Bristol Renaissance Faire: A Chicagoland Spotlight

As an enthusiast, but sadly not practitioner, of time travel, I am especially fond of the Bristol Renaissance Faire. Just about an hour north of Chicago, right across the Wisconsin border, the Bristol Ren Faire is consistently voted the best in the country, and it’s easy to see why. Upon entering the gates of the 30-acre, open-air site, you’re transported to Elizabethan-era England (but, fortunately, with the benefit of modern-day conveniences).

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To escape the summertime heat and stench of London, Queen Elizabeth would spend time in the countryside, where villages would put on lavish festivals in her honor. The Faire replicates those visits, and serves as quite a shock to the senses, quickly forcing Chicago to fade into obscurity. When you’re at the Ren Faire, you really feel as though you’ve entered a new world, surrounded by the sights, sounds, and (only good, food-related) smells of the 16th century.

Within minutes, you’ll be greeted with several iterations of “good morrow,” “how dost thou?” or “hail and well met!” You’ll see costumes of grandeur, costumes of…scant fabric, and costumes that involve nothing more than a t-shirt that says “this is my Ren Faire costume.” (I’m convinced those are probably engineers.) You’ll look around in slack-jawed wonder and laugh at the anachronistic disparities between this world of fantasy and that of our own. It’s no wonder that the Faire’s slogan is “Where Fantasy Rules,” because that’s exactly what you’re getting when you go: a day of fantasy.

Why You Need to Visit

It’s a fun, living-color history lesson

There’s actually quite a bit of history laced in with the whimsy of the Ren Faire. As mentioned, it’s supposed to resemble the English countryside during Queen Elizabeth’s visit in approximately 1574, when townspeople would gather for elaborate celebrations and to flaunt their wares. This is why the Queen and her court are historically represented with quite a bit of pomp and circumstance each day of the Faire. You can even check out the Queen’s court as guests are being presented to her. The people representing these historical figures are quite impressive; they’ve auditioned for and researched their roles well and nail their accents. But it’s the costumes that really blow me away. Each one must be valued well into the thousands, if I were to guess, and they certainly add to the air of majesty and grandeur.

Visitors also have the opportunity to watch and even learn how to do the maypole dance.

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You can also learn quite a bit about the culture of knights and weapons, if you’re so inclined. The Military Encampment, or weaponry area, is especially fun.

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The 11 o’clock show is particularly important.

An inside source told us that most of the people in this section are, amazingly, wearing handmade, historically accurate costumes, and that several people working at the Faire hold master’s degrees in British history. Despite how silly it seems at times, there’s definitely some clout behind the scenes.

It’s a great place to take kids

The Ren Faire has so much to offer children, it’s like taking them to Disney, just on a much smaller budget and with little to no licensed character sightings. Aside from all of the history your child will absorb and weapons he will yield (again, great parents!), there are several play structures, face painting booths, human-powered carnival rides (which are hilarious to observe), free-range fairies and woodland nymphs, and so much more.

And, of course, there’s also the “horse part” as my son calls it, where you can see knights compete in an exciting jousting tournament. With this and all of the other kid features, I guarantee you’ll have much more fun here than you would at Medieval Times. It’s an almost laughable comparison.

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But make no mistake, there’s quite a bit of “adult” fun too

My implied salaciousness is purposeful, because bawdy humor abounds at the Ren Faire. Even the most unexpected of passersby may lash you with a biting tongue, as it seems implicitly understood and accepted that the sharper the wit, the more suggestive the commentary, and the more unseemly the pun, the more fun you’ll have (though, honestly, this is kind of how I feel about life in general).

For a taste of what I mean, I suggest checking out Adam Crack’s fire whip show, the Washing Well Wenches show, and Vegetable Justice.

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Throw tomatoes at the insult comic or you will face his relentless–and usually hilarious–scrutiny. Warning: throw only if you have a thick skin.

Grab one of the many available cocktails (I personally really enjoy the red sangria) and prepare to be mildly offended but thoroughly entertained.

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The Ren Faire is the only place I’ve ever seen chain mail or mesh bras–and shockingly, not just once, or twice, or thrice. Since it’s a little awkward taking a picture of someone in a bra, you’ll have to settle for this mannequin model.

There’s a ton of food and it’s pretty decent

With hundreds of food–and drink–options available, you’re sure to find something that whets your appetite. The turkey legs are popular, of course, but despite being Instagrammable, I actually prefer the calzones. Also worth trying are the pickles on a stick (the spicy one is great) and the jerky. Not worth your money is the white chocolate key lime pie on a stick. I should have trusted my gut on that one.

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You’re better off with a calzone, but I admit the picture is more exciting like this.

The entertainment is plentiful and worthwhile

There are so many kinds of performances you can watch at the Ren Faire that there’s guaranteed to be something up your alley. Even if you don’t want to sit down for an entire show, it’s impossible not to happen upon some type of art or musical installation just walking around. Keep your eyes and ears open (and check out the performances I mentioned above).

You can be anyone or anything you desire, and not a single person will care

To me, the best part of the Ren Faire is that everyone is 100% themselves; the day of fantasy also means it’s a day without judgment or shame. Everyone is welcomed and celebrated within the confines of the Faire, regardless of race, ethnicity, body type, or anything else. This also means you’re in for a treat as far as costumes go. Some of the most creative costumes I’ve ever seen have been right there in Bristol.

Sure, there are several people in traditional Ren Faire garb, practicing their Elizabethan English, but you’ll also find pretty much any kind of cosplay you can imagine. A mash-up fairy alien? Why not? Bruce Wayne with a Predator mask? Sure! Looking for a place to flaunt that chain mail bikini? This is it. Want to hang in the background and just observe in your normal, boring 2018 clothes? That’s okay too.

In fact, I’ve been so inspired and envious of all of the costumes over the years, that I finally decided to invest in one of my own. I love it so much I want to flaunt that baby everywhere: dinner, the gym, the laundromat, whatever. I’m pretty sure that’s normal.

