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 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.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Read-at-Home Kids Report: December 2019

In December, we started our third set of seasonal reading logs. I've been enjoying writing down all the books the girls read themselves or have read aloud to them, and the older two enjoy giving me star ratings for each of the titles. Since we started our summer reading logs on June 3 last year, I've just been changing the season every three months on the third, and so far that has worked great. It's also going to make it really easy to show our homeschool reviewer that our six-year-old has been reading.

Here are some of our reading highlights from December.

Family Read-Alouds

I selected four Christmas chapter books to read aloud to Miss Muffet (6) and Bo Peep (4) at lunch each day of December. (Jumping Joan, 2, was also present, but generally did not listen.) We started with The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson, which Miss Muffet liked more than her sister at first , but by the end, they were both invested in the fate of the old man and the children. (I do wish I had looked up the pronunciation for all the French words ahead of time, however. I had to ask my husband how to say the names of many people and places.)

Next, we read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson, which I had read before, but not since having kids. I have never seen these two girls laugh so hard.  They absolutely loved the Herdmans, and memorized entire passages of their dialogue, which they recited at random throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons. I strongly suspect this will become a yearly read-aloud for us.

We followed that up with Starlight in Tourrone by Suzanne Butler, the writing in which I did find not especially conducive to reading aloud. The girls didn't like it much either, and often didn't understand what was happening. It was new to our collection this year, and may be one to revisit when they're a bit older, as I think the content is good, but I think it will make a better independent read the next time it comes out.

In the final days leading up to Christmas, we read The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden, with illustrations by Adrienne Adams. Both girls love The Doll People series, so I knew this would be a hit, and I was right. Bo Peep might be a little young to grasp exactly what was going on, but she loved the story anyway.

During Advent, my husband also read aloud The Good Shepherd by Gunnar Gunnarsson at the dinner table. This wasn't explicitly a children's novel, but the two older girls seemed to enjoy it.

We also read some picture books as a family over the month. We read Tomie dePaola's The Lady of Guadalupe on Open Library on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and then read Hanna's Christmas by Melissa Peterson (Wiley) for St Lucy's Day.  We also read The Year Without a Santa Claus by Phyllis McGinley for the first time, and revisited old favorites: The Huron Carol, Christmas in Noisy Village, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Mr. Willoughby's Christmas Tree.

We finished the month by starting Amahl and the Night Visitors by Frances Frost and Roger Duvoisin, which is another traditional yearly read-aloud, always in anticipation of Epiphany. This was Bo Peep's first year really being old enough to understand the story, and she really enjoyed it.

Little Miss Muffet (6 years, 1 month)

At the start of December, Miss Muffet was finishing up Gilgamesh the Hero by Geraldine McCaughrean. (She first got interested in Gilgamesh during our study of Ancient Mesopotamia, and stuck with him even as our history lessons moved on.) Her other assigned reading during the month included The Dutch Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins, The Cave Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins, When Molly Was Six by Eliza Orne White (all from Open Library), and Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne. She also read through a bunch of Christmas books, most notably Santa Claus Forever by Carolyn Haywood, A Certain Small Shepherd by Rebecca Caudill, and Little Robin's Christmas by Jan Fearnley, which she read aloud repeatedly to her youngest sister.

On Christmas Day, there were two books under the tree sent to us by a fellow children's books enthusiast my husband met on Goodreads: Dorrie and the Play and Dorrie and the Dream Monster, both by Patricia Coombs. Miss Muffet read through those eagerly, enjoying the adventures of the young witch who is the star of the series.

Little Bo Peep (4 years, 3 months)

Bo Peep's audiobook obsession continues, and she spent most of December listening and re-listening to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, read by C.J. Critt. She calls the book simply "The Herdmans" and she truly could not enough of their outrageously naughty behavior or of the way they make the pageant come alive in the end. On days that she didn't listen to "The Herdmans," Bo Peep opted for Rufus M., read by Christina Moore.

Her independent reading also took off in a big way during December. She nearly finished her entire stack of Hooked on Phonics readers and progressed through her lessons in The Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading by leaps and bounds. She keeps telling us, "I'm a reader" and using that as an argument for how much older she is now than she was when she was three.

Other books Bo Peep loved during this month were Alfie's Christmas by Shirley Hughes, which she received for Christmas from my mom, and the Golden books collection called Sleepytime Tales, which I bought at a book sale months ago and wrapped up for her for Christmas as well.

Little Jumping Joan (2 years, 2 months)

For Jumping Joan, December was all about Santa Claus and Baby Jesus. She pored over Who is Coming to Our House? by Joseph Slate, enjoying the page depicting her favorite animal, the peacock, and the one showing the newborn baby Jesus. She also loved all of our Santa board books, and took to carrying around Christmas, the cloth book she received on St. Nicholas Day last year when she was one. She refers to it as "Baby Boo," as that is the character's name, and kept reminding me all month that she wants to share the book with the twins on their first Christmas next year.

Jumping Joan's non-holiday favorites were Stanley's Train, which she received from me for Christmas, and which we have read countless times already since Christmas Day and Snuggle the Baby by Sara Gillingham, a second copy of which my mom gave her for Christmas because our original copy had been through a bit too much "big sister practice."

