Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Book Review: The Read-Aloud Family by Sarah Mackenzie (2018)

The Read-Aloud Family is the inevitable book to arise from Sarah Mackenzie's inexplicably popular Read-Aloud Revival podcast and website.  In this book, Mackenzie tells how she first discovered reading aloud, and then provides advice for doing so with supporting anecdotes from her own life. The book concludes with a series of annotated book lists.

I have long felt that the success of the alleged "Read Aloud Revival" that Mackenzie champions is a bit of a hoax. Though Mackenzie claims she only discovered reading aloud for the first time at age 20, when her oldest child was a baby, this should not suggest to anyone that reading aloud was a lost art that Mackenzie has single-handedly resurrected. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton talks about the man in the yacht who thinks he has discovered England, not realizing that anyone has landed there before him. He was talking about his journey toward the Christian faith when he wrote about how he "fancied [he] was the first to set foot in Brighton and then found [he] was the last," but I think it is also an apt metaphor for describing Mackenzie's relationship to reading aloud. She had never considered the importance of reading aloud, and therefore she assumes no one else has either. But most of us have been here in England all along. 

This book gives very basic advice, most of which is either common sense or simply amateurish. Directives for developing a read-aloud habit are interspersed with personal anecdotes about her kids which often give rise to banal metaphors that are then beaten to death over several pages. Some of the advice just isn't good, such as the assertion that the only two criteria to consider when evaluating a book are appeal to all ages and a sense of hope, and some of it is a mere regurgitation of quotations from articles, books, and studies that have already presented this information more cogently, and in better prose. Though she says a few times that reading aloud should be simple, she undermines this message by over-complicating the process at every turn and by providing condescending examples for each point she makes. (The worst of these occurs in the chapter about "compelling questions." At one point, she suggests asking a child reader what a character in a given book fears most, then provides three examples, all of which consist of the same exact question: "What is Henry Huggins most afraid of? What is Janner Ibigy most afraid of? What is Corrie ten Boom most afraid of?" Surely, anyone who can read could have figured out how to pose that question without help.)

Though the book is published by a Christian publisher (Zondervan) and is labeled as a Religion book right above the ISBN on the back cover, there is next to nothing in this book about how Mackenzie's faith informs her family's read-aloud culture. There is an assumption on her part that the reader desires to raise Christian children who love God, and she includes recommendations for Bibles, and makes casual references to parables, but she completely misses the opportunity to provide Catholic families like hers with any advice unique to their (our) particular values and morals. This would have been the only redeeming quality of the book for me, and it was just not there.

The book lists in the final section of the book are very hit or miss. Some of the books are so new, it seems foolish to put them on any kind of list without knowing how they'll stand the test of time. Others are books written by Mackenzie's friends, all of whom have blurbed the book and appeared on her podcast, and most of whom are mentioned multiple times in the text of the book. The lists are also very short - there are dozens of blog posts and library websites out there that provide more comprehensive lists. 

The countless positive reviews of this book are baffling to me. As I've blogged about before, reading aloud is not that hard to begin with, and, frankly, if a handbook is needed, Jim Trelease has already taken care of it.  The fact that The Read-Aloud Family is so popular with #bookstagrammers and other parents who already read to their kids makes me think it's less about the quality of the book, and more about the fact that the content reaffirms what these readers already know and experience. But I am seeking more than just a pat on the back when I read books like this, and this one had nothing else to offer me. My recommendation would be to skip this book and instead look for Annis Duff's wonderful books Bequest of Wings: A Family's Pleasure with Books (1944) and Longer Flight: A Family Grows Up with Books (1955). Not only is Duff an expert (she was a librarian), but she also writes beautifully and in great depth about her family's relationship to books. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Books for Our First Year of Homeschooling

Next week, I will begin my journey as a homeschooling mom. My oldest daughter is not technically old enough for kindergarten in our state (the cut-off is September 1st and her birthday is around Thanksgiving), but she already reads and does basic math and I don't see a reason to hold her back for a year when we plan to homeschool all the way through anyway. So our first day of school will be September 5th and she will start her unofficial kindergarten year. Her younger sister, who wishes to be included, will also be doing some preschool.

Today, for Top Ten Tuesday's back to school topic, and also in response to Blog All About It's August prompt of "beginning," I want to share some of the books we'll be using as we start homeschooling.

  • Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding: A Science Curriculum for K-2 by Bernard Nebel
    We'll start using this book for science this year, and see how far we get. It seems like a good fit for me because it provides resources and information on the topics to be covered, but it doesn't give a rigid structure for actually teaching the material so I can adapt it to suit our family. The first topic we'll be covering is organizing things into categories, so I've also found a few books to cover that subject, including Like and Unlike: A First Look at Classification by Solveig Paulson Russell (which we own) and a series of books about sorting by Lauren Coss, which are available from our library through Hoopla.
  • My Backyard History Book by Linda Allison and Marilyn Burns
    Eventually, I will be teaching history in chronological order according to the classical trivium, but I wanted to take some time to introduce the concepts of history, the past, and the passage of time first. This book, which focuses on a child's personal and family history as well as the history of her home and town, seems like the perfect way to introduce these ideas. The audience for the book is definitely upper elementary, but I am sure I'll be able to simplify things for my daughter's level. 
  • Words Are Categorical series by Brian P. Cleary
    My daughter already reads at around a third grade level. As she continues to hone her reading skills, I plan to start teaching her the parts of speech. These books, which are available through the library from Hoopla, combined with Mad Libs and Schoolhouse Rock videos will be the means by which I introduce nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. 
  • Primary Mathematics 2A (Singapore Math - U.S. Edition)
    My husband started our daughter on Singapore Math months and months ago and this is where she left off. We'll pick up here and see how she progresses as time goes on. Just looking over the problems, it seems like this will be fairly easy for her, but there is no rush!
  • Where is Thumbkin? 500 Activities to Use with Songs You Already Know by Pam Schiller and Thomas Moore
    This is the book I'm planning to use for my preschooler's "curriculum." She loves to sing, and this book provides a bunch of extension activities for a variety of favorite children's songs, so it seems like it will be a good fit. I don't plan to do very much in the way of formal teaching with her. This will just be a way for her to have fun one-on-one with me for a little while each day. 
  • The Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading by Jessie Wise and Sara Buffington
    This is how my oldest daughter learned to read, starting shortly after she turned 3. My plan for right now is to use it to introduce letter sounds to my second daughter. How she does with that will determine when we get into the rest of the book. 
  • Catholic Children's Treasure Box series by the Maryknoll Sisters
    These are sweet, vintage magazine-like publications for Catholic kids. We originally tried to read them during Lent last year but never finished, so I'm hoping to use them as read-alouds throughout the first few months of our school year. This will be in addition to my daughter continuing to memorize the St. Joseph catechism. 
These books will of course be supplemented by lots of read-alouds and lots of independent reads for my oldest daughter as well. I will be sharing more about those in my Read-at-Home Kids Reports in the coming months! 

Monday, August 27, 2018

The RAHM Report for 8/27/18

What I Finished Reading

  • (George) by E.L. Konigsburg 
    The only way I can describe this book is as A Beautiful Mind for tweens. I liked it a lot, but it messed with my head. I'm planning to post a review on the blog in September. 
  • 51 Sycamore Lane by Marjorie Sharmat 
    This one was a little weird. I liked the voice of the main character - it's very similar to the author's Nate the Great - but the story felt somewhat thin and disorganized. 
  • A Long Line of Cakes: An Aurora County Novel (ARC) by Deborah Wiles 
    This book was pretty par for the course for this series. I definitely don't think it would make sense if I hadn't read the first three books, so I probably wouldn't recommend treating it like a standalone. 
  • Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani 
    I started listening to the audiobook of this, which is read by the author, and it was wonderful, but I was so into the book I wanted to read faster so I wound up switching to the book after about 100 pages. I know this book has been recommended to me before - I don't know why it took me so long to finally read it! 

What I'm Currently Reading

  • Read and Gone (ARC) by Allison Brook 60%
    This is a quick read that I had hoped to finish over the weekend, but I didn't quite make it. I will most likely finish it today. 
  • Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction by Catherine Pearlman, audiobook read by Christine Williams 21%
    I heard about this book from @everydayreading on Instagram. I normally would prefer to read the print version, but my library only seems to have the audio. I'm not sure yet that I will finish it just because audio is not my preferred format for parenting books.
  • Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller with Susan Kelley 15%
    I didn't get to spend much time on this book this past week, but I'm getting back into it now. Though it's about getting kids to develop the habits of lifelong readers, it's giving me a lot of food for thought and potential ideas for future blog posts about my own "wild reading."
  • Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny, audiobook read by Ralph Cosham 14%
    This is one of only two Louise Penny books I do not own, so I decided to take the opportunity to listen to one from this series on audio. Ralph Cosham is great, and this book, though very different from the first few Gamache books, is intriguing and well-written. 
  • Montana Sky by Nora Roberts 0%
    One of the challenges I am trying to complete this year has a Nora Roberts category. I decided to go with an older book that I have been wanting to read for a while. I have only read the first two pages, but I'll dig in a bit more after I finish a couple of these other books.

