Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Reading with Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep, November 2016

In November, Bo Peep turned 14 months and Miss Muffet turned three. Here's how reading has impacted their lives this month.

  • On November 2, I began presenting a weekly public story time at a local church on Wednesday mornings. To my surprise, despite the fact that I am doing a lot of the same things in story time that I typically do at home, both of my girls seem to be responding more strongly to the story time performances than to my random occasions of singing and reading at home. Specifically, Miss Muffet has begun singing the ABCs, and Bo Peep randomly sings "Up above the world so high" from Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. My hypothesis is that the repeated exposure to the same songs in the same exact environment at the same exact time each week is reinforcing their memorization. But in any case, it's nice to see the impact of my own story time firsthand; usually, I don't know about it at all unless a parent tells me. 
  • Bo Peep, though much more of a baby than her sister was at this age, is beginning to develop the sassiness of toddlerhood. This includes an attitude of complete opposition to having books read aloud to her. She is happy to hand me a book, and label it for me, but if I open the book and begin to read, she grabs it away and flips to the end. This means that I either have to read to her when she is in the playpen and there is a barrier between us, or I have to recite rhymes and poems instead. I don't think she really opposes hearing language; instead, I think she is just enamored of turning pages right now. 
  • We have been taking a lot of weekend day trips, and we always play audiobooks in the car. Because my husband and I both read children's books for our own pleasure, we recently played Pinky Pye, and we're now several chapters into Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. To our surprise (and delight), Miss Muffet has been listening along with us, and unprompted, she happily discusses the characters in both books and offers incomplete, but highly accurate plot summaries. I wouldn't necessarily want to sit down and read a chapter book to her at this age, because there will be lots of time for those later, and there are many great books for her age group, but I do like seeing this blossoming of her listening comprehension skills. 
  • Miss Muffet received three new books for her birthday. From Grandma, she got Poppleton in Winter, which includes a chapter about Poppleton's birthday that we thoroughly enjoyed. And we gave her Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, illustrated by Susan Jeffers and The Importance of Being Three by Lindsay Ward. (That second one was a free review copy. I would not have bought it, as the text is awkward. I do like the pictures, though.) 
  • Finally, we have begun reading through our stash of Christmas books, and we're also reading lots of Bible stories as we begin adding ornaments to our Jesse Tree. Details about the books we're reading during the Advent and Christmas seasons will be featured in upcoming weekly round-ups! 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Selecting Special Gift Books for Kids Who Already Have a Lot of Books

Top Ten Tuesday's focus for today is gift guides. I was brainstorming ways to approach this topic last week, when someone in one of my Facebook groups posed a question: how do you decide which books to give your kids as gifts, if your family buys books all year round and regularly uses the library? Since we frequently take weekend trips to library book sales and used book stores, this is definitely something I have had to consider, though I'm not sure that consideration has been conscious until now. In any case, today I want to share the types of books I tend to save for gift-giving occasions.

Books that suit a specific age bracket. 

There are certain books, like Charlotte's Web, and series, like Frog and Toad and Harry Potter, that I want my kids to read at the exact right ages. I don't know yet what those exact ages will be, because I suspect it will be different for each child, but I want to give those books to my girls at that special time and have the reading of the book become a memorable experience. Therefore, even though we own those books right now, they are on shelves or in boxes, and will remain there until the appropriate window of time opens, at which point they will be presented as special gifts.

Books the child will be particularly excited about.

Right now, Miss Muffet loves Poppleton and Stanley. If we buy books in either of those series, we automatically set them aside for the next gift-giving occasion because we know how excited she will be to receive them. The characters are already special to her, so receiving books about them helps make her birthday or Christmas that much more special too. I would take the same approach to books with the child's name in the title, or with some other special significance to the child's life.

Religious books.

This is not always the case, but I tend to want to save religious books for religious occasions. I have a Christmas prayers board book that I was hanging onto until Advent, so that I could give it to the girls at the start of the season and we could say the sole Advent prayer in it when we add ornaments to our Jesse Tree each day. We also have a child's rosary book, Mary Holds My Hand, which I suspect may turn up in an Easter basket in a year or two. I imagine First Holy Communion will be another occasion on which the girls will receive special books of a religious nature.

Seasonal/holiday books.

We probably don't need many more seasonal and holiday books, as our boxes are overflowing, but if we did buy any new ones, I would probably tend toward packing them away and giving them as gifts during the appropriate season. It seems strange not to give a Christmas book as a Christmas gift, an Easter book as an Easter gift, etc.

Board books.

Now that my second child is a toddler, this has slowed down some, but it seems like I have given a disproportionately large number of board books to my children as gifts. This is partly because we don't borrow as many board books from the library (because of their condition and germs), so it feels like we need to own some of our own, but it's also because there isn't much else you can really give to a tiny baby, and both my girls were less than 3 months old on their first Christmases. I also think it's nice for every child, even the littlest ones, to have at least one book that is his or her very own.  I'm actually not sure we're giving either of them a board book this year, but that would be a first for us. Bo Peep alone received at least four board books for her birthday.

