Year Two!

Well Worn Pages is two years old!

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It says a lot about how this second year has gone that the actual anniversary date is June 2nd but I am writing this on July 2nd and not publishing it until July 5th.

Where year one felt exciting, relaxed, and adventurous, year two has had an, ever so slight, lag. The excitement, fun, and adventure remain, but something else is in the mix.

Like all things sophomoric, the fresh, new shine has slightly dulled, only slightly, but the effect remains. My mind has become a little more greedy with the wealth of ideas it once gave. The excitement and enthusiasm are muddled with a questioning. I am teetering on the balance of “oh that was a cool experiment” and “this is becoming something real.”

To me, this is absolutely something real, something long term, something I thoroughly, unabashedly enjoy. But…I feel a nagging now when I sit down to write or read so that I can then write. There is a quiet voice reminding me that I should be spending my time investing in my kids, reading to my kids, having them read to me, playing with them, cleaning, cooking, answering emails, doing anything else that makes actual, real dollars. My family is very supportive of Well Worn Pages, so my apprehension is not from anything they have made me feel, but feel it I do.

I supposed an argument could be made that this blog is my mid life crisis. My chance to prove to myself that I could do something I always wanted to do: write. But now that I have the proof, I wonder: is my hobby in danger of becoming the equivalent of the proverbial, or occasionally very real, red Corvette. Something frivolous, burdensome, and even obnoxious? These are the quiet weights that have been added to year two.

While I remain hopeful and cautiously confident that this hobby of mine is beneficial, helpful, and, dare I hope, entertaining, I have decided that it is worthwhile, if only as a means of self-care. And I am happier for that decision.

Throughout year two, I have written less often, but the blog posts have been longer. Most blogging experts would view this as a failure and deem it completely backwards to marketing logic. But I have allowed myself to be free from the first-born felt pressure to do it “right.” There have been times this year, when keeping up the once a week writing pace was just too hard, so I relented and allowed myself to write when I could rather than when I felt I should. I would like to think the posts were better for it. There have been times when the pressure to find just the right gif or meme or picture stole my actual writing time and the result was no post at all. So I relented and allowed myself to write posts consisting of only words (gasp). I would like to think that a prose heavy post is better than none at all.

Even with all of this, I finished year two with a great sense of accomplishment, gratitude, and commitment. This blog brings me a great deal of joy and a much needed creative outlet. I am grateful to my family for giving me the time to read and write and for those of you who find what I read and write in any way interesting. I enjoy finding out what people will find most compelling and as I look back over the second year, the most read posts are telling.

Here they are, the most viewed posts of year two:

5. A Wrinkle In Time: Movie Review

4. Best Books of 2017

3. 50 Family Favorite Picture Books

2. In Defense of Buying Everything on that School Supply List, When You Can

1. To Father’s That Read

When I think back on these posts and what led to the writing of them, the questioning voices sneak back into their dusty corners. I am having way too much fun to let fear, comparison, and insecurity keep me from this.

It is my hope that year three will bring good books, interesting connections, and enjoyment!

 

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Summer Reading Guide: Early Elementary School

This week, I am going to channel my inner Prince Humperdink (a sentence I never imagined myself using, by the way) and…

“Skip to the end.”

I am tired. You are tired. This seems like a good week to just “skip to the end” and get right on with listing good books.

We already have lists for the junior high aged kids and the upper elementary school kids. This week, I am recommending books for the early elementary school students, which for my purposes would probably be first through third grade. Although, advanced Kindergarten readers could likely be included. There are so very many books for this age group. It can be overwhelming standing in front of the beginning chapter book section of your library trying to decipher the quality differences between eighty-eight Rainbow Fairies books, one hundred two A to Z Mysteries books, and five million Magic Tree House books. Although I can make this particular scenario simple. Given those three options, always go with the Magic Tree House. But that’s not the point. The point is there are way too many options in this particular reading category. And no one has time for that.

To that end, here are some books for this summer that your chapter book reader will enjoy.

If they like adventurous kids like themselves:

Jaden Toussaint, The Greatest (Marti Dumas) – If I sound like a broken record at this point, you will just have to forgive me. The Jaden Toussaint books belong in every library. Your children (and you) will immediately be drawn to Jaden’s character, his cleverness, his hijinks, and his humor. As an added bonus, Dumas leaves Easter eggs for her adult readers throughout her books, just check out the title of this one.

Jada Jones (Kelly Starling Lyons) – I just discovered these books this year at the book fair at my children’s school. In full disclosure, I have not read one all the way through yet, but the parts I have read lead me to recommend them as an excellent choice for this age.

Clementine (Sara Pennypacker) – Clementine is the answer for all your Junie B. Jones woes. I have checked these books out more times than I can count.

 

If they like problem solving:

Calpurnia Tate, Girl Vet (Jacqueline Kelly) – These illustrated chapter books follow the beloved character of Callie Vee from The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. The books pick up her story with her  now as a vet in training. These are definitely ones to read.

Keena Ford (Melissa Thompson) – Much like Clementine, Keena has a knack for finding herself in problematic situations and trouble. Thankfully, she also has a knack for getting herself out of these circumstances.

Clubhouse Mysteries (Sharon M Draper) – Because there are only so many Boxcar Children books a person can read, we all need another alternative. The Clubhouse Mysteries are just the thing. Sharon Draper is a wonderful writer and these books do not disappoint.

 

If they like stories with animal personification:

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Roald Dahl) – Fantastic Mr. Fox is an absolute delight of a book. Like most of Dahl’s work, this book has twists and turns, humor, unique character perspectives, and thoroughly enjoyable storytelling.

Mercy Watson (Kate DiCamillo) – While Mercy Watson is no Wilbur, she is just as endearing. My kids have like these books a great deal.

Ralph S. Mouse books (Beverly Cleary) – I mean, a mouse who just wants to ride a motorcycle and see the world, how can you not want to read about that?! These books are fun, funny, and, in true Cleary fashion, connecting.

 

If they like dragons and fantasy:

My Father’s Dragon (Ruth Stiles Gannett) – One boy goes on an adventure that leads him on an improbable rescue mission. If that’s not classic fantasy fiction, I’m not sure what is. There is a good reason these books have endured for the last fifty years.

