Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Recently Abandoned Books

For years, I didn't have a "did not finish" shelf on Goodreads because I almost never abandoned books. This is partly because I was working in libraries and wanted to be able to talk intelligently about books my patrons asked about whether I was interested in them or not. Now, though, as I read primarily for my own enjoyment, or to preview books for my own kids, I  do make room in my reading life for the occasional DNF. The ten titles on my list today are the books I've abandoned since August 2019.

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Read on Arrival by Nora Page 

This is the second book in the Bookmobile Mystery series, which stars a librarian in her 70s. I gave the first book three stars, but really struggled to get into the second one last summer. I'm finding that for me, some cozy mystery premises stop being engaging after a book or two, and I think that was the case with this one. 


Twins 101 by Khanh-Van Le-Bucklin

My twins were born 9 weeks ago, but back in September, we had just found out we were expecting them, and I was reading all the twin things. Unfortunately, this book made having twins sound like a major crisis during which I and/or my babies would most certainly have a brush with death. I had to stop reading for the sake of my mental health. (And my pregnancy and delivery were both totally smooth, so all the dire predictions ended up being wrong in my case.)

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Starlight by Debbie Macomber 

I am very picky about my Debbie Macomber books, and in general, the older the book of hers, the less I like it. Since her 2019 Christmas book was a Mrs. Miracle title, and I don't like those, I decided to try this older one (from 1983) on audio as Christmas approached. There was nothing wrong with it per se, but I just never got into it, and by the time Christmas arrived, I was over it and ready to move on, so I did.


A Christmas Book by Elizabeth Goudge

This book I had to abandon because it was an inter-library loan and it was due back to its home library before I could finish it. Since it mostly consists of holiday-themed excerpts from Goudge's novels, I will probably get to most of these eventually, since what I did get to read I absolutely loved. 


Murder at Icicle Lodge by J.D. Griffo

This is the third book in the Ferrara Family Mystery series. I have not read the first two books, but downloaded this from NetGalley because I liked the description and the wintry cover. Unfortunately, I was only 3% into the book when I realized that the writing was overly descriptive, and that the story wanted me to believe that a 65-year-old woman who would have grown up in the 60s and 70s was somehow ignorant of the concept of a "shotgun" wedding. There were just too many problems for me to feel like continuing with this book would be a good use of my time.


Pippa Park Raises Her Game by Erin Yun

I was torn on whether to accept this review copy from the publisher because it was a retelling of a classic (Great Expectations), and I tend to have issues with those. At the time, though, I had just received an unsolicited copy of More to the Story by Hena Khan, which is a retelling of Little Women, and I envisioned an Instagram or blog post highlighting both books. Unfortunately, as I should have suspected, I was irritated by the way the author tried to make the plot of the Dickens novel fit contemporary circumstances and I just couldn't make myself push through to the end. I now have a personal policy of not reviewing adaptations of classic novels!  

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Happy and You Know It by Laura Hankin

I've been on a contemporary fiction kick since we've been in this pandemic situation, and when I was browsing ARCs on Edelweiss+ this title jumped out at me. A musician who performs sing-alongs for a playgroup? That sounded like me doing story time for my friends in my living room! So relatable! Except it wasn't. I was not prepared for how negative this book was. Every character in this book was just miserable, and they were so cavalier about everything from adultery to abortion. It was just too much for me, and I had to quit. 

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Studies in Words by C.S. Lewis 

One of my reading goals for the Schole Sisters Reading Challenge this year is to read five books about linguistics. I realized, though, that what I really want is more of a "pop" approach to the topic than an academic one. Lewis is brilliant, of course, and the information in this book is fascinating, but it was not what I had in mind for right now. 


A Mysterious Mix Up by J.C. Kenney 

This is the third book in the Allie Cobb mystery series, the first two of which I enjoyed very much. This one, though, felt like it was trying really hard to be relevant by throwing in lots of pop culture references that didn't quite fit the context. I tried to power through and just focus on the plot, but it was just too distracting.

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Deadly Ride by Jody Holford

This is the third book in the Britton Bay mystery series, the first two of which I also enjoyed very much. I think my issue with this one was the setting. The main action of the plot takes place at a car show, and I just couldn't get into it. I tried both the ebook and audiobook before realizing it wasn't me, it was the book. 

What have you abandoned lately?

Friday, May 1, 2020

Homeschool Progress Report: March/April 2020

Looking back at the homeschool report I posted just two months ago, I feel as though I must have written it during a different lifetime. A few short weeks ago, I hadn't yet delivered my twins, and we were completely ignorant of how the coronavirus was about to impact our freedom to go about our normal activities. Now we're not just homeschooling, but ordered by law to stay home, and since they came home from staying with friends while I had the babies (a boy and a girl, both doing well!), my kids haven't really seen anyone outside of our immediate family. Though our day-to-day routine hasn't changed that much - and honestly is more or less what it would have been with newborn twins even without the coronavirus - things don't feel normal, and as a result, our school life hasn't been fully normal either. We are also coping with the disappointment of a canceled visit from Grandma and the fact that there was no public Mass on Easter, two things which further contribute to our unsettled feelings.

Still, though we took a bit of time off in March, we have still been accomplishing schoolwork, and though our homeschool review this year has already taken place, I want to have a record of what we did for our own purposes. Since we have slowed down some, this post will focus on both March and April. 

First Grade with M., age 6


Much of M.'s recent math work has been on the computer, using Khan Academy, where she is working at the 4th grade level, and Xtra math, where she has finally finished subtraction and has now moved on to division. We're also still doing "Fred Fridays" with Life of Fred (we're in Edgewood now) and most days, I try to assign a few pages of Singapore Math. She's working on 3A right now and has just moved into the workbook for 3A part two. This is mostly review since she has already learned her times tables, but working with division and remainders is new and she seems to be enjoying it even if she is sometimes making careless mistakes. 


Right before I went to the hospital to have the twins, M. finished a quick couple of weeks on Ancient China. We read The Ancient Chinese by Virginia Schomp and Science in Ancient China by George W. Beshore, and M. did narrations about the ancient Chinese belief in five elements and using moxa and acupuncture to treat illness. After the twins came home, we did a week or so on the Ancient Celts using The Ancient Celts by Patricia Calvert. M. did  narrations about Celtic kings and Celtic marriage.

After the Celts, we studied the Maya using The Ancient Maya by Barbara Beck. This book was perfectly suited to our purposes and much more enjoyable than the Celts book. M. did narrations about Mayan clothing, Mayan art, the eras of Mayan civilization, and the Mayan counting system. She also played this Maya math game from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, experimented with Maya pottery methods using play dough, and did some online tours of Mayan sites (such as Chichen Itza) using Google Arts & Culture.

As April comes to an end, we are reading Alexander the Great from the Landmark series, and she has just finished Our Little Macedonian Cousin of Long Ago by Julia Darrow Cowles, which involves Alexander's childhood. M. especially liked learning about Alexander's approach to untying the Gordian knot, and she wrote and illustrated a narration about it.


For most of March, science mostly consisted of M. taking her microscope out on her deck to look at whatever struck her fancy. In April, we shifted gears and M. and C. started doing a unit on life cycles together. We have so far read about the life cycles of beans, frogs, and mosquitoes, and M. has drawn diagrams of each. We briefly tried planting beans in bags, but over-watered them so nothing actually grew. I do plan to have us try again.


We avoided mentioning the coronavirus to the girls at all for a couple of weeks, but when it became clear we'd be stuck at home for weeks on end, we did end up telling them that there is a new germ around and we all need to be careful not to spread it. M. wanted to know what the name of the germ was (Covid, we told her) and there has been some discussion about washing hands to prevent sickness from spreading. Aside from that, welcoming new babies into the family has been our main health lesson. 

Reading and Writing 

M.'s recent reads have included Pippi on Board and Pippi in the South Seas by Astrid Lindgren, More All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor, Dr. Dolittle in the Moon by Hugh Lofting, and several titles in the Dani series by Rose Lagercrantz. As read-alouds she also heard The Doll People Set Sail by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Aside from narrations, her writing has mostly been self-directed, in the form of lists of things she'd like to do each day, signs directing her sisters to join her for various clubs and activities, and other assorted random notes. 

