Our favorite family read alouds, part one

28 April 2023

We’ve read aloud to our children before bed almost since birth – first with board books, then with stacks of picture books. When June entered kindergarten, she and I embarked on a new season of chapter book read alouds, and it’s been the sweetest stage. (This was a few months after Annie was born, and though June needed no convincing to join me into this new world, pitching it as big girl time with mama (which was somewhat harder to come by with the addition of a new sister) surely didn’t hurt.)

Though chapter book read alouds are not a new idea, they weren’t a big part of my childhood. My parents reading picture books to me is a cornerstone memory – a daily occurrence – but chapter books? That’s not really something I remember. (Mom and Dad, correct me if I’m wrong!) I devoured them on my own, but wasn’t read aloud to as much once I graduated to longer stories.

Though I emulate my parents’ parenting in most ways, this is one area I’m willing to part ways, and hope to continue to as long as possible. One of the many reasons I love our nightly read alouds: like family movie night, I choose the books. (Sometimes I’ll give June the choice between two or three options, but it’s more a choice of order than title. Of course, I’m open to this shifting as she gets older!) As with movies, this has been the most delightful way to revisit some of my childhood favorites (and crack open some new favorites, too).

In Habits of Household, Justin Whitmel Early writes about the privilege, joy, and importance of curating our children’s media. I love what he has to say. As parents, we have the gift of pointing our children toward what is good, true, beautiful, and praiseworthy. We also have the responsibility of walking with them through things that are hard, sad, and ugly, and books can help us do that. Through it all, we have the opportunity to show them that books are a joy, and that life as a reader brings delight. We can do this by taking the time to read with them, and by expressing our own excitement for the books we get to read. It’s not always easy (there have been more than a few nights I’ve drifted off leaning against’s June’s pillow), but to me, it’s worth it.

We’ve been at this read aloud thing for about 1.5 years now, spanning ages 6 to 7 for June (kindergarten and first grade). I am always looking for book suggestions from people I trust, and I hope sharing our list can do that for you. Here are our first 15 read alouds, with a bit of commentary for most.

1. Little House in the Big Woods | I loved the Little House books growing up and it was a given that I’d share them with my children. June easily fell in love with the characters and we both were drawn in by the everyday details of pioneer life on the prairie. These books are relatively long and somewhat slow, so I actually might not recommend them for a very first read aloud – but don’t skip them! I value the sweet, unhurried pace they have to offer, the love of the Ingalls family for one other, and the values of hard work, sacrifice, endurance, and happiness in small things as well as the honesty of Laura’s admissions of feelings like boredom, jealousy, and fear.

It’s worth mentioning that these books take place in the 1870s-80s and the characters hold views reflective of their times – specifically, ones that are fearful, ignorant, and even hateful toward native and black people. There are also passages that reflect outdated ideas and societal expectations about women and girls and beauty/body image that I’m not eager to pass on to my daughter.

Throughout our reading of these books, I dealt with these passages in a variety of ways. Sometimes I’d read the text as written and pause to chat briefly with June about how that view is wrong and why they might have held it (a beautiful opportunity to reflect on positive change, too). Other times I’d omit the word, passage, or scene entirely and move along without comment.

Something that has been comforting to me throughout: I read all of these books growing up without parental elision and not only didn’t come away believing those views were correct, but couldn’t even remember they were in the books (some of them shocked me upon re-reading!). What I did remember was the beauty and comfort of spending time with the Ingalls family, and the value of what I learned from them. That’s what I hope my children take away, too.

For more on reading the Little House series and dealing with these issues, you might enjoy this Read-Aloud Revival episode (Sarah calls The Long Winter one of the best children’s novels ever written!).

Note: I haven’t offered individual commentary on most of the Little House books below, but this sums up my general thoughts on all of them :)

2. Charlotte’s Web | The sweetest tale of unlikely friendship. A classic and Newbery Honor award winner for a reason.

3. Little House on the Prairie

4. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe | John was the one to read this to June, but I still sat in and listened a few nights. There is so much to love in this epic classic, from the sibling relationships, the magical characters, the virtuous and moving themes, and the simple but arresting writing.

“Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

5. Fantastic Mr. Fox | This was my favorite Roald Dahl book growing up – I was enthralled by the clever foxes, the intricate schemes and tunnels, the elaborate gathering of the feast elements. If you’ve read Dahl, you know that his writing and descriptions can be crude and callous in a way that’s jarring to our modern sensibilities – so much so that new editions have been released correcting his perceived wrongs. I appreciated Helen Lewis’ say on the (nuanced) topic and took the liberty to silently edit words or descriptions where I felt it necessary.

6. On the Banks of Plum Creek

7. Matilda | A close second for my favorite Dahl book! June really loved this book and loved both versions of the movie (which we watched after finishing the book). Matilda is the perfect precocious, spunky heroine, and it’s easy to cheer for her bond with Miss Honey and chance to find familial happiness.

8. By the Shores of Silver Lake

9. The Penderwicks | I am something of a Penderwicks evangelist at this point, but with good reason: it is the sweetest story of four sisters. Described as “deliciously nostalgic and quaintly witty, with a story as breezy and carefree as a summer day,” it has the slow, earnest feel of some more beloved older books – a true modern classic, IMHO. I’m always looking for books with positive sibling relationships, and this one hits the nail on the head: the relationships between the sisters and their dad are loving but real. (I’m hoping OAT becomes a thing in our home!) June and I have only read the first book together, but have the boxed set and look forward to reading the next four.

10. The Long Winter | Just a quick note to say that though I enjoyed all the Little House books, this one might be my favorite! It was the one I remembered most strongly from my childhood: Almanzo hiding the seed in the wall! Pa and Laura twisting hay! The freezing sled ride to bring back wheat for the town!

11. Pippi Longstocking | June cackled at parts of this one :) It was a quick, easy read.

12. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone | I’ve shared all you need to know on this read aloud here!

13. Little Town on the Prairie

14. The Mouse and the Motorcycle | A Beverly Cleary classic! I wasn’t sure how June would feel about this one since it feels slightly more geared toward boys, but she LOVED it. It was a quick, sweet read that left us both wanting more. (June’s since gone on to read the sequel by herself, but that’s a post for another day.)

15. Adventures with Waffles | Originally written in Norwegian, this one felt similar to Pippi Longstocking – short, heartfelt chapters relating old-school scrapes and mishaps between two friends who live in the country. June cackled at this one, too :) I appreciated that it incorporated issues like death, faith, sadness, and friendship worries in a way that didn’t feel too heavy for bedtime reading.

This list just makes me smile. Of course, these 15 volumes are only scratching the surface of all the amazing books I hope to share with my children over time. There will be many more posts like this to come if you enjoyed this one! In the meantime, I recommend the reading lists of Everyday Reading and Brighter Day Press for more suggestions – it’s where we find many of our favorites.

I’d love to hear: what books have you loved reading aloud with your kids? Any titles you’re excited to introduce them to in the future?

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Our kitchen refresh

24 April 2023

Friends, I am so very excited to share a few photos of our kitchen refresh with you today! If you’re new here, be sure to click over to this post first to get the back story, including before photos, inspiration clippings, and a breakdown of the work we had done. Then continue reading for many after photos, sources, and some thoughts on the process and our contractors.

So welcome into our kitchen, friends! I always laugh like this while doing the dishes ;)

Ahhhhhhhh. Doesn’t this view just make you let out a long exhale? It certainly does for me. It’s been five-ish months since work wrapped up on this project, and I still sometimes turn the corner only to be surprised by what I see. It just looks so fresh and lovely, and I pinch myself that this project finally happened, ten years in the making.

This photo sums up most of the major changes we made to our kitchen:

— We replaced the cabinet doors and hardware and replaced the crown molding with a simpler design.
— The cabinets were painted Natural Cream by Benjamin Moore.
— We added Shaker trim to the side of the dishwasher (what you can see right at the front of the photo above).
— We replaced the backsplash with Zellige tile.
— We moved the microwave from over the stove and replaced it with a range fan that vents to the exterior and a custom-built wooden hood over the top.
— We switched out the light fixtures and stools and added decorative touches like the silhouettes and clock.

And then a reminder of a few things we didn’t change: the layout, the floors, the cabinet boxes, the sink, the faucet, the stove and other appliances, and the counters. Again, more on all that in this post.

