Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cruel to be Critical? Best Practices for Writing Critical Book Reviews

About a year ago, I received a very lengthy comment to my blog's Facebook page, calling me out for writing "harsh and critical" reviews. (The specific review that prompted the comment has since been moved to Goodreads.) After I responded, the commenter deleted the entire thread (including her last reply, which I never got to read!) Though the comment has disappeared into the ether, it has stuck with me because of the way it assumed all critical reviews are harsh.

A critical review, according to the definition I have always used, is an objective assessment of the merits of a particular book. It is neither unduly complimentary nor gratuitously mean. It simply takes stock of the text (and illustrations, if applicable) and honestly describes for its audience what works and what doesn't. This does not mean the review consists only of criticisms of problems; rather, the review provides sufficient information about the book's strengths and weaknesses to help the reader decide whether it suits his needs. This is the type of review I strive to write. Today, as Armchair Book Expo focuses on best practices in the online book community, I want to share my best practices for writing critical reviews, which I hope will explain how I see my role as a book reviewer and dispel the myth that to be critical is to be cruel.

My first piece of advice for writing an effective critical review is to critique the writing, not the writer. Though sometimes books make us feel connected to their creators, the fact is that authors are completely separate from their books. Your comments about the quality of a particular book should be confined to discussion of the book's merits and should not delve into an author's personal life. There is no need to speculate about an author's life experience, to insult his intelligence, or to wish that serious harm would befall him. Instead, consider the elements that make up a good story - characterization, plot, and setting - and the author's use of literary devices in developing these elements. By focusing solely on the text of the work in question, you eliminate any chance of the author taking your review personally, and you present yourself as a thoughtful critic of literature and not as a careless reader with a chip on her shoulder.

On a related note, in critical reviews, you should write about the book, not about yourself. The commenter I mentioned in the introduction to this post spent a lot of words telling me that all she really wanted to know was how a book made me feel. Then she waxed poetic about how I needed to "read like a child....voraciously" and to focus more on the pleasure of reading than "the fact that there was a typo on page 12." The problem with writing reviews that focus on your own feelings, however, is that they tell the reader more about you as a person than the book itself. Of course, books (both good and bad) elicit strong responses from reviewers. What is valuable in a book review, though, is the qualities of the text that bring out these strong emotions, not a lengthy description of the emotions themselves. In the same way, it is important not to allow personal biases to influence your book review. Writing something like, "I teach fourth grade, and this book is not for fourth graders, and therefore I can't recommend it" only tells the reader of your review why the book does not suit your unique purposes; it tells him nothing about how it might suit his own needs.

Another way to ensure that you are writing a respectful, critical review rather than a harsh one, is to use the text to support your criticisms of the book.  Whatever the problems in a book - historical anachronisms, flat characters, awkward sentence structures, poor use of rhyme, etc. - the critical book reviewer should be able to explain them by pointing to the paragraphs where the problems occur. Instead of making sweeping generalizations about a book based on your overall impressions, look through the text to find examples of the things you find troubling. Sometimes, seeking out these citations makes you realize that the problem you thought you had encountered was not as prevalent as you imagined; in other situations, looking through the book for evidence of a problem you noted helps you uncover a larger pattern that warrants coverage in your review. But just as you could not condemn a criminal defendant without sufficient evidence, neither does the critical book review simply slam a book for its failings without backing the comments up with textual support.

Finally, it is important that that you use a professional tone when you write a critical review. The most insightful comments about a book can easily be overlooked when a book review is fraught with foul language and sexual innuendo. While it can be disappointing to spend time reading a book you didn't enjoy, a critical review is about calmly, fairly, and objectively figuring out why a book does or does not work well, and not about venting your frustrations and anger about having spent time on a book that wasn't worthy. It's perfectly acceptable to dislike a book, but if you want to write a review warning others away from it, it's best to make clear arguments to that effect and to avoid appearing as though you are ranting or throwing a tantrum.

Armchair Book Expo 2017: Introducing... Me!

Armchair Book Expo begins today! To kick off my participation, here are my answers to 3 of the 10 introduction questions. (I will be writing on today's other topic in a separate post.)



  • middle grade fiction.
  • cozy mysteries.
  • picture books.
  • libraries.
  • used bookstores and book sales.
  • author presentations.
  • poetry picnics.
  • reading aloud.
  • Edelweiss and Netgalley.


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

May Link-Up: Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge 2017 (Animal Stories)

Today marks the end of the fifth month of the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, which focused on Animal Stories.

I read two books for the challenge this month:

If you reviewed or otherwise posted about an "Old School" animal book from the decade of your birth or before, please leave a comment below with a link so other participants can see what you read. Thanks!

Monday, May 29, 2017

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

It's hard to believe it is already Memorial Day. May has been a busy month for the Read-at-Home Kids. Here's the latest reading-related news.

Miss Muffet, Three-Year-Old Reader

Over the past month or so, Miss Muffet has suddenly become a beginning reader. My husband learned to read at age 3, and I read at 4, so I think we always knew we might have an early reader, but it's amazing to me that at three-and-a-half, Miss Muffet, can suddenly sit down and read a book to me (or, even better, to her sister!) So far, these books are all Hooked on Phonics readers we picked up at a book sale and the first volume of Rime to Read which we borrowed from the library, but they are actual books and she could not be more proud of herself. My husband has been taking a video of her each time she masters a new book, and in just a few weeks, she has breezed through five Hooked on Phonics titles: Rag, Dad and Sam, Pig Wig, Pig Wig Can Hit, and Tag. She is currently practicing with her sixth book,  Ann's Hat. I also notice her sounding out familiar words in every book she picks up, including many favorite picture books. It's so rewarding to see her enjoying reading so much and wanting to learn to read on her own just for the fun of it.

Bo Peep on Repeat 

Little Bo Peep's language has really blossomed this month. At just about 20 months old, she is suddenly putting together three- and four-word sentences, and repeating absolutely everything we say whether she understands it or not. She is also imitating her sister sounding out words and demanding to hear the same books over and over and over again. Her current favorite is a library book, Here is the Baby, which Miss Muffet also enjoyed around this age, though not nearly as much as Bo Peep. It's still not really a book I feel we need to own, but I definitely recommend it for families with young toddlers, as it goes through a typical day from their point of view. I also like that the baby and his daddy visit the library for story time. My kids relate to that from coming to my weekly story times.

Rocket Science for Babies?

We received review copies of four titles in the Baby University series by Chris Ferrie: Rocket Science for Babies, General Relativity for Babies, Quantum Physics for Babies, and Newtonian Physics for Babies. Though the titles suggest they are for babies, I was hoping for basic science titles for Miss Muffet, who tends to enjoy nonfiction and scientific principles.  The images from the books that I saw prior to receiving the books looked so promising, but I have to admit to being disappointed by the titles themselves. While they work fine for introducing unfamiliar vocabulary to babies (something Every Child Ready to Read is all about), neither of my kids understood a word of any of the books. When I asked Miss Muffet what the books were about, she said, "Circles?" (Dots are used throughout the books to illustrate different concepts. Miss Muffet did not pick this up.)  I think the only concept she grasped was gravity, and that was because we'd just read a Let's Read and Find Out About Science book called Gravity is a Mystery.

I so wanted these to be more than novelty books, even if they weren't exactly suitable for babies, but the concepts are really just too complicated for early childhood, at least in the way they are presented here. These would be fun gag gifts for new parents who work in science fields, but otherwise, despite being visually very appealing, they're not worth buying for little kids.

Friday, May 26, 2017

7 Quick Takes: The Quotable Little Miss Muffet Volume 2

As we head into this holiday weekend, I thought it was a good time to share some more quotable quotes from Little Miss Muffet, who is about to be three-and-a-half.

Music Appreciation 

"Beethoven? I've never heard of him. I've only heard of Mozart."

My husband has always played classical music on the stereo for both girls, especially in the afternoons when they are restless. I'm sure Miss Muffet has heard Beethoven before, but Mozart apparently made the greater impression. Either way, her saying this made me think of Schroeder from Peanuts.

An Interesting Simile 

"That shoe looks like a baby's face." 

She said this out of the blue when we were getting to ready to go out one day. When asked why, she said, "Because it's smooshed a little." 

At least she's prepared for a smooshy-looking newborn. 

On Stay-at-Home Parenting

"Do you ever work, Mama?"

