What’s The Ten-Year-Old reading this week?

The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester
Book cover for The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester.

What the Book’s About: Piper McCloud can fly. And while doing loop-the-loops in the air is a blast for Piper, it’s less fun for her neighbors in Lowland County to watch. Piper’s earthbound neighbors find her abilities a little, well, terrifying. Things get bad enough at home that Piper’s mother decides to send her to a top-secret, maximum security school for kids with exceptional abilities. Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight series describes The Girl Who Could Fly as part Little House on the Prairie and part X-Men. The Ten-Year-Old simply describes it as a lot of fun.

Why The Ten-Year-Old Likes It: “It’s really kind of complicated and you have to pay attention to it. When the main character came out of the plastic surgery thing, I was afraid that I’d missed something that might have been symbolic, so now I have to reread the book to find out.”

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R.L. LaFevers

Book cover for Theodosia & the Serpents of Chaos by R. L. LaFeversWhat the Book’s About: Theodosia Throckmorton’s parents may be the ones officially employed at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London, but sometimes it feels like it’s Theodosia who does all the important work. Her mother retrieves the artifacts, and her father acts as head curator, but Theodosia is the only one who can see the curses and other black magic still clinging to the artifacts in the museum. When the curse on her mother’s latest acquisition threatens to tear the British Empire apart, it’s up to Theodosia to find a way to stop it.

Why The Ten-Year-Old Likes It: “I am really into tales of ancient Egypt and this is a good modern day one. It has ancient Egyptian funerary magic working, which probably isn’t real, but which is really fun to read about. Theodosia comes up with really ingenious ways to de-curse the artifacts her mom brings back.”

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“Is it really unlucky to have peacock feathers in the house?”

Cover for Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.In her book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose casually states that having peacock feathers in the house is bad luck. I had never heard that before, so of course I wanted to know–do peacock feathers really bring bad luck?

The answer, as you might expect, depends on where you’re from.

If you’re a superstitious Westerner, yes. Peacock feathers are thought to be unlucky. 

In the article, Bird Superstitions, British Bird Lovers explains that having peacock feathers in the house is thought to both bring bad luck and doom any unmarried women living in that house to spinsterhood.

It’s also considered a bad idea to use peacock feathers as a prop or part of a costume in a theatrical production. Apparently, many a veteran stage director and actor has at least one sordid tale to tell of stages that fell apart when peacock feathers were included in the performance.

The Western prejudice against peacock feathers might have originated in the early Mediterranean.  According to British Bird Lovers, the eye markings on the feathers reminded early Mediterranean people of the evil eye of Lilith, the she-devil they blamed for any child’s unexplained death. Bringing peacock feathers into your home was tantamount to inviting Lilith into your family to wreak her havoc. Why would you do that?

Or maybe it started because Mongol warriors wore peacock feathers into battle, which made the Eastern Europeans who encountered those Mongols associate peacock feathers with bad luck.

Over time, the original reason for the superstition has faded, leaving Westerners with the general sense that having peacock feathers around is unlucky.

On the other hand, in India, China, and Japan, peacock feathers bring good luck.

According to the Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia, Hindus associate the peacock with Lakshmi, a benevolent deity who represents patience, kindness, compassion, and good luck. Peacocks (and their feathers) are thought to symbolize those positive qualities as well.

Peacocks are also sacred in Buddhism. For Buddhists, the peacock symbolizes purity and openness. White peacocks symbolize nirvana.

As a result, instead of being afraid of the eyes on peacock tail feathers, folks in India, China, and Japan are much more likely welcome them as an extra set of eyes protecting their homes from danger.

Peacock walking by a frozen lemonade stand

Spotted last summer at the Brookfield Zoo — bringer of prosperity and healing or harbinger of doom? (Photo: Shala Howell)

As with pretty much everything else in life, your stance on whether or not peacock feathers belong in the home depends on your perspective.

