Thursday, May 12, 2011

Simple Stories by Kevin Henkes

Megan and I have a mutual fan society for Kevin Henkes. She sent me his Caldecott Kitten's First Full Moon for one of my kids' births (can't remember which!). To date, my children and I have checked out all of his simple stories that we know of. Many of them are quite recent (even published this year or last) and are absolutely perfect for very young children. The mouse books Henkes is well known for (with characters such as Lily and Owen) are perfect for older preschoolers and kindergarten (and up!). The simpler stories have beautiful illustrations with big, bold lines and wonderful use of color, simple texts that are right on a young child's level, and can be read over and over and over....

A Good Day is a delightful tale of a some animals and a little girl who end up having the perfect day despite losing things precious to themselves.

Old Bear follows an old bear through some dreams he has while hibernating and ends with his awakening in the spring (and wondering if he's still dreaming).

Kitten's First Full Moon is a charming tale of a kitten who thinks the moon is a bowl of milk and goes off to find it. He arrives home, dripping wet and scared, only to find... a bowl of milk waiting. Black and white illustrations are second to none.

My Garden is exactly what my daughter would say if she were writing a book about her garden: a jellybean bush, invisible carrots because she doesn't like them, no weeds, chocolate bunnies,.... If you garden at all, you must check this out for your children who often accompany you during gardening chores!

Little White Rabbit is the only one we haven't read yet, but it's on our list!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Get to Know the Charming Penderwick Sisters ASAP

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy
Jeanne Birdsall, author
National Book Award winner

Don't wait to read this gem! Check it out from the library today. It's exactly what the title describes and summer is the perfect time to enjoy it! Or, maybe in the dead of winter when you need a good read to remind you what summer is all about. Or, perhaps when you are bored with all the "deep" and "quality" fiction you are supposed to be reading for school. Or, when you're in bed sick and just need a jolly good read. Or, what about when your children are in need of the next great read aloud. ....

You get the picture? This is a charming, old-fashioned story with none of the "issues" that keep cropping up in recent children's chapter books. No one is seeking reconciliation with a long estranged parent who abandoned them at childhood.* No one is depressed.* No one is caught up in a historical event of any significance. Instead, the four Penderwick sisters and their widowed father are renting a cottage behind a formidable estate for three weeks for their summer vacation. Location? Somewhere in New England. Time period? Modern day--the only reason you know that, however, is because there is the briefest mention of the father's computer when they're packing for their trip. The rest of the book is completely timeless with no descriptions of technology that will in any way date the book for years to come.

It's so refreshing to read well developed characters who know how to have a rollicking good time, bring those around them into their embrace (such as the son of the haughty and stern owner of the estate), and who love each other despite their differences. They have the kind of summer we all want to have--playing outside, mini-adventures that seem monumental in the moment, a first crush. There is no mention of TV, nor is there any self conscious authorial intrusion about the fun they're having without TV in their lives--it's a moot point. I love that.

I look forward to reading more of the Penderwicks. The author has just published the third in the series, and I know our library currently has the second on its shelves. Must stop by before heading out on vacation this weekend; I can't think of a better book to take with me.

*This is actually not entirely true; these issues, however, are not present for one of the Penderwicks themselves, nor do they drive the storyline.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Red Sings From Treetops: a Year in Colors

Red Sings From Treetops: A Year in Colors
Joyce Sidman, author
Pamela Zagarenski, illustrator
Caldecott Honor

This is a beautiful, unique book--one of those picture books that's meant to be studied. The illustrations are mixed media in appearance with lots of little details that flesh out the text. The text is poetic, mixing emotions with colors. You will not see one "red" page followed by a "yellow" page. Instead, each season is presented through a series of color pages that reflect that season. Most colors are repeated, beautifully changing with the seasons. Some seasons have more green, others more white. It comes full circle on the last page as red sings in the treetops again.... Definitely check this one out from your library!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Iced Tea: A Primer and Some Recipes

(Now, hush, y'all--some folks out there really don't know these things, but I'm a'fixin' to cure what ails 'em)

If you walk into most any ol' Southern restaurant--especially a "down home" meat and three type place or a BBQ joint--and order "tea," you will get what we call "Sweet Tea." This is different from "sweetened" tea and, of course, diametrically opposed to "Unsweetened Tea." Despite my Southern roots, I've developed quite a taste for Unsweet Tea, but I always have to specify "Unsweet" and emphasize the "un." Even at MacDonald's, if you don't specify, you will be served a tankard of Sweet Tea.

