Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Book Review: The Animal, The Vegetable, and John D. Jones by Betsy Byars (1982)

Clara and Deanie are looking forward to being on vacation with their dad until they find out he is bringing along a girlfriend, and the girlfriend's son, John D. John D. isn't crazy about meeting the girls either, and rather than calling them by name, he refers to them as the Animal and the Vegetable. The kids do their best to avoid each other until a near-tragedy bands them together unexpectedly.

Though this book has a quirky title, it's really a very straightforward story about the tension between kids who are forced to interact because of their parents' relationship with each other. What makes it stand out is the way Byars describes each character and brings each one to life in his or her dialogue. Each chapter is like a small character study in which the reader shares brief glimpses into the thoughts of the three main characters. Byars manages to inspire feelings of empathy for all three of them, making it difficult to take one side against the other. This means that the reader begins to accept friendship for the trio before the characters themselves can even imagine it, which contributes to the reader's feelings of satisfaction at the conclusion of the story.

I sometimes wonder why Byars seems to solve so many of the problems in her books with tragedies. In the books of hers that I have read in the past few years, conflicts have been resolved by a drowning, a car accident, a near-drowning, a punch in the face, and a flood, just to name a few. I can't tell if Byars believes that people only change when life throws dire circumstances at them (something that feels very Southern a la Flannery O'Connor) or if she is just trying to keep things exciting by throwing in these high stakes. Either way, it's a definite pattern in her work, and it has varying degrees of success. In this book, the dangerous situation works well enough, but also I think the story could have made its point just as well without putting a character in that situation.

Compared with Goodbye, Chicken Little, The Animal, the Vegetable and John D. Jones was the better book, but it is by no means as original or well-written as something like The Summer of the Swans or the Blossom series.  It's a solid three-star read which is dated, but which might still appeal to a 21st century kid in a similar situation to that of the characters.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Books On My Fall 2018 TBR

I made TBR lists for both spring and summer. Of the titles on my spring list, there are still 11 I haven't read, and from my summer list (which was much shorter), there are still 2 titles outstanding.  I have learned that I just can't stick to a list no matter how hard I try. But there are some books I'm already planning to read this fall, and that I'm pretty certain I will actually complete, so I'm going to go ahead and share those today for Top Ten Tuesday.

  • Honey for a Child's Heart by Gladys Hunt
    I have been on a binge of books about books. I have this and Honey for a Teen's Heart sitting on my desk, and I know I will get to them soon because I want to do a blog post about books of this type. 
  • Give Your Child the World by Jamie C. Martin
    This is another book about books that I want to include in the aforementioned blog post.
  • Barking with the Big Dogs: On Writing and Reading Books for Children by Natalie Babbitt
    Yet another book about books. This one comes out in November and I have an ARC from Edelweiss. 

  • X by Sue Grafton
    I need to read this because I'm doing an alphabet challenge and it's all I've got for the letter X. I basically have to read it this fall if I'm going to finish it by the end of the year! 
  • Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
    I downloaded this for Kindle when it was on sale a few months ago and saw it pop on blogs a lot when Top Ten Tuesday focused on back to school a couple of weeks ago. A mystery set at a boarding school feels like the perfect fall read to me! 
  • The Figure in the Shadows and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring by John Bellairs
    These are the sequels to The House with a Clock in its Walls. I've heard the third book is set around Christmastime, and I'm always looking for a seasonal read during December, so I'm going to try to finish book 2 between now and then so I can read book 3 when that holiday mood strikes.

  • The Hangman by Louise Penny
    This is a novella about Armand Gamache that isn't really connected to the series and was written for adults learning to read English. It appears to be November in the story, so it seems like it will be a good book to enjoy as the weather gets older. 
  • Deadly News by Jody Holford
    This is a new cozy mystery to be published at the end of October. I have an ARC from NetGalley. 
  • Know and Tell: The Art of Narration by Karen Glass
    I started this a few weeks ago, then got distracted by other books. It's one of a few homeschooling-related books I hope to get through in the next month or two. 
  • The Diva Haunts the House by Krista Davis
    I have a hard time finding Halloween-themed books that actually interest me, even though I always feel the need to read one when October comes around. I'm only just reading the first book of this series now, so I may go out of order just so I can read this one when it's seasonally appropriate. I just hope I snag a library copy before they all get checked out. 
What will you be reading this fall? 

