The Hunt, and a List of Great Chapter Books

Sometimes strange things happen over which we have no control. And even if we think we’re in control, we’re not.I learned that this week while teaching three mischievous little boys.

I spend every afternoon providing intense reading intervention with small groups of 7 and 8 year-olds. During a half hour period we might use whiteboards, dramatize, play several games, make a phonics chart, and read two or three books. I always keep one eye on the clock, and the other on my lesson plan, to make sure the pace of activity facilitates maximum impact. In other words, I have no time for shenanigans.

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writing letters in quinoa

On Monday, we were reading a story with a mouse as a protagonist. We were almost at the last page when it all started:

“Look, there he is! There’s the mouse!” Cameron yelled in a fit of giggles.

Before I had time to squelch anything another boy joined in, pointing and bouncing in his chair. Then the third boy chimed, “I see it, I see it, I see it, I see it!”

Flustered and annoyed with their antics (we’d lost thirty precious seconds of content coverage), I demanded silence. “Stop it. Stop it right now. All of you sit DOWN. This is enough.”

But they couldn’t sit. They wouldn’t sit. They danced on their tippy toes, tittering, yelping, and completely ignoring me… and that’s when I saw the furry body and smooth tail slip behind my shelf.

In the same moment, the custodian came barreling into my room, holding towels in both hands. “Plug the doorways! There’s a mouse in here!” she shouted, throwing me a towel to batten down the hatches. But the little mouse squeezed under a door before I had time to stuff it with a towel and the screaming that ensued in the hallway indicated its escape route. It wasn’t just the custodian on the hunt now; the secretary, followed by the vice principal, came running from their offices, too. Even I abandoned my lesson plan and grabbed the garbage can Cameron held out to me.

I decided to go for it. Sprinting after the rodent and slamming the can onto the floor, I looked up only to see him zig-zagging a few steps ahead of me. The second time it worked and I just barely captured him–his little black eyes and quivering nose sticking out from under the rim–right in front of thirty students lined up at the library door. Their teacher screeched, “Shut the door!” while the vice-principal handed me a broom to finish the job.

Mrs. Reed took the mouse back outside and set it free was the line some teachers told their students, but my three boys knew better. They had seen me smash the broom-handle to the floor. When we gathered ourselves back in my room, they wanted to know more details, and mostly, why I had killed it.

“Mice and humans don’t get along very well indoors,” I explained, “Now, pick up a marker and write m-o-u-s-e. Which two vowels make the middle sound?”

When I told my daughter, on our drive home, what had happened she wasn’t impressed. “That could’ve been Despereaux!” she cried, swinging her feet and inadvertently kicking my seat.

…Which brings me back to the title of this post. (Were you wondering if I’d ever get there?) In case you weren’t sure, this is all about chapter books; the books we’ve read to our children and loved. Our daughters are currently seven and nine, but most 5-99 year-olds will enjoy these. They’re the kind of books that change the way you think, imagine, and make you mad at your mom for killing a mouse. (See The Tale of Despereaux). I’ve shared a few of these before, but I wanted to make a shortlist of our favourites in one place…

  • Little House on the Prairie series
  • Pippi Longstocking
  • Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter (Another one by Astrid Lindgren–an exciting story of independence, love, and the wilderness)
  • Mrs. Piggle Wiggle (also a series, and a hit with the 5-7 year old crowd)
  • Where the Mountain meets the Moon (A fantastical adventure that Belén especially loved)
  • A little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • The Boxcar Children
  • Ramona Quimby, Age 8
  • Grandma’s Attic Series (True stories of a woman who grew up in Michigan–all tales of the “olden days”)
  • The Belonging Place by Jean Little
  • City of Orphans
  • The Tale of Despereaux
  • Out of My Mind — Devastating/enlightening/hopeful at the same time. My book club (all of us 35+) appreciated it too.

Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light. (From the Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo)

What I wrote at the beginning of this post is true. I had no control of my lesson once the mouse showed up. And it appears I have less control over my writing than I think; I can’t come up with a meaningful way to tie this piece together…What do mice, literacy, fate, our drive to control, and read-alouds have in common? Please leave your existential answers, along with any titles you’ve enjoyed with your family, or as a child, in the comments.

Happy for more book suggestions,
Tricia
*Although I have no affiliation with Amazon (use your local library!) I link to the site because it’s the most user-friendly for synopsis and reviews.

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Racism and Nettle Juice

“Can we go to the store now, mom? Please?”

“Is it time to the store yet?”

“Mom, when we go to the store I get to choose want I want to buy, right? It’s my money, right?”

The whole time we are at the lake my girls pepper each conversation with the promise of buying candy. You’d think we were vacationing at the Mall of America instead of an empty campground, judging by how much we talk about shopping.

