Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Reading with Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep: December 2015

Miss Muffet's ABCs

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Miss Muffet can recite the entire alphabet. She doesn't do it on demand, and she instantly stops if you catch her, but I often see her poring over an alphabet book, carefully saying the names of the letters. She does not yet associate the letter names with their shapes, but I suspect it won't be long. Some of her recent favorite alphabet books are:

  • Jane Foster's ABC (our beloved review copy from Little Bee Books)
  • Alpha by Isabelle Arsenault (an illustrated version of the NATO phonetic alphabet)
  • My Best Ever: ABC Alphabet Book (a favorite from back in August)
  • Winnie the Pooh Alphabet Book Bag (a birthday gift from Grandpa)

She is also really into the African Alphabet song from Sesame Street, which I used to sing to her a cappella, and which we now sometimes watch together on YouTube. She can sing almost the entire thing word for word, except that she calls the Zulu chief a "Zuzu chief."

Bo Peep's Taste in Books

Bo Peep is quickly approaching the end of that tricky newborn stage and showing much more of her personality. This, of course, includes the emergence of her taste in books. On a recent trip to the library, I parked her stroller in the board book area and just began showing her the covers of different books. Some made her fuss, or turn away, or squirm in disgust, but others caused her to smile and coo. The first one to get a real reaction was What? by Leo Lionni. Other books that make her smile so far are Big Fat Hen by Keith Baker and Big Bear Little Chair by Lizi Boyd. It seems that the simpler the color scheme and the cleaner the lines, the more Bo Peep enjoys it. Pages that are too busy or have too much detail overwhelm her and make her cry. I am so looking forward to reading to her more over the next few months.

Reading Together 

We have a couple of very simple Christmas board books hanging around the house right now, which I chose for Little Bo Peep, but which are just as interesting to Miss Muffet. After going through the books with me to make sure she can identify what is on each page, Miss Muffet likes to bring the books to Bo Peep and read them to her. Bo Peep thinks this is the greatest thing going and listens with rapt attention and a big baby smile on her face. There is nothing that warms my librarian heart more than having kids who read together!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Reading Through History: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (2011)

After the fall of Saigon, Ha, her mother, and older brothers flee their home in Vietnam and travel to the United States, where they do their best to settle into their new lives in Alabama. Ha not only struggles with the tricky rules of the English language, but also with the cruelty of her classmates and a strong sense of longing for her missing father.

This novel in verse is based on the author's own experiences following the Vietnam War. The story begins with the celebration of Tet at home in Vietnam, and concludes with the same celebration one year later in the US, showing along the way the many struggles - including a long voyage by ship with very little food or drink - that the family must endure. Though I sometimes question whether kids really read many novels in verse, I think this was the best way to tell this particular story, as the poetry makes the hardship, turmoil and emotional heaviness of the story easier to digest and understand. Lai's more recent novel, Listen, Slowly, is beautifully written, but also very dense and descriptive, and had this book been written in that same style it would have felt burdensome to slog through.

When I was in high school, we never made it past World War II in any history class, so I have always been partial to historical fiction set in the second half of the 20th Century, as it teaches me all the things I never studied. The 1970s are especially interesting to me, as this is when my mom was a teenager, and I grew up surrounded by a lot of 70s pop culture. Though this was not the typical kids' novel set in the 70s, it broadened my horizons significantly and I imagine it would do much the same for any reader, child or adult, who is unfamiliar with the Vietnam war and its aftermath.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Reading Through History: Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski (1945)

In this, one of Lois Lenski’s many children’s novels featuring the people and culture of a specific American region, the reader meets Birdie Boyer, the daughter of a farmer who has just moved his family from North Carolina to Florida to grow strawberries. At first, Birdie and her family are friendly toward their new neighbors, the Slaters, but their overtures of friendship are met time and again with cruel suggestions that their strawberry crop is likely to fail, and they should go back to North Carolina. The rivalry escalates as time goes on, with alcoholic Mr. Slater becoming increasingly violent and belligerent until even his own family begins to suffer.

This book is such an enjoyable read. Far from being a frivolous feel-good book about a girl and her strawberry patch, this is a story driven by the frustration, anger, and rivalry that arise from the competing priorities of farmers and ranchers. Lenski makes wonderful use of local color, writing all the dialogue in the dialect of the region. Reading the book aloud is a delight, and the language, though foreign at first, comes easily after just a chapter or two. The plot is exciting, and involves everything from fire to illness, but also includes the everyday details of events like a church picnic and a shopping trip.

Unfortunately, this otherwise excellent novel - which won the 1946 Newbery Medal - has a very disappointing ending. Mr. Slater is redeemed in a strange and contrived turn of events that does not match the rest of the book and shies away from the darker tone of the rest of the story. Perhaps Lenski felt this was necessary, given her audience, but it leaves the reader feeling somewhat deflated after such an enjoyable roller coaster ride of a story.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Book Review: Waiting by Kevin Henkes (2015)

Five friends - all figurines - stand on a windowsill, each waiting for something. While some of what comes along is predictable, there are also some surprises.

The pictures in this book are similar in style to Henkes’s other recent picture books like A Good Day, and not as much like his popular mouse books. Each picture depicts the different figurines reacting in subtle ways to what happens outside the window and on the windowsill itself. The text hints at many of the story’s events, but it is the illustrations - and specifically the characters’ facial expressions - that really convey the book’s beauty and emotion. The relationship between the text and images is very strong in a way that is really only possible when the author is also the illustrator.

The language in this book is really lovely, making it a pleasure to read aloud. It probably works best as a lap book since the illustrations are a bit small to be seen at a distance, but it might also work in a very intimate story time setting, especially if the theme is seasons, toys, or friendship. Because of the soothing nature of Henkes’s writing, it makes an ideal naptime or bedtime read-aloud.

Though very young children are unlikely to understand the depth of the text, they will still enjoy the book, as evidenced by my toddler’s repeated requests to hear it at naptime during the three weeks we had it from the library. There is really no child too young to appreciate something about it. I think it’s also a good book to share with much older kids, maybe even middle schoolers and high schoolers, as it provides opportunities to discuss symbolism and theme in a much less intimidating book than is typically assigned at that level.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Reading Through History: The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (1995)

Kenny Watson is the middle child of the "Weird Watson" family, between sweet younger sister Joetta and delinquent older brother Byron. As Byron's out-of-control behavior escalates, his parents decide the family will make a trip south to Birmingham where Byron will spend the summer - and perhaps longer - with his grandmother, learning how to behave properly and to better appreciate the problems he will face as a young black man. The plans for the trip and the trip itself are fun for Kenny, leaving him completely unprepared for the terrible thing he witnesses while in Alabama, and how deeply it affects him.

Christopher Paul Curtis is one of those authors who can be trusted to tell any story. If his name is on the cover of a book, I always know it is going to be a bittersweet story, filled with great humor, wonderful descriptions, important historical facts, and lots and lots of heart. This book is no exception. As in his other novels, specifically Elijah of Buxton and The Madman of Piney Woods, Curtis brings to life all the minor details of the characters' lives and the time period in which they live. Details of the kids' lives at school, their favorite records to listen to, their mother's obsession with making sure they are warm enough in the cold of winter - all of these build up a full picture in the reader's mind, not just of the historical event that provides the story's climax, but of what their own lives might have been like if they had been raised in Flint in the 1960s.

