Category Archives: Non-fiction

Tough Cookies

It’s nearly Girl Scout cookie season!  Troops across the country are gearing up with kick-off events and lotteries for site sales.

Do you know where the money goes for each box of cookies sold?  $1 goes to the baker, $.65 goes directly to the troop, and the rest of the money goes to the troop’s GS council to support programs and facilities.

A few months ago I read Tough Cookies by former Girl Scouts USA CEO Kathy Cloninger.  If you judge the book by its cover (which we all do from time to time, admit it), you might think that it has nothing to do with you unless you have a Girl Scout in your household.  True, anyone affiliated with Girl Scouts should certainly read this book.  However, if you care about girls’ education in any way, there’s something in this book for you.  Or if you have even the slightest interest in the management of a non-profit organization, there’s something in this book for you.  In short, this book has a lot to offer beyond just the history of Girl Scout cookies.

Cloninger took over as CEO of GSUSA shortly after the turn of the century and recognized the need for the organization to revamp itself as the 100th Anniversary of Girl Scouts approached (it’s this year, by the way).  Under her leadership, a nation-wide restructuring and re-branding took place, preserving some of the beloved traditions of Girl Scouts and adjusting for the challenges faced by modern girls.  Cloninger’s narrative is a testament to the accomplishments of generations of girl scouts, and to the tremendous potential of female leadership in the future.

Here is a link to a video of Cloninger’s appearance on Fox & Friends:

So whether your favorites are Samoas or Tagalongs, remember

And here’s a great video about the cookies:


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How Bookstore Browsing Led Me to Knitting

Sometimes I like to wander around in a bookstore just for the heck of it.  Because as a  library science grad student I don’t spend enough time with books or something.  About two months ago, I was browsing in a local shop and came across this book:

Author Anna Hrachovec blogs about her impossibly adorable creations at Mochimochiland.

I decided then and there that I wanted to populate my home with many of these precious yarn-y beings. And I could give them as gifts to children.  And adults.   Of course, first I would need to learn how to knit.

The prospect of teaching myself to knit did not seem daunting to me because I had just that week completed 32 of these guys (you can see how the Teeny Tiny Mochimochi would appeal to me):

The turkeys were a modified version of a project from this book:

In my head I was saying something like, YES!  I have successfully made 64 yarn pompoms.  Therefore, I can learn how to knit.

Yeah, I cheated on my Logic final all those years ago.

So despite the fact that my household was in an uproar as my husband prepared to leave on deployment and the fact that I had a deadline looming on a 350-page reading assignment and related research project and the fact that I was in the midst of starting up a Daisy troop, I watched an absurd number of knitting tutorials on youtube and I learned how to knit!!!

I started with this:

And made my daughter this:

I’m now on to my second project, a rib knit grey scarf based on a pattern in this book:

Admittedly, I am nowhere near skilled enough to tackle any of the projects in the Mochi book yet but I am happy enough to have something to do besides read on the 16-hour plane flight I’ll be taking this summer.

Has bookstore browsing ever led you to take up a new hobby?  Are there any other crazy crafters out there who seize upon an inspiration and run with it, prior experience be damned?  I know of at least one—my BFF came across this book (how cute is that cat?!) and promptly taught herself to crochet:

Coming up soon—my daughter’s “costume” for a nerd-themed birthday party.


Filed under Non-fiction, Random Acts of Reading

Cake Pops

Though my daughter and I love to watch Cupcake Wars, I have to admit I’m not a big fan of the paper wrapped treats.  And having a six-year-old means many encounters with cupcakes.  So when I happened across this book while browsing at the bookstore I was completely taken in.  I am probably one of the few people who discovered the book before the blog (which is perfectly wonderful—check it out here), but that hardly matters to a bunch of kids ingesting sugary treats.  Here’s a photo of my first attempt at cake pops, for my daughter’s birthday.

She wanted cheerful yellow pops so we modeled them after her smiley bouncy ball.  Some of them look pretty wonky but it was fun to make them and to eat them.  I’m looking forward to making another batch—maybe skulls for Dia de Los Muertos…


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Teeth, Gaga, and What I’ve Been Doing All Month

For as long as I can remember I’ve been having bad dreams about my teeth.  These dreams increased in frequency when I was in college and I currently dream (or I remember that I’ve had a dream) about my teeth about once a week.

