The Ten-Year-Old Presents: The Best Books of Her Fourth Grade Year

Spaceheadz by Jon Scieszka

What the book’s about: Newly minted fifth-grader Michael K. has made a strange crop of friends. Bob and Jennifer speak almost entirely in advertising slogans. To make matters worse, they tell Michael that their mission in life is to convert exactly 3,140,001 kids to BE SPHDZ. If they don’t, Earth itself will be taken offline, taking all of our tasty TV and radio waves with it. What’s a kid to do?

Why The Ten-Year-Old picked it: “It’s really hilarious. There’s this kid who’s trying to deal with an alien invasion led by a hamster. They think he speaks hamsterese. The aliens are really confused and believe everything they see on ads. They can hoot like the Nickelodeon audience, say ‘I’m lovin’ it’ like McDonald’s, and imitate a pro wrestler.”

Marley: A Dog Like No Other by John Grogan

What the book’s about: Marley, a rambunctious little fluff of a Labrador retriever, is nearly as curious as a cat. His nose leads him into so much trouble he gets kicked out of obedience school. He eats too fast, chews too much, and howls during thunderstorms. Marley never really does learn how to behave properly, but his family loves him nonetheless.

This book is a trimmed down version of John Grogan’s Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog. It leaves out much of the detail about the family’s own life and focuses on Marley’s kid-friendly antics.

Why The Ten-Year-Old picked it: “It’s not like Spaceheadz. It’s non-fiction. But it kept my interest and I read it three times back-to-back. I liked that this dog survived several experiences that should have made him die, but he was still curious and inquisitive and tried to do everything. So now I want to be curious and inquisitive and try to do everything too. Also, the dog’s really cute. Did you know they made a movie about Marley, Mommyo?”

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Wordless Wednesday: Whatcha doing, CatMom?

(Photo: Shala Howell)

Blogging’s been light around here lately because I’ve been scrambling to meet various deadlines in the other part of my life.

Oh, and school’s almost out. One more sleep ’til summer.

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Wordless Wednesday: Pictures my daughter takes when I’m not looking

I was flipping through the photos on my phone this morning and I found several that I have no memory of ever taking. They are of subjects near and dear to my daughter’s heart, though, so I suspect she had a hand in them. Here’s a sample:

(Photo: The Ten-Year-Old Howell)

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

Mabel Gray and the Wizard Who Swallowed the Sun by Clayton Smith

First, the disclosure: I learned about this book two years ago, when I took a self-publishing class from Clayton Smith at the Chicago Writer’s Conference. I laughed my way through the book at the time, but when The (then) Eight-Year-Old tried it, she pronounced it too scary.

The (now) Ten-Year-Old rediscovered this book on her Kindle this week, and absolutely loves it. Today, her main complaint is that Book 2 doesn’t appear to be out yet. (There are, however, two Brightsbane Fairy Tales — Two Former Rogues and The Boy Who Trucked with Crows, which will magically appear on her Kindle by the end of the day.)

What the book is about: An evil wizard has swallowed the sun over Brightsbane, draping the town in darkness. Now the same wizard has stolen the Boneyard Compendium, a book of powerful spells that the wizard plans to use to destroy Brightsbane completely. Luckily, the wizard doesn’t yet have the three bone keys that he needs to unlock the Compendium. Can little Mabel Gray find all three in time to save her world?

Why The Ten-Year-Old thinks you’ll like it: “Mabel Gray is perfect for anyone who likes fantasy, really crazy stuff. Not scary, just weird sort of post-apocalyptic stuff, like when they trade the sun for a potato. Anyone who likes crazy stuff like that would like this book a lot.”

So, what you reading this week?

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Caterpickles Cleans House, Part 5

You may have noticed that the questions haven’t been exactly thick on the ground here at Caterpickles Central lately. It’s not that The Ten-Year-Old doesn’t still have plenty of curiosity to go around, it’s just that my time has been taken up by other things.

Sadly, my pending question pile is still a healthy 200+, and rumor has it that The Ten-Year-Old will be bringing a Wonder Book home from fourth grade in a few weeks with another several hundred questions in it. That daunting prospect, plus my own guilt over neglecting questions these past few weeks, mean it must be time for another edition of Caterpickles Cleans House, where I answer several questions briefly instead of one question at length.

Let’s clear some decks.

“How did grapefruit get its name? It’s nothing like a grape.”

Grapefruit on the tree. Photo via Phoenix Home and Garden’s online gardening support section.

It’s true. Grapefruit tastes nothing like grapes. Its aroma, however, consistently fools Michael into thinking I’m six years younger than I am, so grapefruit will continue to be a regular feature of our kitchen.

According to Mental Floss, one of my favorite curiosity magazines, there are two theories about how the English name for grapefruit came about. Maybe we English speakers call it that because grapefruit grows in grape-like clusters on the tree. Or maybe we call it that because grapefruits were originally named after pomelos and instead of translating the pomelo’s scientific name citrus maxima to great-fruit, we corrupted it over the generations to become simply grapefruit.

Either way, we’ve apparently only been using the term grapefruit since the 1800s. Before that the fruits were either called Shaddocks, after the English commander who brought pomelo seeds to the West Indies in 1683, or the forbidden fruit, a name that will resonate with anyone who has spent any time taking a statin.

“Why do cats have a third eyelid?”

It may seem strange to us, but apparently third eyelids are the norm in the animal kingdom. According to this Scientific American article, humans and a few primates are the only mammals who lack them.

It’s thought that the third eyelid functions like a windshield wiper to keep the cats’ relatively large cornea clear of debris and to distribute tears more evenly than the two outer lids could on their own. Another potential use is to protect the cat’s cornea from injury when catching prey or simply stalking it through tall grass.

