Monday, August 21, 2017

The RAHM Report for 8/21/17

Today's the first day of Bout of Books 20! Before I jump full-force into the read-a-thon, here's my report on last week's reading.

Finished Reading: 

  • The Silver Moon of Summer by Leila Howland
    This was one of my most anticipated books of the year, but it was really just okay. I think I would have really loved it when I was ten, though. I'll have a review up on Goodreads eventually.
  • Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children by Katherine Paterson
    This was great. I have a new respect for Katherine Paterson now and a renewed desire to read everything she's written. I plan to squeeze in a blog review of this before the month is over. 
  • The Cottage at Bantry Bay by Hilda van Stockum
    This feel-good family story includes lots of references to Irish folklore and history and a fun larger-than-life character named Paddy the Piper. It was a quick and pleasant read for a summer weekend. Review coming in September. 

Currently Reading:


  • A Picturesque Tale of Progress: Beginnings II by Olive Beaupre Miller
    I did read a good chunk of this book this week, but I'm only up to the birth of Moses. I'm not sure I will finish - perhaps not this week. 
  • Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
    I barely touched this all week. I may not end up finishing it while it is still technically summer, but I will make it to the end eventually.
  • Beware the Fish! by Gordon Korman
    I am still planning to do a post about this series after I've read all of the books. The premise of this one seems weak compared to the first two books, but I'm still enjoying the exploits of Bruno and Boots. 
  • Butternut Summer by Mary McNear
    My turn on the hold list for the ebook copy of this book came up yesterday, and I read the first chapter. Though it is an adult novel, it reminds me a lot of books by Sarah Dessen and Joan Bauer so far. It seems like I will like it more than the first book. 
  • Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
    I still have this on my nightstand, but to say that I am reading it is really a stretch. I hope to make some time for it this week. Otherwise, I may need to revisit it another time.
I'm linking up today with It's Monday! What Are You Reading? hosted by Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Book Review: Juvenile Story Writing (1922) and Writing For Young People (1950) by Mabel Robinson

This month, I have read two nonfiction books about writing, both by children's author Mabel Robinson (1874-1962). In addition to being the author of Newbery honor books Bright Island (1937) and Runner of the Mountaintops (1939), Robinson also taught an advanced fiction writing workshop at Columbia University from 1919 to 1945, which is said to have resulted in the publication of over 200 books. The two writing guides, Juvenile Story Writing (1922) and Writing for Young People (1950), were published at either end of her teaching career, and reading them together has given me some interesting insight into the changes in children's literature after World War II, and the way these changes did or did not influence Robinson's opinions on writing.

Juvenile Story Writing begins with an explanation of the purpose of writing for children and explores the sources authors might use for inspiration. It devotes a chapter to each of four types of children's stories - Adventure Stories, Fairy Tales, Animal Stories, and School or College Stories - and provides a list of examples of each. The remainder of the book then focuses on different aspects of the craft of writing (characterization, dialogue, plot, theme, chapter arrangement, etc.) and it concludes with a chapter on writing about child characters in books for adults. Throughout the text, there are long excerpts from books which must have been popular at the time. Some are familiar even today (The Story of Dr. Dolittle, Little Women), but most have fallen into obscurity.

In the Foreword for Writing for Young People, Robinson explains that she had originally intended to simply republish Juvenile Story Writing, which had gone out of print. When she read it, however, she determined that it was outdated and needed revision. In this revised edition, Robinson removed all of the book lists and many of the excerpts she had used in 1922 to illustrate different aspects of successful writing for children. She did keep pretty much every reference to Dr. Dolittle, almost to the point of annoyance, but in other instances she either removed the examples altogether or included passages from her own books to illustrate her arguments. Though she never identifies them by title, Robinson also relies heavily on student work from her course at Columbia to explain how authors find inspiration, determine which point of view to use, and develop their personal styles. The commentary on aspects of the craft of writing remains virtually unchanged, but new genres are added (mysteries, biographies, "home" stories)  and there are additional chapters at the end of the book addressing style as well as the day-to-day work of a writer.

What was most interesting about reading these two books side-by-side was how much difference 28 years makes to the credibility of Robinson as an expert on children's writing. Though her opinions on how children's authors ought to write do not seem to change significantly between 1922 and 1950, my confidence in her authority was much stronger when I read the second book. With two Newbery honor books under her belt, and examples from her own work to back up her arguments, she is no longer just a teacher of writing putting together a potential text for her own class, but an accomplished writer with real, concrete advice to give and a confidence behind her delivery that, in light of reading the second book, seems to be missing from the first.

I also noticed how much more she had to say about the different genres and types of stories in the 1950 book. Her 1922 advice about writing animal stories, for example, felt very bland and ordinary, but in 1950, it is almost forceful, as she suggests that all people ought to love animals, and waxes poetic about her own dog and the stories she writes about him, including 1949's Back-Seat Driver. Her comments on mysteries, comics, school stories, and fantasy (which replaces fairy tales) are similarly personal, nuanced, and authoritative. The 1922 book is certainly valuable as a textbook for writers, but all those years of experience teaching her writing workshop clearly make the 1950 book the superior volume.

In terms of the literature itself,  I was surprised by the limited number of genres available for children in the 1920s compared with the 1940s. The genres Robinson covers in the 1950 book are much closer to those still being published today, while some named in the 1922 edition (college stories, for example) barely exist at all anymore. I also wondered about some of the references Robinson removed when she revised the book in 1950. Walter de la Mare's poems and The Secret Garden are both still widely read today, but both only appear in the 1922 book. By the same token, a Kipling short story called "Little Tobrah," which was completely unfamiliar to me, was kept in the 1950 book, along with a novel by J.M. Barrie entitled Margaret Ogilvy. I couldn't tell whether Robinson just thought these books were too excellent to exclude regardless of their obscurity, or if she believed these would be stories that would stand the test of time. Either way, it did make me think about how difficult it is to know, at your own point in history, which books from your time period will become the classics of the future.

I own both of these books and intend to keep both, as my husband and I are both big fans of Mabel Robinson's novels, and we are curious enough about the history of children's books to dig more deeply into some of those 1920s book lists. I don't think much has changed about the qualities of great writing since 1950 (or, really, since 1922) so I also think her advice is valuable for contemporary writers, and that even those so-called outdated references in the 1922 edition are worth analyzing for those who aspire to write. That said, Juvenile Story Writing is available free online, so if I were going to purchase just one of these, I'd stick to Writing for Young People. It's a great resource for understanding how to evaluate a children's book, as well as a handbook for good writing, not just for kids, but in general. Obviously, authors looking to publish today will probably need to consult some newer books to find out about the 21st century publication process, but otherwise I think Robinson is as worthy a writing instructor as one is likely to find.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Bout of Books 20

Bout of Books

The last Bout of Books of 2017 begins on Monday! If you're not familiar with this wonderful read-a-thon, here is the official blurb:

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda Shofner and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, August 21st and runs through Sunday, August 27th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 20 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. - From the Bout of Books team

This is my sixth time participating, and I'm hoping to use the week to get ahead for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge and to read through some of the digital ARCs that have been accumulating in my NetGalley and Edelweiss accounts. Sign up here to join the fun!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reading Through History: A Picturesque Tale of Progress, Beginnings I by Olive Beaupre Miller (1957)

A Picturesque Tale of Progress is a nine-book set of children's history books by the same author as the My Bookhouse series. Originally published in 1933, and reprinted in the 1950s, these books follow the history of human beings around the world from the stone age through the exploration of the Americas. This first book, Beginnings I, starts out with a fictionalized narrative of what life may have been like during the stone age. Using technological advancements (development of tools, discovery of fire, etc.) as a guide, the text traces the development of the human race through its most primitive stages, and then shifts its focus to ancient Egypt. The book ends with the decline of Egypt after many centuries of great power and prosperity.

