2016 Favorite Books for Young Readers

It’s that time of year again — when I slap out a list of books I’ve enjoyed over the past year.

2016 was very much the Year of Picture Books. Not only was there a stunningly high number of quality picture books this year, but I also took time to try and read more of them than usual. (In the meantime, I read hardly any YA fiction this year. Sorry, YA fiction fans.) I’m sure part of the decision to do this is because my youngest child is 5, and so my picture book read-aloud years are numbered. Gotta relish it while I can.

And the usual disclaimer: this is a list of personal faves, not a full compendium of every good book that you or your kids should read or that a library should purchase. (If you want one of those, click here.) There were quite a few books that aren’t here because I didn’t have time to read them or simply couldn’t get my hands on (like King Baby or John Lewis’ March Vol. 3, THANKS A LOT, POTUS45) and there were others that many of my colleagues raved over, but which I rated a personal meh.* 

There’s no accounting for taste. Likewise: not every book on this list is for you. If you’d like a personal recommendation based on your previous reads, I’m happy to do it!

PICTURE BOOKS

before-morning

I’ll Forever Think of This Book When It Snows: Before Morning by Joyce Sidman, illus. Beth Krommes

you-belong-here

Best Book to Give New Parents: You Belong Here by M.H. Clark, illus. Isabelle Arsenault

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Now Considered Best Available Book About Starting School: School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, illus. Christian Robinson

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Best Ending to a Picture Book “Trilogy” We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen

du-iz-tak

You Know That Phase in Fourth Grade When You Tried to Make Up Your Own Language? Carson Ellis Took It to the Next Level: Du Iz Tak? By Carson Ellis

they-all-saw-a-cat

Best Book For Inspiring Art Students: They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel

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2nd Best Book About Education Published This Year: Frank and Lucky Get Schooled by Lynne Rae Perkins

leave-me-alone

This is My Personal Absolute Favorite. Grumpy Old Woman Knits! And there are ALIENS! Leave Me Alone! By Vera Brosgol

thunder-boy-jr

In Which Sherman Alexie is Brilliant Once Again: Thunder Boy, Jr. by Sherman Alexie, illus. Yuyi Morales

a-hat-for-mrs-goldman

Most “Awww”-Inducing Story About A Child Helping a Sweet Elderly Neighbor: A Hat for Mrs. Goldman: A Story About Knitting and Love by Michelle Edwards, illus. G. Brian Karas

lion-lessons

Best Encapsulation of How My Kids Do Pretend Play: Lion Lessons by Jon Agee

emma-and-julia

A Must-Read for Dance Fans: Emma and Julia Love Ballet by Barbara McClintock

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Drool-Worthy Illustrations: The Night Gardener by Terry & Eric Fan

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What happens when the bad guys from a D&D-style game are the heroes: Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke

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Perfect Preschool Springtime Book: When Spring Comes by Kevin Henkes, illus. Laura Dronzek

apples-and-robins

Best use of die-cut shapes and puzzle pictures: Apples and Robins by Lucie Felix

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This was Katie’s favorite. We read it SOOOOO many times: The Best Days are Dog Days by Aaron Meshon

bloom

Best for Fans of “The Paper Bag Princess”: Bloom by Doreen Cronin, illus. David Small

hungry-lion

Channelling Edward Gorey (Or, Sometimes It’s Hilarious When Characters Die): A Hungry Lion, or, A Dwindling Assortment of Animals by Lucy Ruth Cumnins

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Favorite Group Read-Aloud: The Happiest Book Ever! By Bob Shea

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My favorite, funniest author-illustrator does it again: Pug Man’s 3 Wishes by Sebastian Menchenmoser

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Best Non-Knitting Grumpy Grandmother: Don’t Call Me Grandma by Vaunda Michaux Nelson; illus. Elizabeth Zunon

margarash

Channelling Tomi Ungerer (I adored this weird, weird, book): Margarash by Mark Riddle, illus. Tim Miller

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Best Moment of Zen: The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito, illus. Julia Kuo

if-i-was-a-banana

Best Pencil Illustration (This Inspired My Daughter To Draw for Hours): If I Was a Banana by Alexandra Tylee, illus. Kieran Rynhart

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Sometimes Illustrators Switch Mediums and It Takes Your Breath Away: Real Cowboys by Kate Hoefler, illus. Jonathan Bean

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Best Use of Gorgeous Calligraphy (and the story’s a hoot): Poor Little Guy by Elanna Allen

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Most Satisfying Story Involving Woodworking: The Branch by Mireille Messier, illus. Pierre Pratt

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Perfect for the Where’s Waldo and I Spy fans: Toshi’s Little Treasures by Nadine Robert, illus. Aki

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Fairy Tales for the Adventure Time Generation: Super Happy Magic Forest by Matty Long

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Aww, the Middle Ages Sure Loved Their Pets: The White Cat and the MonkA Retelling of the Poem Pangur Ban: by Jo Ellen Bogart, illus. Sydney Smith

 

NONFICTION PICTURE BOOKS

freedom-over-me

Probably the Most Powerful Book on This List: Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan

miracle-man

Most Gorgeous Book About Christianity in a Long, Long Time: Miracle Man: The Story of Jesus by John Hendrix

best-in-snow

Most Awwwww-Dorable Nature Photography: Best in Snow by April Pulley Sayre

freedom-in-congo-square

Most Important History You Probably Didn’t Know About: Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford, illus. R. Gregory Christie

radiant-child

Incredible Artist, Brilliant Illustration: Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe

voyage-in-the-clouds

Most Hilarious History Book: A Voyage in the Clouds: The (Mostly) True Story of the First International Flight by Balloon in 1785 by Matthew Olshan, illus. Sophie Blackall

anything-but-ordinary-addie

Most Interesting Biography of Someone You’ve Never Heard Of: Anything but Ordinary Addie: The True Story of Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic by Mara Rockliff, illus. Iacopo Bruno

preaching-to-the-chickens

Most Sincere Depiction of a Child’s Spiritual Life: Preaching to the Chickens by Jabari Asim, illus. E.B. Lewis

their-great-gift

Absolutely Necessary Reading For All American Children: Their Great Gift: Courage, Sacrifice, and Hope in a New Land by John Coy, photos by Wing Young Huie

adas-violin

Most Inspiring Story: Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood, illus. Sally Comport Wern

the-tree-in-the-courtyard

Perfect Pairing of Illustrator and Subject: The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window by Jeff Gottesfeld, illus. Peter McCarty

can-i-eat-that

I Will Admit That I Read The Title of This Book With the Voice of Steve Urkel. Also: The Tongue Twister on the Last Page is Epic: Can I Eat That? by Joshua David Stein. illus. Julia Rothman

