Monthly Archives: July 2010

It’s Lego Week Apparently

Somehow we’ve stumbled into having a very Lego-centric week.  First, over the weekend, we got ourselves over to the National Building Museum’s exhibit about architecture and Legos.  I’m still a little dubious about the price tag involved, but I think that’s just because as a Washingtonian I expect all museums be free all the time, which is a tad unreasonable of me.  The first part of the exhibit had huge famous buildings replicated in Lego, like a giant version of Falling Water in Lego and a big Sears Tower.  The kids were fascinated.  We especially liked that they had someone replicated the Building Museum in Lego with lots of little minifigures hanging out.  Over the years, we’ve spent a good bit of time at the Building Museum and done some of their excellent programs for kids, so even though it was a gimmick and not technically part of the exhibit, it was the Lego piece we all liked the best.  In the second part of the exhibit, there is a big space with a billion Legos to play with.  We own a lot of Legos, but we did get to achieve some scale that perhaps couldn’t get at home.

BalletBoy and his tower at the Lego exhibit.

Then the other day, because we were in outer Virginia anyway, I took the kids to the Lego Store where we oohed and aahed at everything and I nearly caved in and bought them one of the new Lego board games they don’t have yet even though they totally don’t need it.  BalletBoy became giddy when he found Legos in pink.  I feel like pink Legos sort of sums up some essential truth about his personality, though I don’t know if I can articulate what.

Since the mess in the basement has again reached epic proportions, I also decided to tackle the challenge of Lego organization this week.  I feel like what we need is a beautiful Chinese apothecary chest with each drawer labeled in Chinese to say “2×6 blocks” or “wheels and axles” or “minifigures” or “Don’t be fooled, these are K’nex!” so that the Legos can be excellently hidden away.  But that’s probably an unreasonable expense.  So I went completely the other direction and bought a bunch of half price cardboard organizers from IKEA.  Let’s hope these help curtail the craziness, at least a little.

Boys and Books

It feels like there are a lot of conversations going on out in the blogosphere about boys and books in the last couple of weeks.  Over at The Diamond in the Window, a question about boy and girl who needed book recommendations prompted a post about boys and books and some discussion, some of which was contributed by me.  At Fonograms, the author, who also has an amazing series of lectures posted about boy books blogged about how just because the main character is a boy doesn’t make the book a “boy book.”  Then, over at YA author Hannah Moskowitz’s blog, Invincible Summer, she ranted about the boy problem in YA fiction and made what I thought were some amazing points, such as about how YA books have empowered girls by disempowering boys.

There are a lot of strands to this.  First off, while I think the boy book thing is an issue, I don’t think the situation is as dire as some might say.  There are lots of boy books across the board in children’s literature, in my opinion.  I got frustrated recently by the lack of boy books in the early chapter book aisles, but then I went out and found some so while I’m still a little overwhelmed by all the pink sparkles in that section, I’m feeling better about what there is.  YA also has a lot of great boy titles so while I get that there are a lot more sparkly vampire romances, I don’t see the dearth of options that everyone seems so keen to point out.  There should be more and we should think about how to bring boys to those titles, but they are there.  When the Invincible Summer blog entry asked when since Eragon boys were last allowed to save the world, I thought, well, Alex Rider did that in Crocodile Tears just last year.  I would also argue that Libba Bray’s amazing Printz award winner from last year, Going Bovine, is a boy-friendly title, with it’s trippy philosophical journey and slacker protagonist.

Also, I think there are larger issues at play here.  Girls will read books with male protagonists, but there is an expectation that boys won’t read books with a female protagonist and I think this is part of a larger problem our society has with gender conformity and stigmatizing boys who show any interest in anything even remotely associated with girls.  How much of this is about the books and how much is about wider questions about gender?  Do boys read differently than girls?  If so, why?

Anyway, just some thoughts to chew on.

Girl Psychic

Continuing in my quest to read more local DC authors, I turned to Jennifer Allison’s Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator, the first in a series of middle grades novels.  Gilda is a 13 year old girl who worms her way into spending the summer with unknown relatives in San Francisco.  Gilda is a quirky character who likes mysteries and supernatural phenomena.  She immediately becomes convinced she needs to solve the possibly mystery of the tower in the house where she’s staying.  Her depressed cousin’s aunt died falling from the top and may (or may not) be haunting the house.

I had very mixed feelings about this book.  On the one hand, I loved Gilda.  Not only is her voice humorous and well-written, but she’s just a compellingly real character of the kind that often don’t appear in books.  She’s caught at that moment between being a kid, enjoying pretend and dress-up and being a teenager, referencing Buffy the Vampire Slayer and chiding her older brother for looking at dirty pictures on the internet.  I loved the whole concept of the story too.  A girl psychic detective is just a great idea and sounds like it would be a terrific starting point for stories.  Also, while it’s kind of an aside, check out that cool cover.  The book design was excellent, with Gilda’s glasses used as a divider for sections and multiple fonts used for notes and letters.  I’m a sucker for cat’s eye glasses.

