Tuesday, October 31, 2017

October Link-Up: Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge (Mystery Stories)

This month, I read four mysteries for this challenge:

Which mysteries did you enjoy this month? Share your links in comments, and have a happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Book Review: Jack the Bum and the Halloween Handout by Janet Schulman, illustrated by James Stevenson (1977)

Jack the Bum and the Halloween Handout is a 1977 easy reader about a homeless man named Jack who is inspired by trick-or-treaters to go door-to-door asking for money, not for UNICEF, as many of the children do, but for himself, a self-described "worthy cause." When he is rebuffed again and again by suspicious adults who recognize that he is not a child, Jack ends up stumbling upon a costume contest, which he wins for the authenticity of his bum costume. When it is revealed that he is not in fact dressed up, there is a question of whether he should be allowed to keep the five dollar reward. After some debate, Jack decides he will join in the spirit of the holiday, and he donates his winnings to UNICEF.

Ordinarily, I don't like to give away endings in my reviews, but this book is so laughably odd, and so unlikely to be of interest to contemporary children that I have made an exception. This post is really less of a review and more of an amused meditation on how a book like this even exists.

The first thing about this book that struck me as unusual is the use of an adult homeless male as its sympathetic and amusing protagonist. During my childhood in the 80s, it was already commonplace to encourage kids to stay away from strangers, and today, I think many parents are even more concerned about potential predators. I can't imagine a contemporary author writing a book like this, which causes kids to sympathize with someone who poses as a trick-or-treating child in order to beg for money. Nothing remotely untoward happens in the story, and I tend to be pretty skeptical of the paranoia surrounding stranger danger, but I couldn't help but think that this is a definite product of the '70s. If this were written today, Jack would have been a child, and his big Halloween reward would have been a caring new family, not a 5-dollar bill.

I was also surprised (and amused) by how freely politically incorrect this book is. There are no euphemisms to describe Jack's station in life. He is labeled a bum by the first person he panhandles ("I am a worthy cause," said Jack. "No. You are a bum," said the man.) and is thereafter called a bum as though this is the proper word to describe the poor and/or homeless. I am no more interested in policing speech than I am in vilifying all strangers as potential kidnappers, but apparently even I have been conditioned to cringe at the use of a "label" for a marginalized person, even a label to which the character does not object in a story where the author's attitude toward said character is one of sympathy, not mockery. At the same time, though, there is something refreshing about a book that doesn't take itself seriously. I feel like contemporary picture books are often trying very hard; this one, by contrast, barely seems to try at all!

The most baffling thing about this book, however, is the ending. UNICEF is mentioned nearly a dozen times throughout the story, and those characters who collect money for UNICEF are clearly considered to be doing the right thing and putting others ahead of themselves. But when Jack wins the costume contest and it turns out that he is the exact kind of person who could use some financial help, everyone just lets him donate his only five dollars to UNICEF! This book is already so strange that I guess I didn't really expect it to teach a moral lesson, or even to make sense, but I have to wonder what the kids of the late 1970s took away from it. Kirkus seemed to like it at the time, but I don't think even they would feel the same way today.

Jack the Bum starred in two other easy readers: Jack the Bum and the Haunted House and Jack the Bum and the UFO. Alas, Open Library, where I found this book, doesn't have either of the other two, so I can only imagine how bizarre they must also be.  Personally, I think this one book is enough, and I enjoyed the chuckle it gave me, but I'm in no hurry to pass it on to my own beginning reader. Mostly, I am just entertained by the fact that there was a time when a book like this was written, published, and met with critical acclaim.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Book Review: The Minnow Leads to Treasure by Philippa Pearce (1955)

When David Moss first meets Adam Codling, he is only hoping the other boy might allow him to share his canoe, which accidentally slipped away down the River Say and ended up behind his house. As the two boys get to know one another, however, David realizes that he and Adam have not just the canoe to bond their friendship, but a mysterious Codling family secret involving a hidden treasure and an easily misinterpreted clue. Though the treasure hunt is mainly a source of summer fun for David, it is much more for Adam, whose family is struggling so much financially that he and the aunt who is raising him may have to move away from their beloved riverside home. David wants nothing more than for Adam to stay, and for his family to find happiness again, but with Codlings' about to be sold, there isn't much time, or much hope, left.

