Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review: Let's Pretend We Never Met by Melissa Walker (2017)

When Mattie Markham and her family move from North Carolina to Pennsylvania to be closer to Mattie's grandmother as she moves into assisted living, Mattie worries that she won't make new friends. She is grateful, therefore, to discover that living next door to her new apartment is a girl her age named Agnes. Agnes, who has an unnamed social disorder accompanied by anxiety, is definitely unusual, but her enthusiasm for life, and her way of making everything feel important and exciting are appealing to Mattie, and the two become close quickly. Unfortunately, though, when school starts up again after Christmas, Mattie discovers that in her new classroom, Agnes is considered the weird kid. Worried about jeopardizing her chances of friendship with her other classmates, Mattie begins to distance herself from Agnes, finding it difficult to reconcile the fun she has with Agnes at home with how strangely she behaves in class.

I chose to read Let's Pretend We Never Met solely based on the author, who is a fellow Vassar graduate and the author of the young adult novel, Unbreak My Heart, which I remembered praising in a review a few years ago.  Once I learned what the book was about, there was a part of me that was afraid I'd just walked into a "Very Special Friendship" story a la Stargirl or Wonder, both of which I have found grating. I am so glad to be able to say that this book very clearly is not a message-driven story of the after school special variety, but a much more subtle character-driven novel about the difficulties of navigating fifth grade friendships.

All of the characters, from Mattie and her parents, to Agnes and her mom, to Mattie's new teacher and classmates, are believable despite their relative lack of dysfunction. Though there are problems in the story - Mattie's mom's struggle to find full-time work, Mattie's grandmother's signs of dementia, and Agnes's parents' marital difficulties - they are the problems of ordinary life, and these difficulties inform each other to give a complete portrait of Mattie as a character and her friendship with Agnes. Unlike Wonder, which essentially exploits Auggie's disfigurement to teach us all how to be tolerant and caring, this book simply delivers that message, quietly and without fanfare, in a way that is powerful without being obnoxious. Walker never reveals Agnes's diagnosis and instead defines her by her unique interests, her personality, and her behaviors, both the usual and unusual ones.

I don't keep up with many new middle grade books now that I've mostly stepped out of the library world. Knowing that I'm only going to read a few this year, I'm glad Let's Pretend We Never Met is one that happened to come across my radar. It's a book I would have loved as a kid, and one that I would absolutely feel comfortable having my own girls read in a few years. The writing is good, the characters feel real, the moral is clear but not preachy, and it is enjoyable to read.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Poetry Picnic: June 1, 2017

We had a poetry picnic on June 1st to welcome the new month. I chose a lot of poems because many of them were so short, but it didn't take the girls as long to eat at this picnic as it had at the previous one, since it was a snack and not lunch, and they became pretty restless. I'd probably choose to read half of these if I had it to do over. (As usual, anthology titles link to Goodreads; poem titles link to online full text when available.)

From The Posy Ring

These were the longest and most difficult-to-understand poems on the list, which is why I started with them. I read poems like these mainly to expose the girls to the language. I don't necessarily expect them to comprehend the meaning at all.

From All the Small Poems and Fourteen More

  • sun by Valerie Worth
  • coins by Valerie Worth
  • duck by Valerie Worth
  • caterpillar by Valerie Worth
  • mushroom by Valerie Worth
  • pocket by Valerie Worth

Miss Muffet really responded to these "small poems" and their corresponding illustrations. My favorite was "duck" but she seemed most fond of "coins." I like this collection because the poems are very short, but they are not dumbed down in any way for kids. When we someday begin to study and analyze poetry, these would be good ones to start with.

From Listen, Children, Listen

  • Blum by Dorothy Aldis
  • Numbers by Elizabeth Madox Roberts
  • Whispers by Myra Cohn Livingston
  • Discovery by Myra Cohn Livingston
  • The Sun by John Drinkwater 

Miss Muffet liked "Blum" because she is in a phase where she likes to make up words. She also liked "Numbers", which I chose because I have started doing very basic math with her using Cuisenaire rods. The other poems didn't seem to make any particular impression, though Miss Muffet did seem to think the suggestion in "The Sun" that we tell the sun we are happy was pretty amusing.

