Snowballs by Lois Ehlert

Cover Image of Snowballs by Louis EhlertEhlert, Lois. SnowballsOrlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995.

Plot:  It’s a snowball day, the perfect kind of day to make a snow family! But it only lasts until the sun comes out…

Setting: A snowy winter day

Point of View: 1st person

Theme: snow, snowballs, snowmen, nature, creativity, play, winter, family, birds, seeds, materials, textures,

Literary Quality: In Snowballs, a child describes waiting for the perfect snow day and the process of creating a snow family, including the family pets. From the opening page, which asks, “Do you think birds know when it’s going to snow?” Ehlert’s large-print text is conversational, and her collages are big and colorful. The collages also change orientation, using full two-page spreads vertically to depict a single snowman. When the sun comes out, the background changes from grey to bright orange. The the story and illustrations combine to make a great read-aloud where children are viewing the book from a distance and ready to respond to the narrator’s questions and observations. Kids will especially enjoy Ehlert’s edgy, funny snowmen. In addition to snowman supplies such as hats, scarves, sticks, and pinecones, the narrator has saved objects like seeds, nuts, fruit, popcorn and dried corn kernels, washers, compares, toy car wheels, plastic fish, and a necktie. Readers will have fun recognizing the every-day materials, and find great inspiration for either their own collages or snowmen! The picture book includes a visual index of the “good stuff” to save for snowmen as well as information about snow and photographs of snowmen. In these final pages we see supplies, mittens, and gloves from all over the world. The board book edition does not have these fabulous appendices.

Audience: 0-8. A great read for a snowy day, or a day stuck at home, as it provides activity ideas for both indoor and outdoor play! 

Personal reaction: Snowballs is a favorite winter story in our house. Even as a baby my son loved the book, I think because he found the stark contrast in the collages stimulating. The big white circles with bright splashes of color are appealing to little eyes! The story has good rhythm, too. Now, at a year and a half, my little guy still loves the book and we play outside in the snow whenever we can. Of course, he has more interest in sliding down a big snowball than continuing to build it into a snowman, but hey, a snowball is a snowball! We’ll get to the snowman stage eventually. 

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Parenthood

Photo of shadows of a family on sandAn old friend recently reached out on Facebook for perspective on having children. She wondered in particular how parents stay sane in the face of things like explosive diapers, extensive sleep deprivation, childhood illnesses, and the need to find and then pay babysitters to do anything without a child in tow. She explained that while lots of parents she knows say their kids are the best thing that ever happened to them, she could not see how she would overcome the aforementioned obstacles. Her questions and comments struck me for two reasons: one, their honesty — I think a lot of people have these questions and wonder why people assume having children is a good thing rather than just the next logical step at a certain stage — and two, I think she has picked up on something. Yes, plenty of parents do think and say that parenthood is the best thing to ever happen to them but not many expound on that. It is a lot easier to vocalize the frustrations of another sleepless night than the reason having a child is so wonderful. Plus, based on my very unscientific observations on the social media I inhabit, snark is a lot more “in” than sincerity. Complaints are or can be funny. Talking about love and joy, not so much (or at least those subjects take a lot more work). There is also the presumption, I think, that parents don’t need to explain to other parents. But for what it’s worth, here is the gist of the response I gave my friend.

I don’t judge anyone who doesn’t want kids. There are as many reasons to not be a parent as to be. (Furthermore, not having children does not make your life childless. Some of my child’s most ardent and adoring fans are dear friends who do not want their own children.) For me, though, having a child has been an exercise in falling in love, the greatest love of my life. There has been all the excitement, leveling of expectations, and attempts to be the best version of myself. More sleepless nights, yes, although it hasn’t felt so very different than college exhaustion-wise and from all accounts will probably last about as long per child. The reasons for the sleeplessness are different, and the responsibilities are greater, but exhaustion is exhaustion as far as I am concerned. However, no other person has the ability to make my heart explode with joy so many times a day. Or my throat tighten as quickly if I see them hurting. To make me feel like a superhero or like the most helpless creature on this planet. I have never had more fun or felt as humbled. The diapers, night wakings, illness, and babysitters, they’re all temporary. There’s probably a reason that those things coincide with the phase in which your kids love you so hard and so openly it can blow your mind. Thus far, parenthood is another type of education. High investment, high return, and the lingering hope that I don’t go utterly broke in the process.

