Thursday, March 26, 2015

Home by Carson Ellis

Home by Carson Ellis. Candlewick Press, 2015.

Oh my goodness, you have no idea how excited I was for this. Carson Ellis wrote a picture book!

I love Carson Ellis. Besides the Wildwood Chronicles collaboration with her husband, Colin Meloy of The Decemberists (blogged here), she also illustrated Lemony Snicket's The Composer is Dead (ahem), the wonderful Mysterious Benedict Society books, and several more, all of which I've read at some point. I couldn't wait to get my hands on this one.

Home is a large, gorgeous, whimsical look at various homes. Some are realistic, some are imaginary, but each is rendered in Ellis's recognizable style, in beautiful color. Seeing Ellis's art in a larger format like this is pretty thrilling. It's a simple book, perfect for very young readers, but the pictures and humor make it worth a look, whatever age your kids (or you) may be.

Not that my photos do the book justice. (Like, at all.) So either run to your local library (like I did), or head to a bookstore or website and check it out for yourself.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente,
illustrated by Ana Juan.
Feiwel & Friends, 2015.

I love this series.

I call them "children's books for grown-ups." 

The fourth book in Catherynne M. Valente's Fairyland series is wonderful. I admit, my "review" of the third book, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Half, was a bit tepid. I wanted to like it much more than I did. The first two books were amazing - in fact, I liked the second better than the first.  The new book, The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, veers in another direction. Valente introduces us to a new character: a young troll named Hawthorne, who is spirited away by the Red Wind to be a changeling in the human world. You can read an excerpt here.

Hawthorne forgets his troll past, but has great trouble fitting in. Fortunately, he finds a friend at school who proves to be quite empathetic. It's only a matter of time before magic, and the call to Fairyland beckon.

As usual, Ana Juan's black and white illustrations add immensely to the story. She's one of my favorites - see here and here...

While most of the book takes place in our world, with new characters, it's only a matter of time before we catch up with September, the heroine of the first three books. I was worried about her. But if you haven't read Book 3, then I'm afraid to say any more...

I don't want to tell you anything more, because I really do want you to read these books! There will be one more installment, from what I've heard. I'm excited to read the conclusion.

I've asked before, but I'm still curious. Do you know any children who have read these books? Big Sis read a bit of the first one, but put it down in favor of something else. I'm thinking we may try them as a read-aloud, once the fifth book is released. The language is so rich and creative and beautiful, and it's full of little moments that adults will understand better than children. I love them dearly, though, and the girls love to look at my copies.

Be sure to check out the UK website for the Fairyland books. It's lovely!

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Exploring Kansas (Mushroom Rock State Park, Lucas, and Rock City)

We spent most of the girls' spring break at home. The weather was beautiful, most of the time, and there were playdates and sleepovers and dance classes and a Richard III read-through to keep us busy. Thursday, however, was special. Because Mr. B was off work that day, and there was nothing else on the schedule, we spent Thursday exploring a bit of our state we'd never seen. We did something similar two years ago, when we headed up to Wamego for the Oz Museum, and came home via the Flint Hills Scenic Byway. This new trip was one we wanted to make last year, but sickness prevented us from having much fun.

We left Wichita at about 10 AM and basically, headed to Lindsborg, although this time we only drove through a tiny section of town. It was a chilly, rainy day - of course, our one not-so-nice day fell on our day trip day. Our first destination was Mushroom Rock State Park in Ellsworth County, one of the tiniest state parks in the country.

Yeah. These rocks were pretty awesome.

Mushroom Rock (there are two of these giant puppies) is a series of sandstone rock concretions. To quote the Kansas Sampler Foundation: "The strangely shaped rocks at Mushroom Rock State Park are made of sandstone from the Dakota Formation, deposited along the edge of a Cretaceous sea about 100 million years ago. Over time, circulating water deposited a limey cement between the sand grains, creating harder bodies of sandstone called concretions." The two giant  mushroom-shaped formations were formed as the bodies eroded over time. 

I couldn't get a good picture of it, but Mr. B pointed out how the smaller rocks were located all along the side of the road, beyond the park, in the brush and grasses. 

Over many, many years, people have carved names and dates and other things into the rocks. I'm sure it isn't great for the rocks, but it is an interesting time capsule. 

There are some great historical pictures at I guess to reach the top of the big rocks, a ladder would need to be used. I read where people pull their car beneath the two-stemmed rock, but we'd need another grown-up for a good family picture!

Eventually, we hopped on I-70 West, giving us a great view of a huge wind farm...

until we reached Kansas Hwy 232, known as the Post Rock Scenic Byway. If we drove south, we could have visited little Wilson, the "Czech Capital of Kansas." Maybe our next trip? Instead, we drove north, through some of the strangest, most beautiful scenery in Kansas, next to Wilson Lake, and eventually, to Lucas. [To get a nice historical view of the area, watch this short video on YouTube. We watched it at the Garden of Eden.]

