Aug 20, 2014

The End of the Summer Reading Program

In July, I wrote about the two summer reading programs we were participating in.

I expressed a little disappointment that with three (or four) set prizes, it encouraged my kids to read but not to read more.

But then we went to claim the final prize at the county library (a free book), and all disappointment immediately dissipated.

Last year, I wrote about the final book prize because I was so surprised (and pleased!) when there were dozens of high-quality books to choose from. I didn't think I would write about it again this year because either a) it wouldn't be as good so not worthy of mention or b) it would be as good so I'd basically be repeating myself.

But then we saw the books, and I practically did a little happy dance right there in the library, and I knew I would have to brag about our good fortune.

It was so nice to see such a wide selection: recent titles alongside older ones, award winners and character books (not what I would choose, but I suppose they have their place), easy readers and more sophisticated books. With so many good books out there and such a wide range of book tastes among kids, I was so glad they didn't do what would have probably been the easier thing and restrict the choice to two or three unmemorable books.

The book prize could be claimed anytime during the month of August, so of course (since our charts were already filled up) we went early in the month to capitalize on the best selection.

I may have done a little coaxing to get the boys to stay away from the more commercialized books, but in the end, they were all super happy with their choices.

Aaron selected Barnum's Bones: How Barnum Brown Discovered the Most Famous Dinosaur in the World by Tracey Fern. We had never read it before, but it's the true story of the first Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever discovered. You know how I feel about picture book biographies . . .

Max went with Z is For Moose by Kelly Bingham. I wrote about this book a year and a half ago when the boys and I were making predictions for the 2013 Caldecott. It has remained a favorite ever since, and we're so happy to own our own copy of it now.

Bradley chose Mitchell's License by Hallie Durand. I fully intended to write about this book for Father's Day because it is the sweetest, funniest story about a little boy who gets to "drive" his dad to bed. My boys had forgotten most of it but soon fell in love with it all over again. They started laughing uncontrollably at the part where Mitchell honks his dad's nose. I couldn't even continue reading for a good long while because they were laughing so hard. I'd be happy to read it over and over again just to hear those giggles.

Like last year, I asked one of the librarians to inscribe their names in the front so they could remember the summer when they got these books.

And me? I participated in the adult summer reading program and decided to take home one of my all-time favorite books (but one I didn't own yet), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

P.S. I should mention that the Salt Lake City Library also gave a book to each child, but at the beginning of the program when they signed up. We missed the kickoff day (new baby and all that) so missed the best selection but still found three great books to bring home.

Aug 18, 2014

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

Several years ago I read East by Edith Pattou. Last year I read Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George. Both were retellings of the Nordic legend, "East of the Sun, West of the Moon."

You might think, given its title, that this book would be another retelling of the same tale, but it's not. However, it is beautifully woven into the plot.

Astri's life is hard. Her mother died several years before, and then her father left for America, leaving Astri and her younger sister, Greta, with an aunt and uncle. He promises to send for them when he has earned enough money, but quite some time has gone by without any word from him. Then the aunt decides to sell Astri to the goat man (she's not what you would call kind and nurturing), and that is when life becomes truly unbearable. Gathering all her courage, Astri and Greta set off on a dangerous journey to find America that is "west of the moon."

This is an insanely clever book. It's part folk tale (at the back of the book, Margi Preus lists 14 folk tales that come into play at one point or another), part historical fiction (the diseases and journey by ship are all accurate to the time period), and even (very slightly) part biographical (the story was inspired by Preus' great-great-grandmother). The melding of these various genres was absolutely beautiful.

First, the folk tales. I know I didn't pick up on all the references, but the ones to "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" are pretty obvious, mainly because throughout the story, Astri recounts bits and pieces of the legend and then relates them to her own life. For example, this, in Astri's own words: "When the youngest daughter arrived at the bear's house, it was a castle she found, with many rooms all lit up, rooms gleaming with gold and silver, a table already laid, everything as grand as grand could be . . . Not so for me, for when I come to the lair of Mr. Goat, it is a hovel, and filthy inside." The story wouldn't have been even half as good without the framework of all those old tales holding it up and tying it to the past.

The story is set around 1850. It begins in Norway and ends in America. Astri is an uneducated farm girl and is highly superstitious, but all of her unfounded beliefs actually have logical explanations. For example, there is a girl in the story whose joints and back seem to be curved. Astri is convinced she must be the daughter of a troll, but more likely, she probably is suffering from the long-lasting effects of rickets.

