Posted in London Life, Uncategorized

Translating Brit Speak: A Rough Guide for Americans

Confession: Despite the title of this blog, I never say “cheerio” – and neither does anyone else. It’s an outdated expression, but there are plenty of other British words and phrases I had to master when I first arrived in the UK. Here are a few, in case you find yourself struggling to grasp the locals when conversing:

To wind someone up – tease, annoy, or play a prank on; “Are you winding me up?” or “Your dad really winds you up, doesn’t he?”

To go pear-shaped – when something goes wrong; “It all went pear-shaped after I burnt the roast.”

To have the hump – be annoyed or irritated with someone: “Have you got the hump with me?” translates to “Are you angry/annoyed with me?”

Can’t be arsed – can’t be bothered, not worth the effort: “I’d like a cup of tea, but I can’t be arsed to make it myself.” Funny story with this one: when I first heard it, I was told the phrase was “I can’t be asked” (which some people do say). For months I used it in lessons with students until someone told me it was actually “can’t be arsed (or, in American, assed as in get off your ass). Apparently with my accent and speedy speech, students thought I’d been swearing in class on a regular basis. Whoops!

Bog standard – normal, unremarkable: “Yeah, the food there is bog standard.” or “I just need a bog standard car, nothing flashy.”

Take the piss – another way of saying make fun of, often by being facetious or appearing to be serious when you’re joking: “Don’t get upset, I’m only taking the piss.” Note: some people say “taking the mick/mickey” but this has anti-Irish connotations, so as a foreigner (am I still a foreigner if I’m married to/the mother of citizens? Hmm…) I avoid it. Also, don’t confuse this phrase with…

To get pissed – to get drunk. “You’re completely pissed” means “You’re very drunk”, not “You’re very angry.”

Come a cropper – fail badly: “The government’s policy on school funding is going to come a cropper in the next election.” One can only hope…

Throw a wobbly – have a fit or tantrum: “Mum’s going to throw a wobbly when she sees this mess!”

Pop to the shops (or anywhere else) – quickly go somewhere: “I’m just going to pop to the shops for some milk. Do you need anything?”

Curry – a general word used to mean all Indian food, NOT just dishes that actually involve the spice we call curry!! “Let’s get a curry tonight” means “Let’s order an Indian takeaway/eat at an Indian restaurant.” Top tip: don’t order anything on the menu that actually involves the spice we call curry. It’s not nice. Chicken tikka masala is a safe bet, or some kind of dahl (lentils) or jalfrezi (spicy but so yummy). I also highly recommend poppadoms and dips.

Dinner/supper/tea: Some folks call lunch, or the midday meal, “dinner”; these same folks probably call their evening meal “tea” or say “it’s teatime soon.” I’m told this is generally a working class phrase. Other (posher) folks call lunch “lunch” and “tea” means tea like with the queen, served in the late afternoon/early evening. These same folks call their evening meal “supper”, and dinner is nowhere to be heard.

The school run: dropping your kids off at school and picking them up again: “I’ve got to do the school run at 3, but I’ll be home after that.”

Holidays – any time off, not just Christmas/Hanukkah, usually involving travel: “Have fun on your holidays! Where are you going again?” or “It’s school holidays soon. Shall we meet up then?”

Bank holidays – public holidays that many/most people have off; some shops etc. are likely to be open but with more limited hours: “It’s a bank holiday this Monday. Should we have a barbeque [aka cookout] if the weather’s nice?”

Term time – when school is in session; most schools have three terms called autumn, spring and summer (they like to pretend winter doesn’t exist): “It’s hard for me to meet up during term time since I have to manage the school run on top of everything else, but I’m free over the holidays.”

Half-term – a break in the middle of a term, usually one week in state schools but sometimes longer in private schools: “I can’t wait for half-term – it feels like ages since the winter holidays!”

And that’s all I’ve got for now. Please feel free to correct me in the comments, since I’m definitely not a native speaker!

Posted in Family Life, London Life

Expat Life: Dealing with Family Visits

When I first lived abroad, I looked forward to every visit from family members, and every trip home. Now, after more than a decade of living abroad (and a few years hosting my spouse’s family when we lived in Texas), the novelty has worn off and irritation can easily creep in on all sides. I thought I’d share some of my experiences in the hopes that you might be able to avoid my mistakes. Read on to minimize family feuds annoyances and make the best of your time together.