Though I still have two years before my oldest is required to attend school, I'm starting to evaluate potential homeschool resources. We recently purchased this set at a used bookstore, and I decided the easiest thing to do - especially given this month's nonfiction focus for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge - would be to simply read through the whole thing and write up my thoughts. I don't expect to get through the entire set during this month, but we'll see how things go.

My first impression of this book, for the first 75 pages or so, was that it was very readable. At that point, I was considering it as a possible resource for first grade. The characters the author creates to represent different types of primitive people felt very relateable (even if they had silly names), and I found everything very easy to follow.

When the focus shifted to real historical figures, however, it seemed like there was a big jump in reading level. The book is very detailed in its treatment of Egyptian history, naming every pharaoh in succession and explaining how each one contributed to the culture of his time. As it goes on, this section of the book also incorporates a variety of first-person accounts and folk tales, involving the gods worshiped by the ancient Egyptians and narratives recorded on papyrus scrolls discovered centuries later.  It is a lot of information, and after a while, my eyes completely glazed over. A few key figures jumped out at me as very interesting and appealing to learn about, especially Hatshepsut, the first female pharaoh and Akhenaten, the first pharaoh to promote the idea of a loving, all-knowing God, but much of the rest of the text seemed unnecessarily detailed. Though there are illustrations, I felt like I really would have benefited from a chart to help me keep track off all the Thutmoses and Amenhoteps. And I also questioned whether every single one of these pharaohs was significant enough to merit a mention.

I did like the summary at the back of the book, and I think it would be very beneficial for me to read the summary of each book before introducing it in our homeschool. It contextualizes all of that information to give a sense of what the author is really trying to convey, and helps clarify which details are really paramount to understanding this time period and which are secondary. When I was a kid, I had a really hard time reading history texts because I could never figure out which were the key names, facts, dates, and events. I definitely want to be able to teach my kids how to read history and actually get something out of it, so it helps a lot to have that quick summary to keep me focused.

Having finished this book, I can say that it is definitely too much for an early elementary school student, so we'll be saving the series for the middle grades when we'll want a bit more detail. I'm looking forward to the next volume, Beginnings II, as it includes a lot of Biblical history, which will hopefully be a lot more familiar to me!

Monday, August 14, 2017

The RAHM Report for 8/14/17

It's been a busy week, filled with proofreading crossword puzzles (my very part-time freelance job), writing the preface for my book, catching up with mom friends, and visiting the OB for a routine check-up for baby #3. When I wasn't doing those things, I was trying to read! Here's this week's report. 

Finished Reading: 

  • Caught Up in a Story by Sarah Clarkson
    The flowery writing style slowed me down quite a bit, so this short book ended up taking me several days to finish. I like the author's main arguments and will have more to say in an upcoming review.
  • Will You Sign Here, John Hancock?; And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?; and  Why Don't You Get a Horse, Sam Adams? all by Jean Fritz
    I still have a couple of these to read and then I'll do a post about the series. Probably the middle of next week.
  • Juvenile Story Writing and Writing for Young People by Mabel Robinson
    These are two editions of the same book, which I will be reviewing and comparing in a post at the end of this week, hopefully.
  • Here Come the Dolphins! and Here Come the Whales! by Alice E. Goudey
    I read these aloud to Miss Muffet (age 3 years 8 months). I've already reviewed one book from this series, and I don't think I have anything new to say, so though these are nonfiction, I probably will not end up reviewing them for Old School Kidlit. 
I also want to mention Confessions of a Domestic Failure by Bunmi Laditan, which was on my currently reading list last week. My digital library copy expired and there were a lot of holds, so I didn't get a chance to finish it, but I did make some comments (mostly positive) on Goodreads. 

Currently Reading: 

  • Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
    I haven't touched this in a few days, but the descriptions are so lovely that I know I will eventually finish it. Since it's a re-read, it's just not a priority.
  • Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
    I keep this book on my nightstand, telling myself I'll read it each night before bed, but I forget how tired I am in the third trimester and so I haven't touched it all week. I'll probably have to choose a day to make it a priority and just zip through it.
  • The Silver Moon of Summer by Leila Howland
    I'm reading the ebook of this on my phone and I'm really enjoying it. I expect it to be one of the first books I finish this week.
  • A Picturesque Tale of Progress: Beginnings II by Olive Beaupre Miller
    I started this early last week and have not been great about keeping up with it so far. I still plan to finish it before the end of the month.
  • Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children by Katherine Paterson
    This collection of essays and articles by Newbery author Katherine Paterson is my favorite of my current reads. There's a good chance I will have finished it by the time this post is live! 
I'm linking up today with It's Monday! What Are You Reading? hosted by Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date

Friday, August 11, 2017

Paging Through Picture Books: The Beach Before Breakfast (1964), The Frog Prince Continued (1991), Knots on a Counting Rope (1987), Wemberly Worried (2000)

Here's another batch of picture books for the Picture Book Reading Challenge hosted by Becky's Book Reviews. These are my choices for #6  a book set at the beach, in the ocean, or by a lake (The Beach Before Breakfast), #23 a book by Jon Scieszka (The Frog Prince Continued), #24 a book featured on Reading Rainbow (Knots on a Counting Rope), and #32 a book about starting school (Wemberly Worried).

The Beach Before Breakfast by Maxine Kumin, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard

The Beach Before Breakfast is very wordy and very poetic, and though Miss Muffet sat through it, and it was a pleasure to read aloud, I'm not sure she got much out of it. Weisgard's illustrations were the main appeal for me, and since neither I nor my kids have ever been to a beach, this seemed like a good way to introduce the experience. Personally, though, I think McCloskey's Time of Wonder and One Morning in Maine do a better job of conveying a similar summertime mood.

The Frog Prince Continued by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Steve Johnson

This is a humorous fractured fairy tale telling what life is like for the frog prince and his bride following their wedding. Jon Scieszka isn't really an author whose work I particularly like, so this book was really just okay for me. I like the structure of the story, as it has the repetition of form that is common to many fairy tales, but I'm not crazy about the artwork, and I don't feel compelled to share it with my kids even after they get to know the original tale. It's the kind of book that I would have used with first and second grade class visits in the library, particularly with groups that were hard to engage, but it's not something I personally need to have in my own collection.

