When he was small, my youngest son had a habit of filling his pockets with treasures he encountered in his daily adventures. I didn't always understand the value he saw in his chosen objects -- really, how many rocks and sticks could one boy keep? In his eyes, though, each one was beautiful and important. Life is just like that on a larger scale, isn't it? We gather up the precious bits of our experiences and save them all to learn from and enjoy later. Perhaps you'll find a little something here that you'd like to keep in your own pockets. Thanks for visiting.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A bookworm's breakfast -- 11

The boys have been having a summer full of adventures, with family vacations, trips to visit relatives, summer camp programs, days in the pool, hanging out with friends, and various projects of their own devising that are keeping them busy and happy. When they're ready for some down time, both of them seem to really enjoy finding a quiet nook somewhere and settling in for awhile to discover the adventures of characters in good books. I can't really think of a much nicer place to read than outside, in the shade of a green tree while swinging in a hammock. Can you?

In this (long overdue) July edition of A bookworm's breakfast, I hope you'll find a title that will appeal to your own children, wherever their favourite summertime reading spot might be!

3-5 year olds: I Love You, Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark

This gentle story is wonderfully appealing to any child who has a special affection for a favourite stuffed toy. Lily dearly loves her Blue Kangaroo, but when she receives a whole zoo of other animal friends as gifts, Blue Kangaroo begins to worry that there is no longer a place for him in Lily's bed, or in her heart. When Lily must make a decision about which of her beloved animals to share with her little brother, young readers will both cheer for and be reassured by her decision. This is a lovely book that is perfect for winding down with your small children on summer evenings.

6-9 year olds: Stop Bugging Me! (But that's what friends are for.) by Daniel Cleary

Smudge, a grumpy dog on a mysterious mission, does not want anyone following him, least of all a guinea pig, a couple of worms, or any of the other creatures who line up behind him to see what he's up to. His friends don't seem to be put off by his crusty comments, though. In the book's laugh-out-loud conclusion, Smudge grudgingly comes to realize that friends stay with you always, even in the most embarrassing of times. Cleary's delightful book relays a meaningful message through simple artwork and text that is genuinely appealing to newly independent readers.

9-12 year olds: The Fire Within by Chris D'Lacey

This book review was written by my soon-to-be-ten-year-old son, Noah, who is developing some serious arm muscles as a result of lugging home ridiculously heavy bags of books from the library this summer.

Tenant David Rain thinks he's renting a normal house with a nice lady and her daughter until he starts to notice strange things. Liz (his landlady) is sometimes up in a mysterious room, and when David tries to open the door, the knob is locked and burning to the touch. Then David becomes aware of odd flurries of movement out of the corner of his eye. It turns out Liz and her daughter Lucy believe in dragons. If you're a fan of the Harry Potter series, you will absolutely love this book. When I read it, there always seemed to be some sort of hidden detail that made me wonder what exactly was going on. Chris D'Lacey has made up an interesting array of characters with quirky traits such as a smiling squirrel named Snigger and Henry Bacon, the grouchy do-it-yourself fix-it neighbour. This book was one of my favourite fantasy books ever because it was so intriguing. I just had to keep reading. (Thanks, Noah.)

As the adventure-filled weeks of summer fly by, I hope that families everywhere are finding time for encouraging a love of reading together. As always, I'd love to hear about what books your children are enjoying -- feel free to share in the comments section below!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Creativity... with a crunch!

One of the (many) things I love about summer holidays is the long stretches of time the boys and I have to do whatever we feel like doing. We've had some desperately needed rain off and on yesterday and today, and after having been away from home for ten days, Noah and Will have been very content busying themselves with creative projects inside. They've built an impressive joint Lego project to enter into a contest from the Lego magazine; Noah has been rigging up an automatic door opening system for his bedroom, and Will has been constructing model cars out of toothpaste boxes and plastic straws. Apparently, even Maggie the cat was feeling creatively inspired this morning:

Today I thought I'd add in some imaginative fun with food, too. I made some toast, spread it with nut butter, and let the boys go wild piling it high with healthy "toppings" from little bowls in the centre of the kitchen table. It's a craft... it's lunch... it's toast pizza! I did this little project with them once before and it was a huge hit, despite the fact that it was ridiculously simple. Funny how sometimes you don't even have to try very hard to win your children's admiration!

