Top Ten Picture Books for Children

I’ve recently joined a committee to help select the best Canadian picture books published in 2013. It’s not as prestigious as it sounds–I’d never even heard of the award before I got involved–but it sure is exciting to flip through a new stack of books, straight from the publisher, and choose the one I’ll read next. It’s like going through a box of chocolates! The rest of my family is weighing in, too,(we’ve read most of the books together) and I’m recording our opinions so I’ll be able to narrow the list of books from 57 down to the top 10. To help me be more decisive, I ask myself after each reading, “Is this a book I’d be willing to advocate for to convince someone else of it’s merit?”

During this process I’ve thought about my own all-time-favourite children’s books list and decided to record my nominees for the Friesen Reed award, right here! Partway through jotting my list, I stopped to wonder why I was spending time on this. My children are now on to chapter books (I had to rescue some of these favourites from the garage sale they staged on our front lawn this summer) and it seems almost silly I’m still preoccupied by picture books. But then I remember I’ve always loved picture books, even before I had children, and that only the most skillful and elegant of story tellers can engage a six-year old audience.

Here are the books we’ve read and re-read in our household; books we’ve given as gifts; books I’m willing to advocate for. I’ve included some of the themes that resonate with me in italics:

Roxaboxen creativity, nostalgia, community

Bagels from Benny generosity

The Relatives Came family… expressive artwork

Harriet You’ll Drive Me Wild This one is so comforting for both parents and children on a rough day

The Man with the Violin noticing beauty, music, …the art fits the story perfectly

All the Places to Love sense of place.. My friend, Kjerstin, bought this for me when I was in university and I’ve relished reading it ever since

Little Lost Bat loss and recovery, adoption ,… full of interesting facts about Mexican free-tailed bats, tender but not sentimental

The Arrival immigration, resilience … this book is in a category of it’s own for the depth of story communicated through the graphics

The Sneetches consumerism, thinking for yourself

Paper Bag Princess Robert Munsch can get on my nerves, but every little girl needs to read this book

Most of these authors have written other books we’ve also enjoyed, and their names register like those of old classmates or distant relatives. Oh, it’s Kathy Stinson, I know her! And good ol’ Cynthia Rylant and Mem Fox–you can always rely on them! Perhaps there are a few titles here you don’t recognize… I hope so, for your sake; I know I love discovering new books.

Besides reading, we were busy in our yard and with friends this weekend. Once again, the potatoes (from my last post) came through for us. On Friday, we hosted an all-evening dinner affair served in multiple courses. It was a pretty classy event and I kept on reminding our guests, “We’re dining like the French tonight…”


The chefs (Dion, Jason and Stan) fried potatoes for four hours straight, under the gleam of the trouble light, in our garage.


Dion kept shuttling fries into the house and the kids kept eating.


They kids started with veggies and dip at 5:30 and then ate fries, in courses, until about 9:30 (between rounds of hide-and-go seek in the park.)

Is this what you pictured when you read “classy”? Well, I meant classy in the way that 7 to 12-year-olds understand it; no plates–piles of fries were dumped right on the table covered with brown paper, and chairs optional–but useful for standing on to reach half-way across the table. The kids ran out the back door between servings and the woman folk returned to their spots at the grease-stained table, between batches, with red wine and conversation… That’s the kind of class I’m talkin’ about.

Wishing you enough to eat, with good books to read and share, this week,


PS. It was SO hard to  narrow my booklist down to 10. Which of your favourites did I miss? Do tell!

PPS. Here’s the yapita for the grandparent/aunty audience


Sometimes Belén and Susie are like little machines you just have to re-set every once in awhile. On Saturday I asked them to help me stomp down the leaves in the compost bin and then they stayed there for hours, long after their chore was finished, playing “apartment”.



Susanna’s fiddle teacher suggested recording the songs the girls are working on and playing them back to see where they still need to improve. Here’s a shot of Susa providing moral support, and Belén’s classic I’ve-made-a-mistake-and-what-exactly-is-my-sister-doing? expression.

