Monday, August 31, 2009

Preparing for Flu Season + Thermometer Giveaway

One of my girlfriends carries a thermometer in her diaper bag, taking her kids' temperature at the slightest hint of illness. That's not really my style. I typically gauge potential fevers by touch, confirming with a digital thermometer under their arm if they seem really sick. (I've gotten quite accurate with the touch method, I'll have you know.)

With all the H1N1 flu drama, our preschool and daycare are now much more specific about when children will be allowed through the door and how high a mild fever can be before it keeps them home. Determining that a forehead is "barely warm" won't really cut it. Faced with the prospect of a lot more temperature-taking this winter, I accepted a MomSelect invitation to review the new ReliOn Temple Touch Thermometer.

The good:

  • It works fast. Hold the end of the digital thermometer up to a squirmy kid's temple for six seconds and you're done. Much more convenient than the minute-plus I have to hold the thermometer under their arms for an auxiliary temp.
  • There are little beeps to tell you when to put it up to the temple and when to take it off. And instructions right on the thermometer in case even that's too much to remember.
  • I tried it on my toddler and myself at a few different points throughout the day. It gave consistent readings for both of us.
  • It's only $10, which is about what I spent on our last thermometer.
The not as good:
  • The beeps are pretty loud, especially when the thermometer is right next to your ear. One of its selling points is supposed to be that you can use it on sleeping kids, but I wouldn't want to risk waking a sleeping sick child. I wish there were a way to mute the beeping.
  • You'll still need a thermometer on hand for taking rectal temperatures. At least at our pediatrician's office, that's the reading they request if things are dicey.
  • It's only available through WalMart or its cousin, Sam's Club (I didn't realize that fact until today).
In addition to the free thermometer to review, I received one to give away. To enter, leave a comment on this post sharing something about autumn you're looking forward to (since the flu isn't the only thing coming). U.S. mailing addresses only. One entry per person, winner to be chosen at random no later than 9/12, void where prohibited. Entries without some means of contact (e.g. email, blog link) are invalid. Contest closes 9/9 midnight PST.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Book Review: "Daniel X: Watch the Skies"

When the call came around for the Mother Talk blog tour for Daniel X: Watch the Skies, I thought it would be a good opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the world of young adult lit and see what's new there.

Watch the Skies is the follow-up to James Patterson's The Dangerous Days of Daniel X, which I saw described elsewhere as an attempt to cross "Men In Black" with Harry Potter. I had learned last year about Patterson's really useful website Read Kiddo Read, part of his larger effort to spark a lifelong love of reading in kids by matching them with engaging, wonderful books. So I was interested to see what he would come up with for young readers, specifically boys.

I don't completely buy in to the idea of "boy books" and "girl books," especially when it's based on little more than the protagonist's gender. (I'm willing to concede that Betsy-Tacy and Tib books wouldn't be the first thing I'd hand to a boy, but--girl or boy--if you like Island of the Blue Dolphins, you're going to like My Side of the Mountain, you know what I mean?) But I'm also the parent of a little boy who LOVES books right now. And if knowing more about books marketed toward boys helps me keep that love burning through his adolescence, then I'm game.

Daniel is an alien hunter--and a human-like alien himself. His parents were killed by evil aliens when he was a toddler, and now as a teen he helps rid the universe of other evil aliens. He's a teen with lots of superpowers, including the ability to make matter materialize just by using his imagination (even his dead parents, which sort of takes the edge off the whole orphan thing). In this episode, he faces down the fifth most dangerous alien on Earth.

Here is what stood out to me:

  • The chapters are super short. Many of them total about one page of text.
  • There is a lot of movement--characters changing location, jumping from one activity to another, etc. There is not a ton of detail.
  • Because of points one and two, it's definitely a quick read.
  • There are lots and lots of brand names gratuitously dropped. Which may have been an attempt to make the book current, but (a) will eventually make it seem dated and (b) raised my anti-marketing hackles.
  • The limits of Daniel's powers aren't really explained. If he can create whatever he can imagine, including people who later conveniently disappear, why can't he imagine a huge army of fighters to take out all the aliens?
  • As far as I could tell, none of the characters were people of color. When coloring was noted it was often to point out blond hair or blue eyes.
At first I thought it reminded me of a Choose Your Own Adventure book--short chapters, shallow characters that don't develop, plots that hop from cliffhanger to cliffhanger--without the choices. But then I realized it reminded me of The Da Vinci Code--and I really, really didn't like The Da Vinci Code. But, admittedly, lots of people did.

So if you have a kid who would enjoy a book that's high on movement and short on character, and who would like the satisfaction that comes from whipping through short chapters, I offer you Daniel X.

