Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Miscellaneous Madness: Spring and First 1/2 of Summer Book Reviews

It's been a while since we posted our last book reviews and that's because we spent the entirety of spring (and some of summer thus far) reading books 2 - 7 of the How to Train Your Dragon series. You might recall that we read the first in the series over the winter, and then we just couldn't stop. The characters from the first book just kept getting funnier and they added a girl character named Camicazi (!) and that did us in. Neither of us really wanted to read anything else. Then, with only one book left in the series, we decided to shift focus a bit. Dragons are still at the top of our list, but Kane has also added knights and monsters and Cam is all about all things fairytale -- princesses, to be more specific.

We've also worked audiobooks into rotation. Like many other families, summer vacations mean an increase in car travel time for us. Up to this point, mom has been happy to plug in the DVD player and let us have it -- especially when driving us by herself -- because that generally keeps us quiet. But Cam started requesting one particular Strawberry Shortcake episode over and over and over again. And I became kind of bored with watching DVDs. So mom figured she'd give the books on CD a try -- she used to travel listening to books on tape when she was little and had actually been fondly waiting to introduce them to us.

SCORE -- we've found some real wins in that category, particularly in the creative retelling of well-known fairytales. Some of them are a little over Cam's head, but mom tried to pick subject matters in which we are both interested. So even if she doesn't completely follow the story, Cam stays interested and randomly shouts out "they said Cinderella!" or "I know Snow White!," etc. And now we can't stop listening to them all over town and are guilty of sitting in our driveway running the air conditioning just to finish one more chapter.

We aren't going to give our reviews of the other How to Train Your Dragon books -- trust us, they are solidly funny and entertaining for both of us. And we're sure that we'll return to finish the last book sooner rather than later. In the meantime, here are our reviews of our other favorites (sort of divided categorically) and mom's notes as well.



Land of Stories -- The Wishing Spell

- Kane: I love the evil queen because she has interesting stories. I was really scared by what made Snow White cry -- the recipe for the poison apple. I think other kids might like this book because it's nice.

- Cameron: I love the nice queens. I didn't like the mean wolves.

- Mom: This story of two children falling into a book of fairytales was the first audiobook we tried and it was a total success -- all of us were riveted. Chris Colfer, of Glee fame, wrote and read the book himself so there was enough humor for the adults, while still being appropriate for kids. Colfer does a great recasting of classic fairytale characters and weaves a tale of their lives after the tales you know so well have ended (e.g., Goldilocks is a badass fugitive and Red Riding Hood is kind of a hussy on the prowl for her own Prince Charming -- because every other princess has one). This is actually the first in a triology and we can't wait for the second book to come out this August.

The Sisters Grimm: Books 7 & 8

- Kane: Awesome! I LOVE these ones. Although, I'm afraid that talking to the real evil queen might give them some trouble. She has strong magic. We both didn't like mirror.

- Cameron: I loved the evil queen ... because I just love her. But I didn't like the poison apple.

- Mom: We accidentally started with Book 7 in this 9-book series, but didn't have any trouble picking up there. This series also focuses on a set of siblings born into a family with fantastical ties who end up entering a storybook to help save the day. I think Kane liked this book best because there was more good-vs.-evil fighting than Land of Stories and because of the great, potty-humor loving character Puck. For Cam's sake, I liked that the two main characters were female, but there were still plenty of old school princesses in there, too. If I can find the others at the library, we might even start back at the beginning -- Kane loved them that much.

Fairytales and Princesses:

Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella

- Cameron: I love the glass slippers.

- Mom: Cam is still working on her book review style, but she really loved the illustrations in this book that pieces together parts of the classic Cinderella story from different versions across the globe to form one tale. I'm sort of irrationally averse to Disneyfied fairytales and attempted to show Cam different views of the stories she loves. I probably had the best success with this one. Likely because that girl loves her some shoes.

Sugar Cane -- A Carribean Rapunzel

- Kane: This was too scary.

- Cameron: Same.

- Mom: I'm not sure why that's the only review they wanted to give. The sorceress character was indeed much scarier in this version than in the American one they know well, but this was still a cool and beautifully illustrated version of the story.

Rumpelstiltskin (Paul O. Zelinksy)

- Kane: I liked the miller's daughter, but I didn't like Rumpelstiltskin.

- Cameron: Same. He (Rumpelstiltskin) was not nice -- he was mean.

- Mom: I picked this fairytale because I wanted to read the kids a book where the main character used some ingenuity (instead of her blonde hair) to help herself out of a bind. I don't think they necessarily picked up on that, but I have heard Cam tell someone that she didn't need a prince to rescue her, that she could "do it herself."

The Princess Knight

- Kane: I just like boy knights in the town. I don't like the girl stuff.

- Cameron: I liked the swords.

- Mom: I think Kane was partially just giving me a hard time in his review, but this is one of Cameron's favorite books from her school library. It's a great story of a little girl who trains to be a knight (first at her father's urging, but then secretly). Her father proclaims that the winner of a jousting tournament can have her hand, but Violetta enters the tournament in disguise and wins the whole thing to rescue herself.


Vampire State Building 

- Kane: I loved it. I loved everything, especially the chess tournament and the vampires. But I was scared about Buddy Ryan [the rallying chess champ] -- that he might be a vampire and get angry and bite your head off if you won the chess tournament.

- Cameron: I didn't like anything. It was too scary for me -- tell the library that.

- Mom: on our recent geocaching tour of DC street murals, we ran into some impromptu face painting and Kane chose to be painted as a vampire. Since then, he's been kind of obsessed with vampires and other monsters -- we've already all had to agree to be a family of vampires for Halloween. And he's started playing some chess this summer, too. So this book about a chess friendship that develops between an American boy and a Romanian boy (or is he a vampire?) was perfect for him. It was suspenseful without being too frightening, but had some very odd-placed advice on being careful when using the internet (the two boys meet by playing internet chess).

Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich

- Kane: It was awesome and really funny. My favorite was the "there's a place in France ..." song.

- Cameron: I liked the mummy one. It was so, so funny.

- Mom: this book was flipping hysterical. Clever mini stories, rhymes, poems and songs about classic monsters doing ordinary things and turning the very thing that is supposed to make each one scary, on its head. I couldn't stop laughing at the vignettes of The Phantom of the Opera placed throughout the book. Get this book. Seriously. If your kid isn't into monsters, maybe wait until Halloween. But get it.

Geronimo Stilton -- The Quest for Paradise (The Return to the Kingdom of Fantasy Series)

- Kane: I loved it. I loved all the kingdoms and I liked the puzzles.

- Mom: this is actually the second in a mini-series of the quite large overall Geronimo Stilton series. We happened upon it sort of accidentally and both kids LOVED it. Each page is filled with illustrations and colorful text in different fonts. And every few pages (at least in this one) has a puzzle to solve, code to unlock, or game to play. Kane brought this to summer camp with him because he wanted to continue reading it during the day at school. He also liked the Geronimo Stilton "Haunted Castle," and we're working on a spinoff series of Thea Stilton -- "The Journey to Atlantis" -- which they like, but it's not as good as The Quest for Paradise.

When Mermaids Sleep

- Cameron: It is beautiful.

- Mom: this simple, bedtime story has all our bases covered: mermaids, dragons, pirates, gryphons. And I love the illustrations. This is Cam's #1 requested book before bed.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Fly Away: The High Line in NYC

We've been waiting to go to the High Line -- a public park in NYC built on a historic freight rail line elevated above Manhattan's West Side -- for what seems like forever. It was at the top of our list on our winter trip, but the weather was just awful, and we've read Peter Brown's "The Curious Garden," a sweet children's book inspired by the elevated garden, about a million times. So even though we rolled into NYC a little late in the afternoon on our last trip, mom wasn't taking no for an answer. We dropped our bags and hopped right on the subway to the Meatpacking District's entrance.

It was a scorching afternoon in a city that had clearly sat and baked all day in the sun, but it felt about 15 degrees cooler up on the High Line. Add to that a splash river for toe dipping and fab shaved ice from People's Pops, we were quickly obsessed with the space. We walked along the line looking for colored plants and flowers in a rainbow scavenger hunt. Mom would have liked to spend more time looking at the public art placed throughout, but we weren't really in arty moods. In fact, even though  the line is open until 11 p.m. during the summer hours, once dinner time settled in, we had had enough. No worries, that means we'll have to go back AGAIN!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Fly Away: NYC's Governors Island

Our last trip to NYC was during the middle of a cold, rainy winter and while we did get some outdoor time, we spent the vast majority of that long weekend exploring indoor spots of the city. It was awesome, but mom and dad were super excited to get us up there during warmer weather, which we were able to do a few weeks ago. And it was warm all right. Scorching, in fact. But instead of heading indoors for air conditioning, we packed up plenty of water, our bathing suits and set off in pursuit of cooler spots in the city.

So we hit the water and headed a short distance (800 yards) away from the concrete jungle to Governors Island. For almost two centuries, the island served as a military base. Then, in 2003, the government sold most of the island to the city and retained a small percentage for a national monument overseen by the park district. Much of the island is currently under construction for new park and public spaces, but the portion that is open includes several historic buildings, parade grounds, and parks. It was amazing.

The quick (and free) ferry ride gave a nice view of the city and was full of strollers and bicycles (there are no vehicles allowed on the island, but plenty of bikes to rent there), so we knew we were in good company. There were several different events going on the weekend we visited, including Fete Paradiso (a festival of vintage French carnival rides and games) and an interactive sculpture garden and mini-golf course. You can check out the full calendar of events here, although both Fete Paradiso and the sculpture garden will be there all summer. Note that the Children's Museum of the Arts offers hands-on activities each weekend -- we didn't go on this visit, but that museum was our most favorite winter destination.

We spent the most time at the carousels and games -- it was the weekend before Bastille Day afterall. I was REALLY into it, Kane was into being a punk and running away and hiding. It was hot and he kind of starts to break down in the heat. We all pulled it together and took a family ride on a carousel powered by people riding bicycles! The adults were the only ones allowed to actually pedal so Kane and I had a blast. Mom was a little worried once the thing really got moving. Then we rode backwards! It was crazy.

After that, mom promised Kane we could go visit the monument on the island -- Castle Williams (his current obsession is knights. and, well, everything having to do with weapons). There were tours available (including the opportunity to go up on the roof), but we weren't in the mood. And the building was neat, but not much to it. So his mood didn't improve much.

Everyone's spirits lightened, however, when we hit the King Avenue Food Court and picked up a delish (and very cleverly packaged) lunch from Perfect Picnic AND coconut water sipped right from a coconut! There are a ton of food and drink options on the island (see list here -- New Yorkers appear to always need choices, choices, choices for food), but plenty of people brought their own food with them as well.

Figuring we had a little time fueled by lunch, we checked out the sculpture garden and mini-golf course (although we didn't play). The sculpture was fantastic and interactive -- especially a giant cloud made from plastic water and milk bottles. Awesome. And then we headed back to the ferry, which leaves every 1/2 hour, to hit up a sprayground in the city by our apartment. Good thing we traveled with our bathing suits -- it was just what we needed -- some nice, cool time to play freely.

The island is open to the public from 10 am - 7 pm every Saturday, Sunday and Holiday Monday through September 29th.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Grub It Up: "Homemade" Shave Ice

After our recent trip to NYC, where we cooled down on the High Line with delicious lemon mint and strawberry basil shave ice from People's Pops, mom decided to go with making homemade ice instead of snow cones as we planned on our bucket list. And, let's be honest, any snow cones we make would be the equivalent of shave ice anyhow.

So she talked to us about flavors, bringing up the ones we tasted in New York. We both responded pretty clearly: those weren't sweet and we wanted to bring the sugar. Mom didn't. But she also wanted us to enjoy them. So she shelved the sophisticated flavors and went with a recipe for "homemade" syrup she spotted online. No herb-infused simple syrup here -- this recipes relies on an old summer staple of Koolaid. But since she was giving us the chemicals, mom at least tried to keep a light hand with the sugar.

First, make yourself some shaved ice or ice chips (we got a shave ice machine on sick sale at Target, but you can use your blender to make ice chips, too). For the syrup, you'll need:

- 3/4 cup white granulated sugar
- 1 cup water
- one packet Koolaid drink mix (we used Target brand, so store brands are fine, too).

Bring 1 cup of water to a boil (can boil in a microwave). Remove it carefully and add sugar. Whisk until dissolved. Then add 1 packet of drink mix and whisk until dissolved. Allow to cool fully. Serve over shave ice and store leftover syrup in refrigerator.

We made both cherry/lime and grape syrup and because you only need a tiny (1 tablespoon'ish) amount of syrup per shave ice serving, we have had these almost every night for a week and still have a ton leftover. Really, this makes a GIANT batch of syrup, so maybe half it unless it's for a large group of people.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Miscellaneous Madness: Cloud Viewing and Classification (and a freebie)

Among the 50+ items on our Summer Bucket List is the activity "finding shapes in clouds." Seems simple enough, right? So obviously mom had to make it more complicated and turn it into a science lesson. First, she decided to make our very own cloud viewers. She'd seen a few floating around the web and designed up a handheld viewing window that includes photos of all the basic cloud shapes. With a chopstick handle, of course.

Once those were ready, Cam and mom hit up the library to check out a few books about clouds, including "Clouds," by Maryellen Gregoire (the simplest and a good one to start with); "Clouds," by Trudi Strain Trueit (the best of the batch -- for kids, but included enough detail to really cover all cloud types); and "the kids' book of Clouds & Sky," by Frank Staub (more detailed and probably for a slightly older age group of kids, but interesting nonetheless).

We packed up our viewers, a picnic and our books and headed over to our local Meridian Hill Park for some cloud viewing. It was hotter than H outside, but we still scored a spot in the shade with a good window through the tree branches for spotting clouds. There was really only one type of cloud gracing the sky that day: big puffy marshmallow cumulus clouds. So we ditched the viewers and took to finding shapes: dragons, butterflies, turtles, etc.

When the local squirrels started to form a posse for our pistachios, we decided it was time to pack up and check out the park's waterfalls. Mistake. Out of the shade it was about 110 degrees (seriously). Turns out cloud viewing is good for a hot day because you aren't moving. We should've stayed put, but didn't dare challenge those city squirrels.

Want to check out some clouds, too? You can make your own cloud viewing window! Mom uploaded our template to google docs (CLICK HERE), so all you have to do is print it on heavy cardstock, cut it out (don't forget to cut out the middle window!), and tape on whatever handle you wish. Mom also put a layer of packing tape over ours to make them a bit sturdier and waterproof. Much like the hidden murals, now that we're in the know, we can't stop looking for and classifying clouds. Come to think of it, we might need an extra travel cloud viewer.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Keep It Local: Geocaching Street Mural Tour

Mom was very excited when she found a great geocache series of DC's Hidden Murals. Our goal is obviously to find the geocache, but we have had so much more fun just searching for the hidden murals in the first place (especially seeing as we rarely find the caches hidden there). We've schlepped, metroed and explored our way through our neighborhood (and neighborhoods adjacent) in search of hidden street art (and all sorts of things along the way). And we give our best go at finding the cache, but when mosquitoes descend and garbage runoff gets old, we declare that finding the mural itself was good enough. The series includes a total of 23 murals and most descriptions of the cache contain a good explanation of the art's history.

We are finding out that geocaching in cities presents several difficulties. To begin with, many of the caches are "nanocaches," meaning they are TINY containers (large enough only to hold a rolled-up log) and are either stuffed into tiny crevices or are magnetic and hidden inside, behind or on top of metal objects. Once you get to the general coordinates, it's up to you to use your "geosense" to search and find these miniscule caches and, even with the hints given on, we've still been having a hard time finding them. Also, they are generally hidden in dirty city alleys and while mom is not germaphobic, even she has limits on dumpster searching with alley rats. And, as we are learning, one of the goals of city geocaching is to find the geocache stealthily and not alert the "muggles" in the area. We are many things, but stealthy we are not. We do our best, but we generally draw the attention of a lot of people in the vicinity who are wondering what the H we're doing poking around in alleys.

But, we've so loved finding murals that we constantly look for them all over -- it's amazing how many are in the city. And you can go explore them without geocaching, too! It turns out that many of the murals we saw are actually part of a project called Murals DC, which aims to help replace illegal graffiti with artistic works while teaching young people the art of aerosol painting. Even if you don't want to geocache, you can check out the online gallery of works and put together your own tour or participate in a bike tour of past murals (see schedule here). But, if you see us scampering about in alleys, look the other way!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Grub It Up: Sundried Tomato Halibut Kebabs & Caprese Bread Salad

One of mom's most favorite foods in the world is sushi. And raw oysters are up there as well. But as soon as you cook fish, she thinks it tastes too, well, fishy. So she rarely ever makes it at home, despite the fact that it's really good for you. But this Armommy recipe looked so delicious, likely because it was accompanied by bread salad, that she thought she'd give it a try. The grilled fish itself isn't anything outstanding, BUT the sundried tomato sauce .... Amazing. Well, mom and dad thought it was amazing. We ate the obligatory three pieces of fish to get down from the table. But that's three more pieces than we'd otherwise eat. And mom liked that the sundried tomato sauce was easy to keep separate from the fish for the kids. Plus, we all loved the bread salad. So, all in all, a big win in our house.

p.s. the leftover halibut was delish in fish tacos (we'll all pretty much eat anything you put in a taco) and the bread salad was great with a little egg white omelet mixed with the sundried tomato sauce in the a.m. (and in hunks eaten out of the refrigerator, too).

Armommy's Sundried Tomato Halibut Kebabs & Caprese Bread Salad:

- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
- pinch of salt and pepper
- 2 lbs halibut filet, cut into 2" chunks (you can use halloumi grilling cheese to keep it veggie)
- 2 lbs small zucchini, ends trimmed, cut into 1" slices
- wooden or metal skewers

- 1/4 cup sundried tomatoes in oil
- 1/2 tbsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp fresh rosemary
- 1 clove garlic
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- salt and pepper to taste

In small food processor, add the sundried tomatoes through balsamic vinegar. Garnish with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the marinade: oil, lemon juice, rosemary, and salt and pepper. Set aside.

Prepare kebabs by alternating halibut and zucchini slices. Marinate in oil/herb mixture for at least ten minutes. Heat grill to hot or medium high.

Cook halibut skewers, approximately 1-1.5 minutes on each side or until desired doneness. Dip into sundried tomato sauce or gently brush sauce over the top of skewers after cooking.

Bread Salad
- 4 cups cubed, toasted hearty bread of choice
- 1 cup finely chopped boccancini style mozzarella balls
- 1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
- 1/2 cup fresh basil, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup Greek pitted olives, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

In large salad bowl, mix ingredients together. Let sit for approximately 15 minutes prior to serving.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Keep It Local: Mini Golf at East Potomac Park

This past winter, we had a fabulous time discovering East Potomac Park - Hains Point and made a mental note of the mini golf available there during warmer weather. The mini golf is actually part of the larger East Potomac golf course, which looked like an awesome, laid back place to play a real game too. Like every other day this summer, it had been raining on and off. We decided to make a go for it anyways and caught a mostly rain-free period. As usual, we don't stick to the technical rules, which was perfectly fine here. But it was HOT and Cam was in a mood and spent a lot of time pouting all over the course. Fortunately we had it mostly to ourselves.

It's not a fancy course, but it's nice and shaded and very low key. When it eventually started to really rain, we headed over to the main course's concession stand and cooled off on the balcony overlooking the short game area while eating italian ice. Click here to get the hours and rates information -- you can pay cash right on the course or use a card inside the pro shop.