Harry Potter Birthday Magic – Chapter Two

So, as mentioned in Chapter One, when the kiddos finished up with Quidditch, we still had half of the party to go. What followed was the activity I’d spent the most time planning (and the part that Ella knew the least about, so she could still be surprised): Potions.
Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 1.29.12 PM

After rather exhaustively searching the internet, I’d decided on six different experiments for the kids to complete. Everything was assigned a Harry Potter-ish name (white vinegar was Phoenix Tears, Basilisk Venom was blue dish soap, etc.) and the experiments were typed up, step-by-step (as part of the spell books). The ingredients and tools were set out, science-lab style, and the kiddos got to work.

One of the tables, from above, ready to go…



They were divided into two groups (mostly for crowd control) and we went through the experiments together, to ensure that the steps were followed exactly (in order for some of them to work properly, they had to be completed just so).

We started with “Exploding Filibusters” (combine vinegar and baking soda in a small container with a cap; shake vigorously; stand back) because I knew it would grab their attention. (I knew this because when I’d tried the experiment myself, the top exploded so violently off the vial, it hit the kitchen ceiling. That woke me up, let me tell you.) The kids had similar results; they were hooked!

Spider Expulsion” and “Unicorn Milk Diffusion” – both involving dish soap as repellents – were met mostly with success… although if you’re going to do an experiment that calls for food coloring, I don’t recommend that you use the super-thick, “good” stuff you might have purchased when you fancied yourself a budding Cake Boss. Globs of food coloring are swell for fondant but not so swell for Potions. Trust me on this.
HPparty36See above: large blobs of food coloring in the milk. Don’t do this.

For “Effervescent Elixir,” each kiddo had his/her own “cauldron” in which to mix their potion, with explicit instructions to follow – including placing their cauldron on a tray and giving some space.

As the solutions frothed and bubbled deliciously, Ella and her pals understood why it was wise to keep their distance.

The penultimate experiment – “Mandrake Restorative Draught” – was quick and fun, with some “magic” color changes occurring at its finish.HPparty43

We ended with the experiment I knew would be the most sensational, if only because it involved flame. I called it “Incendiated Basilisk Skin” and made up some story about defeating a basilisk with fire; they ate it up (not literally. That would have been a problem). If you try this one at home, be aware that you really only need a *tiny* bit of rubbing alcohol… anything else might, say, burn for over an hour in your kitchen (which will make you grateful that you tried the experiment in advance, but also annoyed because FIRE and KITCHEN are bad).

When at last the fires had died out, leaving the basilisk “shells” in their wake, we took the kids to the backyard for their final activity: Defense Against The Dark Arts. Nick and Chris worked up a tale involving spells and charms, then sent them off to duel with their newly-acquired weapons: cans of silly string.

This was Nick’s idea, and it was brilliant. Although Ella and her guests had thoroughly enjoyed the Potions class, they’d had to focus and follow precise instructions for a good 45 minutes – so they were thrilled to have the opportunity to run themselves ragged.

And use silly string. ‘Cause that’s always a hit.

While they went bananas in the yard, Sarah and I took the opportunity to put away the Potions lab, rinse out their cauldrons (which were party favors), and get the dining room Great Hall set up for the end-of-term feast. When, at last, the yard resembled a Jackson Pollock creation (and the kids ran out of string), we called them inside to begin the feast.

HPparty48After looking up faux castle wall backdrops, I decided – as with the Platform 9 3/4 brick wall – to just make one myself. I found grey shower curtains at the Dollar Store (sweet!) and felt pretty good about my genius design… until I began to actually hang the curtains in the dining room and the paint flaked off, piece by piece, piling up on the floor.
Turns out? Shower curtains don’t only repel water; they also repel paint. 

At least it looked kinda cool.

Some additional feast food and drinks…

Ella had requested angel food cake as her birthday goodie (yum!). She also requested it entirely plain (um…). I was able to convince her to have one entirely plain cake (see above: the ridiculously-named “Meringue Gateau”) and one whipped-cream-frosted cake (with strawberries on the side).

As mentioned in the first post, Sarah was in charge of the cake-frosting, with instructions to make the lettering look like Harry’s 11th birthday cake from the Sorcerer’s Stone movie.HPparty49
Making Hagrid proud!


Following the feast, we invited everyone to  fill up at Honeydukes Sweet Shop.HPparty51

Each kiddo got to take home an awesome butterbeer that Sarah and Chris had driven up from Westchester…HPparty52

… as well as an assortment of Muggle candy, all named after Wizarding sweets.HPparty53
From left: Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum (gum balls), Chocolate Frogs (made with a frog mold and chocolate discs), Pepper Imps (big, chalk-y peppermint candies), Chocoballs (malted chocolate balls), Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, Toothflossing Stringmints (coils of red and black licorice), and Acid Pops (lollypops dipped in Pop Rocks).

HPparty54The Acid Pops were a cool idea, but the execution – dipping the lollies in water, then pressing them into the Pop Rocks – left a lot to be desired… Sarah helped out as best she could…

Before everyone departed – wands, spellbooks, cauldrons, butterbeer, and candy in hand (or bag) – we made sure to get a couple of photos by the (crumbling, peeling…) Great Hall backdrop.


Yes, it was a nutty six days leading up to the party. But I would do it all again to see our wonderfully Harry-obsessed eleven year-old feel – for a couple of hours – like she was maybe, just a little bit, at Hogwarts with her friends. Giving her that magical experience was really our birthday present to her; seeing her celebrating, wizard-style, with her friends was so very worth it.

Plus also we had leftover candy and butterbeer.
I’m calling it a win.


I bought customizable labels for the Potions at this neat Etsy shop.
I found ideas – and the sign – for the Potions class herehere, and here.
The Honedukes and Defense Against the Dark Arts signs were from here.





Harry Potter Birthday Magic – Chapter One

In mid-November, Ella made up her mind: she wanted a Harry Potter birthday party (obvs). Because she had her heart set on a handful of friends attending, she sent an email to the invitees offering up several possibilities, hoping that most could make it on at least one of the offerings. Miraculously, everyone was available on exactly one of the possible dates…

… which, of course, happened to be six days from when she sent the email.
So we had six days to prepare for Ella’s Harry Potter birthday party – her ELEVENTH birthday, no less (the age when Hogwarts letters arrive). Six days to leave our Muggle lives behind and create something magical.

No pressure!

Given that this was November and not summer break (when we have usually held birthday parties), those six days were already jam-packed with Regular Life. Still, I was not about to let Life get in the way of giving Ella the Harry Potter birthday party that I she had always dreamed of.

It was crazy, but I won’t even pretend to complain. ‘Cause, let’s be real: I loved it.

The very afternoon Ella received the go ahead on her party date, she set to work designing the invitations.HPparty1
Using her quill pen and ink (duh), she dutifully wrote out Hogwarts letters for each friend.

HPparty2These took FOREVER, but she was determined…

Official Hogwarts wax seal!

Next, the invitations had to be delivered… But Muggle mail would not do. They would arrive by owl.HPparty4
Ella convinced her sister and next door BFF to create owl balloons for her — which we then dropped off at the invitees’ houses.

For the next six days, we gathered supplies, scoured the internet, decided on menus and games and activities and take-home goodies, made decorations, created spell-books, designed an “order” of events, and got very little sleep. It was kind of incredible.
After strategizing how the Quidditch match should go, Ella was in charge of spraypainting the hoops.

In addition to Ella, I had the invaluable assistance of my BFF, Sarah, who – last minute – was bringing her family (including her sons, J and Z — some of my girls’ best buds) to visit for the weekend, meaning they’d be here for the party. Sarah listened patiently to my incessant rambling about activities, decorations, and food. She found butterbeer at a local grocery store and had her husband, Chris, drive it up from Westchester. She insisted that, not only would she help get everything set up on Saturday morning – she was excited about helping set everything up.

Sarah gets me and my craziness and joins me in the crazy.

She also made me promise her I wouldn’t get too carried away.
Sarah knows me very, very well.

