an imperfect gift

My kids are in a choir.

On a side note: When I think of choir, I think of people sitting on hard chairs in straight rows not moving or making any noise until it is their turn to sing, but that’s not at all what this choir is like.  Instead, it’s simply a good, kid-level music class: an introduction to reading music, following rhythm, and singing on pitch done mostly through games.

ChoirEach semester, their choir (actually made of three smaller groups that meet on different days in different locations) practices four songs for their end-of-semester performances.  This semester, the director gushed, “This time we’re going to have a song to make your moms cry.  They’re going to think it’s so sweet!”  The song is entitled “A Mother Is a Gift from God.”

I think I must be broken.  Instead of crying from the utter sweetness of the song, each time they practice–which they are supposed to do a minimum of four times each week–I want to cry from the horrible guilt it induces.

The second line of the song says that a mother’s voice is music to the ears.  Really?  Have they heard me shout for the kids to quit fighting and solve their problem before they get sent to their rooms?  Most of the time, my voice is probably anything but musical.

It continues: “She gently wipes away each tear.”  This one is killer for a parent with a difficult child.  My four-year-old is incredibly tempestuous, and sometimes I feel like he spends the entire day shouting and crying over something.  When he’s having his third meltdown of the day by 9 am, I am anything but gentle as I wipe away his tears.

As if that weren’t enough, I’m told that mother “always takes the time for little girls and boys” and freely sacrifices “to bring her children joy.”  Oh, really?  Because by the end of the day, I often just wish everyone would be quiet and leave me alone for a few minutes.  And I regularly make detours through the kitchen, hoping the kids never discover that the reason I’m repeatedly opening the fridge throughout the day is to snag a handful of M&Ms from my secret stash, which I have no desire to share.

Am I the only terrible mother for whom this song is simply a recrimination?

I suppose someone had to write this poem, and if I consider the poems I’d write about my mother, I wouldn’t focus on the times I got in trouble or the moments in which her voice held that edge of irritation.  Because while I’m sure there were a fair number of those times, the ones that stick in my mind are the times when she spent time with me working on a project or going on a special outing or simply holding me when I was hurt or sick.  And I suppose all that there is to do is hope and pray that when my kids look back on their childhood, they will remember that I wasn’t perfect…but they will have those warm memories of my love and attention that make the less pleasant moments pale by comparison.  One can hope, right?


15—or maybe 19…or 26—chapter book series to get you through the early years

So your child is reading—glorious! I’m sure you’re ecstatic. And you’ve slogged through the painful sounding-out-every-word phase, endured the agonizing repetitions of early reader books, and coasted in the golden waters of simple picture books. But now your little reader has really begun to take off. Either he’s begun demanding to read chapter books like some of the older kids he knows, or she’s gobbling through picture books so fast that you’ve worn out your library card. One way or the other, you’re venturing into the world of beginning chapter books.

Make no mistake—this road is not an easy one, either. If you’re like me, you’re pretty picky about what your precious little sweeties read: nothing too scary or gory, and I’d like the characters in the books to be generally likeable and preferably not sassy to their parents or unkind to each other. Even if you’re not as paranoid as I am, you’ll soon realize that while chapter books take your kids longer to read than picture books, they still don’t take that long. And then you need another one. And another one. And it’s not always easy to find something your child wants to read.

With picture books, the options seemed endless: take home a super-sized stack, and fully half of them would be appealing enough for your child to survive through 32 short pages. With chapter books, you may find that you soon gravitate toward books in a series. After all, it’s taken you eleven attempts to find a book that Junior likes beyond the first chapter. The others were too long or too short or had a bland cover or didn’t have an interesting first chapter or had too-small font or not enough pictures or too many pictures or too many animals or not enough animals or…. Having finally found something he enjoys, do you really want to go through the whole process again to find another one he’ll read?

