Friday, December 19, 2014


One of the biggest things that happened to us this summer is that we got a new kitten.  We already have a 12 year old cat, Gus.  He is the elder statesman (and had been the token male) of our little house.  In Gus' opinion, at 12, he had earned the right to be grouchy whenever he pleased, and to expect a certain level of attention and service.  Gus is a tuxedo cat (black with white paws and stomach).  One day, I was walking down the hall at work and noticed that a co-worker was advertising for adoption who would become known at our house as Figaro.

He matches Gus almost exactly in markings, which made me decide he was meant to be ours.  It was a fairly spur of the moment decision.  Figaro (or Figgy as the girls call him) came from the rescue group RezQ Dogs.  They are a great group, as most rescue groups are.  Within a couple of days, Figaro was home with us, and that was when the wild rumpus began!  He has his quirks, some of which are due to his humble beginnings (there is never enough food for him, EVER) and some are just because he is still young (our Christmas tree is tightly to the wall this year and has no ornaments on it because he's already scaled it multiple times!).  But one thing still holds true about him - when I first looked at his poster, my co-worker told me "Figaro has never met a person he didn't like."  And we are lucky that that continues - he is friendly, purrs like crazy, and puts up with the girls constantly carrying him around.

So when I read the summary of Waggers, it struck a chord in me.  Waggers is a puppy who tries so hard to be good.  He wants nothing more than to be loved.  But there's a problem almost immediately - "...when they picked Waggers up, his tail twirled so hard it sent the other puppies flying." The sign mentions that the puppies are razortail whippets, but Waggers' tail is truly incredible.  The children looking at him fall in love with Waggers, and beg to take him home.  Their parents agree, believing "It's only a tail.  How much harm could it do?"  Famous last words.

Waggers is a really sweet dog.  He is helpful.  When Michael sees a monster, Waggers leaps into action.  He creeps over to the sofa, stalking the "monster" (really Michael's father).  He jumps onto the monster's shoes to protect Michael.  But that tail keeps getting Waggers into trouble.  And when Waggers gets the inevitable scolding, there is the regular refrain: "He tried to be good.  He tried really hard.  But his tail got in the way."

As the weeks go on, Waggers does a really good job of protecting his people from all sorts of things (like an "alien invasion' - really, squirrels), exploring his new home, and learning new tricks.  Or at least, he really intends to do all those things.  The reality is that he rips down curtains, lets water spill out of the washer, and generally resembles a tornado.

Sadly, Moni and Michael's parents decide to find a new home for Waggers.  They believe he needs a place where his tail won't cause so much havoc.  On his last night at their house, Moni and Michael decide to have a campout with Waggers.  Once the children fall asleep, Waggers gets an itch.  He wags and wags and wags until the itch goes away and he finally falls into a deep sleep.  In the morning, when Waggers and his family wake up, there is a surprise for all of them.  Waggers and his unruly tail have tidied up the yard!  And now Waggers' tail is in high demand instead of being a huge problem.

The resolution is one of the things I love most about this book.  Waggers' family isn't really prepared for the demands of a puppy, and I can definitely relate to that!  Waggers' tail is enormous and it has a mind of its own.  It is only when the family thinks outside the box that what they have seen as a negative actually becomes a positive.  Waggers loves helping others with their yards and other home improvement tasks (he's especially good at painting!).  And when he returns home each night, he's calm, has burned off all his excess energy, and is ready to be loved by his family again.

The illustrations are a great match for the text.  They are super expressive and full of energy.  And that tail is the naughtiest, funniest part!  It rips and whips apart shoes, tables, the kitchen and everything in its path.  It slithers, curls and waves while the humans crouch and cower.  Ultimately, though, it's Waggers' personality that wins over the day.

At our house, Figaro has developed an insatiable love for paper.  He loves to reach over and tease up a corner of a stray piece.  Once the corner is standing up, he starts shredding.  You can tell how much he loves the way it feels, so we've learned to not leave out much paper.  Maybe we can turn that negative into a positive too, like Waggers' family...maybe we can get him to shred confidential information?  In the meantime, we love him as much as Waggers' family loves Waggers!

