PB Resources I Loved in 2021

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Happy New Year!

Last year I accomplished quite a bit in my picture book writing journey: I wrote 16 new drafts, sent 152 queries, received 73 rejections, and celebrated 1 full request.

Below is a list of resources I found helpful in 2021.


PB First Lines

For the last six months, I’ve been analyzing the first lines of picture books published within the last three years. You can find them here . Just click on a month in the drop-down menu. I hope it provides inspiration for your own first lines. I plan to continue this practice–it’s been so helpful to me for knowing the market–and coming up with comps!


StoryStorm

Every year in January Tara Lazar hosts a challenge on her blog called StoryStorm. Every day, a guest writes a post to inspire writers to come up with a new idea for a picture book. The goal is to generate 30 ideas over the course of the month. Comment on her original post for the challenge by January 7 as well as each guest post to be eligible for prizes. 


12 Days of Christmas for Writers

Julie Hedlund hosts this challenge. The goal is to reflect on your writing success for the past year and plan for the next. The community aspect (there’s a FB group you can join) started Dec 26 but the series of videos is always available. Here’s the email and links to videos for Day 1.


First Draft Friday

This isn’t a resource, exactly, but it was one of my favorite activities of 2021 so I’m including it anyway. Hollie Wolverton hosts this challenge the first Friday of every month. The goal is to draft a story in a day. Then you comment on the blog post to be eligible for a prize. The first one for 2022 is this Friday


12×12 Picture Book Challenge

Julie Hedlund hosts this challenge every year. The goal is to draft 12 new picture book stories over the course of the year. It’s membership based, and registration for 2022 opens January 14. Tons of resources are available to members only through the “forum”. I did this for 2021 and found it so helpful. I’ll be signing up again this year.


Mindy Alyse Weiss

Mindy offers several resources for writers: her PB Party Buzz is a monthly collection of her favorite recently published picture books; PBCritiqueTrain is a monthly draft-in-day challenge, giving you the opportunity to have your ms critiqued by someone else who completes the challenge (the next one is January 20); and PBParty is an annual contest in March where writers submit the first 70 words of their story for consideration–30 are selected for a showcase for editor and agent review.

For the next three sections, not everything is picture book specific, but everything covers picture books enough to warrant checking them out.


YouTube
Pam Calvert’s Picture Book University (she isn’t posting new videos anymore, but what’s there is super helpful)
BookEnds Literary
Good Story Academy

Podcasts
The Sh*t No One Tells You About Writing
First Draft
Write Now with Sarah Werner
Writing Coach with Ann Kroeker
Picturebooking
Picture Book Look

Books
Writing Children’s Books for Dummies
On Writing by Stephen King
Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I hope you find something in this list to help you in your picture book writing journey.

A Halloween Time Machine

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I love micro-fiction contests. And this post is for another one. Susanna Hill runs several fun writing contests during the year, including the Halloweensie contest. To enter, you write a story for children no more than 100 words that uses the words goosebumps, goodies, and, glow-in-the-dark. Below is my entry. Read the other awesome entries here.

A Halloween Time Machine

by Sara Kruger

word count: 99

Friend, why the frown?

Too few goodies this year? 

No fear! I’m Jack:

Your Halloween time machine. 

Light my candle; hold on tight

(my grin is a great place to grasp). 

We’ll hit up the house with unsupervised bowls

And the one with large chocolate bars.

We’ll fly past the one that just hands out stickers

Wait–

You actually want those glow-in-the-dark stars?

Ah. Your sis can’t have sweets.

You’re filling her bag this time.

That gives my pumpkin skin goosebumps all over!

All right, we’ll show her

What we know is true:

Halloween is awesome without candy, too.

My favorite writing advice

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I’ve received a lot of great writing advice over the years:

Write regularly
Set up a spot that will inspire you
Read widely
Read great writing
Don’t be afraid of taking a writing break
Read poetry
Go for walks
Keep your eyes open
Keep a notebook with you
Think about your ending and work backward from there
Give yourself a deadline
Reward yourself for small successes
Get yourself a critique group
Read your words out loud
Don’t tell a story that’s not yours to tell

The list goes on.

