Thursday, December 29, 2011

Drawing and Writing

I've been wondering a lot this past year about the creative connections (brain-wise) between drawing and writing. I tend to write every day in some capacity, but I don't often take the time to draw. But during the last school year, the sweet girl and I took time every week to draw together, first utilizing Drawing with Children by Mona Brookes (a book I would highly recommend for people of all ages) and then just "free-drawing," often copying pictures from book illustrations.

The result was astonishing for me. The sweet girl had a boldness and freedom in drawing right away, a boldness I lacked (inhibited as I was by decades worth of no-practice, of cautious drawing and insecurities) but I gained confidence as the months went on. Although we've not been able to work drawing into our curriculum nearly as much this school year, we still make drawing time whenever we can, and we both (oh joy!) got beautiful new art supplies for Christmas.

What I've discovered, besides a real love of drawing for its own sake, is that drawing often seems to fire up the creative synapses in my brain. If there's time, I almost always follow up a drawing session with a bit of writing, not because I think I have to, but because one activity seems to flow naturally from the other. I write better -- I make more interesting connections with words, I play more -- if I'm warmed up first with drawing.

It's been a fascinating discovery, one that I wish I could spend more time thinking about, or even better, actually engaging in. For now, I'm discovering that drawing can also help me as I work on longer bits of fiction. In the waning days of 2011, I've found a sudden bit of fiction writing fire in my bones I haven't felt in a long time. In the past few weeks, in spite of tiredness, holiday busyness, and end of semester grading, I've dived back into a WIP (work in progress) that is essentially a fairy-tale/fantasy.

What's been helping me when I start to feel stuck? Drawing the characters, and most specifically styling their hair and creating costumes for them. For the latter inspiration, I'm hugely indebted to The Chronicles of Western Fashion, a library book D. brought home a few months ago when the art camp kids were working on costume design. We've checked it out abundant times since, and just this past week, it inspired me to create an important character in my story -- a queen I was having a hard time picturing. Picturing her with words is going to be much easier now that I've taken colored pencils in hand and drawn her likeness. It's so much easier to imagine how she she carries her head, the color of her eyes, the sound of the swish of her dress as she walks, now that I've drawn her.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Happy St. John's Day!

I love that the church, in all her wisdom, decreed so many feast days during the 12 days of Christmas. I also love that Christmas has 12 days and is a season. So much of the world seems ready to put Christmas away with the wrapping paper scraps and head back to work as usual. While the "work as usual" part can't be helped for some of us, knowing that Christmas is a whole, hallowed season somehow helps to infuse these still dark-outside days (it just keeps raining here!) with light and hope. Our commemoration of the Savior's birth is just the beginning -- now comes the 'real work of Christmas' -- to nourish that new life in ourselves, in others, and in the world.

And who better to sing to us in these dark, waning days of the year than John the Apostle, whose feast day we observe today?

"The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish." John 1:14

"This is how we've come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves." 1 John 3:16

"What marvelous love the Father has extended to us! Just look at it - we're called children of God! That's who we really are." 1 John 3:1a

"The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn't put it out." John 1:5

"I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: "Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They're his people, he's their God. He'll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good - tears gone, crying gone, pain gone - all the first order of things gone"...The City doesn't need sun or moon for light. God's Glory is its light, the Lamb its lamp!" Revelation 21:1-4, 23

(All Scripture quotations taken from The Message)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

A blessed Christmas to all!

Here's the wonderful hymn from Charles Wesley, one of my favorite bards of Christmas...

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen!

It's the anniversary of the birth of Jane Austen, born this day in 1775. That makes her just a teensy bit older than the United States. She's looking good for 236!

In honor of the day, I thought I would post this link to a funny piece I wrote back in 2008. I had just heard the news that they were making Pride and Prejudice into a musical, and my brain went into overdrive. I came up with potential musical numbers for the first half of P&P. It was a very fun exercise, though somehow I never ventured to do the second half. The title of Mr. Bennet's solo "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Nerves" might give you some idea of the tenor of the piece. Enjoy!

I'd also love hearing from any Austen fans out there today - what's your favorite of her six novels (and why, if you're so inclined to share)? And what's your favorite film adaptation?

My favorite of the novels changes every so often, but Persuasion is the reigning favorite. I think I love it for how different it is from anything else she wrote -- it's about a second chance at love rather than first love. And its gentle, autumnal tone seems to suit that theme of love renewed and Anne Elliot's personality so well.

I am still an unabashed fan of the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle mini-series version of Pride and Prejudice (1995). My favorite feature length adaptation is still the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility (also 1995...a really good year for Austen films in my opinion)!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Favorite Christmas Books: 24 Days Before Christmas

Today the sweet girl asked me if we could start The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas. Reading this classic book by Madeleine L'Engle has been a family tradition with me before I ever had my own family (I started reading it yearly before I got married, and that's been almost twenty years now!). I don't think the sweet girl can remember a year without it. Some years, like this one, we read it in a few installments over the space of a few days; other years we've read it in the car during Christmas travels.

I love this book for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is Vicky's narration. Vicky is quite possibly my favorite character in all of L'Engle's canon...she's certainly the one I relate to the most. Here we see her at the youngest age she ever appears in Madeleine's body of work. As I wrote when I reviewed the book seven years ago:

"Vicky makes a precocious seven year old narrator. L'Engle occasionally seems to give her a too "adult" kind of tone/reasoning...but readers familiar with the older Vicky can forgive this a bit, and I think even other readers will find her endearing. A lot of us have known very smart seven year olds (and even younger children) who surprise us with the intensity of their questions and the profundity of their thoughts. What feels perfectly natural about her narration is the undertone of anxiety shot through the joyful anticipation. What if she goofs up her part as an angel in the Christmas pageant? (She overhears the director say she's awkward, and spends much of the rest of the story walking around the house with an encyclopedia on her head, trying to improve her grace and poise.) Worse yet, what if the baby decides to come early and her mother ends up in the hospital for Christmas?"

This is also a lovely book to share with families who may not yet be all that familiar with Advent traditions. The Austin family, in their usual amazing way, manages to find something special to do every single day of December, something that gives them an opportunity to be together and to celebrate the joy of Christ's coming.

And fans of the Austin series of books (Meet the Austins, The Moon by Night, The Young Unicorns, A Ring of Endless Light, Troubling a Star, with two shorter books along with this one, A Full House and The Anti-Muffins) will love 24 Days because it gives us a glimpse of Rob's entrance into the world.

The edition pictured above is the one we have and love, with pictures by Joe DeVelasco. The latest edition, still in print, has a bright red cover with a Christmas tree on it and pictures by Jill Weber.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Pageant Ponderings

Every year about this time, I start to ponder the wonder of the Christmas story anew -- and through the lens of our church pageant.

This year we're fully in charge of the pageant, and so spent our Sunday School time yesterday getting the kids into their costumes, setting up the scenes they'll be acting out while I and two of our teenage assistants narrate the story. My husband (good director that he is) helped the kids work out simple blocking, and he and I both tried to help the kids think through some of their responses ("When the angel appears, try to look really scared! Terrific! Great! Oh, you look really scared! Then when you hear the words 'great joy' start looking happy! Remember, this is GOOD NEWS!").

It occurred to me yesterday that people not familiar with the tradition of Christmas pageants could have some perplexed reactions if they stumbled upon our little troupe of robed elementary and preschool actors giggling through their roles. One response might be surprise that such young children are acting out a story with such serious (and in many ways adult) elements.

After all, this is a story about an unwed pregnant teenager mother traveling wearily, along with her fiancee, to a town where they're going to be counted so they can be taxed by an oppressive government. And they can't find a place to sleep, so they have to go -- "to a barn!" as one of the kids kept saying. And it's there that the young woman gives birth to her baby. Then a bunch of crazy, scraggly shepherds show up, hopeful and amazed, because they've seen a sky full of angels announcing that this poor baby wrapped up in rags is actually the Savior of the world.

I could see how some people might say the story is too grown-up for children. Or perhaps (in another similar reaction) too serious to be play-acted. I could see how people not familiar with the heart of the story (or the heart of the author of the story) might wonder if we were not taking it seriously enough, or think we were attempting to tame its wildness and wonder. They might look a little askance at four and five year old shepherds quaking in fear as my gangly nine year old, dressed in white (with a sparkly sash) waves her arms and beams, towering over them, or at the little eight year old girl dressed in blue, pretending to wash dishes and dropping one in surprise when the angel shows up to tell her she's conceived a baby. (Does it help to remember that Mary was probably only a few years older than this?) They might wonder what we're doing, asking children to enter into this very holy story about very real and sometimes gritty things.