#1: If at all possible, do not let your family members stay with you, especially if (a) they’re American and you live somewhere that is not America, and/or (b) you have a small house. We live in a 1250 square foot house in South London and it is the biggest property we’ve rented in this country. With two adults and two kids, there’s really not much room to spare. My best friend and her (German) husband and son recently crashed on a foam mattress on the floor for two nights, but there’s absolutely no way my parents or siblings would ever tolerate this set up. Much better for everyone if they get an airbnb or a hotel room (airbnb is always cheaper, plus you can cook). Otherwise, be prepared to put up with a constant stream of comments about how small everything else, how uncomfortable and old-fashioned everything is, yada yada yada…seriously, it was bad enough listening to my mother complain about the washing machine (and lack of separate dryer) at the airbnb property they rented.

#2: Think about local holidays that may impact (positively or negatively) on travel plans. If you live in a touristy city or area, make sure you let your family know if something is going on around the time they want to visit. My parents recently visited for two weeks that exactly lined up with the Easter holidays here, so all of the London places they wanted to visit were super busy. They managed, but it’s worth warning people in advance if there’s a local festival, holiday, sporting event, etc. – especially since it can also drive up airfare and accommodation costs. 

#3: Give your relatives advice, but if they’re anything like mine, be prepared for them not to take it. My brother once flew over for three days to meet his new nephew. I was so flattered that he went to so much effort to come and see us, and delighted that he abided by rule #1 and stayed in a hotel (especially since at that time we lived in a 650 sq ft flat). Unfortunately, he did not listen to me when I told him a single room wouldn’t be big enough for his 6’3” frame, and he spent his three nights in a very cramped bed that was most likely designed for adults from Shakespeare’s time (you know, when everyone was shorter and smaller, right?).

Another example: my parents wanted to take a day trip to Oxford and when they looked up the train times, it said it would take just over an hour to get there on the train from London. Of course, what they didn’t know was that it would take at least another hour just to cross London on public transportation to get to the train that would take them to Oxford. And did they listen when I told them? No. And did they have a nice day out? No. They barely managed to see the spires at all. So like I said, feel free to give your relatives advice, but try not to stress out if they ignore you.

#4: Resign yourself to dealing with tourist cliches. I took my mom to Paris and she wanted American wine. Ha! My dad loves to make jokes about English muffins. Ugh. I’ve taken almost every guest I’ve ever hosted to a red telephone booth and Big Ben/Buckingham Palace/Tower Bridge. Mostly I take refuge in introducing them to one of my favorite pubs at the end of the day. Top tip: try to work in at least one thing you like doing during a day of sightseeing, otherwise you’ll be a miserable tour guide.

#5: Set clear expectations in advance. This one is slightly more serious. Some family members will want to spend all their time with you. After all, if they only see you once or twice a year, they want to make the most of it, right?! Other family members will want some distance. They’ll see you for a bit, but not all day, every day. Other times family members don’t feel comfortable traveling abroad and are reliant on your for everything, while a different group of folks might view you as a convenient stepping stone to expanding their traveling horizons.

It’s best to try and find out how much time they want to spend with you, and be up front about how much time you can offer to spend with them, even before they buy their tickets. This will prevent major arguments and hurt feelings down the line when, say, they’re tired and want to have a night in, but you’ve made plans to take them out for a meal. Or vice versa when they want to spend every waking minute with you but actually you’ve got to work and also it’s your friend’s birthday drinks, etc. Just try to have a conversation about it in advance.

And if this advice sounds totally bizarre and irrelevant to your life as an expat, congratulations: you win the family lottery. Otherwise, feel free to comment below with your own tips and advice.

Posted in Teaching, Family Life, Working Mom

Advice Needed: Transitioning Back Into Work

After four years as a stay-at-home mom, I’m headed back into the the working world. I’ve accepted what is pretty much my dream job: Head of English at a local state school. And there’s more:

  • it’s an outstanding school (that means it’s received the top category during government inspections)
  • it has an existing nursery (translate: preschool) and my eldest son currently goes there for FREE (yay, free preschool!!)
  • and it also has an existing primary school (translate: elementary school), where my eldest son has just been accepted for next year
  • plus, I’m coming on board as they prepare to open up a brand new secondary school (translate: middle and high school), so I get to design the curriculum from scratch!

My official start date is in September but I’m doing a few days here and there in between to prepare – and thank goodness, because I suspect this transition is going to be a big one.

Example: on Monday, I was scheduled to spend a half day at school. I’d reminded my husband several times, but he still hadn’t made any childcare plans the night before (it was his job to sort things out this time). When I asked if he wanted me to get in touch with our babysitter, he said it wasn’t necessary since our youngest would be napping and our eldest would be at school. (He works from home, so we have a lot of flexibility – thankfully!!) When I told him AGAIN that school would be closed, and that I would be gone for four hours rather than the two hours during which our youngest naps, he panicked. *sigh* Luckily, the babysitter was free and managed to help us out.