As a participant in a Mother Talk blog tour, I received a free copy of the book and a $20 Amazon gift certificate for writing this review. is an affiliate.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review: "Billy Had to Move"

The latest contribution to children's adoption/foster care literature comes from Theresa Fraser, a long-time Canadian foster parent and children's therapist. Billy Had To Move: A Foster Care Story tells the story of a boy who is being raised in a kinship placement with his grandmother. When she unexpectedly dies and his mother can't be located, he moves in with a foster family and meets a new social worker and therapist. Told from Billy's point-of-view, it does a good job of using children's language and concepts as Billy grieves and adjusts. It is a compassionate book that honors the many complex, conflicting, and confusing emotions Billy experiences, while also ending with a spirit of hope.

It's a children's book, so things are of course a little simplified and idealized. Billy's foster mother is an always-nurturing domestic goddess and the social worker and therapist seem to have lots of extra time to be with Billy outside of scheduled appointments. (Just like the real world, right?) But it is a relatable introduction to the foster system for kids who don't really know what foster care is about or how their peers end up in care. (It's made clear, for example, that Billy is not there because he did something wrong.) And for children in care, it may serve as a helpful touchpoint as they see some of their losses and emotions mirrored in Billy. It also introduces the idea of play therapy and describes what a typical session might be like.

My biggest critique is that it's hard to tell what age this is geared to. The language is fairly simple, but there are lots and lots and lots of words. Some facing pages are top to bottom text with no pictures. I'd say if a kid can sit through something like The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, then they are old enough for this book.

Written by Theresa Ann Fraser, illustrated by Alex Walton; Loving Healing Press, 2009; $16 at Amazon. My copy was provided free of charge by Parent Reviewers. is an affiliate.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Review: "The Unit"

I was sent a review copy of The Unit, a new novel by Swedish author Ninni Homqvist.

It is smooth reading (translated nicely by Marlaine Delargy) and explores what it means to create, love, be valued and be free. Interestingly, I thought it echoed some of the conversations here in America about the Baby Scoop Era--especially the maternity homes--although with an odd undercurrent of hostility toward feminism.

From the promotional materials, I knew that it would touch on some sensitive subjects for members of the adoption/infertility/loss communities. (The "unit" of the title is a program in which unmarried, childless people over a certain age are used as science experiment participants and organ donors for the "necessary" members of society.) But it went way beyond "touchy." It is an enormous emotional mine field with a ticking time bomb of an ending.

If you have struggled with infertility, placed a child for adoption, experienced any sort of adoption-related loss, or struggled with childlessness or singleness, I highly recommend not reading this book unless you are in a very strong, centered place. If you feel like the curiosity is too much, email me and I'll tell you all about it. is an affiliate

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Scout the Iddy Biddy Cloud

NMC Toys, through Parent Reviewers, sent us a cute little Scout the Cloud to check out. Scout is one of three stuffed toys in the Idbids series, designed to help kids take iddy biddy steps (get it?) toward a greener life.

Each Idbid comes with a code that lets you access a protected part of the Idbids website. I didn't think my 3 1/2 year old was old enough to appreciate that feature, but to my surprise he got really excited about it. In Scout's section, we met three animals that live in the rain forest and learned a little bit about why their habitat needs protecting. My son's favorite part was getting to name the animals and print out certificates with their pictures on them. (Thanks to Idbids from this adoptive parent, by the way, for not making it an "adoption" certificate like so many toys do.)

The tag also said we'd be able to explore more of Scout's world online, but, alas, that part of the site is still under construction. My son was mightily disappointed and I'm still fielding questions a week later about why it wasn't available. (I guess I learned a parenting lesson about verifying a toy's claims before reading them aloud to my kids.)

Scout and friends (a friendly raindrop and a pleasant flower) are made from organic cotton and colored with vegetable dyes. If you're looking for a non-toxic, eco-friendly stuffed toy, these are three cute options. Very soft and cheerful.

If you want the full benefit of Idbids' environmental ed piece, I think you really need to get the starter kit. The starter kit includes, among other things, a children's book that uses the Idbid characters to talk about environmentalism and a chart that lets kids track their progress in making iddy biddy steps to help the Earth. The toy alone, even combined with the website, just didn't really convey Idbids' stated environmental mission.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Obama: The Historic Journey"

Thanks to a Mother Talk book tour, I got a chance to look at Obama: The Historic Journey (Young Reader's Edition), a new book from The New York Times/Callaway with text by Jill Abramson. It takes kids through President Obama's story from his childhood and early career, then moves into a more in-depth look at the campaign and election, culminating with Inauguration Day.

