Sunday, August 31, 2014

For your fantasy lover...

For anyone who loves Lord of the Rings or Wizard of Earthsea or Game of Thrones...

The Abhorsen Trilogy beginning with Sabriel. This is a NY Times bestselling series, but I don't hear people talking about it, and it's old enough, you might not know about it for your child who loves fantasy.  AND IT HAS A GIRL PROTAGONIST! That is saying something.

Ages 12 and up

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Since childhood, Sabriel has lived outside the walls of the Old Kingdom, away from the power of Free Magic, and away from the Dead who refuse to stay dead. But now her father, the Abhorson, is missing, and Sabriel must cross into that world to find him. With Mogget, whose feline form hides a powerful, perhaps malevolent spirit, and Touchstone, a young Charter Mage, Sabriel travels deep into the Old Kingdom. There she confronts an evil that threatens much more than her life and comes face-to-face with her own hidden destiny. . . .

Friday, August 29, 2014

Guji Guji

I cannot believe this book is out of print. It is, without question, one of the best picture books of all time. Simple, sweet, and the pictures are gorgeous. If you haven't read this before, you should. Now. Even better if you read it aloud to a child. 


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Ages 3 and up.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Fourteenth Goldfish

This is a great book for 10 and up. Boys and girls. Science geeks and non-science geeks. The chapters are short. The book moves so fast, I blinked and was finished. Great for discussions about science and life and what the future may or may not bring. We are big Jennifer Holm fans around here, and this book did not disappoint. One of her best!

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm.

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Here's a review:

Eleven-year-old Ellie Cruz's life changes dramatically when her mother brings a teenage boy home one night and she learns it is her estranged grandfather. Melvin is a scientist who has figured out how to reverse aging and is now 13 again. Tensions are high between Melvin and his adult daughter, Ellie's mother, but Ellie feels like she now has the opportunity to really get to know her grandfather. Her interest in science blossoms, and she is eager to help Melvin retrieve the jellyfish specimen he used in his experiments so he can publish his discovery. Fascinated, Ellie learns about the work of Jonas Salk, Robert Oppenheimer, and Marie Curie. But as she learns more, she realizes that scientific discoveries often have unforeseen consequences. Readers are carried along with Ellie as she navigates old and new friendships in her first year in middle school with the added complication of her teenage grandfather at the same school. Short chapters keep the story moving at an engaging pace, and the interactions among the characters will easily hold readers' interest. Ellie's growing relationship with her grandfather helps her make discoveries about herself. Melvin, who begins as unapologetically single-minded in his determination to continue his work, also learns from Ellie. With humor and heart, Holm has crafted a story about life, family, and finding one's passion that will appeal to readers willing to imagine the possible.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Write While You Read

I love embarking on new journeys.

I'm not talking about physical journeys. I wish I were the sort of person who loved to travel, but I'm not, mostly because I don't like the effort required to do so. I admire people who love to travel, but that is not me.

The journeys I love are "Journeys of the Mind" (not to sound too Star-Trekky). I love it when I've hit upon an interesting new idea, one that sits on my brain and rolls around, growing and deepening and taking root.

That's happening to me right now. Overall, I will call this thing "mindfulness. It involves an entire way-of-living I haven't fleshed out in my head yet (that's part of the wonderfulness of mind journeys: they take a long, long time to figure out), but I have figured out one aspect of this mindfulness that is changing my life for the better every single day.


I write a lot. Hours and hours every day, and I've done that for years now, but writing stories is not the kind of writing I'm talking about. I have begun writing about everything. I've begun recording my thoughts on all sorts of issues. I'm keeping separate notebooks for the different facets of my life.  I've started several "boxes" to keep track of projects I am working on. For example, I am working on healing an emotional struggle I've had for a very long time. Whenever I hit upon an article or a quote or a scripture or an idea—maybe just an image—that helps me in this battle, I write it down or cut it out and put it in this box. When I read a book now, I have a pencil with me, and I take notes in the book or in an accompanying notebook.

It sounds like journal writing, but it's much, much more than that.