The Minnow Leads to Treasure (called The Minnow on the Say in the UK) is quite well-written, but unfortunately, the story didn't grab me as strongly as I had hoped. Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden is one of my all-time favorite children's novels, and a unique and nuanced story, at that. By comparison, therefore, this straightforward mystery/adventure story just feels mundane. I also already have a good number of favorite mystery books involving British kids and boats (No Boats on Bannermere and The Big Six, for example), so I just didn't develop the same level of affection for these characters or this setting. There is nothing wrong with The Minnow Leads to Treasure, it just didn't rank as a favorite for me, despite my hope that it would.

That said, boys, especially, who are interested in boats and enjoy solving puzzles and riddles will absolutely love this book. The chapters are short enough that it would make a good read-aloud, and the resolution of the mystery and how it is solved are satisfying and mostly unpredictable, at least until pretty close to the end of the book. The characters are also likable and believable, as are the reactions of the adults to their insistence on tracking down the treasure. Honestly, I think I'd just recommend reading this book before Tom's Midnight Garden. That way, this one doesn't feel like a let-down and Tom's Midnight Garden can really blow you away! 

Monday, October 23, 2017

The RAHM Report for 10/23/17

The biggest thing I have to report this week is that it's a girl! After waiting three days past my due date, our new baby, known henceforth here on the blog as Little Jumping Joan, finally arrived on Wednesday night. I spent the first half of the week reading to pass the time until labor started and the second half reading while I sat on the couch and tried to recover from delivering a child who weighed nearly 10 pounds.  Here are the books that have been keeping me company.

Finished Reading: 

  • Slider by Pete Hautman
    I won an ARC of this book from Armchair Book Expo and it was the perfect light, funny middle grade read to enjoy right before having a baby. I started it on Tuesday before the baby came and finished it up on Sunday afternoon while all three girls napped. It will be a while before I get around to posting a review, but I will say that this book made me want to check out some of the author's other works which I have previously overlooked for some reason.
  • Would My Fortune Cookie Lie? by Stella Pevsner
    I've had this book hanging around since picking it up at a used book sale over the summer. I picked it up early in the week and zipped right through it. Though I've decided not to keep the book, I did really love the mystery elements of this family- and friendship-centered story, and I'm a little disappointed that I didn't discover this author when I was a kid! 
  • It's All Downhill From Here by Lynn Johnston
    This weekend, I had the urge to read something very light and easy, and something gave me the idea to search for For Better of For Worse comics collections on Open Library. I used to love reading these comic strips in the newspaper when I was in high school, and they were the perfect thing to read throughout the day as I had free moments. Open Library has a few more of the collections, so I'll probably get to those in the next few weeks.

Currently Reading: 

  • The Original Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy by Johnny Gruelle
    We've taken a break from this read-aloud, but will be getting back to it after Halloween. We only have a handful of Raggedy Andy chapters left, so it shouldn't take much longer to finish.
  • Peeled by Joan Bauer
    I only have this on Open Library for three more days. It's different, but I like it, so I hope I have the chance to finish it! 
  • Halloween Treats by Carolyn Haywood
    We've read two chapters from this story collection so far. Miss Muffet likes it, so I'm hoping this will mean she will enjoy many more Carolyn Haywood books in the coming years.
  • The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny
    I'm still working my way through this one. I'm not crazy about the fact that it opens with a seance (and during Easter of all times!) but I'm sticking with it because I want to know how the murder happened, and I'm enjoying Gamache, and because I don't want to skip a series book.
  • Where are the Children? by Mary Higgins Clark
    I've never read anything by Mary Higgins Clark before. This is apparently her first suspense novel, so I decided to start here. So far, the writing is better than I was expecting.

I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Friday, October 20, 2017

Book Review: Squashed by Joan Bauer (1992)

Sixteen-year-old Ellie comes from a family of farmers, but her father, her only living parent, does not appreciate the art of growing vegetables, or his daughter's interest in growing a pumpkin worthy of first prize in the adult division at the local harvest fair. But Ellie knows that if she doesn't spend as much time as possible helping her pumpkin gain weight, her arch-rival, Cyril Pool, whose integrity is questionable, will win the title instead. Therefore, despite her dad's lack of understanding, Ellie, with the help and support of her grandmother, her cousin Richard and a classmate named Wes for whom she might have romantic feelings, continues to push for her goal, though pumpkin thieves and bad weather threaten her success.

