Friday, June 29, 2018

Audiobooks: I implore you

Audiobooks with my kids have gotten me into trouble.

We were three books into an adventure series so gripping that my kids BEGGED for the next car ride.

Suddenly, with my preschooler, first grader, and fourth grader listening, the book took a very dark turn. The warrior rats who had always disliked the mice herded them into volcanic chambers to die of poisonous gases. Mouse families with babies and grandparents suffocated and died as the heroes looked on, powerless.

That moment hangs in my mind. A frozen pause. Wondering why I had so recklessly chosen a series without reading reviews of all the sequels. Wondering what this would do to my youngest listener- a person still struggling to write her own name.

It felt like a massive screw-up- and one that was wholly my own. All of us were shocked. The kids dove into the second stage of grief- denial. Maybe what the heroes saw wasn't real. Maybe they will be able to save them through some story mechanic. Maybe they only look dead.

If you had been listening with us, you too would have known the story had no surprise resurrection- no time travel, no magic potion, no red herring, no nightmare to be shaken from. I shut off the book, established the deaths as final, listened to the kids, and answered their questions.

We were sad together. I was sorry to have accidentally peeled back a view into the ugliness of hatred and violence we usually shield children from. It felt pretty crappy.
Image result for the underland chronicles
Then they asked me to turn the book back on. And, to my own surprise, I did. We finished the five book series together.

Years later, whenever they want to try reading or watching something scary, they always say, "But Mom, you already let us listen to Gregor the Overlander."

Suzanne Collins' The Underland Chronicles remains one of their favorite series of all time... OUR favorite series.

So why should every parent listen to audiobooks with their kids?

Because you have opportunities to talk about the book together. Stories are like laboratories to explore actions, consequences, values, and ethics from the safe perspective of observers- but observers who care about the characters. Reading literary fiction (books with emotional complexity) has been shown to improve empathy in adults and increases emotional intelligence in children.

Listening to stories together gives us an increased common language and experiences. My kids will sometimes describe a person by referencing a trait from a character we all know. They also ask about unfamiliar words, concepts, and ideas we encounter.

Audiobooks are a great venue for storytelling because the pace of delivery is slower than a film or show and easier to momentarily interrupt and clarify. Audiobook readers are usually skilled actors or the authors, so their recordings have a quality and foresight into the material that is hard to muster when reading a book for the first time while you try to share it with others. I do believe in reading aloud to my kids, even from new books, but it's a bit more like feeling my way in the dark when choosing the emphasis for sentence I've never seen before.

Here are some titles that should appeal to both adults and kids to get you started

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency by Daniel Pinkwater

Just another New Jersey boy meets giant chicken story. Nothing to see here.
I LOVE this book, and it's a good start for new audiophiles. It's not very long. The sequel, Looking for Bobowicz, is even better. Sadly, the third book in the series can only be found in print. Daniel Pinkwater is an extremely generous author who puts out a free podcast of his written works. Check it out.

Secrets At Sea by Richard Peck
Great for younger listeners. An Edwardian mouse family tries to help their somewhat hapless humans as they cruise to England to improve their social status. First of two books.
A Western story about kids grappling with strange happenings in their weird new hometown and searching for lost treasure. This series has my 2nd grader, 4th grader, and 7th grader begging for each next installment in this trilogy.
 Fake Mustache by Tom Angelberger

A sketchy fake mustache that grants charisma turns a kid into an evil mastermind bent on becoming president. Can his best friend and a former yodeling television cowgirl stop his march to power?

The Willy Wonka of videogames designs a cutting-edge library for his hometown. Before the library opens to the public, a group of essay contest winning kids compete to escape this new library by solving a series of puzzles. Includes great references to history and books. Series.

Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity by Mac Barnett

The Brixton brothers redeem cereal box tops to get a detective license and stumble through investigations in this series.

Leaving the Bellweathers by Kristin Clark Venuti

The butler for any eccentric family seeks his own replacement when he tires of their shenanigans. First of two.

After a large inheritance from a newly discovered relative, a young girl finds her parents transformed, her governess a witch, and her only friend a talking mouse. Nail-biting scenes and great humor. This full cast recording offers a great experience. Series.

Written after WWII by a British widow with young children, this book explores changes of fortune in a world where packs of prowling wolves threaten Victorian-esque citizens in a world of great inequality. Gripping. Series.

Mr. Chickee's Funny Money by Christopher Paul Curtis
After helping a neighbor, a boy find himself in possession of a remarkable piece of currency. But there are others who want this treasure. Can he figure out its mysteries before they find him? Lots of puns and word play. First of two.

A great true story for any kid who loves animals and frequents libraries. I will warn you that the cat dies during the story, but I still think it's worth reading.

Joshua Dread by Lee Bacon

What if your parents were supervillains- and the most popular superhero in the country moved into your neighborhood? What if his daughter was in your homeroom? Series.

