Favorite Animal Reads for Littles

November 7, 2010
Since the moment my kid showed an interest in anything, it’s been all animals, all the time. The majority of our library is composed of animal stories, so to whittle it down to just five faves is tough. This is likely to be the first in a series of mama loves animal books – starting with stories that appeal to the pre-K crowd and moving my way through the age groups. 

Wild About Books: Best book ever! “It all started when Springfield librarian, Molly McGrew, by mistake drove her bookmobile into the zoo.” This is the best rhyming story since the great Dr. Seuss, and combines my son’s two favorite things – animals and reading. My kid breaks down into hysterical laughter when the bugs in the insect zoo begin scribbling haiku. Let’s just say, dung beetles are funny!

My Very Own Name: Your child plus a cast of animal characters star in this sweet story – making this an ideal newborn or First Birthday gift. The animals all “gather around … to create a name for her (or him) with the perfect sound.” Together, animals of every ilk offer up a letter to include in the name – until your child’s name is revealed. There is also a “dedicated to” page for a personalized message. It’s not just a book, but a keepsake.

Chimp & Zee: Or, chimpanzees – in case you missed the play on words – are two cheeky monkeys from Jungletown, who hide from their mama and find themselves on a journey through the forest atop an elephant family. This clever story is filled with super-cute illustrations and a happy ending. My 5-year-old loves to read about other little monkeys being naughty (go wonder!), so this is a winner in our house.
There’s an Elephant in My Bathtub: Just released from first-time authors and father-son duo is this darling story about an imaginative 6-year-old who conjures up a bathtub full of wild animals. The story is illustrated with vivid, child-like drawings, where alligators brush teeth, monkeys jump in laundry baskets and elephants take bubble baths. This story is ideal for those kiddos who resist bath time. Add bubbles and a few wild creatures (of the plastic variety) and see what your little one thinks up! 
Owen & Mzee: This is a true-life story of a young rhino rescued during a tsunami, who finds a new home and life-long friendship with a 130-year-old Aldabra tortoise at a Kenyan zoo. It will fill your heart with hope and love for humanity (and the animal kingdom) as these two unlikely creatures become inseparable, best of friends. Owen & Mzee is one in a series of true-life animal stories and the bipeds who care for them.

On the job — at home, at school, at work

November 3, 2010

Four years ago when my son was in kindergarten, I was THE mom.  I was THE room mom.  I was THE art docent.  I was THE weekly workshop mom.  I was THE co-chair of a major school fundraiser.  If someone asked, I would say, “yes.” 

Today, while attending my daughter’s first kinder field trip, I realized that I’m no longer that mom.  I was there for my daughter as I had been for my son.  However, something was very different.  All I could think about was getting back to work and the other 30 non-work “to dos” for the day.

How I wish I could still be THE mom – present and fully vested in my role as mom.  I wish that I could still be there for every event, every field trip.  I wish I could coach and lead.  It was so satisfying and seemingly simple.  

These days, I split my time between my kids, my parents, my 93 year-old grandmother, my in-laws and running a business.  There’s no time to be THE mom.   In fact, there’s no me time p.e.r.o.i.d.  I’ve been squoozen. 

Yep … I said squoozen.  It’s a made-up word I use to describe feeling smashed and thrashed from all sides – both as parents of young kids and as adult children to parents with needs.  Oh, and there’s that lil’ thing called a career.  Having it all as a working mom just doesn’t work.

I still do what I can on the school front.   I return permission slips, money and my kids on time every day (which is no small feat).   I’m in my daughter’s kinder class once a week as work allows.  My son’s class – I’m there once a month, if I’m lucky. 

That said, I miss being THE mom.  I relish being in the classroom and at school, and not because I’m a control freak (I am), but because it gives me such ridiculous joy.  Seeing them learn and thrive makes me feel good.  It makes me feel good about life.  

I know that I’ll always be THE mom for two great kiddos.  But, boy how I miss those days when I could say “yes” to most any classroom request and then, enjoy the fun of it with my kids.

