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Laurel Snyder’s new novel for middle-grade readers, Bigger than A Bread Box, is much more of a complex read than I usually find in this category (but that just means I don’t read enough MG anymore).

Twelve-year-old Rebecca’s parents separate, and Rebecca gets dragged away from Baltimore, the only home she’s known, to hot, sticky Atlanta and her maternal grandmother’s house. Thrown into a new school, Rebecca feels and acts as if she’s a character in a story, trying on new names, new personalities and new friends to see if anything can heal the hurt she feels. The quirk that separates this book from others about going through divorce is that Rebecca discovers a magical breadbox in her grandmother’s attic that can deliver anything she wishes for (so long as it fits into the breadbox). So, ipods, candy and food from Baltimore are fine, but her Dad is much too big.

As coping strategies go, the Breadbox is fine for a while, enabling Rebecca to bribe her way into the good graces of the cool kids at her new school with candy, but, like anything, too much of a good thing isn’t good for Rebecca. It turns out that the items that appear in the breadbox come from somewhere and are not just created by magic, so Rebecca’s sudden ownership of them has real-world consequences. This is where Bigger than a Bread Box departs from the usual pattern of MG fiction where the confusing world of tween friendship or the necessary lessons of growing up are underlined by the help of some magical item or another and the novel enters the gothic “Here Be Dragons” territory of the Brother’s Grimm. This is the off-the-beaten-track territory where children who get lost in the woods encounter little old ladies who want to cook and eat them, and magical “gifts” bring as much danger as bounty. It feels entirely appropriate that this book should focus on the potentially negative consequences of magical intervention because the subject of the book, Rebecca’s story, is one of the worst a kid can go through: the loss of their home, the breakup of their family, and the crumbling of all their attendant certainties.

The resolution of Rebecca’s story — well, I don’t really want to discuss that because a) it could kill the surprises, and b) I can’t find a succinct way to put it into words.  Bigger than a Bread Box starts out like the “normal” Laurel Snyder novel, then it takes a twist, and then it goes off somewhere completely unexpected. This book challenges readers (both old and young), pushes us out of our “middle grade” comfort zone, and keeps us absolutely glued to every word.

This feels like such an inadequate review for such a powerful book that I‘ve gone back and forth about posting it at all. Part of my uncertainty is that I have almost no direct experience with divorce — I grew up in Ireland, a country with no divorce (until recently) and large, multi-generational families living together — so I feel a little unprepared to discuss a depiction of what is doubtless a terribly shocking and disorienting event. But, I did find this is a powerful book, and a story that would be great for a parent to read with or talk over with their child — whether or not there’s any divorce within the family. I know my own elementary-age kids ask questions about divorce frequently, and my eldest, who’s almost Rebecca’s age, would probably learn a lot from this thoughtful, emotional and completely gripping novel.

Notes

My review of Laurel Snyder’s previous two novels, Any Which Wall and Penny Dreadful.

www.laurelsnyder.com

Peonies emerging

‘Tis the season to scratch your head and wonder “What the Hell is that?” Seriously, I look to see if the peonies are coming up yet (they are) and some interesting looking red stem with palm-like leaves (mystery plant #1, below) is coming up right beside it. At first I thought it was another peony, but now that both are getting taller I can see they’re completely different structurally. The peonies are much thicker and greener, the mystery plant is very thin and bright red.

Mystery plant #1

It’s like this all over the garden. Plants I know, plants I can put a name to and remember when I planted them, are right where they should be (if a little early — thank you unseasonably warm weather), and weird, random things are sprouting alongside.

If anyone recognizes any of these volunteers, please leave an ID or guess in the comments. If not, I’ll post more pix in a month or so when we’ll have more growth and maybe some blooms.

Mystery plant #2

Mystery plant #2 seems way too small to be wild primrose, which seems to grow to about 4-5 feet around here, although the leaves look similar.  It over-wintered as a very small plant, then put on a quick burst of growth and bloomed a few days ago.  Could easily be a seed dropped by a bird, or something blown in from a neighbor?

