Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Sherri L. Smith

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Every last part of it. If you're looking for a great coming-of-age story, a story which deals with a seldom discussed racial issue, a story that shows an oft overlooked part of history, a story with a winsome and believable main character, a story with a hint of romance, a story with lots of adventure, a story with flying and military history--then this is the book for you!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Truth and Story in The Scarlet Pimpernel

(**Warning: spoiler to the Scarlet Pimpernel revealed!**)

Friday night we watched The Scarlet Pimpernel, a 1982 movie (featuring Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour) based on the classic by Baroness Orczy. We had hoped for some good sword fighting and heroic exploits, but as the story progressed, we began to wonder how much our boys would understand about the French reign of terror and the non-graphically depicted guillotine activity.

What bothered my 5-year-old the most was when the Scarlet Pimpernel was led out to be executed by the firing squad while his wife and her brother waited with the villain inside. Since I had read the book and my husband and I had seen the movie some years ago we knew everything would be all right, but how do you convince a little boy who is being carried along by what he sees? Only when Percy reappeared to declare his victory was my son somewhat reassured, but at the end he still expressed his strong preference for the Daffy Duck version of the Scarlet Pumpernickel. We sincerely apologized to him, because we certainly had no intention of upsetting him--but we had known the ending!

As I snuggled our boys in bed, I whispered to them of the cross. “Sweetheart,” I said, “in a story, who is in charge of how things turn out, the author or the character? The author. And who is in charge of the story we’re in? It’s Jesus! The story we are living is all about Him, and He is in charge of everything! When Jesus died on the cross, Satan thought he had triumphed, and was allowed a moment to think he had won—just like Percy, the Scarlet Pimpernel, allowed his enemy a mere moment to revel in his success. But really, Percy was in charge! Jesus was fully in control on the cross, and while Satan thought he had finally defeated God, really he was overwhelmingly conquered. And Jesus, who is both the author and the hero of the story we are living, is bringing us to a joyful ending where we will all live happily ever after, because isn’t that how all the best stories end? The Scarlet Pimpernel is just a little shadow pointing to Jesus Christ.”

What joy to point a little boy to our Hero, that when things seem darkest, it’s not over yet! Our Savior is still in the business of robbing prisons and rescuing His beloved from death sentences, and carrying His beloved home. A satisfying ending that points to the happy ending that awaits us.

Movie cover image from Cover Browser

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Weekly Round-Up: Some Olympics Themed Reading!

The Olympics are just around the corner!! In honor of this favorite sporting event of mine, here are some reading ideas--some are about Olympians and some are about London (past or present). Enjoy these last few weeks of summer with some non-school reading ☺. With the exception of the Dodsworth title, all are middle school friendly and up.

Rush for the Gold: Mystery at the Olympics by John Feinstein is a mystery set at, you guessed it, the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. A very fun read.

Speed to Glory: the Cullen Jones Story is a short, readable biography of Olympian swimmer Cullen Jones. He is on the U.S.A. 2012 Olympics Team, too, and will be racing with his college teammate, the famous Michael Phelps.

Heart of a Champion: the Dominique Dawes Story is a short, readable biography of former Olympian gymnast, part of the famous Magnificent 7 U.S.A. team who won gold in the 2000 Olympics here on U.S. soil.

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd is a part adventure, part mystery set in, of course, London! Nothing to do with the Olympics, per se, but lots to do with London itself and very contemporary.

Dodsworth in London by Tim Egan is an Easy Reader book featuring the intrepid Dodsworth and his faithful duck companion. Nothing to do with the Olympics, but young readers will see lots of familiar London landmarks in the quirky illustrations.

The Official London 2012 Olympics Website also features LOTS of information on the upcoming events in London as well as some great information on past medalists and Olympics history (plus a slew of ever changing photos!).

The Official Olympics Website is also a treasure trove of Olympics-related information to explore. Check it out!

