Everyday Reading - Practical Family Living for Book Loving Parents

July 1, 2015

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

A great WWII historical fiction book for middle schoolers

You guys, I'm already off to a much better start on this summer's Tell Me What to Read books. I mean, last year, I never wrote reviews of even ONE of the books.

I like to set the bar low.

Happily, The War that Saved My Life set the bar high for the rest of the summer.

I already knew of Kimberly Brubaker Bradley from reading Jefferson's Sons several years ago (which I highly highly recommend) and I'd heard such glowing reviews of this book, that I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. It didn't disappoint.

Ada and Jamie live with their mother in London. She works at a pub and is a pretty unfit mother. Ada, especially, takes the brunt of her mother's cruelty because Ada has a mangled foot (she learns later that it's a untreated club foot). Her mother is so embarrassed by it that she never allows nine-year-old Ada to leave the house, confining her to their one-room apartment at all times.

Jamie, on the other hand, who is a few years younger, runs wild, spending most of his time roaming the city with other boys. As the book opens, Ada, home alone all day and tired of her mother's cruelty, begins secretly teaching herself to walk, which is incredibly painful since her foot is basically upside down.

And then, one day, he comes home from school to inform his mother and Ada that the children of London are being sent out to the country to protect them from Hitler's imminent war.

Their mother agrees to let Jamie go, but insists that no one would want Ada with her "ugly foot." But Ada refuses to be left behind and the next morning, she sneaks out with Jamie and the two of them board the train to the country. When they meet some of the neighborhood children, Ada realizes that most of the other children who have seen her at the window for years have always assumed she's simple.

It quickly becomes obvious that, while Ada isn't simple, her life experience is incredibly small. She asks Jamie what that green stuff outside the train is (it's grass) and when they stop, she has to ask Jamie how to use a toilet since her mother has only ever let her use a chamber pot, too ashamed to let her use the public toilets in the apartment.

In the bathroom, as she sees herself in the mirror for the first time, she realizes how filthy and wan she and Jamie both are, and it is confirmed when they arrive in the country town and they are the only two children not selected by townspeople to be cared for.

The woman in charge puts the children in her car and drives them out to a house where Susan Smith lives alone. Her best friend has recently died, leaving the house to Susan, and Susan is in deep mourning. The two women argue and Susan finally reluctantly agrees to care for Jamie and Ada.

The children are certain that Susan is rich, since they have three full meals a day and Susan buys them new clothing. And when they hear she gets a small allowance to care for them, they suggest she take in more children, so she can be really wealthy (a suggestion that amuses Susan who knows that the money is a very small amount).

Ada also discovers that her club foot isn't her fault and is surprised to realize that most people don't seem particularly bothered by it - a few people remark on it, but no one seems to share her mother's view that she should never be allowed to leave the house (a novelty that takes Jamie a while to adjust to).

And so Ada's world grows bigger and bigger, as she learns to read, develops a few cautious friendships and, best of all, discovers horses. But she worries that this new life can't continue. When the war is over, will she have to go back to her mother?

I was familiar with the children who were sent out of the cities during the London Blitz (there was an exhibit about it at the Imperial War Museum when I was on Study Abroad in London back in 2006), but I hadn't read any books - fictional or otherwise - about what it might have really been like for them.

I loved the portrayal of Jamie, who was devastated early on to be out of London and sobbed daily to return home, despite how bleak his life was there. And Ada, who is afraid of being sent away, nevertheless struggles mightily to reconcile the way she views herself based on her mother's behavior with the fairly regular girl Susan sees her as.

And watching Ada and Jamie learn new things is fascinating but not over-the-top (Susan quickly learns to explain everything from the absolute beginning - when she's cooking eggs, she explains the shell, yolk, and white, and then how to crack it).

This was one of those books where I realized about half-way through that I had no idea how the story was going to unfold. There were a bunch of things going on - Ada's growing understanding of the world and herself, the war and bombings, the looming fear of returning to her mother, her friendship with the wealthy neighbor girl - and they all worked together beautifully. There wasn't an obvious story arc; despite the backdrop of the war, there was no timeline or foregone end point for this story.

And the writing is just so excellent here. You feel acutely Ada's confusion, anger, and despair over her circumstances and her difficulty making sense of her life both in the present with Susan and in the past with her mother. It's by turns heart-breaking (the scenes at Christmas when Ada can hardly contain her huge emotions are tear-jerkers) and hilarious. I kept making notes about great lines (but then I returned my copy to the library and packed everything up, so . . . I can't tell you what those great lines were. Just rest assured there were many).

I didn't think it was quite as good as Jefferson's Sons, but it's definitely a good addition to a WWII historical fiction collection. Also, there is a sequel in the works, but this is a book that stands solidly on its own.

Copy checked out from the library

June 30, 2015

Candied Nut Spinach Salad with Strawberry Balsamic Dressing


You know how when you get invited over for dinner or to a potluck and they say bring a salad, and you think, "Great. I will be bringing the least popular dish. Everyone will eat an obligatory serving and wonder what is for dessert."?

This is my solution that problem.

Super easy homemade strawberry balsamic salad dressing plus tips for the best spinach salad ever

My favorite basic combination is:
  • Spinach
  • Candied Nuts (pecans or almonds are my favorite)
  • A soft cheese (feta, blue, or goat) 
  • 1-2 fruits 
  • Homemade dressing
I like spinach because I buy big tubs of pre-washed baby spinach, so I can just throw it in the bowl. Then I chop up a fruit (usually apple or pear or strawberries) into chunks and sprinkle that on top, plus a second fruit (usually a berry like blueberries, blackberries, raspberries or dried cranberries), then top it with cheese. Then I candy the nuts while I make a dressing and done! Interesting salad in less than ten minutes. 

This one is an apple, dried cranberry, candied pecan and goat cheese salad and I made a strawberry balsamic dressing. 

One of my friends introduced me to this salad dressing a long time ago in Texas and it's my favorite way to use up the last berries in the fridge that are starting to look a little sad. You could also easily swap out the strawberries for blueberries or blackberries or raspberries (I've done them all and they've all been terrific). 

If you've never candied nuts before, it's one of those things that looks really fancy but actually takes all of two ingredients. 

You'll need: 
  • 3 Tablespoons of granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup chopped nuts
In a frying pan, melt the sugar over medium heat, stirring often, until it is liquid and light brown (don't let it burn!). Pour the nuts in and stir thoroughly to coat, then immediately scrape them out onto a cutting board and let cool. Once they are cooled, break or chop the block of nuts into small pieces.  

And then the dressing. So easy. So good. 

Super easy homemade strawberry balsamic salad dressing plus tips for the best spinach salad ever

Strawberry Balsamic Dressing
(adapted from What's Cooking)

Makes about 3/4 cup

5-6 strawberries (about half a cup)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 Cup olive oil

Put all ingredients in the blender and let mix until very well combined, about 1 minute. 

Super easy homemade strawberry balsamic salad dressing plus tips for the best spinach salad ever

June 29, 2015

8 Simple and Nutritious Summer Snacks


 

 None of these snacks have faces on them. None of them take a bunch of ingredients or anything you'll need to hunt down at a speciality grocery store.

I am a fun mom in a lot of ways (at least in my head), but I like meal time and snack time to be simple and easy.



These eight snacks are always a winner at our house:
  1. Popcorn. This is one of Ella's very favorite snacks (and I love the fact that she calls the kernels "wrappers" as in "I have a popcorn wrapper stuck in my teeth"). For a long time, I got away with just plain popcorn, but she somehow discovered the butter and salt variation and I can't blame her. I just make it in the microwave - about 2 tablespoons of popcorn kernels in a paper lunch bag folded shut and then popped for 2 minutes. Super cheap and no fake ingredients or chemicals. 
  2. Popsicles. I bought some of these cheap popsicle molds from IKEA last summer and I love them because they're the perfect size for little kids to eat before the whole thing melts all over the place. I have about ten million popsicle recipes on Pinterest and summer is my favorite time to work through them.   
  3. Yogurt. I am a mega ice-cream lover, but that's not a very healthy snack, so yogurt is one of my favorites. I love picking out new varieties, and this Yoplait Plenti was a recent hit. It's fun because of the added texture from oats and pumpkin seeds (just like ice cream, where the mix-ins make it way better than plain ice cream) and much faster than putting together a whole yogurt and granola bowl myself, and my girls scarfed it down. 
  4. Mini Muffins. If I'm together enough on Mondays, I like to make a batch of mini muffins and put them in the freezer for easy snacks throughout the week. I like mini muffins because there isn't so much waste - if we do full-size muffins, the girls will often eat about half of one and then be too full to finish, which makes me crazy (I usually do banana muffins because generally we have a lot of ripe bananas that are dying to be used up). 
  5. Smoothies. My girls love smoothies. My favorite is a tropical green smoothie (I use this recipe) and if there is leftover, I pour it into the popsicle molds for easy treats and to avoid waste. 
  6. Apples and Peanut Butter. This is my favorite snack. If I'm feeling super nice, I'll stir a little honey into the peanut butter. And sometimes we use cookie butter instead of peanut butter, but that's even more rare (but after the favorite things party, it was a fun snack time for a couple of weeks). 
  7. Banana Ice Cream. You've probably seen this "recipe" all over the internet in the last couple of years, but it is a favorite at our house. Just stick some frozen bananas and a scoop of peanut butter (and a spoonful of cocoa powder if you want it to be chocolate-y) in the food processor and blend it until smooth. Put some colored sprinkles on top and you'll be way the most popular parent, even though I personally think rainbow sprinkles are gross. 
  8. No-Bake Cookies. I don't want to turn on the oven for snack time, but sometimes you just need a cookie. These no-bake cookies are quick and reasonably nutritious. 
I'd love to hear what your favorite easy and healthy snacks are!



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