Knots on a Counting Rope by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault, illustrated by Ted Rand

This is a book I always see at libraries and book sales but had never read until now. An American Indian grandfather relates to his grandson the story of the boy's life, in which it is revealed that the boy is blind. I thought it was a poignant inter-generational story, but many other reviewers have been quick to tear it apart for its apparent inaccurate portrayal of American Indian culture. I liked both the style of writing which was very poetic and the use of light and shadow in the illustrations, but probably not enough to want to own a copy. I did think it was interesting that this is the exact same trio that created Here Are My Hands, but the two books are totally different.

Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes

Miss Muffet is on a Henkes kick, so we've been reading and re-reading his mouse books. This one is not quite as clever as some of the others (namely the Lilly books) but Miss Muffet has obviously been thinking about it because out of the blue one day, she said, "I am a brave child. Wemberly worries a lot, but I never worry." It reminded me of the time a parent in the library told me she would never read this book to her child because it would introduce the concept of anxiety and cause her to become fearful. Clearly this was not the case with my daughter - for her, it simply reinforced her own resilience. Henkes really is the best at empathizing with preschool emotions and describing them in a relatable way. And though we don't intend to send our kids to school, Henkes is also very good at reassuring kids with anxiety surrounding that transition.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Reading Through History: A Book of Americans by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet, illustrated by Charles Child (1933)

From Columbus to Woodrow Wilson, this lighthearted poetry collection introduces dozens of personalities and groups of people who contributed, for better or for worse, to the history of the United States. Accompanied by caricatured illustrations of each figure, the poems give little glimpses into the lives, quirks, mistakes, and triumphs of presidents, pioneers, scientists and statesmen.

A Book of Americans was published in 1933, but there is very little about it that makes it feel outdated. Each poem is surprisingly contemporary-sounding, with lots of jokes about the foibles of these historical figures and subtle admonishments about the treatment of Native Americans and slaves. Even the poems which represent a larger group, such as Indians or French Pioneers, or Puritans, give a personality to these segments of the population and have some clever or poignant insight about their role in the development of our country.

What I liked most, though, is the very even-handed way the authors seem to view American History. There is no shying away from negativity - James Buchanan is all but torn apart, for example - but neither is there any romanticized urging for the next generation to  correct all the wrongs that have gone before them. The authors seem to accept historical happenings matter-of-factly, and their poems simply convey the facts of these events in an engaging style and format. The final poem of the collection, "U.S.A." also indicates the poets' reasonable understanding of their own place in history. "All our novelties and platitudes," the end of the first stanza proclaims, "Will be Rather Ancient History in 2033."

Later, the final stanza of the poem goes on to say:

So instead of prophesying 
(Which is fun, but rather trying)
Who they'll pick to be our great ones when the books are on the shelves,
Here's the marching panorama 
Of our past and present drama 
-And we shan't know all the answers till we're history, ourselves.

Thinking about our current political climate, in which so many are concerned with being on "the right side of history" this struck me as a particularly clear-headed and rational way of  considering our own place in the timeline of significant events. I like that the book doesn't emphasize the here and now as superior in any way to days gone by. It's all a part of the history of the same country, and it's all worth knowing, even if we don't fully understand our role until we're gone. I prefer this outlook to the alarmist "we must stop reading about old white men!" messages much of the children's literature community seems to have adopted.

When we study American history in our homeschool, I look forward to supplementing our lessons with some of these poems. They are a great way to introduce the different characters who will appear in our history books, and they would make good memorization exercises too. This book also covers some people who might not get much attention in history books at all, such as the first real Americans  ("They were only babies. / They didn't care. / Peregrine White / And Virginia Dare.") and Nancy Hanks (whose ghost might ask "Where's my son? / What's happened to Abe? / What's he done?") While not an essential resource by any means, I think A Book of Americans will be a welcome addition to our curriculum and a fun way to bring history to life.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The RAHM Report for 8/7/17

This past week I finally caught up on my Goodreads challenge. I accomplished this mainly by reading through an entire box of beginning reader books to preview them for my three-and-a-half-year-old, who has suddenly started reading. But once I got through those, I spent the rest of the week catching up on my own reading. Here's what I read and what I'm reading next.

Finished reading:

  • Up at Butternut Lake by Mary McNear
    This was a decent women's fiction novel, but heavier on the romance than I really wanted. Reviewed on Goodreads.
  • Murder at Vassar by Elizabeth Atwood Taylor
    I read this mystery only because it was set at Vassar. I have no interest in the rest of the trilogy.  Reviewed on Goodreads.
  • Teaching from Rest by Sarah Mackenzie
    My husband brought this home, and it's popular in the Catholic homeschooling world, so I read through it. Not impressed. Reviewed on Goodreads
  • Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson
    I'm reading the omnibus edition of this book, which also includes the sequel, Raising Demons. I have finished the first book, and just started the second. I'll review them both together when I finish. 
  • A Picturesque Tale of Progress: Beginnings I by Olive Beaupre Miller
    I read this book for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge and to start familiarizing myself with the resources we have collected for our homeschool. I have the review scheduled for the middle of next week. 
  • What's the Big Idea, Ben Franklin?; Can't You Make Them Behave, King George?; and Where Do You Think You're Going, Christopher Columbus? all by Jean Fritz
    I had never read any of these, so I'm doing a review of the series (or as many of them as I can read) for Old School Kidlit. I'll probably wait to post it at the end of the month.

Currently reading:

  • Juvenile Story Writing by Mabel Robinson
    I'm hoping to finish this and also read Robinson's later work, Writing for Young People, and then write up a review for Old School Kidlit. 
  • Confessions of a Domestic Failure by Bunmi Laditan
    I had forgotten that I put this on hold but decided to give it a try when my turn came up. The reviews are very mixed, and though I have laughed a lot so far, I'm not quite sure what I think of it yet. 
  • Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
    I'm slowly making my way through this old favorite. Bradbury's writing is just so pretty. 
  • Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
    I haven't read much yet, but I just love Jackson's sense of humor. 
  • The Silver Moon of Summer by Leila Howland
    It seemed like it took forever for a local library to order this, and then I had to wait for my turn on the hold list. I'm sad to see this series end, but I am looking forward to one last summer in Pruet, Massachusetts. 
I'm linking up today with Book Date and Teach Mentor Texts / Unleashing Readers for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Seeking "Authentic Value" in Books for Young Children

This month, for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, I am re-reading Juvenile Story Writing by Mabel Robinson (1922). The book is not written for children, but rather about the art of writing for children. I copied the following quotation from Chapter I, The Question of Writing for Children:

"Consciously or unconsciously, [the child] increases his experience every time he opens a book. The accretion may result in daydreams and the acquisition of a set of false standards, or it may have authentic value. Autobiography gives us plenty of evidence of both results. Since this is true, the book which gives the child experience outside of his personal limits should be carefully scrutinized in the making and in the using."