Is my child the best thing that ever happened to me? Yes. “Best” is a misleading term, though. It sounds easy and obvious. Likewise, my “worst” days as a parent, the days when I feel most challenged, still contain more love, joy, and pride than any single day prior to becoming a parent.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Cover image of The Absolutely True Diary of  a Part-Time IndianAlexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Illustrated by Ellen Forney. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2007.

Plot: Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, has always been picked on. Small-framed, with big hands and feet, a lisp and stutter due to health problems when he was born, he is an easy target on the Spokane Indian reservation where he lives in Wellpinit, Washington. Luckily, his best friend, Rowdy, serves as his protector. Or at least he does until Junior decides to go to an all-white school twenty-two miles off of the reservation. Now Rowdy seems to hate Junior as much as everyone else, and Junior faces a whole new set of racist taunts at school. Torn between his identity as an Indian and his desire to make something of himself in a broader world, Junior just does not seem to fit in anywhere.

Setting: Present day on the Spokane Indian reservation in Wellpinit, Washington.

Point of View: First person (Junior)

Theme: self-identity, bullying, Native Americans, childhood, school, friendship, family, death, coming-of-age, disability

Literary Quality: Simultaneously poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, this is an outstanding piece of fiction that should be read by young adults and adults alike. Certain to raise some eyebrows with frank references to masturbation, sexual arousal, domestic (and non-domestic) violence and racial conflict, Junior’s brazen and humorous narrative voice will speak to many teens who negotiate societal “norms” and rules of acceptance. Forney’s line-drawn illustrations, which stand in for Junior’s own as he is an aspiring cartoonist, are the perfect complement and add to both the laughs and the insights of this book. Alexie does not shy away from casting judgments on both Native Americans and whites, but delves into the complicated interactions of races, history, alcoholism, disabled individuals, family, and friends.  He takes a profound and unapologetic look at some of our country’s most troubling history and interrelations, raising issues wish high stakes in U.S. society today. This is a coming-of-age story that won’t soon be forgotten, and should be on everyone’s reading list.

Cultural Authenticity: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is, by Sherman Alexie’s own description, partly autobiographical. Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation in Wellpinit,Washington. Like Junior, Alexie changed schools after opening a textbook only to see his mother’s name printed in it. He, too, underwent conflicting feelings of guilt and shame as well as pride about leaving the reservation. His experiences growing up as a Spokane Indian greatly contribute to the story’s authenticity.

Audience: I would recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for readers ages 12 and up because of some of the language and sexual references. The age of the protagonist (14) also lends the book to that age group. That said, I would recommend it to any reader over the age of 12, be they 16 or 56. This book would work well in a high school classroom or as an individual leisure read.

Personal reaction: I could not put this book down. In addition to Sherman Alexie’s wonderful storytelling ability, I was impressed by his careful consideration of the many layers of complicated relations and mindsets of his characters. I came to really care about Junior. The first time I read this book a number of years ago, it made me more aware of my own thought patterns surrounding Native Americans, and sparked my interest in reading about reservations today. I laughed a lot and enjoyed the provocative nature of the story and topics at hand.


Journaling

Photo showing 13 journalsI have kept a journal since I was about eleven years old. Writing has always been an outlet for me, and a journal serves me as a way to release and cope with stress as well as to document mundane moments or celebrate the personal triumphs in my life. It is a place to experiment with styles and formats, although I confess I did this more in the past. Since grad school poetry has taken a backseat to other stiffer modes of expression, something I hope to change in the relatively near future.

Photo of journals stacked on top of each other

The bindings tell their own story.

I have finished every journal I have ever started, with the exception of a very first attempt from 1995 which functioned as much as a notepad as it did a journal. After a second “start” in 1997, though, each journal is complete. In middle school my handwriting was tiny. So neat and minuscule, I could never now replicate it. My entries became into letters to the important people in my life. A couple of my friends then also kept journals, and we would spend hours reading entries to each other. In high school I crafted elaborate collages of images and quotations to illustrate the day-to-day descriptions. I was not the healthiest version of myself in high school, and one horrible day I left my journal at school. Thank goodness two friends found it, and both denied reading it but from their concern-tinted voices and eyes I knew they had. I felt mortified but mostly grateful that they had found it and not someone else. In college my handwriting changed to the hurried but legible scrawl that it still is today. At the busiest periods I didn’t write as much.  Still don’t. So, for example, there isn’t as much about the time I spent living in France and later Thailand as I wish.

