Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A single pebble

The Silk road was a series of 4000 miles (6,437 km) of trade routes connecting China to the Mediterranean Sea and gets its name from the Chinese silk trade carried out along its length beginning in the Han Dynasty around 206 BC.  

In A Single Pebble: A Story of the Silk Road by Bonnie Christensen, a little girl, Mei, wants to travel with her father along the Silk Road to trade.  When he refuses, she asks him to carry a jade pebble with him as a gift for a child at the end of the road.  Her father laughs and tells her that he doesn't travel that far, but she insists that everything is possible. When her father gets to town, he tells his daughter's story to a Buddhist monk traveling west.  The monk agrees to take the pebble with him on his voyage and passes the jade pebble and his wooden flute to a sandalwood trader along with the message that it is a "gift for a child at the end of the road."  The sandalwood trader puts the flute and the pebble in a carved sandalwood box and passes the treasures along to a family of acrobats traveling to Baghdad.  The little girl in the traveling family adds a small carved elephant as her contribution to the box.  A thief is pressured to add a stick of cinnamon to the box, but has the box stolen by a pirate while traveling by boat to Italy.  However, the pirate has a family and he brings the box home to his son in Torcello, Italy making Mei's wish comes true; her pebble is "a gift for a child at the end of the road."

The frontispiece of  A Single Pebble: A Story of the Silk Road has a map of the Silk Road at the time the story takes place (9th century) and identifies the portion of the route traveled by each character.  The endpaper contains a modern map which was great for comparison purposes. We spent a lot of time talking about why names and boarders change and the different countries that were part of the Silk Road.  We also talked about why it took an entire year for the jade pebble to travel to the end of the road.  With modern planes and cars, the concept of walking or riding a horse for 4000 miles was a bit mind-boggling for my children.

We really enjoyed the connectedness in the book.  Each traveler adds a gift to the box which ends up containing things representing the five senses, important to every traveler to truly experience their journey! The present that Mei's father brings back for her when he returns from his trip originated in Italy at the other end of the Silk Road, so gifts actually went to a child on the East and West ends of the route.

Children have always enjoyed sending things to the "end of the road," from bottles with notes dropped in the sea, to letter boxes and geocaching. Both of my boys received geocache travelers for Christmas and they've been officially launched, we'll see if they make it to "the end of the road."  A Single Pebble: A Story of the Silk Road was full of the what ifs and the adventures that an object could have as it takes a journey and made my children excited about both sending an object on a journey as well as planning their own travels.

It is still possible to travel along the Silk Road though parts of it are in countries that are currently unstable. Several travel agencies specialize in arranging travel along all or part of the road and given that you cross more than 9 countries and encounter about 20 different nationalities and ethnic groups if you travel the whole route, it makes sense to have assistance with the planning and visas.  If you're looking for something a little more accessible, there is currently an exhibition on the Silk Road at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Who's that knocking on Christmas Eve?

We love Jan Brett's books.  They are such great stories for reading aloud and the illustrations always provide so much for discussion. My children particularly like the sidebars which foreshadow what is going on with the other characters in the story.  Who's That Knocking on Christmas Eve? retells an old Scandinavian folktale in which a pack of trolls eats a family out of house and home every Christmas.  In this version, a boy from Finnmark, the northernmost and easternmost county in Norway is skiing to Oslo with his polar bear. Skiing or hiking through the mountains from hut to hut is a popular pasttime and if you're interested, have a look at the huts managed by Den Norske Turistforening (The Norwegian Trekking Association).  They offer guided tours and suggestions for independent trekking, though most people do not usually ski or hike the length of the country!

The boy from Finnmark sees smoke curling up from a hut far in the distance and he skis toward it hoping for a bite to eat and a warm place to sleep for the night.  Little does he know that he's not the only one who notices the smoke!  Kyri is busy preparing Christmas dinner and hoping that the trolls leave them alone this year when she hears a knock on the door.  She welcomes the boy from Finnmark, but warns him that there may be trolls.  In fact, her father is up in the mountains hoping to stop the trolls and chase them off.

