Saturday, February 28, 2015

Reading with Little Miss Muffet: February 2015

New Book Behaviors

  • Stacking and unstacking. Little Miss Muffet has started to discover that items can be piled on top of one another - blocks, cups, pieces of paper, and naturally, books. As pleasing as it is to make a pile, it's even more exciting to knock one down, so usually by the end of the morning, the living room floor is carpeted with picture books and Miss Muffet is slipping and sliding all over them as she walks to the kitchen for lunch. 
  • Frustration. Miss Muffet is also beginning to understand that books have certain limitations. End papers are often fastened to the front and back covers, library book jackets are taped and glued in place, and the flaps in life-the-flap books have to be moved  a certain way in order to get them to open. When things don't work as she expects them to, Miss Muffet gets frustrated and pounds on the book or throws it to show that she is angry and/or wants help. 
  • Orientation. Within the past couple of weeks, Miss Muffet has started to notice when she is looking at a book upside down, and she will turn it around to make sure everything is facing the right way. In one case, there was  an animal on a page who was intentionally upside down, and she actually turned the entire magazine she was reading upside down so she could see him going in the right direction. 

Five Current Favorites

  • Blue on Blue by Dianne White, illustrated by Beth KrommesI picked up this book for myself because I had heard good things about it, but had not yet seen it. Little Miss Muffet loved it from the first reading, and it was her most requested read-aloud for the duration of the time it was checked out from the library. Her favorite illustrations were of the two dogs, at whom she would bark every time they appeared. Because she loved it, I read the book so many times that I starting reading too much into it and making up entire subtexts that were not implied by the author or illustrator! This is definitely the book I have read to her the most times in her life so far. 
  • Angus and the Ducks by Marjorie FlackWe have acquired some of the books I had as a child, including many I received from the Children's Choice Book Club when I was a preschooler. Angus and the Ducks is one of these. Miss Muffet loves to say "woof" and "quack" so this is an ideal story for her. It's also just short enough that she can sit through the whole thing once before losing interest and demanding to hear something else. 
  • You... by Emma Dodd
    This is the UK version of a book that was published in the US as More and More. It features a pair of monkeys - a parent and a baby - and Miss Muffet is obsessed with their faces. She especially likes one page where the monkey sits with his hand on his head, and she likes to point out the moon in the nighttime scene. Though I have read this book a fair number of times, this is one she also frequently looks at on her own. 
  • First 100 Words by Roger Priddy
    In the interest of exposing her to words other than animals and their sounds (which she has mostly mastered), we purchased the oversized version of this board book for Miss Muffet. She loves to name the objects she recognizes and point to others so that I will tell her what they are called. We liked this book so much, we also bought a second one by the same author: Colors, ABC, Numbers.
  • All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee
    This is one of my favorite picture books, and I really didn't expect to be sharing it with my child until she was at least in preschool. It turns out, though, that she loves pointing out all the people in the illustrations, and looking for things like the ball left behind in the rain and the man standing alone on the dock as the sun goes down. 

One Tip from Mom 

  • Keep some of the books you own in reserve. My husband and I are both librarians, so we buy lots of books and receive lots of books as gifts. At any given time, Miss Muffet has access to probably half of the books that are appropriate for her current developmental stage. The rest are kept in a cabinet. I do a rotation of her books periodically, mostly to add some variety to my read-aloud repertoire, but I have also been known to pull out a long-forgotten interesting book to curb crying when she doesn't want to be in the playpen, but I need her to stay in there for 10 minutes. At this age, her memory is pretty short, so every time we bring out a book that has been hidden away, it's like we bought a brand-new one. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Reading Through History: I Am Mordred by Nancy Springer (1998)

I Am Mordred opens with King Arthur placing an infant Mordred - the son of Arthur and his own half-sister - into a boat with many other infants, all of whom are to be drowned. Mordred survives this murder attempt, however, and is rescued and reared by a fisherman and his wife, then later retrieved and taken to live with his mother and half-siblings. Throughout the book, Mordred struggles with his desire to be loved by his father and the belief of all of Camelot that he is destined to kill Arthur.

