Tuesday, December 31, 2019

My Top 25 Reads of 2019

As I shared in my post yesterday, I read 486 books in 2019, including 138 adult books, 16 YA, 82 middle grade, 15 chapter books, 14 easy readers, 203 picture books, and 18 board books.  The titles included in today's list are my favorites from among the novels and nonfiction. There is no ranking; they appear here in chronological order based on when I finished reading them. I've also linked to my reviews on Goodreads, Instagram, and this blog.

The Reed of God (1944)

Catholic spiritual classic by Caryll Houselander
Finished reading 1/2/19 

The Library Book (2018)

Nonfiction by Susan Orlean
Finished reading 1/18/19
My Goodreads review

We Alcotts (1968)

Middle grade nonfiction by Aileen Fisher and Olive Rabe
Finished reading 1/25/19
My blog review

Pay Attention, Carter Jones (2019)

Middle grade realistic fiction by Gary D. Schmidt
Finished reading 2/1/19 
My blog review

A Girl from Yamhill (1988)

Autobiography by Beverly Cleary
Finished reading 3/6/19
My blog review

Three Children and Shakespeare (1938)

Middle grade fiction by Anne Terry White
Finished reading 3/20/19
My blog review

In This House of Brede (1969)

Novel by Rumer Godden
Finished reading 3/27/19
My Goodreads review

The Seven Storey Mountain (1948)

Spiritual memoir by Thomas Merton
Finished reading 4/5/19

Brideshead Revisited (1945)

Historical fiction novel by Evelyn Waugh
Finished reading 4/12/19
My Goodreads review

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (2003)

Nonfiction by Paul Elie
Finished reading 4/17/19
My Instagram review

84 Charing Cross Road (1970)

Collection of letters by Helene Hanff
Finished reading 4/27/19
My Goodreads review

Death by Minivan (2018)

Catholic parenting handbook by Heather Renshaw
Finished reading 6/7/19

Middlemarch (1871)

Classic novel by George Eliot
Finished reading 6/8/19
My Goodreads review

Babe the Gallant Pig (1983)

Middle grade novel by Dick King-Smith
Finished reading 6/13/19
My Goodreads review

Three Brothers of Ur (1964)

Middle grade historical fiction by J.G. Fyson
Finished reading 7/15/19
My blog review

The Same Stuff as Stars (2002)

Middle grade novel by Katherine Paterson
Finished reading 7/24/19
My blog review

Inheritance (2019)

Memoir by Dani Shapiro
Finished reading 7/29/19
My Goodreads review

Save Me the Plums (2019)

Memoir by Ruth Reichl
Finished reading 8/5/19
My Goodreads review

Never Have I Ever (2019)

Domestic suspense novel by Joshilyn Jackson
Finished reading 8/9/19
My Goodreads review

Evvie Drake Starts Over (2019)

Contemporary romance novel by Linda Holmes
Finished reading 8/11/19
My Goodreads review

Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)

Historical fiction novel by Willa Cather
Finished reading 9/10/19
My Goodreads review

To the Power of Three (2005)

Suspense novel by Laura Lippman
Finished reading 10/20/19
My Goodreads review

Till We Have Faces (1956)

Novel by C.S. Lewis
Finished reading 10/21/19
My Goodreads review

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820)

Novella by Washington Irving
Finished reading 10/27/19
My Goodreads review

The White Witch (1952)

Historical fiction by Elizabeth Goudge
Finished reading 10/30/19
My Goodreads review

I'm looking forward to another great reading year in 2020! Check back tomorrow for my reading plans and goals for the new year. 

Monday, December 30, 2019

2019 Reading in Review


As is my tradition, I counted every book I read this year, including board books and picture books I had never read before, the chapter books and middle grade novels I read aloud to the girls, as well as adult and young adult books I read for myself. The grand total is 486 books, and Goodreads claims that equals over 69,000 pages.

My busiest reading months were July and November, during which I read 60 and 64 books respectively, and the lightest was September, when I read only 25 books, thanks to morning sickness.

