Books: i-SPY Creepy Crawlies and i-SPY Trees
2016, Collins Poem: A Calendar of Sonnets: March by Helen Hunt Jackson
How is Spring where you are? Here it is in full bloom and today we finally had a properly warm day. It’s so nice to be able to hang the washing on the line again!
Here is what we’ve been up to lately.
Currently I’m reading a couple of mysteries, but we’ve also been going about looking for signs of Spring with some i-SPY books.
These are particularly fun because you earn points for each species you spot, but there are many nature guides/books out there. The RSPB Handbook of British Birds comes out whenever we see a strange bird on the feeder. If you want a book to read rather than use as a field guide, my husband has been reading The Wood for the Trees: The Long View of Nature from a Small Wood by Richard Fortey. I’ll get back to you if he has any thoughts on it. So far this Spring I have spotted, among others: a wren, dunnocks, robins, goldfinches, honey bees, bumblebees, snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, violets, primroses, and various flowering trees including cherry, apple, and blackthorn.
It’s a great time to go for a walk and see what you can spot! Even small spaces like lawns, hedges and flowerpots will have an amazing world of minibeasts waking up and starting to roam about. And even if you are still snowed in, if you look closely the trees should be budding and birds returning.
The other day my husband made marmalade, which we have never done before. It was quite a production, but now we have a row of gleaming jars full of citrusy goodness. I personally don’t like marmalade, but if you, like my husband and Paddington Bear, are a fan, it’s one of the easier preserves to make.
Marmalade is nice on a toasted tea cake or even hot cross bun on one of those still-chilly mornings. And if you don’t like it, you could have lemon curd instead. Citrus fruits are really nice to have in the colder months, when there are fewer fruits around.
Right now our windowsills are just covered in a variety of seedlings, gathering their strength indoors before they face the cold. There are rows of dahlias, citruses, Black-eyed Susans, and even a little maple grown from seed.
No doubt it will be cold and blustery again tomorrow, but the seedlings are a cheerful sight and fill us with expectation for the Summer.
What have you been reading/eating/doing this March?
Book: All Join In by Quentin Blake
1998, Random House
March is a funny month. It’s still cold (and, in some places, snowy), but the daffodils and crocuses are pushing up, the snowdrops are already blooming, and the trees are all covered in catkins and buds.
Now is a great time to put on your wellies and go for a muddy walk to look for signs of Spring.
Today’s book is All Join In, a book of seven poems written and illustrated by Quentin Blake. They are loosely related in theme, but all relate to a motley group of family/friends who get up to all sorts of activities, usually noisily and messily, but with great enthusiasm. All Join In is all about making music…or just noise.
‘The Hooter Song’ concerns a pair of children who thoughtfully ‘help’ various adults by surprising them with bicycle horns.
‘Nice Weather for Ducks’ is about a muddy walk and joining in the duck song.
‘Sliding’ concerns various means of going downhill quickly: banister, sled, etc.
‘Sorting Out the Kitchen Pans’ is about some more helpful children who take up the noisy task of…sorting kitchen pans.
‘Bedtime Song’ is not a lullaby, but about joining in with yowling cats.
‘All Join In’ (part two) is just about all the various ways the family and/or friends all join in, whether with cleaning, painting, or eating a chocolate fudge banana cake.
These poems are fun for anyone, but they would be particularly fun for younger children, because they are meant to be read aloud. Little children love repetition that they can join in with, and each of these poems has that. They are often fun things to shout out, as well, such as BEEP-BEEP or QUACK QUACK QUACK! They also have the benefit of a simple but effective rhyme scheme which is good for demonstrating how rhyming and poetry work. I certainly know what I will be bringing to class for World Book Day.
The illustrations, of course, are typical Quentin Blake: very lively, fun, and fluid, with lots of funny little details to find. They complement the messy, noisy poems very well and make the characters seem like people you’d love to hang out with.
The downside is that many children would probably be inspired by these poems to start sorting out the kitchen pans! But that could be fun too. So get together in a group, make some noise, walk through mud, do some Spring cleaning, or go sledding, and when that’s tired you out, enjoy a slice of Ferdinand’s chocolate fudge banana cake. Peanut Butter Chocolate Fudge Banana Cake (grain-free)
Ingredients For the cake:
1 greenish banana, thickly sliced
3 cups peanut butter (or almond, cashew, sunflower or other nut or seed butter)
2 cups dark chocolate, roughly chopped
1.5 cup plain cocoa powder
⅔ cup grated coconut
1 cup maple syrup
1.5 Tbsp brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoon vanilla
1.5 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
For the frosting/topping:
2 cups dark chocolate, roughly chopped
2 cups cream
1 Tbsp coconut oil
1 banana, thickly sliced
2 cups grated coconut
Mix together all of the cake ingredients except for 1 cup of the chopped chocolate. Put greaseproof paper in a round 8 inch cake tin and sprinkle in some of the chocolate you put aside. Then pour in half of the batter and spread with a spatula to cover the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle over some more chocolate and then put your banana slices on top of that. Try to place them on their sides so that when the cake is cut they will be more visible.
