I have a weird love of year-end lists. I don’t know what it is about them that makes me so happy, but they’re just so desperately satisfying. Mmm.
This list isn’t of books that came out this year (with one or two exceptions), but rather of books I loved reading in 2017. I had a pretty odd year, and lost my reading mojo for a fair chunk of it, so the vast majority of books I loved were ones I read aloud with my six-year-old (he loved these, too). And now that he’s reading on his own, I’ve included some that he loved reading solo as well.
Adult Books I Loved
American War, by Omar El Akkad. I’ve recommended this book more than any other I’ve read in the last few years. It got stuck deep down in my brain, and I thought about it for weeks after finishing it. It’s timely, and well crafted, and smart.
My Bread, by Jim Lahey. This was the year I got into making bread, starting with Lahey’s perfect, simple no-knead recipe.
Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen, by Richa Hingle. We aren’t vegan, but amongst us we have a variety of food restrictions that leads us to mostly cook non-dairy, and I’ve long been what I like to call a lapsed vegetarian. This book is a gem.
The Sisters Grimm, by Michael Buckley. The kid picked this one off a shelf at the bookstore based on its cover, and we loved it. We just found the next two books in the series at his school’s used book sale, and I’m excited to read them with him in the coming year.
The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall. I didn’t know this was the first in a series when we picked this book up. It was so thoroughly enjoyable, and so cozy to read curled up together, that I’ll insist we read another one next summer (summer, it must be!).
The Contract, by Derek Jeter. My baseball-obsessed kid has demanded we read many a mediocre baseball novel, and I admit I was not very confident about this one, about Jeter, the former Yankees captain, when he was a kid. I’m pleased to say I was not only pleasantly surprised, I absolutely loved this book (and the others in the series so far), and of course the kid did, too. They’re full of Grand Life Lessons but aren’t at all preachy. And since we already know that as an adult, Jeter does indeed fulfill his childhood dream of playing for the Yankees and indeed becomes one of the most celebrated short stops in baseball history, those lessons seem even more impactful.
The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events), by Lemony Snicket. We’ve been babysitting a dear friend’s hardcover collection of this series, and though I’ve never read it, I started to suspect the kid would be ready for it. Ready is an understatement. He’s absolutely riveted by the literal series of unfortunate events the three Baudelaire children endure. I admit I’m quite pleased to see he shares his mother’s appreciation for dark stories. (Next year, look for some Neil Gaiman on this list…)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: The Illustrated Edition, by J.K. Rowling and artist Jim Kay. We continued the tradition we began on the kid’s fifth birthday, giving him the newest illustrated Harry Potter book (this year the second book for his sixth birthday; and yes, we have the third book wrapped to give him on his seventh at the very end of the year). Not only does this schedule allow us to progress through the books slowly, which I’m keen to do because they start to get more intense after the third, it also forces us to enjoy the series over years and years. Not that we wouldn’t anyway; I’ve no doubt he’ll read these books over and over throughout his life, as I have (well, throughout my adult life, that is).
Jim Nasium is a Strikeout King, by Marty McKnight. This one was a gift from my in-laws, and the kid was delighted by it. Interestingly, he had his first experience putting down a book when he just couldn’t get into Jim Nasium Is a Soccer Goofball. I had to assure him it’s okay to put down a book unfinished (see the section of books I loved, above, for an idea of how many books I started this year but didn’t get through – this is my shortest-ever list of loved books.)
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I used a 6mm needle for my mostly worsted weight yarn, and knitted the shawl in fits and starts over about a month. I had more than enough yarn to work the called-for number of repeats for the pattern, so I kept going, and then I worked a larger-than-called for garter edging before working the picot bind-off.
Of course, I managed to work one too many rows of garter stitch before binding off, and it became clear to me before I was halfway through the picots that there was no way I’d have enough yarn to keep those going. Rather than undoing the bind-off, I just… stopped making the picots. And managed to get to the end with about 5″ of yarn to spare. The shawl’s for me, so who cares if it has only almost half the picots it should have?
When I laid the shawl out to block, I discovered another shining error that I quickly embraced: Somewhere along the line, I misplaced the centre stitch, so the spine of increases veers off to one side after a few repeats. Ah well. You totally can’t tell when I’m wearing it.
So… The shawl is fairly dramatically more imperfect than the imperfection I usually embrace in projects like these, but I love it anyway, and have worn it every day since it dried.
I’m in the midst of a few months of restricted activity due to some medical shenanigans, and my first question I asked after my doctor told me I need to avoid cardio exercise and lifting more than a grocery bag was, “Can I go for walks? Like, for an hour? Or more?”
Thankfully, his answer was yes. I can walk for as long as I’d like.
