Books Celebrating the Great Outdoors

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This week, when the smoke finally cleared and the air was safe to breathe, we practically skipped to the garage to load our kayaks onto our Prius (a most Portland of pairings, I think).

Because this was a moment to celebrate, we decided to drive farther than usual, to a quiet lake in Washington.

It was closed.

No worries, we live in the Pacific NW and there are beautiful natural spaces everywhere you turn. This particular lake was also a campground, and it seemed reasonable to close a campground when the risk of fire is so high. On to the next!

Second lake, closed.

Okay, hmm.

Third lake, also closed.

At this point, we bailed. This was not a kayaking trip (don’t let the kayaks and gear fool you). This was clearly a scenic drive.

Until, you know, we got caught in traffic on the highway.

Still determined to have fun, we started reading all the stickers of the cars crawling slowly by. Of course, one of the first was a “1000 Hours Outside” challenge sticker, which would have felt like cruel mockery if the family inside wasn’t clearly as stuck as we were. As I watched the wheels on their hot pink bikes spinning listlessly above their bumper sticker, I thought, “Solidarity, dude. Solidarity.”

In case you find yourself as homesick for the great outdoors as we have been this week, check out these reads celebrating everything under the sun.

Find some device-ditching inspiration in Beatrice Alemagna’s On a Magical Do-Nothing Day.

(Hey, here’s a silver lining: what if, during this season of virtual schooling, kids start associating devices with school and feel inspired to go outside to play?!)

I will be shocked if your kids aren’t racing to release feathers into the wind after reading Alison Farrell’s The Hike. (I love the labels throughout the illustrations in this fun jaunt through the woods, too!)

City-dwellers don’t despair! The outdoors are for you, too. Check out Florette, The Curious Garden, Finding Wild, or (from my favorite author-illustrator team Sarah Stewart and David Small) The Gardener.

Benjamin Flouw’s book The Golden Glow is both fun and reverent. (Plus more labels here, too!)

I haven’t read Fairy Houses All Year, but from the preview it looks like fabulous inspiration for your little fairy architects.

The Walker children spend literally their entire holiday outside in the classic Swallows and Amazons. Get ready to learn tons of nautical terms in this one. (Fair warning – you’ll have to address the colonialism and derogatory language that come up in the children’s play, but those are always important conversations to have.)

If your children have only a five degree window of weather they are willing to enjoy, try the tips and tricks and general enthusiasm in McGurk’s There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather.

Happy reading!!

Whining is Not So Bad When It’s Done in Verse

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I have a very low tolerance for whining, especially the nonsensical kind.

When my kids say, “I have to eat all this zucchini?? It’s so much!!” I hear, “I scorn the hour you spent on Instagram looking for the perfect recipe for zucchini sauté.” When they say, “I’m not tiiiiiired!” I hear, “I have no desire to have a fully functioning brain.” When they say, “I won’t!” I hear, “I’m not even slightly reasonable.”

So when a child-who-shall-not-be-named started complaining about school (before it even began, mind you), I did not respond with empathy. I forgot all the good advice in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. I didn’t “reflect feelings.” I said (probably with a sigh), “Learning is what you do for fun. Remember when we used to do all those science experiments and projects, how we would study a ‘person of the week?’ Remember when you were obsessed with learning about Leonardo da Vinci? Can’t you channel some of that excitement for the learning available to you today?”

My son responded, “Doth not the appetite alter?”

Yep. That kid just quoted Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Mom’s mood? Immediately improved.

If you are wondering how my ten-year-old became familiar enough with a Shakespearean play to quote it appropriately in conversation, check out the resources below.

Happy reading and play on!

Look at that silly cover. Look at those ridiculous rats! The Wednesday Wars sat in our house for ages because I very literally judged the book by its cover. In the end, I only read it because it won the Newbery, and I was astounded. There are so many layers to this book – school-aged silliness, yes, but it tackles the Vietnam War, family dysfunction, love in its various forms, and oh-so-much Shakespeare. It’s the reason my son says, “The quality of mercy is not strained,” when I’m coming down hard on him, and it’s why our favorite family curse right now is, “Toads, beetles, bats!”