The morning of the party, we sent the kids off with Nick and Chris so we could prepare. Sarah instinctively knew where things should go and how they should look; I just had to tell her what was next. She’d arrange an activity, text me a photo (so I wouldn’t have to stop what I was doing to check things out… but also because she knew that I’d eventually want photos of everything. THIS IS A GOOD FRIEND), and then move onto the next thing. She talked me down from the ledge at least twice and convinced me that it was okay to let go of certain expectations (the candles hanging from the Great Hall ceiling were just not happening; I saved them for Ella’s actual birthday). She even frosted Ella’s birthday cake – a task I would have entrusted to approximately two other people in the universe (and one of them is not Nick).

In short, the party could not have happened without Sarah. (Nick and Chris, were tremendous helpers, too… but it was Sarah who really made it work.) When it was all said and done, Sarah was also the one who made me promise that I would blog about it. It’s taken me 3.5 months, but I’m finally keeping my promise.


NOW PRESENTING:  Ella’s Harry Potter Party (part one)!

Naturally, when the guests arrived, they had to go through Platform 9 3/4 to get to Diagon Alley.
I researched pre-made faux brick “walls” – like theater sets – but they wound up being so expensive, I decided to “just” sponge-paint an old curtain.
Turns out you don’t “just” sponge-paint an old curtain, but whatever. It worked… eventually.

As the guests came in, they were invited to drop off donations for our local Humane Society at Eeylops Owl Emporium.

They could also flush their way to the Ministry of Magic, should they choose…
Other Diagon Alley decorations included some recognizable Harry Potter posters – with the kids’ photos replacing Harry and Sirius Black.

Designing these cracked me up maybe a little too much…

I hadn’t been sure where I wanted the posters; Sarah quickly hung them above the fireplace, which was where we’d planned on taking photos, which turned out to be perfect. (Notice also the three extra Quidditch rings for dramatic effect.)
Traveling by fireplace? You’ll need floo powder, obviously…

Ella wanted to start out with the standard Diagon Alley activities: wand-getting, wizard robe-trying-on, and procuring school supplies at Flouish and Blotts. After asking for her guests’ wand color preferences at school in the days preceding the party, Ella dutifully cut, sanded, and painted wands for everyone – and then attached labels with their lengths. Nick dramatically doled out the wands, making sure they “chose” correctly, and then the kids finished them off with hot glue and paint.HPparty11You can vaguely see the descriptions attached to each wand…

In the end, the Ollivander’s decorating table was more detailed than this, but we were so busy helping the kids navigate Diagon Alley, no one got a photo…

While some students visited Ollivander’s, others stopped by Flourish and Blotts to grab their spell-books. (These were more than just decorations; we used them throughout the party.)
The cover of the book, as it looked on the computer…

Z and Annie showing off their wands and spell-books. And their semi-evil looks.

We didn’t have enough time (or resources) to procure everyone a robe, so we set up a try-on station at Madame Malkin’s and invited kiddos to take photos with their costumes.HPparty15


They took posing – individually, in pairs, groups, you name it.
Annie, in her Gryffindor robes, looking appropriately brave and clever…

Z, in his Slytherin robes, looking appropriately naughty and bold.

Ella and her buddies were in on the action, too.

Group shot!HPparty20

Once everyone was sufficiently outfitted for Hogwarts, they took their places in the Great Hall (no Hogwarts Express, pity) for the Sorting ceremony.
I’m not sure that Hogwarts used plastic, gold Dollar Store tablecloths, but at least our scuffed wooden benches are authentic…

The best part of Sorting was that the hat actually talked. Well, to be more precise, Chris talked… into a cell phone (from a different part of the house)… that was dialed into a cell phone we’d placed in the tip of the hat. I’d theatrically announce each kid as loudly as possible (so Chris would hear me) as s/he put on the hat.”AND NOW, WE WILL FIND OUT WHICH HOUSE MISS ELEANOR WILL BE IN!” Chris would then – using a British accent and rhyming couplets (no joke) – “sort” the kids, which we would hear coming from the hat… as though it were talking.

It was kind of insane. And also kind of epic.HPparty22
Fingers crossed for Gryffindor (she was a Hufflepuff instead)…

Once everyone was sorted, the activities could officially begin! First up: attending a History of Magic review/study session, which took place in the Gryffindor common room. Naturally, they had to give the portrait of the Fat Lady the password to enter…

Ella designed the study/review game herself. Step one: close your eyes and reach into a bowl containing strips of paper, on which were the names of different Harry Potter characters. Step two: lick (!) and adhere the paper to your forehead. Step three: face the other kiddos and, based on their clues, guess the character attached to your forehead.

I created the paper strips so Ella could play, too.
The game itself? Pretty freakin’ hilarious.HPparty23
Trying to get J to guess that he was the Fat Lady had everyone in hysterics.


No term at Hogwarts would be complete without a Quidditch match! After much consideration on how to tackle this imaginary sport, we went for simple: if the Snitch (aka gold-painted golfball) made it through all three hoops and landed in a cup without knocking it over, your team got a point.HPparty26HPparty27

Turns out, landing a (heavy) golfball into a (light) Solo cup is actually kind of challenging, which made it more fun. The kids played House against House, round robin-style, until we had a winner. HPparty28



By this point, the party was only halfway over.
There was still Potions…HPparty40HPparty44

… Defense Against the Dark Arts…HPparty46

… the end-of-term feast…HPparty48a

… and a trip to Honeydukes…HPparty53

… but that will have to wait until the next chapter.




I found several of the party signs here and here.

We saw the Quidditch idea here.




The Age of Magic

Eleven is usually one of those ages that no one really notices. It’s not the first double digit, it’s not the last year before teenager, and it’s not thirteen (omg), which of course launches children into an entirely new category. So eleven typically kind of slides by…

Unless you happen to be a (huge) Harry Potter fan.

Because if you are, then you know that eleven is the age at which witches and wizards receive their owls inviting them to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Eleven is the age at which everything changes, where the chosen ones are weeded out from the muggles, where new horizons are tantalizingly around the corner.

Eleven is magical.

As I’ve said before, one of the most marvelous and astonishing things about sharing the Harry Potter series with Ella (and now Annie) has been that they see the story from Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s perspective.

By the time I met Harry, Ron, and Hermione, I was already an adult myself. It was fascinating to watch them grow, but I did so with an emotional distance – they were kids, and although I was extremely drawn in by the power of [the] storytelling, I never once imagined what it was like to BE eleven. Ella, on the other hand, is viewing the stories through the eyes of a child, almost as a peer. She doesn’t just envision the Gryffindor common room (as I did); she envisions herself IN the Gryffindor common room.

And so I suppose it should come as no surprise that, as she approached her eleventh birthday, Ella hoped she would receive an owl. She never told me so explicitly – she realizes that the books are fiction, obviously – but it was clear that, somewhere in the back of her mind, she was entertaining the possibility that maybe somehow, in some parallel universe we have yet to tell her about, there really is a Hogwarts and she really is a witch, and, well… Wouldn’t that be amazing?

It would. It would be amazing. And I have no doubt that, should such a place exist, Ella would be qualified for admission (if only due to sheer adoration and willpower).

Alas. If there is such a parallel universe, it has yet to make itself known to us. Or maybe we really are just muggles. Whatever the case, Nick and I knew that there would be no owl arriving at the house this past Friday when Ella turned eleven. We’d already celebrated with a Harry Potter party, which was one of our gifts to her (I really will write more about it soon, I promise), but I still wanted her magical birthday to be special…

So, the dining room became the Great Hall – kinda.
Hogwarts house banners and colors, “floating” candles, and a balloon owl (it was the best I could do) — but with an actual letter from a super cool Etsy shop.

It looked pretty neat all lit up.

A bunch of gifts, from all different family members, were Harry-themed. Ella loved each and every one. Even our Elf on the Shelf, Hermey, got into the action.
He was waiting for her – amongst her HP collection – in her bedroom that morning.

