Friday, March 31, 2017

March Link-Up: Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge 2017 (Books Published Before 1945)

Today marks the end of the third month of the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, which focused on books published prior to 1945.

I read three books for the challenge this month:

If you reviewed or otherwise posted about an "Old School" book from 1944 or earlier, please leave a comment below with a link so other participants can see what you read. Thanks! 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

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

Coming Soon: Our Third Little Reader!

It's time for us to break out the big sister books once more. Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep just found out last week that they will have a new sibling this October. Miss Muffet is thrilled, and Bo Peep is coming around with a little help from Fred Rogers's book, The New Baby. As is our tradition, we won't be finding out the gender, so we won't know until delivery whether this will be Little Boy Blue or Little Red Riding Hood (or some other "little" character I haven't come up with yet), but we are all eagerly anticipating sharing our favorite baby books with another newborn this fall. I am also enjoying a good laugh over the fact that the new baby and the manuscript for my book are due the same day. (Clearly, the book will have to be finished early.)

Bo Peep Loves Buses and Bears

I recently made a list of all the words I have heard Bo Peep (18 mos.) say and was surprised to come up with nearly 60. She's very quiet, and she has a very talkative sister, so it was hard to tell without explicitly counting how much she was really talking. I was surprised to realize how much she has picked up, especially in the past few weeks. On the list I made were the words bear and bus, two of her favorite words, which match up with her current favorite books: Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and The Bus For Us by Suzanne Bloom. After two times in a row through The Bus For Us the other day, Bo Peep took the book and began flipping through it, repeating lines from the book that she remembered. She also identifies Brown Bear by name, but it sounds more like "bun bear." I'm not sure what fuels her interest in bears, but we do take the bus once a week, and she loves it, so it doesn't surprise me that she wants to read about it.

Little Miss Muffet's Homeschool Reads

In addition to reading lots of fiction (especially Miss Nelson Has a Field DayThe House on East 88th Street, and The Hotel Cat),  I have been working on introducing more and more nonfiction to Miss Muffet (3 years, 4 months). We're not doing a lot of formal homeschooling at this stage, since she is just three, but I have found that she has a strong interest in science, so I've been reading her some basic science books. We have enjoyed a few of the Let's Read and Find Out About Science titles, our copies of which are older and have the original illustrations. This month, we read Hot as an Iceberg, which taught her the word "molecule"and inspired us to try a few of the experiments described in the text. We're also really enjoying some vintage animal books by Alice Goudey. We've read Here Come the Elephants and Here Come the Seals so far, and we plan to read Here Come the Beavers next. I'll be reviewing these books in their own post because they're so well-done and they deserve a full review, so I'll save most of my comments. I will say, though, that Miss Muffet seems to comprehend these texts better than a lot of fictional stories, and that she asked me find the locations of each animal's home on our globe. I also find the stories completely engaging myself, and I have discovered things about these animals that I have never heard before.

New Books

We received a few review copies with March and April publication dates.

At the Carnival and Bright Lights, Bright City are both board books from the Fluorescent Pop! series published by Little Bee Books, which are illustrated with fluorescent colors. The text in both is not very exciting, but the illustrations definitely stand out. I don't read them aloud much, but when I need to put Bo Peep in a playpen for a few minutes, I can sometimes get her to look through these books instead of just throwing things until I come back to get her. I plan to hang onto them because I think the high-contrast colors will appeal greatly to an infant, and we'll have one of those soon enough!

Peachtree Publishers sent me an F&G of Fantastic Flowers and Miss Muffet and I pored over it at the dining room table. The book is all about flowers that resemble people, animals, and objects, and like Spectacular Spots, which we also love, it has smooth rhyming text and bold, colorful, and very eye catching illustrations. There is also some great back matter that shows what the flowers look like in real life and gives all their names. The author is local to us, and I believe she will be at the Gaithersburg Book Festival this year, so I'm hoping I might be able to take Miss Muffet to see her presentation.  Since she is enjoying nonfiction so much right now, Susan Stockdale seems like the perfect author for her.

Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3 arrived with Fantastic Flowers and I did not care for it at all. It's the story of a teacher and her students packing up her classroom on her last day before she leaves the school. I had a hard time buying that kids were helping the teacher carry boxes, or that she had left all of the packing until the last day of school. I also didn't understand why the kids were upset. They wouldn't be coming back to Mrs. McBee's class next year no matter what, so it didn't make sense to me that they were anymore sad about her leaving the school than they would be about the year simply ending. It struck me as a book that adults will want to read to kids but that will not feel relevant to the kids themselves. I think of it as Because of Mr. Terupt  for the early elementary years.  I didn't bother to read it to Miss Muffet. We do read books about school even though she will be homeschooled, but this one just didn't feel worth it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Reading Through History: Skippack School by Marguerite de Angeli (1939)

Skippack School is a 1939 historical fiction novella about a Pennsylvania Dutch boy named Eli. When Eli and his family arrive in Pennsylvania, Eli dreads going to school. When school begins, he is perplexed by Master Christopher (real historical figure Christopher Dock), who rarely hits the students, but still frequently disciplines Eli for acting out in the schoolhouse. Over time, though, Eli begins to mature and after being left alone for a day to care for his home and younger sister, and then making a special outing with Master Christopher, he realizes the importance of working diligently in order to reap the rewards he desires.

This little slice of life story is a nice introduction to the way Mennonites lived in colonial America, and also a relatable story about a child who is anxious about school. For such a short book, it includes a lot of information about the Mennonite religion, language, and style of dress, as well as the founding of Pennsylvania and day-to-day life in the Pennsylvania Dutch community. It also teaches good character-building lessons about hard work, humility, and good behavior, and it introduces readers to a real historical figure in Christopher Dock, for whom today's Christopher Dock Mennonite High School is named.

Like Sticks Across the Chimney, this book also includes some racially insensitive moments. The most egregious is a scene where an Indian named White Eagle states in broken English that it's fine with him that white men took his land. I am not someone who tries to apply 21st century understanding to old books, but this was really over the top and borderline comical. The Indian character speaks like Tarzan, and what he says doesn't ring true at all. There are a few other appearances by Indians as well, but none of these characters really have anything to do with the plot, and it's unclear exactly why they are included. I wouldn't just write off the book completely because of this - kids can learn something from these glimpses into outmoded prejudices - but I also wouldn't want to use this book to teach a child about Native Americans. 

All and all, I didn't think this was a great book, especially compared with others of de Angeli's titles, such as Bright April and The Door in the Wall, but it was a solid three-star story. It's not a book I need to own, but it has made me want to read some of de Angeli's other books, including Thee, Hannah! 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Book Review: Sticks Across the Chimney by Nora Burglon (1938)

Siri and Erik are sister and brother, the children of a Danish widow whose family was left in dire financial circumstances by the death of her potter husband and his partner's mismanagement of funds. To continue to provide for her family, the children's mother moves them into Gravsted, a home built near a Viking burial ground. The locals are very superstitious about Gravsted, and many warn Siri and Erik that their days of living there will be numbered because a ghost will eventually drive them off of the property. Their mother is undaunted, however, and they try to be as well, finding hope in the luck that is said to be brought to their home by the fact that storks have laid a nest across its chimney. Over many months Erik and Siri see their share of hardships, but by remaining true to themselves and never being afraid to work hard, they and their mother ultimately overcome all the adversity they have faced since the death of their father.

There is no question that this book is old, and that it promotes, or at least mentions, some ways of thinking that are utterly offensive to our contemporary way of thinking. First, there is the mother's outright suggestion that not all lives have equal value. She tells Siri and Erik that "in Viking times people were not allowed to marry unless they had enough property to feed themselves and a family. Now anyone may marry, criminals, half-wits, and paupers." This struck me a shocking thing to say in a children's book, and I had to wonder how it was received by readers of the time. The other instance that caught my attention is when the mother states that slavery is not always associated with cruelty. She was not necessarily incorrectly in describing the way some slaves were treated by gentler owners, but it's foolish to suggest that simply owning someone in itself is not cruel.

These passages aside, however (and I do think it is possible to put them aside and enjoy the book) this book has an uplifting message about the benefits of doing what is good and right even in the face of many others who do much wrong and much evil. Siri and Erik face a lot of disappointments in the story, but with their mother's guidance, they meet each one head-on. They take responsibility sometimes even when they are not blame, and each time they humbly accept the consequences of such actions, their honesty and humility lead to a reward greater than they could have imagined. Contemporary books are concerned with many things - breaking apart gender norms, promoting diversity, encouraging girls to study science, empowering kids to stand up to adults - but it's been a long while since I've read a children's book that teaches kids to obey their elders and follow the rules and then explicitly shows the rewards that come from such behavior. I found it completely refreshing.

