Saturday, March 31, 2018

The RAHK Report for 3/31/18

We spent a few days in New York with my mom last week, so the girls had lots of opportunities to listen to books in the car, at Grandma's house, and when we got home again. This week's Read-at-Home Kids Report is a round-up of what they've enjoyed.


  • Homer Price by Robert McCloskey, read by John McDonough
    This was an enjoyable audiobook for my husband and me as well as for the kids. The best part is that the narrator sings when the text calls for it. We've all been singing the little tune he used ever since we finished the book.
  • Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary, read by Stockard Channing
    Four-year-old Little Miss Muffet has much in common with Ramona, and we all enjoyed this funny tale of Ramona's experiences beginning kindergarten. Stockard Channing does some accents that don't suit the Pacific Northwest setting, but she is an engaging reader. 
  • Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater, read by Nick Sullivan
    I didn't listen to this book all that carefully, but the narrator was lively, and the kids did seem to enjoy the story until they drifted off to sleep. I'll have to read it again, though, before I can say I've actually read the story.

Grandma's Books

  • Click Clack Surprise by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin
    My mom had read this book to the girls on Skype, but this was their first time seeing it in person. Bo Peep (2.5 years), especially, took a very strong liking to it, and requested multiple re-readings. This is the book Cronin and Lewin read when I saw them at the National Book Festival, and I think, after the first one, it's the best book of this series. 
  • I Can Do It Myself by Stephen Krensky
    Bo Peep read this one with Grandma, but she didn't like it nearly as much as Click Clack Surprise.
  • Ten Little Rabbits by Brimax
    This is a basic counting book. The text is okay, but the vintage illustrations are the real appeal.
  • The Easter Egg by Jan Brett
    This was a bedtime read-aloud with Grandma. I missed most of it, but the artwork is nice.
  • My First Book of Animals by Alain Gree
    My mom has 9 of these board books, and I read all of them, some with Jumping Joan, and then when she lost interest, the rest by myself. 

Gifts from Grandma

  • Mischievous Meg by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Janina Domanska
    Miss Muffet shares a nickname with the protagonist of this book, so it was a natural choice for her. The plan is for her to read this independently. 
  • All That Sunlight by Charlotte Zolotow
    Miss Muffet often memorizes and recites poetry, so my mom picked out this book for her. I haven't looked at it carefully yet, but the poems seem a bit longer than the ones in Everything Glistens and Everything Sings, which we bought previously.
  • Mrs. Peanuckle's Fruit Alphabet
    This colorful board book was a gift for Jumping Joan (5 mos.), but I can tell that all three kids will enjoy learning the names of the different fruits.
  • The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by DuBose Heyward,  illustrated by Marjorie Flack
    We have a copy of this book already, but Bo Peep was given a small gift edition that comes with a necklace. Since she tends to be rough on books, I'm happy for her to have her own copy to handle! 

Read-Alouds at Home 

  • More Milly-Molly-Mandy by Joyce Lankester Brisley
    We're still reading this at lunchtime. The most recent chapter involved a bubble bath, which both big girls thought was the greatest thing they'd ever heard.
  • The Fuzzy Little Duckling by Jane Werner Watson
    This is a Golden book I dug out of our box of Spring books. The story is pretty generic, but the artwork is very sweet. It was a good Spring story to read before Easter. 
  • P. Zonka Lays an Egg by Julie Paschkis
    This is a perennial favorite, also pulled from the Spring book stash. Miss Muffet immediately took it to read on her own after I read it aloud. 
  • Tale of Tails by Elizabeth H. MacPherson, illustrated by Garth Williams
    The rhythm of the text of this Golden book always feels off to me, but I like the old-fashioned illustrations. 
  • Little Chick by Lauren Thompson, illustrated by John Butler
    This book was Miss Muffet's prize back when we still did library summer reading programs. The illustrator has been a favorite of Bo Peep's, but she wasn't that into this book. 
  • The Bear Who Saw the Spring by Karla Kuskin
    This is my all-time favorite picture book about seasons. The text is so simple, but so poignant. 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge: March 2018 Link-Up

This is the official Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge link-up post for March! In comments, please share your reviews and posts about any "old school" books you have read this month. (Even if you're not officially signed up for the challenge you're welcome to participate with anything you've posted about a book published in the decade of your birth or before.)

Here are my "old school" reviews for the month:

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Reading Through History: Does Anybody Care About Lou Emma Miller? by Alberta Wilson Constant (1979)

My big Christmas surprise from my husband this year was a used (and signed) copy of this hard-to-find sequel to Those Miller Girls! (This is the third book. I have yet to read the second.) Lou Emma is now fifteen, and she and her sister, Maddy, age fourteen, live with their father, their stepmother, Miss Kate, and a three-year-old half-brother, Barney. The buzz around their adopted hometown of Gloriosa, Kansas is that for the first time a woman, Mrs. Lavinia Biddle, is running for mayor. All of the Millers support her candidacy wholeheartedly, and Lou Emma even has an idea for a cause that Mrs. Biddle can incorporate into her campaign platform. Unfortunately, though, Mrs. Biddle is not interested in Lou Emma's idea of opening a public library, and Lou Emma must take matters into her own hands in order to get the idea noticed.

Like the later Betsy-Tacy books, this is a novel with more teen concerns than childish ones. Lou Emma has all the self-confidence issues that often plague adolescence and they influence everything from her relationships with her dad, her sister, and her stepmom, to her budding romance with Tommy Biddle and her rivalry with obnoxious schoolmate Zetta Colby. Through the course of the book, though, Lou Emma begins to find her voice and come of age, but in a very organic and wholesome way. There is some teen rebelliousness in this book (mostly on Zetta's part), and even a bit of a catfight but nothing to scandalize a younger reader very much. I would consider it a "clean" teen read.

This book lacks some of the appeal of the first book of the series. Because Lou Emma is older and struggling to understand her parents at times, there isn't as much light-hearted family repartee in this book, and Mr. Miller seems to fade into the background a bit now that the family is larger. But there is some very realistic tension between Lou Emma and Maddy and a wonderful friendship with an ornery algebra teacher that pick up the slack. The book also imparts a lot of information about women's suffrage and early feminism (the only kind I can even try to tolerate) and gives some interesting insight into how libraries got started back in the beginning of the 20th century.

I'm really curious about that second book, The Motoring Millers, and I hope I will find it someday so that I can see how all three work together as a trilogy. But I am pleased to have read the last book of the Millers' adventures, and I'm planning to save the book for my own girls to enjoy when they are young teens.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Why I Read "Old Smelly Books" (and Where To Find Them)

If this blog had a smell, it would probably be "old book smell" considering how many vintage and used children's books I mention here. Today, to go along with Blog All About It's March topic of Favorite Scent (and also as a discussion post for the Book Bloggers Discussion Challenge), I want to share some of the reasons I like to read those older kids' books.

Reason 1: To fill in the gaps.