Here is the breakdown of books by intended audience and genre:

  • 28% Adult (138 books: 51 mystery,  38 nonfiction, 12 literary fiction, 10 classics, 7 fantasy, 6 romance, 6 historical fiction, 4 poetry, 3 chick lit, 1 play) 
  • 3% Young Adult (16 books: 6 romance, 5 literary fiction, 3 fantasy, 2 contemporary realism)
  • 17% Middle Grade (82 books: 33 realistic fiction, 26 fantasy, 10 historical fiction, 9 nonfiction, 2 mystery, 2 literary fiction)
  • 3% Chapter Books (15 books)
  • 3% Easy Readers (14 books)
  • 42% Picture Books (203 books)
  • 4% Board Books (18 books)


At the beginning of the year, I set five goals for my reading for 2019. Some of these were derailed by the fact that I became pregnant with twins over the summer and had terrible first trimester symptoms, but I did make progress on most of them. Here's a quick look at how I did. 

Goal number one was to allow breathing room for activities outside of reading. Though I still read a lot of books, I did read fewer this year than in any other year since I started tracking my reading in 2011, so I think I did a decent job of trying not to spend every minute racking up more pages read. 

My second goal, however, was to devote more time to reviewing books and writing blog posts, and that didn't really happen as I had hoped. I ended up becoming more active on Instagram, which is fine, but I really need to figure out how I can keep blogging even when blogs are not that popular anymore. I did start blogging more about homeschooling, but I still want to write about my reading life too!

The third goal I set for myself was to re-read the Harry Potter series over the entire year. This one I stuck to almost perfectly, following the schedule and blogging about each set of chapters as I made my way through the books. It was really fun to revisit the books this way, and I look forward to a few years from now when my oldest can start reading them!

Goal number four was to read books by Katherine Paterson. I did read a few of her books, but I didn't stick to my original hope of reading one per month all year long. The titles I did read were: Jip: His Story; Flip-Flop Girl; Park's Quest; Come Sing, Jimmy JoThe Master PuppeteerBridge to Terabithia (which was a re-read); and The Same Stuff as Stars.

My last goal was to simplify challenge record-keeping. I do think I did a good job of tracking my challenges this year. I had a Goodreads shelf for each one, and I kept checklists in a notebook for challenges with specific category requirements. 


I signed up for 8 challenges in 2019, but only completed half of them. Here are the details.

The goal of the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge was to read 26 books whose titles begin with each of the 26 letters of the alphabet. I took a long break from this one in the middle of the year, but came back around to complete it in November. I also completed the Alphabet Soup Author Edition Reading Challenge, where the goal was to read 26 books, having one author represent each letter.

I really enjoyed participating in the CathLit Catholic Reading Challenge, but there were some categories that just didn't appeal to me, and I ended up crossing off only 14 of the 19 items on the challenge checklist. The books I did read were: The Seven Storey Mountain (a spiritual memoir); The Interior Castle (a classic spiritual work); The Reed of God (a book about Mary); Brideshead Revisited (book by a Catholic novelist); Humanae Vitae (book by a Pope);  Unplanned (book by a Catholic woman);  Something Other Than God (a conversion story); The Gentle Traditionalist (a book about apologetics); In This House of Brede (a long Catholic book); The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer: Special Edition for Young Readers (a Catholic classic); The Great Divorce (a book by a non-Catholic that all the Catholics are reading);  The Catholic All Year Compendium (a recently published Catholic book); Real Music (a book about the liturgy), and Leisure the Basis of Culture (a book by a Catholic philosopher). 

I didn't end up keeping up with linking up my books for the Cloak and Dagger Reading Challenge after the first quarter, but I did continue tracking them on Goodreads. I read 50 total, which was within the range for my goal of Special Agent (36-55 books). 

I completed the Craving for Cozies Reading Challenge, where my goal was Famished (26 -51 Cozy Mysteries). I read 34. 

I stuck with both the Library Love Challenge and the RMFAO Audiobooks Challenge on Goodreads until around the halfway point of the year, but realized that I didn't really need to be challenged to borrow library books or to listen to audiobooks and stopped linking up my titles. I also abandoned the Mount TBR challenge, but that was almost immediately, as I just didn't like the strict tone of the whole thing. 