In some dreams they are knocked out.  I often get punched in the mouth.  When my head snaps back from the blow, I open my mouth and anywhere from just one to all 28 of my teeth fall out.  But there’s never any blood.

I also trip a lot.  At least once there were stairs and I fell face first onto the iron handrail.  Another time I was stepping onto a curb and suddenly my teeth were littering the sidewalk.

Eating in my dreams is hazardous.  Pretty much whenever I’m eating in a dream, my teeth come out.  Biting into apples is the most common.  My four front teeth just stick right into the fruit when I pull it away from my mouth.  But they’ve also fallen out into spaghetti and even into a smoothie.

Occasionally I dream that I’m at the dentist or orthodontist for a cleaning or to have braces put on or taken off.  Inevitably my teeth are yanked out.

Some years back I consulted various dream dictionaries out of sheer curiosity:  teeth falling out in a dream may symbolize regret or embarrassment or it could reveal anger or anxiety or insecurity.  None of these suggestions rings true for me.

Earlier this year, after a routine trip to the dentist, my jaw started popping whenever I opened my mouth and I was diagnosed with TMJ.  I guess for as long as I’ve been dreaming about my teeth, I’ve also been grinding them and that chronic stress on my jaw joint has finally taken its toll.  Apparently, even my seemingly unrelated lower back and sciatic nerve issues actually are connected to my teeth because TMJ has wrecked havoc on my overall posture.

So now I’m fitting in appointments all over the city:  doctor, dentist, specialist, chiropractor, physical therapist.  Since I spend a lot of time in waiting rooms I bring along my own reading material and I worked my way through about 400 pages worth of journal articles about teenagers and their information seeking behaviors.  Yay multitasking!

I’ve also been reading a book which I highly recommend for anyone with TMJ issues.  I came across this title by accident when I was browsing at a bookstore.  For all my obsession with books, it never occurred to me to look for a book on TMJ.  Ooops.  Good job, library student.

The other book I’ve paged through numerous times this month is Gaga.

I’m going to The Monster Ball tomorrow night.  Ironically (or fittingly?), my favorite Lady Gaga song is… “Teeth.”


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Joanna Gardens?

Even though I am completely inept at taking care of low-maintenance houseplants, I volunteered to help my daughter’s kindergarten class tend their garden.  (I know my friend with the chicken coop in her backyard is LOL.)

Let me backup a bit:  one of the ideas that came up in regard to my desperate post last week was for me to volunteer more in my daughter’s class.  This seemed a reasonable suggestion since I have to contribute more hours to the school anyway (lest I end up with a poor school service record to go with my delinquent library record).  When I asked the teacher how I could help out I was thinking, “Storytime!  I can break out the hand and finger puppets!”  After all, it’s Joanna reads, not Joanna roots around in the dirt.

But all Catholic school teachers are gifted with the ability to receive a “yes” answer to any request and my years as a teacher haven’t yet balanced out my years as a student.  So when the teacher eagerly asked if I could assist the children once a week with their garden, I was helpless to say no.

I wasn’t kidding about my ineptitude with plants.  Remember that Sex and the City episode when Aidan brings a plant into Carrie’s apartment?  Yeah.  When my husband had to go to Newport, RI for training, he seriously considered taking his plant with him because it had a better chance of surviving a New England winter in a Navy barracks than six months of my negligence care.  (He should have gone with his instincts on that one.)

Predictably, I have turned to books to help me out.  At ALA Midwinter, I picked up Succulent Container Gardens by Debra Lee Baldwin.  While I love Baldwin’s ideas and succulents probably could withstand the abuse they’d take from me, this book is actually not helpful for the project at hand, what with kids and cactus being a bad combination.

Three books that I have been reading this past week are Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots:  Gardening Together with Children by Sharon Lovejoy, How Does Your Garden Grow? by Clare Matthews, and Gardening with Children: Brooklyn Botanic Garden All-region Guide, all available at my local library.  Each takes a slightly different approach to gardening with kids.

