Apr 20, 2014

Because of Him

I've been thinking about what I could share on this beautiful Easter Sunday. My testimony is simple, but I feel compelled to share it nonetheless.

I believe that Jesus Christ is my Savior and Redeemer. I believe that He is your Savior and Redeemer, whether or not you accept Him as such.

Because of Him, I can overcome my challenges, repent of my sins, and be filled with charity and love for others.

Because of Him, I have a reason to live a better life each and every day. I have a reason to try a little harder.

Because of Him, I have hope for the future and a desire to see the good in others.

Because of Him, my life is filled with light and peace and happiness.

Apr 18, 2014

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I'm assuming that the plot of Jane Eyre is familiar to most of you, but if it isn't, be forewarned that I will allude to certain important details. This book is a treasure, and you wouldn't want me to spoil it, so if you haven't read it, I beg you to stop reading this post right now! 

The first time I read Jane Eyre was seven or eight years ago. I had just finished up a semester at BYU and was looking forward to some long overdue fun reading. Mike suggested Jane Eyre (believe it or not, it's one of his favorite novels), and I was soon engrossed in the story.

But Mike wouldn't let me read in peace. He kept badgering me with questions: "What's happening now? What did you think about that?," etc. etc, until I finally got so fed up, I asked, "Do you just want me to read it to you?" 

He did, and reading it with him made the plot twists and character development even more enjoyable. I can vividly remember the Saturday morning when we woke up and decided to read a little before we got up for the day. We must not have had anything pressing to get to because we ended up just staying in bed until we had finished the book.

When my book club decided to read Jane Eyre, I knew enough time had passed that I wanted to reread it. I'm so glad I did! I was surprised with how much I'd forgotten. Basically, only two things had stuck with me: sweet Helen from Jane's days at boarding school and Mr. Rochester's deranged wife (it's pretty hard to forget something like that even with four pregnancies trying their hardest to wreak havoc on my brain cells).

I find it funny that I could so clearly remember where I was when I finished the book, but I could remember absolutely nothing about the ending itself. It was so delightful to get to enjoy all the surprises of the book the first time and then get to enjoy almost all of them again a second time (bless you, pregnancies).

The story is told from Jane's point of view, as a sort of memoir or autobiography. She begins with her childhood, dismal and tragic due to being left in the care of her uncle's wife, who cares nothing for her and finds every opportunity to chastise and punish her. Then she is sent away to Lowood (a religious boarding school), and despite its being founded on principles of extreme self-denial, Jane finds it a bright and welcome reprieve. There she meets Helen and Miss Temple, both of whom shape and nurture her in profound ways. When she reaches the age of eighteen, and Helen and Miss Temple are both gone, she realizes Lowood has nothing else to offer her, and she applies for a governess position at far away Thornfield Hall.

It is several months before Jane meets the master of the house, Mr. Rochester, and when she does, she is surprised with how easily she forms a friendship with him and how much she enjoys spending time in his company. But Thornfield is full of secrets, and when the floodgates suddenly burst open and Jane discovers all, everything she believes in is threatened, and she discovers just how strong she really is.

And now, I'm finding myself at a loss for what to say next. In the midst of my profound love for this book, my thoughts are reduced to, "Jane is awesome. Jane is awesome. Jane is awesome . . . ," but that does little to convey why I admire her character so much.

Actually, as much as I admire Jane, it's really Charlotte Brontë who holds my esteem. Wow. I cannot believe she wrote such a strong female character in the mid-19th-century. She lets us see Jane's most personal and poignant thoughts. She doesn't let Jane be bullied (and she gives us three very different examples of aggressive, controlling men--Mr. Brocklehurst, Mr. Rochester, and St. John). She makes Jane independent and kind, strong-willed and compliant. She creates, in my opinion, the ultimate feminist. (This article in the Huffington Post, shared at book club by my friend, Holli, lists the reasons for Jane's awesomeness much better than I ever could.)