Tomorrow, I'll be sharing my top 25 reads of 2019. Then check back on New Year's Day for my reading plans for 2020. 

Friday, December 27, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Deathly Hallows, Chapters 33-36

On Christmas Eve, I finished reading the final four chapters of Deathly Hallows: Chapter 33 ("The Prince's Tale"), Chapter 34 ("The Forest Again"), Chapter 35 ("King's Cross"), and Chapter 36 ("The Flaw in the Plan"). I have only the epilogue left!  (Spoilers ahead, as always.)

Chapter 33 is very emotional from the start, first because we hear Voldemort taunting Harry about the fact that he has "allowed" his friends to die on his behalf just moments before Harry glimpses the bodies of Lupin and Tonks in the Great Hall. Because their deaths are revealed so casually, without comment, they are possibly the hardest to endure. The chapter continues on an emotional rollercoaster as it reveals Snape's friendship with and lifelong love for Harry's mother, along with so much more backstory. On this reading, I was especially struck by Lily's relationship with her sister, Harry's aunt Petunia, and by Snape's point of view on Harry's life at Hogwarts. This was all handled beautifully and I came away feeling that I would have happily read an entire novel about Snape and Lily.

This chapter also establishes the fact that Dumbledore allowed Snape to kill him because he was dying anyway. This is one of the plot points that causes Catholic readers to question whether the series is appropriate for their kids because it is essentially a mercy killing. Coupled with the meditations on death in the "King's Cross" chapter of this book, however, I don't know that Rowling is advocating for euthanasia. I think it's pretty clear that Dumbledore has regrets, even in the "great Room of Requirement" of the afterlife, and chief among them seems to be that he did, at times, seek to gain power over death. Harry, on the other hand, never thinks to try to get out of the suffering of dying at Voldemort's hand to save the people he loves, and as Harry is the hero of the story, I'm more inclined to think readers are meant to embrace his worldview. The fact that Dumbledore didn't necessarily handle his death well suits his character perfectly, and ultimately I think it opens up the subject for discussion without endorsing his choices.

I read the ending of this book so quickly my first time through that I'm not sure I really felt everything that happens, but this time, I was definitely moved by the moments during which characters like McGonagall thought Harry was dead, and moments when, after Voldemort's defeat, the previous headmasters in the portraits give Harry a standing ovation. I also really love that Luna is the one who recognizes Harry's need for space and uses her offbeat way of relating to other people to give it to him.

All that remains of this book is the epilogue, which I have re-read over the years and which I don't love. In the interest of reading every word, however, I'll read it and post about it before the end of the month to bring the year of Harry Potter to a close.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Deathly Hallows, Chapters 29-32

Last week I read Chapter 29 ("The Lost Diadem"), Chapter 30 ("The Sacking of Severus Snape"), Chapter 31 ("The Battle of Hogwarts"), and Chapter 32 ("The Elder Wand"). My thoughts below contain spoilers.

I love the moment when Neville sees Harry arriving at Hogwarts. It's surprising that Harry doesn't realize that his fellow Dumbledore's Army members will want to help him, and that he doesn't anticipate that they will assume he's come back to help them fight. This is where I start to get frustrated with him because he insists on doing everything alone and in secret, which never seemed to be Dumbledore's intention.

Though battle is raging and Harry is on the hunt for a horcrux, there is also a lot of other action going on in these chapters, including Ron and Hermione finally sharing a kiss, Percy returning to reconcile with his family just before his brother Fred is killed, and Harry having a confrontation with Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle. Rowling does a nice job with the pacing, helping the reader to feel the urgency of each moment as it passes, but also making sure we get all the details of how subplots are resolving.

These chapters end, sadly, with the death of Snape, but I left myself hanging before we finally get to hear the truth of what he has really been up to all this time. I'm actually kind of glad to have left off there because I've been anticipating it for so long, and I think having had to wait another week to read it will make it much more satisfying.

