Friday, January 29, 2016

It's Super Bowl Time!

Every year people gear up for that all important game--the Super Bowl! Even when the teams that are playing are not the family favorites, this day is still celebrated in homes all across the country. This year's Super Bowl is special because it is the 50th one. I wish I could say that I didn't remember the first one, but that would be a fib! Anyway, everyone is getting into the mood to have a special celebration. All this week there have been television shows leading up to Super Bowl 50 to get football fans excited. Even the cooking shows have gotten in on the hype, demonstrating all sorts of food and snacks that can be prepared in advance so that Mom can also enjoy the game.

Kids, however, are sometimes left out of the action. Parents are so busy preparing for the adults to watch the game that they often overlook the little guys. Here are some things you can do to include your little ones in this special day.

First of all, go to the library and find several books about American football and football players. Use these books as family read-alouds prior to the game. (They can also provide little ones with some quiet entertainment during the game, if they get bored!) One book I highly recommend is entitled, The Football That Won, by Michael Sampson. It is about a Super Bowl game between the Dallas Cowboys (my favorite team!) and the Kansas City Chargers. Although it is now out of print, used copies are available from Amazon. The author used the cumulative pattern taken from The House That Jack Built to write this story. It is a fun read!

To make the Super Bowl even more exciting, why not help your child write a book about this 50th Super Bowl event? All you need is a few pieces of white paper, folded in half and stapled into a blank book, and a box of crayons, colored pencils or markers. The child could design his or her book with a page for each team (using team colors, of course), a page for the team's mascot, one for the cheerleaders, one for the umpires, etc. What about a title like, "I Was the Star of the Super Bowl"? I can see the pages for this book now! The ideas are only limited by your child's imagination. This activity will allow the child to be a part of the Super Bowl and will make this a memorable event for the entire family.

But what would a celebration be without FOOD? Ideas for snacks are everywhere, and each family may have a favorite. I like to try at least one new recipe, just for fun. This year, I'm going to wrap Little Smokies with Crescent Rolls (cut in half). This will be a great addition to our usual 7-Layer Mexican Dip and standard junk food goodies. Food is also a wonderful way to get the kids involved. Children can be a big help with snack preparation. Give them simple tasks, like opening the potato chips and putting them in a bowl, or dipping pretzels (half way) in chocolate to make a simple but yummy salty-sweet snack.

Before the Game Preparation is crucial for the day to be a success. Making the house look special adds to the excitement. Kids love to help decorate for a party, so why not enlist their help to spruce up your media room for the event? Here are some simple ideas:
1. With a clothesline stretched across the room, attach triangular-shaped pieces of colored construction paper (using clothes pins) to make a banner displaying the colors of the team your family is rooting for.
2. Making posters (you know, "Go, team, go!) is also a fun pre-game task.
3. Decorate trays with construction paper place mats in team colors or kid's drawings. If you live near an office supply store, have these place mats laminated and you can reuse them year-after-year.
4. And, if you are really brave, design a Super Bowl 50 t-shirt using old white t-shirts and colored markers. The markers don't have to be permanent, although if you run the t-shirts through a hot dryer cycle, the ink will become permanent. There's nothing like a motivational t-shirt to get fans in the mood for the game!

These are just a few ideas to help your Super Bowl Sunday be a success for the entire family. If you have additional ideas and would like to share them with the rest of us, please don't hesitate to respond! We'd love to hear from you.

Friday, January 22, 2016

"Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"

What American, of every age group, has not seen that million-dollar game show and thought, "I do! I want to be a millionaire!"? This past week, with the lottery causing such a stir, I was reminded of a book I read to my kids years ago when I was trying to explain the concept of a million. The book, of course, does a great job, although I'm still not sure my mind has the capacity to fully wrap itself around that number. One morning, I went to the attic to put away some boxes and there it was, sitting on top of a stack of children's books I had intended to give to my grandson. How Much is a Million? by David M. Schwartz, illustrated by Steven Kellogg.

