High Variance

La La Love Me Like You Do

When this song first hit pop radio, I hated it. It’s unoriginal, it drones on and on, and my kids love it so I can’t change the radio station when it comes on. The worst part is that it’s from 50 Shades of Grey, and makes me think of that creepy guy doing bad things to the girl whenever I hear it. On the other hand, it is catchy, and I do like the trashy Euro-disco stylings of Ellie Goulding. I’ve recently found one more reason to appreciate the song.

I was one of those kids who loved making mix tapes in the 80’s. I recorded my friend’s older sister’s Beach Boys singles with my little Radio Shack cassette deck. I also recorded all my favorite tv show theme songs on a single tape. I once made a mix that alternated Black Sabbath and Beatles songs just because I could. My hobby blossomed in the 2000’s with the arrival of iTunes and playlists. I was a little more mature, so the collections of songs I created then are a mostly more straight-forward; e.g., “My favorite Hair Metal” and “Totally Rockin 80’s Party”.

Perhaps the best play list I ever made was “Stammer Rock”. You would be amazed how many songs make stuttering a key element of the song. You would also be amazed by how many pop genres these songs span and how well they flow together. You don’t have to take my word for it: Now you too can experience the slightly absurd spectacle of Stammer Rock on Spotify. I challenge you listen all the way through without smiling and shaking your head.

Kid Book Review: Are They Laughing With Me or at Me? #IMWAYR

Over the last couple weeks, the most popular book in our house, by far, has been The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak. The gimmick is simple: When someone reads the book out loud, they have to say all the words. No matter how silly or ridiculous or preposterous or even nonsensical they might be. The reader may even have to sing the occasional song about eating ants for breakfast. Novak takes full advantage of this rule to induce huge laughs from the audience. The idea is partially ripped off from (inspired by?) Mo Willems’ We are in a Book, but it’s executed so well I can’t really complain.

Ever since we got this book, both kids (age 3 and 6) beg every grown-up that enters our house to read it. And how can you say to no to a kid begging you to read a book? Especially when you don’t know what’s coming? With many funny kids books, we can all laugh together. With this one, the kids are definitely laughing at the reader. Luckily this is a situation where quantity matters more than quality.

Sheila at Book Journey started It’s Monday! What are You Reading?, and Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts along with Kellee and Ricki at Unleashing Readers host kidlit versions. All three sites are great places to find new books for yourself and your kids.

Darn You Taylor Swift!

Dear Taylor,

When you decided to pull all of your music out of Spotify, the economist in me understood. You did a cost benefit analysis and realized the pennies per play you were getting from Spotify just didn’t add up to that many millions of dollars. That is, if you dropped Spotify like a bad boyfriend, enough Spotify listeners would be compelled to pony up for the album to make you even more money.

The catchy pop song enthusiast in me was less excited about your decision–My monthly Spotify fee is supposed to protect me from having to buy any albums at all. When you left, I was okay for a while because even though the first single on 1989 was good, I was able to shake off the temptation to purchase it since at any particular moment, it was playing on at least one local radio station.

Then came your second single which was better than the first. Even though it was on the radio almost all the time, I still had a blank space in my heart since I couldn’t hear it any tine I wanted. Bent but not broken, I stayed true to my principles and refused to buy.

Your third single was the best yet–exactly my style with that Alan Parsons Project inspired pure 80’s guitar line. I could not resist. I wasn’t strong enough. Spotify has my money and now you have another $9.09 (iTunes takes 30% off the $12.99 purchase price).

Your whole album is a tour de force of syrupy sweet catchiness, and I am glad that I now own a legal copy of it forever. It can never be ripped away from me on some artist’s whim like all of my other Spotify favorites. And if I fall on hard times, I won’t need to pay Spotify (or Beats or rdio) to prop me up. My leglly purchased Taylor Swift albums will carry me through.

The problem is I’m not who I thought I was. I thought I was stronger. I thought I could stay true. You made me look in the mirror and see the real truth: A flesh and blood person with flaws and needs.

Darn you Taylor Swift!

Your frenemy forever,


Kid Book Review: Winter Classics #IMWAYR

Now that we are deep into a winter that will seemingly never end, it’s time to look at a few classic children’s books that can carry us through.

Brave Irene (by William Steig, 1986) William Steig is one of the few authors I know who doesn’t shy away from true drama. He’s better known for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble which features parents bawling their eyes out over their long lost son, but in this book Irene has to brave a serious winter storm at night to deliver a dress her mom has made:

Irene pushed forward with all her strength and–sloosh! thwump!–she plunged downward and was buried. She had fallen off a little cliff. Only her hat and the box in her hands stuck out above the snow. Even if she could call for help, no one would hear her. Her body shook. Her teeth chattered. Why not freeze to death, she thought, and let all these troubles end. Why not? She was already buried.

Don’t worry, it all turns out wonderfully at the end, but boy, both my girls (and I) were on the edge of our seats the whole time!

The Hundred Dresses (written by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin, 1945) R and I really enjoyed this Newberry Honor winning chapter book about two girls who tease a poor immigrant girl from Poland into moving out of town. Both girls feel bad, but one feels worse about it than the other. I don’t want to give anything away, but the story feels amazingly real, right down to the messy ending.

Moominland Midwinter (by Tove Jansson, 1957) Last week I was a guest on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast and I one of my recommendations was Finn Family Moomintroll, another book in this amazing series of stories about Moomintroll and his friends and family which take place in magical land far to the north. The stories and characters are rich enough to appeal to adults but clear and exciting enough to capture kids’ imaginations too. It’s criminal how under-appreciated (and unknown) these books are in the United States.

Sheila at Book Journey started It’s Monday! What are You Reading?, and Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts along with Kellee and Ricki at Unleashing Readers host kidlit versions. All three sites are great places to find new books for yourself and your kids.

Kid Book Review: Details #IMWAYR

When I was a kid, I liked nothing better then settling down in a corner with a big detailed picture book like Busy, Busy Town and poring over each page looking for things I’d never seen before. My 6-year-old daughter is exactly the same, although the particular books she enjoys are different. Here are three of her favorites:

Crabtree (by Jon and Tucker Nichols, 2013) Alfred Crabtree is a weird dude who loses his false teeth and spends the story searching his belongs for them. This takes a while because he seemingly never throws anything away. The quirky drawings, odd organization, and carefully typed captions are all hilarious. Jason Kottke (Internet-curator-extraordinaire) recommended this book, and he has yet to steer me wrong. The only downside is that it will be hard to find a copy to buy if your library doesn’t have one.

Welcome to Mamoko (by Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski, 2010) We actually got this book because we loved the authors’ Maps so much. The story is introduced with a big cast of characters and a question about each (e.g., “Olaf Brown has a big day ahead. Who helps him out of a spot of trouble?”). What follows is a sequence of double page wordless scenes with all the characters in different urban settings. Even my three year-old loves to try to figure out what’s going on.

Incredible Comparisons (written by Russell Ash, illustrated by Stephen Biesty, 1996) My 6-year-old loves books with bite-sized amazing facts, and in this DK book almost every fact is accompanied by a beautiful picture. A blue whale weighs as much as 26 elephants. The moon is as wide as Australia. Angel Falls is three times taller than the Eiffel Tower. The Great Pyramid weighs as much as 16 Empire State Buildings! Highly recommended.

Sheila at Book Journey started It’s Monday! What are You Reading?, and Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts along with Kellee and Ricki at Unleashing Readers host kidlit versions. All three sites are great places to find new books for yourself and your kids.

Zebras and Expertise on the Internet

The Internet is full of people talking about stuff they don’t know much about. It’s common at Yahoo Answers and Answers.com, but Amazon reviews and Wikipedia are rife with it too. Even when bloggers are experts in one area, they often write much more broadly. As Maclej Ceglowski delightfully points out in his article about Paul Graham’s lack of expertise on painting, even the top of the food chain is not immune.

I think it’s fantastic. You don’t need to be an expert to have something interesting to say. Regular people notice things experts don’t, and they often have a perspective closer to mine. Non-experts can also be incredibly entertaining.

As a consumer I’m careful not to take anything too seriously, but many folks are more trusting than me of the average blogger. As a producer, I worry about this all the time, as I love thinking and writing about things on the edge (or well over the edge) of my expertise. When I wildly speculate I try to be clear about it, but I feel a little bad that some readers might not notice.

It has turned out that the most common way for people to find this site is by searching for “are zebras mean” or “do zebras bite.” I don’t know jack about this subject, but that didn’t stop me from writing a few hundred words about it a couple years ago. African Safari guide Rory Young recently wrote a terrific article on Quora that shares real knowledge about why zebras can be so nasty. It makes me very happy to be able to send my potentially disappointed visitors on to some real answers.

Finding My Niche #IMWAYR

If you look in the right places on the Internet, you can find terrific suggestions for books to read with your kids. Many of these recommendations are written by teachers and librarians who are tapped into the very latest and coolest new books. The downside is that I now have long wish lists of books that my local library hasn’t had a chance to buy yet. A year from now, my library might have some, but until then, my only option is to shell out real money for a brand new copy.

The fact is there are real gems hiding on the shelves of most libraries waiting to be discovered or rediscovered. That’s what you’ll find here: good books that I know can be found at at least one library (mine) and hopefully yours.

The Quiet Place (written by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small, 2012) This book is told as a series of letters written by a young girl who moves from Mexico to the US. She starts nervous but excited and even though she has a wonderful mother and brother, she misses the family and home she’s left behind. Gradually, she makes a new home and new friends. I don’t think the author was an immigrant herself, but she really captures the experience and brought a tear to my eye.

Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch (written by Nancy Willard, illustrated by Leo, Diane, and Lee Dillon, 1991) On the one hand, it seems totally insane to turn Bosch’s psychadelic visions of hell into a children’s book, but on the other, kids love big eccentric detailed illustrations (e.g., Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town) and those are right in Bosch’s wheel house. This is the story of the artist, his housekeeper, and their unusual house, and it totally works.

Bog Baby (written by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Gwen Millward, 2009) I love stories about kids who find animals, take them home, and then realize that wild animals need to be wild. Angelina Ballerina learns the lesson with a butterfly, Mole learns the lesson with a baby bird, and in this book, two sisters learn the lesson with a fantastical creature called a bog baby. The pen and ink illustrations are unique and beautiful.

AlphaOops: The Day Z Went First (written by Alethea Kontis, illustrated Bob Kolar) Why does A always get to go first? Z decides it’s time to mix things up and hilarity ensues. Both my girls (now 6 and 3.5 years old) thought this book was a lot of fun.

Sheila at Book Journey started It’s Monday! What are You Reading?, and Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts along with Kellee and Ricki at Unleashing Readers host kidlit versions. All three sites are great places to find new books for yourself and your kids.

Jenny and the Cat Club #IMWAYR

Over the summer I discovered a whole community of folks on the Internet who read and blog about kids books. It was very exciting and I had great fun reading their work and sharing mine here, here, here, here and here. Then the Fall came and I fell into the teaching vortex. Sunday nights turned into lecture preparation marathons, and I’ve been spending Monday mornings and afternoons presenting the fruits of this labor. I’ve scratched my blogging itch on Teach Better, but the Kid Book Review section of High Variance has lain fallow. What better way to celebrate my first Monday off in ages (for Thanksgiving Break), than with an #IMWAYR post!

When I was a kid, one of my very favorite books was The Fire Cat by Esther Averill. The main character was not bad or good–Like people in the real world, Pickles was a mix of both. He was born strong and ambitious, but with no idea what to do with his gifts. He spends his time terrorizing smaller cats, but eventually learns to be kind and finds his true calling working in a fire house.

It wasn’t until I went to buy this book for my daughter a few years ago that I discovered Esther Averill had written a whole series of wonderful books about cats living in New York City! And in 2003, the New York Review reprinted most of them with nice affordably priced hardcover bindings. The books revolve around the adventures of a shy but strong (stronger than Pickles even) black cat named Jenny Linsky and her friends in the Cat Club that meets in her garden.

