Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ultimate Blog Party

Five Minutes for Mom is hosting their 5th Annual Ultimate Blog Party this week.  New blogs, prizes, facebook pages...  a great virtual party.

If you are stopping by from the blog party, I'm Debra.  I'm a mostly stay at home, homeschooling mama to my five kids.  I do a lot of product reviews and the occasional giveaway (I should be posting a couple of giveaways during this party, so check back!) and otherwise find other stuff to blather on about.

I try to blog about life as it really is here.  Some days are great, some are pretty horrid, and most are somewhere in between.  I suspect that is how it is for lots of people.  I try on this blog to not pretend otherwise.

Once upon a time, I worked in accounting.  I have this dim memory of being a CPA... seems like a lifetime ago. I was a biology major for a short time, and my homeschool life reflects all of this background fairly well -- we're science-y, math-y geeks here, and we love a good story (see my Read-Aloud Challenge post from this morning!)

Thanks for stopping in to see me!  I look forward to meeting all kinds of fun people in this week-long gala.

Reading Aloud Challenge, week 3

I'm going to recap a bit, as it seems I have a few people who plan to join me in trying to stay accountable.  Eeek!  I really have to follow through then if other people are expecting it!  I'll try to figure out a button or something cute to help identify these posts, but that will probably take a couple of weeks.

So, this started because a couple of weeks ago I was hit -- once again -- with multiple sources telling me something I already knew:  that reading aloud is incredibly important.  Reading aloud is huge in vocabulary development, it is huge in helping children to hear 'reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns' (not sure that is a direct quote of Andrew Pudewa, but it is close), it is huge in building up shared family experiences, it is huge in allowing discussion of important issues in life.

I used to be incredibly good at reading aloud daily.  My goal was two hours a day at a minimum, and I met and exceeded that most every weekday.  But I have allowed that to slide.  So my challenge for ME is to start making a concentrated effort to read aloud to my kids at least every weekday, and to be choosing books that are specifically age-appropriate for each child.  They may all listen as I read Boxcar Children, but that is directed at Richard and Trina.  For right now, I am not counting audiobooks, because for me this is a question of building the habit back up (and training a certain 5 year old to respect read-aloud time).

I plan to be checking in every Thursday, because Thursday is a point where I can still redeem my week, and I don't tend to have reviews due on Thursdays.

I'm thrilled to have other people joining me, so I will be putting up a linky and I promise to go read your posts and to pray about your reading aloud time with your family.  I don't care what YOUR goals are... if you are shooting for reading aloud for 10 minutes a day, I say more power to you!  That will add up to over 50 hours in a year, which is incredible.  If you will utilize audiobooks, more power to you!  Some books are far better when read by someone who has been paid to get it right!  I'm thinking about my experiences trying to keep track of who is talking in Winnie the Pooh.  I can't read that aloud well.

Okay, so here is my report for the week.  And, yeah, it was not a great week.  Figures.  People telling me they are going to start linking up and how much I've inspired them... and I choke.
  • We are two chapters from finishing Out of Many Waters, and will finish it today.  This is directed at Connor.  It has led to great discussion, and the kids begged for me to get the book about the sister's experiences.
  • We finished Twice Freed, then read excerpts from Romans and all of Philemon.  Great book.  This one was directed at William and Thomas.
And that's it.  I didn't pick up Boxcar Children (Richard and Trina's book) a single time.  I didn't do any one-on-one reading to Trina.  So this is where I need to redeem my week... it is not too late, and we can get a couple of chapters of Boxcar Children done today and a couple tomorrow too.

How about you?  What are your goals, and how have you been doing?  Why is this important to you?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review: Latin Alive

We've struggled a lot with Latin in this house.  It is something that we feel is very important to learn, yet getting the right mix of how to learn it has been a challenge.  When I had the chance to express interest in the Classical Academic Press Latin materials, I was torn.  Do I have Connor use Latin Alive, meant for grades 7 and up (more on that later)?  Do I go for Song School Latin, meant for K-3rd grades, and have Richard and Trina get started?  (Umm, I ended up buying a dented and damaged copy so I could!)  Or do I go with Latin for Children, which is intended for third grade and up, and have William and Thomas do it?

I finally opted for Latin Alive, and we are loving it.  What I received to review is the Latin Alive Bundle, which includes a student book, a teacher book, and a DVD/CD set including 7 DVDs (with over 15 hours of instruction) and one audio CD that includes the Unit Readings.  This set sells for $139.95, but you can just purchase individual pieces.  For my house, I cannot imagine doing this without the DVDs, and I think they are well worth the price.  For my future high school Latin students, I will only need a new student book for about $25 each.  That is a bargain.

At this point, we are nearly through Chapter 6, which is the last chapter in the first unit.  The next lesson is the Unit 1 Reading -- sort of a review chapter for the first unit.  I had really hoped we would get that far, but we just did not have enough time.

Let me walk you through our work with Chapter 6.  Connor grabs his workbook and the DVD.  Mrs. Moore introduces the chapter by talking about the state motto for Arizone (Ditat Deus) and then goes through the vocabulary.  In this chapter, there are 13 second declension nouns (the first time we've seen 2nd declension) and five verbs.  The magistra goes over the pronunciation, meaning and derivatives, and makes comments about the words to help the student to remember.  The DVD is then paused while Connor works out Exercise 1 -- writing out the syllables and accents for the vocabulary words.  The DVD section is about six minutes.

This is how the remainder of the DVD goes as well.  Connor watches about five minutes of Mrs. Moore, and then he does an exercise.  These exercises involve indentifying stems for the nouns in the vocabulary list, writing out declensions for three masculine nouns, writing out declensions for two neuter nouns, and finding indirect objects in English sentences and translating just that indirect object into Latin. 

In the last couple of exercises, the pattern changes and he watches a few minutes of explanation, does the exercise, then comes back to watch a few more minutes of talking about all or some of the exercise answers.

The sixth section deals with more grammar, this time "dative of reference."  This section is longer, and Connor had to really think on the exercise, which involved taking six sentences, circling endings, parsing, diagramming and finally translating.  I loved this.  He couldn't just guess, he couldn't bluff his way through.  To complete the exercise, he really did need to understand what he was doing.  The final exercise for the chapter has him going back through the sentences from exercise six and determining which use Dative of Reference and which use indirect objects.

We choose to split this section up over usually three days, with him going onto Headventureland daily and using their Flash Dash to review vocabulary.

The rest of the chapter consists of:
  • a Chapter Reading (in Latin) on the Trojan Horse 
  • a Culture Corner reading (in English) about the Trojan War
  • a Latin in Science section where they talk about tree names and why they are feminine even though they are second declension nouns. Just a note -- this explanation does get into a bit of mythology, which I think is great, as I would never remember that trees are feminine without the discussion about the Roman's beliefs in Dryads to help that fact stick.  This section also has a suggested activity involving a nature walk and finding the Latin names for indigenous trees.
  • a Let's Talk section, in this case to ask questions in Latin to review nouns
The above sections (except the chapter readings which start in chapter 4) are not all present in each lesson, and some of the lessons also have a Derivative Detective section.

Following all of this, Connor spends some more time playing on Headventureland and otherwise reviewing the chapter.  One disappointment I have with the program is that there isn't a lot available on Headventureland for Latin Alive.  There is a lot available for Latin for Children, and Connor has worked through those to find ones that are appropriate for him as well.  He has found quite a few.  His favorite is the Chart Challenge Game.

