Favorite Board Books

We’ve read a lot of board books in the last few years. Some we loved, and some were terrible. Since I’m always on the hunt for good books, here are a few of our favorites — the ones we open again and again.

What are your favorites? I’m always looking for recommendations particularly for authors of color or that feature main characters of color.

No Matter What by Debi Gliori

This is one of my staples as a foster parent. I read it regularly to kids in our home, and it’s one that I always send with kiddos when they leave our home.

What do I love about it?

First, I appreciate that the story uses the terms “Large” for the parental figure and “Small” for the kiddo. It sidesteps the “Mom” and “Dad” language I find awkward as a foster parent.

Second, it does a beautiful job telling what unconditional love is, how relationships can be mended, and reminds that our love is still with us even when we might be far apart.

Always by Emma Dodd

This is another one that I try to read regularly and send with each child who leaves our home. It’s what I hope for them as they grow — that they land somewhere knowing they’re loved always, without condition, no matter what. Plus, the characters are elephants, and I love elephants.

Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joose and Barbara Lavallee

Both the artwork and the message of unconditional love are beautiful! An Inuit child asks her mother whether she’d still be loved in varying circumstances. Plus, I love that the story features humans talking about love instead of animal characters.

Happy Hippo, Angry Duck by Sandra Boynton

I love the introduction to emotional intelligence as we read through the book. It walks through different feelings, asking if you’re “frazzled like a frazzled thing”, and then offers the reminder that feelings aren’t forever and that when you’re not happy, there are folks who still care for you a lot.

It’s both light-hearted and deep, and I appreciate that in this little intro to feelings.

Honorable mention goes to the Doggies: A Counting and Barking Book by Sandra Boynton. It’s ridiculous as we bark aloud to read, and we can’t help but get the giggles each time.

Little Green Frog by Ginger Swift

We’ve enjoyed this one with a couple of our littles. Lift-a-flap and pop-up books are fun for kiddos. And I have a soft spot for this particular one because it’s connected to their childhood stories. For one, a first smile came as I sang this song to him. For the other, I started singing the “Little Green Frog” song when I saw the tiny’s tongue poking out at me all the time. For both, I wrote why I picked up the book in their copies.

What’s a book that you bought simply because it connected to your child’s story?

Crinkle, Crinkle Little Star by Justin Krasner and Emma Yarlett

This is a classic for J and the kids. He’s into astronomy, and he can teach the kiddos constellations with fun artwork and rhymes. Plus, the littles get into touching the crinkle star on the last page.

baby bear sees BLUE by Ashley Wolff

During a trip to Birchbark Books, I found this gem on the shelves. The artwork is cute, and I love the way baby bear discovers colors and wonder as he explores the world with his mom. It gets a bit long for infants, so I start abbreviating the text. But the pictures get the tiny eager to touch the pages and engage.

Pandas Love Pickles by Liz Lynch

Pandas Love Pickles combines learning about the alphabet, animals and foods. There’s an animal trying a food for each letter of the alphabet, and some of the combinations are hilarious! Plus, I appreciate the way it encourages littles to try new things from burritos to sushi to radishes.

A Book of Sleep by Il Sung Na

My appreciation for this book deepens the more I read it. The artwork is stunning, and it’s a bit of a treasure hunt to find the owl on each page watching over everyone as they sleep.

Honorable mention: Welcome Home Bear by Il Sung Na. The artwork here is fantastic as bear explores other animals’ homes and finds his own place in the world.

Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle

We have this memorized. When either of us is reading it aloud, the other frequently recites as the other is talking. All the kiddos got into the illustrations and the animal sounds. It’s a staple in our house.

The Goodnight Train by June Sobel and Illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith

This makes a frequent appearance at bedtime, and I’ve enjoyed the sound effects in the poetry along with the whimsical artwork as the goodnight train makes its way to bedtime. The current little has loved it too, and though I’ve lost count of the times he’s fallen asleep part way through as J was reading to him.

We All Count & Ojibway Animals by Jason Adair

We also discovered these two books on visit to Birchbark Books. The illustrations are vivid, and the back covers help explain the meaning in the artwork and the connections to Ojibway culture. Plus, the “We All Count” book teaches how to count in Ojibway.

Carrot & Pea by Morag Hood

This was a gift from my sister and discovered at Wild Rumpus (another local bookstore that I love). It’s zany, and I get the giggles as I read the story about these unlikely friends. The illustrations are simple and kitsch, but that’s part of what I love.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

It’s a classic that I’ve slowly learned to enjoy. I had bad experiences with it in kindergarten when I was behind the other kids in reading since I didn’t do preschool. But slowly, slowly as J and I’ve been reading it — it’s grown on me. J already loved it— it was his (and his mom’s) favorite.