 

BIOGRAPHIES

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The Author’s Enthusiasm For Her Subject is Infectious: Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West by Candace Fleming

some-writer

Most Gorgeous Illustrated Biography: Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet

samurai-rising

Book With the Highest Body Count (and it’s AWESOME): Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune by Pamela Tuner, illus. Gareth Hinds

 

 

POETRY

when-green-becomes-tomatoes

Yes, just the one. This is the most beautiful book of children’s poetry to come out in years, and everything else just kinda faded into the background: When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons by Julie Fogliano, illus. Julie Morstad

 

FOLKLORE

singing-bones

Illustrations Just As Freaky As the Grimm Tales: The Singing Bones, by Shaun Tan

storyteller

Absolutely Gorgeous Middle Eastern Story-Within-A-Story-Within-A-Story: The Storyteller, by Evan Turk

cat-from-hunger-mountain

Best Moral For Our Times: The Cat From Hunger Mountain by Ed Young

little-red

Now THAT’S Graphic Design: Little Red by Bethan Woollvin

 

GRAPHIC NOVELS 

snow-white

Brothers Grimm-Meets-Jazz Era: Snow White: A Graphic Novel by Matt Phelan

delilah-dirk

Indiana Jones-Meets-Pride and Prejudice: Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling by Tony Cliff (be sure to check out the other ones in this series!)

ghosts

The One Your Kids Have Probably Already Read: Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

nameless-city

You Know that Show “Avatar: the Last Airbender”? This is Basically a Book Set in Ba Sing Se: The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks and Jordie Bellaire

mighty-jack

Best Fractured Fairytale (featuring a character with autism!): Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke

 

MIDDLE GRADE FICTION

girl-who-drank-the-moon

Most Original Fantasy: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

inquisitors-tale

Brooke’s Personal Favorite This Year! Featuring Farting Dragons, Monks that Fight Bandits with Donkey Legs, Theological Debates, and Loving Your Crooked Neighbor With Your Crooked Heart: The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

ms-bixbys-last-day

In which John David Anderson is a jerk whose book made me cry during an entire airplane ride:  Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

ghost

Best Sports Story — no, Best School Story — no, best story in which I love the protagonist so much I just want to put my arm around his shoulders and let him know that everything’s gonna be okay:  Ghost by Jason Reynolds

when-the-sea-turned-to-silver

Bless Grace Lin Forever For Introducing More Kids to Chinese Folklore: When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin

full-of-beans

Best Straight-Up, Charming Small-Town Historical Fiction: Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm

charmed-children-of-rookskill-castle

Best Spooky WWII-Era Mystery With a Dash of Steampunk: The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox

cloud-and-wallfish

Most Essential Reading for Life in Trump’s America (Or, Best Historical Fiction In Real-World Dystopia): Cloud & Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

five-children-on-the-western-front

 

Best Sequel to Classic Children’s Novel (Kate Saunders is another jerk who made me cry): Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

 

YA FICTION

(Yeeeeeah, I didn’t read much of this genre this year. Go read Still Life With Tornado, or We Are the Ants, or The Sun Is Also a Star, they are supposed to be great.)

the-lie-tree

Best Introverted Protagonist Who Becomes Fearless in Her Pursuit of Revenge (also best mystery; very reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe or classic stories like “The Monkey’s Paw”): The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

burn-baby-burn

Best Book With Strong Independent Disco Divas: Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina

 

Happy reading!

 

*Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale, Sarah Pennypacker’s Paxand Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow. Seek ’em out if you’re so inclined, you might enjoy them!

They Literally Had a Ball

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Katie jumped in my bed first thing on her birthday and snuggled as I recited “Now We Are Six.”

She replied, “Dad and Grandma already told me that one, Mom.”

Well, pardon me for wanting to inject a little culture into the day, m’lady.

We were lucky to have Katie’s birthday fall on a Saturday this year, so her party was an “official” observance of the event. As another stroke of luck, Uncle Michael also happened to be in town for a conference that weekend, and celebrated with us.

When Eleanor turned six, we had a “Cinderella” party for her, and so I decided to do the same for Katie: when the girls arrived, I played the part of Wicked Stepmother and made them all get to work “cleaning” my house.

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They all thought this was hilarious, and as a matter of fact, they did a remarkably good job of finding a series of lost items that had rolled into corners of the room. I now have seven more pencils than I did before.

After all that toil, it was quite the surprise to receive an invitation to the ball from the Duke (aka William). But I (W. Stepmother) said they couldn’t go, and they all “cried” until the Fairy Godmother arrived (aka Eleanor).

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Amazingly, Eleanor still had the original “invitation” from her own 6th birthday, dug it out of her nightstand drawer, and that’s what we used here.

Fairy Godmother took them all up to Katie’s room, where we had displayed all of the various princess dresses we’ve collected over the years. We have a dozen or so of them! Geez. (One party guest brought her own dress from home, ha.)

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One the girls were all gussied up, they went to the kitchen to decorate paper crowns . . .

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. . . and then the ball began! At first, Eleanor and I spent time teaching them “proper” dance moves, but then we turned on “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and dumped a laundry basket of balloons on their heads and let them really boogie down. (I was surprised at how most of the girls knew the words and sang along!)

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Big change from Eleanor’s 6th birthday: this time, Jeff only participated under extreme duress

 

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But all good things must come to an end, and the clock struck midnight. The girls rushed back upstairs to change out of their princess clothes.

