The Story Starts Here

Post Sponsored by Scholastic
Post Sponsored by Scholastic

I knew before I had kids that I couldn’t expect them all to be readers just because I read. I’ve seen in my own family how everyone is their own person, you can build a strong foundation but it’s everyone’s choice to make for themselves. But I still wasn’t quite prepared for how hard it was to incorporate books into parenting.

While everyone else had pictures of their infants flipping pages in board books and lovingly munching on the corners, my baby wouldn’t look at a book. I followed all the suggestions for how to read to your baby, but it just wasn’t happening. He hated it. I hated it. It was a bust.

Things started to change when Graham was 1 or 2. That was when we had the whole year of one book, Thumper’s Fluffy Tail, a real riveting read that I had completely memorized, not just the words but the pauses before I turned the page so Graham could rub the textured parts. Everything had to be just so or Graham wailed in protest.

But we perservered. We pushed through. It took years of work, finding the right books, and then having to start over somewhat once we added Tessa to the mix. But even if reading doesn’t get off to a great start in your house, there’s still hope. 

As Graham’s reading has progressed we’ve changed our rituals to accommodate everyone’s needs. I know a lot of other families are in a similar situation, with one or more older readers able to read on their own, with younger kids who can’t read yet. We’re making it work and I have a few tips on getting reading time to work for you even when you have kids of different age levels.

reading together

Something for Everyone

We all take part in reading time, but everyone has their own role to play. Graham and Tessa each pick out a book of their own and there’s also our regular chapter book on top of that. Everyone has a part of the reading that’s just for them, but they’re also able to enjoy everything else.

Practice for Early Readers

Graham is now in first grade and is supposed to read on his own for 20 minutes a day. We work that into our bedtime routine. He reads picture books sometimes, but most of the time he’s reading early reader books with short chapters. We’re working our way through Arnold Lobel’s entire bibliography along with anything else that catches Graham’s fancy as we go. 

Have Structure, But Be Flexible

We usually start with Graham reading, then Tessa gets her book, then we finish with the chapter book. But if one is in a groove or the other is really excited, we can always mix it up. We always have our routine to fall back on, but when people are extra antsy that may mean less reading (or it may mean more, since reading is right before bed at our house and it also helps to serve as calm-down time). If the story’s really good, we can always add another chapter or another book. 

The structure makes it much easier for me to transition us into reading time without stress or anxiety. I don’t have time to plan fun reading activities or curate themes in our reading. I just want us to have this time together and to enjoy the stories.

If Tessa is just not feeling it, which happens some days, we still have enough rules set up that she knows to be quiet and let Graham listen and concentrate. And every now and then if Graham really doesn’t want to read, I give him a pass. (In the picture above, Tessa is doing her own thing while Graham does his reading. Totally cool.)

Be Patient with Chapter Books

I’ve talked to other parents who find it difficult to begin the process of reading a chapter book. And it does require everybody to adjust a little. Kids are used to pictures and used to something shorter and more engaging, so you have to give them plenty of time to adjust. We started with chapter books that are heavy on pictures (our first was My Father’s Dragon, which felt a lot like a long picture book) and if a chapter is particularly long we’ll break it up.

If you find that the kids are fidgety, don’t worry. Most adults I know can’t focus on an audiobook and that’s basically what you’re asking your kids to do when you read a chapter book aloud. Graham tends to stay close by, though sometimes he’ll wander a bit or fidget. Tessa usually pulls out toys and plays while we read the chapter book. But no one complains, in fact when I had to skip it when I was sick and lost my voice, everyone was pretty sad.

Let Emerging Readers “Read”

Graham has been reading to us for a few months now, and Tessa has finally decided it’s time for her to “read,” too. She usually does this by choosing one of a few books that are pretty low on words. She’ll either have me read it and then repeat the words or she’ll “read” it by herself. I let her go and don’t tell her what the book actually says, she remembers it pretty well and Graham pipes in sometimes to help. Her favorite book for this right now is I Want My Hat Back, which is short, repetitive, and silly. Perfect for a 3-year-old.