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

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Book Review: The Sparrow Child by Meriol Trevor (1958)

Philip Sparrow is spending the summer with some of his mother's family at Corben Place. There he learns of a family legend which states that an ancient chalice has been hidden somewhere on the property. While the adults debate the future of the house itself, and the rightful place where Mirabel, an orphaned cousin, ought to live, Philip concerns himself with searching for the long-lost grail.

Published in 1958, this book is one of Trevor's earlier works. Of the ones I've read, two come right before this book (Sun Slower, Sun Faster (1957) and The Other Side of the Moon (1957)) and two more (my favorites, Shadows and Images (1960) and The Rose Round (1963)) come a few years after it. Though this book feels more simplistic and less polished than The Rose Round, both stories have similar themes, and in some ways it feels like The Sparrow Child was a way for the author to explore some of the questions she really covers in depth in The Rose Round. Themes in both books include elderly relatives near the end of their lives, people who wish to control everyone around them, the impact of disabilities on the lives of the disabled and their caregivers, and the idea of home and what constitutes a good one. Interestingly, The Sparrow Child doesn't really include any of the supernatural events that help Trevor's other books resonate so much with the reader - perhaps this is why it felt less rich to me. 

Also present in this book, as in all of her others, is Trevor's unwavering devotion to her Catholic faith. There are so few authors who write authentically Catholic books for kids, so I am very thankful that Trevor did write every story from a Catholic point of view, and didn't tone down the religion in order to appeal to a wider audience. I am always puzzled when I see reviews on Goodreads that say things to the effect of "Well, I know her books are always Catholic, but this one had too much religion in it." If you knowingly pick up a religious-themed novel, why would you then complain when the book was religious? For Catholic families, books like this one, where the existence of God is seen as a given, and where the Catholic church is unquestionably the one true church, are such a gift, and we have so few. To see readers giving them negative reviews simply because they are Catholic is very frustrating.

Meriol Trevor's books are hard to find and can sometimes be expensive to purchase. If you come across this one and it's available for a great price, I would definitely recommend snatching it up. If, however, you are looking to spend a limited book budget on only a few of her titles, this book is probably not one I would make a big priority. For me, the must-haves are The Rose Round, Shadows and Images, and Sun Slower, Sun Faster - in that order. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Book Review: So Done by Paula Chase (2018)

Jamila (Mila) and Metai (Tai), who live across the street from each other in a low-income housing project, have been good friends for a long time. Their friendship is strained these days, however, for a variety of reasons. After staying with her aunt in the suburbs for a few weeks, Mila suddenly objects to being called her childhood nickname of Bean and she doesn't want to spend time at Tai's house. Tai, on the other hand, is becoming more and more interested in getting a commitment out of her long-time crush, Rollie, while she also deals with the erratic behavior of her drug-addicted father. Additionally, both girls, and many of their other friends, are interested in auditioning for the new Talented and Gifted (TAG) program, but worry that with so much competition they may not be accepted.

I immediately recognized Paula Chase as the author of the Del Rio Bay Clique series, which I remember ordering for my library back when I was a teen librarian, and which was hugely popular. This book, though written at the middle grade level, is set in the same community, and judging from how well-written it is, it is also likely to be very popular. 

So many middle grade friendship stories are set against very generic middle class backgrounds where all the characters talk, act, think, and sound the same. This book, by contrast, makes great use of slang and local color to make the characters sound real and authentic, and  develops its setting in such a way that it is not just the backdrop of the story, but an integral part of the way the plot unfolds. Despite the fact that I wasn't familiar with a lot of the slang or subject matter, I was completely drawn into this world and fully invested in the well-being of both girls and in their hopes for getting into TAG. I can imagine that kids who do get the cultural references will be that much more immersed in the story.

There is some mature subject matter in this book that definitely places it at the higher end of the middle grade spectrum. Both Tai and Mila have parents who use drugs, and though it is never explicitly stated, it is clear that Tai's mom and dad were teen parents. There is also a troubling incident involving Mila and Tai's father, which, while handled gracefully by the author, with a clear-cut resolution, might be too much for some readers, especially those who are used to lighter friendship books. For that reason, I think of it as more appropriate for middle school than elementary school readers. Still, there are plenty of positive role models in the story, and the overall focus is on hope and healing, not on darkness and despair, as is fitting for a middle grade novel. 

So Done is yet another wonderful 2018 middle grade book (there are so many good ones this year so far!) and certainly a strong middle grade debut for Paula Chase. I'd be happy to see more books like this one in the years to come! (Thanks to Edelweiss for the digital review copy!)

