Monday, August 20, 2018

The RAHM Report for 8/20/18

I had intended to be back into the regular routine of reading and posting last Monday. Sadly, right in the middle of our big move to our new house, my dad passed away, 15 months after suffering a debilitating stroke. Although the fact of his death was not a shock, since we knew it was likely to be sooner rather than later, it was still a really stressful situation. Because we had to travel for the wake and funeral, we lost an entire day from our moving plan and had to scramble to get everything done. I didn't read a single book for the first 10 days of this month, which is basically unheard of! Thankfully, things are beginning to calm down, I'm settling in to our new home, and I've been reading with a vengeance. I'm excited to really get back on track with the Bout of Books read-a-thon this week. As that kicks off today, here's what I've read lately and what I will be reading this week.

What I Finished Reading

  • Listen To Your Heart by Kasie West, audiobook read by Nora Hunter ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    I have really enjoyed every Kasie West book I've listened to this summer. Though I don't usually like stories about mistaken identity and misunderstandings, this one was written so well that I didn't feel the usual discomfort I associate with these storylines. 
  • Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres ⭐⭐
    This was a pretty generic middle grade story. It wasn't bad, but it didn't really grab my interest. I finished it because it was short. 
  • Crime and Punctuation by Kaitlyn Dunnett, audiobook read by Margaret Strom ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    I really enjoyed this cozy mystery, which is set in Sullivan County, NY, not far from where my mom lives. References to my local newspaper, and the city of Middletown, where I frequently went as a kid, and the overall small-town feel made me love the book even though the mystery itself unfolded kind of slowly. I also loved the audiobook narrator and will definitely look for other books she has read.
  • The Read-Aloud Family by Sarah Mackenzie ⭐⭐
    This was every bit as disappointing as I expected, and I have no idea why people rave about this book. I'll save my in-depth comments for my review, coming soon. 
  • The Intentional Bookshelf by Samantha Munoz ⭐
    This book really needed a good editor. There is also some misinformation and just outright bad advice that reveals the author's lack of expertise on the subject matter. 
  • The Book Whisperer by Donalynn Miller ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    Though this book is directed at public school teachers, I enjoyed reading about how the author encouraged her class to love reading by giving them lots of time in school to both read and write. 
  • By Invitation Only by Dorothea Benton Frank ⭐⭐⭐
    This was a very light read, and at times I found myself wanting just a bit more description. The dialogue-heavy text made the story feel rushed at times. I thought it was neat, though, that the characters were all named for real people who had won the chance to see their name in one of the author's books. All of the names fit their characters perfectly, and I never would have guessed that the author didn't make them up.
  • Dim Sum of All Fears by Vivien Chien (ARC) ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    The Noodle Shop Mysteries series is my favorite cozy series right now. I love that Lana is a younger protagonist and I enjoy all the supporting characters and the plaza setting. The writing is really excellent, and I think a lot of women in their 20s and 30s can relate to Lana. Book 3, Murder Lo Mein, comes out in March, and I'm already counting the weeks. 

Did Not Finish

  • Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum
    I started this audiobook but it never really hooked me. I abandoned it about a third of the way through. 

What I'm Currently Reading

  • (George) by E.L. Konigsburg 20%
    This book has the strangest premise of all of Konigsburg's odd titles. It's about Ben, a boy with a high IQ who has a secret twin  named George living inside of him. I've avoided it for a long time because it sounds so weird, but the writing is so good I am finally taking the plunge. 
  • Reading in the Wild by Donalynn Miller
    This is the follow-up to The Book Whisperer which focuses on teaching kids the habits that will turn them into lifelong readers.  I've only read the introduction and a bit of the first chapter, but I'm enjoying it already. 
  • 51 Sycamore Lane by Marjorie Sharmat 8%
    I randomly picked this up from the shelf as we were unpacking books, and I love the tone and writing style. It will be a quick read that I will probably finish by the end of today.
  • Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani, audiobook read by the author 8%
    I have listened to the first hour of this audiobook and I already love it. The author has a great reading voice, and her main character's sassy comments make me laugh. 
  • Read and Gone by Allison Brook 2%
    In my last RAHM report, I said I was planning to read this on the last day of July for the Christmas in July read-a-thon at Seasons of Reading, but I didn't get to it and haven't had a chance to pick it up again since. I'm not really currently reading it, but it comes out in mid-September so I'll get back to it soon. 
I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Thursday, August 16, 2018

