Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

Why Do We Do That, Again?

Did you ever wonder why candy canes are a Christmas staple? Whose fault is it that we scramble to get Christmas cards sent out to every single soul we know (and probably even a few we don't know)? Who can we thank for the annual battle with strings of hopelessly tangled Christmas lights? And just what were early artificial trees made from, anyway?

Well, wonder no more. Here is a brief to answer each of these ponderings:

Candy canes were bent into the shape we know and love in about 1670 by the Cologne Cathedral's choirmaster as a way to keep the kiddos quiet during the church's looooong Christmas creche pageant. However, that lovely peppermint flavor and iconic red and white striping didn't appear until the early 20th century, after the tradition had made the journey across the pond to the United States. (Ya gotta love that good ol' American ingenuity.)

Commercially printed Christmas cards came into vogue following their initial creation in 1843 by English artist John Calcott Horsley, at the behest of Sir Henry Cole. (So, who do we blame for our annual Holiday Writer's Cramp: Mr. Horsley, or Sir Cole? I say both - I'm an equal opportunity blamer.)

The first safe electric Christmas tree lights were invented by fifteen-year-old Albert Sadacca in 1917. It is said he was inspired to create safer lights after a tragic fire, involving Christmas tree candles, in New York City. (Well, I gotta say: though my yearly wrestling match with Christmas lights provides endless entertainment for my family - and provokes more than a few choice words from me, I am very thankful for this young man's inspired creation.)

Artificial Christmas trees first appeared near the end of the 1800's, in Germany: metal wire trees wrapped with - of all things - feathers. But then came 1930, and the Addis Brush Company's "artificial-brush tree." It was manufactured using the same machinery in their plant that made...toilet brushes! (I kid you not. I so want to find one of these, ahem, toilet brush trees...)

Friday, December 19, 2008

These Are a Few More of My Favorite Things...

Book review Friday is here once again, and I have another round-up of Christmas Kids' Book Faves. This group comprises my more reflective, thought-inspiring choices:

A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of my favorite holiday specials of all time, and I was thrilled to find this treasure of a book under my Christmas tree one year. A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition, by Lee Mendelson with reminiscences by Bill Melendez, is a wonderful keepsake. It's aimed at the adult crowd, so we can wax nostalgic about our childhood memories of the oh-so-anticipated special that comes on every year without fail. Inside, the reader will find interviews, behind-the-scenes stories, photos, and art from the show. There is a wonderful bio of Charles M. Schultz - Peanuts creator, Bill Melendez - animation artist for the special, and Vince Guaraldi, composer of those songs from the show that we all know and love.  Sheet music for Christmas Time Is Here and Linus and Lucy are in there, too, and best of all: an illustrated script of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Truly a Charlie Brown aficionado's delight!

Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl, illustrated in this edition by Rachel Isadora, is the heartwrenching tale of a poor little girl, forced out into the "bitterly cold" New Year's Eve night by her father. With no hat and bare feet, she wanders the streets peddling matches no one has bought all day. Afraid to go home that night, as she had earned not one penny, the freezing little girl curls up in a corner outside a house. She lights one match to try and warm her fingers, and envisions a warm stove. When the vision fades, she quickly lights another and another, desperately trying to hold on to the lovely visions that come to her in the biting cold. This one will bring tears to your eyes, and pity to your heart, and gratefulness to your soul for the blessings you have, as it comes to its bittersweet end. It is a sad, sad tale, somewhat harsh, and one you should read yourself before deciding to share with little ones. 

The Littlest Angel, written by Charles Tazewell and illustrated by Paul Micich, is a much-loved classic whose idea was first conceived by the author in 1939. It is the story of a cherub known to all as The Littlest Angel, who entered Heaven at the age of "exactly four years, six months, five days, seven hours, and forty-two minutes of age." But despite being in paradise, he is very sad. He wants to run, and play, and climb trees, but he can't do those things anymore. Then he meets the Understanding Angel, to whom he admits his unhappiness, and that he misses home. The Understanding Angel helps the cherub find happiness once again, and the other angels marvel at the change. Soon after, it comes to pass that Jesus is to be born, and The Littlest Angel struggles with what gift to offer. When he finally decides, and places it before the Throne of God amongst the gifts of all the other angels, he regrets his choice. What does God think of this small angel's gift to His Son? This is a sweet and moving book you surely don't want to miss.

Winter's Gift, written and illustrated by Jane Monroe Donovan, is the story of an old man who lives alone on a small farm. It's Christmas time and, still missing his wife who had died in the spring, he decides he will not celebrate Christmas this year. It is also the story of a mare who becomes separated from her herd in a blizzard, and has never before been alone. Late at night, after fighting her way through the storm, she collapses not far from the old man's house. What follows is a tale of caring, of companionship, and of hope. A very sweet story sure to warm your heart.

