Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January Link-Up: Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge 2017 (Award Winners)

Today marks the end of the first month of the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge. January's focus was on award winners. If you reviewed or otherwise posted about an "Old School" award winner (or multiple winners) this month,  please leave a comment below with a link so other participants can see what you read.

I read four books for the challenge this month: 

Tomorrow, I'll be introducing the February theme, Books You Loved in Childhood. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

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

The new year is off to a great start reading-wise for the Fitzgeralds. Here are this month's highlights:

  • Little Bo Peep is just turning 16 months and she has finally started to realize that she can't really get much out of a book if a grownup doesn't read to her now and then. She has begun to tolerate read-alouds and even to request them on occasion. I have been trying to establish a daily habit of reading to her without her sister present every day before nap time, and she seems to enjoy that little window of time. I usually choose two books, but she has made it clear that she would prefer to hear the same book twice rather than listen to two different stories. Recent favorites that have required multiple re-readings were Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle, You... by Emma Dodd, Little Bitty Friends by Elizabeth McPike and Patrice Barton, and Ten Little Toes, Two Small Feet by Kristi Dempsey, 
  • Bo Peep has also fallen in love with two wonderful board books we received for review from Little Bee Books. Hello, Lamb and Goodnight, Bear are both by Jane Cabrera, and they could not be  more perfect for a one-year-old. In both books, each page shows a large face of an animal on the right-hand side and simple text identifying the animal and the sound it makes on the left-hand side. Hello, Lamb begins with a sun and ends with a smiling baby, while Goodnight Bear opens with the moon and ends with a baby who has fallen asleep. Bo Peep will sit and look at these books over and over again. Miss Muffet also likes them, and since she knows her animals and the sounds they make, she can basically "read" the books to her sister. If my story time groups continue to skew toward the under-three demographic - and honestly, even if they don't - I will probably bring both books to story time before too long. They are must-buys for babies and toddlers in my opinion.
  • Miss Muffet continues to be completely obsessed with books. Her favorites lately have been Corduroy and A Pocket for Corduroy, as well as the Maple and Willow series, and my childhood copy of the Fisher-Price Little People book, The Great Big Word Book, but she is not attached to any one book that needs to be read over and over again. We continue to use nonfiction to reinforce new concepts. Recently, after we spotted a deer amongst the trees on a stroller walk, we read I See Animals Hiding and discussed the concept of camouflage. As she gets into the habit of saying the Pledge of Allegiance daily, we have also enjoyed an ebook of Our Flag, a Golden Book from 1960 that explains the flag's significance and history. She is also really enjoying paging through The Catholic Children's Bible looking for figures she remembers from our Jesse Tree readings during Advent. She has a special affinity for the prophet Jeremiah and likes to point out that he is crying in the illustration which accompanies his story.
  • Finally, both girls are making strides in their writing skills. Miss Muffet is using a pencil regularly, and she is gaining more and more control over the marks she makes. We have made a mailbox from a shoebox and she enjoys passing notes back and forth with Daddy. In the meantime, Bo Peep received two coloring books designed especially for babies for Christmas, and she has finally started making marks on the pages. It will be nice in the coming months for them to sit and color together. Even if their skills will not be on the same level, I think they will both enjoy being able to share in an activity. 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Book Review: The Night Swimmers by Betsy Byars (1980)

The Night Swimmers by Betsy Byars was the 1981 National Book Award winner for children's fiction. Retta's mother is dead, and her father, a country singer, works nights performing his music, so Retta is left home to tend to her two younger brothers, Johnny and Roy. Wanting them to have an exciting taste of the more affluent lifestyle she believes they deserve, she takes the boys swimming each night at a pool in another neighborhood. The kids are not supposed to use the pool, which belongs to the Captain, but Retta still feels somehow entitled to use it, as though it makes up for some miscalculation of the universe that allows her particular family to miss out on a chance at a better life. Retta goes to great lengths to make sure she and her brothers are safe, and that they never get caught, but it is only when one of them encounters real danger in the pool that things really start to improve for her family.

I have mentioned before that I think Betsy Byars is a masterful writer, and this book just further proves that point for me. Like many other Byars stories, The Night Swimmers has a very small, contained setting populated by just a few characters. Since Byars is such a minimalist when it comes to the scale of her stories, she is able to spend much more effort (and text) on minor details. As this book unfolds, the reader begins to picture the house where Retta's family lives, the clothes they each wear, and the food they eat. The relationships between the characters come to life as Retta interacts with her dad, her brothers, and her father's girlfriend. Even the kids' relationship with their mother is described in such a way that the reader misses her along with them, even though she never directly appears in the story. Byars creates a small world, but it's a sympathetic one, and one with a strong emotional impact that lasts and lasts well past the end of the story.

