Thursday, January 31, 2019

Book Review: I Saw Three Ships by Elizabeth Goudge, illustrated by Margot Tomes (1969)

Some months after the death of her parents, Polly is living in England with her two elderly aunts, Dorcas and Constantia. Polly desperately wants to leave the door unlocked on Christmas Eve so that the wise men can enter if they so wish. She also wants to see the three ships arrive, bringing the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus. The two aunts are nervous about leaving a door unlocked without a man in the house, and they are equally skeptical that any ships will arrive, let alone a ship bearing the baby Jesus and his mother. When Christmas Eve arrives, however, Polly's steadfast faith in the possibilities of the Christmas season is rewarded in ways no one would have expected.

The only other Elizabeth Goudge book I have read so far is The Little White Horse, which is beautifully written and a personal favorite. I Saw Three Ships is every bit as well-written and meaningful. Not a single word is out of place in Goudge's descriptions of her setting and characters, and she puts forth an inspiring Christmas story that is heartfelt, but neither cloying nor sentimental. Polly is a character for whom I developed instant affection, and despite their somewhat stodgy exteriors, her aunts are also endearing and amusing, as are some of the other surprising supporting characters. I also love that the lyrics for the Christmas carol, "I Saw Three Ships" are incorporated into the text of the story, just begging to be sung.

I like this book very much and would certainly like to read it to my girls during some future Christmas season, after they are past the age of believing in Santa Claus. It's a tale that can really appeal to kids of all ages, but I think the fact that Polly knows her aunts fill her stocking would spoil the magic and mystery of the holiday for them at this stage. But for Christian families, this is really an ideal story for emphasizing and celebrating the true meaning of Christmas. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Book Review: We Alcotts by Aileen Fisher and Olive Rabe (1968)

We Alcotts is a nonfiction narrative written by Aileen Fisher and Olive Rabe in the voice of Abba May Alcott, better known as Marmee from Little Women. It traces the Alcott family history from Abba May's courtship with Bronson Alcott, through their marriage, the births of their daughters, and their many associations with transcendentalists, abolitionists, and writers as they moved from home to home in and around Concord and Boston, Massachusetts in the years leading up to and including the Civil War. The book concludes around the time of the publication of Little Women, with a brief postscript relaying the circumstances of Abba's death.

I read Little Women for the first time last month, and I had a really hard time connecting with the first half of the book. Marmee and her girls felt too perfect to me, and I had difficulty seeing them as believable characters, let alone kindred spirits. My opinion improved as the girls aged in the second half (the part which is also known as Good Wives), and I ended up mostly understanding why the book is such a great favorite. As I was reading We Alcotts, however, I found myself enjoying the personalities of the real-life Alcotts much more than their fictional counterparts. Abba, for example, admits that her "desire to read sometimes made [her] resentful of seemingly endless household tasks." She also frequently suffers from worries and anxieties because of her husband Bronson Alcott's idealism and impractical faith that things will always work out. Though Bronson's faith is often proved right, I still really admired Abba's faithfulness and love toward her husband during the times she was most irritated with him. Despite his head-in-the-clouds approach to many things, I also kind of liked Bronson and his gentle quirkiness.

The other thing I loved about this book is how it immerses the reader in the time period. Such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne appear as friends of the Alcotts, and come across as warm and kind people, not just stoic historical figures. Though their writings and accomplishments are mentioned, this book concerns itself with their friendship and kindness more than their fame. I have never wanted to read any of their books before, but now I'm considering giving Walden a try. All the connections to Concord have also renewed my interested in exploring more of Jane Langton's Hall Family Chronicles novels. (Titles in this series that I have reviewed are: The Diamond in the Window (1962),  The Fledgling (1980), and The Fragile Flag (1984).

I'm undecided about whether it is imperative to read Little Women before reading this book. We Alcotts is easier to read and it deals with very little that actually happens in Little Women. It does give away the major death that occurs in Little Women, but I'm not sure how many readers in the 21st century go into that book completely unspoiled anyway. I can see We Alcotts being a valuable introduction to a variety of history topics for the upper elementary grades, and I think, for me at least, having the information provided by this book would have made me feel more invested in Little Women from the beginning. In any case, We Alcotts  was a pleasure to read, and it seems like it will be inspiring some of my future reading choices as well. 

Monday, January 28, 2019

#YearofHarryPotter: Philosopher's Stone, Chapters 13-15

This week's reading was Chapter 13 ("Nicholas Flamel"), Chapter 14 ("Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback"), and Chapter 15 ("The Forbidden Forest"). There are spoilers for the entire series in this post.

In these three chapters, I mostly found myself thinking of Snape. Rowling cleverly sets up her readers from the very beginning to be suspicious and skeptical of him, which really lays the groundwork for his role in the entire series. Knowing the full story, I look at the moments involving Snape in this book and I clearly see him protecting Harry, and Hogwarts in general, again and again. I also see, though, the way it looks as though he might himself be dangerous, and I like that Rowling makes it equally possible to imagine both scenarios.