This cozy Fall read, which was the author's very first novel, is a quick and satisfying story about an unusual teen girl and the hobby that sets her apart from others in her school and community. Though there is conflict - between Ellie and her dad, between Ellie and Cyril, between Ellie and her feelings about her weight,  etc. - there is also a wholesome sense of community and family that gives the book a very uplifting and inspirational feeling. Though the stakes are very low in this story (especially as compared with some of the author's other novels, such as Tell Me, which involves human trafficking, or Soar, where the main character has a serious health problem), the reader is drawn in by the details of what goes into growing an award-worthy pumpkin and easily becomes invested in the question of whether Ellie can take home the prize she so greatly desires.

Though this book is aimed at teens, it is most appropriate for middle school readers who can readily relate to Ellie's feelings of awkwardness around her peers and her (albeit mild) resentment of her father's lack of interest in her chosen hobby. From a character-building perspective, it's a great story to show girls how to be comfortable in their own skin (Ellie never does lose the ten pounds she is worried about at the start of the book, for example) and that sticking with a goal even when the odds are stacked against them is its own success, whether they win or lose.

This is the fourth Joan Bauer novel I have read, and it has renewed my interest in her writing. I plan to read through the rest of her backlist in the coming months in the hopes of uncovering more uplifting and wholesome stories for tweens and young teens.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Book Review: Depend on Katie John by Mary Calhoun (1961)

In this follow-up to Katie John (1960), Katie John Tucker and her parents have fixed up their large Southern house, and they are ready to accept boarders. Katie is enthusiastic about helping to find new tenants, but as the house fills up, she also begins to realize how much work it is going to be to help keep things running smoothly. Not only does she have to help with housework, she also looks after the young son of one of the tenants, and when she receives a puppy for a gift, she has to keep him from disturbing the tenants and surrounding neighbors. In the meantime, Katie is also the new girl in school, and though she is pleased to have Sue as her best friend, she really wants to find a way to win the affection of all of her classmates, which leads her to take on even more work than she can really manage.

As a kid, I was fascinated with the idea of a boarding house, so I really enjoyed meeting each of the characters who come to live in Katie John's house throughout the course of this book. They are a colorful bunch of people, including a pair of women who listen to loud country-western music, Katie John's own teacher from school, and Cousin Ben, a distant relative who shows up unannounced at the start of the cold weather and remains in bed, with his bedroom door wide open to the front hallway, all winter long. The quirks of these characters, and Katie's reactions to them as she becomes more and more overwhelmed by their presence, are the real appeal of this book, and they bring the big Southern house very strongly to life.

The other thing I really loved about this book is that it shows a 10-year-old girl as a dependable, helpful, and capable contributor to her household. By contemporary standards, Katie John does seem to have a lot of responsibilities, but I liked that her parents allowed her to work out many of her own problems independently, and that she resolves many of the difficulties in the book by her own wits. I also like that she makes her fair share of mistakes, but that these do not serve to undermine her overall positive contributions to the boarding house, and to her classroom as well. I look forward to reading the rest of the Katie John books: Honestly, Katie John! and Katie John and Heathcliff and will gladly save the series for my girls to read in a few years.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Book Review: The Crow and the Castle by Keith Robertson (1957)

The Crow and the Castle is the third of four books in the Carson Street Detective Agency series by Henry Reed, Inc. author Keith Robertson. In this book, teen detectives Neil, who narrates the story, and Swede, his best friend, are hired by a stranger in town to take photographs of a chess set owned by the ornery and hot-tempered Captain Wudge. In their attempts to gain access to Captain Wudge's house in order to snap the photos, they discover that some housebreakers are also intent on getting inside so they can steal a chess set from the Captain's collection. Curious as to whether the stranger who hired them is connected to the housebreakers, the two boys get to know Captain Wudge and slowly piece together their nefarious plot. Meanwhile, Neil's pet crow, Hector, complicates matters with his penchant for collecting and absconding with small objects.

This book was such fun to read. The main characters are funny and charming with a mischievous streak and a boyish sense of humor. Unlike the Hardy Boys books, whose storylines often feel forced and inauthentic, this book is sufficiently grounded in reality to make almost anything feel believable even if it is far-fetched. I had no difficulty at all accepting that these boys were accomplished detectives, nor was it difficult to buy into the role Hector the crow winds up playing in the mystery plot. Robertson's light touch and tongue-in-cheek tone make it impossible to take the book too seriously, which makes it very easy to suspend one's disbelief and just enjoy a good mystery.

