A Day in Our Homeschooling Life

Last spring, our family made the decision to homeschool our two boys for this academic year.  I haven’t written much about homeschooling for a couple of reasons.  First of all, I don’t feel entirely qualified to write about the topic.  Our boys are dual-enrolled, spending a day at a program through the public school and the rest of the week educated at home, so we are both homeschoolers and public school advocates.  It’s our first year, we are still getting our feet wet, and I don’t feel ready to offer advice on the subject.  However, my lack of credentials doesn’t seem to stop me from writing about anything else, so maybe I shouldn’t let it get in the way here either.  The other reason I’ve shyed away from writing about homeschooling is that the conversation I want to have isn’t really about homeschool vs. public school or curriculum choices or even the reasons that led us down this path.  Those are all great conversations, and there is no shortage of them happening on the Internet, but the conversation I really want to have is about the changing face of education.  It’s about open-source courses and self-organized learning environments, or building a school in the cloud and a radical paradigm shift in the way even define school.  I want to talk about this and this and this.  And I will, in a future post.  When I do, I hope you’ll join the conversation.  Or maybe we can meet for coffee to have that conversation in person, which would be even better (because of both the adult conversation and the coffee). 

But for now, I’m going to share a little about our homeschooling adventure.  When I run into friends I haven’t seen in awhile, the first question I get is, “How is homeschool?”  This question is always asked from a place of genuine curiosity and I welcome it, but I don’t really know how to answer it.  If you’re one of the people who has asked it, you’ve no doubt heard me say something like, “Oh, mostly great!or “It’s an adventure, that’s for sure!”  That’s because this question is like someone asking you, “How was Europe?” when you got home from studying abroad for a year.  It’s hard to sum up in a sentence or two, but I don’t want to overwhelm my friend who I’m chatting with in passing at the grocery store with the real answer either.  

So, if you are that friend who has asked that question, this blog post is for you.  It’s long, and I won’t be offended if you close this page right now, but for those of you still in, grab a cup of coffee and find a cozy chair, you’ll be there awhile.  Welcome to a day in our life.

Early morning, before the sun – An alarm clock chirps and our dog joins the chorus.  My husband lets him out while he pours the coffee and after a few sips while still under the covers, I open my laptop and read or write.  The click-clack of my keyboard is drowned out by the pounding of my seven-year old’s part-elephant feet.  He barrels into our room, colliding with our bed and wedging himself between the two of us.  His rambunctious entrance is at once punctuated with his sweeter than honey snuggles and I soak them up while I finish the writing and reading and emails I squeeze into these early morning hours.

Sunrise – My husband leaves for work and my youngest and I head to the kitchen for breakfast.  The ten-year old is honing his sleeping skills for the teenage years ahead, and I face at least ten inquiries to “just see if he’s awake yet” in the next hour.  The answer is always no.  We eat breakfast together and listen to music.  Some days we read, other days we take the time to work on speech therapy or cursive.  At some point we dress and brush our teeth and prepare to get started “for real.”

Morning by anyone’s standard –  If sleeping beauty has not emerged, we peek in his door.  Most mornings he is awake, reading.  This one wears books like an appendage.  Some mornings he is still asleep.  If he is sleeping, we give him another half an hour.  If he is reading, we ask him to come to a stopping point and join us.  Big brother eats at the table while little brother gets started on his work.  On a typical day, we approach our more formal curricular pieces first, which include a mix of any of the following: word study, grammar, cursive, speech, logic, etc. After we wrap up the pencil to paper language arts pieces (not their favorites) we move to both brothers’ favorite – math.  The boys use a combination of Singapore math (following the same curriculum as our public school) and Khan Academy (for additional video instruction and a far more enticing technological interface).  Math is self-paced and both boys are eager to learn and master new material. 

Mid-morning –We head outdoors with our dog if the weather permits or find some other way to burn some energy indoors, whether that is yoga or catch or wrestling.  Afterward I put on a pot of tea and we turn our attention to social studies or science.  Right now, we’re studying rocks and pouring through little brother’s ever growing collection while learning the differences between the three types of rocks and how they are formed.  In social studies, we’re using Story of the World as a spine and are currently learning about ancient cultures in the Americas.  We supplement our reading with a lot of documentaries on any part of history that is of interest and also John Green’s Crash Courses on YouTube.  A lot of days, social studies blends right into lunch and we’ll eat and watch a documentary at the same time.  I refer to this as a “working lunch.”  

Noon – Time for Spanish.  I have a degree in Spanish, lived in Spain in college and used the language in most of my pre-kid working life and have been completely remiss in not teaching my kids this language sooner.  We are still learning a lot of silly and seemingly useless things like “I see the fat spider next to the tall man” but my kids are engaged and that is a win in my book.