But that is the wildness and wonder of the whole thing -- that we're all asked to enter into it, and that we're all children in the face of this incredible reality, this amazing love, this tremendous story. None of our celebrations, none of our actings out of the story, will ever come close to capturing its wonder and essence -- but we still enter it, year after year, doing our fumbling best. Because we need to and long to. Because we want to find our place in it and learn to live the story out. Because it is at the fountain of this story that we drink life.

And I sometimes think it is the simplest, youngest, most innocent, homemade renditions of that story that come closest to the edges of the real event -- earthy and poor and homemade as it was. This is, after all, the story of the birth of a baby, a tiny precious baby. That the baby is God wrapped in rags and cradled by a young, tired mother in a barn is so gloriously preposterous that it needs the wholehearted trusting faith of a child to even be approached. Christmas pageants give us this opportunity -- to enter in as children, to enter in with children, to enter in before the Child himself. We know the Child grows up; we know the holy life he will live and the pain he will endure on our behalf and the death he will die for us. But we cannot get to that part of the story without this part, this plain and simple earthly beginning embroidered around all its rough-hewn edges with angel song. We need to hear it, again and again, and walk into it over and over.

Gregory the Great was right. The Gospel is shallow enough for a lamb to wade in and deep enough for an elephant to swim. So I'm thankful for the Christmas pageant every year. Every year it's a new chance to usher children into the story, to walk with them as they leave the shore and head into the wild waters of the gospel, to give them waterwings and hold their hands as they learn to float, to teach them how to wade. And every year it's a chance for me to sink deeper, to swim farther, to stay longer in and farther out, knowing I will never ever exhaust the depth of this story no matter how long I live or how many times I move into its beautiful, rushing, life-giving current.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Two Christmas Picture Books

I'm tired. It's December and it's cold. It's near the end of the semester. And it's Advent (oh blessed season, I am so thankful it comes every year without fail, even when I'm not ready for it) and I am finding myself craving more time to read, write, think and pray.

Blog posts march through my mind often. Sometimes I begin mentally composing. Sometimes I begin actually composing as the abandoned drafts in my folder could attest. I've got a lot of things I'd love to reflect on here, including Advent thoughts and gratitude reflections. But for now they will have to keep percolating.

I did want to share briefly about two beautiful "new to us" picture books we've read this week. Yes, I know, the sweet girl is longer prime picture book age. But I think she will always love picture books, and certainly I've never stopped!

The two books we've especially loved this week are Patricia Palacco's Christmas Tapestry and Susan Wojciechowski and P.J. Lynch's The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. Both books are beautifully told tales of miracles and hope at Christmas time. Palacco matches her masterful story-telling with her usual colorful, expressive pictures -- and took the story in a direction I wasn't expecting at all. I never seem to be able to get through one of her books without good, cleansing tears. Jonathan Toomey has a lovely storytelling cadence and absolutely luminous pictures by P.J. Lynch -- I do love his work.

Longer reviews of both books coming, I hope, but for now I just had to share how much we loved them both. Perhaps another post will begin percolating...about some of our "old favorite" Christmas picture books!

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Imogene Herdman

When it comes to Christmas books, it doesn't get much better than The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Tonight we finished reading it...the sweet girl's first time through, and my hundred and umpteenth. (I still have my Weekly Reader copy from the 1970s...I've loved this book a long time!)

I was going to post all about why I love the book, and why I can't read the final scenes with Imogene Herdman without crying, but then I remembered that I'd written about this book here a few years ago. I went searching and found the 5+ year old post, and I thought I'd excerpt a bit of it here. Because some things never change, including the rush of wonder this book gives me every time I read it. What a delight to share it with my daughter.

Here's the old post, in part.


I think it's one of my favorite moments in any Christmas story -- and I love a lot of Christmas stories.

Imogene Herdman was crying.

In the candlelight her face was all shiny with tears and she didn't even bother to wipe them away. She just sat there -- awful old Imogene -- in her crookedy veil, crying and crying and crying.

Well. It was the best Christmas pageant we ever had.

What's so wonderful about this scene, aside from its good storytelling sense, is that I think most of us have some Imogene Herdman in us. If we're honest, some of us have Imogene Herdman moments -- or days -- or perhaps even years. We know what it's like to be clumsy and broken, to not fit in anywhere, to have to take care of other people when sometimes we'd love if it people would take care of us for a change. We hide our insecurities behind bravado, sometimes irreverence, maybe even a touch of bullying.

And then comes that moment -- sometimes in the footlights, sometimes in the covers of a story, sometimes just in the quiet of our own heart -- when the wonder of God's love for us alights on our head like a beautiful bird. It comes home to us how much God loves us, awful old us, dressed up in our crookedy costumes, pretending to be someone we know we're not. That love washes over us like a flood, and in that moment we know who we are because we finally know whose we are.

And that's grace.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

For Louisa, Jack, and Madeleine... (Literary Day of Days)

It's my favorite literary day of the year: the anniversary of the birth of three of the deepest writers of my heart. Louisa May Alcott was born on this day in 1832, Clive Staples (Jack) Lewis in 1898, and Madeleine L'Engle in 1918. What an amazing gift it is to be able to celebrate all three of them on the same day!

I fell in love with all three of these writers when I was very young and my love for them has continued over the years, though it's taken different shape in different seasons. As I pondered today all the profound ways they have influenced me through the years -- far too many ways to count -- it occurred to me that even if each had only graced the world with a fraction of what they wrote, I still would feel grateful. Playing on that idea, I wrote this poem in tribute to them, and in tribute to three of their characters who have been my special friends.

For Louisa, Jack and Madeleine

It would have been enough to give us Jo –

Tree climber, boot stomper, apple muncher,
Snow thrower, writer of tales.
In the mirror of pages across the ages,
We still see the ink stain on her finger,
The scorch on her dress, the wild, rumpled hair.
We hear her tears in the garret,
Mingled with rain, and know
the soft, satin feel of the ribbon
tied round her stories.

It would have been enough to give us Lucy –

Door opener, truth teller, faun friend,
merry queen, lion-hearted girl.
In the mirror of pages across the ages,
We still see the flask of healing cordial,
The white-winged albatross, snowflakes
Glittering in the lamppost light.
We hear her muffled tears the night
The world seemed to end, and know
the soft, tangled tresses of the wild lion’s mane
wrapped round her fingers.

It would have been enough to give us Meg –

Problem solver, hand holder, cocoa maker,
namer, friend of cherubim.
In the mirror of pages across the ages,
We still see glasses slip in the moonlight,
Dragon scales in a dripping garden,
A bright quilt in a wind-rocked attic room.
We hear her tears of relief as she clutches
Her rescued brother, and know
the soft, small boy feel of his hair
pressed close to her cheek.

~EMP, 11-29-11

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Gracious Slip of the Tongue

Sometimes slips of the tongue -- especially when done by kids -- can be downright funny. Other times they feel a little profound.

The sweet girl has been working on memorizing Psalm 103 this fall, doing a little more each week. She has an excellent memory and for the most part it's been smooth sailing. But for the past couple of weeks, whenever we get to these lines she's stumbled a bit:

The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.

The stumble has been linguistic ~ and it's also been lovely. What she keeps wanting to say is "The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and a fountain of lovingkindness."

I love the way "abounding" and "fountain" play so musically together. And how I keep picturing the Lord's lovingkindness now, surging up in an abounding fountain of goodness and grace and mercy that just keeps flowing and flowing and flowing. No wonder our little cups can't possibly contain it!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

First Sunday of Advent (and More Advent Reading)

"...our whole life is an Advent season, that is, a season of waiting for the last Advent, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth."

This is just one of many beautiful and ponder-worthy quotes from God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, a lovely collection of Advent meditations culled from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's letters and sermons. Highly recommended reading this Advent season and on into Christmas (the final daily reflection is for Epiphany).

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Happy Birthday, Robert Louis Stevenson

It's the birthday of the wonderful Scottish poet Robert Louis Stevenson (November 13, 1850-December 3, 1894). He is one of the poets I have loved the longest.

Stevenson came from a long line of lighthouse engineers but decided that life was not for him. He became a novelist and poet instead, and the world is a richer place for that decision.

A few years ago I wrote this poem that enters, via imagination, his vocational choice. I thought I'd post it today in honor of his birthday. He's certainly kept lights burning for so many!

Keep the light burning, Louis –
let it shine 'cross the sea.
Let it guide travelers tossed,
said my family to me.

