Friday, July 23, 2021

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Old Mother West Wind by Thornton Burgess (1910)

Old Mother West Wind has several children known as the Merry Little Breezes, who love to involve themselves in the affairs of the animals who live in and around the forest, including:  Peter Rabbit, Jimmy Skunk, Sammy Jay, Bobby Coon, Little Joe Otter, Grandfather Frog, Billy Mink, Jerry Muskrat, and Spotty the Turtle. As these animals interact with each other and with the Breezes, the reader is treated to many gentle adventures, most of which have a bit of a moral at the end. 

My husband read Old Mother West Wind aloud to my oldest as a toddler, but when I tried it with my second daughter she wasn't a fan. It wasn't until now, with daughter number three (E, age 3.5) that I actually read the entire book. Unlike her older sister, E. really enjoyed entering the world of these animals and observing their activities.

For me, a reader who doesn't love animal stories, it was not my favorite read-aloud, but I did appreciate that the chapters were short enough to hold my young listener's attention and that it was very easy to sort out right and wrong actions taken by the animals in each story. For a book that is over 100 years old, much of it is still relatable to preschoolers who are starting to really understand how to interact with others for the first time. They can explore various social situations vicariously through these animals, and then apply those lessons to real life. 

Old Mother West Wind is a great first chapter book to read aloud, and I plan to keep it in my preschool curriculum for when the twins reach this stage in the hopes that it will resonate with one or both of them as well. 

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Book Review: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (2008)

The Mysterious Benedict Society is the story of four gifted kids - Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance - who are handpicked by Nicholas Benedict to infiltrate a school called the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, which is attempting to control minds through subliminal messages sent out through various forms of media. Using their various strengths, the four characters work together even in the face of great danger to bring down the mastermind of these messages, Ledroptha Curtain. 

I read this as part of a discussion group on Instagram but wound up not really participating in the discussion. Whereas the other members seemed to love the book, I really thought it was just okay. I didn't like a lot of things about it: the fact that so many character names had not-so-hidden meanings, for example, and also the plot's reliance on coincidences and unknown family connections that just happen to be revealed at convenient moments. It felt like this book was trying really hard to be clever and really wanted me to notice its cleverness, while I wanted it to be much more subtle. 

In terms of content, I have no objection to my kids reading this book. My husband read it, and though he didn't like the ending, he still bought a copy, and it's here in our homeschool library if any of our kids want to pick it up. For me, though, I'm most likely done with this series. It's not the type of book I typically like, and there was nothing especially amazing about this specific book to make it an exception for me. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Book Review: The Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright (1942)

The Four-Story Mistake is the second book in the Melendys series by Elizabeth Enright, following The Saturdays (1941). In this book, Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver, along with their father and Cuffy and Willy Sloper, move from New York City to a country house known as the Four-Story Mistake. The house has some architectural anomalies that give it its name, but it's the perfect home for these four children. While World War II rages on elsewhere, the Melendy kids enjoy a year of indoor and outdoor adventures, including the uncovering of a secret about their new home. 

I happened to be reading this book aloud to my kids during our visit to my mother-in-law. It was such a surprise to all of us when she recognized the story and told us this had been her favorite book as a child. After we finished the book, I could absolutely see why. Even more so than in The Saturdays, in this book these child characters come fully to life. They and my kids may be separated by decades, but their interests - in nature, in drama, in secrets, and in imagination - are as similar as can be. The fact that a war is taking place also gives the book a bittersweetness, and for the adult reader, there is a strong feeling of nostalgia and an awareness that childhood is fleeting. 

This is the quintessential realistic fiction book and it was a lovely read-aloud for my older three girls ages 3, 5, and 7. I had originally not really planned to finish out the series, but this book has changed my mind completely. This was a very strong five-star read and I look forward to reading it aloud again when the twins are old enough to enjoy it. 

Monday, July 19, 2021

Reading Through History: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell (1960)

Island of the Blue Dolphins is the story of Karana, a young Native American girl who, after a series of very difficult events, is left to live alone on her family's island off the coast of California in the 1840s. The novel describes the life she builds for herself and explores the challenges and joys of living so closely with nature with only animal companionship.