My copy of this book
was so beaten-up!
My interest in old books first stemmed from my realization that there were a lot of gaps in my personal knowledge of children's books. When I was a kid, I refused to read books in which I thought a character might die, or which in some other way appeared to me to be scary or unsettling. So while the rest of the voracious readers of my age group were enjoying Little Women and A Wrinkle in Time, I was reading and repeatedly re-reading Just As Long As We're Together by Judy Blume and Baby-sitter's Club #6 Kristy's Big Day by Ann M. Martin, knowing that these books were "safe." But a reader cannot live on Blume and Baby-sitters alone and once I was working as a children's librarian, I realized that if I was going to be any good at readers advisory, I needed to know both the new and the old books in my collection. So I started an "Old School Sunday" feature on my professional blog, and began reading classics, award winners, and other favorite vintage books I missed as a kid.

Reason 2: To understand the canon. 

It's hard to appreciate this
book without reading A
Wrinkle in Time
As I read more and more older books, I began to realize the ways in which knowing the canon of children's literature helped inform my reviews of newer books. This was not only true of books which are direct homages to beloved classics, as When You Reach Me is to A Wrinkle in Time, but of children's books in general. Having a broad knowledge of the books that have come before helped me to sense where a new book belonged, how it compared to others of its type, and which classic book's fans might adopt it as a new favorite. As frowned-upon at it is to say this, I did primarily get into librarianship because of books, and it quickly became clear that the way to enjoy the bookish aspects of the job was to get as big and wide a picture of the world of children's books as I could. I have come to believe that this broad and varied knowledge of children's books is really necessary for professionals in the children's literature field.

Reason 3: To find suitable content.

I also like old books because it seems like their content is more in line with the Christian morality I'm trying to live out in my own life and to instill in my kids. That's not to say there aren't newer books that can do this because I definitely have come across some great ones, but I don't usually feel that I have to heavily scrutinize vintage books for sexual content, moral relativism, anti-Christian sentiment, age-inappropriate political agendas, etc. There are definite exceptions, but I do think it's easier to find older books that match up with what I'm looking to share with my kids than it is to find newer ones.

Reason 4: To indulge feelings of nostalgia.

This cover has finally
been updated, but I'm
still fond of the original.
And the last reason I read vintage kidlit is that it gives me a cozy nostalgic feeling. Though I was born in the early '80s, I grew up with a lot of exposure to the pop culture of the '50s, '60s, and '70s, so often books that are ten or more years older than I am still feel like they came from my own childhood. There have been many occasions where I have read a vintage children's book not because it was on my library's shelves and not because I plan to share it with my own kids someday, but simply for my own enjoyment. A particular guilty pleasure of mine are friendship and family stories from the '60s and '70s with cheesy cover illustrations.

Resources for Discovering Old Books

If you, too, tend to enjoy a little throwback reading every now and then, you will want to check out the following resources: 

    Open Library is an initiative of the Internet Archive which has the ultimate goal of having a webpage for every single book, in and out of print. It also has a lending library of digitized books that can be read online by registered users. Each user is limited to 5 books at a time, and the loan period is two weeks. I have found a variety of old books on this site that have been weeded from my local libraries or have been out of print so long that they are just hard to find in general. These have included picture books by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers and Maurice Sendak, the original editions of Charlaine Harris's Aurora Teagarden books (for adults), and even a cozy mystery set at my alma mater entitled Murder at Vassar (also for adults). 
  • @yearlingreads on Instagram
    When I'm not sure what I want to borrow next from Open Library, I like to scroll through this Instagram account, which focuses on paperback books from the '60s, '70s and '80s. Many of them are blasts from my own past, and others are books I would have loved as a kid but missed for some reason. She also shares great vintage covers for well-known classics. Recent discoveries I have made through @yearlingreads have included the Al series by Constance C. Greene, Meaning Well by Sheila R. Cole, and Thatcher Payne-in-the-Neck by Betty Bates.
  • Lost Classics of Teen Lit 
    I subscribe to this blog through Feedly and occasionally spend some time reading through it if I'm looking for a book suggestion or I see a post about an old favorite. I loved the recent post about a book called Teenage Marriage: Coping with Reality that struck me as both sad and funny. This blog also mentions a lot of books I recall either reading as a young teen or seeing on the shelves on my small-town public library back in the 80s and 90s. 
  • Reshelving Alexandria
    This network of Facebook groups focuses a lot on nonfiction sets of books, but fiction comes up a fair amount as well. It's good for browsing and learning the names of authors and books of the past that have stood the test of time. I haven't been active in the group lately, but it is my understanding that the admin team is to launch a website with premium content. Personally, I don't think I'd pay for access to their book lists, but I do think visiting the groups a few times is a good way to discover a few new-to-you books. There is also a Marketplace group where you can purchase old books at reasonable prices. 
  • Used Book Sales
    My husband and I go to a lot of used book sales, and these can be great places to stumble upon old-school children's literature gems. Many of the sales we frequent have vintage sections, where we have found interesting titles we never would have known about otherwise. Favorite book sale finds have included The Secret Language, the only novel of long-time HarperCollins editor Ursula Nordstrom and Cress Delahanty, a quirky Southern coming-of-age novel by Jessamyn West, with illustrations by Joe Krush. Find sales near you using
Do you read old books? Why or why not?

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Good Charlotte by Carol Beach York (1969)

Charlotte, usually called Tatty, is generally not known around Good Day Orphanage as being good at anything. When Miss Lavender and Miss Plum go away for a few days, however, Mrs. Singlittle comes to take their place, and she takes a strong liking to Charlotte right away. She gives her the nickname of Good Charlotte during their very first meeting, and despite Charlotte's feeling that it's a misnomer, it sticks. That very same day, a mysterious girl with blue hair arrives at the orphanage. Her name is Esmerelda, and she claims to be a princess who has been enchanted by goblins and must remain that way until the first snowfall of the year. Like Mrs. Singlittle, Esmerelda also takes a liking to Charlotte and chooses her to be her special friend.

This short and sweet chapter book has much in common with other school stories, but adds a supernatural twist. I spent a lot of the story trying to figure out whether Esmerelda was a real princess, an imaginary friend, or a real girl masquerading as a princess, and my opinion is that it never becomes clear, but that it doesn't really matter. The larger focus of the story  -  Charlotte seeing herself in a new light after a few unexpected kindnesses - comes across just as strongly whether Esmerelda is magical or not. The situations in the story, and the relationships among the girls are what you might expect from a typical school story, but the supernatural element and Charlotte's very relatable flaws and mistakes help it to stand out a bit from others.

Fans of cozy stories about orphanages and boarding schools, as well as those who like a touch of magical realism in these types of stories will love this sweet book. It reminded me of a cross between the Orphelines series and Dory Fantasmagory. This book is also apparently the inspiration for the name of the rock band, Good Charlotte. The Internet says the band hadn't read the book, though, so they really just liked the name, not the character herself.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

My To-Read List for This Spring (and Beyond...)

