Monthly Archives: March 2011

I Only Have One Theater Book…

I only really have one theater book that I’ve used over the last two years in playing games with kids and getting them to perform in various capacities.  It’s the wonderful resource book On Stage by Lisa Bany-Winters.  We’ve checked out many other theater books from the library, including a couple others by the same author, but they’ve all been disappointing, at least from my perspective.  All the other theater books we’ve used have focused on information about the theater – types of shows, the terminology of the theater, etc.  That’s all fine and good but not so useful for someone who is trying to figure out what to do with a room full of 5-8 year olds who need to learn how to express themselves on stage.  However, this book is 100% nitty gritty activities of all kinds.  It has wonderful games, some of which are very simple and others of which are much more complex.  It has warm ups, improv games, character building games, games for thinking about movement and expression, games just for fun and much more.  The activities in here extend from preschool all the way up to middle school and beyond.  Since our library doesn’t seem to have anything else like it, I know I need to take the plunge and get another book or two of theater activities to keep things fresh.  However, in the meantime, this book has really gotten me through coaching two years of Destination Imagination as well as preparing kids for our ambitious Tempest production, so I highly recommend it.

Diana Wynne Jones

I know I’m late to the news, but I’ve just read than Diana Wynne Jones passed away last week from cancer and I’m just heartbroken.  Check out this detailed obituary.  I discovered her books in college, having missed them in my childhood, but that doesn’t really diminish the love I have for her writings, which are inspiringly twisty turny, like little puzzle boxes that the reader can unwrap until you get to the surprise at the center.

Owing to the excellent Miyazaki movie based on it, I suspect that Howl’s Moving Castle is probably her most famous work.  As well, her Crestomanci series, which she began in the 1970’s and continued to add to until a couple of years ago with The Pinhoe Egg, is rightfully well-known.  I know that many of her fans really like Archer’s Goon best, which Neil Gaiman has heaped praised upon.  However, I was always very fond of A Tale of Time City, which reads a bit like a Doctor Who episode to me.  And I adore Deep Secret, which parodies scifi-fantasy conventions by throwing some actual fantasy into one.  And The Homeward Bounders is a title of hers that I always thought was underappreciated.  Oh, now I’m just getting teary-eyed listing books.  Don’t mind me.

There won't be any more books quite like hers.


There’s Now a Homeschool Book Award?

National Homeschool Book AwardHuh?  There’s a homeschool book award now?  Apparently so.  Possibly you heard about it too as it was featured as a Click Schooling link last week.  Here’s their website where you can go read up about this newly formed endeavor.  Look, they even have a logo!

I can’t quibble with the books they nominated. Ingrid Law’s brilliant Savvy probably gets my vote based on literary merit.  Though it’s not a book that I think of as being an explicitly “homeschool” book, the way Every Soul a Star by Wendy Maas is, I think it’s nice that they’ve chosen books that are about unconventional kids’ lives outside of school.  All the books are very recent, but only Alabama Moon, which I’ve not read, came out in the last year.  I’ll be curious if they go forward if they would be able to make it a yearly award.

Of course, we all like to bemoan the lack of books that reflect homeschoolers’ lives, so I figure it’s worth it to point out a couple of the homeschoolers’ greatest hits.  Loyal readers of this blog already know I’m not fond of the Little House books, so I’ll stick with recent offerings.  In terms of explicitly homeschooling kids, I like Stephanie Tolan’s Surviving the Applewhites, which won a Newbery honor several years ago.  The kids in this kooky unschooling arts colony have to take in a newcomer and teach him to learn their way.  Like everyone else, I also give high marks to Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl, which features a former homeschooler going to school.  My other favorite is Wendy Orr’s little book Nim’s Island, which was made into a charming movie a few years ago.  Nim grows up alone on her island with only her father and the animals for company.  I like her independence and spunk.

I wish I could offer up a similar set of picture books, but the truth is that I never found decent picture books about homeschoolers.  I’ve seen a few options, but none of them were especially stellar.  I did always like that in Tomie DePaola’s back story book about Strega Nona, it turns out Strega Nona tried to go to strega college in the city, but she liked being homeschooled by her grandmother instead.  And of course, there are a lot of picture books with kids (or, often, animals, because they’re picture books!) in unconventional lives that don’t feature school.  I’ll have to think more on that one, perhaps for a future post.  It would be cool if the Homeschool Book Award people found some picture books worthy of an award.

