50+ gifts our ten kids loved: The 2017 list

It’s the fourth annual Fisher family Christmas gift recommendation list! These are all products our family owns and has enjoyed. You can find my 2014 list here, my 2015 list here, and my 2016 list here.

Many, but not all of these are from Amazon. I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

And now for the presents:

1.Turn table with built in speakers

Good little machine for the price, and has held up well.

2. Acoustic Yamaha guitar with case and accessories

 

 

3. Squier by Fender “Mini” Strat Beginner Electric Guitar with Rosewood Fingerboard

Great starter electric guitar. It’s . . . so loud.

4. Distortion pedal bundle

This, my daughter notes, is the same one Curt Cobain had. Ha cha cha!

5. Machete

Good for clearing brush, gathering kindling, or just choppa-choppa-choppa. Hey, they have ten fingers, plenty to spare.

6. Prismacolor double-ended manga markers

A nice set for sketching, drawing comics, etc. Good, rich colors.

7. Light saber screwdriver set

These are on the small side, so they are not for heavy duty jobs, but they are real screw drivers, and solid.

8. Fox hat with ear flaps

As advertised. Cute! Runs a tiny bit small, so not for kids with tons of hair or giant heads.

9. OceanPetal Art Studio flower jewelry (Etsy)

So many gorgeous designs. Flora in resin, bracelets, pendants, and more. We have a lovely flat pendant with yellow flowers.

10. Otamatone

This . . . is a little hard to explain. The stem is a touch-sensitive electronic music-maker, so if you press or slide your finger along it, you can make different tones. Then, with your other hand, you squeeze the flexible sides of the mouth to open or close it, to change the volume, to make the sound staccato or give it vibrato, etc. It. Is. Hilarious. It looks like the little guy is singing. It’s the cheesiest imaginable synthesizer sound.

11. Princess Leia Bun Hat

Warm and snug. And who might you be?

12. Hellboy Library Editions

The library editions are compilations of the comic books bound in heavy, oversized hardcover. My son rather heatedly explains: “Hellboy is Catholic. He fights monsters. He helps save babies. He gets help from priests a lot. It’s mythology based. The art is pretty gory, appropriate for age 13 and up.” And that is a direct quote.

13. Jewelry and rosaries from IronLace Design

We don’t have this particular piece ($45), but we have several necklaces, bracelets, and a rosary from Kyra Matsui’s studio, and they are all fantastic. Beautiful, original, strong, and striking. Chainmail and vintage watch parts.
COUPON! Get 30% off storewide with coupon code: NARKNON  Good until Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017.

14. Samsung Chromebook 3, 11.6″, 4GB RAM, 16GB eMMC

We have two of these (one for a college kid, one for a reporter). A good option for all-purpose computering, fine for movies and streaming. We used to buy refurbished, but now we get cheaper new machines so we can get the warranty. You have to get used to storing everything on Google Drive or saving it on a disk, rather than on your machine. A solid choice that doesn’t cost a million dollars.

15. Canvas Messenger Bag 

Amazingly sturdy at a great price. Nice and roomy and attractive, and the strap is comfortable. It’s bigger than it looks in the picture, believe it or not.

16. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

A good introduction to Terry Pratchett and Discworld. Sergeant Vimes is the best. This one has a lot of dragons in it.

17. 10 x 50 Binoculars 

Good and heavy, smooth and easy to use. Comes with decent case, strap, cloth, and lens caps. Birds! The moon! Neighbors!

18. Pandemic Board Game

Lots of strategy and cooperative play, or you all die. My teenagers play it with the younger kids (age 7 and up). Suspenseful and lots of pressure.

19. 5th Element Panther XT Inline Skates

Son skates around town after school every day. These took some breaking in, but now he loves them, and says they are comfortable and easy to maneuver.

20. Mysterium Board Game

Help a dead murder victim remember details about his grisly demise, using clues from arty and deliberately confusing “vision cards.” Lavish and complex cooperative game. Comes with an app to play spooky music to add to the atmosphere. (Full review here.)

21. Funko Pop Eleven

Aw, wookit the widdle blood coming out of her nose. I don’t really understand Funko Pops.

22. Panda surprise mug

Helloooo! (There are also cats, monkeys, ducks, Santas, etc.)

23. Cow Cow Dresses

These come in hundreds and hundreds of amazing, unexpected, sometimes inexplicable patterns. The material is clingy but not thin, and has a bit of a sheen and stretch, like a bathing suit. Gathers fall nicely, and flares way out when you spin. On the short side, as you can see.

24. Die Hard: The Authorized Coloring and Activity Book

Sighhh. She loved it.

25. “Fools! I’ll destroy you all” Button

For that one kid.

***
Now we’ll move on to some gifts for kids in middle school. These are not hard and fast lines, as you will see.

26. Magic sequin pillowcase

Every single person in my household loves these pillows. (NOTE: The link above is just the pillowcase! You have to buy the pillow insert separately.) We have a blue-green-purple/black one and a few silver/gold ones, but there are many color combos. Draw with your finger to flip the sequins over, and reveal another color. Endlessly fascinating and soothing to play with, and they have held up remarkably well. Remarkably!

27. Mighty Jack and the Goblin King

The much-anticipated sequel to Hatke’s graphic novel Mighty Jack, which follows a boy who has to spend his summer helping his single mom care for his sister, who has autism, and who doesn’t speak — until she does. Good stuff, with an exciting twist at the end for fans of Hatke’s other work.

28. Minecraft stop motion animation set

This is the set that got my son started on stop-motion animation. It comes with a little stage, backgrounds, many props, a little stand for your camera, and an app to animate the photos and share.

My son has branched off on his own and now uses the free version of the app called Stop Motion Studio by CATEATER, but he says this set gave him the confidence to get going.

29. Godzilla 7″ Vinyl Figure from Destroy All Monsters

One of the many Godzillas my son uses for his stop motion videos. Nicely detailed and sturdy.

30. “Deal With It” Glasses

It’s possible my son is the only one in the world who wants these, but he sure does like them. I can’t explain it more than that.

31. Bricky Blocks Black Snapback

Bring your Legos with you! Put your Legos on your head! What a time to be alive!

32. Air hockey table

We got this with great reluctance, thinking it would be flimsy for the price, and that the kids would get tired of it soon. Nope! They use it a lot and have a lot of fun. It’s great for parties, and fun for the little kids to play with their big brothers. Kinda loud, but it’s air hockey. They just stand it up on its end to keep it out of the way.

33. Pikachu hoodie

Please tell me my kids aren’t the last ones in the world who like Pokemon. Good fit. Rather charming.

34. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe

Works as a standalone for kids who are not yet familiar with Squirrel Girl.

35. LCD Writing Tablet

For the kid who can’t stop doodling. Also great for car rides. Write with the stylus on the black screen, press the button to erase. That’s it. Surprisingly durable for the price. We have a couple of these in different colors.

***

And gifts for younger kids and toddlers:

36. Crocodile Toddler RC Car with Music and Lights

Toddlers really can control this simple RC croc. It does play manically cheerful music, flash lights, and chomp its mouth while it runs, but darn it, this thing does not break. It’s been in constant use for a year and is still going strong. Lots of fun to watch the little guys use it and baffle the cat with it. Good battery life, too.

37. Mama Kangaroo and Joey Plush, 13″

Sweet and sturdy. Good for the kid who likes to make sure the baby is always where he belongs. Stands up by itself.

38. I Got This! Game

Exciting, frustrating, some teamwork required, but lots of competition. Very entertaining to watch. Kids have to decide if they should push themselves a little further to do more and more challenging, silly tasks.

39. Tempera Paints Set, 16 oz, Pack of 6 .

Great price for this much paint.

40. Rubie’s Wonder Woman Costume

Runs a little small. I like the star pants. Makes a kid feel super without sliding into “sexy tot” territory.

