Saturday, December 29, 2012

Book Review: Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson

I should start this review with two confessions:

  • I never read the original Peter Pan by J.M Barrie. But I have seen the stage play and of course I've seen Disney's version.
  • I have an aversion to spin-off books/fan fiction.
You probably know where this is going. 
I think fan fiction authors tread dangerous waters when they twist another author's story and characters to their own devices, especially such an iconic story as Peter Pan. They open themselves up to much more criticism than normal. But they've walked the gangplank, so to speak, and thus have to swim with the crocodiles.

Let's take a look at some of the basics of Tiger Lily
  • Neverland, in this incarnation, is an island that is magically hidden, and only a few find their way there over the ocean. But that seems to be the only magical thing about it. Everything about it, including the fairies, are discussed in Darwinian terms: the island and its inhabitants just evolved to be the way they are. That not bad, just a complete departure from the original story. (There's no flying to Neverland in this book.) 
  • Tinkerbell plays the mute, bug-eating, Tiger-Lily-fan-girl, non fairy-dust-toting narrator. She spends most of her time in Tiger Lily's village and has watched Tiger Lily grow up. Peter only meets her when he meets Tiger Lily, whom he's apparently meeting for the first time as a teenager. But despite Tinkerbell's muteness, she can apparently see into other people's minds.
  • Tinkerbell talks about the random cessation of growth associated with Neverland. For some reason the pirates are aging, maybe because they sailed there from England as adults? But the natives on the island stop aging at some random point in time. It doesn't appear to be consistent, and the idea is left hanging as an inexplicable element of the island.
  • The main characters, Peter and Tiger Lily are much older than the original, being about 15 or 16 years old, with all the sexual tension that entails. Which feels weird to read, when some of the same things are happening to them as happened in the original story. Peter comes across as  angst-ridden, emotional yo-yo: an innocent bad boy, which sometimes doesn't come across well, given his age in this story. Tiger Lily is the adopted daughter of the trans-gendered shaman of the tribe, taciturn, serious, doesn't show her feelings, and finds it hard to empathize with people, yet truly loves her adopted father. We never really learn what makes her tick. She remains somewhat a mystery throughout the book. Wendy is portrayed as the vapid, boyfriend-stealing wench. Smee is a sociopathic killer, obsessed with Tiger Lily. The whole tone of the book is darker, and the characters are flawed and mostly compelling, which I don't see as a problem, per say, but they just don't reconcile with the original characters. 
  • There is an additional element of magic that is never explained in the book, that exacts revenge on Tiger Lily's enemies. We never learn if it is Tiger Lily herself that causes their destruction, or someone else, or some island magic at work.
  • I would actually have really liked how Tiger Lily's story ended (it makes sense to me, as a married, middle-aged woman with reality, and real love, firmly under my belt) if it weren't for the fact that Pine Sap, the man she marries, her childhood best friend, is deserving of a woman who is emotionally present for him, especially after his abusive childhood. It seems sad to me that in marrying Tiger Lily, he marries a woman as equally emotionally distant as his own mother, although less abusive. It still smacks a little too much of an abuse cycle, although the author keeps insisting that he is very emotionally healthy. If Tiger Lily had shown signs of being different for her experiences, I'd feel better, but as far as the reader can make out, she's still the same old emotionally distant Tiger Lily, pining for Peter Pan.  I don't like Peter's ending.

On the positive side, Jodi Lynn Anderson is a good word weaver, if only the words weren't about iconic characters from an iconic story, most of whom have already been fully formed in peoples minds. If you haven't read Barrie's original, or seen the play, nor feel any loyalty to the original, you will probably like the book. My issues with the book stem entirely from the fact that it's fan fiction. My feeling is, don't mess with a classic. It's not yours to mess with. But I may be in the minority on that issue.

Published in 2012 by HarperCollins Children's Books
Review copy borrowed from the library.

What say you? Are you a fan of fan fiction or do you not want your classics messed with?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Favorites: A New Coat For Anna

A New Coat For Anna
Written by Harriet Ziefert
Illustrated by Anita Lobel

Based on a true story that takes place just after World War II, in an unnamed European town, A New Coat For Anna is the story of how young Anna's determined, enterprising mother, who doesn't have the money to buy Anna the coat she needs, uses the few fine posessions she has left to barter for the goods and services she needs to make Anna's new coat. She trades with the farmer for his sheeps' wool; she trades with the spinner to spin it to yarn; she trades with the weaver to weave the cloth; she trades with the tailor to sew the coat. The whole process takes a year, and Anna and her mother have to participate in the coat's creation too (carding the wool and dying the yarn using lingonberries.) After the coat is finished, just in time for Christmas of the next year, Anna and her mother invite all the people who helped make Anna's new coat possible to a Christmas celebration.

The wonderful, plentiful illustrations by Anita Lobel are perfect for the story, providing enough detail of each stage of the coat's genesis for modern children to understand and feel the work that went into it.

I deeply appreciate that this book gives children an insight into true hardship and inventiveness under trying conditions, without resorting to preachiness. My daughters and I love this story. It's a favorite reread at any time of the year, but especially at Christmas.

Published in 1986 by Random House Children's Books

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Favorites: The Story of Holly & Ivy

The Story of Holly & Ivy
Written by Rumer Godden
Illustrated by Barbara Cooney

Loneliness and wishing are the themes of this magical classic Christmas story, first published in 1957. Ivy is a lonely orphan wishing for a place to belong. Holly is a doll in Mr. Blossom's toy shop, dressed in Christmas red and green, wishing to find her little girl, fearful of being put into storage with the mean owl Abracadabra because she hasn't been sold this Christmas. Childless Mrs. Jones aches for something she almost doesn't allow herself to wish for. How these three wishes converge and are fulfilled during this wishing time of year make for a riveting story that never feels dated because it touches on themes that are universal to the human condition. This touching story is made more poignant by Barbara Cooney's dreamy, luminous illustrations, of which there are not enough, in my opinion.

I loved this story when I was a girl, and I'm so pleased my girls love it too. This is the first year Susanna sat through the whole reading of this long picture book.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Book Review: Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr; illustrated by Ronald Himler

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes is a short book that packs an emotional wallop through it's simple narrative. It is the true story of Sadako Sasaki, who was only two years old when the atom bomb fell on her city of Hiroshima, Japan. Now it is nine years later, and she discovers that she has the "atom bomb disease" (leukemia).

The book doesn't focus on any political message, nor does it focus on the war. It is simply the story of a young girl dealing with her own sickness and death, as a result of an event she herself doesn't remember. Nevertheless, this is a tough book for kids and one that sparks discussions about a myriad of topics: war, war on civilians, atomic bombs, cancer, family support during sickness, whether children are trusted with information about their own illness, hope or lack of hope, myths and legends on which people pin their hopes, death, fear of death. And yes, one comes away with a very anti-war feeling of one's own.

I borrowed Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes from the library to read aloud as part of our world history study. Olivia took it off the stack and read it herself before I had the chance to read it aloud. She soon came back with lots of questions. That sparked Karina's curiosity in the book, so she took it off to read. Much, much discussion ensued on all the topics mentioned previously. (Our copy was the original hardcover, pictured to the right, which contains a brief prologue and epilogue. I understand that later versions also contain discussion points. I wish we'd had that version, but we sure managed tons of discussion that sprang naturally from reading the story, even without a guide.)

I suspect this is a story my girls will forever remember.

Karina's response to my query about her reaction to the book was simple, but she takes longer to process thoughts than Olivia. She said: I thought it was really sad, but really good.

Olivia said:
This is a really sad book, but really worth reading. Until I read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, I didn't even know America had dropped bombs on Japan during World War Two. It made me sad to think of so many people being killed or infected because of it. The story is good. I loved it. I loved that it was about a real girl. And the pictures helped me to understand some things about the story. I liked the legend of the thousand paper cranes, even though they didn't help Sadako. In the end they did help her since the sight of them moving gently on the breeze gave her comfort as she died. I kept hoping she'd get better, but I realized pretty soon that she just wasn't. I'd definitely recommend it. It's one I'd read again. I think this is a book teachers should read to their students. Warning: reading this book will make you cry, especially the end, so read it with a tissue handy. Don't be afraid of crying; you won't regret reading Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.

