Itty bitty librarian’s book review: Trenton Lee Stewart’s the Mysterious Benedict Society

We read Alice books that are far beyond toddler appropriate. In part I do this because my own parents read me whatever they were reading (and let me read whatever I found on the attic shelves, for better or worse). As a result, I grew up as a lover of books and never felt there was much difference between age-appropriate or not. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” scared me. “The Scarlet Letter” made for a lot of lingering questions, but I definitely got a healthy dose of vocabulary and literature.

IMG_5558We also read chapter books to Alice so we can enjoy more complex plot lines as a family. Alice has recently started to ask questions about various characters and to draw pictures of them doing various things–so the effect seems positive.

jpegThe Mysterious Benedict Society was fun, clever and very long. It was nice to find a mystery, since it’s by far my favorite genre personally. I also love to read aloud and the multiple characters made for great opportunities. (My dream is to read books on tape).

The basic plot is: a group of “gifted” and diverse orphan/runaway children are chosen to make a “team” of spies to her tithe bottom of some disturbing disappearances and a secretive school on an island. After some training they’re dispatched to be enrolled at the school, all the while uncovering secrets and reporting (via morse code) back to their leader, Mr. Benedict.

I was telling a fellow mommy friend I’ve always wondered if Alice is even paying attention or retaining any information from our novel-time. During this book she actually started to single out characters and ask me to see “a picture of Kate” or “why did Rainey do that?”

It’s obviously getting through, so we’ll keep it up, despite the fact that she often plays or runs in and out of the room during story-time.

Oh-and Moses and I likes this one too. We can’t wait to start the next one in the series, but we have a few new ones to read first. Next review is “Flora and Ulysses.”

 

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Tiny Baker. Vegan/Gluten-free Chocolate Chip Coconut Cookies.

IMG_5510We do a lot of vegan, gluten-free cooking around here. We make our own almond milk a few times a week which leaves us with the fantastic byproduct of almond flour (which is an oxymoron and technically not real flour since it’s wet, but whatever). We use the flour for pancakes and various raw bar goodies, but cookies are the most fun and usually taste like regular eggy, oily varieties.

Alice likes to eat batter and help spoon out dough. I think the vegan aspect is perhaps best suited for toddlers. At least mine, who seems eager to disregard anything I say and go ahead and eat raw dough until her “tummy hurt, Mama.”

I rarely measure anything–so usually I have to give recipes a second shot to confirm what I did the first time. But here’s my estimated recipe.

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Heat oven to 375.

Combine 1 cup ground, soaked almonds (water drained out so it clumps a bit). *dry almond meal works too, just add a table spoon of water and mix a little until it looks shaggy.

Add:

1 ripe banana (use a mixer to mash or if blending by hand smash in good processor or put in plastic bag and roll with a rolling pin…or clean wine bottle works too…

Then:

2 table spoons almond butter

2 table spoons honey

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

Mix all together and add:

1 table spoon flax seeds

2 table spoons shredded (unsweetened) coconut

2 table spoons honey

And fold in:

2 table spoons vegan chocolate chips

Spoon out around 1 table spoon-sized cookies on parchment. Cook 13 to 15 minutes (checking on them at around 10–until bottoms are darkening. But coconut burns/cooks differently depending on shredded finely verses flake, etc.)

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New York Vacation

20140801-163039-59439249.jpgIt’s been awhile since an update. I know. I’m going to continue as if that never happened.

We left New York when Alice was just 4 months old. When we made the decision to leave we promised we would bring her back regularly, that she’d know that city as well as our new one.

One full week, and instead of fretting over rent, affordable childcare, transportation and all the distracting realities of life in New York we so eagerly left behind, we focused on just enjoying the city. We visited friends, old neighborhoods and restaurants. We swam in warm ocean water and ate bagels and pizza. We did all the romantic things we had meant to but rarely had time for while we were living there: Central Park, The Museum of Natural History, Jane’s Carrousel, the High Line Park and The Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory.

20140801-164147-60107865.jpgThe most amazing aspect of our entire trip was experiencing the city with a very outgoing almost-two-year-old. Where there were once tense, crammed subway rides at rush hour there were now friendly, outgoing individuals smiling and talking at length with Alice. Diverted eyes and random pushes we’re replaced with smiles, waves and the concerned “pardon me.” Even cabbies and uber drivers were double checking her carseat and asking of the baby was comfortable.

