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).