Early afternoon – We take an hour or so every afternoon to spend time on our own in our own space (bedrooms or backyard hammock or clubhouse).  This time can be used to read or study anything of interest, work on a project, draw, dream, create.  The only rule is that it is done independently and in relative quiet.  It took me a couple of months as a new homeschooler to realize I needed this and it is still my saving grace some days.  After our quiet time, the boys usually wrap up their to do lists, whether it is their chores or drum practice, and we’ll often head back outside or pick out a board game or pull out the art supplies or work on coding until the neighbors all get home from school and start knocking on the door.

Late afternoon – The boys play with friends and I wrap up my own to-do list, throw back another cup of tea, and start dinner.

Evening – My husband gets home and we eat dinner.  Tonight, we head to the YMCA for rock climbing and open swim.  Everyone gets a shower there which means when we get home we are ready to put on pajamas and curl up in bed with a good book.  Little brother’s eyes get droopy after twenty mintues of reading, and he still requests his song every single night and I still sing it to him, my favorite audience of all.  Big brother will be up reading until he has eeked out his last plea and finally succumbs to sleep.  My husband plays his ukulele, I read or write or sing and play along.  Maybe tonight we’ll get to bed on time, but probably not.  And we’ll wake early, tired and ready to do it all again.

Morning – After ignoring the chirp of the alarm clock three times, I roll over to a still warm cup of coffee left by my husband, who is now dressed and smiling at the door.  He’s ready to leave, and I’ve missed our time together to chat and my opportunity to write.  Little man is out in the kitchen pouring his cereal and singing showtunes and ready to start the day.  Determined not to let the late start ruin my day, I chug half the mug and join him, bed unmade, pajamas on.  Big brother joins in too but only after we open his blinds and pull off his covers.

After breakfast – We start our lessons and the boys are working at lightening speed.  I sense there is an energy in the air today of just getting it done to be done and decide we need to switch gears.  We get dressed (we were still in our pajamas, don’t judge) and pile in the car and head to the local park, discs in hand for a round of disc golf.  We’ve been studying rocks, so I encourage the boys to collect and identify a few along the way, and a lively debate ensues about how the park was formed, whether there was a volcano in Missouri, and when glaciers swept through this area.  Promises are made to find the answers when we get home.  

Mid-day – We stop at the grocery store on the way home, picking up a few things from the deli for a quick lunch and a short list of needs.  Big brother calculates all the prices per unit and relishes in telling me when a deal isn’t really a deal, and little brother weighs the produce (even the produce not sold by the pound) and pushes the cart.  One more quick stop at the library to return a few books and pick up the ones waiting on the reserve shelf and we are on our way home.

Mid-afternoon – We put on a pot of tea and spread out the rocks we collected earlier that day.  We roll out a huge sheet of butcher paper to categorize, sort and graph the rocks.  We look up the answers to our questions online and end up watching videos about glaciers and climate.  The globe is pulled out and explored and we discuss the movement of ancient peoples across the continents and whether there is life on other planets, which naturally leads to watching Dr. Who.  I look up and see the time and am gripped by a familiar panic about not having “done enough school” today.  The boys oblige by working through the day’s planned math lessons, and I remind myself that days like this are one of the reasons we are exploring a different path for education.  After math, both boys pull out their new EV3 Lego robot and work on coding a new objective for it.  Before we know it, friends are ringing the doorbell to play.

Evening – After playtime and dinner, my husband pulls out his clay so he and the youngest can work on a project for the program the boys attend once a week through the public school.  They are working on a sculpture of a Blue Spix Macaw and while they mold the clay and make a mess, older brother and I work on some ideas for a cartoon about our dog Hobbes.  Suddenly, it’s half past bedtime, and the boys quickly get in bed, snuggle up with a book, and stay up too late reading.  I set the alarm even earlier, determined to start tomorrow on time.

Either of those scenarios could have played out in our homeschool on any given day, and are pretty accurate representations of  the kinds of days we often have, but here’s what really happened the day I wrote this (January 28, 2015) :

Early morning – Little brother wakes in our shared hotel room and announces the arrival of morning.  Big brother and I both pull the covers over our eyes, unable to welcome the morning after a long night of blanket stealing.  But, as we look around and remember it is our last day here, we are eager to get dressed and a little sad to be moving on.

The Woodbine, which we learned was purchased from a Sears & Roebuck catalog at the St. Louis World’s Fair.

Morning – We head downstairs in my aunt’s Texas bed and breakfast and greet her, her husband and my granddad who is staying with her for the winter.  My grandmother passed away in November, and my granddad just finished his first road trip without his wife in many years.  We join my aunt in the bed and breakfast’s kitchen where my boys get a crash course in napkin folding and table settingfor guests.  They have spent the last two days asking many questions about managing a bed and breakfast, the professional tools in her kitchen, the ghosts that roam the third floor and even about her dog Max and she graciously answers them all.  

