Great Juvenile Books for Adults and Kids Alike

I love to read. To the point that I sometimes DON’T read simply because I know it can consume my time. However, in the last couple months, I’ve really gotten into some great books because my husband loves to read at night and I found it very boring to not have something to read as well.  It all started one day when I was at the library with my children and I was helping my daughter find a book to read.  

While in the Juvenile Fiction section, I found what looked like a promising good book.  I enjoy basic fantasy and thought it would be good to grab an easy read.  What I didn’t expect was that I would LOVE the book and get hooked on Juvenile Fiction.  

Since then, I have read literally dozens of Juvenile Fiction books, many of which I have recommended to my children or friends’ children to read.  Now I’d like to recommend them to you.

What I love about these books is that they are CLEAN.  No language, no impropriety, nothing that I would not want my children to read.  Nothing that I wouldn’t want to read outloud to them.  I love that.  These are good books written for the sake of the story, not for selling something else.  Not for making children grow up too fast, but allowing them to be lost within another world that, as parents, we don’t mind them getting lost in.  

I hope from this list, you can find a great book too.

The Land of Stories–Chris Colfer

  • The Wishing Spell
  • The Enchantress Returns
  • A Grimm Warning

The Unwanteds–Lisa McMann

  • The Unwanteds
  • Island of Silence
  • Island of Fire
  • Island of Legends
  • Island of Shipwrecks
  • Island of Graves

Wings of Fire Series–Tui T. Sutherland

  • The Drangonet Prophecy
  • The Lost Heir
  • The Hidden Kingdom
  • The Dark Secret
  • The Brightest Night
  • Moon Rising
  • Winter Turning

The Ascendance Trilogy–Jennifer A. Nielsen

  • The False Prince
  • The Runaway King
  • The Shadow Throne

The Menagerie–Tui T. Sutherland

  • The Menagerie
  • Dragon on Trial
  • Krakens and Lies

The Silver Bowl Series–Diane Stanley

  • The Silver Bowl
  • The Cup and the Crown
  • The Princess of Cortova

Phoenix Rising Trilogy–Erica Verrillo

  • Elissa’s Quest
  • Elissa’s Odyssey
  • At World’s End

The House of Secrets Series–Chris Columbus & Ned Vizzini

  • The House of Secrets
  • Battle of the Beasts

The Map to Everywhere–Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis

Bella at Midnight–Diane Stanley

The Princess of the Wild Swans–Diane Zahler

Sleeping Beauty’s Daughter–Diane Zahler

The Thirteenth Princess–Diane Zahler

Ivy’s Ever After–Dawn Lairamore

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Toulane–Kate DiCamillo

Rump–Liesl Shurtliff

My other favorite books are by Shannon Hale, but she isn’t a Juvenile Fiction author, rather a Young Adult.  I still love these books and how clean they are.  They just may be a little harder for young readers to enjoy, depending on the child.

The Princess Academy Series

  • The Princess Academy
  • Palace of Stone
  • The Forgotten Sisters

Goose Girl Series

  • Goose Girl
  • Enna Burning
  • River Secrets
  • Forest Born

When I see them listed out like that, not only am I amazed at how many books I’ve read in the last year, but I also am filled with warm memories of incredible books transporting me to a new world.  I am sure there are several more that I’ve forgotten about, but that’s okay.  When I discover them again, it’ll be like meeting an old friend.

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Home Remedy for Fungus and Warts

Seven years ago, I got a pedicure.  And a foot fungus.  I will never forget the day because it was the day my daughter was born.  Shortly thereafter, I noticed 7 of my toenails turning ugly colors.  All fell off…except one.  And that one has been the bane of my existence ever since.  I have tried everything…and nothing seemed to work.

Several months ago, I noticed a huge wart on the bottom of my daughter’s foot.  It got to the point where it was so big, it hurt when she walked.  I didn’t know how to treat it, so we just ignored it.  But I knew I had to figure something out.

In my attempt to find a solution to my toenail problem, I read a lot of articles, forums, and advice about using apple cider vinegar, putting different creams and ointments on, and other techniques which, oddly enough, are also recommended for getting rid of warts.

