Saturday, June 25, 2011

Meet Charles and Emma Darwin

Charles and Emma: the Darwins' Leap of Faith
Deborah Heligman
Printz Honor
National Book Award Finalist

This is a very thought-provoking and enjoyable read. It is nonfiction and, while written ostensibly for the young adult crowd, will be enjoyed by older teens and grown-ups alike. Charles and Emma chronicles Charles and Emma Darwin's lives from the point at which he first entertains marriage through to end of Emma's life (she outlives him by a number of years).

Did you know that Emma claimed to be a Christian? Did you know Charles had reservations about publishing such a controversial theory that would cause people (such as his wife) to doubt their faith? Did you know they had 10 children? Did you know he used his observations of his own children to flesh out some of his theories? Did you know he was not the only one thinking through the evolution of different species?

All in all, I think Heligman does a marvelous job with her subject matter. She shows Charles' scientific drive as well as Emma's Christian activities. I think the description of Emma's faith reveals a very Romantic idea: rejection of the vengeful God of the Old Testament and the embracing of the loving God of the New Testament. Nevertheless, she is a faithful church goer her entire life and does not ever fully embrace Charles' theories. Still, she is a faithful editor of all his published works and loving wife. Their marriage and family life is wonderful to read about.

I wish Heligman had offered more on the idea that evolution also requires a leap of faith as well as the allowance that the Christian religion isn't completely without logic/reason. Nevertheless, this is a good read whether you side with Charles in his agnostic evolutionary theory or with Emma in her belief that God did indeed create our marvelous world.

Recommended for older teens and up.

Things to Note/Discuss:
  • How does Heligman treat the "Christian religion"? Is she positive towards it? Does it seem like she understand Christianity?
  • How does Heligman treat the theory of evolution? Does she seem to regard it as fact?
  • Would you want to live in the Darwins' world? What surprises you about their lifestyle? What surprises you about their relationship?
  • Are you comfortable being friends with people who disagree with you? Why or why not? Why is it so hard to be friends with people who might disagree with you?
  • Do you think Emma addresses her concerns about Charles' salvation in a right manner? How does she balance submission to her husband alongside speaking her mind and proclaiming the gospel?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Houndsley and Catina

Houndsley and Catina
James Howe, author
Marie-Louise Gay, illustrator

Houndsley and Catina are best friends (and a dog and cat). Howe does a marvelous job of making Houndsley gentle, but very dog-like, and Catina is very cat-like (at least, what I think of cat-like as being...just a tad uptight and finicky!). Houndsley is a boy, and Catina is a girl. They are true friends in the long line of best friends we've come to know in early chapter books: Frog and Toad, George and Martha,....

These books are quiet books which celebrate friendship. They are a touch ahead of the Frog and Toad reading level and would work well for anyone transitioning from Frog and Toad to early chapter books.

Gay's artwork is charming and provides some delightful enrichment to the text. In one picture, for instance, Catina has come over to Houndsley's for dinner. Nothing is said in the text about the weather, but the illustration shows us a dark, stormy night and Catina's umbrella propped up in the corner--complete with cat head handle.

I've not read all the titles but will list them below. We've enjoyed Houndsley and Catina and The Quiet Time.

  • Houndsley and Catina
  • Houndsley and Catina and the Birthday Surprise
  • Houndsley and Catina Plink and Plunk
  • Houndsley and Catina and the Quiet Time

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Leepike Ridge

Leepike Ridge
N.D. Wilson

What a great story! Suspense, treasure hunting, survival, adventure, caving, intrigue--this is a great read. It is essentially The Odyssey in a different time and place, yet it is its own story as well. I mean, who else has thought of making one of those giant refrigerator box sized pieces of styrofoam become a raft? Or about chaining a house to a giant rock? Or burning crawdad oil to power a torch? The details are spot on.

Great characters, good writing, fantastic setting--Wilson has crafted a terrific first novel. Highly recommended, particularly for middle school boys (although girls--like me!--will also enjoy it).

Things to Note/Discuss--there are a million ways to go here--below are just a few questions to ask if you're trying to get a kid talking about this great book
  • Have you ever been in pitch blackness? What was it like? Do you think you'd be scared?
  • Have you ever thought you might die? Were you scared?
  • Did you recognize the gods/goddesses from The Odyssey in the various characters? Which ones? Were they too obvious or does Wilson do a good job of working them in as characters?
  • What do you think Jeffrey's deal is? Is he in league with the bad guys?
  • What's your favorite part and why?
  • If you had to pick something to eat for 3 years in a row, what would it be? Could you survive by your wits as Reg did?
  • Could you picture the underground tunnels/caves? Can you make a rough map of where Tom and Reg traveled? Did you expect them to end up where they did?