The series contains stories for a variety of ages starting with the Jenny’s Birthday Book for very little kids, moving to The Fire Cat which is an early reader, and culminating in several chapter books like the The Hotel Cat and Captains of the City Streets, that make great bedtime reading.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading these books, the clear starting point is Jenny and the Cat Club where you learn how Jenny joined the club and meet all its colorful members. I can’t recommend these books highly enough.

Sheila at Book Journey started It’s Monday! What are You Reading?, and Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts along with Kellee and Ricki at Unleashing Readers host kidlit versions. All three sites are great places to find new books for yourself and your kids.

Taking a Break From Sports

Real life is messy. We balance several life goals (family, career, personal) and many of these goals are difficult to even articulate clearly let alone achieve. For me, sports has always been an escape from life’s complexity. It’s a place where the goals are crystal clear and usually simple: Win. Win beautifully. Achieve milestones no has ever reached.

I’ve been a sports fan my whole life, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing what people or teams can do when they push themselves as far as possible to achieve an extremely clear goal. Recently though, most of the big stories in sports have been about awful behavior of players, owners, and leagues:

These stories sometimes get people talking about important social issues, but I find the whole thing rather depressing. I’m tired of caring about and rooting for people and institutions that I can’t respect.

A week ago I decided to take a break from sports. I was inspired by a new book called Against Football, but it was the Adrian Peterson story and the reaction of other players to it that pushed me over the edge. Beating your kid with a stick until he’s bruised and bleeding isn’t right no matter how you were raised.

So: No more sports radio in the car. No more keeping up with the ESPN news feed. No more reading Grantland. No more listening to the BS report. It’s freed up quite a bit of time and I’ve found other ways to escape. I’m reading more kottke.org and catching up on my friends’ blogs. I’m getting more done at work.

At some point I’ll probably return to sports, but I want to come back for a good reason. I haven’t thought of one yet.

Kid Book Review: Travel Edition #IMWAYR

Every summer we fly off to California for one or two weeks of fun in the sun. At least during the day we have fun in the sun. There are also many of hours of fun in the dark every morning since we start the trip on Eastern Daylight Time, and there’s plenty of downtime mid-afternoon when we just want to chill. At home and away, books fill in these gaps between real-life adventures.

This trip we followed a three-prong reading strategy: First we packed a bunch of our favorite paperback books. We would have liked to bring more, but our bags were pretty heavy already. We had a mix of chapter books for R and picture books for both girls. Second, we brought our whole library of ebooks on our iPads. I far prefer physical picture books and there aren’t nearly as many choices as I’d like, but there are some good ones and you can’t beat the weight. Third, we went to the local library as soon as we arrived and picked up a big pile of books.

These are our top picks for the trip:

On the iPad:

Would You Rather Be a Princess or a Dragon (written and illustrated by Barney Saltzberg) It’s a cute story that teaches kids that everyone has a little princess and dragon inside them.

Muddypaws (by Simon Mendez and Moira Butterfield) I find this story about a boy naming his new puppy a little brain-numbing, but both girls absolutely love it.

From the library:

James and the Giant Peach (written by Roald Dahl) One of my favorites as a kid turns out to be one of R’s favorites too. Dahl’s characters and dialog are just so vivid and funny.

Clink (written by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Matthew Myers) If you liked Corduroy, you’ll like this story of an old toy robot who finally finds a boy who loves him.

Grace for President (written by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by LeUyen Pham) What an inspiring story of how a girl becomes president of her class.

Sipping Spiders Through a Straw: Campfire Songs for Monsters (written by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Gris Grimly) Until I wrote this list I didn’t realize how big a part Kelly DiPucchio played in our vacation! Both girls are still singing these crazy songs.

Originally hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts along with Kellee and Ricki at Unleashing Readers host kidlit versions of It’s Monday! What are You Reading? All three sites are great places to find new books for yourself and your kids.