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Saturday, July 29, 2017

In The Beginning: A Nearly Complete History of Almost Everything

In the Beginning: A Nearly Complete History of Almost Everything 

illustrated by Brian Delf
written by Richard Platt
published in 1995
published by Dorling Kindersley

Being a big fan of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, I wanted something like that for the kids that will give them a peek into the fantastic diversity that is their world, and possibly an insight into how it got to be that way. A book that is visual and concise, that will draw the young reader without the loud distractions that seem to be a required feature of today's "fact books" -- too many boxes and fonts and insets all screaming for attention with equally bright and eye-popping pictures that vie for attention and thus become counter-productive in engaging a kid who can absorb information even without the gimmicky presentation.

So, when I came across a sole used copy of In the Beginning: A Nearly Complete History of Almost Everything at Powell's Books, I dashed to the checkout counter, paid for it, tucked it into my tote bag, and then released my breath that I didn't even know I was holding. This book had the right balance and the right format that would engage the younger child for hours (and me, of course)

Yes, it was published over a dozen years ago, but, the nice thing about the content of the major part of this book is that it is history, drawing from established facts. Plus it is a DK Book. It might be nice to add an illustration or two in a page or two to bring it up to date but on the scale of time discussed in the book, the last 12 years don't add much more than a trickle to the information therein.

Big Bang, Origins of Life and so on start off the book, but, what is instructive is the illustrated presentation showing the progress of each theme through centuries, themes like: Clothing, Homes, Buildings, Writing, Weapons, Transportation, Communication...

This is a book that cannot be read in a hurry, in one sitting. So, I was glad I picked it up at the beginning of summer break. Now that we are in the second half of summer break, I am glad that the book has been pored over at leisure on  many a peaceful night (and afternoon) by the younger child, who is very much into information-gathering.

The older child picked and chose the pages she was drawn towards - like the Clothing, Two-Wheeled Transportation, and Medicine.

[image source: photos of personal copy of the book]

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Four Picture Books showing History through Illustrated Maps and Atlases

Journeys in Time 
A New Atlas of American History
by Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley
illustrated by Rodica Prato
published in 2001
publisher Houghton Mifflin

Starting with the Anishinabe, the book takes us through the highlights of American history through a set of maps which captures the story of the people who were constantly on the move to establish this new world, the people whose enterprise and enthusiasm has brought us to modern day. Each double-page spread has an illustrated map showing the journey discussed on that page, plus a Facts box that establishes the takeaway message from that journey. The book ends with events in 1976 with the ending of Vietnam war.

The younger one being overly fond of maps, this was a fun way for him to learn history without feeling overwhelmed with dates and names.

[image source:]

Kids Make History 
A New Look at America's Story
by Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley
illustrated by Rodica Prato
published in 2006
publisher Houghton Mifflin

A companion volume to the Journeys in Time mentioned above, the authors share twenty true stories  by showcasing the part played by kids in making history.

Starting with Powhatan's favorite daughter, Pocahontas (known only to her family as Matoaka), in 1607, we walk through several momentous events upto and including 9/11: The Day the Towers Fell, in 2001.

1692: Evil in the Air chapter was the older child's favorite as it left more questions unanswered and teasing her imagination. It was about Ann Putnam and her accusations -- about witchcraft practitioners and the terrible witch hunt that ensued.

We learn about Nick Wilson, the White Indian Boy, Susie Baker whose childhood in slavery came to an end thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation.

As with the Journeys in Time, each double-page spread has an illustrated map showing the region in play, charting the course of history.

[image source:]

Mapping the World 
by Sylvia A. Johnson
published in 1999
published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

This is one of the books I wished I had when I was young. Starting with one of the oldest world maps found so far -- made in Babylonia around 500 B.C. on a clay tablet, we learn about the various attempts at charting the world based on information available at that time, ending with Mapping Other Worlds like Venus based on our scientific data.

From mapping the ocean floor to GIS map showing US population, this is quite a treat for the facts-oriented, map-loving kid. Hope this book is updated and a new edition comes out with all the fantastic capabilities we have now of mapping celestial objects in outer space. It definitely is a bit ancient for the modern child but full of relevant facts anyway.

[image source:]

City Atlas 
Travel the world with 30 city maps
illustrated by Martin Haake
written by Georgia Cherry
published in 2015
published in US by Wide Eyed Editions, an imprint of Quarto Inc.

As the title says, 30 cities are introduced, cities that are world-famous and easily recognized, via illustrated pictures of the main attractions. The population of the city, language(s) spoken, as well as the country's flag is listed, along with a brief paragraph about what that city is famous for.

For instance, Lisbon apparently is famous for its custard tarts (I didn't know that!). Budapest, the magical capital of Hungary became a single city in 1873 when Buda and Obuda on the west bank of Danube were unified with Pest! This is a nugget I will carry with me for as long as my short-term memory permits.

Cities were mostly American/European, with a few like Mumbai, Tokyo, Hong Kong representing Asia, and nothing from Australia/Oceania, although Cape Town was the sole mention in Africa. Which leads me to think that the criteria for selecting the cities must have been quite specific and clear to the authors/editors - perhaps population, tourism, economy, stability may all have played a role in making it to the top 30 for this book.

