Please 2017, or Hope Springs Eternal

After a year which wore out its welcome sometime in August, I’m really hoping for a better 2017.

Sure, a few great things happened in 2016 – I took two terrific vacations with the family (Jamaica and San Diego, CA), my near two-year battle with dizziness came to an end, and the Cubs won a World Series but on the whole, hope seemed hard to find.

I grieved for the loss of human beings who inspired me – David Bowie and his art of reinvention, Umberto Eco whose pinball scene in Foucault’s Pendulum is sexy perfection, and for Carrie Fisher, who lived life with such fearlessness, wit, intelligence and honesty that for this child of the 70s at least, she was a role model of both what not to do (the drugs) and how to live. When Mohammad Ali died, I grieved once more for my grandfather who died from Parkinson’s disease 35 years ago. And I grieved for my grandmother-in-law who passed away in the spring.

I grieved for the loss of civility, and for my hometown, the City of Chicago, which seems incapable of stemming the tide of violence.

In 2016, I suffered many professional shortcomings. I expected to end the year with an agent, or at least a contract. I put forth a solid effort, but simply put, I failed. It’s not a good feeling, even though I understand that larger industry consolidations make it harder for a well-reviewed mid-lister like myself to break through that magical ceiling that divides the best-sellers from the rest of us. It’s easy to get down and think about quitting, but then something magic happens.

January first, 2017 is a new day. My calendar is not entirely blank, but it may as well be a clean slate. Today, I will do some serious exfoliation and scrub off 2016. As of this writing, no-one has died in 2017, so there is no need to grieve. No-one has teased my children or been unkind to them. No-one has told me no. Look out 2017, here I come.

 

 

First Friday: Five great games!

I’m a huge fan of games, note I did not write board games, or card games or video games. I love them all. In this season of giving, whether to a loved one or to a toy drive, here are five games I highly recommend because not only are they fun, but they can also be adapted to accommodate a range of ages. I’m not part of any affiliate program. The links are there for your convenience.

  1. Labyrinth – The original German title translates as “the crazy maze.” Why? Because with each turn, the game board changes. As you race to collect treasures, you can work with or work against the other players to reshape the routes to the various treasures. It says 8 or up, but we started playing it when my son was 5 and he not only kept up with the adults, he usually beats us. This is a great game for spatial reasoning. Available at Toys R Us and other retailers.
  2. Perpetual Commotion – This is basically the card game I grew up calling “Nertz.” It’s a high-speed game with elements of solitaire that can easily be adjusted for younger players by dealing them fewer cards. You could also play in teams where one person is responsible for watching the feeder pile and one person flips the deck. It’s available at Amazon and other retailers.
  3. Richard Scarry’s Busytown Eye Found It! In this cooperative game, the highlight  is spinning a Goldbug, when sets off a timed search for objects hidden throughout the game board. Cards indicate if you will be looking for kites or hot dogs or something else in the overstuffed and often comical drawings of Richard Scarry. Unlike Hi-Ho-Cherry-O or Candyland, I have no urge to stick a fork in my eye to avoid playing this game. Available at Amazon and other retailers. 
  4. Apples to Apples – This game comes in myriad versions. I’m partial to the kids version, especially when playing with family because it contains cards such as “My mom” and “under the bed.” While the former should always be paired with “beautiful” or “nice,” the latter is best played on the person with the messiest room. Available at Creative Kidstuff and other retailers. 
  5. My last game I recommend this year skews older and is the newest one in my household, but also one became a quick favorite. Evolution: The Beginning. Even though the instruction book almost as overwhelming as those for King of Tokyo and Settlers of Catan (two other games our family loves), the card-based game play is straight-forward and fun. The artwork is beautiful and the structure of the game allows for multiple strategies to victory.  The action is low-key and it takes less than a half an hour making it a great way to wind down before bedtime. I believe it is a Target exclusive, but may be available through resellers.

So there you have it – some awesome ways to spend the time with friends and family throughout the winter. With these games, your only awkward discussions will involve what to play next.

If you have a favorite game, please share it below. Thanks.

First Friday: The #TealPumpkin edition

If you’ve followed me on social media or on this blog, you may have noticed I’m a passionate supporter of the Teal Pumpkin Project to ensure even those with food allergies can have a safe and happy Halloween.

My daughter has severe peanut allergies and as much as we love Halloween around my house, it is a high-risk period because, let’s be honest, how many of us can resist a Reece’s? My daughter, yes, but some kids snack on a few and then dig their hands into a bowl filled with all kinds of treats and spread that peanut-butter around and let’s not talk about school lunch the next day. Instead, I’m offering 5 ways to get your house ready for a safe, fun and happy Halloween.