 Any time is reading time for our oldest child.  Here he sneaks off to a spot in the courtyard with a book.

Mid- morning – We accompany granddad on a walk around the block and the boys bicker over who gets to ride with him on Jazzy, his motorized scooter. We all enjoy the warm reprieve to winter that Texas brings. We pour over the petrified wood and gems that my aunt and uncle gave the boys from their backyard collection and they are now eager to bring home to add to our own collection.  We’ve been studying rocks and we talk about the differences between petrified wood and sedimentary rock and even get a chance to climb up and jump off some of the largest pieces of petrified wood I’ve ever seen in person.

Mid-day – We share one more meal with our family before piling our belongings in the Prius and hitting the road.  It’s two hours to Austin and we’ll spend the first part of it working on logic, spelling, cursive and math in the backseat with the workbooks we packed and a couple of handy apps.  After, big brother picks up his book and little brother and I settle into an audio recording of  Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  Before we know it, we’re pulling up to our hotel in our old familiar town, where we immediately jump in the pool (because what’s the point of staying in a hotel if you don’t swim in the pool?) and wait for my husband to arrive on the airport shuttle.  He flew in from St. Louis to join us for the last leg of our road trip.  

Evening – We head out to dinner at Hopdoddy’s Burger Bar to meet my husband’s cousin who drove in a couple of hours just to see us.  After a great meal and a little shopping on South Congress, we head back to the hotel for a good night‘s sleep.  Tomorrow we’ll show the boys all our favorite stomping grounds from Barton Springs to Kerbey Lane to our tiny apartment to Dad’s old art studio on the UT campus and we need our rest to tackle it all.  This trip reminds us how unbelievably grateful we are for the flexibility this year has allowed.  We’ve visited my mom at the Jersey Shore in September when it was warm enough to swim but the crowds were all gone.  We’ll visit more family on our way home from this impromptu January roadtrip.  We’ve signed up for classes that we never could have made it to within the confines of traditional school hours.  We’ve left margin in our schedules to explore new interests and dive deeper into others.  We’ve been able to say yes to things we didn’t have time for before, and are learning to say no to things that don’t line up with the goals and values of our family.  We’ve discovered that the road less traveled isn’t as scary as it looks from the highway.  We don’t know yet what the future will bring, and remain open to all education choices for our boys, but for now, we are truly enjoying the homeschool journey. 

The Deal of the Year for Book Lovers

I’ve got THE BEST money-saving, freebie deal to share with you today.  This is the big one friends.  A completely legit, no coupon code required, money-saving deal that will blow your mind. 

What if I told you that by using this deal, my family has saved over $4,000 dollars in the last six months alone in free books?  Free books!  We don’t get to keep them of course, this deal is more like Netflix, where you pay a monthly subscription to get access to all of these books but you do have to give them back when you are done. Except unlike Netflix, this deal is absolutely free. 

It’s called….wait for it….the public library.  
You probably have one right in your hometown.  It’s this completely magical building where anyone can just walk in off the streets, and regardless of credit history or the size of  one’s bank account, can gain access to as much free reading material as he/she wants.  The library in our town is so magical that even if they don’t have the book we are looking for, they can use some kind of wizard summoning spell to make it appear in the library, sometimes as quickly as the NEXT DAY. 

Wait, there’s more.  If I can’t make it to the library, I can get on my computer and press a few buttons and then the next time I visit, all of the books I want will be waiting on a special shelf with my name on them.   For FREE! 

Did I mention how all of this is free? 

My youngest waiting for the library doors to open so he could begin his summer reading program.

Listen, in all seriousness, I can’t sing the praises of the public library loud enough.  Our local library has been a cornerstone to the experience of raising my children.  I started started bringing them to story time as babies, and by the time they were precocious preschoolers, they knew some of the librarians by name and these wonderful ladies knew them too.  They knew what books my boys would want to read, and before long, knew which children’s books I would want to read myself.  I met mamas and their kids at the library that are still friends today.  Our family has had the opportunity of meeting some of our favorite authors in this public space, and the privilege to be inspired by their stories.  These experiences are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what our local library offers.  If you want to start a business, the library offers myriad resources on how to go about doing that.  Want to know more about your family tree?  The library has people on staff that will help you sort out your genealogy (but they won’t help you sort out your family … there has to be a limit to what these wizards can accomplish).  Need to use a computer?  They have one for you, for free!  Test coming up?  The library offers practice exams for academic, civil service, military and many professional industries.  Need help with your taxes?  The library has accountants on hand during tax season to answer your questions.  Our local library even brings in adorable, furry dogs to snuggle up and read to if you just really love dogs.   

I feel like I forgot to mention that all of this is free.