My favorite part was to point out to the younger child all the places I had visited when I went to 9 out of the 30 cities listed. And to talk about the places he would like to visit from this list.

[image source:]

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Happy Mother's Day, 2017!

While part of me automatically dismisses "made-up holidays", I haven't found a strong enough reason not to get swept up in the celebrations that kids put together for Mother's Day.

Of course, every day is Mother's Day and Father's Day,  Grandma's Day and Grandpa's Day,  Daughter's Day and Son's Day,  Brother's Day and Sister's Day... And, not all of us can make every day special for all those someones we care deeply about.

Being a staunch Wish List advocate, we've always kept a running wish list for each of us, kids included. Some of the items, we have to work for it ourselves, and some of it can be given to us by others. Oddly enough, most of my wish list items turn out to be generally for the family, not just exclusively for me... every once in a while, I'll have a camera accessory or car accessory or a garden accessory on the wish list that nobody else cares about, and feel extremely thrilled when I get it as a gift exclusively for me.

I am rambling already....

Speaking of Mother's day, the kids declared; "Mama, you like hikes, so, for Mother's Day, that's what you are getting as your present."

So we went hiking, on a trail that was quite deserted but for small game, and drank in the beauty of nature and its wildlife.

The best part for me is, kids hang out with the dad on the trail, and I get to walk at my pace, stopping for pictures, letting my thoughts wander and generally trying to let go of the constant stress I feel to balance everything I am juggling.

One of the thoughts that nagged me throughout this walk, no matter how hard I tried to push it away, is this ever-present one: Why can't we as a society find a better balance for raising families in a constructive and positive way, while allowing for parents to pursue their professional careers with all the support they need.

For example, trendy companies offer dog room and gym and cafeteria and other comforts for their employees. In my Utopia, these companies will also offer Montessori-based childcare for K-12! 

The biggest struggle that we face as working parents is to find a safe place for kids to be when we are not with them as we are pursuing our own professionally fulfilling lives outside of domestic environment.

School of course is only 9 to 3 in my district, with 1-hour late start on Wednesdays. 

As employees, we owe it to our employers to honor our commitment of not just x hours of work, but our commitment to high quality of productive and efficient contribution.

The other adult and I are constantly facing the challenge of being in two places at once: be at the office to interface with our teams and have interpersonal interactions that foster team spirit for the standard office hours, and at the same time, find a way to be there for the kids so they are not latchkey kids.

And, understandably, this thought has begun to nag me even more now that nearly 12 weeks of Summer holidays are looming large on the horizon. Not all kids are wired to attend summer camps; and even if they are, not all parents can juggle the logistics of dropping them off and picking them up at odd hours, while still trying to be at their jobs that will help pay for these expensive summer camps.

Agreed, some of us are lucky to have employers who support flexible schedules as long as employees can be productive contributors. Some of our jobs permit telecommuting and helps us collaborate with our team via advanced technology, while managing our kids' summer break somehow. But what about those others who have no flexibility? 

Anyway, I am rambling again... If there was an easy solution, we wouldn't be where we are now...

Back to Mother's Day, where I started: I was grateful to savor the made-from-scratch  "Mama's Special" Pizza that the other adult is well-known for. So, what's in Mama's Special: Eggplant, kale, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, pineapple, feta. Not much mozzarella or cheddar as Mama does not like pizzas smothered in cheese. And it is fairly thin crust. And the sauce is home-made to Mama's liking with just the right touch of home-garden oregano. And, best of all, it is not made by Mama!

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Monday, May 01, 2017

Jesper Jinx by Marko Kitti

Jesper Jinx (series)
by Marko Kitti

jesper jinx wonderfully wicked books by marko kitty

Quite by the sweetest coincidence, I e-met the author, Marko Kitti, and got to read his delightful set of books. Well, not all of seven of them yet -- but, enough of them to know that this is a light and fun chapter book series for kids to get hooked on.

"Jesper Jinx is eleven, and probably the unluckiest person in all of Puffington Hill. Everything he touches seems to end up in sweet disaster. Hence his nickname 'Jinx'"

In the first few pages of the first book, in the Intro Sequence, the author sets the tone and the mood that made me realize that kids would love this style of writing: the author has promised Jesper that he won't share Jesper's embarrassing moments in print; Yet, the author breaks "at least a zillion promises and moral obligations" and asks us readers to not breathe a word to Jesper about this breach. Conspiratorial, or what?!

Things always seem to happen to Jesper. His heart is in the right place. His intentions are usually nice (not always!). But he manages to come out fine in the end.

Finnish author Marko Kitti took up writing in English as a challenge and has come up with an entertaining set of books that are a pleasure to read.

I e-interviewed the author to know more about his writing journey and the various aspects of bringing Jesper to the readers.

1. Tell us about your writing journey - when did you start, what was your motivation for writing?

I've been writing fictional stories for as long as I can remember. As a child, I enjoyed writing all kinds of short stories, most of them which were actually my own versions of the stories I'd read. So my love of writing comes from my love of reading. But it wasn't until I was in my late twenties that I sent my scribblings to a publisher, and I've been a professional writer ever since.

2. Do you focus on writing only for children? What are some of your other works?

I have published several novels and short stories for adult and YA readers in the Finnish language, but for the past four years I've been focussing on writing only for children, mainly in the English language. I find writing for children wonderfully enjoyable, although it's one of the most difficult types of storytelling. I've always loved challenges and, funny enough, it didn't take long before I found my comfort zone in writing children's literature.

