Monday, March 25, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapters 8-11

Once again, this week it was difficult to tear myself away from this book after I'd finished reading the week's assignment, which was chapters 8 to 11: "Flight of the Fat Lady," "Grim Defeat," "The Marauder's Map," and "The Firebolt." (Lots of spoilers in this post, for this book and later ones.)

One of my favorite things about this book is that it begins to introduce all of the backstory leading up to the death of Harry's parents and the key figures in Harry's life who are later revealed to be members of the Order of the Phoenix. I think the relationship between past and present is one of the strongest elements in this series, and this book feels like the beginning of the real story Rowling wants to tell.

I was especially drawn into the relationship between Lupin and Snape. Having read to the end of the series, I have such love and empathy for Snape, but his behavior when he must cover Lupin's class due to "illness" is pretty cruel. Even if he disapproves of a werewolf teaching at Hogwarts, it seems really over-the-top to discuss werewolves with Lupin's class, almost as though he is encouraging them to figure out the truth about their teacher's illness. I guess some of this is due to the fact that Snape suspects Lupin of helping Sirius Black, who Snape believes betrayed his beloved Lily, but sometimes it is just hard to reconcile the Snape of book 7 with the Snape of the earlier books.

As for Harry's overhearing that Sirius Black is his godfather, I found that whole scene kind of far-fetched this time around. Knowing that that bombshell was coming allowed me to focus my attention on how the information is delivered, and it didn't quite ring true. It doesn't seem consistent that McGonagall would be discussing sensitive information like that in public on a day when she knows the students are in Hogsmeade. Even if Harry himself is not meant to be present, Ron and Hermione and plenty of other Gryffindors (not to mention nosy Slytherins!) are around to overhear. This is the only time in the series so far, where I feel like Rowling inserted a scene solely for the opportunity to give us a bunch of exposition at one time.

The other thing of which I took special note is Hermione's reporting to McGonagall that Harry received a Firebolt from an anonymous benefactor on Christmas. I've really been on the lookout for instances when these characters do dangerous things and get away with it, but Hermione really does the right thing in this situation, even though Harry is very annoyed with her. As Dumbledore says in the first book, "It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” Hermione's willingness to go against Harry's wishes in order to protect him is admirable, and her good instincts are the kind of thing I won't mind seeing my kids emulate.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Reading Through History: The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich (2008)

In the year during which Omakayas is twelve winters old, she and her family leave their home near Lake Superior and head west, looking for a new place to settle. As they make the difficult journey, Omakayas and her younger brother, Pinch, both begin to come of age, taking on new names and identities as adulthood comes ever closer. The year is marked by many emotional ups and downs, including the loss of a beloved family member and the revelation that another is perhaps not what he had first seemed.

I was really annoyed by the representation of Father Baraga in the second book of this series, Game of Silence, and it took me a while to want to read another book for fear there would be more blatant inaccuracies requiring research and emails to Catholic Answers apologists. Happily, there are no egregiously anti-Catholic representations in this book, and indeed, priests, when mentioned, are shown to be helpful and merciful. Without having to dissect scenes involving Catholic clergy, I was able to enjoy this novel for what it is: an exciting but emotional adventure story about Ojibwe life in 1852.

There is a lot of memorable description in this book, and while not all of it is pleasant to read about, it is all handled very tastefully and almost poetically. Though there are some definite scary moments, and some that could even be considered gruesome, I did not find them so troubling that I lost sleep or had nightmares or anything like that. Even the scenes about Omakayas beginning her "moon" and gaining the ability to bear children were written in a way that didn't feel embarrassing or awkward. Erdrich describes this experience as such a positive and meaningful transition from girlhood to womanhood, and though it is very specific to Omakayas's culture, I think her description could be comforting to a girl from any time and place.

While the plot in this book is pretty action-packed, for some reason, I just didn't connect with it as strongly as with the first book of the series. Still, I enjoyed the story and plan to read the next book, Chickadee, sometime this spring, at which point I'll need to get myself a copy of Makoons, the only one of the series I don't yet own, and the final book.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Book Review: Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (2017)

Shy Virgil, age eleven, is having trouble learning his multiplication tables, so he goes to the resource room at his school every Thursday. Every week, he sees Valencia, a fellow student who is deaf and wears hearing aids. He is interested in getting to know Valencia better, but he's not sure how to approach her. He decides to enlist his friend Kaori Tanaka, who claims to be a psychic, to help him figure out what to do. Before he can fully take advantage of her services, however, a bully attacks him, and he and his guinea pig, Gulliver, end up trapped in a well. Now Virgil is convinced that not only will he never speak to Valencia, but he might never even be found.

After being let down by the 2019 Newbery winner, Merci Suarez Changes Gears, I became curious about the 2018 medal winner. Sadly, Hello, Universe seems to suffer from the same strains of mediocrity that made Merci Suarez Changes Gears such a disappointment. As I read, I imagined a diversity checklist, and with the introduction of each new character, I checked another box. It feels as though the author tried to ensure that her book would be as inclusive as possible by including as much diversity as possible, whether it contributed to the story or not. Because there are so many main characters, none of them are as well-developed as they could be, and they all feel like token representations of their minority groups rather than three-dimensional characters.

