The Measure of a Year

I have thousands of photos sitting on my computer and a decade old abandoned promise to myself of making digital photo books out of them.  I have this pipe dream of sitting down in front of my computer and choosing a handful of favorites to represent each year, tossing them onto a pre-made template and hitting the order button.  Nothing fancy, no text, not letting perfect be the enemy of good enough, just simply done.  It has yet to happen.

I just sat down and started scanning through the photos of this past year, thinking maybe I’d start now and work my way backwards.  As I scrolled through them, I couldn’t believe everything that transpired in 2015.  It feels like the year just started, yet I have tangible proof that a very full year has indeed passed.  I also have tangible proof that I take way too many pictures of my cats.

But without these pictures, my own introspective year in review would be left to the whim of my ever-changing emotions.  Catch me on a good day, and I could tell you it’s been a banner year.  I could rattle off the things accomplished, the lessons learned, the trips taken, the babies born, the lives joined in marriage, the highlight reel.  Or, following a week of rain and dreary skies, my vitamin D deficient self might tell you that it’s been a hard year.  A year of difficult parenting moments, challenging medical diagnoses for many that I love, a year of loss, a year of global struggle, a year that brought me to my knees on more than one occasion. 

But my pictures tell the whole story.  I can look at any random picture from this year and remember how the moments almost always held multiple emotions. 

Like this one, when I hit the road with my two boys in January and drove to Texas, excited for an adventure. How we got derailed nine hours in by a migraine, trying to recover at a booth at a Braum’s in Oklahoma.  Trudged the last two hours to Dallas, feeling relief and triumph upon arrival.  I look at this picture and think, oh Jess, you don’t know what’s about to hit you.  Maybe don’t call Jason from Joplin and brag about what great time you’re making so you don’t have to eat your words later, over ice cream and Imitrex.

Or this one, at my aunt’s bed & breakfast in Texas, helping my granddad settle in for a winter’s stay, his first winter without his wife of 64 years by his side.  We were so grateful to be with him, yet we all missed her so much behind our smiling faces.

This could have been any mid-winter’s day, escaping the house for a change of pace.  We had so many good days in our first year of homeschooling, but this one probably wasn’t one of them.  This one was probably a hard day, a second cup of coffee day, an “I need a break day.”  

This picture, of my basement after I got rid of over 40 bags of stuff in 40 days.  That was a process, and it was a highlight of my year.  I loved hearing from all of you about your own journeys with your stuff. However, my basement doesn’t look like this now, and I’m still processing that.  Which means you’re probably going to hear about it later.  😉

The boys on our family farm in Indiana.  My first visit back in many years, to celebrate the life of my grandmother Gigi.  A realization that our family gatherings are likely to continue to be marked by loss for years to come, that the co-mingling of joy and grief is an ever-present thread in life. 

My happiest place is always by the water, but this picture was taken on a day that we received bad news about a family member.  Liam is joyful in this shot, and I am heartbroken.  He jumps off the dock again and again, and there they are, joy and grief, holding hands.

It rained incessantly this summer in St. Louis and this was my favorite of those days.  I laughed so hard that I cried as we started kicking puddles at each other, riding our scooters in the gutters, watching cars drive by, passengers staring at us like we were crazy.  Maybe we were.  But this day felt like healing.

A failed attempt at a photo shoot in crazy wind during a beautiful week away at the beach.  Strike that.  Not a failed attempt.  This looks about right for my family. 

Our sweet new kitten Eragon (left) with our Ginger cat (right), who we lost this year after 14 years together.  Joy and grief, grief and joy.

When Jason comes home from work and we are accidentally wearing matching clothes.  And I look up at his smiling eyes, with the lines around them that remind me how damned lucky we are to have had so many years together, and how our house becomes home again every day when he’s here.  

The pictures tell the whole truth, if we let them.  We get to choose which pictures we keep and curate and catalogue, much in the way we choose the way we view our memories.  We get to choose the way we measure a year.  And since I often find my truth in the lyrics of musical theater, I’m going with Jonathon Larson on this one.  All of it can be measured in love, if we let it.  There is no grief without love, no loss without love.  No moments of loneliness or frustration without love.  The joy stems from love, the laughter and the tears.  And when I look at my pictures from 2015, that’s what I’m going to remember.  I’m going to remember a year that I fiercely loved. 

“In daylights,

in sunsets,

in midnights,

in cups of coffee…

In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life?

How about love?
How about love?
How about love?
Measure in love.”

My Favorite Children’s Books of 2015 (and a Giveaway!)