In the last six months alone, our family has checked out over 300 books from our local library system.  I found this handy calculator on my library’s website, which is how I found out that we had, in fact, saved over $4,000 in materials and resources.  In six months.  While there are books I am so thrilled to own, and bookstores I love to support, our budget simply cannot keep up with our reading habit without our library.

 Our library habit is so intense it requires one of these really large rolling carts.  And that’s just the books for the kids.

There is substantial research illustrating the direct correlation between reading aloud to our babies and children and their academic success down the road.  If you are research-minded, I’d highly encourage you to check out this article or this one.

If you’ve already had the experience of raising a reader, you may already know this intrinsically.  You’ve felt the weight of your baby’s warm body snuggled into you while you read Goodnight Moon, or the wiggling, giggling toddler squirming on your lap while saying “No!” to the pigeon in Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus for the one hundredth time, or the wide-eyed, breathless anticipation of your young child desperate to know what happens to Harry Potter in the next chapter.  You’ve watched your child grow into a reader, and watched him disappear behind a book and discover the possibility of living so many kinds of lives.  You’ve seen your child reenact her favorite scenes with her dolls.  You’ve seen your teenager find empathy for someone whose experiences he can only imagine because of a book, and you yourself have left behind a busy day of work and diapers and bills and difficult relationships to sink beneath the sheets with a copy of your favorite author’s latest novel.  You don’t need to read the research to know the magic of books. 

So, today, if you are already a regular at your local library, take a minute to thank the men and women who make the magic happen.  Take a friend while you are at it.  And if you aren’t a library regular, get in your car and go now.  Sign up for a library card, ask for a book recommendation and see for yourself.  This really is the deal of a lifetime.  

***UPDATE – Giveaway has ended and the winner, Susan Harris, is in possession of her sweet tote.  Thanks for all of the entries!

Wait…if you’ve stuck with me this far, don’t leave yet!  I’ve got one more deal to offer you today.  I’d like to introduce you to Tammi Salas, writer, artist and fellow library enthusiast.  I first discovered Tammi last November when she took part in a “Rainbow Friday” event with other bloggers.   Rainbow Friday was offered as a kind of antidote to Black Friday, an opportunity to shop for handmade, meaningful gifts that also give back.  Tammi was selling her “Library Junkie” totes and donating 20% of her sales to fund a library in Pastures Preschool, a one-room schoolhouse in Bodega, California.  I did what anyone would do and immediately bought one as a gift and then kept it for myself.  Thankfully, there is still a chance for one of you to own this bag, as Tammi is graciously donating a bag to one lucky reader! 

 Here’s what you can do to increase your chances of getting your hands on this bag:

1.  Comment on this post below and tell me your favorite thing about the public library.
2.  Share this post and tag me (so I see it).
3.  Visit your library and share a picture (and let me know if I can share it too!)

I’ll enter your name into a drawing once for each of the above actions and choose one name at random on January 31st to receive this cute and handy tote.  In the meantime, please take a moment to visit Tammi on her blog where she shares beautiful stories on motherhood, community, art and more.  You can also visit her Etsy shop (which she’ll be re-stocking in the coming months with additional items) or follow her on Instagram (@tammisalas) for artistic inspiration.  Thank you so much Tammi for sharing your many gifts and sweet tote with us, and for your generous spirit.

Am I Safe? Can I Climb?

My family recently became members at the local YMCA.  The timing of this decision coincided with the onslaught of winter weather that drives many of us indoors for exercise as well as the New Year, which brings additional folks to the gym with new tennis shoes and big dreams.  I’m a fan of dreamers so I’m happy to share the treadmill.  (Really, I’m just happy to get off the treadmill).  

The YMCA may not be known as a fancy gym, but so far, it feels like a tiny piece of luxury to me.   I walk into this building and am immediately greeted by a table of free coffee and friendly faces.  There is a gym and an indoor track and the most up to date elliptical machines on the market that I have no idea how to use.  There is a heated, indoor pool and a steam room in the locker room.  If you go in the steam room and close your eyes, it is not too hard to convince yourself that you might be at a spa.  There are laundered towels for your use and when you are finished with them, they wash them for you.  And to top it all off,  there is a magic room called The Hub where you can bring your kids to play while you work out.  The Hub has a pool table, air hockey, Foosball, crafts, gym equipment, video games, and what has become the crown jewel for our boys, a rock climbing wall.  

Our family has zero experience with rock climbing but plenty of experience with fearing heights.   In the past month, I’ve watched my boys work towards overcoming their respective fears and impulses on this wall.  Each time they climb, they latch on their gear, wait for their belayer to do the same, and then ask the following required questions:

“Am I safe? “

“Can I climb?”

When you are about to climb a rock wall, and another person is holding your entire weight in their hands, you want that first question to be met with a resounding yes.  Yes, you are safe.  I won’t drop you, I won’t let you fall, this equipment won’t fail.  And of course, that is exactly what the belayer answers after this vocal cue to check and recheck the equipment.  Yes, you’re safe.  That’s always his answer.