One Winter's Night, written by John Herman and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, is two stories in tandem that will remind the reader of a very old and very special tale. One story is that of Martha, a young cow, pregnant and alone and lost, who gets caught in a heavy snowstorm. Knowing her time is near, she searches for shelter. At the same time, pictures show the other story of a man, and a woman riding a donkey, mirroring her journey. When the storm ends, both Martha and the couple find the same empty barn, but the doors are chained shut. When Martha goes on to a shed on the edge of the field, she discovers that the couple has already found it. From here, the two stories converge into one. But where their stories end, new ones begin. This is truly touching book you'll want to read again and again.

* * *

These five books have a decidedly different tone from last week's selections, but each is just a special to me as the others. They help me to enter the Christmas season with hope, and joy, and thanksgiving, and appreciation for the life I've been given. I hope you find them, read them, and are touched by them.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Good Grief!

Here at Chez Wheedleton, we have one Christmas tree all decorated with a hodge-podge of ornaments and sprinkled liberally with multi-colored lights. It's a nod to my own childhood Christmases, when we always had a freshly cut white pine tree covered in multi-colored lights with big, fat bulbs...and one string always had a blinker bulb in it. 

We have another Christmas tree all decorated nice and pretty and sprinkled liberally with lovely white lights. It's a new addition this year - a peace offering to my husband C, who has been pleading with the kiddos and I for years to have a non-garish, sophisticated tree for once. 

We have yet another Christmas tree. But this one is teeny - our "Charlie Brown Tree" that I've had ever since my college dorm room days. (I know. More nostalgia. What can I say? It's Christmas!) 

In addition to our tree collection, we also have some piney garland wound around the staircase rails, all twirled up in twinkling white lights (another concession to C).

You would think it smells like an evergreen forest in here. But no. Every last bit of Christmas greenery in Chez Wheedleton is artificial, imitation, synthetic, replica, faux, man-made...in other words: fake. I make no apologies. We have fake trees and fake greenery for two reasons: A. We're allergic to most every plant that grows on God's green earth, and B. I can't stand going around and picking up the dropped pine needles that get tracked all over the house.

Reason A has appropriately justified our artificialness: our natural-tree-free abode has afforded us the luxury of avoiding the Allergy Two-Step of sniffly noses and itchy, watery eyes all through the Christmas season. 

However, Reason B has not appropriately justified our artificialness, because as it turns out, fake evergreens shed needles just as much as the real deal. Who knew? Obviously not me. (I bet those fake tree makers have a good giggle over it, too.)

And now, you must excuse me. I have some pine needles to pick up.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Get Your Plunger Ready...

...'cause December 18th is Wear a Plunger On Your Head Day. No, I am not making that up. I'm sure someone did, because there's mention of it all over the web, but I never did find any origins for it. Just giddy celebrations of it.

Artist Adam Gustavson used his considerable artistic talents to create a painting - oil on canvas, no less - and blog post (Dec. 2007) in honor of this day's encouragement of rather unorthodox plunger use: 

posted with the artist's permission
image ©Adam Gustavson

**View more of Adam's talents on his blog: The Rhinoceros Boy's Lament, and on his website: Adam Gustavson, Illustrator. 

Even if you're no artist you, too, can get in on the fun of Wear a Plunger On Your Head Day. I did a little research to help you get started (you're welcome), and here are some of the more interesting choices:

If you are the card-sending type, send ecards to friends and loved ones to mark the date. Postcards.org, for example, is happy to be of service.

If you are the fashionista type, perhaps this headgear will do: the Plunger Hat. As stylish as it is functional, it's just the thing for preventing those annoying head-bobs when you're trying to sleep on the train:

If you're the multi-tasking type, might I suggest combining holidays? December 18th is also Bake Cookies Day. Plunger-shaped cookies, anyone?

* If you're a literalist, then by all means, when you're getting ready for the day tomorrow, plunk a plunger on your noggin. Although I would highly recommend using a new and heretofore unused plunger, to avoid any unfortunate name calling...

If none of these options suit your fancy, then by all means be creative and think up your own original way to celebrate the day. And please, drop me a clean comment (family show here, remember) telling me what you came up with. 

Have a  very happy Wear a Plunger On Your Head Day!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Chocolate-Covered Anything Is a Good Thing...Right?

I have long (and stubbornly!) held the belief that chocolate makes everything better. So when I discovered that December 16th is National Chocolate-Covered Anything Day, I wasn't surprised.

How can you go wrong with chocolate-covered raisins? Or chocolate-covered Key Lime pie - on a stick? (Ya gotta love fair food.) Or chocolate-covered pretzel sticks? Or chocolate-covered caramels?

