Tag Archives: children’s books

October Books

Time for our monthly book roundup. What we’re reading and liking and occasionally not liking at all.

School Read
Old House, New House by Michael Gaughenbaugh

It’s been a few months since I felt a big, strong wow about a nonfiction book we read for school, but I give this book a huge wow. It’s out of print and a little older, but if, for some reason, you decide, as we did, to embark on a study of houses or architecture anything along those lines, then you absolutely must have this book. It tells the imaginary story of a boy whose parents have just purchased a ramshackle Second Empire Victorian in the midwest with the intention to restore it to its former glory. Curious about how houses have changed over time, the narrator reflects on the houses owned by his aunt (a Brooklyn brownstone) and uncle (a San Francisco late Victorian) and cousins (a colonial farmhouse). That leads to a conversation with his grandfather, who grew up in a Sears home and eventually purchased a post-war suburban ranch home. Then with his mother, whose ancestors were from the south and lived in Greek revival plantation style homes. Basically, the whole thing just spirals from there into every sort of house style you can imagine and every relative and ancestor the narrator has seems to live in a different sort of home. All this is explored while his new home is being renovated. The illustrations were incredibly detailed but also accessible to kids. The story is a bit cram everything in, but somehow the book makes it work. I had a slight quibble with the book’s adoration of Victorians and mild disdain for Greek revivals, but I suppose everyone has to have a favorite style. Really a great long form picture book and very worth seeking out.

Audiobook
Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

So, so funny! I had skimmed over it when it first came out and I know what Gaiman’s sense of humor is like, so I knew we would enjoy this one, but the audio version, read by Gaiman himself, was just divine. The story set up is that a boy and his sister are home with their father while their mother is away. There’s no milk in the house, so their father runs to the corner store to get some for their cereal. Returning much later than expected, he begins to tell a whopper of a tale about what took him so long, a story that involves alien invaders, a time traveling dinosaur, and an exploding volcano god, among other things. At end twist and turn, the father makes sure that the kids know that even know he may have been fighting for his life or dangling by a rope, fortunately, the milk was safe in his pocket, though it occasionally emerges to save the day or fulfill a prophesy. The book is incredibly short. We listened to the whole audio version on one field trip to go apple picking (though, to be fair, those apples were really far away) and I don’t think I’ve ever heard this kids more disappointed to finish an audiobook (except for maybe Fake Mustache, which is tied for funniest audiobook ever).

Mushroom’s Read
From Norvelt to Nowhere by Jack Gantos

We adored Gantos’s Dead End in Norvelt, which we listened to on audiobook earlier this year, and we had the great pleasure of seeing Gantos speak at the National Book Festival. However, I have to admit that Mushroom hasn’t just loved this sequel, which he says is slower and not as funny as the first book. Having not read it all myself but having tasted the beginning, I’m finding this hard to believe, but I said I’d be sure to include his take. The first book was a quirky murder mystery. This sequel picks up where the previous book left off on the trail of the murderer. The author’s alter-ego, the narrator of the story, heads out on a road trip with his elderly neighbor to get to Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral and possibly catch the murderer. Even if Mushroom didn’t love it, I may pick up our library copy and finish it myself.

BalletBoy’s Read
P.K. Pinkerton and the Deadly Desperadoes by Caroline Lawrence

BalletBoy really likes to pick out random library books which he judges by the cover. He liked the stylish western cover on this one, so he decided it was the book for him. I have read some of Lawrence’s better known Roman Mysteries, but I haven’t read this one. However, BalletBoy gives it a big thumbs up. He says it was funny and that he liked the mystery element. It’s part of a series that takes place in the old west, following a boy who becomes a detective. In this first book in the series, he is on the run for his life after his parents were killed and must escape from the titular deadly desperadoes, who are after his mother’s only valuable property.

Light Reading
Return to Planet Tad by Tim Carvell

While everyone waited for the new Wimpy Kid, both boys read this book on the side. Mushroom read the first book last month and BalletBoy joined him in reading it this month. It’s in that same snarky Wimpy Kid style with lots of pictures about a typical middle school boy and typical middle school embarrassments and misadventures. The main character, Tad, keeps a blog where he tells his thoughts and jokes. A quick, funny, light read aimed at boys. Yet another I didn’t read myself (this blog post seems full of those this go around) but I heard a lot of the jokes read aloud when someone thought they were really funny. Not high literature, but a good way to pass an evening read for this age.

Farrar’s YA Read
The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey

This is the second book in Yancey’s YA trilogy about an alien invasion on earth. Aliens in ships high above the earth slowly destroy humanity in waves, first knocking out technology, then flooding the coasts and sending a plague. With each successive wave, more people die. When the first book picks up, the aliens seem to have begun the fifth wave, possibly taking human bodies, but what exactly is going on is left somewhat unclear. While it’s an alien tale, the story has a sort of post-apocalyptic zombie feel. This second book didn’t compel me as much as the first book at the start. While the first book stayed for a long time with protagonist Cassie before moving on to just a couple of others, this book jumped around more from the beginning and I admit I didn’t love Ringer’s voice at first and she really dominates this book. However, by the second long chunk of her voice, she began to really grow on me and the ending had me interested again as a potential twist is brought out. What if the aliens aren’t alien at all? Yancey is a great writer who knows how to tell an edge of your seat tale. This is a dark series, even for the dystopian filled YA of these days, but it’s worth reading.

September (and some August) Books

Time for our monthly what’s everyone reading wrap up. Or, honestly, past time. Sometimes I get a little behind!

Audio Book
The Colossus Rises by Peter Lerangis

This is the first book of the Seven Wonders series, which is one of those “If you liked Percy Jackson, try this” sort of series. It’s about four kids who are the descendants of a long gone civilization, but who also carry a mysterious gene that may kill them. A mysterious institute is keeping them captive on a secret island. I wanted something that would be a fun, light car read so we gave it a try. There are some positive points, but mostly we were all very let down. The narration on the audio is fine, but the story is just a mess. There are so many details about this imaginary world of Atlantis, most of which didn’t make enough of an impression on us that we could keep them straight when we needed to. The main characters are mostly flat. There’s a lot of action, but some of it is pretty gross (the combat and mortal peril scenes were just a bit gruesome in places for no apparent reason). The reason that these four kids are being kept by this mysterious institute was simply not believable. It’s supposed to be a mystery, but it didn’t play very well. And finally, worst of all, the book ended mid-action. I don’t mind a cliffhanger, but this was just in the middle of stuff happening. I’ve been trying to teach the kids about how a good story can leave you asking questions, or leave itself open for a sequel, but it has to resolve something in order to be a finished story. This book resolved nothing. Overall, a big thumbs down.