Monday, August 20, 2018

The RAHM Report for 8/20/18

I had intended to be back into the regular routine of reading and posting last Monday. Sadly, right in the middle of our big move to our new house, my dad passed away, 15 months after suffering a debilitating stroke. Although the fact of his death was not a shock, since we knew it was likely to be sooner rather than later, it was still a really stressful situation. Because we had to travel for the wake and funeral, we lost an entire day from our moving plan and had to scramble to get everything done. I didn't read a single book for the first 10 days of this month, which is basically unheard of! Thankfully, things are beginning to calm down, I'm settling in to our new home, and I've been reading with a vengeance. I'm excited to really get back on track with the Bout of Books read-a-thon this week. As that kicks off today, here's what I've read lately and what I will be reading this week.

What I Finished Reading

  • Listen To Your Heart by Kasie West, audiobook read by Nora Hunter ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    I have really enjoyed every Kasie West book I've listened to this summer. Though I don't usually like stories about mistaken identity and misunderstandings, this one was written so well that I didn't feel the usual discomfort I associate with these storylines. 
  • Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres ⭐⭐
    This was a pretty generic middle grade story. It wasn't bad, but it didn't really grab my interest. I finished it because it was short. 
  • Crime and Punctuation by Kaitlyn Dunnett, audiobook read by Margaret Strom ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    I really enjoyed this cozy mystery, which is set in Sullivan County, NY, not far from where my mom lives. References to my local newspaper, and the city of Middletown, where I frequently went as a kid, and the overall small-town feel made me love the book even though the mystery itself unfolded kind of slowly. I also loved the audiobook narrator and will definitely look for other books she has read.
  • The Read-Aloud Family by Sarah Mackenzie ⭐⭐
    This was every bit as disappointing as I expected, and I have no idea why people rave about this book. I'll save my in-depth comments for my review, coming soon. 
  • The Intentional Bookshelf by Samantha Munoz ⭐
    This book really needed a good editor. There is also some misinformation and just outright bad advice that reveals the author's lack of expertise on the subject matter. 
  • The Book Whisperer by Donalynn Miller ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    Though this book is directed at public school teachers, I enjoyed reading about how the author encouraged her class to love reading by giving them lots of time in school to both read and write. 
  • By Invitation Only by Dorothea Benton Frank ⭐⭐⭐
    This was a very light read, and at times I found myself wanting just a bit more description. The dialogue-heavy text made the story feel rushed at times. I thought it was neat, though, that the characters were all named for real people who had won the chance to see their name in one of the author's books. All of the names fit their characters perfectly, and I never would have guessed that the author didn't make them up.
  • Dim Sum of All Fears by Vivien Chien (ARC) ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    The Noodle Shop Mysteries series is my favorite cozy series right now. I love that Lana is a younger protagonist and I enjoy all the supporting characters and the plaza setting. The writing is really excellent, and I think a lot of women in their 20s and 30s can relate to Lana. Book 3, Murder Lo Mein, comes out in March, and I'm already counting the weeks. 

Did Not Finish

  • Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum
    I started this audiobook but it never really hooked me. I abandoned it about a third of the way through. 

What I'm Currently Reading

  • (George) by E.L. Konigsburg 20%
    This book has the strangest premise of all of Konigsburg's odd titles. It's about Ben, a boy with a high IQ who has a secret twin  named George living inside of him. I've avoided it for a long time because it sounds so weird, but the writing is so good I am finally taking the plunge. 
  • Reading in the Wild by Donalynn Miller
    This is the follow-up to The Book Whisperer which focuses on teaching kids the habits that will turn them into lifelong readers.  I've only read the introduction and a bit of the first chapter, but I'm enjoying it already. 
  • 51 Sycamore Lane by Marjorie Sharmat 8%
    I randomly picked this up from the shelf as we were unpacking books, and I love the tone and writing style. It will be a quick read that I will probably finish by the end of today.
  • Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani, audiobook read by the author 8%
    I have listened to the first hour of this audiobook and I already love it. The author has a great reading voice, and her main character's sassy comments make me laugh. 
  • Read and Gone by Allison Brook 2%
    In my last RAHM report, I said I was planning to read this on the last day of July for the Christmas in July read-a-thon at Seasons of Reading, but I didn't get to it and haven't had a chance to pick it up again since. I'm not really currently reading it, but it comes out in mid-September so I'll get back to it soon. 
I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Thursday, August 16, 2018

An Interview with Children's Author Fred Bowen

All week, I've been sharing reviews of the books by Fred Bowen that I have read. Today, I'm happy to share an interview I recently conducted with Fred over email.