For all that praise though, Jane is far from perfect. She has a temper, and she is wont to complain about the injustices she sees in her life. Because of this, she is not only a character we can respect and admire but also one we can relate to. Over time, she overcomes many of her childish tendencies and becomes the kind of person who can leave behind the love of her life (plus food, shelter, and other necessities) in order to hold fast to her strong moral convictions. Here are a few of my favorite quotes describing Jane's strength of character:
"I was experiencing an ordeal: a hand of fiery iron grasped my vitals. Terrible moment: full of struggle, blackness, burning! Not a human being that ever lived could wish to be loved better than I was loved; and him who thus loved me I absolutely worshipped: and I must renounce love and idol. One drear word comprised my intolerable duty - 'Depart!'"
When Mr. Rochester asks, "Is it better to drive a fellow-creature to despair than to transgress a mere human law, no man being injured by the breach?," this reply follows, "This was true: and while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. 'Oh, comply!' it said . . . 'Who in the world cares for you?' . . . Still indomitable was the reply: 'I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad--as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is not temptation: they are for such moments as this . . . "
"I felt veneration for St. John--veneration so strong that its impetus thrust me at once to the point I had so long shunned. I was tempted to cease struggling with him--to rush down the torrent of his will into the gulf of his existence, and there lose my own. I was almost as hard beset by him now as I had been once before, in a different way, by another. I was a fool both times. To have yielded then would have been an error of principle; to have yielded now would have been an error of judgment."
I'll try to resist quoting the rest of the book . . . but only with great difficulty.

I also think this book was far ahead of its time in expressing feelings of passion and love. As much as I love Jane Austen's novels, you have to admit that there's a lot of beating around the bush in them with pages and pages leading up to a two-sentence declaration of love.

Mr. Rochester shows no such restraint, and instead there are pages and pages where he expresses his extreme adoration of Jane, such as, "Jane, you look blooming, and smiling, and pretty . . . Is this my pale little elf? Is this my mustard-seed? This little sunny-faced girl with the dimpled cheek and rosy lips; the satin-smooth hazel hair, and the radiant hazel eyes?" (I love the line that Jane follows with: "I had green eyes, reader; but you must excuse the mistake; for him they were new-dyed, I suppose.")

Or this one: "No--no--Jane; you must not go. No--I have touched you, heard you, felt the comfort of your presence--the sweetness of your consolation: I cannot give up these joys. I have little left in myself--I must have you . . . My very soul demands you: it will be satisfied, or it will take deadly vengeance on its frame."

The fact that I'm sharing so many quotes is a testament to how much I loved this book. I feel compelled to save them somehow so that I can find them easily and quickly in the future.

When I read this book for the first time, it quickly climbed to the top of my list of favorites. It stayed there through the years, even as my memory of the plot faded, because of what I remember feeling when I read it. Reading it a second time did not lessen my love for it one whit. I've changed in the years that have passed. My life and circumstances have also changed. But Jane still inspires me. The mystery and passion of the plot still thrill me. And the ending still makes my heart swell with happiness. I think it's safe to say this book will remain a favorite for the rest of my life and that this will not be the last time I read it.

Apr 16, 2014

The Princess in Our Front Yard

We planted a tree last week. And a dream 10 years in the making came true for me.

Who knew such a little mite of a thing could fill me with such exhilaration and happiness?

I remember perfectly the first time I saw a flowering cherry tree. I was finishing up my second semester at BYU. Amid the stress of finals, the entire campus bloomed in a breathtaking display of color and fragrance. I honestly can't remember a spring before or since that has been quite as gorgeous to me (whether or not this had anything to do with the fact that I was also extremely twitterpated at the time, I really can't say).

I lived in the dorms at the time (grand ol' Deseret Towers, nicknamed Death Trap because of its unsound earthquake structure and consequently torn down a few years later). One evening I walked out of the Morris Center and stopped still in my tracks. There before me was a princess of unprecedented beauty. The blossoms were big and feathery. They looked like carnations.

I was enraptured, and I vowed right then and there that someday just such a tree would reign in my front yard.

Spring 2004 - With Beth, my dear friend (and roommate at the time)

The next spring, I married that boy I was so twitterpated with. After we graduated and moved to Salt Lake, I discovered that the art gallery across the street had a whole row of flowering cherry trees.