Naturally, not every part of Ella’s birthday was about Harry. Annie contributed several additions that, really, were more than a little awesome. First up was a set of three shirts, one for each of the days surrounding Ella’s birthday.

The first:
If you look reeeeally closely, you might see the “Can’t wait!” written in neon yellow on the side…

Next up:
“TODAY IS MY B-DAY!” on the front… 
and, “I’m 1 year more AWESOME!” on the back.
(Photos “darkened” so the text was more visible.)

And finally:
“Yesterday was my birthday” with – my favorite – “Waiting for next year!” in orange on the side. HA.

Ella was tremendously tickled and wore them proudly. Then, there was also Annie’s card to Ella, the middle of which looks like this and might be one of the greatest things of all time:
In perfectly disconnected beginner cursive, the heart-meltingly sweet: “I couldn’t ask for a better sister…”
And beneath it, in print, the heart-stoppingly hilarious: “Well, I guess I could, but I think mom’s a little to[o] old now.” Maybe 40 is older than I’d thought…

Unfortunately, Ella’s birthday fell on a weekday so she couldn’t choose how to spend her day. She did, however, revel in her Great Hall, open presents in the afternoon, wander the mall with Nick (her birthday request; so help me, she is already pining to WANDER THE MALL), eat a dinner of her choosing (loaded baked potatoes and wedge salads), and for dessert – knowing she’s not particularly fond of cake – we surprised her with one of her favorites: cannolis.

Or, more specifically, cannoli “dippers” from Wegmans — a cup with cannoli pastry chips at the bottom and a container of filling at the top. Ella was in heaven (as always, Wegmans is my spirit animal and saved the day).

When the night was nearly at an end, Nick and I called the girls into the living room to give them their final, joint birthday present. In a recent conversation with both girls, they told us that, of all the people in the world, the one they’d most want to meet was J.K. Rowling – they so admire her, they think she’s amazing, there’s no one cooler – but if they couldn’t meet her, at least they’d like her autograph. Nick and I told them such things are impossible; authors don’t do that.

So, yes, we lied to the children. Point blank.

Then I scoured the internet researching such a possibility. After learning far more than I ever wanted to know about autograph authenticating, reputable dealers, pricing, etc., I happened upon an Ebay auction of a signed copy of Quidditch Through The Ages. Long story short, the stars aligned and a few days later, I was – literally – chasing after our mail carrier to pick up the book.

I cried when I opened it.

After calling the girls into the living room and informing them we had one last gift, we made them wash their hands and promise not to spit or cough or in any other way defile the item they were about to receive… and then handed over the book. At first, they were perplexed (“Oh, wow. A paperback copy of a book we already have… How neat… Oh? It’s the UK version? That’s… cool?”). Then, they figured it out and, well…

It was, in the vernacular of the Brits, brilliant.

Although we may be muggles, this book feels positively magical. So does having our E-Bean for a daughter. She is a tween for sure – with everything that you would imagine comes along with such a moniker – and we are just smitten with her. As she grows older, she grows more into and sure of herself, more empathetic, more sensitive, more intuitive and insightful, wittier, kinder, bolder, and oh so much fun. She is positively slaying the French Horn and remains a joy to watch come alive in the pool.

In short, she is incredible.

Happiest eleventh birthday, Eleanor Elizabeth. Although your owl may have been poppable and your Great Hall “floating” candles may have been suspended by fishing wire, our love for your is oh so real. You are magic to us and we will stay with you – to quote Harry’s mom, Lily, Until the very end.

We adore you. Always.

An Open Letter To Ms. J.K. Rowling

Dear Ms. Rowling,

There’s a large part of me that feels more comfortable calling you Jo, because I’ve seen and read so many of your interviews, television programs, and articles – many referring to you as Jo – that I feel we’re almost on a first-name basis. That’s an important distinction, though, isn’t it — that *almost* part of things — because although you are, indeed, a household name here, uttered as often as beloved relatives and best friends, I am just one of bazillions of your fans, blending into a cacophony of Potterdome that must feel simultaneously wonderful and overwhelming.

Rest assured, I have no illusions that you will ever really read this letter (the fact that I will not actually send it to you doesn’t really help my cause, either). But that’s okay. I’m not writing to gain answers or guidance, but rather because I simply cannot go any further without formally stating these things, to you and to everyone.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to make any bizarre declarations. No need to tighten the security detail. It’s just – see, you’ve completely changed my daughter’s life – and, in so doing, have changed mine – and I kind of think that deserves recognition.

(Long recognition, in this case. Get comfy.)

Her name is Ella – Eleanor, if you’re feeling proper. Or British. She’s nine and in third grade and, until a year or so ago, didn’t particularly care for reading. It’s not that she wasn’t a proficient reader (she was), it’s that she didn’t like reading. Nothing grabbed her. My husband and I were somewhat flummoxed; Ella had access to hundreds of books at our house. We, her parents, love to read. We’ve read to her, we’ve read with her, we’ve read in front of her. Her younger sister has loved to curl up with a book since before she could recognize letters. But Ella? No.

Last spring, she become somewhat taken with The Boxcar Children series. While not terribly excellent literature, I was nevertheless thrilled, hoping that maybe this would be what unlocked her love of reading (because just not liking reading wasn’t really flying for me). It didn’t. Summer came and went, and although other children may see unstructured days as an opportunity to voraciously consume as many books as possible, Ella believed that No School meant No Reading Any Time Ever, and so very few pages were turned.

Thus, it came as quite a surprise this past fall when Ella declared that she wanted to begin reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. (I know, Philosopher’s Stone, originally; I also know where and when you wrote it, how long it took, all about your daughter, Jessica’s, first years, and… well, you catch my drift. See why “Jo” seemed appropriate?) At first, my husband and I balked – not because we thought she wouldn’t like it, but because we thought she was too young to really get it.

ech 52 of 52 harry potter finale
New Year’s Eve – last book, last page

He and I have been fans since the beginning. Those fully-grown adults who pre-ordered books (one for each of us, because no way in hell we could share) but then still went out at 7 a.m. to purchase a third copy, because waiting until the UPS carrier arrived was torture. The ones who explored Harry Potter message boards in the internet’s infancy, when dial-up modems buzzed and clicked us online, because we absolutely had to see what other people thought of Sirius at the Ministry. (Full disclosure: I’ve never actually posted in any of these forums, because that seems to be crossing some kind of Geekdom line that even I cannot condone, but I’ve read. For hours.)

We’re the ones who sobbed our way through the last two hundred pages of The Half-Blood Prince and whose book club’s Deathly Hallows discussion was the most well-attended in the history of the club, and the only one for which nearly everyone gave a perfect ten stars. We drank it up – every book, every word, every article we could get our hands on discussing plots and themes and spoiler alerts.

So, we got it, this Harry Potter thing. (Or so we thought.) We loved them. They were special – so special, we thought perhaps they deserved to be read when they could be wholly understood, when the subtle nuances and scores of impressive literary, historical, scientific, musical and artistic references could be fully appreciated. When Ella had lived a little more life, and could bring those life experiences to her reading. Perhaps she should wait.

But no, as anyone who’s read this blog or met us in real life this past year knows, Ella did not want to wait – not for the first book, at least – and so we reluctantly consented. And so it went, with some pauses (especially after The Goblet of Fire, when everything becomes so much more intense) as Nick and I determined whether or not to let her finish. (Nick’s my husband; since you’re on a first-name basis with me, I thought it only fair that you know him, too). It soon became apparent, however, that not only did Ella want to finish the series… she needed to finish the series. I summed it up this way in her birthday blog post:

“But we eventually came to understand that she needs to finish these books; no, I mean it, actually needs to. They are fully real to her, so authentic and true that she can smell them, and as with anything in real life, unfinished business is uncomfortable indeed. She will not fully exhale until she knows what happens, for better or for worse.”

And so she completed them – Nick and I actually joined her for the final chapter on New Year’s Eve, the perfect way of capping off the year – and we thought maybe, now, it was done, this Harry obsession. Ella knew the story, knew what happened, she could let it rest, let it go, relax.