Published in 1977 by G.P. Putnam's Sons
Review copy borrowed from the library.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Book Review: Dangerously Ever After by Daska Slater; illustrated by Valeria Docampo

If you're the mother of little girls, you're probably going to encounter princesses at some point in your reading repertoire. This can be delightful or painful, depending on how the author chooses to portray said princesses. The delightful ones get reread with enthusiasm, and the painful, simpering, irritating ones get quietly "lost" in whatever manner deemed necessary.
Never fear, Dangerously Ever After by Dashka Slater and Valeria Docampo will be in the enthusiastically reread category, with no pain involved.

Princess Amanita is not your average princess. She loves all things dangerous, and her garden would make Morticia Addams proud. And then...
"One day, as the princess was watering a patch of itching thistles, a prince from a neighboring kingdom rode up. His name was Florian and he was out looking for for a dragon to slay, or a knight to challenge--or at least someone his own age to talk to."
The prince's arrival sets off a chain of funny events that culminate in the character growth of the princess (and undoubtedly of the young prince, too.)

My girls and I chuckled our way through the appealing absurdity of this refreshingly non-girly princess story. It appealed to my younger princess-loving daughters, and even my older princess-loathing daughter. I can see this being a hit with boys, too, because the traditional princess aspect isn't present. (It will help that the word doesn't feature in the title, but the word "danger" does.) All kids can identify with danger-loving Princess Amanita in some aspect, because at its heart, Dangerously Ever After is the story of a little girl whose way of identifying herself is called into question when she encounters events outside her comfort zone and control, which leads to growth and balance. That sounds heavy, doesn't it? But really that "lesson" is just naturally absorbed into the story.

This is the first book I've read by Dashka Slater, and I'm delighted with the introduction. The story's pacing, language, and length work beautifully as a read-aloud, perfect for ages 4/5 and up. It's one of the few picture books we've read that appeals to all my girls with equal enthusiasm. The illustrations by Valeria Docampo are a delight. Beautiful, vibrant, and fun, they perfectly highlight and compliment the text. The artist's heavy use of blue keeps the fierceness of Amanita's world in check. My girls loved the scorpion tail inspired hair-do, the suit-of-armour dresses, the prince's steed (a bicycle), and the strangely appealing garden.

For what it's worth, my girls and I are giving Dangerously Ever After a hearty thumbs up.

Published in Semptember 2012 by Dial Books For Young Readers
Review copy generously supplied by publisher.

Nominated for the CYBILS 2012 by Charlotte of Charlotte's Library.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Book Review: The Eyes of the Amaryllis by Natalie Babbitt

I beg your indulgence as I set up this review a little, so you can understand the frame of mind I came to The Eyes of the Amaryllis with. My family moved to The Gambia the summer after I turned nine, and there for the first time I met the mystery and power of the sea. It was such a new experience that we glutted ourselves with beach-going several times a week. When my parents wouldn't take us, my older brother and I would cycle to the beach off of the Sunwing Hotel to hunt in tide pools and estuaries at low tide. I loved the ocean - the moods, the sounds, the smells; but I learned to fear it too.  A few months after we moved to The Gambia, our next door neighbor's son, a big, strapping, friendly lad of fourteen, drowned in the ocean. It was shocking and horrifying, the suddenness and manner of his death.

In July after I turned eleven I had my own near-drowning experience. I went swimming off the beach at the American Ambassador's residence during a Fourth of July community picnic, and got caught in the undertow. I got carried a long way out, and couldn't get back in because of the force of the undertow. There were some young Peace Corps Volunteers swimming nearby, but I didn't even have the energy to call to them for help. I faced the terrifying reality that I was probably going to die because there was no way I could muster the energy to try swimming again. I alternated treading water and floating on my back, contemplating death and thinking that I didn't want to die like my poor neighbor friend. I hated the thought of what it would do to my family. Fortunately for me, one of those Peace Corps volunteers could apparently tell I was in trouble, even though I hadn't spoken. "Getting tired?" he asked quietly as he swam up to me. I nodded my head and he put his hand under my armpit. "The undertow's bad today. I'm going to show you how to beat it. Let's swim this way." Swimming by my side, we swam parallel with the beach for a little way, and then he lead us in at an angle. That man saved my life. I was too tired to do more than whisper a thank you when we made the beach. He went off with a little wave and a "You'll be alright now", as I lay heaving on the sand, and I didn't see him again that day, even though I looked for him. I never even learned his name, but I'm alive today because he came along. (I didn't tell my parents of my near-death for years, out of fear that they'd ban me from ocean-swimming. In college I became a lifeguard, and then a life guard instructor and first aid and CPR instructor in an attempt to "pass it on.")

It was a year or so later, when I was twelve I think, that I first encountered The Eyes of the Amaryllis by Natalie Babbitt in the Banjul American Embassy School's library. Written in 1977, it was the first book I read by Natalie Babbitt. There were a couple of her other books on the shelf, but this one sounded the most intriguing, so I read it first. I was instantly captivated by the atmospheric, mysterious story that seemed to capture the hypnotic pull of the sea. It struck me powerfully at the time, I think because of my cumulative experiences with the ocean, and because I, like Jenny in the story, had grandmothers I didn't know very well.

The story takes place in 1880, when eleven year old Jenny (whose real name is Geneva) is being taken to stay with her paternal grandmother, the first Geneva, who has broken her foot and needs help until it mends. Jenny's Gran lives on a bluff in a bay on the Atlantic coast, in the same house she came to fifty years before as a bride.
"To be away from home--to stay with Gran and help her while her ankle mended--this seemed a very grownup thing to do, and Jenny had boasted about it to her friends. But in truth she was a little alarmed about that part, though her grandmother, whom she had seen before only for two weeks of the yearly Christmas season, had long been a figure of romance to her. Gran was not like other grandmothers, smelling of starch or mothballs, depending on the time of the year, and spending their time watering their plants. Gran stood straight and proud. Her face and arms were sunburned. And though she talked and listened, there always seemed to be something else on her mind, something far more absorbing than Christmas conversation.
But Jenny did not care for household chores, and was not at all sure that somewhere in her lay hidden the makings of a bedside nurse. So it wasn't that part of her adventure that excited her. No, the real enticement was the ocean. But this she could not admit. She was the only one of her friends who had never been to the shore. Preposterous, when it was only thirty miles from Springfield! But her father had never let her come, had always refused to discuss it."
Jenny quickly bonds with her unusual Gran, and learns that Gran has been waiting for years for a gift from the sea, a gift from her dead husband. (Thirty years before, Gran's sea captain husband drowned when his ship, the Amaryllis, sank just off the coast of home in a storm, as his wife and child watched from the bluff in helpless horror.) Ever since, Gran has searched the beaches every day at high tide, no matter the time or weather for some memento. (That is, in fact, how she broke her foot.) Now Gran needs Jenny to be her eyes and legs on the beach, and continue the search. But there is another searcher, a mysterious man named Seward, who could not let such a gift be taken from the sea.

I won't tell you anymore. It's the perfect book to read this time of year, if you want a little spookiness.

Twelve year old me loved this book, and because I loved it, I went on to read Tuck Everlasting, which I also loved. I was loath to re-read it as an adult, lest it lose the magic. I'm happy to report, however, that it holds up to adult reading very well, and I caught nuances of the relationship between Gran and her son (Jenny's father) that I didn't fully understand at the time of my first reading, and understand Gran's obsession a little better now, too.