I did find that Vick’s Vapo Rub worked really well for keeping it under control (as well as helping with my incredibly dry and cracked feet), but it didn’t solve my problem.

Then, one day, I read about using a Clorox Bleach Pen on the fungus.  The reasoning: bleach kills fungus.  Duh.  Okay, I can try that.  I did a few bleach soaks first but they made my foot itch and burn.  The bleach pen would solve that problem, so I ran out and got one.  I got one that has a fine tip at one end and a brush on the other.  

I used the brush and painted bleach all over my toenail.  I did this for a couple days and pretty soon noticed that my toe was looking better than it had in years.  I’ll admit, though, that it isn’t better, because I’ll also admit that I am TERRIBLE when it comes to doing medications and treatments consistently.  I am definitely good at symptomatic treatments, but not consistent ones. Still, the improvement was permanent and I have not had the problems with my toe that I had before.  I know that if I am consistent, it will get all the way better.  

However, I also now had a new weapon in my arsenal.  So when I was wondering how to treat my daughter’s wart several months later, I thought of the bleach pen.  I whipped it out one morning, and scrubbed some on her foot.  I am not kidding when I say that she had this wart for a good 4-5 months.  And the next day, it was almost completely GONE!  I put more on tonight and I expect that with a couple more applications, it will be gone for good.  I am amazed.  Not surprised, but amazed.

So if you have a stubborn wart or fungus that you are having a hard time beating, give this a try.  It just might work for you too.

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A New Perspective, Part 2

A few days ago, I posted about gaining a new perspective on housekeeping.  After writing that, I started thinking that there should be a follow up.  A Part 2.  Because the opposite can happen as well.

Let me explain.  How much time do you spend online everyday?  How many hours a day is your TV on?  If your choices for “How Active are You?” are extremely active, moderately active, not very active, and couch potato, what is your answer?  How much did you exercise this week?  How many sweets did you eat this week?  Most of us lie to ourselves about these things every day.  We think we are better than we are.  Maybe it is because we don’t want to know the truth, or maybe it is because we wish the truth was different.  

So what does this have to do with housekeeping?  A lot of the time, I find that we stab ourselves in the back by having the wrong perspective about how much time things really take.  Have you ever gone to bed thinking “I’ll do the dishes in the morning”?  We’re not here to discuss how depressing it is to get up to a messy house in the morning.  But if you’ve ever done this, then you know how much harder it is to rinse those dishes with everything caked on from sitting overnight.  You could do it tonight in 20 minutes, or you’ll spend an hour on it tomorrow.

What about the laundry?  Would you rather take 10 minutes today to fold it and put it away, or 2 hours on Saturday when you have a million other things to do?  

How about starting dinner?  You could take 5 minutes in the morning and pull something out of the freezer, pop something in the CrockPot, or start chopping…or you could wait until 5 pm when your children are starving and you really don’t feel like making a darn thing for those ungrateful…

Do you see what I’m saying?  I think half the reason keeping up a house and raising a family and taking care of everyone’s needs can be so overwhelming is that we do it to ourselves.  We put off until later what can be done now.  Put first things first, begin with the end in mind, be proactive…these are the habits of highly effective people, and highly effective homes.

Instead of looking at how much has to get done, or how long everything is going to take, tell yourself you’re just going to take a couple minutes to get these few things taken care of in the morning before you hop on FB or head out for playgroup.  They don’t take long, but will save you a lot of time and frustration in the long run.

  • Get dressed and do your hair and makeup
  • Clean up breakfast and rinse dishes
  • Sweep the floor
  • Start a load of dishes
  • Get something started for dinner, if applicable.  If you don’t know what is for dinner yet, plan it.
  • Pop a load of laundry in the washer/dryer
  • Sort a load of laundry from the dryer into bins for kids to fold and put away after school
  • Fold your laundry and put it away
  • Go through each main room and spend 1 minute picking up the toys, trash, stuff, and junk that has landed there.
  • Now get on with your day.

I know that list looks long.  But like the post from a couple days ago said, you’d be surprised how little time that actually takes.  What is likely to take the longest is getting dressed and ready for the day.  Do this first thing and you’ll never find yourself embarrassed opening the door to a stranger while still in your pajamas without a bra on.

