Monday, June 29, 2015

Reading with Little Miss Muffet: June 2015

New Book Behavior

  • "Read!" This month, at 1 1/2, Little Miss Muffet started to verbalize what she wants done with her books. Now when she flings a book at me, it is usually accompanied by a demand of  "Read!" or "Lap!" While she often changes her mind just a few pages into a book, it's nice to see her developing the vocabulary to talk about reading - and to ask for a story when she wants one. 

Current Favorites 

  • Once Upon a Potty by Alona Frankel 
    We have not started potty training yet, but this was my favorite potty book as a kid, and we found a copy at a used book store that was in great condition, so we figured why not see what Miss Muffet thinks? And she loves it! She is very interested in Prudence, the main character, and even claps when Prudence successfully uses the potty. 
  • Baby's Mother Goose illustrated by Alice Schlesinger 
    This tall board book is Miss Muffet's most frequently requested read-aloud right now. She is beginning to know some of the rhymes so well, she can fill in the blanks if I leave out words, and she spends a lot of time pointing at the characters in the illustrations and labeling whether they are boys, girls, babies, animals, and/or asleep. 
  • Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle 
    Miss Muffet does not yet seem to understand that each color is a different entity, as evidenced by her identification of every color  as red. I took this book out in the hopes that it might help her start to make sense of the concept, and it became an instant favorite. The repetition makes it possible for her to fill in words as I read, which tends to keep her more interested than just reading it myself. She can also label almost all of the animals, and she learned the word "teacher" after just a couple of readings. This has been a long-time story time staple for me, so it's wonderful to see her falling in love with it, too! 

One Tip from Mom

  • Act out your books! Toddlers are busy people, and sometimes they literally can't slow down long enough to sit through an entire story. With Little Miss Muffet, I have found that it helps during her "wilder" moments if we can act out a story together. We just borrowed a new book from the library: Baby Love by Angela DiTerlizzi. The baby in the story is described in terms of his body parts - tiny toes, sleepy eyes, etc. When I read it aloud to Miss Muffet, I asked her to follow along by pointing to each body part as it was mentioned. For the first couple of pages, I had to prompt her, but then she caught onto the game right away and really got into it. I also enjoyed it because there are several places in the book where the baby gives a hug or a kiss, and she happily shared one with me each time! 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Reading Through History: The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh (1954)

The Courage of Sarah Noble is a short chapter book set in 1707, which is suitable for second and third graders. It tells the story of a real child who accompanies her father into the wilderness to cook his meals while he builds their family a new home. Sarah is nervous, but reminds herself of her mother's advice to hold on to her courage. When Sarah's father goes back to bring the rest of the family to the new house, Sarah must stay behind with Tall John, an Indian who lives nearby, and his family. Since she does not speak their language or understand many of their customs, she once again finds herself feeling uncertain and needing to summon her courage.

For the time period in which it was written and the age group whom it targets, this book is a decent introduction into life in the early American wilderness. Though some characters express stereotypical fears and concerns about the native people living near them, these are put down by Sarah's father and shown to be foolish and insensitive things to say. Perhaps Sarah and her father are a little too kind and a little too enlightened to be realistic, but this is a chapter book for beginning readers, and the sunny outlook is certainly age appropriate. There are reviews all over Goodreads condemning this book as racist for all sorts of reasons, many of which contradict each other. Instead of finding a way to be offended, as is the popular thing to do these days, I'd rather look at the book as a product of its time and use it in the way I believe it was intended - to introduce concepts of tolerance and kindness to young kids for whom this age-old subject matter is brand-new territory.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Book Review: Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead (2015)

In Goodbye Stranger, Rebecca Stead's forthcoming fourth novel for young readers, several characters are struggling with life's ups and downs. Bridget "Bridge" Barsamian, who survived a terrible accident as a young child, wonders if she was spared for a special reason. She and her best friends, Tab and Emily, also face new challenges as they enter middle school and begin to question whether their pact never to have a fight is actually helping their friendship. In the meantime, Bridget grows closer to classmate Sherm Russo, who is mourning the demise of his grandparents' marriage, which causes his grandfather to move out of the family home, leaving Sherm behind. Scenes from Bridget's life are interspersed with letters from Sherm to his grandfather, and a series of scenes written in the second person that reveal what happens to one unnamed character on Valentine's Day.