Monday, September 17, 2018

The RAHM Report for 9/17/18

What I Finished Reading

  • Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny, audiobook read by Ralph Cosham ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
    This is the best of this series so far. It was different from the ones preceding it, but beautifully written and emotional. I went back and forth between the ebook and the audiobook and really enjoyed Cosham's voice. I also liked hearing the author's interview about the book at the end of the audio recording. 
  • The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    I read this with three Instagram friends and really enjoyed it. I avoided scary books like the plague as a kid, but this one has great character development. I'm already planning to read at least the next two books in the series. 
  • The Happy Hollisters and the Indian Treasure by Jerry West ⭐⭐
    This was a read-aloud with my four-year-old. It's the weakest of the four books we've read from this series so far, but she still enjoyed the time the Hollisters spent searching in caves for stolen treasure.
  • Come Back To Me by Sharon Sala, audiobook read by Amy Rubinate ⭐⭐
    I started this on audio, got fed up with all the random chapters about characters not connected to the main plot and plowed through the rest in the ebook edition. It was fine, but not as good as I'd hoped.
  • I'd Rather be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by Anne Bogel ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    I read this quick, light celebration of the reading life in just two days. It's a really fun little book in which the blogger behind Modern Mrs. Darcy shares her observations about the habits of readers. 

What I'm Currently Reading

  • The Diva Runs Out of Thyme by Krista Davis, audiobook read by Hillary Huber 50%I'm really enjoying this audiobook. Krista Davis is one of the best cozy mystery writers, and I love all the characters in this book. 
  • Montana Sky by Nora Roberts 49%
    I was halfway through this book a week and a half ago when my loan period on Open Library ended. I put myself back on the waiting list for it, and of course, as I soon as I started a bunch of other books, it became available again. I will definitely finish it before it expires this time. 
  • Queenie Peavy by Robert Burch 42%
    I've been meaning to read this book for months to satisfy the letter "Q" for the A to Z Challenge hosted by Ginger Mom and the Kindle Quest. It's a quick read and I will probably finish it today. 
  • Watching the Detectives by Julie Mulhern 20%
    I love this series, and it's been a little while since I read book 4, Send in the Clowns. So far, it's every bit as good as the earlier titles of the series. This author's writing style really clicks for me. 
  • Not of this World: A Catholic Guide to Minimalism by Sterling Jaquith 13%
    My husband brought home a stack of Catholic and homeschooling books for me to read. I'm starting with this one because it's quick, and the subject matter is far removed from anything else I'm reading. So far it's dwelling a lot on hoarding. 
  • Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen 7%
    This book was mentioned by Anne Bogen in I'd Rather Be Reading. I normally don't read much involving magic or fantasy, but this book appealed to me in spite of that, so I'm giving it a try. So far, I like the writing a lot. 
  • Charm City by Laura Lippman 0%
    My loan period for this book also expired a couple of weeks ago, and I put myself on the list again, and my turn came up again a couple of days ago. I'm going to try really hard not to let time run out again! 
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 14, 2018

Paging Through Picture Books: New and Forthcoming Titles

Here are some of the new and soon-to-be-published picture books I've been reading thanks to Edelweiss (*) and Candlewick (**). 

  • Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, I Know Exactly What You Are by Julia Kregenow, illustrated by Carmen Saldana (9/4/18)*
    The text of this book provides lots of scientific information about stars, all set to the tune of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Though the rhyme scheme and rhythm works well, and the information is interesting, I think the meaning of the text is drowned out by the gimmick of the song. When I finished the book, I had the tune stuck in my head but couldn't really remember most of the facts that had been presented. The scientific details require more attention than simply singing through the book allows. That said, the illustrations are gorgeous, and I think it's a good book for introducing the scientific concepts as long as it also supplemented by other texts.
  • The Stuff of Stars by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (9/4/18)**
    This poetic and visually explosive picture book describes the big bang in lyrical text that captures the beauty and drama of the beginning of the universe. My almost-five-year-old was fascinated by the illustrations and though the book does not mention religion at all, she immediately attributed the images she saw to God, which made me feel good about her understanding of the relationship between faith and science. This book makes the abstract concept of how the universe came into being into something relatable, dynamic, and awe-inspiring. 
  • Interrupting Chicken and the Elephant of Surprise by David Ezra Stein (9/11/18)**
    In this sequel to Interrupting Chicken,  Chicken comes home from school with instructions from her teacher to find the elephant of surprise in every story she reads. Her dad tries to explain that her teacher is talking about the element of surprise, but Chicken is determined to write elephants into every story instead. Though the artwork is just as great in this book as it was in the first, there is little more to the text than this one joke, which is pretty well played out before the story is half over. I expected more from this book. 
  • Night Job by Karen Hesse, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (9/11/18)**
    This is a nice slice of life story about a boy who goes to work at night with his janitor father. The writing is poetic and the illustrations capture the warmth and humor of the characters' relationship. The story taps into two ideas kids are fascinated by - what happens at night and what their parents do at work. Though this is a quieter book with a subdued color scheme, it appealed strongly to my almost-three-year-old and my almost-five-year-old. 
  • Leo Gets a Checkup by Anna McQuinn, illustrated by Ruth Hearson (9/11/18)*
    Geared toward toddlers, this is a pretty straightforward book about going to the doctor's office. It includes some details that champion particular causes (the doctor gives Leo a free book, and a mom is nursing in the waiting room) but otherwise, it's pretty much like every other book of this type. 

  • Liza Jane and the Dragon by Laura Lippman, illustrated by Kate Samworth (10/2/18)*When Liza Jane fires her parents and hires a dragon to take their place, she encounters a variety of problems, chief of which is the dragon's desire to set on fire everything that bothers, annoys, or makes life difficult for Liza Jane. While the thought of being fired doesn't thrill me as a parent, I think there is value in books that allow kids to imagine the logical conclusions to some of their fantasies. This book also reminded me a lot of Princess Cora and the Crocodile, which I love.
  • You Can Be by Elise Gravel (10/9/18)*
    I enjoyed the cartoonish illustrations in this simple book which celebrates kids' freedom to be whoever they want to be and to feel however they'd like to feel. Because there is minimal text and the illustrations are more humorous, this book doesn't feel as preachy as What If? (see below) even though the subject matter is essentially the same. There is a bit of bathroom humor on the page for "Smelly" but otherwise I wouldn't have a problem sharing this book with my girls.
  • What If?: What Makes You Different Makes You Amazing! by Sandra Magsamen (2/1/19)*
    This is a saccharine and preachy book about celebrating one's uniqueness. It panders shamelessly to the push for more diverse books but offers nothing of real substance. In my experience, kids think of themselves as pretty great; adults are the ones who suggest it might be otherwise by writing books like this. 
  • The Smallest Elephant in the World by Alvin Tresselt, illustrated by Milton Glaser (2/19/19)*
    This is a reprint of a sweet vintage book from 1959 about an elephant the size of a house cat who disguises himself as a cat and attempts to live among a family. The red, black, and green illustrations are charming and the story is just the right mix of humor and imagination. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Book Review: Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens (2018)

Mistletoe and Murder is the fifth book in the Wells and Wong series by UK author Robin Stevens, which will be published in the US on September 18th. As the title suggests, this mystery is set during the Christmas holiday, which Daisy and Hazel are spending with Daisy's aunt at a women's college in Cambridge, England. Also in Cambridge, but staying at the all-male Maudlin College are Daisy's brother, Bertie, Hazel's friend Alexander and his crime-solving partner George (whom Daisy has always seen as rivals), and a pair of twins, Donald and Chummy Melling, who are about to come of age, at which point the older of the two, Donald, will inherit the family fortune. Daisy and Hazel notice right away that there seem to be a lot of accidents whenever the twins are around, and they suspect the impending inheritance might be the motive behind them. When one of the twins dies as a result of one of these accidents, the Detective Society is desperate to find out who did it, even if it means relying on their rival detective agency for clues and inside information.