After that, pour over the rest of the batter and top with the rest of the chocolate. Bake at 180 C/356 F for 25 – 30 minutes, checking after 20 to make sure it is not getting overdone. It’s OK (and in fact, desirable), for the cake to be a bit squidgy, like a brownie. When the cake is done, wait for it to cool and turn it out. While it is cooling you can make the frosting, which is a basic ganache.
Melt the 2 cups of chopped dark chocolate very gently in a double boiler (you can rig one by using a metal or Pyrex bowl in a saucepan of simmering water). Remove from heat and then slowly whisk in the cream and coconut oil. Put in the fridge for 10 – 20 minutes to cool — you want it to be pourable but not too runny. Meanwhile, put your banana slices on top of the cake (you could try whole bananas like Ferdinand, but I suspected that would end in disaster). Then pour the ganache over the cake. Bananas are quite difficult to coat, it turns out, so you may have to melt some extra chocolate and dip them in. Lastly cover in shredded coconut — because if we’re having chocolate, fudge, and banana we might as well have peanut butter and coconut too.
And it’s OK if it looks super messy because that’s what we’re going for, right?
Also this is only a small cake but then again I’m not feeding five adults, twenty-one children, a cat, and a duck.
This is the perfect treat to enjoy with a glass of milk after a walk in the cold March air. And although Pancake Tuesday is over, we might as well have a couple of days more of a carnival atmosphere of noise and rich food. Especially if it’s raining.
Book: Seven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers
2015, Clue Publishing Poem: Old October by Thomas Constable
So where have I been? Well, I’ve been moving house. We moved from one county to another, as well. As I’m sure you guys know, moving house is THE WORST, we’re still living out of boxes, and so I haven’t been reading a lot or making much food that doesn’t come out of a box or a tin.
However, I thought a little update was in order. So here is what I have been up to lately.
I don’t know if I ever mentioned it, but my favourite thing to read, besides kid’s books, is a good Golden Age mystery. And while I do prefer paper books, the Kindle app can be useful during busy times. I’m currently reading this:
I’m only a couple of chapters in, and I’m not sure what I think of it yet. While it’s hugely entertaining and has a great tone and sense of humour, I’m not quite sure where it’s going. It was written in 1913, and one of the chapters seems to be anti-suffragists, but that’s a risk you run with old books. Also, that chapter is narrated by a character who may be being made fun of by the author himself, so you never can tell. I am still really enjoying it, but I am thinking of waiting to finish it until the Winter, because I like my books to be seasonal, and it has a great snowed-in atmosphere.
I do recommend reading mysteries in the Fall. They are an inexhaustible resource; even when you have got through Christie and Sayers there are so many more obscure authors to read, and you might find a hidden gem. Seven Keys to Baldpate, for example, is free on the Kindle app, and you never know what you might find cheap by having a nose around Amazon or your library book sale.
We are having to be very frugal in our new circumstances, but two things which are cheap and comforting are tea and oatmeal. If you don’t eat oats I still recommend the lovely comfort of a hot bowl of something: soup or broth, for example. And tea is the best for making you feel like you are treating yourself! It does not need to be fancy. Here I am having Good Earth Sweet & Spicy tea which is maybe the yummiest tea ever made. And for bedtime you cannot beat Sleepytime.
As I said, moving takes over everything so we haven’t had time for much. But we have made time to explore the countryside around our new house. We are so lucky to be able to live in the cutest little village now, with lots of fields and hedgerows. But no matter where you are, there is usually a field or a park or a pick your own or a community garden where you can:
It’s a bit late in the year and a lot has been picked over, but we found rose hips, haws, sloes, bullace, damsons, and of course blackberries. There will hopefully be enough to make at least one jar of hedgerow jam or chutney for the Winter. And it is just fun to do!
What are you reading/eating/doing this October?
I will hopefully be back with another post before the end of October, as things settle in. As soon as the books are unpacked I will have to have another read of Squashed, for sure!
I’ll leave you with a poem for those of us who are all about this time of year and the coziness it brings!
