Monday, January 20, 2014

Family Dinner Book Club

I just wanted to take a moment to share something fun Frances, Gloria and I are doing this January (and hopefully all year long).  We will be participating in Family Dinner Book Club!

The girls and I have many routines and weekly traditions - one of our favorite weekly traditions is Movie Night.  Every Saturday night we have Movie Night.  The girls have a huge collection of movies, and we pick one to watch, which can be a challenge!  Then I serve an assortment of snacks for dinner, so we can graze while watching the movie.  It helps us reconnect after they've spent a couple of days with their dad, and it helps reorient then to our shared rules and expectations.  There are very few Saturday nights where we don't have Movie Night, and when we don't, we all miss it.

And part of our daily routine, of course, is our nightly reading.  We usually read four picture books or easy readers - about twenty minutes.  Sometimes we include a chapter from a chapter book. Some nights we don't.  Gloria usually doesn't want to listen to more than a couple of pages of a chapter book, so she'll re-read a picture book while I read or play nearby.  But Frances loves chapter books and it's a good way to develop both their reading and listening skills.

So when I saw something about Family Dinner Book Club, it definitely piqued my interest.  I have always loved participating in book clubs, and I thought it would be a fun way to talk about books with the girls.  I wish I could remember how I first heard about this (maybe a tweet at the beginning of the month?), but once I read Jodie's post, I was raring to go!

Even better, the book this month is Winnie-the-Pooh.  We already had a copy, so we could start immediately.  Also, this book holds a special place in our hearts, although we had never read it aloud.  One of the girls' favorite snacks comes from Frances' third birthday party. It had a Winnie-the-Pooh theme because I had recently gotten a magazine (Phyllis Hoffman Celebrate!, Winter 2010) that had a Winnie-the-Pooh tea party in it.  They love Tigger Tails now, and they are frequently requested at our house.  The recipe is easy, in case you want to make them too.

Tigger Tails
1 14 oz bag orange candy melts
1/2 c vegetable shortening, divided
1/2 14 oz bag chocolate candy melts
1 10 oz bag pretzel rods
In a large microwave-safe bowl, combine orange candy melts and 1/4 c shortening.  Microwave on High in 30 second intervals, stirring between each, until melted (about 1 1/2 mins).  In a separate microwave-safe bowl, combine chocolate melts and remaining 1/4 c shortening, microwave on High, stirring between each, until melted (about 1 1/2 mins).
Dip each pretzel rod into orange mixture to coat; place on parchment paper to dry.  Decorate with melted chocolate.  Store, covered, in an airtight container for up to 3 days. 
They'll look something like this when they are done:

We'll definitely be adding this beloved recipe to our feast.

And one of the great things about this book club is that it is hosted by three different bloggers.  Jodie provides the discussion questions.  Jill is providing unbelievable decoration ideas , including acorn bumble bees and a Pooh Bear hanging from a balloon - so cute and I can't wait to get started!  And of course Sarah is offering delicious foods for the dinner table, including Baked Honey Chicken - yum!  I love the thoughtfulness that went into all three bloggers' contributions and can't wait to keep reading with them.  There is also a Facebook group that I joined.  They've made participation as easy as possible!

Although A.A. Milne's birthday was Saturday, and would have been a natural day to have book club, we are going to wait to have our book club meeting until the end of the month.  Frances and Gloria can't wait.  But we still have chapters left to read before we get there.  I'm sure we will coordinate Movie Night around book club too.  Please join us in the Family Dinner Book Club!!

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Night Before My Birthday

Earlier this fall, Frances and Gloria were thrilled to get The Night Before First Grade and give away a copy to a blog reader!) as part of Natasha Wing's blog tour to celebrate its publication.  So they cheered when we were offered the chance to review The Night Before My Birthday!  Honestly, although we have had the book for a few weeks, I hadn't been able to read it all the way through more than once.  Gloria has carried it to bed with her many nights, and I've had to rescue it from her clutches as she falls asleep.  And I'm not surprised - this series of books is very popular both in her preschool and in her preschool's Scholastic orders too.  Gloria also loves poring over the back inside cover, where there are pictures of the other sixteen books in the Night Before series.  Each of the books in the series is based on "'Twas the Night Before Christmas".  But Wing uses the poem as a springboard to celebrate the most important events in a child's life.

