Speaking Books into Life

I used to read out loud to my mom. I was ten, or maybe twelve. The Harry Potter books had become an obsession for me. Was Snape good or bad? Could Dumbledore keep everyone safe now that Voldemort had returned? Would Harry beat Malfoy in the next Quidditch match? These were the questions that consumed my brain, and I had no one to discuss them with.

My mom isn't much of a reader. Despite my badgering, I could never get her on board with reading thousands of pages of books meant for children. So when she was trapped in the car with me, usually on our way to my grandma's house for coffee each Sunday morning, I'd read them to her. 

She liked them. Loved them, actually. Soon every Target run was a chance to squeeze in a few more pages. I started doing voices and speaking in a British accent. (My utter lack of theater skills mean this was every bit as embarrassing as it sounds.) 

I introduced my mom to the magic of Harry one 10-minute car ride at a time. I had successfully shared a story that mattered to me with someone else, and I was ecstatic. 

I can't remember how many books we got through before I stopped reading to her. Did we quit after the massive tome that was Goblet of Fire? Did the ritual end once I got my first boyfriend and started riding everywhere in the passenger seat of his Chevy Cavalier instead of with my parents? Deathly Hallows came out when I was 17, and I'm sure I wasn't still reading out loud by then. 

Did my mom finish the books on her own, waiting until I had raced through each new release in less than a day so she could borrow my copy? Or did she just watch the movies once I stopped reading out loud? 

The details I can't remember are startling. I'm not even 30. This wasn't that long ago. But up until a few years ago, I'd forgotten that we used to read Harry together at all. 

Then my oldest daughter, Hadley, was born. Everyone tells you that reading to babies is good for them, but babies don't have much of an opinion about which books you pick. I took full advantage of this.

We were a few chapters into Sorcerer's Stone when I started having deja vu. Had I done this before? By the end of the first book, I remembered my car readings with my mom. By book two, my non-reader husband was listening in. I was once again sharing the story with someone who would otherwise never have known its magic.

Hadley is nearly four now, and old enough to be freaked out by things like an evil giant snake living in school walls. We made it through Goblet of Fire and her first 18 months of life before I decided it was time to shelve Harry for the time being. 

Now there are the Dr. Seuss books to hold her attention with their neverending rhymes, and Go Dog, Go with that horribly rude yellow dog who never likes the poor poodle's hat. Hadley has opinions about her books now, and the ones she most wants to hear are often the most tedious to read. 

It's hard to bond over phonics and early-reader books. I want to share a story with my kids. But stories, real stories, seem to be in a short supply for the under-five crowd. So I do what I've always done, ever since I was a 12-year-old tearing through Gone with the Wind and tackling my first Kingsolver: I read up to them.

The trick is to find books with pictures and a good story. Not too long—attention spans are still short. Hidden messages and strong values are always a plus, as are gorgeous illustrations. These books will likely have tearable pages and dust jackets, and the two-year-old will gradually destroy them. But that's okay; the story is just as good with some tattered edges. 

These books have been hard to come by. Bloom is one, What Do You Do with an Idea? another. And now there's a new addition to our bedtime rotation, another worthwhile story to fit in between sessions of Cat in the Hat.

The Golden Dress by L. L. Barkat checks all the boxes for me.

There's whimsy and magic, a beautiful dress any girl would adore brought to life with illustrations so gorgeous, I can't even put words to them. There's a truth-telling raven I'll 100% be using as a gateway into Poe someday. There's a dedication to all those who love fairy tales, which had me sold before I even got past the title page. There's an impressive use of vocabulary, which I appreciate in kids' books because it encourages research and curiosity. (I had to look up the word lissome, myself.)

And most of all, there's a mother and her daughter. A mother's heart laid bare in the seams of a dress, a daughter's slow understanding. This isn't a book that teaches manners or how to use the potty or a million other important little lessons we beat into our children's heads day and night.

The Golden Dress accomplishes something far more difficult: it's a story that shines truth.

I have read to my mother. Now I read to my daughters and, when he's older, my son. With every word I'm speaking stories into life, hoping that with enough rereads, the most important of our bedtime stories will stick in a beloved childhood memory somewhere. 

And if they don't stick, if they fade and wear away like mine almost did, maybe those words I read over and over again will have stacked up, layer upon layer, into the sturdy foundation that makes a child into a lover of stories.

 I received a free copy of The Golden Dress from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. 