Mystery plant #3

Mystery plant #3 is tiny so far, but growing rapidly in full sun. It could be something that hitched a ride in the compost I put down in this area (which came from a cold pile, so some seeds may not have been killed off — a pepper, maybe?) or a refugee from some unsuccessful pack of seeds. Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell what’s deliberately planted and what isn’t because some seeds take such a long time to germinate. Right now there are columbine coming up all over the place because I planted seeds two years ago, and nothing came up last year. I planted some again, and I suspect the seedlings that I’m seeing now are the result of the first batch of seeds.

 

Mystery plant #4

Mystery plant #4 looks like a lettuce right now, but I know it isn’t. I’m pretty sure this was part of some pack of seeds my kids brought home from a birthday party a couple of years ago. It was the  only species of flower from that pack (“native wildflowers” or “butterfly garden” or some such) that grew to maturity last year, and produced mid-size pink flowers (with just a couple of large petals) on 8-10 inch stems. A member of the poppy family, maybe? It sees to have overwintered just fine, and these cool little green leaves speckled with pink/ruby spots are interesting.  It’s growing in full sun, if that helps.

While it’s gratifying to see plants you put hard work into nurturing, feeding and weeding come back every year, part of the fun is also in the unexpected chaos of the garden. The plant that decides not to bloom one year and flourishes the next, the unexpected guest that hitches a ride in that clump of daylilies you harvested from an overgrown roadside, and the mysterious volunteer that sprouts from something borne on the wind all add an element of surprise and delight to even the most carefully planned garden.

Some of these mystery plants will likely be keepers, others doubtless invasive weeds. Any guesses or confident plant IDs would be appreciated.

 

I haven’t read Richard Louv’s new book, The Nature Principle, yet, but intuitively I can get behind it. The argument seems to be the more time we spend with technology, the more time we need in nature to compensate/recharge. I know that’s true for me.

 

His earlier book was Last Child in the Woods, which was another duh! argument (kids need to play and be out in nature) that seemed to be news to a lot of people.

 

 

 

when you have to rescue the first droning honey bee who bumbles inside the house, (and then another, and another…)

when the birdsong drowns out the revving of the first lawnmowers,

when the remaining brittle, brown skeletons of last year’s garden drown in the rising tide of green,

when the freshly blooming patio peach buzzes with contentment,


when the kids can pick and pick until even they must admit,

there aren’t enough vases in the world.

when the first swallowtail appears to land a kiss on each hyacinth, as if to say
I’ve missed you. How I’ve missed you!”
and then, bringing a friend, returns the next day.

Another month, another Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day. Happily, the yard is a good deal more colorful than it was last month.

It’s a world of yellow out there with the forsythia and daffodils arriving in the same week.

The hyacinths make a bold impression in contrast.

The little emergent green leaves in the background and foreground are bouncing bette/soap wort, which will grow rapidly and swamp the daffodils long before their leaves wilt. I cut the soap wort down to the ground every winter, otherwise we’d never see the tiny violets/violas or the star of Bethlehem that grows amongst it.

Still life with an old birdhouse on the patio. The patio is currently in the process of being resurfaced with much smaller, regular pavers — which will be far more permeable. The fieldstone will be recycled into rock walls all over the place.

The orange-lipped variety of daffodil (my plant naming skills start to fail me when different types of daffodil appear), with yet more bouncing bette emerging.

A Red Trillium showing its color.

The wild violets/violas that will soon be blooming all over the lawn. I am not sure of the proper name of these. They grow wild and profusely, and their simple color is wonderful to see after winter’s dullness. Some years I try to delay the first mow in order to prolong them.

This feels like a bit of a cheat, as these Ranunculus came from Home Depot, but so what?  I’ve been letting my two children maintain their own flower beds, and I figured they’d be more interested if they had some beautiful flowers to start with, rather than having to wait weeks for seeds to grow.

A taste of things to come: it may be a little hard to appreciate against the pale background, but our quince is budding, and the first few flowers have opened. It should be a riot of reddish-pink in about a week. Let’s hope no frost comes along to nip it.

Notes:

The May Dreams Garden blog, where I believe this whole Garden Bloom Day thing originated.

During the past few months, the number one job for the garden staff has been to keep the birdfeeders filled.  Unlike weeding, clipping the hedge or other yard chores, feeding the birds is a task everyone is happy to undertake. At a time of year where the predominant color is a dull, spent gray, the visual interest was being supplied by the feisty blue jays (above), the bright red cardinals, and the multitude of smaller finches and other birds.