Also in this segment of the book, Harry and his friends do actually get punished for wrongdoing (being out of bed in the middle of the night) by losing a lot of points for their house and being sent to the Forbidden Forest with Hagrid for detention. Of course, the detention just serves as a vehicle for sneaking more information about Voldemort into the story, but still, it is a punishment. The fact that Harry contemplates how he might get out of trouble notwithstanding, the adults in the story seem to get this right.  I'd also forgotten about the centaurs who live in the forest appearing in this first book, and I like all the suspense and intrigue that surrounds these silent and suspicious creatures.

The other creature I'd forgotten is Norbert, the dragon which Hagrid illegally hatches from an egg, and which is the reason Harry and co. are out of bed to be punished in the first place. (It's possible that I had conflated his story with that of Buckbeak in Prisoner of Azkaban.) I do love Hagrid and his obsession with dangerous magical creatures.

This week, I'll be finishing the book and getting ready to move on to the next one!

Friday, January 25, 2019

Read-at-Home Kids Report: January 2019

Family Read-Alouds

Our lunchtime read-alouds were all Christmas-themed in December and early January: The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas by Madeleine L'Engle, A Certain Small Shepherd by Rebecca Caudill, The Best Christmas by Lee Kingman, and Amahl and the Night Visitors by Frances Frost and Roger Duvoisin. Then we read A Day on Skates by Hilda van Stockum, followed by "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," "Rapunzel," and "Sleeping Beauty" from The Golden Treasury of Children's Literature. In the evening, my husband has been reading them The Book of Cowboys by Holling C. Holling.

Little Miss Muffet, Age 5

Between her birthday in November and Christmas, Miss Muffet amassed many new books to enjoy in the new year. These included titles in the Sophie Mouse, Chime Travelers, and Heartwood Hotel series, as well as a copy of The Sign on Rosie's Door by Maurice Sendak, Wee Hee Hee: A Collection of Pretty Funny Jokes and Pictures, and her very own paperback copy of her beloved favorite book, Mitch & Amy by Beverly Cleary.

For school the past few weeks, she and I have been reading through the young reader's edition of The World We Live In, which is a vintage Life book about the formation of planet Earth. (We are also supplementing with other up-to-date texts when we run into outdated information.) As a result, she has become interested in volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides, waterfalls, and tsunamis. Much of the text goes right over her head, but she loves to listen to the big words anyway, and the book has wonderful illustrations. The other thing we've started incorporating into school is the Life of Fred math program, which uses a story to teach mathematical concepts. We've been reading a couple of chapters each Friday, and right now we're a few chapters in to the first book, Apples. She absolutely loves it so far.

At a recent book sale, we also acquired a set of Golden Encyclopedias, which have become a new source of fascination for Miss Muffet. She has learned to look up topics of interest in the index, and she will also spend time just browsing each volume for something interesting to study. So far, she has learned about dinosaurs, Sir Francis Drake, stars, Teddy Roosevelt, and trilobites.

On her own, Miss Muffet just finished reading Down to the Bonny Glen by Melissa Wiley and Favorite Fairy Tales Told in Spain by Virginia Haviland, and she also recently fell in love with my signed childhood copy of Sarah's Unicorn by Bruce Coville, which has infiltrated much of her imaginative play with her three-year-old sister. She is also listening to the audiobook of The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes on repeat.

Little Bo Peep, Age 3

Bo Peep is on a quest to learn all the letters and their sounds so she can learn to read like her big sister. She is coming along quite well with this task, and seems to enjoy showing off her newfound knowledge. For Christmas, she received Rhymes for Annie Rose by Shirley Hughes, which is a new favorite, and Cook in a Book: Cookies, which has renewed her interest in the other Cook in a Book titles we have: Pizza and Pancakes. She also really likes The Girl With the Watering Can by Ewa Zadrzynska, especially after we went to see the painting in person the day after Christmas, and she is currently obsessed with Eloise Wilkin's illustrations.

Bo Peep also takes a huge stack of books with her to bed at naptime each day and looks at every single one in depth. She is beginning to get into audiobooks, too, and some days, I set her up with my laptop playing Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, which is her current favorite. I am going to try to introduce some audiobooks with page-turn signals and see if she can follow along in the books.

Little Jumping Joan, Age 15 months

Jumping Joan has learned to say "no," so any attempt to read to her is usually met with a chorus of "no no no no no." But she loves handling books. Her current favorite is Winter Babies, which my sister sent to her for Christmas, along with Autumn Babies. She likes both, but given a choice of just one, Winter Babies wins every time. She has also become interested in Babies on the Bus by Karen Katz, Once I Was a Polliwog by Douglas Florian, and a few of our Babylit books. She is also typically present for all of our family read-alouds so she hears those books even when she won't allow us to read to her otherwise.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Good Friends by Margery Bianco (1934)

When the farmer down the road falls ill, Mary and her grandmother worry about the animals who live on his farm being left on their own. Though they seem to be doing all right for themselves, there is a "society man" lurking about who seems intent on sending them elsewhere to live. Only Mary's ingenuity and friendship can save them from being separated until their master returns.

This book has much in common with The Wonderful Farm. In both books, animals can talk - to each other and to humans - and this is accepted in the world of the story as perfectly natural and normal. In both books as well, the animals, though human-like in their speech, retain all the rest of their natural tendencies and instincts. This gives the story an appealing magical quality without making it feel implausible.