Princess in Black (Shannon Hale) – Somehow, it has not been until this year that my younger kids discovered the Princess in Black books. They were an instant hit. These books will see your dragon and raise you a unicorn and they will do it successfully.

How to Train Your Dragon (Cressida Cowell) – As usual, before there was a movie, there were the books. And again, the books are better.

 

If they like a twist on “the classics”:

My Weird School Fast Facts (Dan Gutman) – Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the rhyming teacher related titles as much as the next person. However, I have found that, although there is no limit to the number of My Weird School books one could read, there definitely is a limit to the number one should read. When you find yourself needing to suggest your children take a break from said books, the new-ish “Fast Facts” series is an excellent switch.

Magic Tree House Fact Tracker (Mary Ann Osbourne Pope) – Sometimes its a good idea to substitute the magical world for the real world. Sometimes. In those times, these are an excellent switch. (Yes, I know I just used that same sentence for the last books, but I meant it when I said I was just tired. I will get back to the regularly programmed originality next week, hopefully.)

If you have other books you would add to this list, I would love to hear them.

 

 

 

 

 

Summer Reading Guide: Upper Elementary

I am done. Just. Done.

I am done with:

  • School lunches. My children have not eaten a vegetable in their lunches in weeks. And those notes I write to each kid every day for said lunches, yeah, those stopped about two weeks ago.
  • Unpacking school backpacks. Yes, I hear you, they are supposed to do it themselves. But I can’t anymore. I physically cannot say, “Did you empty your backpack?” or “Is there anything in your backpack I need to see?” one more time. I certainly am not reaching my hands inside that dark cavern of unseen pencil shavings, eraser putty, sticky candy wrappers (from the day they had that one sub who gives out candy), mildew from the leaky water bottle, and, what is now, paper pulp from a bevy of missed notices.
  • School clothes. Ugh! Just the laundry. And the everydayness of that laundry. Please, no more.
  • Organization of any kind. I want my Google calendar back. It has been co-opted by purple (my color for school events on the calendar). Each child has a different event every day that requires something different. I can no longer keep track. Don’t misunderstand. I am not complaining about school events. I absolutely love fairs, and awards assemblies, and talent shows, and open houses, and art nights, and field days, and field trips. Really, I do. But again with the everydayness?!

I call this doneness “May.”

But the thing is, the closer to the end of May, and thus being done, we get, the more undone I become.

My grip on sanity is loose, at best. All I can think about is summer when all this will stop and we can rest, relax, and read in peace, contentment, and quiet. (I know, I know, but I need something. Just let me have this innocent dream of what might be!) We will call this tranquil time reading camp. Yes, I like that. Reading camp is definitely a thing. And it is happening at my house…but not until the end of this endless month!

Reading camp requires zero dollars. It can be run from the comforts of your own home (or anywhere else that is comforting to you). It does not even require that you find the books (unless you are so inclined). You can find a recommended reading list for your middle school aged children here. Now you will be able to add a reading list for your older elementary school aged children.

For the animal lover:

  • Ginger Pye (Eleanor Estes) – This is a must-read, heartwarming story for any dog lover. It is the sweet story of one family bonding with their new dog.
  • White Fang (Jack London) – The perspective this book is written from contributes to its long lasting appeal to readers. The story itself is one that your reader will not soon forget.

For the adventurer:

  • The Book Scavengers (Jennifer Chambliss Bertman) – This series a very entertaining. The stories follow two friends who find themselves in a “life imitates art” scenario as they have to follow clues to find their favorite author.
  • The Wild Robot (Peter Brown) – What do you do when your child has read every “how to survive the wilderness” book there is? You give them a book about a robot doing just that. This will be a favorite. As an added bonus, my daughter tells me that the sequel is even better! I have not had a chance to read The Wild Robot Escapes yet, but I will trust her on this one.

For the fantasy lover:

  • Jupiter Storm (Marti Dumas) – Again, by now, you are aware of my great appreciation for all things written by Marti Dumas. Jupiter Storm is no exception. I loved this book and my two older daughter’s loved this book. Between the girl power, the scientific process, the family relationships, and the dragon, the kids will not be able to put this book down. When they finally do, they will spend days flipping through the pages to watch the surprise unfold on the bottom corners.
  • Gregor the Overlander (Suzanne Collins) – Before her Hunger Games fame, Collins wrote an excellent series about a human boy, Gregor, who discovers a fascinating world underground that is in great danger.
  • 100 Cupboards (N.D. Wilson) – This is the very engaging story about a boy who discovers a cupboard full of doors that lead to other worlds. As happens, drama ensues.
  • Tuesdays at the Castle (Jessica Day George) – If your fantasy fiction enthusiast is looking for a twist on the princess in a castle kind of story, this is the one. It is the first book in a five book series.

For the budding scientist:

  • The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Jacqueline Kelly) – This is the perfect story for your child who loves animals as much as they love science. But it is much more than a story about animals and science. It is a beautiful story about family, following through, and hope.
  • Hidden Figures (Margot Lee Shetterly) – As is usually the case, before it was a movie, it was a book. And, as is usually the case, the book is better.

For the detective:

  • Spy School series (Stuart Gibbs) – This highly enjoyable series follows an unlikely middle school aged boy who becomes a secret C.I.A. agent.
  • The Platypus Police Squad (Jarrett Krosoczka) – These books are funny, unique, and kids love them.
  • The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency (Jordan Stratford) – This series imagines a world in which Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace met as young girls and found themselves entangled in intrigue, leading them to form their own detective agency. The books are very fun.

For the athlete:

  • The Track series (Jason Reynolds) – Yep, again. They are just that good. Really.
  • The Kicks series (Alex Morgan) – Part autobiographical, part fiction, US Women’s Soccer team star, Alex Morgan, writes about a young girl, Devin, trying to navigate a big move, a new soccer team, and trying to keep it all together.