Having slogged through this era myself—and finally getting one child to branch into longer, harder books while the second child loops back to re-read every picture book we own and each chapter book she has already enjoyed while building stamina for things with more pages and smaller fonts (and don’t even get me started on the third child, who has spent the last nine months stagnant in the sounding-things-out phase)—I thought I’d share the journey in the hope that it makes someone else’s life simpler.

Below you’ll find a chart illustrating the reading level range of each book series we’ve read (and some shoot-offs that I found out about as I was trying to chart the main ones we had read). The reading levels listed are the grade-level equivalents given by Scholastic’s Book Wizard; these are not necessarily the same as the AR level or any other level someone invented. (There seem to be at least three dozen ways to level books; I had to pick some way to sort this, and the Book Wizard sure is handy.) If the reading level of a series is mostly focused in a narrow range despite some outliers, then I have made that focus-range darker than the rest of the bar. I’ve also included very loose genre categorizations for each series, with A being a general adventure-type book, M being a mystery series, AN being an adventure series with a nonfiction element, and N being nonfiction.

Under the chart, you’ll find a quick summary of each series (in ABC order, to make life simple, with author’s last name referenced parenthetically after the series title) along with any information I thought might be pertinent or helpful. Beneath that, I’ve included a list of book series about which I have heard good things but haven’t actually had in my home—in case you need still more fodder. Obviously, you’ll want to be sure any books your kids read are a good fit for your own family’s values.

Handy Chart o’ Chapter Books for Reading Levels/Grade Levels 1-4ishEarlyChapterBooks