IMG_547220140801-164151-60111700.jpgI’m not sure how we’ll recover once we no longer cart around this precious toddler who calls out (“close it!” to the subway doors and “sit down” to each new passenger), waves and dances to anything resembling a beat. I guess we’ll need a really cute dog to carry in a handbag.

Life’s A Beach

Moses loves the beach.  I like the beach, but growing up no where near it, it’s much more of an appreciation than a “need” or yearning.  Moses requires beach time.  I wonder how Alice will be?ImageWe took her to Huntington Beach where Moses grew up on Saturday and Malibu Sunday for a hike and some more beach time (and some swinging).  Since Alice’s favorite thing in the world is to sit on a padded blanket and have us play with her she was pretty stoked on beach time.  She also loved all the other children and people she could stare at until they smiled at her or came over to say hi (including, randomly, David Spade, who was sitting close to us while we had lunch at Cafe Habana on Sunday).Image

When we dipped her baby feet in the freezing cold water she looked a little shocked, but she recovered quickly and set to her next task: trying really hard to eat sand.  We managed to evade the actual eating of grains (until today, when I took her to the Santa Monica Pier for the afternoon.  I now have ample photos of little Bluebelle with her mouth ringed in sand).ImageBeyond the sitting on blankets with padding, Alice’s other favorite thing is to pinch, pull and squeeze just about anything she can get her hands on.  This includes my hair and Moses’, Moses’ nose and eyebrows, my lips and so on.  I miss wearing my hair loose, and while I’m not a big jewelry person beyond rings, it would be nice to have that option…but Alice won’t be a baby forever and then I’m sure I’ll miss it–even the scratches when her nails get too long.ImageImageSometimes when Alice and I are outside I tell her how lucky she is to grow up here–She wakes up to (a really annoying but picturesque) rooster and the nighttime air smells of jasmine.  We have wild parrots that (again annoyingly but…) sit on our porch rails and we spend our weekends hiking and beaching, our days growing plants and vegetables to eat.  While I love where I grew up and will always enjoy the seasons, I can’t say I miss it.  California is such an amazing place.ImageImage

Where I Was From.

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This Easter Moses went to Los Vegas to celebrate a bachelor’s party and Alice and I decided to visit my family in Missouri.  Growing up I spent an incredible amount of time pretending I was someplace else.  As a grown up who’s lived in (almost) all of the places I pretended myself into, I can see the charm of where I actually was.  Of course, I like where I am–it’s equally important to understand you can value something but “not go home again.”  But it is a wonderful place to be.ImageImageImage

Alice and I spent long, sunny mornings in the park or longing in the den with toys.  When Alice wanted to play we walked across the narrow road to play with the family across the street and there was no shortage of spring flowers to see, cook books to peruse and kitties to chase.ImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

We made tons of granola, some scones and the paper thin, delicate oatmeal crisp cookies my grandmother made (confession: we made them three times) and lots of simple dinners once the baby had gone to sleep.  My mother and I had some nice glasses of wine, talked and read some A.A. Milne to Alice (and each other), and I got to visit with my childhood kitties (now totally on their last legs).ImageImageImageImageImage

My parents bought our house in the early 70s–before my brother and I were born.  Both of us grew up in the house and while it’s been remodeled and things come and go, the bones are the same.  It’s amazing to put your baby to bed in the room that was yours when you were a baby.  I can remember waking up and crying for my mother in the same room Alice woke up and cried in this time around (working hard to see the charm in that).  I loved getting Alice ready for bed and saying goodnight, knowing she was hearing the same muffled noises I heard when I was put to bed at night.  The circle game…ImageImageImage

Itty Bitty Librarian Book Review: Stuart Little

Stuart Little is one of those books I used to recommend to parents when I worked in a bookstore.  I liked “Charlotte’s Web,” and it’s undisputedly a classic.  Robin William’s character in “Mrs. Doubtfire” reads it to baby Natalie (while this isn’t necessarily a ringing endorsement it certainly attests to the classical status of this book).  And so, when baby Alice and I were choosing our book from the library last week it was between Stuart and something more modern like Funke.  Because Alice was born in New York and I liked the idea of her being able, unlike me until now, to say she’d read Stuart Little, the classic children’s novel, I opted for Stuart.

