Sunday, May 31, 2015

Reading Through History: The White Stag by Kate Seredy (1937)

The 1938 Newbery Medal winner, The White Stag, is a slim novel with many illustrations. In short, descriptive chapters, it relates the story of the Huns and Magyars making their way to their "promised land" where they will eventually settle the country of Hungary. Each chapter represents a new generation, beginning with Nimrod, and ending with the birth and rise to power of Attila the Hun. Magical elements appear throughout the story, in the form of a white stag said to be sent by the god Hadur, a young blind man who sees the future, and moonmaidens who become the wives of some of the characters. The story is based on the author's father's favorite folktale about the history of Hungary, and is not intended as a factual presentation of events.

When I was planning my historical fiction reading project, I opted not to include The White Stag, mostly because it spans such a long period of time that it would be hard to fit it into my timeline, but also because it involves magic, and I am focusing on realistic novels. However, after learning that the author, Kate Seredy, was living in Montgomery, NY (not far from my hometown) when she wrote this book, I decided I absolutely had to read it. I wound up reading the entire thing aloud to my husband and toddler in a single sitting, and despite not knowing anything about the Huns, I was completely drawn into the story and eager for each new turn of events.

Seredy's writing is a treat unto itself. She has a wonderful way of getting inside the minds and hearts of her characters to guess at what might have motivated their behaviors and attitudes. Though most of us know Attila the Hun as a fearsome conqueror, Seredy takes the time to explore why this might have been, and shows how the peaceful attitudes of his forebears devolved, over time, into violence. There are a ton of negative reviews on Goodreads complaining that this portrayal of Attila is somehow offensive, or "wrong" but those reviewers really seem to be missing the point. This is a mythical tale, not a textbook, and speculating about what could have happened is half the fun of reading and writing historical fiction. As with Konigsburg's The Second Mrs. Gioconda, this is a book to enjoy in conjunction with learning about the time period, as it is knowledge of the historical events that enriches the reading experience.

Though the subject matter might be unfamiliar to kids, the layout of this book is very appealing, with a full-page illustration every 2-3 pages. If it is presented to them as an exciting epic rather than a boring old award winner, I would think boys, especially, will happily allow themselves to be sucked into the story. Though the book is short, like a chapter book, I would put it in the same category as Call it Courage and recommend it to older elementary readers. It's also a wonderful read-aloud, and even reading just one chapter aloud to a group is likely to grab their interest. Don't let the negative reviews on the Internet fool you - this is a great book, and it holds up just fine nearly 80 years after it was first published.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Reading with Little Miss Muffet: May 2015

New Book Behaviors


  • Character Recognition. This month, Little Miss Muffet has become much more interested in the characters in her books. She likes to hear their names, and when given a name, she can usually point to the correct character. In certain books, she will even wave to her favorite characters to say hello or goodbye. 
  • Shhh, they're sleeping! Any time a character's eyes are closed in an illustration, Miss Muffet assumes he is asleep, and therefore points to him and says, "Shhh!" I spend a lot of time saying, "Hmmm, I don't think he's asleep. I think his eyes are just closed." She has a great eye for detail, though - half the time, I haven't even noticed a character's eyes are closed until she shows me!


Current Favorites


  • Gossie and Gertie by Olivier Dunrea. We borrowed the entire Gossie & Friends series from our local libraries this month, but Gossie and Gertie was Miss Muffet's breakout favorite. Any time I suggested reading a story, this was the first book she brought to me, and sometimes hearing it just once wasn't enough. Though I do love this series, I was definitely ready for this one to go back to the library when it was finally due. 
  • Such a Little Mouse by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Stephanie Yue. This is a new picture book we stumbled upon at the library. It follows a mouse through the four seasons, as he observes the conditions outside of his hole, and gathers food to keep in his storeroom. Miss Muffet squeals with delight at the sight of the mouse, and of his other furry friends, including squirrels and beavers. Each month, when the mouse pops out of his hole, Miss Muffet enthusiastically throws her hands up and says, "Pop!" 
  • Mrs. Wishy Washy by Joy Cowley. Miss Muffet's grandma purchased a library discard copy of this book from a book sale when she was visiting last year, and we just recently pulled it out again. Miss Muffet loves to jump like the cow and paddle like the duck, and she loves it when Mrs. Wishy Washy says, "Just look at you!" I have this book memorized, so I also recite it to her in random places - public transportation, the bathtub, the doctor's office waiting room, etc. 