New books.

We rarely buy brand-new books, so if we do, they are usually gifts. (Sometimes, they are also purchased with gift cards we have received for our own birthdays, holidays, baby gifts, etc.)  I have also been known to wrap review copies from publishers and give them as birthday gifts. Bo Peep received two Stanley board books this year, as well as my review copy of You Are One, while Miss Muffet was given my review copy of The Importance of Being Three.

Hard-to-find books.

My kids are not old enough yet that they have books they are specifically seeking in the bookstore. Recently, however, my mom was looking for a copy of Fourteen Bears in Summer and Winter. When we stumbled upon a copy at a used book sale, I snatched it up and saved it until she came to visit. Then we surprised her with the book during her stay. If there is a ever a time where one of my girls is looking long and hard for a specific book and I finally find it, I don't think I'll be able to resist saving it to give as a surprise for a special occasion.

Activity books.

If I buy books of paper dolls, sticker books, coloring books, or other activity books, I always set them aside for a special occasion, or at least for a rainy day. This is partly to avoid having them completely consumed within 24 hours of their purchase, but also to make sure the books are given when an adult is available to help with cutting, peeling off stickers, etc. I also tend to ask other relatives for books of this type instead of toys, since I know Miss Muffet loves them, but we wouldn't necessarily think to buy them ourselves, and they take up a lot less space than a new toy.

Do you give books for birthdays and holidays? How do you decide which books are special enough to be gifts?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Book Review: The Davenports Are at Dinner (1948) and The Davenports and Cherry Pie (1949) by Alice Dalgliesh

The Davenports are at Dinner and The Davenports and Cherry Pie are two charming titles from the 1940s, which were written by three-time Newbery honoree Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Flavia Gag (sister of Wanda Gag of Millions of Cats fame.) In the first book, the Davenport children (John, Barbara, Kathy, and Ricky)  are nervous about how their new stepmother and her daughter, Lyn, will fit into their family. To add to their stress, the family is about to lose its beloved home due to financial difficulties. To help ease some of the financial burden, Kathy suggests that the family star in a nightly radio program where they gather around the table to sing and chat about the day's events.  In the second book, the family has lost its home and now lives in a barn. When a family friend entrusts the children to look after her poodle, Cherry Pie, everyone in the barn falls in love with the dog, and it becomes more and more difficult to think of giving her up. In the meantime, the radio show's success leads to a potential television deal for the Davenports.

Kirkus Reviews was not very kind to these books when they were first published, but what the reviewers deemed flaws were some of the very reasons I enjoyed the Davenports so much. In its 1948 review of The Davenports Are at Dinner, Kirkus calls the characters "a bit too noble"  and claims "they take even their hard luck too gallantly." The reviewer does not seem to believe in the characters, and the review basically just mocks the book's sincerity and seems appalled by the notion that the entire family gets along. I, however, found these characters totally believable and even refreshing in their positivity and willingness to move forward despite difficulties. It isn't as though the family has a choice, after all, and their resilience provides a great opportunity for kids to see that material possessions are not the key to happiness, and that it is possible to be happy with whatever lot one is given in life.  

Kirkus seemed to like The Davenports and Cherry Pie a bit better, but even this review makes it sound as though the only reason kids would be interested in this book is because they can live vicariously through the characters' experiences starring on television. I had no idea children's literature critics were already so cynical about childhood way back in the 1940s! I personally would have loved these books as a kid, because I found most sources of conflict troubling, and gravitated toward happy-go-lucky stories about big families. The Davenports books remind me a lot of books by Carolyn Haywood, Johanna Hurwitz, and Beverly Cleary, who depict mostly happy childhoods and handle difficulties gently and with great hope and heart. 

These books are not mentioned very much in articles about Alice Dalgliesh, presumably because they have been overshadowed by her more successful works and because they now seem so dated. Still, I think it's worth tracking them down if you can and sharing them with kids who enjoy sweet family stories. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Book Review: A Poem for Peter by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Lou Fancher & Steve Johnson (2016)

A Poem for Peter, a new picture book biography in verse, traces Keats's life story from his childhood in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn right up to the moment he publishes A Snowy Day. Along the way, the text reveals the bits of inspiration that led to the creation of his iconic character, Peter.