Memory Work

M. is nearly finished memorizing "The Blind Men and the Elephant." 


M. has continued to practice recorder and piano, and we have continued listening to Classics for Kids. We recently covered the sets of episodes on women composers, Frédéric Chopin, Antonio Vivaldi, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Antonin Dvorak.  We also watched some of this string duo performance by members of the Marine Band, which features neat arrangements of Gershwin and Joplin pieces we previously studied. 


For art appreciation, we read Linnea in Monet's Garden to satisfy M.'s interest in his artwork. Afterward, she streamed the film adaptation through the public library. We also finally finished reading Looking at Pictures by Joy Richardson, though I think we will spend some more time with the paintings it covers before we move on to something else. M. also created a beautiful picture of Jesus's empty tomb following this video from Art for Kids Hub. 

Physical Education

Since our local playgrounds are also closed right now, phys. ed. mostly consists of running around on the deck when the weather is warm. God willing, outdoor activities will resume soon and we'll be able to get back to the park (or maybe even the pool in a few weeks?)


We finished the readings to accompany these Jesus tree ornaments  and glued the ornaments to a cross made from brown paper. We also streamed the pre-1955 Good Friday liturgy online and watched the Easter Vigil from the National Shrine. Each Sunday, we've been trying to "attend" Mass at a different church. We also made sure to tune in for the Pope's Urbi et Orbi blessing. M. has also demonstrated sufficient knowledge of the content in lessons 1 through 8 of her St. Joseph Catechism that we have finally started Lesson 9.


M. is still practicing her cursive using exercises my husband makes for her, some of which are quotations from famous people and others of which are sentences relating to her day-to-day life.


M. continues to use Typing.com. We discovered a section of the site where the typing exercises follow a "choose your own adventure" format. She types a page of a story and then gets to choose what happens next, which really motivates her to want to type. 

Pre-K with C., age 4 


C. finished all the lessons in The Ordinary Parents' Guide to Teaching Reading and not long after, she started reading chapter books. She has now read several titles from Carolyn Haywood's Betsy series as well as all three books in the My Father's Dragon series, and her current read is Eddie and the Fire Engine by Carolyn Haywood. She also continues to read through our collection of easy readers, including books by Arnold Lobel, Crosby Bonsall, and Millicent Selsam.   She and M. also like to read aloud to their grandmothers over Skype and have been performing selections from the You Read To Me, I'll Read to You series by Maryann Hoberman.


C. started Singapore 1A at about the halfway point and has now finished the book. Next, we're going to take a break from Singapore and focus on strengthening her mental math skills using the soroban. C. is also working on first grade math on Khan Academy.

Memory Work

C. made a video of her recitation of "A Spike of Green." We will assign her a new poem soon. 

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Book Review: Cracking the Bell by Geoff Herbach (2019)

Because of how much I enjoyed Geoff Herbach's writing in Stupid Fast, I always make a point of reading whatever he publishes, knowing I will probably enjoy how he tells the story even if I'm not that interested in the subject matter. This is how I came to read this novel focused on the dangers of concussions in high school football. (I downloaded the digital ARC from Edelweiss+.)

Isaiah has had a rough couple of years. After his sister was killed, he started acting out a lot, and the only thing that seems to keep his destructive behavior in check is playing on the football team. Isaiah is also a talented football player and he expects his football skills to pave the way for him to go to college. This is why, when he takes a blow to the head during practice, he tries to ignore the symptoms that make it very obvious he has suffered a concussion. The truth eventually comes to light, however, and Isaiah is left to figure out whether he can safely continue playing the sport he loves, and how else he might cope with his pent-up aggression and anger if he can no longer do so on a football field.

As he has in all his other books, Herbach has created a believable and sympathetic protagonist in Isaiah. Though it was somewhat nerve-wracking reading this as a mom and realizing how serious a head injury can be, it was also easy to understand why Isaiah was afraid to admit to his symptoms. The dilemma he faces is very difficult, and Herbach really illustrates how his relationship with his parents in the aftermath of his sister's death really contributes to that. Though this is very much a cautionary tale about the dangers of teens becoming injured playing football, it is also a family story about grief and growing up.  Herbach also does a really nice job of helping the reader to feel Isaiah's concussion alongside him. I imagine if a real-life football player didn't know he had a concussion, he could figure it out pretty easily after reading the descriptions in this book.

Cracking the Bell is ideal for fans of sports fiction by authors like Mike Lupica, Chris Crutcher, Fred Bowen, and Tim Green. I highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by Graham Halstead.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Up From Jericho Tel by E.L. Konigsburg (1986)

Jeanmarie Troxell and Malcolm Soo are two latch-key kids living in a New York trailer park. They become friends when they team up to bury and give funerals for dead animals they find in their neighborhood. Their burial ground is a place they christen Jericho Tel, and it is beneath this makeshift cemetery that they meet Tallulah. Tallulah is a dead actress who enlists Jeanmarie and Malcolm to help her find the Regina Stone, which someone stole from her body as she was dying. In doing Tallulah's bidding, Jeanmarie and Malcolm come to meet some of her eccentric perfomer friends and they work together to solve the puzzle of what exactly happened at the moment of Tallulah's death.

Until now, I thought (George) was E.L. Konigsburg's weirdest novel, but Up From Jericho Tel has definitely given it some competition. What makes it so odd and therefore so intriguing is the fact that so little is explained. Why does Tallulah want the help of these specific kids? What does their burial of dead animals have to do with her finding them? What is the point, really, of seeking out the Regina Stone? The story doesn't really address any of these issues; rather, the reader is just plunked down in the middle of these unlikely events and asked to accept them.

Obviously some of what Konigsburg is trying to get at involves fame, as both Jeanmarie and Malcolm wish to be famous and Tallulah became so during her lifetime. Tallulah also waxes philosophical at every turn, and she has a lot of wonderful one-line insights that really resonated with me. Still, it is impossible to really articulate what this book is truly about; giving a booktalk to a child reader would be difficult to say the least. I think the only way to present it, honestly, is to say it's a Konigsburg book and trust readers who have enjoyed some of her less "out there" books to know what that means and to bring an open mind to the story.

Though it's not my favorite Konigsburg, reading this book was a fun way to spend a few evenings. I don't think I'll be likely to re-read this one any time soon, but it is definitely very different, and despite its many quirks, the quality of the writing is top-notch. Even a not-very-interesting plot is made somehow engaging by Konigsburg's unique voice. With this author, it's never so much what she writes that I enjoy, but how she writes it.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Reading Through History: Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman (1987)

Lincoln: A Photobiography tells the life story of President Abraham Lincoln from his childhood in Illinois until his assassination in Ford's Theater. The text is accompanied by photographs which provide context and insight into various aspects of Lincoln's life, including his career as the owner of a general store, his early days as a prairie lawyer, his inauguration day at the unfinished U.S. Capitol, his role in the Civil War, and his funeral procession. This book won the Newbery Medal in 1988.

I listened to this book on audio, but also followed along with my physical copy so as to fully appreciate the photographs. Though the photos might seem to be the main attraction in a book which calls itself a "photobiography" I was pleased to note that the text is equally as distinctive as the many fascinating images Freedman includes in his book. Lincoln really comes to life in these pages, and the reader comes to know him not just as the stoic face on the five dollar bill, but as a flesh-and-blood man with flaws and fears, interests and ideals, loves and losses just like anyone else. This book sympathizes with Lincoln in a way that makes it easier to understand the decisions he made at various points in his presidency and to appreciate the ways being the president of the United States was a real challenge for him.