We have not yet done a Unit Reading chapter, but that is what is coming next.  Looking it over, I like what I see.  The readings are adapted from Livy.  In looking over the first reading, it starts off with an English reading on the descendants of Aeneas and an English family tree essentially tracing from Priam (king of Troy) down to Romulus and Remus.

Then comes the actual Latin reading -- which starts off with an English title and a list of characters explained in English.  The Latin reading in this case is only two paragraphs, and the student is supposed to start by just reading it through without trying to translate it.  Then the student should go read the questions about the text to help to know what they are looking for.  These questions are of the same type that a student would encounter on the AP Latin exam, or on the National Latin Exam.  I love that.

At that point, the student should go back to re-read the Latin selection, using the glossary provided as necessary, and then start answering the questions.  I am very impressed.

This review chapter also includes a Culture Corner reading on relatives and an activity to create your own family tree.  Unfortunately for my kids, they would have a hard time using most of this vocabulary on their own family, since they don't have paternal aunts or uncles, nor do they have maternal aunts, nor do they have any cousins at all. 

The teacher book includes the full student text, with pages numbered as they are in the student book.  The teacher's version also includes teaching suggestions in black boxes to help me get through the material.  After the numbered student pages, there are un-numbered teacher's pages that contain the answers to all of the exercises.

An additional note: we didn't notice it in earlier chapters (which may be because it involved words we already knew from previous Latin studies) but in Chapter 6 there were a couple of words used in the exercises that were not part of the vocabulary in this book and we needed to look them up in a Latin dictionary. 

This format is really working well for us.  We have been doing this together, although Connor could easily do this independently.  Instead of one big lecture per lesson, he is getting a series of little ones, with plenty of exercises in between.  I wish we had the option to use Ecclesiastical pronunciation at this level, but pronunciation is not something I get too hung up on.

I love that we can move through at a pace that works for us, and re-watch the DVD as often as necessary.

One thing I'd like to comment on, though, is the age ranges given for this product.  They say it is for 7th grade and up.  I think that for a student who has previous Latin experience with a comprehensive upper elementary level program that statement is probably true.  Latin Alive starts at the beginning, so the first chapters may be pretty much review.

But if I had a 7th grader with no previous Latin experience, and especially if I had little or no Latin experience, I think Latin Alive would move too fast and not be "fun" enough.  If I were starting a 7th or 8th grader with Latin, I think I would give serious thought to working through Latin for Children at an accelerated pace.  Maybe do all three levels in two years and then move to Latin Alive.  I believe Latin Alive is supposed to end up as a three year program (we will be purchasing Latin Alive 2 for next year), and doing Latin for Children in 8th and 9th grades would still leave time for all of Latin Alive in grades 10-12.

As you can see in the picture, Classical Academic Press has a number of other products.  There are Latin programs for younger students (and Latin Alive 2!), Greek programs, Spanish programs, a Bible program that is intriguing, logic, a poetry book that looks amazing... go check them out!

You can check out what some of my fellow crewmates had to say at:

Any questions? I'd love to know what you would want to know in deciding whether or not this is something you want to purchase.

Disclaimer:  As part of the TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I did receive the Latin Alive from Classical Academic Press.  The fact that I received complimentary products does not guarantee a favorable review.  It does guarantee a review. A fair review. But I am not going to praise something unless I think it deserves the praise.  If I don't like it, you'll hear that.  And hopefully with enough detail as to why so you can decide for yourself if what I hate about it makes it perfect for your family.  For more about my take on reviews, visit my blog post here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Blog Cruise: Covering the difficult subjects

When I first began to tell people that we were planning to homeschool (the kids were 5, 3 and 18 months), invariably, I was immediately asked one of two questions.  The first one was obvious, honestly, I think it is one of those automatic reactions like when the doctor hits your knee and you kick.  You know already, I'm sure:  "But what about socialization?"

The second I found hysterically funny at the time though.  "But how will you teach chemistry?" (or calculus, or fill in the blank of some high school topic that intimidated the asker)

My answer then was something like:  if I don't know enough to teach my kindergartner, then obviously my public school education was so horribly pathetic that clearly I cannot do worse.

Or, if the person doing the questioning seemed sincere, I would say something a little more polite, such as "He's FIVE!  I know I can get through algebra.  When we get there, I'll start looking at options."

I don't laugh at people asking me that question anymore.  Because now that I have older kids, it is a legitimate question.  And there isn't a clear-cut answer.  But there are a lot of options:
  • Learn the material alongside my child.  My public school education was adequate enough that I usually can get through a high school text.  
  • Find a self-teaching course, like the computer programming I reviewed this morning.
  • Take a class online.  There are lots and lots of those out there now.
  • Do video-based or web-based instruction.  Someone else can do the teaching.  Maybe I can learn too.
  • Take a course at the community college.  I'm leaning towards this for Calculus and beyond.
And there are some options that don't necessarily work for me, but might for someone else:
  • Barter.  I'll teach your kid science, you teach my kid British Lit.  Unfortunately, we don't really have anyone close enough to us to make bartering a possibility.
  • Homeschool co-ops.  Have the child take a class or two.  Again, we don't have anything remotely nearby.
Homeschooling the advanced subjects does not have to be impossible.  I purchase expertise where I have to.

Check out the TOS Crew Blog on Tuesday for more ideas as to how to teach the more advanced subjects!

Review: Homeschool Programming

One of the things that Connor keeps coming back to when discussing the "what do you want to be when you grow up" question is the idea of computer programming, and particularly game programming.  When we were plotting out his potential high school course of study, he insisted that we block off a credit for computer programming.

Seeing as I know virtually nothing about anything like this, I kept my eyes opened, and I hoped.  I hoped something would come along that would let him teach this to himself and it would be something painless for me.

Enter:  Homeschool Programming.  When I found out we'd be reviewing their entire Teen Coder series, I was thrilled -- and Connor was ecstatic.

It has been perfect. 

Okay, so the TeenCoder series consists of two "courses" that are each perfect for a one-semester high school course.  The first course is Windows programming, the second is Game Programming.  Each course consists of two books -- a student textbook, and a Teacher's Edition.  The student book is meant to be self-teaching, which was wonderful.  The Teacher's Edition contains a SHORT chapter summary, an easy-to-understand explanation of the student project for that chapter, a test and the answers.  The Teacher's Edition also contains a disk with pdf files of the chapter tests and loads of help files.

Prerequisites for Windows Programming is that the child already be familiar with using a Windows computer.  Prerequisites for Game Programming is the completion of Windows Programming or comparable C# programming skills.

I'll talk a bit about the Windows Programming course, but note that the Game Programming one is very similar.  We just didn't get that far.  I was hoping Connor would complete the final project from chapter 17 for Windows Programming before I had to write the review, but it looks like his computerized chess game won't be complete until the end of this week.

So, what does a typical week look like when using this program?  Well, Connor tended to do all of the chapter reading in one day, which typically took an hour or so.  Towards the last third of the course, he'd generally spread that over two days, and at that point he'd be making an effort to find somewhere quiet so he could focus. The text is written TO the student, and mostly in a pretty engaging style.  Connor would spend another day working on the hands-on part.  On the PC, he would work with C# programming language (via a free downloadable program).  The assignments increased in difficulty through the semester, but Connor never felt overwhelmed or unsure as to how to proceed.  Sometimes the programming part would take a couple of days, but he was usually doing that in just one day.  The last step was to take the short chapter tests.  Connor would have preferred to skip this part, to be honest, but he really didn't complain.