Friday, December 20, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Deathly Hallows, Chapters 25-28

Last week's assignment was another set of exciting chapters: Chapter 25 ("Shell Cottage"), Chapter 26 ("Gringotts"), Chapter 27 ("The Final Hiding Place"), and Chapter 28 ("The Missing Mirror").  Spoilers ahead.

I was struck by Harry's observation in Chapter 25 that, for the first time, he is choosing not to act by resisting the temptation to steal the Elder Wand from Voldemort. I appreciate that Harry is growing in maturity over the course of this book and no longer acting rashly in moments where he previously would have. I also had a bit of a lump in my throat when Lupin appeared to tell everyone his son had been born. (Is this the last time we see him alive? I can't remember, but if it is, it feels very poignant, especially when he asks Harry to be young Teddy's godfather.

Another moment that had similar emotional resonance was when, while at Gringotts attempting to break into Bellatrix's vault, Harry remembers Hagrid telling him 6 years ago, in the first book, what a fool a wizard would be to try to rob Gringotts. This was such a nice way to bring things full circle even in the midst of a suspenseful scene. I had actually forgotten everything else that goes on in the vault, including the fact that each time they touch something, it multiplies. I also didn't remember Harry casting the Imperius curse, and it felt a little off to me that he got so comfortable doing it so quickly.

It also felt off - or at least too easy - that Harry is able to find out the location of the horcruxes simply by reading Voldemort's thoughts. It felt really convenient to me, and not believable. This is quickly forgotten, though, because on their way to Hogwarts to find the horcrux that is hidden there, Harry, Ron, and Hermione meet Aberforth Dumbledore, who, for just a moment, gives us the same sense of comfort as Albus himself always did when he came on the scene in previous books. He also gives a much more emotional and nuanced picture of young Albus Dumbledore and the pain the family underwent because of their sister, Ariana. And if that isn't emotional enough, there is the extra moment of joy at the end of the chapter when Neville Longbottom suddenly shows up!

I know lots of characters I have loved for seven books are about to die in the remaining chapters of this book, and that almost makes me not want to continue. But I also know that the truth about Snape is about to come out, and I've been looking forward to that for weeks!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Deathly Hallows, Chapters 21-24

My second December reading assignment for this challenge included Chapter 21 ("The Tale of the Three Brothers"), Chapter 22 ("The Deathly Hallows"), Chapter 23 ("Malfoy Manor"), and Chapter 24 ("The Wandmaker"). Spoilers beyond this point. 

This is the section of this book where all the pieces start to fit together. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have now learned of the existence of the Deathly Hallows and their significance, and they also know that Voldemort has been trying to track down the Elder Wand. They are also finally forced out of hiding when Harry slips and says Voldemort's name, a habit he has always had that has only now become actually dangerous. I had forgotten how much of this book the trio spends hiding out and reading books, and it's nice to have them back in action.

I've always loved that Harry digs Dobby's grave using his own strength rather than magic. Dobby may be an annoying character for much of the series, but Rowling really makes me feel the impact of his death through Harry's strong reaction.

For some reason, I thought there was more time spent at Malfoy Manor in this book, but those scenes seem to go by quite quickly and Harry's ability to get himself and several others out of there safely seems a bit unlikely. Still, I like that Harry is able to ask Ollivander about the Elder Wand moments before he realizes it belonged to Dumbledore and "sees" Voldemort taking it from the beloved Headmaster's grave.

I remember what happens from here in broad strokes, but not the finer details, so I'm really excited to finish the book this month and see it all come together again.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Read-at-Home Kids Report: November 2019

It took me a while to get it typed up, but here finally is the girls' reading report for November!

Family Read-Alouds

Our lunchtime read-alouds in November were No Flying in the House by Betty Brock, which was a perfect book for the two big girls, with just the right blend of magic and talking animals and mystery, and The Runaway Dolls, which left both big girls begging each afternoon for just one more chapter. At dinner, my husband read aloud Hob and the Goblins by William Mayne. In preparation for Thanksgiving, we also read Over the River and Through the Wood illustrated by Christopher Manson, Cranberry Thanksgiving by Wende and Harry Devlin,  and, from Open Library, Thanksgiving on Plymouth Plantation by Diane Stanley. After Thanksgiving dinner, I also read aloud The Thanksgiving Story by Alice Dalgliesh.