Older Kids Still Enjoy Picture Books

Graham still loves picture books aimed at kids much younger than he is. He loves all kinds of books, so we’ll be keeping picture books in rotation for a long time to come. He gets to listen to me read, read on his own, and then have the full interactive experience of reading a picture book over my shoulder and taking in the reading and the visual story. It’s all slightly different skillsets and it helps him be able to follow along and see new words in a low-pressure situation.

Add New Books to the Mix

There tends to be a lot of repetition when we’re reading a chapter book for a couple weeks or the same picture book over and over again. So we make regular library trips and I try to pick out a new book to add to our home library every so often. 

Speaking of new books, we got a bundle from Scholastic to incorporate into our reading and I have to admit, I was impressed with their choices. 

Scholastic The Story Starts Here Books

Peek-a-Boo Farm is an animal identification board book with a flap to pull to reveal the animal. Yes, Graham is 6, but he still enjoys these. And Tessa is in school now, but she enjoys the participation element. The simple formula also means she can “read” it to herself while she lays in bed.

Where’s Walrus and Penguin? is one of those wordless stories that’s great for a wide age range. Tessa can “read,” Graham can comment on what’s happening, both kids really enjoyed the hide-and-seek game of the story. (I’m sure my kids aren’t the only ones who love a book where they see something the characters don’t.)

Friendshape is probably my favorite, great message, witty illustrations, a really fun elementary shapes book that does something different.

If You’re a Robot and You Know It is the one they won’t put down, as is always the case for a pop-up book with tabs to pull. My kids ADORE tabs, it’s kind of a problem. 

Zen Socks is a complex story with gorgeous illustrations that’s a nice addition for families talking about mindfulness. 

TheStoryStartsHere_4C_StackedBasically, the set was a big hit and the kids are working the books into their rotation. 

I know looking for books for kids can be overwhelming, so many choices, so many authors, and that’s where Scholastic’s new site The Story Starts Here comes in. Whether you’re a parent, a friend, a teacher, or a librarian looking for books for every age group, you can find great recommendations. Plus downloadables and videos that tie in to the stories. 

I am a big fan of doing books for Christmas, birthday, Chanukah, you name it, I think it’s a great time for books. And if you’re gifting for someone else, you know their parents will be much happier if you give them a book than one of those really loud and obnoxious toys. So head on over and take a look. 

Thanks to Scholastic for sponsoring this post. As I’m sure you can imagine I am pretty thrilled to be working with them. Yay reading!


Not So Big Magic

Being a parent on the internet usually requires you to fall into one of two categories.

You can be the person who sees beauty everywhere in your children, who writes them long letters, who basks in the wonder of their faces and their voices.

Or you can be the person who uses humor as an escape from the mundane drudgery of parenting, the cleaning, the whining, the repetition.

I am not really either of these parents, though I tend to lean towards the latter instead of the former. But as my circles expand and I see more of the former in my internet circles, it can lead to some soul searching, for better and for worse.

Why don’t I find that kind of beauty in my children everyday? Why don’t I want to write a long post about the magical moments in one of their childish traits like curiosity? Why don’t we have the kind of relationship where my children are overcome with joy and hugs when they see me after time away?

I struggled with these questions a lot early in my parenting life, but then those questions got all swept aside when I found out my child had Autism. That seemed to explain it.

I’m not sure it explains it anymore. My children are children, and despite their differences, they are social and emotional beings. They are beautiful and sensitive and just as worthy of spare essays celebrating their uniqueness.

It’s me. I’m the difference. And I think I’ve always known that but it was nice to believe it wasn’t when I was at some of my lowest points as a parent. 

When the kids came to my house after a few days at their dad’s, I thought to myself, Try to see the magic in them, try to see it just a few times each day

It’s a nice mantra, but it didn’t really change anything. Maybe some of my smiles or my hugs were a few seconds longer? It didn’t change my outlook or open up any new meaning. 

Usually as a parent, the best I can manage is trying to be optimistic and positive. “Trying” is the important word, because it usually only takes a day or two for me to lose that outlook completely. Many weeks, by the time I get them ready on their last morning with me, it feels like a relief that I will have a little time to myself.