Astri was such a wonderful main character: headstrong and brave and loyal, but she continually doubts herself and is disappointed by her failings. At one point, she steals the goat man's Black Book (among other things). She is convinced the Black Book contains powerful secrets that might help her, but she also worries that it is evil and she belongs to the devil because of it. At one point she says, "It's said that it can be dangerous even just to listen to words from this book . . . But I only want to use it for good! Is it all right to use a bad thing for a good cause?" Her struggle is so real and so admirable.

Although this is a middle-grade novel, I would put it in the upper-age bracket of that category. There were a few intense moments (the goat man forces himself (very briefly) on Astri and then promises that once he marries her there will be no escape; later on, Astri cuts off his fingers when he tries to steal her mother's brooch, and the resulting blood and tetanus are not pretty to behold) that I think warrant a more mature reader.

The book itself (I'm talking about the physical, hardcover, paper pages book) is gorgeous. I want to own it someday just so I can flip through its stunning pages. The first few pages are black with white printing and surrounded by a frame of leaves. I also love the choice of fonts.

Three of my favorite themes from the book can be summed up in these three quotes:
  • "There are more things in heaven and earth than can be dreamed."
  • "It makes me dizzy to consider it, but I feel suddenly how all things are woven together, all things seen and unseen, all things alive now and that once were, for generations back and generations to come, woven of a kind of golden thread . . . "
  • "Oh, it's just a trifle. A trifle here and a trifle there. But as we well know, a trifle can be enough when luck is on your side."
All around it was just a really great book, one that I would definitely recommend to 12-year-old girls, although I think there's definitely enough action (and blood) to keep boys interested as well. And as far as the 2015 Newbery? I guess it's probably obvious I wouldn't be one bit disappointed (or surprised) if this one won.

P.S. I've said before that I don't like to read reviews before writing down my own thoughts, but after I finished writing this, I went over to For Those About to Mock and read Rachael's thoughts. We expressed many of the same sentiments (which must mean it really is a good book), but she did it infinitely better. 

Aug 15, 2014

Road Trip Reading

This morning, we are off for a week-long reunion with my family.

For some of you, the thought of traveling nine hours in a van with four children (including a two-month-old baby) sends you quaking with fear.

But for me? I've been looking forward to this road trip for weeks. Nine hours in the car equates to nine hours of uninterrupted reading time.

Okay, not uninterrupted. Slight exaggeration. Four kids means there are usually multiple interruptions per hour (or per minute, depending on their moods).

But generally, my kids are pretty good travelers (Clark being the wild card--he has not yet been tested on the infamous trek). Of course, it helps that they have a fondness for shows. I'm sure their eyes would stay glued to the screen for the entire nine hours if I let them.

But it won't be just me spending some time with a good book. Here's what we have lined up for the family:

1. The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

2. The Fenway Foul-Up by David Kelly, Afternoon on the Amazon by Mary Pope Osborne, Andrew Lost Under Water by J.C. Greenburg, and My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett

3. Dancing on Broken Glass by Ka Hancock, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman, The Art of Flying by Judy Hoffman, and Things a Little Bird Told Me by Biz Stone

4. Can You See What I See? Treasure Ship, I Spy Spectacular, and Where's Waldo?

5. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards, Henry and Ribsy by Beverly Cleary, and Toy Dance Party by Emily Jenkins

6. Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary and James Herriot's Treasury for Children

I'm usually prone to optimism when it comes to reading (notice the number of books I'm bringing for myself compared with Mike). That, or I like variety.

Oh, and if all my well-laid plans backfire in my face (remember, Clark = wild card), you have my permission to laugh.

Aug 13, 2014

Review x 2: These Happy Golden Years and The First Four Years

I did it. At 29 years old, I finally finished all of the books in the Little House on the Prairie series.

Aside from the last book (which I'll talk about in a moment), it was a wonderful experience, and I've already mentioned several times my deep regret with not reading them when I was younger. (I actually read several of the spinoff series' as a kid (including all eight books in The Days of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Thomas Tedrow), and my mom is baffled (and now I am too) why my enjoyment of those books didn't prompt me to read the books that inspired them.)

Anyway, I'm going to give my boys another year or so and then we'll definitely be reading Farmer Boy. (Remember when I talked about why I wouldn't start with Little House in the Big Woods?)

In a way, it doesn't seem right to review these two particular books together. Even their titles seem to reflect how different they are: These Happy Golden Years (warm, pleasant, joyful); The First Four Years (bleak, unembellished, factual).