Besides the getting dressed and ready part, let’s estimate how much time it REALLY takes to do the rest of the list.

Clean up breakfast and rinse dishes–10 minutes, tops–this includes putting everything away, rinsing, loading, and cleaning off the table/countertops
Sweep the floor–3 minutes–we’re not talking a deep sweep, but a clean up what got dropped during breakfast or what mess you made while making it.
Start a load of dishes–3 minutes tops if you weren’t loading earlier
Get something started for dinner, if applicable. If you don’t know what is for dinner yet, plan it.–5-10 minutes
Pop a load of laundry in the washer/dryer–2 minutes.  Really, it does not take much time to put laundry in or move laundry to the dryer.
Sort a load of laundry from the dryer into bins for kids to fold and put away after school–5 minutes tops, since it is just one load.
Fold YOUR laundry and put it away–8 minutes
Go through each main room and spend 1 minute picking up the toys, trash, stuff, and junk that has landed there.–Depends on how many rooms you have, but lets say 10 minutes tops.

So, in less than an hour, you have: cleaned up the kitchen, started dinner, started, switched, sorted, folded, and put away laundry, and tidied up the house.  Plus you look good to boot.  

OR, you can let breakfast sit on the table until lunch or even dinner, and then spend a lot more time trying to get the oatmeal which has permanently adhered itself off the table, the chair, and the floor, not to mention the bowls and spoons which will each take not just scrubbing, but soaking.  And you can let the laundry pile up and up and up until you wonder if they’ll ever find your body beneath it all.  And you can feed your kids cereal for dinner yet again because you didn’t plan anything.  And you can get frustrated at your kids and yourself for living in a pigsty.  And to top it all off, you can look like the mom you swore you’d never look like while you’re at it because you never got dressed this week until 4 pm.

Don’t you love it when people paint the bleak picture of what could be if you don’t follow their advice?  So forget all that and just remember that there is no greater blessing than to be a parent, a mother, a spouse, to have a home to take care of.  It isn’t supposed to be easy, but it sure is worth it.  Perhaps with a new perspective, you can even find there is so much joy to be had, even in the housekeeping.  Even in the laundry.  Even in the cooking.  

So start tomorrow with a new determination to take less than one hour first thing in the morning (I do it right after I drop my kids off at school…except I always get dressed before leaving my room in the morning) and start your day off on the right foot.  You’ll be glad you did.  And you’ll realize, it really doesn’t take that long.

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A New Perspective on Housekeeping

Have you ever sat at a red light and waited, and waited, and waited.  Like for 5 minutes sitting at that red light, while you get more and more frustrated at how LONG the light is?  Have you ever actually watched the clock as you sit at that really long red light?  

One time I did that and I was amazed to find that what felt like 5 full minutes was actually 90 seconds.  Knowing it was less than 2 minutes of my life made it a lot easier to just sit the 90 seconds patiently the next time.  

Sometimes (actually MOST of the time) our perspective has a huge part to play in our attitude and our our ability to accomplish tasks.  When we feel they are insurmountable, extremely time exhaustive, overwhelming, etc., then we are far less inclined to dive in.  How often have to tried to clean your entire house and started with the easiest room and never gotten to the ones that are actually the problem?  (At least my closet is clean…but really?  Who is ever going to notice?)

I am a big cook.  What I mean by that is I LOVE to cook and therefore very few meals are simple.  I can easily turn a completely clean kitchen into a warzone, having used every pot, pan, measuring cup in sight.  By the time we sit down to dinner, the sinks are overflowing and the counters are full.  Then we eat.  There are 7 of us in our family, so add to the pile 7 plates, 7 forks, 7 cups…and possibly bowls, spoons, small plates, etc.  Not to mention the serving dishes because I almost never serve out of the same pan I cooked it in.  So all those serving dishes and utensils.  What about when we have company?  Just multiply the mess exponentially and you can start to envision the state of my kitchen when we’re done eating.

I used to stare at that mound of dishes and feel overwhelmed.  Especially if the dishwasher was full (clean, but not unloaded).  Because then I had to UNLOAD first and then rinse and load.  

