Sunday, August 30, 2009

Rat-a-Tat Cat by GameWright

My family has been trying out Gamewright games for a while now, and today we pulled out Rat-a-Tat Cat to give it a try. My almost-eight-year-old, Sam, and I sat down to play and we had a great time.

Reading the instructions was a little complicated, but once we started playing, it became very clear very fast. You have four face-down cards in front of you, you are allowed to peek at two of them, and you are trying to get the lowest number of points by drawing and swapping cards.

Both Sam and I figured it out quickly. Because this game is based on probability and guessing, I was afraid that it might be too abstract for Sam. But he was really good at it. I'm a little saddened to say that I didn't pull any punches and he beat me fair and square. See that smirk on his face up there?

This game is marked for ages 6 and up, and I would say that is accurate. I wouldn't play this game with a kid younger than that, and even a six-year-old might have some trouble. (Although I thought Sam would have trouble, and he clobbered me a multi-round game, so...)

The cards, per Gamewright standards, are adorable. Each one is a tiny work of art.

And lest you worry that this is a simple guess and remember game, Rat-a-Tat Cat has thrown in some "power cards" to change up the game and keep you guessing.

Rat-a-Tat Cat has won many awards, including one from Mensa. That's a pretty good endorsement, I'd say. The game definitely reinforces math and memory skills and teaches players a little bit about probability.

After trying out a few of Gamewright's games, I have to tell you that I am so pleased with this company. If I buy holiday gifts for your kids, chances are really good that they are going to get a Gamewright game from me this year. They are adorable, they are fun, and they teach skills without being obvious that they are doing so.

Read my other Gamewright game reviews: Ring-O Flamingo, Feed the Kitty, and Too Many Monkeys.

Honesty Clause: I received a review sample of Rat-a-Tat-Cat at no charge. It sells for $9.99.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind

I read Phillip Done's first book, 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny, several months ago and loved it. You may remember that I gave it a glowing review last December. So I was thrilled to get a copy of Done's new book, Close Encounters of the Third Grade Kind.

I opened this book while I was on vacation and kept reading until I was finished. Seriously, if you have kids or know a teacher, you should get this book.

As with his previous book, Done writes about his third-grade class with wit, charm, and love. As with his previous book, his love for the children he teaches shines through even as he points out their silliness.

What I think this book does even better than the first book is that it captures the emotional side of teaching. One of my favorite chapters in the book is "Rebecca." In it, Done writes about one of his "pillow students"—a student he worries about before he falls asleep at night. This is the story of one of his kids who had problems reading, and the creative approach he took to help her.

That chapter made me cry. It made me cry because it was beautiful, and a wonderful success story, and because it was not just Done who saw the amazing strides that Rebecca took, but also the other students as well. But it really made me cry because I have my own pillow child. I have an autistic son who will be starting first grade this year. I so badly hope for teachers who will show him as much love, effort, and caring as Done shows his students. Stories like this give me hope for my child—and for all the other pillow students out there.

And while this book is mostly lighthearted and fun, it has other moments of seriousness. Done writes touchingly about a past student he taught who fought leukemia. This chapter is moving and sad, but shows how a great teacher can make a difference to every child.

This book tracks one school year, from school supply shopping ("News spread like head lice that there was a real life teacher in the store.") to sick kids ("[Doctors] only see kids after they've thrown up on the teacher's carpet.") to end of the year thoughts ("The kids who give you the toughest time are the ones you love most.").

This book is laugh-out-loud funny in one paragraph and achingly profound and touching in the next. This lovely, easy-to-read book will strike a chord with anyone who has kids. And it is a no-brainer gift for your child's favorite teacher.

I'm eagerly waiting to see what Phillip Done's students do next year. I sure hope he writes another book about it.

Honesty Clause: I received a review copy of Close Encounters at no charge. It retails for $22.99, but you can find it on sale at Amazon and other places.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Petit Appetit: Eat, Drink, and Be Merry

I'm not what you could call a "cookbook connoisseur." Or, how you say? A "cook." But Petit Appetit: Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Easy, Oragnic Snacks, Beverages, and Party Foods for Kids of All Ages by Lisa Barnes makes we want to be. (And not just for her excellent usage of commas in her book title.)

This is a lovely cookbook that offers a variety of different recipes for kids (and adults) with an emphasis on healthy eating. Seriously, before I'd finished reading page two I was inspired to feed my kids better.

One of the reasons I love this cookbook is because Barnes is so realistic about what kids will eat, not to mention the difficulties involved in preparing food when you have small children underfoot. She acknowledges that not all kids will eat every food and understands that things such as texture, color, and temperature make a huge difference in what children will sample. As a parent of a couple of picky eaters, it was so nice to read a cookbook that didn't simply assume that all kids should eat all foods.

