Thursday, August 13, 2020

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Half Magic by Edward Eager (1954)

 Mark, Katherine, Jane, and Martha, the children of a single mother, find themselves entrusted with a lot of responsibility when they discover a magic coin that works by halves. Their mother unwittingly has the first adventure with the coin, during which she suddenly finds herself halfway home from visiting her aunt and uncle, but soon the children are making carefully calculated wishes that take them to far-flung points in time and space.

My husband and I listened to the full cast audiobook recording of this book on a car trip years ago, but I believe I slept through some of it and therefore didn’t add it to my Goodreads shelves because I hadn’t read the full story. This time around, I read the book aloud to my three oldest daughters (ages 2, 4, and 6) and enjoyed it much more. My intended audience was really the oldest two girls, and they both loved the idea of the magic coin and its tricky way of granting wishes. Each time we sat down to read, they were curious to know who was going to have a turn with the coin next and how they were going to use it. 

For me, the appeal was largely that, despite the magical elements, the story is grounded in reality. I have a hard time diving right into fantasy worlds, so I always appreciate it when an author begins in the real world and slowly introduces magic. I also thought it was a fun way to encourage my kids to think mathematically, and also a great excuse to introduce them to the legend of King Arthur, which figures heavily into one child’s adventure with the coin.

Half Magic will appeal to readers who like old-fashioned family stories, like Elizabeth Enright’s Melendys series or Eleanor Estes’s Moffats books, as well as to those who enjoy stories where magic enters the real world a la The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit. I plan to read aloud the sequel, Magic by the Lake, possibly during the upcoming school year.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Book Review: Family Grandstand by Carol Ryrie Brink (1952)

The Ridgeways, Susan, George, and Dumpling, live with their father, a college professor, and their mother, a mystery writer, in Midwest city, in a house very near to the university campus. A student named Dorothy helps out with the family’s housework, and Tommy Tokarynsi, the university’s star quarterback who is better known locally as Tommy Tucker, mows the family’s lawn. When Tommy’s grades begin to suffer to the point that he might not be allowed to play football anymore, the Ridgeway kids look for ways to solve the problem while also trying to convince their father to allow them to rent out parking spaces on their property during football games and working on figuring whether Dumpling is a child prodigy.

This book has old-fashioned charm similar to books like The Davenports are at Dinner by Alice Dalgliesh and Those Miller Girls! by Alberta Wilson Constant, with similar family dynamics to those depicted in the Anastasia Krupnik series by Lois Lowry. The characters are just quirky enough to feel believable, and the dialogue among the family members is really entertaining. There isn’t much of anything groundbreaking about this book, but anyone who enjoys football or dreams of living near a university will absolutely love it. This may not be as memorable as this author’s Caddie Woodlawn or Baby Island, but it’s a worthwhile read nonetheless. If you enjoy Family Grandstand, also look for the second book about the Ridgeways, Family Sabbatical.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Read-at-Home Mom Report: 2020 Challenges Check-In

Before the pandemic turned the world upside down, I had big plans for completing reading challenges in 2020. Though I have read a lot of books so far this year, I'm not sure that all of my challenges have been getting the attention they deserve. Today we'll find out. Here is how things are going with each challenge in which I am participating: 


A Year of Flannery O'Connor

The goal of this one is to read all of Flannery O'Connor's short stories in a single year. This started out as a project with a real-life friend who is also on Instagram. We decided to open it up to the wider bookstagram community and started out trying to run individual discussion groups. After a while, that felt burdensome so I switched us over to a dedicated account for Flannery O'Connor read-alongs where anyone could discuss the short stories. Unfortunately, my friend hasn't been able to keep up with the reading, and I am terrible at writing discussion questions, and the whole thing has not yet proven to be a huge success. I am typically good at running online groups but I am finding that I'm not really cut out to lead book discussions. 

