Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Book Review: Barking with the Big Dogs: On Writing and Reading Books for Children by Natalie Babbitt (2018)

In chronological order beginning with the year 1970, Barking with the Big Dogs presents the late children's author Natalie Babbitt's essays and speeches about reading and writing for children.

My feelings about this book were all over the place as I followed the essays through time. During the first half of the book, well into the writings from the 1980s, I found myself wondering why this book was being published today, and for whom. At that point in my reading, it felt as though Babbitt had one main argument, that writing for children ought to be taken seriously, and it seemed to me that, in the 2010s, we had moved beyond the simple question of whether children's writers "count" and on to more interesting ones. I wondered what a contemporary audience had to gain from reading different versions of this same argument over and over again. I also found myself cringing over some of Babbitt's other pronouncements of the 70s and 80s: her assertion that public education was making great progress (toward what? I wondered), her idea that reading needs to always be "easy and pleasant" in order to make people want to do it, and all her weird comments about books for teens.

But right around the time I started feeling fed up with Babbitt, her essays started expressing unpopular opinions that I actually agreed with! In one essay, she said that we can't reasonably expect everyone to love to read. I think this idea has always been nagging at the corners of my mind whenever people speak with disdain about those they encounter who do not read for fun. There are a lot of things I don't do for fun, and I don't think that is necessarily a character flaw. Not loving to read sounds horrible to me, because I do love it, but it is not objectively horrible. I appreciate that Babbitt had the good sense to recognize that fact, and the guilty burden it puts upon educators when the bar is set so impossibly high.

In her essay from 1989, "The Purpose of Literature - and Who Cares?" I also enjoyed her glib response to an audience member during a Q & A session who asked Babbitt why she didn't address more of society's problems in her novels. The fact that Babbitt dismissed the questioner with the statement that helping children deal with problems is not the purpose of literature made me cheer. Here we are, thirty years in the future, and every author wants to make sure that the problem he or she experienced during childhood makes it into a book so that kids who are experiencing it now can see themselves in fiction and feel comforted and understood. But Babbitt makes the point that it is really difficult for an author to write a book that both addresses societal issues and is still a pleasure to read. I have found this to be true of many contemporary books. They get across the problem, but the stories feel like they are trying to instruct, and not entertain.

On a related note, in her 1990 piece, "Protecting Children's Literature," Babbitt also criticizes the idea that children's books be used to teach social responsibility, and explains that she doesn't "believe in using fiction to teach anything except the appreciation of fiction." She points out a tendency that bothers me greatly in our own current culture: the idea that we need "to catch the children early and get them to think about things in the right way." She concedes, as I do, that children need to be taught how to treat others and get along with them, but she does not believe, as I also don't, that books need to be written in such a way as to preach morals at children. She seems to suggest that it's better to present kids with questions, rather than lessons, about morality, and allow them to begin thinking through their own answers.

In the end, I found that I really enjoyed this collection as a whole. I did feel that I wanted more context, as all we really have is an introduction by Katherine Applegate and a short Preface by Babbitt, and it did sometimes feel like Babbitt was shouting into a void and I didn't know to whom she was really addressing her remarks. I also think it would be foolish to filter all of these essays through the lens of a contemporary critic. This collection is really a history lesson about the changes in children's literature over the last nearly fifty years, not a single cohesive unit arguing toward one point of view. I did not enjoy Tuck Everlasting as a kid, and found the ending of The Search for Delicious disappointing, but this is one Natalie Babbitt book I would recommend to all those who think seriously and critically about the books written for children, then and now. Whether you agree or disagree with Babbitt, there is much here to think about and discuss.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The RAHM Report for 11/19/18

What I Finished Reading

 