Thanks again to Stacy Nyikos for appearing.  For other stops on the Waggers blog tour please check

Waggers.  Written by Stacy Nyikos; illustrated by Tamara Anegon.  Sky Pony Press, 2014.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Building Our House

I have never, ever been someone who wanted to tackle home construction.  I don't have the vision to see how this room or that might look differently with a wall torn down.  I also really, really dislike the dust and mess of remodeling, the noise of construction, the various headaches of planning and purchasing and completion.  Once when I was in my early teens, my family embarked on a home remodeling and expansion project.  It took place at the other end of our house from my bedroom.  I doubt I was inconvenienced in any way.  Yet it had an impact on me, though I remember very little of the process.  For the family in Building Our House, it has a very different impact.

The very first page shows the little family (mom, dad and two children) crammed into the front seat of an old pickup truck.  On the title page, they are shown packing everything they own into that truck.  As they turn in to their new lot,  the truck is crammed high with those belongings, covered with an old tarp.  The narrator says "Today is moving day.  We left our old house  in the city and are moving to the country."  As the pages move on, it turns out that the family is building their own house (which you might have suspected from the title!), on a lot where a house has never been before.  They believe have everything they need to get started - tools, plans, and that truck.  The narrator (who is now revealed as the perhaps four year old  daughter) tells us the truck's name is Willys.

As the family gets started, some help arrives.  The little girl describes when the trailer where they'll live arrive.  Then a truck arrives with a drill to drill for water, and later the electric company comes to raise wires.  After water and gas are installed to help make the little trailer ready for them, the family launches into purchasing and gathering supplies.  She states that her dad works at a job in town during the week, so they do all the work on the weekends. 

Her Grandpa comes to dig the foundation with a backhoe, once her dad has staked out the property.  The hard labor begins in earnest now, framing, pouring concrete, shaping lumber.  As the winter approaches (the second winter of this project already!) they work harder than ever to complete the house.  There are fundamental pieces that must be in place before the snow - chimney, roof, siding and windows.  But, as often happens, the winter winds and storms arrive early.

The little family is finally in the house as the snow grows thick upon the ground, but there is still much to do, including the all-important plumbing, electricity, insulation and other  crucial, slow steps.  Finally, the home is ready and there is a moving party to welcome the family home.  The little girl (who has grown a lot older over the 18-ish months took place), notes "Once the moving is done everyone goes back to their homes, but my family stays right where we are.  It's our very first night in our new home."  This is a satisfying ending to all the work, and in fact even to the readers it feels like an enormous accomplishment.

There have been other big events that take place over the course of the book, if you are careful to examine the illustrations.  When the family first arrives at the field where they'll build, a stray cat is stalking through the weeds.  As the time continues, you can see that same cat first being fed outside, frolicking with the children, and once they've all moved inside the new house, giving birth to kittens that also become part of the family.  And there is a new addition to the human family during the house building too.  Once the family begins living inside, the mother's stomach is unmistakably ungainly with a new baby.  As they move in, officially, you can spot the new baby nestled in her arms.

I've referred to the detail in the illustrations but they are really such a great match to Bean's story.  Even though I've highlighted some of the changes, there are many other items to pore over as the year goes by.  The father often looks haggard and frazzled, as a father working full-time while building a house might.  The mother is clearly more architecturally-inclined - she studies the plans and does all the measuring.  She also does her fair share of the construction work too.  It is fun to see a gopher pop up in the field from time to time, clearly not deterred by the cat.

There is poetry in the writing, as well.  One of my favorite scenes is this one: "On a clear, cold night Dad sets the corners of the foundation by the North Star.  One wall will face north to ward off the wind, one east to welcome the morning, one south to soak in the sun, and one west to see out the day."  That is beautiful writing - I can feel the winter night, the care that went into choosing each corner of the foundation.  This is just the beginning of the process, but it needs to be right.

There are many things I love about this family and this story.  I cannot imagine the vision this took, the persistence throughout the long winters, the strength and energy to keep working when it got hard or overwhelming.  I love that this is truly a family project - on every page, everyone is working, even the children.  Sure, they have fun, hiding under wheelbarrows or splashing in wading pools, but the children also help measure, tote lumber and help lay insulation.  They are involved, and it's a family accomplishment.  And when the work cannot be finished by their little unit, their extended family comes.  Aunts and uncles help with the frame-raising and I've already mentioned Grandpa coming with the backhoe.