Little Miss Muffet, Age 6

Independently, Miss Muffet, newly 6 read five chapter books in November:  The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, The Missing Tooth Fairy (The Adventures of Sophie Mouse #15) by Poppy Green, Here Comes the Bus by Carolyn Haywood, Our Strange New Land: Elizabeth's Diary, Jamestown, Virginia 1609 by Patricia Hermes, and Freddy and the Ignormus by Walter R. Brooks. Dr. Dolittle and Freddy were the favorites of the list, most likely because both involve talking animals.

We also had some picture books out of the library, and Miss Muffet gravitated especially toward these three: Just Like Beverly: A Biography of Beverly Cleary by Vicki Conrad, illustrated by David Hohn,  Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler, and The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield, illustrated by the Fan brothers. All of these had a basis in history, and that really seemed to appeal to her. She also really related to astronaut Chris Hadfield's boyhood fear of the dark.

Miss Muffet also celebrated her birthday in November and received a nice stack of books: 

  • Something Queer at the Birthday Party by Elizabeth Levy and Mordecai Gerstein
  • Something Queer in Outer Space by Elizabeth Levy and Mordecai Gerstein
  • Katie and the Dinosaurs by James Mayhew 
  • Clover's Luck by Kallie George
  • The Enchanted Egg by Kallie George
  • Walk This Underground World by Kate Baker

Little Bo Peep, Age 4 years, 2 months  

Learning to read and listening to audiobooks continue to be Bo Peep's biggest literary pursuits. In November, she listened to repeatedly to titles from the Mr. Putter and Tabby, Mercy Watson, and Doll People series (all of which she also previously heard as read-alouds). We also borrowed a set of Rime to Read books for her from the public library and she read those to herself repeatedly as well, along with Ann's Hat from our Hooked on Phonics set and The Tin Man, another reader we found at a book sale.

Bo Peep also got an early start on her holiday reading, insisting that I read the entire book adaptation of George Balanchine's Nutcracker in one sitting. Her picks from the library stack were I Need All Of It by Petra Postert (which I did not enjoy at all, personally) and Nine Months Before a Baby is Born by Miranda Paul and Jason Chin (which I loved.)

Little Jumping Joan, Age 2 years, 1 month

Jumping Joan is starting to get really into the Stanley series, and she asked for them at nap time on many days during November.  She doesn't know the titles, but identifies them either by color, or by something significant that occurs in the story ("Danley drive bus," "Danley have party," etc.) The other book from our shelves that she got attached to was The Three Bears by Byron Barton, only she kept referring to the bears as "naked monkeys."

From the library stack, her favorites were Nine Months Before a Baby is Born and The Moon is Going to Addy's House by Ida Pearle.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Fumbling Through Fantasy: No Flying in the House by Betty Brock (1970)

Annabel Tippens is a seemingly ordinary little girl who has been entrusted to the care of an extraordinary three-inch-tall dog named Gloria who can talk and perform amazing tricks. When Annabel is three, Gloria arranges for them to stay with Mrs. Vancourt, a wealthy woman who is enamored of Gloria's exceptional abilities and willing to take on the child in order to keep the dog. Annabel ages normally for a time, but when she is six, she begins to have mysterious visits from a golden cat with emerald eyes who implies that Annabel might not be so ordinary after all. Suddenly, Annabel finds herself wondering what actually happened to her parents, who Gloria might actually be, and whether she herself might have magical capabilities.

I read this aloud to my older two daughters, ages 4 and 6, and they were just the right audience. They immediately loved both Annabel and Gloria, and they were both surprised and pleased each time a new element of magic appeared in the story. Whereas I saw the twist ending coming from miles off, they are still new enough to fantasy books that they were taken totally by surprise and were clearly thrilled by how everything came together. The story also had just the right level of suspense, which kept them begging for just one more chapter but also prevented anyone (and my four-year-old, especially) from feeling too scared.