On its own, this book does not provide a complete study of the civil rights movement. Rather, because of its strong characters, many funny moments, and kid-friendly tone, it is a great jumping off point for beginning to understand the significance of the civil rights movement and of many of the great leaders whose names are so commonly mentioned in elementary school classrooms during this unit of study. The tragedy portrayed near the end of the story is upsetting, and many readers will react just as Kenny does, with great shock and sadness, but it is also an event on a small enough scale that readers can internalize the turbulence of this time period on an emotional level first, and then begin to work out the greater implications of the movement as a whole. And even without a specific lesson to back it up, this is just a great book that deserves to be read and enjoyed by as many kids as possible. (I really wish Christopher Paul Curtis would write some contemporary realistic fiction. I would eagerly read it all!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Reading Through History: Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park (2008)

Though she is a die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan, just like most of the guys at the firehouse where her father used to work, Maggie can't help but be intrigued by the new guy, Jim Maine, who roots for the Giants and scores all of the games by hand. Soon, Maggie is learning to keep score as well, a process which makes her feel especially connected to her beloved Dodgers. When Jim is eventually drafted into the army and sent to Korea, Maggie shifts from scoring games to scoring the war itself, trying to discern based on what she reads in the newspapers where Jim might be and when it might be time for him to come home. When he stops answering her letters, however, Maggie begins to despair, and when she learns what has become of him, she tries everything in her power to help him recover from a terrible experience.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this story portrayed a faithful Catholic family, and I enjoyed the references early in the book to choosing confirmation names, going to Confession, and going to church. Unfortunately, though, it became clear to me as I kept reading that the author had not done enough research on the Catholic Mass prior to Vatican II. On page 51, there is the following passage:

Every week in church, Father John or one of the other priests asked for intercessions, and then everyone prayed for other people. Usually, the intercessions were for people who were sick or hurt. Or had lost their jobs, or had gone off to Korea to fight in the war.

It is true that there is now a part of the Mass where the congregation prays for various intentions like the ones named here, and though it is not usual, there are even some parishes where individuals are asked to call out the specific causes for which they would like to pray. But this detail struck me right away as a possible anachronism, because prior to Vatican II, almost none of the Mass was said in the vernacular, and there would have been no opportunity for the congregation to participate so freely. I asked in a Catholic forum whether it was at all possible that intercessions such as these would have been included in a 1950s Mass, and the comments all adamantly stated that it would definitely not have happened. (A few did suggest that perhaps this was happening outside of the Mass, at another weekly church service, but that seems like a reach. I will admit that the author did not explicitly say it was happening at Mass, but the details were vague enough that the lack of clarity is as much a problem as the error itself.)

This is disappointing to me, not just because it's an incorrect detail in an otherwise favorable depiction of my religion, but also because of how much research went into the rest of the book. The author's note talks a lot about the author's sources for information about baseball and the war, but there is no mention at all of how her depiction of Catholicism came about. It is also disconcerting that an editor did not pick up on the error, as it would have been easy enough to ask a Catholic expert, or even just someone who attended Mass during that time period, to fact-check the few specific details about the Mass that are included in the story. The failure to do so makes it seem like the author did not consider the faith-based parts of her story to be as significant as the other storylines.

Aside from this problem, the book is decent, but not great. The plot is not exactly predictable, but it feels very obvious, and there is never a moment where the reader is really caught off-guard or surprised in any way. The story is told in a very linear, almost flat fashion, and it attempts to tell a story set over the course of several baseball seasons in the space of only about 200 pages, which makes the pacing feel off and the main character's psychological development feel forced and inauthentic. The premise was interesting, but its execution was poor. It's just not the author's strongest work, and not a book I plan to revisit for any reason.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Book Review: Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright (1938)

Garnet Linden has an ordinary life on her family's Wisconsin farm, but when she finds a silver thimble at the start of the summer, she believes it might have some extraordinary magic in it. Indeed, not long after she finds the thimble, the drought which has plagued the farmers comes to an end, an orphan named Eric finds his way into the Linden family, and Garnet herself begins to experience adventures never before imagined. Though the 1930s bring about hard times that many would choose to forget, Garnet will always remember her thimble summer.

This lovely slice-of-life story, winner of the 1939 Newbery Medal, could make anyone nostalgic for an idyllic small-town summer whether they've ever actually experienced one or not. Garnet's adventures - getting locked in the library, hitchhiking to a neighboring city, attending the local fair - are not necessarily the most exciting things ever to happen in fiction, but they are enjoyable to read about because of the way Enright describes them. By giving Garnet such a stubbornly positive and hopeful disposition, she makes it impossible for the reader to dislike her, and she cultivates in the reader an unshakable desire to follow Garnet wherever she may lead. This love for Garnet as a character is furthered by the way the other characters in the story react to her. Citronella, who is a "wet blanket" type of character always worried about being careful and not getting into trouble, still chooses to spend time with Garnet. Mr. Freebody, the Lindens' neighbor, sticks his neck out again and again to make sure Garnet is happy and healthy. Even Jay, Garnet's brother, and Eric, the orphan who comes to work on the farm. seem to have a special feeling for Garnet, which only makes the reader more intrigued by her every move.

The role of the thimble in the story seems unclear and unnecessary, and there were moments - especially in chapter two, when Citronella's great-grandmother tells a story from her childhood - where it wasn't entirely clear how the whole story was meant to hang together, but even with these  minor flaws, this is still a wonderful book. I liked it considerably more than Gone-Away Lake and Return to Gone-Away, which I found tedious and difficult to finish, and I found myself laughing out loud or asking my husband (who read the book aloud to me) to go back and repeat different lines so I could appreciate them a second time. (Especially notable was the moment where Citronella, distraught at being trapped inside the library says, "I wish I'd never learned to read." It was just so like her character to react so dramatically, and I laughed in delight at the perfection of that line.)

Thimble Summer is a quiet book which is likely to appeal to more serious and introverted readers. Though there are vague hints early on that the thimble might have magical properties, this is a product of Garnet's imaginative thinking and not a truly fantastical element to the story. This is a realistic fiction novel through and through and will be loved especially by kids who like to read about the everyday occurrences in the lives of other kids.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Reading Through History: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (1989)

Coming home from school one day in 1943 Copenhagen, best friends Annemarie and Ellen are stopped on the street by German soldiers and disciplined for running races on the sidewalk. After this incident, Annemarie becomes increasingly more aware of the effects of German occupation on her country. It isn't long before local businesses run by Jewish families are boarded up and Jewish families - including Ellen's - begin to hear rumors about "relocation." When it becomes clear that Ellen's family will be targeted, Annemarie and her parents don't hesitate before bravely stepping up to help their friends. What Annemarie doesn't realize, however, is how her own personal bravery will be tested, and how important her own involvement will be in saving the life of her friend.

I haven't read Number the Stars since I was 11 years old, and just as with The Light in the Forest and A Gathering of Days, my memories of the story were very far removed from what actually happens. I remembered the girls being German, not Danish, and I was sure there were scenes set in a concentration camp. Compared with the dark story I conjured up in my imagination, the real thing, though compelling, was far less upsetting. 

What is great about this novel, though (aside from Lowry's writing, which I always enjoy) is the fact that it makes the horrors of the Holocaust understandable to young readers without giving them too much to process at once. Through Annemarie, an ordinary girl, readers are able to imagine how it would feel to slowly see their country changed by outside invaders, and to consider how they might be able to muster their own courage in the event that a friend's family was threatened by a plot to evict them from their rightful homes. Though there is no mention of concentration camps in the story, the concept of "relocation" opens up the discussion so that parents and teachers can begin to discuss what happened with kids and help them process the disgust and fear they will feel upon learning of these events for the first time. The story also gives readers an opportunity to reflect on the hope represented by the Danish Resistance, and to realize that many lives can indeed be saved by the actions of those who are willing to stand up for what is right. 

