My Quarantine Bookshelf

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I’ve always loved reading. I am the kid who (literally) had my 10th birthday party at a bookstore (As you can now tell–if you didn’t know it already–I was the cool kid in the class). Since we’ve been in quarantine, though, I’ve picked up reading again with a voracity that I haven’t known in years. Basically I’ve taken this quarantine lockdown as my own personal Silent Reading Mandate. My bedside table is covered in stacks of books that I’m actually reading. It’s fantastic.

In a time like this when we are physically confined, reading is the ultimate escape. Since the COVID lockdown officially began about two months ago, I’ve been using books as a way to take mental vacations every single day. I’ve trekked through the Swiss Alps, gone backstage at San Francisco comedy clubs, spent time on the beaches of the San Juan Islands, experienced Gold Rush California, and taken an ancient pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome. All from a safe social distance, of course.

If you’re looking for some inspiration for your own virtual retreat, here is what I’ve been reading:

Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire: The Guide to Being Glorious YouFierce Free and Full of Fire by Jen Hatmaker
Oh, how I love Jen Hatmaker. She writes from the heart with humor and grace and moxie–it’s the perfect combination. Some of my fondest book memories involve Jen Hatmaker, including the time I drove across the state of California with an infant to hear her speak…only to get stuck in California traffic and nearly miss the whole conference (All’s well that ends well, though, because my sob story landed me a private audience with Jen–see, we’re buddies–and a book signing while she held my baby).

This book was released mid-quarantine and, truly, it is the perfect quarantine read. It’s inspiring and heartfelt and makes me want to implement positive changes in my life RIGHT NOW (well, as soon as I can pull myself out of my yoga pants-induced stupor fueled by home-baked sourdough bread).

Rick Steves Switzerland (Tenth Edition) by Avalon Travel
I’ve had this book sitting on my nightstand for half a year as we planned our epic trip to Switzerland scheduled for earlier this month. As we all know now, that trip never happened (Still heartbroken. Still complaining about it. Not over it.). I’ve kept the book on my nightstand because I still like to dream…and what better place to dream of than idyllic mountain villages covered in cheese and chocolate?

Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets & Advice for Living Your Best Life by [Ali Wong]Dear Girls by Ali Wong
This was a lucky last-minute find at the library right before the world shut down. I heard a rumor–with about 2 hours notice–that our library might be closing with no scheduled re-opening date. I dropped everything, threw the kids in the car, and proceeded to check out nearly 200 books from the library to hold us over through whatever impending disaster might be looming on the horizon. I had been waiting for this book from the library for several months, but my number still hadn’t come up in the queue. I happened to find it in the (aptly named) “Lucky Day Collection”–basically, it’s a high-demand book that you can check out on the spot, but you only get it for 2 weeks and then you have to give some other lucky library patron their chance at winning the book. It’s like winning the lottery and Christmas all at once. This is why I love libraries.

Anywho…the book is written by Asian-American comedian Ali Wong (If you haven’t already, stop what you’re doing and go watch her Netflix specials. You’re welcome.). Each chapter is written as a letter to her two young daughters (to read when they’re much, MUCH older). It’s hilarious but quite raunchy, so read it if you want to take down your filters and just laugh.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by [Kelli Estes]The Girl Who Wrote In Silk by Kelli Estes
OK, funny story with this one. My sister’s mother in law sent me a book a few months ago written by the same author as this book–she had bought it when she was here visiting from California, and she liked that it was written by a Washington-native author who shared her same last name. Long story short, I found out that the author actually lives in the same town as me, and now we’re Facebook friends (Hi, Kelli!). So, of course, I had to read her other books!

This book is set in the same locations–Seattle and the Orcas Island in the San Juans–in two separate time periods (the present day and 1886). The novel follows a young woman who discovers an elaborately stitched piece of fabric hidden in her deceased aunt’s house. As she begins to unravel the story that is being told in the embroidery, she sees how closely her life is intertwined with that of the artist who created it, a young Chinese-American woman who lived a century before and was escaping the prejudice and violence against the Chinese people in that time period. It’s a beautiful story about doing what is right in the face of adversity, and the power that our own stories hold.

