Sunday, February 25, 2018

The RAHK Report for 2/25/18

A very eclectic list of books this week. Our interests are very broad!

  • Twelve Kinds of Ice by Ellen Bryan Obed, illustrated by Barbara McClintock
    We finished this lunch-time read aloud in just a few days. It felt a bit silly reading about ice when it's been in the 70s here lately, and by the end of the book, only Miss Muffet (4 years, 3 months) was really interested, but it was still a worthwhile choice. The writing is lovely, as are the illustrations. 
  • Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, read by Cherry Jones
    Miss Muffet has finished reading this book independently so when we took a drive to a used book sale yesterday, we listened to the audiobook in the car. The narrator is excellent, and I especially enjoy the fiddle interludes at the beginnings of the some of the chapters, as well as the fact that the narrator sings whenever the text calls for it. Miss Muffet paid more attention than Bo Peep (2 years, 5 months) but even she was interested in a good portion of the book. 
  • Penny and Peter by Carolyn Haywood
    This is the next chapter book we've selected for Miss Muffet. She has been narrating the events of the story quite animatedly so I would say she's enjoying it. Carolyn Haywood is such a gift to very early readers.
  • Story of the Presidents of the United States by Maud and Miska Petersham
    We started reading this on Presidents Day and a week later, we've read about Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, and Harrison. Bo Peep has no patience at all for nonfiction right now, so she has a fit every time I pick up this book in her presence. I'm actually not reading it for her, so Miss Muffet and I have had to look for times when Bo Peep is doing something else to sneak in a little reading. Miss Muffet definitely does not understand everything she hears in this book, but she does seem to like the general idea of tracing the history of our country. 
  • Professor Noah's Spaceship by Brian Wildsmith
    I've had this book since I was a kid, and in all that time, I think I've only read it twice. Despite the fact that I haven't read it to them in a long time, both Bo Peep and Miss Muffet have been seen carrying it around with them this past week. I think Miss Muffet has actually been reading it, whereas Bo Peep was telling a story of her own. One afternoon, I heard her saying goodnight to each of the animals as though they were about to take naps.
  • Of Swans, Sugarplums, and Satin Slippers: Ballet Stories for Children by Violette Verdy, illustrated by Marcia Brown
    Bo Peep has grown fond of this book, though I don't think anyone has actually read any of the stories to her yet. Both she and Miss Muffet like to put on tutus and pretend to be ballerinas so I think it is the illustrations of people dancing that are mainly interesting to her right now.
  • Ten Little Babies by Gyo Fujikawa
    I occasionally ask Bo Peep to choose what we should read to Jumping Joan (4 months). This was her pick this week, most likely because the babies reminded her of her favorite book, Oh What a Busy Day, also by Fujikawa. Jumping Joan isn't picky, and she was very attentive to the pictures as I read.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book Review: Life Story by Virginia Lee Burton (1962)

Life Story is Virginia Lee Burton's seventh and final book, published in 1962. In a prologue and five acts, Burton traces the story of life on earth, beginning with the birth of the sun and the formation of our planet, and highlighting major periods of the paleozoic, mesozoic, cenozoic, and recent eras, before concluding with a section on the seasons of the year and times of the day. Illustrated with full-color paintings and black-and-white diagrams, this book helps young children place themselves in time, space, and history, and provides them with an overview of natural history and evolution that can serve as a scaffold on which later deeper study can build.

This book is truly a masterpiece. I don't think I have ever read a more engaging, more attractive, or more emotionally resonant nonfiction book for children, or for any other audience. Burton includes details that are interesting to children - what creatures ate, the fact that cephalapods had feet on their heads, volcanic activity, the discovery of fire by early human beings - but she also drives home the fleeting nature of our own lives and the brevity of our era as compared with all those eons that have gone before.

Though there is no explicit mention of religion in this book, I found it very easy to see God's hand in everything Burton describes. For me, as a Catholic, I accept evolution as the means by which God accomplished his creation, and it was easy to present that worldview to my four-year-old as I shared the book with her. The details in the illustrations also make it possible for kids who don't read yet to enjoy the book and to gain a basic understanding of the changes to our planet and its inhabitants over time.

Apparently, this book was updated in 2009 to correct some outdated information (about Pluto, and brontosauruses, and other similar details), but I own the original edition and plan to stick with it. With the Internet at our fingertips, and other books in our collection, we'll be able to fill in any newly-discovered information that has been left out without having to try and figure out which pieces of Burton's text have been changed. It also saves me from the annoying political correctness of seeing "prehistoric man" changed to "prehistoric humans," which seems like such a petty little edit to make to such a wonderful book. Even my four-year-old understands that "man" (or "men" as she hears it in the Nicene creed at Mass) is a generic term intended to include all people and not an oppressive word designed to keep her and other girls out.

This is a book to own, to cherish, and to read many times over. I cannot say enough about how much I enjoyed it or how wonderfully it makes a big concept - the very nature of life on Earth - into something a child can easily wrap his mind around.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Book Review: Thatcher Payne-in-the-Neck by Betty Bates (1985)

In this 1985 middle grade novel, Kimberly "Kib" Slocum, the narrator, and Thatcher Payne are best friends who spend their summers together at Trout Lake. A few years ago, Kib's mom and Thatcher's dad were killed when the small plane in which they were traveling during a storm crashed. Now there is lots of enmity between the adults in both families, which occasionally puts on a strain on Kib and Thatcher's friendship. A desire to fix the rift between their families drives the two friends to hatch a scheme to bring their widowed parents together romantically. When it looks their plan might work, however, Kib begins to second-guess wanting to be in the same family as her best friend.

This is another book I discovered via @yearlingreads on Instagram, and which I then borrowed from Open Library. Despite the sad backstory, this is actually a very humorous little novel, which explores the fantasy some kids have of having their best friends become their siblings. The road to romance is pretty smooth for the parents, which doesn't feel particularly realistic, especially given the strain on the relationship between the two families, but the kids' adjustment to being year-round siblings instead of just seasonal best friends does have the ring of truth.

The illustrations are by Linda Strauss Edwards, who also illustrated a lot of Jamie Gilson's books that I remember from childhood. Each chapter has one pen-and-ink drawing, showing a key moment from the text. The faces on Edwards's figures remind me a little bit of Mercer Mayer, and I like the way she captures the details of clothing and facial expressions. She does a good job of bringing out the various emotions involved in Kib and Thatcher's unusual situation, and the clothes they wear are decidedly a product of their time. 