This book is short, but it has a very teen sensibility. Issues of parental strife, personal identity, and finding one's place are all common to adolescence, even in a medieval setting, and Mordred's angst, while off-putting to some adults, will ring very true for middle school and high school readers. The incest and attempted murder would probably be enough for me to avoid sharing it with a child much younger than that, but obviously every parent will have different standards and every kid will have different levels of sensitivity.

Nancy Springer's writing is very atmospheric, and her prose paints a vivid picture of Mordred's home by the sea as well as of Camelot. Even more so than The Squire's Tale this book immerses the reader in the time period and helps them feel as though they have experienced the events of the story firsthand. Springer also does a wonderful job of humanizing Mordred and turning him into a regular teenage boy, which makes the entire Arthurian universe feel more welcoming to teens, and more relevant. Other characters - including the Lady of the Lake and Morgan Le Fay - are also portrayed as richly layered individuals.

This book would serve as a great introduction to Camelot for an uninitiated teen, as well as an entertaining retelling for kids who already know the major characters and story lines. There is a companion novel, I Am Morgan Le Fay, which humanizes another notorious Arthurian villain. Another read-alike for this book is the beautiful novel in verse, Song of the Sparrow.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb (2015)

Flor loves her life on Moonpenny Island and she adores her best friend Sylvie, so it comes as a terrible shock to her when all at once, Sylvie is sent to live with her aunt and attend school on the mainland, and Flor's mother suddenly leaves home, ostensibly to care for Flor's ailing grandmother, but also to have some time away from Flor's dad. Despite a new friendship with Jasper, the odd daughter of a scientist doing research on the island, Flor feels completely alone as she tries to look after Sylvie's delinquent older brother, as well as her own teenage sister and younger brother.

This beautifully written novel is already my pick for the 2016 Newbery Award. The characterizations, poetic descriptions, emotional situations, and coming of age plot line all contribute to an overall mesmerizing reading experience. Moonpenny Island becomes a real place almost instantly, and the reader eagerly follows Flor from moment to moment, empathizing with her pain at the changes her life is undergoing and rooting for her happiness, her safety, and a return of her sense of hope. Flor is perfectly believable - neither too mature, nor too naive - and her concerns, though not entirely her responsibility, weigh heavily on her in a very realistic way.

Some of the highlights of the story itself are the slowly revealed secret of why Sylvie is truly sent away, the truth about where Flor's sister Cecelia goes when she is not home, Jasper's matter-of-fact outlook on life, including her own missing arm, the incorporation of Anne of Green Gables, Charles Darwin, and the theme of sight and eyes into the plot, and the depiction of the island's unique one room school. Every thread and every scene takes the reader one step closer to the perfect conclusion, which satisfies the reader without patronizing Flor or her feelings.

Tricia Springstubb's other recent novels (What Happened on Fox Street and Mo Wren, Lost and Found) have been enjoyable, but this one is a true masterpiece. The writing style reminds me of books by other wonderful writers such as Susan Patron, Joanne Rocklin, Katherine Paterson, and Lynne Rae Perkins. There are so many small, salient moments that are just perfectly described. Each word is chosen with such care, and the details are delivered with such precision that you almost miss how brilliant they are. Springstubb demonstrates the full range of her writing abilities in telling this story, and yet nothing she writes ever feels showy or over-written.

These are just a few of the gorgeous lines I highlighted as I was reading. First, here is the moment where the youngest member of a family known to be "trashy" demonstrates her undying love for the father no one else respects;

Jocelyn Hawkins, lone kindergartener, skips across the grass. She taps her father with her golden wand, then slips her hand into his. Her smile says, You are the sun and I am a planet. Don't try and tell Jocelyn her father is a loser. (p. 45) 

In this single line of description, Springstubb marks the passage of time in an interesting and artful way:

The sun's slipped a few notches, and when she stands up her shadow wears stilts. (p.55)

And finally, Flor's thoughts about Joe Hawkins's hair;

His curls are wild and thick, and this must be where the word ringlet comes from - slide your finger through one, and you'd be wearing a shiny band. (p.72)

