Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Reading with Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep: December 2015

Miss Muffet's ABCs

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Miss Muffet can recite the entire alphabet. She doesn't do it on demand, and she instantly stops if you catch her, but I often see her poring over an alphabet book, carefully saying the names of the letters. She does not yet associate the letter names with their shapes, but I suspect it won't be long. Some of her recent favorite alphabet books are:

  • Jane Foster's ABC (our beloved review copy from Little Bee Books)
  • Alpha by Isabelle Arsenault (an illustrated version of the NATO phonetic alphabet)
  • My Best Ever: ABC Alphabet Book (a favorite from back in August)
  • Winnie the Pooh Alphabet Book Bag (a birthday gift from Grandpa)

She is also really into the African Alphabet song from Sesame Street, which I used to sing to her a cappella, and which we now sometimes watch together on YouTube. She can sing almost the entire thing word for word, except that she calls the Zulu chief a "Zuzu chief."

Bo Peep's Taste in Books

Bo Peep is quickly approaching the end of that tricky newborn stage and showing much more of her personality. This, of course, includes the emergence of her taste in books. On a recent trip to the library, I parked her stroller in the board book area and just began showing her the covers of different books. Some made her fuss, or turn away, or squirm in disgust, but others caused her to smile and coo. The first one to get a real reaction was What? by Leo Lionni. Other books that make her smile so far are Big Fat Hen by Keith Baker and Big Bear Little Chair by Lizi Boyd. It seems that the simpler the color scheme and the cleaner the lines, the more Bo Peep enjoys it. Pages that are too busy or have too much detail overwhelm her and make her cry. I am so looking forward to reading to her more over the next few months.

Reading Together 

We have a couple of very simple Christmas board books hanging around the house right now, which I chose for Little Bo Peep, but which are just as interesting to Miss Muffet. After going through the books with me to make sure she can identify what is on each page, Miss Muffet likes to bring the books to Bo Peep and read them to her. Bo Peep thinks this is the greatest thing going and listens with rapt attention and a big baby smile on her face. There is nothing that warms my librarian heart more than having kids who read together!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Reading Through History: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (2011)

After the fall of Saigon, Ha, her mother, and older brothers flee their home in Vietnam and travel to the United States, where they do their best to settle into their new lives in Alabama. Ha not only struggles with the tricky rules of the English language, but also with the cruelty of her classmates and a strong sense of longing for her missing father.

This novel in verse is based on the author's own experiences following the Vietnam War. The story begins with the celebration of Tet at home in Vietnam, and concludes with the same celebration one year later in the US, showing along the way the many struggles - including a long voyage by ship with very little food or drink - that the family must endure. Though I sometimes question whether kids really read many novels in verse, I think this was the best way to tell this particular story, as the poetry makes the hardship, turmoil and emotional heaviness of the story easier to digest and understand. Lai's more recent novel, Listen, Slowly, is beautifully written, but also very dense and descriptive, and had this book been written in that same style it would have felt burdensome to slog through.

When I was in high school, we never made it past World War II in any history class, so I have always been partial to historical fiction set in the second half of the 20th Century, as it teaches me all the things I never studied. The 1970s are especially interesting to me, as this is when my mom was a teenager, and I grew up surrounded by a lot of 70s pop culture. Though this was not the typical kids' novel set in the 70s, it broadened my horizons significantly and I imagine it would do much the same for any reader, child or adult, who is unfamiliar with the Vietnam war and its aftermath.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Reading Through History: Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski (1945)

In this, one of Lois Lenski’s many children’s novels featuring the people and culture of a specific American region, the reader meets Birdie Boyer, the daughter of a farmer who has just moved his family from North Carolina to Florida to grow strawberries. At first, Birdie and her family are friendly toward their new neighbors, the Slaters, but their overtures of friendship are met time and again with cruel suggestions that their strawberry crop is likely to fail, and they should go back to North Carolina. The rivalry escalates as time goes on, with alcoholic Mr. Slater becoming increasingly violent and belligerent until even his own family begins to suffer.

This book is such an enjoyable read. Far from being a frivolous feel-good book about a girl and her strawberry patch, this is a story driven by the frustration, anger, and rivalry that arise from the competing priorities of farmers and ranchers. Lenski makes wonderful use of local color, writing all the dialogue in the dialect of the region. Reading the book aloud is a delight, and the language, though foreign at first, comes easily after just a chapter or two. The plot is exciting, and involves everything from fire to illness, but also includes the everyday details of events like a church picnic and a shopping trip.