I never read this book as a kid because I almost never read any historical fiction as a kid. A few years ago I read O'Dell's The Captive (1979), and it was so dark and depressing that I wondered whether I could ever stomach another book by him, and I continued avoiding this one. Thankfully, though, a reading challenge that cropped up on Instagram this summer required a book set on an island, and I was finally encouraged to pick this one up. I listened to the audiobook, and though survival stories are not my favorite genre, there is undoubtedly something special about this book.

From the beginning, the writing is simply beautiful. I have images in my mind of scenes from this book that I can still replay in vivid detail weeks after finishing the story. O'Dell is not a flowery, purple writer, but he has such a strong command of language that he really knows how to paint a picture with just the right number of words. I feel as though I know Karana and have lived alongside her through her experience on the island. 

This is a short book, but it bears a strong impact. It didn't become a personal favorite, but objectively I can absolutely see why it's so beloved and why it won a Newbery. I'll be glad to have my own kids read it in the coming years. 

Friday, July 16, 2021

Homeschool Update: Week of 7/5/21

Morning Read-Alouds

From Sing a Song of Seasons: A Nature Poem for Each Day of the Year selected by Fiona Waters,  illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon (Nosy Crow, 2018), we read "She sells seashells on the seashore," "Inside a Shell" by John Foster, "Five Little Peas," and "The Back Step" by Lee Knowles. 

From A Book of Americans by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1933) we read poems entitled: "Christopher Columbus," "Indian," "Hernando de Soto," "Peregrine White and Virginia Dare," "Pocahontas," "Miles Standish," "Pilgrims & Puritans," "Peter Stuyvesant," "Southern Ships and Settlers," "Cotton Mather," "Captain Kidd," "French Pioneers," "Oliver DeLancey," and "George Washington." 

Our picture book author for the week was Charlotte Zolotow. Grandma read The Seashore Book to the girls before we left New York, and I read The Storm Book at home. We also watched some videos of Zolotow's daughter, Crescent Dragonwagon, reading aloud her mother's books, Someday and One Step Two.

We read several articles from National Geographic Explorer magazine Volume 19, Number 2 (Pathfinder edition): "The Galapagos Islands," "Islands Born of Fire," "Home Only Here," and "Darwin."


We learned to sing "Home on the Range" from Go In and Out the Window: An Illustrated Songbook for Young People (The Metropolitian Museum of Art, 1987). 

We listened to Tritsch-Tratsch Polka by Johann Strauss Jr, Variations on "Ah vous dirai-je, maman" by Mozart, and  L'Arl├ęsienne Suite: "Farandole" by Georges Bizet. 


This week's painting was the Mona Lisa. We studied the card from the Louvre Art Deck: 100 Masterpieces from the World's Most Popular Museum by Anja Grebe and Erich Lessing and watched the SmartHistory video about the painting.


M. and C. started learning the questions and answers in Lesson 7: "Jesus Opens Heaven For Us" in The New Saint Joseph First Communion Catechism.

Memory Work

E. recited the months of the year, days of the week, four directions, marks of the church, and continents. She continued to practice "Happiness" by A.A. Milne. 

C recited the 50 states, planets, Great Lakes, countries of Europe, the oceans, the books of the Bible, and our address and phone number. She continued practicing "maggie and milly and molly and may" by e.e. cummings. 

M recited the 50 states, the countries of Asia, the books of the Bible, the Kings and Queens of England, and our address and phone number. She continued to practice Oberon's speech from A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II, Scene 1 by William Shakespeare.  


In the summer, we typically do a quick American history study, so we started that this week. From The Great Heritage by Katherine B. Shippen (Viking Press, 1947), we read "The Great Heritage," "Beavers, Otters, and Furres of Price," and "Men of the Sea." From Yankee Doodle's Cousins by Anne Malcolmson (Houghton Mifflin, 1941) we read "Stormalong." From American Adventures by Elizabeth Coatsworth (Macmillan, 1968), we read "First Adventure." 


M. and C. both did some work in Singapore and Khan Academy every day. C. is still working on multi-digit addition and subtraction. M. is working on algebra basics and time word problems.

Reading and Writing 

M. continued reading Thee, Hannah to Gran, and she also continued reading the Borrowers series. C. started the second Far-Away Tree book. In the evenings, C. and I started reading aloud Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field. At dinner, my husband read aloud from The Three Princes of Serendip.