IMG_3836My question is this: How many people out there HAVE actually read it?  Having finished the book, I must say, I’m not sure I’d exactly recommend it.  It’s not a bad book, but it’s not the best I’ve read, either.  The book is episodic, which is fine.  In fact, generally I prefer episodic for young children.  They can take a snooze or have a distracted session and then still pick back up again and know the characters, but this one just seemed episodic…AND disorganized.  I don’t think that’s overly critical.  The book is creative, it’s well written, it’s interesting–but it is strange and chaotic and above all, disorganized.

I think most people are fluent on the over all plot:  Stuart Little is a mouse born to a well-to-do family of New Yorkers living in a two story apartment on (I think) the upper east side.  Despite being slightly over two inches, Stuart is afforded his own room, which holds his bed, made out of a matchbox, and he enjoys sailing.  Stuart doesn’t seem to have a formal education, but instead sets out upon rather manly, solo adventures at the tender (or ancient, it’s hard to gage for a mouse) age of 7, following meeting Margalo—a brown bird with a dash of yellow who sort of speaks in rhyme and takes solace in the Little family’s Boston Fern following some sort of accident.

IMG_3843While it might be problematic that Stuart has fallen in love (and it’s never completely confirmed he’s “in love,” but crush seems too mild) with someone outside his own species, it’s never really addressed, mostly, I assume, because Stuart, like so many men in the 1940s, keeps rather buttoned up about his personal affairs.  Mostly he watches Margalo and thinks nice thoughts about (her?) it.

And, though most of Stuarts “adventures” seem to fall in account of Margalo’s abrupt departure from the Little’s home, there are a few things that happen before.  Stuart attempts to sail “The Wasp,” on the Central Park Boat Pond, but runs into a squall and ultimately collision at sea with another ship, “The Lillian B. Womrath,” but he does make friends with the owner of “The Wasp,” a surgeon dentist whom becomes something of a mentor (and supplier of miniature vessels).  Stuart also overcomes an encounter with Snowbell, the Little family cat—or perhaps it is actually an encounter with the Little Family’s rolling blinds, but either way, Stuart escapes.

IMG_3840The aspects of the story I found troubling, or strange came later, once Margalo “flies the coup,” with Stuart in her wake.  On his way out of town Stuart visits his friend the surgeon dentist, who offers him a bright yellow car that runs on “five drops of gasoline.”  Fair enough, I say—a yellow miniature car from a man that already likes model ships—but here’s the kicker, even for 1943—the yellow car has an “invisibility switch.”  Now, this is no Harry Potter, people—we’re not ensconced in magic.  In fact, while the aspect of Stuart’s lineage is strange, it’s not presented as magical so much as just…maybe something that happens (as the book later presents the character of Harriet Ames, who is not a mouse born to regular-sized rich people, but a tiny but perfectly proportioned woman born to rich people).

So we now have mouse with a tiny car that can be invisible.  But Stuart accidentally hits the starter button while the car is invisible and wrecks it—sad, but not the weirdest part.  Astoundingly, the next morning he is still able to drive the car, which apparently the dentist has made repairs to the night before.  And Stuart doesn’t drive it invisible, instead he drives it, on main New York Streets, in full view.

There are also a lot of people that seem to sit on curbs or in ditches.  Perhaps this frequently happened in the 40s, but certainly it took us by surprise.  Stuart generally encounters people, like himself, that are affluent or at least well to do in the gutters.  Before leaving New York he meets a school superintendent who’s down in the dumps because he’s got to find a substitute for the day.  Stuart volunteers, stopping first at a doll shop to by the perfect scholarly ensemble for the occasion.  Decked out in tweeds Stuart arrives and keeps decorum in the schoolroom, despite being so small.  And, while decorum is well and good, Stuart also decides to forgo the lesson plans and typical subjects like math and science in lieu of a heated discussion about being Chairman of the World and what laws could be universal (among the solidly “good” things presented are “the smell of a baby’s neck if it’s mother keeps it tidy,”).  Once Stuart gets his fill of the discussion he splits, heading back to his tiny yellow car and leaving the city for northern skies and perhaps, if he’s lucky, Margalo.

But Stuart again, somewhat conveniently meets another man in the gutter, this time near Ames Crossing (in Connecticut, it seems).  The man suggests Stuart meet Harriet Ames, who is also small and well dressed.  Stuart doesn’t seem too interested at first, but when he sees Harriet at the post office he hides and all thoughts of Margalo temporarily fly out the window.  Instead he goes about arranging the perfect date with Miss Ames, including a tiny canoe and ice-cream spoon paddles.

