July 29, 2016

More Summer Read-Alouds

It seems our only theme for read-alouds this summer is SHORT! Somehow, even with mostly unscheduled days, we have to squeeze in time for reading here and there--between all the playing, you know. Except for The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, which in comparison have seemed to go on and on; we're still plugging away at the last one.

8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel / 1 Dog = Chaos, by Vivian Vande Velde
Illustrated by Steve Bjorkman

4 stars: Short, action-packed, and funny.

This is the story of Twitch, the school-yard squirrel, who runs into school after hours to escape an owl, and Cuddles, the principal's dog. The owl flies away, but Cuddles follows him through the door. That's when all kinds of crazy starts happening.

Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different animal, most of them classroom pets, from Green Eggs and Hamster, in the first-grade classroom, to the school of neon tetras from third grade. Some of the animals are trying to save Twitch, some just give advice, but all of them are involved in making a gigantic mess.

* * * * * *

You could tell from the cover that this one was going to be funny. The chapters were very short, most in the 4-5 page range, and each had 2-3 illustrations as well. This one begged to be done with different voices for each animal, but just a heads-up--there are 11 of them! I tend to top out around 3, but I did my best.

Anyway, the kids enjoyed it. We read it all in one sitting; it took about an hour.

(Finished reading July 3.)

Calling on Dragons (Enchanted Forest Chronicles #3)
by Patricia Wrede

2 stars: A lot of talking, but we finally got into some action towards the end.

Told from Morwen the witch's point of view, with many asides by her cats. Morwen first discovers something a little fishy when her cats discover a 6-foot tall rabbit named Killer in the garden. One thing leads to another, and before long she discovers evidence that wizards have been in the Enchanted Forest again.

When she brings all this to the attention of King Mendanbar and Queen Cimorene, they also discover that Mendanbar's sword is missing. This is the sword that's linked to the magic of the Enchanted Forest, as well as to the spell to keep wizards OUT of the forest. The wizards have somehow managed to steal the sword.

Of course, someone is going to have to go find it. Mendanbar can't go, because he's the other pillar of the spell protecting the Enchanted Forest from wizards. Cimorene has to go--even though she's pregnant--because only someone related to the King can even hold the sword. Morwen, Telemain, and Kazul come along for support and protection. Killer, the ever-hungry bunny turned blue flying donkey, has to come to stay out of trouble until someone has time to fix him. The cats come just because they're cats.

Little do they know there's going to be big trouble at the castle while they're gone.

* * * * * *

This has been my least favorite of the series so far. It seemed like most of the book was the characters talking, arguing, or getting lost on the way to get the sword. Killer added quite a bit of comic relief, which was sorely needed. We also liked the story of Rachel's tower. Once they finally found the sword, things picked back up again all the way to the end.

We're going to check out the book on cd--I'm interested to see if listening to someone else read it will be a better experience.

On to the next (and last!)

(Finished reading July 8.)

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour, by Anne Michaels, Illustrated by Emma Block

4 stars: Clever, whimsical, and delightful, like Miss Petitfour herself.

Miss Petitfour wears her hair in a messy bun, has 16 cats, and prefers to get around by tablecloth. She gathers up the corners, lets the wind puff it up like a balloon, and the cats all grab on to be the tail. This is a collection of 5 different adventures--all just the right size to fit into one magical day.

* * * * * *
This was such a funny little book. I mean that in both senses of the word. It had amusing things that happened, like a giant ball of hangars wreaking havoc at a Jumble Sale, and it was just a bit odd in a delightful sort of way.

Every character is a little quirky. The bookshop owner, who divides her shop into the "Ho-Hum" (books where nothing ever happens) and the "Hum" (adventure books.) Mr. Coneybeare and his confetti factory, Colonel By and his walloping wife. It's a quaint little village full of eccentric people, where the signs for each store are in the shape of what is sold inside. Miss Petitfour fits right in!

Every so often, the author inserts herself into the story to talk about words and writing. When the author uses a big word that may be unfamiliar, she defines it in a humorous way, then proceeds to use it several more times in the chapter. Each time the new word is highlighted in red. It reminded me a bit of the Lemony Snicket books in that way, but with a much happier outlook!

Then she also talks about words used in writing. For example: "Certain words are like twists of crumpled paper jammed into the hole in the bottom of a leaky pail, to keep the story from spilling out too quickly. Words like meanwhile, by the way, it is interesting to note and that reminds me of. Adults use these words all the time when they are afraid things are getting too exciting."

Nearly every page has a watercolor illustration on it to add to the charm.

If you love words, whimsy, and don't mind repeating the names of all those cats at least once a chapter, this is the book for you. [Okay, I will admit, sometimes I just shortened the cat-name recitation to "all the cats!"] 

(Finished reading July 13.)

