Children's Books, Everyday Life, Homeschooling, Nonfiction, Parenting

Favorite How-To Books for Kids

Hi, readers! Can you believe it’s almost summer vacation time! Maybe you’re dreading all that free space in your children’s lives, or maybe you’re like us right now: every May, as our school year winds down, everything we’ve been doing all year suddenly feels unbearably stale and burdensome. Our minds have already taken in a lot, and they’re begging us, “Please, not one more date and important historical event to remember, not another science fill-in-the-blank sheet! For heavens sake, do not give us another “fun” book report assignment!” As the seasons transition to more sunshine and energy, we naturally want to run and play.

So how do we finish the academic year strong?

Or how do we keep our minds engaged all summer without killing our souls with more of the same schoolish stuff?

We pull out some how-to books and learn some skills with our hands!

Here are our current favorite how-to books. I’d love more ideas if you have them!

Sewing School 1 and Sewing School 2 – These books are so perfect for kids who want to learn to sew. They include pictures and detailed instructions, patterns…everything but the actual sewing materials. The projects are very doable in just a few hours (or less!) and will appeal to both girls and boys. My six-year-old daughter, nine-year-old son, and eleven-year-old daughter have all enjoyed these projects! If you don’t have a sewing machine for the projects in Sewing School 2, this machine has been awesome for us. I am a very out of practice and mediocre seamstress, so I am totally re-learning as I go along with the help of these books.

Cooking Class – This is the best starter cookbook for ages 5-8! The recipes in Cooking Class are easy to follow along, tasty, use mostly wholesome ingredients, and don’t require trips to the store every time your student asks to make something from her very own cookbook. I gave this to one of my six-year-old for Christmas and she has made many recipes out of it. They were all delicious and crowd pleasers.

In Bloom – As I mentioned in a recent Things that are Saving My Life post, I love this book even more than my kids do. We also have several other how-to-draw books, like this one about cartoon cars and this one about horses. I have heard amazing things about the classic Drawing with Children and have had it on my shelf from my mom’s days of homeschooling for years, but haven’t pulled it out yet. Next week I plan to open it up and try it. Maybe I’ll do the Brave Learner method and sit down with the book at the kitchen table by myself, start drawing, and see what happens….

The Redwall Cookbook– Any cookbook based on whatever literature/books your kids are into right now will be a welcome change to an otherwise ho-hum school or summer day. My two oldest have been devouring the Redwall series, and my son is always raving about how good the feasts sound. Both he and his older sister were so excited to get this from the library! Until they realized it features quite a lot of vegetables…English mice and other animals have very different tastes than American children, apparently! But they have been writing up grocery lists for me based on the dessert section, and that has been worth it.

That wraps up our favorite how-to books that are keeping us sane as we finish up the school year. May is also the time of the year I seek out a movie or two based on the literature or history or whatever connections to our studies I can draw. Last year we finished out with the film version of our literature read-aloud, Anne of Green Gables. This year I don’t see an obvious connection between what we’ve beens studying: The Gold Rush and Simon Bolivar, and also Newton’s Laws of Motion…any ideas for me??

I hope your school year ends well and your summer gets off to a great start! I’ll be back with some book reviews in just a few days, but until then, Happy Reading!

Children's Books, Quick Lit, Reading, Reviews

Spring Quick Lit Update 2021

It’s spring, it’s spring! We’re drinking in greenness and azaleas and sunshine and yellow pine pollen (unintentionally) and books, books, books!

Today I’m doing a quick lit recap of what I’ve been reading lately. Let’s start with fiction.

Still Life – I know I’m really late to this party of readers who are crazy about Louise Penny’s novels, but now I am here and loving it. I have fallen deep into Louise Penny’s Three Pines series, featuring the kind, wise, fatherly Inspector Gamache. Penny is a splendid writer and her books are transporting and thoughtful, despite the murder mysteries they revolve around. I am on number 7, listening to most of them on audio. Because they’re set in Quebec, it is nice to hear the proper pronunciation of the French words and names sprinkled throughout the books. 5 stars for the series.

The Kitchen Front – While I promised myself I would not read another WWII book set in continental Europe for a loooong time, I will never be able to resist a book about the English home front during the war. This book had an appealing plot but, sadly, was a bit saccharine. The character development was rushed, and it was very much a character driven novel. I liked Jennifer Ryan’s other two books much better. 2.5-3ish stars.