Thinking about all of those made me wonder what else out there is chocolate-covered. So I did a web search. And to kick it up a notch, I looked for "weird chocolate-covered foods." Check out these chocolate covered goodies, from the moderately interesting to the truly gross:
  • chocolate-covered French fries (Eh. Maybe...)
  • chocolate-covered Skittles (Handsome Boy might try these.)
  • chocolate-covered giant ants (Ummm, no.)
  • chocolate-covered squid (Seriously?)
  • chocolate-covered haggis (Ewww. Just ewww.)

To take it one step further, here's what I found - all of them chocolate-covered, of course - with recipes:

This one is gross, but to read the post that goes with the recipe is a total riot: Chocolate-Covered Crickets

This one is possibly acceptable: Chocolate-Covered Potato Chips. Whadda ya think? You know, the whole, "sweet vs. salty" thing? It might be OK... 

And here we have: Chocolate-Covered Bacon. That's right - bacon. Man, I thought deep-fried Twinkies sounded like a heart attack waiting to happen, but this... Well, it is getting a lot of buzz, but I don't know... I just don't know.

I think I'll just stick with my raisins.

Monday, December 15, 2008

I Would Ask Why...

...but then again, I'm not entirely sure I want to know:

Sunday, December 14, 2008

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things...

...or rather, a few of my favorite books. Specifically, Christmas books. Even more specifically, children's Christmas books. I'd like to tell you all about this short list of my faves, and the great thing is: you don't have to be a kid to appreciate them.

Let's start with The Christmas Ship, by Dean Morrissey. The absolutely lovely paintings that illustrate this book will pull you in first: beautiful colors, emotions depicted so clearly you can feel them yourself, and technique so realistic you would swear they were photographs. Start reading the story, and you'll fall the rest of the way under the spell of this story of Sam, the village toy maker who learns on Christmas Eve that his shop is being closed down by the mayor. But when Sam is visited that night by his close personal friend, Father Christmas, he soon finds this will be no ordinary Christmas Eve. A beautiful story of the power of the Chrismas spirit.

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski, is a picture book that no one should be without. P.J. Lynch illustrates with deft use of light, shadow, and emotion. The author doles out this touching tale little by little, keeping the reader drawn in right to the very last word. Mr. Jonathan Toomey is a woodcarver, about whom the village people know little. He "seldom smiled and never laughed." One day, in December, the widow McDowell and her son Thomas, new in town, show up at his door and ask him to carve them a new nativity set, as theirs - a special set carved by the widow's grandfather - was lost during their move. Mr. Toomey gruffly agrees, then shuts the door. The next week, Thomas' mother expresses his wish to stay and watch Mr. Toomey work. He grudgingly agrees once again. As Thomas and his mother visit each week, the reader finds out more and more about the guarded Mr. Toomey. And slowly, surely, a relationship grows. It is touching, and sweet, and heartbreaking, and joyful. Keep the tissues handy.

Even if you've seen the movie, treat yourself to a copy of The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg. A man tells the story of many years ago, of the boyhood Christmas Eve when he lay in bed contemplating what a friend had told him - that there was no Santa. But he believed his friend was wrong. While he lay there late that night, listening for sleigh bells, what he hears instead is "hissing steam and squeaking metal. I looked through my window and saw a train standing perfectly still in front of my house." He runs outside, and the conductor tells him the train is destined for the North Pole. The boy takes the conductor's hand and is pulled aboard. What follows is a magical adventure, full of thick and rich hot cocoa, traveling through woods and over mountains and across "a barren desert of ice," and finally, finally - to the North Pole, and to Santa himself. What happens when he meets The Big Man? What happens on the way home? And what does he find under his tree upon his return home? A fantastic story of a little bit of magic, and the power of believing.

For all us believers, Santa Claus, written by Rod Green and illustrated by Jon Lucas and Carol Wright, is the ultimate guide to the magic of Santa and the North Pole. This book is full of big, fold-out pages, lift-the-flaps, mini-booklets, even a recipe for "Mrs. Claus's Christmas Cookies." Readers will be privy to life at the North Pole and a sampling of its secrets: Santa's House, what life is like for the elves, the workings of Santa's mail room, a peek at Santa's workshop, a glimpse into Mrs. Claus's kitchen, an explanation for how those reindeer fly, some tidbits about Santa's magic snowsuit, specs and special features on Santa's sleigh, a few deets about his Christmas Eve journey, and even info on Santa sightings. Even more is in store for the curious reader than I have room to list here. The kiddos will be entranced. 

