Potted Potter: A Great Dose of Fun

potted-potterOur posts for January are about health, and if laughter is the best medicine, you can get yourself a great dose of fun by going along to see Potted Potter.  You will have to hurry, though; the show is in its last week for its run in Toronto.

Beth-Anne, Carol and I took our boys to see the show in December, and I have to tell you that it was one of the highlights of my lead-up to Christmas.  “Attend” is my word of the year for 2015, but of course, I had had the word in mind for a while before writing about it for the blog.  Writing this blog has brought us many wonderful things, including friendships for which I am eternally grateful, but another thing I’m grateful for is Opportunity.  We are invited to interesting events and occasions, and I will be honest and tell you that I weigh each and every invitation very carefully.  It takes a lot to get me out of my routine and my happy place (pajamas, bed, book).  When the opportunity came to see Potted Potter smack dab in the middle of the chaos that characterizes the weeks in mid-December, I thought long and hard about accepting; I think we all did.  Like you, we all had a lot on our plates, but I wanted to get an early start on my word of the year, and I chose to attend.

I’m so glad I did.  It was such a gift to witness not only my nine year old’s belly laughs, but Carol’s and Beth-Anne’s too!  We all had a hoot, and you really do not have to be a Harry Potter expert to enjoy the show.

The premise of the show is that two actors act out all seven books in the Harry Potter series in 70 minutes.  It’s a fast-paced physical comedy that brings into play humour both broad and subtle.  There’s a straight man and a funny man, there is a wild and wacky frenzy as the two attempt to act out as many of the major roles as possible.  Unexpected costumes, props and choreography add much to the fun.  There are jokes pitched high and low, and the actors appeared to improvise references to everything from Frozen to Toronto’s Gay Pride Parade and disastrous Mayor Ford.  The jokes come at you a mile a minute, and while the kids are still laughing at the ones pitched to them, the adults are laughing at the subsequent allusions pitched to them.  There is even audience participation, as members of the audience are invited to participate in a Quidditch game, while two kids get invited up onto the stage.

Before the show, you can order a butter beer from the bar (the recipe is secret, but they will alert you to possible allergens).  The lobby and the sidewalk outside the Panasonic Theatre are quite small, and it felt very crowded very quickly, so you’d be well advised to arrive and take your seats early.   It’s just steps from the subway, so getting there and home was a breeze for those of us on the TTC.  Parking was not easy to find, so, again, arrive early to give yourself wiggle room.

I had one very special night with Middlest, and we went out for dinner after the show, just the two of us, and it felt like just the right way to kick off the winter holiday.  It would also be a great way to kick off the new year.  Here’s to attending!

Potted Potter is at the Panasonic Theater, 651 Yonge Street.  It runs until January 11, 2015.

You can get tickets here.

What We’re Reading: Kids

From Beth-Anne

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Be Grateful Little Bear by Kara Evelyn-McNeil, illustrations by Max Scratchmann

Kara Evelyn-McNeil, a children’s entertainer from Whitby, Ontario wrote her first book Be Grateful Little Bear in hopes that parents will start a discussion with their children about being grateful for the blessings in their own lives. Little Bear finds himself alongside the proverbial fence, looking over at what appears to be greener pastures, but his loving parents remind him of the many wonderful traits that make him a special bear. The message, be proud of who you are, resounds loud and clear and served the purpose the author intended. My three boys sat around after the oldest had read the book aloud, and (yes, at my prompting) listed the things that make themselves and their brothers special.

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Dinosaur Farm by Frann Preston-Gannon

Preston-Gannon, the first UK recipient of the Sendak Fellowship, spent one month living with and learning from Maurice Sendak, and Dinosaur Farm proves she is worthy of such an honour. This beautifully illustrated story tells how hard life is on a farm: waking up early, caring for your animals and tending to the earth but in a whimsical twist the animals that populate this farm are not chickens, cows and pigs . . .they are dinosaurs! The creative way the text is displayed makes reading with expression much easier for budding orators. My middle son spoke in a loud voice when reading BIG and a much quieter voice when reading small. But perhaps it is the textless illustrations that tell the reader the most. The last image we’re left with is of the farmer fast asleep tucked in his bed with his dinosaurs that have crept in through the open gate, asleep all around his bedroom. My boys were quick tell the “story” on that final page and to make a connection to another of their favourite bedtime stories, Goodnight ,Gorilla.

