A Binge-Reading Book List From My 9 and 11 Year Old Readers… to Yours.

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My boys and I love a good book series. We didn’t start our reading journey searching for a series. Early on, they became a welcomed surprise at the end of listening to or reading a book we didn’t want to end. “There’s more!” “Another book!” The binge-reading/listening began. A neighbor mom reminded me of this family-favorite past time when sharing her search for more titles to feed her 9 year old reader’s voracious appetite for book series’. I thought, “How many other moms could use a binge-worthy book series list to introduce to their own readers, especially during the “stay at home” order?

Brothers hanging out!

I was inspired to commission my two sons to take a trip down binge-reading lane. They put together a list of the book series’ they binged over the years. To aid in their remembrance of the audio books, we visited our library app’s history. We use Hoopla and Libby. The others were borrowed directly from the library and required a recall of storylines and events that correlated with the reading. At 9 and 11, much like the “good problem” the mom I mentioned above has, my boys’ appetite for reading and listening to books has grown, due in part to the power of the book series. A book series is not only an effective way to extend one’s time within the wonderful world of the writer and characters, it also encourages an appreciation for storytelling, literature and independent reading.

I asked my sons to rate their 5 favorite book series and share a short blurb on why. Chai changed it to Top 7. Cool. Some of their faves made it to both lists. May that be an endorsement to the appeal of those books for their age group. Perhaps there are titles here that will whet your reluctant or voracious reader’s appetite as well.

Top 7 Book Series List


“There’s a cool friendship between a cricket and a cat.” 

Chai loves action adventure themes and have read or listened to the following from Age 7 Yrs -9 Yrs. His thoughts are in italics under each title.

1. Wings of Fire, by Tui T. Sutherland

I like the adventure. The dragons are trying to stop a war. 

There are a whopping 13 books in this series plus spin offs and graphic novels to boot. My boys were obsessed.

2. Green Ember, S.D. Smith

It’s a story about mice. It takes place during the Medieval times and does not have an obvious storyline. It’s also action and adventure. 

I heard so much about this one, so I introduced it to him because he gravitates toward animal heroes. There are 3- 4 books in this series.

3. Diary of an 8 Bit Warrior, by author, gamer and Minecraft super-fan Cube Kid

The Minecraft characters come to life. A Villager wants to be a Warrior. This book series is funny. 

Brilliant idea for the person who put this series together. I wish I would have thought of it. Chai found this one on his own and I am sure was attracted to it because well… Minecraft. Very few 7-12 year olds are not fans of Minecraft. There’s a 6 book box set if considering it as a gift.

4. Masterminds, Gordan Korman

The subject is science related- cloning and DNA!

I had never heard of this one and had to look it up. Apparently there’s a message about not judging a book by it’s cover.

5. Hardy Boys, several ghost writers under the pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon.

I like the way they explain how they solved the mysteries. 

I introduced these classics to the older son to encourage him to read on his own. Chai joined in on the audio versions. Hardy has a mammoth collection with 3 different series including Hardy Boys Adventures and Mysteries.

6. 39 Clues, by Rick Riordan

I like the way it mixes history with fiction.  

I must say I like the way it mixes history with fiction too. Great way to dive into Quicksand Learning. Check out my post to learn more about how “Quicksand Learning” works.

7. The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden

There’s a cool friendship between a cricket and a cat. 

This is one of my favorites and glad it made his list. I enjoyed reading this one to my boys and learning there was another book, “Tucker’s Countryside”, brought us all delight that our lazy summer day readings would continue. We stopped at the the first two, however, I learned there are 7 books in this series.

Top 5 Book Series List


Ashar loves suspense with humor and action thrown in. His thoughts are in italics under each title. 

The main characters travel to different places around the world where they find clues.

1. Hardy Boys, by several ghostwriters under the collective pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon

I like that it’s full of mystery, action and adventure.

I introduced these books to Ashar at 9 years old as a way to encourage independent reading after observing his interest in mystery and action and seeing zero options with black boys as the main characters. It was a hit. As an African American mom , the book covers bothered me. Quite honestly, I wanted to shield my son from them so that he could visualize himself. I struggled with this series but erred on the side of his interest in mystery. I later learned the books debuted in 1927 and had to be revised to eliminate the racial stereotypes, according to Wikipedia. I wasn’t far off with my trepidations. On the other side of this, my son says he knew it wasn’t people of color in the storylines but wasn’t fazed by it. The story kept his interest.