Would I change it?  Nope.  I want my kids to also see me as a career woman – succeeding and enjoying my job is just as powerful a message as being present in the classroom.  However, I wouldn’t turn down a personal assistant to take care of life’s time-sucking chores – starting with the laundry and dinner.

Again with the “What’s for dinner?”

October 18, 2010

D-i-n-n-e-r?   It’s the question that plagues me each and every day.  On my best days, I have food in the fridge and game plan in place by 3PM.  The other 350 days of the year, it’s chicken and salad, spaghetti or my kids’ favorite – breakfast-dinner.  Most of the time, it’s fairly healthy.   It is always a grind because I am sick-to-death of my own cooking.

That’s why I was overjoyed to be included in the launch of the Disney Family.com food channel featuring famed chef Cat Cora and the Muppets.  Love those fur balls.

As for the invite to this soiree??  Someone at Disney must have read about my recent fast food debacle, took pity on me and decided I could benefit from a little cooking help.  Alas, I found myself at the Professional Culinary Institute with 25 other mommy bloggers and the producers of Family.com’s food channel.  So. Much. Fun.

Together, we recreated some of Cat Cora’s best family dishes, including the Mini Greek Burger Gyros with Garlic Sauce and Spring Greens.  It was delicious and easily something my kids would eat.  It’s also something that I would have never attempted to try on my own.  The mere length of the title would have scared me off.  Boy, was I wrong.  There are so many ingredients hidden in here (including a couple of my faves – feta cheese and Kalamata olives). These little bites of yumminess are a great new taste sensation with a familiar package that’s impossible for a kid to resist. Your husband?  Well, he might just spontaneously do the dishes after this meal.  

And, for the budding young chef in your family, Disney also unveiled Hasty Tasty Cooking Tips.  These are 3-minute video vignettes that show Cat Cora and Angelo, the Muppet, race against the clock to cook up bite-size recipes.   It’s a great way to get the kids involved with the actual meal planning and cooking – which is next on my family to-do list.  Mama doesn’t need to be cooking EVERY night, right?  Right!

Back to me … the house frau and domestic goddess needing go-to meals that actually appeal to ME.  And, since it is against my religion to cook separate meals for picky eaters, I suppose it should also appeal to those other peeps taking up residence here too.

No surprise, my favorite recipes are titled “20 Meals in 20 Minute.”  I can do anything in 20 minutes!  Heck, if I turn on an iCarly episode for the kids, I can cook dinner and shower too.  Here are a few of my favorite quick and healthy dinner recipes from Cat Cora at Family.com:

From one mother to another … thank you, Cat Cora, for refreshing my attitude on dinner.  Maybe, I’ll even break out the table cloth and light some candles tonight.

Out-of-order ORDER

September 22, 2010

I get an “F” for eating last week.  At least 4 nights out of 5, we ate out.  And, I’m not talking fancy steak houses with side salads.  It was cheap, fast, crappy food.  One night, I even endeavored to go through the drive through.

Having worked right up to the dinner hour, I dropped off the babysitter and asked the kids if they’d like a special treat.  I suggested In-n-Out dinner and “Yes!” was the resounding answer.  They were thrilled.  However, somewhere between the intersection of thrilled and dead-tired hungry, my daughter lost it in the back seat – screaming for the next 13 minutes (yes – I counted).

Alas, when we arrived to chez burger joint, there was no way I was going in.  I joined the 20-car lineup in the drive through.  The problem?  Kid #2 was still crying (about what, I don’t remember) because what happened next will go down in the mama annals as embarrassing moment #17,734. 

I was so busy consoling and negotiating that I drove right past the order kiosk and didn’t even notice until I was a whole two cars past it and nary closer to the pay window.  I was stuck.  Sh#%! Sh#%! Sh#%!

As I arrived to the pay window, the overly cheerful server listens to my bizarre recount of car shenanigans and mommy dementia, and pleasantly proceeds to take my order.  Wow! That was easier than I thought.  But, no.  She then, ever so kindly, leans back into the kitchen and from over her shoulder yells, “OUT-OF-ORDER ORDER!”

