Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Book Review: Otis Spofford by Beverly Cleary (1953)

Otis Spofford is the companion book to 1951's Ellen Tebbits. Unlike Ellen, who is mild-mannered and well-behaved, Otis is a spirited troublemaker who is always looking for ways to make his school day more interesting. Throughout this book, Otis causes trouble everywhere he goes. He doesn't quite believe his teacher's warnings that he will someday get his comeuppance until one day he does something to Ellen that might just be unforgivable.

What is most interesting to me about this book is how completely terrible Otis's behavior really is. When I think of Beverly Cleary, I usually envision sympathetic characters like Ramona, who try hard, but make mistakes, or whose naughty behavior is a result of misunderstanding and frustration rather than true malice. Otis, though, almost borders on unlikable, as he terrorizes his classmates and teacher, all without much notice from his single mother, the dance instructor. Cleary also doesn't go to any great lengths to redeem Otis. The best she gives us is a chance for Ellen and her friend Austine to get a little bit of revenge, and even that doesn't seem to impress upon him how obnoxious and destructive he is. I know there are kids like Otis, and I think Cleary understands perfectly what makes them tick, but I'm not sure about the story's willingness to basically let him off the hook in the end.

The other problem with this book by contemporary standards is the treatment of American Indians. There is a chapter in the book in which Otis's class is reading about Indians in their readers, and Otis is bored because all of the Indians are friendly and do not behave as they do in the movies he has seen. The vocabulary used in this section is very much a product of its time, and I think it is important to understand that context before becoming offended. Surely Beverly Cleary meant no harm, and there is some great commentary about the lameness of basal readers buried within this chapter that I really enjoyed. Still, there is a lot of talk about scalping and descriptions of kids making fun of Indians that might require some careful explanation and discussion for curious contemporary kids.

As Beverly Cleary books go, this one feels like quite the anomaly, and it is probably the only one I would suggest parents pre-read before handing it to a child. Though it might be useful in helping kids understand why some of their classmates might enjoy misbehaving, the complete lack of a moral lesson at the end of the book could also easily send mixed messages. It's definitely the kind of book that will work well for some families, but not well at all for others.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The RAHM Report for 9/18/17

Finished Reading:

 


  • Here Come the Lions by Alice E. Goudey
    I read this aloud to Miss Muffet over the course of a few days. Just like the others of the series, it was perfect for her level of comprehension and interest. I wish we could find more of these at reasonable prices! Thankfully, I think we still have one on Open Library that we haven't read yet, so we're not totally finished with the series.
  • Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
    My husband finished reading this at the dinner table early in the week. It was so different from what I remembered from childhood! The book made a surprising impression on 23-month-old Little Bo Peep. More about that in my Reading With... post at the end of the month! 
  • Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
    This worked really well as our first lunch time chapter book read-aloud. I had read all of the stories piecemeal, but never in one go, so this was an enjoyable experience for me too. Review coming soon. 
  • The Zucchini Warriors by Gordon Korman
    I'm still hoping to finish and review this entire series by the end of the month. I have the last book checked out of the library, but could only find the second-to-last on Open Library and I've been on the waitlist for 15 days, so I'm not sure I will get it in time. This one was not my favorite, but still pretty funny. 
  • The Tower Treasure by Franklin W. Dixon
    I read the 1927 edition of the first Hardy Boys book, mostly because I'd never read any of the books in the series. I'm going to read the revised 1959 edition as well and then compare them in my review for Old School Kidlit next month. 
  • The Square Root of Murder by Ada Madison
    I really enjoyed this one. It has renewed my interest in reading cozy mysteries. My review is on Goodreads.
  • Break No Bones by Kathy Reichs
    This was another enjoyable book about Temperance Brennan. My review is on Goodreads.


