Friday, March 23, 2018

Why I Read "Old Smelly Books" (and Where To Find Them)

If this blog had a smell, it would probably be "old book smell" considering how many vintage and used children's books I mention here. Today, to go along with Blog All About It's March topic of Favorite Scent (and also as a discussion post for the Book Bloggers Discussion Challenge), I want to share some of the reasons I like to read those older kids' books.

Reason 1: To fill in the gaps.

My copy of this book
was so beaten-up!
My interest in old books first stemmed from my realization that there were a lot of gaps in my personal knowledge of children's books. When I was a kid, I refused to read books in which I thought a character might die, or which in some other way appeared to me to be scary or unsettling. So while the rest of the voracious readers of my age group were enjoying Little Women and A Wrinkle in Time, I was reading and repeatedly re-reading Just As Long As We're Together by Judy Blume and Baby-sitter's Club #6 Kristy's Big Day by Ann M. Martin, knowing that these books were "safe." But a reader cannot live on Blume and Baby-sitters alone and once I was working as a children's librarian, I realized that if I was going to be any good at readers advisory, I needed to know both the new and the old books in my collection. So I started an "Old School Sunday" feature on my professional blog, and began reading classics, award winners, and other favorite vintage books I missed as a kid.

Reason 2: To understand the canon. 

It's hard to appreciate this
book without reading A
Wrinkle in Time
As I read more and more older books, I began to realize the ways in which knowing the canon of children's literature helped inform my reviews of newer books. This was not only true of books which are direct homages to beloved classics, as When You Reach Me is to A Wrinkle in Time, but of children's books in general. Having a broad knowledge of the books that have come before helped me to sense where a new book belonged, how it compared to others of its type, and which classic book's fans might adopt it as a new favorite. As frowned-upon at it is to say this, I did primarily get into librarianship because of books, and it quickly became clear that the way to enjoy the bookish aspects of the job was to get as big and wide a picture of the world of children's books as I could. I have come to believe that this broad and varied knowledge of children's books is really necessary for professionals in the children's literature field.

Reason 3: To find suitable content.

I also like old books because it seems like their content is more in line with the Christian morality I'm trying to live out in my own life and to instill in my kids. That's not to say there aren't newer books that can do this because I definitely have come across some great ones, but I don't usually feel that I have to heavily scrutinize vintage books for sexual content, moral relativism, anti-Christian sentiment, age-inappropriate political agendas, etc. There are definite exceptions, but I do think it's easier to find older books that match up with what I'm looking to share with my kids than it is to find newer ones.

Reason 4: To indulge feelings of nostalgia.

This cover has finally
been updated, but I'm
still fond of the original.
And the last reason I read vintage kidlit is that it gives me a cozy nostalgic feeling. Though I was born in the early '80s, I grew up with a lot of exposure to the pop culture of the '50s, '60s, and '70s, so often books that are ten or more years older than I am still feel like they came from my own childhood. There have been many occasions where I have read a vintage children's book not because it was on my library's shelves and not because I plan to share it with my own kids someday, but simply for my own enjoyment. A particular guilty pleasure of mine are friendship and family stories from the '60s and '70s with cheesy cover illustrations.

Resources for Discovering Old Books

If you, too, tend to enjoy a little throwback reading every now and then, you will want to check out the following resources: 