Disappointingly, this book is out of print and so rare I doubt I will ever have a chance to own a copy. I'm so thankful that Open Library has it, however, because this was the exact kind of mystery I'd have loved as a kid, and I would have hated to miss out on it. I loved all the details about the history of chess and chess sets, and the fact that, though there is some real danger to the boys in the story, the reader is never really scared and it is always clear that things will come to a safe and satisfying ending. Book two of the series, Three Stuffed Owls (1954), is also available from Open Library, so I hope to read that in the near future. The last book, The Money Machine (1969) is also pretty widely available from used booksellers, so it's possible I'll be able to get my hands on that as well. Sadly, book one, The Mystery of Burnt Hill (1952)  is selling on Amazon right now for over 95 dollars, which is outside of my book budget for any single title, no matter how much I love the author!

This book was a wonderful surprise, and I would recommend it wholeheartedly to fans of the author as well as to young teen boys who are mystery fans, chess players, or both.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The RAHM Report for 10/16/17

I am writing this post just before midnight, and as of now, we have not yet had a baby, so this is officially our first child to go past his/her due date! Since all I've done all week is wait for labor to start, I had time to read a bunch of books and start a few more. Here's my report for the week. 

Finished Reading:


  • A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny
    Though I didn't love it as much as the first book, I still enjoyed book two of the Armand Gamache series. My review is on Goodreads.
  • When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne
    I read this aloud to the girls over lunch over the course of two days. Some of the poems are easier to read than others but all are sweet and charming and my almost-four-year-old especially loved them. My guess is we will revisit this book many times in the future.
  • W is for Wasted by Sue Grafton
    This was not my favorite of the series, but it was a more solid story than V is for Vengeance. My review is on Goodreads.
  • The Trouble with Jenny's Ear by Oliver Butterworth
    I loved this fun tale of electronics and telepathy from the author of The Enormous Egg. Review coming to the blog eventually. 
  • Hello, Star by Carolyn Haywood
    I believe this short 1987 chapter book was Carolyn Haywood's last book before her death in 1990. It's not her best, but it would be a good first chapter book for an early reader (I'll be giving it to my almost-four-year-old, probably when she is four), especially one who loves animals and has enjoyed Hilary McKay's Lulu series.

Did Not Finish: 

  • The Secret, Book & Scone Society by Ellery Adams
    I read a third of this book before giving up. It was just not for me. I wrote a quick review on Goodreads and NetGalley explaining why I didn't finish.

Currently Reading:

  • The Original Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy by Johnny Gruelle
    We finally made it into the much-anticipated Raggedy Andy section of this lunchtime read-aloud, but we've taken a break for a few days to read other things. I expect we'll finish the book sometime after the baby is born. 
  • The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny
    I placed a hold on this book expecting it to take a couple of weeks for my turn to come up, but when it only took a few days, I decided to go ahead and start it. If this baby delays its arrival much longer, I may end up reading it straight through! 
  • Halloween Treats by Carolyn Haywood
    This is our holiday-themed lunchtime read-aloud, which I hope to spread out so that we finish it on Halloween. We've read one story so far, and it was a hit! 
  • Peeled by Joan Bauer
    I enjoyed Squashed so much last week that I've decided to read more Joan Bauer. I have this checked out from Open Library, but I haven't really started it yet and may not depending on when labor begins
I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Book Review: Patina by Jason Reynolds (2017)

Patina is the second book of Jason Reynolds's Track series which began last year with Ghost. Patina, also known as Patty, is another member of the Defenders track team, and like Ghost, she has a complicated family situation. Her father died just after the birth of her younger sister, Maddy, and her mother, who has diabetes, has lost both of her legs to the disease, leaving her unable to care for the children on her own.  Patty and Maddy now live with their uncle and aunt, whom they call Momly, and visit with their mom on weekends. After facing so much loss in her own life, Patty really can't stand to lose on the track, nor does she always work well in situations where she has to rely on others. This aversion to teamwork becomes a challenge when she is assigned a group project in school and asked to run relays for the Defenders.