One of my goals for the two read-a-thons I plan to participate in this spring (Spring into Horror during April and Bout of Books May 14-20) is to get through the huge pile of books that have come to live on my nightstand, as well as the ARCs I've requested for books with publication dates in April, May, and June. While I am pretty sure I won't make it through all of these, I also can't say for sure which I will end up reading, so I thought I'd just quickly highlight my stack of options for today's Top Ten Tuesday topic, "Books On My Spring TBR."

Nonfiction (Adult and Children's)

  • My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
    A friend of mine watches The Durrells in Corfu, and she recommended it to me. I of course don't want to start watching without reading the book first. 
  • Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
    My Catholic book club is reading this for our April discussion. 
  • Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum by Laura Berquist
    My husband has been asking me to read this homeschooling guide for months, and I keep forgetting about it.
  • Picturesque Tale of Progress: Conquests I by Olive Beaupre Miller
    I have been planning to get back into reading this nonfiction set that we'll be using to homeschool history, but I keep putting it off in favor of fiction. 
  • An Unforgiving Land: Hardscrabble Life in the Trapps, a Vanished Shawangunk Mountain Hamlet by Robi Josephson and Bob Larsen
    My great-grandmother is mentioned in this book, and there is even a photo from her childhood. My grandmother bought the book for me years ago, and I am starting to feel guilty about not reading it!

Mysteries (Adult)

  • The Memorial Hall Murder by Jane Langton
    This is not the first of the series, but it caught my eye at a used bookstore because I have enjoyed this author's children's books.
  • 206 Bones by Kathy Reichs
    Based on the description of this book on Amazon, it sounds like I'll be able to count it as my one required scary book for Spring into Horror. 
  • Spider Bones by Kathy Reichs
    It's rare that I own two consecutive books in a series, but since I do, I'd like to get through both so I can pass them on to another reader and free up some space.
  • The Crossword Murder by Nero Blanc
    This was another random book sale find that I'm curious about. 
  • Buffalo West Wing by Julie Hyzy
    I've been meaning to get back into this series. I'm especially interested in this one because it introduces a new administration to the White House.
  • Decked by Carol Higgins Clark
    Another book sale book. I've been wanting to try this series for a long time. 
  • The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny
    There are actually six from this series on my nightstand, but this is book 5 and I don't have 6 or 7, so for now, this is the only one I feel I need to finish soon. 
  • Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon
    I have wanted to read this for years, but somehow it keeps getting forgotten. 

Romance (Adult)

  • Lakeside Cottage by Susan Wiggs
  • Summer by the Sea by Susan Wiggs

I bought both of these books because I have enjoyed the author's work in the past, and because I was at a book sale where paperbacks were "up to 5 for a $1." I wasn't about to miss out! I typically get really interested in summer books when the weather first warms up - I'm hoping that's soon!

Children's Fiction


  • Peppermints in the Parlor by Barbara Brooks Wallace
    My husband has been asking me to read this one, and I have been procrastinating because it doesn't look like my usual fare. 
  • Honestly, Katie John! by Mary Calhoun
    I have read the first two of this series and would like to finish this series, which also includes Katie John and Heathcliff. 
  • By the Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman
    Another recommendation from my husband that's been on my nightstand for many months!
  • All Alone in the Universe by Lynne Rae Perkins
    I really loved Criss Cross and have been wanting to read this book, which comes before it, for years. 
  • The Sparrow Child by Meriol Trevor
    Trevor is one of the best Catholic writers ever, and I don't know why I haven't read this yet! 
  • The Aurora County All-Stars by Deborah Wiles
    I find the covers of the books in this series so appealing, but have yet to read one. This is the third book, so I'll be reading out of order, but there is a new book coming out so I'd like to get them all read before that comes out. 
  • Dandelion Cottage by Carroll Watson Rankin
    This looks like a sweet vintage story that I will really enjoy. 
  • Wild Geese Flying by Cornelia Meigs
    I find Cornelia Meigs's writing a bit difficult to get into at times, so I've been avoiding this book, but I do really want to read it. 

ARCs (Adult and Children's)

  • Running Through Sprinklers by Michelle Kim (4/17/18)
  • Better Off Read by Nora Page (5/8/18)
  • The Twin Test by Rula Sinara (5/8/18)
  • Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea by Lynne Rae Perkins (5/15/18)
  • Front Desk by Kelly Yang (5/29/18)
  • Save the Date by Morgan Matson  (6/5/18)
  • The House that Lou Built by Mae Respicio (6/12/18)
  • Why Can't I Be You? by Melissa Walker (6/19/18)
What are you planning to read this Spring?

Monday, March 19, 2018

The RAHM Report for 3/19/18

What My Kids Are Reading

This week's RAHK Report includes our St. Patrick's Day read-alouds and the book my four-year-old has been reading to my two-year-old.

What I Finished Reading

  • Fatal Frost by Karen MacInerney
    I had a hard time getting into this book at the beginning, but things really picked up after a few chapters and it ended up being a really compelling mystery. I was wondering at first whether I'd stick with the series, but I've decided I definitely will. 
  • The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
    This was really good in a creepy sort of way. I think I prefer The Sherwood Ring, just because it's more like my usual type of book, but this was very good. I will probably have a review up in about a month. 
  • Dead Letter by Betsy Byars
    This series is growing on me. Herculeah is certainly a unique heroine. 
  • Your Old Pal, Al by Constance C. Greene
    I liked this third book of the series a lot. I'd been hoping for a book devoted to the tension that other associations introduce into the Al//unnamed narrator friendship, and this was it!

What I'm Currently Reading

  • All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot
    I read a bit in this one this week. I'll be out of town over the weekend and into the early part of next week, so I may not finish it right away, but probably by the time I post another RAHM Report in two weeks, it will be done. 
  • The Advice Column Murders by Leslie Nagel
    I've started this ARC a couple of times, but I keep getting distracted. Hopefully I'll be able to sit down and really focus on it before we leave for our trip. 

Challenge Progress

  • Fatal Frost counts for Cloak and Dagger and Craving for Cozies. 
  • The Perilous Gard and Your Old Pal, Al count for Old School Kidlit. 
  • Dead Letter counts for the Author Love challenge. 
  • I also published reviews of the following titles for the Writing Reviews challenge: Southern Discomfort by Caroline Fardig; Fit to Die by Ellery Adams; Happy Little Family by Rebecca Caudill; and A Girl Called Al by Constance C. Greene. 
I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The RAHK Report for 3/18/18

Here's another list of books my three girls have been enjoying lately: 

