Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Book Review: How to Raise a Reader by Pamela Paul and Maria Russo (2019)

I have read quite a few handbooks for parents who wish to raise book-loving kids, but none have given such dubious advice as this year's How to Raise a Reader by The New York Times Book Review editors Pamela Paul and Maria Russo. (I received a review copy of this book via NetGalley.)

The first red flag for me came in the form of the blanket statement that "[m]any classic children's books are now considered sexist, racist, outdated, and in certain cases, downright awful." This statement sets up the political point of view of its authors as the default "correct" way to consider older books. By writing in the passive voice, the authors conveniently sidestep the need to say precisely who considers these books so terrible, and they leave no room at all for an alternate point of view, despite the fact that many reading-minded parents are conservative homeschoolers who deeply value older books but are not themselves awful racists. This argument is worsened by the suggested remedy: simply "tweak" the books when you read them aloud, editing the author's words to reflect what you wish they said. There are plenty of books I won't read aloud due to content, but it is utterly insulting to authors to presume to rewrite their books, and insulting to the intelligence of child listeners, who can generally handle controversial and difficult topics better than adults ever assume they can.

A second major problem with this book is the way it suggests that parents are irrelevant, or at best tangential, to the reading lives of their children. They come right  out and say that reading aloud "isn't about you" (the parent) when they comment that parents whose character voices don't appeal to their kids should "read the room" and stop using them, and then they continue to point out how true they believe that to be at every opportunity. Their recommendations for reading with children include admonishments to "tune out and read by rote" when you're bored,  to "be careful not to assert your own values too much" (heaven forbid your children acquire your values) and "save your disapproval for vaping, not books." They also make the absurd claim that it may not be the parent's choice when a child starts reading Harry Potter, as though children are such independent creatures we can't possibly be in charge of any aspect of their lives, let alone reading.

Other problems with this book are more predictable. The authors throw the required bones toward gender ideology by pointing out that books for toddlers might teach traditional gender roles and toward diversity by pointing out the apparently disturbing blondness of the characters in Dick and Jane and stating that "no children should have to learn to read with them." They also caution parents that they might have to explain the language and writing style in those old racist classics, or else just find abridged versions that avoid "antiquated language" to satisfy the children who just can't tolerate "references to an earlier age."

How to Raise a Reader takes for granted many ideas about parenting and childhood that I just don't accept, and that made it impossible for me to enjoy it. Truly, the best resource on this topic continues to be The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease, with Reading Together by Diane W. Frankenstein and The Enchanted Hour by Meghan Cox Gurdon following closely behind. By comparison to these comprehensive and engaging resources, How to Raise a Reader is disorganized, shallow, and unnecessary, and I do not recommend it.

Monday, November 18, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Deathly Hallows, Chapters 9-12


This past week's Deathly Hallows chapters were Chapter 9 ("A Place to Hide"), Chapter 10 ("Kreacher's Tale"), Chapter 11 ("The Bribe") and Chapter 12 ("Magic is Might").

There were a lot of things in this segment of the book that I had forgotten about:
  • Harry, Ron, and Hermione are attacked by Death Eaters in the Muggle world right after they flee the wedding and no one can figure out how these Death Eaters knew where to find them.
  • Harry, Ron and Hermione move into 12 Grimmauld Place, where they hide out for many days, venturing out only to spy on the entrance to the Ministry of Magic.  
  • Harry and Lupin have a nasty argument when Lupin reveals that Tonks is pregnant but that he wants to go with Harry on his mission.
  • Kreacher reveals the fate of the locket that was previously found at 12 Grimmauld Place and begins to become more pleasant as Harry is nicer to him. 
  • Harry finds a letter from his mother, with a page missing, which is accompanied by a photo of him on a toy broomstick as a toddler.
The bigger plot points stuck with me, most likely because they are repeated in the film version. I remembered everything about Harry, Ron, and Hermione sneaking into the Ministry using polyjuice potion, as well the "Magic is Might" propaganda. I still gasped, though, when, at the end of these chapters, the elevator doors opened and there stood Dolores Umbridge. I honestly don't remember what happens next, so I'm especially excited to keep reading the next section! 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Deathly Hallows, Chapters 5-8

My second set of chapters in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows consisted of Chapter 5 ("Fallen Warrior"), Chapter 6 ("The Ghoul In Pyjamas"), Chapter 7 ("The Will of Albus Dumbledore"), and Chapter 8 ("The Wedding").

These chapters make for really engaging and exciting reading, as they take the reader on an emotional rollercoaster. We see the loss of Mad-Eye Moody, a wizard whose protection always made me feel better about Harry's safety, as well as an injury to George Weasley. We also begin to realize how worried Mrs. Weasley is about Harry's plans, and also how difficult it is for Harry and Ginny Weasley to stick to their decision to break up. On the lighter side, however, Harry celebrates his 17th birthday and comes of age, and there is even a wedding celebration, though it is interrupted quite violently right at the end of this section.

One thing I like about these chapters is the fact that, though there is a lot of turmoil surrounding them, these characters continue to live their normal lives as much as possible. This simple sense of hope is very inspiring, and it makes me appreciate the Weasleys and the other Order members even more. I also really love the way Harry continues to stand up to Scrimgeour in the chapter where the contents of Dumbledore's will are finally revealed to Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Harry doesn't always feel like a fully-developed character to me, but in this book, so far, he comes very much to life.

Possibly because I just re-watched The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I also found myself comparing the gifts Dumbledore leaves to Harry and his friends to the ones given to the Pevensies by Father Christmas. Certainly the fact that Dumbledore is still offering assistance - albeit mysteriously - from beyond the grave provides a strong sense of hope. I also love that Rowling hearkens back to the first time Harry catches the Snitch - with his mouth - and that this detail becomes an important clue about why Dumbledore may have left the Snitch to him.

Finally, I love the wedding chapter for all the dialogue that foreshadows important details that appear later in the book, including the significance of Grindelwald and the symbol worn by Mr. Lovegood and the differing accounts given by Elphias Doge and Aunt Muriel about Dumbledore's past.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Deathly Hallows, Chapters 1-4

I'm behind on posting about it, but I did start reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at the beginning of this month, with the first four chapters: Chapter 1 ("The Dark Lord Ascending"), Chapter 2 ("In Memoriam"), Chapter 3 ("The Dursleys Departing"), and Chapter 4 ("The Seven Potters"). Beware of spoilers.

I love the bittersweet tone of the opening of this book as so many things come to an end for Harry: his dependence on the wisdom and advice of Albus Dumbledore, his strained relationship with the Dursleys, his time as a student at Hogwarts, even his relationship with Ginny. From the outset, it's clear that this a different book from the others of the series because the stakes are higher and with the exception of Ron and Hermione, Harry is largely on his own.

I really appreciated the way Rowling humanizes Dudley a bit in the scene where he and Harry part ways. Vernon was still as over the top as ever in his hatred of all things wizarding-related, but seeing Dudley seem almost a bit sad at saying goodbye to Harry added an emotional dimension to their relationship that made it seem real rather than merely cartoonish.

I also remember loving the "Seven Potters" chapter the first time I read this book and in the film adaptation as well, and it held up well to this re-reading. I love the clever way the Order decides to hide Harry as they transfer him, as well as the way these scenes set up the danger that Harry will face throughout this final book.  I also remember how shocking it was to see Hedwig die, which is another event that really sets the somber tone of this book overall. I was ready for it this time, and yet somehow still felt a bit sucker-punched.

Friday, November 15, 2019

The Read-at-Home Kids Report: October 2019

There was so much reading going on here in October that it's taken me a couple of weeks to organize it into a coherent post! Last month, the girls heard a number of read-alouds at home and at their Grandma's house and they each read and looked at a variety of books on their own as well. Here are the highlights.

Family Read-Alouds

We kicked off our lunchtime reads for the month by finishing the Cobble Street Cousins series. The final book, Wedding Flowers, surprised me by including what appeared to be a Catholic priest, and Miss Muffet and Bo Peep loved all the wedding details, especially clothes and food.

As we looked ahead to Halloween, we then read King Oberon's Forest by Hilda van Stockum, which I and they both loved (review here) and What the Witch Left by Ruth Chew, which I've been describing in my mind as "Carolyn Haywood-esque" fantasy. Though I'm not a big fantasy reader myself, it's a favorite genre for both of the big girls right now, and this was the perfect gentle story for their ages and comfort levels.

As the month ended, we had just begun No Flying in the House by Betty Brock, which is another sweet and gentle fantasy story.

I've also been trying to read poetry after breakfast on occasion, and in the days before Halloween, we read Monster Soup by Dilys Evans and Ghosts and Goosebumps by Bobbi Katz on Open Library. The poems in these collections were just the right level of spooky for us, and they set the mood for the holiday very nicely.

After dinner, my husband read aloud Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt by Elizabeth Payne, Arabian Nights: Three Tales by Deborah Nourse Lattimore, and The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (which we finished on audio).

On our road trip to my mom's house, we listened to On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake. Cherry Jones does such a spot-on perfect job with the narration of these books. They really are pretty much perfect.

