I like to keep a basket of rotating picture books in our family room. The kids, every one of them, enjoy discovering each new selection of books, and I love watching them turn the pages and READ. Even my grown-up fourth and sixth graders, who might think they are too big to check out picture books from the library, like to see what I’ve put in the basket. That makes me so happy. Picture books engage the senses on so many levels, and can be profound in their simplicity. Some are nuanced and sophisticated in ways chapter books can’t be. And they are always beautiful.
Today it was time to put out some Easter-inspired books. Easter-bunny that is. Here is what I chose:
HOP! by Phyllis Root, illustrated by Holly Meade. The perfect book for toddlers. It shows five adorable baby bunnies scratching, scritching, wiggling and twitching, and of course, hopping. A fun read-aloud, with rhyming words and repetitive sounds that make it 0h-so-accessible for the diaper crew. And the sweet little bunnies are a happy reminder of the bouncy baby you are reading to.
The next book is just as charming. Bunny Days by Tao Nyeu. It features not five, but six little bunnies. And these bunnies have a friend named Bear who helps them out of some very bunny business. Told in short episodes which are all set in a charming pastoral farmscape of soothing greens and blues, Bunny Days is the perfect combination of sweet and silly. Preschoolers will love to see Bear’s surprising solutions to the bunnies’ predicaments.
My last bunny book is Bunnies on the Go by Rick Walton, illustrated by Paige Miglio. The bunnies in this book love to be on the move, whether that means taking a bike or a balloon, a train or a truck. Each page gives a little hint of what is to come to the observant reader. I love the way the soft, cuddly-looking bunnies team up with all-terrain vehicles to make a book that both boys and girls can enjoy. Another bunny book by the same team is So Many Bunnies: A Bedtime ABC and Counting Book. My daughter used to love reading it, tucked up in her bed, when she was younger.
This afternoon one of my Halloween decorations mysteriously lost its two front legs: a cute little kitty, now permanently crippled because the ceramic paws are completely shattered. My first thought when I found it, sitting in its usual place, with all its bits and pieces lined up beside it, was ‘Why do I bother with decorations when I have four kids running around the house?’ My second thought was, ‘Who did this?’
So I began questioning my children. Surprisingly, not a single one of them admitted to breaking the Halloween cat. One of them tried to blame the dog, but our little Westie couldn’t have reached the shelf where it had been on display. Another one of them tried to blame Dad (never a wise move). So I let the case rest.
Until tonight when we sat down to dinner. A surprise development occurred when I asked my eleven year old to bless our food. ”Dear Heavenly Father,” he prayed, “Please bless the food. And please bless us that we can talk about the things that are upsetting or troubling us.”
“Thank you, Hunter,” I said when he had finished his blessing. I was little worried about that last part, though, so I turned to the rest of the family and asked. ”Does anyone have anything that is troubling or upsetting you that you want to talk about?”
“Yes,” said Pierce, my five-year-old, waving his hand up in the air.
“What is it?”
“I don’t like this dinner.”
“Okay,” I said. ”Anyone else?”
Hunter looked at me, his face all trouble and concern. ”I broke the cat, Mom,” he said. ”I didn’t mean to.”
He probably expected me to be mad. It was a cute little kitty. But I couldn’t be angry. Because I was looking at his face, and seeing all that trouble and concern, and it made me much sadder than a broken Halloween decoration. I put my arms around him and kissed the top of his head. I was so grateful that I could make all that guilt and sadness go away, just by forgiving him. And so grateful that he would tell me what had happened so that I could forgive him. ”Next time tell me right when it happens, okay?” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
And I hope he will.
Spring is here. Ribbons of yellow daffodils are growing on the side of the road. Robbins are hopping around, their red breasts puffed out in front of them. And soccer season has begun. My weekly schedule is suddenly an ink smear of places I need to be. I’m having a hard time keeping up with it all. In fact, I’m NOT keeping up with it all. Last Friday I completely forgot about a music evaluation my son, Hunter, had for piano. It was an exam of sorts, including sight reading, performance, theory, and technique. He’d been working toward it for months. And I forgot. So did he. We both felt terrible. Tears-on-our-cheeks TERRIBLE.
First thing Saturday morning I called his teacher, Rebecca, to apologize. “I don’t even have a good excuse,” I confessed. “We just forgot.”