Currently Reading:

 


  • Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
    The chapters in this book are just so long that it feels impossible to read. I'm getting there, but I didn't make as much progress this week as I had hoped.
  • Still Life by Louise Penny
    It is completely shocking to me that I'm only discovering this series now, because Penny's writing is exactly the mix of character development and description that I love. I'm already planning to read the whole series. 
  • To Helvetica and Back by Paige Shelton
    I've had my eye on this series for a while and finally borrowed one from the library. I'm liking it a lot so far. The setting is well-developed and not just a cheesy opportunity for punny titles, and the writing flows really smoothly. I'll definitely be looking = for more by this author.
  • Death Overdue by Allison Brook
    I requested a digital ARC of this book on NetGalley because it was about a librarian, even though I am usually not too keen on ghost stories. It's surprisingly fun, and I'm enjoying all the library details as well as the unfolding of the murder mystery. This will be a perfect book for getting into a festive mood this Fall. 
  • The Minnow Leads to Treasure by A. Philippa Pearce
    I just started this one last night. I like the writing style so far, but it's too soon to say much more. 
I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?




Friday, September 15, 2017

Book Review: The Cottage at Bantry Bay by Hilda van Stockum (1938)

Mother and Father O'Sullivan of Glengarriff, County Cork, Ireland have four children: older siblings Michael and Brigid, and twins Liam and Francie. Each chapter of this novel relates an episode from the lives of these vibrant characters as they do things like deliver a donkey to market, befriend a strange dog, and pal around with Paddy the Piper, a traveling musician who turns up now and again to visit his widowed mother.

In many ways, this book is to Ireland what Kate Seredy's books are to Hungary. In addition to realistic stories set around the time of the book's writing, The Cottage at Bantry Bay incorporates lots of Irish culture, language, and history into many of its chapters. The result is an appreciation not just for these characters, but for the richness of their Irish heritage, complete with commonly told legends and folktales. For someone like me, who grew up with a father whose grandparents on both sides were Irish immigrants, this is the perfect book to have in my collection and to someday share with my kids.

That said, I did not love this book as much as I did the author's Mitchells series. Sometimes, I felt that the dialogue was trying too hard to sound authentically Irish, and some of the more mundane details of Irish living didn't really grab my attention. For me, the best parts of the story involved the twins causing mischief and Paddy the Piper maintaining his cheerful, whimsical persona despite the fact that almost his entire family was killed at war. But I can also say that this is precisely the type of book I sought out as a child: low-stakes, gentle, and with a solid happy ending. At age 10, I would have read this book again and again until its covers fell off!

I have heard wonderful things about the two sequels to this book, Francie on the Run and Pegeen, and I have every intention of reading those as well. Van Stockum is a great author for Catholic families, and I'm glad to own this book for my kids to read when they are older.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Book Review: Here Comes the Bus! by Carolyn Haywood (1963)

Jonathan is ready to start school, and he is thrilled to be taking a school bus driven by a man who looks just like the milkman he knew when he lived in the city. Over the course of the year, Rus, as the children call the driver, proves to be a dedicated friend to the children on his route, as he rescues a birthday cake, saves kids from a snowbank, transports pets, and even takes the class out to select a Christmas tree.

Carolyn Haywood wrote a lot of books about school, but this one stood out for me because it revolves around not the school itself, but the school bus. I lived so close to my elementary and middle schools growing up that I only took the bus in kindergarten and in high school, and there was always an air of mystery surrounding what actually happened during those bus rides to and from school.  As a kid, this book would have been fascinating to me for that reason alone.

What I enjoyed about it now, as an adult, however, was the character of Rus himself. While all of the characters of the story are well-developed, and the kids act just like a classroom full of first graders would act in real life, there is something especially endearing about a bus driver who goes to such great lengths to make sure his riders have a good year in school. That's not to say this is a book that goes out of its way to hold up Rus as a hero - instead, it winds up being an interesting look at the work of a bus driver with a focus on all the little details that are especially fascinating to young kids. Just as she does with Mr. Kilpatrick, the crossing guard in her beloved Betsy series, Haywood creates in Rus an adult that kids can admire and relate to at the same time.