One of the best parts about this story is the author's note.  Bean explains that this book was inspired by his own parents building their house.  He includes photos from that time in his life, and it's so enchanting to see these photos echoed on the previous spreads.  I think this sentence summarizes both families very nicely: "My parents thought of themselves as homesteaders and brought to housebuilding a pioneering spirit of ingenuity and independence."  This was truly a leap of faith, but it paid off in some amazing ways.

Building Our House. Jonathan Bean.  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013.

Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Otis and the Scarecrow

"It was summer when the scarecrow first came
to the farm where the friendly little tractor named
Otis lived, back when the corn was tall and ripe."
I'm not sure if I've mentioned my beloved farm family before on this blog.  Prairie Heritage Farm is owned by a family that I am lucky enough to call my friends, the Cowgills.  Their farm is in Power, Montana, roughly 99 miles from my home in Helena.  During the summer for the past two years, I've driven every other week up to the farm to pick up shares of the harvest for people who live here in Helena.  I do this about 18 times a summer, from June through the beginning of October.  Knowing the Cowgills, and participating in their farm, has enriched our lives in so many ways.  They are wonderful people with a real passion for what they do.  The food that we get from the farm (vegetables, grains, turkeys, eggs and pork, at various times of the year) has taught me so much about eating what is fresh, and experimenting with new foods and tastes.  And it is such an amazing gift - people who purchase shares here in Helena come to my house to pick them up.  I love talking with people about what is currently growing on the farm, what looks great that week, and advocating for my favorite family farm.  And even more importantly, the Cowgill children, Willa and Eli, have the most amazing collection of farm-themed children's books I've ever seen.
That's where Otis comes in.  The farmer puts out the scarecrow as the corn ripens so that the crows will be frightened away.  And of course, at first his ploy works.  All the crows disappear.  What Otis sees, though, isn't scary - it's a potential new friend.  Otis is already friends with all the farm animals, and there's no reason why the scarecrow shouldn't be his friend too.  But when Otis and the pack of animals approach the scarecrow, "He just stood there, that sour look on his face, staring at the cornfield.  The animals didn't know what to think."  As autumn approaches, the animals have all given up on the scarecrow as someone to engage with.  As pumpkins are harvested, "The farm looked different, but Otis loved the changing seasons and he worked and played as hard as ever, putt puff puttedy chuff." 
This year I not only got a share through the summer, but also got a turkey at Thanksgiving, and have gotten a fall/winter share the past few weeks.  In Montana, the growing seasons are short, and many crops can be adversely affected by the snow and cold that can arrive as early as September.  Crops are grown in greenhouses or under hoops to protect them and keep the soil warm as long as possible.  I am unexpectedly grateful for fresh baby lettuces, spinach and kale this fall.
As autumn continues, Otis and his friends are playing the quiet game.  "The quiet game is a contest in which everyone must stay quiet and still.  No sounds, no laughing, no snorting, quacking, giggling, or puffing."  They all play together - ducks, horse, puppy, calf, pig and Otis.  But Otis can't help thinking of the scarecrow, all alone in the field, sour look and all.  As a cold rainstorm starts to usher in winter, the animals all huddle together, staying warm in each other's company under the apple tree.  As they play the quiet game, Otis keeps thinking of someone who is left out, someone who would be the best at that game.
I have always loved the Otis books.  One of the things I love best about Otis the tractor is how hard he works during the day, but how easily he slips into play mode.  The quiet game is a fun game for all of them, in part because it triggers very predictable responses from each of them.  "This made the bull chuckle with a snort.  The bull's snort would amuse the ducks...soon everyone would be laughing, snorting, quacking and giggling. "  All of the animals and Otis enjoy each other and have camaraderie no matter what they are doing.
Another thing that I loved about Otis that is consistent across all of his books is his kindness and friendship.  In the first Otis book, he and the calf bond over their play.  In this book, there can be no real connection with the scarecrow - no matter how hard Otis tries, he cannot get the scarecrow to want to be his friend.  But ultimately that doesn't matter to Otis.  Otis gives the gift of friendship to the scarecrow anyways, keeping him company on his hill.  It is a sweet, thoughtful gesture that is completely Otis.
There is one other thing that I wanted to share about these books.  I love the illustrations and how well the book design works with Long's illustrative technique.  The colors are soft and a little retro, just like Otis is.  The book as a whole looks refined and elegant, which could make the story not as relatable to young children.  But the sophisticated design and gorgeous colors are offset by the characters Long creates.  The animals, the farmer and Otis all have the most expressive faces.  They show disgust, delight, and even that sour look on the scarecrow.  And the sight of the animals all playing the quiet game is perfect - full of laughter and action.
As autumn has already transitioned into winter here, it feels like a little miracle when my favorite farmer dropped off my share a couple of days ago.  He was already in town, so I didn't make the trek out to Power this time.  He brought four full bags of potatoes, onions, garlic, spaghetti squash, eggs, and greens.  All fresh, all recently harvested, with some of the dirt from the fields still lingering.  My love for Prairie Heritage Farm and the Cowgills is like Otis' gift of friendship - it's really a gift to myself.
Gloria at the farm
Otis.  Loren Long.  Philomel Books, 2009.
Otis and the Scarecrow.  Loren Long.  Philomel Books, 2014.
Otis from my personal collection, Otis and the Scarecrow  sent by publisher for review