This unleashes a flurry of activity down the synchronized burger production line – right to the pickup window worker, who is now loudly repeating “Out-of-order order?!”  As if that’s not bad enough, she is pointing … at our car!  Heads start turning – cooks and customers too are now looking at me!  I wanted to slide right onto the floor board and hide. 

I thought about driving through – not stopping.  However, having sat there and watched the fry cooks jumping over one another to collect the “out-of-order” fries and the burger crew, reaching past each other to make two plain “out-of order” cheese burgers, I thought it better to quietly collect my food and never return (at least for a couple weeks).

I humbly and apologetically accepted my “out-of-order order” to which, a different, but equally cheerful server replied, “No problem.”  (I saw the knowing glint in his eye and the bead sweat trickle down his cheek.) 

Apparently, the drive through, believed to be the last bastion for mother’s sanity is no longer an embarrassment-free zone.  From now on, I’ll just eat at home.  Toast anyone??

Project – The New 4-Letter Word

September 16, 2010

So, it’s seven letters … that’s just a technicality for what has become cause for “bad attitudes and filthy mouths.”  Mind you, I’m talking about me – not the kid. 

Let me back up … On July 26th, my son began the dreaded 4th grade with so-called endless homework and incessant projects.  I pretty much wrote off the worry mongers, content in knowing that my son is a great student, who likes school and rarely complains about homework.  That’s him – not me.

And, certainly not me last week.  Last week, he put the final touches on his first book report project (p-r-o-j-e-c-t).   All total, this biography book report project took 8 hours.  He transformed a coffee can into the likeness of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, designed five creative fact cards, and completed a timeline and book report Q&A.   Of course, this didn’t even include reading the book. 

Rewind … he’s in 4th grade.  Also, this project didn’t just take him 8 hours … it took me 8 hours too. 

“Why me?” you ask.  There are those parents who say that they don’t help, but I don’t believe them – not one of them.

 I had to help with the glue gun and locate crafty items tucked in the recesses of closets from last year.  There was the trip to Michael’s Craft Store.  Of course, there was the endless time management and question asking.  Him asking, “What do you think of this, Mom?” or “Where’s that the thing that I don’t remember the name to, but remember seeing in 2006?”  Then, there is me saying, “Are you spending too much time on that?  What’s next?  Stop picking the glue from your finger tips and start writing!” 

Plus, to keep him moving forward, I served as his personal cleanup crew – washing paint brushes, picking up trash, vacuuming googley eyes, scrapping glue off my table.  My kitchen could have easily been mistaken for a “Hoarders” episode.  Then, there was the constant redirecting of his 5YO sister out of the paints and away from glue gun.  (For the record, she didn’t want to use the washable paints on paper.  No, she wanted permanent paints and a can to boot.  Imagine the crying.  Note to self – buy two Yuban tins next time.)

I know that I should embrace the “project.”  Yet, I find homework to be a constant time suck and I’m becoming a little resentful about my lack of free time, work time, cleaning time, any time.  Gone are the weekday afternoons for riding bikes and running through the sprinklers.   There’s no time.

So, after nearly a full week of project preparation, I was downright annoyed by the time it was finished.  Really, what is the goal?  From my perspective, it feels like were breeding perfectionists. 

The rubric , which is the new-fangled term for a grading sheet, scored each element of the project, including  “Every word is spelled correctly.”   Every!  We try hard not to use “always” and “never” and it seems to me “every” falls into that camp too.

Again, it is 4th grade and the only way there will be no errors, is if mama gets involved.   And, who decided that any margin of error is bad?  I think most innovators would say they failed long before they succeeded.   

Ironically, the rubric included a misspelled word.  HA!  My son and I shared a secret chuckle on that one.  More importantly, I could use it as a perfect example of how no one is perfect – not “every” teacher and certainly not mama.

I love the critical and creative thinking that a project can encourage.  I hate that it takes up an excessive amount of time to complete, requires a parent’s full-time attention and breeds perfectionism. 