Glad to be warm, the polar bear crawls under the stove and falls asleep.  Just as Kyri and the boy from Finnmark are settling down to eat, the trolls arrive and Kyri and the boy from Finnmark quickly escape to the animal shed, leaving the polar bear asleep under the stove.  The trolls are initially content to just eat until they are stuffed, but eventually go looking for trouble.  One of them spies the "kitty" asleep under the stove and pokes the bear with a hot piece of sausage.  With a roar, the polar bear leaps up and chases the trolls out of the hut.  Hearing the noise, Kyri's father quickly skis home.  He thanks the boy from Finnmark and invites him back next year on his return from Oslo.  All is calm until the following year when the littlest troll stops Kyri to ask about the kitty that sleeps under the stove....

While Norwegians don't live in log cabins like Kyri's anymore, you can can see similar types at the Norwegian Folk museum in Oslo.  You can also experience traveling through the mountains (though perhaps not as far as the boy from Finnmark) and staying in huts and mountain hotels on trails maintained by the Norwegian Trekking Association.  Even if you're not up to going from hut to hut, they are great places for families to stay for day trips and more local explorations.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Race of the Birkebeiners

The Race of the Birkebeiners, written by Lise Lunge-Larsen and illustrated by Mary Azarian is based on a saga from 1264 of the rescue of young prince Håkon, the most powerful king that Norway had during the Middle Ages.  The woodcut illustrations capture the time period beautifully along with the emotions of the various participants.

The Birkebeiners were peasants and fierce warriors in the Middle Ages loyal to the King.  They were known as Birkebeiners for the birch leggings they wrapped around their legs for protection when they went into battle in contrast to the wealthy nobles who had metal armor.  Prince Håkon was born three weeks after death of his father, King Haakon Sverresson,  in 1204, and the Birkebeiners’ rivals, the wealthy Baglers, attempted to claim the throne for themselves.  The Queen, Inge, hid Prince Håkon for over a year, but as the Baglers became stronger, she fled North trying to reach the stronghold of the Birkebeiners in Nidaros where the Birkebeiners could help her protect her son.  Eight Birkebeiners joined her in Lillehammer as they prepared to cross the mountains at the darkest, coldest and most dangerous time of the year when hosts of evil spirits roamed the land.   Even though they make it through storms and harrowing nights to Nidaros, the story doesn't end there...

This is one of the first stories we have disagreed about as a family.  I found it a little dry and was not sure it deserved a place on the blog, but my boys asked for it to be read to them over and over again. From their perspective what's not to like?  Warring factions, escaping over the mountains, hiding in the snow, and everything works out in the end!

The Race of the Birkebeiners has turned into an annual event in both Norway and the U.S. with individuals in both races skiing 54 km (33mi). In Norway, the Birkebeinerrennet takes place from Rena to Lillehammer and in the U.S. it takes place in Hayward, Wisconsin through the American Birkebeiner Ski Association.

Nedros, or Trondheim, where Inga and young prince Håkon fled for safety, was founded in 997 and was the first capital of Norway.  It is currently the third most populous urban area in Norway and there is a lot to see and do there for families with children including the Sverresborg Open Air Museum of Cultural History, and the Archbishop's Palace Museum  on one end of the spectrum and Pirbadet water park and  Rockheim, which showcases Norwegian Rock and Roll music from the 1950s to the present, on the other. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Tree Lady

The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever written by H. Joseph Hopkins and illustrated by Jill McElmurry tells the story of a rebellious little girl who managed to change the way people thought and viewed the world.

Katherine Olivia Sessions loved plants and forests.  In the 1860s, she explored, got dirty and generally did things that proper young ladies weren't supposed to do at the time.  Her hard work and perseverance made her the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a degree in science.  She took her love of science and the outdoors when she moved to San Diego where she worked as a teacher and vice principal at the local school.

At the time she arrived, San Diego was a desert town.  Kate missed the trees of her native Northern California, but knew they would not survive in the desert.  So leaving her job as a teacher, she became a "tree hunter" travelling and writing to gardeners all over the world, looking for trees that liked hot, dry weather and would thrive in the arid climate of San Diego.