Read-at-Home Mom: One of the things I admire about your books is the way each story teaches a character-building lesson without preaching at the reader. When you're writing, do you set out to tell a story with a particular moral, or does the lesson present itself as you go?

Fred Bowen: First, thanks for saying my books are not preachy!  I think that any heavy-handed message would turn readers away.

My sports books for kids ages 7-12 are a balance of three major elements.  First, I want to tell a good story.  If you don’t have a fast-moving, interesting plot with sympathetic characters the kids will put the book down.

Second, I want to teach the kids something about the sports they love.  That’s why I weave some sports history into the plot and always include a chapter of real sports history at the end of the book.

Finally, I definitely want to include a lesson that kids can learn from the story.  But the lesson is always an intrinsic part of the sport.  So in Outside Shot (Peachtree 2017), for example, Matt sees himself as a shooter, the kid who is going to score a lot of baskets.  The lesson he learns over the course of the season is to not define himself so narrowly.  He can be more than he thinks.  Matt learns that lesson through playing basketball.

When I start a book I have a good idea of what the history and lesson contained in the story will be.  As I work out the plot I am always thinking about how to emphasize (without preaching!) the history and the underlying lesson.

RAHM: Each of your books involves scenes where kids play in sporting events, requiring you to describe a lot of physical action very clearly and concisely. Do you have a particular method you use to organize all the logistics of these scenes? Are some sports harder to capture on the page than others?

FB: I outline my books extensively before I start writing.  First, I develop the “arc of the story” by figuring out what has to happen in each of the chapters (my books are usually 15-17 chapters and about 120 pages).  That arc is usually a few typewritten pages.

Next, I write out (in longhand!) a first draft of the book using two, 100-page (6” X 9”) notebooks.  This is where I work out the dialogue and the details of the action, including the action in the games.  I am not trying to be perfect in this draft.  I am only trying to figure out what goes where and who says what.

After I have worked out those details in my notebooks, I begin to type up on the computer the first “official” draft of the book.  I am trying to be as perfect as possible with this draft.

I should emphasize that things are always changing in this process.  I am adding and deleting scenes, emphasizing certain themes more, developing the characters.  It’s a lot of fun!

And yes, some sports are harder to describe than others.  Baseball is easy because you can summarize the previous action quickly and then “drop into” a dramatic moment in the game and describe it in more detail.  Basketball and football are similar in this way.

I find soccer the most difficult to describe because so much of the action does not lead to any significant result.  Many soccer games are 60-90 minutes of barely differentiated action punctuated by one or two goals.   I played and enjoy the game but it is hard to describe.

RAHM: Your books also always include interesting information about sports figures of the past. When you were growing up, which sports heroes inspired you?

FB: I didn’t really have sport heroes in the traditional way kids have heroes.  I had favorite players and favorite teams – go Red Sox and Celtics! – but I did not have sports heroes as such.

I think I sensed (probably through my family) that just because someone was great at sports this did not make him or her necessarily admirable in every aspect of their life.

I have written a weekly kids sports column for the Washington Post since April 2000.  I have often tried to convey this truth to my readers.  Just because LeBron James is a fabulous basketball player does not automatically make him a good father, person or friend.  He may be, but that is a separate inquiry.  I think this is an important point to make to kids in our celebrity-crazed culture.

RAHM: I heard you speak at the Gaithersburg Book Festival several years ago, and I remember you commenting on the number of names you need for all the teammates, coaches, and other supporting characters who appear in your books. How do you choose the names for all those characters? 

FB: I do several things to name the characters in my books.  First, I check the Social Security website to see what names were popular ten years before the scheduled publication date of the book.  Those names will be familiar to the kids reading my books.

My wife teaches at a school in our neighborhood.  So I look at the names in the student directory and mix and match first names with different last names.

I also put in names of friends, friends’ kids and grandchildren, as well as kids who write me fan letters and emails.  Finally, I am a big jazz fan so I will sometimes sneak in the name of a favorite jazz pianist, bassist or sax player in a roster or as an opponent.

RAHM: Finally, for readers who have read all of your books, which authors would you recommend for them to enjoy while they wait for your next book?

FB: I have written 22 chapter books for readers ages 7-12 and one picture book, so it is hard for me to believe that kids have read all my books.  But I know kids have because I have met some of them.  There have been times that I have met kids who knew my books better than I did!

What I would encourage all kids to do is to read as often and widely as possible.  If they like sports, they should read the sports section in their local newspaper.  Get a subscription to Sports Illustrated or ESPN the magazine.

