Too Darn Cute

Monday, December 30, 2013

1st Birthday Sprinkle Party

Leo turned ONE this month! This first year is so fun and full of firsts. I love watching him learn new things while he grows and changes. We got to spend Christmas with all my family this year, so we had lots of aunts, uncles, and cousins to party with us. It has been so fun looking up birthday party ideas for him. While I certainly wanted to celebrate his big day, I also didn't want to spend big bucks. I fell in love with the sprinkle cake when I stumbled across this blog, and decided to throw a little sprinkle party luncheon for Leo.

There are SO MANY cake batter and sprinkle ideas on there that the hardest part was choosing only a few of the recipes and ideas for the party. I decided to do a sprinkle-covered smash cake and cupcakes for everyone else. I used my all-time favorite frosting recipe for them. Seriously, try it. It's light, fluffy, and not overly sweet. It's SO GOOD!

We also had caramel and chocolate-dipped pretzels and chocolate-dipped Oreos. Both were easy (though a little time consuming) and super yummy snacks.

We also had two of my favorite soups, Corn Chowder and Vegetable Lentil, a strawberry spinach salad, and bread. I made a fun collage with pictures from each month of his first year. Everyone loved seeing how he had changed over that first year. It was all fairly simple, but it came together really well and we had a blast.

I also loved how the balloons with "sprinkles" inside them turned out. All you have to do is cut out circles from tissue paper, slip them inside a clear balloon (not inflated), and then get them filled with helium. The colored circles stay at the bottom for awhile, but the static builds inside and within about an hour they'll be sticking to sides. They made for a really fun decoration.

Of course, the best part was the cake smash! 
He was a little timid when it all started. 

but then then things started getting crazy

...and then he got really into it!

It was such a fun day and so special to share it with so much of our family. He sure adds a lot of excitement and joy to our lives and I feel so lucky to be his mommy.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Tale of Despereaux

The Tale of Despereaux: Being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread
Written by Kate DiCamillo
Ages: 8-12

"Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell [me] a story. Make some light."

This is a charming story about a small mouse with big floppy ears who just doesn't seem to fit in with his family or the whole mouse community, for that matter. He is not interested in scrounging for every last crumb or in quietly scurrying around the castle in which he lives. Despereaux likes to spend his time reading stories about a beautiful princess, listening to music, and talking with humans! His tale is one that will cause him to meet an interesting cast of characters and force him to be braver than he ever thought possible in order to save someone he loves.

DiCamillo is a wonderful author and she did not disappoint with this delightful novel, which won the Newbery Medal in 2004. It is beautifully written, engaging, and finishes with a happy ending. Though it is written for children, it does not feel childish. The characters are interesting and complex, each struggling with his or her own wishes and reality. One of my favorite things about the story, however, is the lesson it teaches about the importance of our choices. Using symbols of light and darkness, the characters reveal how their choices, not their circumstances, define who they are. The best stories have good lessons and make you feel good, too. Despereaux is the hero of such a story.

Here are a few ideas on how you could use this novel in your classroom or home.

Read Aloud: This would be an excellent book to read aloud to a class. It is very engaging, has fun characters, and would be great to discuss with a class. The best part? It is filled with lots of short chapters! Short chapters make it easy to stay within your allotted time for read aloud or great for filling just a few minutes when transitioning to a new activity. Seriously, students will love this book.

Small group (or book clubs): Students would enjoy using this book in a small group as well. It provides great support to its readers, helping them identify important vocabulary that may be new and even posing a few questions to think about. After using the word, the author asks us, "Reader, do you know what 'perfidy' means? I have a feeling you do, based on the little scene that has just unfolded here. But you should look up the word in your dictionary, just to be sure." She similarly defines or talks about vocabulary in several other places (though it is not so much that it is tiring). There are plenty of opportunities for students to visualize, make connections, ask questions, and discuss important ideas. It is a story that is easy to understand but provides a lot of depth that students can enjoy.

Choice and Accountability: This is a great story for facilitating a discussion with students about the power of their choices. The two main characters, Despereaux and Chiaroscuro, are born into families in which they just don't feel like they fit in. Both are drawn to light but find themselves rejected and left to darkness where they must choose how they will react. One reacts with bravery, choosing to define himself through love. The other chooses revenge. Children can compare and contrast these characters to see how their choices affected them and those around them. We, too, face difficult and sometimes heart-breaking situations, but we still get to choose how we react and how we define ourselves.