Mr. Dickens and His Carol – This is a lovely book that transported me right into Victorian London. I read it shortly after Christmas, and can’t recommend it as a December read more, especially if you’re a fan of Dickens. 4 stars.

How the Penguin’s Saved Veronica – I had a hard time getting through this book. Hazel Prior’s debut novel, Ellie and the Harpmaker, was beautifully written, but maybe I’m just not an animal lover enough to enjoy all the info about penguins, or a cold weather lover enough to enjoy the Antarctic setting in her latest book. [But I don’t know…I did like Where’d You Go, Bernadette?] The characters didn’t quite seem developed or nuanced enough to seem like real people you’re getting to know as you read, either. 2.5 stars.

Jack – I am ashamed to say I had to return this to the library before I could finish it. I blame Louise Penny. Up to this point, I have been mesmerized by all of Robinson’s writing, and expected to soak in her beautiful thoughts and words as usual when I picked up her newest book. Yes, the wording of the conversation between the two main characters was exquisite, but it was extremely hard to get through more than two pages at a time. I plan to try again someday to finish it.

I’m currently reading Across Five Aprils for the first time at the recommendation of my mom. I generally avoid Civil War stories because, well, the time period makes me cringe. But this book with its thoughtful characters and setting on the border of North and South is timeless and beautiful.

Non-Fiction

Don’t Overthink It – Though I’ve read Anne Bogel’s blog for many years, I’ve never picked up one of her books until this past winter. I love her writing style! She has a conversational approach and explains her topics in clear but enjoyable English. I wouldn’t call myself an overthinker in general, but after reading this book, I can see how anyone can fall into an overthinking trap about various facets of life. I’m not in the middle of Bogel’s Reading People.

The Life You Long For: Learning to Live from a Heart of Rest – This is the best book I’ve read this year. Christy Nockels writes a thoughtful and loving book urging us to understand who we are as God’s beloved and then live from that place of understanding, instead of striving. It’s hard to describe how great this book is, how both deeply meaningful and practical it is, but I hope you’ll pick it up.

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz – Wow, this book blew me away. Not only did it read like a novel, I was pulled back in time by it, reliving it as if I didn’t know how the story ends. I had never understood how much of an underdog England was at the start of WWII, or what dire situations Churchill faced in being completely unready for a war. When I finished it, my husband picked it up to read and is enjoying it, too.

Read Alouds

I read aloud every day to my kids, ages 11, 9, 6, and 4. In this past spring semester, we’ve read The Prairie Thief and Red Sails to Capri. My six-year-old loved The Prairie Thief but the rest of us weren’t as enthused about it…we found the story to repeat itself a good bit and stall out in the first half. We are all loving Red Sails to Capri, with its historical setting on an island near Italy, humorous and real characters, and adventure. Next I am thinking about reading aloud a book I loved when I was a girl, Jane Flory’s The Golden Venture. I checked it out from the library many times and then one day, it was on the free pile at the front door! We’ll end our history studies this year on The California Gold Rush and this book made that time period seem real to me when I was a kid; I’m hoping it will do the same for my own kids!

What have you been reading lately? I’m always searching for more great books!

Everyday Life

Colored Pencils to Cookbooks to Coffee at 2:00 – Things That Are Saving My Life, Winter ’21

A few years ago, I attended a delightful favorite things party that was disastrous for me. You may know about these parties…they’re like high stakes cookie swaps. Instead of swapping cookies, you bring a small item that gives you an inordinate amount of joy, and leave with someone else’s favorite item. I went to this party and watched twenty of my friends and acquaintances share their favorite little things, and I realized I hadn’t stopped to appreciate any little things in a long time. The thing I brought to that party wasn’t really much of a favorite of mine at all.

Since that wake up call, I’ve been keeping a list. I like to save my Favorite Things list to share in the dead of winter when Anne Bogel asks on her blog “What’s saving your life right now?” February can be a hard month. We’re so over winter at this point, but hibernation isn’t an option. Drat. As I looked over my list this year, I noticed that some of my lifesavers are products but the most important are practices. So, as we enter yet another month of gray, wintery weather, I hope that seeing some of the items or practices getting me through winter will stir you to think about your own favorites and how you can make the rest of this season more livable.