I met the author, David Schwartz, at a writer's conference two years ago in Houma, Louisiana. I went to this conference totally unaware of the speakers and fully expecting everything to be focused on writing for grownups. (In other words, since I write for children I went on this trip just to be with my friends--never expecting to learn anything useful to me.) Then I walked into that library and saw David's display. I was so excited! I kept kicking myself--if I had known he was one of the featured speakers, I would have brought my copy of his book for him to autograph. He gave a remarkable presentation, linking math with reading. I'm a true believer in interdisciplinary instruction--showing kids the natural connections between subject areas and teaching thematically when possible. Needless to say, I not only learned something new, I came away from that conference inspired to write better stories.

A month later I attended a conference in Commerce, Texas, where Steven Kellogg was the keynote speaker. I couldn't believe my good luck! I had met Steven Kellogg years before and to see him again was a real treat. Together, David Schwartz and Steven Kellogg have written and illustrated a winner--and everyone loves a winner! I highly recommend that you get a copy of this book and have a great discussion with your kiddos about large numbers. Since our National Debt is now in the trillions, it wouldn't hurt for the adults to take a gander either! David has provided a fascinating discussion at the back of the book sharing how he came up with the calculations used in his story. It is a very thought-provoking and fun read, plus the illustrations help to clarify visually a very abstract topic. And for fun, you can always whip up a couple of million dollar recipes with your children. Nothing says "math and science" like cooking. I immediately thought of my mother's recipe for Million Dollar Pie. (Hey, books always make me think of food!) I have no idea how this recipe got its name, but Mama loved to make it because it was not only good, it was easy.  (If any of you know the story behind this pie, please share it with us.)

Mama's Million Dollar Pie

1 (20-oz.) can crushed pineapple, drained
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 c. lemon juice (I substituted orange juice--and it tasted great!)
1/2 c. chopped pecans (I used walnuts because I was out of pecans!)
1 large container of whipped topping
2 pre-baked pie crust (You could also use two store-bought graham cracker pie crusts)

Directions: Mix the first four ingredients together, then fold in whipped topping, taking care not to "whip" it as that will take away the "lift" this pie needs. Pour into two baked pie crusts and refrigerate until firm. (NOTE: To continue the Mardi Gras celebration, sprinkle stripes of yellow, green and purple colored sugar on top of cooled pie!)

Here is a picture of my version: 

But the story doesn't end here!

Yesterday, as I was cleaning out some files, I came across a recipe sent to me in 2008 by a dear family friend, Lewis Shell. Lewis had been doing some research on Mamie Eisenhower, the wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, (who was the first president I can actually remember) when he found this recipe. He credits Wikipedia as the source for Mamie Eisenhower's Million Dollar Fudge. When I went to Wikipedia and searched for Mamie, I found this link for the recipe:'s_Million_Dollar_Fudge.pdf
It is delicious and well worth a try. Of course, eating too much pie and decadent fudge could result in having to pay a dentist MILLIONS of dollars. And since I have diabetes, I have to be oh, so careful. But a tiny taste shouldn't hurt the waistline, gum line or blood line--at least that's what I'm telling myself. The key is all things in moderation, right? Besides, anything that contains milk and nuts must be okay. And, of course, all girls know that chocolate is therapeutic, don't they?

I'm sure if you look around your life you will find other examples that will help explain difficult concepts such as How Much is a Million to your kiddos. Just keep your eyes open for all the possibilities--and don't forget to share your findings with the rest of us. Remember, we may not have a million dollar bank account (although all Americans share in the trillion dollar debt), but we are rich in many ways. Take some time with your kiddos to count those blessings today. If they aren't in the millions, I'll bet it seems like they are when you make a list.