The main character is also very appealing. She is resourceful and determined, has a pleasant relationship with her grandmother, and repeatedly demonstrates her dedication to and love for her animal friends. She makes a variety of mistakes and is at times disrespectful to the society man, Mr. Meaks, but her behavior is never without consequences, and she does, over time, begin to understand that Mr. Meaks isn't necessarily her complete enemy.

I read this book aloud to my daughters, ages 3 and 5, and after each chapter, they begged and begged for me to keep going. They were completely invested in the well-being of the animals, and between chapters, I'd hear them playing games in which one of them was the society man, and the other had to make an escape from him. The reading level for this story is definitely middle grade, but there is clearly a lot in it to be appreciated by preschoolers as well. I plan to re-introduce the book in a few years when they can read it themselves, and also so that my one-year-old can enjoy it as a preschooler too.

Monday, January 21, 2019

#YearofHarryPotter: Philosopher's Stone, Chapters 9-12

This past week I read chapters 9 through 12 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: The Midnight Duel, Hallowe'en, Quidditch, and The Mirror of Erised. Spoilers may appear in my commentary.

This segment of the book introduces us to the first instance where Harry misbehaves but escapes the consequences of his misbehavior. The fact that Harry is often rewarded for breaking rules came up in a discussion with some other homeschooling moms recently, so I was definitely looking for it, and it will likely be something I touch on in these posts as I read through all the books. In this first instance, Harry disobeys Madam Hooch by attempting to fly on his broom without supervision or permission. Instead of disciplining him, however, Professor McGonagall, who catches him in the act, puts him on the Quidditch team and praises his abilities as a seeker. What I thought immediately, especially given the reactions of all the adult characters in the wizarding world to Harry's return in the last set of chapters, is that it has to be tempting for these authority figures to give Harry a pass each time he does something wrong. Not only is he a hero for apparently vanquishing Voldemort, but he has also had such a tough time, losing his parents and living with the Dursleys for so long. I can imagine them wanting to look the other way just to make his life easier. I'm curious as to whether I'll be able to apply that theoretical explanation to any of the characters as Harry's disobedience becomes more flagrant over time.

The other thought I had is that characters who are special in a variety of different ways are annoying to read about. I couldn't stand it in the Twilight series when Bella Swan was constantly being discovered as the only one who could do this or that rare thing. I hate it when Nancy Drew comes to the rescue of some friend of hers because she happens to be really strong, really brave, and really knowledgeable about some rare medical problem at the same time. And there is something grating about Harry going from rags to riches, and then on top of that, having such a talent for Quidditch, and later, being allowed special privileges such as participating in the Triwizard Tournament.  I can't say it doesn't work in these books, because I love the series, and I enjoy reading about what happens to Harry as a result of his specialness. But there is also a reason my favorite character is Ron.

Speaking of Quidditch, though, I am still impressed by how well Rowling developed this fictional sport. Lee Jordan's commentary during the first match of the year sounds like the soundtrack to a real football or basketball game, and it really helped me visualize everything that was happening on the Quidditch pitch. I also loved the line that compares the hoops of the pitch to the wands children use to blow bubbles. That image really brings the whole concept to life for me.

Finally, I found the Mirror of Erised chapter especially poignant in light of what Rowling has said Dumbledore really sees in it. ("He saw his family alive, whole and happy – Ariana, Percival and Kendra all returned to him, and Aberforth reconciled to him.") The fact that he takes the mirror away to a place where Harry can't find it suggests that he has learned the hard way, firsthand, how damaging it can be to spend time dwelling on what might have been.

Friday, January 18, 2019

First Reads of the Year, 2010-2019: A Reading Retrospective

This month's prompt for the Blog All About It challenge is First. I've decided to do a little retrospective and look back at the first book I read each year since I started keeping track of books on Goodreads in 2010.


Chosen by P.C. Cast and Kristen Cast 

I was working as a teen librarian in 2010, and I had one patron who was really into this series. Since I didn't really like Twilight, but still wanted to put a good faith effort into being interested in the vampire phenomenon that had such a grip on all the teens, I decided to take her recommendation and give this a try. I don't remember this book specifically, or why I was reading it on New Year's Day, but it's interesting to see how different a book it is compared to the others on this list!


Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz 

I read this the same day I started blogging, and my review of it was one of the first reviews I posted to my (now-defunct) first blog. It was the start of my ongoing quest to read more Newbery winners and honor books.


Troublemaker by Andrew Clements

I just read and reviewed Andrew Clements's newest title, so it seems I like to read him in January. I remember liking this book, which, if memory serves, I finished reading at my desk in the library. It must have been a slow day, because I don't think I had many chances to read in that job!


Seeing Cinderella by Jenny Lundquist

Whenever I see the cover of this book, I remember being on a train with it, so I must have been reading it during my commute. I remember feeling dubious about the fantasy elements, but I wound up giving it four stars. I think this was also the beginning of my obsession with Aladdin Mix books, which I read in abundance for several years afterwards.


The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

I really liked this series, and had almost forgotten about it! I wish this author had written other contemporary YA stories, though I am also curious about her 2018 release, The Book of Boy.


The Zebra Wall by Kevin Henkes

This was a used bookstore find that I had never seen before, but that now seems to be at every sale and store I visit. I remember being really amused by the sit-com-esque storyline and interested in Henkes's evolution as an author since the 1980s.