Published in 1977 by Farrar, Straus and Girouux.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Book Review: Letters To Leo by Amy Hest; illustrated by Julia Denos

Exuberant, opinionated Annie writes letters to her new dog Leo, that her father has allowed her to keep, despite his aversion to dogs. Through Annie's letters, which function as a diary of sorts, we see life through a fourth-grade girl's eyes. We learn that her mother died when she was very young, her father is apparantly worry-prone, and she's not liking fourth grade and her unsympathetic teacher (to whom she privately assigns some less than flattering nick-names). She longs to be back in third grade with her beloved teacher, Miss Meadows.

The charmingly simple pencil drawings by Julia Denos are a perfect pairing with the story, making it feel very age authentic.

Letters to Leo is a cute and sometimes quirky story, and a little irritating to this adult who is obviously not it's intended audience. It is an easy, quick read and not very challenging in terms of vocabulary. I personally found the idea of a ten-year-old writing letters to her dog a little too "precious". Annie herself is a tad irritating to me, but then again, so is my nine-year-old daughter when she exhibits some of the same traits. For example, Annie calls herself cheerful, but spends much of her letter-writing complaining and whining, which unfortunately I found very authentic, speaking as the mother of an endlessly complaining nine-year-old daughter. (Oops, did I say that? Not "endlessly" darling, just sometimes!)
Funny, a bit snide, there is much that kids (and adults) can relate to in Annie and her everyday struggles.

I wanted to see how my own daughters would respond to the book, so I asked them if they would read it. They both agreed. I didn't tell them anything about the book other than the fact it is about a girl roughly their age, writing letters to her dog. (Olivia was, at first, reluctant because of the orange cover. She hates the color orange. There's a nine-year-old for you. Oh, she's going to hate me!)

Olivia's take on the book:
"It was okay for an orange book. They really need to fix that! Annie was funny (I mean amusing, not odd) and she made me laugh. She's one of those girls who doesn't like school, so she complains a lot about it. I like dogs and I thought it would be more about Leo, but he really doesn't play a very big role, other than as an annoyance to Annie's father. I thought it was odd that she'd be writing to her dog, though. Isn't she a little old for that kind of thing?  And her writing instruction books for her dog? What is she...six? Hello, dogs can't read! And I never could figure out if Jean-Marie was her friend or not, even though Annie called her her best friend. She didn't act like Jean-Marie was her best friend. I liked the way she tries to get her Dad to fall in love just so she can get a baby sister (or brother.) THAT was funny."

Karina's take on the book:
"When it [the book] was funny, it was FUNNY! But it was sometimes boring, because she kept going on and on about school and all the bad things that happened to her. I liked it, but I wouldn't want to read it again. Can we get a dog?"

So there you have it: three opinions about Letters to Leo!

Amy Hest also wrote When Jessie Came Across the Sea (Illustrated by P.J. Lynch), a picture book we love.

Book published in March 2012 by Candlewick.
Review copy borrowed from library.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Book Review: Fanny by Holly Hobbie

We have a new, loved doll book we recently added to our collection. Holly Hobbie has written a book that this mom and her daughters can relate too, a story that will delight any creative little girl's heart, about a little girl who desperately wants a Connie doll just like her friends, but consistently and vehemently gets told no by her mother,
"Because I don't like the way Connie dolls look," said her mother. "They're just too...much."
Frustrated but resourceful, Fanny decides to make her own Connie doll. But when she's finished, the doll doesn't look anything like Connie. When her friends silently express their disapproval, Fanny banishes the doll to a dresser drawer. She ultimately has to decide which she cares about most: the doll or her friends' approval.

Despite the heavy sounding moral, the story is charming, not too "girly" and comes across as a joyful testament to a child's creativity and ultimate good sense.

(A bonus of buying the book is that it includes a Holly Hobbie illustrated paper doll to fasten together, as well as a blank one that your child can color and make thoroughly their own.)

Like Fanny's mom in the story, I too have refused to buy my daughters certain dolls, despite their popularity, due to their being too... much. Bratz dolls, for example. Yikes! I don't much like Barbies either, for their unrealistic proportions, but mostly due to the fact that their outfits have gotten excessively slutty in the last ten years. I spent the first few years of their lives assiduously keeping Barbies away from my young daughters, even going so far as to get rid of them when they received one as a birthday present. (Barbies as a gift for a two year old? Come on, people!) But life contains a certain amount of bowing to the inevitable. As they got older of course, they started encountering Barbies at other little girls' houses, and we went to my parents home on vacation and they encountered the Barbies my mom had saved from my youth. They were over the moon and went through a few months' phase of intense Barbie love, which has thankfully ceased. (To help myself not feel too nauseated over the thought of what I was allowing, I sought out the older Barbie clothes on Ebay, buying them in bulk, repairing when necessary, throwing away the more sluttish outfits I came across. I know. I'm intense about some things.)
Likewise, I know moms of boys who vowed to never allow their boys to play with guns, but boys (especially in playing with other boys) will turn anything into guns, and at some point you have to pick your line in the sand, and some lines are more movable than others. (For me: Barbies a reluctant, teeth-gritting "yes," Bratz "no.")

Monday, October 22, 2012

By Request: Links to Book Blogs for/about Boys

At reader Jocelyne's request (she has all boys and would like to know about the boys' book blogs I've found) here are some links to book blogs geared toward boys:

Also, two blogs I regularly read always have great suggestions for books for boys (because they have boys):

  • Fanny at Fanny Harville's Unschool Academy has some great chapter book suggestions for books for boys. Check out her read-aloud lists. (See her side bar to get you started.)
  • Erica at What Do We Do All Day? also has lots of great suggestions and book lists she reads to her two young sons, from picture books to chapter books.

Are there more great ones I'm missing?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Book Review: Sophia's War: A Tale of the Revolution by Avi

Doesn't that gorgeous cover by Edel Rodriguez make you long to read this? It's the perfect cover for this story. (I have a "thing" for silhouettes on book covers. I don't know why, but I feel compelled to buy a book with silhouettes on the cover.)

If you have never read one of Avi's books, you really need to. He writes intelligent historical fiction for young people. He never dumbs down his books, and obviously works hard to be historically accurate.

In this complex, smart story Avi again tackles an aspect of the American Revolution. (He did it once before in The Fighting Ground, where the reader is swept along in thirteen-year-old Jonathon's passion to be part of the fighting, and then his rude awakening to the realities of being a soldier.) But this story isn't just a feminine version of The Fighting Ground. It's a completely different aspect of the war, written in a different kind of narrative.

 The story is broken up into two different time frames. Roughly the first half takes place in 1776 when Sophia Calderwood is twelve years old. Sophia and her parents fled their home in New York City when the British invaded. Sophia's adored older brother William joined the American troops fighting to keep the British out of the city. As the book opens in September of 1776, Sophia and her mother are returning on foot to New York to try to reclaim what they can of their lives. (For safety, Mr. Calderwood must return in secret later.) In an apple orchard on the outskirts of New York, they witness a young man of "dignified bearing" being led by British soldiers to a rope hanging from an apple tree, and Sophia watches in horror as the ladder is kicked away and the young man (who she later learns was Nathan Hale) is hanged.

Still reeling from that shock, they return to their home to find it looted of all their most costly possessions. As they begin the clean-up process, a small troop of British soldiers appears on their doorstep, looking for Mr. Calderwood and informing them they will be required to billet a British Officer. What follows is a tense time of eking out a living while boarding a British officer and pretending to be Loyalists. Sophia develops a reluctant crush on John Andre (oh curse Blogger's lack of language accents!) the British officer boarding in their home, even as she firmly believes in the American cause. When she learns that her brother is a prisoner of the British and housed under appalling conditions, she pleads with Andre to help. What happens next firmly sets her on the course for later events.

The second half of the book takes place three years later, in 1780, when Sophia is fifteen years old. Through her work with her father's publisher friend, she meets a man who recruits her as a spy in the household of General Sir Henry Clinton. As a housemaid, she would have access to information vital to the war effort. She stumbles on to what appears to be a clandestine operation possibly involving the collaboration of the British and an American of high military rank, a man Sophia and other Americans idolized, a man who played a huge part in early American victories against the British. The implications are so shocking and suddenly Sophia is alone in her quest to bring this information to light.