This book moved a little too quickly and tied things up a little too neatly for my taste as an adult, but as a kid, I know the upbeat tone of the text, and the quickness with which problems are resolved would have been necessary to distract me from the sadness of the characters having lost their parents. This isn't a book I feel I would ever need to own, but I'm glad to have read it, and would gladly read more by this author.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book Review: Hooper by Geoff Herbach (2018)

Adam Reed, formerly Adam Sobieski, spent his childhood in Poland in less-than-ideal circumstances. Now that he has been adopted by Renata, his American mother, he lives in Minnesota and attends the local high school, where he is an up-and-coming basketball star and best friend to outsider Barry, who has a number of family issues himself. Though Adam knows that basketball is his passport to all the good things life has to offer, and has in fact been invited to join a prestigious travel team called the Fury, there are some roadblocks standing between him and success. He lacks confidence in his skills as an English speaker, so he often does not talk to his classmates or teammates, leading them to assume he is either disabled in some way or a snob. He also has problems managing his anger and worries about losing his temper as he sometimes did in Poland, which would jeopardize his career. With the help of Carli Anderson, another basketball star who has great empathy for Adam, and his teammates on the Fury, Adam slowly begins to come to terms with his past and to come into his own as both a person and a basketball player.

I have yet to read a Geoff Herbach book I didn't love. While Hooper is more serious than Herbach's wonderful Stupid Fast trilogy, it is every bit as engrossing and fast-paced. Herbach has such a talent for creating believable characters, and Adam may be his most layered protagonist yet. Though many issues are touched on in this book - identity, diversity, racism, child abuse, immigration - the strength of the main character keeps the story from becoming bogged down in political messages. The motivation to keep reading is not the desire to see how one particular conflict is resolved, but to find out what happens to the endearing Adam in all aspects of his life.

The descriptions of sports in this book are also great. I am not someone who follows sports, but I love sports fiction, and the basketball action in this book is as entertaining as everything else. Herbach does a perfect job of balancing descriptions of plays with Adam's thoughts during games and practices, and even someone like me who knows very little about sports vocabulary has no problem following everything that takes place. Herbach always reminds me of Chris Crutcher; with this book, the comparison becomes even more apt. But whereas Crutcher's characters are often very obvious representations of particular causes and problems, Herbach's Adam is just a completely believable and well-rounded person who happens to face some issues. Even after he ceases to have these problems, he would still be interesting to read about.

Hooper  is geared toward a teen audience, but the content is certainly appropriate for younger readers as well. There is some romance, but nothing particularly steamy, and the interplay between Adam and his teammates is very reminiscent of the way characters interact in Jason Reynolds's middle grade Track series. Kids who like Fred Bowen as fourth and fifth graders could also easily move on to this book in middle school and enjoy it, especially if they are big basketball fans.

It's early in the year, but I'm already fairly certain Hooper will make my list of favorite books of the year. I'd love to see Herbach also receive some award recognition for his consistently excellent writing. Maybe in 2019? Either way, Hooper is a must-read for fans of YA sports novels. (Thanks to Edelweiss for the ARC. Hooper is out today, February 20th.)

Monday, February 19, 2018

The RAHM Report for 2/19/18

What My Kids Are Reading


Read this week's Read-at-Home Kids Report to learn the fate of our copy of Blueberries for Sal and which book my four-year-old read cover to cover one morning before breakfast. 

What I Finished Reading

 

  • Happy Little Family by Rebecca Caudill
    This was our most recent lunch-time read-aloud. It's a very sweet story, reminiscent of Little House on the Prairie, but with more kids and fewer life-and-death situations. There are sequels, but not all of them are easy to find, so it might be a while before I get to them. 
  • Lucky Enough by Fred Bowen (ARC)
    I always enjoying Fred Bowen's books, and this was no exception. This one is about sports superstitions and the importance of working hard rather than relying on good luck charms. I don't think it's his best book, but I still really liked it.
  • I Know You, Al by Constance C. Greene
    There is a lot more frank puberty talk in this book than in the first of the series, which kind of surprised me, but it wasn't anything more than you'd find in a Judy Blume book. I do like how quirky Al is, and the way this book explores more of her family dynamics. 
  • The Dark Stairs by Betsy Byars
    This is the first book in Byars's Herculeah Jones series. It's different from her other books - more mainstream and formulaic - but not bad. I'll be reviewing it, probably along with the rest of the series once I finish reading it.

  • Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien (ARC)
    This is a really good new cozy mystery coming out at the end of March. (I had an ARC from Edelweiss.) The plot was a little bit predictable, but the setting (a shopping plaza dedicated to Asian businesses) and the characters (the various merchants who work in the plaza and their friends and family members) were really well-done. I'm already eager for the second book, which has a great title: Dim Sum of All Fears.
  • Clouds in My Coffee by Julie Mulhern
    I liked this book both because the mystery was intriguing and because it focused so much on relationships between sisters. I didn't think it was quite as strong as the first book of the series, which is still my favorite, but it was a quick and enjoyable read.

What I'm Currently Reading


  • All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot
    It's taking me a long time to read this, but I'm making steady progress and enjoying it just as much as All Creatures Great and Small
  • The Julius House by Charlaine Harris
    I'm not crazy about Aurora's love interest and impending marriage in this book, but I am intrigued by the mystery surrounding the former owners of her newly-purchased house. I expect this to be a quick read.
  • Fatal Frost by Karen Macinerney
    I was fortunate to win a prize from the Winter's Respite Read-a-thon I did in January. I won a Kindle book up to $2.99, and this book, which I've been wanting to read and which my local libraries don't have, happened to be $2.00. I've just glanced at the first page so far, but I'm excited to get back into the series.
  • Bingo Brown's Guide to Romance by Betsy Byars
    For some reason, I never finished this series. I'm reading it now as part of my quest to read all of Betsy Byars's books by the end of 2018.
  • The Little Oratory by David Clayton & Leila Marie Lawler
    My book club is reading this for our March meeting. I've been wanting to read it for a long time, so though I haven't really started it yet I'm excited for it. 
I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


Sunday, February 18, 2018

The RAHK Report for 2/18/18

With Mardi Gras, Valentine's Day, and Ash Wednesday all happening this week, plus a break in the weather that meant we could go to the playground without coats, we have been busy these past few days. But not too busy to sneak in a good amount of reading. Here is this week's Read-at-Home Kids Report.

  • Twelve Kinds of Ice by Ellen Bryan Obed, illustrated by Barbara McClintock
    We finished Happy Little Family by Rebecca Caudill on Monday, and moved onto this short, lyrical book about an icy Maine winter, filled with joyful descriptions of anticipating, enjoying, and lamenting the end of ice skating season. Little Bo Peep (age 2) is not that interested, but Little Miss Muffet (age 4) really loves it. 
  • Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey
    Little Bo Peep loved this book a little too hard this week and tore a page. We had to confiscate the book for mending - and for its own protection. (Bo Peep is a lot rougher on books than her big sister ever was.)

  • The Way of the Cross for Children by Jude Winkler
    Miss Muffet spent the whole first part of the day on Ash Wednesday reading this St. Joseph picture book to herself cover to cover. I had it out so we could begin to prepare for actually going to stations one Friday this Lent, but it was completely her idea to read it so thoroughly! 
  • Mary Holds My Hand: A Child's Book of Rosary Meditations by Michele Chronister
    With a gift certificate we received from a friend for Jumping Joan's baptism, I ordered three mini decade rosaries from Chews Life, which arrived in the mail this week. On Friday, all three girls held onto a mini decade and we prayed the first sorrowful mystery of the Rosary using the meditation provided in this book. Even Jumping Joan (4 months) seemed to enjoy participating in what Miss Muffet would call "her own baby way" and Miss Muffet surprised me by accurately counting ten Hail Marys without having to watch me. 

