Wednesday, July 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

Seven Quick Takes: Netflix's The Keepers

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


1. The Keepers inspires sympathy for sex abuse victims.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


7. The research presented in The Keepers is impressive.

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

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


Thursday, July 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 17, 2017

The RAHM Report for 7/17/17

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

I finished three novels for adults:

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

I also finished two children's books this week:

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

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

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


Friday, July 14, 2017

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

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

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

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


The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Ruth Sanderson

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Why We Don't Do Summer Reading at the Public Library

I'm a children's librarian currently writing a textbook about successful summer reading programs at the public library, and yet my own preschooler and toddler don't participate. Why not? Read on for my five main reasons!

We don't need the motivation. 

My kids, who are the children of two book-loving librarians, absolutely love to read and listen to stories. In their short lives, they have already developed an intrinsic desire to spend time with books just for the pleasure it brings. Books are part of their play, their bedtime routine, their relationship to their grandparents, and even their friendship with each other. These days, summer reading programs are designed to target students who might fall victim to "summer slide" and families with "reluctant readers." Since my kids are neither of these, I don't usually see much that the local summer reading program can offer them.

The goals are too easy. 

Most of our local libraries have very low expectations for the number of books they want kids to read in a summer. Often, we read in a typical day the number of books the libraries want us to read throughout the entire summer! I understand that the goals are designed to appeal to people who may not read to their children at all, but if this is the case, then the program isn't for my family anyway.

Not much reading is involved. 

Some libraries don't expect you to read at all with kids under 5, but instead ask them to complete "early literacy activities" like singing the ABCs during a diaper change (which I assume is a suggestion written by someone who has never changed a poopy toddler) or visiting the firehouse (which does not necessarily involve literacy, but was one of the choices at a local library last summer). While the literacy activities are a nice idea, they are not what I am looking for when I seek out a reading-focused program for kids. My three-year-old is starting to sound out words; I can't imagine it would be a lot of fun for her to revert back to memorizing the alphabet, especially when she could be poring over a picture book and picking out the words she recognizes.

The record-keeping is too tedious. 

Last summer, at least one library system expected me to keep track of not just the titles of the books I read to the girls, but to also report how many minutes it took to read each one. I know I probably could have made a good guess about each book based on its length, but it seemed like such a ridiculous thing to ask me to do that I just decided we wouldn't do the program. Libraries are also starting to keep track of progress online, which is convenient, but not terribly appealing to my screen-free preschooler and toddler. They never get to see the badges they accumulate, and often the badges require me to tailor my reading choices to specific categories. It's too much to keep track of, especially when we don't really need to be encouraged to keep reading.

We don't need (or want) the prizes. 

Since my kids already love to read and see it as its own reward, I see no reason to introduce them to the concept of reading for prizes. Sure, it might be nice to win a new book, which is sometimes an option, but the choices are usually either books we already have, or books I would let into my house only over my dead body. Other prizes tend to be things we'll never use, like baseball tickets, or plastic toys, of which we just don't need any more. When I was a kid, I was content to have a sticker to add to my reading log for each book, and maybe a pencil to take home at the end of the summer. I like that simplicity much more than the flashier things they want to give kids now - and a program that simple I can always design myself.

Do your kids do summer reading at the library?  What's the program like in your community? 


Monday, July 10, 2017

The RAHM Report for 7/10/17

Adult Books


I have a few grown-up books in progress this week:

I'm about halfway through Murder in the Mystery Suite by Ellery Adams. There is a little unexpected twist in the story that has just come to light, which makes it a little more like the TV miniseries The Librarian than I would prefer, but I love the way Adams develops characters and the setting is charming, so I'm sticking with it.

I'm also finally approaching the halfway point in A Novena for Murder. I like this book a lot, so I'm not sure why it's taking me so long to finish it! I expect to be done in another day or so. The main character is a plucky older nun, which I love, and there is a strong sense of Catholic morality, even though not all of the characters abide by church teaching.

Finally, my husband got me hooked on the audiobook of Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages. I listened to a few excerpts with him, and then started over from the beginning on my own, so I'm only about 20 minutes in. Still, I can already tell that Shirley Jackson and I would have been best friends if we'd been alive at the same time. The chapter about giving birth to her third child is especially funny to me right now, but I also love that Jackson doesn't drive or excel at housework, and that, like my own three-year-old, her daughter Jannie has imaginary children who cause problems in public. I am probably going to need to own this in print because there are many sections I know I will want to re-read when I'm done.