In fact, she partially organizes the book according to textures so you can easily find recipes that appeal to your own picky eater. For example, her Snacks chapter is organized by crunchy, creamy, chewy, salty and spicy, and sweet. Love it!

Each recipe in the book is accompanied by icons that easily identify common things that you would gravitate toward or avoid. These icons are: egg-free, milk-free, gluten-free, nut-free, cook with kids, good for groups/party pleasers, perfect for packing, no cook, no sugar added, wheat-free, vegetarian, vegan, and baby/beginner. Everything about this book is easy to read.

Not to mention that she uses the first 45 pages or so to write about tips for finding healthy foods and the reasoning behind why you would want to. She offers suggestions on waste-free food packing and how kids can help, along with much more. I really respected the fact that although she clearly is in favor of local, organic foods, she freely acknowledges that it is not always possible to use these types of food and lets the reader know that they can substitute other items. This is a healthy cookbook that didn't make me feel judged for not always eating healthy.

So how are the recipes? Because that's really the crux, right?

Well, if it gives you any indication, I dog-eared each page that had a recipe on it that I would like to try. Here is my book now:

I'm going to be busy.

I can't wait to try out many of the recipes in the book. I'm planning on trying out a recipe a couple days a week while my kids are at school so it is ready when they get home and I am not tempted to just hand them a sleeve of crackers for an after-school snack. Not to mention that I have a second-grader who doesn't like sandwiches. So I'll be testing some of her perfect for packing suggestions in his lunchbox.

Some of the recipes are very simple and easy. Some are more complicated. All of them contain nutrition information and contain healthy ingredients.

If you're curious about some of the recipes you might find in this book, check out Barnes' blog in which she posts some of her recipes.

I'm hoping that this book can help change the way my family snacks and eats this year.

Honesty Clause: I received a review copy of Petit Appetit at no charge. It retails for $17.95, but is on sale at Amazon now for $12.21.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Stimey is reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I ran out of reading material on my vacation, so borrowed this off of a bookshelf. I'd resisted reading this even though I'd heard it was amazing because I'd convinced myself that it would bore me. But it was terrific. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

101 Questions Kids Really Ask...

My oldest son is not even eight years old and it's been more than a year since he first asked me where babies come from. So I'm not under any illusions that I don't need to know—and know now—what to tell my kids when they ask me about sex.

Healthy Edudynamics recently sent me a copy of "101 Questions Kids Really Ask...And the Answers They Need to Know: A Parent's Guide Through Puberty." Along with the book came a DVD that is intended to be used in group settings to teach kids about puberty.

A long time ago I promised myself that whenever my kids asked about sexuality or their bodies that I would answer immediately and truthfully, at a level that is appropriate for their age. This book will definitely help me do that.

The questions range from silly ("Is there something you can eat to make sure you have 'smart sperm'?") to practical ("When does puberty start?") to very, very important ("How do I know if I'm normal?"). And honestly, even the silly questions count as important.

To be perfectly honest, this book will be valuable to me, but I think its best use is going to be as a resource for my kids to read when they're older. I remember when I was a child, I had a lot of questions that I was far too embarrassed to actually ask my mom. ("Where exactly does the penis go? Huh. Really?") But easy-to-read, grouped-by-subject books were far better resources. I'm going to put this book on a low shelf, in an obvious place, in a quiet room, so my kids can go find it and read it if they ever have a question they don't want to bring to my husband or me.

The answers are straightforward, nonjudgmental, and honest and cover everything from sex to acne to babies to sexual assault to puberty to menstruation to homosexuality and more. And there are pictures and diagrams.

The DVD was similarly helpful. You can get a DVD for girls or boys. One of the things I liked about the DVD was that the boy version talked about girl sexuality and puberty as well (and vice versa). Because we all know that adolescents aren't just concerned about the changes going on in their own bodies.

It also covered topics from the mundane (wash your private bits and wear deodorant) to the very important (no one is allowed to touch you without your permission). It is presented in a way that is completely straightforward and probably cringe-inducing awkward if you're a preteen, but that imparts the information regardless. Mary Halter, who wrote the book and narrates the DVD, does a good job of maintaining seriousness and respect.

I'm very happy to have a copy of this information in my house. You can purchase the book and DVD at the Healthy Edudynamics website.

Honesty Clause: I received a copy of the book and a preview copy of the DVD at no charge. "101 Things..." sells for $19.95.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Blurt Boardgame

I'm always looking for board games that all of my kids can play together. There is something about the boardgame Blurt that has drawn them all in and made them want to play with it all the time.