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Night Before Hanukkah

We are huge Natasha Wing fans around here.  I've reviewed The Night Before my Birthday and The Night Before First Grade on this blog, and we own several other titles in the series too.  As Hanukkah is approaching, we were delighted to receive The Night Before Hanukkah here at the Murray house to add to our collection.

We don't know much about Hanukkah, so I had to look up when Hanukkah begins this year.  The first night of Hanukkah begins at sundown at December 17th, with the eighth and last night being on December 24th.  Wing's story, naturally, starts with preparations for the holiday the night before Hanukkah begins.

It focuses on one family's experience of Hanukkah.  The preparations that night include decorating and baking before the children fall into bed, dreaming of the festivities to come.  On each night, the family completes another activity for Hanukkah.  The first night, the mother lights the first candle on the menorah and the family sings together.  Each of the family members opens a present on that first night as well.  On subsequent nights, they play dreidel, share the story of Hanukkah together, eat latkes and jelly doughnuts, visit with other members of the extended family, volunteer to serve others, and finally, on the last night, come back to the menorah once more.

All of Wing's books in this series are based on the famous poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas".  The rhyming structure is simple and familiar and keeps the story bouncing through each of the nights.  There is enough detail in the text to explain some of the traditions readers might not be familiar with, without giving too many extraneous details.

One of the things I like best about this particular title is the interplay between the text and illustrations.  There is no glossary of vocabulary words here.  Instead, couplets like "Dad put on his yarmulke, pinned it down on his hair" are accompanied by a spot illustration.  It is very clearly shows the father pinning on his yarmulke.  Children can see a yarmulke fairly close up in these watercolor illustrations.  They can see its approximate size, its texture, and how it fits on the father's head.  There are multiple illustrations of the family playing dreidel on the second night.  Within the text, Wing includes instructions for spinning the dreidel, the Hebrew letters, the gelt used to participate in the game, and some of the rules are also included in the text.  But Wummer also adds information through her illustrations.  Both the young boy and girl take turns spinning the dreidel on separate pages.  There are close ups of each side of the dreidel, with the name of the letter recorded beneath.  This helps readers identify which word goes with each action for the game.

All of the Hanukkah activities are ones for the whole family.  Every night this family is together.  I like that there is an emphasis on simplicity in this text.  The family doesn't go out for an expensive outing or give each other lots of presents.  The first night is the only night presents are mentioned, and both the parents are given presents the children have made for them.  It connects the holiday to mindfulness and meaning.  The entire family makes a priority to celebrate together.  It is joyous and heartfelt.

And, indeed, when on the last night, their mother realizes that there isn't a candle for the eighth space in the menorah, the family solves that problem together.  The children find a birthday candle to use in its place, and they fall asleep together in front of the menorah.

I believe this book could be used both as an introduction to Hanukkah for readers who might not know much about the holiday and as a pre-Hanukkah story for families who do celebrate.  It will be a great addition to our Natasha Wing collection, and we'll be reading it on the 16th of December.  Hopefully many of you will be reading it along with us!

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

Thanks to Natasha Wing for appearing as part of The Night Before Hanukkah blog tour.  For other stops on the tour, go here.