Voice (writing): One of the most charming elements of this book is the author's voice. When I taught in Utah, I know my 5th graders were heavily exposed to the six traits of writing. Voice is the trait that shows the personality of the writer, making it feel like there is someone talking to you. This is a great novel for showing an example of strong voice. The author actually DOES talk to you. On page 111 she tells us, "Reader, in the spirit of honesty, I must utter a difficult and unsavory truth: Rats are not beautiful creatures. They are not even cute. They are, really, rather nasty beasts." DiCamillo feels like your friend and your guide, navigating you through the story. It really feels like she is sharing this story with you. Voice, of course, does not have to be so explicit, but hers is a fun one to help introduce the concept.

Writing: DiCamillo has shared the story behind her story of Despereaux (I found it in the description of the author in the back of the novel). Her son's best friend asked her to write a story about an unlikely hero, one with exceptionally large ears. This is the tale she created about that unlikely hero. I love the idea of an unlikely hero. Not a Superman or a James Bond. A simple, relatable character who finds out how to be a hero. In a fun lesson about characters, students could create their own unlikely hero. They would have to describe the character's appearance (and draw a picture, of course), his or her attributes, strengths, weaknesses, desires, and come up with a name. They would then need to write a short explanation of what makes their character a hero. This could be turned into a longer project where students create a setting, problem, events, and resolution for their character as well. I'm sure they'll all be excited to create a life for their hero.

This one will not disappoint! I wholeheartedly recommend reading about Despereaux with your class or family.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Autumn Stroll

Crunchy leaves. A cinnamon scent. Snuggling up in a jacket. And don't forget sharpened pencils, football games, and Halloween. Fall is my favorite time of the year. There is something so exciting about it. This is our first fall in Pittsburgh and it is absolutely stunning. There are so many hills and trees here and I have really enjoyed watching the trees slowly turn gold and red. We decided to go out for a little hike to soak it in before it becomes too cold to be enjoyable. We found a fun little trail that did not disappoint. Here are a few shots from our autumn stroll.

He loved seeing (and feeling) all the new plants.

I sure love these two guys. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Van Gogh and the Sunflowers

Van Gogh and the Sunflowers
Written and illustrated by Laurence Anholt

When 11-year Camille meets a strange painter that moves onto his street, they quickly becomes friends. He loves watching the painter, Vincent van Gogh, create beautiful pictures of sunflowers and fields. The rest of the town, however, does not appreciate his work and forces him to leave. Camille struggles when he sees others being so mean to his friend. This is a charming story about van Gogh's life while teaching us about accepting those that are different.

This was a really cute story. It caught my eye in the library because I’ve always had a thing for van Gogh, but when I found out the story takes place while he lived in the south of France, I was sold. This is part of a series by British author and illustrator Laurence Anholt who teaches about famous artists and the real children that knew them. It’s a fun way to learn more about the artists, see some of their work, and learn about important virtues through a relatable story.

Though I’ve always been drawn to van Gogh’s work, I am no expert. After reading the story, I wanted to know what in the book was true and what was fabricated to make a good story. For instance, after Camille befriends the strange new artist, Vincent paints a portrait for each member of Camille’s family. It turns out that this really did happen. Camille’s dad, a postman named Joseph Roulin, actually became a good friend to Vincent when he moved to Arles (in southern France) in 1888. He usually had trouble finding models to paint, so Vincent was very pleased that the entire Roulin family sat for him. Each member ended up sitting for him several times and, in exchange, Vincent gave the family a portrait of each family member.

I loved that Anholt included so many of Vincent’s masterpieces in the story as well. The yellow house shown in the story really was where Vincent lived during his time in Arles. It was also here that he painted his famous sunflower paintings and bedroom. It was not, however, where he painted Starry Night. That one was actually painted while he was in an asylum in Saint-Rémy. Interestingly, he didn’t even paint it at night. Instead, he painted it during the day from memory. It doesn’t bother me that he included it in the book though. It is probably his most well-known piece and the story wouldn’t feel complete without it.

“I long so much to make beautiful things. But beautiful things require effort—and disappointment and perseverance.”

There was something else in the picture of Vincent painting Starry Night that caught my eye. Looking out onto the small town at night, he is wearing a straw hat with several candles balancing on its brim so that he could see. It seems like a cute anecdote so I wanted to find out if it was true. I wasn’t able to find a definite answer, but I think it is just a van Gogh myth. Though several internet sources document this as a fact, I couldn’t find where the story originated. Most of what we know about van Gogh comes from letters that he wrote to friends and family. While there is nothing about painting by candlelight, he did tell his brother that he painted "the starry sky at last, actually painted at night, under a gas-lamp." He is talking about a similar starry painting called Starry Night Over the Rhone. While the candles make for a good story, I don’t think it actually happened.

