Monday, April 24, 2017

Fumbling Through Fantasy: When Marnie Was There by Joan G. Robinson (1967)

Anna struggles to make friends and frequently gets into trouble at her boarding school, which troubles her foster mother, Mrs. Preston. In order to help Anna, Mrs. Preston, whom Anna calls "Auntie," sends her for an extended summer holiday to stay with Mr. and Mrs. Pegg in Norfolk. While exploring the marshes surrounding the Peggs' house, Anna discovers The Marsh House, and eventually meets Marnie, a young girl always dressed in fine clothing who lives in the house and comes to meet Anna in secret at night. Anna and Marnie become fast friends, spending many evenings together on the water and in the dunes. One terrible night, though, their wonderful secret friendship comes to a sad and sudden end, and Marnie says a tearful goodbye as she tells Anna her family is making her go away. Once Marnie is gone, Anna slowly begins to bounce back from the intensity of their friendship, even convincing herself that Marnie may never have existed. When a new family moves into The Marsh House, however, it becomes clear that Anna doesn't yet fully understand her connection to Marnie.

My husband selected the audiobook version of When Marnie Was There for a recent family road trip, and I knew nothing about the book until we started listening. Despite having no plot summary or anything to orient me, I was hooked on the story instantly because I love 1960s novels about female friendship. As I listened, though, it became clear that this book was a cut above others of its type, and I understood why my husband was so adamant about having me hear it.

Robinson is a wonderfully descriptive writer, and I feel as though I can picture every person and location she depicts in this novel as clearly as though I have seen them myself. She also does a wonderful job of blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, and she makes it possible (though admittedly not very likely) that a reader could discover the truth about Marnie before Anna does. Though the threads of the plot are somewhat complicated, the telling of the story is straightforward, simple, and therefore beautiful, and the writing speaks to child readers without talking down to them or over-explaining the events of the story.

I drew many parallels between When Marnie Was There and Tom's Midnight Garden, and both books are among some of the most perfect children's stories I have ever read. At first, I was adamant that Tom's Midnight Garden was the superior book, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that Robinson's story is every bit as sophisticated and emotional, and whereas Tom's Midnight Garden relies on the magical element of the clock to connect the world of the past and the present, Robinson forgoes any bridge between  reality and fantasy and simply allows the two worlds to exist side-by-side. Both are remarkable books, and anyone who enjoys one should also fall easily in love with the other.

When we returned home from our trip, my husband and I watched the 2014 anime film based on this book. I am not an anime watcher in general, but I mostly enjoyed the film. It had a different feeling from the book, and changed a variety of things, including the setting, and other minor details about Anna's life, but it still felt mostly faithful to the story Robinson was trying to tell. I would definitely not see the movie without reading the book, however. The best way to read the novel is with no prior knowledge and no preconceived notions because then the reader feels as mystified by Marnie as Anna does.

I highly recommend this book to kids ages 10-14 and to adults who appreciate great children's literature.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Book Review: Here Come the Elephants! by Alice E. Goudey, illustrated by Garry Mackenzie (1955)

Lately, Miss Muffet has taken a real liking to nonfiction, so I've been reading factual books aloud to her at lunch time, or after lunch when her sister is asleep. Recently, we started working our way through a stack of books from Alice E. Goudey's vintage Here Come the Animals series. Published in 1955, Here Come the Elephants is one of the first books of the series.

The text of Here Come the Elephants! is divided into two parts. The first focuses on African Elephants in Tanganyika (now Tanzania)  and the second on Asian Elephants in Burma. In both sections, the reader follows the life story of a baby elephant from his birth through his adulthood, witnessing through his eyes the behavior of elephants in the wild and their interactions with man.

Though this book presents factual information, its narrative reads like fiction. Instead of simply listing facts about elephants in a professorial third person voice, the text allows kids to experience life in the wild alongside the baby elephants. The baby elephants are called Little Elephant, and their mothers Mother Elephant, which helps young readers sympathize with them. I like that the animals are given descriptive names rather than cutesy ones, and that they become characters without having to take on any human traits. I think this is what has drawn Miss Muffet to this series; everything is described realistically, and in the context of the animal's natural habitat.