  • Tell Me a Mitzi by Lore Segal, illustrated by Harriet Pincus
    I remember borrowing this book from the public library as a kid, despite the fact that the illustrations gave me the creeps. When I found it on Open Library, though, I recognized in it a sense of humor and imagination that I knew would resonate with Little Miss Muffet. There are three stories in the book, all told by the parents of a girl named Martha, who frequently requests to hear stories about a made-up little girl named Mitzi who has a baby brother named Jacob.  I read it aloud to her and she loved it, even if she was a little bit confused sometimes about what was real and what was in Martha's parents' imaginations. 
  • All the Way Home by Lore Segal, illustrated by James Marshall
    I had never heard of this book, but found it on Open Library after reading Tell Me a Mitzi. This one is a repetitive story about animals who follow a little girl home from the park after she falls and refuses to stop crying. I tried to get Miss Muffet to make the animal sounds each time the animal names were repeated, but she insisted that I just get on with it and read. I think Bo Peep will also like this book, so  I'll try it out with her during the coming week. 
  • The Sick-in-Bed Birthday by Linda Wagner Tyler, illustrated by Susan Davis
    I have never actually read this book aloud to anyone, but Bo Peep has been carrying it around with her for a couple of days and when she doesn't have it, Miss Muffet has been reading it to her doll, Baby Robin. The story is a bit dated now, as it involves a child getting chicken pox for her birthday. This happened to me sister when she was four, but it's not too likely to happen to any of my kids now that there is a vaccine. Still, something about the book has attracted both of my older girls and I expect to read it aloud to them this week. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book Review: The 18th Emergency by Betsy Byars (1973)

Benjie (also called Mouse) likes to draw labels on things, and one day he labels a poster of a caveman at school with class bully Marv Hammerman's name, and Hammerman sees him do it.  Though Mouse and his friend, Ezzie, have spent a lot of time thinking up plans for handling emergencies - quicksand and boa constrictors, tarantula bites and falls from cliffs, charging bulls and hungry lions - Benjie is woefully unprepared for the wrath of Marv Hammerman, which is about to descend on him in full force. Benjie is desperate to escape being beaten up at first, but as he begins to see things from Hammerman's point of view, he realizes that he must accept the consequences of his actions, come what may.

I found this book very interesting, mostly because I think most of what happens in it would be handled very differently in a contemporary setting. For one thing, with so many zero tolerance policies for bullying in public schools now, there is no way Benjie would have gotten away with his graffiti without adults getting involved. At the very least, teachers would be searching for the student who had defaced school property. I am also skeptical that many kids solve their problems with physical fighting in this way. Any fight I ever witnessed in school was always a spur-of-the-moment thing, brought on by uncontrolled emotions and quickly broken up by adults. I never knew of anyone to "meet at the flagpole after school" to settle their problems, as though fighting were a matter of honor. 

I am also unclear as to whether Byars condones physical fighting among boys. The book, my edition of which was marketed as part of the Just For Boys series from Weekly Reader, seems to suggest that the right thing for Benjie to do is to allow Hammerman to beat him up, but it's hard for me to imagine why that would be the author's only message. Compared to Byars's other books, which frequently have open-ended or only partially resolved conclusions, this one seemed more tied up at the end, but the resolution felt odd to me, because it felt like Benjie learned the wrong lesson. Perhaps the idea is that the reader is left to critique Benjie's actions and to decide whether getting beaten up truly should have made him feel better, but I'm not sure a kid would read anything into it beyond the seeming glorification of fighting. Not that I think a single book is enough to promote physical violence, but there was a strange "boys will be boys" vibe to this book that felt very outdated. 

This is not my favorite Betsy Byars book, as it lacks the subtlety of some of her other books. Still, the characters come across strongly, and I think there is a lot for young boys to relate to, even if Benjie is not always an ideal role model. I bought this book at a used book sale so I'll probably hang onto it for a while, but I'm reserving judgment on whether to share it with my kids, or whether they will even be interested. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book Review: Meaning Well by Sheila R. Cole (1975)

Meaning Well is a middle grade novella published in 1975, which I discovered by way of  a post from @yearlingreads, one of my favorite accounts on Instagram, and then borrowed from Open Library. It is the story of a sixth grader named Lisa who wants more than anything to impress her best friend, Susan, who is popular among her classmates but sometimes cruel to those who are not as popular. In the first scene of the book, a class presentation is interrupted by an outburst by the father of Peggy, a girl in the sixth grade class who is a poor student. Rumors begin to fly about Peggy's family, making accusations about drunkenness, and though Lisa wants to reach out to Peggy, her friendship with Susan makes it difficult. When Lisa attends Peggy's birthday party, however, she realizes that she enjoys the girl's company, and that of her family as well. Now Lisa must make a choice, one that will show her the difference between meaning well and actually doing the right thing.

If this plot feels a little bit familiar, it's probably because you have also read The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, which was published in 1944. Of course, bullying is the subject of many books for this age group, so it's not unusual for two books published 30 years apart to have the same general theme, but there are enough similarities between these two specific stories that I think Meaning Well must have been a tribute, or at least a response to the earlier Estes book. Not only are the endings basically the same, but they also involve characters with similar names. The bullying victim in The Hundred Dresses is named Wanda Petronski, while Lisa's last name in Meaning Well is Petrovsky. I think it must be more than coincidence that these names only differ by two letters.

On its own merits, Meaning Well is believable and well-written. The situations described in the story rang true to my experiences in elementary school in the late '80s and early '90s, and I imagine to experiences of many people who grew up during the '70s as well. (Valentines were handled a little differently in the '80s - by then you were required to bring one for every classmate, not just the ones you liked - but that was the only thing that seemed a little off to me.) There are always Susans and Lisas and Peggys, and sixth grade does seem to be the year that they begin to settle into their roles. The girls who play these roles in this book come across as real kids and there are lot of subtle references to familial and socioeconomic differences among the three that clearly feed into their interactions with one another. When it comes to reflecting real life at the time of its publication, this book really succeeds.

Still, I feel a little bit like this book steals some of the thunder from The Hundred Dresses, which is a great book that doesn't feel as outdated as one might think based on its age, and which has something distinctive about it that just doesn't wear off with age. Certainly I think girls who like books of this type would enjoy both (as well as Blubber, which really drives home the anti-bullying message more than any other book), but it would be a shame not to read The Hundred Dresses first. Personally, though, I think older books handle this topic much better than newer ones, and I would not hesitate to share this with a girl who finds herself involved in a bullying scenario, whether she is the bully, the bystander, or the victim herself. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Why Most Romance Novels Make Me Blush

Among my favorite books as a teenager were Sarah Dessen's Keeping the Moon, Thames Doesn't Rhyme with James by Paula Danziger, and The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman by Louise Plummer. All of these were romance novels, but they also offered more than romance: believable friendships, quirky family members, festive holiday celebrations, reflections on life, change, and growing up. The romantic storyline in each book ends happily, of course, as this is a convention of the genre, but there were reasons to re-read the books beyond the love story.