It is a visually engaging book, packed with stunning photos from flyleaf to flyleaf. The text, adapted for elementary school readers from the adult version, is easy to read and covers a lot of ground, including everything from personal stories to a breakdown of Obama and McCain's positions on major campaign issues. I appreciated that the author was willing to reference class issues and racism in an age-appropriate way. I was also happy to see his daughters (who, like my daughter, were born to an African-American parent and a biracial parent) included several times in the story and pictures. There was even a brief section devoted to them (did you know Sasha's Secret Service name is 'Radiance'?).

Reading through this brought back so much of the lump-in-the-throat emotion of that whole long season of Obama's candidacy and inauguration. My kids are still too young really understand everything that happened last year. This book will be a helpful resource for them in the future, as it does a good job of capturing for them just why Obama's election was so significant for our country. It will give them some of the context for his declaration from the day he decided to run:

This I know: When I raise my hand and take that oath of office, I think the world will look at us differently. And millions of kids across this country will look at themselves differently.

(For approx. ages 8-12. Available for $16 at Amazon or $25 at the NY Times Store. My review copy was free via Mother Talk. is an affiliate)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

I hate this sippy cup

I hate this Nuby sippy cup.

Okay, fine, there are a few things I like about it. It's made from silicone and safer #5 plastic and is a decent 10 oz. size. And it's got a nice one-piece valve system. Those features are why I bought it in the first place.

But none of that really matters because it's so damn hard to get the thing put together. First, the spout and handles are all one piece. Because the handles go so low on the body, you have to sort of hold the cup on the bottom inch with the fingertips of one hand while you screw on the lid with the other. Not ideal. Second, if you screw the top on too tightly, the spout piece starts to twist around, so that it's no longer centered between the handles. But if you screw it on at all loosely or crooked, it leaks. So every time you fill it up you go through this ridiculous effort of trying to screw it on juuuust right. And then half of the time it leaks anyway. What a waste.

Maybe I'm just doing something wrong, but a sippy cup shouldn't require advanced instructions. There are better options out there. Save your money.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fun in the sun

Meet my favorite children's sunhat.

The Hanna Andersson floppy sunhat is hands down the best sunhat I've found for little kids. It's a constant companion for us in the spring and summer. My kids learn early on that if they want to be outside during the warmer months, they have to be wearing a hat. Period.

Durable and machine washable, it comes in a ton of colors and a big range of sizes. The brim is wide and the neckties stay tied (although Puppy rarely wants them tied and it stays on just fine as he runs around). The $14.50 pricetag borders on the ridiculous, true. But they go on sale every year for about $11 and I regularly find them at the Hanna Andersson outlet for as little as $4-5. Which is how I justify having almost a dozen of them in different sizes at our house. Ahem.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Review: "Otto Grows Down"

Thanks to Sterling Publishing, I recently had the chance to look at Otto Grows Down, a new children's book by author Michael Sussman and illustrator Scott Magoon.

Otto Grows Down takes a familiar set-up--an almost six year old boy less than thrilled with the presence of his new baby sister--and puts a creative spin on it. When Otto uses a birthday wish to wish his sister had never been born, he is shocked to find time suddenly going backward. Soon sister Anna is gone, just as he wished ("And on Monday, Otto's parents returned Anna to the hospital."), but time keeps on running in the wrong direction. Otto must figure out a way to stop himself from reliving his life in reverse before he disappears, too.

My toddler was charmed by the illustrations from the moment the book came out of the box. After several reads over multiple days, he declared it a very good book. His favorite part is the page showing Otto on the toilet, with its sly suggestion of some less enjoyable aspects of doing everything backwards. (I know, you're all, "Ew!" Kids love that stuff--or at least my three-year old and the friends he showed it to did!)

Sussman takes the old lesson of being careful what you wish for and weaves it neatly into the story--no moral anvils here. Otto learns to appreciate what he has, baby sister and all ("'I'd rather grow up with Anna,' said Otto, 'than grow down without her.'"). It will be useful for families dealing with kids' feelings about new siblings, but doesn't feel like a niche "big brother/big sister" book. Sussman keeps the story moving along with funny observations about life in reverse, and Magoon's illustrations add an extra layer of humor. It has been a welcome addition to our home library and one I recommend.

(Ages 4-8--it was fine for my 3.5 year old. The family is Caucasian. Available in hardcover for $12 at Amazon or $11 at Powell's Books. is an affiliate.)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

That Ubiquitous Blue Train, Live and On Stage

I went to Disneyland for the first time when I was six years old, probably at the height of my princess-love phase. Seeing Cinderella and Snow White in person was a dream come true. I bought the notion that they were fairy-tale characters come to life, hook, line and sinker.

Fast-forward four years to our next Disneyland visit. This time all I saw when the princesses passed by were ordinary, costumed people wearing tacky makeup and bad wigs. I was the ripe old age of ten and reality had overpowered the magic.