Caramel Corn Recipe, DIY Fiddle hooks, and Susie


Susanna (far right) with her classmates at her birthday party

Sometimes I think Susanna might be auditioning for the lead role in a play titled, When Children Push the Limits. Last week her acting was spot on, with fantastic physicality and larger-than-life facial expressions. In the end, she blew past all other contenders because of her impressive vocal strength and stamina. There were times during these “auditions” (aka altercations) when I couldn’t believe what I was seeing or hearing. Between deep breaths (in effort to control my own unpleasant, visceral impulses) I actually had to suppress a laugh or two, because of the hyperbole in her script.

Of course, we talked so she could listen and listened so she could talk* but she was on such a roll, nothing could distract her from her stage… until she decided she was going to step away from the bright lights, all on her own. When things settled, and she decided to withdraw her name from the casting list (for now) we discussed who the true Susanna really is. She is a girl with a thousand nick names and a belly laugh; a cuddler with sweet breath and soft cheeks; a curious observer of small details (she makes her daddy proud); a baby lover and animal avoider; a cupcake baker and mushroom hater; a favourite with the elderly and her teachers; a speedy reader; and a sucker for silliness.


Five different families in this bunch, and at least 6 different languages!

A rare moment going through the corn maze: an adult (Stan) at the front of the pack of kids

A rare moment going through the corn maze: an adult (Stan) at the front of the pack of kids

Our best Susanna makes life so much more liveable around here. We can rely on her to drop whatever she’s doing (if she’s not in one of her aforementioned auditions) whenever I start reading a book out loud, or playing my violin. In the latter case, all I have to do is sound a few notes and she’ll leave her dolls, or conversation, mid-sentence and move towards her fiddle, reaching for it as if in a trance. This works particularly well with a rousing jig, although classical Minuets still do the trick. A quick way to get her really wound up is to listen to the Orange Blossom Special, or a tickle session with her Grandpa in Indiana.


No more tripping over instruments around here! Stan made these innovative hooks to hang our fiddles from our bar. He attached two more to the sides of our piano for the guitars.


A few days ago, Susie (or Shoshanna, Shoshie, Shoshapaloze, Zanzabar, Suza) turned seven. And, I have to admit, with all the acting around here, I wasn’t sure the real Susanna was going to show up for the party. Much to our relief, she did, and we all had a great time running through corn stalks, burning marshmallows, and getting lost. One of the highlights, for Susanna, was doling out the treat bags. (Yes, our best Susanna was in the house!) She’d made the most buttery, perfectly sweet, caramel corn–with a little help from the rest of us. So if you’ve read through all our family details just to get to this recipe, you’ve arrived. Here it is:


Caramel Popcorn for Fall Parties (adapted from my Auntie Millie’s recipe)

  • a bunch of popped popcorn (2 cups unpopped kernels)
  • some peanuts (optional)
  • 2 1/2 cups brown sugar
  • 3/4 c light corn syrup
  • 1 1/4-ish cups butter
  • 1/2 or 3/4 tsp tsp baking soda
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla

Pop the corn, add peanuts, and place dry mix in two large bowls. Melt butter, syrup and sugar on low heat, and let boil for five minutes, stirring constantly. Remove caramel from heat and add soda and vanilla. Pour over popcorn/peanuts, stirring for good coverage. Spread popcorn onto a couple baking sheets and let dry before packing into treat bags.


All this drama could get me good and worried about my little girl. Does she have a chemical imbalance? Has something terrible happened to her in a dark closet that I don’t know about? What can I expect in ten years from now if we’re struggling already? But then I remember that she was just 6 last week, and now she’s learning how to be 7. And being the best person you can be, at 7, takes work. I guess it’s about as hard as it is for some thirty-six year olds I know.**


Enjoy the rest of your week,


*Have you read the book? Why don’t these strategies actually work when you need them?

**This weekend we decided our whole family needs to memorize this verse from the Bible: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

I suggested each one of us pick a “fruit” to concentrate on for the following week. “Why don’t we all share the one we want to work on so we can encourage each other?” I said.

Both Stan and I noticed Susanna’s finger tracking the first few attributes and I interrupted her as she was about to announce her choice, “I think you’ve got love covered, and certainly, joy. How about…”

Self-control?” she finished, to our relief.