Friday, January 3, 2020

2020 Reading Goals & Challenges

In the words of Anne Bogel, "Part of the fun of reading is planning the reading." Though I fully expect that the arrival of the twins in March is going to cause books to go on the back burner for a while, I can't start the new year without making some reading plans. These go a little bit against the grain, since most of them are designed to encourage less reading than I have done in past years, but I really want to make sure to set the tone early on for a slower pace and an emphasis on quality over quantity, since I have no idea what life will look like with two newborns.

First, I have my set of personal reading goals for 2020. These are just guidelines for me to make sure I leave a good amount of breathing room in my reading life for things like blogging and taking breaks every now and then, and to make sure I'm reading a good variety to prevent reading slumps and burnout.

  • Read 365 books for the Goodreads challenge.
    Given that I read almost exactly 200 picture books in both 2018 and 2019, this number is pretty low, and there is a part of me that really wants to increase it. I've decided not to make changes until the halfway point in the year, however. By then, the twins will be 3 months old and I should have a better idea of how our routine is going to look. So it's 365 for now, with the option to increase or decrease in June. 
  • Post something on Goodreads for every book read.
    This was not one of my official goals last year, but I actually was posting something for every book right up until I started having morning sickness. I don't like that I left so many books un-reviewed at the end of 2019, so I'm aiming to do better in 2020. Hopefully reading fewer books will make that easier. 
  • Take one day off from reading per week.
    One of my 2019 goals was to allow breathing room for activities besides reading. I did make some effort, but I think having a specific policy of not reading one day every week is a more concrete way of allowing that space. My original thought was to make the day Sunday, but I decided to leave it open-ended since again, who knows how things will look for us when the babies come!
  • Read one book per format at a time.
    In the interest of trying to get to all the books I've been thinking about reading, I'm going to try to have one audiobook, one e-book, and one physical book (maybe two, if one is middle grade) going at a time. Since I have access to different books in different formats, hopefully I'll end up with a more well-rounded reading list.
  • Blog more.
    This is a vague one because I don't want to set an unrealistic goal. My blog became neglected in 2019, however, and I would like to revitalize it a little, even if that ends up happening just before the end of 2020.
  • Read 6 vintage middle grade novels from our shelves.
    I wanted this number to be 12, or even 24, but then decided to go easier on myself. I didn't read as much vintage middle grade in 2019 as I did in previous years, though, so I want to make sure that's something of a priority. 
  • Read 6 adult books that are at least 20 years old. (Not counting classics.)
    Now that I actually regularly and willingly read books written for adults, I want to go back and read some of the titles that I missed. I haven't actually considered what these books will be, so this is probably the goal I am most likely to abandon, but I'd at least like to give it a shot. I suspect some of the titles I've jotted down while listening to What Should I Read Next will fit what I'm looking for. 
  • No monthly TBRs.
    As much as I love to go on Instagram and post a photo of the books I plan to read each month, it's too restrictive for me, a mood reader at heart. This year is going to be about fitting reading in wherever I can, and I need to be free to read what I like when I like.
  • No open-ended read-a-thons.
    In the past, I have done several read-a-thons throughout the year where the only goal is to read as much as possible. This usually results in me breezing through a bunch of books quickly and racking up a high total on Goodreads, but it often doesn't feel productive. This year, I'm sticking to read-a-thons with a specific page or time goal so that there is a point where I feel done and I can move on to other things.
The second set of my reading goals for 2020 are the reading challenges I'm planning to join. I tried to stick to challenges with an emphasis on specific categories, and to choose complementary ones so that one book can count for several challenges if needed. Here's what I've selected:
  • A Year of Flannery O'Connor
    I'm hosting this one on Instagram with my friend Mary. We're reading The Complete Stories over the course of the year, and actually, quite a few people have said they want to join us. I'm terrible at hosting these things and will probably be worse with newborn twins, but I think I can probably at least keep up with the reading.
  • 2020 Classics
    This challenge started in May 2019, and I'm currently two books ahead of where I need to be to have read 20 classics by the end of 2020. Hopefully this means I'll be able to skip a couple of months when the babies come without falling behind.
  • The Unread Shelf Project
    I eyed this challenge all last year and finally counted up my books and jumped in. I'm not worrying about the buying and borrowing bans or anything like that because I'm not really worried about reducing my number of unread books. I just want to make sure some of the titles that have been hanging around for a while do get read. 
  • The Modern Mrs. Darcy Challenge
    I like the categories for this one, and it's a short list so it feels really manageable. If necessary,  I should be able to use books from the Unread Shelf Project to fulfill these categories as well. 
  • ScholĂ© Sisters 2020 5x5 Challenge
    For this challenge, the goal is to select five different categories and then read 5 books per category. My categories are: Catholicism, Biography/Memoir, Books About Books, Concord, Massachusetts, and Linguistics.  I have a tentative list of books on my challenge page.
  • Catholic Reading Challenge: A Year of Short Stories
    I probably won't do this one every month, but the list of authors to be covered was too good to pass up. If the stories they read end up being repeats for me, I might skip the re-reads and just listen to the podcast. 
  • Craving for Cozies
    I have done this challenge for a few years now, and I'm not ready to give it up, so I just picked the lowest level, 1-25 books. A lot of my unread books for the Unread Shelf Project are cozy mysteries, so it shouldn't be hard to hit 25. 
I'm excited for a productive year of reading great books!