Monday, October 5, 2015

Our Favorite Children's Books (Ages 4-8)

(If you're looking for books for younger kids, check out my favorite books from birth to 3.)

Reading beautiful children's books aloud is one of my favorite perks of being a mom. No matter how our day goes, as long as we manage to fit in some good read-aloud time, I feel that my time has been well spent. Our time spent in books is fun, it's sweet, it's the cornerstone of our home preschool, and it sparks some of our best conversations.

I have found reading aloud to be more and more fun as our eldest can understand and pay attention to longer and more complex books. He still loves flap books and simple rhymes (which is lucky for our 2-year-old), but he can sit still for longer picture books and even some short chapter books.

When I say "sit still," of course, it is a relative term. He is still a 4.5-year-old boy. He might be in one of our laps, or he might be playing with clay (I save the real grown-up clay for when I'm reading a chapter book aloud), drawing, playing in the dirt, or whatever he can do and still listen.

My age range of 4 to 8 is just an estimate as I don't really know whether my 4-year-old will still enjoy these as an 8-year-old, but I can't see why not! We adults genuinely enjoy all of these, too.

This list is by no means even close to exhaustive. These are just a few of the many, many lovely books for kids of this age.

Picture books

The Pink Refrigerator  by Tim Egan

Metropolitan Cow and others by Tim Egan. In addition to unusual stories with moral lessons that don't punch you in the face, Egan's books also feature beautiful, walkable neighborhoods.

No Such Things by Bill Peet

Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent by Bill Peet

Encore for Eleanor by Bill Peet, and anything else by Bill Peet.

The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss. I cannot say that I enjoy reading much Dr. Seuss aloud, but this is one I can read over and over again.

Jumanji and others by Chris Van Allsburg

Lilly's Big Day by Kevin Henkes. If you're looking for an irrepressible and delightful heroine, Lilly is your mouse.

Sheila Rae, the Brave and others by Kevin Henkes

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and others by William Steig

I'm a Frog! and other Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems. The Pigeon books are wonderful too, but Elephant and Piggie start treading into the beginning reader category without being mind-numbing to read aloud.

Frog and Toad are Friends and others by Arnold Lobel. These are another series of beginning reader books that are pleasant to read aloud.

Chapter books

Starting chapter books with a preschooler can feel both daunting and exciting. It is rewarding to finally get to some of the chapter book classics we remember, and yet we are still dealing with discriminating attention spans and wiggly bodies. I would recommend these as good first chapter books to read aloud.

Two Times the Fun by Beverly Cleary. This was one of the first chapter books we read with my son, and he loved it.

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond

My Father's Dragon and sequels by Ruth Stiles Gannett

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. I loved Roald Dahl as a kid, but as a parent, I have found some of his novels to be darker than I remember. This one is a good bet for younger ones.

Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard Atwater


Scranimals by Jack Prelutsky. If you like Shel Silverstein, you will love Jack Prelutsky.

Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant by Jack Prelutsky

I've Lost My Hippopotamus by Jack Prelutsky

A Family of Poems edited by Caroline Kennedy

Shakespeare's Seasons by Miriam Weiner and Shannon Whitt. This is a gentle introduction to Shakespeare as short quotations from the Bard are paired with charming illustrations.


I have been astounded by the variety and quality of children's nonfiction books. I am convinced that even for adults, there is a kids' nonfiction book to serve as the foundation for any area of interest. Now whenever I am looking to get a good overview of something, whether it's Shakespeare or Darwin, learning how to draw or how to play the guitar, I start in the kids' section.

Here are a smattering of books we have enjoyed so far.

The Magic School Bus Inside the Earth and others by Joanna Cole. Magic School Bus books are a bit tricky to read aloud because of all the different images and insets, but my son loves them and follows many of the scientific concepts. If the format becomes too cumbersome, I skip the sidebars and just read the story.

I Face the Wind and others by Vicki Cobb. These introduce basic concepts to the youngest scientists.

Motion, Magnets and More by Adrienne Mason. This is slightly more advanced than the Vicki Cobb books and introduces a variety of physical science concepts using simple experiments.