So, what is the difference between Sweet Tea and sweetened tea? Simple: when you make the tea, you put sugar in it... a LOT of sugar in it.... When it's cooled enough to pour over ice, you have "Sweet Tea." Now, if you merely add a touch of sugar to take the edge off when you first brew it or add sweetener of some kind once the tea is in a glass, you have "sweetened tea." Two very different drinks. If you've never had "Sweet Tea," think of a tea-flavored punch and you'll have it about right.

It's beginning to warm up enough that my afternoon cuppa is too hot. So, I've switched to iced tea. Since I like mine without the Kool-aid effect, I can brew some up in the morning and simply leave it on the counter all day until I'm ready to pour it over ice. (And I always brew mine in a teapot.) I'll let Megan give us a good recipe for Sweet Tea, since her current community is more Southern than is mine. Here are some of my favorite unsweetened iced tea concoctions--try them just once without added sugar! You'll be surprised by how refreshing they are.

(Oh, and be careful when you start talking iced tea with Southerners. Most have an attachment to a particular brand, such as Tetley or Luzianne. I'm a Tetley girl myself.)

Basic Unsweetened Tea
4 tea bags (or 1 family size tea bag--yes, they do make them that big!)
4 cups boiling water

Pour water over tea bags and let steep ~5 minutes. It will be strong, but the ice will help dilute it later.

Slightly Sweetened Tea (my mom's method and what I grew up drinking)
4 tea bags (or 1 family size tea bag)
4 cups boiling water
tablespoon or two of sugar

Pour water over tea bags and let steep ~5 minutes. Add sugar and stir to mix after removing tea bags. This is just sweet enough to take that edge off; most people who like Sweet Tea will still want to add quite a bit of sugar to their glass. We always added a sprig of mint to the actual glass and frequently added lemon or limes to it as well.

Unsweetened Mint Tea (how my mother-in-law makes it--very refreshing!)
4 tea bags (or 1 family size tea bag)
1 peppermint tea bag
4 cups boiling water

Pour water over tea bags and let steep ~5 minutes. Pour over ice when ready. (It's nice to add some sprigs of fresh mint to this)

Another truly delicious, and different, iced tea alternative is Rooibos Tropica tea served over ice. What are your favorite iced tea concoctions?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Beloved Frances Books

"So H--," said I to our four-year-old son one day, "What are some of your favorite books?"

He only paused for a moment. "Frances," he replied.

My husband and I heartily concur. All six Frances books by Russell Hoban easily claim high ranking in our family favorites, and keep improving with better acquaintance. I liked them when I was a child; I love them as an adult! Bedtime, Baby Sister, Bread and Jam, Birthday, Best Friends, Bargain, and even Egg Thoughts (the little known collection of poems) are well-written and insightful. Frances is a believable child, dealing with realistic challenges that are very familiar in our family (extended bedtime, picky eating, sibling rivalry, etc). She is not perfect like present incarnations of Curious George, Clifford and Thomas the Tank Engine (more on that in another post), but her character develops throughout the books in ways that children can identify with. The parents are wise, involved, and have a good relationship with their children (and each other). The songs she invents are witty and open to any tune you want to make up. Many lines in the story are highly quotable. And if you want to plan a picnic, use one of the delightfully elaborate menus described in Bread and Jam or Best Friends! (Both Betsy and I have done this with our then-future spouses.)

There is also a good audio version that H has enjoyed from our library, and as these books have not yet grown tiresome in our house, it is a good option for quiet-time listening.

I highly recommend that you discover or rediscover Frances. You are in for a treat and will not be disappointed!

Karma Wilson again

I heartily concur with Betsy on the recommendation of Karma Wilson...yet perhaps for the first time on our blog, I differ on which of her books our family has loved.

Bear Snores On is truly delightful. I remember H getting teary-eyed when we expressively read how Bear was heartbroken over the party he had almost missed. Personally, I wasn't as impressed with the later stories about Bear and his friends, but this just shows that two hearty readers can disagree. I also really like Mortimer's Christmas (which apparently Betsy didn't), though I haven't read others about Mortimer yet. I do agree that Frog in a Bog is a gem, but Little Pip was not. I also liked Give Thanks to the Lord, an application of one of the Psalms to celebrating Thanksgiving Day with family. These are definitely worth finding at your library, and we have added several of our favorites to our family library.