And . . . okay, the idea here was to have everyone leave a shoe behind, BUT all of these kids have been well trained to take off their shoes when entering a home, so there were no shoes to leave behind. Awkward.

Anyway, we gathered up one shoe from each pair that was piled next to the front door, filled them with treats, and hid them in the closet. The boys then created a trail of paper hearts that lead from Katie’s room, around the house in a loop, and ended at the closet.

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Whew! After all that partying down, it was nice to settle down to cake and ice cream.

 

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Except . . .ugh. This is hands-down one of the worst cakes I’ve ever made.

I admit that, owing to the no-sugar diet I’ve been on, my heart wasn’t in it. It also didn’t help that Mrs. White, my trusty stand mixer, has been broken since Christmas and I couldn’t make my standard super-fluffy vanilla frosting.

It was technically a princess cake . . . but I stupidly forgot to refrigerate it, so when I went to frost it the crumbs came off the outer layer and ruined the frosting.

The frosting also wasn’t thick enough, so the whole dress kinda . . . melted . . . off the princess’ body.

It also didn’t help that my mind frequently floated elsewhere during the day: the global Women’s March was going on all day, and even though I couldn’t participate (because Katie) (and my knitted pussyhat still isn’t finished) I thought about the march all morning and afternoon. Yes, this led to weird tonal-dissonance moments like when I listened to Gloria Steinem’s speech while simultaneously frosting the princess cake. (Eleanor listened with me, and lit up when she recognized the reference to the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech from Macbeth.) Or getting teary-eyed when I saw photos of sister-marches in Ghana and Iraq, while a group of spunky little girls danced around me, belting out Anna Kendrick’s “Get Back Up Again.”

But it was a good day, a powerful day. One I’m so blessed to give to my daughter — to both my daughters.

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These pajamas and mini dollhouse were presents from Gma. Suzie

Many happy returns of the day!

California Gorging

Virgin Airlines had an amazing airfare sale on Black Friday. To wit: did I want to score a round-trip flight to Los Angeles for $95 (including tax)? Why, yes!

And so it was written, so it was done. I took a solo trip to Los Angeles over MLK weekend. It was so nice to have a trip with just me, myself, and I.

Of course, the situation changed a wee bit once I arrived.

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Nephlings! So many cute nephlings! Especially my delicous youngest niece, baby Megan. She is scrumptious with her dinner-roll legs and fluffy pudding cheeks and whatnot.

The the non-baby-eating deliciousness was also quite epic. My sister and I took the time to indulge in as many sugar-laden, flavorful things we could get our hands on.

Such as stuffed churros. Churros stuffed with cream and guava and dulce de leche! Insane.

Also Diddy Reise ice cream sandwiches . . .

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. . . and these epic donuts . . . (one of the rare cases where cake donuts > raised donuts)

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. . . and tacos from one of the taco trucks that are on every corner (not pictured), and at the end of all things, a fine lunch at Lemonade, which is like Panera crossed with Sweet Tomatoes, only 10x better than you think.

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Truffle mac & cheese, crunchy corn with sweet potatoes, thai chicken & green bean salad. Also: coconut lime apple lemonade!

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In between all that, we actually did stuff, like walk around the Venice canals and watch the kids play . . .

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The people who own the lantern house had a sign asking people to please stop taking professional photos on their pier. What a trial.

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A lot of the bridges still had Christmas decorations on them. Cute.

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And go to a playground and watch the kids play . . .

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And go to the beach and watch the kids play . . .

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(There’s a pattern here, if only I could put my finger on it)

I also got to read stories and baby sit and hold my niece all through Primary so Liz could be the substitute Primary chorister for the day. I also achieved my greatest ambition for the weekend: getting Liz and Ryan to go on a date while I stayed home with the kids. (AND THEY SAID IT COULDN’T BE DONE.)

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It was a little sad to head back to rainy Seattle, but not too sad, since we are coming back in February. It’s nice to already have my list of Things to Eat planned out in advance. Can’t wait to have some more great convos with my sis!

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Twelve Days and The Queen of the Night

One thing I didn’t mention in my previous Christmas posts is that on Christmas Eve we watched Ingmar Bergman’s film adaptation of The Magic Flute. It’s something I’ve been meaning to share with my kids for a while (it’s not the absolute best staging of my favorite opera, but it is certainly the most kid-accessible) and since it’s traditionally shown on Swedish television at Christmastime — why not?

And Randy missed the first showing, so he put it on again on Dec. 26.

And Caitlin made sure we all listened to Florence Foster Jenkins’ epic terrible performance of the Queen of the Night’s “I’ll have revenge” aria.

Which led to the entire family humming various snippets of the opera for the next several days. (William created a “whale version” of the Queen of the Night, which was hysterical.)

So  . . . when you see the following photographs showing our adventures between Christmas and Epiphany, keep in mind that there is likely at least one person in each shot humming Mozart under their breath.

Dec. 26 is Uncle Jake’s birthday, so Erica always makes an effort to have some fun activity for everyone to do. Usually this has been a movie, but this year there weren’t any films that the whole group wanted to watch. So I suggested something that I’ve often passed by while driving around town, and always wanted to try:

WHIRLYBALL!

 

If you’re unfamiliar, let me explain: Whirlyball is like lacrosse . . . played with a whiffleball . . . and you shoot the ball into a basketball hoop . . . all the while driving bumper cars.

Bumper cars! The sport of kings!!

We were able to finagle a reservation, and it was JUST AS FUN as I imagined it would always be.

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Practicing hitting the targets

Wheeeeeeee!

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Learning the rules

And since I’m taller than most of my in-laws, this was the first time I’ve felt any kind of particular advantage while playing a sport — my longer arms were way more adept at scooping the ball off of the floor — although the award for Most Dedicated Player certainly goes to Randy.

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This was so fun.

