Monday, June 26, 2017

Book Review: Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (1908)

Siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert are expecting to adopt an orphan boy to help around the house, so when Anne Shirley comes to them at Green Gables, they are completely surprised. Matthew takes a liking to her instantly, but it takes some convincing before Marilla decides not to send her back to the orphanage. Even then, Marilla and Anne have many ups and downs as Anne makes a life for herself in Avonlea and overcomes the hardships of her past.

When I was a kid, maybe around four years old, maybe a little older, I saw a clip from an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables on television. In my memory, this is a scene where Anne walks across a fence and falls. That night, for some reason, that scene replayed in my dream, and then I had a horrible nightmare. Though the scene from Anne of Green Gables was not scary unto itself, I always associated that scene, as well as the book, with the unsettling feeling of that nightmare. This is why, until now, I had never read this book.

Now that I have read it, I am not certain it is a book I would have enjoyed as a kid, but it is absolutely a book I enjoyed reading as an adult. I completely understand why people like Anne. From her effusive way of expressing her feelings about anything and everything, to her wonderful imagination, to the utterly human mistakes she makes, she is a character that is easy to relate to and easy to root for. She is both fascinating and sympathetic, the kind of friend every girl wishes she had, and also very much like many girls in her desire for a "bosom friend," her rivalry with Gilbert Blythe, and her feelings of awkwardness about her own appearance.

I also love the way L.M. Montgomery writes. Her descriptions paint vivid pictures of Avonlea and its inhabitants. I love the little foibles of people like Matthew, who has trouble interacting with women, and Mrs. Rachel who has an opinion about everything and uses the phrase "that's what" to punctuate her sentences. These people feel very real, and because the point of view shifts from character to character, they also provide important insight into Anne as a character. It is interesting to realize how much a child reader might miss on a first reading that would become apparent upon a re-reading later in life. I also love how many wonderfully memorable and quotable lines there are in this book. Many of these I have seen out of context over the years, and they are even more meaningful now that I know how they connect to the story. I couldn't even pick a favorite; if I was the kind of reader who wrote in her books, I'd have highlighted something on nearly every page.

It is just a coincidence that I am reading this book around the same time as the release of Anne with an E on Netflix, but I completely understand why so many fans of Anne, particularly in the Catholic circles where I've been following the reviews and discussions, are so horrified by this new dark take on the story. Of course, there is a dark side to Anne Shirley's past, but one of the reasons the book is so beloved and so wonderful, is that it doesn't dwell on the darkness. This is an uplifting story where a lovable underdog turns out okay, and there is no reason for it to be made into anything else. Not every dark corner of every sad story needs to be explored; with so many "edgy" books out there now, it is comforting to know that at least one gentle, funny, and ultimately happy story is still there to fall back into. I understand wanting that story to be preserved and protected from contemporary notions of entertainment.

Though I was not a kid who would have read this book willingly, I suspect my own girls may be different, and I look forward to seeing their reactions to Anne when they are older. I'm also really eager to get into the sequels, and to read more from Chronicles of Avonlea, which I will be doing as part of the Deal Me in Challenge. I'm glad to finally have moved past the Anne of my childhood nightmare, and to know this character and enjoy her the way everyone else does.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Reading Through History: The Chestry Oak by Kate Seredy (1948)

Michael, a Hungarian prince, has been looking forward to the day when he will turn seven years old. On this day, as has been the tradition of the royal family for generations, Michael will plant an oak tree in Chestry Valley, symbolizing the continued growth of his family tree. By the time Michael does turn seven, however, things are very strange around the castle. World War II is well underway, and the castle is full of Nazi sympathizers who have been led to believe Michael's father, the Prince of Chestry, is a supporter of Nazism as well. Though he is young, Michael is also engaged in an elaborate game of make-believe in which he only shows his true self to his father and his nurse behind closed doors. Still, Michael has great hope for the future, and he decides to take an acorn from a Chestry oak and save it until the war is over and things return to normal. He does not realize, however, the journey this acorn will take before reaching its final destination.

I tried coming into this book cold, without any background information whatsoever, and because of that, I felt that I had been thrown into the middle of a story with no sense of direction. It took me a couple of chapters to get my bearings, and a bit more than that to become invested in the story. Having read the whole story, now, though, I can say that the slow start, introducing Michael through his nurse's account of the night he was born, and slowly building up to the tragic loss of his childhood home to the terrors of war, is the best way to handle this story. Because the main character is so young at the start of the book, it is necessary for the details about the changes in his life in Chestry Valley to be revealed in ways which are appropriate to his age. This might feel slow to an adult reader who already has plenty of context for reading about World War II, but for children, particularly young ones, the time Seredy takes to unfold the circumstances of Michael's changing life is essential to helping them understand the historical events taking place and to feel the impact of those events on the young prince.

Indeed, I would say that this book, and not Number the Stars as I have previously stated, is the book I would most want to use to introduce the topic of the Holocaust to my children. Presenting the story of Prince Michael is a great way to begin a gentle discussion about a topic that will become increasingly more brutal as children age and learn more about it. The book captures both the devastation of war and the power of hope in the face of great loss. It is not a happy story, necessarily, but it is not a tragedy either.

It is also remarkable how soon after the end of the war this book was published. It would be easy to imagine that such a book would have a very narrow and time-specific perspective on events that had just happened at the time of its writing, but on the contrary, this book paints a portrait of the war that is still relevant, believable, and powerful in the year 2017. Thinking about the timing also makes me reflect again on The Singing Tree, where it is suggested that the world would know better, after World War I, than to let another war of that kind happen again. Seredy's voice is not just that of a storyteller, but also that of a witness to history, who allows us to see how the world changed over the first half of the 20th century. Her stories have an immediacy about them that is impossible to achieve in even the most well-researched of contemporary historical fiction novels.

In addition to being an emotional portrayal of the impact of war on the country of Hungary, and on Prince Michael's family in particular, The Chestry Oak also includes a lot about horses, which is a special interest of many children. It also includes a wonderful American family in its supporting cast, which despite some readers' insistence that they reside in Vermont, most likely reside in the Hudson Valley, where Seredy lived, where The Open Gate is set, and where I grew up.

Fans of Kate Seredy will fall instantly in love with this book; those who are new to Seredy's work will fall in love with her writing after reading this book. Either way, it is a beautifully written and engaging story that I wish was more widely available. A definite gem worth owning if you can find it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review: Let's Pretend We Never Met by Melissa Walker (2017)

When Mattie Markham and her family move from North Carolina to Pennsylvania to be closer to Mattie's grandmother as she moves into assisted living, Mattie worries that she won't make new friends. She is grateful, therefore, to discover that living next door to her new apartment is a girl her age named Agnes. Agnes, who has an unnamed social disorder accompanied by anxiety, is definitely unusual, but her enthusiasm for life, and her way of making everything feel important and exciting are appealing to Mattie, and the two become close quickly. Unfortunately, though, when school starts up again after Christmas, Mattie discovers that in her new classroom, Agnes is considered the weird kid. Worried about jeopardizing her chances of friendship with her other classmates, Mattie begins to distance herself from Agnes, finding it difficult to reconcile the fun she has with Agnes at home with how strangely she behaves in class.