Children's and Teen Books


This past weekend, I finished two middle grade novels for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge: The Spettecake Holiday by Edith Unnerstad and D.J.'s Worst Enemy by Robert Burch. Spettecake was great; the other was more moralistic and predictable. Reviews of both are forthcoming. I've also got a whole stack of family stories my husband has recommended, and I'm planning to read at least two more before the month is out.

I also happened upon a free Kindle download of a book called Rightfully Ours by Carolyn Astfalk. I don't read a lot of independently published books, but I made an exception for this one because the author writes for Catholic teens and there isn't much Catholic fiction available from any publisher, let alone a mainstream one. The writing is quite good so far, and the characters are suitably flawed, so I'll probably stick with it and see how it goes.

Also on my to-read list in the near future are The Quicksand Pond by Janet Taylor Lisle, which I have checked out in Overdrive, and The Silver Moon of Summer by Leila Howland, for which I am 9th or 10th on the Overdrive hold list.

Though I am very late to the party, it is still technically Monday in my time zone, so I'm still going to link up with The Book Date and Unleashing Readers / Teach Mentor Texts.


Friday, July 7, 2017

Paging Through Picture Books: Round (2017), Mama's Kisses (2017), Charlie & Mouse (2017), Henry & Leo (2016), Little Fox in the Forest (2017)

Here are some of the new picture books I have read recently. These fulfill the following categories on the Picture Book Reading Challenge checklist: #3 a concept book (Round), #9 a bedtime book (Mama's Kisses), #14 a book celebrating family (Charlie & Mouse), #33 a book about friendship (Henry & Leo), and #80 a book about toys (Little Fox in the Forest).

Round by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo 

I wanted to read Round based on both the author and the cover. I didn't like this particular text as well as I have liked others by Joyce Sidman (especially the poems in Dark Emperor), but it does a nice job of describing the concept of roundness in terms that are both poetic and easy to comprehend for a child. I didn't love all of the illustrations as much as the one on the cover, and neither of my children has asked to hear the book a second time, but for a story time or preschool lesson about shapes, it has definite value, and has a bit more meat than a book like What is Round? by Rebecca Kai Dotlich.

Mama's Kisses by Kate McMullan, illustrated by Tao Nyeu

Mama's Kisses is a sweet story of four animal parents who have to track down their wild babies before they can tuck them into bed. I normally don't care for the use of speech bubbles in picture books for preschoolers, but they work well in this particular book, and my girls both loved the charming illustrations. I especially liked the color scheme, and the pictures where the animal babies hide themselves to avoid having to go to bed.

Charlie & Mouse by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Emily Hughes 

My three-year-old loves the sense of humor and the sweet relationship between the brothers in this book, which is really more of an easy reader than a picture book. I was a bit put off by the fact that Mouse (clearly identified in the text as a boy, despite what some Goodreads reviewers have said) wears a tutu when he dresses up for the neighborhood party, and caught off-guard by a same-sex couple in a later chapter, but neither of these elements is played up in a way that would cause me to keep the book from Miss Muffet. The political messages behind these elements are there for those who want to see them, but they are just as easily overlooked by a child with no reason to think of them as anymore than a silly costume and a pair of roommates. I also really like the boys' mother, even if her indulgence of her boys' bizarre bedtime request for a banana did prompt Miss Muffet to demand several snacks at naptime.

Henry and Leo by Pamela Zagarenski

Sometimes I like this illustrator's art and other times, it doesn't work for me. In this story, about the bond between a  boy and his beloved stuffed animal, I mostly liked it (including the crowns hovering over the heads of all the characters that have so many Goodreads reviewers mystified). The "losing a stuffed animal" story has been told dozens of times, but there is something particularly sweet about this telling, and I liked its nod toward books like The Velveteen Rabbit that imagine that stuffed animals can come to life when loved enough by a child. My three-year-old took to the story right away and demanded multiple readings. She doesn't really have a special stuffed animal friend, but she does have a strong imagination so I am guessing that was the appeal.