They imagined me keeping
traditions long kept,
they imagined me living
on rocks wild, wind-swept.

Sea runs in my veins
and I love the wind’s song
but to that kind of life
I don’t quite belong.

I need paper and pens,
poems and stories to be
a strong man who shines
a bright light on the sea.

See my words? They are beacons
and paths and a port,
they are helps in great storms
and lights of a sort.

Though faith and deep joy
aren’t easy to measure,
They’re my way of keeping
traditions long treasured.

~EMP (2008)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Jessica Powers: Creature of God

One of the poets of my heart is Jessica Powers (1905-1988) a Carmelite nun whose beautiful, prayerful poems are rich in evocative imagery. They remind me a good bit of George Herbert's poems though they are also wildly and wonderfully unique.

If you'll forgive the pun, Powers often speaks powerfully to my heart. I go back often to my dog-eared copy of her collected poems. Even when I haven't visited the book in a while, something will trigger a memory of a line or an image and I find myself back there again.

Last night such a trigger came when I found myself musing, in a tired way, about my own finiteness. Not in the ultimate sense, but in the ordinary, daily grind kind of way. I think the way I expressed it to a friend was that lately I keep feeling like I'm going THUMP against the walls of my finiteness, my limitations, wherever I turn.

And then I remembered Jessica Power's poem "Creature of God." And I remembered that even on those days when I seem to be running into walls left and right, I can go to God...just as I am, finite, limited, broken and all...and stand bathed in the vastness of his love and grace. He meets me there. It's there that he gathers me into his arms.

Creature of God

That God stands tall, incomprehensible,
infinite and immutable and free,
I know. Yet more I marvel that His call
trickles and thunders down through space to me;

that from His far eternities He shouts
to me, one small inconsequence of day.
I kneel down in the vastness of His love,
cover myself with creaturehood and pray.

God likes me covered with my creaturehood
and with my limits spread across His face.
He likes to see me lifting to His eyes
even the wretchedness that dropped His grace.

I make no guess what greatness took me in,
I only know, and relish it as good,
that I am gathered more to God's embrace
the more I greet Him through my creaturehood.

~Jessica Powers

Thursday, November 10, 2011

True Confessions

The other day I noticed that the sweet girl was re-reading Sarah, Plain and Tall. (Yes, I'm proudly raising a re-reader!) I smiled and said something like "Oh sweetie, it's fun to see you reading that book again. You've loved it for a long time."

She grinned and agreed. And then she gave a mirthful little chuckle. "You know something, Mommy?" she asked. "The first time you read this book to me, when I was about five, I thought it was about three people named Sarah, Plain, and Tall."

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Week in Review (7): Awash in the Victorian Era (Sherlock Holmes, Secret Garden, Emily Dickinson and More)

If you read my last post, you'll be all prepped for the ongoing "week in review" posts which I hope to start putting here regularly again. You'll also know this one is cheating a bit, since I'm actually catching up on most of the month of October and just putting it all here. Here are some of the choice picks from the month gathered in one place.

My review for the banned-books write-off this year was of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Not the first time I'd read the book, but it had been a lot of years. Still just as powerful -- and disturbing -- as I remembered.

The sweet girl and I continued to wend our way through the Civil War and Lincoln. Two good reads for the elementary age crowd, the chapter book My Brother's Keeper and the picture book Lincoln Tells a Joke. My Brother's Keeper is by Mary Pope Osborne of Magic Treehouse Fame. It's a fictional diary by a nine year old girl living in Gettysburg at the time of the battle. Lincoln Tells a Joke is a lively, clever (but still respectful) picture book biography of our sixteenth president. Wonderful illustrations.

I don't write many reviews in travel, but from time to time I'll review an historic site we've visited. We loved our visit to the Frick Estate in Pittsburgh (thanks to the free RAD Days in October) which includes a Victorian era home, car & carriage museum, and art museum. Here's my enthusiastic take on the Frick Car and Carriage Museum.

My fascination with all things Emily continues. We enjoyed Jane Yolen's picture book My Uncle Emily. This was one of those books that I discovered I liked even more than I realized when I sat down to review it. Sometimes the careful looking and thinking you do about a book when you review it helps you uncover things you missed the first time through when you just approached it as a reader ready to enjoy.

Just in time for the sequel (which I know I won't see in the theater anyway) we finally watched and enjoyed the "new" Sherlock Holmes film. meaning it came out in 2009. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law give great performances in this oddly contemporary telling of Sherlock Holmes -- still set in Victorian Era London, but not quite the Holmes and Watson you're used to. I liked it a lot.

Even in our family read-alouds we kept up the Victorian theme. Two classics during October, both lovely: Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and the Mowgli Stories from Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book. Nicola Bayley's illustrations in the Candlewick Press edition (the one I reviewed) are stunning.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Why Write Book Reviews? And Why Post Review Links?

For those of you still hanging in there and reading my blog, you might be wondering where my regular "Week in Review" posts have gone. For that matter, you might have been wondering why I started posting those in the first place! I thought a post regarding my book/film reviews and my attempts to link to them here might be in order.

First off, I became a reviewer almost by "accident". I've always enjoyed writing about what I'm reading, watching, listening to, but it wasn't until spring of 2003 that I stumbled onto an online platform where I began writing reviews regularly. The sweet girl was just a baby then, and I was looking for some way to keep my writing muscles in shape during her frequent but short naps. (I couldn't resist posting a picture from that season of our lives...)

I found the website Epinions while looking for reviews of children's books. This was before I'd discovered blogs and the kidlitosphere! At that point, it seemed that nowhere I looked online had quite the kinds of reviews I wanted to read (as a writer and a parent). When I realized that Epinions gave people the opportunity to write and post their own reviews, it dawned on me that perhaps I could be writing the kinds of reviews I wanted to read.

I never expected that almost nine years later I'd still be writing reviews. I've written many other things since, but review writing gets in your blood. Over a thousand reviews later, I still find I have lots to say about what I'm reading, watching, listening to...and it's fun to try to find fresh ways to say it.

I've also thoroughly enjoyed the Epinions community. (I found one of my best friends there!) Beyond that, I've had good exchanges with writers of all sorts. There are many kind, thoughtful people writing there. Like any website of its kind, the writing quality varies dramatically on Epinions. With so much content, some of it is going to be sub-par but a good percentage of it is solid and some of it is really brilliant.

What's also fun when you read a body of reviews from a relatively small number of people over time is that you begin to learn about particular passions. Because of Epinions, I've learned new things about gardening, guitar playing, foreign films, cozy mysteries, superheroes, classical music, and a host of other (sometimes fascinatingly obscure) topics. I particularly like it when writers get really excited about other writers. We have one book review writer on Epinions, a retired gentleman, who has the lovely habit of reading through a given writer exhaustively over a period of about a year -- and posts reviews of everything he reads by and about that writer for others' edification/learning. He and I have had email conversations about all sorts of writers, including Kipling and James Fenimore Cooper.

I do earn income, of a sort, from my reviews on Epinions. It is not a lucrative business, review writing for general interest online venues (where the greatest number of visitors are likely to be looking for information on vacuum cleaners and digital cameras rather than wanting to read about The Great Gatsby or Anne of Green Gables). When you click on one of my review links here, it will take you to my review on the Epinions site. I do *not* earn money just because you click on the link. However, the number of outside visitors (meaning non-members of the site) to my reviews do help establish my readership and factor into what I earn via monthly income share. If you're patient and keep writing (and reading and rating and commenting on other writers' reviews) then eventually one does begin to earn something helpful on the site. The laborer is worthy of her hire, and I'm thankful that I've been able to earn enough through my review writing to cover most of our homeschool books and curriculum so far. Given our family's current needs, and our ongoing commitment to ministry in a small, poor, urban community, my writing income is an important part of our livelihood. In fact, I would love to have my writing income, here and elsewhere, grow. I appreciate prayers to that end!

The main benefit from clicking on my review links, from my perspective (and I hope your's) is that I get to share with you about something I enjoy. Most of my reviews are of books (and movies and music) that I truly loved or at least greatly liked. I will sometimes write reviews that "pan" something, but that's very rare. Mostly I try hard to craft reviews that will inform and encourage. Though I review books of all sorts, the bulk of my content is still centered on children's books. I'm still trying to craft the kinds of reviews that I wanted to read as a new parent. I love sharing about living literature, books that teach and challenge and inspire both me and my daughter. I sometimes post favorite book lists or essays about books, and I even do an occasional series, each year, of books we're using to supplement our homeschool history studies. Lately I've been writing more about books we use in our art studies too.

