Tag Archives: Books

Book Review: The Rooms Are Filled

Ever since I found out in October that Jessica Null Vealitzek, author of the blog True Stories, would be releasing a book this April, I couldn’t wait to read it. If the writing on her blog is that good, what could she do with a book? When I got the chance to get an advance reading copy of her novel, The Rooms Are Filled, I jumped at it—and book reviews are not my specialty. Her blog has always inspired me, made me stop and think, and even caused me to grab the tissues, which to me is a sure sign of good writing. I hoped her book would do the same.

It didn’t disappoint.

The Rooms Are Filled begins in Minnesota at the scene of nine-year-old Michael’s suddenly shattered life. As his father lies dying on the ground, Michael thinks the paramedics aren’t careful enough. And he doesn’t want those strangers around his father. And from there, I didn’t want Michael to come to any harm or pain again.vealitzek

When he and his mother, Anne, move to Illinois to make ends meet, Michael struggles to fit in with classmates. There his only friends are Tina, who lives across the street and comes with her own set of problems, and his teacher, Julia Parnell, new to town and trying to fit in by not standing out.

When introduced to Julia for the first time, I immediately fell in love with her too. And how could I not? She drives into the story “gripping the steering wheel as though it kept her from falling out of the car and rolling down the highway.” Struggling with her sexual identity and running away from her past, Julia encounters her own set of bullies.

Vealitzek wrote these characters with such care, you’d swear they were people she knew all her life. I rooted for them and hoped others didn’t get their way. You have to see for yourself whether everything is tied up nicely in the end.

As with all good books I’ve read, I wanted to know the inspiration behind this story. This time I could ask.

Vealitzek said the book is loosely based on a childhood experience of her father, who moved from a Minnesota farm to working-class Franklin Park, Illinois, in the early 1950s. Neighborhood kids and classmates teased him for his slight lisp and said he sounded like a “hick.” His teacher was a rumored lesbian and the kids made fun of her too. She helped Vealitzek’s father build confidence by encouraging him to read aloud. It worked.

I love it when a good story and good writing come together. The two don’t always come hand in hand, but Vealitzek weaves a heartfelt story with imagery and characters that stayed with me long after I read the last page.

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Sometimes Books Hold Mom’s Stories Too

My children can’t always be held accountable for hanging onto things. When they finally feel inspired, I look into their bin of discarded ponies, plastic fast food meal toys, and assorted paper bits, and swell with glee to be rid of it all. But then my eyes wander and settle on the pile of books sitting amidst the junk—books my child feels she has outgrown. I see a pile of memories, a past that I can no longer get back and already feels worlds away. My heart sinks and my chest swells with that feeling of pressure you hold back when you’re about to cry.

Some books you never want to see again. Some books you read to your kids a million times and every word pains you. But when I looked at the Mercy Watson series teetering on my daughter’s pile of junk, I immediately remembered when my daughter wanted them. They were her first chapter books and a transition to something so much older. I felt sad and excited at the same time when we started reading them, the same way I felt when my son and I started Nate the Great. It meant something to be graduating from picture books just like it means something that my kids’ shelves are now mostly covered in more difficult books they can read alone. Each new stage takes them further away from me and those nights long ago when I’d point to words and show them in earnest how to understand the world.ohmercy

My daughter would never admit in a million years that she loved pigs at the time we started Mercy Watson, but she did—because they were pink. We’d snuggle in her bed at night and read several chapters. I didn’t do it for every book, but for these books, I had a special voice for every character. Crotchety Eugenia sounded like my childhood friend’s grandmother. We began those books not long after my daughter got her big girl bed. But what I remember more is when my daughter started reading them herself, a sign of the passage of time that I must have missed for she still looked like my baby to me. How could she possibly be reading them to herself?

I’ve read to my kids every night since they could sit up. Since they were old enough to talk, we’ve spent the time after bedtime stories talking about their day, escaping and connecting. So the books we’ve read remind me of those times too—conversations about not feeling wanted that have broken my heart, the revelation of getting in trouble at school after pretending all afternoon that things were fine, and worry upon worry about the world.