But two pieces of advice stand out.

Always be prepared for your lucky break.

and

Write a sh*tty first draft (SFD)

ALWAYS BE PREPARED FOR YOUR LUCKY BREAK

The writing/querying/publishing journey is challenging. It’s easy to get discouraged and think success is never going to happen. The writing community is super encouraging and offers a bazillion opportunities to work on your craft and win prizes, but it’s tempting to think, what’s the point? Why bother? The odds of winning are so slim.

I’ve thought this several times. But then I remember this advice (I don’t remember now who said it): always be prepared for your lucky break.

Success comes from showing up. You never fail unless you quit. If you don’t participate, you definitely won’t win, but if you do…you just might.

Every writer’s success story is different. I don’t know who my agent is or how I’ll find them. All I know is I better take advantage of every opportunity I can.

For me, putting this into practice today means entering the #PBCritiqueFest, a picture book critique giveaway hosted by Brian Gehrlein over at PBSpotlight.com. To enter, you fill out a form with information about your story, and by raffle, 31 winners are paired with 31 authors, illustrators, and agents offering critiques. You can increase your number of entries (and therefore odds of winning) through various methods of promoting the contest and its donors.

I’ve entered my story, and over the next two weeks, I’ll work on promoting the contest. And maybe I’ll win, maybe I won’t, but I’ll know I tried. And that will be one more step on my journey to success.

WRITE A SFD

I’m an editor by trade, and before learning about the SFD, I would get stuck on the first line or first paragraph. They were never perfect (obviously), and I couldn’t move on when they were so dismal.

But once I learned about the SFD (thank you, Ann Lamott), my whole mindset shifted. I suddenly understood that the only expectation for the first draft is to exist. Get words on a page. You can’t revise a blank page, but once words — ANY words — are there, you can work with them. Change them a million times. Delete them and type them again. (Or cross them out and rewrite them, for those of you who work best with paper.) Whatever words are in your head, make them black and white and go from there. They won’t match the vision in your head at first. In fact, they might not resemble that image at all. But that’s ok. They’re not supposed to. Slap that paint on the wall. See what sticks. Some splashes might even be Jackson Pollock-worthy. But they don’t have to be.

For me, putting this into practice means being part of Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 Picture Book Challenge, a membership-based writing community that provides resources, motivation, and support to write a SFD every month. And then revise it. And maybe even polish it. Writing that many new stories means I don’t have time to labor over that first draft. I just need to get it on paper.

I’m 10 for 10 so far this year, and grateful for that push. Membership opens again in January.

What’s your favorite writing advice?

Fall Writing Frenzy 2021 Entry: First Day

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I am so excited to be participating in the #FallWritingFrenzy for the first time this year! Thanks to Lydia Lukidis and Kaitlyn Leann Sanchez for hosting. Read on for my short (no more than 200 words) story inspired by the picture below. Check out the contest and all the other wonderful stories here.


Photo: Fall- Credit: Julia Solonina / Unsplash

First Day
By Sara Kruger
Word Count: 190

Jenna whistled as she walked up the winding road to the church, leaves crunching underfoot.

She glanced at her watch–she was a few minutes late. That’s odd, she thought. I left early. 

Pushing open the door, she called, “Raven? It’s Jenna! I’m ready to start.”

The only response was the creaking floorboards.

Setting her bag down, she saw a to-do list by the keyboard.

  • Take old items off cork board
  • Change calendar 
  • Call guest speaker to confirm schedule

Jenna sighed. Might as well get started. 

She pulled a notice off the cork board. 

It was for a fall festival — two years ago. 

Everything was from fall 2019.

She saw the calendar across the room. 

October 2019

She picked up the phone.

No dial tone.

Jenna shivered.

Then she noticed the bars on the window.

