phd mama

from diapers to deconstruction

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From Pole to Pole


My elder girl is always cold; she’s the one who even wears her slippers and her bathrobe to bed, but she’s also the one in our family who adores all things winter. That means even at the height of summer, she wants to play polar bears. I’ve already documented her love of whales (especially belugas), but we recently expanded to a reading/watching list about the polar region more generally. We looked at poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, focusing on the geography and science of the poles as well as the animals and people. The films and stories brought to life a dramatic snowscape that we’re unlikely ever to see in person, so this year, when my daughter plays “Polar Bear Mountain” on the snow piles in the yard, she’ll have even more knowledge and inspiration.

  1. Antarctic Antics: A Book of Penguin Poems by Judy Sierra, Jose Aruego, and Ariane Dewey
  2. Arctic A-Z by Wayne Lynch
  3. Arctic Peoples by Robin Doak
  4. Watch Arctic Tale
  5. Arctic Tale: A Companion to the Major Motion Picture by Rebecca Baines
  6. Atuk by Mischa Damjan and Józef Wilkón
  7. Caribou Crossing: Animals of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by Andrea Helman and Art Wolfe
  8. Watch The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot about That: Told from the Cold
  9. Endangered Animals of Antarctica and the Arctic by Marie Allgor
  10. Here is the Arctic Winter by Madeleine Dunphy and Alan James Robinson
  11. How Snowshoe Hare Rescued the Sun: A Tale from the Arctic by Emery and Durga Bernhard
  12. Ice Is Nice! All About the North and South Poles by Bonnie Worth, Aristides Ruiz and Joe Mathieu
  13. Kumak’s Fish: A Tall Tale from the Far North by Michael Bania
  14. Over in the Arctic Where the Cold Winds Blow by Marianna Berkes and Jill Dubin
  15. Polar Bear, Arctic Hare: Poems of the Frozen North by Eileen Spinelli and Eugenie Fernandes
  16. A Polar Bear Journey by Debbie Miller and Jon Van Zyle
  17. The Polar Bear Son: An Inuit Tale by Lydia Dabcovich
  18. Watch Snow Babies
  19. Tundra Discoveries by Ginger Wadsworth and John Carrozza

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A (Wolf)Pack of Stories


Recently, my younger child requested stories “where wolves wear clothes.” It’s one of the things I love about our wolf unit study—the way that fairy tales and folk tales intermingle with scientific accounts about these amazing creatures who, sometimes, wear clothes. We saw a wolf exhibit on a trip to the zoo, and both of my children loved climbing and exploring the nearby wolf den play area; wolves have always fascinated my girls, and we stand in a long tradition of awe for these creatures too often misunderstood and mistreated. In this list, the fairy tales, folk tales, and legends show different cultural perspectives on wolves, and the scientific reads illustrate the wolves’ own lives and habitats. Together, they form a fuller picture of a pack of animals who occupies our land, our history, and our imaginations.

  1. Beware of the Storybook Wolves by Lauren Child
  2. Big Wolf and Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme and Olivier Talec
  3. Dream Wolf by Paul Goble
  4. The Great Fairy Tale Disaster by David Conway and Melanie Williamson
  5. Little Red Riding Hood by Paul Galdone
  6. Nutik, the Wolf Pup by Jean Craighead George and Ted Rand
  7. Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s Peter and the Wolf
  8. Tell the Truth, B. B. Wolf by Judy Sierra and Otto Siebold
  9. There’s a Wolf at the Door: Five Classic Tales by Zoë B. Alley and R.W. Alley
  10. The Three Little Pigs by Paul Galdone
  11. We Are Wolves by Molly Grooms and Lucia Guarnotta
  12. Wild, Wild Wolves by Joyce Milton and Larry Schwinger
  13. Wolf and the Seven Little Kids by Ann Blades
  14. Wolf Tales: Native American Children’s Stories edited by Mary Powell
  15. The Wolves Are Back by Jean Craighead George and Wendell Minor
  16. The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman
  17. Wolves by Gail Gibbons
  18. Wolves by Emily Gravett
  19. Wolves by Laura Marsh
  20. Wolves by Seymour Simon

* For more fairy tale revision wolf stories, see my Reading Empathy post.