  • Still Life by Louise Penny ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
    Re-reading this book for a buddy read on Instagram was a lot of fun. It was interesting to look back and see how the characters have (or haven't) changed since the first book and to see all the clues about who the killer was that I missed the first time around. 
  • Body of Evidence by Patricia Cornwell ⭐⭐⭐
    This was a good mystery with lots of twists and turns, though I sometimes got a bit lost in all the connections between characters. I like this series for the same reasons I like Kathy Reichs's books. 
  • Margin for Surprise: About Books, Children, and Librarians by Ruth Hill Viguers ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
    This is another book about children's books, this time from the 1960s. It's a really interesting look back at which books were considered great fifty years ago, and a reminder to librarians about what is really at the heart of their profession. 
  • Astrid the Unstoppable by Maria Parr ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
    This got off to a slow start, but really picked up by the halfway point. Astrid is not as much like Pippi as I first thought, but she does have a larger-than-life personality that really jumps off the page. I especially love the way the story explores a close friendship between a child and an older person (Astrid's godfather, Gunnvald.)
  • Confusion is Nothing New by Paul Acampora ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
    Despite being about a somewhat sad topic (main character Ellie has just learned that the mother she never met has died),  this book actually made me laugh out loud several times. Acampora's books get better and better with each new publication. 


What I'm Currently Reading

 

  • Until There Was You by Kristan Higgins
    I am reading this slowly because I've only been reading it before bed when I'm too tired for more than a chapter. It's quick, though, so as soon as I make it more of a priority, I'll probably finish it in two days. 
  • Cloche and Dagger by Jenn McKinlay, audiobook read by Karyn O'Bryant
    I'm still listening to this audiobook, and I'm a little over halfway finished. I'm enjoying both the mystery and the narration. 
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
    I have never read this book before, and decided on the spur of the moment to join a buddy read on Instagram that started on Friday. I'm purposely reading it slowly to keep pace with the group, which will discuss the first nine chapters on Saturday, so I don't expect to finish quickly. I am enjoying it so far. 
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
    I am also reading this slowly because I want to make sure I absorb it. I plan to finish it by the end of the month. 
As usual, I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Datefor It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


Thursday, November 15, 2018

Series Review: Herculeah Jones Mysteries by Betsy Byars

Between February and October 2018, I read all seven of the Herculeah Jones books by Betsy Byars. Published from 1994 to 2006, this series follows Herculeah, who was named for the Hercules film her  mother was watching during labor, and her best friend, Meat, as they solve crimes loosely based on some of the 12 labors of Hercules. The series ends abruptly with the seventh book; though the ending of that last mystery does hint at further sequels, none have been published to date.

In addition to the mysteries, which are usually murders, and can be a bit scary, there are also a variety of other themes woven into these books. One of these is the problems of Herculeah's and Meat's parents. Herculeah's mother and father are a private investigator and a police officer, respectively, and sometimes the people and issues they are dealing with at work have an impact (for better or for worse) on Herculeah's crime-solving. The Joneses are also divorced, so Herculeah goes back and forth between them. Meat's mother is a single mom, and for much of the series, Meat doesn't know his dad. Meat's desire to do what would make his absent dad proud of him often factors into his involvement in Herculeah's cases. The strong friendship between Herculeah and Meat also comes into play quite a bit, and their dynamic is really the backbone of the series.

In terms of style, these books are written very tightly, with few words spared for unnecessary description. Dialogue is the main means by which Byars furthers the plot, and when she describes physical actions, the text is always clear and to the point. Byars also shows a more humorous side in this series than she does in many of her middle grade novels that I have read this year. Herculeah has a really optimistic outlook on life, and her perseverance in the face of danger and fear often also leads to a good laugh or two.

Though these books are on the older side now, I think they hold up pretty well, mostly because friendship stories are timeless, and that is what is most central to the plot of each book. Herculeah would be a good character to meet in fourth or fifth grade in preparation for meeting Ruby Redfort or Daisy Wells from the Wells and Wong series in  middle school.