To make your own toast pizzas, you will need:

1 or 2 slices of toast per child (I use Silver Hills Sprouted Bakery Squirrelly Bread for Noah and Organic Works Brown Rice Bread for Will -- it's gluten-free bread that actually tastes and feels like bread!)

peanut butter or almond butter (I use natural nut butters with no added sugar or salt)

thinly sliced apples, banana slices, fresh blueberries, raspberries and/or strawberries, raisins or fruit-juice sweetened dried cranberries, unsweetened shredded coconut, rice crisps or oat circle cereal, mini dark chocolate chips, or other healthy small-sized foods to use for toppings

Provide your children with their own plate of toast each (with a side of fresh raw veggies) and watch them build (and then devour!) their masterpieces.

Noah and Will said this was definitely "the best lunch ever!". I hope your kids think so too!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Going home

We just returned from a wonderful vacation, the second part of which involved a trip to visit my mom and dad at their house in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. While I realized recently that I have lived away from the Soo more years than I actually lived there (can I really be that old??), that doesn't ever seem to change the fact that the landscape, the city, my parents' house, and the people I love who live there still make me feel each time I go that I am returning home.

My parents have lived in their house for nearly 35 years. This home of my childhood has undergone many, many changes over the years: neither my bedroom nor the one my brothers shared beside it exists any longer, as my parents converted them into one large bedroom once all three of us kids had moved to our own spaces. The yard, which was once a rectangular lot with only a few trees and shrubs, has been transformed into a beautiful garden paradise under the hard work and loving care of my mom and dad over the years. The decor has changed inside and out many times; there is a new kitchen, different paint, and the pool that my dad put in when I was a preteen has recently been taken out. Despite the fact that the house looks nothing much like what it did when I was young, there is always a warm familiarity about it, because the things that matter most to me haven't changed at all.

I love walking into my parents' house to the irresistable aroma of my dad's pasta sauce simmering away on the stove, a scent that reminds me of one of my favourite childhood meals with my family. My mom's warm smile and excited voice always let me know just how glad she is to see me after we've spent a long time apart. We all still spend evenings playing games together like we did when I was young; the same two people who taught me how to play checkers and to be a gracious loser (a hard lesson for me to learn!) now clobber Matt and I at Bananagrams (because, as always, they are truly word tile game whizzes!)

I love to see the boys making their memories in the spaces that remind me of my own happy stories from the past. This trip, Noah and Will spent hours swinging contentedly in a hammock in the spot where my brothers and I used to play hide and seek, and the two of them always look forward to peeking inside the old red suitcases my family used to use for travel to find the toys and craft supplies that my mom has so thoughtfully put there for them. It's hard to imagine another place where the past and the present combine so beautifully and bring me so much happiness.

I have called several cities "home" over the past few decades, but there is something extra special about the home I grew up in. I will forever feel gratitude as I drive towards the north with its welcoming lakes, shores, rocks, and trees, towards the home where my dear family (and part of my heart) still lives.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Are we there yet?

Remember that lovely little post I wrote last week about travelling long distances in the car with children, and how I thought you could keep them actively and happily occupied for that time so that the journey was almost as much fun as the destination? Yeah, well obviously when I wrote that it had been a while since I had taken a long trip in the car with the boys. I was singing a somewhat different tune this afternoon!