In the author's note at the end of the book, Avi writes that the two story threads based on historical facts "are as historically accurate as I could write them." He goes on to say that "Sophia is as true an individual as I could hope to create, and her actions provide an explanation as to what really happened in 1780."

And can I tell you how much I appreciated his striving for historical accuracy, even down to the language used. So often you read historical fiction, and get jerked out of the story by an author's use of modern words and terminology. In fact, there is a very helpful glossary in the back of the book to look up those unfamiliar words you come across. (A couple of years ago I read a Middle Grade novel by an author who shall remain nameless, about the Civil War era and the main character talks about being "gaga" for a certain boy! Yes, that word was actually used. Having already overlooked other words that were very obviously not historically accurate, I threw the book down in disgust and never went back to it. So I really appreciated Avi's obviously meticulous research on this book.)

Sophia provides the modern reader with an emotional barometer of the life of an average citizen during that time of conflict in American history. Avi shows Sophia's -I think natural- human conflictions that come with living in a war-torn country: how morals and actions change or become ambiguous based on circumstances.

Sophia, as a narrator, is very Self conscious: she narrates her story as someone aware of her audience and how they may be judging her. Her narrative never loses that awareness. There is a "buttoned up" quality to it: like she is recalling this period of time and reacting almost unwillingly to remembered emotions, and doesn't want to come across as too emotional. She tries her best to be fair and balanced in her narrative, not defending her actions and emotions so much as explaining them. And yet, despite the distancing approach to the narrative, the reader is quickly caught up in her experiences.

Book published in September 2012 by Beach Lane Books.

I nominated this book for the CYBILS 2012 in the Middle Grade Fiction category.

Also linking up with Armchair CYBILS and The Children's Bookshelf.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Olivia (Age 9) Reviews Her Recent Reads

By Olivia Neal (nine years old)

Stolen Children by Peg Kehret. 
Fourteen-year-old Amy is babysitting a three-year-old girl while the little girl's grandmother is in the hospital and her mom has to be gone a lot helping the grandmother. While the three-year-old is taking a nap, Amy falls asleep too. When Amy wakes up, the little girl is gone. After looking everywhere but not finding her, Amy tries to call the police, but two bad guys burst in and kidnap Amy, too. They take Amy and the little girl to a cabin in the woods. Amy has to figure out a way to get herself and the little girl away from the kidnappers. This is the first Peg Kehret book I read, and it was so scary and thrilling. I loved it. 

Runaway Twin by Peg Kehret.
 Sunny has a twin sister, Starr, but they were separated when they were three years old. Sunny set out to find Starr. So a lot of the story is about her journey to Starr, and then what happen when she does. Sunny's journey was really exciting. I liked the idea of the story, that it was about sisters who didn't really know each other.  It's kind of like me: I have a half sister that I've never met, and I thought about what would it be like if she showed up on my doorstep. Will I like her? Will she like me?

Abduction!  by Peg Kehret.
I just finished reading this one. A little boy is kidnapped from his kindergarten class by his father, who's a crook. And then his older half-sister also gets kidnapped. It's a tense and nail-biting book. I don't really know how to describe it without ruining the story for you, just read the book. You'll like it!

Wilma Tenderfoot: The Case of the Frozen Hearts by Emma Kennedy.
Wilma's a ten-year-old orphan who was abandoned when she was a baby, outside a children's orphanage. She's a bit of a troublemaker, not in a mean way, but out of curiosity. She drives the matron crazy. She wants to be a detective so she can find her parents. Her favorite detective is Theodore P. Goodman and she aspires to be like him. When the matron forces her to go live with a mean lady, Mrs. Waldock, she discovers that Mr. Goodman lives next door. She wants to be his apprentice, but he refuses. So behind his back she tries to help him solve his current case.  I like Wilma because she just so curious and funny (and she has a dog named Pickle). The inspector's pretty funny too. And the case they are trying to solve is interesting and very mysterious.
I have the next book in the series, but it didn't start as interesting as this one. My mom says I have to give it more of a chance.

The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter by Kathryn Reiss.
When Julie finds a note in an old jacket, she and her best friend, Ivy try to find what the note means. When Ivy's Chinese Grandmother deciphers the note (which is in Chinese), she tells them the note is from the grandmother's mother that she gave the grandmother when she was fifteen and immigrating from China. Then Julie and Ivy's dolls get stolen, and 'though the dolls are worthless, they try to discover why someone would want to steal them and what it has to do with the note, if anything.
It was an interesting story, history-wise. I liked the immigration aspect, and I like that it was about dolls, 'cause I like dolls. I just discovered the American Girl mysteries at our library and I think I'll look into more of them.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Book Review of Timeless Thomas: How Thomas Edison Changed Our Lives by Gene Barretta

Timeless Thomas: How Thomas Edison Changed Our Lives is Gene Barretta's latest release about Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, phonograph, electric pen, storage battery, and so much more. It has a similar style to Barretta's other two biographical non-fiction picture books: Neo Leo and Now and Ben. It's not so much a biography as it is a record of Edison's technological achievements. On the surface you might not think that a book about an older man's achievements would be very appealing to young children. You'd be wrong. My girls found it immensely appealing.

Barretta showcases technology that we in the modern world take for granted, things we use everyday without a second thought. He juxtaposes a page showcasing present-day technology with pages showcasing the technology coming out of Edison's lab, showing how those early technological accomplishments made today's technology possible. Fun to read and very informative, with clear and simple text that is easily understood by kids of the target age group. The illustrations provide a perfect visual accompaniment that is immensely appealing.

My nine year old non-fiction-loving Olivia saw it in the Amazon shipment that arrived a few months ago, snatched it up and ran off to her bedroom. (I had pre-ordered it so it would arrive on its release date.) She came back shortly with a huge smile on her face and spent the next twenty minutes telling me everything she learned from the book. She had never before thought about the origins of the technology that she uses daily. The book has gotten a lot of mileage since then. I love great non-fiction picture books.

I nominated this book for the CYBILS 2012 in the Non-Fiction Picture Books category.

Published in July 2012 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Book Review: The Cloud Spinner By Michael Catchpool and Illustrated by Alison Jay

In this lovely, dreamy fable, a wise young boy spins clouds into cloth under the stricture "Enough is enough and not one stitch more." One day a greedy king spies his cloud-woven scarf and wants more, more, more, despite the young boy's warnings. When the king's greed dries up the clouds, it's up to the observant princess and the wise boy to set things right.

Released as Cloth From the Clouds in Britain, this story has a universal appeal for both boys and girls, and works beautifully for a read-aloud. Catchpool employs the stricture from the story, using just enough words to convey the story and "not one [word] more." Further, he understands the need for key (non-annoying) repetitive phases that keep the story anchored, and delivers his message of conservation in a gentle but effective manner. Brilliantly done.

 The only book we've read previously by Michael Catchpool is his Where There's a Bear, There's Trouble, which was (and still is) universally adored by all three of my girls as toddlers. (Susanna, at five, still loves it and I still see the older two pulling it out of the bookshelf to read themselves on occasion.)

Alison Jay's deceptively simple, gorgeous folk art illustrations pair perfectly with this story. The colors are so beautiful. My children delighted in the cloud shapes and the smiling hills. (See the one on the cover?) I have loved her art since I first saw it on the original covers of Shannon Hale's Bayern series (The Goose Girl, Enna Burning and River Secrets. Click on the links to see the original covers.)

Bottom line: This book was definitely worth the purchase and I know it will be read again and again in the Neal house.

I nominated this book for the 2012 CYBILS in the Fiction Picture Book category.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Book Review: Nancy Clancy, Super Sleuth by Jane O'Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser

From the back cover: "Nancy Clancy has everything she needs to be a super sleuth (that's a fancy word for detective): She has a glamorous magnifying glass complete with rhinestones, a totally professional pink trench coat, and a sleuthing partner with awesome code-breaking skills--her best friend, Bree.
  Now all she needs is a good mystery to solve. But when crime strikes right in the middle of her classroom, will Nancy have what it takes to crack the case?"