Reading with Grandma

My mom collects children's books just like we do, so when we spent five days with her in mid-October, she was eager to share some of her books with the girls. During our visit, the girls and Grandma read:
  • Angelina and the Princess by Katharine Holabird 
  • Angelina's Halloween by Katharine Holabird 
  • The Apple Pie That Papa Baked by Lauren Thompson and Jonathan Bean
  • Click, Clack Surprise! by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin
  • Click, Clack Boo by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin 
  • Red Knit Cap Girl by Naoko Stoop 
  • Red Knit Cap Girl to the Rescue by Naoko Stoop 
  • Kiss Baby's Boo-Boo by Karen Katz
  • Mommy Hugs by Karen Katz
  • A Little Book About ABCs by Leo Lionni 
  • Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler 
  • Bridget's Beret by Tom Lichtenheld 
  • Pantaloon by Kathryn Jackson and Steven Salerno
  • Owl Babies by Martin Waddell (pop-up book)
  • Chirri & Chirra by Kaya Doi 
  • Sleepytime for Baby Mouse by Margaret Hopkins
  • Alphabears by Michael Hague
  • Autumn Harvest by Alvin Tresselt and Roger Duvoisin
Room on the Broom was the big favorite from this list, partly because Grandma gave us a copy to take home and we were able to read it over and over. The big girls also love the Click Clack series.

Little Miss Muffet (5 years, 11 months)

As I mentioned in my recent post about October in our homeschool, Miss Muffet read six books on her own in October:  Uncle Wiggily and his Friends by Howard R. Garis, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Daughter of America by Jeanne Marie Grunwell, Stella Batts: Superstar and Stella Batts: Scaredy Cat by Courtney Sheinmel, Something Queer at the Haunted School by Elizabeth Levy and Mordecai Gersten, and a good portion of The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, which she was still working on as the month ended. She also read a short story in My Bookhouse, "The Secret Door" by Susan Coolidge.

Dr. Dolittle has been a really good challenge for her. Because she loves talking animal stories, she is motivated to stick with it even when the vocabulary is a bit difficult, and the plot is exciting enough that she is always dying to know what happens next. I think we'll have her read some easier books in between before taking on another hard one, but I do think she'll read more from this series and maybe some other titles at that level.

Little Bo Peep (4 years, 1 month)

Bo Peep was the most interested in Halloween of any of the girls, and we read a few picture books on the subject, including my childhood copy of The Biggest Pumpkin Ever by Steven Kroll, Pumpkin Jack by Will Hubbell, The Witch Who Was Afraid of Witches by Alice Low (this one she requested repeatedly), and The Witch Next Door by Norman Bridwell. We also went back to having her listen to audiobooks during naptime (which has transitioned to more of a quiet time for her), and those have included the Mercy Watson series (she likes to follow along in the books) and The Moffats by Eleanor Estes. She also loved our review copy of Roly Poly by Mem Fox and Jane Dyer. As she has been somewhat uncertain about our new twins arriving in March, I think she found Roly Poly's adamant stance against having a baby brother somewhat validating. She took the book to bed with her during nap time many times after we first read it.

Little Jumping Joan (2 years)

As Bo Peep did before her, Jumping Joan has fallen in love with We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. She loves to flip through the pages, pointing out all the obstacles the kids encounter on their adventure, and looking for the baby on every page. She also likes doing the motions suggested by Michael Rosen in this video, which her sisters have happily been teaching her. Jumping Joan also enjoyed reading Now It's Fall by Lois Lenski and The Teddy Bears Picnic by Michael Hague at Grandma's house, and at home, Where is the Witch? (a review copy from Candlewick that I wrapped as a gift for her birthday), and It's Pumpkin Day, Mouse! which we read at story time, and which caused her to become fascinated by feelings and facial expressions.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Homeschool Progress Report: October 2019

First Grade


In our second month of homeschooling, we started to iron out our daily schedule a bit more, moving various subjects and activities around throughout the day to the time slot that suits them best. We also took a week off in the middle of the month to go visit my family in New York. Here's what we covered in October.

Math

M. continued making her way through Singapore Primary Mathematics 2B, with multiplication and division by 4s, 5s, and 10s. She has been working on the times table on and off for a while, so some of this was review and we didn't need to dwell a lot on it. At this point, we are mostly just solidifying her knowledge of multiplication facts with drill. In October, M. also continued drilling subtraction facts on Xtra Math and nearly completed the program. Additionally, we read one chapter each week from Life of Fred: Dogs, and M. read the Mummy Math: An Adventure in Geometry by Cindy Neuschwander on her own.

History

We were still focusing on Ancient Egypt at the start of October, and we read a number of picture books to cover various topics, including: Pharaoh's Boat by David L. Weitzman, Hatshepsut,  His Majesty, Herself by Catherine M. Andronik, The Shipwrecked Sailor: An Egyptian Tale with Hieroglyphs by Tamara Bower  and Senefer: A Young Genius in Old Egypt by by Beatrice Lumpkin. On her own, M. also attempted to follow some of the instructions in Ralph Masiello's Ancient Egypt Drawing Book. We also read the chapter about Egypt in A Little History of the World and M. watched a number of supplemental videos, including some walking tours of Egyptian ruins from Prowalk Tours on YouTube, David Macaulay's Pyramid and the Reading Rainbow episode about Mummies Made in Egypt (which we also read in book format).   My mom also snagged a magazine about mummies from a retiring teacher friend that M. enjoyed looking at independently.

We concluded our study of Ancient Egypt by acting out an Egyptian burial ceremony using instructions found in Ancient Egyptians and Their Neighbors: An Activity Guide by Marian Broida. M. decorated a shoebox sarcophagus using hieroglyphics and some real Egyptian art as models, and we wrapped up a doll and buried her inside. We enlisted C. (age 4) and E. (age 2)  to carry bowls of pretend food for the mummy to eat in the afterlife, and all three girls processed through the living room to some music I found on YouTube.

After our trip, we came home and got started on three weeks about Ancient Mesopotamia. Since every book we have on this topic handles it differently, and organizes itself differently, we read bits and pieces from a whole bunch of different resources. Our main texts this time were The Golden Book of Lost Worlds and Builders of the Old World by Gertrude Hartman, but we also supplemented with information about Hammurabi from A Picturesque Tale of Progress. To get a better sense of the history of this area of the world from an archaeologist's point of view, we also started reading National Geographic Investigates Ancient Iraq: Archaeology Unlocks the Secrets of Iraq's Past by Beth Gruber. Supplemental materials included picture books (The City of Rainbows: A Tale from Ancient Sumer by Karen Foster, Lugalbanda: The Boy Who Got Caught Up in a War: An Epic Tale From Ancient Iraq by Kathy Henderson, and the Gilgamesh trilogy by Ludmila Zeman) and videos from a YouTube channel called History Time and this cuneiform activity from the Penn Museum. Just as the month ended, we also finished Science in Ancient Mesopotamia by Carol Moss.

Science

In Science, we started the month talking about teeth (which was timely since M. had a loose tooth that fell out shortly thereafter). We read about teeth in The Human Body: What It Is and How it Works and watched a few videos on YouTube about going to the dentist and about what it's like to be an orthodontist. We also watched the Weston Woods adaptation of Open Wide: Tooth School Inside. Teeth was also our health topic for the month, but I expect to revisit it again when M. goes for her dental check-up in November.

After teeth, we learned about joints using The Human Body: What It Is and How It Works and videos from Kids Health and Operation Ouch. (Operation Ouch is a UK-based YouTube channel focused on treating injuries, preventing illnesses, and exploring cool facts about the human body. Some of it is too much for M., but the joints video was interesting to her.) She also enjoyed following up our studies with some independent reading in DK's Human Body Encyclopedia, which really does a nice job of summarizing what we learn from other sources.

Outside of our human body theme, M. also watched the video of David Macaulay's Bridges after she became interested in learning how bridges are suspended, and she revisited Walking with Monsters, a documentary about prehistoric reptiles. We also took a field trip to an apple orchard and pumpkin patch on our New York trip.

Reading

Collectively, my husband and I read aloud seven different books in October. I read Wedding Flowers by Cynthia Rylant, King Oberon's Forest by Hilda van Stockum, What the Witch Left by Ruth Chew, and started No Flying in the House by Betty Brock. He read Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt by Elizabeth Payne, Arabian Nights: Three Tales by Deborah Nourse Lattimore, and the beginning of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. On our trip to New York, we listened to the audiobooks of On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

On her own, Miss Muffet read Uncle Wiggily and his Friends by Howard R. Garis, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, Daughter of America by Jeanne Marie Grunwell, Stella Batts: Superstar and Stella Batts: Scaredy Cat by Courtney Sheinmel, a short story in My Bookhouse ("The Secret Door" by Susan Coolidge) and Something Queer at the Haunted School, among other picture books. Mid-month, she started The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, and she's still working on it.

We also started reading poetry aloud at the breakfast table some days to afford more opportunities for recognizing similes. Leading up to Halloween, we read Monster Soup and Other Spooky Poems by Dilys Evans and Ghosts and Goosebumps by Bobbi Katz, both found on Open Library.

Memory Work

We are still putting the finishing touches on M.'s recitation of "The Pirate Don Durk of Dowdee." She has also been working on reciting the planets, bodies of water, rivers, and countries of Europe, and I've started drilling these after breakfast in addition to my husband quizzing her whenever we're in the car.