According to the Author's note, in 1892 Kate made a deal with city leaders to use part of the land in City Park (now Balboa Park) for a nursery.  In exchange she planted one hundred trees in the park every year and gave the city 300 more trees for planting in other places. By the early 1900s, one in four trees growing in San Diego came from Kate's nursery which at its height contained more than 20,000 plants.

In 1909, the city announced that the Panama-California Exposition would be held in 1915 in San Diego's Balboa Park.  Kate thought the park still needed thousands of trees.  With a team of volunteers, she planted, and planted, and planted.  When the fair opened, millions of trees and plants filled Balboa Park and people were amazed that such a dry climate could support such wonderful gardens.

This is a great book about an important figure in San Diego's history.   I loved the recurring theme of overcoming obstacles with each page ending with "but Kate did." It's a great book on perseverance and doing what you love.

Balboa Park is a living memorial to all of Kate's hard work and is definitely on the must see list for any trip to San Diego.  Along with its gardens and enormous variety of trees, shrubs and flowers, Balboa Park is home to 15 major museums, several performing arts venues, a carousel, miniature railroad, and of course the famous San Diego Zoo.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Balloons over Broadway

Puppets and parades, what's not to like? Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade  by Melissa Sweet, tells the story of Tony Sarg, the man who created the first balloons for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.

In our house, we can certainly relate to kids who are always designing and making things and trying to get out of chores is certainly universal, but I don't think my son's inventions have been as practical as Tony's design for feeding the chickens.  Inspired by the desire to stay in bed longer, Tony rigged pulleys and rope so that he could feed the chickens without getting up.  Our attempts to design things with pulleys and ropes have been entertaining, but not particularly useful!

As a grownup, Tony designed amazing marionettes and had a show, "Tony Sarg's Marionettes," which traveled throughout the U.S.  Learning of his puppets, Macy's asked Tony to design puppets for Macy's holiday windows.  Based on storybook characters, he attached the puppets to gears and pulley's that made them dance across the windows.  He was then asked to help with the first Macy's parade which was intended for the employees who missed their own holiday traditions.  Tony created costumes and horse-drawn floats and Macy's even arranged to bring in animals from the zoo.  The parade was such a success that Macy's agreed to have one every year.  Each year the parade grew bigger and bigger and eventually some of the live animals were deemed too scary so Macy's looked around for something to replace the animals, something that would be spectacular.

Tony wanted to create puppets for the parade, but his marionettes were little, less than three feet tall, far too small to be used in a parade.  Inspired by Indonesian rod puppets, he deigned air-filled rubber bags that were propped up by wooden sticks.  Big hot air puppets are so standard in large parades now; it's hard to remember that they're a relatively recent  invention.  The wooden stick puppets Tony initially designed were a success, but they still weren't big enough or high enough for the huge crowds to see.  The next year, he designed balloons out of rubberized silk filled with helium, upside down marionettes!  With more than a little trepidation, he released the balloons and they sailed past Central Park, down Broadway, ending in front of Macy's and big gas filled balloons have been part of the Thanksgiving parade tradition ever since.

The Macy's day parade first started in 1924 and now more than 3 million people line the parade route and 44 million people watch the televised event every year.  You can watch the balloon inflation the night before near the Museum of Natural History starting at 79th street and Columbus Ave.  The Parade route runs 2 and 1/2 miles starting at 77th and Central Park West and ending at Macy's Herald Square.  If you're in New York around Thanksgiving, it certainly is an event not to be missed!  Even if you're not there over Thanksgiving, you can walk the route and see the sights mentioned in the book.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Ollie's Ski Trip

Everyone on our family skies and my youngest is finally old enough to start.  Last year when he was two, we tried him on skis a few times, but his knees were not quite developed enough so "skiing" consisted of my husband or I hauling him up the bunny slope and catching him at the bottom.  After a few days he didn't want to ski anymore and I must admit I was a bit disappointed.  Were we going to have a non-skier in the family? All he wanted to do was hang out at the bottom of the ski lift and watch the other skiers.  Après-ski for the 2 year old set? Sigh.