The Birthday Ball, by Lois Lowry

2.5 stars: Mostly fun, but crude in a few places. I wish I had been the one reading it, instead of listening to it!

I read this one on my own back in May and tucked it away in my mind as one to read to my kids at some point. Here's my review from Goodreads:

Princess Patricia Priscilla is turning 16 soon and is completely, utterly bored with her life. So she switches clothes with her maid and attends the village school for a few days, as "Pat." Delicious, her cat, comes along. Meanwhile, her 3 awful suitors (from whom she is supposed to choose a husband at her Birthday Ball) also prepare to win her. The schoolmaster happens to be quite handsome, despite his attempts to be stern. Something must be done, but Princess Patricia doesn't really see a way out of her predicament.

This had the feel of a Roald Dahl book. The characters are all wacky--from the hard-of-hearing Queen, to the butterfly-obsessed king, even down to the kitchen help (triplets who sing)-- they are all drawn large and slightly ridiculous. I got the impression that Lowry relished making the suitors as terrible as possible--all of them with personal hygiene problems and personalities that would make any normal person run away in fright.

I want to read it out loud to my kids--I think the humor, the word play (for instance, everything the Princess says to her cat rhymes with its name), and the over-the-top antics would really appeal to them.

* * * * * * *

So when we were packing for our trip last week, I saw the audiobook at the library and snatched it up. Perfect! Except... I had forgotten how crude the Conjoined Counts were--mostly bathroom words, and "butt" etc.--though they do have a laugh over "balls" at one point. Yeah. Thankfully that one went over my kids' heads, but I was embarrassed, and my husband gave me a hard time about it later.

You know how when you listen to something, any questionable parts sort of hit you in the face? After that, we skipped over the parts that talked about the Conjoined Counts. Had I been reading it, I would have edited as I went along and all would have been fine. Oh well. Live and learn, I guess.
Just--word to the wise.

(Finished listening July 23.)

Gooseberry Park, by Cynthia Rylant

4 stars: Friendship, loyalty, and humor abound.

Kona is a chocolate Labrador who belongs to Professor Albert, along with a wise hermit crab named Gwendolyn. One day, on a walk in Gooseberry Park with the professor, Kona meets a young squirrel named Stumpy. Rather than chase her or bark at her, something strange happens--the two become friends. By extension, Gwendolyn becomes friends with Stumpy too, because Kona tells them about each other.

When Stumpy is ready to have babies, Kona is super excited (Gwendolyn is too.) Stumpy decides her old nest, completely full of her collection, will never do, so she sets off across the park and makes a new nest. Clean and new, just right for babies. A bat named Murray lives just above her new home, and the two of them become friends as well.

Then one night a terrible ice storm ravages the town. Kona, listening to the tree branches crashing down is terribly worried about Stumpy and the babies. He just has to make sure they're all right. Thus begins his heroic journey to the park to check on the little family, and the beginnings of a group rescue effort.

* * * * * * *

This one was great! If I needed one to redeem myself after The Birthday Ball, this one fit the bill. :) Short chapters, with a small illustration every 1-2 pages helped keep even my 4-year-old interested. The animal characters each had a distinct personality: Kona was courageous and loyal, Murray kept us laughing, and Gwendolyn was the wise older soul with good advice. The plot was straightforward, but came together nicely.

My 8-year-old pretended to not be listening after the first half (nice try!), but the younger two admitted to really liking it.

I was happy to see there's a sequel out as well: Gooseberry Park and the Master Plan. I plan to get to that one soon!

(Finished reading July 24).

July 28, 2016

Series Spotlight: Matched trilogy, by Ally Condie

I actually read this young adult series almost 2 months ago, and am finally getting around to reviewing it. I have tried not to spoil anything in my reviews, which is why the summaries for #2 and #3 are so short.
By the way, whoever came up with the covers deserves a gold star! They are so intriguingly beautiful!


3 stars: Cassia begins to see in all kinds of new ways, putting her at odds with The Society.

Cassia lives in the Society, where everything is decided by far-off officials, including what your occupation will be, what you eat, who you marry, and even when you will die. There's a match system set up for young adults, with the results announced at fancy banquets. Cassia can hardly wait for her Match Banquet. She and her best friend Xander go together.

When it comes time for her Match to be announced, the screen stays dark. That can mean only one thing: her Match is present at the same Banquet. Then the name is announced: Xander Carrow. She is relieved and delighted. So is he.

Later on, as she opens up the specially-made microcard for her Match, there's a different boy whose name and face appears. Wait, what?! Then he disappears and Xander's information comes back. Now she is seriously confused, but also curious. She knows the other boy, also--Ky Markham. Could the Society have made some kind of bizarre mistake? Or is it possible that she has a choice in love?