Shaemus loves to build things (and I'm one step closer to creating what will be called our Makey-makey room thanks to a long trip to IKEA yesterday), but he does not like to write. We have four rules for our homeschool:

1) Stick to your schedule
2) Write down everything you learn (and don't learn)
3) Clean up after yourself
4) No fighting

Number two is my favorite rule. The others are necessary for my sanity, but my kids have had a VERY hard time adapting to number two. It's been their hardest rule.

"What do I write?" they say.

"Tell me what you want me to say."

"I didn't think while I was reading."

"I don't know—I just did it!"

These questions have been very disturbing to me. For whatever reason, my kids are not aware of their thinking and they are not comfortable discovering it. I have this uneasy feeling that this will eventually mean (if it doesn't now) that they are uncomfortable with themselves and their own thoughts.

Shaemus made a car out of wheels, foam paper, and binder clips this week. It was awesome. I was proud of his work and his creativity, but he couldn't write about it. He came to me in tears. I wouldn't tell him what to write, but I tried to give him an example of what I would write if I were doing a completely different project. I quietly watched him after this discussion. He looked at his car. He looked at his "building" notebook. He wrote something down. He looked at his car and frowned. He went back to his notebook and wrote more. Within minutes, he was tweaking that car, pulling off binder clips, glueing on sticks, doing things to make the wheels turn together—something they weren't doing before. His handwriting was messy. His sentences were incomplete, but he did it, and that writing became a vehicle for more learning and more improvement.

That is why I write. I write because it forces me to think, and when I think, I find ways to learn even more.

Warren Buffet spends eighty percent of his day reading. Wait, wait! Not just reading, thinking. He says that writing things down is the key to refining your thoughts.

Writing things down is the key to refining your thoughts.

In one of my favorite books, Seraphina, the main character regularly tends the "garden" in her mind. She has to or she gets ill, both physically and psychologically. Tending the garden in her mind means walking around to the different parts of her garden and putting things in order. This sounds to me like refining your thoughts. Going over the different parts of your life on a regular basis and making sure they are in order.

There is no better way to do that than writing what's going on in your mind down. It's like putting your children to bed for the night. It brings peace.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

whim versus Whim

I have a new favorite summer read which I will post more about on another day—today I want to share a fantastic idea I got from this book. Well, not an idea so much as a philosophy.

whim verses Whim

From the book:

"In its lower-case version, whim is thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both. But Whim is something very different: it can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge."

I should explain. This quote is about how to choose what to read.

I hate lists like this: 100 children books everyone should know. (You can find them everywhere.)


Everyone must know these 100 children's books?

I grant you, there is something about a collective memory that is important. If a child has no idea who Babar, the elephant is, he might not understand an obscure joke in another book or movie (though I'm guessing a lot of kids now fit in this category) about Babar, but what is it about these 100 books that make them more perfect than another 100 books?

I have lists of my favorite books, but they are not going to be your favorite books. Maybe a few will overlap, maybe not. I have writing friends, very well read and brilliant, who despise books I adore. And that's okay. Maybe I will despise the same book in ten years. Maybe they will love it. And what is it about the messages/lessons/experiences in a list's 100 books that make them more valuable than 100 others?

We should read what we love. We should read what suits us best. We should read what inspires us personally, not what we think other people are inspired by. We should read to grow, but that growth should be measured not by the world or the professionals, but by ourselves.

Reading at whim (lower-case) implies mindless reading. Thoughtless reading. Reading because we have nothing else better to do and we don't know where to look for something better. Reading without being filled up as a result. It's reading done by those who love Jane Austen, but because she only wrote six novels, they read mostly abysmal attempts to copy her or add upon her work. It's reading badly written fan-fiction because people are desperate for the hobbits to continue having adventures. It's reading whimsically (lower-case) and it's very often depressing.

But reading Whimsically is so much different.

Below is a quote by a man who received a Princeton education only to realize how empty and meaningless it had been because he'd spent his time there mimicking what he thought other people wanted him to be. Depressed, lost, and empty, he randomly picks up Huckleberry Finn and Great Expectations—books considered to frivolous for Princeton.