Unfortunately, this otherwise excellent novel - which won the 1946 Newbery Medal - has a very disappointing ending. Mr. Slater is redeemed in a strange and contrived turn of events that does not match the rest of the book and shies away from the darker tone of the rest of the story. Perhaps Lenski felt this was necessary, given her audience, but it leaves the reader feeling somewhat deflated after such an enjoyable roller coaster ride of a story.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Book Review: Waiting by Kevin Henkes (2015)

Five friends - all figurines - stand on a windowsill, each waiting for something. While some of what comes along is predictable, there are also some surprises.

The pictures in this book are similar in style to Henkes’s other recent picture books like A Good Day, and not as much like his popular mouse books. Each picture depicts the different figurines reacting in subtle ways to what happens outside the window and on the windowsill itself. The text hints at many of the story’s events, but it is the illustrations - and specifically the characters’ facial expressions - that really convey the book’s beauty and emotion. The relationship between the text and images is very strong in a way that is really only possible when the author is also the illustrator.

The language in this book is really lovely, making it a pleasure to read aloud. It probably works best as a lap book since the illustrations are a bit small to be seen at a distance, but it might also work in a very intimate story time setting, especially if the theme is seasons, toys, or friendship. Because of the soothing nature of Henkes’s writing, it makes an ideal naptime or bedtime read-aloud.

Though very young children are unlikely to understand the depth of the text, they will still enjoy the book, as evidenced by my toddler’s repeated requests to hear it at naptime during the three weeks we had it from the library. There is really no child too young to appreciate something about it. I think it’s also a good book to share with much older kids, maybe even middle schoolers and high schoolers, as it provides opportunities to discuss symbolism and theme in a much less intimidating book than is typically assigned at that level.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Reading Through History: The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (1995)

Kenny Watson is the middle child of the "Weird Watson" family, between sweet younger sister Joetta and delinquent older brother Byron. As Byron's out-of-control behavior escalates, his parents decide the family will make a trip south to Birmingham where Byron will spend the summer - and perhaps longer - with his grandmother, learning how to behave properly and to better appreciate the problems he will face as a young black man. The plans for the trip and the trip itself are fun for Kenny, leaving him completely unprepared for the terrible thing he witnesses while in Alabama, and how deeply it affects him.

Christopher Paul Curtis is one of those authors who can be trusted to tell any story. If his name is on the cover of a book, I always know it is going to be a bittersweet story, filled with great humor, wonderful descriptions, important historical facts, and lots and lots of heart. This book is no exception. As in his other novels, specifically Elijah of Buxton and The Madman of Piney Woods, Curtis brings to life all the minor details of the characters' lives and the time period in which they live. Details of the kids' lives at school, their favorite records to listen to, their mother's obsession with making sure they are warm enough in the cold of winter - all of these build up a full picture in the reader's mind, not just of the historical event that provides the story's climax, but of what their own lives might have been like if they had been raised in Flint in the 1960s.

On its own, this book does not provide a complete study of the civil rights movement. Rather, because of its strong characters, many funny moments, and kid-friendly tone, it is a great jumping off point for beginning to understand the significance of the civil rights movement and of many of the great leaders whose names are so commonly mentioned in elementary school classrooms during this unit of study. The tragedy portrayed near the end of the story is upsetting, and many readers will react just as Kenny does, with great shock and sadness, but it is also an event on a small enough scale that readers can internalize the turbulence of this time period on an emotional level first, and then begin to work out the greater implications of the movement as a whole. And even without a specific lesson to back it up, this is just a great book that deserves to be read and enjoyed by as many kids as possible. (I really wish Christopher Paul Curtis would write some contemporary realistic fiction. I would eagerly read it all!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Reading Through History: Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park (2008)

Though she is a die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan, just like most of the guys at the firehouse where her father used to work, Maggie can't help but be intrigued by the new guy, Jim Maine, who roots for the Giants and scores all of the games by hand. Soon, Maggie is learning to keep score as well, a process which makes her feel especially connected to her beloved Dodgers. When Jim is eventually drafted into the army and sent to Korea, Maggie shifts from scoring games to scoring the war itself, trying to discern based on what she reads in the newspapers where Jim might be and when it might be time for him to come home. When he stops answering her letters, however, Maggie begins to despair, and when she learns what has become of him, she tries everything in her power to help him recover from a terrible experience.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this story portrayed a faithful Catholic family, and I enjoyed the references early in the book to choosing confirmation names, going to Confession, and going to church. Unfortunately, though, it became clear to me as I kept reading that the author had not done enough research on the Catholic Mass prior to Vatican II. On page 51, there is the following passage:

Every week in church, Father John or one of the other priests asked for intercessions, and then everyone prayed for other people. Usually, the intercessions were for people who were sick or hurt. Or had lost their jobs, or had gone off to Korea to fight in the war.