Music

M. practiced her instruments most days of the month that we were home, and she continued to work on identifying notes using MusicTheory.net. We also learned a new hymn, "Dear Angel Ever At My Side" and learned about the music of Charles Ives, as well as classical music appropriate for Halloween from the Classics for Kids podcast. Additionally, M. watched the Marine Band's live-streamed performance of Beethoven's variations on The Magic Flute, which she became interested in after listening to the Mozart episodes of Classics for Kids. For Halloween, we also learned to sing Five Little Pumpkins Sitting on a Gate.

Art

In October, we finished The Story of Paintings: A History of Art for Children, and did a few how to draw lessons in Ralph Masiello's Ancient Egypt Drawing Book and on Catholic Icing's YouTube channel. M. also did her own experiments with creating different textures using crayons.

Physical Education

M. was still able to sneak in a few bike rides in October since it was still so warm out. She also went to the playground and climbed ropes and ladders with friends and continued using the kids' videos from the Ten Thousand Method on YouTube at least twice a week.

Catechism

In addition to listening to my homemade audio recording of the first ten lessons of the St. Joseph Catechism, this month we celebrated the feast of the Guardian Angels and the feast day of John Paul II. We also discussed the Catholic connection to Halloween. M. has also started reading the Bible aloud to her two-year-old sister in the evenings, and she often recognizes the stories she has read in the readings at Mass.

Pre-K


C. became a bit more resistant to school during October, so she didn't do quite as much as she did in September. Still she is making good progress.

Counting

C. has started to practice identifying the numbers up to 50 using flashcards, which she puts in order on the floor. She has also begun learning the numbers that add up to 5 and 10 using marbles as manipulatives.

Reading

C. mastered a few more Hooked on Phonics readers in October, but she has now hit a wall where she needs more direct instruction before she can read any harder books. We did lots of practice with stories from The Ordinary Parents' Guide to Teaching Reading focused on words with various short vowel sounds, and next we're moving on to consonant blends. I believe she could do one lesson per day,  but she usually doesn't tolerate more than a few sentences at a time, so it's very slow-going.

Memory Work

C. memorized "Elizabeth Cried" by Eleanor Farjeon during October.   She's finding it easier to memorize longer poems these days. She's also started memorizing the planets.

Art

C. has been working on coloring nicely instead of just scribbling on every page of every coloring book. On Halloween, she also made a variety of festive sticker scenes about witches, owls, and ghosts.

Music

C. started piano lessons with my husband. Her current exercise is "Two Black Keys." She also joined M. for Classics for Kids and liturgical singing throughout the month.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Fumbling Through Fantasy: What the Witch Left by Ruth Chew (1973)

In the chest of drawers in Katy Turner's bedroom, there is a locked drawer in which her granny's friend, Aunt Martha, has left some of her things. One day, Katy and her friend Louise decide to peek in the drawer. What they find on this and subsequent looks into the secret hiding place is a collection of magical items: gloves that make it effortless to work with one's hands, a bathrobe that makes the wearer invisible, a pair of boots to shorten travel distances, and a tin box and a hand mirror with less obvious magical properties. As Katy and Louise learn the powers of these magical objects, they also encounter a number of unexpected difficulties caused by meddling with magic.

This is not a Halloween book per se, since it is set closer to Thanksgiving, but I read it aloud to my older two daughters in October to satisfy their desire for non-spooky witch books, and it hit just the right note with both of them. Ruth Chew writes fantasy in a style similar to the realistic fiction of Carolyn Haywood. The characters are believable little girls with cozy home lives, and though they go on adventures, they are never in any real danger, nor do they get into any kind of trouble that can't be resolved inside of a chapter or two. There is some suspense, which caused my girls to frequently beg for just one more chapter, but not enough that anyone would lose sleep worrying about the fate of the characters.

Though I read this book aloud, it's really ideal as an independent read for a child around the third grade level. I will probably continue to read Chew's books aloud for a little while since my girls have latched onto them so readily, but I'm also keeping them in mind for my current four-year-old beginning reader to enjoy on her own in a few years.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Book Review: Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo (2019)

Beverly, Right Here concludes Kate DiCamillo's Three Rancheros trilogy, which also includes Raymie Nightingale (2016) and Louisiana's Way Home (2018). Beverly is now fourteen, and her dog, Buddy, has recently died. Unable to stand her mother's neglect any longer, Beverly hitches a ride out of town and finds herself in a totally new community. There she befriends Iola, an older woman who is clearly lonely and eagerly takes Beverly into her home. She also gets a job bussing tables at a seafood restaurant and begins to form a friendship with Elmer, the college-bound clerk at the local convenience store. Here among these erstwhile strangers, Beverly comes into her own for the first time.

This trilogy had a weak start for me, and my Goodreads review of Raymie Nightingale was not very positive. I found the story boring and the writing highly pretentious. Louisiana's Way Home, by contrast, was a really engaging read from beginning to end, and I think I read the entire thing in one sitting. Beverly, Right Here is decidedly not the disaster that Raymie was, but neither did it put me under a spell as Louisiana did.

I like the writing style in this novel from an adult standpoint. It's very quiet and literary, and there were many turns of phrase that made me nod my head approvingly. There is no question of Kate DiCamillo's talent as a writer. This book also shares some similar themes and even a somewhat similar structure to one of my favorite DiCamillo novels, Because of Winn Dixie, though I think Beverly skews more toward the middle school level than Winn Dixie does.  Reading this book just for my own entertainment, I enjoyed it.

Putting on my parenting and librarian hats, however, my view becomes a bit more critical. This is a very atmospheric book where not much happens. I liked books devoid of conflict when I was a kid, but this one moves really slowly and the ending doesn't even really take us anywhere. I also had to fight the nagging thought in the back of my mind that it's really unlikely for both Louisiana and Beverly to have such utterly unreliable adults in their lives. I appreciate that each story is about each of these girls learning to be herself despite hardships, but it's hard for me to just ignore the lack of good parenting. Countless girls have grown up with parents and have still learned to be independent and self-reliant. I might have liked to see a few more responsible adults, rather than these clueless strangers who take in Beverly without ever thinking to even call her mother.

I don't have a sense of the overall popularity of this trilogy, other than the fact that there are no holds on them on Overdrive in my local libraries. I suspect that DiCamillo's name sells the books, but they are really tailored toward a very specific, language-oriented and character-focused reader. I am that reader as a 36-year-old mom, but I'm not sure even my book-devouring five-year-old is going to be the kind of 12-year-old that will be drawn to this series. I like DiCamillo a lot better in this lane than in, say, the one where she has a little girl perform mouth-to-mouth on a squirrel, but I don't think this is her best work even if it is her best genre.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Fumbling Through Fantasy: King Oberon's Forest by Hilda van Stockum (1957)

In King Oberon's Forest, the three dwarf brothers, Alban, Botolph, Ubald are known for being unfriendly and antisocial. On Halloween night, as a trick on this trio of curmudgeons, the other residents of the forest leave a fairy baby on their doorstep. When the brothers find the baby, named Felix, they are completely unsure how to care for him, but over the coming months, they slowly develop the skills of fatherhood, cooking for their unusual child, bathing him, curing his strange illnesses and even teaching him to read. When it becomes clear, however, that Felix longs for companionship beyond the tree in which the brothers live,  the three dwarfs find themselves torn between their love for their son and their desire for peace and privacy.

I found this playful fantasy to be a delightful and charming story. The scenes of the dwarfs' early days of parenthood felt very true to what real-life new parents go through with their new babies, and their slow realization that their lives can be enriched by the companionship of their neighbors is a touching lesson about the value of community. The setting, too, is a wonderful playground for the imagination, as magical creatures and talking animals live side-by-side and embody many of the quirks and foibles of humanity. 

One odd storyline stood out to me as unnecessary and borderline inappropriate for the intended audience. This was the behavior of Mr. Red Squirrel who is a bit of a ladies' man and frequently leaves his wife at home with many children in order to wander about imagining himself as a brave knight. I thought he was a very real character in some ways from an adult's point of view, but in a book with so many other wholesome lessons about family life, his wayward behavior felt a bit more mature than I would have liked, even for the middle grade level at which the book is written.

Also worth noting is the fact that Van Stockum's daughter illustrated this book when she was just 21 years old. The drawings of Felix, in particular, have a sweetness and impishness to them that reveals Brigid Marlin's talent for art as well as the playfulness and innocence of her youth. Indeed, Brigid Marlin (now 83) continued to work as an artist in her adult life, and you can see her work on her website.

My oldest daughters were just turning 4 and 6 at the time we read this novel aloud, and they both loved it. They really enjoyed seeing baby Felix grow up, and they loved all the magical elements the story introduced. It also made a nice non-spooky read for us in the weeks before Halloween, which I think is the ideal time to read this story. I gave the book four stars, and will gladly read it again when my little kids are bigger.

Monday, October 28, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Half-Blood Prince, Chapters 28-30

Last week I read Chapter 28 ("Flight of the Prince"), Chapter 29 ("The Phoenix Lament"), and Chapter 30 ("The White Tomb"), which brings me to the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This post contains many spoilers.