An Interview with Children's Author Fred Bowen

All week, I've been sharing reviews of the books by Fred Bowen that I have read. Today, I'm happy to share an interview I recently conducted with Fred over email.

Read-at-Home Mom: One of the things I admire about your books is the way each story teaches a character-building lesson without preaching at the reader. When you're writing, do you set out to tell a story with a particular moral, or does the lesson present itself as you go?

Fred Bowen: First, thanks for saying my books are not preachy!  I think that any heavy-handed message would turn readers away.

My sports books for kids ages 7-12 are a balance of three major elements.  First, I want to tell a good story.  If you don’t have a fast-moving, interesting plot with sympathetic characters the kids will put the book down.

Second, I want to teach the kids something about the sports they love.  That’s why I weave some sports history into the plot and always include a chapter of real sports history at the end of the book.

Finally, I definitely want to include a lesson that kids can learn from the story.  But the lesson is always an intrinsic part of the sport.  So in Outside Shot (Peachtree 2017), for example, Matt sees himself as a shooter, the kid who is going to score a lot of baskets.  The lesson he learns over the course of the season is to not define himself so narrowly.  He can be more than he thinks.  Matt learns that lesson through playing basketball.

When I start a book I have a good idea of what the history and lesson contained in the story will be.  As I work out the plot I am always thinking about how to emphasize (without preaching!) the history and the underlying lesson.

RAHM: Each of your books involves scenes where kids play in sporting events, requiring you to describe a lot of physical action very clearly and concisely. Do you have a particular method you use to organize all the logistics of these scenes? Are some sports harder to capture on the page than others?

FB: I outline my books extensively before I start writing.  First, I develop the “arc of the story” by figuring out what has to happen in each of the chapters (my books are usually 15-17 chapters and about 120 pages).  That arc is usually a few typewritten pages.

Next, I write out (in longhand!) a first draft of the book using two, 100-page (6” X 9”) notebooks.  This is where I work out the dialogue and the details of the action, including the action in the games.  I am not trying to be perfect in this draft.  I am only trying to figure out what goes where and who says what.

After I have worked out those details in my notebooks, I begin to type up on the computer the first “official” draft of the book.  I am trying to be as perfect as possible with this draft.

I should emphasize that things are always changing in this process.  I am adding and deleting scenes, emphasizing certain themes more, developing the characters.  It’s a lot of fun!

And yes, some sports are harder to describe than others.  Baseball is easy because you can summarize the previous action quickly and then “drop into” a dramatic moment in the game and describe it in more detail.  Basketball and football are similar in this way.

I find soccer the most difficult to describe because so much of the action does not lead to any significant result.  Many soccer games are 60-90 minutes of barely differentiated action punctuated by one or two goals.   I played and enjoy the game but it is hard to describe.

RAHM: Your books also always include interesting information about sports figures of the past. When you were growing up, which sports heroes inspired you?

FB: I didn’t really have sport heroes in the traditional way kids have heroes.  I had favorite players and favorite teams – go Red Sox and Celtics! – but I did not have sports heroes as such.

I think I sensed (probably through my family) that just because someone was great at sports this did not make him or her necessarily admirable in every aspect of their life.

I have written a weekly kids sports column for the Washington Post since April 2000.  I have often tried to convey this truth to my readers.  Just because LeBron James is a fabulous basketball player does not automatically make him a good father, person or friend.  He may be, but that is a separate inquiry.  I think this is an important point to make to kids in our celebrity-crazed culture.

