Picture Books Make the Best Gifts!

A list of our family’s favorite picture books! Many are also available as board books for the youngest readers.

Picture Book Gifts

Christmas Books and Movies

Our family’s favorite Christmas books and movies to celebrate the season!

How the Grinch Stole Christmas 
by Dr. Seuss
A classic Dr. Seuss book about the true meaning of Christmas.
Also a classic holiday movie.

The Gingerbread Pirates
by Kristin Kladstrup
Captain Cookie “had a gingerbread cutlass and a peg leg made from a toothpick. Jim loved him best of all.” While searching for his crew and wishing for a pirate ship, Captain Cookie learns the meaning of Christma

The Mole Family’s Christmas 
by Russell Hoban
Delver mole learns about Christmas and dreams of a telescope so that he can see the stars, but he doesn’t have a chimney. “…you never can tell what will happen when a boy like Delver puts his mind to something.”


The Polar Express
by Chris Van Allsburg
A child takes a magical journey to the North Pole on the Polar Express and receives a very special gift from Santa. 
Also a movie.

Christmas Day in the Morning
by Pearl S. Buck
Rob decides to give his father “the best Christmas gift I ever had…” A special Christmas story by the award-winning author of The Good Earth

The Secret of St. Nicholas
by Ellen Nibali
The true story of the saint who inspired the familiar Saint Nick.

The Twelve Days of Christmas
Illustrated by Jan Brett
The classic Christmas song with the beautiful illustrations of Jan Brett

The Night Before Christmas
Illustrated by Holly Hobbie

An Orange for Frankie 
Patricia Polacco
Frankie anxiously looks forward to his special Christmas orange.  A story from Polacco’s own family

The Muppet Christmas Carol
Our family’s favorite Christmas movie!  The classic Charles Dickens story with wonderful music and the beloved Muppets

Solar Co-ops and Experience

About a year ago we had solar panels installed on our home.  I’m sharing our experience and what we learned for others who may be considering solar.

Solar Co-op

We were able to join the Baltimore Solar Cooperative through Retrofit Baltimore.  That co-op has since closed, but there’s a place to sign up to hear about new co-ops and look for current co-ops at MD Sun

A co-op is a great way to get solar if you can find one. They work as a group to get a good deal on solar installation for their members. They also act as a consumer advocate and are a great source for asking q’s about the process.

Solar Benefits

As far as credits and benefits from solar –
We see a noticeable reduction in our energy bill after having solar installed. More in summer than winter, of course.  The savings estimate that we were given has been very accurate.

We also get SRECs which are energy trading credits that we receive money for about quarterly. For this, we are required to post a meter reading at the end of each month online. We are registered with a company who sells our SRECs for us periodically and sends us a check. There is an option to sell your SRECs yourself if you prefer.

We got a rebate (from the state) as a credit on our solar install.  I’ve heard that this or another benefit may be ending in the future.

Solar Energy World and Installation

Our solar was installed by Solar Energy World. We didn’t have any issues with the company other than issues with the contract.  However since we were working through the co-op, I’m not sure whether our experience with Solar Energy World is typical.

The proposal that we were given offered 3 levels of solar panels. We chose to go with the lowest priced panels as there was still a significant energy production (about 38% of our current usage) and the lower price meant that we’d make back the investment faster.

The online monitoring system required them to plug into a port on our internet router inside our house which they didn’t tell us ahead of time (one complaint that I passed on to them.) In the end, they brought in a mini router because it was too far across our basement from our internet router to our solar energy meter for the standard wireless signal.

It took several months between installation until activation which we were not aware of before. I think solar was installed the day before Halloween. It was activated finally sometime in December I think. The delay is a result of needing the power company to come out and install a Smart Meter, then give the ok to start it up.  Current meters only measure power flowing through as opposed to differentiating between power generated vs. used. So without a smart meter, turning on the solar (there’s actually a switch at the side of the house) we’d have been charged for power generated!

I recommend that you read the install contract very carefully. One issue was that the contract said any damage to our gutters, landscaping, etc. during installation would be our responsibility to replace or repair. When we told them that we had issues with this and 2 other parts of the contract, they promptly told us to cross out those parts. Not sure if this would have been the same if we hadn’t been with the co-op.