Also like many other Byars books, this one does not end with a neat resolution. There is always hope in a Byars story, and there is lots of it here, but the reader is still left to imagine the specifics of how things will turn out for Retta. The lack of a definite ending is very realistic, and it contributes to the feeling of authenticity and honesty that I have come to associate with Byars's writing. She lays out situations in her books, explores their problems and possibilities, hints at probable solutions, and then walks away, leaving the characters better off than when they started, but respecting their stories enough not to simplify or patronize them by providing all the answers. This recipe for storytelling shows that Byars respects children and expects them to be able to understand complex people and situations. I think that is what makes The Night Swimmers a special book, and why it still resonates with me today even though it was published before I was born.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Reflections on the 2017 ALA Youth Media Awards

The first year that I watched the ALA Youth Media Awards webcast was 2010, the year that When You Reach Me won the Newbery and Tales of the Madman Underground received a Printz honor. I loved both of those books so much, and I really enjoyed hearing the announcements - and the reactions to them from the librarians in attendance - in real time. Sadly, over the last 7 years my enthusiasm for the awards has declined significantly. As ALA has become more and more agenda-driven, and diversity has become the most sought-after quality in a children's book, the awards have become more and more political and much less about celebrating books because of their own merits. (A year later, I still roll my eyes at the selection of Last Stop on Market Street as the 2016 Newbery Medal winner. The writing in that book is mediocre at best; it didn't win because it was well-written.) So it was with very low expectations that I joined the webcast this past Monday. In some cases, those expectations were exceeded, but in most areas, I was predictably disappointed. I'll share just a few of my reactions here today. (The full list of award winners and honor books can be found here.)

March: Book Three

I didn't read this book, so I have no way of knowing whether it is well-written, well-illustrated or worthy of attention. I also have no way of knowing how the four committees that honored this book - those for the Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award, the Printz Award, the Sibert Informational Book Award, and the YALSA Award for excellence in young-adult nonfiction - arrived at their decision. But there is no denying how it looks. These decisions were finalized during ALA Midwinter, just after the author of March: Book Three, Rep. John Lewis, had a highly publicized clash with President Trump. If only one or two committees had honored this book, I might buy that it was based on its merits. But four? And in a time when many ALA members are advocating for librarians to resist the "fascist" Trump administration?  I have a hard time believing these decisions were not politically motivated. I was actually getting worried as I watched that this book might also win the Newbery and/or the Caldecott, but thankfully, we were spared that much. Still, this was a major disappointment, not because I have any particular feelings about the book, but because I'm growing increasingly disgusted with the library profession and its politics.


I was hoping to see Ghost and Wolf Hollow recognized, and I got half of what I wanted. Wolf Hollow is absolutely deserving of its honor, and I was pleased that it was not overlooked. Ghost only won one award, the Odyssey, for its audiobook adaptation, but it was not recognized by the Newbery committee, which was too bad. The Girl Who Drank the Moon, which I did not read, was the winner. I can't say that it isn't good without reading it, but the description of the book is full of cliches and I don't think I'm going to bother. I've also been wading through The Inquisitor's Tale, one of the other honors, and it's a three-star book at best. I want to save my comments for my review, but the book relies heavily on toilet humor, and we all know how I feel about that.


I mentioned in my review of They All Saw A Cat that I expected it to be given at least an honor. As I said I would be, I'm disappointed that this prediction came true. Yes, the artwork is interesting and different, but I'm still not convinced it really adds up to a compelling story. Du Iz Tak? also received an honor, and that was even more disappointing. I have yet to read a review of this book that explains precisely why it is so good. Everyone talks about the brilliance of the made-up language, but no one gets much beyond that one gimmick. The book is weird; that doesn't automatically make it good. I really believe a lot of people claim to like it because they don't want to admit they don't get it. As for the winner, it was a picture book biography of someone I've never heard of. If I happen to see it, I'll read it, but it's not the kind of thing I will seek out on my own.


I cared more about the Geisel back when I was the Cybils chair for Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books. I was only disappointed by two things:

  1. Elephant and Piggie still wormed their way in there, even though their series is over. It's really time to move on.
  2. Good Night Owl is about an owl going to bed at night. That drives me nuts. 
I'm not that interested in The Infamous Ratsos, but I do want to have a look at both Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run! and Go, Otto, Go! just because I'm behind on beginner reader books, 

Sarah Dessen

When I was 15, I happened upon Sarah Dessen's That Summer in the young adult section of my small-town public library and immediately fell in love. I wrote her a letter, to which she sent a wonderfully kind hand-written reply, and I have been a fan ever since. I met her once at BEA and saw her speak again at the DC Public Library, and I have read every one of her books. Since she has never won any ALA awards before, she wasn't really on my radar as someone who might be considered for something like the Margaret A. Edwards award. So I was surprised and thrilled to hear her name read out, and to see that the titles for which she was honored include Keeping the Moon, one of my all-time favorites. This was the highlight of the award announcements for me, and it has made me want to re-read some of her older titles before her newest comes out this summer.

Were you pleased with the award announcements? Which award recipients have you read? 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Paging Through Picture Books: Melvin the Moose (1967), Everything Under a Mushroom (1973), and Our Flag (1960)

Today I have more reviews to share of books I've read for the Picture Book Reading Challenge hosted by Becky's Book Reviews. I'm sharing my choices for the following items on the checklist: #8 a book with animals (Melvin the Moose Child), #26 out of print (Everything Under a Mushroom), and #45 a book published in the 1960s (Our Flag).

Melvin the Moose Child by Louis Slobodkin

Melvin is a young moose who doesn't have any other moose children to play with. On a journey away from home to find some moose friends, he instead meets a host of other woodland animals, all of whom decide to join him on his quest. When the band of animals encounter something frightening in the woods, however, they decide they would rather be at home after all.

Conceptually, this book is a lot like other cumulative stories, but the endearing illustrations make it different enough to be appealing. We have been teaching Miss Muffet about the four directions, so I appreciated the text's reinforcement of the concepts of north and south. I also like that Slobodkin introduces different animals, such as the moose, instead of reiterating the usual litany of farm animals. The story's "there's no place like home" message may be a cliche, but this book makes it feel new and interesting, rather than cloying.

