Thursday, May 28, 2015

Preventing Summer Reading Loss + Our Summer Reading Lists

This post is part of an ongoing Summer Reading for Kids series. Click HERE to find ideas for reading activities, reading lists, and reading incentives...and keep checking back for more!

Did you know that kids who don't read over the summer lose up to two months' worth of reading instruction? And that by fifth grade, children who don't ever read over the summer will be two YEARS behind their peers who do read over the summer? Many studies have shown that just reading 5-8 books over the summer is enough to stay on top of reading skills and not experience the summer learning slide. Reading even more will put your child ahead.

Summer reading is hugely important to me, so I make sure to find ways to get my children to read over the summer. Here are some of the things that we do to keep the kids reading every summer, plus the books (scroll down!) that I am giving them for part of their summer reading:

Ideas and tips for getting your children to read this summer. Reading throughout the summer is the best way to prevent summer reading/learning loss. Plus, book lists that are appropriate for your child's age.

1. Have a Summer Kick-off Party

On the first day of summer (usually the day after the last day of school!), we make a big breakfast and present the kids with their summer reading bins. (See last year's party here: Summer Kick Off Party!) I gift them with a combination of books that are already on our shelves and books I have purchased new for them. These are books that are appropriate for their age and that I think they will enjoy. I try to give them books that they might not choose for themselves, along with some I know they would choose. I don't care if they read all of them or not, it's just a jumping off point for them, and a way for me to keep filling my home with good literature, which is important to me.

Making reading a celebration and a gift makes them so excited to get going on their reading. Those first few days after our party they read quite a bit! Partly because they are excited to dig in to their new books, and partly because other summer activities usually haven't started yet. It's a great way to jump start summer reading and get them excited!

2. Join summer reading programs

Our local library has a great summer reading program with wonderful incentives. The girls love to go sign up and usually earn their first prize in the first few weeks of summer. The Maestro and I are also able to participate in the adult version of the summer reading program and earn prizes right alongside the girls, which is really great. Adults need reading motivation, too!

There are always lots of other reading programs around. Bookstores like Barnes & Noble have one, and so does Scholastic, for instance. Join them all!

3. Incentivize reading at home

I always have some sort of incentive in place. This year I'll be paying my kids per book, since they are getting too old for other gimmicks and money talks. I have some other ideas for reading incentives if you click here: Summer Reading Incentives

4. Host book clubs for your kids and their friends

This has by far been one of the best things we have ever done. It's a great excuse to have a party, and it gets kids reading, too! We are already planning for our book clubs this summer and I can hardly wait for them. The kids are excited, too. 

To find out how we host summer book clubs, click here: How to Host a Summer Book Club for Kids.

Finally, here are our book lists for this summer. I spend a few weeks making them and I always enjoy the process. I'm so excited to give the bins to the girls next week!

Our Summer 2015 Book Lists:

Reading over the summer helps prevent summer learning loss. A list of age-appropriate books for a teen who will be a sophomore in high school in the fall.

Bria's books (age 14, going into 10th grade in the fall):

The Bane Chronicles by Cassandra Clare
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I did not give Bria 7 books this year like I usually do. She already has a huge pile of books next to her bed that she intends to read this summer, plus she is testing out of English 10 and has required reading for that. So, I'm not super worried about how much she'll read (I'm actually never worried about how much this child reads).

The Bane Chronicles is one that she has been wanting to read, so I purchased it for her. I'm fairly certain it will be the first one she reaches for since she absolutely loves The Mortal Instruments series and just finished the final book in that one a few weeks ago. The Bane Chronicles is a spin off series.

She read Night by Ellie Wiesel for her English class this year and became more interested in World War II, so I think she'll love Code Name Verity. I loved Code Name Verity! It is one of the best YA books I've ever read.

Pride and Prejudice and The Scarlet Letter are some classics I'd love for her to delve into. I try to pick shorter classics (in previous summers she's read The Great Gatsby and Animal Farm, for instance), simply because they look less intimidating and she is more likely to pick it up to read. I also threw The Help in there because I think she'll really enjoy it.

Reading over the summer helps prevent summer learning loss. A list of age-appropriate books for a teen who will be a seventh grader in the fall.