2020 Classics

This challenge started in May of 2019, and the goal was to read 20 classics by the end of 2020. As of the middle of July, I have reached the goal but I plan to keep counting until the end of the year. The classics I read for the challenge are: Middlemarch by George Eliot, The Red Pony by John Steinbeck, Gunnar's Daughter by Sigrid Undset, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, Nutcracker and Mouse King and the Tale of the Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffman and Alexander Dumas, The Bridal Wreath by Sigrid Undset, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, The Mistress of Husaby by Sigrid Undset, The Cross by Sigrid Undset, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Adam Bede by George Eliot, O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, Common Sense by Thomas Paine, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky 

The Unread Shelf Project

Thanks in part to the pandemic, this has been my favorite challenge of the year so far. With the libraries closed, I read like mad from my unread shelf all during the spring, and now it has become habit for me to constantly have a book that I own on deck to read next. I have read 47 (!!!) of my unread titles so far this year and DNF'd or unhauled a bunch more. I've also read at least one book each month to fit the monthly challenges that go along with the project. 

The Modern Mrs. Darcy Challenge

My enthusiasm for the Modern Mrs. Darcy challenge and the What Should I Read Next podcast have waned a bit in 2020, and so, while I have completed all of the prompts for this challenge, it has largely been by accident. (I am also kind of disappointed in the MMD Summer Reading Guide this year. The lack of nonfiction was a bummer, and I have DNF'd a bunch of the selections.)  

Scholé Sisters 2020 5x5 Challenge

I loved this challenge idea, but it feels awkward doing it when I'm not really part of this community. My five categories I decided to read from were biographies and memoirs, Catholicism, books about books, Concord, Massachusetts and linguistics. Oddly enough, though I have 5 titles sitting in my house that have to do with Concord, this is the only category in which I have not yet read a single book! 

For the biography/memoir category, I've read five titles: My Own Two Feet by Beverly Cleary,  Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule, A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle, and A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel. 

For Catholicism, I've also read five:  Made This Way by Trent Horn and Leila Sales, Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion by Abigail Rine Favale, Giving Thanks and Letting Go by Danielle Bean, No Greater Love by Mother Teresa, and Rome Sweet Home by Scott Hahn and Kimberly Hahn. 

I've only read three books about books so far: For Reading Out Loud by Margaret Mary Kimmel, The Proof of the Pudding by Phyllis Fenner, and Books in Search of Children by Louise Seaman Bechtel. 

And I've read two linguistics books: The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson and Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. 


Catholic Reading Challenge: A Year of Short Stories

This reading challenge depends upon a podcast. I have not been into podcasts at all and never even started the challenge. 

Craving for Cozies

I have read 18 of the 25 cozies I plan to read this year. This isn't really a challenge for me to complete; I just like keeping track of them in the Facebook group and seeing what others are reading. 

Cathlit 2020

I added this challenge after my initial challenge post. I am not going to get to all ten of the categories, but I like the way the prompts expand my spiritual reading horizons. So far I've read a memoir by a Catholic (Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion by Abigail Rine Favale), a book by a Catholic novelist (Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset),  a book about a saint (St. Paul The Apostle by Mary Fabyan Windeatt), and a recently published Catholic book (Your Blue Flame by Jennifer Fulwiler). The other categories are: a spiritual classic (I think I'll probably read Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich), poetry by a Catholic, a book by a doctor of the church (this is the one I feel most certain I will not complete), a book about beauty (I have Leah Darrow's The Other Side of Beauty in mind for this one), a book about feasting,  and short stories by a Catholic (which I can check off at the end of the year when I finish Flannery's Complete Stories).

