Achtung, Baby: A Conversation with Author Sara Zaske

Achtung Baby_cover2


If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may know that my family and I spent 2010-2012 in Hannover, Germany. Sara Zaske is an American friend I met during that time, through the local SCBWI chapter (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Sara lived in Berlin, a couple of hours away, but we managed to meet up once and to keep in touch over the years.

Sara is living back in the States now and has written a book called Achtung, Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children. She was kind enough to share a little about her journey with me.

Me:        What years did you live in Germany, and what kinds of schools did your children attend?

Sara:      We moved to Germany in January of 2009. My daughter, Sophia, was two and a half. We left in June 2015, almost six and half years to the day. When we left, Sophia was nine and my son, Ozzie, who was born in Germany, was five.

From the start, we tried to send my daughter to a bilingual kita (day care center), but she was really the only one fluent in English. After my son turned one, we were lucky to find an international kita with spots for both of them. This kita was truly bilingual. Still, both my kids still learned German without any formal instruction mainly because it was the language of play. Now that I think about it, the way they learned the language is further evidence that young kids learn best through play. My daughter also attended three years of public Grundschule (elementary school) which was all in German, all the time.

Me:        Was there a moment when you first arrived that stands out to you in terms of noticing parenting differences? For instance, on our very first day we went to a biergarten with friends. I remember being shocked that they let their kids wander off out of sight to a nearby playground. Mine were 2 and 5, and I reluctantly let them go with the other kids, but I felt nervous the whole time.

Sara:      That’s funny! We had a similar experience during our first days in Germany. I saw two three-year-olds and a five-year-old run off to a playground behind a wall – and no one thought it was important to go watch them!  The other story I often tell is this one:

I was at the playground with my daughter – we were new to Berlin and she was still very young, and I saw a kid — maybe age 8 or 9 years old — dangling from a high play structure on the outside, where you aren’t supposed to go. He still had a good 10 to 12 feet below him. I got up and yelled “Achtung!” (my limited German included this phrase learned from the U2 album) and I looked around for his parents. All the other adults were sitting at the edges of the park drinking coffee. No one seemed concerned. By the time I turned back, the kid had dropped down into the sand. He looked at me like I was the crazy person and ran off.


Me:        Have you found it challenging at all to retain some of the parental wisdom you gained in Germany? Are some things harder to implement? Do you get pushback? For example, for us, walking around in Charlotte can be dangerous. It’s not uncommon for cars to pass a stopped school bus or to sail through a crosswalk with a traffic guard holding a stop sign in the center of it.

Sara:      I find it very challenging, especially around giving my kids the chance to walk around their own neighborhood by themselves. It’s now a little easier since they are older (my son is 8 now, my daughter 11), but when we first moved back to the US, Sophia was nine and was the only girl her age biking to school by herself. My son started regularly walking to school at age seven. I think it took extra courage for him to do it because none of his peers were walking to school (Most would have been doing that in Germany at that age). He also knew other American parents didn’t approve. Still, he had a strong desire to be independent, and he’s done great.

Me:        What’s the best thing you gained as a parent from your time in Germany?

Sara:      Living in Germany really shifted my perspective on what it meant to be a parent. I thought it was my job to keep my kids completely safe and try to ensure their future success. I took some time, but I eventually realized that those two things are not only impossible, they are not my responsibility. My job as a parent is to help my kids learn how to do things themselves, including how to manage risk and chart their own course for success – and then to let them go.

Me:        What was the most surprising thing  you observed about German kids and their parents?

Sara:      Letting kids light off massive fireworks. Heck, letting adults light off massive fireworks! New Year’s Eve, what the Germans call Sylvester, is celebrated in Germany by every man, woman and child bringing out the biggest firework rockets they can find, sticking them in empty champagne bottles and lighting them off  — in the streets of major cities! I still think it is too dangerous, and yes, there are German kids out there doing it too right there alongside their parents.

Me:        What do your kids remember about your time in Germany? What was the transition to living back in the U.S. like for you and for your kids?

Sara:      We’ve been back about two and half years. My kids remember many things, partly because some of their formative years were spent in Germany – and partly because we talk about it a lot!

Some of the transition back was nice: seeing family and friends and for me, finding it so much more comfortable to be in the culture I grew up in. I had missed the casual American friendliness, though at times I find it odd that I’m making small talk with strangers!

We had some difficulties coming back, of course. Most notably, we found so many barriers for kids to simply playing with other kids in the US! Children aren’t outside here anymore, the playgrounds are boring, and the schools provide very little recess and opportunities to play and socialize compared to German schools. However, on the whole, my kids have adapted– and we work hard to give them time to play and opportunities to be independent. I like to think their experiences in Germany made them stronger, more confident – and more adventurous.