As my husband and I build the library of books our children will read as they grow up, I think a lot about the question of "authentic value." There is a common belief in the larger children's literature community (including librarians, bloggers, publishers, teachers, etc.) that the only truly important indicator of the quality of a book is whether a child wants to read it. The key to raising eager readers, this argument holds, is to let them read whatever they want without judgment from adults. In the seventh edition of his popular The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease writes, "Allow children to choose the books they wish to read to themselves, even if they don’t meet your high standards." Let them select their own books, praise whatever they choose, and voila! they will love to read.

What is forgotten when we enter this mindset, however, is the notion that books have a very strong influence in the life of a child, not just when it comes to entertainment or education, but also in terms of values, standards, and morals. Children - especially young ones, like mine - internalize everything they read, making stories a part of their play, their lexicon, and their understanding of how life works. The more limited a child's experience, the more powerfully a single book can impact his understanding of the world, for better or for worse. If the books given to young children contradict the family's values, or reject natural law, or employ crude humor, children simply accept these as representations of the larger world, without their parents necessarily even realizing they have done it. Therefore, I absolutely believe, as Robinson does, that all the books I share with my children ought to be evaluated carefully, and that the books which are read aloud to them, and the books which they read independently should always be held to a high standard. As Leila Marie Lawler pointed out in her recent blog post at Like Mother, Like Daughter ("Thoughts on getting the reluctant child to read, with 7 practical suggestions"), "When it comes to what our children read, everything needs to be excellent."

When I evaluate books to decide whether to purchase them - or even to borrow them - for my kids, I find that I focus on excellence in two key areas: values and aesthetics. When it comes to values, I seek books that have a point of view which is consistent with our family's culture. In our case, that means avoiding books which promote moral relativism, political activism, media franchises, and other agendas that are either inappropriate for children altogether or at odds with what we believe. We do occasionally put away books for the future that are less black and white in the values they espouse, but for early childhood, we focus on establishing our identity as a family and understanding how we, as the Fitzgeralds, look at the world. 

In terms of aesthetics, I think about the depth and beauty of a book's text and illustrations. I look for beautiful language, written in a style that is unique to the talents of the specific author, instead of a more generic, commercial, narrative voice. I want the books my kids hear to be pleasant to read multiple times, and to reward them with opportunities for new insights and observations upon multiple re-readings. I also pay a lot of attention to a book's format and to the care that is put into its appearance. Illustrations which are merely functional, or serve to decorate without enriching the text are not as desirable as those pictures which work together with the text, and which give the child reader a reason to pore over each page. 

Even beyond these two areas, however, a children's book with "authentic value" will ultimately be a solid stepping stone on the way toward a larger goal of being able to appreciate the works of great literature handed down to us by generations past. Childhood reading is important, not just for motivating kids to want to read, but also because there is only a very short window of time during which the foundation can be laid for appreciating books and the worlds and experiences they contain.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, August 2017 (Nonfiction)

Today marks the start of month 8 of the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge!

This month we're focusing on Nonfiction.

To participate, read a book or books connected to this month's theme with a publication date in the decade of your birth or before. Post about it on your blog, or wherever you typically review books. At the end of the month, I will publish a link-up post for you to share your reviews from the month.

Feel free to share what you're planning to read here in the comments and/or on social media using #oldschoolkidlit2017. Happy reading!

Monday, July 31, 2017

The RAHM Report for 7/31/17

In the past two weeks, I have finished reading 7 books:

 (1) This is Our Song and (2) A Sky Full of Stars are books four and five in the Shaughnessy Brothers contemporary romance series by Samantha Chase (links are to my reviews on Goodreads). The third book, Always My Girl, was such a disappointment that I wondered whether the series was worth finishing, but these were both excellent by comparison, and I especially liked A Sky Full of Stars because Owen, the smart and socially awkward brother, is my favorite. I think the heroine in that book, Brooke, is also the most believable of all the female love interests Chase has introduced. There is one more book due out in October - Holiday Spice - and I could request a review copy from NetGalley, but since the books are usually available on Hoopla, I will probably end up saving it to read during the holiday season when I have a newborn and limited brainpower for heavier books.

 (3) Eggsecutive Orders is the third book in the White House Chef Mystery series by Julie Hyzy. I'm trying to pace myself a little bit with these books since I have book four, but not book five, but this one had a really great opening scene and it was pretty hard to put it down once I got going. The details of the actual mystery didn't end up interesting me that much, but meeting Ollie's mother and grandmother and seeing a little more of her life outside of the kitchen was enjoyable. 
(4) Those Miller Girls! by Alberta Wilson Constant is a middle grade historical fiction novel about early 1900s Kansas. I was originally drawn to it because the illustrations are by the Krushes, but I wound up liking the writing even more than the art. I have been thinking of it as The Penderwicks meets Betsy-Tacy. Read my review here.

(5) The Magic Summer (called The Growing Summer in the UK) is a 1960s middle grade novel by Noel Streatfeild, whose Shoes books I have loved. This book was quite different from her earlier books, but it was really enjoyable and I read it in a single evening. I reviewed it here.
(6) Beans on the Roof is a chapter book by Betsy Byars, which I found on Open Library. It's a simple slice-of-life story about the Bean family, all of whom try to write poems in solidarity with the oldest child who is trying to become published in a book at school. My review is here.

Finally, (7) A Book of Americans by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet is my first August read for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge (the focus is on nonfiction). It's a collection of poems about famous Americans which I really enjoyed. The review will be up next week.

I am also currently reading 7 books: 

Up at Butternut Lake by Mary McNear is the first book in a women's fiction series set on a Minnesota lake. Though there is some romance, so far there is nothing scandalous that makes me need to skip pages or stop reading, so that bodes well for sticking with the series. The writing is not great literature or anything, but it is a lot better than in many of the cozy mysteries and romances I've been reading.

My other ongoing adult read is still Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson, which I have barely touched in two weeks. We own a copy now, but it is in the same volume with the sequel, Raising Demons, and my husband is reading that, so I have to wait until the book is free again or listen to the audio, as my Open Library copy expired today. 

Juvenile Fiction Writing by Mabel Robinson is also technically a book for adults, but because it's all about children's books, I'm reading it (for the second time) for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge. Robinson later published a second book on the same topic, which I would also like to read this month, but I wanted to refresh my memory about the original first. A review - and possibly an entire series of reflection posts based on my reaction to this book - are forthcoming. 

I've also just started re-reading Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury for the first time in over ten years. It was a favorite when I was in high school and college and it's the quintessential summer novel.Since I like to savor the language, it might take me a little while to finish it, but I'm really looking forward to it.

I also found a 1980s mystery novel on Open Library that instantly appealed to me because it is set where I went to college. Murder at Vassar is set during the private detective main character's 15-year reunion, where she is called upon to help solve a murder that occurred on campus just before the alumnae returned. I'm enjoying the author's descriptions of different Vassar landmarks,most of which were there when I was there, even if the mystery itself is so far not that exciting.