Honorable mention goes to Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See?

It’s simple. It’s catchy. But that’s part of its charm as kids learn colors and animals.

So what are your family’s favorites? What else should we check out?

“Isn’t It Hard When They Leave?”

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When people find out J and I are foster parents, one of the first things we hear is, “Isn’t it hard when they leave?”

The short answer: yes.

We’re not without feelings, and in saying farewell to another tiny recently we’ve shed boatloads of tears. But, still being a part of that little person’s story — worth it. We’d do it again. No regrets.

Love is never wasted, even if it is more like a hedgehog than a cozy teddy bear. Sometimes love is snuggles and warmth, and sometimes it’s like holding a pincushion that pricks you till you bleed. But still, it’s worth it.

The reality is all relationships come to an end. People leave us, or we leave them — either by choice, circumstance or death. We never know how long we have with anyone.

Fostering makes us aware how precarious (and precious) life is. And it teaches us to live in the moment instead of hedging our bets for the future. The story twists and turns and who knows where it will lead. So, it’s life taken one hour, one day at a time. Who knows what will happen today?

And that’s (usually) enough.

There is another trick I have: when a little comes to our home, I head to T J Maxx and buy a suitcase (near as I can tell — they have the best deals on suitcases anywhere). I place it somewhere I’ll see it regularly, but out of sight of the little.

It’s a reminder that this is temporary and to hold it all loosely. It grounds me in reality. Love hard, love well, but remember this little person is not yours.

We cannot control how long someone is with us, but we can choose how we will spend the time we do have. When we know goodbye is coming, instead of wasting precious time together by only sitting in dread of the coming farewell — we choose life. We go to the zoo or some other outing; we create a memory and take a photo — even if we’re the only ones who’ll remember.

And when we cannot keep them forever, we can send them off well. It’s the only thing we can control, and it’s our last remaining way to say, “you’re loved, and you are so, so precious to us.” It’s not so much for the people they’ll go to stay with us as it is for us. It’s all that we’re able to do.

I’m not an expert on farewell, but so far — the anticipation of farewell and that exact moment of hand-off are the very worst. The fear of the coming pain is so much worse than the reality we walk through after the fact.

There’s still sadness and grieving, but there’s also peace in the knowledge that we gave the best we could. And that’s enough. As long as it all meant something — it’s okay. No regrets.

And having done this before, here’s what I’ve learned. The heart always grows. It expands, and love sneaks in when we don’t expect. There’s no need to be stingy with love as though somehow we’ll run out or somehow there won’t be enough to go around next time.

The fear of pain isn’t a good enough reason to avoid love. How much joy and wonder would I miss if I said no to this journey for fear of goodbye? There’s some indescribable magic in quiet baby snuggles as they sleep on your chest full of trust or as their eyes light up with glee upon a glimpse of your face.

There’s pockets of awful too; the sleepless nights, the crying that seems endless in a particular moment, the blowout that happens right before that important appointment you’re already running late for, and that nagging sense that no matter how much of yourself you’ve given to this tiny person, that there’s still not enough of you to go around and meet their needs.

But still, the wonder-filled moments make it worth it. That and the reminders of where your story began together, and how well they’re doing at the moment of goodbye.

And really for me, it’s a gift when it hurts to say good-bye. It means that a miracle happened: my heart softened and opened up to this tiny stranger, and that’s a gift. Always. Even if the road ends in farewell.

Could Mother’s Day be more complicated?

rock stack

What is it about Mother’s Day that makes it so full of emotional triggers? More than any other holiday, this one always feels especially complicated.

Last year as we waited for our first foster placement to come, I thought I’d feel something different in the coming year. I felt excited about the journey to come, even while the old triggers still gave little zings.

I thought I’d have a sense of arrival, of landing somewhere.

But, nope.

It’s a new year with new life circumstances. But instead of simpler feelings — I just have a deeper bucket of weird and complicated.

There’s deep gratitude. I’ve found myself making lists this week of women who’ve shaped my life at various ages and stages. And it’s not just the obvious — mom and grandmothers. There was the little old lady from across the street who picked me up from school three days a week while I was in 8th grade (and she took me out for icees nearly every time too), and the junior high history teacher who took me under her wing in the year my mother died and for several years afterward. My aunt Victoria taught me how to paint my nails (and I think of her every single time I paint my nails).

There were the church ladies who jumped in after my mom died. I wasn’t particularly a fan at the time, standoffish and awkward. But looking back, I’m touched by their efforts and the way they hung in with me and kept inviting me to things despite my reticence.

