Downton Abbey Season 5, Episode 3: Sympathy Butters No Parsnips

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Ah, Episode Three. Before I get started, I have to remark upon what a gorgeous episode this was. I mean, Downton is always a feast for the eyes, but this one was really something special. I took way too many screencaps because frame after frame was like a Dutch painting—the amazing light, the glowing reds. I could happily turn the sound down and let this play on a loop just to enjoy the lush visuals. Mmm.

As for story, we’re settling in for the ride now, having established some major themes (the continued focus on shifting roles in society; the ache felt by each major character over some kind of unfulfilled longing, and how they’re dealing with it). Now we’ll dive a bit deeper into personal drama and ratchet up the tension on our mystery thread. Particularly welcome this week was a glimpse behind Cora’s placid smile. I think we’ve all been waiting for her show some spirit.

But let’s begin at the beginning. We open in the Liverpool love nest, where Mary and Tony have spent what appears to be a pleasant week enjoying each other’s company. (She says demurely.) Tony is ready to start the wedding march immediately, but Mary is a bit more reticent. And when Tony steps out of the room, the look on Mary’s face speaks volumes. She made this trip in order to assure herself that Tony was indeed the man she’d be happy spending the rest of her life with. And now, although she is certainly comfortable with him, she doesn’t exactly appear…assured.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Back at Downton, the kitchen is alive with Daisy’s happy chatter. She’s feeling so buoyed by her progress in arithmetic, thanks to Miss Bunting’s tutelage, that she’s beginning to set her sights even higher. Mrs. Patmore, however, isn’t hearing her; her attention is riveted by some distressing news contained in a letter. Aw, I hate to see you this way, Mrs. P.

Upstairs, Edith is surprised to see Cora at the breakfast table. It seems she’s up early for an important meeting to discuss church flowers—a suggestion of her less than critical role in Downton affairs, setting up a contrast for later scenes. We’re not the only ones tired of seeing Cora sidelined all the time; she’s sick of it too.

She mentions that Simon Bricker has offered to show the family the Piero della Francesca paintings in the National Gallery, now that he has had the honor of viewing the one owned by the family. Tom and Edith are mildly interested, and Robert encourages her to go up to London but clearly has no interest in visiting the museum herself. Tom mentions an “intriguing proposition” he has received about the estate, and Cora wants to hear more, but Robert can’t be bothered to satisfy her curiosity. She is quietly ticked off. Boy, Elizabeth McGovern is on fire this week, treating us to a range of expressions that rival Maggie Smith’s.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Tom offers Edith a lift to Yew Tree Farm, and as they depart Cora smiles over Edith’s affection for little Marigold Drewe, but Robert snipes that he hopes she isn’t “driving the mother mad.” Well, okay, for once his instincts are on the money, but it’s still kind of a nasty comment since he has no significant interest in Edith’s doings, and Cora shoots him another uncharacteristically critical look. It won’t be the last time she gets annoyed with him this episode. Welcome to my world, Lady G!

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Thomas begs permission from Carson to make a telephone call. I was going to bust on Carson for being so grumbly about having to leave the room to give Thomas some privacy, but then I remembered I’m no saint either if you interrupt me during my cup of tea. But oh, the disgruntled look on Carson’s face when he finds himself in the hall, shut out of his own nook, was priceless.

“Hello,” says Thomas into the receiver, “I’ve been reading your advertisement in The London Magazine, ‘Choose your own path.'” Oho, what have we here? (I’m channeling Mrs. Hughes.)

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
spotted by sprat
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Mary and Tony, the souls of discretion, exit their Liverpool hotel together and kiss on the pavement in plain sight of anyone who happens to be looking, such as, oh, say, the Dowager Countess’s butler, Spratt. He’s across the street minding his own business (came to town for his niece’s wedding, we’ll find out later) and is shocked to the core to see Mary so clearly up to hanky-panky.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Isobel is visiting the Dower House. Violet, ringing for tea, asks ever so spontaneously, “Oh! What is the latest from your aging Romeo?” Isobel appears to contemplate poisoning Violet’s tea.

Carson is having another chat with the nice policeman assigned to investigate the late Mr. Green’s connection to Downton folk. A Piccadilly witness heard Green speak to an unidentified party just before he fell into the road. “Why have you come?” said Green to the mystery person. The policeman is following up on reports from Gillingham’s other servants that Green had complained of having been badly treated by someone at Downton, shortly before his death. Carson doubts there is anything to the rumor, because he hasn’t heard about a quarrel and therefore no such quarrel can possibly exist. This made me pause a moment to ponder the ratio of Events That Happen at Downton to Events Carson Is Aware Of. I hope he never finds out the truth of that equation; it would break his heart. Don’t break Carson’s heart, people!

Mary returns home in time for tea. How about those sketches, Mary, Edith wants to know. Where are all the sketches from the famous sketching trip? I love it when Edith gets a jab in at Mary; Mary’s so offhandedly nasty to her all the time.

Now that she’s back, Tom discloses the offer he’s had from a developer who wants to build fifty houses on a chunk of Grantham land. Robert is quite naturally appalled by the concept of ugly little modern homes eating up his estate. Tom, with a more realistic grasp of the account books, thinks it’s a good offer. I don’t know about you, but I’m all in a tizzy. It’s always unnerving to find myself siding with Robert, but you know what happens after they widen the lane to the village green to accommodate the residents of the new development. Starbucks, that’s what. On the other hand, now I really want to live in a place called Pip’s Corner.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Mrs. Patmore reveals the contents of her upsetting letter to Mrs. Hughes. Her sister has written to say that her own village’s War Memorial Committee has refused to include her son Archie’s name on the memorial, because he was shot for desertion. Mrs. Patmore wonders if Mrs. Hughes will speak to Mr. Carson about adding poor Archie—who, after all, was only nineteen, and a victim of shellshock—to the names on the Downton statue. Oh dear. This promises to get bumpy.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Speaking of bumpy, Spratt is back at work and tiptoeing awkwardly through rocky territory. He very badly wants to apprise the Dowager Countess of the dirt he has on Mary, but he dares not say so directly. His pained expression and curiously loaded turns of phrase alert Violet to his difficulties, and she badgers him until he works up to spilling the beans—in a roundabout manner, of course. Violet weathers the shock with perfect aplomb, sliding effortlessly into a cover story—Mary and Tony were in Liverpool for a landowners’ conference—that leaves Spratt in a state of utter mortification. Violet tosses in a mild job threat for good measure. But after he leaves the room, her worried-grandmother face spells trouble for Mary.

Anna is terrified the inquiry into Green’s death could lead to Bates finding out about the rape. She really, really doesn’t want him to know. Mrs. Hughes thinks the secret is safe, since the only other person who knows the truth (she thinks) is Lady Mary, who won’t tell. Still, Anna is anxious. (I have my theories about what else she might be worried about besides Bates finding out.) At dinner that evening, she murmurs something to Bates about wondering what it would be like to go away somewhere where no one knows them. He’s puzzled by the notion and she quickly drops it.

Thomas, who got a mysterious call in response to his earlier telephone inquiry, asks Carson for time off with a cover story about his father being at death’s door. Baxter offers sympathy; she knew Thomas’s family as a girl and remembers his father kindly—unlike Thomas. She’s being awfully nice to him, considering how he has treated her lately, but then she really believes his story. I for one can’t wait to find out what he’s up to. What “new path” is he choosing?

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

At bedtime that evening, Baxter begs Cora to make a decision one way or another: is she fired or not? Cora says Baxter is going to have to reveal the missing piece of her story: what happened to the jewels. Tomorrow, in fact. Only after she has all the facts will Cora make a decision.

(I loved this shot of Baxter, former jewel thief, standing there holding the jewels. It happens again later, just before she gets in the car to go up to London with Cora. She has a whole long conversation with Molesley with that jewel box in her hands the whole time. I remember reading somewhere that one of a lady’s maid’s responsibilities was looking after her mistress’s jewels, specifically CARRYING THEM in her hands while traveling. Which just seems like begging for trouble, doesn’t it? I was sure that box was going to go missing on the journey and Baxter would be blamed. Glad I was wrong.)

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Robert comes to bed and Cora, sitting at her dressing table in putting on lotion in a way that always reminds me of Debra Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond, reminisces a little about—of all things—the War. Not the grief and horror, but the busy-ness of it, the way she felt useful. “When I was running everything with Barrow,” she muses. Robert, who would be much more alert to signs of discontent in his dog, rolls his eyes at everything she says.

And when she presses for more information about the house-development offer, he brushes that aside, too: “Nothing to trouble you with.” It’s interesting that Robert came around pretty quickly to Mary taking an active role in running the estate, and now he seems to respect her opinions and even enjoy the discourse. But he’s got Cora slotted into a pretty-face-at-the-dinner-table category. and it’s clear she’s getting fed up with it.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Down the hall, some unusual (but not unsurprising) tension has arisen between Mary and Anna, of all people. Mary wants Anna to hide her contraceptive in the Bates cottage. Anna is as dismayed at that notion as she was about shopping for it last week. Of course Mary takes it completely for granted that Anna will accommodate her wishes, and she’s rather taken aback when Anna mutters something about feeling like she is “abetting sin.” Mary pointedly changes the subject to the policeman’s visit and seems nonplussed to hear about the possible witness and the rumor that Green quarreled with someone at Downton. She assures Anna that the police can’t suspect Bates of any wrongdoing, but her expression belies doubts of some kind or another.

Anna hurries to her coat in the hall and tries to stuff Mary’s goods in her coat pocket. Of course Bates catches her and grills her about it, in his creepy post-Season 3 way. Remember Season 1 Bates? How sweet he was? Even if he’s just attempting to be chummy here, he comes off as suspicious. It’s always Twenty Questions with him. I can’t imagine what their evenings are like at home. “Anna, what are you thinking about right now? How about now? Why do you stir your tea clockwise? Tell me, why did you take a bite of meat before a bite of potato? Why are you holding out on me?”

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Mrs. Hughes brings up the Archie question with Mr. Carson, and predictably, he isn’t keen on the idea. He’s sympathetic to the family’s pain, but he’s quite sure the Memorial Committee will never consent to allow a deserter’s name on the statue. Mrs. Hughes is disappointed, although she predicted as much to Mrs. Patmore. Soon after, Carson tries to extend some sympathy to Mrs. Patmore but she scoffs at the gesture—“Sympathy butters no parsnips”—and scurries off to the kitchen in tears, probably to butter the parsnips.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Daisy pounces on Carson to ask for his blessing if she decides to continue her studies and sit her examinations. He sighs permission but speechifies about the foolishness of it, prompting Mrs. Hughes, who by this point is thoroughly irked by his rigidity, to give Daisy a rather heated pep talk about “going as far as God and luck allow her.” Daisy is left a bit baffled, but it’s okay; Butler-Housekeeper Dynamics won’t be on the test.

It’s time for Baxter and Cora to head up to London. As Molesley is loading the car, Baxter confides in him about Cora’s ultimatum. He counsels her to tell the truth on the condition that once she does, it has to be over and done with: no more dredging the matter up, no matter what outcome Cora decides.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Mary and Robert seem to be returning from a walk, discussing Robert’s plans to surprise Cora in London that evening. They happen upon Bates, who is having a word with Molesley, and although it’s probably a totally benign conversation (“Is it just me, or did those parsnips at lunch taste like tears?”), Bates looks as shifty as can be. I think I need to go watch some Lark Rise to Candleford so I can fall back in love with Brendan Coyle.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Summoned by Grandmama, Mary arrives at the Dower House and is greeted by Spratt, who inquires pointedly about her recent stay in Liverpool. Mary’s discomfort is a delight to behold. Violet lets her flail only for a moment and then tosses her the life preserver of the landowner-conference cover story. Mary pales, realizing she has been busted by her grandmother. When Spratt leaves, Violet chews her out. She’s immensely relieved to learn that Tony wants to marry immediately, and then appalled to hear that Mary is in no hurry. The side-eye in this scene is world class.

Screen shot by Melissa Wiley.
Screen shot by Melissa Wiley.

Cora and Baxter are settling in at Rosamund’s place in London, and Cora declares the now-or-never moment: Baxter needs to let her know what really happened with the stolen jewels, or find a new job. Baxter takes a deep breath and tells her tale. There was a man—a handsome footman by the name of Coyle. She became involved with him and quickly realized he was a cruel person. “He was nasty, and he made me nasty.” It was his idea for her to steal the jewels. She gave them to him and showed up at their arranged meeting point, but of course he didn’t show. She didn’t report him. She did the time and moved on, full of remorse and disgust at how she let Coyle change her.

