Wim-Ventures

This morning, all of the muscles on the inside curve of my left arm were stiff — from the joint of my left thumb down to the elbow. I couldn’t figure out why that was, until I picked up William and propped him up on my left hip, as usual.

Oooooooow! The pain! The pain!

That’s right — my arm was stiff and sore because William — who is currently weighing in at around 20 lbs. — is pretty much demanding to be held ’round the clock these days. So much, that my arm is cramping up in my sleep.

It’s all because of his tooth, really. Yes, that’s right. Wimmy has a lil’ bumpy razor-tooth that took its sweet time emerging from his lower gum this weekend. Saturday night was a scream-a-thon; on Sunday he hurt so much that he couldn’t nurse well. He just clutched his gum and howled. Poor fella.

Oh — oh — and did I mention the bad haircut? Yes, another Baby Milestone that we’ve managed to botch spectacularly. Brian was convinced that the long wispies on Wimmy’s head and the downy tufts over his ears were causing him trouble. You know, getting food stuck in them and so forth. Moreover (and I suspect that this is the real reason) people kept confusing Wimmy for a girl. (Oh. No. Not. That.)

So, after much cajoling, I agreed to let Brian snip a bit. The results?

Oh, dear.

Let’s just say that there’s a good reason why we’ve never cut Eleanor’s hair, ever. It’s because Brian and I are completely lost when it comes to cutting hair. William now has a too-short fringe of fluff bordering his head that begins parallel to his brows, but then rockets up at a 45 degree angle just to the right of his nose. Did I mention how hard it is to get a 9-month-old baby to hold still for a haircut?

The ear tufts look like they got nibbled on by rats.

Fortunately, the whole experience was cut short (heh) when Brian accidentally scraped the top of Wimmy’s ear with the scissors. So not only did William go to bed that night with a bad haircut, but with his ear pathetically bandaged to the side of his head. Poor lil’ guy.

Why? Why did we do this to you?!?

At least people aren’t confusing him for a girl. Now they just say, “Oh! He got a . . . haircut!” Or if I talk about the fringe, they say, “Oh, good! I didn’t want to ask what had happened!”

Mr. Plow

Today I took William and Eleanor out for lunch with friends at Boston Market. William is finally able to feed himself finger food, so I was happy to supply him with a nice pile of corn, bits of bread, and macaroni and cheese. I was having a nice time, chatting with friends and consuming my own food, so I wasn’t watching each and every move William made. His food would disappear, and he kept making a grab for mine, so I’d keep giving him more.

It wasn’t until I took him out of the highchair that I learned the ugly truth: a circle of food particles radiating around him, both on the high chair and continuing on the floor for three feet in every direction. Did any of the food ever get in his mouth?

It’s like he was a snowplow — how they appear to suck up the snow, when they are really blowing it behind them. William was a little foodplow: I gave him food, and instead of being consumed, it was merely tossed into the air as soon as it touched his hand.

Well, that’s misleading. He didn’t throw the food. I would have noticed that. It was just like he had become a little cloud at the center of a foodstorm, raining debris all over the clean floors of the Boston Market.

Sigh.

On the topic of babies throwing stuff:

*

Overboard! by Sarah Weeks — a bouncy, rhythmic paean to the baby’s favorite pastime: chuckin’ stuff. This book’s text is mega-addictive (“Slippy, sloppy, can of peaches / Yummy peaches, nice and fat / Peaches going OVERBOARD! / Good-bye, peaches! Splat! Splat! Splat!”). Sam William’s watercolors are Popsicle-bright and adorable. A read that comes very close to the chaotic deliciousness of any baby.

*OKAY.  For some reason, WordPress is being particularly stupid right now, and won’t upload my picture into this space.  So just go follow the link, okay?  I’ll try to add the image later  . . . (grr).

My Best Books for Young Readers 2007, Part Two

Now that I’ve gotten a brief run-down of the award winners out of the way, let’s get down to The Good Stuff: the books that could use a bit more nudging, a bit more hand-selling. The stuff I loooove, and want to share with every fiber of my dust-encoated librarian geek soul. Today I’m talkin’ ’bout fiction, the big ol’ chapter books. Here are my picks:

  • Best “My Family is Nuts” Story: Becca At Sea by Deidre Baker. A collection of vignettes, each featuring a different adventure Becca has at her grandmother’s seaside home. Funny, real characters, VERY pretty writing. Probably a surefire beach read, as well. (Just ignore the fugly cover. Who designed that?)
  • Best Dystopian Vision of the Future: A Darkling Plain (and the other books from the Hungry City Chronicles, since this is Book 4) by Philip Reeve. Guess what happens in 100 years? We all die. And then the people left over decide to put their towns on wheels and DESTROY EVERYTHING. Meanwhile, a bunch of likeable, colorful characters get thrown into this mess and have edge-of-the-seat adventures for many, many pages. In other words, the perfect sci-fi novel.
  • Favorite Summer Story: Moxy Maxwell Does NOT Love Stuart Little by Peggy Gifford. Moxy is a ne plus ultra procrastinator. Her attempts to put off reading Stuart Little on the last day of summer vacation involves peach trees, flooding, and the theme to “The Pink Panther.” Hilarious.
  • Made Me Laugh SO HARD. Seriously, I Was Crying: Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. You can recommend it to your kid, but they’ve probably read it by now. So read it yourself, and be prepared for stomach cramps. (Löded Dipers RULEZ!)
  • Favorite Old-School Fantasy Novel: Dragon’s Keep by Janet Lee Carey. The year is 1145 AD, and Princess Rosalind is destined to restore Wilde Island to glory, and might do so — except that she was born with a dragon’s claw on her hand. What I really love about this book is that the dragons are not founts of Wise Wisdom or friendly misunderstood creatures. They are angry, demonic flame-beasts who really, really like burninating the peasants. (“TROGDOOOOOOR!”) Oh, and bonus points for the biracial handsome prince. I think this book–which was kinda overlooked last year — was my chief reason for making this list. Seriously, go find it.

  • For When You Need to Wear All-Black: Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill. Hmm. I just realized that this book was a Printz Honor, and should have been featured in the first part of this post. Oh, well. Anyway, just think of it: a biography of Plath, written in verse that is in the style of Plath’s poetry! A literary recursion that can BLOW. YOUR. MIND.
  • For When You Need to Wear Clogs and Chunky Sweaters: Undercover by Beth Kephart. A teen girl who makes spending money as a professional Cyrano de Bergerac falls for her latest client and decides to break out of her shyness. And win a figure-skating competition. Yeah, you have to be there, but trust me — it’s beautiful.
  • Favorite Fairy Tale Retelling: Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier. Twelve Dancing Princesses-plus-The Frog Prince-plus-A Sprinkling of Jane Austen-plus-It’s Set in Transylvania. Gotta read it to believe it.
  • Best Pop-Culture References: A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban. The sleeper hit of 2007. What if your OCD dad went out to get you piano lessons, and came home with a jazz organ instead? You get to play The Greatest Hits of the ’70s instead of Mozart, that’s what. (Chopin’s Lunchbox, that’s rough!) Favorite quote: “‘Why is there no Greatest Hits of the ”80s?’ ‘There were no hits in the ’80s.'”
  • The Book I Wish I Had Read When I Was Fifteen: Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande. A brave, funny book about an evangelical Christian girl who finds herself caught in the controversy surrounding the evolution unit in her high school biology class. It features cute puppies, cuter nerds, and some of the best references to Lord of the Rings, ever. Oh — this would be a great discussion book for church groups, if you’re looking.

  • Best Fantasy Novel for People Who Don’t Like Fantasy Novels: The New Policeman by Kate Thompson. Guess what: the reason you are always running late and feeling exhausted isn’t because you’re over-scheduled and stressed. It’s because time is leaking into fairyland. Yeah, you heard me. Required reading for fans of Irish folk music — there’s music at the end of every chapter. Ooo, and there’s a sequel comin’ out this year!
  • By Gum, it’s Living History!: Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller by Sarah Miller. A sensitive, sweet novelization of the “Miracle Worker” story, told from the perspective of Annie Sullivan. Includes a Symbolic Doll, in case you’re interested.
  • Best Kick-Butt Female Character: Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale. Look, kids! It’s an obscure Grimm Bros. tale reset in medieval Mongolia! Featuring Dashti the humble mucker-maid, who manages to escape from a tower prison, defeat the evil invading horde, and win the heart of the swoon-worthy prince, using naught but good sense and hard work. Tip of the hat to you, Dashti-girl!
  • Best Picture Book For Older Kids & Adults: The Arrival by Shaun Tan. A wordless book that tells the story of a man who emigrates to a strange land of dazzling towers, funny animals, and puzzling customs. Tan used a variety of sources — Ellis Island archives, Chaplin films, etc. — as inspiration to create his fantasy world, but the book has a magic that goes beyond them. Arguably THE best kidlit book of 2007.
  • I Can’t FIgure Out Why It Wasn’t Published as a Novel For Adults: The Red Shoe by Ursula Dubosarsky. This lyrical, layered story, set in 1950s Australia, changes perspective between three sisters who are coping with their father’s depression and uncle’s attempts to move in on their mother. The real-life story of a Russian spy is unfolding next door, and the scandal serves as counterpoint for the family drama. Dubosarsky’s prose has a dreamlike quality that makes this a quick but haunting read.
  • Most Creative Setting: The Lion Hunter by Elizabeth E. Wein. It’s a historical fantasy that melds Arthurian legend with medieval Ethiopian culture. That’s right — imagine Celtic royalty hobnobbing with Ethiopian dynastic kings in the desert, add an intrepid child hero, his adorable baby sister, dysfunctional families, and LOTS of intrigue and danger . . . well, you get this book. One of a kind and a click to pick.
  • Favorite Reissue of the Year: A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson. Originally published in the ’80s, this comic romance reads like Frances Hodgson Burnett, LM Montgomery, and PG Wodehouse got thrown in a blender together. Eighteen year old Anna was raised as a wealthy Russian countess, but in 1918 she has lost everything and goes to work in an English country manor. Her winning personality and eccentric ways turns the house upside-down, and wins the heart of the handsome young lord of the manor. Easily my favorite beach-read of the year, as well. Fun fluffy stuff.

