Tuesday, February 28, 2017

February Link-Up: Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge 2017 (Books You Loved in Childhood)

Today marks the end of the second month of the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, which focused on childhood favorites. If you reviewed or otherwise posted about an "Old School" childhood favorite (or multiple favorites) this month,  please leave a comment below with a link so other participants can see what you read. (Remember - a book is considered "old school" if it was published in the decade of your birth or before.)

I read four books for the challenge this month:

Tomorrow, I'll be introducing the March theme, Books Published Prior to 1945.  

Monday, February 27, 2017

Reading with Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep, February 2017

Here are some highlights from reading with Little Miss Muffet (3 years, 3 months) and Little Bo Peep (17 months) in February:

  • Miss Muffet has been really interested in ballet since we watched a video of The Nutcracker just before Christmas. This had led to us reading a variety of ballet-themed books recently, including picture book versions of Swan Lake, The Royal Book of Ballet, Bea at Ballet, and Angelina Ballerina. Angelina Ballerina has become a particular favorite, and Miss Muffet can often be heard "reading" the book aloud to herself at quiet time.
  • Miss Muffet has also really been enjoying Bob, Not Bob! by Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Matthew Cordell. This is a new picture book about a boy with a cold who keeps calling for his mother, but because his nose is stuffy, his dog, Bob, comes instead. I really struggle with reading this book aloud, and I don't think I would ever feel confident enough to share it in storytime, but Miss Muffet thinks it is hilarious. It's another title that has been in her pile for quiet time and many afternoons, I hear her laughing and calling out "Bob, not Bob!" in her best nasal voice. This is definitely not a book I would have guessed a three-year-old would understand or appreciate, but clearly I was mistaken.
  • I was surprised just the other day, too, when Miss Muffet read a word! We were reading Blackberry Ramble by Thacher Hurd, on the last page of which Baby Mouse falls asleep. The word "Zzzzz" appeared on the page, but I usually make a snoring sound instead of reading it phonetically. On this particular reading, though, Miss Muffet pointed to the long string of Z's and read it right out loud! We still have a lot of letter sounds to work through before she is ready to really start reading, but she definitely felt a great sense of pride in herself and it was really fun to see her surprise herself by truly reading for the first time.
  • Little Bo Peep has taken a liking to walking around the house with small books. She prefers either the Gossie series (which she calls "Gah!") or the Little Miss and Mr. Men books. We can't leave her alone with these, as she shreds paper pages, but if she can be supervised, she prefers to have at least one of these in hand at all times. She will occasionally tolerate someone reading a Gossie book to her, but so far the Little Miss/Mr. Men titles are just for show.
  • We received a couple of new board books from Little Bee Books that were published at the beginning of this month: Flamingos Fly and Bears are Big, both by Douglas Florian. Bo Peep has mainly been using board books as objects to throw out of the playpen when she is tired of being in there, but she did seem to like both of these books when we first read them. I didn't think they were quite as strong as Florian's Leap, Frog, Leap!, which is part of the same series, but I love the colorful artwork, and I think both of these new titles would work nicely in a baby or toddler story time.
  • The only book Bo Peep listens to with any regularity is The Babies on the Bus by Karen Katz. She does the hand motions for many of the verses, and if I leave out the word "town" at the end of each verse, she will fill it in. She typically loves Katz's artwork, but this is the only book of hers that has been singled out as a favorite.
  • Finally, we had a Valentine's Day tea party this month during which we read my childhood favorite, It's Valentine's Day by Jack Prelutsky, as well as other love-themed poems from The Random House Book of Poetry for Children. It was a lot of fun, and it makes me excited for planning some poetry picnics for this spring and summer!  

Friday, February 24, 2017

Reading Through History: Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer (1936)

Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer is a 1936 children's novel set in the 1890s. Lucinda Wyman is ten years old, and she is experiencing a year as an "orphan." While her parents travel in Italy, Lucinda stays in New York with the Peters sisters. Though Lucinda's very proper aunt, whom she must see from time to time, feels it is inappropriate for a young woman, Lucinda is frequently allowed to travel about the city on roller skates. While doing so, she meets a number of colorful characters who enrich this year of her life with warm friendships and opportunities to understand others' points of view.

The remarkable thing about this book is the freedom Lucinda has to explore her environment. The book seems to have a very "free range" philosophy about raising children which is especially refreshing in this age of constant helicopter parenting. Indeed, in her Newbery acceptance speech for this book, the author herself said, "A free child is a happy child; and there is nothing more lovely; even a disagreeable child ceases to be disagreeable and is liked". Lucinda's freedom does occasionally lead to troubling circumstances, such as uncovering the body of a murder victim, and losing a young friend to serious illness, but even these seemingly mature events highlight Lucinda's empathy for her fellow New Yorkers and her resilience even in the face of tragedy. The book demonstrates how kids are capable of much more than adults typically give them credit for, and how a child given just one year of almost complete freedom can become a better person because of the experience.

The writing is very accessible, and the descriptions of the streets, and of people like hansom cab drivers and fruit stand owners really place the reader in late 19th century New York. I constantly found myself with "The Sidewalks of New York" running through my head as I was reading. This book evokes the same feelings I have always associated with that song. While there are no major historical events at the heart of the story, the entire book is a study on a bygone era that tells kids what they really want to know about the past: what it was like to live day-to-day life and how it was different from today.

Roller Skates is a wonderful book, but perhaps not the most appropriate for a sensitive reader. I would have reacted very poorly to the death scenes as a kid, and they would have upset me even more because so much of the rest of the book is so cheerful and even amusing. The book absolutely handles these scenes well, and I would not keep the book from my own children, but I do want to be sure to suggest it to them at a time when I think they are prepared to feel the sadness of those moments without being turned off to reading other sad stories in the future. I refused to read sad books for my entire childhood after Marta died of cholera in Meet Kirsten, and I definitely regret missing out on a lot of great stories. I think if that book had come into my life at a different time, I might have handled it better. I'll have to see how that theory pans out in the years to come.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Fumbling Through Fantasy: This Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger (1986)

Like The Other Side of the Moon, which I reviewed yesterday, This Place Has No Atmosphere is also a middle grade novel set in a moon colony, but with a much more superficial twist. Aurora is a high school student in the year 2057, when people live in malls and schools issue "yeardisks" in place of yearbooks. Her parents are successful scientists, and when they are given an opportunity to live and work on the moon for five years they decide to accept it and move Aurora and her sister Starr with them to the moon. Aurora is horrified at the thought of leaving her friends and her boyfriend, and she is sure she will be heading back to Earth in a year to stay with her grandparents. After she and some of the other teens on the moon begin planning a production of Our Town, however, her outlook on moon living begins to change.

I very distinctly remember finding this book on display in the YA section at my childhood library not long after the librarian (who later became a coworker and a friend!) made me aware that there was a section for middle school and high school readers. I read it several times over a period of several years, and then eventually, it ran its course and I moved on to something else. My memory has always been that this was a fast-paced romance novel about a girl who lives in a mall on the moon. Reading the book last week, however, showed me the weakness of my memory.