  • More Milly-Molly-Mandy by Joyce Lankester Brisley
    We've settled into another set of Milly-Molly-Mandy stories, and both Miss Muffet (4 years, 4 months) and Bo Peep (2.5 years) are loving it. We're about five chapters in and so far, their favorites have been the one where Milly-Molly-Mandy and Billy Blunt meet a family living in a train car and the one where Milly-Molly-Mandy befriends a duck who follows her to school.
  • Catholic Children's Treasure Box 4I got this set from my husband for Christmas and intended to read two or so per week during Lent. For a variety of reasons, that didn't end up happening, but we did read this one during breakfast on Friday morning. Miss Muffet especially loves the stories about little Saint Therese.
  • Fin M'Coul: The Giant of Knockmany Hill by Tomie dePaola
    This is the girls' favorite Irish picture book. Though we have read it a lot, we made a point of also reading it on St. Patrick's Day. 
  • The Children of Lir by Sheila MacGill-Callahan, illustrated by Gennady Spirin
    Miss Muffet chose this book from our stack of Irish books, and I read it aloud before dinner on St. Patrick's Day. In the end, I think only Jumping Joan (5 months) was actually listening, but since the sound of my voice seemed to entertain her, I read it to the end. I see some reviewers on Goodreads don't like this take on this tale, but since it wasn't familiar to me, I did enjoy it. 
  • Shamrocks, Harps, and Shillelaghs: The Story of the St. Patrick's Day Symbols by Edna Barth
    I wanted to read this entire book aloud to Miss Muffet in preparation for St. Patrick's Day, but life got in the way. I did try to read just the short section about St. Patrick, but she was not into it, so we only got through a couple of pages. I ended up just putting on the Dreamscape video version of St. Patrick's Day by Gail Gibbons. 
  • The Year Around: Poems for Children by Alice I. Hazeltine
    Miss Muffet memorized two poems recently, both from this collection my mom rescued from the library in the school where she works. The first poem was "The March Wind" by Maud E. Uschold and the second was "Wearing of the Green" by Aileen Fisher.

  • Finally, these are Miss Muffet's recent independent reads:
    • Cowboy Sam and the Fair by Edna Walker Chandler
    • Monkey Friends by Charles Forsythe 
    • Junk Day on Juniper Street by Lilian Moore, illustrated by Arnold Lobel
    • Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman
      Evidently, she has been reading this one to Bo Peep because my husband and I don't read easy readers aloud, and yet she can still tell the whole story. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Reading Through History: Happy Little Family by Rebecca Caudill (1947)

Four-year-old Bonnie Fairchild and her older siblings Althy, Debby, Emmy, and Chris live in the Kentucky hills in the early 1900s. As the youngest child, Bonnie is often babied by her siblings, but now that she is four she feels big enough to start doing some of the things they do, including wearing fancy hats, going ice skating, walking a path alone, and attending school. Happy Little Family covers a year in the life of the Fairchilds, telling a story set during each season which highlights the family's daily living and Bonnie's quest for greater maturity and responsibility.

I read Happy Little Family aloud to my own four-year-old (Little Miss Muffet), and her two-year-old sister (Little Bo Peep) also listened in. While the characters have not quite made the impression that Mary, Laura, and Carrie Ingalls have made upon my girls, Miss Muffet was completely enamored of Bonnie. As a child who frequently laments how long it takes to grow up, my daughter related very strongly to Bonnie's desire to be big enough to have the privileges afforded to her older siblings.

As a read-aloud, this book works nicely. The chapters are short enough to be read in one sitting without having to break them into smaller chunks, and there is a good number of illustrations throughout the book that provide context and easily re-engage a distracted listener. The writing is also really pleasant to read aloud, with lots of fun dialogue and inner monologues from Bonnie's point of view.

There is also a true sweetness to this book that is endearing and not a bit saccharine. Bonnie and her family all feel like real people, and though their day-to-day lives are very different from ours, their concerns, desires, fears, and interests are very similar to those of contemporary kids. Parents looking for a first chapter book, or for a read-alike for Little House in the Big Woods or Betsy-Tacy will definitely find what they need in this book. There are also three sequels: Schoolhouse in the Woods, Up and Down the River, and Schoolhouse in the Parlor, which I plan to have Little Miss Muffet (a very early reader) read independently as we can get our hands on them.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Book Review: A Girl Called Al by Constance C. Greene (1969)

A Girl Called Al is the story of two tween girls, Alexandra, called Al, and her new friend, the unnamed narrator, who lives down the hall from her in their apartment building. In many ways, the two girls are quite different. Al has lived in many different places and has a single mom whom she claims not to love as much as her absentee father. Her friend has a more traditional family life - mom, dad, and younger brother - and a more traditional outlook on life in general than noncomfortist Al, who wishes to take wood shop instead of sewing and doesn't seem to care what other people think about her. The two girls spend a lot of time together, as well as with their building superintendent, who serves as a surrogate grandfather for both of them and helps them build a bookshelf.

I totally missed this series as a kid. I knew the books existed, and frequently saw them on library shelves, but I just never felt drawn to them. As an adult, though, I am intrigued by both the text, with its quirky characters, and the illustrations which, to my surprise, were drawn by Byron Barton of picture book fame. (Except for the cover. That's by JoAnne Scribner, who also did covers for the Ramona books.) I like the way the illustrations reflect Al's unique look and personality, and how they perfectly suit the sometimes-funny, sometimes-poignant tone of the story. The pictures are a bit unusual-looking, but that only makes sense for a book about an offbeat heroine.

The story itself is funny at certain points and poignant at others. There isn't necessarily a very strong story arc, but just spending time with these girls and seeing how their friendship impacts their lives is enough to sustain readers' interest for 130 pages. I also appreciate that although Al is an unusual character, the author doesn't spend the whole book calling attention to her strangeness. Unlike something like Stargirl, which beats readers over the head with its protagonist's noncomformity, this book just lets it unfold in Al's actions and allows the reader to draw her own conclusions based on the narrator's descriptions. I was  reminded a little bit of Me and Fat Glenda as I was reading, possibly because Al is described several times as "a little on the fat side," but Al is less of a dubious friend than Glenda and she is more likable overall. A Girl Called Al also seems to be largely free of the bullying and mean girl tropes that often infiltrate books of this type. There is a little bit of taunting, but it is mostly peripheral to the main story.

There are six Al books in all, and I plan to read as many of the rest as I can. They have a nostalgic charm about them that I really enjoy, and I'm curious to see how Al changes as she continues to grow up.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The RAHM Report for 3/12/18

What I Finished Reading

  • The Little Oratory by David Clayton and Leila Marie Lawler
    I actually finished my book club book early this time! I want to save my comments for the discussion with my friends later this week. but after that, I'll post a review to Goodreads.
  • Southern Discomfort by Caroline Fardig (ARC)
    This is an engaging start to a new cozy mystery series set in the South, and with a hint of the supernatural. I gave it a three-star review on Goodreads.
  • Fit to Die by Ellery Adams (ARC)
    This second book of the Supper Club series was even better than the first. I really like the way Ellery Adams writes. I gave this one a four-star Goodreads review.
  • Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth by Sheila O'Connor (ARC)
    This middle grade historical fiction novel was unexpectedly great. I gave it four stars initially, and when I sat down to write my review, I bumped it up to five. It comes out in early April, and I'll have a review around then. It's not as much like The Wednesday Wars as the publisher suggests in its marketing copy, but it was very good in its own right. 
  • Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald
    I read this aloud to my older two girls. It was not my first time reading it, but I've never reviewed it, so I have that on my to-do list. 
  • The Children of Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren (Open Library)
    This I have never read before, and I loved it. Review coming soon.