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Santa’s Zany, Wacky, Just Not Right Night Before Christmas by DK Simoneau and David Radman, illustrations by Brad Cornelius

When Santa’s Zany, Wacky, Just Not Right Night Before Christmas arrived at our house there were enough squeals of delight from my youngest to trick one into believing that it was Christmas morning and not a hot, humid July day. To say that my three boys are obsessed with Christmas, Santa and all things related would be a gross understatement. In fact, as I type this now, my youngest (age 3) is watching Barney’s Christmas on Netflix (reserve your judgement, I needed some time to hammer this out). DK Simoneau and David Radman have written a Christmas tale that must be added to your night before Christmas reading list. In this story, nothing is quite right on Christmas Eve. The elves are now 7 feet tall trolls, the stockings have been replaced with long underwear and most concerning, Santa’s suit is not red! It’s purple! My boys loved this book and everything about it – the whimsical fonts, the twists on the traditional and the illustrations. Santa’s Zany, Wacky, Just Not Right Night Before Christmas now has a place in our Christmas tales reading box . . . after my youngest slept with it in his bed for three nights.

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Kitty Hawk and The Curse of the Yukon Gold by Iain Reading

The first book in the Kitty Hawk Flying Detective series will have you hooked! What’s not to love? Canadian adventure, a fearless heroine and endearing characters . . . the Kitty Hawk series by Iain Reading is a breath of fresh air among the vampires, werewolves and teen angst that have dominated the young adult genre for the past few years. What’s more, the author has included an additional reading list and two websites for adventure enthusiasts to explore.

From Nathalie

We continue to (try to) make time for creating art hereabouts, and I am newly inspired.  I was at the Cabbagetown Outdoor Art Festival on the weekend and fell in love with the art of Judy Anderson of Kukucaju, which captures wonderfully the subversive violence of children’s stories and imaginations.  Her Big Sister caught my eye; art that endorses eating one’s siblings is something that would go over well in our house, where it’s not all brotherly love.  Check out her website.  You can have you own kids’ drawings turned into a custom-made piece of 3-D art.

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One great book in our art adventure is the Big Book of Everything Manga.  Youngest (6) has had great success with the manga monsters and robots, and the drawings range from very simple to complex.  It’s a great art instruction book for artists of varying levels of ability.imgres-4Middlest (9) is awash in bookish goodness: two new releases in his favourite series.  Last month, it was the sixth book in Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series, Escape from Lucien.  Until we went to hear him speak, I had not read the Amulet books, but Kibuishi was such a great speaker that I read all of the books in the series in a single sitting.  They feature a really plucky heroine, who is brave and good and flawed.  She wears an amulet that gives her power, but whether it is for good or evil is still unclear.  In a world of kids’ books that are starkly black and white with respect to good and evil, I like how Kibuishi keeps us guessing about his plot and characters.

imgres-5Middlest is also reading book five in Scott Chantler’s Three Thieves series: Pirates of the Silver Coast.  Lots of plot twists and cliff hangers here, too.

One thing I’ve noticed with his consumption of these graphic novel series is that he re-reads them over and over again.  I used to fret about his re-reading these instead of trying out new chapter books, but it’s obvious that he has a real love for these books.  He’s rushed out to get the new books in the series, bless him, and now makes a habit of asking me to check publication dates for his favourite authors.  That’s some serious book love right there.

Middlest is also reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  Perhaps you’ve heard of that oneI’m reading the Harry Potter books aloud to Youngest and Middlest, and then Middlest goes off and reads ahead.  I’m really enjoying myself with these books.  Youngest keeps stopping me to ask what words mean, which is sometimes frustrating, but, then again, he keeps stopping me to ask what words mean.  He’s listening!  He’s engaged!  He’s learning!  Coincidentally, Kazu Kibuishi has done the cover art for the latest edition of the Harry Potter books.  Cue my collector’s obsession….