41. Lots of things from Door Number 9. Here’s the wonderful St. Michael prayer Pillow, featuring a prayer very obviously written by a real kid:

So much geeky fun here, some of it Catholic, much of it for adults or older kids. We have several of Elisa’s lovingly handmade products and we adore them.

42. LYRA Ferby Triangular Colored Pencils

Our beloved kindergarten teacher introduced us to these lovely colored pencils. I balked at the price at first, but they are quite good. Vivid colors, nice and smooth, and easy to grip, even for lefties, and the tips don’t snap off.

43. Fleece lined koala hat

Cute and goofy, and very warm. Holds up great. My daughter wears this nine months out of the year.

44. Boomwhackers Whack Pack

Bright plastic tubes you whack to make different booming tones. You can arrange them in different orders on the mat and hit them with sticks, hit them with each other, or use them to hit other things. Music and hitting things! Sounds like a happy childhood. Longest tube is about two feet. These have been stepped on and mangled without any ill effects.

45. Chicken Soup with Rice Board Book: A Book of Months

Possibly the greatest poem ever written. I’m always happy to read this one. This is a sturdy board book. Here’s to you, Mrs. Ida Perles!

46. Miracle Man: The Story of Jesus by John Hendrix

A fresh and exhilarating style that incorporates the words of the text into the illustrations. Quite powerful.

47. Little Tikes Shopping Cart

We looked at many, many shopping carts, and settled on this one because it has a little seat for your little friend to ride along. Irresistible. This gets constant use. The bigger kids have managed to take it apart, and then put it back together again, with no ill effects.

48. My Little Pony Monopoly Board Game

Uhhm, check the price on this one. The price currently listed is insane, but it seems to fluctuate. The game itself is nice for MLP fans and gets lots of play. Pony game pieces are heavy and well made, not flimsy.

49. Melissa & Doug 20 Animal Magnets in a Box

Bright and pleasant. Magnets have stayed on, animals have not peeled off, despite occasionally getting wet.

50. Dreamy Dress-Up Butterfly Wings

We keep buying these. Found some lovely bright ones this time. The material is strong, but thin enough that you don’t have to take it off to strap your little butterfly into its car seat.

51. Color Paddles, Set of 18

A slightly odd present, but I knew my five-year-old would love it. These are just transparent colored paddles to play with, mix together, and look through. Despite they way they are arranged in the photo, they are not attached together. I strung six of them on a chain and put the rest away so I could replace them as needed. Kids love peering through them and seeing Purpleworld or Everythingisgreenville. It’s just cool! Good for car trips. There are also slightly raised different patterns on each.

51. Tinkerbell’s Learn Ballet Step by Step DVD

I previewed tons of ballet videos, and this one is by far the best. It teaches the girls actual ballet positions, but is simple and easy to follow and has pleasant piano music. The teacher is cheerful and seems to enjoy children. It’s not manic or cutesy and has no unsettling mascots or animated characters (“Tinkerbell” appears to be some generic name; there’s no Disney fairy involved). Kids can use a chair back as a barre.

52. Kitty Cat Riding A Unicorn T-Shirt

For the child who, for reasons of her own, is slowly building a collection of strange, oversized cat shirts. This is actually a men’s size, but that’s just not right, so I’m putting it in the kid present section.

***
Whew, that’s all for this year! Hope you find something good.

Chainmail, goth, and rosaries: An interview with Kyra Matsui of Iron Lace Design

“I watch my kids cover themselves in duct tape and use whole rolls of wire to wire their siblings together,” says Kyra Matsui, proprietor of Iron Lace Design, “and I can see who I was from the beginning.”

Kyra, 39, lives in Toronto and turns out a dazzling array of intricate, sturdy jewelry and rosaries, at once heavy and delicate, many incorporating Japanese-style chainmail and vintage watch movements.

Her drive to create started early, she says:

“I was an isolated child, hiding in my room, making stuff. I remember when I was six, there was this plastic dollhouse stool. I figured out if I wove Kleenex around it and wet it, then when it dried, I could slip it off, and I would end up with a little basket. I started painting Kleenex with food coloring and hanging it all over the ceiling. My parents were so patient!”

Kyra, 39, who is separated, has boys ages seven and nine, and five-year-old twin girls. She recently got a diagnosis of autism for her oldest son, who also has diabetes. Kyra uses a combination of homeschooling and public school.

“My own public school experience was pretty bad,” says Kyra. “I didn’t really learn any kind of work ethic, or how to concentrate, but I did learn how to be quiet so I could get away with anything.

“What I wanted to do [with my own kids] was give them a space to socialize with people not just in their own grade level, but who were interested in the same thing. To give them the space to figure out what they were interested in.

“For me, that was making stuff. I remember reading Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Warrior Scarlet when I was nine or so, and teaching myself to weave on a little loom I made out of a cardboard box. I was supposed to be doing schoolwork. Instead, I pulled stuffing out of a pillow and figured out how to make a spindle.”

Here’s the rest of the conversation I had with Kyra about her current work:

How did you get started making jewelry? What is it about chainmail that appeals to you?

It’s because of my Japanese cultural heritage, plus historical interest, plus fantasy. When I was fourteen and hiding in the school library, they had a couple of really good costume history books, and I devoured those.
I was briefly in the Society for Creative Anachronism doing costuming, and some friends were doing chainmail. The kind I do, Japanese, is the simplest. Usually what you see in movies is European. It runs in one direction, almost like snake scales.
What I like about Japanese chain mail is you can hang it any way, like fabric.

You can attach dangly stuff to it and incorporate it into the construction.

Lapis lazuli and stainless steel choker

You also have some jewelry made of watch parts on your page. Tell me how you got your hands on that.

Two brass watch movement pendants

It all belongs to my father, whose parents emigrated from Japan in the 20’s.  He was eight or nine when the Japanese Canadians were interned. His family ended up in Toronto after they were relocated. He trained as a watchmaker and repairman and jeweler, and he had a workshop in the house I’m sitting in now, the house I inherited.

When digital watches came, he became a tool and die maker, but did watch repair privately. He had a workshop that was floor-to-ceiling tiny drawers full of watch movements, gears, springs, some of them almost microscopic. You need tweezers to pick them up.

After he died, I was clearing out all his stuff, and thinking, ‘This is beautiful stuff. ” I’m not going to learn to do watch repair. I tried to sell it, but I didn’t get any takers.

What would he think of the jewelry you make with his watch parts?

He would be appalled!

Chainmail and vintage gear charm necklace

Well, he would be happy it was being used, but perturbed. He wanted me to go into fine arts and into jewelry-specific programs, metalworking, gemology. But I’ve always come at things more from a costuming and textile end.

Chainmail is a lot more like working with fabric then metalwork. I’d like to learn to solder, but that requires a lot of precision. Chainmail is more like knitting.

How long does it take you to make one of those necklaces or rosaries?
A rosary takes about four or five hours of intensive labor. Because I make them out of stainless steel, it’s really hard on my hands, so I split it up over two or three days.
I’ve ended up with carpal tunnel from doing too much! I made a Mexican wedding double rosary over a weekend, and that was a bad idea.
It’s very intricate work. 
And I’m extremely myopic. I was told by an ophthalmology student that my close-up vision is excellent. I can see much finer detail than most people, as long as I hold it an inch and a half from my eye. I also have a jeweler’s visor loupe.
You have four kids, you’re completely renovating your house, you exclusively homeschooled up until recently, and you’re a single mom. So in your abundant free time, what do you do?
When I was in my early 20’s, I did about ten years of belly dance classes. Then I had four kids in four years. But I love to dance. I found that goth clubs are the only place you can go and belly dance for the entire night without being hassled. My friend Cynthia and I found this lovely place that has industrial goth night once a month.
It’s the same people from twenty years ago. We’re all older and tireder. We have a few drinks, thrash around on the dance floor, and then go back to our lives as attorneys or whatever. There are some really terrified-looking twenty-year-olds who turn up, too. Half of them embrace it, and half of them sidle quietly out the door away from the scary, old people.
[Below: Kyra in her Halloween costume as Jadis, Queen of Charn:]
If you had unlimited time, energy, and resources, what would you make?
I was looking around Etsy and found this chandelier thing you hang between your nipples. This . . . is not what I’m going to be doing.