“Why are they called wisdom teeth?”

This one is pretty much what you’d expect. Wisdom teeth got their name because they take their own sweet time about appearing. If they appear at all, they erupt between the ages of 17 and 25, when, at least theoretically, you have attained some degree of wisdom. According to ScienceLine, anthropologists believe that humans developed a third set of molars because the leaves, roots, nuts, and meat our ancestors relied on to form the bulk of their diet was so hard on their teeth. Modern humans, with their smaller jaws, softer foods, and tendency to use forks and knives, have both less need for wisdom teeth and less room for them in their mouths. Which is why these days wisdom teeth are often more of a nuisance than a help.

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Wordless Wednesday: Spring!

(Photo: Shala Howell)

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The Ten-Year-Old asks the most important question of her life

When I picked The Ten-Year-Old up from school yesterday, she wasted no time. “Mommyo, I have to ask you the most important question of my life.”

Uh-oh, I thought. That’s gonna be a doozy. She’s at that age, you know. But I’ve invested a lot of energy in convincing The Ten-Year-Old that she can ask me anything, so I had no choice. “OK. What’s up?”

The Ten-Year-Old: “Did they have cars in 1893?”

Whew. “Probably. Why do you want to know?”

The Ten-Year-Old: “I’m doing research for my novel.”

“Let’s find out.” So we asked the iPhone right there on the school steps. This wasn’t the sort of question that could wait until we’d walked home.

Googling “were there cars in 1893” led us to the Wikipedia entry for Charles Edgar Duryea. In 1893, Charles and his brother Frank were busy engineering and road-testing America’s first gasoline-powered car out of their garage in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The Duryea’s car didn’t look much like the cars of today. There’s a reason the first cars were marketed as horseless carriages. See if you can figure it out.

Charles and Frank Duryea driving the 1894 version of their gasoline-powered car. (Photo via Wikipedia, Public Domain.)

The Ten-Year-Old, disappointedly: “That’s not going to work at all.”

So we asked Google again, and found this lovely blog post full of pictures of old-timey cars at Then and Now. Check it out for yourself.  There’s sure to be one there that pleases you.

Although I have to warn you, The Ten-Year-Old didn’t find anything remotely useable until the 1898 Duryea Delivery Wagon.

The 1898 Duryea Delivery Wagon. Looks a lot like the wagon the villains used in Disney’s original animated 101 Dalmatians movie, doesn’t it? (Photo via Then and Now)

Back in the day, we also did a series of posts on old-timey cars here at Caterpickles. Read through them or not as your curiosity dictates:

Thanks for spending part of your day with us.


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

Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

Being able to explain complicated ideas in simple terms is one of my favorite art forms. In Thing Explainer, Randall Munroe sets out to explain how complicated stuff like the microwave (food-heating radio boxes), the International Space Station (shared space house), and tectonic plates (the big flat rocks we live on) work using only the thousand (ten hundred) most commonly used words.

This book sounds like a marvel. I can’t wait for The Ten-Year-Old to finish reading it so I can have my turn.

Why The Ten-Year-Old thinks you’ll like it: “It’s got this really cool page on nuclear bombs and there’s another cool one about a tree. Both are cool because a three-year-old could understand this stuff, if the three-year-old could read. He writes really well and doesn’t use any hard words like conflagration, which is a word I know but don’t know what means. I recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about stuff, just don’t expect to learn the actual words in the periodic table because I don’t think perturbium is something we use everyday.”

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Wordless Wednesday: The Ten-Year-Old’s favorite part of the playground

My daughter has been complaining about the fact that her school plans to replace her favorite playground with an outdoor classroom ever since she first learned of it last week. Yesterday, I got tired of all the unproductive griping. So I handed her my phone and told her to take a picture of her favorite part of the playground so that she could always remember it.

This is the photograph she took.

(Photo: The Ten-Year-Old Howell)

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Wanted: A few good beta readers for the upcoming Caterpickles book

As some of you know, I’ve been working on a series of books on how parents can foster their children’s curiosity about art and science without being an artist or scientist themselves. (This is a large part of why I haven’t been around here as much lately.) The books are based on the lessons I’ve learned over the years I’ve been writing Caterpickles. (Ironic, isn’t it?)

The first book in the series, The Caterpickles Bunny Book, talks about how even artistically inept parents can use public art to nurture their child’s love of art.

I plan to release the book this summer, but first I need your help.

I am looking for 3-5 Caterpickles readers to serve as beta readers for the Caterpickles Bunny Book. Normally, beta readers would just comment on the text, but back when the Bunny Book was undergoing its developmental edit, my editor pointed out that it was almost impossible to assess the text without the photographs of the art being discussed.

One of the great things about self-publishing is that if you have to, you can do things out of order. So I temporarily skipped the beta read phase and instead have spent the past few weeks working with a book designer on a prototype of the Bunny Book.

The preliminary design will be finished this week. Once all 100 photographs have been integrated with the text, I plan to pause the book design process to get feedback from a few trusted readers.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it:

I’ll ask you to preview a PDF of the Caterpickles Bunny Book, and comment on all the usual beta reader things:

  • Is the book interesting?
  • Does it read well?
  • Is it organized well?
  • Is it actually useful for parents?
  • What is it missing?

I’ll also ask you to comment on a few not-so-typical things:

  • What do you think of the layout?
  • Does the design work?
  • Do the photographs complement the text or detract from it?

You’ll only have a week or two to review the book and make your comments. That should be plenty of time though. I’ve intentionally designed the Caterpickles Bunny Book to be a quick read. The prototype is only about 40 pages and there are 100 photographs scattered throughout. We’re all too busy parenting to spend a lot of time reading about parenting, right?

If you’re interested in helping out, leave a comment or email me at by May 15, 2017.


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