Chloe's books (age 12, going into 7th grade in the fall):

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Life as We Knew It by Susan Pfeffer
The Kill Order by James Dashner
Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea
Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper
The Perfect Fool by Bethany Zohner Herbert
Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls

Chloe is much less picky about the genre of books she reads, while Bria likes to stick with fantasy/dystopian type books. Chloe just loves everything. However, she has gotten into the dystopian genre more this past year because she read both The Maze Runner and The Hunger Games series. The Maze Runner was in Bria's summer book bin last year, and Chloe stole it pretty quickly after Bria read it. She then read the next two books within a matter of days and has been waiting to read the prequel: The Kill Order forever. Our library had a long waiting list to get it, and the bookstore was always out when she wanted to buy it with her own money, so I know she'll squeal with glee when she sees it in her bin this year. (If you know Chloe, you know that she really does squeal with glee, and I'm not making that up at all!)

Speaking of how she squeals with glee, of all my children, Chloe reminds me most of Anne Shirley. I decided she absolutely MUST read Anne of Green Gables this year. I think she will adore it and find a lot in common with Anne.

Life as We Knew It is another apocalyptic sort of read that I know she will really enjoy. Out of My Mind and Because of Mr. Terupt were both on several lists as being some of the best middle grade books of 2014, so I purchased them for Chloe. They both look like they have a lot of great content and good discussion material, which I am excited about.

The Perfect Fool is a book I recently reviewed (to read the review, click here: The Perfect Fool Book Review), and it is just up Chloe's alley. It's fun, funny, sarcastic, witty, and also has a depth to it. She'll really enjoy it, I think.

Finally, The Summer of the Monkeys is one of my beloved favorites from when I was Chloe's age, so I threw it in. It's by the same author that wrote Where the Red Fern Grows, but it's not quite such a tear jerker!

Reading over the summer helps prevent summer learning loss. A list of age-appropriate books for a child who will be a fourth grader in the fall.

Sophia's books (turning 9 in July, will be in 4th grade in the fall):

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
Almost Super by Marion Jensen
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
The BFG by Roald Dahl

Of all my children, Sophia is the one who has a harder time with reading. She's an excellent reader, but she doesn't have the patience to really sit still and read books. I'm planning on reading The One and Only Ivan (the true story of a gorilla living in a shopping mall) out loud with her this summer, so she can do other things with her hands and body while I'm reading. Depending on when we finish that, I may read some of the others to her as well.

Wonder is an amazing book and I want all my kids to read it. Sophia's old enough for it this year, so it's in her bin. Chloe loved it so much, she did her summer book club about it a few years ago. (To read about that book club and all the activities we did, click here: Wonder Book Club).

Harriet the Spy, The BFG, and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing are all my own childhood favorites, and they were on our shelves. Since she's going to be a fourth grader, I thought she'd get a kick out of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and I think Harriet is a character she'll really relate to. And who doesn't love The BFG? Nobody, that's who.

Almost Super just won the Whitney Award for best middle grade book of 2014. When I saw it, I totally judged it by its cover and ordered it for Sophia. I've looked through it a bit and know she'll enjoy it, though!

Finally, A Long Walk to Water is a more serious read. I wanted her to have at least a couple like that in her bin. It's nice and short, though, and I hope she'll learn a lot about how children in other parts of the world (namely Africa) live, and how blessed Sophia is to have such easy access to life necessities such as water.

What are your kids reading this summer?

To find out HOW I choose summer reading for the girls, click here: How to Choose Summer Reading for Your Children

To find our reading lists from past years, summer book club for kids, reading crafts and incentives, and more, click here: Summer Reading for Kids

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How to Get Great Shots of Fireworks

Easy tips on getting great photographs of the fireworks this summer. #overstuffedlife

I love going to fireworks shows. It's just one of those can't miss moments of summer vacation and something I look forward to all year long! I've always tried (even before digital cameras) to get great photos of the awesome fireworks displays, but have always been disappointed in the results.

But guess what? Last year, I finally learned how to photograph fireworks properly and got some decent photos. Actually, I got some photos that were more than just decent—they were wonderful! (If I do say so myself, ha ha.) I was so thrilled that I finally got some great firework pictures that it's been difficult to wait for the next fireworks display to roll around. Luckily, we have one coming up in mid-June, so I thought I'd get these pointers down to remind myself and to help anybody out there looking to improve their firework photography.

Tips for taking great pictures of fireworks displays

How to Photograph Fireworks

Honestly, you're going to find all of these same tips all over the internet, and that's because they really work. Still, I'm going to tell you exactly what I did and why it worked for me.

1. Use a Tripod

It's possible to get decent fireworks shots without a tripod, yes. But it's much more difficult, and after a few years of trying that, I finally lugged my tripod with me to the sea of humanity that is the 4th of July fireworks show. The difference was clear, and I will be lugging my tripod to every fireworks display I want to photograph from now on.