I chose to read Let's Pretend We Never Met solely based on the author, who is a fellow Vassar graduate and the author of the young adult novel, Unbreak My Heart, which I remembered praising in a review a few years ago.  Once I learned what the book was about, there was a part of me that was afraid I'd just walked into a "Very Special Friendship" story a la Stargirl or Wonder, both of which I have found grating. I am so glad to be able to say that this book very clearly is not a message-driven story of the after school special variety, but a much more subtle character-driven novel about the difficulties of navigating fifth grade friendships.

All of the characters, from Mattie and her parents, to Agnes and her mom, to Mattie's new teacher and classmates, are believable despite their relative lack of dysfunction. Though there are problems in the story - Mattie's mom's struggle to find full-time work, Mattie's grandmother's signs of dementia, and Agnes's parents' marital difficulties - they are the problems of ordinary life, and these difficulties inform each other to give a complete portrait of Mattie as a character and her friendship with Agnes. Unlike Wonder, which essentially exploits Auggie's disfigurement to teach us all how to be tolerant and caring, this book simply delivers that message, quietly and without fanfare, in a way that is powerful without being obnoxious. Walker never reveals Agnes's diagnosis and instead defines her by her unique interests, her personality, and her behaviors, both the usual and unusual ones.

I don't keep up with many new middle grade books now that I've mostly stepped out of the library world. Knowing that I'm only going to read a few this year, I'm glad Let's Pretend We Never Met is one that happened to come across my radar. It's a book I would have loved as a kid, and one that I would absolutely feel comfortable having my own girls read in a few years. The writing is good, the characters feel real, the moral is clear but not preachy, and it is enjoyable to read.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Poetry Picnic: June 1, 2017

We had a poetry picnic on June 1st to welcome the new month. I chose a lot of poems because many of them were so short, but it didn't take the girls as long to eat at this picnic as it had at the previous one, since it was a snack and not lunch, and they became pretty restless. I'd probably choose to read half of these if I had it to do over. (As usual, anthology titles link to Goodreads; poem titles link to online full text when available.)

From The Posy Ring



These were the longest and most difficult-to-understand poems on the list, which is why I started with them. I read poems like these mainly to expose the girls to the language. I don't necessarily expect them to comprehend the meaning at all.

From All the Small Poems and Fourteen More


  • sun by Valerie Worth
  • coins by Valerie Worth
  • duck by Valerie Worth
  • caterpillar by Valerie Worth
  • mushroom by Valerie Worth
  • pocket by Valerie Worth

Miss Muffet really responded to these "small poems" and their corresponding illustrations. My favorite was "duck" but she seemed most fond of "coins." I like this collection because the poems are very short, but they are not dumbed down in any way for kids. When we someday begin to study and analyze poetry, these would be good ones to start with.

From Listen, Children, Listen


  • Blum by Dorothy Aldis
  • Numbers by Elizabeth Madox Roberts
  • Whispers by Myra Cohn Livingston
  • Discovery by Myra Cohn Livingston
  • The Sun by John Drinkwater 

Miss Muffet liked "Blum" because she is in a phase where she likes to make up words. She also liked "Numbers", which I chose because I have started doing very basic math with her using Cuisenaire rods. The other poems didn't seem to make any particular impression, though Miss Muffet did seem to think the suggestion in "The Sun" that we tell the sun we are happy was pretty amusing.

From Everything Glistens and Everything Sings:


  • The River by Charlotte Zolotow 
  • Toward Dark by Charlotte Zolotow
  • Raccoon by Charlotte Zolotow
  • Ladybug by Charlotte Zolotow 
These poems are a little too pensive for little kids, but since they are short, I read them for the language. "Ladybug" was probably the girls' favorite. 

From Favorite Poems Old and New: 


Most of these poems were chosen based on recent discussions I had with Miss Muffet. We've been talking about wanting a bigger house, but trying to enjoy the littleness of our current small one. The pool had just opened, so we were preparing to swim, and Miss Muffet likes to ask about the materials from which things are made so "What Do We Plant?" seemed a natural choice. I chose "At the Garden Gate" because I liked the rhythm, and "Old Log House" because it was about the "old days" which Miss Muffet seems increasingly interested in hearing about. 

From The Year Around:


  • Alone by John Farrar 
  • June by Douglas Malloch
  • That's June by Mary F. Butts
  • Stay, June, Stay! by Christina Rossetti (part IV of the linked poem)
These poems all came from the June section of the book. I hope to keep using this book each month to introduce themes related to the current season and upcoming holidays.

From All Together:


  • Everybody Says by Dorothy Aldis
  • Bad by Dorothy Aldis
  • We Know a House by Dorothy Aldis
  • Awful Mornings by Dorothy Aldis
This is the most preschool-friendly collection of poetry we have, so I try to include a few poems from it at each picnic. This one had two about having a bad day, as we'd had struggled through the morning. I chose "Everybody Says" because it mentions "Aunt Bee" which is what Miss Muffet sometimes calls my sister. "We Know a House" was a random choice to complement the house-themed poems from Favorite Poems Old and New above.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

Book Review: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin (1903)

When Rebecca Rowena Randall is sent to live with her spinster aunts in place of the older sister who cannot be spared at home, the beginning of her stay is anything but auspicious. The aunts believe Rebecca to be prone to foolishness, like her deceased ne'er-do-well father, and Rebecca, though spirited, knows very little of the household chores she is meant to perform. As the years progress, however, Rebecca proves to be a committed student, a selfless friend, the object of a specific benefactor's affections, and a gifted writer.

This coming of age story is one I absolutely refused to read during childhood, and even now I don't think I would have liked it as a kid. I was troubled by children who had lost a parent or who simply didn't live with their parents, and all the delightful parts of Rebecca's personality would easily have been lost to me, masked by my own perception that children like her are to be pitied.  As an adult, though, I can recognize the charm of Rebecca as a character. Though her adventures are confined to her home and schoolhouse, and her triumphs involve small victories like selling enough soap to help a poor family and winning a writing contest, she has an indomitable spirit and she does and says things that real kids generally only imagine themselves doing.

My chief complaint about this book is how quickly events unfold in the second half. The story is at its best when it relates events about Rebecca's daily life prior to adolescence. Once she enters high school, the story moves along very quickly, and begins to feel rushed as compared with earlier sections. I also found the ending somewhat predictable, but that didn't bother me as much, since it does wrap things up very well, and on the necessary hopeful note.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is not my favorite book (and it really pales in comparison to Anne of Green Gables, which I read immediately following it and will review soon), but I understand why it has appealed to so many girls. I will happily let my own kids read it when they are around age 10 or so, and I will probably read it again when they do.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The RAHM Report for June 14, 2017 (Deal Me in Challenge Update)

In April and May, I fell way behind in the Deal Me in Challenge, but as of this week, I am all caught up. Here are the short stories whose cards I drew for the past six weeks, with reviews.


