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,



Kid’s Artwork on a Mug


Well, I didn’t mean to be gone all summer, but it was a little busy. How was yours?

This project was actually an end of year gift for a very special teacher who happens to love llamas. My son was always drawing llamas and writing llama sentences for extra credit, so we decided her gift would be made from one of those drawings.

LLama 1

I took his drawing above, took a picture with my iPad and imported it into a drawing/ painting app (Procreate—yeah, not the best name but a good app). He used the stylus to “trace” his drawing and fill it in, and he chose the green background.

I uploaded the image into Shutterfly to have the mug made. We were really happy with how it came out. If anyone has suggestions of other places to have artwork turned into gifts, I’m all ears. I actually wasn’t that impressed with the variety of options out there.

What are you watching and reading? Currently I’m into Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. Somehow it’s just what I need to unwind in the evening. Movies: loved Wonder Woman and especially The Big Sick (an indie romcom, if you haven’t heard of it). As for tv, I got really into Grantchester and Poldark over the summer, and have just started watching Hinterland. It’s good but it’s a little too creepy sometimes, so I can’t watch it too late at night. Also just finished Anne with an “E.” Let’s discuss. Spoiler alert! Consider yourself warned.







Okay, here goes.

I have mixed feelings about Anne with an “E.” The casting, acting, sets, costuming, and cinematography are all really top-notch, but I’m not loving the giant liberties they took with some of the story lines. Especially the fact that they make Anne’s trial run with the Cuthberts so high-stakes. It makes Marilla and Matthew look like heartless, cruel jerks just for the sake of drama. And the whole losing the farm thing and Gilbert’s family situation and the shady characters coming in at the end. Come on! The books were never about major dramas, for the most part, and it doesn’t feel true to them to up the ante so much. Also it kind of kills me that Rachel doesn’t make the dress with the puffed sleeves. That was the thing that really made Marilla crazy about it! You can probably tell I’m a devoted Anne of Green Gables fan. I’m definitely feeling the need to introduce the kids to the older series (with Megan Follows and the dear late Jonathan Crombie). But despite the writing shortcomings in Anne with an “E”, it was fun to watch, too.

Anyway, in the comments, tell me what you thought of it. I’d also love recommendations for other shows and books.



Bald Eagle Costume

Bald Eagle Costume

Hope you had a happy Halloween. Ours was lots of fun, and thankfully, the cold and rain held off until right when we were all ready to go in anyway.

This year, I only made one costume, since my daughter only needed a thrifted dress for her “diva” outfit. Our son, seven, wanted to be a bald eagle. He has a thing for birds of prey. At one point it seemed his visions were never going to match up to reality, but in the end, both of us were happy with how it turned out.

It’s made from four thrifted items: brown jammy pants (unaltered), long-sleeved brown T-shirt (sized down), brown henley shirt (cut open and scalloped for the wings), and the cut-off top of a fleece hoodie (sized down and scalloped for feathers). My son made talons made of yellow foam and cardboard. He also made the foam beak, which he attached to a pre-bought plain white eye mask. I tried to convince him to just attach a beak to the hood, but he was having none of that.

I thought he did a great job making eagle poses here. For more semi-homemade costumes from previous years, click here.

Meanwhile, I’ve been slog, slog, slogging through my novel rewrite. Also, enjoying the fact that Bletchley Circle has new episodes. Woo!

Low-Sew Halloween

It’s time for the yearly round-up of costumes, in case you need some ideas. What are you dressing up as? Last year, I was the Prancercise Lady, but it’s going to be hard to top that one. The kids want to be a diva (10 year old) and a bald eagle (7 year old). We’ll probably get started on costumes this week. This always starts with a trip to the thrift store. Our costumes are of the slapdash variety—-altered rather than sewn from scratch, with not too much (okay, almost no) emphasis on perfection.