Lastly, it is true that many of the people in Arles did not appreciate his art or want him in their town. He finally left Arles after a petition from 30 townspeople calling him a “fou roux” (red-headed madman) was given to the police. Vincent committed himself to the asylum in Saint- Rémy only two months later. He was undoubtedly rejected and unappreciated by most he met during his life.

Students will recognize many pices of this painting in Anholt's story.

Phew. That was a lot of background, but I do also have a few fun ideas on how to use this story to teach.

Bullying: Vincent van Gogh is a great example of someone who was not admired or even liked but that was very talented. He only sold one painting during his life but is now one of the most recognizable artists of all time. Camille looked past his oddities and saw that the stranger actually had many things to teach us. This would be a great story to help address issues of acceptance and kindness.

Writing Letters: Most of the information we know about van Gogh and the Roulin family comes from letters that he wrote to his brother Theo. It would be fun to connect this story to a lesson on letter writing and format. Students could then write a letter like Vincent to a friend or family member to tell them about something going on in their life. Or, students could write a letter to Vincent to tell him what they think about his artwork. This would also be a fun way to help teach students about primary documents.

“I am always doing what I cannot do yet, 
in order to learn how to do it.” 

Creative Writing: When you see a portrait for the first time, you usually don’t know who the person is or why the artist painted them. But there is always a story behind the picture. I loved this book because the reader gets to actually learn about Camille, the boy in the painting, and imagine what a day in his life was like. A painting would be a great source of writing inspiration. Students are incredibly creative and would have a great time imagining who the person in a new painting is, how they knew the artist, or why the artist chose to paint them. Van Gogh has several other portraits that could be used for this activity.

Music/Poetry: The song “Starry Starry Night” by Don McLean provides a wonderful opportunity for a cross-curriculum lesson. The song contains a lot of imagery that connects to van Gogh’s life and several of his works. Used with the book, this could make a fun introduction to the artist’s life. It would also be great at the end of a van Gogh unit where students can use their knowledge of his life and paintings to find meaning in McLean’s song. There is an awesome website that could be used for such a lesson here.

“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”

Art: There are obviously many different art lessons to teach when studying van Gogh. I would love to use his work to teach students about Impressionism, contrast, movement, and color. Colors hold a lot of symbolism and even young children will relate certain colors with certain feelings. Van Gogh once wrote, “There is no blue without yellow and without orange.” I would love discuss the meaning of this quote, both in art and in life. Even though Vincent faced rejection and depression during his life, he was still able to find the sunflower and stars. He has made a huge impact in the world of art and this book would be a great introduction to his life and talent.

I would absolutely recommend this book and this series. Laurence Anholt crams so much history and art in his short stories and does a fabulous job of making artists relatable. They are great for teaching art, connect to many other disciplines, and inspire learning.

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’
then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”


Monday, September 16, 2013

The Sisters Grimm #1

The Sisters Grimm #1: The Fairy-Tale Detectives
Written by Michael Buckley
Ages: 8-12

The first book in a series of nine (so far), this story features heroines Sabrina and Daphne Grimm, the descendants of the legendary Brothers Grimm. When the orphaned girls move in with the grandmother they thought was dead, they not only find out about their famous ancestors, they also learn that the Grimm’s fairy tales were actually history books! Trying to navigate in a magical world filled with all the characters from their favorite stories, the girls must become detectives in order to solve the mystery of the giant that kidnapped their Granny.

This is a great idea for a series. I love that the characters are from fairy tales, nursery rhymes, The Wizard of Oz, and even Shakespeare. I never knew who would show up next!  Set in modern New York, it was fun to see how the characters have adapted and changed to live in the present. Some have grown up and gotten married and most have full-time jobs. It was a fun read and I had several ideas while reading for how to use it with a class. The biggest critique I have for it is that it was written in a very cartoony way, often making it feel excessively juvenile. I firmly believe that great children’s books don’t have to feel childish. Nevertheless, I believe most students would be very engaged by this story and would enjoy some of the following activities to expand their reading experience.

Jack plays a big role in this story

Reading: This a great book to exemplify the elements in a story. The characters, setting, goal, problem, and solution are fairly straight forward and would be fun to discuss with a class. Especially the characters! Students will recognize most of the characters in the story and would easily be able to make connections with other books and movies. Because of the many references to fairy tales, it would also be a great one to use while exploring the genre of fairy tales and the comment elements and themes in them (such as magic, good vs. evil, quest, and happy endings). Since it is a mystery as well, the book could help classes learn about similarities between books in this genre.