There is also no sugar-coating of the facts. For example, in the section about African elephants, a male elephant called The Wicked One attacks Old Grandfather Elephant, sending him away from the herd. Later, after fighting Father Elephant and becoming leader of the herd, The Wicked One recklessly gets himself killed when he raids the natives' crops.  This information is delivered matter-of-factly, without assigning any emotions to the situation. As we are very frank with Miss Muffet about subjects like death, I was glad to see this book simply presenting what happens in nature without commenting on how sad or scary it might seem. I can't stand it when authors (or anyone, really) ascribes human intelligence and emotion to animals, and I was thrilled not to have to contend with that in this book.

Despite its age, this book is the best nonfiction title for kids that I have read in a long time. Some information about hunting elephants for ivory and training elephants to do tricks may be outdated, and there are similar minor outdated details in the other books we have read from the series as well, but it's easy to point those out and look up the updated information. On the whole, this book is well-written, utterly engrossing for a preschooler, and unsentimental in its portrayal of nature. For me, that makes it a five-star read.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Homeschool Highlights: Preschool Geography

Miss Muffet my oldest, is currently three years old, and though we are not planning to do any formal schooling with her for a couple more years, we have started doing a bit of "unschooling" this year based upon her interests. This winter, she became excited about geography, with specific interests in the globe, the continents, and the four cardinal directions. Today's post rounds up some of the resources she and I especially enjoyed as we explored this topic together.

Digital Easy Readers


I searched our local library catalogs for basic books about geography, the seven continents, the four cardinal directions, maps, and globes, but I had a surprisingly hard time finding physical books that were basic enough for Miss Muffet's age. In the end, I turned to Hoopla, knowing that it typically has a good selection of basic nonfiction titles. I was pleased to find two ebooks there, both part of the Little World Geography series: Counting the Continents by Ellen K. Mitten and North, South, East, and West by Meg Greve. Both of these books are brightly illustrated with photographs of young kids, and the text is simple, but informative. Counting the Continents provided the names of the continents and highlighted where to find them on the globe. North, South, East, and West showed how to move in those directions on a map and helped Miss Muffet learn to associate up with North and down with South. We read the books on my laptop several times over the three-week loan period, and she enjoyed pointing the correct way for each direction and trying to point out North America on a map.

Globe


We own a globe, and Miss Muffet loves to look at it. She is comfortable spinning it around and turning it upside down, and she enjoys feeling the bumps of the mountains and pointing out the bodies of water that surround the continents. She also enjoys looking for the compass rose, and finding our state and the other states we visit when we go to see her grandparents. We used the globe to help us find each continent, and later, to find the specific homes of the elephants in Here Come the Elephants! by Alice E. Goudey as well as the seals in Here Come the Seals! This was the first time I think she realized that some of the places she reads about in books are real, and she wanted me to show her the path the seals would have to take if they were to come to our house. She also had a lot of questions for me about why it is dark on the other side of the world when it is light at our house, and we wound up talking about the sun and time zones using a flashlight. I'm sure she didn't understand it all on this first go-round, but I could tell she appreciated having her questions taken seriously and answered to the best of my ability.

Flashcards


I wanted Miss Muffet to have something to hold and manipulate any time we were talking about the continents, so I searched through some blogs and found these Continent Cards from Mama's Learning Corner. Though Miss Muffet didn't quite make it to the point of memorizing which continent was which, she did enjoy stacking these up and carrying them around the house, and we did quite a bit of matching. I would find a continent on the globe or in one of the ebooks and she would search her stack for the corresponding card. She is a little young to really use these as flashcards, but she enjoyed having special homeschool cards that were just for her and not for her sister.

Travels with Charlie books

 

Around the same time that we were really getting into "globe work" as Miss Muffet calls it, my mom sent us a couple of titles from the Travels with Charlie picture book series. They were Travelin' the Northeast, which covers our own state of Maryland as well as New York, where my family is, and New Jersey, where my husband is from, and Down South, which covers Virginia and North Carolina, which we regularly visit as well. The books include the state mottoes, flags, and flowers, and a map for each state that shows some of the interesting landmarks to be found there. The text accompanying each map rhymes, and it lists things the child reader must find on each page. The last thing to find is always Charlie, the little white dog for whom the series is named. I have to give quite a bit of support to Miss Muffet, since she doesn't read, but she loves finding the landmarks and looking for Charlie, and she also enjoys keeping track of which states she has and has not visited. 

