Friday, June 29, 2012

Hank the Cowdog: Good for Boys?

Hank the Cowdog
John R. Erickson
Puffin Books

Funny ol' Hank the Cowdog. Snarky, deadpan, misunderstood--it's easy to see why folks think this dog's adventures on a Texas Ranch (and told in his voice) are so fun to read.

But the widespread love for Hank, especially among the Christians I know, puzzles me. I'm definitely in the minority here, and I would appreciate readers' comments as to whether you agree with me or not.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Dangerous Journey: The Story of Pilgrim's Progress (+ free download)

The Dangerous Journey: The Story of Pilgrim's Progress
Oliver Hunkin, John Bunyan, and Alan Parry (illustrator)

The Pigrim's Progress is one of those stories that is part of our cultural background--even if you are not a Christian. Granted, Christians place much more emphasis on this story because it is such a good allegory of our Christian journey/faith. Regardless of your perspective, the old, original form of the story can be a challenging read since it is roughly 350 years old.

Enter: The Dangerous Journey. A fully illustrated, abridged version of The Pilgrim's Progress, The Dangerous Journey is approachable for kids but is also a terrific refresher or introduction for adults as well. The story is abridged, but it still is told using the original language.

Want to go through The Dangerous Journey with your family? Check out Redeemed Reader's Children's Guide, available as a free download this week!!

Note for concerned parents: Redeemed Reader recommends this guide for ages 9 and up. I have read The Dangerous Journey with my children (ages 5, 5, and 6), but there are some meaty concepts in this story AND there are some fairly intense images which may frighten young/sensitive children--particularly if they haven't been exposed to much fantasy. I will no doubt revisit it in a few years using the study guide and do more discussion with them; this summer, our church is doing a Dangerous Journey themed program on Wednesday nights, so we've been following along in the book at home.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

10 Things Parents Must Teach Their Children (and Learn For Themselves)

10 Things Parents Must Teach Their Children (and Learn For Themselves)
Edith Schaeffer
Baker Books

I was teaching an early elementary Sunday School class a couple of summers ago, and the curriculum kept featuring quotations from this book in the margin. And the quotations were always so good. I decided the book was worth checking out.

It's taken me a while to read this gem--not because it's hard reading, but because it's thought-provoking and meaty. I didn't want to skim through it, and I was so tired mentally from schoolwork during the school year that I often picked up lighter reading before tackling something like this.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Weekly Roundup: Ballet Books!

If you have a young girl in the house (or have a young niece or granddaughter), chances are good that she will have ballet aspirations at some point. There is something magical about the graceful soaring and big, poofy tutus so prominent in classical ballet. A plethora of "ballet" books are lurking in your local library; some are merely about young girls hoping to be ballerinas and wearing pink tutus. Others actually showcase the ballets themselves. Below are some books in the latter category; while all aren't what I'd term "great literature," they're all fun diversions and are sure to entertain the aspiring ballerinas in your life. My daughter embarks on her third annual ballet camp this coming week (Snow White this time), so these books have been in hot circulation at our house in recent weeks.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Literary Fathers--the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Megan and I have long discussed the absence of good father figures in children's literature. Have you ever noticed this lack? I came up with 10 favorite book moms (and types of book moms) quite easily around Mother's Day. But it's not so easy to do for book dads. Here's a quick snapshot of what we have to work with:

  • Picture books: a smattering of "I love you" type books about Dads-kids (such as Daddy, I Love You), but not a whole lot of picture books actually featuring dads being, well, great dads.
  • Fairy tales and folk tales: oh, boy, folks. Have you ever noticed that, while mothers are strikingly absent and replaced by mean, nasty stepmothers, the dads in fairy tales are downright awful? Beauty's dad bargains away a daughter in return for a safe return home, the miller tells the king his daughter can spin straw into gold, Hansel and Gretel's dad lets his wife talk him into leaving his children in the forest to die,....
  • Middle grade and Young Adult fiction: the dad is usually absent or, in a plot device that occurs far too often for my tastes, we see the dad-who-abandons-his-child-and-she-discovers-herself-in-novel.... (Moon Over Manifest is a recent award-winning example). Or, we have the terrible-dad-who-sticks-around-and-main-character-still-manages-to-discover-himself (like Schmidt's Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now).
Good dads are out there, but they're hard to find, especially in contemporary children's literature. Here is a small list of noteworthy father figures in books for kids--or books which honor the importance a father has in his child's life:

Mr. Penderwick tops our list. If you haven't met the Penderwicks, do so ASAP!  Mr. Penderwick is a widower with four daughters, and he is a great dad. Really--a GREAT dad. He's not perfect, but he comes pretty darn close.