3. What was the inspiration for Jesper Jinx? Were you drawing from your own life perchance?

Jesper Jinx was born purely by accident. What started as a simple "experiment" soon turned into something completely different. Finnish is my mother tongue, and about five years ago someone challenged me to write something in English. More precisely, what that person actually said was: "I don't believe your English is good enough for writing a book.” That was a huge trigger for me. Being told "you can't” was all the motivation I needed, and a few months later Jesper Jinx was born. I wanted to create a character who was someone the young readers could identify with. I also wanted to involve the reader in the Jesper Jinx books by directly addressing them, making them feel like they are part of something important. I wanted to take a humorous approach to the stories, and that proved to be a good decision. After all, these days more than ever, children need laughter as well as a sense of security and acceptance in their lives.

4. Tell us about your favorite children's author(s) and book(s)?

As a child, my favourite children's author was Enid Blyton. I can honestly say I've read most of her books at least twice; The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, The Adventure series, you name it. I also gobbled through Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan series, which I found absolutely fantastic. Nowadays, I enjoy reading all kinds of children's books. Some of my favourite authors include Roald Dahl, David Walliams, Jeff Kinney and Anthony Horowitz, and I'm also a great fan of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

5. How was the self-publishing experience? Do you handle the business-end and technical-end of self-publishing as well?

Yes, I'm involved in every step of the self-publishing process from writing and graphic design to the actual publishing and marketing, and I can honestly say I have enjoyed every minute of it all. But I haven't been doing the project alone. I'm lucky to have a fantastic team of editors, proofreaders and marketing professionals around me, so I can easily say that the Jesper Jinx series couldn't have become as successful as it has without a brilliant team effort from everyone involved.

6. What do you do when you are not writing? What are your other interests/passions?

I love travelling and exploring new places and cultures. I was born in Finland but I'm living in England now – and who knows, someday I might be living somewhere else. I also love baking and cooking and you will always see me in the kitchen.

Jesper Jinx website

[image source:]

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Aboard a Paper Plane and Other Poems

Aboard a Paper Plane... and other poems
by Joe & Allison Kelly
illustrations by Supakit Chiangthong

When this poetry collection, Aboard a Paper Plane, by Allison & Joe Kelly came my way, I was absolutely delighted to read it! Not just to myself. I read it aloud to my kids, and, randomly quoted some of the lovely lines to the other adult in residence as well.

Shel Silverstein meets Kenn Nesbitt meets Kurt Cyrus.

That's what popped into my head as I read this set of poems. The random everyday quirks with a deeper thought-provoking perspective à la Shel Silverstein, the laugh-out-loud aspect of Kenn Nesbitt's works, as well as the amazing wordplay that Kurt Cyrus brings to his creations, these are what struck me when I read the forty eight poems in this collection.

Some are long and showcase their wordsmithing perfectly while others are crisp and short and made me double up with laughter.

The younger child's favorite was, of course, Bath for the "Ewww..." factor, and Painter, as he had tried that once and found that it was not appreciated.

The older child loved the Secret Club and Pop Quiz, while chuckling at Clover and nodding along with If Only I had a Dollar.

Vegetables - a cautionary tale is at once brilliant and funny, one of my favorites. The wordplay in Broke is superb.

 Before I start listing the joys of each poem here, let me stop and share an informal interview with this talented couple.

1. Tell us about your writing journey - when did you start, what was your motivation for writing? 

J: I started writing children's poetry when I was fifteen - right around the time I met Allison, actually.  I love the variation inherent in a poetry collection, and I love it as both a reader and a writer.  The imagination's zigzag from character to character, situation to situation; not knowing to which world the next page is going to take you, only that it will be a place you're sure to enjoy.  I guess that's why we were drawn to the paper plane.

A: Like most writers, I'm sure, I'm thrilled by the idea of creating something new that wasn't there before: a character, a plot line, a turn of phrase. I've been enthralled with the writing experience since the age of six or so; it's truly been one of the constant joys in my life.

J: And me, right?

A: Yes, Joe.  And you.

2. Do you focus on writing only for children? What are some of your other works?

A: I will write for anyone! I recently started a small business in which I write and publish personal memoirs for people -- usually older folks whose children want to gather their stories and memories in one place before it's too late. I also write material for standardized tests for students ranging in age from kindergarten to high school, and for both native English speakers and English language learners.

J: I'm not quite as versatile as my wife.  It's been largely children's material to date - poetry, rhyming books, middle grade; even tried my hand at YA.  I'm drawn to the imagination bursting from the genre seemingly everywhere you look.  My "day job" is in finance, so I find balance in using the creative side of my brain after a long day or week of analytical thinking.

Aboard a Paper Plane is our first title.  While writing, however, we stumbled upon a few ideas that were too long to be part of the collection.  The game plan now is to turn those into stand-alone rhyming stories.  We've also started planning a second poetry collection.  We don't have any timelines or anything as of yet, but we're certainly having fun putting it all together.

3. What was the inspiration for this particular book? Why a poetry book? How did you settle on the 48 poems included, it's a tall order? Which of these are your top 3 favorites? 

