Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Olivia Reviews the First Book in Her New Favorite Series: the Harriet Bean Books by Alexander McCall Smith

Eight-year-old Olivia (who had her birthday this month) now has a new favorite series that she is devouring: the Harriet Bean books by Alexander McCall Smith. I found them at the online library site while I was checking on the availability of his Akimbo series (of which they only have one), and hoped she might like them.

The other night she dashed into the family room, gripping the first book, and exclaimed in an excited way, "This is SUCH a good book! I've been so absorbed in it!" Yes, she really did say that, and yes, she was. She lay on her bed all evening and read the book from cover to cover. It's so fun to see kids connect with books. When she was done, she handed it to me and said, "Mom, you've got to read this!" And I will, so we can talk about it together.

But since I haven't finished it, and Olivia is anxious to tell everyone about it, I asked Olivia to do a quick review of the book she liked so much. Here is what she has to say about it, synopsis and all:

Written by Alexander McCall Smith
Illustrated by Laura Rankin

Harriet Bean lives with her absentminded inventor father. She learns, for the first time, that she has five aunts, her father's sisters. She takes an interest in that right away, especially when her father shows her a unfinished portrait of his family, and wants to know where they are. When her father tells her he has lost touch with them, she decides to take matters into her own hands, knowing her father is too absentminded to do so. She decides to write to the one aunt her father still has an old address for. Join Harriet Bean as she goes in search of her five lost aunts and tries to bring the family together again.

The way she went about finding the lost aunts was very interesting. And I thought she was clever in how she got her father to talk about his sisters. She discovered that the only way to get her absentminded father to talk about her aunts was to keep feeding him buttered scones and peppering him with questions. That's how she kept getting bits of the story from him. Isn't that funny? When she finds the aunts, she discovers they all have interesting jobs, but I'll let that be a surprise. I just loved this book. I hope you will, too.

P.S. I forgot to say that I loved the pictures in the book, especially of Harriet's father. And I'm still reading the second book, Harriet Bean and the League of Cheats, but it's good too. I think the third one, The Cowgirl Aunt of Harriet Bean, will be just as good.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Summer Reading Game Plan A.K.A. Taming My Out-of-Control TBR Pile

Okay, so here's the deal! (This is my Susanna's favorite phrase right now. Don't know where she got it, but for some reason she loves it, because she uses it in any negotiating she tries to do. "Here'th the deal, Mom. You make me a thandwit-th and I'll take it upstairth to wath a movie." "No, here's the deal, Toots, I'll make you a sandwich, and you get to eat it at the table." OR "Here'th the deal, Mom. You read me ten bookth tho I want to thtay in bed." I've got a con-artist in the making.)

Anyway, in looking over my bookshelves in the last few days, I realize I really, REALLY need to concentrate on reading from my own shelves instead of getting distracted by the amazing books y'all are bringing to my attention, thus forcing me to keep borrowing more and more books from the library while my own shelves weep in abandonment. I have a whole bunch of books that have been waiting patiently for me to get around to them. And I need to use the summer to start purging books that I really don't want to re-read. (For myself, I only keep books that I love to re-read.) I also need to go through the kids' shelves to get rid of books that aren't favorites, especially those that are available at the library as well.

So my summertime reading is going to consist of books off my own shelves with only a few library books sprinkled in here and there. And heaven knows my two older girls are set for reading for a while. I purchased the next three Ivy & Bean books for them, plus, they recently acquired a bunch of Boxcar Children books at a library book sale. And it won't hurt Susanna's to be limited to our own shelves.

*UPDATE: I am deeply embarrassed to admit that after counting the unread books in my shelves, I find there are 115 books THAT I OWN still waiting to be read. Appalling. And that doesn't include my Goodreads list or my own Excel spreadsheet that contains a combined 500-ish books I want to read...someday.