Along with the excellent message, the story also offers a compelling mystery along the lines of No Boats on Bannermere and The House of Dies Drear. The mystery plot is well-structured and kept me guessing right up until the end. There is also a great surprise moment near the end of the book that brings the story full circle in a way I never expected. Sticks Across the Chimney was a completely new discovery for me, handed to me by my husband with high praise and an assignment to read it immediately. I could not have been more pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. It's a great read-alike for The Wheel on the School (but better) and a wonderful history lesson about Vikings as well as daily living in early 20th century Denmark.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The RAHM Report for March 20, 2017

I have been trying for weeks to come up with a name for a weekly report about what I've been reading. I finally settled on the RAHM (Read-at-Home Mom) Report. I'll still be occasionally linking up with It's Monday, What Are You Reading? but I wanted the freedom to post on other days of the week, too, so the feature needed to have its own blog-specific name.

In any case, the last time I reported on my reading was February 20, so I have a full month of reading to share.

Adult Books

Since I last posted, I finished two more cozy mysteries: State of the Onion by Julie Hyzy and Cover Story by Erika Chase.

The writing in State of the Onion was probably the best I've found in a cozy mystery since I started really getting into them last summer. The second book of the series is only available to me through inter-library loan so it might be a while before I can read it, but it's the series I am most interested in continuing right now.

Cover Story was not as good as the previous titles in that series. I didn't care for the new character who was introduced and the mystery dragged on too much. I still want to read the other books, but I'm taking a break for a while.

I'm also reading two nonfiction titles. My progress through Lois Lenski, Storycatcher has been painfully slow, and that's partly because the book reads more like a textbook than a creative narrative. This wouldn't be a problem if I just needed to read small sections for research purposes, but trying to read the entire book is a bit tedious. My husband, who read the book already, says it is worth pushing through, so I'm going to stick with it; it just might take a while to finish.

The other nonfiction book is The Lamb's Supper by Scott Hahn, which I'm reading with the church small group I just joined after being invited by a friend. It explains the Book of Revelation in light of the Mass, and in the two meetings I've attended so far, the discussions have been great. Prior to this, I'd only heard Scott Hahn on the radio, but I'm really liking his writing style.

Up next, I have Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon checked out on my phone from Hoopla. I read the first chapter and loved the writing, but I'm not sure I'll have time to finish it in a timely manner.

Deal Me in Challenge

I fell way behind on this short story challenge, but have finally caught up through the current week. The stories I read are below:

  • "The Voice of the City" by O. Henry (♣10)
    This is not as meaty as some of O. Henry's other stories, but it had a tongue in cheek tone that I enjoyed. The narrator decides that he must find out what the voice of New York City sounds like. He says, "Chicago says, unhesitatingly, ‘I will;’ Philadelphia says, ‘I should;’ New Orleans says, ‘I used to;’ Louisville says, ‘Don’t care if I do;’ St. Louis says, ‘Excuse me;’ Pittsburg says, ‘Smoke up.’" But no matter who he asks, no one will tell him what New York says. Finally, he realizes that everyone's reluctance to answer him is an answer of its own. 
  • "Eve's Diary" by Mark Twain (♠6)
    When I added this story to my list, I knew I was probably going to end up reading it separately from its companion piece, Excerpts from Adam's Diary, and that is what happened. I did like the way it made me think about odd it must have been to suddenly exist one day as a full-grown adult, and I thought much of the story was very funny. For example, Eve says things about Adam like, "When the dodo came along he thought it was a wildcat--I saw it in his eye." Strangely, though, the story only has Adam and Eve begin to love each other after the fall and that struck me as odd. Eve was given to Adam for companionship, and I think the intention was for them to love each other and live happily in paradise. I'd never read an intepretation - even a facetious one - where love only came about as a result of sex. I'll be anxious to read the other story and see how it completes the full picture. 
  •  "A Poison That Leaves No Trace" from Kinsey & Me by Sue Grafton (7)
    It turned out that I had read this story before, not from the book in which it was included, but from a collection of mystery stories I tracked down from a library a number of years ago. There aren't too many scenes in the Kinsey Millhone books where Kinsey is fooled, so it was fun seeing that, and the twist at the end caught me by surprise even though I did remember it vaguely once I finished. 
  • "Non Sung Smoke" from Kinsey & Me by Sue Grafton (9)
    This story was also very compelling. Kinsey helps a young woman locate a man she met at a bar only to have the man turn up dead the next morning. The unraveling of how the man ends up dead is excellent detective work on Kinsey's part, and for such a short story, this one carries a lot of suspense. Of the short stories I've read from this collection so far, this might be my favorite.