Cover images for books from goodreads and Zondervan; Olympics flag found on Olympic Website; London Image from London2012 Website.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Coming of the Dragon (the Beowulf saga)

The Coming of the Dragon
Rebecca Barnhouse
Random House

I taught portions of Beowulf several times in my few years as a high school English teacher. I often wished for a way to really bring this tale alive for my students--after all, it's got such terrific story elements: heroes, villains, dragons, body parts being ripped off, pagan culture... what's not to like? Even a major villain's mom gets involved.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Speed to Glory: the Cullen Jones Story

Speed to Glory: the Cullen Jones Story
Natalie Davis Miller

As I mentioned in my review of a Dominique Dawes biography, one of the Olympic sports I really enjoy watching is the swimming. Cullen Jones is just that: an Olympic swimmer. In fact, he's on the 2012 U.S.A. Olympic team for the upcoming London Olympics! You might consider this, then, a partial biography of Cullen Jones since his career is very much in progress.

I like what Zondervan seems to be doing in these middle grade biographies: profiling famous people who claim that their faith is important to them. If Jones' and Dawes' biographies are any indication, they are fairly well researched, easy to read, full of extra information on the sport (or career) in question--including nice bibliographies, and seem to cover a wide variety of interests (sports, politics, etc.). Jones, like Dawes, is now involved in reaching out to communities, trying to encourage kids to be more active physically. He is trying to use his gifts for good. He had a unique start to his swimming career (a near drowning at a water park at age 5), but once he got started swimming, he kept it up.

What I am less pleased about in these biographies is the generic quality of the faith of the person in question. There are occasional references to how much the person's "faith" means to them, and in both Dawes' and Jones' backgrounds, there was frequent church attendance, perhaps mention of a conversion experience, and parents who seemed to place a priority on going to church. But there was no mention of Christ nor much text devoted to object of the person's faith.

All in all, this Cullen Jones biography will be an interesting read for those kids interested in swimming (and/or professional athletes), and it will be a "safe" read and a mildly inspiring one. But it will not be terribly inspiring in terms of Christian faith.

Book is on sale now.

Thanks to Zonderkidz (via Netgalley) for the ARC of the book; cover image from Zondervan

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Truth and Story in Easy Readers

Truth and Story in Easy Readers

 Beginning readers are another area, like picture books, in which it's hard to pinpoint Truth as opposed to truth. Even the Story sometimes borders on story. What do we look for in this oh, so important category of literature that, by its very nature, must be rather spare in text?

As we mentioned in our musings over Truth and Story in picture books, there is more involved than a mere break down of "Truth" or "Story," especially in these books for emerging readers.

In perhaps no other category of books is the quality of language and story as important. Why?
  • These are often the first books children remember vividly. 
  • These are the books that help set the tone for the rest of their independent reading adventures. 
  • These books provide the landscape for children's first forays into discovering Truth and Story on their own terms.
Basal readers certainly can have a place in this landscape of easy readers, but please do not let your children spend all their time there. Gaining fluency is very important, and basal readers can aid this development. But by and large, most basal readers are abysmally lacking in "Story." Don't let your child get bored!!! Don't let him or her think that this is what we're all so excited about.

It's like riding a bicycle. At first, you ride a tricycle. Then, you graduate to a "real" bicycle with training wheels. Finally, you start that painful process of riding without training wheels. You can do this entire process in a driveway or parking lot. Or, you can find a bike trail near your house and let your children begin to experience the reward of bike riding--even while using training wheels. The reward is the first real feeling of flying as the new rider picks up speed and sails down a hill. Working hard on those pedals to scale the next hill, feeling the breeze, taking in the scenery. This can be done with training wheels still on. Is it as good as the real deal? No. But it's a very nice teaser to encourage that child--he or she will begin to realize how much more fun bike riding is going to be when they get better at it and that there is a purpose to riding (to get somewhere, to have fun, etc.).