One Tip from Mom 


  • Enhance the reading experience with props. Little Miss Muffet and I have had a great time this month exploring props to accompany our favorite books. We continue to love Stanley the Farmer, so I took the time to print, cut, and laminate the flannel board pieces for the book. She is completely enamored of them, and can easily spend 30 minutes at a time, sorting them and arranging them on the flannel board. I also happen to have a set of Mrs. Wishy Washy finger puppets, which give her busy hands something to do while I read the story. I don't recommend having a prop for every single book you read, but some carefully selected choices make reading time a little less monotonous for you, and even more fun for your little one. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Reading Through History: Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry (1940)

In four chapters illustrated with blue and white ink drawings, this novella relates a Polynesian legend wherein a boy known for being afraid proves himself capable of taking on the elements on his own. Mafatu lost his mother to the sea as a young boy, and ever since, he has feared the wrath of the god Moana, assuming it is just a matter of time before the water comes for Mafatu as well. Frustrated by all that he sees others in his village accomplish, Mafatu decides to run away and prove his courage by facing his fears and hoping the god Maui will see him through.

The appeal of this book is mostly lost on me. Ever since I was forced to read The Cay in sixth grade, I have had a disdain for shipwreck books, and having just read The Captive, I wasn't really ready for another one. In fact, Mafatu's experiences in this book were so similar to what happens to Julian in The Captive that I kept forgetting which details belonged to which story. The writing is concise and straightforward, but I had trouble empathizing with Mafatu, and even in the most suspenseful moments of the story, I was more eager to stop reading than I was to find out what would happen next. It felt like it took me longer to get through this book than it typically takes for me to read 300 pages. 

What I do like about this book, despite the problems I had connecting with it, is the lesson. Mafatu is afraid because of something terrible that happened to him, and he sees himself as a coward. Others in his village ascribe this attribute to him as well, but their opinions seem to matter only because Mafatu is so down on himself. It is inspiring to read a story in which a character does hard things for the sake of proving to himself he can do them. Each time Mafatu has a victory - handcrafting his own knife, killing a hammerhead shark, fighting an octopus, building a seaworthy boat - the reader has the opportunity to reflect on his own obstacles and consider whether they are as insurmountable as they seem. 

Though it's not my favorite, I think there are plenty of kids who would love this book. It has some things in common with some of the more exciting Calvin Coconut books (Man Trip, Hero of Hawaii), and with Gary Paulsen's wilderness survival stories, which are popular, and it includes lots of details about building shelters and boats, making tools, starting fires, and hiding from enemies. Suggest it to adventure lovers in grades 4 to 7. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Reading Through History: The Captive by Scott O'Dell (1979)

Julian Escobar, a young Spanish seminarian, believes he is following Don Luis Arroyo to the New World in order to help convert "savages" to the Christian religion. Once their ship lands on a Mayan island, however, it becomes clear that Don Luis plans to enslave the Indians, and that Julian has been selected for his naivete in the hopes that he will stand by silently and allow the enslavement to take place without interference. As months pass, Julian witnesses mutiny, survives a shipwreck, and then ultimately succumbs to the glamorous prospect of fame.

This book is heavy reading, and very academic in tone. The story starts out fairly harmless and hopeful, but devolves slowly, showing first the moral decline of those around Julian, and then Julian's own descent into egotism. While the story is engrossing, the emotional darkness, including Julian's struggle to maintain his relationship to God, makes it difficult to enjoy. Certainly there is much to learn from this book  - about Mayan culture, about conquistadors, about the dangers of sailing, even about wilderness survival - but of all the books I've read for this project thusfar, it would be the hardest one to effectively sell to kids. The main character's experiences are very far removed from the concerns of most middle grade readers, and the lack of illustration and dialogue make the book look more intimidating than it actually is. My recommendation would be to read at least some of the book aloud before asking a child to read it independently. There is so much danger and excitement in the story that once kids have a taste, they will be curious to find out what happens and they will forget that the book seems old-fashioned, boring, or difficult to read.