Children's Books

I've finished two books in the past month and started two others. I read The Matchlock Gun in one sitting and reviewed it last week for Old School Kidlit and Newbery Through the Decades. I also finally finished Cloud and Wallfish. It was a compelling story, and I'm hoping to post a full-length review soon. It's been a while since I made it through a newer middle grade novel, so I was glad it ended up being so good.

Currently I am reading The Hotel Cat aloud to Miss Muffet at bedtime. We have maybe four chapters left, so that should be finished by the end of the week. On my own, I'm reading The Harlem Charade by Natasha Tarpley and The Impossible Clue by Sarah Rubin, both of which I borrowed from the library. The Harlem Charade is great so far; I'm having a harder time getting into The Impossible Clue. Both are due back to the library next weekend, so I will either finish them or return them unfinished by next week at this time.

Up next on my to-read list is a book my husband just finished, which he has passed onto me with high praise: Sticks Across the Chimney by Nora Burglon. I am hoping to review it in time to count it toward the Old School Kidlit Challenge.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Reading Through History: The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds (1941)

The Matchlock Gun is a very short novel published in 1941, which takes place in Guilderland, New York in 1757. The Van Alstyne family, who are the characters of the story, were real people, and the events of this book, which occur during an Indian raid of their home, really happened. The Matchlock Gun tells of the night when young Edward Van Alstyne is left alone in the house with nothing but an old Spanish gun to defend himself. Will Edward have the courage and strength to fire the gun if needed? And if he does so, what will be the end result?

This is a book about one boy during a very difficult moment, both in history, and in his own life, and it invites young readers to put themselves in Edward's shoes and consider what they would do in the same circumstances. There are quite a few predictably shortsighted reviews of this book on Goodreads complaining that it is racist because it focuses on fighting between white people and Indians (and because there is some passing, historically accurate, discussion of slavery which is not immediately condemned). Personally, I think this is an overreaction. By relating one particular true incident that occurred during a conflict between Indians and Dutch settlers, this book doesn't really make any commentary at all on all American Indians as a group, or even on Edward's actions toward Indians in the story. The ending of the book is actually left very open-ended, with lots of room to discuss any problems the reader may have with the text. Perhaps this is uncomfortable for some people, who worry that kids will come up with the wrong interpretation if left to figure things out on their own. But I like that the author leaves the reader just after the story's climax. This helps the reader to hang onto the emotions he feels as the action is happening and to react to them strongly while still in the moment. It also allows kids to think critically for themselves about any race issues there may be in the book.

The writing in this book felt a little spare to me at times, and the illustrations, too, seemed to interrupt the text more than supplement it at some points, but these are also not reasons to dismiss the book, to weed it from libraries or to stop using it to teach American history. This book is valuable for its exceptional quality of writing, its insight into a small, true incident in which a child shows remarkable courage, and its representation of the type of books that were considered excellent by librarians of the 1940s. (It won the 1942 Newbery Medal.) I find it distressing that libraries remove it for fear of offending 21st century audiences, when the politically correct and hyper-offended culture of today could not have even been imagined 75 years ago. I can appreciate the book for its historical significance without agreeing with everything that happens in it - I would hope others can as well.