Cora hears the sad tale with calm sympathy. It’s interesting that this is playing out now, when she’s got some other things going on. She’s feeling useless at home and underappreciated by her husband. But as we saw last week when she chewed out Thomas, she has a lot of fire under the placid surface. She has handled the Baxter business with a consideration and patience not many in her position would have shown under these circumstances. It might be possible to read her response as passive—last week she certainly struggled aloud with her inability to make a decision—but she hasn’t been passive at all, really, just patient. She has given Baxter time to frame a response, and has taken time herself to think the matter over. No impulsive decisions, no emotional reactions. But emotions and impulses, certainly. More than ever I want to know what she was thinking about during all those looking-out-the-window scenes last season.

Sergeant Willis interviews Bates about his movements in York on the day of Green’s death. Bates gives an account of a full day but can’t offer much that might verify his movements: he had a bite to eat here, stopped in a shop there. Willis isn’t much concerned; he thinks he has enough to go on to establish an alibi. He assures Anna not to worry, it’s all routine. Anna’s pretty well petrified, though.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Look at this gorgeous scene. Could be a painting itself. Cora and Bricker are visiting the della Francesca paintings at the National Gallery. Cora impresses Bricker with her insight. She is drawn to the story of the painter, who produced some of his finest works near the end of his life. Cora muses aloud that she envies him that—the ability to create something that would last long after his death. Bricker is clearly smitten with her, and she seems to be enjoying his compliments, but she isn’t flirting back. Just having a pleasant time being taken seriously, for once.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Mrs. Drewe returns to her farmhouse expecting to find Edith babysitting Marigold, but the house is empty. Mrs. Drewe immediately panics; she’s sure Edith has taken Marigold away. She tears through the gardens and finds them chatting with her husband by the chicken coop, happy as can be. Edith looks comfortable and happy, more at ease than we ever see her at home. She has even toned down her wardrobe into farmyard neutrals.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Mrs. Drewe makes little attempt to hide her agitation. She sends Edith home with the barest nod at politeness and bursts out at her husband: “She can’t have our child!” And Mr. Drewe answers like a blockhead: “You’re being unreasonable.” I get that you don’t want to break your word to Edith, Tim, but telling your wife she’s soft in the head and storming off isn’t going to improve this situation.

Mrs. Hughes and Mary discuss Bates’s alibi. Mrs. Hughes thinks it’s weak—all the places he mentioned visiting are close to the train station and wouldn’t preclude a quick run to London to bump Green off. Mary and Mrs. Hughes both seem certain he is guilty and are worried the police will see holes in his story.

Cora can’t get hold of Rosamund, and Bricker talks her into having dinner with him. Afterward, they walk back to Rosamund’s house, chatting and laughing. Bricker is all but humming “On the Street Where You Live.” Finally we get a welcome bit of backstory on Cora, which makes me realize no one has asked her these questions in all the time we’ve been watching. Her family “wasn’t in the first rank” in Cincinnati, much less New York: her father was Jewish and they were new money. Her mother thought she might have a better chance landing a husband in England, which is exactly how it played out.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Bricker can’t contain his compliments and hopes they might be able to spend more time together. Cora smilingly lets him down. She is frank about having enjoyed the conversation and the attention, and she’s been a little glowy at his rather heavyhanded praise, but she hasn’t flirted back and doesn’t want to encourage him at all. She’s in happy spirits as she enters Rosamund’s house, calling out a cheerful apology about missing dinner, and finds Robert waiting for her in black tie and frown. She’s delighted to see him but he’s very peeved. He enlightens her as to all the reasons he has a right to be angry and then tosses out an insult more withering than his mother on her best day: “That an art expert would find your observations on the work of Piero della Francesca impossible to resist—yes, it is hard to believe.” And then he seems baffled that this offends her.

seriously not amused

Back at Downton, Tom and Mary are enjoying a chummy drink by the fire. Tom thinks Edith seems distracted, but Mary hasn’t noticed. (Shocker.) She does surprise me by expressing some mild interest in Tom’s state of mind, but before I have time to faint, she’s back on herself, articulating the Tony problem. Delightful bit of brotherly teasing from Tom, who saw right through the whole sketching ruse.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Mary admits to being less certain of her feelings for Tony, now that she’s gotten to know him better. “He’s a very nice man.” Ouch. Charles Blake’s parting shot last episode scored deeply: you can see that Mary spent the whole time in Liverpool listening to Tony and thinking, You aren’t clever enough for me.

Tom vows to back Mary up if she’ll back him in the Sarah Bunting department. Mary is dubious; she isn’t keen on Miss Bunting, she says bluntly. And she doesn’t want to encourage Tom in thoughts of taking Sybbie to America. But he turns it back on her quite deftly: “If you love me, you’ll support me.” It catches her by surprise—the realization that she does love him. She smiles one of her sweet, real smiles, the kind we so seldom see. Wonderful scene. You can’t move to America now, Tom; you’ve almost made Mary act like a human.

The next day, Cora and Robert return from London—in silence—to find the house abuzz with preparations for a visit from “Rose’s Russians,” the aristocrat-refugees she has taken under her wing. Robert has some souvenirs from his parents’ visit to Russia in 1874 he wants to show them. Mrs. Patmore, arranging some food on the party table, is visibly upset, and Robert asks Carson what’s wrong. Carson informs his Lordship that he wouldn’t be interested, which annoys Robert no end. I know, right? It’s so irritating when you ask people questions like “What was all that about building houses at Pip’s Corner?” and they tell you not to trouble your pretty little head.

Tony Gillingham surprises Mary by crashing the party, which has Violet beaming knowingly. Mary hastens her away. Violet delivers a little lecture on self-control, as only a Victorian grandmama could. Mary rolls her eyes.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Rose, doing some Miss Moneypenny cosplay (that dress is a scream), pops down to the kitchen for some last-minute instructions and bumps into Sarah Bunting, who has arrived for Daisy’s lesson. Of course Daisy’s too busy today, so Rose invites Sarah to stay for the Russians’ visit. Gee, what could possibly go wrong?

Cora, dressing for the gathering, lets Baxter know her job is safe. Baxter draws in a sharp breath of relief and fights back tears as she murmurs her gratitude.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Cora—having had power over a person’s fate and feeling happy to be able to bring that person joy—is still smiling as she joins Robert downstairs and delivers a sweet-voiced jab when he asks her a question. “Does it matter? We both know you place no value on my opinions.” Robert non-apologizes. Cora tells him he doesn’t get to be unjust. He’s flabbergasted again. It’s so shocking to him that she thinks he’s the one in the wrong.

Edith is summoned to the back door for an interview with Mr. Drewe. In his typical laconic way, he tells her she has to stop visiting. Not, “You’re freaking out my wife, can we please let her in on the secret?” Just “Stay away.” My collection of Sad Edith screenshots grows again.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

She rushes past Anna and Mrs. Hughes on the stairs, crying, and their worried glances lead me to wonder what exactly their suspicions might be about Edith’s secrets. They found the baby picture under her pillow after the fire; Mrs. Hughes eyed Edith suspiciously when she was talking to Mr. Drewe the night of the blaze; and now Anna knows she spoke to Drewe outside and returned in tears. And of course everybody knows how much time Edith spends at Yew Tree Farm. I bet they’ve got a whole wrong theory going.

Screen shot by Melissa Wiley.
Screen shot by Melissa Wiley.

Enter the Russians. It takes exactly three minutes in their presence for Sarah Bunting to offend them to the point of a walk-out. Cora saves the day by wooing them back with an invitation to view mementoes of the wedding of Tsar Alexander II’s daughter, which Violet and her husband attended in 1874. Naturally, Robert thanks her by growling an I-told-you-so about Sarah.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

The Russians weep over the relics, which, Violet explains, means they are enjoying themselves. She dazzles Rose with a few details of the 1874 wedding, and among the mementoes she is delighted to find a fan that was given to her at a ball in St. Petersburg. She describes the scene, and her tale is picked up by a bearded gentleman at the end of the table—the dashing Russian prince who gave her the fan those many years ago. He hints at a connection between them. Violet is a bit shaken, and Rose briskly moves the party along to refreshments. Mary makes sure to let us know Robert and Rosamund were born before this Russian sojourn, lest we form any inappropriate ideas. A grin slowly breaks over Isobel’s face as she realizes she now has something to tease Violet with, next time Violet starts up about Lord Merton. Nobody notices Edith never came downstairs.

As the party breaks up, Mary calls her grandmother on having had a romantic adventure of her own. It was perfectly respectable, Violet insists, but Mary feels the ground has leveled a bit.

Violet climbs into her car behind Isobel, whose expression can only be described as what my daughters call “smugging,” as in, “Mom, she’s smugging at me again!” She lets Violet get settled beside her before inquiring innocently, “Have you made plans to see your admirer again?” Isobel raps on the chauffeur’s window with her cane, because she’s not allowed to brain Isobel with it. Isobel beams all the way down the lane.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

And we’re out! Before I close, are you ready to swap theories about the identity of Green’s murderer? Skip this bit if you don’t want to know mine. Here, have some more Sad Edith instead. Go ahead, take it, I have plenty.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

All righty, then: I think it was Anna who killed Mr. Green. I haven’t looked back at last season to see if she had an opportunity—wasn’t she in London with Mary around that time? I think she confronted him on the street; the push was probably spontaneous and maybe even an accident. But I’d like to go back and watch the last few episodes of Season 4 to test my theory. What do you think?

And what path do you think Thomas is choosing?

Season 5 recaps: Episode 1Episode 2

My Season 4 recaps are at Here in the Bonny Glen.

Downton Abbey Season 5, Episode 2: Choosing Sides

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

We open on the burned husk of Edith’s room, where Mrs. Hughes and Anna are tackling the cleanup. Anna discovers a baby photo under Edith’s pillow—Marigold, of course—and hands it to Mrs. Hughes, whose concerned expression out-furrows even Anna’s expressively furrowed brow. O-ho, you can hear her thinking. What have we here?

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Carsonhmphs
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Meanwhile, the War Memorial Committee is strolling the village cricket pitch, discussing the possibility of turning it into a Garden of Remembrance. Opinion seems to be split down the middle. Faction 1: Carson and Lady With Awesome Hat, pro-Garden. They think the pitch will make a peaceful spot for quiet reflection. Faction 2: Lord Grantham. “What about the cricket?” Awesome Hat Lady chides him about priorities, but I won’t be too hard on Robert just yet—he makes a non-sports-related point about the advantage of situating the memorial closer to the center of the village where people will see it more often. What’s delightful here is to see Carson butting heads with (1) his revered employer whom he (2) lobbied hard to involve in this committee. Heh.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Back at Downton, Jimmy is saying his last goodbye. His farewell to Thomas is truly moving, and sad Mr. Barrow wasn’t the only one choking back tears. “You’ve been a good friend to me,” Jimmy says earnestly, visibly moved. He wants Thomas to know how much he has valued his friendship. “I’m sad to see the back of you, I am,” he says, climbing into the wagon and rolling away, leaving Thomas standing forlornly in the brick courtyard. I loved this scene. We see so much of Thomas’s Mr. Hyde side, the Evil Under-Butler who bullies, blackmails, and sneers his way around the house. But behind the vicious schemer is an aching, lonely soul, and it’s the glimpses of this broken Dr. Jekyll that save Thomas from being a mustache-twirling melodrama villain. To be sure, he oscillates between identities when it’s convenient to the plot, but still he strikes me as a more fully realized, believable character than, well, Bates, who seems to have a different personality every season. As Mrs. Hughes keeps reminding us (she is positively oracular this season), the old world is slipping away, and when I imagine a future for these characters—beyond the 20s, the 30s, all the way to World War II—it’s Thomas I’m most curious about. Like Jimmy, I would like to see him find happiness someday, having left his vindictiveness behind along with the white gloves.

On we go to lunch with the family, where Isobel gets the episode’s obligatory three-second mention of George out of the way. Mary smiles benignly, agreeing that her son is “rather sweet” and turning swiftly to items ranking much higher on her agenda, such as eviscerating Edith. “I do feel such an idiot,” Edith murmurs about the fire. “Maybe because you behaved like an idiot,” jabs Mary. Cora is unamused. That makes two of us. Hey Mary, remember that time you killed a houseguest with sex? Just saying.

Cora1
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Cora’s interest in addressing her daughters’ relationship issues, however, extends no farther than the arch of an eyebrow. She whisks on to Item 3, Household News: Charles Blake has written to introduce an art historian friend named Simon Bricker, who wants to view a famous family-heirloom painting we never knew was in the house. Mary pretends she doesn’t care whether or not Charles accompanies Simon on the visit, and Cora decides to include him.

Mary reminds everyone she’s about to trot off for a “Sketching Tour” with “Annabelle Portsmouth,” aka Tony Gillingham. Sketchy indeed, Mare. What a smooth liar she is.

For a stage-setting scene, this little family meal packs in a lot of rich material. Next we have Edith inquiring about the Memorial Committee’s progress, and Robert and Carson both being a little curt in reply. I mention it because of Tom’s line: “It’s difficult to please everyone.” Methinks Tom has some experience in that department. Of course it irritates Robert (as most peacemaking attempts are wont to do), causing him to snarl at Tom when Topic #5, Russian Refugees (Poor Devils) comes up and Tom dares to express sympathy for anyone exiled from his homeland. If there’s anything Robert hates, it’s being reminded that Tom is Irish. Or a former chauffeur. Or a former socialist. Or a person who utters sentences out loud. Come on, Tom. You need to revisit the Approved Tom Topics list. Crop rotation and grain sales, remember? And possibly the weather, as long as your opinion about it matches Robert’s.