In this world where every little thing is monitored, Cassia feels compelled to find a way to have a sliver of independence, if only to figure out for herself which boy she's supposed to be with--but at what cost?

* * * * * *

There were many things I liked about this book. I loved the references to poetry and writing, and the way a poem became a symbol of independent thinking. I found the world itself interesting, with enough room to explore further. Cassia was a bit immature, but not annoyingly so.

I was lukewarm on the love triangle bit. It seemed like she threw over a lifelong friendship with Xander pretty quickly for this other boy--possibly out of pity, or just because he was more mysterious...? But then, maybe that's just me showing my age. I'm trying to think back to high school--would "known and safe" have appealed more than "mysterious and wounded?" Hard to tell.

Anyway, definitely written for the high school crowd, but enjoyable for me as well.

Content: Clean. (Thank you, Ally Condie, for writing a clean YA romance!)

(Finished reading June 2.)


3 stars: The star-crossed lovers work pretty hard to find each other.

Ky has been taken away, and Cassia and her family Relocated to another Borough. She is determined to find Ky, even though it will be risky. Even though it will mean she must travel to the unsafe borders, the Outer Provinces. What she hasn't planned on is getting there, only to find him already gone. How will she ever find him now?

* * * * * *

This one had several unexpected twists and turns. I enjoyed both Cassia and Ky's growing friendships with others. I thought the world-building was well integrated in this one--little bits woven in here and there, without taking you out of the story too much. While the first book focused on the love triangle, this one was the "epic journey" installment, so expect quite a bit of wasteland wandering.

I finished it, then zoomed onto the next in the same day! (Um, no. I did not accomplish anything else that day.)

Content: Some violent death, but clean otherwise.

(Finished reading June 9.)


4 stars: Events and people collide in sometimes surprising ways.

Cassia and Ky are now officially part of The Rising, but it splits them up once again, as they have different assignments. There's something else they don't know: there's a plague, and it's overtaking the Society on all levels. Who started it, who has the cure, and what will come of it?

Meanwhile, Xander is a medic at Ground Zero of the plague, doing his best with the hopeless odds and long, long hours. Even so, he may find a sliver of happiness of his own.

* * * * * * *

This was my favorite book of the trilogy. I was ready for it all to come together, and it did. There were still some unanswered questions I had, particularly in regards to the border war, but for the most part things were resolved in a satisfactory way. If you were like me, and thought Xander had gotten the shaft this whole time, you'll probably like his part of the story.

Also, I just loved the idea of the Cassia's art & poetry walls, as a community expression of hope and connection. Then again, I was a Humanities major, so no surprise there!

Content: Some gross Plague-related scenes and a bit of violence, but clean otherwise.

* * * * * * * *

Overall, I enjoyed this series. I was especially happy with the mostly clean content--no sex, no swearing, and relatively little violence. Nice! My mother-in-law found the first one at a garage sale and passed it on to me, which is what got me reading them in the first place. I find that I have to be in a certain mood to read YA dystopian novels, and after a few of them I'm done for several more weeks. (Maybe that's why it took me so long to review them!)

When I finally got around to reading the first one, I liked it, and I wanted to read the next ones right away, but it's not a trilogy I've been talking to everyone about. Then again, I'm not the target audience either. I would hand them to teens that have read The Hunger Games.

Have you read these? What did you think?

July 27, 2016

Of Raspberries & Pie Cherries

This has truly been a banner year for raspberries!
Our own patch has produced more than it ever has, and we have had 3 different friends invite us to pick at their houses. Yes!

We thought we were in berry-picking heaven at the first friend's house.

In about an hour and half, this how many we got.

Then we went to the next friend's house. It was amazing!
There were huge tall bushes, loaded with clusters of large, ripe berries!
In the same amount of time as the day before, we got 3x as many--roughly half a gallon.
It was pouring rain and we were completely soaked (but happy!)

By the time we got to the third friend's patch (the next week) we were on a roll.
There weren't as many, but we didn't mind!

We have picked pie cherries twice: once at a neighbor's down the street, and once at a friend's house. (It being the first year, I didn't expect to get any from our tree.)

So....what in the world do you do with a whole bunch of raspberries and pie cherries?

For raspberries, you eat them fresh every way you can think of first. (Of course!)
Pie cherries--you can make some fresh cherry crisp or cherry pie.
After that, you probably want to think about preserving them somehow.

1. The easiest way to preserve them is to freeze them.
Berries and cherries both freeze very well, although I would say sweet cherries are better for freezing on their own. When it comes to pie cherries I add some sugar! (see #2)
Also for the cherries, you may want to cut each one in half after pitting them to make sure you haven't missed any, especially if you plan to use them in smoothies. (Pit slivers in your smoothie = no bueno.)
After they are rinsed (and pitted,) spread them out in a single layer onto a cookie sheet--as big as will fit into your freezer. Freeze them for 2-3 hours.
At that point, scoop them into a Ziplock bag and put them back into the freezer.
(Much easier to use than having a solid block of frozen fruit.)