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Costume from Silver Leaf Costumes. They were wonderfully helpful in selecting and fitting what is now my favorite outfit. Shoes especially historically accurate.

Quick Tips

Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years that will maximize your Ren Faire experience.

1. Bring sunscreen

Though there’s plenty of shade in spots, it’s hard to avoid the sun entirely. Make sure you’re packing and putting sunscreen to use, or you’ll end up as red as the tomato guy (probably redder since not a lot of people actually hit him).

2. Pack water bottles

Because it can get so warm, I highly recommend bringing your own water bottles. You’ll need to keep hydrated and I will say water fountains are not in abundance. Plus, a bottle of water costs $4. FOUR BUCKS. At a fairground in Wisconsin. For shame.

3. Take out some cash ahead of time

While most of the artisans accept charge cards, you’ll need cash for pretty much everything else, including food and drink. There are ATMs available at the Faire, but I recommend avoiding those lines and grabbing cash before you leave home.

4. Check out some of the stalls

The vendors at the Ren Faire showcase quite impressive craftsmanship, and you’d be seriously missing out if you didn’t check at least some of it out during your visit. You can find costumes (so many kinds of costumes), candles that turn into lotion, metalworks, blown glass, art, books, art-rendered maps, jewelry, and more.

5. Tire your kids out in the children’s garden

If you have kids, make sure to pay a visit to the children’s garden. It has adorable little Hobbit-style houses, slides, a stage, a big dragon egg, pirate ships that double as play structures, and characters who are all-too-willing to recruit your kids for some kind of mission. It’s spacious, right next to the mother’s room (see below), and a great way to make sure your kid is exhausted later that day.

6. Don’t be afraid to get in the spirit!

Most importantly, go with an open mind! Ask people questions, try your hand at one of the various activities (I went on the man-powered rocking ships and they were so fun), test out your best British accent, wear a costume (even if the rest of your family doesn’t), and have fun. The Bristol Renaissance Faire is a joyous place with joyous people, and not exploring it in its entirety would be doing it, and yourself, a major disservice.

Plan Your Visit

Print off a discount coupon before you go and either take it to your participating Menards or go ahead and head straight to the box office (it’s never very crowded in the morning). Without the discount, tickets are $25.95.

Location and hours

The Faire is located at 12550 120th Avenue, Kenosha, WI 53142. It’s open on Saturdays, Sundays, and Labor Day from July 7 through September 3 (meaning you have two more weekends this year!) from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Parking

There’s no public transportation, but there is plenty of paid parking in the field on site. I believe it’s $5 cash.

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Stroller or carrier

The Faire grounds are primarily dirt, gravel, and grass, so as long as your stroller can traverse those, I’d recommend bringing it. You can always throw the carrier down below.

Mother’s room

There is no air conditioning at the Faire, meaning it can get pretty warm. For a brief reprieve, check out the mother’s room by the children’s garden. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s a clean, air-conditioned room with changing tables and benches for nursing moms.

A Hit for All Ages

Do yourself a favor, Chicagoans, and make your way to the Bristol Renaissance Faire before it closes for the season after Labor Day. When you visit, you and your family are in for a day of lighthearted, boisterous hijinks and fun. If you soak in a little history or get into the cosplay, that’s honestly just a bonus.

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Your Dose of Perspective on the Eve of the Election: A Pale Blue Dot

It’s difficult to find a combination of words to accurately describe all my thoughts on the election tomorrow.

To put it most simply, I would love my son to take for granted a world where two formerly inconceivable things are a simple reality: that the Cubs are World Series champions and that a woman is President of the United States of America. 

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Not pictured: toddler who kept trying to run away from this beautiful marquee. At 1, he has no appreciation of the struggle. Hell, at 28, I barely do.

While I’m extremely happy to say we’re halfway there (#flytheW), I hesitate to say with confidence that the majority of Americans will cheer for the latter the same way they did the former (let’s be honest, the only people who cheered for Cleveland live in Cleveland). I’d be remiss to deny that there is a real possibility that America will elect that misogynistic, hate-spewing, turd-blurglaring, flaming hot evil Cheeto as our next President. In fact, there’s also a chance I’ll be thrown in jail for the aforementioned description should that apocalyptic possibility become a reality.

However, on the eve of this truly momentous day, a day that has been so long in the making and that has polarized millions of people, I came across the following refreshing and humbling reminder of our existence. Despite these paragraphs above, it caused me to focus on something larger than my personal views, those of my fellow Facebook friends Americans, and the great divide this election has caused.

My hope in sharing it is that it helps you, too, reflect on our collective past, present, and future, on the things that bridge us together, and on our foremost status as citizens of Earth. Regardless of who wins tomorrow–and to be very clear, I’m definitely with her–I hope we can remember that in the grand scheme of things, we are far more similar than different. As Earthlings, a term I so reverently use, I hope we can remember to be kindcompassionate, and united for the betterment of ourselves and for the protection and preservation of our planet. Enjoy.

Perspective: We Are a Pale Blue Dot

In 1990, at the suggestion of famed astronomer Carl Sagan, the spacecraft Voyager 1 took this photo of Earth from about 4 billion miles away. Here, Earth measures at less than one pixel and can be seen among scattered light rays as it was taken so close to the Sun. Sagan presented his reflections on this picture in a 1994 speech at Cornell University. What he said is as follows.

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Look for the pale blue dot in the orange ray. That’s Earth.

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“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

 

 

 

 

[Featured image source]

Baby Brown Bear Has a New URL!

Exciting news!

Baby Brown Bear officially has a new URLhttps://babybrownbearblog.com/

Feel free to take the news to the streets, though I have a good feeling you will receive looks of dismay and befuddlement. Nevertheless, evangelize, my faithful readers!

Otherwise, look at this exciting mug Papa Bear found this weekend. It’s Mama Brown Bear! Red, tired eyes and all.

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Baby Bear Goes Camping

I love to camp. Though it’s not something I grew up doing, Papa Bear and I have enjoyed several camping trips during our time together and knew that we wanted to introduce it to our kid as soon as possible.