A: A poetry book allowed us to experiment with a lot of tones, themes, characters, and settings.  We were writing the book in our free time (evenings, weekends), so we wanted to make sure the experience was always fresh and exciting.  And as for the inspiration, Joe's the idea generator, so I'll let him take it from here.

J: Thanks, Al!  The inspiration for the book was an odd collection of dozens of little things I've noticed throughout my day-to-day.  Normal things - things you see every day ,but maybe don't put much thought into.  Like a graveyard or a boomerang or a lobster - stuff like that.  If an object or situation catches my eye, I jot it down in the Notes app on my iPhone. It's also energizing to take lofty "life lessons" -- try not to compare with others, be grateful for what you're given, and so on -- and repurpose them in a fun and accessible way through poetry.  In terms of the forty-eight, we were trying to assemble a nice variety of lengths and subjects and styles. There were a handful that didn't fit with Aboard a Paper Plane.  We hope to find a home for them in the next collection!

A: My favorites are probably The Runner, Guardian Angel, and The Tiniest Ant & the Giantest Bear. They're all very different, and I think they give a good idea of our versatility. I think they best showcase our humor, wordsmithing, and wit.

J: I wouldn't say I necessarily have a favorite poem, but I do have a few favorite lines.  Like in the "Octopus Barber", the line about the monkfish.  Or in "Fortune Teller" when the narrator daydreams about body surfing.  Or in "Aboard a Paper Plane" - the part that goes, "You'll cartwheel to the moon and then you'll swim from here to Spain / Or close your eyes and scrunch your face to sprout a lion's mane."  That makes me smile every time.

4. Tell us about your favorite children's author(s)? Favorite children's book(s)?

J: When I was very young, my favorite book was Richard Scarry's "Best Ride Ever". In retrospect, it was a pretty odd story.  Essentially, the plot line revolved around this dog named Dingo.  Dingo Dog had a really, really cool red car.  What Dingo Dog did not have was much respect for traffic laws.  Dingo would drive his car down the sidewalk, through the supermarket - I think at one point he even drove through someone's living room?  At end of the day, the whole book was a pretty airtight case study on why we don't let animals operate machinery.  According to my dad, I would laugh nonstop through the whole story.  Guess I was kind of a weird kid...

A: You were a weird kid?  According to my mom, my favorite book as a little kid was "The Book of Virtues".  It was 1,000 pages and had no pictures.  I would ask my dad to read it to me every night...

J: Okay - you got me there. But since my Dingo Dog-days of childhood, I've accumulated a whole host of both authors and stories I admire.  Just to name a few: Norton Juster's "The Phantom Tollbooth" & Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" for their wordplay and structure.  Shel Silverstein for his characters and situations.  R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" for their zany twists.  But my absolute favorite?  I love "Oh, the Places You'll Go".  My grandparents gave me a copy when I graduated high school.  It's been on my desk ever since.

A: I loved the Berenstain Bears series -- the cute stories, the colorful full-page pictures! But most of the formative works I read as a child were when I was a little older, eight or nine or so. I loved "Little Women" most of all, followed closely by "A Wrinkle in Time" and the Babysitter's Club series.

5. How does the collaboration work? Each writes, and also edits the other's?

A: Writing children's poems has always been Joe's passion.  He comes up with the idea, any clever turns of phrase or characters, and writes a first draft.  Then, we both sit down in front of it to comb through line by line and word by word.  I'll suggest changes, shore up the scheme, and do my best to make sure every word counts.  We find that this process makes the best use of both of our skills.

J: That said, there were a few poems in the collection that we wrote pretty much top-to-bottom together.  These were, most notably: The Tiniest Ant & the Giantest Bear, If I Only Had a Dollar, Patient Pat, and The Gadget.  My favorite part about writing is being able to work with Allison.  I love having this as a shared experience.

6. Why eBook? And how was the self-publishing experience? Were you interested in submitting to the traditional publishers?

A: At this point, self-publishing Aboard a Paper Plane as an eBook was our most practical and expedient option.  We've also submitted to some literary agents and traditional publishers.  We're hopeful that our run as an eBook isn't the destination, but rather a step on the journey.

7. How did you "meet and collaborate" with the illustrator? On behalf of the illustrator, will you be able to share how they created the art, and whether they are open for working with other authors interested in self-publishing?

J: We met Supakit on Fiverr (which - by the way - is a great platform for children's book authors to partner with illustrators).  Our experience with him was fantastic - he was professional, easy to work with, and very talented. For each poem, we'd put together a detailed description of what we were looking for in the picture, shoot it over to Supakit, and then let him work his magic.  Unfortunately, we don't know too much about his process.  As of today, Supakit has taken his profile down on Fiverr.  He was a student during most of our collaboration, and we got the sense that he was taking on other time-intensive responsibilities as he got closer to graduating.

8. What do you do when you are not writing? What are your other interests/passions?

J: When I'm not writing or working, I enjoy running on the treadmill while watching a movie or show (currently, season 1 of True Detective), practicing the piano, drinking Guinness, all things personal finance, and spending time with my friends, family, and beautiful wife.

A: I love trying new recipes, learning languages (I'm currently taking a Spanish class!), reading, entertaining, and slowwwly decorating our house. And of course, spending time with my family, friends, and Joe!