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Finally, Eldest (13) is reading The Name of this Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch.

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Eldest: We had Library today.

Nathalie: What book did you choose?

Eldest: The Name of This Book is Secret.

Nathalie:  Ooooh!  I liked that one.  It’s very meta-textual.  Why did you pick that one?

Eldest: It fell on my head.

Nathalie: Seriously, why did you choose it?

Eldest: Seriously, it fell on my head.

Here endeth the attempt at intelligent discussion about books.  You win some, you lose some.

Magical Eats

Sherbet-LemonsKids’ books and food: what a winning combination.  Two of my greatest joys as a parent have been reading (and re-reading) children’s books and remembering the sweets of my youth.  Delicious indulgences, both.  On our recent trip to England, someone asked one of my boys what his favourite part of the trip had been, and he said, “The candy!”  I had only myself to blame.  I had given the kids free reign to try anything new to them: jelly babies, lemon sherbets, ginger beer, dandelion and burdock pop.  I, of course, joined in the fun, and we all enjoyed ample samplings of the sweet treats on offer in the corner shops and grocery stores.  When we did finally make it into an old-fashioned sweet shop, with thousands of sweets arrayed in jars behind a high counter, I was so overwhelmed by the selection that I left with only one little bag of dandelion and burdock sweets.  If there is one place in children’s literature I would love to visit, it’s the sweet shops in the Harry Potter books, because the only thing I can imagine being better than the English sweets of my youth are the magical English sweets of J K Rowling’s fiction.

I have looked up the recipe for Turkish Delight so that my kids can taste the magical sweet that tempted Edmund to betray his siblings in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  (With nut allergies, we cannot eat the Turkish Delight available in stores.)  It requires a candy thermometer.  It requires you to stand at the stove watching that thermometer carefully and stirring constantly for 45-90 minutes.  A recipe for kids but perhaps not to be made by this parent, who has much better things to do with 90 minutes than stand at a stove stirring.

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Actually, the most magical cooking experience we’ve had is much more wholesome than the sweets that make me wax lyrical.  And that, perhaps, is just as it should be.  Inspired by the book Stone Soup by Marcia Brown, and happening by chance to come across the perfect round river rock with which to make it, my picky eater and I decided to make our own stone soup one day, and it has become a family staple.

In the story, three soldiers arrive in a village and overcome the villagers’ hesitation to feed them by outwitting them with the invention of stone soup.  They put a large pot of water on the fire to boil and add three stones to it, promising a delicious feast.  “But, oh!,” they say. “It would taste so much better with a bit of salt and pepper.”  And off someone goes to get a bit of salt and pepper.  “And, oh!, how much better it would taste with a few carrots.”  And someone else goes off to get those.  And on and on it goes, until the soldiers and the villagers have worked together to create a delicious soup to feed everyone.

My little guys love any story that involves trickery, and when we make the soup together, Mummy gets to be the trickster.  All you need is a lovely stone, scrubbed clean, and the ingredients to make a hearty vegetable soup.  It’s the perfect recipe to use up leftovers or the last two carrots in the veggie drawer.  If the kids can be the ones to chop and throw in their choice of vegetables and other delicious additions (barley, alphabet pasta, leftover cubes of ham, chicken or steak, etc.), then they make that soup disappear as fast as you can say “Magic.”  The perfect recipe for picky eaters.

The recipe is very, very flexible, but here is mine:

Ingredients

2 vegetable stock cubes

4-6 cups of water

2 tablespoons of vegetable oil

1 medium onion, diced

1 or 2 cloves of garlic, diced

1 cup of diced carrots

1 cup of sliced celery

1 cup of green beans, in 1-inch pieces, or 1 cup of frozen peas

Method

Heat oil over medium heat.  Add onion, garlic and celery and sauté until just tender.  Add 4 cups of water, carrots and stock cubes and bring to the boil.  Whisk so that stock cubes dissolve.  Add more water if needed to cover vegetables.  Reduce heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes until carrots are just tender.  Add green beans for the last two minutes of cooking.  Throw in any other additions at the end to warm through (small cooked pasta shells or letters, cubed cooked meat, chick peas, any other leftover cooked veggies.)