A Northern Light: not enough Light

A Northern Light
Jennifer Donnelly, author
Printz Honor Book

I love books that draw me into their setting, that showcase women's lives from different times and places. Therefore, I was immediately engrossed in 16-year-old Mattie's life, her motherless family, the 1906 North Woods, and the mysterious letters that fell into her lap. The book alternates between Mattie's memories of the previous spring and her current experience working at a big hotel near her home (the famous murder of Grace Brown is included--happening at Mattie's hotel).

Mattie is one of those word- and book-loving characters who must write. Reminiscent of Anne, Emily, Jo March, and all the other (great!) similar characters who've gone before her, Mattie struggles to find her "voice" and to get to college so that she can really learn how to write. Championed by her single teacher, Mattie has already progressed far beyond most of her peers in her education and is smart enough to get into college. Her best friend is a black boy named Weaver who has similar aspirations.

Her community is a poor, rural community in the North Woods (think, Adirondacks), and that, more than her identity as a woman, is what is holding her back from pursuing her dreams. However, the author doesn't make this point clear. While the poverty surrounding Mattie is undeniable, far more attention is given to what marriage and children will do to Mattie's chances of reading and writing in the future. Courted by a young man who has no interest in anything but farming, raised by a father who must work to survive, and with no older women who take an interest in her other than her school teacher (who is "fast" and not a respected member of the community), Mattie fears she will end up slaving away to serve others and never fulfilling her dreams....

But, in Scripture, aren't we commanded to serve others? I'll be the first to admit that finding time to read and write with young children in the home can be a challenge! And, I obviously have the means to write via a blog; Mattie didn't have enough money to buy paper and a pen, much less have the leisure time to pursue her dreams. But poverty is what was holding her back more than marriage/children/relationships. I found her decision to leave it all behind to pursue her dreams at the end to be a very predictable ending to this very feminist story.

Simply leaving it all to pursue dreams--isn't that what much young adult or coming-of-age fiction is all about? I might have been okay with it if it weren't for the fact that there isn't one single happy marriage portrayed in the book. If there was only one currently married woman who'd taken an interest in Mattie and shown the joy that can come from being a wife/mother. If there was one portrayal of sex (in or out of marriage) that didn't make the woman look like a victim and object of men. If there was one strong male character who wasn't a similar misfit like Mattie.

In short, while the issues in this book exist, there is hope. When God created the world and marriage, he made them good. The fall has polluted everything, but there are still evidences of God's goodness within his created order. The cultural mandate is not drudgery. If the main character is making a choice between relationship and vocation, then at least show us that she's making that choice because she is called to do so, not because she's escaping to the only place where a woman's life can have meaning.

Some Possible Things to Note/Discuss with your YA
  • There is a somewhat brief sex scene; it is a very animalistic encounter viewed accidentally by the main character, so we see it through her shocked eyes and the result is disturbing. It does, however, illustrate that life is not like the movies and that extra marital affairs are devastating to the family.
  • The famous murder in the story is related to a young woman's unplanned (out-of-wedlock) pregnancy. It might provide an interesting discussion jumping off point (this is an actual, historical story).
  • Is Mattie's final choice defensible from Scripture? Why or why not? What would have made it better?
  • What is the view of love and marriage in this book? Is it in accord with Scripture? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever been, or do you know people personally who are, as poor as Mattie? How do you think that would affect your view of the world? How should we present the Gospel to that type of community?
  • Should everyone have the right to get an education? Why or why not? What do you think our role as Christians should be regarding this issue?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Karma Wilson's Bear Books

These are absolutely charming books for toddlers and preschoolers. My children love them. The text is sweet and gentle with a good read aloud rhythm. Topics addressed include fear, sickness, new friends, hibernation--all in the context of loyal friendship. The illustrations match the text nicely. If you're in need of a good toddler/preschool gift, try one of these. At the very least, check one out from your local library. Our first introduction was the book pictured: Bear Feels Scared. We've since read Bear Snores On, Bear Feels Sick, Bear Wants More, and Bear's New Friend. We like them all!

We've also tried some of Wilson's other books--we're not quite as crazy about her Mortimer or Pip books, but they're sweet reads. She's also written a cute story called The Frog in the Bog as well as several delightful interpretations of some Psalms. We've read Give Thanks to the Lord.

So, hurry to your library and get to know Karma Wilson's books! Jane Chapman is the illustrator for her bear books; Wilson's other books have varying illustrators. Remember, the more you check out books from your local library, the more likely they are to stay on the shelves. Librarians will be much less likely to cull frequent check outs the next time they must weed books out. :-)