Based on this reading, Number the Stars is probably the book I will use to introduce the Holocaust to my children when we reach that point in our homeschooling curriculum. Though I originally read it in sixth grade, it would work well for most readers in grades 4 to 8. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Reading Through History: Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm (2010)

Times are hard in 1935, and Turtle's mother, a housekeeper, finds herself working for a woman who despises children. Unable to afford to leave the job, she sends Turtle to stay with relatives in Key West, Florida. Here Turtle meets the Diaper Gang, a group of boys, including her own cousins, who are known around the neighborhood for their seemingly magical cure for diaper rash. Though the boys initially don't want Turtle to be a part of their club, she soon finds herself caught up in all of their adventures, from working for a rumrunner and taking lunch to the cantankerous Nana Philly to accidentally getting stranded on an island during a hurricane and finding a buried treasure.

My first comment about this book is that the cover is really poor. It is attractive enough, aesthetically, but it does absolutely nothing to sell this story, whose main character is a street-wise, smart-mouthed, and sassy eleven-year-old. The cover suggests an emotional and contemplative story akin to Kevin Henkes's Junonia, or Karen Day's A Million Miles From Boston, and this is anything but that. Turtle in Paradise is funny, entertaining, and a little bit irreverent (with all its references to baby bottoms) and the writing is mostly spirited and joyful, without a lot of tedious self-reflection on the part of Turtle. Sure, there are serious moments, but none deserving of such a bland adult-looking cover. (Had this book been given a more colorful cover, I'd probably have read it when it came out.)

Complaints about the cover aside, though, this book is a quick and enjoyable read that will appeal to both boys and girls in the upper elementary grades. It shares the same memorable writing style as Holms's other Newbery Honor winning historical fiction novels, Our Only May Amelia and Penny from Heaven. Holm has a real talent for bringing history to life through interesting main characters, and Turtle might just be the most memorable of them all.

Though it seemed to me, as I was reading, that there wasn't much history in this book, aside from occasional references to the Depression, Little Orphan Annie and Shirley Temple, the author's note after the story made me realize how reading this book can help young readers imagine what their lives would have been like during the 1930s. It's also interesting to me that this is yet another book on my reading list (along with Hattie Big Sky, Caddie Woodlawn and The Cabin Faced West) that was directly inspired by the life of the author's grandmother. I think kids are always fascinated by fiction based on real life, so this is a definite selling point for this book as well.

Turtle in Paradise is a great first introduction to the difficulties of the Great Depression, and to pop culture from the time period as well. It is also the perfect choice for kids who live in Florida and want to study the history of their state. (Also fun - this comic booktalk of the story from Unshelved.)

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Momo by Michael Ende (1985)

When Momo, a bedraggled orphan with a seemingly unending capacity for listening to others moves into the amphitheater in an unnamed city, she becomes the center of cultural life. By talking to Momo the residents of the city learn to solve problems, play games, tell stories, and get along better with their friends and family. In exchange for the riches Momo gives to the city, the residents look out for her and keep her safe, acting as the parents and siblings she does not have. This wonderful arrangement is soon threatened, however  - and eventually destroyed - by a mysterious supernatural race of men in grey, whose sole purpose is to rob people of their time and make it impossible for them to enjoy their lives. Momo is determined to save her beloved friends from the fate brought about by the men in grey's sinister activities, but even with the help of Professor Hora, who is responsible for all time and his psychic tortoise Cassiopoeia, the process of defeating these enemies is very dangerous and uncertain.

Momo is by Michael Ende, the same author who wrote The Neverending Story, which is another strange fantasy novel that uses symbolism to comment on the state of society. Momo was originally published in German in 1973, translated into English in 1974, and published in the US in 1985. I would never have chosen to read it - or even known about it - on my own, but my husband insisted that it was a must-read, so I wound up reading it aloud to him over a period of weeks this past summer. Though I found it difficult to understand - and I still find it difficult to fully explain - I found that he was right. This is a lovely book about the importance of real human connection and the dangers that lurk beneath the surface of the many seemingly inconsequential things that eat up our time. Because the story uses symbolism to make its points, it can be applied not just to the distractions people faced in the 1970s, such as television and work, but also to newly developed technologies like smart phones, social media, and digital devices.

The lack of specific setting and the mysterious origins of Momo make this book somewhat unsettling, but the emotional depth and allegorical elements are impressive, and there is no way I could have allowed myself to leave the book unfinished. Though this is technically a children's book, there is so much in it that can be appreciated by teen and adult readers as well. A child who reads this book will probably need to read it again at a later stage of life in order to truly appreciate its full meaning. Even I feel as though my own interpretation of the book could benefit from a second or third reading

After a bad experience with The Neverending Story as a kid (it was the read-aloud on my first-ever overnight trip away from home, during which I was promised I could call my parents and then denied the opportunity), I vowed never to read it, but I can see now that this would be a mistake. Because of Momo, I will definitely be giving it another chance, and I fully expect to enjoy it.

Momo is best read without any preconceived notions, so I will stop short of revealing anything else about the book, and just say that even if you are not typically a fantasy reader, it should make its way to the top of your to-read list as soon as possible! You will have no regrets.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Reading with Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep, November 2015

With my birthday and Little Bo Peep's baptism last week, and Thanksgiving today, as well as my return to teaching CCD on  Monday nights, this has been a very busy month, but we have been reading in spurts whenever we can. Read on to learn what Miss Muffet and Bo Peep have been enjoying lately.

Non-Fiction for Little Miss Muffet 

Though we continue to read lots of fiction picture books, I have recently been making a greater effort to share non-fiction with Little Miss Muffet. She picks up new vocabulary so easily right now, that it only makes sense to start introducing age appropriate non-fiction topics so she can be exposed to more interesting words. I have been using easy readers, mainly because the simple language and repetition make it easier for her to understand what is being presented and to actually learn something from hearing each book. Right now, we are focusing on community helpers, the weather, baby animals, and holidays, with the following titles/series:

Her favorite is Watching the Sun. She is obsessed with talking about the sun coming up and going down, so this book has been a perfect way to satisfy her curiosity. I'll be looking for Watching the Moon next because she also loves the moon and watches for it every night as she goes to sleep. She also really loves Mail Carriers, and keeps talking about the mail carrier's pouch.

Baby's First Read-Aloud

Little Bo Peep is still not really that into books, but I finally sat down the other day and read a picture book just to her while Miss Muffet played in her room. I chose Little Baby Buttercup by Linda Ashman and You Byunmostly because it rhymes, and because I enjoy You Byun's artwork even if the baby is too young to appreciate it. She had no real reaction to the book, but I do enjoy saying "Little BabyButtercup, look how fast you're growing up," which is occasionally met with a little smile.  We've also been trying some poetry, but I have to be more diligent about actually having baby-friendly poems on hand when I'm spending one-on-one time with just Bo Peep.

One Tip from Mom 

When Little Bo Peep is drinking her bottle, I often need to amuse Little Miss Muffet to keep her out of trouble. One way that I have been doing this is by laying a quilt on the floor and calling it the story quilt. I tell her she can sit on the story quilt and either look at books herself, or if I can manage to handle Bo Peep one handed, I will read to her. I've never said she can't get up from the quilt, but she seems to consider its edges to be some sort of boundary, as she will usually stay put for at least a few minutes. And if she does get up and wander away, I can usually entice her back with the promise of just one more book. If you have a wandering toddler, this might work for you, too!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Reading Through History: Dream Soul by Laurence Yep (2000)

Fifteen-year-old Joan Lee, her brother Bobby, and her sister Emily, are the children of Chinese immigrants living in 1927 West Virginia. Because they are not Christian, their parents have never allowed them to celebrate Christmas, a fact which makes the younger Lee children feel hopelessly left out every December. When the three children are invited to celebrate with a lonely neighbor who has no family of her own, they plead with their parents to allow them to join the festivities, but they are told they can only participate if their behavior is absolutely perfect. This is especially difficult for Emily, who is the troublemaker of the family, and for Joan, whose new classmate Victoria's permissive father seems so much more appealing than her own. It will take a health scare - and a supernatural experience involving her own father's soul - to help Joan realize how much her parents really do love her and her siblings.

