Posted in Life, Writing

A Father’s Gifts

I’m thankful that I have a father in my life, and I’m extremely thankful to have one as fun and unique and loving as my dad.

My dad has given me so many things: love, support, laughter, poetry books, one-of-a-kind Halloween-birthday parties, and road trips, to name a few. He gave me my nose (slightly crooked like his) and my ability to snore (thanks, Dad). He coached my softball team, attended all my band concerts, taught me to drive, and let me have the puppy I asked for without even checking with Mom first. (It’s ok, she loved the puppy too.)

My dad was the first person to read my whole novel. He stayed up most of the night to finish it. I woke up the next morning to find the manuscript sitting on the kitchen table with a sticky note that said, “Loved it.” You can bet that made me feel good.

While pets and sports and birthday parties are not unusual father/daughter activities, my dad has also given me a few gifts over the years that aren’t quite so common.

Made With Love

Some of the coolest things my dad has given me are his stories and his artwork, which are kind of the same thing. His stories paint vivid pictures and his artwork definitely tells tales, sometimes literally. I have four binders full of the mail he sent me in college, each letter inside an envelope covered with his ink and watercolor drawings, many depicting funny family moments. And I have a computer file full of his life stories, emailed to me in pieces over the past seven years.

To see some of his artwork envelopes and read one of his stories (about chickens), visit this Father’s Day post from four years ago.

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A snippet from one of his painted envelopes, depicting a classic dad moment

Dad also likes to make things. I have a beautiful and very sturdy (read “extremely heavy”) bookcase that he built for me in college and a walking stick that he carved and varnished with his own two hands. I also have several homemade Halloween decorations including this awesome haunted birdhouse he gave me for my birthday in 2014.

Build a nest if you DARE, little birdies!
Build a nest if you DARE, little birdies!

Stories and drawings and homemade crafts still aren’t too far outside the norm, when it comes to presents, but a few of my father’s gifts have been truly weird.

People Say I Have My Father’s Eyes… They’re Half Right

About fifteen years ago, my dad gave me a coin purse made out of a frog. You heard me.


Several months ago, my dad gave me an Aztec figurine, found in Mexico decades ago and given to him by a friend. It resides in this plastic container because, three times when I’ve picked it up, it has shot an electric pain into my thumb for reasons I can’t explain. I’m not kidding.


And recently, my dad gave me his glass eye. Well, not HIS glass eye. It’s the glass eye that he’s had since I was a kid, the one he took out of the lost and found at his work after it had been there for years. I’m assuming he washed it at some point. (Note: His real eyes, like mine, are hazel. This one is brown.) Anyway, now it’s mine.

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Weird? Yes. Totally. TOO weird? No. Not at all. You see, my dad knows me. He probably knew that I would keep that frog purse in my classroom and find delight in shocking my students with it. He probably knew that the cool (and also creepy) Aztec figurine would end up in one of my horror stories. (Draft still in progress.) He probably knew that every time I looked at the glass eye, I would think about how he sometimes used to clasp his hands over his face and stagger around, complaining that he had something in his eye before finally saying, “I think I got it,” and opening his fingers to reveal… the glass eye resting in his palm. And he knew that would make me smile.

I love my father’s gifts. All of them. And I love him.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad! I love you! 🙂


Posted in Lists, Reading

11 Modern Picture Books That Make Great Baby Shower Gifts

Books make the best gifts. Period. And buying a book for a baby shower means not having to set foot inside a Babies R Us or search through online registries full of products called Chew-Choos and Boogie Bulbs. I don’t know what either of those are, and I don’t want to.

Plus, these particular books make great gifts because they were all published after the year 2000. Everyone loves the classics—Where the Wild Things Are, The Giving Tree, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, everything by Dr. Seuss—but many families already own those well-loved titles. If you choose a book off this list, there’s a good chance the baby-to-be’s parents don’t already have a copy. (Unless of course they’re teachers or librarians, in which case they’ll be impressed with your impeccable taste in literature.)