I remember when I was young, my father encouraged me to read the sports section of the Boston newspapers.  But after a while, he would only give me the sports section after I had read the front pages.  This helped me develop a life-long interest in politics and current events.

Finally, my parents always encouraged reading.  They said we (the 7 kids in the family) should always be reading something.  If someone asked us what we were reading we should always have an answer.  Sure enough, we all turned out to be readers.

My point is that kids (and their parents) should make a habit of reading.  Find what you are interested in and then find a book about that subject.  It isn’t hard but it takes more effort than turning on the TV or checking your phone.  There are so many terrific writers for kids these days that if kids say they can’t find anything to read they aren’t really trying.

If they like my books they should know my next book – a football book – will be published in the Fall of 2019.

Thanks to Fred Bowen for these wonderful answers! I know I'll be looking for that football book next year! 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Book Review: Lucky Enough by Fred Bowen (2018)

Lucky Enough is another great read from Fred Bowen, who consistently writes engaging sports stories for the middle grade audience. As he does in his other books, here Bowen combines real sports trivia (this time about the superstitions of famous baseball players) with an engaging life lesson (it's better to work hard than to rely on luck!) starring a child athlete who has been inspired by an influential adult (in this case, it's Trey's deceased grandmother). Trey is a sympathetic character, and the reader both empathizes with his desire to follow certain rituals during baseball games and understands his need to put in a bit more effort to improve his game. Supporting characters are also appealing, include Trey's well-to-do Uncle Dave who checks in on him and his single mom from time to time, and the groundskeeper at the ball field, Mr. Kiley, who is involved in the search for Trey's lost good luck charm, and Trey's realization that it may not hold as much power as he thinks.

This is a book with appeal to a wide range of ages. Advanced readers in the lower elementary grades who need novel-length stories with age-appropriate content won't find anything offensive in this book, but kids as old as middle-school age can still relate to Trey and enjoy all the sports action, and the details of things like player stats and batting rosters. I've never read a book by Fred Bowen that I couldn't wholeheartedly recommend, and this book is no exception. I'm already eager to read whatever he writes next!

Tomorrow, I'll be posting my interview with Fred Bowen, in which we discuss the lessons in his books, how he names all of his characters, and when his next book will be available.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Book Review: Out of Bounds by Fred Bowen (2015)

This week, I'm posting reviews of books by children's author Fred Bowen in anticipation of an author interview with him that will be published here on the blog this coming Thursday. This review was originally posted on Goodreads in 2015.

Nate Osborne and his teammates on the Strikers soccer team want nothing more than to beat their rival team, the Monarchs in this year's championship. While it feels like the boys might be willing to do anything to win, Nate learns from his aunt, who is also a soccer player, that there are certain unspoken rules in soccer about fair play and good sportsmanship, including a tradition where game play stops when an injury occurs. At first, when Nate tries to put his new-found knowledge into action in a game, his teammates and opponents scoff at the idea, but ultimately, they all realize it is better for the best team to win based on ability alone, not because of the other team's misfortunes.

This book is another great addition to Fred Bowen's series of middle grade sports books. Like the others, Out of Bounds uses a sporting experience as a means of teaching an important life lesson, and in an afterword, ties the story to real-life examples from sports history. This formula works so well, and Bowen's writing is engaging, lively, and easy to read. What stands out most in this specific story is that Nate's role model is not an older brother or a famous soccer player, but his aunt. There aren't many books where female athletes mentor boys, and it is an interesting dynamic to explore. Especially fun is the bet Nate and his aunt have about who will score more goals in the season, the loser of which has to bake cookies for the winner. There is also a greater focus on statistics and standings in this book than in some of Bowen's other stories, which gives it a nice STEM connection, and also appeals to kids who like both sports and math. Also notable is the dialogue, which rings true as the real talk of middle school boys, but without a lot of the vulgarity and toilet humor that is often associated with this age group. Bowen's books are not just interesting, but wholesome too, which means parents are likely to appreciate them as much as their kids.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Book Review: Double Reverse by Fred Bowen (2014)

This week, I'm posting reviews of books by children's author Fred Bowen in anticipation of an author interview with him that will be published here on the blog this coming Thursday. This review was originally posted on Goodreads in 2014. 

Ninth grader Jesse has never seen himself as a quarterback. That position belongs to his older brother, Jay, who looks the part. When Jay is not named quarterback on his college team, however, Jesse begins to question whether players should be pigeonholed and takes on the challenge of playing quarterback for his own freshman team, while also encouraging a female classmate to join the team as kicker.