If time and money weren’t a factor, I’d love to be working in precious metals and gems. I’m learning how to solder and make my own findings. I’d love to do some sort of elaborate fantasy set, with headpiece, necklace, hand flowers, and neck piece, and make a dress that goes under it. I’m not watching Game of Thrones, but the costuming is fantastic. I’ve been looking up jewelry for the Southern Kingdom. Very East Indian-Ottoman Empire-Persian stuff.

If people want to order from Iron Lace Design for Christmas, when should they order?

 

If they want a special order shipped before Christmas and they’re in the states, get the order in by early December. Regular mail tends to be a week. Priority mail is faster, but pretty expensive. But if I have to source material, I may have to order it online.

[Two special order stainless steel rosaries, one in lapis, one in garnet:]

Kyra also makes single-decade pocket rosaries like this one in jade:

Stainless steel and jade one-decade rosary
Tomorrow, I’ll be hosting a giveaway for a single decade rosary handmade by Kyra. Entry will be free. Stay tuned!

Wow! So talent! Much teenage daughter!

Today I feature MY FAVORITE CATHOLIC ARTIST IN THE WORLD, MY OLDEST DAUGHTER LENA.

Lena’s just opened a Redbubble store, and would like you to know that you can order today and still get your stuff before Christmas. Lots of quirky and oddly elegant stuff here, mainly geeky, including fan art featuring Naruto, Big Hero 6, Psychopass, Metroid, Teen Titans, Gorillaz, Star Wars, X-Men, Ruroni Kenshin, and some other stuff that just fell out of her fevered brain.

Because I’m a big, elderly poop, I’m encouraging her to add some of her lovely outdoor watercolor scenes. She is uploading more art as I write. Here’s a few more images than I’m partial to. Far and away my favorite:

Wandering Swordsman:

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Song of the Sheikah:

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The Enforcer:

 

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An image from the side altar at church:

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And this obliging Wolverine with Baby Jubilee:

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Do stop by her Redbubble store! You can buy these images printed on T-shirts, stickers, and mugs.

or you can check out much more of the artwork she’s posted online on Tumblr, The Otaku, and Paigeeworld.

Guys. IT IS FUN HAVING TEENAGERS. They are always surprising you!

50 Gifts our 10 kids loved, the 2016 list!

We have ten kids, ages eighteen to almost two. We buy . . . . a lot  . . . .of gifts. Here’s a list of fifty that our kids tried and liked this past year. They’re mostly under $50, and are in order from cheapest to most expensive, so it’s a little book-heavy in the beginning.

I’d also like to apologize for the graphic.

Most of these items are from Amazon. I’m an Amazon Affiliate, and all of the Amazon links in this post have my code embedded, so I earn a small percentage of the sale price, which is how we buy more presents for ten kids next year, and on and on it goes.

Here is my Amazon Affiliate link:

 

Simcha’s Amazon Link!

Please consider bookmarking it and using it every time you buy from Amazon! Thanks a million.

Here’s the first list of fifty from a few years ago, and here’s a list of twenty-five more the next year. And here are this years gift ideas:

1. Orthodox icon suncatchers and nightlights, $3.50 – $6

You can see a few in the window of my dining room here:

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Jesus’ beard is sparkly! They are plastic and vividly colored. I want them in every window of the house.

2.Stretchy tattoo choker necklace, $3.99

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Apparently these are back in style? My daughter wore one to the senior prom, along with hot pink Doc Martens (see below). (I wore my grandmother’s pearls to my prom, if anyone’s wondering.)

3.Nixon decal, $4

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“I’m meeting you halfway, you stupid hippies!” Possibly specific to the needs of my family. For the right person, it could be the best $4 you ever spent. When people ask how my kids deal with being one of the few Catholics in a giant public school, this sums it up pretty well.

4.The Mysterious Benedict Society, about $5.

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This book came highly recommended by trusted friends for kids grade four and up, and it lived up to the hype. Original, exciting, and the author actually wrote it with care and wit, rather than just assembling a plot with the right keywords. Kids and I both enjoyed it. It’s part one of a series of four.

5.Betsy-Tacy collection, $5.99

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Another book my friends have been lauding forever. My first-grader just adores this series, which has ten books total. I admit I haven’t read it yet, but my daughter doesn’t put up with a lot of nonsense, so I respect her opinion.

6.Hanging glass egg vase, $6.99

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This is the one of two items on this list that I haven’t actually bought yet, but it’s on my list — in this case, on my wish list. If someone gets it for me, I plan to grow ivy in it. Ivy will grow easily in water. I need green in the house to tide me over until spring!

7.Bubble motion tumbler, $7.50
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This was a gift for the six-year-old, but everyone loves it, from the baby on up. Those orderly little drops, marching up and down the steps, hurrying or strolling, as you choose. Endlessly fascinating, miraculously never mixing. (There are any number of liquid motion toys to choose from. Great for babies, older kids who need calming down, or adults who need calming down. I once spotted a few of these toys in the waiting room at the washing machine repair shop, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t mind waiting.)

8.Feasts of Our Lord and Our Lady coloring book, and A Feast of Saints coloring book, $7.95

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Matthew Alderman’s new offerings this year. Alderman’s style is so fresh and inviting, reminiscent of Trina Schart Hyman, who drew heavily on heraldry and illuminated manuscripts, nodded at the pre-raphaelites, and then opened the window to let some air in. Great stuff. Kids (and others) soak in knowledge as they color.

9.Oreo teether, $7.97

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Corrie got this last Christmas, when she was teething hard, so it became known as the Corrie-o. The little ridges are perfect for sore gums. It’s bigger than a real Oreo, so not a choking hazard. Super cute, still a favorite after a year of gnawing.

10.Babies DVD, about $9
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How I adore this movie. It shows, without comment, everyday scenes from the lives of four babies, from just before they’re born until they’re learning how to stand. The families live in San Francisco, Tokyo, the Mongolian steppe, and Namibia, and their lives vary widely, but some things are always the same. Sweetness and a little melancholy, but mostly sweetness. I always feel restored after watching this short, gentle, agenda-free movie, and the kids love it.

11.Mighty Jack, about $9

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Ben Hatke’s first installment in a new graphic novel series. It’s a reimagining of Jack and the Beanstalk, and it’s wonderful. You care about the main character right away; Hatke is generous with understated details that tell you what you need to know about the world they live in; and I have no idea what is going to happen next. Some serious themes — serious money troubles, danger, a younger sister who is autistic, and a difficult friendship — but suitable for kids age 7 and up, if they’re not highly sensitive.

12.The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, about $10

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We loved The Pirates! Band of Misfits movie so much (made by the same folks who make the excellent Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep), and recently discovered that it was based on a series of books that are even odder and nuttier than the movie. These books do include some bawdy jokes and some violent details, but I feel that the most inapwo-pwo stuff goes over the little kids’ heads, and it’s just edgy enough to give the older kids a little thrill, without crossing any lines.

13.Slingshot rocket, about $10

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Light foam, low-tech, lots of fun until the three rockets get lost. The feral 8-year-old daughter had a blast with it.

14.Garden fairies scratch book, about $10

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Sturdy, spiral-bound (so you can open it up flat to work). Scratch away the black to reveal rainbow swirls and glittery colors underneath. Sweet little poems, pictures to copy if you like, and blank pages for sketching, besides the scratch-off pages. Many themes available, from  outer space to mermaids to Jurassic creatures.

