Monday, August 29, 2016

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

It doesn't seem possible that September should start this week, but in fact, today is the first day of school for the county, and the end of summer is not far behind. We are finishing out the summer not having completed a single public library summer reading program, but having read dozens and dozens of picture books, nursery rhymes, and poems. Today's post highlights some observations I've made of both girls as they interacted with books during the month of August.
  • Little Bo Peep (11 months) has started having very specific preferences, not just for particular books, but for certain pages within those books. Her current favorites are the moment where the bear wakes up in Bear Snores On, the "brown" page in Little Owl's Colors, and the "yellow" page in the Alphaprints colors book, which shows a snake made from a Slinky. When she sees a page she likes, she leans over the book, almost as though she's going to climb in, and babbles at it very earnestly. If she is especially excited, she also slaps the pages repeatedly. 
  • Because Little Bo Peep is so enamored of books, it has become virtually impossible to read aloud to Miss Muffet with her nearby, as she immediately wants to either hold, rip, or slam the book shut. Miss Muffet is horrified by this every time it happens, and can often be heard shouting, "She has a paper book! Don't let her rip the paper book!" I try to distract her with board books she can abuse, but I have found it is easier to read our more fragile books to Miss Muffet during Bo Peep's naptime and stick to board books when we all read together. It also sometimes helps to read to Miss Muffet on the couch, with Bo Peep safely in her Pack n Play, where she can hear and see, but not touch. 
  • Little Miss Muffet (2 years, 9 months) has discovered her first real villain: Miss Viola Swamp, from Miss Nelson is Missing. She talks a lot about how mean Viola Swamp is, and how long her fingernails are, and whether she will ever show up at our house. ("Mama, Miss Swamp will never come here because you're going to teach me at home. Right?") She has not yet figured out the true identity of Miss Swamp despite multiple re-readings of the book, and a thorough discussion of the clues shown on the last page. I am not going to tell her, and I'm really looking forward to that future date when she finally realizes Miss Nelson's little secret. 
  • Thanks to a brief window of time during which a decent recording of Reading Rainbow's production of Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain was available on YouTube, Miss Muffet has discovered that story as well. This has prompted many questions about grass, and why it dies without rain, as well as speculation over whether the cows in the story are dead as well. (I see what she means; they look a bit frightening in the illustrations.) We have the book out of the library right now, but I'm hoping to come across a used copy on one of our many bookstore visits.
  • Finally, we received two new picture books for review this summer, which I'll briefly discuss: 
    • 123 Dream by Kim Krans (September 27th 2016; Random House Books for Young Readers; ISBN 0553539345) is a counting book with a bit of an I Spy twist. Each page shows a number and an accompanying illustration showing one owl, two turtles, three thistles, etc. At the end of the book, there is a list of further items to be hunted down in its pages. The illustrations are beautiful to look at, but still this book didn't really make a strong impression on me or Miss Muffet.  I think we have just seen so many counting books that it's hard for a new one to feel special. I do like that it goes up to 20, however, as Miss Muffet hits thirteen and then gets stuck on repeat ("twelve, thirteen, thirteen, thirteen") but I'm not sure we're going to add it to our permanent home library. 
    • Hey, Coach! by Linda Ashman and Kim Smith (August 9th 2016; Sterling Children's Books; ISBN 1454916079) is a rhyming story showing the highs and lows of a beginning soccer team's season. The lines of Ashman's text are written in different voices of players on the team, and Smith's illustrations faithfully bring out the personalities of these unnamed kids. Each two-page spread shows a score board in the upper corner which tells which game of the season was played, and what the score was, and the text and illustration tell the story of an important moment from the game. To my knowledge, there are no picture books that cover soccer in quite this way, so it is appealing for that reason alone, but even Miss Muffet who knew nothing about soccer found it highly interesting and asked many, many follow-up questions when the story was done. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Reading Through History: Winona's Pony Cart by Maud Hart Lovelace (1953)

Winona's Pony Cart is the third of the three Betsy-Tacy spin-offs, but the second one I have read, due to it and Carney's House Party being published together in the same volume. The novel was published prior to Betsy's Wedding, but is set much earlier, when Winona is about to turn eight years old. What Winona wants more than anything is a pony, and despite the fact that her father has said she can't have one, she has developed a strong belief that she will receive a pony for her birthday. So certain is she in fact that she brags to Betsy, Tacy, and Tib about it, and then invites several additional children to her party without telling her mother. When the day of the party arrives, there is a pony at the party, but this does not mean Winona's dream has been totally fulfilled.