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The Barre to the Bookshelf









After my older daughter started taking ballet class (the first activity she chose for herself), my younger daughter wanted in on the action too. My little one got excited every week about waiting in the lobby just so she could catch a glimpse of her sister sous-sus out of the studio. My elder child loves ballet, but in a reserved, quiet way that fits with her personality; my younger child oozes delight and enthusiasm out of every pore. Finally, we found a class for toddlers and picked up a pair of ballet slippers (on clearance, two sizes too big) for my two-year-old. For the entire first day, she refused to take off the slippers, pirouetting (to the best of her abilities) around the house and asking us all repeatedly if we liked her ballet slippers. We do. She fell asleep with them on and awoke to the same routine. Her class starts in a few days, but her excitement is undiminished, and I have a feeling my children’s love of dance is only beginning. Here are some fun ballerina-stories to keep you inspired between lessons.

  1. Ballet of the Elephants by Leda Schubert and Robert Andrew Parker
  2. Ballet Kitty Ballet Class by Bernette Ford and Sam Williams
  3. Ballet School by Naia Bray-Moffatt and David Handley
  4. Belinda Begins Ballet, Belinda the Ballerina, Belinda and the Glass Slipper, Belinda in Paris by Amy Young
  5. A Bunny in the Ballet by Robert Beck
  6. Dogs Don’t Do Ballet by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie
  7. Ella Bella Ballerina and Cinderella, Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker, Ella Bella Ballerina and the Sleeping Beauty, Ella Bella Ballerina and Swan Lake by James Mayhew
  8. First Ballet by Deanna Caswell and Elizabeth Matthews
  9. Going to My Ballet Class by Susan Kuklin
  10. Lili at Ballet by Rachel Isadora
  11. Miss Lina’s Ballerinas, Miss Lina’s Ballerinas and the Prince, Miss Lina’s Ballerinas and the Wicked Wish by Grace Maccarone and Christine Davenier
  12. On Your Toes: A Ballet ABC by Rachel Isadora
  13. Tallulah’s Nutcracker, Tallullah’s Solo, Tallulah’s Toe Shoes, Tallulah’s Tutu by Marilyn Singer and Alexandra Boiger
  14. We Love Ballet! by Jane Feldman


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From Russia with Love









I meant to post this before the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, but somehow the list kept getting longer and time slipped by. This unit study combines Russian folklore, history, geography, music, language, arts, and culture; these sources are inspired by my own love of Russian history and culture and my daughters’ love of dancing around the house to classic Russian ballets. There’s a bit of magic here—the spellbinding experience of glimpsing another culture, time, and place through the arts. The texts, music, and activities transport audiences to a snowy world filled with onion-shaped domes and enchanted forests. I hope you enjoy your travels through Russia as much as we do—the only cost is imagination, and you can return again and again.


Around the World Russian Timeline by TIME for kids

At the Wish of a Fish by J. Patrick Lewis and Katya Krénina

Baboushka and the Three Kings by Ruth Robbins and Nicolas Sidjakov

Babushka by Sandra Ann Horn and Sophie Fatus

Clever Katya by Mary Hoffman

Famous Children: Tchaikovsky by Ann Rachlin and Susan Hellard

First Thousand Words in Russian by Heather Amery and Stephen Cartwright

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship by Arthur Ransome and Uri Shulevitz