Springstubb's insight into matters large and small make this book such a treat and the kind of story where readers can see little pieces of themselves. Kids who love realistic fiction will easily fall into the world of this book, and thanks to the excellent cover by Three Times Lucky illustrator Gilbert Ford, both boys and girls should be willing to pick it up and give it a try. I can't wait to see what wonderful accolades will befall this book this year - I sincerely hope they will be many.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Reading Through History: To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie by Ellen Conford (1982)

Sylvie is fifteen years old, and she knows she has to get out of foster care. Each of three foster fathers with whom she has been placed has sexually abused her, and she knows no one will believe her if she reports their behavior. To make her escape, Sylvie gathers a few possessions, dresses herself to pass for eighteen, and hops a bus. When she is robbed by a fellow passenger, however, she finds herself out of money and at the mercy of a traveling middle-aged Bible salesman named Walter Murchison. Walter agrees to drive her across the country to Hollywood if she doesn't mind a few stops along the way, but when they hit Las Vegas, he announces he wants to marry her. Luckily, before Sylvie makes a poor decision, she meets Vic, who helps her understand the proper way to approach love and sex.

I remember Ellen Conford as the author of short middle-school friendly novels about dating and relationships so I was really unprepared for the constant worries that ran through my adult mind as I read this book! It troubled me how quickly Sylvie trusted complete strangers, especially after the way she has been treated by her abusers, and I just wanted to step in and mother her a little bit. In fact, I think the role of a mother is sorely missing from this book, which is basically populated by men who provide Sylvie with their version of how she should behave. While Vic's view of the world, wherein love has meaning and sex is not necessarily its equal, is a healthy one, I couldn't help but feel like Sylvie only accepted it because she found him attractive. Obviously, there is much here for young girls to critique and understand, but as a mother of a daughter who will someday be fifteen, I felt uncomfortable the entire time I was reading.

That said, this book does a lovely job of portraying the time period (the 1950s) and of handling sexual content with an artful, non-sensationalized approach. This book certainly disabuses readers of their romantic notions regarding running away to Hollywood, and it does end on a hopeful, if not entirely neat, resolution. Because it is historical fiction, it doesn't feel quite as dated as other "old school" titles which had contemporary settings when they were published. Girls in eighth and ninth grade will eat this up, even now, and will have a lot to say about Sylvie, her unthinkable situation, and her questionable choices. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Reading Through History: The Squire's Tale by Gerald Morris (1998)

The Squire's Tale, focuses on a young man named Terence who has been raised by a hermit wizard who can see the future. Terence falls in with Gawain, a soon-to-be knight of the roundtable, and is taken on as the man's squire. As Terence assists Gawain in his heroic feats, he also uncovers mysterious details about his own possible faery roots.

This book is one of those rare gems that manages to be both literary and laugh-out-loud funny. Gerald Morris has a very understated sense of humor that might not appeal to every young reader, but kids that get his subtle jokes will be endlessly amused by them and eager for more. The cover of this book, though somewhat dated looking, is actually the perfect visual representation of its tone and style. Whereas the cover depicts something silly in a serious artistic style, the story relates many ridiculous events using sincere and matter-of-fact language.

Unlike the other books I've reviewed for this project thus far, The Squire's Tale is not likely to actually teach any history lessons, especially since we have no solid proof that King Arthur even existed. Still, kids who become enamored of 5th and 6th century British history will enjoy the story as pleasure reading and those who don't know much about British history might find themselves more interested after reading this book. The fantasy elements might also draw in kids who would otherwise consider a historical book to be boring or irrelevant.

The Squire's Tale is the first of a ten-book series, the other titles of which are listed here.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Book Review: Me and Fat Glenda by Lila Perl (1972)

Me and Fat Glenda is another vintage kids' book recently resurrected by Lizzie Skurnick Books. Main character Sara moves with her unconventional parents from California to a Long Island suburb, where their free-spirited ways are decidedly not welcome. The neighbors take issue with Sara's father's backyard junk sculpture, her mother's decision to paint her bedroom ceiling black, and the family's vehicle, a used garbage truck. Glenda, an overweight girl in the neighborhood, takes an instant interest in Sara, and the two form a tentative friendship, despite warnings from their classmates that Glenda is a "squealer" and not to be trusted. As the weeks go by, however, as Sara and those around her are victimized by pranks, she begins to wonder whether Glenda has a sinister side after all.