The Magic Half by Annie Barrows

A singleton with older twin brothers and younger twin sisters moves into a new town. After a few inexplicable incidents, she finds the house has at least one other resident and a doorway between times. First of a series.

After his father disappears, Gabriel Finley discovers his father's childhood journal and an outlandish family history that is for the birds. With a touch of Norse legends, abundant riddles, loyal friends, birds, birdbrains, and sketchy companions, can Gabriel find his father? First of two.
  ***Baby Toolkit is an ongoing conversation of at least one Midwestern geek parent with the rest of the world. Jim and I also discuss board game communities at We are Amazon affiliates, so should you purchase anything using our links, we earn a very small portion of those puchases. We promise to use it for good, not evil. Thanks for reading. It means a lot to us.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Horrible Beauty: Get In Trouble today

There's nothing like an election season to turn my thoughts to horror. Instinctively, I load up on horror movies and fiction to dull the truly ugly realities of the American political system.*

So, as the elections rage on, I've watched everything from Z-Nation (zombies killed with giant wheel of cheese) to the quietly paced, theologically-delving, Colonial American The Witch to the contemporary Irish new-to-a-weird-rural-village, The Hallow. I've been reading lots of extremely short stories to find addictive little bits to use in my fall classes, so I was quite intrigued when someone referenced Kelly Link's short story collection Get In Trouble.

I read the entire collection in less than 24 hours- which, with three young kids, means giving up my steady nighttime commitment of Netflix and shirking even more household duties than normal.

As a horror story reader, I love experiencing the story unfolding unspoiled before me-- so I will stick to generalities.

I loved Link's old-school perspective which expertly wields the unseen, the looming, and the quite-possibly-only-imagined.  Kelly Link reminds me of the mid-century British writer John Wyndham- who wrote the books behind Village of the Damned (The Midwich Cuckoos) and 28 Days Later (Day of the Triffids)-- among others.

Kelly Link is a skilled world-builder. Her stories bear no consistent locale, time period, or reality. This collection includes an on-location ghost-hunting reality show in Florida swampland, contemporary Appalachia, a future where bored children of the uber-wealthy commission full-scale pyramid tombs, a colonizing mission to Mars, and two of the world's most logical horror settings-- high school and hometown reunions. With a beautiful playfulness, Link sometimes allows the details of one fantastic place to appear in another, slightly-related story. Like the breaking of the fourth wall in film, these details play with the form and the medium.

Link's fiction gets in your head and under your skin without resorting to the merely sensational and repulsive. It lurks and insinuates making shadows shift in even the brightest landscapes.

Link's detail is measured- not overreaching, but fully drawn- and exacting- leaving jeweled details that rewards the observant reader.

The opening story, "The Summer People," immediately sent up red flags with me. Its Appalachian setting with poor characters and vernacular speech took the story toward a place where most writers should never go. I wasn't sure I was going to make it to the end of the first story-- much less the second story, but Link didn't allow her story to be consumed by stereotypes. All my trepidation dissipated when the too-familiar elements reassembled into a new nightmare carefully wrought from ancient lore.

All but one of Link's stories clearly center around young female characters, but they're not lambs waiting for the slaughter (or salvation). These wily women carve their own destinies. It's refreshing- even though the charater's outcomes vary wildly.

For a tiny taste of the stories:  "I Can See Right Through You" involves a ghost hunting reality show at the site of the mysterious 1974 disappearance of twenty-two nudists. "Secret Identity" reveals side-by-side hotel conventions of superheroes and dentists, a 15-year-old girl who finds her own yearning and authenticity in a MMORPG, and figuring out who you are when you just don't fit anywhere.

"The Valley of the Girls" takes readers to a world where the profoundly wealthy in a neo-Egyptian trend build competing pyramids for their teenage children."Origin Story" makes sly references to superhero tropes introduced in "Secret Identity," but is a stand-alone tale with entirely different motives. "Two Houses" involves campfire storytelling aboard a exploratory spaceship headed to the nearest Goldilocks planet.

The book has nine stories in all, and I loved each one. If you like horror and seeing new stories borne from old ones, this book is for you.

To which fantastic worlds are you escaping?

If you want to see what I'm reading, friend me on Goodreads.

*Please note: I'm discouraged, but not politically disengaged. To the contrary, I'm politically active year-round- so much that my state house representative has blocked me on Twitter. I'm just so disappointed to see my fellow citizens with convictions not vote or others voting without a thought for the long-term implications. I love public education and public libraries. We all need to vote to protect these things-- they are increasingly endangered by for-profit interests.