Though I have generally thought of this book as more of a stepping stone between books 5 and 7 than a story in its own right, it really does have one of the strongest endings of any book in the series. It doesn't bring things full circle in the way that the previous books' endings always see Harry going reluctantly back to the Dursleys, but it brings such emotion to the reader as we mourn with Harry, but also enjoy the brief respite he gets to experience before taking on the task he has been destined for since the start of the series.

What I found especially touching in these final chapters is Hagrid's reaction to Dumbledore's death. He is so comforted by the fact that, when Snape sets fire to his house, the damage won't be more than Dumbledore can handle. The brief moment between when he says that he's sure it's nothing Dumbledore can't fix and when Harry tells him of Dumbledore's death is one of the saddest moments of anticipation. It becomes more heartbreaking when, at first, Hagrid doesn't believe Snape has killed him, and then comes upon the body and sees the truth for himself.

Another interesting moment for me on this reading was when Snape became so angry at Harry for calling him a coward. Reading this book for the first time, I took this as a sign that Snape was just proud and arrogant, pleased to have put one over on the Order of the Phoenix and filled with Voldemort's own hatred for Harry. But knowing how things turn out in the very end, this time I completely understood how Snape, who has had to act as a double agent, lying to the face of the most evil wizard there is, killing Hogwarts's beloved headmaster, and looking after the child of his own childhood bully, could be just completely unable to stand being called a coward by that very child. It's definitely interesting reading Snape's actions knowing for sure which side he is truly on.

Finally, I had totally forgotten how the Weasleys came to be reconciled to Fleur and Bill's relationship, but I really liked the way it came about. When Fleur states that she will love Bill even after his looks have been altered by a werewolf bite, the Weasleys realize that she isn't the superficial person they believed her to be. I also love the pairing of Tonks and Lupin, but seeing them together is bittersweet knowing their fate as well.

Next week, I'll be jumping into book 7. It's hard to believe there are only two months - and 37 chapters - left in my year of Harry Potter, but I'm excited to see it through to the end!

Thursday, October 24, 2019

A Guide to Digital Media Apps at Your Public Library: Part Four - RB Digital

This is part four of my four-part guide to digital media apps available through public libraries. For an explanation of this series and an index to all four parts that will be published this week, read A Guide to Digital Media Apps at Your Public Library: Introduction. This guide will also be available as a .PDF booklet in the near future.

In This Post:



What is RB Digital?

RB Digital is an app for accessing e-books and audiobooks, as well as materials like magazines, concerts, Acorn TV, Great Courses, and lessons in the arts. Each library determines for itself what is available to its specific patrons. For the purposes of this guide, I will be focusing only on e-books and audiobooks and not on any of the other formats.

What is Available on RB Digital?

The titles available to you in RB Digital are selected by the librarians at your specific local library. If you have cards at multiple libraries, you may have access to different items depending on which one you use to log in. All of the audiobooks available through RB Digital are produced by Recorded Books.

Accessing RB Digital

RB Digital can be accessed on the web at your library’s own unique URL or through the RB Digital app. For e-books, the app is compatible with Apple iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire. For audiobooks, it works with those three as well as the Nook. When you first register to use RB Digital, you will input an email address and password, which is what you will use to log in each time you open the app. Once you are logged into the app, it is possible to add accounts at other libraries under the same email address. These are called profiles, and they can be added by clicking on “Account.” Switching back and forth between profiles allows you to view the collections at multiple libraries without having to type in new log-in information every time.

It is also possible to download RB Digital e-books on your computer with Adobe Digital Editions and to download audiobooks using the RB Digital Media Manager.

Note: If you previously used the magazine app Zinio, you already have an RB Digital account (provided your library currently subscribes to RB Digital.) Zinio merged with RB Digital in 2017.

Browsing and Searching on RB Digital

You can browse on RB Digital only by format or by genre. The app’s default view also shows you recently added and popular titles. Keyword and advanced searches are available, and you can usually tell as you are typing in a desired title whether it’s available or not, as the search bar will bring up potential matches for your text as you type. The user interface feels a little less streamlined than some of the other digital media apps out there, but it is fairly straightforward to figure out.

Borrowing Items from RB Digital

It can be difficult to tell within the app what the borrowing limits are for your RB Digital account. Your local library determines how many items you can borrow, so this information is likely listed on the library website, but there is nothing within the app that displays the number of borrows you have used or the number you have remaining. Loan periods are easier to discern, as you are able to select the number of days for which you want to borrow each item, and once you have checked out an e-book or audiobook, the date on which it expires is displayed on its cover image.

When you check out a book, it downloads to your device automatically. (If you are concerned about using too much data, there is a setting to ensure that downloads will only occur over wi-fi.) If the book you want to borrow is already checked out, you can place a hold. As you search and browse the catalog, you can also add items to your wishlist to remind you to check them out in the future. Your items will expire automatically at the end of the loan period, but they will not automatically be deleted from your device. Using a file explorer or cleaner program is the best way to find and delete the files associated with expired RB Digital borrows. You can also return items manually before their loan periods end. Even after you return an item, RB Digital will remember the title in your History, so you can look back and see what you have checked out in the past.

The RB Digital Reading Experience

You can read and listen to RB Digital materials right in the app without the need for any additional devices. As you listen to audiobooks, you can see only how much time is left in the current chapter. There is no display showing you how far you have come in the book as a whole. There is a table of contents listing how long each chapter is, so you can do some mental math to figure it out, but mostly you have to guess roughly how far into the book you are. The table of contents does make it very easy to jump to a specific section of the book.

For e-books, the features are also pretty basic. You can change the text layout, font size, line spacing and background color in settings. You can also lock or unlock the screen rotation, search and highlight within the text, and add bookmarks to pages you want to remember. The bottom of the screen shows the current page and the total number of pages left to be read, but it does not calculate your progress as a percentage.

More Help with RB Digital

For further assistance with RB Digital, visit these links:

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A Guide to Digital Media Apps at Your Public Library: Part Three - Cloud Library

This is part three of my four-part guide to digital media apps available through public libraries. For an explanation of this series and an index to all four parts that will be published this week, read A Guide to Digital Media Apps at Your Public Library: Introduction. This guide will also be available as a .PDF booklet after the entire series has been published to this blog.

In This Post:


What is Cloud Library?

Cloud Library is bibliotheca's digital content lending platform. It was previously owned by the 3M company.

What is Available on Cloud Library?

Cloud Library can provide public libraries with access to e-books and/or audiobooks. The materials provided are selected by the staff at each individual library. Individual libraries decide whether to provide e-books, audiobooks, or both.

How to Access Cloud Library

Cloud Library can be accessed on the web at https://www.yourcloudlibrary.com/ or through the Cloud Library mobile app. The app is currently available for Mac, Android, and Apple iOS, PC and Nook tablets, Nook, Kobo, and Kindle Fire. It is not compatible with the Kindle Paperwhite or Kindle app. Accessibility features are available only for iOS.

To use Cloud Library, you will need to log in using your library card number on either the website or the app. Some libraries may also require a PIN or password.  If you are using the app on a PC, you will also be asked for an Adobe ID. If you have an Adobe ID that you have previously used, you can enter it and have your Cloud Library account associated with it. If not, Cloud Library will randomly generate an Adobe ID for you.

If you use Cloud Library on the web, you can only log into one library account at a time. In the app, however, it is possible to input multiple card numbers from multiple libraries. To add additional cards to your account, click “Account,” then select “View Cards.” In the upper right-hand corner, there will be an option to “Add New.” You will still need to toggle back and forth between libraries in order to see the available items at each one, but you will not need to type in your library card number every single time.

Searching and Browsing on Cloud Library

Searching Cloud Library is a straightforward process. Type in a title, author, or keyword and search results will be displayed. You can also apply filters to your search: format, availability, and/or language. There is an advanced search function that allows you to limit by publication date, category, and subject. You can also perform an advanced search for a specific creator, series, or ISBN.

Browsing is possible on Cloud Library, but difficult to accomplish efficiently. When you first log in on either the app or the website, you will be shown featured categories of books selected by your library. To see more categories on the web, you need to click browse; on the app, click “All” to see the same thing: a long list of categories delineated by audience (adult, teen, or kids) and genre. From there, you can click further to view the available titles and/or the subgenres of that category.

In both the app and on the web, it can be very tedious to scroll through the available books, especially since the you need to scroll both up and down and sideways, and the scrolling tends to move very slowly. This is alleviated slightly by the “Favorites” feature. By clicking a star next to a preferred category, you can add it to your favorites list. Then by selecting the “Favorites” tab, you can view only the categories that interest you. Unfortunately, the more categories you select, the more difficult it seems to be to navigate the “Favorites” page. Therefore, the quickest way to find materials in Cloud Library is by searching rather than browsing.

Borrowing Items from Cloud Library

Borrowing books through Cloud Library is a simple process. If the item is not currently checked out, a green “borrow” button will display next to the book cover. Click this button to check out the book to your library card. Each copy of an item can only be checked out by one patron at a time, so there is also an option to place a hold. Cloud Library will send you an email when the book is available for you.

The Cloud Library Reading Experience

You can read e-books and listen to audiobooks either on Cloud Library’s website, or within the app, but these items cannot be transferred to other devices. When you open an item in the Cloud Library app, it downloads to your device automatically, so that you can access it offline. (Audiobooks will only play offline if the entire book is downloaded.) There is a setting to prevent items from downloading over a data connection when wi-fi is not available.