I think chances are good that I will complete most of these by the end of the year, but I do wish I felt more enthusiastic about them.  I think I'll need to be more selective about challenges next year.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Read-at-Home Mom Report: Revisiting My 2020 Reading Goals

As hard as it is to believe, 2020 is nearly two-thirds over. I have both been wanting to check in with my reading and blogging goals and putting off doing so, mostly because I didn't want to think about how the pandemic has rained on my reading parade. As it turns out, though, on the whole, being home much of the spring and summer has actually been a good thing for my reading life. So today I'll bring you up to date on how my reading goals for the year are progressing, and I'll do a separate post next week to check in on my challenges. 

My first goal for the year was to read 365 books for the Goodreads challenge. I meant for this to be a low number so that I might consider taking it a little bit easy, but then we went on lockdown and I read like a maniac to keep myself from constantly checking the news and fretting over when, if ever, my new babies would see the outside world. So, while I should only be around the 220 mark right now, my current total is 237. I'm not going to increase the goal, but it is extremely likely that I will surpass it. (I'm seriously considering setting myself a goal in 2021 that I am not allowed to exceed. I do sometimes think less reading is more.)

My next goal was to post something on Goodreads for every book read. I started out strong with this, then abandoned it during the twins' newborn phase and now I'm trying to play catch-up. I do actually want my Goodreads to be fairly complete for this year, so I'm going to keep at it. 

Goal number three was to take one day off from reading per week. I mostly did this in the very early part of the year, but once we were ordered to stay at home, I gave it up. I'm reading something every day and until life starts to look normal again (if it ever does), I'm not going to worry about it. 

The next goal, read one book per format at a time, went out the window pretty much right away. I'm just too much of a mood reader to be able to adhere to this kind of restriction. My thinking was that this goal would remind me to actually use the Kindle Fire I bought on Black Friday last year, but with the libraries closed, e-books have figured into my reading life even more heavily than normal and that hasn't been a problem. 

Blog more is the goal that makes me laugh the hardest. I keep making this resolution every year, and every year I blog less. I don't think I actually want to blog more; I just want to blog differently. Having a specific set of prompts or an ongoing project would probably help this be more of a success. 

I also planned to read 6 vintage middle grade novels from our shelves and I have done so already. I read: Francie on the Run by Hilda van Stockum, Up from Jericho Tel by E.L. Konigsburg, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor, Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld,  The Dream Time by Henry Treece, and Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat. 

My last goal was to read 6 adult books that are at least 20 years old. (Not counting classics.) This has been the most fun to complete of all my goals and I might very well end up reading an additional six. The ones I've completed up to now are: The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman, The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge, A Share in Death by Deborah Crombie, Colony by Anne Rivers Siddons, Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver, and Outer Banks by Anne Rivers Siddons. 

The other two things on my list were more like rules than goals, and I think the policies of having  no monthly TBRs and participating in no open-ended read-a-thons have been good ones. I did make a TBR for a couple of challenges, and in neither case did I finish everything in the stack, so that solidifies the decision not to post them monthly. I have done a few read-a-thons with specific goals and that has been productive. 

All in all, in terms of the amount of reading I've been doing, this year hasn't been a waste at all. My reading challenges, on the other hand, may be another story. Check back next week to see how those are going.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Homeschool Progress Report: May/June 2020

Though we pretty much school all year round, taking breaks here and there as suits our family, we have been in a sort of winding down phase for the past couple of months as we get closer and closer to completing the first year of our history studies. History is the only subject where we stick to a specific timeline, and ending one year of study and starting the next is basically how we will mark the change from one school year to the next. All other subjects we take at whatever pace suits the learner, which is why M., age 6, is currently doing fourth grade math but can't yet tie her shoes and C, age 4, is working on addition facts but still needs to be reminded not to speak using baby talk. 

In any case, here is what we worked on in May and June. 