Here are a few from years past:

Fireman Costume


Turtle Costume Front

Turtle Costume

Green Ninjago Costume

Ninja (Ninjago)

Anastasia costume

Anastasia Romanov (Russian princess)

Knight Costume

Knight Tunic and Helmet




Marco Polo

So glad to get my copy of the Budget Bytes cookbook the other day. If you haven’t yet discovered the Budget Bytes blog, you’re in for a treat. The recipes are on the simple side—weeknight friendly, for the most part, but not boring in the least. As the title suggests, the recipes are wallet-wise, but beyond that, they’re just appealing, and in many cases, less-meatarian, which I love. Also many are gluten-free or easily adaptable to GF. I checked the book out from the library and liked it so much I had to buy my own.

Discovered another new-to-me podcast for children’s and YA lit enthusiasts. It’s called First Draft, and it’s interviews Sarah Enni conducted with authors during a cross-country road trip. Good stuff, food for thought.

What about you? Discover anything good lately?

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.

Mixed Pattern Playdress

Mixed Pattern Playdress

This is one of my favorite sewing projects ever. It’s simple, was really fun to sew, and my daughter’s face just glowed when she put it on the first time. It’s just so her, but I love it, too.

As I’ve mentioned before, she pretty much refuses to wear anything but knits. I’m always trying to find knit play dresses, and I fell in love with some from a certain British catalog that rhymes with Odin. I’m sure they would rather me write “catalogue,” am I right? Their prices are pretty steep for such simple dresses, though, and I thought, hey, I could make that! I’m kind of famous for saying that, but in this case, I actually did it.

From the catalog, we borrowed the idea of mixing patterns (which is also a big part of my daughter’s style) and went to the half-yard clearance section on Girl Charlee. Little Miss picked out the fabrics. I tried to get her to go with a contrasting color mix, but that was a non-starter. She specified no sleeves and a higher waistline with a full skirt.

For the bodice I traced another dress’s bodice. The skirt part is just a gathered rectangle. I used to be so scared of sewing with knits, but really, it’s not so bad once you get the hang of it. I definitely do better with slightly weightier knits. I used a regular machine (not a serger) and used zig zag, serger-ish-like, and triple stitches, depending on the seam/ application.

For some great tutorials on knit finishes, check this and this out.

This time, there are no booty issues (like here).


For more of my sewing adventures, click here.

Girl’s Waffle Knit Tunic

Thermal Knit Tunic

My girl loves knits. She’s nine now, but ever since I can remember, comfort has been her style priority. More often than not, this means knit fabrics. I really hesitate to buy her anything that’s made of wovens.

Occasionally, though, I have trouble finding as much variety as we want. (okay, there’s Mini Boden, which I love, but I’m not in love with their prices). This tunic was an experiment that started out as a dress in my mind. Until I ran out of fabric. Actually, I think if the pattern sizing was anywhere near the mark it probably would’ve made a dress, no problem.

I thought I’d try making a raglan T-shirt into a dress by lengthening the bottom, since raglan sleeves can be easier to deal with than the standard set-in kind. I used See & Sew B4322, which is really a pajama pattern, but that was the closest thing to what I wanted that I could find in the fabric store.

The directions are nice and straightforward, but like I said, the pattern sizing is off by a mile. I know my daughter is slim, but she’s not far off normal store-bought sizing. We ended up with, like, six inches of ease on the sides and a Flashdance neck.

But anyway, I made it work. I hacked off the sides, took in the shoulders, and gathered the neck (this was pre-finishing). I added a wide waistband what I had leftover, and I’m actually pretty happy with how it turned out. It’s long enough that she can wear it with leggings, which was the goal in the first place.

I realize I could’ve done a better job with the bow pattern (I’m pretty unexperienced with patterned fabric) but Little Miss doesn’t seem to care, so I don’t, either. Next time, I think I’ll just trace clothes she already has, rather than use that pattern (though the directions are still helpful).