This is the tripod I use.

2. Use a cable or remote release

This is a piece of advice I ignored, simply because my cable release is broken and I haven't bothered to replace it for a couple years since I so seldom use it. So, I did Step #3 instead, and it worked beautifully. So, if you don't have a remote shutter for your camera, don't sweat it. If you do, I think you'd get excellent results using it, especially if you use the BULB shutter speed (see Step #6), but you don't absolutely need it, so no need to run out and buy one.

This is the cable release I have for my Canon Rebel, and this is the remote shutter that I'd like to have but haven't gotten around to buying.

Easy tips for photographing fireworks--get some awesome shots this summer!

3. Use the Self-timer

Instead of a remote release device, just use the self-timer. It is a little less predictable, but you can make it work and get some really great shots. The reason you need to do this instead of just pressing the shutter button is because otherwise you will get some motion blur in your photos and they will not be as clear or crisp as you would want them to be. The self-timer allows you to press the shutter and get all of that movement out of the way several seconds before the camera fires.

With the self-timer, you'll need to anticipate a little bit when the fireworks will come, and I admit to getting a lot of shots of blank sky. I started to learn to press it just when one firework was fading and I would usually be able to catch the next one that way.

4. Focus on Infinity

Turn off the camera's auto-focus, and set the manual focus to infinity. This will focus pretty much everything in your shot and leaves you to worry about getting the shots timed well instead of having to worry about focusing.

Most lenses have the infinity sign right on the focus ring, so this is very easy to do. I just recommend checking the focus every once in a while to make sure it doesn't get bumped.

5. Use a low ISO

I actually had mine set to 400 in all of these photos, but I could have (and perhaps should have) gone lower. I keep 400 as my default ISO, though, because--I'll be honest--I am always forgetting to switch it. 400 gives me a fighting chance of catching a good photo when I've forgotten to check ISO.

Tips for getting the best photos you can of the fireworks this July 4th!

6. Set your aperture somewhere in the middle

You don't want your aperture to be either too wide (low f/stop number) or too narrow (high f/stop number), so play around with an f/stop between f/8 and f/16 when you are first starting to photograph the fireworks display. For all of these photos here, I settled on an aperture of f/11 and was very happy with the results. You will get the sharpest light trails when you keep your aperture right in the middle.

7. Set a long shutter speed, but not too long

Since you need to be in charge of both aperture and shutter speed, you'll need to shoot in full manual. The shutter speed is something you'll want to experiment with at the beginning, along with the aperture, but don't go too long with it. My photos were shot with a 2 second shutter speed, which turned out to be just right. Too much longer and you start getting all of the smoke and haze in the photo. You'll still get smoke and haze, depending on the wind conditions, but it will be much more obvious the longer your shutter stays open.

The one exception is to use the BULB option for shutter speed. If you have a remote release, this means that you can press the shutter down and release it when you are ready. You control the shutter speed by watching the firework. I'm hoping to replace my remote this year so I can try this out.

8. Other camera settings

White balance should be left on auto, flash should be off.

Easy tips for taking photos of the fireworks shows this July 4th.

Bonus Tip: Get other elements in your photo

After a while, I got completely bored of just shooting the fireworks themselves. Because of our location, I couldn't pull back as much as I wanted to (we had amazing seats last year), but I was able to pull back enough to start getting other elements in my photo. I love this last photo the most. If you look closely, you can see my kids and a friend enjoying the show. You can see a fireman in the distance. While I wish there had been less smoke, it still adds to the feeling of the photo and I love it.

Make sure to look around you and incorporate the fireworks into your total experience. I'm excited to do better at that this year.

Most of all—enjoy the fireworks show! Don't let fiddling with your tripod or camera settings make you miss all the fun!

More photography tutorials:

How to Get Great Photos at the Beach
How to Get Catchlights in the Eyes
Follow my Photography Tips board on Pinterest
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Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Perfect Fool by Bethany Herbert: A Book Review

The Perfect Fool is a new YA book that your teen will enjoy. There's a little bit of romance, a lot of comedy, and plenty of intrigue.

Farrago is happy in his life as the kingdom's fool. He gets to make other people laugh, he juggles all day, and he can eat as many pastries as he wants. But just when he thinks he's found true love in Thea the scullery maid, everything falls apart. Farrago is forced on an improbable quest to win back the love of his life--a quest filled with twists and turns and villains and spiders.