And finally (how many courses is this meal, anyway?), Isobel, plot forwarder, introduces this episode’s Rose storyline: In Which Rose Beats Around the Bush Something Awful But Won’t Come Out and Just Ask for a Wireless. This is going to drive Robert crazy. He doesn’t want a wireless in the house. Downfall of civilization, wot wot, people “huddling around a wooden box” listening to someone “burbling inanities.” Cheer up, Robert, the future’s much brighter than that—we huddle in front of flickering screens watching you burble.

All right, everyone had enough lunch? Shall we move on?

Edith, who probably can’t get out of the house fast enough, heads to the Drewe farmhouse to enact Operation Marigold. Mr. Drewe oh so subtly broaches the idea of Edith “taking an interest” in Marigold by becoming her godmother. Never mind that the child already has a godmother, or that Mrs. Drewe is obviously distressed by the whole conversation. Earnest Mr. Drewe, you may be a genius with pigs and farms, but you’re bungling this situation in the worst way. I have to say my least favorite plot device is The Big Misunderstanding (yes, I know it’s a dramatic staple with an august history, but I still can’t stand it), and that’s where we’re heading here. Mrs. Drewe misunderstands Edith’s motives because Mr. Drewe is sworn to secrecy about Marigold’s true identity. If he could just tell his wife the real deal, she’d probably be Edith’s staunchest ally. Instead, we’re going to watch a good marriage suffer.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Now here’s Isobel at tea with Violet and Dr. Clarkson, discussing the new miracle-drug, insulin. (Foreshadowing or historical color?) Did Violet ever invite the doctor to tea before she decided she’d rather see Isobel as his wife than Lord Merton’s? I love what lengths she’s going to. Her methods are uncharacteristically clumsy, however, since her jests about Lord Merton “frisking about Isobel’s skirts” are serving more to discourage Dr. Clarkson than repel Isobel. Isobel is merely irritated, which is her most comfortable state of mind.

Anna and Mary discuss the sneak-away-with-Tony plan. Anna, who disapproves, hates being in on the secret. But not half as much as she hates what comes next: Mary wants a contraceptive, and she wants Anna to get it. She might as well ask Anna to shave her head; that’s how mortifying a prospect this errand is for Mrs. Bates. But of course Mary gets her way, because she’s Mary.

Down in the servants’ hall, Thomas vents his bitter feelings by informing Molesley of Baxter’s past. Jewelry theft, prison, the works. Molesley is dumbfounded and can’t quite hide his dismay from Thomas, who savors the moment—feeble victory though it must be, compared to the jackpot of revenge he thought he was going to get by ratting on Baxter to Lady Grantham. And Thomas’s fury at Baxter stems from his conviction that she has betrayed him by not giving him dirt on Bates. Anyone remember why he hates Bates with such a passion? Because Bates got the valet job in 1912? That’s a mighty long grudge to nurse, Mr. Hyde.

Edith announces to her parents that she plans to “be involved in the future” of the Drewes’ adopted daughter. (Edith: “I want your advice about something.” Cora: “Oh, how flattering!” Cora is totally my favorite this week.) Then, of course, Cora has next to nothing to say about Edith’s plan, and Robert tosses off a tired, “It’s your money.” Now if she’d decided to get a dog, that might have caught his interest.

And nope, Rose, still no wireless.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Carson spies the infamous Sarah Bunting in the kitchen—because this week it’s Mrs. Patmore’s turn to do some scheming. Benevolent, of course, because it’s Mrs. P. She’s got a plan to help Daisy conquer her mortal enemy, arithmetic. Carson disapproves, naturally, but not half as much as he objects to the shocking revelation that Mrs. Hughes shares Lord Grantham’s opinion of the Memorial Committee’s Garden of Remembrance. She’d rather see a memorial “at the heart of village life” where people would pass it frequently. Carson is flabbergasted. “I was disappointed in His Lordship, but I’m more disappointed in you,” he intones; but she isn’t fazed. “Every relationship has its ups and downs,” she counters, leaving him more dumbfounded still.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Anna visits the chemist’s shop and has an excruciating experience purchasing Mary’s birth control. In her mortification, she leaves without waiting for the instructions, so perhaps Mary and Edith will wind up with more in common than they know.

OH NO, THE BOOT ROOM. Run away, Baxter, run away! Molesley admits to being surprised at Baxter’s secret history. He can’t quite take it in; he’s convinced she must have had a very good reason for stealing the jewels. Aren’t we all? Just as she did with Cora, Baxter quietly refuses to shed light on her motives. She can only assure Molesley that she is not the person she used to be. Molesley is taking it all very hard. He’s a bit like Thomas in this, wanting people to stay in the role he’s cast them in. But I imagine good old Mose will come around in time.

"I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberly." Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
“I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberly.” Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Violet and Isobel arrive at Lord Merton’s house (“house,” ha) for tea. Lots of loaded lines and sharp looks. Lord Merton and Isobel have compatible tastes in room decor and reading material. Violet has the dubious satisfaction at being right. This time she doesn’t want to be right; she’d rather Lord Merton were interested in anybody than Isobel. If this goes much further she’ll be throwing Cousin Rose into his path next, since the Lady Shackleton plan evidently didn’t take.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Charles Blake and Simon Bricker arrive at Downton, just in time for dinner. Mary seems to rather enjoy discovering that Blake has surmised he wasn’t her pick, but then his grave manner and resigned good wishes seem to disappoint her a little. What’s the fun in having dueling swains if they won’t duel?

Rose realizes that Sarah Bunting is still downstairs after Daisy’s math lesson and thinks they ought to invite her to stay to dinner. Cora agrees, but Robert is downright nasty about it. Boy, he does. not. like Miss Bunting. Well, Sarah’s no fool. When Tom asks her to stay, she declines, not wanting to subject everyone to another pitched battle. Tom walks her to the car—he insists she accept the ride home—and she gives him a very encouraging speech about still being the man whose forward-thinking ideals inspired Sybil Crawley to run away with the chauffeur. Molesley stands glumly alongside the car, doing his footmanly duty, too caught up in thoughts of Baxter to pay much attention to the seeds of revolution being planted right beside him. Even in tails, Tom looks more relaxed than we’ve seen in a while.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Oh dear, Tom’s having opinions again. Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

That is, until five minutes later when Robert makes a snide remark about Miss Bunting. At dinner, the tension ratchets up even more. Sarah may not be there to challenge Robert, but Tom defends her position on the Russian aristocrat-refugees Rose is collecting clothes for. Like Sarah, Tom doesn’t condone the violence of the revolutionaries who sent them running for their lives, but he sympathizes with the desire to topple an unjust regime. Robert bristles. Tom invokes King Charles I, who was beheaded by his subjects. Now Carson is bristling. Oh great, now Robert’s going to turn purple again. Cora intervenes to distract her quarrelsome menfolk; she’s sure Mr. Bricker can’t wait to view that painting, as promised. But he seems rather taken by the view of Cora herself. He’s been flirting with her all through dinner.

In the hall, Rose pounces on Robert with the news that none other than the King Himself is going to speak on the wireless—an address to the nation. Well, this takes Robert aback. And just when he’s all fired up with loyalty to the Crown! Carson doubts that His Majesty’s subjects have a duty to listen to the address, but Robert disagrees. Perhaps if they only rent a wireless for the occasion, the walls of Downton will remain intact. Carson isn’t so sure.

Down in the kitchen, Daisy is all fired up over understanding math, thanks to brilliant Miss Bunting’s brilliant tutelage. “You mean Our Lady of the Numbers?” chortles Mrs. Patmore. A Patmore chortle is a wonderful thing. Come live in my house, Mrs. Patmore.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Cora shows Mr. Bricker the celebrated painting, which was hustled out of France in 1789. Once again Mr. Bricker seems as taken with Cora as he is with the art treasure. Robert pokes his head in, frowns, and summons Isis away.

Baxter and Molesley have another frank conversation, in the courtyard where Thomas and Jimmy said goodbye. Boot room = broken hearts; courtyard = heart-to-hearts, got it. Molesley badly wants to believe Baxter had a noble reason for committing her crime; Baxter won’t talk about her motives at all—though she hints that perhaps there was another person involved. She seems pretty well resigned to her fate. She’s seen this moment coming for weeks.

Cora can’t let it go either; as Baxter tucks her in for the night, Cora waffles back and forth about what she ought to do. She feels like she ought to sack Baxter—”Employ a jewel thief to look after my jewels? It makes no sense”—but she doesn’t want to, for reasons she can’t explain. So she’ll just grump about it a little. You know, to Baxter, the person she can’t decide whether or not to fire.

Mary and Charles are alone in the library. Charles, ever the gentleman, wants to call it a night, but Mary’s going to need a little more knife-twisting before she can sleep well. “But I hope you’ll be happy for me,” she says, apropos of nothing, “if it is Tony, in the end.” You mean Tony, the guy you’re running off to spend a week with in a quiet hotel? That Tony? And Charles, sounding already weary of a conversation they haven’t begun yet, makes the most beautiful counter-attack. “Please be absolutely sure before you decide,” he cautions Mary, knocking the complacent smile right off her face. “You’re cleverer than he is.”

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

A hit, a most palpable hit! Mary’s been preoccupied lately on the question of physical compatibility, but she’s very susceptible on this point too. She knows she’s got brains. She tries to rally, insisting Tony is “quite as clever” as she is, but now Charles has her doubting. “You aren’t being fair,” she pouts. Charles knows he’s hit a nerve and leaves her to simmer in her doubt. Well played, Mr. Blake.

In the bedroom, Robert is grumbling over Tom’s behavior—all that awful Miss Bunting’s fault, of course. Cora disagrees; she suspects Sarah’s friendship is simply giving Tom encouragement to speak what he really thinks. Robert’s in no mood to listen to a defense of Tom’s contrary viewpoints. He’s terribly worried that Tom is going to take Sybbie away to America—and I’d have more sympathy with him on this point if we ever, ever saw him displaying any real affection for Sybbie. He’s already declared he’s not much interested in talking to her until she’s older. So what he’s really upset about losing is the Idea of Sybbie, not the actual little girl. She’s one more piece of the past that these wretched, future-minded people around him are trying to take away. The King speaking on the wireless; a Labour government; a village committee headed by his own butler—it’s cats and dogs sleeping together. Speaking of dogs, Mr. Bricker had better stop flirting with Isis, Robert snarls. With Isis! Oh Robert. That’s just sad.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

The next day, Carson and Robert head to the village to consider an alternate site for the Memorial. Carson remains opposed to the idea of a central location; he worries that the statue will become trivialized—or worse, invisible—by being in so busy and common a spot. But he has said that he’d rather be convinced than defeated, and convinced he is, by a chance conversation with a village woman whose son is taking a moment to visit the grave of his father—a war casualty—across the lane from the site Robert wants for the Memorial. The Garden of Remembrance is out.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Much excitement in the house as the wireless is being set up. Carson’s just about fed up—too many concessions in one day—but everyone else is humming with excitement. And when the entire household is gathered before the contraption and the King’s voice comes across the wire, it’s quite a moving moment. It is the Dowager Countess who rises to her feet first, acknowledging that wireless has brought them into the King’s presence, in a way. The whole company follows her lead. Look, there are Sybbie and George, who would be in their nineties now, in 2015—present at the dawn of radio.

Also, look! There are Sybbie and George. They exist!

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

“Well, you have heard the voice of His Majesty, King George V,” announces Robert, sounding quite won over to the virtues of the machine. Isobel likes how human it makes the king seem, hearing his voice like that, but Violet is uncomfortable with the idea of stripping the myth from the monarchy. The conversation is a little tired after the palpable thrill of the event. The Everything Is Changing theme has been hit pretty hard this week. And last.

Afterward, Anna shares a nice moment with Thomas in the servants’ hall. He’s feeling more isolated than ever, missing Jimmy. Taking his revenge on Baxter doesn’t seem to have brought him much satisfaction. Anna extends some sympathy and he almost warms for a moment, but then Bates comes in and Thomas is back in glare mode, breathing smoke like a dragon in case we failed to pick up on the hostility.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Mary has missed the great wireless event: she’s off to Liverpool for her liaison with Tony. He impresses her with adjoining rooms, and they take pains to spell out their plans in very clear terms. These two always sound like business partners agreeing on a strategy. Once again we’re checking off items on an agenda. Yawn. You know, I think I came into this season leaning toward Team Tony, but I like it better when Mary has a sparring partner. Charles’s behavior in the library—classy but frank—earned him some points with me this week.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Back at Downton, Carson is pleased to be back on the same page with Mrs. Hughes re the Memorial. She is pleased that he’s pleased. And then: enter the policeman. Nothing to be alarmed about, just a routine inquiry about the late Mr. Green, who visited this house shortly before his death. Sure, that was months ago, but it seems..dun dun DUN…there was a witness. Not just a traffic accident after all. Which we all knew. Since I no longer believe Bates was the culprit, I’ve got a new suspect in mind. You?

