First Day Jitters and The Very Hungry Caterpillar

New and Fabulous

First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg and illustrated by Judy Love is one I can identify with – the first day of school arrives and the heroine of the story just wants to stay under the covers! Even kids who don’t find hiding in bed the best way to procrastinate will recognize the universal feeling of anxiety about starting something new. The surprise ending adds a level of comfort on that score. Pegged for kids K-3rd grade.

Oldie but Goodie

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle is a classic board book for tiny tots. In words and images that small children can understand, it explains the metamorphosis of caterpillar into butterfly. The caterpillar eats, eats, eats – starting with fruit, then moving on to pie and sausage. And it all leads to the emergence of a beautiful new stage of life. The illustrations are in gorgeous bright colors. No wonder it sells a copy every 30 seconds!

New Year: Endings and Beginnings

Christmas is two days past. The holiday season is winding down. I hope yours has been full of love and joy and some silliness. Mine has been all that and rich with family and friends.

Today I am in recovery mode from all the hustle and bustle. Mostly a balm of peace and quiet. The littlest tiniest bit of letdown as I break down the gift boxes for the recycling truck. And as the holidays are ending, my thoughts turn toward the beginning of a new year.

For me, this has always been a time of both optimism and dread. Endings and beginnings are like that.

When I was in school, the new year was the beginning of a new semester. This meant new classes, new subject matters, no track record in these particular courses. If I’d had a bad previous semester, the chance to wipe the slate clean was a gift. But often, I was anxious and tired at the thought of starting something new. I remember lying in bed the night before the restart of school, listening to the harsh wind whipping through the trees, wanting to stay wrapped in my warm blankets for the foreseeable future.

Those first nights of the new year, I often stayed awake for a long time. I tried on images of happy possibilities. I felt periodic rushes of anticipation of becoming a better version of my old self. I also wallowed in memories of the recent holiday’s good times. Relived a highlight reel from the semester just finished. As I finally drifted off to sleep, I felt the inexorable and somehow comforting pull of cycles.

Now I am a parent. My children are all about to embark upon a new semester. They are also about to scatter far away from Chicago to their various homes.

I know I will spend the first nights of the new year thinking about my work. I have just handed off to my publisher my latest book. It is time to begin discerning a new topic to write about. To start anew. I will think about the many endings and beginnings past. Schools. Homes. Friends. Workplaces.

The weather is warmer here than usual. But a strong wind has started up today. I will listen to the rustling of the trees outside my window. And burrow into my blankets. But I will also remember that the harshness of the winter will give way to the soft green of spring, then the hot pavements of summer, then the crisp colors of fall, then another winter. Small cycles wrapped into larger cycles wrapped within the ultimate cycle that spans my life. All full of promise waiting to unfold.

Happy New Year!

Light for the World

Today I share a poem for the spirit of Christmas.


Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem by Maya Angelou.

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.

On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.

At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.

We, Angels and Mortal’s, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.

Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.”

― Maya Angelou

Merry Christmas All!

The Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold and The Snowy Day

New and Fabulous

The Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Rick Allen looks at winter from the perspective of animals: small mammals, snakes and, yes, winter bees, among others. The language is luscious. Lines such as “Ambling through the hoary crystals, thinking of how I love this powdery place between iron-hard ground and snow-crust ceiling.” Recommended for Kindergarten – 4th grade.

Oldie but Goodie

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats is a classic. As I sit here on this unseasonably warm December night, thinking about this story, I wax nostalgic for snow and childhood vacations when time went by so slowly and the outside world was covered in a thick white blanket. The text is spare and quiet. Cuddle up and read with a child you love. Pegged for Preschool-Kindergarten. A deserving Caldecott award winner.

Winter Break: How to Avoid a Breakdown

We’re in the holiday prep home stretch. As much as I advocate using the season of preparation to be contemplative, I, like most of us, am in a bit of a frenzy. I’ll bet lots of you have little time to read right now. And I have little time to write. So the next two weeks’ blogs will be short (and hopefully sweet).

Today’s musing: The kids put on a wonderful holiday assembly program last week and now they’re home: for TWO weeks. How does your family have a great winter break without parents or kids (or both) having a breakdown.

Break without Breakdown

My strategy: Mix it up.

Indoor Time

Holiday break is an opportunity to take a hiatus from early morning routine. Indoor activities can be done in PJs. Whoo hoo!

Some favorite indoor activities in my family:

  • Gift-making. First week of school-break. my kids were absorbed with making gifts for grandparents, aunts and uncles. They made candles with paraffin wax and crayons, ornaments with gingerbread and colored sugar, potholders with cotton loops and metal looms. My girls bent over their work with knitted eyebrows, deeply absorbed in creating masterpieces. Gift-making time was focus time.
  • Board games. Does anyone know any activity that takes longer than a game of Monopoly?
  • Baking. For Hartfield family baking lore, see the “blue cookies” blog from two weeks ago.