RAHM: I heard you speak at the Gaithersburg Book Festival several years ago, and I remember you commenting on the number of names you need for all the teammates, coaches, and other supporting characters who appear in your books. How do you choose the names for all those characters? 

FB: I do several things to name the characters in my books.  First, I check the Social Security website to see what names were popular ten years before the scheduled publication date of the book.  Those names will be familiar to the kids reading my books.

My wife teaches at a school in our neighborhood.  So I look at the names in the student directory and mix and match first names with different last names.

I also put in names of friends, friends’ kids and grandchildren, as well as kids who write me fan letters and emails.  Finally, I am a big jazz fan so I will sometimes sneak in the name of a favorite jazz pianist, bassist or sax player in a roster or as an opponent.

RAHM: Finally, for readers who have read all of your books, which authors would you recommend for them to enjoy while they wait for your next book?

FB: I have written 22 chapter books for readers ages 7-12 and one picture book, so it is hard for me to believe that kids have read all my books.  But I know kids have because I have met some of them.  There have been times that I have met kids who knew my books better than I did!

What I would encourage all kids to do is to read as often and widely as possible.  If they like sports, they should read the sports section in their local newspaper.  Get a subscription to Sports Illustrated or ESPN the magazine.

I remember when I was young, my father encouraged me to read the sports section of the Boston newspapers.  But after a while, he would only give me the sports section after I had read the front pages.  This helped me develop a life-long interest in politics and current events.

Finally, my parents always encouraged reading.  They said we (the 7 kids in the family) should always be reading something.  If someone asked us what we were reading we should always have an answer.  Sure enough, we all turned out to be readers.

My point is that kids (and their parents) should make a habit of reading.  Find what you are interested in and then find a book about that subject.  It isn’t hard but it takes more effort than turning on the TV or checking your phone.  There are so many terrific writers for kids these days that if kids say they can’t find anything to read they aren’t really trying.

If they like my books they should know my next book – a football book – will be published in the Fall of 2019.

Thanks to Fred Bowen for these wonderful answers! I know I'll be looking for that football book next year! 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Book Review: Lucky Enough by Fred Bowen (2018)

Lucky Enough is another great read from Fred Bowen, who consistently writes engaging sports stories for the middle grade audience. As he does in his other books, here Bowen combines real sports trivia (this time about the superstitions of famous baseball players) with an engaging life lesson (it's better to work hard than to rely on luck!) starring a child athlete who has been inspired by an influential adult (in this case, it's Trey's deceased grandmother). Trey is a sympathetic character, and the reader both empathizes with his desire to follow certain rituals during baseball games and understands his need to put in a bit more effort to improve his game. Supporting characters are also appealing, include Trey's well-to-do Uncle Dave who checks in on him and his single mom from time to time, and the groundskeeper at the ball field, Mr. Kiley, who is involved in the search for Trey's lost good luck charm, and Trey's realization that it may not hold as much power as he thinks.

This is a book with appeal to a wide range of ages. Advanced readers in the lower elementary grades who need novel-length stories with age-appropriate content won't find anything offensive in this book, but kids as old as middle-school age can still relate to Trey and enjoy all the sports action, and the details of things like player stats and batting rosters. I've never read a book by Fred Bowen that I couldn't wholeheartedly recommend, and this book is no exception. I'm already eager to read whatever he writes next!

Tomorrow, I'll be posting my interview with Fred Bowen, in which we discuss the lessons in his books, how he names all of his characters, and when his next book will be available.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Book Review: Out of Bounds by Fred Bowen (2015)

This week, I'm posting reviews of books by children's author Fred Bowen in anticipation of an author interview with him that will be published here on the blog this coming Thursday. This review was originally posted on Goodreads in 2015.