Mr. Weasley. His wife Molly made my top 10 book moms list, and her husband makes this one. Ingenius, brave, devoted to his family--Mr. Weasley is a great example of a book dad who defends his family, works hard at his job, and loves his wife. (Harry Potter Series)

Gen's father in the Queen's Thief Series. He doesn't land in the spotlight too often in these books, but a man who can raise a son like Gen is a man to be admired.

Frank Willis and Henry's father in the 100 Cupboards Series. Their wives also made my top 10 book moms list; these are strong couples indeed. Brave men defending their families, loving their wives, raising their children right, and leading their families and communities well.

Frances's father in the beloved Frances books. Another husband of a mom who made the top 10 list, Frances's father loves her and is an involved dad! I love it.

Matthew Cuthbert, husband of top 10 Marilla Cuthbert. He's an adoptive father, and a terrific one. Gentle and understanding of his Anne, he loves her to pieces.

Easy Reader Dads: interestingly enough, easy reader land is a gold mine of terrific, involved dads! Henry's dad (Henry and Mudge books) and Annie's dad (Annie and Snowball) are both great dads. The dads in Mouse Tales, Oliver the Pig, and other similar tales are clearly involved in their children's lives, too, even if they're not main characters.

Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce is a terrific adventure of a boy who pretends to be a dad in order to go up in a rocket and orbit the moon. In the process, he discovers just how valuable his own father is; the book celebrates dads!

Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri is the reverse of many stories out there for the upper middle grades/YA audience: in it, a boy is dumped back on his father's doorstep and the book show these two strangers getting to know each other again and learning the importance of both having a father and being a father. Neither is perfect, but the importance of an involved father comes through.

Please give us suggestions in the comments of other great books about great dads that you know of--we'd love to discover them. We're particular interested in picture books featuring great dads.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Wednesday Wars

The Wednesday Wars
Gary D. Schmidt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Newbery Honor

Gary D. Schmidt: the man can write. I have his Printz/Newbery Honor book Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy on hold at the library and can't wait to read it. Sometimes it's hard to explain why an author's work is such a pleasure to read. For Schmidt, a few things stand out:

1. Characters: Even the despicable characters (like Holling's dad) are somewhat sympathetic because they're so human. And we feel, really feel, for the Vietnamese girl when she's picked on by people, can remember teachers and school personnel like those in the book, and cheer when Mrs. Baker gets good news about her husband.

2. Less is More: One of the things that sets the great writers apart from the good is the ability to communicate profoundly with few words. Or to resist sensationalizing bits or giving us too much information. For instance, when a grown up swears in this book, Holling might say something like "Mr. --- said, 'Oh.' (Only he didn't really say 'Oh' but it wasn't as good as Shakespeare's curses.)". He refers to his house as The Perfect House with the Perfect Living Room--we don't need to have Schmidt tell us that Holling's parents are trying to keep up appearances. Holling's title for the house sums it up nicely.

3. Voice: This story is so thoroughly from Holling's perspective that we don't even hear his sister named until near the end of the book... and we don't even realize it. She's simply "my sister." The lack of a name is no big deal. (Incidentally, this same thing happened in Okay for Now; in both books, the revelation of the sibling's name indicates the beginning of a new relationship. Subtle, yet profound and unmistakable. And it's a sudden wake up call to hear that sibling's name--the first time you really notice that you never knew his/her name before.)

4. Details: Oh, the details. We're in 1967-8 in this book, yet Schmidt slips in details like "dittoed" worksheets easily and without feeling the need to remind us just what that refers to. Schmidt knows his readers are smarter than that.

5. Complexity: Again, Schmidt is writing to intelligent folks. There is tremendous complexity in this book, layers of characterization, relationships, awakenings, plot, etc. The layers get slowly peeled away, and by the end, we're teary eyed...but in a good way. And we want to stand up and cheer for his protagonists.

6. Grit: Without wallowing in it, Schmidt still manages to communicate some tough stuff: Holling's dad is pretty much a business-comes-first-before-family-kind-of-guy. There are troubles between Holling's parents that come out subtly as the book progresses. Holling's sister runs away. There's a war going on and not everyone is on board with it. They are on board with bomb drills, though. And yet, Schmidt's books are hopeful and life-affirming; life is hard, but there is still hope.