I am sure my kids will read this book when they are the appropriate age, and I look forward to the insightful conversations I am sure we will have as a result. I finished the book easily in one sitting, and I would happily read it again.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Paging Through Picture Books: Sing-Along Song (2004), Those Magnificent Sheep and Their Flying Machine (2014), Buddy and Earl (2015), Jamberry (1982), Mama, Look! (2017), Before I Was Your Mother (2007), The Twelve Days of Christmas (2011)

Here are my latest reads for the Picture Book Reading Challenge. These are my choices for # 13 a book celebrating music (Sing-Along Song), #30 a book about trains or planes (Those Magnificent Sheep and Their Flying Machine), #41 a series book (Buddy & Earl), #47 a book published in the 1980s (Jamberry), #51 a book published in 2017 (Mama, Look!), #61 a book written or illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Before I Was Your Mother), and #85 a song (The Twelve Days of Christmas). 

Sing-Along Song by JoAnn Early Macken, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

This book has such a cheerful feeling, and both Miss Muffet and I enjoyed hamming it up as we sang out, "I just gotta sing along!" each time it was repeated in the text. Though I didn't end up using it at story time before it was due back at the library, it has a great rhythm for reading aloud, and I liked it more and more each time I read it at home.

Those Magnificent Sheep and Their Flying Machine by Peter Bently, illustrated by David Roberts

I stumbled upon the transportation section of the picture books at one our of libraries and snagged a bunch, including this quirky British story about curious sheep who inadvertently steal an airplane. I like the rhyme and the pictures, and enjoyed the quick mentions of various countries and landmarks the sheep visit. I also loved their names: Uncle Ramsbottom, Lambert, Ben, Babs, etc. I think it's a bit much for Miss Muffet at age 3, but I think slightly older kids, maybe ages 5 to 7, would find it humorous. 

Buddy and Earl by Maureen Fergus, illustrated by Carey Sookocheff

I borrowed all three available titles from this series from the library, and Miss Muffet and I have both been laughing ourselves silly over them. In this, the first book, Earl, a hedgehog is brought home to live with Buddy, a dog. After spending a lot of time trying to convince Buddy he is such things as a race car and a hairbrush, Earl introduces Buddy to a world of make-believe that causes some trouble, but is also a ton of fun. "Odd couple" type stories are very common in picture books and easy readers, but this unique friendship is pleasantly, refreshingly different.  

Jamberry by Bruce Degen

I revisited this book recently for the first time in over 5 years and liked it much more than I ever have before. Bo Peep became completely obsessed with the pictures as well as the rhythm of the text, and when the book is available, she asks for several readings right in a row. Miss Muffet also liked it, and she was making connections between it and other berry books we know, such as Blueberries for Sal. 

Mama, Look! by Patricia Murphy, illustrated by David Diaz

I received a finished copy of this title from Little Bee Books, and I fell in love with it right away. The story is circular. A boy with his mother notices a grasshopper, who notices an ant. Animals continue to notice each other until a bee near the end of the story notices the baby the mother has been carrying on her back, who was not visible on the first page. This book didn't do as well at story time as I had hoped, but I think that says more about that particular audience than the book. The colorful illustrations are very eye-catching and the simple text makes it easy for non-reading kids to chime and begin to "read" based on the illustrations and their memories. This one is going in our keep pile.

Before I Was Your Mother by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

LeUyen Pham is one of my favorite illustrators, so of course I was drawn to this book. The concept of the book has been done before (in This Quiet Lady by Charlotte Zolotow), but it was appealing to me as a mom and to Miss Muffet who is a child who thinks a lot about what adults were like when they were young. Reading this book actually prompted Miss Muffet to ask if she could see a picture of her grandma as a little girl! I thought the mom was a bit frumpy-looking in the pictures, and I wasn't sure why, but I like the way Pham portrays emotions through facial expressions and ultimately enjoyed the book. 

The Twelve Days of Christmas by Laurel Long

This beautifully illustrated book could keep a child busy for hours, as each item named in the song appears on each page on which it is mentioned. Reading the book through just to sing the song is not nearly enough to get the full experience. This is a book that truly has to be savored to be enjoyed. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Reading Through History: Ramshackle Roost by Jane Flory (1972)

When Hildy Stuart and her family are ousted from their rented home for the summer by their stuffy landladies, they rent an old vacation home on a lake that has deteriorated since its glory days to the point that the Stuarts decide to name it Ramshackle Roost. As though relocating to a tumbledown building isn't bad enough, to the great dismay of all the Stuart children, they will be joined on their vacation by Guy Hanley, an obnoxious know-it-all sort of child whom they would always prefer to avoid if at all possible. As the summer passes, there are definitely some difficulties, but all of the Stuarts find ways to enjoy themselves, and near the end of their stay, they even have a chance to solve a local mystery.

