Friday, June 23, 2017

Five Thoughts on Living in Our New (To Us) House

1. I'm walking a ton more steps every day. This is a good thing, but I never really thought about this being a part of more space. I'm running up and down the stairs a million times a day, walking from one end of the house to the other, and moving so much more than I needed to when we lived in a little apartment. I guess most people who live in small apartments in big cities can walk everywhere they go, but Houston is definitely a driving city, so a small apartment plus driving everywhere meant my life there was pretty sedentary. But having more space means taking more steps, which can only be a good thing for my health, right?

2. Oh, the light! The light, the light, the light, the light! My biggest complaint about our old little apartment was the lack of natural sunlight. There were windows, but only on one side of the apartment, and there were big shade trees right outside so barely any light ever made it inside (we had to use inside lighting pretty much all day). But this house has big, beautiful east and west facing windows so there is light all day. Unfortunately, this means my children have been awake at the crack of dawn (which of course, is at it's earliest point right now) because of all the light flooding in their bedrooms windows, but I don't even care. My heart just fills with giddy, giddy pleasure every time I walk into a room and see the sunlight pouring in. I'm so excited to get to know how the light slants and changes in every room throughout the day and through the seasons. And now I can get me some houseplants that might have a chance of surviving!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

What It Means to Be a "Reader": Does Nonfiction Count?

Look, I love nonfiction. Nonfiction books can be amazing and informative and fascinating and gripping and wonderful. We did a whole Book Blab episode on all our favorite nonfiction books. Nonfiction is amazing, and I love reading good nonfiction books.


When someone asks me my what my favorite book is (impossible question) the answer is always and forever going to be a novel. A fictional story. That's where my true love lies. To me, literature is fiction. I remember reading a quote somewhere (no idea where, so sorry I can't cite a source) about how even the word "nonfiction" sounds like an apology, denoting its inferiority. It doesn't get it's own word, it is identified simply as being not-fiction. Because obviously, fiction is the best.

So when I took my "Teaching Reading" course in college, and the professor talked about how many (maybe even most) people prefer reading nonfiction, I couldn't really believe it. Who are these people? I didn't know anyone who actually preferred nonfiction over fiction. How could I even begin to understand someone like that?

Well, over the past few months, I've slowly been coming to terms with the fact that my oldest child is probably one of those people. Here's the evidence.

1. He picked an easy reader book out at the library called The Adventures of BB8 that he absolutely loved, not because he knows or cares anything about Star Wars or the story, but because the book told a fictional story in a nonfiction format. Every page contained it's own heading, and every other page or so contained informational graphics like all the categories of different droids, or diagramming a starship, or something like that. He was the most fascinated with the Table of Contents, and ever since reading this book, all of the stories he's written on the computer have contained detailed Table of Contents, including notes for indexes and glossaries. I've never met another five-year-old who does this.

2. He was recently gifted a book about space, which he loves, but he tends to ignore the main text and focus on all the captions and factoids presented in bubbles. He's apparently really drawn to the visual layout and bite-size break up of text presented in these kinds of texts.

3. And, the most compelling piece of evidence by far is the absolute love and devotion he's shown for his favorite book of all time: Maps. I mentioned how cool this book was when we got it last year, and here's a picture of it (from last year):

Then my son got super interested in geography, and this became his new favorite book, and one year later, this is what the map book looks like today:

Yeah, it's been taped back together so many times, the spine doesn't actually exist anymore. We really just need to bite the bullet and get another copy of this book, but I'm waiting until his geography obsession abates a little so our next copy has a chance of being enjoyed by the younger children.

Anyway, the point is, my kid's favorite book is about maps. Geography. Nonfiction that is light of narrative text. I'm not denying this isn't a cool book (it is a super cool book, and deserves to be obsessed over), I'm just saying that at no point in my childhood was my favorite book about maps. Stories? Yes. Maps? No.

And it's totally, totally cool that my kid likes nonfiction books, or at least books that present bits of information alongside graphics. These are great books. It's just that when I think about people who I would define as "readers" (and I want my children to grow up to be defined as "readers"), they read fiction. Novels. And as children, they read and devoured all that wonderful children's literature. They love stories. That's what a reader is to me.

My son does enjoy stories (remember this?). He willingly participates in our nightly read-aloud sessions, and he'll sit and read both picture books and chapter books on his own, but he reserves his passion and enthusiasm for these nonfiction books. And I'm trying to tell myself this is okay. Right?