These characters are also presented as victims - of clueless parents, unbelievably stereotypical bullies, and general misunderstanding about their identities. The portrayal of bullies is especially bothersome, as both Virgil's bully, Chet, and Valencia's former best friend, Roberta sound like stock characters from a 1990s teen drama. Chet uses the words "retardo" and "pansy" which I don't think I've ever heard in real life. Every bully I've ever encountered has had subtler material. This book also perpetuates the stereotype that kids like Chet get their attitudes from their fathers. The story needs a villain, but Chet and his dad are both too cartoonish to feel like real threats. Roberta and the group of girls who ask Valencia not to hang out with them anymore are also not believable tormentors; their dialogue sounds like it was lifted from an after-school special. Any kid who has been bullied will recognize that this book does not understand how it feels.

Additionally, this book presents some problematic religious practices that would prevent me from recommending it to a Catholic family. Kaori relies on crystals and horoscopes to supposedly predict the future. Virgil talks to a mythical character when he is trapped in the well who talks about writing letters to the universe. Valencia prays to a saint, not for intercession, but seemingly as a form of worship. In that sense the book shares the same relativistic point of view as the 2017 Newbery Honor book, The Inquisitor's Tale, but at least it doesn't pretend to do anything else.

Each time I read a recent Newbery book, either a medal winner or an honor book, I become more convinced that this award can no longer be trusted to recognize books for their literary merit. This book is not distinctive, nor do I see what it might contribute to the canon of children's literature over a period of more than five years. All it does well is that it includes diversity, and that's a quality that serves a political agenda, not a literary one. From the start, the book feels laden down by all the pandering it does to the so-called "diversity Jedi," and even at its best moments, it still feels like it's trying too hard. Valencia is the strongest character, and I think telling just her story would have made for a better and more cohesive novel. The attempt to be all things to everyone really impacts the overall quality of the story in a negative way.

Hello, Universe is eminently forgettable. Newbery winner or not, no one is missing anything by not reading this book. If you're looking for a book about the interconnectedness of different people, and the uncanny ways in which important friendships sometimes form, Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins, the 2006 Newbery Medal winner, is a much better choice. Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead (2015) is another good alternative. And if you really want to read about what it's like to be trapped in a well, there's a better book for that too: The Girl in the Well is Me by Karen Rivers, published in 2016.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Night Watchmen by Helen Cresswell (1969)

Henry, who has recently been bedridden with an illness, is finally allowed to get out of bed and spend time outdoors while he waits to be cleared to return to school. As he wanders the city on his first day of freedom, he encounters two unusual men - Josh and Caleb. At first glance, they appear to be mere tramps, but after spending time with them, hearing them talk about "There" and "Them" and a mysterious night train that can take them away if necessary, Henry begins to realize there is something unusual, and possibly otherworldly, about them.

This was a strange little book, and I'm not sure whether I enjoyed it. It was certainly intriguing, but it was so short, that by the time I felt invested in what was happening, the story was over. While I usually like compact middle grade novels, this one felt like the beginning of a larger story that never came to fruition. What is here is well-written, and it blurs the lines between reality and fantasy beautifully, but I didn't finish the book with the sense of satisfaction I was expecting.

This book could be a good choice for a reader who is wary of fantasy books, as the magical elements are ambiguous, and the setting is the real world. It might also make a good read-alike for a book like Skellig, which also involves a mysterious otherworldly visitor, or even The Dark is Rising, where fantastical events occur within the context of regular daily life. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

#YearofHarryPotter: Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapters 4-7

This week, for the first time since beginning this project, I wanted to keep reading when I finished the week's "assignment", which was Chapter 4 ("The Leaky Cauldron"), Chapter 5 ("The Dementor"), Chapter 6 ("Talons and Tea Leaves"), and Chapter 7 ("The Boggart in the Wardrobe"). There were so many things I loved in these four chapters (and some of them are spoiler-y):

  • The humor: the banter among the Weasleys at the Leaky Cauldron before they and Harry leave for Hogwarts, imagining Boggart-Snape dressed in Neville's grandmother's clothes, and Professor Trelawney's outlandish behavior in Harry and Ron's first Divination class (plus McGonagall's reaction to it). I don't know why I don't usually think of this series as funny; there have been quite a few laugh-out-loud moments so far in these re-reads.
  • The introduction of Remus Lupin. He's my favorite of all the Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers, and I love that his first interaction with Harry is to give him chocolate after the Dementor attack.
  • Hagrid as the instructor for the Care of Magical Creatures class. I'd forgotten that he hadn't started out in this position, and I loved the way Harry, Ron, and Hermione tried to help him succeed in his first class, even when Malfoy was determined to make a fool of him.
  • The hints that Hermione is using the time-turner. Though we don't find out until later in the book that Hermione is using time travel to make her intense courseload possible, all the clues are there from the start, and they fly just far enough under the radar to keep the mystery afloat. 
  • Scabbers's odd behavior, which re-readers will know instantly is because he is really Peter Pettigrew, and he is reacting to the possibility of encountering escaped prisoner Sirius Black. 
So far, of the first three books, this seems like the one that is the most rewarding to re-read. I'm excited for the next set of chapters, which will introduce the Marauder's Map and explain what a Patronus is for the first time.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Book Review: A Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary (1988)

A Girl from Yamhill is the first of two memoirs children's author Beverly Cleary wrote about her early life. It was my nonfiction pick for #MiddleGradeMarch over on Instagram. Interestingly though, after reading it, I'm questioning whether it's middle grade after all! Compared with her humorous tales of everyday life with Henry, Beezus, and Ramona on Klickitat Street, Cleary's childhood during the Great Depression is darker and sadder. There is still humor, of course, but her memoir is more realistic than idealistic in its worldview. Despite subject headings on the copyright page labeling it "juvenile nonfiction" it's as though the memoir is really written for those who loved her fiction books as kids to read once they've grown up.