The four of us drove from Waterloo, Ontario, to Traverse City, Michigan today, a journey that takes about 7 hours, including stops. In what was a minor miracle due to a health issue I've been dealing with (more on that at a later time, but just so you know, I am feeling much better now!), I managed this past week to have us completely packed and organized so that we were ready to go by 8:30 this morning. Things started out well -- the boys had their books and their bin full of fun things to do -- but perhaps because they had been in computer camps all week and hadn't spent as much time outdoors burning off their energy as they usually do in the summer, both of them seemed pretty wired today and sitting in the car got ugly after the first few hours.

Shortly after lunch, the boys got into following our route on the maps we had given them, which I thought was great, until they started asking questions non-stop and then arguing with each other about the answers. "Where are we on this map?" "What page are you on?" "Have we passed exit 212 yet?" "No, wait, that sign says exit 212..." "NO, THAT's exit 212." "How far until the next exit?" "What exit did we just pass again?", and so on. Then they started using a marker to mark off the exits they had passed, which was a relief to Matt and I until we realized from their hysterial laughter that they were drawing in marker all over themselves in the backseat. (That started with an accidental swipe of the marker on Noah's leg and then exploded.) The wheels quickly fell off at that point, and the boys got sillier and sillier with every mile, and Matt and I got more and more annoyed. (You will likely understand our reaction a little better if I tell you that when Will is wound up, he only has one volume, called RIDICULOUSLY LOUD. Let me just say that no good can come from experiencing RIDICULOUSLY LOUD in a confined vehicle on a highway.) When we finally got the boys calmed down and onto a different activity (this may or may not have involved the threat of pulling the car over and/or turning around and going back home), they were okay for a bit, but then I happened to make a comment about seeing wild turkeys on the road in Williamsburg (don't ask) and that set them off again. Add to all of this nonsense these other fascinating facts about the trip: Will could not for the life of him stop pressing his feet into the back of the driver's seat, Matt had some crazy allergy attack or cold that had him sneezing every 3 seconds and using an entire box of Kleenex on the trip (poor guy), and while eating lunch en route, I found a live green caterpillar in the salad I had packed from home (guess I didn't wash that lettuce from our garden quite carefully enough!). Surely it's no wonder that by the time we arrived at our destination, it was Matt and I, and not the boys, who had been asking ourselves exasperatedly for hours, "Are we there yet?!?"

I am happy to say, though, that despite the crazy ride, the day has ended well. We got settled in to our condo on the beach, and I spent the evening hours watching Noah and Will playing in the lake with my bare feet buried in the warm, warm sand while the waves gently lapped upon the shore. In those hours of quiet contentment with my children, it became clear to me again why we put ourselves through the insanity of going anywhere: there is nothing quite so lovely as sharing time away from the business of every day life with your family. As time goes by, I'll forget the horrors of today's car trip, but I'll remember fondly the peaceful happiness shared by all four of us on a familiar beach. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Simple summer pasta

When the days outside are hot and sunny, the last thing I feel like doing late afternoon is standing around in an equally hot (but not as much fun) kitchen, preparing dinner. Regardless of the warm weather, it's still important to me to have a healthy meal with my family every evening. Matt and I have several favourite summer suppers that are quick and easy to prepare, while still being full of nutrition and really delicious. This pasta with grilled chicken and veggies is one of them.

(You will have to forgive my lack of precise measurements for this recipe; this is literally one of those suppers that we just throw together, without measuring anything. You really can't go wrong with this dish, anyway!)

boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into thick strips
an assortment of fresh seasonal veggies (we like to use red and yellow bell peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, tomatoes, red onion, and asparagus), cut into bite sized chunks
fresh garlic, minced
fresh basil, parsley, and oregano, finely chopped
olive oil
sea salt and pepper
your favourite pasta (we like to use brown rice rotini for this recipe)

Toss chicken pieces in a mixture of olive oil, fresh herbs, garlic, sea salt, and pepper, and grill on the barbecue until fully cooked. Remove chicken from grill and cut strips into bite-sized chunks.
While the chicken is cooking, toss vegetable chunks in olive oil, sea salt and pepper. Place veggies in a grill basket and grill on the barbecue until they are tender-crisp and flavourful.
Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions. (Do not overcook; this recipe works best when the pasta is cooked al dente.) Drain and rinse.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat on the stove. Add garlic and finely chopped fresh herbs and stir until fragrant. Add cooked pasta to skillet and toss to coat. Add in grilled chicken and veggies, and toss all ingredients until well-combined.
Serve pasta medley (sprinkled with parmesan cheese if you like) with a green salad and enjoy!