I feel like the reading strategy of visualizing is the easiest to teach, possibly because it comes so naturally for students and possible because there are so many good examples to choose from. There were a few passages of this book that would be so fun to use in a visualizing lesson and see how the students pictured the story. Here are three that I loved: 
  • Page 100 (when the girls first see the giant): “Boils as big as birthday cakes pocked the giant’s greasy skin. A broken nose zigzagged across his face, and one dead white eye seeped puss while the other one was lined with the crust of sleep. Hairs as thick as tree trunks jutted out of his nose and hung over a mouthful of broken, misplaced, yellow-and-green teeth.” The paragraph continues with lots of other juicy words to describe that beauty.
  • Page 143: The girls and Puck get ready to face the mysterious noise they heard in a locked room. They climb the stairs after dressing themselves in all sorts of kitchen gadgets they hope will protect them from an intruder.
  • Page 147: The detectives see the face in the mirror for the first time and stare at his “eyes like blue flames flickering a mixture of rage and disgust.” 

Mirror Mirror

Writing: My favorite thing about this series is the appearance of so many familiar characters. Similar to Shrek, it is so fun to see how characters act in new situations and interact with each other. It’s fun to think about how they have changed and what they have chosen to do with their life outside of their famous story. I would love to let students pick a character they know and then put them in a contemporary setting. They would have to think about their personality and skills and decide what kind of job he would have, who would his friends be, what are his goals, etc. Many of the animal characters have a human form in the book so students could also describe what their character looks like and how he or she acts. Students could use this as simply a character development activity or use their characters to write a new story about them. Since book one sets up the series, students could even use what they learned about mysteries to write a new story in the series by coming up with a mystery that the Sisters Grimm must solve. I bet a lot of students would love to share the mysteries they imagined up!

As a fifth grade teacher, I know we spent a lot of time preparing students to think about and write convincing persuasive essays. This novel would be a fun starter to a practice essay. Students could pick a side and answer questions such as “Is Mayor Charming a good guy?,” “Should the Grimms trust Puck?,” or “Is Jack a villain or a victim?” Students would have to pick a side and use evidence from the book to persuade the reader.

Social Studies: If you really want to make a big deal of that last question, it would be so fun to do a mock trial in the classroom. After students learn about the judiciary system, students could adopt roles such as judge, defense and prosecuting attorneys, witnesses, and jury. The class could put Jack on trial (or any of the other characters) and use evidence from the story to support their side. This would be a great exercise in debate and a chance to experience a little drama as well.

As a read aloud, class novel, or a small group book, there are many ways to enjoy and use this story in the classroom. And since it is the first in a series, many students will be motivated to continue reading on their own when you finish which is always a good thing!

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to School

The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to School
Written by Laurie Halse Anderson
Illustrated by Ard Hoyt
Picture Book

This is a darling story about Zoe Fleefenbacher, a spunky first grader with wild red hair that has a life of its own. No, really. Her hair can change the channel, pet the cat, and take out the trash. Though her crazy hair is loved by her parents and friends, Zoe’s no-nonsense first grade teacher is not so excited about having it in her classroom. This is such a fun story about working together and finding solutions. This is a great one to use just for fun, but there are several other ways to use it in a classroom. Here are a few ideas:

Classroom Discussion: I would love to use this story at the beginning of the school year. Students (and teachers) are often apprehensive about their new class. They have to learn new rules, new expectations, and a new teacher. This silly story can help break the ice and open discussion on how students can work together with the teacher to create the best learning environment. This would be a great time to talk about how the “strict” teacher was not trying to torture Zoe, but she simply wanted to create a classroom where everyone would be able to learn. Once Zoe’s hair got on board with that goal, the problem was solved. I am a big supporter of letting the class help come up with classroom expectations. When they become a part of the creation of rules, students have a greater desire to follow them. Even the “hairy” students (pun intended) tend to respect expectations that they helped create.

Making Connections: Even though this story is quite fantastical, its very relatable setting makes it a great one for connections. Sometimes it’s helpful to encourage thinking by asking questions and having a student explain or share. Some questions to promote Text-to-Self connections might be: Can you relate to how Zoe’s parents love her odd hair? Have you felt comfortable in a class the way Zoe did in kindergarten? Can you relate to having a strict new teacher? Have you ever been punished for something you didn’t think was your fault? Have you ever felt misunderstood?