Sunshine Makes the Seasons by Franklyn M. Branley and other Let's-Read-and-Find-Out-Science books. Despite the cumbersome name, this series has something about pretty much any science question my son has thrown at me.

How People Learned to Fly by Fran Hodgkins

Pitter and Patter by Martha Sullivan. This playful book follows two drops of rain as they move through the water cycle.

On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne

Henri's Scissors, a picture book biography of Henri Matisse by Jeanette Winter

The Iridescence of Birds: A Book about Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan

What have I missed? What are your favorite children's books for this age group?


Friday, September 18, 2015

Are We Minimalists? Our Quest for Just Enough

Our relatives would most definitely describe our family as "minimalists." When we got married and moved from Seattle to DC eight years ago, we each had two suitcases to our name. There may have been the odd box of old yearbooks and clothes stashed at our parents' houses, but two suitcases were all we felt we needed to start our new life together in a new city.

It is astonishing to think just how much more stuff we have accumulated since then. I personally love the feeling of being unencumbered, like after you check your bags at the airport and you suddenly feel lighter, like you really could take flight (this is before kids, of course).

Having too much stuff robs me of time spent organizing and sorting. It takes up space and makes my house look cluttered and frantic. It uses up money that we could be spending on other things, like experiences, travel, and early retirement.

The excess stuff, unworn clothes in my closet, the residue of clothes in my drawers (or my kids' drawers) that remains untouched week after week, season after season, child after child, weighs on my psyche. The boxes in my closet that are still unpacked after two years in this "new" house. The file folders stuffed with privacy practices from insurance policies long since cancelled. This is all clutter, unnecessary, superfluous, and I think we can all admit that clutter has effects on our lives far beyond the inability to present a clean house when company comes.

That said, I always hesitate to use the word "minimalist," because the "minimum" is so subjective. Our family probably has less stuff than the average American family of similar income. Even so, we have more, much more, laughably more, ridiculously more, lavishly more, embarrassingly more than the "minimum" possessions required for survival or even comfort. This is why I laugh when people label us as "minimalists;" what looks like minimalism to a middle-class American would be the height of luxury to most people in the world.

I've been thinking about our philosophy of stuff a lot recently, after reading the book Clutterfree with Kids by Joshua Becker. Although I've read some great books on simplifying, including The Power of Less and You Can Buy Happiness (and It's Cheap), it had been a couple of years, and I was surprised at how far I have gotten from my "simplicity" ideals.

It hasn't helped that we have moved into a larger space than we've ever had, and added two kids to our family, but I hesitate to use kids as an excuse. Kids need much, much less stuff than we believe. Inspired by Clutterfree, I've been trying to jump back into re-decluttering our home. I'll share some of my experiences about that here, including:

  • How we keep kids' clothes organized
  • How we keep toys manageable
  • Our standards for what should go and what can stay
  • How we simplify instead of organize

The task is a bit overwhelming, but I am looking forward to getting my home to match my values again!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Walking with Three

Our little baby is now four months old, and I have recently (and repeatedly) had the realization that when I am out "by myself" during the week, I am actually four people. Four! I used to be just one. I have to confess that for the first time ever, while expecting this baby, I had flashes of worry about not owning a car. I mean, three kids! Our car culture tells us that even a couple of adults require a car to get around on a daily basis. So three kids sounded pretty intimidating, even to me.

But then I remembered that babies come in very small sizes. Not only that, but kids who are small now continue getting bigger and better able to participate in transporting themselves. With that realization, I calmed down a bit. Here are some of the strategies we're employing to get around with our pile of urchins.

A variety of configurations

I've written before about the configurations we use when we go out, configurations that depend on who is traveling, where, and for what purpose. This is a level of planning not usually required for car travel, as the answer is always the same. Are we going to the store? One car, three kids, three car seats. To the library? One car, three kids, three car seats. To the park? One car, three kids, three car seats. Without a car, there are more options, but also more decisions to make. Here are some of our new configurations since adding the new baby. You'll note that most of these are the same as our old ones, just with the baby in a wrap or carrier.