Um, yeah. Not so much.

Written three days after she finished the series, when we’d told her to go back and reread if she was really missing it…

In fact, her love of All Things Harry Potter only grew stronger.

Like most American families with elementary school children, Frozen has taken over our lives — but, at our house, quietly beside it is Harry. It’s not flashy like “Let It Go” or “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” but it’s there, a steady, constant companion. I am not exaggerating when I say that not one single day of our lives – since mid-September – has passed without a Harry reference, be it to the books themselves, the characters, the movies, the actors who portray the movie characters, the movie directors, or you yourself, Ms. Rowling.

There’s the general Potter-stuff mania, of course, largely fueled by us at Christmas and then further supported when we took the family to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter this past February. Our house is bursting with authentic wands, Gryffindor robes, time-turner necklaces, Deathly Hallows pendants, a Marauders Map, “Mischief Managed” wall adhesives, Harry Potter cookbooks, chocolate frog cards (and actual chocolate frogs, both the candies and the make-it-yourself candy molds), platform 9 3/4 earrings, Harry Lego games, “Hogwarts” and “Hagrid’s Hut” Lego sets, Harry-esque glasses, tomes dissecting Harry “from page to screen,” biographies on Dan and Emma and you (Rupert’s has been more difficult to come by), Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, Hedwig stuffed animals, golden snitch quizzing games, Nimbus 2000s, extendable ears, Gryffindor uniform ties, and numerous books of spells.



And that’s just stuff that’s been purchased (or given as gifts), which doesn’t begin to account for the other ways that Harry been woven into our family fabric. Entire sections of rooms have been dedicated to stories about Harry and the gang, drawings of the characters, and letters to directors. Nearly every game of dress-up and make-believe (that’s not devoted to Frozen) finds the girls on the grounds of Hogwarts. More hours than I care to admit have been devoted to scouring websites like Mugglenet and Pottermore and TheLeakyNews for information on everything from the new Gringotts expansion at Universal to what Robbie Coltrane likes to eat for breakfast. On Twitter, I now follow Emma Watson, Rupert Grint (Daniel Radcliffe remains Twitter-free), Matthew Lewis, Tom Felton, Evanna Lynch, Oliver and James Phelps, Warwick Davis, Devon Murray, Bonnie Wright, and – of course – you, even though I don’t actually Tweet, myself, all so that I can occasionally update Ella on what’s going on with the much-beloved actors who become so important to her.

Clearly, we have become completely Harry immersed, Harry obsessed…
But, believe it or not, not in a bad, unhealthy way.
(I hope.)

I say “we” because this truly has become a family affair. Sure, Nick and I were kind of givens, but Annie (Ella’s little sister; again, I feel you might as well know us all by name) has not yet read the books… but I’m certain that she knows more obscure Harry-related trivia than many people who have completed the series, partly by osmosis, and partly because Ella thinks it’s The Best Game Ever to quiz Annie on All Things Harry until she gets the right answers.

From Annie’s – yes, ANNIE’S – “All About Me” book, written last week at school

So, there’s one way that you, Ms. Rowling, have changed Ella’s – and my – life: the characters and the worlds you created have now invaded the very fiber of our beings, with an entire Potter dialect running through half of our conversations, a house full of wizarding gear, and a compulsion to check in weekly and see how Neville’s transformation from geek to gorgeous is coming along.

“Something About Harry,” if you will, with bangers and mash instead of franks and beans.

But there’s so much more to it than just a fad, a passing fancy, the way that some kids become fascinated with an activity or a television show or a sport and suddenly every morning is filled with Minecraft updates and bedrooms are adorned with basketball pennants and posters of the cast of Family Ties (wait, that might just have been me…). The Harry Potter series changed the very way my girl approaches the world, the way she feels about herself, the way she interacts with others… everything. It changed her, forever.

Through reading your books, Ella has learned to be far more confident in herself, in exactly who she is. It used to be that she worried desperately – even in second grade – about what her friends thought. She would play games at recess that she didn’t care for because she didn’t want to stand out as different. Once she began the HP series, she began to care far less about what the other kids thought of her. The books were so absorbing, she read them at recess, and felt no stigma in being that kid alone on the bench. Once she finished the seventh book, she still continued to hold her own. All of the other kiddos wear sneakers to play, while Ella prefers white canvas slip-ons; a year ago, she might not have had the confidence to wear them but now does so proudly. I occasionally volunteer to help out during recess, and I’ve noticed that her playing habits have changed – sometimes, with a big group. Sometimes, with a few friends. Other times, all by herself, simply wandering. She is comfortable in her own skin, and while part of that may have come naturally as she’s gotten older, I can’t help but think that a large part of it is due to your books.

At recess, with a friend… and The Prisoner of Azkaban

They are her security blanket. They are real, so very, almost tangibly real, that they practically swallow her whole. Once inside, it is a place of warmth, of familiarity, of deep comfort – in her own words, “a world that makes me smile.” Whenever she is unhappy in the real world, the everyday – when things become overwhelming or confusing or just plain piss her off – all she has to do is close her eyes (or, even better, pick up a book if one’s immediately available to her) and she is wrapped in happiness and calm.

We all tend to call on positive memories when crappy things happen – or, heck, whenever we need a pick-me-up. (Personally, I revisit eating jerk pork in a little shack on the side of the road when Nick and I traveled to Jamaica a few years ago. Or the corn on the cob at the Minnesota state fair. Come to think of it, a lot of my best memories have to do with food… But I digress.) Ella has loads of happy real-life remembrances that she reminisces about – often – but if she wants instant, sheer, to-her-core joy, she will simply recall a Harry memory, and BAM! Bliss. Anywhere, any time, no matter the circumstances or how poor her mood, she can turn it around through Harry. It’s kind of… like… magic.

(Yeah. I said it. You didn’t think I could complete this without it, did you?)

The HP series showed Ella a world of possibilities, and I mean that both figuratively and more tangibly. Her imagination ran wild as she read the books, of course, creating pictures in her mind so that she could truly envision Harry’s adventures. But it’s continued long past the final page and has extended into very real areas of her life. Sure, some of her curiosities are related directly to the stories (“When Harry’s kids go to Hogwarts, do you think they’ll go to the Forbidden Forest like he did?”), while others take the stories and bring them into our real world (“Would you rather have an invisibility cloak or be able to apparate?”). Still more leave Harry behind all together, with Ella using her mind creatively in ways we had not seen before (“Do you suppose time travel will really be possible? Can I use the sewing machine to turn this shirt into a dress?”). Again, this may have happened organically, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that her fantastical ideas took off after reading these books.

A little creative writing while on our Disney Cruise… and, yep. There it is.

I know that, for many, many kids, the Harry Potter series ignited their love of reading. The same was true for Eleanor… kind of. You see, she certainly loved to read these books; she truly could not spend enough time with them, with many a bedtime being delayed because she “needed” to read “just one more page.” The problem is, she doesn’t really want to read anything else, because nothing compares to those seven tomes. She loves reading YOUR books… but everyone else’s books? Sub-par.

Basically, Ms. Rowling, you ruined reading for her. Thanks ever so much.

Nick and I get it, we really do, because let’s be honest: nothing does compare to those seven tomes, does it? When Ella says that no other books will ever be as wonderful as the Harry Potter books, it’s very difficult to argue with her, because… well… she’s pretty much right. Not as a whole, anyway. The world of Harry Potter is so rich, so unbelievably well-developed, so deep and intricate, so thrilling and nuanced, so inspiring and clever, so tremendously well-written — not well-written for children’s books, but well-written, period, the way that all “good, quality literature” is well-written — that I have yet to find anything that tops it. And so when Ella laments that nothing will ever be better, I can’t help but tell her that she’s absolutely correct… which makes the whole reading thing a bit tough.