Our sincerest gratitude to the Saffron Tree team for featuring us and our debut poetry collection, Aboard a Paper Plane! We truly appreciate all you do to promote children's literature. We hope you enjoy Aboard a Paper Plane; please reach out at if you have any questions or comments! Happy reading!

[Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book but the opinions shared here are entirely my own. Review policy for this blog is available.]

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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Three Little Words

Three Little Words
A Memoir
by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

[Note: Some explicit references to abuse and pedophilia can be disturbing for younger readers. Recommended for 18+]

Ashley Rhodes-Courter is a phenomenon, an inspiration, a powerhouse of progress and change in the child services. This book started out as an essay titled, "Three Little Words", for NYT - an essay about her adoption day, which won a grand prize in June 2003. People expected the three little words to be "I love you", but readers find out that it is actually, "I guess so" - the three words which sealed the deal to make her adoption official.

Ashley's teen mom lost custody of her by age 3, and since then Ashley was shunted from foster home to foster home in the Florida foster care system for the next 9 years. Some of the stay was brief, some longer; some were tolerable, some were outright abusive; yet, she endured, and tried to thrive. Knowing that nobody can take away her education, she excelled in the school system no matter which foster home or which public school she went to. Sometimes she never got to spend a full year in the same school, and that did not make her withdraw into herself. Instead, she found ways to stand out through her achievement - be it essay writing, or public speaking, or acing the tests and being a straight-As student.

The book is a memoir, recounting her experiences upto and including her adoption by the Courters and her successes thereafter, including being invited to the White House as President Clinton's guest, winning an essay to spend time with her favorite author J.K.Rowling even as a teen. Her life has been one painful event after another until she found herself surrounded by so much love and care with the Courters that she was able to give back, and give back generously.

I could not put this book down, and had to finish reading it in one long sitting, one recent weekend. To think that the childcare services are so steeped in bureaucracy and neglect that many children fall through the cracks never to resurface is infuriating.

Being a gifted writer, Ashley's words cut deep without being bitter or resentful. Her honesty and her unique perspective on the traumatic events in her life are not paraded for pity but shared with clear insight into the  breakdown in the system which allowed this to happen, not just to her, but the thousands of other kids with no families.

Her question still remains unanswered probably: Why do states pay a fortune to foster parents rather than helping the biological parents out? If her own mother was given the financial support that the vile Mrs. Moss was given, wouldn't their lives together been a lot less painful? Why are the likes of Mrs. Moss allowed to get away with cruelty time and time again while the biological parents are penalized at the first hint of failure as a parent?

Her other book Three More Words tries to answer all the questions we have from her first book, plus shares her journey as a foster care parent.

[image source:]

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Girls Like Us

Girls Like Us
by Gail Giles

Candlewick; Reprint edition (October 13, 2015)
Grade 8 and up

[Note: The book is aimed at high school and teenage readers, and so is this review. Some abuse situations are violent and graphic in the book.]

Author Ms. Giles taught Remedial Reading for high school kids, some of whom were Special Ed students, for twenty years before she finally decided to tell their stories. Being a special ed teacher can't be easy - filled with moments of pain and struggle, but also stories of courage and achievement - and through all this, Ms. Giles has brought to us two unforgettable characters, Biddy and Quincy, for whom we root hard right from the start, especially because they got a bad start in their lives through no fault of their own.

Quincy and Biddy refer to themselves as "speddies" and talk about their situation matter-of-fact-ly, even though they have every right to be resentful and seething with anger. "The one thing all us Speddies can tell you is what kind of retard we are. Ms. Evans gets wadded in a knot if anybody say retarded. We be differently abled. We be mentally challenged, she say."

Quincy's real name is Sequencia who was unfortunate enough to be born to a "crack ho" Mama whose boyfriend picked up a brick and hit Quincy on the side of her head when she was six. From a bright sweet six year old, Quincy is disfigured and brain-damaged with the rest of her life to pay for the abuse she suffered. "My face looks like somebody put both hands on it and push up on one side and pull down on the other.... and the doctor say that I got brain damage from that brick."

Biddy's mama showed up at Granny's one day, asking to stay the night. The next morning mama was gone and Biddy was stuck with Granny who resented her from the start. Turns out Biddy didn't get enough oxygen at birth and that caused moderate retardation.

"My name is Biddy. Some call me other names. Granny call me Retard. Quincy call me White Trash... Most kids call me Speddie. That's short for Special Education. I can't write or read. A little bit. But not good enough to matter."

I might end up quoting the whole book! Each statement, each word is there because it needs to be, and not a single wasted unnecessary word. Such terse writing packed with such power and depth of emotion is a gift to behold.

"My grandma was white and my grandpa black. My mama has pretty light skin. My daddy was white and Mexican and he had green eyes." 

Biddy scrunch her eyebrows up a little tighter. "Don't that make you mostly white?"

I hee-hawed then. "Girlfriend, in this part of Texas, if you a little bit black, you all black."

The story is told alternately from Biddy's and Quincy's voice which are distinct and powerful and heart-wrenching and hopeful and courageous at the same time. They are both graduating from high school in the special ed program and now will be placed in suitable situations where they can remain fairly independent and manage lives on their own. Understandably, neither is looking forward to be thrown out into the real world.