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(Not at all) Wordless Wednesday: Fractal Cauliflower

Look what we found at the Farmer’s Market a week or two ago:

Close-up of the pale green fractal sprouts on a Romanesco broccoli

Photo: Michael Howell

At the time, we called it a fractal cauliflower, but I’ve since learned it’s not a cauliflower at all. It’s actually Romanesco broccoli.

It’s shaped like cauliflower (more or less), but it tastes like broccoli (mostly). I can hear The Ten-Year-Old’s Uncle Phil from here: “Worst of both worlds.”

We actually like broccoli though, so we roasted it using our go-to broccoli recipe, and it was fabulous.

I can’t wait to see what surprises the winter farmer’s market holds for us next week.

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Another year gone already?

Well, you’ve done it again. Spent another year reading Caterpickles, and I am profoundly grateful for it.

I know what I was curious about this year, so I thought it would be more interesting to spend some time today seeing what you were curious about this year.

Here are the top 10 posts from 2017: 

10. “How can you tell the difference between a white weasel and an ermine?”

9. “Why do pale people get more moles? (Caterpickles consults the dermatologist)”

8. “Why is a watermelon red inside?”

7. “How does a storm glass work? Part One: The Pondering”

6. “What did people think caused earthquakes in the olden days? Part Two”

5. “Why do goats have four stomachs?”

4. “How do we reset the storm glass?”

3. “When is Santa’s birthday?”

2. “Why does it rain fish in Honduras every year?”

1. “How long can jellyfish sting after they are dead?”

Fun fact: That jellyfish entry is also the most popular Caterpickles post of all-time.

Most popular post categories:

  • Science
  • Nature
  • Can we do that sometime?
  • Ask the iPhone
  • Santa Claus

Most popular Wordless Wednesday post: 


(Photo: Shala Howell)


Most popular book review:  

It’s really hard to parse which “What’s The Ten-Year-Old reading this week?” post was the most popular, since for the most part, the book reviews on Friday all fit on the home page and very few people click through to read them on their own page. But here’s one that in hindsight seems particularly significant:

(Hint: One of the books mentioned inspired The Ten-Year-Old’s Halloween costume.)

So, what did I learn from this? 

You really like the questions about science and nature, so I’ll write more of those sorts of posts in 2018. You also really seemed to enjoy the experiments, so we’ll do another experiment or two. Oh, and it looks like I need get an earlier start on the Santa questions next year. You started searching for those answers immediately after Thanksgiving.

Finally, while it’s hard to pinpoint a particularly popular book review, Fridays in general are really popular days. Apparently you like keeping tabs on The Ten-Year-Old’s reading habits, so I’ll keep doing the Friday book round-ups in 2018.

Now it’s your turn. What would you like to see more of on the blog next year?

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Posted in Miscellaneous Musings | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Caterpickles’ Year in Books

Caterpickles’ year in books, as summarized by Goodreads.

I’ve been using Goodreads on a personal basis for years now. Last year, I decided to set up a separate Goodreads page to track the books my daughter and I have reviewed on Caterpickles. They are sorted onto shelves according to the age my daughter was when she read them.

It’s important to note that these are not all of the books my daughter read in any given year. These are merely the ones she asked me to tell you about on Caterpickles.

Still, the next time you’re in the market for a book to share with a child ages 4-10, feel free to pop over to the Caterpickles Goodreads account and see what my daughter was reading at that age and what she thought about it.

A sampling of some of the books The Ten-Year-Old enjoyed this year.

Check it out, and if you’re on Goodreads, befriend us.

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Wordless Wednesday: Something’s different about Christmas in California

Photo: Shala Howell

Can’t quite put my finger on it, though.

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Merry Christmas, from all of us at Caterpickles Central

May your Cat TV be merry and bright this holiday season!

Vintage Christmas Card (Public Domain)

Thanks for spending time with us at Caterpickles this year.

