Thursday, March 21, 2019

Reading Through History: The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich (2008)

In the year during which Omakayas is twelve winters old, she and her family leave their home near Lake Superior and head west, looking for a new place to settle. As they make the difficult journey, Omakayas and her younger brother, Pinch, both begin to come of age, taking on new names and identities as adulthood comes ever closer. The year is marked by many emotional ups and downs, including the loss of a beloved family member and the revelation that another is perhaps not what he had first seemed.

I was really annoyed by the representation of Father Baraga in the second book of this series, Game of Silence, and it took me a while to want to read another book for fear there would be more blatant inaccuracies requiring research and emails to Catholic Answers apologists. Happily, there are no egregiously anti-Catholic representations in this book, and indeed, priests, when mentioned, are shown to be helpful and merciful. Without having to dissect scenes involving Catholic clergy, I was able to enjoy this novel for what it is: an exciting but emotional adventure story about Ojibwe life in 1852.

There is a lot of memorable description in this book, and while not all of it is pleasant to read about, it is all handled very tastefully and almost poetically. Though there are some definite scary moments, and some that could even be considered gruesome, I did not find them so troubling that I lost sleep or had nightmares or anything like that. Even the scenes about Omakayas beginning her "moon" and gaining the ability to bear children were written in a way that didn't feel embarrassing or awkward. Erdrich describes this experience as such a positive and meaningful transition from girlhood to womanhood, and though it is very specific to Omakayas's culture, I think her description could be comforting to a girl from any time and place.

While the plot in this book is pretty action-packed, for some reason, I just didn't connect with it as strongly as with the first book of the series. Still, I enjoyed the story and plan to read the next book, Chickadee, sometime this spring, at which point I'll need to get myself a copy of Makoons, the only one of the series I don't yet own, and the final book.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Book Review: Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (2017)

Shy Virgil, age eleven, is having trouble learning his multiplication tables, so he goes to the resource room at his school every Thursday. Every week, he sees Valencia, a fellow student who is deaf and wears hearing aids. He is interested in getting to know Valencia better, but he's not sure how to approach her. He decides to enlist his friend Kaori Tanaka, who claims to be a psychic, to help him figure out what to do. Before he can fully take advantage of her services, however, a bully attacks him, and he and his guinea pig, Gulliver, end up trapped in a well. Now Virgil is convinced that not only will he never speak to Valencia, but he might never even be found.

After being let down by the 2019 Newbery winner, Merci Suarez Changes Gears, I became curious about the 2018 medal winner. Sadly, Hello, Universe seems to suffer from the same strains of mediocrity that made Merci Suarez Changes Gears such a disappointment. As I read, I imagined a diversity checklist, and with the introduction of each new character, I checked another box. It feels as though the author tried to ensure that her book would be as inclusive as possible by including as much diversity as possible, whether it contributed to the story or not. Because there are so many main characters, none of them are as well-developed as they could be, and they all feel like token representations of their minority groups rather than three-dimensional characters.

These characters are also presented as victims - of clueless parents, unbelievably stereotypical bullies, and general misunderstanding about their identities. The portrayal of bullies is especially bothersome, as both Virgil's bully, Chet, and Valencia's former best friend, Roberta sound like stock characters from a 1990s teen drama. Chet uses the words "retardo" and "pansy" which I don't think I've ever heard in real life. Every bully I've ever encountered has had subtler material. This book also perpetuates the stereotype that kids like Chet get their attitudes from their fathers. The story needs a villain, but Chet and his dad are both too cartoonish to feel like real threats. Roberta and the group of girls who ask Valencia not to hang out with them anymore are also not believable tormentors; their dialogue sounds like it was lifted from an after-school special. Any kid who has been bullied will recognize that this book does not understand how it feels.

Additionally, this book presents some problematic religious practices that would prevent me from recommending it to a Catholic family. Kaori relies on crystals and horoscopes to supposedly predict the future. Virgil talks to a mythical character when he is trapped in the well who talks about writing letters to the universe. Valencia prays to a saint, not for intercession, but seemingly as a form of worship. In that sense the book shares the same relativistic point of view as the 2017 Newbery Honor book, The Inquisitor's Tale, but at least it doesn't pretend to do anything else.

