Sunday, August 30, 2015

Reading Through History: The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox (1973)

It is 1840, and Jessie lives with his mother and sister in New Orleans, where he sometimes plays the fife to earn a few coins. One day, his playing is heard by a sailor who arranges to have him kidnapped and brought to a slave ship. Over the next four months, Jessie witnesses firsthand the horrors of the slave trade as he is forced to do the bidding of various members of the crew, and to dance the slaves. Jessie spends much of his time waiting to return home, but there are many hardships ahead before he will see New Orleans again.

This 1974 Newbery Medal winner is quite a book. While it is not necessarily an enjoyable read, given the brutality of the way the slaves - and Jessie - are treated, it is really beautifully written. Author Paula Fox uses perfect comparisons and apt descriptions to round out each of the characters, even the minor ones, and she paints a clear, if disturbing, portrait of life on a slave ship. Since the story is written in first person, the reader has an eyewitness's point of view on everything that happens, and Jessie's anger, revulsion, fear, and yearning for home easily become the reader's own emotions, too.

An especially effective feature of this book is the "History" page which appears before the start of the story proper. The information provided on this page includes the name of the ship and those  of every crew member on board, as well as the number of slaves the ship carries, the date of its shipwreck, and the number of survivors - which is only two. Reading just this one short list piques the reader's interest by prompting lots of questions about the fate of the ship, and which two characters might be the survivors.

For young readers who haven't learned much about slavery, this book does require some context. There is a lot of information about where slavery is and is not legal during this time period, which is a bit confusing, since it is almost all delivered through dialogue, and with little explanation. A map would also be useful to have on hand, as the route the ship takes is very straightforward at first, but it's hard to imagine without a visual aid where Jessie ends up after the shipwreck.

The Slave Dancer is definitely not a book to read for entertainment, but the beauty of the language and the importance of the subject matter make it a worthwhile read for upper elementary or middle school students studying slavery. Other historical fiction novels that are similar to this one in terms of theme and writing style include The Captive, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, and Weasel.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Reading with Little Miss Muffet, August 2015

New Book Behaviors

Every month when I sit down to write about Miss Muffet's latest book-related activities, I am always surprised by how many new things she is always doing. This month I've noticed three new behaviors:

  • Identifying books by title. For a while, Miss Muffet would request her books based on the characters. "Read Stanley book." "Read Gumpy book." But within the past couple of weeks, she has suddenly become aware of titles. Now she brings the books over and presents them by name: "Stanley the Farmer," "Mr. Gumpy's Outing," etc. (Incidentally, she has also started requesting specific songs instead of just demanding loudly that somebody sing.)
  • Pointing out the author's photo. Earlier this month, Miss Muffet was constantly pointing to author photos on the back flaps of picture books and saying, "Man," or "Lady." Each time, I off-handedly mentioned that the man or lady she was talking about was the person who wrote the book, or the author. All of a sudden, one day, she stopped saying man or lady, and started saying, "Aw ther." (Now to teach her to say illustrator...) 
  • Reading aloud to herself. Miss Muffet has been "reading" independently for months, but usually not aloud. Now, though, she has started repeating to herself certain words and phrases as she flips through the pages of her favorite books. In just the past week or so, I have seen her "read" the entire last page of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and perfectly imitate my reading of several of the board books we received in the mail from Little Bee Books. 

Current Favorites

Here are Miss Muffet's latest favorite books, which are read at least daily in our house.

  • You're a Big Sister by David Bedford, illustrated by Susie Poole
    We have less than five weeks until Miss Muffet's official promotion to big sister, so we are talking a lot about babies. My mom sent her this book, which focuses on what new babies do, and how big sisters can participate, without going into too many details about how babies get here. I do wish it talked some about mommy going to the hospital and the big sister getting to visit, but even without that information, it's one of the better sibling picture books I've seen. 
  • My Best Ever: ABC Alphabet Book
    My mom also bought this book, which she was hoping would keep Miss Muffet busy. It has worked for the most part, as there are lots of little doors to open and textures to explore. The favorite word Miss Muffet has learned from this book is "iguana," which she pronounces "all gone-a." 
  • Peter Rabbit's ColorsThis book was mine as a child and it came home with us after our recent visit to New York. Miss Muffet has just started learning her colors, so this book gives her some good practice, but more than that, I think she just really likes Beatrix Potter's animal illustrations. 
  • Imogene's Antlers by David Small
    This book is also mine from childhood, and I didn't anticipate that Miss Muffet would take any interest in it at all. Strangely, though, she keeps bringing it to the couch whenever anyone is sitting there and saying, "Read!" The surprise ending (spoiler alert) has also really gotten her interested in peacocks.
  • More More More said the Baby by Vera B. Williams
    I have always enjoyed reading this book aloud, but my husband and I have both now read it so many times that we had to finally put it away for a little while. Miss Muffet really loves to point out the different characters and call them by name, however, and she is especially fascinated by Little Pumpkin and her grandma.