7. Unifying Concept: In Okay for Now, Doug discovers a passion for art and drawing. This passion helps frame quite a bit of the book. For Holling, in The Wednesday Wars, Shakespeare becomes that same passion--albeit despite Holling's initial feelings. We learn some marvelous Shakespearean curses (my favorite being "Toads, beetles, bats!"), see plot developments through plot arcs from Shakespeare, gain insight into characters/relationships/emotions through Shakespearean similarities, and so forth. This is masterfully done and does not feel like Schmidt is trying to "teach" Shakespeare through the book. Rather, Shakespeare becomes the unifying concept, if you will. And this is because it becomes a unifying concept for Holling and we are seeing everything through Holling's eyes.

Recommended for middle grades (Holling's in 7th grade, actually, in the book)
Book from local library; cover image from goodreads

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
Grace Lin
Little, Brown
Newbery Honor (+lots more!)

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon marries a fantastic journey, reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz and other similar tales, with Chinese culture and folklore, and comes up with a unique and wonderful story all its own.* Short chapters, narrative interrupted frequently by stories, beautiful artwork, and charming characters conspire to make this one of the best books I've read this year! I cannot wait to read it to my children. *My children and I are reading Wizard, so that is fresh on my mind!

Minli is the only daughter of two struggling farmers who live at the base of Fruitless Mountain. They are rich in stories, though, as her father tells her stories night after night. One day, Minli decides to seek the Old Man of the Moon and ask how she can change her family's fortune. Many days and adventures later, she finally succeeds in her quest, but she finds the answer to her question in a way she didn't expect. Along the way, she meets countless interesting other characters, learns new stories, and befriends a dragon. In addition, her parents also learn a valuable life lesson. In the end, Minli and her parents have learned thankfulness and contentment. Do their fortunes change as well? You'll have to read it to find out!

Recommended read aloud for elementary students; read independently for upper elementary-middle school. Grace Lin has written a delightful easy reader book, too!

Book from my local library; cover image from goodreads.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Do You Own a Hymnal?

Did you know that you, the average person, can own your own hymnal? They're actually quite reasonable in price. We use the Trinity Hymnal in our church and in our home; GCP (Great Commission Publications) sells them for a mere $17. If you have more than three people in your family, consider buying more than one. If you have a musician in your family, consider buying the spiral-bound edition that will stay open while the person plays. We have several hymnals in our home, including that spiral-bound one.

My husband and I grew up sitting in the church pew every Sunday. (And we still do that!) It is true though, that while we learned many hymns by osmosis, as it were, sitting there in the pew Sunday after Sunday, we have also both invested a large portion of time actively learning the great hymns of the faith. My husband plays both piano and organ and has played for countless church services over the years (currently he plays for our own church's morning worship service every other month). I used to accompany my church's evening worship service with my recorder (yes, I did!); there was a pianist as well and occasionally another recorder player.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Bink and Gollie: Two for One (times two!)

(This is a repost of a review of this book I did back in February... Contents below are identical, but the book comes out this month, so I wanted to draw your attention to it again!)

Bink and Gollie: Two for One
Kate DiCamillo, author
Alison McGhee, author
Tony Fucillo, illustrator

We thoroughly enjoyed Bink and Gollie, and I am delighted to see these friends return in a new set of adventures! Early reader/chapter books really shine when both text and illustrations are at the top of their game; Bink and Gollie books provide a terrific example. Once again, DiCamillo and McGhee have given us funny stores about two devoted friends who have different interests and adventures, but who wind up supporting each other as only best friends can do. And once again, Fucillo's illustrations really steal the show. His use of color, the graphic novel feel of some pages, his use of perspective--perfect.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Teacup History

My mother-in-law has started a very cool teacup collection for my daughter. As a break from book-related posts, I thought I'd share this lovely idea.

In the photo, you will see an assortment of demitasse cups and saucers. Starting with the far left and moving clockwise around, they are (1) my great grandmother's fine china, (2) my grandmother's fine china, (3) one of the patterns from my mother-in-law's side, (4) my mother-in-law's china, (5) another pattern from my mother-in-law's side, and (6) another of my grandmother's. I need to track down my dad's mother's pattern. We also need to round up a cup in my pattern and my mother's. Ebay and Replacements, Ltd. have been the main sources so far.

Pretty neat, isn't it?! Whenever my mother-in-law decides to give these to my daughter, my daughter will have a tangible reflection of the generations of women who have come before her. It's a "teacup history."