And since publishing this post, I discovered that the Book Blogger Hop this week is on this very subject. Head over to Crazy For Books to join the Hop and disclose your own/read others' dirty little secrets regarding their out-of-control TBR stacks.

Book Blogger Hop

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book Review: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Written by Thanhha Lai
Middle Readers, Ages 8 and up
(Published in 2011 by Harper Collins)

In 1975, ten-year-old Ha and her mother and brothers flee Saigon, before the Communists take over. After a grueling sea voyage on an overcrowded ship, and time spent in refugee camps, they end up in Alabama through the sponsorship of a "cowboy." There they must learn to navigate life in this new world, and Ha despairs of ever fitting in and not feeling stupid. Told through Ha's eyes, this story chronicles her life before leaving Saigon, and after coming to Alabama.

I love, love, LOVE this book! Written in free verse form, Lai's turn of phrase is so lyrical, beautiful, and evocative. For example, when they're embarking on the refugee boat:

"We climb on
and claim a space
of two straw mats
under the deck,
enough for us five
to lie side by side.

By sunset our space
is one straw mat,
enough for us five
to huddle together.

Bodies cram
every centimeter
below deck,
then every centimeter
on deck.

Everyone knows the ship
could sink,
unable to hold
the piles of bodies
that keep crawling on
like raging ants
from a disrupted nest.

But no one
is heartless enough
to say
because what if
they had been
before their turn?"

And then later, when Ha is trying to learn English:
"Brother Quang says
add an s to nouns
to mean more than one
even if there's
already an s
sitting there.


All day
I practice
squeezing hisses
through my teeth.

Whoever invented
must have loved
Isn't that gorgeous imagery? I couldn't stop reading this book. I desperately wanted to know what was going to happen to Ha and her family, and I ached for them as they tried to find a place in the new world they fled to.
Thank you for writing such a marvelous book, Ms. Lai.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Book Review: Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder

Written by Laurel Snyder
Illustrated by Abigail Halpin
Middle Readers, Ages 8 and up
(Published in 2010 by Random House Books for Young Readers)

Penelope goes from a rich, pampered, sheltered, boring life in the city, where books are her best friends and her parents are too busy for her, to living a poor but free and adventure-filled life in the country as Penny, with a whole town full of real friends and parents who finally pay attention.

This fun and cozy book is peopled with some great eclectic characters, and great illustrations. And it's the perfect summertime (or anytime) read. I love all the bookish references peppered throughout the story - books either mentioned outright or referred to in some way like this:
"Maybe she was the friend of Penny's dream: a Betsy to her Tacy."
How can you not love a book that does that? This is a book that feels like an old friend and an exciting new friend, both at once. It has a homey all-your-favorite-books-from-childhood feel to it, and yet it also feels contemporary.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Book Review: A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

Written by Adam Gidwitz
Middle Grade Fiction, Ages 8 and up
(Published in 2010 by Dutton Children's Books)

This is a deliciously gruesome and imaginative tale, done in the original Grimm style, only much better written, with some hilarious, pithy, but sympathetic narrative asides. (It's worth reading the book just for those.)
The story is a clever combination of several fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel, Faithful Johannes, The Seven Ravens, Brother and Sister, The Robber Bridegroom, and The Devil and His Three Golden Hairs) and the author's own originality. It makes for a scary good read. (It would make an excellent read-aloud. But as the narrator warns, it is gruesome and scary in places, so know your child.)
Here's wishing you many more books, Mr. Gidwitz. I eagerly anticipate reading them.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

My Girls' New Favorite Book: Ivy & Bean by Annie Burrows; Illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Written by Annie Barrows
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Ages 6 and up
(Published in 2006 by Chronicle Books)

I bought this book a few weeks ago, not knowing anything about it, but as I skimmed through it at the store, it looked like one both my girls could and would want to read because:

1. The two little female protagonists are seven years old.
2. It is a book about best friends.
3. It has a young reader-friendly print size.
4. It is liberally peppered with pictures.