I wanted to like this book, as I have always loved Ezra Jack Keats, ever since my first grade teacher led my class on an author study of his work back in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, I can't honestly say that I do like it. First of all, I would not call this book a biography. It does provide some biographical information, but only within the larger context of heavy-handed We Need Diverse Books propaganda. There is a lot of romanticizing of The Snowy Day as the first book ever to understand minorities, or to reflect urban living, and the text dwells heavily on "the brown-sugar boy" (Peter), but not as much on Keats as a person. Throughout the book, it feels as though Keats, who died in 1983, is being used as a means of promoting an agenda. The poem ascribes sentiments to Keats that he may not have held. (Is there evidence that he saw snow as an equalizer, or was he just writing a weather-themed story? His Caldecott acceptance speech doesn't mention this use of snow as a symbol, and I have found no other references.) It also heavily emphasizes the hardships in his life, making it clear that it is only because he has suffered injustice himself that he is capable of creating a character like Peter. The book feels so political, which means it also doesn't feel like a book for children.

I love The Snowy Day as much as anyone, but I love it precisely because it does not call attention to itself. The book just exists, just like all of Keats's other books, and to use it now as a model for How to Be Diverse detracts from its value as an unassuming, universal story starring a black child. I am glad to see someone recognize that not every children's book of the past was racist, since this is a common misconception, but I would have liked it more if the text had let Keats's actions and decisions speak for themselves, without the editorializing that plagues much of the poem. The fact is, even when the reader is sympathetic to a given message, nobody likes a preachy book, and it seems that this one seeks to indoctrinate rather than simply inform.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Reading Through History: Full of Beans by Jennifer Holm (2016)

It's 1934 in Key West, Florida, and the enterprising Beans is always looking for ways to make a dime. He'll dig through garbage to find tin cans, babysit for local moms, and even run errands for criminals if it means he might be able to afford a sandwich from Pepe's Cafe, and to help out his struggling parents. Because some of the adults in his neighborhood have taken advantage of him and cheated him out of his hard-earned wages, Beans is very suspicious when officials from the government arrive to revitalize Key West and make it a tourist attraction. His skepticism is challenged, however, when it seems that Beans himself will play a key role in helping the New Deal program get off the ground in his hometown.

Full of Beans is the prequel to Turtle in Paradise, and its main character is Turtle's cousin, whom readers will remember as one of the members of the Diaper Gang. Because Beans is a local and not a visitor like Turtle, the sights and sounds of Key West really come to life in his narration. Beans focuses on all the details that kids love in their own neighborhoods, and he provides lots of description that helps readers understand the changes brought about by the New Deal. Beans is also a lovably mischievous character, and his tone throughout the book makes for a lot of funny moments.

This book is interesting primarily because it is the only children's book I know that explores the tension between a community set in its ways and well-meaning, but somewhat ill-informed government officials.  The story really makes this conflict feel very real, and it can invite interesting discussions with kids about the role of government in various situations. It's also nice to have a hopeful story set during the Great Depression. Too often kids' books focus on the tragedies of that time period, and after a while, those depressing (pun intended) titles turn kids off to historical fiction.

I have a couple of quibbles with the book. I felt that the information about Beans's brother contracting worms was unnecessary. I am opposed to toilet humor in children's books in general, but this is especially revolting. I understand that the need for worm medication is a financial problem for Beans, as he keeps needing to help his brother instead of buying what he wants, but I think there were other ways to do this without making the reader feel sick. My other issue is with the cover. It's attractive, but it gives off a definite contemporary realistic fiction vibe. Maybe the hope is that kids will pick it up based on the cover and not realize it's historical until they start reading and fall in love.  But I think it could also wind up creating a bait and switch situation where readers feel they have been tricked and decide not to read the book at all.

Full of Beans was not quite as good as Turtle in Paradise, but it was fun to return to that universe and explore a window into our American past. I don't see Full of Beans as a Newbery contender, but it is a solid, fun read for fans of the author.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Book Review: The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith (2014)

I have always enjoyed teen romances, but it can be hard to find a good one without a lot of sexual content. Since adults reading about teenagers having sex feels grossly inappropriate to me, I have mostly stopped reading YA romance novels. I did, however, pick up Stephanie Perkins's short story collection, Summer Days and Summer Nights, and though much of the content in there also felt inappropriate, there was a wonderful story near the end of the book called "A Thousand Ways this Could All Go Wrong." It was the beautifully awkward story of the slowly developing romance between Annie, a camp counselor, and her crush, a teen boy with autism. When I finished that story, I immediately went to look up every book by its author, Jennifer E. Smith, wondering how on earth I had never read anything by her before. Because it was available as an ebook from the public library, I decided to start with The Geography of You and Me.

At the start of this novel, the power goes out in New York City, and teenagers Lucy and Owen are trapped together in an elevator. Lucy is a loner who has learned to be self-reliant now that her older brothers are off at college and her parents, who have always been travelers, continue to traipse around Europe. Owen, whose dad is the building superintendent, is also frequently alone as he struggles to come to terms with the death of his mother and to help his dad recover from his grief.  On the night of the blackout, Lucy and Owen spend hours together, enjoying each other's company, but when daylight arrives, and the power eventually returns, life resumes its normal rhythm, and soon they are separated as their families relocate several times. Across the months and the miles, however, both teens work toward being together again.