By far the most common thing that pops out of people’s mouths when they see our new kitchen is, wow, it looks so much bigger! And I can’t disagree! It’s pretty amazing what some neutral paint and more harmonious fixtures can do for the felt-size of a space. We did also remove the wire rack at the entrance to the kitchen, which made a difference. But by and large, it was removing the visual clutter that has now makes it appear larger than it did before.

On the topic of the paint color: it was stressful to choose something other than white for our cabinets, even up until the first coat of color was sprayed on, but I adore how it turned out – to me, it’s the perfect not-too-yellow, not-too-cool greige. (Our painters even liked it so much they had a cabinet door sample done up to show other clients!) I credit Alaina’s impeccable taste and keeping the paint sample hung up for eight months with my success :)

Also, don’t you think it tones down the redness of our floors (which I don’t love)? I was hoping that would be a happy by-product and I think it is.

Since we’ve turned to face the other direction, let’s talk a little bit about this wall. Big changes over here! Bull Restoration (more on them below) demo’d the existing cabinetry and counter above and to the right of our fridge and built these new cabinets up to the ceiling. I love how it turned out.

Here’s the microwave’s new home! Though we did have to find new homes for a few items in this refresh, most of the items in this space were stored here before – it’s just now closed storage instead of open. I was worried (and John was very worried) it might be annoying to open the doors every time we wanted to use the microwave, but it has been just fine. From top to bottom we’ve stored paper cups and party supplies; teas and Keurig pods; mugs; our Soda Stream, blender, and Keurig; the microwave; toilet paper and tissue boxes; and paper towels.

One of my favorite features is that the height of each shelf is completely customizable, so we were able to size each shelf for its exact contents (and can adjust the height whenever we want!).

Popping over to the other side of the fridge, we have one of my favorite new additions to the kitchen. Our project manager at Bull was NOT convinced that this skinny little cabinet would be usable space, but I knew exactly what I wanted to use it for and it has been SO functional. Before, we stacked our baking sheets/muffin tins/cooling racks in a pile in a cabinet, and it was quite annoying to extricate any one of them. Now, I just slide out the sheet I need and it is glorious. This cabinet also became the new home for serving trays (relocated from the wire rack). Pitchers are stored in the shorter skinny cabinet above.

The backsplash! We chose the Bejmat Zellige tile in Weathered White from Clé Tile. It was a larger expense than simple subway tile, but I decided that it, along with the cabinet hardware, was a splurge that would go a long way toward giving a more custom look overall. I would recommend reading up on Zellige before choosing it for your own space, because it’s an artisan product with plenty of imperfections. But we really love the pearly, handmade finished look.

Okay and the light fixtures. I’m obsessed. These Ferguson light fixtures were one of the last items to be installed, and once they were in (a few weeks after the major work was finished), it was like we placed the final piece of the puzzle. I love how the more modern style of the pendants plays against the more traditional cream, Shaker-style cabinets, and how the gold details complement the gold of the hardware. Obsessed.

Full credit for finding these beauties goes to Kristin Winchester – I saw them in her kitchen and knew my search was over. We have the 13″ size in matte white/heritage brass.

Speaking of cabinet hardware: we chose unlacquered brass pieces from Rejuvenation after literally every single inspiration photo I collected used it. (I am not exaggerating.) Along with the tile, it was one of the other larger splurges, but I’m happy we did it – I think it’s a noticeable upgrade. We went with a combination of 6″ Vernon brass bin pulls, 1 1/4″ Ball cabinet knobs, and Massey 6″, 8″, and 10″ drawer pulls – all in unlacquered brass.

They’re a minor detail, but let’s talk about those silhouettes for a minute. We’ve had several done over the years for the kids, and I love that they’ve found a home here. June’s is from when she was about four, and Shep and Annie’s, about age one. Shep needs an updated one :) We have them done at the NC State Fair by Erik Johnson in the Village of Yesteryear – he’s there every year. He travels around the country the rest of the year, so if you’re interested, you may find him near you! He’s amazing – it takes him less than five minutes to cut each silhouette by hand.

