Friday, December 15, 2017

The RAHK Report for 12/15/17

Family Read-Alouds

  • A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond
    Miss Muffet really enjoyed this book, so I was happy to read it for her (and for Bo Peep, who only listened sporadically), but I was also glad to see it end. Paddington just causes mess after mess in each chapter and after about three such episodes the gimmick got old for me. I will not be in a hurry to read this again to the little girls.
  • Once in Royal David's City by Kathleen Lines and Harold Jones
    We're planning to go to a Living Nativity at a local shrine this weekend, and last year, the text they used was nearly identical  to what is in this book. I read the story aloud and the girls acted it out using the punch-outs from Make & Play: Nativity. (Lines and Jones also collaborated on Lavender's Blue, my all-time favorite nursery rhyme collection.)
  • The Sweet Smell of Christmas by Patricia Scarry
    My husband I had vastly different tastes in books as kids, but we have this book in common. We bought a new copy for the girls when Miss Muffet was a baby and we read it every year. Bo Peep has a cold and kept insisting she couldn't smell anything during our two readings of the story, but she did seem to enjoy scratching and sniffing anyway. 
  • Hanna's Christmas by Melissa Peterson, illustrated by Melissa Iwai
    Wednesday was the feast of St. Lucy (aka Santa Lucia) so we made crowns and read this sweet story about a girl who moves from Sweden to the US and worries that her family won't celebrate St. Lucia day anymore. We also discovered that the author, better known to most as Melissa Wiley, made a YouTube video of herself reading the book. Since copies of the book are rare and expensive, this is a great way to enjoy the book if you can't own it yourself.
  • "Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus" from A Classic Christmas
    My husband read this aloud to the big girls after dinner one night, and it was a big hit. They both love Laura and Mary. I'm excited for them to enjoy all the books of the Little House series as they get older.

Little Miss Muffet (age 4)

  • The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
    I'm slowly reading this aloud to Miss Muffet on her own, since Bo Peep isn't ready for such a long story yet. There are actually quite a few characters, and I find that we need to recap them each time we return to the book so she can keep track of who is who. We're not even a quarter of the way through the story yet, but we have until the end of the Christmas season so there is no rush. 
  • Christmas in Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren and Ilon Wikland
    Of the dozen or so Christmas picture books I took out for the girls this week, this is the one Miss Muffet keeps asking me to read. She also loved it last year, though I don't think she remembers that. I really enjoy it as well, and I'm hoping to read The Children of Noisy Village in the coming year.
In addition to these read-alouds with me, Miss Muffet is reading tons of books on her own. I frequently see her reading picture books and easy readers to her little sisters as well. Jumping Joan is a slightly better audience than busy Bo Peep, but they both enjoying having a big sister who can share stories with them.

Another fun thing I observed this week was Miss Muffet using the words of a picture book character to describe her own feelings. She was upset with Bo Peep for not being scolded for something and she said, "When she does something wrong it was always last year." She was paraphrasing what Frances says about Gloria in A Birthday for Frances when Frances is upset that Gloria stole her shovel and pail and her mother points out that this happened a long time ago. I loved that in her anger she used a literary reference to make her feelings known.

Little Bo Peep (age 2 years, 2 months)

  • Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella by Adrienne Adams
    Little Bo Peep loves this book both because it can be sung and because it contains two illustrations of Baby Jesus. I've had to limit her access to the book a little bit because she gets very upset when she can't find the pages that have Baby Jesus, and there have been several tantrums. But she loves the book and I've probably read it once a day this week. 
  • Deck the Halls by Veronica Vasylenko
    This is another singable book, which Bo Peep has requested several times. She's slowly learning to sing along with it. 
  • My First Prayers for Christmas by Maite Roche
    We have all four of the board books in this series, and we only bring this one out during Advent and Christmas. Bo Peep has taken a real liking to it. One night, I read it as her bedtime "story" and another day she took it to bed with her for her nap. 
  • We're Going on a Bear Hunt: Snow Globe Edition by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury
    After a short break from this book, Bo Peep has a renewed interest in it. I think it helped that we had a little snowstorm this week. 