I snatched those Mercy Watson books from the pile yesterday. And there will be more. Some books have too many memories attached of nights with my kids, eras that have ended. For now Fancy Nancy still sits on my daughter’s shelf. I remember that phase when my daughter wore skirts over pants, strands of long beads, glasses with large frames, and purple plastic heels. It’s an image burned into my memory because it was a phase that passed too quickly. The books reminded me of the preschool her and they always will. I’ll always have images of her running through the yard singing in a tutu and pink cowboy boots or playing soccer in all her finery with her brother on the driveway, but I’ll never live that again. I imagine soon those books will end up on my shelves too. Some things I’m just not ready to let go.

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What Laura Ingalls Wilder Taught a Modern Mom

If you haven’t read the Little House books and plan to, know that this post includes some spoilers.

“You know how Mary is always so good and just sits there?”

“Yeah because she’s blonde.”

“You remember that time they went to church and Laura wore Mary’s ribbons and Mary wore Laura’s?”

“Yeah because they were running late.”

Two little girls had just had a conversation about a Little House book in my kitchen. Not American Girl dolls they want or a TV show or a video game. A book.

I didn’t talk about books when I was a kid. When I was about nine, I attempted Little House and failed. I just couldn’t get into it. Over the past year and a half, my seven-year-old daughter and I read the series together. When we started Little House in the Big Woods, I honestly didn’t think we’d get through it. I thought my daughter would find it boring. But in the quiet of the evening, my daughter faced me and soaked it in, asking questions.

When we started Little House on the Prairie and the building of their new house is described in so much detail, I thought we wouldn’t go on, but at the end of each book my daughter couldn’t wait for the next. Neither could I. All I could think was that I was so happy I didn’t read these books when I was a girl. Reading them for the first time with my daughter has been a gift revealed page by page. We couldn’t wait to see what each night would bring. Would the wolves get into the house? Would Pa make it home? “Oh, Mom! You always stop at the good parts!”littlehouse

What’s the appeal of stories about a girl’s pioneer life from more than a century ago? Laura’s many chores, danger, and solitude on the quiet prairie with few toys and comforts is more like our childhoods than we think. After all, even then it was hard for a girl to listen and sit still.

And reading the books for the first time as an adult, the books shed some perspective on my modern life.

• The Ingalls family doesn’t have much. They can take everything they own and move from place to place in a covered wagon. My family has tons of stuff. Some of it fills me with joy but I dare guess how many covered wagons it would take to move all of our things. Wagon train, anyone?

• The Ingalls family fixes what is broken. Pa wears his patched boots to walk a hundred miles for work, saving the money for something else. I wouldn’t want Pa to see my closet full of shoes. For shame, Karen.

• Oh, that mean old Nellie Oleson! If there is one thing I learned while reading On the Banks of Plum Creek, it’s that there is always a mean girl.

• We don’t control blizzards, grasshopper weather, the outcome of our crops, or the effects of illness. The Ingalls family pushes through the cold winter, Pa finds work to make money since the grasshoppers ate their crops, and Mary accepts her blindness with dignity. No one falls to the floor in a fit, whines for pity, or sheds a tear when things go wrong. Let me be clear—there is no dignity in this house in the face of misfortune.

I know the books are historical fiction, but I also know Wilder included many facts in her books. I can’t help but think the emotion is part of that.

After reading about Laura’s life, her closeness with her family, it was hard to read about her last night at home before getting married. I remember my own last night at home when the realization sunk in that things would be different and I would take on new roles. It was hard to see Laura move on. I could barely read the words to my daughter. “What’s wrong, Mommy?” Every few words I paused so I wouldn’t burst into sobs. And then my daughter knew, it clicked, and she looked at me. Tears streamed down her cheeks and we wiped our tears and laughed. “I don’t ever want to leave you!” she cried. But I know she will one day. And that’s OK.

I’ll always have memories of this time together while my kids are young, reading to them, spending time with them. In Laura’s family, Pa plays the fiddle each night while everyone gathers round. In ours, we play games together or hang out. I guess family time is something that has stood the test of time.

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Awakened: Reliving My Childhood

The moment my kids began to explore their surroundings, I began to see the world clearly. Like seeing through much-needed eyeglasses for the first time or a dirty window wiped clean, my view finally came into focus.