These Happy Golden Years recounts Laura's experiences teaching school and being courted by Almanzo Wilder. Every time Almanzo pulled up to the house in his cutter or had to circle the yard because Barnum was too feisty to stop or sang with Laura on the drive home from Singing School, I smiled.

I absolutely loved the chapter where Nellie Oleson hijacked the outings, and Laura gave Almanzo the clear ultimatum that he would have to choose between her or Nellie, and poor Almanzo was just clueless why it was even a problem because he was just letting Nellie come along to be nice and not because he had any intention of courting her.

It was also nice to see Pa prospering and being able to afford such luxuries as an organ and a sewing machine. I loved Mary's visits home from school and seeing how accomplished and confident she became. In every way, this book felt like it should be the final installment in the series.

And that is why The First Four Years just felt wrong to me.

When Laura and Manly get married, Laura agrees to try farming for three years. They experience hailstorms, drought, diphtheria and debt. They think their luck will surely take a turn for the better during the fourth year, but it is even worse: the death of their baby boy, a fire, not being able to prove up on the tree claim, etc.

And while all these things are going on, Pa and Ma, Mary, Carrie, and Grace are glaringly absent. Laura goes home a couple of times, but those visits receive only a brief mention without any of Pa's optimism, Ma's wisdom, or Mary's friendship. I wondered how the hailstorm affected Pa's crops, whether or not Mary moved back home, what Ma said to comfort Laura, but it's almost like she's been abandoned.

It's rather horrible to watch it all unfold, and this quote impacted me, "[Laura] was tired of waiting for the wheel to turn. And the farmers were the ones at the bottom, she didn't care what Manly said. If the weather wasn't right they had nothing, but whether they had anything or not they must find it somehow to pay interest and taxes and a profit to the businessmen in town on everything they bought, and they must buy to live." It just seems so unfair that Manly and Laura could work so hard and still be left with nothing. (And then I read a little about their real lives, and it just depressed me even more--I hate it that their independent spirits were broken to the point that in their later years they became dependent on their daughter, Rose.)

I'm sure there's been much written about whether or not The First Four Years should have ever been published, but my own opinion is that it should not. These Happy Golden Years was published in 1943; The First Four Years was published posthumously in 1971. Laura didn't pass away until 1957, so there was plenty of time for it to be published in her lifetime (since the manuscript appears to be from around 1940). She had already written eight successful novels. If she had wanted it published, it would have been published.

It's not that I have to have a happy ending or that I can't handle reading about hardships or the injustice that sometimes is life. But it makes me angry that Laura didn't get to choose whether or not she wanted to share those experiences with the world. And also that when it was published, they decided to tack it onto the end of a series that was already complete and beautiful as it was.

The one and only reason I'm happy it was published is it's nice to see what Laura's writing was like without any editing from her daughter. But in any case, it doesn't seem like it should have been published as part of the original series. It leads the reader to think it was always meant to go with the other books, and it wasn't.

But despite my strong feelings about the final book, I absolutely loved this series as a whole, with some of the books (Farmer Boy, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie) taking up special residence in my heart. It's crazy how often I think about them during the day (particularly when I'm doing laundry and wishing we only had three outfits per person). I fully expect to enjoy them many more times over the rest of my life.

Tell me about your feelings towards the books. What do you think about The First Four Years? Which one is your favorite book?

Aug 11, 2014

Max's First Book

We hit a milestone last week: Maxwell read his first official book. All by himself.

I say "official" because he's done plenty of reading prior to this: lots of lessons in his reading book, quite a few Bob books, and bits and pieces of other books.

But this book was more than five pages long, was funny and entertaining (no "Pat sat" here), and was checked out from the library. Yep, definitely official.

Erica at What Do We Do All Day recently posted a list of Easy Reader Books That Are Actually Easy. One of the books she mentioned was See Me Run by Paul Meisel. I wasn't familiar with it but judging from her description ("very simple words and lots of repetition"), I thought it might be one Max would be able to read on his own.

So I checked it out. And a few days later, I said, "Max, how would you like to read a real book?" He was eager and willing.

He read. He sounded out words. He looked at the pictures. He giggled. And when he turned the last page and closed the book, he beamed with pride.

That evening, when Mike got home from work, Max rushed to find the book. And then, with that same adorable smile, asked, "Dad, would you like me to read it to you?"

There's no comparison for this kind of confidence. It is its own reward.

P.S. You can probably guess that I'm pretty happy to see that Paul Meisel wrote another similar book called See Me Dig.

P.P.S. When I was taking these pictures to document Max's first real book, Aaron asked, "What was my first book?" I couldn't remember! It made me so sad that I hadn't thought to write it down.