Sadly, I lack a camera or an eye good enough to capture real close ups, but my eldest daughter is turning into a keen photographer, and took some really good shots this winter. She gets credit for most of the pictures in this post.

Some evenings this winter a flock of 20+ robins would collect in the huge grandma cherry out back, taking it in turns to feed on some of the seven birdfeeders throughout the yard. Once the weather warmed and I raked the layer of old leaves off the garden beds (otherwise many of those crocus would have bloomed unseen), the robins would comb every inch of the newly exposed ground picking off small bugs, worms, and other tasty tidbits. Having grown up with the tiny robins you find in Ireland and England, the big bruisers that pass as robins in North America are doubly impressive.

Lately, I’ve sometimes counted 35 birds of various types (pigeons, robins, jays, finches, as well as a few whose names I don’t have a good guess for) patrolling the yard at the same time, which can be quite a sight.

This is the rock star of our backyard bird habitat, a juvenile yellow-bellied sapsucker (we think so, anyway). There appears to be one pair of adult sapsuckers resident in the neighborhood, and at least one of them likes to check out grandma cherry’s old limbs for snacks from time to time. Late in the fall, this guy appeared, much smaller than the others and proceeded to fight for his turn at the birdfeeders with the other species. He’s got a bit bigger through the winter, and has made our yard part of his daily round. Just before lunch (mine) he appears and takes sole possession of the birdfeeder for five minutes or so. Sometimes he does the woodpecker thing, walking in circles around a thick tree trunk before testing the bark in a few places, but usually he just picks out some treats from the suet and heads on his way.

Now that spring is here and the plants are returning, the birds’ vibrant colors will have some challengers for sheer WOW factor, but they’ll also begin to repay the winter’s seed and suet by gobbling their weight in bugs that otherwise would feast on our vegetable garden. With a little luck, somebody will take up residence in our birdhouse this year, and our backyard habitat will be more colorful, busy and educational than ever.

Note: all bird IDs are very tentative, as I’m not a birder.

The first daffodil (surrounded by emerging campanula).More campanula erupting around the crocus.First phlox bloom.And, a volunteer I think might be speedwell. [Note: the larger scalloped leaves in the center belong to an althea zabrina which went rogue.]

The last two (frost-free!) weeks have seen the emergence of many, many perennials, and the first few blooms. As the squirrels search everywhere for their hidden nuts, they scamper through a tall forest of daffodil leaves and thick clumps of the darker green star of Bethlehem.  They’ve been digging all around the trefoil leaves of my new trillium, but thankfully seem disinterested in it.

While the first few spots of color are welcome after the winter, the real beauty in the garden at this time of year lies in the tiny, perfect shapes of the emerging perennials. The minute pale green scalloped leaves of the columbine push through the mulch assertively, while the sharp-toothed heads of the gladioli slice through the dirt like knives. The couple of small campanula plants I put in last summer have been busy spreading their roots throughout the surrounding beds, and tiny new plants are erupting all over the place. As these plants didn’t flower last year, I hope they’re going to put on a show this summer.

A fiesty gladioli.First rhubarb leaves.The thick snouts of the hyacinth always make me think of the sand worms of Dune as they emerge, reach for the sky, and open like hungry mouths.

Certainly not much to look at now, but these weak pink sprouts will soon grow into rather large and lovely bleeding hearts.

All in all, it’s an exciting time in the garden, the first hints that all the work that goes into maintaining it is going to pay off yet again. Going by all the leaves emerging, I’m hoping we might have a very good year for tulips (due to careful dividing and transplanting over the past two years) and my rather bare, ugly front beds might actually approach the sea of tall blooms I envisioned over the last two years when I planted dozens of tall plants (gladioli, iris, peony, foxglove, hollyhock, lily, poppy, and delphiniums). I was afraid most of these had died over the winter, but now I see new shoots emerging from the brown husks of some of the hollyhocks and foxgloves, so they might be more resilient than I thought.

Fingers crossed we’re spared a prolonged arctic blast to stunt or kill all this budding lushness.

An alternate title for this post could be: Random Dog Observations in Need of Some Consideration — the time for consideration is in short supply around here lately.