This was a lighthearted and quick read which felt very contemporary, despite being written in the 1970s and set in the 1920s. There are details which date the book to the time period - the need for ice to be delivered to use in the ice box, the style of clothing the children wear, and the lack of electronic devices - but there is just as much about the kids' experiences that could come from any time period. As I read, I was reminded of three books from different decades that were similar in style and content to this one: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, Ten Kids No Pets by Ann M. Martin and The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall. All of these books share a "free-range" attitude toward parenting, where kids are free to roam and create their own fun with minimal involvement from adults. When the kids do occasionally run into difficulties, they resolve them using their own ingenuity and intelligence. Ramshackle Roost is not the best-written of books in the "adventures in your own backyard" subgenre, but it embodies values I appreciate, and it promotes an overall positive worldview, where kids are encouraged to make the best of difficult situations and to work out their differences together. I enjoyed the book very much as an adult, and I know I would have liked it even more if I were ten years old.

I only have two complaints. One is that the cartoonish illustrations didn't match the text. They might have worked well for a 1970s novel about the 1970s, but they are not really suited for an historical novel set in the 1920s. The other is that the mystery part of the story, which is the most compelling piece of the entire plot, starts way too late. There are some allusions to thefts around the area throughout earlier parts of the book, but to have this suspenseful storyline begin with less than a quarter of the book remaining makes it feel like a rushed afterthought even though it is a truly compelling mystery. The characters carry the rest of the story well enough, but it would have been nice to have this plot as a strong continuous thread that stretched all the way from the beginning of the book to the end.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Remembering Nancy Willard (1936-2017)

Newbery Medalist Nancy Willard passed away on February 19, 2017 at the age of 80. When I read her obituaries, first from The Poughkeepsie Journal when it was published there last week, and then yesterday from The New York Times, I was reminded of the semester early in my college career when I had the opportunity to take a course taught by Ms. Willard. In her memory, I want to share my impressions of that experience today.

In the Fall of 2000, I was just turning 18 years old and I was in the first semester of my freshman year at Vassar College. I chose to attend Vassar because I thought (foolishly, I would eventually realize) that it would turn me into a great fiction writer. When I saw in the course catalog that an instructor named Nancy Willard was offering a class in the Education department called The Writing of Children's Books in the spring semester, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I didn't know who Nancy Willard was, but I had always been drawn to the idea of writing for children, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to begin the study of writing I had enrolled in college to pursue.  I submitted a writing sample, and I was one of two fortunate freshman to be given a seat in the class.

I wish now that I could remember more specific details of the class as a whole. I believe we met in Blodgett Hall (which is where the education department was housed) and I have some sense that the room we were in was dim and close, with the 15 or so members of the class sitting casually around a large wooden table. I can remember feeling a sense of kinship with the only other freshman in the class and joking with her about how truly old the juniors and seniors in the class seemed compared to us. I also remember many of the titles from the reading list: Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep, Regarding the Fountain: A Tale in Letters of Liars and Leaks, Miss Hickory, Annie John.

The pieces I wrote for the class stick in my mind more strongly, because I think they were truest to my own voice. For one assignment I wrote a nonsense poem which began "Alfred was a baker/he baked a cake of shoes" and ended with "Alfred, baking failure, became a hairdresser instead." I also wrote an epistolary picture book about the North Pole, in which Santa's elves go on strike with just hours until Christmas Eve. Ms. Willard called it publishable, a compliment which I have only recently come to recognize as the gift it really was. This is the only creative writing course for which I never struggled to find inspiration. The assignments were all fun, and they made me want to play and use my imagination.

I think the most memorable part of the class, though, was sharing personal stories. I remember quite well how surprised and charmed Ms. Willard was when I relayed my own personal anecdote about seeing the name of my childhood imaginary friend, Lena Farina, in the obituaries when I was in high school.  This was a class where the weird and magical things that happened to us as kids were not just appreciated, but enjoyed and used as inspiration. Indeed, after three more years at Vassar it would become clear to me that there was something different about Nancy Willard as compared with other creative writing instructors. She valued imagination over academics and people over politics in a way that others did not always.