Me:        Thanks so much, Sara! Can’t wait to read your book. You can find out more about Sara, including links to articles and video appearances, at her website,




Happy 2015/ Favorites from 2014

Paper Stars

Hi everyone! How were your holidays? We had some sickness, which was no fun, but all in all, it was great to spend time with family and to slow down for a bit.

I’m enjoying getting back into the swing of things, though. What about you? I thought I’d start off the year by cataloging some of my favorite things from last year. A few of them are things that were new in 2014, but most of them were just new to me. Maybe you’ll enjoy some of them.


“At the Beach” by the Avett Brothers

“Just You and Me” by Zee Avi

“The Water Fountain” by tUnE-yArDs


Pop Culture Happy Hour

I think I’ve already talked about this to death—it’s an NPR podcast with pop culture critics sitting around and talking about new and old music, movies, TV and the like. It’s smart but not highfaluting, and it’s very, very funny. I listen to it every week.

(You can find this podcast and the songs on iTunes).


Sure, we watch some network shows, but I figure you know about those already. Here are some you may not have tried:

Call the Midwife, on PBS or Netflix: based on the memoir of a 1950s midwife in London’s East End. She lives with Anglican nuns who are also midwives. The characters are just incredible.

Borgen As far as I know, this one’s only available via DVD. In a nutshell, it’s a Danish West Wing. The acting and writing are terrific, and again, fantastic characters. It’s in Danish with subtitles, so you definitely have to pay attention.

A Chef’s Life (currently airing on PBS)—I just found this one recently thanks to my mom (who also turned me on to Call the Midwife). I can’t tell you how excellent it is. It’s part documentary, part cooking show, part food history program. It follows Vivian Howard, a chef hailing from tiny Kinston, NC, as she and her husband run their high-end restaurant. But it’s more than that. Vivian visits all kinds of local folks who teach her about various aspects of southern cooking and farming. It is totally charming, never saccharine, often funny, and it even won a Peabody. And btw Vivan Howard and the producer, documentary filmmaker Cynthia Hill, are both UNC grads! (that’s where I went for undergrad in case you didn’t know)

Broadchurch via Netflix, a British seaside murder mystery. Beautiful, gut-wrenching, dark, and addictive. Great characters (hmmm…sense a theme?).

Bletchley Circle, again from Netflix, follows a group of British women who were code breakers in WWII. Now they’re reuniting to solve mysteries.

Also enjoyed the BBC miniseries version (with Gillian Anderson) of Bleak House, available via Netflix.


These are all nonfiction, which seems to have been my theme for last year. I read a ton of memoirs and several history books.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and America’s first known serial killer

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart, a memoir about moving from the Soviet Union to New York in the early ’80s. Dark, funny, poignant.

My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss, a cooking memoir, complete with recipes, of a half Italian, half American woman who grew up moving back and forth between Berlin and the US. I laughed, I cried, I got super hungry.


Once I found the Budget Bytes blog, I had to have her cookbook of the same name. It’s a great place for weeknight meal inspiration, and I love her simple-yet-interesting, less-meatarian approach. Many recipes are easily adaptable to be gluten-free if they aren’t already.

I’ve just started cooking out of the How Can It Be Gluten Free? Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen. So far, I’m really impressed, and I’ll share some of our favorites soon.

I’m sure there are other things I’ll remember as soon as I wrap up this post, but for now, that’s what I can think of.

In case you’re wondering what’s happening with my writing, I’m still at it! I’m in the process of revising both my YA novel and my middle grade nonfiction book (not simultaneously but back and forth). It’s slow-going, which is why I don’t talk about it much, but I seem to be inching forward.

Holiday Roundup: Gifts, Crafts, Recipes


Origami Stars

I thought I’d round up a bunch of recommendations and past favorites from this time of year.

Regarding the stars, a few weeks ago I got obsessed with making these. Directions here.

Let’s start out with a few gift recommendations.

Books for Kids:

Here’s my list from last year. Here’s a list of favorite craft books for kids.

This year I’m giving Into the Unknown to two of my nephews. It’s a beautifully illustrated nonfiction book about explorers. More about it here.

Another nephew and son book this year: Boycraft, a British craft book with plenty of blood and guts and monsters, beautifully photographed. It can certainly be given to girls as well. I find a lot of kid craft books are full of purses and headbands and jewelry, and this book fills a void. We checked it out from the library earlier this year, and my son loved it.