My favorite passage in the book, unsurprisingly, describes Lincoln's reading life during his years as a farmer:

There are many stories about Lincoln's efforts to find enough books to satisfy him in that backwoods country. Those he liked he read again and again, losing himself in the adventures of Robinson Crusoe or the magical tales of The Arabian Nights. He was thrilled by a biography of George Washington, with its stirring account of the Revolutionary War. And he came to love the rhyme and rhythm of poetry, reciting passages from Shakespeare or the Scottish poet Robert Burns at the drop of a hat. He would carry a book out to the field with him, so he could read at the end of each plow furrow, while the horse was getting its breath. When noon came, he would sit under a tree and read while he ate.

Somehow this image of Lincoln pausing at the end of his plowing to read a favorite book makes him feel like a kindred spirit across the generations. It's hard not to feel a connection to a fellow reader, no matter his time period.

This is an excellent book for introducing young readers to Abraham Lincoln as a real person, not just a a name and date in a history book. Though it might be a bit much for my first grader, I imagine it will be just right by the time we hit American history in third or fourth grade. I'm also really interested in reading some more books by Russell Freedman; his writing really resonates with me, and I'm eager to learn more about the other historical figures he wrote about. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

Book Review: New Kid by Jerry Craft (2019)

Jordan Banks, who really wanted to go to art school, has been sent instead by his parents to a fancy private school, where he is the new kid, and one of the only non-white students. As his seventh grade year unfolds, Jordan seeks to find his place in the student body as he also faces insensitive comments and behaviors from classmates and faculty members alike.

This graphic novel is the 2020 Newbery Medal winner. Much like 2019's winner, Merci Suarez Changes Gears, this is another stereotypically generic middle grade story which is distinctive only because its main character is a person of color. Being new in school is a main theme in hundreds of children's books, and for the most part, Jordan's feelings about the experience are almost identical to those of hundreds of other characters who have gone through it. With nothing new to add to this oft-told tale, this book is largely very boring.

Worse than causing boredom, however, this book also suffers greatly from its stereotypical portrayal of white characters. While it is certainly true that ignorant people make stupid comments about race, this book makes it hard to take that problem seriously because the white characters are just so laughably clueless. The teacher who repeatedly calls one black student by another black student's name is the most egregious, but almost every microaggression in this book didn't ring true as something a real human being would ever say. It would have improved the book a lot - and strengthened its message - if there had been some nuance to the ways white characters made Jordan feel marginalized, and if these microaggressions had been perpetrated not just by characters the story portrays as unlikable, but by some well-intentioned "good" characters as well.

As for the artwork in this book, it was fine, but not especially memorable for me. I think the style suited the subject matter, and the format is undoubtedly appealing to middle schoolers, but there weren't any images that I found myself spending extra time with or wanting to revisit. I also still question the legitimacy of giving an award for writing to a graphic novel, whose text and illustrations can't really be considered separately. I also question giving it to this book, which is not a particularly innovative or interesting example of this format.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Book Review: Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (1991)

One day, in the hills behind his house in West Virginia, Marty Preston finds a beagle and falls in love with him. Unfortunately, the dog belongs to Judd Travers, a neighbor with so little compassion for the animals he owns he doesn't even give them names. Moved by pity, Marty gives the dog a name, Shiloh, and despite warnings from his parents to mind his own business, becomes actively involved in trying to save the dog from his sad living situation.

Like The One and Only Ivan, this is a book I avoided for a long time because it seemed like it might be a Very Special Animal Story. As it turns out, though, whereas I think of Ivan as animal rights propaganda for kids, Shiloh is much more open-ended in its treatment of the subject matter, raising questions without easy answers and allowing the reader to contemplate their implications on her own. Though on some level this is a typical "boy and his dog" story, it is just as much an exploration of morality that asks kids to think about situations in which right and wrong might not seem so black and white and to evaluate the decisions Marty makes to determine whether he does the right thing by interfering in Judd's life to save the dog he loves.

I really enjoyed Naylor's writing in this book, and Peter MacNicol's narration of the audiobook really helped me to get into Marty's voice and into the story in general. Though I am neither a dog owner nor interested in becoming one, I was fully invested in this story and really wanted Shiloh and Marty to end up together. Though I think this book will still mainly appeal to dog lovers, it is a well-written story that any young reader can enjoy, even the ones who are typically sensitive to sad dog books. (Obviously, because there are sequels to this book,  it is clear that this is not a dead dog story. If you need to know whether Shiloh eventually dies before investing in the entire series, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor kindly answers that question on her website.) 

Monday, April 20, 2020

Book Review: Missing May by Cynthia Rylant (1992)

Summer is grateful to Aunt May and Uncle Ob, who took her in and raised her after the death of her parents. Now that May has died, however, Summer isn't sure how to help Ob move past his grief. Ob misses May so much that he hasn't quite stepped up to look after Summer, and he seems to be constantly looking for ways he might contact May's spirit in the afterlife. The only person who seems like he might be able to help Ob is Cletus, Summer's classmate, who is unfazed by Ob's sadness, and seems truly able to empathize with the older man's feelings.

I am pretty sure that I read this book prior to starting to track my reading on Goodreads, but I have to admit it didn't make a very strong impression because reading it this time, nothing was at all familiar. Honestly, as I'm writing this review, it's been a few weeks since my second reading, and most of the details have again already escaped me. This is a very subtle story, and though the emotional impact lingers, the specific events of the story seem to fade fairly quickly.

That said, this book is a helpful exploration of the ways different people process grief, which could be appealing and beneficial to any family where a child is dealing with loss. Though the religious explanations I have given to my own children about death and dying are largely missing from the story (aside from a few vague ideas about angels), I still appreciate the story's willingness to indulge in the difficulties Ob faces, and the fact that it resists the temptation to give Ob a sign of comfort from the afterlife.  Ob and Summer do find a way to move on, but it comes from their own will rather than any quick fixes.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (2012)

Ivan is a gorilla who lives in a cage at a mall arcade, where he does drawings to amuse visitors. This is the only home he has known since leaving the jungle years ago, and he isn't especially unhappy with the conditions. When Ruby, a baby elephant, is brought to join him in the arcade, however, Ivan begins to see how being in captivity affects her, and his perspective on his own situation starts to shift as well.

I have been putting off reading this book since it was first awarded the Newbery Medal in 2013. I tend to dislike animal stories, and were I not trying to read every Newbery winner (and had my husband not bought this book at a book sale) I probably would have just skipped it. Unfortunately, though, I finally decided to read it, and I will never get those hours of my life back.

My biggest problem with this book is that it tries to convince readers that animals and human beings are equivalent. The author endows Ivan and the other animals of the story with human reason and emotion, and uses these to manipulate the reader into feeling pity for the animals. Mistreating animals is wrong, the story seems to suggest, because animals are just like us, or perhaps even morally, emotionally, and intellectually superior. This worldview, that "animals are people too" is one from which I actively shield my children, as it contradicts our Christian understanding that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and that they are given dominion over the animals. I don't agree with mistreating animals, but the reason we shouldn't mistreat them has more to do with our responsibilities as stewards of creation than it has to do with the animals themselves. It's wrong to keep animals in malls because we know it's bad for them, not because animals have complex inner lives we just don't happen to know about. Ivan's inner monologue tugs at the heart strings, but this does not mean real gorillas are secretly as thoughtful, poetic, and intelligent as he is.

Philosophical objections aside, I thought the writing in this book was fine, but not remarkable. The author did a nice job of describing the setting of the story in a way that helped me visualize it, and though the human characters lacked nuance, they did have engaging personalities. Still, I don't allow my kids to read propaganda because it discourages them from thinking for themselves. I suppose this book lends itself to some interesting topics of discussion, but it also draws conclusions on behalf of the reader and makes it difficult not to feel guilty. There is nothing wrong with feeling pity for animals who are in unfortunate or dangerous situations, but to suggest that animals in peril can respond to their plights as human beings might is disingenuous and confusing. I'm not ready to say my kids will never read this book, since we do own it, but if they do, it will most likely be in the context of learning to deconstruct a novel's worldview in order to understand what agenda an author might be trying to promote, and that probably won't be until the upper elementary or middle school years.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Reading Through History: The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman (1995)

Brat, also known as Dung Beetle, is a homeless orphan in the fourteenth century with no prospects for the future, when Jane the midwife takes her on as an apprentice. As Brat, who later calls herself Alyce, enters the world of midwifery, she slowly begins to find her sense of identity and self-worth, and she begins a journey toward having both a name and a place in the world.