Just for fun:

  • The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street (Karina Yan Glaser) – I love this book. It has become one of my most recommended books. This fantastic story about the children in a large family trying to save their family home is everything you look for in a story.
  • The Mysterious Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart) – These books are my oldest daughter’s most recommended books. A group of kids volunteer to be a part of a special society, but after many tests and challenges only a few remain. Now they have to find a way to work together.

My work here is done. Just like me!

 

Summer Reading Guide: Junior High Edition

As I write, my fifth grade daughter is telling me, for the six hundred fifty-sixth time, that she only has eleven more days of elementary school left. This fact seems thoroughly exciting to her. Time cannot move fast enough for her. She seems to sense the cusp she teeters on and is no longer satisfied to wonder what lies ahead. She is ready for what comes next.

I, on the other hand, am not ready at all. It is continually remarkable to me how moments in parenting can have such long build up times and yet find a way to sneak up on you. You have nine months of pregnancy to prepare, adjust, and anticipate the birth of your baby, and yet, the moment is always a surprise. You have five years to enjoy, discipline, and teach your precious babies before you place them in the loving care of a long line of teachers, and yet, that first day of Kindergarten is a complete shock. Then you have six long, comfortable years to laugh, learn, and grow with your fantastic elementary school age children, all the while knowing what comes next, and yet, the day it ends is going to be a surprise (despite the dictated second by second countdown).

Almost since the moment I found out I was pregnant the first time, I have worried about and dreaded the middle school years. Those years were so painful and dramatic for me that I felt, and still feel, completely powerless in knowing how to help navigate my own children through them. I know I cannot protect and shelter them from every harm, whether physical or emotional, but a little gentle bubble wrap between twelve to fourteen should just be standard. What she senses ahead with ease and expectation, I look back on with difficulty and hurt. And while I know in my head that she is not me, and her story will not be mine, my emotions are not convinced!

These oncoming years that I have, previously, been able to ignore, shut away, and block off, are now, unavoidably, upon us. I am ill-prepared, nervous, and excited. When she was a baby, I was overwhelmed, exhausted, and completely lost as to how to help this tiny human flourish. I would check out every parenting book I could find and hang on to the things that were consistent throughout each book. But now, again feeling overwhelmed and lost, I have read exactly zero books on parenting during this new phase and I avoid talking to parents of teenagers about parenting.

With denial firmly established and recently identified, it is past time for me to move forward with reality.

A friend helped me take a few steps in the right direction a few weeks ago by asking me for book recommendations for middle school students. I was, unsurprisingly, excited and got to work on a list right away. I realized that this is an age group that I often skip over in my recommendations. As I worked through my book list, I thought about my daughter reading these books. I found myself looking forward to her broadened literary adventures and our discussions of them. While so many things around her may be changing, at least one thing will not, she and I will still read together. And that gives me great comfort and confidence.

If you share a home with a middle school aged kid and find yourself in need of some comfort and confidence, here are some excellent books to read together. While each of these books can be enjoyed by anyone, for the sake of ease, I have given them very general categories. These are not definitive, merely directive. And, there are many more books than these. As always, I would love to hear your recommendations.

For the athlete:

  • Crossover (Kwame Alexander) – Kwame Alexander is a gifted storyteller. His lyrical style of writing is creative, accessible, and enjoyable. He has many books to his name, but Crossover is my favorite. The characters he develops are so tangible and relatable you cannot help but connect with them.
  • Track seriesGhost, Patina, Sunny, and, coming soon, Lou (Jason Reynolds) – If you have spent any amount of time around Well Worn Pages, you know that most of my lists include something by Jason Reynolds. This series is one of my favorites to recommend to kids. The books are so refreshing, interesting, and compelling.

For the world events journalist:

  • A Long Walk to Water (Linda Sue Park) – This remarkable story follows two children, in two different eras, living through war in Sudan.
  • I am Malala (Malala Yousafzai) – This is a perspective changing story of a girl whose name we all know now. She took a stand against the Taliban to advocate for the education of girls and nearly lost her life in the process.
  • Refugee (Alan Gratz) – The book follows three different kids through three very different wars throughout recent history. It is heartbreaking, shocking, and based in reality.

For the historian:

  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Elizabeth George Speare) – The Witch of Blackbird Pond is a Newberry Medal winner. It is a fascinating story of a young girl sent to Puritan America by herself. It is a story of struggle, friendship, misunderstanding, and cultural tension.
  • Lions of Little Rock (Kristin Levine) – This book tells the story of the desegregation of schools in Arkansas through the eyes of two girls and their commitment to maintain their friendship.

For the fantasy enthusiast:

For the deep thinker:

  • The Giver (Lois Lowry) – Here is another excellent Newberry Medal winner. Like A Wrinkle In Time, this book had a significant impact on me. It is worth the wait to read it when it can be thought through and understood.
  • The Book Thief (Markus Zusak) – There are many twists in the telling of this World War II novel. The narrator’s voice and the perspective of the main character are particularly unique and excellently done. This would be a great one to read together and talk about.

Coming of age stories:

  • Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson) – Woodson’s autobiographical work in this book is remarkable. The way she tells the story of her transitional childhood is, by turns, intriguing and relatable.
  • Full Cicada Moon (Marilyn Hilton) – The pain of moving, of being uprooted and un-rooted and the struggle to understand identity and cultural contexts; what could be more recognizable to middle schoolers?
  • Esperanza Rising (Pam Munoz Ryan) – Ryan has a way of telling stories you need to hear in such a way that you want to hear them. The story of Esperanza’s transition from life in Mexico to life in California is no exception.

Just for fun:

  • Holes (Louis Sachar) – This hilarious book is a Newberry Medal winner and a National Book Award winner. It is funny, heartfelt, cheeky, and great fun. Who knew digging holes out in the desert could amount to all that?!
  • The Westing Game (Ellen Raskin) – This book is one of my all time favorites of the Newberry Medal winners. It is Clue (the board game), murder mystery dinner, and a logic puzzle all in one. This one makes for a fantastic read aloud.

Books create bonds at any age. And, when it comes to middle schoolers, we can use all the help we can get creating and maintaining those bonds.

Here’s to these doing just that!

Teacher Appreciation Day: The Tale of Two Teachers

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week at my daughters’ school and it has me looking back. Looking back to two very different classrooms, with two very different teachers, at two very different times in my life.