Brother’s Day

May 24 is Brother’s Day, a day to celebrate brothers in your life.  This week, 4 Mothers and guest Meg Gardner will be posting interviews with our sons about their brothers.

In the mean time, if you are looking for some ways to mark Brother’s Day, here are some new and classic children’s books about brothers:

imgres-2Andrew Larsen has a fabulous new picture book out called In the Tree House, and it is beautifully illustrated by Dušan Petričić.  It’s the perfect book to read for Brother’s Day because it touches on the inevitable moment in brothers’ lives when one brother migrates more towards his friends than his little bro.  This book tells about that separation, and about how the brothers reunite in their tree house one dark night.  My boys (5 and 7) love this book, and they were fully entranced both by the story and by the illustrations.  (In one image, the brothers are playing War, and the boys always examine the illustration to see which brother has the best cards and is likely to win.)

imgres-3Speaking of War, a classic book with a wonderful brother-sister pair is From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg.  Claudia and her brother Jamie run away from home on the funds Jamie has made playing War and saving his allowance.  Claudia has other siblings she could have asked along on her escape from her parents’ ingratitude, but this one is rich and she is nothing if not practical.  They camp out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, solve a mystery about a sculpture there, and befriend the anonymous and prickly donor.  It is a fabulous urban version of a desert island tale, and the kids navigate survival in the civilized centre of the urban jungle.  I have to say that, while I remember this book fondly from childhood, when I read it aloud to my 7-year-old recently, my fascination was with Claudia’s grammar.  She knows that it’s wrong to have dangling prepositions and corrects her brother when dangles them.  I’m not sure most high school university graduates could tell you that today. O tempora!  O mores!

Other books you might try:

The Great Brain, by John D. Fitzgerald (this is how I found out about the holiday)

Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter series

The Sam and Stella books by Marie Louise Gay

The Weasley bothers in the Harry Potter books.

The Hardy Boys series written under the collective pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon.

Siblings: You’re Stuck with Each Other, So Stick Together by James Crist

Can you suggest your favourites?

2010 by the numbers

From the home office in east end Toronto, Canada…

(ed. note: Wait! Wrong type of list!)

All right. For those readers who compile lists of useless data as a hobby,  a late Christmas present.  For your consideration:

2010 At My House: By the Numbers:

Number of times we moved house: one

Number of houses we looked at before we found this one: five

Number of items broken during the move: none

Number of summer camps the boys attended: six (three each)

Number of choir rehearsals attended by Daniel: 16

Number of choir concerts: three

Number of swimming lessons the boys attended: 40

Number of gymnastics lessons: 24

Number of ball hockey games: 8

Number of references to the Harry Potter movies or books made by one or the other of the boys: too many to count

Number of visits to Great Wolf Lodge: two

Number of times Marcelle got sick after visiting Great Wolf Lodge: two

Number of times Marcelle was diagnosed with pneumonia: one

Number of cross-border shopping trips: seven

Number of cross-border shopping trips not involving a trip to Target — one

(NB. That was a trip to New York City. They’ve got other stuff there to keep me occupied….)

Number of kilometers run by Peter: 1125

Number of marathons run by Peter: one

Number of blog posts by Marcelle: 27

Approximate number of cups of coffee drunk by Marcelle: 397 +/- 10

Happy New Year from our house to yours. May 2011 count as your best year yet.

Accio dormus

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Image via Wikipedia

It’s after 10 pm. The boys have been in bed for a while. Every night, my husband and I take turns reading to each of them. Being two years apart, it’s been sometimes difficult to find one story that will interest both of them at the same time, so we tend to read to them separately. Right now, however, they’re fascinated by the same character:

Harry Potter.