When I explained to her that my work involves doing all of her homeschooling and making her lunch and finding her playdates and reading to her, she seemed genuinely surprised. And then she wanted to know if the dining room table is my office. 

Librarians vs. Astronauts

Me: "Astronauts are people who know how to explore space."
Miss Muffet: "And librarians know how to discover books."

She is the child of two librarians, so it should not surprise me that she has such interest in the profession. But she probably needs to learn more about astronauts since she recently told an elderly gentleman in a bookstore that only boys can be astronauts. (She didn't learn that from me!)

A Disturbing Song

On our April road trip to NY, Miss Muffet spent a long stretch singing to her stuffed monkey. At one point, we heard her sing, "And everyone diiiies," followed a little later by "whooo will take care of youuuu when your parents gooo awaaaaay" and "when you parents go awaaaaaay it's an opportuuuunity to take care of yourseeelf!" 

I really have no idea where she gets these things.

Reflecting on Reflections

On Groundhog Day, we were out for a walk looking for shadows. She noticed her reflection in a store window, so I asked her, "What is a reflection?" Without hesitation, she said, "It’s when you see somebody, and it’s you!" I can't think of a better definition. 

Holy Parenting 

In character as the Virgin Mary during a make-believe game with her sister: "Don't bother me, Jesus. I'm in the middle of something."

As always, 7 Quick Takes is hosted by This Ain't the Lyceum

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden, illustrated by Garth Williams (1960)

When Chester Cricket is accidentally snatched up by Connecticut picnickers and taken by train into New York City, he makes a new home for himself in the Times Square subway station. There he is adopted as a pet by Mario Bellini, whose parents own a struggling newsstand in the station. Long-time city dwellers and best friends Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat befriend Chester and soon discover a hidden talent that might be able to revive the Bellinis' failing business.

I have been planning to read this book this month since I put together the monthly categories for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge. It was coincidental, however, that I happened to read it after having just passed through the subway station in Times Square. While I had been there before (and could probably have enjoyed the book just as well having never been there), it was fun to read about people boarding the shuttle between Times Square and Grand Central when I had just been one of its passengers myself. The setting, in fact, is one of the things I liked best about this book. It manages to capture the essence of New York City while still keeping the story confined to a small space with which young readers can quickly become familiar.

The characters are also endearing. I felt similarly about them as I did about the household pets in Bunnicula, but I liked Tucker, Harry, and Chester even better. Though it does bother me sometimes when animals who are enemies in nature become friends in children's books, the story explains Tucker and Harry well enough that it isn't a problem. I also love that Chester's special talent is really just an extension of a natural ability that all crickets have. He's not so much a magical cricket, as a gifted one, and I like that approach to the fantastical elements of this story very much. I always do better with fantastical elements that grow organically out of the characters' identities, as opposed to those simply imposed by the writer for no apparent reason.

This book was a quick read, and it would make an excellent read-aloud, even for a preschooler. The writing is excellent (definitely worthy of the Newbery honor the book received in 1961) and Garth Williams is the perfect illustrator to bring the characters to life. I wish I'd read this sooner, and yet I'm also glad there are several sequels so I can visit these characters a few more times!

Monday, May 22, 2017

The RAHM Report for May 22, 2017

Though I did post some daily updates during Bout of Books, it has been over a month since I last posted a collective report of what I've been reading. Between my dad's stroke (which occurred the day before Easter and has resulted in a lot of stress and phone calls) and my lingering morning sickness (I'm 19 weeks, so hopefully it will pass soon?) I just haven't had the time to sit down and gather my thoughts on more than a book or two here and there. But I have been reading a lot, and today I'll just quickly share the books I've gone through in the past month.

Adult Books

My church small group has finished reading The Lamb's Supper by Scott HahnI liked it well enough, though I did end up rushing through the end of the book since I missed a couple of meetings and didn't want to return it to the library without finishing. I didn't know much about the book of Revelation before reading it, and I do find myself thinking about this book during Mass.

The other adult books I read were all mysteries: Cross Bones by Kathy Reichs, A Likely Story by Jenn McKinlay, Better Late Than Never by Jenn McKinlay, and Hail to the Chef by Julie Hyzy. (Links are to my reviews on Goodreads.)

Next on my to-read list are two older cozy mysteries: A Novena for Murder by Sister Carol Anne O'Marie and The Cat Who Blew the Whistle by Lilian Jackson Braun. I also have a digital ARC of About a Dog by Jenn McKinlay which I hope to get to fairly soon and an ebook edition of Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, which I will probably have to borrow again another time because it's so long.

Children's Books

I read quite a few children's books during Bout of Books, not for review, but just for my own enjoyment. These titles included: This Can't Be Happening at MacDonald Hall by Gordon Korman, Best Friends by Francine Pascal, The Divorce Express by Paula Danziger, It's an Aardvark-Eat-Turtle World by Paula Danziger, Everyone Else's Parents Said Yes by Paula Danziger, The Burning Questions of Bingo Brown by Betsy Byars, Bingo Brown and the Language of Love by Betsy Byars, and  Bingo Brown, Gypsy Lover by Betsy Byars

I also read and reviewed the following:

And here are the titles I've read and plan to review soon:

  • First-Class Murder by Robin Stevens
  • The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden
  • The Chestry Oak by Kate Seredy

On a whim, I also started reading a digital review copy of The Speed of Life by Carol Weston that I downloaded from Edelweiss. It's a good, quick read, but probably not something I'd approve for my own kids. If I do finish it, I'll explain it all in my review. I'm also really hoping to start reading my digital review copy of Almost Paradise by Corabel Shofner very soon, since it comes out in July.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson (1944)

I am not at all a great lover of animals, so when I chose Animal Stories as this month's focus for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, I was really pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. Thankfully, the first animal book I picked up this month was not a cutesy meditation on the merits of pet ownership or a thinly veiled lesson about animal rights, but a truly well-written story about a charming place called Rabbit Hill. The animals of Rabbit Hill have been on their own for quite some time, as the Big House has stood empty and the surrounding gardens have yielded no harvest. When the rumors start to circulate of "new Folks coming!" the Hill buzzes with gossip and speculation. Will the new tenants use weapons to  protect their property? Will Porkey the Woodchuck be safe in a burrow so close to the house? Will there finally be enough to eat? When the new Folks do move in, it seems they will indeed be friendly toward their animal neighbors, but some of the residents of the Hill, led by elderly curmudgeon Uncle Analdas, will not be convinced there isn't something sinister at work until the Folks truly prove themselves beyond a shade of doubt.

This story about the relationship between people and the animals who live on their property starts out pretty generic, but as the first few chapters unfold, the reader begins to recognize subtle hints at a more layered tale. Mentions here and there of the human beings who inhabit the areas surrounding Rabbit Hill give insight into the way people treat the animals who come onto their property, and into the ways the new Folks are different from their neighbors. The animals, too, seem to represent different points of view that people often take on themselves in situations of uncertainty. There are optimists and pessimists, conspiracy theorists and realists, those who worry constantly and those who refuse to worry at all. Though the plot seems simple, the reactions of the characters to the action of the story add a layer of complexity that elevates the book beyond a "cute" animal tale.

Though Lawson clearly conveys a "kindness to animals" message in this book, I found it palatable despite my usual hatred for such themes. Part of the reason is the late-story reveal about the devotion of the Folks to St. Francis of Assisi. A love of animals grounded in religious faith is likely to be in line with the way I view animals (as sources of food, as well as sources of entertainment and companionship) and is unlikely to come at the expense of a love of other human beings. I also think Lawson's story has interpretations beyond just "animals have rights too." The real message is about generosity, and the story demonstrates how offering up some of what you have for others helps you gain their respect and love and puts in place a natural understanding of boundaries that then does not need to be enforced through violence.

Rabbit Hill was a pleasant surprise. I'm very glad to own a copy, as I'm sure I will want to read it again, and I know it will only be a few years before I have school age kids who are ready to appreciate it too.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Bout of Books Progress, Day 7

Bout of Books
To finish out the read-a-thon I read two cozy mysteries: Hail to the Chef by Julie Hyzy and Better Late Than Never by Jenn McKinlay. I read a total of 12 books during the week, which considering all the interruptions and distractions I had, is pretty good. I can't wait until Bout of Books 20 in August! 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Bout of Books Progress, Day 6

Bout of Books

I read two books on day 6: It's an Aardvark-Eat-Turtle World and Everyone Else's Parents Said Yes, both by Paula Danziger. 