Little Fox in the Forest by Stephanie Graegin

This is another book about a toy that goes missing, but in this case, Little Fox is stolen, not lost, and his owner and her friend must travel through a woodland community populated by anthropomorphic animals in order to find the young fox who has taken him. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the unexpected ending, but because the story is wordless and can be read even when a grownup is not available, both my girls have really taken to it, and Miss Muffet (the only one old enough to really have an opinion) seems to like the resolution. I like the artwork a lot and would be interested to see more from this illustrator.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Book Review: Almost Paradise by Corabel Shofner (2017)

Ruby Clyde Henderson doesn't really want to spend her birthday traveling by car to an unknown destination with her mom, Babe, and Babe's obnoxious boyfriend, Carl, known as the Catfish. But what the Catfish says goes, so Ruby Clyde is along for the ride, like it or not. Unfortunately, when they are stopped at a gas station, the Catfish commits armed robbery and both he and Babe are taken into custody. The only relative who can possibly take in Ruby Clyde (and her newly acquired pig, Bunny, who was also stolen by Carl) is her mother's twin sister, Eleanor, about whose existence Ruby has just learned for the first time. Eleanor is an Episcopalian nun who lives on a ranch called Paradise and is facing a potentially deadly cancer diagnosis, but despite living as a solitary and having her own problems, she agrees to help Ruby Clyde, and over time, the two grow close enough to begin healing the rifts in their family.

I included this title on my list of most anticipated 2017 books, and the author was kind enough to supply me with a digital ARC from NetGalley. My primary interest in the story was the fact that it involves religion, since I am always curious to see how middle grade novels handle issues of faith. Since I am Catholic, not Episcopalian, I can't say much about how accurately or inaccurately the story treats this particular denomination (which it describes as a "pretty loosey-goosey, do-whatever-you-want kind of church"), but I still feel qualified to comment on how religion is treated overall.

I think, on the whole, the book is respectful of belief in God. Ruby Clyde has some unusual thoughts about Biblical teaching - e.g., she feels that Mary nagged Jesus into changing water into wine at the Wedding at Cana because "she just wanted wine" and that "Adam was a wuss" because "God made him weak" - but I never got the impression that these were anything more than a child's immature (and funny) reflections on pieces of scripture she doesn't yet fully understand. (In that sense, Ruby reminded me a lot of Lucky from The Higher Power of Lucky, who doesn't quite know what a higher power is, but still wants to find one.)  Certainly kids who know their Bible stories will understand Ruby's references in these passages and understand that her interpretations are a little off the beaten path. I appreciated that these references were in the book at all, as Biblical allusions are not all that common in mainstream kids' books.

I also appreciated the fact that Sister Eleanor makes it clear that she wears her habit by choice. I think it is a common misconception in our secular culture that Christianity oppresses women religious (and women in general) by forcing them to do things they do not want to do. In fact, though, women who answer a calling to become nuns, do so of their own free will, and though they may take vows that thereafter require them to do certain things or dress a certain way, they fulfill these vows each day by choice. It was nice to see this understood and explicitly stated in a casual way.

The book does mention Catholicism in one scene, and obviously that caught my attention. When the Catfish first hears of Sister Eleanor, he becomes agitated and calls out to Babe and Ruby Clyde, "You Catholic?!" I will confess that this rubbed me the wrong way a little bit at first, since his tone makes it sound like being Catholic is about the worst thing that can happen to a person. But as I read Ruby's explanation of her grandmother's distrust for Catholics, and her quick summary of the development of the Anglican church because of Henry VIII, I realized that the only anti-Catholic sentiments in the book are associated with villains of the story, and that the characters who have the reader's sympathy remain either neutral or silent about the Catholic church. I understand the need for the author to mention it, both as a means of delivering historical information about the Episcopal church and as a means of explaining that Eleanor is not a Catholic nun, as many readers might otherwise rightfully assume. Part of me wished for just one more sentence to clarify that Catholicism isn't inherently bad just because some people feel it is, but I also tend to resent it when authors over-explain themselves so an extra sentence might just have been overkill. Ultimately, I don't think the book espouses an anti-Catholic worldview or that it would sway a young reader with no prior exposure to the Church to automatically condemn it. I do expect Catholic kids might not like the Catfish too much, but no one is meant to like him anyway, so they would not be alone in that feeling.

Religion aside, I do have to admit that this book was not really my cup of tea. I was expecting a funny story a la the Mercy Watson series, but what I found was more quirky than zany and overall more emotional than I was anticipating. I think the story is well-written, and there are entire scenes that came across so vividly I can replay them in my mind even without the book in front of me. I liked Ruby Clyde and I found the resolution to her story believable and satisfying. I just don't think I was in the right mood for a sassy tomboy character, or for the strange and unfortunate circumstances that shape the events immediately following her birthday. I would definitely have no qualms about recommending the book to Christian families (even the Catholic ones!), but I do think it's a book  that a certain type of reader will appreciate more than others.  I could appreciate what was good about it; I just didn't feel that it was my type of book overall.