Within e-books, you are able to change the text size, background lighting, layout, and font. There is also a table of contents in each book so that you can move easily between chapters, and a “go to” function that allows you to move directly to a specific page within the book. Within the e-book, you can also see the number of the current page as well as how many pages remain in the current chapter. Click the bookmark icon on any page to mark a place you wish to remember. In the app, there are additional settings, allowing you to choose whether volume buttons can be used to turn the pages, whether to prevent the display from rotating when the screen does, and whether to allow page animation. In the app, you can also search the text of the e-book.

A word of warning: the reading experience of e-books in Cloud Library can sometimes be frustrating. In general, Cloud Library doesn’t handle graphics as well as other e-readers. This can make it difficult to enjoy graphic novels and picture books, as the images can sometimes take a long time to load. Occasionally, both image-heavy and text-only e-books will not open at all on the web, or will show a series of blank pages where words and/or pictures ought to be. It is also the case that sometimes changes made to e-book settings in the app do not “take” the first time.

Audiobooks are designated within Cloud Library with a blue headphones icon, which appears in the lower right-hand corner of the cover image of each audiobook. Within each audiobook, you can access a table of contents which shows each chapter and its duration. Using different arrows, it is possible to move back and forth between the book, either a few seconds at a time, or chapters at a time if necessary. You can also add bookmarks and notes within the audiobook, which will sync across all the devices you use to access Cloud Library. As with other apps, it is possible to change the narration speed in iOS and devices using Android 6.0 or higher (but not on the web, and not on any device not running iOS or Android.) There is also a basic sleep timer.

More Help with Cloud Library

For further assistance with Cloud Library, visit these links:

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

A Guide to Digital Media Apps at Your Public Library: Part Two - Hoopla Digital

This is part two of my four-part guide to digital media apps available through public libraries. For an explanation of this series and an index to all four parts that will be published this week, read A Guide to Digital Media Apps at Your Public Library: Introduction. This guide will also be available as a .PDF booklet after the entire series has been published to this blog.

In This Post:


What is Hoopla?

Hoopla Digital is a subsidiary of Midwest Tape, L.L.C., which is a distributor of physical and digital materials for public libraries. Hoopla’s mission is “to partner with libraries in delivering the best content to patrons in the most streamlined manner possible.”

What is Available through Hoopla Digital?

Hoopla makes its full catalog of audiobooks, e-books, comics, movies, music and television shows available to all libraries. Each library then has the option to place limits on what is available to its patrons, and these limits vary greatly from library to library. Some libraries don’t offer audiobooks, for example, while others might not offer movies or television. Hoopla is not like Netflix, where every user has access to the same materials. Rather, what is available to you through Hoopla depends on the limits put in place by the library with which your library card is affiliated.

Libraries do not own any of the materials found on Hoopla; rather, Hoopla contracts directly with publishers, and libraries pay a fee for each use of each item. Your library does not have control over the specific titles that are available through Hoopla. Your local librarians can neither add nor weed (remove) titles from Hoopla’s collection. Libraries can choose whether to opt in or out of offering a specific category (based on format, or price, for example), but they can not opt in or out of providing access to any individual title within the categories they choose to make available.

How to Access Hoopla

Hoopla can be used on the web at hoopladigital.com. It also offers a mobile app which is available for Android devices (operating systems 4.4 and above), iOS (10 and above) and Kindle Fire tablets (5.0.0. and above). Items borrowed from Hoopla can also be viewed on Airplay, Android TV, Apple TV, Chromecast, Fire TV, Lightning Digital AV Adapter and Roku. Hoopla recommends accessing its website using the most updated versions of Chrome, Edge, Firefox, or Safari. Hoopla does not support Internet Explorer or Windows mobile devices. It does support Amazon’s Alexa on Amazon Echo, Echo Plus, Dot, Spot, and Show.

To use Hoopla, you will need to register, either at hoopladigital.com or directly in the app for your device. You will be prompted to provide a valid email address and create a password, then to select your local library and to input your library card number. Each email address can be associated with only one library card; if you wish to access more than one library’s Hoopla offerings, you will need to register each library card using a different email address.

Searching and Browsing on Hoopla

Hoopla’s search function is very basic. You can either search the entire catalog, search within a particular format, or search for a specific author (or person), category, publisher, or series. There is no advanced search function, but you can filter your search results by format, language, or publication date.  If you would like to limit the search results to only kid-friendly materials, you can turn on Kids Mode. In the app, simply click “Kids” next to the search box. On the website, you can toggle Kids Mode on and off in Settings.

To browse, you must first select a format; then you can limit the results by clicking on “Recommended,” “Featured”, “Popular” or ”Categories.” (In the app, “Categories” is called “Genres.”) When you click on an item title, you will also see that the names of the author, publisher, audiobook narrator, series, director, cast members, etc. are hyperlinked so that you can click on them to see more items from those same entities.

Borrowing Items from Hoopla

Your local library determines how many items you can borrow from Hoopla per month. Once you have reached this number, you cannot borrow anything else until a new month begins, even if you return items early. You can use all your borrows immediately, or spread them out over the month, but whatever limit your library has set is the maximum, and unused borrows do not carry over. (Note: if you borrow something whose lending period will extend into the next month,  it will not count against the next month’s borrowing limit. No matter what you have checked out at the end of the month, you will be given a new full set of borrows at the start of the month.) There are no renewals; if an item expires before you finish with it, and you want to borrow it again within the same month, this will count as two borrows. You can return an item before the end of its loan period, but there is no particular benefit to doing so.

Since your library pays per use, every item is always available, so there is no need to place holds. When you are out of borrows (or if you just want to remember an item for future use), you can use the Favorites feature to save titles for later. Simply click the heart icon next to the item you wish to remember, and it will be added to your Favorites list.

The loan periods for each item are determined by Hoopla and should therefore be uniform across libraries: 3 days for movies and TV episodes, 7 days for music, and 21 days for audiobooks, comics, and e-books. Hoopla mentions on its website that there may sometimes be exceptions to these rules based on publisher restrictions, but these seem to be rare.

Reading and Viewing on Hoopla

Hoopla items must be used within the Hoopla app or website. The e-reader and audio player are both adequate, but they are not as streamlined or easy to use as some other apps. In the e-reader, you are able to adjust the font size, search for keywords, bookmark pages, and access the table of contents. At the bottom of the screen, the e-reader also shows you your current page and what percentage of the book you have completed. The audio player has fewer features. There is no way to select a specific chapter. You can see how much time has elapsed and how much is left in the entire book, but it does not show you how much time remains in the current chapter.  You can adjust the speed up to 1.5x on the website and 2x in the app, but not up to 3x as you can in some other apps. The audio player also has a sleep timer.

You can download items for use offline only in the mobile app, but even when items are downloaded, they cannot be transferred to other apps or devices.

More Help with Hoopla

For further assistance with Hoopla, visit these links:

Monday, October 21, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Half-Blood Prince, Chapters 24-27

This weekend, I finally reached the climax of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as I read Chapter 24 ("Sectumsempra"), Chapter 25 ("The Seer Overheard"),  Chapter 26 ("The Cave"), and Chapter 27 ("The Lightning Struck Tower"). There are huge spoilers beyond this point. 

The writing in these chapters is great, and even though I knew they were coming, moments like Dumbledore drinking the potion in the cave, the appearance of the Dark Mark, and Snape suddenly killing Dumbledore were all every bit as shocking to me as they were the first time I read them. I was especially impressed by the way Rowling hits us with Dumbledore's death so suddenly, just after he has seemingly escaped harm by making it safely away from the cave. It's a real punch to the gut for Harry, and for the reader as well. It was difficult to tear myself away from the book just as the death occurred, but I'm glad to have my reading schedule to slow me down because I do think it adds something to the reading experience when I take the time to stop and reflect on a major event like this.

Aside from the obvious moments of action in this section of the book, I was also struck by many smaller details. I loved the line describing Dumbledore's seemingly simple approach to magic in the cave, which says, "Harry had long since learned that bangs and smoke were more often the marks of ineptitude than expertise." I'm not sure we ever appreciate Dumbledore's true power until we see how he goes about finding this horcrux. Another line I love in the cave chapter comes at the very end, when Dumbledore says he isn't worried because he's with Harry. Throughout the series, Dumbledore is that steady character that makes us all (readers and characters alike!) feel safe, and knowing that he will die within a few pages of this remark makes it all the more poignant.

All I have left in this book now is the aftermath of Dumbledore's death. As I recall, not much is explained until book 7, but I am still looking forward to the funeral scene, which is one of the few scenes omitted from the film versions that I actually wish had been included. It would have made such a great cinematic moment. I also love the way this book ends, with Harry and his friends looking ahead at what they must do in order to defeat Voldemort.

A Guide to Digital Media Apps at Your Public Library: Part One - Overdrive & Libby

This is part one of my four-part guide to digital media apps available through public libraries. For an explanation of this series and an index to all four parts that will be published this week, read A Guide to Digital Media Apps at Your Public Library: Introduction. This guide will also be available as a .PDF booklet after the entire series has been published to this blog.