I'm really hoping to finish strong by plowing through several paperbacks on the final day, but if not, there's always the next Bout of Books...

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Bout of Books Progress, Day 5

Bout of Books

I finished four books on Friday:
  • Bingo Brown and the Language of Love by Betsy Byars 
  • Best Friends (Sweet Valley Twins, #1) by Francine Pascal 
  • Bingo Brown, Gypsy Lover by Betsy Byars
  • The Divorce Express by Paula Danziger
I am still 40-something books behind on Goodreads, so I won't be meeting my goal of reducing that number, but I should still have another few books finished by the end of the read-a-thon - hopefully.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Bout of Books Progress, Day 4

Bout of Books
This is probably going to be my least successful Bout of Books ever, but I'm still plodding along. On day 4, I finished This Can't Be Happening at MacDonald Hall! by Gordon Korman and almost finished Bingo Brown and the Language of Love by Betsy Byars and Sweet Valley Twins #1: Best Friends by Francine Pascal. (That Sweet Valley Twins book was pretty terrible, but I enjoyed the trip down memory lane!)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Bout of Books Progress, Day 3

Bout of Books

On day 3, I finished A Likely Story by Jenn McKinlay and then read half of This Can't Be Happening at MacDonald Hall! by Gordon Korman. It seems that I'm actually getting less reading done during this read-a-thon than I would in a normal week...

Paging Through Picture Books: I Can't said the Ant (1948), The Hungry Thing (1967), Something Queer is Going On (1973), Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose (1948), Ivy Cottage (1984)

I'm catching up on a few more picture book reviews today. These are books I have read before, but which I chose to re-read for the Picture Book Reading Challenge. Represented here are my choices for #10 a rhyming book (I Can't said the Ant), #42. a book celebrating food (The Hungry Thing), #46 a book published in the 1970s (Something Queer is Going On), #52 a book by Dr. Seuss (Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose), and #66 a book from your childhood (Ivy Cottage).

I Can't said the Ant by Polly Cameron

I had a paperback copy of this book as a kid, but haven't known where it is in a long time. When I stumbled upon another copy, also paperback, at a used book sale, I snatched it up. When I read it aloud, Miss Muffet giggled at the rhyme throughout the entire story, and seemed to take joy in the sound of the words in the same way I did as a child. I have to admit that aside from the gimmick of rhyming words, this book - which is basically about sentient kitchen appliances  banding together to rescue a cracked teapot - really doesn't have much to it. Still, it was fun to share a childhood favorite with my own daughter.

The Hungry Thing by Jan Slepian and Ann Seidler, illustrated by Richard E. Martin 

My childhood copy of this book, about a mysterious monster who demands to be fed strange things like "Shmancakes" and "Tickles," has been sitting on a shelf near the dining room table for months. Since Miss Muffet is so into word play right now, I read it to her after dinner one night. Besides thinking it went on a little long and relied a little too heavily on just one joke, I thought the book held up pretty well to my adult sensibilities. Miss Muffet didn't necessarily understand the whole story, but she was able to guess each food the Hungry Thing was requesting based on the rhymes.

Something Queer is Going On by Elizabeth Levy, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein

I loved this picture book mystery series as a kid, more for the pictures than anything else. This is the first book of the series and it wasn't as exciting as I remembered. Even the pictures, which are labeled like diagrams, didn't seem as detailed as I expected based on my memories. (I think the books I liked best may have come later in the series.) In any case, I think this book is best-suited to independent readers, and I haven't tried reading it or any of the other titles we own from this series aloud to Miss Muffet. They are geared at elementary readers and would probably appeal to kids who like comics and books in graphic format.

Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose by Dr. Seuss

This is one of my favorite Dr Seuss books, and I recently read it aloud to Miss Muffet. Seuss is always harder for me to read aloud than I expect, but even so, Miss Muffet seemed to enjoy the story even if she doesn't fully grasp its meaning yet. I think this book is probably best appreciated by older kids, since little ones don't understand such concepts as taking advantage of someone's kindness or failing to defend oneself, but the language is appealing to any age, so I wouldn't hesitate to read it aloud to either of my girls again during the preschool years.