Nate Osborne and his teammates on the Strikers soccer team want nothing more than to beat their rival team, the Monarchs in this year's championship. While it feels like the boys might be willing to do anything to win, Nate learns from his aunt, who is also a soccer player, that there are certain unspoken rules in soccer about fair play and good sportsmanship, including a tradition where game play stops when an injury occurs. At first, when Nate tries to put his new-found knowledge into action in a game, his teammates and opponents scoff at the idea, but ultimately, they all realize it is better for the best team to win based on ability alone, not because of the other team's misfortunes.

This book is another great addition to Fred Bowen's series of middle grade sports books. Like the others, Out of Bounds uses a sporting experience as a means of teaching an important life lesson, and in an afterword, ties the story to real-life examples from sports history. This formula works so well, and Bowen's writing is engaging, lively, and easy to read. What stands out most in this specific story is that Nate's role model is not an older brother or a famous soccer player, but his aunt. There aren't many books where female athletes mentor boys, and it is an interesting dynamic to explore. Especially fun is the bet Nate and his aunt have about who will score more goals in the season, the loser of which has to bake cookies for the winner. There is also a greater focus on statistics and standings in this book than in some of Bowen's other stories, which gives it a nice STEM connection, and also appeals to kids who like both sports and math. Also notable is the dialogue, which rings true as the real talk of middle school boys, but without a lot of the vulgarity and toilet humor that is often associated with this age group. Bowen's books are not just interesting, but wholesome too, which means parents are likely to appreciate them as much as their kids.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Book Review: Double Reverse by Fred Bowen (2014)

This week, I'm posting reviews of books by children's author Fred Bowen in anticipation of an author interview with him that will be published here on the blog this coming Thursday. This review was originally posted on Goodreads in 2014. 

Ninth grader Jesse has never seen himself as a quarterback. That position belongs to his older brother, Jay, who looks the part. When Jay is not named quarterback on his college team, however, Jesse begins to question whether players should be pigeonholed and takes on the challenge of playing quarterback for his own freshman team, while also encouraging a female classmate to join the team as kicker.

Fred Bowen writes a regular sports column for children in The Washington Post, and his background in newspaper writing definitely shows in his fiction. The writing in this book is concise, easy to read, and never dull. Bowen has a knack for moving scenes along using dialogue, and for moving quickly through long periods of time without making the reader feel rushed. Jesse's story spans an entire football season, but Bowen only writes what is absolutely necessary. Very few words are spared for details like setting and physical descriptions of characters; instead, most of the text focuses on football itself, with plenty of scenes from games, and including only those other events which enable the characters to play or watch the game.

Though the main character is a teenager, this is very clearly a middle grade book, and one that could be read by kids as young as 7 or 8. The relationships in the book are all very supportive and healthy - even the ones between characters who may be rivals - and Savannah, the would-be kicker, is treated quite fairly by her teammates, and by the author, who does not exploit her character as a token girl in any way. The story conveys a clear lesson, as does the historical content provided at the back of the book, which highlights various famous sports figures who were hugely successful despite not always looking the part.

Fred Bowen is to this generation what Matt Christopher was to children of previous generations: a reliably talented teller of sports tales that will appeal to reluctant readers who like sports as well as sports-lovers who like to read. 

Thursday, August 9, 2018

All You Need to Read Aloud

It seems like everyone these days is talking about reading aloud. There is so much advice and information out there about it that it can easily start to seem like reading aloud is a complicated activity that requires a lot of specialized knowledge and diligent practice to be done correctly. But really, when it comes down to it, successful read-alouds only require three things: a good book, an engaged adult, and a receptive child.

A good book: 

  • is well-written.
  • has beautiful illustrations.
  • upholds (or at least does not undermine) your family's values.
  • appeals to the adult reader.
  • appeals to the child listener.