Book: Summer Party by Cynthia Rylant; illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin
2002, Aladdin Paperbacks Poem: Fairy Breadby Robert Louis Stevenson
How is everyone’s Summer? We haven’t had many nice days here. It’s been rather cold. But Summer is fleeting and you have to make the best of it! We have had a couple of barbecues and similar festivities. One Sunday we even got out the pool but it was too chilly!
Recently I read a book about making the best of things. Summer Party is about Lily, Rosie, and Tess (a pair of sisters and their cousin, all aged nine) who live with their Aunt Lucy for a year while their parents are travelling with the ballet. They get to live in an attic and it’s all very bohemian and charming.
Although this is a short book, a lot of detail is put into every character. Rosie is the most sentimental, Lily writes poems, Tess wants to be an actress, etc. Aunt Lucy has a flower shop, and her boyfriend Michael, who is from a wealthy family but is studying to be a botanist, always looks a bit shy and crumpled.
As the story opens the girls are all quite sad because when their parents get back they will have to leave their aunt and each other. They are feeling very conflicted and weepy in the first couple of chapters.
But their aunt and Michael try to help them cheer up, not by ignoring their feelings, but by addressing them in an active way. Their aunt says that a good way to do this is to find something to look forward to and make plans for the future. The girls realise that they will be able to have reunions with each other and the whole family every year. They are also encouraged to do something fun now, and so they plan a summer party. The girls plan the food and the entertainment as well. Lily writes a poem, Tess plans a song, and they make little funny fortunes to go at each table place. Rosie wants to make “little vegetable people” although she eventually changes her mind, thinking they will wilt. Here is their menu:
Pink lemonade with colored ice
Cookie cutter sandwiches
A punch called the Cousins’ Crayon Concoction The girls are nervous to see their parents after so long, but when they arrive everyone is happy. The party is a great success, and at the end Michael proposes to Lucy. Although everyone is still sad to say goodbye, the last line of the book is “There was so much to look forward to!” This is quite a fun little book. It is not long, but it is a chapter book and might be difficult for under sevens to read on their own. The subject matter is interesting and could be helpful in discussing with children how to deal with sadness, particularly that of a friend moving away, or themselves moving away. The children’s feelings are acknowledged, and they are helped to think of things that they do have control over, such as making the party and arranging meetings in the future. Aunt Lucy’s mantra of “Be brave. Have hope. Make plans for the future!” is pretty good advice for that stressful situation (and many others). Since we are moving house in a couple of months, it was certainly helpful for me to think about.
And if it is cold outside I think it is perfectly fine to have a Summer Party inside! I was inspired by the cousins’ menu but made a few changes. I didn’t make the little vegetable people, although that would be fun, particularly with children. To make the cookie cutter sandwiches even prettier, I made fairy bread. For anyone unfamiliar, fairy bread is just bread with sprinkles on top. I made some the usual way (as in just one slice), and some as sandwiches with the sprinkles then added to the top. Cookie Cutter Fairy Bread Sandwiches
Bread of choice (I used Schär’s gluten free seeded loaf)
Sandwich filling of choice (I used Nutella)
Sprinkles of choice (these should be small and colorful. Too big and they won’t provide even coverage)
Whipped cream Method
First make the sandwiches (I figure you all know how to do that!). Then cut out desired shapes using cookie cutters. You may have to be very careful extracting the sandwich from the cutter if it is a complicated shape. Don’t waste the crusts you cut off, just save them for bread pudding or something! Then spread the whipped cream on the top of the sandwich. Butter is traditional but I wanted something that would preserve the white color of the bread and also spread very easily, without being soggy. You need a thin, even layer all over the top slice. Then cover with sprinkles!
The second idea that I had was to attempt the Cousins’ Crayon Concoction. Presuming this does not contain actual crayons, I wanted to create something that contained multiple bright colors, and the only way I could think to do that was bubble tea. Cousins’ Crayon Concoction Bubble Tea
3 black tea bags or equivalent in loose tea
4 cups milk, almond milk or coconut milk
3 -4 Tbsp honey to taste
1 1/2 cups colored tapioca pearls or boba, preferably multicolored.
First make the milk tea. Boil a cup of water and steep the tea for 5 – 10 minutes. Remove the teabags, add honey to taste, and let the tea cool for another 15 minutes or so. Then add the tea and the milk (I used coconut milk, but if you prefer it not to taste coconutty, then use something different) into a large container with a lid. As you may guess this makes a very weak tea, but I did not want the color of the tea to interfere with the color of the boba, so I intentionally made it pale. You can make it stronger by using less milk or steeping the tea longer. Put the tea in the fridge to cool for a couple of hours. You could add ice and have it ready right away, but I prefer it this way. While the tea is cooling make the boba or tapioca pearls (If you can’t find multicolored ones I would recommend looking in an Asian grocer or online, but any color will do). Boil a large pot of water, add the pearls slowly, and stir. In a minute or so they will float to the surface of the water. Cover the pot and cook on medium heat for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and simmer another 2 -3 minutes. Strain the tapioca and rest in cold water for half a minute, then strain out and roll in a little sugar or honey.