The fabric came from Girl Charlee. I’ve been enjoying sewing with their fabrics. They are good quality and very reasonably priced, cute selection. If you’re a beginner with knits, I’d recommend going with medium weights. They are easier to work with. I do love these bows!

For more of my sewing adventure, click here. Hope you have a great weekend!

Pass the Parcel and Polymer Bead Party Favors

Polymer Clay Beads

Can you say it three times fast?

Sorry I haven’t been around much in the last week or so. Now that a certain girl’s coronation birthday weekend week is over, I’m coming up for air.

We did it, folks. We survived a sleepover birthday party (plus days of other celebratory activities) and lived to tell the tale. I’m not exactly sure how she hypnotized talked us into the sleepover. All told, it went pretty well, though, and thankfully, the girls got along.

One highlight of the party was “Pass the Parcel,” which our daughter learned from her British (and half-British) friends in Germany. It’s really a fun, sweet game, and you can organize it so that everyone feels like they’ve won.

Basically, you have a small prize wrapped up in layers upon layers of wrapping paper. You pass the parcel around while music plays, and each time the grown up stops the music, the person holding the parcel gets to unwrap a layer. Ideally, each layer holds a tiny prize (in this case, Jolly Ranchers) and there’s at least one layer for each player.

We got distracted a bit while wrapping our parcel, and some layers—oops!—were empty. Nevermind, the girls were gracious and divided the candy evenly at the end.

At the center, we placed a collection of polymer clay beads and linen string, so each kid could make a necklace, bracelet, or key chain thingy. I had them pass the bead collection around and let each child choose a bead until they were all gone. Thankfully, there wasn’t much fuss about who got what colors. They’re all pretty, right?

Then each child strung the beads into the desired shape. So fun.

My kids and I had made the beads months earlier, with no thought of a party. I was inspired by this lovely post, which includes instructions, but I couldn’t figure out a way to string them in a way that suited me, so they sat around for months. I think I’ll try making some for me again—we have more clay.

Anyway the beads were a hit, and the activity was just enough—not too long, not too frustrating. We may have to make “Pass the Parcel” a party staple!

A Break from the News


When I first heard the news about Boston yesterday, my kids were in the middle of playing.

We need some string.


The red string. Where is it?

I made a half-hearted attempt to find the string and then told them I was busy, couldn’t find it, they would have to figure it out somehow.

My eight-year-old, very sweetly: It’s okay, Mommy. We’ll find a way. Don’t worry.

And they left.

Boston holds a special place in my heart. It’s my husband’s hometown and the place we lived when we first met. I fell back into iPad world, checking to make sure friends and family were okay, writing people I knew might’ve been near the blasts. I couldn’t do anything else for what seemed like a long time.

Awhile later I went downstairs to find this scene in the back yard, kids happily occupied. Sigh. What a welcome relief from sad news, and how nice to see they “made it work” with one of our favorite toys. More about the Schneckenband (literally snail-band—–the thing holding up the bucket) here.

We ate scrambled eggs for supper at the campsite. It was a happy distraction.

I hope you and your loved ones are well. My heart and my prayers go out to the city of Boston. I miss you always, but especially now.

Hobby Horses

Hobby Horses

Hobby Horses

Stick horses like these were a favorite at my son’s kindergarten when we lived in Germany, and since the kids are so into horses these days, I thought they’d like some for Christmas.

There’s a great tutorial for making your own here, but I’m finally doing a slightly better job of estimating just how much crafty-juice I’ve got in me for one Christmas season. So the horses you see here are courtesy of Mimi’s Whimsey, an etsy shop. Aren’t they cute?

One of the great things about these is that you can order them sans sticks, then put them together yourself, which kind of made me feel crafty even though I can’t take much credit.

As expected, they’ve been useful for horse racing and imaginary trips of all kinds.

Hope you have a great weekend! We got a tiny bit of snow here last night, but it wasn’t cold enough to stick around and keep the kids home from school. They took the news on the chin. And now, another writing morning for me!