This short coming-of-age novel was extremely popular among my eighth grade classmates when it was published in 1995, but because it was historical fiction, I bypassed it in favor of other types of books that I liked better. A few years ago, I read a couple of titles by Karen Cushman that didn't impress me, and as a result, I continued avoiding this book, assuming it would either try too hard to fit in every detail about the time period in which it is set (my problem with Cushman's The Loud Silence of Francine Green) or would have an anachronistic feminist as its main character (an issue I had with Catherine, Called Birdy). When I decided to get serious about crossing unread titles off the Newbery list, however, I knew it was time to finally read this one, and though it was not a favorite, it was a stronger book than either of the other Cushman titles I've read.

For one thing, though the main character is apprenticed to a midwife, there is little in the way of detailed descriptions of childbirth. A reader should probably have a general idea of how babies are born before reading this, as it might be shocking to find that out from a work of historical fiction, but otherwise, the most graphic birth in the book is actually that of twin cows, not of any human babies. The greater emphasis is on Alyce's lack of confidence when it comes to helping laboring mothers and to her tendency to collapse under the pressure of Jane's criticisms instead of using them to learn and improve. Midwifery happens to be the career she and Jane are pursuing, but it is merely the backdrop for learning other more widely applicable skills.

Another thing I really appreciated about this book is the very concise writing style. Though I did have trouble connecting emotionally to the story, I did like the way the writer carefully selected the words she used to depict her characters and the overall atmosphere of the medieval time period. I wasn't as invested in Alyce's success as I typically like to be in the books that I read, but as detached as I felt from the story, I could still recognize the distinctive writing that led to it winning the 1996 Newbery Medal.

This is a good read for grades 5 to 8, especially for readers who are drawn to medieval stories and to coming-of-age tales starring girls who overcome great odds to bring about better conditions in their lives.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Book Review: My Own Two Feet by Beverly Cleary

My Own Two Feet is the second volume of beloved author Beverly Cleary's memoirs about her early life. This book begins when young Beverly Bunn leaves home for college, follows her through her college and library school days during the Great Depression, and concludes around the time of her elopement with her husband, Clarence Cleary. I'm posting this review today in honor of Beverly Cleary's 104th birthday coming up on Sunday. (Yes, she is still alive!)

As was the case with the first volume, A Girl from Yamhill, I don't really recommend this second memoir to the same audience that reads Cleary's fiction books. Though her novels for children have a sweetness and humor to them, the difficulties she faces in real life, particularly with her distant mother, are a bit more difficult to digest and require a more sophisticated reader. Still, for teens who are looking ahead to venturing out on their own, and who have read Cleary as children, this book is a valuable look at the challenges and excitement of being a young woman on the verge of adulthood. Some of what happens to Cleary is fascinating because it is so different from what young college students experience today, and some of it is surprisingly relatable because other aspects of young adulthood really don't change from one generation to the next.

For me personally, the best parts of this book were Cleary's reflections on her time in library school. Though my library school experience relied very heavily on technology that did not yet exist in Cleary's time,  many of her professional concerns were the same as mine. I also loved reading about the silly criticisms she received when she first started working in libraries: that she looked bored, didn't seem interested enough in children's librarianship, and leaned on things too much. It's funny to think about the things that mattered to employers then versus what they look for in librarians today.

My only disappointment with this book is that it doesn't get into Cleary's writing career or her life as a mother of twins. I would have loved to keep reading about how her career and life evolved over the following decades, but I also understand that, as a writer for children, she might have wanted to keep the focus on her younger years. Either way, I enjoyed both of these memoirs, and I'm glad there are at least a couple of Beverly Cleary books for my girls to read when they are teens. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Book Review: The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth (1930)

When his housekeeper brings home a cat, a long-ago Japanese artist is unimpressed. To his mind, cats are goblins and devils who may kill human beings in their sleep! When he realizes she is a three-color cat, however, he sees that Good Fortune, as she is named, may bring him good luck. As the housekeeper observes the cat's influence on the household, the artist works on a commissioned painting of Buddha for the local temple, adding one at a time each animal that paid homage to Buddha during his life. Only the cat is missing from the piece, as the cat was too proud to worship Buddha - but perhaps the artist might be able to redeem this stubborn animal and help her get to heaven after all.

This novella-length Newbery-medal-winning tale is an engaging way to introduce young readers to the work of an artist, to the life of Buddha, and to the legends associated with Buddha and various animals.  Though I typically have reservations about books suggesting that animals go to heaven, it didn't bother me as much in this context, since the idea is presented within the belief system of Buddhism, and in a format that reads very much like a folktale.

My favorite aspects of the book are the housekeeper's "songs" at the start of each chapter, which are short poems sharing her insights into the artist's relationship with Good Fortune and his progress on his painting, and the artwork itself, created by Lynd Ward. I love the contrast between the orange ink drawings depicting the artist himself and the colorful paintings depicting each animal the artist adds to his canvas. Both the "songs" and the art add dimensions to the main text that give the book a lot more weight than its slim 63 pages might appear to carry.

I imagine this book is a big hit with cat lovers, but even I, a non-animal person, was able to see the value in it. The writing is very precise and engaging, with no extra words or superfluous descriptions, and the structure of the story feels very satisfying all the way to the end. I haven't read this book with my kids just yet, but I look forward to experiencing it again with them to see how they react to it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Read-at-Home Kids Report: Winter 2020

Third trimester sleep deprivation, giving birth to twins, and adjusting to life with two newborns during a pandemic has delayed my Read-at-Home Kids reports for several months. Instead of trying to look back and post a round-up for each month that I missed, I've decided that, at least for this year, I will post one report here on the blog each season, which will correspond to the seasonal reading logs I've been keeping for my three older girls. Today's post will focus on books we enjoyed from January 1 to March 2, 2020.

Welcome, Jack and Jill! 

It has been my tradition to give my children nursery rhyme inspired nicknames here on the blog. My six-year-old is known as Little Miss Muffet, my four-year-old as Little Bo Peep, and my two-year-old as Little Jumping Joan. Our boy/girl twins were born in the middle of March, and I've decided they will be known as Jack and Jill. They weren't born during the time period we're covering in this reading report, and they haven't heard any books yet, so I won't be mentioning them much in this post, but watch for them in the spring and summer RAHK Reports.

Family Read-Alouds

Our first read-aloud of the new year was The Happy Hollisters at Snowflake Camp. Though the story wound up being set during Thanksgiving, the weather was more suited to what I thought we might have sometime this winter. As it turned out, we didn't have any snow at all, but the story involved twins, which was a fun discovery for three little girls anxiously awaiting their twin siblings' arrival. The story also involved dog sled racing, which became the focus of Miss Muffet's and Bo Peep's pretend play for weeks after we finished the book.

In February, we dove into Far Out the Long Canal by Meindert de Jong, which was a huge hit with everyone, even Jumping Joan who doesn't always even listen to our chapter books. Miss Muffet and Bo Peep really empathized with the main character, Moonta, and they still make references to things that happened in the story. Again, it didn't end up feeling that wintry here, but they got a taste of fictional winter through this book all about ice skating.

Little Miss Muffet (6 years, 3 months)

Miss Muffet read or listened to 400 books between the beginning of December and the beginning of March. She devoured my review copies of the first two books in the new Jasmine Green Rescues series: A Piglet Called Truffle and A Duckling Called Button. These are really well-written stories of a girl who loves animals; they remind me a lot of James Herriot's books. She also zipped through the Magical Animal Adoption Agency series by Kallie George and the Orphelines series by Natalie Savage Carlson, and got off to a running start with the Freddie books by Walter R. Brooks and the Oz series, of which she read the first six books in just about as many weeks. She also made a point of reading dozens and dozens of picture books from our shelves that she had never read before. It's becoming clear that we're going to have a hard time keeping up with her appetite for books!