Spring 2011 - With 14-month-old Maxwell

Up until then, I still didn't know what kind of tree it was, but I noticed that a family from church had one in their front yard, and one Sunday I asked the mom what it was called. She told me "blossoming cherry," which I faithfully remembered, and it wasn't until very recently that I discovered this variety is actually called a kwanzan flowering cherry.

It would have been nice if the home we bought had already had a flowering cherry tree in its front yard (I'm pretty sure I would have considered it a sign that it was the right house for us). It didn't, but it had the next best thing: a front yard completely empty of trees, a perfect canvas for my dream.

Despite years of talking about this one specific tree, I think Mike was still surprised when we were tree shopping last week and I found a flowering cherry and insisted that we buy it right then and there.

Our biggest dilemma after that was just deciding where in the front yard it should go.

My awesome crew of tree planters

We finally settled on a spot close to the house. In a few years, I will be able to gaze out on its frothy pinkness while I do the dishes. I can't wait.

It probably sounds silly, but seeing that little tree just fills up my heart a little bit. It was such a teeny tiny dream, but it was something I thought about every spring. A year ago, I never thought that in just ten months time, we would own our own home, much less that I would be enjoying the baby blossoms of my baby tree. If such things can happen, what else is possible?

Apr 14, 2014

Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

There are some days when I feel like I'm going crazy.

Amend that.

Most days I feel like I'm going crazy.

And nothing sends me into crazy mode faster than hearing my kids scream and cry and yell at each other . . . and then tattle it all to me. Before I had kids, I never would have guessed that a five-year-old, a four-year-old, and a two-year-old could have perfected the art of fighting so well, nor that the two-year-old could be the root of 85% of the problems.

Care to listen in on a typical drive to school in the morning?

Maxwell: [humming to himself]

Bradley: I don't LIKE that!

Maxwell: [continues humming, a little louder, now that he knows he has an irritated audience]

Bradley [volume increasing]: I DON'T LIKE THAT!!! [primitive noises erupt]

Maxwell: I'm just singing.

Bradley: NOOOOOOO! Stop that right now!

Maxwell: Stop screaming! [begins imitating the primitive noises]

[A battle of screams, growls, and roars ensues.]

I pull the car over until the screaming stops. We continue on our (seven-minute) drive.

Maxwell: [looking at a book]

Bradley: That's my book! Max, give it to me! [primitive noises erupt]

Etc., etc. etc.

I know sibling rivalry is normal. Trust me. I have five brothers and two sisters. But somehow, it feels so different on the parental side. I feel responsible for my children developing good feelings toward each other. And, I'll be honest, the bickering really wears on me until I succumb to primitive noises myself.

I turned to this book in a moment of desperation inspiration. I just wanted one good idea, maybe two, that I could implement right now and bring some peace into our home. 

This is exactly what I was looking for: it was easy to read, practical, and not research-based. (Sometimes I want a lot of data, but not this time. I wanted to know what real parents were doing, not what science said they should do.)

The book is organized as if you're listening in on a seven-week parent workshop. Each chapter is another nightly session beginning with follow-up on the session from last week, discussing in detail a new subtopic complete with strategies and role-playing,  and ending with goals for the upcoming week. I've never read a parenting book with quite this format, and I loved it. It was so accessible to me.

The material for the book is taken from actual workshops given by authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. They discuss such issues as the danger of comparisons, the impossibility of making everything equal, and what to do when all else fails. Many of the discussions are accompanied by comic-style illustrations, which I found surprisingly helpful.

However, the real test has come as I've tried to actually apply some of what I learned.

And gosh, it's hard!

When the screaming and scratching and hitting begins, my mind begins to race and then goes completely blank. All I can hear is the screaming, screaming, screaming. I can't remember what I'm supposed to do, and suddenly the situation I'm dealing with seems like it doesn't resemble anything in the book. I resort to my usual, "Stop that right now! Do you hear me? Stop that!!! Okay, you there, go to your room!" And that technique has obviously proven to work so well (not).

So for the time being, I'm just going to choose three techniques I can use to handle some of the problems. Sure, they won't take care of everything, but if I try to fix it all in one fell swoop, I know I won't end up fixing anything. 

