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!