Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review: We're Going on a Bear Hunt Snow Globe Edition (2017), Make & Play: Nativity (2017), and Press Out & Color: Christmas Decorations (2017)

With a new baby in the house, it can sometimes be difficult to keep my older girls, Miss Muffet (age four) and Bo Peep (age two) entertained during times when my attention has to be on their new sister. That's why I was so thankful to receive review copies of new novelty and activity books from Candlewick Press/Nosy Crow.

The video of Michael Rosen performing We're Going on a Bear Hunt that Walker Books put out for the book's 25th anniversary has been a huge favorite of both Miss Muffet and Bo Peep. Bo Peep, especially, has taken a real liking to it, and she has learned to recite and move along with the video each time it plays. She was thrilled, therefore, to receive the snowglobe edition of the book for her birthday a few weeks ago. This is a pop-up edition of the original book, with full-color illustrations and a fun plastic snowglobe on the front cover. Bo Peep is rough on her books, but for a pop-up book, this one is surprisingly sturdy, and so far only one pop-up has been bent out of shape. Because she already knows the story, she can entertain herself without adult involvement by retelling each page from memory. She also loves to follow along with the video with the book in her lap. Even if you already have a copy of the original book, it's worth introducing this special edition into your collection, especially if it's a long-time favorite and you'd prefer not to let your toddler tear up a hardcover.

Miss Muffet gets bored more easily than her sister, so for her, I like to have some easy hands-on activities available to bring out when she needs something to do. Nosy Crow's new Christmas-themed gift books have been great for this so far this Advent season. For her birthday, I wrapped up the Make & Play Nativity by Joey Chou. Similar to the Busy Builders sets I reviewed on Tuesday, this book includes a set of punch-out pieces that can be assembled to form the key figures and props of a nativity scene. Our family nativity scene is too fragile to be handled by little hands, so this set was instantly appealing, as it makes it possible for Miss Muffet to act out the story without worrying about anything getting broken. There are 20 pieces in all, including Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus in the manger, shepherds, sheep, a donkey, an angel, and the three kings. We're going to see a living nativity in a couple of weeks, so this set is also a great way to prepare her for what she will see then.

After the section of the book containing the punch-outs there is also a section of Christmas activities and songs. The activities are pretty basic and unlikely to be new to a seasoned parent, and the songs, too, are easily found in almost any Christmas songbook. It is handy to have the songs right there to sing as we play with the pieces, but I doubt we will try any of the suggested crafts. I typically find more interesting ideas just scrolling Instagram or Pinterest. Overall, though, I was pleased with the quality of the cardboard pieces and the ease with which they can be put together. Miss Muffet had a little trouble getting them on straight, and as a result, some of our pieces wouldn't stand at first, but this was easily fixed with a quick adjustment and removing and replacing the stands on the figures did not seem to damage them at all.

The other Nosy Crow activity book we have been eager to begin using is Press Out & Color: Christmas Decorations by Kate McLelland. This is a set of 20 sparkly Christmas ornaments, embellished with gold accents, which kids can color and assemble. Though some of these ornaments are three dimensional when they are completed, others can lie flat, and I am planning to have Miss Muffet paint or color those and then mail them to relatives as gifts. The others I think we will hang on our own tree.

I like these ornaments because the cardboard is not too glossy to use with crayons, and because the designs are basic enough that painting over them with watercolor paint isn't likely to ruin them or distort them, even if the painting itself is a little messy. They make it possible for a preschooler to give a homemade gift that the recipient might actually want to save as a keepsake instead of an unidentifiable craft that can't really be used. (I'm all for process art, but sometimes you just want to give Grandma a gift that looks like what it's meant to be!) This book also works well across multiple age groups and abilities, as the ornaments are basically blank canvases to which kids can add their own personal creative touches.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Reading Through History: Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk (2017)