Lucas is the "Grassroots Arts Capital of Kansas." You're greeted as you enter town by the World's Largest Souvenir Plate. There is strange and interesting art everywhere. We visited the World's Largest Collection of the World's Smallest Versions of the World's Largest Things, but missed seeing Florence Deeble's Rock Garden. Our top two destinations, however, were S.P. Dinsmoor's The Garden of Eden, and the Grassroots Art Center.

When The Garden of Eden came into view, I literally gasped. I'd seen pictures, but it's so wild to see this place in person. I didn't know anything about it until I was in my early twenties, working at the bookstore. The first Weird U.S.A. book had just been released, and one of my co-workers showed me its entry. It's a very unusual place, built by a very unusual man.

S.P. Dinsmoor was a Civil War veteran who came to Lucas, Kansas, in the 1880s. He was a farmer, and moved into town upon retirement. He wanted to build a cabin, but Kansas is not exactly known for its trees. Instead, he used post rock limestone, quarried to unusually long lengths, then built the house the way one would construct a log cabin. He was 64 when he began construction in 1904.

Dinsmoor was a religious man, but against the organized church. He was a Freemason, and very involved in the Populist Movement. He began to carve a series of sculptures out of concrete. There are religious sculptures, beginning near the "Garden of Eden" sign, depicting Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and such. Then as you head around toward the museum's entrance, the political sculptures appear. His big theme is monopolies and white collar types, often represented by an octopus, stealing from the little guy.

Dinsmoor built his home and sculpture garden to tell a story, yes, but also to earn a living. The place was always intended to be a showpiece, and he gave tours and charged admission for income. He built a mausoleum in the back, complete with concrete coffin. Our tour guide was actually a descendant of his second wife, and provided lots of fun details. She said that admission might be a dollar, but for an extra 25 cents, he'd pose in his coffin for visitors! When his first wife died, he wanted to inter her in his mausoleum, but the city said no. After she was buried in the local cemetery, Dinsmoor and friends dug her up and after parading her coffin through town, Dinsmoor lay her in the mausoleum, then enclosed her coffin in concrete!

While the sculptures may give off a creepy vibe, they're nothing compared to the mausoleum. Dinsmoor was mummified after his death, according to his wishes, and laid to rest in the mausoleum, in his concrete coffin, behind glass. [His first wife is encased in the concrete beneath him] And yes, you can see him! Little Sis ran to be the first one in, by the way. Big Sis chose not to see. Our tour guide told us the glass broke about a dozen years ago, and mold and dampness have finally started to take its toll. He is decaying, although he still has a beard. She told us she could remember when you could still see skin!

Mr. B and I loved our tour of Dinsmoor's Garden of Eden, and the girls were entertained. Our guide, being family, had some great stories to tell and the place didn't feel creepy at all. Dinsmoor came across as a funny eccentric.

Also worth the trip was a visit to the Grassroots Art Center on Main Street. We opted for the guided tour around the little museum, as we were shown all kinds of strange art: hard limestone sculptures, stuff made from pull tabs and peach pits and beach trash, a mechanized farm scene, mosaics, all kinds of things.

We grabbed a quick bite to eat, then stopped at Bowl Plaza, the most interesting public restrooms I have ever seen in my life. In fact, it was voted the Second Best Restroom in the United States. Yes, the sidewalk is toilet paper - see the roll? The men's has cars and toys on the walls, while the women's has masks and tea cups and owls and shells.

When we left Lucas, we headed east, then north a bit, to Rock City Park, near Minneapolis, KS. We began the day with huge prehistoric rock formations. Might as well end the trip the same way!

Rock City (not to be confused with the awesome Rock City of "See Rock City" sign fame) is a larger collection of the giant sandstone concretions, although none of them have the weathered "mushroom" look. The park has a small gift shop, where you pay admission. I'd love to know what they sell in the shop, but it was closed. There's a little collection box for after-hours admissions, and we're honest people. We paid. You can read a nice interview with a man behind the cash register on Roadside America and has more historical photos.

As you can see, the sun had finally decided to break through. The girls decided they like Lucas and all the art, but climbing rocks was the best part of the whole day. There was more to climb at Rock City, but they told me they preferred the smaller Mushroom Rock State Park.

By the way, one of my jobs as mommy/photographer was to snap pictures of my Little Sis's old Cabbage Patch Kid preemie, Lotta Gabie, as she "climbed rocks and trees." She was joined in Rock City by the weird little zombie art doll Little Sis bought with leftover Christmas money at the Grassroots Art Center.


I should add that I planned this trip by using several websites, including Kansas Sampler Foundation. Both rock parks and the Garden of Eden made their categories in the book The 8 Wonders of Kansas by Marci Penner, put out by the Kansas Sampler Foundation. I don't own a copy (yet), but I've checked it out from the library and loved it.

Kansas doesn't have a lot of flash to it. We don't have grand mountains or forests, natural lakes or beaches, and there can be plenty to complain about. But it's home, and sometimes, you just gotta go looking for things to appreciate. Find that beauty, that something special or quirky or fun, and enjoy it, right?