In This Post:



What is Overdrive?

Chances are, if your library has only one service for providing e-books and audiobooks to patrons, it is Overdrive, the most popular distributor of digital content for public libraries. Through Overdrive, you can search and browse the e-books, audiobooks, videos, and music your library has selected and purchased for its patrons, and you can borrow, download, transfer, and consume these materials from the comfort of your Internet-connected smartphone or computer. You can access Overdrive materials through your library’s website and/or by installing one of Overdrive’s apps, either the older Overdrive app, or the newer Libby app.

What Is Available on Overdrive?

Though Overdrive has thousands of items available, you will only be able to access the ones that have been purchased by the libraries where you have memberships. These items have been selected by staff members at your library based on factors such as community interests, popularity, patron demand, budget constraints, and availability of items in other formats. Overdrive is different from subscription services like Netflix; membership does not gain you access to a one-size-fits-all catalog of materials, but only to the materials your library has added to its collection.

Overdrive is capable of providing access to e-books, audiobooks, video, and music. Again, what is actually available to you depends on the way your library uses the service. The best way to find out what your library offers through Overdrive is to log in and begin to search and browse.

How to Access Overdrive

Your library’s Overdrive collection is accessible on the web at your library’s unique Overdrive URL as well as through the Overdrive app and the Libby app. To easily find your library’s Overdrive URL, visit overdrive.com, and use the “Find a Library” function to search for your zip code. If you prefer to use an app, you can search for them by name in the app store for your device. The original Overdrive app is compatible with Android, Chromebooks, Apple iOS, Kindle Fire tablets, and Windows 8/10. Libby is currently compatible with Android, Apple iOS, and Windows 10. Libby is not yet available in the Amazon app store on Kindle Fire devices, but Kindle Fire users may be able to download the app from GoodEReader.com by briefly enabling apps from unknown sources in their security settings. Libby can also be used on Chromebooks for which the Play Store app is available.

The type of device you plan to use to access Overdrive may determine which app is most appropriate for you. If your device is compatible with both apps, however, you have the opportunity to choose which one you would prefer to use. Though they are similar and will give you access to the same materials, there are a few differences to be aware of when making your choice:
  • With the exception of books available in the Kindle format (which you can send to your Kindle device from within the app), materials that you access through Libby need to be read or listened to using Libby. If you want to read e-books on an e-reader other than Kindle, or you want to be able to download audiobooks to your computer for transfer to an mp3 player or USB drive, you can only do this through the original Overdrive app.
  • The original app is currently the only one that offers features for accessibility and parental control.
  • Some libraries make it possible for patrons to suggest books to be added to the library’s Overdrive collection. This feature is not available through Libby; it can only be accessed directly on the website or through the original Overdrive app.
  • Though you can switch back and forth between multiple libraries using both the original Overdrive app and Libby, the transition is smoother in Libby. To use multiple cards at the same library in the Overdrive app, you have to change accounts by logging out of one and into the other. In the Libby app, you only need to input your account information once; thereafter, you can simply click back and forth between libraries and between accounts at the same library.
Once you have decided which app you’re going to use, search for it by name in the app store that applies to your device, download, and install.

Registering for Overdrive

You can register for Overdrive on your library’s Overdrive home page or within one of the apps. On the home page, click “Sign In” to begin the registration process. The log-in page offers the option to log in with your library card by selecting your library from the drop-down menu or to log in with Overdrive or Facebook. Signing in with your library card allows you to set up your account at just this one library. Signing in with Facebook or Overdrive makes it possible for you to link Overdrive accounts at multiple libraries so that they can be accessed using just one username and password.

Any option you choose on this page will prompt you to provide some registration information in order to set up your account. In all cases, you will need your library card number, and if required by your library, your library card PIN. (Your PIN is typically issued at the time you receive your library card. If you are prompted to provide your PIN and you don’t know what it is, contact your library for assistance.) If you choose to sign up through Overdrive, you will also be asked for an email address. Signing up through Facebook requires that you have a Facebook account and that you know the username and password.

If you choose to use Libby, the app will walk you through the initial log-in process with lots of easy-to-follow on-screen prompts. Even after you have input your library card numbers and begun to use the app, you can still access this tutorial by clicking on the Libby icon (it looks like a girl’s head) in the upper right-hand corner, and selecting “Set up Libby” followed by “Meet Libby (Again).” Also accessible by clicking on the Libby icon is a newly added option to “Learn Libby,” clicking on which brings up easy-to-understand tips for getting the most out of the app.

The original Overdrive app does not walk you through the set-up process, which can be intimidating at first. To access the various menu options available, you will need to click on the three horizontal lines on the upper left-hand side of your screen. To add a library to the app, select Manage Libraries. To log into your main Overdrive account (which is affiliated with your email address rather than one specific library), click “Account.”

Browsing and Searching the Overdrive Collection

Once you are registered to use Overdrive, you are ready to find some e-books and audiobooks to enjoy. Though the look and feel of the user experience varies slightly depending on whether you are using an app or browsing the collection on your library’s Overdrive website, the process is basically the same. In all instances, you will view your library’s Overdrive collection on the web, either in your computer’s web browser, or using your app as your browser.

In the Overdrive app, you access a library’s collection by clicking on the three horizontal lines in the upper left-hand corner, and then selecting the name of the library. In the Libby app, you click on the Libby icon in the upper right and select the library whose collection you wish to access. Both of these actions take you to the Overdrive home page for the library you have selected.

Once you have the Overdrive home page in front of you, there are a variety of ways to search for materials you might like to borrow:
  • Check out the main page. Your library typically has control over what is shown on its Overdrive home page. Often libraries will use this space to highlight topics of local interest, books that have won regional or state awards, community reading challenges, summer reading themes, holiday celebrations, etc. If you don’t have a specific title in mind, this can be a good starting point. (In Libby, this shelf does not display whether the items shown are currently available. On the website and in the original app, you will be able to see a “borrow” button if the item is available, and a “place a hold” button if it is checked out.)
  • Browse by category. On the Overdrive website and in the Overdrive app, there are menus across the top of the page to help you easily browse the collection according to subject, collection, audience, language, and format. These same menus can be accessed in the Libby app by clicking on Explore in the upper right-hand corner.
  • Search for a specific title. If there is a particular item you are hoping to borrow, type in the title (or author) to find out whether it is available. Advanced search options can be found by clicking “advanced” beneath the search bar on the website or in the original Overdrive app, or by clicking “more options” under the search bar in Libby.
Items that are available to be checked out immediately appear in your search results with a “borrow” button beside them. Items that are already checked out will have “place a hold” buttons instead. If you prefer to see only the books that are available for you to borrow at this moment, you can filter your search results so that only checked-in titles appear. In the original app and on the website, this filter is a link in the sidebar (“Available Now.”) In Libby, you can opt to see only books that are available now under “Preferences,” which is clearly displayed on a horizontal bar on every page within the Overdrive catalog. Just don’t forget to remove this preference in the event that you want to see books that are checked out now, but on which you might want to place a hold.

Borrowing Overdrive Materials

Your local library determines how many digital items you can borrow from the Overdrive collection at one time, but you can decide on the length of your loan period by selecting either 7, 14, or 21 days. At the end of your loan period, the item automatically expires, but you will be prompted to renew (if no one is waiting) or place a hold (if there are other patrons in the queue) as your time gets close to running out. You can also return an item early if you finish with it before your loan ends, thereby freeing up a spot to borrow another item.

The Overdrive Reading Experience

Though it is possible to access Overdrive materials on other devices, the reading experience on the web and in the apps is the best among the e-book and audiobook apps available to libraries.

For audiobooks, the listening experiences on the web and in Libby are identical. The audio player has many excellent features which allow you to:
  • Increase the playback speed in increments of .05x, all the way up to 3x.
  • Set a sleep timer to turn the book off at the end of the current chapter or at the end of a period of time up to two hours long.
  • Bookmark and make notes as you listen.
  • Select a specific chapter within the book.
  • Return to your previous place if you have jumped ahead and wish to go back using the “History” function.
  • Toggle the display to see how much time is left in the entire book and the current chapter, how much time has elapsed since the start of the book, or what percentage of the book you have completed.
  • Select a precise timestamp within the audiobook by simply dragging your finger or mouse.
  • Swipe or drag a mouse across either side of the screen to rewind or fast-forward a few seconds.

Listening to audiobooks on the Overdrive app is similar, but the player doesn’t have as much flexibility. You can still change the playback speed, but only up to 2x. The sleep timer will only stay on for a maximum of 99 minutes, and there is no option to have it turn off at the end of a chapter. It is more difficult to see each individual minute as it goes by, so rewinding and fast-forwarding is not as precise, but you can skip forward or backward 15 seconds at a time with the click of a button. You can move forward or backward one whole chapter in the same way.

Libby and the Overdrive website also use the same exact e-book reader. Similarly to the audio player, the reader has a timeline at the bottom of the screen that makes it easy to find a precise location in the book. You can also create bookmarks (though without the option to make notes) and easily return to a previous location within the book after jumping forward or backward by using the “History” function. The e-reader allows you to toggle between the percentage of the book that has been completed, the current page number, and the number of pages left in the chapter. (Note: these page numbers change to accommodate the actual number of pages you will read depending on whether you set the reader to display text in one column or two.) Other Reading Settings include options for font (publisher’s default, OpenDyslexic, etc.), the lighting (bright, sepia, or dark), and the size of the text. It is also possible to search your e-book for specific words and phrases.

