Tuesday, January 10, 2012

My Best Books of 2011

I love to read and write.  If you told me I had to spend 48 hours in a room by myself, I wouldn't need much to keep me happy.  A pile of books, a good pen and something to write on...maybe some food..a restroom...you get the idea.  I read a lot before we had kids, but had trouble finding the time after, especially at the beginning.  I first found  time to start reading again after we had Shayne and he wouldn't fall asleep on his own very well (in fact, if I ever try to give you or anyone you know advice on how to help your kids become good, independent sleepers, please put a quick stop to it).  If I left the room while he was still awake, he would just keep getting out of bed.  I know I could have probably just kept carrying him to bed over and over for a few nights, but since I was teaching fourth grade full time then, there was never a night where I thought, "Tonight I don't really need much sleep".  So I would just lay there in the dark with him, sometimes for an hour or more.  This got me out of the habit of watching TV at night, because usually by the time he was asleep, I would be asleep also or would need to go to bed soon.  A little after Shayne turned one, I got smart and got myself a book light.  I would read while I was waiting for him to fall asleep and often would continue after.  I was surprised at how much reading I was able to get done in just these hours that were previously spent laying in the dark.  I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy that spring when Shayne was one, with one arm draped over him as he fell asleep and the other on my book with my new book light.  I was hooked after that and continue to use that hour or two (most nights) after the kids go to bed but before I do to read.  Sometimes in place of little things like cleaning the house or working out...Of course it is nice now that they are older when I can read on my bed instead of on the floor next to theirs...

Anyway, all the end-of-the-year lists you see in December and January made me want to make a "Best Books I Read in 2012" list.  Here they are:


This book is really long (a little over 900 pages), but excellent.  Here is the first sentence:  On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother Thomas entered the Three Rivers, Connecticut Public Library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was about to commit would be deemed acceptable.   I Know This Much is True grabbed me from page one and didn't let go.  It is about twin brothers, one of whom has schizophrenia.  The twin who does not have it is the one telling most of the story, but it is also told in part by flashbacks to his grandfather's life story.  It has some heavy and dark themes, and parts of it may be upsetting, but it is a moving and very well-written book.  I was really impressed by this author and plan to read more by Wally Lamb.  

I read the first book of this trilogy, The Hunger Games, in the summer on my sister's recommendation and it was great.  I read book two, and it was so good that the day I finished it I went and bought the third book at Costco right away.  I was reading the third book along with a sixth grade girl at school and it was fun to check in with her along the way about how fantastic we both thought it was. This would be a great series for boys or girls as the main character is a girl, but it is action-packed.  It is considered to be in the "young adult" genre.  I wouldn't recommend it for under 6th grade, as it is quite graphically violent in parts.  I don't even really want to tell you what it is about, as that might ruin it for you.  If you can get through the first few pages of The Hunger Games and stop before you find out what The Games are, I would be really surprised!

I read this with a book group last spring. I usually steer clear of World World II and the era of the segregated south because those stories usually depress me.  I couldn't pass up reading The Help with some of my friends from work though.  Once I started this book I finished it in a few days because I needed to know what happened next.  It is told from the points-of-view of a handful of the main characters and is generally about black housekeepers and the ladies they worked for in Jackson Mississippi in 1962.  It has some sad parts for sure, but is generally uplifting and has some fantastic characters.  Maybe you have seen the movie...I haven't yet, but plan to soon. 


The Book Whisperer is arguably the best book on teaching reading that I have ever read.  It is by a lady who has taught older elementary and middle school kids and is an avid reader and lover of books.  She has been able to pass on her love of books to her students, sometimes even her most reluctant readers.  Her contention is that the most valuable thing we can do when teaching students to read is inspire a love for reading, help them choose books which interest them and allow them sizable chunks of time to independently read.  A very important part of this process is allowing students a window into your own life as a reader.  I couldn't agree more.  This book completely inspired me as a teacher and as a librarian especially.  She had some great concrete ideas for helping students foster a life-long love of reading.  I think anyone who wants to instill this passion in their students or in their own children would appreciate this book.  If you are a teacher (mom), I would consider it to be in the "must read" category.

Jon Krakauer is an author and an accomplished mountaineer.  In 1996 he was sent on an expedition to climb Mt. Everest for Outdoor Magazine to write an article about it.  The expedition turned tragic and the article turned into a book, Into Thin Air.  When I got done with this book I felt like I had been on Mt. Everest with the expedition.  I had no idea how risky high-altitude climbing is, even for those who have lots of experience and are in excellent shape.  It was a great book by a great writer (read Into the Wild by him a few years ago...also good) made even better by the fact that it was a personal account of what happened.