From Everything Glistens and Everything Sings:

  • The River by Charlotte Zolotow 
  • Toward Dark by Charlotte Zolotow
  • Raccoon by Charlotte Zolotow
  • Ladybug by Charlotte Zolotow 
These poems are a little too pensive for little kids, but since they are short, I read them for the language. "Ladybug" was probably the girls' favorite. 

From Favorite Poems Old and New: 

Most of these poems were chosen based on recent discussions I had with Miss Muffet. We've been talking about wanting a bigger house, but trying to enjoy the littleness of our current small one. The pool had just opened, so we were preparing to swim, and Miss Muffet likes to ask about the materials from which things are made so "What Do We Plant?" seemed a natural choice. I chose "At the Garden Gate" because I liked the rhythm, and "Old Log House" because it was about the "old days" which Miss Muffet seems increasingly interested in hearing about. 

From The Year Around:

  • Alone by John Farrar 
  • June by Douglas Malloch
  • That's June by Mary F. Butts
  • Stay, June, Stay! by Christina Rossetti (part IV of the linked poem)
These poems all came from the June section of the book. I hope to keep using this book each month to introduce themes related to the current season and upcoming holidays.

From All Together:

  • Everybody Says by Dorothy Aldis
  • Bad by Dorothy Aldis
  • We Know a House by Dorothy Aldis
  • Awful Mornings by Dorothy Aldis
This is the most preschool-friendly collection of poetry we have, so I try to include a few poems from it at each picnic. This one had two about having a bad day, as we'd had struggled through the morning. I chose "Everybody Says" because it mentions "Aunt Bee" which is what Miss Muffet sometimes calls my sister. "We Know a House" was a random choice to complement the house-themed poems from Favorite Poems Old and New above.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Book Review: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin (1903)

When Rebecca Rowena Randall is sent to live with her spinster aunts in place of the older sister who cannot be spared at home, the beginning of her stay is anything but auspicious. The aunts believe Rebecca to be prone to foolishness, like her deceased ne'er-do-well father, and Rebecca, though spirited, knows very little of the household chores she is meant to perform. As the years progress, however, Rebecca proves to be a committed student, a selfless friend, the object of a specific benefactor's affections, and a gifted writer.

This coming of age story is one I absolutely refused to read during childhood, and even now I don't think I would have liked it as a kid. I was troubled by children who had lost a parent or who simply didn't live with their parents, and all the delightful parts of Rebecca's personality would easily have been lost to me, masked by my own perception that children like her are to be pitied.  As an adult, though, I can recognize the charm of Rebecca as a character. Though her adventures are confined to her home and schoolhouse, and her triumphs involve small victories like selling enough soap to help a poor family and winning a writing contest, she has an indomitable spirit and she does and says things that real kids generally only imagine themselves doing.

My chief complaint about this book is how quickly events unfold in the second half. The story is at its best when it relates events about Rebecca's daily life prior to adolescence. Once she enters high school, the story moves along very quickly, and begins to feel rushed as compared with earlier sections. I also found the ending somewhat predictable, but that didn't bother me as much, since it does wrap things up very well, and on the necessary hopeful note.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is not my favorite book (and it really pales in comparison to Anne of Green Gables, which I read immediately following it and will review soon), but I understand why it has appealed to so many girls. I will happily let my own kids read it when they are around age 10 or so, and I will probably read it again when they do.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The RAHM Report for June 14, 2017 (Deal Me in Challenge Update)

In April and May, I fell way behind in the Deal Me in Challenge, but as of this week, I am all caught up. Here are the short stories whose cards I drew for the past six weeks, with reviews.

"The Blue Cross" by G.K. Chesterton (♠A)

This was my first experience reading Chesterton. Though a friend of mine did tell me that his stories are funny, I was still pleasantly surprised by how much this Father Brown story (the very first one starring this character) made me laugh. The writing is pretty dense and descriptive, but there were so many lines that I wanted to copy down and remember again later. Here is just one example: "The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen. A few clouds in heaven do come together into the staring shape of one human eye. A tree does stand up in the landscape of a doubtful journey in the exact and elaborate shape of a note of interrogation. I have seen both these things myself within the last few days. Nelson does die in the instant of victory; and a man named Williams does quite accidentally murder a man named Williamson; it sounds like a sort of infanticide. In short, there is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss. As it has been well expressed in the paradox of Poe, wisdom should reckon on the unforeseen." I also so appreciated the story's overall focus on the value of reason when it comes to understanding God, life, and the world.