Finally, I'm still reading A Picturesque Tale of Progress: Beginnings I, which I will review for Old School Kidlit and Rightfully Ours, which I am finding very slow, partly but I really want to support Catholic authors, so I do plan to finish it.

It's Monday, so I'll be linking up with Unleashing Readers / Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

July Link-Up: Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge 2017 (Family Stories)

July went zipping by! Did you read any Family Stories for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge? If so, share your links in comments! 

I ended up reading five titles: 
Check back on Tuesday for details on the challenge's focus for August! 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Reading Through History: Those Miller Girls! by Alberta Wilson Constant (1965)

In 1909, Maddy and Lou Emma Miller are newcomers to Gloriosa, Kansas, where their widower father, Professor Cyrus Miller, has just accepted a position at Eastern Kansas Classical College. The two sisters are used to doing many things for themselves, and they look forward to having a little bit of distance from their overbearing Aunt Jesse, and to doing all the family's housekeeping themselves. As they settle into their new home, Maddy and Lou Emma meet the locals: college president Dr. Biddle and his wife and son, Tommy, next-door neighbors the Wacker family, milliner Kate Turner, and troublemaking classmate Adelaide Moss. All of these figures become key players in the events of their first few months in Kansas, including braving the chiggers to pick berries, attending a Chatauqua and a speech by William Jennings Bryan, and helping their father to build the college's first telescope.

I had a stack of family stories on the coffee table during this entire month, and only grabbed this one over a variety of others because it was illustrated by Joe and Beth Krush, whose work  I have loved in Beverly Cleary's teen romances and in the Gone-Away Lake books. I knew from the first chapter, though, that the writing in this book is even better than the artwork, and that I had stumbled upon a new favorite.

At the heart of the story is the two girls' warm relationship with their academic father, and the unorthodox way the three Millers relate to each other in the absence of the girls' deceased mother. Because Professor Miller is such an intelligent and well-read person, the girls' dialogue with him is filled with allusions, Latin phrases, and plays on words, as well as inside jokes. Their family banter is delightful, and it really helps all three characters come to life.

In addition to the dialogue, which is well-written for all the supporting characters as well as the Millers, the details of early 20th century living are also well-incorporated into the story. The Chatauqua gathering is described in great detail, giving readers who have never heard of such a thing a complete picture of what these events involved. The appearance of William Jennings Bryan and the girls' membership in a temperance group also help readers understand specific aspects of life in the early 1900s that might be missed by general history books. I also really enjoyed all the details of dress, especially the hats Miss Kate makes in her shop, and the outfits required for Maddy and Lou Emma for various functions.

Readers who enjoy spending time in Minnesota with Betsy, Tacy, and Tib will find the same wholesome pleasure in Kansas with the Millers. Those Miller Girls! is often funny, but also spends adequate time on the girls' more serious emotions about things like being pitied as "poor motherless girls," wishing their father would fall in love with Miss Kate, and enduring tattling and bullying from obnoxious Adelaide Moss. A great mix of history, humor, and heartwarming family relationships, this book is one I am glad to own, and which I can't wait to share with my girls when they are older. Though it seems like it will be a difficult task, I'm also itching to find copies of the sequels: The Motoring Millers (1969) and Does Anybody Care About Lou Emma Miller? (1979)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Reading with Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep, July 2017

This month, Miss Muffet (3 years 8 months) and Bo Peep (22 months) have both taken a liking to looking at books in large quantities. Often the first thing they do in the morning is stack up a big pile of picture books, quickly page through each one and leave them strewn all over the living room floor. "Put the books away" is often my most-spoken sentence of the day, just ahead of  "Don't walk on the books" and "Don't take out anymore books." (And "How did you manage to reach that book?")

During these morning reading sessions, sometimes Miss Muffet can be heard "reading" to Bo Peep. Most of the time, she is just retelling stories based on illustrations, but she can also sometimes be convinced to read a page or two aloud to us from one of her current books. Right now, in addition to practicing new words in the McGuffey primer and working on the Hooked on Phonics readers, she is also making her way through The Fire Cat by Esther Averill and Let's Get Turtles by Millicent Selsam. Prior to witnessing my own child's first forays into independent reading, I never would have suggested these books for a brand-new reader, but what I'm finding is that she is willing to work through the difficult words, provided there is an adult nearby to help, and that, even when it takes a long time to get through a page, she can almost always summarize what she has just read. I know there are a lot of theories out there about the best way to teach kids to read, but so far, for this particular child, at least, I'm discovering that the best way to teach her is to just keep giving her things to read, both on her current level and well above it and supporting her as she encounters new words and sentence structures. 
And of course, we haven't stopped reading aloud! Miss Muffet's current read-aloud favorites are any of the mouse books by Kevin Henkes (we have Chrysanthemum, Chester's Way, Wemberly Worried, Julius the Baby of the World, and Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse), the Beatrix Potter stories, and the original Amelia Bedelia. She also continues to love hearing nonfiction, and recently, she has been asking to hear about turtles and lemurs. Her attention span has increased quite a bit, to the point that she will often say that even our very longest picture books are too short! 

Bo Peep continues to love her same set of favorite books - the Gossie series, No David, the Little Miss and Mr. Men Books, etc. - but occasionally she has become interested in other stories, especially Curious George Takes a Job, The Little Fur Family, and Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury. She prefers books to have babies in them, if possible, and if a book is not up to her standards, she simply closes it on my hands and says, "Book all done." She also likes to look at non-book publications, such as clothing catalogs, parenting magazines, and my alumni magazine. In these, she identifies all men as "daddy," all women as "mommy" and all children, no matter their age as "babies" or "big sisters." She also frequently identifies cows as horses, but we're working on it! 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Book Review: The Golden Basket by Ludwig Bemelmans (1936)

The Golden Basket by Ludwig Bemelmans is a short novel my husband borrowed through inter-library loan. I only had access to the book for one evening, during which I devoured the wonderful story of Celeste and Melisande, two sisters who stay for a few days in an inn in Bruges, Belgium with their father.

Though the plot of this book is ostensibly about the girls' friendships with some of the people they meet at the inn, it is truly a kids' travelogue for Bruges. During their stay, the girls are taken to a carillon and a cathedral and given a ride on a boat. These visits are described in detail, as are more general aspects of their visit, such as their arrival in their room at the inn, and the way the sunrise looks on a Belgian morning. The descriptive writing is very beautiful, and a complete joy to read aloud.

This book also appears to be something of a prequel to Madeline. During an outing, Celeste and Melisande encounter a spirited little schoolgirl named Madeleine, who has trouble minding her teachers and says “Boo-boo-boo" to everything. This character seems to evolve a bit before starring in Madeline, published three years later, but clearly it is the same little girl, with only a few minor changes. The back cover of the book shows young Madeleine leaning out of her classmates' neat line of march in order to run her hand along a stone wall - this illustration could just as easily be a page taken from Madeline itself.