Another Audio Book
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

This series is billed as YA, but there’s not really anything in it that is inappropriate for younger readers. Since we are embarking on a steampunk unit of the kids’ choosing, I got this one on audio for us to enjoy. It’s a complex story in an alternate 1914, where Germany and its allies use “clanker” steam based technology including giant metal walkers, and Britain and its allies use Darwinist based technology by breeding impossible “beasties” that do their work for them. Just like in real history, the two sides are on the brink of war. In Austro-Hungary, Prince Alec flees with his tutors after his father, the archduke, was murdered. In England, Daryn Sharp, a young girl who has disguised herself as a boy to join the military, embarks on a giant airship powered by a sort of floating, hydrogen belching whale. Obviously, the two meet for a giant adventure. The world building is so great in this steampunk adventure. The narration on the audiobook, by Alan Cumming, is also pretty excellent. While I really love this series, I have to admit the kids took forever to warm up to it, but by the time the two characters had met and the action had gotten moving, they were into it.

BalletBoy’s Reading
The Homework Machine by Dan Gutman

Both my boys really love stories about everyday kids, especially when they’re slightly funny or have just a slight touch of magical impossibility. This one fit the bill, and BalletBoy enjoyed it so much that he read it while it wasn’t evening reading time. That’s always a win. It’s the story of a boy who creates a machine to do his homework. Of course, when he shares the secret, that inevitably leads to trouble as the kids using it suddenly receive perfect scores all the time. The book cuts quickly between lots of different perspectives from different sorts of kids. Gutman is a funny writer and I suspect BalletBoy or Mushroom may pick up some other books by him in the near future.

Mushroom’s Light Reading Pile
Frank Einstein and the Anti-Mater Motor by Jon Scieszka
Planet Tad by Tim Carvell
Timmy Failure
 by Stephen Pastis

Mushroom tore through a bunch of light reading books this month, all of them in the same pictures and text mold a la the Wimpy Kid books. I didn’t read any of them so I can’t really evaluate them, but I can tell you he that none of them seem to have been standouts. He finished them all in rapid succession and is on to the sequel to Planet Tad, so I know he didn’t dislike them and in fact he chuckled while reading most of them, but I think they were little more than brain candy. He never wanted to excitedly discuss any of the stories with me the way he does with a more complex book. These are all below his reading level, but he skipped the whole Magic Treehouse chapter book series level so I can see that reading this stuff is probably helping his fluency, which can only be a positive for a slow reader like him. So even if he found them sort of meh, I suspect it was still good for his reading.

Graphic Novel
The Silver Six by AJ Lieberman and Darren Rawlings

The boys got a pile of graphic novels for their birthday and this was one of them. It’s your standard orphan kids save the world in a slightly dystopian future sort of story. I wasn’t a huge fan of the art myself. The machines and future city have a cool look, but there was something unappealing to me about the character art. Sometimes I think the kids just like when a graphic novel is all color, honestly. The story felt a little uneven. Between a corporate plot and a futurist Dickensian orphanage, there’s a lot going on in the story. Still, Mushroom gave it a big thumbs up and BalletBoy started reading it as well. Getting enough graphic novels to satisfy the hungry middle grades reader is always a challenge.

School Reading
Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang

This memoir about the Cultural Revolution in China was a pass back and forth read, with me reading parts aloud and then assigning other chapters. It tells the story of the author’s childhood during the first years of the Cultural Revolution, during which time her father was arrested, her grandmother became increasingly ill, she lost her place in school and experienced terrible bullying for her class status, and her best friend’s grandmother committed suicide. It’s a story told through the eyes of a child who can’t see why any of the terrible things around her are happening. I might have waited on it, but I knew that with putting history studies aside, we wouldn’t be back to this period for awhile and it’s a commonly read fifth grade book, so we dove in. Mushroom found it to be a compelling story, but BalletBoy, who is in a sensitive phase at the moment, found it extremely difficult. I think this type of oppression experienced in communist nations, which was so randomized, felt much more difficult to understand than oppression and conflict over differences of ideology. I think it’s an important book, but I think sixth or seventh grade might have been a better time to read it.

More School Reading
The Middle East: The History, the Cultures, the Conflicts, the Faiths by the editors of TIME Magazine

I had to really scour to find something to wrap up our history studies with a look at the Middle East, a part of the world, I’m sad to say we didn’t spend much time on after the Ottoman Empire. I wanted a resource that would be right for upper elementary and middle school and wasn’t too biased. In the end, I was pretty happy with this one. It’s a glossy book not necessarily intended for kids, but rather as an introduction for anyone. Most pages have color photos that take up the whole page with a short text. The book starts with a series of quick looks at the issues. Just a paragraph and an image worth discussing. Then there are some summaries of history and conflicts in the form of a chronology. Finally, there’s a section with brief questions. Can Israel be accepted? Can Iraq be stabilized? The book is, like any book about this region, already out of date at just a few years old. However, I liked both the opening images and the final questions sections a lot as discussion starters, so I definitely recommend it to others looking for a good overview resource. In the end, we weren’t able to finish reading the parts I wanted to read. BalletBoy, having heard just a little bit about the current conflicts in Gaza and then in Syria and Iraq, found it too distressing. The fact that these conflicts were ongoing and very present on the news made them much harder to learn about, even in an historical context without too many details.

Our Best Loved History Resources

As I explained (or, you know, shamelessly bragged out) in my last post, we finished all the history recently. I wanted to make a list of the big resources we loved most over the last five years.

Story of the World
This series of classical history books for elementary school often takes flack from all sides. To Christian homeschoolers, it’s not religious enough. To secular types, it’s too religious. I have to admit that I have been disillusioned with it at many points on our journey, in particular the way it began to feel disjointed and left out any inkling of social history to the point that even the social structure of the middle ages and the rise of towns was omitted. It stopped being our primary resource a long time ago, but it has stuck around as one of the only solid books with any level of worldwide scope and we have turned back to it again and again for individual chapters about topics that had precious few books for this age range. So while I’m critical of many aspects of this series, in the end, it has been extremely valuable for us.

Builders of the Old World
I so wish we had discovered this book a little sooner. And a part of me wishes we were embarking on a second history cycle now so we could use it again and really get more out of it. This vintage text covers the earliest civilizations through the dawn of the Enlightenment with solid writing and loads of social history. It really gives a sense of the sweep of history. It’s a solidly western civilizations perspective, so it can’t be the only resource since the history of the Americas, Africa, and Asia get only cursory attention, but for anyone looking for an old fashioned text without too much of the vintage text baggage that often comes with older books, this one is a real gem.

The American Story Series
This series of long form picture books by the Maestros is a real gem. They’re both in depth and accessible to younger children. The illustrations are rich and beautiful and the Maestros do such a good job of covering early American history. If only they would hurry up and make more! This series became our US history spine for the period that it covered. It’s perfect for doing American history for elementary schoolers.