Ivy Cottage by E.J. Taylor 

I had this book and several others in the series as a kid. The main characters are Miss Biscuit, an elderly lady and Violet Pickles, a rag doll, who move together to Ivy Cottage. When Violet seems lonely, Miss Biscuit creates another doll, Ruby Buttons to be her friend. This was a book that was a million times better in my memory than in reality. Miss Muffet did listen attentively, but she didn't seem that into the story, and I'm not sure I will bother to read any of the others to her. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Bout of Books Progress, Day 2

Bout of Books

Day 2 was slightly better than Day 1. I read two books cover to cover: A Cricket in Times Square by George Selden (which is one of my picks for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge this month) and The Burning Questions of Bingo Brown, which I borrowed from Open Library just for fun because I love Betsy Byars and I eventually want to read all of her books. I will probably get through the rest of that series this week.

I still haven't finished A Likely Story by Jenn McKinlay, but I'm getting close. Day 3 has been a little tricky so far, but the night is young...

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Bout of Books Progress, Day 1

Bout of Books

I had my last CCD class of the year last night, and then I participated in the #boutofbooks chat as soon as I got home, so my evening reading time was limited, and I got off to a slow start. I finished a book I had been reading for a couple of weeks - First Class Murder by Robin Stevens - and made a little bit of progress on A Likely Story by Jenn McKinlay. I also read about 30 pages of Murder on the Orient Express, but that's a long one, and I don't really plan to make it a priority this week. 

My goal for the week is to catch up on my Goodreads challenge. I have been perpetually 40-ish books behind for over a month, and though I can make some of it up with picture books, I also want to get a few longer books done. I'm hoping for at least a slightly more productive Day 2! 

Paging Through Picture Books: Let's Go to the Library (1990), The Giant Story (1953), Every Day a Dragon (1967), Do You Know What I'll Do? (1958), Puddle Wonderful (1992), The Birthday Party (1957)

I fell behind on the Picture Book Reading Challenge during April, but I'm catching up in May! Here are my reviews for #18 a book celebrating libraries or reading (Let's Go to the Library), #44 a book published in the 1950s (The Giant Story), #71 a book about dinosaurs OR dragons (Every Day a Dragon), #75 a book that makes you cry (Do You Know What I'll Do?), #86 a poetry book (Puddle Wonderful), and #93 a book about celebrating birthdays (The Birthday Party).

Let's Go to the Library by Lisl Weil

Let's Go to the Library was published in 1990, but its two-toned illustrations have a wonderful vintage feel. I'm sure some readers (and librarians who have weeded the book) feel that it looked outdated when it was published and looks even more so now, but both my husband and I were drawn to it precisely because it looks older. The content is impressive. Some of the technology mentioned is a little behind the times (microfilm, for example) but the overall mission of libraries as providers of information comes across very clearly. There is also a good amount of history packed into the book, which helps contextualize libraries in our culture, and in our world. I have read a lot of kids' books about what librarians do, and compared with some newer titles, this one is better written and less preachy.

The Giant Story by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

We have been collecting a lot of Maurice Sendak books recently. In going over the list of his books on Goodreads, my husband discovered this story by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers which just happened to be available to read from Open Library. The story is about a boy who spends his whole day pretending to be a giant who can crush people's houses and eat the leaves from trees. Miss Muffet is really into giants right now - fighting them off, painting pictures of them, imagining that one comes at night to bite her thumbs - so I shared this with her. She told my husband she didn't like it, but the look of joy on her face as I read betrayed her true feelings. It was a definite case of right kid, right book, right time.

Every Day a Dragon by Joan M. Lexau, illustrated by Ben Schecter

Every Day a Dragon is a story about a father and son who play a game of make-believe every afternoon. When Dad arrives home, he pretends to be a dragon, and the boy hides from him to avoid being eaten. At the end of the night, the boy heads to bed so he can get a good night's sleep and have enough energy to fight the "dragon" again the next day. This is the perfect book for imaginative preschoolers. The illustrations by Ben Shecter (complete with a saucepan upside-down on the boy's head) perfectly match the mood of the story. It reminds me a lot of newer books like Mitchell's License and Daddy Makes the Best Spaghetti, which also focus on fun father-son dynamics.

Do You Know What I'll Do? by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Garth Williams

In Do You Know What I'll Do? a big sister talks to her little brother about the things they will do together, and the ways she will take care of him. I'm not sure this would have made me cry before I was a parent, but with all the talk in our house lately about being big sisters, it struck a pretty big chord.  I'm a little disappointed that this book has been re-illustrated in recent years. Garth Williams was a brilliant illustrator and I find it disrespectful when publishers discarded allegedly "outdated" pictures and allow a new illustrator to reinterpret the text. I much prefer to read original versions.

Puddle Wonderful: Poems to Welcome Spring selected by Bobbi Katz, illustrated by Mary Morgan

Because of our love for poetry picnics, we have quite a few poetry collections. I'm not sure how this Pictureback book came to be in our possession (it may have been mine or my sister's in childhood?) but it's a heavily illustrated collection of surprisingly scholarly poems for kids, including works by E.E. Cummings, Langston Hughes, John Updike, etc., as well as poems by kids' authors like Jack Prelutsky. We read it cover to cover one night at the dinner table, and I think I will take it along on our next poetry picnic since it is so portable compared to some of our larger tomes, and the illustrations are very preschool-friendly.

The Birthday Party by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

This was another Goodreads discovery that was available on Open Library. Krauss and Sendak have done several books together and this one is not their best, but it does share the charm of their other works. The main character is David, a boy who has been many places, but never to a birthday party. David wants "to have been to a birthday party," however, so he is thrilled when his family throws a surprise party for him. I love the concept of wanting "to have been to a birthday party" because it implies wanting to cross an experience off a list rather than to simply enjoy the experience for its own sake - something I think young kids feel fairly often. Sendak's illustrations are also spot-on. Even with very little text to suggest personality, David comes fully to life in those pictures.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Seven Quick Takes: Things We Won't Do With Baby #3

Now that I'm in the second trimester, it's starting to sink in that in less than six months, we will be a family of five! As I start to get into baby prep mode all over again, I've started thinking about all the things we won't be doing with baby number three.

We won't find out the gender.

We have never found out the gender of our babies, and though it is driving some of our family members crazy, we won't be finding out this time either. A few people have told me that they think we should find out since we have 2 girls, and we don't have any boy stuff, but since we never find out, we have an entirely gender neutral newborn wardrobe. I know that finding out the gender is a surprise no matter when it happens, but I love that moment in the delivery room when the nurse tells me what we have. Even Miss Muffet has jumped on the bandwagon with us. I've asked her a couple of times what she thinks it is, and she just says, "I have to wait until the baby comes to find that out, Mama."

We (well, I) won't breastfeed.

It surprises people when they find out we exclusively formula feed our kids. This is probably because we homeschool and don't have a TV and make our own baby food and use cloth diapers. We sound like a family that would breastfeed. We just don't. This used to make me feel guilty, even though I know it's the right decision for our family, because there are lots of articles and blog posts out there that claim that not breastfeeding by choice is a sin - not to mention the ugly comments in every Internet post on the subject. But while the church teaches that you have to feed your baby (obviously!), it does not teach that you must do so using any particular method. So now I mostly don't think about it much, except when I see cool gadgets like this and when nosy old ladies question me about my parenting. (This is my third baby, little old ladies. Bring it on.)

We (hopefully) won't wait too long to go to the hospital.

When I was expecting Miss Muffet my grandmother told me the story of when she almost didn't make it the hospital to have her second child (my aunt). Miss Muffet's labor was 18 hours so I thought I'd have some leeway with Bo Peep, but that did not turn out to be the case. By the time contractions were in a regular pattern of any kind, they were only about 2 minutes apart. This time, I keep joking that I'm going to camp out in the hospital parking lot. It's only 5 minutes from home, but I want to be there in plenty of time in case #3 is even quicker than his/her big sister.

We (again, mostly I) won't plan on an epidural.

I have always planned to have an epidural and have yet to have one that worked. With Miss Muffet, the epidural failed and I felt everything anyway. With Bo Peep, the anesthesiologist was on his way, but by the time he would have gotten there, she had already been born. Having done it naturally twice now, and with the second labor being so short, I've decided to just go in with the assumption that there will be no pain relief. This does not mean I won't ask for it if the opportunity arises, but I'm done trying to make it happen.

We won't worry about what to do with our big kids.

When Bo Peep was born, I was completely stressed out about what to do with Miss Muffet, and we didn't have a clear plan until 37 weeks. This time, I'm planning to line up a couple of family members to come and stay with us - one before the due date, and one after, if the first person needs to be relieved before the baby comes, and I also have a couple of friends who have said they would help us if we need it.

We won't buy newborn clothes.

I think Miss Muffet wore more newborn clothes than Bo Peep did, but they both mostly skipped right onto 3 months pretty quickly. I think what we have is still in pretty good shape, and no matter how cute the clothes are, there is no sense in buying an outfit that a child can only wear for a week. I think we'll save our budget for a new swing (our Mamaroo died when Bo Peep was still an infant) and boy clothes if it turns out we need them.

We won't bring a lot of stuff to the hospital.

When Miss Muffet was born, I brought a ton of stuff with me, and used absolutely none of it. Last time, I was a lot better about only bringing what we'd use, but I feel like I could go even more minimalist. I looked at this list the other day and laughed a little bit because at this point, I really think I could walk in there with my insurance card, my toothbrush, and my phone and be set until it's time to go home.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Bout of Books 19

Bout of Books

Bout of Books 19 starts Monday! This is my fifth time participating overall, and my second time since starting this blog.

If you're not familiar with Bout of Books, here is the official blurb:

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda Shofner and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, May 8th and runs through Sunday, May 14th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 19 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. - From the Bout of Books team

I've had too much going on to really think about what I am going to read just yet, but I'm hoping to have a reading list put together by Monday. I usually get a lot of reading done, and I don't want to waste the week! 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Book Review: Cody and the Rules of Life by Tricia Springstubb (2017)

Cody loves Gremlin, the monster figurine her brother, Wyatt, passed onto her a few years ago. When her best friend, Pearl, proposes a trade - Cody's Gremlin in exchange for Pearl's Arctic Fox - Cody goes along with it, but regrets it almost immediately. Though Cody is pleased that Pearl thinks of her as "trusty" enough to care for one of her prized possessions, Cody misses having Gremlin to confide in, especially when her brother's brand-new, hard-earned Cobra bicycle is stolen. Unable to stand it any longer, and afraid to tell Pearl how she feels, Cody steals Gremlin out of Pearl's backpack during a field trip and then allows Pearl to believe he has been lost. Before she can feel better, however, Cody will realize that she must be honest with Pearl, or she will be just as bad as the thief that took Wyatt's bike.

This book, like the others before it, demonstrates Springstubb's understanding of the significance of small events in the life of a child. Negotiating trades and bargains with friends is something most kids must learn how to do at some point during the early elementary years, and Cody's experience provides a great blueprint, both for how to handle the situation poorly, and how to navigate handling it properly.

The details of the story are also appealing, and they immerse the reader in Cody's world. These are just some of the little things that I really liked in this book:

  • The tempting gong on Cody's teacher's desk, and the fact that Cody has to try so hard not to touch it.  
  • The fact that Cody's teacher mistakenly assumes the Cobra is an animal, not a bicycle.
  • Wyatt's teenager-esque dialogue that reveals his age and attitude without modeling disrespecful or inappropriate behavior.
  • The fact that Cody accidentally (and secretly) scratches Wyatt's bike, a clue which later helps him identify it. 
  • Cody's concerns over dripping pizza sauce in Pearl's seemingly immaculate house.
There are also several wonderfully quotable lines in the book. I especially liked Cody's observation, "If you enjoy rules that make no sense at all, go on a field trip." and her understanding that [C]onscience must be deep-down. Like a backbone. Conscience must be a vertebrate." 

Families looking for books with a clear sense of right and wrong and a believably flawed but overall good-hearted character need look no further than the Cody series. I say this every time I review one of her books, but Springstubb is the one of the best writers of new realistic fiction titles for kids, and I make it a point to read everything she publishes.  You and your kids should, too. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, May 2017 (Animal Stories)

The fifth month of the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge begins today!

This month our focus is on Animal Stories.

To participate, read a book or books connected to this month's theme with a publication date in the decade of your birth or before. Post about it on your blog, or wherever you typically review books. On the last weekday of the month, Wednesday, May 31st,  I will publish a link-up post for you to share your reviews from the month.

Feel free to share what you're planning to read here in the comments and/or on social media using #oldschoolkidlit2017. Happy reading!