Fruit frozen this way can still be used in jam later, if you are so inclined, or in baked goods, smoothies, as ice cream toppings, etc.

2. Make freezer jam or freezer pie filling.
If you use Instant Pectin for your freezer jam you don't even have to cook it!
I usually just use the recipe on the inside of the label of the pectin container.
In general, you will need to rinse and mash up your berries (potato mashers work well), before adding the sugar and pectin. Stir it around, let it sit for about 30 minutes, and you're done!
So easy! Put it in freezer-safe containers and call it a day.

You can also use Classic or Low-Sugar Pectin for freezer jam, but you have to cook the jam for a short time. (If you don't do that, the pectin doesn't dissolve and is very gritty. Ask me how I know. Ha!) I don't like the flavor of cooked raspberries as much, so I stick with the Instant for them.

There are a couple of different recipes in the Ball Blue Book for freezer sour cherry pie filling (or just freezing the pie cherries in a sugar syrup.) I did the one where you add cornstarch and sugar, then cook it on the stove for a few minutes to let it thicken.
It makes last-minute dessert so easy and delicious!

3. Experiment!

(L-R: raspberry freezer jam, freezer cherry pie filling, cherry raspberry jam) 

For the first time this year, I made some Sour Cherry-Raspberry Jam, using this recipe from Taste of Home magazine. It is so good! (It is cooked, then processed in a hot-water bath.)
The tart cherry compliments the sweeter raspberries to perfection.
The cooked raspberry flavor that I don't like is all but covered up. Yay!

Our bushes are about done producing for the year, but if we get any more raspberries, I've got a promising-looking recipe for Raspberry Peach Freezer Jam to try next.

Folks, this is going to be good!
[In other news, we might need a bigger freezer...]

July 26, 2016

Ball Blue Book of Preserving

Have you thought about getting starting with home canning, but not known where to even start?

Growing my own vegetables is what got me started with canning and preserving. After all, I had put all that work into growing and harvesting them. The last thing I wanted to do was waste all that good food and effort.

So, my first foray into canning was homemade salsa. I bought some of the ingredients, used all of the tomatoes from my garden plus some, and went to town. I ended up with a painful hot pepper burn on my hands, and several pints of salsa that tasted like mildly spicy spaghetti sauce. Well, live and learn, right? (By the way, I am still hunting for the perfect home-canned salsa recipe.)

Then, another year I did some peaches. Oh my goodness. Home-canned peaches are not even in the same category as the store bought! It's summer in a bottle! Tons of work, but oh so good. Then there's home-canned applesauce. Another big step up from peaches, as far as work and mess to clean up, but again--really no comparison with the watery, sour, store bought stuff.

By then I was hooked! I have done cherries, pears, and peaches almost every year, and an extra large batch of applesauce every other year or so. We've had an assortment of homemade jams that have been so delicious. I've even tried salsa a few more times, with mixed results.

I have used the hot-water bath method for sealing the jars, which works for the fruits and high-acid foods like tomatoes or salsa. So far, I have not ventured into the realm of pressure canning, but I want to! For low-acid foods like vegetables, meat, or homemade soups, you have to process them with a pressure canner. Just think how awesome it would be to have several jars of your family's favorite soups all ready for those busy winter evenings. Pour them in the pan, heat them up, and dinner is done! Maybe I will get that figured out this year.

Okay, so let's talk about this book already!

Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving

5 stars: My go-to reference for several years now!

For the beginning canner, this book has a lot of good basic information, but it is fairly comprehensive as well. It goes through various methods of processing your canned foods, including food safety, equipment needed, altitude adjustments, and how to prepare everything. Then it has all kinds of recipes, from basic canned fruit, to jams, pickles and relishes, vegetables, low-sugar recipes, pie fillings, and even some dehydrated food like fruit leathers and beef jerky.

It also has several 2-page spreads with step-by-step illustrated instructions for certain things--canning tomatoes, canning green beans, dehydrating apples, and so on.

While I have branched out to other books and resources, I almost always check this one first. At least half the time, I end up using the recipe in here. I always use it when I'm canning a single type of fruit.

One last tip: If you know someone who does their own canning, ask if they will come help you the first time or two. It's way easier to learn by working with someone and watching. Not that any of it is particularly difficult, but there are a lot of steps and things to keep track of. In fact, I much prefer doing it with a friend or relative even now!

Make no mistake about it, canning is work--long and hot work, especially if you're doing enough to last all winter--but every time we open up a jar of fruit, I'm glad I did it. Plus, I find it so satisfying to see those gleaming rows of jars in the pantry.