But my mama heart knows that answer is not the whole truth.  It knows there is no circumstance in which the question of safety is met with absolute assurance.  Just as I know that there is always a chance that the roller coaster could malfunction, or the fresh spinach could harbor salmonella, or the tick bite might result in Lyme disease or my son’s heart might get broken, I know the rope can fail.  We live in a culture obsessed with safety, and while that obsession has led to innovative solutions to every day dangers (a sincere thank you inventor of the seatbelt), it has also led to an increasingly sterile approach to life.  When we start to believe that we can make all parts of life safe, that we can outsmart risk and danger at every turn, we stop participating in the parts of life that we view as still inherently risky.  The parts we haven’t solved yet.  But the truth is, it’s all a little risky.  This life is risky, from the precarious act of conception to our final breaths. 

But can I climb?

Acknowledging and accepting that there is risk, that I might not be safe, can I still climb?

Yes.  Yes son, you can climb.  Please climb that wall.  Please assess the risk and make sure you’ve taken all the appropriate precautions.  Please listen to the mentors ahead of you on your path and please check your impulses before proceeding.  But once you’ve done those things, it’s time to climb.  Climb even though you might lose your footing, or get a little hurt in the ascent.  Ask her even though she might say no, or worse, she might say yes and then break your heart.  Write it even though you might receive more rejection letters than you do junk mail. Travel even though you might lose your luggage or your passport.  Offer support and hope even though your actions might feel meaningless or your compassion taken advantage of.  Hike in the woods with the snakes and gaze at the stars with the mosquitoes and love deeply and dare bravely, because even though safety is never a guarantee, what is guaranteed to us all is a finish line.  So in the meantime, yes.  Yes, you can climb. 

You Don’t Have to Eat the Potato

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” – George Bernard Shaw

We have this saying we use in our house, “you don’t have to eat the potato,”  that serves as a gentle, coded reminder that it’s okay to change course or back down in an argument (well, it used to be coded but now it’s on the Internet).  It comes from a Shakespearean play episode of The Amazing World of Gumball my ten year old was reading binge-watching in which the kids get in a fight with their parents, their parents refuse to do anything for them until they apologize, and rather than apologize or admit to wrong-doing, they resort to eating a raw potato for dinner.  When our family finds itself in the grips of stubborn conflict, one of use will say to the person who is doing the heel-digging (and though the role changes hands, it’s usually obvious in each situation who is doing the heel-digging), “you don’t have to eat the potato.”  It’s our way of saying that it is okay to let go, and further, you can let go without having to face an “I told you so.”  The action of dropping the potato and moving on is louder than words, and we will acknowledge it by moving on with you.  Sometimes in this life, we start to feel backed into a corner by an opinion we’ve held or a decision we’ve made and I want my kids to grow up in a home that acknowledges changing your mind or changing your course for what it is – courage.  

Before I pontificate all the ways I’ve mastered practiced this skill in my ten years of parenting (ten years people…surely that makes me an expert and my “10 Years of Service” plaque is in the mail), let me tell you that my experience with eating potatoes is vast and long.  I come from a long line of potato-eaters (who are, coincidentally, from Ireland).  I have actually seen a member of my family argue that the ocean was a river while in plain view of the ocean.  I spent my own entire childhood refusing to clean my room because “I liked it messy and I could find things easier that way.”  So, it’s not too surprising that I’m now raising a child who would rather eat a raw potato than change his point of a view and another whose favorite food is actually potatoes.  It’s also not surprising that my little potato eater’s most adamant point of heel digging is keeping a clean room.  

