Sep 1, 2014

Raising Readers: 3 Ways to Learn the Alphabet

Bradley will turn three later this month, so we have been working very hard this summer on learning all the capital letters of the alphabet.

Sometimes I laugh when I think about how different it is to parent the third child versus the first child. Aaron knew the entire alphabet many months before he turned two, but I also had a lot more time to devote to teaching and reviewing. In those days, we were looking for ways to fill up our days, and learning the alphabet was one of them.

I'm definitely not the type of mom to try to make things entirely equal for all my kids. Just because I sat down with Aaron at 18-months-old and cheered for him when he knew the letter S doesn't mean I'm being unfair if I don't do that with Bradley until he's almost three.

Last spring, he began expressing interest in learning the alphabet. He would point to the fridge magnets or the title of a book and ask, "What letter is this?" so I added letter recognition to his list of summer goals.

There are hundreds of ways to teach young children the letters of the alphabet, but you know I err on the simple side. If it's too complicated or takes too much preparation, it's unlikely I'll ever do it. So here are three super-simple ways to explore the alphabet:

1. Use a Paper Bag

I found this idea on Reading Confetti. You'll need some magnetic letters, a paper bag, and a cookie sheet.

I usually put about ten letters in the paper bag, shake it up (for effect), and give it to Bradley. He reaches in, pulls out a letter, names it, and puts in on the cookie sheet. When he's all done, he likes to lift up the tray and see all the letters sticking to it.

2. Use Sidewalk Chalk and a Spray Bottle

For this activity you'll need a spray bottle (the ones for $1 are perfect), some sidewalk chalk, and a hot day.

I write out five or six letters with the chalk and try to make it a mix of letters I'm sure he knows and ones he's just learning.

Then I say, "Bradley, spray the W!" and he gives it a good squirt. Then I say, "Now spray the H!" and he finds that one too. We do it for as long as he wants to, sometimes adding in more letters, but it always ends with him spraying himself in the face.

3. Use Small Objects

For this activity you'll need some letters (we just use our fridge magnets) and some small objects (glass stones, coins, beads, candy, etc.).

We gather up 6-8 letters (he chooses a few and I choose a few), and we lay them out on the table in a straight line.

Then I give him a handful of little pieces. Our personal favorites are glass stones, like the kind you'd put in the bottom of a vase (although I'm sure if I tried it with chocolate chips, he wouldn't say no.)

Then I call out a letter, and he puts the stone on top of it. If you wanted, you could play this game in reverse: the parent puts the stone on a letter and asks the child to say the name of it. This is, by far, the game we've played the most this summer. Almost every day, Bradley asks me, "Is it time for me to learn my letters?" and we can easily set up this one while I clean the kitchen.

If you do nothing else, at least buy a set of letter magnets to go on the fridge. Some days, even these simple activities are too much work, but the letters are always there, and Bradley does a lot of learning on his own just rearranging all the letters or grouping them together or asking me questions about them.

How do you teach your child the letters of the alphabet? I'm sure you have some great ideas!

P.S. And for even more ideas, check out 8 Easy Ways to Teach Numbers and Letters and 35 Letters and Sounds Learning Games.

Aug 29, 2014

Meet Stripey

If there's one thing to know about Maxwell, it is that he is obsessed with bugs. (The mention of bugs has not been neglected in any way on this blog. For additional reading, see: Favorite Bug Books, Even More Bug Books, and Some Bugs.)

A few recent examples will suffice to demonstrate this boy's dedication and devotion to all things creepy and crawly:
  1. At our family reunion last week, Max told my sister she could be his favorite aunt . . . if she would catch grasshoppers with him.
  2. He has been known to say (on several occasions): "Bugs love me. They hear my voice and come to me." The bug-whisperer right here, folks.
  3. A couple of nights ago, there was a fight between the three boys over who got to catch the mayfly that was bouncing its way around our window. Because who wouldn't want to cup a mayfly between your hands? ( . . . not me)
 So yes, Maxwell (and Aaron and Bradley too) love, love, LOVE bugs. Earlier this week, my sister-in-law called to say she'd found several monarch caterpillars in her yard, and would we like one? Of course I couldn't say no.

Max was in love the minute he saw the caterpillar. I, on the other hand, was a little nervous. Did I really want the responsibility of trying to keep a caterpillar alive? Where was I going to find fresh milkweed for him to eat every day? What if the leaves were too big or too mature or too dry for his liking? (Please, if you've kept a monarch caterpillar before, share your tips with me!)