  • Double stroller with baby in wrap - This is best for longer-distance walks, over 1.5 miles or so, especially if I need to carry cargo (groceries, library books, etc.).
  • Kid on bike, single stroller, baby in wrap - Our 4-year-old recently transitioned from a Strider bike to a big-kid bike. If we are going about one mile with little cargo, he rides his bike, and the 2-year-old rides in the single stroller.
  • Kid on bike, toddler on Strider, baby in stroller or wrap - This is just a terrible idea. I have done this for some shorter walks to the playground, less than half a mile, but it is quite inefficient. The 4-year-old is so fast on his bike and the 2-year-old so slow on the Strider that they end up being blocks apart sometimes, with me in the middle trying to keep my eyes on both of them. Bad idea.
  • Kid on foot, toddler on Strider, baby in stroller or wrap - This one works for shorter distances much better because a 4-year-old on foot is about as fast as a toddler on a Strider. 
  • Bus with baby in wrap (with or without a stroller) - By far my least favorite configuration, but I will take the bus to get downtown or occasionally to the library if I am feeling stupid. I bring the stroller to keep the 2-year-old contained, not because she can't walk the distance to the bus stop and back. Riding the bus only becomes really unwieldy if I have quite a bit of cargo (i.e. library books, hence why I should never attempt taking the bus to the library, even when it is raining. Walking is always better). 
I have also had to take the kids by car with visiting relatives in the past few months. I prefer any of the above methods to unloading three kids from car seats and getting them safely across busy parking lots. Yeesh.

Divide and conquer

After two or three kids, I think many parents begin to divide the kids up for errands, so no one parent has to have all the kids in a business establishment unless absolutely necessary. As an example, I never take all the kids to the grocery store unless it is to pick up one emergency item on the way home from someplace else. Weekly grocery trips are done on the weekends with only one or two kids. In fact, I'm not sure why I ever did big grocery trips on weekdays by myself! Live and learn. 

We still go as a family to playgrounds, parks, the library, the children's museum, and other places we can enjoy together.

Look to the future

The great thing about car-free transportation is that you can add on as you go depending on your needs, with relatively little expense. You'll notice that I didn't mention traveling with adult bikes at all. With the littlest one so little, we won't be taking her on our bikes for a while. We occasionally take one or two kids with us on an adult bike, either in the Burley trailer or the iBert seat. I am immensely tempted by cargo bikes, which have the capacity for many children and many groceries and library books, but it doesn't make sense for our situation right now. We live on a very tall hill, in a city with few bike lanes and no protected bikes lanes, so I wouldn't feel comfortable carrying kids to most of our destinations by bike. If we relocate to a more family-friendly biking city, you can bet that I will be test-riding some yummy cargo bikes.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Car-Free in the Summer

As I addressed in a previous post, being car-free in the winter in a cold climate raises the most questions from well-meaning acquaintances, but if anything, being car-free in the summer in a car-centric region poses at least equal challenges. In the winter, many activities come to a standstill, and people generally stick closer to home anyway (except for the skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing set).

But during the summer months, there are festivals and concerts and picnics to attend, vacations to take, and friends visiting, not to mention camping, hiking, and swimming to be had in the wild. As you can imagine, as people who've chosen to live a good portion of our lives outdoors when many spend it in cars, we love the outdoors and get good doses of it on a daily basis. What we don't get as much of is wilderness. In fact, the main reason we would consider car ownership as a distant future possibility would be the convenience of getting to camping and hiking destinations.

For this summer, our kids are young enough that we probably wouldn't be doing a lot of camping anyway, to be honest, so I have been on the lookout for other potential strategies for accessing summer fun without owning a car.

Surveying the very local possibilities
As usual, we start out by looking in our own neighborhood. We have two local parks with duck ponds and walking paths through what feels like wilderness, not to mention beautiful botanical gardens. We have also been taking advantage of the local public pool, which is very large and about 1.5 miles away. The evening walks to and from the pool in the cool of the day have been lovely.

Depending on if you live close enough to accessible campsites, bike camping is also a realistic (and double-the-fun) possibility.

Investigating bus routes
Surprisingly, I've found a bus route that will get us to a lake waterfront quite conveniently. I've also investigated other possibilities, such as the arboretum, but that is unfortunately a "take your life in your hands" kind of affair. Still, it is worth checking into wild places that are close enough to be accessible by city bus (or tourist buses, if your city has such things).