Eleanor made a few key shots, as well. It was great. My only regret is that nobody realized that it wouldn’t be a good game for Erica to play, what with the Frostbite being in utero. But at least Jake had a great time. (He was elated when, upon the first game’s conclusion, he was informed that we had the court rented out for another full hour. “Whaaaat, we can play again???“)

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We also had birthday crepes, as per tradition

The evening was more restless — we were driving to Utah the next day, and the in-laws were flying home — so the afternoon was a whirlwind of laundry, packing, cleaning. I turned on a few Christmas movies to settle down the kids while I sorted out snow gear, and chose How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas. It had been ages since I had watched those shows, and the charming thing is that my in-laws must have felt the same way, because one by one they each walked through the living room, saw what was playing, and were immediately drawn in to watch. Everyone was amused that we could still remember the songs from Grinch, even after all these years.

Then . . . the drive to Utah was the next day. Hoooooooooooo boy.

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There was a blizzard in Snoqualmie Pass, so we decided to take a detour and drive through Portland.

But when we reached Portland, my dad called to tell us that I-84 was closed down in the Blue Mountains. So, we had to take a detour off the detour — following a two-lane highway through central Oregon and then meeting up with the freeway again in Ontario, Idaho. Our drive had exploded from the usual 12 hours into 18 hours.

We also took a moment to purchase snow cables for our tires in Portland. This was wise, because we had to drive up and over Mt. Hood, which looked like this:

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Yeah, it was beautiful. Beautiful and terrifying.

The thing we didn’t realize is that there would be no commercial services for the bulk of the drive. Just before Mt. Hood, we stopped at a convenience store/hunting supply shop (seriously, there were mounted elk heads all over the inside, and the cashiers were wearing camo) to use the bathroom, but after the mountain . . . nothing.

Like, nothing for miles. We were driving behind pickup trucks hauling hay bales. The kids complained about being thirsty, and we’d say there was an upcoming town on the map, and then we’d pass an intersection with a feed store, and nothing else. “I guess that was the town,” we’d say, and the kids whined for water.

This was fortunately the only time the kids whined. For them, our extra-long drive just meant more time to lounge in pajamas, watching movies, playing video games, and eating junk food.

It felt like we had been driving through central Oregon all day; it felt like we’d be driving through centeral Oregon forever. Towards the end of the detour, we began to pass through towns with charming little main streets. We admired all of them while doing our impersonation of Jimmy Stewart at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” happily greeting everything he sees: “MERRY CHRISTMAS, PAIUTE MUSEUM!” “MERRY CHRISTMAS, COUNTY CELLULAR!” “MERRY CHRISTMAS, TACO STAND WITH FAMILY KARAOKE AT FRIDAYS AT 9!”

We didn’t get to West Point until 12:30 a.m.

Fortunately, our adventures in Utah were blessedly snowstorm-free. I got to spend a leisurely morning thrifting at the DI with my mom (remembering the whining, I found water bottles for everyone in my family for the trip home) and we went to watch Rogue One at the movies (I had given Star Wars shirts to all of my children for Christmas, just for this).

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Alex gave me a Christmas present, which was a plaid scarf, on the same day I happened to be wearing a plaid shirt and carrying a plaid bag

We also went sledding with cousins June and Emmy, and got to hang out with my brother for a while at his house. Sugarhouse Park is such an ideal place for sledding!

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The other girls were so fearless on the big hill! Katie, on the other hand, buried her face in my leg and sobbed, terrified. “But if I don’t go down, everyone will laugh at me!” she said, all teary-voiced and sad. Fortunately, Brian still had a bag of candy leftover from the movies and was able to lure her away for a nature hike.

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That evening we took the whole gang to see the lights on Temple Square and the “candy windows” at Macy’s.

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Brian’s brother Peter and his wife Katherine were able to meet us for dinner at the City Creek Center, which is great, since we hadn’t any other chances to meet with them during the holidays. I was greatly pleased to discover that The Red Iguana had opened a new branch at the food court. (Mango mole enchiladas. Nummmmm.)

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On the way back to my parents’ house, we stopped to drive through the light display in Layton city park. My favorite part is always the crazy tunnel, which is coordinated with Christmas music.

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The next day we headed up to Ogden to pick up Jeff’s friend Sol (who moved to Utah the previous summer). This was because Jeff’s big Christmas present was a chance to try out indoor skydiving with a friend.

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Flying Jeff
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Flying Sol

All the other kids (and June and Emmy and Grandma, too) came along to watch the amazing flying gangliness. It was far more entertaining than I expected it to be. Eleanor now says that she’d like to try indoor skydiving with a friend for her birthday.

Afterwards we took ’em all to Chick Fil A for lunch, and Jeff got to hang out with his friend and talk. And I got to do the same with my mom. Can’t beat that.

 

Later that day we headed down to Salt Lake for a Plethora party, and then onwards to Provo. We go to hang out with cousin Anderson . . .

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. . . and were happy to hear the announcement that there will soon be an Andersibling!

Katie was able to wear aunt Erica’s “Ginny gown,” something similar to what Eleanor used to wear when she studied dance at Virginia Tanner Dance. (It’s a Tanner dance tradition.)

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We also worked on our traditional jigsaw puzzle and ate lots of chocolate. I’m sorry I didn’t take more pictures of our time in Provo — which included New Year’s Eve (!) — but I was feeling pretty darn mellow at that point, and we were in a cat-like loungeabout mood. Nothing all that exciting to photograph.

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Disney/Pixar puzzle this year. Completed in West Point. The cousins all worked together to sort the different pieces.

Then the drive home, which was refreshingly uneventful, and one more day off school before winter break ended. I spent the day putting together this LEGO set with William. He is so delightful to work with. When we completed the project, he was so excited that he jumped up and down and scurried around the room, making little laser-blast sounds. He also insisted I take multiple photos from various angles:

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The following weekend, my friend Julia came up from Portland for the weekend, and we had a movie-fest that included viewings of Queen of Katwe and La La Land. And we took down the Christmas tree (which made the kids cry) and took down the Christmas cards (which made me cry).

Many happy returns of this season.

Glorious Christmas

It’s come to my attention lately that I only have about five or so years left with all my little ones living under my roof.

Therefore I’m more inclined to make a big deal out of holidays, vacations, etc. while I’m still in this happy place.

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These are the presents for my family as well as the extended aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.