I’m a big fan of Ed Emberley’s drawing books and thumbprint art books. Another illustrator with great drawing books is Sachiko Umoto. We have Let’s Draw Cute Animals, and I love it. She has several others, though. Wishing I had all from both authors.

One more drawing book, for preschoolers especially: Hand Art from Klutz. And another recommendation: high quality colored pencils. A few good brands: Prismacolor, Lyra, Caran D’ache. There is a huge difference in these vs. the cheapie kinds.

For the little chef in your life, we’re loving Chop Chop magazine, which has a great balance between fun and nutrition and encouragement to try new things.

If you need more recommendations, try going to your local independent bookstore (and of course actually buying there). Speaking of which, my own books are stocked at Charlotte’s own Park Road books, an excellent bookstore!

Amy Karol at Angry Chicken also has some great recommendations over at her blog.

Crafts of Christmas Past:

Quick wreath from backyard greenery

Simple ribbon wreath

Gift wrapping cloths

Cardboard Christmas trees

Fabric mache ornament

Simple gifts to make (with or without kids)


German-Inspired Almond Meal Cut-Out Cookies

Gluten-Free Almond Meal Cut-Out Cookies

Hope you are keeping warm and cozy. Cheers!

Origami Star





What’s On the Nightstand: Fall 2014 Edition

Recent Reads: Books

What have you been reading? I’ve always got several books going at once, and let’s be honest, they don’t stay on the nightstand, so every night I’m frantically looking for the three I want at the moment.

First up, we have The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall. I haven’t gotten very far yet, but so far, it’s very funny, and I’m impressed by the intricate world Udall has created and all the many characters and their complexity.

Next, Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. I can’t remember if this was a random book I picked out or if it was recommended by a friend, but it’s a goodie I turn to again and again. It has some excellent writing exercises, which I need, because lately I’m feeling a bit depleted creatively.

On to Budget Bytes by Beth Moncel, which you may remember me mentioning before. It’s a good, solid, weeknight cookbook with lots of fresh ideas. Simple but never boring. Currently loving the chipotle black beans, which are quick enough to make myself for lunch. The author also has an excellent blog.

Next: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? which I borrowed from my friend Susan.

This may be my favorite book of the year. By Roz Chast, of New Yorker cartoon fame, it’s the story of the slow descent of her elderly parents. It’s told in handwritten journal-like entries plus cartoons, drawings, and photographs. The story is laugh-out-loud hysterical (yes, I know, sounds strange, but it works) but also sad, poignant, and above all, deeply human. It makes me want to write a cartoon journal book. Think I may have to read it again.

photo 3-001

Under that, The How Can It Be Gluten-Free Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen. I’m just getting into this book, but I really like the way it’s set up and the extensive research that goes into each recipe. The folks behind it test everything to death and make sure it works.

GF cookbook-001

It includes a DIY gluten-free flour mix (my other go-to GF cookbook does this as well). The hubs made me a gorgeous and delicious apple pie using said flour mix and cookbook. See?

Gluten-Free Apple Pie

Next: Unconventional and Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar 1950-2000 by Roderick Kiracofe

This book kept popping up on quilting and crafting blogs, and I just had to have it (thanks, mom and dad!). It is so completely gorgeous I can’t even tell you. The collection features my favorite kinds of quilts—-improvised, imperfect, and made with the materials at hand.




And finally, we have Williams-Sonoma’s Cooking Together. Sometimes kids’ cookbooks seem to be more about making cute things out of candy and junk food than about real food. This one has a really nice range of recipes and lovely photographs to help kids envision what they might like to cook. My kids like to sit and plan—-but, confession, we haven’t actually made anything out of the book yet. I’m expecting good things, though, because our other Williams-Sonoma books are solid.

Btw, for kids interested in cooking, Chop Chop is another excellent resource for kid-friendly yet healthy, not-intimidating recipes.

Also, just finished Gone,Girl——totally worth a read if you haven’t yet. Can’t waaaaait to see the movie!


Weeds into Toys

Arrowhead Weed toy

Hi again folks. What have you been up to? I hope it’s getting warm and green wherever you are.

Here in Charlotte it’s very warm now, too warm, but it’s been exciting to see all the flowers make an appearance, and inevitably, there are lots of weeds popping up, too. Lately I’ve been thinking about the things my friends and I used to do with various weeds when we were kids.

  • There was the weeds-into-pop-guns trick, pictured above (arrowhead weeds, I just learned they’re called).
  • Clover chains
  • Trying to make a grass blade whistle (okay, not weeds, but still counts)
  • Of course making a wish on dandelion heads

Know any others?