The most fascinating thing for me was learning how many of the events and relationships in Cleary's novels were drawn from real life experiences. Though Cleary rarely comes out and states how a real life event influenced a fictional one, many of the connections are very obvious. I also found it interesting that Cleary had neither the supportive, loving mother nor the exasperating older sister which appear in the Ramona books.

I would definitely exercise caution in sharing this book with kids under 12. There are quite a few topics covered that require a bit or maturity to handle, including a miscarriage, an uncle who makes sexual advances, and a much older boyfriend whose unsettling presence is encouraged by Cleary's mother. Beverly Clearly handles these things tastefully, but she also doesn't shy away from the truth of the impact of these events on her well-being.

For me, though, this was a clear five-star read. I'm eagerly anticipating reading the follow-up memoir, My Own Two Feet (1995).

Monday, March 11, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapters 1-3

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was my favorite of the first three books the first time I read them, and it's also one of my favorites of the movie adaptations from the series. This week, I jumped in with chapters 1-3: "Owl Post," "Aunt Marge's Big Mistake," and "The Knight Bus." (Spoilers below.)

Ron starts the book with a couple of memorable moments. First, he tries to call Harry on the regular Muggle telephone and angers Uncle Vernon by shouting into his ear. Then, he sends Harry an owl which closes with my new favorite quote: "Don't let the Muggles get you down." (Is this quoted a lot? I feel like I have never seen it, but it should be on a tee shirt!) I'm really glad his character is holding up so well to these re-readings.

Because Harry is entering his third year at Hogwarts, he has now come up against the problem of needing a permission form signed to be allowed to visit Hogsmeade. Of course, after Harry blows up Aunt Marge, the Dursleys won't sign, and Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic, won't do it either. In my fuzzy memories of this predicament, I was under the impression that Fudge was standing on ceremony and somehow upholding the Dursleys' authority, but after this reading, it's clear that his inability to get the form signed is giving Harry an added layer of protection that Fudge wants him to have, as Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban and everyone thinks he's dangerous at this point in the story. 

The other thing about Fudge that is notable is that he doesn't punish Harry for using magic on Aunt Marge, even when Harry is certain he is about to be expelled. Fudge seems to be motivated by relief in finding Harry safe as well as by his own affection for the wizarding world's young celebrity. I don't think it would have been right to expel Harry, necessarily, with a murderer on the loose, since Hogwarts is the safest place for him, but Fudge's leniency does add to the pile of evidence showing that Harry never faces the consequences of his actions. 

Finally, this section introduced one of my favorite things in the wizarding world: the Knight Bus. This was the scene I most wanted to see when the movie came out, and having just watched the clip on YouTube, I can say that the filmmakers really did a nice job bringing Rowling's description accurately to life, even if the dialogue was a bit condensed for time.

I'm looking forward to refreshing my memory about other favorite scenes as I read through this book over the next 5 weeks!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Read-at-Home Mom Report: February 2019

I took on a lot more reading this past month than I did in January, but I did still manage to review every book I read. I ended up finishing 40 books, including 15 picture books (most of which were read-alouds with my daughters.) I am heading into March three books ahead on my Goodreads challenge, so I'm going to keep that number set at 400 for the time being. Here's what I read in February. 

Books Read

Pay Attention, Carter Jones

by Gary D. Schmidt
Format: Digital ARC
Genre: Realistic fiction (middle grade)
Source: Edelweiss+
Review: On the blog (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)

Merci Suárez Changes Gears

by Meg Medina 
Format: Ebook 
Genre: Realistic fiction (middle grade)
Source: Public library (Libby app)
Review: On the blog (⭐⭐⭐)

Best Babysitters Ever

by Caroline Cala
Format: Digital ARC
Genre: Realistic fiction (middle grade)
Source: Edelweiss+
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐)

Death of a Mad Hatter

by Jenn McKinlay
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Cozy mystery 
Source: Public library (Hoopla app)
Review: On Goodreads  (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

Buffalo West Wing

by Julie Hyzy
Format: Paperback
Genre: Cozy mystery
Source: Personal collection
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐)

Flip-Flop Girl

by Katherine Paterson
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Realistic fiction (middle grade)
Source: Personal collection
Review: On the blog (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

A Trick of the Light

by Louise Penny
Format: Ebook/Audiobook
Genre: Mystery
Source: Public Library (Cloud Library / RB Digital apps)
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (re-read)

by C.S. Lewis
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Fantasy (middle grade)
Source: Personal collection
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)

The Great Divorce

by C.S. Lewis
Format: Paperback
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Personal collection
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)

The Coloring Crook

by Krista Davis
Format: Paperback
Genre: Cozy mystery
Source: Christmas gift
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐)