The Perfect Fool by Bethany Herbert is geared towards middle grade and YA readers and is a refreshing respite from the typical dystopian and vampire fantasies that are currently so popular with teens. It is set in medieval times, but has a very modern and even sarcastic voice which I think will appeal to kids that age in a big way.

I enjoyed the themes of kindness, authenticity, and breaking free of stereotypes. I also appreciated that it is a squeaky clean read that I can hand my children without worrying about some of the content. In fact, this is just the type of book that my Chloe will love, so it is going in her summer reading bin this year (stay tuned--I have the lists done finally and will be posting them next week!).

Definitely put this book on your lists for your own kids this year. You won't regret it!

To purchase on Amazon click here: The Perfect Fool


I received a copy of this book from Cedar Fort publishing in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.
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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Meaningful Gifts for Graduates

There are quite a few people in my life who are graduating from high school and college soon. I've been thinking about ideas for gifts for them that are more meaningful than just a check. I know money is always appreciated, and maybe I'm just sentimental, but I'd love to be able to choose a gift that really means something.

When I graduated from high school, I received luggage as a gift. It was a lovely set of pink and grey flowered tapestry luggage--so very 1992! If I saw it today I would think it was the ugliest luggage ever, but I did love it 20 years ago. I don't know if that luggage really meant anything meaningful to me, though. It was a practical gift, and I got a lot of use out of it, but I wasn't sentimental about it at all (which is why it is no longer with me!).

So this post is not about practical grad gifts--you'll have to look elsewhere for those. This post is about the meaningful, sentimental, personalized graduation gifts that will last a lifetime (or at least a bit longer than my luggage did)! 

This post contains affiliate links.

Some ideas for personalized graduation gifts that will last forever and that the graduate will always remember.

Meaningful Gifts for Graduates


I am a huge journaler. I love receiving new journals, and one that is somehow personalized just for me would be something I would treasure forever. I keep every journal I've ever written in (even though I often think about throwing out my embarrassing high school volumes), and every once in a while it's really nice to go through them and reminisce.

I have a few volumes that were given to me as gifts with my name engraved on them and a note inside from the giver. It's nice to read where I was in my life journey at that point and remember and feel gratitude towards the giver.

There are literally millions of journals to choose from out there. I love this classic hardcover journal because it's not too fancy, but it's still really nice. But if you're looking for something fancy, I also love this faux antique journal and this leather journal.

However, this journal with a quote on the cover about the future might be the most appropriate and meaningful for a new graduate! Which brings me to my second point...

Inspirational Quotes

Graduation from high school or college is not an ending, but a beginning. Giving a graduate a framed inspirational quote is the perfect way to start them on their newest journey. I love the art prints from You can buy them with or without a frame, and they have several different choices for frame styles and colors, so you can make it match your graduate's personality perfectly.

I like this one--isn't it just perfect for a new graduate? You can order it here: Believe in the Beauty of Dreams.

I also really like this one because you can choose your favorite poem or quote (or your graduate's favorite poem or quote) to put on it. Isn't it pretty? You can purchase it here: Favorite Poem Art.

Photo Books

With most of our photo experience nowadays being entirely digital, it's especially wonderful to receive a book of photographs that mean something. Which photos you put in the book will depend on your own relationship with the graduate, but it could be anything from memories you've shared with them to a look at their entire life from babyhood to graduation.

So many of the online photo places offer great books that are easy to make and absolutely beautiful. I really love the photobooks offered at Shutterfly.

Besides Shutterfly, you can try Winkflash, mPix, or Snapfish.


In the last couple of years I have tried to give my own children experiences over more stuff. Giving a loved one who is graduating an experience like a vacation or tickets to a concert will be something they remember forever.

Think about the things your particular graduate will love most and find experience gifts to match. If your high school graduate is going on to major in art, buy them tickets to an art show or art museum, for instance.


Graduation is a wonderful time to gift something super special, like a family heirloom. Again, these heirlooms should be something that you know will be meaningful to the graduate somehow.

When I graduated from college with my music degree in vocal performance, my grandmother gave me her old opera glasses. She was also an opera singer, so having something of hers having to do with my own degree was doubly special. I still use them all the time--I brought them to the opera last weekend! I love that I think of my grandmother every time I use them and it makes me feel closer to her, even though she passed away 12 years ago.

Personalized jewelry

Jewelry is something that can last a long time, and something tailored specifically towards your graduate will be loved forever. There are many places to purchase such jewelry, but I wanted to share with you a newer company that has some really neat options and is all about personalization.