    Open Library is an initiative of the Internet Archive which has the ultimate goal of having a webpage for every single book, in and out of print. It also has a lending library of digitized books that can be read online by registered users. Each user is limited to 5 books at a time, and the loan period is two weeks. I have found a variety of old books on this site that have been weeded from my local libraries or have been out of print so long that they are just hard to find in general. These have included picture books by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers and Maurice Sendak, the original editions of Charlaine Harris's Aurora Teagarden books (for adults), and even a cozy mystery set at my alma mater entitled Murder at Vassar (also for adults). 
  • @yearlingreads on Instagram
    When I'm not sure what I want to borrow next from Open Library, I like to scroll through this Instagram account, which focuses on paperback books from the '60s, '70s and '80s. Many of them are blasts from my own past, and others are books I would have loved as a kid but missed for some reason. She also shares great vintage covers for well-known classics. Recent discoveries I have made through @yearlingreads have included the Al series by Constance C. Greene, Meaning Well by Sheila R. Cole, and Thatcher Payne-in-the-Neck by Betty Bates.
  • Lost Classics of Teen Lit 
    I subscribe to this blog through Feedly and occasionally spend some time reading through it if I'm looking for a book suggestion or I see a post about an old favorite. I loved the recent post about a book called Teenage Marriage: Coping with Reality that struck me as both sad and funny. This blog also mentions a lot of books I recall either reading as a young teen or seeing on the shelves on my small-town public library back in the 80s and 90s. 
  • Reshelving Alexandria
    This network of Facebook groups focuses a lot on nonfiction sets of books, but fiction comes up a fair amount as well. It's good for browsing and learning the names of authors and books of the past that have stood the test of time. I haven't been active in the group lately, but it is my understanding that the admin team is to launch a website with premium content. Personally, I don't think I'd pay for access to their book lists, but I do think visiting the groups a few times is a good way to discover a few new-to-you books. There is also a Marketplace group where you can purchase old books at reasonable prices. 
  • Used Book Sales
    My husband and I go to a lot of used book sales, and these can be great places to stumble upon old-school children's literature gems. Many of the sales we frequent have vintage sections, where we have found interesting titles we never would have known about otherwise. Favorite book sale finds have included The Secret Language, the only novel of long-time HarperCollins editor Ursula Nordstrom and Cress Delahanty, a quirky Southern coming-of-age novel by Jessamyn West, with illustrations by Joe Krush. Find sales near you using
Do you read old books? Why or why not?

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Good Charlotte by Carol Beach York (1969)

Charlotte, usually called Tatty, is generally not known around Good Day Orphanage as being good at anything. When Miss Lavender and Miss Plum go away for a few days, however, Mrs. Singlittle comes to take their place, and she takes a strong liking to Charlotte right away. She gives her the nickname of Good Charlotte during their very first meeting, and despite Charlotte's feeling that it's a misnomer, it sticks. That very same day, a mysterious girl with blue hair arrives at the orphanage. Her name is Esmerelda, and she claims to be a princess who has been enchanted by goblins and must remain that way until the first snowfall of the year. Like Mrs. Singlittle, Esmerelda also takes a liking to Charlotte and chooses her to be her special friend.

This short and sweet chapter book has much in common with other school stories, but adds a supernatural twist. I spent a lot of the story trying to figure out whether Esmerelda was a real princess, an imaginary friend, or a real girl masquerading as a princess, and my opinion is that it never becomes clear, but that it doesn't really matter. The larger focus of the story  -  Charlotte seeing herself in a new light after a few unexpected kindnesses - comes across just as strongly whether Esmerelda is magical or not. The situations in the story, and the relationships among the girls are what you might expect from a typical school story, but the supernatural element and Charlotte's very relatable flaws and mistakes help it to stand out a bit from others.

Fans of cozy stories about orphanages and boarding schools, as well as those who like a touch of magical realism in these types of stories will love this sweet book. It reminded me of a cross between the Orphelines series and Dory Fantasmagory. This book is also apparently the inspiration for the name of the rock band, Good Charlotte. The Internet says the band hadn't read the book, though, so they really just liked the name, not the character herself.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

My To-Read List for This Spring (and Beyond...)

One of my goals for the two read-a-thons I plan to participate in this spring (Spring into Horror during April and Bout of Books May 14-20) is to get through the huge pile of books that have come to live on my nightstand, as well as the ARCs I've requested for books with publication dates in April, May, and June. While I am pretty sure I won't make it through all of these, I also can't say for sure which I will end up reading, so I thought I'd just quickly highlight my stack of options for today's Top Ten Tuesday topic, "Books On My Spring TBR."

