Sunday, July 31, 2016

Reading Through History: Friendly Gables by Hilda Van Stockum (1958)

In the third and final book about the Mitchells, the family has moved to Friendly Gables, the new home they finally find at the end of Canadian Summer, and Mother has just given birth to twins. (There are no real-life counterparts for the twins as there are for the other Mitchell children.) While she recovers from childbirth, the children are subject to the rules and expectations of her nurse, Miss Thorpe. When they realize they cannot please her, the children, excluding Joan who suddenly seems like an adult herself, create a secret attic hideout called Homework, where they go to avoid being scolded.

This book is the strongest of the three Mitchells titles, possibly because it is the only book where the family bands together against an immediate outside enemy, as opposed to a larger problem, like a war, or having to rough it in rural Canada. The earlier stories involved many conflicts and difficulties, of course, but they usually presented themselves in a more episodic manner, where each chapter had a problem and resolution unto itself.  This book held together better as a novel, and it really gave each of the children the chance to respond to their new family circumstances in a way that is unique to their individual personalities. I felt as though each character became more real to me in this book than in the two previous, and that the overall family dynamic came fully to life.

This is a series that I very much hope will be favorites of my own children when they are of school age. The books foster a value system that I hope to develop in my family, and it depicts siblings as people who love and look out for one another, and not as annoying problems to be overcome or circumvented. While I have always felt a kinship with Mother, especially in the second book, I felt much more strongly for the children in this book, which is probably how it ought to be.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Reading with Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep, July 2016

It has really been a book-filled summer for us so far! Here are some of the highlights:
  • For the Fourth of July, we visited my mother in New York, and she had lots and lots of books waiting for us. While we were there, Little Miss Muffet enjoyed The Tub Grandfather by Pam Conrad, the Bing series by Ted Dewan, and Grandma Loves You: Stories to Share, among others, and we came home with Little Owl's Day, the final title we needed to complete our collection of Divya Srinivasan's owl books. Both Little Miss Muffet (2 years, 8 months) and Little Bo Peep (10 months) also got to visit the children's section of the library where I used to work, and it was wonderful to see everything come full circle as they played with toys and paged through board books.
  • We signed up for the summer reading program in three different local library systems, but I quickly decided not to bother participating. One system expected me to track how many minutes it takes me to read each book, which was a nightmare from day one. Another offered lots of learning tracks, but none of them had anything to do with reading. I would have been okay with early literacy tasks, but I had a hard time seeing the value in finding my local fire station or visiting with a neighbor. The third system has a fine program, but we would have finished it in a day, and I didn't want the prizes badly enough to go through the motions. I suspect we will be coming up with our own challenge in future summers. 
  • Possibly inspired by the publication of my book, Little Miss Muffet has started her own writing career. She has written and illustrated two titles so far: The Happy Deer, about a deer we saw while we were out walking, and Dear Butterfly, Happy to Meet You, about a butterfly we found by a tree, which we initially thought was injured but turned out to be fine.  
  • Little Bo Peep is starting to appreciate books as more than just tools for teething. She enjoys turning the pages of board books and I notice her dropping everything to listen when I start to read aloud and she is in the room. She really liked Leuyen Pham's illustrations for All Fall Down, which I borrowed from the library recently, and she also likes the shiny foil accents in the My First books from Little Bee Books, which I reviewed back in May.
  • Miss Muffet has many favorites these days, but the ones I have been reading most frequently are If the Dinosaurs Came Back by Bernard Most (which has inspired an interesting in learning everything there is to know about dinosaurs), the Little Miss and Little Mister books (which also came home up with us from Grandma's), and The Fourteen Bears in Summer and Winter by Evelyn Scott, which was my husband's when he was a kid.  I have also started sharing some longer easy readers with her, and she has become fond of Poppleton by Cynthia Rylant and Dodsworth in New York by Tim Egan.  When she listens to audiobooks, she often request the Frances series or Blueberries for Sal. All in all, I'm pleased with her good taste and enjoying seeing how these books influence her play.
  • The other thing we have discovered this summer is the neighborhood pool. We used a book called Signs at the Pool to help prepare Miss Muffet for following the pool rules, and I have adapted many of our favorite songs and rhymes as pool games. We have done Old Joe, Go In and Out the Window and Ring Around the Rosie in the water, and Miss Muffet has really enjoyed it. 
  • Finally, if you haven't seen it yet, I had a guest post at Pages and Margins all about the impact of books on young children. If you enjoy reading these posts each month, I think you will like what I had to say in my piece, The Influence of Books in Early Childhood

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Reading Through History: The Wonderful Year by Nancy Barnes (1946)

Ellen's father has been ill recently, and the doctor has recommended some time away to regain his strength and mental health. Therefore, Ellen and her parents move west from Kansas to Colorado to start a ranch. Ellen has many wonderful and new experiences: sleeping in a tent while the house is being built, learning to ride a bicycle, getting lost in unfamiliar territory, and most important of all, developing a friendship with a much-older neighbor boy named Ronnie who happily humors Ellen's youthfulness and treats her as a pal and an equal. Through the day-to-day trials of planting and growing fruit and laying down roots in a new place, Ellen's entire family changes for the better and they finish their wonderful year with a fresh new outlook on life.

For any contemporary reader, the one element of this book that will immediately stand out is the friendship between Ellen and Ronnie. Our culture is so conditioned to believe that males are predators that the thought of an eleven-year-old girl palling around with a teenage boy instantly makes us uncomfortable, even when there is nothing in the text to suggest inappropriateness. Personally, I'm glad to see a purely platonic and fully wholesome relationship like this in a children's book. It's becoming more and more difficult to find books for tweens that don't incorporate crushes and romance in some way, so those of us who wish to avoid introducing a lot of those themes to our children have to seek out these older gems that take a more age-appropriate and innocent approach to boy-girl friendships. There truly isn't anything strange about Ronnie's connection to Ellen, and unless someone teaches them to read too much into it, kids won't think anything of it at all.

The other issue many reviewers seem to comment on is sexism. There is a lot in this book about rigidly defined gender roles. Ellen constantly thinks about the behaviors she needs to exhibit to be a worthy companion to Ronnie, and he comments now and then on how beautiful she will be someday. I tend to take these things with a grain of salt, especially with books like this one that were written in the 1940s and set even before that, and I think, as is mentioned in the review of this book from Semicolon, these old-fashioned ideals make great conversation starters for discussing the book with kids.

I enjoyed The Wonderful Year very much. It is similar in style to the Betsy-Tacy books, and in subject matter to books like Miracles on Maple Hill, Strawberry Girl, and The Open Gate. I look forward to sharing it with my girls when they reach the target age range.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Return of the Twelves by Pauline Clarke (1962)

Max Morley has just moved into an old farmhouse when he discovers a set of twelve wooden soldiers hidden beneath a floorboard. At first, he thinks they are just old toys, but when he begins to hear them speak and see them move, he realizes there is nothing ordinary about them. In discussions with Butter Crashey, their leader, Max learns that the twelves were once owned by four genii, whose imaginations gave them a long history of adventure and battle. The four genii turn out to be the Brontë, siblings - Branwell, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne - and the soldiers are so valuable and sought after that several parties would love nothing more than to take them from Max. Thankfully, though, the Twelves prove to have their own ideas about where they belong.

I did not plan ahead of time for this project to include so many Carnegie Medal books, but this is another one. The Return of the Twelves won the award in 1962. Though I normally would scoff at a book about sentient toys, this one drew me in right away. Max is a very believable and real character, and his relationships with his parents and siblings are similar to those most children have with their own families. He handles the magic of the wooden soldiers in a way that makes sense to kids, because it is how they are likely to imagine they would act in his position. The soldiers themselves are great fun to observe in action, and the ingenious ways Max looks after them without letting on that they are not completely independent are engaging and often funny.

I took a class in college where I was assigned Wuthering Heights, and I remember my professor providing a lot of background on the Brontës during the discussion, but of course I've forgotten the details and can't find my notes. Thankfully, though, this book doesn't require any knowledge at all of any of the Brontës' writings. Max himself wonders for a good portion of the book why his new neighbor calls himself a "brontyfan," and his interest in learning about the Brontë children, and the childhood writings that chronicle the adventures of the Twelves, stems entirely from his love for the soldiers. Readers might also take a sudden interest in reading The History of the Young Men after enjoying this book, but they don't have to have any prior background knowledge at all to appreciate the story of Max and the soldiers.

It's been a while since I've felt I could truly lose myself in the world of a book, but The Return of the Twelves gave me that experience. I was with Max throughout the story, and only once was I pulled out by a detail that didn't seem to fit. (One of the soldiers talked to a rat, and the rat talked back. As this was late in the story, and no other talking animals had been introduced, this really annoyed me. But I don't tend to like talking animals very much, so I acknowledge that this might be a quirk which is specific to me.) This is a book which holds up very well considering its age, and which all literary-minded families will want to share and enjoy together.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Book Review: On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer (1986)

Despite feeling wary of making the trip, Joel begs and pleads with his father to be allowed to bike to Starved Rock with his best friend, Tony. On the way, Tony, a known risk-taker, decides to take a detour to the river. Once they're both in the water, Joel dares Tony to swim out to the sandbar, assuming he is a strong enough swimmer to make it. Tony accepts the challenge, but moments later, Joel looks around and realizes Tony is gone. At first, he is sure Tony must be playing a trick, but then reality sets in: his best friend has drowned. Now Joel is faced with the impossible task of telling his parents and Tony's the fateful consequences of their poor decisions.

Along with Bridge to Terabithia (which I have since read) this was a book I avoided in childhood because I knew it was a death book. I was very anxious about death as a child, and reading a book like this back then would have cost me many nights of sleep. I do have the sense that I read it at some point, or at least skimmed it, because the story felt very familiar, but I don't have a more specific memory than that. My best guess is that it was during library school when my children's literature professor only allowed us to read Newbery books, but again, I'm not certain.

In the book, Marion Dane Bauer uses few words to make a strong impact on the reader. Each scene of the story is described so vividly that the reader really experiences all of Joel's emotions as they occur to him. Joel's initial behavior after realizing what has happened to his friend may not be the most mature or even the most appropriate, but it is very true to how a young kid would react in such a shocking and unexpectedly terrible situation. Kids will understand Joel's reasoning as he struggles with what to tell the adults, and they will feel a sense of comfort when he does finally come clean and his father proves himself to be a supportive, strong, and kind parent.

On My Honor is probably not a pleasure read for most kids. It's not really a tear-jerker per se, so even kids who like a good cry may not choose to read it on their own.  The story is really an exploration of the way one small decision can have an irreversible impact on the life of a child, and the moral obligation people have to do the right thing even in the face of great tragedy. I do think it is healthy to have kids read books about death - perhaps if I had done so, I would have worked through my fears instead of obsessively researching every book I encountered to make sure no one dies before even considering it. For that reason, I think this book works well in academic settings and homeschools, and in families in general, to prompt discussion and help kids talk about their questions regarding mortality.