Saturday, April 9, 2022

Book Talk: Picture Books

Picture books are taking over the world. There are SO MANY picture books for young children. And more all the time, as it seems almost everyone believes they can write picture books.

They can write them. But that doesn't mean they will be good picture books. 

So what makes a good picture book? Good illustrations, obviously. Although that doesn't necessarily mean realistic paintings or whatever. I mean, look at the popularity of, say, Eric Carle's artwork.

Equally important is the language. It has to flow correctly. Good books for young children are easy to read aloud. They have a cadence. Sometimes that means rhyming, but not always. It often does mean repetition, of words or whole sentences.

And last, if it's a story book, it has to be a good, engaging story. You'd think this would be a given, but I have read many picture books for young children with completely random, plotless stories. Yes, even stories for very young children should have a plot. They should also have good characters, conflict, resolutions . . . you know. All the elements an adult expects in a good story, but told in a way that is accessible to children.

With all that in mind, here are some picture books every one of my children has loved, and that I have not minded reading over and over again (an equally important consideration for books meant for non-readers).

Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter--I don't love all of Beatrix Potter's stories, but this one is the best, in my opinion. (Also in my opinion, what they did with that modern movie version featuring smart-talking rabbits was an insult to the book.)

Zorro and Quwi: Tales of a Trickster Guinea Pig by Rebecca Hickox--This book was written by the MiL's friend, who sent us a copy when Calvin was a baby. All my kids have loved this book about a clever guinea pig outwitting the fox who wants to eat it. It's set in Peru, with very colorful illustrations. She also wrote Per and the Dala Horse, which is almost as popular with my kids and has some of the most beautiful illustrations I've ever seen in a children's book.

An illustration from Per and the Dala Horse. So pretty.

Wee Gillis by Munroe Leaf--This book has black-and-white illustrations, which sometimes throws kids who are used to color everything. But they are very detailed illustrations, and it's just a good story. There are some funny illustrations and funny moments. 

Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey--Another black-and-white illustrated book that seems to enthrall all children despite its age. What's not to like about eight cute ducklings with rhyming names and policemen who look out for them?

Pooh's Snowy Day by Lauren Cecil--The original A.A. Milne characters in a new picture book that uses the classic illustrations. This is, for lack of a better word, an extremely wholesome book. It's very gently funny, and it has a good message about working together without hitting kids over the head with it.

Russell the Sheep by Robb Scotton--This relatively modern board book about a sheep who tries different ways to fall asleep is the one I always buy for the preschool Christmas book exchange. It's reliably liked by all different children. 

Tom and the Magic Rainbow by Jean Gilder--As far as I can tell, all of this author's books are now out of print, which is a shame. They are available used, though. The artwork in them is wonderful, with lots of detail, and the stories are well-told. We also have Tom Badger Goes Skating, but I think The Magic Rainbow is slightly preferred by my children.

I believe the word "charming" is appropriate here.

Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean E. Pendziwol--A lovely book with text that is more on the side of poetry than prose, but not in a pretentious way. 

Hardscrabble Harvest by Dahlov Ipcar--We have a few books by this author, and I think this one has been my kids' favorite. Each page has a short rhyme with good accompanying illustrations. The text is so memorable that just last week when I saw the chickens in the backyard garden, I quoted from this book, "Chickens in the garden, scratching up the row . . ."  And Cubby, who has probably not read this book in at least five years, finished it with, "Run, farmer, run. Chase them with a hoe."

Cars and Trucks and Things that Go by Richard Scarry--It's pretty hard to go wrong with any Richard Scarry book, but this one has been my children's favorite. So much to look at on every page. It's a very long book, which is something of a problem if you want to quickly read a book to a child because you have other things to do. In that case, you must specify only two pages, or you will be there FOREVER. Still, though, kids do love it, and they can look at the illustrations on their own for quite some time.

The Eclectic Abecedarium by Edward Gorey--A very small book with rhyming couplets for each letter of the alphabet. Children love the small size of the book, the rhyming, and the randomness. For example, the rhyme for "J" is "Don't try to cram the dog with jam."