Math

M. (6 years, 7 months) has continued on with her usual math materials. On Khan Academy, she is now at the fourth grade level and working on adding fractions. In Xtra Math, she's memorizing multiplication and division facts. We started reading three chapters from the Life of Fred series each week (rather than just one) and finished both Edgewood and Farming. M. also completed the second part of Singapore Primary Mathematics 3A, and she is working on finishing the Intensive Practice book for 2B as a review of previous work. Before starting 3B, she is taking a break to strengthen her mental math skills with Mental Math Kids Can't Resist

C. (4 years, 9 months) is in second grade on Khan Academy. She is also practicing adding tens and ones using flashcards and the soroban. We are planning to start Life of Fred with her this summer to solidify her addition facts, as she tends to freeze up when they appear in her other work. The Fred series also really makes math seem fun, which is an idea she could afford to have reinforced. 

History

In history, M. has finally made it to Rome, and she is really enjoying it. We started out learning about the Roman Republic and took some time to read Hannibal by Joel Newsome. The writing was a little dense for first grade, but she likes a lot of detail so we just went with it. We also read Julius Caesar and the Roman Republic by Miriam Greenblatt, which provided not just information about Caesar, but also about daily living in the Republic. 

After this, we took a quick detour to Imperial China and studied the Qin and Han dynasties. We read National Geographic Investigates Ancient China and learned about the Terra Cotta warriors, which M. drew in detail to accompany a narration. We also read The Great Wall of China by Leonard Everett Fisher, which explained how and why the wall was built. We watched some video tours of the Great Wall on YouTube as well.   

After China, we picked up with the Romans again just as Augustus Caesar came to power. We read some selections from A Picturesque Tale of Progress: Conquests II, which helped familiarize M. with the names of the emperors. I then helped her organize them into a timeline and memorize a fact or two about the reign of each. After that, we spent some time on Pompeii. M. read The Buried City of Pompeii: What it was Like When Vesuvius Exploded by Shelley Tanaka independently and also talked to my mother-in-law, who has been there. Together we also read National Geographic Investigates Ancient Rome and watched some YouTube video tours of the ruins at Pompeii.  

Once we had all the names and dates sorted out, we finished out this section of our Roman studies with more general information using books like Science in Ancient Rome by Jacqueline Harris, One Day in Ancient Rome by G.B. Kirtland (this one is excellent), The Romans in the Days of the Empire by Shane Harris (also excellent), and the Art of Ancient Rome by Shirley Glubok. We threw in a historical fiction read-aloud too: Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld. Grandma also sent a Toob of Roman figures and a Sticker History book about the Ancient Romans which made it possible for M. to act out much of what she learned each day 

At this point, we have two main topics left in first grade: Christianity and the Fall of Rome. We expect to finish no later than mid-August. 

Science 

In science, which I'm still combining for both M. and C., we took a long leisurely look at birds. We read most of the bird-themed picture books we own and then spent a couple of weeks reading about each species covered in Superlative Birds by Leslie Bulion.  We noticed birds on walks and used an app from Cornell to try to identify birds we heard by their calls. M. wrote a couple of bird reports and C. drew some scientifically inaccurate but very cute pictures of owls, cardinals, and blue jays. We also did a craft project where all three of my big girls made nests for fake cardinals I bought at Dollar Tree.

We also started reading a few questions each day from The Big Book of Tell Me Why, which covers all kinds of topics the girls ask about as well as many others they haven't thought of but find interesting. 

Memory Work

M. spent most of the spring memorizing "The Destruction of Sennacherib" by Lord Byron, which she performs beautifully. At the end of June, she just started working on her next poem, "If" by Rose Fyleman. Since we haven't been in the car much thanks to the pandemic, we haven't quizzed her as much on things like bodies of water, the countries of Europe, or the planets, but we will get back to it. 

C. memorized "The Reason for the Pelican" and reviewed the four directions and the planets. 

E. really wants to have a poem to learn too, so she has been assigned "Wee Willie Winkie."

Reading And Writing

It's really hard to keep up with M.'s pleasure reading since she often reads at times when I have to be doing things with the other kids, but she's kept up the pace pretty well. I know she read Tik-Tok of Oz, which she loved, and at the end of June, she was working her way through The Enchanted Castle. Almost all of her assigned writing took the form of narrations, but I also find a fair amount of handwritten notes and signs around the house that show me she is also writing creatively sometimes for fun. 