The greatest part?  Everything is so well laid-out that he never really had to come to me with questions.  Oh, that part is marvelous.  And Connor has loved it.  He feels he is learning a lot.  One thing he really appreciates is that the assignments did require him to think and figure stuff out for himself, but they built logically on what had been presented or demonstrated in the chapter.

The only complaints we really had really didn't directly relate to the course.  We struggled to get started as after installing the C# program onto the computer, something happened to it.  When we tried to reinstall it, our PC suddenly stopped talking to our network, so we no longer had internet access.  Without that bump, Connor would have started the Game Programming course before I had to write this review.

The Game Programming Course adds on to the C# programming that your high schooler has learned in Windows Programming, and includes the use of Microsoft's XNA Game Studio.  The Game Programmer course has fifteen lessons which culminate with the creation of a bumper cars game.  According to the website, learning the XNA Framework will also allow the student to program games for the Xbox  360 with a little extra effort.  I haven't told Connor that part yet.

If you aren't quite to high school yet, they also have a Kid Coder series which uses Visual Basic instead of C#.  This is also split into two courses, Windows Programming and Game Programming.

Teen Coder can be ordered for $75 per level, or $130 for the entire year.  Note: The Crew received the first edition for review.  Since that time, a new version has been made available for sale.  This 2nd Edition is easier to get started with and did replace some of the projects.  (I wonder if the easier start-up would have fixed our initial installation bumps?)  However, the course I reviewed is substantially the same as the one you can now purchase.

You can check out what some of my fellow crewmates had to say about Teen Coder or Kid Coder at:

Any questions? I'd love to know what you would want to know in deciding whether or not this is something you want to purchase.

Disclaimer:  As part of the TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I did receive the Teen Coder series from Homeschool Programming.  The fact that I received complimentary products does not guarantee a favorable review.  It does guarantee a review. A fair review. But I am not going to praise something unless I think it deserves the praise.  If I don't like it, you'll hear that.  And hopefully with enough detail as to why so you can decide for yourself if what I hate about it makes it perfect for your family.  For more about my take on reviews, visit my blog post here.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Book Review: The Discipline of Grace

It has taken me awhile to get through The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges.  Not because it isn't any good.  But because I had to stop and ponder.  And stop and ponder some more.

The description of the book includes the sentence: "The Discipline of Grace offers a clear and and thorough explanation of the gospel and what it means to be a believer."  That really does sum it up.

Early in the book, Bridges talks about how we (as believers) tend to create a little timeline -- separated by salvation -- where the gospel is the most important thing Before Salvation, and the message of discipleship is the most important thing After Salvation.

Bridges argues that the gospel message is the most important one all along, and that believers need to preach the gospel to themselves every single day.  Every. Single. Day.  As a result, one thing that I started working on as a result of reading this book is to memorize Romans 3:19-26. 

Great book. 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from NavPress Publishers as part of their Blogger Review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Places I've been

This post is Heidi's fault... She posted What's wrong with this picture? today, and I thought I'd play along.

So here is my map of the states I've visited:

And the provinces too:

White represents states/provinces I have not been to.  And I just realized the map is wrong... oops.... okay, problem solved.  Uh, no, but the third time is the charm.  I went into auto-pilot and checked off a state where I have not been.  And then did it again with a different state.  For the record, although it is too small to see, Rhode Island is white...

I thought about doing Mexico too, but that one is even more pathetic than the Canada one.

Part of the "game" here is to talk about some of your favorite places.  So, in no particular order:

1) Fargo, North Dakota.  There's no place like home, there's no place like home.  

2) Toronto, Ontario.  I spent a couple of weeks there for work once upon a time and I was totally charmed. That was one business trip I did not want to end.

3) Red Lodge, Montana.  We spent a lot of time there when the Boy Scouts would go backpacking in the summer.  And Dale & I went there on our honeymoon.  

If you want to create your own map, you can do it right here.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Grocery shopping

Since I'm not getting to town anywhere near as often as I used to, I've had to really work at balancing the whole saving money against my available time.  I only have so much time, one day a week, to do my shopping.  That means I usually hit one store, maybe two, and it means the deals are minimized. 

Today, one of those stores was pretty impressive.  King Soopers.

I spent $12.67.  That would have been a lot less except that I hadn't eaten, so I decided I wanted some crackers and cheese, and I bought drinks for everyone.

My purchases:
  • 4 boxes of spaghetti
  • 4 boxes of rotini
  • 6 boxes Rice a Roni
  • 2 boxes Pasta Roni
  • 1 24 oz. jar Pace
  • 1 box Wheat Thins
  • 2 bottles Fuze
  • 1 bottle flavored water
  • 8 oz cheese
  • 1 package tortillas
  • fingernail clippers
I could have done better if we got newspapers (and therefore coupons) but given that I only have online coupons available to me, I think I did pretty well.  The receipt says I saved $33.20

Skipping the cheese, tortillas and nail clippers would have cut that cost roughly in half (those three items cost $5.86)  Alas, I can't go just purchasing sale items, sometimes I do have other things I need to get.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Review: Big IQ Kids

My kids love when they can use online programs to help them in their learning.  Especially when it is something they can do independently.  And when it is something where they can actually see progress being made.

So when we were presented with two premium memberships to Big IQ Kids, I knew that I would have two very happy children... and a couple of not so pleased ones.  Since Big IQ Kids has materials for levels ranging from K-8 (and even beyond in the vocabulary section), it was easy to start ruling children out.  We ended up using the program with William (6th grade) and Thomas (4th grade).  We considered it for Richard (1st grade) but some of the material (vocabulary) starts at a third grade level, so we opted not to do it with him.  We also considered it for Connor (8th grade) but he has enough on his plate right now.  I would have loved to have him doing the SAT vocabulary though, and I think the spelling would be great too.

Big IQ Kids has both free and various paid levels of their program (you can read about some of the differences here), which covers spelling, vocabulary, math and US States.  The program is mastery-based and will not move a child ahead until he has demonstrated proficiency in the concept at hand.

The general idea is that the child spend a few minutes a day, every day, working in each of the content areas.  Completing a daily lesson earns the child a coin that can be spent in the arcade, which contains primarily strategy games.  My boys loved saving up their coins to play the 'cooler' games, and to be able to play a few rounds at a time.

There are some aspects of this program that I dearly love.  First, I truly appreciate that you customize your child's level, particularly in the spelling and vocabulary sections.  Also, almost everywhere within the program, there is an option to have the computer read at least individual words to you.  This is wonderful for struggling readers!

A couple of things that I didn't like.  First off, the computer voice grates on me.  My kids did not seem to mind, but it drove me to distraction.  The other thing is that I really hate websites that start talking to me when I load them, which this one does on many, many of its pages.  Both of these are things I can live with though.

But let's talk about the components of this program.

Spelling:  This is where BigIQKids got its start... their online spelling program.  Spelling is set up with a five day plan, starting with learning the words on the first day and then playing a variety of games for the next two days.  On Day 4, there is a quiz, and on Day 5 the final test.  You can go in as the parent and change the grade level for your child, add or subtract words from the lists, or even create your own individualized list.