So there you have it. A post about why I write reviews, and a little bit about why I've been posting links to my reviews here more regularly. I've gotten behind on that lately and will probably do a "week in review" post that will actually have most of my links from the month of October (a busy month for me, hence not a very prolific review writing month). Then I can start fresh with posting weekly in November again. At least that's my hope.


One more note: if this has sparked your interest in the possibility of writing for Epinions, let me know. The site has been going through some growing pains (good ones, we hope) and recent upgrades, and they're beginning to more actively seek new writers. If you decide you'd like to check them out and maybe even sign up, please leave me a comment. If you go through me, I'll get a small referral fee.

Brick by Brick...

I've not meant to disappear from my blog. I miss writing here, but the past several weeks have been a rather long slog of stress and exhaustion on so many levels.

In the midst of all that, however, there has been blessing. Lots of it. So much of it that I should probably do a big gratitude post (which I'm way overdue to write anyway). But for now I just have to share one lovely thing.

My dad finished laying the bricks on the back patio today. This is at my parents' home in Virginia, the house where I grew up. They've always had a small red brick patio. A few years ago they had to have some work done on their sewage lines or something and a lot of the patio had to be dug up. My dad, always the craftsman and hard worker, set out to lay the bricks back himself. He was in the midst of the project in April 2010 when he went into the hospital with congestive heart failure.

It's strange sometimes how something can become so symbolic. For my dad, that patio seemed to represent something big that was left undone. As he lay in the hospital, very ill (with doctors telling us he might not live more than another couple of months) he fretted about the patio. He wanted to finish it. It became both a struggle in his mind (you could see that sometimes) and also a tangible project that he needed to hold onto with both hands as he determined to get better.

All during the following months -- eighteen of them -- as mom has lovingly cared for dad and as dad has astounded us all by his amazing recovery, dad has worked on the patio. A little at a time. Brick by brick. Five minutes here. Ten minutes there. Longer if he could manage it, sometimes driving my mother crazy because he would stay out too long and his blood pressure would drop through the floor. As he began to regain some strength, he began to do other things too, like paint my mom's portrait. (He really is amazing.) But he was determined to get that patio done.

Today Mom emailed all of her children with the news. The last brick was laid, she said. And she called it a doxology moment. Indeed. I felt like singing the doxology. So I did.

I'm so proud of my daddy I could burst. I'm proud of my mom too, who has had to learn a whole new way of encouraging and caretaking in these months.

It hurts my heart a little bit to think that we will not likely make it down to Virginia for thanksgiving this year -- our usual annual trek is likely to be off because of our continuing financial stress. I would so love to see that patio. But mostly I want to hug my dad and mom while seeing that patio! Sometimes my homesickness for them and for that little back yard in Virginia just grows acute.

But heartaches aside, today I am just smiling. Because my dad did it. Brick by brick.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Feeling Shaken

This past Saturday our family utilized our gift membership and went to the Science Center downtown. Roaming its four interactive floors is always an exciting adventure for the sweet girl. This time around there were some new exhibits on the first floor so some of our old favorites had been moved. We found one, the Earthquake Café, now housed on the top level. Of course we had to sit down and let ourselves get all shook up.

The Earthquake Café is a booth made to look like a table in a diner. You get into the booth and choose, from the “menu” on the wall, which earthquake simulation you want to feel. There are a few to choose from, varying in their intensity. We let the sweet girl pick, and she chose a 7.1 variety (simulating the California earthquake from the late 1980s – remember the one that took place during the World Series)? You push the button and sit there, grinning uncertainly at each other, as the ground beneath your table begins to shift. The booth works on a levered system and gets jerked back and forth in a very realistic fashion. (I know that now, having actually experienced a small earthquake in our area a couple of months ago.)

Sitting in the Earthquake Café, I found myself realizing anew just how shaken my life has felt in recent months. Sometimes the shaking that has gone on has felt small and subtle, the way an earthquake sometimes can feel at the very beginning, or when you’re not near the epicenter. I still recall the day we did feel the ground shake here, for real, and how disorienting it was to feel that shift – but also how quickly it was all over. By the time we’d asked ourselves the questions “what’s happening?” and “what is that?” and even “did a truck just hit the building?” the motion had pretty much stopped. It was only in retrospect that we realized what we’d felt.

Life can be like that sometimes. While some “shaking” comes quickly and violently, and other shaking is more subtle and hard to define, it often seems like the ripple effect lasts a long time. People who live near the epicenter of a quake experience multiple aftershocks. Even those who don’t often find themselves so “moved” (literally and in other ways) that they need to talk about the earth-shaking experience they lived through for days to come.

Most of us, thankfully, don’t live through actual, physical earthquakes all that often (though our family prays often for those who do). But all of us live through some sort of figurative shaking in our lives. This shaking may be caused by sudden traumatic events we never expected, or by long unsettling “shaking” that seems to go on and on, with multiple small aftershocks, uprooting our sense of who we thought we were and even our sense of how steady we are. All of those things can cause mental, physical, emotional, even spiritual stress, and that can take its toll. I’ve been going through some of this sort of “shaking” in recent months and it’s exhausting. I’ve discovered that if I let it, if I focus on the things that seem to shake me most, it can make me feel alone and afraid.

As followers of Christ, however, we know that in times of shaking we can cling to something that is steady, far steadier than our usual stable (but sometimes surprisingly unstable) earth. Or rather we can cling to Someone. When our lives feel full of seismic activity, we have a person we can run to who is truly our shelter and refuge. The shaking may not always stop right away, but when you are held in the strong arms of Jesus, you’ll find that you won’t worry so much about whether you manage to stay on your feet. Because you know He will.

You’ll find the word “shaken” in the Scriptures. Sometimes it’s translated “moved.” (I still need to ask my Hebrew scholar husband to help me find the original word thus translated.)

The Psalmists love the image: “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.” (Ps. 16:8) And in one of the most powerful Psalms that speaks of God as our refuge, we hear this: “He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.” (Ps. 62:2) I like the way the ESV renders that last one “not greatly shaken.” It seems to help my heart to know that the psalmist, perhaps, like me, admits to feeling some real shaking…though he knows (as I know deep down) that I am never ultimately shaken when I am sheltering in God.

And the writer of Hebrews reminds us (powerfully, in the context of speaking of the final shaking): “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe…” (Heb. 12:28).

A kingdom that cannot be shaken. In the midst of unsteady days, I’ve been trying to let the reality of that wash over me. We have been loved into a kingdom that cannot be shaken, by a King whose faithfulness is always steadfast, more solid than the most solid rock we’ve ever known. It’s the writer of Hebrews who also reminds us (at the beginning of the same chapter that ends with the declaration of the unshakable kingdom) to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author (or founder) and perfecter of our faith.” We are to fix our eyes on, to look intently and faithfully at Jesus who "endured the cross.” He endured real shaking, real pain, in order that we might know the deep, solid steadiness of his mercy and grace.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Collecting Words: Vocabulary Building the Natural Way

There are a lot of vocabulary building ideas and curricula floating around the homeschool world. I've seen some of them, and even picked up a workbook for free now and again, though I don't think I've actually used one.

A couple of years ago I took a deep breath and decided that for our learning environment, it made the most sense to weave vocabulary building into the fabric of what we're already doing. Because we read. A LOT. That doesn't mean that one day I might not yet introduce a more systematic or formal approach. It also doesn't mean that I'm not intentionally fostering a love of words and a richer vocabulary. It just means that I'm trying to find a way to foster that naturally, instead of sitting my child down in front of a workbook where she has to use certain words in sentences or memorize definitions.

A lot of vocabulary is picked up by osmosis. If you read a lot, and come across certain words enough times, you will eventually pick up on their meaning. This is yet another endorsement, by the way, for encouraging re-reading. There are multiple benefits involved in revisiting a story again and again, and enhancing vocabulary is just one of them, but it's a good one.

Kids are natural collectors. They love to collect all sorts of things: cards, coins, stamps, action figures, dolls, rocks, shells. For some people, that love of collecting grows with them into adulthood. Grown-ups collect all sorts of things too, including sometimes the same things they started collecting as children. In my life, I've been particularly passionate (in different seasons) about certain collections: baseball cards, books, and small bits of green glass have been three of the biggies for me.