Here Comes the Bus! would be a perfect back-to-school read-aloud for families preparing to send a child on the bus for the first time, or for teachers hoping to break the ice at the start of the school year. It's also a good choice for a transportation-obsessed preschooler who is ready to hear chapter books, as the bus is the main setting of all the action.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Old School Kidlit Favorites Through the Decades

Today, Top Ten Tuesday's theme is a "throwback" freebie. Since I review primarily older children's books, I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to highlight some of my favorites. To ensure variety amongst the titles, I have divided the 20th century into decades and chosen one favorite per decade. This is not to say that each book mentioned is my absolute favorite book of its given decade - that would be impossible for me to narrow down! Instead, each book is merely one favorite of many. (Note: because I haven't read that many books published before 1920, I chose only one title to represent the years 1900-1919. Links are to my reviews.)



1900-1919

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit (1906)
This family story follows the lives of Roberta (Bobbie), Peter, and Phyllis (Phil) while their father is away from home doing something the kids are purposely told nothing about. In their new home, a smaller house in the country than they have previously owned, the three siblings have many adventures: making friends with Perks the porter, waving to a particular old gentleman who rides the train past their station every day, and even saving a train from a very bad accident! For being so old, this book felt really modern to me when I first read it, and though it has been several years, I still think of scenes from it now and then.

1920s 

The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly (1928)
This historical fiction novel was the winner of the 1929 Newbery Medal. I read it a couple of years ago when I challenged myself to read 52 children's historical fiction novels in one year. At the time, I never could have guessed that a novel about the Middle Ages in Poland would become such a favorite, but it turned out to be one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. In the story, a new trumpeter, Pan Andrew Charnetski, has come to Krakow to stay with relatives while he waits to deliver a valuable object to the king. When he learns that his relatives have been killed, Pan Andrew and his wife and son, Joseph must conceal their identities. Pan Andrew's role as the night trumpeter is meant to keep him out of harm's way but it is only a matter of time before his enemies catch up to him. The story as a whole is a struggle between good and evil, which favors humility, hard work, and honesty over pride, instant gratification, and deceit. Truly, this is a book with "authentic value." 

1930s

Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome (1933)
This is the fourth of the Swallows & Amazons books, a series of adventure novels by British author Arthur Ransome. I love the entire series, but even after having read all 12 books, this one is still my favorite. Dick and Dorothea Callum arrive in the Lake District for a visit over their winter holiday from school, and they meet the Walkers and the Blacketts, two families of kids who have had several adventures together in the past. As the Walkers and Blacketts reinvent their make-believe world to suit the wintry weather, the Ds, as the Callum kids are called, get their first experience playing independently in the great outdoors. This would be a perfect snow day read.



1940s

The Open Gate by Kate Seredy (1943)
This realistic fiction novel takes place during World War II in the town next to the one I grew up in. Though some of my love for the book is clearly based in my personal connection to the locations named in it, it is also just a wonderfully written story about the Prestons, a family of city slickers who buy a farm and learn to take care of it from their new neighbors, Mr. Van Keuran, and his cold, stern wife, who are raising their artistic grandson, Andy, after the tragic death of his parents, and Mike and his wife, Linka, Slovakian immigrants whose son has gone into the military in anticipation of the United States entering the war. All Kate Seredy books are favorites of mine, but this one is at the top of the list!

1950s 

Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (1958)
Like The Trumpeter of Krakow, this 1958 Carnegie Medal winning novel is not a book I would ever have imagined myself loving so much until I challenged myself to read more books outside my favorite genres. Described as a "low fantasy novel," this is a time slip story in which Tom, who is visiting his aunt and uncle, discovers that a mysterious clock in the hallway at their house (owned by an elderly woman named Mrs. Bartholomew) stops for an hour each night, during which a garden magically appears outside the back door. In the garden, Tom meets Hatty, who is living at some point in the house's history. The two form a friendship which becomes important to both of them and remains so even as Hatty ages and outgrows Tom as a playmate. The book culminates in the most perfectly emotional ending I have ever read.