Oh my word. Harry Potter, all day long. They throw curses at each other over the breakfast table (I’ve put my foot down: no Unforgivable Curses, please). Sebastian wants his own wand for his birthday. He spent a good chunk of yesterday pretending to smack his forehead on various hard objects, exclaiming ‘Dobby the House-Elf must punish himself!’ I’m tempted to hand him a sock if it will make him stop.

With Daniel, we’ve been reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  Because this is the darkest and most disturbing of all the books, we’ve insisted that he only read it with us, not alone.

This was a good move, apparently.

A few minutes ago, I heard Daniel call my name and tell me that he needed to talk to me. I usually try to encourage conversation before, rather than after the lights are out, but he sounded like he really, truly, needed my attention. I perched on the edge of his bed and stroked his hair.

‘Mommy, I’ve made a decision. I think I need to stop reading the Deathly Hallows until I’m older. I’m thinking about it all the time and it’s scaring me. I’m afraid it’s far too epic for right now.’

What followed was a whirl-wind, five minute conversation about imagination, about being allowed to quit something once you’ve started ( a life lesson that applies, I feel, to music lessons but not necessarily to novels) and about how to drive unpleasant thoughts out of one’s head at bedtime and how I’m pretty bad at it. It was one of those crazy parenting moments: touching, funny and, as I looked into his wide eyes, very, very real.

So, no more reading Deathly Hallows right now. No movie, either. All I ask is, until then, that you don’t tell him how it ends, okay?

Mistress Masham’s Repose by T. H. White

 

So, I woke from a vivid dream the other morning with the following remonstrance rattling around in my head: “If you read nothing but popular titles to your children, they will develop minds filled with pablum.”  So said the stern librarian in my dream.

We are madly trying to read through Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince so that we can then madly read The Deathly Hallows before the movie comes out, it being something of a rule at our house to read the book before seeing the movie.  I love these intense bursts of reading, and I love many of the popular titles of which my dream librarian thinks so little.

I guess my subconscious has objected to the HP overdose, though.  I have read The Deathly Hallows twice, all by my adult self, and thoroughly enjoyed it both times.  (Such are the joys of a miserable memory.) 

Still, one does not argue with stern librarians in one’s dreams.  Not at this address, anyway.

Enter Mistress Masham’s Repose.  I have had this book on my radar for a while, and when I saw the call for readers for the New York Review of Books week, I thought it the perfect opportunity to discover a well-loved classic.  Originally published in 1946, the book has been reissued by the New York Review Children’s Collection.

The story concerns one Maria, an orphaned girl whose ancestors were nobility but whose estate now has no money for keeping up the place, the Palace of Malplaquet.  She is under the care of a wicked governess and a greedy vicar, but has the kind company of Cook and a local professor.  The governess is given to disabling headaches, which spell freedom for Maria.  On one of her excursions, she finds a leaky boat, and rows and bails her way to an island on one of the estate’s lakes, Mistress Masham’s Repose.  It is on that island that she finds a community of little people, not six inches high. 

The little people are Jonathan Swift’s Lilliputians, and the book is delightfully full of literary gibes.  The professor is unhealthily attached to his books, the epitome of the absent-minded professor (“He would dream of impossible successes: imagining that the Master of Trinity had referred to him by name in a lecture…”). 

Then there is the literary history of the grounds themselves.  The Lilliputians of Gulliver’s Travels are real, and so is White’s whithering satire.  Witness this description of one of the rooms of the palace with 52 state bedrooms, in which White satirizes both guide book miscellany and learned men:  “He searched the Orangery, where Gibbon had scratched out a semicolon in the famous last paragraph of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire….”

All of this, of course, appeals to me, but what about Griffin?

Griffin: “It’s nice.”