One day, I decided to time how long it actually took me to unload.  Do you know what?  Two minutes.  Two minutes to unload everything and put it all away.  Sure, I wasn’t dilly dallying and I wasn’t being assaulted by a toddler while doing it.  But still, knowing it only took 2 minutes sure changed how I felt about it.  

Then I timed how long it actually took me to rinse a huge pile of dishes.  10 minutes.  Done.  

Now to load.  Three minutes.  Finished.  

Sure, the sink is still full of dishes for one more load, but they are all rinsed and ready to go, so I will then spend another 2 minutes unloading and another 3 loading again…FIVE minutes.  That’s it.  In total, it will have taken me 20 minutes to tackle all those dishes.

So what does perspective have to do with housekeeping?  A lot.  When you feel overwhelmed and overcome by the messes before you, it is easy to feel bogged down by them because it FEELS like it will take forever to tackle them.  But when you realize just how many minutes it really translates to, it makes it a lot easier to start.  

For me, dishes and cleaning the kitchen are no longer overwhelming, no matter the size of the mess.  

Perhaps your method needs tweaking and finding a new way of doing things would tremendously help.  I used to be overwhelmed by all the laundry, but a new system fixed that quick and now laundry is something I actually…enjoy.

Or maybe a new way of facing the cleaning head on.  Have you ever set a timer and cleaned a room?  Do you know how much you can get done in 10 minutes?  5?  3?  I used to do 10 minutes, but there are too many rooms in my new home to be able to actually finish the house in the time I have while my girls are at school.  So I dropped it to 5.  Now, I’ve dropped it to 3.  I can accomplish a TON in 3 minutes (not in the kitchen, so that one still gets 10).  Three minutes can mean the whole room is picked up, the floor is swept or vacuumed, the couch cushions are arranged, the beds are made, the laundry is started, the toilets are cleaned.

So the next time you start cleaning your house, grab a timer.  Set it for 5 minutes (to start) and go as quickly as you can.  You just might be amazed at how much you can do…and how much easier keeping up with the housework can be.

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Homemade Pizza/Pizza Casera
(Español abajo)

My son is in Colombia and requested that I share our family pizza recipe with some of the people he has met there.  So I’m going to post it here first in English then in Spanish.

homemade pizza

I like to use whole white wheat for a whole grain crust that is not too heavy.  All-purpose white flour tastes good, but of course, isn’t as good for you.  You can also put in a fraction of other flours.  I often put oats into my blender to make my own oat flour and add some of that to the dough.  You could even make it gluten free.

Basic Pizza Crust
makes one large crust

1 cup warm water
2 T. sugar or 1 T. honey
1 T. active dry yeast
1 t. salt
2 1/2 cups flour

Add sugar/honey and yeast to the warm water and let sit for 5 or so minutes to activate.  When the mixture is foamy, add the salt and flour.  I also like to sprinkle in a bit of garlic salt or powder and basil or oregano.

Mix well either in a dough mixer or combine with a spoon and then knead by hand.

Preheat oven to 400° F

Use either extra flour or coat dough with oil to keep from sticking.  Spray or grease a large pizza pan or cookie sheet.  You can further protect your dough from sticking, if you like, by sprinkling the pan with corn meal.  Roll dough out first or shape it right in the pan. It may take some stretching as the gluten in the dough is rather elastic, but keep at it as there is plenty of dough to cover one pan.  Otherwise you will have too thick a crust.

Precook your crust for about 5 minutes.  This will prevent soggy crust.

pizza crust

Add sauce as desired.  Sometimes I use a homemade sauce, sometimes something out of a can.  Our favorite toppings include pepperoni, pineapple tidbits, fresh mushrooms, olives, bacon bits, green pepper.  Shredded mozzarella cheese can go under or over toppings.  Sometimes we use some shredded cheddar or parmesan or other Italian cheeses just for a new flavor.  If desired, sprinkle garlic salt and dried basil on top before popping it in the hot oven until the cheese is just how you like it. Some of us like it just melted, some of us prefer the cheese toasted.  The toppings affect how soon the cheese can toast, so if toasting matters to you, take that into consideration if you are sharing a pizza with varied toppings.