My son’s project was brilliant … super smart … lots of fun.  One could say, “perfect” right down to the splattered mud on Steve Irwin’s shirt, hair and face.  I did spy a couple errors in his writing prompts and suggested that he re-read the copy.  He didn’t see them.  Oh, how I wanted to show him.  Yeah, right … who’s the perfectionist?   Instead, I decided to let him roll with it and actually learn from his mistakes.  It is, after all, his project.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Plato

September 2, 2010

“Be kind.”  It’s one of my mama mottos.  The rest of the quote, “for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” was as true 2,000-plus years ago, as it is today.  The thing is — some people wear their battles, unable to hide hurt or sickness, while others are unraveling silently on the inside. 

I have battles – some pretty big ones these days.  That said, I consider myself damn lucky for one simple reason – my kids are healthy.  Everything else is doable.  However, so many of our family friends are battling their child’s incurable disorder – autism.  Last night, my hubby and I watched our friends’ kids, including their 6YO son, who has autism.

Easy – it wasn’t.  Their autistic son is a handful and growing more physical each day.  He’s also unpredictable, which makes me nervous since I’m not able to anticipate his needs or reaction or mood.  And, I’m not sure what my reaction should be either.  I stand firm on no spitting or hitting.  But, beyond saying “no” and redirecting, I’m more likely to remove my kids from the scene than him.

Then, there were unexpected moments of affection.  When I would walk away, he’d come find me and wrap his arms around my waist or reach out to hold my hand.  I felt so honored to be embraced.  We even enjoyed three bedtime stories.  He was engrossed in his nighttime bottle and never once interrupted with a question about the story.  It was so different from our bedtime routine, where I have to tell my 5YO to save her questions/comments until the end, otherwise, we’ll never get through the story. 

As we were driving home, my hubby said to me, “Man, I wish I could just get inside his head.”   I know his mama thinks that every moment of everyday.   We’ve tried hard over the last 10 years to learn about autism.  I ask my girlfriends lots of questions.  No doubt, I have unknowingly said something wrong or insensitive, which is why I am especially thankful for a story called Cowboy & Wills.   It is a remarkable and uncensored story of one mother’s battle against autism.  

Monica Holloway’s journey as a mother is every bit as poignant as Wills’.  While the story focuses on how a puppy named Cowboy helps Wills “step a little farther into the world,” I was drawn to Monica.  Cowboy, the puppy, may have seemingly helped Wills to make friends and succeed in school, it was his mom (it will always be his mom and dad), who are truly the heroes whether they win the battle or not.

This post was inspired by the From Left to Write September book club featuring Cowboy & Wills by Monica Holloway.  In full disclosure, I received a free copy of this book.  Don’t forget the box o’ kleenex!

Back-to-school reads

August 31, 2010

School is back in session! Certainly, you heard the collective “whoops” of mothers the country-round. And, for those who spent long evenings outside riding bikes and jumping in lakes, it’s time to hit the books! Here’s to the 2010-2011 school year and my favorite BTS reads.

… Newness and nerves: The Night Before First Grade’s sing-song quality tracks to the classic “Night Before Christmas,” but with a modern-day, relatable story about lunches, making friends, teachers and good-byes. ( Don’t be surprised if your kiddo makes his own lunch after reading this story!) This is one of many in her “The Night Before” series that covers every imaginable holiday, plus first school days (by grade) and my fave – summer!

… Fitting in and making friends: Miss. Mingo and the First Day of School is a darling story about being yourself and how each child is uniquely special. Miss. Mingo – the flamingo teacher – helps the animal students in her class overcome their shyness on the first day of school by encouraging them to share something unique about themselves. This is our family’s favorite BTS read.

… Saying good-bye: The Kissing Hand is certainly a classic first-day read, known to incite sobs from the most hardened mother. Chester the raccoon is afraid to go to school and be without his mom for the night (he’s nocturnal, after all). Chester’s Mom kisses the center of his paw and tells him if he should feel frightened or scared or lonely, he should simply hold his paw up to his face, and he will feel her love. Do not (I repeat: do NOT) read this story without Kleenex.