Hunter’s piano teacher is one of the kindest, most gracious people I know. But even so, I expected her to be frustrated. Disappointed at the least. I would have been. Instead, she responded by saying, “I am so happy to know that everything is okay. I was worried that Hunter was sick.”
Before I had a chance to plunge into an even deeper state of guilt, our sweet teacher went on to say, “Now, Janessa, I’ve had this sort of thing happen to me many times. I wish I had been gentler with myself. Please. Be gentle with yourself.”
There wasn’t much I could say to that, especially not with the tears welling up in my eyes. I shared her words with my son, Hunter, and saw a wide-eyed look of gratitude and adoration appear on his face.
Be gentle with yourself. What a valuable lesson. I hope Rebecca knows she is teaching Hunter so much more than how to play the piano. And I am learning, too.
This book is a treasure. I love everything about it. The sparse, expressive text that reads like a poem. The soft illustrations full of humor and emotion. The little boy who waits patiently for the seeds he has planted to change the brown to green. And his friendly entourage – a bunny, a turtle, and a dog whose expressions somehow capture a new emotion with each turn of the page. I was so happy to read this book a day after complaining about the muddy footprints my son spread through the house. It was a gentle reminder that when you are wishing for the green of Spring, first you must have brown. Brown with “a greenish hum that you can only hear if you put your ear to the ground and close your eyes.” I read this book to all of my kids tonight (ages 11, 9, 7, and 4) and they all thoroughly enjoyed it.
Lucky. That is how I felt today when I dropped my four year old off for preschool. He stopped on his way to the door, turned around, shouted, “I love you, Mom,” and blew me a kiss.
The little things do it every time – make me realize how wonderful life really is. That little kiss, sent to me across the chilly February air, blew away a thousand thoughts and concerns that have been pressing on me lately, most of them concerning the word MORE.
That word, ‘more’, has been such a burden lately. I need to lose more weight. I need more fashionable clothes. I need to finish more of my book. I need my house to look more put together. I’ve been so focused on what I don’t have, and that little kiss brought it back to me: the remembrance of all the things I do have. All the little, tiny, precious, priceless things.
As I drove away, feeling lighter than I have in a while, I thought about the word more, and what I really need more of: more gratitude, more patience, more love, more doing good for others, more fun with my family, more laughing, more smiling, more hugs, and more, more, more feathery kisses blowing my way on light and lucky breezes.
I know I’m a little late for a Thanksgiving post, but tonight our family had an experience that left me feeling profoundly grateful for the gifts we are given each day.
To start off, the week before Thanksgiving, my 3rd grade daughter brought home a poem she wrote and illustrated at school. I loved the poem. Not just because my daughter wrote it and I enjoyed reading her thoughts, but also because the poem was a wonderful exercise in learning how to find gratitude. My daughter’s teacher had the students in her class think of eight things they wanted. After each longed-for wish, the students wrote something they already had that they were grateful for. For example, here is my daughter’s poem:
I wish I had another puppy, but I’m grateful I have one.
I wish nobody would get sick, but I’m grateful I don’t get sick a lot.
I wish I had all the books I wanted to read, but I’m grateful I get to read some.
I wish I never had hard times, but I’m grateful I have friends and family when I do.
I wish I had a job with animals, but I’m grateful I can when I’m older.
I wish I would never grow up, but I’m glad I get to stay little for a while.
I wish the day would last forever, but I’m grateful it lasts 24 hours.
I wish I could do whatever I want, but at the same time I’m grateful that I don’t.
I could add a few of my own: I wish my husband liked 19th century British literature, but I’m grateful he’ll watch Jane Eyre with me anyway. I wish I didn’t have to wash the dirty dishes, but I’m grateful I can feed my family. I wish I had more time to write my book, but I’m grateful for four children who keep me busy and make my life purposeful.
It really is a wonderful exercise – finding what you are grateful for in the moment you are longing for more. Tonight’s experience was all about that. My husband and I took our kids to a special event organized by a dear friend of mine: a concert by children for children. She and her family organize the event each year, inviting friends to come and participate in a night of holiday music. Children perform, sharing their talents, and at the end of the night donations are accepted for the One Heart Bulgaria foundation, which aids orphanages in Bulgaria.