"The Blue Cross" by G.K. Chesterton (♠A)

This was my first experience reading Chesterton. Though a friend of mine did tell me that his stories are funny, I was still pleasantly surprised by how much this Father Brown story (the very first one starring this character) made me laugh. The writing is pretty dense and descriptive, but there were so many lines that I wanted to copy down and remember again later. Here is just one example: "The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen. A few clouds in heaven do come together into the staring shape of one human eye. A tree does stand up in the landscape of a doubtful journey in the exact and elaborate shape of a note of interrogation. I have seen both these things myself within the last few days. Nelson does die in the instant of victory; and a man named Williams does quite accidentally murder a man named Williamson; it sounds like a sort of infanticide. In short, there is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss. As it has been well expressed in the paradox of Poe, wisdom should reckon on the unforeseen." I also so appreciated the story's overall focus on the value of reason when it comes to understanding God, life, and the world.


"Was It In His Hand?" by Elizabeth Bishop (♠2)

Compared with the others I read this week, this story felt kind of pointless. I have read some Elizabeth Bishop poetry, but never her prose, and I did enjoy seeing how she handled this format. Still, the plot was simple - two young women visit a fortune teller, who is black, but has adopted a white child. The child seems to the women to be a prisoner in some way, and they leave haunted by the image of him. I think this is one of those stories that is meant to raise questions rather than provide answers, but I just didn't feel like I quite understood where Bishop was going with it.


"Wunderkind" by Carson McCullers (♠5)

As she did in her novel, The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers creates for this story another misunderstood, outsider adolescent. Frances is a prodigy musician who has recently begun to discover the previously unimagined limitations of her genius. As she waits for another student to finish his lesson with her instructor, she reflects on the embarrassment of receiving a negative review for her recital performance and the implications of this on her future as a musician. I really liked the way this was written, and I felt that teens could relate to it as well as adults.


"Each In His Own Tongue" by L.M. Montgomery (♥K)

It was interesting that I drew the card for this story immediately after the one for "Wunderkind" because they are thematically connected. Whereas Frances in "Wunderkind" is struggling with her loss of interest in playing music, Felix in "Each in His Own Tongue" has been forbidden by his beloved father to play his violin because he is meant to become a minister, not a musician. As the story reveals, however, God gives gifts to different people for different reasons, and Felix may be meant to serve God through his music. I especially loved this quote from the story, which is spoken by Abel, the elderly man who takes great joy in Felix's playing: There's different kinds of ministers, and each must talk to men in his own tongue if he's going to do 'em any real good," said old Abel meditatively.


"A Temple of the Holy Ghost" by Flannery O'Connor (♠10)

This is another odd O'Connor story that left me feeling vaguely uncomfortable. Its central focus seems to be on the human body as a temple, which makes sense to me as a Catholic, but it's also one of the most "freaky" and stereotypically Southern story of hers that I have read. I did like the way O'Connor portrays the shallow preoccupations of teenage school girls, but I walked away from the story feeling like I'd have to read it 10 more times to really grasp exactly where she was going with it.


"Bernice Bobs Her Hair" by F. Scott Fitzgerald (♣5)

Fitzgerald's "Winter Dreams" is one of my all-time favorite short stories, and this is written similarly. When Bernice comes to stay with her cousin, she is at first unaware of how out of place she is among her peer group. When she finds out, she begins to become popular with the local young men, a fact which is helped by her repeated vague promises to cut and style her hair in a bob. Though this story is set in the 1920s, so much of its commentary on peer pressure, vanity, and fashion rings very true in today's world, especially for teens and young adults. This story also has a great quotable line which I've heard before, but I never knew the original source: At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Paging Through Picture Books: Edible Numbers (2015), Lola Plants a Garden (2014), Boat Book (1983), The Tiny Seed (1970), Lili at Ballet (1993), Dance in the Desert (1969), The Star-Spangled Banner (1973)

Here are some new picture reviews for the Picture Book Reading Challenge. These are my picks for #2 a counting book (Edible Numbers), #12 a book celebrating dance (Lili at Ballet), #20 Mother Goose related (Lola Plants a Garden), #22 a book by Gail Gibbons (Boat Book), #55 a book by Eric Carle (The Tiny Seed), #96 a book celebrating faith (Dance in the Desert), #91 a book about history or historical event (The Star-Spangled Banner).

Edible Numbers by Jennifer Vogel Bass

 

This clean-looking, fresh-feeling picture book reminds me a little bit of 1 Big Salad by Juana Medina, but with better execution. Each two-page spread shows a photo of a single fruit or vegetable on the left-hand side, labeled clearly with the number 1, and on the right-hand side a number of varieties of the same fruit or vegetable, labeled to show how many there are. Miss Muffet (age 3.5) loved seeing the many different types of familiar veggies like cucumbers and peppers, and because the numbers from 1 to 12 are interrupted on every spread by a return to the number 1, she also counts the number of objects on each page instead of just breezing through the numbers from memory. It's hard to find counting books that don't feel tedious, and this one, even after multiple readings, continues to appeal to me.

Lola Plants a Garden by Anna McQuinn


Inspired by her love of the "Mary, Mary Quite Contrary" nursery rhyme, book lover Lola decides to plan a garden. She borrows books about seeds from the library, enlists the help of her parents with the planting, and then, once everything has grown, invites her friends over to enjoy the garden along with her. I was familiar with the Lola books from reading them in story time, but they hadn't really made an impression on my own kids until Miss Muffet heard me read this at story time a few weeks ago. She wanted to hear it several more times at home, and she compared Lola's experience planting her garden to ours growing a bean in a plastic bag.

Boat Book by Gail Gibbons 


I borrowed this book from the library thinking it would appeal to Miss Muffet, who likes nonfiction, but it didn't impress her very much. We read through it once, and she liked looking at the illustrations but she hasn't asked to hear it again. Personally, I thought it was just okay. it's definitely a serviceable book for introducing a young child to boating vocabulary, but its not particular memorable, and it didn't feel as comprehensive as some of the other Gibbons books we've read (our favorite of which so far has been Emergency.)

The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle

 

I read this book at story time along with Lola Plants a Garden. It's not my favorite Carle book. While it provides good information about the path a seed takes before it lands in a place where it can germinate, it also personifies the seed in a way that feels forcedto me. I like the artwork, but the text is really wordy, and the number of words per page varies quite a bit. Without Carle's signature artwork, I think the mediocre quality of the text would become even more apparent.

Lili at Ballet by Rachel Isadora

 

I borrowed this book specifically for Little Miss Muffet and it has been very well received. In addition to the main text which describes a little girl going to ballet class, preparing for a recital, and dreaming of her future, there is also a lot of information written amongst the illustrations, giving the names of positions, steps, types of ballet slippers, etc. We had to ask my husband about correct French pronunciation, since I took Spanish, but Miss Muffet has been enamored of this book for weeks and she wants to hear every word of the main story as well as every caption over and over again. I know there are sequels, so we'll probably trade this one in for another on our next library visit.