Other Solar Offers

There are companies out there offering free solar installation in which you basically rent them your roof. We didn’t like this option as you have to buy back the solar equipment from them if you want to move or get out of the arrangement. If there is a problem with your roof, you have to pay for repairs using a contractor they choose. They offer 40% off your bill, but that’s not a hard number, so I’m concerned that they could fudge the numbers (raise your energy cost) so that you’re not really saving as much as you might have expected. Originally the solar company said was a deal in conjunction with the local power company, but I’ve heard the power company is not admitting to working with these companies now. I believe it was Vivint Solar and I’ve heard about issues with installation delays with them.

HOA Review

Neighborhoods with a Homeowners Association usually want to approve any exterior modifications to your home, so check with your HOA to find out their process for this.  Even our neighborhood with “voluntary” HOA dues requests homeowners to get approval before making modifications of this type.

We have been very happy with our solar installation, savings and being able to help the environment by generating clean energy to offset some of our energy use!

Amazon Prime Bonus Benefits

Amazon Prime has a lot more benefits than just free two day shipping.  I’ve found that a lot of friends have Prime, but don’t know that it includes a lot of free music, and tons of free movies and TV shows.  And if you don’t already have Amazon Prime, you can get a free one month trial.

Amazon Prime Music includes a wide variety of free music to stream or download to your mobile device via the Amazon Music App.

Amazon Prime also includes access to a wide variety of movies and TV series through streaming devices, including Kindles, Roku, smart TVs and the free Amazon Video app.  Some of my favorite free TV shows currently are The Good Wife, Downton Abbey, Philly, Dr. Who, Star Trek and many others.  Some great free movies currently include When Harry Met Sally, Amelie, Chocolat, Kate & Leopold, Shakespeare in Love, Gremlins, Crocodile Dundee, Pride & Prejudice (Keira Knightley), Spectre, The Rainmaker, Age of Adaline, Misery, The American President, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, and Notting Hill.  The free video options change periodically, so there are constantly new free videos.

Amazon has an email newsletter that you can subscribe to that sends you weekly updates of which videos are now free.  This week’s newsletter announced free horror movies and the movie Love & Friendship (Jane Austen story) are now free to Prime members among other videos.

There are also Facebook pages for Amazon Video and Amazon Music.

I often find free movies on Amazon that I had not heard of before but really enjoy.  Some recently movies are
Take Me Home – A woman asks a cab driver to take her cross country after catching her boyfriend cheating.  Comedy/Romance, PG-13.

Kinky Boots – After inheriting his father’s failing shoe factory, a man begins creating shoes for transvestites. Comedy/Drama, PG-13. (Not currently free on Prime.)

You can browse more free Prime videos on Amazon.

Enjoy the music and videos!

Craft Room with a View

After almost 15 years in my large stamp area, I have downsized my work area (and many supplies!) to create a [stamp] room with a view!27913165782_75731d6508_k








My old, basement stamp area

My old, basement stamp area

My previous stamp room was about half of our home’s basement office.  I had a lot more storage above and below my work table.  But after struggling to find stamping motivation for well over five years, I began to suspect that what I really needed was a stamp area with natural light.  With three kids age 15 and under, none of our four bedrooms were going to be available anytime soon.  The only space left with a nearby window was our south facing dining room.

My plan for my new work area was to create a space that could easily be moved out of the way when we wanted to use the dining room for entertaining.  I selected only my favorite stamps and supplies, and set up six shelf storage cubes in a corner.  Then I used a folding table in front of the window so that I can fold my work table and set it against the wall under the window when needed.  I added a rolling cart of drawers for extra storage that can be rolled into the corner when packing up.  I am able to convert my area in about 5 minutes from stamping work space to packed up and out of the way!

I gave away many extra stamps and supplies to my stamping friends (if it doesn’t spark joy, set it free! ~ KonMari), but I wasn’t able to give away all my extra stamps yet.  So I’ve stored extras in the basement such as off-season stamps, and sets I don’t use often.

Since my work space is viewable from our front hallway, I reserved a storage shelf for a box that works as a drawer for holding works in progress out of sight between crafting sessions.



Another view of my stamping area shows the work table in front of the window, rolling cart of drawers off the left of the photo, white cube shelves to the left with paper storage and a display board above, ink pads stored in a former audio cassette shelf to the left of the window.  I have since added a small white table lamp (from Target) for my work table for extra light when needed.