At the end of the semester, Ms. Willard presented each individual member of the class with a handmade gift. Each was a hand-painted game board, charting our journey through the semester. Each one was decorated with little visual hints at the pieces we had written and the personal childhood memories we had shared. On mine, among other things, were a cake made of shoes and a tiny silver gravestone bearing the name, "Lena Farina."

I didn't know when I was at Vassar that I would later become a children's librarian, a published author, a blogger about children's books, or a mother of small children. But certainly, this class, with this unique writer as an instructor, must have planted at least a seed or two that led to the kind of work into which I would eventually fall. It is sad to know that she is no longer with us.

Nancy Willard's 1982 Newbery Medal winning poetry picture book A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, also won a Caldecott Honor for its illustrations by Alice and Martin Provensen. Her other books for children include Pish, Posh Said Hieronymus BoschStep Lightly: Poems for the JourneyThe Mouse, the Cat, and Grandmother's Hat, and Gum, illustrated by Jeff Newman, which will be published posthumously by Candlewick this October.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book Review: A Grandmother for the Orphelines by Natalie Savage Carlson (1980)

A Grandmother for the Orphelines is the final book in the Orphelines series, but only the fourth one that I have read. (We still haven't found a copy of A Pet for the Orphelines.) In this book, now that the girls have found both a brother to play with and a castle to live in, they find themselves really wishing for a grandmother. This desire is compounded by the announcement from their beloved Genevieve that she is leaving the orphanage to get married. Wedding plans and the arrival of a replacement for Genevieve distract the girls for a while, but as the holiday season approaches, the girls begin to hope they will find a grandmother in time for Christmas.

I think this series will be some of the first chapter books I read aloud with Miss Muffet (currently age three). This last book was not my favorite of the ones I have read, mostly because it just felt like more of the same exact ground covered by the previous titles, but the characters and setting continue to be appealing. I think Miss Muffet, who has already shown an interest in stories about orphans, will connect strongly with the Orphelines and want to know everything that happens to them. It's also nice that the books are on the shorter side and illustrated throughout. It makes them a great choice for a first experience listening to longer stories. 

In terms of this specific book, it is a pleasant holiday story with a hopeful outlook and a happy ending. The way the Orphelines find their much-desired grandmother is far-fetched, but believable. It is a bit over-the-top the way these girls always manage to get whatever they want, and how they even try to control some aspects of Genevieve's wedding, but their behavior fits with the mood of the series and the girls come across as sweet and spirited rather than bratty. It's a fitting ending to a warm and cozy series of a type that is no longer published today. I'm glad to own a copy of this and several other Orphelines titles so that my girls can enjoy getting to know these characters even though the books are now out of print. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Paging Through Picture Books: Sleep Tight Farm (2016), Egg (2017), North South East West (2017), XO, Ox (2017)

This batch of picture books fulfills four categories for the Picture Book Reading Challenge. They are: #4 a book set on a farm or in the country (Sleep Tight Farm: A Farm Prepares for Winter),  #28 a book by Margaret Wise Brown (North, South, East, West),  #60 a book by Kevin Henkes (Egg), and # 73 a challenged book OR a controversial book (XO, Ox). I also read books to fulfill #27 a wordless picture book (The Wrong Side of the Bed by Edward Ardizzone), #34. a book about being ME, about being unique, special, loved, etc. (One of a Kind by Ariel S. Winter, illustrated by David Hitch), and # 63 a Caldecott honor (Sleep Like a Tiger by Mary Logue, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski). Unfortunately these books went back to the library before I had a chance to review them!

Sleep Tight Farm: A Farm Prepares for Winter by Eugenie Doyle, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander

This is a quiet story about all the preparations a New England farm must make before winter weather sets in. I borrowed it from the library for Miss Muffet based on her enjoyment of Christmas Farm. This book is by a different author and illustrator, but the mood and attention to detail are similar. As I suspected, she loved the pictures and enjoyed hearing about the different tasks the family completed before the snow came. We also both enjoyed looking at the endpapers, which show trees with colorful leaves in the front and leafless snow-covered trees at the back.