First of all, Aurora does not live in a mall. None of the characters in the story do - not on Earth, and not on the moon. There is some romance, but it's minimal, especially compared with other Danziger books that had a lot of kissing and hand-holding in them. This book has some, but it's not the sole focus. The story itself also dragged. Aurora's concerns seemed so superficial, and the idea of teenagers in a moon colony putting on a play just struck me as ridiculous. I wish I knew what was so appealing about this book when I was 11 or 12, because it is completely lost on me now.

One thing I did notice that went right over my head as a kid were references to fertility drugs. I'm sure I was unaware of any interventions that could help women achieve pregnancy when I was in middle school, but the casual mention of  them in this book did give me pause. They aren't enough of a plot point for me to feel that the whole book is inappropriate, but I think most Catholic parents would at least want to be aware that these casual references are included in the book. This book is not the kind of thing I'll be rushing to share with my girls anyway, because it just isn't that good, but the author's clear approval of the use of such drugs would be something I'd have to think about if I did plan to have them read the book.

Overall, this book, though futuristic, is actually terribly dated. Half of its futuristic technology has already come and gone and the other half seems even more impractical now than it did in 1986 when the book was first published. I think there is probably a certain kind of contemporary kid who would still enjoy this book, and it is surprisingly still in print, so if you know that kid, you can easily purchase a copy. It is by no means, however, the must-read I imagined. (I am curious about how other Danziger titles hold up now, though. I might have to snag a few and binge-read them!)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Other Side of the Moon by Meriol Trevor (1957)

Since I first discovered Meriol Trevor, I have been blown away by her books about Catholicism, all of which were inspired by her own conversion. When my husband surprised me with this strange science fiction/fantasy novel of hers, however, I wasn't quite sure I was going to like it. The story, published in 1957, follows a teenage boy named Gil whose brother, Hilary, a botanist, is a member of a crew of scientists who  are making an expedition to the moon. Gil is not supposed to go along, but he falls asleep in the crew's ship and inadvertently becomes a stowaway. When Hilary and his colleagues discover Gil, they are not pleased, but they do their best to care for him and keep him busy. When they arrive, the explorers discover that the moon is inhabited by beings a bit like themselves, but who seem to be in greater communion with the Creator than humans on Earth. These beings are plagued by the Enemy, whose followers live in underground cities and seek to bring as many people as possible over to their regimented way of living. When it is revealed that a prophecy may have foretold the coming of these men from Earth, members of the crew react in different ways to their possible destiny.

In the early chapters of this book, I had a hard time not laughing at the now-ridiculous way Trevor describes the moon. Within moments of the crew's landing, she has them removing their space gear because it turns out the levels of both oxygen and gravity are the same there as they are on Earth. She depicts a moon that is totally blank and dead on the side that is visible from Earth, but home to vibrant flowers and large cities on the other side. I kept having to remind myself that in 1957 the moon landing was still 12 years away, and that the moon must have been something of a blank canvas for the writer's imagination prior to astronauts actually visiting it in person.

Despite what we now know to be gross inaccuracies about what the surface of the moon is actually like, however, this book was really engaging. The events of the story could probably have been said to happen on any planet, since there is no real scientific basis to the way the moon is described, but the setting matters much less than the plot and its themes. Trevor explores a question I have discussed with my dad in the past - what if there is another civilization out there in the universe, with people also created in God's image and likeness, but who do not have original sin? This book doesn't exactly spell out the spiritual state of the moon's inhabitants, but it implies repeatedly that they have a closer and more meaningful relationship to God than we have on Earth, and that they are not plagued by the same problems as Earth's humans. Trevor's depiction of evil is also very powerful, and subtle, which gives the reader a lot to think about and figure out.

I predicted that this book would be similar to Madeleine L'Engle's novels, and I wasn't entirely wrong. It did have moments that felt very similar to things that happen in An Acceptable Time or Many Waters, only Trevor's characters travel through space rather than time. I think the writing in The Other Side of the Moon was far superior to either of those books, and the mythology was more explicitly Catholic rather than generically Christian, but the comparison is definitely there. The quest aspect of the book, and the idea that a seemingly unworthy outsider needs to be the one to save the day also sometimes made me think about Tolkien, but Tolkien's books are much deeper and explore many more aspects of the battle between good and evil than this one does.

I much prefer Trevor's stories of conversion, but I'm glad to have read this as well. It gave me some insight into how the world once imagined the moon, and it gave me a vastly different reading experience than what I would typically seek out on my own.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Book Review: The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline (1983), Switcharound (1985), and Your Move, J.P.! (1990) by Lois Lowry

Ever since I finished the Anastasia Krupnik and Sam Krupnik series in 2014, I have been meaning to read more of Lois Lowry's older realistic fiction titles. When I discovered OpenLibrary.org during January's Bout of Books read-a-thon, I searched for some of her books just to see what was available, and found that all three books in her series about the Tate family were there. I wound up reading all three over the course of just a couple of days.

The first book, The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline, introduces the Tate siblings: eleven-year-old Caroline, and her older brother, J.P. After snooping in the trash can near the mailboxes, Caroline becomes convinced that a neighbor on the top floor of her apartment building is a murderer. When she learns that this same man has begun dating her single mother, Caroline and her best friend Stacey begin to make plans to unmask his true identity before Caroline and J.P. become his next victims.

In Switcharound, the second book, Caroline and J.P. are sent to stay with their father who, after divorcing from their mother, has started a whole new family which now includes a six-year-old son named Poochie and identical twin baby girls. Their dad has no real idea of what to do with Caroline and J.P., so he and his wife put them to work. J.P. must coach Poochie's baseball team, while Caroline is responsible for babysitting the twins. As both kids struggle in their assigned tasks, it becomes clear that they are each better suited to doing the other's job, and they help each other out, all while first planning revenge on their father and then trying to undo their revenge plans when they realize how much trouble they will cause.

Finally, in Your Move, J.P.!, J.P. develops a crush on Angela, a new British girl in school, and makes up a lie to impress her. As he gets deeper and deeper into his lie - which is that he has a rare disease that will one day kill him - he also begins to realize Angela's flaws. In the meantime, J.P. prepares for a major chess tournament and spends time each day visiting with a homeless man in the park, who has challenged him to name an affliction for each letter of the alphabet.

This series is similar in some ways to the Anastasia and Sam books. Both Caroline and J.P. are exceptional children with academic interests (Caroline is a budding paleontologist who hangs around the Natural History Museum, and J.P. is a chess whiz) who still sometimes make foolish mistakes. Though the two siblings don't always see eye-to-eye they do have a warm relationship, and they seem amused by each other just as often as they are annoyed by each other. The writing is also quite good in both series. Lowry has a real knack for bringing these smart and quirky characters to life, and for giving them believable and endearing flaws.

The differences between the series lies mainly in the structure of the Krupnik and Tate families. While Anastasia and Sam have parents who are very much in love and living together, the Tates are divorced and Caroline and J.P. must deal with the complications of a step-mother, half-siblings, and a mother who goes on dates. Lowry doesn't paint this situation in an overly depressing light, but the differences in family make-up do give the Tate books a different point of view.

Overall, I enjoyed all three of these books, but Switcharound was my favorite. The events of The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline were amusing, but far-fetched, while Your Move, J.P.! was more of a typical middle grade story about a first crush than anything else. Switcharound has the most emotional depth of the three, and it tells a story that is very specific to the complexities of this one particular family. Mr. Tate doesn't always treat his kids fairly during their visit, but the injustice of their being forced to work only adds to the story's appeal. There is real uncertainty about whether things will turn out okay or not, and that makes for a very compelling read.

These books were all published between 1983 and 1990, so they are definitely a bit dated, but I wouldn't say they are totally irrelevant. The character development alone makes them worth the time of a contemporary reader, and they are available as ebooks, even though it doesn't look like any print editions are available right now. Kids who are already accustomed to reading older books will have no problem jumping right into these, and even those who typically read twenty-first century middle grade paperbacks might find these a refreshing change of pace. I certainly did.

Monday, February 20, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? for February 20, 2017

We took a day trip today to enjoy the spring-like Presidents Day weather, so this post is a bit late, but I did a lot of reading this week and wanted to post an update.

Adult Books

Since last Monday, I read two of James Patterson's Bookshots. The House Husband by James Patterson and Duane Swierczynski was a little bit creepier than what I would normally choose to read, but as the back of the book says, it was "impossible to stop reading." I had to know how everything would turn out. Hidden by James Patterson and James O. Born was much more interesting to me, as it was set near where I grew up. Patterson knows this area well, as he went to high school there (at the same time as my father), but there were some details that seemed a little off to me, probably because he doesn't live there anymore. Though the story took a weird turn about 3/4 of the way through, I liked the main character, Mitchum, well enough to want to read the next title in the series.

I also finished reading Murder of a Sweet Old Lady by Denise Swanson, which is the second book in the Scumble River series. This is becoming one of my favorite mystery series. Skye, the main character, is Catholic, and she actually goes to confession in this book, which I enjoyed. I also liked all the nuances of her family relationships, which create a lot of difficulties and drama when her grandmother is found murdered. I'm going to have to use inter-library loan to get the next few titles, as it appears the local libraries have weeded the earlier books of the series, but I'm planning to read the next one whenever I can!

Currently, I am reading State of the Onion by Julie Hyzy, which is the first in The White House Chef mystery series. I am finding it very quick and exciting reading, and I'm glad to know the series is still ongoing. I also have Cover Story by Erika Chase checked out of the library in paperback, and Murder Past Due by Miranda James just became available for me on Overdrive. I hope I'll be able to get to both before they are due back.

Deal Me In

Last week's story was "A Jury of Her Peers" by Susan Glaspell (K). Minnie Wright has been accused of killing her husband after Mr. Hale found the man strangled in bed. The next day, Mr. Hale and his wife, and Sheriff Peters and his wife go to the Wright house to get a statement about what exactly Mr. Hale witnessed. While the men self-importantly walk around the house trivializing Mrs. Wright's housework and trying to determine a motive for the murder, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters reflect on how they might have been more friendly to her and ultimately uncover clues which they choose not to share for fear the woman would be convicted. This was a well-written and powerful story..

For this week, I drew an O. Henry story, "A Cosmopolite in a Cafe" (♣K). In a cafe, the narrator meets E. Rushmore Coglan, a seeming cosmopilite who has no loyalty to any particular place or pride in any one nation. Coglan is described this way: "He spoke disrespectfully of the equator, he skipped from continent to continent, he derided the zones, he mopped up the high seas with his napkin. With a wave of his hand he would speak of a certain bazaar in Hyderabad. Whiff! He would have you on skis in Lapland. Zip! Now you rode the breakers with the Kanakas at Kealaikahiki. Presto! He dragged you through an Arkansas post-oak swamp, let you dry for a moment on the alkali plains of his Idaho ranch, then whirled you into the society of Viennese archdukes. Anon he would be telling you of a cold he acquired in a Chicago lake breeze and how old Escamila cured it in Buenos Ayres with a hot infusion of the chuchula weed. You would have addressed a letter to "E. Rushmore Coglan, Esq., the Earth, Solar System, the Universe," and have mailed it, feeling confident that it would be delivered to him." There isn't much of a plot to the story, but there is a Henry-esque twist and the writing is delightful.

Children's Books

This was also a productive week for reading children's books. I read Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer as my 1930s pick for Newbery Through the Decades and I finished both The Fantastic Flying Journey by Gerald Durrell and This Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger for Old School Kidlit 2017. I was surprised by how different the Durrell and Danziger titles seemed to me as an adult. I didn't love them nearly as much as I did as a kid. I loved Roller Skates, though. My review will be up later in the week.

This week, I'm hoping to read Cloud and Wallfish and maybe a couple of other things. I have a chapter to write for my summer reading textbook, and puzzle proofreading to finish by Friday, so it might wind up being a slower week reading-wise.

I'm linking up with Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Reading Through History: Amy Moves In (1965), Laura's Luck (1965), and Amy and Laura (1966) by Marilyn Sachs

When Marilyn Sachs passed away at the beginning of January, I was reminded immediately of how much I enjoyed her 1968 children's novel, Veronica Ganz. Back in 2015, when I reviewed the book, I wrote that it was "refreshingly unburdened by the contemporary notion that every book is poised to make or break the reader’s entire childhood by its portrayal of unpleasant happenings." I appreciated the book so much because it told the truth about how kids sometimes behave, and it treated the negative aspects of life as ordinary, run-of-the-mill occurrences that happen to everyone, and not as terrible tragedies that ruin kids' lives forever, or that must be overcome with the help of Very Special Adults. As I read through the three books in Sachs's Amy and Laura series, I felt that same sense that Sachs wished to present the truth to her audience, without exaggerations that make life seem better or worse than it is.

In Amy Moves In, Amy Stern struggles to fit in after her family moves to a new neighborhood. She tries to befriend an interesting girl in her class at school, and though this girl turns out to be a bully, Amy is afraid of what her classmates would do if she pursued a friendship with someone more worthy, but much less popular. When her mother is involved in a serious accident and must stay in the hospital for a prolonged period of time, things get more difficult for Amy, as the family adjusts to life with Aunt Minnie, who runs a household much differently than Mama.

In Laura's Luck, both Amy and Laura are sent to summer camp so their aunt can have a vacation from caring for them before their mother is released from the hospital in September. Laura, who is bookish and unskilled at sports, is not happy about going to camp, and her first few nights are absolutely miserable. After a stint in the infirmary with a sprained ankle and a friendly nurse for companionship, Laura comes out with a better attitude and a new cabin assignment to help ease her adjustment. As she works to become a valued member of her cabin, Laura also begins to see the value in camp. 

Finally, Amy and Laura sees the Stern family piecing their lives back together after Mama finally returns home. The girls are sad to see their mother confined to a wheelchair, and their father has insisted they do nothing to cause their mother any displeasure at all, including arguing in the house or participating in activities at school of which she would not approve. 