However, the story meandered in places.  For a mystery, the mystery didn’t turn out to be all that mysterious.  I had trouble figuring out how real all of Gilda’s supernatural beliefs were.  By the end of the story, I was happy to see how things turned out.  So despite getting bogged down a little in the middle, I can’t quite let go of how much I liked the idea behind this book. I’m curious to read the next one.

Schedule, What Schedule?

I like reading homeschool blogs and homeschool forums.  If you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance you do too!  Right now, it seems like everyone’s gearing up for the school year, posting about colorful schedules and lists of curricula.  Um, schedule?

We do have a schedule.  That is, we have a busy schedule where I have to figure out how to fit in music class, co-op, other co-op, DI, ballet class, free theater class, that awesome math club my friend is starting, every performance that sounds interesting, park days, workshops other homeschool parents organize…  Don’t worry, you don’t need to tell me.  I know we do too much.

All the “real” homeschooling stuff gets fit in whenever.  We do have a routine because routines help get things done, but there’s nothing more formal about it than the fact that when we get up in the morning, we do some school before heading off to something else.  We have something else most every day.  What we do is up to the mood of the morning or possibly what we’ve fallen behind on.  I think one of the things that I value most about homeschooling is our ability to be flexible.  Of course, what suits us isn’t what suits another family, so that’s part of the flexibility too.

An unscheduled morning. With pastry.

Lunch Appreciation

Hats off to any school parents reading out there.  I say this because I have read about how hard it is to make lunch every day for your kids, but it’s only when summer camp rolls around and I actually have to pack lunch for two kids that I appreciate how difficult it is to change things up every single day.

We do have these awesome little bento boxes I got. This was taco day in the bento box. A bag of tortilla chips went too.
We also have these cute cloth snack baggies that I try to use instead of plastic, cause, you know, it's good to be less wasteful. Not always successfully, but I'm trying. I bought some then whipped up a bunch with an online tutorial.
Most days, it's hard to get creative with the bento boxes and we fall back on sandwiches in bag lunches with a little tupperware of fruit. And, of course, some mom-done Avatar illustrations on your bags. They both wanted the one with Appa.

Five Read Alouds

We are currently making our way through Cornelia Funke’s epic Dragonrider as our read aloud bedtime book.  It’s a bit long and we keep getting distracted by reading shorter books.  However, the kids are really enjoying it.  We’ve probably read at least 20 or 30 read alouds this year.  For Mushroom and BalletBoy, a great read aloud book has a few pictures, isn’t too long (Sorry, Cornelia Funke, they’re enjoying it, but they’re starting to get frustrated with the length) and usually has funny parts, though they’ll settle for adventure instead.  We’re at the midway point, so here’s the best five books we’ve read aloud so far this year:

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is an elderly woman with a hump on her back and an upside down house.  The books about her are like a series of interconnected short stories.  In each story, a child has a pesky problem and his or her parents ask Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle to cure.  As you can imagine from a woman who lives in an upside house, the cures are pretty wacky.  The feel of the stories are very old-fashioned.  I’m always reminded of how much our cultural norms have changed when I read this series.  References to spanking and parents who leave their children alone without a sitter abound.  I didn’t read these classics as a kid myself, but I’m glad to have discovered them now and so are my kids.

Stuart Little by E.B. White
We read White’s even more classic book Charlotte’s Web ages ago, but we didn’t get around to his other works until more recently.  This story of the mouse growing up in a New York family is much weirder than I remembered, which I think is a sign of how accepting children can be of a completely absurd premise, like two people having a mouse for a baby.  I like imagining all the miniature things Stuart encounters, like his tiny car and the sailboat he rides in the park.  As a child, I was entranced with small things so I’m sure this book spoke to me in that sense.

The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois
This is by far my favorite book on this list.  I remember it fondly from my childhood.  For some reason, when I first struck up my interest in children’s books in college, it was the first book I picked up and reread.  It’s a classic and won the Newbery Award, but for whatever reason, it often doesn’t turn up on lists of favorite classics with E.B. White and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The story is one of pure adventure.  A man goes on a round-the-world balloon trip but crash lands on a mysterious volcanic island.  He finds a whole society there, with interesting characters and strange contraptions.  The story works in the 1883 explosion of the mega-volcano Krakatoa.  (If grown-ups are interested, Simon Winchester’s book about the volcano is a fascinating read.)  Pene du Bois did the pen and ink illustrations himself and they harken back to a different time, both in children’s books and in men’s fashion.  Overall, an excellent read.

The BFG by Roald Dahl
This is one of Dahl’s best.  It’s the story of a giant who can capture dreams and the little girl who befriends him.  It’s both hilariously silly and unbelievably sweet and compassionate, a combination of moods that no author manages to put together as well as Roald Dahl.  For weeks after reading this, Mushroom and Balletboy were playing some sort of game where they pretended to be Sophie and the Big Friendly Giant (except at some point he got changed to the BSG, which is a complete different piece of media altogether!) as well as speculating about what frobscottle tasted like.

