Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Give a Child the Gift of Reading: My Top 10 Children's Book Picks for Christmas 2012

I'm a mom, a writer and a teacher, and Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without some new books under the tree! Everyone - kids and adults alike - needs a pile of good books to curl up with under a blanket, by a fire, during the long winter months! Here are my picks for the best children's books  for Christmas 2012:

Diary of a Wimpy Kid - The Third Wheel 

Daniel in front of the Wimpy Kid Bus!
My son Daniel, age 11, has grown up with Greg, the main character of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, by author Jeff Kinney. So when Jeff Kinney himself he rolled into town last week in his Wimpy Kid Bus, my son was ecstatic to meet him in person, at the Magic Tree Bookstore in Oak Park. In the 7th book of the series, The Third Wheel, Greg is in middle school and scrambling to find a date for the first school dance (Daniel will experience his first school dance later this winter - Yikes!). Here's a video of the interview Daniel participated in with some other lucky Chicago kids: (Thanks,!)

Thinking Girls Treasury of Dastardly Dames 

Forget about the frilly, prissy princesses! Learn the truth behind some of history's most notorious women in Goosebottom Books' new series, The Thinking Girl's Treasury of Dastardly Dames. From the atrocious Agrippina to the bold Black Queen Catherine de 'Medici, these books charm with their fun take on some of history's most challenging rulers, bringing them back to life by detailing what they wore, ate, and why they made certain, often downright nasty, choices. Maps, photos and historic artifacts supply the historical context. Currently available titles in the series introduce young readers to Cleopatra, Agrippina, Mary Tudor, Catherine de' Medici, Marie Antoinette, and Cixi, the Dragon Empress.  

Bunny Rabbit in the Sunlight by Kate Endle and Caspar Babypants

Chiara, age 3 adores this sweet little board book. Even better, it comes with a free song download.  Order the book at Kate Endle's Etsy shop,, and download the free song here

Weelicious by Catherine McCord

This cookbook for both parents and budding young chefs features fast, easy and healthy recipes for homemade baby food, toddler finger food, school lunch recipes and dinner ideas that the entire family will love.  

Steve Light Storyboxes
Here's an adorable (and educational!) new product on the market: Storyboxes by Steve Light. My daughter just adores her Rapunzel Storybox: it's essentially an old-school interactive story book - no batteries required. Each wooden box contains a classical fairy tale and all the character pieces and props to make the story come alive via that magical kid's creativity. The Rapunzel Storybox contains Rapunzel, the Prince, the Witch, and the garden radishes, all hand painted. Chiara is most impressed by Rapunzel's long hair. I love watching her come up with her own oddball stories using the characters - most of which involve the evil witch scaring the Prince and Rapunzel with her shenanigans. Check out the other Storyboxes available at

You Choose: Interactive History Series by Capstone Publishing

The Interactive History Series lets kids choose their own pathway through history.  Each book has 3 story paths with over 33 choices and 18 endings. For example, in Life as a Gladiator, you can choose to take part in the rebellion led by Spartacus, to train as a gladiator as a free citizen, or to fight as a veteran gladiator. Throughout each story, you make even more choices, i.e. Do you want to stay with the rebels? or Do you want to escape?.  These books explore history in a unique and challenging way. 

The Tooth Mouse by Susan Hood and Janice Nadeu

The Tooth Mouse delivers money to French children in exchange for their baby teeth. Follow along as she names her successor, Sofie, a small mouse who must prove that she is brave, honest and wise enough to take on the job. 

A Strange Place to Call Home: The World's Most Dangerous Habitats and the Animals That Call Them Home by Marilyn Singer and Ed Young

Check out 14 amazing creatures that call some of the strangest places on our planet home. From the flamingos living in the barren, cold, salt desert to blind fish living in the deepest, darkest caves, these animals are celebrated by renowned poet Marilyn Singer and artist Ed Young in this compelling picture book.

Small and Tall Tales of Extinct Animals by Helene Rajcak and Damien Laverdunt
Meet the animals that lost their battle to survive against humans and the tide of climate change in this sad yet spirited picture book. 