With or without this teaser for the Madeline series, The Golden Basket is an absolutely delightful book. I read a large portion of it aloud to my three-and-a-half-year-old and she was completely drawn into the world of the story. I imagine she would only be more engaged if she were a bit older and had the attention span to sit through the whole thing. I just can't say enough good about this book. If you have the chance to read it, do. There is no way it can disappoint.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Book Review: The Magic Summer by Noel Streatfeild (1966)

The four Gareth children - Alex, Penny, Robin, and Naomi - live in a house in London called "Medway" with their mother and scientist father. They are surprised enough when their father decides to go away for a year to study epidemics; when he falls ill and their mother must rush quickly to his side, they are thrown for a complete loop. With little time to prepare, the children are sent off to Ireland to spend the summer with their great-aunt Dymphna, who many years before looked after their father after the loss of his parents during World War II. Aunt Dymphna, who lives in "Reenmore," a house filled with books and other items she purchases from flea markets, is an eccentric old lady who values none of the comforts to which the children are so accustomed. She expects the children to cook and clean and to look after and entertain themselves. Though the Gareths have some help in the form of kind and generous neighbors, they are mostly on their own to figure things out, as Aunt Dymphna typically responds to requests for help with cryptic lines of verse and nothing more. To complicate matters further, the children also find themselves hiding a possible fugitive - a boy named Stephan who wears dark glasses -  in one of Aunt Dymphna's bedrooms, fearing that if they don't help him, he will meet with a dangerous end.

This book is quite different from Streatfeild's earlier works. Whereas her titles from the '30s and '40s didn't seem to match a particular formula, this book is much like many other family stories of the 1960s, including those by Elizabeth Enright, to whom the story is dedicated. The main difference between this book and others of its type seems to be in the character of Aunt Dymphna, whose mysterious larger-than-life personality makes her unique among the adults who populate children's books. Aunt Dymphna is a force to be reckoned with, and despite the children's frustrations with her behavior, she never changes, or softens, or apologizes for making the children's visit difficult. She remains who she is, for better or for worse, even to the last moment of the story. It is because of this steadfastness in the character of Aunt Dymphna, and the way the children are forced to grow and change in order to make their time with her bearable, that leads me to dislike the American title for the book, The Magic Summer, and to prefer instead the original British title, The Growing Summer. More than anything else, this is a story about kids who have been a bit spoiled learning how to look after themselves and to grow up in the absence of the kind sympathy of their parents. Aunt Dymphna herself may seem magical, but there is more blood, sweat, and tears in the kids' summer experience than magic.

The subplot involving the young boy with dark glasses, Stephan, who tells the children he has escaped from a Communist country is largely unnecessary and felt like a gimmick to keep kids interested rather than an integral part of the plot. Personally, I think there is plenty of great conflict in the book without Stephan, and I would have happily traded the pages spent on him for more late-night lobster hunts with Aunt Dymphna or a few more awkward exchanges about laundry between Penny and the neighbor women. Though the details of life at Reenmore are wonderfully evocative, and left me with a very clear picture of the setting for the story, I got to the end of the book feeling like I could have enjoyed more detail, not just about the house, but about the neighbor families, the local children, and even Aunt Dymphna's history. It's not that the book doesn't feel complete; I just liked the setting so much, I could have happily spent more time there.

While I think Ballet Shoes is still my favorite Streatfeild title, this book was a treat and I happily read the whole thing in one sitting. It's interesting to see how Streatfeild's writing evolved with the times, and yet remained distinctive as compared with other writers of books of the same genre. I won't forget Aunt Dymphna any time soon, and I look forward to learning about some of the poems she quoted with which I was not familiar. This was the perfect read for a rainy summer afternoon, and one I can enthusiastically recommend.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Book Review: Beans on the Roof by Betsy Byars (1988)

Most of the time, the Bean children - Anna, George ("String"), and Jenny ("Jelly") - are not allowed to go up on the roof. When Anna has to write a roof poem for a school assignment, however, Mama makes an exception for her, and soon the entire family is up there seeking poetic inspiration.

This book is very spare and short compared to many others by Betsy Byars, and is clearly geared toward an early elementary audience. Even though the plot seems slight, however, Byars manages to pack a lot of subtle details into the dialogue and description. By virtue of the fact that George and Jenny have nicknames at school and Anna does not, the reader gains insight into each child's status among his or her peers and understands that Anna may be quieter and more serious than her siblings. The Bean parents' pride over Anna possibly having her poem selected for a book at school and their comments about not having finished school themselves and having grandparents who could not read at all tell a lot about their past and their future hopes for their children. Even the poems the family members write on the roof reveal something about each one's priorities and sense of humor. It never ceases to impress me how Byars can turn the simple day-to-day events of life into these heartwarming and meaningful stories.

Beans on the Roof is a sweet book that could be used to introduce the concept of writing poetry to kids who are just beginning to compose their own works. It celebrates the warmth of friendship among siblings and the value of writing something you love even if it is not like anyone else's work, and even if it is not recognized by others in the way you hope. In some ways, it reminds me of some of Patricia MacLachlan's shorter, descriptive chapter books (White Fur Flying, The Truth of Me, Fly Away, etc.), but with a lighter touch and a clear appeal to younger readers. I had never heard of this book before this reading, but even though it is not Byars's absolute best, it is still very satisfying and absolutely lives up to the quality of writing I have come to expect from her. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Seven Quick Takes: Netflix's The Keepers

Back in May, Netflix released a new true crime series, The Keepers, which ostensibly focuses on an amateur investigation by former Catholic school students into the unsolved murder of a young nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, who was their teacher at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore in the 1960s. Because of the connection to Maryland, where I live, and the connection to the Catholic faith, which I practice, I decided to watch the documentary when I first heard about it. Almost immediately after I started watching, however, I felt uncertain that I should continue. While the film does show the efforts made to solve Sister Cathy's murder, it also dwells quite a bit on a sex abuse scandal at Archbishop Keough High School that may or may not be connected to the murder itself. Because of the darkness of the content and my concerns over the treatment of the Church by the filmmakers , it took me nearly two months to finish the 7 episodes of the series. Now that I have seen the whole thing, I'm still not sure what I think, but I've compiled a list of my observations about the documentary, in the hopes that they might help others decide whether or not watch.

1. The Keepers inspires sympathy for sex abuse victims.

First, I'd like to say that I do think it is important for Catholics to understand the impact of the sex abuse scandal on the individuals, families, and communities who were victimized by clergy. The first-person accounts of what happened to these young girls at Keough are deeply disturbing to me, and though I was always disappointed in the Church for its poor handling of abusers, I have a new appreciation for how distressing it was for young women to be preyed upon by men who used their positions as priests in order to commit acts of great evil. It is, of course, true that priests are no more likely to abuse children than any other man in any other position, and it is important to me that Catholics continue to defend themselves against the idea that all priests are pedophiles. Still, sometimes I think we can become so defensive over our culture's hatred toward our Church that we turn a blind eye to the real pain of real people. In that respect, this film is eye-opening and powerful.