You may be thinking that it’s single parenting that’s part of the issue. And who knows? Maybe it is. I can’t really say. I’ve never had a real parenting partner, but plenty of people who are married are in that situation. When you’re both working and things are crazy or when one of you is working and division of labor is uneven. It’s just part of it. No, it’s me. And it would be me even if I was in a beatific marriage with a perfect co-parenting partner. The other stuff just affects where my mood falls on the scale from “This is pretty nice,” to “I am ready to be done.” 

I wish I found parenting more inspiring and magical and joyful. I really do. And I know that even the people who write long, beautiful stories about wonder in their child’s eyes also experience the drudgery and annoyance and all that. But I only get to hang out on their end of the spectrum in small, short moments. 

I worry that my kids miss out. Would their lives be better if I was more excited about who they are right now and what’s happening in their minds? Maybe? I try to make up for my lack of whimsy by making sure we have our fair share of memory-making activities. But I admit this is also to help me keep order and break up the day. 

But then again, my children aren’t whimsical by nature. I get the feeling that kind of person would be frustrated by my kids a lot more than I am. Honestly, I usually feel like my kids and I are pretty well-suited to each other. They tend to be independent, which was my preference as a kid and is definitely my preference as a parent. When they seek out play and magic, they usually seek out each other and I’m happy not to stand in the way of that. 


I just stopped writing because Tessa walked over and asked to sit in my lap. I saved my draft, hoisted her up, and sat with her for a while. I didn’t feel any great sense of joy or peace or wonder. But it was nice. And there’s no reason why that can’t be enough.

School Lunch Trial and Error

sponsored post imageI missed the first day of school due to a particularly crazy custody schedule this month. You learn to let go of that stuff. I didn’t cry or feel terrible. Instead I figured I’d just wait until they came to my house and take pictures a few days later. Turns out the pictures come out just the same.

first day edited

I still have trouble getting a decent smile out of the two of them. Especially not simultaneously. It just wasn’t happening. We may have just started school, but the lunch battle is ongoing. I’m lucky in a lot of ways. My kids eat a lot of healthy foods. They willingly eat vegetables! (Well, Graham does, anyway.) But lunch has always been a struggle.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that there’s plenty of time to try something new. I’ve partnered with Stop ‘n Shop for this post to talk about packing a healthy school lunch. We’ve tried a lot of things in the 3 years that Graham’s been bringing his lunch to school. And we’ll try plenty more things before he’ll actually eat the school-provided lunch. The battle goes on, and I’m willing to bet a lot of you are in the same spot.

We were in a decent place with lunch at the end of last year, but there was definitely room for improvement. One step forward is a new lunch box handed down from a friend. I’m so over the sad insulated lunch bags we’ve been using thus far. They may be cheap, but it’s an instance of getting what you pay for. The new Yumbox (Amazon affiliate link!) is washable and locks nice and tight. No more smelly gross insulated lunch bags for us. (Although the Yumbox does fit nicely inside one if you want to insulate it.)

Next up is trying out some new foods. The lunch box got Graham excited enough to try some new things. So we brainstormed at the grocery store and came home with some new options.

supplies edited

We kept plenty of old standards and added in some new things to try.

What’s worked for us in the past:

Pick a veggie for the week. You can certainly do two, but Graham doesn’t mind the repetition most days. Graham’s veggies of choice are pictured: broccoli and peppers. Usually he gets red or green peppers, but orange and yellow were on sale (!!) so I mixed it up. Graham always gets to pick his veggie himself. Other picks have included celery and cucumber.

Sandwiches as staple. It took Graham a few years to even consider eating sandwiches so I’m happy to take advantage of them now that he eats them. He doesn’t get a lot of whole grains, so the sandwich is an excuse for that. I always make his sandwich with soy butter since he can’t take nut products to camp over the summer and this way he doesn’t have a transition. Occasionally I replace the sandwich with leftover cheese tortellini. (The kids will only eat one kind of tortellini. It’s only carried at one store. Guess which one! We can’t go more than a week or two without a Stop ‘n Shop visit, I am completely serious.)

Blueberry bonanza. As long as blueberries are in season (and they’ve been on sale for months, it’s been amazing) I get them. Eventually we’ll transition to another fruit, apple season is practically upon us. (If anyone has good tricks for keeping your apples from getting brown in the lunch box I’d love to hear them.)