Charmingly illustrated, Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots offers a list of the 20 best plants for kids as well as 12 backyard projects.  In the section titled “Gardening Basics,” Lovejoy says that children can easily feel overwhelmed by long lists of garden chores.  This applies to me too so Lovejoy’s suggestion to break gardening tasks into ten-minute chunks sounds about my speed.  The section gets progressively more complicated so while I think I can handle weeding and watering I will certainly not be composting nor having anything to do with worm boxes.

Truthfully, I preferred Clare Matthews’ approach in How Does Your Garden Grow? Matthews arranged her book into projects, listing materials recipe-style and providing step-by-step instructions with pictures by Clive Nichols to illustrate the directions.  Whereas Lovejoy’s book will appeal to older kids who already have an interest in gardening, it is too text rich to be accessible to the age group I’ll be working with.    In fact, I think Lovejoy’s book is aimed at adults who want to garden with kids (even though the book is classified in juvenile non-fiction).

Matthews includes straight-forward answers to typical questions such as, why is grass green?  Why do plants have roots?  Why do most flowers come out in the spring?  Between the clear pictures, colorful projects and simple language, this book is the best of the three for young children.  (As an aside, I have to say that I love how Matthews (who is British) uses the term “black dustbin liner.”  Doesn’t that sound so much classier than “trash bag?”)

Finally, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden book Gardening with Children offers the most scientific perspective of the three books and really appealed to the biology nerd in me.  With diagrams of the food chain and photosynthesis as well as information about climate and habitat, this book provides older children with an expanded discussion of common classroom science topics.  For someone like me who has an intellectual interest in plants and ecology but little to no skill with the actual living specimens, this is a great book.

I placed a hold with the library on How to Grow a School Garden but as I’m still waiting on it I can’t do more than mention it now.

Well, at this point, I welcome the insight of those of you with green thumbs—any tips for me?  I’ll let you know how this endeavor turns out.


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The Glass Castle

By Jeannette Walls
Classification: Non-fiction
Genre: Memoir
Age Level: 15+
Subjects: Alcoholism, family, homelessness, children in poverty

Reader’s Annotation:  Growing up, Jeannette Walls and her siblings survive malnutrition, beatings, and dilapidated shelters before they escape poverty and alcoholism to forge their own way in the world.

Summary:  Rex and Rose Mary Walls are too intelligent for their own good since their philosophies and convictions lead them to live a life of poverty by choice.  Raising four children in the deserts of California and Nevada, neither parent is capable of holding a steady job.  Lori, Jeannette, Brian and Maureen learn to scavenge for food and protect each other from all manner of threats.  Jeannette thinks they may finally have a home when her mother inherits a house in Phoenix, but before long Rex’s alcoholism and Rose Mary’s depression force the family to move to Welch, West Virginia where Rex was raised.  In Welch, the Walls children grow into teenagers with a common goal—getting out.  Working on the school newspaper, Jeannette discovers her talent for journalism and, together with her siblings, begins to dream of moving to New York City.  But first they must all reconcile the need to sever ties with their parents.

Notes:  Walls recounts her horrifying experiences without self-pity, revealing her own inner strength and the resilience of the human spirit.  Her depiction of the rural poverty throughout the United States is eye-opening.  Content to be aware of—strong language, sexual abuse.
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Farewell, Fredericksburg!

After four years and countless memories in Fredericksburg, VA, I’m heading home to Southern California.  Of course I am very happy to be on the brink of new experiences and opportunities, but to do justice to the growth I’ve done to get to this point, it’s worth a pause to reflect on one of the things I’ve loved most about living in Fredericksburg:   the history. 

Fredericksburg is halfway between the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. and the state capital in Richmond, as well as 100 miles from the historic triangle of Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown, VA, making “Fxbg” a popular tourist stop for visitors exploring American history.  The city itself boasts its own deep history as a busy colonial port adjacent to the boyhood home of George Washington.  In the winter of 1862, the Battle of Fredericksburg proved to be a pivotal point in the Civil War.  Click here to read more about all the town has to offer.