Prismacolor Pencils are our favorite!
  1. 2:00 O’clock Coffee Break – Instead of asking myself at 10:00 a.m., 11:18 a.m., and 1:37 p.m., “Should I make another cup of coffee?” I have decided once and for all that at 2:00 p.m., I will sit down with a second cup of coffee. I like to read or write while I drink that second cup, but sometimes I jot down a list or grade somebody’s schoolwork. Often I’m holding/nursing my 3-month-old. But I look forward to the 2:00 o’clock cup every day, even if the “break” only lasts 10-15 minutes.
  2. Friday grocery pick ups – Here’s another “decide once” life saver. I load my Aldi Instacart all week and then pick it up on Friday morning. Finally, we have food on the weekend, and I don’t have to stress over when I’m going to grocery shop every week. I also stick to theme nights for meal planning, like Kendra Adachi recommends in her book. It goes something like Monday Soup, Tuesday Tacos, Wednesday Roast Something, Thursday Convenience Food, Friday Pizza, Saturday Grill, Sunday Leftovers.
  3. Saturday Chores – Much like the Friday grocery pick up decision, the Saturday chores give me peace all week. When Thursday comes and I think, “Eesh, our bedroom carpet really needs vaccuming!” I don’t have to expend any energy wailing “When will it ever get done?” because I know: Saturday. We clean the bathrooms and vacuum everywhere, and I thoroughly clean the kitchen. Even if that’s all that gets truly clean some weeks, we’ve got a baseline that makes me feel less crazed in the brain.
  4. Prismacolor Pencils and Sharpener – Our homeschool is so much more enjoyable with these colored pencils. We do our map work with them and whatever other coloring we do, for school or fun. They are silky smooth and rich in color, and actually last a very long time! We’ve had our set for five years and use it daily. The Prismacolor sharpener is also a must! Regular pencil sharpeners wreak havoc on these soft pencil cores. Last winter (before I spent most of my down time holding Baby #5), I really enjoyed these pencils and In Bloom: A Step-by-Step Guide to Drawing Lush Florals. I’m completely inexperienced at drawing, so if I can enjoy it, anyone can! [On the art supply front, I am in search of good markers! Crayola just isn’t cutting it, so if you have some markers you love, let me know [Edit 4/26/21: We actually have come to love Crayola Supertips, thanks to Leanne for recommending them!]
  5. Ethique Shampoo Bar – I started 2020 trying to reduce plastic use in my home. Some of my attempts didn’t work out at all. Clean Cult products didn’t actually clean very well. Darn. But the Ethique shampoo bars are perfectly amazing. I started with a sample pack and found that my favorite is the Frizz Wrangler. It both cleans and moisturizes; I don’t even use conditioner anymore. I would use this shampoo bar even if I weren’t trying to reduce plastic. I also can honestly recommend Dropps laundry detergent. I switched from Tide with Bleach to Dropps and I can’t tell a difference. Our family of seven goes through a 210 pod order twice per year, and I love that it’s a subscription I don’t have to think about.
  6. The Whole30 Cookbook – Laugh if you want but these recipes are seriously good! We use a lot of them whether we’re in the middle of a Whole30 or not. My kids love the Italian Meatball Soup and I cook the Cherry Chipotle Chicken and the Chicken Cutlets with Roasted Pears on the reg (that second recipe is on the page linked above).
  7. Kindle Paperwhite – My Kindle is a crucial part of my reading life right now. Even though I prefer paper books, I wouldn’t get half as much reading done if I couldn’t read in the dark while holding baby Peter. I bought one for my husband for Christmas this year because I knew he would get a lot more chances to read if he had a backlit e-reader, too. (Hint – the refurbished ones work great!)
  8. The Convect Bake Mode – A friend recently told me that the fancy convect mode on my oven really just means that the fan continuously blows the heat around the whole oven so the bake is even. What??? I have been bemoaning my gas oven for two years and how the bottom is so much hotter than the top. I have to put everything on the highest wrack possible and things like cookies still have blackened bottoms and pale tops! I tried convect bake a couple of times last week and the difference was amazing. I should’ve read that user manual a long time ago. (Thanks, Megan! I owe you a batch of evenly baked cookies!)