C. also reads voraciously. She read the Penny books by Kevin Henkes, along with dozens of other easy readers from our shelves. She's also still really into Carolyn Haywood, and she has recently read Betsy and Mr. Kilpatrick and Eddie the Dog Holder. For fun, she also likes to pick up a Sophie Mouse book and read it in one sitting. She's much more willing to write her name on things than she was, and she's starting to ask how to spell things so she can label her drawings and write notes to her sisters. 

E., age 2 years, 8 months, is starting to show a lot of pre-reading behavior, like making up her own stories based on illustrations and memorizing large chunks of text. I've started singing the alphabet song with her to pave the way for reading skills a bit down the road. 

Health

We haven't done much of any serious health work, but explaining why we're all wearing masks when we go to stores and other places has been a health lesson of sorts. The twins' ever-developing abilities also serve as great talking points about human development. 

Music

Recorder and piano practice continue for both M. and C. We also listened to Classics for Kids episodes about Edvard Grieg, Dmitri Kabalevsky, Zoltán Kodály, Modest Mussorgsky, Georges Bizet, Giacomo Puccini, Gioachino Rossini, and William Grant Still. In June, we learned the hymn "All Ye Who Seek a Comfort Sure." Both M. and C. also musictheory.net to practice naming notes correctly. 

Catechism

Though Masses are available now, we haven't quite figured out how to handle going yet, so our catechism lessons have consisted mostly of watching Mass on the computer. We did attend a baptism for my and my husband's goddaughter which prompted lots of great discussion, and we  also frequently sing the hymns for the day on Aleteia.org. As June ended, I also wrote up some big prayer cards to hang by the dining room table so the girls can easily remember how to say the Morning Offering and Angelus. M. is also working on  memorizing the lesson in her Catechism about the theological virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit. 

Art

M. had an art lesson with me and my husband about the color wheel, which included some pages from Just Look by Robert Cumming, the art text we have been reading for a couple of months, and some YouTube videos. My husband also hung a string across the dining room wall so now artwork can be displayed. The only major art project we did was to make a father's day card, but I did most of the work. Over the summer, I hope to allow the girls more freedom with art supplies. 

Physical Education

With no playground and no pool (they're allowed to be open, but are not open), our P.E. opportunities are more limited than they were last year. We did have one opportunity to run around at a park and we try to take walks and let the girls run on the deck as much as possible, but it's probably not enough. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Read-at-Home Kids Report: Spring 2020

For the purposes of tracking our reading, Spring ran from March 3 to June 2, which mostly corresponds to the time period during which we were ordered to stay home in the state of Maryland, and also to the first 11 weeks home with the twins. Lots of reading took place, but I can't promise that our record keeping was as impeccable as it had been during the fall and winter. For one thing, Miss Muffet took over writing down the titles for herself and Bo Peep for a good portion of the season, and I know she was not that meticulous about counting every book. For another, because we were home all the time, the girls were going through huge towering stacks of books every day and leaving them in piles around the house for me to write down, and on a few occasions I got fed up and shelved the books without recording them first. But I still have plenty of highlights to share. 

Family Read-Alouds

In the beginning of March just before the twins came, I read aloud All-of-a-Kind Family. I strongly suspected one of the twins was a boy (which ended up beng true) and I thought it would be fun to quickly read about an all-girl family while we still were one. Miss Muffet and Bo Peep both took to the characters immediately and months later, they still talk about the scene where Sarah refuses her soup at the dinner table and isn't allowed to partake of the other courses until she eats it. 

After we settled in a bit with the twins, I read aloud The Doll People Set Sail to finally finish out the Doll People series. Then my husband read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I followed that up with Half Magic, and then he started June with Matilda by Roald Dahl.  The girls loved all of these - even two-year-old Jumping Joan! 