At the beginning of the concert, we were shown a slideshow of orphaned children living in Bulgaria. I found myself drawn toward the children’s dark, quiet eyes as they looked into the camera, inviting me to see the world from their point of view. It allowed me to step away from the long hard stare I fix on the things I think I want most, both for me and for my children, and to appreciate the most basic and important elements of our lives: love, faith, and family; food, health and home. There are so many gifts that have already been given, so many wants that have already been met. And so many opportunities to give instead of receive.
I’ve kept a journal for as long as I can remember. It’s a habit my mom started me on. Sunday afternoons she would hand us each our hard back, blank-paged book, our name engraved on the front, and instruct us to write something about our week. Most of my early entries were catalogs of which VHS movie we rented from Albertson’s for our weekly movie night (we rented the VCR, too) and what candy I picked to go with it. I must have really loved those movie nights.
As I got older I turned to my journal more often than Sunday afternoons, and began writing in order to make sense of my life and my feelings, like this entry from 1988: “I’m in the 6th grade right now and everything is really confusing. I don’t want to grow up sometimes.” (Don’t you just want to give that poor girl a hug and tell her everything will be okay?)
Now I am a journal enthusiast. I have journals for every trip I’ve taken, journals for each of my kids, a journal about mothering, a journal to record my spiritual journey through life, and a journal I just started where I try to write one super-positive, self-affirming statement every morning. I feel a little silly about that last one, but I’m telling you, it really makes a difference.
I also have a journal that I share with my daughter, Hattie. We hand it back and forth to each other, taking turns writing messages to each other on its secret pages. Most of Hattie’s entries start and end with, “I love you.” One even says, “I love you so much. Even better than the stars.” But last week she broke the mold with this little missive:
STOP YELLING AT ME!
Wow. Point taken. I had been yelling too much. Not just at her – at everybody. Now I had a whole new reason to be grateful for our little journal. It gave her the chance to share her feelings with me, even when they were negative. At different points throughout the journal I had offered small suggestions or corrections to her behavior, and now she was offering one to mine. I was definitely humbled. Especially when a few minutes later she stole the journal away and amended the page to read:
I’m sorry. I’ll forgive you. But can you forgive me?
I have so much to learn from her. Of all the journals I have kept over the years, I already know this one will be my most priceless. The others I have stacked away in bins and boxes, but this one will always be close by. I hope it will continue to grow and change, just like my little girl. Her birthday is this week. I can’t believe how big she is getting. She is so excited to be in the spotlight. Her last entry in the journal reads,
One more day til my birthday. Well, I guess one and a half, to be more pacific.
I come from a family of eight. Two brothers, three sisters, and two parents. I adore them all. Last year my youngest sister started a birthday tradition among us. On (or near) the day of our birthdays, everyone in the family sends a ‘tribute’ email, saying one thing they admire or appreciate about us. It is wonderful being the recipient of these thoughtful messages, but just as nice is reading what people have to say when it is someone else’s birthday. Recently it was my oldest sister’s birthday, and my brother sent out his birthday tribute. This is an excerpt of what he said:
“She was not born a patient one, but yet is the most faithfully patient person I know.”
When I first read this I laughed, remembering all the family trips and outings when I would hear her voice from the backseat of our big chevy van asking, “When are we going to eat?” But my laughter quickly turned to tears as I thought about all that my sister has accomplished over the years, and the hardships she has endured. She is an amazing example of faith and perseverence. I grew even more emotional as I thought about each member of my family. I have seen so much patience in the midst of hardships. Were any of us born with natural patience to help us weather our storms? Maybe.
Sometimes I approach life thinking I am limited. I have certain traits and attributes to get me where I want to go, but where I lack the needed attributes – discipline, focus, patience, I’m afraid I will fail. Thinking about my sister made me realize that with work and perseverence I can grow and develop the traits I need to help me reach my goals. It helped me see in a very clear way that life, in so many ways, is a process of growth and development. It takes time. It takes work. But it fills me with hope knowing that I can aspire to be the person I want to be, even if she sometimes seems beyond my reach.
In the second installment of the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series, The Hidden Gallery, Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia join Miss Penelope Lumley, their stalwart governess, on a trip to London. The Incorrigible Children are as endearing as ever, with their quirky but charming wolf-like qualities. They mistakenly attack the guards outside Buckingham Palace, thinking the guards are bears in their tall furry hats. But they also master the intricacies of the Peloponnesian War in their history lessons, and rescue an elephant in distress at the zoo.