Like the previous book, this one also had a strong sense of voice, but I found it took me a while longer to warm up to Patty than to Ghost. I liked him right away; my affection for her grew more slowly over the course of several chapters. Whether this is intentional on the part of the author or not, I'm not sure, but it does seem consistent with Patty's personality that I would feel a certain amount of distance from her until I got to know what exactly motivates her and makes her tick. Overall, she is a well-developed and multi-layered character, as are her family members and other supporting characters, and I did grow to like her, even if I wasn't quite as in love with her character as I was with Ghost.

It's hard not to compare a book like this to works of Chris Crutcher, which also focus on overcoming hardship through sports, but whereas sometimes Crutcher's characters seem to have too many problems, that is never the case with Reynolds. Patty's life is not easy, but every single problem she faces is handled realistically, fairly, and with great sympathy. This book does not have much of a central conflict, which does make it feel weaker than the first one, but it handles the smaller, everyday problems of life very well, and I think middle school kids, especially, can relate to the various incidents that make up Patty's life, even if they haven't had the exact same experiences.

It appears that this entire series is going to work as a relay race. Patina picks up exactly where Ghost left off, and this book also has a very abrupt ending, which presumably will lead right into Sunny, which is due out in April 2018. I like the way the books slip in and out of each other, and I think the handing off of the narrative from one character to the next works very effectively, especially in the context of a track team. I look forward to seeing where Reynolds takes these characters on their next lap.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Book Review: The Tower Treasure (1927) and The Tower Treasure (1959) by Franklin W. Dixon

Until this month, I had never read any of the original Hardy Boys books. In the interest of fully educating myself about this series, I decided to read and compare the two versions of the first book of the series, The Tower Treasure: the original, published in 1927, and the revised edition, released in 1959. The plot in both books is essentially the same. Frank and Joe Hardy are brothers and the son of Fenton Hardy, an accomplished detective. While out doing an errand for their father one day, they witness a man driving recklessly, and then discover his abandoned vehicle on the side of the road. They then learn that their friend Chet's car has been stolen. After they recover the stolen car, they hear news of a jewel theft at the Tower Mansion, owned by Hurd Applegate. When they realize that the accused is the father of a classmate, they become invested in the case and work to prove that the car theft and the tower robbery are connected.

Though the plot of this story remains mostly unchanged from the original edition to the revised edition, the way the story is told changes quite a bit. The first thing I noticed was how much the slang changed from 1927 to 1959. While the word "chum" is used in both books, many other phrases used in the 1927 edition fall out of favor by 1959. For instance, whereas Chet's car is a "roadster" in 1927, and other cars are called "coupes" or "touring cars," the automotive language in 1959 talks about Chet's "jalopy" and how to "soup up" a "hot rod" or "sedan." The 1959 book also introduces terms like "moon rocket," "super duper," and "hot shot" which are completely absent from the original, while the 1927 book throws around phrases like "bad medicine" and "chaps." Both versions sound laughably outdated now, of course, and newer Hardy Boys iterations probably include their own contemporary slang, but it is interesting to consider how many of these changes seemed necessary after just 30 years, and how many of the 1950s phrases would already sound funny again by the time I was a child in the 1980s.

Another major change which is very noticeable is the role of female characters in the story. In 1927, the only women mentioned in the entire book are Callie, a classmate of Frank and Joe, Adelia Applegate, the shrewish sister of tower owner Hurd Applegate, and Mrs. Robinson, the wife of the man accused of stealing the tower treasure. The number of female characters increases by at least two in 1959, as both Mrs. Hardy and Chet's sister Iola are added to the cast. Adelia Applegate is also given a much larger role which makes her come across as more sympathetic and gives the revised story a slightly stronger ending than the original.

The biggest alteration of all, however, is in the collection of evidence toward solving the case. In the 1927 book, clues are found in a meandering way, and it takes Frank and Joe quite a while to recognize the importance of wigs to the overall narrative of the crime. When they do get a big break in the case, their father goes to New York on his own to investigate while the brothers mostly sit around home and wait for news. In 1959, the clues are all basically the same as those the boys collect in 1927, but the aspiring detectives are much quicker about figuring out how wigs are involved, and they are permitted to tag along with Fenton on his New York trip. Since the purpose of revising the book was partly to shorten it, it makes sense that some of the investigating would be condensed, but beyond that, I think it had become a convention of children's books by the 1950s that the child characters actually need to be involved in the action, not just sitting home waiting for their smart dad to bring them the information they want. Interestingly, though, it also seems that the 1950s editor was more concerned about the safety of child characters than the original 1927 author. Whereas the boys build a bomb to delay a rival investigator from catching a train to New York in 1927, by 1959, they only decide to set a fire.