Santa Calls, by William Joyce, is the story of Art Atchinson Aimsworth, his little sister Esther, Art's friend Spaulding Littlefeets, and their Christmas of 1908. One day, they find a huge box outside their prairie labratory, marked with a large S.C. and bearing a note: "Open the box. Assemble the contents. Come NORTH. Yours, S.C." What follows is a fantastic adventure as they find themselves traveling to the North Pole, battling through the Dark Elves and their villainous Queen, then meeting Santa Claus himself. But Art wonders why everyone is so happy to see them. Mrs. Claus gives a cryptic response: "Some secrets are better left unsolved, young man." Soon after, Esther is captured by the Dark Queen. Who will save her? And why did Santa call for them? All is revealed at the end, with a surprising and sweet twist. Definitely a book not to be missed.

Red Ranger Came Calling, by Berkeley Breathed, is based upon a story told to the author by his father every Christmas Eve of his childhood. It is Christmas, 1939, and all the nine-year-old Red wanted in this world was an Official Buck Tweed Two-Speed Crime-Stopper Star-Hopper bicycle. Being the Great Depression, that wish was surely destined not to be fulfilled. Then one day, after mooning over the bike in town, Red headed home. He stopped at the lighthouse of old Saunder Clos - rumored to be none other than Santa Claus himself. And then a small man hurried up the path, pausing to stop and raise his hat to the boy, revealing...pointy ears! Well, that wasn't going to sway this nine-year old skeptic. So, later that night he pays a visit to old Saunder Clos, intending to prove the man a fake. However, his journey takes a turn he hadn't anticipated. Sweet, witty, and bitingly funny, this is a story with an unexpected twist at the end that will cause even the most die-hard skeptic to rethink their position...

Last, but not least, we have The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, written by Barbara Robinson, illustrated by Judith Gwyn Brown. Take a gander at this opening paragraph, and you get a perfect feel for the book: "The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse."

The tale is told by Imogene's classmate, as she imparts story after hilarious story of the things the Herdmans get into. When the narrator's brother Charlie gets frustrated with Leroy Herdman stealing his dessert from his lunch, Charlie fibs that he doesn't care because in Sunday School they get all kinds of tasty treats. So the Herdmans - all six of them - show up in church the next Sunday. And then, they muscle their way into getting all of the important parts of the Christmas pageant. Suddenly, this pageant - which is exactly the same year after year - is turned upside down. Riots of laugh-out loud situations are dutifully reported by the narrator, all from her own point of view. As the Herdmans bull their way through pageant practices, they demand to hear the Christmas story -which they've never heard before - start to finish. Their own (loudly proclaimed) take on it raises more than a few eyebrows and prompts several outraged phone calls. Then, when Imogene reacts in an absolutely unexpected way on the night of the performance, it's not the unexpected way everyone expected. And they all came away feeling that this year's Christmas pageant was different somehow...

* * *

And there you are. Seven of my favorite Christmas kid's books. Some are funny. Some are sweet. Many are funny and sweet and sad and laugh-out-loud funny. But they are all books that pull you into the magic and the wonder that is Christmas. I hope you find them and read them. And I hope they touch you as they have touched me.

If you have any Christmas favorites of your own, I'd love to hear what they are. Drop me a comment or email, and tell me all about them!

Friday, December 12, 2008

They Even Have Their Own Honest-to-Goodness Club...

Who knew? Today is National Ding-A-Ling Day, and guess what? There's even a club for it - about 600 members strong.

Yes! You can become a bona-fide, card-carrying member of the National Ding-A-Ling Club, which sponsors this most interesting day. It was founded in 1971, according to Trivia-Library.com

"to promote the idea that a ding-a-ling is a wonderful, loving, intelligent, friendly, and the most desirable kind of person to know...a real bellringer!"

For those who wish to become members, dues are $3. Here is their brick-and-mortar address (I did not find a website for it):

         National Ding-A-Ling Club
         P.O. Box 248
         Melrose Park, IL 60161

New Ding-A-Ling Club members receive: a genuine membership card, button, and bumper sticker. (Oooh! Stuff! I may have to sign up. I do love stuff.) The club also publishes a monthly newsletter, Pealings, which promotes:

"less wiles, more smiles
 less tears, more cheers
 less shove, more love"

Sounds fun to me! And besides, who couldn't use a little more smiles, cheers, and love in their life?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Conditioned Response

When you get a call that company's coming to stay over, what do you do? Clean the house? Hide the clutter? Go grocery shopping? These are all fairly standard procedure here at Chez Wheedleton. However, there are two visitors - and only two - that warrant a preparation procedure all its own. 

The visitors? My parents. 

The special prep? Buying toilet paper. Lots and lots of toilet paper.