When Meal Planning Saves You

This post was originally written a year ago, back when I was super optimistic about how long it would take to launch this blog. The post just seemed like it was meant for spring, so I held onto it until now---once again, the week before Easter. Nearly a full year later, the meals in this book still never fail to perk up my meal planning and remind me why we prioritize gathering around the table. 

This post contains affiliate links.

I hate meal planning.

Oh, I love the idea of plotting each meal nicely in it's calendar square, guiding me away from last-minute takeout and the frustration of an empty pantry. I even love it in practice: meal planning undoubtedly saves us hundreds of dollars on groceries each year, not to mention the untold frustrations of dragging two small children to Target for that block of cheese I forgot (again).

What I hate is the activity of meal planning.

There is never an hour (or even ten minutes) in which I think, "I'd like to devote this portion of my life to figuring out what my family will eat for the next seven days." Never is there a convenient time for digging through the pantry, rearranging pasta boxes and canned goods to see if we're running low on olive oil. 

And after all that, having the prophetic-like vision to combine the existing pantry goods with not-yet-purchased ingredients and make them into nourishing, well-rounded meals? Meals that fit effortlessly with the weather, our social plans, and whatever other events make their way onto our calendar? Forget about it.

Meal planning is a chore on par with scrubbing the bathroom.

Until one Sunday night, it wasn't. 

We had all been crabby and tired this particular Sunday. The toddler had meltdowns all day long. The baby kept bursting into screaming fits for no apparent reason. I accidentally fell asleep on the floor for five minutes when I took a break from folding laundry.

It was a long day, one in which we all clearly needed to hit the reset button.

The last thing I wanted to do was meal plan, but I knew I had to. It was the week before Easter. Not only did I have to round up a week's worth of dinners (including one vegetarian for Good Friday), I had to make sure I had all the ingredients on hand for the dishes we would bring to our family's Easter celebration.

Meal planning usually leads me to Pinterest, but the holiday had me reaching for printed recipes. I dug to the back of the cupboard, past the cutting board and splatter screens and muffin tins, for the cheese slicer. This is where we keep the paperclipped scraps of copy paper and post-its with my grandma's scrawling handwriting detailing the makings of our traditional family Easter Pizza. (This is the only recipe for which we use the cheese slicer, so leaving the recipe there makes sense in my head.) 

I grabbed my latest Taste of Home magazine from the basket on the fireplace hearth, hopeful that it would tell me how to make green bean casserole. Next came the mother of all cookbooks: Better Homes and Gardens. Its red-checkered cover has graced my kitchen since the day I got married, when my other grandma presented it as a wedding gift. 

And then on a whim, I picked up Eat This Poem by Nicole Gulotta and added it to the top of my pile. With my whiteboard calendar on my right and my stack of recipes on my left, I prepared to tackle the drudgery of meal planning.

But the drudgery never came. 

As I read through my grandma's handwritten recipe notes, I realized that I was sitting in complete silence for the first time in days. It was a moment that begged to be noticed, so of course, I read a poem.

I knew I would love Eat This Poem because I love the idea of marrying poetry with food. The book is a blend of life's best things: well-loved recipes and mini essays and curated poems to pair with them. (And if that appeals to you, check out the blog of the same name. It's a delight.)

Author Nicole Gulotta is a kindred spirit when it comes to poetry and writing and appreciation of good food. But I don't always share her idea of what good food looks like. She eats a largely vegetarian diet, and ours is decidedly meat based. She loves a good balsamic vinaigrette on a salad; I love Hidden Valley Ranch.

Still, we agree on the important parts: The best food is whole food, made from scratch, shared with those you love. Family recipes are sacred. Eating seasonally makes your food taste better.

I flipped through the book, devouring poetry and short essays along with recipes (many of which I know I'll never make). Soon an hour had passed , yet nary a meal had been planned. And then, Italian Beef Stew. 

This was the recipe I'd been waiting to find, the one that would fill us up on a chilly, rainy Monday. 

I added the ingredients to my list. I pulled meat to thaw from the basement freezer. I added a flag to the book.

This was meal planning as it was meant to be, savored as slowly as the meal itself. I had found connection through the line-by-line instructions of a family recipe, paired with carefully chosen poems.

Perhaps this meal planning was a failure. After all, I spent nearly two hours planning one meal. But I think it was a gift and a blessing, one I will be sure to seek out again.