Reading two versions of the same book side-by-side made for a very interesting reading experience. I'm not sure I fully understand the appeal of these older Hardy Boys books, as they are very much a product of their time, but I found it interesting to look at what changes and what remains the same as one generation outgrows the series and another generation grows into it. It's been a while since I've read a Nancy Drew book, but I had the distinct feeling throughout my readings of The Tower Treasure that the Hardy Boys series is not as well-written. While I might consider owning some vintage Nancy Drew, I can't really think of a reason to buy any Hardy Boys books. I'd have no problem with my kids reading them, as they are perfectly acceptable mystery stories, but I don't see them as particularly great works of literature. The Tower Treasure left me feeling like I'd just watched a Saturday morning cartoon, but not as though I had nourished my mind with much of a story.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The RAHM Report for 10/9/17

We're officially on babywatch around here (baby's due date is the 15th!), and there's not much to do besides wait and read. I read 12 books this week (including 5 very short ebook versions of comic issues) and I have four more in progress.

Finished Reading:

  • Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child by Anthony Esolen
    I gave this book five stars. Esolen makes great arguments, and I love the way he uses literature to support them. At some point, I hope to write up more of my thoughts on Goodreads.
  • Here Come the Deer! by Alice E. Goudey
    Miss Muffet and I read this aloud before nap time on three consecutive days this week. I didn't enjoy it as much as a lot of the other titles from this series, but part of that might be because there just isn't that much to say about deer and the three chapters - about whitetailed deer, elk, and caribou - became kind of repetitive after awhile. Miss Muffet loved it and has announced that deer are now her favorite animal. 
  • Maurice's Room by Paula Fox
    There isn't a whole lot to this short chapter book about a young boy who collects things and keeps them in his bedroom, despite his parents' desire that he clean it all out. The writing was good, but the story is forgettable. 
  • Squashed by Joan Bauer
    This was a feel-good fall read that would be perfect for young teens. Review coming soon. 

  • Sylvania series by Kristin Kemper
    I was browsing Hoopla for something quick to read on Saturday afternoon and stumbled upon this interesting fantasy series. The main characters are three sisters who are tree witches. They live in a universe where everything is protected and helped by witches, so there are also star witches, sea witches, bird witches, etc. When the star witches try to recruit some of the other witches to help them cultivate life on Mars, two of the sisters - Rowan and Juniper - express interest in taking on the challenge, while Willow adamantly opposes the idea. Only one of the sisters ends up going to Mars, while the other who is of age stays home to be with her girlfriend. (The LGBT content was a surprise to me, but should not have been since it is clearly tagged on Hoopla. I just missed it.) I really like the artwork, and the story is available not just in these short digital issues, but as a webcomic as well, so I'll probably stick with it for a bit and see if I like where the story is going. 

I also finally decided to borrow all the remaining Stella Batts books from Hoopla and read through those. I checked out five, but Hoopla's copy of Something Blue  seems to be corrupted in some way, so I was only able to read these four:

  • Who's in Charge? by Courtney Sheinmel
    Stella has the opportunity to babysit her best friend's dog in this book, and of course the dog goes missing. I mostly sympathized with Stella's mom in this one - I wouldn't want to be taking care of someone else's dog with a newborn at home either!  
  • Superstar by Courtney Sheinmel
    In this book, Stella is invited to audition for her favorite TV show, only to lose the role to her sister, resulting in lots of learning opportunities about jealousy and not being a bad sport. Except that circumstances change near the end of the book, and things get kind of muddled, and I was a little bit disappointed in how it was all resolved.
  • Scaredy Cat by Courtney Sheinmel
    Why do so many children's books include Ouija boards? My kids are not likely to read this series anyway, but if they'd read the earlier ones, I'd be disappointed to have to keep this one away from them just because of that. There were plenty of other ways to work fear and ghosts into the story without resorting to actual attempts to contact the dead.
  • Broken Birthday by Courtney Sheinmel
    This was the best of the bunch I read. I would have loved reading about Stella's hospital visit as a kid, and I liked the way the story also looked back on everything Stella did when she was eight. There was a sweet feel-good ending, too, which made up for the Ouija board in the previous book.

