Friday, July 31, 2015

Reading with Little Miss Muffet, July 2015

New Book Behaviors

Little Miss Muffet is now right around 20 months, and it is amazing to see how much more verbal - and physically capable - she is becoming. Thankfully, despite the many distractions that catch her eye, she still loves books, and we still read quite a bit on most days, even if we don't always meet the "requirement" of fifteen minutes a day. Amidst her newly emerging skills, I have noticed two new book-related behaviors.

  • Choosing library books. In general, when we take Miss Muffet to the library, we do all of the browsing and she does a lot of running around and playing with toys. On our last trip, however, she actually chose two books of her own to bring home! Both were board books: Oops! by David Shannon and Wemberly's Ice Cream Star by Kevin Henkes. Though she is really much more into picture books than board books in general right now, she has asked for Oops! to be read to her at least once a day since we brought it home, and she is even learning to recite the entire story herself. The Henkes book didn't make as much of an impression, but I'm still glad we brought it home, since she went to the trouble of selecting it! 
  • Acting out stories. The other thing Miss Muffet has been doing with greater frequency is acting out the books we read. It started with From Head to Toe (a favorite from back in April that has yet to lose its appeal), and has since expanded to any book which provides instructions on how to move, or which involves animal sounds, or naming body parts. Usually, she makes movements that I have modeled for her, but on occasion, she comes up with her own unique motions, too. It makes reading time more fun for me, because it adds some variety to the many repeated re-readings of her favorite books, and it makes it easier to engage her with a story. 

Current Favorites

Though we are still reading many of the previous months' favorites, Miss Muffet has also added some new ones to her repertoire.

  • Can You Cuddle Like a Koala? by John Butler
    I have been reading this book to Miss Muffet every night at bedtime for a few weeks. I initially chose it because it is a true bedtime story, which invites the child to curl up and get ready to sleep in the final pages, but I stick with it because I love the way she acts out the animals' different movements. I also love the way she stops on the otter page every night to tell me it's not a mouse. ("Mouse no.") 
  • The Great Big Word Book by Margaret A. Hartelius
    This was my book as a child, and when my mom told me she had found it among my childhood possessions, I asked her to set it aside so we could bring it home when we visited. Miss Muffet loves it almost as much as her Richard Scarry word book, and we have already spent a lot of time poring over the details on every page. She is especially fond of the scenes early in the book where the family eats breakfast and gets ready for the day. 
  • The Grumpalump by Sarah Hayes and Barbara Firth
    My mom bought me a used copy of this book, which I have been wanting for my personal story time collection. I usually use it with older kids who can act out hand movements to accompany each animal's role in the story, but Miss Muffet took a surprising liking to it, so we have been reading it a couple of times a day. She is fascinated by the yak and the gnu, and she loves to identify the "boon" (balloon) on the last page of the story. 

One Tip from Mom

  • Let your toddler fill in the blanks. In the past couple of months, I have started pausing at certain points in familiar books to let Miss Muffet fill in the next word. Even in books where I am positive there is no way she could know what comes next, she has surprised me by chiming in with the exact right response. We are at the point now where she can "read" Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? on her own, and she has also started filling in two-word phrases in some parts of Caps for Sale. This is a fun way to engage your child with favorite books, and it's also proof that reading aloud to your little ones makes a difference even when they don't always look like they are paying attention! 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review: A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff (2013)

Most people in the world Cady lives in have a Talent. Some are seemingly inconsequential, like a Talent for spitting, or being able to whistle well, but others are quite useful, such as Cady's Talent for baking, or Miss Mallory's Talent for matching orphans like Cady with their perfect families. In this novel, multiple voices come together to tell the story of a man desperate to find a lost piece of luggage, another man mourning the loss of his wife and child, an elderly woman victimized by a stroke who can't communicate her true identity, and Cady, who longs for the day she will bake the perfect cake for her own Adoption Day party.

Using Talents as its vehicle, this book explores the unexpected interconnectedness amongst the citizens of a somewhat magical Poughkeepsie, New York. Each character experiences a mixture of hope and sadness throughout the book, as the tangle of knots that is their lives slowly unwinds, comes undone, and falls into place. There are a lot of characters, which can be overwhelming, and there are wasted pages devoted to recipes readers are unlikely to bother reading, let alone baking, but there is something compelling about the writing style that overshadows these minor problems. There is a timelessness to the story, which seems to exist in a vacuum away from cell phones, video games, iPads, and Apple watches, and away from the pettiness of catty girls, middle school love triangles, and other tired middle grade cliches. Because of the meaningful issues it explores, and the uplifting, happy ending, it is a book even the most conservative of parents (read: me) will happily allow a child to read without reservations.

Next summer (2016), Lisa Graff will publish a companion to this book, A Clatter of Jars. In the meantime, readers who enjoyed this book and want more might be interested in the Quirks series by Erin Soderberg and Savvy by Ingrid Law.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Reading Through History: The Cabin Faced West by Jean Fritz (1958)

It is 1784, and Ann Hamilton and her family have left Gettysburg and moved west, over the Allegheny Mountains to the Western Country, where they must do without many of the modern comforts they enjoyed back East. In her diary, Ann laments the loss of everything she loved about her past life, including being able to spend time with her cousin Margaret, and not having to put up with pesky Andy MacPhale, the squatter's son, who seems to enjoy taunting her. When a surprise visitor turns up on Ann's doorstep one day, however, her whole outlook on the West changes, and she realizes she and her family are at the forefront of an important American movement.

Author Jean Fritz based this book on an actual entry in her great-great-grandmother's diary, a fact which is sure to please young readers who always want to know if events described in books really happened or not. Though many of the details surrounding Ann's life are invented, she comes across as a very real ten-year-old, torn between her love for her old home, and her desire to please her family as they embrace their new life in the wilderness. Young readers will easily relate to her longing to do normal things, such as have a tea party, and her fears about surviving the long, cold winter. Despite how long ago Ann is living, kids will feel as though they know her and could be her friend.

Like The Courage of Sarah Noble, The Cabin Faced West is a chapter book most suitable for newly independent readers. The font is large, and the vocabulary is fairly basic, with very few completely unfamiliar words. This makes it a perfect choice for introducing pioneer living to kids in the early elementary grades, and maybe even to younger kids, if the book is read aloud. Because of (spoiler alert) George Washington's visit at the end of the story, it also works as a tie-in for a Presidents Day lesson.

Friday, July 24, 2015

5 Things I Love About Cotsen Children's Library

Last Monday, on our way home from visiting family in upstate New York, my husband and I stopped in Princeton, New Jersey and took Little Miss Muffet to the Cotsen Children's Library at Princeton University. Cotsen is a division of the university library's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, and is home to a rare books collection, as well as the Bookscape reading space for families. We spent a little while exploring Bookscape and later, reading some of the online and print materials provided by Cotsen. Here are five things I loved about the experience. 

  1. The bonsai tree.  The most appealing part of Bookscape is the two-story bonsai tree which kids can crawl inside to snuggle and read a story. The inside walls of the tree have been engraved with the names of various animals from children's literature, including Tom Sawyer, Eloise, the cast of the Winnie the Pooh series, Frog and Toad, and more. Big comfy pillows make the space inviting, and surely if Miss Muffet hadn't been wound up from not napping the day before, we would have sat down to have a story. As it was, though, she mostly wanted to climb the stairs to the second floor of the tree and look out the window, which was also a lot of fun.
  2. Puppets. There is also a child-sized puppet theater in Bookscape, which is well-stocked with Folkmanis puppets in wonderful condition. Since this is not a public library per se, it seems that the puppets are not abused in the way puppets were always abused by the patrons at my last library. Miss Muffet enjoyed the bear puppet, which her daddy used to growl at her, and the alligator puppet, with which I snapped at her nose and nibbled her chin. (We also chanted Five Little Monkeys Swinging in a Tree.) For kids who are verbal enough to tell their own stories, this section of Bookscape will be even more fun.
  3. Programming space. Though we did not attend a program, we could see the tables and Narnia-esque supply closet in the space where programs are held. This area is bright and welcoming, and there is a well-stocked bookshelf nearby with all kinds of favorite picture books lined up along its rows. Knowing the kinds of programs that are offered, it seems like the ideal space, and I definitely think the program performers are very lucky! (Even Miss Muffet liked the furniture. She kept saying, "Chair! Chair!")
  4. Outreach blog. Visiting Cotsen in person renewed my interest in its outreach blog, Pop Goes the Page, which is written by Education & Outreach Coordinator Dana Sheridan. The blog focuses on activities related to children's books, and often provides instructions for replicating the activity at home or in a classroom. We have yet to try any of the projects, but I have my eye on these fairy houses and this Cheshire cat grin for homeschool projects in a few years!
  5. 350 for 50. We took a copy of each handout that was available in the gallery when we visited, including the summer 2015 edition of Picture Book Press, which happened to be the issue featuring the winners of the annual 350 for 50 contest. The contest challenges kids ages 9 to 14 to write a 350-word story using a specific sentence. Not only is this a great idea, but the winning stories are amazing, especially knowing the ages of the authors.