This year was no exception. How I love to spoil my little ones. How I love to cuddle them and eat good food and look at their new books and admire their fuzzy new pajamas.

Here are the stockings all filled up on Christmas Morning. I like to take a picture of what Santa has done before the kids have a chance to discover everything.

And then I also take a picture of this:

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They’re watching you.

Yeah, those are tiny little snowmen. Jake was given a pair of “Holiday Specs” by his mom, and when you put them on they turn all bright pinpoints of light into little snowmen. You can even rock the glasses from side to side to make the snowmen dance!

The adults all thought this was absolutely wild. We squealed and passed them around, and even went outside to look at the radio tower light across the street. (Big red snowman!)

Jake got his camera out to capture the kids’ reactions to putting on the specs. But to everyone’s surprise, they didn’t think it was all that cool or surprising. They said something along the lines of “hey, neat” and that was it! Humph.

Here are Das Kinder on the stairs on Christmas morning:

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Yes, this IS the best photo of them. Shush, you.

And here they are discovering their stockings. Katie put her hands over her mouth and gasped-squealed when she saw that Santa had, indeed, brought the Orange Fairy. (Only one more fairy in the collection to go!)

After stockings and a quick breakfast of Danish kringle, we swept ourselves off to church. Jake and Erica came along with us, which was great because both Brian and I were involved in the music program. I was in charge of prelude music, which were a set of organ/piano duets that I played with Charlotte, my RS president. (No pictures of this, sorry.)

Then after church the rest of Brian’s siblings gathered at our house for their family’s traditional Christmas Day breakfast/brunch of huevos rancheros. (Um . . . no pictures of this, either.)

Finally . . . before the children exploded . . . we opened our presents. Kathryn and Randy gave Brian and I a set of cute little containers for homemade ice cream, along with a beautiful ceramic artwork by a potter Brian used to go to school with (it’s now hanging on my dining room wall). I gave Brian a new watch, which turned out to be the exact same model/brand as his old watch . . . and the exact same model/brand as Randy’s watch. Brian gave his old watch to Jeff and the three of them all held up their wrists in proud display of three-generation Timex digital watch fans.

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Giftwrapping Carnage!

Eleanor enjoyed knitting mittens so much that she whipped together another pair for William, and then wrapped them up using the old box-in-a-box-in-a-box trick.

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My cuddly boy!

Here is William in his pajamas, which he changed back into as soon as we returned home from church. The hat he’s wearing was a Christmas Eve present, and he loved it so much that he wore it nonstop for pretty much an entire week. Even in church — I was in the choir seats, and looked down into the congregation to see my son wearing his sherpa trapper hat in the chapel. I pantomimed for him to take it off, but he merely shook his head, quietly placing his hands on the ear flaps as if to prevent me from using my psychic powers to remove it.

I think he wins the Most Cuddliest Award.

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Jake and Sven volunteered to cook Christmas Day dinner, which was more than fine with me. They chose to make sushi and other Asian-inspired food, in tribute to the trip to Japan that they had taken together the previous spring (and also because sushi is delicious).

Besides the sushi — which included breaded panko chicken as one of the fillings, wow — there was this stir-fried hoisin duck with bok choy dish that tasted fabulous.

There were also supposed to be gyoza, but we didn’t have the correct kind of gyoza wrappers, so instead we had a bowl of gyoza-tasting filling scramble. It still tasted great.

Working together, we made roll after roll of sushi in no time. There was a big row of sushi platters going down the entire table.

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Sushirama!

AND YET. It all disappeared in about 15 minutes. Yummmmmmmm.

More games, more treats, more family, more everything that evening. I made sure to keep the “cookie tree” (i.e. the three-tiered cake stand) well stocked through the day. Caitlin and Randy and the kids and I had all helped frost and decorate a big batch of my mom’s sugar cookies, and it was fun to set them out for everyone to enjoy, along with a stock of highly-coveted sold-out treats from Trader Joe’s that I had stashed away in early November. (Chocolate Mint Mini Shortbread Stars, and Chocolate-Dipped Candy Cane Jo-Joe’s. They sell out almost immediately after Thanksgiving.)

We also ate the figgy pudding I had cooked with my pressure cooker a few days earlier. It was . . . okay. I think there was a typo in the recipe, because it gave instructions to soak a bunch of dried fruit in warm water to plump it, but then only uses a few pieces for the top of the pudding. What about the rest of the fruit? Eh, so it was kind of dry. Next year I’ll see if I can fix that.

Here is Eleanor holding one of the puddings.

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Next year, pudding! NEXT YEAR I PROMISE I’LL MAKE A BETTER VERSION OF YOU!

Yeah, her holiday outfit is eclectic and adorable. Here’s the full view:

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How I adore this girl.

So wonderful! Her pretty floral socks say “STOP TALKING” around the cuff. Every thinking woman needs to own a pair of those.

Prelude to Christmas

We were lucky again this year — Brian’s parents and assorted (but not all) siblings came to stay with us for Christmas!

We kicked things off in grand style: Eleanor brought us milk and pastries first thing in the morning, dressed as St. Lucia.

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Note the cool Nordic slippers. We had found them at DI only days before.

Traditionally, St. Lucia Day is Dec. 13, but we decided to postpone it a week so the grandparents could be here. Mmm, chocolate babka!

(There would have been saffron rolls, but my big stand mixer broke the day before in the middle of making figgy pudding. which meant no cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, but to tell the truth it was kind of liberating to have my baking obligations come to a premature end. Fortunately I had already stashed a pair of Danish kringles from Larsen’s Bakery in my freezer, and we ate those on Christmas morning instead.) It was a perfect start to a day spent perusing the aisles at the local Scandinavian grocery store with Randy & Kathryn. (Mmmmm, yellow split pea soup with lamb!)

That afternoon, we had our traditional last-day-of-school Santa Claus Tea Party. Whew, so many treats to enjoy! The kids always look forward to the mini scones with lemon curd and creme fraiche. (And so do I.) I also found this cute little snowman cake at Trader Joe’s, but it wasn’t very tasty.

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The following day, Uncle Jake and Aunt Erica came to see us, and we all went skating together.