"Was It In His Hand?" by Elizabeth Bishop (♠2)

Compared with the others I read this week, this story felt kind of pointless. I have read some Elizabeth Bishop poetry, but never her prose, and I did enjoy seeing how she handled this format. Still, the plot was simple - two young women visit a fortune teller, who is black, but has adopted a white child. The child seems to the women to be a prisoner in some way, and they leave haunted by the image of him. I think this is one of those stories that is meant to raise questions rather than provide answers, but I just didn't feel like I quite understood where Bishop was going with it.

"Wunderkind" by Carson McCullers (♠5)

As she did in her novel, The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers creates for this story another misunderstood, outsider adolescent. Frances is a prodigy musician who has recently begun to discover the previously unimagined limitations of her genius. As she waits for another student to finish his lesson with her instructor, she reflects on the embarrassment of receiving a negative review for her recital performance and the implications of this on her future as a musician. I really liked the way this was written, and I felt that teens could relate to it as well as adults.

"Each In His Own Tongue" by L.M. Montgomery (♥K)

It was interesting that I drew the card for this story immediately after the one for "Wunderkind" because they are thematically connected. Whereas Frances in "Wunderkind" is struggling with her loss of interest in playing music, Felix in "Each in His Own Tongue" has been forbidden by his beloved father to play his violin because he is meant to become a minister, not a musician. As the story reveals, however, God gives gifts to different people for different reasons, and Felix may be meant to serve God through his music. I especially loved this quote from the story, which is spoken by Abel, the elderly man who takes great joy in Felix's playing: There's different kinds of ministers, and each must talk to men in his own tongue if he's going to do 'em any real good," said old Abel meditatively.

"A Temple of the Holy Ghost" by Flannery O'Connor (♠10)

This is another odd O'Connor story that left me feeling vaguely uncomfortable. Its central focus seems to be on the human body as a temple, which makes sense to me as a Catholic, but it's also one of the most "freaky" and stereotypically Southern story of hers that I have read. I did like the way O'Connor portrays the shallow preoccupations of teenage school girls, but I walked away from the story feeling like I'd have to read it 10 more times to really grasp exactly where she was going with it.

"Bernice Bobs Her Hair" by F. Scott Fitzgerald (♣5)

Fitzgerald's "Winter Dreams" is one of my all-time favorite short stories, and this is written similarly. When Bernice comes to stay with her cousin, she is at first unaware of how out of place she is among her peer group. When she finds out, she begins to become popular with the local young men, a fact which is helped by her repeated vague promises to cut and style her hair in a bob. Though this story is set in the 1920s, so much of its commentary on peer pressure, vanity, and fashion rings very true in today's world, especially for teens and young adults. This story also has a great quotable line which I've heard before, but I never knew the original source: At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Paging Through Picture Books: Edible Numbers (2015), Lola Plants a Garden (2014), Boat Book (1983), The Tiny Seed (1970), Lili at Ballet (1993), Dance in the Desert (1969), The Star-Spangled Banner (1973)

Here are some new picture reviews for the Picture Book Reading Challenge. These are my picks for #2 a counting book (Edible Numbers), #12 a book celebrating dance (Lili at Ballet), #20 Mother Goose related (Lola Plants a Garden), #22 a book by Gail Gibbons (Boat Book), #55 a book by Eric Carle (The Tiny Seed), #96 a book celebrating faith (Dance in the Desert), #91 a book about history or historical event (The Star-Spangled Banner).

Edible Numbers by Jennifer Vogel Bass


This clean-looking, fresh-feeling picture book reminds me a little bit of 1 Big Salad by Juana Medina, but with better execution. Each two-page spread shows a photo of a single fruit or vegetable on the left-hand side, labeled clearly with the number 1, and on the right-hand side a number of varieties of the same fruit or vegetable, labeled to show how many there are. Miss Muffet (age 3.5) loved seeing the many different types of familiar veggies like cucumbers and peppers, and because the numbers from 1 to 12 are interrupted on every spread by a return to the number 1, she also counts the number of objects on each page instead of just breezing through the numbers from memory. It's hard to find counting books that don't feel tedious, and this one, even after multiple readings, continues to appeal to me.