String cheese twists. I spent ages being the mean mom for not buying the special twist string cheese. But now Stop ‘n Shop has a generic version and I am ALL about store brand. 90% of my cart is store brand and produce when I grocery shop.

Then came time to talk about some NEW foods. The new food conversation doesn’t usually go all that well in our house. We’re working on it, and I’m regularly encouraging Graham to try new things. As he gets older he’s more willing to take at least one or two bites and I take what I can get.

If you plan to try a new lunchbox, I highly recommend using that time to discuss new foods. The enthusiasm for his lunchbox definitely trickled down and made new options a lot easier.

As for the new options, over the weekend we tried out some new ones.

Hard-Boiled Eggs. Graham had never had them before but he likes scrambled eggs and it seemed worth a shot. He’s practically a vegetarian so I’m always looking for protein.

Roasted Chickpeas. To replace crackers or chips, a healthier choice with a simple olive oil drizzle and a sprinkle of salt.

Both were declared delicious. 

This is as close to a Pinterest lunch as my kids will ever get.
This is as close to a Pinterest lunch as my kids will ever get.

And then both were complained about when given for lunch.

I expect this, honestly. It takes a few times. That initial enthusiasm wears down. I’ll try at least a couple more batches of roasted chickpeas, this one is on the chewy side and I think he’ll do better if they’re crunchier.

He found the egg too cold, so I’m going to be more aware of the insulated case next time and maybe just leave the cold pack in the refrigerator instead of the freezer. Plus add a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

To fill in the gaps in his lunchbox where there’s extra space I’ve thrown in squares of cheese and whole black olives, always a favorite. 

I have more plans to try. More proteins, more fruits, more whatever else comes to mind. And we’ll keep rotating through our standards. It’s a long school year ahead, and I’m ready to get in a rhythm.

Thanks, Stop ‘n Shop, for sponsoring this post. As you’ve probably noticed I take on very few sponsored partners and when I do it’s usually something I want to talk about and am lucky enough to get to bring a brand into that I enjoy. This compensation helps keep the blog going, thanks for your support.

Ditch Peer Pressure Pinterest Parties

sponsored post image
Thanks to Hood for sponsoring this post.

Birthday parties are a racket. I don’t really believe in parties as a rule. I’m perfectly in favor of get-togethers, you know, where a bunch of people who enjoy each other’s company spend time together. But parties make me twitchy. 

Once you call it a party and start making lists, it no longer becomes a party. Now it’s work. And no matter how happy everyone is at that party and how many great pictures you get, it’s still work.

Parties at our house take as little work as possible. And the great thing is that everyone is still really happy and we get lots of great pictures and that’s the stuff that matters. It’s actually pretty easy to have a low-key, super-happy party. Anyone can do it with these simple steps.

1. Talk to your child.

Parties can involve a lot of trappings: food, cake, presents, games, friends, and all that. But not all of that matters. Talk with your child about what they really care about this birthday. What are the things they want most? Seeing a few specific friends? Getting that perfect present? Doing something super cool with family or best friend instead of a party? Once you’ve set priorities, you’ve also set the things that you can worry about less. It’s all about managing expectations and helping to avoid meltdowns, tantrums, and tears.

2. Remember it’s not about you. It’s also not about what anyone thinks.

Your party doesn’t have to be pin-worthy. It doesn’t have to make anyone jealous. It will be just fine if it isn’t a legend for years to come. We spend an awful lot of time telling our kids it’s important that they be themselves and make themselves happy and not care what other people think. This is a great time to put that into practice. If you’re worried about tongues wagging, then give your party a theme that encourages simplicity and old-school fun. A few ideas for old-school-fun themes: bike riding, Olympics, dress up, or even coloring for the little ones. 

3. Have the party and enjoy yourself.

See? That was awfully easy, wasn’t it?

For us, Graham cares most about actually having a party. He gets excited about the fact that it’s happening and that’s what’s most important to him. 

We stay home or go to a park. There are lots of places with fancy birthday party options that Graham loves, but it’s not in the budget right now. But in the future? Yeah, I’d do it. Because we show up, we party, we leave, and I love the simplicity.