Each time I read a recent Newbery book, either a medal winner or an honor book, I become more convinced that this award can no longer be trusted to recognize books for their literary merit. This book is not distinctive, nor do I see what it might contribute to the canon of children's literature over a period of more than five years. All it does well is that it includes diversity, and that's a quality that serves a political agenda, not a literary one. From the start, the book feels laden down by all the pandering it does to the so-called "diversity Jedi," and even at its best moments, it still feels like it's trying too hard. Valencia is the strongest character, and I think telling just her story would have made for a better and more cohesive novel. The attempt to be all things to everyone really impacts the overall quality of the story in a negative way.

Hello, Universe is eminently forgettable. Newbery winner or not, no one is missing anything by not reading this book. If you're looking for a book about the interconnectedness of different people, and the uncanny ways in which important friendships sometimes form, Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins, the 2006 Newbery Medal winner, is a much better choice. Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead (2015) is another good alternative. And if you really want to read about what it's like to be trapped in a well, there's a better book for that too: The Girl in the Well is Me by Karen Rivers, published in 2016.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Night Watchmen by Helen Cresswell (1969)

Henry, who has recently been bedridden with an illness, is finally allowed to get out of bed and spend time outdoors while he waits to be cleared to return to school. As he wanders the city on his first day of freedom, he encounters two unusual men - Josh and Caleb. At first glance, they appear to be mere tramps, but after spending time with them, hearing them talk about "There" and "Them" and a mysterious night train that can take them away if necessary, Henry begins to realize there is something unusual, and possibly otherworldly, about them.

This was a strange little book, and I'm not sure whether I enjoyed it. It was certainly intriguing, but it was so short, that by the time I felt invested in what was happening, the story was over. While I usually like compact middle grade novels, this one felt like the beginning of a larger story that never came to fruition. What is here is well-written, and it blurs the lines between reality and fantasy beautifully, but I didn't finish the book with the sense of satisfaction I was expecting.

This book could be a good choice for a reader who is wary of fantasy books, as the magical elements are ambiguous, and the setting is the real world. It might also make a good read-alike for a book like Skellig, which also involves a mysterious otherworldly visitor, or even The Dark is Rising, where fantastical events occur within the context of regular daily life. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

#YearofHarryPotter: Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapters 4-7



This week, for the first time since beginning this project, I wanted to keep reading when I finished the week's "assignment", which was Chapter 4 ("The Leaky Cauldron"), Chapter 5 ("The Dementor"), Chapter 6 ("Talons and Tea Leaves"), and Chapter 7 ("The Boggart in the Wardrobe"). There were so many things I loved in these four chapters (and some of them are spoiler-y):


  • The humor: the banter among the Weasleys at the Leaky Cauldron before they and Harry leave for Hogwarts, imagining Boggart-Snape dressed in Neville's grandmother's clothes, and Professor Trelawney's outlandish behavior in Harry and Ron's first Divination class (plus McGonagall's reaction to it). I don't know why I don't usually think of this series as funny; there have been quite a few laugh-out-loud moments so far in these re-reads.
  • The introduction of Remus Lupin. He's my favorite of all the Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers, and I love that his first interaction with Harry is to give him chocolate after the Dementor attack.
  • Hagrid as the instructor for the Care of Magical Creatures class. I'd forgotten that he hadn't started out in this position, and I loved the way Harry, Ron, and Hermione tried to help him succeed in his first class, even when Malfoy was determined to make a fool of him.
  • The hints that Hermione is using the time-turner. Though we don't find out until later in the book that Hermione is using time travel to make her intense courseload possible, all the clues are there from the start, and they fly just far enough under the radar to keep the mystery afloat. 
  • Scabbers's odd behavior, which re-readers will know instantly is because he is really Peter Pettigrew, and he is reacting to the possibility of encountering escaped prisoner Sirius Black. 
So far, of the first three books, this seems like the one that is the most rewarding to re-read. I'm excited for the next set of chapters, which will introduce the Marauder's Map and explain what a Patronus is for the first time.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Book Review: A Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary (1988)

A Girl from Yamhill is the first of two memoirs children's author Beverly Cleary wrote about her early life. It was my nonfiction pick for #MiddleGradeMarch over on Instagram. Interestingly though, after reading it, I'm questioning whether it's middle grade after all! Compared with her humorous tales of everyday life with Henry, Beezus, and Ramona on Klickitat Street, Cleary's childhood during the Great Depression is darker and sadder. There is still humor, of course, but her memoir is more realistic than idealistic in its worldview. Despite subject headings on the copyright page labeling it "juvenile nonfiction" it's as though the memoir is really written for those who loved her fiction books as kids to read once they've grown up.