9. Adoration – Introduced to me by Sara Hagerty’s book Adore, this idea has really meant a lot to me lately.

I’d love to hear what’s saving your life this winter, too! And for more Favorite Things on this blog, follow the links below. May the rest of your winter be warm and cheerful and full of good things, especially good books!

The Things that are Saving My Life Right Now – A Favorite Things Redemption Story

Favorite Things, 2018 Winter Edition

What’s Saving My Life, 2019 Winter

Cherries and Wicker – A Summer Favorite Things List

Quick Lit, Reading, Reviews

A New Favorite Author -December 2020 Quick Lit

Merry Christmas, readers! Today, I’m bringing you my new favorite author and a few other quick lit reviews. But first, apologies for the long moment of silence on the blog! It was for a good cause:

While holding this little guy day and night (especially at night!) I loaded some books on my Kindle. A friend told me months ago to try a book by Lauren Wolk. I’d heard of her, but hadn’t picked up anything by her yet. The book my friend (who has flawless reading taste) recommended had a wait list on the library app, but Wolk’s first book was available, so I checked out Wolf Hollow and began to read. After I inhaled the first chapter like a person starved for air, I was in love with the whole thing – the setting, the characters, but most of all, the writing style. It was amazing all the way through. Wolf Hollow is one of those exquisite, poetic, moving books marked by publishers as Middle Grade, or for grades 4-8, but it is a mistake! Here’s why: (1) the book will be well loved by any adults and older teens who read it and (2) there are very mature themes. I would never hand it to a fourth grader, but because of its length (not very long), and because it does not contain terribly graphic descriptions of hard subjects, it is middle grade.

I dearly loved Wolf Hollow and after drinking it down in huge gulps, immediately downloaded Wolk’s latest book, Echo Mountain. Again, I found all the same good things in another beautifully written book! And again, man was it too heavy for young childrem, but perfectly moving and a worthy read for 7-12th graders and any adults who like good literature. I’m eagerly waiting for my turn to read Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea. In fact, I’m buying the Kindle version today.

[Side note: there are an awful lot of books marked Middle Grade that are excellent literature for adults. Some that come to mind are The War that Saved my Life and Jacob Have I Loved. If you haven’t yet, I highly encourage you to pick up a highly praised middle grade in 2021 and see for yourself!]

In other reading news, I can’t wax ecstatic about any of the other books I picked up lately, but I can give you a few quick reviews!

The Green Ember – I’m reading this aloud to the kids right now, and while I can see the appeal of the story and a few of its characters, I’m not a fan of the writing style. If any of my kids want to continue the series, they can read them on their own, and I think they’ll enjoy that more, actually, because it’s a very plot driven book and reading it quickly is probably the best way to go through it.

Finding Dorothy – Both enjoyable and educational. And it made me want to re-watch The Wizard of Oz. 3.5 stars

Stepping Heavenward – Boring. I am shocked at myself for finding it so, as many readers I respect like it. The fault is, I’m sure, in me. 2 stars

American Royals and Majesty – An intriguing premise that devolves into too much interpersonal drama – 2.5 stars, but I read both of them, didn’t I, so who am I to complain?

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse – Beautiful. I wanted to take a picture of several pages. 4 stars

The Book of Lost Names – Very good, even though I thought it was going to be predictable and trite when I picked it up. It would probably be even better to a reader who hasn’t read way too many books set in Europe in World War II. 4 stars.

Mexican Gothic – This is one of those books I read without knowing what it’s about. Lo and behold, for the first time in my life, I’ve read the winner of the Horror category in the Goodreads Awards. Unless you’re into that genre, I certainly do not recommend it. There’s a good reason Edgar Allen Poe wrote this kind of thing in short doses! However, I thought the writing was very good.

And it’s not a book but because it has pages, I’m going to tell you how in love I am with my new calendar by Katie Daisy.

That’s it for this recap but I’d love to know what you’re reading. Tell me what I should read in 2021 in the comments!