2. The Keepers spends a lot of time on the sex abuse scandal. 

Despite my feelings of sympathy for the victims, I did notice that this documentary dwells heavily on the abuse scandal, to the point that it feels a little like a bait and switch. For several episodes, the murder takes a backseat to the details of attacks on these young girls, and it begins to feel like one is watching an expose about the sex abuse scandal and not a murder investigation at all. Obviously, the women who are investigating Sister Cathy's murder have a theory of the crime in which Sister Cathy was killed because she knew about sex abuse taking place in the school, so it does make sense to explore all the evidence they can find. But I did question whether the filmmakers chose to include so much about it because they knew it would appeal to our culture's desire to condemn the Church. Obviously, these girls were really abused, and the Church is responsible for that, but there was so much detail about each attack that after a while I started to feel really uncomfortable.

3. The individuals who appear in The Keepers all seem to be former Catholics.

When I first became interested in watching this series, I think I expected more practicing Catholics to be involved in the investigation. Instead, it seems that every abuse victim, every priest, and every nun who was interviewed for the film has left the Church. I am not necessarily surprised that someone who was abused would have a hard time remaining Catholic after enduring such trauma, but the prevalence of ex-Catholics and the complete absence of any outwardly practicing Catholics gives the series a subtle bias that bothers me. I feel like it contributes to an idea in our culture that Catholicism is something one outgrows, or gets over. Certainly someone who hates the church prior to watching The Keepers would not be challenged in that position at all as the series progresses.

4. The Keepers routinely avoids calling clergy and religious by their titles.

I have always been kind of a stickler about capitalizing pronouns that refer to God and properly addressing nuns, priests, and bishops using their correct titles and greetings. So it bothered me when I realized that the filmmakers and investigators associated with The Keepers routinely refer to clergy and religious by just their first or last names without regard for their proper titles. In some instances, it makes sense, because the individuals in question are no longer sisters or priests, but there were other situations where it felt that their titles were being omitted to distance the individuals from the Church and to demonstrate an unwillingness on the part of the filmmakers to respect the priesthood or sisterhood. I readily admit that I was looking for red flags, and it is very possible I am reading too much into this particular observation, but it happened often enough that it felt intentional.

5. The Keepers speculates a lot of about Sister Cathy's commitment to her calling.

Initially, I thought that Sister Cathy was going to be the one Catholic in the film to represent what the Church actually teaches, and to fulfill her role as a nun without a hint of scandal. Sadly, there are large sections of certain episodes that pore over Sister Cathy's personal letters and quote sections where she expresses doubts about her final vows and a possible desire to  marry a man (a priest, actually) rather than go on living as a nun. I think these can be interpreted as the last-minute questions any young person asks herself before making a lifelong commitment, but the film avoids commenting to this effect, leaving the impression that Sister Cathy didn't take her calling to be a nun seriously, and further perpetuating the idea that the Church is an institution which one leaves when one eventually comes to one's senses. 

6. The Keepers does not allow the Archdiocese of Baltimore to defend itself adequately. 

As I watched each episode, and the evidence mounted against certain priests and against the Archdiocese as a whole, I kept waiting for the moment when the Archdiocese would have an opportunity to defend itself.  When this moment finally did come, however, it was a let-down. The Archdiocese was only willing to submit answers to questions in writing, rather than having a representative appear on camera. When the written answers are shared with various interview subjects, these subjects invariably accuse the Archdiocese of lying. Since we have only the responses to the select few questions Archdiocese representatives were asked, and no follow-up questions to clarify anything or refute the claims of the interviewees, the reader is left with the impression that the Archdiocese lied in the '60s and continues to lie to protect itself now. Maybe this is true - and if so, the Archdiocese should be taken to task for concealing the truth - but it seems to me that there is more to the story that was purposely left out because it might paint the Church in a positive light. At the very least, I think the filmmakers could have asked many more nuanced and probing questions than they did. In its own FAQ about the case, the Archdiocese states that "The Archdiocese offered on several occasions to answer any and all questions for the production and, in fact, provided written responses to questions from producers of the series. Unfortunately, the producers asked very few questions of the Archdiocese before releasing the series and did not respond to the Archdiocese’s request to receive an advanced copy of the series." It strikes me as irresponsibly one-sided to let the opinion of a small number of interview subjects be the final word about the Church's role (if it had one) in the death of Sister Cathy, especially when it seems the Archdiocese was open to answering more questions.

7. The research presented in The Keepers is impressive.

Even with all my quibbles about the treatment of the church, I think what kept me watching the series was the impressive amount of research Sister Cathy's former students have been able to accomplish. The Keough alumnae responsible for the grassroots effort to find Sister Cathy's killer have truly left no stone unturned, and seeing their organizational methods, the charts and stacks of paper, and their boldness in making phone calls and visits to strangers really appealed to the side of me that studied library science and enjoys Sue Grafton novels. Whatever the attitude of the filmmakers, I feel that these women were in every way dedicated to finding justice for their beloved teacher, and that their only bias is in favor of the truth, whatever that may turn out to be.

Seven Quick Takes is hosted weekly by This Ain't the Lyceum

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reading Through History: D.J.'s Worst Enemy by Robert Burch (1965)

While his older sister, Clara May and younger brother, "Skinny Little Renfroe" manage to get along and work together as a team and a family, D.J. often chooses to be on the outskirts, picking fights and causing mischief with his best friend. Though his parents try to convince him repeatedly to join the family and stopping picking on his siblings, it isn't until peach picking season, when D.J.'s pranks lead to serious illness for Renfroe and major disappointment and embarrassment for Clara May, that he begins to understand he is truly his own worst enemy.

This book, though superficially similar to a book like Strawberry Girl, is actually very simplistic and almost boring by comparison. The story is message-driven, and there is never a moment where the reader is not aware that she is being taught a life lesson about the importance of family cooperation. D.J. is not a particularly believable twelve-year-old boy to begin with, and the sudden dawning of his self-awareness in the second half of the book makes him even less credible. This story clearly has one aim: to warn kids away from being like D.J. And it's hard to feel connected to a first-person narrator who is clearly just a pawn in a very special lesson. 

I did like the descriptions of the peach harvest, which gave a glimpse into this very specific time and place. I just wished these details had served as more than a vehicle for the didactic storyline. It felt like most of the events of the book were random and included only as a means of forcing D.J.'s ultimate reformation. 

We own this book, and I would have no problem with my kids reading it if they want to in the future, but I won't be prioritizing it as a read-aloud nor would I be especially disappointed if they decided not to read it, or said they didn't like it. I'd give it a solid three stars because the message, though lacking in subtlety, is a good one, and because the writing is decent. Still, it is mostly a forgettable book, and I wouldn't recommend bending over backwards trying to get a copy, nor am I especially interestedin the sequel, Renfroe's Christmas. I am, however, looking forward to trying some of the author's other books, especially Ida Early Comes Over the Mountain and Queenie Peavey, about both of which I have heard good things.  