As an adult, though I would still very much like to read stories about two well-developed characters with well-developed lives falling in love, I can't seem to find very many titles that I can enjoy without turning red in the face with discomfort and embarrassment. Today, in response to Top Ten Tuesday's Love Freebie topic for this week, and also in response to Blog All About It's February prompt of "Red" I want to share the reasons many of the romance novels I have encountered have made me blush. (I will also be sharing this post in a link-up for the Book Bloggers Discussion Challenge.)


Explicit descriptions of sex.

The biggest issue I have with certain romance novels is the long and specific descriptions of sexual activity. At least if the scenes fade to black, I can quickly gloss over the sex scene and get back to the interesting secondary characters and the life events that have to be overcome before the happy ending. But when an author spends several paragraphs describing actions in detail, I can't help but catch a few key words and phrases as I try to skim past them. And inevitably these scenes are so vividly detailed they make me squirm. I wish it was easier to tell before reading 100 pages of a book that these kinds of scenes would be in there!


Sexual behavior of teens.

While I do like YA books, I am also squeamish about sexual scenes involving characters who are minors, or even young characters who are technically consenting adults. It just feels inappropriate to me, particularly now that I'm a mom, to find entertainment in reading about kids in sexual situations. So when sex pops up in a teen book, even if it's mostly just implied, I always find myself frantically flipping through that section to avoid feeling creepy.


Male commentary about how women look/dress. 

Another thing that weirds me out is when a male character in a romance novel comments either aloud or in an internal monologue about a specific part of a woman's body (aside from eyes or hair), or a particular article of clothing. I read a book last year in which the male lead was constantly talking about how the heroine looked in high heels. His obsession with this felt uncomfortable to me, and I didn't feel like I knew anything about why this man liked this woman except for the way she looked in certain shoes. Even though there wasn't as much explicit sexual content in that book, the focus on the shoes when they did have a sex scene made me really uncomfortable. I also feel like some romance novels tend to diminish their male characters, making them appear to be driven by only one thing.

Half-naked people on book covers.

There are some romance novels - especially listed on NetGalley, it seems - that make me uncomfortable even just to look at because of the suggestive images on their front covers. In some ways, I am thankful that these covers exist because they make it easy to identify which books are definitely going to be too much for me, and they save me the trouble of getting attached to characters only to find myself totally blindsided by explicit content halfway through a book. But even if they do warn me away from the books I don't like, they still instinctively make me want to shield my eyes!

Sexual jokes and crude language.

This last one is probably tied to my overall hatred of using topics that are controversial or provocative to get an easy reaction out of readers. In kids' books, this usually manifests itself as toilet humor; in some romance novels, it comes out in sexual jokes. Surely it is possible to portray a character as funny or fun-loving without resorting to the most base level of humor. I'd take witty banter over dirty jokes any day.

So there you have them: my issues with finding a romance novel that doesn't make me cringe. I realize that sex scenes are considered a convention of the romance genre, so I know better than to go into a book expecting no sex at all, but I still can't help but be shocked by some of what is contained in books that otherwise look completely innocent.  I read books primarily for their characters, so I care much more about the emotional and mental connections between two personalities and much less about their physical connections. It's frustrating not to be able to find many books that focus more on love and less on lust.

What about you? Does anything in romance novels (or another genre) make you uncomfortable to the point of blushing? Which love stories would you recommend to a reader like me who likes her romance novels as sex-free as possible? Share your thoughts below! 


Monday, February 12, 2018

The RAHM Report for 2/12/18

What My Kids Are Reading


New picture books from Candlewick and a couple of Valentine-themed reads are in this week's Read-at-Home Kids Report.


What I Finished Reading


  • The Wonderful Farm by Marcel Aymé
    I read this book aloud to my two older girls (ages 2 and 4) after lunch for several weeks. It's really different from other animal stories, and well-written, and the illustrations are by the inimitable Maurice Sendak. (This was the first children's book he illustrated!) My review is scheduled for March 15th. 
  • Hooper by Geoff Herbach
    I have never read a Geoff Herbach book I didn't like. This is a bit different from the Stupid Fast series, but it's equally as well-written, fast-paced, and engrossing. I gave it five stars on Goodreads and will have a review up here soon. (I received an ARC from Katherine Tegen Books via Edelweiss.)
  • Hamlet and Cheese by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
    I haven't kept up with every volume of this series, and I was surprised by how good this one really is. Stink attends a Shakespeare camp, where he learns a variety of Shakespearean insults and acts out a scene from Hamlet. My review will be up soon, probably on Goodreads. (I received an ARC from Candlewick via NetGalley.) 
  • Hard to Resist by Kara Lennox
    I like to read love stories, but I don't like to read sex scenes, so I've been looking anywhere and everywhere for light-hearted and clean romance novels. I decided that I would try a book from Harlequin's "Heartwarming" line. This is not great literature, but it mostly satisfied my craving for a feel-good romance that didn't make me blush. (More on why romances often do make me blush in tomorrow's Top Ten Tuesday post...)


What I'm Currently Reading


  • A Family of Saints by Fr. Stéphane Joseph Piat, O.F.M.
    I am supposed to be reading this for my book club, but mostly I'm not doing it. Every time I try to get into it, my eyes just glaze over. I think it's too academic for me. It doesn't have enough of a hook or story arc to grab my interest. I am probably going to read a few excerpts so I don't have to skip the meeting, but I'm definitely not going to read the whole first half like I'm supposed to.
  • All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot
    I've been slow getting into this one, but so far, it meets the very high bar set by the first book of the series, All Creatures Great and Small. I expect to take a few weeks to finish this, but I'm sure it will be very enjoyable.
  • Clouds in My Coffee by Julie Mulhern
    I was listening to the audio version of this, but kept putting it aside in favor of podcasts, so now I'm reading the ebook instead. I'm enjoying main character Ellison's interactions with her sister, aunt, and police officer love interest as she tries to figure out who is trying to kill her. 
  • Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien
    This is an ARC I downloaded from Edelweiss. (The book comes out in March.) It's a cozy mystery starring a 27-year-old woman who works in her parents' Chinese restaurant. I've just started reading, but I really love the author's writing style, and I'm already looking forward to the rest of the series. 

Challenge Progress

  • The Wonderful Farm counts toward the Old School Kidlit reading challenge, while Hamlet and Cheese fulfills letter H for the A to Z Challenge. 
  • Hard to Resist fulfills letter H for the Alphabet Soup Challenge, and it also counts toward the Library Love challenge. 
  • I also posted two reviews this week, which count for the Writing Reviews challenge: Jolly Foul Play by Robin Stevens and Clementine by Betsy Byars.

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


Friday, February 9, 2018

The RAHK Report for 2/9/18

Here's the list of books that have been popular with my kids this week.