“Yes, that’s a great choice, Susanna. I’ll pick patience,” I said.

Belén remarked pointedly, “I was hoping you’d say that, Mom.”

Mmm… it appears we all need help with something.


All the Things to Find Out About

This past week has been full of milestones; Belén turned nine, and we started reading Anne of Green Gables. Both events were expected, and anticipated, long in advance.

I’d been waiting to share Lucy Maud Montgomery with my own daughters–as my mom did with me– for years. Then Tuesday night came, and we realized we were out of read-alouds, so I took Anne off the shelf with as much pomp as I could muster. Tangled between my girls’ limbs and Phebe’s green afghan, we read about Marilla and Rachel Lynde, while I kept hoping they’d all hit it off in the first chapter. It seemed so much slower, longer and more detailed than I remembered it. When we finally finished, I asked them if they wanted to keep going. I was so influenced by the spirit of this fictitious red-head as a child, I felt I was auditioning part of myself, instead of simply reading another book.

Susanna wasn’t impressed, but Belén and I convinced her to give it one more night. Then the big guns showed up. Many of you know Stan is multi-talented, but his dramatic reading skills are one of his best kept secrets. By the time Mathew Cuthbert and Anne were driving home under the blossoms of “the white way of delight” he had both girls hooked. Maybe if this engineering thing doesn’t work out he can look into other opportunities with the CBC. (Do you remember watching the film the first time it aired on CBC in 1985? I loved it, but wondered how Megan Follows beat me to it!)

Weeks before we opened up Anne, we started planning Belén’s special day and decided to break from tradition. Usually we invite a handful of families, but this year’s invitations went out to classmates only. Besides the drop in mean age of attendees, we added on a sleepover. Yes folks, it was a daring move for a woman who champions age-diversity and a man who prefers brevity, over longevity, when it comes to parties.



Susanna providing some dinner music before the evening games. (Doug, in the background, doesn’t know what’s coming…)

Stan decided to invite a colleague over the same day of Belén’s party. I guess my husband imagined six hyper girls would be a background detail, instead of a shrieking blur of glow-sticks and pony tails. Poor Doug. He came expecting to relax but was roped into sweaty games of Kick-the-Can and Capture the Flag. Maybe running through the dark with a flashlight, scaring pre-pubescent girls, is a good way to decompress after all.


Some of the girls had never slept in a tent. Here’s Belén taking control of the situation. She may not know much about the latest boy-band but she can set up a tent like nobody’s business.

Long after I wished the girls goodnight and zipped the tent behind me, Belén came padding into our room, crying.

“What’s wrong?” I said, jerking my head up from the pillow and reaching for her to come closer. “Is everyone okay?”

More sniffling.

“They don’t want to go to sleep, Mom… And I do!”

I assured her she could stay indoors and soon after she collapsed under her covers. In the end, both our girls slept in their own beds, while the other invitees stayed in the tent.


The next day we talked about what we had learned. We all decided that old people make parties more fun and that great celebrations don’t have to last all night.

Anne’s right….

“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive–it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?”

Have a great weekend finding out things,


Happy Birthday Susanna, from an “intentional learner”

Intentional.  Now, read the word again and say it to yourself softly, intentional.  It has such a nice ring to it, evoking other adjectives like thoughtful, meaningful and wise.  People write books about intentional parenting, build intentional communities, commit to intentional simplicity and label bookshelves with intentional living.  These ideas and movements are lovely and admirable; I’ve often used the phrases myself.  But, there are times when I want to throw my hands up in the air because of the word, and wipe the smug out of anyone who puts on intentional airs.

Walking with friends to the restaurant of her choice for her Birthday Eve supper.

I hope I can convince you my feelings do not stem from an immature sullen attitude but, rather, from my experience as an eight-year old parent.  Judging by the books I have read I should be the most organized,calmest, craftiest, deeply spiritual, baby-whisperer of a mom you’ve ever met.  The fact is I am not.  I am bumbling along on this path of motherhood hoping something turns out right; not unlike my friend, whose teenage daughter ran away this weekend, or my neighbour, whose son doesn’t want anything to do with her.