Friday, January 15, 2016

When the weather outside turns gray and miserable, my food cravings turn toward one-pot comfort foods. This week, the weather in southwest Louisiana has waffled between sunny and clear and gray and cloudy. As I write this piece, the view outside my window is bleak. If I lived further north, I would fully expect snow in our near future. But here, we will probably have more rain. It has been threatening downpours all day, but the worst we have had have been a few sprinkles. Inside my house, while staring out my window, I reminisce about my childhood and the long cold, snowy winters where we huddled around the furnace in the living room and Mama made us hot soups and stews to warm us while we read books and told stories to keep ourselves entertained.
Today, my cats Rocket and Patches have refused to go outside and instead have curled up on fleece blankets for a nap. Even our dog, who normally refuses to come inside, has begged to come in and flop down on a rug. Winter has come, even in the south.

Fortunately, my pantry is always prepared for my mood changes. Pinto beans have become the star item on the Hurst family menu for this week. And when I think of beans, I always think of Skippyjon Jones!

I can hear you now saying, "Who in the world is Skippyjon Jones?" Skippyjon is the main character of one of the cutest picture books published in the past few years. He is a Siamese kitten, who is convinced that he is a Spanish-speaking Chihuahua. Skippyjon's closet is where his imagination runs wild. When he goes inside, he becomes El Skippito, the great sword fighter. In this story, El Skippito fights the bad bumble-beeto to save the day, or rather, the beans. It is a fabulous read-aloud, especially if the reader gets into character and speaks the Spanish words with an accent. Kids and adults will roll in the floor laughing at this kitten's antics. Judy Schachner, whom I have never met, hit the jack-pot with this book--and she has followed up with more adventures of this hilarious kitty-boy.

Of course, reading this book makes my mouth water for Tex-Mex foods. Pinto beans are a basic ingredient in many Tex-Mex dishes, so this week, I made a big ol' pot of beans. We had pinto beans and cornbread the first night, then I added a few ingredients (a can of Rotel tomatoes, a package of taco seasoning and a diced onion) and we had chili the next night. If there had been any chili left over, which there was not, I would have made nachos the third night. (For nachos, spread a layer of tortilla chips on a plate, ladle chili over the chips and top with shredded cheddar or Monterrey Jack cheese, microwave for approximately 30 seconds and serve with sour cream, salsa and guacamole.) Pinto beans can be a thrifty staple in a family's diet that helps stretch the budget while putting smiles on the faces of everyone at the supper table, including the kids. And the credit goes to that imaginative kitty boy, Skippyjon Jones!

So when the weather outside is frightful, grab a bag of dried beans, follow the package directions and enjoy an adventure (and a few great meals!) with your new kitty friend, Skippyjon Jones.

And if you like kittens, be sure to read the Kitty Cat books by Michael Sampson. Michael was my professor when I was a doctoral candidate at the university. A fabulous teacher and prolific writer, he has three books on the market now that fit our theme, including Kitty Cat, Kitty Cat, Are You Waking Up? Kitty Cat, Kitty Cat, Are you Going to Sleep? and Kitty Cat, Kitty Cat, Are You Going to School? 
All three of these books follow the "call and respond" pattern where the parent asks a question and the child gives the answer. Designed for youngsters, ages preschool through grade one, these books help children grasp the concept of predicting what will come next in a story. This is a crucial concept for developing reading comprehension skills in young readers. A great technique for helping older struggling readers improve their fluency skills is to have them read books like these to their younger siblings who are not yet readers. Since the text is simple, it removes the fear of reading aloud failure from the struggling child. Your preschoolers will love to have these books read again and again--which is great. The more your struggling reader reads these books aloud, the easier it becomes and the better they feel about themselves as readers. This will give them confidence to tackle more challenging texts. It is a total win-win situation. So head for your library or book store and pick up a copy of these books for a week's worth of fun reading.

And if you don't own a cat, you might drop by the animal shelter and pick out a kitty to go with the books. You will be saving the life of a precious animal, and your kids will absolutely love you for this! Plus, kittens have been proven to be great stress relievers for grown-ups, so you'll be doing yourself a favor. To top it all off, your entire family will have fun watching their new pet play. Imagine the stories they will have about their kitty-boy's escapades! (I smell a writing activity here.)
So, get yourself in gear, put the beans on the stove, grab that stack of books and cuddle with your children on the couch for a wonderful evening of fun, food and adventure!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Linda's King Cake Recipe

This recipe is cinnamon free!