Hmmm.  Damned by faint praise?  Not quite.  Undoubtedly, he’d rather be reading HP, but he did humour me.  He was thoroughly engaged with the story and with the moral dilemma Maria faces: she wants a little person as a pet, but promises the Professor to honour their right to secrecy.  Inevitably, the greedy guardians discover her find, and want to capitalize on her discovery.  The language, though, is a bit beyond this nine year old, making this book an ideal read-aloud so that he can stop me and ask questions.  Many of the jokes went over his head, but that did not interfere with the excitement of the unfolding plot.

I realized another benefit to reading this kind of book together: eventually he will be reading varieties of English that are from other eras, and if he has been used to encountering them from childhood, perhaps Jonathan Swift won’t be as imposing when it comes time to read Gulliver’s Travels 

I Haven’t Got It in Me to Try

In the four years since becoming a mother, I’ve changed in some pretty significant areas.  Patience, for example.  I have slowly been morphing into a patience machine.  Not all the time, of course, and not without slip-ups.  But I’m really consciously working on it, and a little surprisingly, it’s actually working.  I’m an infinitely more patient mother now than I have ever been.

This is also partly due to having more information, both about babies and myself.  Where in the early months of motherhood I was beside myself with sleeplessness and frustration at night, now I look forward to sleeping with my children.  I’m grateful and slightly in awe of my power to reassure them just with my presence, and I no longer begrudge their night waking any more than I do their need for food.

In addition, I have a previously inconceivable tolerance around the bodily substances they produce and splatter onto me, and for the noise and chaos at every turn.  And when I see a child or a parent acting out on the street, I usually feel no knee-jerk judgment but a wash of sympathy for the tantrum taker, having borne humble witness to my own low points as a mother.

In other ways, though, my ability to endure has simply atrophied.  Where once I sought to learn about the world’s cruelties and injustices, in hopes of understanding and participating in efforts to better them, now I can hardly bear to listen anymore.  If I see another picture of a polar bear (an ace swimmer) stranded on an ice floe facing death by drowning because climate change is melting away his habitat, I will scream.  I can’t even listen to a nostalgic country song without a teary eye.

I remember a conversation I had with my brother-in-law’s parents* a couple of years after 9/11.  They couldn’t understand why the world’s weak-willed politicians couldn’t just solve the problem, since “90% of Muslims support the attack”.  The solution was so clear:  “Just imprison all of their religious leaders worldwide,” they said.

My husband Ben actually tried to engage them in a discussion, in hopes of exposing the flaws of their views and the prejudices that lay beneath.  I guess that was a mature, constructive thing to do.  I preferred to leave the room and write them out of my social world. Oh, and to vent at Ben afterward:  “What do you mean, they’re still nice people?  They’re kooks!  And they’re kooks who are dangerous!  They get to vote! They’re the people who would have burned women at the stake for being witches!!”

It’s this lack of tolerance that’s making it hard for me to meaningfully engage in this week’s proposed discussion of banned books.  I’m a research lawyer for the government, and I have actually read legal cases on freedom of expression as protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and defined by the Supreme Court of Canada.  This could potentially be an interesting angle for this online roundtable.  And if we were talking about pornography, or hate speech, or Ernst Zundel (involving litigation I actually worked on), maybe I’d have the will to say something productive about it.

But this list of banned books?  Nope.  I’ve got nothing.  I think about people who would deny not just for themselves but for others the majesty of Toni Morrison’s words, the youthful soul-searching and adventures of Harry Potter, or just the plain comfort that Judy Blume has brought to generations of pre-pubescent readers, especially during the decades before all-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-sex could be found with the click of a mouse.  I think about these people and just haven’t got it in me to even try to talk.

I know this isn’t useful, but I can’t help it.  I know the constructive thing to do would be to try to meet the book banners in debate, sourcing out the emotional impulse behind the censorship and the values they seek to protect, and then engaging in the art of persuasion.  I bet Ben could do it.  Maybe Nathalie, Marcelle and Beth-Anne could do it too.

Me?  I’m leaving the room.  To tend to my babies, doing what I can to be part of kinder times, and to nurture a better future, all the while hoping the book banners’ sphere of influence is small.  And that they don’t vote.

* It’s okay.  I can write about them with impunity.  They’re not reading my articles, trust me.