One Tip from Mom

  • Don't automatically rule out longer books. Though it might not happen often, there are occasions when a toddler can actually sit for the length of a longer story. For weeks, Miss Muffet kept bringing me The Happy Lion, and I would avoid reading it to her because I knew there was no way she would sit for such a long story with so many words per page. Then, one day, she was particularly insistent, and to my surprise, not only did she sit for the whole story, but she also started repeating the word "Bonjour" over and over again. She wound up getting quite a bit out of the listening experience, and I realized that perhaps my refusal to read her a title I consider a "preschool" book was a bit short-sighted after all. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Reading Through History: Weasel by Cynthia DeFelice (1991)

This week's book, Weasel, is set in 1839 Ohio. Nathan and Molly have been waiting for days for their father to return from hunting when a mysterious mute stranger comes to their door carrying their deceased mother's locket. Knowing their father never removes the locket, they realize he must be in danger, so they follow the stranger. As night becomes day, the children learn that Ezra and their father have both been victimized by Weasel, an evil, cold-blooded man who terrorizes many of the local settlers. Ezra lost his tongue and his family years ago, while Nathan and Molly's father has been severely injured and robbed of his gun. As Nathan attempts to take on his father's duties while his injury heals, he, too, comes face to face with Weasel, an encounter which provokes his own surprising emotions of anger and hatred.

This is another book I remember from middle school, but I have never read it until now. I know it was popular among other kids in my seventh grade English class, however, and because of that, it was one of the first titles I added to my list for this project. After my recent disappointment with the author's new book, Fort, I was a little concerned that I had made a mistake, but it turns out I had nothing to worry about. Weasel is well-plotted, fast-paced, emotionally charged, and wholly satisfying.

The historical details in this book serve mainly as backstory. The reader learns, as the story progresses, that Ezra and Weasel were hired by the government to remove the Shawnee people from their land, and that Weasel's approach was simply to kill the Indians, rather than relocate them. Ezra ultimately realizes this is wrong and begins to embrace a Shawnee way of life, while Weasel becomes more and more bloodthirsty and violent. This information, which is primarily introduced through discussions between Nathan and his father, gives the reader an understanding of the harsh treatment of Indians during this time, and of the ways this cruelty affected not just Indians, but whites as well. Though this is not the primary focus of the story, it provides context, and it gives readers larger issues to ponder alongside Nathan's very personal decision about whether to exact revenge on Weasel.

Primarily, though, this is a book I would recommend for entertainment. It's scary, surprising, suspenseful, and short, all qualities which tend to appeal to even the most reluctant readers, and it would also make a great read-aloud, especially since the chapters are only a few pages each. It is similar in many ways to The Lion Who Stole My Arm, and it is likely that readers who have enjoyed that book will enjoy this one, and vice versa.  Another read-alike is The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Book Review: See You Next Year by Andrew Larsen and Todd Stewart (2015)

Every year a girl and her family visit the same beachside motel on their summer vacation, and follow the same routine, but things change slightly this year when the girl makes a new friend.

The illustrations are the real selling point of this attractive picture book. Each page features pen-and-ink outlines painted and colored in with different textures which suggest features of the beach: grass, shadows, sky, water, sand, and fog. People are depicted as simplified figures with few facial features, but their body language tells their stories as they swim, play catch, play music, and roast marshmallows over the fire. Among many wonderful pictures, an especially amazing campfire stands out as exceptional. The lovely poetic text works well with the illustrations to evoke the bittersweet emotions associated with the end of one season and the beginning of the next.