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Folk Keeper Grows Up to Chime

The Folk Keeper
Franny Billingsley
Boston Globe-Hornbook Winner*

Franny Billingsley
Boston Globe-Hornbook Honor*
National Book Award Finalist**

Ten years + lie between these two books, but anyone who has read The Folk Keeper will notice a version of Corinna in Chime's Briony. Chime is getting rave reviews, and with good reason. It is a remarkable book in many ways. The Folk Keeper is, too, and both books share similar heroines and themes. *(edited to add in the BG-HB Awards; the 2011 awards were announced this summer--neat that both books are honored/awarded 10 years apart). **(edited to add the National Book Award information)

These are set in mythic worlds, drawn heavily from the mythology and folklore of the British Isles. The Folk Keeper's setting is more recognizable, complete with the sense of the "Other" (the folk, Selkies, and the like); Chime's setting took some getting used to for me, but people love it: an alternate London/suburb in some nebulously defined past.

Cars Galore!

Cars Galore
Peter Stein, author
Bob Staake, illustrator

This is a terrific book! Illustrations have a colorful, retro feel (as you can tell from the cover) and the text is reminiscent of Dr. Seuss and P.D. Eastman. The cars labeled and described are sometimes hilarious--much like an updated Richard Scarry book might be. Look for it in libraries and bookstores! It's brand, spanking new on the scene (came out this spring). Kids love it.

Recommended for preschool/kindergarten

What Brothers Do Best/What Sisters Do Best

What Brothers Do Best/What Sisters Do Best
Laura Numeroff, author
Lynn Munsinger, illustrator

This book is delightful! It's part of a series (moms/dads, grandpas/grandmas, aunts/uncles), each of which is a flip book that must be flipped over half way through and read again! I've not read the others, but we love this one. Numeroff is the author of the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie books, and Munsinger is the illustrator of the Tacky the Penguin books, so you may recognize their work.

The text is identical for the brother half and the sister half. Animals are used for the siblings, and pairs of same gender siblings are pictured as well as boy/girl siblings. The illustrations do a nice job of showcasing how the brother might help you do something versus a sister helping you do the same thing without making gender differences too pronounced. It's a subtle shift between the two halves, but one which I appreciate. For instance, both brothers and sisters can play pretend with you, but the sister picture shows a big sister dressed up and having a tea party with a younger brother while the big brother picture shows a crazy cowboy roundup!

This book would make a terrific gift for children who have mixed gender siblings. Family affirming, boy/girl affirming, and a great book to share.

Recommended for ages 4-8.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Speak and Listen

Laurie Halse Anderson
Printz Honor

This is an important book--one worth knowing. If you have a middle school or high school student who is in school somewhere (as opposed to being homeschooled), chances are high that he or she will know this book--maybe even be required to read it (it's a popular choice for 8th grade classrooms currently). Reading further will expose you to spoilers--but not to more information than you will guess early on in the book.

So, what is this book about? Why are people talking about it, reading it, assigning it? Because it addresses hard topics in a witty, but no less poignant, way. It is narrated by a 9th grade girl named Melinda who has undergone a traumatic experience the summer before. The novel chronicles her effort to find her voice--literally as well as figuratively--and it is exactly her "voice" that we hear when we read that makes this novel so powerful and endearing, all at the same time.

Melinda has/is:
  • struggling with loneliness
  • offering witty stereotypes of her teachers and fellow students
  • wondering where to sit at lunch
  • depressed
  • unable to talk to her parents or her teachers (literally)
  • frustrated with school
  • misjudged by her peers
  • sarcastic
  • cuts school once or twice
  • cuts herself once or twice
  • has been raped
That lineup may make this book sound dark, but it isn't. It's funny, witty, poignant, tender. There is mention of the rape scene, but it's fairy brief (although no less painful to read). The big reveal of this cause of her isolation/depression doesn't happen until halfway through the book, leaving the reader to identify with her all-too-common 9th grade feelings...they're just amplified by her experience and most readers will guess the truth before she discusses the event. The ending is a bit unrealistic, the art teacher is the good guy (of course!), the metaphors are in your face, but it's worth reading nonetheless.

Kids respond to this book. Anderson has written a moving poem she titled "Listen" in which she compiled fragments of the many letters/emails she's received from people (guys and girls both) who identify with something in Melinda's story. It's worth listening to.