Little Bo Peep (4 years, 5 months)

Winter was the season in which Little Bo Peep became a full-fledged independent reader. By the beginning of March, she was nearly finished with the lessons in The Ordinary Parents' Guide to Teaching Reading. During the winter months, she read shelves full of I Can Read books, including titles by Crosby Bonsall, Dr. Seuss, P.D. Eastman, Else Holmelund Minarik, Arnold Lobel, and many more. At the start of the winter, I was having to read the Mercy Watson series aloud to her; by March, she was reading them on her own. Being a reader is such a great point of pride with her right now. It makes her feel like a big kid, and she has been able to have "reading club" with her big sister, in which they take turns reading aloud from our collection of easy readers. She is also a huge fan of the Oliver and Amanda pig books by Jean van Leeuwen, which makes me so happy as they were my favorites as a kid too!

Little Jumping Joan (2 years, 4 months)

Unlike her older sisters, Jumping Joan prefers to read not a wide variety of books, but a small select stack of books on repeat for weeks at a time. During the winter months, these included Stanley's Colors and Stanley's Shapes by William Bee, Sleepy Little Alphabet by Judy Sierra, Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson, If You See a Kitten by John Butler, Fabulous Fishes by Susan Stockdale, and What Shall We Do With the Boo Hoo Baby? by Cressida Cowell. Of all of these, the Stanley books have definitely been the biggest favorites. Jumping Joan is also a good audience for older sisters who wish to read aloud to someone.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Reading Through History: Men of Athens by Olivia Coolidge (1962)

Men of Athens, the 1963 Newbery Honor book by Olivia Coolidge, brings to life the world of Ancient Greece through a series of chapters focused on fictitious characters representing the way that real people lived during this time period. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of Athenian life, from the work of artisans, to the role of jurors, to the opportunities each man had to participate in government. Taken together, these chapters provide a colorful and engaging portrait of an interesting and important time and place in world history.

I read this book with my six-year-old, basically with the understanding that she would enjoy it, but would probably not understand more than the broad strokes. For her, this was very much an introduction not just to Ancient Greece, but also to concepts like democracy, justice, government, and philosophy. As we read, however, I recognized how valuable this book would have been for a student like me in the middle school years. I had a hard time in history class, mostly because I didn't feel a personal connection to the subject matter. Historical events and figures were always presented in a very dry, formal manner, and I couldn't make them stick in my mind. This book, though it obviously fabricates the specifics of the events it covers, really emphasizes the human aspect of history, and it uses an inviting narrative style that makes the reader want to know more. It also relies heavily on the point of view of the everyday person. Even in chapters that focus on real people, such as Sophocles or Timon, these figures are usually seen through the eyes of someone less significant who is able to give perspective on that person's contributions to Athens. As a result, the reader feels that she is observing historical events as they happen, and now just being force-fed a series of meaningless facts.

Though it can be a bit difficult to sort fact from fiction in a book like this, I'm pleased that it's available for readers who really need more of a story-based approach to understanding history. Though my six-year-old is not in the intended age range for this book, she had a much easier time connecting to its characters than she did reading about Ancient Greece from a variety of our other books. When we revisit Greece in fifth grade, I hope she will read this book again independently and get even more out of it. It's definitely one of the best books I've read in our homeschooling life so far, and I would also happily read it again myself!

Monday, March 9, 2020

Homeschool Progress Report: February 2020

Since we're expecting the twins any day now, and our homeschool umbrella was ready to start doing reviews, we spent the last bit of February compiling our oldest daughter's work and preparing for our very first review. It took place this first week of March, and we were in full compliance. Though we won't need to go through that process again until next spring, I will continue to post here year-round, as we plan to continue school as normal even during the "off season" and it was helpful to have my notes on hand when we were filling in our review form.

First Grade with M., age 6


We started Singapore 3A as February started, and it was much smoother sailing than the start of 2B. I noted right away that the textbook and workbook look more mature, which I think helps M. take the work seriously. I also think each exercise is a little bit lengthier than those appearing in the first two levels, which allows for more practice of each new skill. M. also really loves the fact that many of the exercises involve codes, crossword grids, and coloring activities. It's just more engaging for her to do math when it feels like a game. 

M. has been struggling to focus during Xtra Math, and she even got caught typing in the wrong answer so that the program would give her the correct one. Now when she drills her math facts, my husband stays with her and makes sure she stays on task. I notice improvement in the ease with which she is able to recite certain times tables, so it does seem to be working. My take is that she's just getting tired of the same format all the time.

We have also dug into Life of Fred: Edgewood, which has so far involved many of M.'s favorite topics from the previous book, especially functions. She's also working nightly on Khan Academy, on which my husband is introducing her to angles and triangles. She is likely to completely all the third grade work on the site in the next few weeks.


At long last, we finished our slog through Ancient Greece! This is the first civilization we covered this year that I didn't feel we covered as coherently or as thoroughly as we could have. We did spend a lot of time on it, but a lot of that time was spent using trial and error to figure out how best to implement the materials we have. My second daughter is not as history-minded as M., so I will definitely need to work on planning better for this segment of the year when it's her turn the year after next.

In February, as we closed out the unit, we read about Socrates in Wise Guy by M.D. Usher and completed this notebooking page comparing and contrasting his beliefs with those of Plato and Aristotle. We also finished Men of Athens, which M. claimed to love, despite half of the material definitely going way over her head. Independently, she read The First Marathon: The Legend of Pheidippides by Susan Reynolds, and she wrote a lengthy narration explaining what happened to Pheidippides.

Next, we jumped right in to Ancient India, reading three books one right after the other: Ancient India by Virginia Schomp (an excellent overview which really got M. interested in the caste system), National Geographic Investigates Ancient India (which was not as strong as the other volumes we've read from this series), and Science in Ancient India by Melissa Stewart (which was not as exciting to M. as other Science of the Past titles because the Ancient Indians didn't get as much wrong as some of the other cultures, and she prefers to laugh at old-fashioned superstition.) M. also wrote a narration about the Arabic numerals and created a chart explaining the different levels of the caste system.


We continued studying plants and experimenting with the microscope. M. read From Seed to Plant by Gail Gibbons and created some diagrams of flowers and seeds. She also researched orchids and a few other flowering plants and filled out plant report sheets with my help. With the babies coming, I've been moving through science intentionally slowly because after things settle, I want to start involving four-year-old C. in our science lessons as well and I don't want to get too far ahead before we include her.

Reading & Writing 

For most of February, our read-aloud at lunchtime was Far Out the Long Canal by Meindert de Jong, and all three girls (yes, even two-year-old E.!) absolutely loved it and are still talking about it. Toward the end of the month, we started The All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor, mostly because we currently have all girls and I don't that will still be true in a couple of weeks. M. loved this book and seemed to identify most strongly with Sarah, who represents the author's childhood experiences. 

Independently, M. read a ton of picture books just for fun, but her actual "assigned" books were several titles in the Oz series. She absolutely loves them and can read one in an evening if given the chance.

One of my goals for our homeschool in the future is to have time every day for creative writing, so I decided to introduce the idea in February. She took to it right away and wrote a rather lengthy story about the "Woo Woo girls." We asked her to rename the family because we felt weird about "Woo Woo" and she ended up calling them the Roughtoddly (pronounced ro-toddly) family instead. I don't think we're quite ready to make this kind of writing a daily thing, but I do want to work up to that. 

Memory Work

M. finished memorizing "Velvet Shoes" and recorded a video. 


In addition to the usual recorder and piano practice, M. also listened to Classics for Kids episodes about George Gershwin and Scott Joplin. Gershwin was an especially big hit, and there have been repeated requests to hear Rhapsody in Blue again. There were also a variety of impromptu dance parties this month during which M. and her sister C. acted out some interesting pantomimes. 


We continued our slow read through Looking at Pictures, reading about such topics as color, perspective, and layering of paint. M. really loves the level of detail given by the text, and she also enjoyed it when I let her watch an episode of Bob Ross so she could hear the names of some of the pigments we discussed.