It always helps if I write out my intentions, so here they are:
  • When one of them hits (or bites) (or scratches): "Hitting is never acceptable. You two need to spend some time apart, and then you can try playing together again." Escort them to separate rooms in the house, not necessarily for a time out, but just for some much-needed alone time.
  • When they are all clamoring for my attention at the same time: "Aaron, will you help Bradley put on his shoes? Maxwell, will you go turn off the lights downstairs so we can leave?" I've noticed my kids' behavior changes instantly when they feel like their help is valued and needed. It immediately changes the mood in the room when they are doing things I can praise them for.
  • When they are engaged in a screaming contest: "Bradley, I can see that you really want Max to stop singing. Is that right? Max, I can tell that you want to continue your song." Sometimes, acknowledging their feelings will solve the problem by itself. But if it doesn't, then, "Can you boys come up with a solution, or do I need to help you?" I feel kind of silly writing that, like my two-year-old will really be able to come up with a "solution" on his own? But I have noticed that he already knows kind words are more effective than screams and that he would rather be with his brothers than away from them. I think I need to give them more trust to work things out on their own but then also be willing to give some of my time to help them come to a peaceful resolution instead of just being so quick to yell and punish.
Mike is also reading this book. When he's done with it (or maybe at the halfway point), we'll discuss other things we can do to remedy some of the fighting. It always helps when we're using the same techniques to achieve the same goals. Our kids feel that unity, and we feel empowered because we're not trying to solve all the problems alone.

One of the most helpful parts of the book for me was the afterword. The authors wrote this section years later after they'd given many more workshops and heard the problems and solutions of many more parents. They devoted much of this section to the unique problems of young children, which is exactly what I needed. They shared many stories and examples, and each one demonstrated a creative application of something mentioned earlier. The suggestions themselves were so good, but then it also made me realize that there are a million different ways for me to help my kids live peacefully with each other.

I've probably given the impression that our home is one constant fight after another, but it isn't. In fact, most of the time I am so happy my kids are so close in age because they play so well together. But there are moments every day when I feel that peace disrupted and our irritation and frustration with each other escalate. I really hate those moments, and that is why I felt like this book was a great investment of my time.

Apr 9, 2014

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

I just ate my first otter pop of the season (it is nearly 80 degrees here today), and it was heavenly. Seriously, I don't think an otter pop has ever tasted so perfectly delicious to me.

And now I'm trying to figure out a way to tie in otter pops with I Am Malala. Um . . . thinking . . . and nope. I guess you'll just have to consider that your random thought for the day.

Moving on . . .

I read I Am Malala right in the midst of our move. It has been an extremely popular book over the last six months (it won the Goodreads Choice Award in the Memoir and Autobiography category), and snagging a library copy was difficult. With all the chaos our move created, my time to sit down with an actual book was limited. I read about half of it before the list of holds called it back to the library. That same week, the audio version of it came in (seriously, could I have timed it any better?), and I was able to fly through the second half as I unpacked and painted and cleaned.

I'm actually so glad my reading of this book was split between the hardback and the audio. I liked seeing the names of places/people and paging through all the photographs, but then it was so nice to actually hear what all those names of places/people were supposed to sound like.

Malala Yousafzai is a 16-year-old young woman from the Swat Valley in Pakistan. Her father has done much to promote and facilitate the education of boys and girls in their country.  As Malala grew up and attended her father's school, she began speaking out about the importance of education for girls. At this same time, the Taliban took control of many areas of Pakistan and severely suppressed women's rights. Malala and her father did not back down, and on October 9, 2012, her school bus was stopped by the Taliban, and she was shot in the head. After her miraculous recovery, she has become even more of an advocate and international voice for women's education.

The thing I had to keep reminding myself of while reading this book was that these events just barely happened. While Malala's story is incredible, her perspective is somewhat limited. At the very end, she is writing about things that took place in August 2013, not even a year ago. Part of the reason why this book is so popular right now is because it is very, very current. But that's also somewhat of a drawback because so much of this story is still in the future.