American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford by Roland De Wolk
This was actually one of Jon’s birthday gifts that I stole from him before he even got a chance to read it. This book is a biography of Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University–and it doesn’t hold back any of the ugly truth of who this self-made man was.

When Jon was in grad school at Stanford I spent quite a bit of time learning about the Stanford family so I knew the basics of who they were and how they started the school, but I was curious to know the gritty details. This book goes into backstory of Stanford’s life all the way back to his middle-class birth and upbringing in the early 1800’s in upstate New York, follows him through his apathy and absolute failures throughout life that moved him continuously westward, and sheds light on the cheating and stealing that made him one of the wealthiest Americans of all time. Through all of his failures–and an incredibly devastating tragedy–however, he went on to found one of the most prestigious universities in the nation. It was an interesting read and an enlightening history lesson. (Side note: I’m glad I will never have to meet Leland Stanford in real life.)

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't KnowTalking To Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
I’ve read all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books and they’re always thought-provoking and help me to see things from a totally different perspective. This book about how we interact with strangers–and how our biases, our assumptions, and our desires play out in those interactions–makes you see social interaction in a totally new light. Right now is quite interesting timing to read a book on social interactions, especially as nearly all of our social interactions have become virtual. This book has given new meaning to “stranger danger”. I just may never speak to a real-life stranger again.

A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a FaithA Pilgrimage To Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith by Timothy Egan
This is the memoir of a man who takes an ancient pilgrimage on the Via Francigena, a thousand-mile trek through the theological cradle of Christianity. He begins in Canterbury, England before passing through France, crossing the Swiss alps, and continuing south to the Vatican in Rome. While on the journey he grapples with his own troubled past with the Catholic church and searches for meaning in a world that is often difficult and full of pain.

I love books like this where I get to be a bug-on-the-shoulder and get a free ride through someone else’s adventure. I loved seeing the ancient castles of England, the beautiful scenery of the French countryside, the majesty of the Swiss Alps. I indulged in patisserie in Arras, took a tour through ancient wine cellars in Châlons-en-Champagne, and tasted sumptuous testaroli in Pontremoli. All this, and I never even had to pay for a plane ticket or suffer through blisters on my toes.

*** Bonus Children’s Books ***
I’ve chosen to include a couple of children’s books for good measure because I spend at least an hour a day reading to my children (Again: grateful I checked out those 100 books from the library right before lockdown went into effect…).

Emily’s Idea by Christine Evans
I just have to include this beautiful book on my list because my dear friend Christine wrote it and I think it’s a masterpiece. The book was released during the quarantine, too, making it an appropriate addition to anyone’s quarantine reading list.

This story follows a little girl (Emily, based upon Christine’s real-life daughter Emily) who has a wonderful idea that spreads around her community and around the world. The message is inspiring for kids and their grown-ups alike, and there’s even a template in the back of the book to make your own paper doll chain (Hello, quarantine Arts & Crafts!).

Indescribable: 100 Devotions For Kids About God and Science by Louie Giglio
Every morning since quarantine began I’ve been sitting down with my kids and doing a 10 minute Bible time. This regular Bible time has been grounding for me (and, hopefully, also for my kids) in a time when everything feels so up in the air.

I started going through this devotional with my kids a few weeks ago and we’ve all enjoyed it. Each story ties in a Bible verse, some cool “weird science” phenomenon from the real world, and a way to connect the lesson to your life today.

So, that’s what I’ve been reading for the last couple months of lockdown. I’d love to hear what’s been on your quarantine bookshelf so I can get some more ideas. Happy reading!

The Ultimate “Busy Bag”

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When we moved to Ireland a few weeks ago I had a lot of concerns. Would I get homesick before we even left? Would we like our new home across the sea? Would I remember to pack all of the essentials? But the most important question of all: How would we survive a 10-hour flight with two boys under the age of 3?

Grandma to the rescue! My mother-in-law is incredibly gifted with all things crafty. She can take felt and a sewing machine and fabricate incredible creations (whereas I would take the aforementioned objects and make something worthy for display at a Kindergarten art show). She took her crafting skills to a whole new level when she created this: The Ultimate Busy Bag.

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Inside is a treasure trove of games and activities that could satisfy children not only for a 10-hour plane ride, but for weeks–nay, months–on end.

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She created the bag itself from fabric scraps and her own design. Many of the games were also her own creation, but she did get several ideas off Pinterest and Etsy. The bag is *literally* bursting at the seams with great ideas, so I thought I would share some of them with you here. If you wanted to recreate just one or two of these ideas instead of the whole bag (because, really, I don’t know anybody else who could make all of this in one sitting!) each would make a great small project in itself. These are great ideas to have tucked away for a rainy day (or even a long summer day when the refrain “I’m bored…” starts echoing through your home). I hope you enjoy this as much as we do!

1. Felt pieces and finger puppets.
One of the sides of the busy bag is made out of felt. There are several felt pieces that can be arranged on the “felt board” for imaginary play or story telling. Most of the pieces were cut out of colored felt and then decorated (my mother-in-law’s 6-year old neighbor helped with many of these pieces).

There are sea creatures and an underwater scene:

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Fluffy clouds and an airplane (each of the windows and “decals” can be re-positioned on the plane):
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A house and garden (even our dog, Bota, makes her appearance here!):

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Noah and his ark full of animals (each animal is a finger puppet that can be used separately from the felt board for songs, stories, or pretend play):

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And, of course, the rain and the rainbow for Noah:

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Jesus and his disciples can even sail across the Sea of Galilee in their trusty boat:

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2. Dry erase markers and letter practice.

IMG_2923There is a folder filled with sheets of handwriting practice, each page inside its own plastic sheet protector. Each dry erase marker has a color-coordinated pom-pom hot-glued to the cap that can be used as an on-the-spot eraser. David uses the colorful dry erase markers to trace the letters and color the pictures in his handwriting book–when he’s done, he just flips over the marker and uses the pom-pom eraser to clear the page. It is easy to find handwriting worksheets online (just do a Google search for “handwriting practice” or “handwriting printable” and look under images). You could also insert pages from coloring books, outlines of common objects, or blank pages for your child to draw on with the dry erase markers.

3. The Mitten book and finger puppets

This is one of the boys’ favorite activities in the busy bag. My MIL found this activity on Etsy, and I think it’s absolutely brilliant. The activity consists of the picture book The Mitten by Jan Brett and a large knit mitten full of finger puppet versions of the animals in the story.

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If you haven’t read this story, you should. Jan Brett is one of my favorite children’s authors, and this one is a classic. In the story (a Ukrainian folktale) a little boy loses his white mitten in the snow. Woodland animals find the mitten and, one by one, they burrow inside the lost mitten to keep warm. As I read the book, David helps to put each animal into the mitten as they appear in the story. It’s a great age-appropriate interactive reading activity–and he just can’t get enough of it. If you don’t have your own mitten and animal finger puppets, you can print off your own mitten craft from the author’s website and make your own!

4. Felt Numbers and Letters

There are two sets each of felt letters and numbers for David to play with and manipulate. The possibilities here are endless! We’ve been using the letters to play “find the sound” (I’ll say a sound and he has to find the letter that makes that sound) and “letter match” (we’ll find a letter in a book or on an object in the room and he has to find the same letter from his pile of felt letters).

I used the numbers to show David representations (using balls, of course, because he will learn ANYTHING 10 times faster if it can be somehow related to balls):

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And we even practiced putting the numbers in order from 0-10 (OK, I did this, but he helped me count the numbers after I got them all set up):

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5. Art and Craft Supplies

IMG_2948There are several art and craft supplies that David can use for his own creative works: markers, scissors, a sketch pad, colorful pipe cleaners, stickers. We’ve been practicing how to use markers on paper ONLY and that we only use scissors when there is a grown-up there to help us. He’s actually been doing really well with all of his “big kid” supplies–especially the fact that he can now color a picture and then cut it into a million pieces. Toddler confetti!

We also like using the pipe cleaners to make “bowls full of worms”. The boys thread the pipe cleaners through the holes in the pipe cleaners (I put them in for baby Jacob) and then pull them out. It’s good fine motor practice..and also just a lot of fun!

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6. Some Personal Touches

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There are several smaller items that are personalized to David and Jacob. There is a little American flag so they can remember where they came from (represent!) and a little bendy bear that their dad used to play with when he was little. There is also a really cute set of “ABC Bible Verses” where each letter of the alphabet has a corresponding Bible verse (print your own here). We may have to use these for some memorizaton practice soon!

Thank you for the special gift, Grammy! We will treasure it forever!

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School Skills For Babies and Toddlers, Part 2: Literacy

My first topic for this exploration into school skills for babies and toddlers will be literacy (reading and writing). This is probably the biggest area of instruction in early elementary school, so we’ll start here. You can do any of these things with your baby or toddler. Even if they can’t tell you what they’re learning, trust me, they’re soaking it all in!

Early Reading Skills:

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  • Read- I’ve mentioned this before, but reading is so very important. Make it a priority, and a habit, to read with your kids every single day. For us, this means we have an “official” story time before nap time and Bible story time before bed. We also read at various points throughout the day, but this way I know we have a set time every day when reading will definitely happen.  If you establish good reading habits (and good reading memories) early on, it will be a lot easier for your kid to keep up those habits in school.
    **One other thing here. As you’re reading to your child, read slowly and with a lot of expression. Give your baby time to process what you’re doing. Also, repetition is key. Children love hearing the same stories over and over and over and over again–and it research shows that repetition helps young children learn and retain information. So indulge your little guy in reading “Goodnight, Moon” for the 5,000th time this week.
  • Talk about “concepts of print”- As you’re reading, point out different concepts in the book: the title, the cover of the book, the author (“the person who wrote the wonderful words”), the illustrator (“the person who drew the beautiful pictures”), where the sentence begins and ends (talk about different forms of punctuation–“Wow, see that little dot after this word? That’s called a period. A period is like a stop sign for readers.”), the author’s note at the end of the book. This may seem really silly to do all of this with a baby or a young toddler, but they’ll start to get it and they’ll start to become familiar with the language you’re using (so always use the proper names: author, illustrator, etc. and then explain them as necessary).
  • Point out details in the story- Rather than just reading the words on the page and calling it a day, take time to elaborate on the story on each page. Point out details in the illustrations, ask questions about what’s happened so far, and see what your child thinks will happen next.

Early Phonics Skills
Phonics basically deals with letters and sounds. Here are some things you can do with your budding linguist:

  • Find letters- Find letters and words in your world (on food packaging, road signs, the side of a bus, etc.) and point them out. It’s fun for young kids to see how letters and words are all around them!
  • Teach letter sounds- Letters are a confusing concept for young children, especially in the English language where our letters make so many different sounds. At a very young age, it’s best to not even teach the letter “names” (A, B, C, etc.).  Rather, focus on the sound each letter makes. For instance, when you see the letter A, say, “this letter says /a/ like apple, alligator, animal.” After all, when it comes time to read, your kid’s going to need to know the sound of the letter, not it’s name, in order to read a word.
    I told David that all letters make sounds, just like animals make sounds. We learned the names of the letters and the special sounds that they each made, then we even sing about the letter sounds in a song to the tune of “Old McDonald”. For instance, I’ll hold up the letter A (we have a foam set of letters that we play with in the bath tub) and sing: “Old McDonald had a word, e-i-e-i-o. And in that word there was a letter, e-i-e-i-o. With an /a/ /a/ here, and an /a/ /a/ there, here an /a/, there an /a/, everywhere an /a/, /a/. Old McDonald had a word, e-i-e-i-o.
  • Find sounds- Say a sound, and see how many things you can find that begin with that sound. You can even make a “sound box” where you put all of the things that begin with that sound into a box. Making things concrete will help your young child to learn the skill.
  • Practice rhyming- Find rhyming words in the stories you’re reading or things you see (“You’re wearing a blue shoe today. Blue, shoe. Those words rhyme!”). There are lots of fun nursery rhymes and songs that have rhyming words, too (“Hickory Dickory, Dock”, “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, “Jack and Jill”, “Down By the Bay”, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”).
  • Sing- Singing is a great way to develop your baby’s language skills. You can sing about things you’re doing (you can make up the song as you’re going. It can be ridiculous, off-tune, and not make any sense. Your baby will love it). You can sing while you’re doing things–I like singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” during diaper changes. I use my fingers to go up the water spout (up baby’s legs), make the rain come down (tickle baby’s tummy), wash the spider out (rub baby’s tummy), and have the sun come out (trace a circle around baby’s face). You can also sing to teach (like when you sing the “ABC song”).

Early Writing Skills
Young children lack the fine motor skills to physically hold a pencil and write. There’s a lot you can do now, though, to help get them ready.

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  • Writing with fingers- Give your kid a chance to practice writing and drawing with something they don’t have to hold on to–their own fingers! Just get a large surface–a high chair tray, table, or a cookie sheet–and cover it with something they can write in. Some of my favorites are shaving cream, finger paints, pudding and whipped cream (just make sure if your baby is still in the puts-everything-in-his-mouth-regardless-of-it’s-level-of-toxicity stage that you give him something edible to play in). If you don’t like messes, put a bit of the “painting material” in a large ziploc bag and duct tape the edges. Your kid can still paint through the bag mess-free.
  • Pinching practice- One of the greatest hurdles to writing for young children is the simple fact that their bodies are not physically able to do it. Holding and controlling a pencil is a specific fine motor skill that takes time to develop. Pinching practice can help get those little fingers ready to grasp a pencil. We play a “pincher pick-up” game where I give David a set of tongs and a bunch of little things for him to try to pick up with them (small toys, crafting pom-pom’s, large buttons and beads). He still uses two hands on the pinchers most of the time, but he’s already able to control them a lot more than when we first started playing. A variation on this game is to play in a rice table (to make your own rice table, just fill a large bucket or rubbermaid bin with rice or uncooked beans). Bury the toys in the rice and let your kiddo dig around with the pinchers to find them.
  • Playing with clay and dough- Get those little finger muscles strong by letting your kids play with play dough and clay (clay is harder to use, so wait until they’re a bit older for this one). You can make your own play dough or even let them play with bread dough or pizza dough if you’re concerned they will eat it.
  • Hand-eye coordination–This is an important foundation to develop for both reading and writing. With a baby, have him practice grasping at toys that you dangle in front of him or reaching for toys that you shake on the floor. For older tots, you can play catching games with “slow” objects like scarves or balloons. You can even make a parachute out of a bed sheet and put soft objects on it to watch as you shake the sheet up and down (get another grown up to help hold the sheet, or invite your friends over for a play date and play parachute together).One of my favorite baby parachute games is “popcorn”. I fill up old socks or nylons with cotton balls, fabric scraps, etc. and tie them off into “popcorn kernels”. Then we make imaginary popcorn: lay out our pan (the sheet), pour our popcorn kernels (the sock balls) into the pan, add whatever flavorings we want (just shake our hands over the “pan” adding chocolate, salt, sprinkles, and cheese…yummmmm….), and then we hold opposite sides of the “pan” and give our popcorn a good shake until all of our popcorn balls invariably pop out of the pan. Repeat until you’re all good and full of popcorn.