She dashed back down the stairs to the street and saw the plaque on the brick wall:

Church of the Holy Sacrament
Abandoned October 2019

She stumbled backward in fright just as a cry pierced the sky.

Someone was staring at her from the tower.

“Raven?!” Jenna gasped.

Words streaked across the glass: 

You’re too late.

Spring Fling 2021

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I’m excited to participate in the Spring Fling Kidlit Writing Contest this year, hosted by @KaitlynLeann17 and @CiaraOneal2. Here’s my spring-themed story!

Daffodils for Daisy

By Sara Kruger

150 words

Baby Daisy squeals.

Serenaded by a sweet song, 

She grasps at plush sea creatures as they circle overhead.

Big brother Aster pulls a soft fish closer.

Daisy grins and blows raspberries.

Mama hugs him. “She smiled at you!”

He strides outside, searching for something special.

A slug slimes his path.

He scoops it up, stands at the door. 

Mama tsks, “No, sir.”

He drops it, wipes his hands on the grass, then spies a small snake.

It slithers away before he can seize it.

He steers his scooter to the door.

“That stays outside,” Mama says.

Then he sees daffodils.

He gathers a handful, dashes back inside.

Mama shakes her head and sighs,

but Daisy grabs a stem.

Aster sits on his heels and

Tickles her face with the sunshiny petals. 

She shrieks in delight, and he giggles,

Then skips back outside

To assemble another bouquet of

daffodils for Daisy.

Cooking thru my kids’ cultures

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A few years ago, I read a book called In Their Voices: Black Americans on Transracial Adoption. It had many fascinating observations, but one that has stuck with me was the advice to make sure my home has objects representing my kids’ cultures. I’ve made efforts since then to ensure my Black kids see their African American and Kenyan cultures reflected in our white-centric home, but it’s proven trickier than I expected, partly because of budgetary constraints and partly for lack of ideas. What exactly makes a house scream “East African” or “Black American culture”? Art, of course, but art is not cheap. Is the wooden “karibu” on my daughter’s wall sufficient? What about the Jackie Robinson books on my son’s shelves? My mother-in-law made Lydia a comforter with African print fabric, a friend handed down several African print dresses her daughter had worn, and I love my Kenyan tablecloth purchased from an online fair trade store, but I’m always on the lookout for more ideas of Black or African items to add to my decor. I want my kids to see themselves reflected in their home environment.

Recently, the Denver Post published an article about the best cookbooks coming out in the fall. Two caught my eye. In Bibi’s Kitchen has recipes from East African grandmothers as well as interviews with those grandmother cooks and a brief history of her country of origin. The cookbook covers the eight countries that touch the Indian Ocean, including Kenya. The Rise tells the story of Black cooking in America and showcases the diversity of black recipes. It claims so much of what we love about American cooking can trace its history to black cooks.

I love to cook, and my kids love to help me in the kitchen (although I don’t always enjoy having them *both* help me at the same time), and I wondered if cooking with them through these cookbooks would count as exposing them to their cultures. My kids are not adventurous eaters, so my premise is probably shaky — hey kids, let’s try this recipe full of ingredients you’ve never heard of! — but I want to give it a try. I learned a lot from my previous attempt at cooking with them; for starters we won’t try to cook something new every day, and I’ll probably take turns with each of them.

We’re unlikely to get to Kenya in the near future, so this is a great way to explore Kenyan traditions at home. In normal times, there are plenty of opportunities to expose my kids to Black American culture, but COVID-19 has made it a bit more of a challenge to take advantage of them in a way that is engaging for kids.

I was going to start with the first recipe and work my way through, but In Bibi’s Kitchen has several flatbread recipes, so I decided bread might be an easier onramp for this project. Soon after the cookbook arrived, on a recent snowy weekday, when bread of any kind is extra comforting, I made Somali flatbread, called sabaayad. I intended to use it as a replacement for pita to go along with hummus and cut veggies for our dinner that evening, but I made it in the morning, and of course everyone wanted to sample it at lunch. It was delicious. Good thing the recipe made 8 pieces! We could each have one for lunch and there was enough left for dinner. Lydia was so enamored she declared she wanted only the flatbread for dinner. Ordinarily I’d be frustrated by her rejection of proteins and veggies, but this day I was just happy the first recipe was a success.