This book has very little to do with major historical events of the 1920s, but I wanted read it because I've never read anything by Laurence Yep. I'm so glad I did, because his writing is truly delightful, and I feel that I have discovered a new favorite author. Through a series of memorable scenes from everyday life, this family story explores themes of alienation and isolation, obedience and kindness, fear and suspicion, envy and admiration. Relationships drive the story and help readers to understand the beauty and importance of familial love in a very natural and believable way. Though this type of story - especially when Christmas is involved - often comes across as cheesy and didactic, this one does not. The Lees are very real people, and even the parents who make things feel so difficult for their children, come across as sympathetic.

I didn't realize this when I selected it, but Dream Soul is actually a sequel to a 1991 novel called Star Fisher. Though I normally like to read books in publication order, I had no problem jumping right into Dream Soul without the benefit of reading the first book, so it seems that it is not necessary to read them in order. Though the main character is a teenager, she seems much younger, so readers as young as 8 or 9 would probably have no difficult relating to her or enjoying the book. In fact, Dream Soul is an ideal read-alike for the American Girl series, of which Laurence Yep has actually written a few titles. I wouldn't say this is a true historical fiction novel that teaches readers about the 1920s as a whole, but it is a lovely slice of life novel that explores a taste of the immigrant experience which young readers who like family stories will definitely enjoy.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Reading Through History: The Bears on Hemlock Mountain by Alice Dalgliesh (1952)

"There are no bears on Hemlock Mountain." This is the mantra Jonathan uses to comfort himself on the long and lonely journey over the mountain to borrow his aunt's large iron pot. When he stays too long at his aunt's house and ventures home in the dark, however, it becomes clear that there are bears on Hemlock Mountain - and Jonathan must outsmart them if he's to make it home safe and sound!

It is surprising to me how many reviewers on Goodreads are critical of the Newbery committee which awarded this book an Honor in 1953. Perhaps it is the simplicity of the story - which is most appropriate for beginning readers - that turns them off, but as I write this review weeks after finishing the book, I am struck by how many details and images have stuck with me. The writing may be spare and straightforward, but the author has a real talent for bringing scenes to life using very few words.

When I worked in the library, kids would often ask for easy-to-read adventure books and there were really very few that suited their interests. This story, with its strong sense of suspense and surprising climax is exactly the kind of book that would have satisfied those readers. Not only would they relate to Jonathan, who is very much an ordinary kid, they would also enjoy imagining how they would act in his place, and how it might feel to be on an independent journey so late at night.

This book is every bit as wonderful as The Courage of Sarah Noble and it covers the same concept - of bravery - from the male point of view. Both books are great for beginning readers to tackle on their own or for families to read aloud together. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Book Review: Clover's Luck by Kallie George (2015)

Clover, who has always believed herself to be unlucky finds that her self esteem blossoms when she is left in charge of the Magical Animal Adoption Agency for a few days.

This book is definitely on the higher end of the “beginning reader” spectrum. Though the chapters are short, the font is not as big as in many other beginning chapter books, and there are fewer illustrations, all of which are done in black and white. The writing is very strong - lots of figurative language, and well-constructed sentences that beg to be read aloud. I also noted several moments in the book where the narrator takes an extra moment to define or explain a particular word or concept to the reader - a form of subtle additional support that can be very encouraging to a reader who is new to longer stories. There are some tricky words - mainly names of magical creatures - but kids who have read other fantasy books might not have that much trouble recognizing them. Otherwise, though the book feels more sophisticated than other chapter books, it is really the writing style more than the vocabulary itself that makes it feel that way. Kids in grades 2 to 4 who are ready to really sink their teeth into a story with a true plot will be the perfect audience for this book. (It would also make a nice read-aloud for kids slightly younger.)

Alexandra Boiger is one of my favorite children’s book illustrators. Her style in this book is a bit different - possibly because of the fantastical subject matter, and because every picture is drawn entirely in pencil - but her illustrations bring to life the magical world of the Woods and the adoption agency itself. The illustrations appear pretty infrequently, so they are more decorative than useful as tools for comprehending the text, but they do help the reader imagine some of the more difficult-to-picture scenes. (They are also just really pleasant to look at!)

This book combines two things kids love: fantasy stories and animals! Any child who has ever wished for a unicorn or a dragon for a pet will love to imagine himself or herself in Clover’s shoes. Kids who like fairy tales will also love the way this book incorporates witches, wizards, and princesses into the story. There is also a scary and unexpected ending, which will thrill most readers, but may upset some of the more sensitive ones.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Reading Through History: Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson (2006)

Sixteen-year-old Hattie Brooks has always thought of herself as Hattie-Here-and-There. Orphaned at a young age, she has been bounced from relative to relative, never feeling like she has a place to belong. When she learns that she has inherited a claim to a Montana homestead from a recently deceased uncle, she doesn't think twice before leaving her current home in Iowa and setting out to "prove up" the claim  - and prove to herself that she can make it on her own. 

Hattie Big Sky (recipient of a 2007 Newbery Honor) is set in 1918, so in addition to information about homesteading, and the difficulty of raising a successful crop on the Montana prairie, it also focuses quite a bit on the impact of World War I, especially on those of German descent. Though the details of life on the homestead are wonderful - and at times, because of Hattie's inexperience, very funny - it is Hattie's firsthand experiences with prejudice against those who are seen as disloyal to the United States that make this book such a wonderful read. Hattie herself is a wonderful character, but she is also surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Friends - such as Perilee Mueller, her German husband, Karl and their sweet children; Leafie, the local nurse; and Charlie, a soldier to whom Hattie writes frequent letters - and enemies, like the judgmental and opportunistic Traft Martin - all come vividly to life thanks to the author's carefully selected and well-placed details. Hattie's hopes easily become the reader's hopes and her tragedies and losses hit the reader extra hard because of how easy it is  to love and root for Hattie. 

This book is educational not just because of its treatment of historical material, but because of its messages about hard work, friendship, faith, bravery and self-worth. Hattie is a worthy role model, and her experience is a great lesson in how to meet hardships head-on and to always remain hopeful and look toward the good.  This book is a wonderful read-alike for the last two titles of the Betsy-Tacy series - Betsy and the Great World, because of its portrayal of the start of World War I, and Betsy's Wedding, because of Betsy's own struggles learning to cook and keep house. Fortunately, the author has also written a sequel to Hattie Big Sky: 2013's Hattie Ever After

A final note: I would classify Hattie Big Sky as young adult, because it is about a teenage girl setting off on her own and experiencing life in the real world for the first time, but it is appropriate for a wide range of readers, including middle schoolers and adult readers. Women young and old will relate to Hattie and become completely engrossed in both the good and the bad of her homesteading experience. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Book Review: Sun Slower, Sun Faster by Meriol Trevor (1957)

Just after World War II, Cecilia (called Cecil) is sent to stay with her uncle and cousin, Rick in an old historic house near Bristol. While there, the two children are left mostly in the care of Rick's tutor, Dominic, with whom they have many unexpected trips through time. On each journey to the past, the characters find themselves dressed in period clothes and accepted as distant relatives of the people they meet, all of whom are dealing in some way with an event in the history of the Catholic church in England. As they spend more and more time in the past, all three characters begin to realize the truth of the faith and, in the present day, begin to seek their conversions.

Catholics are so rarely treated fairly - or portrayed accurately - in fiction. To find a book like this one, which is written expressly for and about young Catholics is such a treat, and I enjoyed every moment of the story. The understanding that the truth of Catholicism can be found by studying history resonated with me very strongly, as did the many beautiful descriptions of the Mass and the Church that appear throughout the story. Particularly moving for me is this passage, describing Cecil's first time witnessing a congregation receiving Holy Communion:

Then a movement began among the people. They creaked to their feet, shuffled and fumbled up to the front, kneeling on the floor, and she saw little Thomas at the beginning of the row. The priest turned and made the sign of the cross and all signed themselves; then he came forward and moved along the line, placing the Hosts in the mouths of the people. 