What I love most about camping is that it allows me to disconnect from everyday stressors  and reconnect with nature and, more importantly, myself. Camping reminds me to appreciate the serenity of nature in a way that I simply cannot do from the comfort of my home. Sure, sleeping on the ground isn’t exactly like spending a night at the Ritz, but it sure as hell is a lot cheaper and literally keeps me grounded (and I don’t use the term “literally” lightly).

I love that camping lends itself to physical activity; being able to hike all day is my idea of a great time, though I certainly appreciate that others may prefer to lounge around the campfire with hot dog skewers and fully reserve the right to elect this option any time I wish. Plus, who doesn’t love roasting marshmallows? I’m not crazy about them in real life, but I’ll go down swinging if anyone says my crispy black ones aren’t the very definition of perfection.

Long story short, Papa Bear and I knew that the lessons learned at a campsite were ones we wanted to teach our children: self-sufficiency, resilience, and the need to be able to go with the flow. Which is why we booked Baby Bear’s first camping trip when he was 11 months old. It is also why we brushed it off when the first attempt blew up in our faces by way of massive storms and 95-degree weather.

Now, at 15 months, Baby Bear can proudly say he’s successfully camped twice. While I don’t want to put words in his mouth–though, who am I kidding? I do this on the reg–I will say that if the amount of dirt under his fingernails and all over his body were any indication, Baby Bear friggin’ loves the outdoors.

That said, here are the lessons had to learn when taking him camping.

The Dos & Don’ts of Camping with a Baby

The Dos

  • Do be flexible. This is so cliché, but it’s worth repeating because nothing will go precisely as you plan or anticipate. Try to see the positive and not sweat the small stuff.
  • Do go car camping. I would love to say we hiked to our campsite with all our baby gear, but until he can carry it himself we will have to settle for parking at our site. That easy access is extremely valuable.
  • Do choose somewhere within easy driving distance from home (at least initially). Just in case the camping trip blows up in your face as our first did to us, it’s nice to be somewhat close to home. Many of the pictures below were taken at Kettle Moraine Pike Lake Unit in Wisconsin, about two hours north of Chicago. It was the perfect distance away and provided us with stellar, dog-friendly hiking trails and private, family friendly campsites. Plus, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail goes through the park, so we were able to hike part of that as well.
  • Do unplug. Try turning off your phone and leaving it in the car. Yes, the sheer number of pictures in this post is evidence that I did have my phone around, but I promise it was also off for a large portion of the time. And it felt really good.
  • Do pack simple and easy-to-eat foods. You don’t have to sacrifice flavor when you go camping. The following suggestions can be made with the help of a cooler, your hands, tin foil, the campfire, and/or a propane camping grill. They all received the Baby Brown Bear Stamp of Approval, too.
    • Breakfast
    • Lunch
      • Simple sandwich materials like bread, lunch meat, cheese, and mustard (other toppings optional).
    • Snacks and supplements
      • A large water jug with a spigot. While not necessary, it’s really nice to have a small stash of water already at your site when you have a baby.
      • Fruit such as oranges, bananas, and apples.
      • Pre-chopped veggies like cucumbers, celery, and carrots.
      • Organic baby pouches (for the babe or you, in a pinch).
      • Junky snacks like chips and cookies (per Papa Bear’s recommendation, of course).
    • Dinner
      • Foil packs, like the (delicious) ones we did below:
        • Locally grown green beans with butter, salt, pepper, and a touch of garlic powder.
        • Ground beef with pre-chopped onions, celery, butter, salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
        • Potatoes with butter, salt, and pepper.
  • Do bring the following baby stuff:
    • A carrier for hikes (Ergo 360 pictured, but Deuter Kid Comfort II Child Carrier even more highly recommended).
    • A stroller for when you need to strap your kid in so you can set up the campsite.
    • A kid’s camping chair for when you want to take adorable pictures and relax together around the campfire (Melissa and Doug Giddy Buggy Chair pictured).
    • An easy-to-use pack ‘n play (I am obsessed with the 4moms Breeze). Co-sleeping would likely be easier for the babe, but having him in this meant I was able to put him to bed at his normal time and return to the campfire without worrying about him rolling all over the tent. While he ended up coming to sleep with us in the middle of the night on some of the nights we camped, at least I had a few hours of good sleep before he was jammed in my armpit. Our tent is an older version of the REI Base Camp and comfortably fits the Breeze, two adults, an overnight bag, and a dog.
    • Sunscreen and bug spray (Badger Anti-Bug Sunscreen SPF 34 highly recommended).
    • A mix of clothing options, including shorts, t-shirts, pants, long-sleeved shirts, short/t-shirt jammies, full-length sleepers, socks, a hoodie, and shoes. Temperatures fluctuate quite a bit from the heat of the day to overnight, so layers really come in handy.
    • A sunhat (i play. Baby & Toddler Flap Sun Protection Swim Hat recommended).
    • Refillable water bottles for you and baby (Baby Bear loves this CamelBak Kid one).
    • Diapers, wipes, and hand sanitizer. Oh, and a couple big garbage bags. Enough said.

The Don’ts

  • Don’t go camping with your baby when the weather is out of control. We learned this lesson when we stubbornly insisted on driving for two hours to the site, setting up camp, and trying to put Baby Bear down before admitting that it’s probably not a good idea to leave a baby in a tent that’s a stifling 90-plus degrees. Especially when a massive storm is headed your way. Just don’t even bother; you can always go back.
  • Don’t waste your time bringing a picnic blanket. Unless your baby isn’t moving much yet, this will be completely useless.
  • Don’t be afraid to let your little one roll around, dig, and/or lather himself in dirt. Part of the appeal is getting closer to nature! Let him learn about bugs and rocks. Have a (one-sided) conversation about how plants grow. You can wash up when you get back home. Speaking of which…
  • Don’t shower. Most car campsites have working showers, but I suggest you try to resist. Let yourself get dirty, too. Enjoy living simply for a weekend. But, do brush your teeth. Bad breath and gingivitis are hard and fast don’ts.
  • Don’t forget to hike and explore. Like I said, I absolutely love to hike and be active when I camp. Get out there and get (safely) lost on a trail. Leave your phone and your worries behind.
Kettle Moraine Pike Lake Unit in Wisconsin.
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This baby loves to sleep in carriers.