You can even make an extra pizza (with the partially pre-baked crust) and save it for another day, I’ve sometimes had them a whole week later and they are still great. A homemade take-n-bake!

pizza--diy take and bake

Pizza Americana Casera

Cuando vivíamos en Peru, mi pizza no salía como sale aquí en los Estados Unidos. No se si es por los ingredientes, el horno, el altitúd (vivíamos en Cajamarca, en los Andes, aquí estamos en los Rockies, pero no tan alto) u otra cosa.  Pero como Ud. conoce bien su propia ciudad y cocina, quizas pueda hacer los cambios a la receta que sean necesarios para que la pizza salga como le in Peru

Para hacer pizza americana, se utiliza harina de trigo.  Yo prefiero la harina de trigo integral porque es mas nutritivo, pero como a veces es un poco pesado, se puede mexclarlas tambien.  Aun se puede mexclar un poco de otra harina si quiere, pero el trigo tiene gluten que ayuda que la masa sea elástica.

Masa Para Pizza
se hace una pizza grande

calenta el horno a 200º C

1 taza agua tibia
2 cucharadas azucar o 1 cucharada miel
1 cucharada levadura (activa, seca)
1 cuchara sal
2 1/2 tazas harina

Agrega azucar/miel y levadura al agua tibia y déjala descansar 5 minutos o mas para activar.  Cuando está espumoso, agrega la sal y la mitad de la harina. Tambien me gusta echarle un poco de ajo en polvo o granulado y albahaca o orégano seco. Mexcla bien, agregando mas harina cuando pueda y amasando bien con las manos.

Utiliza harina extra o un poco de aceite para que la masa no pegue.  Echa aceite en el molde para pizza o bandeja de horno.  Para evitar mas que se pegue, se puede esparcir un poco harina de maíz (el tipo mas grueso como para tamales, no muy fino como para pan).

Aplasta la masa con un rodillo de cocina o con las manos y estírala hasta que llegue al tamano del molde o bandeja.  Se puede doblar el borde y formarla como quiera.  

Mete la masa al horno por 5 minutos mas o menos para prevenir una corteza húmeda en el fin.  (No es esencial, pero sale mejor así para mí.)

pizza crust

La salsa típica de la pizza americana es hecha de salsa de tomate con ajo, albahaca, y orégano.  Y sal.  Es igual a la salsa que se pone en espageti que se llama salsa “marinera”.  Se difunde la salsa en una capa delgada por la corteza.  Se esparce queso mozzarella rollada por toda la salsa. Se agregan la coberturas que quiera.  Se ve en mi pizza que a cada miembro de la familia, le gusta algo diferente.  Tenemos pepperoni, piña, champiñones, aceitunas negras, pimentón, y tocino, todo en rodajas or pedacitos.  Cuando tengo muchas coberturas, pongo algunas abajo del queso también.  Házlo como quiera.  Me gusta esparcir la tapa con mas ajo en polvo y albahaca o orégano seco.

Ahora se mete en el horno caliente por 10 o 15 minutos, depende en como le guste. A mí me gusta que el queso queda tostada, pero mi hijo menor prefiere que esté derretido no mas.  Mmmm.

pizza casera

Si tiene alguna crítica de mi español, ayúdame en mi aprendizaje por dejar un “comment” abajo.  Pero si lo tradujo Google, ¡no me quejes!

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Christmas Party Invitation free printable

Christmas is busy enough, but one thing I feel is worth a bit of extra work is getting together with neighbors to remember what Christmas is really about.  Because I want them to know this is special, I want to give an actual invitation, not just send an email.  And because we all need to be careful how we spend our time, I thought I’d keep it simple and give you this printable in case it can save you some time this season.

For each invitation, you will need 3 pages: a cover, page 2, and page 3.  If you happen to want the same text that I used, you can print it with the text.  If you want to put your own text in, you can download the pdf and add your own text in your favorite editor.  Or handwrite it in.

Christmas Gathering invitation printables:

blank cover (4 per page)

cover with writing (4 per page)

blank pages 2 and 3 with white centers (2 sets per page)

page 2 with writing, page 3 blank, white centers (2 sets per page)

pages 2 & 3, solid, no writing (2 sets per page)

Gather a few family members around the table and everyone can help cut the “ornaments” out, stack the 3 parts in order, punch holes in the top, and tie ribbons.