* * * * * *

Have you done any canning or preserving? What home preserving cookbooks do you use the most?

July 25, 2016

Featured Author: Elizabeth George Speare

Hello! We just got back from a very fun vacation and family reunion. All 10 of my brothers and most of their kids, were able to make it. We had a great time! 

I'm excited to share this month's Featured Author with you.

Elizabeth George Spear was born on November 21, 1908, and died almost exactly 86 years later on
November 15, 1994. Although she only wrote 4 books for children and teens, 3 out of the 4 came away with Newberry Awards--2 medals and 1 Honor. Wow! She was a powerhouse! Her books are all historical fiction: 3 set in New England where she was from, and one set in Israel during the time of Jesus.

I found a few quotes from her that I enjoyed.

In case you ever think it's too late to pursue your dreams:
     "I was born in Melrose, Massachusetts, on November 21, 1908. I have lived all my life in New England, and though I love to travel I can't imagine ever calling any other place on earth home. Since I can't remember a time when I didn't intend to write, it is hard to explain why I took so long getting around to it in earnest. But the years seemed to go by very quickly. In 1936 I married Alden Speare and came to Connecticut. Not till both children were in junior high did I find time at last to sit down quietly with a pencil and paper. I turned naturally to the things which had filled my days and thoughts and began to write magazine articles about family living. Then one day I stumbled on a true story from New England history with a character who seemed to me an ideal heroine. Though I had my first historical novel almost by accident it soon proved to be an absorbing hobby."
--from Goodreads author bio

...and this is why she won so many awards:
     "I have chosen to write historical novels, chiefly, I think, because I enjoy sharing with young people my own ever-fresh astonishment at finding that men and women and boys and girls who lived through the great events of the past were exactly like ourselves, and that they faced every day the same choices, large and small, which daily confront us."
--from NY Times obituary

It has been a treat reading or re-reading her books for this post.

The Bronze Bow
(Newberry Award, 1962)

5 stars: Passionate hatred of the Romans clashes against Jesus' teachings of peace and love.

Daniel bar Jamin's hatred of the Roman soldiers in Israel motivates his every decision. He lives up in the hills with a group of outlaws and he is certain that they--and he--will soon call the regular citizens to arms, and their land will be cleansed at last!

Then one day, he chances to speak to a brother and sister from the village, up hiking (unwisely.) They remind him of all he has left behind; in particular, his grandmother, and his younger sister Leah, who has never been the same since the death of their parents. Reluctantly, he makes contact with them again, and with the death of his grandmother, is slowly pulled back into village life.

That doesn't mean he has stopped burning for Roman blood! On the contrary! He organizes a group of young men from the village who are just as eager as he is to fight. Meanwhile, he provides for his sister, and occasionally goes to listen to a new rabbi--a carpenter, Jesus of Nazereth. He is confused by Jesus' message, though. It is not one of rising up against the Romans, but one of coming right before God--yet He claims to be the Messiah. How can He be the Messiah if He will not deliver His people from their oppressors?

* * * * * *

This book has been a favorite of mine for a long time. I remember reading it in High School for the first time and loving it back then. I was glad to revisit it after all these years. It is just so good!
Her portrayal of Jesus strikes close to what I think He must have been like.

Daniel is a likeable character, despite his temper, who learns and matures as time goes on. He also steps up to take care of his family duties, even though he would rather be almost anywhere else. He's a loyal friend and has a kind heart--a "soft streak" the outlaw king Rosh calls it. A detriment to being a bandit, but probably what allows him to open his heart to Jesus when the time is right.

I also liked how Speare shows both sides of many issues. One small example: Daniel remembers the village as being dirty, poor, and full of nosy neighbors. However, once he lives there, he realizes there is kindness as well, selfless giving to help others, and a willingness to accept him and his sister for who they are. A more important example: she doesn't show the Romans or the Jews as being all good or all bad, but mostly somewhere in between.

The ending was pitch perfect. Just--so good! I find I'm reduced to repeating myself. If you haven't taken the time for this one yet, go get it!

p.s. I finally just now figured out which scene the cover portrays. Ha!

(Finished reading June 24.)

Calico Captive

3 stars: One family's indomitable spirit against seemingly impossible obstacles.

Miriam lives with her older sister's family in Charlestown, New Hampshire. Relations with the Indians have been uneasy, but there hasn't been trouble in several months, so the family decided to move out of the fort, back to their own little cabin a few hundred yards away. She's just getting to know a very promising young man named Phineas.

Then the raid happens. Eleven Indians kidnap the entire family, plus a neighbor in the wrong place at the wrong time. Miriam's sister Susanna is a month away from having her 4th baby, but that doesn't slow down their pace much as they march through the wilderness, fording streams and sleeping out on the ground. Then Susanna has her baby--a little girl they name Captive--on the trail. It seems for now their captors mean to let them live.