Dance in the Desert by Madeleine L'Engle, illustrated by Symeon Shimin

 

This book shares a lot of the same problems that I have complained about in L'Engle's works in the past. The writing is beautiful (as are the illustrations), but the symbolism doesn't quite work. The common interpretation of this book seems to be that the child featured in the story is a young Jesus Christ and that his love and gentleness are so powerful that they tame even the wildest animal. All of this works fine, except that little Jesus is able to win over a snake. In Christianity, a snake only represents one thing: Satan. It doesn't make sense to use a symbol like a snake in a book that is so full of Christian allusions and then treat it like any other animal. L'Engle's theology always feels a little vague and touchy-feely to me, so I'm not necessarily surprised, but it is a very annoying mark on a book I otherwise really liked.

The Star-Spangled Banner by Peter Spier

 

This is an illustrated interpretation of the national anthem. I sang it to my girls on Memorial Day, and though the historical context is still too much for them to understand, they both liked it. My favorite part is actually the endpapers, which show flags from different points in American history as well as military flags. I look forward to using the book in our homeschool and to singing it to the girls again on the Fourth of July.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Little Miss Muffet Reviews Little Excavator by Anna Dewdney (2017)


In this brand-new picture book from Llama Llama creator Anna Dewdney, there is lots of work to be done on the lot where Little Excavator and all the big rigs have just arrived. Little E is eager to help, but all the jobs are just too big for a machine as small as he is - all of them, that is, except one.

I shared this book with my three-year-old, Little Miss Muffet, and then asked her some questions. Here's what she thought of Little Excavator! (My questions are in bold; her answers follow. Answers were taken from two separate discussions about the book - it was hard to get her to tell me everything in one sitting!)

MISS MUFFET ON LITTLE EXCAVATOR


What is this book about? 
Digging.

What did they dig? 
A park.

What did you like about the book? 
I liked it because I like digging and I like work. I like it when they said, "Mighty Little Excavator, go, go, go!"

Anything else?
It's good.

Why is it good? 
I like little things and I like Little Excavator.

What do you like about Little Excavator?
I like that he gets tall, tall, tall. I like that he has this digging thing. I like the part where he gets in a jam.

What do you like about the pictures? 
I like the pictures because it's about digging. And because it has little in it, and I like Little E. I like that there's big things and little things.

What do you think about the colors? 
I like orange. I like yellow. I like the orange light [on the backhoe].

What was the best part of the story? 
The best part of it is where the car is drowning [on the beginning end papers].

Why did you like that part? 
Because I like cars. I like driving. And I don't ever drown. But sometimes cars drown.

Was there anything you didn't like about the book?
No!

Did you like the way the story ends? 
Yeah.

What kind of ending was it? 
Good because at the end it's happy.

Do you think other girls and boys who are three years old would like this book?
Yeah!

What would you like to tell other children about the book? 
I'd tell them what I telled you.

Miss Muffet has been very enthusiastic about this book since we first read it, and I have shared her enjoyment. I love the detailed end papers. At the beginning, they show the lot in a state of disrepair and the rigs coming up the road; at the end, they depict the new park and a proud, smiling Little E. I also love the use of onomatopoeia and the smooth, carefully matched rhymes. The construction subject matter isn't new, and neither is the "little people can do big things" message, but this book is one of the better-written titles on both topics.

Little Excavator is a memorable and lovable character who makes a strong impression.  When we went to our city's Public Works Equipment Show a couple of weeks ago, Miss Muffet had the chance to sit in an excavator, and without hesitation, she excitedly called out, "It's Little E, Mama!" It was nice to see her connecting the book to a real-life experience, and to see her joy at seeing a hint of a new favorite character in her everyday life.

Giveaway!


Enter for a chance to win one (1) of five (5) copies of Little Excavator by Anna Dewdney (ARV: $19.99 each).

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on May 22, 2017 and 12:00 AM on June 19, 2017.  Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about June 30, 2017. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Week One:
May 22 – Homeschool 4 Life
May 23 – Inspiration Laboratories
May 24 – The Plot Bunny
May 25 – A Story a Day
May 26 – The Children’s Book Review

Week Two:
May 29 – Quiet in the Chaos
May 30 – Here’s to Happy Endings
May 31 – Margie’s Must Reads
June 1 – Confessions of a Book Addict
June 2 – Gypsy Road

Week Three:
June 5 – A Peace of Mind
June 6 – Books and Giggles
June 7 – Wandering Bark Books
June 8 – Bea’s Book Nook
June 9 – Read-At-Home Mom

Week Four:
June 12 – My Storytime Corner
June 13 – A Rup Life
June 14 – Pirates n’ Pixie Dust
June 15 – Swoony Boys Podcast
June 16 – Good Books & Good Wine

Little Excavator is in bookstores now. Thanks to Penguin Random House for the review copy. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Poetry Picnic: May 26, 2017

We had a great poetry picnic right before Memorial Day weekend! Here's what we read while we enjoyed lunch and chocolate chip cookies! (Anthology titles link to Goodreads; poem titles link to online full text when available.)

From All Together:


  • Night and Morning by Dorothy Aldis
  • My Nose by Dorothy Aldis
  • Grown-Up People by Dorothy Aldis
  • The Seals by Dorothy Aldis
  • In May by Dorothy Aldis
  • The Storm by Dorothy Aldis
  • Goodness Me by Dorothy Aldis
This collection is perfect for preschoolers. I want to work on getting Miss Muffet (age 3.5) to memorize and recite some of these poems herself. "Goodness Me," which is about a child realizing she might be starting to be good all the time, would be a good one to start with since it connects with her own struggle to behave well! 



From Sing a Song of Seasons:


  • The Big Swing-Tree is Green Again by Marchette Chute
  • The Worm by Ralph Bergengren
I wasn't sure Miss Muffet would understand the humor of "The Worm," but she did seem to laugh appropriately. Both of these poems were taken from the summer section of the book.



From The Year Around: Poems for Children: 


  • Remembering Day by Mary Wight Saunders
  • Secret by Esther Hull Doolittle 
  • Jack-in-the-Pulpit by Ivy O. Eastwick
These poems were taken from the Memorial Day and Summer sections of the book.  I suspect this will be my go-to source for upcoming poetry picnics, since there is something for almost every holiday and occasion.



From Poems to Read to the Very Young:

I found this book at a used bookstore and snatched it up because I love the illustrations. We have all of these poems in other anthologies, but the pictures really appeal to Bo Peep (20 mos.) and I chose these poems with her in mind.



From Beneath a Blue Umbrella

  • In downtown Philadelphia... by Jack Prelutsky
  • Idaho Rose... by Jack Prelutsky
  • Captain Flea and Sailor Snail... by Jack Prelutsky
We received a copy of this book free at a recent city truck touch event. The poems are Prelutsky originals but they read like nursery rhymes, and the illustrations are by Garth Williams. The individual poems do not have titles, so I have just listed them here by first line. 