  • The Happy Little Family by Rebecca Caudill
    We finally finished The Wonderful Farm (review coming soon!) and now we're reading The Happy Little Family, which I borrowed digitally from Open Library. Little Miss Muffet (4 years, 2 months) loves the main character, Bonnie, because they are both four years old. Bo Peep (age 2 years, 4 months) mostly interrupts each chapter after a few pages to announce she would rather go play. But it's a quick read, and we only have one chapter left before we can move onto something Bo Peep might enjoy more.
  • A Drop of Blood by Paul Showers, illustrated by Don Madden
    Miss Muffet has been asking a lot of questions about health and the human body. A few questions about blood over dinner one night encouraged me to take out this book. We read it together, taking turns reading two pages at a time. I thought it was a great introduction to information about how blood is pumped, and how cuts and scrapes heal. Miss Muffet was fascinated, and we followed our reading with a SciShow Kids video on the same topic.
  • The Valentine Box by Maud Hart Lovelace, illustrated by Ingrid Fetz
    I borrowed this from Open Library because it was by the author of the Betsy-Tacy books. We don't own many preschool-friendly Valentine's Day books, so I decided to also share it with Miss Muffet. My review on Goodreads sums up our fairly apathetic reactions.
  • Love is in the Air by Jonathan Fenske
    This is not a Valentine's Day book, but it is s about love, so I decided this was a good time of the year to read it. I remember loving it when I first read and reviewed it back in 2012, but Miss Muffet didn't seem to enjoy it as much as I did. I think part of the reason is that it was too easy for her, and part of the reason was that she didn't relate to the concept of friends wanting to be together and finding it difficult. 
  • George the Drummer Boy by Nathaniel Benchley, illustrated by Don Bolognese
    Miss Muffet also read this book independently as a follow-up to Sam the Minuteman. She called this one "another shooting soldiers book" and then asked a hundred questions about troops, battles, fighting, etc. My husband satisfied her curiosity with some American Revolution reenactment videos on YouTube.

  • I'm a Duck by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Will Hillenbrand
    I received review copies from Candlewick this week! This one, a rhyming story by Eve Bunting about a duck who is afraid of the water, was the favorite of both Miss Muffet and Bo Peep. Miss Muffet said she liked the last page best, and the duck himself, while Bo Peep cited the supporting characters of the frog and the owl as her favorite parts of the book. Jumping Joan (3.5 months) also smiled happily through the whole story. 
  • The Tiptoeing Tiger by Philippa Leathers
    Of the two older girls, Bo Peep was the bigger fan of this story about a little tiger who just can't seem to scare anyone. Miss Muffet seemed puzzled by the ending, which has a bit of a humorous twist, but Bo Peep took it in stride. Neither of them asked to hear this read a second time, but Bo Peep did haul it around the house and stop to look at it between making messes.
  • Black Bird Yellow Sun by Steve Light
    This is a board book about colors. We probably have enough of these, but this one has such eye-catching illustrations and Jumping Joan, who has few books of her own, now gets to enjoy it during tummy time. She looks very intently at the illustrations, and the big girls like it because Miss Muffet can read the words and Bo Peep can guess at them based on the pictures. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Clementine by Betsy Byars (1962)

Clementine is a stuffed dragon who sits on an unnamed little boy's shelf, right between his other favorite toys, Ball and Balloon. Though Clementine looks like nothing more than a "fat green sock with eyes on the toe," he more than makes up for his homely appearance with a larger-than-life personality. In this dialogue-heavy chapter book, Clementine makes demands of his owner for things like a cave, pigs, and a "little plaid beauty" to wear, and encounters such problems as a robbery, a failed attempt to ice skate, a letter in the mail which might contain a rattlesnake, and the building of a flying machine. Through it all, the boy sticks with Clementine, loving him despite his many difficult personality traits.

In 2018, I am planning to read all the books Betsy Byars has written that I have not already previously read. Clementine is her very first children's book, published in 1962. This book is apparently not very well known, considering I had to add it to Goodreads myself to be able to mark that I had read it, but luckily it is available online courtesy of the Hathi Trust. Though this book is more fanciful than most of Byars's other works, I was pleasantly surprised by how funny and clever the whole story is. Clementine is a character of the same ilk as Ellen's lion or Amanda's alligator, and the fast-paced conversations between him and his owner made me laugh out loud. Betsy Byars has said that she feels she does not write description well so she doesn't include a lot of it, and that dialogue comes easily for her. This book definitely proves this point, as the dialogue is delightful and there is very little narration aside from simple explanations of physical actions.

Also charming are the illustrations by Charles Wilton. Many of his pictures are done in a very simple color palette consisting of black with shades of green and brown, and others are even more basic pen-and-ink drawings, but Clementine's facial expressions in each illustration get right to the heart of his big personality and his high-running emotions. I think my favorite illustration of the whole book is of the moment when Clementine, eager to visit a farm and meet some pigs, draws little pig pictures in his own breath on the car window.


Because the story is so narrowly focused on the relationship between a boy and his stuffed toy, there is very little in it that feels outdated even 50+ years after its publication. I actually think if this book were re-released today, it would find a fond audience among beginning chapter book readers, and especially among early readers like my four-year-old. I plan to read the book aloud to my two oldest daughters (the second-oldest is two) in the near future, as I think they will find it funny, and the dialogue just begs to be read aloud.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Book Review: Jolly Foul Play by Robin Stevens (2018)

Jolly Foul Play is the fourth book about 1930s British school girl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong and is set to be published in April. After several books set away from the girls' boarding school, the action now returns to Deepdean with the start of a new term. Upon arriving back at school, Daisy and Hazel are dismayed to discover that things have changed. There is a new head girl, the much-despised Elizabeth Hurst, and she has a team of dreadful "big girls" serving under her as prefects. Things take a shocking turn, however, when, on Bonfire Night, Elizabeth is killed, most likely at the hand of one of her closest friends. Of course, Wells and Wong are on the case almost right away, looking for clues even as members of the school faculty try to brush the murder off as an accident caused by a careless janitor. At the same time, Hazel continues to develop more of a spine, not to mention a secret romance with fellow detecting enthusiast Alexander, which causes a lot of tension in her friendship with Daisy.

In terms of plot and character development, this is the best book of this wonderful series so far. Every time I finish one of these books, I wish I lived in the UK so I wouldn't have to wait so long for the next one to come out, and that has never been more true than when I got to the end of this story. Stevens is a consistently excellent writer, to the point that she even makes the number of crimes these girls have helped solve feel realistic. (As much as I love Deepdean, it does help that each mystery has been set in a different location.)

Parents of a Catholic bent similar to my own might want to know that there is some lesbian subtext in this book, and even a revelation that one girl at school actually has romantic feelings for another. I could see some of this coming early in the book, and perhaps even in subtle ways in previous books, but it's pretty blatant when it is revealed, and it seems like there may be more to come. It's not going to keep me from the rest of the series  but I don't have children old enough to read it hanging around my house, either. I'm not sure there is enough here to warrant skipping the book altogether, but there may be a conversation families want to have before, during, or after reading this particular title.