Other Activities

On the way home from New York, we met up with a bookish friend my husband met on Goodreads who has been exchanging letters with M. We had lunch and the kids played on the playground at a park in her neighborhood. 

On Friday, we met up with friends at the Adventure Playground. 

Thursday, July 15, 2021

ARC Review: Rosetown Summer by Cynthia Rylant (7/20/2021)

In Rosetown (2018), Flora Smallwood struggled to accept her parents' separation. Now, in Rosetown Summer, her parents have reconciled, but her beloved favorite bookstore, Wings and a Chair, which has been so central to her relationship with her best friend Yury is likely to close, and she can't imagine saying goodbye. As summer wears on, Flora slowly learns to come to terms with change, whether she likes it or not.

In so many of her books, Cynthia Rylant beautifully captures the small moments of everyday life. Rosetown Summer is a quiet, gentle read, but it so deeply expresses the emotions of kids as they navigate the first major disappointments in their lives. There isn't much physical action in this book, but the coziness of the setting and the very real-sounding dialogue made it a page-turner for me nonetheless. I was reminded very much of Rylant's Cobble Street Cousins series, which was a huge favorite with my kids a couple of summers ago, and which also celebrates the joys of small-town living and which also explores the normal lives of regular kids in beautifully written language.

Rosetown wasn't super popular and I'm not seeing a lot of buzz for Rosetown Summer, but for the sensitive and thoughtful young reader, these two books really hit a sweet spot. I would have read and re-read this book as a kid and it would not have mattered to me at all that nothing ever happens. Just escaping into this cozy world for a little while would have been - and still is - enough for me.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Read-at-Home Mom Report: June 2021 Wrap-Up

My Month in Books

I read 17 books in June - 4 read-alouds with my kids and 13 for my own enjoyment. Seven were audiobooks, 7 were print books, and 3 were ebooks. Linked book titles below will take you to my reviews. 

I kicked off the month by reading the ebook of The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris in one night while we were staying with my mother-in-law. I picked it up to start before bed and just zipped right through it. It's a thriller set in the publishing world, with themes related to race woven into the story. I picked it up because it was in the Modern Mrs. Darcy summer reading guide and I really enjoyed its unique style and odd, creepy mood. (4 stars)

Next, I read The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder for book club. I thought I remembered reading and loving this book in college, but after re-reading it, I'm convinced I have it confused with a different book. I could appreciate some of the writing as distinctive, but for a story with a lot of Catholics in it, it didn't have much of a Catholic message. The only good thing I can really say about it is that it was short. (3 stars)

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave was another thriller I picked from the Modern Mrs. Darcy summer reading guide, and this one I listened to as an audiobook. The writing was great, and the relationship between the main character and her stepdaughter was the most interesting part of the story for me. The ending felt a little anti-climactic, but it was also believable as a way things might resolve themselves in such a situation in real life. (4 stars) 

My next audiobook was Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, which I had never read before. I had a horrible experience years ago reading The Captive by O'Dell, and I was afraid this was going to be dark and depressing in the same way, but it wasn't at all. This is a beautifully written story with vivid descriptions of people and landscapes alike, and I really enjoyed it despite not typically loving survival stories. (4 stars)

Next I listened to Hooked on You by Kathleen Fuller on Hoopla, and that was  a great palate cleanser. It's just a gentle Christian romance set in a small town and it's the first in a series. I'm looking forward to book two in 2022. (3 stars)

With a group on Instagram I read The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. The group loved it. I didn't especially. It was fine, but it had a lot of things I don't like in it - character names with not-so-hidden special meanings, coincidences, puzzles, etc. The writing also felt uneven. In some sections the story flew by. In others, it dragged on endlessly. I also have no interest in the Disney+ adaptation of the book, so that aspect of the discussion was kind of lost on me as well. I'm not sorry I read it, but it was just okay. (3 stars)

I did love The Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright, which I read aloud to my kids. It presents such a charmed and charming view of childhood, and I loved it even more than The Saturdays. (5 stars) 

Fox's Earth by Anne Rivers Siddons is a Southern gothic family saga spanning several generations. I didn't love it as much as this author's Colony, which I listened to last summer,  but Sally Darling did a fantastic job as the narrator and though the characters were mostly not likable I was riveted by their story. I also loved Rip, the black woman who works for the family at the center of the book who is the only truly good character in the entire book. (4 stars)