  • A to Z Mysteries (Roy): Dink, Josh, and Ruth Rose—the older siblings of the protagonists in the Calendar Mysteries—always manage to get to the bottom of tough situations in order to help folks in their town. Though I was skeptical of some of the titles since my kids are pretty sensitive, the series handles even ghosts and zombies in a manner that was not frightening. (Spoiler: It’s always someone dressed up who’s trying to scare others away for some reason.) These books are just slightly longer than those in their siblings’ series and can be read in any order. My son’s favorite feature was the included map of their town, which allowed him to track the kids’ every move!
  • Andrew Lost (Greenburg): A 10-year-old boy gets sucked into his atom-shrinker invention along with his cousin Judy. They end up going all kinds of crazy places—beginning with the inside of a dog’s nose—learning about them from Andrew’s tiny robot friend as they go. My nonfiction-loving son was fond of these.
  • Boxcar Children (Warner): Four children whose parents have died (off-camera and completely un-distressingly) decide to strike out on their own rather than risk being split up or sent to live with an unknown grandfather. The first book is an adventure, while the subsequent books in the incredibly-long series are all mysteries. There’s also a secondary series, The Adventures of Benny and Watch, which has a bit lower reading level, ranging from 2.3-3.6, though only one is above 3.2.
  • Calendar Mysteries (Roy): Bradley, Brian, Nate, and Lucy—all first graders at the start of this series—untangle a variety of mysterious happenings around town in these innocuous little chapter books. Surprisingly, there are 13 stand-alone books in this series—one for each month, and a final one with a New Year’s Eve theme.
  • Clifford Chapter Books (Scholastic): Great for early readers, these books have big text and an image on almost every page. While the guidelines say ages 7-10, I don’t know any 10-year-old who wants to be caught reading Clifford; on the other hand, these were perfect for my preschoolers who were reading at this level.
  • Flat Stanley (Brown): This one is tough because there are three different groups of books going by the same series name: there’s the original series, the Worldwide Adventures, and the I Can Read books. The original six-book series, in which Stanley not only becomes flat but also turns invisible and has a variety of other (very unlikely, as my son points out) adventures, is pretty solidly a 3rd grade reading level, split between early- and late-3rd grade. The Worldwide Adventures series, featuring about a dozen more stories in which Stanley visits famous locations around the globe, is mostly in the upper-3rd to lower-4th grade range (though there’s one upper-second and one lower-5th book in there…), while the I Can Read (Level 2) books range from early 1st to late 2nd.
  • Fly Guy (Arnold): These silly stories follow the adventures of a boy named Buzz and his brilliant pet, Fly Guy. While it’s a stretch to call them chapter books—each page of the extremely short chapters features a large image and only a sentence or two of text in large, cartoony print—they do contain chapter headings, and the subject matter will appeal to even older readers. I didn’t love all of the subject matter, but many of them were great. There is now a sub-series called “Fly Guy Presents…” which are humorous informational books.
  • Jigsaw Jones Mysteries (Preller): Seven-year-old Theodore Jones—better known as Jigsaw—has a talent for solving mysteries. All of his friends ask for his help whenever there’s something they can’t figure out, and he and his friend Mila work together to solve the cases. A couple dozen titles will keep your kids busy testing their wits on these mysteries.
  • The Littles (Peterson): The Littles, a family of tiny people-with-tails who live hidden in the home of a normal-sized, tail-less family, have to be inventive to meet their needs, and their tiny lives are full of adventures. There are two groups of books here, the original dozen or so Littles titles, which are mostly early-to-mid 3rd grade level, and then a handful of the Littles First Readers, which are almost exclusively level 2.1.
  • Magic Tree House (Osborne): As you likely know, there are about a zillion of these books about Jack and Annie and their travels through time in the Magic Tree House; many kids tire of the plot formula after a while, but my daughter was happy to read every one she could get her hands on—and then go back and read them all over again. I have to admit, though, that I’ve been delighted at the tidbits of history she’s retained from these and brought up at random moments. It’s best to read at least the first few in order; the stories do build on one another (referring to previous events, especially within each multi-book mission), but it’s not a big deal to jump around, either. The later books tend to be a bit higher reading level, though this is not universally true. The companion nonfiction research guides vary widely as to reading level, with the early ones being about as hard as the books they’re written to accompany, and many of the Fact Trackers being 4th or 5th grade reading level.
  • Magic School Bus Chapter Books (Scholastic): Like the videos and picture book series, these twenty stories feature Ms. Frizzle’s class going on field trips in their Magic School Bus. The characters and general plot-style are the same; these are just more text-heavy. My nonfiction-loving son enjoyed plowing through these and learned a surprising amount.
  • Marvin Redpost (Sachar): Third grader Marvin Redpost struggles with the typical kid issues, from wonderings about his place in his family to accusations of nose-picking to ill-advised feats of bravery.
  • Mercy Watson (DiCamillo): This super-silly series about a pig named Mercy who thinks she ought to be human features a nice, big font and colorful, hilarious pictures on nearly every spread.
  • Mr. Putter and Tabby (Rylant): A quirky retiree and his cat bumble through a variety of everyday adventures like dancing, racing, and baking. My daughter was charmed by his antics. Oddly, the series is mostly either 2.1-2.2 level books or 2.9 level books.
  • Wayside School (Sachar): The setting for these books is the top floor of Wayside School, which was supposed to be one long hallway with thirty classrooms but instead was built with 30 stories, each containing only one classroom. Sachar pulls out all the stops in these books, coming up with the zaniest scenarios that leave kids in fits of giggles.  This one can be a little dark, though, so you may want to take care with these.  For example, the first chapter of the first book features a teacher who turns children into apples–and then accidentally turns herself into an apple and gets eaten by the janitor.

This is obviously not an exhaustive list of chapter book options in this reading range; it is merely the list of chapter books that my kids have enjoyed. Though I hesitate to advocate for series with which I have no experience, I will provide a list of other options that I’ve heard recommended on numerous occasions but for one reason or another my kids didn’t get around to reading:

  • The Kingdom of Wrenly (Quinn): The protagonists of this one are an eight-year-old prince and his friend, the seamstress’ daughter. Though these aren’t carried by Scholastic (and thus don’t have a reading level listed there), the Lexile system places them roughly on-level with the upper Magic Tree House or lower Magic School Bus books; I’m guessing around 3rd grade-level. I did see one of these, though, and it has a huge font and numerous illustrations, which means I ought to pick it up to expand the repertoire of my small-text-averse daughter. **Edit: My daughter LOVED these books, devouring each one of the seven we got several times over the course of two weeks.  Pookie was enthralled by her enthusiastic descriptions and had me read them aloud to him.  While I didn’t find them gripping, the stories have positive messages and laudable protagonists, and the pictures on every page are nicely done.
  • Rainbow Fairies (“Meadows”): These seem to be pretty narrowly in the 2.7-2.9 range and strongly appeal to kids who enjoy magic, with female fairies for protagonists. My sister said she was surprised that these weren’t as cheesy as she expected. Upon some investigation, there seem to be more fairy books after the seven rainbow colors—Weather Fairies, Dance Fairies, Fashion Fairies, Animal Rescue Fairies….
  • Pony Pals (Betancourt): For the horse-lovers among us, there are several dozen of these books ranging pretty evenly from 3.1-3.9 and featuring female pony-lovers and their horse-themed escapades.
  • Secrets of Droon (Abbott): Though I’ve heard of these, I’ve somehow never run across them. There are a couple dozen of these stories, though, which feature magic and are mostly early-third-grade level.
  • Geronimo Stilton (Piemme/Scholastic): These heavily-illustrated books featuring mouse characters appeal to those who love comic books because of their frequent use of fun fonts and small images in the text. They range widely from early-second- to early-fourth-grade level.
  • Cynthia Rylant has written several series for young readers, including Mr. Putter and Tabby (listed above), a second-grade-level series about a pig called Poppleton, and the third-grade-level Lighthouse Family series.

Hopefully this list will give you enough fodder to keep your voracious little reader going for a while…until she’s ready for some longer chapter books.  Perhaps I’ll have to make a list of those next.

15 inspirations to get your family outside

Now that our weather has become truly pleasant, the outdoors has been calling me.  Sometimes it takes a little extra motivation to get us all out there, but I always find it to be so worthwhile when I make the effort.  To get everyone in the spirit of spring, I’ve listed a handful of inspirations for heading outside with your family.  Hopefully there’s something for everyone on this list!


  1. Go for a walk, either in your neighborhood or in a local park or preserve.
  2. Haul out your bikes, scooters, roller blades, skateboards, plasma cars, unicycles…
  3. Play a game: run a race, practice your sports skills, play tag…
  4. Climb–anything.  It could be a tree, a lighthouse, a mountain–take your pick!
  5. Swim, or at least move around and play in the water!
  6. Go somewhere new, be it a new bike trail or a new park or beach.
  7. Spend time outside in a usual spot, but experience it in a new way. Lie on your back and look up at the trees, get down on your stomach and inspect insects through a magnifying glass, close your eyes and listen carefully to the sounds you hear.
  8. Go geocaching and see if you can improve your skill at spotting camouflaged objects.
  9. See how the wind is moving–fly a kite or a model airplane or try to make a sailboat.
  10. Look for small wildlife. Take some nets and containers and try to catch a minnow or tadpole in the stream; enjoy it for a while and release it back into its habitat. Find some bugs and pop them into a magnifying bug-hut for closer inspection. See how many different types of plants you can find and photograph.
  11. My kids could spend hours imagining outdoors, cooking with leaves and dirt, building forts from fallen branches, crafting furniture and fixtures from rocks and nuts.
  12. Take a sketchbook and take time to draw what you see.
  13. Take photographs of everything you find that’s living, then begin to make your own local guidebook, researching the names and details of the things you’ve photographed.
  14. Make art in or from nature. Stack rocks, paint rocks, make acorn-hat boats, paint pictures with water on rocks or with mud on paper or on yourself. Make leaf rubbings, leave prints in mud, try painting with berries or flowers.
  15. Make your own alphabet or number or shape book by hunting for your selected topic outdoors. A rectangular window, a curved stick resembling an S, a pavement crack that looks like a 4—your kids will find incredible variety once they start looking!

Enjoy the fresh air, use those muscles, soak up some Vitamin D–but don’t forget your sunblock and sunglasses!