Folks, this kid’s room can reach epic proportions of messiness, and like I mentioned, I speak with some authority on the subject of messy bedrooms.  He likes to keep every toy he has played with in the last month in easy arm’s reach (all over the floor) and if you suggest that the toys may be easier to find or less likely to break if he puts them where they go, he will dig in further and assert that the toys are already where they go, and that he has “organized” them this way on purpose.  And it’s not just toys.  He also likes to keep all the things.  Get a new blender for Christmas?  Awesome, he’ll hang onto that box for you.  Broken remote control to the DVD player?  Sweet, that’ll come in handy.  You don’t want that copy of Gigliyou got in your family’s White Elephant exchange?  Oh, he does.  He definitely needs that.  When my little man was four years old, I went into his closet to get his laundry basket and found a pile of kitchen trash hidden behind it.  I’m talking actual food waste, like empty yogurt containers and apple sauce jars, items he had taken right out of the recycling bin and trash can.  I asked him why these things were in his closet and he did not have an answer for me.  We had a discussion about the importance of keeping food waste in the kitchen and I even tried some heavy-handed scare tactics about tracking bugs into his bedroom.  I left the room feeling confident that it would not happen again and also worried that I had not set aside enough money in my kids’ therapy savings accounts (it’s like a college savings account, but without the tax break) for treatment for severe hoarding.  I was wrong.  The next week, I found another pile of granola bar wrappers and banana peels on his closet floor.  I’m not going to lie.  At this point, I was fairly wrecked.  I was convinced that this was an early warning sign of a serious issue and I sat down with my son to get to the bottom of it.  Why was he stealing trash and hiding it?  How could we help?  And where had I gone wrong?  Finally, in his sweet four year old voice, he said, “I wanted to save it from the fire.”  The fire?  What fire?  “The fire where the trash goes mama.  I don’t want our trash to get hurt in the fire.  Like in the movie.”  The movie.  Sweet relief flooded over me as I remembered the scene in Toy Story 3where the toys are on a fast-track to the incinerator in the garbage dump.  My son was not a hoarder!  He wants to save the trash!  He’s being kind!  It took a lot of convincing and a little stretching of the truth (Did you know that all garbage dumps convert the waste into reusable energy?  Yeah, me neither.) but he agreed to leave the food waste where it belongs.  Flash forward three years though, and that’s about the only progress we’ve made on his messy room.

 Those toys look terrified.  I can see why my son wanted to rescue the trash.  
Thanks a lot Disney/Pixar.  I’ll send you the therapy bills.

But here’s what I’m learning about living with a potato eater.  He needs his course correction to come from a place of self-discovery.  This means that I need to take a backseat and let him figure some things out on his own.  Sometimes, I let his room go a little longer than I’m comfortable with myself, and he’ll lose something important to him, or break a toy, or step on something and get hurt.  In those moments I bite my tongue so hard it bleeds (because “I told you so” is the enemy of the potato eater) and wait.  More often than not, he’ll acknowledge that his room was too messy or the toy was in the way.  He’ll clear a path (which is not the same as cleaning but it’s progress) and put away the things of real and lasting value.  Yesterday, when we were doing our annual post-Christmas room clean/put away the new things/donate the things we are finished with ritual, he asked for my help (!) and even mentioned afterward that it was easier to play on his empty floor.  I nod and sometimes even add a little “That’s a great idea, I might try that in my room, thanks!”  Later, down the road, we’ll talk about how changing our minds is brave and wise, but for now, I’m treading lightly.  I’m learning that this tread lightly approach works with kids or spouses, friends or familyWhen faced with a potato eater, I can check my ego at the door, drop my own potato first and let go of my need to be right or verbally recognized.  It’s not about me anyway.

I was talking with a friend the other day about course-correcting and change and how it gets a bad rep even in our adult lives.  We were discussing the various incarnations of managing our kids’ chores.  In my house alone, we’ve had chore charts, chore tin cans with popsicle sticks, chore magnetic boards, chores on clothespins affixed to door hangers, a “Work for Hire” board, and the latest, a total re-branding of chores as “teamwork” that is incorporated into the boys’ daily lesson plans.  All of these systems work for awhile, until they don’t, and then I make a change.  I made some kind of self-disparaging and half-joking comment about my inability to make a system stick and my friend pointed out that if change is required to make the thing work, that’s not exactly a failure.  And she’s right, it’s not.   

 It’s hard to understand why no one has taken on any of these jobs.   
That’s a whole dollar for cleaning all the windows and mirrors.  A whole dollar!

There are people in this world who are remarkably adept at creating a routine that lasts.   You may know some of these people.  They wake at the same time every day, eat the same thing for breakfast, do the same exercise their entire adult lives and they thrive on this routine.  It works for them, so they don’t need to change it, and in fact, changing it could be detrimental to their overall quality of life.  Then there are the rest of us.  We start off strong but often falter and it is at the point of faltering where we can make an important decision.  Do we course correct or do we eat the potato?  Instead of claiming defeat or worse, digging our heels into the choice that is not working, can we redefine success to mean the ability to change our minds?  

As for our family, we’ll stick with our now not-so-secret phrase and keep creating a safe space for admitting we are wrong, changing our minds and changing course.  And I’m sure we’ll eat a few potatoes in the process.  Hopefully baked, with a lot of sour cream.  

Turning "Maybe Someday" Into Today

I’m so excited to introduce you to my new friend Kelly Suellentrop in the very first of what I hope will become a series of interviews with people I call Idea Chasers.  I recently wrote aboutmy love of ideas and my desire to create a small corner on this blog to share stories about people who are chasing after ideas of their own.  I want these interviews to feature all sorts of ideas, the big, the not-so-big, the creative, the practical, the entrepreneurial, ideas in progress, ideas on hold, even ideas that never came to be.  I’m starting this series with people I know, because everyone has ideas.  Everyone.  And we can access stories about big and hugely successful ideas from all over the world with a click of the mouse, but sometimes the stories in our own communities are lost in the shuffle, and they are worth hearing.