Myths and Legends of Dragons by Gilles Ragache--This is kind of a picture book, but has a lot more words than most picture books. I have no idea how A. found this book several years ago. It's definitely out of print, and there seem to be very few copies available, but every one of my children has loved this book. It has stories of dragons from around the world, including well-known western legends like St. George and the dragon, as well as eastern legends from China and elsewhere. The illustrations are sometimes kind of bloody, which my children appreciate of course, and the writing is really exceptional for a children's book. It has good vocabulary and a relatively high level of sentence structure, without being confusing.

Animalia by Graeme Base--Alphabet books for kids are a dime a dozen, but this one is extraordinary. The illustrated page for each letter has dozens of things on that page that start with that letter. You can spend several minutes on each page just trying to figure out what everything is. Also, the text for each letter is as alliterative as possible--"Beautiful blue butterflies basking by a babbling brook"--and you know how much I love alliteration. The MiL brought this to us from Blackrock when she was visiting this last time, and I was so pleased to see it. So were the children.

There are other picture books one or the other of my kids has really loved, but this list represents books that all four of my children have asked me to read over and over again. 

What would you add to this list of picture books?

P.S. I didn't add links for these because, if you decide to buy any of these, I want you to find them at whatever place you prefer to buy books. If you are lucky enough to have an actual bookstore near you where you can buy one of these, please do that. For me. Because man, do I miss bookstores.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Friday Food: Ground Beef for Guests


Short version: Baked cod, pasta, various leftover vegetables, strawberries

Long version: Lent isn't much of a penance for seafood-loving Cubby, since it's pretty much the only time I plan to cook fish. This was the two pounds of cod I bought from Misfits Market when I tried one of their cold boxes awhile ago. I had been saving it for Lent. I just squeezed half an old lemon on it, covered it top and bottom with butter, and baked it at 400 degrees until it was done. 

It was very good. And two pounds was just enough for everyone.

The pasta was egg noodles with the pizza sauce from last week, along with an extra packet of the cheese powder from the too-salty Annie's macaroni and cheese, plus some milk, and I also snuck in a few spoonfuls of pureed calabaza, since I had it out anyway. Popular with the children despite my sly addition.

There were leftover broccoli, cabbage, and calabaza, and I apportioned that all out based on who will eat what. I had all three. Yum.

Strawberries because they came in the Misfits Market box on Wednesday and strawberries only ever last a few days. It was time they were finished, so I sent them outside with the children when they went out to play some game after dinner. No strawberry juice all over my table that way.


Short version: Bull meat, fresh bread and butter, roasted green beans and carrots, cucumber and tomatoes

Long version: I still have bull meat in the freezer, and probably a dozen quart jars of canned bull. I really need to use it. So I dumped out two jars, broke it up with my hands into smaller pieces, and spread it in two cast iron skillets. Then I poured about 1/3 cup of melted tallow on it (because it has no fat of its own), sprinkled it with paprika, garlic powder, and salt, mixed it all up, and roasted it with the green beans and carrots until it was a little crispy.

Tasty, but still a bit chewy. Which pretty much sums up the bull meat.


Short version: Beef stir-fry, rice, chocolate-covered peanut butter balls

Long version: I had actually taken a bag of stir-fry vegetables out of the freezer before I thought about it and realized I had enough fresh vegetables to make stir-fry with those. And, more importantly, I had the time.

So I used an onion, a red bell pepper, green beans, carrots, and some frozen beet greens from last year's garden. Along with the beef, of course.

It was really good. And so pretty.

I like colorful food.


Short version: Leftovers, macaroni and cheese, carrot sticks with curry dip

Long version: More bull, rice, leftover pasta, and then I made the macaroni and cheese to drop more food into the bottomless pit of the track-running boy.

I used two boxes of the Annie's macaroni and cheese, but only one of the cheese powder packets. How does anyone eat that stuff if it's made according to the directions? It tastes like a soft orange salt lick. It was fine with half the amount of the cheese stuff, though.


Short version: Barbecue meatballs, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, green peas

Long version: Cubby had a friend over, and meatballs are a reliably popular food with most kids. Barbecue meatballs are just, uh, meatballs baked in barbecue sauce. I actually like these better than meatballs in marinara. My kids like them, too, and they're even better with coleslaw.

Look! A sheep!