Google Earth


Miss Muffet likes to use Google Earth to make virtual visits to places she has been, and to places she wants to know more about. We have explored our neighborhood, her grandmother's neighborhood in North Carolina, the Sahara desert, and other landmarks as they have occurred to us. Miss Muffet tends to get frustrated if we don't find something interesting right away, but if I can plan ahead and take her on a five-minute virtual tour, she really enjoys it.

The Desert


We also did a brief unit about the desert, using a few pages from The Desert from the Life Nature Library, as well as some supplemental YouTube videos. Miss Muffet is still talking about desert-dwelling animals such as the gila monster and kangaroo rat, and she enjoyed coloring a desert on white paper with tan, yellow, orange, and green crayons. We also talked a little bit about living in the desert, as this had come up in a bedtime story she read with my husband from My Bookhouse. She learned what a nomad is, Though this video is not specifically for kids, I found it to be a good way to show a three-year-old how living in the desert is different from living in a city.


Monday, April 17, 2017

The RAHM Report for April 17, 2017

I've been reading fewer books lately, which is pretty typical first trimester behavior for me. I'm in the second trimester now, so I'm hoping my energy levels will get a boost soon! Here's what I have been reading these past couple of weeks.  

Adult Books


I took a couple of mystery novels with me on our recently family trip to upstate New York and managed to finish one and start another. I finally finished V is for Vengeance, which I didn't enjoy nearly as much as I expected. I usually love every title in this series, but this one felt long and difficult to get through. But I did finish, and I passed it on to my sister so that I had one less book to reshelve when we got home.

After that, I started Cross Bones by Kathy Reichs. and I'm about three-quarters of the way through. Religion is a central theme of the story, as Temperance tries to figure out whether a recently discovered body might be that of Jesus Christ. I am wary of the storyline from a religious standpoint, but I've been admiring how well Reichs writes dialogue, and I'm hoping the outcome of the story will be respectful of Christianity and Judaism.

I also really need to read Murder of a Sleeping Beauty, since I went to all the trouble to get it from inter-library loan!

Deal Me in Challenge


I fell about a month behind in this challenge, but I am now all caught up. Here's what I read recently:

  • "The Romance of a Busy Broker" by O. Henry (♣9)
    This was a quirky story about a broker who is enamored of the stenographer in his office, but so busy with work that he has forgotten that they are already married. I'm not sure whether I really liked the story itself, but in certain moods I do really love Henry's style and point of view. This was a quick read, filled with great metaphors that appeal especially to New Yorkers, such as, "The broker's hour is not only crowded, but the minutes and seconds are hanging to all the straps and packing both front and rear platforms." 
  • "The Little Dressmaker" from The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon (♥4)
    This fairy tale, about a dressmaker's apprentice who is secretly the brains of the operation, and a clever prince whose aunt keeps pushing him to get married, was a lot of fun to read. I like Farjeon's writing style, and the surprise ending made me laugh. This story would make a good picture book. 
  • "Mr. Big" by Woody Allen (♠4)
    My father recommended this story to me without having read it to the end, and when I was trying to fill spots on my list for this challenge, I decided to throw it into the mix. It starts out as a noir-esque story where a detective is asked to find God, and it ends on a weird surrealist note that I'm not fully sure I understood. I'm not a huge Woody Allen fan anyway, so this was just wasn't a particular favorite. 

Children's Books


I have made no further progress with either First Class Murder by Robin Stevens or Cody and the Rules of Life by Tricia Springstubb, but I still plan to finish them. In the meantime, I listened to an audiobook with my husband in the car on our trip (When Marnie Was There by Joan Robinson), and I am starting The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, which I read as a kid but about which I can remember very little. I will review both books for Old School Kidlit this month, hopefully along with one or two more if I can read quickly.