Lola Plants a Garden by Anna McQuinn

Inspired by her love of the "Mary, Mary Quite Contrary" nursery rhyme, book lover Lola decides to plan a garden. She borrows books about seeds from the library, enlists the help of her parents with the planting, and then, once everything has grown, invites her friends over to enjoy the garden along with her. I was familiar with the Lola books from reading them in story time, but they hadn't really made an impression on my own kids until Miss Muffet heard me read this at story time a few weeks ago. She wanted to hear it several more times at home, and she compared Lola's experience planting her garden to ours growing a bean in a plastic bag.

Boat Book by Gail Gibbons 

I borrowed this book from the library thinking it would appeal to Miss Muffet, who likes nonfiction, but it didn't impress her very much. We read through it once, and she liked looking at the illustrations but she hasn't asked to hear it again. Personally, I thought it was just okay. it's definitely a serviceable book for introducing a young child to boating vocabulary, but its not particular memorable, and it didn't feel as comprehensive as some of the other Gibbons books we've read (our favorite of which so far has been Emergency.)

The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle


I read this book at story time along with Lola Plants a Garden. It's not my favorite Carle book. While it provides good information about the path a seed takes before it lands in a place where it can germinate, it also personifies the seed in a way that feels forcedto me. I like the artwork, but the text is really wordy, and the number of words per page varies quite a bit. Without Carle's signature artwork, I think the mediocre quality of the text would become even more apparent.

Lili at Ballet by Rachel Isadora


I borrowed this book specifically for Little Miss Muffet and it has been very well received. In addition to the main text which describes a little girl going to ballet class, preparing for a recital, and dreaming of her future, there is also a lot of information written amongst the illustrations, giving the names of positions, steps, types of ballet slippers, etc. We had to ask my husband about correct French pronunciation, since I took Spanish, but Miss Muffet has been enamored of this book for weeks and she wants to hear every word of the main story as well as every caption over and over again. I know there are sequels, so we'll probably trade this one in for another on our next library visit.

Dance in the Desert by Madeleine L'Engle, illustrated by Symeon Shimin


This book shares a lot of the same problems that I have complained about in L'Engle's works in the past. The writing is beautiful (as are the illustrations), but the symbolism doesn't quite work. The common interpretation of this book seems to be that the child featured in the story is a young Jesus Christ and that his love and gentleness are so powerful that they tame even the wildest animal. All of this works fine, except that little Jesus is able to win over a snake. In Christianity, a snake only represents one thing: Satan. It doesn't make sense to use a symbol like a snake in a book that is so full of Christian allusions and then treat it like any other animal. L'Engle's theology always feels a little vague and touchy-feely to me, so I'm not necessarily surprised, but it is a very annoying mark on a book I otherwise really liked.

The Star-Spangled Banner by Peter Spier


This is an illustrated interpretation of the national anthem. I sang it to my girls on Memorial Day, and though the historical context is still too much for them to understand, they both liked it. My favorite part is actually the endpapers, which show flags from different points in American history as well as military flags. I look forward to using the book in our homeschool and to singing it to the girls again on the Fourth of July.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Little Miss Muffet Reviews Little Excavator by Anna Dewdney (2017)

In this brand-new picture book from Llama Llama creator Anna Dewdney, there is lots of work to be done on the lot where Little Excavator and all the big rigs have just arrived. Little E is eager to help, but all the jobs are just too big for a machine as small as he is - all of them, that is, except one.

I shared this book with my three-year-old, Little Miss Muffet, and then asked her some questions. Here's what she thought of Little Excavator! (My questions are in bold; her answers follow. Answers were taken from two separate discussions about the book - it was hard to get her to tell me everything in one sitting!)


What is this book about? 

What did they dig? 
A park.

What did you like about the book? 
I liked it because I like digging and I like work. I like it when they said, "Mighty Little Excavator, go, go, go!"

Anything else?
It's good.

Why is it good? 
I like little things and I like Little Excavator.

What do you like about Little Excavator?
I like that he gets tall, tall, tall. I like that he has this digging thing. I like the part where he gets in a jam.

What do you like about the pictures? 
I like the pictures because it's about digging. And because it has little in it, and I like Little E. I like that there's big things and little things.

What do you think about the colors? 
I like orange. I like yellow. I like the orange light [on the backhoe].

What was the best part of the story? 
The best part of it is where the car is drowning [on the beginning end papers].

Why did you like that part? 
Because I like cars. I like driving. And I don't ever drown. But sometimes cars drown.