Eventually, the family is split up and some--including Miriam--are taken to Montreal, Canada. Miriam has to adapt to constantly changing circumstances and do what she can to get her family back together again.

* * * * * *

Based on a diary of the account written by Susanna in her later years. I can see why this one doesn't get promoted as much as her other two. It's still a great story, well-written. It is not at all politically correct.  Speare talks about the hostility of the Indians, the squalor and poverty of their camp, etc., all of which were probably pretty true to what a white colonist woman would see and experience in such a situation.

That being said, I admire the evenhanded way Speare treats both sides of the history. Though Miriam cannot see or appreciate it, Speare puts in a few things about the Indian people that are positive, such as the way they share their food equally with the captives, and so on. In Montreal, a place that Miriam has always held in terror as full of wickedness and Catholics, she comes to find some true friends and many decent people, as well.

I didn't like it as much as her others, but I'm glad I read it. This actually makes me want to read the diary itself!

p.s. Maybe it would get a wider reading audience if someone re-did the cover! I'll bet most teenagers or kids would take one look and pass on by to something else.

(Finished reading July 5, 2016.)

The Sign of the Beaver
(Newberry Honor, 1984, Scott O'Dell Award 1984)

4 stars: A boy survives on his own and becomes a man, with the help of a new friend.

When Matt and his Father claimed their homestead land, they had to leave behind Mother, Sarah and the new baby who would be born while they were gone. Now that they've gotten the land cleared and a cabin built, it's time for Father to go back and bring the rest of the family, leaving Matt on his own to keep watch over their land. He's nearly 13 and knows how to use a gun, so at least he won't starve.
He's notching sticks for each day his Pa is gone. They should all be together again in about 7 weeks.

Everything is going pretty well. Then a stranger comes along and steals the gun. Slowly, Matt begins to run out of supplies and the summer wanes, but still his family has not returned. Then he meets an Indian man and his son. They agree to an exchange--Matt will teach Attean to read and write English, and they will bring him meat for his table.

Soon the boys develop a wary friendship, as Attean teaches Matt the native ways of survival and living off the land. As the winter sets in, Matt has to decide if he will join the Beaver clan or wait it out for his family, who have still yet to show up.

* * * * * *

This was a new one for me, and a quick read. Matt is strong and resourceful, but it was Attean who was the more skilled. It took Matt quite a lot of effort to win Attean's friendship and respect, but he managed to do both.

Bittersweet ending.

Of all four, this one could probably go the youngest. In fact, my 8-year-old just finished reading it. He really liked it, too!

(Finished reading June 30.)

The Witch of Blackbird Pond
(Newberry Award, 1959)

5 stars: Top-notch historical fiction.

Kit is an orphan from sunny Barbados, headed to New England to live with her aunt and uncle. The only problem is they don't exactly know that she's coming. She grew up on stories of her mother and her aunt, and knows that they loved each other and were great friends--at least, until her aunt married a Puritan and moved to America. She hopes they will welcome her.

On the ship she becomes friends with Nat, the captain's son, a dashing young sailor with a bit of a temper. She also gets to know a young Reverend-in-training, John Holbrook, who is going to the same settlement that she is bound for. Both men are unsure of what her reception will be onshore, but she brushes off any concerns. It will be fine. It has to be.

However, when she gets to her aunt's home, she is unprepared for the chilly reception of her uncle and the way her simplest gestures of goodwill--like sharing her dresses and clothing with her cousins--are taken as an affront to their rigidly simple lifestyle. As she somewhat uneasily settles into their home and the community, she soon attracts a suitor, and some enemies as well.

She finds a friend in an old Quaker woman who lives in a hut at the side of the meadows outside of town. Hannah has been accused of witchcraft, but Kit finds more acceptance and warmth in her tiny home than she has anywhere else. Unfortunately, their friendship cannot last forever. Once the townspeople find out, Kit herself will face charges of witchcraft.

* * * * *

Kit is a girl just trying to fit in. She was raised with customs and norms so different from her Puritan relatives that everything she does seems to either shock or anger them. Yet, they show her kindness, too, and do what they can for her when the chips are down.

Kit is a true heroine. She is vulnerable and makes mistakes, but she always has good intentions. She does her best to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and rather than growing bitter at the way she's treated, she shows kindness to others who have been marginalized like her.

Kit is not the only who grows and changes throughout the book. The other characters in the book are similarly complex in their motivations and aspirations. Like in real life, the book mixes boredom and fun, sickness and triumphs, danger and everyday living. 

If you missed this one growing up, go get a copy!

(Finished reading July 18.)