I read The Overloaded Ark by Gerald Durrell to satisfy a challenge prompt of a book set in Africa. I'm not an animal person, so a lot of the details about the animals were not that interesting to me, but I liked the stories about humans interacting with animals and with the jungle climate. Durrell is a good writer even if the book felt slow in some places. (3 stars)

My three-year-old and I read Winnie-the-Pooh together, and it was so much fun seeing her meet these characters for the first time. (We don't really do Disney, so she had no prior knowledge.) I think some of the writing style was lost on her at this age, but she loved Piglet, Owl, and Roo, and that made it enjoyable enough for a first read-through. (5 stars)

With my oldest I read aloud Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. It's pretty perfect. I got choked up a little at the end, but I made it through without shedding tears. She loved it and can't wait to read it again. (5 stars)

Another great audiobook pick was Haven Point by Virginia Hume, which is another family saga. This one jumped back and forth in time as it told the stories of three generations of women: one living in 1944, one in 1970, and one in 2008. Normally, alcoholism and WWII would be topics I would avoid in books but this one made both interesting and relatable enough that I was not turned off. (4 stars)

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides was kind of a let-down. I felt like there was a lot of hype surrounding it, and the premise sounded great, but the execution didn't quite work. The audiobook narration was top-notch, however. (3 stars)

Rosetown Summer by Cynthia Rylant was an ARC; the book comes out later in July. It's a sequel to Rosetown, and I might be the only one who loves it, but I loved it. I'm planning a review very soon. (5 stars)

Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink was another read-aloud, this time with my 5-year-old who loves babies. She had heard it before when I read it to her older sister, but she had forgotten the story so it was all new to her again. She really enjoyed it. (5 stars) 

My last audiobook of the month was Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews It was well-written, it kept me guessing, and it totally surprised me. It's a debut novel, and I'm hoping for more in the future!  (4 stars)

Finally, I finished the month with the ebook of The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green. I have always liked the way John Green writes even when I haven't liked what he has to say. That was the case with this book. Written during the pandemic, this book is just utterly depressing and devoid of hope. Green sounds like he expects the world to end any day and it was hard to find more than a tiny flicker of hope anywhere in his essays. I enjoyed the line-by-line writing, but as a whole, it was just too gloomy. (3 stars)


There were a couple of books I abandoned again this month: The Babysitter: My Summers with a Serial Killer by Liza Rodman (it was weirdly anti-Catholic) and The Road Trip by Beth O'Leary (I was bored and I didn't like the audiobook narration). 

As for the rest of the family's reading...

My husband read aloud The Little Lame Prince to the family each night after dinner. In the car, we finished Anne of Green Gables

With my mom, I'm doing a summer reading project with my kids where we pick an author/illustrator/theme each week. I read books during the week, and then my mom reads one over Skype on Saturday. In June, we focused on Roger Duvoisin, Paul Galdone, and Virginia Lee Burton. 

M. (7 years, 7 months) has been reading the second book in the Borrowers series. She has also been reading Thee, Hannah by Marguerite deAngeli aloud to my mother-in-law on Skype.  

C. (5 years, 9 months) finished Little House on the Prairie, and she also read Three Boys and a Lighthouse by Nan Hayden Agle and  Ellen Wilson.

After E. (3 years, 8 months) and I finished Winnie-the-Pooh she got interested in Raggedy Anne and listened to some of the stories on audiobook. She also twice asked for the audiobook of The Saturdays at naptime. With her, I've also been reading aloud National Geographic's Little Kids First Big Book of Reptiles and Amphibians. She has also begun sounding out words and she was able to read Rag on her own. 

R. and A. (15 months) get very little scheduled reading time. They are often present for the older kids' read-alouds, and they do love to look at books but we need to work on carving out a time for them to hear more stories.

Up Next For Me 

In July, I plan to pick up where I left off with Jan Karon's Mitford series and listen to Light From Heaven. I've also started reading Girls Like Us by Cristina Alger. I'm supposed to be reading Angle of Repose with a friend as well, but we both keep pushing it off in favor of other books. I'm also hoping to read one of the Marcia Willett books my aunt sent me and to read a couple of other paperbacks from my TBR pile. 

Linking Up