I am linking up today with It's Monday! What Are You Reading? at Book Date and Teach Mentor Texts.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Poetry Picnic: April 5, 2017

I looked outside last Wednesday morning and realized it was the perfect spring day to begin a new season of poetry picnics. At the end of the summer last year, Miss Muffet's behavior (mostly running away from me) made us put the picnics on hold for a while, but I'm glad we started up again because this one was just lovely. We ate pasta salad and cake, and I read the poems listed below between feeding bites to Bo Peep.

(Anthology titles link to Goodreads; poem titles link to online full text when available.)

From A Book of Americans: 


  • Abraham Lincoln by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benét
    My husband read a story about President Lincoln to Miss Muffet from My Bookhouse the night before the picnic, so I decided this would be an appropriate choice. I don't think she fully understood the poem, but she enjoyed hearing Lincoln's name again. 

From Water Pennies: 


  • A Song to Sing to a Ladybird Landing on Your Sleeve on a Cloudy Day by N.M. Bodecker
    A lot of Bodecker's poems are too sophisticated for a three-year-old, but this one, about asking a ladybug to fly up to God and ask him to bring out the sunshine, was very sweet. Miss Muffet was interested in the fact that ladybird is another word for ladybug. 

From Handsprings:


  • Handsprings by Douglas Florian
  • What I Love About Spring by Douglas Florian
  • Sometimes Spring by Douglas Florian
I like Florian's way of playing with language. These poems were not as punny as some of his others, but I thought they were a nice way to talk about spring. Miss Muffet especially liked it in the last poem when spring was called "daffodilly." 

From Listen, Children, Listen:


  • The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson
    We sing a version of this around the house a lot, so Miss Muffet recognized this poem right away. I include Stevenson a lot when we do these picnics because his poems are so appropriate for preschoolers. Miss Muffet had just been on a swing the day before the picnic, too, so she got a kick out of hearing this one.
  • Some One by Walter de la Mare
    I remember this poem from childhood, so it jumped out at me when I was flipping through the book and I decided to add it to my list. I don't think Miss Muffet got what it was about, but the rhythm of it is very pleasing.
  • The Pasture by Robert Frost
    Miss Muffet also remembered this one, and I'm sure that's because it's one of my favorites and I read it a lot. It always make me think of spring, even though the reference to raking leaves away makes the setting more likely to be Fall, which is also what the book's illustration suggests. Personally, I just love the line, "I shan't be gone long. You come too." 
  • Spring by William Blake
    Miss Muffet didn't like this poem as much as the others, but I read it mostly for me anyway. It's become a favorite in the past few years. 

From Everything Glistens and Everything Sings:


  • Yellow by Charlotte Zolotow
  • Blue by Charlotte Zolotow 
I have always loved Charlotte Zolotow and I can't name too many other authors who wrote as succinctly and emotionally about everyday things. These two color poems appear side by side in this collection and they have almost identical structures, so it was nice to read them together. Miss Muffet had a big grin during both of these - especially the one about blue, which is one of her favorite colors.



Thursday, April 6, 2017

Book Review: Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet (2016)

One May afternoon in 1989, ten-year-old Noah's parents pick him up from school and announce that he must immediately assume a new name (Jonah), memorize a new birth date and family history, and travel with his parents not to "usual Germany" but behind the Iron Curtain to East Germany. Once the family is in East Berlin, there are many rules they must follow. Private conversations can only be held outdoors. Jonah cannot attend school until he is granted special permission. And Jonah cannot spend time with Claudia, whom he nicknames Cloud, even though they live in the same building and are approximately the same age. Throughout this experience, Noah doesn't understand that his parents are spies, or that his life and theirs might be in danger, but because of his connection to Cloud, his experience living in East Germany changes his life forever.

The way the story is told makes it especially compelling. The reader experiences the sudden uprooting of Noah's entire life right alongside him, sharing in his surprise and bewilderment, and trying with him to piece together the clues that will help him understand what his parents are really doing in East Germany. Because Noah is never sure what is happening, the reader feels a constant tug of suspense that makes him want to keep reading. Even if the reader realizes that Noah's parents are spies, there is still the question of whether, when, and how Noah will figure it out himself. Also very helpful are the conversational author's notes tacked onto each chapter. Though there is a more formal note at the end of the book, these short explanations give just enough information to help kids properly contextualize Noah's story.