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Well . . . Randy and I went along as observers. (I had a fat stack of December magazines to flip through.) But everyone else gave it a try, and I was impressed! Those skating lessons have paid off . . . all of my kids feel confident whirling around the ice, which is something I desperately wanted to do as a child. I never lived close enough to a rink in my childhood to make that happen, so it’s cool to give that skill to my kids. Since I’ve lived in colder climes as an adult, I’ve been surprised how often group skating activities occur, whether with church, school, or Scouts.

We concluded our skating with a trip to the Cheesemonger’s Table, where I was also able to purchase some excellent cheese for Christmas Eve. (More on that below.)

The day after that heralded Aunt Caitlin’s arrival, and that called for a bowling outing. With pizza and nachos! Oh, glee! (It had been a very long time since I had eaten pizza.)

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I’d brag about my double strike, but then I remembered that I was playing on Katie’s team and had the bumpers up. I suppose I shouldn’t be so proud of that.

In the evening after bowling, Jake & Erica returned to my house and helped construct the annual Gingerbread Creation. We decided to let the children pick the theme for the gingerbread this year, and they chose Smaug the Dragon from The Hobbit.

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Brian made the interesting design choice of creating flat panels of gingerbread that slotted together into a dragon-shaped framework, which was then covered with candy.
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Here is the great and glorious Smaug, about to devour a chocolate Santa Bilbo

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The final lead-up to Christmas was our big dinner on Christmas Eve. I decided to scale the meats back a bit from last year, which had made everyone groan as they were leaving the table. You never want your dinner guests to groan.

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The woman in purple is my friend, Deborah. And it looks like Frederick has a place at the table!

This year’s menu:

Appetizers: Hot chocolate and toasted nuts (I’ve figured out how to make low-glycemic hot chocolate, and this is a very happy thing)

~~Caroling~~

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Kathryn was nice enough to find a Christmas Eve candle to go in the center of the Advent wreath this year. I’ve never had the time to find one before.
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Eleanor and William played their “Deck the Halls” duet as part of the caroling service
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Katie is pictured playing “O Christmas Tree,” which she LOVES to play. My contribution was to find copies of “See Amid the Winter’s Snow,” which was my new favorite carol of the season.

First Course: Spinach soup with hard-boiled eggs and sourdough rye bread. My kids loved the rye bread. I mention this because I like to put a positive spin on things.

Second Course: Pickled herring, other veggie pickles, crackers, cheeses. (I also had smoked salmon, but forgot to put it out.) The cheeses were divine. My favorite was an English “truckle cheddar,” which came wrapped in blue tartan cloth.

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Third Course: Swedish meatballs, Jasson’s Temptation (contributed by Kristen and Sven), lingonberry jam, and salad (contributed by my friend Deborah)

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Everyone crammed into the library to play The Great Dalmouti.

Fourth Course: Rice Pudding with cream and sugar, glogg (this year everyone sang, “All You Need is Glogg”) cinnamon cookies, various candies

I think last year I also had baked ham and sausages. I think I was wise to leave them out this time.

We had a break between Third and Fourth Course to play games, such as The Great Dalmouti (as pictured above). I didn’t want to play at the time because I was exhausted, and having a difficult time summoning holiday cheer in general. I was still very, very upset with the upcoming Presidential administration and having a hard time not feeling cynical and angry at everything. So, I didn’t play games, but took a break and played carols on the piano instead. Which was probably the right thing to do at the time, although I now regret doing so.

Eleanor’s First Knitting Project

Eleanor’s Girl Scout troop decided to do a Secret Santa gift exchange this year. Eleanor decided that her gift would be handmade, and we had a great discussion of different crafting possibilities before finally deciding on a knitting project.

Fortunately, we had some extra-chunky fluffy orange wool sitting around, so Eleanor decided to knit some mittens.

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This is a project from the picture book Sunny’s Mittens, which was written back in the 80s with the express purpose of teaching kids how to knit mittens while they read the book. Mittens are the ideal first knitting project; circular knitting is easier than flat; mittens take far less time than a scarf and are more exciting to wear.

The first mitten was made during the last weeks of the Bad Apples rehearsals, and so went fairly slowly. But the second mitten flew by in a matter of days!

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The mittens just after being knitted up, before finishing/felting/blocking

After knitting up the mittens, Eleanor felted them. This involves soaping the mittens in hot water, rubbing them for 5 minutes on a washboard, then rinsing them in icy cold water, then repeating the process a second time.

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After felting, she brushed the mittens with a scrubbing brush until they were fluffy, then cycled them off in the clothes dryer.

At the end of this process, the mittens were incredibly thick and practically waterproof. I kept picking them up and making the mittens “talk” to each other like little orange Muppets.

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Eleanor is so proud of her accomplishment that she’s decided to make a second pair to give William for Christmas. I found another skein of the same wool at the local knitting store, but it’s an undyed brown instead of orange. However, Ellie’s decided to add an orange stripe. I love to see her so enthusiastic about this project!

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Snowflakes & Stages

We had a magic moment this week:

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SNOW! Real snow, not the piddly half-inch we’ve gotten in previous years. A good three-inch snowfall, enough to cancel school and shut down the town. My kids were thrilled. Eleanor mixed up pancakes for everyone to eat and then the whole crew headed out the door to play with all the other kids in the neighborhood.

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They stayed outside for hours. I had time to make myself an apple waffle for breakfast, then mix up a giant mug of sugar-free hot chocolate to drink while I practiced Christmas carols on the organ. I was decked out in my best Fair Isle sweater and watching flakes blow around outside while I pounded out “See Amid the Winter’s Snow,” which is my new favorite carol of the season.

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The kids around the block were in and out of each others’ houses all day. Eleanor and Katie were at their friend Layla’s for almost the entire afternoon!

It’s too bad I didn’t seize the opportunity to go to Costco. Snow days are the best days to go there, the place is usually deserted.

And yes, I’ll admit that I got snappy when I had to say “no, you can’t play video games” for the zillionth time in a row. William threw a full-bodied hissy fit over it. Augh.