Fred Bowen writes a regular sports column for children in The Washington Post, and his background in newspaper writing definitely shows in his fiction. The writing in this book is concise, easy to read, and never dull. Bowen has a knack for moving scenes along using dialogue, and for moving quickly through long periods of time without making the reader feel rushed. Jesse's story spans an entire football season, but Bowen only writes what is absolutely necessary. Very few words are spared for details like setting and physical descriptions of characters; instead, most of the text focuses on football itself, with plenty of scenes from games, and including only those other events which enable the characters to play or watch the game.

Though the main character is a teenager, this is very clearly a middle grade book, and one that could be read by kids as young as 7 or 8. The relationships in the book are all very supportive and healthy - even the ones between characters who may be rivals - and Savannah, the would-be kicker, is treated quite fairly by her teammates, and by the author, who does not exploit her character as a token girl in any way. The story conveys a clear lesson, as does the historical content provided at the back of the book, which highlights various famous sports figures who were hugely successful despite not always looking the part.

Fred Bowen is to this generation what Matt Christopher was to children of previous generations: a reliably talented teller of sports tales that will appeal to reluctant readers who like sports as well as sports-lovers who like to read. 

Thursday, August 9, 2018

All You Need to Read Aloud

It seems like everyone these days is talking about reading aloud. There is so much advice and information out there about it that it can easily start to seem like reading aloud is a complicated activity that requires a lot of specialized knowledge and diligent practice to be done correctly. But really, when it comes down to it, successful read-alouds only require three things: a good book, an engaged adult, and a receptive child.

A good book: 

  • is well-written.
  • has beautiful illustrations.
  • upholds (or at least does not undermine) your family's values.
  • appeals to the adult reader.
  • appeals to the child listener.

Though you can certainly find book lists and reviews aplenty online, and these are useful when you are designing a homeschool curriculum or building your family's book collection, you don't have to have a lot of expertise in children's literature to choose good read-alouds. Reading a book to yourself even just once can give you a good idea of whether the writing flows smoothly or not, whether the pictures contribute to the story, and whether you like the book and approve of its content. (For longer books, pre-reading a couple of chapters can usually give you the same information.)

An engaged adult: 
  • gives read-aloud time her undivided attention.
  • pushes through feelings of awkwardness about reading aloud for the sake of the child's experience. 
  • models a positive attitude regarding books and reading.
  • selects books not at random, but with intention. 
  • presents a read-aloud with an invitation ("Let's see what this book is about") and not a command ("We have to read this book now.")

There are some parents who do silly voices and put on puppet shows, or who (like me) are former children's librarians and tend to turn read-aloud time into a full-blown story time. Rest assured, the parents who do these things are not inherently better at reading aloud than parents who do not. They do those things because they enjoy them, not because they are essential to the read-aloud experience. All that is truly essential is that you are ready and willing to read aloud. Anything else is gravy. (Also, don't worry if you don't sound like an audiobook narrator. Your kids still prefer your familiar voice over that of a stranger, no matter how unpolished it is.)

A receptive child: 
  • is calm and not in the midst of a meltdown.
  • is not already deeply engaged in another activity. 
  • may already be looking at books or asking you to read aloud.
  • does not turn down your invitation to hear a story. 

Good books are steadfast and reliable; the moods of human beings (especially young ones!) are much less so. Though some experts suggest that you must read aloud for a certain number of minutes every day lest your child not get into a good college (!!!), it is much better to prioritize quality over quantity. Suggesting a read-aloud when your child is in a particularly ornery mood or tearing him away from his cool LEGO creation to read when he'd rather not just causes him to develop negative associations with reading aloud that can easily be avoided if you just wait for windows of time during which he is clearly receptive to hearing stories. Watching for those opportunities is a much better way to spend your energy than trying to force a regular reading schedule.

Want to see how reading aloud looks in my family? Check out the Read-at-Home Kids Report, my monthly-ish feature where I share the books my three girls are enjoying. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Reading Through History: Front Desk by Kelly Yang (2018)

In 1990s California, Mia is the daughter of first generation Chinese immigrants. Though her parents were professionals in China, jobs are harder to come by in the  U.S., and the family finds itself managing a hotel whose cruel owner treats Mia's parents very poorly, often failing to keep his word and exploiting their desperation for work for his own gain. Because her parents don't make much money, Mia doesn't have many of the luxuries enjoyed by her classmates, which can be painful at times, but she makes the most of her situation, often manning the front desk at the hotel and becoming friends with the "weeklies" who live there all the time and with the various Chinese immigrants her parents secretly allow to stay there without paying. At school, she also makes friends with Lupe, a fellow immigrant and tries to steer clear of the hotel owner's son, Jason.