Short version: Leftovers

Long version: Bull meat, meatballs, and some leftover pork roast from the school cafeteria. That last was a bit dry and bland, which I fixed by frying it in a bunch of butter with salt, pepper, paprika, garlic powder, and a very little bit of barbecue sauce. Much better.

Also, there was leftover rice, macaroni and cheese, and peas. Ta da! A balanced meal made entirely of leftovers. Perfect for a workday.


Short version: Shepherd's pie, green salad with ranch dressing

Long version: Cubby had a different friend over who eats as much as he does, if not more, so I figured I'd better make a large quantity of something. I decided on shepherd's pie, and my choice was validated by the universe when I was presented with like five pounds of leftover mashed potatoes on Wednesday by the school cook. I could have felt bad about taking them, except I actually peeled all 40 potatoes for her, so I guess you could say I earned it.

A bunch of the older kids were out for an FFA event, so she had a lot of leftovers. And that giant quantity of mashed potatoes was exactly the quantity I needed for the two shepherd's pies I made with four pounds of ground beef. The one in the 15"x10" Pyrex was almost finished, but I was left with the entire 13"x9" Pyrex untouched. 

Yay leftovers.

Okay, your turn! What'd you eat this week?

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Answers to Woolly Questions

Between Linda and Jenny, there were several questions about the sheep's wool. 

This is a topic I never thought I would know a thing about, but here we are.

How much total wool did you end up with?

We haven't weighed these specific fleeces yet, but last time we did weigh fleeces from this sheep breed, we found that one fleece is 10-15 pounds of wool. Our breed (Debouillet) produces some of the densest and heaviest wool per sheep of any breed. That was when we had the professional do it with his electric shears, which cut much closer and get off ALL the wool. A., being not a professional and also using hand shears, left a bit more on the sheep. But it's still 70-100 pounds of wool.

What do you do with the wool?

The first year we were here, when we had the professional shearer come, A. sold the fleeces as-is on Etsy. Literally just the fleeces straight off the sheep in garbage bags, shipped out to various people who were most probably hand-spinners. This worked in that it got them out of our shed and paid for the shearing with a little profit, but the shipping was really high and complicated on them because they were so bulky and heavy.

Last year, A. had a lot of trouble with his shearing equipment and ended up basically just chopping the wool off as best he could so the sheep wouldn't expire from heat. The fleeces weren't good enough to sell.

This year the fleeces came off much better and he wants to try bringing them to a custom wool mill a couple of hours away to get them made into actual yarn to sell.

We also have a bag of slightly less nice wool that he might try to sell to crafters and so forth. A. might wash that wool here before selling it, because then he could charge a bit more for it.

Does it smell?

Well, the wool smells like . . . sheep. The natural grease that makes raw sheep's wool very water resistant (lanolin) is what gives them their distinct smell. It's not bad, it's just . . . sheepish. But maybe I'm just used to it.

Sheepish smell in this scene was strong. (As was the inadvertant alliteration in that sentence.)

Do you have to wash it or do anything to it?

No, but you can get more money for it if you do. When A. sold the fleeces last time, he specified that they were directly off of range sheep. That is, not washed, with grass, hay, etc. still in the wool. 

But if you want to do anything with it, yes, it needs to be washed. And for yarn, it has to be washed, all the bits of vegetation removed, carded (basically combed out to be all fluffy), and THEN spun into yarn. It's a process, and one I am happy to have a mill do for me.

How often do you shear?

Every year. Some people do it before lambing, so it's easier for the lambs to find the udder and so the back end of the sheep doesn't get matted with after-birth and so on, but we don't do it until after lambing. Both because it's really cold here until after the sheep lamb, and because we don't want to be wrestling a pregnant ewe to the ground.

Do they look little afterwards?

Yes, quite comically so in the case of professional shearing, which takes the wool off right down to almost pink skin. You can see a photo showing the contrast between sheared and unsheared on our old Cotswold sheep (their wool is more long than dense) in this post.

The contrast isn't quite as noticeable on our current sheep, because the density of their wool makes it look like there isn't as much there. Also because A. didn't shear them right to the skin for fear of cutting them.

How does it look when it leaves you?

I will get a photo of the wool in a bag and post it this Sunday. Why not now? Because it's still dark outside and the bags are in the unlighted shed. 