Cecil had a very strange feeling; she felt that this was at the same time the most natural and the most unnatural thing she had ever seen. They were like little birds being fed by their mother, and yet it was grown people who knelt to receive what looked like a paper penny of bread on their tongues. She knew at once why the Mass provoked such love and such hate. Either what they believe is true, or else it is a dreadful delusion, she thought.

These two paragraphs are so brief, and yet they speak volumes about the Church itself, and about the way the faith slowly becomes meaningful to Cecil, who has otherwise been raised as a Protestant. The writing throughout the book shares this same beauty of language and bluntness of message, which is precisely what I loved most about it.

For non-believers, this book is likely to seem strange, or maybe even boring. It's very much a book for Catholics, or for those considering a conversion, and happily, it does not try to hide its agenda or make the historical aspects more appealing to a general audience by downplaying the faith. It is a perfect book for Catholic high school students studying Church history, as it personalizes historical events and makes them accessible to contemporary readers. It would also make a wonderful gift for anyone going through RCIA, as it explains many of the Church's beliefs and affirms the decision to convert. 

Along with Flannery O'Connor, Meriol Trevor is quickly becoming my favorite Catholic writer.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Reading Through History: The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy (1939)

A sequel to The Good Master, this book departs from the warmth and safety of its predecessor and meditates instead upon the encroachment of violence into the daily lives of ordinary people. Two years after her summer adventures with cousin Jancsi, Kate has stayed at her uncle's ranch, along with her father, who has found work as a schoolteacher in a nearby community. The family is excited to participate in a traditional Hungarian wedding, a wonderful celebration filled with joy that mirrors many of the adventures experienced by the characters in The Good Master. Unfortunately,  as the wedding comes to an end, the news passes through town that Archduke Francis Ferdinand has been assassinated. Now comes a great war, the effects of which cannot be escaped by anyone, no matter how young or old.

This is a powerful novel filled with emotion which shows the true impact of war on civilians in a way that is accessible to children.  Early in the story, Kate's uncle articulates the story's moving message:

War is like a stampede, Jancsi. A small thing can start it and suddenly the very earth is shaking with fury and people turn into wild things, crushing everything beautiful and sweet, destroying homes, lives, blindly in their mad rush from nowhere to nowhere. (p. 31)

Indeed, as men in their small Hungarian community are called to be soldiers, Kate and Jancsi witness this very stampede, and see their own lives continually reinvented by the changes around them. Though the characters, at heart, remain the same good people they have always been, their circumstances require them to become stronger and bolder than ever before. Kate and Jancsi are sad when Uncle Marton is called to join the army, but because of their hopeful dispositions they never despair, even when it seems that they may have lost their beloved "good master" forever. Kate and Jancsi also maintain their unbiased kindness toward others when they welcome German and Russian prisoners into their home.

What makes this book incredibly poignant, however, is the fact that it was written prior to World War II. The story suggests that World War I has taught the world the price of violence, and that society as a whole will do better in the future. Neither the characters nor the author are yet aware of all the violence yet to come in Nazi Germany, and of how many homes and lives will be destroyed by the second world war. That is the true gift of this novel: the fact that it allows us to see how people saw the world between wars, before they knew all that we know now. In this sense, this book is doubly historical - it was historical fiction at the time it was written, but it can also serve as a historical document for us today.

The Singing Tree is best enjoyed after reading The Good Master, as they complement each other so well, and the first book really provides the foundation that makes the second so emotionally fulfilling. This book provides a rich reading experience that can be enjoyed as part of a history lesson, or on its own as an example of beautiful literature. Because of the subject matter, it is probably best to provide some context about the time period before sharing the book with young readers, but otherwise, it is a perfectly suitable book for ages 8 and up.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Reading Through History: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt (2004)

It is 1912, and Turner Buckminster and his parents have come to Phippsburg, Maine, so that his father, Reverend Buckminster, can begin to serve as the town's minister. Turner instantly hates Phippsburg, especially compared with his former home of Boston, and he resents the very high and unreasonable expectations the townspeople have for the behavior of a minister's son. When he meets Lizzie, a young girl living on nearby Malaga Island, he feels that he has found a kindred spirit, even though Lizzie is black and Turner is white. Unfortunately, the people of Phippsburg feel that the interracial community on Malaga Island is an undue burden on their town, and they want Reverend Buckminster to help them drive its residents out. Caught between loyalty to his father and his convictions about right and wrong, Turner struggles to do all he can to save his friend and her community.

This fascinating novel, which received Printz and Newbery Honors in 2005, explores the true story of a real time and place, in which the ugliness of prejudice and hatred served to destroy an entire community. Though author Gary Schmidt has taken some liberties with the timeline to suit his story (all of which are pointed out and explained in the author's note), he has remained true to the emotions of the situation and has done a wonderful job of conveying Turner's feelings of frustration and profound sadness. Turner himself is the main reason to read this book, as he is utterly believable and sympathetic and keeps the reader in suspense with his willingness to flout what is expected of him and put himself in danger repeatedly.

Unfortunately, the friendship which is meant to be the heart of this story does not ring true. The interactions between Lizzie and Turner feel forced and contrived, and their friendship itself really only becomes interesting when others begin to react to it. Turner is such a well-developed character that Lizzie falls flat by comparison, and it feels, at times, that she is being used merely as a storytelling tool and not developed as a character in her own right. I also had a hard time remembering that Turner has a mother. Often, it is annoying when novels conveniently kill off parents to give their child characters more freedom, but this is one situation where the mother character seemed completely superfluous. I wish the author had given her something more to do besides occasionally suggest that Turner disobey his father.

This book reminds me a lot of two other historical Newbery novels. Because Turner spends much of his time playing the organ for an elderly woman obsessed with what her last words will be, and who will be there to hear them, I was constantly reminded of Dead End in Norvelt, wherein a young fictionalized Jack Gantos must assist an obituary writer. Turner and Jack are very similar main characters in general, as they are frequently at odds with their fathers and always under the scrutiny of their neighbors. The other book I kept thinking about was book 25 on my reading list for this project: The Witch of Blackbird Pond. There are many parallels between the way suspected witches are treated in Connecticut in Blackbird Pond and the way the Phippsburg natives view the island of Malaga. The abuse of religion is also a common theme in both novels.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy is a worthwhile read, if only because it makes the reader aware of an historical event they might otherwise overlook, but because of its narrow focus on one specific place, it would be hard to tie into a larger unit of study. Therefore, it probably won't be much use to me as a homeschooler for anything other than supplemental or recreational reading.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Reading Through History: The Good Master by Kate Seredy (1935)

Jancsi, who lives on a ranch in Hungary in the years prior to World War I,  is thrilled to learn that his "delicate" cousin Kate will be coming from Budapest to stay with his family for the summer. When Kate arrives, however, she is not quite what Jancsi expected. Instead of being frail and sickly, Kate is wild and strong-willed! As Kate's uncle - the "good master" named in the title - does his best to teach Kate the proper way to behave, Kate and Jancsi have many adventures involving horses, gypsies, and the county fair.

Despite the foreign setting, this is a book with which boys and girls will feel immediately at home. The Good Master is a warm, joyful story about the growing friendship between two children, and the comfort provided by a close-knit family. Because the story is based on true events from the author's own childhood, the actions of both Kate and Jancsi and their affection for Jancsi's parents feel very authentic, and the reader can relate strongly to both of the main characters.