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Weekly Round-up: the 1960s for Middle Grades

Times were a'changin' in the 1960s, no doubt about it. And a slew of recent noteworthy historical fiction novels have covered various aspects of this tumultuous time in our country's history; all of the titles below are geared more or less to the middle grades age bracket (5th-8th). I've found all of them in my local library; hopefully you will, too! (It's worth reminding folks of books like The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 that are also good fits for this age group but were published pre-2000.)

Things to Note/Discuss: (these work for most of the books below)
  • as middle grade novels, all novels address a mild coming-of-age in the sense that the main character is learning to stand on his or her own two feet and beginning to see him/herself as separate from parental figures. Parents are still around, but the protagonist is beginning to see them a little more accurately--not merely as "mom" or "dad."
  • All novels below celebrate the triumph of the human spirit and the role humans play in changing history. This is valid to a degree, but it's also important to recognize with your children that the Lord ultimately directs history. 
  • Unless noted below, these novels are middle grades (5th-8th) in terms of maturity of content, length of book/reading level, and issues faced. You might not want to hand some of these to your precocious 3rd grader.
  • Most of these books explore the "biggies" of the 1960's (Communism scares, Cuban Missile Crisis, Civil Rights, Vietnam War)--much to discuss along those lines! In particular, many of these novels examine friendship across party/racial lines, the impact of prejudice on a community, fear (of violence, war, retaliation, etc.), and the question of "who do you trust" (including the gov't). Definitely worth discussing!
The Lions of Little Rock
Kristen Levine

The year after the famous Little Rock Nine. Technically set in 1958, this book has enough relevance to the 1960s that I'm including it here. This is a solid historical fiction offering for the 6th-8th grade crowd, but it's a touch long. Girl protagonist. My friend Brandy wrote an excellent review, so I won't offer more details here.

Dead End in Norvelt
Jack Gantos
2011--Newbery Winner 2012

Small town, "ordinary life," with fear of Commies leaking through.This book won the coveted Newbery, but it's not my favorite of this lineup. Still, it's funny, features a boy protagonist, and isn't too caught up in "fiction for the sake of teaching great historical moments." I've reviewed it more in depth earlier this year. Due to length, primarily, this is probably for the 6th-8th grade audience.

Deborah Wiles

Cuban Missile Crisis. The format of this book sets it apart--scrapbook style featuring newspaper clippings, headlines, ads, etc. from the time period interspersed with chapters of the actual narrative. Girl protagonist who's a bit more "girly" than some of the others on this list. Appropriate for any of the middle grades; scrapbook style may make this an appealing read for reluctant readers.

Glory Be
Augusta Scattergood

1960s small town Mississippi--the summer of the Freedom Riders. Girl protagonist who befriends a Yankee girl; the town pool has been closed because some white folks in the town want to keep it segregated.... The usual Civil Rights issues and tensions, but in a nice, readable story for the younger end of the middle grades spectrum (say, 4th-6th). 3rd graders might enjoy this, too.

One Crazy Summer
Rita Williams Garcia
2010; Newbery Honor, National Book Award Finalist, Scott O'Dell Award (for historical fiction), Coretta Scott King Award, etc.

1960s California and the Black Panthers. I'll admit it: I did NOT like this book. Still, it's won a slew of awards, is nice and short (which is getting hard to find), and is a solid historical fiction offering for the 4th-6th crowd. Girl protagonist.

Okay for Now
Gary Schmidt
2011; National Book Award Finalist

1960s "ordinary life" but the Vietnam War is definitely a part of Doug's experience as he navigates 8th grade in a new town. Companion novel to The Wednesday Wars, it has a slightly "older" feel--perhaps 7th-9th grade. Let me tell you, Schmidt can write. Wow. This book packs a punch and will be worth discussing. It's not always a "fun" read, but it's a GREAT one.

 The Wednesday Wars
Gary Schmidt
2006; 2007 Newbery Honor

One of my faves, this book precedes Okay for Now, and features Holling (and OK4N's Doug as a supporting character) in the 7th grade; 1967-8 and the Vietnam War is overshadowing their normal middle school adventures. A nice Shakespearean touch in this one and FANTASTIC characters. 

Inside Out and Back Again
Thanhha Lai
2011; 2012 Newbery Honor, National Book Award Winner

One of my all-time favorite middle grade novels, this is a novel in verse about a young girl who emigrates from Vietnam to the U.S. (Alabama, actually). Very readable, despite the "verse" element, it's also great for the younger half of the middle grades audience (4th-6th).