And of course, the most important event in a child's life happens once each year - their birthday!  As the narrator of this story says "It may not be a holiday, but it's the best day of the year."  The unidentified child is helping their parents get ready for their birthday party as the excitement builds.  They go to bed, and "visions of birthday gifts danced in my head."  When the family awakes, they celebrate early and often, beginning with breakfast.  Then party preparations continue.  Suddenly, though, things take a turn for the worse.  There is a loud crash from the kitchen, and ice cream has spilled all over the floor.  Catastrophe threatens, but the parents come to the rescue.  Dad and child head out to the store while Mom finishes getting ready.  And when they arrive home, there is one final birthday surprise - a party full of guests to help the birthday child celebrate.  Hooray!

My biggest question when preparing to read this book was how could Natasha Wing sustain the poetry of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"?  Incredibly, she does.  The rhythm of the story is natural, and perfectly suited to the birthday celebration.  The plot doesn't feel Christmasy at all, and that is one of Wing's biggest talents in my mind.  She keeps each book feeling unique and focused on that particular celebration.  And yet there are enough indicators in the text to remind readers of the original poem.  Frances was reading this book aloud to herself last week, and came across the stanza "Then out in the kitchen there arose such a clatter.  We ran down the hallway to see what was the matter."  She looked up at me and said "Oh, I forgot.  This is like 'The Night Before Christmas'".  So the comparison is not overbearing at all.

Something that was unusual about this addition to the series is how Wing and Wummer include the reader in this story.  Wing has carefully crafted this story to not mention gender or any identifying characteristics of the narrator.  She also doesn't mention age until the very end of the book, where the reader can choose to draw their own age on the cake, making it even more interactive.  My girls remembered past birthday celebrations as they read, and wanted to record their upcoming ages on the cake, so it definitely drew them in.

Wummer does an incredible job of showing only pieces of the birthday child without making it really obvious that she is trying to obscure their identity.  Some times the illustration is shown from the child's point of view, with their hands reaching out for a birthday card, or on the cover, where they are opening the door to their party guests.  When the child is going to bed, and wearing pajamas just a smidge too small, the illustration shows a slightly bulging stomach with pajama top stretched tight.  It is actually difficult to describe the clever way Wummer designed these illustrations, but they just work.  I had to re-read the book twice before I noticed that the birthday child is never completely shown.

It is a great addition to the series, and one that is very popular with the Murray girls, just like The Night Before First GradeThanks again to Natasha Wing for appearing.  For other stops on her The Night Before my Birthday Tour please check

The Night Before My Birthday. Natasha Wing; illustrated by Amy Wummer.Grosset & Dunlap, 2014.

Sent by the author for review as part of a blog tour.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Big Wet Balloon

I didn't intend to go two months without a blog post.  I'm sure no one ever does.  I started to write this post two months ago, got stuck, and stopped.  Then life got in the way.  So if you are still reading, THANK YOU.  I promise I have a backlog of great books to review, along with some other exciting things!  2014 is going to be my year.

I'm not sure what spurred me to request The Big Wet Balloon from TOON Books.  I suspect that I requested it because Liniers is a famous Argentinian cartoonist, and I was curious to see how his work translated to English.  I also knew that it had to be a terrific book, as TOON Books has amazing and innovative taste.  I was not disappointed.

The book begins with a little girl waking up her baby sister, announcing boisterously that it is SATURDAY!  The day is full of opportunities - they can have a picnic! They can pick flowers!  It doesn't matter what they do because today (or TA-DAY as the younger sister pipes up from her crib) is full of choices and chances for fun.  That is, until they go to the window and see the rain pouring down.  But Matilda (the older sister) knows that a rainy day can still be fun "We just have to dress for it." (p. 9).  Her relentless cheer and enthusiasm gets Clemmie (the younger of the two) onto the porch, but no farther. 

Matilda, always the wise one, informs Clemmie "You have to TRY things, Clemmie.  If you TRY something, you'll see that you LIKE it." (p. 14).  Clemmie still won't budge until Matilda bounds off into the rain without her.  Then she finally works up her courage and takes a risk, venturing out into the rain where the sisters do spend a fun-filled day.  They have made the most of their Saturday.  Even better, Matilda promises "Tomorrow is Sunday...and Sundays are FUN too!" (p. 30).

I know you've all read about my little girls, Frances and Gloria.  They are wonderful sisters, mostly playing together, experiencing things together, learning about the world together.  They are a pair, and while they both give each other the freedom to play by themselves (sometimes Gloria's preference), or with other friends (Frances' preference), they are rarely divided.  Frances and Gloria are 18 months apart, which seems like nothing now.  When they were a toddler and an infant, they seemed very different, and there didn't seem to be much hope of them ever being interested in each other.  But as I write this, they are both in their beds, reading books aloud and sharing them.  Don't worry, while it sounds idyllic, I'm sure a fight will start up soon!