The competition in our family relay event was too fierce for the b-day girl so she chose to be “in charge”. Here she is with her clipboard, ready to split the guests into teams.

Perhaps I mistakenly equate “intentional” with “having it all figured out”, and I know for certain I don’t have it all figured out.  Not when it comes to parenting.  (I admit, my husband would be surprised to hear that one!).  Our bed time saga with Susanna is a perfect example.

We set up our easel with a big piece of paper. Guests were invited to write reasons why Susanna is special. She was very intrigued with this and I imagine we will use this idea again for other birthdays.

Neither of my daughters was a “good sleeper” as an infant.  Somehow, I expected we would simply soldier through the baby phase and then be home-free after toddlerhood.  Unfortunately my theory proved untrue.  From the 38 nights of letting Susanna “cry it out” when she was nine months old (my grandpa insisted it would only take three–I broke down on night #39 and let her nurse) to the frustrating evenings laced with foot stamping, cajoling, threats, shouts, and desperate pleas to GO TO SLEEP,  we couldn’t seem to find a solution for our little Susannie.

Then, only a few weeks ago, it came to us.  You might think the answer to our problem was very complicated, considering it took us six painful years to arrive at it, but it’s not.  It is embarrassingly simple.

We lie down with her.  And, here’s the clincher–we stay this way until she falls asleep.  We face each other, my head touching hers, our hair swirling together on the pillow.  My cheeks, only inches away from hers, feel her warm breath, and my hand lies heavy over her rib cage, just the way she likes it.  And, low and behold, the child falls asleep… within minute(s)!

Happy sixth birthday Susanna!

Yes, I know.  All of you co-sleepers out there are rolling your eyeballs and muttering, “Well, it’s about time,” but please understand: I can barely tolerate sleeping with my husband.  Introducing our children into our bed was never a consideration, even for logistical reasons.  And besides, this isn’t really a discussion about whether or not we should practice attachment parenting.  The point is, it took us six long years to figure out our little trick.

And so, I’m willing to make a concession regarding the whole business of being intentional.  It may be just a question of semantics, but the only label I’m willing to identify with is “intentional learner”.  And, hopefully in the next six years I learn something more about how to parent my little girl.

The difference between age seven and age eight

This past Thursday, the tables turned.  I felt them spin, as clearly as if I had muscled them around myself.  At precisely 7:25 am, Belén notified me of her position, from the other end of the table–figuratively and literally.

Belén: Mom, I’m not wearing those jeans.

Me: Why not?  There’s nothing wrong with them… Look, they’re even GAP (I’m not sure why I throw this in, knowing it means nothing to her) and they look good on you.

Belén: But they’re not skinny jeans.  I only wear skinny jeans, mom.  You may as well just give those ones away; I’ll never use them.

Me: Your skinny jeans are in the laundry.  Just put these on.  I would wear them if I could.

I flag the jeans in front of her face to emphasize my point.  Belén looks at me and shakes her head resolutely.  I sense she will not be persuaded.  In that moment I realize it doesn’t matter to her one whit whether I fancy the jeans or not.  In fact, my sense of style weighs very little on her scales.

Me: Well I don’t get it, these jeans look fine to me…

My voice trails off and it dawns on me I am no longer a hip young woman (wait, was I ever one?), but a mother.  A mother who is out of touch; who can’t tell a pair of jeans from the next one.  Of course, this is not the first time my sense of fashion has clashed with hers.  Trips to the grocery store in tutus, high heels for walks in the snow, and Christmas dresses in July, have all been sources of conflict, but this time it is different.  My voice echoes back to me with a distinct trace of bewilderment and surrender, as it should.  Clearly, I don’t know a thing about jeans.  More critically, I have lost the upper hand in all things fashion.

On a brighter note, turning eight also means taking on new responsibilities in planning and hosting a birthday party.  An hour and a half before the guests arrive, I hear Belén come into the bathroom during my shower.

“I’ll help cut up the carrots for the veggie tray,” her voice cutting through the steam,  “That’s the next thing on our list, right?”