It surprises me how many supplies I can fit in such a small area and that I can work very happily with a greatly reduced selection of paper, stamps and tools.  I am beginning to believe that having fewer supplies actually increases my creative inspiration as there are fewer choices and distractions.

I still have less time to stamp than I’d like, but when I do have time I look forward to creative time at my table by a window!

New Julian Fellowes Series!

Great news for Julian Fellowes fans who are still mourning the end of Downton Abbey!  Dr. Thorne is a new Julian Fellowes mini series on Amazon video.  The story is based on an Anthony Trollope book and includes period costumes, romance, and beautiful landscape scenery!

Dr. Thorne on Amazon instant video is free with an Amazon Prime membership!  If you don’t have Amazon prime you can watch the video with a free Prime one month trial.  (Additional benefits of Amazon Prime are many free movies and TV shows via Amazon Instant Video, tons of free music via the Amazon music app, and of course free two day shipping on many Amazon products.)

Dr. Thorne is also available via Amazon on DVD.

I have just one complaint about Dr. Thorne.  It’s too short.

Fiskars Warranty

I was very happy with Fiskars’ customer service recently, so I wanted to give them a plug and let other’s know about their great product warranty.

I have a Fiskars paper trimmer that I really like (compact, lightweight, extending arm, wire cutting guide, better for cutting small pieces of paper than my full size paper cutter).  The guide wire had started to unravel which was causing the trimmer blade to get stuck and the wire ends were sharp.  I wasn’t able to find a replacement wire in stores or online so I contacted Fiskars about their warranty.  They promptly agreed to send me a replacement ruler arm including new wire, which arrived in a week at no cost!  Being someone who hates to generate trash when not absolutely necessary (“tree hugger” my husband and 15 year old daughter suggested) I was very happy to be able to replace the wire and not have to throw away the entire trimmer, not to mention saving money!

Several years ago I had a Fiskars border punch on which the handle broke.  Because of their Full Lifetime Warranty, they sent me a new punch at no cost.  I think I only needed to email them a photo of the broken punch.


Great products and great customer service!

Butterfly Border Punch Gate Card

Butterfly Border Punch Gate Card

I designed this card using the Martha Stewart Monarch Butterflies Trim punch.  It is a gate card meaning that it opens in the center.

The blue card stock and the ink for the vertical Happy Birthday rubber stamp on the right is Stampin’ Up! Bliss Blue.  Floral decorative paper is attached to the inside of the left front flap of the gate card.  Light green ribbon is tied to the left side fold and tied with a bow.


  • 5.5 x 8.5″ solid colored card stock
  • 4.25 x 5.5″ decorative paper
  • Martha Stewart Monarch Butterflies Trim border punch or similar border punch
  • Scoring tool
  • Pencil
  • Ruler
  • Adhesive


  1. Start with an 5.5 x 8.5″ piece of solid colored card stock.
  2. Holding the card stock horizontally (5.5″ ends at the sides) , mark it with a pencil 1/4″ from the top on the left and right.
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    Step 3 – Pencil mark lined up along left edge of punch

    Hold the butterfly border punch upside down and place the right hand side of the card stock in the punch.  You should be able to see the pencil mark from the previous step in the punch window so that you can line it up along the right edge of the punch.

  4. Turn the punch right side up and punch a second time using the punching guide images on the top of the punch.
  5. Repeat the previous two steps on the left side of the card.  This time with the punch upside down, the pencil mark will line up along the left edge of the punch.  Punch the second time on the same side using the punching guide images.
  6. Holding the card stock horizontally (5.5″ ends at the sides) with the pencil mark side up, score at 2 1/8″ from the left and again 2 1/8″ from the right.  (A score board works very well for this.  This Martha Stewart score board is my favorite since it can score at 1/8″ increments all the way across and it’s 12×12″ for larger card stock.)
  7. Fold the card on the two score marks.
  8. Trim the top and bottom edges on both sides that were not cut by the border punch.
  9. Add a 4.25 x 5.5″ piece of coordinating colored decorative paper inside the card with adhesive inside the left front flap the the gate card.
  10. Finish by decorating as you like.