Visualizing: What a fun story to visualize! There are so many fun images in this story. I can guarantee that every elementary student would LOVE a chance to draw you a picture of what Zoe’s hair can do. I love descriptions that show how her hair “went on forever,” could do several tasks “all at the same time,” and finally “exploded into the classroom.” Just about every page describes how her hair looks or something it could do. I love using a book as a read aloud and letting the students draw what they visualized before I show them the illustrator’s version in the book.

Onomatopoeia: This would be a really fun book to use to introduce the concept of onomatopoeia. There are several examples in the story that students could identify and easily demonstrate. After discussing the definition and several examples, I might have students look for examples in a book they are reading on their own. They could also incorporate them into a story they are writing or create a comic to use them.

I definitely recommend picking this one up at your next library visit. It's a fun one you and your kids will love.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Roasted Tomato and Ricotta Crostini

I found this recipe on Martha Stewart's website this week and pinned it so that I would remember it. A couple of days later, The Today Show had a guest chef who made these same crostini and they looked so good. I had to try them! They were super easy to make (but the tomatoes do take a little prep) and so delicious! I altered the Martha Stewart recipe by adding basil and garlic because everything becomes twice as good when you add those two magical ingredients.

Crostini means "little toasts" in Italian and is basically toasted baguette with any type of topping. Bruschetta is a common favorite, but these are a tasty mix between bruschetta and a caprese salad. The hardest part is finding a good baguette. Do you know where I can find an authentic French baguette in the U.S.? I miss that crunchy outside and soft, chewy, flavorful bread inside. All for less than one Euro on any street in France. We just don't make them quite like the French. Mmmm, I love bread!

All you need:

  • grape tomatoes
  • fresh basil
  • ricotta cheese
  • baguette
Things you probably have on hand already:
  • olive oil
  • garlic
  • salt
  • pepper
I brushed the baguette slices with olive oil and broiled both sides. Then, I rubbed them with a fresh clove of garlic and topped them with ricotta, basil, and a few of my roasted tomatoes. YUM!

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Triumph over Decorating Paralysis: Part Two

*To see the background for these projects, read part one here.

The first big decision was made and I was feeling pretty good. Turning the idea of a theme into a concrete plan, however, was a long and tricky process. Turning that plan into an actual room took even embarrassingly longer. Part two of my triumph was overcoming the infinite choices of fabrics and paints to get some color on the walls and some curtains on the windows.  

1.  Start with the fabric. If you’ve ever seen an episode of Sarah’s House on HGTV, you know that when decorating a room, you absolutely must start with the fabrics.

2.  Visit every local fabric store trying to find the perfect fabric (one that is both adorable and affordable). If you don’t find anything, scour the internet until your eyeballs bleed and then become overwhelmed by the millions of options.

3.  Create a digital image of the room so you can cut/paste pictures of different options. This will help you visualize your options. Mull over them for a few weeks, narrow your choices, and eventually pick one (even if you don’t ultimately follow it exactly).

Make sure you're OCD about lining up the squares of fabric
on the curtains so they look as realistic as possible.
These fabric samples are courtesy of

4.  Pull the trigger and order the fabrics. Stop second guessing or wondering if there’s a cuter fabric out there for a better price. If you do, you’ll wait too long and the main fabric you were going to order will be out of stock and you’ll have to pay more to order it from a different website (D’oh!).

5.  Choose a coordinating color to paint the room. I chose gray.

6.  Realize that the color you chose only slightly narrows down your actual paint options (seriously, do you know how many shades of gray there are? Trust me, there are more than fifty).

7.  Talk to the really nice lady at the paint store and let her help you hone in on a shade. The color you thought you wanted (found from a cool pin about the perfect neutral colors to use in your home) will probably look too green when compared with the yellows you plan to use. Paint Lady will have the answer and even explain the differences between the aisles and aisles of paints that they offer.

I chose Ozark Shadows from Benjamin Moore.  It's a medium gray so it's dark enough
you know it's gray but not so dark it makes the room feel like a cave.  I loved it!

8.  Watch a bunch of online tutorials on how to paint a room (some of these will contradict each other and they will most likely assume you are not a beginner who knows absolutely nothing about painting, so see step 9).

9.  Make several calls to your sister to fill in the blanks. She will also be able to provide you the moral support necessary to purchase all the materials and actually get started painting (which, it turns out, is a lot more difficult than it is in The Sims).

10.  After a few days of hard work, sit back and appreciate your masterpiece (and try not to worry about that message from your landlord telling you that the color you just used to paint the room is too dark and you need to choose a different color… but that’s a story for another time).

In part three I'll reveal the fabulous curtains I made with the new fabric! (Spoiler Alert: They pretty much look just like the curtains in the sample room pic above).

Photo credits: