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.

Depressed and Surprised

Kids these days depress me.

When I start working with new students I ask them open-ended questions to get to know them: What do you like to do after school? What are you good at? If you could do anything you wanted, what would you choose do? Their responses to my inquiries are consistent and predictable. The answers always involve video games.

I work next door to a speech therapist, and a lot of conversations I overhear resemble my own with students. It seems the only reference point children have for dialogue is their gaming life. It’s not about what they did or made on the weekend, who their friends are, or where they went, but what they accomplished in a virtual world with their thumbs. The dearth in their vocabulary and lack of basic concepts is frightening, but not inexplicable. If children never communicate and interact verbally through diverse, real-life experiences, it’s no wonder they’re in grade two and still can’t carry on a decent conversation. Did I mention kids depress me?

But, kids surprise me even more.

Last night my girls told me about the storyteller on their bus. I’ve heard about her before and how even the big boys sit down and lean in close when she starts talking, but it’s still hard for me to believe.

“You mean all these kids want to sit beside her and listen?” I ask.

“Yep. And when she starts we settle down and get less hyper.” Then Belén qualifies, “Well, a little less hyper.”

I imagine this nine-year-old casting her spell on a gang of kids smushed between hard seats and backpacks, all of them anticipating who will be the next hero. Even at her age she understands her audience will be more engaged if they’re a part of the story. Today two fourth-grade boys were pirates. Not long ago, Belén and Susanna were kittens and I know of others cast as geriatric patients. Once, she picked up pebbles from the floor of the bus and wove a story around them, describing the plight of two peers turned to stone.

“Where does she get all her ideas from?” I wonder.

“Oh, she takes an imaginary card and swipes the top of her head to unlock the files in there,” Susanna explains, then adds in a confidential tone, “When she finds an idea she likes, she has to unlock it with a special key so no one else can steal it.”

No teacher has given her this assignment or demanded these performances, but she gives them anyway. No adult coordinates her program or guides her stories, but she keeps on telling, and her friends keep listening–even the kindergarten babies, and the fifth grade football players. This is her gift. Her magic. And she’s using it.

Did I mention that kids surprise me?

Have a great weekend,

Tricia

Oh, and here’s a couple of pictures from yesterday. The girls decided what they wanted to be, but needed their dad for some technical support. He hates Halloween (I think it has something to do with flooding an over-entitled nation with slave-produced chocolate while celebrating evil) but he’s like a moth to the flame when comes to making stuff…

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getting the costumes ready…

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“the band” (Susie, our friend Sarah, and Belén)

Why do you blog anyway, Mama?

I posted something I shouldn’t have yesterday, and my daughter let me know it. With tears welling in her eyes, she vehemently insisted I delete the post immediately.

The post in question highlighted a few moments of our terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. By the time I was ready to blog about it, the corners of my mouth twisted upwards while tapping on the keys. Several hours after publishing it, I read the post aloud, hoping my daughter would hear the humour in our pathetic mini-drama and even consider it with distant objectivity. Instead, she was more hurt than jolly, and I sensed she felt violated by my re-telling.

Of course, I knew what I had to do. Nursing my bruised ego, I clicked the edit button and removed the post from my site.

Why do you have to blog anyway, mama?” she asked me, hovering around the computer to make sure I made good on my promise.

“Because I want to.” I replied childishly. (She had after all, erased my afternoon’s efforts of linking one sentence to another into a mostly-coherent chain; ‘no small feat at the best of times.)

She poses a good question. Why do I blog? Why does anyone blog? or write? or tell stories?

I want Grandmas, Grandpas, Aunts and Uncles to catch a glimpse of our life. I want people to see what we make and do. I want to show off. I want to confess. I want to make people laugh and think. I want to make myself think. I want to disarm. I want to cover-up. I want to craft words that translate into feelings. I want to be understood, to connect, to be known.

“Why do you have to give so many personal details?” Stan adds. “Maybe you could change a few facts and make sure all the faces are blurred in the photos…”

Another good question: What makes a story worth telling, and how true does it have to be? My knee-jerk response is to retort that expression requires exposure. The more bloody guts spilled onto the paper (or screen), the better. A bandaged story is a lame story. What’s the point of writing something that reads like small talk at a company party? I don’t like wasting my time with meaningless conversations so why would I do it in my writing? (You get the point.)

Film maker Andrew Stanton (Toy Story) claims that any decent narrative has to:
#1 make someone care, and
#2, make a promise.
If the truth doesn’t hold promise or make people care, I’m not sure what will…

And yet, even though I am quick to defend myself in the name of authenticity, I still hear my family’s questions, despite my own rant. I might not hesitate to “undress” in front of a virtual crowd, but can I volunteer them to do the same?

The answer, obviously, is a quiet, embarrassed “no”.

And so, in this weird world of online diaries, and quick-as-a-finger-flash publishing, I am re-posting Friday’s blog. Without the guts.

As Belén would be quick to point out, you aren’t missing much.

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Our THIRD time eating "tiré"--globs of chilled maple syrup--this season

Our THIRD time eating “tiré”–globs of chilled maple syrup–this season. I think we’re good ’til next year.

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We think we’re pretty hot stuff (see past snow sculpture posts)… until we go to winter festivals and see this kind of snow artistry.

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The above pictures are from last week’s vacation. We made the 13 hour drive to spend a couple days with my sister and her family. Tara and Derek’s house is well worth the trip; I felt as if we were in a cozy alpine lodge, tucked in their 3/4 second story with a comfy duvet…

part of a homemade garland strung between Tara's kitchen and living room

part of a homemade garland strung between Tara’s kitchen and living room

(By the way, if you are interested in being creative, check out my sister’s blog, practically homemade. She has great ideas and is considerably less verbose than I.)