Easy readers are the training wheels in the reading world. Basal readers are the parking lot: highly structured, predictable, and kind of boring. Take your child to the fun trails--the exciting beginning readers at the local library--and let them get a taste of Story, of quality characterization, of the subtleties of plot, of interesting settings, and of variety. The scenery is better, too (the illustrations are half the charm of those quality beginning readers!).

Thus, easy or beginning readers are helping give your child a taste of what's to come when they're independent readers themselves. Let them experience good Story, strong writing, beautiful illustrations even at this training stage. Don't confine them to the parking lot even if you need to start there at first.

We try to review and highlight easy readers on Literaritea that are great literature in beginning reader form (one of the hardest things to achieve!). You may check out those lists, or you can start with one of the series below (listed in no particular order):

Hi! Fly Guy (series; Tedd Arnold; current)
Frog and Toad (series; Arnold Lobel; 1970s)
Elephant and Piggie (series; Mo Willems; current/ongoing)
Mouse and Mole (series; Wong Herbert Yee; current)
Henry and Mudge (series; many others also by Cynthia Rylant; 1990s and on)
Cat in the Hat, Hop on Pop, etc. (Dr. Seuss)

Cover images from goodreads

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Chapter Book Read Alouds

 An ongoing list of our family read alouds (picture books not included--these are primarily text-based with illustrations sprinkled in on occasion). We'll put our kids' ages in parentheses (to the best of our memory). Remember--part of listening as a young child is simply gaining familiarity with words, with the cadence of language, and with basic sentence structure. It's also about developing an appreciation for beautiful language. Our children don't pick up on every little detail, and we're fine with that! But they HAVE sat through these marvelous books....

  • Howard Pyle's Robin Hood
  • Farmer Boy
  • Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (one boy, aged 2-3)
  • LOTS more! But I'll have to let Megan fill these in... ☺

  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (one child, age 4)
  • Charlotte's Web (one child, age 3.5)
  • Little House in the Big Woods (one child, age 4)
  • Little House on the Prairie (one child, age 4?)
  • Mrs. Piggle Wiggle (one child, age 4 or 5?)
  • My Father's Dragon--whole trilogy (three children, ages 3-5)
  • The No. 1 Car Spotter (Atinuke) (three children, ages 4-6)
  • Old Mother West Wind (three children, ages 4-6)
  • Anna Hibiscus (all 4 books) (one child, age 6)
  • Random House Book of Fairy Tales (multiple times; ages 3+)
  • Golden Book of Fairies and Elves (one child, age 4+)
  • Mercy Watson (whole series, twice) (three children, ages 4+)
  • Little House in the Big Woods-again by request of oldest child! (three children, ages 5-6) 
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (again! by request; three children, ages 5-6)
  • James and the Giant Peach (audio book; three children, ages 5-6)
  • Henry Huggins (audio book; twice back to back by request; three children, ages 5-6) 
  • Pinocchio (three children, ages 5-6)
  • Beezus and Ramona (audio book; three children, ages 5-6)
  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (audio book; three children, ages 5-6; the 6-year-old REALLY liked it)
  • Ragweed (audio book; three children, ages 5-6; 6-year-old liked it best) 
  • The Wednesday Witch by Ruth Chew (three children; ages 5-6)
Boxed book set image from goodreads

Monday, July 16, 2012

More Sad News....

Sadly, I just found out about another familiar author's death: Donal Sobol--author of the beloved Encyclopedia Brown books. Just thought I'd let the peanut gallery know. It's been quite a summer.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

And Another Passes...

Earlier this summer, I mourned the deaths of some of my favorite children's authors/illustrators. I'm sad to report that another amazing author has joined their ranks: Else Holmelund Minarik, author of the beloved Little Bear books, died this week. It is interesting to me that both she and Maurice Sendak died this summer.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Afternoon Tea

Megan and I challenged each other to start having afternoon tea on a regular basis with our children. We both enjoy it, and our children do, too...but both of us were having trouble making it a regular part of the routine. I'm not sure how Megan's done this summer, but we are finally settling into a nice routine in this area--one I hope to continue during the school year.