The following morning I was a total mess trying to entertain both kids and get myself organized. Somehow I managed to deal with the kids, but forgot to (a) eat anything before I left the house, (b) leave behind any cash to pay the babysitter, and (c) check to make sure I had any clean professional clothes. I turned up at work without a minute to spare in a mismatched outfit and with a rumbling stomach. Awesome.

The whole experience was surreal: grown ups were speaking to me, and not about diapers, sleep schedules or playdates. My memory felt unreliable, stretched to breaking point as I reached back years to access relevant examples for a training session. Plus, when it was break time, I got to, you know, take a break. Socialize.

It felt weird.

Also, here’s a strange thought: I’m going to be paid for this time. At some point, there would be a paycheck with my name on it (probably virtual, but I’ll take it). It hasn’t occurred to me until now, but the past four years represents the only period in my life since I turned 16 when I haven’t collected a paycheck. Someone thinks my time is worth money, and this is incredibly validating. Given that I had actually hoped to start work a year ago but struggled to find a job that fit my qualifications and our family’s needs, the impending paycheck feels especially awesome. I think back to the interviewer who suggested that I was too old for a particular job (completely absurd, but there you have it) and feel thankful and not a little relieved to have wound up where I am now.

So I made it through my first half day, and realized that I’m nowhere near as organized as I should be for September. And by “I”, I really mean “we”, because this is a transition for the whole family and you can be damn sure my husband will be picking up some of the slack. I have no intention of trying to be one of these supermom types who does all things professional and domestic. Here are some of the things I’m thinking about:

  1. Food. My husband used to do at least half of the cooking, but ever since we’ve had kids and I quit my “outside” job, I’ve done most of the cooking. And the planning and shopping. We eat a nutritious diet with lots of fruits and veg and about 80% of our food is made from scratch. I feel like hanging on to a high quality diet is going to be hard once I go back to work, especially since my husband and I often disagree about what counts as healthy. (Me: Greek chicken with rice and salad; Him: spaghetti with meat sauce and garlic bread.)
  2. Laundry. I hate doing laundry in London. We haven’t got a dryer and the washing machine is small, so it takes ages to get through all of the dirty laundry. Fortunately, husband has already taken on the task of hanging all the clothes up (possibly my least favorite chore). I’m thinking I need to find a (green) dry cleaners for my professional stuff, though, because he just throws everything in one load with no thought to different fabrics, etc.
  3. Mornings. We will have to get the kids ready while I also get ready. They’re slow, and to be honest, so am I. I used to be a morning person but now it seems to take me ages to get going. I blame middle-of-the-night wake ups.
  4. Childcare. Our youngest will go to a private nursery full-time, and he’s already attending two days a week, so that should be okay. However, our eldest will need care before and after school most days. We’re looking for a child minder (translate: person who is licensed to care for children in their home) to help out with that, but it’s taking a while to find the right person.
  5. Family time: Obviously I’m used to spending a huge amount of time with my family. I’m actually looking forward to more variety and some time out of the house, but I’m worried the change from stay-at-home mom to full-time working mom is going to be extreme – I’ll probably be working 50 hours a week. On the upside, teaching means I’ll have time off; on the downside, I’ll often still have work to do (and kids to entertain). I’m hoping the quality of our family time will still be the same, but I’m worried about feeling rushed and torn between two priorities.
  6. Breathing: Where will I fit this in?!

Advice? Experience? Links to other articles to read? I know the whole work/family conflict is a big one, and I’m hoping someone out there has some tips…

Posted in Austin, Texas, House renovation

Hiring a Contractor: 6 Tips for Beginners

Two years ago, I was nearly 42 weeks pregnant with my second little one and every hour stretched into eternity. Those extra weeks past my due date were exhausting, but probably really helpful in the long run: we’d only just finished our South Austin home renovation, and in our last-minute panic spare time, we set up the house and adjusted to our new space.

And here I am, reminiscing about my baby-turned-toddler, and contemplating a second renovation project here in London. I can hardly believe it, but it’s got me thinking about how we got started in Austin. The first big step, sometimes even before picking a property, is looking for a reliable contractor. But if you’re a total beginner, where do you start?! Here’s how we chose our guy in Austin:

#1: Look for someone with reviews. We started by looking for companies with reviews on Houzz and Yelp. I’d eliminate anyone who didn’t have four stars and up, and often eliminated companies without at least 5-10 solid reviews. We were inexperienced, and we didn’t want to hire someone who might also be inexperienced! Then I scanned the reviews for key words and phrases: “on budget”, “on time”, “polite”, “respectful”, “professional”, “quality”. I also paid attention to the scope of the project(s) mentioned – if a company only had experience with huge, big-budget projects (or the opposite), they probably weren’t going to work for us. (More on this later.) We were looking for someone who dealt with modest additions and home renovations.