… Keeping it light: My School’s a Zoo! is a super silly story about a little boy who awakes to find his home and school transformed after having attended a field trip to the zoo the day before. Warning!! You will go around rhyming for the next 24 hours (and annoying everyone in your wake) after enjoying the tops-turvy menagerie of animal shenanigans. Get ready for some misbehaving fun and lots of giggles.

Coloring INSIDE the Lines (it’s ok, Mom)

August 26, 2010

When my oldest was just a roly-poly, I read that coloring books stunt creative growth.   Basically, the recommendation goes that kids should make their own lines and not color in someone else’s art.   Not to over think it, but I have to say, that I buy into this theory.  (I can hear all my girlfriends groaning and preparing to mock me … wait, wait. )

Fast forward ten years and my littles are sitting spell bound at the kitchen table coloring each element of a historical person EXACTLY as shown.  Never mind, that we probably don’t really know the exact color of clothing worn by Aristotle and Khufu.  I explained that they could choose other colors, but they countered, saying that they wanted to use the same colors as portrayed in the book, Famous Figures of Ancient Times.   They were going for authenticity!

For more than an hour – they colored and cut figures into movable art.  My 5YO recreated Khufu, an Egyptian pharaoh, while my 9YO conjured up Hannibal and his elephant.  It’s one of several Figures in Motion books where art meets history.

As we sat there coloring, cutting and fastening, they asked a ton of questions – including, why doesn’t Pharaoh Khufu wear a shirt.  For the most part, I kept it simple introducing new words to the mix for my 5YO and countering with my own questions (Why do you think Khufu wears jewelry?  What else do we know about Egypt?)

History questions from my 9YO left me wondering how I graduated college without the slightest info on Hannibal or his war elephants.   Thankfully, each figure also included a very brief overview (place, time and significance), so I could fain some historical intellect. 

Figures in Motion is a series of activity books intended to bring history to life.   And, they did!  Art, followed by play, resulting in learning is the goal.   The kids color and cut the figures into movable paper figures (think paper dolls).   Clearly, there is a benefit to coloring inside the lines.  It’s called a history lesson – cloaked in art fun.

For us, the activity book was a great conversation starter about people and places that we don’t normally discuss during the rush-rush of everyday.   What a fantastic way to spend a Saturday – kickin’ it at the kitchen table and chatting up Khufu, Hannibal and his 37 war elephants.  When I asked if I could display the finished figures on our art door, my son said, “Nah, I wanna play with them.”

This post was inspired by the book club, From Left to Write.  The September club featured Famous Figures of Ancient Times and Dinosaurs on the Move by Cathy Diez-Luckie.  In full disclosure, I received free copies of these books.  The kinders in my ‘hood thoroughly enjoyed Dinosaurs on the Move, but I’d save the Famous Figures of Ancient Times for the older kids (say 8 & up).

Choices Guide – Love Defines

August 11, 2010

I’ve been on a binge this summer – a book binge.  It’s been fabulously indulgent and far more forgiving than binging on chocolate (which is also perfectly acceptable in “my book”).  Alas, I digress …

My reading habit hit a crescendo this summer when I had four different books in full swing with several others qued up on my night stand.  So, here’s my guilty admission … I’m supposed to be writing an inspired review for Maggie Dawson new book  titled The stuff that never happened.  I’m on page 118.  The book is 328 pages long and there is no way I’m finishing that sucker tonight – let alone 28 minutes ago when the post was due. 

Nothing like tardiness to inspire creativity.   Ironically, most of the stories I read this summer had one common theme  –  choices.  Yawner, right?   Nope … from Carol Burnett (Hollywood autobio) to Jillian Lauren (her life in harem), each story inspired me to consider whether choices define character – define destiny?   Heavy, I know.  

My younger self would have answered that question with an emphatic “yes.”  Look at Carol Burnett.  She had less than stellar parents (mother – alcoholic, father – MIA) and she is brilliantly successful,  funny, kind and above all REAL.  Why?  She lived a life of character and followed her life’s passion by making “good choices.”  No doubt, other happy events factored into the outcome.