Since I got into the habit of running this fall, training for a 5k, one of the things I knew might happen but still delighted me when it did was that I’d come to rely on my runs for my mental health. That hour spent purely in pursuit of a made-up goal became an unexpected highlight of my day. Three or four times a week, I got up and out, and it made everything better. My mind felt clearer, my body felt stronger.
Being forced to take it easy is frustrating and disappointing, especially because I was this close to being ready for the 5k.
But at least I can take long walks. And so I have been, every day.
I walk by myself, but I see these walks as being as important to my general life as artist Austin Kleon describes the walks he takes with his family every morning. (I also can’t make it to Creative Mornings – the talks happen too early to accommodate dropping my kid off at school.)
Not only will my body heal while I stroll around the woods and my neighbourhood, my mind will stay healthy, too.
Just in time for Halloween (or, you know, any kind of occasion that calls for some spooky fun), here's a super simple stamp project.
I carved some ghastly stamps and used them on small paper bags I'll fill with treats for my kid's friends for Halloween, but you could just as easily use them on cards, banners, posters, or any other kind of decoration.
Get the free halloween stamp template!
What You Need
Here's everything you need to make Halloween treat bags (obviously, sub out the bags for an appropriate printing surface if you're making cards or banners instead!)
Optional: Gel pens or other kinds of markers for embellishing after you've stamped
Make sure you stamp the area of the bag that will be visible once the bag is full and the top is folded over.
Keep in mind that the folds and seams of the bag will affect how the stamp applies the ink. Embrace the tiny imperfections!
Not all light-coloured inks will show up well on dark paper – be sure to read ink labels carefully, and experiment.
These stamps are cute on their own, if I do say so myself, but I love them even more when I use them as a starting point. In the photo at the top of the post, you can see how much more awesome the bags look with a little bit of gel pen and marker thrown into the mix.
At Knit City a couple of weeks ago, I tried on the Veronika Cardigan and immediately fell in love. I’m not usually keen to knit garments, but I was powerless against this one.
I knew I had enough yarn of one kind or another at home to make it, so I bought the pattern and dug out my Rubbermaid. In it, I found this gorgeous navy yarn I bought a million years ago – maybe at my very first Rhinebeck?
It was intended to become a sweater for my husband, but I didn’t buy enough yardage and the yarn has been sitting in this bin for over a decade. To be honest, as the yarn is unlabeled it’s entirely possible I don’t have enough to make this sweater, either. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
The yarn is perfect for Veronika. The stitches are flying off my needles, and this project has been my constant companion, in addition to my kid, as the Yankees have progressed in post-season baseball.
My kid had a big growth spurt this past summer, and by the end of it, most of his pajama pants fit him more like capris. (Or, as we like to call capris in our family: shpants.)
As we went through his outgrown pajamas and made a pile to donate, he grabbed one pair of pants and announced he loved them so much he didn’t want to give them away – he wanted to make a pillow out of them.
(At some point when he was a toddler, we made a pillow out of a shirt. I don’t remember the project, and I don’t think we even have it anymore, but it’s stuck in his head that we make pillows out of old clothes we love, and I love this idea so, so much.) (Also, I have a growing pile of his old clothes I want to make a quilt out of someday.)
So here’s what we did:
First, Cut Off a Leg
Since these pants were made from a stretchy knit fabric, I held them taught while my son wielded my fabric scissors. We cut the leg off as near to the crotch of the pants as possible, to make for the longest/biggest pillow. We also cut the elastic off the cuff, at the ankle.
(I took this photo later on in the process [scroll down for notes on adding an appliqué], but below you can see one of the cut-up ends of the pant leg.)
Next, Sew Up One End
We could have simply sewed the ankle end shut, but it was way more fun for the kid to decide on a design for felt scales to sew in there, too. So he took a sharpie to some felt, then he got frustrated trying to cut felt with safety scissors and my fabric scissors were too big for him to use for detail cutting. So I cut out the design.
Then I sandwiched the felt inside the ankle end of the pants leg, threaded some embroidery floss onto a sharp embroidery needle, and taught the kid how to sew a running stitch through the three layers of fabric.
You might think a running stitch – and not a terribly tightly sewn one – wouldn’t be appropriate for eventually keeping stuffing from coming out of the pillow, but (spoiler) it’s worked great.
Maybe, If You Want, Make an Appliqué
The kid didn’t particularly want to make this pillow into a monster, but when I suggested he could cut out a shape of felt and decorate it however he wanted, he decided that would be a grand thing to do. He drew a big triangle, I helped him cut it out (mental note to get him scissors that are sharp enough for cutting felt or fabric), then he took a Sharpie to it.
At this point, he’d lost interest in the slow part of hand-sewing, and he expressed zero desire to sew the appliqué on. No big. I sewed it on, for I love the slow part of hand-sewing. While I did this, he went outside and tossed a baseball against a net.