A Family of Readers: The Book Lover's Guide to Children's and Young Adult Literature

edited by Roger Sutton and Martha V. Parravano
Format: Paperback
Genre: Nonfiction
Source: Personal collection
Review: On the blog (⭐⭐⭐)

Baby Monkey, Private Eye

by Brian Selznick and David Serlin
Format: Ebook
Genre: Fantasy (easy reader/early chapter book)
Source: Public library (Libby app)
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

Past Due for Murder

by Victoria Gilbert
Format: Digital ARC
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Source: Netgalley
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐)

Baby Island

by Carol Ryrie Brink
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Realistic fiction (middle grade)
Source: Personal collection
Review: On the blog (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)

Greenglass House (re-read)

by Kate Milford
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Fantasy (middle grade)
Source: Public library (RB Digital app)
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)

The Best of Enemies

by Nancy Bond
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Realistic fiction (middle grade)
Source: Personal collection
Review: On the blog (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

The Summer I Turned Pretty

by Jenny Han
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Realistic fiction (young adult)
Source: Public library (RB Digital app)
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)

The Borrowers

by Mary Norton
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Fantasy (middle grade)
Source: Public library
Review: On the blog (⭐⭐⭐)

The Memorial Hall Murder

by Jane Langton
Format: Paperback
Genre: Mystery
Source: Personal collection
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction

by Meghan Cox Gurdon
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Nonfiction
Source: Public library
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

It's Not Summer Without You

by Jenny Han
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Realistic fiction (young adult)
Source: Public library (RB Digital app)
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

Fame, Fate, and the First Kiss

by Kasie West
Format: Digital ARC
Genre: Romance (young adult)
Source: Edelweiss+
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐)

The Nickel-Plated Beauty

by Patricia Beatty
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Historical fiction (middle grade)
Source: Personal collection
Review: On the blog (⭐⭐⭐⭐)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (re-read)

by J.K. Rowling
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Fantasy (middle grade)
Source: Personal collection
Review: See my #YearofHarryPotter posts (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)

We'll Always Have Summer

by Jenny Han
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Romance
Source: Public library (RB Digital App)
Review: On Goodreads (⭐⭐⭐)

Picture Books (with links to Goodreads reviews):

Blog Posts Published: 

Read-a-thons, etc.

I participated in these challenges on Instagram in February: 
  • #ReadWhatYouOwn February, for which I read four books that I had owned for 6 months or more.
  • The Talk Wordy to Me Reading Challenge, during which I read from a physical book for 20 minutes per day for six days.
  • #TheCSLewisProject, for which I counted both The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Great Divorce.
  • #OldSchoolKidlit2019, which I host, and for which I counted Baby Island. 

Challenge Progress

  • Alphabet Soup: 5 read in February, 18 of 26 read total 
  • Alphabet Soup Author Edition: 4 read in February, 15 of 26 read total
  • #CathLit: 1 read in February, 4 of 19 read total 
  • Cloak and Dagger: 7 read in February, 16 of 55 read total 
  • Craving for Cozies: 6 read in February, 11 of 51 read total
  • Library Love: 9 read in February, 16 of 60 read total 
  • Mount TBR: 5 read in February, 15 of 36 read total 
  • RMFAO Audiobooks: 7 read in 15, 15 of 25 read total  
  • Goodreads goal: 40 read in February, 27 of 400 read total 

I'll be linking up this post with Feed Your Fiction Addiction for the February 2019 Wrap-Up Round-Up and with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and The Book Date for this week's edition of It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Sunday, March 3, 2019

#YearofHarryPotter: Chamber of Secrets, Chapters 14-18

With the last five chapters ("Cornelius Fudge," "Aragog," "The Chamber of Secrets," "The Heir of Slytherin" and "Dobby's Reward"), I have finished Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets!

Most of this section of the book was exactly as I remembered it, but it was still enjoyable to follow Harry through the final events of this second installment, including seeing Hermione petrified, paying a visit to Aragog, and most importantly, making the connection that Tom Riddle is actually Lord Voldemort.  (I had forgotten that this was not common knowledge prior to the events of this book.) As with last week's segment of the book, the ending did seem to go by much more quickly than it did the first time around, but that is probably at least in part because I knew what was going to happen.

Next week, I'll be jumping into book three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Of the first three books, I always think of this one as my favorite, because of the way it plays with time, so I'm looking forward to discovering whether that is still true.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Reading Through History: The Nickel-Plated Beauty by Patricia Beatty (1964)

In 1886, in Washington Territory, Hester Kimball's mother is in need of a new stove. Hester's brother, Whitney, who works for the storekeeper, Mr. Willard, orders her one (the "Nickel-Plated Beauty") from the Montgomery Ward catalog without consulting his boss, but is bewildered when the item arrives and it turns out that "C.O.D." means he and his siblings will need to pay Mr. Willard for the stove, and for storage, too, before they can bring it home. Aiming to be able to afford the stove by Christmas, Hester and Whit and their five siblings secretly begin to take on extra jobs to earn the money to pay their debt. With the support of each other and their kind, but firm, schoolteacher the Kimball kids demonstrate the value of setting and achieving a goal and work to overcome the various obstacles that would keep them from giving their mother this gift.