Oh hey, and Rose, you can keep the wireless! The end.

 Missed last week’s recap? Catch up here

My Season 4 recaps are at Here in the Bonny Glen.

Downton Abbey Season 5, Episode 1: Fear, Fire, Foes

three gowns
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

At long last, the Season 5 recaps begin. Super-sized episode = takes one million years to write. Let’s dive in, shall we?

We left off in the summer of 1923, with Cousin Oliver Rose making a splash at her coming-out ball, Edith resolving to place her baby in the care of the worthy Mr. Drewe of Yew Tree Farm, and Mary stringing along two equally promising suitors. The new season opens about six months later, in early 1924. Bachelor #1, Tony Gillingham, is still making Romeo eyes at Mary at every opportunity, but Bachelor #2, the progressive Charles Blake, seems to have evaporated—for now, at least.

The primary theme of Season 4 had to do with the changing social order following WWI, and how successfully the various characters were adapting to the changes. That theme returns in full force in this episode, and in fact, we’ll hear it stated quite plainly by multiple characters—Robert in particular, but variations on the theme will be articulated by everyone from Carson to Tom to the disdainful eyebrows of Violet’s butler, Spratt.

edith and marigold
“I just love to see her gurgling away, so peaceful and happy.” Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

We begin with Edith on her bike, heading to Yew Tree Farm to visit her daughter, Marigold. Of course, only Mr. Drewe knows of Edith’s secret interest in his foster daughter. His wife mistakes the impetus behind Edith’s frequent visits for an affection for Mr. Drewe himself, and the tension is beginning to worry the doughty farmer, who doesn’t want his wife leaping to wrong conclusions, but is sworn to secrecy about Edith’s connection to the child. He knows—and we know, because we saw him put two and two together in the final episode of last season—that Marigold is really Edith’s illegitimate daughter, not the daughter of a close friend, as she is pretending. So we have layers of secrets enfolding these characters, and Edith seems on the verge of tears at all times. She is pleased to see Marigold so happy and healthy, but it just about kills her to tear herself away.

Back at the Abbey, Robert is grumbling over the outcome of a recent election. The End Times are upon him; A Labour government is in. And so we find Lord Grantham exactly as we left him: distressed over social change. It will be “the destruction of people like us,” he mutters—his theme song. In the next breath, we learn that his granddaughter Sybbie calls him “Donk,” as in the ass in Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Subtle. Poor Robert, stuck full of pins. It isn’t a dignified name, he grumbles; and let’s put a pin in that, because his injured dignity will play a recurring role in tonight’s episode. Continue reading Downton Abbey Season 5, Episode 1: Fear, Fire, Foes

Ready to Get Your Downton On?

Stop the presses: there appear to be children in this photo. Image source: PBS.org.
Stop the presses: there appear to be children in this photo. Image source: PBS.org.

Hello, my lovelies! It’s time for another season of our poshest, soapiest soap opera. I’ll be recapping each week’s episode here; look for my posts on Monday mornings.

If you need to brush up on last season, I recapped it at Bonny Glen. Here’s where we left off:

The primary task of every character this season was to decide what world to live in: the old pre-War England, or the new. Robert has clung to the past like a toddler clutching his mother’s leg. Even Carson has accepted change with more dignity than his employer. Thomas, too, seems stuck in a past built on pecking order and rank. I wondered if his trip to America would open up new prospects for him, but it seems he came back more hidebound and bitter than ever. He wants esteem in the old order, and it’s fading away before he can climb to the top of his ladder. Cora seems to be fading away right along with it; she’s much less vital a person than she was during the war. Violet may not approve of all the ways in which society is changing, but she’s rolling with the change much more amiably than might have been expected, and I didn’t think Martha’s barbs about “your world is ending, mine is beginning” were entirely fair or accurate. Violet is accepting social change tolerably well; it’s Martha’s style she objects to, and her idiom. And her personality. And her face.

Mary has decided to orient herself toward the future for the sake of keeping Downton intact for her son—and that’s an interesting twist on progressivism. She’s open to new ideas only because she wants to maintain the status quo. It’s a nice little paradox and I’d like to see Mary grapple with that problem rather than her question of whom to marry whenever she feels like marrying again. But in the end, it’s the outliers I care about—Edith and Tom.

And here’s a master list of my previous Downton Abbey recaps, both here at GeekMom (Seasons 2 and 3) and over on Bonny Glen (Season 4). Episode numbers are PBS reckoning, not UK.

Season 4 • Episode 1 (UK 1/2) •  2 (UK 3) • 3 (UK 4) • 4 (UK 5) • 5 (UK 6) • 6 (UK 7) • 7 (UK 8) • 8 (UK Christmas Special)

Season 3 • Episode 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Season 2 • Episode 5, “The Canadian Patient”Episode 6, “The Spanish Flu” •  Christmas Special (2011)

Exclusive Look at John Patrick Green’s Upcoming Hippopotamister

Hippopotamister_Graphic (1)
Hippopotamister and Red Panda by John Patrick Green. Image source: First Second Books.
Author/illustrator John Patrick Green. Photo by Ellen B. Wright, used with permission.
Author/illustrator John Patrick Green. Photo by Ellen B. Wright, used with permission.

John Patrick Green is the illustrator and co-creator of the graphic novel Teen Boat! with writer Dave Roman. He grew up on Long Island and has been making his own comics since middle school. Now John has a solo book in the works, a kids’ graphic novel to be published by First Second Books in Spring 2016.

Hippopotamister is the tale of (you guessed it) a hippo and his friend, Red Panda. Tired of living in the rundown city zoo, they run away and seek jobs in the human world, where Hippo must become “Hippopotamister” to get by. Hippo excels at each job, but Red Panda keeps getting them fired. Longing for his home, Hippo goes back to the zoo and discovers he can return the place to its former glory using his newfound skills. But can he do it without his friend Red Panda?

We’re delighted to share this exclusive first look at Hippopotamister—an eight-page excerpt from the graphic novel. I also caught up with John Patrick Green to ask him a few questions about his work. You’ll find the interview below the art.

HippoMr_pp16
Image source: First Second Books.
HippoMr_pp17
Image source: First Second Books.
HippoMr_pp18
Image source: First Second Books.
HippoMr_pp19
Image source: First Second Books.
HippoMr_pp20-21
Image source: First Second Books.
HippoMr_pp22
Image source: First Second Books.
HippoMr_pp23
Image source: First Second Books.

Melissa Wiley: John, thanks for chatting with me! Can you tell me about the genesis of Hippopotamister?

John Patrick Green: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the story for Hippopotamister came for. I knew that First Second Books wanted to do more graphic novels aimed at a younger audience, and I wanted to do a book with them, so I did make a conscious effort to come up with something that might be a good fit. An animal protagonist is always a natural fit for a kids’ book, and I’m a fan of puns and wordplay. I think I actually did just start listing off animals that are typically found in zoos, and the name “Hippopotamister” came out of this idea of a child mispronouncing “hippopotamus.” This led to the hippo thinking he’s human, which seemed funny enough to me—like how it’s funny when a pet dog does something that makes you say “aw, he thinks he’s people.” The concept of a wild animal integrating itself into human society and getting jobs and none of the people noticing it’s not a person isn’t entirely new, but the story starting rolling that way and I couldn’t stop it.

MW: What has the solo experience been like for you, compared to your experience collaborating on Teen Boat! with Dave Roman?

JPG: The biggest difference is the involvement with the publisher, but in many ways the resulting experience is very similar. While our books Jax Epoch and the Quicken Forbidden and Teen Boat! have been collected and released by publishers, they started as self-published comics. It was just Dave and I coming up with the stories and art and releasing them to the wild via comic distributors and conventions. We didn’t start off with an editor or a production designer or a marketing plan—that all came after we’d basically completed the projects. With Hippopotamister, I outlined the story and did thumbnails and sample art, but the actual look of the character Hippopotamister didn’t take shape until after the book was already signed up. So while I’m not working with Dave on this book, it still feels like I’m collaborating with people, because my editor will provide feedback on the story or art, and the marketing department will offer ideas of how to get the book out there. With Dave, I was never working in a vacuum, and with First Second I don’t feel like I’m working in a vacuum either.

MW: How did you wind up writing for kids?

JPG: I took a pretty bizarre path to get there. I starting creating and selling my own comics when I was younger, and since I was a kid and all my friends were kids, I was basically making comics I and they would like. My approach to creating comics hasn’t really changed from making something I myself would like to read. My first actual comics-industry job out of college was for an “adult” comics publisher. But that only lasted a year, and my next job found me at Disney Adventures Magazine, where I started as the comics assistant. Over the course of my nine years there, I’d eventually end up writing comics based off Toy Story or Kim Possible, and even wrote and illustrated a gag strip called The Last Laugh. When Disney Adventures shut down I continued writing some more licensed kids’ comics, mostly based off Shrek and Madagascar, for some Dreamworks magazines. And some time after that, Disney came back into the picture and I started working on Phineas and Ferb comics.

Making comics for kids has pretty much been something I’ve always wanted to do, and have always been doing. Now just happened to be the right time to do my own graphic novel for a young audience!

MW: What writers and artists are among your influences?

JPG: It’s funny, I’ve been so focused on just making the comics I am right now that when I try to think of influences they all seem out of date. As a little kid, Garfield had a big impact on me. I was always drawing when I was little, but it was the newspaper strip that made me want to use my art talent to make comics. Calvin and Hobbes was also a huge influence, but it debuted later and I was older still before it actually showed up in my local paper. I’d sent comics strips I drew to Garfield creator Jim Davis, and he wrote back personally encouraging me to keep doing it.

That was a big deal, and if it wasn’t for that, and for being raised in an environment that let me pursue art, my career (in art or even another field altogether) may have gone a different direction. My maternal grandfather had wanted to be an artist, I think even having been an art assistant as a summer job, but his upbringing didn’t allow him to continue pursuing it. He became a military man, a lawyer, and mayor of my home town, but he’d kept all these old illustration books. He passed them on to me, which included a lot of sketches he’d done in the margins, and pretty much set me on the path he wasn’t able to take.

MW: That’s so cool about getting a letter from Jim Davis! Do you remember the first comic you ever read?

JPG: My older brother introduced me to comic books, but I don’t remember what ones he’d bring into the house. I recall not really getting into comics until I was allowed to tag along to the local smoke shop which had a spinner rack. The first comic I bought with my own money was The Gargoyle #2 (of a four-issue limited series) from Marvel with art by Bill Sienkiewicz. It had a painted cover and the art was nothing like what my expectations of a “comic book” were. I was of course familiar with Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and so on—kids don’t need to read the comics to know of or be fans of these characters or know what they look like. But here was this comic about a character I had no clue about, drawn in a style wholly unfamiliar to me. It wasn’t long before I stopped going to the smoke shop and was spending my entire allowance at a full-fledged comic shop.

MW: What comics were your favorites growing up?

JPG: I was mostly a Marvel fan. I wasn’t big into Avengers or Fantastic Four or even Spider-Man, but Daredevil and any mutant book I read heavily. X-Men, New Mutants, Alpha Flight, and eventually X-Factor, and anytime there were crossovers with other books like Power Pack and stuff. And while I didn’t read much Spider-Man, I was a superfan of Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham. The comic shop also offered plenty of fare that couldn’t be found on the spinner rack: Love and Rockets, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Usagi Yojimbo. Just about any indy comic I’d come across, I’d give a shot.

MW: Since part of Hippopotamister takes place in a zoo, I have to ask: what’s your favorite zoo?

JPG: So far, I’ve been to the San Diego Zoo, the Bronx Zoo, and the New York City Central Park Zoo. While it’s super tiny, I really like the Central Park Zoo. This tiny space in the middle of a city that has wild animals in it is definitely an inspiration for Hippopotamister. And they have red pandas.

I also enjoy things that are zoo-like: I’d visit the Coney Island Aquarium a lot as a kid, and one of my favorite places in the whole world is the New York Museum of Natural History, which of course features animals from all over the world that Teddy Roosevelt captured with his own bare hands. And if it counts, I’d add Disney’s Animal Kingdom to the list, specifically the park’s devoted hotel, which has guest windows overlooking the animal run. You can wake up and have a giraffe at your window!

MW: Are you more of a Hippo or a Red Panda?

JPG: Good question. I’m very much both, but probably more like Hippo. Red Panda is an overconfident extrovert, and Hippo is more of a shy, exceptionally skilled recluse. But together they make the perfect team!

MW: At GeekMom we always like to hear about creators’ geeky passions. Can you tell us about some of yours?