I made sure everyone knew we were eating Somali flatbread, but I didn’t share anything else about East African culture this time. We have a whole cookbook to work through, so I figure I have plenty of time to educate my family about what they’re eating and the cultures from which the foods come.

I’m excited about this project. Looking through the book, I think The Rise recipes will be weekend ones; they appear to need a bit more time to prep (six hours to cure eggs, for example). But I’m particularly excited about this book because the author, Marcus Samuelsson, is adopted. He dedicates the book to his birth mom.

And even if Lydia pushes the plate away in disgust (as she’s taken to doing with any new recipe I try), at least I’ve made one more effort to expose her and Teddy to their cultures.

Twitter and children’s books: #pbcritiquefest

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Early this fall, I got stuck. After spending the first half of 2020 writing a picture book manuscript while my kids were in school, I proceeded to aggressively query agents during July and August. At first I pitched only those whose agency bio or manuscript wish list contained a nugget I connected with, a sentence that led me to believe that particular agent would be a good fit for my book or was simply a fact about them that I resonated with. But I exhausted that list pretty quickly and had to broaden my queries to every agent I could find who accepted unagented picture book author (not author-illustrator) manuscripts.

That list was also despairingly short. I’d queried only 28 agents and I was at a loss for next steps.

And then one evening, while walking around my neighborhood, I was listening to a writing webinar (not picture book specific) featuring advice from published authors , and one of the quotes reminded me to check Twitter for resources. I’d read before about the children’s book community on Twitter but, having uninstalled all social media from my phone early in the summer, I hadn’t explored it.

However, now I needed new resources, so I logged on (via my laptop — I wasn’t willing to commit yet and reinstall the app on my phone) and pulled up the #pbchat and #kidlit hashtags. And I was shocked. Within minutes, my clicking led me to Julie Hedland and her picture book summit and 12×12 picture book challenge (I immediately signed up to be notified when registration opens for the 2021 iteration), Brian Gehrlain and pbspotlight.com and the picture book critique fest, and #pbpitch, the Twitter picture book pitch party. A few more minutes of rabbit trail clicking and I’d discovered blogs that highlighted picture book authors and agents. I was thrilled to realize Twitter is a veritable gold mine for picture book authors!

I added #pbpitch to my calendar and registered for the picture book critique fest and Julie’s How to Win with Twitter Pitch Parties webinar about crafting a great Twitter pitch. That presentation included so many great tips, I signed up for Julie and Emma Walton Hamilton’s webinar package about writing a great pitch. And then I went back to my own pitches…and realized they needed work. But I had new tools for revision, so I attacked my sentences with gusto.

I also read through numerous blog posts with agent interviews and first page critiques. And of course, any agent I came across in this Twitter journey, I added to my list to query.

Since entering the #kidlit and #pbchat worlds on Twitter, my “following” list has grown considerably, giving me more insight into what agents are looking for and encouraging me when I’m facing another rejection.

And finding #pbcritiquefest has renewed my enthusiasm for this work when it’s all too easy to get stuck in a rejection rut. The last few weeks have been so fun following this hashtag. Not only have I found wonderful books to buy during a time when I can’t browse shelves at my local library or bookstore, I’ve been encouraged to see authors support each other in success–and not-yet-success.

I’m thankful to have found this little community. Participating in #pbcritiquefest has shown me that I’m not alone in my writing journey. It’s similar to a running group: we’re not in competition with each other; there’s room for all of us. We’re there to cheer each other on and celebrate our wins. This is a long road — I should expect to query at least 100 agents?! — and I look forward to sharing my own successes as we all pound the pavement together.