I was remembering that as I watched my three-year old positively beam in his auditorium seat the other weekend. Like so many pre-school aged kids, my son adores all things train, including Thomas the Tank Engine. When we were offered tickets to see a local production of Thomas & Friends Live! On Stage, I knew it would be a treat for him.

Looking with my adult eyes, the show was light on plot and featured several actors playing multiple roles (and a twenty-something trying to pull off playing Sir Topham Hatt). They did a good job of gearing the performance to little kids, with a ton of audience participation. They sang almost every song we had heard in the TV episodes and paraded through most of the popular characters, although some were cardboard puppets. In a move I really appreciated, they kept the overpriced merchandise confined to a fairly small booth in the lobby (where the venue also offered up cocktails to the parents--at a matinee. Heh.)

Looking through my son's toddler eyes, it was pure magic. He saw his favorite trains moving and talking right in from of him (the big moving engines were pretty neat), heard the familiar songs, and got to peep peep along with his beloved Thomas. During the intermission he and the little boys sitting around us pulled out the toy engines they had all brought along and pushed them along the seat backs together. And his favorite part? A brief segment featuring a cardboard cutout of Gordon stuck in the mud.

If you have a young Thomas lover in your family and some cash to spare (ticket prices vary by venue; at our show they were $25-40), check to see if it's coming through your area between now and the end of July.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Review: "Sikulu & Harambe By the Zambezi River"

In Sikulu the Spider and Harambe the Hippo By the Zambezi River, the titular friends come to the aid of an older woman whose clothes have washed into the river after other animals won't. According to Nigerian-born author Kunle Oguneye, it's a retelling of an African folktale which parallels the biblical Good Samaritan story. This version emphasizes receiving a reward for good behavior and putting aside personal comfort in order to help someone.

It's always great to find storybooks set in other countries, and this one even has a set of pages in the back with information about Zambia and the animals, words, and people found in the book. This is the first in a planned series of books that will take Sikulu and Harambe to other African countries. The pictures are cute, although I found whatever method was used to color them distracting.

Bottom line? It's no instant classic, but I liked it.

My three-year old really liked this book. We happen to have a spider and hippo in our stuffed animal collection, and bringing them out helped him connect to the story. He dubbed them Sikulu and Harambe and made sure the spider rode around hanging onto the hippo's ears, just as Sikulu does in the pictures. He even carried both animals and the book to daycare to share with his friends. (His daycare provider gave the book a thumbs up.) Some of the book's novelty has worn off now, but it is still in regular rotation and receives a warm reception.

( published by Blue Brush Media, 2008, preschool/early elementary, $15 at they also sell stuffed spiders and hippos--or $11 at Amazon)

Review courtesy of Parent Reviewers--I received a free copy of the book. is an affiliate.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Review: "The Help"

I recently had a chance to read The Help, the debut novel of Kathryn Stockett.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, the book looks at the lives of black maids and the white women who employed them. The narration alternates between three characters--two black, one white--as they collaborate on a secret project to publish the life stories of several maids, a potentially controversial and dangerous goal in a community tearing apart as the fight against segregation progresses.

The three main characters were engaging and lively (the rest were a little one-note, especially the men). I genuinely cared for them, which added the sense of concern as they worked on their project while racial tensions rose around them. But in the end, their stories tied up so conveniently and neatly, that I suddenly felt I was reading a chick lit novel--an odd juxtaposition with the subject matter.

It was an entertaining read. But I have to admit, much about the the book left me uneasy. Take the first introduction of the characters. African-American Minny is known as the best cook in town--and is sassy and overweight to boot. Her friend Abileen, a long-suffering, nuturing woman who has raised over a dozen white children during her career as a domestic, has a special prayer connection with God. White Skeeter is a recent college grad chafing at the limited options available to her as a woman more interested in writing career than marriage (her hair grows longer and her hems shorter as she awakens to social issues). As interesting as the characters were, I wondered at times if they rose above the boxes in which they started. Hattie McDaniel's Mammy was entertaining, but she was still a stereotype, you know?

Skeeter never fully confronts the question of whether she is exploiting the maids for her own professional advancement (it's broached, but quickly left alone), nor the fact that her family's lifestyle depends on the depressed wages of black laborers. And despite Abileen and Minny's strength and life experience, it is naïve Skeeter who suggests that the maids' stories could carry political influence and sets the project in motion.

Bloggers in particular may be interested in what The Help suggests about the power of personal story to cross boundaries and effect change, a belief which inspires many of us to write. And readers interested in issues of race and class in Amercia will find much to explore, both within the story and on a meta-level about the book itself.

(Published by Putnam Adult, 2009, $17 at Amazon. Readers of my personal blog might want to know that there is a minor adoption storyline toward the end. This review was sponsored by Mother Talk. is an affiliate.)

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