Little girls who have grown up with the Fancy Nancy picture books and early readers will rejoice to learn that Nancy has grown with them, and is featured in her first chapter book and solving crime in her own inimitable Fancy Nancy style. (I think she is in second or third grade, although I can't find any place in the book that mentions her age or grade.)

When my girls spotted this in Costco a few months ago, they both instantly clamored to be the first to read the book. Olivia won the coin toss and was completely tickled by the Nancy Drew mentions. (Nancy Drew is Olivia's favorite super sleuth.) I had to stop her from reading parts out loud and ruining it for Karina.

It's a quick read. Both girls read it in short order, and both really enjoyed it.

And they're both anxiously awaiting the next book, due out in January 2013, Nancy Clancy: Secret Admirer.

Published in 2012 by Harper Collins.
Ages 6 and up.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Book Review: The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer

From the publisher: "Unscathed from the wars, Gervase Frant finally returns to his father's estate to claim his title as the new Earl of Stanyon. But his stepmother's resentment and his half brother's open disdain put a chill on Gervase's welcome. Now he must establish himself as the new head of the house . . . and ignore his family's rising hostility.  Then Gervase's eye is caught by a lovely young woman -- the same woman already much in favor with his half brother. Now the brothers face direct competition as they bid for the lady's attentions. But as Gervase struggles to maintain a gentlemanly balance, he begins to find himself the victim of repeatedly cruel accidents. Soon it becomes increasingly clear that someone wants the new Earl of Stanyon dead . . ."

Georgette Heyer is one of my favorite authors. I've read most of her books and reread my favorites periodically. I couldn't remember reading The Quiet Gentleman before, but as I got into it, I started remembering things that were going to happen. But it's not going on my list of favorites by Georgette Heyer. Obviously not very memorable for me, I find this one of her most boring books, but on the whole it's not a bad read. The characters were marvelous but I thought it suffered from pacing problems. The mystery aspect of the book (who is trying to kill the main character) was quite boring and predictable. The romantic aspect was very understated, almost nonexistent, except at the last part of the book. The characters were the only reason I kept reading.

Originally published in 1951.
My copy was published in 1952 by G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Book Review: Mrs Noodlekugel by Daniel Pinkwater

From the publisher: "Nick and Maxine live in a tall building with one apartment on top of another. So when they look out their window and see a little house they never knew was there, of course they must visit (especially when their parents tell them not to!). Going through the boiler room, they’re amazed to find to a secret backyard with a garden, a porch, and a statue of a cat. And they’re even more amazed when that cat starts to talk. . . . Welcome to the world of Mrs. Noodlekugel, where felines converse and serve cookies and tea, vision-impaired mice join the party (but may put crumbs up their noses), and children in search of funny adventures are drawn by the warm smell of gingerbread and the promise of magical surprises."

This book would have been ideal for my newly emerging readers:  it has a kid-appealing story with just enough fantasy, folly, and humor (and plenty of charming black-and-white illustrations by Adam Stower) to keep a beginning reader's attention, in addition to great cover appeal (for girls, anyway.) But be aware that this book has a limited readership, given that the text is overly simplistic (quite Dick-and-Jane-ish, just in longer chapter form.) It is, in effect, a long beginning reader, when the child has mastered the basics but still needs some help. 

The problem is that the publisher's info page of the book makes no mention of the ages for which it's suited.  Upon further research online, it is listed for the 5 to 10 age group, but again, just be aware that this is for young beginning readers. They will likely be the only ones excited about the story. (Both my older girls tried reading the book. My nine-year-old brought it back to me after a couple of pages, declaring it a book for babies and utterly annoying. My seven-year-old persevered to the end, declaring it a cute story, but written for "little kids." She hadn't heard her sister's scorn of the book, as she was asleep the night her sister tried to read it.)

Published in March 2012 by Candlewick.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Book Review: Deep in the Forest by Brinton Turkle

Deep in the Forest. Brinton Turkle. 1976. E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. Ages 3 and up.

A bear cub stumbles across a cabin in the woods and wreaks havoc, Goldilocks-style, in this wordless picture book. Although the illustrations are rendered in dark, autumnal colors, the charm of the pictures wasn't lost on my young daughters. They laughed at the cub's antics, and were delighted when he safely escaped back to his mother. Personally, I like this version of Goldilocks, since it makes more sense for a bear cub to wreak that kind of careless havoc than for a little girl to do so.

A short rant about book lengths and lack of editing

I've got about a dozen books in various stages of reading progress, and while they aren't awful, they're not holding my interest very well (hence the dozen), mostly due to the fact that they are needlessly, freakishly, disproportionately long for the plot, action, and characters.
Is it just me or do authors seem to think they need to write epics? Long, droning tomes in serious need of editing. What has happened to editors? Doesn't anyone value pithy, substantive writing anymore? Please, editors, for the love of all that's good and right, wield those red pens with more fervor! Stop the madness!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Recent Reads

Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen (2012). What bookish girl doesn't fall in love with Robin Hood at a fairly young age? I've been fascinated by the legend of Robin Hood since I first read Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of his exploits when I was eleven or so. I loved that book and reread it often. Years later when my parents took us to England for vacation the summer after I turned fifteen, we decided we had to go to Sherwood Forest. It was there that I learned, to my supreme disappointment, that Robin Hood was just a legend. (I wonder why I thought he was real?) This book is a reworking of the Robin Hood legend from the standpoint of a knife-wielding, female "Will" Scarlet, disguised as a boy. I'm not sure how I feel about this book. For sheer entertainment value, it did pretty well. With a few exceptions, I stayed interested in seeing what was going to happen. I mostly liked the characterizations, although I personally don't think the strength of Robin's character features very clearly. Little John features a little too much. I didn't care for him. The story has good action, but the plot is a little lacking, and had too many repeats of the same incident (Scarlet sneaking into somewhere to snoop or free people and getting beat up/wounded in the process), just tweaked a little. I also didn't like the love triangle going on. I think it was relied on too heavily as a plot device, and the many jealousy scenes got old. (I get so tired of love triangles in YA fiction.) But for all my little peeves, it was a very decent read.

My cousin Suey of It's All About Books brought this one to my attention. (Clicking on the website link will take you to her enthusiastic review.)

For a better retelling, read Robin McKinley's The Outlaws of Sherwood. Apart from the Pyle book, it's probably my favorite. It's suitable for readers as young as eight.

Why Gender Matters by Leonard Sax (2005). I read this one on the recommendation of a speaker at the last homeschool convention I attended. The book discusses the differences in the male and female brains and the author draws some conclusions about the ramifications of those differences. I'm not sure what I feel about it. I think that the common trend for gender-sameness in public schools is problematic, especially for boys. (By "gender-sameness" I mean the idea that there are no physiological or chemical differences -besides the obvious glandular and hormonal ones- in boys and girls and how they learn best.) I'm not sure I would draw the same conclusions he does in some instances regarding what to do about those gender differences, especially in regard to those children he terms "anomalous." But the book makes for fascinating reading.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. (Unabdridged Audiobook, read by Esther Benson) I had only a vague recollection of this book, centering exclusively around Pippi herself, her little monkey Mr. Nilsson, and the horse on the porch. I do remember one of my elementary school teachers reading it aloud, but I couldn't for the life of me remember anything of plots or stories. Since it's a childhood classic, I have long been toying with the idea of reading it aloud to my girls, but other, more interesting books have always gotten in the way. We found the audiobook at the library and decided to get it to listen to during our about-town errands. Esther Benson does a good job with the narration, but I have to confess that I'm not a fan of the story. It's like nails on a chalkboard. And I know why I remember almost nothing about it. There's not much there to remember. My feelings can be summed up by my seven-year-old Karina's comment, "For all her travels, she's not very smart, is she?" For all her wildness and shenanigans, she's also not that interesting. I can only attribute the book's lasting impact being due to the wildly outrageous, non-conformist main character, because everything else about it, including the "adventures," is boring. And why, for being as old as she is, does she never learn from her social gaffes? Her wide-eyed, quasi-innocent, "isn't-this-jolly" preciousness (as my grandmother would have said) is nauseating and irritating. Her wildly braggadocio lies aren't even very interesting. This is one book I won't be adding to our personal library. If my children end up loving it down the road ('though they don't seem very keen on it at present) they can buy it with their own money. So there.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Picture Book Biographies: Poets

April is National Poetry Month here in the United States. I've read poetry to my girls from the time they were babies, because I love it and want them to love it and to not be intimidated by the format. But I've found that sharing poetry with them is even more effective after they can first see the poet as a real person. Here, in no particular order, are some picture book biographies -some deal only with a certain portion of the poet's life- of poets that combine a well-told narrative with striking pictures to capture and keep children's attention. Each book is illustrated in a different style. (I'd recommend these books for ages 7 and up.)