Camp Kitchen

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We stared at the mixing bowl on its side on the floor, half its contents, including two raw eggs, spreading across the dark wood. Teddy, in his haste to take to the sink the dish he’d used for cracking the eggs, knocked the bowl with his elbow, and down it crashed, splashing batter on the cupboard doors on the way down. The eggs oozed; flour dust floated in the air, caked cocoa powder wedged between cupboard and floor, and both kids waited for my reaction. I took a deep breath, let it out, and simply said, “We all make messes. When we make a mess, we clean it up.” I was not Mary Poppins the whole we cooked together, but in this moment, I managed to summon my saintly nanny side and pull the three of us into a mess-cleaning machine.

This was day 2 of Camp Kitchen, a collection of 15 recipes put together by Kiran Dodeja Smith (@easyrealfood on social media) to get your kids cooking for a week. There are three recipes per day, with a theme each day. The day of the Big Mess was baking day. After making chocolate chip cake in a mug and chocolate chip scones, we lost our donut batter. But we scrubbed the floor, wiped down the cupboard doors, dumped the remaining flour/cocoa powder mixture in the trash, and then set about putting together the ingredients again. The donuts turned out great. We enjoyed them for breakfast the next couple days.

Through that experience and many others, I learned several lessons from our week in the kitchen.

Cooking with kids is messy. This probably is too obvious to mention. Of course when you cook with kids, the process will not be as tidy as when you cook by yourself. I cook most days and on occasion have invited the kids to help, but inevitably, I send them out of the kitchen because we’re all frustrated, them from being constantly reprimanded about the correct way to do things and me from, well, seeing them do things in a way that I know will lead to a mess. But I usually go into the experience with an agenda. So when a half cup of flour gets knocked against the mixing bowl, sending white dust to the counter and the floor, I want to scream. But with Camp Kitchen, I went into it intending the kids to do as much as they could. So when we lost the donut batter, I was able to stay calm, declare that messes happen, and get us all working together to clean it up. And putting the ingredients together was a lot easier the second time around! Besides, epic messes make for epic stories.

Everything takes longer when kids are helping. Another obvious one, but in the past, when I’ve had the kids help with, say, making Sunday morning biscuits (a tradition in our house, although one that might be replaced with the above-mentioned scones), I’ve been super frustrated when the whole process takes twice as long as when I do it myself. I saved myself a lot of foot tapping by taking seriously the time suggestions of this home camp. As stated in the introduction, “campers” can expect to be cooking for two to three hours every day. And the first day (pizza day), we took the whole three hours. So when my kids measured the flour soooooo carefully (albeit still spilling quite a bit) and needed multiple turns stirring the simmering sauce, I was cool, so cool, and let them enjoy the process without trying to speed them along.

Telling is (a lot) harder than showing. The opposite may be true in writing, but when cooking with kids, describing what they’re supposed to be doing when they’re not familiar with the steps is…challenging. I found myself struggling (and, let’s be honest, sometimes failing) not to raise my voice when I repeated the same instruction multiple times when they failed to understand what I was explaining. So many times I wanted to grab the utensil/ingredient/measuring cup and just show them how to do something, but I have two kids who are excited to measure and pour and scoop by themselves AND want equal turns at everything, so I tried my hardest to narrate rather than do.

Having multiple sets of measuring utensils on hand is helpful. I happen to own a couple sets of measuring spoons and cups, not in preparation for this exercise, but just because I’ve acquired them over the years. I find them helpful to have when I’m cooking by myself, but I was especially grateful this week to have them. Because with two kids measuring, it’s convenient to not have to wash between measurements. And when one kid doesn’t want to use the same utensil their sibling was using, it’s nice to be able to indulge that ridiculousness and avoid a fight. It’s also helpful to have indestructible, lightweight tools, so you don’t cringe every time something is dropped, because things will be dropped.