It dawned one me one day, a number of years ago, that I had always been a word collector. It was one reason I kept a journal. Not just to write down memories, thoughts, and feelings, or to play with bits of poems and stories, but to actually collect words. I kept lists of them. I still do. One day I came across a book called poemcrazy that inspired me to begin collecting words in even more physical ways. I started cutting words I liked from magazines and newspapers. I kept them in small jars and boxes, often along with small scraps of pictures. I still do. I went to an office supply store and bought a big roll of tickets, the "admit one" tickets you might sell at a play or movie. I started pasting words onto tickets. I called these word tickets "tickets to the imagination" and I started using them on those rare but wonderful occasions when someone would ask me to lead a writing workshop.

So you see why I began to realize a couple of years ago why vocabulary building could be a natural thing to build into our learning time. Put together my love of collecting words, our family's love of reading, and a child's natural curiosity and propensity to collect -- and you've got the potential blocks for a towering vocabulary.

This year I made the sweet girl a word book. You could easily create this from any notebook or just from stapling together notebook paper. I decided it would be fun to make it as homemade as possible, so I pulled together a little notebook based on a template I found over at Donna Young's website (my favorite free printables site). The lined pages made a neat little notebook and she even provided a cover with the title "My Word Book" in flowing script. I went hunting and found an alphabet in lovely, fancy scripts. I cut out each letter and pasted them, in order, on the notebook pages, leaving extra room for the letters I thought might get used most often. At the beginning of the school year, I gave it to the sweet girl and showed her that we'd keep it in a purple folder along with her list of independent reading. The word book and reading list stay next to our DK Merriam-Webster Children's Dictionary.

Now that she has a place to "collect" words, the sweet girl is enthusiastic about doing so. (We did this last year too, in third grade, just in a composition book. It worked well and got the idea rolling, but it's snowballed this year and is really taking off now that she has this little word book to tuck her findings inside.) I've encouraged her to ask about words she comes across when she's reading or when we're reading together. If she doesn't know what it means, we look it up and it goes into the word book.

There are weeks when not much goes into the book. We can have days when we both forget it. But then words will pop up all over the place. "What does that mean?" and "Remember when we were reading so and so and we heard that word?" have become more frequent parts of conversation. She's eager to get to the dictionary (even when it sometimes fails us, as I'm discovering even a very good children's dictionary can do with certain complex or old-fashioned words of the type we come across in older literature...thank heavens for online dictionaries!) and she loves to write them down in her homemade-but-kind-of fancy word book. Just this morning three more words went into the word book: visage, sporadically, and aggravated. Visage came from Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" which she's been memorizing. (Sometime I want to devote a whole post to the joys and benefits of poetry memorization!) The other two came in a review lesson in our grammar book.

I share these thoughts, not to disparage any of the more formal programs out there that teach/increase vocabulary in more systematic ways, but rather to share that I think it can be done, especially in the early learning years, in ways that are simple, organic, pleasurable, and that ignite a love of both the sounds and meanings of words.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Week in Review (6): Patricia Polacco; Shakespeare Meets Marvel Comics; Narnia Code

Hmm...the last week of September was an odd reviewing week. Three movies, completely different from one another, and a Civil War picture book that made me cry.

The Narnia Code is an hour-long documentary based on Michael Ward's literary theory regarding C.S. Lewis' use of medieval cosmology in the Chronicles of Narnia. It provides a great introduction to his ideas, which are unpacked at length and with great scholarly elegance in the book Planet Narnia.

Thor is a totally enjoyable (and action-packed!) feature film based on the comic book character Thor, a sort of Norse god/superhero. The particularly fun twist is that this summer blockbuster kind of movie was directed by Kenneth Branagh, the director who has brought us Shakespearean delights for years. Shakespeare meets Marvel Comics. And it works.

Soul Surfer
is an inspirational film based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a young surfer who lost her left arm to a shark, survived, and went on to become the world's best woman surfer. The movie asks good questions and walks a lot of potentially cliched lines without falling off any of them entirely. Not a great film, but a solidly good one, with the real story of the young girl's courage shining through some inspired performances.

I don't often cry my way through picture books, but that's what happened when I read Patricia Polacco's Pink and Say. There is a power and beauty to this simple story of the friendship that developed between two young men, one black and one white, who found one another in the midst of the chaos and pain of the Civil War. It's a story of heroism and courage, and it's brought home the Civil War to my nine year old in real and moving ways. The fact that it turns out to be a true story -- a story passed down in Polacco's family for several generations (Say was her great-great grandfather) adds even more powerful punch to the tale.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Loving Lincoln

The sweet girl and I have been wending our way through a study of the Civil War. I'm thankful that we had a chance to attend a Civil War day back in July at the historic site near us. That gave her a great preliminary "taste" of the period, especially experiencing the costumes, tents, soldier's kits, period music, etc.

But as usual, it's been books that have carried us through. We've been particularly taken with books about Abraham Lincoln. Even though we've technically finished the unit (we've moved forward into other areas in Story of the World) we keep reading more. And I find myself wanting to read a good adult biography of Lincoln now too. Any suggestions welcome!

Loving to read about Lincoln reminds me, of course, of one of my favorite fictional characters, Emily Webster. Emily of Deep Valley is set in 1912. Emily too loves to read about Lincoln, especially with her grandfather who fought in the Civil War. Maud Hart Lovelace never seems to tire of telling the tale of the brave Minnesota regiment at Gettysburg. Emily and her grandfather end up reading, at the recommendation of her former high school teacher Miss Fowler, "Herndon's Lincoln." If you google that, you'll discover it's an actual biography of Lincoln written in 1888. It's still available today and still garners glowing reviews from most readers. It's also, however, huge. So I've never been sure if it's where I want to start -- although I often find big ol' biographical tomes to be just the right kind of reading for winter. Hmm...a sentiment I probably originally learned from Emily Webster, but have discovered the truth of myself over the years. (Dorothy Kearns Goodwin kept me going one winter with her biography of Roosevelt.)

My list of favorite children's books about Lincoln continues to grow. This week I've added Lincoln Tells a Joke to that list -- Kathleen Krull, Paul Brewer, and illustrator Stacy Innerst's marvelous picture book biography that focuses on Lincoln's humor and down-to-earth manner. It's such a delightful fact that such a deeply profound man, living through such a sobering and heavy time, managed to stay afloat because of laughter.

My very favorite Lincoln book for children may well be Lincoln and His Boys by Rosemary Wells. I first read it when it came out in 2009 (and reviewed it here) but this week the sweet girl and I read it together. I cannot get through the final chapter without tears, whether reading silently or aloud. It manages to capture that lighthearted side of Lincoln while also perfectly capturing the heavy emotional weight he carried due to both personal and national tragedies. P.J. Lynch's illustrations in this book are just stunning.

This will likely be our year to do Little Women as a family read-aloud. The book of my childhood. I get shivers of anticipation just thinking about reading it with my husband and daughter. So our Civil War theme will stretch later into the fall and winter. We will probably not start it until around our Thanksgiving trip (if we're able to make that trip this year) as we'll have lots of time in the car that no longer has a functioning CD player. In other words, Mom gets to be the audio book! But I'm glad of it in this case. I love reading aloud, and Jo March's voice...well, it's practically part of my own.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Week in Review (5): Schmidt's Retelling of Pilgrim's Progress; Prequelitis with Enterprise Season 1

A week late is the new normal! Apparently I am destined to run a full week or more behind on posting links to my reviews. All right, maybe destined is too strong a word, but for now, this seems to be the pace that works.

Here are reviews from a week or so ago.

I finally posted my review of Gary Schmidt's lovely version of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Schmdit's writing and Barry Moser's illustrations make this a wonderful book to savor. We've read it together twice this year during family devotional time. My review was actually drafted months ago, after the first time we read it, but my opinion on the story's quality hasn't changed a bit after a second time through.

A few weeks back I chatted a bit about the creative challenges of prequels. That was partly born of the fact that D and I have been wending our way through Enterprise. Enterprise has a unique place in Star Trek's history: it's the last of the Star Trek television shows to air, but the first in terms of interior Star Trek chronology. An interesting combination. Here's my review of Enterprise, Season 1, which had some bumps along the way but nevertheless drew us into the story.

And in the completely "just for fun" category, two quick reviews of things the sweet girl has enjoyed much in recent months: Bob Phillips' Awesome Knock-Knock Jokes for Kids and a lovely paper doll set made by Eboo ~ Thoughtful Girl Paper Dolls, Sasha and Jasmine.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Week in Review (4): Alan Jacobs on the Pleasures of Reading, Coville's Hamlet, and a Newly Illustrated Velveteen Rabbit

Ah. It's almost the weekend, and I realized that I never posted last week's review links. So I'm almost a week behind. (Somehow I started a post in draft and then never had a chance to go back in and edit it. Some weeks are like that!) Well, better later than never. Here's the round-up of links to my reviews from last week:

More Monet ~ in this case, a picture book entitled Monet's Impressions. Just images and words by Monet. Doesn't get much simpler than that. Or more lovely.