JPG: As a child of the ’80s it’s unsurprising that I’m a big Star Wars fan. While I love Star Wars as a whole, I’m really just an Original Trilogy guy. I collected the toys and stuff, but wasn’t into the Expanded Universe much, other than a couple of novels and comics and video games. Nowadays my geekiest passion is LEGO. I played with LEGOs all my life, and now as an adult I have the disposable income to get the insanely large and expensive sets. And of course it also satisfies my passion for Star Wars, what with the licensed sets.

Now if only I had the time to put some of the sets together. I’m just too busy making comics!

MW: Thanks so much, John! We’ll be looking forward to the rest of Hippopotamister.

Exclusive Look at First Second’s Upcoming Fable Comics

comics
The first two offerings in First Second’s children’s comics anthology series.

Three years ago, First Second’s gorgeous Nursery Rhyme Comics knocked my socks off. The award-winning graphic novel imprint followed that tome with the equally delightful Fairy Tale Comics, and now I’m thrilled to learn that they’ve got a new collection in the works: Fable Comics. Like its predecessors, this comics-style anthology will feature short adaptations of classic tales illustrated by 17 different cartoonists, including Jaime Hernandez, Vera Brosgol, and George O’Connor.

I’m excited to share an exclusive peek at one of the fables, Aesop’s beloved tale of “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” adapted and drawn by Tom Gauld. Below it, you’ll find a short Q&A with Fable Comics editor Chris Duffy, who shares a look behind the scenes.

TownMousepart1
Image courtesy First Second Books.
TownMousepart2
Image courtesy First Second Books.
TownMousepart3
Image courtesy First Second Books.

Melissa WileyChris, thanks for chatting with me! What was your source material for the fables, and how did you select which fables to include in the book? Did the artists choose or was that your call as editor?

Chris Duffy: I read a public domain collection of Aesop fables, “Aesop’s Fables,” translated and edited by Vernon Jones. (I got it off gutenberg.org, and also bought a copy published by Barnes & Noble to read in bed.) As I went, I made note of the fables that were famous, the ones that made me laugh, and the ones that seemed visually interesting…or that I just liked because they were unusual or arresting! Then, I just looked at the list and made a tentative lineup that seemed like a good mix, without too many overlaps in story, moral, or animals. (Though, you know, you can’t do an Aesop book without a bunch of crows, foxes, and mice…)

Then, I read a few collections of international fables and got a bead on a few good ones. The plan all along—with this book and the other books in this informal series—was to have a book that feels both familiar (hence getting the famous ones in) and new (hence the less known from Aesop and other sources). The “comics” angle also contributes to the “new” angle, of course. We want people who buy it to get “Grasshopper and the Ants,” “The Hare and the Tortoise,” and “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” so that it feels like a book of fables you could give to a child who didn’t know them all. Or to a kid who can enjoy seeing familiar stories adapted into comics. But then there are also “The Dolphin, The Whale, and the Sprat,” “The Demon, the Thief, and the Hermit,” and “The Frogs Who Desired a King” to take you deeper into the world o’ fables.

So, yes, I made the initial selections, but it was usually fine when a cartoonist wanted to choose their own, which happened a few times. Eleanor Davis wanted to do “The Old Man and Death;” Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb pitched an adaptation of “The Thief and the Watchdog;” and Mark Newgarden pretty much said he was born to adapt Ambrose Bierce’s “Man and Wart.” All of those turned out terrific!

MW: Well, now I’m dying to find out what the deal is with “The Dolphin, the Whale, and the Sprat.” That one is new to me! Next question: Did anyone come up with a take that completely changed the way you looked at a given fable?

CD: This sounds like BS, but pretty much all of them did. James Kochalka’s “The Fox and the Grapes” has a jetpack in it. R. Sikoryka’s “The Lion and the Mouse” looks like a George Herriman Krazy Kat comic. Jennifer L. Meyer’s “The Fox and the Crow” involves a cheese fair. These were not things I saw in my mind’s eye while plowing through Aesop. Three comics, though, were very close to the original fables and yet still feel fresh because of the skill of the cartoonists: Jaime Hernandez’s “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” Tom Gauld’s “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” and R. O. Blechman’s “The North Wind and the Sun.”

MW: Do you have a favorite edition of Aesop’s Fables from your childhood? (I’m partial to the Milo Winter.)

CD: I don’t remember reading any single volume of fables—though they popped up in lots of books I read at home and in school. And in SRA, I think. Did you have those? Probably my most vivid childhood memories of a fable comes from a Bugs Bunny cartoon that riffs on “The Hare and the Tortoise.” I believe the tortoise had a rocket engine under his shell and a Mortimer Snerd-way of speaking. Come to think of it, most of my memories of fables come from old animated cartoons, including the very funny “Aesop and Son” from the Bullwinkle show. I put off watching those for this book. They are so good, it would have been hard not to be overly influenced.

MW: Since I based one of my early readers on the fable of “The Fox and the Crow,” obviously I’m partial to that one. But my other favorite fable is the one where all the dogs try to drink up the river. (Did that one make it into the book?) How about you—what are your favorites?

CD: That’s a good one! It didn’t end up in the book, but choosing was tough. There are many cool fables to choose from, from Aesop and also from the Indian Panchatantra—and obviously a zillion other sources. And we could only use 28! An Aesop fable I love but that no artist wanted to draw (sob) was “The Mountains in Labor,” where a mountain shaking and rumbling and terrifying a populace—who are convinced that the mountain is giving birth. In the end, a hole opens up and a tiny mouse crawls out. The moral is something like, “Sometimes a big build up means not such a big payoff.”

One that I’ve always loved is “The Crow and the Pitcher” because of the elegance of the crow’s solution. British cartoonist Simone Lia turned that into a story not just about the crow, but about his not very bright friends too—it’s a charmer! And Sophie Goldstein—a great young cartoonist to keep your eye on—did a very funny and gorgeous adaptation of a Ugandan fable about a leopard using drums to trick his prey to come to him. I love that fable for having a real live punch line at the end. I won’t spoil it.

MW: Thanks, Chris! Can’t wait until this one hits the shelves!

Subscription Box Review: Jessica Comingore Quarterly

A peek at the contents of #JCS01.
A peek at the contents of #JCS01.

Quarterly Co.’s subscription boxes may be a bit on the pricey side, but the contents are always exciting and unpredictable. If I can’t use what a box contains, I almost certainly know someone on my gift list who will appreciate it later. But the real fun of a Quarterly subscription is its sense of personality: Each curator brings his or her unique sensibility to the selection of items.

#JCS01 is Jessica Comingore’s first package for Quarterly Co. Jessica is a designer, lifestyle blogger, and, with over five million followers, a Pinterest superstar. In her Quarterly Co. mailings she promises “artisanal home items for simple and refined living. The products will be clean and sophisticated with a focus on materials and quality, designed to last you a lifetime.” In this first mailing, she spotlights mornings, presenting high-end items she uses to get her day off to a pleasant start.

Cost: $50 + $4.50/shipping. Mailings occur four times a year.

Contents:

The letter. All Quarterly Co. subscription boxes include a letter from the curator. With some curators—Maud Newton, Joel Johnson, and Mike Monteiro come to mind—the letters are one of the best things about the box, reaching out to the reader with deeply personal stories (like Joel’s tales of his beloved grandma, whose Depression-era background was the inspiration for the items he chose) or darkly comic narratives like the short stories Mike Monteiro built his mailings around. Other curator letters are more straightforward, detailing what is included in the mailing and why. Jessica’s letter is of the latter variety, its tone warm and friendly, walking you through her morning rituals of tea, granola, ablutions, and to-do-listmaking.

Custom Tote Bag. Jessica understates this lovely, large cotton tote in her letter—she mentions it only in passing at the end. Turns out it’s a custom item made just for this Quarterly, featuring a silkscreened print of a watercolor by Jessica herself.  The tote is quite wide with a flat, narrow bottom, and would be great for trips to the farmer’s market or park. Value: Hard to say. I reached out to Quarterly Co. for an approximate value, and they replied: “Hmm, that’s a tough one. For custom and exclusive pieces like this, we like to say priceless.”

Stress Less Tea from Homestead Apothecary. “A blend of organic Rose Petals, Lemon Balm, Skullcap & Peppermint that relaxes your body and mind.” Value: $9.

Ceramic Tumbler by Be Home. Photo: be-home.com.
Ceramic Tumbler by Be Home. Photo: be-home.com.

Ceramic Tumbler from Be Home. This small, elegant teacup is lovely in its simplicity. It’s glazed inside and unglazed (slightly rough to the touch) outside. Mine is an ivory color; I don’t know if other recipients got different colors. I think rather than drink out of it, I’d love to see it filled with flowers, a sweet mini-vase. Value: $18.50.

Activated Charcoal Soap by Elegant Rose Boutique. A large bar with a wonderful citrus scent. This would make such a great gift for someone but I want to keep it! Value: $6.

Natural Bristle Toothbrush by Swissco. Handle color: tortoiseshell. Comes in a plastic travel case. Supposed to be gentler on tooth enamel than synthetic bristles. I’ll be honest; I have a million kids and that means we go through approximately one zillion toothbrushes per year. A high-end brush is beyond my comprehension. But I have a sister who is very much into natural products, and this would make a great stocking stuffer for her. Value: $6.

Small Notebook by Muji. Recycled paper, craft-brown cover, spiral bound, lined, 48 pages. Size A6 (4.1 x 5.8″). I love the small, slim trim size—a perfect fit for a purse. Value: $4.75.

Palomino Blackwing 602 Pencils (2). Possibly my favorite items in the box. These are top-of-the-line pencils and I’ve been curious to try one out for ages. Check out the Amazon reviews on these things: People are bonkers for them. Cool oversized and replaceable eraser, too. And I tested it. It (drumroll) erases, which is more than I can say for most of the pencils we’ve bought lately. Value: approx. $3.30.

Another pencil, gold, brandishing the words POINTING OUT THE OBVIOUS. Not sure whether it, too, is made by Blackwing. Value: Let’s say $1.

Jessica’s family recipe for breakfast granola. A charming addition to the box. Sounds pretty tasty, if perhaps a bit spendy in the ingredients area. Or maybe I’m just factoring in the appetites of my ravenous brood?

Total value of merchandise: Approx. $49 + the custom tote, which I would guess puts it at about $65-70 total. Since nearly all of these items would make great gifts for other people (which always increases a box’s value in my eyes), I’d say Jessica Comingore’s Quarterly is off to a good start. What do you think?

Fairy Tale Comics and Baba Yaga: An Interview With Jillian Tamaki

Fairy Tale Comics cover

Two years ago, First Second’s Nursery Rhyme Comics blew me away with its fresh and fun approach to familiar old rhymes, featuring a roster of some of the best illustrators in the business. Now they’re back with Fairy Tale Comics, another lively collection of short comics depicting classic children’s tales. Once again editor Chris Duffy has assembled a team of gifted cartoonists to bring some very old stories to a brand-new audience, comics-style. I had a chance to chat with illustrator Jillian Tamaki about her contribution: the wonderfully creepy Baba Yaga tale.

Melissa Wiley: How did you get involved with Fairy Tale Comics?

Jillian Tamaki: First Second, the publisher behind Fairy Tale Comics, will be publishing my upcoming graphic novel, co-created with my cousin Mariko Tamaki. So we had a relationship prior.

Baba Yaga by Jillian Tamaki. Image source: First Second Books.

MW: The Baba Yaga stories always fascinated me as a kid. I couldn’t get over the house with chicken legs. What made you decide on that tale as your contribution to the book? And since she appears in so many narratives, how did you choose which of her stories to tell?

JT: I snapped up the Baba Yaga because I wanted to draw the witch and her chicken-house. Because it’s Russian, the story and imagery felt a little fresher and more intriguing to me. The way magic was used felt unfamiliar and exciting.

MW:  Were you into fairy tales as a kid? (Or beyond…some of us never stop reading them!)

JT: My parents read the Brothers Grimm to me sometimes. I still have the book. Those stories are so weird. I illustrated a book of Irish legends a few years ago and was struck by how they differ from the typical “story” we have come to expect. The idea of hero, narrative, moral, etc., are very different.

MW: We’d love to hear a bit about your process. Do you still work on paper, or have you gone entirely digital?

JT: I work in a way that combines digital and traditional media.

MW:  I love the palette of golds and reds you chose for this tale. Really enhances the eerie, otherworldly feeling of Baba Yaga’s world. Can you tell us a little about your approach to coloring?

Scene from Baba Yaga by Jillian Tamaki.

JT: It’s pretty simple: I try to pick a colour scheme that fits the emotion of the story that also looks nice.

MW:  What were your favorite books as a kid?

JT: Any book with horses. Illustrations with lots and lots of detail.

MW: Who are some of your influences as a writer and an artist?

JT: Too many things to name and they’re constantly shifting. I just came back from a vacation to Newfoundland so that’ll probably creep into my work somehow.