Either way, I think Corabel Shofner is an author to watch in the coming years. Almost Paradise is a strong debut, and I'll be curious to see what other stories she tells in future novels.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The RAHM Report for 7/3/17

Other than a quick update about the Deal Me In Challenge (in which I have since once again fallen behind) I haven't checked in with a Read-at-Home Mom Report since June 5th! Here's how things have been going since then. 


Adult Books

Though I have been reading a lot of adult books (for me) this year, I've recently taken a bit of a break. I have a whole stack of paperbacks in my bag and on my nightstand, but I just never seem to make the time to get really into them. I did finally finish The Cat Who Blew the Whistle by Lilian Jackson Braun (review on Goodreads), but not Novena for Murder, despite how much I like the writing, so I think I'm just in a grown-up reading slump. I am sure it will pass, but in the meantime, I've been reading a lot of kids' books.


Children's and YA Books

It had been a while since I checked anything out from Hoopla, and I realized that I had fallen behind on Laurie Friedman's Mallory McDonald series and April Sinclair series. I was trying to catch up on my Goodreads challenge goal, and I knew these were quick reads, so I checked them out and read them on my phone over a couple of days. I reviewed High Five, Mallory and Mallory McDonald, Super Sitter on Goodreads. A Twist of Fate (which I also reviewed on Goodreads) and Life, Loss, and Lemonade concluded the April Sinclair series with some sadness involving April's grandmother, but they also showed a lot of growth and change in April that showed how far the character has come since the first books of the series. I was glad to see her story end on a hopeful note. And part of me hopes that maybe the author will revisit this family for a spin-off series involving one of the other Sinclair sisters.

During this same time, my hold on Go Jump in the Pool! by Gordon Korman came through on Open Library, so I zipped through that one as well. I don't think I ever finished the series as a kid, but they are still very nostalgic reads for me, and always very light and quick. The fundraising schemes devised by Bruno and Boots in order to buy a pool for their school were ingenious and fun to read about, and I love the unlikely way the happy ending comes together. I'll be borrowing the next book before the summer is over and I plan to blog about the entire series once I finish it.

After finishing these borrowed e-books, I moved on to digital ARCs, finishing both Let's Pretend We Never Met by Melissa Walker (reviewed here) and Almost Paradise by Corabel Shofner (review to be published Wednesday).

Once I'd exhausted all of these digital books, I went to the actual library to pick up a batch of holds. So far, I have read five of those:

  • Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
    I read this because everyone has been talking about it, and I love LeUyen Pham's style. I liked it more than expected and may wind up reviewing it here if I have time. A lot of tween girls should be able to relate to the subject matter.
  • Funny Girl edited by Betsy Bird
    This was really less a book of funny stories and more a book reminding girls that people don't think they are as funny as boys. Most of the funny people I know are female, and my own three-year-old told me just this week that she is going to start telling people how funny she is in case they haven't noticed, so I guess I just don't get that worldview. I also hate books that try to indoctrinate kids into a particular brand of feminism, so though I liked some of the stories, the overall vibe of the book felt uncomfortable.
  • Willows vs. Wolverines by Alison Cherry
    As I mention in my Goodreads review, this was a solid story about summer camp pranks unfortunately marred by the inclusion of a ouija board. I really wanted it to be as good as The Classy Crooks Club, also by this author, but it just wasn't. 
  • The Year of the Garden by Andrea Cheng
    This prequel to the Anna Wang series made me roll my eyes a little bit, only because the teacher in the story decides to focus on recycling and environmentalism instead of academics. I am completely out of patience for agenda-driven children's books, so even though I love these characters, the book fell flat for me. This series has always handled a variety of issues without becoming preachy; it's a shame this one didn't do the same.
  • Once and For All by Sarah Dessen
    Dessen never disappoints. I will be reviewing this one very soon, so I'll save my thoughts until then. 

Finally, we listened to two audiobooks in the car on our way to and from North Carolina: Beezus and Ramona and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I'll be reviewing both sometime this month. 

As for what's next on the to-read list, I have a few titles waiting for me:

  • The Spettecake Holiday by Edith Unnerstad
  • Into the Lion's Den by Linda Fairstein
  • Quicksand Pond by Janet Taylor Lisle
  • Under Locker and Key by Allison K. Hymas


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 / Unleashing Readers.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, July 2017 (Family Stories)

Month 7 of the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge begins today!

This month our focus is on Family Stories.

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!