Category Archives: Solicited Product Reviews

Need Reader Feedback

Hi folks.

I am going to be closing down this blog in the next several weeks. There are many reasons for this, but I won’t get into them now.

What I would like to do, however, is compile the most useful posts into categories and bind them under an e-cover for download in case really, really interested folks still want to read them, or share them with others.

This is the compromise I’ve come to between just shutting down OR leaving the blog archives sitting here forever.

What I would love from you is some nominations for posts you’d like to see preserved in e-book form. I will try to edit and/or update any posts that go into that format, so if your favorite one is old and needs some revision that’s okay too.

I have in mind a total of say, 100 posts.

Help? (Please leave your suggestions in the comments so people can see each others’ okay?)


P.S. I’m also taking some of the posts from this blog (mostly since 2009) and backfilling Muse of Fire with them. So much of the more recent material will still be on a blog.

Lunch Wars

I just finished reading Lunch Wars: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Health┬áby Amy Kalafa. It’s one of this month’s BlogHer Book Club books.

I am an armchair food revolutionary, so I was immediately interested when the book came up on the listserv and I jumped to participate. I have to admit, the book itself disappointed me, though I still find the topic–and lots of the information in the book–fascinating. My main problem with the book is its haphazard organization. It jumps way too much from sound-bite to sound-bite, with loads of “sidebar” stories interrupting the flow. In a way, it reads like a book written by a filmmaker, which is exactly what it is.

(Before writing the book, Amy Kalafa made a film called “Two Angry Moms” about her own battle for better food in her kid’s school, as well as similar battles throughout the United States. I still haven’t had a chance to see it, but Kalafa suggests screening it and/or other films as one way to launch your own lunch war in your own school.)

To be fair to the book, it is all about the byzantine National School Lunch Program. It is hard to imagine how any writing on that topic could flow neatly and clearly from beginning to end, because the system itself is such a big wad of conflicting interests, history, multitiered regulation and red-herring authorities. Most of Kalafa’s side-bar tales of local activists and professionals trying to improve school food are chock-full of road blocks due to arcane, out-dated regulations, deep-frozen stored commodity food from the government that no one can afford not to use, chasing the wrong person or the wrong committee for months before discovering the real power lies elsewhere and other Kafkaesque frustrations.

As I read it, what it all boiled down to, for me, was money. As with so much else about public education, we just aren’t willing to pony up the money it takes to do right by our children. Kalafa explains that the average school lunch budget is limited to one dollar per meal for lunch and less for breakfast in schools that also offer it. She also mentions that school cooks–or nugget defrosters, as the case may be–are usually the lowest paid people at a school–lower paid, even, than the maintenance/cleaning staff. Asking such ill-paid workers to do much more than heat up a “cheese substitute” pizza for a thousand kids a day isn’t really reasonable without skill training, more staff, and the pay a truly skilled worker deserves.

Much of the book focuses on that kind of training–and how to cover the costs of training. Many schools also need equipment and more hands on deck in order to achieve better results on the lunch tray. In addition, schools often can’t afford to turn down the surplus commodities the government gives or sells them very cheaply. Those commodities might have been a lovely boon in the 1950s, when the apples were apples, but nowadays, government commodity “apples” will more likely come in the form of apple sauce full of added sugar and preservatives, sealed in an individual-sized plastic container.

With so many problems, where the heck do you start your own food revolution? Kalafa suggests you begin by having lunch with your child. Head to the school and join the kids for lunch. Invite other parents to come along. Kalafa says that it will only be through the desire of enough parents that change will come–hence her film’s title. And some change has come in some places. Even given the herculean difficulties, many school systems have improved their food, even if they haven’t made it all the way yet. Kalafa’s book has useful information on where the real power lies in most school food systems, how to approach (and perhaps more usefully, how not to approach) the people you will need on your side and all kinds of suggestions for small, immediate changes you can push for right away, (like getting your kid’s teacher to stop giving food as a reward for academic achievement in the classroom).

We’ll be talking about the book and about school food in general, for the next few weeks over at BlogHer. Come join the discussion and share your own perspective. Kalafa’s book was certainly an eye-opener for me. We are lucky that our kids go to a small school where everyone brings lunch and the food culture is healthy and even reasonably refined, for a bunch of 6-year olds. But I plan to look for and start supporting the Lunch Wars for better public school lunches in my own area, now that I know what’s out there. Whether or not you have kids in the system (or kids at all), you might find you want to do the same. paid me a pittance to write this review. Don’t worry, it wasn’t nearly enough to influence my true opinion.

Brighter Minds Media

For my first solicited product review, I give you Brighter Minds Media. Last week, they Nat a box full of books. We like books around here, so it was fun pulling them all out, one-by-one and piling them up to see what was good. I won’t bother with the ones I didn’t like, and here’s why: as a reviewer, I figure it’s my job to help readers choose good products and avoid bad ones. The ones we didn’t like weren’t “bad” they just weren’t our taste. But someone else might like them fine, so I see no need to warn you against them.

Here’s what I, Nat, and/or both of us liked:


This book had two things Nat loves between its covers: soft-touch pictures and a number theme. Make that three things, because she also loves cute, cuddly animals and she really enjoyed the polar bears. For a nice, basic first book about numbers, this one is a good choice.


To be perfectly honest, I hated this one. I just don’t like books with “mechanical” features. I am a purist, who thinks books should be books and children should develop a love of books for their own sake, not for their bells and whistles and proximity to video games. That said, Nat loved it. So I had to put it in the thumbs up category. I suppose a few bells-and-whistles books won’t hurt her any. And she loves clapping and making dolls and stuffed animals clap, and this book speaks its story aloud, verse by verse, when you clap the finger puppet’s hands together. By the way, Nat is also in a major puppet-loving phase, so how could she not love this book?


This is one of a series of cloth pop-up books for babies. We love the format. It’s soft and colorful and full of fun pop-ups. I have read that children don’t identify cloth books as books, but whatever she might think it is, Nat really liked this one.

Brighter Minds Media also has a series of PBS Kids Books and they have good content. I am not all that fond of the illustrations, but that’s a matter of taste, as I said above. The content is nice to have in a well-stocked children’s library.

And there you have my first solicited review.

Thanks to Dawn for the opportunity to become a reviewer!

How to Get Free Stuff

Ever the comer-upper with great ideas, Dawn has started a little business in which she collects bloggers’ information and puts it in a database and then PR people from companies that make kids’ stuff pay her to go through her database and select blogs they like to send free stuff to in exchange for product reviews on the blogs in question.

I know it works because I already got an email from a company that said if I’d just tell them Nat’s precise age and my address, they’d send me some free products for her demographic and I could keep them in return for a blog review. Mind you, the review doesn’t have to be good.

I am starting a new category called “Solicited Product Reviews” for doing these. They will be distinguished from the “Baby Stuff We Love” category (unless we happen to love them enough to cross-list them) so you’ll know what I love enough to recommend by myself and you’ll know what was sent to me to judge.

Meanwhile, please sign up at Get Them Blogging!. Dawn is not going to give your info out to anyone but interested companies, of course. You can sign up and change your mind later and un-sign up, and you need not have a “big” zillion-hit blog to register. What will happen is that a company who has access to the database will decide to send you a pitch about their product at the email address you have given Dawn. Then you can decide whether or not you’re interested. You don’t have to do anything at all if you don’t like the pitch. And when I signed up, minimum real-life information was required. You can use your blogging name instead of your real name (if they’re different) for example.

I think it’s a terrific idea and I can’t wait to see the free stuff winging its way to me as we all type…