In any case, this book will be greatly satisfying for readers who like puzzles, as there are a good number of clues to piece together, and it's also a treat for fans of school stories, as everything connected to the murder is also related to the culture of Deepdean itself. Stevens's writing is just a breath of fresh air, and I hope it won't be too long before book five, Mistletoe and Murder, makes its way across the pond. (Thanks to Simon & Schuster and Edelweiss for the ARC of this book.)

Monday, February 5, 2018

The RAHM Report for 2/5/18

What My Kids Are Reading


My Read-at-Home Kids Report from this past Saturday tells of my two-year-old's obsession with Gyo Fujikawa, as well as the books the baby enjoys these days and what my four-year-old is reading independently.

What I Finished Reading


  • The Boy Most Likely To by Huntley Fitzpatrick
    I was so pleasantly surprised by this book. I gushed about it pretty excessively in my Goodreads review.
  • Good Charlotte by Carol Beach York
    My husband recommended this one. It was short and sweet, and I'll have a review on the blog soon. 
  • Class Reunions Are Murder by Libby Klein
    This is a really well-written and fun cozy mystery. My review is on Goodreads. (Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC!)
  • The Glory Girl by Betsy Byars
    I was planning to read this anyway, and decided to pair it with A Fine White Dust for a little book battle, as suggested by Living Read Girl. Not my favorite Byars, but it does have some of the classic hallmarks of her work. The post comparing both books is here
  • A Fine White Dust by Cynthia Rylant
    This was interesting and well-written and it paired really well with The Glory Girl. See link above for the comparison and to find out which book I declared the winner. 
  • Does Anybody Care About Lou Emma Miller? by Alberta Wilson Constant
    My husband gave me a used (and signed!) copy of this book for Christmas. I tried to make it last for a little while, but it's such a quick read that once I got going, I couldn't stop! Set during the 1920s, it reminded me a bit of the Betsy-Tacy books, just set a few years later. Review is forthcoming. 
  • Advent of Dying by Sister Carol Anne O'Marie
    I love Sister Mary Helen and the fact that this book is set during Advent. The Catholic aspect of the series appeals to me, but they're also really compelling mysteries and the main character has a wonderful sense of humor and spunky personality. I liked this one even better than the first book! 


What I'm Currently Reading


  • Clouds in My Coffee by Julie Mulhern
    I'm listening to the audiobook for now, but I might give in and download the ebook from Hoopla so I can finish it faster. The audiobook narrator, Callie Beaulieu, is excellent, though, and this book is just as funny and clever as the first two. 
  • A Family of Saints by Fr. Stéphane Joseph Piat, O.F.M.
    My book club is reading half of this for our next meeting. I've started it three times and the most I've managed to read is about five pages. I want to learn about St. Therese's family, but the writing style just isn't working for me. I may end up going to the meeting without completing all of the reading.
  • All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot
    I've only read the first few pages, but I can't wait to get into this more. I just love this series. 

Challenge Progress

My challenge progress is slowing down a little bit as the second month of the year begins, but I'm still ahead of where I thought I'd be!

  • Four of the books I read this week county toward the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge:  Good Charlotte, The Glory Girl, A Fine White Dust, and Does Anybody Care about Lou Emma Miller? Letters D and G had already been crossed off my list for the A to Z Reading Challenge, but A Fine White Dust counted for the letter F as well. 
  • The Boy Most Likely To counts for the Library Love challenge since I borrowed the ebook from the library. It is also my 2015 book for the Family Tree Challenge.
  • Finally, Class Reunions are Murder and Advent of Dying both count toward Craving for Cozies, Cloak and Dagger, and Alphabet Soup. 
I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


Sunday, February 4, 2018

Book Battle: The Glory Girl by Betsy Byars (1983) vs. A Fine White Dust by Cynthia Rylant (1986)


Living Read Girl is hosting a Super Bowl of Reading this weekend. Her instructions: "pick a pair of books to read back-to-back in whatever genre you choose and judge for yourself which one is better." What a fun idea! I decided to read two short, religious-themed middle grade novels from the 1980s: The Glory Girl by Betsy Byars and A Fine White Dust by Cynthia Rylant.

Plot


The Glory Girl is about a family of gospel singers, all of whom can carry a tune except for the main character, Anna. Poor Anna has a terrible voice and no rhythm, so whenever her family performs, she is relegated to the back of the room where she is expected to sell as many tape recordings of her family's music as she can. This arrangement, along with her father's generally unpleasant attitude, leave Anna feeling left out and lonely much of the time. This changes, however, when her Uncle Newt is suddenly paroled and sent home from prison. Though he initially doesn't show up to meet his family upon his release,  Uncle Newt lingers on the edges of their lives, occasionally interacting with Anna, who finds in him a kindred spirit who understands her feelings of isolation. When her family is involved in a serious accident, Anna turns to Uncle Newt for help, hoping he might be able to rescue her family and also reclaim his own place in it.

A Fine White Dust is about a thirteen-year-old boy with a strong sense of religious fervor. Though his parents are not believers and his best friend is an atheist, Pete can't help but feel drawn to church, and to the Man, the preacher who comes to speak at the revival. From the moment Pete comes forward to be "saved," he feels an undying love for the Man, whom he credits with bringing him closer to Jesus. As his love for the Man grows, Pete decides he will go with him on the road to bring God's word to others, only to find that perhaps the preacher is not as wonderful - or as honest - as Pete has imagined him to be.

Each of these books has a compelling plot, and they both involve outsiders who are looking for an adult figure to help them feel a sense of belonging. While Pete's relationship to the preacher seems more likely than Anna's kinship with the uncle she barely sees, I was more comfortable reading about Anna and Uncle Newt than I was with Pete and the preacher, who makes me uneasy, mostly because of how Pete almost equates him with God. Both books are tightly plotted and very short, leaving little room for unnecessary events. Of the two, though, The Glory Girl is more outwardly exciting, while A Fine White Dust is more emotional and personal.

Characterization


Both Byars and Rylant are excellent at writing well-crafted and utterly credible characters. I think I felt more sympathy for Anna Glory, partly because she is a girl, but mostly because I could understand her longing to be a part of the family singing group. I didn't feel the same sense of understanding with Pete, as the kind of Christian worship he participates in is very far removed from what Catholics do (it reminded me of the film The Apostle) and I can't really understand his desire to participate in it. I did, however, believe fully in his desire to participate, and to be as close to the Man as possible because of the good feelings associated with his acceptance of Jesus at the revival. I felt bad for both characters, but Rylant does a better job of making me feel what her character feels even when I have never felt that way myself.

In terms of secondary characters, I think the strongest across both books is Pete's best friend, Rufus, who comes through for him time and again even when Pete hasn't been especially nice to him. There aren't a lot of scenes with Rufus, but what is written gives a really good sense of his role in Pete's life and of the close nature of their friendship. The accident-prone twins in the Glory family were also really appealing and their dialogue was funny and sounded like real brothers who both insult and defend each other in the same breath. But I also thought they were pretty similar to other boys in other Byars books.