***Baby Toolkit is an almost decade-long conversation between some geeky Midwestern parents and other netizens. We love and talk games and gaming communities at our Great Big Table podcast. We're so unaffiliated with the publishers of Get in Trouble that the copy we read came from our AWESOME local library, but we are Amazon affiliates-- so if you buy anything through our Amazon links, a small portion of the sale comes back to us where it might be spent on domain names, an increasingly feeble DSL connection, or world domination. Thanks for reading. We love you.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Droopy Drawers No More: A No-Sew Solution for Too-Big Pants On Kids

Recently saw this on super board game reviewer's TheOneTAR's Twitter* feed:

I totally relate.  We've been using this hack for almost a decade, and I took these pictures a year ago.

In honor of the awesome new Parent Hacks book, let me show you how to Loose Pants with a Mitten Clip

as referenced in hack #62- Tighten Pants with Elastic.

If you happen to have skinny kids, this might just change you life a little.

Use one mitten clip (Midwesterners- I found a bunch of these at Meijer on winter clearance). Shorter elastics work better than long ones- so go for kids' size. While mitten clips come in a million designs and colors, I have a few solid basics because they were on clearance.

Starting at the side seam on the waistband, place clip around one third of the way between the side and the back seam. Clip the other end on the pants symmetrically on the other side.

Voila. Pants that stay up! Even on skinny kids!

Remember to remove clip before laundering. The one in the picture went through the wash (see the stretching on the left side?).

What have you hacked lately?

*Be my Twitter friend? @babytoolkit 

***Baby Toolkit is the brain dump of some Midwestern parents trying to keep everyone's pants up and shoes tied on life's grand journey. While our babies grew into various sizes of kids, we're still talking about parenting and families. We also podcast about board games and communities at We're Amazon affiliates, so if you buy anything through our links, a small percentage of you purchase goes to our future adventures!  Many thanks for reading- and a big 5 five for reading the fine print, you're our kind of people!

Monday, April 18, 2016

10 Years in the Trenches: Parent Hacks, the book


Ranger turned 10 last year. And this blog will turn 10 in August. But it took the publication of a book to make me realize I've been a parent to young children for 10 years.

Though I helped Asha winnow down the hacks to include in the book, it wasn't until I held the final book in my hands that the story of my family using many of those hacks played out in my head.

I'm not usually sentimental. When my kids started morning out programs, preschool, and Kindergarten, I usually celebrated their new beginnings when others might mourn the closing of a chapter. Maybe that's the gift of having more kids than hands, with each stage's ending I'm often quite thankful we all survived it.

But when I flipped through this concise, lovely highlight of the blog, I felt the past-- struggles and successes-- as I remembered. With different hacks, I found myself remembering their contributors-- people like Jeremiah & Jenni from Z Recommends, Homa, AJ from Thingamababy, Anne Nahm, and Adjunct Mom.

And Asha-- ringmaster, wizard of kindness-- was always there to encourage. I remember so keenly how she said that her second baby was easier than the first. These were my colleagues, inspirations, and co-conspirators who reminded me I wasn't alone-- even if was 3:30 in the morning unable to sleep after some middle of the night chaos.

The memories- the shared revelations- the friendships. Suddenly, I saw clearly a community that encouraged and inspired.

One of the earliest hacks I remember using was Sharpie-ing my phone number on toddler Ranger's belly for an expedition to the enormous Georgia Aquarium while I was whale-like pregnant with Scout. It sounds silly now, but I don't know that I would have had the courage to go alone without that hack. And when he scampered through a crawling under-aquarium viewing tunnel swept up in a mass of preschool kids, I panicked less- because we had a safety net. We had so much fun that day, and I don't know that I've ever told anyone this- I later realized that I'd written my HOME phone number for an empty house in Indiana on his belly. But we survived without incident- and maybe that was the greatest lesson of the day.

When I got to page 210-- Uses for a Vinyl Tablecloth, I started to cry because illustrator Craighton Berman coincidentally drew my car in the hack. I don't know that the 2007 post showed enough of my car to reveal its overall shape, but to see the illustration show our car that carried my two oldest throughout their baby years just made me lose it. So mysteriously, incidentally, and curiously personal-- so much like my feelings for ParentsHacks overall.

This new Parent Hacks book is a shining beacon of 10 years of parenting creativity, compassion, discovery, and inspiration. It's like a master's class in surviving the chaos and challenges with a sense of humor, adventure, and fellowship. I am so thrilled that all the goodness is out there in a format that invites new people into the conversation. I'm also thrilled to see the conversation continue on the web site and throughout social media with the #parenthacks.

Someday, I hope to sit down for tea with Asha and find the words to thank her for the warm, friendly space she created for all of us in the trenches.

May you also find new joy, courage, and inspiration (and/or old memories) in this marvelous book.

If you want to join the conversation NOW, Asha has two virtual book tour stops on the Internet today and tomorrow:

***Baby Toolkit is the ongoing chronicle of a Hoosier family with the good luck of great communities of friends and mentors. Adrienne did help with a very early editing of the Parent Hacks' book, but my opinions here are unprompted and uncompensated. We are Amazon affiliates, so a portion of purchases there after using are links goes to fund present and future Jones endeavors.