If you are ever passing through Princeton, definitely plan a visit to the Cotsen Children's Library. Directions and hours are available on the library's website. There are some rules (also listed on the hours page) - no playgroups, no food, no photography, etc. - so make sure you are aware of those before you go, but otherwise, this is the perfect place to let your little guys stretch their legs during a long car trip, or if you're local, to visit regularly for snuggles and stories.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Book Review: Chime Travelers Books 1 & 2 by Lisa M. Hendey (2015)

Twins Patrick and Katie Brady love being Catholic, but sometimes they struggle to live up to their faith. When these situations arise, suddenly they find themselves whisked back in time to meet saints who help them rediscover God's love in a deeper way. In the first adventure, The Secret of the Shamrock, Patrick gets in trouble with his parents and priest after he brings his pet frog, Francis (named for the Pope!), to his newly adopted sister's baptism. To make up for his mistake, Patrick and his family join the parish Cleaning Team, but before he gets much cleaning done, Patrick is sent back in time to spend a few days with his patron saint, St. Patrick. In the second book, The Sign of the Carved Cross, Katie is struggling to stand up to the mean girls in her class, who are purposely excluding a new girl. When she is sent back  in time to 1675 New York, it is St. Kateri Tekakwitha who teaches Katie how to welcome a newcomer, and how to love herself as God does.

Lisa Hendey's website,, has been a huge help to me in planning CCD lessons as I have taught on and off over the last 10+ years. That's why I was so excited to see not just a Catholic chapter book series (a very rare find), but one with her name on the cover! These books, collectively known as the Chime Travelers series, are perfect for Catholic kids in the early elementary grades, especially those who are studying the saints. The books are illustrated with full-page black and white drawings, and have short chapters that break up the story into easy-to-digest scenes. The premise of the series - traveling back in time to meet saints - is the perfect way to help kids get to know the holy men and women who serve as their role models in the faith without forcing them to read dry, boring textbooks. Each story is based on known facts about the central saint's life, but the fictional stories in which the information is embedded are more engaging than any religion textbook I have ever used. An author's note at the end of each book also provides useful follow-up information, including a brief biography and prayers associated with the saint, which teachers and parents can use to flesh out their lessons after the story is over.

As for the characters, Patrick and Katie are wonderful Catholic role models, but they are not too perfect or too preachy, so kids can relate to them. Their family includes a father who has recently converted to the church, and a baby girl adopted from Vietnam, and Father Miguel, their pastor, is a friendly and approachable man who really  normalizes priests and the priesthood. The twins themselves are also perfect complements to each other, as Katie is more pious and careful, while Patrick is more skeptical and impulsive. Sometimes having twins as the main characters of a story seems gimmicky, but in this case, having these two different personalities espouse the same religious faith is a great way to show kids the many correct ways to be a Catholic.