Claire's Story, 1910 by Adele Whitby

I loved this series and I wish there had been more titles! The writing was really just adequate, but the concept - exploring the connections between different generations of the same family - was great.


The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett 

This book stands out to me as one of the first I ever borrowed from I had been wanting to read it forever and was amazed when I realized it had been sitting there waiting for me all along. I also remember my review mentioning that I was going to read the other books of the series - it might be time to make good on that promise now!


Amahl and the Night Visitors by Frances Frost and Roger Duvoisin 

This was the first book of last year, and possibly also the best. I just re-read it with the girls at the beginning of the month, and it was just as good the second time around.


The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander 

This year's first book was for my book club. I really enjoyed it, both for the writing style, and for the way it put into words many thoughts I have had in passing but never expressed.

What was your first read of the new year?

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Reading Through History: The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum (1962)

In Nazi-occupied Holland, Joris Verhagen and his family live in a windmill. Though they seem like an ordinary family, the Verhagens' windmill is the site of many acts of resistance toward the Nazi regime, including their adoption of a Jewish baby as their own and the harboring of an English airman right under the nose of their teenage neighbor who works for the Nazis. As this family lives daily life in the months prior to Holland's liberation, the reader gains insight into the differences made by ordinary people during a time of great difficulty in Europe.

What I like most about this book is how Catholic it is. The Verhagens practice their faith devoutly, including celebration of saint days like St. Nicholas Day, participation in the sacrament of Reconciliation, and regular attendance at Mass. Children's books about faithful Catholics are real unicorns in the world of literature, and I am always completely thrilled to find a good one. It is clear that this family's faith is one the driving forces behind its desire to help anyone they can escape from the Nazis, and it is nice to have that expressed so well.

Another wonderful thing about this book is the character of Joris's mother. I have observed in the past that Van Stockum generally writes mothers very well (as evidenced by Mother O'Sullivan in The Cottage at Bantry Bay and Mrs. Mitchell in The Mitchells and its sequels), and this book solidifies that opinion for me.  Mrs. Verhagen is not just a stock character, but a woman of real strength and courage who faces down real dangers on a regular basis and manages to remain calm, cool, and collected. Her relationship to the adopted Trixie is especially poignant, and her worries about the baby's true identity being discovered were very palpable to me throughout the book.

There are so many beautiful passages in this story that explore deep philosophical questions: why God allows suffering, when war is justified, what it means to be wise, to be honest, to be good. Each of these is discussed from a Catholic perspective, and in a way that helps kids break down these issues into their key components and really understand why we believe the way we do. For that reason, of all the van Stockum books I've read, I think this one was the most emotionally resonant and the one from which I will remember the most specific moments as time goes on.

I own a copy of The Winged Watchman and I can't wait for my kids to be old enough to appreciate it. Between this and Kate Seredy's The Chestry Oak, we are well-prepared for introducing them to World War II history. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Reading Through History: Jip: His Story by Katherine Paterson (1996)

When he was very young, Jip, so-called because he may have been the son of gypsies, fell from a wagon in a Vermont town, and no one ever came back for him. With nowhere else to go, Jip was placed on the poor farm, along with other marginalized residents, including the mentally ill and physically disabled. As one of the only able-bodied people at the farm, Jip has a lot of responsibility, including looking after Put, a "lunatic" who has occasional fits during which he becomes quite violent and unresponsive to those around him. When a stranger comes to the poor farm claiming to have knowledge of Jip's true identity, Jip is very suspicious, a feeling which is compounded by some of the stories given to him by his teacher at the school he starts attending simply to accompany another farm resident. When it becomes clear that Jip must run away to escape this stranger, he is torn between the desire for his own safety and his loyalty to Put.

For a short novel, this book covers a lot of ground. Through Jip's eyes, the reader learns about poor farms, the treatment of the disabled in the 19th century, education laws, schoolhouse culture, Oliver Twist, Quakers, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the slave trade, and the Underground Railroad. Paterson does quite a good job of keeping the reader very close to Jip's thoughts so that certain truths about his identity which might otherwise be obvious are hidden until the moment Jip realizes them himself. Because Jip is so isolated from regular society, he and the child reader are often learning things at the same time, which makes the explanation of new facts feel very natural and not at all didactic.

The ending of the book is a bit strange. There is an epilogue of sorts that seems to raise some new questions and encourage interest in hearing more of Jip's story, but there is no sequel, so it feels like we're left hanging. There is, however, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it reference to another Paterson novel (Lyddie), which is a nice Easter egg for those who have read both books. It's a small moment, but it resonates strongly if you enjoyed Lyddie, and it's enough to make me want to recommend that people read Lyddie before Jip.

I'm planning to read a dozen Katherine Paterson novels in 2019, and this was a strong one to start with. I really enjoyed her straightforward writing style in this book and the way each character comes to life in her economical but powerful descriptions. I recommend this book for ages 8 to 12.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

New-to-Me Authors Discovered in 2018

This week's Top Ten Tuesday topic is New-to-Me Authors I Read In 2018. I discovered quite a few new authors last year, and these are the ten I liked most.