This book is a great example of the kinds of friendship stories I loved during my upper elementary years. Sara and Glenda are both so well-developed that it is really difficult to decide the true nature of their friendship, and at times, it is easy to empathize with both girls. Perl does a nice job of creating a believable supporting cast as well, including a persnickety girl and mischievous boy who contribute their opinions to Sara's ever-changing view of Glenda. The differences between the two girls' families also nicely highlight the contrast between the conservative Long Islanders and the liberal Californians. The "there goes the neighborhood" attitude of Glenda's mother is annoyingly  true to the reaction of many suburban communities to the arrival of outsiders, and adds realism to the story.

My only disappointment with this book is that the suspenseful build-up that occurs throughout the story leads to a wholly unsatisfying ending. Halloween arrives, a few pranks are played, and then everything seems to be resolved in the minds of the characters even though it does not feel that way at all for the reader. The big "secret" about Glenda turns out to be something very minor, which doesn't match the other cruel acts that some of the characters attributed to her. It was nice to see the characters change their minds about Glenda, but I didn't see any evidence to convince the reader to suddenly trust her, which was too bad.

Me and Fat Glenda reminds me of a few other vintage books I have read, including The Afternoon of the Elves by Janet Taylor Lisle, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsburg, and Blubber by Judy Blume. It's a must-read for nostalgic adults, and it might grab the interest of middle school girls who like realistic friendship stories that keep the focus away from boys and romance.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Reading Through History: Tiger, Tiger by Lynne Reid Banks (2004)

Tiger, Tiger begins with two tiger brothers being violently taken from their mother in the jungle and sent to Rome where they are immediately separated. One tiger becomes Boots, the pet of Caesar's daughter, Aurelia, and the other, called Brute, is sent to the Colosseum to be trained to kill gladiators. Caesar hires Julius, a young animal keeper, to look after Boots for his daughter. When Boots escapes after a failed joke, however Julius suddenly faces the possibility of being mauled to death by Brute.

What stands out the most in this book is the violence. The animal cruelty is upsetting enough, but the scenes of gladiators fighting to their death in the Colosseum while Aurelia is forced to watch out of respect for her father are downright nauseating. These events are not presented in a positive light or sensationalized in any way, but it still takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to read those passages.

While the descriptions are strong, however, the plot is pretty weak. The relationship between the tigers is interesting, but could have been used more effectively. Predictably, there are hints of a forbidden romance between Aurelia and Julius, which isn't really necessary and might lose the interest of middle grade readers who are reading this book for the action.  Aurelia's attitudes toward her father's beliefs and practices also don't ring true. It seems far-fetched that a young girl during this time would have the life experience to make the judgments and decisions that Aurelia makes, and part of me feels like the author portrayed her as such an independent thinker mainly to appeal to contemporary readers ' ideas of what strong female characters must be like. In general, Aurelia is also not that well-developed as a character, and readers might find it hard to connect with her.

While it probably wouldn't be wise for this novel to be the only book kids read about Ancient Rome, it does provide a decent overview of society at that time, from the points of view of both royalty and the working class. Kids who like the author's Indian in the Cupboard series might be more easily sold on this book than others about the time period, just based on name recognition. There is also an author's note which explains which parts of the story are historical fact and which are fictionalized for the sake of the story, which will help young history students contextualize what they have read.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Book Review: The Witch Mobile by Miriam Young (1969)

Four witch sisters hang together on a mobile in a toy shop. Three of the sisters have witchy personalities and appearances to match, but the fourth sister, Nanette, looks more like a doll and can't quite bring herself to be cruel or scary. As children examine them in the shop and ultimately select other toys, each of the three witchy sisters vows to exact revenge on Halloween night. For Nanette, though, it is a struggle to truly harm anyone. Instead, her kindness and restraint lead to an unlikely, but welcome, happy ending for herself and a little girl who admires her.