Monday, June 5, 2017

The RAHM Report for 6/5/17

I have a deadline for a chapter of my own book coming up, so I haven't done that much reading over the past couple of weeks, but I have a few books to report about, as well as some short stories.


Adult Books


Adult books always end up taking a backseat to kids' books, so I'm still plugging away at both The Cat Who Blew the Whistle and A Novena for Murder. I did, however, finish my NetGalley ARC of About a Dog by Jenn McKinlay, which I will review on Goodreads in the next couple of days. Now that I've gotten back into contemporary romance a little bit, I'd like to go back and finish the Shaughnessy Brothers series by Samantha Chase, but I will try to finish the two mysteries first.


Deal Me in Short Story Challenge


I was seven weeks behind for this challenge until last night when I read two stories: "I'll be Waiting" by Raymond Chandler (♦2)  and "The Parker Shotgun" from Kinsey & Me by Sue Grafton (♦10). The Chandler was strange, and I had trouble concentrating on what was happening. The writing style was something different, and I didn't dislike it, but I also found myself thinking "so what?" at the end of the story. The Grafton story was better, probably because Kinsey Millhone is one of my all-time favorite characters. I also hear audiobook narrator Judy Kaye's voice in my head whenever I read Sue Grafton now, so that makes Kinsey feel more real. The mystery itself was solid, but not earth-shattering. I mostly just like reading about this character.  

I have 5 more stories to read this week if I want to catch up. Fingers crossed! 


Children's Books


I finished Speed of Life by Carol Weston, and I plan to write a review at some point, probably on Goodreads. I've also gotten a good start on my reading for this month's Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge theme of "required reading" with Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Anne of Green Gables. I enjoyed both (though I liked Anne better than Rebecca) and I will have reviews coming up hopefully next week. My next priorities in terms of children's novels are Almost Paradise by Corabel Shofner, The Secret Garden (which I have never read!), Go Jump in the Pool! by Gordon Korman (my turn came up on the wait list at OpenLibrary) and Let's Pretend We Never Met by Melissa Walker, my NetGalley copy of which expires in just over a week. I also have a library hold on the new Sarah Dessen book, Once and For All, and as far as I can tell, I'm 9th on the list and there are more than 20 copies. If the library gets its copies on time, I hope to have that in hand by the end of the week too.

Since it's Monday, I'll be linking up today with It's Monday! What Are You Reading at both The Book Date and Teach Mentor Texts.


Friday, June 2, 2017

Dabbling in Diverse Formats: How I Use Ebooks and Audiobooks

I typically prefer to read books in their traditional print format, but over the past few years I have become more willing to explore other formats on occasion. Today, as Armchair Book Expo delves into diversity, I want to share how I use ebooks and audiobooks.

Ebooks


  • Reading digital ARCs. I first started reading ebooks regularly when I started blogging in 2011 and joined NetGalley. Back then, I read on a Nook. Now that my Nook is long-dead, I either use the Kindle app on my Android phone, or I read in Adobe Digital Editions on my laptop. I have come to prefer Edelweiss over NetGalley, and I read far fewer ARCs now than I have in the past, but it's still nice to be able to carry an entire library with me without weighing down my purse.
  • Downloading hard-to-find library books. If a book is unavailable in print from my local libraries, or there are many holds on the print edition, sometimes I will download the book through Overdrive or one of the library's other ebook portals just in the interest of gaining access to it quickly. 
  • Discovering new and old favorites on OpenLibrary. Internet Archive maintains an amazing database of scanned books, including many vintage kids' books, at OpenLibrary.org. These can be downloaded in .pdf or .epub format, or read directly from the website. This has been a great source of lesser-known titles by favorite picture book authors and illustrators, and OpenLibrary's titles are the only ebooks I will read to my kids, because they have the look of the real book, including marginalia and library markings. 
  • Previewing picture books. The last way that I use ebooks is to preview certain picture books. I tend to be skeptical of popular picture books, so before I go to the trouble of tracking down a print copy, I will check to see if I can download a digital copy and get a taste for the story. If I don't like it, I don't bother putting the physical copy on hold. If I think it has promise, I'll track down a print copy to read all the way through and share with my kids.


Audiobooks


  • Traveling. If I have to sit on a bus or a train, I will download a bunch of audiobooks. I don't always concentrate that well, so I try to make them books I've read before so I can drift in and out. When my kids were a little bit younger and would nap consistently in the stroller, I also used to listen to audiobooks while walking with the stroller. I got a lot of extra reading done that way last summer! As a family we also listen to audiobooks on car trips. My husband usually chooses, and I have found quite a few new favorites this way. 
  • Reading nonfiction. I am not very good at reading nonfiction on the page, so if there is a factual book I want to read, I'll try to get the audiobook edition. Audiobooks always slow me down, which is frustrating with fiction, but really necessary for me to do if I am going to comprehend nonfiction. I figured out that this would work for me by listening to podcasts. I realized I enjoyed the content when someone read it to me, but not as much when I had to work through it myself. 
  • Getting into books more easily. If I'm having trouble getting started with a book, sometimes it helps to listen to the first chapter or so instead of reading it myself. This helps immerse me in the world of the story and in the author's writing style, and it sometimes makes it easier for me to pick up the print copy afterwards. I will also sometimes listen to an audiobook if I need to finish a book (for a challenge or a discussion or something) but am struggling to enjoy it. 
  • Enjoying a particular narrator. I am particular about who narrates an audiobook, but when I find someone whose voice I like, I will be more likely to listen to the audiobook all the way through and even to look for other books read by the same person. Some of my favorite readers have been Elizabeth Sastre (Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild) Judy Kaye (Sue Grafton's books), Robert Sean Leonard (the books he narrates are not always that interesting to me, but he was m favorite on House MD), and Joel Johnstone (The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt.)
Are you an ebook or audiobook reader? What do you like (or dislike) about these formats?


  

Thursday, June 1, 2017

3 Fun Ways to Connect with the Online Book Community

Armchair Book Expo's second topic for today is about collaborating and connecting with the online book community. As I have drifted away from the library world, I have really enjoyed finding new and different ways to connect with like-minded book lovers. Here are three of the fun ways I have discovered new connections.

First Line Monday

Every Monday, the members of this Facebook group post the first line of whatever they are currently reading. Many different genres and types of books are represented, and it's a great way to learn about new titles that would otherwise not be on my radar. Because it has such a specific focus, and we only post once a week, the group is very relaxed and friendly, and completely free of spam and unpleasant arguments. Even if I don't have a line to share, I always pop in to see what everyone else is reading.

Tuesday Night Book Loving Mamas Chat 

Every Tuesday night on Instagram, a group of book loving moms, led by @buildingliteracywithbooks, post a series of questions related to reading. Participants hop from one account to the next answering questions until they complete the loop. I've only answered the questions twice now, but everyone has been so welcoming, and it's been a fun way to see how other moms use books with their kids.