Krista Davis

I listened to the audiobook of book one of Davis's Pen and Ink series, Color Me Murder, in April, and I was really impressed by how well-written it was compared to other cozy mysteries. I also realized for the first time how much more I enjoyed audiobooks when I listened to them at double speed, and ended up reading quite a few other cozies in that format, including The Diva Runs Out of Thyme, also by Krista Davis. I bought two more books from the Diva series in paperback, and my mom gave me the second Pen and Ink book for Christmas, so I'm planning to enjoy those in 2019.

Vivien Chien

Vivien Chien's Noodle Shop Mysteries were another great discovery in 2018. I read an ARC of the first book, Death by Dumpling before its publication in March, and loved it instantly. It seemed like it took forever for the second book to become available on NetGalley, but when it did, I requested it immediately and read and reviewed Dim Sum of All Fears before it came out in August. The third book, Murder Lo Mein, is coming soon, and I can't wait!

Victoria Gilbert

I listened to the audiobook of the second book in Victoria Gilbert's Blue Ridge Library Mystery series, Shelved Under Murder, mostly because of the library setting, and I was impressed from the beginning with both the details about daily work in a public library and the well-developed characters. I haven't yet gone back to read book 1, but I have an ARC of the third book, Past Due for Murder, which comes out in February, and I'm really looking forward to visiting with all those characters again.

Kasie West

After reading several Sarah Dessen books over the summer, I wanted more teen summer romances. I had enjoyed Kasie West's By Your Side early in the year, so I decided to try a couple more of her titles. While cleaning during our move at the beginning of August, I listened to On the Fence and Listen To Your Heart. I also ended up buying the Kindle edition of Snow in Love solely because West has a story in it. Next I'll be reading a digital ARC of her February 2019 release, Fame, Fate, and the First Kiss, from Edelweiss+.

Jenny Han

I tried and failed when I was a librarian to read The Summer I Turned Pretty and Shug, but I decided to try this author once more with her Lara Jean series. I read the first one, To All The Boys I've Loved Before, in January, and loved it.  Then I watched the Netflix movie when it came out in August, and listened to the other two books on audio in December. I'm excited for the movie sequel to come to Netflix!

Hank Green

I have known of Hank Green as one of the vlogbrothers ever since I first read a John Green book during my teen librarian days. I went into his first novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing,  with very low expectations, kind of assuming he was only getting published because he's a YouTube personality with a famous author for a brother. But I was so wrong. The book was so good! I'm a little wary of a sequel since I liked the ambiguity of the ending of the first book, but I definitely plan to read it.

Patricia Cornwell

I read the first of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta books a few years ago, but then put the rest of the series on the back burner. This past year, faced with the fact that I only have one Sue Grafton book left to read, I decided to try Cornwell again, and listened to the first two books on audio. This time, it seems to have stuck, because book three, All That Remains, was my second read of 2019.

Laura Lippman

I was looking for an interesting audiobook this spring, and chose Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman at random. I enjoyed it so much that I got started on the author's Tess Monaghan series. I read three of those in 2018, and I bought a bunch more in paperback to read this year.

Chaim Potok

My unofficial Well Read Mom book club read My Name is Asher Lev in October, and I just fell in love with the writing style. I really want to read the sequel this year.

Sarah Addison Allen

I read I'd Rather be Reading by Anne Bogel in September when it was making the rounds on #bookstagram, and in it, she mentioned some of Sarah Addison Allen's books. I don't usually like fantasy, but these sounded so good that when I saw Garden Spells available as an ebook from my library, I gave it a try. I enjoyed it so much that I also bought Allen's First Frost for Kindle. It's on my 2019 TBR.

Have you read any of these authors? Which authors did you discover in 2018?

Monday, January 14, 2019

#YearofHarryPotter: Philosopher's Stone, Chapters 5-8

For week two of the Year of Harry Potter, I read chapters 5 through 8 in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: "Diagon Alley," "The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters," "The Sorting Hat," and "The Potions Master." (Spoilers ahead. Beware.)

I was struck once again by the emotions of the adults of the wizarding world as young Harry returns to them after years of being exiled to the Dursleys' house. Knowing all the backstory that is revealed throughout the series makes the moment in the Leaky Cauldron when everyone falls silent in recognition of Harry's arrival especially poignant. I also felt a twinge of sadness when Harry questions why Snape hates him, and Hagrid seems to know the reason but doesn't say. It pleases me greatly to see how much this book is already rewarding a second reading only 100 pages in.

These chapters also introduce many of my favorite characters of the series, especially the Weasleys, Hermione, Ginny, and Neville. There are tons of characters in general in these chapters, too, but Rowling does a really nice job of making the number of new names feel manageable. It probably helps that I've heard the names of the other first-years many times in the later books, and in the movies, but even so, she handles the sudden character population explosion really well.

I also found myself feeling a bit surprised that Draco is such a blatantly villainous character. I think fans of the series have spoken of him so often as a misunderstood or ambiguous character that I began to think of him that way myself, but in the first descriptions of his behavior, it's clear we're not meant to like him, and that he is not going to be a force for good within the story. And J.K. Rowling herself has written that she "often had cause to remark on how unnerved I have been by the number of girls who fell for this particular fictional character" and that "Draco was not concealing a heart of gold under all that sneering and prejudice and that no, he and Harry were not destined to end up best friends." This is another reason to re-read this series: to separate canon from fan theory.