Moral of the Story

At the end of the day, you’re going camping and it’s supposed to be relaxing. The above suggestions are just my opinion; you don’t need a lot of stuff, and even this is probably overkill. What matters is that you get outta Dodge and into Mother Nature. Take your baby, clear your mind, and you’ll figure it out as you go. If all else fails, you’ll add to your growing pile of parenting failure memories.

Let me hear from you. What are your suggestions for camping with kids?

 

 

 

Volumes Bookcafe: A Chicago Spotlight

There are several things to love about Wicker Park’s five-month-old Volumes Bookcafe, but chief among them is its goal to bring the community together around a shared passion for books. Also high on the list? This place combines coffee, pastries, wine, and books. In other words, there’s really no reason to ever leave.

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Upon entering, visitors note the sleek, modern decor with just the right number of quirky embellishments to draw them in: a reading nook covered in colorful hardbacks, a high-contrast Don Quixote poster, quote-ridden chalkboard walls, and a decent-sized shelf of board games (squee!).

While it’s not the biggest bookstore in the city, it is apparent that a lot of thought has gone into what’s on the shelves. In fact, Volumes prides itself on having a well-curated collection, and from what I could see, it’s one that would satisfy any reader’s palette.

Like any bookstore worth its salt, personal recommendations are peppered throughout each section, many of which I wholeheartedly second (lookin’ at you, Geek Love). But what’s different is that in most cases, there are only one to three available copies of any book. This place isn’t aiming to pump out the latest best-sellers; they’re looking to spark conversation and engage their customers on a quest to find their next favorite novel.

And, importantly, the staff with whom I’ve spoken are readily available, knowledgeable, and able to provide thoughtful next-read suggestions.  They are also more than willing to special order anything not found in the store.

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The Paper Bag Princess is by far one of my favorite children’s books, too.

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If I didn’t feel like I’d be defiling books, I’d create something like this at my apartment. There’s probably a second-hand market for book covers, right?

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A reading bench in the children’s section helps even the youngest readers relax a while.

Then there’s the cafe, which, on a weekday around noon, was pleasantly populated but not overcrowded. Serving Metropolis coffee, (local) Dollop pastries, wine, and beer, it seems there’s something for everyone to enjoy while they walk the store, read, chat, or work away on their computer.

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Just in case you want to flaunt your nerd status via bracelet.

Overall, the ambiance of the store and cafe is inviting, relaxed, and enjoyable. It’s very fitting that Volumes is owned by two sisters with backgrounds in education because it feels welcoming to children and adults alike. Even though I had a baby and a stroller with me, I didn’t feel receive any side-eyes or feel the pressure to GFTO as I do in so many other places that are traditionally quieter and/or less kid-friendly.

With a ton of events, book clubs, and even an incredibly attractive sounding NaNoWriMo project, it truly is a place that encourages community interaction, which just makes me appreciate it all the more.

Plan Your Visit

Location and hours

Volumes is located at 1474 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL 60622. It’s open Monday to Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. and Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Those are pretty generous hours, if you ask me.

Parking and transportation

In my experience, parking in Wicker Park is kind of a nightmare because space is so limited and several areas require permits. However, metered parking is available.

I personally recommend public transportation, though, especially because the store is only a four-minute walk from the Damen Blue ‘L’ stop.

Stroller or carrier

With only my jogging stroller at my dispense on the day of my first visit, I can attest that there is plenty of room for a stroller–especially a normal-sized one–at Volumes Bookcafe. Plus, a stroller makes it substantially easier to sit down and enjoy a cup of joe.

Final Word

If you’re looking for a bookstore with spunk and substance, check out Volumes Bookcafe. If it were possible to be friends with a bookstore, I’d sign right up with this one.

And, after all, you know here at Baby Brown Bear, I am a fan of keeping it local.

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Baby Bear’s Favorite Children’s Books Part II

We just completed Rahm’s Little Readers, the Chicago Public Library’s summer reading program that challenges kids to read at least 500 minutes between June and September. In addition to reading, participants must complete two activities from each of the following categories: talking, singing, writing, and playing. Technically speaking, Baby Bear doesn’t write yet–or talk or sing much, for that matter–but luckily for him, his Mama Bear had some crayons and a strong grip to force his hand.

Nonetheless, when you read for at least 500 minutes, you end up repeating a lot of the same books. It’s necessary, then, to find books you, the reader, genuinely enjoy as much as your babe.

The following books are among our favorite right now, be it for their illustrations, text, and/or interactivity. Take a look and maybe you’ll find your next favorite, too! (See part one for more ideas.)

Another Short List

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

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Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle
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It’s only fitting that the first book on this list is a nod to one of the very things this blog’s name references. Eric Carle is undeniably one of the most beloved children’s book authors and illustrators of all time (he’s 87 now!). Fun fact of the day: Brown Bear was a collaboration. It was this book that actually kicked off his career in 1967, followed by the arguably more famous The Very Hungry Caterpillar in 1969.

Baby Bear and I started reading Brown Bear mostly because liked it so much, but before long, I noticed that he’d reach for it on his own. He seems captivated by Carle’s signature bright and blocky illustrations (much to my chagrin, he wiggles in excitement every time we land on the damned purple cat) and eagerly turns the pages to see which animal is next. What’s especially fun is when he points along on the last spread as we recap all of the animals.

Curious George Pat-A-Cake!

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Curious George Pat-A-Cake! by H.A. Rey
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Who wouldn’t love Curious George in finger puppet form? Baby Bear sure does, and has been grabbing George’s little monkey hands for as long as he’s known how to move his own.

With five brightly colored pages of pat-a-cake rhymes, from the classic “baker’s man” verse to an appropriately themed “yellow hat man” one, babies can’t help but to smile and clap along. This is a great diversion book, too, having stopped at least a few crying fits in this household.