Next, take out your cold tea and give it a good shake. You can use a cocktail shaker, froth it with a mixer or just shake it in the jar. Put a portion of tapioca pearls in the bottom of each glass and top up with the tea.
And lastly, the pink lemonade. I used this recipe from last Summer, but I added 1 1/2 cups pureed strawberries. You can use a blender, but if the strawberries are ripe you can also use a mortar and pestle. I personally like to have a little strawberry pulp in there. The only thing to remember is that you might need less sugar if the strawberries are very sweet.
Enjoy your Summer party and remember, there is so much to look forward to!
Book: A Time to Keep by Tasha Tudor
1977, Rand McNally & Company. Poem: Evening in a Sugar Orchard by Robert Frost.
Goodbye March! Thankfully, it’s going out like a lamb, as it should, since it came in like a lion.
March is sugaring season, when thawing days and freezing nights make the sap run in the trees. Here is a beautiful poem about it by Robert Frost: This poem can be read by anyone, but older children could really get into what Frost is doing with his use of language, rhyme, imagery, and his various references. It’s also a fun poem to memorize and recite. I particularly love the image of the sparks making constellations in the branches. You could even go outside on a clear night and try to see Leo, Orion, and the Pleiades. Maple syrup is a wonderful and versatile sweetener which can be used in so many ways. In Tasha Tudor’s A Time to Keep, she shows what a big event sugaring used to be, with everyone pitching in to help, and then having a big open air feast at the end. Many of you may not be able to go sugaring, but if you can, you should! I had to get mine from a bottle, but it was still great. I used it to make a chocolate ganache. Maple Ganache
Maple syrup Note: To make a thick ganache, chocolate and cream should be in a 1:1 ratio or equal parts. However, I substituted a quarter of the cream with maple syrup. To make enough to frost a small cake, I used two 180g (about 6 oz) bars of chocolate, melted, 270g (about 9 oz) cream, and 90g (about 3 oz) maple syrup.
Melt the chocolate. You can use the microwave, or you can rig up a double boiler by putting a metal or Pyrex bowl into a pan of water and bringing the water to a simmer, then putting the chocolate in the bowl, stirring occasionally until it is melted. Remove from heat and slowly add cream and syrup, stirring until it is a glossy, even mixture. Refrigerate for at least several hours, until set. After this you can roll it into truffles, or eat it with a spoon. Or refrigerate it only till cool, and frost a cake. Bring your cake to a sugaring-off party (and have sugar on snow for a treat)!
One thing that we do a couple of times a year is what we call Best of British. This started one day years ago when we were in a pub. We saw that they were having a little food festival called Best of British. But it was rather expensive. I said, “I could make us all that for a lot less!” So I did, and we’ve been doing it ever since. Anyone could do it with their local cuisine, and it’s a lot of fun if you like to cook. Here is this Summer’s menu.
As you can see the first one is quince-themed, and as we’ve been talking about “The Owl and the Pussycat”, we read that poem at dinner (sorry about the ham, Pig Robinson). It’s one of the more accessible Lear poems, and has a lot of fun wordplay and evocative imagery. It’s also very easy to memorize.
Here is a recipe for the piccalilli, which is a nice old-fashioned pickle.
Put the mustard, vinegar, garlic and sugar in a pan and simmer . Add the vegetables and allow to soften only slightly. Then take off the heat and allow to cool, stirring now and then. Store in a jar in the fridge.
Eat with quince and dance by the light of the moon!
Books: Lemonade sun: and other summer poems by Rebecca Kai Dotlich
1998, Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press The Days Are Just Packed by Bill Watterson
1994, Warner Books
While sadly, the kids here in the UK are still in school, they still get to take advantage of the outdoors when they can. I’m lucky enough to be involved in Girlguiding, so I try to provide that experience when I am able. Last weekend I took some of the girls on a trip to do some Forest School/minibeast hunting things. It was a bit damp (typical) but we still had a great time.
One of the highlights was the giant bubbles, made with a loop of rope strung between two sticks, dipped in water mixed with dish soap (washing up liquid). Here is a rather blurry, rainy picture of one of the girls running after one. As you can tell, giant bubbles are super exciting!