  1. Don’t let the kids grab the candy in a free-for-all when the bell rings. Have the designated door opener give each trick-or-treater a generous handful instead.
  2. Keep a bowl of peanut-free treats. We give out a lot of Skittles, Starbursts and Laffy-taffy. If a trick-or-treater gets a Snicker’s bar at my house, it is only because my children have returned home and we are redistributing the stuff they can’t eat. Wondering what candy is safe to give out? My Target had a terrific display and handy list of ingredients.
  3. Remember that peanut allergies are not the only allergies. Some kids are sensitive to gluten, eggs, dairy, or others. Accommodating all food allergies can be a challenge which leads to
  4. Offer a non-food alternative. I’ve given out Halloween themed rubber ducks, Play-dough (although it’s not safe for kids with wheat allergies), pencils, bubbles, stickers, spiders and noise makers. You can buy large quantities at Oriental Trading  but since I get less than 100 kids at the door, I head to Dollar Tree. With 12 pencils or a 4 pack of eyeball bubbles for a dollar, I can offer something fun and safe without breaking the bank.
  5. Last – but not least – make sure trick-or-treaters know you are part of the Teal Pumpkin project. Paint a pumpkin teal, hang a sign at the door, post a yard sign, or do the house up in teal. And don’t be surprised if you get a few extra thank yous. The Teal Pumpkin is such a small thing to do, but your compassion makes a huge difference to those of us on the front lines of food allergies.

 

 

First Friday 5: #Summer Fun Unplugged

summer is coming

For many of us, summer means vacation and extra family time since the kids are out of school. In my house, this means hanging out with friends and being outside until past sunset. But sometimes, the weather doesn’t cooperate. For those times we are stuck indoors, we break out the games.  Here are five fun and portable games that are great to play inside or outside, at home, at the cabin or in a hotel.  And yes, these will work for those of you in the Southern Hemisphere too.

  1. Perpetual Commotion. This reminds me of the card game Nertz, which I grew up with, but could never quite explain to my husband and his family. It’s organized chaos. Although the box says ages 12 and up, my 8 yr old loves it. There are even instructions on how to make the game more equitable for younger players. It all makes sense once you’ve seen it in action, so here’s the official video.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88XOzNEfxZI
  2.  Spot It!  We have a lot of Blue Orange games in my house, but none travel more than Spot It.  This matching game has multiple ways to play and many thematic variations (NHL, Frozen, Camping & more). You don’t need much space to play it and the container is pretty small, so we often take it with us when traveling. If you see me on the floor in the airport, stop by, say hi, and I’ll deal you in.
  3. Feed The Kitty by Gamewright – This is a variation of the classic dice game LCR (Left Center Right), but way cuter because you try to get all the mice instead of poker chips. When we travel, we take the dice and mice and leave the bowl at home, but the rest of the time, we use the bowl. Part of our fun comes from making stories about the mice and what they are up to, as well as smack talk.  This is another quick paced game and great for filling in those little gaps of time while you are say, waiting for one person to get ready so you can head out to the park.
  4. Scrabble. Scrabble comes in many forms. We have at least three non-electronic versions, including a travel one that folds up to be the size of a hardback book only much lighter. For my kids, it helps keep them engaged with words and spelling. I get to think about words too, and my husband gets to correct all of our spelling mistakes. In spite of that, we still have fun.
  5. Moose in the House by Gamewright. Because Moose in the House is a card game, it’s portable but you need some space to play. The winner is the one with fewest moose in residence at the end of the game. We love to make bad moose puns and offer up false flattery as to why the moose picked one person’s bathtub over the other. We always end up in giggles, which makes this simple game a winner.
    I’ll save board games for another time, because some of the best don’t fit easily into a suitcase. Since I’m always looking for suggestions, what are your favorite travel games?

First Friday 5 lessons of #Motherhood

Being a parent has taught me myriad lessons. For one thing, I learned I needed to apologize to my mother as in this post from the past. In honor of Mother’s Day, here are five other lessons motherhood has taught me.