The books of the Herculeah Jones series are:
  • The Dark Stairs (1994)
  • Tarot Says Beware (1995)
  • Dead Letter (1996)
  • Death's Door (1997)
  • Disappearing Acts (1998)
  • King of Murder (2006)
  • The Black Tower (2006) 

Monday, November 12, 2018

The RAHM Report for 11/12/18

What I Finished Reading


  • Spider Bones by Kathy Reichs ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    This wasn't my favorite of the series, but it was interesting, and a quick read. I really enjoyed the interactions between Tempe's daughter and Ryan's daughter, and the change of pace introduced by the Hawaiian setting. 
  • Barking with the Big Dogs by Natalie Babbitt (ARC) ⭐⭐⭐
    I have a lot - both good and bad - to say about this book. I'm going to make reviewing it a priority this week. 
  • Thanksgiving by Janet Evanovich, audiobook read by C.J. Critt ⭐⭐⭐
    I wanted a festive audiobook, and I'd never read any Evanovich. This was sometimes funny, but complete fluff.
  • All Alone by Clare Huchet Bishop ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    This was our read-aloud this week. Except for the overly didactic last chapter, it's a wonderful book. 
  • The Spying Heart by Katherine Paterson ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
    I loved every one of the essays in this collection. This, and the book that precedes it, Gates of Excellence should be required reading for anyone who loves good children's books. 
  • The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
    I won't pretend I understood this book, but I'm impressed by its many layers and I know there is much more to it than I got on this first reading. I'm planning to look up some articles and videos about it later this week. 


What I'm Currently Reading


  • Body of Evidence by Patricia Cornwell
    This book is really engaging, and I've been zipping right through it. I didn't feel like I got to know Kay Scarpetta very well in book one, but that is changing in book two. 
  • Astrid the Unstoppable by Maria Parr (ARC)
    I have been wary of this book because of the comparisons to Pippi Longstocking, but so far Astrid seems far less annoying than Pippi. 
  • Until There Was You by Kristan Higgins
    I borrowed this from Hoopla as my book for the letter U in the Alphabet Soup challenge. I read the first paragraph, and I think I'll be able to get through the book in a couple of days. 
  • Cloche and Dagger by Jenn McKinlay, audiobook read by Karyn O'Bryant
    I've been wanting to read this book for a while, but none of my local libraries have the ebook, so I settled on the audiobook. So far, so good.
  • Still Life by Louise Penny
    I'm still making my way through my re-read of this book with the read-along group on Instagram. I'm several days behind because I had a proofreading set to finish this weekend but I'll catch up today and tomorrow.
As usual, I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


Friday, November 9, 2018

The RAHK Report: New Books Edition, Fall 2018

My older two girls and I have been really enjoying the review copies we've received from publishers these past couple of months. Today, I finally want to share our thoughts on 10 of the books we were fortunate enough to find in our mailbox. (The 11th book, Sing a Song of Seasons is a lengthy poetry collection, so that one will get its own separate post.)

When I was getting ready to write this up, I corralled Little Miss Muffet (who will turn 5 this month) and Little Bo Peep (who just turned 3) into our home office and asked them to read the books with me and give them a rating of either one star (defined in simple preschool terms as "bad"), two stars ("just okay"), or three stars ("great," a pronouncement to which the girls just naturally added a thumbs up.) It was interesting to see where their ratings matched or differed from each other, and also how they corresponded with my Goodreads ratings.

There were five books to which both girls gave perfect marks of 3 out of 3 stars, so I'll start with those.

Heads and Tails by John Canty (10/23/18, Candlewick Press)
A series of illustrations and textual clues invites preschoolers to guess the names of animals based on their tails. This book is very straightforward and Little Miss Muffet guessed all the animals correctly on her first reading. Little Bo Peep had a bit of a harder time, which leads me to think that her age group is probably the best audience for the book. There are a couple of strange instances where the illustrator throws in a red herring tail and requires the reader to turn the page twice to find out which animal he really intends. Even on a third reading, these moments still felt awkward, so although I really loved the artwork, I gave the book 3 out 5 stars.