Catholic schools (and their libraries) and Catholic homeschoolers will absolutely want to purchase this series. While Catholic children can certainly learn a lot from non-religious reading material, there is something special about also having a series on their bookshelves that is explicitly about the things they experience (baptisms, going to Confession, attending Mass, etc.) that are typically not represented (at least not accurately) in secular books. For that reason, these would also make wonderful gifts for First Holy Communion.

For similar (secular) chapter book series, try Magic Tree House, Recipe for Adventure and Greetings from Somewhere. Also look for books 3 and 4 of the series, which will focus on St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, respectively. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Reading Through History: My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier (1975)

Tim Meeker is the younger of the two Meeker sons, who grew up in a Tory family. As the American Revolution begins, Tim's older brother, Sam, decides to join up with the Rebels to fight against the British, setting into motion a series of events that ultimately culminates in his death. Tim comes of age during this time, as he is required to take on more and more responsibility as the horrors of war move closer and closer to his own doorstep.

This book is interesting mainly because it is does not strictly align itself with the point of view of Americans who favor the Revolution, but focuses instead on a family who is perfectly content to live under British rule. Showing how the war made enemies not just of British rulers, but of British subjects living on would-be American soil, is a powerful way to drive home the ugliness of war, and it will certainly be eye-opening for kids who have been taught about the Revolution only from the Rebel point of view. Equally eye-opening are the ways the Tory characters are forced to suffer the violence of the Rebel troops, even when they are not violent themselves. This book gives a much broader picture of what America was like during the Revolution than many other books of its type.

Another selling point for this book is that the characters speak primarily in modern parlance. The language does not sound "old-fashioned" and in particular the way the brothers interact with each other feels very true to what contemporary kids are probably used to with their own siblings. (The realism of these exchanges might also be connected to the fact that the authors are themselves brothers.) While the contemporary language is somewhat jarring, after reading books like The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Blood on the River, it does make for quick and easy reading, and it will help kids engage more readily with the subject matter.

Because of the anti-war sentiments, and the Tory point of view, this is probably not the most balanced view of the Revolutionary War, but coupled with a book representing the Rebel ideology, it would make a great addition to a lesson on early America. There is plenty of adventure and excitement to keep even reluctant history students hooked on the story, and the ending, though obvious from the title, still manages to surprise the reader with a few unexpected events.

Friday, July 17, 2015

5 Things I Love About The Bear and the Books

On our way north to New York last week, my husband and I and Little Miss Muffet made a stop at a lovely little bookstore in Hopewell, New Jersey called The Bear and the Books. We really enjoyed our visit, and I want to recommend stopping by if you happen to be in the area. Here are the five things I loved most about the store.

  1. Focus on kids' books. I haven't been to too many bookstores which are solely focused on children's books, so this was a real treat. There was no wandering around trying to find the children's section, and I didn't have to worry about Miss Muffet wandering off into adult romance and bothering customers who were trying to browse in peace. Being surrounded by children's books on all four walls made me feel very at home, and it made me feel comfortable coming into the store with a toddler.
  2. Great selection. The shelves of the shop were filled with so many great titles, most of which I knew, but some of which were unfamiliar. I had the impression, just from browsing the shelves, that each book had been chosen very carefully and very specifically, with the hope that just the right reader would find it. Not every book was necessarily an award winner, or even a book I would suggest, but there was much less fluff than the average bookstore carries, and a real sense of respect for the child reader as someone who is worthy of great stories. (I was also thrilled to see one of William Bee's Stanley books!)
  3. Friendly and knowledgeable owner. The owner of the store, Bobbie Fishman, was everything you'd want in a bookstore owner. She was welcoming, asking us about where we were from and wondering what Miss Muffet likes to read. We talked about Mr. Gumpy and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, as well as Richard Scarry and nursery rhymes. I could tell instantly that we were speaking the same language when it came to books, and that if I had needed a recommendation, she could have given me a great one (or ten!) It was obvious that she had a strong knowledge not just of the new and popular books, but of the tried and true favorites as well, and when she spoke of ordering books, I could tell she took great care with her work.
  4. Interesting displays.The window displays were fabulous! Books faced out toward the street as well as in toward shopping customers, and they included many interesting titles, some of which were known to me, and others of which I did not recognize but was happy to discover. The books were grouped thematically (many were about elephants) and they caught my attention right away, and repeatedly throughout our visit. Unlike Barnes & Noble, where displays usually focus on the newest and most popular materials, this was a display that had clearly been put together by a thoughtful person who wanted to highlight great books, regardless of how well known they were.
  5. Child-friendly environment. We take Miss Muffet to a lot of bookstores, and they vary in terms of how friendly they really are toward child visitors. This one is definitely one of the most welcoming toward kids. There were toys for Miss Muffet to play with, and board books were at her eye level so she could easily see what was available. The owner spoke to her as well as to us, treating her as her own little personality with unique interests and abilities. The only drawback to the welcoming environment is that Miss Muffet didn't want to leave and we had to drag her out in tears.
The Bear and the Books is located at 45 West Broad Street Hopewell, New Jersey. The store's hours are available on its website, along with contact information. You can also see a photo of the inside of the store, as well as an image of the sweet and simple sign which hangs outside the door. If you are passing through - or if you are lucky enough to live locally - this is a great place for children's book lover to visit with kids, or on their own.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Why I Won't Read Go Set a Watchman