Keep Collective is a new take on charms. You can purchase a "keeper" in either a necklace or bracelet form and keep various charms (called "keys") on it. Some of the keepers are nice and casual, while others are fancier. I love the leather bracelets because they are all reversible (I have one that is blue and green) and suitable for every day wear. But I also like the metal bracelets and the necklaces.

The keys comprise things like hobbies (I have a musical notes one!), sports, animals, travel, initials, etc. You can really go crazy with the personalization! Besides the personalized charms, there are several that are just pretty, if that's what you're going for.

Finally, I like that you can add to them as life goes on. Graduation is a beginning, not an end, and there will be so many more reasons to celebrate!

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mother's Day, Weekend Getaway, and a Violin Recital

This past Christmas I gave The Maestro a weekend getaway trip to Minneapolis, complete with tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Opera. Of course, this getaway was to include me, so it was kind of a gift to myself, too.

That weekend finally came to fruition Mother's Day weekend. I hadn't really thought about the fact that it was going to be Mother's Day back in December when I was planning it. I was just thinking about the fact that it was the only weekend between the end of the spring semester and the beginning of summer term, so it wouldn't be a big deal for The Maestro to leave.

No matter, though, I had a fabulous time with my husband, and that was a pretty great Mother's Day in my book!

 I was thankful to my friend for being willing to take on three more children for her own Mother's Day! My girls sent me this photo on Sunday morning. We spent most of Sunday driving back from Minneapolis, so I did get to see them on Mother's Day for a little while.

While in Minneapolis The Maestro and I saw Carmen (staged 1970s style, complete with roller skates, go-go boots, and disco) at the Minnesota Opera and some Eric Whitacre orchestra world premieres at the Minnesota Orchestra.

At the opera--The Maestro was thrilled with our proximity to the orchestra.
We ate some great food.

We attended the temple. Seriously, I miss having a temple closer than 7 hours away. I am so thankful to take the opportunity to go whenever we can, even if that means we didn't get a chance to do a few other things in the Cities.

We also went to IKEA. I'll be showing you soon the transformation that trip made for my living room. I'm in love with it!

But here's a small peek...because my Mother's Day gift was a giant canvas of my favorite family photo (taken by Brockit). It's 30 inches x 40 inches and I could look at it all day long. (That's Sophia sleeping on the couch, just in case the cheetah print blanket and jammies didn't give it away.)

The day after we got back from Minneapolis, The Maestro hopped on a flight for China to guest conduct a symphony there. While I'm thrilled for him and the experience he is having, I miss him a lot.

He totally spoils me. I am a spoiled rotten princess. I haven't had to take Bria to seminary once this year and now I have to do it for two weeks (one week to go!) and it is killing me. I will never be a morning person, but at least I don't have to go to work because I am not teaching summer term. So I won't complain too much since I can just go back to bed once the other two are off to school.

He also spoils me in the cooking department. Let's just say my girls aren't too thrilled with the meals mom makes. My talents lie in other areas--like putting together IKEA furniture.

Since I've been single parenting it this week, I don't actually have a Sunday Photo from today. Also because right after church we had to run to Bria's violin recital and it lasted for two hours. And then I had to figure out dinner for some very hungry girls.

This video of Bria will just have to suffice for today's Sunday photo. And that is actually just a really thin excuse for putting it here because I really just want to show off my incredibly talented daughter. Plus this is one of my favorite pieces she has ever played. I just love it.

And I just love her. (And also my other two children, just in case there is any confusion--they just didn't have recitals today!)

Happy Sunday!

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Celebrating Good Parents: Creating Meaningful Traditions for Mother's Day and Father's Day

Ideas to help you create meaningful traditions for Mother's Day and Father's Day--make these holidays super special and something you are excited to celebrate! #overstuffedlife

At our house, traditions are the rule of every holiday. Actually, traditions are just plain the rule. You have to be careful of doing something once, because the kids might deem it a tradition, and you better darn well do it again the next year, exactly the same or you'll have some outraged children on your hands!

I love how traditions are like that, though. They really keep our families connected to one another, especially as our children grow older. It seems like the majority of our holiday traditions are in conjunction with the big holidays: Christmas, Easter, and even Valentine's Day. What about some of the holidays where we actually celebrate each other?