15.Galaxy infinity scarf, $11.95

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My fashion-minded ten-year old would wear this every day if we let her (which we do). Pair it with the TARDIS hat (which she does) and and maybe the TARDIS dress, and you have a themed ensemble. The scarf is a stretchy rayon, machine washable.

16.Baby smartphone, $12.65

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This toy distracts the baby from your actual smartphone for maybe ten minutes. Worth every second. I like B. Toys because they make sounds, but they are intentionally soft; and they have an off switch. This one has held up well, and doesn’t gobble batteries too badly. Also records your voice, so the older kids are always pranking each other.

17.Little Dalek action figure, about $12.95

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Shiny and detailed. Perpetuate the Doctor Who obsession for another year. PER-PET-U-ATE!!!!

18.Wooden ball rattle, $12.99

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The large wooden balls are linked with elastic, so you can wear it like a bracelet, or you can roll and twist them to make all kinds of lovely clusters of color. Each ball is painted a slightly different shade, it’s pleasantly heavy, and it makes a soft clacking sound.  Fine, I bought it for myself, and sometimes I let the baby play with it. We’ve had good luck with this brand, Manhattan Toy.

19.Dragon scale leggings, $12.99

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We looked at a lot of mermaid-print leggings, but realized that our kids are more the dragon type. Snarrrrl. These come in a few different colors.

20.Krakitten T-shirt, $13

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I’ll let this magnificent garment speak for itself. Comes in a few different colors.

21.TARDIS hat, $14.88

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Aized about as expected, even on the inside. The pom pom on top is generously poofy.

22.Calico Critters Triplets, $14.99; Triple bunk bed, about $10

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Whenever my kids put Calico Critters on the list, I grumble and complain about how stupid and pointless and expensive they are; and then I start shopping, and then I go, “AWWWWWWW.” They really are adorable. These are very small toys, so not great for kids who lose stuff; but they are sturdy and sweet, and come in dozens of different species. We also have the pool and sandbox set.

23.Headband kit, $14.85

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I actually resisted buying this kit, because it seemed dumb (ALEX toys are hit or miss) but one kid desired it greatly. It turned out to be quite good. The headbands haven’t broken after a year of use, which is almost a miracle; and she had a surprising amount of fun making different combinations.

24.One Potato, Two Potato, about $15

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My current favorite read-aloud. This book has an unusual focus for a children’s book:  a very old couple, so poor they have to share everything, including a chair, a blanket, and the one last potato in the garden — or so they think.  A simple and hilarious story of unexplained magic, but so much to unpack about what you really need in life.  The illustrations are understated but extraordinary.

25.CowCow dresses, about $18 Something for everyone!

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My ten-year-old daughter worked to earn her very own ice cream and candy dress, but maybe you’d prefer beetles, constellations,  or cute ghosties. More varieties, some of them truly bizarre, than you can shake a stick at. These dresses are on the short side for adults of average height, but work fine for shorter folks. They come with or without sleeves, and are made of a stretchy rayon material.

26.Butterfly wings, about $18

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Flap flap flap! Always in style.

27.Hanging glow lamp, $18.99

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Oh, I lied, this is another thing I haven’t bought yet, but friends say it’s lovely. I’m a sucker for little worlds under a dome, and I love how this comes with a hanging hook. Friends say it’s brighter than you might expect. We recently redid the little girls’ room with two sets of bunk beds, so we may be investing in individual lighting for individual preferences.These come in three different colors, and you can get either the rabbit thing, or a plump little bird.

28.Melissa and Doug 12″ baby doll, about $19

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A sturdy favorite. Here is Corrie on her first birthday, getting to know her new baby.

29.Tinkerbell learn ballet DVD, about $20.

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By far the nicest instructional ballet video I’ve ever seen. The music is pleasant, there are no bizarre mascots or intrusive animation, the teacher seems to actually like kids, and you will learn some true, basic ballet. We put a broomstick between two chair backs to make the required barre.

30.Hooded cloak, about $20

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Exactly what the kid was hoping for. It’s not real velvet, obviously, but it’s held up well. Comes in many colors.

31.Werewolf Deluxe game, about $20. Good for ages reasonably-alert-10 to adult.

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The premise is that, when night falls in the village, a werewolf comes out and kills someone; and everyone else has to figure out who the werewolf is and what to do about it. Everyone closes his eyes, and the leader instructs one person at a time to wake up, take a look at the card that reveals his role (werewolf, bodyguard, witch, villager, etc.), and then go back to sleep. There are several rounds of play, in which the players anonymously decide to kill, save, protect, or silence each other.

Then everyone has to vote on whom to lynch. Players are eliminated one at a time, and it becomes more and more evident who is killing everyone, who is being framed, and who is lying through their teeth (and, in my case, who forgot the rules and accidentally blabbed too much information).
32.Airzooka air gun, about $20  

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More low-tech fun. Aim, pull, and release. Shoots a harmless blast of air, enough to make your hair blow back, and makes a satisfying “choonk” noise, too. 

33.Twirled Paper book and kit by Klutz, $20; Refill of  Quilling paper, 720 strips, about $10

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Quilling is making a comeback! A lovely, old-fashioned craft where you roll up thin strips of paper, loosely or tightly, then pinch them into various shapes. No end of possibilities here. You can make free-standing 3-D ornaments, glue the paper to eggs, make cards, or even jewelry. A very pleasant way to spend time. My nine-year-old needed a little help to get started, but she caught on fast.

34.Parachute hammock, about $24

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An excellent hammock for the price. I wish I had had a hammock the last ten times I was pregnant! Heavenly. These sturdy, easy-to-use hammock straps, about $16, were a good investment, too.

35.Lenox ballerina jewelry box, $25.

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With eight daughters, we’ve tried a number of jewelry boxes. A number. This one is by far the sturdiest, but it still looks delicate and dainty. The ballerina still pops up, the music still plays, the hinges still function, and the box is still a box. Pretty, silver-satin quilted design. Plays “Fur Elise.”

36.Godzilla hands, about $25

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I don’t know what to say about this. We have these. They are by far the most luxurious Godzilla hands we’ve ever owned.

37.Ramona complete collection, $27.50

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A much-desired gift. For the right kid, a boxed set of every single one of their favorite character’s stories is a wonderful prize. Ramona really holds up all these decades later.

38.Blowfish tea set, about $30

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Quirky but elegant!  A very good product for the price. This is a full-sized, functional tea set for two, not a toy.

39.Toddler slide, $31

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Probably the most-used piece of furniture in our entire house. This lived in our living room for at least five months, and saved my sanity while Miss Insano clambered up and threw herself down hundreds and hundreds of times. Folds for storage.

40.Legend of Zelda stained glass backpack, about $34

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Just a light nylon backpack, but it was what the kid wanted. It’s a little roomier than it appears, and the pattern is actually more vibrant than the picture shows.

41.Long Ballerina Tutu, $36

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This is the absolute last untested item on this list! We’ve bought many items from The Little Dress-Up Shop, and have always been completely delighted, so I’m confident that this sweet, poofy ballerina skirt with rosebuds will be well-received.

42.Portable Bluetooth speaker,
about $37

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Exactly what we needed. It works with my kid’s phones, and lets them blast music while slaving away in the dirty dish mines or cleaning up the yard after the last raccoon garbage party. Easy to use, and a good value for the price.

43.White bird mobile, about $38

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Marketed as a baby mobile, but it’s a real work of art, and very large. A cloud of white birds in constant, gentle motion. We got this for our fourteen-year-old, and it really transforms a space.

44.Darth Vader Skechers, about $40

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These are adult sized, in case your kids grow out of kid’s shoes before their brains grow out of a love for Star Wars, which of course could never happen.

45.Punk tartan purse, $41

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Sturdy and awesome, lots of zippers, buckles, and studs, perfect for that one punk kid who needs a place to keep all her black lipstick. Has an adjustable shoulder strap and shiny black insides.