I think that covers it. Unless there are any more questions about wool and sheep.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

T.T.: German Red Cabbage

Last week, Jackie commented asking for the MiL's red cabbage recipe. 

Well, Jackie is in luck! The MiL's red cabbage recipe used to me mine, too, and so I can give you this recipe without asking the MiL to send it to me.

The original recipe came from a cookbook the MiL has. It's from a now-closed famous German restaurant in New York City called Luchow's. The restaurant opened in the 1880s and didn't close for a full century. The cookbook really evoked the atmosphere of the place, and every time I read the cookbook, I regretted that I never got to visit the actual restaurant. Just click on that link up there and feast your eyes on the illustration of the interior.


I found the original recipe online here

I used to double this recipe to make five quarts of red cabbage every year when we lived at Blackrock, and I would freeze it in quart jars. One of my favorite winter meals was kielbasa with German red cabbage and mashed potatoes. I can't get good kielbasa now, so I haven't even bothered making the cabbage in some time, but it really is delicious.

I made several changes to the original recipe when I used to make it, so I suppose you could say this is a new recipe.

German Red Cabbage


1 medium-sized red cabbage

2 tart apples (optional, but delicious)

2 tbsp. chicken fat (use it if you have it!) or vegetable oil

1 medium-sized onion, sliced

2 cups water

1/2 cup red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar

1/3 cup sugar 

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 cloves

1 bay leaf


1) Wash and core cabbage. Cut into about 1/4-inch ribbons.

2) If using apples, wash, peel, core, and dice.

3) Heat fat in large pot. Saute onion and apples until soft.

4) Add everything else and bring to a boil.

5) Cover and simmer about 45 minutes.

6) Uncover and simmer another 30 minutes, to make the cabbage completely tender and to reduce liquid a bit. The original recipe called for a lot more water and then flour to thicken it, but I always just started with less water, no flour, and reduced the liquid by simmering more.

7) Taste and adjust salt, sugar, and vinegar as needed. It shouldn't be noticeably sweet or noticeably acid. You're looking for a balance between the sweet and acid, sort of like with this coleslaw

As I mentioned, I haven't actually made this in about five years, so I might be forgetting something, but I think this was pretty much what I did.

Also, if you decide to make this in quantity as I used to do, I would recommend freezing it rather than canning it. I canned it one year, but I found it had an over-cooked taste that way. And anyway, I'm not 100% sure this recipe has enough vinegar in it to make it safe for water-bath canning, so freezing is the way to go.


Sunday, April 3, 2022

Snapshots: A'Shearing We Will Go

A. decided to do the sheep shearing himself this year, since he only has seven ewes to shear and the nearest shearer is not near. His electric shears aren't working, though, so he got some hand shears from Greece and used those.

They work fine, but each sheep takes him about an hour and he can only do three sheep before the muscles in his forearm are too fatigued to go on. A lot of this has to do with the extremely thick wool on our Debouillet sheep. Debouillets are a Merino cross, but these are almost all Merino, and their fleeces reflect that. They are extremely dense and heavy, which means they are very difficult to shear.

It's also very hard to find where the skin is under all that wool, which means A. has to be very careful to avoid cutting the sheep.

The older two boys are now the sheep holders, leaving my only jobs bagging wool and clearing the floor between sheep. I like this division of labor, as it means I'm not sitting on top of a sheep for three hours.

 A. did the shearing in the enclosed porch of the casita this year, which worked very, very well. He lured the sheep in there with some hay, shut the door on them, and then they were easy to catch and pull a couple of feet over to the tarp for shearing.

Oddly, they were also very calm being all squished together like this. I guess because they're flock animals, they feel safe if they're close to the rest of their flock.

Six of the seven sheep are sheared, so we're almost done. I'm sure the sheep appreciate the literal lightening of their woolly load.

Let's see what else . . .

There's a little tomato forest in the bathroom under the lights.

Looks like I'll be planting these out a lot sooner than mid-May.

Calvin made this creepy little figure.

Meet Farmer Bean. He's screaming at you to get out of his field.

And last, a rare sunset photo for you this week.

Brought to you by the fact that I forgot all about taking my laundry down until it was almost dark.

There you have it! My life, snapshotted.