It is true that there is now a part of the Mass where the congregation prays for various intentions like the ones named here, and though it is not usual, there are even some parishes where individuals are asked to call out the specific causes for which they would like to pray. But this detail struck me right away as a possible anachronism, because prior to Vatican II, almost none of the Mass was said in the vernacular, and there would have been no opportunity for the congregation to participate so freely. I asked in a Catholic forum whether it was at all possible that intercessions such as these would have been included in a 1950s Mass, and the comments all adamantly stated that it would definitely not have happened. (A few did suggest that perhaps this was happening outside of the Mass, at another weekly church service, but that seems like a reach. I will admit that the author did not explicitly say it was happening at Mass, but the details were vague enough that the lack of clarity is as much a problem as the error itself.)

This is disappointing to me, not just because it's an incorrect detail in an otherwise favorable depiction of my religion, but also because of how much research went into the rest of the book. The author's note talks a lot about the author's sources for information about baseball and the war, but there is no mention at all of how her depiction of Catholicism came about. It is also disconcerting that an editor did not pick up on the error, as it would have been easy enough to ask a Catholic expert, or even just someone who attended Mass during that time period, to fact-check the few specific details about the Mass that are included in the story. The failure to do so makes it seem like the author did not consider the faith-based parts of her story to be as significant as the other storylines.

Aside from this problem, the book is decent, but not great. The plot is not exactly predictable, but it feels very obvious, and there is never a moment where the reader is really caught off-guard or surprised in any way. The story is told in a very linear, almost flat fashion, and it attempts to tell a story set over the course of several baseball seasons in the space of only about 200 pages, which makes the pacing feel off and the main character's psychological development feel forced and inauthentic. The premise was interesting, but its execution was poor. It's just not the author's strongest work, and not a book I plan to revisit for any reason.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Book Review: Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright (1938)

Garnet Linden has an ordinary life on her family's Wisconsin farm, but when she finds a silver thimble at the start of the summer, she believes it might have some extraordinary magic in it. Indeed, not long after she finds the thimble, the drought which has plagued the farmers comes to an end, an orphan named Eric finds his way into the Linden family, and Garnet herself begins to experience adventures never before imagined. Though the 1930s bring about hard times that many would choose to forget, Garnet will always remember her thimble summer.

This lovely slice-of-life story, winner of the 1939 Newbery Medal, could make anyone nostalgic for an idyllic small-town summer whether they've ever actually experienced one or not. Garnet's adventures - getting locked in the library, hitchhiking to a neighboring city, attending the local fair - are not necessarily the most exciting things ever to happen in fiction, but they are enjoyable to read about because of the way Enright describes them. By giving Garnet such a stubbornly positive and hopeful disposition, she makes it impossible for the reader to dislike her, and she cultivates in the reader an unshakable desire to follow Garnet wherever she may lead. This love for Garnet as a character is furthered by the way the other characters in the story react to her. Citronella, who is a "wet blanket" type of character always worried about being careful and not getting into trouble, still chooses to spend time with Garnet. Mr. Freebody, the Lindens' neighbor, sticks his neck out again and again to make sure Garnet is happy and healthy. Even Jay, Garnet's brother, and Eric, the orphan who comes to work on the farm. seem to have a special feeling for Garnet, which only makes the reader more intrigued by her every move.

The role of the thimble in the story seems unclear and unnecessary, and there were moments - especially in chapter two, when Citronella's great-grandmother tells a story from her childhood - where it wasn't entirely clear how the whole story was meant to hang together, but even with these  minor flaws, this is still a wonderful book. I liked it considerably more than Gone-Away Lake and Return to Gone-Away, which I found tedious and difficult to finish, and I found myself laughing out loud or asking my husband (who read the book aloud to me) to go back and repeat different lines so I could appreciate them a second time. (Especially notable was the moment where Citronella, distraught at being trapped inside the library says, "I wish I'd never learned to read." It was just so like her character to react so dramatically, and I laughed in delight at the perfection of that line.)