The year was 1987. Life was all Michael Jackson, BMX bikes, and playing in the dirt. Carefree, fun, and a little bit messy. Everything a kid could want. Until I entered my fourth grade classroom.

That year I happened to be in a third/fourth grade combo class. In my memory, our class was extra big and I was extra lost. I sat directly in the middle of the class, floundering, all in immediate view of my teacher who seemed to watch my every flail.

School was a constant source of anxiety for me, particularly in the early grades, as I struggled a great deal with math and reading. I had changed schools three times in the first three years of school and never seemed to be able to find my footing in the classroom. Thankfully, I had been blessed with kind, patient, lovely teachers in second and third grade and was beginning to gain confidence. Until I entered my fourth grade classroom.

My teacher seemed to take an almost immediate disliking to me, or so it seemed to my nine year-old self. He would publicly ridicule my reading. Put me on the spot. Highlight my every struggle. The effect he had on my confidence and reading was devastating and far-reaching. To this day, I do not enjoy reading out loud (unless it is to my children who love my reading despite it’s stutters and pauses). This teacher confirmed my worst fears that I should be embarrassed of my abilities, or lack thereof. And I was. Deeply so.

In the years after fourth grade, it became easier and easier to simply quit trying. My fixed mind set was rooted and well-established. I became an expert evader. As reading aloud in the younger classrooms began to be replaced with book reports and reading logs in the older ones, I became an expert faker. It became a challenge I would give myself: how little of the book could I read and still get an acceptable grade.

It was surprisingly easy. Until I walked into my Senior World Literature class.

Something came over me my senior year of high school and I decided to take two literature classes, World Literature and African Literature. A shocking decision for this proud non-reader. I have no recollection of what led to that decision, but what I do recall was encountering a teacher that would change the course of my education, and (in a totally non-cliche way) my life.

Mary Beth Wallestad-Oyebade was the embodiment of what it means to be a teacher. She was challenging, encouraging, patient, determined, and excited. She immediately saw through my defensive, self-preserving tactics and gently proved to me that I did not need them. She piqued my interest with books I never would have thought of reading. Then demanded (in the best way) that they actually be read. She was patient with my shallow misunderstanding of Jane Austen and taught me how to look deeper. She was encouraging in my writing and taught me how to write clearer. And, most importantly, she was honest and real with us and taught me how to be as well.

Ms. Wallestad never let me off the hook. She never let me settle. She pushed me, always gently. She planted in me an appreciation for the art of a clever turn of phrase. She gave me a love of the written word and showed me I had every right to that love as anyone else. What had once been a closed off world to me became open, compelling, and accessible.

It would still take several years for the skeptical, reluctant reader mind set to ebb, but with each book I read, either by choice or for college, my confidence and interest grew. By the time it came to my Children’s Literature class in college, I had found my way. All thanks for a teacher who saw something different than everyone else.

In college, when I was struggling with the realization that being a nurse might not be what I actually want to do with my life, it was Ms. Wallestad’s ability as a teacher that sparked my turn towards education.

Now as I watch my children, under the care of their teachers, I am, once again, profoundly grateful. They have teachers who are inspiring them, challenging them, and giving them the tools for a life-long love of learning.

And so, to you teachers who have given us so much, we thank you. You deserve more than a day, or even week, of appreciation. But even when we are not saying it directly, your influence is long lasting and significant.

Thank you!

 

10 Poets to Read with Your Kids (Besides Shel Silverstein)

When my oldest daughter was in 2nd grade, she had a teacher who did something I had not heard of before. Rather than playing background music while the students were working, this teacher would play Shel Silverstein audiobooks. At first, I was skeptical about this strategy. I thought it would be distracting. How could they concentrate on their work while also listening to poetry?

My skepticism (about this at least) was laid to rest by half way through the year when my daughter would start quoting Shel Silverstein poems for any life circumstance that arose. Most often this involved quoting “For Sale” at the slightest sibling annoyance!

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Notice the dog earred page!

This teacher inspired me. I had visions of listening to poetry in the car, in the house while the kids were playing together, during bedtime, and all other times in between. All with the dual results of the children absorbing poetry while creating a peaceful, quiet, contemplative environment. But, like most of my inspirational ideas, none of this happened.

As it stands now, my children have absorbed exactly zero poems. Well, I take that back, they know Philip Schuyler’s rap in “Take a Break” from the Hamilton soundtrack thoroughly and will quote it at any opportunity. I am of the opinion that every song on that soundtrack is poetry at its finest.

Additionally, I think an argument could be made that most picture books are actually poetry, what with all the rhythm and rhyme. If you took the text of picture books and wrote them on a single page, they would be called poems. So, now that I think of it, the kids are fine, they know more poems than I could have hoped for.

Hamilton and picture books aside, I have failed on the poetry front. This is ironic for me as poetry saved my sanity as a teenager. The reading and writing of poetry gave me an outlet for things I could not otherwise express. My love for both reading and writing was sparked and fueled by the genre. One would think that would be a motivating factor in passing on that love to my children. And yet…

Now, during the waning days of National Poetry Month, I have a renewed sense of the importance of exposing my children to poems. Here are a few of the books and poets that we have enjoyed.