Another wonderful feature of this book is the inclusion of Hungarian folktales, which are told to the children by different characters they encounter throughout the story. For American readers, these stories give wonderful insight into the customs and traditions of Hungarian culture, and they also help the reader to understand Kate's growing appreciation for her culture, and for life on the ranch with her cousin's family.

This is a charming novel for families to share together as a read-aloud, or for children in grades 3-7 to read independently. It is similar in style and tone to The Galloping Goat by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, as well as to the Little House books, and to Understood Betsy. It also makes a very interesting companion to Seredy's 1937 novel, The White Stag, which combines history and folklore to tell the story of how Hungary came to be settled. The Good Master is also followed by a sequel, The Singing Tree (1939).

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Book Review: Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ by Claudia Mills (2015)

In the fourth book of the Franklin School Friends series, Simon Ellis finds himself at odds with his best friend Jackson, who feels threatened by the fact that Simon is always successful at everything he attempts, from video games to classroom assignments. When a school spelling bee is announced, along with the rule that the students must work in teams, Simon is worried, both because he prefers to compete alone, and because he does not want his friendship with Jackson to be strained further by the differences in their spelling abilities.

After three books about girls (Kelsey, Annika, and Izzy), it is nice to see this series exploring a male point of view. Simon has appeared in the other books, just as the girls appear briefly in this story, but giving him his own voice and the opportunity to speak to his struggles fitting in as the "smart kid" in class is a welcome addition to an already successful series. Many kids can relate to either Simon's or Jackson's point of view, and they probably also know teachers, principals and parents like those portrayed in this story.

Unfortunately, the message of this book is a bit muddled by events near the end of the story. While it is clear early on that the author sympathizes with Simon's desire to get along with his friends without sacrificing his intelligence, Simon's behavior during the spelling bee itself doesn't quite match this worldview. The only way Simon is able to gain acceptance among his peers is to make a mistake. While the "nobody's perfect" lesson is an important one, it doesn't make sense for it to be the moral of this book. If the story had been told from Jackson's point of view, it would be perfectly logical for him to reach this conclusion after seeing Simon misspell a word. For Simon, though, there is still no answer to his fundamental question of how to react when a friend is jealous of his abilities. This is an issue that many gifted kids undoubtedly face, and it is a shame that the story doesn't deliver even a potential solution, other than the suggestion that Simon and Jackson might be drifting apart.

Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ is not the best book of this series, but even with its flaws, it is still a compelling read that fans of the previous books are likely to enjoy. It would make an especially good addition to libraries in classrooms where spelling bees are regularly held, as well as to most public and elementary school libraries. The Franklin School Friends series will continue in summer 2016 with book five, Cody Harmon, King of Pets.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Reading with Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep, October 2015

Welcome, Little Bo Peep! 

There have been some changes in Little Miss Muffet's life this month. She now has a little sister! Little Bo Peep was born on her due date, the last day of September, and we have spent the last few weeks getting used to being a family of four.

Little Bo Peep's Very First Books

Little Bo Peep's main activities at the moment are eating and sleeping, so read-alouds have not yet become a regular part of her routine. I often recite nursery rhymes to her while she takes her bottle - George Porgie, Bye Baby Bunting, Hey Diddle Diddle, etc. - and she is almost always in the room when I'm reading to Miss Muffet, but she's not quite ready to look at a picture book just yet. She is, however, becoming quite fond of patterns, so I dug out two books Miss Muffet loved as an infant: Black and White by Tana Hoban and Baby Sees by Dave Aikins. She usually gets overwhelmed if we look at more than a page or two, but it's fun to watch her eyes grow big as she focuses on a black and white butterfly or a polka-dot pattern. As I did with Miss Muffet, I also occasionally read aloud to her from whatever I happen to be reading. She has heard brief passages from both The Graveyard Book and Magic Tree House #53: Shadow of the Shark (the latter of which I was reading for Cybils.)

Little Miss Muffet's Current Favorites

While recovering from childbirth, I haven't been able to do much with Miss Muffet besides read, and Grandma (my mom) also spent a lot of time reading to her when she was in town, so we have quite a few new favorites to share.

  • Snuggle the Baby by Sara Gillingham
    Grandma bought this book a few months ago in anticipation of the arrival of Little Bo Peep. It is an interactive board book, where toddlers can feed, diaper, swaddle, snuggle, and tuck in their own little cardboard baby. One page has already been destroyed. There is a part of the book where the baby's arms lift up to play "so big," but they lift at kind of an angle that is hard to negotiate if you are not quite two years old yet. So on that page the baby only has one arm at the moment, and we have set the book aside for repairs. But with a little packing tape to reinforce those cardboard arms, this is a book we definitely recommend to new big sisters and brothers.
  • It Is Night by Phyllis Rowand, illustrated by Laura Dronzek
    My husband brought this book home from the library for Miss Muffet, and she took to it immediately upon discovering there are both an elephant and a monkey in the story. The book discusses where animals sleep at night, which is a perfect science topic for toddlers, and it has a very sweet ending where a little girl curls up in bed surrounded by all of her toys.
  • Quack and Count by Keith Baker
    We have owned this book for a while, but it has not been in Miss Muffet's box until recently, so for her it is like a new discovery. Since she has started counting, she has become obsessed with counting the seven ducks in this book, and she can fill in almost any word if I stop reading and ask her what comes next. Everyone else in our house is completely sick of reading this aloud, and we pretty much beg Miss Muffet to choose anything else, even the dreaded More More More said the Baby which got really played out toward the end of the summer.
  • Owl Babies by Martin Waddell
    This is one of my favorite story time books, and I'm thrilled that Miss Muffet loves it so much. She is very fond of both Percy and Bill, and every time we reach the page where the owl mother returns home to her babies, the look of joy on her face is absolutely priceless. So contagious is Miss Muffet's love for this book that her grandma went and bought her own copy after visiting with us. We also discovered a lovely animated version on YouTube that we occasionally allow Miss Muffet to watch.
  • Duck on a Bike by David Shannon
    This is another story time favorite, though I notice it doesn't hold up quite as well as others when you read it 10 times a day.The most fascinating thing about it, for me, is that Miss Muffet understands the plot and can answer basic reading comprehension questions about it. On the wordless page where all the animals stare at the bikes and get ready to ride, I asked her, "What do the animals want to do?" and without hesitation she said, "Ride bikes!" (This is why it's important to read books with basic plots to toddlers! They do understand!)
  • May I Bring a Friend? by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers
    Thankfully, I will never tire of reading this book aloud. Its sense of humor and rhyme and rhythm are all so delightful, and Miss Muffet can recite all my favorite lines, including "What monkey business is this?" I can't wait until she gets a little older and we can do some of the activities I created to go with the story.

One Tip from Mom 

Not sure what to read to your baby? Pretty much anything works! For inspiration, check out this list of possibilities that I made for The Library Adventure.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Reading Through History: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (1985)

At the end of the 19th century, Anna lives with her father and younger brother, Caleb, on the American frontier. Though it has been years since her mother died, Anna still misses her, and she still resents her younger brother, whose birth caused their mother's death. When the opportunity arises for their father to take a new wife - a  woman from Maine named Sarah - both children are eager for the presence of a woman in their household once again, but they each worry that Sarah will miss her home too much to stay for good.

Over the past couple of years, I have been  reading many of Patricia MacLachlan's newer titles for kids, all of which have a very literary and adult sensibility. Books like Kindred Souls, Fly Away, The Truth of Me, and White Fur Flying seem almost over-written, as though they are trying to infuse themselves with more meaning than they actually have. I was a little bit curious, therefore, to see how Sarah, Plain and Tall would hold up for me, considering I haven't read it in a number of years.