I know it’s not perfect, like it would be nice if the smaller “ornaments” had a longer stem so they all met evenly at the top.  But as my 6 year-old told me yesterday, “It doesn’t have to be perfect.  Only Jesus is perfect.”  And coming from a particularly particular child, that itself is a Christmas miracle.

I realized when I opened my new package of envelopes, that in my rush of deciding between the different choices, I ended up purchasing blank cards instead of the envelopes.  I did not want to go back out to the hussle and bussle, so I decided to wrap my invitations in gift paper envelopes.  I put a sticker gift tag on each one and sent my kids out to deliver them to the neighbors.

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Thanksgiving Games

When I was growing up, our tradition to show our gratitude on Thanksgiving consisted of going around the table and everyone taking a couple minutes to share what they were grateful for.  While this was nice, it was also boring as a child, and a bit intimidating as a teen and young adult.  I mean, it felt like we had to say something deep…insightful…moving.  Sometimes I just didn’t feel like it, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t grateful.  It just meant I didn’t have the perfect thing to say.

Now that I am raising a young family, I want my kids to express their gratitude, but I don’t think going around the table and each person taking a turn is the way to do it.

Last year, we tried a few different games, which were fun, but didn’t go over very well.  We had several adults, so we did a trivia game, but it was WAY too long.  I also baked little papers (wrapped in tin foil) into the rolls so whenever someone would get a roll, they could answer the question.  The questions were like “Tell us 3 things you are grateful for about the person to your left” or “Tell us 3 things about your dad you are grateful for” or “Share a trial from the last year that you are grateful for.”  Nice idea, but when all the eating was happening, it was hard to stop constantly and listen to what people had to say, or those who didn’t want to participate simply didn’t.  Boring.

My cousin suggested getting a notebook and putting each letter of the alphabet at the top of the page and writing as many things as you can think of for each letter.  I like that idea.  Plus, she then pulls out that notebook each year and the kids love to read (and add to) what they wrote.

This year, I decided to come up with a few games.  We’ll have 10 children between 16 months and almost 14 years, so I know they’ll want a chance to earn points.  We’ll also have 6 adults, so I wanted games the adults would also like to join in on.  Here’s what I came up with:

Thanksgiving Scattergories

I made a sheet with lines from A to Z.  When the timer starts, everyone tries to write one thing for each letter that they are grateful for.  Apples, babies, cars, daddy, ears, fingers, grandma, hair, ice cream, jam, etc. Answers that aren’t truly something to be grateful for (diarrhea, murder, poison, hangnails, etc.) can be vetoed by the group.  We’re trying to list what we’re grateful for, not just come up with unique items that won’t be on anyone else’s list. Then, when the timer rings, everyone stops and the first person reads their list.  Anything that is doubled up on someone else’s list gets crossed off by both players.  Each item that was unique (meaning no one else put it down) receives one point.  

thanksgiving scattergories

Thanksgiving Scramble

I put together about 48 words or something that are Thanksgiving themed, and then scrambled them.  Players try to figure out what the real words are.  Maybe give 5 minutes or don’t time it at all.  Each player gets one point for each word they got right.  So Banana Cream Pie would get 3 points because it is 3 words.

Thanksgiving Word Scramble

Thanksgiving Matchability

I came up with 16 “Topics” for gratitude, like things you own that you are grateful for or reasons why you love the winter.  Draw a card and read the topic. Then, you set the timer for 30 seconds or a minute if you have younger ones, and everyone feverishly tries to write as many things as come to mind for that topic.  Answers should be generic, without many words.  So if the topic was “Things you own that you are grateful for” putting down “blanket, camera, computer, piano” etc. would be much better than “purple quilt made by grandma, Nikon 360 camera, my desktop dell 1000 computer, the piano I bought at goodwill for $35”.  

The reason for this is that in the next stage of the game, someone starts reading thru their list, like Scattergories.  Unlike Scattergories, however, instead of crossing out matches, players circle the answers they put down that are the SAME as other peoples.  So the point is the MATCH, not be unique.  And the words are supposed to match exactly.  However, blankie, blankets, and blanket would all suffice for the same.  Blanket and quilt, though, would not.  Get it?  