(There are, of course, still umpteen incredible books out there. Books that will capture her imagination as HP did, books that will inspire her, books that will whisk her away, books that will comfort and confound and enlighten her. Books that, individually, will mean as much to her, will be as good, as your seven. Worry not, she’s still reading [grudgingly], and although she has yet to find anything that comes close to Harry, she’s not given up.)

ella poem

So, Ms. Rowling, your books truly did change my daughter’s world. She is more confident, more secure, more curious, more alive, and much, much more happy as a result of the Harry Potter series. And as for me (’cause remember how I said that they changed my life, too)? Well, see, when your books changed my kid, they changed how I approach her, how I interact with her. Through discussing the stories with her, I’ve learned so much more about her as a person. How would she have handled it if her team lost the Quidditch match? What does she see in the Mirror of Erised? Why does she love Luna so much? Her answers have been more honest and more raw than the vast majority of the rest of our conversations, and for that, I am endlessly grateful.

I’ve also had the privilege of seeing the books through her eyes, which has been an astonishing experience. By the time I met Harry, Ron, and Hermione, I was already an adult myself. It was fascinating to watch them grow, but I did so with an emotional distance – they were kids, and although I was extremely drawn in by the power of your storytelling, I never once imagined what it was like to BE eleven. Ella, on the other hand, is viewing the stories through the eyes of a child, almost as a peer. She doesn’t just envision the Gryffindor common room (as I did); she envisions herself IN the Gryffindor common room.

Perhaps this difference in perspective may seem inconsequential, or to be splitting hairs, but I can assure you that it is not. It has allowed Eleanor to submerse herself in the stories, in the characters, in ways that I never even considered… until she told me about it. By seeing the books from her vantage point, I gained a newer, deeper appreciation for the stories as a whole – it was like reading them anew (which, as a Potter fan, was AWESOME). But, more so, it’s helped me to see Ella’s entire world from her perspective just a little bit better, to hear her a little more clearly, to not brush off or disregard her opinions simply because she’s young and “overreacting” or silly or “doesn’t get it” the way an adult would. And that has been a marvelous gift, indeed.

As a parent, you’re always looking for ways to motivate your offspring, whether it’s to clean their rooms or to eat their vegetables to be their best selves. Some might call this bribery; I prefer persuasion. In any case, Harry has provided us with endless opportunities to persuade Ella to do any number of things. You want to re-read more of the first book? Sure; as soon as you’ve put away your clothes. I just read a tweet from Tom Felton – I’ll tell you what it says if you help me with the dishes! The next time you spit on your sister, I’m taking away all seven of those books. Forever.

In fact, this letter has been percolating for many months – since Ella completed the books on December 31st, actually – but I’m finally writing it now because, just this past weekend, Harry Potter motivated/persuaded/bribed my child into playing a piece far beyond her level for her piano recital. Ella has a lot of facility at the piano (I’m a piano teacher, so I can say these things with Great Authority), but no desire to practice (you’ll note that she approaches most things in life this way, from reading to music). Once she came upon the music for “Hedwig’s Theme,” however, all bets were off. Defying all precedents, she not only learned that song – she read the music and taught some of it to herself. Yeah, I’m more than a little sick of hearing those music-box-like twinkles, but I’ll never complain that Harry brought my girl to the piano.

adhd kitchen ella

Finally, simply put, sharing Harry Potter with my daughter has been ridiculously fun. It’s been such a trip watching squeal with delight as she learns that Emma Watson graduated from college or howl with frustration and sadness when one of her favorite characters met their demise. If I want an instant connection with her, all I have to do is ask her a Harry-related question, and her face fills with delight. She knows, too, that I adore the books as she does (okay, I’ll be honest here – she might actually enjoy them more than I do), and that knowledge has created a special bond between us that I couldn’t have engineered if I tried. Plain and simple, Ella’s enjoyment of Harry Potter makes me a happier person, and that is a beautiful thing.

“Reading this book feels like Christmas,” she told me.
How can that not make a mama happy??

This is not to say that it’s all been sunshine and unicorns. There are times when all of this Potter mania becomes juuuust a bit too much; where I’m ready to break the next wand that I trip over, where I can hardly even manage a smile when I’m making dinner and am suddenly bombarded with, “Mommy! Can you tell me the name of the woman who made Dumbledore’s costumes for the third movie? ‘CAUSE I CAN!!” There are days when I feel more than a little stalker-pervy for checking on the whereabouts of twenty-something actors, times when I’m just done with trying to convince Ella that, no, she may not re-read a chapter from The Goblet of Fire and count it as her homework.

But, really, the good outnumbers the bad so greatly, it’s not even a contest. And that might be the greatest thing that the Harry Potter series has changed about our lives: it has given us perpetual hope. I was hopeful, myself,  when I originally read them – but, I’ll fully admit, as the years passed, I’ve grown more jaded and cynical. Rereading them with Ella showed her – and reminded me – that, in the end, love wins.

Love. Wins.

It’s such a simple concept, really… but it’s one that I believe down to my core. Does love win every battle, every skirmish? Of course not. There are days, weeks – hell, entire eras – where love does not prevail. But, in the end, I believe that it will, and that if we continue to have hope, to have courage, to be true friends, to look for the good, to fight for the good, that we will find it.

These are not just words, either, but almost a mantra. We have seen many tragedies, some on a small scale and some enormously large, and Ella and Annie have – understandably – been scared, worried, unconvinced that things will turn out all right. Since Ella began your books back in September, on more than one occasion, I have found myself summoning the phrase, “Don’t worry – it will all be okay. Because love wins. Remember that. Love wins.” And then we are okay.

You can’t get much more life-changing than that.

It truly is a family affair…

And so… in summary…
Thank you, Ms. Rowling. Thank you for your stories. Thank you for your characters. Thank you for creating a world beyond anything we ever could have imagined on our own. Thank you for helping us to create our own memories. Thank you for bringing us closer together. Thank you for making us laugh (and cry; OH MY GOD, WE HAVE CRIED SO MUCH OVER THESE BOOKS). Thank you for making us deliriously happy. Thank you for giving us hope. Thank you for all of it.

Annie is still too young to read the books on her own, but in another year or two, I know she’ll be ready; I absolutely cannot wait to go down this road again, and to see the story – and the world – with her and through her. In the meantime, summer is coming, which means that Ella will no longer need to slog twenty minutes of “approved” reading every weekday afternoon… which means that she can read whatever she wants – even things that she might already have read.

Unlike last summer, I don’t think that she’ll have any trouble finding a book (or seven) to keep her occupied.

I hope that your summer is similarly joy-filled, that you’re able to sneak into the new Universal park if you and your family so desire (you can probably just tell them to open it up for you guys, right? Totally private tour and all?), and that your work on the “not-prequal” movie is coming along swimmingly.

With best wishes (and immense gratitude),



It’ll do magic, believe it or not

One week ago, we’d just attended the mandatory lifeboat information session and were watching Mickey and crew shimmy across the deck stage as we were about to depart Port Canaveral for the Bahamas.

Right now, we’ve just come from visiting Jambi at the vet (she’s in heat, and is required to be boarded so she doesn’t get knocked up; CCI frowns on that), it’s 16 degrees out, and we’re about to have sloppy joes for dinner.

Am I asking for sympathy? Oh, hell no. FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS, people.

Okay, so they’re not even problems. And saying that I miss being on vacation makes me sound like a special kind of asshole.

But I do. I miss being on vacation. (Special, that’s me.)
I miss the entire trip, which was just… absolute magic. (And, no, not just because that was the name of the ship.) For the first time in maybe ever, every single minute of our vacation was just as we’d hoped it would be. It took us away from the cold and the snow and the exhausting grind of daily life and into something otherworldly, where only joy and simple happiness existed.

Bibbidi Bobbidi BOOYAH.

