Friday, May 27, 2011

The Moffats - a good summer series

The first book in a series of four, The Moffats introduces Sylvie, Joe, Jane, and Rufus who live with their mother in the yellow house on New Dollar Street. Imagine their surprise and disappointment when the handyman comes and tacks up a "For Sale" sign on their house! Janey wonders, "Why? Why did it have to be their house. Because it was the best one, of course." 

The book is mainly episodic, giving it the feel of a collection of short stories, and yet it still maintains a loose connection between chapters. This gives the overall effect of a window into the "real life" of the Moffat family, recounting the adventures of each child and their unique ways of thinking. One story tells of how Jane is terrified of getting arrested by the chief of police and ends up hiding in the grocer's breadbox! And who should find her there but the chief himself! Of course, they become fast friends after that.

Another story recounts the Moffat's dance recital. Even though they are rather poor, the Moffat were able to take dancing lessons because Miss Chichester had no other way to pay Mrs. Moffat for the dresses she made. Sylvie was a born dancer, following instructions so well that Miss Chichester often had her help teach the rest of the class! Jane, well, she liked the idea of dancing, but somehow her legs never did quite what they should. And Joe! He insisted, "I think I feel worse going to dancing school than Miss Chichester would if I didn't go..." What would happen then, when he had to step in and do the Sailor's Hornpipe for the little boy who never showed up to the recital? 

The book ambles through the year, allowing the reader to truly feel like he is getting to know the characters as they go about their lives. Sometimes, the children are not so nice--like when they play a trick on their mean neighbor and scare him with a ghost in their attic. Or when Janey breaks the unspoken rule of "share and share alike" and spends her nickel all on herself instead of getting something that she can split four ways among her siblings. But of course, the charming part is that she feels absolutely terrible as she's eating her ice cream cone and vows that she'll never do such a selfish thing ever again. 

Once you pick up The Moffats, you'll just want to keep on reading about this quirky family. In this first book, you'll learn the most about Janey, her fantastic imagination, and her wonderful upside-down way of looking at the world. And Rufus of course, even though he's only six, gets into the biggest and messiest adventures! You can read more about him in Rufus M. which won a Newbery Honor award in 1944. The Moffat series makes classic, light reading, a perfect series to kick off the summer!

The Moffat books by Eleanor Estes: The Moffats (1941), The Middle Moffat (1942), Rufus M. (1943),  and get a peek of the Moffats when they're older in The Moffat Museum (1983). 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 21

Well, after a plethora of not especially helpful suggestions (remember it has to be an adjective that can be drawn and understood by 2-5 year olds!) I decided to go with my husband's.... and I rather think it puts the rest of the drawings to shame. Of course "urban" demands a setting to be explained, but it definitely makes this page way more interesting than most of my others. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 23

I don't know... can you tell that he's worried about falling off the little "w"? Maybe I should draw some cracks in it to look like it's more unstable?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 22

So yes, I know that I skipped the "U" page... I am having such a hard time thinking of a good "u" adjective. Any suggestions? Anyway, I'm trying to finish the others in the meantime, then I'll go back and redo the "M" page so Disney doesn't have a fit.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 20

I was feeling especially creative with this one. I think it's really fun. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 19

After an exciting weekend away in Florida, I'm back at it! 

And thanks to my husband, mom, and other friends, I've gained some excellent information about the changing publishing world. Here is a link to a talk by internet guru Seth Godin and a fascinating article by Kris Rusch, both on the new possibilities (and necessity) for individual writers to market their own products. In Kris Rusch's article, she mentions a self-publishing website called CreateSpace. Today, I looked it up online and began perusing the various options (after a careful reading of the terms of agreement) and am excited to use it in the near future!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Beyonders: A World Without Heros - Brandon Mull

In Beyonders, Brandon Mull sketches situations and characters that I have not often seen in modern fiction. Life and death are weighed in nearly every decision. And though the two main characters (Jason and Rachel) are completely average Americans, their character is strong and they learn the value of choosing right instead of personal gain. Of course, those kind of decision making skills are definitely not seen in mainstream American teenagers--so one might rationally ask if there is any semblance of reality in the book. But there is! Jason and Rachel make decisions at first based on their one main goal--to get back home. Their decisions to do right often coincide with their best chances of learning how to return to America. And through the book, they learn to value trust and honesty, self sacrifice, and recognize the power of doing the right thing regardless of the consequences.