#2: Check their website and portfolio. After looking at reviews, I headed to the company’s website to see how they described themselves and the type of work they wanted to do. There’s no point in hiring a contractor who wants to work on million dollar projects to do your modest project, because the minute something bigger comes along, you’re likely to be ignored. Some people might argue that all contractors have to start somewhere, and I’m sure this is true with some companies, but I didn’t want our house (and life savings) to be ceremoniously dumped if a juicier option appeared. I also looked at photos of projects they’d completed: did it look like our style? Did it look like quality work?

#3: Make sure they’re registered with the Better Business Bureau. This type of organization may seem less important in the days of Yelp, etc. but to me, it’s a sign of integrity. Your local BBB will log and handle disputes between customers and businesses, and you can check if a company is registered (and for how long) and that company’s history here:

#4: Read between the lines. I called one company and had a super short chat with a partner there. He gave me their pitch, I told him what we wanted, and he said, we don’t do projects under $250k. (He also said, we don’t build things that fall down, which made me laugh. Like, those are the two alternatives: a house that collapses or a super-high-end architectural masterpiece.) Thank you, goodbye.

One company with a reputation for doing mid-range, high-style projects couldn’t return our calls. Message received.

We found a contractor we really liked, and on their website, they featured a remodel for a house one street over from ours. The style looked great and they had a strong reputation – sounds great, right? We held a meeting at their office and went over our plans. The guy was totally unenthusiastic and his ballpark estimate was definitely out of our price range. When we asked him about the house in our neighborhood, he kind of shrugged and dismissed the question until we brought it up again. Turns out that project was for a family member – someone’s sister-in-law. Suddenly, the guy’s attitude made more sense: they didn’t usually work with our style of house (that is, 1960s ranch – they preferred older homes) and they didn’t usually work with our budget. We moved on.

The next contractor was a guy in his 50s: very friendly, professional, great reputation – he met me at the house to discuss our plans. His estimate was 50% over the top of our budget and didn’t even include everything we wanted. He told me it wasn’t possible to get what we wanted for our budget. He also had a six month lead time before he could even begin to work on our project.

I started to think that contractors were overbidding for our project because they didn’t want it – and I was right. Austin is a highly competitive market for anything involving real estate. Successful contractors with a lot of capital have their pick of projects, and ours simply wasn’t glamorous or expensive enough to justify their time, so they jacked up their prices to discourage us (or rake in a big profit if we agreed, I guess).  Once I learned to think about our project from a contractor’s point of view, the process became much easier. I started pitching our project as the Toyota of home renovations: I’m not looking for a luxury product, just something functional and reliable made with safe, quality materials (and a hint of design). The pace started to pick up, and the next contractor I spoke with was “the one.”

#5: Choose someone you respect – and who respects you. You’re going to spend a lot (A LOT) of time talking with your contractor, so pick someone you respect. Between my husband and me, I knew I’d be the person working most closely with our contractor. He worked full-time and I was a “stay-at-home” mom. (Of course, anyone who’s done that job while pregnant knows it’s hardly a walk in the park, but it was more flexible than my husband’s schedule.)

Also, my husband really didn’t have the vision for this project. He was on board, but he couldn’t see it. He also had very little experience with construction, whereas I’d grown up with a Mr. Fix It dad (also an engineer) and worked with Habitat For Humanity, so I felt more confident talking about the process. So I needed a contractor who I wanted to work with AND one who was willing to work with me – not so easy, it turns out.

All of the contractors we met were male. Most of them were at least a decade (more like two) older than I was. If my husband was in the room, they spoke to him – even if I’d asked the question. One contractor – the one who overbid to discourage us and told me we’d never get what we wanted for our budget – said as his parting remark that he’d be happy to go over all of this with my husband since he was probably the one making the decision.

Uh, no. Absolutely not. I am not going to pay someone who thinks it’s acceptable to engage in overtly sexist behavior. In the end, the contractor we hired was a man, but he was younger – pretty much my age – and totally comfortable working with me.

#6: Be completely up front about your project from the minute you first meet your (potential) contractor until you shake hands at the end. Tell them what you want. If there are things you’re not sure about, speak up. Give them your actual budget, including your contingency. (We did generally wait until we’d had a rough estimate from contractors before revealing our magic number, but I’d done enough research to know I wasn’t asking for the earth.) Tell them how you’re paying for it – cash, finance, or both. For example, we told our contractor that we’d being paying cash. Bonus: no delays waiting for the bank to release the funds. Downside: once the money was gone, it was gone. That number included our contingency for any problems that emerged, and he needed to know that up front. Honesty now makes everything else so much easier later.

