you have a recipe for a highly original, can't-tell-where-it's-going-next sort of book.

When Theo disappears on the "crossing" to Bell Hoot, only Bea can hear his voice, first through the "Squeak Jar" and then in her dreams. Bea, it turns out, may be the only one who can find Theo and bring him home. This turns out to be very complicated indeed, especially since someone sinister is invading her dreams, searching just like Bea for the Hidden Boy, who may or may not be Theo.

I loved that this book was so different than the average run of kids' fantasy books. That the fantasy is rooted in the real world simply added to the mystery. I especially loved the Gummint (for which, read: government) men and their shadowy persecution of Mumbo Jumbo, the powers of observation and intuition that Granny Delphine has studied for years. The book plays with language; everything from the anagrams that Phoebe (or Blue Hope) fiddles with (even Bell Hoot turns out to be an anagram), to the descriptions of the countryside and the strange people Bea and her family are encountering.

A good one for middle school or junior high, possibly a little younger as well if your child likes fantasy.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Super Steals at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale

I have blogged before about my love affair with the Scholastic Warehouse Sale. If you live in an area that has a Scholastic warehouse, they put on a couple of these sales each year, sometimes more often. The deals you can find are tremendous -- good enough that if I were within an hour of a warehouse, I would make the trip. Ours is running right now and we had a great time there on Saturday, sifting through the shelves.

For my baby, I picked up this darling book:

It was $2.50. Pretty good deal for a nice paperback.

I got both of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games books, in hardback, for $9 each. These are $18 books and I got them half off. Score!

My son chose this Pokemon book. Normally, I hate to pay money for this sort of thing, but since it was half off, I caved. Everything you ever wanted to know about Pokemon for $4. He was happy.

My son also chose a book called Real Life Monsters, which I can't find a picture of, but it's 48 pages of sharks, scorpions, jellyfish and spiders -- basically anything that can kill or maim you, or gross out your mom. It's packed with information and cost us $4.

My older daughter chose the boxed set of Dragon Princess books. Three paperbacks for $8. That's a deal. It also came with a dragon charm, which she was ga-ga over.

We also picked up the most recent 39 Clues book, Emperor's Code, for $6.50. That's half off the cover price, in case you're wondering. The next cheapest price I could find for this was $7.29 at Amazon before shipping.

A couple of reminders:
Paperbacks are of variable quality. Some are really cheaply bound. The ones that have staples along the spine usually fall apart pretty quickly. I would pass on those unless they're free. Trust me on this: you will be spending a lot of time trying to reattach pages with packing tape, which is both Not Very Fun and Not Very Effective.

Not everything is 50% off; some new releases are only 25% off, but the staff will usually provide you with a printed list of which books aren't half off, so you can pick and choose around them. They have a great selection of books to choose from and we never fail to get some bargains. You can also plan ahead: for instance, I know that Mockingjay, the third Hunger Games book, is coming out in August. I will check it out from the library so I don't die of suspense wondering what happens to everyone, but I will wait until the December Warehouse Sale to buy it.

Half off, naturally.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Hunger Games Series

Quite often I read two books at the same time; one I keep upstairs for reading at bedtime or while I'm blow drying my hair (I hold the book open with my toes and dry my hair more or less upside down) and the other I keep downstairs for reading during the odd moments that I'm not doing something else. This only works, however, if the two books are about equally interesting. When I started Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, it was my downstairs book. But then it started migrating upstairs with me, and then I just had to stop everything and finish it because it was just. that. good.

Collins is a veteran writer and I greatly enjoyed her Gregor the Overlander books, so I expected this one to be good. I did not expect to be carried away by it to the point that I almost couldn't bear to make dinner because I was frantic to find out what happened next.

Katniss Everdeen lives in a post-apocalyptic North America in which the the country has been divided into 13 districts, all subjugated by The Capitol. Except for District 13, which has been obliterated by the Capitol in reprisal for their rebellion. As part of their subjugation, each district must send tributes -- a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 17 -- to participate in the Hunger Games each year. Games in which the tributes must fight to the death. By this means does the Capitol exercise its power over the districts. This year, Katniss's 12 year old sister, Prim, is chosen. Unhesitatingly, Katniss volunteers to take her place.

The rest is a roller coaster ride of strategy, stylists, ambushes, alliances and lots and lots of death. I'm not going to explain the details, only say that once Katniss enters the arena, I defy you to put this book down until you've seen it through to the end. There are classical echos here: it brings to mind the Athenian tributes sent to face the Minotaur, and the gladiators who fought each other in ancient Rome. Many of the characters have Latin names, so the parallel isn't accidental. The entire society of the Capitol is a bizarre blend of frivolity and violence -- one minute people are dying their hair purple and tattooing themselves, the next they're screaming for blood during the games.