46.Dark Prince sword, $43

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It wouldn’t be Christmas without at least one sword. This one is long, shiny and seriously heavy. Not sharp, but you definitely could kill someone if you tried. Not meant for heavy fighting, but good for stage or costumes or just swaggering around with a big-ass sword.

47.Stilts, about $45 a pair

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Greatest inspiration I’ve had all year. We now have two sets (they come rated for different weights), and they are adjustable. First kid went from zero skill to wobbling across the floor in a few minutes, and now she can jump, run backwards, spin, and do all kinds of terrifying stunts. Good exercise, good for improving balance, and great for building confidence. Excelsior!

48.Hot pink Doc Martens, $75

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For the prom! For everyday wear! For making yourself awesome from the ground up. A million colors, all shiny and rugged and BACK IN STYLE. Aw yiss.

49.Casio Keyboard, $129.95

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A very serviceable electric keyboard for people learning to play. Comes with a stand and headset, so you can practice without driving your sister crazy, assuming that’s your goal.

50.15-foot Trampoline and enclosure with basketball hoop, $329

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Yes, this is the second trampoline we’ve bought. We finally destroyed the mat of the first one, and after several unsuccesful attempts to replace it (we kept buying the wrong size, the wrong spring size, etc. etc.) we just threw in the towel and bought a new one, upgrading to fifteen feet. I know all about the horrible stories of mangled faces and splintered tibias, but we are still a trampoline family all the way.

Baby loves it. Kids love playing with the baby on it. It’s instant entertainment at birthday parties, with or without water balloons and a sprinkler or Easter dresses.

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Grouchy or sullen teens discover that life is worth living after taking out their troubles on the trampoline. And it’s a perfect spot for stargazing or sunbathing or lying down while the kids run around you, blissfully under the illusion that you are playing with them.

You really need a trampoline. (And if you happen to have a spare trampoline frame, you can wrap some chicken wire around it and make a garden fence, or maybe a chicken coop.)

****

Okay! That’s it for this year. Happy shopping! Thanks again for using my link when you shop on Amazon.

Catholics on Etsy! Christmas and Advent gifts for 2016

Catholics on Etsy! Mostly! Here is a selection of handmade goods by Catholics, so we can all support each other when we shop for Advent and Christmas. Some these goods are religious, some are not. Some of the stores sell all kinds of items, and the featured one is just the tip of the iceberg. It was painful to narrow down this list to a manageable size!

Today, I’m showcasing jewelry, because I like jewelry, and art and prints, because I like art and prints. Here we go:


 

JEWELRY

Mazzoni Mosaics: Handcut Glass Mosaics and Jewelry
Featured item: Red Millefiori Mosaic Pendant, $40

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So arresting! I love it. Like a poinsettia made of living stone. Millefiori is wonderful. Many more original and eye-catching designs in the store.


Cherokee Copper Greg Stice, a deacon who works for the Cherokee Nation, makes the jewelry that he and his wife, Lisa, design.
Featured item: Rain texture copper cross bracelet, $40

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Oh, copper. Spectacular. You could wear this cuff with jeans and a t-shirt, or with an evening gown.


IronLace Design by Kyra Busbridge
Featured item: Silver Lace necklace with deep red beads, $60

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I think everyone knows by now how much I adore Kyra’s chain mail jewelry. It makes your neck feel strong, cool, and beautiful. Elegant and powerful designs, including earrings and chainmail rosaries, too.


Pink Salt Riot by Jill Simons
Featured item: Amen cuff bracelet, $16

etsy-pink-salt-riot-bracelet

So light and pretty! Many of the goods in this store are made from books that schools and churches were about to throw out. 


Janalyn offers handmade fiber goods, and also milagros and Day of the Dead jewelry, jewelry made of sewing notions, and some really neat bookmarks and Loteria fabric art.

Featured item:Hand-felted indigo earrings, $8

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Boy, it was hard to choose just one, because the goods in this story are so varied. Really interesting, quirky stuff.


Ornamentation by Mary
Featured item: Leather wrap cross boho bracelet with semiprecious stones, $119.99

etsy-mary-wolf-bracelet

I may have gasped out loud. Do check out the rest of the stock at this store. She has the rare skill of making artfulness look casual and careless. Gorgeous.



 

ART, PRINTS, and CARDS and CALLIGRAPHY

Wood Pigeon – oils and watercolors by Kristina Closs
Featured item: Crow watercolor, $100

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Check it out! This crow is about to launch himself off the page, as soon as  he’s done cooling off in this breeze. Many more vivid and arresting paintings of birds, bees, and landscapes on the site.


Brain Cheeks by Rochelle
Featured item: Set of eight Mother and Child watercolor print cards, $15

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Oh, sweetness. She never gets tired of looking at Him.


When Beauty Met Truth by Lauren Santos: watercolors, prints, and hand lettering
Featured item: “Wherever the art of medicine is loved” print, $15

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Eek, a heart! I love it, and your favorite doctor will, too.


Herons Gate Arts by Sarah Pierzchala
Featured item: framed print of her original painting of a cosmic Sacred Heart, $40

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Sarah also offers an array of fantasy dolls, wings, and hair jewels. Clay, twigs, beads, loveliness.


Santa Clara Design, paper prints and instant digital downloads
Featured item: Padre Pio Print, $10

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Etsy is flooded with bland inspirational digital downloads, but there’s real artistry in Santa Clara’s graphic designs. Many designs and styles, digital downloads as well as physical prints.


Hatch Prints.

This isn’t an Etsy site, but Katrina Harrington was kind enough to send me one of her “Offer It Up” mugs, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t actually work. It makes morning better when I get that reminder. It is a nice mug, too, large and sturdy.

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Along with mugs, Hatch Prints also has watercolor and hand-lettered art prints and tote bags inspired by the saints.

SPECIAL OFFER FOR MY READERS: Use discount code LOSINGMYMIND15 for 15% off purchases of $20 or more.


Rakstar Designs
Featured item:“Jesus, Coffee, Naps” sign, $25+

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Made me laugh! It’s as good a motto as any, although most days, I’ll settle for two out of three.


Kristyn Brown Photo

Featured item: Holy Family 2, $35, one in a series called “The Saints Project” which uses Catholic photographic models

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Neat project! I’m looking forward to seeing more.


A few WOODEN FIGURES and STATUES

In the Loft by Sue Dow
Featured item: Mary Holding Jesus wood figurine, $40

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There’s a very appealing quietness in these gentle painted figures. Also various nativity figurines, saints, animals, and a few nativity backdrops for your home.


Brushes2Haloes
Our Lady of Guadalupe, $95

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Breathtaking. Look at her beautiful face. This is just a detail; the full work includes the entire image of Our Lady of Guadalupe supported by an angel, painted on rough wood with a laquer finish. Lots of variety in this store, including matrioshka dolls, beeswax goods, and very cozy tea cozies.


Honeychild Forest
Offer it up, Buttercup” print, $15

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HA. This is kind of perfect. Heather says, “Because sometimes I need to just gather up my fragile little buttercup feelings and OFFER IT UP, nah mean?” For when your prayer life isn’t all thees and thous and “vouchusafe unto us” this and that. Sometimes you just need to offer it up, buttercup.


That’s all for today! Tomorrow: Rosaries and rosary accessories; knitted and crocheted and fabric items; and a bunch of wonderful goods I couldn’t categorize but couldn’t stand to leave out. See you then!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 low-tech toys that flash, buzz, wiggle, and zoom!

 

Let’s . . . let’s just talk about toys.

A trip last weekend to my childhood home has made me nostalgic. It’s far too early to share a list of Christmas present ideas, so how about this list of toys I remember from my childhood? Many are still popular, in one form or another. Here’s ten of my favorites, most for under ten dollars:

1. Sparking wheels!

The ones from my yoot were made of tin, and were very sturdy. I liked to sit at the bottom of the stairs, at the darkest spot in the house, and just crank that wheel, watching a mesmerizing little red and blue galaxy flash in and out of existence in the palm of my hand. The scratch and catch of the mechanism was very satisfying for the hand and ear, too.