Note: Teachers and Home School families might appreciate making this treat as a conclusion to a theme unit on Mardi Gras Traditions. Not only are students learning about this cultural event, but the act of making this recipe teaches math (fractions, measurement), following directions (which is a higher order thinking skill), and reading for information. A nice follow-up activity might include having a Mardi Gras tea, designing Mardi Gras floats using shoe boxes, and making a book about the history and traditions of Mardi Gras.


3-1/2 c. All-purpose flour
1 T. yeast
1 c. milk
1/2 c. sugar
1 t. salt
2 eggs (I use extra large cage-free eggs)
6 T. butter, cut into 12 pieces and brought to room temperature


1 (8-oz.) pkg. cream cheese, softened at room temperature
2/3 c. powdered sugar 
1 t. vanilla flavoring
1 can cherry pie filling
1 miniature plastic baby (you can find these at party stores or in your cake decorating aisle, usually around baby shower items.)  


FYI: I just used a can of ready-to-use cream cheese frosting that I microwaved on hi for 30 seconds and spooned on the top of the cake. Once again, confession is good for the soul! Like my cooking hero Sandra Lee, I'm always on the lookout for an easier way to do something. I also found colored sugar in the baking section of my grocery store. But if you insist on doing things from scratch, here's what you'll need:
1 c. powdered sugar
1 T. milk
1/2 t. vanilla

You will also need the following items to decorate your cake:
Food coloring (dark green, purple and yellow)
3/4 c. sugar divided into three equal parts

1. Mix 2-1/2 cups flour and yeast in bowl of stand mixer, using the paddle attachment on low for about 30 seconds. 

2. Heat milk, sugar, and salt in microwave until sugar dissolves and milk is around 115 degrees F. 
3. With mixer on low, add liquids and mix until incorporated. Add eggs one at a time. Mix until a sticky dough forms then switch to dough hook. Mix in the remaining flour, a little at a time, adding more if needed to make a soft dough. Drop the butter into the mix, one piece at a time, until all of the butter is incorporated.
4. With the dough hook and mixer set on low speed, knead dough for seven to nine minutes, or until the dough forms a ball and separates from the sides of the bowl. Scrape the bowl often. If the dough appears too wet, add flour, a tablespoon at a time. If the dough appears too dry, add water, a teaspoon at a time. 
5. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times by hand, then hand roll the dough into a ball. Oil a large bowl then place the dough into it, turning the dough over so that all sides of the ball are well coated with oil. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel and refrigerate one hour.
6. While the dough is chilling, make the cream cheese filling. In a small bowl, cream together the cream cheese, sugar and vanilla. Set aside.
7. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and turn out onto a floured board. Pat the dough into a circle, approximately the size of a large pizza (about 1/4-inch thick). In the center of the dough circle, make a hole with your fingers, then stretch the hole until it is about 4-5 inches in diameter. 
8. Spread the cream cheese filling around the ring of dough, being careful to leave at least a one-inch margin on both the outer and inner edges of the circle. Top the cream cheese filling with a layer of cherry pie filling, one spoonful at a time. 
9. Using your fingers dipped in water, wet both the inner and outer edges of the circle of dough. This will act a glue to seal the filling inside your cake roll. Now carefully fold the outer edge of the dough over the filling (stretching it if necessary) and press it down against the inner edge of the dough with your fingers, sealing it so that none of the filling can leak out during baking.
10. Transfer this ring to a parchment lined or greased baking sheet. Cover the dough with plastic wrap or a damp towel and let it rise until doubled, about one hour. 
11. When the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake the cake for about 20-25 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown. Cool for 10 minutes on the baking sheet and then remove the cake to a wire rack and cool completely before icing.
12. After the cake has cooled, make a tiny slit in the bottom of the cake and insert the miniature plastic baby. 
13. To make icing: Mix together the powered sugar, milk and vanilla until smooth (adding additional milk if mixture is too thick or powdered sugar if it is too thin). Using a tablespoon, drizzle icing over the top of the cake, allowing it to cover the top and drip down the sides. 
14. To make colored sugar: Divide sugar into three tiny bowls. Add a few drops of liquid food coloring, one color per bowl (yellow, green and purple--remember that red and blue mixed together make purple!). Mix until fully incorporated and the desired color has been achieved. Sprinkle in diagonal stripes, one color at a time, over top of cream cheese icing.
15. Your King Cake is now ready to cut and serve. You may wish to decorate it further by surrounding it with green, gold, and purple beads, masks, and shiny tinsel.