Things to Note/Discuss
  • Melinda labels her teachers with easily recognizable stereotypes. People misjudge Melinda. She misjudges her parents. Andy completely objectified her. We all do this: treat other people as objects instead of subjects. What are some ways you or your friends or family objectify other people? (stereotypes, judging by looks, rejecting/accepting people based on outer characteristics, etc.)
  • How do we/can we treat other people as subjects? As persons, made in the image of God? How does David Petrakis or the art teacher do this in the book? Does Melinda make strides towards this by the end of the book?
  • Melinda is unable to speak at the beginning of the book. Do you think it would have made a difference if her friends had reacted differently to the events at the party? What could they or should they have done?
  • Who are the people in your life who you could talk to about something that is traumatic or troubling?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Olive's Ocean

Olive's Ocean
Kevin Henkes
Newbery Honor

Olive's Ocean is an intriguing book, but I think Henkes' true genius lies in his picture books. Reading a book with only his text just seemed to be missing something!

Overall, I enjoyed this short book. Short chapters, sometimes only a paragraph or two, enhance the flow of the narrative. Henkes captures well the ambivalence middle schoolers often feel towards their parents/families--loving them one minute and hating them or being embarrassed by them the next. He shows Martha learning about herself and her family throughout the book: she begins to see her parents more as people (not merely her parents), learns about boys (think: crush, betrayal, first kiss), gains a closer relationship with her brother, and (my personal favorite) grows much closer to her grandmother, Godbee. One thing that I also appreciate is the portrayal of a family who experiences tension with each other but which is still stable. This is normal and so often absent from books: a mother and father who clearly are a unit/stable, but who do occasionally have tension.* Martha and her brother Vince spit angry comments back and forth on occasion, but they are clearly united nonetheless.

At the opening of the book, we find out that Martha's classmate, Olive, has recently died in a car/bike wreck. No one really knew Olive, but, according to a diary page Olive's mother gives Martha, Olive had thought that Martha was nice. The diary page reveals some striking similarities between Olive and Martha (for instance, they both want(ed) to become writers). This poignant opening overshadows the book and Martha's thoughts while they're on their annual summer vacation at Godbee's house. I thought this added some good depth to the book, but I think the overall tone in the book is too heavy. This adds a little more oomph even to the middle school level boy/girl relationships, making them feel a bit more sexual than any actual words in the text imply. Absolutely nothing more than simple hand holding, a first kiss, and the usual stomach butterflies happens, but somehow the text lends it a bit more weight than necessary. I can't really put my finger on it. There are also a few bad words sprinkled in, but they didn't bother me.

Recommended Age Range: I think 10-12 year old girls would enjoy this most.

Things to Note/Discuss
  • *At one point in the book, the parents are kissing in the kitchen and brother Vince makes a comment to Martha that they are exhibiting "MSB: Morning Sex Behavior." Very little else is said, but this may make some parents uncomfortable and/or want to make sure this book is given to a middle school student, not an elementary school student. I, personally, am glad there's a positive reference to married sexuality instead of all the hype about teen sexuality we usually see!
  • Martha realizes that people can die in a second, that you don't really have a guarantee about the future. Have you ever thought about that? Will your body last forever? (Great tie-in to a children's catechism question here! We have souls as well as bodies and our souls will last forever).
  • Which family member of Martha's do you like the most? Which person in your own family do you feel closest to? How well do you know your grandparents? What can you do to get to know them better?
  • What did you think about Jimmy's treatment of Martha? Did you suspect he was that kind of character from the beginning? Why or why not?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Let's Talk About Sex, Baby..."

If you're from my generation, you are immediately singing along (perhaps aloud?) to a song about which you, no doubt, assured your parents something like the following, "Mom, I'm only listening to the beat!" Believe me, I was one of the "good kids" who rarely pushed the envelope, even as a teen. Yet, when I was a co-sponsor for student council during my second year of teaching, the "StuCo" leaders came to me and my colleague to get their music approved for the upcoming school dance. "Baby Got Back," another familiar song from my high school years, was one of the songs on the list. My colleague and I immediately vetoed it; there was no room for it at our Christian school dance.

"But it's got a great beat!" They protested. "No one's listening to the words."

Without missing a beat (no pun intended), my colleague and I both began singing the song. Our StuCo leaders looked at us in shock. Were these words coming out of our teachers' mouths?! We grinned, and he said, "We just listened to the beat in high school, too." They surrendered.

So, why am I telling you this? Because the appearance of sex in the media, especially that which is targeted towards teens, is nothing new. If your son or daughter has read the book of Genesis, then he or she has been exposed to sex!

It does seem that contemporary literature is more graphic, more descriptive, more forceful in its portrayals of sex. No longer are contemporary authors skirting the issue, implying that a young couple has been experimenting. They are telling us the details of this young couple's experiment.