Players get one point for every MATCH they make.  After that round, you draw another card and play again.  Add up total points at the end.

Thanksgiving Matchability

My thought is that whoever gets the most points gets to do something special, like choose the first board game after dinner, or get served pie first, or gets to go in line for dinner first, depending on when you play these games.  We’re probably going to play them in between “courses”.  We’ll start with fruit, salad, and rolls.  Then we’ll do turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, rolls, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, corn/peas, cranberry sauce.  And the last course is pie.  In between each course we can play a game.  Or we can do it beforehand.  I haven’t quite decided.

Do you have favorite Thanksgiving gratitude traditions?

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Family Service Idea

"El Bichito" children's dining room and tutoring humanitarian centerOkay, this may not seem so “real” to you, but it is for me.

Have you ever wished for ways to help your kids learn to recognize their blessings besides just telling them what they are? Or to realize that they are fortunate to have good schools and teachers? What about the variety of meals you provide? Do you ever feel like maybe they take some things for granted?

Well, I can’t really end those challenges for you or me, but I can tell you one thing we are currently doing that I hope helps with these challenges and others too.

We moved to Peru for a while. And not the ex-pat, American style Peru, but a village in the Andes, where the Real Moms wear long braids and funny hats Peru.  This is outside my bedroom window last week.

neighbors plowing field

For a semester, we are living and serving in a humanitarian center called “El Bichito” (The Little Bug) run by the NGO Eagle-Condor Humanitarian. Dad’s work and the kids’ school are being done by internet. Two women who live close by are the permanent employees who take care of the building and cook for the children who come here each day after school to have their main meal of the day. We eat there, too. White rice and something else each day.

After lunch, we work on math or reading, or maybe a class on brushing teeth or, maybe a craft or learning to use a computer, one child at a time. And we emphasize the importance of doing their homework, which we try hard to motivate them to finish!  Here’s Ever with his “Maquina de Matematicas”–the Math Machine we adapted to use local recycling and help the kids enjoy working on their times tables.Math Machines

My daughter is blogging about her experience at Right now she is putting on a book drive.  Go to her post for all the info you need if you are interested in contributing.  I am hoping that we get enough books that we can give each child at the center their own book for Christmas. I have started asking children if they have a book at their house, and I have learned I need to phrase my words carefully (and in Spanish, it’s a big harder for me!) or they think that maybe I’m going to accuse them of having kept one of the books from the center. The idea that they would own their own book is not the first idea to cross their minds. Not one child has yet told me that they had a book at their house.  And from the visits I’ve made to their houses, it’s pretty believable.

Rodrigo's house

One of my teens is blogging a little, too, with a bit less enthusiasm and a totally different perspective. Feel free to give these budding writers motivating comments! There is also a blog about the work we are doing here at El Bichito. And you might like to learn more about the organization we are with at their website, Eagle-Condor Humanitarian. You could even have your own book drive and contribute!

teen playing with kids at center

My teenagers still seem to talk about the new electronics or software they plan to purchase when they get back to the states. Our connectivity both makes this trip possible for us, and makes it impossible to “get away” from “it all.” But I still have hopes that they will have their eyes opened and have a better understanding of their place in the world. Because as impractical as it may seem to take your family to a 3rd world country, it is the real world.

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Make School Lunches Easier

In returning to school this year, I wanted to find a system that would work well for our daughters to help make the mornings less chaotic.  When our oldest was in kindergarten, I made her lunch every night for the next day.  There were days I forgot or didn’t get to it until midnight or just plain dreaded doing it because she was SO particular about what she would and wouldn’t eat.  Sandwiches, unfortunately, were on the “wouldn’t” list, so I had to be creative in coming up with something for her every day.

This year, I decided she could be completely in charge of her lunch, but I knew that would lead to disaster if there weren’t certain parameters for her to follow.  Our second would also be going to school this year, so I needed it to be simple enough for both to follow.  

And so I created the School Lunch Options menu.