Liberty’s Kids
This cartoon about a motley group of kids working for Benjamin Franklin’s printshop during the American Revolution is surprisingly good. Different perspectives are worked into the story lines and most of the major events and issues of the time are explored. It bends credulity a little for the imaginary heroes to have met every famous figure of the age and a few things seem to have been rearranged for the sake of the show’s chronology. Still, one of the best resources out there for American history.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles
This series, which is on Netflix streaming, first follows elementary aged Indy as he travels around the world with his parents and tutor, digging up Egyptian artifacts with Howard Carter, seeing Theodore Roosevelt on safari, and wandering the Russian countryside with Tolstoy. The second part follows a teenage Indy as he joins the Mexican Revolution, then the Belgian army, then becomes a spy for the French during World War I. The historical figures and locations covered will make a lot of parents even need to check their references. It’s a pretty amazing resource for studying the first twenty years of the twentieth century. Parents should note that there’s nothing inappropriate in the younger series, but teenage Indy flits from romance to romance and there are several scenes where sex is strongly implied. I was okay with it for my kids, but other parents may want to preview.

USKids History from Brown Paper Schoolbag
This series of history books, which goes through the end of the Civil War, is a really great supplementary resource. Each book includes projects and text which tells lesser known historical stories and snippets of historical fiction to help students picture the time period. They’re really focused on social history, but grounded in the details of individuals. They do a really good job of show diversity as well. This was one of my favorite resources for US history.

David Macaulay’s Buildings Series
These books are such a great, detailed look at architecture and building. I especially loved the Roman town one and the kids enjoyed the Castle one, for which we watched the animated video that was made for PBS many years ago. Reading the one about the Mill was also a fascinating little look at how industrialization changed over time. The drawings are so incredibly detailed and the stories that go along with each book helps it feel like a little slice of history, even though it’s a fiction.

David Adler’s A Picture Book Biography Series
These are mostly US history centric and there were so many great American history biographers and series that we used that it was hard to choose just one. However, the number of titles and the consistent quality of this series made it really valuable for us. The illustrations are a bit simple by today’s flashy picture book biography standards (that’s a funny sentence, but really, it’s true that there are a lot more stylized biographies out there now!) but I think their simplicity also made them more approachable. There was something almost magical about the text of these that I could never pinpoint that somehow helped the kids remember details better than from seemingly any other nonfiction resource.

History Activity Books
This one is a bit of a cheat, but it’s true that these were one of our most valuable resources. There are several different publishers of activity books for history. We especially liked three different series: the A Kid’s Guide series by Laurie Carlson, the Amazing Projects You Can Build Yourself series, and the Kaleidoscope Kids series. However, there are several others, including a second imprint by the Kid’s Guide series publisher that covers many more topics. One of the secret things about these books was that they usually had excellent, succinct text that covered their subjects. Often, having just read about ancient Greece in Story of the World or Leonardo da Vinci in an excellent picture book biography, we didn’t need that text. However, occasionally, such as for the Industrial Revolution, we really did. I think our all time favorite was Amazing Leonardo da Vinci Projects You Can Build Yourself.

Field Trips
Another cheat, but there was no one field trip that really helped us. However, whenever there was a field trip available for a topic, we always took it. The year we did American history, we took dozens of field trips, taking advantage of life in Washington by seeing Lincoln’s cottage, Washington’s home, Jefferson’s home, Madison’s home, the battlefield at Manassas, and countless other spots. However, we’ve also used art museums, archaeological sites, historical re-enactments, and many other places. Actually being in a place that witnessed history, or seeing the real artifacts, or interacting with historical re-enactors all helped the kids much more than any book to remember and enjoy history.

Historical Fiction
My final cheat, but again there’s no one book that helped us in our history journey, but rather just consistently reading historical fiction helped us to see different perspectives, learn about everyday life in different times, and put ourselves into the time periods we studied. I know historical fiction has a bad rap in some quarters for often being not true to the time periods portrayed, and that’s definitely a consideration, but from Magic Treehouse to Number the Stars, historical fiction has made history go down easy here at the rowhouse and much of it has been great literature to boot.

Solace from Books

I almost never write about current events or politics here.  However, I have been feeling really helpless watching current events these days.  From Ukraine to Israel to Liberia to Iraq, the world has just been a harsh place this summer it seems.  I think I’ve been saddened most by events here in the U.S., where in Ferguson, MO, police shot and killed an unarmed African-American teen, then responded with what most people feel was an overly militaristic, antagonistic response to protesters and looters.

Like I said, I feel powerless and angry about all this.  Sometimes, this country is not the country I want it to be, the country I believe it can be.  One of the only things, honestly, that I feel I can do is raise children who think about these issues, who question the status quo, who recognize their own privilege as white men and do their best to remember that in their dealings with others.

Since children’s books are where I tend to find my grounding, I’ll throw out there the one thing I know a lot about and tell you that the book that sparked the best conversations about race in our house was, hands down, One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams.  I have tried to bring diversity to the children’s literature we read – diversity in race, in culture, in geography, and in class.  We’ve read many great books about the African-American experience over the years, but that’s the book that really made my kids question how life is different when you’re black in this country.

One Crazy Summer, which won a Newbery Honor, takes place in 1968.  It tells the story of three sisters who travel from New York, where they live with their father and grandmother, to Oakland, to meet a mother they hardly know.  While there, they attend the Black Panther summer camp and free breakfast program and grow up a little.  They get to know their mother, a poet who runs a small press that prints flyers and newsletters to support the Panthers.

The first piece of the conversation that arose in our house came when the girls’ grandmother extols them to behave themselves on the plane.  If they misbehave, they’ll create a “Grand Negro Spectacle,” something the narrator, Delphine, realizes will reflect poorly on every black person.  “What does that have to do with being black?” my kids both wanted to know.  “Why would that mean other black people were bad?”  Then later, when the youngest sister is shamed for having a white doll, again the boys wanted to understand.  Why would that be a problem?  Why wouldn’t she have a black doll?  Several times in the story, well meaning white people try to give the girls small treats or attention, but Delphine learns from her mother why she should reject these and refuse to perform for others.  Again, the boys wanted to know, “What does that have to do with being black?”  These questions and the elements of the story went beyond simple discrimination to a much more subtle type of racism, but in a way that the boys could begin to think about.

Being white means all of these experiences were foreign to my kids.  They don’t know what it’s like to be a representative of your race, to not having the option to have a book or a toy that represents your skin tone, to have strangers assume you will be cute for them if they give you a piece of candy or a dollar.  Many of the other elements of the book – the sibling rivalry, struggling to make new friends at the summer camp, the joy of riding an airplane or visiting places on your own – were much more relatable to my kids.  The language in the book, filled with great metaphors and strong images, was beautiful and we all enjoyed the story and the relationships.

Literature opens the door to helping you see beyond your own experience in a way that so few things can.  It’s an imperfect door, of course, but it’s the best way I know to start conversations, to present moral questions, to get kids outside their own heads.  This book did it brilliantly and in a way that I hope stays with my boys as they grow up.  I hope it, and others we’ve read, plant seeds to help them think beyond their own lives to the lives of others.  It’s such a little thing, but it’s one of the few things I feel like I can do right now.