Favors and games can be simple and cheap. This year it was dollar-store squirt guns and running around the spray park.

I made cake mix cupcakes with purple frosting and sprinkles Graham picked out. He was pretty pumped about the frosting and sprinkles, probably more excited than he would have been about a fancy store-bought cake. And to go with it we had Hoodsie cups, which totally fit my no muss-no fuss style of party planning. I don’t even have to worry about scooping or bowls. No silverware. Not even any napkins, since there was a shower for spraying down just a few feet away. 
squirt gun



I don’t know what it is about the Hoodsie cups. Maybe it’s just that it’s not their normal ice cream from a carton in the freezer. Maybe it’s that they each get their own little cup. Maybe the wooden spoons? But my kids love them and since not everyone we invited made it to Graham’s party, we have extras in the freezer that I can pull out as an after-dinner surprise.

With Graham’s party in the books, I’m off the hook until next year when Tessa turns 4. I’m guessing she’ll be old enough to want her own party by then. I’m not worried. 

This post was sponsored by Hood, who provided product and compensation for this post. I was pretty thrilled when they asked to post about simple birthday parties using Hoodsie cups since that is totally my jam. 

The Meaning of a Dining Table

When our family is all at home, there’s really only one place where we come together.

We divide off into separate bedrooms and different beds. We take turns in the bathroom. In the living room we sometimes share entertainment, and maybe for a while we even share the couch, but that usually doesn’t last long.

There’s only one place where we all do the same thing at the same time. Our dining table. 

I’m not one of those people who believes that the dinner table is the foundation of society. There are times when we eat our dinner in the living room. I’ll come right out and admit that breakfast is almost always a living room affair as I sip coffee and catch up with news on my laptop and the kids alternate between playing, getting dressed, and eating a yogurt or some dry cereal. 

These days, when we do all sit at the table together, it’s certainly not the idyllic scene you’d imagine. There’s usually someone who won’t eat. There are negotiations and complaints. The kids aren’t quite old enough for us to have any deep and moving conversation. Conversations in our house rarely last longer than a minute or two, we’re still working on that.

One eater and one objector to our meal of split pea soup.

A photo posted by Jessica Woodbury (@jessicaesquire) on

Our evenings are a rush. I leave work early to get on the train and then get in the car and then pick up Tessa and then pick up Graham and then we get home and it’s already past 5:30 and less than 2 hours until bedtime. Only 2 hours! That’s all the time we have to talk and catch up, to play inside or outside, to get dinner ready and then to eat it. 

Occasionally I enlist their help, but they’re both too short for the counter so any work is done at their chairs at the dining table.

When their dad and I were together, we had a big-ish dining table. One with a fold-up leaf so we could expand it for company. One we got to fit our much bigger apartment before we moved up to Boston. I lost it in the split, so now the kids and I have a very small bare bones dining table. Hypothetically it can hit 6 but it would be snug. For now it sits up against the wall and has seating for 4. 

"This is hard work," says Graham. Let the child labor commence.

A photo posted by Jessica Woodbury (@jessicaesquire) on

Like most things in the house, the table is often cluttered. The fruit bowl may be full or may be empty, depending on whether the kids are actually eating things like apples and bananas or refusing them (which means I stop buying them). I have placemats but never both with them. Most of the tableware is small and brightly colored. 

We don’t always eat the same meal and it’s not always at the same time. But that’s now. I know that as they get older we’ll be around that table more and more. That meals will last longer, that conversations will start to happen. We’ll take that time we’re all sitting together to catch up, or I’ll try desperately to get tapped in to their lives. Time will be harder to come by, connection more of a challenge. Dinner together may start to be an exception rather than a rule. 

But we’ll always have those meals. Imperfect as they are and as they will be. We’ll have that one place where we try to slow down for a minute. 

Imagining my little ones as big kids and teenagers and even adults is still something I can’t manage. But that won’t stop it from happening. 

Someday they’ll leave. And then we’ll have that dining table to call us back together for holidays and celebrations. 

When the kids are gone, I tend to eat like a college student. Cheap food, on my couch, eaten hurriedly. I save the dining table for the times we’re all together, for the times when we’re a family. For whatever reason, that table, as small and simple as it may be, stands for just about everything.