Everything Under a Mushroom by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Margot Tomes

This book is similar to Krauss's A Hole is to DigOpen House for Butterflies, A Very Special House, and I'll Be You and You Be Me, except Maurice Sendak is not the illustrator. Each two-page spread shows a large mushroom, with a pair of rhyming phrases printed above it. Then, beneath the mushroom, children are shown participating in various activities and having little conversations with each other.

The little quotes from the kids are not as memorable as in some of the other books, and the illustrations don't have quite as much personality as Sendak's, but this was still enjoyable. The highlight for me was a little snippet near the end of the book where a little girl tells of a girl at a party who was very beautiful. She describes her beauty and then states, "but the other girls at the party didn't care because they all had warm bathrobes."

Our Flag by Carl Memling 

I checked out the ebook edition of this book from the library because of Miss Muffet's recent interest in flags and geography. It's a bit difficult to read it with her on a screen so we may need to track down a hard copy at some point, but it covers everything I would want in a basic book about the U.S. flag. Memling covers the history behind the stars and stripes of the flag, as well as information about the national anthem, and the words to the pledge of allegiance. There are also historical details about the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II and appearances by important figures such as Betsy Ross and George Washington. The book also provides a list of rules for handling the flag, and the three situations in which the flag must be saluted. It's a great first introduction to American history (and patriotism) for preschool and kindergarten kids, and though it is from the 1960s, it's perfectly accurate and appropriate for a 21st century audience.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

My Most Anticipated 2017 Books

Top Ten Tuesday has declared this week a freebie, so I'm taking the opportunity to post about the books I'm looking forward to this year. I became discouraged last year by the mediocrity of a lot of the books I was reading, and in the fall, I decided to take a step back from reviewing new kids' novels for a while. While I'm not scrambling to download all the digital ARCs I can find anymore, I do have my eye on a few 2017 releases that I want to either read prior to publication or check out from the library when they come out. In order of expected publication date, here's what I'm eagerly anticipating:

  • Stanley's Store by William Bee (3/1/17)
    I have always enjoyed the Stanley books, and Miss Muffet does too. Our favorite character is Little Woo, a mole, who is the son of Stanley's friend Shamus. Stanley has a different occupation in each book. In the past, he has been a builder, a mechanic, a chef, a farmer, and a mailman. I'm looking forward to seeing how he does as a grocer!
  • Gone Camping by Tamera Will Wissinger (3/28/17)
    In 2013, I read a great short novel in verse called Gone Fishing, which introduced different poetic forms through a simple story about a family going on a fishing trip. I was really excited to learn that this sequel, Gone Camping, will be out this year. The concept is the same, only this time the kids are going camping with Grandpa.
  • First Class Murder by Robin Stevens (4/4/17)
    I love this UK series about 1930s school girls Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong who solve murders and other crimes together at their boarding school and elsewhere. This title was published in the UK in 2015, with the same title this time! I always like the UK titles better, so I hope they try keeping the same for future volumes too.
  • Cody and the Rules of Life by Tricia Springstubb (4/11/17)
    Tricia Springstubb is my current favorite children's author. This is third book in the Cody series, and it promises to be every bit as wonderfully descriptive and entertaining as the first two.
  • The Year of the Garden by Andrea Cheng (4/11/17)
    Andrea Cheng died in December 2015, which made me sad, because I love this series. Thankfully, though, she did finish some books prior to her passing, and we will be lucky enough to see The Year of the Garden, a prequel, published this spring.
  • Once and for All by Sarah Dessen (6/6/17)
    I have never missed a Sarah Dessen book, so of course I'll be reading this when it comes out! This time, the story is set in the world of wedding planning, and there is a character named Ambrose. It seems a little more like her older books and not as similar to her new ones, but that's okay with me. I'm looking forward to her thirteenth novel!
  • The Silver Moon of Summer by Leila Howland (6/13/17)
    This is the third and last book in the wonderful Silver Sisters trilogy. I love Howland's writing. Her characters are just so real, and everything that happens to them rings true. Since I have a sister and I also have two girls, I think this series is particularly special for me. The books also have a great summer atmosphere that makes them wonderful to read pool-side. I'll be looking for this one to kick off my summer reading.
  • Almost Paradise by Corabel Shofner (7/25/17) 
    This is the only book on the list that I know almost nothing about, but it has an appealing cover and a quirky premise involving a nun and a pig and a road trip and a convenience store hold-up, and I just feel very drawn to it. I figure it's good to take a chance on a debut author now and then! 
The last two on my list don't have definite publication dates, but 2017 is reportedly the year the last Penderwicks book will be published, and Sue Grafton has said that her Kinsey Millhone mystery for the letter Y will be out in the fall. (This last one is not a kids' book, and I'm not even caught up through X, but I'm anxious for the series to be finished so I can read straight through from V to the end.) I hope both of these do actually materialize in 2017, but whenever they do come out, I'll definitely be reading!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Paging Through Picture Books: Because of an Acorn (2016), Little Penguins (2016), Real Cowboys (2016), and They All Saw a Cat (2016)

I have started working my way through the Picture Book Reading Challenge hosted by Becky's Book Reviews. I'm doing the checklist option, so my goal is to read one book that matches each of 102 different categories. Today I'm sharing my selections for #50 a book published 2010-2016 (They All Saw a Cat), #65 a nonfiction picture book (Because of an Acorn), #76 hate the text, love the art (Real Cowboys), and #81 a book about weather (Little Penguins).