When we do finally arrive at the store, ready to blow weeks of allowance on refined sugar, we see the CLOSED sign hanging inside the darkened building. Another woman who is also waiting walks towards us with crisp, white capri pants and a perfectly coiffed hair. It looks like her curls are as stiff as her pants.

“The store should be open; it’s already ten o’clock,” she announces before we have time to turn around, “But Indians are running this place now so you can’t expect much.”

I’m still holding on to Belén and Susie’s hands and I wonder if they caught what she said. I also wonder where this lady is from. Even though racism is everywhere in our province, I’ve never heard a stranger voice their opinion so crudely while thinking they’re being perfectly polite. She continues to drawl about other things she’s noticed about “the Indians” (she meant First Nations) around here.

Eventually we decide not to wait any longer and slowly walk back to our campsite.

“What do you think about what that lady said?” I ask Belén and Susanna, trying to gauge how much debriefing is necessary.

Belén is still miffed she can’t get rid of the money burning a hole in her pocket and she answers, “Well, if you’re gonna have a store, you shouldn’t keep it closed.”

It’s hard to argue with that logic, and I agree with her. But what I really want my daughters to get out of our discussion is how not to waste time. By wasting time, I mean making destructive comments that fuel misunderstanding and spread ignorance like wildfire. These are time-wasters for everyone because instead of building relationships or dignity, sweeping generalizations keep knocking everything back to the ground where growth has to start all over again; like a two-year-old kid who can’t resist pummeling a tower made of blocks.

Surprisingly, Coca-Cola initiated a project that’s a great example of building up the block tower–or building bridges. Of course, it’s not about blocks at all, but about people–separated by armed barriers and political drama–connecting with the “enemy” on the other side. We showed this 3 minute video to our girls, and then I watched it several times myself, because I was gripped with the power of person-to-person contact in a hotbed of racism.

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photo not mine

We also just finished reading this book out loud about two wild children in a fantastical forest, who come from warring clans. Susanna whimpered fearfully in her bed after listening to it every night, but when it came time to read it the next day she was the first to clamber onto the couch, insisting we read “at least two chapters.” I think this story must be one of Astrid Lindgren’s best (she also wrote Pippi Longstocking.)

We read the book and watched the video before we ever talked to the stiff-pants-and-hair lady. And, who knows what themes settled into the recesses of my children’s mind–or even my own for that matter, from these selections. I hope though, that next time I feel the urge to make, agree with, or tolerate a derogatory statement about an entire group of people, I might remember to replace the vague, faceless group in question with a memory of a single connection.

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And now… for the nettle juice part of this post.

Many people in my life are drinking green smoothies. I am not. But, we are eating our morning porridge with stinging nettle concentrate.

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Tender stinging nettle plant

I started harvesting stinging nettle from an overgrown alleyway a couple of weeks ago, to treat Belén’s allergies. There is a lot of information online, and in herbal reference books, about using nettle as a natural antihistamine. To be honest, I haven’t noticed much difference in Belén’s reactions since I’ve been giving it to her, but I also think it requires a long-term commitment. One doctor recommends drinking nettle tea at least two months before allergy season begins.

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This is ground ivy… an edible/medicinal plant that often grows near stinging nettle.

I’d read that ground ivy is a convenient and effective way to soothe nettle burns, so Stan and I promptly rubbed some hairy stinging nettle onto our bare legs to test the theory. We chewed up the ground ivy and stuck it to the affected area…

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spit poultice of ground ivy

Just so you know, it didn’t work. Next time I’ll try plantain.

Belén is still popping her regular dosage of loratadine (an over the counter anti-histamine) and I’m still popping frozen cubes of stinging nettle into our hot cereal and soups. Besides it’s anti-histamine properties, it is a calcium/iron powerhouse.

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fresh nettle leaves loose their sting when they are cooked, dried or ground up

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nettle juice to be frozen–I put one cube per person in our oatmeal and the girls don’t even notice it

To make easy-to-use, fresh nettle concentrate:

  • Finely grind up leaves with a little water
  • Mix one part nettle paste with one or two parts water and let sit for a day or so
  • Strain nettle juice and freeze it using ice cube trays
  • Use the chopped up leaves (left after straining) in the place of spinach in any recipe. I tried to make Boston Pizza’s spinach and artichoke dip with it and it turned out quite well. The taste is a little different than spinach though.

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The more I think about the title of this post, the more ridiculous–and arrogant–it seems. How could a short blog post appropriately address a complicated issue like racism? Despite the name I gave it, this one doesn’t. It’s is about a store that wasn’t open when it should’ve been, an inspiring project, a good book, and nettle juice. Thanks for reading it.

Tricia

PS. Today is the very first day of summer vacation! Guess why my children woke up at 7 am this morning? To play school.