Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Drowned Vault (Ashtown Burials, #2)

The Drowned Vault (Ashtown Burials, #2)
N. D. Wilson
Random House

When I get approved for an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) by the publisher and via netgalley, I have precisely 55 days in which to read my electronic copy before the digital rights management stuff kicks in and the book "expires." When this one came through, I quickly had to read the first Ashtown Burials, The Dragon's Tooth. And then I waited until I had about 10 days left.... This book clocks in at about 450 pages. Was I nuts?

Not at all. You see, I read The Drowned Vault, all 450 pages of it, in less than 24 hours. Yes, yes I did. And my husband and kids survived, were fed, clothed, and the kitchen is reasonably clean. Did I do anything else? NO. MUST. KEEP. READING. I knew that would happen and therefore waited until I had a day in which I could safely turn into a reading zombie. ☺

That's the way Wilson's books are. Mesmerizing, gripping, heart-stopping action, delight at all the million literary and cultural allusions he manages to throw out, terrific sibling dynamics, families with rich histories, ... I jumped into all this knowing, knowing full well I tell you, that I would end this book and immediately "need" the third book. Which means I have to wait. (Sigh.) Precisely the reason I didn't read The Dragon's Tooth until I had The Drowned Vault in hand. There will be five in this series, and somehow Wilson manages to both wrap up the storyline from the current book and also leave you totally hanging....

Friday, August 24, 2012

It's Not All Black and White

It's Not All Black and White: 
Multiracial Youth Speak Out
St. Stephen's Community House
Annick Press

This is a fascinating look into the world of those who aren't easily "labeled" as one race or ethnicity. I realized in reading it just how much I think in terms of racial or ethnic categories--not because I'm trying to ostracize one group or favor another, but because it seems easier to lump books and people into particular categories. Maybe it's the teacher and librarian in me who likes to know how to classify a book so that I could fit it into a lesson plan or match it up with a student. But this book shows readers that all is not black and white. There are many people in our country who don't easily fit into one ethnic or racial group.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again
Frank Cottrell Boyce
Joe Berger, illustrator
Candlewick, 2012 (U.S. date)

If you're like me, you can't read that title without beginning to hum the theme song from the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. (which, in my mind, isn't a bad thing ☺). Did you know that there was first a book? Yes, yes there was--written by Ian Fleming.

Did you know, too, that Frank Cottrell Boyce is a master of terrific adventure stories and was given permission from the Ian Fleming estate to continue Chitty's adventures? His stories are very British, are technically fantasy since the events couldn't actually happen, and are exactly the kind of story you wish might really happen. I mean, after all, who wouldn't want to go up in a rocket and see the moon? Or find a million dollars? What about repairing an old camper van only to discover that it can fly and has a mind of its own?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Splendors and Glooms

Splendors and Glooms
Laura Amy Schlitz
2013 Newbery Honor (updated 1/29/13)

In the hands of a talented story teller, a story becomes, well, "more." More what, you ask? Just more--more robust, more gripping, more poignant, more creepy, more beautiful, more evil. This can be good or it can be disturbing, depending on the tale being told. No doubt about it, Laura Amy Schlitz is a gifted story teller. That makes Splendors and Glooms both more splendid and more gloomy than it might have been in less capable hands.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Around the World in 8 Chapter Books

Early chapter books can provide a great window into other cultures for newly independent readers. The books below are all different from each other in terms of cultural background of the protagonists and/or the cultural background of the author. I would love suggestions from readers on others they've read and enjoyed along similar lines. All of these are worth reading; some are better "literature" than others, but all are fun reads.

**A couple of these books are just now coming out; they will take a while to trickle down to your local library, but I know one little girl who will be getting a copy of Lulu come her 7th birthday this October. ☺**

Anna Hibiscus
The No. 1 Car Spotter

I've written about both the Anna Hibiscus books before and The No. 1 Car Spotter. Both are stellar books: great read alouds for the kindergarten age group and great first independent reads. Illustrated, full of real depth, and a fascinating look into contemporary urban Africa (Anna) as well as rural Africa (Car Spotter). This would be a wonderful way to help build an awareness of the fascinating continent of Africa.

Freddie Ramos
Jacqueline Jules

Freddie Ramos is Hispanic, although his Hispanic culture doesn't enter the story much. Still, he uses words like zapatos, lives in an apartment, and in general would fit right in with many Hispanic families who now reside in America. I reviewed the 4th in this series: Freddie Ramos Makes a Splash.

Lulu and the Duck in the Park
Hilary McKay

I wish we had more books like this!! Lulu is a black girl; this series is British. Therefore, there is no real mention of her skin color in the books. The Brits don't seem to have the same issues we do in America with this particular racial tension (black/white). The book is well written (there are more in the series--please, American publishers, bring the rest!), and school age girls will fall in love with Lulu regardless of their own ethnic background.

The No-Dogs-Allowed-Rule
Kashmira Seth

An Indian-American young boy lands on the early chapter book scene. Funny and quirky like so many early chapter book protagonists, this young guy does refer to his family's Indian heritage--particularly in the food scene. A fun introduction to the bi-cultural issues many families in our country face. **Review coming**

The Year of the Dog
Grace Lin

This is a slightly more advanced chapter book than the others on this list; you might save it for the end if you choose to read through these. The protagonist of this book is a young Taiwanese-American girl, and much of the book centers around her developing awareness of both cultures. Like others on this list, this is just the first of a series.

Snake and Lizard
Joy Crowley

Not a book about people, Snake and Lizard is highly entertaining and this duo hails from Australia. A fun introduction to this continent's wildlife, the circle of life is in full force here. Good news for Snake and Lizard fans: there are two in this series...so far.

The White Elephant
Sid Fleischman

Run-Run is a poor young boy in Siam who owns an elephant. He is given the dubious gift of a white elephant from the prince...and you're not allowed to work a white elephant like his other (gray/brown) elephant. Run-run must figure out how to feed this new white elephant in this historical fiction narrative set in Southeast Asia.

What multicultural early chapter books are we missing? 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Lulu: Lulu and the Duck in the Park

Lulu: Lulu and the Duck in the Park
Hilary McKay
Albert Whitman & Company
2012 (published 2011 in the UK)

This is what an early chapter book should be!! Cute story, funny scenes, terrific characters, endearing illustrations sprinkled throughout, and just the right early-elementary-but-not-too-specific-age to relate to lots of young elementary students. It's deceptively difficult to write good early chapter books; you need just the right amount of subtle repetition, just the right level of plot complexity, just the right ... so many things. And yet, it should sound (or read) like an older book in that it should flow, have good characterization, not be trite, etc. etc.

Thankfully, here is a new series from McKay that does all the right things right. Lulu, the title character, loves animals. The book reminds me a touch of Daisy Dawson, but I like this one even better. Lulu's best friend is also her cousin: Mellie. Mellie is terribly absent-minded. The two of them are students together in Class Three, run by the capable-but-not-animal-loving Mrs. Holiday (who is from Scotland--even better!). I'll just say that Lulu's animal love combined with Mellie's absent-mindedness and Mrs. Holiday's capability makes for one fun story. Lots of animals, lots of student antics, and one very cute duckling will make you eager to read the rest of the series (which, hopefully, Albert Whitman & Co. will bring to us soon!).

Clearly, this book has "story" well in hand--McKay is a talented writer and hits perfect pitch for her young audience. The "truth" in this book is in the friendships portrayed and the gentle but accurate look at the foibles of humankind. A winning combination that crops up in so many books for the newly independent reader!

I'm writing this review well in advance of its publication since the ARC I received came in April, and the book won't be out in the US until September (sigh--I'll have to sit on my hands until then!). The good news: the book will be out just in time for me to scoop one up for my daughter's October birthday. It's also a fun back-to-school read.

**Updated 7/25/12 to note that this book also received a star from Horn Book Magazine!

Cover image from Albert Whitman; ARC from netgalley.

Recommended for kindergarten and up (reading level about mid-elementary)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Iced Varietea

Lately we’ve had the happy problem of too many teas in our house.