Outdoor Time

Fresh air, large spaces to move around in…winter frost or not, bundle up if necessary, then let loose. In one of my favorite Christmas movies, Miracle on 34th Street, Santa sleeps with his whiskers outside the covers because, he says, “Cold air makes them grow.”

  • For those who live in snow country, there are snowmen, snowball fights, snow ice cream, snow angels, ice skating, ledding. When I was a kid, I spent a week of spirited teamwork building an igloo big enough to sleep in. Plenty of options to fill two weeks.
  • For those who live (or vacation) in warm sunshine…well…need I say more? Swimming pools, playgrounds, sports. To this (jealous) northerner it looks an awful lot like summer.

Down Time

Indoors, outdoors – lots of great possibilities. Every parent knows, though, kids get tired. And then they can rev up and spin out of control. In my house, the tell was laughter. Started as giggles, moved on to guffaws, and left unchecked, ended up with screams and rolling on the floor, tickles becoming pokes becoming jabs. For me, the key was to pull myself away from my own activities to redirect the girls at giggles stage.

  • Until they were five, there were regular mid-day naps.
  • As they grew, sleep time was replaced by quiet time – silent reading, mellow music tapes, a TV show.
  • As teens they were all about texting or watching memes.

End result? After a space of quiet, the hysterical giggles had evaporated. Order was restored.

Happy Holidays everyone! Or, as my kids would say, “Have a chill time.”

What does your family do to make winter break happy and healthy and just plain old fun.

Chanukah Lights and The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey

New and Fabulous

Chanukah Lights by Michael Rosen illustrated by Robert Sabuda is a stunningly beautiful, just the right mood book for this season of festivals of light. It’s a pop-up book with gorgeous white pop-ups and a beautiful poetic musing about candlelighting through time around the world Pegged for K-4th grade but it’s really for all ages.

Oldie but Goodie

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowki illustrated by P. J. Lynch is a family favorite. It’s the story of a woodcarver who buries himself in a life of solitude after the death of his wife and child. Then one day a widow and her little boy appear at his door with a special request – one that brings a miracle to them all. The illustrations are drawn in warm golden brown tones, just right for the rich, strong story of transformation. This story might not at first appear to be about a festival of light but it is, indeed, a story of the regeneration of inner light. Pegged for ages 6-12.

The Triumph of Light Over Darkness

Tis the season for festivals of light. Indians mark Diwali with the lighting of thousands of lamps. In Sweden, girls wreath their heads with candles as they celebrate St. Lucia. Jews around the world light the menorah. Christians light advent candles. In Thailand, candle bedecked boats drift on the waters.

Light and Hope

In the old days, when these traditions got started, twas a pretty grim season – dark, cold, no electric light or gas heat to help people warm up on the inside. Fire was the only way to push the cold darkness away. We’ve come a long way but that feeling of bleak midwinter still envelops us. This year, maybe more than most, the horrific happenings around the world add to a feeling of darkness. Maybe we need these festivals of light now more than ever. And to share in them with our children. After all, those cherubic little faces hold our hopes for the future.

Where to find these Festivals of Light?

One of our family traditions is a day at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry Christmas Trees from Around the World. There are trees that seem to dance with colored brightness, trees that quiet us down with lights of white illuminating deep green pine, trees with widely spaced branches that cradle flickering candles. Some version of this is echoed in cities and towns across the world.

Another family tradition of ours takes place in the smaller space of our home. There we gather around the table, sing songs, and light candles – four orbs spaced around an advent wreath of pine, eight shedding light from a menorah. Each person has a special role – one lights the candles, one leads us in singing, one accompanies us on the piano, one reads stories of light and hope, one snuffs the flame at the end of our gathering. The scent of melting wax binds us as we move on to our separate activities.

We gather around the light of the fireplace, warming our hands around cups of hot cider and cocoa that we ladle from large pots simmering over stovetop flame.

One year, my daughter wanted only one thing for Christmas – a miniature lighted tree for her bedside table. Each night during the long winter season, she turned on those tiny tree lights, filling her room with a soft warm glow.

There is something magical and hopeful about this time of year as we create light in the midst of darkness. Enjoy the season!

What are your traditions of light?

Bake Sales: The Tried and Still Awesome!

Today’s shout out is to all of you thousands (maybe millions) who will spend some time this holiday season in your kitchen concocting a fabulous mouth-watering baked good for your favorite charity bake sale. The bake sale has been around for centuries (true fact!)

This warms my heart – a tradition that binds us together – men and women and children of all races, religions, and political persuasions. And all-around giving to a good cause.

A few fun facts about various delectables that you might consider as you choose what to bake up:

  • Pie is the baked good of choice. Preferences stated in a 2008 survey are 19% pie; 17% cake; 15% cookies. (Disclosure: The survey was sponsored by the American Pie Council – wouldn’t you know)
  • Pie personalities
    • Apple……Independent
    • Pecan……Analytical
    • Chocolate…Loving
    • Pumpkin…..Funny
  • January 27 is National Chocolate Cake Day (oh Yeah…right around the corner!)
  • The National Cookie Cutter Historical Museum is in Joplin, Missouri (road trip in your future?)

Share your favorite bake sale goodies. Or your favorite baking fun facts. Keep those ovens blazing!

Bake Sale and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

New and Fabulous

Bake Sale by Sarah Varon is a warm fuzzy of a baking book. It tells the story of Cupcake who loves to bake – so much so that he owns his very own bakeshop. Life is good. He bakes. He plays in a band. He has great friends. Then Cupcake’s best friend invites him on a trip to Turkey where Cupcake will be able to meet his hero, the incomparable pastry chef, Turkish Delight. Sounds great. But Cupcake needs money to pay for the trip. And he goes a little off track as he gives up all the things he loves to raise the dough. Until….well, you will have to read the book to find out what happens. The illustrations are simple but really adorable – the characters’ expressive eyes are emotionally irresistible. The frosting on the cupcake? Delicious recipes, of course! For 3rd grade and up.

Oldie but Goodie

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond has become a classic. This book is not really about baking but the cookie illustration never fails to give me the urge to down a melty chocolate chip number with a cold glass of milk. The concept is the old “one thing leads to another” in ways never intended. Here, a boy offers a cookie to what turns out to be a very demanding mouse. The chain of mouse requests reminds me of a set of toppling dominoes – you start with one and you get an unstoppable ripple. Great for the little ones— pegged for preschool – 3rd grade – I think you can start with toddlers who will love the repetition. I suspect it reminds them of one of their own favorite mantras: “No… No… No!”

Baking with Kids: Food for Mind, Body, and Soul

My inbox has been inundated this week with mouthwatering pictures of peppermint fudge, dreidel cookies, gingerbread men, etc. – the staples of holiday month. Which makes me think of my daughter’s “blue” cookies that will forever be part of family legend.

You Ask: What are Blue Cookies?!!!

When my daughter was three, she had already spent two years watching me bake. Now she decided to step up to the plate (well…the kitchen counter) herself. She had/has a “slight” stubborn streak. Translated: She would suffer absolutely NO advice on ingredients.

She dragged out a big bowl, a big tin of flour, a cup of water, and a stirring spoon. Without any measuring tools, she concocted a flour-water mixture that resembled paste. She cocked her head, looked at her creation for a minute or so, then retrieved a box of food coloring from the cabinet and dyed her dough blue.

We spooned the sticky mess into circles on a tray, deposited the tray into the oven (heated by me) and eyeballed the blue dough until it resembled something like blue cookies. We scraped them off the tray, piled them onto a pretty dessert plate and let them cool.

After dinner – you guessed it – she sashayed into the dining room with “dessert.” And she was a taskmaster. She gave me, her dad, and her sisters the death stare that commanded us to actually eat. Which we accomplished with healthy gulps of water after each bite. The icing on the cookie? She took one nibble of hers, then stone-faced, surreptitiously (she thought) pocketed the rest until she could deposit it in the garbage.

Undaunted, for months thereafter, she made blue cookies. She experimented a little by adding sugar, then cinnamon. Still…blahhh. Finally, she was ready to listen to my tips on the role of baking powder; and on the importance of correct ingredient proportions. She learned to use measuring cups and we studied actual recipes. And after a few attempts, she made something edible.

Which we all rejoiced over.

The Joy of Baking

After that, the blue cookies disappeared form the repertoire. Replaced by chocolate chip and oatmeal; then cookies with sprinkles and frosting; then ginger molasses and Mexican wedding cookies. Then her own creations – yes, she came full circle – which are, I am grateful to report, heavenly!

Aside from an ever more delicious eating experience, what did she gain? What can your child gain from baking?

Food for the Mind

So here’s the great thing for all you right brain types (like me). Math can be fun. So can chemistry. What more creative way to teach measurement, fractions, the metric system? What about the chemical properties of baking powder? (Yes… I am now obsessed with this.) The beauty of baking is it’s a very concrete way to teach. And that means it is very likely to stick.

Food for the Body

Kids are curious. So as you are measuring out that flour, that ginger, those chocolate chips, you have the opportunity to talk about….where these ingredients come from; and the concept of vitamins that our bodies get from food. You can talk about eating in moderation and about balance among the food groups. And it’s all fun! Plus, when you say “one cookie is enough” it will actually make sense and not seem like a heartless random punishment.

Food for the Soul

I think this requires little explanation. Heart-warming times with your children you and they will remember forever (blue cookies are case in point). I heartily endorse the aphorisms “Food is the way to the heart.” “Sweets for my sweet.” And, now that my daughter is away at college, a new twist on “I’d rather be blue, thinking of you…”

Happy baking!

Do you have baking stories to share? Recipes are welcome ☺