Though you can certainly find book lists and reviews aplenty online, and these are useful when you are designing a homeschool curriculum or building your family's book collection, you don't have to have a lot of expertise in children's literature to choose good read-alouds. Reading a book to yourself even just once can give you a good idea of whether the writing flows smoothly or not, whether the pictures contribute to the story, and whether you like the book and approve of its content. (For longer books, pre-reading a couple of chapters can usually give you the same information.)

An engaged adult: 
  • gives read-aloud time her undivided attention.
  • pushes through feelings of awkwardness about reading aloud for the sake of the child's experience. 
  • models a positive attitude regarding books and reading.
  • selects books not at random, but with intention. 
  • presents a read-aloud with an invitation ("Let's see what this book is about") and not a command ("We have to read this book now.")

There are some parents who do silly voices and put on puppet shows, or who (like me) are former children's librarians and tend to turn read-aloud time into a full-blown story time. Rest assured, the parents who do these things are not inherently better at reading aloud than parents who do not. They do those things because they enjoy them, not because they are essential to the read-aloud experience. All that is truly essential is that you are ready and willing to read aloud. Anything else is gravy. (Also, don't worry if you don't sound like an audiobook narrator. Your kids still prefer your familiar voice over that of a stranger, no matter how unpolished it is.)

A receptive child: 
  • is calm and not in the midst of a meltdown.
  • is not already deeply engaged in another activity. 
  • may already be looking at books or asking you to read aloud.
  • does not turn down your invitation to hear a story. 

Good books are steadfast and reliable; the moods of human beings (especially young ones!) are much less so. Though some experts suggest that you must read aloud for a certain number of minutes every day lest your child not get into a good college (!!!), it is much better to prioritize quality over quantity. Suggesting a read-aloud when your child is in a particularly ornery mood or tearing him away from his cool LEGO creation to read when he'd rather not just causes him to develop negative associations with reading aloud that can easily be avoided if you just wait for windows of time during which he is clearly receptive to hearing stories. Watching for those opportunities is a much better way to spend your energy than trying to force a regular reading schedule.

Want to see how reading aloud looks in my family? Check out the Read-at-Home Kids Report, my monthly-ish feature where I share the books my three girls are enjoying. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Reading Through History: Front Desk by Kelly Yang (2018)

In 1990s California, Mia is the daughter of first generation Chinese immigrants. Though her parents were professionals in China, jobs are harder to come by in the  U.S., and the family finds itself managing a hotel whose cruel owner treats Mia's parents very poorly, often failing to keep his word and exploiting their desperation for work for his own gain. Because her parents don't make much money, Mia doesn't have many of the luxuries enjoyed by her classmates, which can be painful at times, but she makes the most of her situation, often manning the front desk at the hotel and becoming friends with the "weeklies" who live there all the time and with the various Chinese immigrants her parents secretly allow to stay there without paying. At school, she also makes friends with Lupe, a fellow immigrant and tries to steer clear of the hotel owner's son, Jason.

Front Desk has all the qualities of an excellent middle grade novel: a strong plot grounded in the author's real-life experiences, a believable protagonist who infuses the story with hope, despite the many hardships she must endure, a mostly black-and-white sense of right and wrong and a great setting with lots of lively supporting characters. I sat down to read just one chapter of the ARC (from Edelweiss) before bed one night, figuring I'd read the book over a period of several days. Two hours later, it was 2 in the morning and I'd read the entire book. It is absolutely engaging from start to finish, and absolutely worthy of the praise it has been receiving from reviewers.

In recent years, I have been fairly disgusted with the way ALA has politicized its awards, but while I have mostly lost faith in that organization, I do think this book is as worthy of recognition as many of my favorite Newbery-winning titles from decades past. Kelly Yang is an excellent writer, and she manages to make a grim set of circumstances fun and entertaining to read about in a way that still feels respectful of the seriousness of the situation. She also keeps everything age-appropriate and mostly avoids preaching at the reader. It's definitely in the top 5 books I've read so far this year, and I will cross my fingers that it receives some formal recognition.