Vocabulary:  The basic five day plan has the child getting a list of vocabulary words and working through pronunciation, definition, synonyms and antonyms and typing the word on the first day.  I don't know if this bugs me or not.  After that, they do a series of matching or fill in the blank activities for the next couple days, finishing off with a quiz. 

Overall, I really do like the vocabulary section.  My only real frustration is that my dyslexic kids really struggle to type the words, even with the words on the screen, and you have to master the section to move on. 

Math:  This doesn't have a five day plan like the others so far.  Instead, the student works on fact drills.  I really love this.  As a parent, you can go in and do a bit of fine-tuning to get the child at the level you would like.  It's a bit hard to see in this screen shot, but you can change the total number of problems presented in a session, and you can alter the percentage that is addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, AND how many digits are involved, or whether there are remainders.  Once you set it up, the program will advance them to more difficult levels as they demonstrate mastery.  Honestly, I think this is about my favorite math drill program, at least for my older kids.  They need mixed practice, and so many drill programs only drill one operation at a time.

States:  This one my kids really like, but I'm not so sure about. I like the idea, but I'm just not totally convinced my kids are learning anything.  The idea is that the student can go learn some information about a state of his choice.  I like these sessions.

Then, there is the main lesson part.  Step one involves Jake naming a state and the student clicks on it on the map.  Step two involves spelling the state name.  Step three has them working with the state capital.  Step four is learning the state abbreviations.

You can check out what some of my fellow crewmates had to say at:

Any questions? I'd love to know what you would want to know in deciding whether or not this is something you want to purchase.

Disclaimer:  As part of the TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I did receive two 12 month premium memberships.  The fact that I received complimentary products does not guarantee a favorable review.  It does guarantee a review. A fair review. But I am not going to praise something unless I think it deserves the praise.  If I don't like it, you'll hear that.  And hopefully with enough detail as to why so you can decide for yourself if what I hate about it makes it perfect for your family.  For more about my take on reviews, visit my blog post here.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Reading Aloud Challenge, week 2

Last week, I posted about how I've been convicted about returning to my homeschooling roots:  Read Alouds.  My goal was:

For this next week, we'll be reading Out of Many Waters (Connor), continuing the Dragon book, and picking up Paladins.  And obviously, Trina's reading.  I think I need to work on finding something else specifically targeted towards Richard.

So how did we do?
  • We read about half of Out of Many Waters.  Everyone (of course) got in on that.  I'm still hoping to get it finished this week.
  • We started Paladins.  Connor gave this to his siblings for Christmas.  
  • William and Thomas are listening to Twice Freed.  The younger ones have jumped into that as well.  Since that one is out on Interlibrary Loan, we will finish it tomorrow.
  • I decided that my younger two are going to be doing Core K.  So we started reading The Boxcar Children.  They are the only ones listening to that.
  • We read a couple more pages of the Dragons book.  I'd love to write a review this weekend.
 Plans for this next week? 
  • Connor -- finish Out of Many Waters, start Madeleine Takes Command.
  • Finish Twice Freed tomorrow, so I can return it on Saturday.  I think next week is a book we have on audio, so my voice will get a break.
  • Finish up Boxcar Children
  • Probably finish Dragons and Paladins too.

How about you?  What are you reading to your kids this week?  As soon as I post this, I'm starting another one dated next Thursday...  because I owe it to my kids to make myself be accountable.

Review: Evan Moor

I recently had the chance to review an assortment of Evan Moor Daily workbooks through Timberdoodle.  I wasn't really sure what to expect from these, but I was wanting something that I could be using consistently for math and writing.  Therefore, what I received was the Daily Word Problems Grade 1 (for Richard), the Daily 6-Trait Writing for Grade 4 (for Thomas) and Grade 5 (for William).

Of course, they arrived when we had a huge round of something going through the house, so we got off to a rough start.

The one we've worked with the most is the Daily Word Problems.  Richard was not too impressed when we started, but we worked through the first couple weeks of problems at a pace well higher than the one a day that is recommended.  That meant we got to problems that he actually enjoyed for the latter half of this review.

The idea is that the child works one word problem a day, which takes a few minutes at the very most, and you are gradually building up some pretty amazing word problem skills.  Each week in the 1st grade book focuses on a type of animal, and after all five problems are done for the week, there is a little section with facts about that animal.  Those have been a really nice reward.

The problem he is working on in the picture to the left is from week 9, which is about warthogs.  It reads:

The pygmy hog is 23 inches long.  The giant forest hog is 63 inches long.  How much longer is the giant forest hog?

There is a space for the child to write out a number sentence (I LOVE THIS!) and there is an already labeled blank for the answer:  _____ inches longer

This format is fabulous.  Richard is able to easily do all the math so far, but he is way too much like his oldest brother.  He intuitively knows the answer, but he struggles to tell you how he got there.  With this problem, he immediately answered "40 inches longer" and now that we've been forcing these number sentences for a few weeks, he was able to eventually tell me that "63 minus 23 equals 40" -- but when we started the book, he could not do that.

This is, for the record, one of the harder math problems he has had to solve so far, but he has not struggled with the math part.  I love that aspect.  Make the math relatively easy, but start working him through the idea of picking out the pertinent details and creating his own math problem.  Well, eventually, maybe.  Right now, he picks out the pertinent details, gives me the answer, and then figures out what the problem was. 

The other photo, with him also in his pajamas, is the last warthog problem, and it involves adding three numbers (males, females, piglets). 

I am going to continue to use the Daily Word Problems books, including finding some for my older kids.  Timberdoodle sells these books for Grades 1 through 6, along with a whole bunch of other cool math items.

Daily 6-Trait Writing did not go quite so well here.  I'm trying to figure out what I want to do to make this work out better for us. 

Both the Grade 4 and Grade 5 books are set up in a similar manner.  For each week, you start with a two-page spread for the teacher that shows mini versions of all the student workbooks and that gives details about teaching for that day.  They are very easy to implement, which I really like.  After that, there are four worksheet pages (Monday-Thursday), with the fifth day's assignment being a writing prompt.  There are 25 weeks of lessons.

Week 3 of the Grade 4 text, for instance, is on developing characters, setting and plot ideas.  Day 1 focuses on characters, Day 2 on setting, Day 3 on plot.  Then Day 4 has you create a basic idea for a story (pulling all of the above together), and Day 5 has you actually writing the story.

Thomas loved the activities that got him thinking about details describing these story elements.  He broke down a bit when it came to pulling it all together to create his own story.

William was similar.  For most weeks, he enjoyed the first three days of the assignments, where he was filling in blanks or otherwise pulling together the basics.  It was the sum it all up activities assigned to Day 4, and the writing prompts from Day 5  that were challenging for me to do with him.

What we are doing is to ditch the Grade 5 book, and I have both boys working from Grade 4 (Grade 5 is just enough too much for my 4th grader!) and that is going better.  They are able to brainstorm together, which makes a huge difference.  The great thing is that the buyer is permitted to photocopy pages in this book for single-classroom use, so I can do this!

I love that this covers a lot of really great writing concepts, and it does it in a sequential manner.  Each week focuses on an idea, plus there is a "convention" of the week too... such as various punctuation rules, homonym use, or double negatives.