M. also continues to draw constantly. Her recent interest is in drawing her sisters' favorite book characters and letting the younger girls color them in.

Physical Education

Most of the days that I had doctor's appointments in February, my husband took the girls to the park so M. got in lots of free play for P.E. I also made sure she did her exercise video at least once a week. 


I have started quizzing M. from the St. Joseph Catechism's first 10 lessons by having her choose a number at random and then asking her the corresponding question. We also celebrated Mardi Gras with paper masks and pancakes and got a strong start to Lent by beginning a daily routine of Bible readings, chanting the Divine Praises (in English), coloring ornaments for a "Jesus Tree" that we have not yet assembled, and counting to 40 before starting to eat each meal (as suggested by Kendra at Catholic All Year). We're also singing Stabat Mater Dolorosa, the hymn for this month from Traditional Catholic Living and Ave Regina Caelorum, the Marian Antiphon for this time of year. 


I'm hoping M. will soon be able to write her narrations in cursive because her cursive writing is much nicer and easier to read than her print. She has really made great progress this winter.

Pre-K with C., age 4 


C. is a huge reader now, and she is reading and re-reading our collection of I Can Read books at quite a fast rate. The highlights of February were the Oliver and Amanda pig series and the Hattie Rabbit books by Dick Gackenbach. She also likes to read picture books aloud to herself or to her younger sister, and most of the time, she is willing to read a few word lists from The Ordinary Parents' Guide to Teaching Reading as well. She takes such in joy in reading, and it has been so much fun to see her come into her own as an independent reader. 


C. is still working with Khan Academy, and she is starting to show more independence. She has mastered kindergarten and has moved on to addition and subtraction. We also started giving her exercises to do in the Singapore 1A workbook and I have never seen a child so happy to be a student. We're also having her practice using the soroban using drills from visual-soroban.org and Learning Mathematics with the Abacus Year 1 Activity Book

Memory Work

C. memorized and performed "White Fields" on video and is now learning "A Spike of Green" by Barbara Baker. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Five-Star Predictions From My Unread Shelf

It's been so long since I've joined in on Top Ten Tuesday, but today's topic, Books On My TBR I Predict Will Be 5-Star Reads, caught my eye. As I participate in The Unread Shelf Project 2020, I find myself thinking a lot about the books on my physical to-read shelf and trying to figure out which ones will be worth my limited reading time after the twins are born. The books I have included on this list all seem likely to be favorites for me - I hope I've guessed right! 

A Share in Death by Deborah Crombie
I have heard nothing but praise for the Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James series, and I've heard it compared to my beloved Armand Gamache books by Louise Penny. Since there are a good number of books in the series, I hope it's good so I'll have something to read once I catch up on my Louise Penny stack.

The Lord God Made Them All by James Herriott
Though book three of this series of English veterinary memoirs wasn't as good as the first two, I still have high hopes for this fourth title. 

Adam Bede by George Eliot
I was assigned this novel in college and could not get through it, but after reading Middlemarch last year, I have a new appreciation for George Eliot and I think this book will be much more rewarding for me on a second attempt. 

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp
I love family memoirs, and I love The Sound of Music, so this seems like a guaranteed favorite to me!

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman 
I love books about books, and this one seems like a smart, concise reflection on the reading life.

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather 
I loved Death Comes for the Archbishop and can't wait to read more Cather. 

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett 
The only other book by Patchett that I've read is Bel Canto, which I gave four stars. The subject matter in this one seems even more appealing to me, so I'm hoping it might earn five stars. 

My Own Two Feet by Beverly Cleary This is the second of two memoirs Beverly Cleary wrote about her life. I loved the first one (A Girl from Yamhill), and I think I will relate to her even more in this volume as she becomes a librarian and a wife. 

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor
I'm reading all of Flannery's short stories in a year with some fellow readers on Instagram, so it might be a while before I get to these letters, but I'm so looking forward to read them. I've read some that were included in her Collected Works, and they definitely made me want more.

Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver
The 1959 film adaptation of this book is my favorite movie of all time. I'm a little afraid I'm setting myself up for disappointment, but I hope the book is as good as the movie!

Monday, February 3, 2020

Homeschool Progress Report: January 2020

After the holiday excitement of December, we returned to our normal school schedule right after the first of the year, and we tied up quite a few things we'd been working on since September and even got ahead on a few subjects in anticipation of the twins arriving in 5 to 8 weeks from now. Read on for a closer look at our progress.

First Grade with M., age 6

This month, we zipped through the final chapters of Singapore Primary Mathematics 2B, covering Capacity, Graphs, Geometry, and Area. As the month ended, M. was just finishing up Review 7 and Review 8 in the workbook. She will begin Singapore 3A this week.

In addition to her main math curriculum, M. is also continuing to work on memorizing addition, subtraction, and multiplication facts with the aid of Xtra Math, and she is still memorizing the perfect squares. To accompany her studies of geometry and area, my husband also got her started playing Cube Nets. (Though her accuracy isn't quite 100%, she is quicker than either of her parents at determining whether a net can be folded into a cube or not.) We also finally finished Life of Fred: Dogs and moved on to Life of Fred: Edgewood.

In the evenings, M. also likes to do some more challenging work on Khan Academy with my husband, who is introducing her to negative numbers and types of triangles.

We are still plowing through Ancient Greece. We read the Jane Werner Watson version of The Odyssey,  followed by The Parthenon by Elizabeth Mann, Science in Ancient Greece by Kathlyn Gay, and Men of Athens by Olivia Coolidge, and M. read The Spartan Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins and Lysis Goes to the Play by Caroline Dale Snedeker on her own. We also took a car trip one day and listened to the audiobook of D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. Though all of these were great books, and she enjoyed them at the time, it's been difficult for her to keep track of all the unfamiliar Greek names. She is grasping the big picture, as evidenced by a nice narration she did about Athens and Sparta and some questions she was able to answer about the enmity between Athens and Persia, but I'm still not quite satisfied so we're going to read some picture books and do a few more activities before we move on.

We finally finished reading The Human Body: What It Is and How It Works, and I decided to switch gears to a topic that would allow M. to make good use of the microscope she got for her birthday: plants. We are reading about plants from The Golden Treasury of Natural History by Bertha Morris Parker, and supplementing with information from websites and the DK Nature Encyclopedia as needed. Each day that we read, we also choose an interesting plant and she does a quick report on it using this worksheet from Enchanted Learning. (Our umbrella group has a subscription, which has been nice for accessing printables like this rather than having to make my own.) One day a week, we concentrate on using the microscope to look at plant material M. has collected outdoors, either on trips to the playground with my husband while I'm at the OB or around the outside of our house. She draws what she sees under the microscope on worksheets taken from Magnificent Microworld Adventures by Mike Wood.

In January, she also worked on some Snap Circuits projects.

I've been meaning to touch on the topic of calling 911 in an emergency with M. for a while, and we finally sat down and did it in the last week of January. We read the KidsHealth article, How to Use 911  and watched a video explaining what happens when someone calls 911. Then I created my own handwritten version of this worksheet so she could identify when it is and is not appropriate to call for help. We finished the lesson with a narration about calling 911, which she illustrated with a drawing of a house on fire.

Our  lunchtime read-alouds during the month of January were Amahl and the Night Visitors by Frances Frost and Roger Duvoisin and The Happy Hollisters at Snowflake Camp by Jerry West. Additionally, M. read a variety of books suggested to her by me and my husband including three titles in the Dorrie series by Patricia Coombs and Alice: Some Incidents in the Life of a Little Girl of the Twenty-First Century, Recorded by Her Father on the Eve of Her First Day in School (all found on Open Library), Prairie School by Lois Lenski, which I purchased for Kindle last year and allowed her to read in the Kindle app on her Chromebook, The Glass Slipper by Eleanor Farjeon, The Happy Orpheline, A Brother for the Orphelines, and A Pet for the Orphelines, all by Natalie Savage Carlson, Freddy and Mr. Camphor by Walter R. Brooks, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Out of her studies of Ancient Greece in history and geometry in math, as well as our focus on Latin in our Catechism lessons, M. has also developed an interest in learning Greek and Latin prefixes and their meanings, so we're using Extra Practice for Struggling Readers: Word Study, published by Scholastic, to do some work with those. (The book is geared toward struggling students in grades 3 to 6, which makes it perfect for an advanced kid in first grade.)