After a few days of watching, he still wasn't interested in skiing and we finally talked to him about it.  It turned out that it wasn't that he wasn't interested in skiing, but that he had decided he was done with the bunny slope and wanted to go up with the big kids.  We gently explained that he needed to learn how to stop before he could go on the ski lift....

To help get him excited and interested again this year, we have been reading lots of books on skiing and skiing adventures.  One of our favorites is   Ollie's Ski Trip by Elsa Beskow.   The book was originally written in 1907 and the illustrations reflect the story's age, but the story itself is timeless and the old fashioned illustrations only add to the story's charm.  As the book starts off, Ollie has just received his first pair of skis for his sixth birthday.  Of course that year winter was late and Ollie waited and waited for there to be enough snow for him to try out his new skis.  Finally, just before Christmas there was enough snow for Ollie to go skiing and he couldn't wait.  His mother tried to slow him down, making him eat his breakfast and finish getting dressed before heading out (my kids have been known to run out into the snow in bare feet too).

Shortly after he heads out, Ollie runs into Jack Frost who invites him to visit King Winter's palace.  As they set off, they bump into Mrs. Thaw who starts melting the snow much to Ollie's dismay.  Jack Frost chases her off and tells Ollie that he should use his skis everyday just in case she comes back.

King Winter's palace is guarded by two very friendly polar bears.  Once inside, King Winter quizzes Ollie about all of the winter sports he plays.  Ollie is very earnest in his declaration that he knows how to toboggan "Head first and feet first and sideways, too!" As he wanders through the palace he finds little people making ski boots, knitting thick socks, knitting ski-mitts and building skis, toboggans, sledges and skates just in time for Christmas.  When a gong sounds, all of the children rush outside to play in the snow skiing, skating, sledding, snowball fights, etc.  They manage to do everything before it is time for Ollie to head back with Jack Frost. Everyday for the rest of winter, Ollie and his brother go outside and tell Mrs. Thaw to keep away and they're a little disappointed when spring finally arrives.  Next winter!

Not only do we read books about locations we visit, but also activities we intend to perform while there.  A lot of activities are self explanatory, but if you're starting something new, a story can help your child understand what to expect as well as prime their imaginations for the next adventure you are taking together.  Ollie's Ski Trip will help your child prepare for their own adventures as you explore a snow covered landscape together.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Case that Time Forgot

We stumbled upon this great series while we were on vacation and my boys have been devouring this audiobook as fast as we can listen, wanting to play them even for short errands across town.  We have found that audiobooks, particularly mysteries, are great at creating focus in kids who otherwise seem to have very short attention spans.  Challenging everyone in the car to figure out the mystery as a team compels them to actually listen closely to the whole story, ask questions and pose hypotheses.  It can be a great family collaboration, sibling strife preventer, and productive training device.  We can literally get two continuous hours of focus (aka “relative peace”) on family road trips listening to mystery audiobooks.

The Case That Time Forgot (Sherlock Files) by Tracy Barrett is the third in the series about Xena and Xander Holmes, the great-great-great grandchildren of Sherlock Holmes who have inherited his book of unsolved cases and are determined to crack the mysteries that defeated Sherlock Holmes.  Despite the fact that the crime involved happened more than 100 years earlier, Xena and Xander are determined to put together the clues with a little help from modern technology and the SPFD (Society for the Preservation of Famous Detectives).  Much to their frustration, they aren't allowed to solve mysteries full time, but have to juggle school, social conflicts, homework, and parents!

The Case That Time Forgot is an enjoyable read, with enough allusions to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes to bring back fond memories for a grownup.  It's also a great source of inspiration for places to visit in London.  You'd of course want to visit The Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b Baker Street, and the story takes you to a combination of indoor and outside sites such as the Clockmakers' Museum at GuildhallCleopatra's NeedleThe Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, and Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster.  It would be a lot of fun to try and solve some of the clues and visit the sites as the story develops, introducing children to history as well as a scavenger hunt.