2. Wings of Fire, by Tui T. Sutherland

I like how the dragons have their own unique powers. 

I found Wings of Fire in my Costco magazine. Upon reading the summary, I knew my boys would be intrigued at the least. They became obsessed.

2. 39 Clues, by Rick Riordan

The main characters travel to different places around the world where they find clues. I like the suspense too.

Everywhere you turn in the library was 39 Clues. Eventually, we gave in and started the audio on car trips. They began to listen at home on their own time. Tied #2.

3. Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney

I like the way the main character complains about things in his life. It’s funny and interesting. 

Later, he discovered the movie series and binged those too.

4. Paws vs Claws, by Spencer Quinn

There’s situational irony between the dog and cat characters. 

Another filler for a car ride turned into a Winner.

5. Masterminds, by Gordan Korman

I like the science in this book series. 

They found this on their own. It is the fruit of my early introductions to reading that has them searching for the next good book.

5. Secrets of Bearhaven, by K. E. Rocha

I like that it’s all about bears. 

This was a fun, shared listen. Had no idea Ashar liked it enough to tie as his #5.

MORE binge-worthy book series’ that did not make their top 7 but are good reads nevertheless. The ones with asterisks are Mom’s Picks.

*City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau

*Bravelands, by a team of authors under the pseudonym Erin Hunter

Warriors, by a team of authors under the pseudonym Erin Hunter

I Survived…, by Lauren Tarshis

*Poppy, by Avi

Frog and Toad, Arnold Lobel

Zapato Power, by Jacqueline Jules

Spy School, by Stuart Gibbs

Are there any other titles you’d like to add? We will never tire of a good book series to binge.

Check out great Book and Movie combinations on our Instagram @that_homeschool_life


Hear Me Roar.

Performing is such a high!    I will venture to say it is the act of giving of one’s self, with abandon, that results in such euphoria after a performance.  It gives off the fragrance of freedom and boldness.  Well, I was feeling kinda bold and free during this annual birthday photo shoot.

The wardrobe in this installment of The Closet Actress are part indulgent… well all indulgent.  I didn’t need any of these items.  Why are they in my closet?  I was raised on thrift and outlet stores and bought these particular items while visiting my hometown in NJ, where there are no lack of bargains.  I had to have them.  They were cute.  I was also under some illusion that just maybe I’d wear them- one day.  Well that day had come.  This post has made buying them worth it.   For a couple of hours while in my California apartment, kids not five feet away, watching a blaring Minecraft Youtube video on the TV, I got to go back East in the middle of January donning a navy wool camel’s neck coat sans a hat and scarf. I got to go to a spring brunch with friends wearing cute jumper dresses.  I got to make an appearance dominating mixed prints at a really cool evening event somewhere in the city where I was the host.

The necklace and the hair were my inspirations for this shoot.  I knew whatever I wore these would steal the show.  They encapsulate the mood; Unapologetic, fierce, a tour-de-force, bold, freedom.

I am satisfied by this annual birthday photo shoot as it will last past the days spent wearing them to “actual” events.

My husband did a heck of a job capturing the art and beauty of it all.












Seeing Yourself

Seeing yourself is important.  I can remember watching music videos as a child in the age of MTV when Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video blew my mind.  While the world was fascinated by the choreography and costumes, I was fascinated by “the girl” in the video. Alas, she looked like me!! (in my mind).  I can do that. The more I was fed images of brown women being boss, beautiful, bold. The more I was empowered. 

I want my boys to see themselves too — Especially before they are introduced to the negative stereotypes associated with their race in the media AND before they could become accustomed to being nonexistent in certain forums altogether.  It’s one main reason  I started @castlesandkings, my newest Instagram account where I take and post commercial and editorial photos of my 2 boys. 

Brown boys are grossly underrepresented in fashion mags and advertisements, story books and films particularly for children.  

@castlesandkings is an outlet for my sons to be the models of curiosity, adventure, beauty, class, coolness, silliness and laughter, intelligence, intrigue, mystery and mischief they naturally are and that largely goes unseen.  