Cooking with kids requires flexibility and quick thinking. Both my kids want to have a part in each step, so I had to figure how to split up almost every step. Two tablespoons of olive oil? I measured, but each kid poured in one tablespoon. Four cups of flour? I used a half cup measure so the kids could scoop easier and then each kid got to measure and pour four times. Salad day was easier: I gave each kid half a vegetable to chop. But key for me was working with what my kids wanted to do and not insisting on a certain way. I wanted to keep their interest for as long as possible. I also had to remind myself that, unless we’re accidentally adding salt instead of sugar, recipes are often pretty forgiving. My daughter was having a hard time measuring the dill for the ranch dressing recipe and we ended up with two teaspoons instead of just one. I thought it would be too strong. It was fine. And even if it had been too strong, we could have saved it by adding a little more milk. And even if it wasn’t salvageable, part of the kitchen experience is learning from your mistakes.

I cook most nights of the week, and sometimes one or the other of the kids helps, but Camp Kitchen was the first time I stepped back and encouraged them to do it all, jumping in only to retrieve ingredients and cooking bowls/utensils. And I was blown away by their competence. My eldest read the list of ingredients and the directions, and together, they measured and mixed and simmered and stirred and tasted and spread and chopped and kneaded and watched through the oven door. And then, with the kitchen a disaster, we enjoyed what we’d made, a couple times sharing with our neighbors. The experience opened my eyes to what my kids are capable of. To do it again, I would spread it out over five weeks instead of doing it every day for one week, but I hope this is the start of more regular cooking together.

Our Summer Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmatic Plan

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It’s a beautiful day, and I’m in my happy place: sitting in a book bar, drinking a latte (I though it was too early for a glass of wine, but that is an option here), and trying to write.

This summer, in addition to a couple summer camps, museum visits, and outdoor activities, we’re exploring different coffee shops, a new one each Wednesday. This is my attempt to be intentional about setting aside some writing time despite having both kids at home for ten weeks (school finished May 31 here!), as well as provide a change of scenery for reading and math work. (I got summer bridge workbooks for both of them.)

Last week, I was quite productive. The coffee shop, QuinceEssential (hidden away on residential Quince street) lived up to its playful name. The walls inside were decorated  with a jumbled assortment of pictures and knickknacks, old-time toys filled nooks and crannies, and a bookcase was stacked with board games. We settled ourselves outside, where a grassy area with a cornhole set provided play space while I worked. The kids drank hot cocoa and then happily entertained themselves with the beanbags while I sipped a delicious nondairy Venetian cream iced coffee (I was sad to discover the strawberry croissants were sold out) and tapped away, although no reading or math was accomplished.

This week, we’re at Denver Book Bar, where you can read while sipping a glass of sangria and enjoying a Cabernet caramel (cookies, hot cocoa and soft drinks available for the kids). This book store/coffee shop/wine bar also has a lovely outdoor area: lime green couches partially shaded and a hammock strung under a tree. But, after taking turns lounging and then reading in the hammock, both children declared it “too hot” to stay outside, so we found space in the air conditioned interior.

I’m trying to write and resist the urge to browse the bookshelves. (But I can’t stop myself periodically glancing up to read the titles. I so love bookstores.) My 7-year-old minime has lost himself in book two of the Harry Potter series. On our way out of the house this afternoon, I told him to grab a couple books to read while we’re here (he has several from the library) as I did not intend to buy any, but they were forgotten on the table in the rush to get on shoes. While we walked through the bookshop to get a lay of the land, Teddy spied the paperback version of Chamber of Secrets and pleaded with me to buy it. (I got him the illustrated version of The Sorcerer’s Stone for Christmas and after I read it to him, he started reading it himself, so I’m confident this book, which has already been stained by hot cocoa, will be well loved.) He’s been engrossed for nearly two hours.

My daughter was initially too interested in the treats available to crack a book or do worksheets, although she did dutifully flip through a few early readers to earn a cup of cocoa. (What is up with my children’s obsession with hot cocoa even on 80-degree days?!) And then after giving herself a whipped cream mustache and downing the chocolate drink, she fell asleep on my lap.