Again, the Overdrive app is similar, but with less functionality. There is no timeline at the bottom of the screen, and the only information shown is the current page number. You can see the percentage of the book you have read by clicking on that, but it brings up a box in the center of the screen instead of toggling the same text to display new information. The table of contents does not list every chapter, even in books where a full table of contents shows up on the web and in Libby. There are, however, a variety of settings that can be changed to suit your preferences: brightness, color scheme, font size, font style, landscape columns, line spacing, margins, orientation, screen timeout, default layout, page animation, page with volume keys, and fullscreen mode.

More Help with Overdrive

For further assistance with Overdrive and Libby, visit these links:

Sunday, October 20, 2019

A Guide to Digital Media Apps at Your Public Library: Introduction

As I’ve become more and more of a digital reader of both ebooks and downloadable audiobooks, I have become interested in comparing and contrasting all of the different apps libraries use to make these materials available to their patrons. Having spent a lot of time using trial and error to learn how these apps work, I thought it might be helpful for others to have access to everything I have learned. Thus, this guide to using digital media apps was born.

This guide covers the four most popular digital media apps used in public libraries: Overdrive (including the Libby app), Hoopla, RB Digital, and Cloud Library. Since each of these apps has its own extensive help documentation, I have avoided going into too many technical details. Rather, I have tried to provide an overview of the capabilities of each app and to highlight as many of the important or unique features as I can. 

In almost every instance, my comments in this guide are based on my own firsthand experience using these apps. In a couple of cases, I was limited by the availability of certain formats or features at my local libraries, and I sought out screenshots from libraries’ websites to help inform my descriptions of these. If I have given advice that runs contrary to what you have experienced using these apps, please let me know, as I want this to guide to be useful to users of many libraries, and not just the ones I happen to use. 

As requested by my Instagram followers, this guide will be available both as a series of blog posts and as a .PDF booklet. The series of blog posts will publish this week, and the .PDF booklet will be released after the fourth and final section of the guide has gone live.

All posts will be linked here as they are published:

Part One - Overdrive & Libby
Part Two - Hoopla Digital
Part Three - Cloud Library
Part Four - RB Digital 

Friday, October 18, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Half-Blood Prince, Chapters 20-23

Last week's chapters in Half-Blood Prince were: Chapter 20 ("Lord Voldemort's Request"), Chapter 21 ("The Unknowable Room"), Chapter 22 ("After the Burial"), and Chapter 23 ("Horcruxes). This post contains many spoilers for this book and the series as a whole.

The most significant scenes in these chapters involve Harry's attempts to retrieve Slughorn's true memory of his discussion with young Voldemort about Horcruxes, his eventual success in getting Slughorn to give up the memory (using Felix Felicis), and the revelations that come about when he shares the memory with Dumbledore.

Though I think the overall idea of Horcruxes is an interesting one (especially given Tom Riddle's penchant for stealing as a child) and though I think finding the four missing ones serves as a great way to structure the plot of book 7, I am still confused about some things. Strangely, the way Voldemort uses Horcruxes is the most poorly explained bit of magic in the entire series. Dumbledore goes so far as to say that he believed the murder of Harry's parents was an attempt to make a Horcrux, but then points out right away that the effort failed. Of course, in book 7, this turns out to be false, as we learn that the last piece of Voldemort's soul resides within Harry. It seems unfair to the reader to have a trusted and beloved character make such a certain statement without sharing any details that might lead to a different conclusion. I don't like feeling that she misled me.

Similarly, it was annoying to have Dumbledore spout so much explanation about the reasons Harry is considered to be the boy the prophecy is about. So many of these details seem to contradict "facts" that had been established in book five and the early parts of this book, almost as though Rowling didn't have the details figured out and then needed to do a little back-pedaling to ensure that her anticipated ending to the series would make sense. This didn't bother me that much the first time around, but I expected things to be clearer during this re-read, and they're really not.

Despite my frustration, through, there are some hilarious lines in this section of the book. One is Dumbledore's line about his difficulty mediating the tension between Trelawney and Firenze: "Divination is turning out to be much more trouble than I could have foreseen, never having studied the subject myself." This is such a "dad joke" moment for Dumbledore  in the midst of an otherwise very serious scene and it made me laugh out loud. The other line is from Chapter 22 in which Slughorn mistakenly refers to Ron as "your poor friend Rupert." This must be a reference to Rupert Grint, who plays Ron in the films.

I only have two more segments of this book to go, and I know the inevitable sadness of the loss of Dumbledore is on its way. I've been dreading it the whole time I've been re-reading, but I know I have to get through it to be able to get to the end of the series, and I'm trying to be pleased that I'm nearly ready to begin book 7.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Half-Blood Prince, Chapters 17-19


My Harry Potter reading assignment for the first week in October was three chapters: Chapter 17 ("A Sluggish Memory"), Chapter 18 ("Birthday Surprises"), and Chapter 19 ("Elf Tails") in Half-Blood Prince. Spoilers below.

Chapter 17 finally introduces Horcruxes. These are such a part of the lore of this series that it's kind of amazing in retrospect to realize how late they are named and explained, especially given that one of them was destroyed all the way back in book 2. I remember being totally intrigued by this idea the first time around, and I'm enjoying revisiting how the clues unfold. I also continue to love the way Rowling uses memory - and the fact that some characters (Slughorn) choose to alter their memories - in Dumbledore's lessons with Harry.

I remembered that Ron fell victim to a love potion around the time of his birthday, but I had totally forgotten that the antidote given to him by Slughorn turned out to be poison! It does seem a little convenient that Harry had this sudden opportunity to use a bezoar after just figuring out what they do in class, but I honestly can't remember how this ends up tying into the story, so it's possible that it's not just a convenient coincidence. I'll have to wait to have my memory refreshed.

Finally, it is incredibly risky to ask Kreacher to spy on Malfoy. I don't remember how this turns out, either, but it seems like a bad idea. I do love any opportunity for Harry to use the Marauders Map, however, and it definitely builds up suspense to show that Malfoy keeps disappearing from the map from time to time.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Read-at-Home Kids Report: September 2019

September was out first month of the school year, and looking back over the weeks, we got a good amount of reading done despite morning sickness and our school workload.


Family Read-Alouds

The most timely read-aloud we shared this month was Max and Ruby and Twin Trouble by Rosemary Wells,  a review copy of which arrived just days after we learned we were expecting twins. (My review of the book is here.) Though it doesn't have everything I'd want in a book about anticipating newborn twins, it's one of the only books out there, and it helped us get the conversational ball rolling.

That same week, we also read The Ballad of the Pirate Queens by Jane Yolen and went to the adventure playground to act out some pirate scenes on the pirate ship play equipment.

Our first lunchtime read-aloud in September was the second book of the Doll People series, The Meanest Doll in the World. The girls loved it and wanted to continue with the series, but we had library books that had to be read that I said we needed to finish first. We read Gooseberry Park by Cynthia Rylant, followed by the last four books in her Cobble Street Cousins series. We easily read a single volume in one sitting, and the girls loved the sweet coziness of the stories.

At dinner, my husband read aloud King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Emma Gelders Sterne and Barbara Lindsay, and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry and The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt by Elizabeth Payne (which went along with our history unit on Ancient Egypt.)


Little Miss Muffet (Age 5 years, 10 months)

In addition to her assigned reading for school (The Bears on Hemlock Mountain by Alice Dalgliesh,  Emily's Runaway Imagination by Beverly Cleary, The Story of Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, The Key to the Treasure by Peggy Parish, and Sokar and the Crocodile by Alice Woodbury Howard), Miss Muffet spent her free time in September reading several volumes from Courtney Sheinmel's Stella Batts series and a bunch of books in the Little Miss series by Roger Hargreaves (including Little Miss Twins).


Little Bo Peep (Age 4)

Little Bo Peep enjoyed read-alouds about animals during school time this month. We read The Mother Whale by Edith Thacher Hurd and Clement Hurd, followed by Here Come the Bears by Alice Goudey. She also continued listening to the audio recordings of favorite picture books and "reading" wordless books from the Carl series by Alexandra Day. She also practiced all month to learn to read Rag by Barney Saltzburg, which she mastered just in time for her fourth birthday at the end of the month. She was also enamored of The Frog Princess retold by J. Patrick Lewis and illustrated by Gennady Spirin. (The main draw was the character of Baba Yaga.)


Little Jumping Joan (Age 23 months)

As Little Jumping Joan starts to talk more and more, she has become more vocal about the books she wants to hear. This month, her favorites were Eloise Wilkin Stories, Little Excavator by Anna Dewdney, Lullaby and Good Night: Songs for Sweet Dreams by Julie Downing, and No, David! by David Shannon. She has learned to recite almost every page in No, David and she happily reminds us of various scenes that have made a particular impression on her, such as the page where David picks his nose, and the one where he runs away naked.