Biddy and Quincy are teamed up and placed with an elderly lady who needs live-in help for cooking, cleaning and helping her with her daily life. Slowly but surely, Biddy uses her talent and preference for cleaning everything spotless, while Quincy uses her cooking skills learnt from her foster dad a few years ago. When Biddy tries to help Quincy through her crisis - of being raped and beaten - she effortlessly slides in the book's title:

I hated to make her sad again. But I had to. "Quincy, you're right. But other peoples won't believe it. Police or nobody else care what happen to girls like us."

The sexual abuse as well as the physical abuse Quincy and Biddy endure is heart-wrenching and inexcusable. To think that our society is capable of treating fellow beings so cruelly and turning the other way when they need some support, is not only horrifying but alarming.

Ultimately, it ends with hope and we let out a sigh of relief knowing Quincy and Biddy will be all right somehow.

This is a book I will not easily forget.

[image source: Gail Giles website]

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Saturday, January 14, 2017

None of the Above

None of the Above
by I.W. Gregorio

[Note: Recommended for 18+ due to physically intimate situations; also included are biological and physiological information regarding reproductive anatomy and disorders of sexual development.]

A practicing surgeon by day and a YA writer by night, Ms. Gregorio is also a founding member of We Need Diverse Books ™ dedicated to advocating changes to the publishing industry in order to help create and promote inclusive literature that honors the lives of all young people.

The book is about Kristin Lattimer, a high school senior voted homecoming queen, who finds out that she is Intersex in a rather painful and unexpected way: Krissy is a female, grows up to be a female, thinks and feels like a female, identifies as a female, is heterosexual, has external female characteristics, and yet, she has internal male reproductive organs, not the female uterus.

And, without her permission, this information is leaked to the school, which spins out of control. Her struggles in school, in life, to come to terms with this and to do what is surgically possible for "normalizing" makes up a good chunk of the book, with the associated drama and complications in relationships and friendships and heartbreaks.

Author Gregorio has done a brilliant job of explaining the medical and biological facts, while very gently yet firmly showing the emotional turmoil that people with AIS (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) go through, and the adjustments they have to make in their lives to accommodate this constraint. At times, the kids sound pedagogical with the medical information conveyed to the reader in chunks, but, their interactions and relationships are very much in tune with what is expected from teenagers overall.

It is impossible not to root for Kristin and jump in to defend her against the insensitive bullies. What was heartbreaking for me was when she was removed from the track team because there was an issue of her gender - she cannot compete in the girls' track events as she is not 100% a girl - after training hard and being the best; and, she was put in a position where she couldn't go on using the girls' bathroom.

Through it all, she has a steadfast friend, and there is a sweet budding romance that comes from shared experience and a deeper understanding of oneself.

Why are humans obsessed with highlighting the differences and excluding fellow humans on that count? Is there any hope for a gender neutral society in our future?

[image source:]

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Sunday, January 08, 2017


by Alex Gino

Some people are born into a body they don't identify with. George is a girl who is born in a boy's body. Throughout the book she refers to herself as "she", identifies as a girl, but is looked upon as a boy since she was born with the boy body parts.

When people look at George, they see a boy. But George knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. 

Cliched single mom and macho older brother fade into the background, but, George's best friend Kelly stays tight through and through. Kelly is fine with George identifying as a girl. When auditions for class presentation of Charlott'e Web is announced, George immediately wants to play Charlotte, the female spider, and not Wilbur, the male pig.

The book is a quick read, but the message will linger long after the last page is read and the book is put away.

Theater as a backdrop for this story is fitting as where else can George pretend to be who she really is.

When George's brother and mother finally realize and accept it, there is not much brouhaha over George's gender identity. George is who she is. Except, she wants to go by Melissa, that is her name, that is what she wants to be called.

The ending is perfect, where Kelly lets George/Melissa try on her girly clothes and they both go out into the world (to the Zoo with Kelly's uncle, to be precise) and for the first time George is comfortable with being true to herself.

The resident 11-year old read it casually one weekend and had a few questions to ask about this book, which is a positive sign for me.

[image source:]

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Sunday, January 01, 2017

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

We waved goodbye to 2016 surrounded by pristine winter beauty, thanks to a well-earned mini vacation.

I got to make a pair of felted alpaca wool booties while on vacation, which was both a relaxing and rewarding enterprise.

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

The wool came from these lovely beauties, my favorite alpacas I know by name.

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

The indoor booties fit perfectly and seem like a well-matched pair. This wasn't a given, considering how easily they could have turned into a size 7 for one foot and a size 12 for the other if I wasn't paying attention to the template.

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

The subdued abstract marbling of strands of dyed merino wool add the rustic charm I was going for. They make a wonderfully warm boot liner for those extra cold days when socks alone won't do. Worn with the cuff turned down, they make a cozy pair of indoor slippers.

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas 2016!

jam cookies

Much like every year so far, the kids were excited to make their wish lists. Since we don't have cable TV or Network TV or Satellite TV or anything filled with ads, kids have no clue what sort of "toys" to ask for Christmas. So, they've always been creative with their wish lists.

One year, when she was 5, the older child asked for a 2-year old sister in her wish list! Yep, she wanted a sister but wanted to bypass the baby phase where they just scream and feed and work out the basics of locomotion, as she noticed with her younger brother.