MW: At GeekMom, we’re always talking about our geeky passions. What are some of yours?

JT: I am a cartoonist! Doesn’t that qualify as geeky enough?

MW: What are you working on now?

JT: Finishing up my graphic novel, working some illustrated books, and collecting my webcomic strip SuperMutant Magic Academy into a book for 2015.

For more interviews with Fairy Tale Comics creators, click here!

Awesome Free Resource About the Benefits of Comics for Kids

Raising a Reader! How Comics & Graphic Novels Can Help Your Kids Love To Read!
Image source: cbldf.org.

I’m constantly trumpeting the ways comic books and graphic novels can boost reading skills for kids. Now the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, an organization that advocates for comics and their creators in all sorts of ways, has published a free resource that addresses that very topic. Raising a Reader! How Comics & Graphic Novels Can Help Your Kids Love To Read! is a downloadable PDF about the many benefits of comics. Written by Dr. Meryl Jaffe, with an introduction by Babymouse author and Newbery Honor winner Jennifer Holm, this is a link not to be missed. And it’s illustrated by Raina Telgemeier (Smile, Drama) and Matthew Holm (Babymouse, Squish)!

This is a terrific resource to share with all the teachers and librarians in your kid’s life.

GeekMom Counterpoint: Why I Love Why

Why I Love Why
Image source: Melissa Wiley

One of the most delightful things about being part of the community of GeekMom writers is that we’re all over the map—philosophically as well as geographically. I read my fellow GeekMom Ariane’s post, “Why I Hate Why,” with interest, and my reply grew so long it turned into a post.

Here’s why I actually love the why stage:

Because at that age—two, three, four, five years old—language is a magical thing. It’s slippery and malleable and full of possibility, and meanings are hard to pin down. And “why” is the most magical word of them all. It means, “I’m baffled/delighted/scared/excited/an infinity of adjectives but I can’t figure out how to frame this experience in words.” It means, “Do the rules of the world stay the same, or do they shift around as much as it seems like they do?” A chair stays a chair, but water can be ice, water can be the steam floating up from Mommy’s mug of tea. The people who get made to take naps don’t want them, and the people who don’t take naps want nothing more. Uncle Jay is Daddy’s brother and Grandma’s son and THIS IS ALL VERY CONFUSING.

But there’s this powerful talisman, this incredible word that takes all the millions of questions flooding into those tiny, giant-brained heads, and distills them into a form that people understand. Why.

Why is the word that signals: “I need clarity. I need to make sense of this. I need to know what this feeling is called. I need to know if I’m going to feel it forever.”

Why is a chameleon-word that shapeshifts into all the questions put together. Who, how, when, what, where, will. Why is the wonder-word. It collects the flurry of bewildering input that swirls around a small child like leaves in a tornado—and in a single syllable, it tames the wind. It puts form to the formless: When other words are leaping all over the place with their jittery meanings (leaves fall in the fall but snow doesn’t winter in the winter), why stays put. Why is reliable. When grownups all around you are failing to comprehend the very clear statement you’re making about eating opiemeal in the hoffabul, why is a word they understand. Sometimes it’s the only word they seem to understand, so you use it in place of all the other words they can’t quite grasp.

Can being on the receiving end of endless whys grow exhausting? Sure—I’m in the thick of my sixth child’s why stage right now, and that means I’ve been answering this question almost without pause since 1997, when my oldest daughter was two. What delights me is that she is still asking it. At 18, she’s a young woman of insight and curiosity; she probes and counters and debates. She argues with things she reads. She wonders.

At its heart, that’s where the incessant why comes from: a sense of wonder, a sense that the world is a mysterious place but—and this is huge—where there are questions, there are answers. So I respectfully disagree with the notion that some questions—sincere ones, I mean, the kind a child asks—are stupid. The question itself is a sign of that spark that makes us human, our insatiable thirst for knowledge and understanding. We don’t take the world for granted. We want to know what makes it tick, what makes the sky blue, what makes freckles and spaghetti and smoke. As we grow, we learn to add more words to the question—but with luck we never lose that sense of the magic of it all, the endless scope for possibility. My kids’ whys have kept me asking questions; they’ve shown me a thousand different ways of looking at things so seemingly ordinary I might have forgotten to notice. Somewhere along the line, I came to realize that their whys weren’t just helping them make sense of an astonishing world; they were making it continually astonishing for me too.

Introducing GeekMom Book Dish! Episode One: Quinn Cummings

GeekMom Book Dish
One of the nicest things about being a children’s book writer is that you cross paths with all sorts of other writers and illustrators. There’s little I enjoy more than talking shop with other creative people. With GeekMom Book Dish, we’re rolling out a new feature in which I’ll indulge my love of hanging out with authors and artists, talking about books, family, and anything else that strikes our fancy.

In this first installment, the fabulous Quinn Cummingsauthor, blogger, homeschooling mom, former child actress—chats with me about her brand-new book, Pet Sounds, her geeky passions, and other topics. There’s even a lightning round at the end with questions generated by my children. Hope you enjoy! And if you have questions for Quinn, you can fire away in the comments or catch her at @quinncy on Twitter.

(Cool news about Pet Sounds: one dollar for every copy sold will go to Sante D’Or, an animal shelter on the east side of Los Angeles.)

Note from Natania: “Video is no new thing on the web. But we wanted to carve out our own niche. The GeekMom Game of Thrones Recap Tea Party has taken off like gangbusters, and while that’s got a fantastic audience of brilliant commentors and super engaged watchers and readers, we thought something faster and broader might have a great reach. We’re so excited to introduce Book Dish!”

Subscription Box Review: Candy Japan

Sample Candy Japan package.
Sample Candy Japan package. Good thing I took a picture because it’s all been devoured now.

Here’s the thing: I am crazy about Japanese candy. Ask GeekMom Kristen: Last time she made a trip to Tokyo, I all but pushed an empty suitcase on her. Fortunately we are complete kindred spirits in Candyland, and upon her return she loaded me up with all the sweets I crave but can’t get easily. Japan has Grapefruit Mentos, you guys. And craaaaazy flavors of KitKat. Pear! Purple Sweet Potato! Matcha-Green Tea! And–my absolute favorite, despite its unfortunate name–Calpis, little chewy yogurt-based candies that are to die for. Oh, and Puccho! Also chewy, with bizarre gummy bits and tiny, fizzy mini-candies embedded in them. It’s hard to go back to plain old Starburst after a Puccho encounter. (Oh how I suffer.)

So when I heard about Candy Japan, a twice-monthly subscription service bringing you THE MANY DELECTABLE CANDIES OF JAPAN, yeah, they had me at hello. And when I discovered that each shipment includes a description of all the candies, I was even more enthusiastic. That’s the one hitch with my penchant for foreign sweets: inscrutable labels. Sometimes you find yourself chomping down on what you thought was going to be lemon and it turns out to be flavored with fishpaste. (True story.)

Squid-flavored candy is where I draw the lline
Squid-flavored treat, now with more fishpaste! Image source: Candy Japan.

To make sure you know what you’re sinking your teeth into, Candy Japan emails you a brief and entertaining description of each item: Gokigen Yogurt: Strangely packaged sheets of something soft and white. Tearing one open you can find a new way to enjoy yogurt.”

(More yogurt candy! Confectioners of Japan, you complete me.)

The company is run by a young couple who thought up this brilliant way to share their favorite sweets with foreign friends. Bemmu and Nachi sent me pictures of their homegrown operation–cartons and cartons of candy overtaking their little flat. Twice a month, they mail subscribers as much candy as will fit in a standard Japanese envelope. (See example above.) If you’re looking for a unique gift for someone with a sweet tooth (like, say, me), Candy Japan is a scrumptious choice.

Price: $25/month. Each month includes two envelopes full of candy.

Review sample provided by Candy Japan.

Interview with Cecil Castellucci, Author of Odd Duck

Odd Duck by Cecil Castellucci & Sara Varon
Meet Theodora and Chad, ducks with character. Art by Sara Varon. Image source: First Second Books.

Odd Duck, a new graphic novel from First Second, contains two of my favorite pairings of the year: Theodora and Chad, two unusual ducks who discover they appreciate each other’s quirks as much as all the things they have in common; and Cecil Castellucci and Sara Varon, the author and illustrator of this mirthful tale.

I first encountered Cecil through her books (Rose sees Red was a standout among the hundreds of YA novels I read as a CYBILs Award judge in 2010) and was delighted when our paths crossed at a couple of publishing-industry conventions the following year. Sara Varon’s Bake Sale wooed my entire family with its whimsical, sometimes wistful, art.

A Castellucci/Varon collaboration promised to be huge amounts of fun, and Odd Duck is exactly that. Thoughtful, comical, and full of heart, it has become one of my family’s favorite books of the year. I asked Cecil to share a glimpse behind the scenes at the creation of Odd Duck.

Continue reading Interview with Cecil Castellucci, Author of Odd Duck

Subscription Box Review: KnitCrate

KnitCrate January Yarns
Sample KnitCrate package: yarns and pattern from Be Sweet. Image source: Melissa Wiley.

Is there anything nicer than getting a package full of surprises in the mail? How about a package full of surprises in the mail once a month! I’ve noticed a growing number of monthly subscription-box services popping up lately; I decided to check out a bunch of them and report my findings here. Previously reviewed: Knoshbox, La Bella Box, Umba Box, Nicely Noted, For the Makers, LootCrate, Sprig, NatureBox, and Yuzen. And for kids, there’s BabbaBox, Kiwi Crate, Little Passports, and Green Kid Crafts. Also check out Geekmom Ariane’s review of Chic Makers and Craftistas and Jenny’s writeup of the FruitGuys.

Here’s a fun one for the fiber geek in your life. KnitCrate is a monthly subscription service for knitters. Each month, subscribers receive a package containing the supplies for a knitting project: unique high-quality yarn, a pattern, and various fun extras and accessories. You can choose from Beginner, Intermediate/Advanced, Sock, Baby, and Indie packages.

KnitCrate Beginner package
KnitCrate’s January Beginner package. Image source: knitcrate.com.

I had an opportunity to explore the January Beginner’s package. The project was a “Soft and Sensuous Cowl” pattern by Be Sweet (a company that works with artisans from the Xhosa tribe in Cape Town, South Africa), with enough yarn to complete the project. This yarn was pretty swoony, I gotta say: a skein of Be Sweet’s Bamboo, a meltingly soft yarn in a creamy silver hue with a soft sheen, and a skein of Magic Ball, another Be Sweet yarn, a nubbly, fluffy variegated mohair in soft gray, brown, and deep rose, with bits of silver ribbon here and there. Just gorgeous. (You can see the blue version in the photo at right.)

Also included in this package:  Happy Hands Sandia Sage & Lavender Hand Cream for Fiber Artists; some hot pink Be Sweet pencils; and to round out the sweet theme, a couple of Bit o’ Honeys. (Not pictured, because I ate them immediately.) Since this was KnitCrate’s inaugural package, it also contained a nice canvas Baggu Duck Bag for toting your projects around.

KnitCrate promises that each month’s kit will contain:

  1. A premium yarn by a different company each month
  2. A pattern for a surprise project
  3. Enough yarn to complete the pattern at least once (sometimes twice in different colorways)
  4. A sweet or soothing extra
  5. A fun extra

Plus you get a 20% discount on all the yarns they carry. You can sign up for monthly or bi-monthly delivery, and you’re able to switch your package type at any time. For U.S. residents, a monthly subscription will run you $45-65, depending on which type you choose. (The Baby and Sock packages are least expensive; Beginner and Intermediate/Advanced are ten dollars more; and the Indie packages are the priciest.) This is one of the most expensive subscription kits I’ve reviewed, but if it’s in your budget, it would be a tremendously fun package to get in the mail each month. KnitCrate will appeal to knitters at all levels who enjoy the element of surprise. Like all subscription boxes, there’s a bit of a gamble; it’s possible that from time to time you’ll get a pattern or colorway that isn’t your cup of tea. But half the fun of a subscription kit is the zing of discovery, the promise of mystery. If you’d like to start dropping hints for Mother’s (or Father’s!) Day, gift subscriptions are available in three-, six-, nine-, and 12-month options.

KnitCrate February Indie Package.
KnitCrate February Indie Package. Image source: knitcrate.com.

You can get a sneak peek of upcoming packages at the KnitCrate blog or Facebook page. Here’s a detailed look at each of the February packages. I love the sound of that super-soft Kangaroo Dyer yarn in the Sock package, which also contained coffee, tags, and a cute felt clutch, along with a pattern for “Spring Flower” socks. The Beginner project was a scarf in Merino wool, the Advanced/Intermediate project was a cap and mittens, and the Indie package included a shawl pattern and some Dyeabolical Yarns Super Ego yarn in an exclusive just-for-KnitCrate colorway. Scrumptious.

KnitCrate is offering a special for GeekMom readers: for the next seven days, use promo code “GEEKMOM” for $10 off your first month’s subscription.