After we read The Wednesday Wars, I tried to decide if my kids were old enough to watch any of Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptations. We opted for Much Ado About Nothing, and I just fast-forwarded the sexy bits. They loved it, and watched it over and over. I bribed my daughter to do something by “letting” her watch it again (It felt like when I let them play NitroType, a learn-to-type game, as a “reward”). Don’t forget to turn on subtitles! It really helps with comprehension. My kids even memorized what they call “the burn scene,” between Benedick and Beatrice: “I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick. Nobody marks you.”

I think the key to making sure kids love Shakespeare, is to 1. Start with a comedy, and 2. Make sure they understand the basic story-line before they begin. If the kids feel confused, you’ll lose them fast. E. Nesbit has written lovely summaries, this one with fewer illustrations, this one with more.

For even younger readers, Bruce Coville has written many lovely picture books based on Shakespearean plays, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and The Winter’s Tale. They are even available as an audiobook collection called Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits, which we’ve listened to in the car. You know, back before quarantine when we went places.

The talented Marianna Mayer offers another great picture book retelling (a little longer than Coville’s versions), in her adaptation of The Tempest.

For the most skeptical families out there (“My kids will never be into Shakespeare!”), try The Stratford Zoo. These graphic novels are silly and fun, and could be a great introduction for the reluctant thespian.

I must include the absolutely wonderful film Shakespeare in Love, though its “R” rating will put it on the back-burner for many families. My kids haven’t seen it yet.

It’s really nice to have a volume of the complete works. I have the Norton version from college, but there are many options out there.

Book Cover

Actually, thanks to Project Gutenberg, you can have the complete works for free digitally right here.


A Few Books I Reckon Y’all Should Read

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I’m from Texas. So is my husband Marcus, and technically so is my son, though he only spent 18 months living there. My daughter, however, is quick to tell anyone who will listen that she was born in North Carolina, that she is unique among her family members, who are so boring in their Texan uniformity. She claims none of it. In fact, one August, when we stepped out of the airport in Texas, my little girl, hit with a wave of real Texas heat, gasped in shock and said, “How do Annie and Granddad survive this??”

Here is my daughter, pretending to be a Texan and my son, the technical Texan:

Here I am in the background, the real deal, at about age 4:

My feelings about Texas are pretty much the same today.

Surprisingly, though, my daughter is the only Asby who slips into a rural accent regularly. This has very little to do with us, with her brief time in NC, or even the grandparents, and everything to do with Stockard Channing’s performance in The Ramona Quimby Audio Collection. Channing’s Miss Binney would fit right in in our rural Texas hometown.

My own Texas accent may have been drilled out of me by my fabulous high school theatre instructor (“Get not git! Just not jist! Poor rhymes with sewer, not four!”), but I can still sound like George W. when the occasion calls for it.

Pull out your own rural accents for the following lovely read-alouds:

Why hasn’t Maripat Perkins written more books? I can’t get through Rodeo Red without laughing. If you, too, like reading phrases like, “cantankerous lemon custard,” “sawing logs,” or “slippery as a snake’s belly in a mudslide,” this book is for you. It’s not designed to encourage sibling affection, so don’t read it with a moralistic bent. This one is just funny. Enjoy it.

Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse does have a moral compass – it’s a lovely book, with perfect illustrations. And it has a horse. Sort of. So I think it counts.

A book about books and David Small illustrated it? Yes, please.

This one will make you want to go someplace special yourself. It deals with racism and civil rights, but has a hopeful inclusive bent.

This one’s for the grown-ups. A friend gave me God Save Texas as a birthday gift one year, and I have to say that it did rekindle some love for my home state. Wright clearly loves Texas, even as he criticizes aspects, and it helped me remember you can be happy and sad at the same time, you know?

And now I have quips like, “Did you know there may be more tigers in Texas than in the wild thanks to lax exotic animal laws?” I sometimes forget how strange it is that one of our Texas cousins was licked by a camel in east Texas while out for a ride on a four-wheeler.

That’s definitely surprising, now that I think about it.

Happy reading, y’all!