 

Summer Books

I’ve fallen behind on the book posts, so I thought I’d do a round up of some of our collective summer reads.  Summer isn’t quite over, but it’s winding down, library summer reading sheets have been turned in, vacations are coming to a close, and in some crazy corners of the world, kids have even started back to school already.

RevolutionRead Aloud
Revolution by Deborah Wiles
We loved Wiles’s Countdown so much that we immediately picked up Revolution when it came out earlier in the summer.  It’s the second book in her 60′s trilogy.  The first took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  This one took place during Freedom Summer in Mississippi.  A minor character connected the two books, but mostly they stand on their own.  Both books contain documentary images and quotes from the time period, as well as mini-essays about people and events, all of which contextualize the story and ground it in history.  It’s a great format and I especially loved the song lyrics that ran throughout the documentary images in Revolution.  Since we were reading it aloud, I sometimes pulled up audio of the songs to pepper the background as I read these in between documentary sections.  The story is told mostly from the perspective of Sunny, a 12 year old white girl in Greenwood, Mississippi, who is struggling with her new step-mother and step-siblings, and her missing mother.  She latches on to an unexpected mother figure in one of the Freedom Summer volunteers who arrive to try and help blacks register to vote.  Some chapters are told in the voice of Ray, a black boy she happens to meet early in the story.  Others are in third person but focus on Sunny’s father or step-brother.  Mostly I loved the book.  All the characters are well drawn and the ways in which each one approaches integration is nuanced and helps give a snapshot of different attitudes.  However, while the boys liked the book, they did not enjoy it nearly as much as Countdown, mostly because that cast of characters was overwhelmingly large.  When coupled with all that detailed history, it was a difficult listen for them.  As well, all of us felt that Sunny’s latching on to the Freedom Summer volunteers felt slightly forced.  They weren’t bothered by the changing voices, but I found it somewhat jarring, though I did appreciate how it gave the reader a different look at Mississippi than only Sunny’s voice could give.  Despite those reservations, I really recommend the book and I’m already looking forward to see what happens in the final novel.

Dead End in NorveltAudio Book
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
This audiobook was greatly enjoyed.  It continued our 60′s book obsession, though honestly, it wasn’t much about the time period.  The autobiographically inspired story is about Jack, a kid with a perpetual nosebleed, who gets in trouble at the start of summer and ends up grounded for the whole time, meaning no baseball games, no outings, and generally no fun.  Fortunately, his elderly neighbor, one of the town’s original residents, recruits him to type the obituaries she writes for the paper, allowing him a way to escape the house and the unending hole he’s been tasked to dig.  She’s gleeful every time someone dies so she can investigate the death and write the obituary.  As the story unfolds, it becomes a mystery.  What exactly was happening to the town’s original residents that’s leading them to die off so quickly?  Was it Jack’s neighbor, her unlucky suitor, the Hell’s Angels, or someone else killing them off?  This book of misadventures had us in stitches.  The author does the narration, which we didn’t adore at the start, but as the story went on, we slowly got into his reading style.

Savage Shapes (Murderous Maths)School Read
Savage Shapes by Kjartan Poskitt
This entry into the Murderous Maths series turned out to be a really great read, though it took us awhile to get through it.  I often see Murderous Maths books recommended for younger kids and the first couple of books, about arithmetic and measuring, are pretty accessible to elementary school.  However, I would be hesitant to read most of them before about fifth grade level math.  The concepts in this book are actually pretty difficult.  It covers the properties and types of triangles in ways that is far and above what most kids would cover in elementary school.  It also introduces geometric proofs and a number of concepts with circles, as well as three dimensional solids.  There were a number of points where the book asked the reader to take out paper and pencil (and, often, a compass) and try something to show that it worked.  We did most of these and it really livened up the book.  This was definitely my favorite of the Murderous Maths books we’ve tackled, but it also gave me pause about trying to go too fast with them, since the math they cover does get pretty complex.

The Lemonade WarBalletBoy’s Read
The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies
BalletBoy latched on to this light, easy series about two squabbling siblings and their various adventures.  The first volume is about lemonade stands and business, which was a topic right up BalletBoy’s alley.  He wishes he could launch a more successful lemonade stand and has tried a few times to get things off the ground.  The next was about a classroom crime and punishment.  He just finished up the third book, which takes the characters away to their grandparents’ house for vacation, where they solve a mystery involving a missing bell.  Neither Mushroom nor BalletBoy tend to read past the first book in a series, especially not without a break in between, so it’s definitely a mark of enjoyment that he read three in a row.

11 Birthdays (Willow Falls, #1)Mushroom’s Read
11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass
I love Wendy Mass and was happy when Mushroom agreed to give this Groundhog Day like story a try.  It’s the first in Mass’s Birthdays series and I definitely like it best.  In it, two longtime friends who have always celebrated their birthday together end up repeating their eleventh birthday over and over during the year they’ve had a falling out.  Like most of Mass’s work, it’s a sweet story about growing up.  I had forgotten how much boy girl “stuff” permeates the book, but Mushroom wasn’t bothered by it.  The book was the exact right mix of everyday kid and slightly magical twist for his taste.

NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society (NERDS, #1)Mushroom’s Other Read
N.E.R.D.S. by Michael Buckley
Mushroom dove into this funny book for his pleasure read earlier this summer and he really enjoyed it.  I had been after him to read it for awhile because I was sure he’d enjoy it, but the thickness of the book kept intimidating him.  While the pages were formatted such that the length was a little misleading, it was still a sign of how much he’s grown as a reader just in the last six months or so that he decided it was time to pick it up and give it a try.  If you don’t know the series, it’s about a group of kids recruited to spy for a secret agency, turning their nerdy attributes into superpowers with the help of high tech spy gear.  They fight the sort of evil masterminds you would expect in this sort of series.  It’s a fun, light read and hopefully Mushroom will pick up the next installments as well.

Star Wars: Jedi Academy, Return of the Padawan (Book 2)Devoured Read
Jedi Academy: Return of the Padawan by Jeffery Brown
Don’t get me wrong.  Both Mushroom and BalletBoy enjoy reading and enjoy good books.  However, they don’t tend to choose reading as their first choice of activities.  They do it when they’re caught alone in the mornings without their twin or when it’s bedtime and they have their hour of mandated reading.  However, there are a few exceptions to this, including the Wimpy Kid books and the Origami Yoda series.  And now…  this Wimpy Kid-esque series that takes place in the Star Wars universe.  This is the second volume and continues the adventures of Roan, who gets to begin his pilot training in this book.  The boys fought over the single copy we had and BalletBoy, the faster reader, won out.  Mushroom is happily working his way through it now.