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Book Review: The Spettecake Holiday by Edith Unnerstad (1958)

Five-year-old Pelle-Göran, who is ordinarily a very well-behaved little boy, has begun acting out as a result of his mother's recent injury which has kept her confined to a hospital bed. Though his mother is expected to recover, Pelle-Göran's father thinks it will be better for everyone if Pelle-Göran goes away on a holiday to his grandmother's house. While visiting his grandmother, Pelle-Göran gets to know his cousin, Kaja, who is an orphan, as well as a variety of colorful characters who live near the farm. While his mother convalesces back home, Pelle-Göran helps to reunite an estranged grandfather with his grandchildren, discovers whether dogs can talk, and learns to make a spettecake, the gift he has promised to the doctor for curing his mother.

This novel, translated from Swedish and set in Sweden, is a charming story of the same variety as The Good Master, wherein a child steps out of his comfort zone and begins to grow up as a result of the experience. Pelle-Göran, though seemingly obnoxious at the start of the book is actually a sympathetic and sweet protagonist. His concern for his mother, as well as his innocence about farm living, make it easy to root for him, and his friendship with cousin Kaja is a strong element of the story. Because Pelle-Göran likes to hear stories, there are also a few Swedish folktales interspersed throughout the novel, which give the book a little extra cultural flavor. Though much of the story feels universal, and could happen on a farm in any country, these folktales help to give the American reader a little insight into Swedish customs.

The Spettecake Holiday wasn't exactly the kind of book I had in mind when I first chose family stories as this month's theme for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, but it winds up being a good fit. Not only does Pelle-Göran worry for his mother, but he also grows closer in affection to his grandmother and cousin and witnesses and helps to resolve the difficulties between two of the neighborhood children and their own grandfather. The story itself is largely episodic, and sometimes I found myself wondering if anything was ever going to happen, but what seems to be at its heart is the importance of family and the value of their support in enduring childhood difficulties. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable and gentle tale, appropriate for reading aloud to kids as young as five or six. In addition to The Good Master, The Spettecake Holiday would also pair well with the 2015 novel, Adventures with Waffles by Maria Parr, which is set in Norway and is also a work of translation.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The RAHM Report for 7/17/17

This was a fairly productive reading week compared with the rest of the summer so far.

I finished three novels for adults:

  • A Novena for Murder by Sister Carol Anne O'Marie was a very satisfying mystery starring an elderly but spunky nun as the main character. I like that the book was written by an actual nun, so it is theologically sound and represents the church fairly, but I also appreciated that not everyone in the book was perfect, and that the nuns in the book have flaws and foibles like anyone else. I see that some of the other titles are on Open Library, so I'll plan to read those soon. 
  • Murder in the Mystery Suite by Ellery Adams ended up being a worthwhile read, even if elements of the story are a bit far-fetched. I really like the setting and the characters, and though I think my next Adams book will probably be book 3 from the Books by the Bay series, I do plan to return to this series and see where it goes next.
  • Always My Girl by Samantha Chase is a contemporary romance novel, and though I liked the first two books of the series, this one fell flat. Each book of the series is about a different Shaughnessy brother, and Quinn, featured in this book, seems to have much less personality than any of the others. I also just didn't feel the connection between him and his lifelong best friend, Anna, who is the heroine of the story. Too much sex and not enough character development overall. But I've already started the next book, This is Our Song (about Riley, the musician), and so far, it is much better. I'm sure there will be some sexual content that I could live without, but as long as the characters are a bit more interesting, I will stick with it. 

I also finished two children's books this week:

  • My husband brought home The Golden Basket by Ludwig Bemelmans one night, and I read it in about an hour. In addition to being a great kids' travelogue about 1930s Bruges, Belgium, it also turned out to be the first book in which Madeline appears! A full review of the book will be on the blog later in the month. I really wish this book were more widely available because I really enjoyed it.
  • On Quicksand Pond by Janet Taylor Lisle was mostly a disappointment. I'll have a full review either here or on Goodreads in a few days, but for a book with so much going for it - mysterious storylines, interesting characters, and strong descriptions - it really just wasn't satisfying.

Next on my to-read list are two more children's books. I'm reading Those Miller Girls! by Alberta Wilson Constant (illustrated by the Krushes!) for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge and A Picturesque Tale of Progress: Beginnings I because we just bought the whole set and I want to start previewing for homeschool purposes. Technically I am also still reading Rightfully Ours, but I haven't really touched it this week, and I'm still listening to Life Among the Savages, but slowly, in part because I don't want it to end!

Today I'm linking up with Unleashing Readers / Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday, What Are You Reading?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Paging Through Picture Books: I Know a Lady (1984), The Twelve Dancing Princesses (1990), If Not for the Cat (2004), Planting the Trees of Kenya (2008)

Here's another set of picture books selected to fulfill these categories in the Picture Book Reading Challenge: #25 free choice (I Know a Lady), #35 a fairy tale (The Twelve Dancing Princesses), #49 a book published in the 2000s (If Not for the Cat), #64 a picture book biography (Planting the Trees of Kenya).

I Know a Lady by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by James Stevenson

I often associate James Stevenson with those wacky books about Grandpa and Uncle Wainey, so it was a surprise to see his softer side come out in his pictures for this Charlotte Zolotow book. The text describes a figure many children can recognize from their own neighborhoods: an old lady who lives alone and interacts with kids in various ways over the course of a year's holidays and celebrations. The text is spare, but the overall story is a poignant portrait of an inter-generational friendship that has made a strong impact on the young narrator. I'm not certain that kids can appreciate this book as well as adults, but I really loved it.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Ruth Sanderson

I have never been much of a fairy tale reader, but Miss Muffet (3 years, 7 months) and I have both fallen in love with this picture book. For me, it's really the story that is intriguing. I like the element of mystery (why are the princesses' shoes worn out every morning?) and the fact that the underdog (Michael, the garden boy) becomes the hero. For Miss Muffet, I really think it's more about the illustrations, as she asks different questions each time we read it, and she seems completely engrossed by the pictures on each re-reading.

If Not for the Cat by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Ted Rand 

If Not for the Cat is a book I discovered on Instagram, where a fellow Catholic mom and book lover said she thought my three-year-old might like it. It's a collection of haiku, each poem of which describes a specific animal depicted in the accompanying illustration. Miss Muffet did indeed enjoy naming each animal after I read the haiku, and she actually knew almost all of them, despite the fact that the poems don't name their subjects. I thought the descriptions of each animal were wonderfully well-done, and I liked seeing a more serious side to the work of the often silly Prelutsky.

Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola

My husband borrowed a few books illustrated by Claire Nivola from the library, and I liked the way they looked and read them as well. This is one of many picture book biographies of Wangari Maathai, who was a popular subject for early elementary school book reports when I was working in the library, but I found it more memorable and more beautifully illustrated than many of the others. I like the small details in Nivola's pictures and the fact that most of them are sweeping two-page spreads focused on a big picture, instead of on one small aspect of her subject. The text is straightforward and strictly factual, but there is a bit of playfulness and creative storytelling in the pictures that I enjoyed very much.