What I liked so much about this book is its focus on real emotions. This is not a story about a girl with a crush pining for an unattainable boy (or vice versa), nor is it a novel fraught with sexual tension that can only eventually lead to one thing. Instead, this is a book about two very real, very believable teen characters, who act their age, and think like kids, and feel awkward around each other even though they have a strong connection. It's also about communication, both with and without technology, and about finding a place in one's family while also forging one's own future. It's actually not about high school at all, but about a relationship that takes place entirely outside of the school routine, on postcards, and in emails, and over many months and through many miscommunications. It is not about dating and breaking up, or going to the prom and having sex, or even about falling in love per se. The book begins with two characters and their connection to one another, and simply follows those two well-developed individuals on the journey to mutual understanding. And I realize that this is what I loved about romances as a teen - not the graphic descriptions of kissing, or the dramatic fights, but the whys and hows of human connection, of how two young people can begin to know each other when they have only just begun to know themselves.

Jennifer E. Smith has several other books, and I'm hoping they all take a similar character-driven approach to storytelling. If they do, I have found a new favorite author.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Library Haul: New Picture Books and Middle Grade Adventures

This weekend, we made our regular visit to the library we use the most, and as usual, I came home with more books than I planned.

  • Tell Me About Your Day Today by Mem Fox, illustrated by Lauren Stringer
  • Bear's Day Out by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Adrian Reynolds 
I had several books on hold, most of which were titles I selected with an upcoming story time in mind. (They each have the word "day" in the title. I was going for a theme.)  These two books would be good for Miss Muffet even if they don't make it into the story time repertoire, so I went ahead and checked them out. I especially like the concept of the Fox title - a child saying goodnight to each of his stuffed animals and discussing the events of the day with them. 

  • Chu's Day by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Adam Rex
  • A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Phillip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead
  • Crazy Hair Day by Barney Saltzberg
  • The Day is Waiting by Don Freeman, with words by Linda Zuckerman
These four are books I have read before. The first three have been used in story times, and the last one, though not as impressive as I had hoped, will also work well for my specific story time audience. (It's a collection of random Freeman illustrations which an author tried to use to tell a story.) I definitely won't need all of these, but it's hard for me to plan without options, so I made sure I had a few. Miss Muffet already asked to hear Chu's Day, so clearly, they will be used either way.

  • Construction by Sally Sutton, illustrated by Brian Lovelock
  • What do Wheels Do All Day? by April James Prince, illustrated by Giles Laroche
  • Farmer John's Tractor by Sally Sutton, illustrated by Robyn Belton
These three books all jumped out at me from the transportation section of the picture books. (I absolutely hate that some of the picture books are separated out by subject. I can never remember which subjects are separate, and I always know the author I want, so I wind up having to search multiple sections for the same author.) Construction was checked out when we visited our other library last week, so I got that for Miss Muffet, to go along with Demolition and Roadwork, which she has been loving. The other two titles caught my eye as potential story time books for a transportation theme, which is what I think I'm doing on November 30th.

  • The Adventurers by Rachel Elliot, illustrated by Valeria Docampo
  • Pug Meets Pig by Sue Lowell Gallion, illustrated by Joyce Wan
  • Amazing Autumn by Jennifer Marino Walters, illustrated by John Nez
  • Winter, Winter, Cold and Snow by Sharon Gibson Palermo, illustrated by Christina Song
These were random grabs from the new book shelf. I knew of Pig and Pug from reading about it on other blogs, but the other three are completely new to me. The Adventurers is not a book I would typically choose, but something about it made me curious, and the others will hopefully help Miss Muffet better understand the transition from Fall to Winter, which she has been asking about a lot. 

  • A Poem for Peter by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by David Fancher and Steve Johnson
I am a big fan of Ezra Jack Keats, so I placed this book on hold to find out how it is. I am skeptical because it's a picture book biography in verse, and those don't tend to be the most accessible books, but I am hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

  • A Fire Station Field Trip by Isabel Martin
  • Turning Apples into Applesauce by Wendy A. Reynolds
  • Turning Trees into Paper by Dawn James 
  • Turning Sand into Glass by Amy Hayes 
  • Turning Wool into Sweaters by Amy Hayes 
I always borrow a few nonfiction titles for Miss Muffet. These were all from the new shelf. We are missing a trip to the fire station without our moms group this week because of my story time obligation, so I thought this book would be a nice alternative. The others are all related to her interest in how things are made.