Maybe I just hadn’t noticed the details in all the years since I was the young one running around barefoot chasing fireflies, sifting dirt between outstretched fingers in search of writhing earthworms, or staring in wonder at a line of ants marching like soldiers across the driveway.

Maybe as a child I never saw baby birds learn to fly. Witnessing this as an adult, I sat in the same wide-eyed wonder as my kids watching fluffy black pom-poms bounce through the grass, chirping at their mother. One by one, they flapped their wings and took off to the branch above. I couldn’t help but wonder if I were a child with no mother making me watch, would I? Were there better things to do? Is this why I missed so much as a child?

I take my time now, no rushing about. Before I had kids, I didn’t know much about outer space. No one asked me about Mars and evidence of water there, so I didn’t need to know. Now my spirit fills with wonder in a slightly different way than my son’s must when he looks at the sky and wonders whether spaceships full of Stormtroopers dart overhead.

A snail edges along a crack in our driveway and my husband could tell me for the tenth time to come in for the night. This creature hefts its top-heavy spiral shell to the side to make great strides, grasping bits of straw with its foot. I could watch it all night.land snail

A snow day from work used to mean housework, maybe a movie. Now it means bundling up in triple layers and heading outside before caffeine pulses through blood, our breath a blanket of fog as we pull sleds down the path looking for signs of deer. We make the first footprints in silvery snow that is like a fresh sheet of paper, ours to write the story of our day. I make sure to take turns on the sled too. The kids can’t have all the fun. I’m pretty sure I scream the loudest, slide the farthest.

I wedge myself in too-tight spots like a crayfish under a rock because hide-and-seek has tough rules in this house. On the field, I throw like Tim Tebow half the time, but the other half I am Drew Brees, throwing spirals 30 yards to a four-foot receiver who always makes it to the end zone.

Storytime started as a way to read to the kids but I look forward to it with such anticipation that I am the child most of the time, hearing books I never cared about when I was younger. Oh, I love that Laura Ingalls. And Bilbo Baggins, why did I shun you?

I don’t remember seeing the world through a child’s eyes all those years ago. I was so focused then on everything but. Having children to show the world to has opened up a universe of excitement, beauty, and joy to me that melted away during my 9-to-5 days sitting behind a desk.

Now that I have kids, I have an excuse to enjoy my childhood again. It’s like staying up late with your best friend, sneaking Skittles from the candy jar, and telling secrets about your brother—the best time of your life.

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It’s Summertime and the Reading Is Easy

Five weeks of summer have been dawdled away on quiet afternoons with books in hand, feet up, and minds lost in stories too good to interrupt. During the hectic rush of the school year, these are the days we long for: lazy summer days when there are more chapters than hours to read them.

But that hasn’t always been the case. Last summer was quite a different story. I had to beg my kids to do any summer reading. My husband and I read to our kids every night at bedtime. They love books, but they can be picky. Bookstores can be overwhelming. With a lot of patience, persistence, and the determination of a youthful heroine, I made sure this summer the kids found some hits. I’m glad because I just love happy endings.

Here are the books we haven’t been able to put down this summer, including a few simple ways I got my picky readers to try something new (in italics).

Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan. My son didn’t want to try anything new when he finally finished Harry Potter. He wanted to read that lengthy series again! I picked up The Lightning Thief and read the first few pages to him one night before bed. He was hooked. Riordan does a great job of getting straight to the action. We’ve had to rush to the library for the next book each time my son finishes one. Thanks, Mr. Riordan.

summer reading

A little summer reading. What series should follow Percy Jackson?

Darth Paper Strikes Back: An Origami Yoda Book by Tom Angleberger. While Origami Yoda knew how to solve problems, Darth Paper causes a bit of trouble at the middle school. When my son found out this author plans a book signing in our town, he couldn’t wait to finish this book and has his sights set on the next one due in August.