 Treatment of Religion


A Goodreads review of The Glory Girl suggests that Betsy Byars hates religious people. I didn't get that sense at all. Yes, the Glorys are religious, and their father seems to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but I didn't take that to mean he was zealous in a negative way or that the accident was a punishment or comeuppance from God meant to show the error of his ways. Rather, the book is about two things: the way disastrous events can change a family, and the way outside influences might help a misfit child realize there is more to life than the group where she doesn't quite fit. This book was much less about religion than it was about a family that happened to be religious.

A Fine White Dust deals entirely with religion, but again, not in a negative way. Even when the truth about the preacher comes to light (which, by the way, is not as dire as my attempts to avoid spoilers make it sound), Pete is able to distinguish between the failure of a man and the failure of God. Pete also becomes more willing to look with kindness and fairness upon those who don't share his faith after the events of this book. I actually though the story would make a great jumping-off point for discussing the ways people can manipulate belief in God to suit their own purposes, and for warning against false prophets.

Quality of Writing 


The writing in both of these books is spare and concise, which I love, and I think this approach suited both stories really well. I am biased toward Betsy Byars, as I love so much of what she writes, but this was not her best book, and Rylant really writes beautifully as well. I especially like the way her story comes full circle, using the image of the fine white dust (the remains of  a cross Pete has broken in anger) to show Pete's change of heart after his brief friendship with the preacher. I could definitely see the distinctive qualities that would lead a Newbery committee to recognize this book.

And the winner is...


It's close, but in this match-up, I think the winner is A Fine White Dust. The writing is really strong, the rise and fall of the story really lovely, and Pete's emotions come across really strongly. The Glory Girl is also really good, but I think A Fine White Dust has more depth and will stick with me longer.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The RAHK Report for 2/3/18

The Read-at-Home Kids report is a weekly summary of what my three daughters have been reading. Here's this past week's reading list. 

  • The Wonderful Farm by Marcel Ayme, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
    We have just one chapter left in this book. I am really looking forward to writing a glowing review, as I and Miss Muffet (4 years, 2 months) and even Bo Peep (2 years, 4 months) to some extent, have really enjoyed it. It's unlike any other animal story I've ever read, and I think it will be a tough act to follow. 
  • Ladybug magazine, February 2018
    Miss Muffet's newest issue of Ladybug came this week, and she was thrilled as always to receive it. She can pretty much read the entire thing independently, but she decided she wanted to take turns reading it aloud with me, so that's what we did. I was pleased to find a Beatrice Schenk de Regniers poem in there, as well as an action rhyme she actually wanted to do, and a few games and activities for her to do on her own. 
  • Sam the Minuteman by Nathaniel Benchley, illustrated by Arnold Lobel
    Miss Muffet is going through easy readers at an ever-faster pace. I gave her this one after nap time yesterday and she determined that it was about "shooting soldiers." She'll be reading more Nathaniel Benchley over the weekend.

  • Oh, What a Busy Day by Gyo Fujikawa
  • Gyo Fujikawa's A to Z Picture Book
  • A Child's Book of Poems, illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa
    So determined is Bo Peep to read the works of Gyo Fujikawa that she destroyed a metal book end and nearly injured herself climbing up on the desk to get them.  She is especially fond of Oh What a Busy Day! which she likes to sit and look at by herself, chattering away about what the kids in the pictures are doing. She had less patience for the A to Z Picture Book, mostly because I wanted to try to teach her something about the alphabet and she just wanted to turn the pages. She liked the artwork in A Child's Book of Poems well enough, but she became frustrated when she realized that most of the poems were not set to music, even though "Over the River and Through the Wood" was in there and could be sung. Overall, though, she is a Fujikawa fan.
  • There's a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer 
  • The Witch Who Lives Down the Hall by Donna Guthrie, illustrated by Amy Schwartz
    Bo Peep has been interested in these books (which were mine as a child) on and off for months. This was definitely an "on" week as she kept bringing them to me over and over again, asking me to label obscure objects in the illustrations (e.g., the knob of a dresser drawer) and to make sure she had the exact correct wording of the books' titles. I have started keeping these books out where she can see them, because otherwise she empties every book basket in her frenzy to find them.

  • One Red Sun by Ezra Jack Keats
    I showed this book to Jumping Joan (3.5 months) this week, and she seemed interested in the bright colors. I don't think it was much of a hit with the older two girls, since I went to add it to the baby's Goodreads shelf and found that it had never been on my Goodreads at all! Bo Peep also sat with us when this book was out and she liked being able to "read" it to her sister. 
  • Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? by Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle
    Bo Peep suggested reading Polar Bear, Polar Bear to Jumping Joan, but it wasn't the hit she was expecting. I think it's more of a toddler favorite. 
  • All Falling Down by Margaret Bloy Graham and Gene Zion
    I grabbed this from the shelf to read to Jumping Joan just to expose her to something different that happened to be handy. She looked very intently at the illustrations, but it was the big girls who dropped everything and came over to listen. I'll probably pull this one out again in the coming weeks; maybe we'll tie it into a gravity lesson. 
  • Blue on Blue by Dianne White and Beth Krommes
    I took this out for Jumping Joan as well because I thought the patterns of the illustrations might appeal to her, but she looked at me while I was reading instead of the pictures. Miss Muffet liked this when she was a little older, and Bo Peep never really got into it, so we'll see what happens in a few months. 

Finally, we ended the week with some picture books on video. I borrowed the video adaptations of Groundhog Day by Gail Gibbons and Go To Sleep, Groundhog! by Judy Cox and Paul Meisel from the library via Hoopla and we watched them over breakfast in celebration of Groundhog Day yesterday. In the afternoon, we watched an old episode of Reading Rainbow featuring an animated version of Robert Louis Stevenson's My Shadow illustrated by Ted Rand.  

Friday, February 2, 2018

Homeschool Highlights: How We Taught Our Preschooler to Read

My oldest daughter, known here as Little Miss Muffet, is four years old, and (to my great shock!) she already knows how to read. Because I am asked occasionally (and because I want to remember our method for use with our younger two girls), today I am going to share what worked for us in terms of teaching reading to a preschooler. Your mileage may vary.  

Laying the Foundation


Before we ever even considered any formal reading instruction for Miss Muffet, we did a lot to pave the way. This was partly because my husband and I are both librarians, partly because we were early readers ourselves, and partly because our daughter seems to have a natural inclination for learning and using language. Also, because we always planned to homeschool, there was no reason to wait for the "right age" to get the ball rolling on reading. We just incorporated literacy into our everyday lives. 

These are some of the preliminary things we did before starting formal reading instruction: 
  • Reading aloud. We read aloud to Miss Muffet a lot, from birth, and through her toddler years. We didn't shy away from using big words and explaining their meanings even if she didn't quite understand them the first time. We also used a lot of word books and even an old children's dictionary to introduce new words and to help her learn the alphabet. 
  • Listening to audiobooks. When she stopped napping for a while around age 2.5, Miss Muffet was often put to bed with the audiobook version of a picture book playing in her room. I would give her a copy of the book too, so she could "read" along. She also had a subscription to Highlights High Five magazine for a while, and there is an audio version of that with page-turn signals that she really enjoyed.
  • Labeling the house. We labeled familiar items in our house with little pieces of paper so she could begin to associate letters with words and words with meanings. (She ripped a lot of these down pretty soon after they were put up, but some that were out of her reach are still in place!) We can't say this had a definite impact on her early reading, but it probably didn't hurt. 
  • Writing stories. When she was two, I started having Miss Muffet dictate stories to me about things she did during the day. Then she illustrated them with crayon drawings. This really helped to develop her sense of narrative and reinforced her knowledge of how books work. 
  • Doing a letter puzzle. My mom bought this Melissa & Doug Wooden Magnetic Alphabet Puzzle book for Miss Muffet and she took a strong liking to it right away. After our second daughter was born, Miss Muffet spent a lot of time doing this puzzle independently during times when I needed to be with the baby, and I think it helped her learn to recognize the letters and to begin understanding their sounds.
  • Playing with magnet letters. We spent a lot of time with magnet letters. We played games like The Runaway Letter and taught some of the letter sounds using consonant-vowel-consonant words.
Even if you aren't planning to teach a preschooler to read, I think all of these early literacy activities are fun to do and they still lay that foundation for when your child does eventually learn to read. I also don't think all of them are absolutely necessary. I think it was mainly the fact that literacy was such a part of her everyday life that helped Miss Muffet develop an enthusiasm for reading. (I also think the fact that we don't own a TV may have pushed her toward books.)


Reading Instruction

 

By the time Miss Muffet was about three-and-a-half, she had a definite interest in reading, and she knew all her letters and some of their sounds. This is when we started formally teaching her how to read. 

We used these resources:
  • The Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading by Jessie Wise and Sara Buffington. We bought this book because we knew we'd be homeschooling. My husband started going through the lessons with her in the evenings, and she really enjoyed it and took to it right away. She finished the entire book in about six months. 
  • Hooked on Phonics Readers. We found a used set of kindergarten Hooked on Phonics books at a library book sale and gave them to Miss Muffet one at a time. She would practice sounding out the words and reading punctuation and using proper expression until she mastered the book. Then we would make a video of her reading the book and give her the next one in the series. She loved making the videos and was always thrilled to start a new book.
I really think any set of phonics readers would do the job. Practicing sounding out words in context is the key; I don't think it matters much which phonics books you use to get that practice.  We stumbled upon the Hooked on Phonics ones, and they worked great, but they aren't great works of literature or anything. The purpose of these books is to build up the skills required to read better books. Parents in the library used to complain that phonics readers were boring, but Miss Muffet definitely didn't think so. They were the first books she could read, and that made them very special to her.  


Reinforcement 


Now that she has basic reading skills, we mostly just make sure to supply Miss Muffet with books to reinforce what she has learned and to keep challenging her. 
  • McGuffey Readers. When we ran out of Hooked on Phonics books, we moved on to these old-fashioned readers. When she was reading the Primer and First Reader, they were a little too easy for her, and she went through them fairly quickly. She is now in the Fourth Reader and things are moving a bit more slowly as we work on strengthening her comprehension skills. 
  • I Can Read Books. Once she was through the first couple of McGuffey books, Miss Muffet was ready to read "real" books with more plot and characterization. The first one she read, with lots of help, was The Fire Cat by Esther Averill. After that, we started giving her different I Can Read titles, and some easy reader books from other publishers' series. Some were almost as easy as the Hooked on Phonics readers; others were intentionally beyond her level so she could be exposed to new words. At this point, she has ready pretty much every I Can Read book up to level 2. Now we try to have her read one I Can Read book that she has previously read and one that is new to her every day after her nap.  
  • Beginning chapter books. To keep challenging her, we have also introduced some beginning chapter books into the mix. Little House on the Prairie and Betsy's Little Star by Carolyn Haywood were her first two. We don't worry a lot about reading level, but my best guess is that she is capable of reading around a third grade level right now, sometimes with some extra help with vocabulary and comprehension. 
I still read aloud to Miss Muffet a lot, and sometimes we read books together, taking turns and pausing every so often to discuss what we've read. She also reads to me, and to her siblings, a fair amount, in addition to reading to herself. You can keep up with her reading journey (and with what her siblings are enjoying) in real time by following my weekly Read-at-Home Kids Reports.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Book Review: The Password to Larkspur Lane by Carolyn Keene (1933)

Published in 1933, The Password to Larkspur Lane is the tenth book in the original Nancy Drew series, and the third and final book written by ghostwriter Walter Karig. When Nancy's housekeeper, Hannah, takes a fall, Nancy takes her to see the local physician, Dr. Spires, who has just been involved in something very unusual. Strangers blindfolded him, and dragged him into their car, then drove him to an unfamiliar location where they had him treat an elderly woman's injury. After treating the woman, as he was taken from this unknown place, Spires snatched the woman's bracelet in the hopes that he would be able to find out who she is and whether she is in danger. Dr. Spires, knowing that Nancy has a reputation as a good sleuth, and a father also known for helping people out of difficult situations, gives the bracelet to Nancy and asks her to investigate. As Nancy follows the clues with the help of her friend Helen Corning, it becomes clear that there is something sinister happening at a nearby nursing home which endangers not only many elderly patients, but also those, like Nancy, who want to uncover the truth.

I have never been a die-hard Nancy Drew fan, but I have enjoyed various volumes from the original series and its many spin-offs over the years, including The Bungalow Mystery, which I reviewed six years ago. Though I have certainly noticed Nancy's uncanny ability to do pretty much everything exceedingly well, it seemed much more prevalent in this book. It seemed like every time I turned the page, someone else was telling Nancy how amazing and brilliant she is, and Nancy was humbly dismissing their comment as though it was not deserved. Helen, in particular, is insufferably impressed with Nancy's every move in a way that is very grating and very distracting. (Then again, if I had a friend who was a talented detective and also knew how to identify and treat a sprained ankle, as well as climb out of a cistern, I might react similarly. It is ridiculous that Nancy is good at so many different difficult things!)

Still, despite Nancy's irritating perfection, this is a solid mystery story and I was definitely invested in finding out what was happening and how Nancy would bring the evildoers to justice. I can't imagine a children's book about a mystery involving a nursing home being published today, which just makes me appreciate the charm of this vintage book that much more. Also charming are the references to the culture and style of the 1930s:  roadsters, rumble seats, sanatoriums, frocks, a yacht club dance, etc. I didn't notice as much slang in this book as I found in the 1927 Hardy Boys book I read last year, but there is still an old-fashioned sensibility to the book that was enjoyable. I'm not in a big hurry to read another Nancy Drew book, but this was a fun little cozy mystery to ease into the new year, and much better than any of the modern-day Nancy Drew books.