The festive holiday atmosphere and new setting make this book feel charming right from the outset. Though I am typically disappointed when a story is not set at the girls' own school of Deepdean, the fact that the backdrop was a university made up for that in this book. I was intrigued by the way colleges so severely segregated students by gender in the '30s and I liked the way the author handled the girls' difficulties in gaining access to evidence in a dormitory they were not even supposed to enter. The fact that Daisy, in particular, was forced to get along with her rivals, felt like a good point of character development for her. I didn't quite feel the same tension in Hazel's friendship with Daisy as I have in previous books, but I also appreciate that some books of this series might just want to tell a really good mystery story without exploring too many subplots.

Truly, my only complaint about this series is how quickly each book goes by and how long I have to wait before the next volume is published in the U.S. Book six, A Spoonful of Murder, just came out in the UK in early 2018 and the Goodreads reviews are all so positive that I'm already dying to know when I'll get to read it!  Thankfully, the author has done a reading on YouTube, so I can at least have a taste to tide me over until it makes its way over here - but I still hope it will be sooner rather than later! (Thanks, as always, to Simon & Schuster and Edelweiss for the ARC of this book.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Book Review: Our Library by Phyllis R. Fenner (1939)

Published in 1939, Our Library is a book-length reflection on the successes of Phyllis Fenner's career as a school librarian in Manhassett, New York. This was one of the first books written about elementary school libraries, and it provides advice on everything from materials selection to the involvement of students in running the library.

I found this book completely fascinating not because of how much has changed in librarianship in 80 years but because of how much has remained exactly the same. Fenner's concerns mirror many that today's librarians still consider: welcoming all races, reaching reluctant readers, developing a diverse collection, etc.  Sometimes I think forward-thinking young librarians have a tendency to only look ahead at what's coming next without regard for the foundations that have been laid by the pioneers of the profession. This leads to professionals who feel as though they have just discovered things (like diversity, for example) that, in truth, have been around for decades. There is a lot to learn from professional texts of the past. Sure, some of the tools Fenner uses are out of date, but her reasons for using them, and the end results of their use, are very much the same as the purposes of today's librarians.

I found this book to be both a charming walk down memory lane (I do love the card catalog!) and a valuable professional tool that helped me renew my understanding of what the field of youth librarianship is all about: connecting kids with books they will love that will help them achieve academically and become lifelong readers. When Kirkus reviewed the book upon its original publication, the reviewer noted, "It should prove very constructive and stimulating to school librarians, to teachers who are uncertain to what extent the school library can meet their needs, to parents who should understand the extent to which library work is of value to their children." Though decades have gone by, I still found this to be an accurate assessment of Our Library.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Hidden Gems of my Home Library

Today's Top Ten Tuesday topic is hidden gems. As we have been reshelving our books since our move, I have been taking note of some of the lesser-known vintage children's titles we have in our home library, and this seemed like the perfect time to share!