The game is simple. One player rolls the die and reads the question that coordinates with that number off of a card s/he picks from the box. Players yell out the word that they think the clue defines. The first player to answer correctly moves forward the number of spaces rolled on the die.

For instance, "the day on which you were born?" Birthday! How about "painful awareness of having done wrong or failed in an obligation?" Guilt! There is a wide range of questions, including two different levels of difficulty. Obviously those two questions demonstrate the difference in the levels.

It is so basic, but it is really fun. My children really responded to the bright colors and non-cluttered game board. I put the game on a shelf in their playroom and was consistently surprised to run across my kids playing the game all by themselves.

There are rules to this game, which is intended for ages 7 and up. But the thing I liked about it was that you can easily adapt it to work with whatever age you have in front of you. My first game was with my 4- and my 6-year old. I read the questions and they tried to answer first. Surprisingly, even the younger one was able to get a lot of answers right first.

The Blurt instructions offer several alternatives to the game play as well, although we have stuck to a pretty basic level of play. I think this would be an especially fun game to play with older kids and teens. This game could be a lot of fun to play with other adults as well if you're tired of playing Pictionary at game night events. If you'd like to see the game play in action, watch game designer Tim Walsh's wife, daughter, and friend play Blurt on You Tube.

If you have a family that likes raucous, fun board games, Blurt might just fit the bill.

Honesty Clause: I received a review copy of Blurt at no charge. Blurt retails for $29.99.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Easy Donation to the Alzheimer's Foundation of America

I don't often post public service announcements here, but this seems like a good one. So many people are affected by Alzheimer's. I had a great aunt who lived with it for many years. Research and screening are so important. If you want to contribute to the Alzheimer's Foundation of America (AFA), here is an easy and free way to do so.

Accera, Inc. has a new campaign up at Lost & Found Campaign. Just go to the site and select the icon representing something you have lost or forgotten that day. Click submit and you're done. For every visit, Accera will donate $1 to further AFA's efforts to support individuals with Alzheimer's disease and their families.

Lost & Found submissions will be accepted through November 13. All funds generated will be donated to the AFA on November 17, National Memory Screening Day.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lands End Bags, Sweaters, and Swimsuits

A couple of the things that I was given at last month's BlogHer conference came from Lands' End. You all know that Lands' End makes high quality products that seem to last forever. But I love my new stuff so much that I thought I would write a post to make sure you know how fabulous they are.

The Eco-friendly Backpack is, bar none, one of my new favorite things. It is made of 100% recycled fabric and is sized for ages 10 and up. I recently took this backpack with me on a two-week vacation to hold all of MY stuff (as opposed to my family's stuff). I'm in love. It has a padded laptop sleeve (fits up to a 15" laptop), two huge compartments, and a front pocket for every small electronic item I could think to take with me.

There were also lot of other little pockets and straps that I haven't utilized. Yet. If you're looking for a comfortable, quality backpack (or diaper bag), this could be it. And it comes in seven colors, so you'll find one you like. The Eco-friendly backpack sells for $49.50, but is on sale at the Lands' End website for $39.50.

The next item I'd like to talk about are Lands' Ends tote bags. I received an Open Top Canvas Tote Bag last year at BlogHer. I don't think I've written about it, but I have used it so consistently over the past year, that it deserves a mention. Now, don't go thinking I'm some totebag neophyte. Trust me, I know my way around a totebag. I have many, many totebags. And this is the one I return to most frequently.

The best thing about this bag is that it holds its form, stands up all by itself, and holds itself open. So you can take it somewhere and put it down without it falling over. And it is easy to pull things out, because they stay where you put them. I use this bag mostly as my "waiting room bag," which I keep full of things to keep my kids busy in waiting rooms. I've tried several different tote bags: smaller, larger, backpack, softer... This is the one I stick with.

I took this bag on vacation as well and used it mainly for the beach. I loved using it for that because I could put my camera and cell phone in it and not have to worry about them getting all sandy because it never fell over. It also has little pockets inside and out that are good for things such as sunglasses, sunscreen, and other essentials. Like candy. Lands' End's Open Top Canvas Tote Bags sell for $17 to $30, depending on the size.

Another lovely item Lands' End was giving away at this year's BlogHer conference is their FeelGood V-neck Stripe Cardigan Sweater, which they were calling the "Boyfriend Sweater." I'm wearing mine right now. It's lightweight and long and has pockets. It's extremely cozy.

If I could have chosen, I'm not sure I would have picked stripes, because I'm not a stripey kind of gal, but I definitely am a sweater gal. I wear hoodie sweatshirts pretty much all the time, and this is a far classier variation of that. If you don't like stripes, try out the similar FeelGood V-neck Cable Cardigan Sweater. Both sell for $69.50.