Farrar’s Read
The Daydreamer by Ian McEwan
A search for short stories appropriate for fifth graders led me to this collection by McEwan, who is much better known for his adult work, in particular Atonement, which was made into a movie.  I had read some of his books so it was with a little suspicion of whether it would be just right that I picked up this collection.  However, it’s delightful and totally right for upper elementary or middle school kids.  Sometimes when adult writers write for children, the stories miss the mark by being too simplistic or too complex, but McEwan doesn’t dumb down the language yet also makes the stories accessible.  The main character, Peter, is a daydreamer who is always imagining stranger and stranger situations, often with a slightly dark or sinister twist, such as the vindictive dolls belonging to his sister who attack him during one such imagining.  The characters are the same throughout, but the stories each stand alone.  I was originally looking for stories for a list of short stories for our upcoming school year.  My goal is to read one per month.  One of these, possibly “The Cat,” will be making it on the list.  The book would also make a good read aloud for kids.  I put it in the same vein as Salman Rushdie’s Haroun novels: a book that isn’t clearly for adults or children, but rather for anyone who might enjoy the stories.

May Books

Reading is trucking along at the Rowhouse.  Here’s some of what’s been on our shelves last month.

CountdownAudiobook
Countdown by Deborah Wiles
What a great audiobook rendition this was!  I’ve read both the book (when it first came out) and now listened to the audio with the kids and I’m not sure which one I like better.  The book takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and follows Franny, a girl with a somewhat dysfunctional family in suburban Maryland.  Wiles crams every single corner of the story with 60′s details about everyday things like the newness of McDonald’s and the changing music that Franny listens to on her sister’s records, to cultural trends and historical connections.  Franny’s father is in the air force, her sister is at college training with SNCC, her little brother is obsessed with astronauts and nuclear power.  The story is good too – Franny must face her fears and repair a relationship with a friend – but the “documentary” aspect of the story is the real draw.  In the book this takes the form of images splashed with quotes and short mini-essays that intersperse the chapters.  In the audiobook, sound effects and voice actors doing imitations of Kennedy and other famous figures of the day take the place of the documentary images.  Overall, a perfect listen for us as the story was exactly the sort of “everyday kid” story that Mushroom and BalletBoy are drawn to, but set amid duck and cover drills and old fashioned details.  Added bonus: the second in Wiles’s 60′s trilogy just came out this month.

One Crazy Summer (Gaither Sisters, #1)Read Aloud
One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams
You’re probably starting to sense a theme.  We are studying the 60′s at the moment, so this was another book I really wanted to use with my boys.  I just adore the strong language and the metaphors that abound in this book about three sisters who go visit their mother for the first time in 1968.  Their mother just happens to be a Black Panther and the book is filled with reflections on race that I hope will be illuminating for my privileged duo.  The opening scene, where the girls’ grandmother exhorts them to not be an embarrassment to their race certainly gave us a meaty conversation.  I spotted a history book at the library with photos of the Black Panthers, including some of the breakfast program and summer camp that the girls attend in the book.

379348School Read
10,000 Days of Thunder by Philip Caputo
We didn’t read all of this history of the Vietnam War, but it’s such a great book that it’s worth touting.  We’ve used the others in this nonfiction picture book style and the format is so terrific.  On one page, there’s detailed text about some aspect of the war and on the facing page there’s a full page image.  Shorter text boxes with facts and quotes line the edge of the narrative page.  This is just the sort of detailed history that the boys are on the cusp of really being ready for, so we have been using this one both for the history and for working on deciphering and understanding longer nonfiction texts.  Both the boys have really enjoyed studying the Cold War, but the Vietnam War has been one aspect that has left them asking a lot of good questions.  I’ve had to explain that hindsight is 20/20.

8230675Another School Read
I Feel Better with a Frog in my Throat by Carlyn Beccia
This hilarious and bizarre book of strange cures throughout history was at just the right level for the boys, who were both fascinated by the fact that, not only did people actually do this stuff, but some of it was stuff that actually worked.  The illustrations are colorful and interesting, and, of course, the subject is fun.  We used it to go along with our study of medicine, but it could easily be a good read with medieval history or just for fun.

The Return of Zita the SpacegirlGraphic Novel
The Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
Hey, lookie!  A new Zita!  I don’t know that this is our absolute favorite middle grades graphic novel series, but it’s really close to the top.  The boys were thrilled to get a third installment and devoured it faster than you could say spacegirl.  This one finds Zita again fighting for her life and for justice for others, her reputation again at stake.  However, a mysterious figure reappears to help and she may actually make it home this time.  If you haven’t given this series to your comic book readers yet, then please do.  It’s truly one of the sweetest, best drawn things out there for middle grades and chapter book readers.  Best of all, the boys got to meet the artist, Ben Hatke, at a local library event and have their books signed!

Choose Your Own Adventure Books 1- 6 : Box Set : The Abominable Snowman, Journey Under the Sea, Space and Beyond, Lost Jewels of Nabooti - R A MontgomeryPleasure Read
Choose Your Own Adventure Books
After a conversation with the Husband, a box of these were ordered and the boys have both been enamored with them.  They’re the same old, extremely cheesy books you remember from your childhood.  I think the ones we have include being a prisoner of giant ants, fighting evil aliens, racing across the African desert, and battling natural disasters.  The writing is beyond dreadful and the plots are bizarre at best, but there’s something so much fun about reading a book in second person where you can actually change the outcome.  Both the boys read a few of the books in the Choose Your Own Adventures chapter book level series, which I highly recommend for reluctant readers who are trying to make the leap from easy readers like Frog and Toad to longer things but seem too stuck to make it all the way.  This older, classic series is also good for reluctant readers.  My less than reluctant boys can finish multiple plot options in well under an hour, so they’re a very quickly consumed item.

Treasure Hunters (Treasure Hunters, #1)Mushroom’s Reading
Treasure Hunters by James Patterson and Chris Grabbenstein
Mushroom started with Grabenstein’s sublimely fun Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and was moved to write anything else by the author.  His other books were co-written for literary bigwig Patterson, so Mushroom next read and loved I, Funny then dug into this heavily illustrated novel about twins (twins!) who are homeschooled (homeschool!) and travel the world with their parents looking for treasure (if only!).  I didn’t read the whole thing, but the set up is cool and the illustrations are very cute.  At the start of the story, the parents go missing and the siblings embark on a series of exciting adventures to find them and treasure.  Mushroom says it’s “pretty good.”

The Lost Hero (The Heroes of Olympus, #1)BalletBoy’s Reading
The Lost Hero by Rick Riorden
We finally wrapped up all those Percy Jackson books, but I told the kids that if they wanted to dive into the other Riorden series, they were on their own.  Both the boys promptly demanded to read The Lost Hero and BalletBoy is currently in the middle of it.  They both give it thumbs up and have been talking about it together.  I admit that I really enjoyed Percy Jackson when it first came out, but reading other books by Riorden has spoiled their full charm for me as he seems to be sort of a one note writer, sort of like that actor who you think is brilliant in their first role, then by their third movie, you realize that no matter what part they’re playing, they play it the exact same.  I feel a bit like that about Riorden’s writing voice.  Still, he obviously knows how to craft an exciting tale and I’m not at all sorry to see that the kids have hooked on to this series that picks up right where the Percy Jackson books leave off.