I finally finished my review of Alan Jacobs' interesting book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Not that I was distracted or anything. A fascinating read for anyone who cares about reading and enjoys thinking about the ways our approaches to reading have changed (and are changing) as the years go by, as well as the riches of reading that never seem to change.

You might not think that readers as young as nine could enjoy Hamlet, but Bruce Coville's picture book version might prove you wrong. He interweaves his own rich prose with actual quotes from the Bard to provide a compelling version of the story. Leonid Gore's pictures also add a lot to this terrific introduction to one of Shakespeare's greatest plays.

I still love Margery Williams' The Velveteen Rabbit. The story never seems to wear out, and Gennady Spirin's gorgeous illustrations make this new picture book version (published by Marshall Cavendish) a keeper. This would make a beautiful gift book.

Poetry Friday: Edna St. Vincent Millay

I'd almost forgotten how much I love the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. But for the past week or so, my nine year old daughter has been memorizing "Afternoon on a Hill." Its gentle music still speaks to my heart, and I've loved discussing it with her. We've talked about the lovely alliteration of "I will look at cliffs and clouds/ with quiet eyes" (how I long for "quiet eyes"!) and we've also talked about how the speaker of the poem felt joy in the present moment as she declared "I will touch a hundred flowers/and not pick one." That's always been my favorite line ~ I love the way the narrator doesn't feel the need to possess what she's enjoying, but just lets the flowers stay free, growing right where they are.

Remembering this poem sent me looking for another old favorite by Millay. I was introduced to "Recuerdo" (the title means "Memory") through Madeleine L'Engle, who provided my introduction to so many wonderful poems through the years. I still love the whimsical, lilting quality of this poem:

"We were very tired, we were very merry --
We had gone back and forth all night upon the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable --
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on the hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon."

I love the story sense in this poem. How easy it is to picture two people having such joy in each other's company that they spend the whole night just talking, riding back and forth (no destination intended) on the boat, lying on the hilltop, watching the moon give way to the sunrise. It strikes me that this poem also celebrates the practice of the present moment, the joy of living right where you are without worry about what's to come next. In the final stanza, they do start for home (as does the person on the hilltop in "Afternoon on a Hill") but they give away all their remaining fruit and all their money except what they need for subway fares. Just living simply and with gratitude in the moment, again without the urgent need to possess.

The whole poem can be found at Poetry Archive.

Today's poetry round-up can be found at Picture Book of the Day.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How Words Work

I've got a handful of posts in the pipeline, but life is doing that funny thing it sometimes does...getting in the way of blogging. Imagine!

Words keep being on my mind though. The way we use them wisely, the way we don't. How they can give life and hope and spark creativity and form connections. How they can wound or trivialize. How much I need them in my life, and how much I still have to learn about crafting them and using them well.

The other day I was reading a bit from Leonard Sweet's book Aqua Church as I prepped for a discipleship group with the teen girls at church. He loves to weave quotes and bits of poems into his reflections, and I stumbled upon a stanza I'd never read but which spoke to my heart. I quoted a line from it as my FB status. A friend asked me what it was from. I told her, and she went looking for the whole poem (it was from a book published in 1900!) and posted all several beautiful, hope-filled stanzas. She's been grieving the death of her brother, and the poem touched her heart. I watched as other people commented on the poem, sensing the comfort and beauty in the words, and then I saw one of them say they were passing it on to a grieving friend.

Do you ever marvel at the way words form a web? I often think about poetry and stories as long, ongoing conversations, but sometimes that firms up in front of our eyes in unexpected ways. An author over a century ago pens a prayer poem. An author several years ago excerpts it in his book. I read the words and they touch me so I pass that on. My friend is so touched she goes looking for deeper context and more of the poem. She passes it on to someone who passes it on to someone and...more people are blessed.

This is how words work at their best. They fly like birds and blow about like leaves, like seeds. They're messages in bottles and scrawled notes in balloons (something my elementary school did once, years ago in the pre-green days...we wrote messages and then released them in balloons, waiting to see if we would hear back from those who found them).

As writers and teachers we can choose our words carefully, shape them wisely and beautifully (we hope) but ultimately we send them out there into the world. And they do their thing, connecting hearts and minds and sometimes ending up in surprising places.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Just a Few Wordplay Musings

I'm drafting a review this evening, and I find myself wondering...

Isn't chock-full a real word, not just a coffee brand? And am I strange to use it? My spell checker won't take it no matter what.

Why, when I'm writing flat-out in creating/first draft mode, do I have a tendency to use one certain word over and over again?

Don't you want to know now what tonight's repeatedly used word is? Of course you do! It's musings! (And I've used it again in the title of this blog post).

Why did I have to go a thesaurus to come up with synonyms like ponderings, reflections, contemplations, speculations, cogitations, ruminations? (I had managed to come up with meditations on my own.) And have no fear, dear reader, I did not use them all in one book review. I promise.

And one last question, aren't we writers thankful for thesauruses? Or is it thesaurii? (Doesn't that sound grand? The mighty herd of thesaurii thundered over the plains...)

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Week in Review (3): Prelutsky Poems, Monet Trains, and the Final Harry Potter Film

I'm late posting my round-up of review links from last week. I generally try to do it over the weekend, preferably on Saturdays. Not that I need an excuse, but my computer continues its erratic, moody behavior. I think this is yet one more way that a sweeter and more patient temperament is being nourished in the garden of my heart!

So here are the links to my reviews from last week: two picture books, and a movie everybody else saw in July. (It was worth the wait though.)

There's No Place Like School is the title of a Jack Prelutsky selected collection of poems about school. Written for the elementary age crowd, and recounting familiar school experiences and feelings any child can relate to (no matter what kind of schooling they're involved in) this is a book of fun poems with comic pictures to match. My homeschooler thoroughly enjoyed it. Two Prelutsky poems are included, but there are other great authors represented, including Kenn Nesbitt and Rebecca Kai Dotlich. This was a complimentary review copy provided to me by Greenwillow Books. Life's been pretty hectic the past few months, so I'm happy to finally have a chance to get some Greenwillow reviews up -- hopefully a few more to come soon.

The second picture book is the beautiful Claude Monet: The Painter Who Stopped the Trains. We're on a big Monet kick in our fine arts time this month, and this book is a gem. I'm slowly building a stable of reviews on fine arts resources for children and was really glad to include this one. Links in the review will take you to other reviews I've written on other Monet books and books about other impressionists.

I finally managed to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2). It was a Labor Day gift from my husband. My musings about the villains in the piece (and some of the poetic special effects) can be found down below, but my review of the film as a whole is found at the link. I could never love the movies the way I do the books, but in general, it exceeded my expectations.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Death of Villains (Or "Does Mundane Work for Movies?")

My dear husband gave me a great gift on a rainy Labor Day: a couple of hours to myself and a ticket to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2). Though I suspected I was the only person in the crowded theater who was making this film journey for the first time (considering the movie has been out since July) I didn't mind. I was just very happy to finally see the film, which pleasantly surpassed my expectations.

I'll save my longer review for later, but for now, I just had to ask this question: what is up with the death of villains in movies? Have you noticed that real baddies can't seem to just die like normal people? They have to go out in a blaze of pyrotechnics. Maybe this has always been true, but I'd never found myself quite so aware of it as I was yesterday. Even as I marveled over some of the astounding visual effects, I found the back of my mind wondering why they chose to make these deaths look the way they did.

There were three "bad guy" deaths in a row in the final battle of Hogwarts (I'm assuming here that you either know who dies because you've read the books, seen the films, or perhaps just don't care either consider yourself spoiler warned).

Bellatrix dies first. She's terrible -- the torturer of Neville's parents and the murderer of Sirius Black -- and the filmmakers have given her huge amounts of screen time, mostly because Helena Bonham Carter is so good at playing a manically deranged character. The death effect here? Wave after wave of magic spells hit her until she's suspended in mid-air, frozen like the cartoon coyote just before he realizes he falls, and then she shatters. Literally shatters like glass, or even more precisely like ice, into a million little pieces. An interesting effect given her coldheartedness.