My First Slide-Out Book of Colors

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My First Slide-Out Book of Colors written by Early Start Editors and illustrated by Abdi Moshiri
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No, the text in this one isn’t exactly Newbery material, but it’s straight-forward and easy for even the youngest listeners to understand. Each page shows a color followed by two objects of that color. A third object is shown in black and white until the reader pulls out its corresponding tab and its color is revealed. For example, “This is the color yellow. The chick is yellow. The taxi is yellow. What color is the banana?” When you pull out the tab, you learn that the banana is yellow! Good job; you’re getting the hang of it!

Just recently, Baby Bear has become a little obsessed with pulling out and pushing in each tab. Every time we read it, he is engrossed to the point where he actually wants to flip it back and start over. At this pace, this kid is going to know his colors early!

What I also like about the book is that it contains ideas for the reader to encourage more interaction so the book won’t grow stale. The orange page suggests pointing to and discussing each image in addition to talking about the color (e.g., “What do you do with a carrot?”). It’s always helpful to have new ideas like this.

Where Is the Green Sheep? / ¿Dónde está  la oveja verde? 

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Where Is the Green Sheep? / ¿Dónde está la oveja verde? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek, translated by Carlos E. Calvo
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We have quite a few bilingual books, but this one is my favorite. Depending on how long I need to or can occupy Baby Bear, I typically read it all the way through in one language, then start over in the other. The illustrations are simple yet whimsical. The sheep in the story aren’t just any old boring sheep, either. There’s a sheep in the bath, a Singin’ in the Rain sheep, a surfing sheep, and even an astronaut sheep! “Here is the wind sheep. And here is the wave sheep. Here is the scared sheep, and here is the brave sheep. But where is the green sheep?” or “Esta oveja juega con el viento. Y esta oveja juega con las olas. Esta oveja está asustada y esta oveja es valiente. ¿Pero, dónde está la oveja verde?”

My only complaint about the book is that the English version rhymes but the Spanish one does not. While I appreciate a straight translation, I would prefer the content to be changed slightly enough to make both versions equally fun to read aloud. Either way, this one is in our diaper bag at all times.

Peekaboo Kisses

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Peekaboo Kisses by Barney Saltzberg
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As you can tell, Baby Bear is really starting to enjoy interacting with his books. This one is a particular favorite because it has the baby trifecta: flaps to lift, textures to touch, and a mirror at the end.

Each page begins with, “Peekaboo! I see…” along with a picture of an animal hiding behind its hands. The reader must lift the flap to reveal what animal is hiding and what kind of kisses it offers. For example, “Peekaboo! I see…furry puppy kisses.” As a bonus, said furry puppy has a nice, soft patch of purple fur for baby to feel.

Babies pick up on rituals, and, as such, Baby Bear has started to preemptively cover his eyes/forehead before each new page. It’s adorable.

Quick as a Cricket

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Quick as a Cricket written by Audrey Wood and illustrated by Don Wood
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Baby Bear received this book for his first birthday, and it’s quickly become one of my personal favorites to read to him. Self-described as a “joyful celebration of self-awareness,” Quick as a Cricket uses contradictory animal similes and beautiful illustrations to capture the many dimensions and colorful imaginations of children. My favorite stanza (and corresponding imagery) is, “I’m as brave as a tiger, I’m as shy as a shrimp, I’m as tame as a poodle, I’m as wild as a chimp.” Plus, Baby Bear’s version came with a cool personalized touch: his aunt wrote the Spanish translation on each page. Thanks, Aunt B!

Little Blue Truck

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Little Blue Truck written by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Jill McElmurry
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I mean it when I say that Little Blue Truck is a great read for children and adults alike. It’s short enough for Baby Bear to stay engaged but long enough to develop a thoughtful arc about the old golden rule and contains language that’s extremely fun to read aloud.

“Little Blue Truck came down the road. ‘Beep!’ said Blue to a big green toad. Toad said, ‘Croak!’ and winked an eye when Little Blue Truck went rolling by.” You’ve no choice but to enhance your animal noise skills if you read this enough.

I also enjoy this book for its illustrations, which evoke in me a Norman Rockwell-esque nostalgia for the countryside I didn’t know I had.

LMNO Peas

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LMNO Peas by Keith Baker
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I’m passionate about this book because it is exceptionally playful and creative, an alphabet book like no other. Perhaps the most talented and diverse group of peas in existence scatter across these pages to teach kids the ABCs.

“We are peas–alphabet peas! We work and play in the ABCs. We’re acrobats, artists, and astronauts in space. We’re builders, bathers, and bikers in a race.”

Not only are these fun rhymes to say aloud, but the illustrations are surprisingly detailed and clever, too. Who would have thought two peas roasting marshmallows could be so cute? In what is an outwardly simplistic book, I find something new and equally entertaining each time we read it. This book earns a Baby Brown Bear Golden Star.

More Books, Please!

At some point in the near future, I may need to admit to a slight children’s book hoarding problem, but I’m not there yet! What are your favorite children’s books?

 

BBB Positivity Challenge

You, dear reader, are hereby invited to join me in a little challenge this week.

Ready?

Try giving a genuine compliment to everyone you encounter over the next five days.

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That’s it. It’s incredibly simple and yet by the end of the week, you’ll feel reinvigorated. By noticing and voicing something positive about the people around you, you’d be amazed how positive you’ll end up feeling yourself. It’s kind of like how smiling improves your mood, even if it’s forced at first. The more compliments you dole out, the more freely they will start to flow. Positivity begets positivity, at least in my experience.

Plus, who doesn’t love making someone else’s day? You never know what people have going on in their lives, and your simple gesture may be a ray of sunshine in an otherwise cloudy sky.

Furthermore, it’s just plain fun to see someone’s face blossom into a smile after they receive a compliment, especially if it’s unexpected. As the complimenter, you can’t help but smile back. As cheesy as it sounds, smiling is contagious.