  • He’s a hoarder! Give him a bone or other bone-shaped-vaguely-food-like object (or even a length of rawhide) and he scampers around looking for a place to hide it. He digs very well, and buries it. Seems to have no further interest after that, however. I guess we won’t be buying any more bones for him.
  • Other than for hiding bones, he doesn’t seem to dig for fun. (He could become a good gardener’s dog.)
  • Where is the line between aggression and playful interest in cats? We have two otherwise mellow kitties who are not pleased to be sharing the house with a dog. Rory seems split between chasing them – for what purpose we have yet to discover – and wanting to play with them. He gets low, scampers side to side, and barks when he sees them. His tail going a hundred miles an hour, but then he begins to growl and gets into the pounce position. We’ve tried to provoke a few close encounters in the hope of discovering whether this is aggression or just puppy playfulness, but so far the cats have been elusive and Rory’s reaction seems to sometimes be playful, sometimes more troubling. He took off after one of the cats yesterday, ripping the leash from my younger daughter’s hand, which scared her of course — she thought her cat was going to be eaten. Captain Jack (the cat) may be named after an immortal, but I’ve no desire to test the strength of the bond with his namesake.
  • He’s a chewer! While working on terracing the front bank yesterday, I brought him out and tied his leash to a tree beside me (this is the non-fenced part of our yard). He shuffled around, found a stick and appeared to settle down to gnaw on it. After maybe ten minutes, he wandered over to the front porch sans leash. He had chewed through it. He didn’t seem to want to run or explore, he was just bored hanging with me, and wanted to see if mommy would give him some attention. It’s early days, but perhaps he will be content to just sniff about when I‘m working outside and not run off to explore. (Otherwise, he could be a bad gardener’s dog.) He’s also half destroyed his bed by chewing and ripping at it incessantly.

We just changed the display on our seasons table and put the Halloween decorations up. The table  currently combines the signs of harvest and the turning leaves (cornucopia, gourds, Indian corn, acorns, chestnuts/buckeyes) with the fun of Halloween (witches, ghosts, trick or treating stuffed animals). But the highlight -– or at least the items our kids play with the most -– tends to be the box of seasonal books that we put under the table.

A seasons table is a corner/side table/flat surface in your house where you can display the signs, symbols and touchstones of each season for your children to examine, play with and thus learn the importance of each season. For us — in keeping with our ongoing attempts to keep clutter at bay — it’s  also a way to limit the amount of stuff we accumulate. (If we want to add something to the mix, then something else has to go.)

The books that make the cut for the seasons box are the best-loved books for each season, titles that even our too-cool-for-school eldest daughter will curl up for hours reading – even though she’s way too old for the Berenstain Bears or Clifford . If these titles were taking up space on the shelves all year, I’d be sick of the sight of them and coveting the space for something else. When they only come up from the basement for a month or so, it’s a big occasion for our kids, and the shared reading of them adds to the sense of ritual and tradition of each season.

It’s also something of a test kitchen in terms of the quality of the books, as only the favorite books get kept year upon year. And here I’m using quality to mean that elusive quality that keeps kids rereading and enjoying the book over time, not the more-easily identified and debated qualities that determine whether a book wins awards or not. So here (in no particular order) are a few of the Halloween/fall/autumn-themed books that my children have chosen to read or have read to them year after year after year.

Pumpkin Soup / A Pipkin of Pepper / Delicious by Helen Cooper

Fabulous artwork and a simple story about teamwork make all the “Pumpkin Soup” books by Helen Cooper essential picture books for this time of year. The clever and detailed art has kept our children interested as they’ve grown up, finding new things each year when they pour over the pictures.

Wild Child by Lynn Plourde

The fall title in Lynn Plourde’s quartet of season books. This story about the changing of the seasons, the end of summer’s heat, the falling of the leaves and the growing chill of autumn is a perennial favorite. It’s somewhat amazing that the publisher has allowed most of the books in this series to go quietly out of print. Wild Child appears to be the only one still available in paperback. Every so often we gift a set of these books to somebody or other, and have to get them directly from Apple Valley Books, who carry the remainder of the author’s copies. Hopefully, the publisher can return them to print or publish a single collected volume at some point.