This is a gentle and charming story and it hit the same sweet spot for us as Ruth Chew's What the Witch Left and Hilda van Stockum's King Oberon's Forest.  It's a perfect family read-aloud for preschoolers on up, but would also be an excellent independent reading choice for readers up to about fourth grade.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Deathly Hallows, Chapters 17-20

Last week, I read Chapter 17 ("Bathilda's Secret"), Chapter 18 ("The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore"), Chapter 19 ("The Silver Doe"), and Chapter 20 "Xenophilius Lovegood").

Last week's chapters included some of my favorite scenes from this book, and really, from the entire series. The scenes with Bathilda are so wonderfully creepy and suspenseful. I especially love that Bathilda refuses to speak in front of Hermione because she would realize she was speaking Parseltongue.  I'd also forgotten the added complication of Harry's wand being broken.

The other scene I love is Ron's return, which occurs amidst another mysterious happening, the appearance of the silver doe. Ron is often a comic character in this series, and it was nice to see him come into his own and show that there is more to him than humor and banter with Hermione. I also love that the deluminator turns out to be his means of finding his way back to Harry. Dumbledore understood these characters better than they realized.

Since it has been ten years or more since I last read this book, I'm fuzzy on the details about what turns out to be true about Dumbledore's past, but I do like the way this book casts doubt on his character in the same way book 6 made us suspicious of Snape. It really contributes to the feeling that Harry is finally isolated and alone, in many ways, in his final confrontation with Voldemort.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Homeschool Progress Report: November 2019

First Grade

Our third official month of homeschooling is in the books! It went by so fast, but it was also very productive.


This month, M. made more progress in Singapore Primary Mathematics 2B focusing on money, including adding and subtracting dollars and cents and making change. In addition, she continued to drill addition and subtraction facts on XtraMath, and she practiced the multiplication tables in both Xtra Math and by filling out blank tables. She also did some review of solving three-digit addition and subtraction problems using the soroban. We continue to read Life of Fred every Friday (we're currently still in book four, Dogs.)


This was a very history-heavy month for M, as we finished Mesopotamia and then spent three weeks studying the Old Testament. Our Mesopotamian studies concluded with a narration on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the information for which came largely from National Geographic Investigates: Ancient Iraq: Archaeology Unlocks the Secrets of Iraq's Past by Beth Gruber. (M. and I both loved the fact that this book highlighted the work of archaeologists in this part of the world and the challenges they encounter.) We also spent a day or two on the Assyrians.

As we moved on to the Hebrews, we started using our new MapTrek book and CD to place our studies in the appropriate geographic context. M. labeled important cities and bodies of water on the maps "Called Out of Ur" and "The Promised Land" and briefly looked at several others. Our main text for reading about the Hebrews was In Bible Days by Gertrude Hartman, and we also supplemented with Heroes of the Bible by Olive Beaupre Miller. (I had planned to use Miller's Picturesque Tale of Progress but found the Heroes book more engaging and better suited to M's interest in the details of things like battles and the succession of judges.) As I read aloud each day, M. colored pictures related to the day's readings, some of which came from an old Bible Stories to Color coloring book I found among my old papers and others of which I found online.

Independently, Miss Muffet read sections from National Geographic Kids Who's Who in the Bible and The World of the Bible, along with the picture books Moses, Ruth, and Joseph by Maud and Miska Petersham and Sarah Laughs and Benjamin and the Silver Goblet by Jacqueline Jules. She also watched the animated film Joseph: Beloved Son Rejected Slave, which is available on Formed.org.


Our main focus for science this month was reading heavily in The Human Body: What It Is and How It Works. We covered the nervous system, five senses and digestive system, supplementing with videos and activities from Kids Health. In addition to a narration about the five senses, M. also filled out the "Taste Tracker," "The Eye," "The Brain," and "The Digestive System" worksheets, and she watched a collection of food science videos from SciShow Kids.