It’s important to point out that these aren’t board books (the thick-paged tomes made for young babies with a stronger appetite for grabbing and chewing than for reading). Most of these are aimed at children ages four through eight, but they still make great baby shower gifts because:
A) Books don’t go bad.
B) It’s never too early to start a child’s library.
C) These are books that parents will enjoy reading too. They’re creative and sweet and thought-provoking and hilarious and, in the case of I Want My Hat Back, a little bit shocking. Plus, a couple of the books in this list will help prepare Mom and Dad for some of the precious predicaments they’re likely to encounter in parenthood.

One more note: I do not believe in genderizing gifts for kids, especially books. You won’t find any advice here about gender. If you’re wondering if the book is good for girls or boys, the answer is yes. I would give any book on this list to any child.


1. Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon

Written by Patty Lovell, Illustrated by David Catrow – 2001

“Molly Lou Melon had buck teeth that stuck so far out, she could stack pennies on them. She didn’t mind. Her grandma had told her, ‘Smile big and the world will smile right alongside you.’ So she did.” I love everything about this book, from the quirky little character to the colorful illustrations to the great message about being yourself even when faced with adversity.


2. Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale

Written and illustrated by Mo Willems – 2005

If you’re not acquainted with Mo Willems, you should be. He’s written dozens of children’s books and they’re all amazing (and difficult to keep on our library shelves) but Knuffle Bunny is my favorite. This cute father/daughter story about what happens when a beloved stuffed animal gets left at a Laundromat uses a combination of color drawings and black and white photographs to create unique images. Also, it’s the first in a series of three books, so it lends itself to more great gifts in the future.


3. The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers – 2007

Henry loves books. The problem is he loves to EAT them. Luckily, he figures out there’s a better way to ingest the information, one that doesn’t make him sick to his stomach. Oliver Jeffers uses a unique artistic style that adds layers of pleasure to this cute, creative story.


4. All the World

Written by Liz Garton Scanlon, Illustrated by Marla Frazee – 2009

Rock, stone, pebble, sand
Body, shoulder, arm, hand
A moat to dig, a shell to keep
All the world is wide and deep

The simple words and beautiful pictures in this book will stay with you long after you read it.


5. The Boss Baby

Written and illustrated by Marla Frazee – 2010

Having a baby changes everything. This adorable book paints a hilarious (and accurate) picture of what life is like once the new “boss” arrives.


6. Shark vs. Train

Written by Chris Barton, Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld – 2010

Who will win? Shark? Or Train? Well, it really depends on the scenario. I mean, swimming is kind of a no-brainer, and when it comes to carnival rides, Train has an obvious advantage. But what about selling lemonade? Or roasting marshmallows? This book is hilarious. I love it.


7. Press Here

Written by Hervé Tullet, Translated by Christopher Franceschelli – 2011

This interactive picture book is SO simple and SO creative. It’s one of those books that made me scream, “WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THIS?” Well, I didn’t, but I’m really glad Hervé Tullet did.


8. I Want My Hat Back

Written and illustrated by Job Klassen – 2011

The bear’s hat is gone. He wants it back. This simple tale will help teach kids how to make inferences while they read, but it does have a slightly controversial ending. (See, now you HAVE to read it!)


9. The Monsters’ Monster

Written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell – 2012

I love the artwork in Patrick McDonnell’s comic strip, Mutts, and I’m partial to all children’s books that are spooky, creepy, or Halloween-related, so this one is right up my alley. The Monsters’ Monster is not actually creepy though, it’s sweet.


10. Once Upon a Memory

Written by Nina Laden, Illustrated by Renata Liwska – 2013

Does a feather remember it once was a bird?
Does a book remember it once was a word?

This poetic picture book will put a smile on your face and one in your heart.


11. Grandfather Gandhi

Written by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus, Illustrated by Evan Turk – 2014

This nonfiction picture book, co-written by Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, teaches kids a powerful message about how to turn anger into peace, and darkness into light.


*** BONUS BOOK ***

HaikuMamaHaiku Mama: Because 17 Syllables Is All You Have Time to Read, by Kari Anne Roy – 2006

Yay! The perfect time
to strip down naked and scream–
when Mommy’s on phone

This one’s for Mom. This collection of hilarious (and honest) haiku covers everything from nap time to potty training.