Yes, yes, it’s true. Some years ago I created a tea menu to list all the varieties in our tea cupboard. I always thought it overwhelming to verbally list all the options for our guests who would quickly lose track of the teas, coffees and hot chocolates, as we turned after dinner choices into almost a course of their own! This tea menu has been regularly updated as our collection grew and became a bit excessive.

It was too much. And I kept buying more.

"Enough!" my poor husband declared, and asked that we not buy any more teas until we had used up what we had.

Use it up,
Wear it out,
Make it do,
Do without.

Thanks to my late grandmother, this has become my mantra lately (echoed by my five-year-old son). But what do you do with endless varieties of random teas in the summertime?

You make the best. iced. teas. ever.

It is SO MUCH FUN to blend your own teas with Exodus 4:2a in mind: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘What do you have in your hand?’”

So here is what I have been doing:

1. Boil a quart of water.

2. In a mason jar, put one family-size teabag (we use Lipton).

3. Add one spoonful (teaspoon or tablespoon, it doesn’t really matter) flavored loose-leaf tea or one individual teabag.

4. Add boiling water and let steep (or ignore it for as long as you want).

5. Strain, using fine mesh sieve, and toss used leaves/bags into compost container.

6. Sweeten as desired (I use a couple tablespoons xylitol for green tea or 3/8 cup sugar for black tea—a little sweeter than I like, but that’s how my husband likes it. Sometimes I cheat and cut back).

7. Pour into half-gallon pitcher and refrigerate.

We have enjoyed some marvelous flavors this way, and using one large teabag really stretches the flavored ones. Right now on my counter I have two jars brewing, one with black tea flavored with jasmine cream, the other green with peppermint leaves and a green citrus small bag. Some of our other favorites include:

  • Teavana Almondina Biscotti (still available, but you have to ask—their Amandine Rose would be similar)
  • Teavana Toasted Nut Brulee
  • Black tea with one Earl Grey (delicious combination!)
  • Black tea with one Constant Comment (a Virginia classic)

Yes, our collection is shrinking to make room for new discoveries and favorites. We still have a long ways to go before I buy new tea, but this practice has been a wonderful opportunity to make the most of the overwhelming selection of flavors, and to really share and enjoy them!

7 Books, 7 Girls, 7 Histories

It's time for school again! I don't know about you, but I learned next to nothing of 20th century American history in school. We barely made it to the World Wars, cruised through those, nodded at the Great Depression, and mentioned the horrors of the Holocaust. And there it ended.

Thankfully, contemporary children's and young adult authors are writing some solid historical fiction that takes place during various 20th century eras. The seven books below all offer terrific windows into their respective time periods, are perfect for the 10-12 year old crowd (and the mature 9-year-old), and all have been published since the year 2000 (and all are available in my local library). They are not "light" reads--mostly due to length; reluctant readers may need some coaxing. But all are worth reading--particularly if you need a bit more understanding of one of the time periods in question. Keep these in mind this school year.

Each book below follows the standard middle grades plot/theme:
  • 10-12 year old protagonist (girls, in this case) learns to accept herself, 
  • learns to love her family even when they embarrass her, 
  • learns how to be a true friend, 
  • begins to wrestle with prejudice/seeing world from other perspectives, 
  • learns that her parents are real people, 
  • and emerges at the end of the book a stronger girl than at the beginning. 

All also are humanistic: during times of great struggle/stress/crisis, the human spirit rises to the occasion, the people band together, and all is okay. Worth noting, especially for those of you wishing to impart a more theologically centered view of history; still, these are excellent portrayals of their various eras and worth reading (and discussing--see below!).

Arranged in order of time period covered.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Liar & Spy

Liar & Spy
Rebecca Stead
Random House

Thankfully, since Rebecca Stead has received a Newbery Honor recently (for When You Reach Me, now on my to-read list for sure!), you can bet this latest book of hers will hit library shelves in reasonably short order. Until that time, you can find it in stores this month (starting today, I believe).

I mention that because this is a terrific little book. So often these days, middle grade fiction runs upward of 250 pages! Not bad if you're a voracious reader, but what if you aren't? What if you don't even like reading?