The Frog Princess by J. Patrick Lewis and Gennady Spirin

Frog Went A-Traveling by Amanda StJohn and David Wenzel

The Gigantic Turnip by Aleksei Tolstoy and Niamh Sharkey

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco

The Little Humpbacked Horse by Elizabeth Winthrop and Alexander Koshkin

The Littlest Matryoshka by Corinne Demas Bliss and Kathryn Brown

Luba and the Wren by Patricia Polacco

The Magic Nesting Doll by Jacqueline Ogburn and Laurel Long

Peter the Great by Diane Stanley

Russia by CIA’s World Factbook

Russia ABC’s by Ann Berge and Jeff Yesh

Russia in Colors by Catherine Ipcizade

Sasha’s Matrioshka Dolls by Jana Dillon and Deborah Nourse Lattimore

The Sea King’s Daughter by Aaron Shepard and Gennady Spirin

The Snow Princess by Ruth Sanderson

The Tale of the Firebird by Gennady Spirin

The Wolfhound by Kristine L. Franklin and Kris Waldherr



American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake


Disney’s 1946 Peter and the Wolf

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s Peter and the Wolf

Kirov Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty

Nutcracker: The Motion Picture

Sesame Street’s Elmo’s Musical Adventure: Peter and the Wolf

The Snow Maiden

Teach Me More Russian



Color the Russian flag or St. Basil’s Cathedral.

Color a world map.

Decorate Fabergé eggs.

Learn to play chess.

Prepare traditional Russian dishes (try the blini!).

Print and color nesting dolls or paint your own.

Recreate Russian architecture.

Stamp your passport to Moscow.


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Horse and Pony Tales

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It took a while for my older daughter to work up the courage for a pony ride, but once she did, both of my girls officially became horse-crazy. The little one learned to sign “horse” and would ask to see those equine beauties wherever we went; after her first carousel ride, she worked out a way to say “neigh neigh go ‘round,” just so we all knew how desperately she wanted to do it again. I’m sure my younger girl will soon be following her big sister around the ring—and both of them are eager to get back in the saddle. In the meantime, we’ve read a lot of horse and pony books, and once more I realize how easily we could study everything through this lens—from science to art to history; this list includes our favorites, from practical care guides to flights of fancy, all focused on our equine friends.

  1. The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle
  2. Bramble and Maggie (part of a series) by Jessie Haas and Alison Friend
  3. Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express by Eleanor Coerr and Don Bolognese
  4. Calico the Wonder Horse, or the Saga of Stewy Stinker by Virginia Lee Burton
  5. Chang’s Paper Pony by Eleanor Coerr and Deborah Kogan Ray
  6. Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse by Rebecca Janni and Lynne Avril
  7. A Friend for Einstein, the Smallest Stallion by Charlie Cantrell and Rachel Wagoner
  8. Fritz and the Beautiful Horses by Jan Brett
  9. The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses by Paul Goble
  10. Horses by Laura Driscoll
  11. Horses Trotting! Prancing! Racing! By Patricia Hubbell and Joe Mathieu
  12. If I Ran the Horse Show: All about Horses by Bonnie Worth, Aristides Ruiz, and Joe Mathieu
  13. Leah’s Pony by Elizabeth Friedrich and Michael Garland
  14. The Mud Pony by Caron Lee Cohen and Shonto Begay
  15. My Chincoteague Pony by Susan Jeffers
  16. My First Horse and Pony Book by Judith Draper
  17. My First Horse and Pony Care Book by Judith Draper
  18. My Pony by Susan Jeffers
  19. Noni the Pony by Alison Lester
  20. National Geographic Kids: Ponies by Laura Marsh
  21. Pony Crazy (part of a series) by Catherine Hapka and Anne Kennedy
  22. Rosie’s Magic Horse by Russell Hoban and Quentin Blake
  23. Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse by Meghan McCarthy
  24. The Wild Little Horse by Rita Gray and Ashley Wolff

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The Sweetest Stories








Our family stopped at Hershey’s Chocolate World on a recent road trip, and my older daughter soon developed an obsession with the chocolate-making process. Though we’d only spent an hour at the site, the factory tour ride and chocolate milk in the café influenced her play for weeks to come. When I started research children’s chocolate books, I quickly realized how many academic disciplines we could cover through the subject of chocolate—a confection that’s traveled the globe and still makes an international impact on history, the environment, and cultures. The books on this list represent that range; as always, there are works of fiction and non-fiction—and all of them are sweet reads.