Jumping Joan (age 8 weeks)

Jumping Joan has started smiling more regularly so now we can tell when she's enjoying a story. Here are the books she heard this week: 

  • Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle
  • Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? by Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle
  • Mrs. Wishy Washy by Joy Cowley

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Trouble with Jenny's Ear by Oliver Butterworth (1960)

Jenny's older brothers are very interested in telecommunications. Their uncle, who shares their fascination, regularly brings them radios, speakers, microphones, television screens, and other equipment so that they can experiment with new technology and maybe even come up with ways to make their lives easier. As her brothers find ways to revolutionize everything from schoolwork to waking the household up in the morning, Jenny finds that she has developed an even more efficient way to receive messages from those around her. Jenny's ear is able to hear what people are thinking. When her brothers learn of this exciting new ability, they immediately look for ways to use it to make money, taking their sister to the local spelling bee, and later, to nationally televised quiz shows, where she can't be beat - at least, not until her unique ability begins to fade away.

As he did in The Enormous Egg, here Oliver Butterworth tells a fantastical story that almost feels plausible. In many fantasy novels, characters who develop strange abilities panic about them and go to great lengths to keep them a secret. In this book, though, Jenny's family learns of her newfound sensitive hearing and begin to fold this new information into their lives as though it is no big deal. They do keep it a secret from the quiz show hosts and such, at least at first, but the book is less about hiding a magic power and more about exploring the ethical and practical implications of being able to spy on the thoughts of others without even really trying.

The Trouble with Jenny's Ear is a light, humorous story which explores serious subjects in a whimsical way. The focus on quiz shows and the novelty of television and other electronics decidedly dates the book to the '50s or '60s, but that just makes it more charming and fun to read. This would be a fun family read-aloud, even for kids as young as 5 or 6, and a good independent read for ages 8 and up.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Read-at-Home Mom's Favorite Books of 2017

As 2017 winds down, it is time to name my favorites of the books I read this year. I have divided my list into three categories: new children's books published in 2017, "old school" children's books published in the 1980s or before, and adult books new and old.


Princess Cora and the Crocodile by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Brian Floca
Read 3/1/17; reviewed 4/27/17.
Why I loved it: appealing illustrations, faithful to the conventions of the fairy tale genre, clever writing with many laugh-out-loud funny moments

Eugenia Lincoln and the Unexpected Package by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
Read 8/21/17; reviewed on Goodreads.
Why I loved it: great characterization (especially of the difficult-to-love protagonist), funny quotable lines, perfect marriage of text and illustrations 

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser
Read 8/25/17; reviewed 10/5/17.
Why I loved it: traditional feel, strong sibling relationships, heartwarming ending 

Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford
Read 9/2/17; reviewed 11/15/17.
Why I loved it: festive winter mood, unpredictable plot, wonderful sense of setting 

Slider by Pete Hautman
Read 10/22/17; reviewed on Goodreads.
Why I loved it: great voice, unique subject matter, well-developed supporting character with autism

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk
Read 12/2/17; reviewed 12/6/17.
Why I loved it: unique and compelling historical setting, buoyant and resourceful main character, believable conflicts and resolutions


When Marnie Was There by Joan G. Robinson
Read 4/12/17; reviewed 4/24/17.
Why I loved it: beautifully descriptive writing, straightforward storytelling style, intriguing and unpredictable plot

Those Miller Girls! by Alberta Wilson Constant
Read 7/21/17; reviewed 7/28/17.
Why I loved it: clever dialogue filled with literary allusions and Latin phrases, details about early 20th century daily living, heartwarming family relationships

The Haunting by Margaret Mahy
Read 9/10/17; reviewed 11/8/17.
Why I loved it: fascinating family secrets, interesting mix of characters, fantasy elements rooted in psychology rather than magic

The Crow and the Castle by Keith Robertson
Read 9/28/17; reviewed 10/17/17.
Why I loved it: mischievous and boyish sense of humor, lots of details about the game of chess, far-fetched yet grounded in reality

Where the Lilies Bloom by Vera and Bill Cleaver
Read 9/27/17; reviewed 11/22/17.
Why I loved it: engaging and meaningful descriptions, compelling characters, unusual and interesting setting


Gates of Excellence by Katherine Paterson
Read 8/17/17; reviewed 9/8/17.
Why I loved it: insights into Katherine Paterson's writing process, reviews of obscure books, wonderful essay about faith and children's literature

Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence
Read 8/22/17; reviewed on Goodreads.
Why I loved it: great concept, good mix of genres and types of books, laugh-out-loud funny commentary

Still Life by Louise Penny
Read 9/22/17; reviewed on Goodreads.
Why I loved it: strong sense of place, believable quirky characters, effective use of shifting points of view

Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child by Anthony Esolen
Read 10/4/17; reviewed on Goodreads.
Why I loved it: uses many literary allusions to bolster arguments, calm and rational arguments regarding complex and emotional issues, excellent and persuasive writing

Real Murders by Charlaine Harris
Read 11/3/17; reviewed on Goodreads.
Why I loved it: unique plot for a cozy mystery, quirky small-town setting, flawed and funny main character