With a simple pasta supper like this one, the whole family can have more time to enjoy the late afternoon sun together (and after eating this healthy meal, everyone will have lots of energy for outdoor fun in the evening, too!) What are your family's favourite easy and nutritious summertime meals?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Old-school road trip

Because many of our loved ones live in cities far from where we do, our little family has long been very familiar with lengthy car trips. Vacations are a time we look forward to every summer, when we load up the car and hit the road to see familiar, smiling faces and places that hold fond memories for all of us. The end reward helps to make the eight or nine hours in the car seem very worthwhile.

Anyone who hears about how we trek that far every summer automatically assumes that we have a DVD player in the car (because what nut in his or her right mind would travel all that way without one, right?!). I decided a long time ago, though, that I didn't want the boys to become dependent on a screen anytime they were contained somewhere for lengthy periods, and to this day, we still don't own one for our vehicles. I've found there are many ways to keep kids of all ages happy and engaged in the car, so that their travelling is an active experience. I thought I'd share some of our favourite car pastimes over the years with you -- maybe some of you might find them useful when you hit the road this summer.

Notebooks, puzzle books, sticker books, activity books plus markers, pencils and crayons. This simple collection of materials is likely standard fare in every family's car, but its usefulness shouldn't be underestimated. Little kids can create some big ideas on paper when they have lots of uninterrupted time to do it in.

Small metal baking tray plus a container of assorted foam shapes with magnetic backings. These materials are available at dollar stores and are a great, resuable art project -- there's no end of possibilities for pictures that can be made on a metal canvas with different combinations of shapes.

Toy figures. A collection of small dinosaurs, cars, animals, monsters, fairies, insects, or whatever kind of critters your kids are into provides good opportunities for imaginative play on the road.

Container of Lego. If your children are Lego-crazy like mine are, then this will keep them occupied for hours. Beware the spilled tub of Lego all over the backseat, though -- that's no fun for anyone. (When the boys were younger I would give them a small container each that could easily fit between their legs on their booster seats, and I'd add more pieces once they ran out.)

Mini Etch-a-Sketch or MagnaDoodle. The beauty of these toys is that they can be used over and over again to make new creations throughout the trip.

Travel Bingo. We have this set by eeBoo. Each boy gets a Bingo sheet and a pencil and they're both usually quite happy for awhile looking for objects out their windows as we head along the road. They often challenge themselves to fill the whole card rather than just a single line.

Puzzles or thinking games. We especially like Cosmic Creature and Rush Hour, both games that the boys can play individually and that have challenges of varying degrees of difficulty.

Make-a-Face drawing game. One person starts with a blank piece of paper and draws a person's hair at the top, then folds the paper back so the hair can't be seen. The paper is passed to the next person in the car, who then draws some eyebrows and folds the paper back once again. The next person draws eyes, and the paper keeps being folded back and passed on until a full face has been drawn. The last person opens up the paper to reveal a funny face in its entirety. Good, silly fun!

Road games. I fondly remember some of these from the times I travelled with my grandparents and my aunt Christina when we were little. There's the alphabet game, which involves finding every letter of the alphabet, in order, on signs or licence plates along the road, and the car colour game, in which every person in the vehicle chooses a different colour of car and scores a point each time a car of that colour drives past. You can use your imagination to make up your own similar kinds of car games, too.

Maps. When we're going on a long car trip with the boys, we often order a Trip Tick from CAA for each of them ahead of time. The boys can then follow the route on the map as we go, and watch for interesting places along the way.