  1. Kwame Alexander – For the elementary school aged kids, Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets is one of my favorite, recent, collected works of poetry. It has the benefit of not only exposing the kids to poetry, but also famous poets. Alexander is most well-known for his young adult novels, The Crossover, Booked, and Solo, which are expertly written in verse. He was awarded the Newberry Medal for The Crossover.
  2. Marilyn Singer – Singer has mastered the art of the mirror poem. She is a clever and entertaining writer. Beyond mirror poems, A Stick Is an Excellent Thing is a great book of poems to read with kids.
  3. Bob Raczka – Anyone who can title a book “Wet Cement: A Mix of Concrete Poems” automatically deserves to be on a list of poets to know. It is exactly that subtle play with words that make poetry fantastic, and he has done it IN HIS TITLE!
  4. Jacqueline Woodson – In the genre of novel-in-verse, Woodson is a gift. Brown Girl Dreaming is a remarkable book that every child fifth grade and above should read at least once. She has been awarded almost every award there is, including a National Book Award.
  5. Bravo! Poems for Amazing Hispanics (Margarita Engle) – My kids and I thoroughly enjoyed these poems. When we moved to the Los Angeles area, I knew that I needed to find a way to give my kids more exposure to Spanish-speaking important figures, many of whom had a significant impact on the area we live in. This book has been an excellent introduction.
  6. Nikki Grimes – While Grimes has a great deal of poetry to her name, One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissancee is my personal favorite. In this book, she takes her own poems and matches them up with famous poems of the Harlem Renaissance.
  7. Thanhha LaiInside Out and Back Again is another stand alone novel written in verse. It is a Newberry Medal Honor and National Book Award winning book that uses the power of poetic verse to convey a rarely heard story.
  8. Nikki Giovanni – While Giovanni is most well-known for her poetry aimed at adults, she does have several works that are for children. She is one of the great poets of our time and having our children exposed to her poetry is important.
  9. Patrick Lewis – Lewis has books of poetry about all manner of things ranging from cars to animals to math, math based on Edgar Allen Poe poems no less! He is clearly very good at what he does and children respond accordingly.
  10. Poetry for Young People and Poetry for Kids series – These two series are aimed at introduce “the classic” poets to young readers. The Poetry for Kids series is geared toward an elementary school age audience, while the Poetry for Young People series is more for the middle school age student. These are good introductory collections for helping students get to know the essential works of important poets.
  11. BONUS ROUNDI’m Just No Good at Rhyming and Other Nonsense for Mischievous Kids and Immature Grown-Ups (Chris Harris) is a must have! This book is an absolute delight. My favorite poem in the book is “Alphabet Book (By the Laziest Artist in the World).” You will want this book in your house. It will be read again and again.

Here’s to hoping that my children will begin quoting more “reading” by Jacqueline Woodson along with their Silverstein “The Crocodile’s Toothache.”

Library Cards: What’s In Your Wallet?

Some days I feel as though my brain is turning into actual mush.

I blame the years of not sleeping through the night. I blame the years of managing the family laundry/meals/schedule trifecta. I blame the years of trying to remember four different children’s names, bedtime songs, and special, un-washable, irreplaceable items.

I in no way blame the scientifically proven link between brains-turning-to-mush and years of a diet consisting solely of sugar and carbonation. I absolutely do not blame the scientifically proven link between brains-turning-to-mush and years of a perfecting a sedentary lifestyle.

Whatever the cause, it is happening. Here’s the proof. This is a series of texts between myself and my daughter’s softball coach “J.” You will notice her asking me several innocuous questions which I answer one of two ways, either with absurd inaccuracy (as in the case of claiming that my 6 year-old daughter was born in 2013) or complete misunderstanding (as when she tells me my daughter will have to move up to the next level and I say a version of “I understand, but will she have to move up?”).

 

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It is a humiliating tragedy of errors.

Sugar, sedentary lifestyles, and general laziness aside, what I actually blame is the whipping boy of the moment, social media. All the click bait-y titles, the numbered points typed in bold that scream “ignore the rest of this article, only read me,” the stylized block quotes in middle of the text that give you any additional information you could have possibly gleaned, and the pictures or gifs, oh my, it all works towards reducing my ability to thoroughly read through something, even a text.

While there is nothing wrong with these forms of reading and writing, in small doses, in large doses, it has begun to shift my habits. Habits that were originally honed in the library. There I learned to be thorough, precise, and exploratory.

I need those habits back. And so, during this National Library Week, I would argue that what we need more than our cellphones is our library cards.

Your library card offers you a portal into a magical world where the walls are, literally, lined with books, where there is, literal, peace and quiet, and where you can walk out the doors with your arms loaded with books…for free!

But that’s not all!

  1. Story time – Children story times have become an essential part of most libraries. Often there are Parent and Baby classes offered for babies as young as six months old. Different classes then continue all the way through preschool. During my parenting-of-young-children phase, these classes were my life line. I looked forward to them as much as the kids did. There were years in there where library story time was the only social outing we could manage in a week. And, in additional to all that, the classes are very effective in helping establish a love of books in your children.
  2. Classes – Libraries do not just leave you stranded once you start school. Throughout the week, libraries offer a variety of classes to school age children, teens, and adults. You can learn everything from knitting to coding to basket weaving and almost anything in between. Your libraries newsletter or weekly email update are an important resource for finding out what is available to you and your children.
  3. Book Sales -While this benefit is not free, it is much, much cheaper than anything else you can find. You’ll be spending so little money for so many books that it can *almost* feel like you are getting them for free (although my husband would strongly disagree). Library book sales have become so popular that many libraries are adding Friends of the Library book stores right into the library buildings. It is an exercise in self-discipline to not spend all the money there.
  4. Computer/Internet Access – Libraries offering free internet and computer access is one of the most important ways that libraries are able to significantly help the members of their community. With so much job, housing, and information searching done online, having a free place to access those resources is a start in leveling the playing field.
  5. Events – From Family Science Nights to local author meet and greets to music concerts, there is always something going on at the library that you can enjoy…for free! We have seen all manner of reptile shows, magicians, science nights, Lego building contests, art nights, and on and on. I have noticed that, more and more, libraries are also starting to have book clubs. Some are online book clubs but others are “in house.” While I have yet to participate in one, I find this option to be perfectly fitting. What could be more appropriate than meeting with a book club…in a library.
  6. Bonus Round: Inter Library Loan – Inter Library Loan is the magical technology that gives you access, not only to the books available in the library building you are in, but also libraries across your county. If you are willing to wait, your free reading options are almost limitless with this option. There is a science to getting books on hold through this system. (Oh, that would make an excellent library class!) I cannot recommend using this resource enough.

It should be pointed out that many libraries will allow you to get a library card from them even if you do not live in that town or even county! Sometimes there are restrictions, such as being unable to access the online catalog of e-books, but that is a small thing to sacrifice for the possibility of an extra library card. There is always space in your wallet for an extra library card or 5!