I tend to enjoy books about everyday life, and my favorite historical fiction novels are typically the ones that give readers a taste of what it was like to live as an ordinary person in a certain time and place. This gentle, humorous middle grade novel does just that, and it is a quick and amusing read.  The Kimball kids' relationship to each other is mostly very sweet, and their desire to do something kind for their mother comes across in everything they do. The plot also lends itself to opportunities to understand the music that was popular at square dances, to witness some 1880s medical care, and to appreciate the geography of the coastal area in which the Kimballs live and its implications on how people lived their lives.

Really only one thing gave me pause. There is an odd subplot involving the children's aunt and uncle, who separate for a time owing to Aunt Rose's domineering personality. Hester inserts herself into that situation, and into at least one more romantic relationship between adults in a way that didn't really ring true for me, and also seemed kind of inappropriate. I'm not sure what the point of it really was, except that it gave Hester something to focus on between chances to earn money.  For what it's worth, Hester does also seem to learn that her actions have not been appropriate (but only after she has seen her efforts pay off, of course.)

In any case, this is a strong historical fiction title that helps kids to see how childhood is similar across generations and geography. The Kimballs feel real and relatable, and because of that, the historical context becomes more interesting by virtue of the reader's warm feelings toward the characters. I'll gladly have my girls read it around ages 8-10.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Book Review: The Best of Enemies by Nancy Bond (1978)

The youngest sibling in her family by quite a few years, twelve-year-old Charlotte Paige, also called Charlie, often feels left out of the lives of her brothers and sister, all of whom are adults with concerns very different from her own. She is, however, looking forward to the annual Patriots' Day celebration in her hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, which promises to be an exciting event in the midst of her otherwise boring spring vacation. As it turns out, the days leading up to Patriots' Day prove to be even more exciting than Charlie expects when she begins to see unusual people hanging around town, dressed in period costumes and speaking with foreign accents. Commodore Shattuck and his grandson, Oliver, seem to know exactly why the strangers have appeared, and before long, Charlotte becomes involved with them in a somewhat absurd reenactment of historical events.

My husband recommended this book to me after I read We Alcotts and announced that I wanted to read more about Concord. Though there weren't that many references to the Alcotts and their contemporaries in this book, there were some, and I enjoyed visiting Concord during the twentieth century while also looking back on events from the eighteenth century. As a kid, I didn't really feel connected to historical fiction, and this book alleviates that problem for readers like I was by weaving facts about true historical events into a contemporary coming-of-age story. Charlie is a likable and believable adolescent girl, and the warmth of her family and the personalities of each of her siblings come across very strongly. I also like the fact that the author reveals what is actually happening in Concord very slowly, giving the reader the chance to observe and form theories before simply explaining the role of the mysterious visitors. This adds a layer of depth and sophistication to the novel that I think is especially appealing to middle schoolers.

There are two sequels to this book, which I really want to read! A Place to Come Back To (1984) is on Open Library, while The Love of Friends (1997) is available locally through inter-library loan. They're on my to-read list for later this year.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Book Review: Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink (1937)

Mary and Jean are on an ocean liner traveling to Australia when disaster strikes: the boat is about to sink! Concerned about the babies on board the ship, the two girls collect them all in a lifeboat, which is then set loose in the ocean with only the children aboard. The girls and their four baby charges end up on a desert island, where they immediately set up camp, search for food, and begin to care for the babies as best they can. As the book progresses, they also meet a monkey and a reclusive man who inhabits the island, with whom they form friendships.

This 1937 novel by the author of Caddie Woodlawn (1935) fulfills the fantasy of every little girl who loves babies. While the descriptions of baby behavior might not be as realistic as what you'll find in the What to Expect series, they are perfectly in line with the way little girls imagine babies in their pretend play, and that is all that matters. This book is essentially one long indulgence in make believe, combining the best elements of adventure stories with the desire children have to be in charge of those younger than themselves. The illustrations by Helen Sewell are also great fun! They capture the whimsical mood of the story perfectly.

My husband and I took turns reading this aloud, and our older two girls (ages 3 and 5) really loved it. It was just the right combination of unlikely adventure and wish fulfillment to keep them completely hooked. Though they might have understood it a bit more if they'd been familiar with Robinson Crusoe, their lack of understanding of who "Friday" is did not prevent them from thoroughly enjoying the book. I imagine they'll read it again on their own when they get older, but it was a great success as a read-aloud at these ages.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Read-at-Home Kids Report: February 2019

Family Read-Alouds

This month, we have gone back to primarily reading chapter books aloud at mealtimes. I did kick off the month with a couple of picture books at lunch time: Rosa-Too-Little by Sue Felt Kerr, Do You Have the Time, Lydia? by Evaline Ness, and Septimus Bean and His Amazing Machine by Janet Quin-Harkin,  during which time my husband was reading America Travels by Alice Dalgliesh, and then The Four Dolls by Rumer Godden at dinner time. Next, we took turns reading Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink at lunch and dinner for about a week. Now I'm reading Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey at lunch, and he's reading The Moffats by Eleanor Estes at dinnertime. We also took a two-hour drive to a booksale and listened to the entirety of The Borrowers audiobook together on the ride there and back. The girls especially loved Baby Island, and they are really into The Moffats.