Just Grace series by Charise Mericle Harper. My daughter was skeptical until I enticed her with the idea that these books were a tiny bit like Diary of a Wimpy Kid for girls, only because it’s broken up into really short bits like a diary and has cute child-like drawings so the narrator can show the reader what she’s talking about. But that’s where the similarities end. The books are cute, age appropriate, and well written. I love Harper’s style. Grace is a cool kid I don’t mind my daughter reading about.

Just Grace

Just Grace is a good series about a girl in a class with other Graces. She gets the nickname “Just Grace,” though she’s anything but ordinary.

The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. When my daughter read the American Girl series about Julie, the girl from 1974, she became interested in the Little House books because Julie was. I took advantage of the connection to another book and read them to her. We’re on the fourth book and love Laura’s antics and Pa’s wisdom. These are a great change of pace from modern life.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I’ve had this book for a while and put off reading it. I wish I hadn’t. I loved it and can’t wait to read the sequels. It’s a great summer read and more girly than I expected. My son wants to read it and I questioned the violence. When I finished, I told him what it was about. He said, “You lost me when you said it was about a girl.” Problem solved.

The Messy Quest for Meaning by Stephen Martin. Martin is a good friend of mine and this book tells about his struggle to find purpose in his life, what he learned from Trappist monks, and how readers can discover their own calling in the world. What, I have purpose other than wiping rears and messes?

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson. Funny. Books that make everyone else laugh don’t usually make me laugh. Parts of this made me cry. My husband read this too and every time he laughed, I’d say, “What part are you on?”

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz. I’m not very familiar with Grimm’s fairy tales. Evidently they’re pretty violent and gory. This book follows the formula. I don’t like that kind of stuff but I loved this well-written book. Clever plot twists move the story along and the characters really do deserve what they get. My son previously started this book and lost interest. When he saw me reading it, he immediately wanted to read it. But he was already into Percy Jackson, which is fine with me.

Even though we’re out of this stage, here are some summer picture books we have loved.

A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever by Marla FrazeeEvery now and then my son still likes to read this book about two boys who spend a week with one of boys’ grandparents doing what they want to do instead of the fun nature things the grandpa has planned. The boys in it are funny and real and in the end, they really do get the point.

Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau by Jennifer Berne. This story tells the life of Jacques Cousteau, including his early years and his contributions to scuba diving and early marine conservation. To a kid, it’s a cool book about a boy, an ocean, and a passion.

Rattletrap Car by Phyllis Root. In this heat, a day at the lake is in order. Can Poppa get the family’s rattletrap car to work long enough to make it to the lake? Maybe if the whole family pitches in. Some days I feel like this in our rattletrap van. “Son, hand me your razzleberry, dazzleberry, snazzleberry gum. I need it to fix the door.”

So tell me, what have you been reading this summer? Five weeks left. There’s plenty time for more in our house. 

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Fancy Nancy: An Author Reading I Couldn’t Miss

When I learned Jane O’Connor, author of the Fancy Nancy picture books, planned a book reading at our local bookstore, I was ecstatic, elated, overjoyed. For those of you not familiar with her books, that’s a fancy way of saying I was pretty excited and you can bet I planned to be there.

But my daughter had a soccer game at the same time and she didn’t want to miss it. Her grandfather could see her play for once. That was special. I was heartbroken, deflated, forlorn. Pretty much, I was bummed.

I have loved Fancy Nancy since the first time I read it to her, choking over the last lines about love and its simplicity between mother and child. And one hundred times later, I still do.

Of all of the books that my daughter will one day outgrow, none of the Fancy Nancy picture books will ever be parted with. Tucked within the pages lay too many memories of our heads on her pillow, laughing at Nancy’s dramatics, aching over her schoolgirl troubles, and relating all too well to a little girl who in so many ways is just like the little girl lying beside me and also the little girl I once was.

I love the books because my daughter can play in pink cowboy boots and a tutu while hunting for bugs or riding her bike. She loves dress-up as much as she loves Star Wars. Her scraped knees and purple bruises accent her accessories: wrists full of mismatched bracelets, striped leg warmers, and don’t forget those high-heel shoes.

So when the opportunity came to hear the author of these books speak, I was tickled pink. Her writing makes me laugh, smile, and choke back tears. And it will always make me think of my daughter and some quiet times together.