The Captive is the first book of  The Seven Serpents Trilogy, meaning that there is no definitive ending at the conclusion of this story. Julian's adventures continue in Feathered Serpent (1981) and The Amethyst Ring (1983). I did not realize this was not a stand-alone title when I chose it for my list, or I might have skipped it. I didn't enjoy the story enough to want to read the sequels, but at the same time, I'm bothered by not knowing Julian's ultimate fate. Young readers might want to be made aware that this is a story spanning three books before they start this first one.

Ultimately, this book will be but a footnote for me in the overall scheme of things. I still want to read Island of the Blue Dolphins someday, because I never have, but I have a feeling it will be a while before I'm ready to try Scott O'Dell again. Depending on how much you and your kids love long, suspenseful, and  detailed history books, your mileage may vary. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Reading Through History: The Second Mrs. Gioconda by E.L. Konigsburg (1975)

When Salai is taken on as an assistant to Leonardo DaVinci, he becomes part of a three-way friendship which also includes Duchess Beatrice d'Este whose plainness keeps her in the shadow of her beautiful sister, Duchess Isabella. It is through this connection, born of DaVinci's eye for the inconspicuous, that the creation of the famous Mona Lisa comes to be.

Konigsburg is one of my favorite children's authors because her books cover such a wide range of topics and styles. This book, though completely unlike any of her others, is thoroughly engrossing and completely believable. The personalities she lends to the historical figures who populate the story suit their known actions and provide plausible explanations for what is not known.  DaVinci, especially, comes to life as a fully realized and interesting human being. Certainly even if Konigsburg's portrayal is not completely accurate, it will inspire young readers to seek out DaVinci's biography. 

While the question that drives this book -  why did an artist in such high demand agree to paint a merchant's second wife? -  provides a definite puzzle, this book is not a mystery in the traditional sense. There are no real clues to piece together, and the ending, while fitting, is not something the reader can guess or predict.  Also, unlike other historical novels I've been reading for this project, The Second Mrs. Gioconda would not work as a child's first introduction to DaVinci, the Renaissance, or the Mona Lisa. Rather, this is a book for readers already somewhat familiar with the time period and its key players, as that knowledge is what allows one to theorize about the Mona Lisa's backstory. As supplemental reading to non fiction texts, however it is an excellent novel highly recommended for grades 6 to 10. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Reading Through History: Children of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac (1996)

Children of the Longhouse introduces twins Ohkwa'ri and Otsi:stia, two children of the Mohawk Bear Clan, who live with their family and other members of their clan in a longhouse in what is now upstate New York. The plot mainly focuses on Ohkwa'ri. First, he overhears a group of teenagers from his clan planning to go to war with a neighboring tribe, thus violating a longstanding peace agreement. Then, after he reports the teens' plans to the council, he finds himself in danger of being attacked by them himself during the clan's game of Tekwaarathon (lacrosse).

For the purposes of learning about day-to-day life in a longhouse, this book is ideal. Bruchac is very thorough in his descriptions of the longhouse itself, the roles of men and women (and boys and girls) within the longhouse, and the clan as a whole, and even the experience of playing Tekwaarathon. Unfortunately, there is not enough of a plot to keep readers interested. The conflict between Ohkwa'ri and the older boys is established very quickly, but then developed way too slowly. After the threat of war that opens the book, the lacrosse game, though interesting, feels lame by comparison. 

I specifically wanted to read a book by Joseph Bruchac, since I have heard such rave reviews about his work, but I have to admit that I was disappointed. I could definitely see using excerpts from this book to illustrate particular aspects of Mohawk living, but it's just too dry to appeal to most kids. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Book Review: The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall (2015)

Life has changed for the Penderwicks. Rosalind is away at college falling in love with a pretentious jerk, and neighbor Nick Geiger has joined the military. Jeffrey is in love with Skye, and Batty is caught in the middle between the three older sisters with whom she shares a mother, and two younger siblings, step-brother Ben and two-year-old half-sister Lydia. Batty, now in fifth grade, is also struggling to come to terms with a talent for singing that has recently been recognized by her music teacher at school. To raise money for singing lessons, she starts an odd-job service in the neighborhood, which leads to her walking two dogs - a painful experience, since she blames herself for the recent loss of the family dog, Hound. After overhearing a late-night conversation between Skye and Jeffrey, Batty also begins blaming herself for another, greater loss - that of her mother, shortly after her own birth. Spring on Gardam Street is a brand-new season filled with misunderstandings, difficult truths and deep emotions.