Thimble Summer is a quiet book which is likely to appeal to more serious and introverted readers. Though there are vague hints early on that the thimble might have magical properties, this is a product of Garnet's imaginative thinking and not a truly fantastical element to the story. This is a realistic fiction novel through and through and will be loved especially by kids who like to read about the everyday occurrences in the lives of other kids.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Reading Through History: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (1989)

Coming home from school one day in 1943 Copenhagen, best friends Annemarie and Ellen are stopped on the street by German soldiers and disciplined for running races on the sidewalk. After this incident, Annemarie becomes increasingly more aware of the effects of German occupation on her country. It isn't long before local businesses run by Jewish families are boarded up and Jewish families - including Ellen's - begin to hear rumors about "relocation." When it becomes clear that Ellen's family will be targeted, Annemarie and her parents don't hesitate before bravely stepping up to help their friends. What Annemarie doesn't realize, however, is how her own personal bravery will be tested, and how important her own involvement will be in saving the life of her friend.

I haven't read Number the Stars since I was 11 years old, and just as with The Light in the Forest and A Gathering of Days, my memories of the story were very far removed from what actually happens. I remembered the girls being German, not Danish, and I was sure there were scenes set in a concentration camp. Compared with the dark story I conjured up in my imagination, the real thing, though compelling, was far less upsetting. 

What is great about this novel, though (aside from Lowry's writing, which I always enjoy) is the fact that it makes the horrors of the Holocaust understandable to young readers without giving them too much to process at once. Through Annemarie, an ordinary girl, readers are able to imagine how it would feel to slowly see their country changed by outside invaders, and to consider how they might be able to muster their own courage in the event that a friend's family was threatened by a plot to evict them from their rightful homes. Though there is no mention of concentration camps in the story, the concept of "relocation" opens up the discussion so that parents and teachers can begin to discuss what happened with kids and help them process the disgust and fear they will feel upon learning of these events for the first time. The story also gives readers an opportunity to reflect on the hope represented by the Danish Resistance, and to realize that many lives can indeed be saved by the actions of those who are willing to stand up for what is right. 

Based on this reading, Number the Stars is probably the book I will use to introduce the Holocaust to my children when we reach that point in our homeschooling curriculum. Though I originally read it in sixth grade, it would work well for most readers in grades 4 to 8. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Reading Through History: Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm (2010)

Times are hard in 1935, and Turtle's mother, a housekeeper, finds herself working for a woman who despises children. Unable to afford to leave the job, she sends Turtle to stay with relatives in Key West, Florida. Here Turtle meets the Diaper Gang, a group of boys, including her own cousins, who are known around the neighborhood for their seemingly magical cure for diaper rash. Though the boys initially don't want Turtle to be a part of their club, she soon finds herself caught up in all of their adventures, from working for a rumrunner and taking lunch to the cantankerous Nana Philly to accidentally getting stranded on an island during a hurricane and finding a buried treasure.

My first comment about this book is that the cover is really poor. It is attractive enough, aesthetically, but it does absolutely nothing to sell this story, whose main character is a street-wise, smart-mouthed, and sassy eleven-year-old. The cover suggests an emotional and contemplative story akin to Kevin Henkes's Junonia, or Karen Day's A Million Miles From Boston, and this is anything but that. Turtle in Paradise is funny, entertaining, and a little bit irreverent (with all its references to baby bottoms) and the writing is mostly spirited and joyful, without a lot of tedious self-reflection on the part of Turtle. Sure, there are serious moments, but none deserving of such a bland adult-looking cover. (Had this book been given a more colorful cover, I'd probably have read it when it came out.)

Complaints about the cover aside, though, this book is a quick and enjoyable read that will appeal to both boys and girls in the upper elementary grades. It shares the same memorable writing style as Holms's other Newbery Honor winning historical fiction novels, Our Only May Amelia and Penny from Heaven. Holm has a real talent for bringing history to life through interesting main characters, and Turtle might just be the most memorable of them all.

Though it seemed to me, as I was reading, that there wasn't much history in this book, aside from occasional references to the Depression, Little Orphan Annie and Shirley Temple, the author's note after the story made me realize how reading this book can help young readers imagine what their lives would have been like during the 1930s. It's also interesting to me that this is yet another book on my reading list (along with Hattie Big Sky, Caddie Woodlawn and The Cabin Faced West) that was directly inspired by the life of the author's grandmother. I think kids are always fascinated by fiction based on real life, so this is a definite selling point for this book as well.

Turtle in Paradise is a great first introduction to the difficulties of the Great Depression, and to pop culture from the time period as well. It is also the perfect choice for kids who live in Florida and want to study the history of their state. (Also fun - this comic booktalk of the story from Unshelved.)