And at about 5 years, the younger child wanted a very specific book: about ocean creatures along the lines of picture books by Steve Jenkins -- not just the sunlight, twilight, and midnight zones, but more about the abyss and the trenches, which has not been explored much and written about much in picture book format.

Even at middle school, the fascination with unicorn has not faded. Yet again, the older child wrote in her wish list that she would like a real live unicorn that can talk and be her friend. Phoebe and her Unicorn is not just a fictional comic strip for her.

The younger child's fascination with PvZ has not waned after 3 years. He keeps coming up with different packs and different plants, and loved making the PvZ Friendship cards for Valentine's this year. So, naturally, he wrote "PvZ stuff" in his wish list, but surely not plushies and little plastic toys that we looked up on the web. He wanted working kernel-pult and cabbage-pult and black-eyed pea and citron and laser bean...

Some Jam Cookies got made for Santa and was set on the table with a mug of milk. Some carrots were set out for the reindeer. Apparently, at some point Santa mentioned that his reindeer like to eat mushrooms and so the younger one wanted to set out some mushrooms for the reindeer as well... Hmm.

We read The Night Before Christmas - the picture book version with illustrations by the one-and-only inimitable Jan Brett -- that has become our favorite read on Christmas Eve before tucking kids in bed.

Of course, Giving is not just part of the season, but a commitment in life, which we do in our own way as often as we can.

Kids didn't get on the Naughty list, phew!. Santa did stop by and leave some interesting presents for the kids, which is probably going to keep them busy till school starts next year.

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Homemade Hand Warmers and Sugar Scrubs

Homemade Hand Warmers and Sugar Scrubs

It was a fun little project to do last weekend...

Homemade Hand Warmers and Sugar Scrubs

sew a few hand warmers...

Homemade Hand Warmers and Sugar Scrubs

and make some soothing sugar scrub.

There's a growing list of fun little projects to make and sew that I have been pinning. Finding little pockets of time to do them is the challenge. I keep telling myself that when kids are older I will have more time for soul-nourishing pursuits... For now, I am at peace with what I get to do, and how much time I get to spend with my kids.

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Out of my Mind

Out of my Mind
by Sharon M. Draper

publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010

What is it like to be trapped in a body that will not do what your mind wills it to do? When physical movement is completely arrested but the mind races with these exhilarating ideas and thoughts, which shall forever remain uncommunicated?

Melody is eleven years old and has not spoken a single word. She has a photographic memory and a brilliant mind that observes and records everything, non-stop, with no delete button. She also has cerebral palsy, which affects body movement and muscle co-ordination, making her unable to talk or walk, leaving her frustrated.

As we see the world through Melody's eyes, we realize that she is not entirely resentful or enraged by her situation, but is in fact trying her very best to communicate her thoughts and share all that she knows and feels, with such a positive spirit that it will put us to shame for complaining about our petty problems.

The resident 11-year old reader simply could not put the book down. It made her want to learn more about cerebral palsy and understand what it is like to just not be able to talk or walk or do the things we take for granted everyday, and yet be filled with so much positive energy and enthusiasm in the mind that has no way of coming out. And, it made her so angry that her classmates were hurtful and unkind thinking Melody cannot hear or understand what they were saying. Wrong! Melody can, and it is heart-breaking.

Eventually, with Medi-Talker, Melody is able to communicate, albeit one thumb-movement at a time, only to realize how odd it all seems to her friends who think this is too weird. Ultimately, Melody realizes she can never be what is considered "normal", never be like her other friends who have all their faculties working as designed. This self-acceptance allows her to let us revel in her sense of humor and loving spirit.

Melody would not want us to feel sorry for her and neither will we dare. What we do end up doing is cheering for her and respecting her fierce dignity and wanting to be someone like Mrs.V, Melody's mentor and life coach, who loves her deeply and champions for her success in life.

[image source:]

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay

My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay
by Cari Best
illustrations by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2015

"In class 1-3, there are 22 chairs and 22 desks, 22 pencils, 22 hooks and 22 smocks. There are 22 people and 22 names - and one of them is mine. Zulay."

Right off the bat we love Zulay's spirit. As we read along, we start realizing that Zulay pays attention to minute details that many kids either take for granted or never register.

"... when the shoe-shuffling stops, we all line up for two-arm hugs..."

"Good morning, everyone,", says the teacher. Then her key clicks the lock for the class to begin

"I feel with my knees for where the chair fits and sit in my seat.."

The illustrations shows this bright and cheerful girl enjoying her school day with her three friends Maya, Nancy, and Chyng. Not until we read this little snippet do we start to take notice:

"Inside my desk there are crumpled papers, pencils and kisses, and a folded-up cane - a folded-up cane that I push to the back for later."

We also notice how diverse the classroom is with kids of different ethnicities, Zulay herself being African American.

When Mrs. Seeger announces to the class that after some common morning work the kids will go to the gym while Zulay goes with Mrs. Turner, it does not sit well with Zulay.

"I don't like when I hear my name sticking out there by itself. If no one else has to have Mrs. Turner, then why do I? But I don't say the way I feel. I might stick out even more, like a car alarm in the night waking everybody up."

We begin to understand Zulay's apprehension when we read that Mrs. Turner is there to help Zulay learn to use her cane. "That fold-ing hold-ing cold-ing cane" as Zulay puts it.