Thanks to social media platforms, I don’t have to wait. I have the vision and means to create and host the images I’d love to see. 

I’ve grown up with brown kids being the face of poverty and AIDS in the US and abroad.(Think “We Are the World”.) Unless you were a celebrity of some sort there was little to no coverage of a brown kid simply playing Chess or seeing Spot run or finding an alien in his backyard which he then saves from government forces.  No. Our boys and girls were  portrayed as fatherless, impoverished, hustlers and pimps in need of saving. This and a few other 1 sided images recycled taught many of us to see ourselves through those lenses although in our communities we knew there was more to tell.

My friends and I alone were models of 1 and 2 parent homes where we ate dinner together as a family, explored our neighborhoods, won spelling bees and kept secrets from our parents just like any other kid across America. However this was rarely represented in the media.

Images matters. 

The power of an image goes deep. It reaches to the soul of a person especially a child, and creates a path for the feet to walk. 

I recognize the equation. 

External is Internalized is Physicalized. 

What we see we believe we become.

It’s God’s equation. The God Who  gave us our imaginations and encourages us to use it to create images of His beauty, love and power through the hearing of His Word.

When we do, meditate on Him, we become more like Him.

We are also made in God’s image. Now that’s something to get deep down inside of you and to capture. Internalizing that truth alone is transformative.

My sons will see themselves not only as I see them, the media portrays them but also as God sees them.

May all who view @castlesandkings see the heart of a mother, the workmanship of God and some pretty cool kids.


In this collection of images of my oldest son, I see an artist, activist, free thinker. He gave that to me.

I was just there to capture it, to give it back to him and now to share it with you. 

What do you see when you see your self, your children? 



Want to see more? Follow @castlesandkings on Instagram.

Want customized pictures of your own? Visit http://altesa.wixsite.com/altesabakerphotog


VIDEO: Pumpkin and Sweet Potato Pie Minis

My husband is in charge of making the sweet potato pies for the holidays, (boy, are they good!) while I cover pretty much everything else.  I wanted to involve the kids in the cooking fun and decided to help them make their own pumpkin pie from scratch.  I chose pumpkin for the hands on experience of cutting and cleaning out a real pumpkin. (Kids love messy stuff). 

We watched a slew of video tutorials to assist us in making the homespun pumpkin pie and got more than a few tips. Apparently my kids also got inspired. They requested we create a video for You Tube to help people make something special for the holidays too.  I am not always able or desire to oblige their requests to make random videos but this one was not only doable but simple and purposeful.  

Leftovers+Inspiration= mmmm 

Our first homemade pumpkin pie was a success. I still prefer sweet potato pie. In any case, we had leftover pumpkin pie filling but not enough to fill another pie crust. Not in the habit of throwing perfectly good hard earned filling away, we got creative and recorded it for your viewing pleasure.  Prefer sweet potato like me, we have you covered in this leftover makeover video too. 

If you are a mom or dad, babysitter or visiting auntie looking for a simple cooking project to do for the holidays with the kids, check out the video below.  While kid-friendly, it’s also a unique sweet alternative to bring to that inevitable potluck. (You’re welcome).  

VIDEO: Pumpkin and Sweet Potato Pie Minis

Love to hear. What’s your holiday inspiration? 

Oh The Places You’ll Go/ Limitless Learning

Learning how to read opens up one’s eyes to all the world.

Quite literally in this case.

As a result of my son’s newfound reading ability, we stumbled into a fun activity that turned into an interactive, educational expedition around the world (while at home). Let me tell you all about it.

(Think:  “If You Give a Mouse A Cookie” Storybook by Laura Numeroff)

My son began reading the “made in” labels on the back of his toys— because he could. (Cool.  Sparks).  That lead to reading the labels of his stuffed animals (more sparks), then his clothes (more sparks).

Because most of the labels read “Made in China”, he had questions like “Why is everything made in China?!”, “Why isn’t anything made in the USA? ”

(I smell smoke).

Good questions son.

(Time for mama to fan the flame.)

I answered his questions and made a few suggestions that involved competition and counting. (Remember, I’m the fanner of the flames.)