(Written by Jen Bryant; illustrated by Melissa Sweet)

(Written by Barbara Kerley; illustrated by Brian Selznick)

(Written by Linda Glaser; illustrated by Claire A. Nivola)

(Written by Robert Burleigh; illustrated by Leonard Jenkins)

(Written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter)

(Written by Monica Brown; illustrated by Julie Paschkis)

(Written by Joanne Findon; illustrated by Ted Nasmith)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Picture Book: Shibumi and the Kitemaker by Mercer Mayer

Shibumi and the Kitemaker
Written and illustrated by Mercer Mayer
Picture book
Ages 5 and up (Reading Aloud)
Published in 1999 by Marshall Cavendish

In this original fable by Mercer Mayer, Shibumi is a young princess of a "far-away kingdom" sheltered behind garden walls she isn't allowed past. She dreams of the wonders on the other side of the wall. When she overhears some children outside the wall making fun of the princess they've never seen, Shibumi climbs a tree to set them straight, but the squalor and deprivation she sees from that tree shatter all her illusions of a better world beyond the wall. Fearing that her father will punish her for climbing the tree, but driven to change what she sees, she conceives a daring plan (that only a child would think of) that will force her father, the emperor, to make the situation better. Her drastic action gets his attention, and through it, she finally tells him what she wishes to happen. As he starts to implement a plan to fulfill her greatest wish, his councilors, thinking he has lost his mind and not eager to have the status quo changed, engage in a treacherous plot that results in Shibumi fleeing into exile. Despite his broken heart, or maybe because of it, the emperor works for years to implement the needed changes to his land, but is now, many years after Shibumi's departure, besieged in outright war by angry nobles who want things to return to the way they were. A young samurai goes in search of Shibumi, knowing that her father needs her to help him continue what she started.

Mayer's love of Japanese art and culture is evident in every beautiful and meticulous illustration.

This is a book with some heavy themes for young children: inequality of classes, the "haves" vs. "have-nots," and the difference one person can make in a seemingly impossible situation. I appreciated how Mayer allowed Shibumi's "grass-is-greener" attitude to develop into a deep conviction that she needed to be -and believed she could be- an instrument of change. I also appreciated that he didn't show the process as being easy or quick. I expect it's a book my girls will think about for years to come.

My seven and eight year-old daughters loved this fable. My four-year-old at least stayed beside me while we read, sometimes tuning out, but then something would draw her back in.

Sadly, this book is out of print. Our copy was borrowed from the library.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Popular Books Everyone Else Has Read But Me (It Seems)

  • The Hunger Games trilogy. I'll mention this first because of all the movie hype surrounding it right now. My mom and sister have both read it and recommend it, but it's not a series I've had a burning desire to read.
  • The Harry Potter books. I should probably have my children's-lit-lover card pulled, but I couldn't get into this series. I've tried several times with the first book, and I've quit every time.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia. I yawned my way through the first book when I was 11, and remember very little about it. I never had any desire to read the rest of the series. On the other hand, my sister read and re-read them.
  • Charles Dickens books. I've tried at various times over the years, but I'm just not drawn to his writing style. I've never been able to finish one of his books.
  • John Steinbeck books. I never had to read any of his works in my British international high school, or at university (amazingly) and I've still not gotten around to it as an adult.
  • Stephen King books. I'm not into the horror genre, and until recently, I thought that was all he wrote, but I've since learned that's not so, far I've not given any of his books a try. (I love the movies The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, both film adaptations of his works.)
I'm sure there are more, but that's all I can think of at the moment.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Day-to-Day Homeschooling: What I Don't Do

Let me say this straight up so there can be no confusion: I am not a homeschooling expert or domestic goddess. I would probably be thrown out of blogdom's homeschooling club, or at least pointed to as an example of what NOT to do. I'm kidding. Those of us in the homeschooling trenches know that home education looks different for every family, as it should, since we're dealing with individuals, not paper dolls.

  • I can't/won't label the method of our homeschooling. I have never found a good one-size-fits-all method to homeschooling my girls. Every year that we do this -and we're in our third- looks slightly different, based on their growing needs and knowledge, and the reality of my strengths and weaknesses. Heck, every day looks slightly different. I identify with lots of methods (unschooling, Charlotte Mason, Montessori, Classical, etc.) but I refuse to stick to just one, because I think that would be doing my girls an injustice and besides, it's too boring. We pluck the pieces of any method that fit our situation on a day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, basis. Does that sound like it would get confusing? It doesn't. It's just a natural extension of parenting. For example, this year I had decided to use Calvert School* with them. I'm not sure why, now. But once we got going, we hated it so much (because it felt like school and I hate teaching from textbooks) that we scrapped most of it. (I love the read-alouds that came with it, and Olivia loves the history book Famous Americans, that came with her course. She reads it all the time.) I do better when I set the curriculum, which really just means that I buy some workbooks for the areas I feel we need them, and use real books and real life for the rest.
  • We do not homeschool for religious reasons. God had nothing to do with my decision to pull my girls out of public school. We homeschool because it's the best fit and option for our family, and a natural extension of life. (I only say this because of an emailed comment/question I received after my last post, and I want to make sure our motivations for homeschooling are clear.)
  • Routine? What routine? Okay, we have a vague one: get up, get breakfast, do math, free time for the rest of the day interspersed with reading aloud, chores here and there, and eating here and there. Maybe an outing to the zoo or what not. I don't make lesson plans. Tried it early on in our homeschool adventure, didn't like it. I don't roll like that, and to me life can't be scripted; and that's what we're engaged in here: life. The free time the girls have allows them to indulge in areas of their own interest. And believe me, they do.
  • I don't have a dedicated schoolroom. There is just Todd's and my office which I facetiously call "Homeschool Central" because that's where I keep most of the schoolish stuff we use. The girls do their work wherever they please: if it's math, they stretch out on the office floor for quick access to me when they're having problems, or they'll sit at the kitchen table if I'm in there putting together our crockpot supper. We have lap desks that get used occasionally.
  • I don't push academics before they're ready. I'm mostly talking pre-school years here. I cringe whenever I hear someone say they're homeschooling their three or four year old. I firmly believe that the business of young children is play. Some children are ready for academics at younger ages, some are not. My girls have always given cues as to their readiness for certain subjects. As long as I pay attention, things flow smoothly, and real learning happens. (For an excellent post about the business of pre-schoolers, read this wonderful response by Professor Tim of Fanny Harville's Unschool Academy.)
  • I don't feel the need to enroll them in every activity/class under the sun, out of fear that they'll miss out on something or fear of the dreaded "S" word. (That's "Socialization" for you homeschooling newbies -something non-homeschoolers squawk about as being a BIG PROBLEM, but veteran homeschoolers laugh at.) I have noticed a tendency in homeschooling circles to use one's busy-ness as as a badge of...what, I don't know. For me, this is definitely an area where less is better, especially when children are young. This may be because I'm an older mom who's not a Type A personality; I just don't see the point in all the bustle of constant activity. I think we humans need plenty of quiet and space to process life experiences, plan and dream. (Also, our weekends are spent as a family. We see so little of Todd during the week due to his job, that weekends are all about low key time with Daddy.) I also don't feel the need to indulge every interest they express. Sometimes I have to tell them, "That's something we'll explore when you're older."
  • I don't do arts and crafts. That is to say, I love the idea, but hate the execution. Beyond providing art supplies, I don't do art with them, except things like demonstrating a technique (maybe), teaching them the basics of crocheting, or refilling Susanna's water bowl when she's painting, etc. My kids, being kids, love art and have learned to carry on despite my relative non-involvement. Art station? Hah!! I can't even keep colored pencils or crayons in one container. My kids drag art supplies from one end of the house to the other (yelling because so-and-so took their glue stick) because heaven forbid they should do art in the same space as each other. They feel the need for their own creative space, which consists of their bed, the bedroom floor, the closets, etc. which also means there are art supplies and scraps of paper/cardboard/yarn EVERYWHERE! We dispose of a full 30 gallon trash bag of art trash every week, some of it finished products because they create something, drop it somewhere and forget all about it. I have no problem, not one twinge of guilt with the liberal use of the round file. (On a side note: I'll bet I get the meanest mom award for not even allowing markers or glue sticks in my house until I felt sure that all desire for writing on walls, furniture, etc. was firmly squashed, which means only in this last year have my children discovered the "joys" of markers and glue sticks. And I don't do glitter. Ever. Or sequins.)
  • I don't "play" with my children, except playing games (board games, card games, etc.), and the occasional tag and hide-and-seek, and reading aloud. I feel that inserting myself into their imaginary play is intrusive, and doesn't teach them how to be comfortable doing their own thing.
  • I don't allow them much computer time: a half hour twice a week at the most. I think too much computer time hinders their attention spans. I laugh when people insist that children need to familiarize themselves with computers early, like it's so hard to learn. Hello, those of us who were adults when the WWW came into being managed to learn pretty quickly. I'm not a Luddite, I like technology; I just feel that technology has its place and time.
  • I can't think of anything else at the moment. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them.