The most fascinating thing for me was learning how many of the events and relationships in Cleary's novels were drawn from real life experiences. Though Cleary rarely comes out and states how a real life event influenced a fictional one, many of the connections are very obvious. I also found it interesting that Cleary had neither the supportive, loving mother nor the exasperating older sister which appear in the Ramona books.

I would definitely exercise caution in sharing this book with kids under 12. There are quite a few topics covered that require a bit or maturity to handle, including a miscarriage, an uncle who makes sexual advances, and a much older boyfriend whose unsettling presence is encouraged by Cleary's mother. Beverly Clearly handles these things tastefully, but she also doesn't shy away from the truth of the impact of these events on her well-being.

For me, though, this was a clear five-star read. I'm eagerly anticipating reading the follow-up memoir, My Own Two Feet (1995).

Monday, March 11, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapters 1-3



Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was my favorite of the first three books the first time I read them, and it's also one of my favorites of the movie adaptations from the series. This week, I jumped in with chapters 1-3: "Owl Post," "Aunt Marge's Big Mistake," and "The Knight Bus." (Spoilers below.)

Ron starts the book with a couple of memorable moments. First, he tries to call Harry on the regular Muggle telephone and angers Uncle Vernon by shouting into his ear. Then, he sends Harry an owl which closes with my new favorite quote: "Don't let the Muggles get you down." (Is this quoted a lot? I feel like I have never seen it, but it should be on a tee shirt!) I'm really glad his character is holding up so well to these re-readings.

Because Harry is entering his third year at Hogwarts, he has now come up against the problem of needing a permission form signed to be allowed to visit Hogsmeade. Of course, after Harry blows up Aunt Marge, the Dursleys won't sign, and Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic, won't do it either. In my fuzzy memories of this predicament, I was under the impression that Fudge was standing on ceremony and somehow upholding the Dursleys' authority, but after this reading, it's clear that his inability to get the form signed is giving Harry an added layer of protection that Fudge wants him to have, as Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban and everyone thinks he's dangerous at this point in the story. 

The other thing about Fudge that is notable is that he doesn't punish Harry for using magic on Aunt Marge, even when Harry is certain he is about to be expelled. Fudge seems to be motivated by relief in finding Harry safe as well as by his own affection for the wizarding world's young celebrity. I don't think it would have been right to expel Harry, necessarily, with a murderer on the loose, since Hogwarts is the safest place for him, but Fudge's leniency does add to the pile of evidence showing that Harry never faces the consequences of his actions. 

Finally, this section introduced one of my favorite things in the wizarding world: the Knight Bus. This was the scene I most wanted to see when the movie came out, and having just watched the clip on YouTube, I can say that the filmmakers really did a nice job bringing Rowling's description accurately to life, even if the dialogue was a bit condensed for time.

I'm looking forward to refreshing my memory about other favorite scenes as I read through this book over the next 5 weeks!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Read-at-Home Mom Report: February 2019

I took on a lot more reading this past month than I did in January, but I did still manage to review every book I read. I ended up finishing 40 books, including 15 picture books (most of which were read-alouds with my daughters.) I am heading into March three books ahead on my Goodreads challenge, so I'm going to keep that number set at 400 for the time being. Here's what I read in February. 


Books Read



Pay Attention, Carter Jones

by Gary D. Schmidt
Format: Digital ARC
Genre: Realistic fiction (middle grade)
Source: Edelweiss+
Review: On the blog (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)

Merci Suárez Changes Gears

by Meg Medina 
Format: Ebook 
Genre: Realistic fiction (middle grade)
Source: Public library (Libby app)
Review: On the blog (⭐⭐⭐)

Best Babysitters Ever

by Caroline Cala
Format: Digital ARC
Genre: Realistic fiction (middle grade)
Source: Edelweiss+
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐)

Death of a Mad Hatter

by Jenn McKinlay
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Cozy mystery 
Source: Public library (Hoopla app)
Review: On Goodreads  (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