“Let’s make a chart. How many things can you find that are made in the USA?”

“Let’s locate the places you find on the map.”

He began to expand his search around our home for “made in” labels. (Even his little brother got in on it.) They found places all over the globe. It was eye opening to find things from Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, India, El Salvador, Vietnam, Philippines… from clothes to shampoo bottles, we were living internationally without having stepped outside. (He found 3 “Made in USA” labels and 20+ international labels in our home.)

Of course that lead us to locate each place on the globe,

then to write down and tally our findings,  

which lead to a comparison chart,

which has the potential to lead to probability and percentages. 

You may also dive into categorizing the items found by how they are used or materials,


You may look into the manufacturing process: the steps it takes to get into an American store. 

You can also learn the number of languages in each country, a day in the life, their money system, gross national product.

The possibilities for exposure and learning are non stop. It’s what I call a “limitless learning” opportunity because it has no end.

I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time but from that one activity we covered reading, geography, math, economy, manufacturing, mass production, social studies, research and statistics.

Not bad for a day’s work. This was a Saturday by the way.

There are still more places to go with this activity for beginner readers testing their skills to teens interested in global economics.

That’s what a child’s interest or sparks does, it takes them places.

As a homeschool mom, I’m so glad I get to be the tour guide & (fanner of the flame.)

Where has your child’s curiosity taken him or her?

What limitless learning experience you encountered that was sparked by an interest? 


THE CLOSET ACTRESS:  Throwback To The Future

Welcome to the newest installment of The Closet Actress where my passion for acting and dressing up meet, kiss and have babies.



I think it was my third year of grad school.  I decided to launch out and start auditioning, eager to use all that expensive technique I had gained in my three years of studying.   I auditioned to play a part of a diva Video Jockey/ TV host who was being followed as part of a faux reality show.  This was a short film written and directed by a beginner filmmaker.

I had a good audition.  In fact, the director called to tell me so. Only he did not offer me the part but asked if I would coach the actress that did get the part. Huh?!  Whaaat? She looked the part (model type) and I had the skill. Classic. It was such a mix of emotions. On the one hand, I was being acknowledged for my skill which sends me over the moon with unspeakable joy and on the other hand I was being rejected for my lack of long legs… which sucked. Feeling uneasy inside, I agreed to do it and rationalized my decision as noble, generous even godly.  But it sucked…

I know what I want. I’ve always known what I want. Somehow over the course of time I’ve second guessed and settled. It had become a part of the fabric of my decision making process.




It happened with the sundry and big decisions–

Choose. Second guess. Settle.

I don’t know where this insane habit came from but I’d guess it’s probably from the depths of some childhood experience.

Anyhow, on that day I agreed to the filmmaker’s request to coach his choice actress when I really didn’t want to do it— I settled.

That’s why when something all too characteristic of that former time happened to me recently I responded with a big , fat, gracious…


It was a “throwback to the future” moment.  I had another good audition and was told so by the director.  Yet I get a call asking if I’d be willing to be “background”.  Whaaat?!  My mind raced to the time and space of that early compromise in grad school. The “sucky” feelings I had back then rushed into my “now”.  History was trying to repeat itself.  I had to stop it.

Thoughts of nobility and missed opportunity crossed my mind AGAIN.

However, unlike then, I know now I’m under no obligation to accept something just because it’s offered.  I’m also over believing the lie that I will be missing out on something if I don’t accept. These are nothing more than settling traps.

God has greater things for me than that.  He has greater things than that for all of us. I believe God has given everyone a customized vision for their lives. We see ourselves in a certain special way, doing a certain special thing by His design but often second guess those ideas, dismiss them and settle for something completely outside of that vision. It’s a subtle shift that much like that insane habit of mine becomes apart of how we wear life.   It takes courage to accept God’s personal vision for your life and even more to walk in that vision. That often means fighting for it. Everyday. Moment to moment. And when we don’t fight for it, we’re settling.

We are the guardians of God’s vision for our individual lives. 

Settling is a personal decision. Only you and God knows what that looks and feels like. Our battlefields will each look different. What was offered to me by the young filmmaker then and what was offered most recently were not awful things in themselves. It’s when I accept someone else’s idea of me against my “knowing” heart that it shifts to settle mode.