Well, there they are — read ‘em and leap! For joy! And sheer literary pleasure! (Well . . . how would YOU end this exceedingly long post?) Enjoy!

Happy Nerdi Gras!

This past weekend was the Spring Carnival and Buggy Sweepstakes at Carnegie Mellon University. We decided to give the carnival a try this year, and we are kicking ourselves that we haven’t gone before this — it was so cool! Both the carnival and the buggy sweepstakes are old CMU traditions. Here is a video that explains the sweepstakes. Those drivers are brave, brave women:

I guess the problem is that we always thought the carnival was limited/geared to CMU students, but it isn’t — it’s for everyone! While there are rides that charge admission, the best part of the carnival is the booth competition, and that is completely free.

The booth competition is completely nuts — different student organizations and Greek societies compete in the creation of these elaborately decorated two-story little buildings. They are themed, and decorated inside and out, with as many gadgets, games, costumes and paper-mache objets d’arts as can be imagined by a undergraduate population that consists mainly of art students, computer programmers and engineers. Here are the specifications from the carnival website:

Competitive booths are 15′ x 18′ and are judged on the following:

• internal and external appearance
• originality of structure
• space planning and circulation
• craftsmanship
• theme creativity
• name integration
• appeal to adults and children
• entertainment value
• aesthetic appeal

I (stupidly) forgot my camera, but I’m including images of some of the booths from years gone by, so you get a sense of the level of skill involved.

This year, there was a booth shaped like the Titanic (complete with an open-air deck on the second floor, and a captain’s wheel in the pilot house.  The lower level featured a boiler room that, through a series of copper tubing, was “flooding,” and kids got to pump the water out.

Brian’s favorite booth was all about the railroads and the Golden Spike.  It featured a beautifully constructed life-sized wooden train.  Inside, the floor was of thick Plexiglass, through which you could see a tiny model train moving around in circles (and through model mountains in the shape of the fraternity’s logo).

Kappa Delta Theta created a booth that looked like the Great Pyramid at Giza, and when Jeffrey saw it, he went insane with excitement.  I think it had the prettiest art out of all the booths — carefully painted and inscribed cartouches, sphinxes, and the requisite sarcophagus.  Only, this sarcophagus was like a “concentration” game — kids had to match the mummy’s organs back to the correct places before the timer ran down and the sarcophagus popped up.  He was given a scarab necklace upon exiting (all of the booths had little giveaway trinkets) and he’s worn it pretty much non-stop since then.

Eleanor was a little frightened of the booths.  The WIzard of Oz booth was awesome (you went in through Dorothy’s Kansas house, and exited in the Emerald City, complete with a girl dressed as Glinda, handing out green necklaces) but a little spooky, and after that she refused to go in any more.  But she did enjoy playing this cheesy version of “Plinko” (a full-sized candy bar to all winners, wow), digging for dinosaurs in a sand pit, and playing this very cute video game that one of the CS majors had created.  She was given a stuffed penguin toy to hold, and when she pointed it at the screen, a little CGI penguin raced down a track.  You moved the toy to control the game (there was probably a Wii controller stuffed inside).