This book is a lot like Cynthia Rylant's The Relatives Came. Both books have the same rise and fall of anticipating an important visit, having the experience, and then winding down from it, and they evoke a deep sense of nostalgia in the reader. Both stories are also told in beautiful declarative sentences that perfectly distill each important moment. Another possible read-alike, because of its focus on a summertime friendship is A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Reading Through History: Boy with a Pack by Stephen W. Meader (1939)

On an April morning in 1837, seventeen-year-old New Hampshire native Bill Crawford picks up his peddler's pack and sets off for Ohio, hoping to see some new sights and to earn more than the two dollars he could make working at the local mill. Along the way, he acquires a few animal friends, encounters unpleasant enemies in the form of a crooked horse trader and a slave owner searching for runaways, and finds a series of allies to help him reach his destination.

Though there is some hardship in the story, Boy with a Pack is mostly a feel-good adventure tale of traveling the open road, which provides the reader with insight into the way people lived in the United States prior to the Civil War. Much of the story focuses on the adventure rather than historical context, but references to factory work and involvement with escaped slaves ground the action in the specific time period and make it possible to connect the story to a history lesson. It is not quite as complete a history lesson as  Adam of the Road's portrayal of medieval England, but I actually think I enjoyed this book more, because I liked its main character better. While Adam of the Road makes better assigned reading, Boy with a Pack is the more entertaining of the two novels.

Kids who complain of having to read historical novels where nothing happens will not have that objection to this book. Every chapter introduces a new and exciting episode in Bill's story, and even his down time is filled with thrilling moments, such as the birth of a new foal, and the sighting of a circus elephant. It is a bit frustrating that the story ends where it does, without a neatly tied up resolution, as I could happily have followed Bill all the way back home again, but kids will appreciate the author's decision to end the story before the action has a chance to die down.

Though the character is an older teenager, this book suits the same audience as many of Gary Paulsen's books: grades 4 to 8. It would also make a fabulous read-aloud, provided the reader is prepared to grapple with several dialects.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Book Review: In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van, illustrated by April Chu (2015)

In a village by the sea, a mother and baby wait for a father to return home, while, on his boat, the father hopes for the end to a violent storm.

This book has beautiful dream-like pictures that are reminiscent of Keith Baker's style and color palette. Each page shows a unique perspective on a particular scene - a dog entering the kitchen where a fire is lit, a baby yawning in a basket on the counter, the dog peeking down a hole where a cricket is hidden, painting the storm which has stranded the father at sea. Because the story takes a fantastical turn when it is revealed that the cricket is a painter, the whimsical feel of the illustrations is spot-on and really elevates the story beyond the simplicity of the text.

This book is told in the same cyclical format as Here is the Key to the Kingdom and The House in the Night, making it a strong read-aloud. Preschoolers are probably the youngest kids who would be able to follow the story, especially with the strange twist, so though the text is brief, it is really not ideal for toddlers. It would pair nicely with Hush! A Thai Lullaby by Mingfong Ho and Holly Meade, which also shows a mother and child at home alone together. Visually, it is also similar to The Magic Fan by Keith Baker.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Book Review: Lost in NYC by Nadja Spiegelman, illustrated by Sergio Garcia Sanchez (2015)

On Pablo's first day as the new student in a New York City public school, his class takes a field trip to explore the subway. When he and his assigned partner get on the wrong train, and subsequently get separated, both must find their way through the maze of subway trains to the Empire State Building.

This book is a visual feast for anyone who loves to visit, or dreams of visiting New York City. The illustrator makes wonderful use of the subway map, as well as lots of interesting background details to teach a lesson about subway history and navigation, and to capture New York as it really looks and feels.  On the pages of this book are countless people, vehicles, and buildings, all bustling with the vibrancy and excitement city lovers associate with Manhattan. Reading this book is like walking through the city, or riding the subway - the reader is treated to all the same sights and experiences as someone who lives in New York. Indeed, the details are so vivid, they even bring to mind some of those familiar city smells.

Compared with some of the other Toon Books, this one is a bit more wordy, especially early on when the kids' teacher is giving his background information about the subway system. Still, the words take up considerably less room on the page than the illustrations, and every historical detail given is accompanied by an interesting picture - in some cases, even a photo - to provide the reader with proper context. There is also plenty in the story that kids can relate to - being the new student, feeling left out, and trying to make a new friend.