"And so belatedly, haltingly, accidentally, and quite implausibly and incredibly, it began at last: my education. I wasn't sure what it would get me, whose approval it might win, or how long it might take to complete (forever, I had an inkling), but for once those weren't my first concerns. Alone in my room, congested and exhausted, I forgot my obsession with self-advancement. I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to read. Instead of filling in the blanks, I wanted to be a blank and be filled in."

I wanted to be a blank and be filled in.

I think that is my favorite quote perhaps ever. I don't want to read in some attempt to fill in blanks others have supposedly left for me. I want to be filled in, and that's what I want for my kids.

So put away summer reading lists given to you at the library (or use them as possibilities, not what must be read!). Don't read any more books just because they have a sticker on them. But don't just read what sounds easy or similar to other books you've loved.

Know yourself. Follow your instincts. Push yourself in new directions because those new directions stir something inside of you.

Read for Whim, not whim, and teach your children to thoughtfully, mindfully do the same. This is the kind of reading that makes people passionate readers for life.

More on this later!!!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Maker Space

So there's this movement going on. It's called the Maker Manifesto or the Maker Space Movement or I don't know, something with making in it. It's all about encouraging people to make things.

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There's a basic proposition behind this movement that I'm trying to figure out.

The proposition is this: if you give people (especially kids) the right tools, they will create.

So imagine this. Imagine a space in your house with neatly organized bins full of supplies and tools for your kids to make anything they can imagine. Imagine a thirty-five dollar computer that will allow them to program and design whatever they want. Imagine a robotics tool for twenty-five dollars that will help your kid fulfill their engineering dreams.

A great dream, huh? Well, that's the plan around here. A foolish plan, most likely, but I'm going to create this space or die trying. Otherwise, I might as well send them off to school where they rarely make anything and if they do, there are pretty strict instructions on what to make, how to make it, with a rubric lurking nearby to evaluate that creativity (what there is of it). We're reorganizing the house over the next few weekends so every space is a consecrated space—dedicated to one particular thing—and my library (gasp!) is going to be converted into a maker space. There will be a sewing table, an arts table, a building table, and an engineering table (not that these things can't be used in conjunction with each other—it's just a way of organizing supplies).

This is a serious sacrifice—our family of seven lives in 2400 square feet. With five large instruments and nine pets and thousands of books (I know, I have a problem. I currently have 249 books out from the library, a personal record...) we are bursting at our mortared seams. We're going to have to put bookshelves all over the walls in the bedrooms—and nearly every place else. Sam is being very, very patient with me, but if I can create this space, and the kids can feel inspired and safe creating in it, I think it will be worth it.

But, um, I kind of stink at building, sewing, and engineering. I really don't know where to start.

Hence my search for the perfect list that will tell me all the tools I will need for my Maker Space.


Not so easy. There are no, as yet, homeschool books on creating Maker Spaces. So I've had to scrabble things together from a bunch of different books, some for adults, some for the conventional classroom or the not so conventional classroom.

My two favorite with the most compelling ideas (including introducing me to things like Arduino and Raspberry Pi), are these:

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Design, Make, Play—from the folks at the Exploratorium in San Francisco


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Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the classroom.

There are lists in these books that have helped, but mostly these books serve as awesome inspiration for what people and children are capable of when they have the right tools and are given free reign. 

Just the other day, I was telling Lucy about how Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo would sometimes steal cadavers so they could really explore the inside of the human body. As I was saying this, I realized that they had no textbooks. They created their own models and images. They did their own experimenting, and I guarantee they had a better understanding of the human body than I did after taking anatomy in college. Oh, I benefited from discoveries they didn't have, and I know we're way further along in understanding the human body than they were during the Renaissance, but I still guarantee, they knew more than I did (and do), and a lot of that had to do with discovering, inventing on their own.

Do you have a maker space in your home? 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Centerburg Tales, Dear Homer

This is a little shout out to some classic books you may have forgotten about:

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Shaemus just read these, and, holy cow, he loved them. There is no real plot, just stories about a real boy doing crazy things, living in a town with crazy people. McCloskey's Centerburg is not exactly believable, and yet it perfectly is. 


Ages 8 and up.