Our parents do so much for us throughout our entire lives. I'm 40 years old and my parents are at my house right now helping me out with things we wouldn't be able to do without them. And it isn't just home projects, they help me figure out how to discipline my children (they have many more years of experience than I do), they help me make difficult decisions (they are full of great advice), and they help me get through the overwhelming feelings I so often experience as a busy wife and mother. But most of all, they love me. And they always have.

I am so grateful for my parents and we do have a few traditions that celebrate them each year on Mother's Day and Father's Day. My parents--my mom especially--mostly just love to receive letters on these holidays. My mom wants to hear how much we love her and why. She saves every single letter and I assume she reads them often. Phone calls are a big tradition, too. With my parents living a couple thousand miles away, we can't have a nice dinner together and so we have to rely on the telephone (or Skype or Facetime).

Even though I talk to my parents often, it's important that I recognize them on the holiday that was created to honor them. And it's my pleasure to do so. However, as I think about the traditions my family has for other holidays, I feel like these calls and letters--wonderful as they are--aren't enough.

I think about how much we look forward to watching certain movies on specific days during the Christmas holidays. I think about how excited we get about eating foods that we only get on Thanksgiving Day or at Easter dinner. How about creating some traditions we can really get excited about? Traditions that will be meaningful to parents, but also something kids will have fun doing, and that will teach them thoughtfulness in the process.

1. Keep your recipient in mind

What are the things your parents or spouse absolutely love? What would make them happiest on their special day? Remember that this day is all about them--celebrate what makes them unique and go from there. Is your mom a film buff? Take her to the movie she wants to see most every Mother's Day. Does your dad love to spend time on the golf course? Take him golfing every Father's Day, and if you can't do that, gift him with a free game instead.

2. Get creative

Some of our favorite traditions are our silliest ones. Make Dad "king for a day" and give him a special crown he is required to wear all day. Give a book-loving mom a book she can read out loud to her children. Compose a song to sing to your dad every Father's Day that's all about him and how he has influenced your life. Go on a special walk or hike together--to the same place every year.

3. Take it one step further

So remember how I said my mom loves receiving letters? I think this year we'll make a video letter for her instead. She will love having her grandchildren talk about how much they love her, and of course The Maestro and I will do the same. Think of the things you already do and make them a little bit bigger and a little bit better. This doesn't have to cost extra--it just takes extra thoughtfulness.

4. Don't just keep it in the family

My sister-in-law brings a doughnut to every mother in her life--friends, sisters, daughters, cousins--on the Saturday before Mother's Day. She makes sure to honor all of them with a hug and a treat. I always intend to do something similar, but never actually do it. Maybe this year will be the year. Because it makes me feel wonderful to have people other than my own husband and children recognizing my efforts as a mother. This is something your children can do, too. They can honor teachers, coaches, or other influential adults in their lives on Mother's Day and Father's Day.

The trick to all of these tips is to make it special. Choose things that you will only do on this one day of the year, then it will truly be something you can look forward to all year long!

Let’s celebrate our parents with New York Life by sharing how we plan to honor our parents this Mother's and Father's Days.

Share a photo on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #KeepGoodGoing and then visit New York Life's Celebrating Good page to see how others are celebrating their moms and dads.
IMG_8074 Mother's Day web
My mom and me on Mother's Day 2014. The first one we celebrated together in person in nearly 10 years. #KeepGoodGoing
What are your favorite Mother's Day/Father's Day traditions?

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Thursday, May 07, 2015

Parmesan Meatballs and Rice with Mushroom Sauce

Two questions govern the making of dinner in the Overstuffed household. 1) Is it gluten-free? and 2) Can it be made quickly? Minute® Rice has both of those things covered for us, which is why I agreed to do a sponsored post for them. It's a great pantry staple and perfect for the crazy nights where dinner has to magically appear on the table in 20 minutes.

Right now is quite possibly the busiest time of year for the kids. In just the past week we've been to a band concert, a choir concert, an awards night, and a fine arts night. That doesn't even count all of the normal extra-curricular activities and homework! I don't know how it is at your house, but sometimes dinner is an afterthought over here!

Luckily, we have a few great recipes that help us get a gluten-free dinner on the table quickly. Today I'm going to share with you one of our favorites: Parmesan meatballs and rice with mushroom sauce. The whole family loves it, and it's incredibly quick to make. (Be sure to also scroll all the way down to the end of this post to enter a giveaway for a KitchenAid!)