To Kill A Mockingbird was the best book I read in all four years of high school, and for years afterward, it was the title I gave when I was asked to name my favorite book. (Now I usually name a children's book because that is primarily what I read, but To Kill a Mockingbird is still among my favorite novels for grown-ups, and it's still my answer when "serious" grown-ups are the ones posing the question.) Despite my love for the novel, however, I could not be less interested in Go Set a Watchman, which comes out today, and I do not plan to read it. There are four main reasons:

  1. I am still suspicious of the circumstances under which this book is being published. I have always admired Harper Lee for her willingness to walk away after writing just one great book, and I find it hard to believe that she is suddenly interested in having the public read what is essentially a rough draft of her beloved classic. It strikes me as suspicious that this decision came about only after Lee's sister died, and during a time when she is living in an assisted living facility. It doesn't sit right with me, and deep down, I don't think this is what Harper Lee truly wants.
  2. It was never intended to be a sequel. I've already read several articles talking about how the representation of Atticus in Go Set a Watchman has "ruined" readers' visions of him and caused them to question their devotion to his character. My response is that of course it has! Go Set a Watchman is not a continuation of To Kill A Mockingbird; it's essentially the writing exercise that led to To Kill a Mockingbird. I might be interested in a true sequel, but this is not that. I don't want to know what might have been. I appreciate To Kill a Mockingbird as it was originally published.
  3. It is a guaranteed disappointment. There is absolutely no way a second Harper Lee book published 55 years after the first can live up to the anticipation and hype surrounding it. Even if I found that I kind of liked Go Set a Watchman, it would still be a let-down compared with To Kill a Mockingbird. Why set myself up? There are plenty of other books for me to enjoy.
  4. Ignorance is bliss. If Go Set a Watchman is going to ruin To Kill a Mockingbird for me, or if there is some revelation about a character that would forever change my reading of the original novel, I am better off not knowing anything about it at all. There is nothing about To Kill a Mockingbird that leaves me feeling unsatisfied or that I have been deprived of a proper resolution. I think, for true fans of the classic novel, Go Set a Watchman is a can of worms best left unopened. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Reading Through History: The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter (1953)

The Light in the Forest is a novel which was assigned to me as a seventh grader in the mid-1990s, and which I always remembered fondly as being one of the books I was forced to read in school that I actually enjoyed. When John Butler was four years old, he was kidnapped from his white family and adopted into the Lenni Lenape tribe, where he was given the name True Son. At age fifteen in 1764, he is now being forced to return to his birth parents' home, where he is expected to immediately adopt the white lifestyle. This is a struggle for True Son, who wants nothing more than to return to his Indian parents and the freedom he associates with tribal life.