Do you count as a "reader" if the books you pour over are maps?

I actually think this was one of the things my college professor was trying to teach us English-major-avid-reader teachers-in-training, that we needed to re-frame how we defined what a "reader" was. Kids who read informational texts are "readers." Kids who read graphic novels are "readers." My kid is a "reader."

He may not love the same books I loved as a kid, or love fiction the way I love fiction, but he still loves books, and I will encourage a love of books and reading in any form it comes. When it comes to family read-alouds, I will always choose fictional novels, because everyone deserves to be exposed to classic children's literature. But when it comes to his own personal reading, he'll always be allowed to read his choice.

And if that's nonfiction, that's wonderful.

Monday, June 12, 2017

My 5 Guidelines for Upsizing Minimally (or We Bought a House!)

No, this is not the house we bought. This is just a picture of Boone Hall Plantation outside Charleston, because every post is better with a picture.
So I mentioned this a couple of posts ago, but we bought a house. It closed last week so we are officially homeowners! The story of how we got this house is a whole thing, and I'll tell you that story some time, but today I've got other things on my mind.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post considering the pros and cons of small living vs. more space. At the time, we were a family of four living in a smallish two bedroom city apartment, and I honestly felt like we were in a good spot space-wise. After majorly decluttering our stuff, I felt really comfortable in our place. We were living a comparatively minimalist lifestyle, and our "stuff" was under control. It felt good. Also, minimalism and small living is totally hip right now, and I liked considering myself one of the cool kids being counter-cultural and all.

But then we had another baby, and somehow things just started feeling cramped. She slept in our room, but all of her stuff and accouterments didn't have a real home. Her clothes stayed in baskets that rotated spots throughout the house, we were constantly tripping over her swing and boppy and Bumbo chair that seemed to live in the middle of the floor, and it just would've taken some major reconfiguration of our space to get her to fit in long-term. I started pining for more space.

Around this time, we started house-hunting for our move to Kansas. Based on our financial situation, we'd set a price range we were comfortable with and that we felt would get us a modest home, but I was surprised once we started looking at just how much house we could actually get in our price range (the Midwest, you guys, cost of living is sweet!). And once you know you can afford something bigger, it's kind of hard to hold back and stay small (especially when you're already daydreaming about more space).

So the house we got is more than double the size of our apartment in Houston. It wasn't the largest house we looked at or could afford, and it certainly isn't any McMansion, but it's still so much more space than we've ever lived in before. In fact, it's bigger than anything I've ever lived in before, including the house I grew up in.

At first, I was just giddily excited. The baby gets her own nursery! I get a home office! There are more than three drawers in the kitchen!

But then we started to make lists of all the things we would need to buy to live comfortably in this house. And the lists just kept growing and growing. This whole week it feels like we've been doing nothing but shopping: furniture stores and hardware stores, Walmart and Target and Ikea, and let's not forget the hours and hours online scouring Wayfair and Overstock and Amazon (and Craigslist, but you guys, scoring deals on Craigslist is an art form I do not have the skills, or patience, for). Going from renting to buying any size house comes with it's necessary purchases: washers and dryers and lawn mowers and hoses and all those things you're not responsible for when you rent. But then there's also all the furniture we need for these new rooms, and all these home improvement projects we're already trying to tackle (new carpet! new paint!). It feels like the list is endless.

And with every swipe of the credit card, my old anxiety flares up about all this stuff we are accumulating. It is so much stuff in so little time that it just feels overwhelming. There is so much stuff that part of me just wants to call the whole thing off. Let's just find an apartment and keep renting, keep living our minimal lifestyle, keep things small and simple so we never have to worry about replacing a roof or fixing the water heater or whatever million possible hassles we could face as homeowners.

But another part of me is still deeply excited by this new responsibility. Yes, this is a big house, and we will need to accumulate some more stuff to live comfortably here. Yes, there will be things to fix and a lot of work and a lot of money to keep it up. But this house is ours. It is part of this whole family thing that we are building together. It is a space that will give us room to grow and work and dream and build together as a family. Owning a home is an act of creation. We have here an empty canvas upon which we will create, decorate, design, build, work, clean, fix, arrange, and make it more beautiful. And we will do it as a family. I'm excited about this.

So while everyone else on the internet may be throwing up the virtues of downsizing and going minimal, we're upsizing. But there's still a huge part of me that will always feel drawn to a more minimal lifestyle, and so I'm working on creating some guidelines for myself on how to approach our accumulation of stuff. Here's what I've come up with so far.