Stephen King of course is most famous for his fiction, and I have read a handful of Stephen King books over the years and have generally really liked them.  More than anything I am amazed at the volume of work that Stephen King has managed to publish over the years.  According to Wikipedia he is 64 years old and has published 49 novels!  Most of them are quite long too.  I thought this book looked good and it was an interesting, fast-paced read.  It is a memoir about how Stephen King started and continued his career as a writer, along with some "how to" advice for aspiring writers.  I really enjoyed it.

My Favorite Book Shayne and I Read Together:

Shayne and I have been reading the Harry Potter series this fall/winter.  We have both been getting really into it.  I think we both agree that out of the three we have read so far, the third one, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is the one we like the best.  

Favorite Books I Read with the Kids at School:

I have been working more in the library this year in addition to the computer lab so I often have opportunities to read to the K-4 kids.  One of our library traditions is to read the books that have been nominated for the Grand Canyon Reader Award each year in the picture book category and then submit our votes for favorite.  The Grand Canyon Reader Award is an award that is given to one book each year in each of 5 different categories.  Arizona students get to vote for their favorites and that is how the award is given.  One of the nominees that I have read to the kids so far that is super-cute is Big Chickens Fly the Coop.  It is about four chickens that decide they want to see the farm house and all the roadblocks they come across along the way.  It has very cute illustrations and uses colorful words with lots of alliteration (same sound repeating in a line..."Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" etc.) that make it fun to read aloud and to listen to.

I am also our school's Battle of the Books coach.  Battle of the Books is an academic competition in which teams of three read 12 novels in the course of about 5 months and compete about their knowledge of the books like a quiz show.  One of this year's books is Tale of Despereaux, which is quite a well-known book that I had never read until the fall.  It won the Newberry Medal in 2004.  Tale of Despereaux was fantastic! It is about a mouse who falls in love with a human princess and is then shunned by his own people (mice) as a result.  It would be fun for anyone 4th on up and maybe read aloud as young as 3rd. 

Please tell me what your favorite book of 2011 was!  Ask your kids too, I always like to hear what kids recommend to each other and then pass along their recommendations in the library.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Fall in Mesa (in January)

This past week has been the height of our roughly three week long, annual shedding and blossoming of the deciduous trees cycle.  Usually around the first week of January, we have "Fall" when all the leaves change color and fall off, then by the first week in February the same trees are blossoming again.  Half of you don't believe me, I'm sure, but it's true.  It happens every year.  I'll post photos of blossoms on these same trees before Valentine's Day.  Here are some photos of Maya, Shayne and a few kids from the neighborhood enjoying this short window of time to play in the leaves.


 Later we walked over to the store.  Here is one of the trees that gets really pretty.

 We also got some ice cream sandwiches to eat under the tree on the way home...

Happy Arizona Fall!

Sunday, January 8, 2012


On my birthday Rick had the idea to go to Tucson so we did. Our kids love a trip, so they didn't need any convincing.  On the way down there we went to the San Xavier Mission, which is the oldest in-tact European-built structure in Arizona.  It was built in the 1700s.  I know I have posted photos of it before, but here are a few more:
This side of it has been recently restored.  

You can tell when you compare it to the other side, which is still being worked on.

We were there on December 30th, so the inside was still decorated for Christmas.

The very Southwestern looking Nativity Scene

Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus

The Three Wise Men

The kids' favorite part, climbing the rocks outside

Another thing we did was go to Saguaro National Park, which was beautiful.

Did you know the inside of a saguaro is made of wood like the trunk of a tree? It is designed kind of like an accordion so that it can expand and contract to hold tons, literally tons of water. 

They had some very scenic hiking trails which allowed us to an up-close view of the desert.

Saguaros can weigh up to 16,000 pounds when they are full of water.  I think this one was one of the biggest ones we have ever seen.  At first Maya didn't want to be in the picture...

 Then she did...


These two birds don't look it from the picture, but they were huge.  It was a fun trip and we will definitely go back soon for some more desert hiking.  We just barely scratched the surface when we were there.  It was a great way to spend my birthday!

If you want to read more about saguaro cacti with your children, here are two very good books you probably have at your library:

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Friday, January 6, 2012

Our December Trip North

The weekend before Christmas we went north to Flagstaff for the weekend.  It was perfect because there was snow on the ground, and it even snowed a bit on the Sunday we were there, but the roads were fine the whole time.  We got there on Friday afternoon.  On Saturday we went to the Grand Canyon which is a little over an hour from Flagstaff.  It was beautiful with all of the snow, but windy and cold.

 Next to the Christmas tree at the main visitor's center


This is a campground right down the road from the entrance to the National Park that we have always thought was funny.
We woke up Sunday morning to a fresh layer of snow.  This is Shayne's first experience scraping a windshield.  Later we went sledding.

Great sledding hill by NAU (Northern Arizona University)  Shayne and Maya are the ones in pink and grey about to go down the starting ramp

Their first time sledding was definitely a hit :)