I was sure it had "hit" potential with my girls. They ignored it.
Then, when we were at the library the other day, I saw the audiobook version and borrowed it, hoping it would jump start their interest. And boy, did it! They have giggled over the audiobook all week (whose reader, Cassandra Morris, does a superb job, by the way), and now Karina is half-way through the book, with Olivia chomping at her heels to be finished so she can read it.

The synopsis:
Bean's mother keeps wanting Bean to make friends with Ivy, the new girl her age in the cul-de-sac. But Bean thinks she looks boring. One day, in hiding from her older sister Nancy after playing a practical joke on her, Bean finds an unexpected ally in Ivy. And a friendship blossoms as they discover their similarities and differences, and together conspire to take revenge on Nancy for her big sister meannesses.

The book is a quick read, for you moms (and dads) who like to pre-read books before handing them to your kids. It's a fairly quick read for kids too, which is appealing to young readers. And while, as a mom, I hope it doesn't give my girls any ideas about ill-treating each other (as if they didn't get plenty of ideas themselves!), the kid in me giggled along with the adventures of these two quirky, funny, vibrant, REAL girls. We look forward to more Ivy and Bean adventures.

Also go visit Chronicle's Ivy + Bean Website for the Ivy + Bean Fan Club and some great teacher and librarian resources, such as book-inspired worksheets and fun games you can play.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Book Review of Home Schooling: A Family's Journey by Martine and Gregory Millman

Published in 2008 by Tarcher

This very well-written book chronicles the journey of one New Jersey family out of the public/private school system and into interest-led home schooling; a journey these highly educated parents didn't originally anticipate, but one which they found to be completely rewarding.
This book also touches on some important deficiencies in the public education arena, and gives a very interesting look at one family's personal solution to those deficiencies. If you are a home schooling family looking into interest-led home schooling, read this book. If you are a mainstreamed public or private school parent, this is a good book to read to understand why some parents choose the home schooling route for reasons other than religion.
"We want our children to become who they are--- and a developed person is, above all, free. But freedom as we define it doesn't mean doing what you want. Freedom means the ability to make choices that are good for you. It is the power to choose to become what you are capable of becoming, to develop your unique potential by making choices that turn possibility into reality. It is the ability to make choices that actualize you. As often as not, maybe more often than not, this kind of freedom means doing what you do not want, doing what is uncomfortable or tiring or boring or annoying." - Gregory Millman
Their approach to learning is characterized by a reliance on "real" books (as opposed to textbooks), real-world experiences, and travel, with very marked success. Gregory Millman says, " With exceptions so rare it is hard to remember one, textbooks are to books as powdered food supplements are to a good, balanced meal." Yes, yes and yes.

Here are some other quotes from the book on issues that resonated with me:
"Sometimes it [the government/society]* wanted children to solve the social problems, such as racial segregation, adults could not handle. Sometimes it tacitly supported some schools as warehouses, not instructional facilities. Sometimes it sought schooling to be the equalizer in a society in which the gap between the rich and the poor was growing... Now the drumbeat demands that all children achieve academically at a high level and the measure of that achievement is tests." - Patricia Albjerg Graham, former director of the National Institute of Education
In elaboration of the above statement, Millman writes, "The decision to send a child to school is a decision to send a child into an environment with an organization and culture shaped by such seldom articulated assumptions and compromises. It is a decision to entrust a child to an enterprise whose tacit mission and goals may be different from the ones written on the wall. These missions and goals are both political and economic."

Millman discusses the concept of "agency risk - the notion that people who manage an organization [in this case, schools] tend to manage it in their own interest, not in the interest of shareholders or other stake-holders [i.e. the children]."

Personally, I read this book with a silent cheer, because not only does it outline so well the issues and struggles my own family has faced in the public school system in our town, but the Millmans' philosophy toward education and learning is one that I passionately share.