I was a week or so shy of seven years old when the Berlin Wall fell, so this book would not have existed during my childhood, but I sure wish it had been available sooner. Even in high school, I don't think I was taught much about the Cold War, and I was definitely not given any insight into what it might have been like to be an East German or an American spy in the late 1980s. So even though I am decidedly not the intended audience for this book, I found it helpful for filling in some of the gaps in my own education. I can imagine it will be just as illuminating for today's kids, who may not have any knowledge of the Cold War at all. I also found it timely - and distressing - given the daily news coverage of attacks on free speech on college campuses. Controlling when and how people are allowed to express themselves is dangerous, and this book drives that point home very well without ever explicitly stating a moral at all.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The RAHM Report for April 3, 2017

As I announced in my Reading with Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep post from last week, I am expecting our third little reader in mid-October. I am 12 weeks now and have been nauseous and exhausted pretty much all day since the start of week 6, so I haven't been reading or writing as much as I normally do. I even took almost an entire week off from blogging, which I don't think I have ever done before! But I'm pushing through, and hoping this pregnancy is more like the first one (no morning sickness at all in the second trimester) and less like the second one (still getting sick at 30 weeks.) In any case, here's what I've been reading the past couple of weeks.


Adult Books


I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I had downloaded Death at La Fenice to my phone, but nausea has been making it difficult to read on a tiny screen, so I haven't read past the first chapter. I will probably wind up borrowing a physical copy from the library eventually, but not in the near future. Instead, I've decided to read V is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton. which has been sitting on my nightstand for almost a year. I've only read 60 pages, but I love Kinsey Millhone so I'm sure I'll finish to the end even if it takes a while. I plan to take it with me on our upcoming trip to New York to visit my family.

I also decided to abandon Lois Lenski, Storycatcher. It was too tedious and I just didn't feel like plowing through it. I am sticking with The Lamb's Supper by Scott Hahn, but my small group didn't meet this past week so I haven't read anymore since my last post. I'll finish it whenever the group does.

The only other adult book I have on the horizon is a copy of Murder of a Sleeping Beauty by Denise Swanson, which I requested from inter-library loan, and which should be available for me within the next day or so.

Deal Me in Challenge


I haven't read a story for the current week yet, but for last week, I drew "Extracts from Adam's Diary" by Mark Twain (♠7). This was fortuitous, as I just read its companion story a couple of weeks ago. As with the companion piece, I felt that the story missed the mark. It did not portray Eden as much of a happiness and seemed to glorify man's fallen state. Obviously, the story is meant to be funny, and it was in many places, but I kept getting distracted by what didn't match up with Catholic teaching. It just wasn't as much fun to read as I was expecting.

Children's Books


I'll have some picture book reviews coming up in the first half of April, so I won't talk about those here. As far as longer works, I've read a few over the past couple of weeks:
  • The Treasure Hunt by Meriol Trevor
    This one is not religious, which is unusual for a Meriol Trever book. It actually reminded me a lot of Key to the Treasure by Peggy Parish. Since there wasn't very much to the story, I don't plan to give it a review. 
  • Ludmila by Paul Gallico
    I read this at my husband's request, and I liked it well enough, but I was bothered by the notion of an animal going to heaven. I am not going to review this one either, simply because I read it too quickly to give it a good critique. 
  • Skippack School by Marguerite de Angeli
    My review is here.
  • Sticks Across the Chimney by Nora Burglon
    My review is here.
  • The Hotel Cat by Esther Averill
    I'm reading this series to Miss Muffet (age 3) and this was the one we finished recently. Review to come.
  • The Harlem Charade by Natasha Tarpley
    I haven't decided yet whether to review this. I gave it three stars, and it definitely had some good moments, but it was not a favorite.
Next on my list are two digital ARCs of new April releases, both of which are third titles in their respective series: First Class Murder by Robin Stevens and Cody and the Rules of Life by Tricia Springstubb. I'm also working on selecting fantasy titles to read for Old School Kidlit and a 1950s Newbery book to read for Newbery Through the Decades.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, April 2017 (Fantasy)

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

This month our focus is on Fantasy.

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. On the last weekday of the month, Friday, April 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!