Renting a car
I know it might be cheating, but for our out-of-town trips, we will be renting a car. We have looked into trains, but they come through our town at about 3 in the morning only, take hours longer getting anywhere, and only get us to where we're going. Once we arrive at our destination, we would need to rent a car anyway. The good news is, renting a car can be fairly inexpensive if you plan it right, and in any case, it's still cheaper than owning.

Combining transportation methods
Finally, we might need to combine various ways to get where we want to go. We might take our bikes on the bus to get to trails to get to a good swimming spot. This would be tricky with a bike trailer, but it could work. For out-of-town trips, of course flying and renting a car onsite would save the trouble of driving long hours with kids (by far our least favorite part of car travel). Depending on the public transportation or bike rental/bikeshare options at the destination city, it might not even be necessary to rent a car.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Kids and Libraries

I love taking my kids to the library.

Let me rephrase that. I love the fact that my kids get to go to the library. Taking them there myself just happens to be the only way to get them there.

As someone who only recently discovered my love of libraries, I enjoy giving my kids an early introduction. I want them to grow up feeling comfortable in libraries and confident finding books, doing research, and asking the librarians questions. We attend a weekly story time for preschoolers, and it's a good chance for my kids to play with other kids and hear books read by someone besides us (and for me to talk to fellow adults, huzzah). As the kids get older, I'm excited for them to get their own library cards and be immersed in a world of literacy and literature. And let's face it, children's picture books are expensive, and the library allows us access to many more books than we would want to buy or keep in our house. I have nothing but love for libraries. Love. Love. Love.

But.  BUT... Taking young children, especially a small herd of young children, to the library is not always a fun experience. It's a lot like taking young children to a church service. I know we're allowed to be here, but... do they actually expect my children to be quiet? How can I let my kids explore without destroying anything or disturbing anyone? Why oh why do they have to put computers with colorful keyboards in the kids' section (I take my kids to the library in part to keep them away from screens!)? How exactly am I supposed to nurse a baby while I have two older kids to manage? And seriously, when is my 2-year-old going to outgrow pulling books off of the shelves, pushing books through the shelves to the other side, and lying down on the shelves (this is a new one)?!

I also just have to admit that taking kids into the library bathroom is the least favorite part of my week. Changing at least one diaper while trying to keep at least one other kid from getting soaking wet or, God forbid, touching anything, is not my idea of a good time, especially when other women, who could be either doting or judgmental depending on the day, are sharing the space. 

And yet, I do look forward to library day every week. It would be easy enough to go to the library by myself to pick up kids' books on the weekend while my husband watches some kiddos, but it hasn't come to that. Deep down, I really do want them to come with me and to enjoy spending time in the library. Here are some ways we make it work.

1. Go during story time

Not only is story time fun for the kids (and for me); going to the library on story time day guarantees that there will be a flock of other children in the library at the same time. If I'm lucky, some of them may even be worse-behaved than my own children so I'm not embarrassed.

And as another mom pointed out to me once, anyone who uses the library to get research or work done is probably smart enough to avoid the library on Tuesday or Thursday mornings during story time.

2. Reserve books beforehand

We use our library's reserve system liberally. Rather than trying to wrangle kids and find books at the same time, I can do my research and request books online a few days before story time day. Given that I like to get at least ten and often more books per week, this saves a lot of time and stress. I'm also able to put more thought into the books I get, rather than simply grabbing whatever books happen to be on top of the shelves.

3. Find diversions and events for kids

Our library has some toys in the kids' section, as well as preschool-level puzzles and board games that my kids can do with some help. Once I have a kid set up with a puzzle, I can often duck over to the adult section for a minute or two to (gasp) look for a book for myself. Oh frabjous day.

Depending on the season, our library offers special kid-friendly events like holiday tea parties, themed story parties (Pete the Cat was a recent one), and family movie screenings, and on a regular basis, they set out building block sets and craft supplies for kids to explore. 

And yes, I have to confess that I finally gave in and let my 4-year-old play games on the library computers. Those keyboards are just so darned colorful, aren't they? We don't have kids' computer or tablet games at home, and it keeps the oldest occupied while I manage the higher-maintenance under-3 crew, so I figured, why fight it?