(Let me also clearly state that I support every family's right to choose the educational option that works best for them, be it public school, private school, home school, or even no school. It is not my place to question another family's educational decisions.)

*The words within the brackets [ ] are mine, to make the quote clearer.

The Millman's blog at http://www.homeschoolingafamilysjourney.com/

Friday, June 3, 2011

Picture Books Read To/By the Kids in May 2011

Written and Illustrated by James Rumford

Gotten from the library on the recommendation of Amy and her girls of Hope Is the Word, this fun picture book is about a sheriff in the old, wild west whose ten-gallon hat is his prized possession. He thinks his hat helps him do his job better, but finds out the hard, but hilarious way that he's wrong.
To make the story more fun, it is written in the Old West style of speech. Although the humour seemed directed more at the adult reader sometimes, both my girls and I thought this was one funny book.

Written by Susan Beth Pfeffer

A very kid-friendly (and adult-friendly) introduction to the inspirations behind 12 classic children's books. Interesting and well-written, with lots of phot
os to go along with it. My 7-year-old even picked this book up and read several entries, enthusiastically sharing her findings.
For ages 7 and up.

Written and Illustrated by James Rumford

A gentle story about a boy in Chad, central Africa, who is excited to go to school and finds out when he gets there that first they must re-build the school. My girls liked this look at the school experience for children in one part of Africa and so did I.
(When I saw this book at the library, I was excited to read it because Chad was the first African country I lived in when my parents brought me there as a newborn, and we visited monthly over the next three years when we moved over the border to Cameroon. I am somewhat hesitant to say that while the annual re-building of the school was something the author may have experienced, it was not exactly consistent with my own experiences in Africa. The reality my family and I saw in central and west Africa was that the rain doesn't wash the mud brick buildings away each year, but did make it necessary for the mud brick homes and schools to be repaired, re-mudded, and re-thatched in places every year. His version makes for a stronger, more easily explained story however, especially if one is trying to illustrate the importance of education.) 

Written by Jennifer Armstrong
Illustrated by Mary Grandpre

Chin Yu Min is newly widowed, but doesn't appreciate the kindnesses of her neighbours, and alienates herself. When a wise, talking ginger cat comes into her life and saves her from loneliness and starvation, she feels her life is complete and her independence justified. When the cat disappears one day, this haughty, snobby woman has to learn how to unbend and seek help.
The illustrations were a beautiful pairing with this folktale. My girls and I really liked this story.of a woman who learns she needs people.

Retold by Rika Lesser from the Brothers Grimm folktale
Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

Need I say more than this is one of the best retellings paired with the best illustrations of this folktale?

Written by Jane Yolen
Illustrated by David Small

Elsie is a girl who loves the city she lives in, and knows it intimately. When her mother dies and her father moves them to the lonesome prairie, Elsie feels so out of her element that she can't and won't give this new place a chance. She stays inside the house all day and only interacts with her pet bird. When her bird accidentally flies free of its cage and into the outdoors, Elsie goes after it, losing her way in the tall prairie grasses, something her father had warned her was dangerous. But in butting up against danger, Elsie becomes fully aware of her surroundings for the first time. And it changes her.
Beautiful story, beautifully told, with amazing illustrations by David Small. My girls and I really liked this one.

Written by Jane Yolen
Illustrated by Dennis Nolan

A fascinating biography about the man who gave us The Little Mermaid, The Steadfast Tin Soldier,
Thumbelina, etc. My older girls really liked this story, which kind of surprised me. Not that the story wasn't well done; it was excellently told and illustrated. I'm just vaguely surprised that they stayed interested.
(There was a lot going on each page: the regular text, which told the story of his life, plus a quotation from one of his tales that illustrates how his real life experience worked into his stories. While that was interesting for me to go back and read, it was too confusing for my little girls, so I just skipped that part and read the straight biography.)

Written and illustrated by David Wiesner

I can't really describe this book, you just have to read it. Fun book, interesting concept of de-constructing art.