Nonfiction (Adult and Children's)

  • My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
    A friend of mine watches The Durrells in Corfu, and she recommended it to me. I of course don't want to start watching without reading the book first. 
  • Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
    My Catholic book club is reading this for our April discussion. 
  • Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum by Laura Berquist
    My husband has been asking me to read this homeschooling guide for months, and I keep forgetting about it.
  • Picturesque Tale of Progress: Conquests I by Olive Beaupre Miller
    I have been planning to get back into reading this nonfiction set that we'll be using to homeschool history, but I keep putting it off in favor of fiction. 
  • An Unforgiving Land: Hardscrabble Life in the Trapps, a Vanished Shawangunk Mountain Hamlet by Robi Josephson and Bob Larsen
    My great-grandmother is mentioned in this book, and there is even a photo from her childhood. My grandmother bought the book for me years ago, and I am starting to feel guilty about not reading it!

Mysteries (Adult)

  • The Memorial Hall Murder by Jane Langton
    This is not the first of the series, but it caught my eye at a used bookstore because I have enjoyed this author's children's books.
  • 206 Bones by Kathy Reichs
    Based on the description of this book on Amazon, it sounds like I'll be able to count it as my one required scary book for Spring into Horror. 
  • Spider Bones by Kathy Reichs
    It's rare that I own two consecutive books in a series, but since I do, I'd like to get through both so I can pass them on to another reader and free up some space.
  • The Crossword Murder by Nero Blanc
    This was another random book sale find that I'm curious about. 
  • Buffalo West Wing by Julie Hyzy
    I've been meaning to get back into this series. I'm especially interested in this one because it introduces a new administration to the White House.
  • Decked by Carol Higgins Clark
    Another book sale book. I've been wanting to try this series for a long time. 
  • The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny
    There are actually six from this series on my nightstand, but this is book 5 and I don't have 6 or 7, so for now, this is the only one I feel I need to finish soon. 
  • Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon
    I have wanted to read this for years, but somehow it keeps getting forgotten. 

Romance (Adult)

  • Lakeside Cottage by Susan Wiggs
  • Summer by the Sea by Susan Wiggs

I bought both of these books because I have enjoyed the author's work in the past, and because I was at a book sale where paperbacks were "up to 5 for a $1." I wasn't about to miss out! I typically get really interested in summer books when the weather first warms up - I'm hoping that's soon!

Children's Fiction


  • Peppermints in the Parlor by Barbara Brooks Wallace
    My husband has been asking me to read this one, and I have been procrastinating because it doesn't look like my usual fare. 
  • Honestly, Katie John! by Mary Calhoun
    I have read the first two of this series and would like to finish this series, which also includes Katie John and Heathcliff. 
  • By the Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman
    Another recommendation from my husband that's been on my nightstand for many months!
  • All Alone in the Universe by Lynne Rae Perkins
    I really loved Criss Cross and have been wanting to read this book, which comes before it, for years. 
  • The Sparrow Child by Meriol Trevor
    Trevor is one of the best Catholic writers ever, and I don't know why I haven't read this yet! 
  • The Aurora County All-Stars by Deborah Wiles
    I find the covers of the books in this series so appealing, but have yet to read one. This is the third book, so I'll be reading out of order, but there is a new book coming out so I'd like to get them all read before that comes out. 
  • Dandelion Cottage by Carroll Watson Rankin
    This looks like a sweet vintage story that I will really enjoy. 
  • Wild Geese Flying by Cornelia Meigs
    I find Cornelia Meigs's writing a bit difficult to get into at times, so I've been avoiding this book, but I do really want to read it. 

ARCs (Adult and Children's)

  • Running Through Sprinklers by Michelle Kim (4/17/18)
  • Better Off Read by Nora Page (5/8/18)
  • The Twin Test by Rula Sinara (5/8/18)
  • Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea by Lynne Rae Perkins (5/15/18)
  • Front Desk by Kelly Yang (5/29/18)
  • Save the Date by Morgan Matson  (6/5/18)
  • The House that Lou Built by Mae Respicio (6/12/18)
  • Why Can't I Be You? by Melissa Walker (6/19/18)
What are you planning to read this Spring?

Monday, March 19, 2018

The RAHM Report for 3/19/18

What My Kids Are Reading

This week's RAHK Report includes our St. Patrick's Day read-alouds and the book my four-year-old has been reading to my two-year-old.