Children's Books, Quick Lit, Reading, Reviews

A Summer of Espionage {Quick Lit August, 2020}

Hey friends! Time for an update on summer reading! And, a confession: I got sucked into a TV show this summer. If you know me, you know I watch TV pretty much never (sports excluded). But this summer has been weird for everyone, and I’m no exception. The strangeness of this summer in a pandemic during an uncomfortable pregnancy is probably what led me to All Espionage All The Time in my entertainment choices. I can see now that I’ve been looking for an escape from the mundane and unpleasant. Plus, sports were cancelled. So, below you’ll find what I’ve read lately, the TV show that I watched all five seasons of since May (insert horrified expression on my own face here), and what we’ve been reading in our family. Bonus at the end – the nonfiction I hope to read this fall.

Novels

Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook – I’m right in the middle of this one and it’s showing lots of promise! Edith Graham seems like an ordinary spinster school teacher in 1948, but when she decides to head to Germany to help rebuild the school system there, she’s recruited to use her position as a front for hunting out former Nazi officers. Her code to let the Office of Strategic Services know about her progress is her recounting of recipes. So far, I really like this book!

The Black Swan of Paris – Quite a page turner about a glittering star who flies under the radar and, mostly against her will at first, uses her talent to aid The Resistance in Paris during World War II. Perfect if you’re having trouble focusing on a book but you would love to be in the middle of one (we all have those seasons of life, don’t we?). Four stars.

My espionage reading started further back this summer with Code Name Helene, a more gritty novel than the other two featured this month but very compelling. [At the time of my review of this book, I felt the language too strong, but the writer actually explained her choice words usage at the end of the novel, and her reasoning made sense.] 3.5 stars.

The Vanishing Half – Not about espionage, though definitely about a missing person. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it — violence, betrayal, lies, gender identity issues, substance abuse… it was all very dark and built on an already very weighty topic in a heavy time — but I read it because I wanted to dig in further to the racial strain my country is under right now and the healing we’d like to move toward. Literature helps me think through issues. 2.5 Stars.

TV

Alias – There. I said it. I watched all five seasons of a show from twenty years ago this summer. Watching Alias started out as a way to distract myself on the treadmill, but then the plot gripped me and the Bristows and friends/enemies kept me company on the couch elevating my legs (circulation issues during pregnancy are the pits!), in the kitchen, during laundry…I had to know what happened next! All the seasons are on Amazon Prime right now, don’t say I didn’t warn you about the whole story grip thing. Also, it’s not rated G. I watched it when the kids were otherwise occupied.

What We’re Reading Aloud

The kids and I are now halfway through Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of Nimh, and it’s sloooow going. We want to know what’s going to happen to Mrs. Frisby and her family, but it’s taking so long to even find out who the rats are and we still don’t know what Nimh is! But we’re committed and should be finished in the next two weeks. Next up we’re doing either Harriet the Spy or Little Lord Fauntleroy. Votes for which I should pick?

Jeremiah is reading The Last Battle at bedtime to the whole family and wow, I have not re-read this book in forever. It’s like it’s brand new to me. All Narnia books are a delight.

What the Kids Are Reading

Isaac (9) has become a huge fan of the Redwall Series by Brian Jacques. Parents take heart – this kid wanted nothing to do with letters or numbers when he entered kindergarten! Ella (11) is loving Nancy Drew books and The Rose Legacy Series by Jessica Day George. Violet (6) and Lydia (3) want to read and re-read The Princess in Black Series by Shannon Hale, and even though the books seem so long, they’re actually very enjoyable read-alouds for one sitting. I love LeUyen Pham’s illustrations.

What My Husband’s Been Reading

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates – I picked this up for my husband, who is a reader without the time to browse around for books, and he liked it but thought it a bit drawn out. 3 stars.

Nonfiction I’m Reading/Plan to Read

The Call of the Wild + Free: Reclaiming Wonder in Your Child’s Education and Wild + Free Handcrafts – I’m still in the middle of these books because I am a slow nonfiction absorber, but I’m enjoying the reminders of how kids and parents can learn together in harmony and without checklists. As for the handcrafts, most of them look beyond me, but they also look so beautiful, I’m willing to try them even though I’ll probably go crazy in the process!

The Lazy Genius Way – I’m pumped to read Kendra Adachi’s first book. I’ve been a big fan of her podcast for a few years now, and if her book is as full of practical and clear headed ideas as her podcast is, it will be a winner.

That’s all for this update! What’s on your fall reading list?

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