I found this book completely fascinating for many reasons. The first is that the characters are very unique. Take the emperor for example. He is an evil wizard, completely invincible as far as we know. He holds power by singling out his strongest opponents and either winning them over to serve him or bribing them to stay out of his way by an invitation to "The Eternal Feast." The feast is held at a beautiful castle called Harthenham, and is essentially Heaven on Earth. The emperor provides every comfort and every beautiful thing from the bedroom, to the grounds, and of course--the food. It is essentially a prison, for no one that has ever gone there has left. But it is a prison that few people would refuse if they were given the option. With this ultimate bribe, the emperor keeps his fiercest opponents at bay. And the very few that refuse this elegant bribe on principle? Well, the emperor recognizes their strong moral character and he invites them to serve him as part of his inner circle of advisers. For those that accept there is no chance of betrayal--they basically have an eye implanted into their body, and every step and conversation is watched. For those that refuse, they are not killed--for that would be martyrdom and martyrs spawn too many new recruits. No, the emperor simply breaks them physically and mentally and then turns them loose so that all who oppose him will see how their hero suffered and failed. This is how Lyrian came to be the land without heroes.

But Jason and Rachel learn that a hero is not necessarily spectacularly strong, nor stunningly courageous, nor strikingly handsome. A hero is someone who chooses what is right no matter what. They are given this challenge, and in a world where they basically have nothing to lose, they learn true heroism. This is the main strength of this book. It shows young teenagers the value of doing good and making selfless decisions.

Now, if you look at public reviews of the book on Amazon, you'll see a lot of mediocre or even bad reviews. Some say it's not very original, some complain of too many big words, others think that the characters do not react realistically to the situations Mull sets up. But all of them say it is not as good as his Fablehaven series. Now, as someone who has never read the Fablehaven books, I consider that I am able to make an objective option of this book without comparing it to Mull's other work. I read it without any preexisting expectations.

And I would respond to the other reviewers and say that this story is 1) stunningly original. I was blown away by the amount of fun and imaginative details that Mull included in the book. They are completely created (not like anything in real life) and yet they are realistic enough to be imaginable for the reader. As I have been working on writing my own children's book, I'm extremely impressed with the amount of planning and creativity it must have taken for Brandon Mull to weave together all these elements.

For those that gripe about big words: 2) This story is for children. If you don't understand the words in this book, go back to grade school. I was actually slightly annoyed by all the "modern" words that he included. Mull would occasionally throw in words like "psycho" or "super cool" that just don't sound right in a story like this. But perhaps I react that way because I like to read the classics. And I recognize that while this story has a classic moral/ethical component, it is still geared toward modern teens. I suppose the modern lingo can help establish that the main characters are "one of us" and by comparison, readers can learn and make these hard decisions also.

The third objection that I read online was that the characters do not react realistically. 3) Perhaps these readers are defining "realistic" based on what they themselves would choose. If that is so, then a "realistic" book would make pretty poor reading. I would much prefer an "inspiring" book, like this one. However, I believe that these characters are perfectly realistic. In fact, I was astonished at how each character (even all the side characters that have relatively minor roles) responds to a situation based on the incentives that are set up for him. And it's not just a question of "what do I want and how do I get it?" Their responses are clearly based on what they value, which is a whole slough of things: often comfort, wealth, stability, respect, opportunity, abundance, safety, etc... And different characters respond differently to these things--for instance, Jason and Rachel consider the opportunity of getting home as much more valuable than the opportunity for living out their lives in Lyrian in safety and abundance. Some characters lose their self-respect to gain outside respect, and some (like the Blind King in his rundown castle) have nothing left but their self-respect. No, these characters are very real, even in how they differ from each other.

All I can say is that if this is a poor book compared to the Fablehaven series, then that series must be absolutely phenomenal. I plan to go check it out soon and make my own opinion. At any rate, Beyonders: A World Without Heroes certainly stands on its own as an excellent book, and I am eagerly awaiting the next installment in the series.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 18

I really like this page. I think whenever I see "runaways" with a big bag tied to the end of a stick, it always makes me think of Huckleberry Finn and a leisurely life drifting down a river with a straw hat and a fishing pole....