Currently Reading:

  • W is for Wasted by Sue Grafton
    I've read about 200 pages of this one. If the baby isn't born until the end of the week or after my due date, I might even finish it. 
  • A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny
    I'm just past the halfway point in the Kindle edition of this book, and I'm loving it. I really hope I can finish it before going into labor! 
  • The Secret, Book and Scone Society by Ellery Adams (ARC)
    I like Ellery Adams's writing style, but I'm just a couple of chapters into this ARC and I'm not sold on the setting or story. I hope I get more into it. 
  • The Original Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy by Johnny Gruelle
    This is our current lunchtime read-aloud. It's not my favorite, but the girls are both loving it. 
I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Book Review: The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser (2017)

The Vanderbeekers, a biracial family of seven living in a brownstone in Harlem are devastated when they learn just before Christmas that their disagreeable landlord, Mr. Beiderman, has decided not to renew their lease. The five Vanderbeeker kids - twins Isa and Jessie, and their younger siblings Oliver, Hyacinth, and Laney - immediately begin hatching plans to win over Mr. Beiderman and somehow gain his permission to remain in the only home they have ever known. As Christmas day approaches, however, it begins to look as though nothing can warm Mr. Beiderman's heart to their cause.

This book is proof that a novel can satisfy contemporary demands for things like diversity without reinventing the wheel. The Vanderbeekers on 141st Street has a very classic feel that harkens back to series such as The Melendy Family books, The Moffats, and more recently, The Penderwicks.  It's not an issue book, or a political statement; it's just a good story where the characters happen not to be white. While I don't consider diversity to be an indicator of quality, I do appreciate that this book finds a way to meet the demand for non-white characters without turning the story into an age-inappropriate political lesson. This is clearly a book written with children in mind, inspired by a place the author knows well.

Speaking of the setting, I really enjoyed getting to know the Vanderbeekers' little slice of Harlem, including the college they can see from their apartment windows and the little bakery where they frequently stop to buy pastries. I could definitely have used more details, especially after reading a book like Harlem Charade that brings this area of New York City so strongly to life, but I definitely got a sense of why the neighborhood was so important to these kids, and why it was so heartbreaking to think of having to move.

As for Mr. Beiderman himself, he is mostly a believable antagonist. As this is a Christmas story, his Scrooge-like demeanor feels very appropriate, as does the ultimate resolution to the problem of the lease. I read one review that suggested he was not realistic because most people typically move on after tragedies, but I didn't feel that way at all. I think there are many people, older men in particular, who do have a hard time bouncing back after the kind of trauma Mr. Beiderman has endured, and they do go on to live as angry recluses. This story does a nice job of explaining why Mr. Beiderman is the way he is, and also of redeeming him when the time is right. Sure, there are probably some serious violations of landlord/tenant laws in the way the lease is handled, but who but a lawyer's daughter (which I am) would even notice those?

This is one of the few brand-new middle grade novels that I would actually consider encouraging my kids to read if they were in the correct age group. It will certainly satisfy more conservative parents, as it has so much in common with favorite children's classics, and even the subplot involving Isa being asked to a school dance is very sweet and innocent without any overly mature romantic overtones. A sequel is planned for 2018, and I'm really looking forward to spending another book with these characters.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Book Review: Jamie and the Mystery Quilt by Vicki Berger Erwin (1987)

During a recent purge of old books from boxes that have been sitting in our garage, I stumbled upon this paperback which I bought from a used bookstore several years ago and never read. Jamie and the Mystery Quilt is the story of a young teen girl who lives with her widowed mom and younger sister in an old house filled with antiques. One day, while searching the attic for a costume her sister might be able to use for a school play, Jamie stumbles upon a quilt made by her great-grandmother which has been designed to look like a map of the house. When the quilt is stolen mysteriously from the back porch, Jamie is devastated and she begins to consider who might have taken it. Was it a random crime? Did her crush and tutoring student Kevin steal it for his mom's antique shop? Or is there something sinister about the real estate agent who keeps pestering her mom to sell the house? As Jamie works to narrow down her suspects, she also must figure out the reason the quilt would be so valuable to anyone outside of her family.

This straightforward mystery story is not the greatest work of literature, but I liked its wholesome approach to middle school boy/girl relationships, its focus on family, and the determination, resourcefulness and spunk of its main character. It seems like most mystery novels published for kids today are about large-scale events  - murders, kidnappings, disasters, and art heists - and less about regular kids solving problems that impact only their own small spheres of influence. I loved these little everyday mysteries as a kid, largely because they were not scary, and I could imagine my younger self reading and re-reading this book.