This book is an absolute must-purchase for libraries in and around the New York City area, and it will probably be popular in other Metro areas as well. Kids will love being completely immersed in the world of New York City, and those who have never visited will have a renewed interest after finishing this story. Very highly recommended for grades 2 to 5. For another recently published visual interpretation of New York City, also check out Marc Brown's picture book, In New York.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Reading Through History: A Gathering of Days by Joan W. Blos (1979)

From 1830 to 1832, Catherine Cabot Hill keeps a diary about the daily events of her life in New England, an account which she later passes on to her great-granddaughter. Diary entries cover everything from attendance at the one-room schoolhouse and keeping the Sabbath, to assisting an escaped slave, saying goodbye to a best friend, and adjusting to the arrival of a new stepmother.

Like The Light in the Forest, this is a book I remember loving in middle school. Though diary fiction is so popular now, there were fewer books in that format when I was a kid, and I was always fascinated with them. I remember enjoying this and Nothing But the Truth by Avi both because of their documentary format. However, as with The Light in the Forest, my memories of A Gathering of Days were not at all accurate. For one thing, I was sure this book was a romance novel, and it decidedly is not. I admit, it would have been odd for my seventh grade English teacher to assign a romance, but somehow that has not stopped me from re-imagining the book as such over the years. I also remembered the story being very easy to read, which led me to remember the language as contemporary-sounding. It turns out that the language is actually a lot more dense, and more beautiful, than my twelve-year-old self was apparently able to appreciate. It reads much more like the Newbery winner it is than I expected. Unlike My Brother Sam is Dead, which is intentionally written in 1970s parlance to make the story more accessible, A Gathering of Days reads like a diary written during the 1830s, with all the formalities of usage and syntax that would have been common for teens of the time.

A Gathering of Days is a nice introduction to everyday American living in the early 19th century. I think students often spend a lot of time learning about the Civil War, but not as much exploring how the average person lived during the more peaceful parts of the 19th century. Historical events do affect the characters in this book, but they do so in the same way the news of our day affects us - it happens, we deal with it, and we continue living our lives. Though slaves escape and girls leave home to work in factories, Catherine is more concerned with the ailments of her best friend, and the introduction of a stepmother into her home. The fact that Catherine is such a relatable character with thoughts and emotions similar to young teens of the 21st century might encourage even reluctant readers of historical fiction to give this story a chance.

As a history lesson on its own, this book would be rather thin, but as an introduction to the time period, or supplemental reading to emphasize what it was truly like to live in New England during the 1830s, it is a must-read. Though the time periods are quite different, this book actually makes a perfect read-alike for Catherine, Called Birdy, and for Sondok, Princess of the Moon and Stars, because all three books allow the reader to get to know a historical time period through the specific thoughts and feelings of one very sympathetic protagonist.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Reading Through History: Salt by Helen Frost (2013)

Twelve-year-old Anikwa, a member of the Miami tribe, and twelve-year-old James, the son of white traders, are friends who spend much of their time together in the Indiana territory where they live. When the War of 1812 breaks out, however, they find their families on opposites sides. James's family can suddenly no longer provide salt to the Miami, and many of the other white families are suspicious of the Indians, wondering if they are out to harm their American neighbors. Despite the political firestorm, destruction and violence surrounding them, the two boys remain friends, showing their affection for each other in whatever small ways they can.

This novel in verse is well-written, but slow-moving. The narration alternates between Anikwa's poems, written in a format meant to mimic Miami weaving patterns, and James's poems, which echo the arrangement of the stripes on the U.S. flag.  Though the poetry is quick and easy to read, the characters come across as very flat. Because all narration is stripped down to spare lines of poetry, there is hardly any personality or sense of humor in either boy's words. It feels odd to read about 12 year old boys who are so serious and introspective, and it makes it hard to connect with the book. There are also poems about salt interspersed throughout the text which don't really add much at all to the story. The reader could essentially skip these and still not lose the thread of the story.

There is also a sense of false political correctness about the book's "can't we all just get along" philosophy, which comes across as hokey rather than emotionally meaningful. When kids ask for war stories, this is generally not what they have in mind. Kids would rather read about the excitement of battle than the sincerity of two boys who want to stay friends despite their differences, however important adults find that message to be.