This book by local author Jill Walsh highlights some of my family’s favorite places in town.  Click on the cover image to link to the book’s website.  And let me give a shout out to Linda of Jabberwocky who went out of her way to get my daughter’s copy signed by the author (Thank you, Linda!).  Suited for ages 5 and up, this is a great way to commemorate a visit to the ‘burg.

My husband read Fredericksubrg! Fredericksburg! byGeorge C. Rable.  He says it is an excellent account of the battle of Fxbg.  (I do not myself read military histories, but he does–often–and I trust his assessment).

I read the recently published Fredericksburg:  A Guided Tour through History by Randi Minetor.  It is an accessible account of the 1862 battle, appropriate for readers who don’t need the breadth and depth of Rable’s work.  However, the book lacks a proper introduction and begins in 1862, as though the town had not been established more than 130 years earlier. 

My house was less than a mile from the Fredericksburg National Historic District and the battlefield on which Confederate and Union soldiers shed blood and lost lives in defense of their ideals.  So, I’m leaving the Mother State with a deeper appreciation for my country’s story.  After I’m settled in my new home (a short distance from the Plymouth Rock of the West Coast), I’ll share a booklist of American history and historical fiction. 

For now, farewell, Fredericksburg!  I hope to be back to visit someday!

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Filed under Non-fiction, Reflections

For the First Five

My home state has a program called “First Five,” which is designed with the goal of ensuring the health, well-being, and kindergarten readiness of all children.  Emphasis is placed on the most formative years of a child’s life, the first five.

My own daughter will turn five in less than two weeks, and in my first five years as a mother, I’ve relied on various resources.  I’m sharing the following titles as a woman who previously had little to no experience with babies and toddlers, and I recommend all of them for other such parenting neophytes. 

Booklist:  For Parents of Children Ages 0-5

What to Expect the First Year

by Heidi Murkoff

Since I had no idea whatsoever to expect from my first year of motherhood, this book was a true lifesaver.  I can honestly say that in the first six months of my daughter’s life I probably referred to this book at least once a day.  (You should know that I’m a bit neurotic.  Normal people without my obsessive, perfectionist tendencies would probably only need to consult this book once a week or so).

The Nursing Mother’s Companion

by Kathleen Huggins 

The decision to breast or bottle feed is obviously an incredibly personal one.  For those who choose the former, true to its title, this book is a wonderful companion.  As I’ve indicated, I was clueless about all things baby related, so this book answered a host of questions I didn’t even think to ask.  Highly recommend this one.

Caring for your Baby and Young Child Birth to Age Five

American Academy of Pediatrics

After the first year, this book replaced What to Expect as my go-to reference (and I stopped consulting it daily some time before my daughter’s first birthday).  It has been especially useful when my husband’s Merck Manual is too much for me. 

The Happiest Toddler on the Block

by Harvey Karp

Now, I also read The Happiest Baby on the Block and was disappointed.  Someone gave me a copy while I was pregnant, and I was all set to swaddle my baby the way Karp recommends.  Then I actually met my baby and she let me know in no uncertain terms that there would be no swaddling.  So I wasn’t sure if Karp’s Toddler = Caveman ideas would be helpful.  To my happy surprise, the ideas in this book did help me through 18-24 months, which was the most challenging part of toddlerhood for my daughter and me.  This book is intended for one to four year olds, but I did not refer back to it after my daughter was two.

Child of Mine

by Ellyn Satter

This is an excellent resource on feeding and nutrition for babies and young children.  Satter emphasizes a division of responsibility in feeding:  adults are responsible for what, when and where children are fed; children are responsible for how much and whether they eat.  Between the problem of childhood obesity and the rise in increasingly bizarre diet and exercise programs for all ages, parents need to make it a priority for their children to develop healthy relationships with food.  Child of Mine can set families on the right track from the very beginning.

The above five titles are intended specifically for the first five years.  I’ve also read a number of other books that are applicable throughout childhood and into the teen years.  Here’s a list (with links but not annotations) of additional parenting titles that I recommend.  I’ll be revisiting these over the summer as I make the transition from parent of a young child to parent of an elementary-school child.