Bout of Books

This is a read-a-thon that happens three times a year. I've participated 5 times, and even though I'm often one of the only children's book bloggers, it's a great motivator for getting reading done. There are usually two chats during the week, which is a great way to meet people, and the atmosphere of the read-a-thon is very relaxed and fun. Sometimes I read a lot, and sometimes only a little, but I always enjoy it.




What Do I Want From a Book?

Today, Armchair Book Expo is asking "What Do Readers Want?" After giving it some thought, I've made a list of the ten things that the books I enjoy all tend to have in common.


Believable and sympathetic characters.

For me to connect with a character, she needs to be someone I can root for. I don't necessarily need to have anything in common with the character in order to feel a connection with her, but there has to be something relatable or fascinating about her to keep me interested for the length of an entire book. I don't think the character even necessarily needs to be likable, as long as there is something about her personality, history, or transformation throughout the story that intrigues me. I also like characters who feel real, and who have a few flaws and foibles that make them feel human.  In the case of child characters, they also need to act like kids rather than mini-adults,

Realistic dialogue.

Dialogue is a big part of character development. Awkward or false-sounding dialogue really grates on my nerves and brings me right out of the story, so it's important for characters to sound real and for their dialogue to flow smoothly. I don't mind an author using local color to help a character come across more realistically, but I prefer that thick accents and regional slang don't become so overpowering as to obscure what the characters are saying. Characters' speech should also align with who they are as people. Well-written dialogue makes it clear who is speaking, not just through dialogue tags, but through the style of each character's speech.

Memorable descriptions.

Samuel Johnson identified an engaging author as one in whose work "New things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new." When I think about the kinds of descriptions I most enjoy in books, this is what I mean. I love it when an author shows me something I have seen many times from a new angle, and I like it just as well when an author can introduce a new concept to me in a way that makes me quickly understand it. There is such a thing as too much description (don't get me started on The Yearling), but authors who describe things well, especially using metaphors that arise from the world of the story itself, tend to become my favorites.

Interesting use of language.

Directly connected to a talent for description is an overall fresh approach to using language. I like it when an author uses certain turns of phrase that represent his or her overall writing style, and which can be easily identified specifically with that author. I also appreciate it when authors avoid cliches, especially the really common ones, such as the dreaded "She let out a breath she didn't know she was holding." 

Attention to detail.

I'm the kind of reader who gets really hung up on little details, sometimes to the point that I can't keep reading if something seems out of place, until I've figured out the problem. I am especially bothered by anachronisms in historical books, and complete misrepresentations of religious and cultural customs which can easily be researched with minimal effort. When an author appears not to have done his or her research, it feels like they don't care about the book, or its readers, and that makes me less inclined to care about the book, too. 

Appealing and convincing setting.

Setting is not always important to me. I can sometimes happily read a book with a very generic setting if it has little bearing on the plot. But if a specific setting is named, I need it to be described well enough that I can picture it. For me to really want to spend time in a setting (especially over the course of a series), it needs to come across as a place I would want to visit. I also find that settings meant to sustain entire series become more engaging if there are hidden depths for readers to discover as the books wear on. 

Strong plot structure.

Obviously certain genres (mystery, romance, etc.) have their own specific plot structures, and I do appreciate it when books adhere to those requirements. When it comes to novels outside of those genres, however, I prefer to read books that are at least a little unpredictable.  I don't like to be confused by the events of a book, so it's good for the story to be well-organized, but I also don't want to be able to see where it's going before I even hit the halfway point. I also like it when seemingly irrelevant details mentioned early in the story end up being important to the outcome.

Attractive and meaningful illustrations.

If a book has illustrations, they should be appealing to look at, but not merely decorative. Illustrations - even just line drawings - should add something to the book. This might be context for the events of the story, additional information to support the text, diagrams to help decode difficult concepts, or beautiful illuminations of key scenes. Illustrations shouldn't just be a substitute for lazy writing, or filler, but as much an integral part of the book as the text.

Subtle messages.

All books have messages of some kind, but I like it best when these are not overt and are left open to interpretation. I don't want a book to manipulate me into having the "right" attitude about a social or political issue. I'd rather the book tell its story well and leave it up to the plot and characters to steer me toward careful thought about the issues at hand.

Respect for the reader.

Finally, I like it when an author clearly trusts the reader and believes that the reader is smart enough to understand the story being told without lots of hand-holding, over-explanation, or commentary about the story. In general, if a book feels condescending, or tries to tell me how I should interpret it, I give up after just a couple of chapters.


Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, June 2017 (Required Reading)

The sixth month of the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge begins today!

This month our focus is on Required Reading. This includes all of those books that "everyone has read," especially classics and those often assigned in schools. If there are classics you've missed, now's your chance to cross one or two off of your to-read list!

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!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cruel to be Critical? Best Practices for Writing Critical Book Reviews

About a year ago, I received a very lengthy comment to my blog's Facebook page, calling me out for writing "harsh and critical" reviews. (The specific review that prompted the comment has since been moved to Goodreads.) After I responded, the commenter deleted the entire thread (including her last reply, which I never got to read!) Though the comment has disappeared into the ether, it has stuck with me because of the way it assumed all critical reviews are harsh.

A critical review, according to the definition I have always used, is an objective assessment of the merits of a particular book. It is neither unduly complimentary nor gratuitously mean. It simply takes stock of the text (and illustrations, if applicable) and honestly describes for its audience what works and what doesn't. This does not mean the review consists only of criticisms of problems; rather, the review provides sufficient information about the book's strengths and weaknesses to help the reader decide whether it suits his needs. This is the type of review I strive to write. Today, as Armchair Book Expo focuses on best practices in the online book community, I want to share my best practices for writing critical reviews, which I hope will explain how I see my role as a book reviewer and dispel the myth that to be critical is to be cruel.

My first piece of advice for writing an effective critical review is to critique the writing, not the writer. Though sometimes books make us feel connected to their creators, the fact is that authors are completely separate from their books. Your comments about the quality of a particular book should be confined to discussion of the book's merits and should not delve into an author's personal life. There is no need to speculate about an author's life experience, to insult his intelligence, or to wish that serious harm would befall him. Instead, consider the elements that make up a good story - characterization, plot, and setting - and the author's use of literary devices in developing these elements. By focusing solely on the text of the work in question, you eliminate any chance of the author taking your review personally, and you present yourself as a thoughtful critic of literature and not as a careless reader with a chip on her shoulder.

On a related note, in critical reviews, you should write about the book, not about yourself. The commenter I mentioned in the introduction to this post spent a lot of words telling me that all she really wanted to know was how a book made me feel. Then she waxed poetic about how I needed to "read like a child....voraciously" and to focus more on the pleasure of reading than "the fact that there was a typo on page 12." The problem with writing reviews that focus on your own feelings, however, is that they tell the reader more about you as a person than the book itself. Of course, books (both good and bad) elicit strong responses from reviewers. What is valuable in a book review, though, is the qualities of the text that bring out these strong emotions, not a lengthy description of the emotions themselves. In the same way, it is important not to allow personal biases to influence your book review. Writing something like, "I teach fourth grade, and this book is not for fourth graders, and therefore I can't recommend it" only tells the reader of your review why the book does not suit your unique purposes; it tells him nothing about how it might suit his own needs.