I have found no evidence of this study yet, but I am confident if someone were to study it, they would find a direct, scientifically proven link between the number of library cards you own and your brain-turning-to-super-power level.

So don’t worry about all the sugar, sedentary-ness, and social media, just get another library card!

 

 

 

My Journey with American Racism and the Books that are Teaching Me

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. As I have read articles, listened to speeches, and reflected on how far we still have to go, I have been challenged, on a personal level, by how far I still have to go with my own understanding of American racism.

Like America itself, I want to think of myself as post-racial. And yet, I speak up when I should be silent. I sit in silence when I should speak up. I speak out of pride rather than humility. I misplace my role, identity, and responsibility.

Recently, I had a chance to speak out loud words on behalf of Stephon Clark, the young black man shot by police in Sacramento. To my shame, I chose to be silent. And this after defending myself for posting about it on social media by saying that I speak up about these issues in my everyday life, not just online. Except, this time, I didn’t. I could list off endless reasons for why I didn’t. But the end of all of that, the simple fact is, I just chose not to speak up.

That choice has left me with an overwhelming sense that I have not come quite as far as I hoped I had in my journey with American racism. After all this time, I still pick and choose when to engage. I am still willing to let things I hear slide. I still miscommunicate. And I still sit back when it is inconvenient for me to stand up.

Couple this with an article I read called “The White Allies’ Guide to Collecting Aunt Linda,” in which I was challenged by #4 and #7,  and I am left this week humbled, convicted, and unsure of my process.

When this happens, I find it helpful to look back and remember how this process started. Growing up in Nigeria, I had identity issues the likes of which would make Rachel Dolezal squirm. Additionally, I also had to wrestle deeply with colonialism issues. But those are stories for another day. This is about my journey with American racism, so I will start when I moved here at 18.

I moved to downtown Chicago with no clue about winter, wind, and being white in America. More importantly, I had no clue what it was like to not be white in America.

Almost immediately, I realized that racism was alive and well in the United States, and in the north no less. And here I had innocently believed this to be a southern thing of the past. Not so! I could not even count the ways I saw, every day, my black peers being treated differently. It was shocking, frustrating, largely ignored, and NEVER publicly discussed. It did not make any sense to me.

It was a very confusing time of disillusionment and anger for me. I quickly learned that I did not have a place to express my frustrations. My white friends got angry, defensive, and would not talk about it, my black American friends were hurt by my ignorance and reminded me that I was part of the problem, and my international friends were just trying to figure it all out too.

Thankfully, I met very patient, very gracious black American friends who were willing to talk to me openly about what life was like for them. They helped me start to see and slowly understand the recent history that kept racial tensions so high.

Then in 1999, Amadou Diallo, a young, unarmed, black man was shot 41 times by police in New York City. His story changed the story for me. This racism problem that I had seen on a personal level, now became glaringly real on a systemic one. I was once again shocked by the callousness and anger shown towards black men.

But I still could not see my own role in the system. I’m not from here, I kept telling myself. I was raised in a black African country, this issue has nothing to do with me. I am nothing like “those people.” I was too busy working through those aforementioned identity issues to take on anymore culpability at that time.

Then, thirteen years later, Trayvon Martin was shot. And something his story gave way in me. I think because he was so young and I was a parent by then, I saw his murder in a whole new light. I was no longer willing to be silent or ignorant of my own implicit biases and role in those systemic problems. It was time to get over myself, stop seeing this as other people’s problem, and start working on my own actions and words.

There are many, many articles, posts, and most importantly, people who have helped me (and continue to do so) on this ongoing journey towards racial equity in America. It is often a one step forward, two step back kind of learning. But here are a few of the books that have helped change and shape my thinking and understanding the most.

Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson) – This book revolutionized my understanding of the American justice system. It has become one of the few books I try to make a point of re-reading.

Divided By Faith (Michael Emerson and Christian Smith) – If I only had one book to suggest to white American Christians, it would be this one. It serves as a vital, must-hear challenge.

Trouble I’ve Seen (Drew Hart) – I have entire chapters of this book underlined. Again, this book is of particular importance to white American Christians.

Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson) – I learned more about American history from this book than anything I ever learned in school. The true stories of the intentional, institutionalized racism that African Americans faced leaving the Jim Crow south are devastating and must be heard.

The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander) – I read this after reading Just Mercy and it challenged everything I thought I knew about the “justice” system.

And Still I Rise (Henry L. Gates) – This book follows the PBS special “And Still I Rise” and is an excellent historical resource. Gates’ America Behind the Color Line is also a very good book to read.

Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates) – Something about the way Coates writes speaks to me. He has a way of conveying harsh truths in an unreserved, direct way that forces me to listen and hear him.

Tears We Cannot Stop (Michael Eric Dyson) – I will be honest, I kicked and squirmed through almost every page of this book. Dyson does not hold back in his “sermon to white America.” Everything in me wanted to say, “I don’t do that.” This is probably exactly why I needed to read this book, and then read it again.

Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance) – This may seem like a strange book to have on the list, but it did help me a lot. It was eye-opening and made sense of many things I had seen. But the thing that helped me most in my racial understanding, was when Vance admitted that even growing up the way he did, he, as a white man, recognized that he still had privileges available to him that a black man would not have.

We Were Eight Years in Power (Ta-Nehisi Coates) – My phone is filled with pictures of quotes from this book. I first read a library copy and couldn’t highlight. When I tried writing quotes I wanted to remember down, I realized I was just transcribing the book. Then I started taking pictures. They are many. The chapter on reparations was particularly poignant.

In addition to these current authors, there are five authors from the past that have greatly impacted my journey. They are:

  1. Frederick DouglassNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a fantastic place to start.
  2. W.E. B. Du BoisThe Souls of Black Folk should be required reading.
  3. James BaldwinNotes of a Native Son is where I recommend starting with his writing. While not in book form, the movie “I Am Not Your Negro” was made from his writing and is also excellent.
  4. Maya Angelou – Today would be Angelou’s 90th birthday and she is deeply and greatly missed. Her poetry speaks beyond her with remarkable voice. “Still I Rise” is essential reading.
  5. Martin Luther King, Jr – While not immediately thought of as an author, I include him in this category because it is through reading that I have “heard” his speeches. I am consistently challenged by his speeches and writing. Letters from a Birmingham Jail has become a particular favorite, one I read regularly as a way of keeping my priorities, motives, and intentions rightly ordered.