Compared with the second and third Penderwick books, both of which relied heavily on coincidence to further their plots, this book is a major improvement. While there is still a sense that everything in the Penderwicks' world is a little bit rosier than the rest of the universe, there is also a truth to the feelings Batty experiences as she begins to come into her own as a person, not just as a little sister or a big sister. The jump ahead in time is not nearly as jarring as expected, and it is wonderful to gain an even greater understanding of what everyday life is like on Gardam Street, and in Batty's school.

The plot did feel a little thin, as the tension between Skye and Batty was not well-developed in previous books, and the revelation Batty has about her mother's death isn't really that much of a surprise. (At least not for adults. Maybe for kids.) There are also way too many names in the story. Every character, it seems, no matter how minor, has an unusual or ethnic name, but no personality or role in the plot. There are already at least ten main characters, so adding these extra people into the text seems like a sure way to confuse readers. There are also a lot of references to contemporary books and authors that are probably going to make this book feel dated by the time the next one comes out.

Overall, there is lots to love in this book, and it was a pleasant read. It would be hard for any book of this series to live up to the charm of the first one, but this is a solid novel that will appeal not just to Penderwicks fans, but also to kids who like introspective, shy, and emotional characters, such as those who appear in Linda Urban's novels Hound Dog True and The Center of Everything.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Book Review: The Owl Service by Alan Garner (1967)

Husband and wife Clive and Margaret, along with Clive's son, Roger, and Margaret's daughter, Alison, have gone on holiday to a cottage in Wales. Working at the cottage are Huw, the caretaker whom everyone believes has gone mad, Nancy, the housekeeper, and Nancy's son, Gwyn, who develops a friendship with Alison. When Alison begins to hear scratching noises coming from the ceiling above her bed, both Roger and Gwyn are convinced it is rats. Gwyn climbs up to investigate, however, and he finds a curious set of dishes with an owl print. After learning of the plates, Alison begins to behave strangely: constantly drawing owls, crying out in her sleep, and experiencing lapses in her memory. In the meantime, Gwyn's mother becomes increasingly more distressed by the presence of the owls, as does Huw, who claims to have had firsthand experience with them in the past. It becomes clear, through conversations with both Nancy and Huw, that Gwyn, Roger, and Alison have been pulled into a tragic legend - the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Blodeuwedd from The Mabinogion - the events of which repeat themselves in every new generation.

The Owl Service is by far the strangest young adult novel I have ever read. From the very first page, there is a creepy, almost Gothic tone to the story, and though much of the book seems very realistic and ordinary, there is always an underlying sense of not quite knowing what is happening, and not being able to settle properly into the plot. Interestingly, despite being utterly confused by almost everything, the book's strong appeal made me want to keep reading, so that I finished the entire book in about two hours. What makes it so compelling, I think, is the realness of the characters, and the dynamics of their relationships: step-brother and step-sister, poor servant and rich vacationer, young men and young woman. It reminds me a lot of Madeleine L'Engle's books, in the sense that the relatability and authenticity of the characters is what drives the story, not necessarily the strange and unlikely events which happen to them.

One thing I found especially refreshing in this book is that it does not explicitly identify the myth on which the story is based, and it offers no definitive explanation on how the book is to be read. Contemporary fantasy novels often include prologues which fill the reader in on where they are in time, space, and reality. With this novel, though, the ambiguity is part of the enjoyment of the book, and part of the reason to finish the story. The images used in the story are powerful, even when you don't fully understand them, and somehow it is the surrealism that makes the novel a true work of art. 

The Owl Service could be a frustrating book if it were assigned for school, but as pleasure reading, where the reader can just allow the story - and the British and Welsh slang - to wash over them, it is perfect. Middle school and high school readers who like mythology and fantasy might appreciate the challenge of a book like this, especially if they are bored with contemporary retellings of myths and legends. Though it might be a bit dated, The Owl Service is still in print, and available as both an ebook and an audiobook. There is lots more information about the book, and author Alan Garner, at theowlservice.co.uk