Memory Work
M. has nearly memorized her next poem, "Velvet Shoes" by Elinor Wylie.

In January, we began each day with an episode of the Classics for Kids podcast, working our way through the week-long collections about composers Schubert, Prokofiev, Britten, and Mendelssohn. M. also practiced her piano and recorder daily. As part of our study on Prokofiev, we also listened to Peter and the Wolf and watched the Disney adaptation with David Bowie's narration.

For art appreciation, we are now setting aside one day a week to read from Looking at Pictures by Joy Richardson, which highlights works of art held in the collection of the National Gallery in London. In terms of creating art, M. was largely self-directed in January, though my husband worked with her some on cross hatching and creating textures. She also followed an instructional video on Art for Kids Hub to draw a snowy church with bell.

Physical Education
M. continues to enjoy the Ten Thousand method workouts for kids on YouTube, so I try to have her do one of those 2-3 times a week. Because the weather has been so unseasonably warm, she has also had a trip to the playground pretty much every time I've had a doctor's appointment, and she is often able to get out and just run on the deck for a bit while her sisters nap. 

After months of listening to the St. Joseph Catechism on my homemade recording, we have gone back to using the book. I ask M. one new question a day, and then backtrack through all the questions in the current lesson. It seems to be working. We also concentrated on learning to chant Ave Maria and "Mortem Tuam" which we frequently hear at the Novus Ordo Mass we attend that uses Latin Mass parts. Our hymn for the month from Traditional Catholic Living was Holy God We Praise Thy Name.

M. has been using a program to learn the Palmer method of writing cursive for months. Just recently, she has begun to copy something other than individual letters or words, so I'll most likely be including copy work in these posts from now on. I really like the way her cursive is coming along. She will definitely have better handwriting than I do!

Pre-K with C., Age 4

C has grown into a full-fledged reader in just a few short weeks. She has started working her way through our collection of easy reader books, and there is no stopping her. She's already read dozens of books, including Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss, Piggle by Crosby Bonsall, More Spaghetti I Say by Rita Golden Gelman, Tales of Oliver Pig by Jean van Leeuwen, Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik, Snow by Roy McKie, Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman and Last One Home is a Green Pig by Edith Thacher Hurd. She loves stories that rhyme, and funny stories, and stories about siblings, and pretty much any book she can manage to read on her own. We continue to work our way through The Ordinary Parents' Guide to Teaching Reading, doing 1-3 lessons a day as her attention span permits. I also found a book on Open Library, Mary-Mary Stories by Joan G. Robinson, which I thought would be perfect for her, so I've been reading that aloud just to C., and she seems to enjoy having a special book just for her.

C. had fun playing Swim to Ten a few times this month, and she also started concentrating more on handing the beads of the soroban using the correct finger movements. We practiced some basic addition and subtraction on the soroban, and continued to drill the number bonds that add up to five ("little friends") and ten ("big friends"). My husband also got her set up doing the Early Math mission on Khan Academy, and after just a few days, she was already 80% of the way through the kindergarten material, much of which involves counting and simple addition.

Memory Work
C.'s current poem is "White Fields" by James Stephens. She's also still working on being able to recite all the countries of Europe.

Scissors Practice
As I did with M. when she was four, I have given C. a book to practice cutting with scissors. With M., I used a book published by Kumon; this time, we have the Preschool Cutting and Pasting Highlights Learn on the Go Practice Pad. She loves it, and she seems to have a natural aptitude for the scissors so she doesn't typically need much help from me.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Reading Through History: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (1976)

Cassie Logan is a young black girl living with her family in 1930s Mississippi, during the Great Depression. It is a great point of pride with the Logans that they own their own land, as this is representative of freedom and independence unknown to their slave ancestors or to their sharecropping neighbors. Over the course of a year, Cassie's young eyes witness many troubling instances of racism, from the night rides and burnings affecting local black families, to her own experience with a girl her own age who asserts her sense of superiority just because she can. As Cassie works to make sense of these events, she sees the adults in her family remain true to themselves and their ideals in the face of any adversity that comes their way.

This 1977 Newbery medal winner is written in a straightforward - not flowery - style, but the way Taylor describes the characters and events of her story is memorable. Each moment of the story helps the reader to understand the complicated relationships between whites and blacks that defined this time period in the South. Not only does the author include very salient moments of blatant and intentional racism, but she also highlights the difficulties white characters have when they try to stick their necks out and show kindness toward black families. Even the best-intentioned white characters can't make the difference they might desire without putting their own lives and families in danger, so high do tensions run between the races. I appreciate that the author includes all the complexities of the issue of racism and resists simply vilifying all white characters as equally evil.

I wrote down one quotation from this book, which is a brief exchange between Cassie and her mother. Cassie is upset that a white girl's father believes his daughter to be superior to Cassie simply because of the color of her skin, and Cassie says, "“Ah, shoot! White ain't nothin'!” But her mother gently corrects her, saying: "It is something, Cassie. White is something just like black is something. Everybody born on this earth is something and nobody, no matter what color, is better than anybody else." I was struck by the fact that Mrs. Logan doesn't allow her daughter to dehumanize white people in the same way that the white family in question routinely dehumanizes her family, and it gave me a real sense of her strength, courage, and overall moral character. 

I don't think I connected with these characters quite as strongly as I have with those in books by Christopher Paul Curtis, who is my favorite middle grade author of fiction about black history, but I still thought this book was a solid introduction to the history of racism in the U.S. I'm curious now about the sequels, especially the recently published All the Days Past, All the Days to Come, which explores the Logan children's experiences as they mature into adulthood from 1944 to 1963. 

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Homeschool Progress Report: December 2019

December was a bit less productive than the previous three months school-wise because we did take some days off around Christmas and we were not in our regular routine for much of the month. Still, we are mostly on track for where I thought we'd be heading into 2020, and we have time to check a few things more off of our list before the twins arrive in March.

First Grade with M., age 6


We are getting close to finishing Singapore 2B. We finished learning about money and making change and moved on to the section about time. M. had some difficulty sorting out hours from minutes, but with an adult on hand to talk her through it, she does fine. We will continue to review this section even as we move through the rest of the workbook.

M. also continued to practice addition and subtraction and multiplication on Xtra Math, and she started memorizing the perfect squares, which she typically recites in the car on the way to church. We're still reading Life of Fred: Dogs on Fridays, but I think we'll finish it by the end of January.


We had such a great time studying the Hebrews, but figuring out how to tackle Ancient Greece has been harder. We did a week on the Phoenicians, which was mostly just about the alphabet, and then an additional week on Crete and Mycenae, to kind of set the stage, but it seems like every book we own handles Greece in a different way, and in a different order. There just isn't the logical progression there was with moving through the Old Testament, and it's made it difficult to know where to start.

In any case, to cover Crete, we read They Lived Like This in Ancient Crete and some excerpts from the Picturesque Tale of Progress, including the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. We also read what little there was about Crete and Mycenae in Builders of the Old World by Gertrude Hartman, and the relevant sections in The Lost Worlds and Epic of Man. As we started studying Greece, we read about the Olympics also from Builders of the Old World and then started reading aloud Jane Werner Watson's children's edition of The Iliad and The Odyssey. As the year ended, we had just finished the Iliad portion.

Additionally, we took a field trip in December to the Natural History museum in D.C. to have M. look at the mummies. She was fascinated by them (and called the child mummy "cute") and she went from glass case to glass case pointing out all the things she remembered learning about Ancient Egypt. I also took her to see the Hope Diamond but she could not have been less impressed.