Happy Shopping!

[Is there a modern picture book that needs to be on this list?
Share it in the comments!]

Posted in Teaching

The Greatest Gifts, Part 2

(Need to catch up? Click here for part 1 and here for the part that came before part 1.)


In 2010, a student who we’ll call Darry made me a pencil sharpener.

Back when I was in school  (which was slightly after the days of uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow, but still well before the internet) there were heavy duty, mechanical pencil sharpeners mounted in every classroom above the trash can. Most of them had that cool rotating wheel so that you could adjust for various pencil sizes. In my memory, they worked great.



I don’t know when those went away (or why) but by the time I became a teacher, electric pencil sharpeners were the thing. With a cheap plastic cover and a one-size-fits-all pencil hole, they were noisy annoyances that rarely lasted an entire school year.

I battled with those things my whole career. Some years, I tried to tune out the whirring buzz and teach over it. Some years I asked students to refrain from sharpening pencils except during breaks. Some years I told students to grow up and use a pen for goodness sakes. One year the pencil sharpener in the classroom next door broke, so the teacher started sending his kids over to use mine. The next year, I wised up, hid my fully-functioning sharpener in the closet and told my kids to go to his room. Nothing ever worked for very long.

Finally, during my eleventh year of teaching, I’d had enough. That year, none of the pencil sharpeners lasted more than a couple of months. They all died either by burn out (I felt for those) or from a student jamming something that was not a pencil into the opening. And even when they did work, they all did that annoying thing where they only sharpened the pencil on one side. (I am convinced there is an entire level of hell consisting only of pencil sharpeners that do that and rolls of tape that never peel off in one whole strip.)

That year, after three electric pencil sharpeners bit the dust, I gave up. I bought ten cheap plastic hand-held ones from Walgreens and put them in a bucket on the counter. There. Done.



Of course, I then had to listen to a nonstop stream of complaints. These don’t work. They’re messy. Why don’t you get a new electric one? But the whine of a pack of seventh graders was music to my ears compared to the dentist drill whine of a near-death pencil sharpener. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders.

And then came Darry to the rescue.

Darry was not a good student. He struggled to turn in his work and his impulsive behaviors created frequent distractions in class. Despite his faults, I liked Darry a lot. I could tell that he wanted to do well, and in one-on-one conversations he could be very sweet.

Darry’s skills were in his hands. Though at school his fingers were often busy tearing something up—hardly a day went by when he didn’t leave a broken pen or shredded pencil or pile of ripped up papers at his desk—at home he used them to create. He put together motorbikes and fixed electronics.

One day, Darry walked into class with a suspicious-looking black box with a cord sticking out of it.  An electric pencil sharpener. He had made me an electric pencil sharpener.

It worked, and we used it.

I spent the last few months of the school year showing off my gift to half the people at work and hiding it from the other half. Despite its awesomeness, the homemade pencil sharpener did worry me a bit. I unplugged it every night before leaving and hid it in a cabinet during parent meetings, observations, and fire marshal visits. Sometimes it smelled a little funny, and more than once Darry had to tweak it to get it working again. The students respected this new addition to our classroom, never testing its powers on paper clips or crayons the way they did with the store-bought ones. And Darry was very humble about his creation—proud of it, sure, but quiet about it, never possessive or boastful.

PicMonkey CollagePencilSharpener

Toward the end of the year, I had to retire our new friend.  A couple of wires had become exposed and it had started to smell like a lawsuit. Darry offered to take it home and fix it, but I wouldn’t let him. Part of me feared he would fix it and then I’d be faced with the conundrum of deciding whether to use it or not. But part of me feared he wouldn’t fix it, and I’d never get it back. Darry’s electric pencil sharpener was the only one I’d ever loved and it was by far the coolest object any student had ever given me. I didn’t want to lose it.

I still have this gift. It sits in a box of teacher paraphernalia, but it doesn’t work anymore. Every time I sharpen a pencil I think about it. I guess I need to track down Darry, who’s a senior in high school now, and ask him to give it a tune-up.


[To read more stories from my teaching career, check out my Teaching Stories page.]