As I have learned from these books, I am reminded that my goal and hope of arriving, of being done learning is flawed, unrealistic, and misplaced. My goal has to change. This is not a “one and done” kind of education. This is a moment by moment, day by day, self check kind of education. A continual, hopefully, progressing education. An education in humility, openness, empathy, and action.

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Potter Themed Birthday Party

I love birthdays. I love all birthdays, not just my own. I love giving presents (and, let’s be honest, receiving them). I love getting the chance to tell people how happy I am they were born and why. And, my normal personality aside, I even love birthday parties. Something about celebrating life gives me great joy.

As such, I enjoy letting my kids have themed birthday parties. We have had tea parties, Shopkins parties, Star Wars parties, Ninja Turtle parties, Strawberry Shortcake parties, color themed parties (including a four year-old’s gray party), and, one year, even a Yoda only party. Every time a child is picking their party theme, I subtly suggest books they could base their party on. Every time those subtle suggestions lose out to the mass commercial appeal of whatever it is they had in mind.

Until this year!

Finally, my eleven year-old decided she wanted a Harry Potter party. And I was thrilled. My daughter and I had a very fun time brainstorming and planning. Our idea was to have the party mimic a day at Hogwarts. The only trouble was reigning myself in and staying within our allotted birthday party budget.

After innumerable trips to entirely too many stores, endless reconfigurations for how to pull somethings off, a difficult decision to forgo one whole part of the party, and a comment from my husband that, “This party got out of control,” we were ready.

Guests were greeted at the door with beautiful Hogwarts house crests from DGS. The center Hogwarts crest comes courtesy of my creative sister.

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Front door decor

The invitations were made from a picture of the Hogwarts Express.

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Invitations

Once the guests arrived at the party, they first visited Ollivander’s. While Ollivander’s is not at Hogwarts, we wanted them to be able to have the wand choosing experience but did not have the time to make a whole extra Diagon Alley part of the party. Although I am purist, and strongly hold that source material should be changed as little as possible in any given setting, I blurred with the Potterverse lines here a bit.

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Sticks work just as well for wands

Our wands were simply sticks from the yard with these fantastic labels on them from Tattered and Inked. We did not go full Pinterest on the wands because of time. Each child was blind folded and spun around, then they searched around the whiteboard until their wand found them. The kids had a fun time comparing their wands while they waited for the rest of the group.

With wands ready, the Hogwarts school day was ready to begin. The first class on the schedule was Potions.

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We started the class with a Potions demonstration from my husband. He made dragon’s toothpaste.

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Dragon’s Toothpaste

The kids then paired up to make unicorn’s milk dance.

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Dancing Unicorn’s Milk

Once they had practiced their supervised Potions making, they were set free to make troll drool (or slime).

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Troll Drool (or just slime)

They needed no instruction here! If there is one thing I have learned about fifth grade girls, it is that they are expert slime makers. For the actual slime making, I got disposible plastic containers for each girl. Then we got cauldrons that they could keep their finished product in.

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After Potions, the girls went to Magical Creatures.

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There was a “magical creature” for each person hidden in the yard.

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The kids had to search the yard looking for their magical creature and then bring them back to Hagrid. This was a fun change of pace and gave me time to clean up the mess of Potions and set up the next class:

Herbology.

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Here the kids planted mandrakes.

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Mandrakes

We used plastic planters from the Dollar Store. First, they had to put “dirt” in their planters. This was a layer of chocolate pudding and then a layer of crushed Oreos. Next, for the mandrakes themselves, we used sour patch kids with two toothpicks sticking out. We stuck a green Twizzler into each toothpick. This way they were able to grab the “leaves” and pull their mandrake out.

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When they did, my husband played a squealing sound on his phone. The kids loved it!

The last class of the day was Defense Against the Dark Arts. Here the kids had to learn to fight dementors. As they defeated their dementor, they discovered their patronus.

 

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Dementors

We bought animal charms for bracelets and then put those inside a balloon before it was blown up. Once the balloon was blown up, we put a large, black garbage bag over it. On the garbage bag we cut a small corner off the bottom. That hole is what we stuck the bottom of the balloon through. This way we were able to hang the dementors up so they could blow in the breeze and give off the effect of flying. It was awesome. The kids each found a dementor and, with wands ready, said “Expecto Patronum.” Very carefully, with a thumb tack, they popped the balloon and discovered their patronus as the charm fell out of the popped balloon.

They were able to keep their patronus by putting it on a key chain, which was really a hoop earring with a lobster claw hook attached. While we were making jewelry, we added a snitch to the key ring, because, why not?!

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Keepsake “key chain” with their patronus and a snitch

We ended the day with a trip to the Great Hall and Honeydukes. Yes, I know, I messed with the integrity of the story, not once, but twice. It is inexcusable, but for a fun cause. The birthday cake was a spinoff of Cauldron Cake.

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“Cauldron Cake”

I used this amazing recipe for mason jar strawberry shortcake from Cooking Classy. It was delightful. When they were done with their cake, they could go “shop” at Honeydukes.

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They could choose from:

  • Candy Wands (Twizzlers)
  • Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans (Jelly Belly’s, although we did have one box of the real thing for the brave-hearted)
  • Dumbledor’s Lemondrops (Lemondrops)
  • Snitches (Lindor’s truffles)
  • Cockroach Clusters (Snickers bites)
  • Dragon Eggs (Whopper Robin Eggs)
  • Fizz Whizzbees (Sour Patch worms)
  • Broomsticks (pretzel sticks with half a cheese stick on the bottom)

The party was a lot of fun and a lot of work. There were so many more things I wanted to do, but for the sake of time, money, and sanity, we left them out. Those left out things are a post for another day. Thankfully there are three more kids in our home turning eleven sooner or later. Chances are I will get to use those ideas someday!