What you'll need (I am noting which ingredients you must be careful to purchase gluten-free, if this is not an issue for you, just use your favorite brands):

1 lb ground beef or ground turkey
1/2 Cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese (sometimes we just buy it pre-grated because it saves more time)
1 Tablespoon gluten-free Worchestershire sauce
1 egg
2-3 Tablespoons dried oregano
2-3 Tablespoons dried parsley
1-2 teaspoons salt
1-2 teaspoons black pepper
1 can gluten-free cream of mushroom soup (most cream soups are not gluten-free, but there are several brands that are—just be sure to read the label)
Minute® Rice (naturally gluten-free!)


1.  Combine all ingredients and mix by hand until well combined.

2.  Form into meatballs and place on greased cookie sheet.

3.  Bake at 350 for 20 minutes.

4.  Make Minute® Rice per directions.

5.  Cook mushroom soup per directions.

6.  Place meatballs on top of rice with mushroom soup.

7.  Serve with fresh broccoli or roasted Brussels sprouts.

Everyone loves this meal at our house. Usually it's all gobbled up at the dinner table, but when there are actually leftovers, they make an excellent lunch the next day!

Check out more recipes and even sign up to receive them in your inbox by clicking here: Join The Recipe Club®

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Minute® Rice.

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My 2015 Summer Reading List

Want to know what my very favorite part of summer is?

It's reading--preferably while sitting on the beach soaking up the sunshine.

Even though the kids still have about a month of school left, my summer has arrived. I finished grading finals last week, just in time for my parents to come to town. We spent five glorious days together getting projects done around the house that my health and frenetic schedule have not allowed me to do this past school year. Sadly, they left on Tuesday, and while I miss them terribly, now I have more time for reading!

I am not teaching at all this summer, and though I do have one singing gig in July, it isn't as demanding rehearsal-wise as other summers have been. So I hope to knock out lots of the books that have been hanging out on my to-read list.

Looking for some great summer reading? Here are 8 books that are perfect for reading on the beach or  out in your hammock on long summer days!

I keep my to-read list on Goodreads, and every time I go to that website the list somehow gets longer. I love having access to the list all the time via my phone. When I am at the library book sale or a yard sale or Goodwill, I can consult my list for the books I want to read and purchase them for great deals. I do the same thing when I see the sales lists for Kindle books.

My name is Lara, and I am a book hoarder. Basically, my summer lists are almost always a bunch of books I already own but haven't gotten to yet, with a couple of "I just really want to read this" books thrown in for good measure.

So here goes--8 books I will definitely be reading this summer (affiliate links):

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett has been sitting on my bookshelf for three years and I still haven't gotten to it. I chose this book as my free book from the library for completing the summer reading program in 2012! I chose it because Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is one of the top five books I have ever read.

Many reviews of this book extoll it as being even better than Bel Canto, though part of the reason I loved Bel Canto so much is because of the music and opera aspect. Still, this one promises to be interesting, so I'm excited to read it.

I love Ann Patchett's beautiful use of the English language--even though I've only read the one book so far, her musical way with words has stayed with me for years.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley. This will be the seventh installment in Bradley's Flavia de Luce series. #6 was on my list last summer and was the first one I dug into. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Flavia is one of my favorite literary characters ever.

Flavia is a 12-year-old, mystery-solving, bike-riding, chemical-mixing genius in 1950s England. She is completely ignored by her older sisters and her preoccupied father and finds herself in the most extraordinary situations--always involving murder of some sort. But, much to the chagrin of the local deputy, she always solves the mystery.

I can't wait to see what this one is about!

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is another that I picked up at some sale somewhere and has been gathering dust on my bookshelves. (Actually, my bookshelves completely fell apart last week and it is now gathering dust on my dining room floor with about 100 other books.)(Perhaps having 100 books contributed to the demise of the shelves, but as they were $20 WalMart shelves and I've had them for 10 years, I don't feel too upset.)

I have a long list of Goodreads friends who have read this and raved over it in their reviews. With that much good press, I'm sure I'll love it. Plus, the story does sound very interesting and just the kind of thing I love to read.

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness is the sequel to A Discovery of Witches. I literally just finished A Discovery of Witches yesterday--it's been sitting in my Kindle for a while, waiting to be read. I finally started it while I was in Chicago with The Maestro's orchestra a couple weeks ago and I really enjoyed it. I will admit that it is too long, and could have used an editor willing to chop out all the extraneous bits, but the story itself was solid.

I put the second book (which looks to be equally as long) on my summer list because I really do want to find out what happens. Those darn authors ending their books in a way that make you want to read the next one! Besides, my friend said that Book 2 was definitely her favorite of the All Souls trilogy.