Interrupting Chicken and the Elephant of Surprise by David Ezra Stein (9/11/18, Candlewick Press)
My husband has instilled in my children a deep love for elephants, and I think this must be what drives them to ask for this book again and again. They don't know the fairy tales referenced in the book yet, and they have never had homework so the surprise humor of elephants must be the main draw. In any case, for me, this book fell really flat. (I gave it 2 stars out of 5.)  In a previous post, I mentioned that the story felt like it only had one joke, and it beat that joke to death. But I don't mind keeping it around for now, since the girls have latched onto it so heavily. I would like them to read the first book, though, because I do think it's the better of the two.

Ten Horse Farm by Robert Sabuda (4/10/18, Candlewick Press)
My kids are not especially big horse lovers, but they loved this book, and I did too. It is amazing the images that can be created simply using paper cut-outs, and we enjoyed every page, and especially the final spread where the reader needs to find all ten horses hidden around the pop-up barn. (For a sneak peek at the illustrations, check out the book trailer!) I'm also happy to say this book has held up really well to repeated handling. I don't let the baby around it because I know no pop-up book is durable enough to withstand a one-year-old, but allowing my older two to touch the book has not resulted in disaster so far! (My rating: 5 out of 5.)



Sleep, My Bunny by Rosemary Wells (11/13/18, Candlewick Press)
I have read this gentle rhyming bedtime story to all three girls, and while I think it is probably most appealing to the one-year-old, it has definitely made an impression on Miss Muffet and Bo Peep as well. They both love the endpapers, and Bo Peep mentioned that she likes how it shows the bunny doing all the same things in his daily routine that she does in hers. I was a little surprised to see them both give this book the highest rating, but they have been reading it together a lot so I guess I should have guessed. My rating for this book is 4 out of 5 stars.

There's A Dinosaur on the 13th Floor by Wade Bradford, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (10/2/18, Candlewick Press)
This silly story is about a musician who just wants to go sleep, but can't find a room at the Sharemore Hotel that isn't already occupied by an animal. As he and the  bellhop climb higher and higher in the building searching for a suitable bed, the animal residents get more and more ridiculous until finally he meets the occupant of the 13th floor, a dinosaur. This book has held up surprisingly well to multiple re-readings. Both girls have run hot and cold about it for a few weeks, but we are currently in a high-demand phase where there is a lot fighting for a turn with this book.

On the other five books, the girls disagreed, and occasionally so did I.

Oskar Can... by Britta Teckentrup (10/23/18, Prestel Junior)
Little Bo Peep, who was my intended audience when I requested this book, ended up disliking it immensely (1 star!). She did not seem to connect with Oskar at all, and when I said we were going to read this one, she actually wanted to leave the room! Her sisters, on the other hand, have both really taken to the book. Little Jumping Joan, the one-year-old, read it with me a couple of times and she was thrilled by the pictures, pointing at everything in sight. Little Miss Muffet also loved it (3 stars!) and she has read it to her baby doll several times. She tells me that her baby doll, Robin, loves the cover, while Miss Muffet herself loves the pictures and all the things Oskar is able to do. I gave it two stars because I was expecting more of a story, but I could see pairing it with something like Titch for a story time.

Builders and Breakers by Steve Light (10/9/18, Candlewick Press)
This book has a simple text about construction and demolition and how builders and breakers work together to bring a set of blueprints to life. I really liked the artwork, and gave the book 4 out of 5 stars for its strong appeal to kids who love construction, all the details in the illustrations that are not mentioned in the text, and the interesting spin on a popular topic. Miss Muffet is a bit old at this stage for picture books with such minimal words, so she just gave it 2 stars, but Bo Peep found it completely engaging and gave it a big thumbs up (an enthusiastic 3 stars). I posted a review on Instagram as well, and was thrilled that Steve Light shared it!

The Stuff of Stars by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (9/4/18, Candlewick Press)
I had reviewed this previously but I wanted to see what the girls had to say about it. I was expecting Miss Muffet to be the one who connected most with this one since the artwork and subject matter are both pretty abstract. But she only gave it 2 stars while Bo Peep, enamored of the colors in the illustrations, gave it 3. I think this is a book they will only appreciate more as they get older, so it will be staying on our shelves for years to come.

