Books I Loved Reading to My Kids (Part 1)

Ace celebrated his 11th birthday last weekend.  Now firmly entrenched in the tween years, he has left his childhood in the dust.  The fact that my baby is no longer even a little kid has thrown me for a loop.  Perhaps that’s why my thought life is taking a decidedly sentimental turn.  Memories of the kids when they were small – the adorable and idiosyncratic things they did, the funny words they said, and the soothing rituals we shared – keep popping into my brain unbidden and at the oddest moments.  While I don’t want to relive that particular period of my life (frankly, it was a lot of work), I’m certainly enjoying the warm fuzzies that come from remembering.

Some of the sweetest memories I have are wrapped up in reading together.  Snuggling with a picture book was wonderfully intimate and I especially looked forward to nap time and bedtime reading rituals.  Each of my children had their favorite types of books.  Lovey liked fairy tales, friendship stories, and Richard Scarry.  Buddy preferred anything about heavy machinery, animals (especially frogs), and Curious George.  Ace always wanted to hear about pirates, dogs, and history.

I have my favorite children’s books, too.  Unlike my kids, I don’t care as much about subject matter.  Instead, the poetry of the words, the thoughtfulness and beauty of the illustrations, and the synergism of the two are the things that make a book special for me.  A little kid story that has some grown-up concepts deftly woven in also gets a thumbs-up.  And finally, a good dose of silliness is icing on the cake.  You’ll find that my list doesn’t contain many classic children’s books.  I don’t know why but I tend to gravitate toward lesser known but still wonderful little pieces of literature.  The books below are arranged in order of age appropriateness only (youngest to oldest), not in degree of favoriteness.

My Favorite Picture Books

Tumble Bumble

Tumble Bumble written and illustrated by Felicia Bond.  A tiny bug starts out on a walk that becomes an adventure in accumulating new animal friends.  The illustrations are simply adorable and the rhyming prose is catchy and filled with great descriptive words of all kinds.  Tumble Bumble is reading fun, plain and simple.  Unfortunately, it would seem I’m the only one who thinks so.  None of my kids remember reading this board book even though it’s falling apart from use.

Big Red Barn

Big Red Barn written Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Felicia Bond.  Margaret Wise Brown is probably best known for the classic Goodnight, Moon.  Big Red Barn has the same quiet, soothing rhymes but is not as simplistic in content.  The story, again perfectly illustrated by Felicia Bond, follows a day in the life of the farm animals who live in the big red barn.  My board book copy has been loved to the point the pages are falling out.  I think it’s the perfect nap time read for little ones.    

Rock-A-Bye Farm written by Diane Johnston Hamm, illustrated by Rick Brown. Miss Hamm has written the quintessential bedtime book.  I don’t believe the version illustrated by Rick Brown is in print any longer which is a very sad thing.  His quirky illustrations are a major part of the charm of the story for me.  And what is the story?  The Farmer takes time to rock his baby and all the farm animals to sleep before he rocks himself and climbs into bed.  Very simple text and lots of repetition are great for inducing sleepiness.  My favorite illustration shows the cow being rocked to sleep in the loader bucket of The Farmer’s tractor.  A newer edition of the book is available with a different illustrator, but for me it just isn’t the same.

Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.  What is there to say that hasn’t already been mentioned about this treasure?  My own personal joy was listening to Ace growl and roar like a wild thing himself as a toddler while I read the story to him.  Let the wild rumpus begin!

Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo

Chugga Chugga Choo Choo written by Kevin Lewis and illustrated Daniel Kirk.  Before Kevin Lewis wrote this book, he worked as a children’s book editor.  Chugga Chugga Choo Choo is proof that he knew the recipe for a great children’s book.  The magic of his book lies in the combination of easy rhyming text with its rich use of onomatopoeia and the artistic primary color illustrations depicting a world of lovable, hard-working toys.  Both of my sons were train lovers at one time or another, so this book got a lotta lovin’ from us.  Me?  I just liked making the train sounds.

Too Many Pumpkins

Too Many Pumpkins written by Linda White and illustrated by Megan Lloyd.  When Ace was little, he called pumpkins “bupkas”, so in our family we have always called this book Too Many Bupkas.  It’s the story of Rebecca Estelle, a woman with an intense and life-long hatred of pumpkins.  When a farm truck loaded with pumpkins hits a bump in front of her house, a pumpkin falls out and smashes to pieces in her front yard.  She decides to ignore it.  The rest of the story is all about the consequences of that one decision.  This is a very heartwarming story about transformation and personal growth, about taking something hateful and turning it into a worthwhile experience.