What about other women, who don’t make the “right” choice or who make down-right bad choices.  Do her choices define her character – define her happiness – define her life?  It’s difficult to answer that question without sounding painfully judgmental.   

Take Jillian Lauren, author of Some Girls:  My Life in a Harem.   This story was both impossible to read and impossible to put down.  It is her true story about her life in a Brunei harem.  I was able to temper my judgment until she RETURNED to Brunei for a second stint at the palace.  The voice inside my head was screaming, “No! WHY? Don’t!”   Wasn’t there anyone in her life who could offer some perspective – love her enough –  beg her not to return to Brunei?  What about self respect and preservation?


For the most part, it’s been easy for me to make the “right” choices and because of that, perhaps easier to be judgmental.  Choices may be a compass for life’s journey, but “bad” choices don’t have to define or limit the entirety of a life.  (Jillian taught me that.)  When she was young, she chose a life of drugs, prostitution and money.  It was one of her many detours before finding herself at home today as a wife, mother and writer (among many other things, I suspect).

Funny … that book I’m supposed to be finished reading.  It’s also about choices  – life’s “what ifs.”  What if I had actually finished The stuff that never happened (and I will because it’s a juicy read)?  My inspired post would be the same with one important footnote – “what ifs,” even good ones, are wasted energy that create regret and stress.  This I know for certain … where choices guide, “what ifs” divide.    

One more thing.  Only love can define a life.  Thanks Jillian and Carol!


This post was inspired by the From Left to Write August book club featuring The Stuff that Never Happened by Maddie Dawson.  

Dirty Work Reading

July 24, 2010

“Raise your right hand and repeat after me.”   We had spent three days at a campsite – attending campfire talks, hiking, biking, chimpmunk watching and hanging out.  While my fellow campers mocked me relentlessly, I wasn’t leaving the famed gold rush country of Plumas-Eureka until my children became certified, official Junior Rangers. 

And, do you know what?  It was a sweet and thrilling moment.  My 9YO took the impromptu ceremony seriously – standing tall and wearing a proud grin.   He had made a promise to protect the wildlife and embraced his new stewardship with gusto and earnest.  My 5YO wouldn’t miss out on anything – even if it included fire walking.  She was right there too – collecting pins, stamps and stickers – all the time with her (oops) left hand raised.   She probably also suspected this might be our last family camping trip and she better get in on this “Junior Ranger thing” while the getting is good (smart girl!).

Having recited the Junior Ranger Pledge and receiving a metal pin, the children had Ranger Patty O’Brien stamp their Logbook, which serves as a passport of sorts when visiting any of the 270 California State Parks.  It’s a 20-page activities book that the kids can carry with them to be stamped at all of California’s State Parks, including some unlikely destinations such as Hearst Castle, Vallejo’s Compound, Alcatraz and the State Capital. 

The free log book is the quintessential summer enrichment tool and can be picked up at any California State Park.  The book is filled with information on animal life, ecology, energy, weather, geology, history, recycling and safety.    Each section prompts the kiddo to get out in nature and later, journal their experience in words and drawings. 

With many of the State Parks in jeopardy of closing, I feel especially motivated to show my children these magical places.  This is one book that I will encourage my kids to drag through dirt and fill with pencil marks, sharpies and pens of every sort.  Most importantly, it will be filled with super-cool Ranger stamps that detail our outdoor adventures and funniest family stories.   No doubt, these Junior Ranger Logbooks are destined for the “forever box.”

No rest for the rookie camper.  Up next – Yosemite NATIONAL Park!

For more cool camping picks, visit Mama Manifesto.  Here I detail my favorite items for the rookie camper.

(Travelers note:   If visiting Plumas-Eureka, be sure to catch Ranger O’Brien as Flavious –a1900s Irish immigrant and gold miner.  What a gift to have been able to hear Flavious’ first-hand account of life as a miner under a canopy of pine trees with a roaring campfire.  Plus, he plays a mean mandolin and invites the kids to accompany him on the washboard and spoons!)