Nick’s travel schedule can take its toll on everyone, but one of the bonuses is that he racks up crazy amounts of hotel points. To make the trip more affordable, we’d chosen to use some points to stay at a hotel in Orlando that was near both Downtown Disney and Universal. The hotel itself was great, with several fun pools and condo-style units that you could buy into as part of a timeshare (not for us, but thanks) that featured kitchenettes and washer/dryers that Ella found endlessly fascinating. “We could do our laundry if we wanted. We can even wash dishes. This is the best hotel room EVER.” (Which is really something, considering the palatial estate she and Nick stayed in last month…)

But even greater than the building was the sense of relaxation we all experienced the moment we got off the plane. Okay, that and the weather. We rolled down our windows just because we could (and, would you look at that, the windows didn’t freeze open!) and continually marveled at how fantastically warm we all were.

IMG_6268 Just 24 hours earlier, we’d been standing on water

Although we had reservations for dinner the following night, we’d decided to wing it that first night – assuming that, with the ridiculous plethora of restaurants at our fingertips, we would have no trouble finding a place to eat. And, in fact, that might have been true had I not blithely looked at the map on my cell phone and told Nick to take a left, thus bringing us to the front gate of SeaWorld at 6 p.m.

Y’all, Shamu himself couldn’t have found a table.

After passing a Red Lobster and several sushi joints (I wish I were kidding), we began to get hungry enough to consider consuming the seats of the rental car, and drove blindly into the only not-completely-packed strip mall we could find, swearing that we’d eat at the very first place that presented itself to us. Which was… Hooters.

And also some Margarita-ville-esque restaurant across the lot, where we managed to score ourselves a table before the onslaught of SeaWorld refugees arrived a few minutes later. The next morning (after drying our bathing suits in the dryer right in our hotel room, holla!), we were up bright and early to make it to Universal for the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

hotel sunrise
The girls marveling at the (warm!) sunrise outside our balcony.

We’ve been fortunate enough to visit Orlando several times in the past few years, and each time we have ardently avoided Harry and the gang. In part this was because we’re so devoted to All Things Disney, we didn’t want to take time away from The Happiest Place on Earth – but it was also because we didn’t want to take the girls there before we thought they could really appreciate it. I mean, it’s an amusement park devoted to magical things, so we knew they’d enjoy it, but until they were really familiar with Harry and his world, we didn’t think they’d truly get the park.

Since Ella bleeds Gryffindor crimson, we knew that the time was right for her to visit. Having not yet read the books, Annie is unfamiliar with all things Harry – but given that we wanted to arrive a day ahead of our cruise’s departure anyway (to ensure we didn’t miss getting onboard, not that that ever happens *cough*), we thought we’d give it a go, anyway. And so this trip was for them – to show them Harry’s world, brought to life. To share in their enjoyment of the park. To witness their jaw-dropping amazement. I mean, yeah, I knew it would be cool, but I really felt that this was about the girls.

Until we walked through the gates of Hogsmeade and I began to cry.


It was… incredible. Perfect. Just as I’d imagined it would be. You guys, we were STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF HOGSMEADE. Muggles. IN HOGSMEADE!

And it only got better. We went inside Hogwarts – HOGWARTS!! – and flew around and watched a Quidditch match.

hogwarts1 Imposing, no?

We tried pumpkin juice and butter beer.

A wee bit sweet for Nick’s and my liking, the Ella and Annie drank that shit up.

We saw Buckbeak and rode a silly roller coaster, followed by the best roller coaster I’ve ever been on in my life (except Nick and I had to ride it one at a time because the girls are not tall enough yet and it took me, like, two hours to be able to walk a straight line again after I got off). We browsed shops – quills! Potions! Exploding snaps! Cauldrons! Chocolate frogs!  – and gaped at the absolutely exquisite detail that was put into every aspect of the park.

universal6 There’s even bird poop in the owlery!

I think all of us could have spent the afternoon browsing the shops and pretending we had British accents, but by eleven o’clock the park was so crowded it was hard to move, and instead of feeling nostalgic and awe-struck, we became angry and who’s-touching-me?, so we decided to get some lunch and head back to the hotel for the afternoon.

Whenever we go to the Disney parks, we (very purposely) follow a fairly tight schedule. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but to be able to just relax and go with the flow was novel and pretty freakin’ fantastic. The girls spent hours in the pool while Nick – to his surprise and delight – discovered that the poolside bar was showing the Women’s USA/Canada gold medal game.

hotel hockey2
Yes, of course he brought his jersey along. Duh.

hotel hockey
And yes, the final score was a major bummer (if you were rooting for the USA), but it was still pretty righteous to watch the game while the girls frolicked about in the pool and I drank a mai tai.

Our last hurrah before heading to Port Canaveral in the morning was a session for each of the girls at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in Downtown Disney. I’d wondered if Ella was a bit too old for such girly frivolity… But I shouldn’t have worried.

She was so pleased with herself, I was willing to ignore the use of my arch nemesis, superfine glitter.

So her hair is a little bit 80s diva meets Belle meets beauty pageant star meets trailer park. ‘What? I am happy for you, sweetie. Of course I love it! Why wouldn’t I love it?”

Annie was absolutely tickled.


Put ’em together, and what have you got?
Homecoming queens gone sparklingly awry…

They wore their ‘dos onto the cruise the next day, which meant that our official family photo was taken with them looking like this, which subsequently meant that every time we picked the girls up from the kids’ club, their pageant-greatness was flashed on the screen for all to see. Awesome.

For dinner, we ate at a Downtown Disney spot (sorry, Hooters) that had paper tablecloths, and Annie promptly took to filling up her entire space. She drew coasters for her glasses, napkins for her silverware, and a little bit of everything in between.

annie's dinner drawing

If you click on the drawing to make it larger, you can see also: “home” (with the person dressed in winter gear amongst fields of snow) and “here” (with the person dressed in short sleeves under a bright sun). Have I mentioned that it was warm??

I like all of the crazy things she drew, but my favorite part is the “I love my family” that she added, not because she was coerced or writing an assignment for school or asking for a pony, but because we were all having such a genuinely rockin’, kickass, wonderful time, she kinda couldn’t keep it to herself anymore.

I get it, kid. I really do.

Re-entry has been hard (see: it’s cold here), but just looking back on these pictures makes me smile. Do I realize how damn lucky we were to have gone, period, much less to have had such a magnificent trip? You bet I do, and I am ridiculously grateful that we could make it happen.

And to think… I haven’t even gotten to the cruise yet.
But that’s another story.

Let’s get away from it all

If we took a holiday…
Took some time to celebrate…
Just one day out of life
It would be (it would be), it would be so nice.
– “Holiday”

Thanks, Madonna, for so eloquently summing up our recent vacation experience.

In my last post, I’d told you that we were heading out of town and I’d fill you in soon – today seems to be a good place to start.

We needed this holiday. No; I mean, we neeeeeeded this holiday. The months (years?) leading up to Bill’s death were not exactly easy. As anyone who’s lost someone important to them – especially to a disease like cancer – knows, it’s emotional whiplash. You can’t figure out which end is up, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, you’re constantly on edge, every phone call is tinged with anticipation, you literally make yourself sick with worry, and then there’s the damn sadness that’s hovering around. It. Is. Exhausting.

Couple that with our completely insane autumn and winter, with work changes and school changes and after-school activities and work travel and birthdays and holidays and and and OMG MOST OF THIS IS GOOD STUFF BUT IT DOESN’T MAKE IT LESS TIRING. We needed a break. We needed to well and truly get away, just the four of us, to do something fantastical and new and inspiring and really freakin’ fun.

Nick and I had been toying with the idea of a Disney cruise for a couple of years. When we found an unbeatable deal on a three-day cruise to the Bahamas that perfectly aligned with the girls’ February break, we jumped on it – and then added a day at Universal to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, plus a trip to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in Downtown Disney just to really gild the lily.

We don’t take family vacations very often – we travel a helluva lot, but the vast majority of that is to visit family (which, while great, isn’t always a “vacation” in the truest sense of the word) – and on the rare occasions when we’ve done so, “escaping the cold” hasn’t really been among our priorities. As a foursome, we live for winter, and the snow in Rochester is right up our alley, so I’ve never had a longing to go somewhere warm before spring finally blooms. Even this year with our endlessly, unusually cold days, I was excited to get away, but I didn’t think I was excited to be someplace warm… until we were surrounded by the Orlando heat and humidity, deliciously blanketing us with tropical bliss, and suddenly there was nowhere else I wanted to be. WARM WARM WARM. Amen.