  1. Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake by Michael B. Kaplan and Stéphane Jorisch features the titular character, a beloved “handful,” who just can’t wait to get her hands on some chocolate cake
  2. Blue Frog: The Legend of Chocolate by Dianne de Las Casas and Holly Stone-Barker tells a trickster tale about how humans learned to love chocolate, the food of the gods
  3. The Chocolate Cat by Sue Stainton and Anne Mortimer shows the transformation of a chocolate maker, his shop, and his village with a little magic and a loyal feline friend
  4. The Chocolate Voyage by Tish Raibe and Dave Aikins takes readers on a trip to learn the process of making chocolate in the delightful Forest of Coco-a-licious
  5. Cocoa Ice by Diana Appelbaum and Holly Meade follows a ship from Santo Domingo to Maine (and back) to reveal the history of the chocolate trade
  6. From Cocoa Bean to Chocolate by Robin Nelson uses facts and photos to illustrate the way chocolate is mad, from bean to bar
  7. Grandma’s Chocolate by Mara Price and Lisa Fields shares a bilingual story of a grandmother, granddaughter, and their shared heritage and love of chocolate
  8. Lilly’s Chocolate Heart by Kevin Henkes keeps it sweet and simple with a little mouse’s dilemma about where to stash her last chocolate
  9. No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart, Allen Young, and Nicole Wong depicts the interconnected plants and animals that support cacao trees and their environment
  10. Smart about Chocolate: A Sweet History by Sandra Markle and Charise Mericle Harper describes the chocolate-making process and the candy industry in a fun format, complete with recipes
  11. You Can’t Eat a Princess by Gillian Rogerson and Sarah McIntyre launches into a silly outer-space story of a determined princess who loves chocolate almost as much as she loves her father

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Books of a Feather

owlMy daughters have always loved birds; “bird” was one of the first signs each of them used. It’s hard not to be impressed by these beautiful feathered creatures whose territory includes air, land, and sea. My children’s love for birds has inspired me to pay more attention to the sights and sounds of these winged beauties, and it seems like every day we learn a new species or song just by paying attention to the world around us. I’ve compiled the list below as a unit study on birds generally; there are lots of ways to get more specific (with owls or ducks or birds of a specific location), and I hope my ideas here help your imagination take flight.


About Birds by Cathryn Sill and John Sill (language arts, science)

Are You My Mother?, The Best Nest, and Flap Your Wings by P.D. Eastman (language arts)

Aviary by Paul Nelson (art)

Baby Birds and How They Grow by Jane R. McCauley (language arts, science)

Birds by Kevin Henkes and Laura Dronzek (language arts)

Birds, Nests and Eggs by Mel Boring and Linda Garrow (language arts, science)

The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies and Melissa Sweet (language arts, science, history)

Bring on the Birds by Susan Stockdale (language arts, science)

Fine Feathered Friends: Poems for Young People by Jane Yolen and Jason Stemple (language arts)

Fine Feathered Friends: All About Birds by Tish Rabe and Aristides Ruiz (language arts, science)

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird by Jacques Prévert and Mordicai Gerstein (language arts)

National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Birds of North America by Jonathan Alderfer and Paul Hess (language arts, science)

National Geographic Kids Bird Guide of North America by Jonathan Alderfer (language arts, science)

Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Birds: Eastern Region (language arts, science)

Wild Wings: Poems for Young People by Jane Yolen and Jason Stemple (language arts, science)


The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot about That: Wings and Things (science)

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s YouTube channel (science)

Hear the calls of New York’s birds. (science)

The Fascinating World of Birds (science)

The Life of Birds (science, geography)

“Put Down the Duckie” (music)

“Rubber Duckie” (music)

“Three Little Birds” (music)

You Are My Little Bird (not all bird-related, all good, music)


Build or decorate a birdhouse. (art)

Color birds and create your own bird book. (art and science)

Create a bird mobile. (art)

Draw birds with The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds by John Muir Laws (language arts, art)

Fold origami birds. (art)

Go to a local river or pond and feed the ducks. (science, physical education)

Grab some binoculars and go birding in the forest or the backyard. (science, physical education)

Learn real bird calls with these plush pals. (science)

Make a birdfeeder. (art, science)

Pile up pillows and blankets for a kid-sized nest. (just plain fun)

Play a bird memory game (or make your own!). (art)

Trace and color Charley Harper’s beautiful birds. (art)

Use pictures of birds (stickers, magazine cutouts) and feathers to create a collage. (art)

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