Finally, I laughed out loud at how completely lame the Hogwarts school song is. I do like Dumbledore's whimsical suggestion that every student pick his own tune and sing the words along with it, but the words themselves are just ridiculous. It begins with "Hogwarts, Hogwarts, Hoggy Warty Hogwarts," and just devolves from there. I'll have to double-check when I get to Order of the Phoenix, but if memory serves, "Weasley is Our King" has better lyrics.

I'll be back next week with my thoughts on the next four chapters, which will focus on dueling, Halloween, Quidditch, and the Mirror of Erised.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Book Review: The Friendship War by Andrew Clements (2019)

Science-minded Grace is a collector of interesting objects, so when she asks her grandfather if she can have the thousands of old buttons she finds in the old building he just purchased, he doesn't hesitate to hand them over. When Grace brings a few of the buttons to school, however, she is unprepared for the sudden enthusiasm for buttons shown by not just her best friend, Ellie, but also her entire class! As Grace and Ellie become consumed with the excitement of crafting, playing, and trading with buttons of all varieties, they also begin to realize the problems in their friendship, namely that Ellie shows off a lot and Grace resents her for it. Before long, the button frenzy becomes less about the buttons and more about trying to one-up and get back at each other. Grace wants to end the button fad once and for all and get things back to normal, but shutting it down proves to be a lot more difficult than putting it into motion in the first place.

This school story does a great job of describing the experience of getting caught up in a fad at school. Clements gets all the details just right, including the way fads sometimes grow and change overnight, and even the reactions of teachers and administrators when a fad begins to consume too much of the students' attention. He also uses the button fad very effectively as a vehicle both for Grace and Ellie to confront the strain in their friendship, and for Grace to become better friends with another classmate named Hank, who shares her scientific interests.

The flaw in this book, though, is how much exposition there is at the start. The strong story at the heart of this book is very slow to get going. The book opens with Grace arriving for a visit with her grandfather, leading the reader to believe that this visit and this relationship will be the focus of the novel. Just as the reader begins to settle into this story, however, Grace is suddenly heading right back home, with the buttons following by mail, and it's clear that this has all just been backstory leading up to the real story the author wants to tell. Only a few of the details revealed in these early pages are even remotely relevant to the rest of the book, and it takes a while to refocus after the abrupt shift in the narrative. I also found it a little unnecessary that Grace occasionally worries about whether Hank thinks she is cute. Not every middle grade novel needs to have a dating-related subplot, even a subtle one.

The Friendship War has some positive wisdom to impart about the importance of honesty and taking ownership of one's mistakes, and about placing a greater value on people than on objects, which I really appreciated. There is also a surprising amount of information about the history of the materials used to make buttons, which becomes interesting within the context of this story. While this isn't Clements's best book, it will satisfy most readers who enjoy his realistic school stories, especially those who see some of their own experiences mirrored by the story.  (Thanks to Random House Children's and NetGalley for the digital review copy!)

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Book Review: All Alone by Claire Huchet Bishop (1953)

Marcel is ten years old, and he is finally old enough to be sent up the French Alps to keep watch over his family's cattle for the entire summer. Though Marcel's father trusts him, he also makes it clear to his son that he is not to make friends with anyone during his summer away. The attitude of Marcel's entire community is that getting involved with neighbors can only lead to trouble. Marcel's father wants Marcel to focus only on the task at hand, and to avoid anything which might jeopardize the cattle. Once Marcel is on the mountain, however, he finds it comforting to hear the yodeling of another boy who is tending his own herd. He tries not to befriend the boy,  but when disaster strikes, his attitude must change in order to ensure both boys' survival, and that of their cows.

This Newbery Honor book from 1954 is mostly a compelling story of friendship, adventure, and the first taste of independence. The details given by the author make it easy for the reader to envision the story's setting, and the interactions between Marcel and his dad do a wonderful job of setting up the main tension of the book. I read the book aloud to my older two girls (ages 3 and 5) and they were totally hooked and invested in every thread of the plot.

I was disappointed, though, by the ending. When all is said and done, Marcel's neighbors come to the realization that they can be more successful farmers if they pool their resources and work together. Suddenly, this highly individualistic group of people becomes completely community-minded, and the final chapter of the book lays down a very heavy-handed moral that feels a bit like Communist propaganda. My husband did some research and shared with me that the author meant to promote communitarianism, which emphasizes ownership by the community and not by the government. Whichever ideology she is promoting, though, that last chapter just feels out of place and uncomfortable, as does all blatant propaganda in children's literature.  I would still recommend the book because of the theme of friendship and the truly exciting adventure scenes, but I think it would have been a better book all around if it hadn't taken its lesson quite so far.

All Alone is out of print, but you can read it online at at the link below.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

My Most-Anticipated New Releases, January-June, 2019

This week, Top Ten Tuesday is focusing on our most-anticipated releases of the first half of 2019. I am not as into new books these days as I used to be, but I still have a handful I'm excited to read as they are published between now and June. 

The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction 
by Meghan Cox Gurdon
Publication date: 1/22/19
[Add this book on Goodreads.]
I'm on a quest to read and review as many books about books as I can get my hands on, especially if they're about reading with kids, so I'm hoping my local libraries will order this one as soon as it comes out.