Confession:  I love end of the year lists.  I love reading your favorite memories, looking at your #2015bestnine collages on Instagram, hearing your favorite songs of the year, watching your year in review videos.  I love it all.  I especially love the countless Best Books of the Year lists, mostly because they point me in the direction of great reading for the year to come.  That’s the main reason I’ve yet to write one here on this blog, I never feel as though I’ve read enough of the new children’s books of the given year to label any of them the best of the best.  I’m often a year (or two) behind. 

But I read so many great new books this year that I decided I am at least qualified to tell you my favorites and let someone else decide which ones are the best. 

And because I am a children’s book evangelist who cannot pass up an opportunity to get great books into your hands, I’m also going to be giving away one of my favorites!  Details at the end of the post.

Without further adieu here are my favorites:

Picture Books

Beekle is an imaginary friend who is waiting to be paired with his perfect match.  One day he takes matters into his own hands on an unexpected adventure.

Home is a beautifully illustrated collection of all kinds of homes, and invites young readers to think about what it is that makes those places home.

I must really be into imaginary friends this year, because this is the second book on the list featuring one.  Imaginary Fred is a bit longer than your average picture book, and Colfer and Jeffers take beautiful advantage of those extra pages to weave a unique tale about imaginary friendship.

This book hit close to home earlier this year when we added a new kitten to our family.  Adorably illustrated tale about new friendship and the feisty nature of our furry housemates.

Sadie is an imaginative girl that creates big adventures out of the ordinary, inspired by the scenes in her beloved books.  Perfect choice for the wildly creative or the bookworm in your life (though those often go hand in hand, don’t they)?

Chapter Books

This is the seventh and final book in the Clementine series, so you might want to read the first six before this one.  In fact, you definitely want to.  Clementine is one of my absolute favorite characters of this generation, and I’m certain if she and Ramona Quimby lived in the same literary time and setting, they’d become fast friends.  She’s a bright and novel thinker, a loyal friend and one of a kind.  I know you’ll love her as much as I do.

Middle Grade Novels/YA

Of all the books on this list, I would recommend this one even for adults who don’t normally enjoy children’s literature.  This is a gorgeous book, a memoir of the author’s childhood, told in beautiful verse.  It’s a gift to us readers.

When Suzy loses her best friend in a drowning accident, she retreats into silence as she works out a theory about a rare jellyfish sting.  Throughout the book and her journey, we learn more about their friendship, the challenges it faced as the girls entered middle school and a changing social hierarchy, and the intersection of guilt, grief, love and loss.  A very moving story for the middle school aged reader.

The minute I finished this book I turned to my husband and said, “We have to go back to London.”  Once you read it, you’ll feel the same.  As with his previous two books, Selznick combines words with intricate illustrations to tell a story spanning generations of a family of actors on a London stage.  It’s an homage to the power of story, and a gorgeous book to read.

Now here’s the fun part … if you enter and win the giveaway, you get to choose which one of the books on this list you’d like to receive! Simply do any (or all) of the following for a chance to win by midnight on January 6th:

1.  Comment on this post (here on the blog or on Facebook or Instagram) and tell me your favorite book of the year.
2.  Share this post on social media and tag me so I see it.
3.  Follow my kid lit review Instagram account – @kidlitconcierge

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

What We’ve Been Reading This Week

We’ve picked up several fun picture books at the library these last couple of weeks and I finally read two kidlit novels that have been parked on my “To Read” list for far too long.  Here’s a quick review.  For even more book reviews, follow me on Instagram- @kidlitconcierge.

We’re in the Wrong Book!
by Richard Byrne

This clever book tells the tale of two kids who find themselves in the wrong book.  They wind their way through a variety of typical kid lit genres trying to get back to the place they started.  A fun and creative picture book that appeals to a variety of aged readers.

Finding Winnie 
by Lindsay Mattick
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall

I loved reading this book about the real bear that was the inspiration for Winnie the Pooh.  If you have a Pooh fan in your family, check this one out.

… and Nick
by Emily Gore
Illustrated by Leonia Gore

I’ll admit, I picked this book up because the title featured an ellipsis, but I found a sweet story inside about Nick, a little bit of a late bloomer compared to his boisterous big brothers, but when he does bloom, boy does he bloom bright.   

Max the Brave
by Ed Vere

I found myself laughing out loud (in public) reading this book in the kid’s section of Left Bank Books last weekend.  Max is a cat who fancies himself rather brave.  Max is on the hunt for a mouse, but there’s only one problem:  he’s not exactly sure what a mouse is.