I’ve been so focused on my writing goals that I haven’t been doing a lot of crafts and (interesting) cooking, though I do have a few things l’d like to share in the coming weeks. Our last day of school is today, which means my schedule will be quite a bit different from here until the end of August.

I’ll try to be here as much as I can, but you may find me more frequently on Twitter and Instagram, since those are easy for quick snippets. My Twitter handle is @emilysmithpearc and I’m on Instagram as Emily Smith Pearce.

Good news! I reached the goals I set for myself with both my nonfiction and YA novel manuscripts. This is big. So much writing done this year, though it’s easy to wish I had gotten even more done.

Currently reading: The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger and The Great Green Heist by Varian Johnson (both purchased at Park Road Books). Currently watching: Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black.



Why May Is Like December

Tree Costume

Well hello again! I’m sorry I’ve been away so long. It’s been a very busy month with not much promise of getting less busy anytime soon. Is it the same for you? I’m betting yes.

I’ve decided that the end of April through May is really just December all over again, with better weather. All the end-of-year events, school testing, gift-buying obligations opportunities, etc. etc. etc. General nuttiness. With that in mind, I’m trying to give myself permission to buy some ready-to-eat meals, to not bargain-shop every last little thing, to split infinitives, and to volunteer at the school only sometimes and not for every single event.

That said, I do love the weather, the flowers coming up, the outdoor meals, and time with extended family. Our daughter also (10) had her theatrical debut in a full-length play at our church, which was so, so fun to see. My most recent sewing project was tree costumes for the play. In the rush I forgot to take a photo of the finished costumes, but the photo above gives you an idea of the look.

Meanwhile, I’ve been very serious about moving forward my nonfiction book and my YA novel. Nose still to grindstone! Both are going well, but I’ve got a few more goals to reach before school lets out. Wish me luck.

Currently reading Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart. Such an interesting and funny read with a quirky, wry voice that I love. It’s a memoir detailing the author’s move from the Soviet Union to the U.S. in 1978, when he was a child. Thanks, Christina, for the loan!

Also, listening to Pop Culture Happy Hour podcasts and now All Songs Considered and Tiny Desk Concerts.

If you’re a kidlit person, maybe you followed the uproar over the lack of diversity at BookCon and the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign that followed on Twitter and Tumblr. One of the coolest things to come out of it was a lot of buzz for a forthcoming book by Varian Johnson, The Great Greene Heist. Billed as Ocean’s Eleven meets middle grade, it sounds like such a fun read and *bonus* has a diverse cast of characters. So excited for Varian, who is a fellow Florence, SC native (though we’ve never met in person, only virtually). I’ve read one of his previous books (My Life as a Rhombus) and was very impressed. If you want to diversify your shelves, join the #greatgreenechallenge and pre-order Varian’s book from your local bookstore.

Hope to see you here again soon before long.





Supper Smorgasbord

Muffin Tin Smorgasbord

I got this idea from the Instagram feed of Meg of Elsie Marley (one of my blog faves).  I’ve done it twice now, each time it’s been a big hit with the kids. It’s just a way of dressing up a simple meal made out of odds and ends. I realize it’s not a true smorgasbord, but that’s what we call it.

Full disclosure: I served GF boxed mac and cheese as a side with this supper. It’s all my kids would eat if I let them, but I serve it very rarely. I’m trying to establish mac and cheese as “just a side dish that we eat on a very occasional basis.” Good luck to me, eh?

My cooking mojo has been kind of depleted lately, maybe because I’m sick of soup season but it’s been too cold and wet for grilling and salads. That and the fact that my little one grumbles about complex flavors (curries, etc.) and I haven’t felt like fighting that battle in the last few weeks.

My writing mojo has been a bit down as well though I’m still plugging away. This week I’ve been making spreadsheets of my works-in-progress to chart how certain elements are working out. It’s a way of seeing the forest rather than the trees, which were all I was seeing.

For the novel I’ve made a column for each chapter, and for the nonfiction piece I’ve made a timeline-spreadsheet. Soooo revealing on both counts, though I have to admit sometimes it feels like it’s not “real” writing and like I should be doing that instead. Still, I think it’s essential to take a step back now and then so you can see what needs adjusting.

What about you? Discovered any good recipes lately? Read anything good lately?

I can’t wait to see Wes Anderson’s new flick, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Currently reading One Summer by Bill Bryson (about the summer of 1927) and on deck: Kids These Days by Drew Perry and Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart.

For more food posts, click here. For more on books, here, and for writing stuff, here.