Lest I mislead those of you with senses of humor similar to my own, my parents are not (ahem) "crappy" people. That is to say, they don't make copious use of this most essential personal cleanliness tool. But their visits always evoke that Pavlovian response in me: Omigosh! Mom's coming! I need to go buy toilet paper! Even if the basement is already well-stocked with ample supply, I cannot fight the urge to go buy just one more package.

So, you ask, since they're not over-zealous with the TP use, why the panic response?

In a nutshell: Parents visited my first little apartment paid for with my first teaching job. Snowed in - raging blizzard, several feet of snow. Very little groceries. Down to one roll of toilet paper even before they got there. (Bree Hodge, I definitely was not.) Waited out the worst of the storm. Dug out my parents' Ford Escort to brave the elements and remedy a potentially disastrous situation. Swung by my then-boyfriend/now-husband's place to pick him up (me so hoping he'd get snowed in with us.) Ate at a nearly deserted Bob Evans with travelers stranded by the storm. Grabbed the very last package of toilet paper at the grocery store. Dropped off then-boyfriend/now-husband back at his place. (Darn!) Slipped and slid our way back to my place. Endured endless ribbing about "what might have been," had we remained TP-less. 

And so, to this day, I am never, never, never short on toilet paper when my parents come to visit.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Some Winter Morning Perspective

Waking up to this...

...and this...

...made all of this...

...a little bit easier to take.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Book Review: Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh

     "I want to know everything, everything," screeched Harriet suddenly, lying back and bouncing up and down on the bed. "Everything in the world, everything, everything. I will be a spy and know everything."
     "It won't do you a bit of good to know everything if you don't do anything with it. Now get up, Miss Harriet the Spy, you're going to sleep now." And with that Ole Golly marched over and grabbed Harriet by the ear.

Harriet M. Welsch is a sixth grader with a purpose: she wants to be a spy when she grows up. To get ready, she keeps a notebook filled with observations about everyone and everything she sees. She even has a regular route around the neighborhood where she does her spy work, and she jots everything down in her ever-present notebook - including her opinions on each matter or person. 

She even writes about her friends, and what she writes about them is sometimes not so nice, even if it is true. But one day, Harriet's notebook is lost. When it turns up, it's in the hands of the very friends she's been spying on and writing about. And then, Harriet finds out more than she cares to know about spying, and writing, and friendship - and the consequences of being brutally honest.

For Teachers and Librarians:
Though Harriet the Spy was originally published in 1964, its themes of friendship, family relationships, and honesty are still as relevant today as they were back then. Harriet is not a perfect kid. She throws tantrums. She spies on people. She writes sometimes mean things about them. But the things she writes are in the spirit of being honest, even if they are things she would never say out loud. When her spy notebook turns up in the hands of the very friends she writes about, she learns some hard lessons about the conflicting ideas of maintaining professional honesty vs. the sometime need to fudge the truth a bit in the interests of maintaining important relationships.

Today's kids go through the same quandries - they just come about through different sets of circumstances. Let your students compare Harriet's situations to some they've found themselves in. Did they handle their situations the same as Harriet, or differently? Would they change how they did it after reading this book? How do they feel about Ole Golly's admonition, once Harriet's notebook has been read and her friends began to retaliate, that "1. You have to apologize. 2. You have to lie. Otherwise you are going to lose a friend." Let them discuss what they think that means. Have them compare and contrast "white lies" meant to shield a friend from unpleasantness, and other lies which could be hurtful or dangerous.

There is a lot going on in this book: friendship, family relationships, being a kid, dealing with school "stuff," having a loved one move away, unconventional childhoods. Whatever theme you choose to focus on, you can be sure your students will have much to identify with.

For Parents, Grandparents and Caregivers:
Kids today deal with much the same issues that Harriet deals with in Harriet the Spy. They just go through it in a different time, and in slightly different circumstances. When your kids read this, or you read it to them, be prepared for lots of stories about what goes on in their own lives at school and with their friends - those places and situations that parents rarely get a glimpse of. Maybe this book will help your child work through their own difficult times with friends or school. Maybe it will prompt them to bring things up to you, and seek your help in figuring it all out. Even if nothing is going on, your kiddos will enjoy this sometimes sad, sometimes tough to read, sometimes funny, sometimes heartwarming, but always entertaining book.

For the Kids:
It's every kid's nightmare. One day, you lose a journal, or a notebook, or a note, or your smart phone, and it's full of stuff you think about your friends but never were going to let them see. Just your own private thoughts. Because let's face it - even your best friends have things that bug you, and sometimes you just gotta let it out somehow, but you'd never say it to their face 'cause it would hurt their feelings. What would you do if you lost that thing, and your friends found it...and read it? If you read Harriet the Spy, you can see how one kid lived through it, and what she had to deal with, and most importantly, how she survived it.