 Review kit provided by KnitCrate.

Downton Abbey Open Thread: Season 3, Episode 7

Duneagle Castle
Ah, Duneagle, we hardly knew ye. Image source: pbs.org.

This week’s episode of Downton Abbey — episode 7 by the PBS reckoning — corresponds to the 2012 Christmas special in the U.K. release. (Last week’s double-sized installment contained U.K. episodes 7 and 8, if you’re catching up via the recently released Season 3 DVD/Blu-ray available from PBS.) That explains the year-long time gap between last week and this week. Lots to talk about, so consider yourself spoiler warned and let’s dive in, shall we?

Continue reading Downton Abbey Open Thread: Season 3, Episode 7

Downton Abbey Open Thread: Season 3, Episode 6

Downton Abbey recap Season 3 Episode 6
“Luckily, we’ve got Mosely on our team.” Image source: pbs.org.

American audiences got another supersized episode of Downton Abbey this week: episodes six and seven of the U.K. series were rolled into one. Long episodes make for short recaps (pretty sure there’s an axiom for this), because there’s way too much ground to cover to tackle it scene by scene. So this week, let’s dive straight into discussion, shall we? Continue reading Downton Abbey Open Thread: Season 3, Episode 6

Downton Abbey Open Thread: Season 3, Episode 5

Downton Abbey recap Season 3 Episode 5
Image source: pbs.org.

You don’t mind if I blubber all over my keyboard, do you? That last scene really got me. But let’s begin at the beginning, which is, as always, the spoiler warning. If you aren’t caught up to Season 3, Episode 5, proceed at your own risk.

Continue reading Downton Abbey Open Thread: Season 3, Episode 5

Downton Abbey Open Thread: Season 3, Episode 4

Lady Sybil
The beautiful Lady Sybil. Image source: pbs.com.

Well, that was harrowing. As always, if you haven’t watched this week’s episode, beware: there will be spoilers below. Big ones.

We open on a house in anticipation. Sybil’s baby is imminent, and everyone’s jittery. Right off the bat, we learn two important facts: 1) Lord Grantham (apparently a Victorian at heart) can’t handle medical details, especially as regards his daughter and childbirth; and 2) for this important birth, he is bringing in the big guns: the esteemed London physician Sir Philip Tapsell, who delivers all the bluest-blooded babies. Dr. Clarkson is quietly annoyed by this, but he’s used to experiencing frustration with the Crawley clan.

We’ll leave the family to wait anxiously and take a look at what’s going on with everyone else.

Continue reading Downton Abbey Open Thread: Season 3, Episode 4

Downton Abbey Open Thread: Season 3, Episode 3

“I’m sorry, I was expecting a call from my editor.” Image source: pbs.com

Lots of drama in last night’s Downton Abbey episode, most of it new: we saw the introduction of a number of new plot threads, and only minor advancement on older ones. We’ll get into the nitty-gritty after the jump: SPOILERS BELOW! Continue reading Downton Abbey Open Thread: Season 3, Episode 3

Downton Abbey Open Thread: Season 3, Episode 2

Edith’s big day. Image source: screen grab from pbs.org.

After last week’s uplift and hilarity — the long-awaited wedding of Mary and Matthew; the steamrolling force of Shirley Maclaine’s Martha — this week pulled the rug out from under us. That is, a team of servants rolled it up and hauled it away.

[SPOILERS below. Watch Episode 2 before you read on! (Note: It’s Episode 3 in the UK release. Last week’s two-hour episode was actually UK eps 1 and 2. I’ve edited to go with the numbering used by PBS Masterpiece.)]

Continue reading Downton Abbey Open Thread: Season 3, Episode 2

Downton Abbey Open Thread: Season 3, Episode 1

Downton Abbey Season Three
Downton Abbey cast. Image source: pbs.org.

It’s finally, finally, finally time.

Our UK friends are months ahead of us here, but for the American crowd last night was a banner night: the long-awaited premiere of Downton Abbey Season Three. Like last season, I’ll be hosting a GeekMom open thread each week. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

SPOILER WARNING! If you aren’t caught up to season three, don’t keep reading. Clear your calendar and do some marathon viewing so you can join us here ASAP. All righty, recap and discussion after the jump!

Continue reading Downton Abbey Open Thread: Season 3, Episode 1

Terrific Children's and YA Books on Sale for Kindle This Month

Great children's and YA books on sale for Kindle in December

Every month, Amazon unveils a new list of discounted Kindle books. The December list contains some real gems, especially for lovers of children’s literature.

A Series of Unfortunate Events #1: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket. Needs no introduction! Kindle price: $1.99.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones — one of the great fantasy authors of all time (my favorite of her books is the strange and lovely Dogsbody, the story of a celestial being who is stripped of his powers and exiled into the body of a dog on earth). Howl’s Moving Castle is one of her finest books. Kindle price: $1.99.

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, the first in her highly acclaimed series of Attolia novels. Kindle price: $1.99.

Seekers #1: The Quest Begins by Erin Hunter. Hunter’s Warriors books, about rival clans of anthropomorphic cats, have been the hands-down favorites of my middle two daughters for the past four years, trumping even Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Betsy-Tacy. Seekers is a a spinoff series, like Warriors but with bears. Kindle price: $1.99.

Mindblind by Jennifer Roy. A compelling YA novel about a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome striving to use his mathematical gifts in a way that makes a contribution to the world—his personal definition of genius. Kindle price: $1.99.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel. This one is temporarily flagged as “under review,” but it looks like its December Kindle price is going to be $1.99, and it’s worth checking back later in the month to see if the buy button has been restored. UPDATED 12/5: It’s back, and it is indeed $1.99. A fascinating story about a man’s quest to build a clock that would keep time at sea in order to solve a thorny navigation problem that had led to the deaths of countless sailors over the centuries.

Here’s the complete list of 100 Kindle Books for $3.99 or less for the month of December. I’ll be loading up my Kindle Fire with several of the books above. My kids still prefer hard copies, but I confess I’ve reached the point where I’m yearning for ebook versions of my old favorites — I’ve become pretty attached to the joys of a built-in light and enlargeable fonts. How about you?

Faces iMake and the Slow App Movement

FacesiMake examples
Faces iMake examples. Image source: facesimake.com.

This whimsical app has been a favorite of my three-year-old son and six-year-old daughter for several months (which is a long time for any app to hold a kid’s attention). Gameplay is simple: you select from an assortment of household objects and foods to create funny faces. You can add your own photos to the pool as well. It’s engaging and amusing, and it’s a great introduction to collage art. (You don’t just have to make faces — lots of creative possibilities here.) Finished pictures can be converted to puzzles, emailed to admiring grandparents, or stored in a gallery.

Faces iMake is $1.99 in the App Store for iPad or iPhone. Here’s a peek at how it works:

(Prepare to hear that catchy theme song on frequent repeat. I swear my kids enjoy it almost as much as they like making the pictures.)

The Faces iMake creators have an interesting take on app development: the Slow App Movement — an attempt to create apps that invite longer, deeper engagement instead of the quick-click frenzy that is typical for many children’s apps:

Does every character need to be pulsing so that the child feels the need to swipe and tap instead of following the story? They’re swiping and tapping because they might miss out on something (not too different from older kids worried about missing a tweet or instant message). Instead of following the storyline they are jumping around distracted instead of enjoying a great story. At iMagine Machine when we think about new apps we try to create ‘slow apps’. We want them to be fun and exciting and entertaining but at the same time we feel the excitement needs to come from the child. When the child has followed through on a series of problems, worked through a puzzle or created an amazing piece of art on the app – that’s where the reward comes.

For another example of the Slow App Movement, check out iMagine Machine’s Monsters Family.

What do you think? Are the majority of kids’ apps too frenetic? Do your preschoolers jump from app to app, or do they focus intensely on one special favorite at a time?

Subscription Boxes for Healthy Living

Yuzen Box September
A Yuzen subscription delivers an assortment of natural and organic health and beauty items to your home each month. Image source: yuzenbox.com.

Is there anything nicer than getting a package full of surprises in the mail? How about a package full of surprises in the mail once a month! I’ve noticed a growing number of monthly subscription-box services popping up lately; I decided to check out a bunch of them and report my findings here. Previously reviewed: Knoshbox, La Bella Box, Umba Box, Nicely Noted, For the Makers, and LootCrate. And for kids, there’s Wonder Box, BabbaBox, Kiwi Crate, Little Passports, and Green Kid Crafts.

1. SPRIG.

Sprig box

Sprig Box
Sample Sprig Box contents. Image source: Melissa Wiley.

Sprig is a sampler of healthy snack foods — gluten-free, mostly organic and vegan nutritional snacks. My fourteen-year-old daughter liked the assortment so much that she wants a subscription of her own. What I enjoyed about the Sprig box is that it allowed us to sample new-to-us items without having to buy a whole package of each. It was a fun way to expose my kids to some new (and nutritious!) foods.

Sample contents: Bearded Brothers Bodacious Blueberry Vanilla Energy Bar; Lucy’s Cinnamon Thin; Just Good Chocolate Tart Cherry Almond Cacao (soooo good); Picky Bars Smooth Caffeinator Hazelnut Mocha Madness; Ananda’s ShanTea Middle Way Goji/Ginger; Hail Merry Orange Rosemary Pecans; Bumble Bar Organic Sesame Bar (two bars: one peanut, one chocolate crisp); Kookie Karma Holistic Chocolate Chip; Apple-2-The-Core Peeled Snacks Fruit Picks.

Monthly subscription cost: the Mini-Snacker box (10-13 servings) is $26.95/month; the Snacker (25-30 servings) is $55.95; and the Grand Snacker (53-60 servings, so perhaps best suited to an office setting) is $99.95.

Gift subscriptions available? Yes; pricing info here.

2. NATUREBOX.

NatureBox

NatureBox is another healthy snack-food subscription. Each month, you get a box containing 4-6 packages of “wholesome, minimally processed” snacks, 15-20 servings total. The idea here is that instead of buying junky snack foods full of salt and artificial ingredients, you’re letting NatureBox curate a selection of tasty treats that are actually good for you. And for each box purchased, the company donates one meal to feed the hungry through Feeding America. Like Sprig, a NatureBox subscription would make a fun and unique gift, a lively alternative to the traditional fruit basket or holiday popcorn tin.

Sample contents: The October box contained 5 packages — cherry berry granola; sun-dried California apricots; blueberry almond bites (crunchy squares made of almonds, dried blueberries, and puffed rice, quite delicious); a “Sticks ’n Stones” snack mix (almonds, sesame sticks, and cashews); and an “Antioxidant Mix” (chocolate stars, mixed nuts, and dried cherries, cranberries, and blueberries). You can probably match the price of similar foods in the bulk area of your local health-food store, but there’s an element of adventure to getting a surprise assortment by mail. It also strikes me as a great gift for a college student — a care package of healthy munchies to provide an alternative to vending-machine snacks.

Monthly subscription cost: $19.95 (includes shipping). Signing up activates the monthly subscription; you may cancel or pause at any time.

Gift subscriptions available? Yes, in 3-month, 6-month, and 12-month options.

3. YUZEN

Yuzen box

Yuzen springs out of the trend of sample boxes — subscription boxes containing assortments of sample-sized health and beauty products — but with an emphasis on eco-friendly, natural or organic items. Another difference is that Yuzen’s collections contain full-sized or “premium sample-sized” products when possible. Just as Umba Box seeks to provide subscribers with carefully curated handmade items from Etsy shops, Yuzen offers a curated selection of creams, cleansers, snacks, and other body-and-soul-pampering items. I can think of several people on my shopping list who would take delight in a box like this.

Sample contents: The October Yuzen box contained a delicious Matt’s Munchies mango fruit-leather snack, a small jar of Nova Monda Cacao Indio chocolate ganache (to die for), some Hollybeth Organics rose geranium face moisturizer, some Red Flower samples (Mimosa Sea Algea Wash & Plum Blossom Silk Cream), Eco-Aurmour Bergamot and Grapefruit Shaving Foam, and Jamu massage oil.

The September box emphasized organic skin-care products: Cowgirl Ranch Hand Cream, a tulle bag full of product samples (makeup remover, nail polish remover, face cleanser), a bottle of Pangea Organics facial cream, a matcha tea facial mask, plus some organic spearmints and pomegranate energy chews.

Monthly subscription cost: $26.

Gift subscriptions available? Yes: one month, three months, or six months.

OTHER SUBSCRIPTION-BOX POSSIBILITIES:

If health and beauty product samples are of interest, two more subscriptions to take a look at are Conscious Box and BlissMo. Both offer assortments of natural/organic skin and bath products, vitamins, healthy snacks, and teas.

Sample boxes provided for review.

Subscription Boxes for Gamers, Crafters, and Etsy Enthusiasts

LootCrate
The 8-Bit themed LootCrate. Image source: lootcrate.com.