Also, this September through December, for every FeelGood sweater purchased, Lands' End will be donating their signature FeelGood yarn to One Heart Foundation's Warming Families, a knitting charity that uses volunteers to knit hats for the homeless and displaced.

I think one of the most common things people (at least people I know) buy at Lands' End are their swimsuits. I've had the same swimsuit for a long, long time and honestly, it was making me a little sad. I didn't feel like I looked good in it and it was a one piece, which made it extremely hard to go to the bathroom while wearing it. To be perfectly honest, I skipped a lot of swimming opportunities just because I hated my suit.

So this year I decided to go ahead and buy a suit that I liked and that would last me for a while.

I insisted on a tankini, for its stomach covering ability and because I would be able to go to the bathroom without being nude. And I decided to go with a skirt bottom. It doesn't cover a whole lot more than my old suit, but I feel about a thousand times better wearing it.

Lands' End has so many options for suits that it made it easy to find one I liked. I bought the Women's Regular AquaTerra Dot Square Neck X-back Swim Top (that's a long name for a swimsuit). I see that it's now on sale for $19.99, which makes me mad for buying it at a higher sale price (regular price is $52.50), but I've already gotten some good use out of it. I coordinated that with the Women's Regular AquaTerra Solid SwimMini, which is on sale for $14.99 (regularly $52.50). Seriously, if you're looking for a suit for next year, buy it now on sale.

I also bought the Women's Regular Cotton Jersey Zip-front Hooded Cover-up (now $19.50, on sale from $24.50) because I like to wear a cover up. I also like that it has pockets. And a hood. And long sleeves.

Lands' End is a little more expensive than the places I usually shop (Target and Old Navy), but for pieces that you will use over and over, it's worth the extra cost.

Honesty Clause: I received the bags and sweater at no charge. I ordered and paid for the swimsuit and cover-up myself.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Skin Free Skin Care Products

I have tough skin. I need to put that right up front. I have really difficult skin. So I have a lot of sympathy for companies that pitch skin care products to me. I have psoriasis. I have dermatitis. I have dry, flaky face skin and if I treat the dry skin, I break out in red bumps.

Sometimes it sucks to be me.

But I ran out of my prescription face cream at the same time that Skin Free contacted me about testing some of their products. So I thought I would go ahead and give them a try.

This is my skin the day I started using their products. My skin isn't as flaky in this photo as it often is.

I'll tell you first about the Extra Moisturizing Soap & Shampoo Bar. I really liked the soap. Like all their products, they are vegan and made without animal testing. I have a lot of sensory issues and generally don't like soap (again, I'm a pleasure to work with if you're a skin care company), but I liked this soap. It didn't have any fragrance and had a lovely texture. It is created with extra virgin olive oil instead of the detergents and chemicals and fragrances found in many other soaps. It also didn't leave an icky residue on my hands, which is a big deal for me. You can use this soap as a shampoo bar, but I just wasn't ready for that particular sensory experience.

I asked to try the Lite Moisture for Blemish Prone Skin because of the reaction that my skin often has to skin care products. Honestly, it just wasn't strong enough for my facial skin. I should have known that something labeled "Lite Moisture" may not have been right for me, a person whose skin seems to peel off of her face on a regular basis. To be fair, my skin didn't have a bad reaction to the product, but it wasn't a match for my skin. Even if it had worked on my skin, I'm not sure I could have stuck with it because of the strong smell of it. Skin Free products are fragrance-free, but the ingredients must have a smell because I was definitely aware of it. Granted, someone not so sensitive to smells might not be bothered by it.

Which brings me to the Super Moisture Butter Creme. I don't think this is intended to use on the face, but I switched over to it after the Lite Moisture wasn't strong enough. I liked this much better. It has no discernible odor and the texture was completely non-offensive. Plus, it did great things for my flaky skin! I do have to use it every day to keep the flakes at bay, which is tough for me, because I tend to forget and avoid using lotion, but based on my skin's reaction to it, I'm going to stick with it. If you're allergic to soy, this doesn't have any soy products in it. Plus they recommend it for preventing stretch marks.

These are the three products I tried out. Skin Free offers many more.

This was my skin after using Skin Free products for two or three weeks:

I'm not sure if you can tell the difference from these photos, and no, my skin isn't magically perfect now, but I feel good having found another tool to help me try to beat it into submission.

Honesty Clause: Skin Free sent me review samples of their Extra Moisturizing Soap & Shampoo Bar (sells for $3.99), Super Moisture Butter Creme (sells for $12.99), and Lite Moisture for Blemish Prone Skin (sells for $15.99). Skin Free products are available at certain CVS stores on the East Coast (plus at, in many Walgreens stores, and at Also find them at and on Skin Free's own site. Get free shipping on orders over $25 at the Skin Free site.