Book covers from goodreads

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Junie B. Jones V. Jasper John Dooley (or, the Childish meets the Childlike)

My friends, there is an enormous difference between the childish and the childlike. George MacDonald famously commented that he didn't write for children, but for the childlike (no matter their "age"). I think this is the key ingredient in the children's classics we still read 100 years after their initial publication date, the reason we don't hesitate to hand The Wind in the Willows, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, and others to precocious young readers, as well as the reason why the content such as the "violence" in contemporary books such as Peter Nimble isn't disturbing in the same way violence in A Dragon's Tooth is. The former is "childlike." (The latter isn't "childish", but it's not "childlike" either).

In short, a work that is childlike celebrates the best of childhood with all its presumed innocence, the delight of make believe, the sense of a rollicking good adventure, the enjoyable suspension of disbelief, and the complete lack of grown-up or young adult concerns. There is no worry over who likes whom, do my parents still love me, what is my body doing, is the world falling apart, and the like.

Monday, June 4, 2012

How to tell your child "I Love You"

How do you tell your child "I love you?" Do you borrow someone else's flowery, poetic language day by day? Or is it through the ordinary but special things you do with your child on a regular basis? There is an abundance of books based on the former, a parent's tender love song to his or her child that has been illustrated and published. Some, a very few, are even nicely done. Others make Betsy and me gag (but we won't mention specifics except in private conversation).

Three good examples of Story built around this theme (and which are subtle as opposed to sentimental) come to mind: Where the Wild Things Are, Runaway Bunny and Moon Sandwich Mom. Promising the child that "I'll always be here, always feed you, always love you," these mothers SHOW rather than TELL their love. In Wild Things, the unseen mother is understandably exasperated with her son's behavior and sends him to his room without supper, but when he returns from his adventure, his supper is waiting for him "and it was still hot." You might notice that there's even dessert--what a loving mama!

I like Moon Sandwich Mom because each mother has her own strength and weakness and is loved by her children, but none can substitute for Rafferty's mom. And even though he leaves because she is too busy being creative to play with him, he misses their own unique fun relationship; when he returns, she helps him be creative, too. Rafferty's friends' mothers (how's that for apostrophe and plural use?!) also enjoy their children and their children are happy, so there is no implication that one is better than another.

Runaway Bunny is a classic for good reason. Toddlers and preschoolers are constantly testing boundaries, making sure the rules are the same as they were five minutes ago! Runaway Bunny is full of that gentle reassurance that Mom is there, always loving. And yes, at the end, they enjoy carrots together, so it's both nurturing and nourishing.

The important thread in these three books (and in others) is the relationship between three very different children and their mothers. Are you the perfect parent for your children? Not perfect, but chosen by God to enjoy a relationship with them!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Giveaway Winners Announced and some Weekend Fun

Announcing our first giveaway winners! (Determined through the VERY scientific process of drawing names out of a hat ☺).

Planting a Rainbow goes to "daughtermommie."

Growing Vegetable Soup goes to "Jason Kaiser."

Congratulations!! If you would email me with your snail mail address, we'll be happy to get those out to you! I'm fyona(at)gmail(dot)com.

Second order of business is some weekend fun for you and your kids. Last week we featured an activity to go with some board books. This week, we're bumping it up to those early readers we love. You no doubt remember Green Eggs and Ham from when you were a child yourself, but if you haven't witnessed its enduring magic with a child in your life, make haste to check this book out at the library next time you're there! Perfect for those just starting to read, this book is a delight for children with its silliness, approachable text, and zany illustrations.

And, you might try this delicious "Green Eggs and Ham" recipe when you read the book! One morning, I had some spinach languishing in the fridge, some leftover ham, and some eggs...

And here you go! Green eggs and ham. I accidentally deleted my picture of it; it's more "yellow eggs with flecks of green." The kids eat this--you cannot taste the spinach. Feel free to add in a little cheese, too. That's also yummy.

  • Fresh spinach
  • Ham chunks
  • Eggs

Amounts vary depending on your family. Remember, spinach cooks down quite a bit. Saute a few handfuls of spinach in a tiny amount of water, tossing and turning over, until wilted/cooked (don't cook it to death). Drain well and chop. Add chopped ham and chopped spinach to beaten eggs. Scramble as you would normally.