My husband also read quite a bit from his collection of old Cricket magazines. 

Little Miss Muffet (6 years, 6 months)

In addition to our reading for school, which I'll talk about more when I do my May/June progress report, Miss Muffet read a ton of books independently during these months of quarantine. Some of these books were intended to complement schoolwork, such as Tales of a Chinese Grandmother and You Can Write Chinese, Our Little Macedonian Cousin of Long Ago and Our Little Spartan Cousin of Long Ago. Others were just for fun: Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, the Dani series by Rose Lagercrantz, The Pope's Cat series by Jon M. Sweeney, Ralph S. Mouse by Beverly Cleary, Meg of Heron's Neck by Elizabeth Ladd, the Pippi Longstocking books, and Dr. Dolittle in the Moon by Hugh Lofting. She also revisited a lot of favorite picture books and ended up with over 280 titles on her reading log!

Little Bo Peep (4 years, 8 months)

Bo Peep recorded 363 books on her reading log during the spring, which, even if a lot of them wound up being duplicates, is still a really impressive number for a child who just learned to read. Looking at the titles on her list, it seems like she just read entire shelves and sets of books as she came upon them: the Poppleton series, all of my Children's Choice Book Club books from when I was a kid, Mr. Putter and Tabby books, a bunch of books illustrated by Maurice Sendak, others written by Charlotte Zolotow, and a few fairy tales. We also kept handing her more easy readers from our shelves and on Open Library: Amanda Pig books, Arnold Lobel (including Frog and Toad), the Dan Frontier series, Crosby Bonsall's mysteries, the Billy and Blaze series, and some I Can Read science titles. She also read a few titles in Carolyn Haywood's Betsy series. 

Little Jumping Joan (2 years, 7 months)

Jumping Joan still tends to cling really intensely to a small set of favorite books, so her reading log is always very short compared to her sisters'. This spring, she fell in love with We Help Mommy, Baby Dear, and The Poky Little Puppy. She loves to quote the parts of We Help Mommy about Martha seeing her face in the shiny glass of the washing machine and how Daddy is "very pleased" when Martha makes him a treat. In Baby Dear, she's fascinated by the new baby, and surely sees some of her own experiences with the twins reflected back to her. The Poky Little Puppy is just all about the desserts, especially rice pudding. Jumping Joan also started to enjoy the Gossie books, our collection of poetry by Mr. Rogers, a few stories from A Very Little Child's Book of Stories, Over and Over by Charlotte Zolotow, and Sarah's Room by Doris Orgel. 

Jack and Jill (2 months)

Books are still new to these little ones, but we're slowly introducing some good ones. Though they don't necessarily hear books together all the time, both have been exposed so far to Big Fat Hen by Keith Baker, Hat Socks Shoes published by Busy & Bright Baby, Hello Lamb and Goodnight Bear both by Jane Cabrera, and Black and White by Tana Hoban. They are also often the audience for read-alouds by their two oldest sisters, which most of the time everyone seems to enjoy. 

Poetry Picnics

I revived a tradition we started when Miss Muffet was a toddler and took the girls out on the deck for a few poetry picnics on nice days. The books we've read have included Gregory Griggs and Other Nursery Rhyme People by Arnold Lobel, Poems to Read Aloud to the Very Young by Josette Frank, and The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog by Paul B. Janeczko and Richard Jones. 