I could actually keep writing about #6, but I think I’ve held you hostage long enough. Maybe next I’ll tackle tips for a successful relationship with your contractor! If you can add to this list, feel free to comment below – and good luck finding “the one”.

Posted in Austin, Texas, House renovation

Home Renovation: Finished Product!

I started this blog when we purchased and renovated our first home in Austin, TX. We bought the house knowing we were going to undertake a big project but on a clear budget, and all of the home reno blogs I found were geared toward super high-end projects (I’m looking at you, Houzz). The homes were beautiful, sure – but way out of our price range.

So if you skip back in time to my earliest posts, you’ll read all about the renovation process on our South Austin home. But I lost focus (read: had another baby) and forgot that super important part of the project, the BIG REVEAL! Here, in all its professionally photographed glory, is the finished product…

Sadly – as in, really sadly, I cried when I handed over the keys to the new owner – we wound up selling our house when we moved back to London. However, the renovation paid off, and we wound up recooping everything we invested in the house, plus a teeny tiny bit extra. Not bad, considering we’d owned it for exactly two years. (My eyes are stinging as I write this post. Thinking about this house still makes me emotional!) Here’s a super short summary of what we did:

  • Bought a 3 bed, one bath, 940 sq ft 1960s ranch house in South Austin just off of Manchaca Rd (pronounced Manchack by locals, dunno why)
  • Added 460 sq ft to the back of the house, creating an L-shaped structure
  • New square footage included a tiny bit of extra living room space, plus a master suite with a bath, walk-in closet, and laundry room
  • We also added a 220 sq ft screened in porch that used the same slab foundation and roof as the rest of the structure
  • Updated the existing house with paint, skirting boards, interior and exterior doors, new siding, landscaping, a new tub in the family bathroom, and all new wiring
  • Total budget for renovations: $100k

Actually, that seems like a lot! In fact, I might just have enough confidence after tackling this project to consider doing another renovation when we eventually buy a home in London. Check back in a few months to see if Autumn 2017 finds us looking for another general contractor…

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Posted in Book Reviews, Picture Books, Uncategorized

Talking to Children About Race

Reposted from

Last week when we were driving home from preschool, my not-quite-four-year-old son started talking about skin color. We’d been here before – he sometimes described people and mentioned the color of their skin along with the color of their hair or their shoes – but this time it was different. He referred to himself as light-skinned, and to other children as dark-skinned; when I asked him what color his skin was, instead of answering “pink”, he said he was white. What’s more, he seemed set on the idea that being white or “light-skinned” (his words) was preferable to being “dark-skinned”. He even seemed to think that the color of your skin revealed your inner goodness.

I’d known this day would come at some point, but it still surprised me. My pulse quickened as I listened to him talk, and it wasn’t just the triple digit temperature outside that made me sweat. Deep in my bones, I felt the significance of this moment; I felt the need to “get it right” as a mom and help my son, a white male who will carry with him almost every privilege in life, understand both that people are just people and also that race is a source of discrimination in our city/state/country/world. In the back of my mind, I wondered if he was even ready to grasp these concepts – but since he’d started the conversation, I figured it was time to address the topic. If I accomplished nothing else, I at least needed to create a comfortable space for him to talk about and explore racial identity.

So I kept my voice even and my eyes on the road. I told him that there are many different skin colors, but underneath, people all had the same bones, muscles, and blood. (He’s very interested in bones right now, so that helped!) I reminded him that we have lots of friends who are good people, regardless of whether they’re white or black or brown. I told him that it was important not to judge people based on the color of their skin. I prayed that what I was saying would sink in, and that I would figure out a way to explain to him the nature of racism and some of the awful consequences of discrimination.

That evening, as the news filled with horrific examples of violence fueled by racism, I thought back to a book I’d read in college for a children’s literature class. The next morning, I stopped by our local library to pick up a copy. When my son came home from preschool later that day, I pulled him onto my lap and we read the story together.

We read all about Grace, a black girl who loves stories and acting. She wants to be Peter Pan in the school play, but one friend tells her she can’t play that part because she’s a girl. Another says she can’t play that part because she’s black. When Grace gets home, she is sad and hurt by her classmates’ comments. Her grandmother has a solution, though: they go to see a ballet, and the lead ballerina is black – just like Grace. Grace returns to school full of pride: she masters the audition and brings down the house with her performance. Her classmates realize they were wrong. We read it twice that night, and he requests it at bedtime regularly.

I know not all stories about race and discrimination end so well; in fact, I know perfectly well that they quite often end in the worst possible way. One day when he’s older, he’ll learn about Emmett Till and the Children’s Crusade in 1963 and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (unless that’s all been erased from the textbooks by then). One day he’ll learn about the stories playing out in the news right now. But for the time being, we’re making space: space for discussing race, space for the language of race and discrimination, space for our thoughts and feelings, space for stories.