Photo of two journals

These two journals are remnants of my time in Thailand. The one on the left was a gift from my husband, purchased from a journal-maker in Bangkok. The one on the right I brought to Thailand with me, but the painting on the cover was done by an umbrella artist in Bo Sang near Chiang Mai.

I don’t write as much as I did when I was younger. I have had only three journals since college. But I always have my journal on me just in case, and would feel uneasy without one. Almost all of my journals have been gifts. I haven’t received a new one in years, actually, and that hardly matters because I still have empty journals that people gave me well over a decade ago. There has never been any method to my selection process. I don’t use them in the order in which I received them. I tend to just choose whatever journal feels right at the moment. At one point I liked to reread all of my journals once I completed one, but have long since stopped doing that. Less time and more journals. However, I did go 20140113-125735.jpgthrough and number them, as well as add the start and end date to each journal. That way I can easily figure out which journal to look in if I ever want to reference a specific event. Two days ago I finished my fourteenth journal. (In the first picture, you may notice there are only thirteen journals. I didn’t miscount, one is just in a different box that has yet to be unpacked.)

Lately I have been wondering about the relationship of blogging and journaling. Things like, what proportion of bloggers also keep journals? How many used to but stopped after they began to blog? If I were a middle schooler now, would I still have that circle of friends to share journals with, or would we have jumped to a blog or online journal format instead? I’m sure someone has written about this and even studied it.

Do you keep a journal? How have your own journals changed? Share if you’re willing!

Photo of journals packed in their unglamorous bin.

Packed away again in their unglamorous bin.

Lola at the Library by Anna McQuinn and Rosalind Beardshaw

Cover image for Lola at the Library by Anna McQuinnMcQuinn, Anna. Lola at the Library. Illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge, 2006.

Plot:  A little girl and her mother share a special routine on Tuesdays when they go to the library.

Setting: Modern-day town or city

Point of View: 3rd person

Theme: libraries, books, storytime, reading, routines, responsibility, librarians, mother-daughter relationships, parent-child relationships

Literary Quality: Lola at the Library describes a routine that many children and their parents or caretakers know in some variation. And hopefully it introduces a routine to many more! McQuinn’s simple text in large bold typeface is appealing to young readers. The bright acrylic illustrations bring us into Lola’s world at her perspective. We only see the upper half and faces of adults (and then only her mother) when they are at Lola’s level — waking her mother up in bed, sitting down for a treat at a cafe, and reading a bedtime story. The effect keeps the focus on Lola and a child’s worldview. This is a celebration of routines as much as it is of libraries, and should hit a chord with any child (or adult!) who loves the patterns of their days. It is worth noting that the board book edition of Lola at the Library lacks the complete story and is not nearly as rich as the picture book.

Audience: Ages 1-5. A great book for storytimes, bedtimes, and every time in-between.

Personal reaction: I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it was the cover of this book that totally drew me in, so warm and inviting. But it was the cover of the board book I was looking at! After a bit more research I realized how much better the picture book was and I’m so glad that I got a hold of it. My son and I go to storytimes at different libraries multiple times a week most weeks (we are fortunate to have some wonderful libraries in the surrounding area!), it is my favorite part of our day-to-day routines, and it was exciting to find a book that captured that experience. I look forward to the day my little boy will pack his own library card and books into his bag just like Lola!

Hello 2014

It’s a brand new year! I didn’t stay up until midnight, but that turned out to be a good thingPhoto of Alex and her son on New Year's Eve since a certain small fellow in my household woke me up at 2:45 a.m. and didn’t go back to sleep until the sun began to rise. So really, I just observed the turning of the year with the west coasters! Prior to middle-of-the-night wakings, we had a blast celebrating New Year’s Eve in downtown Bangor. Our evening was complete with Indian food, admiring the festive lights adorning the trees and streetlights, running around the Discovery Museum (after-hours at museums are the best), and attending a great New Year’s Eve Party at the Bangor Public Library. I am thrilled to live somewhere with such family-friendly activities and festivities! Sometimes having a very young child makes me feel…not like we’re missing out, that’s not right, because we’re partaking in a different kind of excitement at this stage of our lives, but it makes me miss staying up late and being out and about in the evening. So it felt NYE_Hinrichs_familygreat to be out with other families after sunset! It was also fun to see restaurants filled to capacity and everyone preparing for the street party later on. The sidewalks were buzzing, and I suspect that crowds might have been thinner this year even given the sub-zero temperatures. As we scurried from our car to dinner, the little one managed to lose a mitten. We had strategically parked closer to our final destination, and decided not to trek back looking for the too-big mitten. It was just too cold. When our bellies were full and noses warmed, we retraced our steps. And here’s what makes Bangor fabulous. Someone had picked up the mitten and placed it high up on a snow bank, balancing it on the cuff in a little wave so that it would be easier to see. We found it effortlessly. The reason I know this is a trait of this community and not just a coincidence is because this was the third time I have lost something belonging to my son (yes, I know…I really shouldn’t admit that. But honestly, how do babies and toddlers lose articles of clothing that quickly and quietly?!) and found it again thanks to the good graces of caring individuals. To me this was the most impressive instance because somebody stopped in the freezing weather and thought about where a worried parent might look. It would have been so easy to just continue walking. Thank you to that somebody. To all the thoughtful somebodies out there. You make parenthood a bit easier and more forgiving, and that’s quite an accomplishment.

