Our Family Tree

An evolution story

I have been searching for a good book about evolution that doesn’t go so deep it gets confusing for my kiddo. She’s already a big fan of Lucy—we saw a replica of her at the St. Louis Science Center—so I wasn’t too worried, but I still hadn’t been able to find anything I really liked until I came across Lisa Westber Peters’ book Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story. Luckily our library had a copy, and I instantly fell in love with the book.

It starts out with a family at the beach, contemplating how much we have changed since life on Earth began. Illustrator Laruen Stringer’s gorgeous artwork depicts tiny microscopic beings filled with genetic code—DNA and other terms are explained at the back of the book if you wish to read them as well, followed by slow, slow changes. The illustrations and lovely prose—slow and scientific, just like the evolutionary process within the story and life itself—continue throughout the whole book this way, and we get to see glowing jellyfish and other beings, volcanoes erupting, and the first creatures with a backbone develop.

This is where the author starts adding human body parts, piece by piece, explaining where they came from as they slowly, incredibly, developed into what makes us who we are today. I’m 30 years old and the descriptions and artwork amazed me; I can only imagine how it would amaze young people across the country, particularly in schools where evolution is taught alongside creationism as “one theory.” It’s a lovely gift for the small scientists in your life—and the big ones, too.

Your Pick for Annie Cresta

Who would you cast to play the troubled tribute?

In the Hunger Games sequel, Catching Fire, we get to meet a plethora of new interesting characters. (People who haven’t read the books should know that the same is true for the third book as well.) Though many of our favorites were murdered in the first book, most fans have new favorites in book two. One fan favorite who is only in book two briefly, but nonetheless is an important character, is Annie Cresta.

I won’t give away who Cresta is, other than the fact that she was a surprise victor during a past Hunger Games when the arena was flooded and she was the only one who could swim through it. Cresta is a very troubled character who will require some nuance and skill in her portrayal; I will leave it at that.

My pick for Cresta might be Selma Blair, but I think she could be a bit too old for the role. I would like Zoe Saldana for her, and I think the late Brittany Murphy could have really played her well (remember her performance in Don’t Say a Word, which pretty much made the film worth watching in the first place?). Although I love Natalie Portman as Johanna Mason, I think she would do well in this role, too.

Of course, as usual, my selections are a bit older than the fan favorites, and recently the Hunger Games blog My Hunger Games announced their top picks for the young woman. (Some spoilers can be found at the link.) I must admit that I’m unfamiliar with many of these faces, such as Astrid Berges-Frisbey (who does have an Annie look about her, I’ll grant) and Elizabeth Olsen (who looks like one of the Olsen twins; is she related to them?). A few suggestions are absolutely dreadful—Isabel Lucas and Alexis Bledel? Really?—but many of them seem as if they might be contenders for the role, if auditioned.

Cresta is described as lovely, if a bit bedraggled; I would imagine her as a fairly thin person despite her winnings (you’ll see why when you read the book or watch the film). She is from a district where you’d expect lots of sunlight, so she may be dark-skinned or tanned; we never really know what her skin color is. It seems like she is supposed to have dark hair, but I can’t really remember for sure. Who would you cast as this tribute if the decision was yours?


Knoxville, Tennessee

When I found this simple book in a big box of bargain books for my daughter, I was curious because of its title. Would it be a travel book? A fact book about the city of Knoxville? It is actually neither; instead, it is a celebration of summertime. I don’t think it’s very well named, but I do think that Knoxville Tennessee, written by Nikki Giovanni, is a very sweet and enjoyable book that most kids will love—particularly if they are from the Midwest or South where the different joys of summer listed in the book can readily be found. (The entire poem can be found at the link above, though the full joy of the book should be experienced with its beautiful artwork.)

The Scholastic book is very simple, featuring a book-long poem about a little girl who simply enjoys summertime. It begins with a little girl prancing in a field full of violets, with her beloved dog—who is featured throughout the book with her—beside her. She joyously declares that summer is her favorite season, and the rest of the book helps to portray just why.

Much of her summertime love involves food—doesn’t everyone’s? She lists things like corn on the cob from her own father’s garden, barbecue, and homemade ice cream as some of her summer favorites. Others include okra, cabbage, and other greens. The images do not show her buying these items at the store, but in her own garden as well as at a stand with other people, perhaps either buying or selling the items as a family. My own little girl will be harvesting her own greens this summer as well. Children are joyously displayed jumping rope, running, and sitting on a picnic blanket while the adults cook and gather around coolers—which could have been any, and maybe even every, summer day during my early childhood.

Sure, church going and gospel singing are included, whereas my own childhood was filled more with oldies radio and classic rock, depending on whose house we were at—but otherwise this could be anyone’s childhood experience of past or present, making it such a relatable, beautiful book.

Larry Johnson’s illustrations also make the book very enjoyable. The watercolors are a bit muddied, giving it that hazy glow that you always associate with summertime. It has a certain charm to it, and the brushstrokes themselves even somehow remind me of the Midwest where I hail from. I can definitely sit in that little girl’s shoes in some of her summer rituals; indeed, I have in many, as does my own daughter these days.

Unplugged Play: No Batteries. No Plugs. Pure Fun.

One of my all-time favorite parenting (and homeschooling) blogs, Lets-Explore, recently recommended the book Unplugged Play: No Batteries. No Plugs. Pure Fun. Luckily our library had the book (it runs for $27.95 publisher’s price, so you can bet it runs a little high for our books budget!) so we checked it out, and I must say, it’s quite an impressive collection of activities and games. All of the activities in the book range from ages 12 months to 10 years, though many of them can be used for older kids, and some of the age ranges may apply to kids outside them based on individual children’s likes and needs.

The book is organized so well, with each activity including an easy-to-use header, materials list, setup instructions, and play advice. Many also include variations; for example, in the toddle play activity 122, “Water Painter,” you can vary it to make the activity “Multicolored Water Painter.” Each activity also has a brief introduction to explain what the activity is intended to accomplish. A small clock indicates the level of ease of each activity, along with an age and category recommendation. The number of children who may do the activity together is also recommended.

There are indoor games and activities, from art projects to musical adventures, as well as plenty of outdoor ones, such as blowing bubbles through hula hoops or racing games with tricycles. These activities are so creative yet easily explained that I was able to go through the book and write down all of the activities that I wanted to do with my daughter throughout our daily activity log in just a brief six to eight word description. You know when you’re able to do that the instructions have been crystal clear and easy to follow.

I also like that there is no gender specific language in the book. For example, sports games, baby care games, and pretend play are all presented as options for any child with any caregiver—not just for boys or girls. As polarizing as many activities and toys can be these days, the book is very refreshing and welcoming for all children, which I appreciate.

This book would make an excellent gift for any caregiver, whether it be a parent, teacher, day care provider, or even a camp counselor. I found many items that would be great for Scouts programs as well as 4-H clubs to do, too.