Mimi's Village: How Basic Health Care Transformed It by Kate Smith Milway and Eugenie Fernandes
When Mimi's little sister becomes sick after drinking contaminated water, Mimi and her village set out on a pathway to better health through simple heal care measures. This hopeful book introduces children to the struggles of children in third world countries, where every day more than 21,000 children under the age of five die, most of them from diseases that could have been prevented with basic health care. 

Disclosure: I have been provided with review copies of many of these books, but not all. All opinions are my own. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

If these walls could talk: searching the 1940 census to see who lived in our Chicago home #makesmesmilemondays

For the past two years, we've lived in a former two-flat (now single family home) in the Bucktown/Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. This year, I am working hard to totally remodel our home, in small, inexpensive ways that I'll be sharing with you throughout.

Home Sweet Home. The were once gargoyles
on our front porch! Now they only come out
for Halloween!
This is the home that I hope to see my children grow up in: I dream of seeing my son come down the stairs in his cap and gown on graduation day; I dream of seeing my daughter off on her first day of school from this dear home. I love our little city neighborhood, and I love our home. This Thanksgiving season, I was more thankful than ever for home. 

The day we moved in, summer 2010.
I can't believe how much my kids have
grown in these past two years.
Our home is an older home; I believe it was built in about 1910. A contractor told me that our long, wide radiators, which keep our home extra toasty, were popular around 1910 because of a TB epidemic: evidently people at the time believed in keeping windows open to air out the home, which required keeping the heat on at full blast.
Our dear old radiators
I often joke with my son - who has likely the largest LEGO collection in the world - that 100 years from now people will be finding LEGOS hidden around our home. And sometimes, I come across things that the family who lived in our home likely used 100 years ago.
Open this cubby and you'll find a murphy-style ironing board.

For example, the ironing boards. Ours are built into the walls. I imagine that years ago, this was a prized, ultra-moderne feature in the home. Nowadays, I rarely iron. My kids use these hidden ironing board cupboards (there are two in the home) to hide things. (My son actually hid BRUSSELS SPROUTS that he didn't want to eat in the ironing board cubby!).
We can't open the ironing board all the way as
it would slam into a bookshelf now, but
you get the idea. 

In our basement, I found an old telephone switchboard, a horseshoe and a sprig of plastic mistletoe. There is a scary, dark closet in our basement - for coal storage perhaps. I'll bet the children growing up in this home were always a bit frightened of that dark closet with the thick metal door.

And I've often thought - if these walls could talk - what would they tell me? More families than ours have made memories in this home. Who were they?

Today I was able to answer that question at least in part: I searched the 1940 census database to see who was living in my home in 1940. In 1940, our home consisted of two 2-bedroom rental units. On the top floor lived Walter Wasielweski, aged 52, and his wife, Rose, age 47. Walter was a piano tuner, born in Poland, and I suppose Rose was a homemaker as no profession was listed. They had three children still living with them: Raymond, age 27, a shipping clerk; Irene, age 21, a typist; and George, age 17, a delivery boy. On the ground floor lived Anthony, age 64, and his wife Rose, age 62. They had no professions listed - were they retired? unemployed? Their daughter, Jean, lived with them, and worked as a typist.

You can search the database here:

The school a block and a half from our home, way back when.

Do you know the history of your home? If the walls of your home could talk - what stories would they tell?

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Monday, November 19, 2012

#makesmesmilemondays The Nutcracker

Yesterday was a busy theatre evening for our family.

In the late afternoon, I took my son, age 11, to see Potted Potter at the Broadway Playhouse. While most of the jokes flew over my head - I haven't read any of the books, save for reading the first chapter of book one to my son, years ago (he devoured the rest of it on his own) - my son spent much of the show doubled up in laughter.