It's Carnival Time!

In Louisiana, as well as many cities around the world, Carnival time begins on January 6th and ends with Mardi Gras on February 9th this year. This celebration was an enigma to me prior to my moving to Lake Charles, but the longer I live here, the more I learn. There are some things I will never quite understand (i.e. chasing chickens on horseback!), while other traditions have become very close to my heart. In this edition, I will share some of the things I've learned to appreciate about this season, including recipes, books for children (and grown-ups!), and even a website or two.


In my initial blog, I promised to focus on authors that I personally know, first and foremost, and then toss in a few that I consider worthy of your consideration (and that I personally LOVE!). Since this week's theme is Carnival Time, many of you (especially those who have roots in Louisiana) may be familiar with James Rice and his Cajun books, including Gaston Goes to Mardi Gras and the Cajun Night Before Christmas (which is a traditional read on Christmas Eve for many of my Louisiana friends). However, you may be missing some of the best Cajun-themed stories if you limit your reading to his books. I would like to introduce you to three books and authors you may not have discovered. The first two are authors I have personally met, and the third is one that I would LOVE to meet in person.

First, my friend Dianne De Las Casas is a well-known and award-winning children's picture book author from New Orleans with many titles to her credit. One that particularly fits the theme for Carnival is Dinosaur Mardi Gras. In this story, dinosaurs want to party. It's full of rhythm and culture and would appeal especially to boys, which is not always the case in children's reading materials. Culture is woven throughout the story and illustrations. 

And if you like this book, you'll love other books by Diane. Her books are filled with humor that will make your entire family laugh. My particular favorite is her book, The Little "Read" Hen. I'll share more about this book in a later blog on teaching kids the writing process. You can learn more about Diane on her website,

Another Louisiana writer, who also hails from New Orleans, is Keila V. Davis. Her book, King Cake Baby, is a takeoff of the classic Gingerbread Man tale. With its cute cartoon characters and colorful Cajun language sprinkled throughout the story, children will learn about this traditional Carnival Time dessert while enjoying the baby's experiences. There is a bonus for mom...a traditional King Cake recipe is included! Bake it (or the one I've included in this blog) and share the tastes of this colorful season while you read the story together. Check out Keila's website at 

Last, one of my all-time favorite author/illustrators is Ruth Heller. She has published dozens of children's books, many of which I have used when teaching parts of speech to children in fourth through sixth grades, although they are so good they could be used with any age group! Her illustrations are spectacular and she has even published several coloring books that would sooth the savage beast of any stressed out adult. To continue the Carnival theme, check out her books Behind the Mask and A Cache of Jewels for inspiration and a review of prepositions and nouns. (For a follow-up activity, I always had my students make their own "parts of speech" books. It was amazing to see what they could come up with once they were familiar with Ruth's concept.) The illustrations in these two books simulate Carnival in a vivid way. As for content, Ruth makes learning a rather dull subject fun (Ooh! Dare I use that word in an educational setting? :) All of Ruth's books are available on Amazon and in most bookstores that feature children's literature.


After reading these books, teachers and home schoolers might enjoy creating Mardi Gras masks. Directions for making these can be found on Pinterest and other websites. I especially like the one located at Check it out!

Recipes: Laissez les bons temps rouler--Let the good times roll!

It would not be Carnival time without a King Cake, trust me. The truth is, until I moved to Louisiana in 2008, I had never even heard of a King Cake, let alone tasted one. I remember my first husband and I had joined a Bible study group from our church. At one of our weekly meetings, a member brought a King Cake for dessert. I confess, my curiosity got the best of me. I had to find out the story behind this delectable pastry. I learned that this cake was served as festive means during the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras. Hidden inside the cake was a tiny plastic baby. The person who found the baby in his or her slice of cake was responsible for bringing the King Cake to the next soiree. I did not find the baby, but the individual who did graciously let me have the precious little guy to take home. I am allergic to cinnamon, which normally makes me decline any food product containing this spice. But that night I risked a bout with hives in order to taste a sample--and was it ever good! I determined to find or invent a cinnamon-less recipe that I could enjoy without worry. By the way, my friend who brought this cake to our Bible study also made it himself. He owns Delicious Donuts in Lake Charles. The good news is that he also ships King Cakes all over the world! So, if you would like to order one ready-made for your family, contact Lucas Verrett at You'll be glad you did!

Friday, January 1, 2016

A New Beginning

My New Year's Resolution is to start and maintain a blog. Let's face it, the truth is that I have started several blogs--and then never returned to them! This time I'm serious. I have things to say and share and I want to be faithful to do so.

After much thought, I have decided that this blog will focus on the things I truly love: Books, Food, Animals, and Kids. I plan to post every Friday. Here is my basic design:

First, because I love to read, I will be sharing reviews of the books I read. I will be honest in my criticism, although I realize that books become real and personal to different individuals, so the ones I love or hate may not be the same for you. But you will know where I stand anyway. Since I am an author, I will share updates on my books and those works in progress. I will also interview and share books by new authors that I meet and like. I just love it when my friends and I love the same books and authors! Our conversations are peppered with bits and pieces of stories we enjoy.

Second, I enjoy food. I love to cook, but more than that, I love to collect recipes. I will on occasion share a recipe or two that I love. I have been living without a kitchen since September, so I am anxious to get into my new kitchen and experiment! My husband, who is my contractor, is a do-it-yourself type of guy. His talents have saved us a lot of money, which has allowed me to purchase much nicer equipment than if we had contracted this project. I cannot wait to have it installed! You probably don't want to hear about the recipes I have invented using my makeshift kitchen (which consists of a crock pot, an electric skillet, a toaster oven and a hot plate). Yes, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were quite a challenge! But the future looks bright. I'll keep you posted.

Third, I love animals. At this present time, I have a dog named Indie (who is fifteen, part Golden Retriever and part Basset Hound), and two cats, Rocket and Patches. A year ago I gave away my horse because I could no longer afford to board her, but I am still a horse person. I grew up dreaming about horses. I drew them, I rode them, I adored them. Although I no longer have a horse of my own, I still enjoy writing stories for children that include horses. At this date, I have three picture books whose main characters are horses, and one middle grade novel about a girl who loves wild horses. I also have two children's coloring books published about horses. I have several other books, all of which are available in some retail stores on the east coast and on Because of my love for these animals, I am particularly passionate about saving the wild horses of our world, including those in Louisiana, North Carolina, the Bahamas, and of course, the western United States. It is in my blood. So be prepared for a few articles about these magnificent creatures that have been a part of history since the beginning of time.

Fourth, I love children. I spent many years as a teacher, beginning as a high school history teacher, moving down to middle school, then elementary school and ending as a college professor. Children have been an integral part of my life. As a mother (who home schooled) and grandmother, I am always looking for ways to make my children's lives richer. I will share both my ideas and my experiences.

To sum it all up: If you are a reader who loves to eat, has a passion for a special cause and wants to keep up with the kids in your life, follow along with me as I post throughout the year. I think you will learn something new and even enjoy what I have to share!