Once an infant in a skiff washed up on the shore of a tiny piece of land among the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts. Osh, the only man who lived there, found the baby, named her Crow, and began to care for her with the help of Miss Maggie, his neighbor on the nearby island of Cuttyhunk. Now it is 1925, and twelve-year-old Crow is happy with her little family, but she wishes she knew more about where she came from. The Cuttyhunk locals are convinced she came from Penikese, an island which previously housed a leper colony, and they are wary of her, refusing to make physical contact with her, to handle objects which she has touched, or to allow her to attend school for fear of contracting leprosy. When a scientist comes to Penikese to study birds, Crow notices his fire burning across the water one night, and she feels a sudden urge to also visit the island to seek clues about her origin. From here, Crow sets into motion a series of surprising events that lead to the truth about her identity, both in the past, as a newborn baby and now, as a young girl.

Lauren Wolk's sophomore children's novel, published on the heels of her Newbery Honor book, Wolf Hollow, is another piece of truly excellent writing. Unlike Wolf Hollow, which was initially written for adults, Beyond the Bright Sea was written with a child audience in mind, and it perfectly captures everything I think about when I imagine the quintessential middle grade novel. Everything about this book feels real and true: the insular setting, the quirky and unusual characters, the historical details about leprosy, and, most of all, the character of Crow. Akin to someone like Bo from Bo at Ballard Creek or Omakayas from The Birchbark House, she is an appealing optimist, equally loving toward her found family and curious about the one she lost, respectful of the adults who care for her, but also stubborn in her desire to know the truth at any cost. Osh, the wary and private older man who has become her adoptive father is her perfect foil: pessimistic where she is positive and uncertain where she is completely sure and secure. Osh and Miss Maggie are also the kind of adults lacking in the lives of most middle grade protagonists. The fact that they take Crow seriously and give her the latitude to explore the questions that concern her make them feel like real-life parents who truly love their child. These three characters form a wonderfully complex family unit that stirs up strong emotions in the reader.

But why, you ask, would a middle grade reader want to read historical fiction about a leper colony in the first place? Well, because this is not really a book about leper colonies, or even about the 1920s. Wolk uses these historical elements to tell a story that deals with universal questions and concerns. All kids, even those who have always known their parents, are curious about the way they were as young children, and about incorporating facts about their pasts into their images of themselves in the present. All kids, too, enjoy reading about characters who feel believable and whose success matters to them. Crow doesn't come across as someone living nearly 100 years ago. Instead, she is presented as a spirited girl with an appealing personality and a strong sense of determination that today's kids can easily appreciate and love. Sure, if you try to sell this to a middle school kid by telling her it's a historical fiction novel about lepers, you're not going to get far. But if you introduce a reader to Crow, I'm convinced that reader will follow her wherever she leads because she is compelling, and everything else in the book - from lepers to orphanages - becomes interesting because the story is hers.

In the old days, before politics overtook the ALA Youth Media Awards, I would have stated with complete confidence that this book would be the clear Newbery winner this winter. As things stand now, with committees yearly trying to push the envelope of what is Newbery-worthy, however, I will tentatively predict another honor and just keep my fingers crossed in case there is any chance of more. Truly, though, Beyond the Bright Sea is the best book I read in 2017. It was fast-paced, suspenseful, realistic, and emotional, with a very satisfying conclusion. I recommend it very highly and I look forward to more from the amazing Lauren Wolk.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review: Busy Builders Books and Playsets: Construction Site (2013), Fire Station (2016), and Airport (2016)

Over the summer, I received review copies of three Busy Builders sets from Silver Dolphin Books: Construction Site, Fire Station, and Airport. Miss Muffet and I had a lot of fun building and playing with each one, and I shared photos on Instagram, but now, with holiday gift-giving on the horizon, I'm finally getting around to writing a proper review.


Each of these sets is contained in a box which opens up, with a flap on either side, to become the central building of each playset: the firehouse, the airport, and a school for the construction workers to build. Puzzle pieces snap onto the flaps to make a road going around each building, and there are various other cardboard pieces which punch out and are used to build vehicles, people, etc. A book is also part of each set. These colorfully illustrated volumes provide lots of facts and vocabulary associated with each setting, as well as the instructions for putting together all of the models.