The Place My Words are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their WorkPoetry Tea Find
The Place My Words Are Looking For selected by Paul Janeczko
We continue to do poetry teas regularly and one of my favorite parts is looking for new books to strew on the table (or, more recently, on the picnic blanket) when we sit down with baked goods to read poetry.  This book is a nice find.  It’s an older book that features good poems by a good selection of poets who write for children, including big names like Naomi Shihab Nye, Cynthia Rylant, and Gwendolyn Brooks.  The poems are well selected, but most of the authors have short pieces about the process of writing included as well, which is what made the book a nice find.

Finnikin of the Rock (Lumatere Chronicles, #1)Farrar’s YA Read
Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
I have always been a great fantasy lover, so it’s great when I find something new in fantasy that’s worth reading.  I think I may have said this before on this blog, but fantasy is really where it’s at in YA the last few years.  Publishers are still churning out dystopians, but in terms of quality storytelling and solid writing, high fantasy is really where it’s at in the imaginative YA literature category.  Finnikin of the Rock is about a young man whose kingdom is closed off by a curse while the inhabitants suffer inside and the refugees suffer in poverty outside.  A woman with the ability to see inside other’s dreams may be able to help, but first they have to rescue the kingdom’s missing prince.  The writing is solid and the details of the world and the characters are very well drawn.  I’m not in love with the fact that it’s a story of one woman, surrounded by men.  This is not a story that passes the Bechdel test.  However, it was still an enjoyable YA read.

The Real Reason We Miss Reading Rainbow

reading

There was a small, exciting moment yesterday when I thought I had read that the classic show Reading Rainbow was coming back.  Sadly, it’s not.  Instead, host Levar Burton managed to fund a project to expand Reading Rainbow content on different web platforms.  Good for him, I guess, but not the same as a whole new season of such a great show.

For those who don’t know, Reading Rainbow was canceled several years ago when PBS decided to shift their focus in their reading programming entirely to teaching reading mechanics, as well as focusing more on younger viewers.  Thus began the era of shows like Super Why and the new Electric Company reboot, shows that are mostly about rhymes and phonics and sounding out words, shows that are aimed closer to the preschool set than the upper elementary one.

There’s nothing wrong with shows like that (well, I have a totally separate issue with Super Why’s complete dumbing down of fairy tales, but that’s a rant for another post).  In fact, teaching reading mechanics is critically important.  Without phonics, no one can actually, you know, read.

In the last decade or so, the pendulum has swung very firmly from a more whole language approach to reading to a more mechanics based approach with schools moving to put in phonics programs and drill kids on reading mechanics.  Don’t get me wrong, it needed to do so.  Schools had turned whole language into a very simplified drill of sight words which wasn’t really serving most kids in learning to read.  PBS’s programming shift is just part of the trend toward teaching phonics.

However, the reason that everyone loves Reading Rainbow and got so fleetingly excited about it’s potential return and even funded Burton’s Kickstarter so generously is because reading is not phonics.

Reading is stories.  Reading is going to other worlds and traveling in time.  Reading is poetry.  Reading is escape.  Reading is finding yourself in a book.  Reading is learning.  Reading is how the world works and why the sky is blue and how big dinosaurs are.  Reading is inspiration.  Reading is fun.  Reading is meaning.

Phonics, as important as it is, is not meaning.  It’s just mechanics.  It’s the notes, not the song.  Reading Rainbow is so beloved so many years later because it talked about the songs, not the notes, something that it feels like we’ve gotten too far away from in early reading instruction sometimes to me lately.

When children can’t see the point of what they’re learning, then they don’t have the same motivation as when they do.  Supposedly, PBS’s refocusing on phonics was supposed to be especially important for lower income kids who might be most struggling with reading mechanics.  However, the same kids are the ones less likely to see reading modeled in their lives.  In general, learning about the reason why we read, feeling inspired to actually go read a book, not just gain the ability to sound out the words, seems so essentially important.  That’s what Reading Rainbow brought.

So Reading Rainbow may not be coming back, at least not the way many of us might wish, but here’s in praise of reading for meaning, reading for content, reading for fun, and generally loving books and stories and beautiful words.  Here’s to just let me finish the chapter before you turn out the light.  Here’s to why don’t we take a look in a book to find out.  Here’s to toting around your book wherever you go.  Don’t just share the sounds of the letter A, share that love of words and books.

April Books

If it seems like a slightly supersized edition of our monthly book round up, that’s because the kids have been reading more.  In a fit of annoyance at the upteenth reread of half a graphic novel, I changed our required reading system completely to become a required hour of reading before bed with anything they wanted, as long as it was new and it wasn’t literally all graphic novels.  Good things ensued.  We are still doing short required reading books for things I want us to discuss together.

The True Meaning of SmekdayAudiobook
The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
I read this book on my own awhile ago, and had completely forgotten how hilarious it is.  It tells the story of Gratuity “Tip” Tuchi, an average eleven year old faced with an alien invasion after her mother is abducted.  Humans are supposed to report to a new human preserve and Tip decides to drive, but meets up with an alien on the run named J. Lo. and the plot only gets crazier from there as Tip’s road trip becomes an epic cross country drive in a hover car, being shot at by new aliens, and finding out the truth about Roswell.  There are not enough middle grade science fiction novels out there in my opinion (fantasy abounds, obviously) and this one is a fun one for older elementary and middle school.  The narration on the audiobook is excellent, with a really great choice of narrator for Tip’s voice.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper CranesRequired Reading
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr
This is such a short little gem of a book.  Most people will know the story of Sadako, a young Japanese girl, who like so many after the dropping of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, developed cancer and died young.  We read this one together and discussed it as a sort of counterpoint to the nonfiction book Bomb by Steve Sheinkin, which we read aloud.  Both the boys felt the story was sad but touching and wanted to immediately make paper cranes for Sadako after finishing the book.

I Funny: A Middle School Story (I Funny, #1)Mushroom’s Reading
I, Funny by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
While the name on the author line of this book is Patterson, Mushroom found it when he asked had Chris Grabenstein, the author of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, written anything else.  Turns out he co-wrote several books with bigger name authors, including this two book series about a kid who wants to become a stand up comedian but can’t stand up because he’s in a wheelchair.  I didn’t read it, but Mushroom had a very favorable report and is halfway through the sequel and convinced BalletBoy to read it as well.  He says the jokes were funny but that the book is actually very sad as you learn about the accident that put the main character ended up in a wheelchair and killed his parents.

CosmicBalletBoy’s Reading
Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
This is another book I’ve never read that BalletBoy picked off a shelf after seeing a positive review.  The story is a strange one, but I can see why he picked it because it’s exactly the mix of reality and weird that both my boys enjoy in a book.  BalletBoy says that it’s really a book about dads and being a dad.  This is because the main character, who is just a kid, but a kid who happens to look like a middle aged man, poses as the father of his friends in order to enter a contest to go into outer space.  But when they actually win the contest and go, he has to be the one in charge.  BalletBoy liked it enough that he kept talking it up to all the grown ups he met and even reading them passages from it.