Goodbye Stranger has a sophisticated structure. The changes in tense, format, and point of view are confusing at first, but as the reader gets to know each character, switching between their stories starts to feel more natural, and the desire to know the outcome of each thread of the story becomes stronger. Despite Stead's poetic and descriptive style, the pace of the book is quick because the reader is constantly questioning the identity of the character in the Valentine's Day story and the future of Bridget and her friends. (Snappy dialogue also contributes to this.) Stead also does a nice job of incorporating social media and cyberbullying into her story in a timely and age-appropriate way that feels real and not gimmicky. She depicts life in middle school accurately, without sensationalizing its problems or understating its pleasures, which is completely refreshing.

The Valentine's Day thread is the weakest part of this book, mostly because there is no real mystery surrounding the girl's identity, and her experiences don't connect as strongly to the rest of the story as the reader is led to expect. When her identity is revealed, it is a major let-down because it doesn't add anything to the overall story. There is no real "puzzle" in this book, as there is in When You Reach Me and Liar & Spy, and that is both unexpected and disappointing, given the set-up. Still, the other threads of the story are so strong, it's impossible not to forgive Stead for this one shortcoming.

Because Stead is a talented writer with a distinctive style, Goodbye Stranger automatically stands out as special among middle grade titles, even thought the subject matter itself has been explored in fiction many times over. Similar books include Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins, A Song for Bijou by Josh Farrar, The Battle of Darcy Lane by Tara Altebrando, and The Darlings are Forever by Melissa Kantor.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Reading Through History: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (1958)

Kit Tyler has spent her entire life in beautiful Barbados, but when her grandfather dies, she decides to seek out her mother's sister in Connecticut. When she arrives in the colony of Wethersfield, however, she is surprised by the stark simplicity of everything around her. The strict Puritan lifestyle is almost incompatible with Kit's free-spirited personality, and while her aunt is welcoming, her uncle is unsure what to make of his unusual niece. The only people who seem to understand Kit are Nat Eaton, the son of the captain of the ship that brought Kit to Connecticut, and Hannah Tupper, a lonely old woman suspected of being a witch. Though Kit tries to do good things for others - looking after Hannah, teaching a young girl how to read, making the neighborhood dame school more fun - the Puritans look upon these actions as evil and before long, Kit herself is on trial for witchcraft.

The only memory I have of this book from childhood is my refusal to read it. After Kirsten's best friend died of cholera on the voyage to America in Meet Kirsten, I decided I was done with stories about early America forever, and held pretty well to that conviction even into adulthood. The mention of a witch in the title and the foreboding background on the cover suggested to me that I would be scared and upset by this book, and therefore I avoided it like the plague. Had I known then how benign - and indeed, boring - this book actually is, I doubt I would have been so concerned.

While the description given on the back cover of this book suggests that this is a story about being falsely accused of witchcraft, this is really not the main focus of three quarters of the book. Instead, the story dwells for a long time on the daily life of a Puritan family, showing what they wear, how they cook, when they pray, how they punish, and touching briefly now and then on their strange superstitions. There is also discussion of disability (Kit's cousin Mercy has a paralyzed leg), courtship, and politics, and religion. There are several characters who know early on that Kit is spending time with a supposed witch, and it is not nearly as scandalous as the book jacket suggests. In fact, the entire witch trial portion of the story goes by very quickly and is solved relatively easily, with help, of course, from a boy. Maybe it's because I've read The Crucible, but I was really expecting a whole lot more excitement from this book. It has its moments, but overall, I just didn't love it.