Our Revels Now Are Ended…

It’s the day after our amazing, excellent performance of The Tempest.  My thoughts are too muddled for a serious post and I have few images worth sharing because I was way too busy to take pictures.  But deeper thoughts about children and Shakespeare, young performers, set designs and so forth, as well as much better images I’ll steal from people who had proper cameras and time to snap pictures, can come later.  Right now, I’m just filled with satisfaction and pride that my kids and their friends performed a real, actual Shakespeare play, even abridged.  And I’m filled with thankfulness for the parents who helped make it happen as well as for the many kind things they said about all of my efforts.

Mushroom and a friend goofing off on the set (they were making "shadow angels") on Friday as the stage manager mom and I get things in place along with the director of the theater.
At home before we left for the theater once I had everyone's face painted (BalletBoy has a tiny mustache to play Ferdinand).
This blurry picture is BalletBoy as Ferdinand, wooing Miranda. He said, "Admired Miranda!" so earnestly that the audience chuckled.
After the show at the cast party at our house. Mushroom became suddenly sad when he realized it was all over. Poor kid!

‘Ban ‘Ban Caliban!

Sorry for the lack of postings this week.  I am swamped with a million things, included a visit from my father, a night at the Shakespeare Theater (Wilde’s An Ideal Husband – it was pretty good) a million other things to get ready for The Tempest which will have its opening night (and only night!) this weekend.

Anyway, I got it together for an almost Wordless Wednesday.  Here’s Mushroom getting his face painted for Caliban.  Erica, homeschool mom and face painter extraordinaire, did this and showed me how.  Now, if I can copy it and do even half as good a job as she did, then I’ll be pleased.

More Boy Books

Having two boys, I’ve been on the lookout for boy books constantly.  About a year ago, I searched through a few options for early chapter books, which I posted about here.  Now that BalletBoy is reading chapter books himself, I thought I’d update with more options.  I’ve found even more than these, though some I haven’t read enough of to give any sort of review.

There’s an ongoing discussion, I feel, about boys and books and what makes a book more appealing to boys.  For some blogs focused specifically on boy books, you can check out Guys Lit WireThe Excelsior File or The Book Zone (for Boys).  You can also see Jon Scieszka’s website Guys Read, which isn’t updated too much, but has some good stuff.  But for now, here’s some boy early chapter books for your perusal…

Frankie Pickle series by Eric Wight
This series (which is only on its third title) features a sort of Walter Mitty-esque kid who constantly imagines himself in different, generally more exciting, circumstances.  Wight’s cartoony illustrations are cute.  The stories are simple but funny.  I’m not completely enamored of the writing, which jumped around a little as the author moved between Frankie’s imaginary world and the real world.  However, the concept is so good and BalletBoy, who has turned out to be a very picky reader, gives it a thumbs up.

Melvin Beederman, Superhero series by Greg Trine
BalletBoy passed on this series, but I sat and read the first one and found it very amusing so I’m giving it my recommendation.  Melvin is a slightly inept kid superhero who fights off some very silly villains.  It’s definitely got a lot of the sort of irreverent boy humor that appeals to fans of really silly books like Captain Underpants.

Horrid Henry series by Francesca Simon
Henry is truly a villain.  He can’t do anything nice – not for his friends, his teachers, his parents and certainly not his detested little brother.  The writing is solid and the stories are very funny, but at first glance, Henry is almost too horrid.  His villainy is really only funny after you’ve read a number of these and understand how completely unrealistic both he and his “perfect” brother are.  I enjoyed these a lot and Mushroom is actually keen to read them once he’s able to.

Herbie Jones series by Suzy Kline
I’m not sure exactly what I want to say about these.  The writing is just above Junie B. level (and I really dislike Junie B.), so this isn’t a strong recommendation.  However, BalletBoy discovered some of Herbie Jones’s second grade series and really liked them.  Herbie is a mostly average, if lazy, kid. The series focuses on school and friends.  I think BalletBoy must like the sheer normalcy of it.  Suzy Kline is also the author of the Horrible Harry books (not to be confused with the Horrid Henry books above!).  I can’t even give those a mild recommendation.  Seeing that they were easier than most of the Herbie books, I gave one a try, but I was sorely disappointed.