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Eleanor decided to outline her snow angel with snowballs. I think they look like pom-poms!
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For some reason, Eleanor also decided to take half a dozen photos of herself holding a snowball with her bare hand. 
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Getting ready for snow play: “Look at me, Mom! I’m all dressed for an adventure in the mountains!”

The only downside to the snow is that it also cancelled the Friday evening performance of “Bad Apples,” the elementary school’s musical. To make up for this, the school decided to do two performances in a row on Saturday. We had already purchased tickets for the Saturday matinee, so it wasn’t much of a schedule change for Brian and I  (and Kristen, too, who came along to watch), but for Eleanor and William it was absolutely exhausting.

But fun. They didn’t regret one moment. The play was based on Snow White, and was written by the same team that created the adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” that the school performed back in the spring.

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William is standing behind the kid in the red vest
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Eleanor is the one wearing the red skirt. Both she and William got small parts this time. That’s what you get when you audition for a musical comedy with the “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech from Macbeth.

Jeff didn’t attend the matinee with us because he was busy performing with the Seattle Children’s Choir, who was having its Christmas concerts at the same time. Doesn’t he look all studly in his choir tux?

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We are all attending the Sunday evening choir concert today. I can’t wait to hear it! They are performing “A Scandinavian Christmas” this year and I’m looking forward to some beautiful carols.

Christmas Selfies

Last Saturday we had our ward’s Christmas Brunch. I love that it’s a morning activity and that it’s early in the holiday season — it’s a great way to get things rolling before life gets too hectic.

We made winter kits to hand out to homeless people, and William got a chance to visit with Santa:

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Eleanor, William and Katie participated in the Primary Nativity program. William was a cow, Katie a sheep, and Eleanor an angel. So sad to realize that Eleanor won’t be in this next year.

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Katie’s right in front, Eleanor is the angel in back to the right. I have no idea where William is.

I was asked to give a little “spiritual thought” after the nativity was finished. I kept it short and sweet — this is what I wrote:

My favorite Christmas Eve memory is from when I was eight years old, and I found a strange man sleeping on the couch in my family’s living room.

What’s even stranger is that when the man sat up, I began jumping around the room because I was so happy.

Because that’s when I realized that the stranger was really Brother Anderson, my family’s home teacher, and the reason he was sleeping on the couch is because my parents had gone to the hospital the night before for the birth of my new baby brother, Erich.

It was a novelty that we knew that he was going to be a boy — ultrasounds had just become part of standard prenatal care. I remember my dad coming home and taking us to the hospital that day to see Erich. I remember taking my Walkman and some cassettes — Sesame Street Disco — and my favorite Care Bear with me in the car because it was a 45 minute drive to the hospital.

My mom says she always regrets her decision to come home early from the hospital so she could be with us on Christmas Day. But we all were so happy to put a little yellow bassinet under the tree with our new baby inside. That evening I sat next to the tree and held Erich in my arms, gently rocking him while singing “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” over and over again until he fell asleep.

And I remember: this is the first time I knew, even at age eight, I knew I would remember that moment for the rest of my life. It was the first time my mind held up its mental camera and went, “click!” I could almost hear the shutter closing.

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This is the picture I took while giving my talk. Note how many people are taking pictures!

I have a friend who is a photographer, and she is always encouraging people to go ahead and take more pictures with their phones: friends, family, food, whatever. This is one of the oldest methods people have of showing their love and affection of something: we make an image of it. We take a selfie. We share them with friends, whether in a photo album, or with social media.

But even better than a physical or digital photo is the one we can take mentally — turn to our family, our friends, and think, “click!” This is something I’m going to consciously remember for a long time. This is my Christmas selfie.

Better than that, try to take a Christmas “selfie” of Christ’s gospel and mission this season. Is it in the love and service you give to others? That you receive from others? The warmth of the Spirit you feel while singing a Christmas carol? When you see Christ, do you see yourself — the best version of yourself?

Perhaps you are having a difficult time with Christmas this year, perhaps you’ve suffered some losses. Maybe your mental camera is clicked to the off button. Please remember that even if your mental camera can’t focus this year, Christ is still with you — has never forgotten you, has an eternal eye turned towards you as a resource for help and guidance. This is the kind of selfie that will never turn yellow or get lost in a digital dustbin — when we take upon ourselves the name of Christ and keep working to be more like Him.

Never forget that our Heavenly Parents are with us not just during the Christmas season but all year round. It will be the Christmas selfie that lasts.

I think it wasn’t so bad — I told Brian I was trying to “channel my inner Uchtdorf.”

The next day we took time to visit one of our favorite Christmas events — the Festival of the Nativity in Bellevue. This is put on by a group of stakes out by the temple, and the level of organization and attention to detail is astounding. We missed going to it last year (owing to a mix-up, I was coaxed into accompanying a violinist at a similar festival in Tacoma, which wasn’t nearly as nice, and the drive home was terrible) so it was especially great to be there again.

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Katie is holding the checklist for the children’s scavenger hunt. William was the best at it and helped everyone find the hardest items.
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Oh, Jeff.

Jeff was especially intrigued by the new Family Search center that was recently added to the stake center there. So many techy gadgets — but it was a little crowded, so I didn’t stay long.

My favorite creche this time was one from Nepal. The little beads! The details! So cute!

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Once again, we dressed up as the Holy Family, and once again the kids made me be Mary because those Three Kings outfits are so alluring.

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This year, I even managed to get the kids to sit still and listen to the live music for a few moments before we headed back home. How lovely and peaceful — I love that my brood is beginning to appreciate quiet, beautiful things.

Over the River, and Through the Woods, and Mountains, and Desert, and Another River . . .

After several years of having family come to us for Thanksgiving, we decided it was our turn to visit them for the holiday. Our kids have grown old enough that the long drive to Utah isn’t as arduous as it once was. For them, the drive means wearing pajamas, eating junk food, and playing video games all day. What’s not to love about that?

I had forgotten, however, that even-numbered calendar years are the ones where my siblings and I are expected to eat Thanksgiving at our in-laws’ houses. But because all of my siblings were going to be in town for the holiday, my parents decided to go all Hobbit-style and celebrate Second Thanksgiving the next day.