For kids who have never heard about witch trials, this book works fine as an introduction to the idea. It's also interesting to compare colonial life in 1687 in this book, with the difficulties of 80 years before in Blood on the River. Reading the two stories in succession really highlights the progress Americans made within just the first century of the country's existence. It would be interesting to have kids read both and do a comparison. I would have no problem with my children reading this book, but I won't be rushing to share it with them like so many stories I have truly enjoyed. I'm glad to have read it, but I don't expect to think much about it in the future.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Reading Through History: I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino (1965)

Today's review is of another Newbery Medal winner, I Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, which received the award in 1966. When Juan de Pareja's mistress dies, he is inherited by the famous Spanish painter, Diego Velasquez. Over many years, Juan and Velasquez become great friends, and Juan witnesses many important moments in the life of his famous master, all while painting his own works in secret. While most details of this story have been fabricated, it is based on known facts about Juan and his artwork.

Unlike many other children's books, which focus primarily on their protagonists' childhoods, this book is a portrait of the entire duration of Juan's relationship with Velasquez, much of which occurs during Juan's adult years. This unique approach allows the reader to gain a full sense of Velasquez's career as an artist, and also to see the ways in which the two men influence each other, as people, and as painters. Similar to The Second Mrs. Gioconda, which allows the reader to get to know da Vinci through the eyes of his apprentice, this book allows the reader to see the vulnerabilities and emotions of Velasquez by giving insight into his closest relationship. For readers who are learning about his work, or about this time in Spanish history in general, this book provides a great way to connect more personally with the time period and people involved.

What surprised me the most about this book was that it made me cry. It was such a shock because the book is written in a very straightforward way, and never tries to manipulate the reader into experiencing any particular emotions. Rather, the events of the story itself are so moving at times, that tears are just a natural reaction. I'm not sure if kids reading the story would react in the same way - maybe they don't have enough life experience yet to appreciate the beauty and rarity of lifelong friendship - but for me, it was enjoyable to experience emotion not because the author forced me into it, but because the book itself was just that good.

I also loved the way religion was portrayed in this book. Juan is a devout Catholic throughout the story, and there is a scene where he must face the guilt he feels over stealing his master's supplies in order to paint his own works, and he begins to consider going to confession. The fact that the sacrament of Reconciliation actually appears in a children's novel was a pleasant surprise for me, and one that would make me even more inclined to share this book with my own kids when they are of middle school age. Similarly, I also loved learning all the details of what it was like to be the painter for a royal court, and of Velasquez's particular personality and habits. Everything in this book is interesting and well-written, which is just so refreshing!

I, Juan de Pareja will be best enjoyed by older readers (grades 6 & up) who have some familiarity with the work of Velasquez.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Reading Through History: Blood on the River: James Town, 1607 by Elisa Carbone (2006)

As the title states, Blood on the River is set in James Town, beginning in 1607. Samuel Collier, an orphan, is apprenticed to John Smith, with whom he will journey across the ocean to the new world. Smith and other members of the Virginia Company hope to quickly settle Virginia and then scour the land for the gold they hope will make them rich. While the gentlemen of the Company are convinced this  will be an easy task which should require no sacrifices on their part, Smith tries to warn the new settlers of the dangers that lie ahead. Over the next two years, Samuel sees many of Smith's warnings come to fruition, as well as many other unexpected joys and hardships.

The most remarkable feature of this book is its historical accuracy. Elisa Carbone has told a story entirely populated by real people, and she has meticulously researched each person's writings and experiences in order to provide as authentic a portrayal as possible. Instead of telling her own story set in a real time and place, Carbone chooses to tell the true story, and to bring history to life through her straightforward, yet engaging, storytelling style. Quotations from real historical documents contribute to the book's authenticity and remind the reader with every new chapter that this is the true history of our country. Even in situations where Carbone has to choose between two historical theories, she explains her decision and its implications for the rest of her story in her author's note.  It would almost be possible to use this book in place of a textbook, so careful is Carbone with the details she includes.