Every child can relate to the desire for that one special birthday present, and Lovelace captures it well in this quick read. Though Winona is clearly very spoiled, she is not especially bratty. She, like many kids, just gets caught up in the excitement of possibly having the one thing she wants more than anything else. Any child who has ever had to limit the guest list at a party also understands her desire to invite extra guests, and her complete disregard for the fact that her mother would need to be told of the additions. Winona is just a very real character, and everyone has either been in her shoes, or knows someone very much like her.

This book really drives home Lovelace's talent for turning everyday experiences into engaging stories. The writing in this book is so effortless, and girls who are the same age as Winona will love it, even today, because it touches on a universal experience and turns into a very satisfying story with a well-earned happy ending.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin (1968)

As a young man, Duney demonstrates remarkable magical abilities in a battle in his village. As a result, Ogion, a wizard, wishes to take the young man on as his apprentice, and he gives him his true name, Ged. After some time with Ogion, Ged becomes frustrated, feeling that he is not learning at a quick enough pace, and he leaves his master to attend wizarding school. While still in school, he foolishly attempts to show off his powers, and conjures a dark shadow, an evil presence that will hound and haunt his steps for many years to follow. Wherever Ged travels, the shadow is not far behind, and until he faces down this darkness, he will never be able to rest.

This beautifully written atmospheric novel is not at all the kind of book I could have been convinced to read as a child, but it is exactly what so many avid fantasy readers are looking for in their reading material, especially if they became fantasy fans by way of Tolkien and Rowling. Ged is in a situation very much like that of Frodo, trying to fight off the evil of the ring long enough to destroy it, or Harry Potter, always looking over his shoulder for Voldemort, knowing he must one day face him in a battle to the death. The world of Earthsea is every bit as well-realized as the Shire, or any of the other lands Frodo must pass through, and Ogion is a less whimsical, more serious version of Dumbledore. Despite the old-fashioned look of many of the editions of this book, modern-day kids are already poised to love it, if someone gives them a recommendation and a memorable booktalk.

I listened to the first half of the book, since we were on a car trip, and though Harlan Ellison's narration isn't the most polished, he has the perfectly boisterous, rough-and-tumble quality in his voice to really conjure up the characters and their world, even if he reads the story, rather than performing it. This audiobook edition was a bit strange, because it begins (and apparently also ends) with Ursula LeGuin narrating, and then it slowly fades into Ellison's voice. LeGuin's voice is very distinctive, which is quite distracting, so I was glad she didn't read the entire book, but the change of narrator is so jarring, I spent quite a while getting used to it. Otherwise, though, listening to the audiobook was a pleasant experience, and it really immersed me in the story so that I was motivated to finish reading the hardcover when we got home.

The lyrical writing in this book is very enjoyable to hear, and to read aloud. It is certainly more sophisticated than Harry Potter, and unlike Harry Potter and other magical school stories, it avoids any discussion of dating, crushes, dances, and other things that could turn off certain readers. The focus is solely on those events that inform Ged's quest, and his fate, and because of that, the story moves along quickly, and there is a real sense of being on an adventure. I will be glad to have my children read this book, and I will plan to read the sequels in the future.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Book Review: This is the Story of You by Beth Kephart (2016)

Mira Banul, a high school senior, lives on an island near Atlantic City with her single mom and her younger brother, who has Hunter Syndrome. She and her best friends Deni and Eva, love their close-knit coastal community, and they are mostly used to weathering major storms. When a superstorm strikes the island unexpectedly, however, no one is prepared. Mira's family is stranded at a medical appointment on the mainland, and she alone must try to save what little she can of their precious belongings as the house is destroyed by wind, water, and mud. In the aftermath, Mira must face the possibility that her friends have not survived, while also maintaining a sense of hope that someday their beautiful island will be rebuilt.

Beth Kephart's writing is highly descriptive and lyrical, heavy with imagery, and emotionally moving. While some authors who write this way seem like they are showing off, or trying too hard, this is not the case with Kephart, who has excellent control over the English language, and manages to write a beautifully poetic text that also reads quickly and easily, as survival tales should. I received this book as a prize from Armchair BEA and didn't really plan to read more than a few pages, but once I started it, I could not put it down. I became completely engrossed in the setting, and attached to Mira and the people who matter to her. The plot is really secondary to the language, but even so, there are a couple of surprising turns of events that caught me by surprise and felt very satisfying.