How could anyone successfully follow their dreams following someone else’s idea of them?


I’ve never met a box I could fit in.


If you remember, the last episode of The Closet Actress featured several forgotten pieces from my closet inspired by classic films or stage plays.

Well, the outfits featured in this new episode are a throwback to the 80’s and 90’s.  I chose these items solely because they perfectly complimented one thing:  My Shell Toe Adidas.  I have wanted these classic Shell Toes for years but never bought them.  They were too expensive. I didn’t really need them. Those were my 2 common excuses. But I finally got them for my birthday. (thanks hubby). Something I’ve always wanted!

Getting them was half the battle.  Although my husband bought the right size they were too big which meant I had to return them.  The store didn’t have the size I needed. So they suggested a boys’ size alternative but when I tried them on they just weren’t quite right. One sales guy told me something was wrong with me, not the shoes. Ha! That was my cue to go elsewhere which I did until I found a place that would order the woman’s size shoe I wanted.   I had to wait another week but I got the shoe I wanted. This is a minor event that serves as major reminder how the opportunity to settle presents itself anywhere, anytime, and with anything— you’ve decided you want. But alongside the opportunity to settle is the opportunity to fight for it. We get to choose.

I’m fighting. How about you?

How has God’s vision for your life been challenged?


Feeling a bit nostalgic, click the links below to scratch that itch.


Grey and black tunic sweatshirt dress, Paraphrase

Baja-inspired pullover hoodie, Paper Crane  

Black knit leggings, Poof

Superstar “Shell Toe” , Adidas


“Walk this Way” video 

“My Adidas” video

Lisa Bonet

Molly Ringwald

Thanks for stopping by.  




… to me.

As a child, my birthday happiness was dependent on the reaction and response of others.  I (was forced to) realize, as I got older, that dependence is unhealthy.


It’s empowering to know your value and worth runs deeper than people’s memory, financial situation or Facebook alerts.

Your birthday’s special and valuable simply because YOU ARE HERE.  God saw it fit to grace you with the gift of life and all it’s treasures.  That’s enough.  Stop waiting and start celebrating… throw your own party even if you are the only one invited!  If folks show up, let that be the icing on the cake.

How do you take responsibility for your happiness on your birthday?




Mommy Playdate

What started out as an idea for a cute Instagram picture turned into a full blown wedding photo shoot and what I am predicting a movement amongst mommies to relieve stress.  
Inspired by my friend’s Instagram post where she described a way cooler pretend play time with her boys after adding a doll that looks a lot like her to the mix of their testosterone-centric superheroes, I pulled my doll from the closet.  Bridal Barbie was given to me by my sister eight years ago as a wedding gift.  My husband owned a Tuskegee Airmen G.I. Joe that we picked up from a Goodwill nine years ago.   It was only natural for them to get married.  They have been living together for so long now, yeah, it was about time.

Boy did I have fun.

Along with my two boys, I pretended for a few hours while arranging these two love birds.  I hadn’t played like that in a very long time, not with dolls.  It was amazing how quickly my brain connected to the little girl.  Only now I was a little girl with a camera.  This simple act brought such joy to my heart.  This short lived moment will live for ever in my mind and in pictures. It not only lifted my spirits but reminded me of the power of images and play. When you place them together. Whoa Baby!  I foresee a lot more mommy play dates in my future.

There was a natural progression between set ups.  They became like real people with real personalities.  I was in full throttle play y’all.

I began to think of all the standard “wedding day” poses between bride and groom, like the “before” shots where couples each stand unseen on either side of a door holding hands to share an intimate prayer prior to the ceremony.  Or the “eavesdrop” shots where the couple’s private moments are captured.  Or the “reception” where bride and groom let their hair down in full celebration mode.  The ideas were endless.  If my boys had not begun complaining about food and something of the other, I would probably have a 1,000 pics instead of 250!  Don’t worry, I only shared a few on this post.

Check out the photo shoot. Do you think I can add wedding photographer to my list of skills?

The Before:

The After:


The reception:


The eavesdrop:


and of course no event is complete pretend or real life without…

The selfie:

Hope you are smiling and inspired as I was to create these images and this post.