In addition to all the politics of the Virginia Company, this book also does a wonderful job of introducing the reader to day-to-day living in a new American settlement. In a world where so much of our work is done by machines and gadgets, this book will really open kids' eyes to how difficult it was just to survive in this country when it was new. Because Samuel is himself a child who has never experienced many of these things before, he is the perfect link between the reader and the unfamiliar world. I also appreciate that Carbone chose a character who was not present in James Town during its final winter. She manages to work in the fate of James Town without having to kill off the main character, which strikes just the right balance between a little bit dark - which this book is -  and very depressing - which it decidedly is not.

Also handled well is John Smith's relationship with Pocahontas, and with other native people. There is not a hint of Disneyfied romance in this telling of the tale. Instead, Smith treats the young Pocahontas as his child and works his hardest to respect the culture of her people, and of other neighboring Indian tribes. Even more than Samuel, the protagonist, Smith emerges as the most interesting character in this book because of his willingness to get to know the Indians and their customs without inflicting violence upon them. The consequences when others do not follow Smith's approach speak volumes about how right his ways really are.

I recommend this book very highly to kids in grades 4 to 8, and to adults, too, whose education about American history might be missing some key facts. I also really think every school library needs to own this book. I would have appreciated my middle school American history classes much more if I'd had a book like this to help me understand things on a personal level.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Book Review: Escape from Baxters' Barn by Rebecca Bond (2015)

Burdock the cat isn't sure how he feels about the other barn animals. After all, they seem like a family, and he is just the stray who was dumped on their doorstep. One day, though, Burdock hears the brothers who own the farm having an argument, during which one of them suggests burning the barn to the ground! Knowing what could happen to Nanny the goat, Mrs. Brown the cow, and the other barn animals in a fire, Burdock decides to stick around and do what he can to help them escape.

This animal story is a straightforward tale about a struggle between good and evil, and the importance of friendship and teamwork in overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. Though the animals do some things that are probably impossible for real animals to accomplish, the story is still believable because it has these very human issues and emotions at its heart. Though the main characters are all animals, each one is recognizable in some way because of his or her emotional depth and unique voice. There is Nanny, the motherly goat, Mrs. Brown the elderly cow who wishes not to be a burden, Burdock, the one-eyed cat who just wants a place to belong, Fluff the sheep, whose determination is outweighed only by her loyalty and Figgy the Piggy, whose logical thinking leads readers to see pigs as more than lazy slobs who roll about in the mud. Each animal adds something to the escape plan, and to the family dynamic in the barn. 

Humans are a part of this world, as well. There are mentions of minor characters - local business owners, the town librarian, a family of newcomers - all of whom contribute to the reader's sense of the community as a whole, and of the world into which the animals will venture if their escape plan is a success. The fact that the animals do not exist in a vacuum gives the story greater dimensions, and these occasional glimpses into the lives of humans prepare the reader for a most satisfying conclusion to the story. 

Another fun element of this book that will get a good laugh from adult readers is the inclusion of certain songs that the animals sing. Mrs. Brown sings both "That's Amore" and "Don't Fence Me In" each using a clever set of animal-focused lyrics. Even kids who don't know the tunes (which is likely to be most kids in the target age group) will enjoy the lyrics, and adults who sing while reading the book aloud - or even during a booktalk - will absolutely encourage kids to read this book. 

While it would be impossible to surpass a beloved classic, this book does share common themes and a common setting with Charlotte's Web. It seems foolish to compare a brand-new book to a true classic, but both stories will certainly appeal to a similar audience. Other read-alikes for Escape from Baxters' Barn which also feature talking animals include The Trouble with Chickens by Doreen Cronin, the Bunnicula series by James Howe, and The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden. It would also be interesting to pair with another new novel set on a farm, Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Book Review: Greg's Microscope by Millicent Selsam, illustrated by Arnold Lobel (1963)

Fifty years ago, long before Common Core and STEM became buzzwords amongst educators, librarians, and children's literature experts, there were the Science I Can Read books. These were books for early elementary readers written by Millicent Selsam and illustrated by Arnold Lobel, which used stories to illustrate and explain simple scientific concepts. At a recent used book sale, my husband found a copy of Greg's Microscope, which we decided to add to our family collection, mostly because I love Lobel, but also because we are fans of the classic I Can Read Books. It is the story of a boy named Greg who decides he wants a microscope after seeing one at a friend's house. His father agrees to get it for him, but tells him he needs to prepare his own slides using materials from around the house. Greg begins looking at everything - sugar, salt, dog hair, his own hair, and more - and soon his parents are as obsessed with the microscope as Greg is, prompting the family to question whether just one microscope is enough!