The Old Woman Who Named Things

The Old Woman Who Named Things written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Kathryn Brown.  Cynthia Rylant is a prolific children’s writer probably best known for her Henry and Mudge books.  The Old Woman Who Named Things tells the tale of a lonely old lady who only names things that will outlast her.  These things include her car (Betsy), her house (Franklin), her chair (Fred), and her bed (Roxanne). When a small brown stray puppy starts hanging around, they develop a friendship and her naming policy is severely challenged.  This is probably my favorite book in the list.  The delicate watercolor illustrations are perfectly matched to a story that touches on concepts like loneliness, friendship and love.  I get misty-eyed every time I read it.

The Fabulous Flying Fandinis

The Fabulous Flying Fandinis written (and illustrated ?) by Ingrid Slyer.  In this fanciful book, Bobby’s new neighbors are a family of circus performers.  They are forever trying to get Bobby, the “normal” kid, to try something new.  For most of the story he refuses, but then finally changes his mind in a big way.  I’ll admit that the main attraction for me is the illustrations.  They are so detailed and whimsical.  I don’t usually say this, but the words aren’t even necessary to enjoy and “get” this story.  In my heart, I secretly wish I was Mrs. Fandini.

Tikki Tikki Tembo

Tikki Tikki Tembo retold by Arlene Mosel and illustrated by Blair Lent.  My Mom often read this book to my sister, brother, and me when we were young.  Imagine my joy when I saw Tikki Tikki Tembo several years ago at the local Barnes and Noble.  I did a little jig and then immediately bought it for my kids.  In this Chinese folktale, the firstborn son, Tikki tikki tembo-no so rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo, falls into a well and almost drowns because his long name slows down the process of getting help.  Because of this almost tragedy, all Chinese children now have little short names.  It’s a fun story to read out loud because Tikki tikki’s full name shows up at least 10 times during the telling of the tale.  At one point, Chang almost passes out from lack of oxygen because he is so out of breath from running around and saying his brother’s name.  As the narrator, I always empathize with poor Chang’s predicament.  The spare and simple illustrations are funny and have a very Chinese-like style.  They complement the story beautifully.

I hope I’ll be forgiven for this very self-indulgent post. Writing about books I’ve loved reading to my munchkins has been a very pleasant distraction from reality.  We all need that every once in a while.  Give some of these books a try, if you haven’t already.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.  And stay tuned for Part 2.  I’ll be writing about chapter books and novels I’ve enjoyed reading to my kids.

Do you have any favorite children’s books you’d like to share?


Woo Hoo!

Fun Friday Returns

School ended yesterday and we’ve wasted no time diving into our summer vacation rituals. Today, we indulged in our first Fun Friday of the season.  (For a review of what a Fun Friday is, check this out.)  Now that the kiddos are older, Fun Fridays are trickier to orchestrate.  Getting everyone to agree on a destination is becoming more and more difficult.  Gone are the days of care free acquiescence to any suggestion I make.  Instead, everyone has an opinion and no one can agree.  If today is any indication, Fun Fridays are going to offer the kids many opportunities for practicing deliberation skills, compromise, self-sacrifice, and graciousness.  It took a good fifteen minutes to decide on an activity this afternoon and even then half of the participants weren’t happy about it.  The plan: grab lunch from Subway and have a picnic at Lancaster County Park, then tour Rockford Plantation and wander the short Five Senses trail (which are both located in the park).

It was a gorgeous day to be outside.  My Perfect Weather said it would be and he was so right!  Sunny, temps in the low 80’s, light wind, and low humidity.  How I wish summer would be like this every day.

[ Can you tell who isn’t happy? ]

Once we finished our sandwiches, everyone was feeling better about the plan.  Food seems to have that effect on the Whimsey clan.  We headed over to Rockford Plantation to take the 2:00pm tour.  When we arrived there was a bustle of activity on the property.  They were preparing for a big Revolutionary War enactment with over 1,000 participants going on this weekend.  Why a Revolutionary War enactment?  Because Edward Hand, the original owner of the home, was a general in George Washington’s army during the Revolutionary War.  He sailed with Washington across the Delaware and was at Yorktown for the British surrender. He was Washington’s Adjunctive General and was awarded three stars by the time the war was over.  (I learned all this today!)

Rockford is a beautifully restored example of Georgian architecture, which is recognized by symmetry and balance.  The Hands built the house in the early 1790’s and lived there for less than twenty years.  Because no one who owned the house after the Hands actually lived in it (it was used as housing for tenant farmers), it was never really remodeled or updated until the 20th century.  Even then, just a little plumbing and electricity were added.  When the house was saved from demolition in the 1940’s, all of the hardware, windows, and woodwork were original to the house.  The house maintains a very authentic feel, right down to John Hand’s (a son) signature etched into one of the window panes in the dining room.  I thoroughly enjoyed the one hour tour.  Our tour guide was dressed in period costume and was very knowledgeable.  Unfortunately, none of my photos of the interior are blog worthy.  You’ll just have to take my word for it.  I would have never guessed this bit of expertly restored history was so close to home.

[ Front of Rockford ]

[ Back entrance to Rockford ]

[ Goofballs ]

Supposedly, Rockford has a strongly documented history of paranormal activity.  One of the Hand sons committed suicide at Rockford in 1807 (I think) and both Edward and his wife died there earlier.  This information isn’t given on the general tour, but we had a gentlemen in our group who asked several questions about the topic.  For individuals who are interested (such as my daughter) Rockford offers ghost tours around Halloween.  Spooky….

We finished the fun by wandering the paved Five Senses trail.  It’s a short, manicured and landscaped trail that encourages the use of the different senses.  Our favorite section was the Smell area, which contains several boxes filled with different aromas like sassafras and birch bark.  All in all, a very pretty way to end the afternoon.

50/50 Reading Challenge Update: January Books

January has turned out to be a great reading month for me.  I unintentionally compiled a pretty eclectic group of books and I’ve enjoyed each one for the unique experience it was.  I’m also maintaining the pace of reading about a book a week – an astounding feat considering I’m juggling three classes this semester on top of my regularly scheduled life.  If I stay at this pace, I shouldn’t have any trouble meeting my fifty book goal.  Yeah!

Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens (Resources for Changing Lives)

  • The Age of Opportunity by Paul David Tripp (1/50).  Less a how-to guide for navigating the rough waters of teendom and more a whole parenting philosophy based on sound biblical principles and built on hope, The Age of Opportunity is worth it’s weight in gold.  Paul David Tripp believes the behaviors we see in our teenagers are a product of the condition of their hearts.  It’s our job as parents to help our teens sift through the heart issues and then the right behaviors will follow.  It’s a simple sounding formula that requires dedication, effort, and sacrifice.  He exhorts parents to look at themselves and their own sins, to be real for their children, and to pursue open communication on a regular basis.  This book offers a very positive approach to parenting teens that I found refreshing and hopeful.  There is so much good information tucked between the covers – I think I highlighted half the book.        (4.5/5 stars)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (2/50).  The New York Times describes this book as “a profoundly moving novel, and an honest and true one.  It cuts right to the heart of life.”  I have to agree.  The story, set in the slums of Brooklyn, New York between 1900 and WWI, draws a detailed sketch of the poverty and struggle that was intimately connected to a particular place and time in American history.  Against this background, Francie Nolan’s life unfolds and blossoms, despite the seemingly endless sufferings.  Betty Smith counters the harshness of reality with love, hope, and the irrepressible determination of the human spirit.  It is an inspiring tale gift-wrapped in Ms. Smith’s superbly descriptive and insightful writing style.  I loved this book!  My only question is, “Why?”  Why did I wait so long to read it?  (5/5 stars)

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (3/50).  I know this is technically a young adult book.  And the term young adult has not applied to me in decades.  But, I do have teenagers and I’m always curious to know what quality of literature is out there for them.  Usually, my kids give me recommendations.  This time I picked the book out on my own because the weirdness of it attracted me.  Miss Peregrine’s turned out to be an easy, face-paced read with a whole lotta action. The main character, Jacob, is likeable and funny and makes for a fine protagonist in this fantasy/action-adventure with a bit of spook mixed in for good measure tale.  My only issue was the ending.  Ransom Riggs seems to be setting the stage for another book or perhaps even a series and I wanted a clean finish.  That’s just my personal preference, though.  I’ve already recommended the book to my kids.  While it probably won’t win any awards, the writing is very solid and the story is interesting and exciting.  It’s a very entertaining and worthwhile read.  (4/5 stars)

The Art of Racing in the Rain

  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (4/50).  My Mom gave me this book at the beginning of last summer with the warning that I would need a tissue (or several).  I’d been putting off reading it because I just didn’t feel like purposely making myself sad.  I don’t know why I decided now was the time to read this tear-jerker, but I’m so glad I did.  Just in case it is not common knowledge, the story is told by a dog named Enzo, who loves his family, car racing, and TV watching.  He also believes in karma and reincarnation and that when he dies he will be reborn as a man (after he is finished running free in the open fields of heaven, of course).  Mr. Stein writes with such canine perception that I almost wonder if he wasn’t a dog in his former life.  If you love dogs, racing, or life, I can’t recommend this touching story enough. (4.5/5 stars)

It appears that I am one of those people who rave about everything they read.  I’m really not.  (Well, maybe I am just a little because I won’t usually waste my time reading a book I don’t like or care about.)  I just happened upon a great group of books this time around.  What have you read this month?  I’m always looking for recommendations.

My Most Favorite Christmas Books For Kids

Christmas is struggling to come to my house this year.  I’m not lying – I still have pumpkins sitting on the front porch.  I’m in the throes of birthing two major projects for school and Mr. Whimsey is working long hours and attempting to purchase his company by dutifully jumping through all the required legal hoops.  And then, as always, there is the house itself.  Stuff is piled, scattered, and relocated throughout the first floor (and everywhere else) as a result of the remodeling process.  Even though we are making great strides – the hardwood floor is almost finished and the French doors are hung – I can’t bear the thought of tossing anything else into the chaos.  Even if it’s beautiful Christmas decorations.

We have managed to pull all the Christmas boxes from storage.  Of course, they are now littered throughout the basement and upstairs hallway.  One of the first boxes the kids always open is the one filled with Christmas books.  I started purchasing Christmas books when Lovey was born and have added new ones to the collection every year since then.  We used to read the books together in the evenings before bed.  Now that the kids are older and bedtimes vary so much, they will often get the books out and read them on their own.

As I looked through the books last night, I reminisced about snuggling my little Whimseys and reading heart warming stories about Christmas together. I also thought about reading chapter books in the dim, quiet hallway outside bedrooms where the kids were tucked in for the night.  As I paged through the books, I could feel the holiday spirit that had been eluding me so far begin to penetrate my worn-out bones.

I’ve decided to share some of my most favorites books.  These choices achieve favored status because of the many wonderful memories associated with them.  However, each book stands on its own as a worthwhile read.  I promise.   (I’ve basically listed them in order of age appropriateness, starting from youngest to oldest.)

My Most Favorite Christmas Books for Kids

1. The First Night by B. G. Hennessy with illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher.  The Nativity story is told in simple, almost poetic prose and the illustrations are absolutely wonderful.  The tone of the book is all quiet and stillness and there is a real sense of the holiness of that night.

2. Who Is Coming To Our House? by Joseph Slate with illustrations by Ashley Wolff.  I love the illustrations in this book! (You’ll find this is a theme with me.)  The story is told through the animals as they prepare the stable for the arrival of Mary and Joseph.  It is written with a rhyming cadence that makes for nice out-loud reading.  The animals’ personalities and excitement really shine through the text and the images.

3. Claude The Dog written and illustrated by Dick Gackenbach.  This little story is adorable.  Hidden within its cuteness is a powerful message of generosity, told in a way that even little kids can understand.  Honestly, this is a tear-jerker.  Ace routinely requests this story and listed it as one of his favorites.

4. The Crippled Lamb by Max Lucado with Jenna, Andrea, and Sara Lucado, and illustrated by Liz Bonham.  A small, crippled lamb named Josh stays behind in the stable because he’s unable to keep up with the flock.  The wonderful experience that comes out of this disappointment reinforces that fact that God has a purpose for each one of us.  Seventeen years ago, my sister gave birth to a little girl with almost overwhelming physical limitations.  Just breathing was a constant battle for her.  For thirteen years, we had the pleasure of knowing her and then it was time to say good-bye.  She loved to hear this Christmas story.  I cannot even look at this book without thinking of Molly.  For obvious reasons, it has a very special place in my heart.

5. The Polar Express written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg.  This is also a beautifully illustrated book.  Would you expect anything less from Mr. Van Allsburg?  The story is filled with so much mystery, magic, and belief.  As you read, you can sense the silence of the snowfall, the warmth of the train car, and the excitement of the elves. It deserves that Caldecott Medal it proudly displays on its cover.  This is secular Christmas fiction at its very best.

6. Who’s That Knocking On Christmas Eve? written and illustrated by Jan Brett.  The illustrations in this story create such a sense of place – of Nordic wintertime and Christmas.  The story is fun, filled with mythical trolls and pet polar bars.  It simply is a pleasure to read.  This was also a much requested book when Ace was smaller.  We even read it when it wasn’t Christmas.

7. The Littlest Angel by Charles Tazewell with illustrations by Paul Micich.  This story describes a small angel boy who has trouble behaving like an angel once he gets to heaven.  He wants to do boy things instead.  God chooses this littlest angel’s gift to give to Jesus on his birth day.  This is a very sweet story with many grown-up lessons underpinning it.  For me, because I have two boys, the entire story resonates clearly and emotionally.  It also reminds me that Jesus was once a boy just like my two “angels”.

8. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by  Barbara Robinson.  I first heard this story in fourth grade.  Mrs. Fisher read a chapter of it to us every day after recess.  I loved it so much I couldn’t wait to share it with my kids.  The story revolves around the Herdmans, really rotten kids from a highly dysfunctional family.  They single-handedly turn a church tradition upside down and in the process pull off the best Christmas pageant ever.  There’s a lot of humor with a good dose of subtle morality.  The gift of a ham for baby Jesus?  Why not?

9. On Christmas Eve by Ann M. Martin.  This is the second Christmas chapter book we read as a family about a girl named Tess who was determined to see the real Santa.  Vintage setting of Christmas in 1958.  Infused with magic.  Lots of snow. Uplifting story.  What more could anyone ask for?  This is a very satisfying family story especially as a read-a-chapter-aloud-at-bedtime book.

10. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  The granddaddy of Christmas stories and my favorite of all time.  The dark mysterious feel of most of the book, the ghosts, and the magic would be entertaining enough.  Mix in the concepts of forgiveness, salvation, and redemption and I’m hooked for life.  I confess that I haven’t read this one out loud for all the kids.  We started to, but it ended up being too spooky for bedtime.  Lovey and Buddy have since read the tale on their own.  Ace thinks he might try it this year – maybe.

I realize that there could be some serious disagreement with my choices.  Even among my family members I’ve heard some adamant disapproval.  Lovey would like to see The Last Straw, Holly Claus, and The Story of Christmas added to the list.  Buddy lobbied for How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Santa Paws, and The Tale of the Three Trees.  Ace’s favorites include Olive the Other Reindeer and Santa’s Favorite Story.  I agree with all these recommendations but there has to be a cut-off point somewhere, right?

Are there any books you’d like to add to the list of Most Favorite Christmas Books For Kids?  We are always looking for stories to add to our collection.

Fun Friday (Part 1)

Summer vacation has officially begun in our corner of the woods.  This means that Fun Fridays are back in full swing as well.  What is a Fun Friday?  It’s a boredom buster.  An end of the week celebration.  An educational experience wrapped up as playtime.  A reward for good behavior.  It’s always fun.  And it usually happens on Friday.  I honestly forget how this tradition started several years ago, but I think it might have had something to do with aimless, bickering kids and the words “I’m bored”.  Every Friday during summer break we (my three kids, my niece, and I) have a little adventure.  Sometimes these adventures are free – a picnic at Long’s Park and playing at the Castle playground, a hike at Kelly’s Run, a homemade Wipeout course in the backyard, Chocolate World.  Other times we spend some money – Indian Echo Caverns, Wheatland (President Buchanan’s home), the Amish Farm and Home.  Sometimes we invite others to join us.  Sometimes not.  Fun Fridays happen only if chores are done, behavior is acceptable, and instruments are practiced.

When I first came up with this idea, it was a tool to maintain my sanity during those summer months of endless togetherness.  I never thought it would become such an anticipated and beloved tradition.  We start talking about Fun Friday ideas in April and everyone has input.  This is such a favorite that my niece, who is old enough to stay home by herself, still wants to come over so she can participate in Fun Fridays with us.

Tomorrow is Friday.  The first Fun Friday of the summer.  And because we have a big weekend planned, this Fun Friday is pretty mellow.  We’ll be headed to the Fractured Prune for some custom doughnuts for breakfast and then off to the library to stock up on reading materials for the next two weeks.  The kids were already on the Fractured Prune’s website tonight designing the doughnuts they are going to eat tomorrow.  Their enthusiasm is contagious.

Fun Friday Ideas

The Science Factory

The Tabernacle

Valley Forge

Rockford Plantation

Longwood Gardens

A movie(s) at Kendig Square

A day trip to the beach

Riding bikes on the Elizabethtown/Mt. Gretna bike path

Miniature golf


Renting a boat at Muddy Run

I think I’m looking forward to Fun Fridays as much as the kids this summer!