Library Books Enjoyed, 11/28/13

We didn’t check out a lot of Thanksgiving-themed books this fall, but in honor of the holiday, here are some of the sweeter, gentler books we’ve enjoyed recently:

Koala LouKoala Lou by Mem Fox

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I remember my mom sharing this with me (although I think I was older than the target audience at the time), so I still hear her voice whenever I read “Koala Lou, I DO love you!” Needless to say, my kids enjoyed this sweet tale of a koala who needs to remember that she’s special to her mom just because, not because of anything she does. I enjoyed the nostalgia, and also thinking of this from the mom’s point of view now, too.

Little FlowerLittle Flower by Gloria Rand

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a story that we picked up at random, and I was pleasantly surprised by it. It’s a fairly simple story of an elderly woman and her beloved pet pig. The pig isn’t well-liked by the next-door neighbors until she helps her owner during an emergency. It’s sweet, just a little strange, and therefore unique in a non-showy way. We didn’t read it over and over, but I would check it out again, and it seemed like my kids enjoyed it, too.

Follow the Zookeeper (Golden Look-Look Books)Follow the Zookeeper by Patricia Relf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Our kindergartner brought this one home from the school media center, and even though it’s old, we all enjoyed it. It follows head zookeeper Mr. Scott through his day of work, and presents a nice picture of all the different things zookeepers do.

Mr. Putter & Tabby Drop the BallMr. Putter & Tabby Drop the Ball by Cynthia Rylant

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love Mr. Putter and Tabby (I probably like them better than the better known Henry and Mudge series by the same author), so I am working on getting my children to enjoy them, too. So far, they seem to like them fine, but aren’t yet asking for multiple rereads, so more work needs to be done!

In this installment, Mr. Putter decides that he and Tabby nap too much, so he has them join a baseball league for seniors. His friend Mrs. Teaberry and her dog Zeke also join, with amusing results. Having now sat through many a T-ball game, I enjoyed reading about the other end of the lifetime sports spectrum.

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Enjoy the holiday with your families, and maybe with a good book in hand!

Library Books Enjoyed, 11/21/13

Halloween may be over, but that only means that my kids discuss in depth what they are going to be next year while they continue to eat their way through the candy. Here are some books we checked out in the Halloween aftermath:

Dracula and Frankenstein Are FriendsDracula and Frankenstein Are Friends by Katherine Tegen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I marked this as “scary” because it’s so spooky/Halloween themed, but it’s not really scary. It also wasn’t my favorite story ever, but the target audience felt differently. I think I just didn’t like it so much because I didn’t like Dracula in here…he was definitely not a very good friend for most of the book (yes, that’s part of the point of the story–he somewhat learns his lesson–but I think I was hoping for something like a Halloween version of Frog and Toad).

However, my offspring, still fresh in the triumph of successful trick-or-treating (and still with the candy to show for it), loved it and required that we keep it for two weeks from the library. I will grant that the pictures were quite fun, with all sorts of details that appeal to kids who like to pore over their picture books. So it was a howling success with the majority of readers in this house…but I’m still the one who hands out stars.

Bats at the LibraryBats at the Library by Brian Lies

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We got this while the Halloween display was still up, but while it could certainly be worked into a Halloween theme, it really wasn’t meant to be a Halloween book. It was, however, a really fun book about what might happen if bats visited the library. I know we’ve read Bats at the Ballgame by the same author, but I think I enjoyed this one even more…and I certainly enjoyed it more than many other “in the library” themed picture books I feel like I’ve come across recently.

This last one seems to fit in with the “not-quite-Halloween” theme, but it’s one I just read myself, rather than sharing with the kids:
Battle BunnyBattle Bunny by Jon Scieszka

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I should preface this review by saying that I’m a pacifist, so this wasn’t going to be one I’d share with my kids right off, anyway. And, for now, I’m not sharing it with my kids.

I got a review from a (librarian) friend about this one, so I immediately put it on hold at the library. It was funny, and I think it was well-done, just not my cup of tea. Aside from the sweet bunny being transformed into an evil megalomaniac, what drove me nuts was that I had to read under the “changes” to see what the initial story was (the whole premise being that a kid transforms a book called “Birthday Bunny” into a much more exciting and dangerous story).

I actually don’t think I want to share this with my kids now as much for the fact that they won’t quite “get” it (only my oldest is starting to read and write, and I don’t think even he will quite get all the “editing” going on unless I read both versions to him, too) as for the content. Ok, and let’s be honest, I don’t want to give my 2 and 3 year olds ANY precedent for altering books with writing implements–our books need all the protection they can get. Anyway, I’m not quite sure what the target audience for this book is–it needs to be kids who can read and do some writing, but still enjoy a picture book. I’d be interested to hear from other librarians or parents who have some kids to share this with!