When Jane O’Connor revealed who inspired the character of Fancy Nancy, I had a feeling I knew. Not her kids, she had sons. Not her grandchildren, she doesn’t have any yet. It was her. She showed a picture of a daintily dressed young Jane with a bandage on her knee and said her legs always displayed cuts and bruises. It’s no wonder she knows Fancy Nancy so well.

Jane O'Connor with a childhood photo

Jane O’Connor displays a childhood photo, her inspiration for Fancy Nancy.

I stood alone in a packed crowd and watched with all the giddy admiration of a starry-eyed six-year-old. I waited patiently in line for an hour for Jane O’Connor to sign my daughter’s books, which she quickly signed in bright pink marker.

When my daughter said she was going to her soccer game, it was OK. I knew seeing Jane O’Connor’s book reading meant more to me. For my six-year-old, it didn’t matter. Mom brings the books to life at night.

For me, Jane O’Connor is the woman responsible. She brings to life the memories, the connection between character, my little girl, and my own childhood.

To her I say thank you. And there just isn’t a better way to say that.

My 30 seconds with Jane O’Connor. The photographer really could have waited for her to look up. But there we are!

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Bedtime Stories

Whether we’re tired, it’s late, or someone has stomped up the stairs and slammed the door in a very bad mood, every night I read to each of my kids. Even when my daughter melts down because she can’t get the toothpaste on or my son gets a second wind and bounces on his bed like a super ball on a linoleum floor, it’s just our ritual.

Often it is the part of our busy day I look forward to most, one on one. For ten to twenty minutes, it’s just the two of us, curled up and lost in a story. Sometimes I read longer, wanting to see what happens next just as much as my child does.

This has always been our bedtime routine, and I plan to do it as long as they will let me. Many years ago I read that it’s important to read to your children long after they know how to read themselves. High school I think. It sounds crazy, but even at that age, hearing someone read with passion benefits them.

If I read to them, they want me to go on and on. If they read to me, I fall right to sleep.

I’ve read to my kids since they were babies. My son read to his sister the day she came home from the hospital because I told him that was a big brother’s important role. Now he listens as she reads to him and helps her with words she can’t pronounce.

When my son was less than two years old, he made us read the same book to him like a CD stuck on repeat. I would beg him to pick another book. As soon as the last word was read, he’d say, “Again,” and I wanted to cry. But when he was able to speak well, he squeezed between the couch and end table and “read” those books to himself. He memorized every word of every book. I had no idea that’s what he was doing.

When my kids learned their letters and letter sounds, I taught them to read. Seeing my kids read their very first sentence was cooler than the first goal, the first pop fly, the first bike ride without training wheels. Reading is the foundation for their whole lifetime of learning, and there we sat, cheering at each word formed, shock that it had happened. No teacher could take that glory from us. It was our moment.

Many times the kids writhed in agony and yanked at their hair as words became harder, and I clenched my fists to keep myself from doing it. But we pulled through and they read to themselves often.

And now, every night, I am theirs and they are mine. We laughed till we cried when Greg’s dog licked itself, then slathered kisses on his dad’s face in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days. We ponder the mystery of the intruder in Nathaniel Fludd. I itch to tell my son whether Snape is friend or foe in the Harry Potter books. And we learn about life through the decades thanks to the American Girl series. Afterward, my kids talk to me about their day, spill their problems, or give me an extra-long hug.

I have taken our reading away as punishment in times of desperation, knowing they still have their father’s turn to look forward to, but the kids are so fond of this time together and it breaks my heart too. I’ve learned to find other consequences.

I know there will come a day when my kids will end their nights with phone calls, studying, or more important things. But I hope it will still include me, even if our stories don’t come from a book.

I’ve been reading The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared by Alice Ozma about a daughter and father who promised to read every night for 100 nights, then 1,000, and then kept going until she left for college. They began in fourth grade. If I read to my son every night until he leaves for college, by my count, we’ll have read more than 3,000 nights. My daughter, more than 4,000. We do skip when someone is sick or if the grandparents are in town. To me, it’s not about the contest; it’s the bond that matters. No matter what kind of day we’ve had, I’m still there. That’s the moral I hope my kids take away from our story.

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