Buffalo West Wing

by Julie Hyzy
Format: Paperback
Genre: Cozy mystery
Source: Personal collection
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐)

Flip-Flop Girl

by Katherine Paterson
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Realistic fiction (middle grade)
Source: Personal collection
Review: On the blog (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

A Trick of the Light

by Louise Penny
Format: Ebook/Audiobook
Genre: Mystery
Source: Public Library (Cloud Library / RB Digital apps)
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (re-read)

by C.S. Lewis
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Fantasy (middle grade)
Source: Personal collection
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)

The Great Divorce

by C.S. Lewis
Format: Paperback
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Personal collection
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)

The Coloring Crook

by Krista Davis
Format: Paperback
Genre: Cozy mystery
Source: Christmas gift
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐)

A Family of Readers: The Book Lover's Guide to Children's and Young Adult Literature

edited by Roger Sutton and Martha V. Parravano
Format: Paperback
Genre: Nonfiction
Source: Personal collection
Review: On the blog (⭐⭐⭐)

Baby Monkey, Private Eye

by Brian Selznick and David Serlin
Format: Ebook
Genre: Fantasy (easy reader/early chapter book)
Source: Public library (Libby app)
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

Past Due for Murder

by Victoria Gilbert
Format: Digital ARC
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Source: Netgalley
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐)


Baby Island

by Carol Ryrie Brink
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Realistic fiction (middle grade)
Source: Personal collection
Review: On the blog (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)

Greenglass House (re-read)

by Kate Milford
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Fantasy (middle grade)
Source: Public library (RB Digital app)
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)

The Best of Enemies

by Nancy Bond
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Realistic fiction (middle grade)
Source: Personal collection
Review: On the blog (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

The Summer I Turned Pretty

by Jenny Han
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Realistic fiction (young adult)
Source: Public library (RB Digital app)
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)

The Borrowers

by Mary Norton
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Fantasy (middle grade)
Source: Public library
Review: On the blog (⭐⭐⭐)

The Memorial Hall Murder

by Jane Langton
Format: Paperback
Genre: Mystery
Source: Personal collection
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction

by Meghan Cox Gurdon
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Nonfiction
Source: Public library
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

It's Not Summer Without You

by Jenny Han
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Realistic fiction (young adult)
Source: Public library (RB Digital app)
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐)


Fame, Fate, and the First Kiss

by Kasie West
Format: Digital ARC
Genre: Romance (young adult)
Source: Edelweiss+
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐)

The Nickel-Plated Beauty

by Patricia Beatty
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Historical fiction (middle grade)
Source: Personal collection
Review: On the blog (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (re-read)

by J.K. Rowling
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Fantasy (middle grade)
Source: Personal collection
Review: See my #YearofHarryPotter posts (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)

We'll Always Have Summer

by Jenny Han
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Romance
Source: Public library (RB Digital App)
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐)


Picture Books (with links to Goodreads reviews):



Blog Posts Published: 

Read-a-thons, etc.


I participated in these challenges on Instagram in February: 
  • #ReadWhatYouOwn February, for which I read four books that I had owned for 6 months or more.
  • The Talk Wordy to Me Reading Challenge, during which I read from a physical book for 20 minutes per day for six days.
  • #TheCSLewisProject, for which I counted both The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Great Divorce.
  • #OldSchoolKidlit2019, which I host, and for which I counted Baby Island. 


Challenge Progress

  • Alphabet Soup: 5 read in February, 18 of 26 read total 
  • Alphabet Soup Author Edition: 4 read in February, 15 of 26 read total
  • #CathLit: 1 read in February, 4 of 19 read total 
  • Cloak and Dagger: 7 read in February, 16 of 55 read total 
  • Craving for Cozies: 6 read in February, 11 of 51 read total
  • Library Love: 9 read in February, 16 of 60 read total 
  • Mount TBR: 5 read in February, 15 of 36 read total 
  • RMFAO Audiobooks: 7 read in 15, 15 of 25 read total  
  • Goodreads goal: 40 read in February, 27 of 400 read total 

I'll be linking up this post with Feed Your Fiction Addiction for the February 2019 Wrap-Up Round-Up and with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and The Book Date for this week's edition of It's Monday! What Are You Reading?