*Calvert uses a boxed, fully set, secular curriculum. They are the original makers of a complete boxed curriculum. Originally created for State Department kids overseas, they expanded into the U.S. homeschooling market, too.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Our Homeschooling Goals

Our family became homeschoolers in fits and starts. After a traumatic and disastrous time spent in public school, we knew we had to bring our girls home for good. But I knew I had to deal with the reality of homeschooling. Despite my teacher training in college, the reality of being my children's primary academic educator was a wee bit daunting, no matter how natural the idea felt. What should it look like, really?
Todd and I both felt strongly that we didn't want it to look like the public school system we had pulled them out of. I read everything I could get my hands on regarding alternative educational philosophies, e.g. John Holt, Charlotte Mason, Maria Montessori, Waldorf, etc. I read books of real parents in the homeschooling trenches.
I shared my findings with Todd and we had many long discussions, trying to wrap our minds around a completely different, but more natural, idea of what being educated means. More importantly, what should it look like for us?
We realized we needed to begin with the end in mind: in imagining our children grown, what was it we TRULY wanted them to be able to do, that we could give them REALISTICALLY? Thus our homeschooling "mission statement" was born.

  • We wanted them to be comfortable with math and math concepts.
  • We wanted them to be able to read and to (hopefully) enjoy reading. (If they learn to read, then the world of knowledge opens up for them.)
  • We wanted them to have the skills necessary to find things out for themselves.
  • We wanted them to have the life skills (balance a check book, read a map, follow a recipe, clean a toilet, etc.) that they’d need to negotiate life.
Then I gave myself permission to let the rest go. Their life is not going to be ruined if we cannot/will not provide them with every possible learning experience. My job is to teach them how to learn; they have the rest of their life to experience many, many things, (including arts and crafts and science projects.) The whole of life is a learning journey.

So right now we focus on real books (as opposed to textbooks,) life skills, and math, and plenty of time for them to pursue their own interests.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Family Stories: The Fairchild Family series by Rebecca Caudill

Rebecca Caudill, author of The Best-Loved Doll, A Pocketful of Cricket (1965 Caldecott Honor winner), Tree of Freedom (1950 Newbery Honor winner), The Far-Off Land,  etc. wrote a lovely series of family stories, largely forgotten, but luckily back in print. I came across this series years ago when I was trying to find more books by the author after I read the charming A Pocketful of Cricket.

The stories featuring the delightful Fairchild family were first published in 1947 in children's magazines, and then compiled into a series of four books, lately republished in 2004 by Bethlehem Publishers with beautiful covers by Lydia Halverson. This episodic series, based on Caudill's family life growing up in the mountains of Kentucky in the early 1900's, is a treat to read, and the original internal illustrations by Decie Merwin are delightful. The Fairchilds are a family of seven: Father, Mother, Althy, Chris, Emmy, Debby, and Bonnie. Bonnie, who is four years old when we first meet her (and is based on Caudill herself) feels all the anguish of being the youngest in the family. But life is never dull with three sisters and a brother to play with, the woods to explore, the river to skate on, going to school for the first time, meeting new neighbors, inventing new games, earning money, etc.

I read these aloud to my girls a couple of years ago, when Olivia was six years old and Karina was four. Both girls were enthralled, always eager to listen to more Fairchild family adventures. These are books full of the simplicity and innocence of little happy childhood explorations and wonders, and shared family experiences.

The Fairchild books include:
Happy Little Family
Schoolhouse in the Woods
Up and Down the River
Schoolroom in the Parlor

And don't forget to check out other family stories featured in our on-going Family Stories series:
The Moffats (Eleanor Estes)
The Ingalls (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Books Read in January

Linked to my reviews.
Books with asterisks (*) are re-reads.