The Deep End by Julie Mulhern
Read 11/4/17; reviewed on Goodreads.
Why I loved it: ironic tone, 1970s pop culture references, well-structured plot

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
Read 12/2/17.
Why I loved it: wealth of information about veterinary techniques, comedy of errors in Herriot's courtship of his wife, descriptions of the quirks of various English farmers

I'm linking up today with The Broke and the Bookish for Top Ten Tuesday, where this week's theme is Top Ten Favorite Books of 2017. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

The RAHM Report for 12/11/17

What I Finished Reading

  • Winter Street by Elin Hilderbrand
    I had never read anything by Hilderbrand, and this was an enjoyable first experience with her books. It ended on a cliffhanger so I immediately had to start the second book. 
  • Prairie School by Lois Lenski
    This was not as wonderful as Strawberry Girl, but it was still quite good. I enjoyed the illustrations as well as the story. 
  • Snowbound Mystery by Gertrude Chandler Warner
    The Boxcar Children books really do not hold up that well. I loved these as a kid, but found this one tedious to read as an adult. The mystery was barely a mystery, and the four kids' personalities are too similar. I was going to review this for Old School Kidlit, but may end up skipping it. 
  • Betsy's Winterhouse by Carolyn Haywood
    Another charming and nostalgic read from this series. It wasn't quite as wintry as I was expecting, but it did include Christmas and lots of fun ideas for playing indoors when the weather is too cold to go out.
  • The Tough Winter by Robert Lawson
    This is the sequel to Rabbit Hill. It's good, but not great. Review coming at the end of the month. 

What I'm Currently Reading

  • I'll Have What She's Having : How Nora Ephron's Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy by Erin Carlson
    I'm almost done with this one, and I have really enjoyed it. It's interesting to hear the background behind a lot of the decisions that were made during the filming of the three movies referenced in the title. I really want to see the movies again now!
  • Winter Stroll by Elin Hilderbrand
    I'm only a few pages into this one, but it seems comparable to the first book of the series so far. I want to try to finish the series before the new year - I usually don't want to read these holiday-themed family stories anymore once the Christmas season passes.
  • Far Out the Long Canal by Meindert DeJong
    I haven't started this one just yet, but it was my original pick for a winter story for Old School Kidlit. I still plan to read and review it even though I have already read several winter titles.

I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review: We're Going on a Bear Hunt Snow Globe Edition (2017), Make & Play: Nativity (2017), and Press Out & Color: Christmas Decorations (2017)

With a new baby in the house, it can sometimes be difficult to keep my older girls, Miss Muffet (age four) and Bo Peep (age two) entertained during times when my attention has to be on their new sister. That's why I was so thankful to receive review copies of new novelty and activity books from Candlewick Press/Nosy Crow.

The video of Michael Rosen performing We're Going on a Bear Hunt that Walker Books put out for the book's 25th anniversary has been a huge favorite of both Miss Muffet and Bo Peep. Bo Peep, especially, has taken a real liking to it, and she has learned to recite and move along with the video each time it plays. She was thrilled, therefore, to receive the snowglobe edition of the book for her birthday a few weeks ago. This is a pop-up edition of the original book, with full-color illustrations and a fun plastic snowglobe on the front cover. Bo Peep is rough on her books, but for a pop-up book, this one is surprisingly sturdy, and so far only one pop-up has been bent out of shape. Because she already knows the story, she can entertain herself without adult involvement by retelling each page from memory. She also loves to follow along with the video with the book in her lap. Even if you already have a copy of the original book, it's worth introducing this special edition into your collection, especially if it's a long-time favorite and you'd prefer not to let your toddler tear up a hardcover.

Miss Muffet gets bored more easily than her sister, so for her, I like to have some easy hands-on activities available to bring out when she needs something to do. Nosy Crow's new Christmas-themed gift books have been great for this so far this Advent season. For her birthday, I wrapped up the Make & Play Nativity by Joey Chou. Similar to the Busy Builders sets I reviewed on Tuesday, this book includes a set of punch-out pieces that can be assembled to form the key figures and props of a nativity scene. Our family nativity scene is too fragile to be handled by little hands, so this set was instantly appealing, as it makes it possible for Miss Muffet to act out the story without worrying about anything getting broken. There are 20 pieces in all, including Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus in the manger, shepherds, sheep, a donkey, an angel, and the three kings. We're going to see a living nativity in a couple of weeks, so this set is also a great way to prepare her for what she will see then.