P.P.P.S. What was your child's first book?

Aug 8, 2014

Dangerous by Shannon Hale

When I gave Mike a summary of this book, he said, "I kind of love it that you're reading an alien book."

It's true. This is not my usual book fare. At all.

But I am a devoted Shannon Hale fan. So I figured if she could branch out and write something that's a little out of the box for her, I guess I could branch out and read it.

Maisie Danger Brown's name was a bit of a joke. Her parents were just planning on giving her a middle name of Amalia (after her grandmother), but then they thought about how funny it would be to say, "Danger is my middle name" and have it be true.

But up to this point, Maisie's life has been anything but dangerous; "sheltered" would be a better description. She was born without her right hand, and so her two scientist parents decided to homeschool her. She has no brothers or sisters and, apart from Luther, almost no friends.

But things begin to pick up when she sees an announcement on the back of a cereal box telling about a chance to win a three-week stay at Howell Astronaut Boot Camp. Maisie has always been fascinated by space, so she enters the contest and, of course, wins.

The camp is everything she could have hoped for (even more, since she somehow secured the attention of popular Jonathan Wilder). At the end of the three weeks, it is announced that her team has the highest overall score and therefore wins a chance to fly to the equator and see the launch of the space elevator.

Somehow these five teenagers convince the two directors to allow them to ride to the halfway point where they get implanted with supernatural alien tokens that will help them save the world.

. . . wait, what?

No, seriously, that's what happens. I knew it was going to be science fiction, but I was not prepared for pink floaty aliens.

To be honest, the whole thing started out a little gimmicky for me. A sweepstakes on the back of a cereal box?  (Do 15-year-olds really enter such things? Or only sheltered, nerdy, and homeschooled teenagers?)  A missing right hand? A fast and furious teenage romance?

But I was overlooking all of that until the alien tokens made their appearance, and then I just about walked away right then and there. But this is Shannon Hale we're talking about. And like I said, I'm devoted. So I kept reading.

And you know what, after awhile the missing arm no longer seemed like a contrived weakness. It seemed substantive and believable and, honestly,  pretty awesome.

And after a while longer, the romance hashed itself out and deepened into something that at least somewhat resembled a mature relationship.

And there even came a point when I no longer laughed at the thought of the kind of book I was reading. Who knew aliens and supernatural powers and saving the world could be so gripping?

(However, I never did get over the fact that the whole story began with a cereal sweepstakes.)

As far as I know (and someone correct me if I'm wrong), Dangerous is a standalone novel, which I appreciated more than I can possibly say (and which honestly seems quite unusual for young adult novels these days). I know Shannon Hale originally said it would be a trilogy, but that was back in 2010, and I can't find anything else that concurs with that statement. But regardless of what happens down the road, the book is a complete story in and of itself. And this is one reader who is so grateful to read all of the lead-up, the action, and the resolution in one succinct novel without any of it feeling rushed or brushed over. Well done.

Also, overall it's pretty clean, but surprisingly, I had some issues with that. Maisie and Wilder tread dangerously close to the edge (pun not intended), and if it had been Wilder's decision, they would have gone right over. But Maisie holds her ground and says, "When you kiss me, my brain stops working. I don't want to make a choice without my brain. And if I cease to be rational, then I've lost myself."

In this, and other areas, Maisie showed herself a strong, responsible, and smart heroine. I loved her for it.

But . . .

I have to wonder what message this is sending to teens: you can get this close to the line; you can almost touch it; you just have to stay in control and not lose your head. As if! Maybe some teenagers have that much willpower, but they're not the teens I know.

I guess I was disappointed because I feel like Shannon Hale probably kept it clean on purpose but may still have sent teens a damaging message.

Moving on . . .

Let's talk about the humor in this book, shall we? Given the plot, this could have been a fairly heavy and dark book, and certainly there were some such moments--there were a fair number of deaths and some parts took a rather violent turn. However, Shannon Hale's humor was always lurking just around the corner to lighten up the mood before the next round of action. Here is one of my favorite quotes, taken out of context but still funny I think:
"Day two I was swimming deep, feeling weightless and strange, when I was knocked hard in the side. Silver against black water, a dorsal fin sharp as a blade, it circled and came back. Adrenaline flared in my heart. Shark! Big, toothy, scary shark! Then I remembered who I was. And I ate it."
Another thing I really loved about this book was that it kept me guessing who was (and was not) trustworthy. I hate it when authors introduce a supposedly loyal and kind character (sometimes a mentor, sometimes a friend), and then, bam, at the end they turn out to be the sleezy villain. Not fair. But in this case, there was give and take through the whole book with multiple characters. They would do something honorable and then something disappointing, which made them seem that much more real and also kept me engaged as a reader so that I always felt a little on edge and cautious.