Because of an Acorn by Lola M. Schaefer and Adam Schaefer, illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon

Because of an Acorn is a basic nonfiction picture book illustrating the connections that exist between all living things. The minimal text is great for preschoolers, though it is not enough in every instance to drive home the connection the authors are trying to make. (Miss Muffet needed a lot of explanation and clarification as we read.) The illustrations are immersive and appealing, and they portray the realities of the natural world (a hawk capturing a snake, for example) honestly, but not too graphically. I liked the book better upon a second reading, but I felt that I could have used a bit more text in the main part of the story. There are detailed notes at the end of the book, but they were too dry even for me, let alone for a child.

Little Penguins by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Christian Robinson

Little Penguins is written by the prolific Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Caldecott honor illustrator Christian Robinson. I was not at all a fan of Last Stop on Market Street, so I was skeptical of this book, but I ended up liking it well enough, especially after reading it at story time. The text in this one is very minimal as well, and there isn't a whole lot to the plot other than going out into the snow and coming back in again, but it's just the right speed for kids between 12 and 24 months. My favorite spread in the book is the moment where the penguins come inside and whip off all their winter garb, leaving mittens and scarves scattered everywhere as the text says, "Off off off off off."

Real Cowboys by Kate Hoefler, illustrated by Jonathan Bean

Real Cowboys has been on my to-read list for a while because it is illustrated by Jonathan Bean. Bean's pictures are lovely - Bo Peep actually adores the cow on one particular page and keeps mooing at it all the time - but the story clearly subverts traditional gender roles in a very obvious and obnoxious way. Yes, of course men can be gentle and nurturing and quiet and kind, but the image of cowboys just sitting out there on the plains stroking their horses and reflecting on their lives made me roll my eyes. The description of the book on Goodreads suggests that rowdy cowboys are a myth, and that this book presents the truth about what cowboys actually do, but I'm not buying it. I'm really curious as to whether the boys who pick up this book because they have an interest in cowboys are enjoying it or returning it to the library unread. Either way, we don't read "agenda" picture books at my house, so we are only looking at the pictures.

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel

Finally, They All Saw a Cat has an interesting concept,  but the text is derivative of Margaret Wise Brown (see Four Fur Feet) and the illustrations, though wonderfully appealing, are just not enough on their own to sustain a picture book. All along, it feels as though the rhythm and repetition of the text are building up to something, but at the climax of the book, when the cats sees his own reflection, there is no satisfying resolution. The reader is left there at the height of the story, waiting for something more - and it never comes. This would have worked much better as a wordless book. As I've said in many picture book reviews on Goodreads, not all illustrators should write. Wenzel should really do the illustrations for a book authored by a talented writer. This is probably going to win the Caldecott - or at least receive an honor - but that will be a disappointment for me.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Book Review: Ghost by Jason Reynolds (2016)

Castle Cranshaw, who calls himself Ghost, is an eighth grader who does not have it easy. His father is in prison for shooting at Ghost and his mom during a domestic dispute and his mom struggles to pay the bills while she works at the hospital cafeteria and takes classes toward becoming a nurse. Ghost is constantly being bothered at school about his clothes, and the poor neighborhood he lives in, and he is known for getting into "altercations" with anyone who gives him a hard time. One day, while killing time to avoid going home after school, Ghost comes upon a track practice. Ghost considers himself a basketball player, but the next thing he knows, he's being asked to show off his running skills, and then to join the team, which is called the Defenders. Though Coach makes a lot of demands on Ghost and the other runners on the team, he also begins to look out for Ghost as a friend and mentor. Though Coach's support and attention mean a lot to Ghost, however, it takes a while for him to begin to turn himself around and stop getting into trouble.

I have always been a big fan of Chris Crutcher's books in which sports help kids - usually boys - to overcome the difficulties life has thrown their way. This sounded similar, so I decided to give it a try. From the first chapter, I was hooked on Ghost's voice. Reynolds somehow manages to make him sound like a real kid without sacrificing the literary quality of his writing. Ghost doesn't speak in poetry - nor does he always use correct English grammar - but there is a beauty to his narration and a strength to his voice that becomes immediately apparent and does not fade as the book progresses. One passage in particular really made me appreciate Reynold's talent:

"Shamika was... big. Like... huge. She had to be almost six feet tall in the seventh grade. And she had a birthmark that covered half her light-skinned face in dark brown, like a comic-book bad guy or something. But Shamika wasn’t a mean girl. She was actually kinda cool. The only problem with her was that she was super silly, and she had a laugh as big as her body. But it was a real laugh. The kind that made her bend over. The kind that Coach was faking when I first met him. So when I sat down in front of her and bumped her desk, knocking one of her pencils on the floor, Shamika leaned over to pick it up, noticing my new and improved sneakers. And then came the thunder. It just came out of nowhere, and once she starts laughing, Shamika can’t stop. And the worst part is that she can sort of pass her laugh around the room to everybody, just because the sound of it is so outrageous. So if she laughs, everybody laughs. Imagine the sound a car makes when it’s trying to start, but can’t. Now, speed that sound up, and  and crank the volume high enough to blow out the windows in heaven. That's Shamika's laugh." 

This is a short description of a minor character, but it paints such a strong, memorable picture, and it highlights exactly why Reynolds is just a great writer.

Reynolds also does a great job of making Ghost wholly sympathetic even when he makes poor decisions. Ghost's own descriptions of what happened with his father, and the complicated feelings he has about him are very powerful and honest. The juxtaposition of Ghost's relationship with his dad and his relationships with his mom and his coach are also very effective for helping the reader to understand Ghost's motivations in different situations. There is never a moment where the reader does not wish the best for this character because he is so real, and his emotions are so relatable, even to those who don't face his same struggles.