This week, let’s all try to focus on the good in ourselves and in others.

Go forth and compliment!

(And report back! I want to know if this makes you as happy as it makes me.)

On Raising My Baby in Chicago

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Baby Brown Bear was born in the city of Chicago. His first year of life was spent living in the city of Chicago, and it is here that I plan to raise him for an indeterminate amount of time. I feel like I express this regularly, even going so far as to loudly sing the city praises for all it has to offer my son, and yet I am often asked when I plan to move.

To be fair, I do talk about, and have seriously considered, moving to other cities. I love adventure, and traveling to other places ignites my wanderlust and makes me wonder what life would be like somewhere else. I find most of the places I visit to be very agreeable; there’s hardly anywhere I can’t see myself living even for just for a short amount of time. I’m not saying we won’t move. I’m just saying I’m not ready for it yet and the constant incredulity I receive about actually liking it here is becoming a little trite.

What makes it rather irksome is that it’s not people asking us when we’re going to uproot to a different metro area; it’s people asking us when we are moving to the suburbs. Or basically, asking us why we’d want to continue to raise Baby Bear in a big city, specifically this one.

“Chicago is so dangerous. When are you moving to the suburbs?”

To that, I have a few canned responses, but I usually try to convey lighthearted indifference while I brush off the question with a meek smile. Depending on my mood, though, the person asking might very well get an eye roll accompanied by a tired and sarcastic diatribe.

It is a fully American assumption that people who breed will want to immediately expand their square footage along with their family head count. Don’t get me wrong, I love big, quiet backyards, and appreciate the smell of freshly cut grass that isn’t tainted by the smell of bus exhaust. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and loved it. (I’m not being sarcastic now, either. I really did love it.) My schools were among the best in the state, the extracurriculars in which I participated were top notch, the community to which I was exposed was safe and caring. My suburb in particular was even pretty well diversified in terms of race, religion, and sexual orientation. I am proud of my hometown and my upbringing.

Yes, the suburbs would be a great place to raise Baby Bear. I don’t deny it. But I also don’t like that people assume it’s the only good option.

I suppose I can see how they would. Like many other issues, it’s sometimes hard to think that other ways of doing things might work better for different people. Everyone needs to weigh their own pros and cons for decisions like how and where to raise their children. When we feel positive about the decisions we make, it’s natural for us to think other people would benefit from those same choices. Voicing these opinions doesn’t make us bad neighbors or friends, but rather means we care. We want other people to be happy and feel positive, too.

The case for or against the city of Chicago is especially loaded. It’s not for nothing that some people think we should move.

Chiefly, our safety is a little more at risk here. There’s a lot of crime right now, constantly making headlines. In blanket, city-wide terms, it isn’t what I’d call the safest place. And while most of the violent crimes occur in neighborhoods that are not where we live or frequent, the occasional shooting does happen not too far away and, I’m not going to lie, it freaks me out. My heart breaks for the innocent lives taken each day and seizes in terror at the idea of anything similar happening to my family. But you know what? Bad things happen everywhere. I’m not using that as an excuse, and it certainly isn’t to justify the crime, but no ground is too sacred and no place is immune to destruction. It’s arguably what human beings are best at, and have been for centuries.

All that said, however, I’d argue that another of mankind’s most remarkable abilities is to bridge together to form supportive communities. For as many rotten apples as there may be, I think big cities show better than anywhere else how many millions of good ones there are too, ready and willing to help those around them. Yes, we have to be careful and make sure we’re aware of our surroundings, but I do believe that we’re largely surrounded by people with the capacity to love, protect, and aid. We cannot stop living life because we are afraid.

Another reason people question our decision to stay in the city with a baby is simply due to the lack of space that comes along with apartment living. Given that our previous apartment had around 600 square feet, you can imagine how palatial our current place feels with about 1,200. Plus, with two bedrooms, one may argue it’s downright luxurious. As I like to remind everyone who asks, literally billions of people around the world live in apartments, many of them smaller than ours, and sometimes with many more children!

Sure, babies do seem to acquire an enormous amount of things, many even before they are born. I registered for a lot of it, but I continue to be surprised at the stuff Baby Brown Bear seems to “need.” I’ll save my own registry opinions for another post, but suffice it to say you don’t really need all that much to get by.

Babies are pretty simple folk. As many toys as we have (and enjoy), Baby Brown Bear is mostly drawn to non-toys like dog bones, coolers, and pretty much anything else he’s not supposed to touch. With the help of some cute storage shelves from Target, we’re able to stuff a lot of his odds and ends into boxes and keep them hidden away when they’re not in use. We are also extremely fortunate to have a temporary storage unit in my parents’ basement. When he outgrows something, it goes straight to their house. Without this extra space, I’m not exactly sure what we’d do, but I’d imagine we’d try to loan things out, sell them, or donate them. As a rule, city dwellers just have to figure it out when it comes to space. I’d like to think it helps you prioritize your belongings simply because you can’t continue to accumulate without semi-regular purges.

When talking about issues with raising children in Chicago, I’d be remiss to not mention this one that continues to baffle me: the Chicago public school system. Unfortunately the constant controversy of the last few years has caused it to reach peak notoriety for its problems with leadership, unions, and funding (to mention a few). Like anywhere, how “good” a school is here changes neighborhood to neighborhood. And since the success of any school largely depends on the support it receives, it’s important for families who are passionate about quality education to become active participants in their schools.

When I think of four years from now, when it’s time for us to send Baby Bear to kindergarten, I feel very torn. On the one hand, I want to stay, become involved, and be a champion of progress within Chicago Public Schools. On the other hand, if the school isn’t supported, the teachers are worn too thin, or, God forbid, I fear for Baby Bear’s safety on his way to and from school, well then I’m not willing to sacrifice his education or safety to make a political point. And forget private school; I cannot afford to (nor would I want to if I could, based on principle alone) pay $20,000 or more a year from kindergarten on so that Baby Bear can get an education he could get at a public school in the suburbs. For now, when people ask about what we’ll do when it’s time for school, I tell them the truth: that it’s something I’m going to have to reassess when it’s time. Anything can happen in four years, anyway.