So, what do you, as a Christian parent and/or teacher, do? Ban all contemporary fiction? Tell your teen to stay away from the teen shelf in the library at all costs? Read everything first? No way. First of all, you can't read everything first--there isn't enough time, especially if your teen is an avid reader. Second, there are some really wonderful authors out there writing right now. Contemporary fiction is eminently relevant to teens, even if it's a contemporary piece of fantasy or historical fiction. People write differently in this age of facebook updates, twitter, texting; text is more sparse, direct, and crafted than it was previously, especially in the age of Dickens--a man who got paid by the word (that explains a lot, doesn't it!?).

Some possible avenues to explore instead:
  1. Talk with your teen--about everything. If he or she doesn't feel like the doors of communication are open, he or she will go elsewhere to discuss. There are some meaty issues here, and the media is addressing them. Will we?
  2. Teach discernment. Ask thought-provoking questions, encourage discussion. I'm hoping to do a short series this summer with more on this, so stay tuned.
  3. Seek out reviews from those who share your worldview and offer some well written books to your teen that help balance what you may view to be unacceptable.
  4. Encourage discussion between your teen and his/her friends--show that books can be discussed, disagreed about, picked apart, and still be "fun."
  5. Don't discuss everything--let your teen start to exercise discernment, to practice before he or she leaves home.

Evaluating Literature from a Christian Perspective: Put on Your Glasses

People have written whole books on this topic--both the whys and hows--so a teeny little blog post will not even make a dent! That's why Megan and I plan to write lots of blog posts about it.... (in all our abundant spare time, of course). We were blessed by the Lord (and I mean that!) in attending Covenant College where our professors constantly challenged us to view the world through the lens of Scripture. Then, we were blessed by the Lord (again, I mean that!) to be able to attend Hollins University together for our MA's in Children's Literature; through that experience, we helped sharpen each other's skills and continue to do so to this day. Since Hollins, we have been blessed by the Lord in being part of communities, both libraries and schools, that supported this type of literary analysis and provided us with extra tools in our tool belt. We hope to share some of this with you through this blog. We are also raising young children (5 and 1 on the way between the 2 of us--all 5 years old and under), loving our husbands, seeking to serve our local congregations, managing our homes.... and this blog must come after those pursuits. Our other contributors have similar home callings.

That being said, I'd like to throw out a few preliminary thoughts. I am taking a Young Adult Resources class this summer as part of my library/information science degree, and I am gaining increased familiarity with both what is available to our young people as well as with how the world thinks about this literature. I've been wrestling with how to look at these books through my Christian "glasses." Everyone has a worldview, and it colors how he or she thinks, acts, interprets, believes--no matter what the stimuli, a worldview (or glasses) is in effect. As believers, we need to be sure that the pair of glasses with which we view the world contains the prescription of the Word of God. And I am struggling with how to apply the Word to some of the books I've read that my colleagues are praising so highly:
  • Am I just being Victorian in my sensibilities?
  • Is there some merit to some of these books despite some of the flaws?
  • How should we be handling some of the hard things in life when they crop up in literature?
  • How much do we describe in the book and how much do we leave to the reader's imagination?
  • Is there any topic off limits?
  • How can we, as Christians, help redeem the image the library world has of us? (Trust me, folks, it ain't pretty! Who do you think has been responsible for (often nastily or seemingly naively) challenging the most books? Even burning books? You guessed it: people who claim to be Christians.)
  • How can we be a light in this dark world?
I hope to explore some of these issues this summer and invite any and all comments from the peanut gallery! Some Scripture came to mind this morning that has direct bearing on these issues, and I'll leave you with them. As I wrote in "Messy Books," I do not think Scripture prohibits us reading books that deal with the sinful side of life, but I think the treatment of that messier side of life should be closely examined.

Romans 12: 2
2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Philippians 4:8
8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Colossians 3:1-4
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

2 Corinthians 10:5
We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
Kate DiCamillo, author
Bagram Ibatoulline, illustrator

I've loved everything I've ever read by Kate DiCamillo, and Edward Tulane is no exception. This story is beautiful and poignant. Her prose is pitch perfect in this story about a proud china rabbit named Edward who learns what it means to love and lose and love again. It's the Velveteen Rabbit for contemporary children, but a completely original story at the same time. (No doubt, the main connection to the Velveteen Rabbit lies in its central character being, well, a rabbit, coupled with the overall poignant tone of the book; the plots are completely different.)

This is a book to read together with a child, savoring the gorgeous illustrations and traveling with Edward Tulane on his truly miraculous journey.