The Time Warp Trio series by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith
Not to end on a mediocre note, these books are slightly on the harder end of the books I listed here, so BalletBoy hasn’t made it to them quite yet, but they’re so much fun.  They’re not as wholesomely educational as the jaunts through history taken in a certain treehouse, but they’re more fun and the writing is peppered with jokes.  The three boys have to figure their way through a number of time travel scrapes.

Take Our Picture!

I have a boggling number of photos of the boys on this statue of two bears wrestling at the zoo.  I don’t think I’ve posed them there once.  It’s outside the bathrooms and they inevitably pose themselves whenever I’m using the facilities.  We hadn’t been to the zoo in a couple of months and I forget how with all the construction it changes so quickly.  This is the time of year when we all emerge from our cocoons and see the bits of the world we’ve forgotten about.  Hello, zoo.  Hello, parks.  Hello, city.  Nice to see you again.

Screen Time!

I guess this post must begin with a full disclosure statement.  I love TV.  I was the only person I knew who had a TV in her room in college.  Our TV used to have a sticker on it that proclaimed, “Television Loves You!”  And I watch TV.  I enjoy TV.  TV is…  well…  it’s a longtime friend, sort of like books, only less smart sounding and probably not as good for my brain.

So that brings us to the kids and TV.  They don’t love it like I do, but they enjoy a dose everyday, I will admit.

You know, I'd forgotten how cool this show is.

Lately, they’ve been watching The Wild Thornberrys, which is now on Netflix Streaming.  I really like this show, so much that I watched it occasionally during its first airings, back when I had no children, but (like now) was drawn to enjoying media intended for them.  As I made dinner and the show started, Mushroom dashed into the kitchen to tell me that they were in “America.”  I asked where exactly and he dashed back to the living room.  When I got there, they had backed up the show to see and then hit pause on the map.  When they discovered it was South America and Eliza and company were near the Amazon in Brazil, they were thrilled.  Our co-op did “jungles” earlier this year and we read several books about the Amazon Rainforest, plus we enjoy the zoo’s Amazonia house.

Not every show can be that educational, though we do enjoy a lot of TV that I consider really educational and well done.  The kids watch The Magic School Bus and Bill Nye, the Science Guy for science, we’re starting to watch some of The Mysterious Cities of Gold, Histeria, and Horrible Histories for history.  But even when a show isn’t educational, sometimes, it sort of is.  The other day, Mushroom knew a geography trivia question because of Phineas and Ferb.  They rightly related Buddhism to some of the ideas on Avatar: the Last Airbender.  And when I think back, would I even know who Mozart and Beethoven were if not for The Smurfs?

Completely gratuitous picture of David Tennant for your viewing pleasure.

And then there’s the bonding of screens.  Mushroom and BalletBoy seem to think of video games as a joint affair much of the time.  They’ll play potentially multi-player games as a single player and trade off.  Must be a twin thing.  You should have seen how they loved showing the husband every single episode of Avatar from penguin sliding to fiery comet ending.  And then there’s our family show, Doctor Who.  (I’m dying for this season to start, by the way.  River Song, cowboys and a cross-USA trip?  I’m there!)

When you talk about parenting, one of the issues that inevitably comes up is the question of screens and screen time.  It’s not just TV in our house, of course.  The kids have DS Lites.  We have a Wii.  And I think you can guess we have computers.  The kids even have their own (though it’s the husband’s old one).

There are a lot of parenting issues where I respect other choices, but I do believe I made the choice that is the absolute right one.  I respect your right as a mother not to breastfeed or to tell your kids what to wear when they’re old enough to do their own shopping.  If you’re my friend, then let’s just not talk about those things.  Because in all honesty, I think that the choices I’ve made – to breastfeed exclusively when the kids were babies and to let them pick out their own clothes now that they can – are the right ones.  You’re wrong, I’m sure, but hey, it’s your life.  But screens is a case where I don’t know what the right answer is.  I’m not persuaded by any sort of evidence that TV or video games are harmful.  But hey, maybe I’m wrong.