IG: @altesabaker



What About Those Chairs?: Farmhouse Dreams On an Apartment Budget


Bringing my farmhouse dreams on an apartment budget to life one DIY project at a time.

Next up: The chairs.


It all comes down to a vision.  When I lock into one, it’s on and the real fun begins.

Re-upholstering the kitchen chairs was one fun project to undertake especially since my vision included mismatched seating and building two new stools to complete the refinished table project.

Let’s begin with the inspiration:

This beautiful dining setup took my breath away. Besides the rush of natural light, the mix of bright and bold print along with the weathered table and chairs is a winning combo in my book.  I had to have it and since this particular print is way above my budget, I had to adjust.  Hey, I’m used to fiscally adjusting, so it’s no probs.

Next it was time to shop for prints:

I knew I wanted bright and bold floral types of print.  I always intended to use table cloths or shower curtains for my upholstery fabric since it is easy to wipe down.  I still have two young boys who have holes in their chins.   No luck with the laminate table cloths (absent of cute prints) or outdoor fabric (expensive) but found the mother lode in affordable, beautiful, water and stain resistant cotton table cloths at Marshalls, TJ Maxx, Ross and Burlington Coat Factory.  In the end I used both table cloths and a shower curtain! (Yep. can you tell which one?) to upholster the stools and re-upholster the chairs.  Remember these aren’t your mama’s shower curtains.

Next it was time to purchase and cut wood for the 2 bar stools I was building:

The two bar stools were built using these plans from Rogueengineer.com.  Although I made my seating a bit wider than their plans called for, I loved their easy, simple, visual instructions.  As a newbie it worked perfectly.

IMG_7310.JPGFor the seats, I used left over plywood from the storage bed build project and had it cut to size at Lowes.  I also loaded up on a staple gun and staples.  Then off to buy batting and foam from the fabric store.  Since the two original chairs already had batting and foam, I only needed to cut off its old fabric, measure and staple the new.

Taking out the staples on my two kitchen chairs were probably the most challenging part of this upholstery project. Oh yeah, choosing which fabric would go where was a bit exhaustive not from intensive labor but from indecisiveness and fear of making a bad choice.  In the end, I am satisfied.  My farmhouse dreams on an apartment budget are shaping up.


Thanks for reading,


My DIY Epiphany: Trust your instincts.  Take the risks.  You have the advantage of changing something you don’t like anytime you choose.





We homeschool throughout the summer.  It’s the time I use to experiment with ideas I have during the fall and spring sessions.  One of those ideas included a Cars Movie Unit Study.  I created this study last year and fumbled through it with the boys that summer.  My then 3 year old was and IS still obsessed with Lighning Mc Queen and the band of characters connected to the fictional town of Radiator Springs.  I admit I too love the movie and have watched it probably 1,000 times between both boys.  Although the 7 year old has out grown Lightning to some degree, we all embrace the joy it brings to the youngest of the house.  At any given time, you will catch us quoting lines from the movie to fit circumstances. It connects us in that annoying yet personal insider family way.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Cars film, check out the plot here.

“If I was you I’d quit yapping and start working”. – Doc

I watched how my kids quoted lines from the movie, retold and performed full scenes while playing, made connections to real life .  Light bulb moment = Unit Study.  There are so many rich moments in this movie.  It is full of opportunity for teaching from Math to Geography to Reading/ Writing to Character study.  I have compiled a PDF list of fun activities and resources to launch into a unit study of 11 subjects.

Think of the list as a buffet where you pick and choose what meets your child’s appetite.  It is a work in progress as I will add to the study over time (Ex. Worksheets) (make sure you check back for updates) but wanted to make it available to you creative mamas & papas looking for a relaxed, cool way to keep learning alive during the summer for your 3-8 year olds.  You are able to adjust the ideas to meet your child’s age and level of interest.  We were very laid back and more project focused with an emphasis on play. We worked on a subject 2x a week. Your child may be more of a reader, history buff or arts and craftsy.  Whatever their bent, It’s all in the study with enough ideas to fill an entire summer.

Let me know your thoughts and how your kids liked learning through CARS in a creative way.

Below I have included a link to the Free Download plus pictures of a couple of the activities we enjoyed:



What are your plans to keep learning alive this summer?