At one point a news crew asked my spouse if he had any New Year’s resolutions (I was too busy trying to cover the little guy’s mitten-less hand to respond), and that got me thinking about resolutions in general. I’ve never been one to make specific resolutions. In some ways I stash them away in the same category of my brain as diets — things that seem temporary and often unpleasant and/or unrealistic– perhaps because diets are so often included in resolutions. It occurred to me that I shouldn’t do that, though. Where I dislike many specific resolutions because I think I would just set myself up for disappointment and dissatisfaction, I do find vague resolutions in the form of broad goals helpful. Last year was the first time I really made one, very casually, by saying out loud that I wanted to become a more organized and neater person. I feel like I achieved this, but given the level of organization I was at to begin with, that wasn’t hard to do! Our house is still a disaster most days, ha. Still, though, I feel satisfied that I made some improvement in that category of my life. Now rather than dirty laundry piling up, the clean laundry piles up! I should probably just keep organization and neatness as my resolution this year, too, given there is so much more room for improvement, but I think there are more urgent things in my life at the moment.

Namely, I would like to work on growing my patience. And I would like to size down my stress triggers and habit of worry.

So there you have it. My shiny new resolution that leaves me plenty of room for missteps and backwards steps, making me feel confident that I can fulfill it.

Happy New Year, everyone! May the year bring much joy and laughter. And, of course, many wonderful children’s books to read.

Photo of an icy shrub on a sunny day in Bangor, Maine

1 2 3: A Child’s First Counting Book by Alison Jay

Jay, Alison. 1 2 3: A Child’s First Counting Book. New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 2007.

Plot:  Count to ten and back again through the magic of fairytales. Cover of 1 2 3: A Counting Story by Alison Jay

Setting: Imaginary

Point of View: 3rd person

Theme: fairytales, counting, numbers, storytelling, reading, dreams

Literary Quality: “[O]ne little girl sleeping[,] two soaring wings[,] three little pigs…” Thus begins a counting story that takes readers through the fairytale dreamscape of a sleeping girl. The movement of the story peaks at ten in what what might be described as a fleeting nightmare with the “ten sharp teeth” of the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood. The next spread shows Beauty fleeing the Beast, who holds “nine perfect roses,” and from there eases into more calm and delightful moments of the fairytales. Whimsical oil paintings add to the enchantment of the journey, and a crackle varnish lends an antiqued appearance to the illustrations, perfect for these age-old stories. The little girl can be found in every illustration, as well as an element from the previous fairytale and the one to come. For example, while we count “seven marching dwarfs” we see the pumpkin carriage from Cinderella and the gingerbread house that Hansel and Gretel find on the horizon. The paintings also all contain other things to count in sets of the relevant number — the three little pigs are surrounded by three hats, three teacups, three umbrellas, three apples, and so forth. While counting stories and adaptations of fairytales abound, this is truly a gem, delivering all the allure, alarm, and adventure of a fairytale in a form even the youngest readers can appreciate. A final page acts as a form of index, matching each illustration to its respective fairytale. Alison Jay’s artful weaving of conceptual and traditional story frames creates something altogether new and lovely.

Audience: All ages. A book that can easily be used one-on-one, as a read-aloud, or in a classroom setting. 

Personal reaction: As soon as I opened this book and looked at just the first couple of pages, I knew it was something special. I (and my one-year-old) have been completely captivated by 1 2 3‘s charm. This is a story to read and read again. We always find something new.