July 15, 2016

July Bloom Day

Time for another Bloom Day already?
This summer is really flying by!

I garden in Eastern Washington state, USA, zone 5b.

Of course, I've got to start with the weather.
We've actually had a very pleasant summer so far.
Last year was so very hot by this time that it was miserable!
It seems like this summer we'll have a week or so of warm weather--in the 80's F, then we get cooler again for a week. We've even had some rain this month, which is a bit unusual.
It has made for some wonderful play time outside (both in the garden and out of it!)

Let's get to the all the beautiful flowers, shall we?

Flowerpots in front are dominated by the petunias.
They're more of an upright form than I expected, but I'm really enjoying the blooms.

My front porch bed is pretty quiet at the moment. 
I've got this oakleaf hydrangea blooming and the heuchera there to the right of it.
That's about it!

Moving down to the front terraced beds:

First, a bit of an overview.

A little different angle than usual--this was taken from the far side of the driveway.

Right-hand side.

Left-hand side.

Now let's focus in a bit more.

Gypsophila 'Summer Sparkles' seems to like its new home behind the peonies.

A bright little patch by the mailbox.

The bellflowers have really taken off this year!

Can you tell I really love purple? :)
The darker and lighter purples here, salvia (front) and bellflowers (behind), are just so pretty.

Another purplicious combination: volunteer bachelor buttons and bellflowers.

Moving on around to the middle of the terraced beds:

I love those little drumstick alliums mixing in the back of the echinacea patch there.

Echoes of pink and purple through here as well, with salvia, echinacea, drumstick alliums, and phlox.

If you feel like you've seen this view before, you're probably right!
The guillardia just keep blooming and blooming!

Same place as the previous photo, just facing the other way.
I wanted you to see my cosmos blooming.
I transplanted them from the volunteers in the garden and basically forgot about them.
I wouldn't mind if they reseeded here! 

Moving around to the east-side terrace:

I cannot believe how huge these daisies have gotten!
[Allison--these are all from the clump you gave me!]
I transplanted them last fall, 2-3 clumps between each lilac bush. They were all of about 6 inches around at the base when I transplanted them. They have just exploded with growth!
They are 3x bigger than my lilac bushes!
(Notice how you can't even see the lilac bushes?)
I guess I finally found something that thrives in the mostly clay soil!

Up amongst the vegetables and cutting garden, my daughter has sweet peas blooming in her little patch.

My purple poppies bloomed!
Hmm...I'm seeing a theme here!
Yes, I can't get enough purple--especially that velvety rich shade.

Everywhere you look, the cosmos are blooming as well.

Time to start making bouquets!

This little clump of marigolds on the end is so bright and cheerful.
There's not much that will grow right there, but they are doing great!

Tomatoes coming!

A few brave zinnias peeking out amongst the onions.

Plus, one volunteer petunia amongst the carrots.
Love it!

Almost done!

The shed bed is looking particularly cheery right now as well.
'Cheyenne Spirit' coneflowers are thriving here.

Yarrow and coreopsis provided more color and contrast.

Finally, to the back flowerbed:

These 'White Heaven' lilies are taking center stage at the moment.
The rose is resting and the sedum have buds but no flowers yet.

Flowers on the back deck.

Thanks for visiting my garden today!
I hope you have a lovely weekend!
Stop by Carol's place at May Dreams Gardens for more lovely flowers!

July 14, 2016

A Few Wildflowers

My daughter, who notices wildflowers like me, wanted me to take some pictures of the flowers we saw along the trail on a hike a few weeks ago.

I didn't have my identification book with me at the time.
As it turns out, it wouldn't have helped me all that much anyway.
This time around I had to google the name of the hill we hiked and "wildflowers" to figure these out.
Happily, I pulled up a couple of sites that had a list with links to multiple pictures of each one.
It took some time to click on all the links, though!

Then, once I found them on the website, I was able to find them in the book.
One drawback of using a book is that the book generally has just one picture of each flower, so if it doesn't look quite the same or is a different subspecies, it can be hard to match them up.

Scarlet gilia or skyrocket
(Ipomopsis aggregata or Gilia aggregata)

Harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida)
[As near as I can tell.]
I knew it was a paintbrush flower.
Little did I know how many varieties there would be!

Penstemon attenuates

Spreading dogbane or mountain dogbane
(Apocynum androsaemifolium)

Phew! That took some research!
There is definitely a sense of satisfaction when you've finally found the match, though.
Like finding a new friend: "Oh--there you are!"
It remains to be seen if I'll be able to identify these next time we're up there.

Do you like knowing the names of plants that you see?

July 12, 2016

Wordless Picture Books

This post has taken me a couple of months to write. As it turns out, I am very particular about wordless picture books--a lot more so than I had realized going in! Maybe it's just that I expect more out of them. If a book has great pictures and mediocre words, or vice versa, I can usually look past its shortcomings and focus on the better part. With wordless picture books, if I don't like the pictures, that's the whole book.