Why yes it is, dear eight-year-old-baby-turned-co-hostess!


I’ve been waiting eight years for my children to grow old enough to play “capture the flag” .

ahem… if you recognize any of the fabric in there, it must be just a look-alike pattern. I would not have cut it up for a flag 😉

We played it in the park behind our house, after sunset.  One of the advantages of inviting entire families, (parents included), to your birthday is having grown men come howling at you out of the darkness.  Judging by the pitch of the screams in response, it was thrilling!

All the kids waiting inside, while the dads hide the flags.

So thrilling, that one participant collapsed in the hammock afterwards.  He fell asleep after Stan outfitted him with hearing protection–the girls were on edge for the rest of the night and couldn’t seem to stop screaming.

Stan was very excited about giving Belén her present this year.  He bought this guitar, varnished it, and then dressed it up a little with some carbon fibre.  I wonder if, twenty years ago, he could have pictured himself fiddling with a butterfly design, to make his gift just right for an eight-year-old daughter?

The lessons start this week.  I am looking forward to them in kind of a hopeful, yet slightly cringing, way.  I can already hear myself nag, nag, nagging…

And lastly, here is a recipe to bet on.

Whenever I serve anything gluten-free to guests I try to hold back, but some how or another, I never make it through the night with out a little probing.  I always want to know: Does this taste as good as “the real thing”?  Supposedly, these do.  (Or perhaps my kind guests sensed the desperation in my voice.)

Gluten Free Pumpkin Cupcakes, adapted slightly, from here

3 large eggs

2 cups brown sugar

1/2 cup oil

2 cups pumpkin puree

2 tsp vanilla

1 2/3 brown rice flour, 1/3 starch (I never use the same GF flour mix twice… mmm… maybe that explains something?)

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

3 tsp. cinnamon

dash of nutmeg and ginger

1/2 tsp. salt

1/3 tsp xanthan gum (optional)


1 block of softened cream cheese

3,4,5…6? tsp softened butter, depending on how happy you are

1/5 tsp vanilla

3 ish cups of icing sugar

spash of milk, if needed

Go well into the week!

Ode to a sister

My sister just pulled out of the driveway with my mother, and left three of us waving frantically from the window.  She and her kids spent a week and a half with us; birthday-ing, camping, and just plain living.  Yesterday, as we sat outside folding boatloads of laundry, pitching a baseball to her littlest one, making snacks, and everything in between, I said, “Some people actually live like this.  Women all over the world are living in family groups, managing their house and children together.”

Shade, fresh snap beans, clean laundry, and a sister.

Doesn’t it sound good to you?  It’s so Red Tent-ish.  Imagine always having someone around to ask if your hair looks too greasy to go out, to take over flipping the pancakes while you set the table, or to hash over decisions you’ve already made (sparing your husband the torture).  We may have two cars, flush toilets, independence and all the privacy we want in our society but I think we are missing out on that kind of daily community.

So what are we to do?  Not all of us have sisters close by or any siblings at all.


Somehow we have to wriggle into the lives of other people, and let them wriggle into ours.  It’s a long, slow process adopting sisters though, and it would be so much easier if I had mine around to start with.  If you are lucky enough to have a sister nearby today, tell her to come over!  Trust me.


Besides doing laundry and beans we celebrated a birthday and went camping with the rest of the family.

My sister had a unique idea for the prize at the end of the treasure hunt:

Each child was given a block of ice (frozen with food colouring in a margarine container the night before) and a fork.  Inside the chunk of ice was a bracelet and ring.  The kids had to chip away at the ice to get to their treasure.  The more aggressive types took to smashing their ice blocks on the sidewalk.

Grandma partaking in birthday fun

The raft project: The cousins assembled the logs and Stan helped a little (okay, a lot) lashing it together.

sitting around the fire with grandpa

The kayak is just about ready for its maiden voyage.  Stan made it so we could nest it inside our canoe and car-top them both easily on our Saturn.  Let’s hope it holds water!!

Garlic update: It’s got one week left to cure before I cut off the root hairs and green tops and store it in my basement for the winter.