This card can be adapted for use with different border punches by calculating how much border to leave at the top and bottom of each side before punching, depending on the width of the punched design.

Fitbit Alta is Very Cool!

I got a Fitbit Alta this week as an early birthday gift and it’s really cool!

It’s much slimmer than my previous pedometer/watch (Max) and looks like a bracelet. It has a larger display than the other fitbits and it can show time/date/day of the week, steps, distance, calories, and active minutes with a tap to cycle through this info.  The display also lights up so that I can read the time in the dark.  As someone who is horribly near sighted, this has become a great way to check the time during the night.  As an alternative to turning on the display with a double tap, the display shows the time when I turn my wrist to look at the display, a very natural gesture for looking at the time already.

What I love most is that it buzzes when I get a call or text!  When I get a text, it shows the sender’s name and the message scrolls across the display.  With a call, it scrolls the caller’s name 3 times.  I often don’t hear my text alerts when my phone is in my purse or when it’s set on do not disturb, so I love this!

As the reviews say, it’s difficult to do the clasp at first, but this got easier after just a day.  It was also hard to figure out the tap and double tap to see the display at first, but I quickly got the hang of it.

Fitbit comparison page.

Missing Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey just may be my all-time favorite show.

I am well aware that it is just a show, but I’ve spent so many Mondays eating lunch with Lady Mary, Lady Edith, Lady Cora, Anna and the many other wonderful characters that I feel as though I’ve lost a large group of friends now that the show has ended.  I’ve also really enjoyed discussing the show with my actual friends over the past six years.

Knowing there are others who will be missing Downton Abbey as much as I am, I’m sharing a list of books and videos that I hope will help my fellow Downtonites with the transition to life-after-Downton.

Please comment below with your favorite books and videos for Downton Abbey fans!


Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by The Countess of Carnarvon

Written by the real Countess of Carnarvon, a fascinating book about the Real Downton Abbey.  Includes the story of the Earl of Carnarvon helping discover the tomb of King Tutankhamun.
Also by The Countess of Carnarvon is Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey which I hope to read soon!

To Marry an English Lord: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery by Gail MacColl

On my reading list!

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear 

Maisie is from a lower class family, but after she starts working as a maid in a wealthy home in London her intelligence is discovered by the lady of the house.  She then gains a tutor, becomes a nurse in World War I, and ultimately trains to become a private investigator.  There are currently twelve books in the Maisie Dobbs series.

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

A young Jewish girl from a wealthy Vienna family takes a position as a maid in an English country house to escape Jewish persecution during World War II.  The story follows her struggles to adapt to a very different position from how she grew up and her relationship with the father and son of the house.

Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St. James
Sarah is employed by ghost hunters to help investigate a barn believed to be haunted by a maid named Maddy Clare.  This story takes place between between the World Wars.  Not the strongest book on this list, but it’s from the same time period as Downton Abbey, I like ghost stories, and I found it enjoyable.


My favorite version of one of Jane Austen’s best books features Colin Firth in the role of Darcy.  Highly recommended!
I love these movies based on the classic novels by L.M. Montgomery about an orphan adopted in Prince Edward Island.  Highly Recommended!
A great mini series based on the Hornblower book series by C.S. Forester and starring Ioan Gruffud.  I enjoyed the videos so much that I read the entire book series afterwards.
A later time period than Downton Abbey, Mr. Selfridge tells the story of Harry Selfridge who started the first department store in London.
Young ladies work as midwives in a poor area of East London in the 1950’s.  Great characters and stories.

More Videos

The following shows are not similar to Downton Abbey in time period or setting but they are some more of my favorite shows.  Maybe they will appeal to other fans of Downton Abbey as well!
Starring Jennifer Gardner as a young field agent who finds out that she’s not working for the CIA.  One of my top favorite shows!
Another of my favorite shows that is ending after this season!  Great characters and story about Alicia who does not divorce her husband after his political scandal but also manages to reinvent herself as a successful attorney.
If you like The Good Wife, you may like Canterbury’s Law starring Julianna Margulies (from The Good Wife) as attorney Elizabeth Canterbury.  The dvd linked above appears to have all six episodes, including the pilot episode.
A series about another strong female character, Geena Davis stars as U.S. President Mackenzie Allen.