A few thoughts on working with Bull Restoration:

I’ve had several local readers ask who we used to paint our cabinets, so I wanted to share a few thoughts. Bull Restoration replaced our cabinet faces, painted our cabinets and crown molding, and built the cabinets around the fridge.

After striking out with several other options, we got in touch with Bull after a personal referral in our neighborhood. Sean, the owner, came out promptly and gave me a quote standing in my kitchen. He came out several more times over the course of our project to finalize details, which I appreciated, and was our main contact throughout.

Bull does what they do and they do it well. In kitchens, they primarily build and paint cabinets and islands. They are a well-oiled machine, which is great, but it also meant that I had to be VERY clear and VERY on top of the details for anything that went outside of their usual scope. I came armed with pictures and rudimentary sketches, but because they don’t use CAD or other professional drawings, I was a bit stressed over how it would turn out in the end. Had I been clear enough? Had he interpreted everything correctly from our conversations? Communication was largely in person or via text which was also not my preference (I would have preferred email – easier to track conversations and details).

In the end, the result was great. The quality seems to be really good, and the paint finish is impeccable. The experience of having the guys in our house was good, too. They were only on site from Monday-Thursday of one week: about three days of building and taping, and one day of actual spraying and assembling. On Saturday, the punch list guy came and was impressively meticulous with making sure every tiny detail was perfect.

All Kitchen Sources:

If I’ve missed something you’re curious about, happy to share – just drop a note in the comments!

As we wrap up, I owe a big thank you to Honeysuckle Collective for a few of these photos. You’ll see more of her work in upcoming posts on our bedroom and the rest of our downstairs!

And friends, of course a big thank you to YOU! I hope you enjoyed this peek at a project many, many years in the making. So grateful we were able to complete it and share it here!

Affiliate links are used in this post.

Celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary

14 April 2023

Our trip to Florida was wonderful. It was many things – a spring break getaway, a warm-weather delight early in the season, abundant cousin time, a chance to eat more frozen bananas and return to one of our favorite idyllic spots – but mostly, it was time together to honor my in-law’s fifty years of marriage. I would love to share a bit about our celebration today!

First, though, the rest of the trip: it was a dream. We had near-perfect weather, with nary a drop of rain until we drove out of town: it was mid-70’s and sunny or partly cloudy most days. Like last time, we rented a large home in Watercolor and rode our bikes and the included golf cart all over the community.

We ate the aforementioned frozen bananas, we played pickleball and tennis, we went to the beach, we worshipped at the Seaside Chapel on Palm Sunday.

We went to all three pools (Camp Watercolor, the Frog Pool, and the beach club), we set out in a flotilla of paddle boards and kayaks, we cooked lots of meals, we played lots of cards. We took many evening walks, and I even finished two books (this one and this one!).

We also took a jaunt one evening to North Beach Social, a bayside restaurant with outdoor tables, a kids’ area, and live music. We had a blast and it was the perfect spot to celebrate my nephew’s fourth birthday (complete with a Publix cake, a Florida classic!).

It was particularly fun to watch Annie enjoy herself, as she was just two months old when we visited in 2021. She was ob-sessed with the big waterslide at Camp Watercolor and belly-flopping into the pool; took a hilarious and inexplicable disliking to her Uncle Seth, who is a reliable kid charmer (he won her over by the end of the week!); loved riding in the Bee alongside a cousin; and enjoyed being the only kid to accompany her mama and aunts on a shopping trip one morning.

I was a poor influencer on this trip, as almost all of my camera roll is filled with smiling family members instead of scenic hot spots. If you’re interested in a few more details about what there is to do and see in Watercolor, my post from 2021 might help!

What I would love to go into detail on, though, is how we celebrated my in-law’s wedding anniversary. As we all know, celebrating well usually takes a lot of intentionality and forethought. I’ve missed opportunities to do so many times! As a group, I think we pulled together a really sweet and meaningful evening, and I’d love to share what we did in case it helps one of you with your own celebration.

First, it’s worth mentioning that my in-law’s graciously footed the bill for the majority of the house rental. On the one hand, this is kind of funny – we were celebrating them! On the other, when I think about myself and John (should we be lucky enough to celebrate 50 years of marriage and have the means to do so), there will likely almost nothing else we’d rather spend money on than bringing together our kids and grandkids for a week. So yes, I totally get it. We are incredibly grateful they chose to help make this week happen for all of us.