What I Finished Reading

  • Fatal Frost by Karen MacInerney
    I had a hard time getting into this book at the beginning, but things really picked up after a few chapters and it ended up being a really compelling mystery. I was wondering at first whether I'd stick with the series, but I've decided I definitely will. 
  • The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
    This was really good in a creepy sort of way. I think I prefer The Sherwood Ring, just because it's more like my usual type of book, but this was very good. I will probably have a review up in about a month. 
  • Dead Letter by Betsy Byars
    This series is growing on me. Herculeah is certainly a unique heroine. 
  • Your Old Pal, Al by Constance C. Greene
    I liked this third book of the series a lot. I'd been hoping for a book devoted to the tension that other associations introduce into the Al//unnamed narrator friendship, and this was it!

What I'm Currently Reading

  • All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot
    I read a bit in this one this week. I'll be out of town over the weekend and into the early part of next week, so I may not finish it right away, but probably by the time I post another RAHM Report in two weeks, it will be done. 
  • The Advice Column Murders by Leslie Nagel
    I've started this ARC a couple of times, but I keep getting distracted. Hopefully I'll be able to sit down and really focus on it before we leave for our trip. 

Challenge Progress

  • Fatal Frost counts for Cloak and Dagger and Craving for Cozies. 
  • The Perilous Gard and Your Old Pal, Al count for Old School Kidlit. 
  • Dead Letter counts for the Author Love challenge. 
  • I also published reviews of the following titles for the Writing Reviews challenge: Southern Discomfort by Caroline Fardig; Fit to Die by Ellery Adams; Happy Little Family by Rebecca Caudill; and A Girl Called Al by Constance C. Greene. 
I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The RAHK Report for 3/18/18

Here's another list of books my three girls have been enjoying lately: 

  • More Milly-Molly-Mandy by Joyce Lankester Brisley
    We've settled into another set of Milly-Molly-Mandy stories, and both Miss Muffet (4 years, 4 months) and Bo Peep (2.5 years) are loving it. We're about five chapters in and so far, their favorites have been the one where Milly-Molly-Mandy and Billy Blunt meet a family living in a train car and the one where Milly-Molly-Mandy befriends a duck who follows her to school.
  • Catholic Children's Treasure Box 4I got this set from my husband for Christmas and intended to read two or so per week during Lent. For a variety of reasons, that didn't end up happening, but we did read this one during breakfast on Friday morning. Miss Muffet especially loves the stories about little Saint Therese.
  • Fin M'Coul: The Giant of Knockmany Hill by Tomie dePaola
    This is the girls' favorite Irish picture book. Though we have read it a lot, we made a point of also reading it on St. Patrick's Day. 
  • The Children of Lir by Sheila MacGill-Callahan, illustrated by Gennady Spirin
    Miss Muffet chose this book from our stack of Irish books, and I read it aloud before dinner on St. Patrick's Day. In the end, I think only Jumping Joan (5 months) was actually listening, but since the sound of my voice seemed to entertain her, I read it to the end. I see some reviewers on Goodreads don't like this take on this tale, but since it wasn't familiar to me, I did enjoy it. 
  • Shamrocks, Harps, and Shillelaghs: The Story of the St. Patrick's Day Symbols by Edna Barth
    I wanted to read this entire book aloud to Miss Muffet in preparation for St. Patrick's Day, but life got in the way. I did try to read just the short section about St. Patrick, but she was not into it, so we only got through a couple of pages. I ended up just putting on the Dreamscape video version of St. Patrick's Day by Gail Gibbons. 
  • The Year Around: Poems for Children by Alice I. Hazeltine
    Miss Muffet memorized two poems recently, both from this collection my mom rescued from the library in the school where she works. The first poem was "The March Wind" by Maud E. Uschold and the second was "Wearing of the Green" by Aileen Fisher.