1. Only buy what we need to live here comfortably. Just because we have more space doesn't mean we have to fill it to the brim. But we still want to make this extra space usable in the most effective way.

2. Take it slowly and be fiscally responsible. There are some things that we have to buy right away (like a lawn mower, washer and dryer, etc.), and some purchases we've budgeted for (like a new office desk and chairs), but other things we can wait on, like furniture for the front room, patio furniture, or decor items to fill up all this new wall space. We have some ideas of what we want to get, but we don't need them right away, so we'll wait until we've saved up or find the perfect item. This means things might look bare for a while, but I'm trying to be okay with that.

3. Buy less at a higher quality. We could buy a bunch of cheap furniture and decor to fill up the space, or we can buy fewer things that are slightly higher in quality. We're actually trying to take this approach when it comes to our home improvement projects too. There are a couple of rooms where I want to rip out the carpet and replace with a hard surface of some kind, but we decided to hold off on that right now and save up until we can afford to put in flooring that matches the hardwood already in the kitchen and dining area. We could've gone with a cheaper laminate or composite wood option, but hopefully by saving up and putting in higher quality flooring that matches through the whole house, it will increase the value of the home and help with resale.

4. Buy for joy and beauty. I never want to own more than I need, but I'm also giving myself permission to buy things that make our space beautiful or that make us happy (as long as it's in the budget).

5. Keep perspective and don't get attached. Just because we have the space now doesn't mean we will in the future. Should life ever throw us a curve ball, I want to be able to let all this stuff and space go and be able to downsize again. Maybe easier said than done, but I can try.

So, any other suggestions or nuggets of wisdom to share about how to upsize gracefully? I'd love to hear! I'm still feeling quite a bit of anxiety over all of this change, so advice is appreciated.

Also, you better believe there will be pictures coming, probably even whole before-and-after montages (I am the girl who posts about my over-thinking of holiday decorations, after all). But like I said, we'll be taking it slowly. We don't move in officially till next week (when the carpets are finished and they can ship our stuff to us from storage), and then we'll be drowning in boxes and chaos for a while, so don't expect anything soon.

But do get excited to hear the dramatic story of how we bought our house, complete with bidding wars, a private jet ride, and all the stress and anxiety of buying a house I hadn't actually seen!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Travel Log: Charleston S.C.

trees, road
Okay, I know, this is not a travel blog. But sometimes when you go somewhere completely wonderful, you just need a place to share (a fraction) of the beautiful pictures you took.

Here's how the story went. On Thursday (May 18th) the movers showed up to pack up all our stuff (well, all the stuff we hadn't already packed ourselves). On Friday the moving truck rolled out taking the vast majority of our possessions to a lonely storage unit. And on Saturday Miss Lily and I boarded a plane (her first time!) to Charleston S.C., bidding farewell to our boys for a week, and to Houston forever.

This trip to Charleston was a fun girls trip with my mother-in-law and three sister-in-laws to celebrate my mother-in-law's significant birthday this year (out of deference to her, the specific number of this significant birthday will remain unnamed). I can't remember who picked this location (Evy?) but I will say that before this trip, I was only vaguely aware that Charleston even existed, and had completely zero life plans to ever visit. But oh, my, goodness! Am I ever glad I got the chance! I had no idea that any city with this level of charm existed outside of Europe. Basically, the entire city is one picturesque photo opportunity. There was just not an ugly place to aim my camera. So, ready for a few pictures? Here they come!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Books I Read in May

You guys, I'm not positive, but I think I've hit a new all time low as far as books finished in a single month. At the end of last month I was in the middle of two books I was really enjoying, and in the entire month of May I managed to finish one of them! ONE! SINGLE! BOOK! In the whole month!

This is so embarrassing.

I've been scratching my head and trying to figure out why it was such a bad reading month, and the truth is, I'm just not sure. But here are some possible theories. First, it was a busy month. We bought a house (more on that later). We had a flurry of good-bye parties and social engagements. We packed up our apartment and moved to a new state (moving is the. worst. thing. ever!). And I spent the last week traveling. So things were pretty busy.

But I've had busy months before, and still managed to fit in a little more reading time, so I'm trying to figure out what else accounts for the slump. I was especially looking forward to the travel time, because I had five separate plane flights in which to read, and I thought for sure I was going to knock out some books there. But then, I was traveling solo with a lap baby who needed lots of attention on all those flights, so I think I ended up getting a total of thirty minutes of reading done in the air.