Friday, May 13, 2011

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 17

Here is the Q page that was supposed to go up this morning. Apparently Blogger has been having some difficulties and several of my posts were "lost" or reverted back to "scheduled." Kind of strange. Anyway, sorry for the confusion, and I think we're back on track now!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Butternut Curry

This is a very simple but deliciously sweet, healthy dish that just seems to get better with time! Every time I pull out the leftovers from the fridge, the spices and flavors seem to have mixed and melded into something even more wonderful than when I first made it! 
1/2 butternut squash (peeled and sliced) 
1 large sweet onion 
fresh ginger root
curry powder
chili powder
(rice, if desired) 

Dice about two teaspoons of the ginger and the large onion and saute them in vegetable oil while you're preparing the squash (or a little longer--give them about 5 min, I should think.) 

Cut the butternut half in two (making quarters) and then cut in thin slices along the cross section. (see the picture if you're confused.)

Throw these in the skillet with the onion and ginger and add about half a cup of water. At the same time, mix in two tsp of curry powder, 1 tsp of chili powder, and a dash of salt. Cover the skillet and let it "boil" over high heat until the butternut is soft, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn't burn on the bottom. This should take only 5-10 minutes. Maybe a little longer if your butternut slices are on the thicker side. So all in all, it should take only 15-20 minutes to make, though you may want to add a few minutes to let the curry cool and for the flavors to mix a little longer.

*note: if you want to use rice with the curry, but sure to start it before you start the curry, since rice will probably take much longer to cook, depending on the kind of rice you have. Also, you should feel free to mix up the proportions, adding more or less onion... or other things, like cabbage, that would blend well with the sweet/spicy flavors of the onion, ginger, and butternut.

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 16

I really don't think I like this one better than the previous, which was "Pretty Penguin". But since my penguin and my owl actually look pretty much the same, I figured it would be good to switch things up a little bit. Unfortunately, options for "Q" are pretty limited, so I'll have to stick with "quail" as the standard. As for the adjective, well....I think quail are depressingly lacking in the animation and character departments. "Quiet" may be the best I can come up with. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

This book was a really good read on the heals of Anya's War by Andrea Alban. While Anya's War was set in 1939, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu is set in the 21rst century. Lucy, who is just entering the sixth grade and is ready to rule the school and the basketball court with her pro free throws, is disappointed (understatement) to find out that she's going to have to share her room with her great-aunt. (Who, incidentally, lived through the time illustrated in Anya's War.)

Lucy's spells out the reasons for her frustration in the book: One. She was promised her own room for the first time in her life, and she was ecstatic to be able to finally practice her interior decorating skills to make it look the way she wanted. With someone else sharing it, it seemed hardly worth the effort...  in fact, after her great aunt arrives, her interior decorating style degenerates into something she describes as the "I can't find my math homework" look."

Number Two. Lucy was still grieving. Her grandmother used to live with her, and she and Lucy were basically best buds. After her grandmother died, Lucy is worried about forgetting her, and forgetting all the beautiful memories they made together. With her great-aunt coming, she couldn't stand the thought that she might try to take her grandmother's place...especially when the two were separated when they were little and hardly knew each other! Lucy is so self-focused that she does not even consider the possibility that she and her family just might be able to allow Yi Po (the great aunt) to know her long lost sister in a way that would otherwise be impossible.

Still another problem was (Number Three) that Lucy was woefully lacking in the Chinese element of her Chinese-American life. This is demonstrated when they are invited to a fancy Chinese restaurant for a birthday party. While her sister Regina converses happily in fluent Mandarin and her brother indiscriminately shoves various disgusting-sounding foods into his mouth; Lucy sits by and watches, heaping her plate with rice and shoving it in her mouth so no one would have to find out how badly she speaks Mandarin. She is, in her sister's words, a Twinkie: "yellow on the outside and white on the inside". Lucy was happy with that. Just give her some lasagna and a basketball, and she was good to go! But Yi Po's arrival made her parents even more aware of the importance of her Chinese language/cultural education. And since there was a new Chinese school starting up on Saturday mornings, they decided that was a much better use of her time than going to basketball practice, which was at the same time.