Shortly after I started this blog, a dear friend of mine introduced me to Kelly as a possible resource on blogging and writing.  Kelly has been blogging at www.areyoufinishedyet.comfor three years, has been featured on The Huffington Post and BlogHer and recently published her first children’s book, Absolute Mayhem.  Kelly has been generous in her support and has helped me attempt to figure out the behind-the-scenes parts of the  blogging world that I know nothing about and I’m so grateful for her.  Little does Kelly know, my questions on blogging are just the tip of the iceberg, as I’ve pretty much assigned her the title  “Personal Children’s Book Publisher/Author Guru” which has a nice ring to it.  You might want to make up some business cards Kelly.

Kelly published her first children’s book last December and graciously shares what that process was like with us here:

When did you first decide you wanted to write books for children?
Writing children’s books has been on my radar since I was a child myself. I always loved both writing and drawing, and children’s lit just seemed like the perfect marriage of the two. But until about four years ago, it was always just a “maybe someday” kind of thought. Then I decided to write a book for my daughter’s sixth birthday. That’s when I realized I really did want to make a go of it, and there was no better time than the present. So then I began the process of writing manuscripts, playing with illustrations, and researching the publishing industry.

What draws you to children as an audience?
 Absolute Mayhem was really born out of a love for my own two children. They are an endless inspiration to me. But children’s literature has always been one of my favorite genres, because those are books people can enjoy TOGETHER. Reading a children’s book is not a solitary act, and it’s also the foundation for a child’s lifelong relationship with literature. I love thinking that just maybe, my book could play a role in someone becoming a voracious reader later in life. Besides, kids are the best audience in the world. When the book was still in storyboard format, I took it to some kindergarten classes for feedback. Let me just tell you, those kids made me feel like a rock star. Their comments were so sincere and engaged. I melted when one little boy raised his hand and said, “I think your drawings are just beautiful.” And who doesn’t love getting unsolicited hugs? If I ever doubted continuing on this path of creating children’s books, that experience cemented that I was doing the exact right thing with my life. 

Kelly shares her book with her favorite audience – children.

What did you do with the idea for Absolute Mayhem when it first occurred?   Did you nurture it?  Ignore it? Try to talk yourself out of it?  Immediately begin writing?
Well, my first book idea wasn’t Absolute Mayhem. I was thinking about rewriting the book I had done for my daughter to fit a wider audience. I took the manuscript to a children’s book writing workshop, and the group was less than enthusiastic about it. So I licked my wounds for awhile, during which time I started thinking maybe I should try a new idea. Absolute Mayhem came to me one evening while sitting on the deck, watching my kids play. I immediately started on the manuscript, then let it stew for about a year. I started working very slowly on the illustrations last year. So, long story short, it was a very drawn out process.

Kelly bringing Lulu and Milo to life. 

What part of the process was most challenging for you?
The most difficult part has definitely been the business side of things. I’ve had a lot of crash courses in things like creating a small business, collecting sales tax, operating agreements, marketing, etc. I’m a bit out of my element when it comes to all those things, but thankfully I have a lot of smart people around me who have helped. Now the challenging part is figuring out how to keep the book visible, relevant, and make consistent sales. It’s a lot of work!

Did you know anything about the self-publishing industry when you began?  Who mentored you?

When I first started researching the publishing industry, I kept reading that it could be incredibly hard for a first-time author/illustrator to get picked up. One of the big reasons is that many publishing houses have their own illustrators they like to work with. I was really set on illustrating the book myself, because it was my vision. So that’s when I started reading more about self-publishing. I was also lucky in that at the time, my very good friend, Maggie Singleton, was self-publishing a really wonderful book about breastfeeding, called Milk Diaries. Not only did I get to watch Maggie go through the process, but then she really mentored me as I embarked on my journey. It was so helpful to have a friend I could call and be like, “So, I have a question…” She was indispensable. 

Are you working on more titles? Anything you’d like to share?

There will be more books in the Lulu and Milo series. But I am not actively working on anything new yet, since right now all my energy is going into marketing Absolute Mayhem and my freelance writing job. My husband joked the other day that asking me when the next book is coming out is a little like asking a mom in the postpartum room when the next baby is coming.  But I do have about three partially developed ideas I plan on seeing through. The next step is figuring out which one will be the best follow-up to Absolute Mayhem!

I can’t wait to see what Kelly writes next, but for now, I hope she takes a moment to revel in the satisfaction of accomplishing her goal of publishing a book.  Writing a book is one of those bucket list items so many people share, and Kelly’s story is inspiring to me because, one day, she made the choice to turn her “maybe someday” into “no time like the present” and continued pursuing her dream through the daunting but accessible world of self-publishing all the way to the finish line.  I love the gratitude she shows to those who helped her along the way and want to offer an internet sisterhood first bump to her friend Maggie Singleton for helping her navigate a road she had already traveled.  These women are living proof of the oft-quoted phrase “we rise by lifting others.” 