The college professor who mentored me and can be credited for J and I making it this long together. After one notable date, she looked at me and said, “You better let that boy know you like him, because he doesn’t know and if you don’t tell him — you’re not going to see him again.” (She was right, and I did. And here J and I are all these years later.)

There’s pride in the many women in my life who are tremendous mothers.

There are the old zingers that don’t go away even with a year of loving babies. Mother’s Day is a reminder of scars; there won’t be biological children, and there’s no simple or “normal” family story for us to celebrate.

I feel the loss of my mom this year in a new way. Maybe I just wonder what she’d be like as a grandma. Likely we’d make each other crazy, but still it’s a question. And I wonder sometimes if kids coming to our home are shortchanged by only having two grandparents. I was so blessed with the abundance of 5 grandparents who nurtured and spoke into my life.

And then there’s a new layer of awkward and complicated that I never imagined: how to navigate Mother’s Day as we think of us and think of first families for kiddos. I’m a foster mom, not actual mom. Temporary.

I’m okay with that narrative. But it gets tricky when people ask me how I’ll celebrate Mother’s Day or how I’m feeling about this day now that we’ve had little ones.

Mostly I feel awkward and would rather not make a big deal of the whole thing. And I don’t want to have to explain all the things and have others say all the reasons I should want to be celebrated or deserve to be celebrated.

Perhaps what I’d like most on Mother’s Day is respite from the expectations and personal questions. I’m too upfront when people ask things, and I don’t know how to simplify the answer to a socially acceptable shorthand because many things are true.

I am happy. I am thankful. I am still grieving — both my mother and a tiny. Meanwhile, I love our life fostering, and it is also very hard (and currently very exhausting).

Mostly I have no idea what I’m doing each day as I parent, and I live one foot in front of the other while praying for a deeper reservoir of grace and mercy than I can muster on my own efforts. God has come through so far, but it usually involves me feeling fragile and smashed open like an egg afterward. Grace and mercy aren’t cheap; they cost us something. Sometimes Jesus asks a bigger sacrifice than I think I have to give.

Most of all, I think I just look forward to Monday, when this day can be put behind me for another year. It’s just a day. I’ll survive it and all the feels it brings.

Anyone else have a deep well of complicated on this day? What’s your story?

Persistence as a guiding star

asphalt dark dawn endless

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Attempting to incorporate our faith practices into the rhythm of daily life, on Epiphany back in January, we adapted an activity from Traci Smith’s Seamless Faith. I purchased thin wooden stars from the craft store, and labeled around 20 of them, each with a different virtue. To make it fancy (since that’s a thing I do), I wrote in gold ink with artsy lettering.

Then, we read Matthew’s account of the magi following a star to find a young Jesus. After reading together, we had the little pick one of the stars out of the basket.

What was chosen: persistence.

J hung the star on our fridge. And we keep coming back to it as we hit bumps and snags in life this year.

Though the activity seems arbitrary, a bit like drawing straws or gambling, what I appreciate is how that persistence star helps us find meaning in life events the past few months. It’s become a guide for noticing the Spirit.

Rather than seeing everything as meaningless, I find myself asking — what does this teach us about persistence? Where can I grow?

Where is the Spirit working in this? Who am I called to be in this situation?

The virtue has been a flashlight — a thin beam of hope lighting a way forward in the dark.

When I felt chewed up and spit back out earlier in January and February, persistence became a way to hang in there in spite of the desire to run away. Persistence meant staying fully present all the way through to the end of a story, even when I’d rather rip off the band-aid early and be done with the nerve-wracking wondering and anticipation.

And it’s not that somehow I mustered up this capability through my own willpower. It’s the work of the Spirit, who somehow makes a way when there was none. Somehow even when I’d rather seal up my heart like a clam shell in anticipation of pain, the Spirit compels me to stay open, to stay soft.

Perhaps a small miracle, but I still claim it as miracle nonetheless.

Recently I wondered for the first time how this word might be a blessing not just for me, but for the little who drew it. I wept on the thought, but found it comforting as well. That even apart perhaps there’s something in this word still drawing all of us onward. Keep growing, little one. Keep persisting.

This Lent, persistence shapes this practice of writing. I read and write — with varying degrees of effort. Some weeks the words and ideas flow easily.

This week is not one of them. Today I’d rather hide and fritter the day away. But instead, I’m here. Slowly word after word appears, in spite of the inner critic harping on all that’s wrong with me.

Writing about persistence was not the tack I planned take. But all the other stuff I contemplated writing felt like an effort to fix things irritating me on social media. And that’s not a place where I show up as my best self.