The Daily 6-Trait Writing is available for Grades 1-6, along with a lot of other fun language arts products

Disclosure:  As a member of Timberdoodle's Blogger Review Team I received a free copy of these books in exchange for a frank and unbiased review.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book Review: The Case of the Missing Mountain

Every so often, as I have been reviewing curriculum and books, we receive a nearly perfect item.  Such is the case with this review from New Leaf Publishing Group.  The Case of the Missing Mountain by Kim Jones fit my family to a tee, and we've been having way too much fun with this book to get around to actually reviewing it.

Unfortunately, this inept photographer and videographer did not do a stellar job of recording the fun.  But fun we had.

From the publisher:
A mountain is missing and it’s your job to find out how it disappeared!
Kids, grab your caps and team up with rangers Jack and Jen to solve The Case of the Missing Mountain. Complete the puzzles, master the mazes, and secure the secret codes. Solve all eight mysteries to become an official Mystery Ranger. Your personalized badge & certificate are waiting!
This 80-page activity book for children teaches young earth creation concepts. Author Kim Jones formerly served as a guide at Mount St. Helen’s Seven Wonders Museum. She worked with many other experts to compile the facts for this title.
Okay, so that gives you a clue as to what this book is like.  It is part mystery, part puzzle book, part science text, part story, part experiment book.  To make this book absolutely perfect for my family, there would have been a couple fewer puzzles involving deciphering codes (but the author gave me permission to solve a couple of those for my severely dyslexic and quite frustrated student!)  However, while he started off incredibly resistant to doing all those word puzzles, the subject matter and the mystery aspect inspired him to complete more of them than he normally would.  In the picture, you can see William glaring (okay, I managed to not get the glare part) at a "figure out the code" page.  You can see in the picture that the pages do have a lot of white space (I really appreciate that!) and this puzzle page does not have a lot of text.  This is the first page of Mystery #4 out of a total of eight mysteries.  Mystery #4 consists of ten pages, about half being puzzles, that teaches about the mudflow, the dendritic river system that formed in nine hours, and the Little Grand Canyon.

At the end of each mystery, there are "Rockin' Ranger Activities" to do.   We, ahem, did virtually all of them.  Almost all involved pretty normal household materials (I did have to go shopping for more salt, food coloring and baking soda!)

My absolutely favorite activity, I'm telling you, was this one.  I can't believe I'm posting a photo of our disgustingly dirty shower... but it is shiny clean now!  This one was called Volano-On-the-Go, and it involved vinegar and baking soda in the bathtub (we went for the shower instead) and a sponge to clean up (quite literally) afterwords.  Oh, I should have gotten a photo of my shower after William used "lava power" to attack all the scum and grime.  And HE THOUGHT IT WAS GREAT.  Oh, I'm telling you, this book is worth the price just for this activity.

Other experiments involved spreading colored salt into layers, or layering peanut butter and crackers (the little guys loved this one!)

Many activities were outdoor ones.  The one pictured involved shaking up a soda bottle.  Obviously, William was having fun with that.

One outdoor activity we hope to do involved creating bubble art.  The suggestion, though, is to do it on a day when it is not windy.  Yeah.  Right.  We're still waiting for that to happen.

There were also a couple of the later activities that involved visiting a lake, pond, or stream (we don't have any nearby... so we may not do this one at all) and one that requires leaves of different colors and shapes.  That one will have to wait for later in the year when there are leaves to be found.

Of course, no book about volcanoes would be complete without the traditional baking soda volcano.  I tried to take video.  Alas... well... you get one still photo:

The kids all loved this one.  They started discussing what could be done to turn this into more of an experiment.  Would there be a difference with boiling water vs. warm water vs. cold water?  What difference does the size of the container make?

Oh, and the boys were all quite disappointed that the lava flow above went off to the sides instead of taking out the "town" they built down at the bottom.  They consoled themselves that the volcano had damaged a lot of trees...

Finally, I'll leave you with my favorite photo.  Yeah, this kid gets a little crazy with his reading sometimes.  Obviously, this wasn't a part where he was having to figure out puzzles.

At the end of the book, there are some other missions to be completed in order to be an Official Mystery Ranger.  One involved memorizing Bible verses.  We particularly liked Psalm 46:1-3.

In summary, particularly for a child already interested in geology or just interested in volcanoes, this book was great.  It packed a lot of great information into a fun mystery.  And the activities were phenomenal.  I learned a lot about volcanoes... and I thought I knew a fair amount already.

I highly, highly recommend this book.  And no, you cannot have mine...

Disclaimer:   I received this book for free from New Leaf Publishing Group.  No other compensation was received.  The fact that I received a complimentary product does not guarantee a favorable review.   

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Meet Me On Monday

Okay, so I know it is still Sunday as I post this... but if I don't do it now, I'll never go back and link it up.  So here goes:

"Blogging  is a funny thing...we tell our most intimate thoughts for all to read  and yet most of the time I find myself sitting and wondering, "who is  this person!?"  I know them...but yet I don't know them!  I want  to know who the person is behind all those words so I thought of a great  way for all of us to "meet" each other!

Every Sunday Never Growing Old will post five get to know you  questions that you can copy and paste into your own Monday post and we  can all learn a little more about each and every one of us!!"

1.  What jewelry do you wear 24/7?  Um, nothing.  I put my wedding ring on when I leave the house, but that is the only jewelry I wear consistently.  If I lose some weight, I'd probably wear my wedding ring all the time.

2.  Do you twirl your spaghetti or cut it? Twirl.  Most of the time.  Occasionally, I cut it.

3.  How many siblings do you have?  I have two brothers.  One is two years younger than I am, the other is roughly eleven years younger.

4.  Were you named after anyone?  Not my first name.  My middle name, though, is after a couple of great-grandmothers.

5.  Coke or Pepsi?  No, thank you.  I'd usually prefer a coffee.  Or a Mountain Dew, but I'm trying to cut those out.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Five Question Friday

I need to remember to look for this before late evening!  Click above and you can participate too.

1. Have you ever testified in court? For what?  Uh, no.  Jury duty, yep.  More than once.  But I haven't testified.   

2. Do you still have your wedding dress?  Why yes, yes I do.  I'm scared to look at it.  But I do still have it.

3. Is there a special place you like to go when you're happy, sad, stressed, etc.?  Not really.  At least not realistically.  There is a stream in a campground in Wyoming that I picture sometimes.  But I've only been there once.  Camped there all alone, hung out with a book by the stream.  Totally idyllic.  I have no idea where it was though, or if it still exists.

4. If you have kids, do they sleep with you? If you don't have kids...will you let your kids sleep with you when/if you have them?  I have kids, they don't sleep with us.  But they did when they were babies.

5. Do you watch late night TV?  Don't watch television, though we do have a signal again, so theoretically we could.  If I ever discover there is something worth watching, maybe we'll try it again.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Reading Aloud: a Personal Challenge

I am starting a list.  A list of things I need to read or listen to on a very regular basis.  Because I forget. 

Am I alone? 

I have these convictions.  Things I really think are important.  Yet in the day to day garbage of life, I just don't do what is important to me.

One of those core values for me is reading aloud.  I started doing it daily when I came home from work.  That was when I was put on bedrest with William, twelve and a half years ago.  At that point, I really didn't know all the wonderful reasons why, but I knew that reading aloud daily was important.

Then I discovered Sonlight, which places a huge emphasis on read-alouds, at least before high school.  And I read books like The Read Aloud Handbook.  And Honey for a Child's Heart.