If you’d like to learn a little bit more about Absolute Mayhem, you can find my Story Hour review of the book here or you can purchase the book and read it for yourself!  Thank you so much Kelly for your willingness to share your idea with us. 

Absolute Mayhem

Absolute Mayhem
Written and Illustrated by Kelly Suellentrop
Publisher: Striped Socks Publishing
IPN: 9780692311011
Category: Picture Book

Our culture is awash with declarations of love for weekends.  From the old TGIF catchphrase to the 80’s classic “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend” there is little doubt that those 48 hours hold a very special place in our collective hearts.  They represent a respite from work and school, a chance to engage in the things we want to do with the people we love most, or even just an opportunity to sleep in.  And for Lulu and Milo, they mean absolute mayhem.

In Absolute Mayhem, we meet Lulu and Milo, two siblings who work hard all week to follow the rules, complete their schoolwork and eat their vegetables all in an effort to arrive at Friday where the rules go out the window and absolute mayhem ensues.  If you can imagine what your home would look like if weekends were a free-for-all, that gives you some idea of what you will find in the pages of this book.  What starts as innocent, imaginative fun quickly gets out of control and much like many a family feels at the end of summer vacation, everyone seems a little ready for routine again come Monday.  The illustrations range from black and white during the weekdays to increasingly colorful as the mayhem starts to spin out of control and are a great complement to the story.  My kids spent quite a while going back through the book after our initial reading to “explore the drawings” in more detail.  They were delighted when they did because they discovered new things as well as a hidden friend on all of the pages we missed the first time around.  

I’m particularly excited to share this book because it is self-published by a  first-time local author Kelly Suellentrop.  She shared more about the process behind the writing of this book in the Idea Chasers series.  One of the things she shared was that the idea for Absolute Mayhem came from her own children, and that to this day, when the whole family is home on Friday, someone yells out “absolute mayhem” and the fun begins.  Not long after reading this book I heard an interview with Jamie Oliver on NPR about his new cookbook, Jamie Oliver’s Comfort Food: The Ultimate Weekend Cookbook, in which he confesses to eating primarily comfort foods on the weekends after a week of clean eating and I immediately thought of Absolute Mayhem and wondered if both he and Kelly weren’t onto something that I am absolutely missing.  Now I’m counting the minutes to this weekend and dreaming up my own version of absolute mayhem.

What Do You Do With an Idea?

What Do You Do With an Idea?
Written by Kobi Yamada
Illustrated by Mae Besom
Compendium Inc.
ISBN: 9781938298073
Category: Picture Book

I think it was about five in the evening on December 31st when it occurred to me that I should have compiled some sort of list about the best children’s books of 2014.   I was applying some mascara and looking for something, anything, sequined to wear to a New Year’s gathering (because if sequins aren’t for New Year’s I’m not sure what they are for at all) and decided I would have to let that particular thought go.  There’s always 2015 and no dearth of book lists on the internet.  But, even though it’s January and I won’t be writing such a list for last year, I would be completely remiss if I did not share my favorite children’s book I read last year, What Do You Do With an Idea?

What Do You Do With an Idea? tells the story of a young boy and the journey he takes when he decides to nurture an idea.  It is also the story of all of the ideas that have ever been, and I dare any dreamer to read this book without welling up or fist pumping the air or whatever your particular emotional response to the truth might be.  It is written by Kobi Yamada, a professional idea generator and president of Compendium, a company that encourages inspired living.  Mae Besom provides the enchanting illustrations, which effectively increase in color and vibrancy as the boy overcomes his insecurities and doubts and begins to nourish his idea.

Told through the voice of a child, the book is a vulnerable and honest exploration of the emotions that can surround a new idea, from internal questions (“it seemed kind of strange and fragile”)  to worry about its reception (“What would people say about my idea?”)  to attempts at hiding the idea (“I hid it away and didn’t talk about it.  I tried to act like everything was the same as it was before my idea showed up.”) and to the eventual courageous decision to care for it and what that choice can bring.

If this books feels like honey for the soul of an adult reader, just imagine the impact it could have on a child, full of ideas and wonder.  It’s the kind of book that should be read again and again throughout childhood and straight on into adulthood, until it begins to imprint itself on the reader’s heart.

I don’t want to say too much more about this beautiful book, because I sincerely want you to read it yourself.  Actually, I want you to buy a few copies to tuck away as gifts for people in your life who are working on an ideas of their own and an extra copy for yourself that you keep close at hand to read anytime you doubt the potential of your own ideas.  Because the truth is, everything starts as an idea.  Everything.