As a story, and as a teaching tool, this book is just okay. Kids would have a hard time learning much about the War of 1812 in general from such a narrowly focused story, and the reduction of the war to a relationship between two boys seems like too much of a simplification. I don't have another War of 1812 title on my list for this project, but I will be seeking out others when it comes time to homeschool on the subject.

For more on a Helen Frost book I did like, see my Goodreads review of Crossing Stones.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Book Review: Lulu and the Hamster in the Night by Hilary McKay (2015)

When Lulu's classmate, Emma, decides she no longer wants her hamster, Ratty, she gives him to Lulu, who happily takes him in. Just as Lulu and her cousin Mellie get Ratty trained, however, they are invited to spend the weekend with their Nan, who is having a birthday. Convinced that Ratty should not be left alone, they decide to sneak him away with them, even though Nan is terrified of hamsters. Keeping Ratty hidden proves more difficult than expected, however, when Nan's dogs take an interest in him, and then, by accident, he escapes!

It is pretty clear by now that Hilary McKay can make a compelling story out of anything that happens to Lulu and her family and friends. While the plot of this book does not necessarily bring anything new to the stereotypical "lost hamster" storyline, it is exceedingly well-written, and perfectly captures Lulu's ongoing struggle between getting animals out of trouble and getting herself into it. As other titles in the series have done, this one also really celebrates the warm, loving relationship Lulu and Mellie have with their grandmother, and the patience of the adults in Lulu's life for her strong interest in caring for animals.

The writing in these books is always such a pleasant treat to read. McKay has a very artistic writing style that exposes kids to wonderful examples of figurative language and beautiful description without sacrificing the overall simplicity of the text. Here is just one moment that, though very small, exemplifies McKay's talent:

The penguins finished. A new show started about criminal minds.

"No, thank you!" said Nan. "No criminal minds here!" And she switched off the TV so  that the screen became blank except for Mellie's reflection. 

Fans of the series will be glad to discover this sixth installment about Lulu.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Book Review: The Rose Round by Meriol Trevor (1963)

When thirteen-year-old Matt's step-sister and guardian, Caro, takes a job as a cook for Madame Ayres, Matt begins spending his school holidays at Woodhall Mansion. There he meets Alix, Madame's great-granddaughter who is forbidden to spend time with Matt, and Theo, Madame's son whose deformed arm invites nothing but disdain and cruelty from his mother. Over many months, Matt witnesses the increase of tensions between Theo and his mother, as he begins to go against her wishes, planning to bring a group of homeless orphans to live at Woodhall. In the meantime, Caro finds herself torn between her wealthy fiance, who is embarrassed of her work and the affections of Theo, who is a more decent man. Infused throughout the story are Christian themes of selfless love, eternal hope, and the dangers of pride, as well as many references to Mass and Confession.

This is probably the closest thing I have ever read to a perfect book. The characters are distinct and well-developed, and even the villains have a shred of goodness in them. Events of the story are interesting on their own, but have layers of allegorical meaning as well, adding a depth to the book that is a mark of truly artful writing. The story emerges naturally and unapologetically from the Catholic point of view, and it leaves no question as to the truth of the faith. Moral relativism is not a part of this universe, where right and wrong are easy to distinguish, even when right may be difficult to put into action. There is not an extra word in sight, not a moment of self-indulgence on the part of the writer. Everything in the story has been placed there deliberately, and every detail works toward a revelation of truth that is simply stunning in both its gravity and its execution. The ending left me nodding my head at the perfection of it all - not because the resolution is too neat, but because the writing, until the very last word, is just right.

There are so few novels for young people which explore the Catholic faith, let alone doing so with such beautiful language and such wonderful characters. I will look forward to the day when my own children are old enough to read and discuss The Rose Round with me, as it teaches so many lessons I hope to impart, and it represents experiences that will affirm and strengthen them in their own Catholic faith. I can't say how the book would be received by a non-Catholic audience, but Catholic kids in grades 6 and above will certainly feel as though this is their book, written for their worldview and experiences. I am not generally someone who re-reads books, but I already know I will revisit this one several times in years to come.