Another thing I appreciate about this book is its brevity. A lot of the older children's books I've been reading lately are lovely, full stories that fit into 175 pages or less. By comparison, many contemporary middle grade novels feel unwieldy and over-written. At just under 200 pages, this book is decidedly neither. It's a compact, well-developed and perfectly structured story that tells just enough and leaves just the right impression. The ending, especially, is very carefully constructed, and I think it hits the exact right note.

This book is getting a lot of attention because it helps bring more diversity to children's literature. Many books that do this, however, are praised merely for their diversity, and not for the technical aspects that make a children's book great. Ghost is a book that deserves critical acclaim because it is an excellent book, and the author is a masterful storyteller. I'd love to see this book win the Newbery, but if it does, I hope it's not because the committee feels it must choose a "diverse" book. I hope it's because committee members see in this book the same things I see: beautiful writing, strong characterization, and universally appealing themes of perseverance and resilience.

Ghost is the first book in a series about the members of The Defenders. I eagerly await book two.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Book Review: The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton (1968)

The House of Dies Drear (the 1969 Edgar Award Winner for Best Juvenile Mystery) is about thirteen-year-old Thomas Small, his parents, and his infant siblings, who move from North Carolina to Ohio to live in a house which was part of the Underground Railroad and belonged to an abolitionist named Dies Drear. Both the house and its unusual caretaker, Mr. Pluto, have a reputation around town as being haunted, evil, and even dangerous. Though his father assures him these rumors are false, Thomas isn't so sure. Mr. Pluto definitely seems sinister, and strange things are happening around the house that suggest the Smalls may never be welcome in their new home.

I was under the impression that I had read The House of Dies Drear when I was in middle school, but after reading it this month and finding none of the details familiar, I am now convinced that the book I read as a kid may actually have been the sequel, The Mystery of Drear House. Whichever book I read back then, however, I enjoyed Virginia Hamilton's writing a lot more as an adult. When I was twelve, I found her prose dry and difficult-to-follow, and I can remember struggling to answer reading comprehension questions about the story. When it came time to do a project based on the book, I chose to make a diorama of a particular room in the house because that was the only thing about the story I felt certain I had understood. As an adult, though, I was neither bored nor bogged down by dry prose. I breezed through the book in a few hours and found it reasonably compelling. It is not necessarily a mystery in the traditional sense, with a series of clues and red herrings that eventually lead the reader to the resolution, but it has a definite mysterious tone that is still appealing to mystery readers.

The historical elements of the book are also interesting, and they would definitely help to flesh out history lessons about the Underground Railroad. Thomas's feelings of personal connection to the escaped slaves who once passed through his home add a warmth and depth to the reader's knowledge of what slavery must have been like, and how it must have felt to escape to freedom under such dangerously secretive conditions. I questioned early in the book whether readers would realize right away that Thomas is black (I would not have, as a kid), but there are many scenes later in the book that make it quite clear, including a beautifully written passage about black churches. I like that Hamilton didn't describe Thomas's appearance, but I think if I were sharing this with kids, I'd want to make it clear that Thomas is black from the start so that his reflections about slavery are understood in the proper context.

This was not my favorite book, overall, but there are some excellently written scenes and a good twist at the end that made it worth reading. At some point, I do want to read the sequel, if only to see if anything about it seems familiar, but it's not necessarily a priority. I own a copy of this book and would have no reservations about using it in our homeschool when we learn about slavery, even though I probably would not choose to read it again for pleasure.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Book Review: The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs (1921)

Amy from Hope is the Word is once again hosting her wonderful Newbery Through the Decades challenge. Each month, from January to October, participants read Newbery medal and honor books from each decade in which the award has been given. January's focus is on the 1920s. This is a tough decade because some of the books are hard to find and others seem dreary and difficult to read. Still, last year, I read Downright Dencey, which wound up being excellent once I got into the language, and prior to participating in the challenge, I also read The Trumpeter of Krakow, which is one of the best children's books I have ever read from any decade. This year, after some deliberation, I chose to read The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs, which received a Newbery Honor in 1922. (This book will also count toward the Newbery Reading Challenge at Smiling Shelves and my own Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge.)

In the story, Oliver and his sister Janet are spending the summer with Cousin Jasper, who seems aloof and troubled for reasons the kids can't quite figure out. One day, in the midst of attempting to run away after a disagreement with Jasper, Oliver meets the Beeman, who begins telling him stories. As Oliver and Janet try to puzzle out what might be causing Jasper to be so standoffish and unhappy, they also begin to see that the Beeman's stories are not just tales of long ago and far away, but that they are perfectly relevant to all that is happening here and now.

This is an odd book. The opening chapter is very engaging, but the story loses momentum every time the Beeman tells a story. Though the connections between the present-day action and the stories does eventually become clear, they are so tenuous at first that by the time the reader realizes it was actually important to pay attention to the stories, the opportunity to do so has passed. The chief problem of the story, which winds up focusing mainly on law and real estate documents, also is not really the kind of thing that engages kids' imaginations. The concerns of the story all seem very grown up, and when the great mystery of what is bothering Cousin Jasper is revealed, it is nothing nearly as exciting as kids are likely to have imagined for themselves.