Like most things in life, it’s part of that balancing act.  When the kids were younger, it was easier to get them to balance on their own.  I set them loose on the TV and let them burn themselves out over a period of about two or three weeks, after which for the next two years, they didn’t really try to overindulge on it again.  But now there are so many more ways to use the screens.  Sometimes they limit themselves, but not often.  So I limit it.  Screens in the morning before I drag myself out of bed and screens in the evening to help us all decompress.  But in the middle?  Well, that’s time for school, for our plethora of activities, for play, for outdoors, for friends, for art projects and board games.

So I can only hope that’s right.

Food, Glorious Food!

One of our co-ops decided to do cooking as our current topic, so I had a chance to delve into the world of books about food and I found so many interesting and surprising options that I thought I would share.  Every time I think I’ve gotten to know the nonfiction stacks at the library we frequent, I find something new I didn’t know about.  This was definitely one of those times.

How Sweet It Is (And Was): The History of Candy

Fannie in the Kitchen: The Whole Story Soup to Nuts of How Fannie Farmer Invented Recipes with Precise Measurements by Deborah Hopkinson
That title sure is a mouthful.  This is one of those lovely picture book biographies that there have been so many of in the last decade or so – books about unexpected figures in history, written with children in mind.  From a quick search, it appears that it may be the only single book that actually is devoted just to being a biography of Fannie Farmer (though, if you’re a cooking nut, you may know America’s Test Kitchen chef Christopher Kimbell’s recent book Fannie’s Last Supper about recreating a feast from Farmer’s classic cookbook).  This book has illustrations that play on the sort of old fashioned catalog style illustrations from the time period and tells the story of Farmer’s simple but ingenious improvement to cooking through the perspective of a little girl who learned to cook from her.

How Sweet It Is (and Was): The History of Candy by Ruth Freeman Swain and John O’Brian
This picture book history of candy was so much fun.  Plus, it was informative to me!  It takes the reader from Egyptians keeping bees for their honey, past maple syrup and sugarcane, penny candy and all the way to modern confections.  The illustrations are silly and cartoonish, which certainly fits the topic.  There’s even a timeline and some very old recipes for candy of times past.

Make Me a Peanut Butter Sandwich and a Glass of Milk by Ken Robbins
This was a slightly older picture book with tinted photographs that traces the story of how a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk get to your table as an afternoon snack.  It had the feel of an old filmstrip, though the book is a bit more recent than that.  I liked how it helped raise the question of where our food comes from.  The version of that trip the books gives is extremely simple.  Would that our food was as unprocessed as this book would have us believe!  Which brings me to one more book…

The Omnivore’s Dilemna: Young Readers Edition by Michael Pollan
Okay, I admit it.  I did not actually get this book for my young kids, but I read parts of it in the library and seriously considered whether it was worth it to read them any of the sections while we’re on this topic.  I read Pollan’s adult version of this book when it came out and was pleased to see how the young reader’s edition adapted the book and framed the information for kids without dumbing it down.  I’ve been so pleased with how many young readers editions of popular adult nonfiction have been issued in the last few years and I can only hope there will be more.

Cooking Art: Easy Edible Art for Young ChildrenMessing Around With Baking Chemistry (Children's Museum Activity Book)

The Math Chef by Joan D’Amico and Karen Eich Drummond
Now we reach the activity books.  Most of the ideas in this book are the sort of things you could probably brainstorm up yourself if you really thought about it.  How do you triple a recipe?  How can you learn about temperature by making candy?  How can you learn about pi with actual pie?  How about area using brownies?  This book just compiles them nicely together.

Cooking Art by MaryAnn Kohl
Kohl’s various art books are all wonderful resources for teaching elementary school art.  This book shows you how to make all kinds of crazy (usually healthy) treats by shaping food to look like cars, faces, trees, and so forth.  It’s not exactly my style, but I appreciated the effort.  Another one that falls into this category is Mollie Katzen’s Salad People and More Real Recipes.  Katzen is the author of The Moosewood Cookbook and generally a hero to vegetarians everywhere.

Messing Around with Baking Chemistry by Bernie Zubrowski
This older book is exactly what the title says.  It’s real kitchen chemistry and it’s extremely well done.  The experiments all have multiple questions and possibilities for exploration, which is exactly what you want from a science book.  Some of the suggested activities are pretty elaborate, though many are simple.