Along those same lines, I was struck by the naivete and innocence of Malala's voice. At 16 years old, she is still very much a young woman with limited experience. In some ways, this made her story more profound because it was so simple and untarnished. But at the same time, it almost felt like something was missing, and I think it might be the added wisdom and perspective that ten (or twenty) more years will give her. And yet, if she had waited to write her story, the innocence of youth would have been lost. (One of my favorite parts was when she mentioned reading The Wizard of Oz for the first time when she was recovering in Birmingham, England. She said she was so inspired by Dorothy's story, and I just had to wonder how many 16-year-old American girls would count Dorothy as a role model (or at least admit to such.))

However, for all Malala's innocence on one hand, she has been exposed to a dark side of the world that many parents try to protect their children from. I was kind of shocked by how little I knew about the Taliban's control, especially the ways in which they stripped the people of their culture and history. It is so crazy that these kinds of things are happening right now; they feel like they should be restricted to the tragedies of past centuries.

Because of all we had going on, I didn't take as many notes as I usually do while reading (okay, I actually didn't take any notes). But I do remember three things that stuck out to me at the time: First, Malala's belief in God; I was so impressed by her deep faith and how familiar it felt to my own. Second, Malala's courage; she has continued to be a voice for education, now on a much more visible and international scale; when asked about her fears, she said that she's already faced the worst-case scenario (death), and now she is just going to move forward trusting in God. Third, Malala's father. I know he's received some criticism for putting Malala in dangerous situations, but I don't think he ever thought the Taliban would come after her (he thought he would be the one targeted); and really, I have to admire and praise the incredible love he has for his daughter and for sharing that love so publicly.

I will be interested to see how this book holds up over time, but for right now, it was a very relevant and important read.

Apr 7, 2014

Raising Readers: Teaching Children to Read With Expression

Did you think this series had gone the way of all the earth, never to return to this blog? The seven-month break was entirely unintentional and unplanned. In fact, I've drafted several posts over the last few months but just never finished them. That's kind of how my life feels right now: a million projects (or books) half-started.

Anyway, I'm recommitting myself to this series because it is something I'm very passionate about. And from now on, you can count on a Raising Readers post on the first Monday of every month (unless I'm having a baby). How's that for commitment?

Anyway, I've said before that these are very much in-the-trenches types of posts . . . just my own observations and experiments with my kids as we navigate the wonderful world of reading.

And so today, I'm going to share some of the tips I've discovered to encourage Aaron to read with more expression.

Aaron reads quite a bit, but I've noticed that as his speed has increased, his reading has become more of a mumbled mutter than an enjoyable narration. I think this is only natural as he goes from reading aloud the majority of the time to reading silently in his head. Reading aloud is slowing him down, and I am fine letting him test his reading wings and take off on a faster path.

However . . . reading aloud is still a vital and practical skill. Aaron often reads to Maxwell and Bradley, and it has been getting harder and harder for them to hear the mumbled mutter.

So I've been encouraging Aaron to try reading with a little more excitement and passion. Here are a few of the things we've successfully tried:

Explain punctuation. That's a given, right? But you'd be surprised how much it helps to point out an exclamation point and say something like, "Oh, look at that! He must be excited about going on a field trip." Or give a gentle reminder, "Pause at the period." A few months ago, Aaron figured out what an ellipsis was (I don't think I ever sat down and explained it to him), and now he lets his voice trail off when he comes to one.

"Read it so I'll be interested." I thought Aaron would balk when I first made this suggestion. But he didn't. Instead he rose to the occasion. Just reminding him he had an audience made him increase the volume of his voice and slow down just a little. I have to admit I didn't think it would work, but sometimes improvement can be made just by drawing attention to the thing that needs improving.

Try reading a book with limited text. We recently discovered a delightful book called Moo! by David LaRochelle. The whole story is told with only one word (moo) used multiple times and to connote multiple emotions and expressions: a question, uh-oh, joy, panic, fear, embarrassment, disappointment, and blame. A book like this is great for a reader who is somewhat reluctant to read with expression. Why? Because it's pretty boring to read the same word over and over again in the same flat voice. The fun comes in trying to make "moo" sound like different words and phrases. I've also found that the Elephant & Piggie books by Mo Willems are great choices if you're looking to simplify the text without simplifying the emotions.