Shopping around for a sturdy version that didn’t cost a million dollars, I came across this sparking toy:

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which also toddles around aimlessly when you wind it up. Looks like today’s version of the hand-cranked wheel I remember is plastic and more flimsy, but probably still four bucks’ worth of fun.

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2. Magic rail roller!

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If you haven’t seen one of these in action, it’s hard to explain what it does. The axles of the wheel have little magnets in them, and if you hold it by the handle end and flip it around the right way, the wheel goes whizzing around and around the frame, and, I dunno, it’s fun.

3. Siren whistles!

My migraine-plagued father had an inexplicable drive to buy us wonderful toys that drove him crazy. One perennial favorite was siren rings, which (like everything in my childhood, it seems) used to be made of metal. You could wear them like ordinary rings, and whenever the time seemed right, you would blow into the round window in the top and it would go “wwwweeeeeEEEEEEEEeeeooooooooooo,” and it never ever ever ever got old.

The closest I can find is siren whistles built into lips or mustache, or just in little tubes.

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These get okay reviews, and you get, um, four dozen for $7.50, thereby ensuring that you will never ever ever ever run out of hearing “wwwweeeeeEEEEEEEeeeooooooooooo.”

Some inefficient part of me wants to buy myself this lovely, shiny little siren whistle, not a toy ($33) but designed for making sound effects.

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It’s from the Acme company. THE ACME COMPANY. Wile E. Coyote c’est moi. The description also points out that it’s “a useful and unusual warning signal for small boats.”

4. Chinese drums!

Oh, my gosh, these are fun.

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You roll the handle back and forth between the palms of your hands, which makes the balls swing on their strings, whacking the drum on both sides. Very satisfying! These are about $7, and they will send you a randomly-chosen design.

5. Clacker balls!

Did I ever get the hang of these? No, I did not. But they were enough fun that I tried for years and years; and I liked walking around the house looking at the world through the transparent balls with their tiny captive bubbles, too.

The trick is to loop the middle of the string around your finger and sort of jerk them in a rhythm so they smack together at the end of their strings until they start arcing up and down, clacking against each other high and low. (One of the reviews here shared a video, so you can get an idea of how it goes.)

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Okay, so these are plastic (about $5 a pair). We had dark blue glass ones when I was little. Nostalgia aside, I can’t shake the idea that maybe it’s okay that today’s kids are pampered and coddled and aren’t generally encouraged to make glass balls crash against each other. Old ways are not always the best ways. Either way: not recommended for kids with short tempers.

6. Magnetic scotties

I’m not gonna lie to you: these are magnetic scotties. That is, they are two plastic dogs with magnets in them. See?

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$6.55, and you get two dogs that have magnets in them! This mean you can make them kiss, or you can make them chase each other! It was a simpler time! It was fun, I tell you!

7. Mooing cans

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They put farm animals on this item (about $8) to make you think it’s a toy for children, but it’s actually for anyone who just needs to hear a little moo from time to time. I believe it works with a weighted rubber membrane inside, and when you tip it over, it creates a suction that pulls air through the . . . you know, I don’t know how it works. But it’s hilarious. If you shake it really fast, it sounds like the cow is hysterical!

8. Color paddles

The one I had just had the three primary color, but kids these days are lazy, so get their purple, green, and orange handed to them on a platter.

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This one gives you three sets of six colors for about $7. You can mix the colors together to make other colors, or you can just peer through them and think, “What if everything were purple all the time?

9. Balancing bird

Balance it on your fingertip! Balance it on your chin! Balance it on your tongue! It’s such an obliging bird.

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I think the product description says it all: “Extraordinary gift for someone.”

10. Jacob’s ladder

The perfect toy to feed into an introspective child’s Heraclitean confusion.

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About six bucks. I understand how it works. Really, I do. The ribbons hold it in place, and the thing flips over, and I understand how it works. But damn!  How does it do that?

***

I should note that all of the links are to Amazon products because I have an Amazon Associate’s account. If you buy any of these products, or if you buy anything at all on Amazon after getting to the site after clicking to one of my links, then I earn a small percentage of the sale. This is so helpful to my family, you wouldn’t believe it.

If you shop on Amazon, won’t you consider using my link? I’ll have a button on the sidebar here soon. In the meantime, here is Simcha’s Amazon Link. Be a peach and bookmark it for me! Thanks!

And now tell me about the toys of your childhood, especially the lovely, low-tech ones that keep on going through generations.

Robin’s Handmade Goatmilk Soap! 18 new varieties

robins soap header

You’ve heard me sing the praises of my friend Robin’s handmade soap. Her Etsy shopis now open for November, and has listed a whopping eighteen new soaps — many molded into lovely designs.

soap home sweet home madonna

Robin’s soaps are just beautiful — especially the multi-colored bars. They are like little works of art.

soap chocolate orange

They smell wonderful, they are creamy and lush, and they last much longer than any soap I’ve ever used. The ingredients are great for people with sensitive skin.

I have my favorites (I’m partial to Sunshine Yuzu — so cheerful! — and my husband likes the plain goat milk bars for his winter dry skin)

soap yuzu flowers

but I’ve never hit a bad soap from Robin’s workshop. Here’s a list of the new varieties:

1.) Cedar Bay
2.) Spiced Mahogany
3.) Sunshine Yuzu (a favorite of many!)
4.) Eucalyptus Mint (100% essential oils)
5.) Lemon Cake
6.) Energy!
7.) Blackberry Sage
8.) Chocolate Orange (LISTED 2 November)
9.) Frankincense & Myrrh
10.) Lemongrass (100% essential oils)
11.) Mahogany (is like the Men’s Cologne)
12.) Chocolate Mint
13.) Rosehip Jasmine
14.) Patchouli Lavender (100% essential oils)
15.) Summer Lilac
16.) Home Sweet Home (was my #1 best seller among friends and family between 2002 and 2012, before I opened up Robin’s Soap Shoppe. I finally made it again, after several years)
17.) Lavender Madonna & Child only
18.) 100% Goat Milk Madonna & Child

Robin’s a single mom who’s treading a long, difficult road. She’s a hard-working, proud Army vet who really wants to support herself, despite her many health problems. Please consider checking out her Etsy shop. Her soaps make wonderful stocking stuffers or little gifts for friends, family, teachers . . .

25 Back-to-school Items Your Kids Can’t Geek Without

Doing your back to school shopping online, maybe? Do me a big favor and usethis link.

It will take you to Amazon, and you’ll have the exact same shopping experience as you always do — only my code is craftily embedded in the link, and every time you buy something, I get a percentage. Easy for you, super super super helpful for us!

We are still in denial about school shopping, but there are a few items that caught my eye – things that will help ease the pain when we can’t put it off any longer.