Travel journals. Both of our boys like to write down their favourite stories from our travels as they unfold. While en route to your first destination, kids can write about what they're looking forward to most on their trip. Children who are too young to write can draw picture stories instead.

Novels, comic books, magazines. Assuming your children don't get motion sickness from reading in the car like I do, a long car trip provides an excellent opportunity for kids to discover new worlds and characters between the pages of their favourite reading materials.

Ask interesting questions. Our boys absolutely love answering thought-provoking questions like "What would you do if you found one hundred dollars?", "Is it better to be a kid or an adult? Why?", "What would you like to invent?", or "If time travel was an option, would you rather visit the past or the future? Why?". These kinds of questions are great conversation starters and allow you to learn some pretty cool things about your kids.

Music. Nothing calms a savage travel beast like the sound of his or her favourite tunes coming through the car stereo system. Be sure to try and find music the whole family can enjoy (for years we've loved The Barenaked Ladies' Snacktime and all of the kids' music by They Might Be Giants), because listening to canned children's songs for hours might make Mom or Dad want to jump out the car window.

Before we leave on our trip, I gather up all of the supplies I need for the boys' travel activities and put them in a bin in the backseat between them so they both have easy access to it. I also keep a few new small collectibles or toys (packages of hockey cards, mini Lego figures, etc.) in the front seat with me, so that if the boys get bored and ornery (especially in the last stretches of the trip), I can hand out a little surprise and put a smile on their faces.

I think giving kids the chance to use their imaginations in the car rather than staring at a screen for hours on end makes travel a much more meaningful experience for them. With some creative materials and ideas, the journey can be almost as much fun as the destination. (Almost. It's pretty hard to beat seeing your extended family after a long time apart, though!) Happy and safe travels to all of you who are going places this summer!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Summer's good for the soul

Filled with the fresh excitement of a newly-ended school year and a long holiday weekend, people all around me have been busy the last few days, visiting parks and beaches and pools and friends, and packing in as much fun as a three-day holiday can hold. I've taken a different approach, mostly out of necessity, and have spent the weekend close to home, still enjoying my family and friends and good food and beautiful weather, but in a quiet, restful sort of way. It turns out that slowing down was exactly what I needed.

The past couple of months have been a frenzy of activity and obligations, of thinking and worrying, of running here and there and keeping track of enough things to make one's head explode, a pace of life that doesn't ever turn out well for me. I tend to keep all of my stress inside, running a very smooth ship by all outward appearances, while within, a storm begins to brew. Eventually, when the cloud inevitably bursts with excessive pressure, the result is a few good hours of crying, or a physical illness of some kind; in the past few weeks, I've experienced both. Being forced literally to a stop by stomach trouble and painful inflammation in my joints, I've had to realize that my own health isn't something to put on a hidden shelf out of the way when I don't have time to consider it. I think everyone needs a little peace and quiet sometimes in order to be well and happy.

I have spent the first long weekend of the summer relaxing in the warm sunshine, listening to my boys laughing and splashing in the pool, reading with them, and catching up with visiting family members who are also dear friends. I've enjoyed easy and healthy summer meals outdoors, listened to the sounds of the birds chirping in the trees in our backyard, and have taken some time to really think about the many wonderful, yet simple things I have to be happy about, things that get buried from my consciousness when life seems full of more troublesome things to consider. Today I realized I am feeling better than I have in weeks. I've noticed how tense my shoulders must have been lately because they suddenly feel fifty pounds lighter; my stomach isn't hurting so much, and I actually feel like I can breathe deeply. It's amazing how a few quiet days spent without a to-do list can have a significant positive effect on a person's well-being.

I'm looking forward to days filled with fun summer activities over the next while, to trips and plans with friends, and to making the most out of the short, hot season while it lasts. This weekend has made me also remember, though, that sometimes doing nothing much at all is darn good medicine. Over the summer, I plan to take a healthy dose of this simple yet sometimes hard to come by remedy. I'm certain my mind and my body will be glad for it.