I don’t have giant bubble wands at home, but I actually think I might have a little tube of bubbles somewhere. So step one is the sit in the garden and blow bubbles. Next I am taking inspiration from another poem in Lemonade Sun.
As you can see there’s lots to do! I do have a jump rope, actually. I think everyone should if they are able to skip. It’s great exercise, and actually fun. But if I get tuckered out from skipping rope, I think I will sit in the garden with a glass of lemon & limeade, “reading books outside at last.”
Mini Recipe: Lemon & Limeade
Follow the recipe for Old-Fashioned Lemonade, but substitute two limes for one of the lemons. That’s all!
Enjoy outside with a good book! I would recommend The Days Are Just Packed. Not only are Calvin and Hobbes suitable for kids of all ages, they are even more suitable, I would argue, for adults, because they will be attuned to some of the more poignant, philosophical and mature material which runs under the surface of many of the comic strips. It also is a great way to remind oneself of the vivid imagination and endless energy of a childhood Summer.
Books: A child’s calendar by John Updike. 1999, Holiday House. Lemonade sun: and other summer poems by Rebecca Kai Dotlich. 1998, Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press.
Summer is here! The sun is out, the leaves are green, and today seems as good a day as any to begin.
Personally, I never was a huge fan of Summer overall. Where I grew up in the US, it was hot, sticky, muggy and buggy. Gross. But living now in the UK, where we are lucky if we get a couple weeks of heat, I do miss those sticky, humid days. So when today was a lovely sunny day, I decided to embrace it, and make the Summeriest thing I could think of: lemonade. And to go with the lemonade, a selection of poetry for children about Summertime. I had not read Lemonade Sun by Rebecca Kai Dotlich before, but it is a charming collection which really harkens back to a simpler time, when Summer meant running around outside all day. That is certainly what I did as a kid. The poems are very simple and suitable for young children, and could be used to introduce poetry and use of rhyme, rhythm and descriptive and action words. I like the simplicity and brevity of the poem “Lemonade Sun”. It reminds me of eating popsicles/fudgesicles on a boiling day. I liked the natural popsicles with pips, and also creamsicles and push pops. They don’t really have those here, so perhaps that is a recipe for another day. “A Circle of Sun” is my favorite; it really captures the vibrant, alive feeling one has as a child, the boundless energy. I used to run down the streets at breakneck speed, never minding a skinned knee or two. That gets lost as an adult, when you don’t have that long, luscious Summer ahead of you, and you’re always tired and feel creaky even in your 20’s, if you’re me anyway. But Summer days are still long, and anybody should get out in the Sun a little bit! The Sun is good for you! I’m sure most of us in Northern climes are probably at least a bit deficient in vitamin D. So, plan for tomorrow: get out in the Sun and run down the street at breakneck speed (or as fast as you can manage). Eat a popsicle, messily. Be “a piece of the sky in a circle of sun”. The second book of poems is A Child’s Calendar by John Updike, illustrated by one of my favorite illustrators, Trina Schart Hyman. Today I looked at “June”. This poem addresses those “long green weeks” which never end, a wonderful feeling to see them stretching before you. Of course, it is different for the poor kids here in the UK, who have to go to school until well into July. Sickening, I know. But this poem captures everything that Summer could be and should be. Little League, hopscotch, the creek. I had a creek when I was little, and it was a big deal. I hunted caddis fly larvae and water skippers and tadpoles. One of the nicest feelings is the feeling of cool, smooth river pebbles under bare feet. Overall it is a lovely poem, with a fun simile at the end. I don’t have a creek now, but I can make the most of a beautiful day by making old-fashioned lemonade. Here in the UK most beverages called “lemonade” are in fact a citrusy, carbonated beverage that to me, does not qualify. You can get “cloudy lemonade” in small amounts, but I wanted more than that. I browsed the internet for recipes, but had to improvise a bit based on the number of lemons I had. Old-Fashioned LemonadeIngredients: 5 cups water 1 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice (I used 2 ½ lemons) 3/4 cup sugar Method: Juice the lemons (I used a wooden hand juicer), and mix in the sugar. Mix and mix. Eventually it will dissolve. Add the water. The proportion of water/lemon juice/sugar is something that will vary according to taste, so add ingredients until it tastes right to you. Chill. This recipe made enough for me to fill a large pickle jar and a small glass bottle. I can’t remember the last time I had home-made lemonade, and oh boy, is it good. It tastes so amazingly fresh, vibrant and alive. It’s the nectar of Summer, best enjoyed through a cute straw in a frosty glass bottle. Enjoy in the Sun!