The second book, Catching Fire, which deals with uprisings throughout the districts, is even more absorbing than the first, which makes it breathtakingly good. Unfortunately, I now have to wait until August -- AUGUST! -- for the third book, Mockingjay, to come out. I'm not sure I can make it that long.

They are violent books -- the premise is such that they can hardly be anything else -- but there's real poignancy and pathos in most of the deaths. And beyond the violence, the books are thought-provoking in a timely way. The terrible waste of life and the terrible cruelty of the Capitol serve as backdrop for Katniss's coming of age, in which she is forced to weigh issues many people never face. At what point does life become so terrible that rebellion is preferable to living? These are for Junior High and up, because of their violent nature, but don't let the violence cause you to pass these by. They are truly, among the best books I've ever had the good fortune to read.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Summer Reading Incentives

Summer's just around the corner. Have you thought about how you're going to keep your kids reading through the no-school months? Here's a quick suggestion:

Both Barnes and Noble and Borders Books and Music are running Summer Reading Programs for kids 12 and under. Kids read a set number of books --8 for Barnes and Noble, 10 for Borders -- and fill out their titles on a downloadable form. They take the form into a store and Presto! They get to choose a free book from the store's list.

To access Barnes and Noble's form and list of free books, go here.

To access Border's form and list, go here.

Forms may also be available at your local stores. Note that these programs are for kids who are reading independently (more or less). In other words, don't sign up your preschooler. These are great programs to encourage kids to read, and great ways to build your home library.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Good Reader's Habit #6: Synthesis

My son asked me what I was writing about, and when I told him "Synthesis," he was convinced this had something to do with Star Wars (doesn't everything?).

Sorry, kiddo.

Synthesis is the coming together of all the other habits: the connecting, the visualizing, the questioning and predicting, the inferring, and the determining of importance. Synthesis is when you've done all those things and they've linked together in your brain to give you whole new ideas.

Notice in the image above how the colors, by overlapping, create new colors. In effect, synthesis is growing your brain, creating new scaffolds on which to hang still more information. It's the moment when it all comes together, makes sense, crystallizes, gels -- your A-Ha! moment. The a-ha moment can be monumental (you want to move to Ethiopia and help people build wells for clean water) or very small (you realize that you would have handled the situation differently). It can be an observation about human (or non-human) behavior, a observation about patterns, a generalization about how similar situations might play out, or a lesson that you draw from the story. It may simply make you want to rush out and tell other people about the book. Synthesis is a varied as the people experiencing it.

Can it be taught? Kind of. You can't really force someone to have a realization, an a-ha moment. But, it can be encouraged and it can be modeled. By helping kids develop the other six habits, you increase their chances of achieving the a-ha moment. And when you're reading something to them, particularly something longer and more complex, modeling your own a-ha moment is helpful. It tells kids that this is what they're shooting for, this is desirable behavior, a desirable result, of reading.

When you have an a-ha moment while reading, talk through it with your child. Explain what led up to your realization. One way to spark conversation that might lead to an a-ha moment is to have your child think about what the story makes them want to do...or what it makes them think about...or what has changed in the way they see themselves or the world.

Kids express synthesis differently. My 8-year old has an a-ha moment with virtually every book she reads: The Mysterious Benedict Society had her strapping a pail to her waist and climbing trees for 2 weeks straight. Just this week she read ER Vets and now she wants to be a veterinarian. She's been giving the dog physicals all week. My son, on the other hand, rarely has this kind of a-ha moment and if you asked him what he felt motivated to do after reading something, he'd tell you "Nothing. Whatever." I am not overly concerned about this because a) he's 6, b) he's kind of private about his feelings, and c) he's not reading anything earth-shattering right now. I don't really expect him to draw great life inspiration from Captain Underpants.

Don't sweat it if you read something that doesn't have an a-ha moment -- not everything is going to rock your world and cause your brain to double in size. But do encourage reflection, do talk about what the story might make them want to do or what it makes them realize. And keep modeling your own motivations and realizations as you go along.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Classic Monday: Dear Zoo

Here's a super cute book that kids adore: Dear Zoo, by Rod Campbell, is a lift-the-flap book about a child who writes to the zoo asking them to send a pet. The zoo sends an elephant, but "He was too big. I sent him back." Next comes a lion, but "He was too fierce. I sent him back." Later comes a camel, unfortunately "He was too grumpy. I sent him back."and so on.
The text is spare, the pictures are simple, and the flaps are medium-sized for smaller hands. Kids memorize this one quickly and take great delight in finishing the sentences. It's appropriate for babies right through the toddler years and makes a great baby shower gift for parents-to-be.