Counting by 7s
by Holly Goldberg Sloan

This middle grade novel has been on my list to read for awhile now and I’m so glad I finally got around to it.  Willow Chance is a twelve year old girl who faces a horrible tragedy and finds her already unusual world turned upside down.   What follows is a story of the tremendous capacity of the human heart to grow and make room for futures it never dreamed of.  Tissues required.  My eleven year old son also loved this book.   

Fan Girl
by Rainbow Rowell

This young adult novel has also been on my list for awhile, and when Rainbow Rowell’s sort of sequel (Carry On) was released this year I decided it was time to read this one first.  As soon as I finished I ordered a copy for my niece who is a freshman in college (like the novel’s protagonist and her twin sister) and a copy of Carry On for myself.  Fangirl is about a girl named Cath, a freshman writing student with a large following online where she writes fan fiction for magical book series, Simon Snow.   Cath wrestles with life without her twin sister in the same room (though they are on the same campus, there is growing distance between them), worries about her single father back home, and struggles with a fiction writing class that calls into question everything she thinks she knows and loves about writing.  The book was great on its on, but what I found wildly creative is that the follow-up book, Carry On, is Cath’s final piece of Simon Snow fan fiction.  It’s the kind of thing you would wish existed when you finish a book like this, and usually it doesn’t…but in this case it does.  I can’t wait to read it.

Family Feud – 2015 Holiday Edition!

Photo Source:

Every year at Christmas, we get together with my husband’s family for a day of food , family and fun.  We always try to come up with a game or activity that can include everyone in our large crew – there’s 19 of us, ranging in age from five to seventy-one.  This year, I thought it would be fun to put together our own version of Family Feud, and I wanted to share the results of the online survey with all of you, in case you are looking for an activity for your own family party, office party, or party of any kind. 

First of all, a HUGE thank you to everyone who took part in the online survey yesterday.  I posted the survey questions on my own Facebook wall as well as a couple of private groups I belong to because I didn’t think I would garner enough responses from just one place, and your participation blew me away!  I ended up with way more answers than the standard 100 needed for a Family Feud game, but since you all took the time to respond, I wanted your answers to count.  I included them all, and then used a percentage to come up with the following results. 

A few people asked how I’m planning to set up our game, and I don’t know yet.  I’m going to share a few ideas I’ve found online for anyone considering playing along at home. 

My favorite option, if you have access to a large screen, is to create the game online.  There are several free templates you can use to do this, like this one:

Photo Source: Youth Downloads, click here to download the template

If digital isn’t an option or is just not your thing, here is an option I found on Pinterest for those of you who are gifted in craftiness.

Photo Source: Bonnie Gets a Hobby, click here for instructions

If any of you decide to make your own game boards and share online, let me know and I’ll link them to this post!

Without further adieu, here are the results of the survey.

Name a popular Christmas movie:
Elf – 21
It’s a Wonderful Life – 14
A Christmas Story – 13
Christmas Vacation – 8
White Christmas – 7
Home Alone – 4
How the Grinch Stole Christmas – 3

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – 3

Name one of Santa’s reindeer:
Rudolph – 37
Dasher – 23
Blitzen – 8
Comet – 5
Donner – 5
Dancer – 4
Prancer – 3

Name a Christmas carol:

Silent Night – 23
Jingle Bells – 20
O Holy Night – 11
O Come All Ye Faithful – 4
Joy to the World – 3
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer – 3

Name a food or drink popular at Christmas time:
Eggnog –  63
Cookies – 8
Cider – 3
Hot Cocoa – 2
Ham – 2
Candy Canes – 2

Name a popular board game:
Monopoly – 57
Scrabble – 7
Life – 6
Clue – 4
Sorry – 4
Checkers – 3
Candyland – 2

Name a popular US tourist attraction:
Grand Canyon-  21
Statue of Liberty – 20
Disney – 13
Mount Rushmore – 8
White House -2
Times Square – 2

Name a popular breakfast food:

Eggs – 36
Pancakes – 16
Cereal – 11
Bacon – 6
Waffles – 5
Toast – 3
Oatmeal – 2

Name a reason a baby might be crying:
Hungry – 55
Needs a new diaper – 21
Tired -6
Teething – 1
Colic – 1
Gas – 1

If you took part in the survey and you don’t see your answer here, that’s because there were so many answers I only posted the ones with multiple respondents.  Even though I think Settlers of Catan is a vastly superior game to Monopoly and I concur that Nickleback could make a baby cry, unfortunately, these answers didn’t make the cut. 
Again, thank you for participating and I hope that your family and friends have fun with this game!  Happy Holidays!