Through all these things, Wendy Shang does a great job of revealing different personalities through her excellent dialogue and narrative. Lucy is extremely selfish, equally self-conscious, and surprisingly pessimistic for a girl of 11 who is ready to start 6th grade and glide through a year of being one of the "elite" in the school. But Wendy Shang masterfully laces the pessimism with bursts of humor that reveal Lucy as just another "tween" figuring out her place in the world. The other personalities are equally interesting, though less developed. Each person is presented as rational, having their own strengths and weaknesses, even the school bully, Sloane, and Lucy's depressingly beautiful sister who seems to have perfect looks and a perfect life, but comes home from college with her hair cut short because she is tired "of being objectified because of my beauty." Even Yi Po's personality is revealed, though with surprisingly little dialogue. Through Lucy's ears, we hear her methodically shuffling around the bedroom in her slippers, making her bed and fluffing the pillows. It's clear that Yi Po sees and understands Lucy's love of basketball. In fact, one early morning after Lucy and her friend had been practicing in the room, Lucy first hears the slippers shuffling quickly across the floor, then the sound of crumpled paper hitting the metal wastebasket, and then perhaps, the tiniest laugh.

But things change and people grow and learn as they do in all good stories. Lucy's wall of her desk and dresser and bookcase, that she constructed down the middle of her room before her Yi Po arrived, is gradually breached and then taken down completely. She learns that Chinese school isn't so bad. And with the help of her friends, she begins to see Yi Po not as embarrassingly oriental, but as an interesting person (who can make killer dumplings!) In fact, it is Yi Po and her group of Ma Jong players that eventually make possible Lucy's dream of coaching the 6th grade team against the teachers in the fundraiser student/faculty game.

This is a fun book and easy read for mid-grade students and presents some good opportunities for talking about other cultures and ethnicities within the United States. I'll definitely be looking forward to the next book from Wendy Wan-Long Shang!

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 15

In my previous set that I drew, this page was "Orange Octopus". But I wanted a new page that didn't actually rely on the color--because once I print them, they will all be black and white. (I wanted to draw them in color, so I will always know which is the original--besides it's so much more fun that way!)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 14

For this page, I was looking at photos of a nautilus online, and you know, they really look very creepy with all their tentacles where their nose should be and their big eyes just peeking out through the shell. I had a hard time drawing one that looked friendly and fun. This was the best I could do:

Monday, May 9, 2011

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 12&13

The "L" and "M" coloring pages are the same as the last set I made, I just changed the pictures a little bit, and I think they're better. I must say, I'm especially proud of my Minnie--I got the pose off an online clip art graphic. Very fun, I think.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 11

Thanks to my friend's prompt and wonderful comment on my last page, I now have the next installment! I really do like this so much better than "kvetching koala"--which I actually had to go and look up. (And for those of you who are like me, "kvetching" comes from Yiddish and literally means to squeeze or pinch, but apparently it's used in modern slang to mean chronic complaining.) I figured that might be a little too complicated for a 3-year-old, don't you think?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Alphabet Coloring Book - page 10

Now that I'm home from the wedding, I can start working on these again! I'm having a hard time with "K" though--there just aren't a lot of good "k" adjectives. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Sedona, Arizona

This is where I went over the weekend: it was so beautiful. Red rocks, blooming cactus, cool spring weather--Amazing!
My childhood friend, Sam, and her fiance, Joe, at the rehearsal dinner. (Aren't they so happy?) 

Angel In My Pocket - book review


It's just a coin with an angel on one side. That's what Bette thought... and Joe... and Vivian. These three young teenagers all attend the same middle school that focuses on the performing arts, and each of them carry the coin in their pocket for a special period of time. 

It's Bette who originally finds the coin in a can of money that her sister collected for charity. She is lonely and directionless since her mother died in a car accident. And even though she's going to a special magnet school to hone her singing skills, she just hasn't felt like singing ever since her mother died--it reminds her too much of the way things were before the accident. 

But after she discovers the coin, a lovely young woman comes to live in the downstairs apartment. Bette is suspicious at first, but then finds herself opening up to Gabi and spilling out all the pent up emotions and thoughts and fears that she has stored up since her mother passed away. Gabi, with her intense gray eyes, asks the piercing questions that cause Bette to think about singing and performing again. Ultimately though, it's the challenge of the neighborhood boy, Joe, that forces her onstage. He thinks that she is just filling one of the neighborhood spots in the school and has no real talent to use in the musical that the 7th and 8th grades were going to perform at the end of the year. 