Needless to say, there are challenges that come along with raising a baby in a big city. I, however, believe there are still so many more reasons to do it.

It’s not cheap to live in the city–we could have a nice house in the burbs for what we pay for an apartment each month–but it does allow you to save in some ways. For one, I don’t have as much square footage to furnish. Renting also means I don’t have to worry about making several trips to Home Depot and draining my bank account on home repairs. For another, public transportation is a thing of beauty, a thing that provides endlessly fun people watching opportunities, and a thing that allows you to get by without a car. If you can’t find a train or bus to get you where you need to go, then you can hop in a cab or an Uber, rent a car or a bike, or just plain walk. While we do have a car, it’s mostly because we have a dog and a baby who make taking public transportation to the suburbs to see grandparents a little harder. Still, I probably only fill up my tank about once a month, and that’s not bad.

Papa Bear and I walked a lot before Baby Bear was born, but now that I have more time to do it, Baby Bear and I walk almost everywhere. It’s great for him, for me, and for the environment. Plus, being on foot allows us to become much more intimately acquainted with all the city has to offer. If we lived in the suburbs, we would drive everywhere. For some reason, it just feels more laborious to walk in the suburbs, even when the distance is short (and this is coming from someone who isn’t afraid of distance). There, going for a walk rarely serves any other purpose than just going for a walk. Which I really like to do, but as a multi-tasker, I love being able to sneak in a little exercise while I’m on my way to do things. Plus, walking to brunch means I can eat a shortstack and a skillet without feeling guilty about it!

Walking around also allows us to see all the people who make this city so vibrant and alive. No matter the time of day, we can walk outside to see people going about their lives. There’s a constant energy here that just doesn’t exist in the suburbs. It’s not like stores are open 24/7 and people are milling around my neighborhood at three in the morning, necessarily, but there’s just enough going on that you are constantly reminded of how many different kinds of people leading different kinds of lives there are. I recognize that might not be for everyone, but I thrive on it. I relish that Baby Bear hears at least five different languages every day. I love that he sees people of all races, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, and backgrounds. It’s my hope that seeing this multi-dimensional world from the start will allow his worldview to be that much broader; that he’ll take for granted how well people of all colors, religions, sexual orientations, etc., can function together.

Living among so many people is incredibly conducive to building relationships, too. Big cities allow us to connect with like-minded people, regardless of subject matter or interest. There is no shortage of people with whom to gather and form bonds, which means anyone can find some sense of community. The new mom group I joined after Baby Bear was born is an example of this, and it’s become an invaluable support network for me. I’m so grateful that I was able to find such a positive group of women, and it makes me sad for fellow new moms who don’t have access to something similar. I know these types of groups are not unique to cities, but they do seem harder to come across in the suburbs, even if it’s just because everything is much more spread out.

On the flip side, it’s sometimes nice how easy it is to remain anonymous in a city of this size. Our friends and family care about our well-being, of course, but I never have to worry about strangers knowing our business. When we want to be around people, we can be. When we don’t want to be, we don’t have to be. I have no reference for small-town living, but I do wonder how people deal with that aspect of it.

And if that’s not enough, there’s just so much to do in a city. I love that we’re never lacking in ideas for activities, many of which are free. On any given day, we have so much at our fingertips: museums, cultural centers, libraries, sporting events, world-class art and music, story times, gardens, parks, zoos, conservatories, running paths, playgrounds, beaches, pools, neighborhood shops, restaurants, bakeries, and mom and baby get-togethers. The list is practically endless, and this is all just within city limits. We could spend a lifetime exploring this city and it would hardly scratch the surface. Knowing that my kid might take for granted seeing a 65-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton blows my mind. I hope to instill in him a sense of appreciation for all of the opportunities he has, but I do love that such wondrous things are so readily available to him.

Adventure is always around the corner when you’re raising your baby in Chicago. Like anything else, there are pros and cons to living here, but what matters is that we each make our own informed choices.

For me, all the benefits outweigh the challenges. Being surrounded by the people, activities, culture, and energy make living here well worthwhile for our family. This might change as Baby Bear grows and has different needs, but for now we will be damned sure to enjoy every minute.

 

Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration: A Chicago Spotlight

Hidden behind the clean-lined and somewhat inconspicuous exterior of Andersonville’s Swedish American Museum lies one of Chicago’s best kid gems: the Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration.

By now, my inner Swedophile has made herself known a few times on this blog, but it bears repeating that I’ve yet to come across something related to the Scandinavian country that I didn’t love. Even though we’re more than four thousand miles away from Stockholm, this counts as yet another one of those things.

Before I take you on my tour, I’d like to note something shameful. I actually only visited this beautiful children’s museum to do just that, and failed to tour the rest of the Swedish American Museum. One of these days, I’ll move beyond the lobby, the gift store, and the top floor to meander through the rest of the exhibits. I’m sure I’d love them, too.

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Having been on our Chicago bucket list for some time, Baby Bear and I were thrilled when a friend invited us to a group play date at the children’s museum. As a bonus, it was on one of the museum’s free days (the second Tuesday of each month, as noted below).

Upon entering, we were met by one of the friendliest museum employees I’ve yet to encounter. As we sat comfortably in the foyer chairs next to the ornate Viking ship (which  entranced the babe) and waited for others in our party, she happily provided us with information about the museum. She also asked how we all knew each other and commented on how she is still in touch with women from her own mom and baby group from several decades ago. By the time we finally went upstairs, I felt like we were buds. In my experience, you don’t get that kind of sincere customer service from many museums in the city.

Despite it being a free day, I was extremely pleasantly surprised to learn that the children’s museum wasn’t crowded in the least. At most, I saw only about a dozen people, including babies. Already I knew this was my kind of place.

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This brightly colored map greets you off the elevator. I tried to show BB where we visited, but he couldn’t have cared less. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I took my first look inside, my inner kid came to life and wanted to run from one thing to the next.