Give a second chance. Occasionally, I will stop Aaron mid-page, and ask, "Do you think that's really how Frog asked that question? Why don't you try it again?" Obviously, I don't do this too often (like, twice in a 15-20 minute time frame), or Aaron would probably start crying, "Stop interrupting me!" But he will tolerate, and even enjoy, a couple of second chances.

Read something with a repeated refrain. Aaron checked out Inside a Barn in the Country from school (a take on This is the House That Jack Built), and I was amazed with how relaxed and confident he sounded while reading it. His voice was actually lilting. As the text built on itself and repeated the same phrases, he began to read more expressively instead of falling into a boring monotone.

Encourage them to help YOU. When you're reading aloud, make sure to encourage participation. We recently read Warning: Do Not Open This Book, which is full of opportunities for the reader to interact with the story. As children yell instructions or whisper warnings or giggle hysterically, they are actually beginning to develop their earliest read-aloud skills.

Read the story first. Then have him read it. This is probably one of the best things I've done to help Aaron read expressively. If he can get a general feeling for the story first, it helps when he takes a turn reading it. He's not distracted trying to figure out what's going on, so he can focus more on enjoying the words. I admit, lately he's been doing so much reading that I usually don't have a chance to read it aloud to him first. But I was reminded of how valuable this is when Bradley asked Aaron to read The Three Little Gators to him a few days ago. I paused to listen, and I was shocked to hear the mean and gruff words of the boar followed by the sassy and stubborn three little gators as they shouted, "Bad choice!" Was this really my Aaron reading this book? Then I remembered that I had read it aloud the day before. That had made all the difference.

Model expressive reading. Okay, this is almost the same as the one above, but it bears repeating. Really the only way for a child to learn to read expressively is to hear it modeled on a consistent basis. You'd be surprised how many adults read in the mumbled mutter style. Or maybe you wouldn't. At any rate, the more you read to your child (regardless of whether or not they'll be reading the same material you just read) and vary the pitch and accents and emotions, the more they build up their personal database of good examples.

What things have you done to encourage children to read with greater expression?

For more ideas about how to raise readers, click here to see previous posts.

Apr 4, 2014

KidPages: Bedtime at the Swamp

I always know we've discovered a great new picture book when I hear my husband reading it to the boys for the first time, and I think to myself, I wish I was the one reading right now.

That's precisely what happened the first night I overheard Bedtime at the Swamp by Kristyn Crow.

And the second night.

And finally, the third night, I begged the boys for a turn to read it.

Evening is just creeping in when the boy in the story hears a splashing sound. He is sure it is the illusive swamp monster out to get him, and he takes off running. He finds safety in a nearby willow tree and is soon joined by his sister, brother, and two cousins, who were all sent to fetch him to bed. However, as soon as each one hears the, "Splish splash, rumba-rumba, bim bam BOOM!," they decide the tree's branches seem like a good idea.

Suddenly the swamp monster springs out from the Black Lagoon, and it is at that moment the children realize they were mistaken and their biggest threat is just behind him.

I am a total sucker for a knee-slappin', toe-tappin', infectious rhyme. Besides the hypnotic "splish splash, rumba rumba, bim bam BOOM," each verse has a definite rhythmic beat and works best if you can manage a convincing Southern twang (thankfully my listeners were not the least judgmental of my attempt).

It also emits just the right mix of suspense and fear to make it a great curl-up-and-sit-still bedtime story. The text naturally leads you to alter the speed and volume of your voice to match the action in the story. The illustrations, vibrant and terrifying, match the text in all the right ways (I think my favorite picture is the one where all the kids, plus their dog, are peeking over the edge of the tree. The swamp monster is clinging to the trunk below, and the whole page is bathed in an otherworldly green glow). And, in the end, it's not really very scary at all, so no worries about nightmares. 

Now that we've had the book from the library for a couple of weeks, I think my favorite part has been listening to my two-year-old read it to himself. It's just so cute hearing him say, "Splish splash, rumba-rumba, bim bam BOOM!" (although his Southern twang could use a little work). In fact, we've all been going around the house chanting that refrain. I'll bet even you, just reading this post, can't help whispering them to yourself.
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