I have to confess that I can't figure out why I liked this book so much as a twelve-year-old. Though the premise of the story is intriguing from a psychological perspective, the writing seems much more dry to me than I remember. I can see why the themes in the story - alienation, isolation, identity, and finding one's place - would be appealing to a middle school audience, and I'm sure this is why the book was assigned to begin with, but I don't see what would have made it stand out as such an interesting book to me personally. As an adult, I didn't really connect with the characters at all, and I found it a struggle to finish to the end.

From an educational perspective, this book does provide important details about the differences between the Indian way of life and the white way of life, and about the impact each culture had on the other during the early days of the United States. It is a logical choice to include in American History lessons for middle schoolers, as it provides an emotional way to connect with the subject matter. I think I like Elisa Carbone's Blood on the River slightly better, especially because its characters are based on real people, and the story provides a broader view of the time period, but this is a matter of personal preference more than a statement about the quality of either book.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Reading Through History: King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry (1948)

King of the Wind, is the fictional biography of Sham, the horse which will come to be known as the Godolphin Arabian, and his master, Agba, a mute orphan, whose loyalty to his horse never wavers despite serious hardships.

I had a really hard time getting into this book on my own, and I wound up relying heavily on the audiobook, read by David McCallum, to get me through most of the story. I am not interested in horses - or animals, really - so reading a book about a horse where the human main character doesn't even speak felt somewhat tedious to me. Hearing the language in the voice of an actor really helped me appreciate the value in the book, despite my own lack of interest in the subject matter.

Marguerite Henry truly has a gift for writing detailed descriptions that convey strong emotions. She is also a very economical writer, giving the reader only those scenes which truly add something to the plot. She handles time well, jumping forward in large chunks as needed to keep the story flowing, and her characters, even those who appear only briefly, have memorable traits that make them easy to get to know. This is especially true of Agba, whose "voice" is very strong despite his physical inability to speak.

There is some general historical value in this book. The reader is able to see what life was like in 1724 Morocco, as well as France during the reign of Louis XV. Like Adam of the Road, it focuses on a journey, so readers are able to meet people from many different walks of life and get a taste for how they lived. First and foremost, though, this is a story about a boy and a horse, and its primary audience is always going to be kids who love horses.  I would certainly not disapprove if my kids want to enjoy it for pleasure reading - it is a Newbery winner, after all -  but it doesn't seem like it will be a strong part of my homeschooling curriculum beyond that.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Book Review: Sprout Street Neighbors: Five Stories by Anna Alter (2015)

In five illustrated episodes, this new beginning chapter book introduces the residents of the apartment building at 24 Sprout Street. Readers meet introverted mouse Henry, sweet squirrel Emma, self-conscious rabbit Fernando, artistic chicken Violet, and nature-loving cat Wilbur. Each story places one of these characters at the center of a problem which the other neighbors help to resolve using their unique skills and their empathy for one another's difficulties.

This is an ideal book about friendship for both preschool and early elementary audiences. For younger kids, it is an engaging read-aloud, filled with lots of interesting personalities that come to life through lively dialogue. For newly independent readers, it presents some challenging vocabulary (bougainvillea, marzipan, papier-mache, stupendous, enormous, etc.), but overall, it is a great bridge book between easy readers and novels, especially for kids who have enjoyed and outgrown series like High Rise Private Eyes, Poppleton, Frog and Toad, and Oliver and Amanda Pig. For both age groups, it provides insight into how to be a true friend in times of trouble, and it demonstrates the way in which each member of a community is able to contribute something to the greater good.

Few beginning chapter books are set in apartment buildings, so it is great to see something new and different, and the setting and format of the book work well together to help readers feel the neighborly camaraderie that exists among the characters. The inclusion of common household problems, such as leaks and noisy neighbors, also engages kids' interest in the happenings of the grown-up world and might even spark a connection between the story and something that has happened in their own homes. For urban kids, especially, it will be neat to see their own living arrangements mirrored in the lives of these animals.

The Sprout Street Neighbors will appeal to parents seeking wholesome reading material for their young readers, as well as to kids, who will fall in love with the characters and eagerly enjoy their funny, surprising, and touching adventures. This book is only the first of what will hopefully become a sizable and beloved series.