Pay Attention, Carter Jones
by Gary D. Schmidt
Publication date: 2/5/19
Schmidt is a must-read author for me, and I'm hoping this book is more in the vein of Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now rather than Orbiting Jupiter (which was good, but a bit heavier than the other two.)

Sweeping Up the Heart 
by Kevin Henkes
Publication date: 3/19/19
It's been a while since Kevin Henkes has published a novel, so I'm excited to see how it is. It looks like it might be a bit sad, so I'm saving the ARC for when I can just read it in one sitting.

Leave No Scone Unturned 
by Denise Swanson
Publication date: 3/26/19
I'm listening to the audiobook of the first title in this series, Tart of Darkness, and I'm really enjoying the characters. I was just approved for this second book on NetGalley today, and it will be on my TBR for February or March. 

Murder Lo Mein 
by Vivien Chien
Publication date: 3/26/19
I love this series, and I have been waiting for this third book since I finished the second one. I haven't seen this one on NetGalley yet, but I'm keeping an eye out. 

Be Brave in the Scared: How I Learned to Trust God During the Most Difficult Days of My Life 
by Mary Lenaburg
Publication date: 5/10/19
Mary Lenaburg is a Catholic blogger I have been following for several years. My Catholic moms group went to see her speak last year, and her story about caring for her daughter Courtney, who was disabled due to epilepsy and died a few years ago at age 22, is really inspiring. I am excited to read more about it in this book.

A Is for Elizabeth 
by Rachel Vail
Publication date: 5/7/19
I loved the Justin Case series back when I was working in the library, and this spin-off starring Justin's sister looks just as good. I also have a daughter named Elizabeth, so it also caught my eye for that reason.

The Rest of the Story 
by Sarah Dessen
Publication date: 6/4/19
Sarah Dessen has changed publishers, and her new book will be her first with Harper Collins! The description of the story sounds good, and reading it will be a great way to kick off summer. (The cover hasn't been revealed yet. I'm really curious to see how it will look!)

Are you anticipating any of these books? What else are you looking forward to seeing on the library shelves in 2019? 

Monday, January 7, 2019

#YearofHarryPotter: Philosopher's Stone, Chapters 1-4

This year, I am reading through the entire Harry Potter series using a schedule I made to make the books last the entire year. I have only read the first three books one time each (back around 2000 or 2001 sometime) and I read the other books a couple of times each,  but always quickly, either to absorb the plot or to refresh my memory before the release of a new book or movie. So this time, I'm taking it slow, and trying to just appreciate how the series works as a whole.

As I read, I've decided to blog my reactions to each week's segment of the series. If you have not read the series in its entirety, I recommend not reading my commentary, as I will be including spoilers not just for the current book, but for threads of the larger story that might be foreshadowed by the current book, or details which make more sense as a second-time reader that might not have the same significance the first time through. So, beware spoilers beyond this point.

This past week's assignment was the first four chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: "The Boy Who Lived," "The Vanishing Glass," "The Letters from No One," and "The Keeper of the Keys." (I am reading the original UK editions, thus the use of the UK book title.) These chapters begin on the night Harry's parents are killed, and they take us through Harry's excursion to the zoo where he communicates with the boa constrictor, the flood of Hogwarts letters that take over his aunt and uncle's house on Privet Drive, and the arrival of Hagrid and his announcement that Harry is a wizard.

Being back in this universe is a lot of fun. It was great to meet Dumbledore and Hagrid for the first time all over again, and to see how Rowling's first descriptions of them really do match up with the personalities that reveal themselves as the series goes on. I was also surprised by how much of an assertive personality Harry himself has. I've been picturing little Daniel Radcliffe in my mind when I think of eleven-year-old Harry, but there is a spark in this character on the page that I don't really remember feeling from him during my first reading, and that I'm not sure is quite captured in the first movie.

The other thing I really appreciate - and one of the reasons I wanted to do this re-reading project - is the little details that appear in these early moments of the series that will come into play in a much larger way in later volumes. I did remember that Hagrid drove Harry to Privet Drive on Sirius Black's motorcycle, but I don't think I ever realized that Mrs. Figg, who we later come to know is a squib and a member of the Order of the Phoenix, was in this first book, ostensibly as the crazy cat lady down the street that sometimes looks after Harry when the Dursleys don't want to take him out with them. I guess we don't know for sure whether Rowling intended her to be a member of the Order from the beginning, but it sure adds a layer to the story to realize that someone was in place looking after him during the years of his separation from the wizarding community.

Finally, I really enjoyed the scene where Hagrid realizes the Dursleys have told Harry nothing at all about his magical background. It's the perfect way to get out all the details without boring the reader with a huge dump of exposition, and allows Rowling to give us a few different sides of Hagrid that present the depth of his character. We see him as the benevolent protector of Harry, the indignant devotee of Dumbledore, and the umbrella-wielding threat to the repugnant Dursleys. I can't wait to follow Hagrid and Harry to Diagon Alley this week!