What I'm Currently Reading

I made very little progress with these three books again this week, but I hope to finish at least one of them by the time next Monday rolls around:

  • All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot
  • Fatal Frost by Karen MacInerney
  • The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Challenge Progress

I didn't have time to discuss my reading challenges in last week's post, so here's an update on my progress for the past two weeks.

  • Carbs and Cadavers, I Know What You Bid Last Summer, Southern Discomfort, and Fit to Die all counted toward the Cloak and Dagger, Craving for Cozies, and Writing Reviews challenges. 
  • Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth and Zucchini by Barbara Dana fulfill letters U and Z for the A to Z Reading Challenge, respectively. 
  • Zucchini also counts for the Old School Kidlit Challenge, along with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Story of the Presidents of the United States of America by Maud and Miska Petersham, and The Children of Noisy Village
  • P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy counts for the Writing Reviews challenge, along with The Cartoonist by Betsy Byars, The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill, and The Wonderful Farm by Marcel Ayme. 
  • Tarot Says Beware by Betsy Byars counts for the Author Love Challenge, and The Little Oratory for the Alphabet Soup Challenge.  
I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Friday, March 9, 2018

Book Review: P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy (2018)

P.S. I Miss You is about a young girl named Evie who is in seventh grade and missing her older sister, Cilla. Cilla, a high school student, is pregnant and has moved away to live with a great aunt until she gives birth, at which point she plans to give the baby up for adoption and enroll in a Catholic boarding school. Though her parents didn't exactly force Cilla to leave, they also haven't been at all supportive of her pregnancy, and Evie blames them for Cilla's refusal to answer her letters, or to come home for a visit. In the meantime, Evie finds herself drawn to the new girl in school, June. Her feelings develop over the course of the book, causing her to realize she likes girls, and apparently not boys.

I heard of P.S., I Miss You for the first time when I came across this piece, in which the author expresses her disappointment about schools not wanting her to visit and talk about the book's themes, which include same-sex attraction between two middle school girls, a teen pregnancy, and the Catholic faith. Originally, I was not going to read it, because, now that I'm not working in a library anymore, I try to prioritize books that I might want to add to my girls' library or that I might want to borrow from the library for them. Since the subject matter of this book is not something we seek out, I figured I'd devote my energy to the other books on my ever-growing to-read pile.

But then I started hearing about how much of a role Catholicism plays in this book. I found myself reading reviews and wondering how well this book really handled the Catholic faith. I figured, based on the subject matter, that the overall impression of the church given by the book would not be positive, but I became really curious about whether it was accurate. (In the past, I have made a point of reading books with religious content for that same reason. These include The Inquisitor's Tale and Almost Paradise.) So I downloaded the ARC from Edelweiss with the primary goal of critiquing the treatment of religion in the book, for better or for worse.

First of all, I want to say that, content aside, in terms of writing quality and character development, this is a solid three-star novel. The epistolary format is a bit awkward, but it works okay, and there are some surprising turns of events that caught me totally off-guard. Though the relationship at the heart of the story is not something I typically want to read about, I can recognize that it is handled in accordance with what most people expect of  a middle grade novel on this subject.

Still, in this age of hyper-awareness about diversity and the accuracy of facts about others' cultures, it is surprising to me how much this book misses the mark when it comes to its portrayal of the Catholic church. The problems I found fall into two categories: extreme negativity toward the Catholic faith (which may only matter to someone like me who has a positive view) , and blatant misinformation (which should, I think, matter to anyone who hands the book to a child).

The negativity surrounding Evie's view of the church is pervasive. Evie describes her religion as "mean and judgy" and complains about being dragged to Mass and forced to wear an "ugly smear" on her forehead on Ash Wednesday. She questions whether a priest would allow someone with pink hair inside of  a church and describes her parents as "backward." She calls the ritual of washing feet on Holy Thursday "silly", Communion hosts "gross," and crucifixes "creepy," While Evie is obviously angry with her religion, it feels a little unrealistic that she has been raised in this faith from birth and has almost no positive associations with it. The reader certainly gets the idea that Evie is questioning her beliefs due to her anger, but the reader also gets the idea that Catholicism is cruel and unfair and generally awful. Evie does say at one point that there are things she enjoys about church, and she speaks fondly of her first communion dress, but these few instances do not counterbalance the negativity of all these other details. And overall, this negativity serves to reinforce the inaccurate stereotypes about Catholicism that abound in our culture.

Stereotypes are also easily reinforced by misinformation about Catholic teaching, and there is a fair amount of that in this book. The story's overall understanding of sin is probably the biggest example. Evie mentions again and again that Cilla has "really sinned" by having sex outside of marriage and conceiving a child. She imagines that her parents have never sinned since they've never done anything "bad" and that she herself only becomes a sinner when she develops feelings for June. It feels incongruous to me that parents so involved in the church and so concerned over "forcing" their kids into it have not explained the types of sin (venial vs. mortal) to their children, and that Evie doesn't feel she has ever committed either type. It also feels completely unbelievable that this book never mentions Confession! Evie spends a lot of time thinking about whether her sister's sin will disappear when she gives birth to her baby, as though she has no idea that sins can be forgiven in Confession. Unless her parents don't believe in Confession (a pretty big detail to leave out in a book so concerned with sin), it seems like they would have been "dragging" her to Confession the same way they drag her everywhere else associated with religion. The fact that Evie's dad simply states that "homosexuality is a sin" is also an oversimplified statement that does not make the important distinction between experiencing same sex attraction and acting upon it.

Other details also demonstrate a lack of knowledge of Catholic teaching. Evie refers to the Mass which is said on January 1st as a "special New Year's Mass" when in fact, in most years, this would be the Mass for the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, a holy day of obligation. She also wrongly says that the ritual of washing feet on Holy Thursday is about the washing away of sins, when really it is about imitating an act of Jesus in which he humbled himself to become like a servant to demonstrate his love for his friends. She also questions why she has to use prescribed prayers instead of speaking to God in her own words (she doesn't) and the need for saints, asking why she can't just do things for herself (of course she can). Her statement that God hates her for who she likes is also not something the church teaches, even though it is a common misconception. Also problematic are the statement that the church teaches that all atheists automatically go to Hell (the church does not teach this about any group, as only Jesus can make this judgment)  and the connection Evie makes between zombies and the Resurrection (a bad joke that makes its offensive Internet rounds every Easter.)

When I was a kid, I didn't know very much about my faith either. It absolutely rings true that Evie, whose CCD (religious education) teacher seems boring and strict, might not be aware that her impressions of what is happening in church are incomplete or off-base. But if this is the point - that Evie's parents misunderstand and misuse church teaching, and that Evie herself has been poorly catechized in the faith - then there needs to be some information in the text that establishes the norm from which this family deviates. Without that, it is easy for a young reader to discern that everything this book says about Catholicism is true, and to conclude therefore that the Catholics they know must also be mean, judgmental, backward, etc. I want to believe that it is not the goal of this book to incite hatred for the Catholic faith, but I think it is definitely a likely result of reading the story.

Just before sitting down to write this review I learned from reading this interview that the author has based this story on the experience of her childhood best friend, and that she herself was raised Catholic. I don't doubt that some of what happens in this book probably happened to her friend, or to her, or that it could happen to any child. What is troublesome for me is that the bad behavior of Evie's parents and Evie's own anger-tainted view of her faith is all the reader gets of Catholicism. Every unfair stereotype of a Catholic family is present in this book, and none of the nuances or richness of the faith that make it such an important part of so many people's lives, including mine. And though I think most traditional Catholic families like mine would avoid the book anyway based on the subject matter, it is so disappointing to know that non-Catholic readers don't get the opportunity in one of the few middle grade novels about Catholicism to expand their horizons beyond the tired stereotypes and misinterpretations of church teaching.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Wonderful Farm by Marcel Aymé, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1951)

Delphine and Marinette live on a farm in France with their stern mother and father and a menagerie of talking animals. In seven chapters, the two sisters have many adventures with their own farm animals as well as those who live in the neighboring forest and pond. These include being fooled by  a sly fox, bringing a wild boar to school, accidentally turning a hen into an elephant, and being held prisoner by swans who mistake them for orphans.

This book was initially appealing to me because it is the first children's book Maurice Sendak ever illustrated. It was so interesting to me to see hints of his future work to come in the figures he drew for this book. I was reminded in particular of his artwork for the Little Bear series, as well as the way the children move in his pictures for The Moon Jumpers. The illustrations are wonderful, and I truly enjoyed them.

The text, though, is a most worthy companion to Sendak's charming illustrations. I read the book aloud to my older two girls (ages 2 and 4) and immediately took a liking to the dialogue, which lends itself so well to performance. (And to character voices, if you're that kind of reader. I'm not, generally, but I tried a few in a couple of chapters and it was fun.) The text is translated from French, but it does not seem to have lost anything in translation to English. The book had a unique flavor to it that made it stand out from other animal books we have read, and it really engaged me and my four-year-old. (The two-year-old did her best to listen, but the chapters are lengthy and she was not my intended audience.)

Speaking of animals, they are used supremely well in this story. A note at the start of the book states that even though the animals may speak, they still behave like animals, and this is absolutely true. Animals in this book are treated as the subjects of humans, and they are put to work, hunted, killed, eaten, lost, etc. The animals are not bitter about this; rather, they seem to understand their role in the natural order. While there is something to be said for books like Charlotte's Web, where animals are saved from their natural fate, there is also something very refreshing about a book that neither humanizes nor romanticizes the animal kingdom. I also liked the book's matter-of-fact handling of death scenes. Some of them are sad, but none of them manipulate the reader into mourning an animal as though it has the same value as a human being.

Each chapter of this book can essentially stand on its own, and each one is a fable of sorts, kind of like a cross between Aesop and Winnie-the-Pooh. The stories can be enjoyed on their surface, but they also have a deeper significance that comes through for older readers even as young children enjoy them only at face value. My four-year-old and I had a wonderful discussion about "tricky people" after reading the chapter about the fox, but there was much more to the fox's trickery that she wouldn't be able to grasp until she is older. I love that the book works on multiple levels and that it will reward children who choose to read it multiple times as they age through childhood.

I am not generally an animal person, and I tend to hate talking animal books. But this lovely gem of a book is a major exception. Beautifully written and by turns poignant and humorous, this is a new favorite, and I will cherish my copy and eagerly read it aloud again in a few years when my littlest ones are ready to appreciate it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Book Review: The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill (1972)

Upset by the high cost of toothpaste, Rufus Mayflower, an enterprising sixth grader, decides to start making his own. Once consumers realize he is able to make a gallon of his homemade toothpaste for the cost of a single tube at the supermarket, business really takes off. As the demand for Rufus's toothpaste increases, he encounters a number of challenges, all of which he is able to solve with perseverance and ingenuity. The story is narrated by Rufus's friend, Kate, who, along with her classmates, solves math problems based on the growth of Rufus's business, modeling for readers how to calculate Rufus's costs, profits, etc.

This book is certainly a gift to anyone trying to teach a reluctant math learner. It shows exactly how math is used in practical ways in everyday business dealings, and it makes the math appealing by surrounding it with a compelling story. It also teaches kids how businesses are formed and how they run without bogging them down in a lot of details that sound boring or tedious.

But while this is one of the appealing aspects of the book, it's not the only one. This is not just a 90-page math problem. Rather, it is an engaging story, told by a believable and relatable narrator, Kate, who helps the reader develop feelings of awe and respect for Rufus and his capabilities. Because Kate does not have Rufus's knack for running a business, she has many of the same questions the reader might ask, and she is able to act as a bridge between Rufus's genius and the reader's own lack of sophistication. The story as a whole also empowers kids to think of themselves as innovators and creators and debunks the idea that only adults can make a difference.

Newer books have told stories with similar premises (Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen, Frindle by Andrew Clements, The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies, etc.) but The Toothpaste Millionaire told it first and best, in my opinion. Another similar book, Henry Reed, Inc. (1958) by Keith Robertson, would also make a great read-alike for this book, but even Henry's research company in that story doesn't result in earning a million dollars!  The Toothpaste Millionaire would make a great read-aloud for a wide range of ages; readers well beyond the age range of the intended middle grade audience can also get something out of it.  I'll definitely be reading this book again with my kids in a few years!

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Some of My Favorite Quotes from Books

Today's Top Ten Tuesday topic is Favorite Book Quotes. I used to collect quotes avidly, filling notebooks with every saying I stumbled upon that resonated with me in any way. These days, I'm not as organized about it, but I do occasionally add quotes to Goodreads so I can look back on them later. The quotations in today's post are taken from my old notebooks, lines I mentioned in reviews on this blog, and my collection of quotes on Goodreads. All are from works I have read at some point, with the exception of the Edna St. Vincent Millay collection, from which I have only read selections.

They looked for one another when nothing else was happening, the way you pick up a magazine or look in the cupboard for a snack. Not exactly by accident and not exactly on purpose. You could go out in the world and do new things and meet new people, and then you could come home and just sit on the stoop with someone you had never not known, and watch lightning bugs blink on and off. (Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins)

I used to think that when I grew up there wouldn't be so many rules. Back in elementary school there were rules about what entrance you used in the morning, what door you used going home, when you could talk in the library, how many paper towels you could use in the rest room, and how many drinks of water you could get during recess. And there was always somebody watching to make sure. What I'm finding out about growing older is that there are just as many rules about lots of things, but there's nobody watching. (Alice in Rapture, Sort Of by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor)

The sandy beach reminded Harold of picnics. And the thought of picnics made him hungry. So he laid out a nice simple picnic lunch. There was nothing but pie. But there were all nine kinds of pie that Harold liked best. When Harold finished his picnic there was quite a lot left. He hated to see so much delicious pie go to waste. So Harold left a very hungry moose and a deserving porcupine to finish it up. (Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson)
Love in the open hand, no thing but that,
Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt,
As one should bring you cowslips in a hat
Swung from the hand, or apples in her skirt,
I bring you, calling out as children do:
“Look what I have!—And these are all for you.”
("Fatal Interview" from Edna St. Vincent Millay - Selected Poems edited by J.D. McClatchy)
Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him. It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person "the world today" or "life" or "reality" he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past. (A Separate Peace by John Knowles)
We cross our bridges as we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and the presumption that once our eyes watered. (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard)

"You see," Franny would explain, years later, "we aren't eccentric, we're not bizarre. To each other," Franny would say, "we're as common as rain." And she was right: to each other, we were as normal and nice as the smell of bread, we were just a family. In a family, even exaggerations make perfect sense; they are always they are always logical exaggerations, nothing more. (The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving)
A thing is magic if you get what you want through it: but if it is blessed you get what God wants through it. (Sun Slower, Sun Faster by Meriol Trevor)
If you remain calm in the midst of great chaos, it is the surest guarantee that it will eventually subside. (The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards)

Monday, March 5, 2018

The RAHM Report for 3/5/18

What My Kids Are Reading

This week's Read-at-Home Kids Report highlights what we read to celebrate Dr. Seuss's birthday, the books my two-year-old selected at a used book sale, and my four-year-old's newest independent read.

What I Finished Reading

  • Carbs & Cadavers by Ellery Adams (ARC)
    I've been curious about this series for a while, and I'm generally a fan of the author, so when I saw it was being re-released and that an ARC was available on NetGalley, I put in a request. It was a little bit too food-focused for my taste, but still a solid mystery. My review is on Goodreads.
  • I Know What You Bid Last Summer by Sherry Harris (ARC)
    This is the fifth book of a series, but the first one I've read. I loved the main character, the setting, and the writing and will definitely be looking for the rest of the series. I reviewed this one on Goodreads, too.

  • Cody and the Heart of a Champion by Tricia Springstubb, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler (ARC)
    This series is consistently great. As usual, Springstubb demonstrates a strong understanding of the concerns of real kids. Review coming soon here on the blog.
  • Zucchini by Barbara Dana
    Reading this was an interesting experience. At times, I thought it was great, and at others, I couldn't wait to be finished. I'll have a review on the blog eventually - probably in May.
  • P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy (ARC)
    I was not going to read this since the subject matter (same-sex attraction) isn't something my Catholic family seeks out and I have too many books on my TBR already, but then I heard that Catholicism was actually a central part of the story and I gave in to my curiosity. Unfortunately, the book is fraught with inaccuracies and horrible stereotypes about the faith. Why the emphasis on accurately portraying other people's cultures does not extend to religion I don't know, but I would really not want my kids' non-Catholic friends to get their ideas about our church from this book. I'll have a more detailed review soon, hopefully this week.
  • Tarot Says Beware by Betsy Byars
    Another read for the Author Love challenge. This book was actually pretty scary and would have kept me up all night as a child. I am still planning to review the whole series after I finish

What I'm Currently Reading

  • The Little Oratory by David Clayton and Leila Marie Lawler
    I'm reading this slowly because I want to learn from it and be able to talk about it intelligently at book club. I like it, though some of the things that frustrate me about Leila Lawler's blog also create frustration for me in this book. Overall, though, this is a great resource for introducing more prayer into the Catholic home.
  • All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot
    I made some progress on this book this week. It's just so delightful. I am especially enjoying the reflections back to the disastrous dates he had with his wife before they became a couple.
  • Fatal Frost by Karen MacInerney
    This book has taken a backseat to the cozy mysteries for which I have ARCs, but I will come back around to it soon.
  • Fit to Die by Ellery Adams (ARC)
    Right after I reviewed the first Supper Club book, this second one popped up on NetGalley and I could not resist. I plan to make it a priority this week since the ARC expires on the 13th.
  • Southern Discomfort by Caroline Fardig (ARC)
    I have an ARC of this book, which comes out tomorrow. While I don't think I'll get it read by then, I'll definitely make an effort to read and review it by the beginning of next week.
  • The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
    I read the first chapter of this book in the middle of the week and haven't had a chance to get back to it yet. I've been reading a lot of short paperbacks from the 1980s, so I decided I needed a kids' book with a little bit of meat to it. So far, it's good.
  • Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth by Sheila O'Connor (ARC)
    I received an ARC of this in the mail over the weekend. I'm excited because it's been compared to The Wednesday Wars, which is one of my favorite middle grade novels of all time. I only briefly looked at a couple of pages, but I'm hoping to get through the whole thing this week if I can. 
I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The RAHK Report for 3/4/18

Here are the books the Read-at-Home Kids enjoyed this past week:

  • Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald, illustrated by Hilary Knight
    This is our new lunchtime read-aloud. The girls have previously heard the audiobook but they were little enough that they don't remember it. As is typical of our lunchtime read-alouds, Miss Muffet (4 years, 3 months) is enjoying this book more than Bo Peep (2 years, 5 months), so I try to make sure Bo Peep gets other stories read to her throughout the day. 
  • James Herriot's Treasury for ChildrenI have read two stories to the girls from this book so far: Moses the Kitten and Only One Woof. Though Miss Muffet enjoys the stories, it is Bo Peep who has been enamored of the illustrations. She likes to take the book from me when I'm finished reading and go off alone to look at the pictures. This has required me to remove the book's surprisingly delicate jacket, but otherwise she has been very gentle to this book. 
  • McElligot's Pool by Dr. Seuss
    On Friday, my husband stayed home due to the heavy winds. I suggested reading a Seuss book to celebrate Dr. Seuss's birthday, and he read McElligot's pool aloud, mostly to Miss Muffet. She was thrilled with it and when the story was over, she turned to me and said, "Dr. Seuss was silly silly silly!"

  • Drawn from Nature by Helen Ahpornsiri
    I received a review copy of this beautifully illustrated nonfiction book from Candlewick and read it aloud to Miss Muffet over four days. I will review the book in its own post, but I wanted to mention here how much Miss Muffet enjoyed the artwork, which is made entirely from pieces of plants. The content was similar to Nature's Day by Kay Maguire, but it felt more accessible and better organized.
  • Adventures in Science: The Human Body by Courtney Acampora
    This is an educational kit of which I received a review copy from Silver Dolphin books. It includes a book about the organs and systems of the human body, as well as a plastic model of a skeleton, a poster where kids can add stickers showing where the bones and organs go, and a deck of fact cards. Miss Muffet and I started out reading through the book, but after a few days, her brain went on information overload and we ended up just focusing our attention on the interactive elements. I'll be reviewing the set in its own post soon. 
  • Mary Wore Her Red Dress and Henry Wore His Green Sneakers by Merle Peek
    This book was hanging around when I was playing with Jumping Joan (4.5 months) one day this week, so I decided to just sing it to her, even though it isn't typically a book I'd think of sharing with a a baby. I was pleasantly surprised by how much she looked at the pictures and how her face lit up at the sound of my voice. 

  • Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin
    We went to a book sale yesterday, and Bo Peep immediately found this book and said, "Look! It's Click Clack Moo!" We didn't actually own this book, despite our regular viewing of the Weston Woods video based on it, so we brought it home. Bo Peep was thrilled to have chosen a winner! 
  • Let's Play by Gyo Fujikawa
    At the same sale, I spied this board book on a table and decided to also get it for Bo Peep, since she is such a Fujikawa fan and our copy of Oh What a Busy Day is getting a little fragile for her to handle unsupervised. She held it in the car on the way home and has looked at it several times since, and also showed it to Jumping Joan.
  • Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman
    Another book sale find, this was Miss Muffet's after-nap independent read yesterday. She really enjoyed the story and gave us a nice summary at the dinner table. I've heard her  talking about "the snort" several times today. 

Friday, March 2, 2018

How to Appreciate Flannery O'Connor: 7 Tips for Catholic Readers

When I was a senior in high school, I opted out of taking AP English and instead took a course on short stories. I was assigned many stories to read during that semester, including "Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor. My father had spoken to me of Flannery O'Connor many times during my teen years, citing her faithfulness as a Catholic and her talent as a writer as reasons I might admire her. When I read this story, though, the thing that struck me the most was how completely funny it was. In that story, O'Connor demonstrates a deep understanding of the annoying quirks of small-town people and the way in which sour know-it-alls can sometimes receive their comeuppance simply as a result of their own behavior. I was a cynical seventeen-year-old, and the surprise humor of the story's twist ending really resonated with me.

Four years later, I was a reluctant English major at the end of my college career seeking a thesis topic. I read a few articles suggesting that it was perfectly possible - and indeed, even preferable - to read Flannery O'Connor without any regard for her faith. I was so irritated by this argument that it became the focus of my thesis. I read one of O'Connor's novels, Wise Blood, as well as several O'Connor short stories, and analyzed them to prove how central the Catholic faith was to O'Connor's writing, and how foolish it would be to view her work through any other lens. I was a terrible English major, completely opposed to literary analysis of any kind and frequently annoyed by my inability to see symbolism and other literary devices where others found them quite easily. But because of my own Catholic beliefs, I was able to see things in O'Connor's work that I couldn't see in other works, and I wrote the only academic piece of my college career that I enjoyed writing and that I thought was any good.

There are still many Flannery O'Connor stories I have never read, and there is much about her life I don't know, so I'm far from an expert, but I am enough of a fan that I feel qualified to make a case for reading her work. I know a lot of people find her difficult to stomach, or to understand, but I hate to see potential readers give up on her without finding something to appreciate in her sense of humor, her worldview, and her staunch Catholic faith. So, in the interest of helping O'Connor to find more fans, here are my seven tips for appreciating her work.

Don't try too hard to understand everything. 

I think the biggest favor you can do for yourself when you first  start reading O'Connor is to not read too much into anything. Most Catholics know that O'Connor was a faithful Catholic and that her stories are meant to reflect this worldview, and I think some have a tendency to scour every story looking for a straightforward moral or lesson. O'Connor's writing, however, is more nuanced than that. Her stories have a definite worldview founded in her own morality, but it is often subtle, couched in an entertaining story about the flaws of human nature. If you try to make sense of every word and seek to find the symbolism behind every character, event, and bit of dialogue, you will make yourself crazy, and you will completely miss the forest for the trees.

Don't expect to find perfect allegories. 

It's also a mistake to expect a Flannery O'Connor story to be a perfect allegory of any Biblical event or Catholic tradition. There are allusions to the Bible in many of her stories, but none so elaborate that they consume the whole work. Her stories hint at Biblical truth, and they have a Catholic point of view, but often nothing in the story is explicitly Biblical or Catholic, and seeking that kind of one-to-one correlation where everything in the story represents something else is an exercise in futility.

Sympathize with O'Connor, not with her characters.

O'Connor's stories are unusual in that you're not really meant to get inside her characters' heads and get to know them. Rather, your sympathy is meant to lie with the author and her point of view, and observing her characters' behavior is how you gain insight into what that point of view is. Each story is a meditation on bad human behavior, often perpetrated by people you would never want to spend time with in real life. They are not likable, and you're not meant to like them. Instead, they are meant to illustrate for you what O'Connor recognizes as the non-Catholic world's ills and the consequences of those problems. In these stories, you are very much laughing at these characters, not with them.

Look for moments of grace. 

Flannery O'Connor once wrote, "All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal." It is true that there are a lot of disturbing, violent, and unsettling moments in O'Connor's works, and without the proper context, they can seem gratuitous. But O'Connor points out: "I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will work." These "moments of grace" that O'Connor gives to her characters are only as violent and disturbing as her characters are stubborn. And once you begin to look for the moment at which each of her characters loses everything and therefore must turn to the truth because it's all that's left, her work begins to make more sense. (Catholic Education Resource Center has a great piece about "mean" grace in O'Connor's work that is worth a read.)

Don't read one work in isolation.

O'Connor's work also makes more sense the more you read of it. One story on its own is only a small piece in the puzzle of the larger worldview O'Connor puts forth in her entire body of work. Read in collections, or even just in pairs, these stories begin to help each other make sense. If you've only read one Flannery O'Connor story and you didn't like it, it might be that you haven't had a sufficient taste of her writing to understand what it's all about. There are also some stories that are less straightforward than others and disliking one doesn't mean you will dislike them all. 

Consider O'Connor's intended audience. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that Flannery O'Connor was not really writing stories for the sole enjoyment of Catholics. Rather, she was primarily writing stories for an American South that she saw as enemy-occupied territory, filled with people who didn't really know Jesus Christ, and who often rejected the truths of Christianity for their own convenience. Her writing was an odd form of evangelization, filled with grotesque characters whose experiences were exaggerated in order to make unsympathetic readers understand the error of their ways. She used dark Southern gothic humor to tell her stories because she knew her audience would understand it, and that if she spoke to them in terms they understood, they might be more likely to listen to her message.

Read some of O'Connor's essays and letters.

Finally, if nothing else, I  recommend reading O'Connor's other writings, published in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor and Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, as well as in her Collected Works. Even if you have read none of her fiction, the Catholic reader can still find much to latch onto in her writings about being a Catholic writer in the Protestant south. I also find that once you get to know O'Connor as a person in her essays, speeches, and letters, you are better prepared to make sense of her fiction. And even if you don't come to appreciate her fiction, you can still gain an understanding of why so many Catholics feel a kinship to her.

Are you a Flannery O'Connor fan? What advice do you have for readers who struggle with her work? 

I'm linking up today with Kelly at This Ain't the Lyceum for Seven Quick Takes.