Most of the week was a fairly typical vacation (see above), but Wednesday was set aside for the official celebration. A couple of months before, we had booked a private chef to come to the house and prepare dinner. This ended up being a fantastic decision. We were visiting Florida during spring break week, and it was busy. If all 15 of us had tried to go to a sit-down restaurant for our special dinner, it likely would have been a) chaotic, b) loud, c) challenging to be present while managing small children, d) expensive, or e) all of the above.

Instead, we had a peaceful, delicious dinner in our lovely rental home where we enjoyed conversation and our kids enjoyed themselves, too. For four courses, we paid just over 1,000 for 15 of us, which included tax, service fees, gratuity, the private chef, and a server. We booked through Swiftly Catered and would recommend them!

A few other intentional details and highlights of the night:

  • We tidied the downstairs before the chef arrived. Of course, we tried to keep the common areas clear throughout the week, but things pile up with so many people staying together. We cleaned off surfaces, tucked away pool bags, and scooped up board books and crayon pouches. This made a huge difference!
  • We dressed for the occasion. From grandparents to preschoolers, we all chose a more formal outfit for the evening’s festivities. Since we weren’t transitioning to a new space as in a restaurant, this helped it feel more like an occasion. Everyone looked lovely :)
  • The kids dined separately. While we enjoyed the hors d’oeuvres course, the kids were busy upstairs (more on that below). For the rest of the meal, they were seated on the screened porch while the grown-ups (and Annie, in a high chair), ate in the dining room. This was how we ate most dinners, and it was perfect: we could see them clearly, but could not hear them, ha. Once the kids finished their meal (much more quickly than us!), we settled them in with a movie upstairs and enjoyed another hour of conversation.
  • The kids stole the show. At least one of the cousins has a theatrical streak, and somehow the 7 of them decided to write and perform an original song. And so they did :) It was, you know, not the MOST musically advanced, but they knew their audience and the grandparents loved it.
  • We asked questions. With my brothers-in-law leading the way, we used our dinner table conversation to guide my in-laws into reminiscing about their 50 years together. We talked about how they met, their first date, what attracted them to each other, their engagement and wedding, their hardest and best years of marriage, and more. It was funny and sweet and I think it meant a lot to them to get to share. (And of course we all loved it.)
  • We wrote notes. Some of the family is more reserved, so emotional, long-winded toasts aren’t really the group’s vibe. Instead, each child + spouse pair wrote a note in advance to share with the parents. This was quite meaningful to me, and John’s parents reflected that it was meaningful to them, as well. Just as John has been with me for more than half of my life, so have his parents. I was grateful to have a reason to share with them again my gratitude for the gift that their son is to me and our children, for all that they sacrificed to give me that gift, to thank them for specific moments in our past, and to share what their marriage and role in my life has meant to me. I’m tearing up just thinking about it! It can feel strange to be so vulnerable, but it is always worth it.
  • We played the not-so-newlywed game. To finish the evening, we pulled out two white boards and a prepared list of questions and compared their answers to questions like “do you have a song?” and “what was his/her first job?” We laughed, we learned a few new things – a perfect cap to the evening.

Something else we talked about at dinner: our memories of our grandparents’ 50th anniversaries. Both John’s and his sisters’ Dad’s parents and my Dad’s parents were lucky enough to reach 50 years of marriage, and we all remember the celebrations – in their case, a party in the church basement, and in mine, a party on the church lawn :) All happy memories. I hope our children will have the same many years from now.

I’d love to hear: do you have memories of celebrations for your parents’ or grandparents’ milestone anniversaries? Did you do something memorable to celebrate? Please share!

P.S. A few sources, in case it’s helpful: my sun hat, my belt bag, my pool shoes, my tennis dress, my bathing suit, and my other bathing suit :)

Marvelous Money: Long-Awaited Splurges

11 April 2023

Can you point to anything in your past about which you remember saying, “When our budget has room to breathe/I pay off my loans/I get a raise, I’m finally going to splurge on ______”? I can think of two, and I thought it might be fun to chat about them today.