Then, in the late evening, Chiara and I headed out to see the House Theatre's Nutcracker, now playing at the Chopin Theater. Our favorite Christmas show this year is by far this reinvention of the holiday classic. The House Theatre's The Nutcracker focuses on Clara’s journey to save her family, reeling from the wartime death of her brother, from the Rat King. Be prepared for plenty of surprises as you step right into Christmas with Clara and her family. Chiara was absolutely entranced, and I too found this version both hilarious and heartwarming. Here's a great parent guide to the show:

I'm lucky to be a contributing writer for Chicago's Convention and Visitor's Bureau, and a freelance writer for many other publications, both print and online. I cover a lot of shows and I adore Chicago theatre. Best of all, my kids have been tagging along with me even as toddlers, and both have a growing appreciation for theatre. Just don't ask my son to attend a musical! (Though he did love Billy Elliot!). Thankfully, my daughter, at age three, seems to be up for just about any live theatre presentation!

Don't miss the Nutcracker, now playing at the charming Chopin Theatre. 

The delightful Nutcracker, now playing at the Chopin Theatre

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Giveaway! $100 Gift Certificate for a Stanley Steemer Service!

We have been busier than ever, getting our house in order for the holidays. Our entire home is being repainted, and I've been working hard to sorting through the kids' old toys and clothing so we can donate it. We're organizing and making room for the holidays, and looking forward to starting the new year fresh. 

Painting the living room - freshening up for the holidays and the new year
This past Saturday, two technicians from Stanley Steemer, Joe and Gary, came in to deep clean our sofa. I'm excited to share my service experience with Stanley Steemer and offer you the chance to win a $100 certificate for a Stanley Steemer service, just in time for the holidays! You can enter today via Rafflecopter below!

The particular sofa I had steam cleaned is over 9 years old. It has served our family well, and has been the comfy seat of not one but two babies to toddlers - both Daniel and Chiara (and every mom knows what babies and toddlers can do to a sofa...). Though it has been moved from our living to our family room, our sofa is still the comfy spot for tv watching kids.
Joe and Gary spent about an hour cleaning our sofa, and I was more than surprised to see the finished product. It looks like (just about) new! Customer service was excellent - I booked online and the service technicians came exactly on time and were professional and courteous.
Here are a few facts about Stanley Steemer: 

  • With more than 60 years as the dirt authority, Stanley Steemer cleaning experts are certified to clean not only sofas, but also to remove more than 98 percent of dry soil from floors – a rate significantly higher than self-cleaning methods.
  • Not just for carpet cleaning, Stanley Steemer’s expertise extends to hardwood, tile, air ducts, water damage restoration, and more!
  • Their water extraction process provides a deep-down clean, perfect for cleaning up before or after the holidays
To help you see through the dirt that lurks in your home and really make it merry and bright, the experts in the field from Stanley Steemer offer these holiday tips for maintaining a cleaner, healthier home:

With the holidays come the house guests
Reduce the amount of dirt and mud that may get tracked into your home by using indoor and outdoor entrance mats.

Pickup in a flash
Why deny the inevitable? At some point this season you’ll deal with red wine, gravy, pine needles or candle wax drippings on the carpet. Remember to act quickly to clean up any spills or stains; consider keeping a professional spot remover handy at all time or use items commonly found around the home such as white vinegar and baking soda.

Dirt is the ultimate scrooge
Keep up with the high traffic areas in the home, especially during entertaining season, by vacuuming them two to three times a week and the rest of your carpets at least once a week.

Be sure to connect with Stanley Steemer! Online at, on Facebook, and Twitter!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Disclosure: Special thanks to Stanley Steemer for sponsoring this post. The Stanley Steemer gift certificate, information, and two gift packs have been provided by Stanley Steemer.

Monday, November 12, 2012

#makesmesmilemonday Our Nativity Scene

One of our special family holiday traditions is setting up and displaying a little manger scene under our Christmas tree. When I was a little girl, I logged in hours playing with our nativity scene, and now our family's own little manger sees a lot of activity in the days leading up to Christmas.