Nagini the snake dies next. I won't go into the weirdness of how they handled that scene (so differently from the book) but at least in the end the right hero walloped off her head. And she sort of disintegrates in a swath of black smoke. Fitting because of her magical qualities (no mere snake here) and interesting because the smoke reminds you of ring-wraiths and dementors and all sorts of other evil fantasy creatures. Not to mention the smoky instruments in Dumbledore's office that gave us one of our first subtle clues to the snake's importance to Voldemort.

Speaking of Voldemort: the big bad guy falls last. He too shatters, though instead of an explosive shattering, it's more a falling to pieces. As he and our hero battle, the curse he attempts to kill Harry with is pushed back up through his wand (a la Goblet of Fire graveyard scene, or so it appeared to me) and then pulses through him instead. He is sort of eaten from the inside-out by fire, killed by his own hand. We see him cracking -- and it really does look like cracking, especially with his bald, white head looking so egg-like -- and then he falls to pieces. Visually that's interesting, given the fact that he has been in actual "pieces" for so many years, having given up bits of his soul as he continued down the path of evil and tried to pursue immortality. And the effect was also interesting: we see the pieces flaking apart, like onion skin or burned parchment, and then raining down in ashes (sorry to go into such gory detail, but the visuals were quite arresting).

Okay, it's all interesting and symbolic and all that, but is it necessary? I know, I know...films have to show us what novels can tell us (and allow us to create in our own imaginations) but I've always been sort of fascinated by the way Rowling writes Voldemort's death. There is something almost...well...boring about it. I don't use that word lightly ~ she beat me to it, or close enough. She seems to understand that death coming for Voldemort is enough, all by itself, without it being symbolic, dazzling, unusual, bizarre, poetic-justice death. He is human, after all...though he kept forgetting that fact and kept losing more and more of his humanity. But in the end he's just human -- a broken, lost man who "fell backward, arms splayed, the slit pupils of the scarlet eyes rolling upward. Tom Riddle hit the floor with a mundane finality, his body feeble and shrunken, the white hands empty, the snakelike face vacant and unknowing. Voldemort was dead, killed by his own rebounding curse, and Harry stood with two wands in his hand, staring down at his enemy's shell."

Note that in the moment when he hit that floor with a mundane finality (and can't you practically hear the thump?) Rowling refers to him by his actual name, not by his fearful, grandiose, self-chosen moniker. In this moment we are reminded, with a resounding thud, of his humanness, his frailty, even his lostness. And it works powerfully. It just works, in all its minimalism, the way it should.

But does mundane work for movies? Would the same things that come across on the page come across on the scene if they played the death that way? Those were the kinds of thoughts flitting through my mind as I watched the spectacular battle effects in HP7.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Week in Review (2): Prydain Finale, Return to Enderverse

It was a light reviewing week for me, not surprising given that it was our first week back to school! I'm also trying to get my work (and work schedule) set for fall. Hopefully I can get back on a better writing pace as September progresses.

So for this week, just two reviews, both of books whose fictional worlds are such fun to spend time in.

I finally reviewed The High King, the fifth and final book of Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain series. I finished the series long ago, but couldn't quite bring myself to write the final review because I didn't seem to want the experience to end. D. and I have been listening to the audio book versions (marvelously read by James Langton) and I'm pretty sure we'll be tackling Prydain as a family read-aloud sometime in the next year. The sweet girl has loved Narnia, and we're planning to read The Hobbit sometime this year too. So Prydain seems like a perfect next step into fantasy literature. Links at the bottom of review will take you to my reviews of the first four books in the series.

I also reviewed Ender in Exile, the most recent return to the Enderverse by Orson Scott Card. I had mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, it's always enjoyable to spend time with Ender, and I can understand Card's love of returning again and again to this character and his world. On the other hand, some of these story points have been hashed out so many times in other books in the series that it felt a little flat. If you're an Ender fan, however, you'll likely enjoy this...and there are some great moments. I especially liked the letter from Colonel Graff to Ender (written near the end of Graff's life). I suspect I will continue to return to Ender's world as long as Card keeps wanting to write it...and I'm always fascinated by the ways he explores how stories change and grow as you look at the same event from multiple perspectives.

Monday, August 29, 2011

On the First Day of School...

We enjoyed our traditions: the first-day-of-school muffins (cinnamon raisin this year); the painted handprint (my, how that hand has grown since kindergarten); and the list of the sweet girl's favorite things (fun to see how those change too). This year, for the first time, she filled in that list of favorite things on her own rather than dictating them to mom to write down. Yay for learning independence.

I remembered how hard transitions can be for the sweet girl. Even good things, new things. Anything that is "different than how we've done it before" can cause her angst. (I sometimes think she will grow up a major liturgical traditionalist...)

I rejoiced to see all the good things we remembered from last year. Some of the learning habits we instilled last year are still good, solid, worth keeping. Hooray!

I felt defeated when I saw the quick re-occurrence of bad habits. I need to find ways to help S. replace bad habits with good ones. It's not enough to just say "that needs to stop." In my own life, I know that's not enough. What positive things can I put in place of the negative ones I'm trying to let go of? That's the question I ask myself. It's one I need to ask with her too.

I found myself looking forward to some new learning trails.

I almost banged my head against the wall in frustration when I found I couldn't come up with words to explain a simple writing concept. It's so hard sometimes to teach something you love with great passion and intuitively understand how to do. The passion and intuition can be great helps, except when they're not.

I remembered I need to be courageous about challenging S. to do what she can do, and to realize she can do more than she thinks she can.

I discovered we need breaks. The material is heavier and lengthier this year. We need breaks, plenty of them and varied kinds. Fresh air. Bird feeding. Walks. Picture books. Music/dance. Blessing counting. Drawing time. Whatever it takes. There's a reason our family has chosen to teach/learn this fact, lots of reasons. I have to remind myself anew that I don't have to teach "traditionally." That is one of the blessings of this learning life.

All in all...probably the most challenging first day we've ever had. I figure it can only get better and better from here!

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Week in Review (1): Austen Fluff, The Bard, La Belle et La Bete

For the past eight plus years I've been writing reviews for a website called Epinions. How I got started and why I stuck around writing for them is worth a post sometime, and I may yet write it!

But for now I just have to say that I love writing reviews, especially of books and movies. When I write about the things I've been reading and watching here, I often link to my longer reviews on Epinions, and I plan to continue doing that in as natural a way as possible.

Beginning today, however, I thought I'd begin a weekly posting with links to the reviews I've written and published in the preceding week. If something strikes your interest, I hope you'll click over and give the review a read...and you can always feel free to leave me a comment here.

Some weeks I review quite a bit and other weeks not so much, so the length of these posts will likely vary. My goal is to try to get them up on a Friday or Saturday.

This week's reviews feature:

My yearly Austen fluff beach read (we did our mini-vacation to Lake Erie last weekend)~ North by Northanger by Carrie Bebris. This is part of her Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Detectives series and it was surprisingly fun and even more surprisingly touching. Her Lady Catherine is especially spot-on, so if you just can't get enough of Lady Catherine's dulcet tones, I highly recommend it.

A delightful documentary that goes behind the scenes of the 1988 theatrical production where Kenneth Branagh, directed by Derek Jacobi, played Hamlet for the first time. Discovering Hamlet is definitely for theater geeks, but they'll love it.

Jean Cocteau's 1946 romantic fantasy film Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et La Bete). I hadn't seen this in years, but it was just as fascinating as I remembered. Poetic screenplay, visually stunning effects. I just can't seem to keep away from versions of Beauty and the Beast. My review links to some different book and film versions.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

..."Watch Your Aim..."

I was cleaning in the kitchen this morning and found a tiny scrap of paper on the floor. It turned out it was a torn piece of my favorite Chinese fortune cookie message ever. I kept it on the fridge for ages, but I guess it fell off. I had to toss it, but that's okay...I still remember the message, which I shall quote here for your amusement and enjoyment.

"You will be a dragon of creative fire this week. Watch your aim."

I provide this especially for my writing friends (you know who you are) who are trying to stoke the creative flames.

Someone should really come up with a whole set of fortune cookie messages that inspire and encourage creativity. Or...wouldn't this be a cool gift for a writing friend...a whole set of fortune cookies filled with writing prompts!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

To Buy or Not to Buy: That is the Homeschooling Curriculum Question

We're less than two weeks from the beginning of our school year and I am in major planning mode. I'm printing forms for our binders, getting books set on the shelves, planning lessons, and just generally getting excited about the continuation of our learning journey. Not that the journey really stopped in the summer, but we did take a good, long break from routine. The sweet girl enjoyed six weeks of arts camp, a week-long VBS, and some days in New England during our unexpected family time there. We've still got our family's end of summer mini-vacation ahead, but to all intents and purposes, summer is winding down.