Than you, Ms. Stead, for giving us a delightful book that clocks in at under 200 pages.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Pinterst Afternoon Tea Board

Check out the new Afternoon Tea Pinterest board!! We haven't made all these delicious looking treats, but they are fun inspiration for anytime you need something to go with a cup of tea, no matter what time of day.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Above World

 Above World (Above World, #1)
Jenn Reese

It is rare that a science fiction middle grades novel is this appealing to both boys and girls (at least, I'm assuming it's equally appealing ☺). This book has the rapid fire pace of a summer blockbuster complete with super cool and over the top special effects; throw in just a teeny bit of very well done first love, marry it to a future post-human society in which all main characters have been genetically modified in order to live in hitherto-inhospitable-to-humans-terrain, and give us some heroes with brave and sacrificial natures, and you have a terrific story. To add to that teaser, let me just say there are warrior mermaids, winged warrior women, tech geeks (both male and female), centaurs, a super villain to make all super villains proud, and some serious messing with the gene pool.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Truth and Story in Fantasy

Some people object to fantasy and fairy tales because they contain magic or are simply not "true." While these forms of literature require discernment like any other, we'd like to point out that the Bible is the greatest model of such imaginative stories. 

Creation, Fall, Redemption.

A princess captured by the enemy and rescued by a prince at great sacrifice to himself; he marries her and they live happily ever after. Isn't this the theme of the book of Revelation, and, indeed, of all of Scripture? This wonderful story is God's idea, and we, His people--His bride, are still hanging out the dragon cave awaiting our great Hero's return so that we can start living happily ever after!

God uses words and pictures in such beautiful ways to reveal Himself, through His Word and Creation; it is our privilege to use them with our children to point out these shadows of His reality. The sun, for instance, reminds us that Jesus is the Light of the world (as my [Megan] sons and I recently learned through My Father's World Kindergarten curriculum). Any book that refers to the sun in story or in pictures is indebted to God for creating the sun and whispers a reminder that "Jesus is the Light of the world."

Like every part of creation, literature belongs to God and we can enjoy it and use it for His glory. Make reading with your children an act of worship, whether in the Bible or simply in the captivating words of a good story well told!

Further Thoughts (in which we wax eloquent and get a bit long-winded on this subject):
Some of the best and most beautiful pictures of spiritual truths have come to us from the pages of a fantasy. Why is this so? Perhaps because when people write about deeply spiritual truths, it often comes across as cheesy or trite--even in the hands of a gifted writer. Extrapolate out the essence, place it in another world, and suddenly it sounds more majestic and captivates our imaginations better. 

Aslan's country might not be the Celestial City, but it surely helps us imagine the awe, the freedom, the eagerness, the glory that awaits us. We can't see demons and angels with our earthly eyes, but reading about a fight between Henry's relatives and the evil forces in the 100 Cupboards books helps us get a feel for what an awesome and terrifying spectacle it would be if our eyes were opened as Elijah's and his servant's. Or, what about the awe at hearing--really hearing--the voice of God and then obeying? Gen certainly feels this on the rooftop in The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia.

Is it okay to read Harry Potter? We have no problems with it. There is ultimate good in those books, and the good soundly trounces the evil. The final book is one of the most redemptive books we've read as characters are revealed for who they truly are, unknown sacrifices come to light, and heroes step forward to lay their lives on the line. Are we going to let our young children read it? No. Not yet--but someday, they will. In contrast to the clear sense of good and evil in Harry Potter, the postmodern ambiguity in the Lemony Snicket series started out humorous and collapsed into an empty fading away, denying the reader any satisfaction of their hopes and speculations. The humor became shallow mockery, and our enthusiastic recommendations for the series sadly lessened.

We use the same standards for fantasy that we use for other works of literature: is sin revealed to be sin/evil? Are the right qualities shown to be right/honorable? Is it redemptive? Are there consequences for disobedience? Are humans shown to be something set apart, a special creation? etc.

There are a host of well written essays (and whole books) written on this subject of the fantastic in the arts as compatible with a Christian world view. Check out Leland Ryken's books (such as The Christian Imagination--a collection of essays edited by Ryken), On Fairy Stories by J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis's collected critical essays, Gene Veith's Reading Between the Lines, and Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water for a start....