  • Finally, these are Miss Muffet's recent independent reads:
    • Cowboy Sam and the Fair by Edna Walker Chandler
    • Monkey Friends by Charles Forsythe 
    • Junk Day on Juniper Street by Lilian Moore, illustrated by Arnold Lobel
    • Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman
      Evidently, she has been reading this one to Bo Peep because my husband and I don't read easy readers aloud, and yet she can still tell the whole story. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Reading Through History: Happy Little Family by Rebecca Caudill (1947)

Four-year-old Bonnie Fairchild and her older siblings Althy, Debby, Emmy, and Chris live in the Kentucky hills in the early 1900s. As the youngest child, Bonnie is often babied by her siblings, but now that she is four she feels big enough to start doing some of the things they do, including wearing fancy hats, going ice skating, walking a path alone, and attending school. Happy Little Family covers a year in the life of the Fairchilds, telling a story set during each season which highlights the family's daily living and Bonnie's quest for greater maturity and responsibility.

I read Happy Little Family aloud to my own four-year-old (Little Miss Muffet), and her two-year-old sister (Little Bo Peep) also listened in. While the characters have not quite made the impression that Mary, Laura, and Carrie Ingalls have made upon my girls, Miss Muffet was completely enamored of Bonnie. As a child who frequently laments how long it takes to grow up, my daughter related very strongly to Bonnie's desire to be big enough to have the privileges afforded to her older siblings.

As a read-aloud, this book works nicely. The chapters are short enough to be read in one sitting without having to break them into smaller chunks, and there is a good number of illustrations throughout the book that provide context and easily re-engage a distracted listener. The writing is also really pleasant to read aloud, with lots of fun dialogue and inner monologues from Bonnie's point of view.

There is also a true sweetness to this book that is endearing and not a bit saccharine. Bonnie and her family all feel like real people, and though their day-to-day lives are very different from ours, their concerns, desires, fears, and interests are very similar to those of contemporary kids. Parents looking for a first chapter book, or for a read-alike for Little House in the Big Woods or Betsy-Tacy will definitely find what they need in this book. There are also three sequels: Schoolhouse in the Woods, Up and Down the River, and Schoolhouse in the Parlor, which I plan to have Little Miss Muffet (a very early reader) read independently as we can get our hands on them.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Book Review: A Girl Called Al by Constance C. Greene (1969)

A Girl Called Al is the story of two tween girls, Alexandra, called Al, and her new friend, the unnamed narrator, who lives down the hall from her in their apartment building. In many ways, the two girls are quite different. Al has lived in many different places and has a single mom whom she claims not to love as much as her absentee father. Her friend has a more traditional family life - mom, dad, and younger brother - and a more traditional outlook on life in general than noncomfortist Al, who wishes to take wood shop instead of sewing and doesn't seem to care what other people think about her. The two girls spend a lot of time together, as well as with their building superintendent, who serves as a surrogate grandfather for both of them and helps them build a bookshelf.

I totally missed this series as a kid. I knew the books existed, and frequently saw them on library shelves, but I just never felt drawn to them. As an adult, though, I am intrigued by both the text, with its quirky characters, and the illustrations which, to my surprise, were drawn by Byron Barton of picture book fame. (Except for the cover. That's by JoAnne Scribner, who also did covers for the Ramona books.) I like the way the illustrations reflect Al's unique look and personality, and how they perfectly suit the sometimes-funny, sometimes-poignant tone of the story. The pictures are a bit unusual-looking, but that only makes sense for a book about an offbeat heroine.

The story itself is funny at certain points and poignant at others. There isn't necessarily a very strong story arc, but just spending time with these girls and seeing how their friendship impacts their lives is enough to sustain readers' interest for 130 pages. I also appreciate that although Al is an unusual character, the author doesn't spend the whole book calling attention to her strangeness. Unlike something like Stargirl, which beats readers over the head with its protagonist's noncomformity, this book just lets it unfold in Al's actions and allows the reader to draw her own conclusions based on the narrator's descriptions. I was  reminded a little bit of Me and Fat Glenda as I was reading, possibly because Al is described several times as "a little on the fat side," but Al is less of a dubious friend than Glenda and she is more likable overall. A Girl Called Al also seems to be largely free of the bullying and mean girl tropes that often infiltrate books of this type. There is a little bit of taunting, but it is mostly peripheral to the main story.

There are six Al books in all, and I plan to read as many of the rest as I can. They have a nostalgic charm about them that I really enjoy, and I'm curious to see how Al changes as she continues to grow up.