Also, for the books that are mostly black-and-white with just a splash of color here and there, I want that color to mean something or be connected with the story in some way! Random splashes of color were just frustrating, because I was searching for connections where there were none.

Bonus points for the books that not only managed to tell a story without words, but managed to convey mystery, wonder, or humor as well. I tended to be pretty polarized in my views--there were several that I didn't care for at all and some that I wanted to buy I liked them so well. A few in the middle, but not many.

Perhaps I expect too much?

So with that rather lengthy lead-in, here are the ones we actually enjoyed:

I have to start with Mercer Mayer. He basically created the wordless picture book genre around 25 years ago. He was a master at it!

A Boy, A Dog, and A Frog, by Mercer Mayer

There's a reason these are classics!
The story tells itself in expressions, the pictures move you from page to page (I especially liked how the frog followed the footprints), and the ending is just so delightful.

What was even better was seeing my 4-year-old pick them up to "read" to himself, while big brother and sister were reading nearby.

Frog on His Own, by Mercer Mayer

Frog hops out of the boy's bucket for an adventure of his own. Humor and sticky situations on every page! Another winner!

There are 4 others in this Frog and Boy series.
The whole series is on my list to purchase.

So now for the rest of the list. It is pretty short.

Cool Cat, by Nonny Hogrogian

Cat lives in a place that is dead and brown and full of trash. So he gets out his paint set and transforms it into a living, growing place.

I really liked how Cat's small changes attracted little animals, who then helped paint and make further changes. Also, that it became a beautiful garden in the end, because...you know--gardens = happiness.

Flashlight, by Lizi Boyd

Two kids are in a tent at night, but then decide to explore outside with their flashlights.

The use of light and darkness in this one is inspired. You get to see what the boys see in their flashlight beams, but there are also other things in the dark that are faintly visible. Strategic use of cutouts here and there add to the intrigue. Then there's a great little twist at the end.

Such a neat exploration of light and darkness. Great fun!

Flotsam, by David Wiesner
(Caldecott Medal winner, 2007)

A boy brings his microscope and a few other tools to the beach to study whatever comes in on the tide. Then he finds a camera that holds some amazing secrets.

This book put the biggest smile on my face! Wiesner takes an intriguing idea, then puts a whimsical spin on it that is simply terrific! This was one I couldn't wait to share with my kids!

The Girl and The Bicycle, by Mark Pett

A girl longs for a bicycle in the store window and is determined to get it! She does lots of chores to earn the money--if only the bike is still there when she finally has enough!

A simple story that's easy to follow, with a very sweet little ending.

Journey, by Aaron Becker
(Caldecott Honor Book, 2014)

This is what I'm talking about! Reminiscent of Harold and the Purple Crayon (a little boy with a purple crayon makes a couple of cameos in the book.) A little girl draws herself into an adventure, through mysterious landscapes and vistas, until finally returning back home.

Illustrations that you want to walk into. We all (me and all 3 kids) pored over this one together, pointing out details that others might have missed. Convey sense of wonder? Check.

I just discovered this is actually a trilogy! That is awesome. The other two books are Quest, and Return.

The Lion and the Mouse, by Jerry Pinkney
(Caldecott Medal winner, 2010)

An [almost] wordless retelling of the fable.

Each page has sounds written out--roars, squeaks, etc., but no words other than that.

Detailed, rich illustrations. I didn't even miss the words with this one! Deserving of the Caldecott medal that it won.

Sea of Dreams, by Dennis Nolan

A little girl makes a sandcastle. That night, a light goes on in the upper window, and a tiny family must escape the waves...

Like many of these books, this one is about an imaginary voyage. I liked how this one connected the little girl's creations with someone else's life and voyage to a new land.

Beautiful illustrations. You should know that there are a couple of pages with some young mermaids who have only thin strips of seaweed and covering their chests. I thought it was okay--the mermaids were not developed at all, and it seemed innocent enough--but you may preview it yourself before you hand it to your kids.

Where's Walrus? And Penguin? by Stephen Savage

Walrus and Penguin escape from the zoo and manage to hide from the zookeeper on each page, until an unlucky missed catch at the baseball game lands Walrus in the hospital. This is actually the sequel to Where's Walrus?, but this was checked in and the other was out. So there you go. I would imagine it's pretty similar to the first, though.

My kids had fun with this, though I don't know that it would stand up to a lot of repeated readings.

* * * * *

What am I missing? Do you love this type of picture book, or are you on the fence like me?
What are some of your favorites? I'm ready for any and all suggestions, so I don't have to keep going through the library's collection one at a time!