Honestly, I think that sweet baby is the major culprit for most of the reading slump. She has become extremely efficient on the nursing front. We're down to about five minutes a session which is barely long enough for me to check my phone before she's demanding to be burped and on with her day. So that precious reading time is all but gone. And I was trying to remember when I used to read, before nursing when there were just the two kids. I remember I used to read in the afternoons and listen to audio books while doing the dishes. Somehow, with three kids, that time just doesn't seem to exist anymore (not that there aren't still dishes to be done, it's just my husband seems to be doing them more because I'm occupied with one or the other of my needy children).

I think the real problem is that we just haven't settled into a good routine yet. The baby's nap schedule is still all over the place, so my days just aren't predictable right now. And then of course, we moved. Nothing more disruptive to one's routine than packing up and moving. Without my solid routine in place, I'm struggling to find my reading time. It doesn't help that I'm just exhausted all the time (once again, the baby's fault, I just can't get her to drop that pesky 4 AM feeding) and I'm in this brain-foggy place that makes focusing and mental activity (like reading) difficult.

Anyway, it's probably a combination of all these things. Hopefully this next month is better. Now, without further ado, let's get around to talking about that one solitary little book I finished. At least it was a really good one.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

In my further defense, this was quite a long book. But you guys, it's totally worth all the hype. This really was such a good book. I can't count how many times I've heard it compared to Unbroken, with most people saying that Unbroken is better. And yeah, when one is the story of a guy who nearly dies in a plane wreck at sea only to be rescued by the Japanese enemy and sent to a POW torture camp, the story of nine college boys who win an Olympic medal seems tame by comparison. But I think I fall on the side of people who think that this book is actually better (not that it has to be a comparison, they are both extremely good). At the very least, I found this to be a more enjoyable reading experience, because it was so inspiring and uplifting (whereas Unbroken was quite a depressing slog for most of it). Brown is an extremely talented writer. I was just amazed at his ability to imbue these rowing races with drama. I was on the edge of my seat through every single race description, especially the final one when I knew the outcome! It was just really, really good writing, and a very inspiring story. I highly recommend.

Have you read it? Agree or disagree about the comparison to Unbroken? Any other thoughts?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Book Blab Episode 13: The Girl Who Drank the Moon Mini Book Club

Sorry, guys. I didn't mean to drop out here for most of May, but life got real busy here. So busy that I couldn't even find time to read (which I'll tell you all about in my end-of-month round-up tomorrow). What have I been busy doing? Well, mostly packing up my house, moving all our stuff to storage, and then traveling around the country (which you probably know about if you follow me on Instagram).

Anyway, the good news is that during all my traveling, I ended up in Utah with a few free hours on my hands, and got a chance to meet up with Amy in person to film our latest Book Blab! And our babies got to meet!

Amy and Suzanne, babies

So, so fun!

Anyway, the long awaited discussion about The Girl Who Drank the Moon is here, and we had lots to say about this book (seriously, once we turned the camera off, we sat around chatting about this book for another thirty minutes or so). If you haven't read it, maybe don't watch this. Spoilers abound. But if you have read it, we'd love to hear your thoughts! Please let us know what you think about this book. Show notes below.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Listening Comprehension and Children's Audio Books: Some Thoughts

In March's Book Blab Episode, Amy and I talked about the importance of reading aloud to kids (of all ages). We covered a lot of material, but two things we didn't talk about in that episode (but which I've been thinking a lot about since we started reading longer chapter books aloud to our boys last year) were listening comprehension, and children's audio books. These two issues are related, but let's take them one at a time.

First, comprehension. One of the biggest concerns I had with starting longer chapter books with my then four-year-old was whether he would be able to follow and understand a longer story that took days and weeks to read. Drawing on my training as an English teacher and my experience of reading aloud to my son for the past few months, here's my best advice on increasing listening comprehension while reading aloud.

1- Choose age appropriate books with stories that your kid naturally finds interesting. This is easier said than done, and it takes some trial and error to figure out the books that work and the books that don't. Reading aloud is a chance to expose your children to books that are above their own reading level, because children can usually have higher listening comprehension than reading comprehension (another reason it's great to read aloud), but if you go too far above comprehension can plummet. Likewise, if your child isn't interested in the characters or story, they are less likely to pay attention. It takes some work to find books that hit the sweet spot for comprehension, and we've had a couple of duds (but it's always fine to stop reading a book that's not working and just move on).