Night Job by Karen Hesse, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (9/11/18, Candlewick Press)
I also reviewed Night Job previously, but again wanted to see what the girls thought. Bo Peep has been really interested in this one from the start (and she gave it 3 stars), but Miss Muffet went from refusing to hear it at all to an "okay" 2-star rating. Miss Muffet did react strongly to the ending, which is a lovely dream sequence, but I think Bo Peep liked it for the same reason I would have as a kid: it shows the inner workings of an everyday place during its off hours.

City by Ingela P. Arrhenius (9/18/18, Candlewick Studio)
This is my favorite book in this post. It's enormous, filled with beautifully colorful illustrations of all aspects of a city. It reminds me of all the Richard Scarry word books, but with huge pictures instead of little ones. Even the endpapers are reminiscent of that format, as they identify each object and person who appears in the text with the correct label. Miss Muffet was just not that interested in this book, and she started out with a 1-star rating, then later asked me to increase it to 2. She said her baby doll didn't like the "unsafe things like the subway" but only because "she will never get to go there." Bo Peep didn't have much to say about why she did like it, but I think part of the reason for her 3-star rating is that there are so few words, she can enjoy the book independently without any interference from her parents or sister.

Finally, I just have to mention one more book that Little Miss Muffet has absolutely adored: My First Wild Activity Book, published by Silver Dolphin Press. It came out in the spring, but she didn't really look at it much until the week of our move in August when she needed to be kept busy for long stretches of time while we dealt with logistics. The book is organized really well, with sections for each of seven different habitats, and there are a variety of activities for exploring the animals that live in each one. I finally found where she has been keeping the book the other day, and I was so pleased to see it was almost complete and that she had done such a thorough job. There are still some activities left to do that require grown-up help, so it seems like we'll even get a bit more out of it yet. Miss Muffet is really big on activity books, and this one has been a favorite.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Reading Through History: The Motoring Millers by Alberta Wilson Constant (1969)

In the second of three books about the Miller family of Gloriosa, Kansas, sisters Lou Emma and Maddie have automobiles on their minds. First, there is an automobile race coming to their town and one of the drivers will be staying with the girls, their professor father, and their stepmother, Miss Kate. Afterward, when their father is invited to a conference in Colorado, where his idol will also be in attendance, the girls find themselves whisked away on a family road trip in the family car, the Great Smith. The drive is anything but uneventful, as a variety of difficulties  thwart their path and bring to light at least one unexpected surprise.

The biggest surprise of this book was that I actually got to read a copy! None of the books in this trilogy (which also includes Those Miller Girls! (1965) and Does Anybody Care About Lou Emma Miller? (1979)) is particularly easy to find, and this one seems to be the least commonly available. Nevertheless, my academic librarian husband was able to track down a copy via inter-library loan and though I had to read them out of order, I have now completed the series.

While interesting to me as a fan of the series, however, The Motoring Millers, may be the weakest of the three books, at least in terms of plot. The first part of the story, involving the car race, starts off very slowly and isn't all that engaging. It gives the author an opportunity to insert some girl power into the book (one of the drivers in the race is a woman) and there is some exposition about the growing pains in the new stepfamily, but most of the interesting stuff happens in the second half of the book, during the roadtrip. The descriptions of what it was like to drive a car any distance in the early 1900s are fascinating, as are the details of how Kansas and Colorado looked in those days. Road trips are also always a great way for characters to work out issues in their relationships with others, and this storyline goes a long way toward bringing harmony to the Miller family.