When we hit Winnipeg on our way back I was reminded we are no longer city mice.

Overheard backseat conversation, while waiting in 6 lanes of traffic at a red light:

Susanna (emotional): “I think this is a traffic jam, Belén. Yup. This is it! A real traffic jam!!”

Belén (softly, with awe): “All I can see is city. Just buildings and city everywhere.”

‘Wishing you courage and patience as you deal with your own crazy life.
Have a lovely weekend,
Tricia

Good Words: Do you want to come along?

Our family returned home from a long day away recently.  While I was taking off my shoes, I saw the red light of the answering machine blinking across the kitchen.  We all listened to the message while tripping over each other, shedding our jackets and bags.

“…I was just wondering how your week at school had gone, Tric…”

When it was over, Stan said to me, “Now that girl is one good friend.”

The message was from a friend I have had most of my life.  Although we haven’t lived in the same place for many years we have kept in touch well enough to know each other’s schedules, routines, when the other is in a good/rough cycle with their spouse or kids, books we are reading, hair products we are using, plants we are growing…

She is also one of the friends who photocopied Toot and Puddle by Holly Hobby, coloured it, and gave it to me before I left for South America.

“…One day in January, Toot decided to set off on his biggest trip ever.  He decided to see the world.  “Do you want to come along?” he asked Puddle.  “We could start with someplace warm and wild.”

Puddle preferred to stay home.

I love snow, he thought…”

It is a tender story of friendship, travel, and being content at home.  The pictures are wonderful; especially when coloured in pencil crayon by some best friends!

I pulled this book from my daughters’ shelf and read it to them again this week.  Even though we are not in a see-the-world space right now, like I was when I first read it, it makes me smile.  And to be honest, I’m happy to be the piggy at home, for now.

(Important:  I am not advocating for the illegal reproduction of this book.  Please borrow it from your library or buy it! 🙂 )

*My own end of the week tradition: words in song or story that move me in some way.  I might type my very favourite parts in bold text, and I’ll always try to post a link below the quote so you can get more if you want it. Enjoy!

True Story: How I got from the Gas Station to the Delivery Room

It was 10:30 at night, in a gas station an hour away from home, when I saw them.  She was exhaling loudly and he had one arm around her shoulders and another on her belly.  A belly that looked like it was ready to launch off her body.

I was on my way out of the station, but when I saw her stance and big eyes, I asked them immediately if they were okay.

“We’re on the way to the hospital” he said, stating the obvious.  Then he took her into the washroom and I waited with my daughters outside the door, half expecting to hear a splashing sound from the toilet and the cry of a newborn.

When they emerged, still just the two of them, I asked them if they had family with them.  In the short exchange that followed I learned they were alone, this was their first child, and we knew each other!  He was from my home town.  I hadn’t thought about him in twenty years but when he said his name a faint vision of him with a snowboard and less facial hair re-surfaced.

Another woman standing nearby, filling up slurpee cups for a gaggle of young children, (presumably a family of night-owls since it was now nearing 11), gave her one look and said with a sigh, “Oh, I always hate that stage.” Then she went back to the slurpee machine as if labour was nothing more than a daily irritant.

I told them I was going to follow them to the hospital, still an hour of wheat and canola fields away.  “If you need to stop on the side of the road, don’t worry.  You’ll be fine.  Babies can be born anywhere.”  I thought of the beach towels in my trunk, still damp from our river swim, and figured they would make a fine swaddle.  “Where are you from?”  I asked quickly before jumping into the car, having noted an accent.  “Argentina,” she replied, and then I told her how brave she was, in Spanish.  It’s not often you meet someone from Patagonia in the prairies.

For the next hour I waited for the brake lights ahead of me to come on, but they never did.  By the time we made it to town I had coached my kids on how they would have to jump out of the car, run down the block, and wave at the front door once their dad let them in.  I was planning to take the couple to the hospital and stay with them until no longer needed.

For the next three and a half hours I got wet towels, rocked with her, massaged her feet and gripped her hand when she was ready to crawl out of her own body.  She took turns moaning through her contractions then vomiting during the breaks.  In a way, she was the perfect picture of grace; she feeling as if her body was breaking in two to give life.  By 2:30 am, high on oxytocin with my empathy levels still shooting through the roof, I knew I should leave so I would be able to function the next day with my own family.  Plus, the couple was heading for the showers and I wasn’t planning on jumping in with them.

I went home exhausted, but feeling lucky.  I am now more convinced than ever that a woman needs another woman’s hand to hold during labour.  This time it was mine.  And, how could I have known so many years earlier, I would be in the hospital with this sweet, gentle, father-to-be; rubbing lavender oil on his wife’s feet and supporting her while she buried her cries into my chest?

Life sometimes offers up weird and delicious moments such as these; when you feel like you’re sinking your teeth into the main course instead of picking at the carrot sticks and pickles before the meal begins.

… Oh, and it’s a girl.

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Remember how I was so excited about those scavenged apples?  Well, they’re still sitting pretty  in my basement, lined up on egg cartons, awaiting their fate.  I’ve been thinking about drying them, thinking about juicing them, thinking about making sauce out of them, thinking about freezing them… And then my Auntie Fritz sends me these doing pictures.  She makes her juice out of tiny, coin-sized apples that most people consider inedible.  Instead of letting “the birds go drunk on them” she cans up 100 jars of this stuff.  Here are her photos to inspire us thinkers:

The apple juice tree

Fritz’s canned apple juice