  • Mystery on the Docks by Thacher Hurd
  • Cranberry Halloween by Wende and Harry Devlin
I put Cranberry Halloween on hold before our last visit, but it didn't come in time for Halloween. The hold was supposed to expire the day before we went to the library this time, but apparently some nice librarian noticed my other holds and kept it for me an extra day. I was going to just let it expire, but since I wanted it for nostalgic reasons, not holiday reasons, it worked out fine. Mystery on the Docks was on the shelf, and I decided to read it, since The Pea Patch Jig by Thacher Hurd is a family favorite. I read it to Miss Muffet when we got home, at her request, and it went over her head, but I kind of enjoyed it. It was different anyway.

  • Lions Roar by Rebecca Glaser
  • Giraffes Stretch by Rebecca Glaser
  • Elephants Spray by Rebecca Glaser

I always try to borrow at least one book for Bo Peep even though she has a ton of board books at home. These caught my eye because they have real photos of animals, and they have a lot of great onomatopoeia in them. I read Elephants Spray  to Bo Peep in the library, and when she actually listened to the entire thing, I decided we'd take home all three to enjoy.

  • Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel
  • The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford
  • The Wolf Keepers by Elise Broach

Finally, these are the books I chose for myself. Every Hidden Thing came from the YA section, and the other two were on the new shelf in the children's area. None of these is my usual fare, but I have been feeling pretty blah about middle grade recently, so it seemed like it was time for a change. The Left-Handed Fate seems to be a companion to Greenglass House, which I liked, and The Wolf Keepers is by Elise Broach, whose work has been hit or miss for me. This is kind of my last try with her writing; if I don't enjoy this book, I'll probably not read any of her future titles.

The Library Haul link-up is hosted by Sweeping Up Joy

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Reading Through History: The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich (2005)

The Game of Silence is the second book in Louise Erdrich's series which began with The Birchbark House. It is now 1850, and Omakayas and her family have received troubling news: the chimookoman - white people - have started driving Indian tribes away from their homes. While the adults decide how to proceed, the children must play the Game of Silence, where prizes are rewarded to the child who can remain quiet the longest. Once it is decided that a member of the tribe will be sent out to gather more information, life resumes its normal rhythm for Omakayas, though always with the threat of losing her way of life hanging over her head. As she begins to discern how she will contribute to her tribe in adulthood, she also gains a deeper appreciation for the place where her family has always lived and what it will mean for them to lose it.

This sequel is every bit as good as the first book of the series. The writing is impeccable, and the storytelling is appropriate for a middle grade audience - honest about the difficulties the Ojibwe face, but not brutally unhappy. It does not discount the sadness Omakayas faces when she realizes her home may be taken from her, but it also shines the light on little glimmers of hope here and there that keep the reader from despairing of Omakayas's fate altogether.

What stood out the most to me, however, is the only potential flaw in the entire story: the portrayal of Catholic priest, Father Baraga.  The scene that gave me pause is from pages 188 and 189 in the hardcover edition: 

"Mikwam, the only way you can gain everlasting life is through my church," said Father Baraga. 

His eyes were kind, almost pleading, as though he were watching them suffer. He pitied them, she thought with surprise, and it almost made her laugh because they pitied him right back. 

"Everlasting life," he said again, softly. 

"Will my father, my mother, my grandfathers, and my grandmothers be there in this everlasting life?" asked Deydey. 

"Were they baptized?" asked Father Baraga.

"No," said Deydey.

"They they will not," the priest answered in a sad voice. 

"Then of course I can't go," said Deydey. "I want to see them."

Father Baraga only scratched his head, underneath his tiny useless cap, and sighed. There was nothing he could do about this family, nothing. 

This scene bothered me because Father Baraga's words do not align with church teaching. The church teaches - and, as I confirmed with a staff apologist at Catholic Answers, has always taught - that unbaptized people can be saved. I have a hard time believing that Father Baraga (who was a real person, and, who, I also learned from my Catholic Answers contact, has been declared Venerable) would not be familiar with this teaching, or would purposely misrepresent it to Omakayas and her family.  It also didn't sit right with me that Father Baraga is willing to state with certainty that any individual does not have everlasting life, as the church teaches that only God can judge the fate of someone's soul. Since Father Baraga is a historical figure, I can't imagine that Erdrich did not research him heavily before including him in her book, but based on what I know of the teachings of the church and Father Baraga himself, something feels off. It almost seems that this priest is being portrayed in an unfairly negative light (along with his "tiny useless cap") for the sake of giving Omakayas more credibility. I can understand the Ojibwe not wanting to adopt Christianity, but I can't understand a priest making the idea less palatable with false information.