Little Miss Muffet, Age 5 

During school time, Miss Muffet and I are reading some longer books for science, art, and history. I took out Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages expecting to read just a few pages, but she has fallen in love with the topic, so now we're reading a section of a chapter each day. We have learned about preparators and paleoartists, taxonomy and preservation, and now we're moving into evolution and the origin of dinosaurs. I like this book a lot because it teaches not just about dinosaurs, but about science in general, and all in terms a child with minimal knowledge can understand.

We're also studying the Stone Age, and the books we've been using are Picturesque Tale of Progress: Beginnings I, They Lived Like This in The Old Stone Age by Marie Neurath, and The Golden Book of Cavemen and Prehistoric People, the last of which she selected for herself at the aforementioned book sale. She especially loved learning about cave painting, and the illustrations in these books inspired her to make her own cave art using oil pastels on a brown paper bag. For art appreciation, we're using Famous Paintings: An Introduction to Art by Alice Elizabeth Chase. We read about one painting each weekday, and we'll keep going until we finish the book.

In terms of independent reading, Miss Muffet continues to be obsessed with the Adventures of Sophie Mouse series, and she has also read Whisper in the Ruins from the Chime Travelers series, as well as The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth, which tied in perfectly to her budding interest in paleontology. She's also read Twig by Elizabeth Orton Jones, Beezus and Ramona, Eddie's Green Thumb by Carolyn Haywood, and My Visit to the Dinosaurs by Aliki. Her current read is Boxcar Children #10, The Schoolhouse Mystery. She is also still requesting to hear the same audiobooks again and again: Muggie Maggie, Mitch & Amy, and The Year of Billy Miller.

Little Bo Peep, Age 3 

This child continues to go through piles of books at a time. She still loves anything illustrated by "Ellowee Wilkin," and she chose a prayer book by her to bring home from a recent book sale. She has also been attached to The Three Bears by Byron Barton, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, Mockingbird by Janet and Allen Ahlberg, and the newly published The Whole Wide World and Me by Toni Yuly. She also really loved both Rosa-Too-Little and Baby Island when we read them aloud.

Bo Peep does tend to be very particular about her books, and she spends a lot of time flipping through books only to say she's not interested in them because they lack something she feels is important, such as illustrations of babies. She sometimes listens in when we read about dinosaurs and cavemen, but typically she prefers to spend school time looking at books on her own.

Little Jumping Joan, 16 months

This little girl is finally walking, so now she can often be found lugging around a huge picture book as she tries to keep her balance. She is also really into word books, which prompted my mom to send us a few board books of that type published by DK that she had hanging around her house from when the older two girls were this age. Jumping Joan is fascinated by the photographs, especially of animals, and she spends a lot of time pointing at different items and saying, "Whaddat?" She really likes bears, too, and became instantly attached to another of our book sale finds, Love Songs of the Little Bear by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Susan Jeffers.  She's really rough on books if she is left to her own devices, so we have to be kind of protective of our picture books, but it was so sweet to see her kissing the bear and pointing at his face on every page. She still won't sit for a read-aloud of any of these books, but I try to jump in and comment on what she's interested in whenever she has a book in hand.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Borrowers by Mary Norton (1952)

When Mrs. May is sewing with her niece, Kate, one day, she begins to tell a story about her younger brother, now deceased, and a family of very tiny people known as The Borrowers. In the story, her brother is nine years old, and he is sent to convalesce with some relatives in the country after an illness. While there, he becomes aware that a young Borrower named Arrietty Clock is living under the floor of the house with her parents, Homily and Pod. Homily and Pod are wary of Big People, and they are highly protective of Arrietty, but Arrietty and The Boy became friends anyway, leading to a dangerous situation for the Clock family, from which The Boy must try to help them escape.

We listened to the audiobook of The Borrowers in the car on a weekend day trip, and there were times where I wasn't paying very careful attention to the story. Still, despite my mind wandering occasionally, and the fact that I would not have chosen this book on my own, I actually found myself becoming invested in the culture of the Borrowers, and in the unlikely friendship between Arrietty and her family and The Boy.

I think the most impressive aspect of the book is in all the details. I love the descriptions of the Clock family's home and the mention of the fact that some of their relatives have "Parkay" floors. Also interesting are the mentions of the difficulties Pod endures when he goes out borrowing, such as "curtain-and-chair jobs" that require a lot of dangerous climbing.  Norton also sets up an interesting conflict in the story when The Boy both alleviates some of these challenges and brings about a new set of problems at the same time.

Though I think my 3-year-old and 5-year-old will most likely hear this book again or read it independently in the future, it was not a bad choice for their current ages. They did sleep through some of it, so I'm not sure they got a full picture of what was happening, but there was nothing in the story that was really beyond their comprehension, except maybe for the ending when Mrs. May leaves things ambiguous and open-ended for young Kate. And since there are sequels, this is unlikely to matter for long anyway.

Monday, February 25, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Chamber of Secrets, Chapters 10-13

This week's chapters are "The Rogue Bludger," "The Duelling Club," "The Polyjuice Potion," and "The Very Secret Diary." Spoilers ahead.