Overall, this series is a worthwhile read with wholesome values, believable family dynamics and many wonderful details about day-to-day life 100 years ago. Though this second book had to go back to the library, I hope I'll be able to get it again when my daughters are old enough to relate to the Miller girls!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Best Backlist Middle Grade and YA Books I Originally Discovered Through Netgalley and Edelweiss

Today's Top Ten Tuesday theme is supposed to be Backlist Books I Want to Read, but I'm giving it a little twist. These are backlist middle grade and YA books that I have read, which were published between 2011 and 2017, and which I first read via NetGalley or Edelweiss back when they were new. If you missed them on the frontlist, now's the time to make up for lost time, especially since a lot of these are really affordable on Kindle. (Note: My Goodreads shelves show that I have read 281 Netgalley titles and 190 Edelweiss titles. If they make this list, they are beating out a lot of other books!)

Edelweiss

 

  • Top Ten Clues You're Clueless by Liz Czukas (2014)
    Set during a shift at a grocery store on Christmas Eve, this YA novel follows Chloe, a type I diabetic, as she reports to work and attempts to fulfill the resolutions she has set for herself regarding her coworkers and her crush, Tyson. Though the cover doesn't make it clear enough, this is a great holiday read! Read my review.
  • Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb (2014)
    Flor loves her home on Moonpenny Island, but she goes through a tough time when both her best friend and her mom leave the island simultaneously, forcing her to seek new connections. Tricia Springstubb's writing is so beautiful; I'll read anything she publishes! Read my review. 
  • Murder is Bad Manners (2014)
    This series from the UK is among my very favorites. This book, in which Hazel Wong and her best friend, Daisy Wells, discover their first body and solve their first murder case, introduces the 1930s boarding school that the girls attend as well as the dramatic tension in Hazel and Daisy's friendship that drives the series as a whole. Adult cozy mystery lovers can enjoy this book as well as kids. Read my review. (Note: In the UK, the title of this book is Murder Most Unladylike.)
  • Mission Mumbai: A Novel of Sacred Cows, Snakes, and Stolen Toilets by Mahtab Narsimhan (2016)
    When Dylan accompanies Rohit to visit family in Mumbai, he is glad to have a reason to be away from his parents and to pursue his photography hobby, but worried that Rohit's relatives will make good on their promise to move him to India permanently. This is a great buddy adventure, and a highly underrated novel. Read my review.
  • The Courage Test by James Preller (2016)
    In this funny father/son wilderness adventure, Will and his historian dad take a trip to retrace the steps of Lewis and Clark and explore a deeper relationship with one another. Read my review.


NetGalley

 

  • Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo (2012)
    Originally published in Australia as Good Oil, this is another YA novel set in a grocery store. Fifteen-year-old Amelia enjoys working side-by-side with her older crush, Chris, who is 21. What she does not realize, however, is everything else Chris has going on in his life away from their job. This is possibly the best YA book I have read in the last ten years. Read my review. 
  • The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky (2013)
    This book was also originally published in Australia. It's the story of an afternoon in the 1960s on which a group of Sydney schoolgirls follow their teacher Miss Renshaw on a walk to a nearby garden and return to school unaccompanied later on, as Miss Renshaw has gone missing. With echoes of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, this is a beautifully written - and chilling - story. Read my review.
  • A Song for Bijou by Josh Farrar (2013)
    Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Bijou Doucet moves to Brooklyn to live with her aunt and uncle. Alex Schrader, a boy at a school neighboring hers, takes an interest in Bijou but must carefully navigate the rules dictated by Bijou's family and culture about her spending time with a boy. Read my review.
  • Steering Toward Normal by Rebecca Petruck (2014)
    This agricultural-themed family story stars Diggy Lawson who spends a year raising a steer and coming to terms with the discovery that his father has another son he never knew about. Read my review.
  • Anything You Want by Geoff Herbach (2016)
    Geoff Herbach writes YA novels that are both funny and heartbreaking. This tale of an immature young man named Taco who suddenly finds himself on the verge of parenthood is a positive take on a topic that is often treated as a tragedy. There is something endearing about Taco's excitement for his unborn child to enter the world. Read my review.
Have you read any of these? Which other backlist MG and YA titles would you recommend?