When I lived in Italy, I loved the intricate nativity scenes, and especially the Festa della Befana in Rome's Piazza Navona, where you could find all the nativity figurines you could ever desire. I also had the chance to visit Bethlehem in person: I treasure my visits to the Church of the Nativity and the Milk Grotto, where Mary nursed Jesus (and some say that Jesus may have actually been born in this or a similar grotto). 
Festa della Befana in Roma's Piazza Navona

Manger scenes in Italy typically include the entire village of Bethlehem

I love Fontanini figurines, which were initially recommended by my pal, Valency. Made of polymer, the kids can play with them and I don't have to worry about them breaking. Every year, I've made a point of adding two new figurines to our nativity scene. Chiara helped me choose our new figurines this year, and I placed the order this morning for....

Mary's donkey....

and a family of cows. 

I also love that the Fontanini Baby Jesus is separate from his crib. He doesn't arrive on our Christmas nativity scene until Christmas morning (this is actually a common Italian Christmas tradition). 

I order our Fontanini sets from because of their excellent customer service. Give them a phone call and a live person will answer and happily answer any questions you might have and take your order. 

Does your family have any Christmas traditions centered around the nativity scene?

Disclosure: This is NOT a sponsored post. I am happy to share my excellent experience with the customer service and fine Fontanini products from Fontanini Gifts. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Jar Full of Thanks: create your own jar of gratitude with a free printable

Here'a a sweet little downloadable printable from Papercoterie: Simply print a label for your jar and fill it full of your family’s responses to a series of fun and unique gratitude prompts.  Read them aloud before or after Thanksgiving dinner. 

What are you thankful for this holiday season?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Flashback: My Summer as a Coppertone Mom

This past summer, I was an official Coppertone Mom! This was fitting because I happily spent so many days under the sun this summer with my kids. 

I was a teen that coated her fair skin in SPF-free suntan oil and sprayed Sun-In in her hair and baked in the sun for hours, until I was sprinkled with freckles. I love the sun! But now I know better and you'll always find me with my hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Even in the winter, I apply sunscreen every day to my face. 

I won't go out under the sun without a hat,
sunglasses and sunscreen. 

My son was a Junior Lifeguard at the beach this summer, and he went through Coppertone Sport SPF 50 like water...

While my super-fair skinned daughter needed her Coppertone Baby products to keep her safe and sunburn-free.

My Coppertone Girl

It was a wonderful summer and I am thankful to Coppertone for sponsoring my posts and sending along all sorts of little goodies - especially the sunscreen samples that I was able to share with family and friends and even strangers that forgot to bring along sunscreen at the beach and the pool!

It was a delight being the unofficial sunscreen fairy. 

Until next year....thanks, Coppertone!

Monday, November 5, 2012

#makesmesmilemonday Easy Thanksgiving Craft for the Preschool Set

My daughter and I love to bake together. As soon as I pull out a mixing bowl, she's pulling up a chair right beside me to "help". She especially loves rolling out dough. We make a lot of homemade pizza and pasta in our home and Chiara is always right beside me, with a little ball of dough, her two tiny hands gripped tightly to her rolling pin. I think cooking is right up there in the top three things that my daughter loves to do, alongside dancing and painting. 

We were inspired to make this little Thanksgiving craft after our annual visit to the Graue Mill: every year, in the late fall, we head to this historic mill in Oak Brook, Illinois, where we stock up on traditionally coarse ground cornmeal for a winter's worth of polenta. There are wonderful interactive exhibits in the museum, and this year, Chiara couldn't get enough of the little center where she could make pretend pies with pom-pom "blueberries" and "cherries". 

And so my mother bought a bunch of "cherries" - a.k.a. felted pom-poms from Joann Fabrics, and a square of brown felt from which she cut out the pie crusts. And since she received her very own pie kit, Chiara has been "baking" pie after pie after pie. She cooks up the cherries on her little oven range, she divides the cherries up in a muffin tin, she counts the cherries, she washed the cherries (...), she rolls out the crust, she makes cherry pies again and again, for everyone in our family, including the dog. These cherries have provided endless hours of entertainment for my little girl! I guarantee that your preschooler will love this craft, too - just be prepared to find lots of cherries around your home for the next few weeks....

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