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SAH Sanity Tip #6: Read a Book

It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these, but I need a short post.

When staying at home with small children, reading a book is always a good idea. I’m sure this is news to nobody, but sitting down with a book is a quick way to get everyone (relatively quiet). Also, if you need to take a time-out yourself (see Tip #4), reading a few pages from a book can be helpful for calming down. Finally, my kids are now getting old enough that I can instruct them to sit down with a book on their own for a few minutes, and it makes a nice way to enforce some time out from whatever they are doing to drive me crazy without it seeming like a punishment.

Short and sweet, but hey, it works!

Library Books Enjoyed, 11/14/13

Without any ado:

Possum Magic Possum Magic by Mem Fox

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve known about Mem Fox for a long time, and I’ve heard about Possum Magic, but we only just got it out of the library and read it ourselves. It was charming, and the pictures were adorable. I also appreciated the glossary and map at the back, so non-Australians could see what magic foods the possums ate and where they traveled to. We reread it several times.

Harry by the SeaHarry by the Sea by Gene Zion

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We have read Harry the Dirty Dog so many times in the last 6 months, and it finally occurred to me to look for other Harry books at the library (having vaguely remembered reading more than one as a kid). We found this one and it was a hit. When I read it, the story came back to me, so I must have enjoyed this as a child, too. The pictures of Harry as a “sea monster” are really funny.

Silly Lilly and the Four SeasonsSilly Lilly and the Four Seasons by Agnes Rosenstiehl

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My graphic-novel-loving children inspire me to keep an eye out for kids’ graphic novels when we are at the library, and this is one I just happened upon. It’s very basic in terms of story…it’s really a set of vignettes about the ways that Lilly plays during each season of the year. The format is also large (usually just one or two panels per page) so it is great for introducing the graphic novel/comic strip format…or for getting kids started making their own comics.

I just liked it ok, but this is definitely a matter of not being the target audience for this book…the kids LOVED it and we reread it several times. They also enjoyed going back and looking through it on their own.

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Cucumbers and Pickling

Thursday is our last CSA pick-up for the year. On the one hand, I’m always a little sad to say good-bye to the farm family and their employees, who we’ve gotten to know over the last 5 years. On the other, I am thankful that I will not have to brainstorm ways to use up the weekly bounty before it goes bad. Overall, I feel pretty good about how we’ve done this year. I’ve had to throw out some lettuce, a few cucumbers and squash, but I think we’ve gotten better about either eating up the produce or cooking and freezing it for later. Some appeals to friends on Facebook definitely helped–especially when we had a bumper crop of cabbage back in the summer.

Our last extreme bounty this years was cucumbers. I like cucumbers just fine, so does my husband. My kids range from indifferent to opposed. We don’t eat a whole lot of salad as a family, so while I used a few cucumbers in salads and even made a couple just-cucumber salads, that didn’t nearly take care of all the cucumbers we were getting. Since four out of the five of us like pickles, I finally decided to give pickling a try.

My experience in food preservation is pretty small. I will cook and freeze lots of things (my husband keeps joking about getting me a chest freezer for Christmas; part of the joke is that I would actually enjoy the gift even while laughing at it), and that includes having made freezer jam. I have never canned anything that requires processing in boiling water. Every time I think I will try that, I get a book out and start reading it and get scared off by the warnings that sounds something like “Follow the recipe exactly or you might die of botulism!!” Maybe next year I will be brave enough to try real canning. For now, I found a refrigerator pickle recipe here: that sounded good, easy, and up for tinkering with amounts (since I didn’t know if I would have enough cucumbers to make a full recipe).

The recipe was as easy as it advertised, and it was a recipe that easily lent itself to small helpers. I made the brine, and then the kids helped me fill jars while we waited for it to cool. We are dill pickle fans–no sweet pickles or bread and butter here!–and the only ingredients besides the brine and cucumbers were fresh dill (which we had to buy special, but I managed to use it up just for pickles, so it wasn’t wasted), garlic cloves, and peppercorns. Then we just had to wait for a couple days while the pickles pickled.

They turned out wonderfully. I’ve ended up making these pickles three times: one half batch, one full batch, and one double batch (when the cucumbers just kept coming) and so far all the jars except one turned out great (that one turned out mushy). I had enough to give some away, and all the reports have been good. I may make one more batch if I can get to it in the next day or two, and then I will say so long to cucumbers for a very long time. At this point, I’ll probably discover a recipe I have to try that calls for 20 cucumbers or something. But such is life.

I did actually think to take pictures while making my first batch, so here they are:

Filled pickle jar, waiting to add brine.

Filled pickle jar, waiting to add brine.

Jar from the side.