  • No Boats on Bannermere by Geoffrey Trease (1949)
    This is a British children's novel from 1949 about a group of children who move to a new neighborhood only to learn that one of their neighbors, a wealthy man named Sir Alfred Askew, doesn't allow any boats on the nearby lake. As they set out to learn the reasons behind this rule, they uncover a shocking murder mystery. This is like Swallows and Amazons meets The Boxcar Children meets Minnow on the Say, and it's just great. The sequels are harder to find, but I have managed to read Black Banner Abroad and Under Black Banner, though there is sadly little hope I will ever own them. 
  • The Wonderful Farm by Marcel Ayme, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1951)
    This book has the distinction of being the first children's book ever illustrated by Maurice Sendak! Translated from French, it is the story of two little girls, Delphine and Marinette, who live with their stern parents on a farm which is in every way normal except that the animals can talk. Each chapter follows the girls through a particular adventure involving animals either from the farm or the surrounding forest, and the episodes are funny, sad, suspenseful and everything in between. I read the book aloud to my older two girls this winter, and it was just a joy from beginning to end. 
  • The Cottage at Bantry Bay by Hilda van Stockum (1938)
    This is a novel about the O'Sullivan family of Glengarriff, County Cork, Ireland who introduce the reader to Irish culture through their everyday adventures. This book is often overshadowed by van Stockum's semi-autobiographical Mitchells series and by her Newbery honor book, A Day on Skates, but it's a gentle and engaging story in its own right, and I'm still hoping to read the sequels, Francie on the Run and Pegeen
  • The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom (1960)
    Ursula Nordstrom was the children's books editor for Harper & Row for over 30 years, and she mentored many beloved authors  including Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, Louise Fitzhugh, and Russell Hoban. She only published this one book herself, but it embodies so much of the advice she gave to the authors she worked with (which I read about in another gem, her collection of letters called Dear Genius) and I was disappointed to learn that she wrote another book and subsequently burned it because she didn't think it was good! 
  • The Open Gate by Kate Seredy (1943)
    This wonderful novel is set right near where I grew up, so it has a special place in my heart. It also seems to be the most difficult Seredy novel to find, which is a shame because it's so good! It follows the Preston family as they move from the city to the country on the spur of the moment and try to learn to farm. Set in 1941, it also explores the reaction of average Americans to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and its ramifications.
  • Sticks Across the Chimney: A Story of Denmark by Nora Burglon (1938)
    Siri and Erik live with their widowed mother in Denmark, where they live near a Viking burial ground, as it is the only place they can afford. The community ostracizes them for living there and threatens them with ghost stories, but they do their best to remain true to themselves and loyal to their mother while they wait for their luck to change. There are some old-fashioned sensibilities to the story, but overall it's a great novel for building character. 
  • (George) by E.L. Konigsburg (1970)
    Konigsburg is a well-known author, but this odd book of hers flies a bit under the radar. It's about a middle school student, Ben, whose best friend is his "concentric twin" George who lives inside of him. The story is well-written and funny, but there is also an underlying A Beautiful Mind vibe that keeps you both questioning Ben and rooting for him through the entire book. I put off reading it for a long time because I thought it would freak me out too much, but now I'm actually glad to have it on my shelf.
  • The Far-Distant Oxus by Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock (1937)
    The Far-Distant Oxus was written by two teenage girls, Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock, as an homage to their favorite author, Arthur Ransome of Swallows and Amazons fame. Ransome enjoyed the book and helped to have it published. Though the writing is unpolished and many plot points are unresolved, this is an interesting read both because the authors are so young and because it's basically vintage fanfiction. 
  • Those Miller Girls! by Alberta Wilson Constant, illustrated by Joe and Beth Krush (1965)
    This is the first book in a Penderwicksian trilogy about two sisters, Maddy and Lou Emma Miller and their widower father, Professor Cyrus Miller, who have just moved to Gloriosa, Kansas, where they struggle to settle in among the locals. The story includes great dialogue and lots of fun detail about daily living around the turn of the 20th century. This book is hard to find, and the sequels are even harder. I have a signed copy of book three, Does Anybody Care About Lou Emma Miller?, that was a Christmas present from my husband last year, but I'll probably never even see book two, The Motoring Millers.
  • Ellen Grae by Vera and Bill Cleaver, illustrated by Ellen Raskin (1967)
    Vera and Bill Cleaver are better known for Where the Lilies Bloom, which was a 1970 National Book Award finalist, but Ellen Grae, published in 1967, shares a lot of the same vivid language and emotional dilemmas. Ellen has such a strong reputation for telling tall tales that when she is taken into the unlikely confidence of the town recluse she wonders whether she will be believed if she decides to report what she has learned to someone who can help. It's a really challenging novel, just right for the advanced middle schooler. Interestingly, this book is illustrated by Newbery medalist Ellen Raskin.