I’m proud that the books lining his shelves reflect many facets of our society, and I took the time to check his baby brother’s board books to make sure people of color are represented in his little library, too. I figure it’s never too early to be inclusive; the sooner “otherness” becomes normal, the easier it will be for my sons to value all people and recognize their own privileges as they grow. Reading stories together will help them develop a vocabulary for a highly sensitive and tense topic; the characters will offer us a way to look at lives that differ from our own and ask big questions. I’m not going to have all the answers, but maybe – just maybe – by working to raise thoughtful, engaged citizens, I’ll contribute in some small way to the long-term solution to our country’s deep racial divide.

Book recommendations: Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson (illustrated by Julie Morstad)

Posted in Literacy Support, Teaching, Uncategorized

Encouraging Summer Writing: 6 Tips for Parents

Reposted from

Why is it that we hear so much about summer reading, but next to nothing about summer writing? Research consistently shows that the act of writing is a complex and critical process, and just like reading, children need to practice this process regularly even when school isn’t in session. Don’t panic, though – no one needs to write a five-paragraph essay before heading to the pool! Check out my six tips for helping your kids engage with writing this summer.

#1: Let the criticism flow. Going on vacation this summer? Planning to see a box office hit? Take advantage of your teen’s naturally critical perspective and encourage him/her to write a review on TripAdvisor, Yelp, Amazon, or Rotten Tomatoes. This type of writing feels particularly distant from homework because of its authenticity – people actually read reviews on these sights (and often comment on or rank them), so it feels less like busy work and more like real life.

#2: Old-fashioned pen pals. If your kids are separated from their friends this summer (or maybe if they made a new friend while at camp), encourage them to send their pals more than text messages. Let them pick out some interesting paper or buy a handful of tacky postcards and scribble a few thoughts to send via snail mail. Most people love the surprise of getting a personal and tactile note, and you might even be lucky enough to get a response. Alternative ideas: while you’re traveling, everyone can capture a memory (good or bad!) on a postcard and send it to your home address to read and remember once you return, or show kindness to an elderly relative by writing short, regular letters over the course of the summer.

#3: Journals. I’ve kept a journal sporadically since I was about 8 years old – it’s great way to encourage self-reflection, manage emotions, and (of course) practice writing. By all means, buy a blank book and have at it! (Pinterest is full of creative journal prompts if the blank page feels intimidating.) If you think your child needs more structure, though, there are all kinds of exciting journals out there for every age. Here are a few titles to explore:

  • Finish This Book (Keri Smith): This journal is perfect for your spy-in-training. It creates a mysterious scenario in which children have to complete an abandoned manuscript and go on local mini-adventures to gather the details they need. Keri Smith’s journals are popular with kids from upper elementary school through adulthood.
  • Sark’s Journal and Play Book: Sark is known for her creative way with words and images, and this journal will encourage others to blend writing and drawing (painting, coloring, etc.) as they engage in personal reflection. Better for teens and up, I’d say.
  • Q&A a Day for Kids: This journal offers short, daily prompts for kids. Each day has three small blank spaces so children can revisit the prompt annually and add to it (while also reflecting on past responses). Examples: “I wish I had more _____.” and “How do you feel about babysitters?”. Great for ages 8-12/13. (There are a bunch of versions of this journal, including one for mothers that’s a super-sweet alternative to a traditional memory book.)
  • 642 Things to Write About, Young Writer’s Edition: From the wacky to the mundane, this journal has it all. This is a versatile choice, with topics ranging from “Write about a human who has turned into a dolphin” to “Invent a new handshake and write instructions for how to do it, who can use it, and when it is used.”

#4: Get political. Even if your children are too young to vote, they can still share their opinions! If there’s a topic that’s near and dear to your child’s heart, he can compose an email to the appropriate official (city councilor, state representative, president). Letters to the editor (even via email) are also a great way to encourage your children to be active citizens. And how cool will it be if she gets a response or sees her words in print?

#5: Write your own (picture) book. This task is great for older siblings or children who might spend time with younger cousins on family vacations this summer. Encourage your child to read a few picture books (or check out a few at the library) and notice common features, such as rhyme or alliteration. Then let them create and illustrate their own story to share with little ones at a special storytime. If it’s a real hit, you can even scan the artwork and make a bound copy using Shutterfly or another photo book service.

#6: Writing to win. Bigger allowance, later curfew, fewer chores: turn your teen’s nagging into a writing opportunity by asking him to write a persuasive letter outlining his reasons. If it’s compelling enough, they might actually get what they want! As an added bonus, this tactic can reduce some of the emotional drama that often accompanies negotiating with older children.