But everything I ever learned about being a sister, I learned from the best.  My own sister, Katie, is 20 months younger than me.  We have (almost) always been close.  I treasure my sister, and our relationship helps me keep Frances and Gloria's highs and lows in perspective.  I know that sometimes they will be incredibly annoyed with each other, possibly for weeks on end, and then suddenly it will dissipate and they will be close again.  My relationship with Katie growing up was almost the opposite of Matilda and Clemmie's.  My sister is far more extroverted and daring than I am.  I have always been content to let her lead the way in everything.  There are family stories about how I never tried to get out of my crib until Katie did it first.  I vividly remember cringing when Katie (who was then 8) rode her bike for the first time.  I grumbled because while I had a new pink Huffy bike at that point (I was 10), I had had no interest in trying something new.  I knew now that she had been successful, I would have to figure it out, and fast.  She has always smoothed the way for me - with friends, with new activities, in our lives.  And she continues to be my best friend and show me the way all these years later.

In this story, it is the older sister, Matilda, who shows the way.  She begins the book, instantly awake and alert.  Matilda sees the potential in a Saturday and guides Clemmie into excitement.  "This is how you wake up on Saturday...HOOORAAYY! HOOOORAAAY! FOR ALL DAY TODAY IS SAAAATURDAAAAY!" (p. 2).  This is all said with her arms thrust above her head, in excitement and delight.  When Clemmie is worried about the rain, Matilda soothes her fears of getting wet "We just have to dress for it." (p. 9).  Matilda fearlessly leads the way, dashing out to dance in the rain.  But sometimes Matilda's impulsive excitement hurts her younger sister.  The title balloon belongs to Clemmie.  Matilda decides to send it to the rainbow, because the rainbow needs something colorful.  It devastates Clemmie.  But like any good big sister, Matilda tries to make it right in the end.

One of the things I like best about this book (which by the way was named the Best Early Reader by Parents Magazine) was how appealing it was to everyone in our house.  I saw it as Liniers' love letter to a moment in his own daughters' lives (and friendship).  I watched the tenderness in how closely he observed their interaction.  This story depicts one of those moments that all parents treasure.  But both Frances and Gloria requested and read this book over and over again.  They loved the humor in the girls' relationship, as well as both relating to the sisters and their feelings.  Frances and Gloria share a room, just like Matilda and Clemmie do, which makes concocting adventures together very easy.

Liniers' illustrative style also makes this book fun to read.  The colors are perfect - sometimes muddy and gray as the rain comes down, bright pure pastels in the girls' room and after the rain subsides.  Matilda and Clemmie have small eyes and button noses, and it is most often their mouths that carry their expressions.  There are grins, grimaces and outstretched tongues.  It is a fun book to look at, as the girls' emotions are readily apparent - and Matilda's enthusiasm is matchless.  Liniers has even created a scrapbook feel to the pages with rain spatters across some of the panels, just as if the book had been outside on the porch with Clemmie.

The final thing I love about this book is that it is simple.  There is nothing fancy about this particular Saturday - there isn't a gadget or a piece of technology to be seen.  It's two little girls engaging with the outdoors and using their imaginations.  While Matilda and Clemmie's parents (we assume) wait safely out of our line of vision, the girls are free to explore their yard and the storm.

One of the things I have always loved best about TOON Books is their assessment of quality and the way they help parents and teachers introduce comics to new readers.  The Big Wet Balloon is a level 2 book, which TOON defines as being between 300-600 words, using short sentences, and a story arc with few characters in a small world.  This is a perfect level 2 book, as with initial  guidance, eventually both Frances and Gloria could read it unassisted.  There are also guidelines to reading comics with kids in the back of the book.  One of my favorite recommendations is "Use your finger to show your place in the text, but keep it at the bottom of the speaking character so it doesn't hide
the very important facial expressions."  I think this shows the difference between using picture books or traditional early readers with your children and these comic books.  Facial expressions help add so much to the text, and TOON is smart to point it out to readers who may not be familiar with this style of reading.  Another recommendation is to talk with your reader about pacing and how the panels can indicate pacing of the story  This isn't something we've talked about before with Frances and Gloria, but we definitely will!

TOON Books also provides lots of literacy resources on their website.  We received a poster about the questions kids should ask while they read (which I will be sharing with Frances' school librarian).  It includes questions about the main idea (what is this story about?) and is this story fiction or nonfiction?  This poster is another example of how hard TOON Books works to promote literacy through comics.

The Big Wet Balloon is a charming story that we can't get enough of.  It celebrates weekends and sisters - two things that are dear to our hearts!  I can't wait to read more of Liniers' work.

The Big Wet Balloon.  Liniers.  TOON Books, 2013.

sent by publisher for review consideration.