For Everyone Else:
Harriet the Spy is one of those titles everyone remembers, sometimes with a cringe, because what Harriet has to deal with is so not fun. Being a kid is not easy - especially when your most private thoughts somehow end up on public display. Go on and pick up a copy. Remind yourself that being a kid was not as easy as it seems now that you're not a kid. And remind yourself that, just as kids can learn from adults, sometimes an adult can learn valuable life lessons...from a kid.

Wrapping Up:
Harriet the Spy is a true classic, with an enduring theme and that personal connection that readers long for in a book. Find a copy for yourself, and get reading today.

Title: Harriet the Spy
Author and Illustrator: Louise Fitzhugh
Pages: 320
Reading Level: Ages 9-12
Publisher and Date: Yearling, May 8, 2001
Edition: Reprint
Language: English
Published In: United States
Price: $6.50
ISBN-10: 0440416795
ISBN-13: 978-0440416791

Author Spotlight: Louise Fitzhugh

Louise Fitzhugh spent her life devoted to the arts. She was an accomplished painter and a writer. She is perhaps most well known for her children's novel, Harriet the Spy (1964). Her written work's themes centered around contemporary social issues.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee on October 5, 1928, Ms Fitzhugh first started writing at age 11. Her path to a writing career took several twists and turns. She attended Miss Hutchison's School - an exclusive girls' school, then three different colleges. (Some websites say she never received a degree. Others say she did receive one.) She traveled in Europe for a time. Finally, she settled in New York City to be a painter, and lived most of her adult life there. Ms Fitzhugh also had houses in Long Island, and in Bridgewater, Connecticut.

In the late 1950's, she and her friend Sandra Scoppetone worked on a picture book beatnik parody of Eloise, written by Kay Thompson. That book, Suzuki Beane, was published in 1961. Her friend wrote, and she illustrated.

In 1964, Ms Fitzhugh published her first children's novel: Harriet the Spy. The book garnered mixed reviews at the time, and was quite controversial due to many characters being "far from admirable." Now, it is considered the forerunner to the later children's realistic fiction so popular in the late 1960's and 70's.

She continued writing about other characters from Harriet the Spy. Harriet's classmate Beth Ellen is featured in The Long Secret (1965) - which deals with female puberty issues. Then came a book starring Harriet's best friend: Sport, published posthumously in 1979.

Her picture book Bang Bang You're Dead (1969) has a strong anti-war message. Nobody's Family is Going to Change (posthumously published in 1975) deals with women's rights and children's rights. She also has three other posthumous picture book titles: I Am Three (1982), I Am Four (1982), and I Am Five (1978).

Louise Fitzhugh died at a hospital in New Milford, Connecticut on November 19, 1974, at the age of 46, from a brain aneurism.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

International Volunteer Day is December 5th

International Volunteer Day, also known as International Day for Economic and Social Development, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 17, 1985. It has been celebrated each year since on December 5th.

It was crafted as a day to "recognize the contribution of volunteerism to peace and development;" a day when volunteer-utilizing organizations and volunteers of all stripes may promote their contributions to development at all levels: local, national and international.

"Volunteers...foster partnerships that develop the capacities of people and institutions, strengthen social cohesion and solidarity, and engage all stakeholders to promote the greater good."

- Universal Declaration of Human Rights administrator, Kemal Dervis

Perhaps you're thinking: What's the deal with volunteers, anyway? They don't get paid. They don't receive anything tangible in return. So what brings them to do these selfless acts? Some reasons many have given include:
  • contributing to the greater good
  • enriching their own lives
  • making a difference
  • developing a sense of connection, of belonging
  • fostering empowerment and engagement

Those things sound good, and I might like to help, you say, but I don't know where to start. Volunteers can be found working in many areas: government agencies, non-profit organizations, community groups, private sector...you can even volunteer online!

But wait, you say. I don't have any special skills. What could I possibly contribute? Volunteers don't have to be extraordinary. They just need to have a desire to help. Some simple, yet needed, things a volunteer can contribute: time, talents, labor and energy.

When people think of volunteers, many think of those who help during some type of major disaster, or who go off to far-flung places to help people in dire straits. But while those volunteers are desperately needed and much appreciated, there are many other ways that volunteers can impact people on a daily basis. For example:
  • Manning polling places during elections
  • Helping children succeed, learn, and have fun at school through tutoring, classroom help, or PTO/PTA involvement
  • Running activities in churches, synagogues, mosques or other houses of religion
  • Holding community offices of varying types - from local government to HOA's
  • Delivering meals to the elderly or shut-ins
  • Organizing fund-raisers for individuals, private groups, schools, communities, and towns
  • Helping staff aquariums, zoos, hospitals, and other public institutions
  • Coaching kids' sports teams
  • Helping people figure out how to prepare their taxes
  • Teaching after-school enrichment activities or classes
  • Serving on a board of directors for charities or non-profits
  • Helping run and organize scouting programs, 4-H, etc.
  • Serving as volunteer firefighters and EMT's
  • Running health or dental clinics for those without the means to afford that care otherwise