Posted in Book Reviews, Picture Books

Visual Storytelling: The Joy of Wordless Picture Books

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We are big fans of wordless picture books in our house! When you no longer rely on written language to tell stories, a whole new world of storytelling opens up – especially for young readers.

Reading is about so much more than simply decoding the words on the page; it’s about making meaning, constructing a narrative, adding details, drawing inferences, and more. These skills are highlighted when we leave words behind and use images to tell complex stories with young children.

As an added bonus, children can often “read” these stories themselves, or to parents or younger siblings, which is a great way to add variety and independence to storytime. Here are a few of our favorite titles:

Rain (Spier) – I remember this title from my own childhood! Two siblings are playing outside on a summer day when they’re interrupted by rain. They dash inside, but quickly reemerge with umbrellas and wellies to splash the day away. With charming illustrations, this classic tale captures the simple joys of childhood.

Tuesday (Weisner) – Science fiction for young readers! An invasion of (peaceful) flying frogs disrupts a suburban neighborhood; when dawn comes, things return to normal…for now. Beautiful watercolor illustrations tell this quirky story that will delight imaginations of all ages.

Flora and the Flamingo (Idle) – Vibrant pink permeates the gorgeous illustrations in this sweet story about a little girl who emulates a graceful flamingo’s dance – much to the bird’s annoyance! Idle’s story of an unlikely friendship is funny and as an added bonus, includes lift-the-flap interaction.

Journey and Quest (Becker) – I’ve already reviewed Journey, but it deserves another mention here: these two stories are my son’s constant favorites. He loves the tale of “naughty knights” thwarted by adventurous children in a magical land; I love the magical escape from the dreary real world through imagination and play. The sequel is every bit as good as the original.

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The Girl and the Bicycle (Pett) – With (almost) monochromatic illustrations, this story is chock full of great values, humor, and a twist ending. A girl (always accompanied by her younger brother) spots a green bicycle in a shop window and is determined to earn enough money to buy it. Forging a relationship with an older neighbor, she rakes leaves, shovels snow, and carries out other chores until she’s saved enough. When she finally returns to buy the bike, it’s gone! You’ll have to read it to find out what she buys with her money instead…

Fox’s Garden (Camcam) – This one is for all the artists out there. Princess Camcam’s story explores the connection between humans and animals, as well as the importance of kindness, with cut-paper illustrations that are as magical as they are unusual. I wish I could frame the images in this book – they’re that stunning! And the story will charm you, too.

More titles to explore:

Zoom (Banyai)

The Red Book (Lehman)

Pancakes for Breakfast (dePaola)

Wave (Lee)

The Boy and the Airplane (Pett)

Posted in Book Reviews, Teens, YA Fiction

Books for Birthdays: Teen Edition (Part 3 of 3)

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It’s so tempting just to hand over cash and gift cards when buying gifts for teens, and I won’t try to talk you out of it. However, may I suggest a new delivery method? Instead of tucking your bills into a card, buy one of the books below and slip it just inside the (back) cover, and presto – you’re everyone’s favorite relative.

Disclaimer: I’m a big proponent of allowing children to read freely, but if you prefer to monitor your teen’s reading more closely, I’d definitely suggest perusing these titles in advance. Plus, then you can talk about them with your kids! Bonus.

7th & 8th Graders (12 to 14 years old)

Moving Target (Gonzalez): Cassie, an average student attending a boarding school in Rome, is suddenly plunged into a secretive and dangerous adventure when she and her father are attacked in their home. With her best friend, Simone, and a grumpy, somewhat reluctant sidekick named Asher, Cassie sets off to find the mysterious and magical Spear of Destiny. With a fast-paced plot, a European backdrop, and a definite dose of Harry Potter, this novel will surely keep boredom at bay.

We Are All Made of Molecules (Nielsen): This thoroughly modern, bittersweet title with a hopeful ending belongs on every 9th grader’s bookshelf (and might make for great summer reading if you know someone headed into high school). Using two blended families and new step “siblings” Stewart and Ashley to tell her story, Nielsen deals expertly with issues of identity (ranging from the usual teen insecurities to [homo]sexuality and more) and consent. It would be easy for such topics to feel didactic and dull in the hands of a less skilled author, but Nielsen’s characters are believable and engaging, and she approaches serious issues with an age-appropriate perspective. Example: When characters swear, it goes something like this…“ ‘Give me my frigging phone,’ he said. Except he didn’t say frigging.” I loved it – and I suspect teens will, too.
High Schoolers (14 & up)

These Shallow Graves (Donnelly): Historical fiction meets YA at its best! Follow Jo, a rich teenager living in 1890s New York, as she investigates her father’s tragic death. Struggling with society’s expectations that she’ll marry well and become a happy wife and mother, Jo uses her journalistic skills to uncover the truth about her father’s death – and in the process, discovers the truth about her family, the ugly foundations of her wealthy world, and ultimately herself. Like all of Donnelly’s books, this one’s a page-turner that will transport readers back in time – and perhaps help them see history in a new way.