1960s

The Moon By Night by Madeleine L'Engle (1963)
I like most of L'Engle's Austins books, but this, the second, is the one I would have enjoyed most if I'd read it as a kid. A family road trip story, it follows Vicky Austin and her family as they travel from their childhood home in Thornhill to Laguna Beach, California, where their aunt and uncle will soon live. On the way, the Austins visit well-known attractions like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, make the acquaintance of a snide and sickly young man named Zachary Gray who does his best to woo Vicky, and share in surprising adventures involving everything from bears to flash floods. Vicky also makes her own internal, spiritual journey, as she begins to come of age.  This is the exact kind of book I loved to read when I was in middle school, and it hit a definite sweet spot when I first discovered it five years ago.




1970s

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (1978)
I put off reading this 1979 Newbery Medal book until adulthood, which was probably a mistake, considering how much I enjoyed it. Not only is it a compelling mystery, but each of the characters involved in the strange plot is a believable and interesting individual complete with flaws and quirks. I said in my original review that I wanted to read it again - it may be time to get around to doing that soon!

1980s

The Fledgling by Jane Langton (1980)
This 1981 Newbery Honor book is the fourth in a series that was published over a 40-year timespan. The main character, Georgie, lives in Concord, Massachusetts, not far from Walden Pond, and the aunt and uncle with whom she lives run a transcendentalist school. When Georgie befriends a mysterious bird called the Goose Prince, she attracts the attention of her nosy and vindictive neighbors, who plan to kill the bird during hunting season. This is a multi-layered and sophisticated story with references to many things that ordinarily are not mentioned in children's books. Not all of the books of the series live up to the standard set by this title, but this is a really different and wonderful story.

1990s

Strider by Beverly Cleary (1991)
I remember reading and enjoying Dear Mr. Henshaw as a kid, but when I read this sequel a few years back, I loved it so much more. Now that Leigh Botts is about to enter high school, he no longer writes to his favorite author, but instead he keeps a diary of the important things that happen to him. As high school begins, these events include finding a running dog named Strider, custody of whom he shares with his best friend, Barry, trying to hide Strider from his landlady whose opinion on pets is unknown, reconnecting with his dad, who has fallen into some bad luck, practicing for the track team, and working up the nerve to speak to Geneva, a fellow runner who has beautiful red hair. What is impressive about this book is how well Cleary writes from the teen male point of view. In my review, I likened this book to contemporary titles by Gary Paulsen and James Patterson, and I think that comparison still holds true.

Do you read vintage children's books? What are some of your favorite titles?


Monday, September 11, 2017

The RAHM Report for 9/11/17

Finished Reading:


  • Otis Spofford by Beverly Cleary
    I needed another school story for this month's Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, and decided it was time to read one of the only Beverly Cleary titles I had never read before. I was shocked by how different this book is from many of her others. Otis is not that likable! My review will be posted the middle of next week.
  • Butternut Summer by Mary McNear
    I finished this a few days before it expired. I like the characters and writing style well enough, but I've decided to take a break from the series for a while, as it was starting to feel like too much of the same thing. My review is on Goodreads.
  • Butternut Lake: The Night Before Christmas by Mary McNear
    A Goodreads reviewer mentioned that this novella felt more like an epilogue for Butternut Summer than a stand-alone story, so I decided to read it while Butternut Summer was still fresh in my mind. It was a little too long to be an epilogue, but it also had a lot less conflict than the two full-length novels I've read. It's just a nice feel-good holiday story that I probably would have enjoyed more in the right season.  
  • Farewell Summer by Ray Bradbury
    This was an odd story overall, and the ending was really strange, but I still gave it four stars. I'm planning to review both Dandelion Wine and Farewell Summer here on the blog, probably to be published during the weeks after the new baby is born when I will be on "maternity leave" from reading and blogging. 
  • Jamie and the Mystery Quilt by Vicki Berger Erwin
    Because the new baby is expected to arrive in mid-October, I've gotten a head start on my Old School Kidlit reading for the October theme of mysteries. This was a used paperback I bought years ago and forgot about. Though I don't think I'm keeping it as a permanent part of our collection, it was a solid three-star book. My full review will be published sometime in October. 
  • The Haunting by Margaret Mahy
    My husband recommended this 1982 Carnegie Medal winner as a mystery for Old School Kidlit in October, and I loved it so much, I read it in one sitting. I'll save my comments for my review next month, but this is a five-star book for sure. 