Maybe, though, you've already been volunteering, and didn't realize it. Often, volunteering is done on a much smaller scale:
  • A friend helps you move.
  • Some ladies from your church help with preparing your wedding feast.
  • Your neighbor steps in in a pinch to watch your kiddos for you.
  • Some kind soul helps you load groceries in your trunk since your hands are full with little ones.
  • A passing motorist stops to help you change your flat tire.
  • Your neighbors get together to bring meals after the birth of a baby, or the death of someone close to you.
  • Your kiddos help you lug all the holiday decorations out of storage.
  • Or perhaps, say, your computer-engineer brother spent hours (and hours) over the phone helping your non-computer-engineer self fix your, er, unruly computer... (Ahem.)

Volunteering engages you with family, friends, neighbors, community, town, state, country, maybe even the world. You become part of something bigger than yourself - even if it's only a little bit bigger. You experience a different kind of purpose. And most importantly, those whom you help are immensely grateful.

So on December 5, celebrate those who give their time to the service of others. And perhaps consider how you can join their ranks - because from the smallest gesture to the largest undertaking, volunteers are vital.

For more information, check out these sites:

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Life Lesson

Words of wisdom from Harriet M. Welsch's spy notebook (as quoted from Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh):


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Home Sweet Home

In these increasingly troubling economic times, tomorrow's Little-Known Holiday makes me appreciate the fact that I can celebrate it all the more deeply. And I hope you are able to celebrate it, too.

Because tomorrow, December 3rd, is National Roof Over Your Head Day.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Cyber Monday Adventures

I know all about Black Friday - that frenzied day of rock-bottom prices and fantastic savings that is a total Thanksgiving tradition for my side of the family. But then this year, I started getting all these emails for something called "Cyber Monday." 

What? Cyber Monday? As if Black Friday isn't enough, now there's a dedicated day of savings for internet shoppers, too. (No, I did not make this up. Check it out on this Wikipedia page, and this Cyber Monday page.)

Since I still have Christmas shopping to do, I thought I might take advantage of this Cyber Monday thing. After all, I much prefer online shopping to in-store shopping. No lines. No crowds. No pushing. No shoving.

So, I fired up the computer, called in the kiddos, and got ready to surf. (They were off of school. First day of deer season. It's a PA thing.) Then,

"I can't see. Move over!" Push.

"No, you move. I was here first!" Shove.

"Well, it's my computer, so both of you stop crowding me."


On to Plan B. I shut down the computer, fired up the truck, piled in with the kiddos, and headed off to the good ol' brick-and-mortars. Not only did I find some great gifts and save shipping costs, but I also got some great blog fodder:

  • On the way to the mall, the kiddos and I got into a rapidly devolving conversation about geese. It started with, "Look! There are some geese!" Then we moved on to, "Did you know geese poop every twelve minutes?" And then finally we lurched into: "I bet geese poop while they fly. Flap! Flap! Flap! POOP!"
  • Not even halfway through our shopping list as we stood in line in a major department store, Handsome Boy and Lovely Girl started sniping at each other. We were right next to the lingerie section. I had a major brainstorm: "OK. If you two don't start behaving right now, I swear I'll get out of this line, go over there and do some bra shopping. And it may take a while. There's a sale." Problem solved.
  • Noshing on a soft pretzel snack break after the "lingerie incident," Lovely Girl - who's barely in the double digits - dropped this bomb: "So, when can I get a credit card?" Oh. My. Word. 
  • On the way home (and me still not quite recovered from the "credit card incident"), Handsome Boy summed up his three purposes for attending college: wearing pajamas to class, going to parties, and making lots of money when he's out. Lovely. Next time, I handle the college discussions...

Shopping. Always an adventure...no matter how you do it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Cautionary Tale

As we in the United States check off our to-do lists in preparation for our Thanksgiving holiday, I offer this council:

Beware the Pitfalls of "The Mental List."

I was inspired by this bit of wisdom as I went about my day today. Even though I had no hard and fast scheduled appointments, the plan was to rise at 5:30 AM, so I could be freshly showered, bright-eyed, and ready to dive into my to-do list before the kiddos were even up. 

Two hours and four alarm resets later (as usual), I'm hurrying into my clothes, pulling my hair through a ball cap, and herding my kiddos through their usual start to the school day. Once they were off, it was time to get to that list.