 

25 Back-to-school Items Your Kid Can’t Geek Without

Message in a Bottle flash drive – about $6. An appealing mixture of old and new storage techniques. 6GB of storage corked away inside a little glass bottle. Perfect for kids who tend to drop things in the toilet a lot.

bottle flash drive

 

 

12 large beeswax crayons – about $7  Yarr, $7 for crayons. But what crayons. Silky, velvety, brilliant. Everyone should color with these at some point in their lives (and they come in a nice case).

beeswax crayons

 

Slingshot pencil – about $4 – How to make friends with your kids’ teachers.

slingshot pencil

 

Nose pencil sharpener – about $3.50 Tee hee.

nose pencil sharpener

 

Totoro messenger bag – about $10 Note that the model is a weensy weesny Asian model. For the typical causcasian American kiddo, this is more the size of a purse than a messenger bag! It’s not exactly sophisticated looking, but for the right kid, it’s the best ten bucks you’ll ever spend.

totoro messenger bag

 

Little Alchemy – free  Just a neat little game that you may actually want to play yourself, or at least it won’t make you feel horrible when your kids play it all the time. All you do is put stuff together to make more stuff, until you have all the stuff. It’s just difficult enough to be fun, and the breakthroughs are very satisfrying. I meant to type “satisfying,” of course, but they are also sometimes satisfrying.

little alchemy screen shot

 

Robot pencil sharpener – $13 Nicely made. You wind him up by sharpening your pencil (or by using the key), and his little head fills up with shavings. He can hold your pencil in his robot hands as he marches along, too. Sturdy construction; nice and small so you won’t feel the need to assert your human primacy.

robot pencil sharpener

 

Dinosaur earring – $6 (Note that this is a single earring, not a pair!) For an extra boost of confidence for the first day of school, know that you have a dinosaur sticking out of your ear. Also available in T-rex .

dinosaur earring

 

Totoro lunchbox – $12.99.  This lunchbag took a beating all year and held up really well. Cute and sturdy.

totoro lunch bag

Human organs lunchbox – $12.99 Boy stepped on it; lunch box still functions.

human organs lunch box

TARDIS dress – $35. Picture day!

tardis dress

 

I had to stop myself from linking to all the Peter Pauper journals. Dozens of gorgeous styles, and very reasonably priced for the quality, according to the reviews. Here are a couple that caught my eye:

Celestial journal – about $7

amazon celestial journal

Cosmology journal – about $12

amazon cosmology notebook

The cover design of our magnificent journal is adapted from the celebrated Catalan Atlas (1375), attributed to master map-maker Abraham Cresques of Majorca, Spain.

  • This cosmological diagram places earth in the center, personified by an astronomer holding an astrolabe.
  • Around the earth, the elements, planets, signs of the zodiac, and moon phases are displayed within concentric circles, and the four seasons are portrayed in the corners.
  • Cosmology is enhanced with subtle iridescent highlights and embossed for a dimensional effect.
  • The journal provides 192 lightly-lined opaque pages for personal reflection, sketching, making

Drumstick pencils – about $6 I don’t hate teachers. Honest, I don’t.

drumstick pencils

Clip-on adipose for backpack or zipper – about $8. A nice little companion. Clips on so it won’t just walk away.

adipose clip on

Luffy T-shirt – about $15  For those kids who are – *sighhhhhhhhh* – really, really into One Piece, especially that one time when they were all in a ship, and Luffy was sitting on the figurehead, and he ate the gum gum fruit, and if you eat any kind of devil fruit, the price is that you can’t swim, and everyone was telling him he shouldn’t sit there because he might fall in the water, and he was like, “No, it’s my special seat, you can’t have it!” And then one time Luffy fell off into the water, and there are two other devil fruit users on his crew, and they’re the ones who jumped in to save him! Also there was one part where he was trying to get this guy who was a shipwright to join his crew, and this guy only wears a Speedo and a Hawaiian shirt, and he wanted to join, but he also wanted to stay where he was, so Luffy stole his Speedo and told him he couldn’t have it back unless he joined his crew, and it was the only one he had, and so he was running through the town to get his Speedo back, and . . . it was just great.

one piece t

 

Super Mario earrings  Oh my gosh, are you kidding me? – about $10 (Note: these are from China and will take forever to get to you unless you pay extra for fast shipping.)

polymer mario earrings plants

 

Zelda ocarina and songsheet – about $8  You certainly won’t regret buying this for your kid so that you can hear those Zelda songs all the time even when they’re not playing video games; you certainly won’t. (There are a great number of Zelda ocarinas available on Amazon. This plastic one is the one my kid happens to have, and it’s fine. I started to plow through the reviews of the higher-quality ones, thinking I would find a better product, but I started to feel kind of sad about humanity.)

zelda ocarina

 

Terrifying owl backpack – $49 Whoa. If you are worried about your kid being a little bit frail and puny and maybe not ready for the wilds of the hallway, it might help to send ‘em out wearing one of these.

owl backpack

 

Set of 6 sushi erasers, about $10 Tip: never make back-t0-school lists for your blog when you’re hungry.

sushi erasers

 

Zita the Spacegirl graphic novel series – about $9 each. I’m getting my kids to write a proper review, but in the meantime, I can’t say enough about these books, which are clearly a labor of love, written by a dad who really knows kids. So funny, weird, sweet, and exciting – and fairly back-to-schoolish, if you kid feels like she’s been catapulted out of her familiar world onto a strange planet on the first day of school.

slingshot pencil

Musician’s transposition ring – about $15 Useful and pretty. Does this count as cheating? I’m not sure.

amazon musician ring

This ring helps you transpose musical notes into different keys! It is a simple way to pick the number of steps or half steps you’d like to change for any musical sequence. Want to move a score up a major 2nd? Just turn the top band two position over. Works for any transposition you need. You can also use it for more complex variations such as descending 5ths root movements. One example is ii-V-I’s which are the basis for most jazz tunes.

 

Finally:

Lovingly handmade bags and pouches in awesome fabrics from Door Number 9 on Etsy. A few samples of the pouches, wallets, and mini bags for sale:

star wars pencil bag

Sherlock Holmes

sherlock holmes letter bag

My daughter has this one: the One Ring Tea Wallet. Gorgeous, one-of-a-kind.

one ring tea wallet

 

Okay, I think that’s it! Happy shopping!

Make homemade vanilla extract now for Christmas gifts!

Last year, we gave a bunch of people homemade vanilla extract for Christmas. Was it appreciated? I have no idea. But we kept a bunch for ourselves, and it is wonderful. Here’s our current personal stash:

photo (64)

It was quite cheap, and you can really taste the difference in recipes over store bought vanilla extract. (The boys also add a bit to their mice’s drinking water a few times a month, to make them stink a bit less. In theory.)

Best of all, it’s SUPER EASY. The only hard part is thinking ahead a bit. It takes a month at the very least, but the longer you let it sit, the nicer it gets. All you have to do is buy some cheap liquor, split or chop a bunch of vanilla beans, throw them in the bottle of alcohol, and wait. (More detailed directions here, but there’s really not much more to it.)

We used Smirnoff Vodka, but you can use rum or bourbon. Buying expensive liquor won’t make it taste any better, so go for cheapski or middleski.

You can make it in individual bottles,

vanilla bottles

or make it in one big bottle and then decant it into something more decorative when you’re ready to give it to people.

We bought bottles like these (8 oz. each, case of 12 for about $20), but there are many lovely varieties to be found online. If I had time, I’d scout out thrift stores and find some pretty, old fashioned bottles in interesting shapes. Just make sure they have a tight cap or cork!

We chose Madagascar vanilla beans like these (about 30 beans for about $20). I think we may go with Mexican beans this year (they are supposed to have a spicier taste, but are a bit more expensive). Here’s an assortment of different types of beans (40 for about $20)

vanilla beans

plus labels like this, so we could personalize the bottles

labels

or you could go with tags. Lots of possibilities here, to make it as cute or elegant or artsy as you like.

I just bought a bunch of cheery red bows and tied them on with jingle bells from the dollar store, and it made cute little packages. This would also work for wedding or party favors, depending on how you decide to dress the bottles up.

***
Just a reminder! My links are to Amazon products.  If you buy anything from Amazon after getting to the site through one of my links (even if you buy a completely different product), I get a small cut of the purchase price. This adds up over the month and helps tremendously to support our family. So if you buy from Amazon, I’d consider it a great favor if you’d bookmark this link and use it any time you order. Thank you so much!

7 video games, reviewed by my kids

Hey, who wants to talk about SOMETHING ELSE?

How about vidya games? My kids play games on the Wii, PS2, and occasionally the iPad and PC. We have tons of the Lego Wii games, and they were all the rage at our house for a few years. These are cute, clever, and not too noisy or violent (people just turn back into separate pieces when they get killed). Have’t found a bad one yet.