What stands out to me in all three of these books is Sachs's honesty and sincerity about the triumphs and tribulations of Amy's and Laura's lives. Her stories do not feel manufactured, and they do not manipulate the reader toward having any particular emotion or learning any particular lesson. Rather, Sachs present the events of everyday life the way they really happen - randomly, unpredictably, inconveniently -  and her characters react reasonably and realistically. Because the characters are so believable, the reader is completely invested in the fate of both girls from the moment they are first introduced, and after a while, the plot almost doesn't matter, because the appeal of the stories is simply spending time with the characters. Though Amy and Laura are frequently at odds with one another, the reader is always sympathetic to both sisters, because Sachs allows full access to their thoughts and motivations and gives each character a balance of good and bad qualities.

I was surprised when I read Veronica Ganz to learn that it is set in the 1940s, and that fact was even less obvious in these books. Veronica actually appears in Amy and Laura (as a cause of trouble for Laura in her new post as hall monitor), so it's clearly meant to be the same time period, but there are very few details dating the books to the 40s specifically. In fact, so many aspects of the stories feel timeless, or at the very least more modern than the 1940s. Some of this is probably because of the writing style, which matches other books for kids from the 1960s and 1970s, but I think some of it is also because the characters' emotions are so real and therefore so relatable for kids from every generation. 

This is a great vintage series for realistic fiction lovers, and a wonderful portrait of the complicated relationships between sisters. It is one I will recommend without hesitation to my own girls in a few years! 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Fantastic Flying Journey by Gerald Durrell, illustrated by Graham Percy (1987)

When their Uncle Lancelot shows up at their house one day flying a giant hot air balloon called the Belladonna, the three Dollybutt children - Emma, Ivan, and Conrad - are completely shocked. They are even more surprised when Lancelot proposes that they join him for a year-long journey around the world to look for his brother, Perceval, who might be in need of rescuing. After getting permission from their mother, and assuring her that it will be worth missing school to learn what Perceval can teach them on their journey the three kids board the Belladonna and take to the skies. Over the next year, they travel from their home in England, to Africa, Australia, North America, and South America, where, thanks to a magical powder administered by Lancelot they are able to talk with the animals they meet and take notes on how they think and feel as well as how they live.

When I was in third grade, my teacher put together a unit for my class based on The Fantastic Flying Journey. As the book was read aloud to us, we worked in teams to accomplish different tasks associated with the regions the characters were visiting. We also ate a trail mix called gorp, which I remember had a lot of coconut and chocolate chips in it. The following summer, when I was shopping with my mom, I saw a hardcover edition of the book in an outlet bookstore. Based on how much I had enjoyed that unit in school, we purchased the book. For some reason, though, from that day to this, I never touched it! Not even once. When I chose the "books you loved in childhood" focus for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, this was actually the first book that came to mind. I was curious to see whether it would hold up for me after 25 years.

For the most part, on this reading, I found this book pretty boring. I think my fascination with it must have had more to do with how much I liked my teacher and the classroom activities she developed to accompany the book than with the book itself. Though there is something of a plot, the book is really more about conveying information about animals and their habitats (and in some cases, the way humans have destroyed them) than following characters through a story that changes them in some way. It is definitely better-written than something like the Magic Tree House series, and the artwork is very attractive, but there wasn't much to it for an adult who already knows basic animal facts.

I do think this book will be useful for homeschooling purposes. While it's not much fun to read straight through just for pleasure, the Dollybutts' experiences do provide a very palatable way to learn about the geography of different parts of the world and the different varieties of animals that live there. It is a bit disappointing that Asia is not represented at all, and neither is Antarctica. At first I thought it might be because they were covered in a sequel, but the only companion book is a time travel story about dinosaurs (The Fantastic Dinosaur Adventure, 1989), so it appears these continents were just left out.

All in all, I will always cherish the memories of that wonderful third grade lesson based on this book, but I probably won't read the book again anytime soon.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Reading Through History: Over the Hills and Far Away by Lavinia Russ (1968)

Over the Hills and Far Away is a 1968 novel which begins in 1917 when its main character, Peakie, is around 14 years old. Peakie is the odd one out in her family. Her older sister is more beautiful and popular than she is, and the girls' mother just does not understand Peakie's awkwardness and lack of interest in the things other girls are concerned about. Peakie has few friends aside from her father, so she makes friends with characters in books, having private conversations with them in her mind and imagining how someone like Jo March might react to the decisions she makes and the things she does. The story follows Peakie all the way through this prolonged awkward phase of her adolescence, until finally there seems to be some hope that she will find her voice, and her place, and her way.

I enjoyed Lavinia Russ's humorous essays in The Girl on the Floor Will Help You. Her droll approach to work, writing, family, and life in general is light and enjoyable, and I felt she was a bit of a kindred spirit when I read her thoughts on some of these topics. Sadly, though some of the same thoughts and beliefs that inspired her essays also inspired this book, the novel is a bit of a muddle.

Peakie is a well-developed character, but Russ could have done a much better job of ensuring that her pessimistic attitude and outright oddness wouldn't cause the reader to dislike her. Peakie is really not very sympathetic, and the reader starts out rooting for her, but runs out of patience as chapter after chapter goes by and her outlook doesn't seem to improve. It is necessary for Peakie to change in order to further the story, and Russ simply does not handle this well. She waits too long to give Peakie any glimmer of hope for true happiness and  then springs it on her all at once in an entirely unbelievable and overly abrupt ending. There is a sequel (The April Age) but somehow that doesn't seem like a sufficient excuse for rushing the conclusion of the first book.

This is a book I could take or leave. It is in some ways a refreshingly realistic alternative to the sunnier stories of the 1910s depicted in the Betsy-Tacy books, but it almost takes this approach too far, leaving readers feeling irritated that Peakie is having such a hard time with the everyday problems of adolescence. This is not quite as oppressive a view of early teenhood as a book like Up a Road Slowly, but an uplifting story about learning to be comfortable in one's own skin it simply is not. A certain type of sarcastic personality will appreciate it (maybe readers of Dear Dumb Diary and the like?) but most readers will probably be better served by a more balanced view of the teenage years. Even girls who feel like Peakie are bound to become impatient with this book.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Paging Through Picture Books: I Love You: A Rebus Poem (2000), Friend or Foe? (2016), A Small Thing... but Big (2016), Discovering Trees (1986), Ten Little Toes, Two Small Feet (2016)

Here are the latest titles I have read for the Picture Book Reading Challenge. These books fulfill #15 a book about feelings, expressing feelings (I Love You: A Rebus Poem), #16 a book with a twist (unexpected) ending (Friend or Foe?), #17 a book about pets (cats, dogs, fish) (A Small Thing... but Big), #90 a book about science or math (Discovering Trees), and #102 a book about babies (Ten Little Toes, Two Small Feet).

I Love You: A Rebus Poem by Jean Marzollo, illustrated by Suse MacDonald

I placed this book on hold at the library because Miss Muffet is really into rebuses and because I was planning a Valentine's Day story time about love, hugs, and kisses. It turned out to be the perfect choice for Miss Muffet, who can pretty much read the book on her own after only hearing it a couple of times. Even for kids who can't read rebuses yet, it's a very sweet, but not-too-mushy book about love.