When Jeffrey played the penguin game, his CGI bird slid off the track and began roaming through trees.  The game designer was just behind us, and was being quizzed on the game’s technical aspects.

“Nice design,” said the designer’s friend as Jeffrey’s penguin raced farther and farther away from the course.  “Um, just how much range of motion did you give to the players?”

“Oh, they hit a wall eventually,” was the designer’s airy reply.  Just as he said this, Jeffrey’s penguin rammed into an invisible barrier.  SMACK!

My friend Libby, who attended CMU for graduate school, told me that CMU is the kind of place “where even the jocks and cheerleaders are nerds.”  Sounds like heaven to me!

My Favorite Books for Young Readers 2007, Part One

I’m always getting requests from friends who are looking for fun YA and kidlit fare to read. After quite a bit of deliberation, I chose my personal favorites from last year, took them down to my Secret Chamber of Bibliophilia, and asked the Elven Book-smiths to forge them into one powerful gleaming Super List of reading pleasure.

First off, if you haven’t done so before, take a gander at the ALA Youth Media Winners and the National Book Award winner*. They’d be on this list, if it weren’t such a gimme. It isn’t always that I look at these big-award winners and say, “Yeah, those are the books that deserved the awards.” But this time around, they did. Here are my favorites out of all the winners:

  • Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz (Newbery Winner) — Yup. Probably the best contribution to children’s theater in, like, ever.
  • The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt (Newbery Honor) — It’s like reading a really long episode of The Wonder Years. With Shakespeare.
  • Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis (Newbery Honor) — Where did ecaping slaves go once they got off the Underground Railroad? A funny, heartbreaking tale of a boy growing up in a settlement of ecapees.
  • Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson (Newbery Honor) — The legendary Book That Cannot Be Described. Is that enough of a pitch for ya?

  • The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis (Siebert Winner AND a Caldecott Honor) — How many picture books can YOU name about Communism, Art, and the Beach Boys? Eh? Eh?
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (Caldecott Winner) — The only novel to ever win this award (it traditionally goes to picture books), and my #1 most-recommended book of last year. Heck, it was a featured part of the family Christmas letter.
  • Let It Shine: Three Spirituals by Ashley Bryan (King Illustrator Winner) — Rainbow-riffic pics; great songs. “He’s got the whoooooole wor-ld / In his haaaaands!

  • Nic Bishop Spiders by Nic Bishop (Siebert Honor) — Nic Bishop’s photography chops can make anything look swimsuit-calendar-worthy, even hairy spiders. The arachnids look GOR-GE-OUS.
  • The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean (Printz Winner) — Take note: Antarctica will kill you. Especially if you’re taking a pleasure-trip there with your mad, mad uncle. And your imaginary boyfriend. (Beware: this book merits a serious PG-13 rating. Read it in July, where the cold can’t find you.)

*Those of you who stumble across this page from The Brookeshelf, please keep in mind that I am creating this list for my friends and family, most of whom are not kidlit geeks like you and me. Many are not aware of who won the big book awards of the year. In fact, a few of them probably do not even know they have been given out (gasp!). So don’t roll your eyes about how this is Old News. That’s right, I saw you do it.

And My Teeth Are Still Hurting

Last weekend we went to the Pennsylvania Maple Syrup Festival.  The 61st annual, actually.  In Meyersdale, PA.

Why, you ask?

Well, part of is is because I read Little House in the Big Woods one too many times as a kid, and I’ve always wanted to see real, actual, “sugaring off.”  The other part is because it sounded Kitchy Kool, which it certainly was.  What were the features of the festival?

  • The Lion’s Club pancake breakfast!  Which featured awesome pancakes, but the crummiest sausages ever consumed by man or beast!
  • A parade with giant tractors, the 61st Maple Syrup Princess, annnnnnd — Shriners.  In real, actual, Shriner-cars.
  • An old-timey blacksmith, a display of old-timey cobbler’s tools, and an old-timey NICU incubator, with a really freaky-looking doll inside.
  • The biggest piece of maple candy I’ve ever seen in my life.  It was a big 18″ sugar bear, which must have weighed about twenty pounds.  Whoo.
  • A cute little grandma who mixed up a pot of Spotza (Pennsylvania Dutch for “spot on the snow”) which involves spooning thick maple syrup on shaved ice and eating it with a stick.  (Little House fans, take note.)
  • A guy named Larry who demonstrated how to mix up maple sugar in a hollowed out log of “cucumber wood.”  He also elaborated at great length about how his Grandpap used to make maple liquor using the same log.   The Meyersdale natives standing behind me sighed heavily and muttered, “Jeez, hurry it up, Lar.”