This is such a small piece of the book that I don't want to suggest that it spoils the book in any way. As a Catholic parent, it just makes me want to be sure that I read this part of the book with my children to help them accurately understand what the Church teaches so they don't walk away from this book with an unfair misconception of their own faith. I still recommend the book, especially for the upper elementary range, but I will be curious to see how Father Baraga's role evolves (or doesn't) in future books of the series. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Library Haul: Picture Books About Construction and Thanksgiving

We have cards in several library systems, and we often have books checked out from multiple systems at once. This past week, our playgroup met in one of the local libraries, so while we were there, we returned a few titles we were done with, and checked out some new ones. I'm still working my way through the haul I posted a couple of weeks ago, so I didn't borrow anything for myself, just a few picture books.

Most of the books I borrowed were for the second session of my story time, which is coming up tomorrow. I decided I wanted to do a construction theme, and I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to read, so I borrowed a few familiar titles (plus Bulldozer's Big Day, which is new to me), knowing I could test them out on Miss Muffet before making my final plan.

  • Building a House by Byron Barton
I'm probably not going to read this at story time because it's not really a story, and I think it's too short, but for Miss Muffet, who has been observing new construction on our stroller walks, it will be a perfect way to introduce the vocabulary she needs to talk about what she sees.

  • I Am a Backhoe by Anna Grossnickle Hines
  • Bulldozer's Big Day by Candace Fleming
  • Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker
These are the likeliest story time titles of the bunch, though only Bulldozer's Big Day is really a story with a plot. The others I have used before in story times in the past, but I have to spend some more time with them to figure out the best way to make them engaging. 

  • Roadwork by Sally Sutton
  • Demolition by Sally Sutton
I borrowed these because I knew they were decent rhyming texts with a lot of onompatopoeia. Miss Muffet has heard Roadwork already, and she did enjoyed learning the names of some of the vehicles she has seen around town. Demolition, about knocking down a building, should also appeal to her, since a building not too far from us was demolished recently.

  • Wait! Wait! by Hatsue Nakawaki
While I was browsing the shelves for construction books, I noticed Wait! Wait! on a display, and remembered how much Miss Muffet enjoyed it when she was one. I figured Bo Peep would enjoy it now that she is at that age, and really into pictures of babies, so I added it to our stack.

  • My First Thanksgiving by Tomie de Paola 
  • Over The River And Through The Wood by Lydia Maria Francis Child 
  • Thanksgiving Day by Gail Gibbons
It can be difficult to get our hands on holiday-themed books in our local libraries, so when I noticed that the Thanksgiving shelf was still pretty full, I snagged a few titles just in case we didn't have enough. Miss Muffet is finally old enough for Gail Gibbons's somewhat wordier texts, so her Thanksgiving book was the first one I grabbed, and then I figured a board book would be useful for Bo Peep. (It's not Bo Peep's first Thanksgiving, but that's fine because the book is not really about a baby's first Thanksgiving.) I was originally considering Over the River and Through the Wood for story time, but it's not really formatted well for that, so we'll probably just sing it at home.

Link up your library haul with Sweeping Up Joy!  

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Book Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)

This week has been Witch Week at Emerald City Book Review. Since I don't read much fantasy, I haven't been able to participate very much, but I have been looking forward to today. This is the day when Witch Week participants are discussing Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

The story follows two adolescent boys, Will Halloway and Jack Nightshade, as they repeatedly visit a dark carnival which has come to their town to tempt patrons with the promise of being able to age more slowly or more quickly using a carousel with the power to add or remove years from an individual's life. Looking out for the boys' safety is Will's father, Charles Halloway, who is the janitor at the local library and who has some regrets of his own about the path his life has taken. As these three characters look for ways to defeat the carnivals' evil owners and move back toward the light, they reflect heavily on their pasts and futures, and the states of their own souls.

This is a book I have wanted to read for a long time after loving Dandelion Wine as a teen, and it did not disappoint at all. What Dandelion Wine is for the season of summer, Something Wicked This Way Comes is for the season of fall.  Where Dandelion Wine is bright and warm and full of light and joy and dreams, Something Wicked is dark and cold and full of uncertainty and fear and nightmares. Despite the darkness, however, this is a beautifully written book. I am the kind of reader who drools over well-written description, and this book is filled with passages that are practically poetry. Bradbury clearly loved the English language, and he absolutely lavished this story with well-chosen words and carefully constructed sentences. I started to write down some of my favorite quotations as I read, but quickly realized that to save every word I loved, I'd probably have to copy the entire story.

What spoke to me the most, though, was the way Bradbury describes the powerful grip sin can have over a human being, even one with good intentions who wishes to avoid evil. I think the last time I read a book with such a strong understanding of sin and guilt and temptation it was The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Bradbury, thankfully, is more accessible, and though he does use a lot of words to convey his points, he also has moments where the truth is distilled to a single quotable line.

One such moment is where he writes, "You work twice as hard to be a farmer as to be his hog." This comes in a segment of the story where Charles considers how difficult is can be to always be good, to never give in to temptations.  Though there is more to the passage, this line gets to the heart of the matter, reminding us that we want to be farmers even when it feels like being the hog would be easier to achieve.