I broke down their lunch into categories and listed everything I could think of that could possibly be an option under that (yes, the veggie section is sparse, but that’s because we eat more cooked veggies than raw, so I had to go with what they’d actually take for lunch).  Now, in the mornings, they pick one item from each category (or maybe two from fruits/veggies) and assemble their own lunch.  They have to take a snack every day, too, so they simply choose one from the fruits/veggies section and one from the carb section.  Done.

Getting lunches together is now SO simple.  And it’s wonderful that the girls can take responsibility for their choices.  Like when my oldest came home hungry every day from school for a week, she learned she needed to actually take and eat sandwiches to help fill her up.  

You’ll see SqueeZurts on my list, too.  Don’t know what SqueeZurts are?  They are a wonderful addition to school lunches, letting your kids take anything from applesauce to yogurt to smoothies to fruit or veggie purees to pudding in an easy to use, easy to fill, easy to clean tube.  Check them out for your own little student!

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Want to take your own U.S. passport photos?

Taking your own passport photosIf you want to take your own passport photos, the State Department’s web site has all the details on passport photo requirements. It’s not all that complicated, though if you want to avoid a hassle, you can pay $10.99 at someplace like Walgreen’s to have it done for you. If you’ve got a shy or unruly child (no names, please), it may be less hassle to take the time to set up your lights and white background at home. If you’re doing it for a group, you can save a tight wad of dough.

It’s worth your time to review the State Department’s helps because they actually are quite helpful. I’ve put all the necessary links on this page, as I’m going through this process myself. (I’ll let you know how it all turned out at the bottom of the post.)

Check out the photo composition template.

The Photographer’s Guide is essential and helpful. It gives you all you need to know about camera position and lighting.

And they also have a tool that crops your photo to the right size! (I was worried about having to print ten times at different sizes trying to get it right–wow, is the government being so helpful? A ray of hope! I didn’t mean that to sound sarcastic, but somehow it did.)

Passport photo attemptWhat seemed like the hardest part was to get the lighting just right.  But we had to at least try it.

So we tried putting up some lights on each side of our child like the Secretary of State website suggests.  We don’t have fancy flash equipment so we just used desk lamps.  The results looked awful so we scrapped the lamps and just relied on the camera’s flash. 

Passport pic w short hairWe had a bench set against a white (or maybe slightly off white) wall in between two windows.  To try to eliminate shadows, we sat with our backs as close to the wall as we could without making it look unnatural.  The camera was about 4 or 5 feet in front of the person and was on a tripod just at the level of the person’s nose. This setup worked great, especially for those of us with hair that covered our ears.  Those with short hair ended up with shadows behind their ears, but they weren’t too pronounced and the passport people approved the photos.  (Gosh, that doesn’t look like my son at all.  And to think this is for identification purposes.  I wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley–unless I knew how cute he was as a young prince in that production of The King & I when he was 3 years old.)

The wall is a bit textured and we were under the impression that the background had to be flat and white.  It turns out that the texturing doesn’t show up much in the photo and the passport photo approval people don’t seem to be so extremely strict.

passport picture too dark but fixed with autocorrectOnce we took the pictures, it seemed they were a bit dark.  The rules state that you can’t digitally modify the photos.  However, we decided to use Picasa’s auto brightness feature to brighten them.  Thus the person was not digitally modified at all–just the brightness of the photo.  (The lighting was just fine when I used autocorrect on this picture, but we decided to use one with less head tilt.)

Using the links above, we were able to crop the photos to the correct size.  

passport picture dollBut how to print them?  We thought about printing them out at Walmart, but then we would have to get them in a 4×6 size somehow.  Finally, we just put all the photos in a collage in Microsoft Word and asked a friend with a color deskjet printer to print it in best quality on photo paper.  After cutting them out, we had our photos.

passport puckerThe person at the post office that was taking our application used a little template that looks just like the crop tool on the website to make sure our photos met the size guidelines.  She said everything else looked good, too.  So we sent the photos in with the passport applications and received all our passports back with our photos included in them.

In the end, we stressed about taking our own photos more than we needed to.  Look at the photo guidelines and the good and bad examples on the government’s site and then just take your pictures.  

I don’t think we will ever have our passport photos taken “professionally” again.  At least not for another 10 years…passport finger ears

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