It’s a middle road, this persistence post. It’s what is in me today. There’s some other drafts I’m working on for the next weeks, and I’m excited to see what develops there. But those things aren’t quite ready yet.

So today yet again, I’m still putting fingers to keyboard, attempting to be faithful to my best self and to my own commitment.

Showing up means seeing myself as a writer, even in the midst of doubt over my worthiness. It means practicing this skill that tangles me up as much as it knits me back together — often both at the same time. It means, despite the unhelpful self-talk, I choose to practice self-compassion and post anyway.

For you, in whatever season you find yourself, I hope you find the persistence to continue showing up where it matters for you.

Waiting in the wilderness

November Gray

Yet again, I find myself in a season of waiting.

This season of stasis, of living on pause, irritates me. It feels like an exile to the wilderness — dry and barren. Perhaps Lent is the appropriate church season for the sensation.

I waffle between sadness, anger and flashes of envy. And then, horrified by the not-so-nice feelings, silence and police them into submission (or so I naively like to think). I gave in finally and let the feelings express themselves in my journal. Perhaps now they can stop with the sneak attacks.

I want to whine, to rush things forward, to move beyond the space of discomfort.

Life feels like the March mud season outside. The world is brown, but I know crocus, tulips and lilacs are on the horizon. Green will sprout. But, I don’t know when, and I can’t rush it along. It’ll come, and as with every year, will surprise me with its timing and splendor.

It sounds nice enough to know spring will come as it always does, but the waiting is sandpaper rubbing on my heart and soul. Mildly abrasive and increasingly painful. Maybe it serves a useful purpose, but it still hurts. Will my heart be bleeding or soft and smooth when the wait is over? Time will tell, I suppose.

If you’re in the wilderness, stuck in the place between, you’re not alone.

The space between here and there is a difficult space to dwell. I’m no longer the person I was, and I’m definitely not in the place I’d like to go. There’s no going back, and I have little control over moving forward. We wait for the phone to ring. I hate this sense of powerlessness; it feels like weakness, and my weakness irks me.

When I wrote on this subject a year ago, I started to realize life is lived on the way from here to there. What I hadn’t fully grasped (and am still coming to grips with) was the fact that life is waiting — whether it’s in hope of some good thing or in expectation of something painful.

We spend so little time in the moments of arrival. This week I remembered that even after the phone rings I’ll start another kind of waiting. One train lands in the station, while another departs. I just trade out the event that I await.

The bulk of life is the space between — wilderness.

I can learn to make the most of the time waiting — or I can make myself bananas over not yet being in the place I want to be.  As I consciously think about it, I’d rather land in the former; as a matter of course, I want to lean into choices that open me to wonder and curiosity over bitterness. Even if it’s just for a moment, I want to be open to the possibility of joy springing up like a dandelion sprouting through concrete.

In this season, choosing life in the waiting means renewed dedication to reading, writing and creating. I’ve started scrapbooking again as a way of organizing our story of our first tiny. And I’ve picked up my crochet hooks again, working ahead on blankets for future littles as well as a project just for me. The busyness of my hands helps tame the churning of anxious thoughts. Plus, there’s a tiny thrill of accomplishment when I learn a new stitch and when I finish something I started.

Reading helps too; in the past few weeks I’ve had a chance to catch up on my book list. Highlights include Kathy Khang’s Raise Your Voice, Jonathan Merritt’s Learning to Speak God from Scratch, Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Learning to Love the Bible Again, Nadia Bolz Weber’s Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, and Anne Lamott’s Almost Everything: Notes on Hope.

And all that reading fuels my passion for writing and checking in with my own story. I remembered my love of words, and how writing, for me, is a way of healing. I unearthed my sense of calling to write in public way, not just in the privacy of my journal.

I made a quick decision to write each week in Lent as I wrote that first post of things I didn’t know before fostering. It felt like something I needed.

And it was. But, I thought it’d be easy, not something that stretches my guts open and inside out each week. There’s fear with public writing and putting my story out there. Impostor syndrome sets in with a vengeance. Who am I to do this thing?

But in showing up despite the fear, I get a chance to grow into myself as a writer and to reclaim my voice.

Perhaps the newfound openness of time that burns is also opportunity.

And I’m going to frame it that way for my sanity. I get to choose the meaning for my story. Rather than squandering the time and seeing it as meaningless, what if it’s a chance for my growth?

I can hold the sadness and frustration of wanting to be a mom at the same time I say there’s a gift in this window of time to invest in myself as a writer. It’s an opportunity to answer the “what if” questions about my life now, instead of looking back in regret.