The Jamie and Angus Stories
This book was recommended by the book lady at our amazing local toy store and bookshop.  She is a wealth of information (better than the librarians!).  While usually the kids want humor and adventure, this book has very little adventure and only a mild dose of humor.  Instead, it has beautiful language and the kids instantly related to young Jamie.  This is less of a single narrative and more of a set of interconnected stories.  There’s another volume that continues the tales.  Jamie is a young boy and Angus is his beloved stuffed sheep.  The stories deal with everyday sort of occurrences, like learning to draw or trying to evade bedtime.  If anyone out there is looking for the perfect first read aloud for a kid, this is probably it.


A Girl and her Sport

Thanks to the recommendations of one of my terrific writing groups, I recently tore my way through Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s YA novel Dairy Queen and its sequels, The Off Season and Front and Center.  All three books follow DJ Schwenk, a painfully shy high school junior growing up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin.  DJ comes from a family of athletes.  Both her brothers play college football.  Her family is loving, but has trouble communicating.  DJ has trouble with her confidence, despite the fact that she’s a gifted athlete herself.  Dairy Queen follows DJ as she decides to try out for the football team herself.  The next book deals with the topic of sports injuries.  In the final book, which came out last year, DJ has to work for an athletic scholarship and decide where to go to college.

I feel like its one of the highest compliments I can give to say that a book felt compelling even when the topic wasn’t one that usually interests me.  Honestly, I can’t even watch the Superbowl for the ads.  That’s how little I care about football.  Also, despite having grown up in North Carolina, where college basketball was pretty much the only sport going and my own mother is a pretty serious Duke fan, I can’t say I care for that much either.  However, these books had me reading about football, coaching, athletic injuries, and NCAA recruiting rules.  There’s more than a little teen angst and boy drama thrown in there, but unlike reading some narrators, whose inability to grow up or see the truth frustrates me as a reader, reading DJ’s voice always had me sympathetic with where she was in her life and impressed with how she was growing up.  Overall, I enjoyed these light summer reads a lot.

Girl in the City

As a kid, I grew up reading books like Harriet the Spy and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Being a country girl, I thought New York sounded like one amazing place to grow up.  The idea that there were schools with numbers instead of names and friends who lived in the same building as you sort of blew my mind.  Now, I’m raising little city boys, only in a completely different, much lower rise city, but a city nonetheless.  Unlike New York, there isn’t a slew of books about growing up in D.C., but I am starting to discover a few local authors.

By the way, there's also lots of interior art by Adam Rex, who is the author and illustrator behind the awesome The True Meaning of Smekday.

First, I’ve found the Lucy Rose books by Katy Kelly.  Lucy Rose moves to Capitol Hill after her parents get divorced and must find new friends and a new life.  D.C. locations, especially around Capitol Hill, get lots of mentions, as does the Metro, as Lucy Rose’s mother decides to live without a car.  Lucy Rose’s friends, Melonhead and Jonique, are great characters.  Unlike some series where the main character seems to dominate and boss around their friends, they are more than just complements to Lucy Rose.  Lucy Rose’s grandmother, Madam, is a local parenting advice columnist and gives wise advice to her granddaughter.  Katy Kelly’s own mother was a local parenting advice columnist many years ago on Capitol Hill, which helps explain why the character of Madam shines through especially well.

I like Lucy Rose’s individuality and quirks, such as her love of palindromes.  I’ve just glanced at the later volumes (and the spinoff about her friend Melonhead).  However, the first book lacked a certain something.  The resolution of the plot and the way Lucy Rose befriends Melonhead after a lot of animosity were very expected.  I don’t expect a lot of surprises in this type of children’s book, but it did feel a little too pat.  Still, I’m going to read it to the kids.  I think they’ll enjoy seeing their city turn up in a book.

Summer Camp Time

You may have noticed I’ve been a little extra wordy lately.  It’s probably a byproduct of the kids being in summer camp all day for two weeks.  I know some school parents experience a happy moment in the fall when the kids head off to school.  I don’t get that, but I do get summer camp.  If it was too much longer, I might not be so thrilled, but as it is, I’m in heaven.  Here’s three reasons I love summer camp:

1. While I love my kids and I love spending time with my kids, I also love time away from my kids.  I love time to myself.  In fact, as an introvert, I need time to myself.  I firmly believe that being apart from my kids helps me appreciate them more when I am with them.  It helps me renew and be a better mom.

2. It’s not just good for me to get a break from my kids, it’s good for them too.  I’m sure they’re as sick of me as I am of them sometimes.

3. I don’t homeschool because I think the kids need to be with me more often.  I homeschool because I think our approach to education in this country is completely out of whack.  It’s all testing.  And when it’s not all testing, it’s all grades.  And when it’s not all grades, it’s still all teacher-centered.  Not to mention the expectations of conformity, both academic and social.  Summer camp, even when it has its problems, has no lofty goals to fulfill or political points to make.  Even summer camps that aim to teach something don’t have exams at the end.  I can live with that.

Mushroom on the playground at camp pickup time. Awesome photo by the husband.