This is usually the time of year when I'm either patting myself on the back because of wise and prudent homeschooling purchases/planning, or groaning because I either goofed something up, neglected to purchase something we still really need, or spent too much on something I ended up wishing I hadn't bought. This year it's actually a combination of all those things, which led me to think a blog post on homeschool curriculum buying (or not buying) might be a good thing.

I am generally the queen of frugal when it comes to homeschool purchases. I have to be, because we're broke (not a joke or's been true for a while, but it's grown especially true with the recent loss of one job whose significant income has yet to be replaced). Even if I didn't have to be this frugal, however, I suspect I would be anyway, and not just because I'm Scottish! There are so many wonderful learning resources our there, but not every single one is a necessary purchase. And while sometimes the only way you can figure that out is to buy it and hope, other times you can find ways to figure out in advance if a book, curriculum or other resource is right for you and your family.

As we head into our 5th year of homeschooling on the thinnest of shoestrings, I thought I'd pass along a few tips I've picked up along the way.

First off, repeat after me.

Public libraries are your friends.

I know this sounds obvious, but it bears repeating. It's not just that you can find wonderful books, audio and video resources at the library -- and you can. A good library catalog can be a huge aid in homeschool planning. Here are a few ways I like to put our excellent library catalog to use:

~Researching keywords and topics. If I know in advance some of the areas the sweet girl will be studying in history, science, and art (and I do) then keyword searches often turn up excellent resources, including many I've never heard of. If your library catalog system is sophisticated enough, you can search not just "all libraries" within a system but "all juvenile" collections. Refining that way can be very helpful on certain topics, though in the realm of art and music (when you just want to look at great pictures and listen to great composers) searching the whole system is a plus.

~Searching by author. If you fall in love with a given author on a topic, cross-search and see what else they've done. We've found some wonderful things this way!

~Use that hold shelf! Most libraries will allow you to request things from other libraries within the county's system and have them delivered to the hold shelf at your particular library.

~Use ILL. If the system doesn't have a resource, you can go outside the system via inter-library loan and get books sent to you from libraries around the country. This service sometimes requires a nominal fee, though not usually. (And you can usually mark on the ILL form whether or not you're willing to pay for a resource.)

~Borrow first, buy later (if at all). Say you've fallen in love with an online curriculum package but you know you can't afford to buy it. You jot down with pen and paper (or via delicious bookmarks) the books you think would be especially good for your homeschool year. Next step, see if the library has them. Not planning to use them until October? No matter. Borrow them now and discover if they're resources you really want to use. If they are, evaluate them to see if they're something you actually need to own. If the book is chock full of good stuff and you could see yourself needing to continually consult it, refer your child to it, or otherwise use it for a significant portion of the year, you may want to go on and buy it. If it's simply a book you think you could get a good one or two time use out of, and the library has it, then be prepared to request it and have it sent to your hold shelf in time for that portion of your studies. Holds can sometimes come in quickly, but once in a while they don't, so if it's an important enough resource that you know you really want to use it for a given project or unit, put the request through at least two weeks in advance.

Sometimes I discover that a book itself is not something we absolutely need to own, but the book may lead me to other books I didn't know about. Or (in the case of internet-linked books, like those in the Usborne series) I may check the book out of the library for a few weeks, bookmark the websites they refer to, and then return the book. I've begun using the delicious website to bookmark learning sites and tag them for different subjects/units/years, which helps me keep track of what we want to do when.

Besides utilizing the library like crazy, I do have a few other tips.

Don't buy anything on a whim.

Again, sounds obvious, but it's helpful. I probably overthink my buying choices, but I usually find the results are better when I do. I actually bought two things "on a whim" this year, highly unusual for me, and I now definitely regret one purchase and may yet regret the other (though am still hoping to eke something good from it).

It's particularly important that you don't buy on a whim if you don't have very good technology (and folks on a budget often don't) and are looking to purchase downloadable curriculum. PDF files, videos, zip files, MP3s, podcasts -- they're all the rage right now. But these visual and audio resources are only convenient and helpful for you if you can actually take advantage of them. If your computer is old and slow, as mine is, small curriculum resources (manageable sized PDFs, etc.) might be fine to purchase, but larger things are going to give you a big headache. Believe me!

Another trend I'm beginning to see is purchasing access to resources on a site. Sometimes this is an excellent idea, but I still urge caution. Use a website thoroughly before you purchase access rights. Make sure it has a lot of resources you need and that they're organized in a way that's easy to navigate. I purchased access on a website earlier this year which looked great on the surface, but I'm finding less of use than I expected, and it's not in very good order. Nine times out of ten, I find myself going to a similar site that has tons of FREE resources -- a site I already knew and loved. I should have stuck with it and figured out ways to create my own resources for the stuff I couldn't find.

Don't be afraid to take time or to get creative. Or to ask for what you need!

I know lots of homeschool curricula that tell you they've taken all the work out of things for you so you'll have more time. And that can be wonderful. I don't blame them for trying to sell time and convenience, especially since most of us need it. On the other hand, sometimes it's OK if you decide to forgo the pretty package and look into buying that handful of books used from online vendors. It's true -- it might take you two hours and you might only save twelve dollars, but sometimes saving twelve dollars is necessary. And sometimes you may find yourself learning a few things in the process of searching. (On the other hand, don't torture yourself with false guilt if you're having the kind of week...month...year...where time feels so precious that you really need those two hours more than the twelve dollars and decide to buy the pretty package.)

And guess what? That science curriculum you thought looked so cool, the one you couldn't afford to buy? They just might have free sample pages of their workbook. Download them. Study them. Figure out what you can utilize in your own learning environment. I did that last year and ended up creating some nice experiment notebooking pages that worked so much better for our needs than anything pre-packaged could have. I felt so grateful to that company for making some of their materials free, because those materials gave me great ideas. So if you like a certain company's products and ideas, spend time on their website. Order their catalog. Pick their brains. Literally. Many homeschool vendors are families who have been right where you are now. Send them an email. Ask questions. Sometimes they are willing to go above and beyond...they'll answer your questions, suggest resources, point you to their blog (that you may not have known about) or do all other manner of things to help you encourage learning for your kids. The homeschool world, in all its diversity, can be a pretty charitable and encouraging place.

And oh, that's another great part of homeschooling planning.

Swap and share.

You've probably got resources you're not using anymore, either because your kids have outgrown them or they weren't a good fit for your family. Find another family and bless them with those things, either by loaning or giving. Or look for buying/selling boards in a local homeschool group or an online forum. And don't be afraid to ask other homeschooling families if you can borrow. I have friends who have kept me going, in very lean years, by the judicious loan of books and CDs right when I needed them. Sometimes I've up and asked friends if I can borrow something. One year when I simply could not purchase our math curriculum teacher's guides, and couldn't imagine pushing through the year without them (I can be a chicken when it comes to math teaching) I asked a friend if I could borrow her guides. She had children older and younger than mine, and it turned out she didn't need that particular year right then. She was happy to do it. (Just make sure you set aside a "borrowed" shelf, or keep a catalog list of what you've borrowed, so you can return things when done.)

Keeping an eye out for sales and giveaways (through blogs or FB) is always helpful. Sometimes you might also be able to barter or work for resources. I'm a review writer and that has helped me a lot. Maybe there's a company that has a new product. Would you be willing to review it for them? Ask. They might give it to you free or at low cost in exchange for an honest review. Or they might have customer review rewards already in place.

I've ventured far afield! But I hope at least a few of these ideas might spark something for you if you're homeschooling on a budget. If you are, and if you have thoughts, ideas, or questions, I hope you'll leave me a comment.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Wisdom from Jack

A little Monday morning wisdom from C.S. Lewis, courtesy of a friend's Facebook status:

"The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts. " ~C.S. Lewis

Irrigating deserts, yes! And remember, deserts can bloom!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Poetry Friday: The Gift

When I was going through old papers the other day, I stumbled upon a few photocopied poems by Li-Young Lee. I can't remember when I first read his poem "The Gift," but coming upon it unexpectedly and reading it again was indeed a gift.

I love the way Lee tells two stories in this poem, linking the present and the past by way of a small silver splinter. The power of memory shines in this poem, as well as the power of the love we carry with us through memories.

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.

The rest of the poem can be found here at The Poetry Foundation. Karen Edmisten is hosting Poetry Friday this week.