4. Let kids pick books and DVDs

This seems obvious, but I only recently started encouraging my kids to pick some of their own books and DVDs. I don't have them choose all of the books we'll get because that would be insane at this age, but they usually each pick one or two. I've found that even the 2-year-old is more manageable when I direct her to the board book section and read her choice aloud before we go. I usually also take advantage of this time to nurse the baby, as there is a couch right next to the board books. I often end up reading several selections before we're done.

5. Snacks!

This should be on the list of how to do anything with kids, shouldn't it? Because our library trip usually cuts into lunchtime and we have a 45-minute walk home afterward, I must bring snacks for the kids. In addition to keeping our blood sugar in the normal range, snacks are also a handy bribe to get them out the door and back into the stroller.

6. Make a day of it

As I mentioned, our library is about a 45-minute walk, and conveniently, there are a number of businesses and a beautiful park between here and there. I will often (but not always) stop on the way home for an item or two at the grocery store or pharmacy, or at the playground if the weather is nice. We might have lunch at a cafe, or (more often than not) at least grab a chai tea for myself for the walk home. Because taking kids to the library is stressful. I figure I've earned it. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Coming Back

It has been a while since I've written here, and I'd like to say it's because I've been so busy on other projects. That is partly true: I took on the rather consuming project of growing and birthing the third child in our young family, a project that has involved much thinking and planning about what our car-free lifestyle will look like with three kids (more thoughts to come on that subject).

Since late summer last year, we have also been traveling off and on, travels that have reinforced our notions about what we value in a city. On top of this, there has been a seemingly endless parade of local walkability and transit issues taking up my head space and mental (and sometimes physical) energy. Some have turned out well, some have been annoyingly contentious in this sometimes backward community, and some are still in process and make me want to plug my ears and sing "la la la la la."  

It can be frustrating to live in a place with beautiful natural surroundings, wonderful potential, and a committed cohort of involved citizens striving to develop that potential, and yet to see change happening so slowly. When it comes to walking, biking, and transit development, nothing here can be taken for granted as it might in a more progressive city. Every project or levy to improve transportation choices has to be explained, debated, and justified in painfully simplistic terms. The community at large, as well as a few very powerful business interests, often don't understand (or refuse to concede) that walkability, bikeability, and centralized, reliable transit are good for business, public safety, and the community. 

Car is king here. All too frequently, the attitude one hears is, "We don't have congestion here, and everyone is happy driving cars. Why would we possibly need new transit/sidewalks/bike infrastructure?" Here, transit is for poor people, sidewalks are for the downtown business core only (and should be obstructed as little as possible by actual people), and bicycles are for trail riding only (after you drive your bike to said trail, obviously). 

This is by no means an unusual state of affairs for a mid-sized American city, and Spokane is certainly not the worst. It passed complete streets legislation in 2012, and many encouraging projects to make the city more human-friendly have been completed in recent years. The city is undoubtedly improving as a place to get around without a private vehicle. But for a family with young kids deciding where to settle down for the long term, I have to admit that the overall culture is discouraging. 

I am the first to say that one shouldn't complain about something one is unwilling to work to change. Especially where walkability is concerned, I believe in making the most of your situation, even when it is not ideal, and advocating to improve it. But if I may be honest, I would prefer not to spend these years of my life - while my children are young and require so much of my energy already - in a place where living out our values has been made so very difficult, when we know that there are other places further along the development path. Until my children are old enough to walk and bike the required distances on their own, it would be great to live someplace where those distances are shorter and safer. And I definitely don't want to succumb to a culture where strapping children into car seats is considered the normal way to get them from place to place on a daily basis. To me, a place where children cannot walk and bike safely everywhere they need to go is not a "great place to raise a family," a claim one often hears about Spokane.

Whew. But. Enough venting. In the meantime, here we are. We are fortunate to be able to live in one of the most walkable neighborhoods in town, and we are enjoying ourselves as spring is in the air. I want to continue documenting our adventures with our now three small children, as well as some new thoughts I've had on education, creative expression, and simple life at home with kids.