Perhaps that is the manna I’m looking for in this season of waiting. As I’ve said recently, we can’t always get what we want, but we can make the most of what we do have. And what I have right now is time to write.

What’s the manna for you in your season of waiting? What carries you into the next day? What would making the most of what you have look like?

Why Are We Foster Parents?

black hanging bridge surrounded by green forest trees

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J and I field questions about foster care frequently. I’ve hinted at why we do it here, but never devoted an entire post to the whys of it.

So, why foster care?

The short answer: it’s the path that shimmered for us.

Fostering is not for everyone. It’s a roller coaster of emotions and chaos; every time you think you’ve plumbed the depths of it, another twist and dip appears. The appointments and parental visits wreak havoc on your schedule and family routines. County workers are in and out of your home. And in addition to all that, there’s paperwork to fill out for every rash, illness or incident. It’s parenting under a microscope. There are few factors within your control, outside of disrupting a placement.

But, for J and I, not fostering would feel like Jonah running from Nineveh. While our bodies can still handle a little less sleep and our home has room, we’re following this calling.

Listening to people who’ve fostered or adopted, everyone has a moment where something lit up on their particular fork in the road. Something shimmered. They heard something. They dreamed something. And they said yes to the call.

To be blunt, for us, it felt like the least creepy way to start a family; for me, it’s one of the roads that felt the least like buying a child.

There’s no safety guaranteed on the path.  We know that. We’re working for reunification first, which is a path that leads away from our self-interest. If a child can’t be reunified, we’d love to talk further about adoption.

We know as we welcome children into our home: this is all temporary until otherwise notified. And even then, nothing is final till the dust settles with the all court hearings.

There’s risk. It’s painful. But, it feels like a place where our hearts and a child’s need meet together.

We intended to have biological children. With three miscarriages, an ectopic pregnancy, and five and a half years of no pregnancies at all, that family ship seems to have sailed away without us. Maybe it’d be helpful to have a medical reason for the difficulty, but instead, like so many other devastating things in life, we have painful mystery.

For the kids coming through our home, life didn’t work out the way it was expected either. Something happened, and they need a safe place to grow while the adults in their lives work out some stuff.

Welcoming kids into our home is our way of making lemon meringue pie out of the lemons we and the kiddos hold. Lemon meringue is never my first choice for pie. Let’s be honest, it’s not even my second choice.

But, still we can make the best out of this life before us. We can’t always get what we wanted, but we can choose to make the best out of what we have.

What we have is open hearts and room in our home.

We’re not saints or superheroes or super strong. We feel extremely awkward when people try to tell us we are. We’re just regular people trying to build a life with what we have to offer.

As people ask how or why we do this thing that hurts, I’m reminded of a quote from  Richard Rohr’s book Simplicity, “On the spiritual path the enemy isn’t pain; it’s fear of pain.”

Maybe it’s a byproduct of my mom dying of cancer when I was a kid. Maybe it’s surviving the crucible of pregnancy losses and infertility. But, somehow, for me, the fear of the pain of goodbye is less compelling than the call to open my heart to kids.

We aren’t the children’s parents, but we can choose to care for them as best as we can for the time they’re with us. To paraphrase the artwork hanging in our dining room, together we can build a life we love.

And, we really love being foster parents, even as we still hope for a child to adopt some day.

Practice over perfect.

13a394e1-84c1-43e2-a059-f1dd91d35686.jpegWords came easily last week.

I thought the same magic would happen again. That I’d have another experience reminding me why I love writing.

And then, I tried to write yesterday and today.

I wanted the work to be fast and for the ideas that bounced around my brain like pinballs for the last few months to finally come to rest. I sat all day with journals and computer screen. I wrote words and words. I went for a walk. I sat in silence.

I waited for something to spark, for something to demand to be said.

Yet nothing came to me. All those words on a page aren’t ready yet. There are nuggets of value in there, but they’re not ready to be released.

Because the magic of inspiration didn’t happen, I thought about skipping the post altogether. After all, who would really hold me to this weekly commitment?

This thought came to me: I need to show up. I feel called to writing, and I’ve let this calling languish while I’ve juggled other priorities. In ignoring this process, I’ve missed connecting with my own story. I need this as part of my own healing and wholeness.

If all I can do is show up to my commitment today, it’s enough. I can learn. I practice my skills. Practice over perfect.

It took a crazy amount of effort to generate these few words. But, here I am.

If you’re in the grit your teeth and honor a commitment season of your life, you’re not alone. Sometimes showing up is what we can do.

But, the wonder is that sometimes showing up is enough. It’s authentic. We own our failures, we learn, and we can try again tomorrow.