Another wonderfully straightforward line that jumped out at me is “Good to evil seems evil.” This is a simple concept, but one that I think human beings neglect to realize. There are many people in the world who do things on a daily basis that are morally wrong, and I know I'm not alone in wondering how they can commit those acts and bring such ugliness into the world. To realize that maybe those actions no longer seem wrong to those individuals gave me such a sense of clarity, even if it was accompanied by a deeper sadness about the fallen state of our world.

This is the best book I have read in a long time, and it's the kind of story that will ruin me for other books for a while until I have a little bit of distance from it. I really want to re-read Dandelion Wine now, and then finish the series, which also includes Farewell, Summer (which I own but have never read) and Summer Morning, Summer Night (the existence of which I didn't even know about until I looked up Something Wicked on Goodreads.)

Friday, November 4, 2016

7 Quick Takes: How We Halloween

At just a few weeks shy of turning three, Miss Muffet is at an age now where she will start to remember from year to year how we celebrate certain holidays and occasions. Therefore, this is the first year where we have had any sort of intentional Halloween celebration in our house. Though we decided not to venture out for trick-or-treat (nor did we bother with any of the many local trunk-or-treats), Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep both had their fill of Halloween fun, as well as opportunities to celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day.


Our go-to method for celebrating any holiday is always to read about it, and we have been reading Halloween-themed books for weeks. We checked out some nonfiction from the library, delved into my own childhood stash, and even listened to the audiobook of Big Pumpkin on YouTube. Reading about Halloween really helped Miss Muffet develop the vocabulary needed to talk about things like costumes, decorations, masks, and being scared, and she really didn't express much anxiety about Halloween at all. She's a little creeped out by skeletons, and did not want to watch the Silly Symphony Skeleton Dance, but overall I think the books helped make her comfortable with the idea that Halloween is mostly just pretend. We also received a small coloring book from her grandmother that came with stickers, which was a big hit.


Grandma sent outfits for both girls which had black cats on them. They wore them during the day, and then at night, we dressed Miss Muffet up in a costume made entirely from things we had around the house. She wanted to be a pirate, so we dressed her all in black, then tied and draped play silks of various colors over her shoulders, around her waist, and around her head. Then we put some beads on her neck and wrist. My husband made an eye patch from felt and twine, and gave her some sort of tool to hold that vaguely resembled a sword. She didn't wear it for long, but we did take photos for posterity, and I was pretty impressed with the end result.

Scavenger Hunt

During the day, while Daddy was at work, I took the girls outside in the stroller and had Miss Muffet do a scavenger hunt for various Halloween decorations. Our scavenger hunts tend to be pretty basic. I draw poorly planned pictures of the objects we're looking for, hand her a crayon, and she checks them off when we see them. On our list for our Halloween hunt were: a small pumpkin, a big pumpkin, a witch, a skeleton, a ghost, a jack-o-lantern, a spiderweb and a bat. We didn't find any bat decorations, but everything else got a check mark.

Cookie Decorating

Instead of trick-or-treating, which I think is pretty much pointless given that we have a revolving door of new neighbors and never get too know any of them, we baked sugar cookies in Halloween shapes and decorated them with frosting and sprinkles. Miss Muffet, who is a cookie fiend, was thrilled with this project and she helped decorate most of them. 

Ghost Candles

I went to a Party Lite party something like ten years ago and bought a set of ghost candle holders. I pulled those out and we stuck some new tea lights inside and lit them for atmosphere while we ate our cookies. Shortly after, we put out the candles and put Miss Muffet to bed. As I said goodnight to her, she said, "Mama, that was such a great Halloween." Mission accomplished.

One Hundred Saints

On Tuesday morning, in celebration of All Saints Day, I brought out our copy of One Hundred Saints, and just paged through it with Miss Muffet. (Bo Peep looked on from the playpen. She is not allowed near books we want to keep intact.) She was fascinated by St. Denis and wanted to know what happened to his head (I forgot he was in there) and she asked a lot of questions about St. George's horse in the image where he is shown slaying the dragon. ("Is his horse okay? Are you sure?") We made it about three-quarters of the way through the book, which was pretty impressive.

All Souls Family Tree

Finally, for All Souls Day, we talked about Miss Muffet's deceased grandfather, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents (all of whom died before she was born) and made a little family tree showing their connections to Miss Muffet. Then I said the Prayer for the Poor Souls in Purgatory, and prompted Miss Muffet to say Amen. This was a pretty last-minute activity, but I think I want to repeat it in future years.