I always try to have a few self-improvement type books in my queue, and this summer is no different. Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracy. This book is all about how to stop procrastinating and how to get more done.

I've had this book on my Kindle for a few years. I also have a problem with procrastinating. Whether or not my book hoarding tendencies prove that, I'm not sure, but I could point out several other proofs of my procrastination if you wanted me to (if I ever get around to it, that is).

I'd like to learn to stop it. The title is based on Mark Twain's words “If you know you have to swallow a frog, swallow it first thing in the morning. If there are two frogs, swallow the big one first.” Sounds like good advice to me!

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is amongst the books that have been temporarily re-homed on my dining room floor. It's been on my to-read list for a while, based on seeing some good reviews. Another review of it just came up on my Goodreads newsfeed this morning and reminded me that I picked this up last summer at the library book sale.

I have no idea what to expect from this one. I know it has some romantic elements as well as wonderful descriptions of the circus life, magic, and mystery.

Sounds perfect for reading at the beach!

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach showed up on a few best books of the year lists a while back. I saw it on a Kindle sale and picked it up because I knew it was on my own to-read list. And--you guessed it--there it's been sitting.

This is the story of several baseball players on one team and the way they deal with the various curve balls life throws at them. The book is less about baseball and more about the human experience. It actually has very mixed reviews, despite being on those best books of the year lists. But, since it's in the Kindle, I won't let that deter me and I'll have to form my own opinion.

The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky is my token non-fiction book for the summer. Though I stick to reading mainly fiction, I actually really enjoy non-fiction, especially if it is about language.

I was a linguistics minor in college and, as an opera singer, I have had to sing in many different languages. I love the history of language and learning about words and their origins. I also like food, so it will be fun to learn about how the names of foods have come to be. I saw a review of this book somewhere and it really intrigued me, so I decided I would put it on my list this summer.

It's actually the only one I don't already own, so I'll be looking out for it on a Kindle sale (but first I'll actually check the library for it!).

So, there's my summer reading list for 2015! Now, what's on YOUR reading list? I really do want to know, because 8 books will not be enough to keep me occupied this year. The Farmer's Almanac says it's going to be a hot and dry summer, so I'm expecting to get an awful lot of beach reading in!

More book reading at Overstuffed:
6 Book Club Picks Worth Discussing
How to Choose Summer Reading for Kids
12 Easy Chapter Books for Early Readers
Follow my Reading Rocks Pinterest board
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Sunday, May 03, 2015

Ten Years and Tenure

My four-year-old niece is visiting us this week. The girls have only ever met her once before and are in cousin heaven!

Last week, my blog turned ten years old. TEN YEARS OLD. My first post was nothing interesting, but I enjoyed going back and reading my second post ever. When I started this blog I was the 30-year-old mother to two little girls, The Maestro was finishing his last year of his doctorate in orchestral conducting, and I thought I would start a blog because I was too busy to open my journal to write in it.

I'm so glad I did.

I mean, if I never wrote a blog, I wouldn't remember any of the hilarious things my children said when they were little. Seriously, go read about the rants that Bria used to have while in time-out (I kind of miss those--now I just get 14-year-old sullenness). Or deep thoughts from Chloe and wheeling and dealing by a tiny Sophia.

It's been fun to watch my family grow up on my blog in the last ten years--Sophia's entire life has been documented on this blog! To watch our family move from Arizona to Utah to Michigan.  To have a record of little epiphanies I've had, how I run my household, lots of photos, and the wonderful traditions we share as a family.

But my blog became much more than a journal. I am thankful every day for the relationships I have made from blogging, for the creative outlet it has been for me, and for saving me from a deep depression while living in Cedar City. I'm thankful for every person who ever reads it--the girl who started a blog on a whim ten years ago would be completely shocked to know just how many of you there are.

So thank you.

In other news--much bigger news than a blogiversary--The Maestro was officially granted tenure on Friday morning.

Coming home as an associate professor! And a creepy photobomber in the background...
Ten years ago he was not quite finished with his doctoral studies, working on his dissertation while simultaneously taking care of my very sick and pregnant self and now he is a bona-fide, tenured professor!

Chloe couldn't understand why he got tenure since we've only lived here six years. Turns out that she thought tenure was ten-year.

So, obviously that means that my blog is now officially tenured. You'll never be able to get rid of me now!

Happy Sunday!

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This post may contain affiliate links, for more information, please see my disclosure.

See the linky parties I link up to here.