Most of my memories of this section of the book seem to be from the movie, so it was good to have a refresher of what actually happens in the book. Though I'd remembered that Harry hurt his arm and had to regrow his bones after an inept Lockhart tried to heal him, I'd totally forgotten about Dobby sending the rogue bludger after Harry in the first place. I'd also forgotten that Hermione was sent to the hospital wing because of her botched Polyjuice Potion experience prior to her becoming petrified. I also forgot that Nearly Headless Nick was petrified.

My memories of the duelling club were somewhat vague, too, but the scene where Harry begins speaking Parseltongue was exactly as I remembered it. I did wonder, though, for the first time, why Snape seems so intent on pitting Draco and Harry against each other. It makes him seem cruel, which I don't think his character is meant to be, and it also just seems like a dumb move for a teacher. Then again, he has also apparently allowed the password to the Slytherin common room to be "pureblood," so I guess this is just par for the course.

The other thing I realized as I was reading this is how funny Rowling can be sometimes. The scene that opens "The Rogue Bludger," where Lockhart reenacts his supposed adventures, with Harry as a partner, made me laugh out loud. I also enjoyed Ron's dialogue, and that of the Weasley twins.

Overall, the biggest thing that strikes me about this book is how quickly it seems to move. I feel like my first reading of this book took a while, and I remember feeling such suspense and needing to know how things would turn out. Knowing the answers to the questions of the plot on this re-read takes away that sense of urgency and almost makes it feel like I'm just checking off expected plot points on a list as I read. That's not to say I'm not enjoying it, but it's not the immersive experience it was the first time around. I'll be finishing the book this week, and jumping right into book three as March begins.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Book Review: A Family of Readers: The Book Lover's Guide to Children's and Young Adult Literature edited by Roger Sutton and Martha V. Parravano (2011)

A Family of Readers is a collection of essays and short reflections by the editors and contributors of The Horn Book magazine geared toward parents who love to read and wish to raise book-loving children. The book covers all ages from babies to teens, and it is divided into sections according to the needs of kids at different reading levels ("Reading to Them," "Reading with Them," "Reading on Their Own," and "Leaving Them Alone.") It concludes with a book list.

I have heard some people describe this book as snobby, and I definitely think that is an accurate assessment. The contributors to the collection have very definite opinions of what makes a good book, and they don't seem to hesitate in naming the titles that don't meet their standards. I'm pretty snobby about children's books myself, so this didn't bother me, but parents who are big fans of The Berenstain Bears, for example, might find that some of the pieces included rub them the wrong way with their disparaging remarks about such books. 

While I did like the overall attitude that quality matters in children's literature, this book is not quite the definitive guide it claims to be. Many of the pieces are so short that they feel truncated, as though they are excerpts from longer pieces or quick quotations jotted down by authors who didn't have time to write longer essays. Many times, it felt like an author stopped writing just at the point that his argument became interesting.  I also had some issues with the advice of the authors in the section of the book addressing teens. The idea that a parent should no longer be at all involved with their children's reading choices after a certain age strikes me as pretty irresponsible, especially since it seems like the pieces in that section really just want kids to be able read books with sexual content behind their parents' backs.

What was refreshing, though, is that this book, while definitely left-leaning, did not have any of the political rhetoric that I associate with children's literature discourse in 2019. There were mentions of diversity, pieces by authors from a variety of backgrounds, and recommended books representing different cultural backgrounds, but it was all presented in a very palatable (and non-confrontational) tone that made it easier to tolerate even the viewpoints with which I vehemently disagreed. 

I started working as a children's librarian in late 2010, and this book came out in 2011, so many of the books mentioned are the ones that were popular in my library during my first couple of years on the job, and reading this book was a bit like reliving those months of reading. For that reason, I might have enjoyed it a bit more than I would have otherwise.  For adults who are not librarians who want to understand more about the world of children's books, this isn't a bad place to start, but it's also not comprehensive enough to be the only book one reads on the subject.

Monday, February 18, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Chamber of Secrets, Chapters 5-9

This past week, I read my second installment of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets which covered Chapter 5 ("The Whomping Willow"), Chapter 6 ("Gilderoy Lockhart"), Chapter 7 ("Mudbloods and Murmurs"), Chapter 8 ("The Deathday Party"), and Chapter 9 ("The Writing on the Wall"). This post will contain spoilers.

A lot of information about the wizarding world is crammed into these chapters. This book has the first mentions of squibs and mudbloods, the first howler (from Molly Weasley, to Ron), and it provides details about the founding of Hogwarts. We also meet Moaning Myrtle for the first time, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione learn a bit more about ghosts at Nearly Headless Nick's deathday party.  We even learn about the existence of Kwikspell courses, which Filch is taking to try and learn magic.

As always, I was on the lookout for little moments that might foreshadow future events, and sure enough, I found a line in Chapter 5 that has much more meaning on a second reading. As the Weasleys and Harry are leaving the Burrow for the train station in the flying Ford Anglia, they have to turn back twice for forgotten items, and one of these is Ginny's diary. I think it's neat that there's a sense of fate to Ginny's role in the opening of the  Chamber of Secrets, that if they hadn't gone back the second time, she might not have been involved at all! I was also amused that, when Harry thinks back on his experience during his Sorting the previous year, the word Rowling uses to describe his feelings is "petrified."