Latin Centered Curriculum helped me to decide that I needed to strive for two hours a day of read-alouds.  And for the most part, we succeeded.  For quite a long time.  And... eventually, it fell apart.

Fast forward to now.  I'm reviewing All About Reading, and it includes 20 minutes a day of reading aloud.  Her statement is that if you read aloud for 20 minutes a day, that "will amount to 10 hours a month and 120 hours a year."  Seriously.  Can you even begin to imagine the difference that can make?  Do that for the next decade, and you have read to them for over 1,200 hours. 

Somewhere in there, I also listened to Andrew Pudewa speak on "Nurturing Competent Communicators."  And this is now on my list to listen to, oh, I don't know... at least once a quarter.

Andrew reminds me why I think reading aloud is important.  Vocabulary.  Language patterns.  Exposure to material that is above their reading level. 

So... I am going to try to actually report in on our reading aloud.  Because I've been failing. 
  • A Murder for Her Majesty:  That's Connor's current read-aloud, and everyone has been listening in.  We finished it.  I'd guess we read about four hours this week.
  • Destination: Moon.  This was a review book.  Everyone listened.  I'm guessing that was another few hours worth.
  • Dragons: Legends and Lore of Dinosaurs.  Another review book that everyone is in on.  We've only spent about an hour on it so far.
  • And then there is the 20 minutes a day I've been reading to Trina.  Sometimes, Richard joins in.  We've read a book about caring for hamsters, Eloise Wilkin Stories, and a magazine.
William & Thomas would normally have a read-aloud too, but at the moment, that is an audiobook, and I'm not counting them right now.  I'm also not going to be listing out things like science, or their history, or anything along those lines.

For this next week, we'll be reading Out of Many Waters (Connor), continuing the Dragon book, and picking up Paladins.  And obviously, Trina's reading.  I think I need to work on finding something else specifically targeted towards Richard.

How about you?  What are you reading to your kids this week?  As soon as I post this, I'm starting another one dated next Thursday...  because I owe it to my kids to make myself be accountable.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book Review: The Mountains Bow Down

It is time for another LitFuse Blog Tour.  This time, the book is The Mountains Bow Down by Sibella Giorello.  This is the fourth book in the Raleigh Harmon series, and it is the best one yet.

I also participated in the Tour for the third book (The Clouds Roll Away) and I did read the first book on my own.  While the books certainly can stand alone, I think that this book was far more enjoyable because I already knew the back story.

And Oh, My!  Isn't the photo here just beyond beautiful?  I stared at that for the longest time and dreamed of an Alaskan cruise.  <sigh>  Though I want one with far less drama than the one Raleigh embarks upon.
From the Publisher: Everything's going to work out. Time away always makes things better . . ..

That's what FBI Special Agent Raleigh Harmon believes as she boards a cruise to Alaska. A land of mountains and gems and minerals, The Last Frontier is a dream destination for this forensic geologist who's hoping to leave behind a hectic work schedule and an engagement drained of romance.

But when a passenger goes missing and winds up dead, Raleigh's vacation suddenly gets lost at sea. The ship's security chief tries to rule the death a suicide, but Raleigh's forensics background points to a much darker conclusion: Somewhere onboard, a ruthless murderer walks free.

Engulfed by one of her toughest cases yet, Raleigh requests assistance from the FBI and receives her nemesis-perpetual ladies man Special Agent Jack Stephanson. As the cruise ship sails through the Inside Passage, Raleigh has five days to solve a high-profile murder, provide consultation for a movie filming onboard, and figure out her increasingly complicated feelings for Jack-who might not be such a jerk after all.

And that's only her work life. Family offers even more challenges. Joined on the cruise by her mother and aunt, Raleigh watches helplessly as disturbing rifts splinter her family.

Like the scenery that surrounds the cruise ship, Raleigh discovers a situation so steep and so complex that even the mountains might bow down.
My thoughts:  I already stated that I think this is Sibella's best book yet.  She has a knack for making the characters feel real.  Pretty unbelievable things happen, but the wonderfully flawed people in this story are fantastic.  I love characters who don't always do the 'right' thing, and I love them dealing with consequences for doing something they knew they shouldn't be doing.  I have the chance to ask myself a "what would I do?" question or two.

I love a crime story that involves science.  And Sibella certainly knows her geology.  Being from Alaska, I'm assuming the geography was accurate too, at least is sounded that way to me. 

This is a fabulous book.  Christian, but not preachy.  Like the previous books in the series, everything doesn't wrap up into pretty little packages at the end with everything being perfect and happily ever after.  The series is too real for that, which is something I really love.  I cannot wait to find out more about what happens to Raleigh...

Sibella’s celebrating the release of The Mountains Bow Down with a blog tour, a Cruise prize pack worth over $500 and a Facebook Party! Don't miss a minute of the fun.
One Grand Prize winner will receive:
  • A $500 gift certificate toward the cruise of their choice from Vacations To Go.
  • The entire set of the Raleigh Harmon series.
To enter click one of the icons below. Then tell your friends. And enter soon - the giveaway ends on 4/1! The winner will be announced at Sibella’s Raleigh Harmon Book Club Party on FB April 5th, 2011! Don’t miss the fun – prizes, books and gab!
Enter via E-mail Enter via FacebookEnter via Twitter
About the Facebook Party: Join Sibella and fans of the Raleigh Harmon series on April 5th at 5:00 pm PST (6 MST, 7 CST & 8 EST) for a Facebook Book Club Party. Sibella will be giving away some fun prizes, testing your trivia skills and hosting a book chat about the Raleigh Harmon books. Have questions you'd like to chat about - leave them on the Event page.

Disclaimer:  I received this book through the LitFuse Blog Tour.  No other compensation was received.  All opinions expressed in this review are my own.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book Review: Destination Moon

We recently finished reading Destination: Moon by James Irwin aloud as a family.  We loved it.  And I now have a child who says he wants to grow up to travel to Mars.

From the publisher:
The exciting and personal account of one of only twelve men to ever touch the surface of the moon! When astronaut James Irwin gazed at the “blue planet,” his home, from the moon in 1971, he realized that the experience was drawing him closer to the God of his youth. After the flight, Irwin realized “the power of God was working in me and I was possessed by a growing feeling that God did have a new mission for me.” This adventurer, who also climbed Turkey’s Mt. Ararat, to look for the remains of Noah’s ark, was a wonderful ambassador not only for his country, but for the “captain of his own ship,” the Lord Jesus Christ. Irwin, wherever he went, used his experiences to draw in his audiences until that moment he was able to share his faith. This dramatic story, set against the backdrop of the vastness of space, highlights the spiritual resources Irwin drew from. His treks through the halls of power, through NASA, and to the adventures that seemed to find him stand as a signpost for all of us.
One of my favorite ways to teach science, especially for elementary ages, is to read biographies of scientists.  There is something about reading these stories -- perseverance, dedication, commitment -- that makes the science the individuals are involved in so much more accessible and fascinating.

This book is listed as being for high school, but I think as a read-aloud, it works for ages much younger than that.  My five year old didn't much care, but my 10, 12 and nearly 14 year olds absolutely loved the book.  The nearly 7 year old was intrigued as well, particularly loving the gorgeous photos.

This autobiographical book was well-written, and compelling.  Getting into the head of someone who actually walked on the moon was pretty incredible, even for me -- and I've never been particularly fascinated by all that space stuff.