Given that I’ve written this much, I guess I’d call this a productive outing as well =) I don’t have a plan for next week, yet, but I hope we can keep this up all summer. I suppose I can always return to one of these two places.

 

 

Three pantry staples worth making from scratch

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PASTA

When we renovated our house a couple years ago, we had to move out for a few months. We subletted the apartment of a renter who owned a kitchenaid stand mixer as well as the fettuccine and spaghetti pasta attachments. I’d always wanted to try making pasta from scratch, and here was my change to do it. The recipe book promised I’d have delicious egg noodles within an hour. So I put my 1 year old down for her afternoon nap and got to work. I didn’t know what my dough was supposed to look like so I had to watch a few youtube videos and keep adding water and flour until I had what seemed to be the right consistency. And in one video, the women demonstrating how to flatten the dough had a beautiful sheet of dough after only a few runs through the roller attachment. My dough needed significantly more taming. That first effort to turn flour, eggs, and water into spaghetti took considerably longer than 60 minutes. Fortunately, my daughter slept longer, too, so I was able to complete the project without interference. And dinner that night was magical. I could not believe the difference between scratch and boxed pasta.

During our summer in that apartment, I determined to improve my technique since a three-hour process was not going to be regular weekend one. And by the time we moved back into our house, I was ready to invest in my own attachments. (I already had the stand mixer.) I can now make spaghetti and fettuccine in the promised hour, and I rarely use boxed anymore for the carbonara we have twice a month. Homemade pasta makes an everyday meal feel so special and fancy. And it turns your standard spaghetti with Bolognese sauce into a meal worthy of company. It also enables you to have date-night in and still feel like you’re enjoying a restaurant quality meal. It is definitely an investment, but it’s a worthwhile one.

RECIPE

GRANOLA

I’ve always loved granola, but I didn’t buy it often because I considered it too expensive. Then I got Deb Perelman’s the smitten kitchen cookbook and saw her recipe for big cluster maple granola. It didn’t look too complicated, so I gave it a try. It was delicious. I’ve since modified it a bit to suit my tastes, and now I always have a batch in the cupboard. My kids have oatmeal topped with granola every school morning, and small containers of it make a great gift. It does take nearly an hour to make, but 90 percent of that is hands off time as it bakes, so you can do other things while your house steadily smells like cinnamon and sugar. Without fail, the days I make it, my eldest walks in the door after school and immediately says, “You made granola!”

RECIPE: The smitten kitchen recipe I started from isn’t available online, so below is the basic recipe I use now:

3 cups old fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup each sunflower seeds, chopped cashews, chopped pecans, sliced almonds
2 tbsp chia seeds
1 tbsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup maple syrup or honey, or enough to coat
Mix dry ingredients together, then mix in oil, vanilla, and natural sugar. Spread out on baking sheet and bake at 300 degrees for 50 minutes, flipping halfway through. Let cool and then scoop into a air tight container. I have no idea how long it will last because we go through it so quickly.

CHOCOLATE PUDDING

Ok, I’m probably pushing it to call this one a staple. But who doesn’t like chocolate pudding? I actually had never particularly enjoyed chocolate pudding–until I made this. When I was a kid, my mom occasionally made tapioca pudding, which I loved. I remember waiting impatiently with my spoon, ready to dig in to the dessert, still warm from the stove. Between my brother and me, I don’t think it lasted the day. I haven’t made tapioca for my kids yet, but I came across Deb’s recipe for Best Chocolate Pudding. It has only six ingredients (JELLO pudding cups have 16) and involves only about 20 minutes of hands on time. (It does have to set for a few hours.) My daughter loves it and I frequently have to disappoint her eager request for some for the third day in a row because I finished it myself while she was at school. #sorrynotsorry It’s actually best eaten within two days because by the third day it gets a bit runny. It’s still delicious, but it loses that wonderful rich thickness and behaves closer to creamy chocolate milk.

RECIPE