When class resumes with Ms. Seeger, Zulay learns of a big surprise coming up in three weeks: A Field Day! With contests, races and games outside. "Go home and think about which events you'd like to be in," says Mrs. Seeger.

Maya wants to play Capture the Flag, Nancy wants to try Tug-of-War, and Chyng thinks she can walk holding an egg on a spoon. While everyone has something they'd like to do, Zulay also thinks hard about what she would like to do on this big day.

"I would like to run the race in my new pink shoes, " I say - to a class as silent as stones.

From here on begins Zulay's determination to run that race - with the help of her cane. She must get over her dislike for it and work with Mrs. Turner to practise running, with their arms entwined.

On the big day, her friends all shout, "Run, Zulay, run!" and Zulay is ready to run the smooth round track that she knows like her own hands by now.

"So with the wind pushing me and the sun shining me, I feel like that bird that went flying."

[image source:]

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Friday, December 09, 2016

A Mango-shaped Space

A Mango-shaped Space
by Wendy Mass

Thirteen year old Mia is a synesthete, but she doesn't know that term yet. Her brain is wired such that her visual and auditory senses are interconnected so that words and sounds come associated with colors and shapes that fill her world.

When called upon to solve a math problem on the board at eight, Mia figures out not every one sees colors and shapes in letters and numbers.

"This isn't art class," Mrs.Lowe said, wagging her long, skinny finger at me as if I didn't know that. "Just use the white chalk."

"But isn't it better to use the right colors?" I asked, confident that the other kids would agree.

"What do you mean, the right colors?" she asked, sounding genuinely confused and more than a little annoyed.


"The colors. The colors of the numbers, you know, like the two is pink, well of course it's not this shade of pink, more like cotton-candy pink, and the four is baby-blanket blue and I... I just figured it would be easier to do the math problem with the numbers in the correct colors. Right?"

Of course, her classmates call her a Freak. She learns to lie about it when her parents are called in to talk to the Principal. She even hides it from her best friend, and most of all from her family - her older sister and younger brother.

While the plot is a big tangle of threads, none of which go anywhere significant, the rich description of how Mia feels and sees the world full of color is beautifully described throughout the book. She does manage to find out what her condition is after some initial struggles. She manages to connect with an online community of fellow synesthetes. She even extends a hand to a little kid who seems to be a synesthete but is not acknowledged as such by his parents.

Sibling interactions are quite real, the family is fairly odd, living in a fairly unconventional house; Mia misses her grandpa who passed away as the book starts. Which is when she finds this scrawny orange kitten who has this extended orange aura. She names the kitten Mango and cares for him as best as she can. But, the kitten dies due to illness and Mia is devastated, of course -- not for long as she discovers Mango's offspring having the same aura.

A whole bunch of different things happen which don't all come together cohesively, but, in the end we come out of the book knowing a lot more about synesthesia in a positive way, and feel like we know what Mia is going through even though our world is not as lit with color as hers.

[image source: Wendy Mass website]

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Monday, December 05, 2016

The William Hoy Story, Kami and the Yaks

The William Hoy Story
How a Deaf baseball Player Challenged the Game
by Nancy Churnin
illustrated by Jez Tuya

publisher: Albert Whitman and Co., 2016

"They called him Dummy Hoy, but he was nobody's fool. He could steal his way around the bases and score! And while he couldn't hear the cheers, he could sure see them."

Even though by 1817 the first American School for the Deaf was up and active, and the American Sign language (ASL) was adopted from the French Sign Language (FSL), during late 1800s and early 1900s "Dummy" was a common name given to people who were unable to hear or speak.

After William graduated as valedictorian of the Ohio State School for the Deaf, he continued playing baseball while working as a cobbler in between season. He set and broke many baseball records and truly gave his all to the game. By working with the umpires, William helped them develop a number of hand signals that was later adopted as official in baseball.

William was not born deaf, he lost his hearing after a bout of meningitis at a young age. The picture book captures William's lifelong passion for baseball while showing us his upbeat attitude towards life.

Kami and the Yaks
by Andrea Stenn Stryer
illustrated by Bert Dodson

publisher: Bay Otter Press, 2007

While not a true life story, the author shares that this book was inspired by a boy she met while trekking in Mount Everest region of Nepal, who communicated quite well even if he could not speak.

His dad and older brother worked as guides and helpers for mountain climbers, often setting up camp and cooking for the climbers who aimed to summit the mighty Everest.

One fine morning, Kami notices that their beloved yaks have not returned home from their grazing. Kami takes out a whistle one of the climbers had given him, and blew it hard. Even though he could not hear the sound, being deaf, he knew the yaks would hear it and come home. But, when they didn't come home after repeated whistle-calls, he decided to go look for them as his dad and brother were guiding another group of climbers.

Amid rumbling thunder and threat of a blizzard in snow-capped slopes, Kami's resourceful attempt to save a young yak stuck in a crevice and to lead the small herd home safely is told in a strong and uplifting way.

The illustrations are gorgeous; the text projects the urgency and direness of the situation, and we read holding our breath, willing Kami to succeed in bringing some help to these stranded yaks. Which he does. And we heave a big sigh of relief when we see Kami proudly leading the yaks down the mountain, his father and brother assisting him after an arduous rescue.

[image source:]

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