A Tangle of KnotsMushroom’s Also Reading
A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff
This one I read alongside Mushroom so I can review it too!  After reading The Thing About Georgie, also by Graff, Mushroom asked to read another of her books and we choose this one, which takes place in a just one degree away from reality world where everyone has a Talent.  A large cast of characters, including a girl who bakes perfect cakes, an orphanage director who’s too good for her job, a sinister shopkeeper looking for the perfect peanut butter recipe, and a boy with a Talent for getting himself lost, alternate chapters.  Their stories all intertwine and meet at a final cake bake off.  Cake recipes intersperse some of the chapters.  I liked the book, but I didn’t love it.  I really enjoyed the magical realistic feel, but there were places where I didn’t think the story fit as well as it wanted.  Mushroom also liked it, but found it hard to keep track of some of the plot lines and didn’t think the ending was satisfying enough.

Lone Wolf (Wolves of the Beyond, #1)BalletBoy’s Also Reading
Wolves of the Beyond: Lone Wolf by Kathryn Lasky
This series takes place in the same world as The Guardians of Ga’Hoole, a series BalletBoy refused to read when he was on his “only animal books” kick.  But he found this one at the book store and decided it was better (based on the cover, I presume).   It’s not necessary to have read that series to appreciate this one.  It follows Faolan, a wolf cub who is born with a twisted foot and therefore an outcast from the pack.  Raised by a bear and then helped by an owl, he has to figure out who he is and find his way back to a pack.  BalletBoy said he liked it but is debating reading the next one.

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous WeaponRead Aloud
Bomb: The Quest to Build and Steal the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
This nonfiction book was an excellent stretch read aloud for the boys and a great way to finish our World War II unit and lead us into the Cold War.  The book focuses on the personalities who built the bomb and the spies who fought over the information.  It’s a really complex tale, filled with all kinds old time spy craft and bits of information about how atomic chain reactions work.  It took the boys a little while to get into it, but by the end of the book they were definitely hooked.

battlingboycover.tiffGraphic Novel
Battling Boy by Paul Pope
This graphic novel was a Christmas gift that sat on the shelf for a little while before being rediscovered and read by both the boys last month.  It’s set in a world that looks like a sort of gritty mix of the present, the old west, and the future.  An old hero has died and the main character must rise to become the new hero.  After reading most of the way through, Mushroom suddenly looked up from it and said, “Hey, this is a hero origin story!”  The art is slightly rough and the story ends on a cliffhanger, but it looks like a sequel is already scheduled to come out later this year.

The Lost Art of Keeping SecretsFarrar’s YA Read
The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice
This book wasn’t technically a YA novel, but it may as well have been since the protagonists were all in their late teens and very early 20′s.  It fits into this emerging genre of books about college aged characters but since it’s a few years old, I suppose it couldn’t qualify for such new marketing.  I picked up this one because it was a recommended book for people who liked I Capture the Castle (this blog’s name inspiration) on Goodreads.  It takes place in postwar England, where the main character, Penelope, lives in a decrepit old manor house with her beautiful but lonely widowed mother and aspiring rock star brother.  When Penelope meets a new friend, Charlotte, she is swept up into Charlotte’s family and more interesting world.  Of course, she also has her first romance.  While the book didn’t reach anywhere near the quality of the book that led to its recommendation, I really enjoyed the setting and the classic coming of age feel to the story.

 

March Books

Another round up of reading for you to enjoy.  We’ve recently moved to doing more independent reading at bedtime.  It’s a challenge to find the right balance in reading for my boys.  They like to read and don’t hate it.  On the other hand, if given a choice, they’d usually rather do something else.  And if given complete choices about what to read, they’d usually rather read a graphic novel they’ve already read.  That’s so important to do, but I also want to expand their reading time.  Doing it with snuggles on the bed and asking them to rotate between new and old, challenging and less challenging books, seems to be working right now.

School ReALWAYS REMEMBER ME: How One Family Survived World War IIading
 Always Remember Me: How One Family Survived the Holocaust by Marisabina Russo
We read a number of books about World War II and the Holocaust this month, but I really liked this very gentle introduction to the Holocaust that was one of the first we read about the topic.  This true story begins with a little girl asking her grandmother to talk about her photo album at a family dinner.  The grandmother keeps going where she usually breaks off and tells the story of how she and her three daughters all separately survived the Ho
locaust and managed to meet up again in the United States after the war.   The family’s good times in Germany before the war are the main focus and while the book doesn’t shy away from a difficult topic, it introduces it in a very child appropriate way, explaining the tragedy without focusing on the details.   The grandmother focuses on her good luck to have survived with so much of her family and to have the delights of a granddaughter to enjoy.  We did go on to read some slightly more difficult Holocaust stories, but I really liked this short picture book’s hopeful tone as a first stop.

Read Aloud
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
I chose this to be our second World War II read aloud after last month’s The Winged Watchman.  This one takes places in Denmark and tells just a tiny piece of the inspiring story of how the Danes smuggled more than seven thousands Jews out of the country just before they were scheduled to be rounded up for relocation by the Nazis.  The book focuses on one fictional family’s role.  Annemarie and her family must hide her best friend Ellen and get her to her uncle’s fishing boat to be taken away with her family to Sweden.  It’s a short book and like everything by Lowry, excellently written.

Absolutely Normal Chaos  RB/SBAnother Read Aloud
Absolutely Normal Chaos by Sharon Creech
As you’ll see from their required reading choices, both the boys have been keen to do “average kid” stories lately.  For the car, they want light fantasy (we’re still wrapping up Percy Jackson on audiobook), but for bedtime they want real kids.  I pulled this one off my shelf, remembering how great an “average kid” storyteller Creech is, but I admit I had forgotten how much the book focuses on main character Mary Lou’s first romance and kiss.  I remembered more about the book’s other main plot, involving Mary Lou’s cousin and the death of a neighbor, as well as the everyday trials of living in a very large family.  The boys both adored the book, especially Mary Lou’s slightly snarky voice and her ramblings about reading The Odyssey.  And they didn’t mind the romance a bit, interestingly.

The Thing About GeorgieMushroom’s Required Reading
The Thing About Georgie by Lisa Graff
This contemporary middle grades novel is about a boy facing a lot of everyday kid problems: his parents are about to have a baby, a new kid seems to be luring away his best friend, and a girl at school seems to really dislike him.  However, there’s a twist.  Main character Georgie is a dwarf and will never grow much taller than his current short height.  The book challenges the reader to see into Georgie’s world by asking them to do things that are very simple and realize that Georgie will never be able to do those things.  Mushroom found it to be a quick read and while it didn’t get raves, he said he enjoyed it very much.