But when everything goes wrong on the date—it rains, the canoe gets messed up by some area children and the spoons are destroyed (Stuart seems most distracted by a string that has been tied to the toy canoe, making it clearly appear as what it is—a toy), Stuart is unable to recover.  The cool Harriet shrugs and asks if perhaps they can go on and enjoy the date, rumpled canoe and rain, but Stuart is too worked up.  In the end Harriet goes home to dinner and Stuart resumes his quest for Margalo.

Why the intense play by play, you ask?  Well, because it’s somewhat astounding, isn’t it?  A conversation and stint as a teacher and discussion on chairman of the world, a date with a tiny woman (let alone her existence?) and a potentially invisible car—that’s a lot of plot action!  But, then it’s just…gone as Stuart leaves Ames Crossing and returns his northern quest.  However, he does meet a telephone repairman (sitting in a ditch, again, leading me to believe the world was once quieter, easier and workers allowed these “breaks”) who tells him a northern quest is never a bad choice.

And the book ends.  Just like that.  Frankly, my head was still spinning at what a jerk Stuart seemed to be during his date.  I was so shocked I even found myself checking to see if I missed some pages, but no.  So I came out of this book not really very fond of Stuart Little.  I mean, it’s neat he’s a mouse making the way in a big world, and I really admire his need for well-suited clothing to complement any occasion, but he just wasn’t a very nice guy/mouse.  He sort of has weird illusions of grandeur and come off as a poor communicator.  Hopefully Alice and I will have better luck with our next book, “The BFG.”

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Itty Bitty Librarian’s First Review: Lois Lowry’s “The Willoughby’s”

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I’ve been a Lois Lowry fan since I was a 3rd grader and Mrs. Sanders read us “All About Sam,” which still reigns supreme as perhaps my all time favorite book. I can still remember wishing the 10 minutes of read aloud time after recess would last forever and the feeling the cool Formica under my arms as I rested my head to close my eyes and imagine it all—The Krupnick’s living room with a stomped pile of broccoli beneath the rug, Sam’s pan-tree and later the Victorian garett that became Anastasia’s bedroom.

I went on to love “Number the Stars, The Giver,” all the Caroline and J.P. books and of course, Anastasia’s own series (please note, the inscription of “All About Sam” says “To Jamie, who’s a lot like Sam.” Perfect). I even got into lesser known titles like “Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye,” which I read in middle school (when the librarian finally told me “you should challenge yourself and not read baby books—“ which is a huge reason I grew up to become a librarian myself—and often shake my head at the terseness of people in the profession. I get that it’s often suited for people who like solitude and quiet, but the very nature of a librarian is to interact…nicely.)

Anyway, now that I have a baby of my own, and she is, of course, just that, a baby, not an age appropriate 8 year-old, but oh well, I’ve been taking her to the Silver Lake library to check out books. Last month we read “The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh,” and when we returned it and went to pick out another, I recalled Lois Lowry had a new book, “The Willoughby’s.”

Baby A and I powered through it in about a week. We read before naptimes and if she can stay awake or needs to wind down a bit, for a chapter before bed too. And, while this wasn’t my favorite Lowry book, it’s certainly cute and a fun read. Lowry uses “old fashioned” children’s books as a platform in this book a la “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” and I do like the educational rundown on some timeless classics like “Little Women, Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn” and “The Secret Garden.” (The oldest Willoughby tells his sister she needs to tragically die like Beth for a “proper old fashioned ending,” and the lonely Commander Melenoff is referred to as a wealthy guardian like Archibald Carven). I’m a big believer in learning via osmosis—I want my daughter to ask questions like “who’s Beth in Little Women,” at which point we can pull down my well-worn copy from the bookshelves and give it a looksee.

However, my only criticism was the lack of intimacy within the book. My absolute favorite attribute of Lowry’s work is her warm, loving characters. The Krupnick parents are believable—they tease one another, they are amusingly, lightly sarcastic with their children and even have interesting jobs—a professor and a children’s book illustrator. Likewise, Caroline and J.P. have secret thoughts and feelings. The very formula of “The Willoughby’s” eliminates this—the book is narrated in the omniscient and none of the characters is very “viewed” by the narrator (although Jane is described as the thoughtful one who aspires to be more assertive, which was nice).

All in all in lacked the warmth I love in a Lowry book. It felt a little forced, like an editor had given her the idea to write this new, dark sort of novel and she’d obliged. Maybe warm families are a thing of the 80s, but I missed them.