  1. Humility. Kids are terrific at pointing out all your flaws. If I misspeak, I will be corrected. If I come home after a work-out or a long bike ride, my kiddos will point out how bad I stink. If dinner is not delicious and merely okay, I will know. Forget tough to please reviewers, my harshest critics are tied to my daily life.
  2. The mundane can be amazing. I never thought much about drawers until my daughter was 3 months old and I laid her on the bathmat while I got ready for the day. I pulled open the drawer to get out my hair brush. The action was nothing to me until I noticed how big her eyes grew. She had never seen a drawer in motion before and her little mind was blown. Since then, I’ve tried to be more appreciative of small moments. Wonder is a state of mind.
  3. Bananas are tasty. I did not eat them until I had to set a good example to my children.
  4. Listen and ask questions before giving advice. Respect what they have to say, and they will respect what you have to teach them, unless it is a mispronunciation in which case, see #1.
  5. Nothing beats a snuggle and a book. At the end of a long day, I love to sit with each child and talk books. At first, I read picture books, then we moved on to new challenges. My son and I read the classics. He decides if the language is too tricky for him to read half or not. We stop and talk about ideas, word meaning and make predictions. Sometimes my daughter listens in. More often she and I snuggle and she tells me about what she is reading at the moment. Because it’s a comforting ritual for all of us, we turn to it when not feeling well or simply having a rough day. Of course, if you read this, chances are high you are already a book lover and know exactly what I mean.

First Friday Five: Picture Book Bonus

The last two weeks, I’ve treated you to book recommendations for Middle School readers and for Elementary aged readers. This week, I’m sharing five terrific picture books.  I’ve given priority to books that have been released this year. As before, I’m including buy links to Amazon and Barnes & Noble for your convenience. I do not benefit financially in these recommendations, I just want to share books I love to help those who are looking for a book to give to a child.

  1. The Book with no Pictures by B.J. Novak. Yup, I’m starting a list of picture books with a book that has no pictures. Trust me on this one. B.J. Novak, previously a writer for The Office, has a tremendous way with words and a wicked sense of fun. This is the book the kids in your life will want to spring on unsuspecting parents, grandparents, babysitters, aunts, uncles and well, anyone as a bedtime story. The sense of mischief and fun appeals to kids all ages, including those of us experienced kids who have the gray hair to prove it.  Amazon and Barnes&Noble 
  2. The Day the Crayons Came Home by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers Have you ever looked at a child’s box of crayons and wondered what on earth happened to those once pristine pieces of wax? Jeffers’ playful illustrations are spot on and new readers will be surprised at the emotional depths Daywalt finds in the crayons. This is a terrific gateway for talking about emotions.  Amazon and Barnes&Noble 
  3. I Will Take a Nap! by Mo Willems. Mo Willelms is the mastermind behind Knufflebunny, the Pigeon and Elephant and Piggie, stars of I Will Take a Nap. Elephant and Piggie don’t look alike and possess many opposite traits (cautious versus impulsive) that can cause some conflict between the two, but friendship always prevails. Amazon and Barnes&Noble 
  4. Ninja Red Riding Hood by Corey Rosen Schwartz, illustrated by Dan Santat. This came out last year, but it didn’t cross my radar until my ninja loving son brought it home from the library. As I’ve said before, I think Dan Santat is a terrific illustrator and his vibrant images bring this twisted fairy tale to life. This is a fun book to read alongside an original version of Little Red Riding Hood and can lead to great conversation about empowerment and bullying. Amazon and Barnes&Noble 
  5. What Pet Should I Get? by Dr. Seuss.  It’s not every year you get a new Dr. Seuss Book! For me, it’s no Fox in Sox (my favorite Dr. Seuss), but it is a fun book to read aloud and share with the children in your life. A lot of children will relate to the problem of picking a dream pet and in this book, there are no real life consequences, so bring on the silliness and help kids spark their creativity. Amazon and Barnes&Noble    

 

Kids that are read to from day one are kids who grow up to be readers. Study after study shows the benefit of reading with children. From building vocabulary to creative problem solving, to building empathy, to creating a passion for knowledge, few tools on this earth are more powerful than a book. Please share the joy of reading this holiday season, whether with a special child in your life or by donating a book to a school, shelter, library or program like First Book.

I hope you have enjoyed this extended Friday Five series. If you have books to recommend, or thoughts on this list, please share in the comments.

First Friday Five: Great Books for Middle School Readers

I’ve invited a special guest to share some of her favorite books for Middle School and Teen readers. Four of the Five are series specially selected by one of the loveliest young ladies I know. Without further ado, my twelve-year-old daughter is here to share her recommended reads for Middle Schoolers.  As with last week’s bonus post, “Great Books for Elementary Schoolers,” I’m including buy links to Amazon and Barnes&Noble for your gift-giving convenience, but don’t overlook other sources too. I make no money on any of these sales. My daughter and I want to help you find great reads for tweens and teens in your life.