Recommended read aloud to elementary (to fully appreciate this story, kids need to be able to think/feel with the character and appreciate the bittersweet experiences)

Ginger Pye

Ginger Pye
Eleanor Estes
Newbery Medal

Ginger Pye is about a dog (named Ginger) and his family, the Pye family. Jerry (age 10) and Rachel (age 9) are the two children in the family. Along with their father and mother, they also have a cat. Jerry desperately wants a dog, earns enough money in an unexpected way, buys the exact dog he wants (the smartest dog in the world!), trains him, loves him, goes everywhere with him, and... loses him! (Well, Ginger Pye is actually stolen by an Unsavory Character...).

Ginger Pye is one of those rather timeless stories set somewhere during the first half of the 20th century in some middle-America mid-sized town. It's a little Leave-it-to-Beaverish in tone, plot, and setting. It makes a nice pleasant read in a heart warming sort of way.

I doubt that 9 and 10 year olds today who are widely read will enjoy this book as much as former generations because it's such a calm book. That being said, for the right children and in the right setting, it can provide much the same warm fuzzies as the Penderwick children might. The characters are lovable and it will make you wish for the same unfettered childhood that seems to have been the norm back then, but which certainly isn't the norm now!

Moon Over Manifest

Moon Over Manifest
Clare Vanderpool
Newbery Medal

How cool would it be to write your very first book and have it win an award? Well, it happened to Clare Vanderpool. Actually, it happens to a surprising number of folks. That may explain why this book isn't as polished as I felt it could be. Nonetheless, it's an engaging read. I knew it had won the Newbery when I read it, and that always makes me expect to be blown away. Which I wasn't.

Manifest is essentially about a girl who's struggling to understand her roots, get reconnected with her father, and solve a mystery that occurred before her time. It covers both Depression era as well as WWI era. Twelve-year-old Abilene is a likable enough and spunky heroine (she was almost spunky in a cliche-d sort of way). The rest of the cast is also entertaining and fairly well developed. Speakeasies, the KKK, immigration, miners--they all get treatment in this charming story. I found the "Rattler" element a bit distracting and underwhelming, but in general Manifest is a good read.

Recommended: middle-upper elementary school; middle school

Things to Note/Discuss
  • alcohol is definitely present in this story, but the children don't engage in drinking. However, some of the more likable characters do things like run a speakeasy. One thing that comes through in this story, though, is the way we can misjudge other people--they might be caring and self-sacrificing even though they are engaging in an activity of which we don't approve. So, what's our response in that situation?
  • How do people misjudge others in this story?
  • Prejudice against a group of people causes hurt. What are the different groups that get mistreated in this book as a result of prejudice? Did the KKK only target Southern blacks?
  • What would it be like to be an immigrant to another country? What would you miss most from your home/life right now?

Meet Amos!

Amos: The Story of an Old Dog and His Couch
Howie Schneider, author
Susan Seligson, illustrator

My children and I met Amos recently and fell in love. We have an old dog who would love to have an old couch like Amos's. This is a terrific story/read aloud, and preschool/kindergarten children will love it. I liked the use of color in this book; like many older picture books, only certain parts of the images are colored. The colors are perfect, though, and enhance Amos's story quite well. Check this out from your local library this summer, especially if you have an old dog in your life!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mercy Watson: a Porcine Wonder

Meet Mercy Watson: she loves buttered toast, and she's a porcine* wonder. These are wonderful early chapter books. Vibrant illustrations and short chapters full of action make them great choices for read alouds to the preschool or kindergarten crowd who might still be learning how to sit through a chapter book; they also work well for those new to reading chapter books. The text rolls off your tongue, making these easy to read aloud with expression without prior practice. This also makes them good candidates for books that an older sibling (who hasn't had a lot of read-aloud experience) could read to a younger sibling. *Porcine is pronounced 'poor-sine' (long "i")

Each book adds 1 or 2 new characters to the delightful line-up already present. Many make reappearances, especially Mercy's neighbors, sisters Baby and Eugenia Lincoln. DiCamillo has a knack for characterization even given the limited text of this early chapter book. The illustrations flesh out these characters nicely.

One step up from Beginning Readers, they will most likely reside in your library's juvenile section along with Kate DiCamillo's other (longer) charming books (Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn-Dixie, Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,...). All are great read aloud selections, but the Mercy Watson books are particularly fun for the younger crowd. My three will sit through an entire book in one sitting and often beg to take the "pig book" to bed with them. As a matter of fact, we're having buttered toast this morning in honor of Mercy Watson!
  • Mercy Watson to the Rescue
  • Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride
  • Mercy Watson Fights Crime
  • Mercy Watson: Princess in Disguise
  • Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig
  • Mercy Watson: Something Wonky This Way Comes