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“What’s a sugar plum, and why does it get its own fairy?”

Label for Santa Claus Sugar Plums from the U.S. Confection Company, 1868. (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)

The holidays have finally struck here at Caterpickles Central. I wasn’t entirely sure it was going to happen this year, seeing as how there are still flowers blooming outside our front door, but I chaperoned The Ten-Year-Old’s field trip to see The Nutcracker last week, and now I’ve got questions about sugar plums dancing in my head.

First up, what is a sugar plum, anyway?

I have it from a reliable source (my daughter’s fifth grade teacher) that a sugar plum is not simply a sugared plum. In fact, the traditional confectionary known as a sugar plum didn’t contain any actual plum at all. The name plum comes from their shape, not their contents.

Although modern recipes call for sugar plums to be made of dried fruit, traditionally, sugar plums were simply little nuts, seeds, or spices covered in a hard sugar coating. The result was a candy very similar to today’s Jordan Almonds.

Sugar plums were the TUMS of their time

In a shocking twist, sugar plums, also known as comfits, started life as a medicine to treat indigestion. Invented by Arab apothecaries, comfits made their way to Europe by way of Genoese and Venetian sugar traders. They were especially popular in Tudor England, where they, along with a glass of spiced wine, were the digestive aid of choice for Henry VIII after one of his gut-busting feasts.

Why do sugar plums have their own fairy in The Nutcracker?

If sugar plums were originally medicine, why did they get their own fairy in The Nutcracker? I mean, it’s hard to imagine the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater choreographing a production to celebrate the digestive comfort of a well-timed dose of Pepcid Complete.

One answer might be that sugar plums are a particularly tasty form of medicine. They are much more like candy than medicine, really. A particularly difficult to make and therefore expensive candy that only aristocrats could afford to have on a regular basis.

Although the ingredient mix is simple — a bit of caraway, coriander, or chopped almond at the center of a hardened sugar coating — sugar plums are made using one of confectionary’s most tedious processes — panning.  In panning, the seed, spice, or nut at the heart of the sugar plum is placed on a pan over heat. The confectioner keeps the pan constantly in motion while she slowly pours sugar syrup over the centers, allowing the layers to harden between pours. Creating a nice thick sugar coating requires 30 coats of sugar. Completing a batch of properly coated sugar plums could take hours, or even days.

Today, machines do most of the work for us, which is why one Jordan Almond looks much like another, and we can afford to eat as many of them as we wish. But in 1609 when Sir Hugh Pratt published his recipe for sugar plums in “the arte of comfetmaking”, panning by hand was exceptionally tedious, and that drove up the price of sugar plums into luxury territory.

As a result, aristocrats might have snacked on sugar plums after meals, but the average European child would have enjoyed their sugary goodness only on special occasions — like, say, a family’s Christmas Eve celebration, such as the one described in Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Having a dancing fairy dispense sugar plums in a time of relative sugar plum scarcity would have seemed magical indeed.

There could be other reasons, though. By the time Tchaikovsky composed his ballet, the word plum had come to mean anything delightful or desirable. That alone could have been good enough to justify the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

There could also have been something in Tchaikovsky’s source material that mandated the sugar plum fairy. Tchaikovsky based The Nutcracker on a story by Alexandre Dumas, which in turn was based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s rather grim 1816 tale of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King.” I haven’t read either Dumas’ story or Hoffman’s original tale, so I can’t say for certain yet.

Because of that, I’m not ready to declare this half of the question solved. But the holidays are looming and The Ten-Year-Old is clamoring to give Alton Brown’s lovely modernized recipe for sugar plums a try.

Knowing the final answer is going to have to wait.

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Wordless Wednesday: It’s starting to look like Christmas around here

Photo: Shala Howell

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Almost Wordless Wednesday: How to make a writer happy

My first documented evidence that someone who doesn’t know me read my book came in via Twitter this week.

Very exciting!

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