Jar from the side.

Cucumbers turning into pickles.

Cucumbers turning into pickles.

Library Books Enjoyed, 11/7/13: Grown-up Edition

From a confluence of circumstances, I have checked out and read several books over the past few weeks that were for me, not the kids. The first was one I must have put on hold after reading a review–I didn’t remember it at all when I got the hold notification. But it blew me away when I read it:
Levels of LifeLevels of Life by Julian Barnes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was devastating and amazing, both in the way that Barnes artfully integrated history, fiction, and lament and in the raw emotion. This is an extremely difficult book to categorize but was a completely worthwhile read.

Ok, I obviously didn’t put much time into reviewing this on Goodreads. Here’s a little more about the book and my reading experience. I had read one other Julian Barnes book, The Sense of an Ending, which I appreciated as a literary work that had won the Man Booker prize, but didn’t think much of personally. (I think I’ve come to realize that I’m not good at reading unreliable narrator books, because I just inherently trust the narrator.) I didn’t really know what this one was about, and I didn’t know if I would like it or not.

It starts off with a brief history of some early balloonists whose various paths happen to cross and which leads to the first aerial photograph being taken…a phenomenon that might not seem like a huge deal until astronauts take a picture of the Earth from space.

The second part is a fictional account of one of the balloonist’s love affair with actress Sarah Berhardt. Trust me, it ties in.

Finally (although this section is the longest), the book is a lament about the death of Barne’s wife. This part was very raw and straightforward, but it drew on metaphors and emotions from the first two parts. I can’t very well describe it any better, except to repeat that I was blown away.

This is not a happy or very hopeful book, but I wholeheartedly recommend it.

The other two I picked up as I try to again ramp up my reading of YA fiction and (right now) particularly graphic novels:
Boxers (Boxers & Saints)Boxers by Gene Luen Yang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Really moving account of China’s Boxer Rebellion from one of the peasant-warriors. Interesting how it showed the ways that colonialism/the spread of Christianity hurt many of the people in the countryside, and also the supernatural beliefs that strengthened the fighters. Be warned that the ending is tragic. I’m interested to read Saints, the companion book, as well as (eventually) some actual history of the rebellion.

Saints (Boxers & Saints)Saints by Gene Luen Yang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Was itching to read this after I finished Boxers, and it was very good–I read it in one evening (it helps that it’s a lot shorter than Boxers!). This provided an interesting look at a Chinese Christian experience during the Boxer Rebellion. I thought I knew how it would end, from reading Boxers, but you actually learn a little more about Bao’s story at the end of Vibiana’s.

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For those of you keeping track at home, yes, this means my French reading project is way behind. But that’s up next on the docket, so hopefully I can update in the next week or two.

Pumpkin and Squash Seeds

Yikes, I have gotten behind in blogging. I guess that’s just life sometimes.

I actually started this post way back before Halloween, because we had several winter squash and a pie pumpkin from our CSA box. However, we actually carved a jack-o-lantern this year (the first time at least since the kids were born, and by “we” I mean my husband with an enthralled audience of 4), so it seemed a good time to finish up the post.

Many of you probably already know how to roast pumpkin seeds, and the process is the same for winter squash. From The Joy of Cooking, the instructions are basically to separate the seeds from the strings and gunk, don’t wash them, toss them with some vegetable oil, spread out on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 250° for a very long time (Joy suggests 1 1/2 hours, but basically until they are dried out). Then you can toss them with salt or other seasoning or, if you are really feeling like torturing yourself, break off the outer shells to use the seed kernels in fancy dessert recipes. (My sister makes an excellent pumpkin brittle, but I think she’s gone to buying pre-shelled seeds.)

The problem with this process is that, as far as I can tell, there is really no quick and easy way to separate all those seeds, and the smaller the pumpkin/squash, the harder it takes. However, I’ve gotten a process down that seems to work fairly well, so I share it in case it proves useful to anyone else.

pumpkin_seeds_towelFirst, once I scoop the seeds out of the squash or pumpkin, I spread them out on a dishtowel–preferably a terrycloth towel over a tea towel. Then I use a spoon to sort of scrape the seeds away from the strings. It’s not fast, but it seems to go faster than using my hands to separate the seeds, since they are so darn slippery. I usually separate the seeds in small batches, and it took me about 40 minutes to get them all out when I did our pie pumpkin. My husband did the jack-o-lantern seeds, and he was a lot faster, which is normal for anything we both try to do, but I say he had the advantage of fewer strings in the bigger pumpkin.

The first picture shows them all spread out, while the second shows where a couple of the seeds have been pretty well separated.pumpkin_seeds_separated

After that, I just follow the recipe instructions and spread them out on a cookie sheet, bake, shake with salt, and enjoy!