Egg by Kevin Henkes 

I love Kevin Henkes, but compared with Waiting, which I absolutely loved, this one felt a little thin. The format is interesting, but the "different egg" storyline has been done before and Henkes doesn't really do anything new with it. Miss Muffet liked the book, but it was not a favorite from this particular library haul. I originally thought I would use it for my bird-themed story time, but it's actually pretty difficult to read aloud since there are so many panels and several entirely wordless pages. I ended up using an old Henkes favorite, Birds (illustrated by his wife, Laura Dronzek). I just wanted this one to be better than it was.

North South East West by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Greg Pizzoli

This is an old Margaret Wise Brown story, illustrated with new pictures by Greg Pizzoli. It's the story of a bird who asks his mother which direction is best, and then flies out into the world to find out for himself. The colorful illustrations appealed to both Miss Muffet and my story time audience. The text was a little bit awkward to read aloud, which often seems to be true of these lesser-known Brown books, but even with its strange rhythm and abrupt ending, it was interesting enough to Miss Muffet to warrant a few re-reads.

XO, Ox: A Love Story by Adam Rex, illustrated by Scott Campbell

This book is apparently controversial (at least amongst Goodreads reviewers) because the ox is persistent and doesn't accept no as an answer from the gazelle who is the object of his affections. I decided not to apply adult sensibilities to a humorous book for children and found myself laughing out loud as I read this epistolary story of unrequited love. The best line in the book is when Ox calls Gazelle the "unflattering light of his life." The use of language in the story, as well as the unique illustrations, made it stand out for me.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Paging Through Picture Books: Stanley's Store by William Bee (2017)

In my family, we are big fans of William Bee's Stanley series. Stanley is a hamster who, in each of his books, takes on a different career. To date, Stanley has been a builder, a mechanic, a farmer, a mailman,  and a cook. His friends, a recurring cast of various rodent characters, are often customers or coworkers in each new work environment. Text and illustrations work together in each book to introduce vocabulary and tools used in the particular job which Stanley performs.

I'm very pleased to say that the newest Stanley book, Stanley's Store, is now available! I was lucky enough to receive an unbound ARC from Peachtree Publishers, and as always, it was an enjoyable read. Stanley's newest job is that of grocer. The book opens with a view of the entrance to the store, where signs are posted showing what is on sale (ketchup, "Biz" laundry detergent, baked beans, etc.) Inside the store, Stanley works on unloading vegetables, while Hattie and Gabriel sell cheese and bread to Myrtle, Little Woo sneakily fills his father's shopping cart with cookies, and Charlie has a mishap involving Stanley's carefully arranged produce display.

Like Stanley's Diner and Stanley the Mailman, this book includes lots of print outside of the main text. There are signs on the front door of the store, as well as labeled gas cans. Each grocery item on the shelves and in carts is labeled, as well as all the vegetables on Stanley's truck, the bag of coal near the bakery oven, and even the back door at Stanley's house. There are also opportunities to identify numbers, particularly in the deli scene where the cheese is labeled with prices, and at the checkout when Stanley's station is labeled as aisle 3.  Little Miss Muffet (3 years, 3 months) loves to point out familiar letters and numbers in picture book illustrations, so this is especially appealing to us right now.

Kids spend a lot of time tagging along on grocery trips, so this book has an instant connection to their everyday lives. While some of the situations, such as sneaking treats and knocking down fruit are cliches, they will be new for preschoolers, and little ones will love seeing these moments of excitement taking place during an activity which is typically so ordinary and sometimes just plain boring. Fans of the series will also love seeing appearances from their favorite characters. All of us love Little Woo, and we enjoyed his impishness in this book. And maybe it's just me, but I also enjoy rolling my eyes at Myrtle, who always seems to have some sort of problem, from ordering a hat that is too small (Stanley the Mailman), to needing to have her car towed (Stanley's Garage), to ordering so much cheese in this book that she needs to be driven home by both Stanley and Hattie.

This is another great installment in the Stanley series. Grandma already ordered a finished copy to give Miss Muffet for Easter, and it won't be long before Bo Peep begins enjoying the books as well. This is my favorite series for toddlers and preschoolers to learn about the roles of different helpers in the community. I hope there will be more books to come!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, March 2017 (Books Published Before 1945)

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

This month our focus is on Books Published Before 1945.

To participate, read a book or books connected to this month's theme and post about it on your blog, or wherever you typically review books. On the last weekday of the month, Tuesday, March 28th,  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!