Here are some of my kids’ other current favorite games. I asked them to give a quick description, plus their favorite and least favorite aspects of the game. Then I added my take, as someone who doesn’t especially like video games, who worries about bad influences on the kids, but who isn’t especially restrictive. We don’t have any particular interest in very violent, scary, or gross games like Resident Evil or Call of Duty. Bracketed comments are mine.

 

1. Õkami 

okami 2

 

17-year-old girl says:
It’s a Zelda-type action adventure, but everything looks like a Japanese sumi-e painting. You are Amaterasu, the sun goddess, incarnated as a white wolf, and you use celestial brush techniques to paint symbols. You draw symbols in the air to manipulate the world around you — like, you draw a swirly thing to summon a gust of wind. You can fill in gaps in bridges, trail fire from a torch to a pile of brushwood, stuff like that. The goal is to save Japan from evil spirits, which, you know. [I don’t actually know.]

Best part: The best part is that it’s a serious, hard-core adventure game that also rewards you for feeding animals and caring for plants. You collect praise points for helping to restore nature, or helping people, or just being nice, like feeding a kitten. That’s not the main point of the game, but I like that it’s this elaborate adventure, and you get points for being nice to kitties.

Worst part: I hate the sidekick. I want to kill him and I want him to shut up.

My take: Looks weird and gorgeous. I don’t mind having this one in the house at all.

 

2. Sly Cooper series for Playstation

 

sly cooper

11-year-old boy says:
It’s about a raccoon thief who beats people up and steals stuff, but he’s a good guy. Sort of. In the first one, he’s trying to steal back his family’s guide for how to be a sneaky thief.

Best thing about it: The graphics are great. The characters are very well thought out, and there is good voice acting, except for when they’re supposed to be surprised.

Something I don’t like: it’s kind of annoying that Sly always smiles, even when he falls off a cliff and dies.

My take: The voices are really obnoxious, and the few female characters strike me as unnecessarily sultry.  I would just as soon see these games go away, but both boys (the other one is 13) love these three game to pieces, so there must be something there. The fighting isn’t too graphic. It’s fairly flashy and the sound effects are kind of grating.

 

3. Just Dance 2

 

just dance 2

9-year-old girl says:
It’s a game where you pick a song to dance to, and you can earn points by dancing like they are dancing on the screen

Best thing about it: I’m not too good at games where you have to fix up a problem, and I’m pretty good at games where you just follow the moves of what is on the screen. It’s a good, easy game for all ages.

Something I don’t like: It doesn’t have Taylor Swift. Some of the dance moves areinapwo-pwo, and we have to skip some of the songs, like “Toxic,” “That’s Not My Name,” and a few others, because they’re sassy and weird and dumb, and sometimes the dances are just inappropriate.

My take: Silly, active fun, except for that one kid who discovered that you can get a perfect score while sitting in a chair and moving your wrist around. Great for an ice breaker at parties, because it gets you moving but everyone is looking at the screen, not at you. Most of the songs are just goofy; a few are too sexy (lyrics and dance moves), so we just skip those. (I actually prefer having the kids get used to the idea that you have to pick and choose and say “no” to some things and “yes” to others, rather than just flat-out forbidding anything that might be, well, inapwopwo, because eventually they’re going to have to tell themselves how to spend their time.)

4. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (link is for the WiiU version)

legend of zelda wind waker

15-year-old girl says:
It’s made for Gamecube, so if you’re using the Wii, you have to use a Gamecube controller instead of a Wii remote. You also need a memory stick for the Wii. There is also an HD version for the Wii U.

It’s an adventure game and a puzzle game, and you have to defeat puzzles and dungeons and bosses, to get different items.  The point of the game is to defeat Gannandorf, the evil bad guy, and save Hyrule and your sister, and make your grandma proud of you.

Best part: It’s an exciting game, but the graphics are absolutely adorable, and the characters are all really funny. I like the Snot Kid, and the way all the characters look.

Something I don’t like: It’s set in a sea, and it takes a while to get from island to island, and you get lost really easily.

My take: I honestly don’t get what the big deal is about all this Zelda stuff, but it doesn’t bother me. A few of the videos are quite pretty. The music isn’t too loud or annoying, and it’s not one of those awful frenetic games. Just a lot of running and hopping, as far as I can see.

 

5. Epic Mickey

 

epic mickey 1

 

15-year-old girl says:
It’s a sort of dark twist on forgotten old Disney cartoons, but in a cool way –  not a stupid emo hipster kind of thing. [You know. Stupid emo hipster.] You play as Mickey, and get sucked into a world called “Wasteland,” where all forgotten cartoon characters live, and you have to defeat the Mad Doctor and the Blot Creature. You have the power of ink and thinner so you can paint and erase things to your advantage.

Best part: It’s kind of dark and scary at times. It’s got this great morality thing, and sometimes you have a choice of helping a gremlin or getting money, and if you help, you get even more money, or a reward, and you also get the gremlin’s reward later in the game, so it’s got that going for it. It’s not a serious gamer game, but it’s still fun.

Don’t like: It encourages you to use paint more than thinner when defeating bosses, but it’s really difficult. It’s just frustrating.

 My take: She’s not kidding about dark twist! Some parts of this game scare the three-year-old. I hear a lot of frustration when they are playing this game, so it’s best for kids who are persistent. Graphics are super detailed and imaginative and have a lot of depth, and it’s fun for the kids to spot obscure cartoon characters.

6. Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb

 

indiana jones emperors tomb

14-year-old girl says:
It’s an action adventure game in the style of the Tomb Raider series, but it’s Indiana Jones. The goal is to get an artifact from the tomb of an emperor, but it’s really convoluted. (We have the PS2 and Windows versions. Apparently this game is “backwards compatible, which means that if you have a PS3 or 4, you can play this PS2 on it.)

What I like: Nice detailed graphics, and the combat is a lot of fun except for when you blow yourself right after Indy says, “Hope I don’t blow myself up.” It has good voice overs. You have to solve puzzles and beat up Nazis.

Don’t like: This is pretty much the only game I’ve played besides all the Lego games. I would make a setting for people who have never played video games before so it’s for them. [There is an easy mode. She may not be aware of this.]

My take: Meh, I’m not crazy about this one, but they’ve been playing it for years now, and no one has turned into a felon yet. My husband likes it.There is so, so much punching, but it’s not bloody or anything, and it seems like it takes a long time to beat all the levels, so that’s a plus. We have picked up a lot of family catch phrases from this game. The voice really does sound like Harrison Ford, and I get to wow the kids by putting my high school German to use (“The American! Kill him!”).

7. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

zelda twilight princess

17-year-old girl says:
It’s my all time favorite game. It’s my first ever Zelda game, and you always think the first Zelda game you play is the best one. But objectively, I firmly believe it is the best one in the series. The main plot is that you’re trying to rescue Hyrule from this evil, alternate dimension that is trying to turn everyone into ghosts. It’s a very Japanese game.

Best part: It creates such an elaborate world, you can really get lost with everything you can interact with. It has a great plot and great characters. There’s one scene where one of the characters is dying and you have to bring her to the castle, and it’s the most concerned I’ve ever felt about a character. You get really emotionally involved. Also, it’s just gorgeous and the game play is crazy. It really feels like you’re doing these things. It makes me feel cool. Link does things I could never do. He has all these crazy abilities. That sounds lame, but that’s what they’re trying to do: get you immersed in rhe game.

Don’t like: Uh, I thought I mentioned that this has no flaws whatsoever? Probably the best cel shaded game I’ve ever seen, kind of crazy gorgeous, and so creepy sometimes. It sets you up, introduces you to this world to make you feel secure, and then changes the world suddenly. It really throws you off your balance. It has this innocent fairy tale vibe, and then really strange, creepy things happen.It has some really dark elements to it. The creepiest thing is when it kind of changes the rules on you, and shows you things that don’t belong. Unsettling in the best way.

My take: Take it easy, weirdo.