Our trip is now complete, and… well… I can’t quite find the words (nor the time) to adequately describe how utterly incredible it was, nor how much it meant to all of us, at least not today. And so I’ll show you a few photos instead, to give you a glimpse into pure, unadulterated joy.
















There’s lots more to say – and I will, in the coming days – but for now, these will suffice.

While we were on the trip, it was as though time stood still; every minute was both magically extended and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quick, as though we’d been transported to another dimension. We are now firmly back to reality. When we landed last night, it was 18 degrees, and we had to shovel fresh snow off the driveway this morning. Today, it feels almost as though our six-day sojourn never happened, a very bizarre space/time continuum.

But it did happen. And it was so totes amazeballs.

Just six days out of life… and they were so so SO SO SO SO ridiculously nice.

A Very Harry Christmas

Sometimes, things don’t go the way you’d planned or hoped. Maybe your expectations were too high, or the circumstances just don’t pan out, or something goes wrong.

Other times… It goes exactly the way you’d imagined.
Amazingly, our Christmas was one of those times.

My dad and stepmom – Papa and Grand Meg – joined us for the fourth year in a row, and although they were accosted by the girls the moment the came in the door (and barely made it home in one piece, having been thoroughly climbed on, jumped on, hugged, shouted at, danced with, and sat upon for the past three days), it was, as always, a marvelous way to spend the holiday.

We ate.
Looking for some decorating tips?
Dog beds, unwrapped packages, and Swiffer WetJets are magnificent accessories.
Cute black Lab not included.

We got ready for Santa.

What? Santa doesn’t get cookies, milk, and whiskey at your house? PITY.

The big guy came…
Apparently, the whiskey went to his head…

And brought Annie and Ella just what they’d asked for.



In our house, we eat a big ol’ Christmas breakfast before digging into the bulk of our gifts – but, to keep the Ella and Annie sane, we let them open a few presents in advance of the rest. For the third year in a row, the girls requested that the first gifts they open be the ones they’d picked out for each another.

They were a hit!



Not to be outdone by a guy in a red suit who breaks and enters, Nick and I had a few gifts up our sleeves – including Harry Potter wands.

The girls were…
well, these speak for themselves.


(These are the best pictures ever, are they not?)
(Yep. Best ever. Definitely.)


christmas joy

A couple of weeks ago, Nick had mentioned that he and his siblings had played a game called Trac Ball with their dad when they’d visit the North Shore of Minnesota. Lo and behold, Trac Ball still exists – and it so happens that it’s a blast.

Not sure why I have no photos of Nick playing Trac Ball… but my dad took Ella on this morning.

Grand Meg plays to win, yo!

I won’t bore you with the details… but the rest our Christmas was pretty damn fine.

christmas38 christmas37
Don’t mind Annie’s nervous smile; we were in the middle of a lake effect snow squall and the flakes were really flying.

It wasn’t entirely sunshine and unicorns. Annie has a cold, Langston ate the entire wedge of brie right off the coffee table, we missed Bill an awful lot, and the lasagna I’d so carefully made ahead of time (so that we could just pop it in the oven on Christmas day and eat it 90 minutes later, no fussing or fretting necessary) might have not really cooked so well, leaving us with delicious sauce and lasagna noodles that were still crunchy. Oops. 

But it was still pretty fantastic.

Growing up, I’d assumed that the best part of Christmas was being a kid. Turns out I was wrong: the best part of Christmas is watching your kids experience it*. The wonder… the awe… the joy… the exhaustion… the seven extra bags of trash that had to be dragged to the curb…

This year was a really good one. Magical, really.
Hoping yours was the same.

My BFF, Kiki, sent us these Harry Potter glasses with the instructions that they were for “the entire family, even the dogs, with the hopes of a PHOTO!” How could we not oblige?

Side note: not sure whey I look like Professor Trelawney.
Side note two: Jambi totally rocks the glasses Very studious.

* That is, when they’re not crying or hitting one another or ripping through the packages so fast, you’d think they were competing in an opening contest – five year-old Annie, I’m looking at you.

** Thanks, Grand Meg, for sharing some of your photos!

Wingardium LeviOsa (not LevioSA)

When Ella finished the first Harry Potter book, she swore she was done with the series. As a parent who is always spot-on with my analyses of my children’s decisions, I agreed that she was, indeed, finished for a while, having been thoroughly terrified by the ending of The Sorcerer’s Stone. (And, really, with the bad guy appearing as a tiny gremlin on the back of someone’s head, who could blame her?)

Which meant that, naturally, she’d come home the next day halfway through the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which she’d checked out from her school’s library. Because, apparently, she is every bit as hooked on Harry and the gang as Nick and I are. And also, apparently, because the two copies of the book we we have at home aren’t enough.

Whereas we’d read much of the first book together at home, she decided that it was somehow easier and less scary to read by herself at school. I was a bit dubious; book two is longer than the first, containing more complex sentence structures, nuances, and themes, and although Ella slogged through each chapter with little difficulty, I wasn’t sure how much she was truly understanding.

So I would occasionally quiz her (casually, you know, like we were just having normal Harry Potter conversation, ’cause isn’t that how everyone spends their evenings?) to see if she actually comprehended the plot. What is the Whomping Willow? Who’s been Petrified lately? Why do they care what’s in the Chamber of Secrets? Each time, her answers were totally good, so I finally just let it go, satisfied that she was well and truly getting it, and if not, she could always go back and re-read the book again. Or five times again. *ahem*

Although she understood the storyline just fine, her pronunciation of names and places was… interesting. (I ignored any mispronunciation of spells and magic words, because even I admit that I’m not 100% sure if Animagus has a soft or hard G. And yes, if you’re a Potter-file, you’ll know that Animagi don’t appear until the third book. It was just the first example off the top of my head. I am shamed.)

For one, she was completely bewildered when I read the chapter about the Heir of Slytherin. “Why do you keep saying AIR, Mommy? I don’t even know what that means!” Because, naturally, she had thought Hermione and the crew were researching the HAIR of Slytherin. Understandable. And quite damn funny.

Ginny Weasley was briefly “Guinea” Weasley, until Ella agreed that “Jinny” just sounded better. Poor house-elf Dobby, however, was so ingrained in Ella’s head as DOOBY that right until the final chapter, I could not convince her to change it.

As I read the last few pages aloud (she likes to read everything but the “scary stuff” by herself), I kept pronouncing Dobby’s name correctly, and Ella would admonish me, then I’d read it the “right” way again, and she’d grow agitated. As I sighed at her impertinence, she paused, then said, “You know, Mom, you’re not so perfect with this yourself.”

Um, say what?

Before I could proclaim my Harry Potter genius, she continued, “You told me that you read this book to your fifth grade class, right?” 

True, but…

“And you’d never seen the name Hermione before…”

Oh crap.

“… so you spent the ENTIRE BOOK calling her HERMY-OWN instead of HER-MY-OH-NEE.”


In my defense, this was back in 1999, well before the movies had come out. The internet was in its younger days and it never occurred to me to look for other Harry Potter fans or fan sites – I don’t know if any even existed – and most of my adult friends hadn’t read the book yet.

ALSO IN MY DEFENSE I cannot be the only person to have thought this because does everyone not remember how, in The Goblet of Fire, Hermione goes to the Yule Ball with Viktor and there is this exchange:

Hermione was now teaching Krum to say her name properly; he kept calling her “Hermy-own.”

“Her-my-oh-nee,” she said slowly and clearly.


“Close enough,” she said…

And, okay, yes, I’m a typical American and was unfamiliar with the Anglophilian (I made up, go with it) moniker Hermione… so I just pronounced it how it looked. In front of the entire fifth grade class. To whom I was supposed to be teaching English and Language Arts. For the entire book, I called her Hermy-own. And since that was the last time we ever discussed Harry Potter, I never had the chance to correct myself. Heck, they may still be calling her Hermy-own today.