  1. The Unwanteds by Lisa Mcmann, fantasy series- This is a great series for anyone creative or magic-loving. It is a struggle as two brothers face the real world and its challenges.  Amazon  and  Barnes&Noble 
  2. Warriors series by Erin Hunter- This series tells the story of house cats struggling to survive in the wild from their point of view. Leaves the reader thinking, “is that what my cat does?” Amazon and Barnes&Noble  
  3. Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull- What would it be like to live in a world of dragons, danger, and magic? Read to find out. Amazon and Barnes&Noble 
  4. Wings of fire series by Tui T. Sutherland- A war has been raging in a land for many years. This is the story of five dragonlets and how their actions affect their world. Available at Amazon and Barnes&Noble Box sets are great for voracious readers.
  5. The Candymakers – from  Wendy Mass- the story of four young kids in a candy factory trying to make the best new candy of the year. Each have their own secrets and story to share. There are five parts. Amazon and Barnes&Noble

There are multiple other books that did not make it onto this list. My daughter hopes that if one liked these recommendations, you’ll might explore other books and series by the author. Erin Hunter and Brandon Mull have multiple series she recommends. Erin Hunter also writes the Seekers and Survivors series. Brandon Mull also writes The Five Kingdoms, Beyonders, and The Candy Shop War Series. Sequel series to Fablehaven and The Unwanteds are coming out soon.

Quick – now that she’s out of the room, if you have any recommendations, please list them in the comments. I can hardly keep up with all her reading and as a parent, that’s a wonderful problem to have.

First Friday Five: Things I learned at the bus stop

I walk my kids to their respective bus stops each morning, even on the coldest days. Not only does it give me a bit of uninterrupted time to chat with each child, but the experience is truly educational.

Here are Five Things I’ve Learned from the Five Children at the Elementary School Bus Stop.

Image from vector-magz.com

  1. First is the Worst.
  2. Second is the Best.
  3. Third is the one with a Polka-Dot Dress.
  4. Fourth is the one with the Treasure Chest. (On occasion, fourth may possess a Hairy Chest).
  5. Fifth must suffer from an existential crisis because the kiddos cannot agree on a pithy rhyme. Either that or the Fifth rebels against labels, refusing to be easily categorized for the sake of a game.

First Friday: Five things I do for my kids

Let’s be honest, I do way more than five things for my kids. Every parent does. But as this post goes to publication, I am chaperoning 250 sixth graders on a five day-four night field trip and doing so voluntarily. Or at least at the behest of my daughter.  In tribute to this event, I came up with a list of five things I do for my kids that have changed my life for the better.

  1. I eat bananas. I refused to eat bananas as a kid. Their mushiness ruined fruit salads, peanut butter sandwiches and any other way my poor mother tried to serve them. I didn’t eat them as an adult until I noticed my daughter stopped eating them. I had to eat them if I wanted her to eat them. This case of “Monkey See, Monkey Do” worked so well, we both eat bananas and I’ve learned to tolerate their taste.
  2. I wear a bike helmet. If I want the kids to wear helmets, I have to wear one too.
  3. I coached soccer. I never played soccer. I know next to nothing about soccer, but I couldn’t bear to tell my son that once again, his team would disband because no one stepped up to coach.
  4. I gave up peanut butter.  When she was 18 months old, my daughter tested positive for peanut and tree nut allergies.  Theoretically, I could have peanut butter or peanuts in the house, but I love her more than I love peanuts and her life isn’t worth the risk.  I miss the nutrition of nuts, but Trader Joe’s makes a good sunflower seed butter.  And while we’re at it, Halloween is coming up for US blog followers. Check out the Teal Pumpkin project sponsored by FARE and make trick-or-treating safe and fun for all kids.
  5. Last, but not least, I volunteer my time whenever my kids ask me to be involved. Whether I’m reading to the class, planning a school picnic, or, as it is this week, standing on a platform 30 feet off the ground to help with a tree-top ropes course, my kids know I am there for them.

 

First Friday Five: Writing Tween Girls

You can get Valentine’s tips anywhere, so rather than celebrating romance with my First Friday Five, I’m sharing

Five flaws an editor would point out you wrote a tween girl as they actually are.

  1. “This character is inconsistent. One minute she’s likable, the next she’s bat-shit crazy.”
  2. “Your character needs a clear goal, not the vague desire the world is against her.”
  3. “She lacks proper motivation.”
  4. “The conflict is too scatter-shot. Focus. Giving a more concrete goal and motivation will help.”
  5. “I found three variations on “eyeroll” and counted 812 incidents in the manuscript. Avoid repetition.”

Let your inner editor free in the comment section. I’d love to know what you think.