Reading with Grandma and Gran

One nice thing to come out of the changes brought about by the pandemic has been that the girls spend much more time with their grandmothers via Skype. One of the things we've been doing during these Skype dates is having the girls read to Gran and Grandma, and also having Grandma (my mom, who happens to have a lot of children's books on hand because she works with kids) read to them. My mom has read a variety of titles including Click Clack Surprise by Doreen Cronin, Bridget's Beret by Tom Lichtenheld, The Teddy Bears' Picnic by Michael Hague, The Horse with the Easter Bonnet by Jane Thayer, Miss Flora McFlimsey's May Day by Mariana, and some selections from The Poppy Seed Cakes by Margery Clark. Some of the books the girls have read aloud have included the You Read To Me, I'll Read to You series by Mary Ann Hoberman, I Really Want to See You Grandma by Taro Gomi, When Grandma Came by Jill Paton Walsh, Louie by Ezra Jack Keats, The Glass Mountain by Diane Wolkstein, and Something is Going to Happen by Charlotte Zolotow.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Feel-Good Reads for Times of Trouble

This March, just before our governor issued a stay-at-home order for the state of Maryland, I gave birth to twins. The first few weeks at home after that were an emotional rollercoaster. I had the usual postpartum baby blues, and on top of that, we were having to adjust daily to new rules about where we could go, what we could do, and which businesses could be open. The governor issued 35 executive orders in as many days, and it felt like we were mourning some new loss every single day. 

So, though I had been doing a lot more serious reading recently, I recognized that, for this season of my life, what I really needed were some light-hearted reads with guaranteed happy endings.  With the help of the Novelist database, an Instagram book club hosted by Janssen Bradshaw, and a few Goodreads lists, I actually found a good number of titles that managed not only to fulfill my need for cheerful books but my need for good writing as well. Here are the six feel-good books that have kept my reading life afloat during these months of staying at home. (Note: There are varying amounts of sexual content in these books, but none so integral to any plot that it can't be skipped if that is your preference as it is mine.)

Would Like to Meet book cover

Would Like to Meet by Rachel Winters (2019)

I had seen this book here and there on Instagram and I think possibly even in the grocery store, so it was one of the first ones I looked for when I started shifting into this new mode of light reading. The main character, Evie, works for a film agent who is having trouble getting a screenwriter to finish his romantic comedy script. Ezra, the writer, has writers block, largely because he doesn't believe people can fall in love like they do in the movies. Since her job is on the line, Evie makes a deal with Ezra. She will stage meet cutes to prove that falling in love is possible, and in exchange, he will turn in his script. The meet cutes Evie puts together are disastrous in various ways, but in the meantime, she grows closer to a sweet widowed dad and his little girl who don't necessarily approve of her bet, but seem to like her a lot otherwise. Though I didn't love some of the vulgar humor that snuck its way into this story, I laughed a lot when I was reading this book, and I was also caught by surprise by the way Evie's situation resolves itself. I was also surprised by the fact that I was so taken by a book set in England. In the past I've had trouble orienting myself to non-U.S. locations in contemporary books, but I'm definitely over that now!

Attachments book cover

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (2011)

At the end of March, Janssen from Everyday Reading announced that her Instagram book club would be reading Attachments during April. I had been wanting to participate in one of her book clubs for a while, and since this book was available digitally from the library, I was able to join in. Attachments is the story of Lincoln, whose job (in 1999, when the book is set) is to monitor the emails of employees at a newspaper and send warnings to anyone who misuses the company email system for personal correspondence. Jennifer and Beth, employees of the newspaper and best friends, do in fact use their work emails to discuss their personal lives, which involve Jennifer's hesitancy about getting pregnant and Beth's frustration with her often emotionally unavailable boyfriend, among other things. Lincoln knows he should just warn them and move on, but he enjoys their emails so much that instead he keeps reading. And then he begins to fall in love with Beth. While I have liked every one of Rainbow Rowell's books that I have read, this is by far my favorite. I just loved everything about it - all of the characters, the dialogue, the surprising yet believable twists and turns of the plot, and, most of all, the way all the conflicts of the story are resolved. It's also very clever and funny.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill book cover

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman (2019)