Thankfully, while MacLachlan's newer titles use flowery language in a way that feels gimmicky, this classic 1985 book (winner of the 1986 Newbery Medal) is truly beautiful. Each word is carefully chosen and precisely placed, and the descriptions of everything from Sarah's home by the sea, to the growing admiration between her and Papa, to Anna's and Caleb's own fears about the loss of her, help paint a perfect portrait of a newly-formed family. The historical time period is more of a backdrop than a character in this book, but even so, the details about how the children travel to school, and what they must do to protect themselves during a storm, give good insight into how families lived in this time and place. The concept of a mail-order bride is also something kids are not likely to be familiar with, and that may prompt some questions and discussions about marriage then versus marriage now.

Because of its length, this book is a great choice for kids on the younger end of the middle grade spectrum, in grades 2 to 4, and it would work wonderfully as a family read-aloud for a variety of ages, even including kids as young as 5 or 6. There are also four sequels: Skylark (1994), Caleb’s Story (2000), More Perfect than the Moon (2004), and Grandfather’s Dance (2006).

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Reading Through History: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink (1935)

It is 1864, and Caroline "Caddie" Woodlawn is twelve years old. Though her sisters Clara, Hetty, and Minnie, have always been treated like young ladies, Caddie's father has insisted that Caddie be allowed to run wild with her brothers, Tom and Warren, feeling confident that she will come of age when she is ready. In this story, which is based on true stories told by the author's grandmother, Caddie rides horses, associates with Indians, goes fishing with her Uncle Edmund, loses her dog, and plays pranks on a well-bred cousin from Boston, then contributes to an important family decision about the family's future lives as Americans.

Like The Cabin Faced West, Caddie Woodlawn explores daily life on the American frontier from the point of view of a young girl. Though historical events are mentioned - mainly the end of the Civil War, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln - these are footnotes for Caddie and her family, who receive news slowly and infrequently. The concerns on the frontier are more immediate dangers, such as a rumored Indian massacre (even though the local tribes are peaceful) and a prairie fire which threatens to destroy the schoolhouse. Even these events are not the central focus; this is really a book about Caddie beginning to understand her identity and role as a woman and looking toward adulthood with hope and courage. In this sense, it is less of a book about history, and more of a very personal story which just happens to be set in the past.

This book is a great read-alike for the Little House books, as it is also set in Wisconsin during the same time period, and it covers many of the same types of family experiences and conflicts. The fact that Caddie is twelve should not turn off younger readers, as she is still very much a child, and there is no discussion of puberty as there might be in a more contemporary story. The short chapters and illustrations (done by Kate Seredy of White Stag fame in the earlier editions, and Trina Schart Hyman in later ones) also lend the book nicely to being read aloud to a group of children. There is also a sequel, originally entitled Magical Melons, but more recently published as Caddie Woodlawn's Family, which tells stories from the points of view of some of Caddie's brothers and sisters.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Book Review: Traveling Butterflies by Susumu Shingu (2015)

In simple text, this book relates the metamorphosis of monarch butterflies from tiny eggs to beautiful orange creatures which migrate many miles to their ideal mating place.

The pictures in this book are just perfect for curious toddlers who like to see everything up close. The images early in the book of the egg, caterpillar, and cocoon are oversized and shown against plain backgrounds, leaving the facts of the creature's behavior to speak for themselves. Little Miss Muffet was fascinated (and somewhat terrified) of the page which shows the butterfly emerging slowly from the chrysalis. Though the scientific terms for what is happening in that scene are beyond her vocabulary at this point, she was able to get an age-appropriate sense of the butterfly's life cycle by looking at those pictures. Later images place a bright orange flock of butterflies against various backdrops, which shows in child-friendly terms how far the butterflies travel each year. These images are just lovely to look at, and any one of them on its own is practically suitable for framing.

There aren't many non-fiction picture book titles that I would recommend for toddlers, but this one really is simple enough that one and two-year-olds can mostly stick with it. Sentences are broken up over several pages, so there are few words per page, and the vocabulary is scientifically accurate but not overwhelmingly technical. (Little Miss Muffet added the words milkweed, cocoon, and nectar to her vocabulary after just two times through the book.) This book reminds me a lot of Jim Arnosky's simple picture books about animal behavior (such as Little Lions and Rabbits and Raindrops) and it would also pair nicely with I Love Bugs! by Philemon Sturges, Bugs! Bugs! Bugs! by Bob Barner, Beetle Bop by Denise Fleming, and Butterfly Butterfly by Petr Horacek.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Reading Through History: The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick (2009)

After the death of their Dear Mother, Homer Figg and his brother, Harold were sent to live with Uncle Squint, who mistreats them and regards them as property. When Squint sells Harold into military service even though he is underage, Homer takes off after his brother, in the hopes of saving him before he faces combat, or worse.

Before I started reading historical fiction regularly, I had no idea how many "boy on a journey" books were out there! In some ways, it feels like I am reading the same story over and over again, just in different settings. This book reminded me so much of previously reviewed titles: A Single Shard, The Kite Rider, Adam of the Road, The Door in the Wall, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, Call it Courage, Boy with a Pack, and Mr. Tucket all follow a similar pattern to this story, where a boy sets off on a journey and is forever changed by the experience. Like Adam in Adam of the Road, Homer is on the hunt for a lost family member, and like Bill in Boy with a Pack, he is both helped and hindered by people he meets along the way, including a thief, a Quaker family and some escaped slaves.

In terms of writing style, this book reminds me a lot of Bud, Not Buddy and Elijah of Buxton, in that it combines a great sense of humor with the more gruesome details of living through a difficult time. Homer is a fun character, and kids will relate to the upbeat and carefree tone which belies his true fears about the fate of his brother. This book is not entirely uplifting, however. As Homer's journey begins to wind down in the last third of the story, the reader begins to hear about battle wounds, deaths, and amputations, and there isn't much to sugar-coat the information. Obviously, Civil War injuries were brutal, so it makes sense to include these descriptions, but kids who have enjoyed the humor of the first portions of the book might be caught off-guard by the dark turn the story takes.

The writing is quite good, though, in both the contemplative moments and the laugh-out-loud funny moments. There were two little moments I especially enjoyed. First is this description of riding on a train which appears at the end of Chapter 15:

It's amazing what goes by the windows on a train. Farms and fields and forests, and rows of wooden houses, and big brick mills. Like we're floating through a storybook and each turn in the track is a new page, and it's a story I never heard before so I don't know how it will end. Page after page, picture after picture, and always something new around the corner, and the chugging of the locomotive belching black smoke, making its own dark clouds against the sky, and the steam whistle sounding alive somehow, like the whole train is saying, Here-I-am, make-way-chugga-chugga-woowoo! Here-I-am, make-way-chugga-chugga-woowoo! and rocking me to sleep. (p. 88)

Second is this joke from Chapter 18. Homer's temporary guardian, a young bumbling preacher, has allowed himself to be duped into becoming engaged to a woman whom Homer clearly recognizes as a thief. Homer's insight made me laugh out loud! 

That does it. It can't be true love. Mr. Willow has eyes like a sick kitten. You might love a sick kitten, but you don't marry it, you keep it as a pet. (p. 105)

Overall, this book is a quick and entertaining read, but much of it is not really about the Civil War in general, but about the experiences of these specific characters, which are grounded mostly in imagination rather than history. Kids who enjoy reading about this time period will be pleased by Homer's story, but it won't necessarily teach them about the Civil War in the same way as a book like Bull Run.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Book Review: Black Banner Abroad by Gregory Trease (1954)

Since they are somewhat hard to find, I am having to read the Bannermere books out of order. Though my last review from this series was of the second book, today's review focuses on the fourth, Black Banner Abroad. Excitement abounds for Bill, Sue, Tim, and Penny when it is announced that their schools will travel to France to present Romeo and Juliet for a French school group. Before the trip departs, the four are given a seemingly impossible task by a simple local man called Willy the Waller. He wants them to seek out a woman who helped him during the war and repay for him an old debt, but his memories are spotty at best, and the kids are unsure whom they should find, or even exactly where they should look. Once they arrive in France, it is difficult to find time to complete their task, what with performance preparations, Bill's new interest in a girl named Gigi, and their obligations to the host families with whom they are staying, but with some help from some new friends, they get it done just before they must return home.