Science (and Health) 

As the new year began, we were still reading The Human Body: What It Is and How It Works, but we have since finished.  In December, we covered vitamins and the foods in which each one can be found (which doubled as a health lesson), the circulatory system, including blood typing and how blood clots, and lymph. M. watched the relevant videos to these topics from Kids Health. At the start of the month, all we had left were the endocrine and reproductive systems and a brief section on fever and fighting germs. 

Additionally, M. used her microscope to look at the wing and leg of a housefly, both of which were slides included in a set she received for Christmas. This was a precursor our next unit of study, plants, where we will use the microscope to get a closer look at some flowers, ferns, etc.


M. heard a variety of read-alouds during the weeks leading up to Christmas: The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson, Starlight in Tourrone by Suzanne Butler, The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden, and The Good Shepherd by Gunnar Gunnarsson. Independently, she read The Dutch Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins, The Cave Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins, When Molly Was Six by Eliza Orne White, A Certain Small Shepherd by Rebecca Caudill, and Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne. She also made a video book report on The Dutch Twins.

Memory Work

M. finally perfected and recorded her video recitation of "The Pirate Don Durk of Dowdee." I have to say it was worth the wait, because she did a great job. She also finished memorizing all the countries of Europe, and she is now concentrating on multiplication tables, Latin prayers, and bodies of water.


Because of Christmas, this was a heavily musical month. We sang "O Come O Come Emmanuel" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" in English and Latin almost every single day. We also learned to chant the Ave Maria, and reviewed Alma Redemptoris Mater, which we learned last Advent.

On Classics for Kids, we listened to episodes about Tchaikovsky and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and then we focused on listening to The Nutcracker before Christmas and Amahl and the Night Visitors immediately after. We also had a few sing-alongs of Christmas carols from Take Joy! by Tasha Tudor.

Additionally, M. continued to practice recorder and piano for 15 minutes each morning.


In December, M. made some Christmas-themed drawings following step-by-step video instructions from Catholic Icing. My husband also challenged her to draw as many different facial features as she could and to combine them in different ways. Gel pens also became the art supplies of choice, along with Christmas-themed coloring books and foam Christmas stickers.

We took a field trip to the National Gallery of Art as well, where we compared different artists' versions of the Madonna and Child, visited an exhibit of paintings made using oil pastels, looked at a statue of David, and studied a pair of stained glass windows depicting The Annunciation.

Physical Education

As it has been unseasonably warm here, and I have had a bunch of OB appointments, M. has been to the playground a bunch of times recently where she has done a lot of informal exercise (running, climbing, swinging, etc.) We also fell somewhat out of the habit, but she did do her Ten Thousand Method exercise video a few times.


Our religion lessons were all centered on the seasons of Advent and Christmas. From December 1st through Christmas Eve, we watched the daily Brother Francis Advent videos on Formed.org and added ornaments to our Jesse tree. We also said the Christmas Anticipation prayer 15 times per day, and practiced reciting Ave Maria and then learned to sing the chant. As is our tradition, we also went to the Living Nativity at the Shrine of St. Anthony.

Pre-K with C., age 4


C.'s reading really took off in December, as she finished the last few books in our Hooked on Phonics set and recorded her video readings of them. To help get her ready for some more substantial books, we spent some time going over a set of sight word flash cards (illustrated by Alain Gree), and she worked through a bunch of lessons on words containing long vowel sounds and silent E.


As her big sister did before her, C. is learning to use the soroban to help her understand place value and to lay the foundation for strong mental math skills. We used number flash cards (again, illustrated by Alain Gree) as prompts for putting numbers on the soroban, and I also put numbers onto the soroban for her to identify. In December, she started working on learning the "little friends" (number bonds adding up to five) and "big friends" (number bonds adding up to ten), which she will need to know to do addition and subtraction on the soroban.

Memory Work 

Because she is typically with us when M. recites the various items she has memorized, C. has picked up a lot of them just through exposure, so now we are working on fine-tuning some of those, including the planets, the four directions, the continents, and the countries of Europe. She also memorized and recited a poem, "Signs of Christmas," which she performed for her grandmothers via Skype on Christmas Day.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Book Review: Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds (2019)

In this collection of short stories, Jason Reynolds tells ten tales, each one featuring the after-school life of a student at an urban middle school. The stories explore such common middle school themes as best friendship, first love, family struggles, sexual identity (including two boys kissing), and bullying.

Jason Reynolds is an extremely talented writer, and I gave this book four stars based almost exclusively on the quality of the writing within each story. As in his Track series (Ghost, Patina, Sunny, and Lu), Reynolds creates a group of completely believable and endearing characters and manages to bring each of them fully to life despite being confined to the length of a short story for each one. I didn't necessarily love all of the subject matter (there is so much dialogue about boogers in the first story that I almost abandoned the book), but I can't deny that Reynolds has a strong talent for voice and character development.

I started out reading a digital ARC of this book, but I took so long to get to it, that the book was published right after I started it, so then I listened to part of the audiobook, which was read by 10 different narrators, including Reynolds himself. This was a great way to get immersed in the world of these kids' school and neighborhood and hearing the way the characters were intended to sound made me enjoy the book that much more. I still would have liked a stronger connection between the individual stories, and some of the topics covered I could have done without, but a better-written middle grade book from 2019 would be difficult to find.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Book Review: Felicia the Critic by Ellen Conford (1973)

Felicia is highly critical of everything, from the radio's morning weather report, to the way her family organizes the broom closet. When her mother points out that she ought to be more constructive in her criticism, Felicia takes the advice to heart, but implements it with varying degrees of humor and success. Finally, she decides the best thing to do is just keep quiet, only to discover that sometimes it is appropriate to speak one's mind, in the right circumstances and with the right approach.

I associate Ellen Conford primarily with early teen romances such as those found in her short story collections, If This is Love, I'll Take Spaghetti (1983) and I Love You, I Hate You, Get Lost (1994), both of which I read as a middle schooler. I was a little surprised, therefore, when my husband read this book and then insisted that I immediately read it as well. His recommendation made sense to me, however, after just a couple of chapters. This book is well-told, well-paced, and legitimately funny. Humor is difficult to pull off for any age group, and especially difficult, I think, in a short middle grade novel, but Conford does a great job of making the reader laugh in a way that feels natural, not forced. The fact that she also works a character-building lesson into the story is even more impressive and calls to mind favorite contemporary authors like Andrew Clements and Claudia Mills.

Felicia the Critic has had a few cover make-overs since it was first published, but sadly, it is currently out of print. I'm glad to have our used copy, however, as I have a child who is prone to letting the world know how she feels about anything and everything, and I imagine this will be a useful learning tool as well as an entertaining reading experience for her in another few years.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Book Review: Starlight in Tourrone by Suzanne Butler (1965)

Years ago, before any of the children of Tourrone were born, this Provencal village had a beautiful Christmas tradition of processing to an old chapel to visit a baby and its mother acting in the roles of the infant Jesus and the Blessed Mother. After hearing a story about this Christmas March from some of the older residents of Tourrone, the six children who still live in the village decide to revive the procession. Their plans are met with many obstacles, however, including jaded adults who don't think the tradition can be restored to its former glory, a lack of babies in the village, and a sudden weather event that impedes travel. Through it all, the children remain hopeful that God will send them what is required to pull off their plans.

While I enjoyed the setting, plot, and message of this children's Christmas novella, I found it to be a very awkward read-aloud. I was partially intimidated by the French names and words in the text that I did not know how to pronounce, but that's usually a hurdle I can overcome. In this situation, the unfamiliar words just compounded the difficulty of a disjointed writing style that made it really hard for my young listeners, ages 4 and 6, to keep track of all the characters and also follow the plot. I had to stop frequently to recap events of the story, and because I had to explain so much, the emotional pay-off of the ending was buried beneath my side commentary.

I do think the story is a worthwhile read from a religious and literary standpoint, so I'm certainly not going to part with our copy any time soon. I just think it's better as an independent read, and I will probably bring it out again for my oldest to read on her own next year to see how it goes. I will say, too that we read this immediately after The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and that was a really tough act to follow, especially with such a sincere story about a foreign place and time.