Front Desk has all the qualities of an excellent middle grade novel: a strong plot grounded in the author's real-life experiences, a believable protagonist who infuses the story with hope, despite the many hardships she must endure, a mostly black-and-white sense of right and wrong and a great setting with lots of lively supporting characters. I sat down to read just one chapter of the ARC (from Edelweiss) before bed one night, figuring I'd read the book over a period of several days. Two hours later, it was 2 in the morning and I'd read the entire book. It is absolutely engaging from start to finish, and absolutely worthy of the praise it has been receiving from reviewers.

In recent years, I have been fairly disgusted with the way ALA has politicized its awards, but while I have mostly lost faith in that organization, I do think this book is as worthy of recognition as many of my favorite Newbery-winning titles from decades past. Kelly Yang is an excellent writer, and she manages to make a grim set of circumstances fun and entertaining to read about in a way that still feels respectful of the seriousness of the situation. She also keeps everything age-appropriate and mostly avoids preaching at the reader. It's definitely in the top 5 books I've read so far this year, and I will cross my fingers that it receives some formal recognition. 

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Book Review: Goodbye, Chicken Little by Betsy Byars (1979)

Ever since his father died in a coal mining disaster, Jimmie Little has been very fearful. When, on a dare, his uncle Pete drunkenly walks out on thin ice and drowns, Jimmie witnesses the whole thing, and he and his mother both blame Jimmie for not stepping in to prevent the accident. When the surviving family members gather in memory of Pete, however, it becomes clear to Jimmie that he doesn't need to be afraid of facing life head-on because he can draw strength from his relatives.

This book is one of the author's weakest. Though the subject matter should be very emotional, the writing style feels very detached, and it's hard to get into Jimmie's mindset. I was thankful in some ways that she didn't dwell more on the horror of Jimmie's uncle dying before his eyes, but I also felt that for an author who usually shows such empathy for her young characters, she didn't really have any for her protagonist this time around. While it is certainly comforting to surround oneself with family, it seems like, after losing both his dad and his uncle to accidents, Jimmie should probably need something more than a single family reunion to bounce back. The stakes were just too high in this book; Byars does better when the drama of a story takes place within typical everyday occurrences.

If you need a book about grief and loss for kids, you're much better off with either On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer (which is short like this book,  but deeper) or the quintessential Bridge to Terabithia. Even big Byars fans, of which I am one, will find this book difficult to like.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Book Review: Why Can't I Be You by Melissa Walker (2018)

Like last year's Let's Pretend We Never Met, Why Can't I Be You is another strong and engaging middle grade friendship story from Melissa Walker. Claire and Ronan, who live in the same trailer park, have been friends for a long time, but this summer things feel different. Ronan's dad, who has been away from the family for a while, has now returned, but his mental health is questionable. Claire's other good friend, Breanna, has recently moved to a fancy big house with a pool and other amenities of which Claire can only dream, and she has started hanging around with her cousin, Eden, who acts much more sophisticated than Breanna despite being only one year older. Claire is worried about Ronan, jealous of Breanna and both irritated and fascinated by Eden, and she finds herself feeling more and more isolated as the summer wears on, leading her to question whether it might be easier to be someone else.

As the title suggests, this book focuses a lot on the idea that "the grass is always greener on the other side." Each of the characters sees something desirable in another character's life. Claire longs for Breanna's material goods, while Ronan wishes his dad was more like Claire's. Claire wonders if boys will ever look at her the way they look at Eden, and Breanna longs for the simplicity of her former life, when wealth didn't dictate her family's every move. While the characters each grapple with their desires to be someone else, they miss opportunities to show empathy toward one another and to support each other as friends during their times of difficulty. In middle school, kids often feel as though the events of their lives are completely unique to them, and that everyone around them is perfectly happy and well-adjusted. I appreciate that this book shows that every kid has something that makes them insecure and that recognizing that and seeking to help each other through it is the best way to handle it.

I also thought it was interesting to explore how changes in socioeconomic status can affect friendships at this age. So many middle grade friendship stories exist in a vague middle class universe where the characters seem to have whatever material objects the plot deems necessary. This book felt a little more real because the characters did feel the limitations of their financial situations. It was also nice not to have the novel consumed by a lot of romance. Eden is the only character who seems really interested in dating, and Claire finds this puzzling. Often boy/girl best friendships in books like this devolve into ill-fated dating relationships; the friendship at the heart of this book felt all the more believable because that doesn't happen.

Melissa Walker has really hit a sweet spot at the middle grade level with this believable story of how friendships often change as adolescence hits. I hope there will be more books like this from her in the future! (Thanks to Edelweiss for the digital review copy.)