 

 

 

A Wrinkle In Time: Movie Review

In January, the book club my older daughters are in read A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I was thrilled, as this book had a tremendous impact on me at my oldest daughter’s exact age. Our discussion of the book was fantastic. It was exciting to see a new generation of girls inspired by Meg and reveling in L’Engle’s writing. I was encouraged and energized by their insights, observations, and questions.

It was perfect timing, then, that only two months later the movie was coming out.

With great anticipation, the parents took the book club kids to see said movie last night. We had a wonderful time taking up one and half rows of the theater and settling in to experience this story together again, in an entirely new way.

And now, I have some thoughts! A lot of them.

I went into this movie with hopeful and high expectations, which, admittedly, is always questionable practice where book adaptations are involved. I came out of the movie with an overall feeling of disappointment. Maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe I care about this particular story too much. Maybe I am too critical. Or maybe, just maybe, yet again, THEY MESSED UP!

I will go into as much detail as I can, without being spoilery, about the ways I think that happened. But in fairness, let me start with what I did like:

  • The casting of Meg. Storm Reid did an excellent job portraying Meg’s angst, confusion, frustration, suspicion, hope, disappointment, strength, and loyalty. Her performance was believable, thoroughly engaging, and true to L’Engle’s character. I was also pleasantly surprised by how well the casting of Mr. and Mrs. Murray worked. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pine did a great job capturing their dynamic.
  • The diversity of the cast. Diverse representation in the fantasy/sci-fi genres has been sorely lacking, in print and in film. I was very pleased with Ava Duvernay’s decision to use such a diverse cast. This was particularly important in the casting of Meg. I love the fact that young black girls can go see a movie where they are represented as the smart, capable, beautiful heroine.
  • The scenes between Meg and Mr. Murray. Predictably, these scenes had a personal effect on me, remembering my dad and our dynamic. Those moments the two of them had together were among the most poignant, heartfelt scenes of the movie. I was very nervous about the casting of Chris Pine as a father, but I have to say, he did an excellent job, particularly in one of the most important moments of the story. I cannot give much more detail, but, surprisingly, one of my favorite moments in the book, also happened to be my favorite moment in the movie!
  • Mrs Whatsit’s opening line. While, arguably, too cheerfully delivered, it was an excellent homage to one of literature’s finest opening lines.
  • The way tessering was visualized. That was cool looking. I always had a difficult time picturing what that would look like. I thought the way they choose to depict it did justice to the book.
  • The IT. This was one of the very few changes that I thought actually worked well. Without giving anything away, let me just say, the movie version definitely portrayed the power and inescapableness of IT. I thought it was a good change.
  • The depiction of the darkness. This was especially well done during the explanation of what the darkness is while visiting the Happy Medium (but don’t even get me started on that portrayal…).
  • Sade’s new son “Flower of the Universe.” As a huge, long-time fan of Sade, I was very pleasantly surprised to hear her voice singing during the movie. Her new song is beautiful and fit perfectly.

Okay, *deep breath,* and now to the problems, at least as I see them:

  • Mrs Who. As my favorite Mrs. from the books, I was very excited to see how she would be played by Mindy Kaling. Unfortunately, it was not good. As I have thought about it overnight, I do not think it was her acting of the character that bothered me so much as the writing for her character. Mrs. Who’s deep, thoughtful, prophetic insights were “updated” into, often one word, attempted, mic-drops. This is not who Mrs. Who is. Her character is not an exclamation point. Her quotes are meaningful, inspiring, and thought-provoking. “DANG” just does not quite get at that with any semblance of responsible justice to the book. I do not have a problem with using quotes from more current sources as a way to reach a broader audience, so long as those quotes are in the same vein of depth as the originals. Sadly, more often than not, this was not the case. At. All. Not to mention that it is one of the most enduring qualities of L’Engle’s writing, that she does not assume she needs to use easy-to-access, tweetable, shortened quotes to read a broad audience. She believed in challenging her readers, stretching them. And it worked. I just watched it happen in January, with a group of elementary school age kids.
  • Mrs Whatsit. The re-writing of this character, and quite frankly, Resse Witherspoon’s portrayal of her, are a complete mystery to me, and not in a good way. How a supportive, kind, helpful, mysterious, measured character like L’Engle’s Mrs Whatsit can be re-worked into the silly, sarcastic, disingenuous character I saw last night, I will never know. It is very, very disappointing.
  • Mrs Which. I actually really like Oprah’s performance as Mrs Which. I will say though, IIIIII waaaasssss waaiittttinngggg ttoooo heeaarrrr sooommeeeonnne ppppuuuulllll oooofff hhhheeerrr waayyy oofffff sssppppeeaaakkiinnnggg. But again, no.
  • The changes. As someone who believes that books become beloved and well-known for the way the author told the story, I still cannot understand why screenplay adapters decide to change story details that could easily be translated into movie form. I understand that, for time’s sake, many parts of a story lay on the cutting room floor. What I am talking about are the changes to plot lines they are already choosing keep in the movie and are using CGI for, yet still change. It drives me insane every time and this time was no exception.
  • Camazotz. This was a whole lot of nope, nope, nope-ity, NOPE! There were two parts that were excellently done and, not surprisingly, followed the book’s description almost verbatim, but the rest was just terrible. I do not know how to go into the details of how it was so terrible without giving away story lines, but suffice it to say, in my view, this could not have been done worse. Two of their experiences on Camazotz were, actually, directly opposite to how it should have been.
  • What was left out. In my opinion, the “powers that be,” in the making of this movie, decided to leave out the most crucial part of the whole book. It’s just skipped over, not there at all, left completely out. I am sure that they would say it was for time’s sake, but I am guessing (and this may be my overally cynical side showing) that the actors playing the various Mrs were contracted for so many minutes “onscreen” and to accommodate the big names, they left a MAJOR part of the story, and my favorite character, out. I hope that is not true, but it does not make any sense otherwise. Let me just say this, I could have used A LOT less Uriel and A LOT more, or any really, of a certain Beast and her planet.

So there you have it, my, mostly unfiltered, thoughts.

Overall, if you haven’t read the book, it is a good movie. And, even if you have read the book, I would still say go see it. But then, immediately, go home and reread the book. It is, yet again, proven: the book is always better.