Ruins of Gorlan: Ranger’s Apprentice #1 (Flanagan): It’s rumored that this mega-popular series will be made into a movie, and given its Lord of the Rings and (more age appropriate) Game of Thrones vibe, I’m sure it would be a box office hit! Set in the convincing world of Arluen, fifteen-year-old Will is an orphan recruited to become a secretive Ranger, committed to protecting the kingdom against evil. This suspenseful fantasy adventure will appeal to grown up Percy Jackson or Harry Potter fans. On a side note, the author started the series to get his son interested in reading; now, with millions of copies sold, I’m pretty sure he’s helped a much larger audience appreciate the power of a good story.

Beauty Queens (Bray): It’s Lord of the Flies meets Hunger Games meets a Miss America pageant when a plane full of Miss Teen Dream contestants crashes on a deserted island.  Contestants must summon their best accessorizing skills in order to survive in the wilderness while awaiting rescue. Bray’s sarcastic “tongue” is at its finest here as she mounts a darkly hilarious critique of beauty ideals, gender double standards, and consumer culture. When rescuers finally appear, things don’t turn out quite as the contestants have imagined…I’d say this one is definitely for mature readers (and that might include adults as well as older teens).
Thanks for following this series! If you’re still looking for the perfect title to read or give, I’m planning two more posts this week: picture books without words and YA titles that pair well with classic texts.

Posted in Book Reviews, Elementary School, Middle Grade

Books for Birthdays: Part 2 of 3

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This two-part series has now become three parts! Today’s installment: books that make great gifts for kids in 3rd through 6th grades. Later this week: books you can give teens that might tempt them away from their phones.

Third & Fourth Graders (8 to 10 years old)

Kristy’s Great Idea: The Baby-Sitter’s Club Graphic Novel Edition (Martin/Telgemeier): This classic series has been reissued in graphic novel form, and it’s a total success! My niece read all of these in third grade; the new versions are as big a hit with kids now as the originals were when I was growing up.IMG_2801

Drama and Smile (Telgemeier): Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels are a great match for all ages, starting in third grade and through middle school. Reluctant and confident readers alike will gravitate to her unflinching (but entirely appropriate) descriptions of sisterhood and teenage life. I’d suggest buying both titles – once your recipient finishes one book, she’ll definitely be ready for the next!

Spirit Animals: Wild Born (Mull): Combining magic and animals, this novel (first in a series) is a great choice for fans of Percy Jackson and Harry Potter. Readers will easily engage with Mull’s magical world and be delighted by the magical, mysterious adventures faced by Conor and his new friends; the story’s quick pace will keep them turning pages. (Full disclosure: apparently there’s an interactive, online component to this series, but I haven’t explored it!)

Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab (Pflugfelder): Two twins on a top secret mission. Actual science experiments. Cool illustrations. See my mini-review posted last week for more details.

Fifth & Sixth Graders (10 to 12 years old)

The Thing About Luck (Kadohata): The simple text of this story about entering adolescence conveys a nuanced, thoughtful world view. Children will appreciate the author’s realistic portrayal of family life, and adults will value her positive depiction of family, responsibility, and the challenges of growing up. On a side note, I appreciated the author’s detailed (but not dull) descriptions of modern farm life and the effort it takes to produce the food that we eat.
There Will Be Bears (Gebhart): This heartwarming, funny, and slightly sarcastic story follows Tyson as he attempts to navigate an ever-changing world, which becomes especially difficult when his beloved Gramps has to move into a nursing home. Gebhart deals with the power of intergenerational bonds and deftly explores the theme of aging (both into adolescence and becoming elderly) in this accessible chapter book.

Rhyme Schemer (Holt): Holt’s main character is the school bully and poetry bandit; in this novel written in verse, she explores the hidden depths of a middle school student whose outward hostility directly mirrors his struggle for attention and connection at home. A great read for poets and rebels alike! (See my longer review for more details.)

Brown Girl Dreaming (Woodson): Told in riveting verse, this is Jacqueline Woodson’s “long, long story” of growing up black (or brown, as the title suggests) in 1960s America. Dealing unflinchingly and beautifully with issues of race, equality, and identity, Woodson’s autobiographical novel offers a powerful insight into American history and its effect(s) on families and individuals. This modern classic belongs on every bookshelf.