I highly, highly recommend this book.  It is a keeper.

Disclaimer:   I received this book for free from New Leaf Publishing Group.  No other compensation was received.  The fact that I received a complimentary product does not guarantee a favorable review.  

Scouting Decisions

So, I had a fabulous day yesterday.  Until we got to scouts.

Cub Scouts ended up having a parent meeting while the kids were doing an amazing science "class" as a pack.  The parent meeting was held because the church where we meet is no longer going to allow us to meet on Monday nights.

Starting in April, we will meet on Wednesday nights instead.


I don't know what to do.  We have one car.  Dale can get off work early on Mondays, but Wednesdays?  Not likely.  At least not consistently.

My Tiger den is decimated (in the modern definition of the word) as well.  One child has church.  One dad works Wednesday night and cannot change that at all.  One child is my son.  And one child will have to choose between Awanas and Cub Scouts.  Obviously, since he'll be a Den of One, the choice is likely to be Awanas.

I spoke with one of the Webelos den leaders, and he will no longer be able to attend.

Connor and William's patrol leader is not going to be able to attend on Wednesdays.


Do we just not attend until we are able to fix our car situation?  Do we find a different pack/troop?  Do we switch to Lone Scouting?  Connor is working towards Eagle though, at the moment, and that just sounds so much more difficult as a Lone Scout. 


Monday, March 14, 2011

Blog Cruise: Why I'm not Attending Convention

This week's Blog Cruise topic:  Homeschool Conventions - do you attend, what are the benefits, pitfalls, etc. Share your experience!

I am incredibly grateful for the years where I could attend a homeschool convention.  I attended my very first small event in May, 1999.  That happened in Colorado Springs, and is where I was first made aware that there were options out there besides text books.  I was floored, as I had assumed that to do what I wanted for my two baby boys (Connor was 2, William only 6 months) I would have to create it all myself.  What a relief!

I attended my first state convention a few weeks later.  That was incredible.  CHEC really did put on a fabulous conference.  Dale & I had the chance to visit a bazillion vendor booths, and to hear a few speakers.  And we had the chance to interact with a lot of plain old everyday homeschool families.  I specifically remember seeing such polite teenage boys holding doors for me, and smiling at William (Connor stayed with a friend, but William was in a Snugli) and I thought, "That is what I want."  It made me realize we weren't alone, and it gave me a long-term vision.

We vowed to attend conventions faithfully -- or at least for me to.  Dale didn't necessarily feel the need to go every year, but we saw the benefits of ME getting that extra burst of energy and reassurance.  I did attend convention every year for quite a while.  One year was the North Dakota convention, and another was the Minnesota one.  One year, my best friend was there with me for a couple of days of it.  I usually had a nursing baby in tow.  A couple of the years, my mother-in-law stayed at the hotel with the kids, and then I was able to get them over to the vendor hall.

What I really loved about convention:
  • the chance to see and touch curriculum that I was considering
  • the chance to interact with the vendors and get questions answered
  • just seeing all those moms who are homeschooling like me (but not JUST like me)
  • attending workshops led by homeschool moms who seemed to totally understand where I was coming from
  • or attending workshops led by homeschool moms who had a totally different perspective to share
  • attending workshops led by "The Homeschool Pros" sometimes was really inspiring as well
  • It was so refreshing to do the whole small talk thing and rarely get negativity when I said I had five kids.
  • and when it worked out that way, this was such an amazing time period for me to regroup and plan
Why I don't attend convention anymore:
  • well, honestly, if I lived someplace else I probably would still be attending
  • CHEC seems to be leaning a lot more towards the main speakers that make me feel inadequate, unworthy, and like a horrible person for not homeschooling in "THE RIGHT WAY"
  • My state convention is also no longer a homeschooling convention.  It is a "Super Conference on the Family."  I am wholly unimpressed with these family conferences.  I want a homeschool conference instead.
  • My state group also is super picky about who they feel is "good enough" to be a vendor at their convention, and since they disapprove of so many vendors that I want to see (like Sonlight), I cannot rationalize the exorbitant price to get in. 
  • Did I mention their speakers are incredibly effective at making me feel worthless and not good enough?
  • the people who run our state organization strongly feel that there is only one "Christian" way to homeschool, which irks me to no end
  • And Dale is totally opposed to me going and hearing "all that crap" that they promote.  He is adamant that our money is not used to support the state association in any way, shape or form.
If I lived somewhere that wasn't so dogmatic, I am to the point that I would still pick and choose when it came to attending convention.  Because there are other negatives too:
  • the cost of attending can be rather steep and may be better spent on some good, encouraging mp3s.  Or an online convention.  Like the Schoolhouse Expo.
  • it can be incredibly overwhelming.  All the vendors, all with the perfect answer to something. Only they can't all be "the" perfect answer, can they?
  • Speakers can be discouraging instead of encouraging.  Especially if you don't fit their mold.
  • it is easy to spend money on things you really don't need.  My biggest homeschool spending mistakes have happened at conventions.
  • The support seems geared more towards new homeschoolers and elementary ages.  
I really, truly miss the casual conversations with other homeschool moms though.  I wish that attending convention was a possibility for me.

FIRST: The Key to the Kingdom by Jeff Dixon

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Deep River Books (December 1, 2010))
***Special thanks to Arielle Roper of Bring It On! Communications for sending me a review copy.***


Jeff Dixon was raised in Florida and has always been fascinated with the man Walt Disney and the theme park he created. Dixon feels that any guest who would take the time to look would discover a story that will never be completed. It is against this canvas that Dixon paints this mystery, adventure, and thriller.

Visit the author's website.


Grayson Hawkes learns how imaginative and elaborate Walt Disney World is when he accepts an invitation from a trusted friend landing him in a world he never knew existed. Suddenly unraveling a perplexing puzzle and trying to solve a mysterious disappearance, Hawkes navigates through the kingdom where knowledge of seemingly unimportant Disney facts and some divine help are the only way he can discover the answers and get out. In this world Disney trivia is no game…And the ancient key is the only way out.

Soon the lines between right and wrong begin to blur, and telling the difference between real and unreal become nearly impossible. Loyalty to faith, family and friends are stretched to the extreme in the pulse quickening adventure through a magical place where dreams really do come true.

Key to the Kingdom: A Real Treasure Hunt at Walt Disney World from Marc Percy on Vimeo.

Key To The Kingdom Trailer from Marc Percy on Vimeo.

Product Details:

List Price: $15.99
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Deep River Books (December 1, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1935265245
ISBN-13: 978-1935265245

My take:  There are a couple of things I need to set as background.  First, I'm the type of person who generally picks up a fiction book and doesn't put it down until I have finished it.  Second, while I enjoy Disney, particularly "classic" Disney, I'm not a rabid Disney fan.

This Disney-based mystery intrigued me though, and I was looking forward to reading it.  However, it was a long way into the book before I hit that "can't put it down" point.

If you can suspend your disbelief, this book is a lot of fun.  He roams Walt Disney World, going in and out of a bazillion attractions.  I did visit Disney (World more than Land) reasonably frequently from around 1975-1985, so there was a lot that was familiar to me.  The realism of the portions of the park with which I am familiar did make the whole setting of the story seem believable.

Hawk, the main character, is a pastor.  At no point in the novel does the tone get preachy or in-your-face.  But at least some aspects of Christianity are woven in.