Another way to ensure that you are writing a respectful, critical review rather than a harsh one, is to use the text to support your criticisms of the book.  Whatever the problems in a book - historical anachronisms, flat characters, awkward sentence structures, poor use of rhyme, etc. - the critical book reviewer should be able to explain them by pointing to the paragraphs where the problems occur. Instead of making sweeping generalizations about a book based on your overall impressions, look through the text to find examples of the things you find troubling. Sometimes, seeking out these citations makes you realize that the problem you thought you had encountered was not as prevalent as you imagined; in other situations, looking through the book for evidence of a problem you noted helps you uncover a larger pattern that warrants coverage in your review. But just as you could not condemn a criminal defendant without sufficient evidence, neither does the critical book review simply slam a book for its failings without backing the comments up with textual support.

Finally, it is important that that you use a professional tone when you write a critical review. The most insightful comments about a book can easily be overlooked when a book review is fraught with foul language and sexual innuendo. While it can be disappointing to spend time reading a book you didn't enjoy, a critical review is about calmly, fairly, and objectively figuring out why a book does or does not work well, and not about venting your frustrations and anger about having spent time on a book that wasn't worthy. It's perfectly acceptable to dislike a book, but if you want to write a review warning others away from it, it's best to make clear arguments to that effect and to avoid appearing as though you are ranting or throwing a tantrum.


Armchair Book Expo 2017: Introducing... Me!


Armchair Book Expo begins today! To kick off my participation, here are my answers to 3 of the 10 introduction questions. (I will be writing on today's other topic in a separate post.)

I AM:

I LOVE: 

  • middle grade fiction.
  • cozy mysteries.
  • picture books.
  • libraries.
  • used bookstores and book sales.
  • author presentations.
  • poetry picnics.
  • reading aloud.
  • Edelweiss and Netgalley.

MY SOCIAL MEDIA: 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

May Link-Up: Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge 2017 (Animal Stories)

Today marks the end of the fifth month of the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, which focused on Animal Stories.

I read two books for the challenge this month:


If you reviewed or otherwise posted about an "Old School" animal book from the decade of your birth or before, please leave a comment below with a link so other participants can see what you read. Thanks!

Monday, May 29, 2017

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

It's hard to believe it is already Memorial Day. May has been a busy month for the Read-at-Home Kids. Here's the latest reading-related news.

Miss Muffet, Three-Year-Old Reader


Over the past month or so, Miss Muffet has suddenly become a beginning reader. My husband learned to read at age 3, and I read at 4, so I think we always knew we might have an early reader, but it's amazing to me that at three-and-a-half, Miss Muffet, can suddenly sit down and read a book to me (or, even better, to her sister!) So far, these books are all Hooked on Phonics readers we picked up at a book sale and the first volume of Rime to Read which we borrowed from the library, but they are actual books and she could not be more proud of herself. My husband has been taking a video of her each time she masters a new book, and in just a few weeks, she has breezed through five Hooked on Phonics titles: Rag, Dad and Sam, Pig Wig, Pig Wig Can Hit, and Tag. She is currently practicing with her sixth book,  Ann's Hat. I also notice her sounding out familiar words in every book she picks up, including many favorite picture books. It's so rewarding to see her enjoying reading so much and wanting to learn to read on her own just for the fun of it.

Bo Peep on Repeat 


Little Bo Peep's language has really blossomed this month. At just about 20 months old, she is suddenly putting together three- and four-word sentences, and repeating absolutely everything we say whether she understands it or not. She is also imitating her sister sounding out words and demanding to hear the same books over and over and over again. Her current favorite is a library book, Here is the Baby, which Miss Muffet also enjoyed around this age, though not nearly as much as Bo Peep. It's still not really a book I feel we need to own, but I definitely recommend it for families with young toddlers, as it goes through a typical day from their point of view. I also like that the baby and his daddy visit the library for story time. My kids relate to that from coming to my weekly story times.

Rocket Science for Babies?


We received review copies of four titles in the Baby University series by Chris Ferrie: Rocket Science for Babies, General Relativity for Babies, Quantum Physics for Babies, and Newtonian Physics for Babies. Though the titles suggest they are for babies, I was hoping for basic science titles for Miss Muffet, who tends to enjoy nonfiction and scientific principles.  The images from the books that I saw prior to receiving the books looked so promising, but I have to admit to being disappointed by the titles themselves. While they work fine for introducing unfamiliar vocabulary to babies (something Every Child Ready to Read is all about), neither of my kids understood a word of any of the books. When I asked Miss Muffet what the books were about, she said, "Circles?" (Dots are used throughout the books to illustrate different concepts. Miss Muffet did not pick this up.)  I think the only concept she grasped was gravity, and that was because we'd just read a Let's Read and Find Out About Science book called Gravity is a Mystery.

I so wanted these to be more than novelty books, even if they weren't exactly suitable for babies, but the concepts are really just too complicated for early childhood, at least in the way they are presented here. These would be fun gag gifts for new parents who work in science fields, but otherwise, despite being visually very appealing, they're not worth buying for little kids.


Friday, May 26, 2017

7 Quick Takes: The Quotable Little Miss Muffet Volume 2

As we head into this holiday weekend, I thought it was a good time to share some more quotable quotes from Little Miss Muffet, who is about to be three-and-a-half.


Music Appreciation 

"Beethoven? I've never heard of him. I've only heard of Mozart."

My husband has always played classical music on the stereo for both girls, especially in the afternoons when they are restless. I'm sure Miss Muffet has heard Beethoven before, but Mozart apparently made the greater impression. Either way, her saying this made me think of Schroeder from Peanuts.

An Interesting Simile 

"That shoe looks like a baby's face." 

She said this out of the blue when we were getting to ready to go out one day. When asked why, she said, "Because it's smooshed a little." 

At least she's prepared for a smooshy-looking newborn. 

On Stay-at-Home Parenting

"Do you ever work, Mama?"

When I explained to her that my work involves doing all of her homeschooling and making her lunch and finding her playdates and reading to her, she seemed genuinely surprised. And then she wanted to know if the dining room table is my office. 

Librarians vs. Astronauts

Me: "Astronauts are people who know how to explore space."
Miss Muffet: "And librarians know how to discover books."

She is the child of two librarians, so it should not surprise me that she has such interest in the profession. But she probably needs to learn more about astronauts since she recently told an elderly gentleman in a bookstore that only boys can be astronauts. (She didn't learn that from me!)

A Disturbing Song

On our April road trip to NY, Miss Muffet spent a long stretch singing to her stuffed monkey. At one point, we heard her sing, "And everyone diiiies," followed a little later by "whooo will take care of youuuu when your parents gooo awaaaaay" and "when you parents go awaaaaaay it's an opportuuuunity to take care of yourseeelf!" 

I really have no idea where she gets these things.