Though This is the Story of You is a realistic novel, it does have a lot in common with dystopian YA books that speculate about how teens might survive after a major disaster.  Reading this book reminded me so much of my experience reading Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer, only this story is more troubling in many ways, since it has really happened, whereas Pfeffer's novel only seems like it could. Aside from the books I reviewed this week, I don't read much YA anymore, so I'm not really informed enough to make this statement, but I would be thrilled to see this book with a Printz sticker on its cover this winter. It's been a long time since I've read a novel marketed to teens that was so beautifully done.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Reading Through History: Carney's House Party by Maud Hart Lovelace (1949)

Carney's House Party is one of three spin-offs to the Betsy-Tacy series, published between Betsy and Joe and Betsy and the Great World. Carney has just finished her sophomore year at Vassar College, and though she is hesitant about it, she invites her roommate, Isobel, to Deep Valley to join her two-week-long house party. Shortly after Isobel arrives, she and Carney meet a young rich man named Sam Hutchinson. Though Carney instantly dismisses him on the grounds that he looks like a "baby hippo," Sam keeps appearing and reappearing wherever Carney goes throughout the summer. Because Carney is still waiting to find out whether she and childhood sweetheart Larry Humphreys will end up together, she assumes Sam is pursuing Isobel, but is soon surprised to discover she might have more than one man vying for her affection.

I have been looking forward to reading this book for a long time because Vassar is my alma mater, and I knew there were at least a few scenes set on campus. I loved the descriptions of early 20th century college life, and of the Vassar daisy chain tradition, and I could imagine just exactly how landmarks like Main Building and Sunset Hill must have looked way back when. Beyond that, though, this book is just really well-written and easy to zip right through. I love that Lovelace is able to turn a "baby hippo" into a romantic hero, and that her treatment of romance in general is so old-fashioned and polite. Today's teen books are so sexualized and "edgy" that it's nice to be able to settle into a book like this, where everything feels positive and pleasant, even when disappointments occur.

I don't re-read a lot, but this book seems like one I might return to in order to read particular scenes or moments over again. It's just such a warm and comforting book, and a very tame and "safe" romance story. Since the characters are all in college and concerned with marriage, the story is probably most interesting to older teens, but because everything is so tasteful, there would be no problem with a middle schooler or even an upper elementary reader picking it up. Highly recommended, especially to fans of the Betsy-Tacy series, and to those who like Beverly Cleary's vintage romances.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (1997)

When Ella of Frell was born, a well-intentioned but misguided fairy named Lucinda gave her a terrible gift: that of unerring obedience to any command she is given. For Ella, of course, this "gift" is a curse, forcing her to take commands from everyone she encounters and making it impossible for her to exercise her own will in any relationship. When her new stepmother and clueless father send her to finishing school, however, Ella runs away, determined to find a way to free herself of the curse, so that maybe, someday, she and Prince Charmont might fall in love.

Ella's story is a fractured version of Cinderella and many aspects of the old tale make their way into this one, including glass slippers, evil stepsisters, a fairy godmother, a coach made from a pumpkin, and a strict midnight curfew, but they are used differently, and sometimes in surprising and creative ways. I like the way the author re-works these well-known elements into a new story, and I also enjoyed the clever ways Ella tries to rebel against the confinements of her curse.

Still, there were things about the story that didn't work for me. I didn't understand the need for the author to create multiple languages when they didn't figure that heavily into the plot, and they were virtually impossible to even pretend to read. I was also confused by Ella's magical book that allows her to see the writings of others. Obviously, it works as a plot device because we need a way to be able to see other points of view besides Ella's at certain points, but I had trouble figuring out why Ella as a character needed to have it, or would want to have it. I also had a strong sense throughout the book that I was being beaten over the head with a feminist message, and that is unforgivably irritating to me.

I am surprised this was a Newbery Honor book, because to me, the writing seems adequate but not necessarily distinctive. (Then again, I looked on Novelist to see what else was published that year, and the pickings were pretty slim, so perhaps it was among the best of the year after all.) I definitely understand why girls who love fractured fairy tales are so thrilled with this book, but as someone who is very reluctant to read fantasy in the first place, this book did not help change my mind too much.