Because of continual scientific advances, not all science books can stand the test of time. This one, however, seems like it is still a decent introduction to microscopes for the early elementary audience. Lobel adds much to the book with his sketches of each item Greg views under the microscope, which give kids who don't have access to expensive scientific tools the opportunity to learn what each of these things looks like when magnified. Because of the level of detail in the illustrations, the book also makes a perfect companion to a classroom lesson or library program where kids look into the microscope and record what they see. Reading the book as a group and repeating Greg's actions seems like the ideal STEM activity.

Only one minor detail in this book bothered me. Greg's mother is portrayed as almost unbelievably clueless. She acts as though she has never heard the word "cell" before and just generally seems like she has no idea about the world outside of her home. While this is probably meant to empower the child reader - "Hey, I'm smarter than the grownups!" - it did make me roll my eyes, and it kept me from giving the book five stars. It won't, however, prevent me from adding it to my homeschool stash for when Miss Muffet is older.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Reading Through History: The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood (1998)

Widge, an orphan, has been taught the art of shorthand, making him a valuable asset for dishonest people wishing to copy the words of others. At the start of this book, Widge is purchased by Simon Bass, a theater director who wishes to have him steal Shakespeare's Hamlet by seeing the play and writing down every word. When Widge arrives at the Globe theater, however, he has trouble completing his task. First, he becomes so engrossed in the action of the play, he forgets to copy down the lines of dialogue. On his second attempt, he copies the whole thing, but then loses his notebook. He decides to try getting it back, but in order to do so inconspicuously, he must sign on as a prentice to the theater. While pretending to have a strong desire to act on the stage, Widge begins to feel a sense of family and belonging among the other Globe prentices, and he begins to question whether he should steal the play after all.

This fast-paced and suspenseful novel is everything historical fiction for kids ought to be. Rather than simply laying out a series of historical details for young readers to absorb, author Gary Blackwood artfully weaves details about the Globe theater, the life of a prentice, the story of Hamlet, and Shakespeare himself into a truly engaging and exciting story starring a believable and sympathetic hero. Kids will be drawn to the danger and mystery surrounding Widge's duplicity, both with his master, and with his fellow prentices. They will also enjoy the banter between Widge and his prentice friends, which has a contemporary ring to it, despite the occasionally old-fashioned language. (Widge's interactions with his friends remind me a lot of the way the kids talk to each other in The Thieves of Ostia, which is written in a similar tone and style.) There are also a number of surprises revealed in the latter quarter of the book which are tangential to the main plot, but still so satisfying, and so unpredictable.

It is very easy to tie this book into a history or literature lesson. Kids get to see Shakespeare as a person, and imagine how it might have been to work for him, or to see his plays as they were first performed. They also learn how special effects were achieved in those days (puncturing a sack of animal blood to make a joust look bloody, for example) and the restrictions preventing women and girls from taking on acting roles at all. The underlying theme of honesty vs. dishonesty adds a nice moral dimension to the story, too, which encourages kids to consider the importance of doing the right thing, even when it makes things more difficult. The use of disguises to highlight this theme is also handled very well, and gives the reader a concrete way of thinking about deception.

The Shakespeare Stealer is one of my favorites of this project so far. Fortunately, it's the first book of a trilogy, which continues in Shakespeare's Scribe and concludes with Shakespeare's Spy. I won't get to the sequels for a while, since I still have 30 historical fiction novels to go, but they are definitely going on my to-read list, as I'm sure they will for kids in grades 4 to 8 who choose to read this book.