Monday, October 14, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Half-Blood Prince, Chapters 13-16

Two weeks ago, my assigned segment of Half-Blood Prince included Chapter 13 ("The Secret Riddle"), Chapter 14 ("Felix Felicis"), Chapter 15 ("The Unbreakable Vow") and Chapter 16 ("A Very Frosty Christmas").

In a lot of ways, Rowling mainly uses this book to set up the final one, and this is definitely clear in the way she finally provides all the details about Tom Riddle's past. The conceit of the Pensieve prevents this from being too much of an info-dump of exposition, and just as I did on my first reading of the book, I soaked up all the details and immediately began fitting them into the narrative of Voldemort's actions. 

The other major character Rowling continues to focus on is Snape. His discussion with Draco in the hallway, to which Harry listens from under the invisibility cloak, does a great job of casting suspicion on both characters and continuing to make the reader uneasy about Dumbledore's implicit trust of Snape.

On the lighter side, in these chapters dating drama is beginning to unfold. Ron and Hermione are constantly arguing and bantering (Ron's lines are especially funny - he's such a great character.) Hermione and Ron also start spending time with Cormac Maclaggen and Lavender Brown, respectively, clearly trying to make each other jealous and acting somewhat out-of-character in the process. Harry also finds himself feeling jealous of Ginny's relationship with Dean, in what is a very believable realization of the change in the way he sees her. The Weasleys also have strong opinions about Bill's relationship with Fleur Delacour - I did not at all remember that they all disliked her so much!

Finally, these chapters end on a great note for Harry, as he stands up to the new minister of magic and refuses to be exploited. With current news stories floating around about kids being used to promote agendas they may not fully understand, it was nice to see this savvy kid refusing to be made into a talking head for anyone's opinions but his own. Moments like that remind me why I do like Harry.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Homeschool Progress Report: September 2019

First Grade


Our first official year of homeschooling started in the first week of September. I have one official student this year: M., who will turn 6 in November. She is technically in kindergarten, but she did a lot of kindergarten-level work as a preschooler, so we are calling this year first grade, and some of her work is at a higher level even than that. Here's what we covered in each of our subjects during September.

Math

For Math, we are using the Singapore curriculum. We started this year with Primary Mathematics 2B. (She completed 1A and 1B as well as 2A over the past two years. We took about a year to finish 2A.) So far, M's focus has been on reviewing place value and learning strategies for solving addition and subtraction problems mentally. Additionally, she drills math facts using XtraMath once a day, and occasionally my husband has her work on Khan Academy. We also read one chapter from Life of Fred each week on "Fred Fridays." In September, we finished Life of Fred: Cats and started Life of Fred: Dogs.


History

We've begun our first cycle through world history with a quick review of prehistory (which was our focus last year) followed by a three-week exploration of Ancient Egypt. We are using A Child's History of the World and A Little History of the World as our spines and supplementing with lots of other books including The Golden Book of Lost Worlds, Mummies Made in Egypt, The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, The Great Pyramid, and Pepi and the Secret Names. M. has done narrations about Menes (also known as Narmer, the first king of Egypt), mummies, and pyramids, and she also decoded a message in hieroglyphics and wrote her own message in hieroglyphics for her father to decode.


Science

I decided to start the year by studying the human body. Our main text is the Deluxe Golden Book, The Human Body: What it is and How it Works, and we're also using materials from KidsHealth's "How the Body Works" curriculum, which includes free articles, videos, and printable worksheets. In September, we covered skin and the skeletal system. M. drew a diagram of the skin and labeled diagrams of both the skin and the skeleton. (Our main science curriculum is Building Foundations for Scientific Understanding, but as it provides only a framework and not specific lesson plans, I'm pretty loose about dipping in and out of it.)


Health

Our health topic for this month was germs and hygiene. I provided M. with some worksheets explaining how germs can make us sick and demonstrating proper hand washing. One of our handouts came from KidsHealth's K-2 unit on Hygiene (found on this page) and we had a couple of others from Purell's Clean Gene lesson plans: this finger puppet activity and this "Germ Search" worksheet. We also practiced washing hands well and connected our study of germs with our study of the skin. 


Reading 

M. read or listened to just about 70 books in September. She reads a lot of her own free-choice books at all levels throughout the day, but we also "assign" her certain books that are at or just above her reading level so that she will continue to be challenged. Her assignments in September were:
  • The Bears on Hemlock Mountain by Alice Dalgliesh
  • Emily's Runaway Imagination by Beverly Cleary
  • The Story of Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting 
  • The Key to the Treasure by Peggy Parish
  • Sokar and the Crocodile by Alice Woodbury Howard 
On her own, in addition to tons of picture books, she also read four books from the Stella Batts series by Courtney Sheinmel, which she has been reading in paperback and via Hoopla, depending on how I can find them. 

We also started learning about figurative language using a book called It Figures! by Marvin Terban and Giulio Maestro. We've only talked about similes so far, and I've been asking her to find them in the books she reads.


Memory Work

For over a month, M. has been working on learning and choreographing a recitation of "The Pirate Don Durk of Dowdee." I expect her to be ready to move on to a new poem by the end of October. My husband has also been working with her on memorizing the seven continents,  the countries of Europe, the oceans, and some U.S. rivers. We typically drill these when we're in the car. 


Music

M. practices recorder and piano (15 minutes each) every morning before breakfast. In the afternoon, she practices identifying musical notes using MusicTheory.net. We have also been listening to episodes of Classics for Kids on most weekday mornings, and we do some liturgical singing with the help of the music curriculum at Traditional Catholic Living. We're doing Year 1 this year, so the hymn for September was Concordi Laetitia. We also frequently sing the hymns from the morning and evening prayers on Aleteia.org.


Art

Since the summer, we have been working our way through The Story of Paintings: A History of Art for Children, and have almost finished the book. We have also done a lot of drawing in both history and science, and M. likes to free draw a lot on her own.


Physical Education

In September, our main focus for P.E. was learning to ride a two-wheeler, which M. mastered after just a few sessions of practice. Additionally, she does these children's exercise videos from The Ten Thousand Method on YouTube a couple of times a week, in addition to running laps on the deck (by choice), attempting to learn to jump rope, and practicing hanging and climbing on the brand-new playground equipment installed at the tot lot near our house.


Catechism

I recorded myself reading the questions and answers from the first 10 lessons of the St. Joseph Catechism months ago, and M. listens to them most days. She has mostly mastered lessons 1-7, so now we're focusing our attention on 8-10. We have also made a point of acknowledging saints' feast days that occurred in September: St. Peter Claver, Sts. Cosmas and Damian, St. Michael, and St. Jerome. We also encourage M. to follow along at Sunday Mass as much as possible. Even at the Latin Mass, I try to whisper to her about what's going on so she can follow along.


Pre-K 


Though she technically won't be old enough for kindergarten in Maryland for 2 more years (she misses the cut-off by a month), C, who just turned 4 at the end of the month, is doing Pre-K this year, with the thought that she might start kindergarten-level work next year. She does some schoolwork most days, usually for about 30-40 minutes tops. Here's what she worked on in September.

Counting

We started out with some simple math activities in My Favorite Sticker Book: Numbers, which came from The Dollar Tree, and which C. completed in just over two weeks. These activities introduced counting up to 100, doing simple addition with illustrations, and identifying numerals. Our main focus this month was on helping her not to skip 15 when she counts to 20. Now she can mostly count to 30 on her own without missing any numbers. Occasionally, she also plays Birthday Candle Counting at ABCYa.com, and she likes to play dominoes with me.  My husband is also beginning to work with her with Cuisenaire rods, making trains and beginning to associate each rod with its appropriate number.

Reading

We started going through The Ordinary Parents' Guide to Teaching Reading several months ago and C. has mastered most of the letter sounds and has begun sounding out consonant-vowel-consonant words. She has also learned to read the word "the," which the Guide introduces as a sight word to make it possible to read some actual simple books. In September, she mastered reading a Hooked on Phonics reader called Rag, and also did some practice in another simple book called Al. She also listens to the family read-alouds we have after lunch and dinner (which will be listed in my upcoming Read-at-Home Kids Report for September) and she likes to listen to audiobooks during her morning playtime or during afternoon quiet time. For help with identifying lowercase letters, I also like to have her play Alphabet Bingo on ABCYa.com. We also occasionally do letter sound activities on the Khan Academy Kids app.

Science & Health 

For science at this age, we typically focus on nature, so C. mostly has read-alouds about animals. In September, she heard The Mother Whale from the Let's Read and Find About Science series and Here Come the Bears by Alice Goudey. She also likes to watch episodes of Wild Kratts and Zoboomafoo, and she has joined us for some of M.'s videos about the human body. She also participated in our health lessons about germs. We haven't had a change in the weather yet, but I also plan to talk with her about the changing leaves and other signs of fall when they eventually become obvious.

Music 

C. joins M. in listening to Classics for Kids and in our liturgical singing. Additionally, she will often listen to music while M. is doing school. In September, she mostly listened to Raffi, Ella Jenkins, Sousa marches, Elizabeth Mitchell, and the CDs that came with the books Sing Through the Day and Goodnight Songs. 

Memory Work

C. learned the poem "Blum" by Dorothy Aldis, and this was her best recitation to date.

Art 

C. loves to draw and color, and she makes daily use of crayons and oil pastels, coloring books and plain paper, as well as washable markers.