Friday, January 4, 2019

Book Review: Astrid the Unstoppable by Maria Parr (2018)

In this new middle grade novel by Norwegian author Maria Parr (Adventures with Waffles, 2015) Astrid is the only child living in her village of Glimmerdal, and as a result her best friend is an elderly man named Gunnvald. Astrid, who is known in her community as "the little thunderbolt" has very strong emotions as well as a tendency to be a bit of a daredevil which frequently gets her into trouble. Astrid has always wanted the excitement of newcomers in town, especially kids, but when some strangers do show up, she suddenly becomes wary of the changes they might bring. When she discovers that Gunnvald has been keeping a secret from her, she's not sure she will ever look at anything the same way again.

When I saw this book compared to Pippi Longstocking, I was a bit wary because, as I've said, I find Pippi grating and exhausting. I need not have worried, however, because Astrid, though plucky and self-confident, is a much more believable child character than Pippi. Outlandish as her behavior can be, Astrid is very much of the real world and not someone who feels like she belongs in a tall tale. Astrid's emotional turmoil, in particular, is thoroughly believable, and it is easy to empathize with her situation as events unfold.

The writing in this book is also top-notch. Descriptions of the characters and setting are vivid,and the author gives a clear picture of Glimmerdal and its inhabitants that makes the reader feel like a part of this fictional universe. Astrid's relationship to Gunnvald is unique and special and their friendship, though unlikely, makes perfect sense within the context of this novel. I enjoyed Adventures with Waffles, but this book is even better. Also, as an added bonus, it's a middle grade novel you can hand to an eight-, nine-, or ten-year-old without reservations. There aren't a lot of those around, so this is a rare gem for that reason as well. (Thank you, Candlewick Press, for the digital review copy via NetGalley!)

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Sing A Song of Seasons (and Other Books to Welcome the New Year)

As one year ends and a new one begins, it is always fun to read children's books that explore the months and seasons of the year. When I worked in the library, one of my go-to January themes for story time was the calendar, and even now, in our homeschool, I try to bring out those books at the start of the year as a means of charting the course for the year ahead and explaining how things begin anew with each new year.

This summer, we were lucky enough to receive a review copy of Sing a Song of Seasons, which is a beautiful collection of nature poems, one for each date on the calendar. (The collection was edited by Fiona Waters and illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon, and published by Nosy Crow.) We have a lot of poetry collections, and I really didn't think we needed more, but this is one for which it is definitely worth finding a little extra shelf space. Not only does it include a diverse selection of poems, it also has cheerful and colorful illustrations to set the mood for each one. I doubt I'll be disciplined enough to read each poem on its appointed day, but I do like to use poems to talk about the seasons with the girls, so it's really useful to me to have them organized according to the calendar. I also love that there is a two-page spread at the start of each month showing all the poems for that month. I appreciate that the book is designed to be useful even if you're not going to read one poem per day.

The girls looked through the book with me and we looked up the poems associated with each of their birthdays as well as the birthdays of other people in our family and circle of friends. They loved discovering that some of the people we knew had familiar and beloved poems listed under their birth dates, and they were interested in learning more about the poems associated with their own birthdays. Though they are young now at 1, 3, and 5 years old, and the illustrations appeal to them at these ages,  I also appreciate that the pictures are not cutesy and will not be out of place on their bookshelf even ten years from now. This is not just a kids' book, but a family book that can be enjoyed again and again year in and year out.

Here are some other children's books I like for exploring and celebrating the months and seasons of the calendar year:

Chicken Soup with Rice
by Maurice Sendak

This classic is fun to chant or to sing (using the tune from Really Rosie, where it's sung by Carole King). We recently upgraded from a small paperback edition to a larger hardcover picture book, and I'm looking forward to being able to read it aloud to all the girls at once more easily. I also have fond memories of my first grade teacher bringing out the new rhyme for each month and having the class do a choral reading.

A Year of Birds by Ashley Wolff
This book traces the year by describing the birds a young girl can see outside of her window in each month. The illustrations also tell a secondary story of the girl's mother welcoming a new baby to the family. We received a birdfeeder from my mother-in-law for Christmas, so I think it will be fun to read this book this year and compare the birds in the book to the ones who visit our feeder.

Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
You can never go wrong with Joyce Sidman when it comes to poetry, and this book is no exception. This 2010 Caldecott Honor book looks at color not from the preschool perspective, when kids are simply learning the names of the colors, but from the point of view of an artist. I know not everyone enjoys Zagarenski's esoteric artwork, with its inexplicable crowns and other seemingly random imagery, but I find it charming. Inexplicably, I don't own this book. I may need to fix that.

A Year with Friends by John Seven, illustrated by Jana Christy
This sweet picture book illustrated with cheerful pastels includes a two-page spread for each month of the year that shows a group of friends doing a seasonal activity together. I like this book a lot for toddlers as it gets across the concepts of months and seasons with very little text. Sadly, our copy is not as sturdy as it once was, so my one-year-old doesn't get to handle it as much as her sisters did, but I will read it aloud to her so she can still enjoy it.

A Child's Calendar by John Updike

We have two editions of this poetry collection: one illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, which is a Caldecott Honor book, and one illustrated by Nancy Burkert. I guess if I had to choose one, I'd stick with the Hyman, but both are well-done. The poems are short, and often funny, and the illustrations in both editions provide festive accompaniment to the text.