Alas, due to space constraints and the fact that we already have a number of mysteries on our shelves that we really want our kids to read as they get older, this book is going into the donation pile. Still, I'm glad I took the time to read it because it reminded me of how much I enjoy these short, pleasant novels of years past. Most contemporary middle grade novels are so long, and sometimes I just feel like reading a compact story that is short but satisfying. This one definitely fit that bill, and I'll probably read the author's other titles that are available from Open Library.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The RAHM Report for 10/2/17

A lot of my normal responsibilities are on hiatus right now in preparation for the baby, who is due in two weeks, so I had some extra time to read this week and made good use of it. I finished 7 books and started an additional four. Here's the list.

Finished Reading:

  • If Not For You by Debbie Macomber
    This was a quick read, and I enjoyed the slow development of the romance between the main hero, Sam and heroine, Beth. I wasn't as crazy about the side plot involving Beth's aunt, Sunshine, and her long-lost first love, but it was still one of the better Macomber novels I've read. It was the third in a series, but it didn't matter that I hadn't read the others, and I probably don't need to. 
  • Where the Lilies Bloom by Vera and Bill Cleaver
    As I mentioned last week, my husband and I watched the movie based on this book, so then I felt I had to read it in order to evaluate it and the film fairly. There were some big differences between the two versions of the story, and I'm still trying to decide which I prefer. I plan to eventually review this book, but maybe not until November.
  • The Crow and the Castle by Keith Robertson
    My husband found this for me on OpenLibrary when I was looking for more mysteries to read for this month's Old School Kidlit theme. It's by the author of the Henry Reed books and pretty much impossible to buy anywhere, but it was so good! I wish the whole series had stayed in print, as I think the writing is much better than in the Hardy Boys books. My review is coming in a few weeks. 
  • Shag: Last of the Plains Buffalo by Robert M. McClung
    I've been reading this book aloud to Little Miss Muffet (age 3 years 10 months). It got a little heavy-handed in its message near the end, and there were a lot of dead buffalo in the story, but she still said she enjoyed it. This author has other books that are not quite as wordy; we may try one of those next.
  • The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne
    I finished reading this aloud at lunchtime on Friday. I tried to keep my composure but found myself getting choked up at the end anyway. The girls seemed unfazed. I figure we'll keep reading it every couple of years until they are mature enough to cry at the end, too! 
  • The Minnow Leads to Treasure by Philippa Pearce
    I wanted to like this more than I did. My review will be up near the end of the month. 
  • A Penny's Worth of Character by Jesse Stuart
    My husband read this aloud to the girls at the dinner table this week, and I listened in. It was a good moral tale about telling the truth and owning up to mistakes that definitely resonated with Miss Muffet but went over the head of two-year-old Bo Peep.  

Currently Reading:

  • W is for Wasted by Sue Grafton
    I'm finding this a little slow-going so far, and I'm not 100% convinced that I will finish before the baby comes. If I don't, chances are it will be abandoned for now and picked up again in another 6 months to a year. But for the next week or so, I'll see what progress I can make. 
  • Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child by Anthony Esolen
    I am loving everything about this book. Esolen uses many lovely quotations from famous works of literature to illustrate his points, and he makes great arguments about the problems in our current society as seen from a conservative/Christian perspective. It's not as much about raising children as the title suggests, but it is a really compelling and quick read. 
  • Squashed by Joan Bauer
    I enjoy Joan Bauer and wanted a quick fall read to enjoy. There isn't much to the plot, but I like the writing style and the focus on a pumpkin-growing competition. 
  • A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny
    After finishing Still Life  last week, I felt that I could not wait to continue this series, but when I went to borrow the ebook of this second book, there were dozens of holds on practically every copy! One library had just one copy with one person on hold, so I put myself on that list, figuring it would still be a month before my turn came up.  I was thrilled when just a few days later, I got the email that the book had been checked out to me. Honestly, if I don't finish W is for Wasted before the baby is born, this book will be the reason. I am just so excited to read it, and I don't want to end up having to go back to the end of the holds list.  
I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, October 2017 (Mysteries)

This month, the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge is focusing on Mysteries.

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. At the end of the month, 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!