Also, I had no idea how much caterpillars eat. There's a reason there's a book called, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Luckily, another sister-in-law knew about a nearby patch of milkweed, so he's not going to starve. It's kind of crazy to watch him munch away on a big green leaf. He's already grown quite a bit.

Who would have thought I'd be sitting here typing away about my little caterpillar, now known as Stripey? See what four boys have done to me?

P.S. For a little reading on the subject, here are a few books we like:

1. My, Oh My--A Butterfly! by Tish Rabe 2. Becoming Butterflies by Anne Rockwell 3. See How They Grow: Butterfly by Kim Taylor 4. A Butterfly is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston

Aug 27, 2014

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards

I did something very brave.

I read a book with no pictures to my children. Did you hear that? Zero pictures. As in, none.

I'm pretty sure this is an event that will go down in our family's history.

Because not only did we read it, we loved every. single. word.

When Ben, Tom, and Lindy meet Professor Savant in the zoo one Sunday afternoon, they have not the slightest inkling that their lives are about to become significantly more interesting. The professor tells them about "an imaginary creature of undefined character" called a Whangdoodle. But he is only imaginary because hundreds of years ago everyone stopped believing that he existed. The professor tells the children there is only one Whangdoodle left in the world, and he lives in a magical land that is inaccessible to humans.

For years, Professor Savant has been trying to catch a glimpse of the infamous creature, but it takes a healthy and vibrant and perceptive imagination to bridge the gap between reality and fantasy. The professor thinks the Potter children might just be imaginative enough to try it.

With the help of their scrappy caps and a lot of practice exercises, the children and professor enter Whangdoodleland. They are immediately in awe of the golden river and purple trees and flutterbys, but being in Whangdoodleland is only half the achievement. They still have to get to the Whangdoodle, and the prime minister (known as the Prock) will do anything to stop them. Soon they are facing Tree Squeaks and Sidewinders and a terrifying Gyascutus, but it turns out the real obstacle isn't in Whangdoodleland at all . . .

Before I started reading it, I warned Aaron and Max about the lack of illustrations. For many months now, they haven't even needed the illustrations the way they used to. Lately, they've just been icing on the cake. But needed or not, there were still times while we were reading this book when we all asked, "Wouldn't it be fun to see a picture of the Whiffle Bird or the soda fountain or the Brainstrain?" In many ways, it seemed like the type of book that would be illustrated.

However, in the end, the lack of illustrations seemed fitting since the whole book is about using your imagination and believing in the impossible. Somehow, it just wouldn't seem right to give the Potter children all the fun and not allow the reader to use his/her own imagination. Little did I know this was actually Julie Andrews' intention. After we finished the book, I read the author's note where she said, "My publishers asked me if I wished to have the book illustrated. The tale is about using one's imagination (and discovering what is under one's very nose), and I hoped that readers would discover the Whangdoodle for themselves--just as I had--so I decided not to." How fitting then that this happened to be our very first chapter book without pictures.

The book is magical in every way. Whangdoodleland feels like something akin to Oz, and every bend in the road revealed a new delight. One of my favorites? The Fruit-of-the-Month Tree where every month produces a different kind of fruit. I wish I could grow one of those in my backyard.

Of course I loved Lindy, Tom, and Ben, but two of my favorite characters were actually the Prock and the professor. The Prock was the perfect villain for my four-year-old and six-year-old because he was intimidating and threatening, but he wasn't evil. In fact, by the end of the book, he had worked his way into our affections (but lest you think he displayed a sudden, unbelievable change in personality, he didn't, but his actions finally made sense).

And while the Prock was the perfect villain, the professor was the perfect mentor. He possessed childlike faith that he exercised frequently, almost to a fault (as when he told the children to leap from a speeding train). He was immature enough that he could relate really well to the children (except in the instance where Tom and Ben joyfully hopped onto Gazooks, thinking that they were actually minibikes--then suddenly, he was all reproachful that they'd let themselves get deceived. In my opinion, he was a little unfair, and Lindy concurred as much) but also wise and cautious.

The best moment of the book for me was when the professor and children had almost reached the Whangdoodle's palace. They had only to cross the bridge, and they'd be there. And . . . the professor couldn't see the bridge. This was so startling and heartbreaking. In spite of his creative mind and youthful heart, his age betrayed him. With this revelation, the story took on new meaning for me. As hard as we might try, it is sometimes impossible to cast off the responsibilities of adulthood. And I loved that because of this, the reader could see why the children were absolutely essential in this adventure and how the professor relied on them as much as they relied on him.

I'm so glad I didn't let the lack of pictures scare me away because this was definitely one of our favorite readalouds of the summer. It encapsulates all the magic of childhood in one adventurous story. In the words of the professor, "Miracles, contrary to popular belief, do not just happen. A miracle is the achievement of the impossible, and it is only when we put aside our greed, anger, pride and prejudice so that our minds are open and ready to accept it, that a miracle can occur."

P.S. I was a little hesitant to read something by Julie Andrews since it often seems like famous people can write anything and people will buy it just because they wrote it, but this one is actually quite well-written and can be enjoyed equally by Julie Andrews' fans and not.

Aug 25, 2014

That's a Wrap

. . . And just like that, faster than a sudden rainstorm, summer's over.

But what a glorious summer it has been.

If I could have hand-picked every activity and rolled them all into the ideal summer, it would not have looked any different from the summer we actually had, right down to the slow mornings and long evenings.

It has been perfect in every way, and there's a part of me that knows there will never be another summer like it again. That doesn't mean there aren't more fun summers in our future, but this one will be hard to beat.

  • read lots of books
  • splashed in rain-soaked streets
  • watched the moon rise over Mt. Olympus
  • went on morning and evening walks
  • ran through the sprinklers
  • grew and picked and ate garden vegetables
  • put together puzzles
  • ate snow cones
  • went bowling
  • made popsicles and ice cream
  • played at the park
  • loved baby Clark
  • made new friends
  • went to the cabin
  • visited the aquarium
  • set off fireworks
  • went swimming
  • slept in a tent
  • sang around a campfire
  • went to reunions
  • tried our luck at fishing (no luck)
  • covered the driveway with chalk art
  • blew bubbles
  • rested in the hammock
  • rocked on the porch swing

Even if our future summers are not as lazy or unscheduled as this one, I'm glad we got to experience this kind of summer at least once so that I now know it is indeed possible.

Today was Aaron's first day of first grade, and it was significantly harder for me than his first day of kindergarten last year. This felt like the real deal.

I kept checking the time and thinking, Will this day ever be over? Will the clock ever make it to 3:45 and release me so I can go pick him up?

My mind has been going to strange places today. Like when I was driving home this morning, and I saw a teenager cross the street with his skateboard. I thought, That kid was in first grade once, and I just wanted to bawl because of it.

Then I thought of dear Mrs. Bitner with a brand-new kindergarten class and realized (somewhat resentfully) that she's probably forgotten about Aaron and most of his classmates from last year. How could she seem so fond of them and yet move on to 22 new kids without so much as a backward glance?

Later in the day, I made lunch for Max and Bradley, after which we sat down on the couch to read stories, just like we always do . . . except that Aaron wasn't there to steal one of the spots next to me. And I wondered, What gives life the right to glibly gloss over something as drastic as a missing person from our regular routine?

I've been stressing about the most ridiculous things: Should I send Aaron with lunch money? Or pay it online? Or go to the office? Will he be comfortable in those shoes? Will that waterbottle leak in his lunchbox? What time should I leave? Should I be ten minutes early? Or fifteen? Or five? Would it be too overbearing if I parked the car outside the fence and watched him during recess? 

Luckily, Aaron was only excited as he got ready for the day (although he did get very quiet and somber when he got in line with the rest of his class), and when I picked him up, he came galloping out on a stick mustang (their mascot) and exclaimed, "That was the best first day of first grade ever!"

Aug 22, 2014

KidPages: Come On, Rain! by Karen Hesse

This was one of those books my kids kept passing over in favor of more colorful and enticing ones. It sat forlorn and forgotten in the library basket for weeks until I, tired of their judgmental exclusion, picked it up and told them I was reading it and they could listen if they wanted.

As soon as I began, I knew this was one I would not have wanted to miss. The story begins on a sweltering hot day. The plants are wilting with the dry heat, and Tessie and her mamma are wilting too. A rainstorm would be just the thing to revive the land. Tessie keeps her eye on the sky and sees a mass of gray clouds on the horizon. She leaps to action, making her mamma comfortable, putting on her bathing suit, and finding her friends, and her efforts are rewarded as the first big drops begin to fall. Tessie and her friends laugh and play, and soon even their mammas can't resist the call of the fresh rain.

As you might guess, it is often the illustrations that first grab my attention and make me want to read a picture book. Not so in this case (although, I must hurry to admit, not because they're not captivating in and of themselves). The words are wonderfully rich and descriptive, with a certain depth and insight I don't usually expect from picture books.

I hadn't thought to look at who the author was before I started reading, but you can bet it was the first thing I did after I read the last page. Karen Hesse. I should have known! There had been something familiar about the writing, something that immediately drew me in and made me feel the extreme contrast between the dry heat and the cool rain. I could immediately see the similarities between this story and my beloved Out of the Dust. In a way, I'm glad I didn't know it was Karen Hesse to begin with because it was wonderful to fall in love with her writing all over again without any pretense.

One of the best things about this story is the dialogue: simple and direct, it cuts through to the heart of the matter. I love this exchange:
"Is there thunder?" Mamma asks. 
"No thunder," I say.
"Is there lightning?" Mamma asks.
 "No lightning," Jackie-Joyce says.
"You stay where I can find you," Mamma says.
"We will," I say.
 "Go on then," Mamma says, lifting the glass to her lips to take a sip.
Tessie is a wonderful character. You'd think a picture book wouldn't offer a long enough glimpse to really make you love someone, but there were two details especially that made Tessie feel very real: first, she tells her friend Jackie-Joyce to get on her swimming suit, knowing that if Jackie-Joyce shows up in a suit, her Mamma is more likely to let Tessie get hers on, too. Then, she makes her mamma some iced tea and drops a spoonful of sugar in her mouth before she adds one to the cup. These two little tidbits told me that Tessie is inventive, creative, kind, a little bit devious, and has a sweet tooth. How can you not love someone like that?

I brushed past the illustrations at the beginning of this review because I was so mesmerized by the words, but the pictures (by Jon J. Muth) are really nothing to trifle with. They're done in watercolors, and the blurred quality lends itself perfectly to a story about rain. The older I get, the more I love the subtle brilliance of watercolors.

If you've been looking for the perfect book to read in August, this is it. I haven't read anything that captures the oppressive heat and the magic of a much-needed rainstorm so perfectly and so well.

"The rain has made us new." That says it all. 

Aug 20, 2014

The End of the Summer Reading Program

In July, I wrote about the two summer reading programs we were participating in.

I expressed a little disappointment that with three (or four) set prizes, it encouraged my kids to read but not to read more.

But then we went to claim the final prize at the county library (a free book), and all disappointment immediately dissipated.

Last year, I wrote about the final book prize because I was so surprised (and pleased!) when there were dozens of high-quality books to choose from. I didn't think I would write about it again this year because either a) it wouldn't be as good so not worthy of mention or b) it would be as good so I'd basically be repeating myself.

But then we saw the books, and I practically did a little happy dance right there in the library, and I knew I would have to brag about our good fortune.

It was so nice to see such a wide selection: recent titles alongside older ones, award winners and character books (not what I would choose, but I suppose they have their place), easy readers and more sophisticated books. With so many good books out there and such a wide range of book tastes among kids, I was so glad they didn't do what would have probably been the easier thing and restrict the choice to two or three unmemorable books.

The book prize could be claimed anytime during the month of August, so of course (since our charts were already filled up) we went early in the month to capitalize on the best selection.

I may have done a little coaxing to get the boys to stay away from the more commercialized books, but in the end, they were all super happy with their choices.

Aaron selected Barnum's Bones: How Barnum Brown Discovered the Most Famous Dinosaur in the World by Tracey Fern. We had never read it before, but it's the true story of the first Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever discovered. You know how I feel about picture book biographies . . .

Max went with Z is For Moose by Kelly Bingham. I wrote about this book a year and a half ago when the boys and I were making predictions for the 2013 Caldecott. It has remained a favorite ever since, and we're so happy to own our own copy of it now.

Bradley chose Mitchell's License by Hallie Durand. I fully intended to write about this book for Father's Day because it is the sweetest, funniest story about a little boy who gets to "drive" his dad to bed. My boys had forgotten most of it but soon fell in love with it all over again. They started laughing uncontrollably at the part where Mitchell honks his dad's nose. I couldn't even continue reading for a good long while because they were laughing so hard. I'd be happy to read it over and over again just to hear those giggles.

Like last year, I asked one of the librarians to inscribe their names in the front so they could remember the summer when they got these books.

And me? I participated in the adult summer reading program and decided to take home one of my all-time favorite books (but one I didn't own yet), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

P.S. I should mention that the Salt Lake City Library also gave a book to each child, but at the beginning of the program when they signed up. We missed the kickoff day (new baby and all that) so missed the best selection but still found three great books to bring home.

Aug 18, 2014

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

Several years ago I read East by Edith Pattou. Last year I read Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George. Both were retellings of the Nordic legend, "East of the Sun, West of the Moon."

You might think, given its title, that this book would be another retelling of the same tale, but it's not. However, it is beautifully woven into the plot.

Astri's life is hard. Her mother died several years before, and then her father left for America, leaving Astri and her younger sister, Greta, with an aunt and uncle. He promises to send for them when he has earned enough money, but quite some time has gone by without any word from him. Then the aunt decides to sell Astri to the goat man (she's not what you would call kind and nurturing), and that is when life becomes truly unbearable. Gathering all her courage, Astri and Greta set off on a dangerous journey to find America that is "west of the moon."

This is an insanely clever book. It's part folk tale (at the back of the book, Margi Preus lists 14 folk tales that come into play at one point or another), part historical fiction (the diseases and journey by ship are all accurate to the time period), and even (very slightly) part biographical (the story was inspired by Preus' great-great-grandmother). The melding of these various genres was absolutely beautiful.

First, the folk tales. I know I didn't pick up on all the references, but the ones to "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" are pretty obvious, mainly because throughout the story, Astri recounts bits and pieces of the legend and then relates them to her own life. For example, this, in Astri's own words: "When the youngest daughter arrived at the bear's house, it was a castle she found, with many rooms all lit up, rooms gleaming with gold and silver, a table already laid, everything as grand as grand could be . . . Not so for me, for when I come to the lair of Mr. Goat, it is a hovel, and filthy inside." The story wouldn't have been even half as good without the framework of all those old tales holding it up and tying it to the past.

The story is set around 1850. It begins in Norway and ends in America. Astri is an uneducated farm girl and is highly superstitious, but all of her unfounded beliefs actually have logical explanations. For example, there is a girl in the story whose joints and back seem to be curved. Astri is convinced she must be the daughter of a troll, but more likely, she probably is suffering from the long-lasting effects of rickets.

Astri was such a wonderful main character: headstrong and brave and loyal, but she continually doubts herself and is disappointed by her failings. At one point, she steals the goat man's Black Book (among other things). She is convinced the Black Book contains powerful secrets that might help her, but she also worries that it is evil and she belongs to the devil because of it. At one point she says, "It's said that it can be dangerous even just to listen to words from this book . . . But I only want to use it for good! Is it all right to use a bad thing for a good cause?" Her struggle is so real and so admirable.

Although this is a middle-grade novel, I would put it in the upper-age bracket of that category. There were a few intense moments (the goat man forces himself (very briefly) on Astri and then promises that once he marries her there will be no escape; later on, Astri cuts off his fingers when he tries to steal her mother's brooch, and the resulting blood and tetanus are not pretty to behold) that I think warrant a more mature reader.

The book itself (I'm talking about the physical, hardcover, paper pages book) is gorgeous. I want to own it someday just so I can flip through its stunning pages. The first few pages are black with white printing and surrounded by a frame of leaves. I also love the choice of fonts.

Three of my favorite themes from the book can be summed up in these three quotes:
  • "There are more things in heaven and earth than can be dreamed."
  • "It makes me dizzy to consider it, but I feel suddenly how all things are woven together, all things seen and unseen, all things alive now and that once were, for generations back and generations to come, woven of a kind of golden thread . . . "
  • "Oh, it's just a trifle. A trifle here and a trifle there. But as we well know, a trifle can be enough when luck is on your side."
All around it was just a really great book, one that I would definitely recommend to 12-year-old girls, although I think there's definitely enough action (and blood) to keep boys interested as well. And as far as the 2015 Newbery? I guess it's probably obvious I wouldn't be one bit disappointed (or surprised) if this one won.

P.S. I've said before that I don't like to read reviews before writing down my own thoughts, but after I finished writing this, I went over to For Those About to Mock and read Rachael's thoughts. We expressed many of the same sentiments (which must mean it really is a good book), but she did it infinitely better. 
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