Going into it, I didn't think this would become my favorite Shannon Hale novel, and it's not. But it was funny, fast-paced, and original (all things I've come to expect from her), and so I was not disappointed.

Aug 6, 2014

KidPages: Three Recent Favorites

On the agenda for today: the library. And sadly, it's time to take back several of our recent favorites. So I'm writing about them here so I don't forget about them. Hopefully someday, we can make them permanent members of our collection.


1. Ninja!, Arree Chung
After a little boy puts on his ninja costume, he sneaks and creeps so skillfully he catches his dad completely by surprise. All is going well until he nabs his sister's milk and cookies . . .

My boys are typical boys: they love superheroes. But I . . . do not. Thus, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and all their friends and associates are banned from our house. (We won't talk about Aaron's Spiderman sheets that Mike bought when I wasn't with them. It may or may not still be a point of contention between us.) I know, I'm a controlling mother, and it will probably come back to bite me, but if you can't make the rules when you're the mom, well then, what can you do?

However, this is the kind of superhero book I can handle. For one thing, there's nothing commercial about it. For another, it's about a little boy using his imagination in wild and crazy ways. And for a third, in the end he decides to teach his little sister "the way of the ninja." Nice big brothers are my weakness.

The illustrations are awesome--the perfect blend between reality and fantasy. We see the dramatic light and fire of the boy's imagination alongside ordinary items like a bookcase or kitchen counter. Most of the pages are done in a sort of comic strip style with several images dividing the space. After all the action, the dark page with the mother's pointing finger and the little boy hanging his head in shame is even more dramatic.

My boys love this book. Even before reading it, Bradley was obsessed with pretending to be a ninja (he has the best stance and intense glare). And now, it's like all of their games have been brought to life. Plus, it turns out, the little boy's name is Maxwell. Instant plus.

2. Falling for Rapunzel, Leah Wilcox, illus. Lydia Monks
From ninjas to princesses, this is another recent favorite.

On a bad hair day, Rapunzel lets out a cry of frustration from her tower. A prince who happens to be passing by mistakes it as a cry for help. He calls the familiar line, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Let down your hair." Unfortunately, Rapunzel is a little hard of hearing and the things she throws down grow more and more ridiculous. However, it all works out in the end, but not in the way you might think.

My boys are not usually fans of anything with pink or frills, but this book is hilarious enough to make up for it. The rhymes are catchy and of course perfect for the continual misunderstandings. For example, when the prince asks for twine or a ladder, there are any number of rhyming possibilities. In this case, twine translates to swine, ladder to pancake batter, and the prince's resulting frustration is just too funny.

The art in this book is a mix of paint and paper montage (or something like that . . . I'm not an artist). So, for example, the trees' trunks are drawn while their tops are cutouts of photographs. This is not always my favorite medium, but in this case, it's done very tastefully, and I actually love it.

3. Gaston, Kelly DiPucchio, illus. Christian Robinson
From the beginning, it is obvious that Gaston is not exactly like his sisters. He is bigger, louder, and faster, but he tries his best to be a good poodle. Then one day in the park, they run into a family of bulldogs, and the mothers can tell right away there's been a terrible mistake. Somehow Gaston (a bulldog) ended up in a family of poodles and Antoinette (a poodle) ended up in a family of bulldogs. They switch them back, but the results are disastrous. It seems Gaston and Antoinette were already exactly where they were supposed to be.

I love this book because it is equal parts funny and heartwarming. Having two adopted siblings of my own, I think it is a great reminder that family members don't always have to look exactly like each other in order to belong together.

My favorite part of the book is when we get introduced to the poodle family: Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, Ooh-La-La, and Gaston. And then the reader is asked, "Would you like to see them again?" just in case he missed the noticeable difference between Gaston and his sisters the first time. Later we're introduced to the bulldog family: Rocky, Ricky, Bruno, and Antoinette. Then, we're asked, "Would you like to see them again?" First of all, I love it when a story reaches across the divide and interacts with the reader. And second, I just love saying those names. They are so perfect.

And I'm not the only one who loved the names. A couple days ago, I heard Bradley saying, "Ooh-La-La" (in a prissy voice) "and Gaston" (in a tough voice) over and over and over again. He cracks me up.

Have you found any great picture books lately?
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