Unlike Under Black Banner, which seemed like a pretty generic sequel to follow the wonderful No Boats on Bannermere, this book is a worthy companion. The story involves a little bit of everything young readers enjoy - travel, theater, romance, mystery, history, and conflict. Even more than the previous books this one is a story about relationships, with lots of inter-personal drama and dialogue, which really brings the characters to life and encourages the reader to love them.  Penny is especially delightful in this story, as she shines on stage as the nurse despite her very obvious limp. The mystery is also a lot of fun to solve, as all the clues are present early on, but the characters must interpret them correctly to figure out the answer. Each time a new piece of the puzzle falls into place, there is an immense feeling of satisfaction for the reader.

This is the quintessential European travel novel. Though much of the story is heavily influenced by the events of World War II, which dates it to the early 1950s, the details of the visit to France overall are as relevant to  today's kids as they would have been to their grandparents. It continues to puzzle me that these books aren't more widely available. They are certainly better than many of the other titles that survive from the 50s, including Nancy Drew. If you can find a copy of this book, snatch it up! It's one of the best.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Book Review: Roar by Julie Bayless (2015)

In the middle of the night, a restless lion cub wanders off looking for a friend, but all the animals save one boisterous rabbit are frightened by his roar.

This book is mostly wordless, and the bulk of the story is told visually using comic panels and speech bubbles to indicate the sounds the individual animals make. The deep blues and purples of the night-time scenes create a calm, serene backdrop that highlights the lion cub's contrasting high energy as he romps through the savanna. The various animals he encounters - the other lions in his family, groups of hippos and giraffes, and his new rabbit friend - are all infused with great personalities, which come across in the subtleties of their facial expressions and body language. Also very easy to read in the illustrations is the instant bond that forms between the lion and the rabbit, as the cub says, "Roar!" and the rabbit says, "More!" over and over again.

I am generally a proponent of sharing wordless and nearly-wordless books as read-alouds, and I have read this one to Little Miss Muffet many times, at her insistence. (She loves lions.) It works fairly well as a lap book, because I can point to each panel as we explore it, so she knows where I am in the story, and I can respond to any detail that Miss Muffet happens to want to talk about based on where she points.

I like this book more with each re-reading. It reminds me somewhat of Goodnight, Gorilla, in that it chronicles an animal's night-time hi-jinks, and its playful tone also makes it ideal for readers who have liked Red Sled and Red Hat by Lita Judge.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Reading Through History: Bull Run by Paul Fleischman (1993)

In sixteen different voices from both sides of the Civil War, Paul Fleischman's 1993 novel Bull Run relates the events of the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. Included in the cast are men and women, black and white, who range from soldiers on the battlefield to artists and newspaper reporters, a young fife player, and a real-life general named Irvin McDowell.

There are a lot of characters in this short book, and even with wood carvings at the start of each chapter to differentiate one from the other, it was really hard to keep track of all the different storylines and personalities. As I read, I continually had to flip back to earlier chapters to make sure I was thinking about the correct character at the correct time. Though the battle is really the overarching plot that holds the story together, the constant shifts in perspective made it feel as though there was no real cohesive storyline. I really would have benefited from a prologue contextualizing the battle, as well as a dramatis personae introducing all the characters.

That said, this book is a powerful illustration of the impact of not just this battle, but of the Civil War as a whole on the people of the United States. By hearing stories from both sides, the reader really has the chance to understand each point of view and to empathize with both Southerners and Northerners, rather than simply taking a side. Because there are 8 characters from each side of the war, each viewpoint is represented equally and while the author does not sensationalize anything that happens, he also does not sugar-coat the pain and sadness of war, so readers really come to understand the horrors of the Civil War in an age appropriate way. Fleischman also avoids inserting his authorial voice into the text. There is no editorializing; the facts merely speak for themselves and allow readers to discuss the issues and draw their own conclusions.

The note at the end of the book states which characters are from the North and which are from the South, and it suggests reading the story as a reader's theater performance. Considering the trouble I had keeping the characters sorted out in my mind, I think a performance would be the ideal way to really appreciate this book. I also really wished I had kept a chart to refer to as I was reading and would recommend doing so to any potential reader of the book.

Overall, Bull Run makes a great starting point for delving into a deeper analysis of the rationale, impact, and experience of the Civil War. It would be especially useful in a classroom setting, where students could each take on a part and act out the story, but with proper preparation and prompting, the story can also be enjoyed independently. I will definitely keep this one on my list for future homeschooling lessons!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Reading Through History: Bandit's Moon by Sid Fleischman (1998)

Set in the early 1850s, Bandit's Moon is the story of a young girl named Annyrose Smith, who has been imprisoned by a nasty old woman named O.O. Mary. When she makes her escape, she immediately sets out to look for her older brother, Lank, from whom she has become separated, but instead, she falls in with a gang of bandits led by Joaquin Marieta, the Mexican Robin Hood. Though she deplores Joaquin's dishonest behavior, she can't help but be charmed by his personality, and she does her best to help him before ultimately making another very narrow escape.

Like Weasel and Mr. Tucket, Bandit's Moon is another adventure story from the early days of the American West. Though the main character in this story is a girl and the main villain a real person, there is very little else to differentiate this story from the others. Details about the actual Gold Rush are few and far between, and instead the story focuses mainly on Annyrose's feelings of warmth and concern toward Joaquin. It's an entertaining read, which introduces a larger-than-life historical figure most kids probably would not otherwise learn about, but as a historical lesson about the time period, it would fall pretty flat. Though the main character is much younger, Bo at Ballard Creek does a much better job of exploring the daily life of gold prospectors from a more realistic and less romanticized point of view.

Sid Fleischman's talent as a writer is evident in the McBroom books and in his Newbery winning novel, The Whipping Boy, but this book is less memorable. I would keep it on hand for kids who love this time period - and for girls requesting adventure stories with female protagonists  - but I will likely forgo using it for homeschooling.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Book Review: Under Black Banner by Gregory Trease (1951)

In Gregory Trease's 1951 follow-up to No Boats on Bannermere, Bill, Sue, Tim, and Penny are out exploring one evening when they come upon a farm which was used for military training during World War II, but has since been abandoned. When they are stranded overnight in one of the buildings, they realize they are not the only ones who have recently slept there. In fact, it turns out that one of the boys' own classmates used to live on the farm and sneaks back now and then for a visit. Troubled by the injustice of a family losing its home to the military, the foursome launch a campaign to return the property to its original owners. What they don't anticipate, however, is that their nemesis Sir Alfred Askew will have designs on the farm himself as well.

Unlike the first book of the series, this second story is much more dated to the time period, and much less focused on a singular plot line. In addition to the kids' crusade to restore the farm land to the family who lived there before the war, there are also storylines involving an important sporting event at the boys' school, military training exercises (again, for the boys), and a new love interest for Penny who annoys the rest of the group. There are entire chapters devoted to detailed descriptions of military maneuvers and scenes from sports matches, which quickly become tedious, and not much action to the main plot, as the characters mainly write letters and give speeches. The writing style remains fresh and enjoyable, but the content is less relatable - at least to a contemporary audience - than everything that happens in No Boats on Bannermere.

Like The Fragile Flag by Jane Langton, this book does inspire a sense of civic pride and responsibility in young readers and proves that youth is not necessarily an obstacle when it comes to the democratic process and making important changes to society. Still, it does not have the same flair for adventure as the first book, and it is largely forgettable by comparison.