At the tail-end of the month, M. had a birthday, and she received a microscope, which led to revisiting Greg's Microscope by Millicent Selsam and Arnold Lobel and reading The Microscope by Maxine Kumin (and Arnold Lobel, again) for the first time.


M.'s assigned independent reading this month included: The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, Here Comes the Bus by Carolyn Haywood, My America: Our Strange New Land: Elizabeth's Jamestown Colony Diary by Patricia Hermes, and Freddy and the Ignormus by Walter R. Brooks. She was not quite done with the Freddy book at the end of the month, but finished it 2 days later.

Memory Work

M. is still perfecting "The Pirate Don Durk of Dowdee." I hope she's going to finish it in time to memorize a new poem for Christmas. She also finished memorizing all the countries of Europe, and now she is working on learning more rivers and bodies of water. She also memorized the first five books of the Bible and started to learn the Hail Mary in Latin.


Using the Classics for Kids podcast, we covered Beethoven, Haydn, Johann Strauss, Jr. and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Our hymn for the month was Conditor Alme Siderum, and we also practiced singing Over the River and Through the Woods in anticipation of Thanksgiving. M. continued daily practice of recorder and piano and her musical notes review.


We didn't do many formal art lessons in November, but M. created illustrations for each of her narrations and drew many portraits of family members. She also made a foam turkey and cornucopia using kits from Dollar Tree.

Physical Education

M. visited the playground several times in November, mostly during my OB appointments. She also exercised along with the videos from the Ten Thousand method.


We're still listening to my homemade audio recording of lessons 1-10 in the St. Joseph catechism. In this particular month, our music and history lessons were also heavily related to religion. We also took two field trips: one to The Visit of All Saints at the National Shrine of St. John Paul II, where M. "met" a variety of Catholic saints and learned about their lives, and another to the Shrine of St. Anthony for the Advent Family Festival.



C.'s reading really took off this month. In The Ordinary Parents' Guide to Teaching Reading, she worked on consonant blends at the beginnings and endings of words, including SH, TH, CH, and NG. She also enjoyed reading titles from the Rime to Read series which we borrowed from the public library, and she finally tackled Ann's Hat, a book that was way too difficult for her just a few weeks ago. She also worked on mastering a reader called The Tin Man.

Memory Work

C. learned to recite "The Pilgrims Came" by Annette Wynn and finished memorizing the planets.


C. has begun learning to use the soroban to create single and double digit numbers and to do simple addition and subtraction.


C. continued piano lessons and started practicing "Merrily We Roll Along."

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Deathly Hallows, Chapters 13-16

Last week, I read Chapter 13 ("The Muggle-Born Registration Committee"), Chapter 14 ("The Thief"), Chapter 15 ("The Goblin’s Revenge"), and Chapter 16 ("Godric’s Hollow"). Things really start getting exciting in these chapters, as Harry, Ron, and Hermione venture out into the Ministry of Magic in disguise and then find they can't return to Grimmauld Place and begin camping out instead.

What struck me the most is how each of these three characters' upbringings and personalities contribute to their ability to cope with conditions on the run. It's interesting to see the neglect Harry suffered from the Dursleys become a strength when there isn't much to eat. It's also perfectly in keeping with Hermione's nature as a planner that she would be prepared with so many supplies in her bottomless bag, including things Harry and Ron have forgotten. It also seems completely logical that Ron, arguably the least mature of the three friends, has the hardest time dealing with the sudden change in lifestyle. This inability to adapt, coupled with the way the locket horcrux affects him when it's his turn to wear it, leads to one of the best plot twists of the story: Ron abandoning Harry. This was completely shocking and upsetting to me the first time I read it, but this time, I was struck by how perfect this turn of events is for creating conflict. (I also know how the situation resolves, and it's my favorite part of the book, so that probably contributes to my feeling that this is a great twist.)

I'm also pleased with how I divided this book on my reading schedule. I left off just after Ron leaves, and just before Harry and Hermione follow Bathilda Bagshot home. Knowing what's to come with Bathilda made it a very anxiety-inducing place to take a break, but the anticipation will surely make the reading of the next section that much more enjoyable.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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: