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!