I’ve mentioned here and there the idea of our household budget expanding over time, which is both somewhat fiddly to talk about but also something I feel it’s important to be realistic about. And also, isn’t it the arc we all hope to realize over time? I’ve been writing this blog for almost 15 years – it spans from the perspective of a college senior to a mid-30’s mom – so I certainly hope my financial situation has changed over our time together. Yours, too :)

And it has. John and I have moved from a season of paying off student loans and entry-level jobs (where splitting a burrito at Chipotle was a rare treat) to a new season where we have advanced in our careers and can comfortably afford most things we want. (Though you better believe we still live by our budget – in fact, I’m thinking of updating that very old post because so many of you have emailed hoping I’d get the example Google Doc fixed up. Let me know if that would be of interest!)

Accordingly, our budget has expanded a bit, and it’s been interesting to adjust our behavior to fit it. It’s been sweet, but also has required some rewiring, some uncertainty, some resetting of expectations. For example, I was chatting with John about buying tickets to Wicked, which is coming to the DPAC here in August. I have wanted to see it for years and years and years, and I said to him that maybe we could make it an early Christmas present? To which he gently said, “You know, we can just go to a show occasionally. We don’t have to try to shoehorn it into the nearest holiday.”

And he’s right – we’ve made room for it in our budget. But old habits die hard :) Which on the whole, I’m grateful for! I’d always rather set my expectations for spending too low than too high.

There are two seemingly small things, though, that years ago I identified as milestones and said to myself, when our budget feels more comfortable, I’ll do those things. That will feel like a splurge. That will really be living, ha. They’re kind of hilarious in retrospect, but here they are:

1. Pre-peeled garlic. Many years ago – probably pre-kids – I remember having lunch at a friend’s house and watching her cook a noodle dish. She pulled a bag of pre-peeled garlic from the fridge, swiftly chopped it up, and added it to a saute pan.

I find peeling garlic to be one of those grating kitchen tasks that slows down my meal prep flow, leaves annoying bits of papery peel drifting around my kitchen, and makes my hands reek. The idea of being able to pluck a clove from a bag and immediately press it into action? The height of luxury.

Alas, I didn’t feel I could justify a $4.50 or so bag of pre-peeled garlic every week when the garlic head was $.50 and lasted at least two weeks. But about a year ago, I decided it was time, and plucked the coveted bag from the produce cooler.

And friends, it’s been as good as I thought it would be all those years. The only downside? The garlic in the fridge spoiled faster than I could use it. But I found a solution: keeping the bag in the freezer! The cloves thaw enough to slice in a few seconds, and since we’re cooking them 90% of the time, we’ve never noticed any difference in flavor.

2. A compost service. Probably five years ago, I heard about a service called Compost Now, which swaps out your full compost bucket for a clean one once a week. They come right to your doorstep – you just have to leave it on your porch. They process your kitchen scraps along with everyone else in your community, and whenever you’d like, you can request bags of dirt, or donate the dirt you’ve contributed to to local community gardens. Amazing! I thought. The price? Not so amazing. (It’s currently $39/month.)

I come from a long line of composters, and it’s something that matters to me. You may recall that we had a good long run of driving our compost bucket to the compost bins in our neighborhood community garden, but it was a hassle that did not survive the addition of a third child to our family.

Earlier this year, I decided our budget could support a Compost Now membership, and it’s been a dream. The bucket lives under our sink and the whole process couldn’t be easier – you can throw in everything from meat and bones to flour and sugar bags, flower arrangements to pizza boxes. I love that we’re able to live out something that matters to us.

In the end, I hope that that’s always what our budget expanding feels like – living into what matters to us more and more, not necessarily just adding comfort or luxury or ease to our lives (though those things are all nice, too!). I’m toying with another Marvelous Money post about generosity, our role in it and how we think about it, and how it changes over time – would love to know if that would be of interest, too.

But of course, I must know: what splurges, big or small, have you realized over time? Especially ones that are recurring versus one-time? Please share!

P.S. If you’re in an area that Compost Now serves (currently: Atlanta, Asheville, Raleigh-Durham, Charleston, and Cincinnati) and also want to splurge, you can use my link to get a $10 service credit.