We have our tea snack around 4, when my kids get up from their rest times. This is our only snack for the day. This works for us because we don't eat dinner until around 6:30 or 7:00.

Here's the thing, folks: it's NOT elaborate. Sometimes we make hot tea, sometimes we drink iced tea... and sometimes we have juice or water or milk. I predict some hot chocolate and hot homemade chai in the cooler months ahead. We sit down for about 20 minutes--just enough to chat, take the edge off late afternoon hunger, and rest Mommy's feet.

What do we eat? I've started making things right after lunch that are on the healthier end of the dessert spectrum and/or breakfasty--we eat a small portion for a snack and then we eat the leftovers for breakfast next morning! It's not always homemade, but I do make the tea snack something of a little "treat" in feel. We rarely have dessert after dinner, so this kind of takes that place. The key here is portion control; we don't need to feel full  (after all, I know dinner is coming in a couple of hours ☺). Here are some ideas:
  • coffee cake
  • fruit-based dessert
  • cinnamon graham crackers with cream cheese and a side of fruit
  • cheese, crackers, some fruit
  • French bread spread with nutella and some fruit (this was a BIG hit)
  • muffins with some nuts or fruit on the side
  • quick bread (such as banana or zucchini or pumpkin) with some fruit or nuts 
  • snack cake (many snack cakes are no different than their quick bread relatives in terms of sugar/fat!)
  • rice pudding or bread pudding (using up those leftovers ☺)
What types of foods would you include on this list?

Heart of a Champion: the Dominique Dawes Story

Heart of a Champion: the Dominique Dawes Story
Kim Washburn

The Summer Olympics are just around the corner! Sports enthusiasts everywhere are marking their calendars. One of my favorite events to watch in the Summer Olympics is the gymnastics competition (my other favorites are track-and-field and swimming, just for the record). The gymnasts, though, really seem to defy gravity and the normal bounds of the human body. Dominique Dawes is a gymnast I remember well; she is my age, and she was a remarkable athlete on so many levels.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Betsy's Summer Nonfiction Reads (Weekly Round-up)

Not much reading on the homefront these days. I've been cooking more, working on some heavy duty (and hitherto neglected) cleaning chores, spending some lovely extended evenings with friends, and enjoying play time with the kids. I've also read several interesting nonfiction books this summer--these are slower reads than the middle grades fiction I can whip through, so my "tally" in terms of numbers isn't as high. But since I'm not doing homework this summer (yea!), I've had more brain power to devote to books like these. Here is a snapshot of what I've been reading (in no particular order):

Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne

A GREAT book all the way around as far as encouraging you to reign in commitments, toys, and other cluttering items in your life. While this book is from a secular perspective, I thought it dovetailed nicely with many Christian books I've read on parenting as well. Definitely worth a read--it's nice to have an "expert" be reassuring us we don't have to keep up with the Joneses and have our 4-year-olds competing in soccer, training for a ballet career, or going to extra academic classes to get ahead. It's a good reminder, too, to analyze our house's collection of play equipment, to reevaluate our routines (from food to sleep to general schedule), and to enjoy a little more time with one another.

10 Things Parents Must Teach Their Children by Edith Schaeffer

I've recently reviewed this gem, so I'll do more than to say it's worth reading--whether or not you're a parent!

Calm My Anxious Heart by Linda Dillow

This book has been recommended to me several times over the years when various friends of mine have read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. I finally picked it up--and am glad I did! Dillow, very biblically, explores many issues surrounding contentment, or the lack thereof. Very convicting, even if you think you don't really struggle with contentment (she covers lots of ground here).

Before the Throne of God by Carol J. Ruvolo

I've been reading this for my women's Bible study at church, and it's pretty good. I have mild quibbles with the writing style here and there (I did, also, with Dillow's book). Overall, though, it's very Biblical, and challenges us to pray using Scripture as our base.

Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense by Ellyn Satter

Explores how parents should (but often do not) feed their children, how to encourage children to eat more variety--particularly vegetables, and things like that. Her big push is the division of labor: parents choose when, what, and how to serve food-wise; children choose how much to eat. Much of this book is devoted to infant and toddler feeding needs/strategies/recommendations. I skipped those chapters. Worth reading for those interested in these sorts of things, but I don't 100% agree with everything (isn't that always the case?! ☺).

French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon

Wow! One of my favorite reads this summer (so far ☺). A Canadian woman married to a Frenchman; they decide to spend a year in Brittany near his family and their children are preschool and kindergarten ages. What follows is an unintended expose of some of the poorer North American habits and attitudes towards food (particularly where children are concerned) and a fascinating comparison to the French attitude. Not rocket science, but very interesting and inspiring--in part because it reminded me of the general attitude toward food in Europe and so much of the rest of the world. Let's not focus so much on health, per se, but on enjoying and savoring our food rather than gobbling down "our money's worth" at an all-you-can-eat-buffet, on anticipating the next meal instead of grabbing a mediocre snack to tide us over, and on the social component of eating together.

An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies by Tyler Cowen

Another interesting, albeit slower, read. If you, like me, enjoy reading and discussing food-related issues (everything from finding a good ethnic restaurant to musing over the seeming tension between locavores and big agribusiness to celebrating BBQ to wondering why the American food scene is the way it is...), then you will no doubt find this book interesting. As a former English teacher, I think this book might be easier to listen to; he may write well for an economist but the paucity of punctuation at times and the general writing style sometimes gets on my nerves ☺.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Favorite Reads of 2012--Mid Year Report

Most of these are recent publications; some I have had the privilege to read as Advance Reader's Copies... and let me tell you, August and September are going to be GREAT months if you need to buy something at the bookstore ☺. If I've reviewed them, I've linked to my review. The ones I haven't reviewed yet, I hope to do soon. (If you'd like to see lists/short reviews of everything I read--including the ones I don't bother reviewing on LiterariTea, simply "follow" me or be a "friend" on goodreads--click on the "g" icon in the right margin.) Following my friend Brandy's idea, the * indicates books that are definitely in line for my top 10 regardless of what else I read this year.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Enchantments, Magic, and More This Summer

There are so many wonderful literary adventures that take place during the summer:

Here are two more delightful summer adventures, both of which are classics that often get overlooked. Both involve 4 children (3 girls and a boy), both have inspired other summer adventures (such as those of the aforementioned Pevensies and Penderwicks), and both deal with some sort of magic talisman that doesn't exactly behave the way one might expect....

The Enchanted Castle
E. Nesbit
Puffin (1994)

Nesbit's influence on later writers of children's fantasy cannot be underestimated and, unlike many 100+ year old books, her stories remain quite readable for children today. The Enchanted Castle is a lively romp in which 4 children discover a magic ring, watch the statuary on the castle grounds come alive, and have all sorts of crazy little adventures. Who wouldn't want a summer like that? Delightful, and since the four children are on summer holiday, it fits right in with a bit of hot July read-a-book-on-the-couch-and-daydream weather.

Half Magic
Edward Eager
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (1999)

The four children in Half Magic actually refer to The Enchanted Castle because they are wishing for their own summer break to be more interesting. But they are destined for magical adventures of their own. They discover a magic coin that grants wishes--every child's secret fantasy! Except that their coin turns out to grant only half a wish. And sometimes that half is a bit hard to predict. But the children learn to adapt and have a truly magical summer even if they aren't back in Nesbit's Enchanted Castle like they first wish. Another great pick-me-up for summer's doldrums, especially when that assigned summer reading list looks, well, too much like homework.

Both books appropriate read alouds for elementary; reading level around middle elementary and up.
Cover images from goodreads; books from my local library