Because my daughter has only just turned four, she couldn't do much of the actual building herself. She was able to put the stands on the people, and to put together small accessories like fire hydrants and traffic cones, but the larger tasks of putting together the firetruck, airplanes, and diggers were left to me. If she were six or seven years old, however, I think she could have put together everything herself, as all of the instructions are clearly illustrated and all that is required is snapping cardboard pieces together in the correct order.

The books are surprisingly full of information, despite being only 32 pages, a good chunk of which is devoted to building instructions. There isn't much of a narrative to any of them; rather, they illustrate the vehicles, equipment, and buildings pertaining to the fire station, airport, and construction site, label each item and provide short blurbs to explain how they are used by the various workers. Miss Muffet was not yet reading when we first received these, but she still spent a good long time poring over each book and even making up stories about the characters in each illustration. The books also helped inform her play, as she had very little knowledge of construction, firefighting, or airports prior to playing with these sets.

Unfortunately, as much as these kits really enriched Miss Muffet's first lesson about community helpers, there were some problems with the playsets. For one thing, the boxes which serve as the buildings for each set are weakly attached to the flaps that fold out from them, which makes it easy for them to come apart. One of our sets arrived with the box already completely detached, and I had to glue it back together. This was easily accomplished with plain Elmer's white glue, and the set was still perfectly usable after the fact, but it was disappointing to start out with a broken set.

The puzzle pieces that make up the roads also don't fit together perfectly, especially on a carpeted floor, so that was frustrating for both me and my daughter, as pieces kept popping out of place whenever we pretended to drive a vehicle over them. This problem seemed to be most pronounced in the fire station set and least troublesome in the airport, but none of the three had pieces that were a perfect fit. We ran into similar difficulties with some of the stands for the people and with certain pieces of the airport aircraft and the fire station's helicopter. In cases where a piece was too loose, it would fall off whenever the model was moved. In other cases, the pieces were such a tight fit that they wound up bending or tearing slightly on their edges when I tried to put them in place. Again, these were not problems that interfered heavily with our enjoyment of the sets, but it was frustrating to continually have to pick up wheels or a tail from the floor every time Miss Muffet pretended to fly a plane across the sky.

The final problem I encountered was with storage. While the sets are self-contained and all of the pieces can be stored in the buildings/boxes, this is only the case if you take each set entirely apart between uses. I was not prepared to reassemble every single model every time my daughter wanted to play with them. Instead, I wound up storing all of the assembled vehicles in a wooden tray which I could take down from a shelf upon request. For an older child, though, it might be appealing to build the sets over and over again, in which case storage would be very easy, as the boxes with everything tucked inside can fit easily onto a bookshelf.

Though these kits are not likely to last as long as something made of plastic or wood, they are a nice inexpensive way to engage kids who are interested in cars and trucks, community helpers, model-building, and who are desperate to know every little detail about how people do their work, and the tools they use to do it. While my daughter was able to enjoy these as a preschooler with plenty of adult supervision, they would probably be best for a slightly older child who could work on them independently and feel a sense of pride in having built the models himself, and who can be careful enough with the delicate cardboard to help the sets last a while. Though my favorite of the three is the fire station - it was the easiest to assemble, and had a good mix of people and vehicles - any of these would make a great gift for an elementary-aged child, and Miss Muffet and I recommend them.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The RAHM Report for 12/4/17

Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge 2018

I have decided to host Old School Kidlit again this year, with some modifications. Click here for instructions for signing up and guidelines for participating.

What My Kids Are Reading

Check out Friday's RAHK Report for news on my older girls' favorites from our recent library haul, Miss Muffet's fourth birthday presents, and Little Jumping Joan's first picture book read-aloud!

What I Finished Reading

  • Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
    I really enjoyed this, and I'm hoping to eventually see both the new film adaptation and the one from 1974. I also want to read some more Agatha Christie. The only other book of hers that I've read is And Then There Were None.
  • Merry and Bright by Debbie Macomber
    This story has a lot in common with the plot of You've Got Mail, but that was fine with me. I think it was better than Macomber's Christmas title from last year, The Twelve Days of Christmas.
  • Dangerous Curves Ahead by Sugar Jamison
    This book was really too long and had way too much descriptive sex in it for my taste. Even though it was well-written and the characters were sympathetic, I found it difficult to get through the last 100 pages. I'll probably skip the sequels.
  • Death in the Stacks by Jenn McKinlay
    Another great addition to the series. My review is on Goodreads.
  • All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
    I loved this book so much. I will review it here on the blog soon. 

  • All's Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson
    This book felt much more substantial than a lot of the other graphic novels I have read, and it actually took me two nights to read. The Renaissance Faire setting was well-developed and I liked the parallels between training to be a squire and navigating middle school. Review to come on Goodreads.
  • A True Home by Kallie George
    Kallie George writes so well for the beginning chapter book audience. This was an adorable animal story set in a woodland hotel, starring an orphaned homeless mouse in need of a true home. I didn't like Graegin's black and white drawings as much as her color illustrations, but they match the sweet tone of the story nicely.  I will happily read the rest of the series.
  • Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk
    This was beautifully written and completely engrossing. Possibly my favorite book of the year. Review coming soon. 

What I'm Currently Reading

  • I'll Have What She's Having : How Nora Ephron's Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy by Erin Carlson
    I'm one chapter into this book, and so far I really like the writing style. It's a perfect mix of academic and conversational, with lots of information about Nora Ephron herself, as well as the actors featured in her films. I'm excited to get further into it this week. 
  • Winter Street by Elin Hilderbrand
    I was craving a Christmas-themed family story and decided to give this author a try. The writing in this book is better than in most of the romance novels I've been reading, and I like the alternating points of view. 
  • Prairie School by Lois Lenski
    I'm starting my reading for the final month of my Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, for which the focus is winter stories, with this Lois Lenski book. I love stories set in schoolhouses, and after one chapter, I can already tell this is going to be a quick and enjoyable read.

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

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge 2018

I am once again hosting the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge in 2018!

Here is how to participate this year:
  1. Set a goal for the number of "old school" children's books you want to read in 2018.
  2. Comment to this post with your goal number and a link to wherever you will post about the books you read (your blog, a Goodreads shelf, Instagram, Twitter, etc.)
  3. Check in at the end of each month with a list of what you've read and links to any reviews you have posted.
  • A book is considered "old school" if it was published in the decade of your birth or before. 
  • There are no monthly themes this year - read whatever you like! 
  • You can join the challenge at any time during the year. 
  • When you post on social media, tag your posts with #OldSchoolKidlit2018
  • Help promote the challenge by sharing it with your friends!  

Friday, December 1, 2017

The RAHK Report for 12/1/17

Family Read-Alouds

  • The Read-To-Me Storybook illustrated by Lois Lenski
    We finally finished this over Thanksgiving weekend. It was really not my favorite. The stories are very repetitive and it seemed like they had been written to a particular formula. The highlight for me was really the poems, but the girls seemed to like everything, even if the stories didn't make as strong an impression as other read-alouds.
  • Happy Birthday from Carolyn Haywood by Carolyn Haywood
    Miss Muffet turned four this week, so we read this book as part of her celebration. We started kind of late, so we read three chapters a day for three days. Miss Muffet loved that Betsy appeared in multiple stories and she even survived the trauma of reading "Jennifer's Birthday," (which is actually really sad and always made me cry as a kid) without shedding a tear.
  • A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond
    I have never read this and only vaguely know the character from watching Disney's Lunch Box as a kid, but I have heard it recommended fairly often as a good read-aloud for preschoolers. We've read just one chapter so far, and it is a great read-aloud. I think only Miss Muffet is following the storyline, but Bo Peep was quiet and seemed to be listening, so she might be getting more out of it than I realize.

Library Books

After a few months out of the habit, we borrowed library books this week. I had 23 in my stack, and at least half were picture books, but not all of them ended up being appropriate for the girls at their current ages. These are a few of the titles they wound up reading:

  • Go Sleep In Your Own Bed! by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Lori Nichols
    This is a fun story with a repetitive structure, funny animal sounds, and a subject - sleeping arrangements  - that appeal perfectly to preschoolers. Miss Muffet and Bo Peep have been heard all week telling each other to go sleep in their own beds. This is also the book they most frequently fight over. 
  • Littles and How They Grow by Kelly diPucchio, illustrated by AG Ford
    The appeal of this book is really the illustrations, which feature cute babies doing a variety of baby things. I was not crazy about the text but the girls enjoyed oohing and aahing over the babies, probably because they remind them of their own baby sister. Personally, I thought this was more of a book for parents, since it emphasizes the "it all goes by so fast" cliche but I'm fine with them enjoying it until it goes back to the library. (Note: There is an illustration depicting a same-sex couple cuddling their baby. My girls didn't notice, and I didn't comment. I did, however, decide not to share Alyssa Satin Capucilli's Blanket of Love with them because almost every family in the book was "non-traditional" and promoting such things seemed like more of a focal point.)
  • Time Now to Dream by Timothy Knapman, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
    This book was a disappointment to me, mainly because it tries to domesticate an animal that is traditionally seen as a villain, using its role as a nurturing mother to negate its wildness. I did like the relationship between the brother and sister main characters, and Bo Peep, in particular, had a strong reaction to the story's sense of suspense, but it was just not great, and I wanted it to be. 
  • Pick a Pine Tree by Patricia Toht, illustrated by Jarvis
    This festive rhyming book about selecting a Christmas tree is the closest my kids will get to having a real tree. (We always had one when I was a kid, and I was always sick with allergies on Christmas!) The illustrations are the best part of the book; the rhythm and rhyme of the text could be a little less clunky in some places. Overall, though, it was a good first holiday book to read to kick off the season.  
  • In the Middle of Fall by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Laura Dronzek
    Kevin Henkes seems to be losing his touch. This book is very generic compared to the other books he has collaborated on with his wife, and just felt forgettable. Miss Muffet has been reading it aloud to herself and Bo Peep, but no one has asked me to read it a second time. 

Little Miss Muffet (Age 4)

In addition to the library books, Miss Muffet has also been enjoying the books she received for her birthday: 

  • The Jolly Postman, or Other People's Letters by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
    We bought this book new to ensure it would have all of its pieces, and she has loved opening all the letters and piecing the story together. We have The Jolly Christmas Postman all set to give her for Christmas.
  • The Human Body by by Carron Brown and Rachael Saunders
    We enjoy the Shine-a-Light books, and this one is especially great because the flashlight makes each page look like an X-ray. My mom sent this to her, along with Melissa and Doug's human body magnet play set, and Miss Muffet is enjoying learning what the different parts of her body do. 
  • George Balanchine's The Nutcracker 
    We bought this book at a used book sale and it was one of a few ballet-themed presents Miss Muffet received. It has photos from the film version of The Nutcracker (including pictures of a young Macaulay Culkin, much to my amusement) and Miss Muffet has enjoyed looking it while listening to music from the ballet.

Little Bo Peep (2 years, 2 months)

The library books have been Bo Peep's main interest this week. She is still really into her interactive books, Pancakes and Pizza, and strangely she's been talking about The Witch Who Lives Down the Hall, letting me know that it's scary and has too many shadows. Otherwise, there haven't been any real standout favorites for her this week.

Little Jumping Joan (1 month) 

At six weeks old, Jumping Joan finally has enough time during the day where she is awake and calm and can enjoy a few picture books. Here are the very first ones I read to her:

  • Big Fat Hen by Keith Baker
  • A Good Day by Kevin Henkes
  • My Lucky Little Dragon by Joyce Wan
  • Jane Foster's Black and White 

She didn't really react much to any of them except A Good Day. When she saw the squirrel in that book, she gave it a crooked little smile.

Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, December 2017 (Winter Stories)

In this, the last month of the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, we're focusing on Winter 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!