If you are a Disney fan (rabid or not!) I think you would really enjoy this book.  The Disney history is fabulous, and the fantasy aspect is fun.


Day One


Halogen headlamps pierced the darkness of the cool central Florida night. The GPS guided the Mustang surging toward the coastal community of Port Orange. Racing along Taylor Road, Dr. Grayson Hawkes approached an unknown destination. Questions swirled in the tornado of curiosity whipping through the preacher’s mind. The glow of the dashboard light illuminated the business card propped against the gearshift; “1819 Taylor Road, Port Orange” had been neatly printed in blue ink. Flipping the card he read the name on the other side.

Farren Rales
Imagineering Ambassador
Walt Disney Company

Reading the name of his dear friend brought a slight smile to his face. Rales had been hired by the late Walt Disney himself as an animator at the Walt Disney Studios on Rales’s thirtieth birthday. In the years that followed he had worked on animated features, been involved in projects at Disneyland, and eventually became a part of that exclusive group of creative Walt Disney Company designers known as Imagineers. Rales was part Disney historian, part Disney philosopher, and a modern day keeper of the dream that Walt himself had begun.

Farren Rales had given him the business card with an invitation to meet the old Imagineer at ten o’clock this evening. The GPS announced a turn seconds before an inconspicuous dirt road veered to the right. Hawk responded sluggishly and shot past it. He instantly banked his ride into a U-turn that corrected his course. Slowly navigating the heavily wooded, chassis-jarring dirt road, he watched for signage. The headlights threw a glow on a sign that read Gamble Place Parking with an arrow that pointed right. He turned the wheel. A gate immediately came into view, blocking forward progress. Hawk looked over the steering wheel trying to decide whether he had managed to bungle the directions and gotten hopelessly lost. With the car idling, he got out and walked to the gate. Grasping the chain that held the gate closed, he saw the lock had been secured to the chain, but the chain was not fastened. When he dropped the chain, the gate lazily swung open. Hawk slid back behind the wheel of the car and it crawled forward as the dirt became softer below the tires. The Mustang eased up to a parking barrier, above which the headlights shone on a yellow house trimmed in green.

Exiting the automobile, Hawk left the parking area and made his way toward the house. There was a display in front of the walkway to the house that probably explained where he was. The automatic timer for the headlamps clicked off, leaving him standing in darkness. Sensing his eyes would never adjust in the moonless night to read the display, he remembered a flashlight that was hopefully still in the trunk of the car. He retraced his steps. In addition to the soft sound of his shoe steps in the sand, Hawk thought he heard something else moving near him. He came to an abrupt halt. Rales? Listening closely, he now only heard the sounds of the outdoor evening. The trunk popped open, producing a blast of light that momentarily blinded him. He fumbled for the flashlight and flicked the switch. The beam shone strongly as he slammed the trunk shut. He again moved toward the house. Sweeping the beam around him, he saw a large historical marker looming in the dark, over his left shoulder. He refocused the attention of the light on this newly discovered sign.

Gamble Place

In 1898, James N. Gamble, of the Proctor and Gamble Company and a longtime winter resident of Daytona Beach, bought this land on Spruce Creek for use as a rural retreat. In 1907 he built a small cracker cottage with an open front porch and a breezeway connecting a separate kitchen and dining room . . . In 1938, Gamble’s son-in-law, Alfred K. Nippert, completed the “Snow White House,” a Black Forest style cottage inspired by the Disney animated film classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The house is surrounded by a Witch’s Hut, the Dwarfs’ Mine Shaft, and an elaborate network of rock gardens. Collectively these buildings and grounds form a historic landscape now known as Gamble Place. This property was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.

Obviously Rales had asked Hawk here because of the Disney connection. It had been a Disney connection that had started the friendship between the two men. Hawk had been introduced to Rales and asked the Imagineer if he would meet with him and his church staff to teach them the art of storytelling. The first meeting had gone so well it turned into a standing appointment each month. However this evening the invitation was for Hawk alone. Sighing deeply in an attempt to relax, Hawk listened closely and his ears tuned in to the sound of water gently playing along an unseen shoreline. The unexpected snap of a branch unleashed a wave of adrenaline spinning him in the direction of the noise. He peered into the blackness of the trees, searching for the maker of the sound, but heard nothing.

“Farren, is that you?” Hawk spoke with a bit more edge than he anticipated.

Silence confirmed Rales was not the source of the sound. “So when did you get so scared of the dark?” he muttered to himself. “And when did you start talking to yourself?”

Out of the corner of his vision he noticed a glimmer of light across the wooded darkness. With a bit of reservation he moved toward it. His shoes cracked sticks and crushed leaves, creating a symphony of sound that shattered the haunting noises of nature that had moments ago surrounded him. His flashlight began to dim. Shaking it violently he resurrected the brilliance of the beam, only to watch it fade into a momentary glow, and then disappear completely.

“Tremendous,” he said in frustration at the malfunctioning light. “Still talking to . . . and answering yourself.”

The point of light he had been moving toward disappeared as well. Pressing onward, he drew nearer to where it had been. Once again it appeared and this time looked brighter and stronger. Hawk’s trudging through the undergrowth yielded to softer ground as he heard a familiar voice cut quietly through the night.

“I began to think you weren’t going to make it.”

“I was starting to think you were playing a practical joke on me,” Hawk whispered back.

“Now, would I do that to you?” Rales laughed softly.

Hawk could now see much better as he approached the place where Rales stood. Farren had brought a lantern that illuminated the place he was standing and cast long shadows in multiple directions. Hawk descended the steps to join Rales on what appeared to be a recently created platform. The sound of the creek was closer and Hawk assumed they were now on the edge of the river. Rales was dressed in a pair of black slacks with a lightweight black windbreaker. Hawk did not miss the stealth attire and was getting ready to comment on it when Rales again spoke in a hushed tone.

“Any trouble finding the place?”

“I suppose not, since it’s out in the middle of nowhere!” Hawk decided to satisfy his curiosity. “And could you tell me why we’re whispering?”

“Didn’t you read the sign? We’re in a state park. It closed at dusk. We could get arrested for being here.”

“Then why didn’t we come here in the daylight?”

“Now, that wouldn’t be as much fun, would it?”

“Farren, we should clarify our definitions of fun.”

“Breaking into a state park is a story you’ll be able to tell for years!”

“I didn’t break in, the gate was unlocked.”

“So you opened it and drove on in.”

“You invited me.”

“Shhh,” Rales interrupted.

Hawk grew quiet and strained to hear sounds coming out of the darkness. He studied Rales’s tense features, trying to decide whether the old man was toying with him or was actually concerned that they might be caught after hours in the park. Rales’s face softened and he turned away from Hawk, letting his lantern shine toward a nearby wooden cottage that looked as if it had been plucked off of an animation cell from an antique piece of film. Hawk’s mouth opened slightly. Rales moved forward and panned the light across the front of this cottage that did not belong in this time or any other. It was recognizable as the cottage in the Black Forest of the classic cartoon Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Hawk’s eyes followed the movement of the lantern to the carved lintel and a stone trough. Rales moved toward the front door, fumbled with the handle, and then opened it. Looking back to Hawk, he motioned for him to follow him inside. Hawk entered, feeling like he was stepping into a fairy tale as Rales silently closed the door behind them.

The Key to the Kingdom: Unlocking Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom

© 2010 Jeff Dixon

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