Penelope attempts to guide the children through the city of London, where cultural and historical lessons abound, but finds that her Hixby’s Guide, the travel book given to her by her old school teacher at Swanburne Academy, is less than useful. It is full of pictures of alpine meadows instead of images of London, and alludes to a secret portrait gallery in the British Museum, holding works of art that seem obscure, at best.
During their travels through London, Penelope and the children encounter a mysterious gypsy woman, a courageous playwright, and bloodthirsty pirates. They meet with hilarity and escape danger. And along the way, Penelope collects intriguing clues about her own past, the enigma behind her employer, Lord Ashton, and her connection to both the esteemed Agatha Swanburne, founder of her alma mater, and, possibly, to the Incorrigibles themselves.
My children and I are anxiously awaiting the third, and hopefully final, installment of the Incorrigibles saga. It looks like it comes out in February of 2012, and we can’t wait to read it and find the answers to all of our questions about Penelope and her wards. The first two books have given us a lot to think about, and have unfolded a mystery we are anxious to unravel. The Hidden Gallery left us with even more questions than The Mysterious Howling, but it showed us who we can trust in the drama that will ensue – Old Timothy, Simon Harley-Dickinson, Miss Charlotte Mortimer, and who to be suspicious of. And of course, the writing is so engaging, with its tongue-in-cheek humor and delightful characterizations, that reading Wood’s work is always a pleasure.
In the midst of reading about the London adventures of Penelope and her Incorrigibles, my husband took a business trip to London. My children were so enchanted by the places Wood describes in her book, and by the book’s mysteries, that they begged him to visit the British Museum and find the Hixby’s hidden gallery. Unfortunately, he was in business meetings all day and wasn’t able to make it to the museum before closing hours. Instead he took walks around the city, and when he got home he told them what he had seen, using this book as his guide:
A Walk in London, by Salvatore Rubbino, is an absolutely charming picture book about a mother and her young daughter taking a day trip to explore the city of London. They arrive in Westminster on a bright red double decker bus to the sound of Big Ben chiming out the hour. From there they walk through St. James’s Park and arrive at Buckingham Palace just in time for the changing of the guard. The illustrations are full of movement and personality, with just the right amount of detail to capture the sights and feeling of the city. A fold out page gives a wonderful panoramic view of the Thames, which allowed my husband to show the kids just where he had been during his short time in London. It was such a delightful book, and can be enjoyed on many levels with its engaging story for younger readers, and subtexts full of interesting facts spread out all over the page for older readers. I’d love to find a copy of Rubbino’s A Walk in New York, and hope he continues to explore other cities with his cheerful art and storytelling.
The best part of the summer for my kids is when we pack up the van and drive to Boise to get some special loving from Babbo, Nana, aunts, uncles, and lots and lots of cousins. We don’t sleep much, but we have a lot of fun. On our recent trip, my dad planned a special outing for the aunts and uncles – me and my sisters and brothers. He took the six of us to lunch. I can’t remember the last time all of us were together like that. It was so nice to talk and laugh, and just look at the faces across the table and feel the special bond of family.
While we were talking, my dad mentioned an uncle of his. “Which uncle?” we wanted to know. “The one who doesn’t eat sugar? The one who lives alone?” My brother, who was sitting at my left, leaned toward me to say, “I wonder which uncle I’ll be.”
Two days later this same brother showed up at my mom’s house with a box full of wooden dowels, a sander, glue guns and glue sticks, paint, paint brushes, glazes and sealants. He asked his nieces and nephews what kind of magic wands they preferred and spent the day sanding, sculpting, and painting, making the most amazing Harry Potter wands you will ever see. My kids were thrilled. They performed magic spells up and down the backyard the rest of the evening and far into the afternoon the next day. They brought their wands home and stowed them away in special and secret places until magic is called for again. I have a feeling the wands will become heirlooms, passed through generations with stories of their magic charms, spells cast and counter-cast, enemies defeated, and tricks performed.
And I am fairly certain that as my kids grow and have kids of their own, my brother Ryan will be a special uncle to them all. Which uncle will he be? The Magic Uncle. The Wand-maker. The Wizard.