Friend or Foe? by John Sobol, illustrated by Dasha Solstikova

This is an odd little book about a cat and mouse who only ever see each other from afar. Each of them wonders whether the other is a friend or a foe, but when each one gets the courage to go find out, they just end up switching places. The illustration are interesting, but unusual, and the story left me with an unsettled feeling. It would be interesting to talk about with elementary school kids who might be able to understand the "missed connection" storyline, but I thought it would go right over Miss Muffet's head and chose not to share it with her.

A Small Thing... but Big by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Hadley Hooper

In this book, Lizzie and her mom go to the park, where they run into an older gentleman and his dog, Cecile. Lizzie is afraid of dogs, but as she and Cecile get to know each other on a walk around the park with the old man, she becomes more comfortable. It's a small thing, but a big deal for Lizzie. I love that this book focuses on a friendship between a young girl and a friendly older neighbor, and that the mother is comfortingly present in the pictures, but not overprotective. The cheery color palette of the illustrations made me think of spring, and though I do not necessarily believe, as the book says, that "all dogs are good if you give them a chance" I think it is overall a great story for helping kids overcome a fear of dogs.

Discovering Trees by Douglas Florian

This nonfiction picture book provides information about the bark, trunks, leaves, and roots of different types of trees. Though some of the facts mentioned in the book went over Miss Muffet's head, she loved the pictures and seemed fascinated by all there is to know about trees. Though I primarily think of Douglas Florian as a poet, I have been impressed by some of his nonfiction prose works, and this is the best I have read so far.

Ten Little Toes, Two Small Feet by Kristy Dempsey, illustrated by John Massey

I chose this book at the library because Little Bo Peep loves babies, and because it reminded me of Baby Parade by Rebecca O'Connell (and also because we are fans of Little Bee Books). The brightly colored pictures of babies showing their toes instantly appealed to Bo Peep, and she wanted to read it over and over again at nap time. We read the book so many times, Bo Peep now knows how to say "toes!" and point to her own feet. It's not quite as good as the O'Connell book, but it would be a lot of fun for a baby story time.

Monday, February 13, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? for February 13, 2017


Both of my kids were sick this week, so I didn't read quite as much as I normally do. We went to the library yesterday, so that will probably change this week.

Adult Books

I finished two adult books this week and started two others. I finally got to the end of Coughing in Ink, and it was well worth the time it took for me to absorb everything. This book really spoke to my own negative experiences in academia, and it also helped me to clarify my thinking about the current state of higher education, even though the book was published before I was even a year old.

I also read Killer Chef, one of James Patterson's Book Shots titles, and enjoyed it much more than the romance novel from that series that I read a couple of weeks ago. I like the idea of a detective who also runs a food truck, and I actually thought the mystery was a lot more "cozy" than I normally expect from Patterson.

The books I started were a cozy mystery, Murder of a Sweet Old Lady by Denise Swanson, which has a lot of of good family drama that I'm really enjoying and Lois Lenski: Storycatcher by Bobbie Malone, which I can't really weight in on yet since I've read just 15 pages.

I came home from this weekend's library trip with four adult books: two more Book Shots and two more cozy mysteries. They are:

  • Hidden by James Patterson with James O. Born 
  • The House Husband by James Patterson with Duane Swierczynski
  • Cover Story by Erika Chase
  • State of the Onion by Julie Hyzy

I'm hoping to get to all four before they are due back at the library, even though I have a chapter deadline for my own book coming up in a month.

Children's Books

It was a slow week for reading children's books. I read a ton of picture books, some of which will be reviewed here on the blog in the coming weeks, but I didn't make much progress in the longer books I have going. The only thing I finished was a beginning chapter book, Skunked from the Calpurnia Tate, Girl Vet series. It was okay, but nothing I especially feel like raving about.

I'm still reading Roller Skates, and one night, I randomly started reading my ARC of Cloud and Wallfish and found myself becoming really engrossed in that as well, so both of those are on my immediate to-read list. I also need to finish The Fantastic Flying Journey and This Place Has no Atmosphere, which I want to review for Old School Kidlit. Looking ahead, I also have an ARC of Fred Bowen's newest book, which Peachtree Publishers sent me this week along with a couple of unbound picture book galleys. I'm itching for a newer middle grade novel to read, but nothing at the library appealed to me at all. Maybe next time.

Deal Me In

After slacking all week, I finally caught up for this challenge on Saturday. I read three stories:

  • "Old Lady Lloyd" from Chronicles of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery (♥A)
    This story, about an poor, prideful woman whom everyone believes is rich and mean once again reminded me of Flannery O'Connor. Old Lady Lloyd once had a romantic relationship that fell apart, and when that now-dead lover's daughter moves to town, Old Lady Lloyd becomes desperate to be her benefactor, even going so far as to go without food and sell family heirlooms in order to fund the young woman's deepest desires. Old Lady Lloyd takes no credit for her good deeds, but neither does she admit that she needs help - at least not until she falls seriously ill and may die. Unlike the rest of the world, I have yet to read Anne of Green Gables, so these stories are my first introduction to L.M. Montgomery, and I am just so impressed with her characters, the spiritual elements of her stories, and the way she ties up her endings. This story teaches a lesson about humility and love, but it is also just a really appealing story about a very real character in whom we can all see a little something of ourselves.
  • "Slippery Fingers" by Dashiell Hammett (3)
    I've yet to read any of Dashiell Hammett's novels, even though The Thin Man is one of my favorite movies. I liked the mystery in this story, though it bothered me a little bit that it felt like a somewhat dull accounting of the facts of the case without any real character development or description. I enjoyed seeing how the detective work eventually led to a culprit, but the story didn't make me feel anything, which was an odd sensation. I'm curious whether Hammett's writing style is always this spare, or if the longer works feel a bit more immersive.
  • "A Little Missionary Work" from Kinsey & Me by Sue Grafton (5)I was glad to pull another Sue Grafton story so early on just because I love Kinsey and I haven't had time yet to get to V is for Vengeance, which has been sitting on my nightstand since the summer. This story was a lot better than "The Lying Game." It involved a kidnapping, a jailbird friend of Kinsey's, a celebrity couple, and a storage unit, and it has a great twist ending. 
Today I'm linking up with Book Date and Teach Mentor Texts

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Inquisitor's Tale: Not for Catholic Kids

The Inquisitor's Tale by Adam Gidwitz is a middle grade novel which was awarded a 2017 Newbery honor. It is the story of a medieval inquisitor who arrives at a French inn seeking information about three children whom King Louis IX wants to arrest - Jeanne, a Christian peasant, William, a Christian oblate, and Jacob, a Jew - and the dog who accompanies them. Various individuals drinking at the inn volunteer bits and pieces of the story of how the three children have come to be traveling together, first to escape from different unfortunate circumstances that threaten their lives, and later to rescue copies of the Talmud from being burned by the king. Only after hearing the others' stories does the inquisitor make up his mind about what he must do.

I try to make it a point to read children's novels with religious themes, not only because I like to find those rare gems that get it right, but also because I think someone should critique the books that get it wrong, especially when those books are critically acclaimed and recognized with awards. I had an open mind about The Inquisitor's Tale, and I honestly wanted to like it. I could tell early on, however, that this book was not going to be appropriate for my Catholic children, and that it would not be something I could recommend to other Catholic families.

As a Catholic parent, I feel it is important for historical novels involving church history to incorporate accurate truths about the faith. In many respects, this book does not. Since I haven't found a review that points this out, I feel that the voice of a practicing Catholic would be a valuable addition to the collective discussion about the book. This review, which contains many spoilers, including details from the ending, is my critique of The Inquisitor's Tale from a Catholic perspective, with reference to key areas that I find particularly important in religious-themed fiction.



I want to begin with the concept of heresy. Though the Inquisition has been over for centuries, it is still possible to be a heretic. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines heresy as "the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same." When raising Catholic children, parents are called to teach them the fullness of the truth, and I would consider it part of my duty to avoid teaching my children heresies, and to correct heretical ideas my children may develop either through misunderstanding or misinformation from outside sources. It is this misinformation that gives me pause when it comes to reviewing The Inquisitor's Tale.

The primary heresy addressed by this book is the notion that a dog (Gwenforte, based on a real-life dog named Guinforte) can be a saint. Throughout this book, individuals who recognize this belief as heresy are shown to be enemies of the three children, and made to seem evil and foolish. When knights arrive in Jeanne's village looking for the dog, they are tricked into swimming in the dung heap. When the inquisitor's identity is finally revealed, he admits that he was planning to kill the three children, and that he only changed his mind because he came to believe they were not heretics, but saints. Based on these events, it would be easy for a young reader to conclude that there is no real reason to correct heretical beliefs, and that the only motives behind such a correction must be driven by evil. The fact remains, though, that it is still a heresy today to believe that a dog can be a saint.

I teach religious education, and the question of animals and the afterlife comes up at least once a school year. During the discussion, no matter how young the kids, someone always voices an objection that begins with, "But in All Dogs Go to Heaven..." Kids are heavily influenced by all forms of media, and they are more inclined to believe what they see in a movie or read in a book than what I tell them in the 75 minutes I see them each week. A book like this, which does not separate the goodness of being spared death from the harm caused by believing in a heresy, is really confusing for a Catholic child whose faith is still in formation.

There is nothing in this story, or in the author's note, to explain that, while it would have been wrong for the inquisitor to kill the children merely to prove himself to his superiors, the decision not to do so does not automatically make the children right about venerating a dog. It seems very unlikely that a child could walk away from this book with an understanding of what the church actually teaches, which is that animals have material souls, cannot make moral decisions, and therefore cannot go to heaven to live as saints.

Religion as Fantasy

The question of whether a dog can be named a saint goes hand-in-hand with another problem I found in this book: the blurring of the lines between religion and fantasy. Religious faith often looks fantastical, especially to non-believers. So much of what Christians believe is unseen, and if you are not familiar with Christian teaching, an angel can seem as likely to exist as a unicorn. Including a religious figure like St. Michael the Archangel in a story where there is also a dragon can make it seem as though both are imaginary, and that belief in one is as silly as belief in the other. (There are many stories about saints tangling with dragons, but these are usually Satan in the form of a dragon, not an actual dragon creature like the one in this book.) Having St. Michael appear in human form (as Michelangelo, one of the children's guardians and friends) really bothered me. This is because, though he sounds made-up, St. Michael is real. When St. Michael, the character, states that he has spent time in heaven with Gwenforte, this is now a situation where a real Christian figure is speaking a heresy. His statement undermines the authority of church leaders in the book, as well as the teachings I am trying to pass down to my own children. I can recognize that an author has the freedom to use poetic license, but I can't get comfortable with the idea of my kids reading a story where one of the saints of the church furthers a common misunderstanding about the faith.

And it gets worse. This book doesn't just play with saints; it also plays with God and Satan. There is a nun in the inn who, throughout the book, fills in gaps in the children's story when no one else present seems to have anymore details. She is always vague when questioned about how she knows all that she tells, but it is clear all along that there is probably something otherworldly about her. The revelation about her identity is not what I expected, however. Near the end of the book, the inquisitor asks Michelangelo who she is. Michelangelo gives a cryptic response:

"There are only two beings in Creation that I fear," he said. "One above, and one below. Strangely, when they walk the earth they both take the same form. Of a little old woman, with silvery hair, sparkling eyes, and a knowing smile."

I really wanted there to be another interpretation, so I read and reread the passage several times, but it seems to me that Michelangelo must be referring to God and Satan. And if that is the case, then there are many problems with this explanation. First, while it is possible for an all-powerful God to appear in any form he chooses, there is no evidence that God has ever appeared in any human form other than that of Jesus Christ. There is certainly nothing to suggest he has ever appeared as a woman. Without a clear reason for this to be the case, this just reads like a weird feminist twist on theology, and I find that offensive. Equally offensive is the notion that either God or Satan might be a cheeky old nun drinking and swapping stories in an inn. This cutesy attempt to domesticate the two most powerful forces in the universe clinches for me that this is not a book for Catholic children. Rather, this is a book that seeks to update the world's oldest beliefs for a 21st century audience and reduce them to mere fantasy. The hint at the fact that the nun might be either God or Satan also suggests an equality between God, the creator who exists outside of time and space, and Satan, a fallen creature of God, which is misleading, and again, fundamentally incorrect. Ordinarily, a book that takes such liberties with reality would include a major debriefing at the end, but while the author's note addresses many things, an explicit mention of his treatment of Catholic teaching is notably absent.

Moral Relativism

Another thing I dislike as a Catholic parent is moral relativism, the notion that what's true for one individual may not be true for the next, but that all these truths are equal. As a Catholic, I believe I have been given the truth by Jesus Christ and his church, and that this is the truth for everyone, whether they believe it or not. If I did not believe this was the one and only fundamental truth, I would not practice the Catholic religion, or any religion at all. So when I decide whether a children's book about Catholicism is appropriate for Catholic kids, I consider whether the story allows for the possibility that there is a fundamental truth. This book did not necessarily need to claim that Catholicism was definitely true, but for me to feel comfortable handing it to a Catholic child, it needed to avoid promoting a relativistic approach to religion and allow for the possibility that there is one true religion.

Unfortunately, this book has two moments that seem to favor a morally relativistic point of view. One is minor. The three children decide to pray, and when one of them asks whether the prayer should be Jewish or Christian, they determine that it doesn't matter. This is not necessarily problematic, as it is true that Jews and Christians believe in the same God, and the prayer that follows is perfectly appropriate to both faiths. It only strikes me as a problem in retrospect, after reading another scene in the book. When the king offers a monetary reward to anyone who converts from Judaism to Christianity, Gidwitz writes: "Just a few days ago, William and Jeanne would have begged Jacob to follow Christ, and save his soul from damnation. Now the idea of it seemed ludicrous. If God would save their souls, surely, surely He would save Jacob's too. What difference was there between them, except the language in which he prayed?"

I am not complaining that Jeanne and William no longer believe Jacob will automatically be damned, because I don't believe that myself, and the Catholic church does not teach this about Jews or about any other non-Christians. I provide those lines only for context. It is really the final question here that is the issue. And my answer is that there are many differences between Christianity and Judaism, and language is probably the least significant. It surprises me that, in a time when diverse children's books are meant to be celebrating differences, this book seems eager to reinforce the idea that differences don't matter, and that all religions (including Islam, the book not-so-subtly interjects) are essentially the same. This book seems to espouse a worldview that specific tenets held by specific faiths are stumbling blocks to acceptance and goodness, rather than stepping stones. Rather than accepting each other's religious differences to promote peaceful relationships, the characters seem to set them aside in order to achieve unity. I don't think any parent who is raising a religious child wants that child to compromise his beliefs in order to maintain a friendship; rather, parents want their kids to make friends who will accept them as they are, faith and all.

Redemptive Suffering

Another major criticism of the treatment of religion in this book has to do with Chapter 23, which many have cited in their reviews for its depth and its poignancy. It is the scene when the three children begin to question why God allows suffering in the world, and they get into a discussion with a drunk friar who tries to explain it to them. His explanation talks a lot about the mystery surrounding God, and how we, who were not there at the beginning of time, have no way of knowing what God's true plan is. His advice is for the children to study God's earth as best they can so that they can understand a little bit when bad things happen. Then a minstrel chimes in to sing a song about a father and son who approach each other in battle, knowing that one will have to kill the other. The song ends without resolution, which bothers Jacob and William, but Jeanne finds the uncertainty beautiful. The minstrel then announces that God is a troubadour, who sees the beauty of the song he is writing because he is not in the song himself. The topic is closed after it is determined that tragedies are not beautiful, but that the song to which they belong still might be.

This is all written very beautifully, and it is one of the passages that helps me understand why the Newbery committee selected it for an honor book. But a key component of Christian teaching about suffering is missing from the conversation. While I agree that God's plan is mysterious to us all, I was puzzled by the fact that a serious discussion of pain and tragedy did not mention the value of redemptive suffering or its ability to unite human beings with Christ on the cross. In fact, for a book with so many Christian characters, it doesn't say much about Jesus other than to make casual references to his birth in a manger, his ability to walk on water, and his admonishment to follow the Golden Rule. These basic facts really only skim the surface of the richness of Christian teaching and tradition, and this lack of depth, along with the lack of any real Catholic resources in the book's bibliography (beyond stories and legends about saints) result in an overall superficial treatment of Christianity by the text.

God's Name in Vain and Toilet Humor

Finally, I was irritated by the way this book makes it seem funny and cute to use God's name in vain. I would consider this a relatively minor issue on its own, especially since most of the swearing is true to the historical time period, but in this book, which is already so fraught with problems, it was just one more thing that set my teeth on edge. I am fine with using the language of the time period to add some color and depth to a story, but it seemed to me that phrases like "God's teeth" and "Jesus's boots" were placed in the story more for comic relief than atmosphere. I was also disappointed by the toilet humor. The most egregious example is the farting dragon, who is apparently taken from a medieval legend, but there are many mentions throughout the book of where people use the bathroom, and many of them seem gratuitous. (Even the knights searching for Jeanne in the dung heap, which does have bearing on the plot, seems unnecessary.) The toilet humor annoys me even more after seeing the author comment on Goodreads that a farting dragon should be all it takes to get kids to like this book. I feel that children's authors who write this kind of humor into their books send the wrong message to readers and demean the field of children's literature as a whole. Of course kids think this stuff is funny. It's up to adults to rise above it and teach them how to enjoy humor that doesn't rely on bad manners.


The Inquisitor's Tale has an engaging premise, an interesting (if not entirely original) Chaucer-esque format, and many surprising twists and turns. The writing is not consistently great, but there are definite transcendent moments, and as an adult, I was able to appreciate those while also being mindful of the flaws in the treatment of religion. Kids, however, are still in the process of forming their religious faith. Kids who are growing in their faith need books that illustrate the church's teachings in real-world contexts so they can see how Jesus's words from long ago still have meaning for them today. They do not need a book that plays with beliefs they are just beginning to understand, and that concludes, in the end, that it doesn't even matter which religion they practice. Were I not a religious person, I think I would be able to suspend my disbelief and perhaps enjoy the world of this story. As a religious person, however, the fantasy elements didn't ring true because they strayed too far from what I believe to be the truth.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Book Review: Blubber by Judy Blume (1974)

When Linda Fischer gives a report on whales to Jill Brenner's fifth grade class, Jill's classmate Wendy begins calling Linda by the cruel nickname of Blubber. Soon, everyone in the class is in on the joke, and Jill is dressing as a flenser - one who removes the blubber from dead whales - for Halloween. For weeks afterward, Linda is the target of increasingly mean attacks that are both psychological and physical in nature. Jill never sees anything particularly wrong about her treatment of Linda until she crosses Wendy herself and finds the situation reversed.

My memories of reading Blubber as a child are fairly vivid. As an eleven and twelve-year-old I went through a long period of time where I had trouble sleeping. To keep myself occupied in the middle of the night, and to help myself fall asleep, I used to read the same few comforting books over and over again. Blubber was one of these. As I think back on the book, I can remember the font used for the chapter headings, the way the binding on my paperback copy was shredded and coming apart from being opened and closed so many times, and the ridiculously dated-looking cover illustration. Prior to this re-reading, I also remembered little flashes of the story: the fact that Jill collects stamps, and that she dresses like a flenser for Halloween; the fact that the Brenners' housekeeper is too old to have children, and that the family attends a bar mitzvah together.

As most girls do, I had my own issues with bullying around the time that I read this book. When I was 10, Blubber was already nearly 20 years old, but everything in it rang true, from the kids moving their desks away from Linda to avoid being near her, to the awkwardness of Jill running into Linda outside of school. These were situations I recognized, and the kids in the story very closely resembled my own classmates. I remember thinking of this book as a very realistic, and therefore "safe" story to read. No one died, and everything ended on a reasonably positive note, which is the exact kind of story a kid with insomnia wants to read at midnight when everyone else in the house is asleep.

Reading this book as an adult is a totally different experience. For one thing, I found Jill absolutely unlikable at many points in the story. She's a follower, not a leader, and she willingly causes trouble and hides it from her parents. She's a picky eater, and she complains constantly about her clothes, about her housekeeper going on vacation, and about the disappointing offerings the stamp companies send her for her stamp collection. If I had never read this book as a kid, I would seriously be questioning whether kids could like Jill since she is so unplasant. But knowing that I did like her, and that I read the book dozens of times, makes me realize that Judy Blume has a gift for seeing kids as they really are, not as adults would like them to be. Had Jill been more likable, I'm not sure she would have felt real. She's intriguing because of the truth she reflects about how girls interact with one another during early adolescence.

I was also much more troubled by the bullying scenes during this re-reading. Under Wendy's leadership, the kids in Jill's class do some truly horrible things to Linda, including forcing her to say certain things before she is allowed to enter the bathroom, and stripping her down to her underwear in front of the boys. The fact that these didn't bother me more as a kid says a lot about how commonplace this treatment must have seemed to me. As an adult, though, I kept wishing for a parent or teacher to find out what was happening and get involved. It horrified me to think that all of these things happened to Linda without a single adult ever finding out. I know it's realistic, but I don't see these characters as peers anymore. Now I think of them as potential versions of my own children, and my focus is on protecting them.