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The sign above says the museum is intended for children between 6 and 12 years of age, but I think it’s great for babies, too. I’d just suggest waiting until they can at least sit up on their own. 

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There’s a Swedish farmhouse! (Or stuga, according to the site.)

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I was tempted to wear one of the little smocks, but decided my 2016 clothes would have to suffice. Maybe when Baby Bear can wear one with me.

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This is one of the things I’m most excited for Baby Bear to grow into so we can explore more. The little house is equipped with things authentic to the time period, including the dining and bedroom areas you can see here, plus a kitchen full of  old-timey cookware.   

A farm!

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The entire museum has a homesteading feel to it. Here on the farm, kids can milk the wooden cow, gather firewood, pump for water….

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And gather pigs for the slaughterhouse apparently. But really, how was I not to feel instant camaraderie with this breastfeeding mama pig? With the exception of only having one baby attached to me, I’m in this position daily.

A ship!

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Baby Bear and friends loved to stand up against the little box seats and push the oars back and forth. They would have been terrible rowers, but anyone who would hire a crew of 11-month-olds has it coming.

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After he grew tired of rowing, Baby Bear (of course) found some stairs leading him up to the top of the ship. Hey, this apartment kid has to practice his stair climbing some time, doesn’t he?

A pioneer log cabin complete with a garden!

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The garden was especially fun because all of the veggies are made from cloth. Yet another reason why I think of this place as a pinnacle of homesteading; it’s full of wooden, metal, or cloth toys and details. Fun, educational, and less plastic waste!

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Now if only I could read that Swedish blessing (I assume?).

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This cabin reminded me of how grateful I am to have been born in this cushy era. Can you imagine winters in this house? 

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Wait a second, chickens don’t lay apples.

And, jumping ahead about a century, space!

You may be wondering why in the hell they would have a space exhibit. Well, it turns out Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon after Neil Armstrong, is Swedish American.

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Some Swedish equipment (I believe it was a camera) that was used in the moon landing.

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Finally, there’s Buzz! Those chairs were the really exciting part here, though. That red button set off a countdown. Once the timer ran out, the chairs vibrated and rumbled to simulate blast off. Baby Bear and friends were a little alarmed by the new sensation, but they handled it like pros. I’m not sure I’m prepared for him to become an astronaut!

Rest assured, there’s even more to this museum that I haven’t shown you, but I don’t want to spoil all the fun.

In addition to what I’ve highlighted here, and other fun things for kids to climb on and explore, there’s plenty of educational text to accompany each play experience. Children can leave the Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration with a great understanding of what it was like for Swedish immigrants coming to America (and by extension, what life was like for many other kinds of immigrants of that era too).

I truly do think this is a great activity for any kid or parent who’s a kid at heart. Plus, after your visit you can go ahead and visit the Swedish Bakery down the street, or just look at the little Swedish horse on the corner.

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Plan Your Visit

Location and hours

The Swedish American Museum is located at 5211 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60640. The Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration has different hours than the rest of the museum. They are as follows:

  • Monday to Thursday: 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
  • Friday: 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
  • Saturday and Sunday: 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

The museum is closed on several holidays, so make sure to check online before visiting on those days. For more information, click here.

Cost

The museum offers free admission on the second Tuesday of every month. 

Otherwise, admission for non-members is as follows:

  • Adults: $4
  • Children, students, and seniors: $3
    • Children under the age of one are free
  • Families: $10

Parking and transportation

The museum has a free parking lot located on the northeast corner of Ashland and Foster. From there, it’s a very short walk to the museum. Otherwise, Andersonville has plenty of paid street parking.

The nearest CTA ‘L’ stop is the Berwyn Red Line, which is about a half-mile walk away. As always, there are bus options available to you as well. I encourage you to map your trip using Google Maps if you need help.

Stroller or carrier?

With a decently spacious elevator and no shortage of room to park, bringing my stroller was a breeze. Especially during this heat, it’s nice to not have to wear my little furnace.

Final Word

I plan to make several trips back to the Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration. If Baby Brown Bear enjoyed it as much as he did before he could even walk, he’ll absolutely love it as he continues to grow.

With so many engaging activities for kids of all ages, a helpful and accomodating staff, and a not-crowded atmosphere, this has quickly become one of my favorite Chicago spots.

Little Free Library: A Chicago (& Worldwide) Spotlight

Little Free Libraries excites me because they encourage reading and neighborhood interaction. If you follow this blog, then you know by now that those are two things for which I’ve already demonstrated a lot of enthusiasm (here and here, for example).

A Little Free Library is very simply a free book exchange. Though they are connected through a nonprofit organization, it appears anyone can start one. For that reason, there are now more than 40,000 registered Free Little Libraries across all 50 states and in more than 70 countries worldwide. So if you’re thinking these little boxes look familiar, it’s probably because you have one near you.

The first little box I encountered (near First Slice on Ashland, one of my favorite local bakeries) piqued my interest, especially because it was so carefully decorated. Upon further inspection, I realized it’s actually affiliated with Edgewater Reads, but tomato, tomato (which really loses its pizzazz when written).

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Love at first sight at Ashland and Balmoral.

It soon became my goal to find as many of these libraries as I could. Not necessarily to collect or donate books, but rather to take in a little bit of the blocks and neighborhoods they represented.

Here are a few of my favorites from the Andersonville, Ravenswood Gardens, and Lincoln Square areas.

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Campbell and Sunnyside.

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Rockwell and Leland.
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I cannot remember the location of this one. Oops!

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Glenwood and Berwyn (woo, Andersonville and Sweden!).

Finally, after months of casually (and a little creepily) taking pictures, I decided it was high time donate. So one day, Papa Bear, Baby Bear, and I all went for a little stroll over to the Little Free Library on Eastwood near Rockwell. I love Ravenswood Gardens, so I was happy to leave a little piece of me behind.

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Donation target at Rockwell and Eastwood.

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Our contribution.

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Adiós, friends.

Plan Your Visit

Check out this map to find a Free Little Library near you. If you can’t, start one!