Back to books tomorrow.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday Reads, Spring Break, & Some Link Love

Happy First Day of Spring! I confess, spring is not my favorite. Spring in Kansas is only pretty for a little while, because summer usually hits a little early. And allergies. I'm so allergic to this season. Waah, poor me, I know. The picture above was taken two days ago, when Little Sis set up a dolly tea party in the living room, using our piano bench. She and I had a rough week. Monday and Tuesday were hard, and it's given this spring break a heavy feeling for me. She's a sweet girl, but so headstrong and when she wants to go to battle, she fights hard. Luckily, Mr. B was off work Wednesday and Thursday, amends were made, and we had a fun family day trip yesterday. I'll share more about that next week, but you can see a tiny sneak peek on my Instagram. In the meantime, here are some books we've read recently, and some links.

What We Read

Mr. Flux by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Matte Stephens. Kids Can Press, 2013.

I'm not sure how I missed this one when it came out. I admire Kyo Maclear's picture books, which are a bit more challenging than most (see Julia, Child and Virginia Wolf), and I follow Matte Stephens on Facebook - check out his fabulous Etsy shop! - but I totally missed the fact they had a picture book together. Mr. Flux is about a kid named Martin who hates change. His neighbors hate change, too. So when Mr. Flux moves into the neighborhood and begins to change things up, Martin is flummoxed. After spending time with the eccentric new neighbor, however, Martin begins to see the personal and artistic value of change. To add another layer to the book, the story is loosely based on Fluxus, the 1960s art movement. Mr. B read this with the girls first, and all three seemed to enjoy it. The illustrations are great, too, and served to remind me that I need to pick some Matte Stephens art for my walls someday.

Sam & Dave Dig A Hole by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen. Candlewick, 2104.

Another Candlewick Honor! We loved this book. It's such a fun, cute concept. Same and Dave decide to dig a whole, looking for treasure. Every time we see they're close to something, they change direction. The dog notices, too. The ending was very funny, and as always, Klassen's illustrations are beautiful. Nothing deep or important here, just a very fun time to be had. Candlewick has some printables and activities on their website, if you're interested.

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Eerdman's Books for Young Readers, 2014.

Another Caldecott Honor winner, as well as the winner of the Sibert Award for nonfiction, The Right Word is the story of Peter Mark Roget, and the way his thesaurus came to be. He started making lists of synonyms as a child, and continued the practice as an adult, until he was finally convinced to publish his unique thesaurus. It became a runaway bestseller, and as we know, remains in print to this day. It is the third (I think?) collaboration between Bryant and collage artist Sweet, and it's beautifully done. I don't know if it's one we'd want to read over and over again, but it was definitely worth checking out.

What We Started Reading Together, Until Big Sis Got Bored and Decided to Read the Book for Herself

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraorinaire! by Mrs. Bunny, translated from the Rabbit by Polly Horvath, illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Schwartz & Wade, 2012.

I read this book not long after it came out, and thought it was hilarious. Since then, I've encouraged Big Sis to check it out when she was ready. She finally grabbed it from the school library! We started reading it together, all three of us, at bedtime. Big Sis and I would alternate it some nights. We've been very busy lately, though, and Big Sis was tired of waiting for us to get back to it, so she took over. She's almost through with it, in fact, and wants to read the sequel next, as do I.

I don't have a book trailer to share with you, but check out this interview with Mrs. Bunny (the real author, you know).

What I Read

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen. St. Martin's Press, 2015.

I was very excited to read the sequel to Allen's first book, Garden Spells, this January. I liked that book, but I've liked her subsequent books more, and I thought I might enjoy this one more than its predecessor. And I did. It was a light, airy read, a nice respite from the cold outside.

And I want a First Frost Garden Party. On Halloween. And I want to dress as an airy fairy for it, but I don't think I would pull it off.

Like, at all.

Wise Children by Angela Carter. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992 [first American edition].

This book was a wild ride. First published in the U.K. in 1991, it was Angela Carter's final book before her death from lung cancer in early 1992. Its narrator is a 75-year-old former musical comedy star, Dora Chance, who lives with her twin sister, Nora, in the old former boarding house in which they were born. The book begins with the women receiving an invitation to their father's 100th birthday. Their father was the greatest Shakespearean actor of his time, but the catch is, their father has never recognized them as his own. Dora's voice is wickedly funny, and the story crashes into the craziest ending ever. Carter references Shakespeare throughout the book, and if one ponders some of the wackier plot points in his plays, perhaps Dora's tale seems less crazy. I don't know. It was worth reading, but I did find myself rolling my eyes a bit during the final chapter.

We are approaching the end of our spring break. In addition to these books, we also read some more for Women's History Month, and I read the latest Fairyland book, which I'll share with you next week. The girls and I saw Cinderella on Monday. I thought it was lovely. We agree we preferred most of the other gowns at the ball better than Cinderella's (I didn't like the shade of blue), but we liked the transformation scenes. I have repeated "Have courage and be kind" to the girls (er, ahem, Little Sis) more than once this week, but it hasn't really stuck.

Some Random Links

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