Picture Books
  • The Sorely Trying Day (Russell and Lillian Hoban) -  A chain of events leads members of a family to behave badly, causing a ripple effect of bad behavior down the line. Funny and still apropos, despite the somewhat archaic language form used at times. My girls laughed ruefully as they recognized their own behavior.
  • Fannie in the Kitchen (Deborah Hopkinson; illus. by Nancy Carpenter) - Takes place in the late 1880's in Boston, Mass. Marcia's mother appreciates Marcia's "helpfulness" but hires Fannie Farmer as a mother's helper, mostly for her cooking. Marcia's ire soon turns to intrigue as Fannie teaches her how to cook. Marcia in turn inspires Fannie to set down her recipes on paper. The pictures are an intriguing combination of images and styles: Victorian lithograph-type for the background, parents and baby; warmer, rounder drawings, in color, of Fannie and Marcia. The idea, obviously, is draw the eye to these two central characters. The hilarious little details in the period-inspired drawings keeps them from pretension; one page shows Marcia's mother licking her plate. The chapter divisions are in keeping with the theme. Each one is a meal "Course," with a little Fannie Farmer hint box on most full page spreads.
  • Apple Tree Christmas (Trinka Hakes Noble) - A terrible blizzard near Christmas ruins a girl's favorite apple tree. Will her personal sorrow ruin Christmas? A very good family Christmas story, non-religious, without Santa Claus.
  • Birdie's Lighthouse (Deborah Hopkinson; illus. by Kimberly Bulcken Root)  - Birdie's journaling of how her family becomes the lighthouse keepers on a small, bare, rocky and lonely island. Then when her father gets sick, she has to take over as lightkeeper. Although fictitious, Birdie is based on real women who were lightkeepers. There is a wonderful "Afterward" by the author that gives the history of real women/girl lightkeepers.
  • When Jessie Came Across the Sea (Amy Hest; illus. by P.J. Lynch) - A young Eastern European Jewish girl receives a boat ticket to America from her Rabbi. Leaving her beloved grandmother behind, she uses her sewing skills -taught to her by her grandmother- to earn money in America, saving it in order to bring her grandmother across the sea as well. A lovely story, beautifully told and illustrated, of devotion and love.
  • Uncle Vova's Tree (Patricia Polacco) - A story about a family's Epiphany traditions and the continuation of them even after their beloved uncle, who was the "keeper" of the traditions, dies. I liked it up until the mystical end, which made it lose its power as a family story, to me.
  • The Orange Shoes (Trinka Hakes Noble; illus. by Doris Ettlinger) My girls loved this story of a poor country girl who uses her art skills to turn an ugly incident into a work of art, and the family who loves and supports her through it all. Olivia was the one who found this book and read it first, and then came to me and said, "Mom, you have to read this! It's so good!"
  • *Tikki Tikki Tembo (Arlene Mosel; illus. by Blair Lent) - This classic brings a giggle every time we read it.
  • Grandmother Winter (Phyllis Root; illus. by Beth Krommes) - My girls were confused by this story until I explained the concept of Grandmother Winter. Then we read it again and they could enjoy it. Gorgeous illustrations. 
  • Blue Willow (Pam Conrad; illus. by S. Seilig Gallagher) - The "fable" of how the design on Blue Willow china came to be. Well written but sad story. 
  • Morris the Artist (Lore Segal; illus. by Boris Kulikov) Morris, who loves to paint, buys a birthday gift for another child that he wants, and when he gets to the party, won't hand over.
  • Uncle Blubbafink's Seriously Ridiculous Stories (Keith Graves) -  "Seriously ridiculous", yes. I think it takes a different kind of personality than mine to appreciate this book. Didn't appeal to me at all. I couldn't bring myself to read it aloud to my kids.
  • *The Complete Adventures of Peter Rabbit (Beatrix Potter) - I read this periodically to my children, but they never get excited about them. 
  • *Frog and Toad All Year (Arnold Lobel) - My girls are huge fans of Frog and Toad.
  • *Days With Frog and Toad (Arnold Lobel) Reading about Frog and Toad never gets old, although some volumes (like this one) are better than others.
  • *My First Counting Book (Lilian Moore; illus. Garth Williams) - Linked to my review. 
  • Al Pha's Bet (Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illus. by Delphine Durand) 
  • This Plus That (Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illus. by Jen Corace) 
  • Little Pea (Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illus. by Jen Corace) 
  • Little Oink (Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illus. by Jen Corace) 
  • Little Hoot (Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illus. by Jen Corace) 
  • Spoon (Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illus. by Scott Magoon)
  • *Blackout (John Rocco) - A young child wants to play a board game with someone, but all the family members are "MUCH TOO BUSY."  When the lights suddenly go out, there is nothing but time for family togetherness. My girls love this book and keep picking it up to read or look at the pictures. The pictures do most of the storytelling; the text is pretty spare. (As an aside, I love that the family is multi-racial, that the youngest family member could be a boy or a girl, and the dad is cooking.)
  • *Grandpa Green (Lane Smith) A little boy tells the life history of his great-grandfather, who is forgetting things. But the topiaries he creates do the remembering for him. A beautiful book, full of clever topiaries to help tell the tale. I appreciated it more than my girls did.
  • *Are You My Mother (P.D. Eastman) Always a favorite with my littles.
  • *A Bargain For Frances (Russell and Lillian Hoban) - Frances gets tricked by her friend into buying her friend's tea set. When Frances finds out about her friend's trickery, she figures turn-about is fair play. I was never that smart as a child.
  • *Bread and Jam For Frances (Russell and Lillian Hoban) - My personal favorite of the Frances books. Deals with the meal battles that parents face with picky eaters. If only they were resolved as easily (and amusingly) as they are in this book.
  • *Owl Babies (Martin Waddell; illus. by Patrick Benson) - Linked to my review.
  • *Chrysanthemum (Kevin Henkes) - A little mouse girl is made fun of because of her name, until a wise music teacher intervenes. My girls love this book.
Children's Non-Fiction
  • Swirl By Swirl (Joyce Sidman; illus. by Beth Krommes) - A lovely, lyrical book about spirals and the many places/ways they occur in nature. Gorgeous illustrations.
  • A Fraction's Goal - Parts of a Whole (Brian P. Cleary; illus. by Brian Gable) - Excellent for gaining an overall understanding of fractions. My only reservation was with the pages showing the baking measurements, as the drawings made it unclear to my daughters what the "whole" was. But I can understand how that would be hard to capture in a drawing. We followed up with some hands-on kitchen fractions.
  • So You Want to Be An Inventor? (Judith St. George; illus. by David Small) A big hit with my girls, this fun book that talks about the qualities necessary to be an inventor and highlights actual inventors throughout history and the inventions they created as a result of those personality qualities. Superb illustrations.
  • Just a Second (Steve Jenkins) A fun trivia book of happenings in the natural world based on time as the unit of measurement, i.e. things that happen in a second, a minute, an hour, etc. Fascinating stuff. Amazing collaged pictures.
  • What To Do About Alice? (Barbara Kerley; illus. by Edwin Fotheringham) - An amusing picturebook biography about Alice Roosevelt (daughter of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt) who wanted to "eat up the world." The illustrations are great.

Middle-Grades Fiction
  • The Little Bookroom (Eleanor Farjeon) - A compilation of fantastical little stories; some better than others.
  • The Middle Moffat (Eleanor Estes) - I read this aloud to Olivia and Karina. Linked to my review.
  • The Children of Green Knowe (L.M. Boston) - Linked to my review. 
  • Ballet Shoes (Noel Streatfeild) - Linked to my review. 
  • Rufus M. (Eleanor Estes) - I read this aloud to Olivia and Karina. They liked this one better than The Middle Moffat. The episodes are more amusing.
  • Breaking Stalin's Nose (Eugene Yelchin) - Linked to my review. 
  • Anna's Blizzard (Alison Hart)

Young Adult Fiction
  • The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Rae Carson) - I liked it.
  • Divergent (Veronica Roth) - I read this for book club. Meh.
  • The Wild Orchid: A Retelling of "The Ballad of Mulan" (Cameron Dokey)  Well written, likable characters, great storyline, but for the length of story it was (not long), there was too much build-up. When it came to the actual getting to the battle and what made her a hero, it felt rushed and hurried. This is my complaint of all Cameron Dokey's novels in this series: too much build-up, rushed climax and ending.
  • *Wildwood Dancing (Juliet Marillier) - This intriguing story is a wonderful blend of several fairy tales (12 Dancing Princesses, The Frog Prince, etc.) and Eastern European legends.

Adult Fiction
  • Gap Creek (Robert Morgan) - Just didn't do it for me.
  • The Hum and the Shiver (Alex Bledsoe) - Interesting modern Appalachian spin on Celtic legends. Just not sure how I feel about it.
  • The Informationist (Taylor Stevens) - Linked to my review.
  • *Sacred Hearts (Sarah Dunant) - Linked to my review.

Adult Non-Fiction
  • Reading For the Love of It: Best Books for Young Readers (Michele Landsberg) - I love her insightful look at so many aspects and issues within children's literature, and I agree with her on so much. So worth the read despite it's age (published in 1986.)
  • The World of Downton Abbey (Jessica Fellowes) - I loved this behind-the-scenes look at the world of BBC's Downton Abbey. A fun peek at history, too. Gorgeous photos and back story, in-depth look at the filming of the show. I'm so enjoying watching it right now.
  • HTML Manual of Style (Larry Aronson) - Marginally helpful. It would have been more helpful if I understood it better; I think I need a "dummy's" version.
  • The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins) - So interesting. He has many valid points, and makes his points very logically and sensibly, but I can see how religious people would be offended by some of what he says. But it's also true that religious people tend to see atheists as amoral at best and immoral at worst, which is just a completely false picture.
  • Things I Learned About My Dad (In Therapy) (essays compiled by Heather Armstrong) - Some interesting essays on fathers; some not so interesting.