Angelina’s Halloween by Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig

Yes, yes, I know it’s not cool to express a liking for anything that has become a cartoon series – a sin in hip bookselling circles comparable to expressing an enjoyment of anything published by  Disney (which I’ll commit below) — but my girls loved the Angelina Ballerina series, and Angelina’s Halloween is one of the best. The pictures are expressive, detailed and quite lovely, and the story about a big sister who gets tired of her little sister tagging along is something that has had great resonance in our household over the years.

Hidden Pumpkins by Anne Margaret Lewis and Jim DeWildt

My girls never get tired of the “seek and find” type of books. I couldn’t tell you what the overt storyline of this book is, except that everything rhymes. The story isn’t important in any case; the fun of this book is in pouring over the detailed pictures to find all the hidden – and expressive — pumpkins.

The Scariest Monster in the Whole Wide World by Pamela Mayer and Lydia Monks

One of the first books that went into our Halloween box, and one of the best-loved. The story is a timely reminder that kids have tons of fun dressing up for Halloween and the quality of their costume isn’t important. Who cares if you think they look like a freak? If they think they look scary/spooky/awesome, then they feel great. [Note: Appears to be out of print.]

Turtle and Snake’s Spooky Halloween by Kate Spohn

A very simple early reader, the fun of this book is in the memories of our girls reading it when they were younger and hadn’t yet mastered their letters. Our first child couldn’t say the letter ‘S’ for the longest time, so this will forever be known as “Turtle and Nake’s Pooky Halloween” in our house.

The Book of Boo by Marge Kennedy

Here’s the dreaded Disney title… Our kids were big Winnie the Pooh fans at an early age, and yes we were known to pop a video on in order to get twenty minutes peace. Winnie the Pooh’s Book of Boo came along at just the right time. The video is long gone, but the girls still seem to retain a quiet (and surreptitious) enjoyment of the book.

Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson & Axel Schleffler

Why isn’t Julia Donaldson as huge in the US as she is in the UK, where 3-4 of her books always seem to be in Amazon’s top 100? Room on the Broom is a charming picture book about a witch and her menagerie (a cat, a dog and a frog) and their misadventure with a dragon who likes to eat witches. The simple, colorful pictures (by Axel Scheffler) are very expressive and not scary at all, the story is told in rhymes that appeal to kids of all ages. There’s enough humorous detail in the picture to reward rereading and encourage kids to pour over the artwork on their own.

The Three Little Witches by Georgie Adams

This is another book that takes a pretty elementary story (three school-age witches who live together and are planning a Halloween party), adds in lots of simple but detail-laden artwork and uses simple words with lots of repetition. The story is too long to be read in a single sitting, so it makes a good book to read over a couple of nights at Halloween, and the language makes this a perfect introductory “chapter” book for kids graduating from early readers. Even my older daughter likes to re-examine the pictures and listen as I read this to her younger sister. As a child’s reading ability grows, they can begin to read this to themselves and will not be intimidated as they can be by more text-heavy early chapter books, nor will they be able to memorize this as with many favorite picture books.

All Hallows Eve by Lisa Sferlazza Johnson and Tucker Johnson

This is the story about Eve, the Halloween fairy, who takes your extra candy and leaves toys instead. It’s a clever and well-spun story that will (happily) have your kids wanting to leave most of their candy for the Halloween fairy.

A possible addition to the Halloween box his year may be On a Windy Night by Nancy Raines Day and George Bates. It’s a slightly scary tale of a boy making his way back through the woods after trick or treating. He’s alone – our youngest immediately made me promise she’d never have to trick or treat alone – and his imagination runs away with him as he imagines every rustling leaf to be a monster and every bare tree to be a skeleton. The art work is clever, full of suggestive shadows and atmospheric embellishments. The clouds take on monstrous shapes, the bare tree branches seem to reach out toward the boy and the moonlight makes a cornfield appear to come of life. Whether the book was too suggestive and scary for my youngest remains to be seen, but she did appear to greatly enjoy the story and art on first read.

It’s quite cute to see our oldest, who has recently been devouring The Penderwicks and Kate Di Camillo’s oeuvre on her own, reading through a stack of old favorite picture books, or reading them to her sister. It remind us how far we’ve come as a family, how much our girls have grown, and keeps us hunting for the next fun reading experience.

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