This is not quite a chapter book in the sense that is it not divided into chapters and is illustrated more like a picture book. Still, the length of the book makes it a bit much to read in one sitting, and it is probably at an appropriate reading level for second or third graders at the youngest. The story has much in common with The Story of Holly and Ivy. The three witchy sisters are much like Abracadabra the owl, while Nanette and the doll, Holly, share a very similar worldview as well. Both stories also end with neatly packaged conclusions, but neither feels inauthentic or cheesy. 

The Witch Mobile is a great title to read aloud to elementary school students in celebration of Halloween. In addition to being slightly spooky, it also raises questions about being oneself and doing the right thing in the face of peer pressure that are so relatable for that age group. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Reading Through History: The Last Girls of Pompeii by Kathryn Lasky (2007)

Julia has a withered arm, which makes her an outcast in a society which believes physical imperfections are a result of the curse of Venus. Her sister, a very vain young woman, is disgusted by Julia’s appearance and selfishly determined to hold her wedding on the date she prefers - August 24 - despite the fact that many local augurs do not see the date as favorable. The wedding is a bittersweet experience for Julia - and it becomes even more so when she learns that her parents plan to send her away after the ceremony, thus separating her from her slave, Sura, who is her best friend, and her favorite cousin, Marcus, for whom she has secret romantic feelings. All the while, natural signs emerge that foretell the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the end of life in Pompeii.

This book starts out really strong, providing lots of great intimate details about the life and culture of Pompeii. There is lots of really rich vocabulary, describing everything from the clothing planned for the wedding, to the strange delicacies enjoyed by ancient Romans, and the superstitious religious beliefs that govern every decision made by Julia’s family. The knowledge on the part of the reader of what happens historically on August 24, the date of the wedding, gives everything an ominous overtone and a strong sense of suspense. Readers become even more attached to Julia as they realize she may die in the destruction of her city.

Unfortunately, as the story nears its conclusion it takes a strange turn toward the romantic and loses its focus on historical detail. The first three-quarters of the book seemed like they could appeal to either gender and to almost any reader, but when it devolves into more of a love story, it loses that wider appeal. Thankfully, an author’s note after the story does return to a more informative approach, sharing the author’s experiences researching and traveling to Pompeii.

This book probably would not make a great text for teaching about Pompeii, but it would make perfect pleasure reading for middle school girls who have fallen in love with the subject matter and want to read a story set in that time and place. Kathryn Lasky’s way with words is a treat unto itself, and readers will appreciate the way she tells the story, even when the ending takes a turn toward the mundane and coincidental.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Fog Magic by Julia Sauer (1943)

On foggy days, 11-year-old Greta is able to travel back in time and visit the long-lost village of Blue Cove. There she meets Mrs. Morrill and her daughter, Retha, who become Greta's close friends. The visits continue for some months, giving Greta special glimpses into a past she has heard stories about her whole life. All  the while, though, Greta's twelfth birthday approaches. On this day, everyone seems to know, Greta will grow too old to experience the fog magic.

Fog Magic is a coming-of-age story, which focuses on the beauty of imagination during childhood and the loss of wonder and innocence that comes with age and maturity. Though the book was originally published in the 1940s, it is not necessarily confined to that time period. Rather, the universality of the knowledge that all children grow up makes it a timeless read.

Setting plays a major role in this book, and Sauer does a beautiful job of bringing the real world and the world of Blue Cove perfectly to life. She also manages to explain the magic of the fog - its limitations and its function - in subtle cues without spelling it out step by step. This approach contributes to the haunting, ethereal mood of the entire book, and helps the magic maintain its air of mystery.

Like The Light at Tern Rock, Fog Magic is a short novel with very precise, evocative writing. The moral is less heavy-handed in Fog Magic, but it still conveys a valuable lesson to which young readers in every generation can relate. The age of this book makes it somewhat difficult to find, and more difficult yet to sell to kids, but for those readers who like quiet, complex reads, this will be a special find. Other Newbery honor books that are similar to this one include Bright Island by Mabel Robinson (because of the setting) and The Fledgling by Jane Langton (because of the magic).