This ties into another issue that bothered me: the absolute apathy of Jill's teacher, Mrs. Minish. I think I saw her as sort of irrelevant and secondary when I read the book as a kid, but now I can't help but wonder how she could be so oblivious. She falls for blatant lies from members of her class about how Linda is being treated, and when the class is unusually quiet one afternoon after they have perpetrated something particularly horrible, she praises them for their good behavior. She is noticeably bored during class presentations and seems to harp on the students more than anything else. No doubt, in a contemporary bullying book, she would have become Linda's champion, so it was jarring to see Blume's portrayal of her as detached, ineffective, and clueless. If Blume is commenting on the attitudes of many public school teachers, she is not very far off the mark at all.

For this re-reading, I listened to the audiobook, read by Halley Feiffer (daughter of Jules Feiffer!), who was excellent. She gets Jill's brazen and sarcastic tone of voice just right in those moments when she is being meanest to Linda, but she also infuses her reading of the book with a warmth and a vulnerability that really brings the subtlety of the character to the recording. Her voice really becomes Jill's voice, and it feels like Jill is speaking to the reader on the way home from school, just as she might to her best friend.

I was expecting reading this book to simply be a fun exercise in nostalgia, but Blubber really does hold up quite well for being 40 years old, and I love it every bit as much now as I did based solely on my somewhat shaky childhood memories. I don't always love the way Judy Blume pushes the envelope in her books, but I love that she portrays these characters so truthfully without sugar-coating their flaws, and that she ends the story with a hopeful, but not completely neat, resolution. There is some language in this book, and the cruelty is a bit hard to stomach at times, but this is a book I feel I can recommend without reservation, especially to girls who have faced the issues Jill sees happening in her classroom each day. It's the most honest book about bullying among girls that I have ever read, and it definitely did its part to help me through my own tough tween times.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Why I Love Sidekicks

Many of my favorite characters from books, TV, or film are sidekicks. I prefer Ron over Harry and Wilson over House. I've always been more interested in Bess and George than Nancy Drew, and in YA novels, I usually love the quirky best friend more than the protagonist. I've been thinking lately about why this might be, and I've come up with a few reasons.

Comic relief. 

The humor in a novel, show, or film rarely comes from the hero or heroine. Instead, it is the best friend who comes out with witty one-liners, self-deprecating jokes, and jabs at the hero's flaws. The hero often has to come across as strong, silent, and unshakable, but the sidekick can be a bit warmer, a bit more sympathetic, and a bit more human. Few of us will have the opportunity to solve crime, or save the world, or be the Chosen One, but we can all see ourselves in the role of the sidekick, who comes along for the ride and does the best he or she can to support the real center of attention. I think this is why I appreciate Patrick Ness's The Rest of Us Just Live Here so much. Every character is someone who ordinarily stands in the shadow of a powerful protagonist, but Ness brings them all into the spotlight in their own way.

Colorful personalities. 

Sidekicks also tend to be a lot quirkier than their heroic counterparts. In the Young and Yang series by Kristen Kittscher, for example, the main characters are well-developed,  but pretty mainstream. They have their odd obsession with crime solving to set them apart, but otherwise they are pretty average girls. Their friend, Trista Bottoms, however, is not. Trista has a wonderful larger-than-life personality. She has a booming a voice, an unusual style of dress (complete with cargo vest), and an unusually deep knowledge of science and engineering for a middle school girl. In Sarah Dessen's What Happened to Goodbye, there is a similar character, Deb, who is both an outsider who is excluded by her peers and a joiner who involves herself with many different projects and committees in order to combat her loneliness. Heroes and heroines in books tend to have ordinary personalities that make their unique abilities and circumstances stand out all the more, but sidekicks have the freedom to be a bit more colorful.

Relationship to the hero. 

Finally, I love the way a sidekick's relationship to a hero helps readers learn more about what makes the hero tick. In talking with Sam Gamgee, Frodo Baggins is able to share with the reader his true feelings about carrying the ring to Mordor. House, who is otherwise completely cut off from other human beings, allows Wilson, and therefore the viewers, to see his vulnerabilities, which help make him sympathetic. Even in romance novels, the best friend who only appears twice in the book typically highlights a dimension of the hero or heroine that would otherwise be missing. Heroes and their sidekicks also often have wonderful banter, the cleverness and fast pace of which I always enjoy.

Who are your favorite fictional sidekicks? What do you love about them? 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Paging Through Picture Books: Tinyville Town Gets to Work (2016), The Philharmonic Gets Dressed (1982), Magritte's Apple (2016), and A Moon of My Own (2016)

This latest batch of picture books for the Picture Book Reading Challenge includes my choices for #5 a book set in the city or in an urban area (Tinyville Town Gets to Work),  #7 a book with human characters (The Philharmonic Gets Dressed), #11 a book celebrating art (Magritte's Apple), and #39 a new to you illustrator (A Moon of My Own). 

Tinyville Town Gets to Work by Brian Biggs

This colorful book is appealing to kids who are interested in community helpers, and cars and trucks. It includes not-often-mentioned members of the community, like the city planner, and it focuses on a building project (a new bridge) which is sure to delight preschoolers who love construction. Miss Muffet (age 3) and I had some trouble with the toad who appears about halfway through the story, as we were able to follow him for a few pages and then he just completely disappeared. It is also curious that the new bridge that is meant to replace the insufficient two-lane bridge is also two lanes and does not seem to alleviate the traffic problem at all. I read this at a story time and none of the kids noticed, but once my husband pointed it out, it did sort of make me like the book less. Despite that flaw, though, I'm sure this book will be popular.

The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin, illustrated by Marc Simont

This picture book follows the members of an orchestra as they get dressed for their evening concert. I have read this book before, but had somehow never recorded it on Goodreads. It is an absolutely wonderful read-aloud. The language flows so smoothly, that the feel of the words coming out of my mouth was really enjoyable. The artwork is also very detailed and interesting, and it is fun to try following one character through the entire book. Curious preschoolers will love the specific details of each person's attire, instrument, and travel to the concert. Miss Muffet really enjoyed it, and I had fun photographing the book for Instagram. 

Magritte's Apple by Klaas Verplancke

My husband borrowed this from the library, and I read it because it was next to me on the couch and caught my eye. Produced by the Museum of Modern Art, it is a very simple introduction to the life and artwork of Rene Magritte. The illustrations do a great job of showcasing Magritte's style, and a "find the objects" activity at the book gives kids a reason to interact with the book more carefully upon a second reading. Biographical information at the back of the book also helps give the text proper context. This a perfect introduction to this artist for the youngest readers.

A Moon of My Own by Jennifer Rustgi, illustrated by Ashley White

My husband also chose this book, but it wound up being my favorite from that particular library trip. This magical celebration of the moon is beautifully illustrated with dramatic images which use light, shadow, and silhouette to create a sense of nighttime stillness and wonder at the moon's beauty. The child narrator follows the moon to different countries, while speaking directly to the moon about its subtle changes from night to night, and the comfort she finds in knowing the moon is always with her. It's a gorgeous book to look at, but also informative. The back matter talks about continents, landmarks, and the phases of the moon, and provides activities to do with young children to help them study the moon. This is one of the best picture books I have read in a long time.