Now Stuff It
We used basic poly-fil as stuffing. You could, alternatively, use scrap fabric or yarn, or a mixture of scraps and poly-fil, for a more eco-friendly (though lumpier) stuffing. (I love eco-friendly lumpy stuffings, FWIW.)
Use as much or as little stuffing as you or your small friend wants.
Finally, Sew Up the Other End
We again cut out some felt humps to sew into the second and final seam at the crotch end of the pant leg.
Because of the stuffing, I used pins to keep things together, with the humps sandwiched between the halves of pant leg as for the ankle end.
The kid did the sewing after I got it started, and I held things together for him as he went, obviously removing pins as he progressed.
And there you have it: a pillow made out of old, outgrown pajama pants!
The kid’s slept with it in his bed every night since we made it.
What do you do with outgrown-but-beloved clothes?
PS You can see bits of a book in some of these photos. It’s a great book called Sewing School: 21 Sewing Projects Kids Will Love to Make, by Andria Lisle and Amie Petronis Plumley. We didn’t follow instructions from the book to make the pillow, but even starting from a place of the kid flipping through and saying he didn’t like any of the projects for pillows was a great launching point for figuring out what he did want to make. And the book assured me running stitch was a totally age-appropriate skill to teach him. Also, I love this book because the projects are made by actual kids – there is zero room for comparing what you or your kid makes against any sort of “perfection”. It’s all gloriously age-appropriate. And therefore absolutely what it should be!
This part at the beginning made me nod my head very hard: “Sometimes we focus so much on getting great at something that we miss the opportunity we have to get better.”
But then I kept reading, and I was like, hold up. This is just… overly complicated. There’s a way simpler “formula” for getting better at one thing in a month.
Here’s how it goes: Just do lots of that thing in a month.
That’s it, dude. All it takes to get better at something is to do it lots, and the way to get yourself to do it lots is to commit to doing it lots. Which isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do, but it is simple.
Sure, you can spend some time figuring out how to define “better”. And sure, you can spend some time getting in touch with why you want to get better at it. But honestly? Enough thinking about it, and just start doing it. You can figure out the whys while you’re at it, or after you’ve done it.
There’s something stuck in your brain, something you desperately – maybe secretly – want to get better at. The only thing you need to do is just show up. Stop thinking about it so much you never do it.
Get ambitious and commit to doing or making that one thing every single day for a month. Or commit to doing or making it a few times a week for a month. Anything less than that isn’t really making a commitment to get better at it.
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I've spent years making something every single day, and in doing that I've gotten better at making lots of different kinds of things, and way better at trying new things. Hell, I've even gotten better at getting better at things.
This month, I'm training for a 5K. How I'm doing it? By making sure I show up for the workouts. I could wax on for ages about why I'm doing this at this particular time in my life, and why I've gotten further into the training than I have any of the other times I've tried, but really it comes down to not thinking about it. I don't need to justify myself, I don't need to justify my methods, I don't need to dig deep into what kept me from doing this all the other times I've tried. I just need to do it.
What's nagging at you that you want to get better at? Will you show up for it?
It was more than a couple of years ago that a friend announced on Facebook that they were looking to sell their barely used 10″ Cricket Loom. As it was my birthday, I decided this was exactly the right thing to buy myself.
My kid helped me warp the loom with an odd ball of variegated yarn, and I chose a second odd ball of black tweed yarn for the weft.
Weaving goes fast! Way faster than knitting or crocheting.
But then something got in the way of me finishing the project. A mental block. Maybe I wished I’d chosen a yarn I had more of, so I could actually finish a scarf-length project (even with the uneven edges that come with any first weaving project)? Maybe I was concerned the finishing steps would be tedious or complicated?
I have no idea. What I do know is that this project stayed on the loom for years after I finished weaving it.
Until now. I finally got the thing off my loom! It took a sum total of about fifteen minutes and the aid of Liz Gipson’s fabulous book. That’s it!
So now that I’ve gotten over the anxieties of my very first project, I’m ready to take on a more deliberate one. Surely for a scarf again. But which yarns will I use?
Learning how to carve stamps is one of my favourite things to come out of my Years of Making. Stamp carving is like the opposite of knitting and crocheting – you can sit down for an hour or two and create a stamp you can use over and over again pretty much forever. Compared to making things from yarn, it’s practically instantaneous! And it’s fun.
And, let’s face it, it’s also practical. I’ve designed a thank-you stamp for making cards to send after my kid’s birthday. I’ve made outlines of shapes to use in my bullet journal or to layer over all sorts of stuff in my art journal. I’ve made a stamp of the title of Stamp Camp – so meta! And of the tiles in my cousin’s bathroom. (Ok, that last one isn’t practical at all. But it sure was fun.)
You can also access some of the class as a free trial to see how the platform works and to get a feel for what’s offered in class. So no risk! Give it a try today and let me know if you have any questions.