The Landry NewsBalletBoy’s Required Reading
The Landry News by Andrew Clements
Yet another contemporary, “regular” kid book was needed for this month, so I pulled out this title from Andrew Clements.  We’ve read many of Clements’ books over the years and the boys always enjoy his characters and learning about the topics the characters learn about.  I think they also really enjoy reading about the dynamics of everyday classrooms.  In this book, the main character Cara learns about newspapers as she publishes her own, one that criticizes the teacher of her class.  BalletBoy finished it with new ideas for our co-op newspaper.  Good thing we’re editing it next.

The Beginning of EverythingFarrar’s Good YA Read
The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider
I really enjoyed this contemporary YA novel about a former sports star named Ezra who suffers an injury that leads to a life changing senior year with new friends and a new romance. The opening part, about a gruesome accident the main characters witness as children, is a little much, and a series of coincidences informs the neatly tied up ending, but overall the writing style was great, and I have to admit that even the gruesome accident made me sit up and pay attention.  I also really appreciated the end message of the story.  While Ezra wants to pin changes on the world around him, he has to realize that he’s really the master of his destiny.

Shatter Me (Shatter Me Series #1)Farrar’s Bad YA Read
Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
Why am I such a glutton for punishment?  I think it’s because I like a light series sometimes that I keep going back for more with these crummy dystopians and mediocre YA fantasy series out of the hope that I’ll find one that is actually fun (to be fair, sometimes I do find one, but not often enough).  I had a few mediocre YA reads this month, but this was the worst by far.  The book opens with an intriguing and promising beginning about a girl imprisoned in solitary for a mysterious but terrible crime.  A new person tossed in the cell adds tension, so I kept going.  Turns out no one can touch Juliette or she may kill them with a mysterious power she doesn’t understand.  Soon Juliette is out, there’s two guys interested in her (it’s like a formula with these things), there’s an oppressive military dictatorship with sinister goals (did I mention the formula?) trying to use her, and everything is just overemotional why can’t we be together nonsense with her true love (did I mention she’s named Juliette?).  I just skimmed the second half, but very little about it made much sense in terms of decent world building.  I guess there’s a resistance and she’s going to become a superhero.  Or something.  Not recommended for anyone with a brain.

February Books

Well,  I think we can all agree that, as always, the end of the horrible, horrible month of February is a cause for joy.  But we did read some good books.  Our book round up for the month.

The Winged WatchmanRead Aloud
The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum
I picked this as a first fiction read aloud for World War II.  It is about the final days of the war in Holland.  Two brothers, Joris and Dirk Jan, each do their parts to work against the German occupiers.  Gentle Joris is so young he cannot remember a time when war was not a way of life and Dirk Jan is just old enough to yearn for the adventure of working for the underground resistance.  The brothers help their neighbors, help save their dog, hide people from the Nazis, and deliver secret messages.  All around them, Holland is ravaged by the war, but living in a farm community has sheltered the boys from the worst of the starvation that others experienced.  It’s a lesser known book compared to some World War II titles, but we found it to be a nice balance between gentle and true for a period that was full of horrors.  We’ll dive in with some slightly darker fare next.

The Whipping BoyBalletBoy’s Required Reading
The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
BalletBoy felt that last month’s book was on the long side so he scoured the Newbery list for the shortest title and promised to balance it with something longer on the next go around.  It’s a medieval story with a fairy tale feel that contains a good dose of action and adventure as a prince and a lowly born boy end up thrown together.  BalletBoy said the book was, “Okay, I guess.”  I really like it, but not a ringing endorsement.  Oh well.  Last month he was really won over by the required reading book, so I figure you can’t win them all.

"Wonderstruck"  from author/illustrator Brian Selznick highlights themes of loss, grief and reunion. He did in the Caldecott Medal-winning "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." Mushroom’s Required Reading
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznik
This was another specific book request for required reading.  Clearly, as usual, we’ve drifted away from the required reading list.  At this point, I told the kids that any Newbery winner or honor title is fair game.  This book tells two different stories, taking place decades apart, simultaneously.  One is told in words and the other in pictures.  The stories interweave and come together in the end.  Just like in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Selznik uses this unusual form to tell a compelling story.  Mushroom was really happy with the book and while the book’s density has to do with the many pages of illustration and not the high word count, he seemed especially pleased to have read something that was so thick.

The titan's curse.jpgAudiobook
Percy Jackson and the Titan’s Curse by Rick Riordan
We’ve done these as audiobooks because the kids weren’t keen to read them on their own, but were keen to hear them.  The narration is good.  It fits the story.  And I’ve been telling myself that they’re nice light fare to vaguely review for the National Mythology Exam, which the boys are both taking this week for the first time.  I really enjoyed this series myself when it first came out.  Since Riordan’s various other series have shown him, in my opinion, to be a bit of a one note writer, my love for the books has diminished, but I have been reminded what made them popular in the first place, namely that they’re fun and Percy’s slightly stunned, slightly snarky voice really works well for the plots.

Boxers & Saints, by Gene Luen YangGraphic Novel
Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang
Both Mushroom and I read Boxers, and I additionally read Saints.  I’ve been a huge fan of Yang’s work for awhile now.  This two book set is about the Boxer Rebellion in China.  My college major was focused on Chinese history, so I really appreciated the historical side of the story, especially the complex motivations of the characters.  Both stories have an element of fantasy in them, but the fantasy also helps to illuminate the way real people felt and thought at the time.  The way the books tie together at the end is cleverly done.  I think the books stand with Maus as entries into the great tradition of historical fiction in graphic novels.  BalletBoy did read Boxers, but it’s not one that I would have suggested to him yet.  He was interested and I didn’t feel the content justified me taking it from him, but be aware that there is a good deal of violence in the story.

If You're Reading This, It's Too Late (Secret, #2)BalletBoy’s Pleasure Reading
If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late by Pseudonymous Bosch
I’ve been trying to wean the boys off reading and rereading the same few books, so BalletBoy immediately picked this book back up with some relief.  It’s a tricky balance to strike between pushing them to read something new and letting them read whatever they like.  However, his pleasure at picking this up again after a hiatus and his quick progress tells me I was right to put a temporary kibosh on Wimpy Kid rereads at bedtime reading.

human body books for kisSchool Reading
Human Body Detectives by Heather Manley
I had gotten a really good deal on the ebook versions of this series and I assigned them as independent school reading this go around.  They are just the right length for that, as the kids can read them in about twenty minutes or less.  I’ve written before about my desire for living science books to mesh both quality writing and detailed science together in a way that makes the science feel integral to the story.  This series isn’t perfect.  I wish the science was a little more in depth and that the writing was a little more engaging.  The science is very focused on “healthy living,” which is good, but also as much about lifestyle as science, though certainly it was a lifestyle message I could get behind.  The art is okay but certain words in the text get extra illustration around them, which I found distracting and odd.  However, it does mesh the story with the science reasonably well and there is solid information in the books, so I’m not complaining too hard.  Because the books are sold to the school market as an educational series, I’ve seen them mentioned a lot in the homeschool world.  If you can get a really good deal on them, I do think they’re worth it, especially for early elementary.  Each book also contains some simple activities about the topic in the story.