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee
Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World
Parenting With Love and Logic
The Five Love Languages of Children
Parenting from the Inside Out

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The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander

By Barbara Coloroso
:  Non-fiction
Genre:  Education/Parenting
Subjects:  Bullying, school violence

Summary:  Subtitled, “From Preschool to High School – How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence,” this book offers a psychological profile of the three characters in a tragedy.  Coloroso explores the emotions and rationalizations experienced by the bully, the bullied, and the bystander.  She also discusses the three main types of bullying—physical, verbal and relational—that occur “in person,” and she explains the ways in which cyberbullying is an even more invasive and poisonous form of bullying.  Throughout the book, Coloroso emphasizes the need for parents and educators to take bullying seriously, so as to change the attitude that it is “part of growing up.”  Numerous cases of school violence from around the world are cited as examples. 

Notes:  Coloroso has created an invaluable resource for individual parents/families and educators.  The emphasis on reconciliation, healing, and on-going dialogue are sound.  While her suggestions regarding reconciliatory justice are idealistic, schools are in need of strong leadership on the issue bullying and school violence.   This book offers excellent guidance for navigating treacherous waters and for keeping kids safe and thriving at school.
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Booklist: Bullying

I’ve been following the case of Phoebe Prince, the 15 year-old Irish girl who committed suicide in January of this year after enduring a months-long bullying campaign staged by her Massachusetts high school peers.

Certainly there are numerous articles containing “tips” on how to identify, cope with and prevent bullying.  This booklist is intended to open up dialogue at various age levels on the subject.

For 4-8 year olds:

Hugo and the Bully Frogs
Written by Francesca Simon
Illustrated by Caroline Jean Church

Hugo is a little frog with a little croak.  He lives in a deep, muddy pond.  And he’s constantly tormented by Pop-Eyes, the biggest, meanest frog Hugo has ever met.  Pop-Eyes snatches Hugo’s toys, calls him names, and drops him head-first into the pond.  How will Hugo ever stand up to such a bully?
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The Recess Queen
Written by Alexis O’Neill
Illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith

Mean Jean dominates the playground.  She goes first at swinging, bouncing and kicking, and no one risks challenging her.  Then a new kid arrives at school.  Katie Sue doesn’t know that Jean is the reigning recess queen.  So what will happen when Katie Sue decides to swing, bounce and kick first?
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For Ages 9+

Buddha Boy
by Kathe Koja

Jinsen, known around school as “Buddha Boy,” is increasingly targeted in mean-spirited, violent bullying by the popular crowd.  Read the full review here.
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For Ages 15+

by Laurie Halse Anderson

After years of being bullied, Tyler considers using violence to make himself heard.
Read the full review here.
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For Parents and Educators

The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander
by Barbara Coloroso

Coloroso discusses in depth the parts enacted in each incident of bullying (including cyberbullying):  the perpetrator, the victim, the bystander, the adults, and the community context.  This book emphasizes ways in which the cycle of bullying can be broken.  Read the full review here.
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For Deeper Reflection

Tikkun Passover Supplement 2010 (Click to link to the full text.)

“As we sit at the Seder table we need to discuss how ancient liberation for the Jews can inspire liberation today for all people.”  So begins the Passover supplement.

How are the Seder and Jewish liberation relevant for non-Jews?  Why is this Passover supplement included on a reading list about bullying?

This piece of reflection from Rabbi Michael Lerner calls the Jewish people—indeed, all people– to open “their eyes to the suffering of our brothers and sisters, the Palestinians,”  to “the ways in which we…have been acting as Pharoah to another people.”  Clearly, bullying is not a problem contained on school grounds.

In fact, bullying occurs on school grounds precisely because it happens on a larger scale in our communities.  Prosperous nations bully developing nations, and powerful companies bully smaller businesses.  Certain adults bully those weaker than themselves.

In all its manifestations, bullying is nothing less than a serious form of oppression.  And so discussion of liberation can move us forward, closer to “communal vision of what messianic redemption would look like,” no matter what our particular faith tradition might be.

As Rabbi Lerner writes, “Instead of relying on domination, we know both from our holy texts and from our real-world experience that it is generosity, kindness, compassion, and caring for others that will be the key to our success and survival.”


Filed under Booklists, Non-fiction, Picture Books, Reflections, YA Literature