I discovered this book well before the pandemic, but the holds list for the ebook was so long that my turn didn't come up until April. As it turned out, though, it was worth the wait!  Nina Hill is an anxious introvert who likes her own schedule (which includes ample reading time) and prefers her own company. When the father she never met dies, she suddenly inherits an entire family of relatives she previously knew nothing about, which feels completely overwhelming. On top of that, she also meets a man, Tom, who seems like he might be perfect for her, but who also might reject her if she knew about her anxiety. As Nina grapples with these new connections, she starts figuring out how to open up her world a bit more to people who might make it a better place. I really loved the tone and voice of this book. Nina is unlike any other fictional character I have encountered and I was drawn both to what happens in the story and to the style in which it is written. 

Well Met book cover

Well Met by Jen de Luca (2019)

This debut novel caught my attention because it is set at a Renaissance Faire. The heroine, Emily, has moved to a small town to help her much older sister in the aftermath of a serious injury. Her sister's teenage daughter has taken a job working for a local Renaissance Faire, but in order to be allowed to participate, she needs to have an adult join the cast along with her. Emily does so somewhat reluctantly, and she begins to question her decision even more upon meeting Simon, who runs the Faire. He comes across as stern and difficult, and seems to especially dislike Emily's penchant for suggesting new ideas. When Emily learns Simon's history with the Faire, however, she realizes there is much more to him than meets the eye. The characters, dialogue, and setting in this book are amazingly well-done. There is some seriously graphic sex in the book that took me by total surprise when I was listening to the audiobook, but that is mostly contained to chapter 16 and can be skipped without losing a single relevant plot detail. Had this book not been so well-written and so engaging in every other aspect, I would have abandoned it over the sex scene, but on the whole, I'm glad I didn't, and I'm planning to read the forthcoming sequels, Well Played and Well Matched.

I Owe You One book cover

I Owe You One by Sophie Kinsella (2019)

Since childhood, I have always gravitated toward books with warm families at their centers. In this book, main character Fixie Farr runs a shop with her widow mother, social climber brother, and free spirit sister. Though Fixie is known in the family for being the one to fix things, she often has trouble voicing her opinions in the face of her siblings' strong personalities. When their mother takes a much-needed vacation to recover from a heart problem, however, Fixie finds that her brother and sister are both so wrapped up in themselves they don't recognize what is actually important to the shop. As Fixie struggles to keep the business afloat, she also deals with her feelings for two other men: her ex-boyfriend, Ryan, who has recently returned home after failing to make a go of it in Hollywood, and Sebastian, the handsome stranger who slips her an IOU for a favor after she saves his laptop during a fluke roof collapse at a cafe. I like this book because it's not just a romance, but a story of a character coming into her own and deciding what she wants, on all levels. I have never read Sophie Kinsella before, but I thought this was great and would read more. 

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Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center (2019)

Cassie Hanwell is a successful and talented firefighter in Texas. On the night she receives an award, however, the honor is given by a man with whom she has an ugly history, and when he makes unwanted physical contact with her, she defends herself beautifully by knocking him over the head. Unfortunately, though her female captain understands the situation, she can't allow Cassie to stay on after displaying such unbecoming behavior. In desperation, Cassie agrees to be reassigned, and she requests a position in a firehouse near her estranged mother's house in Massachusetts, so that she can also fulfill her mom's request for help with some medical problems. Cassie knows her new firehouse is not especially happy about having a female firefighter join their ranks, and she plans to keep her head down and stay out of trouble. Unfortunately, though, on her first day, she meets the rookie and notices an attraction right away. It's not until tragedy strikes, however, that she realizes just how much he means to her. I really like Center's writing style and the way the story involves all the details of life as a firefighter. The story is also a real page-turner, and really keeps you guessing at how a happy ending will come about.

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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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

Math

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. 

History

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.

Science

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.

Health

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." 

Music

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. 

Art

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?)

Catechism 

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.

Handwriting 

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.

Typing 

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 

Reading 

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.

Math

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 (1995)

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!