But, most importantly, we learned The Maple Cycle, or whatever its official name is.  If you have a sugar maple, here’s what you do:

Take a hand-drill and bore a hole in the tree trunk.

Then hammer a splinth into the hole, and hang a bucket on it.  Sugar water will drip inside.

Then take the sugar water to a giant vat and boil it forever.  Eleanor was a little scared of the boiling room . . .

But William thought it was just dandy.

Then you listen to a guy named Larry talk while spooning syrup into a log, and then you stumble outside and see Time Travelers.

Yes, the Meyersdale Maple Syrup Festival is popular with Civil War soldiers AND Revolutionary War soldiers.  I wonder if they have some kind of rivalry going.  Brian and I had some discussion of who would do better in a fight: Civil War Guy or Rev. War Guy?  I think the Rev. War Guy would, ’cause he’d be more likely to throw a hatchet at someone.  At least, according to the movies he would.

Oh — I mention this just for my sister-in-law, Kristen, who showed interest in it before.  On the way home, we stopped at a convenience store and found a bottle of this:

I had sampled Birch Beer on our trip to New England last fall (it tastes like the purple Necco wafers).  I had no idea that there was a Pennsylvania version — Black Bear Mountain Birch Beer!  It has the life cycle of th black bear described on the back of the bottle!  And what does it taste like?  Wintergreen Life-Savers.  I know, I know, it sounds awful, but trust me — it was kinda good, and strangely addictive.  (For those of you keeping track, it was MUCH better than the Twin Bing candy bar, but not as good as a Peanut Chew.  I’d say it was on the level of an Idaho Spud.)

Happy Birthday, Ellabelle!

She’s threeeeeeeeee!

Yesterday we had a Jungle-themed party for our girl, and it went just swimmingly. I got the theme from a book about children’s parties (all of my ideas come from books) but, oddly, all of the animals featured in the book-version of the party were things like giraffes and zebras, none of which actually live in the jungle. Still — it’d be kinda weird to invite someone to a Savannah Party. Like it’s some kinda Antebellum South-themed soireé.

Anyway, our Jungle Party was just ripping. The kids played Animal Charades, followed by an impromptu retelling/pantomime of Caps For Sale (aka “The Hatseller and the Monkeys”) which is a story Jeff, Ella, and some of the party guests know from preschool. (“Se Venden Go-roooooos!”) We then played Pin the Tail on the Monkey, the concept of which most of the kids couldn’t grasp, and then had a Peanut Hunt.

The peanuts had little faces drawn on them, an idea inspired by this Raggedy Ann & Andy book I used to read as a child. Anyway, that’s why Brian and I had spent some of the previous evening drawing on peanuts while watching Duck Soup. And that is considered a standard-style evening in our household.

After the Great Peanut Hunt, the kids had a Wild Animal Feast, with Jungled (aka deviled) Eggs, Red Snakes (aka red pepper strips), Crocodile Teeth (aka cucumbers . . . okay, that was a stretch, I admit, but we were naming the foods as we served them), and Jungle Trees (broccoli). Then . . . the cake!

This cake made me sooooo happy. It’s the “yellow cake” recipe given to me by an incredible cake-baker who used to live in my ward. I am VERY proud of the lettering on the frosting, there.

At the end, Ella opened her presents, with this goofy “Heavy Heavy Hang Over” tradition that my family has always done. Ella was very good about saying “thank-you” before ripping into the goodies.

Brian and I gave Ella this spiffy Lego set I found at the thrift store months ago. It’s this “Little Forest Friends” set, and it looks like a Winnie-the-Pooh set was mixed in with it. It came in this gigantic storage bin, with these great building plates and everything. The set’s been discontinued, which is too bad, because it’s reallllllly adorable.

Jeffrey and Eleanor spent the entire afternoon after the party playing “Honey Village.” In fact, they are still playing that game as I type this. Says Jeffrey: “Winnie the Pooh is a honey bounty hunter.”

Oh — I also made these candy “Tiger Tails,” which was inspired by a recipe from my Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey cookbook. What are they? Marshmallows . . . dipped in caramel . . . dipped in candy coating . . . drizzled with chocolate . . . on a stick. They are inspired by a candy that is made and sold at Disneyland. They are INTENSE. Jeffrey, who usually inhales his treats, nibbled halfway through his Tiger Tail and then declared that he was “full.” Eleanor still hasn’t finished hers.

But she looks adorable eating it, doesn’t she?