Currently Reading: 


  • Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
    With the help of the audiobook (which I borrowed from the library via Hoopla), I have made great progress on this book this week. The book consists of four lengthy chapters and I am at the start of chapter four. It is very possible that I will finally finish this week!  
  • Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
    My husband is reading this book aloud after dinner each night, and both of our girls (almost 2 and almost 4) are really into it. I'll talk more about it at the end of the month when I do my "Reading with..." post.
  • Break No Bones by Kathy Reichs
    I was going to start a Kinsey Millhone book (W is for Wasted is the next one I haven't read) but decided to save those a little while longer and catch up with Tempe instead. I love the way Reichs writes, and I'm enjoying the relationships between the characters as much as the mystery itself. 
  • Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A.Milne
    I've been reading this book aloud to the girls at lunch time, and though they will probably need to hear it again when they are slightly older in order to really understand it, it is a pleasure to introduce them to these beloved characters. We're about a third of the way through, and I expect we'll be finished in another week or so.
  • The Square Root of Murder by Ada Madison
    I saw this book in a used bookstore once and didn't buy it. When I was considering which cozy mystery to try next, I remembered the title and discovered it was on Open Library. I'm halfway through the book now, and it is one of the better-written adult novels I have picked up in a while. I'm invested in the main character and interested in the mystery itself, which I find is not always the case. I plan to finish it in a couple of days. 
I'll be linking up today Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


Friday, September 8, 2017

Book Review: Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children by Katherine Paterson (1981)

Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children is a 1981 collection of essays by Newbery author Katherine Paterson in which she reflects upon her work as a children's writer and the reading of children's literature in general. Included in the collection are book reviews and articles Paterson wrote for various publications, as well as newly written pieces for this book and excerpts from her Newbery and National Book Award acceptance speeches. 

What struck me about this book as compared with something like Mabel Robinson's Writing for Young People, is that this is decidedly not an instruction manual for becoming a writer. Whereas Robinson and other authors (Gail Carson Levine, for example) use their books on writing to advise aspiring authors, Paterson instead relates her personal experiences, good and bad, and shows how reading and writing children's books has shaped her life. I follow Ms. Paterson's Facebook page and I saw her speak last year at the National Book Festival, and I'm already inclined to like what she has to say. But this book made me appreciate her so much more. 

One essay in particular, entitled, "Yes, But Is It True?" really resonated with me, especially in light of having recently read Caught Up in a Story: Fostering a Storyformed Life of Great Books & Imagination with Your Children by Sarah Clarkson. Clarkson's book argues that we ought to use good, true, and beautiful stories to help children grow up to be the heroes and heroines God intends them to be. Similarly, in this essay, Paterson discusses stories as sources of truth. She mentions Tolkien and Lewis, and says that "a novel is a kind of conversion experience" in which we see the darkness in ourselves, as Frodo Baggins does, and "recognize our naked selves with a shudder or a laugh." She then ties this exploration of darkness to her writing of The Bridge to Terabithia after the death of her son's real-life friend. She concludes the essay with the statement that "Fiction is not the Gospel. But it can be a voice crying in the wilderness – and for the writer and the reader who know grace it will not be a cry of despair but a cry of hope – a voice crying in our wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.” I think this is maybe the best description I have read of the way an author's faith can inform his or her writing. For me, this essay is enough reason to own this entire book, and it is something I expect I will revisit many times in the coming years.

Overall, I really appreciated the variety of pieces in this book and the insight each article gives into Paterson's inspirations as an author. Her book reviews have added several previously unknown titles to my to-read list, and her own essays have made me want to go back and read more of her original works too, especially some of the older historical fiction. I have always liked Katherine Paterson; this book makes me want to explore her work more deeply.