After the section of the book containing the punch-outs there is also a section of Christmas activities and songs. The activities are pretty basic and unlikely to be new to a seasoned parent, and the songs, too, are easily found in almost any Christmas songbook. It is handy to have the songs right there to sing as we play with the pieces, but I doubt we will try any of the suggested crafts. I typically find more interesting ideas just scrolling Instagram or Pinterest. Overall, though, I was pleased with the quality of the cardboard pieces and the ease with which they can be put together. Miss Muffet had a little trouble getting them on straight, and as a result, some of our pieces wouldn't stand at first, but this was easily fixed with a quick adjustment and removing and replacing the stands on the figures did not seem to damage them at all.

The other Nosy Crow activity book we have been eager to begin using is Press Out & Color: Christmas Decorations by Kate McLelland. This is a set of 20 sparkly Christmas ornaments, embellished with gold accents, which kids can color and assemble. Though some of these ornaments are three dimensional when they are completed, others can lie flat, and I am planning to have Miss Muffet paint or color those and then mail them to relatives as gifts. The others I think we will hang on our own tree.

I like these ornaments because the cardboard is not too glossy to use with crayons, and because the designs are basic enough that painting over them with watercolor paint isn't likely to ruin them or distort them, even if the painting itself is a little messy. They make it possible for a preschooler to give a homemade gift that the recipient might actually want to save as a keepsake instead of an unidentifiable craft that can't really be used. (I'm all for process art, but sometimes you just want to give Grandma a gift that looks like what it's meant to be!) This book also works well across multiple age groups and abilities, as the ornaments are basically blank canvases to which kids can add their own personal creative touches.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Reading Through History: Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk (2017)

Once an infant in a skiff washed up on the shore of a tiny piece of land among the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts. Osh, the only man who lived there, found the baby, named her Crow, and began to care for her with the help of Miss Maggie, his neighbor on the nearby island of Cuttyhunk. Now it is 1925, and twelve-year-old Crow is happy with her little family, but she wishes she knew more about where she came from. The Cuttyhunk locals are convinced she came from Penikese, an island which previously housed a leper colony, and they are wary of her, refusing to make physical contact with her, to handle objects which she has touched, or to allow her to attend school for fear of contracting leprosy. When a scientist comes to Penikese to study birds, Crow notices his fire burning across the water one night, and she feels a sudden urge to also visit the island to seek clues about her origin. From here, Crow sets into motion a series of surprising events that lead to the truth about her identity, both in the past, as a newborn baby and now, as a young girl.

Lauren Wolk's sophomore children's novel, published on the heels of her Newbery Honor book, Wolf Hollow, is another piece of truly excellent writing. Unlike Wolf Hollow, which was initially written for adults, Beyond the Bright Sea was written with a child audience in mind, and it perfectly captures everything I think about when I imagine the quintessential middle grade novel. Everything about this book feels real and true: the insular setting, the quirky and unusual characters, the historical details about leprosy, and, most of all, the character of Crow. Akin to someone like Bo from Bo at Ballard Creek or Omakayas from The Birchbark House, she is an appealing optimist, equally loving toward her found family and curious about the one she lost, respectful of the adults who care for her, but also stubborn in her desire to know the truth at any cost. Osh, the wary and private older man who has become her adoptive father is her perfect foil: pessimistic where she is positive and uncertain where she is completely sure and secure. Osh and Miss Maggie are also the kind of adults lacking in the lives of most middle grade protagonists. The fact that they take Crow seriously and give her the latitude to explore the questions that concern her make them feel like real-life parents who truly love their child. These three characters form a wonderfully complex family unit that stirs up strong emotions in the reader.

But why, you ask, would a middle grade reader want to read historical fiction about a leper colony in the first place? Well, because this is not really a book about leper colonies, or even about the 1920s. Wolk uses these historical elements to tell a story that deals with universal questions and concerns. All kids, even those who have always known their parents, are curious about the way they were as young children, and about incorporating facts about their pasts into their images of themselves in the present. All kids, too, enjoy reading about characters who feel believable and whose success matters to them. Crow doesn't come across as someone living nearly 100 years ago. Instead, she is presented as a spirited girl with an appealing personality and a strong sense of determination that today's kids can easily appreciate and love. Sure, if you try to sell this to a middle school kid by telling her it's a historical fiction novel about lepers, you're not going to get far. But if you introduce a reader to Crow, I'm convinced that reader will follow her wherever she leads because she is compelling, and everything else in the book - from lepers to orphanages - becomes interesting because the story is hers.