As always, 7 Quick Takes is hosted by This Ain't the Lyceum.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Reading Through History: Calico Bush by Rachel Field (1931)

Calico Bush is the story of Marguerite, a French immigrant to the United States who is orphaned soon after her arrival. With no family to look after her, she becomes a bound out girl, contracted to the Sargent family for six years. As the Sargents work to settle their homestead in the Maine wilderness, under threat of violence from local American Indians, Marguerite, called Maggie, does her best to blend into the family and be of use to them, while also trying to remain true to her heritage.

I had a very frustrating time reading this book. My husband loved it and insisted that I read it, but I kept pausing every 30 pages or so and asking when something was going to happen. Lots of things almost happen, but then the author backs away from them, which made me feel like I was being strung along but never rewarded. When something finally does happen, it's a terrible tragedy involving a young baby that is so unspeakably sad, it feels like a punishment. I had a really hard time connecting with Marguerite, and I also found it difficult to keep track of who was who among the other characters. Only Aunt Hepsa, the wise, elderly neighbor who takes a special liking to Maggie stands out, and that is really only because of her quirkiness.

This book reminded a lot of The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which I also didn't enjoy that much, so this may just be a matter of personal preference regarding stories set in colonial New England. I can't say there was anything wrong with the writing, or the storytelling, or even the characterizations. This book just did not click with me, no matter how hard I tried.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Recommended Reading for Catholic Book Clubs

This week's Top Ten Tuesday challenge is to suggest titles for a book club based on its interests in a specific book, subject, author, etc. In keeping with the focus of this blog, I've decided to share fictional books I think would be great for a Catholic book club. Though some of the books mentioned are written by Catholic authors, and have specifically Catholic references, there are also plenty of books by non-Catholics mentioned here. These are books which espouse a Christian worldview consistent with the Church's teachings about sin and redemption, love and sacrifice, belief and faith. (Links throughout the body of this post will take you to my reviews.)

The first two authors I want to mention are so obvious, I almost feel silly including them, but I'd feel just as strange leaving them out. They are, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. While plenty of non-Catholics enjoy these writers (and C.S. Lewis himself was not Catholic), there is something about Middle Earth and Narnia that is especially appealing to the Catholic mind. I am not a big fantasy reader, as a rule, and I think that is partly because I have a hard time connecting fantasy worlds to my real life. I have not had this problem with The Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or with any of the Narnia books I have read so far. They are not true to my life, but they are true to my faith, and I believe reading these books has bolstered my beliefs in a way that purely secular books simply do not.

Also in the fantasy realm are George MacDonald, author of The Princess and the Goblin and Elizabeth Goudge, author of The Little White Horse. I found the religious references were a little harder to pinpoint in The Princess and the Goblin, though a Christian sensibility pervades the entire text. Little White Horse is not a Catholic book per se, but it talks a lot about repentance and making things right with God, and again, there is a feeling of religiousness about the book which comes across even without explicit statements about a specific faith.

Next is Flannery O'Connor. I first discovered her work in high school, when "Good Country People" was assigned to me in my senior year English elective, "Short Stories." I was blown away by how darkly comical the ending of that story is, and I was pleased to have an author with such a sharp wit on "my" team. Years later, when it came time to write my English thesis, I discovered that certain academics were arguing for a reading of O'Connor that ignores the religious interpretations of her work. Knowing that O'Connor always intended her stories to be of a religious nature, I used my thesis as an opportunity to trace those threads through her novel, Wise Blood, as well as many of her short stories. If you can't get into her stories, try her letters, collected in The Habit of Being. I found that I loved her writing that much more once I got to know her a little bit better.

Another wonderful author, whose books I only discovered last year, is Meriol Trevor. Like O'Connor, she writes explicitly religious novels, generally about conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism. Trevor is British, so her style is quite different from O'Connor's, but her novel, The Rose Round, is the closest thing to a perfect book that I have ever read. (My review explains why.) A close second is Trevor's Sun Slower, Sun Faster, which involves time travel to various points in the history of the Catholic church in England. It also includes the following beautiful passage about the Eucharist:

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 books are written for teens, but they had great significance for me as an adult as well. Trevor's adult novel, Shadows and Images, which is about a fictional woman's friendship with the real John Henry Cardinal Newman, is also a compelling read that I really enjoyed.

Finally, there are two Newbery-winning books that are must-reads for Catholic kids and adults alike: I Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino and The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare.  In  I, Juan de Pareja, title character Juan is a devout Catholic who seeks out the sacrament of Reconciliation after committing an act of wrongdoing. This is a matter-of-fact part of the story, and the sacrament is given its due respect and reverence. The book as a whole is also beautifully written and unexpectedly brought me to tears. The Bronze Bow is set during the time of Jesus and it explores the social and political climate in which Jesus lived and follows a blacksmith's slave on his journey toward Christian belief. Though these books are intended for children, neither is a childish book, and both have much to offer teen and adult readers as well.