Thing is, I never wrote it down. It started with two things, so I figured there was no need to waste the paper. Even I couldn't forget a measly two things: an errand, and cleaning the house.

So, I hopped in the truck and set out to complete that errand. Thirty minutes later, mission accomplished. I got back in the truck, and while it warmed up, I started thinking. All that was left was to go home and clean the house.

"Cleaning" for me always begins with vacuuming, which caused me to remember that first I'd have to finish the three loads of laundry piled up on the carpet before I could vacuum. "Laundry" was then added to the mental list. 

Because I have to pass my kitchen to get to the laundry room, I remembered the quickly ripening bananas on my counter that I wanted to mush up and bake into banana bread before they went all black and yucky. "Bake banana bread" was next added to the list. 

Also on that counter was a bill I needed to pay. "Pay bill" dully added to the mental list. 

Since I pay my bills in the office, I was reminded of the many teeny sheets of paper with lists scattered on my desk - and by "scattered" I mean, of course, set about in a totally meaningful and organized fashion. Anyway, three of those lists were Christmas wish lists. Which reminded me I still have Christmas shopping to do. And since I was already out, I figured I'd better work on that a while, too. "Christmas shopping" was then added to the mental list.

So, with the truck sufficiently warmed up, I put it in gear and zoomed off to the store to cross a few goodies off the 'ol Christmas lists. Forty-five minutes later, I exit the store with some lovely surprises for under the tree. I loaded them in the back of the truck, and headed for home so I could finish the rest of that mental list.

On the way home from shopping, I mentally ticked off what I purchased and tried to remember what else I still want to find. Oh! There is that one store in town I need to go get the thing for the person (Haha. You thought I was gonna give something away, didn't ya?), so I resolved to take the appropriate exit. In the meantime, my mind wandered off to calculate how much time I had left before the bus would arrive to drop off my little lovelies from school.

WHOOSH! I blew right by my exit. Crud. It took me 5 extra miles to get to the next exit and backtrack to where I wanted to be. Despite the unexpected detour, I ended up finding what I wanted and getting home in plenty of time to meet the bus. So I unloaded my finds, grabbed a bit of lunch, and told myself I'd start cleaning as soon as I finished eating, then get to the bus stop. 

Well, it's not very entertaining talking to oneself at lunch, so I brought my food into the office. That way, I could do some online shopping at the same time and tie up some loose ends that came up during the brick-and-mortar shopping.

So, I'm clicking along, price-checking, fiddling with codes (hmmm...which is worth more: the fifteen percent off, or the free shipping), finding new ideas with every click. I was feeling pretty good until I shifted the papers on my desk to find the one I'd scribbled a code onto. Instead, I found one upon which was scrawled, "Pay bill."

WHOOPS! The bill! I dashed back out to the kitchen, grabbed the bill from the counter, went back to the office, and paid the bill online. And then I heard the bus. 

Crud! My surprises were still setting out in plain sight, and there wasn't enough time to put them away. So I threw a blanket over them, closed the office doors, and crossed my fingers that the kiddos hadn't yet reached that search-the-house-for-anything-suspicious stage that presents itself at this time of year. Happily, they hadn't, and they dutifully stayed away from the office.

So while they headed to the kitchen for a snack, I managed to finish my last online purchase (for now). Then I commenced with the next items on my mental list: Laundry. Vacuum basement. More laundry. Vacuum upstairs. Even more laundry. Vacuum kitchen. Oh, crud! The bananas! 

So, I started to get the dry ingredients measured for the banana bread, when the washer buzzed. I moved clothes from washer to dryer, and put a few in a basket. I hauled the basket upstairs to hang the clothes, then came back to finish the banana bread. I added the rest of the dry ingredients. Wait a minute. Where's the sugar? I know I measured it...Oh, crud! I did flour for the sugar. Managing to fix that, I held part of it aside to be added after the bananas. I blended in the bananas. Then I put in the eggs and the rest of the dry mixture.

Now, if you are a baker, you know that when dry ingredients are added, you have to start the mixer out slow, right? Well, just before I hit the switch, I remembered that I still needed to fix a dish for my part of Thanksgiving at my sister-in-law's tomorrow. As I added that to my mental list for tomorrow, I flipped the switch all the way up to "beat."

POOF! I was blasted in the face by an explosion of flour, baking power, baking soda, sugar, and salt as the mixer jolted into turbo mode. I hurried to shut it off again, but the damage was already done: the counter was coated in white powder, and so was I. 

So, here I am a few hours later. I'm sitting in my clean house. My errand is mentally checked off. My purchases are safely tucked away. The bill is paid. The laundry is done. The banana bread is cooling. And I'm thinking about that dish I have to make tomorrow. It's a garden salad. That's all I have to do. 

I don't really need to write that down.

Do I?