Brian was very happy to spend Thanksgiving proper with his family — we haven’t done that in a long time!

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I was thrilled because Caitlin was helming the food preparations, excepting the turkey which was delegated to Brian. This meant layers of succulent root vegetables layered with gruyere, perfectly sauteed green beans, and out-of-this-world desserts: beet pie, carrot pie, apple-juniper pie, chevre ice cream with pumpkin swirl, chocolate-gingerbread ice cream. (I think I’ve been inspired to create an ice cream based on elisenlebkuchen, aka German gingerbread. Must experiment with that.)

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We had lots of different Izze drink flavors on hand, and Michael designated himself the “soda sommelier”

Best of all: I hardly had to do anything!! The only spoon I had to lift was the one going from my plate to my mouth. This is great, considering that I am once again tackling the Julbord insanity for Christmas Eve. Thank you, in-law family!

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Michael and Natalie were visiting as well, and my kids were happy to see Cousin Anderson again. Natalie and I took Anderson for a toddler-paced walk around the neighborhood and had a nice long talk together. It was great to spend time with her.

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Brian, Jeff, Wim, and Michael tackled a game of Caverna, which Brian received as a birthday present and has 90+ wooden pieces. It looks insane, and took hours to play. More power to ’em. Eleanor and Caitlin enjoyed their traditional games of Nerts. The kids spent time decorating the granparents’ Christmas tree. It was splendiferous all around.

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Katie has memorized “O Christmas Tree” from her primer piano book, and played it several times through the day.

Then, on Friday: Fakesgiving! Woo-hoo!

It was scads of fun seeing all the cousins together. They spent hours in my parents’ basement, putting together elaborate play scenarios: an imaginary civilization at one point, later they were all pets. “I’m a wild guinea pig,” explained William, but a tearful Katie wasn’t so happy. “They say I’m an orphan puppy dog,” she cried. “I don’t want to go to the pound!”

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But other than slight mishaps like that, the kids got along very well with no real fighting. That’s pretty amazing.

We all got to heap lots of loves on baby Cousin Megan. She still has the Baby Smell, so I could not keep my nose off of her head. My parents recorded the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade so I could watch it the morning of Second Thanksgiving, and I just sat and watched the Broadway shows and ate cinnamon rolls and smelled baby head and it was glorious.

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The kids spent a long time working together to make the place cards. Katie saved all the ones with our family’s names and brought them home. She put them on the breakfast table Monday morning!

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(My mom said she made ~300 rolls for Second Thanksgiving. Yikes. I was put in charge of roasted vegetables, which was a great job for me.)

After eating, we all dressed up and headed to a nearby nature reserve to take some family photos. Luckily for us it was a warm sunny day and we didn’t have to bother with coaxing kids out of their coats!

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This is the one we’re using for our family Christmas card. The big group shot needs to be Photoshopped, so I didn’t bother posting it.

That evening we all played a big round of “Hands Up, Squidman,” which my kids are finally old enough to play without derailing the whole game.

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On Saturday we had another treat with Grandma Kathryn, Aunt Natalie and Cousin Anderson — Christmas Tea at the Grand America Hotel!

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We attended this tea several times when we lived in SLC, but my daughters have no strong memory of doing so (and in Katie’s case, no memory at all). I haven’t been able to find a replacement for this in Seattle, so it was a real treat to be able to do it again.

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My mom had given me a bunch of free makeup samples, and we picked out some neutral colors for Eleanor’s first-makeup kit. She’s wearing some of it in this picture; you can see it in her lips. 

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Eleanor and Katie were on their best fancy behavior, which was adorable. Anderson had fun smearing cream all over the table as toddlers are wont to do.

We all took pictures of the food. I had forgotten how much food they bring, and couldn’t finish it all. Bowls of whipped berries and cream, cups of sugared tea or hot chocolate, tiers of Italian-inspired sandwiches, traditional scones, and then — a second three-tier display of desserts and cookies. Yeesh.

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I liked the mini paninis the best. That macron is savory — pumpkin with a chevre filling.

The children’s plates have changed since my previous visits. I love the cut-out sandwiches! The girls let me try a taste of the brown one — it was chocolate bread with a berry-Nutella filling. Wow.

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Katie could hardly contain herself when Santa & Mrs. Claus came in to sing carols. Eleanor was chosen to walk around the room with Santa while everyone sang “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and they had her wear antlers and a light-up nose. She smiled the whole time; I love that she is getting mature enough to be a good sport about being silly.

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Later the kids were able to visit Santa personally. This year Katie wants “the orange fairy” for Christmas — aka the Autumn Fairy, one of the seasonal-themed Waldorf dolls we’ve been collecting. I’m surprised that she hasn’t lost interest over the years, but that’s our tenacious Katie.

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After stuffing ourselves silly (and listening to a Christmas story read by Santa), we participated in the scavenger hunt created by the hotel. The display windows were “Christmas Around the World” themed and absolutely gorgeous.

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We also took time to see the giant gingerbread house on display. Anderson found it hilarious to duck under the velvet ropes and walk along the miniature pretend sidewalk running around the display. Aww, two-year-olds.

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And yes, we spent time shopping in Jou-Jou, the high-end boutique toy store which is also housed in the hotel. I found a little plastic watch for Eleanor that reminded me of the Swatch I loved dearly when I was thirteen. (It was reasonably priced, and she is in desperate need of a watch, so why not?)

That evening we watched Moana with my parents, and then whisked ourselves to sleep in preparation for the long drive home the next day.

All four of them cried when they woke up to go that morning, sad that they wouldn’t see their cousins again for who-knows-how long. I felt a little guilty . . . we’re planning a visit to California for midwinter break, but I want it to be a big surprise and so didn’t tell them.

A heavy snowfall hit Snoqualmie Pass that day, so we decided to drive home through Portland. This made the drive 15 hours instead of 12, but stopping for dinner at a burger joint did wonders to make it bearable. And like I said, the kids are old enough to withstand the longer travel times now. Hooray for video games, pajamas, and junk food!