I can see from the writing in this book that Meigs has an engaging style and a knack for developing interesting characters, so I'm not done with her work just yet, but the plot was muddled, and in many places, just boring. The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope (1958) is actually similar in a lot of ways to this book, but more engaging, and decidedly more straightforward and accessible. Meigs could write; I'm just not convinced yet that her books were really written for children.

Monday, January 16, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? for January 16, 2017

This past week was fairly productive in all areas. I returned to CCD on Monday night after two weeks off for Christmas, then returned to story time on Wednesday. I completed a draft for the next chapter of my book, which I need to turn in by the end of the month, and I wrote and scheduled a whole bunch of blog posts. I also read a ton of picture books and board books, as well as four novels:

  • Does This School Have Capital Punishment? by Nat Hentoff (YA)
  • Amy Moves In by Marilyn Sachs (Middle Grade)
  • Laura's Luck by Marilyn Sachs (Middle Grade)
  • Amy & Laura by Marilyn Sachs (Middle Grade)

Additionally, I made decent progress on The Other Side of the Moon by Meriol Trevor, but I kept getting distracted by questions about what we did and did not know about the moon in 1957 when the book was published. There are some really odd details in the story and I was having trouble sorting out what was the author taking poetic license with known details and what was the author just making things up. I will definitely finish the book this week, but it might not be as quick as I originally anticipated.

Mid-week, I started reading Coughing in Ink: The Demise of Academic Ideals by Philip Lawler. (After I read a couple of chapters, my husband pointed out that the author's wife is "Auntie Leila" from Like Mother, Like Daughter. I should have realized that, but didn't!) In the book, Lawler describes what he sees as the flaws in academia and how he believes they came about. I have never thought of myself as an academic largely because I hate academia, so this book definitely has my sympathy. So far, the book talks a lot about university protests and how they have changed campus culture. There are some things discussed that are very relevant to our current political climate, which is comforting in some ways because if we have been here before and survived it, then we probably will again. But it's also distressing to know that there have been these unpleasant undercurrents running beneath our culture my entire life. Either way, this is a good read. I'm taking it slow as is my typical approach to adult non-fiction, but I hope to have it done within the week. 

Finally, I decided to start another adult novel. After searching the local libraries' various ebook collections, I settled on a contemporary romance: Summer at Willow Lake by Susan Wiggs. Winter books were great during the holiday season, but now I'd rather think about summer camp, so this book appealed to me right away. I also like that it flashes back and forth in time between main character Olivia's present-day life and her experiences as a teen at camp. I'm not sure yet that I like the hero of the story, the boy with whom Olivia had a relationship at camp who comes back into her life just after she has been dumped, but I'm only two chapters in, so he has time to win me over. I do like Olivia, and that is often not true of the women in "chick lit" books, so I plan to stick with it. 

Today I'm linking up with Book Date and Teach Mentor Texts.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Book Review: The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett (1937)

I first heard about The Family from One End Street: and Some of Their Adventures by Eve Garnett from the BBC television special, "Picture Book: An Illustrated History of Children's Literature", which my husband and I watched together a few years ago.  In a segment of the show, Jacqueline Wilson, author of The Story of Tracy Beaker, spoke of the way Garnett's portrayal of working class life resonated with her as she grew up in similar circumstances. She identified the book as the first children's novel to show what it was truly like to be from a poor family. We have hunted high and low for this book for years, and it was only a shot-in-the-dark search at OpenLibrary.org that finally led to me finding and reading it. It was an added bonus that the book won the 1938 Carnegie Medal, making it possible for this to be the first book I will review for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge.

The Ruggles family is at the center of this book. Mr. and Mrs. Ruggles are a dustman and a washerwoman, and they have seven children: Lily Rose, Kate, Jim, John, Jo Jr., Peg, and William. In each chapter, a member of the family has a problem or adventure which the reader experiences through that character's point of view. These include Lily Rose's accidental destruction of an article of clothing belonging to one of her mother's laundry customers, Kate performing well enough to be admitted to a school for which the cost of uniforms might be far outside the family budget, and William being entered in a baby show, which he would have a better chance of winning if only he would cut a tooth. Though the family is poor, there is very little in these episodes that would elicit pity from a child reader. Rather, the Ruggles have just as much fun - and get into just as much trouble - as any Melendy, Pye, Moffat or other literary heroine found in the children's books of the 1930s and 1940s.

Garnett has a wonderful ear for dialogue and a true understanding of the way kids' minds work. Though many of the concerns the Ruggles kids struggle with are not relevant to the worries of contemporary kids, their feelings of embarrassment when they do something wrong and their spirit of adventure when a new opportunity arises can be understood by children from any time period, and readers of any age. This book was really a treat, and well worth the long while I had to wait to get my hands on a copy. Strangely, I actually think it will be easier for me to get a hold of the sequels, Further Adventures of the Family from One End Street and Holiday at the Dew Drop Inn, which I hope to read soon.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Bout of Books Progress for 1/8/17 (Day 7)

Bout of Books 18

On the last day of Bout of Books 18, I finally finished Love Walks In by Samantha Chase. And I read 30 pages of Does This School Have Capital Punishment? by Nat Hentoff before calling it a night.

The total number of books I finished during the read-a-thon was 13. This is around half of what I usually read during Bout of Books, but being sick and having sick children cut down on my reading time and and on my ability to stay up late reading. I'm hoping for better reading conditions for Bout of Books 19 this May.

Here's my final list of books read this week:
  • Read and Buried by Erika Chase
  • The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton
  • The Night Swimmers by Betsy Byars
  • Over the Hills and Far Away by Lavinia Russ
  • The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs
  • The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline by Lois Lowry
  • Switcharound by Lois Lowry
  • Your Move, J.P.! by Lois Lowry
  • Ramshackle Roost by Jane Flory
  • The Lost Umbrella of Kim Chu by Eleanor Estes
  • With a Name Like Lulu, Who Needs More Trouble? by Tricia Springstubb 
  • A Grandmother for the Orphelines by Natalie Savage Carlson
  • Love Walks In by Samantha Chase 

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? for January 9, 2017

Bout of Books wrapped up last night. I had high hopes for the week, but the entire family came down with a bad cold, and sleeping and tending to a sick toddler took over a lot of my reading time. But I did get to read some books, including many of the titles I said I was going to read when I posted last Monday.

I read three more award-winners for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge that I am hosting. They were:

  • The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs (Newbery Honor, 1922)
  • The Night Swimmers by Betsy Byars (National Book Award, 1981)
  • The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton (Edgar Award, 1969) 

Reviews of all of these will be on the blog before the end of the month.

I also had a great time exploring what is available at OpenLibrary.org. I found great old gems by Betsy Byars, Lois Lowry, and even one of my newer favorites, Tricia Springstubb. The site is not ideal for browsing, but I have gotten into the habit of typing in the names of authors as they occur to me, and it's been fun to discover how much is available. I definitely recommend trying it out.

In the week to come, my reading plans are a lot lighter than they were for Bout of Books, but I have a couple of books in mind.

The first is The Other Side of the Moon by Meriol Trevor. My husband surprised me with this the other day when it arrived in the mail. Trevor is an excellent author of Catholic fiction for kids, teens, and adults, and this odd science fiction adventure story sounds a lot like Madeleine L'Engle's work. I just hope it turns out to be more A Wrinkle in Time and less A Swiftly Tilting Planet. (I really did not like A Swiftly Tilting Planet.)

The others are novels by recently deceased authors Marilyn Sachs, who died on December 31st at age 89, and Nat Hentoff who died on January 7th at age 91. I own paperback copies of both Amy and Laura and Laura's Luck by Sachs and OpenLibrary has Amy Moves In. I also have a paperback of Hentoff's Does This School Have Capital Punishment?

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbitt (1969)

DeCree, the Prime Minister, is writing a dictionary for the King, but there has been some disagreement over the definition of delicious. The Prime Minister believes that "delicious is fried fish," but the King believes it should be an apple, while the Queen says pudding and the General says beer. Deciding that this matter cannot be decided without input from the rest of the kingdom, DeCree sends Vaungaylen (known as Gaylen), his twelve-year-old adopted son, to ride his horse to the four towns and take a poll. As Gaylen embarks upon his journey, however, Hemlock, the queen's brother, also rides out on a sinister errand - that of discrediting the king and inciting civil war so that he might claim the throne for himself. As Gaylen polls each town, dangers mount as Hemlock gets closer and closer to victory, and it is only the magical beings no one believes in anymore who have any hope of saving the day.

I have had a long-standing aversion to the books of Natalie Babbitt because I hated reading Tuck Everlasting when I was in sixth grade. (I was deeply troubled by the idea of someone who never got old. It still gives me the creeps, knowing that everyone the Tucks loved would eventually die and leave them. Ugh.) This book, which was published several years earlier, has a much more lighthearted tone and focus, so I wasn't troubled by it in that sense, but I have mixed feelings, mainly about the story's overall message. It is very clear throughout this book that Babbitt is trying to comment upon the foolishness of war. She shows how a simple disagreement over a dictionary definition spirals quickly out of control and becomes a matter of life and death. Unfortunately, her attempts to simplify the concept of war for her young audience have resulted in a story which trivializes the perils of battle and paints an idealized portrait of the world where all wars can be prevented if we stop arguing over silly things. It's not necessarily a bad idea to use an allegory to help kids understand a complicated fact of life, but this story didn't ring true enough to make it work. Instead, it reduces war to something light and laughable.

The supernatural elements of the story were also used in a way that felt inauthentic and forced. Gaylen, who is set up to be the hero of the story, and even has to give himself a pep talk at one point in order to pursue what he knows to be the right path, ends up being heavily overshadowed by the woldweller, the dwarves, and the mermaid whom he encounters on his journey. Gaylen seems to have the fortitude as a character to take on the evil Hemlock if given the chance; it's odd, therefore, that Babbitt ultimately allows the magical characters to be the ones who save the kingdom.

The Search for Delicious starts out seemingly strong, but ends up being pretty disappointing. I liked the tone early on in the book, and there were some clever moments of fun wordplay, but these just didn't match the story Babbitt was trying to tell. There is just no need to read this book when you can happily read Tolkien instead.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Bout of Books Progress for 1/7/17 (Day 6)

Bout of Books 18

It took me all day to get around to updating yesterday's progress because there really wasn't any. I read less than two chapters of Love Walks In by Samantha Chase, and that's it. At this rate, all I hope to accomplish for the rest of day 7 is to finish that book!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Bout of Books Progress for 1/6/17 (Day 5)

Bout of Books 18
This has been a disappointing Bout of Books so far because I have been mostly too sick to enjoy it and too busy to participate in the challenges, but I am continuing to make moderate reading progress. Here's my tally for day 5:
  • read Ramshackle Roost by Jane Flory
  • read The Lost Umbrella of Kim Chu by Eleanor Estes
  • read With a Name Like Lulu, Who Needs More Trouble? by Tricia Springstubb 
  • read A Grandmother for the Orphelines by Natalie Savage Carlson

Friday, January 6, 2017

Bout of Books Progress for 1/5/17 (Day 4)

Bout of Books 18

I still have a sore throat, but my children both actually napped after lunch so I was able to sneak in some reading for day four. Here's what I ended up accomplishing:
  • finished The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline by Lois Lowry
  • read Switcharound by Lois Lowry
  • read Your Move, J.P.! by Lois Lowry 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Bout of Books Progress for 1/4/17 (Day 3)

Bout of Books 18

Day 3 was not quite as productive as day 2, in part because I am still fighting a cold. Here's how I did:
  • finished Over the Hills and Far Away by Lavinia Russ
  • finished The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs
  • started The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline by Lois Lowry

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Bout of Books Progress for 1/3/17 (Day 2)

Bout of Books 18

Despite getting only a few hours of sleep thanks to a sick toddler, and then coming down with her cold myself, I had a decently productive day of reading on day 2. Here's my progress:

  • finished Read and Buried by Erika Chase
  • read The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton
  • read The Night Swimmers by Betsy Byars
  • started Over the Hills and Far Away by Lavinia Russ

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Bout of Books Progress for 1/2/17 (Day 1)

Bout of Books 18
This is the first time ever in my four times participating in Bout of Books that I have not finished a book on the first day. It was our last day of Christmas vacation with my husband home, and I had dinner plans with a friend, so lot of my reading time was taken up with other things, but I still expected to have something more to show for the day.

But all I read this entire day was 147 pages of Read and Buried by Erika Chase.

I really hope that I will be able to do better on day two.

Monday, January 2, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? for January 2, 2017

It's Bout of Weeks week! Also known as the week in which I try to set aside all else and read as much as possible. (Bout of Books happens three times a year, and it is a great experience. I always get so much reading done and the other participants are lovely to chat with. Click here to learn more.) So, since I'm trying to read as much as possible and get a jump-start on my reading challenges, I have lots of books to talk about, for both kids and adults.

Yesterday, I kicked off the year by reading The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett, which I have known about for years and finally found on OpenLibrary.org. It was a great realistic story about growing up in a working class family in England in the 1930s. The book won the Carnegie Medal in 1938, which makes it a perfect fit for this month's Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge topic, Award Winners. I also read four vintage picture books that we own but I had never touched:  I will be counting those toward the Picture Book Reading Challenge.

I'm also reading The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs (again, from OpenLibrary because I like seeing a scan of the original book rather than the reformatted text and illustrations of the version available from the University of Pennsylvania). This one will count for Old School Kidlit, Newbery Through the Decades, and the Newbery Reading Challenge, though Newbery Through the Decades is the reason I'm reading it now, since this month's focus is on the 1920s. I've actually been surprised twice now by how accessible these books from the 20s actually are. I loved both Downright Dencey and The Trumpeter of Krakow, and this one is proving better and better as it goes on.

My other current read is an adult cozy mystery for the Craving for Cozies Challenge: Read and Buried by Erika Chase. This is the second book of the series, and I like it well enough, though I feel a little lost when there are references to past events as it has been months since I read the first book. But I like the main character, Lizzie, who is a reading specialist, and so far I have no idea who committed the murder, which is not always the case when I read cozies. It does have a similar plot to the first Books by the Bay mystery, A Killer Plot by Ellery Adams, but I can't blame the author. There are only so many book-themed mystery plots to go around.

On my list for the rest of the week are...
  • Love Walks In by Samantha Chase, which is the second in her Shaughnessy Brothers series. For the most part, I like the character development in Chase's romances, but I wish more of them avoided premarital sexual relations. There is never anything so explicit that I feel I shouldn't read it, but I read romance for the characters, not the sexual content, and I prefer Debbie Macomber's almost entirely sex-free books. 
  • Over the Hills and Far Away by Lavinia Russ. My husband and I recently read her collection of essays, The Girl on the Floor Will Help You, and I loved her wit and strong opinions about children's books. Some of the same events and details she relates in Girl on the Floor make their way into Over the Hills and Far Away and I'm looking forward to finishing it in the next few days.
  • The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon. I have wanted to read this for a long time, and it turns out to be a Carnegie Medal winner, so I'm hoping to get through it in time to review it for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge this month. Hopefully, I'll zip through it as part of the read-a-thon this week.

  • House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton. I read this in middle school and definitely didn't understand it that well, and have been meaning to re-read it for years. I still have to track down our copy, but it's an Edgar Award book so if not this week, then definitely before the month is out.
  • Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We own this entire series and I have never read all the way to the end, so I might take that on this year. This will be a nice quick book to have on hand for the end of the week when I want to up my Bout of Books numbers.
  • Betsy Byars books. I love Betsy Byars and her books are usually around 150 pages and easy to get through in an hour. I have a lot of them on my to-read shelf on Goodreads, so I might use this week as an excuse to cross a few of them off the list. 
What are you reading this week? 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, January 2017 (Award Winners)

Happy New Year! Today marks the start of the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge. General information about the challenge can be found here.

This month's focus is Award Winners. To participate, read an award-winning children's book (or books) published in the decade of your birth or before. (Honor books also count.)

Need help finding award winners? Here are some lists:

Feel free to share what you're planning to read here in the comments and/or on social media using #oldschoolkidlit2017. The link-up post for the reviews you publish this month will be posted on Tuesday, January 31.