Was there anything you didn't like about the book?

Did you like the way the story ends? 

What kind of ending was it? 
Good because at the end it's happy.

Do you think other girls and boys who are three years old would like this book?

What would you like to tell other children about the book? 
I'd tell them what I telled you.

Miss Muffet has been very enthusiastic about this book since we first read it, and I have shared her enjoyment. I love the detailed end papers. At the beginning, they show the lot in a state of disrepair and the rigs coming up the road; at the end, they depict the new park and a proud, smiling Little E. I also love the use of onomatopoeia and the smooth, carefully matched rhymes. The construction subject matter isn't new, and neither is the "little people can do big things" message, but this book is one of the better-written titles on both topics.

Little Excavator is a memorable and lovable character who makes a strong impression.  When we went to our city's Public Works Equipment Show a couple of weeks ago, Miss Muffet had the chance to sit in an excavator, and without hesitation, she excitedly called out, "It's Little E, Mama!" It was nice to see her connecting the book to a real-life experience, and to see her joy at seeing a hint of a new favorite character in her everyday life.


Enter for a chance to win one (1) of five (5) copies of Little Excavator by Anna Dewdney (ARV: $19.99 each).

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on May 22, 2017 and 12:00 AM on June 19, 2017.  Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about June 30, 2017. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

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Week One:
May 22 – Homeschool 4 Life
May 23 – Inspiration Laboratories
May 24 – The Plot Bunny
May 25 – A Story a Day
May 26 – The Children’s Book Review

Week Two:
May 29 – Quiet in the Chaos
May 30 – Here’s to Happy Endings
May 31 – Margie’s Must Reads
June 1 – Confessions of a Book Addict
June 2 – Gypsy Road

Week Three:
June 5 – A Peace of Mind
June 6 – Books and Giggles
June 7 – Wandering Bark Books
June 8 – Bea’s Book Nook
June 9 – Read-At-Home Mom

Week Four:
June 12 – My Storytime Corner
June 13 – A Rup Life
June 14 – Pirates n’ Pixie Dust
June 15 – Swoony Boys Podcast
June 16 – Good Books & Good Wine

Little Excavator is in bookstores now. Thanks to Penguin Random House for the review copy. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Poetry Picnic: May 26, 2017

We had a great poetry picnic right before Memorial Day weekend! Here's what we read while we enjoyed lunch and chocolate chip cookies! (Anthology titles link to Goodreads; poem titles link to online full text when available.)

From All Together:

  • Night and Morning by Dorothy Aldis
  • My Nose by Dorothy Aldis
  • Grown-Up People by Dorothy Aldis
  • The Seals by Dorothy Aldis
  • In May by Dorothy Aldis
  • The Storm by Dorothy Aldis
  • Goodness Me by Dorothy Aldis
This collection is perfect for preschoolers. I want to work on getting Miss Muffet (age 3.5) to memorize and recite some of these poems herself. "Goodness Me," which is about a child realizing she might be starting to be good all the time, would be a good one to start with since it connects with her own struggle to behave well! 

From Sing a Song of Seasons:

  • The Big Swing-Tree is Green Again by Marchette Chute
  • The Worm by Ralph Bergengren
I wasn't sure Miss Muffet would understand the humor of "The Worm," but she did seem to laugh appropriately. Both of these poems were taken from the summer section of the book.

From The Year Around: Poems for Children: 

  • Remembering Day by Mary Wight Saunders
  • Secret by Esther Hull Doolittle 
  • Jack-in-the-Pulpit by Ivy O. Eastwick
These poems were taken from the Memorial Day and Summer sections of the book.  I suspect this will be my go-to source for upcoming poetry picnics, since there is something for almost every holiday and occasion.

From Poems to Read to the Very Young:

I found this book at a used bookstore and snatched it up because I love the illustrations. We have all of these poems in other anthologies, but the pictures really appeal to Bo Peep (20 mos.) and I chose these poems with her in mind.

From Beneath a Blue Umbrella

  • In downtown Philadelphia... by Jack Prelutsky
  • Idaho Rose... by Jack Prelutsky
  • Captain Flea and Sailor Snail... by Jack Prelutsky
We received a copy of this book free at a recent city truck touch event. The poems are Prelutsky originals but they read like nursery rhymes, and the illustrations are by Garth Williams. The individual poems do not have titles, so I have just listed them here by first line.