To my former Crowne Pointe kiddos: reeeeeally sorry ’bout that.

So, touché, kid. Dooby it is. But when you meet Fleur Delacour, you’re on your own.


A tale of two readers

Although they may be sisters, Ella and Annie have wildly different personalities. There are countless ways I could illustrate this (one of them being this post), but for now, I’m going with reading.

Ella is a good reader; she always has been. Words, spelling, and phonics come naturally to her, and she’s always been precocious (speaking in sentences by 15 months, writing her name at age 2) and a bit “bookish.” Naturally, we assumed that, because she could read well, she would enjoy it, too.

And here is, yet again, when parenthood slaps you across the face and reminds you of the whole when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me thing.

Reading for pleasure has just never been Ella’s bag. She can do it, of course, but she doesn’t particularly like to. While it’s not quite pulling teeth to get her to read, she’s never been one to just curl up with a book and get lost in another world. Individual books and some series have caught her attention, but it’s always been short-lived.

Annie, on the other hand, adores reading. She has had her nose in a book since she could hold one; long before she could even identify letters, she would sit for – truly – an hour and page through book after book, all by herself. So, we’ve long known that Annie liked books, but it wasn’t clear until recently that she, too, was a good reader.

See, Annie’s a brick. There’s really no other way to put it. That kid is solid, and man, does she (quite literally) pack a punch. She is also one of the funniest human beings any of us has even encountered; everyone – and I don’t say that flippantly or with exaggeration – enjoys being around Annie, because her zany and hilarious personality draws you in.

Being the stellar parents that we are, we just didn’t put it together that Annie was a proficient reader. Somehow, between Ella already being identified as A Reader, and Annie’s brute force and magnetic, larger-than-life self, we kind of missed her growing from a kid who liked looking at books into the kid who could actually read and understand everything she was looking at.

(Yep, we’re those parents who attended the kindergarten parent-teacher conference and, despite reading with Annie every night practically since she’s been in utero, were still like, “What? She’s met all of the reading benchmarks and is an independent reader? Well, isn’t that neat!” GOLD PARENTING STARS, PEOPLE. Gold stars.)

Two nights ago, I was making dinner while Ella was at swim practice. Annie had eagerly agreed to help me prepare the meal, but then, after presumably becoming bored when the pork needed to just sit unceremoniously in the marinade for half an hour, she suddenly disappeared. A few minutes later, she reappeared carrying a large stack of books, which she plopped on the counter. She then sat there for the next forty-five minutes and read every single word of every single book she’d brought with her… THIRTEEN books in all. I wasn’t necessarily surprised, but I was awed. Well played, kiddo.

9.23 annie's books
Fancy Nancy and Mo Willems are all the rage in first grade, y’all.

I was surprised, on the other hand, when, ten days ago, Ella asked to begin the Harry Potter series. Nick and I were hesitant… not because we’re against Harry Potter; in fact, quite the opposite.

I’ll just come out and say it: Nick and I are Harry Potter nerds. We have both read all seven books at least three times apiece, and we own at least two copies of each book, because there’s no way in hell we could actually share. If there’s ever a dull moment (which there never is, but I’m just saying), all it takes is a, “So… what do you think Dumbledore really saw in the Mirror of Erised?” or an, “Okay, if you couldn’t be in Gryffindor, which house would you choose?” and we’re off and running. I am absolutely not ashamed to admit that I think J.K. Rowling is one of the greatest authors ever (no, not children’s authors, just authors — you know, like Grisham and Kingsolver and Melville and Shakespeare; yes, I just compared Rowling to Shakespeare — aww, snap!), and certainly one of the most clever and thought-provoking story-tellers of all time.

Yeah. We looooooove us some Harry Potter in this here house.

So anyway, our concern was that the books are too awesome, too detailed, just too big to be read in the third grade. For one thing, we didn’t know if Ella was even capable of reading them on her own. Additionally, the stories are so very complex, we weren’t sure she’d actually get what was happening. And, perhaps most importantly (given how magnificently written the books are), we wanted Ella to wait until she could actually understand why it’s so cool that Sirius was given that name, or why it’s funny that Professor Sprout teaches Herbology.

Once she asked to read The Sorcerer’s Stone, however, the cracks in our foundation grew and eventually we crumbled. After all, who were we prevent anyone from the wonder that is Harry Potter??

Turns out, Ella was able to read – and understand – the book just fine. She laughed at Ron’s jokes, tsk-ed at Hermione’s know-it-all behaviors, and groaned – out loud – each time Snape wrecked Harry’s plans. In fact, when she came home yesterday, instead of getting a snack or even saying hello, she raced straight to the comfy chair in the living room to continue where she’d left off (we read the book together at night, but she’s also checked a copy out of her school library so she can read at school, too).

ella and harry
150 points deducted from Gryffindor! DANG IT!!

Nick and I were both with her last night to read the final chapter (a good compromise, since we’ve basically been fighting over whose turn it is; neither of us had read The Sorcerer’s Stone since finishing The Deathly Hallows, and omg, the foreshadowing going on is just unreal — how did J.K. Rowling do it???). Up until this point, Ella had found the magic stuff – and especially the Dark Arts stuff – a bit creepy, but not particularly scary. As we reached the great unveiling, however (do you like how I did that? No spoilers, but oh so clever…), the look on her face began to change from one of curiosity and outrage to one of concern and horror.

We tried our best to smooth things over, with Nick reading in his this is super fun! voice and both of us explaining over and over that Harry makes it to book two, but we just couldn’t quite comfort her. She was scared; actually, she was terrified.

And, really, who could blame her. These books, are, you know, not really children’s books after all. There’s a lot of scary stuff; the Dark Arts aren’t just dark, they’re well and truly evil. People get hurt, favorite characters die. It’s not a chipper little series. But that’s part of why we love it so much – for its complexity, for its depth of character, for its unbelievably imaginative storyline. For its characters, each of whom was given such richness and fullness. And, of course, for the message that, in the end, love wins.

Although we could not promise Ella that nothing bad would ever happen to Harry or his friends (at least, not without telling a bald-faced lie), we tried to remind her of this: love wins. We tried to remind her of her own words from earlier that day: “Mommy, part of why I like this book so much is because the words are so great, I actually feel like it’s happening. Reading this book feels like Christmas.”

Reading this book feels like Christmas.
Couldn’t have said it better, sweet girl.

In the end, it was too much for Ella. She was awake for an hour past her bedtime, spending much of that time crying and begging to know the answers to questions that didn’t have happy or tidy endings (each time I would demure, she would become even more upset, because my refusal to answer convinced her that something terrible had befallen her now-favorite characters). As of this morning, she said she’s not ready for the second book, and for as much as I love it, I’m inclined to agree with her.

Some day, I know she’ll return; once you’ve met Harry and the gang, there’s really no going back. In the meantime, there’s always Fancy Nancy and Mo Willems… unless Annie has hogged them all, of course.



Or WORSE, Expelled

Walking home last week…


So, how was your day, lovey?

“Great, Mommy! We got to meet the first grade teachers today!”

Oh, that sounds like fun!

“It was! All of the teachers are really nice.”

That’s good. Because you’ll have one of them.

“I know.”

Unless you flunk.

“What’s that?”

Only kidding. So, anyway, you met the first grade teachers?

“Yes! And also we played a game where we were robbers.”

What kind of game is this?

“You know, where some kids are the robbers and stuff.”

Are there cops?

“No. Just robbers.”

Um, okay. So you’re all just thieves?

“Well, some of us are good guys.”

Did you get arrested?

“Mommy! We’re not really stealing anything!”

Well, that’s a relief. ‘Cause stealing’s, like, illegal and stuff.

“I know. It’s bad to steal.”

Indeed. In real life, you could go to jail.

“Or even to the principal’s office.”

Oh, my little Hermione, I do believe you need to sort out your priorities.