In terms of bad behavior, Harry does seem to get off pretty easy after he and Ron crash the car into the Whomping Willow. While it does seem petty that Snape wants him to be suspended from Quidditch (a punishment that could only help his own house, Slytherin, win) it does seem like McGonagall should have done something besides have him help Lockhart with his fan mail. But, how much of a story would there be if Harry did one wrong thing and got himself expelled? Clearly, misbehavior and the way it is handled is often used to further the plot, and I think most kids can recognize the difference between that and disobedience in the real world.

I'm really looking forward to the rest of this book. I remember hardly being able to put it down the first time I read it, and though I'm intentionally taking it slow this time, that feeling of anticipation about what's going to happen next is already building.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Book Review: Flip-Flop Girl by Katherine Paterson (1994)

When Vinnie (Lavinia) lost her father to cancer, her younger brother, Mason stopped speaking. Now Vinnie and Mason have left Washington, D.C. and, along with their mother, they have moved in with their grandmother in Brownsville, Virginia, where they are starting a new school. Though she really likes her new teacher, Vinnie struggles to fit in among her new classmates, and she finds that only Lupe, whom she nicknames the Flip-Flop Girl based on her footwear, pays any attention to her at all. As the school year gets underway, Vinnie struggles to help her brother's teachers handle his behavior, to make her teacher notice her and understand her crush on him, and to see herself as the kind of person who might be friends with an unusual girl like Lupe.

I would describe this short, descriptive novel as a cross between The Hundred Dresses and The Summer of the Swans. It shares themes in common with both of these books, and it delivers a story that addresses them succinctly, clearly, and with beautiful prose. While this book isn't as deep or layered as something like Lyddie or Bridge to Terabithia, it does reflect upon issues of grief and loss in ways that are very palatable and accessible for kids. This book isn't heart-wrenching, as the death itself has already taken place when the book begins, but instead it focuses on moving forward after the initial shock of loss has worn off, and it gives the reader a sense of hope that things will improve as time goes on.

When I mentioned to my husband that I rated Flip-Flop Girl four stars on Goodreads, he remarked that he couldn't imagine Paterson writing a book that wouldn't get four or five stars, and I tend to agree with that statement. Paterson's writing is consistently of very high quality, and she tells stories that are real, believable, and relevant. Having read her astute observations about writing children's books in Gates of Excellence and The Spying Heart, I am pleased that her fiction, so far, very much lives up to my high expectations.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

My Favorite Literary Couples

This week's Top Ten Tuesday theme is Favorite Couples In Books. Here are ten of mine, in no particular order...

Ron Weasley  Hermione Granger 
from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
I'm re-reading the Harry Potter series this year, and I'm really enjoying reliving the early days of friendship between these two. It will be fun to watch them find their way to each other all over again.

Kate Bjorkman  Richard Bradshaw 
from The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman by Louise Plummer
This was my favorite book when I was a teenager, and I still re-read it every so often. I can't make a list of favorite couples and not include the stars of my favorite romance novel!

Armand Gamache  Reine-Marie Gamache
from the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series by Louise PennyI have read seven books of this series (up through A Trick of the Light) so maybe this changes later and I don't know it yet, but so far, the Chief and his wife seem to have a lovely, affectionate, and strong marriage. I always feel a sense of relief on behalf of Armand whenever his wife appears on the scene.

James Herriot  Helen Alderson
from All Creatures Great and Small (and sequels) by James HerriotThe relationship between these fictionalized versions of the author (whose real name is James Alfred Wight) and his wife (whose real name is Joan Catherine Anderson) is one of my favorite things about these memoir-esque books. The way the vet business interferes with their courtship and strengthens their marriage is both amusing and inspirational. 

Lara Jean Song Covey  Peter Kavinsky
from To All the Boys I've Loved Before (and sequels) by Jenny Han
Most YA couples tend to blur together in my mind, but Jenny Han's talent for creating believablecharacters really brings these two to life. I didn't always agree with their decisions in the books, but I always rooted for them.

Jean  Johnny
from Jean and Johnny by Beverly Cleary
This old-fashioned romance novel was one of my favorites as a young teen. I love how wholesome and sweet it is, and I found Jean to be a kindred spirit. 

Carney Sibley ❤ Sam Hutchinson 
from Carney's House Party by Maud Hart Lovelace
I love the realism of the way these two become romantically involved. At first, Carney thinks he looks like a "baby hippo," and frankly, only an author like Lovelace could turn a guy like that into a romantic hero. As with Jean and Johnny, I also love all the old-fashioned details about dating etiquette in this book. 

Temperance Brennan  Andrew Ryan 
from the Temperance Brennan series by Kathy Reichs
This is another series where I'm not caught up, but I do love the on-again/off-again relationship between the forensic anthropologist and the police officer. They're currently off-again where  I am in the series, but I live in hope that it's not over for good. 

Ellison Russell  Anarchy Jones
from the Country Club Murders series by Julie Mulhern
Despite the ridiculousness of his name, and his disapproval of Ellison putting herself in danger to solve crimes, I really do think these two belong together, and I enjoy reading about the ups and downs of their potential romance.

Jim Qwilleran  Polly Duncan
from the Cat Who series by Lilian Jackson Braun
I always loved the very proper relationship between amateur detective and newspaperman, Qwill, and library director Polly. Especially endearing is the formal, but sweet way they say "À bientôt" each time they end a phone call.