In the old days, before politics overtook the ALA Youth Media Awards, I would have stated with complete confidence that this book would be the clear Newbery winner this winter. As things stand now, with committees yearly trying to push the envelope of what is Newbery-worthy, however, I will tentatively predict another honor and just keep my fingers crossed in case there is any chance of more. Truly, though, Beyond the Bright Sea is the best book I read in 2017. It was fast-paced, suspenseful, realistic, and emotional, with a very satisfying conclusion. I recommend it very highly and I look forward to more from the amazing Lauren Wolk.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review: Busy Builders Books and Playsets: Construction Site (2013), Fire Station (2016), and Airport (2016)

Over the summer, I received review copies of three Busy Builders sets from Silver Dolphin Books: Construction Site, Fire Station, and Airport. Miss Muffet and I had a lot of fun building and playing with each one, and I shared photos on Instagram, but now, with holiday gift-giving on the horizon, I'm finally getting around to writing a proper review.


Each of these sets is contained in a box which opens up, with a flap on either side, to become the central building of each playset: the firehouse, the airport, and a school for the construction workers to build. Puzzle pieces snap onto the flaps to make a road going around each building, and there are various other cardboard pieces which punch out and are used to build vehicles, people, etc. A book is also part of each set. These colorfully illustrated volumes provide lots of facts and vocabulary associated with each setting, as well as the instructions for putting together all of the models.

Because my daughter has only just turned four, she couldn't do much of the actual building herself. She was able to put the stands on the people, and to put together small accessories like fire hydrants and traffic cones, but the larger tasks of putting together the firetruck, airplanes, and diggers were left to me. If she were six or seven years old, however, I think she could have put together everything herself, as all of the instructions are clearly illustrated and all that is required is snapping cardboard pieces together in the correct order.

The books are surprisingly full of information, despite being only 32 pages, a good chunk of which is devoted to building instructions. There isn't much of a narrative to any of them; rather, they illustrate the vehicles, equipment, and buildings pertaining to the fire station, airport, and construction site, label each item and provide short blurbs to explain how they are used by the various workers. Miss Muffet was not yet reading when we first received these, but she still spent a good long time poring over each book and even making up stories about the characters in each illustration. The books also helped inform her play, as she had very little knowledge of construction, firefighting, or airports prior to playing with these sets.

Unfortunately, as much as these kits really enriched Miss Muffet's first lesson about community helpers, there were some problems with the playsets. For one thing, the boxes which serve as the buildings for each set are weakly attached to the flaps that fold out from them, which makes it easy for them to come apart. One of our sets arrived with the box already completely detached, and I had to glue it back together. This was easily accomplished with plain Elmer's white glue, and the set was still perfectly usable after the fact, but it was disappointing to start out with a broken set.

The puzzle pieces that make up the roads also don't fit together perfectly, especially on a carpeted floor, so that was frustrating for both me and my daughter, as pieces kept popping out of place whenever we pretended to drive a vehicle over them. This problem seemed to be most pronounced in the fire station set and least troublesome in the airport, but none of the three had pieces that were a perfect fit. We ran into similar difficulties with some of the stands for the people and with certain pieces of the airport aircraft and the fire station's helicopter. In cases where a piece was too loose, it would fall off whenever the model was moved. In other cases, the pieces were such a tight fit that they wound up bending or tearing slightly on their edges when I tried to put them in place. Again, these were not problems that interfered heavily with our enjoyment of the sets, but it was frustrating to continually have to pick up wheels or a tail from the floor every time Miss Muffet pretended to fly a plane across the sky.

The final problem I encountered was with storage. While the sets are self-contained and all of the pieces can be stored in the buildings/boxes, this is only the case if you take each set entirely apart between uses. I was not prepared to reassemble every single model every time my daughter wanted to play with them. Instead, I wound up storing all of the assembled vehicles in a wooden tray which I could take down from a shelf upon request. For an older child, though, it might be appealing to build the sets over and over again, in which case storage would be very easy, as the boxes with everything tucked inside can fit easily onto a bookshelf.

Though these kits are not likely to last as long as something made of plastic or wood, they are a nice inexpensive way to engage kids who are interested in cars and trucks, community helpers, model-building, and who are desperate to know every little detail about how people do their work, and the tools they use to do it. While my daughter was able to enjoy these as a preschooler with plenty of adult supervision, they would probably be best for a slightly older child who could work on them independently and feel a sense of pride in having built the models himself, and who can be careful enough with the delicate cardboard to help the sets last a while. Though my favorite of the three is the fire station - it was the easiest to assemble, and had a good mix of people and vehicles - any of these would make a great gift for an elementary-aged child, and Miss Muffet and I recommend them.