Reflecting on Reflections

On Groundhog Day, we were out for a walk looking for shadows. She noticed her reflection in a store window, so I asked her, "What is a reflection?" Without hesitation, she said, "It’s when you see somebody, and it’s you!" I can't think of a better definition. 

Holy Parenting 

In character as the Virgin Mary during a make-believe game with her sister: "Don't bother me, Jesus. I'm in the middle of something."


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


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden, illustrated by Garth Williams (1960)

When Chester Cricket is accidentally snatched up by Connecticut picnickers and taken by train into New York City, he makes a new home for himself in the Times Square subway station. There he is adopted as a pet by Mario Bellini, whose parents own a struggling newsstand in the station. Long-time city dwellers and best friends Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat befriend Chester and soon discover a hidden talent that might be able to revive the Bellinis' failing business.

I have been planning to read this book this month since I put together the monthly categories for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge. It was coincidental, however, that I happened to read it after having just passed through the subway station in Times Square. While I had been there before (and could probably have enjoyed the book just as well having never been there), it was fun to read about people boarding the shuttle between Times Square and Grand Central when I had just been one of its passengers myself. The setting, in fact, is one of the things I liked best about this book. It manages to capture the essence of New York City while still keeping the story confined to a small space with which young readers can quickly become familiar.

The characters are also endearing. I felt similarly about them as I did about the household pets in Bunnicula, but I liked Tucker, Harry, and Chester even better. Though it does bother me sometimes when animals who are enemies in nature become friends in children's books, the story explains Tucker and Harry well enough that it isn't a problem. I also love that Chester's special talent is really just an extension of a natural ability that all crickets have. He's not so much a magical cricket, as a gifted one, and I like that approach to the fantastical elements of this story very much. I always do better with fantastical elements that grow organically out of the characters' identities, as opposed to those simply imposed by the writer for no apparent reason.

This book was a quick read, and it would make an excellent read-aloud, even for a preschooler. The writing is excellent (definitely worthy of the Newbery honor the book received in 1961) and Garth Williams is the perfect illustrator to bring the characters to life. I wish I'd read this sooner, and yet I'm also glad there are several sequels so I can visit these characters a few more times!

Monday, May 22, 2017

The RAHM Report for May 22, 2017

Though I did post some daily updates during Bout of Books, it has been over a month since I last posted a collective report of what I've been reading. Between my dad's stroke (which occurred the day before Easter and has resulted in a lot of stress and phone calls) and my lingering morning sickness (I'm 19 weeks, so hopefully it will pass soon?) I just haven't had the time to sit down and gather my thoughts on more than a book or two here and there. But I have been reading a lot, and today I'll just quickly share the books I've gone through in the past month.

Adult Books

My church small group has finished reading The Lamb's Supper by Scott HahnI liked it well enough, though I did end up rushing through the end of the book since I missed a couple of meetings and didn't want to return it to the library without finishing. I didn't know much about the book of Revelation before reading it, and I do find myself thinking about this book during Mass.

The other adult books I read were all mysteries: Cross Bones by Kathy Reichs, A Likely Story by Jenn McKinlay, Better Late Than Never by Jenn McKinlay, and Hail to the Chef by Julie Hyzy. (Links are to my reviews on Goodreads.)

Next on my to-read list are two older cozy mysteries: A Novena for Murder by Sister Carol Anne O'Marie and The Cat Who Blew the Whistle by Lilian Jackson Braun. I also have a digital ARC of About a Dog by Jenn McKinlay which I hope to get to fairly soon and an ebook edition of Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, which I will probably have to borrow again another time because it's so long.

Children's Books

I read quite a few children's books during Bout of Books, not for review, but just for my own enjoyment. These titles included: This Can't Be Happening at MacDonald Hall by Gordon Korman, Best Friends by Francine Pascal, The Divorce Express by Paula Danziger, It's an Aardvark-Eat-Turtle World by Paula Danziger, Everyone Else's Parents Said Yes by Paula Danziger, The Burning Questions of Bingo Brown by Betsy Byars, Bingo Brown and the Language of Love by Betsy Byars, and  Bingo Brown, Gypsy Lover by Betsy Byars

I also read and reviewed the following:


And here are the titles I've read and plan to review soon:

  • First-Class Murder by Robin Stevens
  • The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden
  • The Chestry Oak by Kate Seredy

On a whim, I also started reading a digital review copy of The Speed of Life by Carol Weston that I downloaded from Edelweiss. It's a good, quick read, but probably not something I'd approve for my own kids. If I do finish it, I'll explain it all in my review. I'm also really hoping to start reading my digital review copy of Almost Paradise by Corabel Shofner very soon, since it comes out in July.



Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson (1944)

I am not at all a great lover of animals, so when I chose Animal Stories as this month's focus for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, I was really pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. Thankfully, the first animal book I picked up this month was not a cutesy meditation on the merits of pet ownership or a thinly veiled lesson about animal rights, but a truly well-written story about a charming place called Rabbit Hill. The animals of Rabbit Hill have been on their own for quite some time, as the Big House has stood empty and the surrounding gardens have yielded no harvest. When the rumors start to circulate of "new Folks coming!" the Hill buzzes with gossip and speculation. Will the new tenants use weapons to  protect their property? Will Porkey the Woodchuck be safe in a burrow so close to the house? Will there finally be enough to eat? When the new Folks do move in, it seems they will indeed be friendly toward their animal neighbors, but some of the residents of the Hill, led by elderly curmudgeon Uncle Analdas, will not be convinced there isn't something sinister at work until the Folks truly prove themselves beyond a shade of doubt.

This story about the relationship between people and the animals who live on their property starts out pretty generic, but as the first few chapters unfold, the reader begins to recognize subtle hints at a more layered tale. Mentions here and there of the human beings who inhabit the areas surrounding Rabbit Hill give insight into the way people treat the animals who come onto their property, and into the ways the new Folks are different from their neighbors. The animals, too, seem to represent different points of view that people often take on themselves in situations of uncertainty. There are optimists and pessimists, conspiracy theorists and realists, those who worry constantly and those who refuse to worry at all. Though the plot seems simple, the reactions of the characters to the action of the story add a layer of complexity that elevates the book beyond a "cute" animal tale.

Though Lawson clearly conveys a "kindness to animals" message in this book, I found it palatable despite my usual hatred for such themes. Part of the reason is the late-story reveal about the devotion of the Folks to St. Francis of Assisi. A love of animals grounded in religious faith is likely to be in line with the way I view animals (as sources of food, as well as sources of entertainment and companionship) and is unlikely to come at the expense of a love of other human beings. I also think Lawson's story has interpretations beyond just "animals have rights too." The real message is about generosity, and the story demonstrates how offering up some of what you have for others helps you gain their respect and love and puts in place a natural understanding of boundaries that then does not need to be enforced through violence.

Rabbit Hill was a pleasant surprise. I'm very glad to own a copy, as I'm sure I will want to read it again, and I know it will only be a few years before I have school age kids who are ready to appreciate it too.