After Bette gets up and does a spectacular impromptu audition, Joe notices the small angel medallion that she left on her desk after a class. He knew that it was special to her and took it out of spite. He was angry. Angry that she could sing. Angry that he seemed to be the only student at the school without any "talent." He was angry that his father left him and was irresponsible about paying child support. And he was angry that his mother had to work so hard, only to keep getting sick, fired, and evicted from the tiny apartments that they live in. At first the talisman felt cold and distant, but eventually he took some comfort from the feel of it in his pocket--even though it was annoying that it was often the only thing he felt in his pocket when he would often have preferred to have a few dollars and other coins mixed in. 

After he takes the angel coin, the principal of the school introduces him to Mike Sullivan, a carpenter who works for the theater where the school musical will be performed. Mike understands about how Joe loves to work with wood and use his hands. By listening and carefully considering Joe's suggestions, Mike proves that Joe can be a helpful contributor to the musical. And he shows Joe a new way of thinking about people by asking him the right questions at the right time. There is no getting away from his forceful, almost intimidating presence--but Mike is unfailingly kind and understanding, which is new and inspiring to Joe. Deciding to do something nice for a boy that he previously mistreated, Joe takes the angel coin and gives it to him, hoping that it will help him and his sister, who was terribly ill from her asthma attacks. 

Vivian was a little confused when her brother gave her an angel coin. But when she went into the hospital because she couldn't breathe, she was glad to have its company. Can you see the pattern here? Vivian's problem is that she is so focused on her physical appearance and thinks that the medication that she needs to take is making her fat and ugly. But Dr. Raphael comes along and puts her on a new medication and gives her the hope of slowly recovering and getting off the steroids that made her face look so "puffy."  What's more, she teaches her to think about living and about being grateful for things in the world and in life.

In the end, Bette, Joe, and Vivian all realize that these people entered their lives during the time that they had the little angel coin... and since they all changed and grew, they didn't feel like they needed the coin anymore. So when they saw a charity can by the cash register in Starbucks, they all the thought the same thing. This is where it came from, and it will make it's way along to the next person who needs it. 
Of course, the truly interesting thing about Ilene Cooper's depiction of the characters is that each "angel" had a perfectly normal, natural explanation for their entrance into the children's lives. Gabi needed a place to stay short-term; Mike was helping with the props for the play; and Dr. Raphael was helping with Vivian's medical problems. But they all did so much more than that! And I'm sure it's no coincidence that Gabi could be short for the famous angel Gabriel, and Mike could be short for Michael--another Biblical angel name. Did the coin actually have some power attached to it? Possibly. Or maybe, just maybe, the thought of the angel on the coin made the children more aware and receptive to the help that they needed from the people that could give it.

I wouldn't say that this is an especially life-changing or inspiring book. And I certainly don't think that its pseudo-spiritual ideas reflect the reality of what God has made and given us in creation. But I do believe in angels and even though I don't know what form they take in the world, this is a truly sweet story that has certainly made me think about how well I listen and learn from others. And of course, it also makes me consider the power of kind words and actions and a few moments of sincere listening and understanding.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Chicken Veggie wraps

It's really easy to make yummy veggie wraps. The hard part is deciding what to put in them! This is just one option of many... but as you can probably tell, I like having a lot of variety. I've italicized all the ingredients as I mention them, so they'll be easy to find. 

For the tortillas, I used some spicy/spinach tortillas, which add a flavor of their own to the wrap. 

Then, I sliced 1 large chicken breast, sprinkled it with salt and a good amount of Italian seasoning, and sauteed it in the tiniest bit of vegetable oil

Setting that aside, I sauteed about a tablespoon of fresh chopped ginger, one small onion, and about three cups of chopped green cabbage. (Add them in that order into the vegetable oil, letting each one simmer for a few minutes before adding the next.)

Then the easy part: Fill the tortilla! I started with the cabbage mixture on the bottom, put a little mozzarella cheese on top, to melt. Then, two or three chicken strips. On top of that, I added some sliced green pepper, tomato, and bean sprouts. Then sprinkle your favorite salad dressing across the top before you roll it up--I highly recommend a good Asian style dressing with some sesame seeds.

Using one Chicken breast made 3-4 small wraps. Good enough for two people, or a couple lunches.