Is there anything nicer than getting a package full of surprises in the mail? How about a package full of surprises in the mail once a month! I’ve noticed a growing number of monthly subscription-box services popping up lately; I decided to check out a bunch of them and report my findings here. Previously reviewed: Knoshbox and La Bella Box, two great gift ideas for adults; and for kids, there’s Wonder Box, BabbaBox, Kiwi Crate, Little Passports, and Green Kid Crafts. Today we’ll take a look at geeky, artsy, and crafty subscriptions for grownups.

1. LOOTCRATE.

LootCrate, pictured above, is a treasure box for geeks and gamers. This is a subscription service unlike all the others — the emphasis is on humorous, offbeat items with strong geek appeal. I know a lot of teens and college students who would enjoy a subscription to this Comic-Con-swag-flavored collection of oddments. The community of LootCrate subscribers has a lively presence on Facebook and Twitter, and you’ll find a slew of enthusiastic “unboxing” videos on YouTube after each new shipping date.

Sample contents: Each month’s box has a different theme; the one I sampled was “8-Bit — A celebration of retro gaming culture,” featuring 80’s Nintendo and Sega-themed gear. This included a Mario Power-Up energy drink; a tin of Zelda Shield mints that my teen girls fought over; a rather fabulous bendable Mario mustache that inspired a last-minute Halloween costume change for one of my daughters; a tube of blue raspberry-flavored “Nuclear Energy Powder” I haven’t been foolhardy enough to try; some retro gaming buttons; a whimsical Mr. T art piece; a d20 (naturally); a LootCrate sticker; and a pair of 8-bit sunglasses.

Monthly subscription cost: $19.37, which includes shipping. (You can cancel anytime). Paying up front for a three- or six-month subscription brings the rate down a bit.

2. UMBA BOX.

Umba Box
Sample Umba Box contents. Image source: umbabox.com.

Continue reading Subscription Boxes for Gamers, Crafters, and Etsy Enthusiasts

Give a Box of Fun: Five Subscription Kits for Kids

print block tshirt
Print block t-shirt by Rilla, age six. Image source: Melissa Wiley.

Is there anything nicer than getting a package full of surprises in the mail? How about a package full of surprises in the mail once a month! I’ve noticed a growing number of monthly subscription-box services popping up lately; I decided to check out a bunch of them and report my findings here. Previously reviewed: Knoshbox and La Bella Box, two great gift ideas for adults. This time around, I’m looking at subscription boxes meant especially for kids.

1. WONDER BOX

Wonder Box contents
“Once Upon a Time” Wonder Box. Image source: Wonder Box.

I discovered Wonder Box when I was looking for a birthday gift for my three-year-old godchild, the brilliant daughter of my fellow GeekMom, Kristen Rutherford. When it comes to presents, I’m usually sort of a one-note giver — books, books, and more books — but this time, I wanted to give something different, something Kristen and Vivi could do together. Something hands-on, creative, and fun. The second I saw Wonder Box, an assortment of crafts and activities aimed at kids ages 3-6, I knew I’d hit a bullseye. You can order Wonder Box as a one-time gift, or sign up for a monthly subscription.

Sample contents: The Once Upon A Time theme box contained materials for three projects: a Story Cape (cape and fabric crayons); Puppet Play (felt puppet body and decorations); and illustrated Story Cards. There was also a Stone Soup storybook with pictures to color in, and a recipe for Stone Soup. Other recent themes include the very enticing Mad Scientist box and a Nature box. The projects are simple and appealing, and the materials are high quality. As for how it went over with the birthday girl, here’s what Kristen wrote me:

“THE WONDER BOX IS AMAZING. We have melted crayons and painted with this crazy powdered paint. I’m going to subscribe to this. I’m absolutely buying them as birthday presents for some folks coming up…”

Age range: 3-6 years.

Cost: Single box: $30. 3-month subscription: $75. Ongoing monthly subscription: $19.99/month.

UPDATED! Use code HOLIDAY5-03 at checkout for $5 off one order now through January 13.

Gift subscriptions available? Yes. You’ll include your recipient’s email in your order, generating a “you’ve got a Wonder Box” notice for the giftee (or presumably, her parent).

2. BABBABOX

BabbaBox contents
Sample BabbaBox. Image source: Melissa Wiley.

Well, after my soaring success with Wonder Box, I became curious to know what other kids’ subscription boxes were out there. My search led me to BabbaBox, and this one was a tremendous hit with my own daughter, age six. Rilla is my little artist; there is truly nothing she enjoys doing more than some kind of painting/drawing/cutting/glueing project. She was pretty much in heaven when the BabbaBox arrived.

Continue reading Give a Box of Fun: Five Subscription Kits for Kids

A $20 Box of Awesome: La Bella Box

La Bella Box
The October La Bella Box. Image source: Melissa Wiley.

Is there anything nicer than getting a package full of surprises in the mail? How about a package full of surprises in the mail once a month! I’ve noticed a growing number of monthly subscription-box services popping up lately; I decided to check out a bunch of them and report my findings here. Previously reviewed: Knoshbox.

La Bella Box curates an assortment of items from boutiques across the country. These may include artisan foods, handmade crafts, or health and beauty items. It’s an appealing concept: the chance to sample carefully selected items from Etsy shops and other makers, and at a quite reasonable price. The mix of edible and artsy items sets this subscription apart from the crowd.

Sample contents: The September La Bella Box contained handmade caramels by the Bubble Gum Art Co., some very cool Pure Raw Honey Tea from Honey Tea Thyme (you stir a spoonful into a mug hot water for an unusual and heartening drink), a reversible cloth beverage wrap by Joe Jacket, and some cold process honey soap from the Wild Herb Soap Co. The October box — well, this one, comprised totally of food items, made us swoon. Copper Ridge Simply Scrumptious Pumpkin Butter (a big hit with my kids), Chocolove Mini Chocolate Bar (I hogged it myself), La Spice The Walnut Company Cinnamon Spice Walnuts (my husband would like to order these in bulk), Magee’s Nuts Butternut Corn (think Cracker Jack, but eighty-seven thousand times tastier).

Monthly subscription cost: $20. (That includes tax and shipping.) Single box, three-month, and six-month subscription options.

Gift subscriptions available? Yes, including an email-notification option if you don’t have your gift recipient’s address on hand. At $20, this is an excellent gift idea.

Sample La Bella Box was provided for review.

A Delicious Subscription: Knoshbox

October Knoshbox
October subscription box from Knoshbox.com

Is there anything nicer than getting a package full of surprises in the mail? How about a package full of surprises in the mail once a month! I’ve noticed a growing number of monthly subscription-box services popping up lately, and it’s a trend I support wholeheartedly. I decided to check out a bunch of them and report my findings here. Up first: a box full of flavor.

Knoshbox describes itself as “a monthly subscription box for artisan food.” Let me say right off the bat that Knoshbox would make a fantastic gift for anyone on your list: the chance to sample some truly scrumptious foods from all across the country.

Sample contents: The October box had a wonderful autumn theme — quite a treat for my sunbaked SoCal family. It contained a jar of Skillet Pumpkin Sauce (from Seattle-based Skillet Street Food); some Happy Jack Pumpkin Crunch Granola and a Toasted Orchard Bar, both by Nate’s Naturals of New Haven, CT; and a package of utterly to-die-for Bacon Peanut Brittle (made by The Redhead NYC, an East Village eatery). Bacon peanut brittle. I ask you. All of the items were delicious (the apple-flavored Orchard Bar was gone five minutes after I opened the package) and we loved the opportunity to sample some truly original food.

What’s next: The November box’s theme is Bourbon: bourbon caramels, bourbon-sugar-crusted homemade marshmallows, bourbon pecan pancake mix, and bourbon pecan brownies — from artisans in Vermont, Indiana, Georgia, and Illinois. Sign up by Nov. 1 to get in on this package, or check back later in the month to see what December has in store.

Monthly subscription cost: $30. (Includes shipping.)

Gift subscriptions available? Yes — a single-box option allows you to try the service for one month, or send it to a friend. And if you fall in love with a particular item, you can order more in Knoshbox’s Market.

Sample box provided for review.

It's Way Past Time to Stop Saying Things Are "Retarded"

User of offensive vocabulary. Image by Gage Skidmore.

In a tweet after the debate Monday night, Ann Coulter referred to President Obama as a “retard.”

I hesitated to write about the incident, because I suspect Coulter makes offensive statements like that in order to drum up media attention, and I certainly don’t want to encourage her. But the fact is that Coulter is not the only person out there still using that word — sometimes, as in this instance, with an intent to insult, and other times out of a kind of stubborn thoughtlessness. “Oh, I don’t mean it like that,” people will say — even people who wouldn’t dream of using other slurs.

When my then-four-year-old son was diagnosed with mental retardation in 2008, I was struck by how strongly people reacted to those words. I wrote at the time:

“Mental retardation” is a label with an awful lot of social baggage, especially for people of my generation. Was there anything more insulting you could call someone in grade school, or be called, than “retard”? And twenty, thirty years later, that slur is causing just as much pain and controversy as it ever did.

Being something of a word person, I was fascinated by the reaction the words got when we told friends and family about the diagnosis. Honestly, I think I had to spend more time talking to people about the terminology than the condition it describes. Even the Wikipedia entry begins with a long discussion of the various terms that have been used and discarded over the years—discarded after common usage coopted a clinical term for use as an insult. First “cretin,” then “idiot” and “imbecile” (indicating differing degrees of cognitive disability), then “moron,” a word invented by doctors in the early 20th century, and when that became a slur like the others, “mentally retarded” came into use.

I learned that the American Association on Mental Retardation renamed itself in 2006: it is now the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and its preferred terminology for mental retardation is now “intellectually disabled.”

I confess that sounds a bit jargony to me. It’s hard to imagine using it in conversation. Also quite a mouthful is the broader term “developmental disability,” which does encompass my boy’s physical and cognitive delays. I am seeing that term used quite a bit online, on special-needs forums and such. I suppose it lacks the emotional baggage of “mentally retarded,” but for us it’s a moot point anyway, because here in Southern California at least, “mental retardation” is still the clinical term in common use: it’s what appears on my son’s charts now, and whenever I walk into a doctor’s office and am asked, as I always am, “what’s his diagnosis,” among the list of medical and developmental terms I must rattle off is, now, mental retardation.

Four years later, I’m hearing “cognitive disability” more often in educational contexts, and “mental retardation” is still what the medical records say, with a gradual shift toward “ID.” I got used to the terms — in any event, there isn’t actually that much occasion to use them. I don’t look at my son and think a label. He is who he is: a good reader, a total sweetheart, a loving big brother, an affectionate little brother, a kid who loves clocks and calendars, a fan of Calvin & Hobbes, an iPad whiz. His brain works differently than is the norm (although “the norm” is mighty hard to pin down). Abstract concepts sometimes baffle him, but he certainly knows an insult when he hears one.

And all over the internet, in movies, and at the playground, people are still using “retarded” and “retard” in disparaging or eye-rolling ways. It’s time to stop. Way past time. I’ve heard some parents express a sense of helplessness over the subject — they don’t like that their kids say, “That is soooo retarded,” but the kids pick it up at school; what can you do?

You can talk about it. Call them on it. Let them know that it’s an unkind, insulting usage of a medical term, a slur that hurts people. There are other hurtful words, other slurs, that you wouldn’t dream of letting your kids use without a hasty and urgent intervention. “Retard” should be one of them.

In an open letter to Ann Coulter, Special Olympics athlete John Franklin Stephens addresses the insult:

Continue reading It's Way Past Time to Stop Saying Things Are "Retarded"

Have You Nominated a Book or Book App for the CYBILS? Better Hurry!

Monster at the End of this Book app screenshot
Screenshot of last year’s CYBILs Book App winner: The Monster at the End of this Book.

For the seventh year running, the CYBILs — the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards — will recognize the best kids’ and YA books of the past year. Nominations are open to the public through October 15, so you have just a few days left to throw your favorite books and apps into the ring.

And not only books — last year saw the addition of book apps to the CYBILs category list. Book Apps chair Mary Ann Scheuer writes:

Findability is a huge problem when it comes to book apps. What are the most recent apps published? What will appeal to my children?

That’s where you come in. Visit the CYBILs site to view a list of all book apps that have been nominated so far. (Eligibility criteria are spelled out here; an app’s release date must be between Oct. 16, 2011 and Oct. 15, 2012 to qualify). If a book app you love isn’t there, please nominate it! (Need ideas? Mary Ann offers a few suggestions, and Round 1 Panelist Paula Willey notes some nonfiction book apps worth a look. UPDATED TO ADD: Panelist Lalitha Nataraj offers more suggestions in this post.)

Be sure to check out the other CYBILs categories; you may nominate one book in each. Categories include:

I’m one of the Round 2 judges in Book Apps this year. The Round 1 panelists will narrow your nominations down to a shortlist, and the Round 2 team will select a winner from those. I can’t wait to see what you come up with!